Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pie Town, CA

Well, I’m back in the U.S. for the holidays. I flew into San Diego a week ago, and return to Vietnam tomorrow morning. I’m jetlagging like crazy, which explains why I was up at 3 a.m. downloading these photos and smacking out this blog entry. Either that, or the ridiculous schedule I’m keeping means that I’m sick.

Yesterday my family headed out to Julian, California, otherwise known as “Pie Town,” for lunch, pie, and what I hoped would be my first taste of camel milk. (I visited Pie Town before, so I knew about the camel dairies already.)

Our first stop was the Oasis Camel Dairy, which was nothing if not a nod to this blog and the sometimes exotic food choices I like to make. Unfortunately, the dairy was closed, so I didn’t get to try any camel milk or, my god, camel milk chocolate. Even so, I did get up close and much too personal with one particularly vile camel. 

I guess all camels are vile when it comes down to it (no offense to all you camel lovers out there), but two days after Christmas you might think it would behave a bit more civilized and act friendlier. (Spirit of the holidays, Mrs. Camel?) What’s what the chuffing cheeks full of frothy spit, the saliva-gargling and bellowing, the stink-eye-on-the-tourists while urinating on its tail and hind legs? Who wants to drink milk and eat milk chocolate produced from a nasty, disgusting beast like that? Well, me…had the dairy been open.

Despite its vileness, it was one handsome animal. All the more so when it rolled onto its back under a tree in the distance, stuck its legs straight up in the air, and mucked about in the dirt.

If giant flightless birds are more your thing, you’re in luck.

Along the highway to Julian there are also ostrich and emu farms, and highway stands that sell their eggs (empty ones) along with lots of colorful local produce.

It only takes about an hour to reach Julian from San Diego, and as you can see from the photos above, it's an interesting trip. Although we missed Julian Apple Days by a few weeks, the atmosphere remained very Christmas-like and festive, and the weather in southern California had finally sunnied-up enough that we could walk around the town comfortably.

Julian gained its fame originally in 1870 during gold rush times, and its popularity continues today for its old hotels, apple orchards, working gold mines, spring flowers, seasonal festivals, crafts and art stores, and of course pies.

Our first stop in Julian was the Miner’s Diner, on the corner of Washington and Main streets. 

The Miner’s Diner is an old-style breakfast and lunch restaurant, famous as much for its malted milkshakes as for its eclectic interior and old collectibles displayed virtually everywhere.

The busy counter, with its old soda fountain, is also worth noting. When it's not too crowded, it's fun to get up close and watch them make their milkshakes here.

The menu is nothing to brag about, but then again, it's nothing to sneeze at either. It offers standard diner fare, and at reasonable prices. The five of us ended up ordering two chili cheese-dogs, a veggie burger, a turkey burger, and the miner's burger (your standard burger with a different name). I went with the most heart-clogging choice: the chili cheese-dog. (I like to think this was a nod to my Cincinnati roots: Gold Star Chili and Skyline Chili.) It was pleasurably messy to eat, but a bit weak on flavor. I say spice up the chili more, Miner's Diner!

We were all pretty full after that, especially my dad and brother, who ordered gigantic malted milkshakes with their meals, and while I could have squeezed down a piece of pie at this point, I made do for now making love-eyes at pies in windows.

There are all kinds of interesting crafts shops here, too, with the main themes appearing to be nature, the old west, and California in general. We ended up walking to a place called The Birdwatcher, which sells all kinds of interesting bird-related merchandise, from bird seed to handcrafted birdfeeders, birding books to bird ornaments, bird art to bird flags...on and on.

I was still the only one ready for pie, and one of only three people in our group whose eyes weren't glazed over with that kind of gray, regretful look of over-satedness, so we piled into our car again and drove off about 10 miles to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Along the way are some great views, along with numerous lakes and interesting barns.

One place we stopped off at was an overlook of the Salton Sea. It's not really a sea, but a low-lying salt lake on the San Andreas Fault. On a clear day, one's view is rather spectacular.

