How To Braise Short Ribs

November 22, 2010 · Posted in Recipes · Comments Off on How To Braise Short Ribs 

Braise (n) : to cook meat or vegetables by browning in fat, then simmering in a small quantity of liquid in a covered container.

– American Heritage Dictionary

Braising is easily one of the most satisfying and rewarding ways to cook a meal for yourself and guests.  The technique at its core is easy, you use cheaper cuts of meat, and it makes your house smell amazing for hours.  It will also impress everyone, and make them think you’re a much better cook than you actually are.  You don’t have to tell them you were really playing Call of Duty for the three hours these short ribs sat in the oven, slowly soaking in that amazing flavor.

In a sentence, you brown your cut of meat, saute the aromatics (vegetables), create your braising liquid, and then simmer this mixture for a few hours, depending on your cut of meat.  We’re going to go over short ribs so for our purposes it will be about 2 hours in total.

Braising is probably my favorite way to cook, even over grilling.  You can constantly experiment with your recipes, your techniques, and results are almost always spectacular.  This is a fairly straightforward base you can use with short ribs, brisket, or any other tougher, cheaper cut of beef.

Ingredients

Two bottles of a heavier red wine

4 lbs short ribs, bone-in or boneless, whatever you can get.

3 to 4 tablespoons butter or oil. (Really, you should use butter)

One medium onion, chopped
One medium carrot, chopped
Two to three stalks celery, chopped
Two cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup sugar
Two cups chicken broth
One spring each rosemary, thyme, oregano. (ok to substitute dried herbs if you need)

Again, this is a basic blueprint.  We’ll give you some advanced tips at the end.

How To:

Pre: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, chop everything, maybe throw on the soundtrack to Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

1) Open both bottles of wine.  Immediately pour glasses for yourself and guests.  (This is a how to PROPERLY braise short ribs, not just some recipe.  Also, you aren’t really cooking short ribs for yourself, are you?  Are you???)

2) In a heavy, cast iron pan heat two tablespoons butter over medium high heat.  Take turns browning the short ribs on all sides, 4 to 5 minutes per side.  Do this in multiple batches if need be.  Scrap up any burned bits from the pan when done.

Short ribs loving them some butter

"Fired up, ready to go!"

3) Once the short ribs are all browned, and back outside the pot (like in the picture above) it’s time to create the base for the liquid.  Melt the remaining butter over medium high heat, and saute the onion, celery, and carrot until they start to soften.

4) When the vegetables begin to brown, add the garlic and cook for an additional minute.  Then add the second bottle of wine, stock or broth, sugar, and herbs.  Stir to combine.

5) Add the meat back to the pan, cover, and put into the oven.  Cook for about two hours, until the meat falls apart with a fork.  The great thing about braising is that it’s very difficult to overcook the meat.  Check it maybe twice during cooking, to make sure the sauce isn’t boiling but other than that just let it be.

6) When the meat is ready, remove the pan from the oven and spoon the meat out.  Place the pan over high heat and reduce the sauce down by 2/3 or more.  The more you reduce the sauce, the more concentrated the flavor gets.  Season with salt and pepper if you need to.  You can also add butter or flour as a thickening agent at this point.

Braising liquid reducing.

7) To serve – plate some mashed potatoes, a parsnip and celery root puree, polenta, etc.  (You didn’t make any?  Well maybe if you weren’t playing Call of Duty you would have had time to!  Not my problem.)  Spoon one to two short ribs on the plate, and top with sauce.  It should look like this.

You don't have to go to Jared if you can do this.

How to Take This to the Next Level

Okay, a few tips on really making this thing incredible.

1 – Marinate marinate marinate.  Take the short ribs and place them in the bottle of wine for 24 hours before you start this process.  Well, maybe take the wine out of the bottle and put it into a baking dish first.  Getting short ribs into a bottle of wine would be pretty amazing.  Something the guys at Alinea probably do for fun.  To the wine, add your herbs, whole peppercorns, maybe garlic?  Lots of options here.

2 – Cook this whole thing a day before.  Prepare through step 5, and then let it cool and refrigerate until tomorrow.  Then reheat, reduce, and relax.  If you combine 1 and 2 here, you all of a sudden have short ribs that took three days to get to plate, but trust me it’s worth it.

3 – Purists may insist you strain the sauce before reducing, taking out all meat and veggies.  This is fine, but I don’t have a dishwasher and don’t like making unnecessary work for myself.  So I reduce everything together.  But you can get a thicker sauce if you strain everything.  But keep the veggies – they taste awesome.  Again, to the sauce you can add butter, salt, spices, flour, anything to spice it up.

4 – Replace some of the red wine with port.

5 – Use bacon fat instead of butter.  Add the reserved bacon to the sauce a few minutes before the reduction is done and serve like that.

That’s a pretty solid braising recipe.  Check out Molly Steven’s book “All About Braising” for some great recipes, utilizing every kind of meat around.

Check back soon – we’ll be deep frying turkeys on Thanksgiving!

Happy Braising!

P.S. – Guys, this is a can’t-lose recipe for that special someone in your life.  When you say you’re going to “take meat, add wine, and make it tender over a copule hours of low and slow heat” she doesn’t think you’re just talking about the short ribs.  Trust me on this one.

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Excuse me Sir, is that a beef shank you’re holding?

November 9, 2010 · Posted in Restaurants · 1 Comment 

On Wednesday, October 20th, several Green City Market “cheerleaders” as we were called were invited to Mado by Rob Levitt to eat an entire beef shank.  Unbeknownst to us at the time, it would be one of the last feasts held at this location by these chefs.  Rob and Allie have since left Mado to open their own butcher shop, and we eagerly await their new project.  What follows is, to the best of the author’s memory, a retelling of what was served at this banquet that would have made a Roman aristocrat blush.

Every year, the Green City Market hosts a Harvest Celebration to promote the market, showcase top chefs, and raise money.  Rob was one of the featured chefs, and was talking about ribeyes that he had gotten in and subsequently sold out of it almost immediately.  Some of the aforementioned GCM (Green City Market) “cheerleaders” were upset that these ribeyes were no longer available, so Rob proposed an entire beef shank.  From what I could tell though, these pieces were actually cut from two different animals.  During our feast, one of the ribeyes was brought out to another table, and I would not be surprised to learn Rob had located an ancient herd of mastodons, and was actually sourcing his steaks from there.  It was easily 60, maybe 70 pounds.

But that’s neither here nor there.  After inviting myself along to round out the group, Lauren Golanty, Kyle Schott, Dave & Sarah Rand, Abby Csanda, Brad Boman and Sara Gasbarra seated ourselves right in the middle of the restaurant and waited for Rob & Allie to wow us with their culinary prowess and maybe clog our arteries a bit too.

