Tag Archives: international food

Bangkok: What defines a fabled city?

 

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What defines a fabled city? Age? Diversity of cultures? Tolerance of differences? Quality of life? Art and architecture? By using any of these terms I’m not sure if “fabled” is a moniker that can be applied to Bangkok. Fascinating certainly is proper terminology.

Bangkok is young and chaotic. Founded only in 1782 (Philadelphia, USA, is a century older) after the Burmese destroyed the truly fabled capital city of Ayutthaya, the site of Bangkok was chosen for strategic purposes – protection from the Thai’s arch-enemy the Burmese. Like Venice, it was marsh land surrounded by rivers. The king immediately constructed a system of canals creating a virtual moat around the city – and like Venice the elevation of the city is sinking.

It’s a city of contrast; not only rich and poor but architectural styles as well – condo skyscrapers next to river shanties, 19th century shopping districts and modern malls, dubious electrical infrastructure, scorching heat/ humidity (even in “winter”), cooling parks, trees, flowers everywhere and exquisite topiary.

Would you believe Bangkok’s a clean city? Believe it ! Trash on the streets is virtually non-existent despite the constant and lively street life. Legions of street sweepers and building maintenance workers constantly sweep up even leaves and fallen flower petals.

Sky Train and traffic

Traffic is horrendous! I spent one hour in a taxi to travel less than 4 miles – of course the fare was modest and the cabs are mostly new, comfortable air-conditioned Toyotas. Yet for less I could have taken a Tuk-Tuk – a motorcycle pulling an open air covered wagon – or, for even less, rode on the back of an orange shirted motorcycle “taxi.”

Yet, built within the past decade, the ultra modern, ultra clean and comfortable Sky Train elevated and the subway system will whisk one around the central core of the city (about one-third of Bangkok) for less than taking the average city bus in the USA. Despite the chaotic traffic I’ve yet to see a dented car.

(top left) shrine in a shopping mall, (center) Buddha statues for sale, (right) Holy Rosary Catholic Church, (bottom left) Temple of the Sleeping Buddha

There are over 35,000 Buddhist temples (Wat) in Thailand, 300,000 Buddhist monks, shrines everywhere – street corners, in malls, in front of every house, in parks, restaurants and hotels with burning candles, incense, flowers and food offerings. Just about every other world religion is present as well. In the Robinson Department Store just down the street from my hotel is a Muslim prayer room.

Shoes and hats are never worn in Thai houses of worship, or, for that matter, in any Thai home. The dirt of the outside is left outside. Floors are immaculate – not a speck of dust.

street life: (top left) eggs roasting on charcoal, (bottom left) street vendor dentures maker

Everything is available from street vendors, especially food. The Thai’s seem to eat constantly yet I have not seen a single person you could call even slightly overweight. For a Westerner, the cost of food is embarrassingly cheap. In the pictures below, the sushi and superbly grilled trout, plus a rice salad and miso soup in a small nondescript Japanese restaurant in a shopping mall cost  less than a Big Mac in the States.

In the three days I have wandered the city I have experienced nothing less than the utmost courtesy whether in a tourist attraction, on the Sky Train or the street. I have yet to see any public display of anger or bad behavior. The police are friendly and helpful – what a contrast to so many countries.

Children seem to be revered and the photos below sums up my impression of Thai friendliness – figures of laughing children are everywhere, especially in the gardens of the Wats (temples) and street the vendor’s baby in the crib is cooled by a battery-powered fan. Bangkok may be intolerably hot and humid, chaotic and perhaps not “fabled,” but it has a more valuable treasure – it’s friendly.

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43 Days: The Things I’ll Carry

 “The things they carried…P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits…they carried diseases…malaria and dysentery…lice and ringworm and leeches…and the land itself…the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles…They carried their own lives.”

from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Haughton Mifflin, 1990)

It’s been a quarter century since peace finally came to the  lands of Southeast Asia. For centuries it was part of the fabled “spice route” between the eastern and western worlds, yet in the 20th century more than twice the tonnage of bombs were dropped on Indochina than in all of World War II. I’ll be leaving Sunday to spend 43 days in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. I’ll have no worries or fears, unlike the brave but misled soldiers of that ill-fated war.

For me who narrowly escaped experiencing the horror of those past times, it feels odd that I’ll enjoy first class hotels, renowned cuisine, stunning scenery, cities and sites that have survived millennia of wars and legendary hospitality. From all my research of the past six months in preparation for this trip I expect to see, or even feel, little evidence (except in museums) of last century’s strife. As a chef, historian and travel writer I’m preparing myself for a flood of experiences that will test my ability to process this trip with all five senses – especially taste. Foods that few westerners ever have the opportunity to see, no less taste, await me, with fusion cuisine developed over centuries of east-west contact – durian cheesecake anyone?

Oddly, I’ll carry some of the same objects listed by Tim O’Brien – can opener (cork screw in my case), pocket knife, wristwatch, mosquito repellant, bottled water, sewing kit and malaria pills (one-a-day for 51 days). I’ll have to still be mindful of bed bugs – carrying bed bug repellant (fortunately I’m  already aware of what they look, and feel, like.) Lice, leeches, dysentery are all still present – this is the tropics – which means swimming in lakes and rivers is out. I’ll carry my ignorance of customs – no pointing either with fingers or, especially, with one’s foot. I’ll be ignorant of the languages. For the first time in my life as a traveller I’ll be hopelessly unaware of what anyone is saying (with the exception of tourism workers that speak English). Language will become music, much nicer than the karaoke sounds my research says is the favorite throughout all four countries.

The best thing I’ll carry? A sense of wonder.

My first blog, from Bangkok, will post Tuesday, 8 February.

New York, New Year, 3 Restaurants

What am I saying? I had a pleasant, imaginative, moderately priced lunch in a major urban museum’s cafe? An oxymoran….0r lack of oxygen….?

Petrie Court Cafe & Wine Bar

Just off the multi-storey glass atrium of the striking American Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the airy, glass walled dining space occupied by the Petrie Court Cafe & Wine Bar. My experience in most museum cafes is to forgo the over priced, microwaved offerings in favor of a coffee, but the menu at Petrie is neither overpriced nor nuked.

Petrie Court Cafe & Wine Bar, the MET, New York City

Perhaps the Pennsylvania Dutch were Italian, because Petrie’s pappardelle noodles (top left) are as rich as anything eaten in a Lancaster farmhouse. Tossed with a light buttery cream sauce, earthy sautéed wild mushrooms and spinach with a garnish of spinach puree, it was an inspired pasta dish ($17.95.) The Cream of Pumpkin soup (bottom left)was velvety and light – not the thick vegetable puree served in so many restaurants. A flavorful stock underpinned the soup, but the aroma of the roasted pumpkin seed oil garnish raised this common dish to a new level of flavor ($8.95). Salads should delight the eye and the taste buds. (bottom right) Spicy arugula and mixed greens tossed in a light citrus vinaigrette with slightly salty manchego cheese, pears, bright fresh pomegranate seeds and deep red pomegranate puree garnish accomplished the task nicely ($9.95). Fresh sourdough rolls accompanied the meal. Most wines were in the $8 – $9.00/glass range. Despite a busy lunch time, service was smooth and professional. Interestingly, there are few restaurants of any type within walking distance of the MET in its wealthy Upper East Side location, making the Petrie Cafe & Wine Bar a welcome, and much-needed, addition to the neighborhood.