Like I said, between Julian and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park are various lakes and ponds.

We didn't stay long at Cuyamaca Rancho, mostly because we realized that our time was short, and Pie Town closed early. So after a quick look around here, we were off again, this time to buy pie to bring back home.

We were in such a hurry for pie we nearly ran over these newlyweds taking a carriage ride through town.

The first place we went to had just closed for the day, so we rushed to a different pie shop -- The Julian Pie Company -- which we knew from a previous visit, and found it very busy, with a line going out through the door.

There's all kinds of seating here, too -- front, back, inside -- so when there's no place to sit, that means there are probably more than 50 people eating pie here all at once.

The Julian Pie Company has a wide selection of pies, some of which are baked on the spot and sold whole or in slices, other which are assembled and then sold for you to bake in your own home.

We were getting antsy waiting to buy pie. The couple in front of us bought ten pies to take home, which nearly cleaned the place out. By the time we got to the counter there were no baked pies left, though we did get a frozen unbaked Dutch apple crumb to take home with us.

We also decided to load up on the spot with slices of warm cherry pie and hot apple cider. The cherry pie was heavenly on the first bite -- okay, and also on the second and third -- but after that it became too rich for me, and there was a slight, salty aftertaste to it that I didn't much care for. But I ate the whole thing anyway. That's just the kind of human disposal I've come to be.

By the time we'd finished it was a bit after 5 p.m., and already the sun had gone down and Pie Town was winking on its lights. This is a great little trip to make if you're in San Diego and have some time free. Weekends are busy but the crowds are fun. Weekdays, I'd imagine, you'd have the town more or less to yourself.

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Toba Mika's Katazome Exhibition at the Temple of Literature

Text coming soon...

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A Few Hurried Days in Bangkok

Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything here. I’ve been quite busy in Hanoi, and with the holidays approaching I’ve been even busier than usual. I’m heading back to the U.S. for a little more than a week to celebrate the holidays with my family, but on my way there I needed to stop in Bangkok for a few days to get some dental work done. It was a quick trip, but I was able to enjoy some good local food before flying back home.

I’ve had various opportunities to come to Bangkok over the years, the first time being in 1994, immediately prior to my first stay in Vietnam. Bangkok has changed greatly since then, and while I’ve sometimes been put off by the city’s traffic, noise, and pollution, I still always find Bangkok fascinating. This trip was no exception. I enjoyed it quite a bit, in fact, but I think it was mostly because I was comparing it to Hanoi. (I like Hanoi, too, but the traffic and noise and crowds are much worse than in Bangkok. In Bangkok I can walk.)

I stayed in Sukhumvit, on Soi 19, which is a pretty central location. I know the area from previous trips, so I’m comfortable here, and I can get around pretty easily to wherever I’m going. I didn’t often venture far from my hotel for food, but then I didn’t need to. Good food is everywhere.

The worst meal I had (okay, second-worst; the Chinese duck I describe below was the worst) was just up the street from my hotel, at a place called The Beer Garden. I’ve eaten here before, and it’s never actually bad – but it’s often mediocre, and this time was no exception.

I ordered deep fried chicken wrapped in pandanus leaves (kai hor baiteoy), and while it looked appetizing on the plate, the chicken itself was rather rubbery and lacking in flavor. Also, the pandanus leaves were so long that by the time I’d unwrapped each piece of chicken, my plate—my whole table, in fact—was filled with greasy green leaves.

Also, my salad was a bit old looking—wilted, black edges and so forth. For my first meal this trip, I could have done better. At 110 baht ($3.65), it was just okay.

Beer Garden Sukhumvit 19 is at 33/3 Soi Sukhumvit 19, Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok. Tel: 2253-5249. Email: Beergarden19@hotmail.com. Open daily from 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 a.m.

Tucked away on Sukhumvit Soi 19 are quite a few restaurants and eateries worth trying. One non-Thai place I tried was called Izakaya Hanako, a Japanese restaurant that was much pricier than it should have been. Meaning: the food was all right, but not worth the 640 baht ($21) I paid for it.

