4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Travel”

Quick Trip: Baltimore (by Carmen)

Stop # 2 on our July 2015 East Coast Tour.

As we pulled out of the parking lot at the Baltimore train station, we found ourselves in a lively art deco main street full of cozy, dim restaurants beckoning one to come in and stay for a while. Merely a few blocks later we were edging past hundreds of people marching down the street, protesting the legacy of institutionalized racism. A few blocks more and we found ourselves on the set of The Wire. Ok, not really but with the burned out buildings and loitering it certainly felt that way. It was a lot to take in within the first 10 minutes of being in a city – the highs, lows and turmoil of Baltimore are all co-mingling and butting up against one another.

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Classic American picnic fare

Baltimore hadn’t been high on my list of places to visit but a family reunion brought me, Nathan and my dad to the area.  Turns out that a good chunk of my great-great-grandparents’ descendants are now located in or around Maryland. So this past July we met up for the first time in 15 years for a grand picnic in the countryside west of Baltimore.  It was wonderful to reconnect and learn about the wonderful accomplishments of extended family – whether it’s the great-great-uncle that still plays softball in his 80s or the distant cousin doing NGO work in Botswana.  It always amazes me how strong the bonds of family are, no matter how long it has been or how distant they are.

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Railroad museum antique signals

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Sweet diorama of Ellicott City

On our way back to NYC the next day we made a stop in Ellicott City.  None of us had heard of this town before; we had merely seen a historic landmark sign marking its exit on the highway.  Our curiosity led us to discover a historic valley town that looked like it hadn’t changed much in the past 150 years. We walked down the Main Street, read about the old mill that had instigated the town, and finally ended up at a museum housed in a tiny railroad station.  By chance, we had found the oldest railroad station in America!  You can imagine this transit nerd’s excitement.  A civil war era dressed guide explained that the earliest trains carried a dozen passengers and were pulled by horses at rocking 6 miles per hour.  Much faster, apparently, than the road between Ellicott and the ports of Baltimore. Hard to imagine in this day and age where one can fly 3000 miles in 6 hours.

Back in the city, we had just enough time to visit Fells Point, a historic port area full of brick row houses and cobbled streets. We were on a mission for crabs, the seafood Maryland is famous for. Our goal took us to the Thames Street Oyster House where we loaded up on crabcake sandwiches. They were tender and savory, piled on soft buns – everything we wanted.

Thanks Baltimore for giving me new family connections, a train history lesson, and the crabcakes I’ve always dreamed of :)

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Family time in Baltimore

Quick Trip: Philadelphia (by Carmen)

In July 2015 we were able to make it to three East Coast cities: Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Portland (Maine). Here’s what I wrote two years ago about stop #1:

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Liberty bell

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Declaration Hall

To be honest, I had forgotten how much important history happened in Philly. I knew the Liberty Bell was there, but had completely forgotten about the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the first halls of Congress, and all that really important foundation of the country stuff. So it was in fact perfect that we decided to do an overnight trip during the Fourth of July weekend.

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Birthday cupcakes

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Christ Church

Our hostel was right across the street from the historic Christ Church, which counted many American revolutionaries as part of their congregation including Ben Franklin. His nephew’s printing press is still located nearby and is in working order! We couldn’t resist buying a hand printed Declaration of Independence. Our time in Philadelphia was getting off to a very patriotic start.

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Reading Terminal – Carmen’s Cheesesteak

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DeNico’s

When in Philly, one has to eat Philly Cheesesteak. The only problem is… Nathan and I don’t really care for cheesesteak. It’s bland and boring. But we gave it one more shot since we were in its birthplace. Unfortunately, despite going to my namesake (namesteak?) stand, Carmen’s Cheesesteak did not change our minds.  

The good news was that we were in Reading Terminal Market, which has dozens more food stands to choose from.  We headed over to DeNico’s which had the longest line but it moved very fast. A roll piled high with roasted pork and parmesan flecked broccoli rabe was much more satisfying.

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City Hall

As we meandered the streets after lunch we were naturally guided to City Hall.  From 1890 to 1905 this was the tallest structure in the world.  It was built before steel construction so to support such a feat the brick and stone walls had to be enormously thick. Most remarkable of all, though, is the oddly outsized statue standing proudly on top of the building.  While the structure comes across as somewhat inelegant to the modern eye, its stature demonstrates how important Philadelphia was at the turn of the 20th century, when the steel industry gave it great power and before being overtaken in economic strength by NYC, Chicago, SF, etc.

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Franklin Mortgage

The area southeast of the city hall, called Rittenhouse Square, is full of picturesque cobbled streets, cool shops (I really liked Open House on 13th St for great souvenirs and gifts) and hip restaurants.  Nestled among these is the ambiguously named Franklin Mortgage & Investment, a high end cocktail bar following the popular speakeasy theme. The drinks are very well done and Nathan was so inspired by the Peanut Butter & Jelly Cocktail that he immediately began a bourbon-peanut butter infusion when we arrived home.