Lower East Side, near Orchard Street, (left) Katzs Deli, since 1888

Little Giant cafe, on the corner of Broome and Orchard Streets, certainly would not have existed in 1870’s Lower East Side New York –  or even 1970’s. Not that eating establishments didn’t exist back then. Taverns and street vendors have flourished from the city’s founding nearly 400 years ago. In the picture above, left side, you can see the sign for famous Katzs Deli serving the (then immigrant) Jewish community since 1888. Now an institution, but still terrific, its 21st century clientele is an ever-increasing affluent population of “post-immigrant” residents. Just a block down from the Tenement Museum, Little Giant is a laid back cafe in a renovated, exposed brick store front in an early 20th century Lower East Side building. In earlier days maybe it was a cloth store? It’s small space – seats 20/25 –  is filled even at 3:00 pm on a weekday and keeps the small staff busy. The menu is brief but items are freshly made so be patient. The Angus Beef burger was fresh ground and grilled medium rare as requested ($9.95).  A “little giant” portion of their own Mac and Cheese was excellent. Like Petrie’s Pumpkin Soup, Little Giant’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese eschewed thickeners and relied on a well seasoned, but medium, cheese sauce to bind the macaroni and garnished with a nice crust of browned bread crumbs for texture ($7.00/$14.00). A well seasoned “salad” of sautéed kale with oyster mushrooms was tasty and nutritious for anyone wondering about all that red meat ($9.95). The bar served a nice selection of micro beers on tap and bottle, wines by the glass and a great Bloody Mary with horseradish-infused vodka ($10.00). With its large store front windows, it was pleasant leisurely having lunch while watching the bustle which is always New York.

Sante Fe Restaurant

Finding imaginative Southwest American cuisine in New York is as difficult as in Albuquerque. Face it, real Southwest/Tex-Mex/Mexican-American is comfort food – like pasta with red sauce for Italians. To find chefs that create new dishes using old techniques is always nice and not common in the commercial world of the food industry.

Sante Fe, 73, West 71st Street, in the leafy but happening Upper West Side of New York, serves recognizable southwest dishes yet tweak the recipes giving them new life. Citrus and herb marinated thin-sliced grilled skirt steak is wrapped in a tortilla and served with a micro green salad ($12.95). A fresh lump-meat crab cake topped with a poached egg and covered with a roasted smoky tomato sauce is a flavorful variation on a brunch standard, with a green salad and rice pilaf ($14.95). Excellent house salsa accompanied corn chips and the house Margarita ($8.00 or $11.00) was citrus fresh and tequilla rich – not a mix. The restaurant itself is a relaxing space in light airy southwest peach, art, a fireplace and good acoustics (quiet!)

New York can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s easy to find great food in this “world capital” at prices most people tolerate at their local shopping mall’s food court!

Upper West Side, 70's, looking downtown, New York City

Published: 2 Articles/2 Journals

I have two articles on Argentine themes that are now published on-line by respected travel journals.

Rio Parana from Casa Quiroga & bamboo maze

Horatio Quiroga’s San Ignacio: Home to Madmen and Missionaries appears in the British journal Hack Writers  http://www.hackwriters.com. It has been publishing for 11 years and is associated with the University of Portsmouth, England.

               (I am posting some photos not printed with the articles)

 

(Top)model of San Ignacio Mini, stone carving detail (Bottom) ruins of church facade, on-going restoration work

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

(Top) native Guarani, ruins of mission housing (Bottom) irrigation canal, school and countryside

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Top) Quiroga's motor bike & first house, (Bottom) interior and exterior of second house)

 and

Global Writes, the 54 year old journal of the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association (http://global-writes.com/ ) published Sweet Fire in Ushuaia, my article on the incomparable food enterprise Dulce Fuego in Ushuaia, Argentina run by 20-something-year-old chefs.

staff of Dulce Fuego, grilled Patagonian Trout, and Ushuaia, Argentina (the southernmost city on Earth)

Affordable Manhattan – an oxymoron? (Part 1)

fireworks, Central Park, 6 November 2010

The unexpected fireworks were free, in celebration of the 2010 New York Marathon that would be run the following day. We had just stepped out of Pasha Restaurant on West 71st Street, when the booming commenced. It was an unexpected end to a pleasant Turkish dinner, one of the great cuisines. The interior of Pasha is comfortable with soft lighting and well modulated background music. From 5:00 to 7:00 PM the $23.95, 3-course, prix fixe menu is well thought out attracting repeat customers with five choices from the main menu (not the boredom of so many prix fixe selections.) My wife had the prix fixe with a salad, Piya (Cannellini beans tossed with sweet onions, scallions, parsley, tomatoes, and extra virgin olive oil) with warm flaky rolls to absorb the herbs. Alabalik Tava followed (Boneless brook trout dusted with cornmeal and pan seared). Dessert was a wedge of perfect baklava – (non-syrupy) –  spice, nut and honey infused pyhllo pastry. For $24.95, I had the fish entrée of the day: a whole, wood-grilled Chilean Sea Bass.  Its moist white meat was encased by its crispy, herbed skin. Side dishes were crisp, steamed vegetables and an herb-infused rice pilaf. It was not wise to arrive on a Saturday night without a reservation – even if it was only 5:30 PM. Yet Pasha was gracious and had a table that was not booked until 7:30 PM, but I would recommend reservations since the dinning room was full by 6:30.

At West 78th’s  Drilling Company Theater, we attended a moving and jarring new play, superbly acted and produced by this award-winning 11-year old company. Eric Sanders’ Reservoir is a heart wrenching look at the psychological detritus of war – the “survivors”. At $18/ticket, the Drilling Company proves that top theater is found everywhere in New York before it moves on to $200/ticket on Broadway. Saturday evening’s dinner, theater (and fireworks) cost less than $130/couple.

(Bottom left): beer flights w/schnapps, (center & right): "boots" of beer at Lederhosen

Actually, Lederhosen Bierhaus is not nearly as kitsch as their home web site suggests. On Grove Street, off Christopher Street in the trendy East Village, Lederhosen has the atmosphere of a neighborhood bierhaus. In my two visits, over a six month period, I’ve yet to see any staff wear either lederhosen or  rhinestone decorated milk-maid dresses. Of course, I’ve yet to order the decidedly college-fraternity sized boot of beer. In smaller, more manageable quantities, their superb selections on-tap, and in bottles, set the stage for equally authentic Bavarian bierhaus food. Main courses ranged from the classic Schnitzel to sautéed herring fillets with mushroom sauce (I had that).  Each generous portion comes with a variety of sides, minimum four  – green and red cabbage slaw, potato salads, sautéed potatoes, bean salads, spatzzle. (average entrée $10 – 19)  Soft, aromatic, in-house pretzels are served with german mustards ($3.00)  along with a variety of wurst on crispy rolls with toppings ($5.00), appetizers for pickle and herring lovers ($5.00) and generous soups and sandwiches ($5.00- $10.00) round out a menu to be enjoyed in a convivial atmosphere that’s hard to top – unless you just really don’t like German food, but then…you can always try their flights of beer (8, I believe) with shots of schnapps.