It started as expected, with their homemade charcuterie plate, which consists of chicken liver pate, smoked sausage, and pork rillettes.  The pictures are a bit dark, because it’s rude to use your flash in a restaurant, in case that hasn’t been brought up before.

Charcuterie Plate

Next came an assortment of antipasti, which includes one of my Mado favorites, the grilled cornbread with smoked paprika butter and fried farm egg.  Paprika butter!  So simple, yet they thought of it and I didn’t.  That’s why they cook and I eat.

There's paprika butter under there somewhere!

They rounded out our antipasti with:

– Roasted carrots with ras el hanout goat cheese, pistachios, and cumin honey

– Citrus cured lake perch with fingerling potatoes and pepperonata

– Sunchokes with preserved lemon and parsley

The carrots and sunchokes were amazing, both in separate ways.  The carrots, while sourced fresh and local, were an incredible melange of flavors, the spicy and nutty pairing nicely with the sweet in the honey and goat cheese.  The sunchokes, on the other hand, relied almost strictly on their freshness for the pop of flavor as you crunched down.  For those paying attention, you’ll ask how something can rely on freshness for its flavor when it uses preserved lemon.  Quite right, I’d respond, and say “well except for that part.”  The preserved lemon helped add a light airiness to the bite, and the dish contrasted quite nicely with the richer, deeper flavors in the carrots.

I'll take one of everything, please!

Next up was a three course shot that included a challenge for Rob and Allie.  You see, Sara and my’s friendship relies primarily on the fact that we are crazy Italians who spend the majority of our time at the Green City market discussing Rome and spaghetti carbonara.  And they were going to bring out penne with ragu bianco.  A bold move, I might say!

I should have known better than to doubt.  It was incredible.  The ragu was so flavorful, I almost forgot there was pasta.  I’m pretty sure I tried to drink the remains of the broth.

They also brought out a salad, mainly because I think their lawyer advised them to for liability sake, should anyone need resuscitation, they could say they offered greens at the least!

They finished off the…I guess this was the primi, if we’re going with the Italian theme…with pan-fried morcilla with braised greens and migas.  Blood sausage, in other words.  Topped with bread crumbs that had been…wait for it…deep fried.  Yes please.

Mado was BYOB, and we had definitely brought.  However we also drank, and right around this time figured out we were going to run out very quickly.  What happened next was both awesome and frightening, depending on how you look at it.  Brad makes one phone call, and ten minutes later four bottles of wine get delivered to the front door of the restaurant.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a wine delivery service willing to bring wine to whatever BYOB I happen to be at.  I’m not sure who this Brad character is, but in my opinion best not to cross his path!  He’s obviously got people.

After our thirst was satiated it was time for the main course.  The beef shank, in all its glory.  The restaurant literally stopped and watched in awe as Rob carried this massive steaming hunk of meat out to our table.  After David Hasselhoff was seated…

When pressed, Rob said that he had just done a “normal braise” to the beef, which means a mire poix and a red-wine based sauce more or less.  However, he must have braised it for more than 8 hours at a really low temperature (200-225?). I’ve made legs of lamb that are about 7 or 8 pounds, and they braise for at least 8 hours.  This was much much bigger.  Alongside he served it with toasted bread, and a marrow reduction.  I’m pretty sure I saw Lauren try and put the leftover reduction in her purse, until she realized there were no leftovers, and the little drops were liquid.  If you stared at the meat too long, it slipped off the bone without even the assistance of a fork.  The outside was perfectly crispy and browned, while the inside was incredibly tender.  There are almost no words to describe – so here’s the one picture we took with flash that night.

Yes, that IS a beef shank you're holding!

Not a bad way to go out, Rob and Allie.  Not a bad way at all.  I’ll be in line when The Butcher and Larder opens.

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The Austro-Hungarian Empire

February 28, 2010 · Posted in Travel · Comments Off on The Austro-Hungarian Empire 

A few weekends back I traveled to three new countries in the continuing quest to see 100 countries and all 7 continents.  My stops were Bratislava in Slovakia, Budapest in Hungary, and Vienna in Austria.  People see the itinerary and ask “Why would you go to Bratislava?”  Because it’s cheap to fly into, that’s why.

But let’s start there.  Bratislava.  Say it a few times.  Let it pounce off your tongue like it’s going to attack someone.  If I heard someone say “I am Ivan, am from country Slovakia, from city called Bratislava” in an obviously heavy and fake accent, I’d turn and run the other way.  It’s a scary place, this former Soviet bloc country.  Very dark and foreboding…everything is leftover from the Soviet occupation.  I mean, when I left the airport I even drove past….

…an IKEA.

And a Nike store, and McDonalds, Marks & Spencer, and a host of other Western stores anyone would immediately recognize.  My hostel didn’t have room numbers.  It had cute pictures of animals.  Mine was a ladybug.  (Not an animal as we’d recognize it but still an insect and most people find them cute.)  I’ve felt more scared walking to the Dunkin Donuts near my house at Clark and Division to buy coffee on a Sunday morning.

Now it should be noted that the movie “Hostel” does actually take place in Bratislava.  Seeing as how I was staying there on my own, my exchange friends were worried I was going to get raped, murdered, or worse.  I think it’s a pretty universal truth that there’s no raping or murdering going on when there are ladybugs adoring the walls.  So I was safe.

The town itself was very pretty, if a bit cold.  It was winter, after all.  I wandered around through streets I didn’t know, saw buildings I didn’t recognize, past churches I didn’t go into, up to a castle I know nothing about.  This is what happens when you are slightly unprepared for your trip.  My pre-dinner walk ended in a cafe with some locals singing opera at the top of their lungs.

Dinner was good…kebab of meats and veggies…most of which were wrapped in bacon, which is the proper way to do anything.  Washed it all down with some local beer, and headed to an early bed.   A few pictures below…

Next up was Budapest.  Budapest is in Hungary, famous for paprika, having the highest concentration of geniuses per capita, an inordinate number of Nobel Prize winners, and consistently losing wars to the Romans, Ottomans, Habsburgs….etc.  It’s actually two separate towns that merged a while back.  Buda, which means “where the castle is” and Pest, which means “where the rest of the city is.”  I also think there’s some stuff about killing vampires in its history somewhere…but I’m currently too lazy to back that up.  Overall it’s a very interesting mix of Austrian/German/Turkish/Soviet influence, blending both east and west cultures in a very different way than Istanbul.

One thing is exactly the same.  That scam that happened to me in Istanbul?  Apparently it’s very very common in Budapest.  Didn’t let myself get suckered into paying 200 Euro for one drink this time, however.

The first day was spent wandering around the Pest side, starting with the street Vaci Utca and the market at the end of said street.

