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A friendly face

That little old man on the John the Greek salad-dressing bottle, smiling jovially from the shelf at grocery shoppers, always seems to make the dressing aisle at H-E-B more cheerful. I discovered recently that this tasty vinaigrette — made with mystery herbs, olive oil, vinegar, and garlic — originated from an eponymous local restaurant.

The day that Fast Foodie visited John the Greek, tucked in the back of the Thousand Oaks strip mall, a bird’s nest in the sign above the door and some trees off to one side of the entrance gave it a homey feel, fitting for a family-owned restaurant open since 1999. A friendly, alert server seated us almost immediately in the small dining room, which was busy but not crowded with lunch customers.

After extensive deliberation between traditional Greek dishes such as moussaka (layers of ground beef and eggplant topped with a béchamel sauce) and avgolemono soup (chicken soup Greek style, with egg and lemon), my friend ordered a gyro and a side Greek salad for $7.50. I decided to branch out and try the Arni Me Agginares ($13.99), braised lamb with artichokes and the house egg and lemon sauce. My accompanying Greek salad came with the namesake dressing, which is tangy, refreshing, and pungent, a well-balanced complement to the tomato, olives, feta, and shredded iceberg and romaine lettuces.

My friend declared the meat in her gyro very tender without any mushiness, and the toppings of tomato, onion, and tzatziki were fresh and not overdone. She proclaimed her meal “fit for a king.”

Sadly, I couldn’t say the same for my dish. The lamb, which was served in small chunks, had the consistency of cubed cheddar cheese. The artichoke hearts lacked flavor and were overwhelmed by the egg-lemon sauce. But perhaps I just had a bit of bad luck; the dishes being carried to other tables looked very appetizing, and my French fries were salivatingly crisp and minimally greasy.

With many other classic Greek dishes to try and the platters of Greek pastries at the front counter calling to us, we resolved to return. We might even get to meet the happy man on the salad-dressing bottle.

Published by the San Antonio Current on 08/05/2009

http://www.sacurrent.com/dining/review.asp?rid=13862

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Simplification is key. If you take a complex idea and condense it into something comprehensible, everyone can move on with their lives just a bit easier. Yet in the effort to simplify the city’s convoluted tree ordinance, the main goal behind the Tree Canopy Preservation Ordinance revision, simplification could be considered a death warrant for San Antonio’s older trees.

At the stakeholder committee meeting on Tuesday, July 14, no one probably intended a death warrant. People from both the developer and the conservation perspective make up this committee. According to a Development Services official who helped select the committee, Fernando De Leon, City Planning works frequently with the groups that provided the committee members: the Independent School Districts, The Citizens Tree Coalition, The Greater San Antonio Builders Association, etc. “We feel that we’ve created a balanced committee,” said De Leon. The committee’s schedule indicates that the revised ordinance should be submitted to the City Council by February of 2010.

The revision was proposed to tidy up the ordinance and preserve our tree canopy, according to Tom Carrasco, the committee’s mediator from Development Services. “There are a couple of issues. We had the tree canopy study that was completed by a private firm, American Forests. That report said San Antonio had to reach a certain canopy percentage to maintain our tree preservation,” said Carrasco. “Our current ordinance, right now, is somewhat confusing, and PDSD staff has spent a lot of time explaining what the ordinance means.”

“[Simplification] is important in that everybody needs to understand the rules, so that we can actually enforce the rules,” said Michael Nentwich, a committee member and a city forester from San Antonio Parks and Recreation. “There were some confusing components of the ordinance like sometimes the counting aspects of it. Legal terminology can be confusing.”

One central change is that the percentage of trees developers must preserve is based on the tree canopy alone. While it might not appear too dangerous at first glance, many environmentalists are wary because this adjustment potentially allows for favoring new trees over the older more beneficial trees.

Since the amount of trees preserved will be based on the tree canopy instead of tree species and trunk width, developers have the option to consider details such as the species and age of a tree if they feel the monetary savings warrant the preservation of older trees. At last Tuesday’s stakeholder meeting, only Paul Johnson, the regional urban forester from the Texas Forest Service, voiced the potential negative consequences. “Species have a lot of impact on how much that tree does for us. A big tree cleans more air, filters more water, and captures more water than even a small collection of newly planted trees,” Johnson said.

“Looking at the tree canopy is one of the things that [foresters] do as an initial stage, but what you really want to know is what size and species there are to know what action to take,” said Johnson. “You have a better idea of where a building should go if you know that on the east side of the property you have a stand of smaller shorter-lived trees and on the west side you have larger longer-lived tree species which are those that will give us the most environmental benefit.”

“The forest service has realized that kinds of trees are be important not merely canopy,” Loretta Van Coppenolle, conservation chair for the Alamo group of the Sierra Club, said.

