4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Big Cities”

Vivid Colors of Coyoacán & Xochimilco (by Carmen)

The glorious and very clean DF metro

The glorious and very clean DF metro takes you to the outer reaches of the city

There is much to see in the center of DF, but even more possibilities exist in the outer neighborhoods. Thankfully, the excellent public transport system made it possible to make it out to these areas without too much trouble. From the variety of choices, we narrowed our sights to two ‘hoods: Coyoacan and Xochimilco.

Coyoacan (coyote) main plaza

Coyoacan (coyote) main plaza

The cobblestone streets of Coyoacan feel worlds away from the broad boulevards just north of the neighborhood. Once its own village, Coyoacan was eventually swallowed up by the urban sprawl of DF. Cozy boutiques line Avenida Francisco Sosa which eventually opens up to the small, cozy plaza that forms the heart of the area.

Nathan at Frida’s

Nathan at Frida’s

The major draw to Coyacan for most people is Frida Khalo. She and her on-again / off-again husband Diego Rivera lived in a bright blue house not far from the plaza. I admire Frida for being strong, independent and eccentric at a time when these traits were not valued in women. Apparently, I’m not the only one since the museum was packed. Something new I learned while there is that the couple were passionate socialists. They even welcomed Leon Trotsky and his wife in their home when they were exiled from the Soviet Union. Trotsky eventually settled in a house down the street where shortly thereafter he was dramatically assassinated by a USSR sympathizer.

Posole

Posole

We didn’t have long to soak in the tranquil atmosphere of Coyoacan before the weather turned and rain came pouring down in sheets. Seeking shelter, we ducked into a covered market lined with posole (pork stew) stalls. Posole is in the upper echelons of comfort food. Pork is slow cooked over many hours then spiced with garlic, cumin and chiles to provide a rich, deeply flavorful broth. Traditional accompaniments include hominy, fresh radishes, chopped onion, cilantro and lime. Our stall gave us the choice of pork shoulder or head meat to mix into our broth and we just knew this was going to be good. That first bite was magical with the slow cooked meat and sweet hominy contrasting with the crisp fresh toppings. We journeyed back to the city center soaking from the rain but warmed from within by posole.

Busy boats in the canals of Xochimilco

Busy boats in the canals of Xochimilco

On a sunnier day, we debated making another journey from the center of DF. I was heavily undecided about whether to go to Xochimilco (pronounced sho-chi-MEEL-ko). On the one hand, the lively collection of boats gliding down an ancient canal seemed like a fun party. On the other hand, it could easily turn into a tourist free for all where everywhere we turn we are being pressured to make a purchase or tip for something. Armed with directions from our hostel owner (the gracious Alfonso from Anys Hostal) we hoped for the best and headed into DF’s deep south to find Xochimilco.

Xochimilco is now a neighborhood of DF but at one time it was a separate village, a satellite of the Aztec city of Teotitlán. When the Spanish arrived, the entire Mexico City basin was a lake so the only way to live in it was by building up canals and small islands (think Venice). While the rest of DF has largely lost the canals (which has lead to water problems and the spongy soil issues I’d mentioned in earlier posts), these centuries old waterways can still be found in Xochimilco. Each weekend, hundreds of people descend on this sleepy section of town to hop on a lancha (gondola-like boat). The owners have gussied up their lachas to attract business such that each has become a riot of colors. Floating services have popped up – some serve food or drinks while others contain mariachi bands to entertain you.

Colorful boats!

Colorful boats!

We made it to Xochimilco on a Sunday since we heard the weekdays were pretty tame. I’m glad we did because I feel like we were able to blend in with the crowds more and observe the fun. This also meant that many markets were in full swing so we took our time to explore them. We snacked on coctel de camarón (shrimp cocktail), admired the chicharrones (fried pork skin) and ate and long-stewed pork tacos.

Chicharrones in the market

Chicharrones in the market

Market stalls of Xochimilco

Market stalls of Xochimilco

There are many different embarcaderos (docks) from which one can depart on a privately rented boat but we were hoping to get to the lancha colectiva (ferry) that we could share. After a moderately long walk from the light rail station to Embarcadero Nativitas, we found a our ferry which charged us M$30 each for an hour ride along the canals. (As a sidenote, if you are interested in getting a private rental the lanchas seemed to be going for M$300 per boat for 2 hours, plus tip.)

Micheladas

Michelada time

To kill some time before our ferry’s departure we celebrated our successful navigating skills with micheladas. A michelada is typically a beer with lime squeezed in it served with a salted rim glass. The place we went skipped the salt and instead added a sticky, sweet and salty chayote paste to the rim. It was messy but somehow that matched the scene. As we alternated sipping our beer and licking the slowly dripping red paste off our cups we watched the jumble of colorful lanchas narrowly missing collisions interspersed with the vendor boats racing each other for sales.

The craziness continued as our lancha launched into the thick of it. The bands played songs, people sang, people danced, people fell off the boats. It was a great party to celebrate our arrival to Mexico.

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Exploring Mexico’s capital, DF (by Carmen)

After all of our travels around the world, it took much longer than expected to find my way to Mexico. I think it was simply too close to home. In the literal sense, since growing up in Southern California meant I was never more than 150 miles from the Mexican border. On top of that, the huge Mexican population in California means it’s easy to find mariachi or salsa music in the streets, piñata stores and taquerías. And on top of that, I’m half Mexican. So a bit of the culture goes with me wherever I go.

Beautiful church interior in DF

Beautiful church interior in DF

Nonetheless, my visit to Mexico floored me. I thought I knew what I was getting into but at every turn I was humbled by the kindness, beauty and generosity of the people I encountered. The food was fresher and more scrumptious than I thought it could be. The landscapes were grand and varied. In short, it was a welcome international trip after nearly a year and a half of staying close to home.

Zócolo in DF

Zócolo in DF

Nathan and my visit to Mexico began in the capital, Districto Federal (DF). Over our days there we learned the fascinating and lengthy history of this great city. One common thread throughout the turmoil of wars and conquests is that the city has maintained the same main square, known as the zócolo. It’s huge. It’s one of the biggest in the world (after the Red Square in Moscow and Tiananmen in Beijing). Even the word zócolo shows its age as this a word originating from the Aztec language, Nahuatl, rather than Spanish.

Catedral Metropolitana

Catedral Metropolitana

Catedral roof

Catedral roof

On its northern edge, the Metropolitan Cathedral stands guard as one of the first buildings Hernán Cortés ordered to be built after conquering the Aztecs in 1520. If you stand square with the cathedral and look closely, you realize it’s actually kind of tilted. That has to do with the notoriously spongy soil of DF in which the heavy stone buildings fare particularly poorly. Soon enough, Nathan and my game was to point out all the churches, fountains or archways that were obviously sinking in precarious ways. This was pretty much all major structures more than a couple hundred years old.

Pan Ideal

Pan Ideal

The entire neighborhood surrounding the zócolo is filled with colonial architecture. In one of the more cavernous historic buildings, I noted Pan Ideal. Streams of people were exiting the panadería (bakery) with white pastry boxes decorated with a blue and red floral motif. All panaderías operate the same way, whether a huge one like this or the small ones in your local town: you grab a tray and some tongs when you walk in and fill up the tray with whatever takes your fancy. Take the tray to the counter where they will calculate the amount you owe. Either pay them or head to the cashier with your bill. At Pan Ideal, most people were buying fully trays of pan dulce (sweet bread) such empanadas (stuffed dough pockets), conchas (literally shells; bread rolls with strips of sugar) and orejas (literally ears; flat, thin, crispy pastries). We only had room for a couple pastries which presented some tough choices as there were dozens of options!

Palacio de Bellas Artes

Palacio de Bellas Artes

Central Post Office interior

Central Post Office interior

A little further west of the zócolo the narrow streets of the colonial corridors open up to the Alameda, a nicely landscaped park the offers a bit of peace from the crowds. Up against the park’s east side, the colorful tiled dome of the Palacio de Bellas Artes peaks out. Taking many years to complete, this cultural center has a somewhat art nouveau exterior but a geometrically deco interior. Both are stunning. But what really took our breath away was the nearby central post office, covered in gold and intricate metalwork.