After the market I visited St. Stephen’s basilica, the Hungarian Parliament building, and wandered around the city center some more.  I was starting to get a bit cold so I popped in to a little cafe to have some mulled wine, a specialty you can find just about everywhere in Budapest.  Definitely one of my favorite parts.  The best meal of my trip was this night, at a restaurant serving pretty traditional Hungarian foods called the Bagolyvár.  It was the sister restaurant (and less expensive at that) to Gundel, which everyone was recommending.  The meal started off with a plate of traditional cheese lightly grilled, served over a walnut and fruit ragout.  I moved on to a traditional Hungarian soup, which, while pretty standard from a beef soup point of view in terms of ingredients, had an amazing paprika and cinnamon flavor to the broth that made it really stand out.  My main course was a beautifully reddish veal stew, again flavored with a heavy dose of paprika.  I rounded it off with a chocolate cake, and slowly rolled myself home through downtown Budapest.

Cheeses with walnut and fruit ragout

Veal stew

Dessert….

The following day, my last day in Budapest, it sleeted basically the entire day.  I was able to see the castle, the history museum, and a few other things, but mostly I was concerned with catching an earlier train to Vienna.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with Vienna, but this was my favorite of the trip.  First of all, you have the Habsburgs building all sorts of empire-like things (palaces, etc) here so that’s pretty cool.  Add to that some delicious encased meats, great beers, and you’ve got the makings of a world class city.

When I arrived, I walked into what I thought was my hostel, but was actually a different branch of the Wombat hostel I was staying in.  It looked very cool, there was music playing, I could hear the sounds of a bar somewhere in the vicinity, and it was all brightly colored.  As I walked out to find the actual place I was staying, there was a giant sign on one of the doors that just said “SEX” in giant letters.  Below that word it said “Please use other door.”  Yeah…I’m gonna like Vienna.

I trudge through the snow a few more blocks and end up at my hostel.  It’s almost 9:00 pm at this point and I’m pretty tired by this point.  I head to my room where….everyone is already asleep.  This was a common occurrence throughout this trip – people asleep at 9:00 at night and waking up at ungodly hours of the morning.  I’m not talking 10:00 a.m. – I’m talking 5:00 a.m.  Who does that?  I guarantee you, no tourist sites are open at 5:00 a.m.  This is Europe, after all.

Not being able to do anything in my room, I leave my bag in my locker and head down to the bar.  At check-in, Wombat gives you a free beer.  Not a bad deal.  So I grab a meal and a couple of beers, ready to call it an early night.  Two American girls sit down next to me, and we start talking.  Turns out, they’re Univ of Michigan students, studying in Prague for the next few months.  Of course they are.  Wolverines are everywhere, because we’re awesome.  (Or maybe because we have a large school and a huge alumni base, but I think it’s because we are awesome.)  They’re rooming with some Scotts on vacation after graduating from law school, and before long the bartender starts handing out free shots.  When I ask him what it is, he responds “It’s an Austrian herbal thing, don’t worry.”  Right – that’s how you wake up in a prison in Bucharest, not wearing any shoes and smelling like you’ve been on a farm all day long.

Thankfully, we woke up in our hostel in Vienna, not in Romania on accident.  The five of us headed out to see Vienna a bit, despite blistering cold.  First up was the Schonbrunn Palace, the summer retreat of the Habsburg dynasty.  Very cool, but photography is not allowed inside so…that’s why we have Google images.

Next up was the Naschmarkt, a local farmer’s market that has grown up to include restaurants, kebab stands, spice vendors, and a large number of now permanent buildings selling all sorts of edible wares.

On the urging of my dad, I stopped for a Turkish kebab – 3 Euro for a sandwich that will rival anything you find at Katz’s deli or Manny’s in Chicago.  Huge, piping hot, stuffed with all sort of delicious condiment and vegetable…you have to sample if you’re here.

After a few more sites, a few stops for beers, wine, coffee, etc, I spotted something I’d been looking forward to finding in Vienna.

In Chicago, there is a cafe called Julius Meinl and it is the first of its kind in the US.  JM is a Viennese coffee company selling some of the finest coffees you can obtain in commercial form.  Obviously picking and roasting the beans yourself would be better, but if you’re doing that you probably have no time to read my blog, so please don’t start picking your own beans.  The furniture inside is imported from Vienna and the cafe itself exudes a legitimate European atmosphere.

When I saw the giant letters spelling out Julius Meinl at the end of a square, I had to stop in.  I figured I would end up paying roughly $18 for a cappuccino but I didn’t care.  I needed to go to the source.

As the picture shows above, with your cappuccino you receive a trio of sugars, a small glass of water, and a small bit of silky dark chocolate.  And it didn’t cost an arm and a leg.  Much more than a cafe, however, the store itself is a complete gourmet food store.  Much like Peck in Milan or EATaly in Torino, it had a high-end restaurant on the top floor, a large wine section, and more chocolate than even the most committed chocoholic can stand.

Satiated from kebabs, chocolates, coffee, spiced wine, we wandered back to our hostel in time for happy hour at the bar.  Which, you know where this is going by now, lasted at least 4 or 5 hours.

The next day was mine to see Vienna for a few hours before heading back to Milan…and the beginning of Fashion Week.  It’s a rough life over here…

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Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh….Milano!

January 20, 2010 · Posted in Recipes, Travel · 1 Comment 

My passport is almost a full ten years old, and needs to be renewed in 2011.  About 8 years ago, I also washed it.  Yeah, I know I know.  But that doesn’t change the fact that I washed it.  So it’s a bit frayed and, as I discovered in Istanbul, the part near the picture is actually starting to come apart.  The kindly border patrol agent (Round ’em up, as fast as you can, with one truck, or this country’s gonna be way too big!) at the airport wouldn’t let me pass for about 15 minutes because he didn’t trust it.  Several supervisors were called over, all of whom looked at him like he was an idiot because my passport’s only been stamped about 15 times in the past few weeks.

My favorite part was when he asked me – “Where are you from in the States?”

Me – “Chicago”

Him – “But you’re going to Milan.  Why are you going to Milan?”

You’re right buddy, because everyone leaving Istanbul should be going immediately home.  Ya’ jerk.

Then, on the plane, I get up to use the bathroom, and one of the two lavatories has been marked “occupied” for almost 20 minutes.  There was a very long line to use the facilities so I counted.  I knocked on the door to no answer, so I start thinking there’s a terrorist on board putting together some sort of bomb!  After several attempts to ask the stewardesses what was going on, one finally spoke enough English to tell me the bathroom was out of order.

Needless to say, after being taken for a ride several times, I was so happy to land in Milan.  Almost immediately I started smiling again and felt better.  There’s just something in the air over here…

I found my apartment very easily, got settled in, and met my roommate Abby when she showed up.  Per Facebook, I immediately bought several bottles of wine and started enjoying the fruits of the land.

Despite the dollar being worth about 1 Euro cent, wine is still super cheap over here.  So too are Belgian Ales.  My favorite beer, Chimay Blue, costs about $9 in the US.  It costs 1 Euro 50 cents over here.  Fantastic.