On our first visit to Lederhosen we were with an Austrian friend who was impressed with the quality of this everyday German pub faire. In the picture above the three dishes are from left: Boneless Herring Fillets with a choice of sauces ($10), Currywurst grilled beef sausage ($5.00) and  Wiener Schnitzel ($17) Ah yes, those are lederhosen hanging from the ceiling (top left). The restaurant has three small rooms that fill quickly for lunch and dinner. Reservations are not accepted except for special occasions, but waiting times are typically not long, and you can always have a beer while you stand in the social bar entrance area.

a rare 1930's WPA reverse painted glass mural (protected with a plexiglass cover)

Marie’s Crisis Cafe, 59 Grove Street, is oddly unique in bridging a number of Lower Manhattan social stages. The below street level bar is dark as should be expected when in an 18th century building  – once home to Tom Paine, where he penned his famous revolutionary essays The Crisis Papers.  It went down-hill after that going from bar/brothel to worse until Prohibition (by the 1920’s it was known as Marie’s). After Prohibition’s 1930’s end, Marie’s somehow qualified for a stunning WPA funded reverse painted glass wall mural depicting both the French and American Revolutions, launching a new era.

On Grove Street just off Christopher and 7th Ave, (and only 4 or 5 blocks from the Lederhosen) this area of the Village was always known for being largely gay, hip and culturally cutting edge. For over 35 years the latest reincarnation of Marie’s Crises Cafe has witnessed the neighborhood’s transformation from grunge to designer chic. Yet Marie’s Crises Cafe has remained a relaxing, straight-friendly,  singing piano bar and neighborhood hangout. My wife, friends and I have spent several evenings enjoying the ongoing concert with professional theater pianist playing at the separate piano bar. The pianists of the evening have terrific voices and encyclopedic musical theater repertoire, but its the participation of patrons that take Marie’s to a different level. We’re not talking karaoke here. Regular patrons at Marie’s are often the seasoned professional as well as the young aspiring male or female stage singers.  There is more standing room than sitting room and the bar is basic but inexpensive ($6 – $7/beer and $8 – $10/shots and drinks). Yet there’s no cover for this top-notch entertainment.

Between Lederhosen Bierhaus and Marie’s Crisis piano bar, a Friday evening in Manhattan’s Village for two, with dinner, entertainment and drinks cost us  less than $100.00

Lower Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry

We were staying with a friend on Staten Island, a pleasant, free, 20 minute ferry ride that passes  Governor’s Island, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, but it’s viewing Manhattan at night that’s magical. Staten Island’s an article in itself, but one restaurant stands out, amidst a sea of mediocrity.

(Top) Oysters Rockefeller, Rack of Lamb, Seafood Stew, (Bottom) Seafood bake, antique Italian glass chandelier, and Gumbo

We had Sunday dinner at Bayou Restaurant, 1072 Bay Street, in the middle of a nondescript commercial strip. Yet there’s nothing nondescript about the execution of its Louisiana inspired menu. My wife, a New Orleans native was impressed with the Cajun Seafood stew, our friend’s Seafood bake and my rack of lamb –  all with Cajun spices and Louisiana’s French/Spanish inspired sauces. Dinner per person, with wine and tip, for 3 was $136.00 ($46/per person). Everything else we did that day of the Marathon was free(no, we didn’t run…now if it was a hike…).

True, we spent the weekend at a friend’s apartment, but before the invitation, I had planned to use some rewards points for two-nights at a first class Manhattan hotel that, without points, would have cost $600 for the weekend. Responsible use of travel reward  credit cards can result in significant savings on future trips.

For a bit over $350/couple we had dinner and entertainment for three weekend days, two nights, plus subway fares on the city’s efficient, renovated system. Manhattan on a budget? Actually, no – Manhattan on the smarts. With a little reading/skimming – New York Times  (paper or on-line), New Yorker magazine and blogs – it’s easy to create a list of favorites.

window poster on office building on Madison Ave.

There’s nothing like New York…at least to visit for a weekend.

“Don’t put Cheez Whiz on my Gingerbread”

I didn’t say that. It came from a Facebook exchange…no more explanation. Yet it got me thinking about this ubiquitous American “food” and the human love for cheese.

There are thousands of cheese varieties on Earth – that’s no exaggeration. France alone certifies over 400 different cheeses. We’ve been making cheese for at least 10,000 years and I’m sure a simple search will produce just as many recipes. Cheese turns highly perishable milk from cows, goats, sheep and buffalo (I’m sure there must be a few other animals…koala?) into products that are preserved for years.

We love its creamy texture, ok parmesan isn’t creamy.  If most fastidious, ultra sanitized Americans actually knew what went into cheese over the centuries it most likely would cause the industry’s total collapse, so let’s just make ignorance bliss. Needless to say, we spend billions of dollars on cheeses each year.

Then why in 1911 would a Swiss, Walter Gerber, apply science to create a food – processed cheese? Perhaps Michigan State University has the answer.

“Processed cheese is made from natural cheeses that may vary in degree of sharpness of flavor. Natural cheeses are shredded and heated to a molten mass. The molten mass of protein, water and oil is emulsified during heating with suitable emulsifying salts to produce a stable oil-in-water emulsion. Depending on the desired end use, the melted mixture is then reformed and packaged into blocks, or as slices, or into tubs or jars. Processed cheeses typically cost less than natural cheeses; they have longer shelf-life, and provide for unlimited variety of products.” https://www.msu.edu/~mdr/vol14no2/ustunol.html

Basically if you can make it, why not? Yet it took American marketing savvy to change the perception of cheese for generations of kids.  James Kraft was granted a patent for the process in 1916, and in 1927 he purchased the recipe for Velveeta, a cheap and easy food that brought comfort to many during the austere days of the Great Depression.  The early 1950’s brought a real revolution with the invention of Cheez Whiz and sliced American Cheese. Processed cheese entered middle class bridge and dinner parties throughout the post-war suburban boom, not to mention millions of lunch boxes.

Yet it wouldn’t be long before science did it again with the 1966 introduction by Nabisco of Snack Mate, Cheez Whiz in an aerosol can (and Spain’s Ferran Adria thought he invented molecular gastronomy). After Nabisco’s merger with Kraft we know this gourmet item as Easy Cheese. (I once had a catering client specifically ask for Easy Cheese on crackers as hors d’oeuvres).

Processed cheese, especially Cheez Whiz, has a fiercely loyal following. Here in Philadelphia there is no more evidence than two monumental debates (1) who invented the Philly Cheese Steak, and (2) is it best with provolone, American Cheese slices or Cheez Whiz. Both Cheez Whiz and Pat’s Steaks seem to win, but please, if you disagree – meaning you buy from his relatives that own Gino’s Steaks across the street, don’t put a contract out on me…

Here’s the recipe for 4 servings from Philadelphia’s Pat’s King of Steaks, 1237 E. Passyunk Ave
Philadelphia, PA 19147-5060 (215) 468-1547

Prep Time: 8 minutes 

Cook Time: 8 minutes 

Total Time: 16 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 32 oz. thin sliced rib eye or eye roll steak
  • 6 T soya bean oil
  • Cheez Whiz, recommended
  • 4 crusty Italian rolls
  • 1 large Spanish onion
  • Optional: sweet green and red peppers sautéed in oil
  • Optional: mushrooms sautéed in oil

Preparation:

Heat an iron skillet or a non-stick pan over medium heat. Add 3 tablespoons of oil to the pan and sauté the onions to desired doneness. Remove the onions, then add the remaining oil and sauté the slices of meat quickly on both sides.