Churros at El Moro

Churros at El Moro

Nearby, we made another sweets stop, this time for churros. Thanks to the ubiquity of churros at American amusement parks and fairs, this is probably the only Mexican dessert most Americans are aware of. Which is too bad given the scrumptiousness of pan dulce, flan, arroz con leche, tres leches, etc. I rarely eat churros but since this churrería dates from 1930, I decided I should make room. The traditional way to eat churros (as they also do in Spain, where this dessert originates) is to dip them into thick warm chocolate. El Moro offered various types of dipping chocolate and we happily sampled two. It was the type of good that make your eyes roll back in pleasurable bliss.

Geometric traffic divider on Paseo de la Reforma

Geometric traffic divider on Paseo de la Reforma

The buildings continue to modernize as one moves further west from the Alameda, with most high rise and new construction centering on Paseo de la Reforma. This huge boulevard, punctuated with ornate glorietas (traffic circles), is generally choked with traffic. But on Sundays, from 9am-12pm, the street is gloriously bike and pedestrian-only.

La Casa de Toño

La Casa de Toño

The streets narrow again and leafy trees provide shade in the Zona Rosa neighborhood, which contains an unexpected mix of embassies, Korean businesses and gay bars. It’s also home to the first restaurant we ate at in DF, La Casa de Toño. There is a perpetual crowd of people waiting outside but it goes by quick and the service is prompt and friendly. We gorged on sopes, tostadas, and pozol (a pork and hominy stew).

Tclayuda in the bosque

Tclayuda in the bosque

DF is a sprawling city so accordingly the Bosque de Chapultepec provides sprawling green space in the form of a huge wooded park. This name is a mix of Spanish and Nahuatl translating to Grasshopper Forest and has been an important site since pre-Hispanic times. Today, the park is dotted with museums and cultural institutions and each major walkway is lined with vendors selling everything from face painting to knickknacks to snacks. We of course focused on the snacks : ) We gravitated to a tclayuda stand with lots of turn over. Tclayudas are similar to tostadas with a crisped, rustic tortilla being smeared with a thin layer of mashed beans, then topped with onions, salsa, cream and queso fresco (fresh cheese). A light, healthy-feeling snack.

Gordita

Late night gordita

While the city center shows the colonial heart of DF, and Paseo de Reforma it’s economic strength, then the Roma and Condessa areas are its youthful hipness. Our Roma-located hostel was a short walk to many stylish restaurants, bars and coffee shops. While they were enticing, we didn’t actually go to many of them as we were hard bent on eating only the most authentic and delicious food we could find. Often, this was on the street, which is how we found ourselves gulping down gorditas (literally little fatties) late one night on the walk between our hostel and the metro. The masa (cornmeal dough) was being formed right in front of us, fried, then stuffed with a delicious filling of carnitas (braised pork) before a final pass on the griddle. Topped with salsa, washed down with Senorial (Nathan’s favorite mexican soda), what more could you ask for?

Amsterdam Street in Condessa

Amsterdam Street in Condessa

Chilaquiles

Chilaquiles

Beyond just the food scene, Roma and Condessa are full of beautiful tree-lined streets that are perfect for wandering. We often found ourselves drawn to Amsterdam Street, an oval street that encompasses Parque Espana. It has a graveled path down the center for runners, pedestrians and dogs to meander without the congested traffic persistent in other parts of the city. It was around Amsterdam Street that we often did plonk ourselves down at one of the aforementioned stylish cafes to watch the world go by. One morning while we walked in the neighborhood, we stopped to order a favorite breakfast of mine, chilaquiles. Fried tortilla strips are topped with a tomatillo sauce, cream, cheese and egg are mixed for a most satisfying way to start the day.

Trip planning over café and conchas

Trip planning over café and conchas

I’m realizing that this is a huge post, but perhaps that gives a sense of the scale of DF as it’s one of the biggest cities in the world. We barely scratched the surface yet still experienced so much. And this post doesn’t even cover the outer neighborhoods or pyramid excursions or the amazing array of tacos yet! But we’ll get there. All in due time.

Manhattan-henge (by Carmen)

Empire State Building + Manhattan-henge!

Empire State Building + Manhattan-henge!

Twice a year thousands of people collect on the main east-west arterials of New York City to worship the sun. Or at least take a million pictures of the sun as it sets exactly aligned with the city’s street grid. The event known as Manhattan-henge occurs approximately 25 days before and after the summer solstice. Nathan and I were one of the revelers on a spontaneous Friday night out in our adopted city.  This year, Manhattan-henge fell on July 11, which, happened to be a Friday!

Astor Wine & Spirits - our local booze source

Astor Wine & Spirits – our local booze source

Friday nights are always my favorite. It generally starts with a stop at Astor Wine & Spirits, our local wine shop. Most days of the week, Astor offers generous samples from the abundant collection. We’ve tasted wines from around the world – even a $250 Cristal Champagne! In addition to wine we’ve had smokey whiskeys, peaty scotches, grilled corn infused mescal…all at no charge. It’s quite possibly the perfect wine shop. If only NY liquor laws allowed them to sell beer they’d be unstoppable.

Yay for bikesharing!

Yay for bikesharing!

After our tasting we decided that midtown would offer us the best Manhattan-henge viewing. We hopped on a citibike and cycled our way up to 34th street. I LOVE citibike. Combined with the bike lanes that are being added throughout the city, I’ve always felt safe biking in New York. And it’s just fun to feel the breeze through your hair.

Sun worshipers

Sun worshipers

Almost there...

Almost there…

Sun down

Sun down

We finally made it to 34th Street with about 15 minutes until sunset. A cluster of tourists were already excitedly taking photos. We joined in the fun and pretended to be tourists ourselves by loudly talking about how much fun Times Square is (note: no locals say anything good about Times Square). I enjoyed watching the crowds as much as the sun. Because the best view is in the middle of the street, everyone waited for the light to change and then ran to the middle to snap away. Then the cars would honk and everyone ran back.

Japchae close up at Woorijip

Japchae close up at Woorijip

As the sun dipped below the horizon the throngs thinned quickly. We decided to take advantage of being near K-town and walked a whole three blocks to the pulsing, neon-lit stretch of Korean BBQ restaurants and karaoke bars. We just wanted a snack so made our way to Woorijip, a fast moving cafe with grab and go Korean food. I can never have enough japchae (stir-fried sweet potato noodles) or kimchi in my life. Not everything’s a winner here – go for things labeled “spicy” for the best experience.

Van Leeuwan sundae

Van Leeuwan sundae

Satiated, we took a quick subway ride back to East Village and remembered our PayPal deal. PayPal is eager for people to forget about those old fashioned things called credit cards and instead use their phone to make payments. They’ll even pay you to do it. So far, Nathan and I estimate that we’ve taken advantage of $500 of PayPal incentives. Sometimes the businesses that have offers aren’t worth it even with the discount but we’ve also found some real gems. When a deal comes up for a place we wanted to try anyway, all the better. Such was the case with Van Leeuwan ice cream shop. We bought a classic sundae to share with chocolate and vanilla ice cream, bittersweet hot fudge, walnuts, fresh whipped cream and house preserved cherries on top.

I originally set out to write a quick post about the phenomenon of Manhattan-henge. But as I thought back to the that night, I recalled all the other spontaneous activities surrounding the sunset that only seems possible in a place like New York. The city so seamlessly brings together a number of perks – easy access by bike and subway, the proximity of diverse neighborhoods, the many, many freebies. I remember feeling impressed by the novelty of all this when I was a tourist a few years ago. Now this is just another Friday night in NYC.

