The La Kiva Retrospective.


Monday of next week and the roof comes off La Kiva. It has been a long time coming but we are finally getting some action. I am not criticizing anyone or claiming anyone has been dragging their feet. It has just taken this long to finalize a plan and get all the players to the table at the same time. After careful inspection we decided to remove the whole roof, over the entire bar area, right down to the vigas. Yeh. I had to look it up too. It’s a roof beam that protrudes through an exterior wall, pueblo style.

I don’t want to have to redo the roof again so we are doing it right. We are also going to put more insulation up there so that we can stay warm in winter and cool in summer.

To make sure that we eliminate as many leaks as possible we are severely restricting the roof penetrations. In many cases there are other solutions to bringing things into the building other than making holes in the roof. Skylights are a good example. Every single one of the existing skylights leaks or has leaked in the past. They are gone. The swamp cooler on the roof, well, at times the swamp used to leak even when it wasn’t raining. It’s gone. Ditto the gas lines. I am sure you get the idea.

As we are also replacing the electrics, yup, all of them. We are taking the opportunity of the roof being off to run new cables. That will result in super new features like ceiling fans and lights by which to read a menu. It should be good.

This would be a good time to share some images of La Kiva as it has been for a lot of years because this is where the big changes begin.  I have been trying to keep a digital record of what we do, as we do it.  Here are a few I thought you might enjoy.  Any of you who enjoyed a shower at La Kiva (many of them involuntary) will appreciate the pictures of the roof in particular.  The others are just for fun.


This is to remind us why we are here. This is our home in Wisconsin and was taken a few days after we returned from our winter in Texas. 2nd of May 2013.


This piece of roof is supposed to have shingles. Time and the Texas sun took care of that.
Corrugated iron does not normally wave around like this. The roof detritus is of varied types some of it must have mystical meaning because its actual function is unknown. The stacks of bright red crates for example. Or the rocks.
In determining the location of the leak we discovered a whole bunch of other pipes of unknown purpose. Some were abandoned and some not. The tricky part was discovering which was which. Thanks to my very able associate, who also has an English accent, for his able endeavours in unravelling the mystery and fixing the problem.
This picture is on its side but I have tried looking at it right way up and it is still ugly. This is the compressor for the beer cooler. The one that produces the warmest beer in Terlingua. Take a long look because it will soon be history.
The roof over the outside bar. Let the picture speak for itself for it is far more eloquent than am I.
Escaping Using a Spoon
Josie demonstrating that parts of the floor are unconsolidated sediments (that means a pile of sand) and others are like concrete, in fact they are concrete. That is why the floor must come up. It also provides access to fix the plumbing and lay new electrics. It becomes a no brainer. You spoke up and an overwhelming majority wanted concrete. Well so be it, but dammit, if you don’t want my tiles you are at least going to have good concrete. That means stuff you can’t excavate with a spoon.

The iconic roofline of La Kiva has to be seriously modified.  The rocks along the northern edge of the facade are to be removed.  To the right of them is a roofline that represents the mountains in the distance (pretty much the part over the door).  That too has to come down.  Age and poor design have left it vulnerable to the ravages of the weather and it must be removed to allow the new roof to be installed.  I seem to remember Gil telling me, a long time ago (try thirty years), that the false front on La Kiva represented the actual mountains in the background.  I need to figure out exactly what represented what and then reproduce it the way Gil did.  When I have made sense out of it we will make a new one. I think that I will wrap up this week with a picture of the cave room that should explain a lot.

La Kiva is waiting in the Cave Room. These are some of the items that have been moved to safe storage while the heavy stuff goes on.  We don’t want any broken artefacts.

While we were messing about in the Cave Room I tested the accoustics.  Wow.  It may not be an anechoic chamber but it’s pretty damn good.  Stuff thirty warm bodies in there and it is almost perfect.  No wonder musicians love it.

Now to close.  Wish us good luck and fine weather for the next few days as the roof comes off tomorrow.  The weather forecasters say we have 0% chance of rain in the next ten days.  I just hope they are right.  That would be great unless you are relying on a catchment system and you just got your tanks delivered, in which case, sorry for you but yay for us.


The Work Begins

It’s been a week of waiting but finally the pieces are in place to start.  We have the plans for our very complex, and I am sure expensive, septic system.  The next step is to prepare three bid packets and get them out for quote.  We have three contractors identified so it is now just a matter of time until we can start that project.

The electricians are chomping at the bit and our roofers are raring to go.