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Zahav

After drinks we tried Zahav, mostly on the recommendation of one of my favorite bloggers, David Lebovitz.  How can you resist if a chef you admire says they have “life changing hummus?”  I’ll give my opinion in a nutshell: the hummus is good (but I think Ottolenghi’s recipe is just as good), the salad mix plate is awesome, and the rest was tasty but overpriced. I might go back for a light meal with the salad plate, but that’s it.

The surprise food find of the trip happened by chance.  Looking for a quick breakfast, we happened to walk by High Street on Market. Turns out they make all their breads in house and even get freshly milled flour from local sources. The pudding and the pastries we tried were excellent.  I really want to go back to order one of the amazing looking breakfast sandwiches that were being delivered to neighboring tables. Fortunately, they just opened a NYC branch so now that’s even easier.

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Elferth’s Alley

I went to Philadelphia with expectations of seeing the Liberty Bell and eating cheesesteak, but not much else.  The city truly impressed me with its vibrant cobbled streets and yummy food.  There are places I didn’t even get to try while there – Federal Doughnut for fried chicken, Franklin Fountain for ice cream sundaes,…and maybe I’ll find something healthy too :)  I’ll just have to get another Philly fix.

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Revolutionaries!

Pyramids, Skulls and the Eye of God in Mexico (by Carmen)

Mexico’s past is so alive throughout the country it’s impossible to ignore it. I definitely came away from my trip with a deep appreciation for the various kingdoms that have controlled this land over the past few thousand years. Especially since the customs of the various ruling groups have morphed and transformed to be the mix of cultural and religious traditions that exist today. We visited a variety of historical sites throughout our trip so I thought I’d collect them in a single post.

The main drag of Teotihuacan

The main drag of Teotihuacan

On top of the Sun Pyramid

On top of the Sun Pyramid

The first was Teotihuacan just outside Mexico City. The giant pyramids of the sun and moons are carefully placed along a broad, straight axis surrounded by smaller pyramids and temples. They really are huge – the Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest in the world (right after Ginza in Egypt).  The structures of Teotihuacan were built many centuries before the Spanish arrived. In fact, by the time the Aztecs were in power they did not even know who had built the pyramids; they were assumed to be the work of the gods.

Map of Tenochitlan, now known as Mexico City

Map of Tenochtitlan, now known as Mexico City

Aztec disc

Aztec disc found when digging a sewer tunnel in Mexico City

When the Spanish did arrive, the Aztecs ruled over much of Mexico and Tenochtitlan was their capital. Today we know it as Mexico City. To imagine that a urban area built in a lake, similar to Venice, could metamorphisize to the megacity that DF is today is incredible.

Aztec carving of skulls similar to day of the dead

Aztec carving of skulls similar to day of the dead

Aztec skull wall from an excavation in Mexico City

Aztec skull wall from an excavation in Mexico City

Death was a major part of the culture and skull carvings were prevalent. These centuries old carvings are practically identical to the modern Day of the Dead motif celebrated throughout Mexico in the first days of November. Nathan and I couldn’t resist dressing up in this beautifully morbid style to walk around on Halloween last fall.

Monte Alban in Oaxaca

Monte Alban in Oaxaca

My mom and I Finding shade at Monte Alban

My mom and I finding shade at Monte Alban

My dad making his way to the top

My dad making his way to the top

Vegetation taking over the ruins at Monte Alban

Vegetation and agave taking over the ruins at Monte Alban

To the south of Mexico City, just outside Oaxaca, Monte Alban was built almost 2000 years ago on a mountain top overlooking the Oaxaca valley. Like Teotihuacan, the form is dominated by large pyramids arranged in and around a very flat, linear plaza.  It was practically rock climbing to get up the steep stairs with the sun beating down our backs. But the views were worth it.

Mitla courtyard

Mitla courtyard from 1300s

Intricate geometric designs symbolizing religious principles

Intricate geometric designs symbolizing religious principles

While Monte Alban was a political center, nearby Mitla was built around 1300s as an important religious site. Geometric carvings and some original paintings still cover the site, much of it unrestored.  It truly felt like stepping back in time, through short, squat doorways to ancient courtyards.  The geometry has a deeper meaning than just decoration.  Each design symbolizes complex ideas, like the cycle of life or the watchful eye of God.

Ancient corn tclayuda at Itanoni

Ancient corn tclayuda at Itanoni

Mexico’s history is not only evident in crumbling ruins or city architecture, it’s also present in the food. While in Oaxaca, we made time to stop by Itanoni, a cafe that specializes in heirloom corn to make its tortillas, tamales and sopes. As in the United States, GMO corn has come to dominate Mexican fields. I loved seeing the ancient corn strains being treasured in its native land.