LA Dreaming (by Carmen)

We are in the cold depths of winter here in NYC. I haven’t had to live through a proper, snowy January since I was six so I was curious and a bit anxious to see how I’d handle it. The weather put up a real challenge complete with polar vortices and plenty of single digit days. Now that it’s the very end of January, I know that if this is some of the worst the city has to offer I will survive the coming years just fine.

Typical LA street - palm trees, low-rise buildings, baking sun, nobody walking.

Typical LA street – palm trees, low-rise buildings, baking sun, nobody walking.

That said, I’m still allowed to indulge in a little California dreaming on such a winter’s day. Specifically, I’m thinking back to my past summer spent in Los Angeles. Nathan and I had just got married in Chicago and for our honeymoon we landed in…my parents spare bedroom. At the wedding, everyone’s favorite question was, “After all your travels, where are you going to honeymoon?” What we really wanted, though, wasn’t a honeymoon but a home base from where we could decide on next steps and start the job hunt. In this regard, LA was a great place to set down our backpacks.

Meatball sliders at Bottega Louie

Meatball sliders at Bottega Louie

The dessert case at Bottega Louie

The dessert case at Bottega Louie

 As a lover of urban environments, I’m always attracted to the high rises and historic areas of downtown LA. In fact, this area is becoming so hip it was mentioned in the NY Times article “52 Places to Go in 2014.” A major favorite of mine in downtown LA is Bottega Louie. Somehow, the restaurant manages to make a crisp white and marble setting feel simultaneously glamorous and laid back. And the food is every bit as good as you hope it will be. I ordered a plate of mini meatball sliders which were juicy and rich. After the meal, the case of exquisite desserts and macarons towards the front of the restaurant beckons with a rainbow of colors and flavor choices.
Early gray pie at The Pie Hole

Early gray pie at The Pie Hole

Downtown LA's Art District

Downtown LA’s Art District

If you resisted the sweets at Bottega Louie (or even if you didn’t) head nearby to The Pie Hole. This hipster cafe is located in the LA Arts District which is full of industrial chic restaurants and stores. They serve a mix of sweet and savory pies each day. I really fell for the earl gray cream pie – it was the perfect base for that delicate bergamot flavor. I’m going to have to recreate that one at home. If I get it right, I’ll post the recipe.

The Hollywood Sign family shot

The Hollywood Sign family shot

Garden at the Getty Museum

Garden at the Getty Museum

We were so lucky to have Nathan’s aunt from Germany join us for our wedding. After Chicago, she swung by California and we joined her for a day of LA sightseeing. The Hollywood sign is always a must see for guests and afterwards we drove to the breathtaking Getty Museum. The grounds and views are just as stunning as the art inside.

Dodger Game

Dodger Game

What American summer is complete without a baseball game? We rounded up friends Joey and Michelle to join us on a warm summer evening at Dodger stadium. We sat among the die-hard fans dressed in cobalt blue…and I was reminded how slow the game is. I’m checking out an LA Galaxy game next time.

Nozomi

Nozomi

During our down time we didn’t venture too far from my parents’ neighborhood, a suburb of LA which happens to have a large Japanese community. We scouted out the best ramen joints, izakaya grills and sushi. In the raw fish department, Nozomi stood out for having incredibly fresh and silky uni, or sea urchin. I still dream about the uni I enjoyed at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo many years ago and this was the closest I’ve found so far.

The chefs

The chefs

Tomatoes galore at the farmers market

Tomatoes galore at the farmers market

A tangle of green onions at the farmers market

A tangle of green onions at the farmers market

When we decided to stay in, we took full advantage of my Dad’s large kitchen. It’s nice to have so many foodies in the family. In some households, discord arises regarding who will have to make dinner. We had the opposite problem – we had to agree on who would get the honor of cooking that night. So we made a menu board before our weekend trips to the farmers market. Oh, my beloved farmers markets. The beautiful California produce is a sight to behold and something I’ll always miss.

Key lime pie at Fishing with Dynamite

Key lime pie at Fishing with Dynamite

As we took turns cooking, we still couldn’t resist LA’s excellent restaurant scene. One of the places we enjoyed was Fishing with Dynamite, a cozy seafood themed restaurant from the same owner as the ever popular Manhattan Beach Post. Each small plate that landed on the table was a hit. And the key lime pie dessert rather speaks for itself.

Father's Office

Father’s Office

Burger at Father's Office

Burger at Father’s Office

Stout ribs at Father's Office

Stout ribs at Father’s Office

Another great find was Father’s Office. This is bar food done right. And that was the surprising thing when my family and I entered – this place really did feel like a bar. We got ID’d on the way in! But the food lived up to its stellar reputation. The burger is incredibly rich, as could be expected when it’s covered in cheese, caramelized onions and bacon, and is best for sharing. We also sampled the pork ribs marinated in stout, then covered in a sweet, spicy honey glaze. I understood why the place was packed.

Pupuseria La Flor Blanca

Pupuseria La Flor Blanca

Pupusas with cabbage slaw

Pupusas with cabbage slaw

While Modern American cuisine is gaining a strong foothold in the city, the ethnic enclaves are what I get most excited about. For example, Pupuseria La Flor Blanca. Nathan had been here a number of years ago and we were excited to discover that it was still around. It’s a simple affair with fake brick walls and formica table tops, but as soon as you enter the door you can hear the slap of the pupusas on the griddle. Our pupusa (a bean and cheese stuffed dough patty) combined with the sour tang of the cabbage slaw was exactly what we were looking for.

Bahn beo at Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa

Bahn beo at Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa

Half and Half boba with Kathleen

Half and Half boba with Kathleen

We sought out more hole-in-the wall restaurant recommendations from friends and struck gold again. My friend Kathleen joined us for a wonderful Vietnamese lunch at Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa in Rosemead. She selected the bahn beo which are steamed rice cakes topped with dried shrimp, green onions and crispy pork skin. They were silky, sweet, salty and took us right back to the markets of Vietnam. Next up was a platter with rice paper, various grilled meats, fresh herbs, bean sprouts, tofu – basically all the ingredients you could want to make your own delicious and fresh spring rolls. Though full after all our food we made it over to Half and Half Tea House for some monster cups of boba. Thanks, Kathleen, for the incredible finds!

Our favorite local bar, which we frequented with our awesome friends Michelle and David

Our favorite local bar, which we frequented with our awesome friends Michelle and David

Indeed, it was wonderful to have friends and family around again. Whether it was catching a baseball game, scarfing down Asian treats, sipping a drink at our favorite beach-side bar during happy hour or sitting down to share a home cooked meal, I’d say our “honeymoon” in LA was just what we needed.

Now share some of the good weather already!

Chicago Living (by Carmen)

Lake Michigan Coast

Lake Michigan Coast

Obligatory Cloudgate (or The Bean) shot

Obligatory Cloudgate (or The Bean) shot

We just couldn’t stay away. Our last visit to Chicago was during a July heat wave. We managed not to melt by visiting the beach and ducking into air conditioned restaurants for our fave regional eats – namely deep dish, hot dogs and anything by Rick Bayless. But it wasn’t enough. So this May, Nathan and I set down our backpacks for a whole month.

Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me recording

Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me recording

Wait, wait – why were we spending a whole month in the Windy City? Was this an extension of our travels? There was in fact a very specific reason to plop ourselves in this beautiful city by Lake Michigan. Our wedding was to take place at the end of May and we had a lot of planning to do! It was exciting but tiring times. To take a break from all the planning we fit in a few special meals, good beers, and fun shows. Like Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, the excellent NPR Saturday morning show recorded in downtown each week.

Spent a lot of time on our L platform

Spent a lot of time on our L platform

Revolution Brewing

Revolution Brewing

During our month in Chicago we were fortunate enough to stay with a family friend in the excellent Logan Square neighborhood. I thought it fitting that we were next to the California stop on the L (the name for the local train system). It was also fortunate to be very near one of the best breweries in the city – Revolution Brewing. The space has a huge wooden bar in the center of the lively restaurant. My personal favorite was the Rosa beer, which was a beautiful red color thanks to being brewed with hibiscus. It was a truly refreshing beer as the weather began warming up.

