Somewhere deep in Fairfax County, Va.

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Ya think maybe at least someone could BUY an apostrophe? (2013 photo by Terry Byrne)

Spied this cozy neighborhood near the intersection of Reston Parkway and Lawyers — yes, lawyers — Road. It’s no wonder our county taxes are so high.

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Weirdly, the houses on this street weren’t nearly as obnoxious as the McMansions lining Reston Parkway. (2013 photo by Terry Byrne)

UPDATE: Since writing this post, I now live in Reston, not far from this spot. It was a sign. (OK, so I rash-judged it a little …)

I should get out more

WhIMG_0991ile blogging, I missed the future.

For the past year or so, I’d avoided Merrifield, what neighbors have termed “the armpit” of Fairfax, NoVA, because of all the construction and congestion between Dunn Loring metro and the Beltway entrance at Route 50. Not to mention the old Lee Highway cineplex known for random shootings and zero cup holders. So when Hubba-Hubby suggested we check out the Angelika Film Center & Cafe, which opened Sept. 21, for our traditional Thanksgiving-holiday release, I was skeptical. Reserved seating? And if I want to move away from annoying people who narrate previews? What then?

IMG_0993Turning down Strawberry Lane, which used to be just “the stoplight at the Silver Diner,” a four-story Target sprung up like a rose-tinted Emerald City, anchoring the new Mosaic District.

So many upscale shops — Artisan Confections, which I used to have to GPS to Clarendon for its sculpted-painted non-preservative chocolates; Dawn Price Baby (if you have to ask, you can’t afford it, but it specializes in items for those under age 6); Anthropologie (no apology for the prices or raping of the Earth); Paper Source (stiffer than Papyrus and billed as a “Launch Pad for Creativity”); Freshbikes; fresher MOM’s Organic Market; South Moon Under; Ginger; sweetgreen; Amethyst; Ah Love Oil & Vinegar — it all sparkled and smelled like Christmas. Even the FREE parking garage hinted of potpourri.

IMG_0985We knew we couldn’t afford either the Sea Pearl seafood restaurant — murky from the outside, it was the kind of place that served museum-ready morsels — and I wasn’t up for the Vietnamese Four Sisters deal recommended by our hair stylist, even if it does advertise gluten-free and MSG-free dishes (translation: TRENDY, TRENDY, TRENDY!). So we went back to the old Merrifield oasis of Sweetwater, Chevy’s and Chicago UNO, knowing we’d be splurging on the space-age theater experience later.

What I didn’t know was Chicago UNO had also blasted into the future, possibly fueled by neighboring competition. At each table was a mini-iPad-looking device called a Ziosk, which not only offered free USA TODAY headlines (I could peruse the stories I’d edited the night before and check for typos, a fun-enough game). But for just 99 cents, we could dabble in games like Scrabble and Clever Frog. I thought that was all REALLY cool until I realized news and games are available for free on our smartphones.The bonus of the Ziosk is you can communicate with the wait staff — order drinks, side dishes and dessert on the touchscreen — and, niftiest of all, it is a swipe machine where you can PAY YOUR BILL and get a receipt without having to wait. I have been waiting all my life for such an opportunity, because it seems the wait staff always scoots right when you want to.

But on to Angelika. I don’t care how much people rave about this place … at $13, my reserved chair had better be clean at least (foreshadowing … suspense).

We arrived an hour early, just like at an airport, and it’s a good thing or we would have missed our flight.

Greeting us at the door. Somehow saw a contradiction between the winged-helmet logo and the hellish lines of lethargy.

The layout was counterintuitive — the DMV has a more pleasant reception area. We waited in this mass of people pressed up against the front doors only to learn there were just two clerks at the end of it, sandwiched like bank tellers between high-ceilinged artwork and chandeliers. (There was wood paneling even on the sidewalk OUTDOORS.) Directed to the electronic seating chart, we saw there were only six seats remaining for the 7:30 p.m. showing of “Lincoln.” Three in the front row, far-left aisle, two in the front row far-right aisle, and one lone spot somewhere in the middle. We chose and pointed to two in the front-row left side, because we figured at least then we’d an empty space on either side where we wouldn’t have to wrestle for the arm rest or do the cup holder pas de deux with a stranger. (This is why we rarely leave our 60-inch LED TV home-screening room with the Wall-E double-wide recliners.)

Not only was the trash pit in the narrow gangway to the theater overflowing, there were popcorn crumbs, a half-empty supergulp cup, a bag of kernels and crinkled-up napkins invading our reserved seats, plus trash strewn on the floor directing us there. It was disgusting. After we cleaned up, we realized the mammoth screen in front of us was gonna kill our necks, the chair-backs being so low they didn’t provide neck support. But we figured, what the heck, it was a new experience, and we wanted to see the movie.

