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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Spotlight 29 Opens New Food Court, Mexican Restaurant

Gamblers, show-goers and foodies who find themselves at Spotlight 29—located at 46200 Harrison Place, in Coachella—now have a whole bunch more food options than they did before.

La Diabla Maria, located in what used to be the Groove nightclub, is offering beer, tequila flights and street-style tacos. “Guests can choose from carne asada, al pastor, pollo, tripas, lengua, barbacoa and pork chorizo,” according to a news release. “Both flour and corn tortillas are freshly made in house.” Yum!

At the new Pier 29 food court, diners can find three new options: Sharkey’s Pizza, which offers, well, pizza; Easy Rita’s Margaritas, which sells all sorts of flavorful, boozy drinks—and nonalcoholic options, too; and Mr. Weiner’s, which cooks up creative twists on hot dogs.

“We’re always looking for creative, fun ways to enhance the guest experience at Spotlight 29, and dining is a big part of that equation,” said Spotlight 29 General Manager Michael Frawley, in a quote that could only be made for a press release. “The new restaurants present flavors for any palate and terrific value in a fun, party-style atmosphere.”

For more information, visit Spotlight29.com.


Palm Springs Chamber’s Taste of Palm Springs Returns to Colony 29

One of the valley’s most-popular food-related events is back for another year.

The Business Expo and Taste of Palm Springs, which is put on by the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce, will be held from 5 to 9 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 16. According to the press release, the event “will include a taste of over 30 valley restaurants, wine and beer tasting, a cocktail bar, and live entertainment. Over 100 local businesses will showcase their products and services with a backdrop of the beautiful foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains, the Indian Canyons, and the remarkable Colony 29 itself.”

The list of participating restaurants and food-related business, as of this writing, includes the Tommy Bahama Marlin Bar, Lulu California Bistro, Wabi Sabi Japan Living (yay, sake!), Eight4Nine Restaurant, Rio Azul Mexican Bar and Grill, Nothing Bundt Cakes, Kaiser Grill and many others.

Admission to the expo is free, but if you want food and drink—and why in the hell wouldn’t you?—you’ll need to fork over $20 for a wristband.

Colony 29 is located at 147 S. Tahquitz Drive, right at the base of the mountain. Shuttle buses will run to and from the public parking garage across from the Palm Springs Art Museum every five minutes or so. For wristbands or more information, call 760-325-1577, or visit pschamber.org.


In Brief

The good news: Bongo Johnny’s—which has been closed since an early-morning fire gutted the restaurant’s kitchen at 214 E. Arenas Road, in downtown Palm Springs, on March 7—will reopen somehow, someway, according to owner Robb Wirt. The bad news: Now more than six months later, a reopening date remains months away. Wirt says the landlord is dragging its feet on reconstruction. We’re keeping our fingers crossed; watch this space for updates. … We have only good news to report on this one: The much-delayed downtown Palm Springs location of Wilma and Frieda’s, at 155 S. Palm Canyon Drive—in the second-floor space previously occupied by The Falls—will reportedly be opening soon. To repeat: We’re keeping our fingers crossed; watch this space for updates. … Hair of the Dog, the pub long located at 238 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in downtown Palm Springs, has closed, but is slated to reopen soon a wee bit south—specifically, at the corner of South Palm Canyon Drive and East Camino Parocela. … New to Rancho Mirage, at 72817 Dinah Shore Drive: Sushi Arigato. We have not yet had a chance to try out the place ourselves, but the food we’ve seen in the pictures on the review sites looks absolutely delicious! Call 760-656-8886 for more information. … While this event doesn’t have a whole lot directly to do with food, it’s an event that’s near and dear to our hearts: The 12th annual Paint El Paseo Pink walk takes place from 7 to 10:30 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 13. It costs $25 to register for the 2-mile walk around El Paseo in Palm Desert, and all of the proceeds go to the Desert Cancer Foundation. Register or get more information by calling 760-773-6554, or visiting desertcancerfoundation.org.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

On the morning of March 7, a fire broke out near the kitchen of Bongo Johnny’s Patio Bar and Grille—about one hour before the Arenas Road restaurant in downtown Palm Springs was scheduled to open.

The Palm Springs Fire Department quickly put out the blaze—ruled an accident, after linens and oil-soaked rags in a laundry hamper spontaneously combusted—but by then, the damage was done: Bongo Johnny’s kitchen was essentially destroyed, while smoke and water damage closed three of the four other businesses in the building: Stacy’s at Palm Springs, Mischief Cards and Gifts, and the Palm Springs Piercing Company. Only Streetbar, located at the east end of the building, remained open.

More than two weeks later, those four businesses remain closed—and frustration is mounting over a Palm Springs City Council that Bongo Johnny’s general manager called unresponsive, as well as a landlord, Plaza Investment Company, Inc., that’s allegedly being uncooperative.

