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April 1, 2021

In this issue: SoulBelly BBQ's Meaty Greatest Hits | I'm Obsessed with Photographing Clouds | Media Sommelier | When a Love for Mid-Century Modern meets Margaritaville

CHEF BRUCE KALMAN took a long and winding path to Las Vegas, with stints in Chicago, New York City, Santa Fe, Phoenix, and finally Los Angeles, where his career really took off. He cooked his way to fifth place on season 15 of Top Chef, where head judge Tom Colicchio lauded Kalman’s pasta skills. That only helped raise the profile of Kalman’s already renowned Pasadena restaurant, Union, acclaimed for its California twist on North Italian cuisine.

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But Kalman didn’t bring his celebrated pasta dishes to Las Vegas. He brought barbecue.

“It's really similar, actually,” Kalman explains. “In Italy and in barbecue too, it’s all about tradition. The common denominator is soul. It’s soulful. It’s slow cooking a lot of times, in Italian food especially. The thing is when you go to Italy, they don't stray from tradition.”

Kalman aims to bring that respect for tradition to his latest venture, SoulBelly BBQ. Actually, make that traditions. Inspired by America’s diverse regional barbecue styles, Kalman’s take on barbecue is a greatest-hits package of sorts. His brisket is influenced by Central Texas; he cooks it simply with salt and pepper over post oak wood. “It's a 20-hour process, a 10- to 12-hour cook and then a 10-hour rest. Going through R&D, we've tried it many different ways, and this is the way we nail it.”

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The pork ribs — arguably the best in Las Vegas — take the diner towards Memphis. Kalman covers the meat with a dry rub of spices and some brown sugar. As it cooks, he slathers it repeatedly with sweet barbecue sauce, giving the meat a sticky, firm glaze. And SoulBelly’s pulled pork has the chef traveling by way of North Carolina with a dry rub and a Carolina red sauce laced with vinegar. But these wide-ranging regional approaches have one thing in common. “What is important to me is that the meat is beautiful and unctuous and perfectly executed.”

However, that doesn’t mean SoulBelly’s side dishes are an afterthought. “Our sides are pretty spectacular,” Kalman says. “I want them to be just as good as the meats. I don't want any dead weight on the menu where

people are just okay with it. If it’s not special to somebody, it’s not good enough.” One of the most popular sides is Gigi’s Green Chile Corn Casserole, based on his wife’s recipe. (She likes to say he “cheffed it up.”) His macaroni and cheese (right) is also a must-have, as the chef showcases his famed pasta-making skills.

Friend and colleague Chef James Trees of Esther’s Kitchen seconds that opinion. “I think it's really important to remember that Bruce can cook anything,” Trees says. “When you look at where most barbecue people fall down, it's on the sides. And his barbecue is technically fantastic, but his sides are where his chef vibe comes through and pulls you in.”

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Trees’ enthusiasm explains why he encouraged Kalman in the first place to give up the glamour of Los Angeles and set roots in Vegas. Kalman says, “He told me to move out here and said, ‘You know what's missing out here? Great barbecue.’” Before the big move, Kalman tested the waters with a few pop-up dinners — first a pasta night at Bardot Brasserie with Chef Josh Smith, then a pizza party at Esther’s Kitchen — but barbecue was always the plan.

As a pop-up, Soulbelly BBQ has taken its own long and winding path, with Kalman cooking out of Piero’s and Ferguson’s Downtown before he and his team set up their big boy smoker at HUDL Brewing Company on Main Street, serving brisket, pork ribs, and pulled pork. Kalman has temporarily moved the operation to Atomic Liquors on East Fremont until his permanent indoor space at HUDL is complete — soon to be a new home for a seasoned chef serving up the many flavors of traditional American barbecue.

SoulBelly BBQ at Atomic Liquors
917 Fremont St.
(future location at HUDL Brewing Company, 1327 S. Main Street)

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I COULD PROBABLY fill the sky with photos I’ve taken of the sky. I’ve saved dozens, deleted maybe three times that. Sunsets and sunrises, sure, a few, but mostly I shoot clouds and contrails. Wisps of cirrus, bulwarks of cumulus, threads of jet vapor trails, and lots of formations that defy easy categorization — is that, uh, cumulo-cheese-grater? It’s not just me, either; it’s a whole thing, complete with trite nickname — cloud porn — and 24 million posts on the associated hashtag (though many have nothing to do with clouds). I prefer  skyroglyphics, because constantly craning my eyes toward the heavens has imparted to me a loopy grandiosity.

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My cloud snaps began as an offshoot of a fascination with landscapes, and are entirely enabled by the cheapness, disposability, and low expectations of cell-cam photos. Back when I lugged around an old-school film camera, I never thought to burn frames on airborne water vapor. A silly waste of resources, that. Somewhere around here I have a digital SLR, but its zoom-lensed weight and implication of serious photographic equipment somehow, in my mind, forestall its use for something as mundane as shooting clouds. But when I noticed that the landscapes I clicked most often with my phone usually featured some serious cloud action, I didn’t think twice about firing off extra shots of the sky.