Apertivo

Milan so far has been cold and rainy, so I haven’t gotten too many shots of things outdoors.  Which means I’ve spent my time indoors, usually in bars or restaurants.  And usually at apertivo, one of the greatest things ever invented.

Basically you pay for your drinks and get an unlimited amount of buffet style food from about 6 to about 9.  The more crowded the place, the earlier it tends to end for some reason.  The buffet isn’t going to have the best pastas, but the pizzas and contorni (sides, veggies, etc) are always good.  You won’t find meats either.  But you will get incredibly full for the price of a few beers, which is nice.  Apertivo has been about a four to five times weekly occurrence.

Tall Italians

Quick side note here – there is an unusual species of people here, one I am not used to.  This idea of the “tall Italian.”  We’re talking ladies about 5’11, 6 feet and guys 6’2″, 6’3″.  Very interesting – at Easter mass in Tropea in 2003 I was the tallest person in the building by at least a foot.  Tropea is in the very south of Italy, FYI.  Up here it’s different – I don’t stand out at all.

The Food

I mean come on, that’s what we’re doing here, isn’t it?  This is supposed to be a food blog and I’m in ITALY for Pete’s sake!  We practically invented food!

Speaking of the invention of food, let’s dispel with a little food myth right off the bat.  The Chinese did not teach the Italians how to make pasta.  Please.  Let’s take a look at this from several angles shall we?

1 – The myth says Marco Polo went to China and brought back recipes for making noodles.  However Italian cookbooks predating his visit to China contain recipes that call for pasta.  So chronologically that’s a big fail.

2 – Let’s look at noodle construction.  While certain similarities do exist for the most part Chinese noodles look and taste nothing like Italian pastas.  I like Chinese food and noodles, but they’re not the same.  So on texture, appearance, and taste large differences exist.

3 – Rice noodles.  Both cultures use rice extensively and yet the Chinese make rice noodles and the Italians make…not rice noodles.  Why didn’t this technique transfer over?  I don’t know.   Probably because the Italians already had their system figured out.

Points 2 and 3 are more or less observational but point 1 can be fact-checked, so if you disagree go do that…

Now.  Where were we?

Ah yes, we were making a poor man’s Bolognese sauce and sneaking sips from that big magnum of wine you see in the background.

Instead of taking the full three or so hours I caramelized some onions, browned some ground beef and pork, and simmered with some tomato sauce for about 30-45 minutes.  Then topped with some fresh ground pepper and freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano and served over bucatini pasta.

Here’s my fellow Booth student and newly acquired sous-chef Toshi working some cheese magic over a beautiful spread:

When all was said and done, we laid it down like this:

I mean, picture kinda says it all.  That’s about how we’ll be doing it from here on out.  Much more of that to come.  Spaghetti Carbonara is on deck – Toshi wants to learn how to cook a bunch of different Italian foods so we’ll be working our way through some traditional dishes here.

After my Italy for the gourmet traveler book showed up, I had a list of places to check out in Milan.  By far my favorite so far (and, will probably remain for the time I’m here) is Gastronomia Peck.  It’s a specialty food store selling all different kinds of cheese, meats, steaks, seafoods, chocolate, tea, oils, coffee and on and on.  They won’t let you take pictures, but at the cafe upstairs there are no such rules.  So here you go:

Prosciutto e Mozzarella

Lasagna Bolognese

Due cappuccini.

Peck is an absolute must-go and will be re-featured here.  I will give a much more descriptive run-down of the food after one or two more visits.

In the interest of time I’m going to stop here for now.  In the meantime since these events have taken place, I went snowboarding in the Alps, ran into Giorgio Armani himself, made spaghetti carbonara, gone inside the Duomo, and may have set up an interview with an MD from one of the Italian banks.  So that’s what we’ve got to look forward to.

But now I’m heading off to Modena, Parma, Bologna, and Mantua.  Back in a week!

Ciao tutti!

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$138.00 for a beer in Istanbul?!?!?!

January 12, 2010 · Posted in Travel · 5 Comments 

We’ll get to that little traveler’s mishap in a moment, but before I do let’s talk Turk for a few minutes.  After being stared at wherever I went for two and a half weeks straight, it was somewhat refreshing to be mistaken for one of the locals again.  From the flight into Istanbul people approached me in Turkish more than in English, only to be somewhat shocked I didn’t speak Turkish and wasn’t from there.  Not a bad start.  Got into my hotel around 2:30 in the morning and passed out – I had 48 hours in Istanbul and wanted to make the most of it. Next morning, up at 8:00 and greeted by – downpour.  Sheets of rain.  After a rather long sigh, I got dressed and went to the 7th floor where my hotel served a delicious breakfast buffet.  Now, I’m a huge fan of pho, and enjoyed the soups in Hong Kong for breakfast, but sometimes you just want coffee and a pastry.  Or in my case, coffee and about 25 pastries, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, yogurt, honey, and feta cheese sprinkled with paprika and chili pepper.  So I enjoyed the cold breakfast and gazed out at the city and the sea as the rain gradually lifted.  It was still overcast but at least I could walk around and do the touristy thing. Quick endorsement here:  I usually abhor looking like a tourist and when in Italy refuse to carry a guidebook or large map.  I’d rather wander around than admit I’m not supposed to be there.  However with such a short time frame and so much to see in Istanbul, I picked up Rick Steeve’s guide and was blown away.  It’s got much more on art and history and less on where to sleep and eat.  The mosques and museums were what I expected, but his tour of the Grand Bazaar was amazing – and so as much as it kills me I’d have to recommend his book if you’d like a more in-depth tour of whatever city you’re visiting. Now that a part of me has died, let’s continue.  First stop : The Blue Mosque.  Never been in a mosque before so that was interesting.  I have been in a large number of religious houses of worship and as ridiculous as this sounds, it takes a lot now for me to be really impressed.  Did get a decent shot of the outside, despite the rain, from a back street –

Afterward I wandered around some more on my way to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.  Saw a few smaller mosques, including one that claimed to have a piece of the tablet upon which Abraham had written down instructions from God.  Three pieces, actually.  Played with some features on the Canon S90, which I can’t say enough good things about.  Here are a few random street shots for you visual people out there –

Next up was the art museum, which had lots of pieces from the Ottoman Empire, Islamic history, and Turkish history.  Full of furniture for some reason.  One of my favorites was this piece:

The inscription reads: “You are only at the beginning of your journey.”  So…I got that going for me.

Lunch was a quick kabob of a mix of lamb and beef accompanied by some lentil “meat”balls.  My food pics from Istanbul are lackluster – my apologies.  And by lackluster I mostly mean just lacking.