While the meat is cooking, melt the Cheez Whiz® in a double boiler or in the microwave. Once the meat is done, place 8 oz. of the meat into the rolls. Add onions, and pour the Cheez Whiz® over top. Garnish with hot or fried sweet peppers, mushrooms and ketchup.

Vache qui rit.png

It’s not just Americans that like processed cheese, even the French have The Laughing Cow!

In Canada, Quebec did not create a distinctive processed cheese but came close. Poutine has become a beloved national dish that I have never been able to bring myself to eat. Poutine is traditionally a combination of fresh cheese curds, a light gravy made from chicken, veal or turkey stock poured over hot French fries. What are cheese curds? At the very start of making natural cheese, rennet is combined with warm milk and allowed to rest. Shortly, the milk solids separate from the whey. Those milk solids are the curds. The average person would be most familiar with fresh curds when eating dry cottage cheese or mozzarella. In Canada, fresh packaged cheese curds are available in many grocery stores. For me, it’s the gravy part of poutine that puts me off. So if you want to make poutine, put fresh, hot French fries on a plate, top with the fresh curds and then the hot gravy. Serve immediately.

Whatever you do, please do not put any of this on George Washington’s favorite dessert: (I think it may be a federal crime…)

Colonial Gingerbread

Ingredients:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 egg

1 cup molasses 1 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 cup buttermilk 1 teaspoon ginger

1/2 cup sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 cup softened butter 1/2 teaspoon salt

powdered sugar

Directions:

Preheat oven to 325 F. Grease and flour 9″ square baking pan.

Into large bowl, measure all ingredients except powdered sugar.

With mixer at low speed, beat until blended, constantly scraping bowl. Increase speed to   medium and continue beating for 3 minutes.

Pour batter into pan and bake 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely on wire rack. Sprinkle top with powdered sugar.

 

Leave the Cheez Whiz for the kids.

4 Cities 5 Restaurants

Houston, Seattle, New York and Philadelphia
TOP: Houston and Seattle BOTTOM: New York and Philadelphia

I have two reasons to travel: explore and eat.  I can accomplish this goal in my own hometown or 14,000’ in the Andes. Add an interesting dish or a great market, an elegant restaurant or a hot plate in a hostel and I’m the proverbial happy traveler.

Pappadeaux at Houston Intercontinental Airport

I’ve had the opportunity to explore Houston airport (George Bush Intercontinental) over a dozen times in the past couple of years making flight connections. Airport food, in general, is barely a cut above airline food and it’s over-priced. Yet occasionally there is a surprise.  Pappadeaux, on concourse E, although part of a corporate chain, does manage to present Cajun/Louisiana style food that even my New Orleans born wife thinks is pretty good. In the past I’ve sampled lots on their menu including good Asian sushi type rolls, burgers and imaginative entrée salads. Portions are generous, the atmosphere is congenial – you forget you’re in an airport – and it has a lively bar scene. On my last visit just a few weeks ago, I had three sautéed soft shell crabs on a large bed of dirty rice. I’d never had dirty rice before and it was a nice combination of nutty/spicy, although my wife said it could have been more seasoned,  but this is Cajun/Louisiana for the general public. My wife’s crab cakes were all crab held together with a crisp coating that had been lightly sautéed. The crab flavor was fresh, but we both agreed they lacked any distinctive seasoning (and she makes excellent Cajun crab cakes). It was served on top of an odd lemon white wine sauce with small crawfish that did not add to the dish, especially since it was served with shoestring potatoes –  an odd choice. Dirty Rice would have been a more appropriate accompaniment, with or without the sauce, and it would have been interesting if the crawfish had been in the crab cakes. We shared Pappadeaux’s excellent version of a lettuce wedge salad with blue cheese and it definitely was a major improvement for this ubiquitous American favorite. A generous wedge of iceberg was smothered with sliced yellow and orange sweet peppers, scallions, crisp smoky bacon, chopped tomatoes and crumbled blue cheese. The entrees were in the $18.00 range and the salad was $9.00. I’ll be back in Houston airport in the near future and will return to Pappadeaux.

Pike Street Public Market

Seattle has no shortage of fresh ingredients, from its fruits and produce to the incomparable oysters of the Northwest Pacific Coast. Pike Place Market is a symbol of the region’s bounty and its dependence on the Japanese Americans who have grown its products and sell at the market. A sobering experience is both seeing the mural painted in their honor and the plaque that restates the infamous, and racist,  Federal order of 1942 stripping all Japanese Americans of their civil rights, property and herding them into concentration camps for the next four years – a disaster for both the nation and the Market. Rapidly recovering after the war, Pike Place Market thrives on both abundant tourism and copious patronage by Seattle natives. (See my blog Seattle: Just a Tease).

Pear

Pear Delicatessen & Shoppe, 1926 Pike Place, is just opposite the Market. It’s a combination deli and gourmet shop. Every day it prepares superb, imaginative hot and cold sandwiches and salads for take-out and eat-in. Both sandwiches (click to enlarge collage and read the menu description) were excellent, and I’d return to have them again. Sitting at the counter looking out onto the constantly changing tableau on the street was great entertainment.

view of Puget Sound from Elliott's Oyster House Pier 56

At first when I heard of Elliott’s Oyster House Pier 56 I thought “tourist trap” because despite my weakness for dining with a water view, I’m frequently disappointed with both the quality and prices of such establishments. Yet Seattle seems to be an anomaly. Not only is the waterfront a major tourist attraction, but like Pike Place Market, the waterfront and Elliott’s are a beloved gathering place for all Seattle age groups. Elliott’s not only has stunning views of Puget Sound but moderate prices and excellent fish and seafood. We ate twice and would come back for more, especially for the incomparable Monday through Friday Oyster Happy Hours (hours is correct: 3:00 – 6:00 PM). I am an oyster freak – raw, steamed, and baked – and Elliott’s features over one dozen varieties of Pacific Coast oysters each day depending on the catch.  Beginning at 3:00 PM, the Chef chooses the variety of the day. Each person may order one dozen – or a maximum of three dozen per table – each half hour. The oysters come beautifully displayed on mounds of shaved ice with lemons and cocktail sauce. From 3:00 to 3:30 the price is $.50 per oyster! Each half hour until 5:30 the price increases only $.25/per to a maximum of $1.75 an oyster – still on an average $.25 less than normal Seattle restaurant cost.

Elliott's Oyster House Happy Hour

 When I heard of Elliott’s system, I devised a strategy that proved successful. I figured any deal like this at a very popular restaurant had to be sought after. We decided to arrive around 2:00 to have a late but light lunch. At that time, the dining area was two-thirds full. For $7.00 per person, I had a generous bowl of New England clam chowder, full of clams, thick with cream and the aroma of good smoky bacon. My wife had an equally flavorful bowl of seafood chowder.  Both chowders came with Caesar salads. By 3:00 PM there was a waiting line outside the restaurant with all the outside/dockside tables full plus the bar. We remained until 5:00 enjoying a dinner of three dozen briny, ice cold raw oysters – all for a total price for the oysters of $21.00. A Happy Hour drink menu did have reduced price mixed drinks, beer and wines from their extensive bar, but the star drink was their signature, the Oyster Shooter. It’s an inspired variation on the Bloody Mary. In a double shot glass is peppered vodka, their fresh tomato Bloody Mary mix and one raw oyster – at $3.00 it’s so good, it’s dangerous.