Sometimes I just document weird-looking formations. More often I’m drawn to clouds compositionally, thanks to their endless, shapeshifting varieties of form, texture, density — an abstract minimalism of the sky, one-time-only arrangements of blue, white, and the occasional hint

of gray. It’s rarely a matter of pareidolia — the perceptual trick of seeing familiar features in random visual information (“That cloud looks like Danny DeVito!”) — and more about unusual presentations, compelling cloud fields, contrasting forms (mounds vs. wisps), and the antics of slanting light. Now, throw in the piercing line of a jet contrail, or, better yet, four or five of them crossing in hieroglyphic patterns, and suddenly the neighbors are wondering why I’m arching backward in the street, aiming my phone at the sky.

But I also enjoy clouds as fluffy philosophical prompt

s — especially at a time when their effortless free-sailing contrasts so pointedly with the fungal stasis of my not-yet-post pandemic life. Deceptively weightless, they bring together a lot of heavy stuff: a critical role in the mechanics of climate change; implausible politics and danger, whether you’re legitimate downwinder or a chemtrail zealot (now and then I post photos of contrails with mocking captions about chemtrails:  They’re spraying aerosolized gun control!). All of which makes clouds fun and useful to snap and think about.

Humans only register change at certain speeds and scales; anything too micro or macro requires the work of a scientist or social-media mansplainer to understand. But, as any hillside daydreamer knows, passing clouds are real-time thesis statements about the ongoingness of change. So each cloud photo captured and stored in my Google Photos —  on the cloud, heh heh — reminds me of that obvious and complex truth: I’ll never see anything exactly like that again. I wish I’d shot that Danny DeVito cloud when I had the chance.

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1. Let’s all celebrate the impending fourth wave by indulging in some it’s-overism, shall we? Here’s a nice big chunk of local-ish writing that should do the trick: "House Divided," the fourth installment of The Nevada Independent’s "What Happened Here," a six-part series on what went wrong — with communications, logistics, process — in the government response to the pandemic. Based, I assume, on her year-long coverage of the COVID-19 response, writer Megan Messerly homes in on the breakdown in city-state-federal relations as a major cause for the overall failure to stanch the spread of the virus. Her sprawling piece is chock full of official interviews and forensic analysis of misfires at every level, but the best part may be the first installment. It tells the straightforward tale of two Nevadans who were on the ill-fated Grand Princess cruise ship in early March and found themselves — along with 3,500 other passengers, including a couple dozen who tested positive for COVID-19 — mired in the dysfunctional bureaucracy that would come to define the following year. It may still be too early to start moving on, but is it ever too late to learn from mistakes made?

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2. With mass shootings — and, thus, gun safety — making their quarterly appearance in national headlines, now is as good a time as any to hark back to the chilling New York Times Magazine’s February feature, “ A Bristling Standoff Rattles Gun-Friendly Vermont.” As a 20-year journalist, I’m as sick and tired as anybody of talking about our country’s gun obsession. But this story startled even me. It’s about a mysterious stranger who shows up in a small Vermont town, buys a large private property, and opens a military-style combat training facility on it. Friction with the neighbors (folks who embrace guns for hunting and self-protection) starts over noise, escalates into a zoning dispute, and ends in a cold war of stalking and threats. If it’s possible to tackle intractable problems by starting at the extremes, then cases like the one in Pawlet, Vermont, would be a good place to start. Bonus: This story comes with an audio option, available through Audm.

3. I know plenty of news organizations have produced plenty of stories about the March 13, 2020, police shooting of Breonna Taylor. But the enterprising work being done by Taylor’s hometown newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, is a testament to the necessity of local reporting. The country is currently held in thrall by the George Floyd trial, but his death offers prosecutors a straightforward case for murder — the entire thing having been captured, from multiple angles, on video — whereas Taylor’s killing, while no less unjust, is vexed by a heartbreaking backstory and bad policework. Although three of the officers involved have been fired and the city of Louisville settled a civil suit filed by Taylor's family, the district attorney has brought no criminal charges against the police, and the community continues to demand justice and reform. There’s so much to unpack and follow that the Courier-Journal started a newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.