On to Hagia Sophia.  Revisiting my previous statement about churches, my jaw literally dropped when I stepped inside.  I didn’t take any pictures because you should go see it for yourself.  It’s pretty amazing.

Perhaps my favorite part is the mosaic of Empress Zoe and two other guys.  One of the other guys is Jesus, so that’s pretty standard.  The other is her husband.  However if you look closer, you see the inscriptions above the head of her husband looks like it’s been erased.  Story goes she had one husband, couldn’t produce a male heir, he “dies”, she marries again, guy croaks again, she marries yet a third time.  So instead of changing this massive mosaic she just erases dude’s name and keeps re-doing it!  You may not agree with it, but you gotta respect it.  Keep it real Empress Zoe.  Keep it real.

Now it was time to relax and do a bit of shopping.  I knew that heading to Milan was going to be disastrous for my bank account.  A funny thing was happening as I traveled around the world.  In Vietnam it was 18,000 VND to the dollar.  Then in Hong Kong it was $7HK to $1USD.  Now in Istanbul it was about $1.50 TL to the dollar.  Upon arriving in Milan it would be about 0.69 Euro per $USD.  I was getting poorer as I traveled around the globe.  So I had to take advantage of some purchasing power, right?  And it turns out my favorite jeans company is a Turkish company.  Jeans that sell for $100 in the US were selling for $50 in Turkey.  And they have a huge flagship store on Istiklal street.  Istiklal street is the main street in the New District, where people are just milling about, shopping, eating, and drinking.  And that is how I ended up in an Irish pub in Istanbul speaking Italian.

I’m halfway through the 5th season of Lost, the greatest and most confusing show ever written in the history of TV.  In this season they are presented with an opportunity to go back in time and kill the bad guy in the show, thereby erasing most of what has caused them misery over the previous four seasons.  However, as far as I am in the season now – they cannot.  They have to save his life.  They are unable to remove the demons that put them where they are now.  As I sat in the Irish bar in Istanbul listening to people speak Italian (not only am I worldly, I am alliterative as well) I couldn’t help but think of the parallels.  When certain things happen and you can’t see the good at the time, you never know where you’ll end up six months, a year later.  I sat there with a huge dumb grin on my face.  Life will do its worst and somehow manage to bring out the best.  As I left the bar it was pouring rain, just pouring.  Everyone was running home.  I walked, the two miles to my hotel.  Over the Galata Bridge, where only fishermen were out, hoping to secure the last little bit of food before they went in for the night.  So I stayed and watched them do their thing for a bit – knowing I was the only tourist dumb enough to stand in the rain and watch fisherman reel in empty rods.  I laughed again, thinking about the possibility of going back in time and removing some of the negatives I’ve encountered, and how doing that would not put me here, now in this incredible circumstance.  Everything bad that had happened was a lesson or an opportunity.

Unfortunately it was a lesson I apparently had to learn again, the following night.

After touring Topkapi Palace and the infamous Harem, and the Grand Bazaar, and the Spice Market, I needed a quick nap.  I was so tired from two straight weeks of travel that I almost fell down in the Spice Market.  After my nap I decided I was going to grab a quick dinner and then call it a very early night.  On my way out of the hotel I almost bumped into two Turkish guys who, once again, assumed I was Turkish too.  After discovering I wasn’t, one suggested we go for a beer.  I said, what the hell, I’m traveling, may not be here again, let’s do this.  One beer, under the bridge where about 20 or so seafood restaurants are.  After this one beer I informed them I needed food cause I was getting very hungry.  The ringleader of this two-man clan suggests we go to Taksim square where we can get street food, which I what I wanted.  At this point something started going off in my mind, but I decided I was just being overly cautious and somewhat prejudiced, so I pushed it away and tried to convince myself it was fine.  But they were slightly too friendly too quickly.

After a less-than-satisfying kabob sandwich we start looking for this bar that plays Turkish music for “one beer, then we go.”  Yeah, right.  They say it’s right around the square, but then all of a sudden they announce we need to take a cab.  Warning sign number 3, if you include the fact that they tried to pay for my food.  Beer is one thing. But food is just weird.

I get in this cab, and the cab ride turns into something way too long to have walked, or to be considered “close” to the square at all.  Warning sign number 4.  But convincing myself I was being stupid, and it was fine, I go in this busted-looking place called “Bar Club.”  Um….yeah.  I know, I know.  At this point this looks like my fault.

When we walk downstairs yet another warning sign hits – the bar is empty save for what can only be walruses that escaped from the local zoo dancing onstage.  Upon closer inspection they were actually females so it was both reassuring and frightening at the same time.  I lost whatever remaining sense of humor I had right then and there.  Not only was I all hooker’ed-out by this point, but you don’t say “hey let’s go listen to music” and by “music” you really mean “to a brothel.”  Not cool guys, not cool.  I can’t say enough negative things about the bar itself or the inhabitants of said bar.  It looked like it was straight out of a 70’s adult flick and smelled like it hadn’t been cleaned since it was opened.

Sure enough, after we order a beer, two girls come over.  There are three of us, so I sort of wonder why only two come over.  Then I realize.  Couches have a weight limit.  Three wouldn’t have fit.  The girl who sits between me and one of the other guys introduces herself and asks if she can have a drink.  I point to the other guy and say “He’s buying, ask him.”  She tries to chit-chat and I am about as rude as can be.  The Candy Bar in Cambodia wasn’t exactly my thing, but even Brandy can attest to this – the girls there were at least funny.  Also cute, but cute or not I’m not really into professionals.  And the girls in Istanbul could have eaten the girls in Cambodia for appetizers and still been hungry.  Anyway I digress.  She she asks me where I am from, I say the US (mistake on my part – we’re all rich, right?) and she tells me where she’s from.  I can’t make this up.

Khazakstan.

I almost spit my beer out.  She asks “You know this place?  Not many people do?”  I said “anyone who’s seen Borat knows this place!  Let me guess, you are sixth best prostitute in Khazakstan?”  She didn’t get it.  So, despite what happens next, I met a real-life prostitute from Khazakstan.

Halfway through my beer I turn to idiot #1 and say I’m out after this beer.  They can stay but I’m getting my coat and going.  They’re chain smoking cigarettes like they think global warming is a good thing and I’m just super annoyed at this point.  Then the bill comes.

He turns to me and says, we can split this, yes?  I’m thinking 40, 50 bucks?  3 beers and 4 glasses of wine.  My beers twice that size the night before were about $3 a pop.

No.

670 YTL and at about a 1.4 exchange rate that’s $479.00.  For 3 beers and 4 glasses of wine.

I almost completely lost my mind.  I start yelling at the two guys and that’s when things got ugly.  Immediately five gigantic Turkish guys in black suits, black shirts, and black ties come over.  One puts his hand on my shoulder and asks what the problem is.

“What’s the problem?  These guys are a*holes, that’s what the problem is.  I had one beer and you want me to pay almost $200?”