Since specific tree measurements will not be mandatory, “It leaves it open to too many abilities to not know or not care,” Johnson said.

The cost of a lost tree can be very applicable to San Antonian’s daily life. In an article titled “Trees Can Bring Us More Rain” written by Van Coppenolle, the ability of trees to reduce pollutants is emphasized. Trees absorb particulate matter and other pollutants which decreases the formation of ground level ozone.

“Ozone is a much bigger threat to San Antonio [than other pollutants],” Brenda Williams, a projects manager who focuses on air quality for AACOG, said. “Government EPA sets standards for how much ozone is allowed into our air. For a year now we have been really close to that standard, which could mean violation,” said Williams. “So far, we’ve managed to avoid it.”

Despite the worries of environmentalists, Norman Dugas, a former Greater San Antonio Builder’s Association board member and local real estate developer, remains confident that residential builders will still try to preserve trees due to incentives and humans’ the natural desire to not cut down a tree if they have a choice. “In the residential context, we save every tree that we practically can because every tree we save makes the lot more valuable and the house easier to sell,” Dugas said.

If they preserve a heritage or champion tree, they get more canopy cover credit than if they were to plant a new tree, and preserving trees saves them money. In general, “[the revised ordinance] adds a lot of cost to every site because of the huge increase in planting requirements that are in this proposal,” said Dugas. While they used to only have to plant two trees per lot in the original ordinance, builders would now have to plant six trees per average residential lot, according to Dugas.

However, the simplification could save on housing costs. “[The original ordinance] was complex and convoluted in the process of compliance. It was very expensive to go through the process,” said Dugas. “It is important to understand the cost of all this is born by the new home buyer.”

There are threats and there are benefits from both sides of the line. “No one I know wants to remove trees, however the fact is, it is a balancing of needs,” said Dugas. “The need to preserve verses the need for roads, hospitals and the benefits of urban society.” The divide might not be as severe as Dugas suggests, and as to which need is greater, the opinions vary significantly.

“It could work just fine or it could be a real disaster,” said Johnson. “We won’t know until after the changes occur and they will be extremely difficult to reverse.” What appeared simple at first could create some very complex problems.

The date of the next stakeholder meeting is still unknown because the committee asked Development Services for information concerning how the revised ordinance would affect the city of San Antonio. Until this research is finished, the meeting will be delayed.

If you want to have your voice heard, attend the next committee meeting whose date, when determined, will be posted on http://www.treecoalition.org/canopyordnce.htm.

Published online by the San Antonio Current on 07/17/2009

http://www.sacurrent.com/blog/queblog.asp?perm=69837

To the great surprise and dismay of Texas Campaign for the Environment members and the Texas House Representatives involved, Governor Rick Perry vetoed the TV TakeBack bill. However, the legislature cannot override Perry’s decision even if they wanted to.

By Texas law, if the legislature presents a bill to the governor less than 10 days prior to the close of the legislative session, the governor has 20 days to take action. A bill is considered “dead” if it is vetoed after sine die because a veto must be overridden within the same session it was created.

Officially, the 2009 TV TakeBack bill is dead, but it lies in the minds of its creators. Rep. Leibowitz has already distributed his personal response to Perry’s veto, and he plans to keep this initiative going in the next legislative session. “He intends to work with the stakeholders and the governor’s office to find new legislation that everyone can agree to and pass,” Rob Borja, Leibowitz’s Chief of Staff, said. “I assume it would be with joint and co-authors, the senate, and then the senate sponsors and co-sponsors . . . It’s just trying to find the language that everyone can agree to.” And that includes the Governor.

Published online by the San Antonio Current on 07/02/2009. Read it here.

Texas doesn’t like you to burn its flag or Uncle Sam’s — disincentives run up to $4,000 and a year in jail. But the Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson ruled that if you’re lighting up Old Glory to make a statement, you’re protected by the Constitution. Well, what about foreign flags?

David Bohmfalk was cited in May 2007 for illegally burning rubbish — rubbish which just happened to be our southern neighbors’ tricolor bandera — in front of the Alamo to protest legislation that would have granted undocumented workers amnesty.

Bohmfalk was detained by police officers and, says lawyer Jason Jakob, treated poorly. “He was spit on. Some tourist made death threats, and the police did not do anything except say ‘Move along,’” Jakob said. “[The officers] stated that he violated several state and federal laws, [but] none of those charges wound up sticking.”

Bohmfalk is suing the City of San Antonio, two Park Rangers and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas for violating his First Amendment rights, claiming false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and defamation.

“One cannot miss the irony of such an appalling lack of constitutional protection at a location so known for a person’s right to defend its land from others,” stated Bohmfalk’s original petition.

“Under the First Amendment,” Jakob said, “he had every right to burn the flag.”

