Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Third Time's the Charm

Enjoying a place of prominence in Virginia City (NV) is the third of John Piper's opera houses. He had arrived in 1860 seeking his fortune not in gold but in some type of business.

In 1867, he acquired Maguire's Opera House; he lost it in the Great Fire of 1875. The second Piper's was built in 1878; it burned down in 1883. Urged on by friends and theater-goers, who also held benefits to fund the re-building efforts, Piper built this third Opera House in 1885 on the same site as the second.

With very little money (insurance companies did not yet exist), Piper built his third opera house with scrap lumber from the remains of partially-burned buildings. The exposed wall (below) on the second floor shows the variety of slats used.

The first window in the photo on the left is the ticket window and the second (smaller) window (far right in photo) is where men would check their guns.

The balconies, also constructed from scorched lumber, had very low railings, increasing the risk of falling over the edge.

This photo shows how the Opera House looked before the present restoration work began.

In what may have been another cost-cutting move, Piper did not build fixed rows of seats as in his earlier two opera houses. He wanted the building to serve as a multi-purpose auditorium, so he purchased wooden chairs for the orchestra and long benches for the audience.

The wooden floor had springs under the sub-flooring, designed for the fancy balls and lively dances held at the theater.

We had called about a tour, and as a result of the conversation, Lori Barrington, the Executive Director, kindly led us on tour filled with the history of the Opera House and stories of the town. It was clear she loved the Opera House and was equally comfortable crawling through an attic looking for a postcard or presenting the history of the Opera House to a group of visitors. She is a dynamo who treasures each bit of history she discovers.

People seated in these seats (below) were more interested in being seen, since the angle of the seats were directed more to the audience rather than the stage.
Lori also had many stories, such as: "We have a very small high school, so our basketball team may only have seven players. When our team walks into the gym, the opposing teams start to laugh.

"But we've won more state championships than any other school in our class. You see our guys walk to school and since we are at an elevation of 6200', we can run the other team ragged whether we're home or away."

Four plaques hang in the Opera House with the names of people who have appeared there. (Lori acknowledges that some may have appeared at the first or second opera house or have appeared in a movie that was shown at the Opera House.)

Another story: Robert Lincoln, the oldest son of President and Mrs. Lincoln, was standing on a train station platform at the entrance of the car. There was some crowding, and when the train began to move, he dropped into the open space, but was quickly pulled up and onto the platform. His rescuer was Edwin Booth (his name is on the plaque in the photo), one of the 19th century's great Shakespearean actors, and John Wilkes Booth's older brother. A Booth saved a Lincoln.

Virginia City, at the height of the gold and silver mining boom was a city of about 25,000 and one of the wealthiest per capita in the world. It was on the major route, along with New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, and San Francisco, for touring theater companies. This poster for "Uncle Tom's Cabin" hangs in the lobby of the theater. A ticket to this play was one of the hottest tickets in town. It sparked considerable discussion and debate and brought the issue of slavery to the attention of large numbers of people in the 1860s.

The posters traveled with the company. When it was torn or damaged, repairs resulted in different colors appearing and pieces not matching up cleanly.

Maude Adams, who appeared on stage between 1890 to 1910, was the first actress to successfully portray Peter Pan in Peter Pan. She was beloved by people because she cared about the general public, on one occasion refusing to perform until the higher prices charged for tickets to her performance were returned to the audience.

She preferred spending time with the backstage crews during a break in rehearsal rather than retreating to her room.

In contrast to Adams, was the diva-like personality of Lillie Langtry. She was to appear in Piper's in 1887 and traveled to Carson City (NV) in her custom-designed railroad car--a blue car decorated with wreaths of lillies on its sides. Railroad officials did not think that her 74-foot railroad car would make it through the tunnel, so she had to travel to Virginia City by carriage.

She was not happy. Only after a red carpet was laid from the International Hotel across the street to the Opera House did she feel she was being properly treated.

I wonder if this was the beginning of the red carpet walk.