“Well it needs to be paid.”

“I’m a STUDENT, do you know what that means???  It means I don’t have this kind of money, I don’t care what you think about Americans!”

The two guys talk amongst themselves in Turkish (never a good sign) and one turns to me.  “I pay 470 and you pay 200?”

“200?  I had ONE BEER!”

“Yes but your girl…”

“MY GIRL?  SHE WAS NOT MY GIRL!!!!”

At this point the “bouncers” make it clear that I’m upsetting them and that I need to calm down.

Deciding that tonight is not, in fact, a good night to die, I acquiesce and hand him my credit card.  “We don’t accept cards.”  Of course not you back-water degenerate meathead.  Why would you?  (that was purely an internal monologue).

One of the bouncers escorts me to the nearest ATM, I take out 200 YTL and slap it down when I get back inside.  They count it, I said “we’re good?” and the head meathead says “We’re good.”  I run upstairs faster than I ever ran in high school and bolted for a cab.  The two guys I came with are running after me, trying to get me to stop.  Knowing full well I will attack them if I slow down, I keep going toward my cab.  As I get in, I do turn around and yell out a string of profanity that would make Clark Griswald mighty proud, then immediately tell the cab to get the heck out of there.

I checked my bank account later, and it amounted to $138.00.  $138.00 in extortion, to get away with my life.  Those two guys were obviously connected to the bar, and knew as soon as I said I was American that they were gonna take me to this brothel type place.  Tell you what guys, you wanna make some real money, get some real girls!  I wouldn’t have paid but other suckers will.

So incredibly mad at the time, looking back it is a pretty good story.  I was genuinely scared when those bouncers/mob guys whatever they were came over and put their hand on my shoulder.  That crossed some comfort lines.  I can say with absolutely certainty I have never paid more for one beer.

At the end of it all, it’s just one more successful interaction between Muslims and Christians, I guess…

Now, please excuse me, as I’m safely in Milan and there is much vino to be had, pastas to be sampled, and pizzas to savor.

A domani…

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Nova Roma (or Hong Kong)

January 1, 2010 · Posted in Travel · 1 Comment 

This must be what the future will be like, someday, in America.  Trains are clean and almost noise-less.  Streets are clean.  Cars run on garbage and….okay something like that.  They do make toy trains out of solid lead and mercury still so it’s not perfect yet.  The best analogy I can come up with is that Hong Kong in 2010 is probably what New York would have looked like in the 1920’s if, in the 1920’s, we possessed the same level of technology we do today.  That’s just my best guess.  I have no idea.  But there’s an opulence here not often matched in the US with the exception of some parts of Vegas and maybe a few others.  Here, it is ubiquitous.  Down every street is another watch store selling $5,000 US watches, or handmade Italian leather bags, and, wait, there’s yet another Ferragamo store.  (Although, to be fair, just while switching planes in the Tokyo Narita airport, I saw two Ferragamo stores.  Within 400 yards of each other.)

I am probably most jealous of the train system here.  It’s dorky but I don’t buy $5,000 watches every day.  Or ever.  I ride the train every day back home.  The stations are well-lit, super clean, they don’t smell, and there are doors separating you from the tracks.  This keeps the grime from the train out of the station.  Novel concept, I know.  Doors.  Whudathunkit?  The cars themselves are nicer, and they’ve done away with doors in the middle of the cars so it looks like one giant tube careening through the city at warp speed.  (I guess you add some doors, you lose some doors…)  Really a well-designed, convenient and clean system.

Super clean, right?  I guess if you have all sorts of animal-related flu running around you’ve got to be careful.

Hong Kong itself is divided into two major parts, more or less.  Hong Kong proper, which is the island, and Kowloon, which is on but not part of the mainland.  I’m staying in Kowloon, and I actually appreciate this side more.  Hong Kong proper feels a bit too sterile, a bit too clean, and almost contrived at parts.  Kowloon is a bit more real and I think provides a bit more culture.  But this is just my been-here-for-two-days-don’t-speak-the-language-so-what-do-I-know opinion.  Take it for what it’s worth.

My trip here started with a bump to Business Class – and – being suspicious, I demanded to know why.  They said “No reason, but we can put you back in coach if you like.”  No thank you!  I will fly business class, if you insist Mr. United person.  I think it might have been the “I’m not carrying an I.E.D.” upgrade special, who knows?  Quick travel note : security actually wasn’t that bad.  I think the deepest darkest pits of hell are reserved for TSA operatives and their sniveling governmental counterparts, so it takes a lot for me to admit that.  I guess technically they weren’t USA-based but it was a US airline and the US does like to bully around…

Flight got in on time, and I promptly took an hour nap.  I’d been up since 3:30 and was a bit tired.  Now where I took the nap was interesting – I checked into the Lee Guest House as recommended by Lonely Planet only to discover it was in the Fook Kiu Mansion.  I am not making this up. The Fook Kiu mansion.  I had to reread it a few times to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.

It was Wednesday, and most of the museums in HK are free on Wednesday.  I grabbed a quick bowl of braised brisket, water spinach, and noodles in soup, and visited the HK Museum of Art, the Museum of Space, walked along the pier in Kowloon, visited the Avenue of Stars, and watched sunset over the harbor.

Also got a few good shots once sun went down….

The building with all the triangles is an I.M. Pei-designed building that houses the new Bank of China HQ.  There’s a public viewing gallery located on the 43rd floor (also free) but it was pretty overcast on the 31st when I visited.

Most of the 31st was spent hunting for food – some of which I found, most of which I didn’t.  I did find Kau Kee (21 Gough street, Sheung Wan)  that was listed in T&L 30 Dishes worth traveling for.  It was an honorable mention in the “Under $5” section but deserves a place in the top 30 I think.  They serve little soup bowl of four different kinds of noodle and about six or so different kinds of meat.  I’m not entirely sure – I was given 30 seconds to look at the menu.  I ate two – one was a plain braised beef brisket with rice noodles in a traditional broth.  The second was a curried braised beef brisket with tendon, egg noodles, and a thicker broth.  You’ll notice the use of braised meats here – yet another reason why I love this country.  Braising is the best way to cook meat IMO and damn near everything here is braised.  Wonderful.  Anyway Kau Kee has a huge line out the door so it’s hard to miss.  They sit you at a table with a bunch of other people and since I was alone, I ate with six Chinese men and two women, all over 45 years old.  They just stared me for like 20 minutes wondering what the hell I was doing in their beloved noodle shop.  The wait and the stares were worth it.  Hands down some of the best soup I’ve ever had.  Up there with Pho, for sure.  I don’t have a picture because I was too nervous to take one…

And of course, I saw the fireworks over the harbor.  They shot them off of 2 IFC which was actually pretty cool to see.  The display itself wasn’t that big (and in America we know bigger means better) but I guess the logistics of firing rockets off the sides of a glass building sort of impose some limits to what you can actually do?

