Sunday, July 7, 2013

Park City, Utah: The Best Sushi

I'm Asian.  I love noodles, I love tofu, I love stir-fry.  My love for the "authentic" flavors that I have grown up with means that I'm usually quite picky about my food.  Therefore, it was with great reluctance that I allowed my mother to drag me to what she claimed to be the best sushi she had ever tasted. While we were surrounded by the mountains. In Utah. Which happens to have a desert, with desiccated plants and cacti.

“Sushi” conjures up images of Chef Jiro, of Japanese backgrounds and of colorful fish wrapped in seaweed. “Sushi” does not usually conjure up the image of a cheerful, inventive American. Except when it's used in the case of Scott Benson, sushi chef at Lespri in Park City, Utah.

Lespri is a hotel, spa and restaurant, located not on Main Street, but instead on the residential Sidewinder Avenue. The area is calm and quiet; in fact, we almost drove past it.  The building shares a parking lot with a few other stores, including a 7-Eleven.  The sign is done in beautiful, almost-cursive lettering and painted white.

Behind a sushi bar that seats four people, Chef Benson freely admits that he “doesn't like recipes.” After graduating high school at 15, Benson landed his first job in a kitchen. While the kitchen was fascinating to learn in, it lacked the personal interactions with clients that he preferred.

He serves us the first course: a beautiful interpretation of a tostada, covered with tuna, soy, cucumber and maguro, instead of the usual beef or pork.  The shell crunches and the sauce is sticky sweet, with a bit of spice and savory richness.  Of course, it gets a little messy near the end, when there is just a bit of shell and toppings falling over it.  I refrain from licking the sauce off my thumb, but barely.

Meanwhile, with only my mother and I at the bar, Benson continues to tell us his story. Once he started learning how to make sushi, it was yet again another struggle. Sushi chefs are notorious for keeping secrets, about the process of making sushi, about where they get their supplies, about how they serve their food. However, he does not share the same reticence.

Scott Benson continues with a second dish: hamachi nigiri.  He happily explains his goal to find suppliers who will allow him to serve sustainable sushi, that is both flavorful and fresh.  His goal starting at as a sushi chef was to learn as much as possible.  But when your teachers hide secrets, sometimes the best way is to improvise.  Benson ended up improvising: he made his own sauces, tried out different rolls and styles, and even mixed his cuisines (like the tostade-inspired dish).

The third dish is served up as soon as he finishes his story.  This time, it is a sushi roll, with salmon.  Salmon from Scotland.  I feel my eyebrow raise up as he explains calmly: the season is not right for sushi from Alaska, that the salmon for Scotland are more eco-friendly and that the method that his supplier uses is highly sustainable.  Regardless, the sushi roll is delicious.

Finally, as my stomach sighs and stretches, there is one last dish: a martini glass, filled with one of the most colorful concoctions that I can imagine. Tuna, covered with avocado, mixed with cucumber, on a bed of seaweed.

At the very end, Scott Benson deserves his own category of sushi chef.  He was remarkably engaging the entire time and absolutely courteous (he even tried to convince us to eat dessert!). All in all, the cost was less than 40 dollars, my mother earned her "I-told-you-so" (and wore it with aplomb), and I will be dreaming of more sushi.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Texas Roadtripping: Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Galveston

I stretch out my hand and want to laugh.  The windows are down, the radio is turned up, and there is a feeling of pure freedom. It's a classic image: a car zooms by on an open stretch of road, sun shines down, and the people inside are smiling

I've just gotten back from Europe and am now on a road trip through Texas (my mother's idea).  It's a graduation present of sorts.

The plan: my mother and I are going to Houston, San Antonio and Austin.

What ends up happening is this: in Houston, we get lost on the highway because the GPS decides to conveniently put us on the beltway, which is the same as the tollway, but we don't know that. I end up meeting up with an old friend and a new friend that night. We talk of old times and new times, smoke hookah, drink smoothies (an odd combination that works very well).

The next day, it is a three-hour drive to San Antonio.  Along the way, we stop to meet one of my mother's friends.  At this point, I realize that I've developed an "allergy" to American soda: I can't drink the soda without breaking out in hives (this is still ongoing).