Longman & Eagle breakfast

Longman & Eagle breakfast

Lula Cafe cinnamon pasta

Lula Cafe cinnamon pasta

Logan Square has a lot to offer but two of my favorites are Longman & Eagle and Lula Cafe. The former is quite the multi-faceted business with a hotel, full bar and a restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner all on one site. The owners are able to pull it off it with style and as well as delicious food. I find the breakfast menu to be a particularly good deal so Nathan and I walked over one morning to enjoy chicken and waffles as well as a duck hash. Every time I eat there I wonder how they make their food so tasty.

Just across the square (actually more like a large roundabout) is Lula Cafe. The food was also of very high quality but in a comforting way. Like my pasta mixed with feta, cinnamon, garlic and brown butter. Simple, a little unusual, but ultimately delicious.

Kurowski Sausage Shop

Kurowski Sausage Shop

Polish goodies

Polish goodies

Speaking of comforting, Polish food ranks high for me in terms of homey goodness that just makes me happy. We found gold at Kurowski Sausage Shop, a grocery store full of delectable items like sauerkraut, kielbasa, borscht, dill pickle soup, hunter’s stew and, of course, lots and lots of pierogies. We happily stocked up and wondered if we could move in next door.

Urban Belly rice cake soup

Urban Belly rice cake soup

Belly Shack bulgogi

Belly Shack bulgogi

While I love Polish food, my heart will always belong to the cuisines of Asia. So I couldn’t wait to try Urban Belly. I went with a group and we each ordered a different soup. Through the variety of noodles (udon, rice, ramen and round rice discs), broth bases (chicken, pork), and spiciness levels one theme emerged – each bowl was incredibly scrumptious. We had such a good experience that Nathan and I took a group of family to Belly Shack, a sandwich shop from the same chef. I was a little worried that the group might prefer burgers and fries to the eclectic menu offerings at the shack (example: meatball and noodle sandwich) but everyone came away happy. I particularly enjoyed my bulgogi with flatbread and kimchee.

Fat Rice, a new fave

Fat Rice, a new fave

I thought Urban Belly was an unusual name, but then Fat Rice came and blew it out of the water. Turns out the name is a translation from the more elegant sounding arroz gordo, a specialty of Macau. The whole restaurant is dedicated to Macau cuisine which has a mix of influences – mostly Portuguese and Chinese but also a little bit of everywhere else the Portuguese went. I absolutely love when east meets west so this was right up my alley! While I really wanted to order the arroz gordo (a rice dish with a variety of meats and seafoods, chinese sausage, tea eggs, linguiça and sofrito) it is meant to serve 6. We still considered it though :) Instead we settled for Piri Piri Chicken with peanuts and potatoes in tomato sauce, Crazy Squid and large spears of stir-fried asparagus. Tangy, spicy, tingly, nutty, sour – everything melded together perfectly. From the concept to the food to the decor, this has become one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago.

Newlyweds

Newlyweds

Hot Doug’s hot dogs as celebration

Hot Doug’s hot dogs as celebration

And then we got married! Or at least it felt like it happened that fast. All the efforts of not only me and Nathan but our families culminated in what will forever be one of the best days of my life. A smile creeps onto my face anytime I think back to that wonderful weekend full of family, friend and love. And what better way to cement our union than to eat gloriously delicious hot dogs at Hot Doug’s?

Soaking in the modern “Flamingo” sculpture in Chicago downtown with friends

Soaking in the modern “Flamingo” sculpture in Chicago downtown with friends

Filafill

Filafill

Having so many of our family and friends in Chicago at the same time was somewhat surreal. We tried to spend as much time as we could with everyone over the wedding weekend. Most people wanted to check out downtown so we wandered around, admiring architecture together. When we needed refueling we visited Filafill, an excellent falafel and sandwich bar where you fill up your pita with as many sauces, pickles and veggies as you like.

Chicago’s sweet side (clockwise from top left: olive oil cake at Floriole; decadent doughnuts at Glazed & Infused; cookies and hot chocolate at Hot Chocolate, sundae at Margie’s Candies)

Chicago’s sweet side (clockwise from top left: olive oil cake at Floriole; decadent doughnuts at Glazed & Infused; cookies and hot chocolate at Hot Chocolate, sundae at Margie’s Candies)

I will leave this food heavy post off with a sweet ending – dessert! Nathan and I have sweet tooths to be sure. While we revisited Floriole for a moist olive oil cake we were happy to discover Glazed & Infused this time around. They offer some seriously decadent doughnuts in unique flavors like maple bacon. Based on a recommendation from my dad, we also made a trip to Hot Chocolate for (what else) hot chocolate. It was smooth and had perfectly balanced sweetness and richness. Finally, my favorite is Margie’s Candies, an institution since 1921. You walk in and you are transported back in time before artisanal gelato and fancy toppings. There is no salted caramel here. Just simple (but huge) sundaes with lots of hot fudge to drip over it. And you can’t forget the neon maraschino cherry on top!

Thank you, Chicago, for being a sweet setting for us to start a new chapter in our lives.

Hong Kong, the Finale (by Nathan)

Soup dumpling at Din Tai Fung

Soup dumpling at Din Tai Fung

The final hoorah to our around-the-world trip was here.  As I described in the previous post, Hong Kong has everything we love about travel.  There is fantastic public transit, jaw-dropping sights and mouth-drooling foods.  So much so that one post couldn’t handle it all.  Here is continuation of the days we spent exploring the ins and outs of the city and the surrounding mountains.

There are numerous excellent restaurants in Hong Kong.  And many of these have Michelin stars.  Since we are traveling on a budget we like to focus on value and Din Tai Fung is one of those amazing places that has fairly inexpensive and high-caliber food.  It was tucked into a mall but the service was top notch even down to the explanation card describing the proper consumption of a soup dumpling.  We dipped the xiao long bao dumplings in black vinegar and chili oil and slurped the soup contents through the paper thin skin.  We also ordered some noodles and seasonal greens, but we wished we had ordered one more bamboo basket of xiao long bao.

Tim Ho Wan dim sum

Tim Ho Wan dim sum

Baked barbecue pork bun at Tim Ho Wan

Baked barbecue pork bun at Tim Ho Wan

We kept on the theme of awesome restaurants and went to Tim Ho Wan, the most inexpensive Michelin star restaurant in the world!  And they sell dim sum!  Their prized piece is a baked pineapple bun filled with barbecue pork.  It was amazing, very sweet, but a nice variation off the cha siu bao we usually order.  The shrimp dumplings and cheung fun (folded rice noodle sheets) were exceptional.  We feasted and stuffed ourselves and waddled our way back onto the street.

Massage chair paper offerings, burn this at your ancestor’s grave and give them a comfortable afterlife

Massage chair paper offerings, burn this at your ancestor’s grave and give them a comfortable afterlife

Around the corner from Tim Ho Wan were a handful of stores selling various ancestral offerings.  One cardboard miniature massage chair could be bought alongside a whole feast of paper fruits, vegetables and meats.  These paper goods are then brought to a relative’s grave and burned.  The offerings are to ensure that they have these items in the afterlife!

Honeymoon dessert

Honeymoon dessert

If I was to die tomorrow I would want someone to bring me a Honeymoon Dessert.  There is something fun about these east/west fusion dessert place.  They make sweet soups of various jellies, lychee, longan and tapioca with coconut cream, almond milk or sesame sweet paste.  We splurged for some with sliced mango and green tea ice cream for some extra decadence.  We loved this place a several weeks ago when we were first in Hong Kong, so it was worth visiting again.