This was really just the tip of the iceberg.  So many different great civilization have passed over this land, all of which have influenced the multitude of ethnic cultures coexist in Mexico today.  It’s a diversity that makes me want to come back for more.

I left my heart in Oaxaca (by Carmen)

Some people leave their hearts in SF, but not me. I left mine in Oaxaca. I’m not sure when I first wanted to go to this artistic corner of Mexico but it lurked somewhere deep in the recesses of my memory. Once Nathan and I narrowed our vacation destination to Mexico, it resurfaced as a top choice. I happened to mention to my parents that we were planning to go to Oaxaca in November and was met with a few moments of silence and then, “Are you serious?”

“Um, yes. Why?”

“We were talking this morning about going to Oaxaca in November, too.”

That’s right. Without even discussing the fact that Nathan and I would be going on any vacations to my parents we had both planned the same trip for the same month. It was fate.

If it hadn’t been for my parents, I doubt I would have booked a whole week for Oaxaca. But I’m so glad I did. It is a beautiful region with so, so much to explore. I already can’t wait to go back, which is rare for me. I’m usually excited to explore parts unknown to me.

Templo Santo Domingo

Templo Santo Domingo

The Tree of Life inside the monastery

The Tree of Life inside the monastery

One of the first things to greet us in Oaxaca was the Templo Santo Domingo. This 16th century Jesuit monastery stands tall and proud with immensely thick whitewashed stone walls. The layout of agave in the front accentuates the simplicity and symmetry of its facade.

Jardín Etnobotánico

Jardín Etnobotánico

Cacti at the Jardín Etnobotánico

Cacti at the Jardín Etnobotánico

Behind the Templo Santo Domingo is one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever been in. I am particularly fond of succulents and this sustainable garden was full of native varieties. The jardín etnobotánico was conceived by two artists as the city contemplated converting the disused monastery estate into a parking lot. The result is a stunning compilation of trees and cacti arranged in an aesthetic manner instead of according to biological groupings (like most botanic gardens). I saw plants I never knew existed, including some cacti that were no more than a half meter tall but were centuries old. Just beyond the garden entrance, the Restaurante La Olla was fresh and delicious. It felt like a local hang out despite the fact that I found it through the guide book.

Bride & groom waiting for one of the Oaxaca's many parades

Bride & groom waiting for one of the Oaxaca’s many parades

Fun textures at the textile museum

Fun textures at the textile museum

One of the many reasons I find Oaxaca so enticing is the many cultural activities and sites sprinkled throughout the town. Our very first night in the city, we observed a wedding parade (turns out this is a popular destination wedding location). The parade is lead by two bride and groom puppets, specifically commissioned to look like the bride and groom. As far as cultural sites, the Textile Museum was a beautiful example, full of historic weaved patterns sourced from Oaxaca and the surrounding states. Each tunic and shawl told a story, literally woven into the pattern of the fabric.

Mercado 20 de Noviembre

Mercado 20 de Noviembre

Parrilla hall

Parrilla hall

Every good city has a good market, and Oaxaca is a very good city. My parents, Nathan and I decided we were in need of a market meal. For this we turned to a smoke filled hall at the edge of the market lined with bright red steak and sausage ready for grilling. You pay separately for each service – for the meat, then for the person next to the butcher to grill it (interestingly, some meats, like the sausages were placed directly on the coals), then as you sit you pay for someone to provide tortillas, salsas and other fixings and, finally, someone comes around with drinks.  A unique system, but it works deliciously well.

Queso de Oaxaca

Queso de Oaxaca

Oaxacan food is world renowned with it’s most famous dish being mole. I was excited to learn some of the city’s kitchen secrets to bring back to my tiny NYC apartment so I could try to recreate all the yumminess that surrounded me. My family and I signed up for a class with Seasons of the Heart which took place in small ranch just outside of town. First up was a cheese class where we learned how to make amazing queso de oaxaca, which is similar to mozzarella. He strung it out and eventually wrapped it into this little rosette, a shape he said was a specialty of the his hometown.

Yummy mole

Yummy mole

Nathan entertaining classmates while making tetelas

Nathan entertaining classmates while making tetelas

Delectable smells filled the kitchen as the class divided and conquered under the oversight of the instructors. Everyone was anxious to observe the making of mole (think: Mexican curry) which used a wide variety of ingredients as a flavor base, including almonds, cinnamon, cloves, oregano and thyme. Tetelas were another hit – we each took a turn to flatten the dough, spread some spiced, fried beans into the center and then carefully fold it into a triangle before tossing it on the fire-heated griddle. Our feast was complemented by herbed rice, salad, salsas and fresh tortillas. The culmination was a spectacular bread pudding which, although not a traditional Mexican recipe, used local ingredients like pumpkin and piloncillo (evaporated sugarcane juice). Fantastic.

