Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Road Trip USA

January 21, 2008

Got back from a big road trip. We did NYC-Chicago-Memphis-Austin-New Orleans-Atlanta-Miami-Savannah-Charleston-NYC with a bunch of stops along the way. 3 weeks, 6000 miles. This could get way too long, so I’ll spare the descriptions of the food. I don’t know enough adjectives, and you can’t eat words anyway.

Left NYC a few days before Christmas, after eating at my favorite spot in the city and stocking up on Tate’s and Mallomars — essentials that we wouldn’t get along the way. Drove through rain and low visibility in the Poconos through Pennsylvania and ridiculously strong winds that were blowing cars into ditches in Ohio.

Stopped in Cleveland for dinner, but our target restaurant was apparently out of business. If you could judge the life of a city based on a cold Sunday night at the end of December, things don’t look so good for Cleveland. The only people dumb enough to be hanging around a freezing, dark, deindustrialized city that night were us and, apparently, R. Kelly.

Ducked in to the only place we found open, and good road trip karma presented us with McNulty’s Bier Markt. A Belgian beer bar with over 100 beers, they even had Chimay on tap — on tap! That’s even hard to find in NYC. Add some mussels soaked in Duvel for less than $10, and we began to believe in Cleveland again.

Made it to Chicago that night, hung out for a few days then headed toward Memphis. Had to stop at 17th Street Bar & Grill in Murphysboro, IL, consistently rated one of the best in the country.

In Memphis, we only had time for one BBQ spot so we went for Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous:

Rushed out of town in mid-afternoon because we a had a long way to Austin. Made a couple quick stops in Little Rock and followed a friend’s tips for the best mojitos in Dallas at Cuba Libre and best Tex-Mex at Cuquita’s.

Austin gave us the cup cake bus:

And more good Mexican food…

Heading east from Austin, we were back in God country.

Can you just make up quotes and attribute them to God? Stopped in Elgin, Texas, at Southside Market & BBQ which has won national contests for its hot sausage:

Made it to New Orleans on New Year’s Eve, but were unlucky enough to end up in the French Quarter. Totally Disney-fied, the Quarter was packed with spring break douchebags and college football fans in town for the Sugar Bowl.

2 1/2 years after Katrina, New Orleans is still a national embarrassment and George Bush still doesn’t care about Black people:

NOLA does still have some of the best food in the country — it was worth spending more than an hour waiting to get a burger at Port of Call and even longer for the best creole food at Jacques-Imo’s:

Made quick stops in Selma and Birmingham, then turned 80 miles off our route to hit another of the best BBQ spots in the country: Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama.

Check out the baked potato stuffed with BBQ meat. Looks better than it tasted. The ribs were off the hook, though, and that’s what counts.

Making our way to Atlanta, we drove on dark, windy Alabama state highways with a radio signal just strong enough to find out that Obama won Iowa and listened to his victory speech.

It seems that every best-of-Atlanta list starts with breakfast at the Flying Biscuit. Shrugged off as a cliche the story on their menu about how when they first opened the restaurant, they thought 90 biscuits would be enough for the day, whatever whatever, then they sold out in 2 hours, yadda yadda. Then the biscuits came, and I realized that was no joke. No pics here because we devoured them too fast. They were warm and a bit soft on the outside and so damn creamy on the inside. I will always be grateful to Atlanta for those biscuits and and for Coca-cola.

The next morning we had another great breakfast at the Thumbs Up Diner. I ordered an extra pancake to go with my standard bacon and eggs. It looked just like a regular pancake, but the inside was so smooth and creamy, like it was pancake batter. Have breakfast in Atlanta, if you ever get the chance.

We were fired up, ready to go, and picked up some biscuits from the Flying Biscuit for the next leg to Miami. We hung out at Tinta Y Cafe in Little Havana, which was very chill and had a bunch of great sandwiches.