 Harbor at Stanley Beach


Harbor at Stanley Beach

Stanley Beach pier

Stanley Beach pier

This time in Hong Kong we wanted to see some areas that we had never been.  Stanley Market is extremely accessible on a one hour bus ride and seemed to be the perfect place to escape from the high-rises for an afternoon.  We sat on the upper story of a double decker bus that bounced up the mountainside; it was like a rollercoaster weaving and diving through the jungle.  The actual Stanley Market area was very touristy, but the walk along Stanley Beach was very peaceful and the pier had very pretty Victorian wrought iron.

Hong Kong island on a misty night

Hong Kong island on a misty night

Hong Kong Island’s skyline is beautiful at night.  The colors of the ICF tower and Bank of China stand out among the skyscrapers.  The mist of the bay added to the ambiance.  It is always enjoyable to walk along the avenue of the stars in the day time or at night.

High-rise city model

High-rise city model

The view northwest from Hong Kong Island

The view northwest from Hong Kong Island

Looking out from Bank of China building

Looking out from Bank of China building

There are two tall buildings that allow for visitors into the upper levels.  The viewing platform of the Bank of China building looks towards Kowloon and the ICF building has a monetary museum and a wall of glass that looks into the south hillside of Hong Kong Island.  I love the sheer number of fifty story buildings stacked on top of one another.

Lamma Island

Lamma Island

Caught in the rain

Caught in the rain

We explored all corners of Hong Kong so we hopped on a ferry.  Lamma Island does not allow any motored vehicles, only bicycles.  We arrived hungry and had an overpriced seafood meal, but spent most of the time walking up and down the mountains and around the island.  We walked from Yung Shue Wan to Sok
Kwu Wan where we ferried back to Hong Kong Island.  Just as we got off the ferry we got caught in a rain storm.  Not just any sprinkle but a full blown dumping from the heavens.  We had little resistance without an umbrella so obviously we wound up extremely wet.

Chowzhou feast

Chowzhou feast

Us with our friend Franco

Us with our friend Franco

We dried off and warmed ourselves with dry and waterproof clothing and we were back off to Kowloon.  (Of course, now that we had our rain jackets the rain stopped.)  We met with Franco, one of my friends from Cal, for dinner at a restaurant specializing in Chowzhou cuisine from northeast Canton.  We had sweet glazed pork that was one of the richest things I have ever eaten.  We also ordered fried oysters, cabbage soup, roasted duck and donuts with condensed milk.  The traditional tiny cups of Chowzhou tea were fun, especially when we learned that subtle nuances of cup holding can turn into a challenge to fight.

Da Ping Huo place setting

Da Ping Huo place setting

Twice cooked pork

Twice cooked pork

As one of our last meals in Hong Kong we wanted to revisit one of our favorite foods: Sichuan.  The first time we visited Hong Kong was in 2009 and we saw the description for Da Ping Huo in our guidebook.  Under the impression that it was a casual eatery, we made our way to the address in the book.  We searched and searched, but we could not find the entrance (turns out it was artistically hidden behind a sculpture at the time).  We did find a door in an alley that went through the kitchen.  We introduced ourselves to the kitchen staff and we sat down at a table awkwardly.  The place was much more upscale than we thought and we were definitely out of place in our shorts, t-shits and sandals.  Within minutes the dishes started to arrive and the kind owner did his best to explain each element to us.  In the end we had ten courses, each was spicier than the next; our mouth sizzled and tingled with numbness. It was great!  We were overstuffed and out-spiced, but we loved every minute of it.  The chef (the owner’s wife) even came out at the end of the evening and sang us a Chinese opera.  We had to return to Da Ping Huo when we returned to Hong Kong.

Ma po dofu

Ma po dofu

We (heart) Da Ping Huo

We (heart) Da Ping Huo

As all of our readers know, we have been training for this moment for the last year.  I have to say that I was scared to try the ten course meal again, it was not the spiciness, but ten dishes is easily two days’ worth of food and I did not want to feel sick on my last day in Hong Kong.  We opted for the five course lunch menu, which was absolutely perfect.  The food at Da Ping Huo is succulent, crispy and absolutely delicious.  They came with two classics: ma po dofu and twice-cooked pork (our favorites) as well as a chicken and cabbage soup, stir-fried potatoes and jelly soup for dessert.  I love this restaurant and it is essential to anyone’s visit to Hong Kong, especially if you do not make it to Sichuan.

Central market

Central market

It is the buildings that separate Hong Kong from cities around the world.  Few places have a number of skyscrapers that even stand close to Hong Kong.  There are places in Kowloon that have 43,000 inhabitants in a square kilometer!  I think that it is fantastic that even though some of the tallest buildings in the world stand overhead that there are still street side markets that serve every community.  One of my favorites is a series of tiny alleys and streets in Central HK with everything from touristy trinkets to fruits, vegetables and meats.  There are a handful of excellent markets around town- jade market is good for real and fake antiques, the woman’s night market in Kowloon offers some good deals and the Temple St Market has about anything and everything for souvenirs.

Crystal Jade at the airport!

Crystal Jade at the airport!

So, how do we pay tribute to a city that we enjoy and love so much?  While in Hong Kong, we decided that it would be nice to live here someday.  We have begun applying for jobs and hope to begin work this year.  This city has all the excitement that we love about the cities, with plenty of hiking available that us accessible by transit.   We will also be connected to travel more throughout Asia. Even the HK airport had one of our favorite restaurants- Crystal Jade.  We enjoyed a last meal of soup dumplings and spicy beef noodles.  It was bittersweet boarding our plane; on one note we were excited to see our families, but then we were sad to leave Asia and conclude our trip.  We know that travel will continue to be a theme of our lives, and Hong Kong will have a place in our hearts.

Although this post may be a “finale” to the around-the-world trip there is much more to be discussed on the 4feet2mouths blog.  In the next few weeks we will be sharing our summaries of the last seven month trip including our favorite places, experiences and meals.  We will begin a series blog posts discussing the planning, transportation and finances necessary to travel the world for fourteen months.  Do you want to know how to travel around the world on $50 per day?  I believe that most everyone can travel and we’ll show you how.

Eating Our Way Through Hong Kong, Again (by Nathan)

Urban density from ICF building

Urban density from ICF building

Flying into Hong Kong is such a wonderful and exciting experience.  We were both giddy in our seats to return to one of our favorite places on the planet.  We were having a great time in China, but Hong Kong is a magic place that brings out the best of East and West. Let’s recap:  we explored Yunnan and Southern China for a month then landed in Hong Kong to rejuvenate and refresh our visa.  We then when back into China to explore Hunan, Chongqing and Sichuan provinces.  Now, we have returned to Hong Kong as a final hoorah to our around-the-world trip.   In Hong Kong, we could continue eating the phenomenal Asian food we love as well as sample restaurants that pull their inspiration from every corner of the world.  The subway and transit in Hong Kong is one of the best we have ever experienced and it is especially nice to not have to push our way on as we did in China.  Clean bathrooms, English signage and menus and the lack of honking scooters make Hong Kong accessible to everyone.  I particularly love the density of Hong Kong; fifty story building tower in every direction.  People are everywhere, but Honk Kong does not feel crowded; it feels efficient, welcoming to visitors and entertaining in every direction.

View of Mong Kok from our Kowloon apartment.

View of Mong Kok from our Kowloon apartment.

We rented a small, but well organized apartment for a few days.  It was a studio with an efficient layout and plenty of room for two people.  We especially liked that one of the panels of the closet could be pushed inward to reveal the bathroom.  When the door was closed it was impossible to tell that there was another room beyond the wall of cabinets.  The view from the 16th floor was beautiful.  We had a great time watching the tiny ants of people scurry around the city streets.  Or we watched the groups of teenagers playing basketball. It was a cozy apartment in the middle of Kowloon and a fifteen minute walk in any direction would unveil thousands of restaurants.  Thus we had our work cut out for us.