Memelas

Memelas

Oaxaca has that something special about it. Some magic in the air that makes it both exciting and new but totally welcoming and comfortable at the same time. The food was as amazing as I’d hoped – whether enjoying homemade mole or street side memelas (thick corn disks with toppings, very similar to a sope). The surrounding villages each had their own artistic specialty, whether weaving, pottery or painted figurines, providing endlessly entertaining markets. Mezcal is locally made and abundant. The people were kind.

Camino de Santiago pilgrim

Camino de Santiago pilgrim

And on top of everything I saw a sign from above – literally. A Camino de Santiago pilgrim was randomly painted on the side of a building, pointing towards the heart of Oaxaca, telling me where to go.

I shall return.

Al Pastor in Puebla (by Carmen)

View down the street in Puebla

View down the street in Puebla

There is really only one reason we went to Puebla: tacos al pastor. Given that we already sampled many, many tacos al pastor in DF, it may seem crazy to come 2 hours south to Puebla just to eat more. But this is the supposed home of al pastor. And let’s face it, we’re fanatics.

Inside the cathedral

Inside the cathedral facing the zócalo

So it was with great anticipation and hunger in our bellies that we found ourselves in the zócolo (main square) of Puebla. A city of 1.5 million seems positively tiny after DF (which holds about 21 million). The zócolo had a relaxed atmosphere with families and friends collecting in clusters and balloon sellers meandering around. The centuries old cathedral towers over the south side of the square flanked by arcades full of cafes to watch the world go by.

Las Ranas' version of al pastor

Las Ranas’ version of al pastor

Just a few blocks away was our al pastor mecca, Las Ranas. Al pastor (literally shepard’s style) was brought to the country by Lebanese immigrants. Like donner, thin sliced marinated meat (in this case pork) rotates on a spigot slowly becoming carmelized and juicy. The meat slicers at Las Ranas were pros and we watched them cut the meat into ever so thin slices to be placed on tortillas, queso fundido (melted cheese), bolillos (bread rolls) or pan árabe (literally arab bread; pita). The pita is what really brought home the origins of this specialty – it was soft and a little chewy, perfect with the seasoned meat and spicy salsas. Las Ranas will forever stay in my memory as a place that 1) has some of the best al pastor in the world and 2) made me fuller than I’ve ever been in my life.

Capilla del Rosario

Capilla del Rosario

One of Puebla's many churches

One of Puebla’s many churches

The next morning we discovered more of Puebla beyond its culinary treasures. An important colonial town, the city is full of lavishly decorated churches and religious sites. My favorite was the Capilla del Rosario. It is without doubt one of the most beautiful chapels I’ve seen anywhere in the world. The bright white stucco was shaped into intricate, weaved geometric patterns and then strategically covered in gold to accentuate the design. It was over the top baroque but instead of being tacky it felt fun, as if it were a puzzle to try and decipher the underlying geometries.

Chalupas

Chalupas

Near the church, a group of girls cornered us to ask us questions about America for a school project. They were adorable and very enthusiastic to practice English. One of the cutest moments was when the best English-speaker asked us if we really called calabacitas “zucchinis.” She thought it was such a strange word that she had doubted her teacher’s translation. We asked the schoolgirls what their favorite comida poblana (Pueblan food) was and they responded “chalupas!” We specifically sought these out and discovered that these are comprised of fresh tortillas dragged through rich tomato or tomatillo based sauces and then fried on a griddle. Thanks for the tip, chicas.

Bar in Puebla (I love the dancing woman painted above)

Bar in Puebla (I love the dancing woman painted above)

Pork cemita from Cemitas América

Pork cemita from Cemitas América

Another Pueblan specialty is cemita. What makes these small sandwiches special is the buttery, flakey, spiral shaped bread it sits on. We chose the most hopping cemita joint we could find and ordered two. This place only did one type of cemita – pig face. I like it when an eatery is bold enough to just do one thing well and, in this case, it paid off. Pig face is not for everyone but if you can learn to enjoy the jiggly factor, you’re in for a treat.

At the train museum

At the train museum

Inside a vintage Mexican train

Inside a vintage Mexican train

Puebla continued to charm me with a museum dedicated to Mexico’s basically extinct passenger rail system. El Museo del Ferrocarril (Train Museum) had a collection of old rail cars, some of which you can climb inside. The information signs provide details on the origins of the various cars, how and when they were used and background on the lives of the people who worked them. Inside Puebla’s former rail station, a photography exhibit displayed photos of the many migrants who boarded these trains in the mid-1900s to work in the US. My grandfather was one of these men, traveling from Guadalajara to Chicago, which made the exhibit particularly personal for me. I searched the faces in each photograph to get a sense of both the fear and the bittersweet excitement the men must have felt as they boarded the trains to a such a foreign place and culture.