La Kiva Revealed

This week will see the start of some serious work at La Kiva.  First item on the agenda was the demolition of toilet block that was put up to service the large outdoor stage audience.  That is the first casualty of the new septic system.  The drain field is planned to extend far enough that the removal of the toilet block became essential.   The corrugated iron that was the wall of the toilet block is now being repurposed/recycled so that will make demolition much easier.  The lavatory stools themselves seem to be in excellent condition so they will probably see new life in our new toilet block.

Excellent Ventilation
Excellent Ventilation

La Kiva has been closed for seven months, for multiple reasons, but even if everything had been in place for a new owner on day one, the bar could not have reopened sooner because there was no holder of a current liquor license.  Let’s face it, we are going to die one day so it would be foolish to ignore that.  To ensure our deaths do not result in La Kiva closing again, because we no longer have a liquor license holder, we have taken precautions.  We have formed a company which will operate La Kiva, it will still be us but we will be a company not two individuals.  We have been waiting for approval of the name from the Office of the Secretary of State.  While the bar is La Kiva and nothing is going to change that, the Secretary of State would not allow me to call the company La Kiva nor any variation that included Kiva.  After a couple more refused names we settled on Cave Bar LLC doing business as La Kiva.  Cave Bar LLC will have four members and as long as one of those members survives, we will have a legal licensee and it will not be necessary to close the bar because we have lost the sole licensee.  So now we have to get the four members of the LLC approved to hold a liquor license in the State of Texas.

The hoops you have to jump through!  We are presently having  a police background check done (they would accept an FBI check instead) in any state in which any one of the four of us has resided in the last five years, to see if any of us have a police record.  The paperwork stack is getting larger by the minute.

Looking for water (leaks).
Looking for water (leaks).

I am late with the blog this week because the water company had a little oopsy.  A pressure regulator went out and that cascaded downstream and caused multiple leaks.  No less than three at La Kiva, plus two in my motor coach and as they were all buried, one way or another, it took a while to find them and fix them.  The water being off took priority over everything else.  Today we are good.  Repairs have been completed and seem to be holding.  It will be a relief to everyone close to me to know that I can once again shower and I am taking this break in the frenetic activity to quickly make a blog entry.

Herding Cats

Let me preface this weeks blog with a great big thank you to all the contractors, consultants and other experts we are working with.  They have been responsive and patient and taken huge amounts of trouble to help us get what we need in a timely manner.  What follows is intended to be a humorous look at our problems.

First.  We need a new septic system.  No complaints there.  We knew in advance  that we would have to do that, it was pointed out repeatedly and I think I even had to sign a paper to that effect prior to completing the purchase.  Second, we have a restaurant, although it’s more of a theoretical restaurant at present.  No problem there as we knew that going in.  Third, we need a grease trap.  No problem.  I will pick one up at McCoys next time I’m in Alpine.  Our expert sighed upon hearing this and said.  “You don’t understand.  I mean a thousand gallon, concrete grease trap that will have to come from El Paso or Odessa, probably on a dedicated truck.  Or, we could do two, five hundred gallon, spherical, plastic ones.  They would be lighter and cheaper. ”  I inwardly groaned, but after a moment’s reflection I brightened.  We could paint the spheres as baseballs and turn La Kiva into a sports bar.  Before I could share that brilliant idea it was brutally crushed.  My septic expert went on.  “If the levels work out we can bury them right in front, to the left of the front door and we won’t have to add another lift station.”  Yes.  I know.  The bait presentation was immaculate and now all he had to do was set the hook.  I took the bait.  “What’s a lift station?”  Oh.  That is one question I wished I hadn’t asked because that led to the revelation that I will need two as well as a pair of macerators.  Trust me on this one.  Don’t ask what a macerator is.  I did and the image will live with me for a long time.

After we arrived at La Kiva, when the purchase was completed, I tried to set up office inside.  The swamp cooler in the greenhouse wasn’t working and neither was the one on the roof and with temperatures into the hundred plus range we needed a little cooling.  Up I went and trod warily across the very wibbly roof.  Afraid I would fall through, I wished for a  few dozen, large, helium filled balloons  to tie to my belt, but I made it without them.  After we got the swamp coolers working, I made a note to myself to take a serious look at the roof.  And then it rained!  The cascade coming off the roof was spectacular but even more spectacular was the cascade inside.  It became hard to find a dry spot.  I rapidly came to the conclusion that I did not need an expert to tell me how to repair the roof, I needed a new roof.