In between my hives, my mother getting lost, and a sudden rainstorm we end somehow make it to San Antonio before the evening.

We walk around the area.  There's lunch at Schilo's Deli (rye bread, split pea soup, homemade root beer which triggers another round of hives), I take a picture with an adorable military man (whose name I don't know) and somehow convince my mother to get a margarita on the River Walk. We walk around The Alamo, I find canned armadillo meat and armadillo milk, my mother decides to take an old-time-y black-and-white WANTED poster picture.

I wish that I'd gotten his name. But he was very sweet.

There was a statue in the middle of town, and a group of people fighting and screaming on the sidewalk in front of it.
After San Antonio, we head to Austin. There, we wanted to watch bats swoop out from under the Congress Avenue bridge.  No go that day (we ended up getting turned around with the GPS and couldn't find a nearby place to park).  However, we did get a chance to try the famed Franklin's Barbecue.  There's a Chase credit card commercial (look up "Chef Nobu in Austin").  My mother, who despises red meat, ended up loving it!

On a whim, my mother wants to go to the Mexican border and I want to go to Galveston. So we drive.  We drive through a five-mile stretch of road filled with butterflies.  We drive up to a roadside stand selling turkey jerky, alligator jerky and elk jerky.  We drive up to the bridge that crosses into Mexico.  And then we drive some more. We drive even when TripAdvisor tells us to stop and see this sight or that attraction, when I am so tired that we have to get ice cream, when there's almost no gas.

When we end up in Galveston, it's the afternoon.  There are clouds covering the sun and everything is this hazy mix of humidity, sunshine, and clouds. Disclaimer: the beach at Galveston smells disgusting.  The air is thick and rancid, but the view is pretty nice.

We end up back in Houston after a week of sun, Spanish and siestas. I don't have a sudden understanding about Texas, but given what I did learn, I like it a bit more.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Viva Las Vegas: What One Week in "Sin City" Has Taught Me

Vegas, Vegas, Vegas.

I've got nothing against the place, except that it's not the most friendly if you're wandering around by yourself, and that most people are drunk. There are drunks every hour of every day, and Lady Luck doesn't like it when I play anything but blackjack.  VIP lists can be a mile long and you get shunted if you're alone.

At the same time... I'm having a blast. I know how to walk around people (thank you New York), I love the fact that I can choose to do what I want (within legal limits), and the sight of open containers with public drinking, while technically not legal, is almost heart-warming (it reminds me of Belgium).

I get to do the Freemont Street Experience (even though I felt my heart stop when I ate the deep-fried Oreo).  At the same time, I decide that I don't really want to go zip lining above people's heads.  I somehow get to go to an Offspring concert.  I even get my mother to call the cops and report me missing (NOTE: the cell phone reception is horrible inside of casinos. You better make sure that you call well outside the walls, otherwise, someone might think you have been kidnapped)!

I walk up and down the Strip. I get shanghai-ed by a sales man, eat at a Rainforest Cafe for the first time ever, and play test audience for a new television show.  I visit a tourist attraction featuring the Mob and play along, even though I have no idea what to expect (ultimately I get made into the family!). I even have an alcoholic popsicle.

My experience did NOT turn into anything remotely from the Hangover franchise.  But... In the end, I would like to leave you with this list of amusing, entertaining and bizarre comments from Las Vegas:

1. "You got that Asian persuasion."
2. "Your hands look like they can win some money." (insert pause) "Want a job?"
3. "Girl, it's hot out here, but you just made it hotter."
4. "Oooohhhh, so that's what single and willing to mingle means."
5. "Just so you know, I got laid on that club crawl, which means it was probably the best 30 bucks I spent last night."
6. "Three-some means: you some, me some, we some."
7. "What happens in Vegas stays on YouTube."

Funny thing: she was wearing five inch heels and I was wearing flats.
We were the same height!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Bruxelles, Fin.

The last two weeks of Brussels was ... intense.  How do you say goodbye to a place that you've been a part of, and apart from, for the last few months?  Part of my sadness also came the fact that I was graduating.  What am I, a 22 year old Psychology-Communications double-major, qualified to do? How am I to survive in the real world?