I ordered a tofu salad, small dish of ohitashi, chirashizushi (which the waitress nearly tossed on me, poor girl, when she tripped at the counter where I sat). I also had a draft beer—Asahi, I believe.

The service is attentive, to say the least, and the quality of the food isn’t bad at all. But there are lots of Japanese restaurants in Sukhumvit, and one can do just as well at most of them. For this particular area, though, it’s convenient.

Izakaya Hanako is at 19/5-6 Sukhumvit Soi 19, Bangkok. Tel: 2255-2057. Email: mamhanako@gmail.com.

I found lots of local food courts within walking distance of where I stayed, too, one of which was on busy Soi 21.

Thai food courts are nice options when you don't speak Thai and can't read a Thai menu. One merely points to communicate one's desire. Here, one of the cooks’ helpers spoke English, which was helpful because it was critical they understand I couldn’t handle a lot of spice.

They helped me settle on three small portions of non-spicy dishes, served on rice, all for a mere 30 baht ($0.99). This type of food is called kao gaeng, if I'm not mistaken, and it’s great.

After that I wandered down Sukhumvit Soi 23 and came across a woman selling a snack of the sort I’d never seen before. What drew me to her wheeled cart were the green and blue colors of the rice dumplings she was making. I watched her pour a thin batter of rice flour and water on a hollow drum over which she’d stretched a circle of cheesecloth. She smoothed the liquid over the cloth, then added a dollop of dried shrimp, raisins, nuts, garlic, and minced pork—four dollops evenly spaced on the cheesecloth. Then she cut the steaming rice flour mixture into four triangles, rolled each one into a dumpling, then packed them together on a tray.

Because I got mine to go, she placed them atop a banana leaf inside a carry-out box, added lettuce, and sprinkled everything with fried garlic.

It was only 20 baht ($.66), and it was pretty tasty: salty and sweet, chewy and crunchy, all at once. With the lettuce, it becomes, dare I say it, almost healthy.

Across the street from my hotel are a number of small shops, in front of which there are always food vendors—morning, noon, and night, they’re unfailingly there, as are lots of customers. At night, there’s a man who wheels out his grill and sets up shop. And when he does, the smoke from the meats he’s cooking makes the area here smell delicious, and it’s hard to walk by without fumbling in my wallet for 30 baht to pay the grill-maestro for a big hunk of chicken or a couple giant prawns or an entire fish or some kebabs.

On this night I got chicken. 30 baht was a bit much, I thought, but hey, it tasted good. It would have gone even better with some rice, veggies, and a cold beer.

On another night I moseyed down Soi 19 about 100 meters and did myself right with a big plate of pad thai. My hotel offered pad thai, too, at about four times what I got it for on the street. The street version, however, is more delicious, and you're given more food here as well. For 30 baht, it’s a great deal.

These people were very sweet, and so was their six-year-old daughter who went around making sure the customers had all the condiments and utensils they needed. I was impressed with the woman's set-up here. She has everything she needs to serve customers from about 5 p.m. until after midnight.

It’s a family affair. The plastic tables beside her stand are always filled.

I had lunch another day on Sukhumvit Soi 33, this time at a food stand set up next to Oam Thong Restaurant at number 7/4-5.

For 35 baht ($1.16) I had another type of kao gaeng, this one made up of some mixed greens, deep-fried eggs in a slightly spicy sauce, some kind of stir-fried chicken with cabbage and carrots, and rice. It tasted great, and the alley where I ate was charming in its way.

One morning I crossed Sukhumvit Road (horror of horrors, especially when the lights take 3-4 minutes to change), headed down Soi 18, and came across a woman making kai yang, or boiled and deep-fried chicken served on rice with sliced cucumbers.

I placed my order and grabbed a seat; I didn't want to be relegated to eat standing on the pavement.

Although kai yang is originally a Chinese dish, the sauce it came with, which at this stand was both spicy and sweet, made it more distinctively Thai. I also got a small bowl of piping hot chicken soup – again, all for 30 baht.