Pork and rice clay pot at Four Seasons

Pork and rice clay pot at Four Seasons

A very busy Four Seasons restaurant near Temple St market

A very busy Four Seasons restaurant near Temple St market

We decided to start with some restaurants that we knew.  This is our third visit to Hong Kong each time we leave we could not wait to come back.  One of our favorite restaurants is Four Seasons Clay Pot.  They have a decently sized menu, but the real challenge is what to get in the clay pot; we ordered one with some Chinese sausage and pork and another with duck.  They bring the fired clay pot and practically slam it on the table.  We opened the lid squirted some soy sauce and hot sauce inside and placed the lid back over the top.  We learned that this is a good way to add some moisture to the pot and loosen the outer edges of rice that get crispy and sometimes burned.  This is a remarkably simple dish but the thirty person deep line outside is evidence that it is worth the visit.

 One of my favorite restaurants – Australia Dairy Company


One of my favorite restaurants – Australia Dairy Company

Macaroni soup, scrambled eggs and steamed egg custard at Australia Dairy Company

Macaroni soup, scrambled eggs and steamed egg custard at Australia Dairy Company

We could not visit Hong Kong without eating at this restaurant.  Australia Dairy Company epitomizes the Hong Kong diner by perfecting comfort food.  Unfortunately when we were here during spring festival the restaurant closed down from a week, but this time we were not going to miss out.  The waiters are a group of hyper attention deficit and gruff men. Within seconds of sitting you down they are hovering over you waiting for your order.  The environment is a little crazy at first, but I have learned to really enjoy how methodical and quick this place is.  We like a set menu that comes with a macaroni and ham soup that is rich well beyond its looks.  The set also comes with toast and scrambled eggs that are so light and fluffy that I have not successfully recreated them.  I think they must fold in beaten whites and fluffed butter into the yolks.  All this comes with a hot milk tea.  We also ordered one of their specialties- a steamed egg custard made from just the whites of the eggs.  We enjoyed our massive breakfast tucked into a tiny corner of the restaurant.  Both the food and the clientele reflected the influence and mix of cultures that makes Hong Kong great.

Peking Duck awesomeness

Peking Duck awesomeness

How could we resist making a duck taco?

How could we resist making a duck taco?

We did not visit Beijing this trip, but Hong Kong has everything, including one of the top rated Peking ducks in the country.  We walked right into this bowtie restaurant not knowing exactly what we were getting into.  Supposedly reservations were essential, but since we were only two people we had high aspirations.  To our great luck they had a table just for us.  We ordered a whole duck and some steamed vegetables to accompany it.  The ducks here are made to order so we had to wait a good 45 minutes for our duck to be injected with air, glazed and roasted.  They seal the duck and fill it with air to separate the skin from the body and create a crispy skin.  One chef is allowed to carve the ducks for the entire restaurant.  He pushes a small cart from the kitchen and sets to work.  He carves 1/4 inch slices starting from the neck and working down the body, each contains a crispy segment of skin.  He flips the carcass and repeats.  The waiters bring plates of cucumber, tender green garlic, hoisin sauce and Peking pancakes.  The round floury pancakes have a very close resemblance to tortillas; we combined all the ingredients and consumed our Chinese “tacos.”

Lin Heung pork and rice bowl

Lin Heung pork and rice bowl

Our last trip to Hong Kong involved one of our favorite dim sum places: Lin Heung.  Of course we returned and ordered a feast of dim sum.  This was a weekday so it was just slightly calmer than the last time we visited.  We ordered our usual array of sieu mai, ha gow, cha sieu bao and one additional pork and rice pot.

Man Mo Temple incense

Man Mo Temple incense

Just up the hill from Lin Heung is a beautiful temple.  The temple has been here for a couple hundred years and is a nice reminder of the traditional Chinese village that existed on Hong Kong Island before it became a financial headquarters to the world.

Delicious shortbread egg tart at Tai Cheong

Delicious shortbread egg tart at Tai Cheong

Flakey crust egg tart from Honolulu Bakery

Flakey crust egg tart from Honolulu Bakery

It was the Portuguese that invented the egg custard tart.  A convent in Lisbon had a habit using enormous amounts of egg whites to starch their habits. They searched for some use of their overabundance of egg yolks and egg custard tarts were born.  When the Portuguese created colonies around the world, they brought custard tarts with them and slowly the dessert made its way into Cantonese cuisine.  Now egg custard tarts are served throughout the world in dim sum restaurants and bakeries.  The tarts we ate in Lisbon were heavenly, but Hong Kong can create a few that are truly decadent.  There is actually an ongoing competition for the bakery that can make the best egg tart in Hong Kong.  We decided to try out two of them: Honolulu bakery, known for the best flakey crust and Tai Cheong, known for the best short bread crust.  Both tarts were phenomenal.  I liked the run-down diner feel of Honolulu bakery, but in terms of flavor I am a sucker for the buttery crunch of shortbread.  All in all, we ate quite a few egg tarts, but neither Carmen nor I could declare a true winner between these two.

Korean awesomeness

Korean awesomeness

After a few days in a rented apartment we decided to save some money and meet some new people.  We moved down the street to couchsurf with a new friend of ours.  He lived in a Korean neighborhood in Kowloon.  There were at least fifty Korean restaurants within two blocks of each other.  We ate kimchi pancakes, bimbibop, bulgogi and sweet potato noodles.  I love how in Korean restaurants they serve the set of tiny dishes filled with pickles, kimchi, radishes and daikon.

Hong Kong history museum

Hong Kong history museum

The Honk Kong history museum is one of the best museums we have ever been too.  It has this amazing layout that teaches the geological origins of the city through its present day modernization.  There is a cultural aspect of the tribes that first settled it and the traditional festivals that still continue.  Both Carmen and I love learning about a city, its origins and its development and learning about Hong Kong, one of our favorite cities, was just icing on the cake.

Checking out the view of Hong Kong Island

Checking out the view of Hong Kong Island

A challenge with Hong Kong, for us, is that there is just too much to do.  There are fantastic museums, exciting harbor walks, island boat ferries, high-rise mazes and exorbitant amounts of food to eat and try. I love Hong Kong, it’s big and beautiful and everything I enjoy about the city.   We conquered most of our favorite places, but now it was time to see some new things.  Of course, that will have to wait until our next post.

The Real Reason We Went To Chengdu Was To Eat! (by Nathan)

Sichuan snack sampler set (xiao chi tao can) at Long Chao Shou restaurant

Sichuan snack sampler set (xiao chi tao can) at Long Chao Shou restaurant

The pilgrimage continued in a different kind of way when we were in Chengdu.  This city is sacred because it contains one of the most delicious cuisines in the world- Sichuan.  Sichuan literally translates to “four rivers”. These waterways created fertile valleys that supported bountiful harvests and a highly advanced cuisine. When we finally made it to Chengdu we were overwhelmed with choices and the main challenge each day was deciding where and what to eat.  We couldn’t go wrong with Long Chao Shou restaurant that made huge platters of Sichuan street foods for those like us with a sacred appetite.

Wontons in numbing oil and fiery dan dan noodles

Wontons in numbing oil and fiery dan dan noodles

Sichuan peppercorns (photo credit: wikicommons)

Sichuan peppercorns (photo credit: wikicommons)

Carmen already covered what to do in Chengdu.  Those activities were fun, but I want to be honest with all of our readers, we really went to Chengdu to eat.   Sichuan peppercorns, for us, are way cuter than any panda bear.  Our love for Sichuan food actually began in Beijing during a cooking class in 2009.  An Australian friend we were cooking with encouraged us to chew on this tiny little pink peppercorn.  The rush of sour tastes was initially awkward, then later settled with intense salivation and saltiness.  The funny thing about Sichuan peppercorns is that they then numb the entire mouth.  The tingle strangely caught me off guard.  I pulled and tugged at my lips enjoying drunken dumbness of my mouth.  The feeling soon disappeared, but from that taste I was hooked and eager to use Sichuan peppercorns in everything.  We read the amazing autobiography (Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper) and cookbook (Land of Plenty) by Fushia Dunlop and our Chinese food skills quickly advanced.  I also threw the kernels in all sorts of dishes like pizza, barbecue sauce and deviled eggs.