Still, there were great moments.  I met up with a cool guy, I made friends with a former Italian study abroad (wish I'd met her earlier), I finally danced on table tops.  I laughed until I cried, I showed Brussels to people I'd met in Berlin, I said goodbye to Madame Dufrasne.



While I was getting ready to leave, I made a short list of ridiculous things I heard in Brussels:

1. It looks like a hairy caterpillar... Let's eat it! -- R. K.
2. Do ducks have cold feet? -- E. G.
3. Scrabble is a great... euphemism.  There are many kinds of Scrabble, especially with the international boards. -- C. E.
4. Yeah, I did (basically equate women to cats and men to dogs). -- C. E.
5. I don't know about you, but I'm feeling twenty-two! -- R. K.
6. Few things are more frustrating that short bread in tall toasters. -- M. B.
7. (About Grand Place) It's kinda like Costco! -- R.K.


The things I'll miss: a quick beer, waiting for the lights at Grand Place, speaking in Franglish because I can. I'll miss the grocer's down the street, being able to walk or take the bus (even though I always refused to run for them), ending up in the weird areas of town because Google Maps sucks at times.  I'll miss taking the train or airplane to a different country for the weekend.


The day before I left, I finally went to Antwerp.  Not because I had to, but because I wanted to.  I wanted to get away from Brussels (if only for a moment) because I didn't want to think about leaving.  I wanted to pretend that it was just another weekend getaway.



I think Dr. Seuss said it best "Remember me and smile, for it is better to forget, than to remember me and cry."

Monday, May 27, 2013

"Ich Bin Ein Berliner": My Trip to Berlin

My friend, who shall be known as Margarita, and I are giggling as we walk through BRU, Brussels National Airport.  We have decided, on a whim, to fly out to Berlin.

As we left the airport, we noticed a little Coke machine.  Images on it include the Atomium, fries, Mannekin Pis and the Belgian flag.

We are quite lucky.  The plane ticket and hostel cost us (at most) around 300 euros, including getting to and from the airports.  The hostel (look up The Circus Hostel) was fantastic and fun: enter the main building by walking through a lion's mouth, and go up an elevator located between the legs of a ringmaster.  The first night, we end up having dinner across the street from our hostel: greasy, cheap "Chinese" food (I use the quotation marks because I've had real Chinese food, and fake Americanized Chinese food).

The fact of the matter was we had been unable to find Chinese food in Brussels under 40 euros, when in Berlin, we found stir-fry noodles for under 3 euros!

That night, we didn't do much.  At first, the front desk recommended we go to a bar, but of course, we didn't find it.  So, in the end, we went to the 24 hour store across the street, tried some drinks, and went to sleep.

I thought it was a light German beer with the label "Scaredy Cat"... Turns out it was wine!

The first day, we decided on walking by ourselves.  At the same time, we found out that our hostel was hosting a visit to the Topography of Terror Museum, so we ended up tagging along.

There's something decidedly depressing about the location.  The museum is located where the former Nazi party police was headquartered.  This includes the SS and Gestapo.

There's a wall, each square with a name and crimes committed.  The few raised squares are those that have had charges brought against them, or have been found guilty of crimes.

Somehow, afterwards, we walked to Checkpoint Charlie and visited quite a few random points.  There's a lot of parts of the old wall, which artists have simply taken over.  I mentioned that I wanted to see the East Side Gallery and Margarita was excited.

There is some much great graffiti and art.  What stands out is this set of "More Walls to Tear Down" which is aimed at dictators and oppressive rulers.

I loved how this wall was right in front of an advertisement that said "You are entering the non-profit sector."

Margarita decided that the bear needed a high-five. 

Unfortunately, we had to take a train and unfortunately, there were clouds.  We end up in the rain, and decide to find shelter.  We ducked into an artist's workshop, which had three installations, and quite a few busy artists.  There was even a working bar!

Outside was intense.  A metal sculpture was in front of the building.  The whole area was covered in graffiti, and we even saw someone in the process of tagging.