Published online by the San Antonio Current on 07/01/2009. Read it here.

It’s amore

Whenever Italian food is the topic of conversation, the first thing I think of is the film Moonstruck — the mood, the moonlight, the happily-ever-after for a cynical 38-year-old. Yet walking into Joe’s Italian Grill, ready for a delicious meal, my initial reaction was skepticism, not romance.

The exterior of Joe’s Italian Grill is not the most alluring, and the entrance opens onto an extremely spacious dining room — almost too spacious for comfort. Waiting for the server, I hoped that the many excited twitterings I had heard about Joe’s pasta and glorious New York-style pizza were correct.

Ordering a glass of wine was not an option because Joe’s is still acquiring its liquor license, but customers can bring a bottle of vino, and there’s no corkage fee.

My first two courses arrived after a short wait. The garlic cheese bread ($2.95) was the perfect balance of garlic and cheese. The toasted bread was not soggy from the butter, and the taste of garlic was potent but not overpowering.

The kitchen had run out of Parmesan, so I had a Caesar salad ($5.95) minus the cheese. The salad’s croutons were the perfect cubes that one can get from a bag at the grocery store, the lettuce was torn in large chunks, and the fishy flavor of the dressing indicated the strong presence of anchovies — great if you’re a Caesar-dressing purist.

When my Florentine pizza ($20.45) arrived, any lingering misgivings were washed away. The perfectly circular pie had a thin, crispy, but not crunchy, crust in classic New York style. There was no need to blot grease — not that I ever blot grease — and the toppings were in harmony, as on the garlic cheese bread. A burst of flavor alerted me to a few basil leaves scattered over the pizza, slightly crisped and pungent.

The pizzas might be a bit pricier than Papa John’s, but even if you don’t get Joe’s military discount, the quality is well worth the few extra dollars. And pizza is not the only item on the menu. I’ll be back soon to try the steaming bowls of baked pastas with mozzarella on top and the classic spaghetti and meatballs.

Published by the San Antonio Current on 06/10/2009. Read it here.

Since the 81st regular legislature closed up shop June 1, environmental organizations here waited to hear Governor Rick Perry say yes and officially sign HB 821, otherwise known as the TV TakeBack Bill, into law – or at least let it slide by unconfronted. The TV TakeBack Bill was based on the 2007 Computer TakeBack Bill (HB 2714), and it would have created a widespread recycling system less reliant on taxpayer dollars, according to Jeff Jacoby, Director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment’s Dallas office. Everyone was ready for the yes.

The digital transition that took place on June 12 was one motivator for the creation of this bill because consumers are expected to dump their old TVs en masse. “Ninety-nine million TVs are currently sitting in storage in the United States. If you look at the number proportionally, eight million TVs are sitting and gathering dust in Texas,” Jacoby said. “With the switch, we estimate about 3 million TVs could be sent to the landfill.” Even so, not everyone decided to dump their TV’s.

But Perry vetoed the bill, June 19. Before the TCE found out about the veto at 4 p.m. that Friday, “all indications from his staff were that he was OK with the bill,” Jacoby said.

“At the end of May, that’s when we got a very strong message that the Governor would be fine with this,” Robin Schneider, TCE Executive Director, said.

The office of Representative David Leibowitz seemed similarly confident of Perry’s support. Prior to the veto announcement, Rob Borja, Leibowitz’s Chief of Staff, noted that Perry signed the Computer TakeBack Bill, so there was a high probability he would sign this bill as well.

Rep. Leibowitz himself was stunned at the announcement. “It did nothing but help people, then out of the blue, he vetoes it. It absolutely boggles my mind,” he said. “Of all the missteps and all the screw-ups in this session, this is probably the most tragic.”

The bill’s author, Leibowitz, is taking the veto personally. “It’s as if somebody said ‘Who cares about your hundreds of man hours?’” he lamented.

Governor Perry’s statement concerning his veto was full of reasons why this bill was not beneficial for Texas – many of which are seen as contradictory by the TCE and Leibowitz’s office. “Although House Bill No. 821 attempts to make it easier for consumers to recycle old televisions, it does so at the expense of manufacturers, retailers and recyclers by imposing onerous new mandates, fees and regulations,” his statement said.

Schneider assessed the statement as “strange, because these groups worked with us [to create the bill]. The retailers were not necessarily for it, but they were not opposed.”

“The first draft of the bill that we worked off of, which was provided by the television industry, included these fees,” Borja said. “The industry said the $2,500-a-year fees were fine. It was a trade-group and TV-manufacturer proposal.”

“All the different perspectives kept meeting until we came up with a compromise everyone agreed on,” said Leibowitz. “It was very unique in the sense that all these different groups worked together . . . I know we even met with a Baptist organization.”