Quesadilla close up with squash flowers and mushrooms

Quesadilla close up with squash flowers and mushrooms

Heading back to the town center, we couldn’t resist the sizzle of quesadillas on the grill. Ours contained squash blossoms, mushrooms and fresh gooey cheese on a purple corn tortilla.

Biblioteca

Living my librarian dreams at the biblioteca

Directly in the center, we were once again surrounded by colonial splendor. An elegant example of this splendor was the 17th century biblioteca (library). I love libraries. I’ve always been intrigued by becoming a librarian. I think it was the scenes from Beauty and the Beast in which Belle waltzes through the castle library stacked high with leather bound books that influenced me as a child. In short, I was very happy here.

Artsy mole at El Mural

Artsy mole at El Mural

Our final meal in Puebla diverged from all the previous ones we had had in Mexico. Thus far, we had focused on street food and hole-in-the wall eateries to get the most authentic food we could. In general, Nathan and I are weary of white tablecloth restaurants that only the local elite and tourists can afford. But we heard good things about El Mural and we decided to give it a try for breakfast on our last morning in town. They totally had me with their homemade miniature pan dulce. And their café de olla (coffee with spices). And their fresh juices. And pretty much everything else.

Street vendor in Puebla

Street vendor in Puebla

I’m so glad we stopped in Puebla on our trip. It was a charming and calm counterpoint to the frenetic energy of DF yet still had an urban feel. Next up was through the gorgeous four-hour drive through the mountains to Oaxaca.

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.

Hurting for a Yurting (by Carmen)

It was still a cold, blustery spring when our friend Taylor suggested a summer camping trip. As extra enticement, the campsite she had in mind came equipped with the most fun to say accommodation on earth – a yurt. The heat of summer was still just a glimmer in our eyes but we could already taste the campfire s’mores. We replied with an enthusiastic yes.

Yurt sweet yurt

Yurt sweet yurt

It was months later, in the dog days of summer that Taylor, Andrew, Nathan and I piled into our rental car for the drive to the Belleplain Forest in New Jersey. But NJ didn’t want us. Or so it seemed from the massive effort it took to get into and through the Holland Tunnel. When we finally emerged on the other side we all felt extraordinarily grateful for leading car-free lifestyles exempt from the daily traffic grind. We still had a ways to go since our destination was in the southern end of the state. We passed the time with upbeat music, good conversation and entertaining roadsigns, like the community of Cheesequake. I think NJ just wants to be made fun of sometimes. When hunger got the better of us, we made a quick pit stop for decent Chinese food in a random little town along the way. Thanks Yelp!

Building our fire

Building our fire

After a few hours on the road, we pulled into the campsite after dark and found that friend Megan and Andy had built a lovely campfire for us. What a welcome sight after a long drive.

Lake Nummy (photo source: Megan)

Lake Nummy (photo source: Megan)

Woodsy stroll (photo source: Megan)

Woodsy stroll (photo source: Megan)

The next morning I awoke to the most perfect weather ever. It was not too hot, not too cold; not too humid, not too dry; just right. To get a taste of the surrounding woods we did a quick stroll around Lake Nummy (rhymes with yummy :) before jumping in. While the lake was rather small, the designated swimming area was even smaller. And of course it was watched over by two lifeguards, just in case. Thankfully, we all survived.

Andrew after he successfully hung the hammock

Andrew after he successfully hung the hammock

Hammock views

Hammock views

Improvised hummus wrap (photo source: Taylor)

Improvised hummus wrap (photo source: Taylor)

We ate a crunchy lunch of veggie and hummus wraps and hung around until it was swim time again. While the group headed back to the lakeside, I opted to rest in Taylor and Andrew’s deliciously comfortable hammock while reading my beloved Alexander McCall Smith writing about my favorite city, London. Felt like care-free days of summer camp.

Cooking on the campfire

Cooking on the campfire

Campfire gathering

Campfire gathering

In the evening we gathered around the campfire to assemble some kabobs for dinner. Though by the end of it we were incredibly full on charred veggies and spicy rice we still had s’more room for dessert. Now I’m going to let you in on a little secret about s’mores – the best method for a perfect ooey-gooey s’more is to warm the chocolate. Because lets face it, chocolate tastes better in melted form. To do this simply place your square of chocolate on a graham cracker and place on a grate near the fire. It only takes a minute and your s’mores may forever be changed.

Sea Isle City Beach (photo source: Sea Isle City)

Sea Isle City Beach (photo source: Sea Isle City)

On our final New Jersey day we couldn’t pass up the a chance to visit the Jersey shore. Yes the shore of MTV infamy. Indeed there were the dense looking guys who spent way too much time at the gym and sunning themselves. But this simply gave the beach some NJ credibility. With good waves and decent sand even this California girl has to admit, this was a nice beach overall.