“My No. 1 goal is to rebuild, as soon as possible,” said Robb Wirt, the owner of Bongo Johnny’s. “The landlord is hindering that. At this time, it’s literally unknown when that will be. … They’re saying they aren’t responsible for the structure of the building. They are!”

Mark Hewitt, Bongo Johnny’s general manager, explained what was happening with the insurance companies, the landlord and the other three businesses.

“I don’t know if ‘fighting’ is the right word to use here,” Hewitt said. “When things like this happen, everybody has their own insurance company. Everyone needs to come to the table here, because at the end of the day, their building burned. Our business burned, and (the landlord’s) business burned. Unfortunately, the stance the landlord is taking is, ‘It’s all your fault,’ and they don’t want to bring their insurance company into it, because they want our insurance company to pay for everything. That’s not how the insurance game works.”

Plaza Investment Company, Inc., did not respond to an interview request as of our deadline.

Wirt said cleaning needs to get started at Bongo Johnny’s so the other three closed businesses in the building can reopen.

“The other businesses have smoke damage, and basically we just need to clean so they can start their process and open up while (Bongo Johnny’s) is under construction,” Wirt said. “We all share an attic space, so if we start cleaning, it’s just going to get dirty again, because the dust will go through the vents.”

Hewitt said they’ve appealed to the Palm Springs City Council for help. “I spoke to Mayor Robert Moon, and he told me, ‘I don’t want to get involved.’ He got involved in Wang’s (in the Desert) over vandalism, but he’s friends with the landlord, and that’s probably why he doesn’t want to get involved.

“It’s a nightmare. I’m under the impression that the City Council’s role is to help small businesses, because we bring in money to the city. I haven’t gotten any help. Geoff Kors hasn’t returned my calls; J.R. Roberts hasn’t returned my calls. I feel like the landlords don’t care. All of the tenants on Arenas pay rent to the same landlord, and (the landlord) hasn’t given back a single dollar to the LGBT community. Yet they take millions of dollars from us, and we all just pay our rent and taxes, and we get nothing out of it.”

Bongo Johnny’s will be closed for months. However, Stacy Louis, the owner of Stacy’s at Palm Springs, expressed hope that his bar could re-open by the end of March.

“There are so many things I’m dealing with, and I’ve never had to deal with anything like this before.” Louis said. “I’m more of the guy who goes with the flow and doesn’t create problems. But when we can’t get action immediately after we’ve had a fire like we did … I am frustrated.

“I actually paid my cleanup company, who was waiting for the landlord to authorize, which took four days and through a weekend. … I could get this going if I have (an asbestos) test, and it comes back at a little less than 1 percent—which it did. I had to wait four days for the second test to be done, because the landlord wouldn’t approve it. My cleanup person paid them out of his pocket to get this second test done so I could get going. I shouldn’t have had to sign a contract with my cleanup company to get started because I’m waiting for one insurance company to work with the other—and I just gave them $5,000 out of my own pocket.”

Stacy’s suffered damage from both smoke and the firefighters’ efforts to put out the fire.

“I have a few holes punched through my restroom, probably from the axes of the firemen, and I have water that’s come in through that same restroom and into the offices and the bar itself,” Louis said.

The employees of both Bongo Johnny’s and Stacy’s are being paid their hourly wages for the time being, Wirt and Louis said, but for Bongo Johnny’s, there’s a race against time: The insurance company will only pay for two months of wages, and Wirt said he is paying his staff what they would normally make in tips out of his own pocket.

“On his own accord, Robb has decided that the little bit of personal cash that he has, he’s going to use to make sure the employees are whole first,” Hewitt said. “But what we’re getting from the landlord is, ‘If you can pay your employees, why don’t you just pay for everything else?’ Three days after the fire, we got all of the employees together and said, ‘We want you back, but we don’t know how long this will be for as of today.’ We’re going to continue to pay them for as long as we can, which is not the narrative you want to give someone sitting at home thinking, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen in two months?’”

Louis said his employees have benefited from the kindness of his fellow Arenas Road business owners.

“I said to (my employees), ‘I will pay you for your hours, and if any of you need help because you’re not making your tips, you can come to me, and I will take care of you until we get this figured out.’ But I think the kindest thing that happened was (at Streetbar). Dick Haskamp, the owner of Streetbar, passed away a few days before the fire. The employees of Streetbar came to me and asked if it was OK if (Stacy’s bartenders) could fill in during the memorial service. I can’t even tell you how many tears that’s brought to my eyes. So we made it all happen. We got a schedule together, and they trained them. … During this (service), all the sales would be donated to Stacy’s, on top of the tips that they would make.”

Wirt said he’s been overwhelmed by messages of support from Bongo Johnny’s customers.