It did not need a genius to figure out that despite various upgrades to the electrical system, over the years, it was past its sell by date.  The electrics embedded in the walls had degraded to the point that almost all of them had failed.  Doubtless, this had been accelerated by the sporadic moistening it got from the roof leaks which pushes concrete to become alkaline with a pH of 12 or 13.  Over time that works on the insulation of wiring and it stops being insulation (that’s bad and depending on what you are holding when you discover this it can range from “Oh.  Better check the wiring.”  To.  “Ouch.  That’ll leave a mark.  Shoulda checked the wiring before I did that.) .  My able and highly qualified electrician did a survey.  The results:-Well, only about 10% of the wiring and fixtures are capable of being rehabilitated to NEC standards (that is the National Electrical Code).  What’s even worse is that the entire system is working without any functional grounding.  In “wet” areas, restrooms, showers, kitchens you are required to have GFCI’s or Ground Fault Current Interrupts.   These handy little devices protect you if there is a dangerous fault condition, except that you need a ground for them to work safely.  The bottom line is that we need to replace all the electrics in La Kiva and put in a grounding system that works in a desert environment during a drought.  That can be a bit tricky but La Kiva is next to Terlingua Creek so there must be damp earth somewhere.

Terlingua Creek

Continuing that thought, I worked out the electrical loads for the new kitchen, new beer coolers, fridges, freezers, air conditioners and heaters.  My electrical expert looked over my numbers and declared.  “You don’t have enough power coming into the building.  Better call Rio Grande Electric and get an electrical survey done.”  Sounds easy, right.  I called and asked for an engineering survey and was told that I needed to talk to the manager who approved such request and he wasn’t in the office.  He did call me back and the conclusion was that I needed to have an engineering survey done so talk to the receptionist who I had talked to in the first place and  she would send me the forms.  The forms arrived as promised but contain a list of county judges and contact information for them, an application for new membership and a list of requirements for new construction.  I am already a member, I don’t know why I need the judges numbers and this is a modification not new construction.  Well I screwed that one up.   Three out of three ain’t bad.  Try again on Monday.

If you have been following this blog you will remember that Josie and I got into an argument about the floors.  She wanted to skim the bad parts with concrete and I wanted to tile over everything.  The argument became academic when the floors were examined more closely.  Some of the concrete is superb and adjacent slabs must have been made when there was an acute shortage of Portland cement.  There is almost nothing holding the sand together.

Escaping Using a Spoon
Concrete made without the use of cement is not very strong.

I guess you can all see where this is going.  We have to cut concrete to lay in the new sewer and drain lines but that can’t even start until we have received the plans.  Then and only then can we start by ordering the materials we need.  We have to remove large parts of the concrete to fix the floors. We have to remove the roof iron to fix the rot and install a new metal roof and we have to replace the existing electrics.  Each item this has to be interfaced with a new kitchen, new beer cooler and a new heating and air conditioning system.  All of these disparate items have to arrive here in a timely manner, all of the equipment to perform the various jobs and all of the contractors have to arrive and remain flexible as they each work around the others.  If you think that is enough to be going on with, we have still to resolve the barbecue situation though I am working with two experts in the field, as well as promises of support from the excellent people at “Come and Take It” barbecue in Fort Davis.

So finally we have reached the “Herding Cats” part of this weeks blog.  I anticipate that much of the next few weeks will be spent herding cats.  But seriously, what could go wrong?

I hope you are all having as much fun as I am.  Despite the obvious problems and the crushing workload, I am having fun.  I am looking forward to when this is just a dot in the rear view mirror and we can finally open the doors and invite you all in for a critical look at what we have done to make sure La Kiva is good for another thirty three years.

Barbecue Musings

We have completed week three and are heading into week four. We probably know what is in store for us now. We are waiting for the final plans for the septic system, we have a fairly good handle on our electrical load requirements, the roof needs to be removed and replaced with something a little more robust and waterproof and the planning for the kitchen is moving along nicely. In all this mayhem we have to step back once in a while and remind ourselves of what it is that we are doing and why. This week we took a long hard look at the barbecue portion of our menu.

Neither Josie nor myself is a pit-master with 20 years of barbecue experience, though we know what we like. We have grilled for the family for years and we think we are pretty good at it, but that is not West Texas Barbecue. We decided to look around and see what is being done around here. Frankly, it is pretty disappointing. This part of West Texas is a barbecue desert. Earlier this year we visited a few places in the Corpus Christi area, but despite some slick presentation, it was clearly mass market, pseudo barbecue. It was OK but hardly the kind of food either of us want to serve to our customers. Wet, partly cooked chicken, brisket that may have once walked past a smoker but had retained none of the flavor, boring beans and baked potato that was actually steamed in an aluminum wrap and so it was equally boring. We had made repeated visits to a barbecue chain known as Crazy Bill’s or some such name. Despite its popularity with some members of my family the brisket had a curious flavor that was reminiscent of strong disinfectant, the beans were straight out of a can, the chicken thickly covered in too sweet barbecue sauce, anyway, enough of that. I think you get the picture. We have found the barbecue scene to be either boring or absent and we need to fix that.