Thanks to Taylor, Andrew, Megan and Andy for a great weekend! Let’s do it again next year :)

The Best Thing I Ever Ate (by Carmen)

Yang’s Fry Dumpling

Yang’s Fry Dumpling

That’s it. In the picture. The best thing I ever ate. Specifically, it’s a fried soup dumpling (aka 生煎包 or shengjianbao) from Yang’s Fry Dumpling in Shanghai. The memory of that first bite into the crisp, sesame-scented skin through to the juicy interior. Savoring each sip of the piping hot broth. Even now my mouth waters.

But it was about more than the dumpling. It was the moment, the trip, the city, the people, the cafe, the florescent lighting, the finding of the dumplings themselves – everything contributes to the experience of a true food find. So here is my ode to the holy grail of dumplings, encountered on a rainy afternoon and Huanghe Road in July 2009.

Shanghai French Quarter

Shanghai French Quarter

Alleyway in the French Quarter

Alleyway in the French Quarter

It was Nathan and my first taste of travel in Asia. The weeks before I started grad school we criss-crossed the continent for 6 weeks – Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, and China. It was a culinary awakening in many ways. The flavors were fresher, brighter, stronger, spicier, sweeter, just overall more intense than I could have imagined. I was loving everything I ate, becoming intoxicated on everything from gula melaka (a rich malaysian palm sugar) to Japanese bento boxes. Our last stop on the itinerary was Shanghai. My parents, who had joined in part of the journey, Nathan and I had lingered in the old French Quarter, ate amazing bbq eel and observed the crazy fast high-rise construction in Putong.

Yang's on Huanghe Road

Yang’s on Huanghe Road

But it was in our first afternoon that we arrived at Yang’s. We were looking for a noodle restaurant recommended by the guidebook and had no luck finding it (this happens a loooot). As we gave up, I looked across the narrow street and saw a familiar yellow sign advertising fry dumplings. It took me a second to realize that I had seen it on TV, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations to be exact. Nathan and I had watched it to get excited for the new sights, sounds and tastes we were about to encounter. Everything came together at the right moment otherwise I would likely have passed what looked like every other hole in the wall cafe right up.

Workers at Yang's

Workers at Yang’s

Dumplings getting fried

Dumplings getting fried

The bowl of plump dumplings was plunked down in front of us and I gathered my dumpling with my soup spoon. As I took my first bite into the skin, I was careful not to lose the precious broth inside. From the second the flavors hit my taste buds I was floored. A beautiful depth of textures and flavors exploded in my mouth. We all had a collective moment of silence around the table. I’ve commemorated the event with a picture of these glorious dumplings on my living room wall.

Slurp!

Slurp!

My mom always said I’d find true love when I least expected it. She was right. But I didn’t realize her sage words applied to culinary relationships as well. Love at first bite. This love is not only because it tasted phenomenally good, but also because it provided a capstone to the deliciousness I had encountered throughout Asia. This dish inspired me to try more, explore more, travel more and find that next bite to take me out of this world. In short, Yang’s inspired me to dream big eventually leading to the Big Trip of 2012-2013. What power a simple dumpling can have!

Shanghai by night

Shanghai by night

Looking down the core of the Shanghai Jin Mao Tower

Looking down the core of the Shanghai Jin Mao Tower

Shanghai has been on my mind because a friend of ours moved there almost one year ago. Inspired by this blog to do more exploring, he and his wife took the plunge and moved halfway across the world – from Texas to Shanghai. We recently received a lovely email with them complete with pictures of their experiences. I’m so impressed with their adventurous spirit. So this post is dedicated to them, Tomasz and Nicola. To many more adventures – and dumplings.

Note: Yang’s Fry Dumpling is a local Shanghai chain with a few locations. I went to the one at 97 Huanghe Road, just north of People’s Square. It’s labeled 小杨生煎馆 on Google Maps as of June 2014. One friend tried to find this location and was unsuccessful, so you may want to consult the web for other locations.

Road Trip New York & Vermont (by Carmen)

New York in May has been lovely. The warmth of spring has been blissful after such a harsh, looong winter. Summer’s humid heat is just around the corner, threatening to blast my memories of numb fingers and toes into oblivion. So it is strange to think that just two months ago I was staring at a rental car that wouldn’t start, clutching my backpack and breathing fog into a crisp -8°F (-22°C) morning.