(Information obtained from Lori Barrington and More Than a Song and a Dance: The Heyday of Piper's Opera House by Patricia D. Cafferata.)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Gold in Every Hill"

"At the peak of its glory, Virginia City (NV) was a boisterous town. There was gold in every hill and millions of dollars were being made. Men came from everywhere. The spirits of these Comstock characters still inhabit the places they built, and 150 years later romance still thrives in the wondrous place in the shadow of Sun Mountain" (

Whenever I read about "gold in every hill," I imagine myself joining the hordes struck with gold fever, but in reality (if indeed I had even headed west during those years), I probably would have taken a less risky path and opened a hardware store.

Virginia City is about 23 miles southeast of Reno (upper right quadrant, right) and about half of that distance is driven on Highway 431, a winding road that took us from an elevation of 4500' to one of about 6200'. This route becomes C Street, the main street through town.

We began our visit began one block north up a steep hill on B Street. While reviewing some photos of homes and businesses built a hundred years ago along this street, we continue with a summary of Virginia City history.

"Virginia City holds a special place in the history of the West and America. The first truly industrial city in the West began in the late 1850's. Gold was found at the head of Six-Mile Canyon in 1859 by two miners named Pat McLaughlin and Peter O'Reilly. A fellow miner, Henry Comstock, stumbled upon their find and claimed it was on his property. The gullible McLaughlin and O'Reilly believed him and assured Comstock a place in history when the giant lode was named. Following the gold up the canyon an outcropping of gold in quartz was found. Another miner, James Finney, nicknamed "Old Virginny" from his birthplace, is reported to have named the town during a drunken celebration. He dropped a bottle of whiskey on the ground and christened the newly-founded tent-and-dugout town on the slopes of Mt. Davidson "Old Virginny Town," in honor of himself.

"The biggest problem in this grubstake paradise was the sticky blue-gray mud that clung to picks and shovels. When the mud was assayed, it proved to be silver ore worth over $2,000 a ton--in 1859 dollars! Gold mixed with high quality silver ore was recovered in quantities large enough to catch the eye of President Abe Lincoln. He needed the gold and silver to keep the Union solvent during the Civil War. On October 31, 1864 Lincoln made Nevada a state although it did not contain enough people to constitutionally authorize statehood" (

Nevada's importance in the Civil War was just the most recent history lesson covered in our travels. Another lesson is contained in the photo of the Silver Dollar Hotel (below). The slight tilt of the hotel is characteristic of almost every building in Virginia City.
The roughly 9-inch lean is due to the Washoe Zephyr.

The following description by a former reporter for the Territorial Enterprise seemed to give us a good idea of the zephyr's effect: "The 'Washoe Zephyr' (Washoe is a pet nickname for Nevada) is a peculiarly Scriptural wind, in that no man knoweth "whence it cometh." That is to say, where it originates. It comes right over the mountains from the West, but when one crosses the ridge he does not find any of it on the other side! It probably is manufactured on the mountaintop for the occasion, and starts from there. It is a pretty regular wind, in the summer-time. Its office-hours are from two in the afternoon till two the next morning; and anybody venturing abroad during those twelve hours needs to allow for the wind or he will bring up a mile or two to leeward of the point he is aiming at.

That reporter was Mark Twain, and his description appeared in Roughing It.

Virtually all of the town's older buildings have a lean to them. Shown here is the courthouse.

Half a block away is the Opera House with its own history.

So, as they say in the travel shows, "Let's go inside the Opera House to learn about this historic structure."

Monday, August 29, 2011

Four Score and Seven Years Ago…

(actually, it was four years and two months ago, but the other has a better ring), the Dannenberg clan gathered in Reno, NV, for one of their periodic family reunions. (The Dannenbergs are Chuck’s mother’s family.)