We have been spending a lot of time listening to barbecue enthusiasts, researching pit designs and examining cooking techniques. There is a wealth of information and misinformation. Sorting the wheat from the chaff is the hard part. We could see a great deal of experimentation in our future and we had reached that point of barbecue confusion that left us spinning in circles but going nowhere. For every opinion there was a counter opinion. They can’t all be right. Frankly, it had been so long ago that I tasted good barbecue I was wondering if my memory was at fault or if any such barbecue place still existed.

La Kiva BBQ Pit
La Kiva BBQ Pit

We had to drive to Fort Davis to see the TABC people about our liquor license so we had a few hours to talk about the problems we saw. Our thirty plus year old pit was showing its age and we discussed refurbishing it versus replacing it. The state of the brickwork was such that we needed to take the whole thing apart, replace the grates, doors, fire-door and about thirty percent of the brickwork. In the end, we would have had a new BBQ pit. We agonized over how we could keep the old pit but finally, we decided that we could produce better barbecue with a totally new pit from the ground up. Nostalgia is all very well but when it gets in the way of good food it is time to get real. Having more or less decided we were getting a new pit we now had to decide on what we were going to get. Do we copy the old pit in detail because it did have some very good points or do we go with a tried and tested competition smoker? Do we go with propane or stick with wood? Indoor or outdoor? Counter-flow, baffled or straight through? The offset firebox seems to be a settled question and it is hard to find a modern barbecue that does not use an offset firebox. I kept on coming back to the same issue. What would the barbecue taste like. There are so many issues and opinions and a lot of contradiction. I wanted to know that the system we got was capable of producing exceptional barbecue night after night. I thought I knew what I wanted and what would work but so many people had other ideas, it was confusing.

Modern Smoker
Modern Smoker

As we drove to Fort Davis and just before we drove into Fort Davis Josie noticed a barbecue place. With our barbecue problem in mind, Josie and I decided to call in, on the way home, which we did. They had a really nice, portable, competition pit, wood fired with propane to get it started and it fit exactly with my image of what a barbecue pit should be like. It was a classic. It even smelled right just sitting there. It set me thinking. I try not to tax my brain but once in a while you just have to. Having found a barbecue place we just had to stop in and say hello and do a little culinary espionage. They were not serving but we halloed and hollered until, eventually, a slightly surprised Jenny Turner appeared. After just a few minutes chatting, she called up her husband Scott and the pit-master, Brian Bourbon, so the five of us visited for a while. Part way through the conversation she disappeared, so we were left chatting with Scott and Brian. It seems they only started selling barbecue last fall and they entered their first competition about that time. They placed very highly, coming in third I think. They proudly showed us the pit and explained its features. Honestly, they demonstrated their enthusiasm and knowledge in no uncertain terms. They presently only do Brisket, pulled pork and sausage along with homemade sides. Right now they are saying they are not ready with the chicken until they have it perfected but judging by the twinkle in various eyes we won’t have to wait long. I started to wonder what the Barbecue they made was really like. Was this all talk or was it real? They certainly walked the walk and talked the talk but could they deliver the goods? About that time Jenny came out bringing two brisket sandwiches. Without any reservation, that was the finest barbecue sandwich I have ever had. The flavor was beyond good. It was authentic, deep and rich and the sides were exceptional. If you are in Fort Davis then give them a try. These are some of the nicest people you could hope to meet and that is definitely a barbecue to stop and sample. They have limited opening hours but you can find out all you need from their Facebook page.

Tell them hi from La Kiva.

The great thing about all this is that we have now confirmed how we will get the flavor we want in the barbecue. The style of barbecue pit we want will do the job and they have proved that to us in no uncertain terms. What our instincts were telling us all along as being the right way has been backed up by the real life experience of the folks at Come-and-Take-It-BBQ.

So why would I be talking up the competition? It’s simple. They are far enough away so we will not be competing, so we can be friends and swap techniques and tips without hurting each others business. In addition, I would love to have these folk just down the street. It would be good for tourism and we would all benefit from that and they are good folk. Scott even spent many years in Terlingua and knows La Kiva well.

At his point I can see a huge controversy developing about the dry rub we should use.  What is your favorite dry rub for barbecue?  By that, I mean low and slow as opposed to grilling.

Photo of the modern smoker used in this post is used under the Creative Commons License as listed below. Robert Nunnally , BBQ grill, Camden Arkansas, Daffodil festival, 2010