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    A Close Encounter with the Hello Kitty Food Truck…Part Two

    If you follow The Mommy Gamers, you may know that in April 2016 I sought out the Hello Kitty food truck in vain hopes of scoring cute snacks. Unfortunately, the truck was woefully equipped to deal with Chicagoland enthusiasm for adorable Japanese nonsense, and I failed. I get did a mug and a T-shirt (it should’ve said “I visited the Hello Kitty Cafe and all I got was…”).

    This year, the Hello Kitty Cafe came closer to me – specifically, to a mall about 10 minutes from my house. Now, I know this mall. My kid did Gymboree in this mall every week from age 1-3. I do about 90 percent of my retail therapy here. I buy all my books at the Barnes & Noble. I get my Nespresso refills here. Until recently when it closed, I got my regular chocolate Godiva reward here (a free truffle every month!). I occasionally get together with my girlfriends and my book club here.

    Yes, there is a young girl sitting behind the menu. I hope she got some good treats!

    Just last week I made my houseguest from Kansas go visit so she could bring me some Nando’s Peri-Peri. Oh, I also get my hair cut here. And when I have giant stress knots in my shoulder from livin’ the glamorous freelance writer lifestyle, I go to the Mario Tricoci in this mall so someone can (attempt to) knead them out.

    This is a definite advantage when scoping out Hello Kitty food trucks. When I heard it was going to be by the L.L. Bean, I knew exactly where to park when everyone else was complaining about no parking. So I arrived right at 10:30 and got into line immediately. I know this place so well I could tell without even looking that my wait would be shorter than last year.

    This year I was somewhat more prepared, although I still didn’t bring any sunblock (it’s October in the Chicago area, who knew – and it looked cloudy when I went to Zumba that morning). I also forgot a snack. I had a giant book. The fourth in the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, to be exact, which I’m re-reading for an online book club. I had a water bottle because my kid was in Orlando riding Space Mountain without me, so he could not make a tea run. I had my workout bag, with a wrap inside in case it got cold.

    The people behind me clearly didn’t know what they were getting into. They’d just come from a dance class, following a slumber party that was making their two little girls very grumpy because they’d stayed up so late. After I told them about my four hours in line last year, they decided their kids wouldn’t be able to stay a half hour, let alone four, and left.

    The people ahead of me were a bit more knowledgeable, and had done this the previous year as well. Nevertheless, they disappeared somewhere between my arrival and the front of the line, and I ended up talking to a nice group of three people – one of whom had the exact same name as me.

    We all took lots of pictures and selfies. The point where you get to the menu sign is A Big Deal. Kids are running around, people are refreshing their pals in line with Starbucks coffees (there’s one right near where the truck was parked) and snacks (ironic, right?), and we’re getting to know our neighbors.

    Actually, come to think of it, when I stood in line to see Hillary Clinton this past Monday at a local bookstore, it was basically the same thing except that Peet’s Coffee came by every so often to offer free samples of cookies and brownies. Now that would have been a good marketing ploy for someone at the mall.

    Apparently I like standing in lines in order to spend money on stuff. Capitalism loves me.

    Anyway, it really didn’t feel that long before I got to the front, where all of us took pictures of the Hello Kitty truck’s tires – well, they were decorated with images of bows! It felt like a triumph, especially when the only thing they’d run out of were the small thermal water bottles (18 ounces). Everyone takes longer than they should at the front because they’re deciding, once they actually see the product in the window. Today, they were selling handmade bow headbands that were not listed on the menu.

    Sadly, I was assuming the t-shirts and mugs would be like last years, and they weren’t. So of course I had to buy one of everything. Although I never wore my t-shirt from last year, so I was able to resist that.

    Here’s a picture of my haul:

    A Quick Review

    So, I finally got to try the food. Actually, it’s pretty good. I don’t eat macarons that often so I’m not sure how they compare to the regular stuff, but they were pretty, tasty, and sweet, and you could even tell what the flavors were supposed to be. The mini-cakes were denser than I expected, rich and flavorful. The cookies – whoa, I forgot about the cookies! I know what I’m having for lunch…

    I bought a freaking $36 thermal mug! But it’s totally cute and I’m just going to put it somewhere prominent in my house and stare at it with adoration from time to time. And the regular mug, with the bow handle, is going to hold lots of chai tea this winter.

    Was it worth the money and effort? Well, I guess it depends on your point of view. I had been in Chinatown just the day before, and if all I’d wanted was cute Hello Kitty stuff I could have gotten it there at a fraction of the price. The best part of doing the Hello Kitty Cafe, I’ve learned, is the experience. Being there with other geeky people who are willing to stand in line for the privilege of buying overpriced merch is most of the fun.