Fireworks off the building…

Friday, the 1st, was pretty low key.  After hearing much ado about this movie, I went to see Avatar in 3-D and all I can say is WOW.  Go see it in IMAX 3-D.  It was that incredible.  The theatre was located in “one of the poshest shopping malls in Hong Kong” according to one of the websites I looked at.  It was actually an enjoyable mall to visit, which was weird.  Usually I find malls incredibly annoying, filled with dirty rude teenagers and out-of-towners not realizing they’re overpaying for whatever they’re buying.  (Guilty on this last count for this particular mall.)  But Festival Walk had an ice rink built in and so I sat and watched little kids practice eventually win gold medals or else!  The theatre itself was sort of amusing – it had signs everywhere saying “Outside food and beverage (EXCEPT STARBUCKS) forbidden!” (Caps theirs)  I guess Starbucks is doing pretty well over here…

I ate at a little cheap place called mi2Cool – a Japanese place through and through.  I got these little fried dumplings for about $3US.  Not bad for cheap mall food –

After a hard day of shopping, I decided to spend the night…shopping.  The Temple Street Night Market was one of my favorite things about Hong Kong.  It’s hard not to smile just wandering around – crowds are everywhere, street stall-type restaurants spill out into the streets and the smells waft over the booths, drawing you in.  If you can spare the time, wait in one of the insane lines for the two or three most popular restaurants.  One was Four Seasons Rice, another was called Hing Kee restaurant.  Although Hing Kee seemed to be a restaurant in about 12 different buildings – it confused me a bit.  The market itself sells every kind of good imaginable from flashlights to leather goods to ironic t-shirts of Che or Chairman Mao to paintings to lighters to underwear to jewelry to socks to…and so on.  (PG – 13 warning)  There was even a particular strip selling all manner of weird sex toys including something called an inflatable anus.  I have no idea what one does with that…

After the market I walked down to the Peninsula Hotel where the Felix bar on the 28th floor looks out over the harbor.  While the view was great, and the bar itself was nice, the bathroom steals the show.  Philippe Starck designed the men’s room to give you a very unique experience.  I think he designed it with 55 year old white male corporate execs in mind who spend their days pissing on the little people because, frankly, you get the feeling you’re doing just that when you’re at one of his urinals.

So the black thing is the urinal and yes, that’s a window looking out over Kowloon.  I was watching people go about their jobs in their offices right across the street.  For those of us who don’t spend our days pissing on people below us, it gives a good approximation of what it’s like to be The Man.  I quite enjoyed it.  <there’s no ironic emoticon to go here..>  I kind of want one in my house, sans window.  Or maybe with window, who knows.

I’m currently at the airport, waiting for my flight to take me to Istanbul.  I probably won’t post there because I only have two days and somehow I feel like your life will be just fine if I don’t post for a bit.  I will have another one coming out soon that I’ve time-delayed to post so if you in fact won’t be fine, you’ll have a short note to keep you company.

Next time I write I will have traveled about 2/3 of the way around the world.

A domani…

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Goodnight Saigon…

December 30, 2009 · Posted in Travel · Comments Off on Goodnight Saigon… 

I figured I’d leave Vietnam with a few last notes about what we did since the escape from the Khmers.  Even though I am in Hong Kong by now, this will still count as a Vietnam post for those of you keeping score.

To bring you back up to speed, Alex and Brandy were the only ones actually trapped in Cambodia.  My entrapment was more of the hunger strike variety – solidarity, strength in numbers, self imposed.  That kind of noble B.S.  But, deciding that I’d had enough of that, I left them to fend for themselves and went back to Vietnam.  I had a day to myself, so I went to see Reunification Palace and walk around HCMC by myself for once.

This is Christmas Eve so after Alex and Brandy returned, we went out for a nice dinner and then to the Sheraton for drinks – they have a nice bar that overlooks the city.  Or tried to go anyway – the city had lost its collective mind.  Apparently Christmas Eve is a huge party in Vietnam.  But not like a party in the US, where some city council or something has to organize it and there better be at least 15 beer tents or everyone is going home.  No, there was nothing official set up.  The city was decked out in lights, sure, but other than that no official “event” so to speak.  AND no booze!  And yet, there half of Ho Chi Minh City was (that’s 3.5 million people, crowded into three square blocks) just hanging out on Christmas Eve.  Spraying everyone within a mile radius with fake snow.  I got hit twice.  By high schoolers.  Everyone’s just sort of hanging out, walking around, driving around on their scooters, just enjoying being outside.

The next day we left of Long Hai – a beach resort about two hours away from Saigon.  We stayed at this resort here: Anoasis Beach Resort

That’s actually a complete lie.  I just made that up.  What we actually did was snuck into that resort.  It’s amazing what people will let you get away with if you just walk in.  Our “hotel” was a place that used to be an old military barracks and is still run by the Navy.  (Vietnamese, not US, in case there’s any confusion.)  The beach there wasn’t so nice, so we walked over to Anoasis.  We asked to use their chairs and bungalow on the beach and just like that, we were in.  The lifeguard then brought us over towels from the resort, and any of you Douglas Adams fans should know where this is going.  Smart travelers always carry a towel.  Once we had the towel, moving from the beach to the bar and pool was a smooth transition.  We had towels.  We were legit.  Rock on, Arthur Dent.

The only restaurants were these things called Can Tin 1, 2, 3, and 4.  Yup.  So we did what any self-respecting traveler to a fishing town does.  We ordered enough crab to feed a small village.

Christmas Dinner!

We had regular crab, deep fried crab, and then crab tamarind which was by far the crowd favorite.

Another lazy day at the beach/pool, and then back for a mad dash through Saigon in seven meals.  We weren’t counting days nor hours.  Only the amount of food we could reasonably fit in before I left for Hong Kong.  You’ve already seen some of the pictures if you’ve been reading…

Here’s a quick picture synopsis of the last few days:

Cho Lon market – kind of like a giant CostCo for all the smaller markets in Saigon.

This guy was too cool NOT to photograph…

I am NOT supposed to be driving here.  Pretty convinced I was going to die…

Crispy pho @ Pho Ta – my absolute favorite dish in Vietnam.

Our last night was very chill as I got up at 3:30 this morning to get to Hong Kong.

A thousand thanks to Alex and Brandy for an incredibly memorable, fun-filled, amazing trip!  The return trip cannot come soon enough.

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Banh Mi & Le Camargue

December 28, 2009 · Posted in Travel · 1 Comment 

This will probably be my last post before I leave Vietnam and since the sandwich deserves more space than what I’ve actually done in the past few weeks, I will hopefully update from Milan.