We even got in some beach time, since it was 80 degrees in early January, and had great Haitian food (and the best mojitos) at Tap Tap, near South Beach. By this time, we were seriously craving some PinkBerry, but not only have they not expanded beyond LA and NYC, their copycats hadn’t even opened up in Miami yet. Looks like we just missed them by a few days.

Turning back north, our next stop was Savannah. Very cool town. Stopped at the Back in the Day Bakery before we left. This is right in the middle of an almost grotesquely gentrified block that’s being called ‘Starland.’ In the middle of a Black neighborhood, the block had a few art galleries, of course, and this bakery. We went in and managed to enjoy a couple good cupcakes for $3 each. Three dollars? Are they even that much at Magnolia? The interior was all about a retro-chic — “back in the day.” Yeah, well, back in the day, gentrifiers weren’t posted up there selling cupcakes for $3 a pop.

Had to make one more BBQ stop in Charlotte at Mac’s Speed Shop — a faux biker joint that served Carolina BBQ with a range of fine beers.

We made it up to DC, excited about all the great Ethiopian restaurants. Ended up with a pretty mediocre dinner at Dukem, which actually charges for extra injera.

Finally, 3 weeks later, we returned to NYC, but before going home we had to make a final stop at PinkBerry.


June 21, 2007

I’ve just come back from a brief vacation to Paris and Berlin–I rarely vacation, so upon returning I’ve regaled everyone I’ve spoken to with the dreadfully banal, I-see-the-world-anew!-type minutiae familiar to anyone who has attended college and encountered–in the words of one friend tired of my anecdotes–“that annoying kid who studies abroad for a semester and then starts rolling his own cigarettes.” Well in Berlin we don’t take that kind of negativity! In Berlin everything is magical and wonderful and cheap! Berlin ist great! Really: you must go to Berlin. Blah blah blah (something about Berlin).

In either case chances are I have never met you, and thus all of my minutiae may seem new and exciting.

During my travels I maintained two running tallies.

In Paris: how many people actually walk around carrying baguettes?

The answer was 71 over 4 days.
There was a related question about mimes, but unfortunately I saw none.

In Berlin: how many people were actually doing things NOT damaging to their health?


The answer was three–one man was jogging (I’ve never seen someone so out of place in a city), one girl was carrying a sack of granola (presumably back to her anarcho-vegan-hippie-minimal techno collective) and one guy–yes: ONE–was carrying a bottle of water rather than beer.

The high cost of living in Paris is a constant buzzkill. Visiting the city for the first time taught me one thing, besides the baguette thing: everyone reads the New York Times.

As in:
Hey did you read that steak frites piece in the Times?
Dude I’m going to forward you this steak frites guide, I think it was in the Times!
Oh man, Paris! You MUST go and eat steak frites–I read an article about it in the Times.

So I ate steak frites, but not at one of the Times-approved places, rather at a “place the Times piece forgot about,” according to the Interweb. It had AUBAC somewhere in the name, and it was off the Champs-Elysees, which I now know is merely a wide street. I was originally going to take pictures but I felt self-conscious about photographing food at a restaurant that resembled a tarted-up T.G.I.Fridays (insert: Merci Dieu C’est Vendredi! joke). It was truly odd eating foie gras, as inhumane as it is delicious, whilst surrounded by pastels of skiiers, Soundgarden on the sound system and a flatscreen TV broadcasting a looped movie of cows being raised and evaluated (what could be less appetizing?).

Steak frites may have been common in Paris, but the macarons were a thing of rare beauty. Not to be confused with macaroons–the stringy little plops of coconut available at most pastry shops, or in plastic tubs–the French macaron is like a divine little cookie sandwich consisting of meringue-like halves and a light, creamy filling. Like I knew any of this beforehand.