4. Crime-news podcast lovers turned off by the “Caliphate” fiasco (and if you were spared that months-long drama, congratulations) will find the perfect antidote in I’m Not a Monster, the joint BBC-PBS project that tells a true story of an American’s involvement with the Islamic State. Between the bonkers story and the breathless narration of Brit journalist Josh Baker, the series has an off-the-charts addiction factor — I binged the entire thing on a recent Sunday afternoon. It tells the story of Sam Sally, a woman who took her two kids from Indiana to Raqqa, Syria, in 2015. Is Sally tricked by her charming husband, Moussa Elhassani, into following his radical Islamist calling, or is she helping him finance terrorism, the crime she was sentenced to six and a half years in federal prison for last November? It’s hard to say. Either way, the couple’s children end up in an extremely dangerous situation — one they, thankfully, get out of safely and that the adults who put them in are held accountable for. Heidi Kyser

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WHEN ARTHUR C. CLARKE met Stanley Kubrick for the first time in 1964 to kick around ideas for the movie 2001, it was at a New York City Trader Vic’s. Which basically puts it alongside the Parisian cafe as a midwife to transformative art, at least as far as fussy sci-fi movies were concerned. Basically.

Maybe My Tais were to psychotically meticulous American directors what absinthe was to expat alcoholic writers. If you can get the fanciest of flicks about murderous computers out of a joint that slings Suffering Bastards, then the midcentury modern milieu is damn near settled science when it comes to taste and highbrow intellectualism. I bet Saul Bellow wrote Herzog through five-alarm Don the Beachcomber hangovers.

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Like any worth-his-salt Las Vegan who would rather be holed up at Frankie’s Tiki Room right now than any other place in the city aside from the Wynn count room 10 seconds after the power goes out, I’m shamelessly in the bag for mid-mod aesthetics. I want that Diamonds Are Forever house stuffed with only the swankiest of swank amenities. The furniture, the cars, the clothes, the Martin Denny albums played on one of those really long consoles that’s a record player but also a genuine piece of furniture with the slanty, brass-tipped legs.

But in my darkest hour, I sometimes whisper to myself that it’s all just Margaritaville for Mad Men-loving Herbs & Rye cocktail swillers.

Signature drinks? Check. Musical stylings? Check. A general desire for spatial and temporal displacement to an alternate world where everyone shares your sensibilities and you can leave behind the vulgar trappings of a planet whose fondest wish is a glass of Connor McGregor-approved Proper Twelve whiskey and a warm place to watch a Bachelor Presents: Furtive Oral Sex Island marathon? Yeah. Yeah, that all checks out.

But they can’t be the same, can they? The whole Jimmy Buffet thing is so contrived. So fundamentally lame. And if that’s all a big, cynical put-on, and if midcentury is just as manufactured, then … then ... oh, God.

My father was a Parrothead. What if it’s hereditary? Do I need to get screened by my doctor? Did I check the closet for Tommy Bahama shirts?

I can try to say that one is organic outgrowth of a specific moment in time with its own set of design aesthetics and grounded in a reality of how people lived, and the other is a shameless exercise in branding to sell $300 blenders and $18 plates of nachos on the Strip, but there are three problems with that.

One, I own a fuzzy leopard-print shirt that was made as recently as 2017; two, those people who go to Buffet concerts and hit up the local Margaritaville at every single one of their vacation destinations instead of ferreting out hard-to-find joints are actually having fun and I’m sitting here wringing my hands over liking the stuff I like in print; and three, those nachos are legit fantastic. Not worth hearing “Cheeseburger in Paradise” six times while you wait for your order to come up, but close.

That brief moment of panic at maybe being on the Jim Buff level is all born of an early ‘90s-ingrained corporate-rock-sucks ethos, but at least my love of mid-mod comes from a place of sincerity: a late ‘90s-ingrained Swingers-and-Big Bad Voodoo Daddy ethos.

The same year Clarke and Kubrick sat down at Trader Vic’s, Playboy interviewed Vladimir Nabokov. It’s one of my favorite interviews, because Nabokov is obviously as brilliant and erudite as you’d expect, but interviewer Alvin Toffler matches him step-for-step. Crane your neck and you can see the empty cocktail glasses on the end tables of the interview room and hear Dave Brubeck tearing up the hi-fi. There was a level of sophistication and wit that we’ve demonstrably lost, and won’t be getting back any time soon.

It’s undeniable, but it’s also true that all that sophistication took place a few pages from Miss January flashing her breasts from under an absolute mountain of beehive piled on top of her noggin. All our landscapes are getting flattened faster and faster, so why should fundamental elements of place and time be any different? What the hell. Maybe it’s all always been about marketing attack surface anyway.

You can never inhabit an era. You can never be cool. You can never be right. What you can do is pour some rum down your gullet from a mug where the Bride of Frankenstein is wearing a clamshell bikini, while you listen to a surf band full of 50-year-old dudes covering 60-year-old music that charmed the 40-something guys who’d been in the South Pacific 20 years prior. And that’s close enough.

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Photos and art: Bruce Kalman by Christopher Smith, mac 'n' cheese courtesy SoulBelly BBQ, meat platter by Bronson Loftin; clouds by Scott Dickensheets; mid-mod graphic by Christopher Smith

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