CUPCAKE WARS: What do habanero chiles and cardamom, a spice native to India, have in common? Ask Monique Cortes, the owner of Sassy Sweets & Eats on Railroad Avenue in Pittsburg's Old Town.

On an episode of "Cupcake Wars" that aired on the night the bakery held its grand opening last month, she chose habanero chiles and cardamom from an assortment of other spicy ingredients that had to be used in the first round of competition.

As if those spices weren't enough of a challenge, "the twist was that it was all vegan," said Cortes, who placed second among the four contestants.

Her habanero-chocolate cupcake and a cinnamon-cardamom cupcake got her into the second round.

The third round was judged on a display created by the two remaining cupcake contestants who also had to bake 1,000 cupcakes.

"Her display was a creepy clown house. Ours was a graveyard with bloody zombies and coffins. It was two different kinds of scary," Cortes said.

The scary theme made sense, given that the showed aired before Halloween, on Oct. 26, the night that Sassy Sweets & Eats celebrated its grand opening.

While Cortes missed out on the $10,000 first prize, competing in the "Cupcake Wars" filmed in Food Network's Los Angeles studios in July proved memorable.

"It was a great experience. And they said they would like to invite us back for redemption," Cortes said.

TURKEYS, NOT CHICKENS, CROSSING THE ROAD: The wild turkeys in central Antioch that over the years have found their way into shopping center parking lots, backyards and even waddled their way through the halls at Sutter Delta Medical Center are trying a new East Contra Costa pastime: commute traffic.

The Eye spotted a flock of about eight of the 4-foot-tall birds on a recent brisk morning, walking around on a hill and sidewalk off Lone Tree Way just south of James Donlon Boulevard.

The Eye and several other commuters had to slam on the brakes when a couple of wayward birds committed a fowl foul by walking into the street.

No birds were harmed during the morning encounter, but some drivers appeared to have more than their feathers ruffled.

THE WRONG EL CERRITO: At Tuesday's City Council meeting, El Cerrito reviewed plans that would shift San Pablo Avenue from an auto-oriented thoroughfare to one that would cater to pedestrians, bicyclists and bus passengers.

While the proposal was largely hailed at the meeting as a wise move toward sustainability and creation of community, the proposed changes are not to everyone's liking.

Still, it was somewhat surprising for The Eye to see a Google news alert for El Cerrito that included an item headlined "Residents in El Cerrito frustrated over new bike lane." Even more curious, the story notification arrived the day before the City Council meeting.

It turns out the frustrating bike lane is in a San Diego neighborhood with the name El Cerrito, where residents were upset that 50 curbside parking spaces had been removed to accommodate riders.

IRRATIONAL EXPENSES?: Richmond is in some pretty tight financial straits. Leaders agreed recently to raid their reserve fund to close the city's budget deficit, and pension and health care costs ensure that the debt burden will be something to grapple with for years to come.

But you wouldn't know it by the most recent City Council meetings, where incredulous council members listened as City Manager Bill Lindsay reported that taxpayers foot the bill for more than $25,000 annually to gas up and maintain 10 city-owned cars for city managers to drive -- including to and from home every day. The managers live as far as 99 miles from the city.

"Taxpayers shouldn't be paying for excessive mileage away from the city," Councilman Nat Bates said. "There has to be a limit."

Lindsay said the perks, which have been paid by taxpayers for years, are "being phased out" but did not offer a timeline.

The spending doesn't end there. Recent reports have revealed that Richmond police and fire personnel enjoy some of the highest average salaries in the state.

Lindsay said his staff has conducted preliminary research into the viability of using the vehicles in a city car share program for the community to use on weekends.

Staff writers Eve Mitchell, Paul Burgarino, Chris Treadway and Robert Rogers contributed to this column.