Legendary mapo dofu

Legendary mapo dofu

A delicious chunk of gooey mapo tofu

A delicious chunk of gooey mapo tofu

Sichuan food is amazing because of its intense flavors and textures that are only matched by the best of world cuisines (Mexican, Thai & Indian- Sorry France, suck on my chili and peppercorns!).  A classic Sichuan Chinese dish is mapo dofu, tofu tossed into a fiery broth of broad bean paste, dried red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns.  A touch of sugar, dark soy sauce, black vinegar, green onions some ground bacon is all that is needed to make this magic.  The result is a dish that is a touch sour, but spicy and savory with a slightly sweet ending.  The tofu is flavorful and creamy, the peppercorns are crunchy and the green onions slightly crisp.  In Sichuan it was served more dramatically than in the States.  The oils in the bowl are still sizzling the tofu when it hits the table, and the whole thing is topped with an additional spoonful of ground peppercorns and red chilies (and probably MSG).

Twice Cooked Pork

Twice Cooked Pork

Another favorite of ours is hou guo rou (twice-cooked pork).  This dish is basically pork belly or bacon that is boiled, then removed and cooled.  The pork is sliced and wok-fried with green garlic and of course chili peppers.  Yes, it is fantastic and rarely disappointing.  We ate this dish five times while in Sichuan.

The best gong bao chicken we’ve ever had

The best gong bao chicken we’ve ever had

Stewed pork belly, gong bao ji and seasonal greens

Stewed pork belly, gong bao ji and seasonal greens

There is one Sichuan dish that has made it to Panda Express, but don’t insult the Sichuan food gods.  Gong bao chicken (better known as kung pao chicken) is from the heavens and they don’t mess around in Chengdu.  And funny enough we found a crowded no-name restaurant with wooden tables three blocks south of Mix hostel on Renmin Zhonglu.  Their gong bao stands as one of my top three food items of this entire trip.  Somehow it is the simplest and known dishes that surprise us sometimes.  The chicken was caramelized with sweet, salty spiciness.  The peanuts had extreme flavor and crunch compared to the ones I have cooked with.  The dried red peppers provided an easy way to intensify and mitigate the spiciness.  Oh, and there were some green onions in there just because ;)

Sichuan snack shop

Sichuan snack shop

We also found ourselves eating delicious street food served within tiny restaurants.  One classic shop was across the street from the Wenshu temple and across from Long Chao Shou that I described earlier.  They served maybe twenty types of Sichuan snacks from spiced bean jellies, to wontons and what we went for- the heart, and gut of Sichuan food – dan dan noodles.  This noodle dish is basically egg noodles thrown onto a ground pork and red pepper oil.  The bowls are served small, like boat noodles in Thailand, and we found ourselves grabbing a bowl in between meals.

Street kabob on sesame flatbread

Street kabob on sesame flatbread

Like in many Chinese cities, there were a handful of Uyghur kebab vendors in Sichuan.  We could smell this one for several blocks outside the Wenshu temple.  He grabbed a handful of skewers and placed them over the hot coals.  He fanned for the heat and after a few minutes we were given the succulent kabobs and a sesame flatbread.

Made to order Chinese pocket sandwiches

Made to order Chinese pocket sandwiches

Sichuan street sandwiches

Sichuan street sandwiches

Carmen chowing down

Carmen chowing down

I spotted this 20 sqft shop from the bus.  The line of people extended from the restaurant and wrapped around the street.  Another day around the corner I saw two women devouring pita pocket sandwiches, I jealously watched the dripping juices and food moans.  Call it food porn or whatever, but they looked good, the sandwiches I mean.  I had to figure out what they were and where they found them.  To my great excitement we walked by this tiny black sign and there were more sandwiches; to my great excitement this was the place I was eyeing. There are only a couple choices, mushroom, pork, beef and pig ear.  We ordered a couple, and the next day a couple more and the next day I would have eaten them again, but our stupid flight got in the way.  Each sandwich is made right there in front of the customers.  Two street chefs roll dough balls and bake the flat bread over a fire.  Then a handful of “stuffer” chefs toss together shredded carrots and daikon with chili oil and the meat or mushrooms.  Hell yeah I want it la jiao (spicy).  They stuff it into a hot flatbread, wrap it in wax paper and shove them into our hands.  We walk away happy and eager to find a secluded place as it was now our turn to devour these on the public sidewalk.  If you want to try these amazing sandwiches, the closet of a kitchen is called Chuan Bei Famous Snacks and it is on the east side of Renmin Zhonglu just between Hongshizhu Street and Wenwu Street.

Hot pot tofu skin knots

Hot pot tofu skin knots

Our raging hot pot and round three of veggies

Our raging hot pot and round three of veggies

We could not leave Sichuan without revisiting the craziness of hotpot. Hot pot is famous throughout Chengdu and Chongqing and we were feeling pretty confident that we could tackle it again.  We went to Yùlín Chuànchuàn Xiāng, we sat down and we ordered a spicy broth and a couple beers.  It was enormously easier to order here because there was an entire walk-in refrigerator lined with vegetables, tofu and skewered meats ready to be tossed into the bubbling broth.  Our essential favorite was the twisted tofu skin, and we also enjoyed broccoli, button mushrooms, cabbage, meat balls and a whole fish.

Various bowls of wantons in spicy oil, or broth or with cabbage

Various bowls of wantons in spicy oil, or broth or with cabbage

I get hungry just thinking of Sichuan food.  I had read about the food of Chengdu as if it was the stuff of legend.  The flood basin that makes the Sichuan province provides a bounty of culinary abundance truly defining it as a land of plenty.  This essential destination fulfilled our wildest dreams of flavors and textures.  Visiting Chengdu has provided us a context to the food, an experience within the Chinese culture and memory linked to my taste buds. It was difficult to leave, but we’ll be coming back and our stomachs will be grumbling until then.

How Pandas Won Me Over (by Carmen)

Happy panda

Happy panda

We were not going to see the pandas. They may be one of the major attractions of Sichuan but we would not be swayed. “They are endangered! They’re so cute! You can even hold one!” These exclamations would not move us. At least we thought.

Panda laterns

Panda laterns in the shopping area

But we had some extra time in Chengdu. In our walks around the city we saw panda faces everywhere as they are the symbol of the region.  Maybe it was subliminal messaging. Eventually a couple of travelers invited us to share a taxi with them and before we knew it we were on our way to watch some black and white bears roll around.

Panda doing what it does best

Panda doing what it does best

Turns out they really are cute. Ridiculously so. These huge bears just sit around eating bamboo all day and seem to smile about it. Despite their size, they almost seem vulnerable with their slow movements and dopey looks. Nathan kept saying they look like giant stuffed animals come to life. An apt description.

Yep, more eating time

Yep, more eating time

They eat about 40kg of bamboo a day which at their pace takes a looong time.  As a special treat the sanctuary gives them little mooncakes filled with grains and vitamins.  I like how the pandas have a Chinese diet.

Progression of baby panda growth

Progression of baby panda growth (Photo credit: Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center)

Of course the cutest pandas are the mini-versions – the babies! Well, they’re not cute when they just come out. They are pink little rat looking things.  Pandas have one of the highest mortality rates.  Their cubs are born weighing only 90g (3oz).  The mothers sometimes crush the little guys since they are so fragile.  Oops.

Baby panda at about 5 months old

Baby panda at about 5 months old

Play time

Play time

But then they grow into little fluff balls that just want to climb things and gnaw on their mother all day.  You can imagine the oohs and ahhs coming from the crowd as we all watched this play session.  You are allowed to hold these tiny guys but it costs somewhere around $200 for just a couple minutes of time.

Sleeping in the tree

Sleeping in the tree

Playful teenagers

Playful teenagers

Even the teenagers are adorable and perhaps even more playful. Since they’re a little bigger they can get into some mischief like toppling their sleeping friend out of a tree just for the fun of it.  But they’re resilient.  I watched one fall from a tall branch and just shake it off.