Here are some pictures from the world-famous Laduree:

I think these are pistachio (incredible), mint (incredible–and limited edition), lemon (incredible) and caramel with salt (incredible). There was one which carried the aroma of rose. Orange blossom was INCREDIBLE. Vanilla and grenadine–consumed with foie gras and a grenadine glaze–were INCROYABLE.

As a lover of variety, each macaron was a treat to be cherished and protected–when some kind of mad woman with an aggressively anti-capitalist tote bag walked in to the Champs-Elysee Laduree (there’s four or five of them) and started ranting and railing, I almost threw my body over the macarons to save them. I believe in nothing but I would sacrifice everything to uphold the deliciousness of these macarons. I scoff at the word “tasty.” Each of the cookie halves have a lightly crunchy shell and a moist but not spongy body–it’s the kind of delicate thing you can’t pick apart and eat Oreo-style. The fillings are never overpowering, often just accentuating the aroma of the cookie. And as you can see in the photo it produces a beautiful color when the cream soaks through the inner part of the cookie. Ach, I can’t believe I’m degrading these macarons by referring to their constituent parts as “cookie” and “filling!” They are so much more. But I guess it would be weird to consume something like “proof of divinity” filled with “miraculous aura.”

Also in the photo you can see the teacup is tearing up at how good that macaron is.

Here are some places in New York that serve macarons. I mean here.

Other highlights in Paris included L’as du Falafel, which I just noticed has been covered by the Times as well. Upon Bite #2, I cannot imagine being satisfied by another falafel ever again (foreshadowing: this was before going to Berlin…). The thick pita–usually a turn-off–was necessary, since the pocket was filled with falafel balls, hummus, pickled red cabbage, eggplant, roasted potatoes and some spicy harissa.

It was so good I nearly decided to start listening to fellow traveler Lenny Kravitz’s awful music!

The food in Berlin was surprisingly great, though nothing made me want to listen to Lenny Kravitz.

A favorite was Nil, a Sudanese place in Kreuzberg. Their falafels and lamb sandwiches are quite excellent. The secret: peanut sauce in everything. I would have taken a photograph of the food, but I had just been chastised by the lady behind the counter for using the bathroom. Apparently in Berlin–a more or less lawless city where (1) clubs stay open “until Monday”; (2) cops apologize to you if you swear at them; (3) graffiti is on every surface everywhere; (4) drinking beer and smoking pot in public are tolerated; (5) trains are free because nobody cares to check your ticket–you need to ask before you use the bathroom. Well excuse me for not knowing German (the national language, actually) and arrogantly walking right past the “DO NOT USE THE BATHROOM” sign.

Everyone in this picture is drunk, on drugs or listens to electro.

Berlin also had excellent pizza and ice cream: I found this surprising. There are also many interesting little semi-legal bars and clubs. Like this place, which featured ping pong and a DJ playing a metric ton of De La Soul:

Insofar as an “illegal ping pong bar” can be unpretentious, this place was. Note the skill: one guy hits sans paddle, another smacks it without dropping a lick of beer.

But this has nothing to do with food.

The only “authentically German” thing I ate was SpƤtzle, which reduces to “noodles bathing in cheese and butter.” Not a bad thing but not exactly a taste that grows more rewarding with each new bite. We bought three kinds and shared. All I remember–did I mention that Berlin is a lawless, vice-filled city?–is that each featured cheese in a starring turn. One of them had a weird baked top, and one featured noodles that looked like they had been grilled. Some looked like gnarled, oldster fingers; others looked like slender and symmetrical pod-like spaceships.

The first few bites were terrific, but after a while the taste can grow tedious. It’s best to share and to make good progress before things start congealing.

While eating Spatzle, this bemused German dude next to us encouraged us to try Currywurst.

Wikipedia: Currywurst is a typical German take-away dish, a hot pork sausage cut into slices and seasoned with ketchup and generous amounts of curry powder.

One among us remarked that Currywurst sounded like probably the most disgusting thing ever. Another among us seconded that. And the German guy took a drag from his cigarette and said, “Do not be so narrow.” He punctuated this by putting his hands close together, in case we were not familiar with the concept of narrowness.