    No, I don’t regret it. Yes, I’ll probably do it again. Yes, I’m probably a bit crazy. But if you’re not willing to do it, too – or at least laugh with me about my doing it and bring me lattes while I wait – you’re really not my people anyway.

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    A Close Encounter with the Hello Kitty Cafe Food Truck

    Close, but no cookie (literally)…

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    I know, everyone likes Hello Kitty. She’s adorable! Even so, apparently everyone still underestimates her popularity. Including the people who run the Hello Kitty Cafe’s food truck. Including hundreds of fans who showed up today to check it out. Including me.

    When I left my house around noon in hopes of catching the Hello Kitty truck, I really had only a vague idea what I was doing. I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of food would be offered, or how long I’d be there, or if there’d be a crowd. I brought my camera, some sunblock, and a copy of Quidditch Through the Ages (because I was playing in a Facebook-based quidditch trivia tournament at 5 p.m.). I was prepared to stand in line. Or so I thought.

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    My view from the back of the line

    I’ve been a Hello Kitty fan since I was five or so – my dad would bring me Hello Kitty souvenirs when he went to Taipei, Taiwan starting in the mid-’70s. Today I still have my share of Hello Kitty merch – t-shirts, a keychain, a purse. It didn’t occur to me to wear any of it today, but lots of other people did. I saw t-shirts, mostly, but here and there you could see a clear kawaii influence. Parasols! Mini-bun hairstyles! And lots of geekery. Turns out, the Hello Kitty fan base (more adults than kids) also loves Pokemon, “Star Wars,” “Doctor Who,” and cute Chucks. Ah, my people.

    When I heard that the Hello Kitty food truck was coming to Oakbrook Mall in Oak Brook, Ill. this weekend, of course I planned my day around it. Not very well, as it turns out. I forgot the sunblock in the car, didn’t think to eat beforehand, and walked around the mall for like 30 minutes before I figured out where the truck was parked (in front of Urban Outfitters, duh). By the time I arrived, my phone battery was already depleted from trying to catch Pokemon – which I didn’t do much of, seeing as I was plumb out of Poké Balls. I debated for a few minutes as to whether or not I should bother to get in line, because the posted menu consisted of donuts, cakes, cookies, macarons, a water bottle, a mug, and t-shirts – and the donuts were already sold out. The offerings didn’t seem very filling, and the line was already pretty huge.

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    This is the closest I got to the macarons, which are in the bowtie-shaped boxes

    I decided I’d get in for a few minutes and see how fast it moved. I was right behind the mom of a little girl in blonde pigtails who declared passionately, when asked if she was sure she wanted to do this, “I’ve been waiting for this my WHOLE LIFE!” It wasn’t too bad, so I stayed – but it got worse. I had time to re-read Quidditch Through the Ages and memorize the entire list of fouls and the names of the 13 English teams. Then I had time to memorize the entire list of broom games of the wizarding world that were precursors to quidditch. Then I was able to memorize the entire lineup of European quidditch teams. Then I memorized the names of everyone who had ever played quidditch. Then I memorized the length and width of the quidditch field, and the names and previous names of all the positions of all the players, then the history of the Golden Snitch (it was introduced in 1269). And then I was sick of quidditch.

    So I made friends with a mom and seven-year-old daughter who told me all about their charm necklaces and gave me a catalog. I petted two tiny puppies in line with me, one of which was wearing a Hello Kitty harness. I listened to the Harry Potter conversation of the people who were right behind me until they gave up. I admired someone’s “Doctor Who” bag, which had Tardises (Tardisi?) on the outside and cartoon Doctors along the inside lining. I spotted some friends who had been in line since 9:30 a.m. And then I got thirsty. Everyone in line had someone else with them who was passing them drinks from Argo Tea, except me. At one point, we passed waters down the line to someone, and I wasn’t the only one tempted to just grab the cup and drink it myself. So many people around me were sucking down bubble teas that I started brainstorming ideas of how to get myself one (Taskrabbit? Paying the seven-year-old girl to do it? Bribing someone in line for their drink?). In the end, the mom and daughter offered to save my place, and in return I got them bubble tea and water. Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers, saving those of us who are way unprepared.

    I managed to not take any pictures of people wearing cool things, but I did get a picture of a tiny puppy in line!

    I managed to not take any pictures of people wearing cool things, but I did get a picture of a tiny puppy in line, being petted by my seven-year-old friend

    I snaked my way through three sets of zig-zagging line separators designed to contain us as we slowly got closer to the pink food truck. At some point I figured I was in it for the long haul because I had already been in line for two and a half hours. I was maybe 40 minutes from the end when the macarons ran out. The truck employees first passed word back that three boxes only were left.  I said, optimistically, “Well, as long as there are still some on display at the front of the truck, there are still more left, right?” At which point a person in the truck took down all the boxes of macarons at the front of the truck, and my new mom and daughter friend gave up and went to go get macarons at Godiva instead. I was about 20 minutes from the end when the cookies ran out. There was no food left, and my Facebook-based quidditch tournament was about to start.