New York City is considered to be the “capital” of many things in America including the food industry, and like most superlatives, it simply is not true. Having lived less than 90 miles from Manhattan most of my life, I have had just as many disappointing and over-priced restaurant meals in New York as I’ve had at interstate rest stops. There are always those finds when one explores. In the past few years I have discovered the neighborhood of Little Brazil in Mid-town Manhattan next to the Diamond District. After three dinners, where I’ve never been disappointed with either the atmosphere, quality of food or the price, Ipanema Restaurant is a true find. Brazilian cuisine, like Argentine, is heavy on beef – lean, tender aged cuts – grilled to perfection and seasoned with the classic Chimichurri Sauce. River and ocean fish – trout, monk and cod – along with chicken are well featured. My wife had a tender breast of chicken smothered in stewed tropical fruits with creamy whipped potates. Side dishes include superb steamed collard greens, rice and beans and home-made lightly fried potato rounds. Prices are moderate – entrees in the $18.00 range – service friendly and professional and you will hear more Portuguese and Spanish spoken than English – always a good sign that the restaurant cooks authentic cuisine.

some of the dishes from a Han Dynasty "tasting" banquet

Philadelphia, my home city, was a culinary desert when I was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s. Known for “rolling up the sidewalks” at 7:00 PM, Blue Laws that closed most restaurants on Sundays and overcooked vegetables, meat and potatoes. Everything changed in the mid-1970’s. A new generation of trained chefs tapped into a new generation of worldy clientele and the Philadelphia Restaurant Rennaisance was underway. Today it is difficult to get a bad meal – cheesesteaks are upscaled. Even ethnic restaurants delve deeper into their native cuisines to present the diner with authentic dishes. Rarely though does a dinner have the opportunity to participate in a 20 course Chinese banquet. Every first Monday of the month, the Philadelpia location at 108 Chestnut Street of Han Dynsty Restaurant does exactly that – and for $25.00 per person!

Before you reach for the phone, as of last week they had a few seats, of the 70 reservation maximum for each banquet, available for February 2011. It is worth the wait.

Han Dynasty Restaurant presents a Chinese “tasting menu” for 70 people (one sitting at 7:00 PM) but after 20 satisfying (aka: filling) courses I call this a banquet. The 20 Dishes span Chinese cuisine with nearly half containing an amount of hot peppers many Americans may not prefer. Yet keep two points in mind: (1) many of the tiny red peppers are whole and can be removed – some dishes are in sauces and you cannot, (2) the bowl or platter of food is served communally, the 70 diners are seated at group tables, so each diner controls their own portion size, (3) There are an equal number of soothing, non-pepper dishes. The structure of the 20 courses involves meat, poultry, fish, noodles, rice, spices, hot, cold, and vegetable – in small portions. That is the cultural ideal of a Chinese Banquet – the four elements (earth, fire, wind, water) and Han Dynasty achieves this goal. There is no set menu for the dinner, it changes each month and you’re going to know when it’s placed in front of you – be open to an adventure, and some noise since the downstairs room gets crowded.

I do have three recommendations for the excellent chef  to take the expertise to a vaulted level: (1) each hot pepper dish should be followed by one without hot peppers, (2) even though it may raise the cost, the diners’ plates should be refreshed a few times during the dinner to exclude blending of previous flavors onto the next superb dish; and instead of fish for a final course  (3) there should have been some dessert (sweet element) preferably chilled.

Han’s regular dining room menu is just as imaginative having eaten there previously, but the “tasting menu” is a true experience well worth the wait for a reservation. (BYOB, $25/person not including tip).

 

20th century design at New York's Museum of Modern Art, (upper far left: Nixon/ Khrushchev Kitchen Debate and bottom far right: Andy Worhol boxes

Vancouver Part 3 – What to see and eat…

….especially eat  some of the freshest produce, fruit, meats, fish and SEAFOOD ever but not always in restaurants.

Mecca for this abundance is the Granville Island Public Market with 50 permanent and over one hundred day vendors selling food and crafts. 

 It’s a vast space and on a beautiful Sunday afternoon it was packed. Not only is the variety and quality overwhelming and the prices very fair, but every ethnic “fast food” is available from Italian to Samoan – this is the Pacific Rim remember. Take your prepared foods outside to the tables and benches and you’ll also be entertained by dozens of buskers/musicians. The  picture collages are best viewed if you click to enlarge (want an item identified?  E-mail me through a comment. I’ll be happy to reply).

baked goods & chocolates

Although Granville Market is the largest, Downtown Vancouver has a number of smaller produce markets that you’ll run across walking through the city. So… you’re a tourist staying in a hotel with, maybe, a microwave in your room – not good for oysters? Why not book an apartment, or easier still, an apartment hotel. For six nights I had a one bedroom apartment with a complete kitchen, half a block from False Creek at the (first class) Meridian 910 Beach Avenue Apartment Hotel for $140/night including tax. When I tell you what good restaurants cost in Vancouver, as well as the $250 – $600/night at all other first class hotels, you’ll realize this is a terrific deal.

meats, cheeses and pates

I’m a seafood/fish freak – especially oysters (raw, fried, you name it). The northwest coast of the USA and Canada has survived the destructive pollution that has ravaged the eastern shore and Gulf coast beds.  For $18.00 I purchased two pounds of the largest, plumpest stewing oysters I have ever experienced. They provided my wife and me with the main course for two dinners and one lunch. I’m not a big fan of deep fat frying, but pan frying is another story altogether. I created a recipe which I consider quite nice:

Stewing Oysters breaded and ready for frying

Pan Fried Oysters with Scotch-Green Pepper Mustard Sauce (if using all two pounds  it will serve four people)

Ingredients:    

 2 pounds stewing oysters

Flour

4 eggs, well beaten

DRY bread crumbs or corn meal (I like corn meal)

¼ pound butter and 4 Tablespoons olive oil (more butter if necessary between batches)

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup (8 oz. any Scotch whiskey)

2 to 3 Tablespoons green pepper corn mustard (if you cannot find this, use 2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard and 1 Tablespoons preserved – canned –  green peppercorns).

Finely chopped parsley for garnish

Procedure:

 (1) place oysters in a strainer over a bowl and drain for 30 minutes

(2) reserve oyster liquor and place oysters on paper towels to dry for 15 minutes.

(3) beat eggs in a bowl

(4) in a separate bowl measure out 1 ½ cups flour

(5) in a different bowl measure out an equal amount of cornmeal or flour

(6) Follow these directions for EACH oyster: using your hands (NOT A FORK OR TONGS – you will puncture the delicate oysters – hands are made for cooking)  (A) dip each oyster into the first bowl of flour and shake off the excess. (B) dip the floured oyster into the beaten egg. (C) coat the egged oyster in the additional flour or cornmeal.

(7) place each oyster on a wire rack/cookie sheet. When all oysters have been prepared, place the cookie sheet with oysters into the refrigerator for 30 minutes so that the coating will “set” – adhere to the oyster (you want to do this for anything you “bread”).

(8) in a heavy sauté/frying pan, non-stick is great, cut the 4 oz. of butter into pieces and add the olive oil. Melt the butter into the oil over moderate heat. When gently bubbling, add only enough oysters for a single layer – do not crowd! Sauté until golden brown on each side – about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a paper towel lined platter that has been heated in a 225 degree oven and keep oysters warm until all are prepared.