I decided that Instagram was the perfect forum for a few pictures I took.

"Pourquoi Pas?"

Further down the street, the rain started up again.  This time, we found shelter in a little coffee shop (unlike the ones in Amsterdam, this one sold only coffee and food).  Margarita opted for a coffee and I chose to try the "Berliner."  To be honest, I wasn't even sure what a jelly doughnut was.

The "Berliner" (jelly doughnut") was a little disappointing: not enough jelly, and too much powdered sugar.  Oh well.

Once the rain paused, there was another mad dash, this time going back towards the bridges that we'd left earlier.  We were trying to find the East Side Gallery.  Eventually, we found it.  Over a mile of the old wall, covered in different artists and art works.

I thought this highly appropriate, especially at the start of the gallery.

I think he needed a ride.

I tried currywurst... Not bad, but it's not my favorite.

That night, we hear about this place called Cookie Club.  Granted, it's supposedly the "best" (and only) club open on a Tuesday. While a few of us decide to go to Cookie Club, Margarita and I make plans to also have brunch with two lovely gals.

Cookie Club is surprisingly silent on a Tuesday.  I say surprising because everyone had been talking it up.  Instead, there is a two story empty space, with less than 70 people.  There is also a bed on the lower floor.  Eventually, we make it back to the hostel, despite trying (and unsuccessfully at that) to find food.

The next day, Margarita lay in bed while I went off to the aforementioned brunch/breakfast.  To be fair, I was operating on less than four hours of sleep, so I was not at my best.  Breakfast was a very fun affair with Kat and Lauren, talking about our lives and how we got to Berlin.  There was also coffee.

Absolutely divine, no? There were currants, so many types of cheese, museli, and lots of meat!

Our food takes forever to arrive (nearly an hour), but we still make it back in time for the afternoon walking tour. We visit Museum Island, the square where they burned books, the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his baby out the window.  We go back to Checkpoint Charlie and the Topography of Terrors.  We sit, stand, squat over the remains of Adolf Hitler's underground bunker.

The memorial of a mother weeping over a soldier.  The light always falls to illuminate their faces just so...

This was on the steps of the main building at Museum Island, also the building where Hitler would give his speeches.

That night, it's decided that we'll go out with a bang.  After all, it's our last night in Berlin, and the next day is a holiday, which means that public transportation will be slower, so we have to leave nearly an hour earlier, just to make out flight.

Margarita and I, along with a group of five other hostel friends, head towards Tresor. Our hostel happily gave us half-off entry tickets.  Tresor is a factory club, a warehouse club.  The outside is shiny steel and mirrored lights.  They ask for ID and I smack myself mentally.  Of course I forget it.  But they wave me in anyways.  

Inside, it's smoke, beer bottle caps  on the ground, bricks and music.  There are little booths where people can hide and there are slats inside those booths, that support the body weight of three or four people (we tested this out).  There are red lights, cute guys, a long hallway that seems to go on endlessly.

It's a little before five in the morning when we finally stumble into the hostel.  We grab our bags, hungrily munch on Chinese food.  We take the underground metro line, hop onto the bus and wearily wait in the airport.  Margarita dozed off now and again, while I stayed up to make sure that we didn't miss the bus or the flight.

Part of me is as sad as this man. The other half looks forward to returning to Brussels.

The trip from Brussels Airport back to the city... is another exhausting saga on its own (turns out, we forgot that it was a national holiday in Brussels too)...

In the end, I learned:

- Margarita and I did not look like tourists (we were approached to donate blood or something, because we looked local).
- You can't buy a lot of things in a pharmacy without a prescription (including antiseptic things like Neosporin).
- The Ritter Sport store's wholesale prices equal 1USD. While Ritter Sport in the States is priced at nearly double that amount.

Oh, and it turns out that JFK was actually grammatically correct by saying "Ich Bin Ein Berliner".

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Bruxelles, Easter Break: Part 3

 The second day of Krakow, I signed up for a tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau, as well as the Wieliczka Salt Mines.