Just down the street from here is a beautiful café called Kuppa. This place is about as chi-chi as it gets while still managing to be semi-affordable. Although I didn’t get a photo of my order, I had a deliciously moist yet fairly unspectacular slice of carrot cake and an iced milk coffee (I’d ordered black) for 300 baht ($9.95). Of course, the ambience of Kuppa, including its sometimes classical, sometimes lounge-like music (I went twice, and they played classical music the first time, lounge music the second), its beautiful clientele both local and international, and the gorgeous interior, all sort of justifies the prices here. If you’re looking for an oasis, this place offers it. In heaps. There’s also a nice-looking restaurant here, though I was too scared of the prices to have a look at its menu.

Kuppa is at 39 Soi Sukhumvit 16, Klongtoey, Bangkok. Tel: 2663-0495/8806/0450-4. (Why so many phone numbers?) Email: kuppa@loxinfo.co.th.

On the corner of Soi Sukhumvit 17 and Sukhumvit Road is a popular restaurant specializing in Chinese food. I say popular because it’s always crowded; I’ve even seen people waiting on the sidewalk for a table. But I’m not sure if it’s popular for the food.

Why? Because my food was terrible. And overpriced.

I ordered roasted duck with vegetables…and was served roasted duck, yes, though it was pink all the way through inside and lacking the least bit of heat, or even warmth for that matter, not to mention that it was swimming in far too much of something brown and gravy-like, and was much too sweet for my catholic tastes. The rice I was served was cold and inadequate, too, and it would have been nice, if I might be so bold to say this, if the workers there didn’t act like they disliked all their customers. And for 180 baht? Egads, people! Avoid! Avoid! Avoid!

Who can spend a few days in Bangkok and not get suckered into having a Thai iced tea? These drink stands, some fancier than others, sell all kinds of yummy drinks, though I’d avoid the coffee in the majority of them unless you’re really into freeze-dried Nescafe. Here I spent a whopping 15 baht ($.50) for a huge cup of Thai iced tea. So good. So good.

Most of the time here, when I’m struggling to communicate with Thai people, I feel embarrassed at my utter ineptitude with the language. But here, at this stand, the young people working here seemed to appreciate this. As the photo shows, I got what I wanted, but only after making them crack up about five different times at my attempted explanations. 15 baht! Git some!

In the daytime, also across from my hotel, is a man who sets up a fresh fruit cart. I love this cart. I wish I had one in my own home. Sort of like how I wish I had a Tiger Beer tap in my kitchen. Or next to my bed might be better. Anyway, I came here every day, ponied up 10 baht ($.33), and left with a bag of chopped papaya. What better mid-day snack can there be? Look at that fruit! It’s gorgeous!

Tonight, my last night in Bangkok, I was wandering around the neighborhood for a final glimpse at Sukhumvit when, lo and behold, ho ho ho, I nearly walked smack straight into a giant Christmas tree. (It was in a parking lot in front of a Robinson’s department store; that’s why those orange traffic cones surround it.)

And what better way to ring in Christmas than a pop dance performance by very young girls in their Sunday finest? These girls were charming, in fact, and smiled at everyone in the crowd. They weren’t particularly good, but at their ages I didn’t really expect them to be. I think they were trying to raise money for charity, though they might have just been trying to raise money for themselves. That’s the problem with my not understanding Thai. I can’t figure out what’s going on around me 95% of the time.

I loved how Santa’s helpers came out of the department store to watch. People from all over the place stopped to take in the unexpected entertainment. There was quite a crowd by the time I left.

And finally, I got back to my hotel tonight mere moments after they’d lit up the trees in front with bright, light-blue lights for the holiday. (By the way, for anyone looking for a place to stay in Bangkok, I can’t recommend Sacha’s Hotel Uno enough. 18/19 Sukhumvit Soi 19. Tel: +66 2651 2180. Website: http://sachas.hotel-uno.com.)

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