(9) If the oysters have absorbed all the butter/oil, add 2 to 3 Tablespoons butter to pan and melt. Add the mustard/peppercorns and blend until smooth. Add the scotch and reserved oyster liquor and heat gently until smooth simmer for 2 minutes.

(10) Divide the sauce among the plates and top with four or five oysters.  Sprinkle with some finely chopped parsley. Serve with roasted garlic whipped potatoes and steamed asparagus. (email for the roasted garlic potato recipe).

Vancouver,  like most North American cities, has lost any distinctive cuisine having succumbed to the homogenized taste dictated by large food processors and TV advertising. The average restaurant serves the same burgers, fried fish, steaks and pasta dishes anyone will find in New York, Toronto or Dubuque – with the same variations on theme and price depending on whether table cloths are provided. “Fine Dining” establishments mean a couple will pay the same $150 with wine that they’ll pay anywhere for the same food and serve.

I did find one restaurant I thought was a cut above the norm in an unlikely venue since it’s in the middle of the uber-tourist/power lunch Downtown area of Canada Place/Harbor Center.

Aqua Riva and Heidi

Aqua Riva, 200 Granville Street, is a sleek, ultra-modern, glass sheathed space with spectacular views of Vancouver harbor from all tables. Recommended by friends who had dined there a few weeks before, it was an excellent choice for a first-class lunch. The same friends had told us we must have Heidi as our server, and without remembering in advance, sure enough, we were seated at a table served by Heidi – she’s waving to our friends in the collage (and was a friendly, trained, well informed professional).  Aqua Riva specializes in wood grilled meats and fish. As you enter the restaurant, the grilling area is open and blazing with the aroma of good food. Wild Salmon – in every form imaginable – is available at every good restaurant along the north Pacific coast and we had had our full after nearly two weeks of travel.  My wife had Cream of Sweet Potato Soup and Curry Roasted Lamb Sirloin Wrap and I had a daily special, Grilled New Zealand Lamb topping a square of fried couscous and crisp steamed vegetables on a demi-glace green peppercorn sauce. All was flavorful and well-seasoned, although I had asked for my lamb to be medium rare and it came well done – minor fault. Lunch with wine and tip was $100 for two. I would highly recommend Aqua Riva based on the ambiance, service, food and view – a couple would spend much more at lesser venues, but you will spend more for dinner.

Japadog stand, corner of Canadian Pacific RR Station
Vancouver Fast Food

Perusing many menus at Downtown restaurants confirmed that Vancouver’s venues were equal to most North American cities – predictable, possibly well prepared and presented but are they worth spending $100 – $250 per couple for lunch and dinner every day? What was interesting were the proliferation of spotlessly clean street vendors and office complex food courts. The occasional burger joint was around, but the majority were Asian inspired venues offering everything from made to order sushi to Japadog – “hot dogs” made from shrimp, gourmet pork and topped with such items as seaweed! With this abundance of markets and fascinating “fast food,” why spend in excess of $100 for just another tender grilled steak?

Cafe Carthedge

Yet there is a neighborhood where modest ethnic restaurants exist, from Irish Pub to North African. This is in the working class gentrifying Commercial Drive District east of Downtown. At Carthage Café we had superb Tunisian Cuisine. We shared a soup rich with the deep flavor of cumin, vegetables and lamb in a flavorful chicken broth;  a stew thick with chick peas, lamb, cinnamon and couscous and large, plump Prince Edward Island mussels in a saffron, ginger and red pepper sauce. Café Carthage, it turns out, is famous for its imaginative Tunisian twists on sauces for mussels. I would return to Commercial Drive to check the many Asian and some century old Italian restaurants. Lunch for two with wine and tip was $65.

Central Branch of the Vancouver Public Library

There are a couple buildings in Downtown that stand out among the glass jungle that are worth visiting. Chief among them is the 1995 central branch of the Vancouver Public Library constructed at a cost of $100 million dollars. Moshe Safdie, a highly respected Canadian-Palestinian architect, was born in the city of Haifa in 1938 when it was the British Mandate of Palestine (he moved with his family to Montreal when he was 15). In the early 1990’s he won a rigorous competition with his radical design that mimics the Roman Coliseum. The beautiful building, full of light, plants, books and fountains is a much beloved landmark.

four toeheads on a day trip to North Vancouver

A pleasant short trip from the  Canada Place ferry terminal in Downtown over to the city of North Vancouver, for the same $2.50/two-hour Trans Link ticket that gets you anywhere around the city, is a nice way to observe the very busy commercial port of Vancouver – fourth busiest in North America. The ferry is basically a commuter service because there isn’t really any reason to go to North Vancouver unless you are traveling to the ski resort of Whistler or other British Columbia mountain adventures. The Mall at the terminal does have a nice Market, and it is good for Americans to see how a  modern, efficient ferry service actually functions. I’ve been saying repeatedly how expensive Vancouver is, but I must mention that North Vancouver is the “Beverly Hills” of the region with home prices averaging $4 million. North Vancouver has an Irish connection. In the early 20th century, the Guinness family owned nearly all the land. In the depth of the Great Depression, they constructed the suspension bridge connecting Stanley Park to North Vancouver and made an additional fortune developing the land into luxury housing and collecting the bridge tolls until the 1950’s.

Stanley Park

From food to nature, at the far end of Downtown’s West End is the beautiful retreat of Stanley Park, named after its founder in the 1880’s Canada’s Governor General Frederick Arthur Stanley, 16th Earl of Darby and Lord Stanley of Preston, accomplished politician and athlete. He is most famous for establishing the sport of hockey’s Stanley Cup. A multi thousand acre preserve of both exquisite landscaped gardens, the very good Tree House Restaurant (pictured above, bottom middle) and hiking forests, Stanley Park is within walking, biking and driving distance minutes from anywhere in Downtown Vancouver. The best way to explore the park is by hiking or renting a bike. During the summer months a free shuttle tours the perimeter.

Vancouver Art Gallery - nice 1890's building but disappointing exhibits

There are three major museums in Vancouver of which only one is worth your time. If you’re on a cruise with only six hours in the city and enjoy local historical stuff, you might visit the Vancouver Museum. Many guide books praise the Vancouver Art Gallery because it owns 177 paintings by one of Canada’s most brilliant artists, Emily Carr (1871-1945), one of the famous post-impressionist “Group of 7,” but unfortunately you’ll see, if you’re lucky, maybe twelve – I have no idea where the remainder reside. Otherwise you’ll pay $19.50 to see what basically are sophomoric exhibits representing the University of British Columbia’s art school. But there is one gem that makes Vancouver a must visit. – the MOA.

MOA’s ancient art
Arthur Erikson's Provincial Court House

If walking around Downtown and you come across a low-rise building that causes you to say “wow” – because it’s neither a boring glass structure or a wedding cake (re: The Fairmount Hotel Vancouver), it was most likely designed by Arthur Erickson, (June 14, 1924 – May 20, 2009), Vancouver native, graduate in Asian languages from the University of British Columbia, Canada’s prestigious  McGill University  and internationally celebrated architect. Even if you only saw the outside of the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology you would be thrilled. Yet to spend hours immersed in its collection, tens of thousands of First Nation North Pacific Coast art and all the cultures of the Pacific Rim, are priceless. Unlike most anthropology museums, the MOA does not consider these cultures dead. Not only did Canada’s First Nation cultures survive extinction – despite disease and cultural genocide for a hundred years – but the museum has a mission to revive and maintain these vibrant cultures with their outstanding art. The juxtaposition of ancient North Pacific Coast art with South Pacific cultures is illuminating.  It’s obvious these cultures knew of each other’s existence – the Pacific was simply a big pond. The museum’s advocacy of the continuing revival in First Nation artistic traditions is inspiring.