Mexican food and Mexican restaurants have had trouble establishing themselves in the Philadelphia area. We’d find one that we liked, and it would soon close. So, as we traveled, we were always on the lookout for good and authentic Mexican food. And Chuck discovered that one of that Reno’s best Mexican restaurants—Beto’s Mexican Food—was located just a few short blocks from the reunion hotel. We managed to squeeze in two lunches around family activities and vowed to someday return.

“Consis-tently voted in area reader polls as having the best Mexican food, Beto's is a hole-in-the-wall place that's been around for years. Order your traditional Mexican tacos, enchiladas, soups, and seafood with the usual chicken and beef, or the more adventurous tripe and head at the counter, then grab a table and enjoy”(

Camille, posting at, said: “I have my favorite dish and order the same thing on half my visits. The salsa they bring out is the best in town because it's roasted to perfection. I hate the lines and crowds, but I put up with those things even on hangover days, because sometimes a Beto's Burrito is the only cure. I love the workers because they have been the same for years and really make the place comfortable and familiar.

“Dine inside on a cold day. Dine outside on a warm day. It's the kind of place you might wipe your seat and table down with a napkin (you know the kind of place I'm taking about) but don't really mind, because you know it's only like that because you swooped on the table as soon as the last guests left.”

Well, it was nice and warm the day of our visit, but we eschewed the outdoor patio. Too many pigeons. At Beto’s, you stand in the middle of the smallish room in order to get a complete view of the pictorial menu board.

How authentic is Beto’s? Menu choices include birria (goat meat soup), menudo (beef tripe soup), and pozole (pork with white hominy). Yes, you can order soft tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and tostados. But in addition to the familiar meats (carne asada, pollo, carnitas, pastor, and chorizio), if you are adventurous, you could also order lengua (beef tongue), cabeza (beef head), or tripitas (fried tripe)—I’m not that adventurous.

We placed our order at the counter and, armed with a basket of tortilla chips and dish of salsa, found a seat where I could see a print(?) of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. The salsa, as Camille indicated, was delicious, but wasn’t as spicy as I remem-bered. Then again, we have eaten so many New Mexico salsas, which can be quite combustible, that my perspective may have changed. Soon, our meals arrived.

Chuck ordered a carne asada combo plate that included a taco, an enchilada, rice, and beans. ("Carne asada [lit., ‘grilled meat’] is an item that consists of thin beef steak. The meat can be marinated by rubbing with olive oil and sea salt or with spice rubs such as lemon and pepper or garlic salt, lime and Worcestershire sauce, before being cooked on a grill” []). Chuck has routinely been a ground beef man when it comes to tacos and enchiladas. At Beto’s, he didn’t have that option.

Still semi-boycotting plates with rice and beans, I went the all a la carte approach and chose a pastor (sometimes called al pastor) soft taco, a chorizio enchilada, and a ceviche tostada. The taco was filled with little nuggets of spicy marinated pork, but was missing pineapple which is usually a staple of pastor. Since I don’t really like pineapple mixed with meat and/or fish, this was fine with me. The chorizio enchilada packed some real heat, and didn’t have the harsh taste of uncooked spice that I find in too many chorizios. The enchilada was lightly covered with a mild red sauce, a little chopped lettuce, and queso fresco (a fresh cheese with a taste not unlike feta).

The ceviche tostada was my least favorite of the three, because the lime-marinated fish and seafood had been minced to an almost fine paste. This “paste” was mixed with chopped tomato and onion. The flavor was great—I just didn’t like the texture.

And now for a bit of ancient history. On our second visit to Beto’s during the reunion, I saw a young man eating a concoction from a very large goblet. It looked like a shrimp-laden gazpacho. It looked delicious. I wanted one. I was too full to even think about it.