Then two people came along and said we were in their seats. WHAT? These are reserved seats! They had to bring a psuedo-usher in to contest it. We checked our stubs, and sure enough the clerk had sold us the wrong side — not what we’d requested. But the young couple, seeing we were settled in (and unaware we had done custodial work to claim custody), agreed to take the seats on the right-hand side, seeing as how the view was equally bad. They went over, sat down and within a minute got up and left. I guess they’d already had enough. Ten minutes later, a different couple took their resold seats.

The clerk had told us it’s “50-50” in terms of folks buying tickets online vs. at the door. But what a silly system. If you buy online, you have to visit the second-floor concierge to trade in your printed receipts for real tickets — I guess that’s to eliminate no-shows and resell unclaimed seats. Who does that? Anyway, the second floor is also where you get into a snaking line for concessions (strangely diagonal and a waste of space, of which there is little to spare; the couple in front of us spent their ample time redesigning the flow). At the top of the escalator, we were confused. One tiny usher whom we could barely see through the crowd was calling for people to come to her line, so we moved, only to learn we had just left the concession line in favor of the concierge and had to begin again from the escalator.

The huddle of masses waiting for concessions, the concierge and the slim gangway to the theaters. Upper deck is the lounge. I felt we were on a cruise ship with not enough life rafts.

Waiting in that concession line, where, again, only two surly clerks were working (did the management give everyone the holiday weekend off, forgetting that Thanksgiving weekend at the movies is busier than Black Friday at Walmart?), seemed endless, especially looking at the mouth-watering menu that included something called “The Junk” — basically every kind of junk food you can imagine drizzled in chocolate, like what giggly girls at a slumber party dream up. The $10 price tag, though, dissuaded me. There was also a $44 bottle of wine we declined, and a four-bottle bucket of beer, which was a better price than $8 gourmet-draft singles. I wanted just water, but they had no normal bottled water — just “smart” water and flavored junk. So I purchased a cup and was directed to the space-station dispensers, which were also out of soda.

Took me a minute to figure out the touch-sensitive machines, but at least there were free refills.

One thing I’ll say for Angelika: They don’t bow to showing ads or those stupid TV-show preview reels before the actual previews, but that’s probably because they don’t need the money given the exorbitant cost of everything else. They were showing some kind of public-interest documentary, though, with the sound practically on mute — the giant 40-foot-tall heads were whispering. My husband’s understatement: “Gee, I hope the sound improves.”

I dashed to the bathroom, and though spiffily decorated, it was another trash pit, so I snapped a photo. In general, I apologize for the bad quality of photos, because I hadn’t intended to write a review — I was motivated only by the sour experience.

What a waste of potential.

The narrow door into theater No. 1 had room only for one-way traffic of typical obese-American width.

Just as the old Lincoln-assassination punch line goes: “Yes, but Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the play?” … I will say I loved the movie. Still, at one point, given its subject matter and knowing how it would end, I realized we were sitting in the seats that would have been closest to the emergency exit used by the Joker assassin in the Aurora, Colo., Batman movie massacre. Looking in the direction he might have emerged, I realized there was no emergency exit. I felt a vague panic, recalling there had been no on-screen instructions on finding emergency exits, and I could see none — just that narrow, claustrophobic gangway entrance, which couldn’t accommodate two-way traffic, let alone a one-way panic.

No doubt our visit was a fluke, considering all the positive comments I’ve heard about this place (although one friend said on an attempt to see “Argo” there were “projector issues” and they gave up and left). Before declaring “never again,” I will probably go back and see a non-popular movie at a non-peak price … find the emergency exits, maybe indulge in a before-noon brew (coffee, not beer) and taste-test The Junk. Comfort food, surely, is the best way to survive the stress of a hellish Angelika adventure and lure me from the comforts of my home.

Or from Cinema Arts — how we love you.

On fear of ‘Frankenstorm’ and water pressure

Draining supply of water at my local Safeway. By Sunday, no bottled water or “D” batteries could be found anywhere in town.

Someone ‘splain me this: Why the mad rush on water in advance of the monster hurricane, cleverly dubbed “Frankenstorm,” which promises water, water everywhere?*

The toilet paper I can understand. It is, after all, days before Halloween and its companion Mischief Night — lots of TP’ing and mummifying ahead.

The water I don’t get.

At first I thought people were confused by the National Weather Center’s official moniker for the beast: “Sandy.” Is it a sandstorm?

(Aside: Has NOAA ever named a hurricane Noah? Might set off even more panic, even induce ark-building.)

I asked someone in line at my Safeway just now, who had her cart loaded down with jugs and bottles: Isn’t it more likely we’ll just lose power … not sewage services? Our taps should still work. Right? She shrugged.