“I’ve been getting e-mails from people on Yelp, Facebook and through my website,” Wirt said. “They’re saying, ‘I just landed; I’m on my way.’ They get there; they find out we’re closed; and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I always start my trip in Palm Springs at your restaurant.’ Bongo Johnny’s has been there for 12 years, and it’s iconic for the LGBT community. It’s their first stop when they get off the airplane, and I didn’t even realize that until this happened. Now they’re going somewhere else.

“People bring their dog because we’re dog-friendly. … (Customers) come in on a Friday night—and I can guarantee you they’re not eating anywhere else, because of how they might be dressed. They feel safe. Now that’s been taken away from them, and it’s a detriment to the community that we can’t reopen quicker.”


Following publication, we received this response from Geoff Kors:

I was surprised to see the statement that I didn’t return a call from the manager of Bongo Johnny’s, especially as your reporter never reached out to ask me about this issue or whether or not I received a call.

The fire occurred on the day that my husband’s mother died, March 7. We left for Scotland a few days thereafter and returned Tuesday night, March 20. During that time, I checked with our city manager about the situation and also spoke with a friend whose business was impacted due to the fire. I was told that both the mayor and Councilmember Middleton were working on the issue, and I would be briefed upon my return.

I never received any communication from Bongo Johnny’s, and checked with staff at City Hall today and was told that the only call that had been to the mayor, and it was from Rob Wirt. No message was left for me, and I was never informed of a call.

Published in Local Issues

Last month, I admitted experimenting with vodka. Well, I think it’s time for a talk.

Due to the timing of my lease ending, rent going up by $100 a month (seriously?), looming air conditioning bills and summer break at Seymour’s approaching; I decided to spend some time back in the ancestral homeland known as Massachusetts.

How long will I be back here in the East? We shall see, but the desert has certainly grabbed a hold on me, and I can feel it tugging already. Before leaving, I spent quite a bit of time saying my temporary goodbye by consuming potables at my neighborhood bars and restaurants. Being that my neighborhood was the Arenas Road area of downtown Palm Springs, this meant a fair amount of vodka.

Of course, one does not need to drink vodka on Arenas; the bartenders at Chill reach for the Jameson bottle as soon as they see me walk in the door, and on the rare event I make it to Bongo Johnny’s before 2 a.m., they do the same—but vodka is the drink of choice for most people on Arenas, it seems.

I believe every alcoholic spirit has its time and place. When the temps breach 100 degrees, and you are marathon day-drinking with friends and strangers, vodka makes sense. Straight out of the bottle, ice-cold from the freezer with a pickle chaser? Yes, please! 

I was intrigued to see a new place serving both food and drink open on Arenas, after seeing it under construction for months. Blackbook didn’t even have a sign up when I first visited, but some friends who were sort of “unofficial consultants” on the project had informed me that it was, in fact, open. Not only was it open; it was rather busy—word gets around in a small town. I met up with my companions, who informed me that the owners had never done a restaurant before, which is usually not a good sign. The first thing I noticed was the giant wall of Hanson vodkas—different flavors in various hues. Normally, I would find that off-putting, like walking into a bar from a commercial, but I really grew to like the bold statement: “We’re a vodka bar; we’re not pretending to be something else.” The look of the uniform bottles in sharply different hues was rather striking, actually—a back-bar Andy Warhol, in a way.

My friends had informed me ahead of time that there would not yet be a cocktail menu. (Again, this was during the soft opening.) Being that I was a touch hung over that day, I had bartender (and neighbor—I had no idea he was working there!) Justin whip me up something that would be refreshing and light. He had been churning out tall glasses of a sort of cucumber vodka mojito, and suggested one. Sure, why not?

Remember when I said every spirit has a time and a place? Well, when the Devil’s Revenge fried-chicken sandwich came out in all its infernal glory, I was glad to have a cooling cucumber-and-mint drink to soothe the heat. I was told I was the first one to finish the sandwich, after a couple of weeks of selling them. Can’t take that away from me! As for the cocktail list, bartender Daved has some vodka and non-vodka concoctions on the way, including one with bourbon, honey and grapefruit named “Honey Booze-Booze.” He made one for my companion, and I tried it after my mouth stopped burning. Fitting for a party street, it was a tall drink of danger—sort of a whiskey punch and Brown Derby mixed together.