The rebirth of the world
Arthur Erikson's MOA

Arthur Erickson’s 1971 design takes my breath away. Based on a North Pacific Coast Clan House, he managed to maintain his ideal of a simple concrete and glass structure that would be both  distinctive and bring the outside environment inside. Set on a forested cliff, hundreds of feet above the Pacific, at the edge of the University’s South Vancouver campus, the building is more than an homage to the collection. In the 1940’s the Canadian government built two eight foot thick concrete gun emplacements as part of World War II defenses for Vancouver harbor. Rather than attempt their removal, Erikson incorporated them into the museum. One is part of an outdoor garden and the other is an inspired decision – it is incorporated into the museum as the Rotunda Gallery, dominated by, and dedicated to, First Nation artist Bill Reid’s (1920 -1998) monumental wooden sculpture “Raven and the First Man.” It’s a truly moving statement to the mythic reality that out of destruction there is rebirth.

The Idyllic Life of a Sandwich – Jamon y Queso in Argentina

The inventor himself (1718-1792)

If John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, had been an Argentine he would have enjoyed slices of ham tucked between bread, not beef. The pig had been domesticated since 4900 BCE. The Romans had hams since at least 400 BCE. Backpacking in England (1971 ACE)  every British pub had ham and cheese sandwich – two paper-thin ham slices, one of cheese on white bread (no butter… well sometimes, rarely mustard…) I’d say it’s a good bet Montagu had ham tucked into that first sandwich.

Iberian hams were already famous when the Romans arrived on the peninsula.  Wild pigs lived an idyllic life roaming free in the woods  eating a natural diet of acorns, herbs, roots and legumes. Cured, air-dried and aged using centuries old methods, the paper-thin reddish slice’s intense flavors are released slowly as your mouth moistens the ham. This is not Oscar Mayer lunch meat, and I’m going to assume the Spanish slapped some Jamon Iberico between pan eons ago.

Hams for sale in Madrid, Spain

In Argentina the vast array of ham and cheese sandwiches seem odd only to tourists. In their local areas, these café standards reflect a cultural fusion that is the hallmark of the national cuisine. Spanish (Andalucía and Basque), French, Italian, and English hams all took their place in new Argentine settlements. Along with these cuisines’ love of cheeses and breads, the recipe for a ubiquitous national dish  arose  – tostado de jamon y queso. Yet as in any fusion, not all jamon y queso look-alike: grilled open-faced with blue cheese sauce, or with hard-boiled egg and anchovies, as a pizza topping, or a delectable gourmet creation on homemade bread are a few variations I’ve munched.

Cafe Hotel Touring Club, Trelew, Argentina

At Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s favorite  haunt in northeast Patagonia, the Café Hotel Touring Club, (Fontana 240, Trelew) they’ve been serving the granddaddy of all since the 1890’s: tostado de jamon y queso – toasted, buttered, thin sliced bread with a couple of slices of ham and cheese. It’s not quite an American grilled ham and cheese but more than just cold ingredients on dry toast. A tostado de jamon y queso is best if the buttered sandwich is grilled on a ridged pan, to create grill marks, while gently pressing. The cheese should be wilting, not melting and the ham warm. It is simplicity  itself and only as delicious as the quality of the ingredients. The Touring Club could use a better ham, but relaxing in its faded early 1900’s interior with a cold cerveca, or café, and a tostado, you know why Butch and the Kid felt safe here.

tostado de jamon & queso

For breakfast at Café Flora (Avenida Illia 1690, Rosario)  the carlitos de jamon is a popular item in the northeast Rio Parana  port city of Rosario. Two rectangles of crustless white bread with ham, fried egg, cheese and olives is grilled to a golden brown. That might not be a typical American breakfast, but it certainly satisfies a person who seeks out cuisine that is not ordinary. With espresso it was a very satisfying start to the day. (AR$13 – US$3.50)

ham, cheese, lettuce, tomato, hard boiled egg & anchovies

In Argentina’s dry, sparsely populated northwest, on San Juan City’s leafy, lively pedestrian mall,  Café Capalino, (Avenida Tucuman, San Juan) specializes in another classic: a double-decker made with 8”x 8” crustless sliced bread. The sandwich is cut into four equal squares and easily can serve two people, but it’s meant for one. Many fillings are used on the upper level, but the bottom half has ham and cheese and my upper layer was lettuce, tomato, chopped hard-boiled egg and anchovies. I know what you’re thinking, but I love anchovies on anything, and so do many Argentines. This huge sandwich and an espresso, set me back AR$22 (US$6.00)

Lomitos Martinica, Ushuaia, AR

Variations on the theme of the ham and cheese sandwich abound. In Ushuaia, 600 miles north of Antarctica, popular hole-in-the-wall café Lomitos Martinica  (San Martin 68, Ushuaia) makes a thin egg omelet, topped with a slice of ham & cheese and placed on a huge beef burger, or on a long roll filled with  skirt steak, grilled sausage or tender fried chicken fillets, along with lettuce, tomato and mayo.  I had both the skirt steak and the chicken. The combo was flavorful, satisfying and filling.  (AR$21 = US$5.75) A similar variation was had at Hostel Rancho Grande Restaurant (Avenida San Martin 493, El Chalten).  Their Rancho Grande Burger  is a large, hand-made wood grilled beef burger with ham, cheese, lettuce and tomato accompanied by French fries topped by two perfectly made sunny-side eggs. Satisfying and fresh makes good comfort food. (AR$28 = US$7.75)

Cafe Tortoni, Buenos Aires

In Buenos Aires’ Microcentro, elegant, 150-year old Café Tortoni (Ave. de Mayo 825, Buenos Aires) enwraps its clients in gleaming dark wood, stained glass, good china and silver. Famous for its coffee service, the café offers a menu of light fare, including, naturally, the  ubiquitous ham and cheese sandwich. Except this is Café Tortoni  which has served presidents, celebrities and royalty for a century and a half. A simple tostado de jamon y queso can be had, but arriving on a beautiful white china plate is an open-faced grilled ham sandwich smothered in a creamy blue cheese sauce. (AR$20 = US$5.25)

The oddest variations were on a pizza and the varieties served on Argentina’s long distance, inter-city busses. The central Andean city of Mendoza may be world-famous for its wine, but to Argentines, the city’s culinary fame is its thick, southern Italian style pizzas. Capri (Ave. San Lorenzo y San Juan) is a Mendoza institution that I was told I had to try. I did, twice, but I must admit I was not impressed with their “special” pizza –  a  thick layer of mozzarella cheese was covered by slices of boiled ham with sweet marinated red peppers and olives. I’m not quite sure what that has to do with southern Italy, especially since it lacked seasoning of any kind. But lots of Mendozans were ordering.