Travel & Leisure recently published a list of 30 foods worth traveling for, and the food from HCMC is a Banh Mi sandwich.  Located at 37 Nguyen Trai street, it is a small street cart selling one of the most amazing sandwiches I’ve ever eaten.  It’s only open from 4:00 p.m. until about 9:00 – but get there early because the lines start almost immediately.  Heaping mounds of ground pork are grilled over a small wood burning stove, and seasoned with some sort of magic Vietnamese spice.  The sandwich is fairly simple from there – silver dollar size pieces of pork, about 6 to 8, cucumbers, carrots, cilantro, and a slightly spicy chili sauce.

The completed sandwich

Grilling the pork.

The best part – these sandwiches cost 10,000 VND apiece – right about $0.50.  Alex and I ate two.

After we did some other stuff for the rest of the day, we enjoyed a French dinner at Le Camargue.  Due to the whole “occupation” thing, the French food in HCMC is excellent.  Let’s do pictures first this time, then descriptions.

Top to bottom it is:

– Shallot chips

– Microgreens

– Foie Gras – about a 5 oz piece

– 8 oz Filet Mignon cooked perfectly medium rare

– Truffle salted potato pancake

The skewer on the side is preventing the roasted garlic and cherry tomatoes from escaping.  While perfectly cooking a steak, especially one as thick as this filet, is extremely difficult, the most impressive piece of this dish from a culinary perspective was the potato, in my opinion.  Most of the time one aspect of the potato pancake is off – either it’s not crispy enough, not flavorful enough, or the inside it either too soggy or too dry.  This one, however, was perfectly browned on the outside while the interior had the consistency of a perfect gratin.  And who can forget the truffle salt…

The construction of the dish was also interesting – if you took a full bite you encountered the sweet silkiness of the foie gras, the meatiness of the filet, and the delicate crunch of the potato pancake in perfect progression.

And, because everything here is so cheap, I saved the receipt so I could recreate the entire meal for you.

1 Mouton Rothschild

1 Artichoke “Cappuccino” soup

1 Sea scallops over mango chutney

2 Filet Mignon & Foie gras

1 Filet of Duck

1 Tube chocolat’ – three chocolate cookies in the shape of large straws, stuffed with marscapone

1 Turkish coffe, 1 cappuccino, 1 latte

$159.40

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Ca Phe Sua Da

December 18, 2009 · Posted in Travel · 1 Comment 

Sorry this first update took me a few days to get out – I’ve been out in Saigon, too scared to cross the street to get back to Alex & Brandy’s apartment.

Rush hour in Saigon

After sleeping most of the first day, it was time to get out of bed and actually, you know, do something.  Breakfast was at Pho 24 after which my first stop was the tailor, to get two custom suits fitted.  I have my priorities.  Next up was the Ben Thanh Market – a permanent bazaar of every type of good, foodstuff, and knickknack imaginable.  Picked up a few presents for the siblings then moved on…

Quan An Ngnon, which basically means “stall restaurant” is a collection of street food vendors all under one roof.  We snacked before heading onto our next tourist attraction, the War Remnants Museum.  I chose a sticky rice and shredded pork dish, topped with deep fried shallots, called Xoi Man.  A&B tell me the ingredient under the green onion is another type of pork, but I’m not convinced.  Either way it  was delicious, and the dish itself provided a nice combination of textures and different flavors.  A perfect mid-day snack.

Sticky rice and shredded pork

No one was prepared for the War Remnants Museum.  As you enter you see the old planes, tanks, and guns and begin to think it’s going to be like any war museum you might see in the US.  Mostly heroic and not designed to shock you at all.  About halfway through the exhibit on Tiger Cages all three of us had to sit down and collect ourselves.  It was an extremely graphic depiction of actions taken by the South Vietnamese and United States soldiers during the war.  Granted this was a museum built by the North Vietnamese government so it had its intended purpose.  But while propaganda can and does lie, pictures don’t.

At night, in full “starving student/tourist” mode, we snuck into the opening of the new Hard Rock Cafe and proceeded to drink and eat for free for about an hour and a half.  I am not usually a dessert person, but they were handing out these little chocolate coconut cakes that were the closest thing to heaven in a paper cup I’ve ever seen.  I must have eaten about 15 of those before we left for our actual dinner.  We did, of course, make sure to stop by the new Paris Hilton boutique on our way out…

According to Facebook, today was supposed to be the day we left for Cambodia.  However, the travel agent who was supposed to renew A&B’s visas decided to leave this particular job until the last possible minute, and then inform Alex he cannot process the request.  So we’re leaving tomorrow (Saturday) instead, and they have to actually get their visas in Cambodia.  So we may or may not actually make it back…

Breakfast today was at a place called Pho Ta, where Brandy and I both ordered a dish called Crispy Pho.  Crispy Pho is essentially pho noodles deep fried (noticing a trend, anyone?) topped with all the ingredients of regular pho.  It is, quite simply, a dish that if done right, is worthy of a marriage proposal right then and there.

Since yesterday was such a long, exhausting day, we decided to get foot massages to heal our feet.  Before you get any crazy ideas, we ONLY got foot massages.  They sit us down all in the same room on these lay-z-boy-esque chairs and in walks a girl who can’t be more than 80 pounds.  No way is she going be able to apply the kind of pressure my feet need.  Well…either the laws of physics don’t apply here, or the engineers at Ford and GM ought to be embarrassed by the measly power to weight ratios they generate on their trucks.  This little Vietnamese lady had such a death grip on the tendons in my heel, I wasn’t sure I was going to walk again.  Thankfully I am fine – but I’m still in shock how much fight that 80 pounder had in her.

Continuing with the foodie part of this trip, we stopped at Thai Bin market.  Thai Bin makes Ben Thanh look like a US shopping mall.  The stalls were closer together, the fish were all still flopping around, the excess water from the stalls was running through the street, and the unmistakable stench of life in the city wafted from every square inch of the place.  Sides of pork, sitting out in the 90 degree heat.  Whole octopus.  15 different sizes of shrimp and prawn.  Clams.  Mussels.  Fish still swimming around in makeshift ponds.  Vegetables so freshly picked, the vendors are cleaning them off as we walk by, making sure to splash you with at least some of the muddy water.  BBQ pork, whole chickens, spring and summer rolls, Bahn Mi, fresh flan, Chinese sausages, and some pickled things in jars that honestly belonged in my sister’s anatomy lab.  Now this was a real market.  Green City, I love you and all, but only when you disregard any and all thought of hygiene will you compare with the Thai Bin market in Saigon.

Fish @ the Thai Bin Market

We leave for Cambodia at 6:30 a.m. tomorrow and I probably won’t write until we return on the 23rd.

I have been in Vietnam for a few days now and it’s interesting to be in a place where I have absolutely no clue what the language means.  I do, however, know how to say one thing very well.

Ca Phe Sua Da.

Iced coffee with milk…

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