Perhaps he realized that Currywurst does, indeed, sound like one of the most disgusting things ever, as he changed the topic. “Have you eaten doner kebab?” We had–our favorite was a place called Bagdad, where they smother the fries in this creamy garlic sauce and kids in tight jeans throw electro parties.

“I have been here all year,” the second among us explained. We were not new here.

“In that case,” he laughed, “the question becomes how many kebabs you have had to eat!” And with that he rolled up his copy of German GQ, strapped on his shoulder bag and was off–presumably to do drugs or drink in public or ride the train without paying or regale his friends with banal minutiae about three Americans he met at the Spatzle spot.

Kamaboko Eats Spain

June 19, 2007

My friend and co-worker Kamaboko recently went on a jaunt around Spain, with a detour in Paris, with her hubby Jmura. This was a very special trip– Kamoboko was seeing an old friend in Murcia (southwest of Valencia) who she hadn’t seen in over ten years, AND she’s about to become a mother next month! So this would be the last trip her and Jmura take together, just the two of them, for a long time.

Here is a picture book of her eats and food sightings about town during her holiday in Spain. She told me she took these photos with Umami Mart in mind, while she was in Murcia and Granada. Clearly she had a wonderful time– she was eating for two!!! That’s twice the fun!

Kamaboko cuddles up with Rodin.

Awesome pics Kama-chan, thanks for sharing! Posted by Kayoko.

The Worst Food in the World

March 8, 2007

Typical of me, that my first post to a “foodie” site would be to talk about the country that has the dubious distinction of offering the worst food in the world – at least among the ones I have visited.

Welcome to Sweden!!! We went to Sweden with great hopes of venturing beyond the eponymous Swedish meatballs. After all, this land has a considerable coastline and the tourist books boasted that the canals in Stockholm were clean enough to fish from – even backed up by a couple of locals angling in suspicious waters. Looking inland, verdant pastures offer endless feeding grounds for all manner of livestock. Having picked one of the most touted restaurants in Stockholm, we were on the verge of heaven.

That is, until we actually bit into the food. The starter seafood appetizers were barely passable even for my unschooled raw fish palate – I won’t even start on what Kazuko thought. However, the piece de resitance of the meal was the steak I ordered (the priciest item in a pricey restaurant in the priciest country on earth). The fact that it boasted of being “tenderized” for 20 minutes before cooking should have given me pause. Suffice to say that I had a first hand experience of Charlie Chaplin and the Gold Rush, with the added discomfort of having my wallet considerably lightened. Kazuko’s fish was somehow cooked long enough to achieve a consistency that might have been great for my steak. Both dishes tried to make up for the lack of texture with a complete absence of flavor.

Lest this be perceived as an aberration, our next evening at a pub at least did less damage to the wallet. For the first time that I have traveled anywhere, I gave up on local food the third evening and we ate Italian. It was pretty lousy Italian, but how much can you really screw up pasta?

Oh, it has nothing to do with this being European, Northern European or Scandinavian. Take a short step to the left into Norway and you can bite into reindeer meat that is to kill for. Reindeer was a revelation; venison and moose don’t come close and it is not like any other meat I have tasted. Also, for the uninitiated, reindeer don’t look anything like Rudolf, Donner and Blitzen of the Santa commercials – these are huge, intimidating creatures you wouldn’t want to bump into on a dark night.

Ikea’s Swedish meatballs is still safe as the “best” Swedish food I have ever tasted.

– lakshman

Vietnamese Floating Market

March 8, 2007

My little brother has been galavanting around South East Asia for months, and we don’t know when he’s coming back. He took these pictures in Vietnam, at a floating market on the Mekong Delta. Don’t you just love the way they hang all their produce up on a pole on their boat to show what they’re selling? Beautiful!