I have lusted after this dish for the past four-plus years. I planned my meal this time so that I would finish with a crescendo of shrimp goodness. What was it? Beto’s take on the shrimp cocktail. My dessert would be the smaller version. Did the reality live up to my erotic fantasy? You bet—and more so. As best as I can deconstruct this dish, they place a few glugs of catsup in the bottom of the glass. Then some chopped onion, tomato, and cilantro are added. Then crisp, cold, and sweet cooked medium shrimp. And, as a final component, either clam broth or fish broth is poured into the glass. When it comes to the table, you mix the catsup up from the bottom and all of the textures and flavors merge into a succulent deliciousness. The only thing missing from a standard shrimp cocktail was the grated horseradish and you wouldn’t want that strong flavor here.

Oh. Chuck decided that two more carne asada soft tacos would also make a great dessert. Hey—they’re small.

Beto’s and the Red Iguana in Salt Lake City are worlds apart in ambience and price, but both set forth authentic Mexican food. Beto’s may more closely resemble street food, but it still serves 5.0 Addie food.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

“It’s a South Lake Tahoe Landmark"

“It’s easy to see why this is a favorite local spot. Full of local character and charm, including Lake Tahoe’s favorite detective’s favorite breakfast, the Owen McKenna Omelette. The Red Hut Café was opened in 1959 and was originally called the old Donut Shop located at Stateline before it was physically moved to its current location. When Dick and Nancy Gardner purchased The Hut in 1984, they made sure the original layout and charm remained untouched.

“An L-shaped breakfast counter and old fashioned booths occupy all the space inside. Vintage Tahoe photos and soda pop posters cover the walls. Inside you’ll hear people reminis-cing about the good old days, or just catching up. Besides the nostalgic atmosphere and local vibe, the breakfast and lunch dishes are well loved with little to no surprises. Just good home cooking” (

Well, this may be a local favorite, but it was no favorite of ours. And this is what happens when you leave home without a plan.

Since we didn’t know where we would be at lunch time, I only did a cursory bit of investigation about restaurants in the Stateline (NV)/South Lake Tahoe (CA) area. As we were driving down Highway 50, I recognized the name “Red Hut Café”. It seemed to be as good a place as any for a quick meal.

Open for only breakfast and lunch, the Red Hut’s lunch menu was pretty basic—burgers and sandwiches (BLT, turkey, ham and cheese, tuna melt, grilled cheese). You get the picture. It seems that breakfast rules, and I saw a gentleman dig into an omelet that would have served a family of four.

Chuck chose the Mac Burger, a half-pound burger on a “hoagie” roll with lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, mustard, and pickles. Oh, hold the lettuce, tomato, mayo, mustard and pickles. My selection was the Patty Melt on grilled rye with grilled onions and cheese. Both came with fries.

First, the good news. The fries were pretty good.

Now for the bad news. My hamburger patty was nice and moist, the cheese was appropriate-ly melted and stringy, and the grilled onions still had a bit of crunch. But the assembled sandwich had been grilled too long and the bread has a definite taste of burned toast. By rights, I should have sent this back and asked that it be remade but the place was busy, and our server was keeping a low profile. (Dining Tip: When your bill comes with your food, you’re not going to see your server again.)

Chuck didn’t fare much better. First, even though he ordered his hamburger cooked medium, it was done far past that point. It was dry.

And a question for you. What do you get when you place a round patty on an oblong roll? You get two ends of the roll with no meat between them. If you are serving a hamburger on a long roll, shouldn’t you make a patty to fit the roll? Just asking.
Locals may love this place, but I can’t give it more than 1.5 Addies—the fries were pretty good.

I think we should have ordered breakfast.

But it was a nice day, so we headed across the Highway 50, past the Lake Tahoe Vacation Resort, toward the lake.

We entered the grounds of the Ski Run Boat Company. The area seemed to be part sculpture garden,

part beach,

and part water recreational equipment rental. The colorful in-ventory of
"vehicles," included paddle craft, kayaks, and personal water craft.

Also, among the craft was what appeared to be a three-wheeler of some sort.

This one young customer, walking among the various choices, seemed to be giving considerable thought to his "pur-chase". We thought he would choose something that went with his shirt and shorts.

A bit of rushed activity occurred when the person in charge of the water craft rental took off after a customer who was not following the correct route.