View of Poughkeepsie from the pedestrian bridge over the Hudson River

View of Poughkeepsie from the pedestrian bridge over the Hudson River

But let me back up a bit. Nathan and I found ourselves with a few days off around mid-March and decided to make the most of it. We toyed with the idea of hopping the pond to visit a friend in Dublin but the flight prices were just too much to bear. So we stayed local, rented a car and road tripped it along the Hudson River to Vermont. The route was the opposite of most people’s instinct to go south and escape the cold. Our goal, however, was to actually enjoy the winter. Snow and ice in a city context is a nuisance but in more rural settings winter sports become available. Skiing, cross country, snowshoeing, ice skating…the snow was beckoning us to go north.

Icy Hudson River view from the walkway

Icy Hudson River view from the walkway

We had 300 miles to plough through on our first day so we broke it up with a few stops as we drove along the Hudson River. Our first stop in Poughkeepsie found us strolling along Walkway State Park, a former rail bridge converted to pedestrian use five years ago. It offers great views of the icy Hudson River 200 feet below.

Next up was the town of Hudson, where I found the best bookstore in the world. Upon entering, you see the expected shelves of fiction and non-fiction. But look to the left and you encounter a full on bar with interesting drafts being consumed by friendly locals. Patrons are welcome to take their beer with them while browsing the books and thoughtful cup holders are provided so one can flip the pages. There should be many, many more businesses like this.

When we finally arrived in Burlington that night we were exhausted. Thankfully, our Airbnb hosts provided us with nourishing vegetable soup to take the chill off. They apologized that it was only vegetarian and not vegan, which instantly made me think of vegan-friendly Berkeley.

City Market Cooperative in Burlington

City Market Cooperative in Burlington

If I had any doubts about Burlington’s similarity to Berkeley, it was completely erased by a visit to the City Market Co-op. I dearly miss my Berkeley Bowl grocery store with its mountains of fresh produce and generous bulk section. City Market had an even bigger bulk section! And it’s a functioning co-op that provides dividends to its members. I certainly didn’t expect to go grocery shopping on this trip but that’s exactly what we did, at a fraction of the cost of markets in NYC. Take that Whole Foods.

Beautiful fudge at Lake Champlain Chocolates on Church Street

Beautiful fudge at Lake Champlain Chocolates on Church Street

Nathan, expertly snowshoeing at Shelburne Farms

Nathan, expertly snowshoeing at Shelburne Farms

Feeling at home in Burlington, we made our way down the main drag, Church Street. After a stop for a bite of rich fudge at Lake Champlain Chocolates, we walked a few doors down to the local outdoor store to chat with staff about the best places to snowshoe. They directed us to Shelburne Farms, which in warmer times is a sustainable farming education center on the lake. It was designed in the 19th century by none other than Frederick Law Olmsted (of Central Park fame) as a picturesque rural setting. For our visit we didn’t see the farm’s cows but the rolling landscape was covered in fresh snow for us to tromp through. At the farm shop we picked up some of the farm’s delicious cheddar for the road. Not that we had far to go – our next destination was Magic Hat Brewery five minutes up the road. The psychedelic brewery visitor center fit perfectly into Burlington, home of the band Phish. We tasted all the beers on offer and especially enjoyed the passion fruit juice infused Steven Sour.

Walking on (frozen) water!

Walking on (frozen) water!

Wind swept ice

Wind swept ice

Frozen Lake Champlain lighthouse

Frozen Lake Champlain lighthouse

Nice day for bike ride

Nice day for bike ride

At sunset we made our way to the waterfront to take Lake Champlain. The lake was an important trade route between Canada and New York and battles between Americans and British were fought in these waters. In the middle of March, though, the harbor was completely iced in so Nathan and I took a nice walk on the ice to the lighthouse. Later that night we went to the town’s Irish bar to listen to some jigs and reels in celebration of one of my favorite holiday – St. Patrick’s Day!

Cross Country skiing at the Von Trapp Family Lodge - note the metal maple buckets

Cross Country skiing at the Von Trapp Family Lodge – note the metal maple buckets

Our 2nd morning was frigid beyond belief and, as luck would have it, our rented car had a dead battery. Fortunately, we only needed a jump but unfortunately we couldn’t find someone to help us out. We decided to have breakfast at a nearby cafe, the Barrio Bakery. The warm egg sandwich and blueberry scone helped us feel better and one of our fellow patrons eventually gave us a start.

We bid goodbye to Burlington and drove east to Stowe for some cross country skiing at the Von Trapp Family Lodge – yes, that Von Trapp Family. While The Sound of Music was based on a true story, the musical didn’t cover the fact that the Von Trapp’s became a touring singing group that eventually opened a ski lodge. The lodge has a framed picture of Maria Von Trapp skiing the same trails we did.

Glorious Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cone straight from the factory

Glorious Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cone straight from the factory

Working up a sweat on the ski trails meant time for a rewarding treat. And really, ice cream is an amazing thing. Even when it’s so cold outside your body aches, it’s nearly impossible to decline a waffle cone filled with rich, creamy ice cream. We had no chance resisting the pull of the Ben & Jerry’s factory, even with our snowy surroundings and cold start in the morning. I was somewhat shocked to find 20 other visitors with us on a Monday afternoon in March. Twenty more were lined up for the next tour a half hour later. We all scream for ice cream, I suppose.