You might be asking: “Wait … did he just do a write up about a bar without a cocktail program? Who wrote this, and what did you do with that other guy?!” Yes, I did, and not just to brag about my tolerance for spicy sandwiches; I am trying to prove a point: Vodka is, by its own nature, an unpretentious spirit. It has no age designation and no geographic attribution, and it is made out of the humblest of raw materials. The cognac maker can boast about his grand cru, the Scotch distiller his merroir, and the bourbon baron his rickhouse; even the humble mezcalero has his own terroir and agave varietal over which to swoon. However, the vodka distiller has merely humble grain or another starch. Does “winter wheat” get your heart racing? How about “estate-grown potatoes”? Sexy, right? Six times distilled? Ten times? I hate to break it to you, folks, but that is basically all a bunch of marketing hogwash. Don’t believe me? Get a few drinks into someone who actually makes the stuff. I have—several times, in fact. They know it’s malarkey, and without getting into the nitty-gritty of how continuous stills work, they’re … well, continuous. Distillate goes round and round and gets separated off constantly, with no way to say how many times it has all been distilled. You could use a pot still, of course, but the point of a pot still is to leave more congeners (things that aren’t alcohol and water; they bring flavors and, sometimes, hangovers) in the mix instead of just making neutral grain spirits, so then you have to distill it more times to get it mostly flavorless.

When I worked (briefly) at a place that had more than 200 different vodkas on the menu, and I did my best to know a little something about each one. At that restaurant, I was probably one of the worst servers, but, dammit, I knew the vodka flavor profiles! There were the bread or biscuit ones, the vanilla and butterscotch ones, the spicy ones made with rye (sorry, Polish-vodka drinkers; it’s usually rye, not potato!), the soapy French and Swedish ones, and the sharp and racy Russian ones. That's just the tip of the iceberg … seriously. But the funny thing that happens when you make a cocktail, basically any cocktail, with vodka is that you lose most, if not all, of that flavor. That is why craft bartenders balk when you say, “I want a vodka cocktail, not too sweet!”

But if you still insist on ordering a vodka cocktail at a craft bar, here’s how to get something you actually want to drink:

1. Are you feeling something citrusy? Want something with berries, or herbs? Perhaps something more adventurous? Lead with that: “I’m looking for something with citrus and mint, or maybe basil?”

2. Are there any flavors you hate? Tell me: “I don't like grapefruit, though.”

3. Do you want it in a martini glass (“up”) or with soda (“long”)?

4. Puh-lease don’t say “not too sweet.” I know I am fighting a losing battle here, but saying that leads me to feel like you think I don't know how to balance a cocktail properly. I know that you don't mean it that way, but it is not a great way to start our relationship! If you think a bartender is going to serve you a sugary mess, don't order a custom drink from him or her.

5. If dietary restrictions prevent you from having any sugar at all, like even from juice or vermouth, let me know. That leaves you with maybe two drinkable cocktails … sorry! And, please, no Splenda or Equal; that is just awful.

Friends, stay cool during the summer months. I will still be involved in this column while I am away; you’ll see how next month.

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Seymour’s/Mr. Lyons and can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Cocktails

What: The Tuesday-night spaghetti with meat sauce

Where: Bongo Johnny’s Patio Bar and Grille, 214 E. Arenas Road, Palm Springs

How much: $6.95

Contact: 760-866-1905; www.bongojohnnys.com

Why: It’s delicious, bottomless and amazingly inexpensive.

The website announces: “Bongo Johnny's is one of the best neighborhood restaurants in Palms Springs.”

The strange “Palms Springs” reference aside, I agree with that assessment—especially on Tuesdays, when this Arenas Road, gay-friendly restaurant offers its “Italian Night” special.

For $6.95, one can get all the spaghetti with meat sauce that one can snork down, as well as either soup or salad. (If one wants to add a large, tasty, house-made meatball to the plate—and one probably should—add $2.50. For some out-of-this-world garlic bread, add another $2.50.)

The thing about the spaghetti with meat sauce is this: Not only is it a smokin’ deal; the food is actually quite good. The meat sauce is made by people in the kitchen who know what they’re doing; it’s flavorful, meaty and satisfying.

Can you find better restaurant spaghetti with meat sauce out there? Perhaps (although you won’t find it at those mediocre Italian-ish chains in Palm Desert or Rancho Mirage). Will you find all-you-can-eat pasta this good, and this inexpensive? I sincerely doubt it. (And if you do, let me know where, please.)

Unless you’re a vegetarian or in a 12-step program for gluttony, there’s no reason not to check out Bongo Johnny’s on Tuesday night. The service is friendly; the liquor is moderately priced; and the outside patio is a people-watching bonanza. (If you are a vegetarian, there are other items on the menu that’ll please you.)

For more on Bongo Johnny’s, check out the aforementioned website, or visit the restaurant’s page on Facebook, even if the page is impersonally robotic and features only two posts, repeated verbatim. (Every Tuesday, the page touts Italian night; and every Friday, it announces the Friday night ribs special.) It’s oddly creepy, for some reason.

So, yeah, Bongo Johnny’s online presence needs help. Thank goodness the restaurant’s spaghetti and meatballs plate does not.

Published in The Indy Endorsement