She may have been on auto-pilot, as so many Snowmageddon survivors are.

The way I see it:  The only thing you should really be stocking up on right now is candy. Either Halloween goes off as scheduled, and you’re prepared and won’t get your house TP’ed, or you can’t cook and will still have plenty of survival calories on hand.

Otherwise, my short list for Frankenstorm preparation:

1. Flashlights/batteries

2. Candles/matches

3. Board games, for if you get bored.

4. Condoms, for if you don’t. (See No. 2)

I just can’t fathom the water thing. Unless hydropower is further along than I thought and people are practicing the dam thing at home.

(*Note: I mean no disrespect to serious victims of hurricanes in places where disaster truly strikes, such as my beloved New Orleans, tsunami-stricken Japan, the Caribbean, where people have already lost their lives from this beastly storm. But this is Northern Virginia. That’s all I’m sayin’. Yeah, famous last words.)

Fairfax’s fresh, hot watering hole: Hacienda El Paso

Michael spends time with his beloved menu, while I drink.

Still stinging from the loss of our favorite neighborhood hangout, Carlos O’Kelly’s, a chain that shuttered its Fairfax, Va., joint last March, my thirsty husband and I tested the spanking-new Hacienda El Paso Mexican Restaurant. One of five Northern Virginia locations (also in Springfield, Alexandria, Woodbridge and Fredericksburg), it has elbowed into Mama’s old spot on Fairfax Boulevard, or Route 50, next to the defunct Saturn dealer, now Farrish Subaru, just west of the Circle. My, times change.

I had spied a “yard sign” ad smothered by the political weeds at the intersection of Prosperity and Route 50 — the cantina’s staff seemed pleased that marketing effort paid off.

I was pleased to hear actual Spanish spoken at neighboring booths. Good sign. Roomier than most restaurants around town, it is a colorful hybrid of a Mexican diner and sports bar — with four distinct seating areas, including a back room that caters to families (animal chairs!) and a plasma-TV-equipped wing for large, unruly groups. The staff is friendly, authentically Hispanic, well-versed on the menu and super-attentive, communing in what looks like a central dance floor. As I said: roomy.

Next to the bar. this festive zone accommodates large groups, with jumbo-size booths and screens.

I ordered the Baja Fish Tacos, which were beer-battered cod on corn tortillas, dotted with Mexican cheese — surprisingly like feta, pico de gallo and served with a tangy homemade tartar sauce on the side. Overstuffed and hard to hold, but tasty. The black beans belied Southwestern grilled pork accents. Didn’t care much for the rice, which was like any packaged Mexican rice you find in the supermarket. Another couple, also COK refugees, said the queso was a disappointment — white, melted Mexican cheese with no salsa mixed in. “I miss the chunks of tomato and onion,” la dama said.

Here’s a detailed look at the menu. Dare I say it feels more healthful than Carlos’? A closer cousin to Chevy’s, our Merrifield oasis. The chips aren’t as good as either Carlos’ or Chevy’s — they’re that darker, drier, baked? kind — but the salsa comes in a cute carafe that patrons can pour into their bowls, thereby ensuring freshness and minimizing waste, I’m guessing. The salsa was a bit thin on texture and taste; I like mine spicier and more substantial.

The main event, though: lip-smacking, lovely ‘ritas. The “Cadillac” — with Cuervo 1800 and Grand Marnier — immediately says: “You’re not driving.” And the Big Blue leaves Carlos’ in the dust, apologies to Max the Bartender. Other specialties include a Sangrita, mixed with homemade sangria, and a Coronita that comes with an unplugged Corona dagger. Michael had the Presidente, spiked with Brandy. There’s also a frozen mango, but we don’t do frozen. The margaritas are the only pricey items on the menu, but seem worth it, as far as we could tell after two jumbos — each.

The sunken bathrooms, like entering a pool’s shallow end, seem not the wisest design for a cantina where folks gleefully imbibe. And downstairs, which used to be a Mama’s treasure for party rental (my eldest’s 18th was held there), suffered flood damage and is closed for business. But the overall decor is freaky fun, with tall, privacy-enhanced booths reminiscent of cars from a theme-park ride; easy-to-wipe Playskool-inspired furniture — in other words, tacky but not FEELING tacky from any spilled food; smart Spanish-tile floors and at least the appearance of hardwood. Nothing to Swiffer under our feet, thank goodness.

Looking forward to seeing more neighbors at the new margaritaville. There’s AMPLE parking in the back, and a pathway leading through the woods to Fairfax High School.

El Paso Mexican Restaurant
9715 Fairfax Blvd
Fairfax, Va. 22030
(703) 293-2990