    Hell hath no fury like a crowd deprived of Hello Kitty sweets. A bunch of people left disgusted, and others went up to the truck and asked about the situation – could the people who were left at least get the bags (free with a $25 food purchase) for standing in line for four hours with nothing to show for it? It’s my understanding that the employees called in, but were not allowed to do anything for anyone. More rumors, naturally, ran rampant – there were no mugs left, they were going to stop selling after another 15 minutes so they’d still have merch left for tomorrow, that sort of thing.

    My phone, an ancient Samsung Galaxy S4, had been turned off early so I’d have battery power for the quidditch tournament, should I still be there at 5 p.m. I was. I was the first on my team to play (as Keeper). It was Slytherin vs. Hufflepuff (I’m a Puff). The question that was asked…was NOT IN QUIDDITCH THROUGH THE AGES. It never is, especially when I’ve spent the last three hours in line memorizing every fact about quidditch in the entire freaking book. I answered it correctly, immediately, probably because the answer had come up in a study session with my fellow Puffs at some points (yay me). Then the Slytherin Seeker caught the Snitch. Tournament lasted 3.5 seconds, score 100-10, which ties the shortest Quidditch game on record. A fact I know because I spent three hours memorizing every fact about Quidditch in the entire freaking book.

    20160813_201732Meanwhile, in the line, things had reverted to controlled chaos. The line seemed superfluous, as the truck had completely closed down and the workers were selling out of a tent next to it, as fast as they could. Some people  were convinced several lines were now being formed, and yelled at the mall security to stop letting people buy over those of us who’d been standing in line for four hours. There were 50 (or was it 15?) mugs left, and the free bags were long gone too. The rest of us in line had to have SOMETHING to gripe about, so we complained about how long people were taking to decide on which style of t-shirt to get, because after four hours in line shouldn’t you pretty much already know? A bunch of people also started getting on the Facebook page to complain.

    In the end, I left with a mug, a $25 t-shirt, and two pins. The pin is my badge for sticking it out. I wasn’t even planning to buy the shirt, but, well…there weren’t any cookies.

    Curses, Hello Kitty Cafe food truck – turns out, the people in charge were just about as unprepared as I was. We suburban Chicagoans (and some Wisconsinites, and some Hoosiers too) are a tetchy lot, and we don’t like when people run out of food. If I were a real wizard, I’d find a curse and hex the people in charge (okay, maybe not, since I’m a Hufflepuff). As it is, I don’t actually believe in magic, so I’m going to sit here drinking tea out of my new Hello Kitty mug, wearing the hell out of my new pink t-shirt, and wondering if Hello Kitty cookies are really just that good. I may never know.

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    Namco’s Level 257 Goes Beyond the Kill Screen

    “Fun” Dining for Classic Game Lovers

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    Those of us in the Chicago area, gamers or not, have been excited about the possibilities of Level 257 for some time now. The construction has been hard to miss, if you go out to Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg with any regularity. Level 257, on the side of the mall that already sports Sears and Rainforest Café, is a sprawling and sleek black matte storefront housing a bowling alley, a small but well-stocked arcade, surprisingly well-thought-out eats, and a great Pac-Man theme. It’s now in its soft opening stage.

    Because it still isn’t “officially” open, managers and wait staff were totally excited to offer up all kinds of information about this place. Let’s be clear.  While Level 257 is family-friendly, it’s truly a place for adults. Specifically, it’s for people like me. People who grew up with games, and who love them – but who usually act like grown-ups now and are interested in enjoying real food and handcrafted cocktails in a fine-dining environment.

    Pac-Man Fever

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    Here, you can see some of the Pac-Man detail in one of the bowling lanes.

    Oh sure, there’s a geeky undertow to this place. The Lost and Found arcade lounge has all the cool games I played as a kid – including, and I love this part – Dragon’s Lair, which I remember so well because of all the hype when it was released (back then, it cost two tokens per game so I never got too far into the story).  Frogger, Defender, Centipede, Space Invaders, air hockey, Mario Kart, basketball, and many more, are all there, all restored perfectly, available as standing arcade games and installed flat into wooden tables with booth seating. A library with tabletop games is also available, if you don’t want to shell out $15 for 60 minutes of gameplay (other time increments are available also). The arcade also includes “battle pods” – I’m not sure if this is the official name, but that’s what David Bishop, Chief Pac-Man Evangelist, called them when he visited our table, so I’m repeating it. They’re basically step-inside games with a giant concave screen that surrounds and immerses you. I absolutely loved it, even though I left the pod with vertigo. I’m assured by the staff that these pods came off the assembly line pretty much the week previous, and are currently the only ones outside of Japan.