Left: ham & cheese pizza, Tight: ham & cheese stuffed bun

Argentina’s private, long distance, inter-city busses are spacious, comfortable, modern, inexpensive and efficient. Meals appropriate to the time of day are always included in the fare. Whereas the quality of the buses is high, the food looks like its been catered by a convenience store. The entrée at dinner might be some sort of chicken or pasta, at lunchtime it’s frequently variations on ham and cheese. Besides a cold jamon y queso on buttered white bread, appetizers and extras at any meal may include: a semi-sweet “cake roll” with ham, a packaged square of a sweet shortbread with ham and cheese and/or a warm bun with ham topped by melted mozzarella, an olive and oregano.

Modern life is replacing the jamon in sandwiches with unremarkable boiled commercial ham that lacks the rich flavor of a good baked, smoked or cured ham. But a variety of local smoked hams are available from any market in the country. Argentina’s Spanish-style cured hams, the best being the jamones serranos  from the Sierras de Córdoba in central Argentina, are not used in sandwiches but rather served thinly sliced accompanied by an assortment of  sausages, salami, cheeses and breads. Likewise, processed cheese has invaded the nation, but regional cheeses are abundant. For sandwiches, Argentine’s prefer mild cow’s milk varieties such as Patagonia’s Queso Chubut. When quality ingredients are utilized, this lowly sandwich reaches for the culinary stars.

 The modest La Cerveceria Brew Pub and Restaurant (Avenida San Martin 320, El Chalten) in an isolated Andean village in south-western Patagonia, can, in my opinion, justly claim Argentina’s Finest Sándwich de Jamón y Queso. La Cerveceria is an attractive timber and glass chalet in this enclave within the vast Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Owned and operated by three personable 60-something women (one is the brew master), they serve a stunning round, 8” grilled sandwich. The bread is a seeded homemade flat bread, like a panni but more tender (proprietary recipe). Inside are thick slices of smoked ham, ripe tomatoes and a local artisan white cheese with a grainy Dijon mustard. The yeasty bread’s texture, the smokiness of the hand-cut ham slices, the deep flavor of fresh Andean tomatoes, the rich creamy cheese and earthy mustard….. La Cerveceria  raised the lowly ham and cheese to the stars. (AR$20 = US$5.50)

La Cerveceria's incomparable Jamon y Queso

Colonia: Uruguay’s many reasons why

“Better to marry a neighbor than a stranger.”
Uruguayan proverb

Perhaps that is why Buenos Aires (Argentina) is fond of calling this Uruguayan city their “48th barrio.” It’s not imperialism or condescension, it’s 300 years of history. Founded in 1680 by Portugal, Colonia del Sacramento is a mere 50 minute high-speed ferry trip across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. Colonia suffered a violent history for over a 140 years as it ping ponged between Portugal’s Brazil and Spain. Finally, with significant Argentine assistance, the former Brazilian province, known today as Uruguay, achieved it’s independence in 1828.

old town Colonia with lighthouse
oldest house in Colonia 1690

Colonia’s renowned historic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the finest districts of 17th and 18th century South American colonial architecture. It is a popular tourist attraction for visitors from Buenos Aires especially during the summer as its position on the northeastern side of the Rio de la Plata provides a cooling breeze. The Barrio Historico de Colonia, within walking distance of the ferry terminal, contains portions of its fortified wall and the City Gate with its  still functioning wooden drawbridge. Original cobblestone streets radiate from the tree-lined Plaza Mayor. Shops, restaurants and intimate inns are interspersed among residential 18th century houses.

original city gate, drawbridge and fortified walls
“300 years of struggle and love”

I was visiting in late June which is the beginning of winter in Uruguay. Because of the country’s long Atlantic and Rio de la Plata coast line, Colonia was pleasant in the breezy 60’s (F.) The entire historic core is closed to traffic except for business owners and residents. Many visitors rent bicycles and scooters – many residents use similar vehicles – but it is an easy town for walking. In the summer season Colonia is as crowded as any popular historic waterfront town, especially with Argentines.

Casa del Almirante Brown

Among notable attractions are the Lighthouse and convent ruins of the 17th century Convent of San Francisco. The Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento was  constructed in 1808. The 18th century Portuguese Museum has Portuguese furnishings, jewelry, uniforms and old maps of Portuguese naval expeditions. The Casa de Nacarello, is an 18th century upperclass house museum. The Casa del Almirante Brown houses artifacts and documents of the city’s different periods and cultures. Of note is that the Irish-born Admiral William Brown was instrumental in gaining Uruguay’s independence, is regarded as the “father of the Argentine navy” and a national hero in both Uruguay and Argentina! The oldest church in Uruguay, Iglesia Matriz, dating from 1695, is found in Colonia as well.

Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento, Plaza Major

There is a new town to Colonia that is commercial and conveniently seperated from the historic zone. It continues the city’s traditional base as a trading hub between Argentina and Uruguay.

Top: new maritime terminal, historic train station Bottom: Buquebus ferry

Buquebus ferries make 5 to 6 round trips between Buenos Aires and Colonia daily from its new modern and efficient terminal at the Northern Dock in Puerto Madero (Buenos Aires). The trip takes less than one hour. Same day excursion specials are also available. From both Colonia and Buenos Aires, Buquebus ferries sail to Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital.

Cafes in Colonia (yes… that is a former windmill & a dining table in an antique car)

There are dozens of restaurants in the Barrio Historico de Colonia. It has always been my experience to avoid any restaurant that has waiters outside overly eager to “capture” a tourist – of any nationality – and explain their menu. I’ll make a generalization based on hundreds of restaurant meals in dozens of countries – this tactic sends up the proverbial “red flag” that the food is mediocre and overpriced. Colonia, especially around the Plaza Major, has many such establishments. On the other hand, I am partial to restaurants that have water views, even if the menu is not extraordinary. Simple food, well cooked and presented, acquires a special aura when accompanied by a beautiful setting. Uruguay, like Argentina, is known for the excellent quality of its grass-fed cattle and natural farming methods.  In recent years there has been an increase in vineyards devoted to organic grapes and wine production.

a profusion of flowering plants even in winter

Restaurant Dos Puertos filled that criteria. Set one block from the waterfront, the outdoor seating had a clear view of the sun dappled Rio de la Plata. Even though it was winter, the temperatures in the 60’s were fine for an outdoor lunch. My first course was their interpretation of what the menu clearly said was Caprese Salad – thick slices of tomato, fresh basil with slabs of Gruyère cheese. If you are very fond of Gruyère you would be in heaven – personally, I would have liked the fresh mozzarella a Caprese Salad requires. My entrée was grilled fresh Sea Bass, simply seasoned, accompanied by a vegetable medley that had obviously come from a freezer bag, but at least they were not over cooked. It was not a memorable meal, but the service was friendly and the view relaxing.

Restaurant dos Puertos

Like most restaurants, Dos Puertos is primarily a parilla, and stacks of aromatic wood were piled on the side of the building. Pleasant folk music was piped outside. Restaurant prices are slightly higher in Uruguay than in Argentina.  If you are just making a day trip to Colonia, use a credit card rather than exchange money for Uruguayan currency. You can use Argentine pesos in Colonia, but you’ll get a better exchange rate on the dollar with your credit card, even with the bank fee. (Note: Uruguayan currency is not accepted in Argentina.)

at rest in Colonia’s harbor

With the pleasant waterfront surrounding three sides of the Barrio Historico, Colonia is well worth at least a day trip from Buenos Aires with its history, charm, cafes, sailing, shops and galleries. For a longer visit, it makes a good base to explore the beautiful countryside of southwestern Uruguay.

(Note: All photos and collages will enlarge when clicked and very large when double clicked)

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