Covered bridge near Woodstock, VT

Covered bridge near Woodstock, VT

After a pit stop in the state capital, our final night was spent in the tiny, incredibly cute village of Woodstock (but not that Woodstock). We were pleasantly surprised to find an excellent, casual restaurant near the village called Worthy Kitchen. After filling up on shepard’s pie, we tucked in for the night in our B&B.

On our last day we experienced more quintessential Vermont experiences – covered bridges and maple tapping. It being the start of sugaring season the maple trees were just beginning to release their sweet nectar which is boiled down to our favorite pancake topping.

The tastes and views of Vermont were everything I’d hoped for but was over far too quickly. It whet my appetite to further explore New England. Maine lobster rolls anyone?

Vermont humor (Source: Vermont Independent Clothing Co.)

Vermont humor (Source: Vermont Independent Clothing Co.)

Quick trip: Portland & Beyond (by Carmen)

Little white church in the Oregon countryside

Little white church in the Oregon countryside

Wedding guests at sunset

Wedding guests at sunset

Towards the end of last summer we had the pleasure of attending a wedding in the verdant hills outside Salem, Oregon. Oregon in the summer is especially beautiful and, honestly, we’d accept any excuse to go. To be there for a family wedding in a cute little chapel surrounded by old oak trees was even more special. Our flight back to California was via Portland so we decided to spend a day and a half enjoying the city.

Voodoo Doughnut

Voodoo Doughnut

Portland is known for its great food but also for its somewhat alternative culture. Both these aspects were reflected in our trip to the famous Voodoo Doughnut. This was our pre-breakfast (hey, our time in Portland was limited!) and we were jarred by the neon pink interior of Voodoo as we walked in. The case contained a mixture of appealing (maple!) and appalling (bubble gum??) options slowly rotating under florescent light. Although I was tempted by the voodoo doll shaped concoction, I kept it simple with an old fashioned while Nathan tried a yeasted and iced doughnut. The old fashioned was definitely the winner and I thoroughly enjoyed it even though I felt the amount of icing tipped this snack more towards dessert than breakfast. By the time we left there was a line forming out the door.

Scandinavian breakfast at Broder (not sure what's going on in the back)

Scandinavian breakfast at Broder (not sure what’s going on in the back)

Actual breakfast was at Broder, a Scandinavian cafe tucked into a quiet strip of retail in Southeast Portland. As we waited for a table (good thing we had the doughnut to hold us over), we peeked at what people were eating. Everything looked so unique and enticing. Ultimately we tried the “Soltice Bord” (a very European mix of cheeses, jams, yogurt, granola, soft boiled egg, ham, bread, pastry) and a smoked trout hash. The restaurant lived up to the hype and it reminded me to enjoy these simple pleasures more often.

Heart Coffee shop

Heart Coffee shop

The in-shop roaster

The in-shop roaster

When in Portland it’s required to have multiple cups of artisanal coffee a day. We obliged at Heart Coffee shop where part of the entertainment is to watch the in-house roaster spew out fragrant coffee beans ready to be ground and brewed.

Bridge over the Willamette River

Bridge over the Willamette River

Public space in downtown Portland

Public space in downtown Portland

Powered with caffeine we made our way west, past the Willamette River to downtown. We took in the wonderful public spaces in this very walkable part of the city. I love bookstores and insisted we spend a solid hour at Powell’s Books where the cooking section alone took up two long aisles. Heaven.

Salt & Straw Ice Cream (sorry for the poor photo quality - this was pre-phone upgrade)

Salt & Straw Ice Cream (sorry for the poor photo quality – this was pre-phone upgrade)

Double fisitng at Salt & Straw

Double fisitng at Salt & Straw

My favorite bite of the whole trip took place later that night at Salt & Straw Ice Cream. I’ve tried plenty of good, quality ice cream in my life but this might be the best I’ve ever had. The creativity of flavors and freshness of ingredients came together so well. It was unbelievable and Nathan and I are going to attempt to recreate it with our new ice cream maker. Yes, even despite the freezing temperatures in NYC right now.

THE way to get around town

THE way to get around town

Our time in Portland would not have been the same without our excellent hosts Tom and Fontaine. They gave us recommendations, lent us their bikes, introduced us to yummy New Orleans food, and took us to local bars with some heavy handed bartenders. Thank you! Another special shout out to Nalat who encouraged us to try Olympic Provisions and Cascade Brewery – both delicious and worthy of checking out. Reminds me that no matter where we find ourselves, we get by with a little help from our friends.

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