Red panda

Red panda

Did you know that pandas come in red too? Kinda. They are a fraction of the size and remind me more of a racoon than a panda. But apparently they’re related and have a spot at the sanctuary. However, they definitely don’t get the same love as their black and white cousins.

We spent at least 20 minutes here just watching them play

We spent at least 20 minutes here just watching them play

So we didn’t buy any panda hats or sweaters or tails, all of which are available at the many gift shops. Not that we’ll wear out in public anyway.  Hey, it’s easy to be won over by the panda craze.

Chengdu Do (by Carmen)

Mao statue in the main square of Chengdu

Mao statue in the main square of Chengdu

We were finally in Sichuan! Where bamboo forests sweep across the land. Where Tibetan culture lives strong among the rugged western mountains. Where pandas munch away happily. Where the biggest Buddah in the world lives. Where one of the four holy mountains of China juts out of the earth. Where earthquakes show their raw power. And where you can find some of the most glorious food in all the world. Of all it’s attributes, the food is what really drew us in. A whole post could be dedicated just to the food – and that is in fact what Nathan will do in the next couple weeks. But for now I am going to focus on what we did in Chengdu, the lovely capital city of Sichuan.

Grove of trees on Wenshu Temple Grounds

Grove of trees on Wenshu Temple Grounds

Wenshu Temple building

Wenshu Temple building

Most people merely pass through Chengdu on their way to the other sights of the province, but we found ourselves plenty busy in the city itself. One of our first activities was the Wushou Temple. The peaceful grounds of this temple can make you forget your in the city. We walked among the various enclosed courtyards and watched as the orange robed monks were called to lunch via a wooden drum.

Shadow puppets from the Sichuan Museum

Shadow puppets from the Sichuan Museum

Another cool sight was the Sichuan Museum. Quite a few other travelers we have met are anti-museum, considering them to be boring or something. I am definitely not in agreement. I love museums – the calm and quiet atmosphere, the (hopefully) interesting displays, and the act of learning and gaining new knowledge. At the Sichuan Museum we viewed elegant pottery, extremely delicate embroidery, cut paper arts, shadow puppetry and intricate bronzeware some of which was 2500 years old! Through these artifacts I gained a greater appreciation for local culture. All for free – good deal.

Green Ram Temple

Green Ram Temple

Nathan and a grinning turtle at the temple

Nathan and a grinning turtle at the temple

Near the museum is the Green Ram Temple which is part of the Taoist religion. Taoism is not a religion I know much about. From what I read, it is based on a few ambiguous texts written in the in the 6th century BC. But they do embrace the yin yang which I totally decorated my notebooks with in middle school. So I get that ; )

River by night

River by night

By night we did something we had not yet attempted in China – riding a bicycle. Twenty years ago bicycles were the symbol of the country. Everyone has seen those pictures of thousands of Chinese cyclists pedalling down the street. But no longer. The electric scooter has taken over as the way to get around making cycling a less safe endeavour. But we decided to go for it, at night no less, because it was part of a group that our hostel had organized. So the guide, Nathan, me and seven Spaniards crisscrossed the city, avoiding scooters and snapping pictures.

Us with our new friend Eric

Us with our new friend Eric

Sichuan University

Sichuan University

The next day we met up with a new friend, Eric, who we happened to meet while travelling in Yuanyang. He teaches English in Chengdu and graciously showed us around for a day to see some sights including the Sichuan University and the Tibetan neighborhood.

Chengdu market

Chengdu market

Me and my sweet tamal

Me and my sweet tamal

While we were walking around we happened upon a market where they were selling fresh produce as well as a few snacks. Even though we had just feasted on some dumplings I couldn’t pass up a special steamed dough wrapped in a corn husk. It looked like a sweet tamal, one of my favorite Mexican treats. And to my surprise it tasted like one!

Heming Tea House in the People’s Park

Heming Tea House in the People’s Park

Chrysanthemum tea with goji berry

Chrysanthemum tea with goji berry

Crazy bike and scooter parking outside the park

Crazy bike and scooter parking outside the park

Later we chilled out Sichuan style in the lovely Heming Tea House in the People’s Park. Nathan ordered the popular chrysanthemum tea with goji berries which comes out with big rock sugar cubes at the bottom. People love to hang out at the tea houses to gamble, chat and/or get their ears cleaned by the professional cleaners walking around. Everyone who comes to Sichuan has to do one of these things. I decided on the simple tea and chat option.

The regal court in the Chinese opera

The regal court in the Chinese opera

Close up of an opera singer

Close up of an opera singer

Getting ready to shake her feathers

Getting ready to shake her feathers

Sichuan masks

Sichuan masks

Another specialty of Sichuan is the opera. It is supposed to be very dramatic with a special masks painted with colorful, elaborate expressions. They have a technique that allows them to switch the masks in a fraction of a second. And the Sichuan opera has fire breathers and acrobatic flips (take that Madame Butterfly!). We were excited to attend the opera matinee performance but as we settled in for the show we realized we had made a mistake. We were indeed at the opera but it was not a Sichuan one. No masks, no fire, no acrobats…and where’s the fun in that? Instead we were at a simple performance where the most dramatic act was when one character shook her feather headdress at another character. And if you’ve never heard Chinese opera it isn’t exactly melodious. After three hours of tolerating the screeching and hoping for fire, I had to concede that the language barrier had cheated us out of the Sichuan opera we wanted. Oh well.

Funny chow chow

Funny chow chow

Bottomless pants

Bottomless pants

The opera is just one way to be entertained in Chengdu. Another is simply to walk the streets. On our meanderings we encountered plenty of oddly shaved dogs, including a hilarious chow chow that ran inside after we started laughing. And then there are the bottomless children. I agree this is a much more frugal and ecological way to handle child bathroom needs compared to diapers. But I don’t appreciate the fact that parents let their kids pee and poop anywhere they please. It’s simply not hygenic. I don’t know what the answer is but in the meantime being mooned by tiny butts all day is pretty amusing.

Cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms

Bamboo stand at River Viewing Park

Bamboo stand at River Viewing Park

Tea house at River Viewing Park

Tea house at River Viewing Park

If you’ve walked around too much then it’s time for another tea house. The River Viewing Park was a particularly pretty garden. It was filled with cozy tea corners where one could watch the bamboo grow.

Global Center

Global Center

Urban design to warm up a freeway underpass, complete with mini electric poles to provide a pedestrian scale

Urban design to warm up a freeway underpass, complete with mini electric poles to provide a pedestrian scale

Contrasting to the cozy green parks are the ubiquitous large office parks and freeways at the edge of the city center. This is the case with all Chinese cities but Chengdu is attempting a bit of one-upmanship with the Global Center. We passed it on the bus and it is HUGE. 1.5 million square meters of floor space, which is bigger than the current tallest building in the world. It supposed to be filled with hotels, shopping, fake beaches, and fake villages all lit with fake sunlight. Pretty much the epitome of Chinese tourism.

Bookworm Literary Festival

Bookworm Literary Festival

Serve the People by Jen Lin-Liu

Serve the People by Jen Lin-Liu

Back in Chengdu city center, we had a lucky coincidence. At the expat-oriented bookstore called Bookworm, the month of March is dedicated to hosting a literary festival. By chance, we were in town to hear an author I admire give a talk. Jen Lin-Liu wrote Serve the People, a memoir about life and food in China. I loved how in the book she worked with dumpling wrappers, noodle makers, home cooks and even high end restaurateurs to get the story behind the food and delve deeper into the culture. She is publishing a new book in July about her travels following the origins of the noodle along the Silk Road. Sounds awesome and I can’t wait.

See, even in the non-food post on Chengdu I can’t help but mention it! I’ve covered pretty much all the things we found to do in Chengdu except one – pandas! They were so adorable they’re getting a post of their own. So stay tuned for the rest of our Sichuan adventures.

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