Schneider received no better answer when she confronted Perry the morning after the veto. “The weird thing was he said he vetoed the bill because it was an industry-backed bill. He said it was backed by GE,” she said. “What he failed to mention was that the [Computer TakeBack bill he passed] was made by computer manufacturers like Dell.”

Perry recommends “that the next legislature look at this issue and maybe look at ways to make [the TV TakeBack Bill] like the computer recycling bill,” Perry’s Press Secretary, Allison Castle, said.

Yet after looking at Perry’s statement, participants in the creation of the bill were again confused. “[Gov. Perry] put it in the veto message that the bill needed to be more like the Computer TakeBack Bill,” Borja said, “but that was the bill this was based on.”

Even with the veto, the fight is not yet over. “Well we can’t override a veto if we are not in session, and the governor has not called a special session,” Leibowitz said. He believes the Governor might have waited until the session ended on purpose, but he said “[I am] working on a response to his veto right now.”

Check out this link for a point by point rebuttal of Perry’s explanation of his reasons for the veto provided by Robin Schneider, TCE Executive Director: www.sacurrent.com/blog/hb821rebuttal.pdf

Published online by the San Antonio Current on 06/23/2009. Read it here.

A father gets up in the morning to make a cup of joe and watch the news before heading off to work. In preparation for the analog to digital switch, he had purchased a TV converter box for his old analog TV and set up his rabbit-eared antenna. Nothing should prevent him from watching his favorite morning broadcast. But the TV only displays static – even after wires are twiddled and buttons are pushed.

This was one problem that hit San Antonians on June 12, 2009, the official date of the transition from analog to digital broadcast signals. Patricia Gonzales, Senior Vice President of the William C. Velasquez Institute said that the main difficulty people experienced this past weekend was that they already had the converter box, but it was not set up correctly. The Velasquez Institute provides English and Spanish speakers to answer questions over the phone and to help individuals acquire the government-issued coupons for converter boxes.

With the switch to digital signals, people need to buy a new digital set or have the mirepoix of electronics – the analog television, the signal converter box, and an antenna – but “[people] didn’t know that once the transition occurred you would have to rescan [reset] your converter box” Wesley Zernial, program coordinator for the Alamo Area Agency of Aging, said. All the puzzle pieces must be there, and one has to know how to hook them all together.

Since electronics are so easy to not understand, the phone calls and requests came flooding in on Friday morning and continued through Saturday. The WCVI received a substantial amount of calls for help on Saturday, according to Gonzales. “Saturday was our ‘whoa’ morning,” she said.

But Friday was a particularly crazy day for the FCC-funded South Texas Resource and Assistance Center – a nonprofit organization that, among many things, sends technicians to install converter boxes and antennas for free. “Our call center crashed twice because we got so many calls . . . We couldn’t keep up with the volume,” Adam Rodriguez, vice chair, board member and grant writer for the Center, said.

The Center received approximately 150 calls per hour for the first two days (phew!), and Rodriguez says the Center needs more bilingual volunteers. “There are three demographics [of people calling us],” he said. “There are folks that were prepared, but they didn’t know how to rescan; there are ones that weren’t ready and were calling for coupons; and then there were some seniors and disabled who didn’t understand what happened.”

“We were stretched,” he said, and no wonder. The FCC placed the Center in charge of aiding all of South Texas, Houston, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans.

Many other companies around San Antonio felt the heat – indoors that is. Bjorn’s and Best Buy experienced increased customer demand over the weekend. Bjorn’s had heavy phone traffic on Friday from people calling to get information on how to rescan their converter box, said Joey Martinez, assistant sales-floor manager. Ernest Rangel, manager for the Best Buy in Selma, said “Not too many people came in looking for new TVs; they came in for convertor boxes and antennas.”

Prior to the switch, the NTIA identified seven cities that would need extra assistance during the switch. “[San Antonio was] at risk due to the high level of low income, elderly, Mexican [Spanish speaking], and deaf populations [who would need help],” said Deanne Cuellar, Project director for the Texas Media Empowerment Project. A June 10 Nielsen Media Research press release projected that 3.17 percent of homes in San Antonio were still not ready for the change.

But now, most coordinators for groups aiding San Antonians with the switch believe the transition went well, all things considered. “I think it was pretty smooth . . . there will always be people that need help, [but] I would give it a B if I were to grade it,” says Rodriguez.

However, Zernial sees it a bit differently. “I think the transition has been really good . . . we were ranked as number 2 in the nation for DTV preparedness” he says. “What makes San Antonio different is that all of the DTV grant recipients have been very cooperative and worked together . . . We share resources,” Zernial says. “San Antonio has done a really great job.”

Published online by the San Antonio Current on 06/16/2009. Read it here.