    There’s also a giant Pac-Man game, one of the largest in the world, and an arcade machine that has been set up to start Pac-Man at Level 255 – just before the kill screen. And, if you look closer at the décor of Level 257, which was unfinished at the time of my visit, you’ll see lots of great Pac-Man-inspired detail as well. For example, in the bowling alley there are mirrored disco balls, one of which is painted yellow to invoke our pellet-eating friend. Yellow lines and tiny Pac-Man shapes are found everywhere. One temporary wall was covered with Level 256 kill screen graphics. And it isn’t just the décor that’s geeky, either. If you ask around, you might find a server who holds something like 22 world gaming records.

    The Noms

    But all this is all almost an aside. The fact is, Level 257 is a theme restaurant created to leverage Namco’s high-profile properties. And the dining here is the focus. The managers here, who have been working on putting Level 257 together for four and a half years, looked at places like Main Event and Dave & Busters and decided they wanted to target an older, more upscale clientele. As a result, they went all out in terms of the food. Chefs from all around the world work here – yes, there’s sushi. The steaks are USDA Prime, the food is organically sourced, the water is filtered on site (both still and sparkling are complimentary), the pizza is tossed within sight of diners, the cocktails are handcrafted on site, and almost everything is made from scratch, with a few exceptions.

    Power Pellets - beignets with bittersweet chocolate filling and Pop Rocks on top.

    Chocolate Power Pellets – beignets with projectile bittersweet chocolate filling and Pop Rocks on top.

    The menu’s most popular dishes include lobster mac and cheese, seared trout, “Filet Mig-nom” and the bacon apple pork chop. Appetizers include homemade Italian gnocchi and Tiki Rumaki, bacon-wrapped beef and pork meatballs with pepper jack cheese and a pineapple jalapeno glaze. And, please save room for dessert because the Chocolate Power Pellets are my favorite new thing ever. They’re described as “bittersweet chocolate filled doughnut holes, coffee anglaise, powdered sugar” but this does not adequately describe them at all. You have to eat them in one bite; cut them, and the chocolate squirts out at you like blood from a particularly gory horror film. That’s actually what I thought of. And they’re topped with Pop Rocks.

    Coming Up

    If the Level 257 concept works in Schaumburg (and there were over 400 reservations on the Friday night that I went, cluelessly not making advance plans and causing us to get to know the gaming lounge quite well for an hour before our table was ready), another Level 257 will eventually open in London. The Schaumburg location will celebrate a ribbon-cutting and grand opening on April 25 and will be the headquarters of Pac-Man’s 35th anniversary sometime around May 23; rumors abound of appearances by championship Bears players and a person who has actually beat Pac-Man’s highest level.

    Quick Verdict

    I loved the place more than my kid, who remains a staunch Main Event fan – although here the gaming room isn’t much smaller, and it’s packed with actual games rather than ticket-spewing contraptions. The food was excellent, with entrees in the $20-$30 range and desserts between $6-$8 . The service was very attentive – probably more than will be the norm once the kinks are worked out. We had maybe three people refreshing our drinks, two of which took our order, and we had at least two others come by to check upon our service, one of whom showed up even before we’d taken a bite. The service overlapped a bit, but it was nice of them to come and talk to us about the place and its vision.

    The games were all working well and the battle pods were fantastic. Bowling costs $40 a game after 5 p.m., so we skipped that, as there was a waiting list anyway. If you like classic games and enjoy fine dining, I’d definitely recommend a stop here. Check it out at www.level257.com.

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    Dairy Queen Miracle Treat Day

    MiracleTreatDay_001 Imagine if the simple, enjoyable act of eating ice cream could provide hope and healing to sick children in your community. On Thursday, August 8th, 2013 Dairy Queen stores across the globe will be making your dreams of cold ice cream with a size of warm fuzzies come true!

    On Miracle Treat Day, $1 or more from every Blizzard®Treat purchased at participating Dairy Queen stores will be donated to Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

    In addition to that, for the second year in a row, if you RSVP to Miracle Treat day on Facebook your RSVP will be matched with a $1 donation – up to $50,000.  Get out there and make miracles happen everyone. Eat ice cream, enjoy yourselves…do it for the children!

     

    Visit MiracleTreatDay.com for the nearest participating Dairy Queen location and RSVP to Miracle Treat Day on their Dairy Queen Facebook page.

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