What can I say about Auschwitz?  What can I add to years of humility, of sadness, of regret, of shame? Nothing, except my agreement that Primo Levi was absolutely right with the quote "I am constantly amazed by man's inhumanity to man."

The gate at Auschwitz needs no translation.

At Birkenau, the vast emptiness and the endless snow made the day even more solemn.
One figure is a woman, one figure is a man, and one figure is a child.  

After the sadness of Auschwitz, the beauty and silliness of the salt mines are a welcome relief.  Our tour guide is a happy blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl, with an easy smile and impeccable English. She tells us jokes about other tour groups (One bachelor party brought a bottle of tequila and a bag of cut-up limes, and would periodically do shots on the tour, using the salt on the walls. They were drunk at the end.), asks us our opinion about the mine ("What is the best mine in the world? And please remember, I am the only one who knows the way out of here!") and tells us that breathing in deeply or singing inside of the mine is meant to improve your physical health (I end up singing a refrain of the Seven Dwarfs).

The salt has warped in places, where your hand can fit perfectly!

I try the salt, but am without tequila or limes.

That night, I debate going out again. I feel exhausted, both mentally and physically, while my stomach growls in hunger and my wallet winces from paying the 70 euros for the tour.  In the end, I am won over by my persistent dorm-mates: two college students attending university in Krakow.  They take me to several bars, including on where you have to climb through a wardrobe to get to the other, much quieter side (it is essentially The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe).  

Afterwards, I head back to the hostel and am exhausted.  There is a large group of Irish students who are celebrating their last night in Poland, before they return to Ireland.  Between drinking, singing and being told that the hostel's neighbors have called the police, we end up at a Krakow club.  There are three floors of music, of reggae and hip-hop, of electronic, of pop.  

The night ends at 3am, with some of us girls eating in the kitchen, laughing at the night.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Bruxelles, Easter Break: Part 2

"Poland is not a very large country, but it's not a very small country."
- Donald Trusk, Prime Minister of Poland

My fingers shiver a little, as I munch on a chocolate chip energy bar, and my boots squish just a bit.  It's early in the morning in Krakow, Poland.

I stumbled out of the train, still half-asleep, and walked through the station.  Not yet 8 in the morning, but I've already made a silly mistake: I stood in front of the "Transportation" window for fifteen minutes, hoping that they can explain to me how to buy a transport ticket in the city, only to be told by a kindly old man that the window is meant for people with issues buying a train ticket LEAVING Poland.  As if that wasn't enough, the visitor's office that he sends me to is closed, until 9 AM.

There is little else to do, but walk around the old town.

It's silent.  Not entirely silent, but just enough that the sound of my camera shutter CLICK-ing travels through alleyways, that I hear a car drive over cobblestones two streets away, that the sound of a metal tent being set up in the square rings clear through.  As if my sleep deprivation wasn't enough, there's a thick oppressive layer of fog and the sky, despite being grey, is still bright.

The square in the middle of Old Town Krakow is nearly deserted...

...except for flower vendors...

...old women selling baked goods for 1 zloty, 1 zloty 50...

...and vendors setting up a toy stand.

I wander around, my backpack heavy, my stomach rumbling, and an insistent need for coffee.  I somehow find my way into the Wawel Royal Castle.  I pay a ridiculously cheap entrance fee to look at Leonardo da Vinci's painting titled Lady with an Ermine.

The castle's green dome and red brick stand out against a grey sky and lonely trees.

Along the back of the castle, the river runs, almost silently.

Finally, once the tourist office opens, I get directions for a divine restaurant in the Jewish quarter.  I have coffee, with cinnamon and sweetened with honey.  There are little breakfast pierogis (Polish dumplings), things that look like pigs-in-a-blanket, a buckwheat porridge with cream and fruit (I don't even know what buckwheat is).

Afterwards, I continue to walk.  I go to Oskar Schindler's ceramics factory (the same Schindler from the movie Schindler's List, directed by Steven Speilberg).  Next door is a modern art museum which I happily visit.  I walk into a showing of the Bodies exhibition. There's an outdoor market with fourteen different tents, selling everything from cuckoo clocks to secondhand cookbooks.

I even walk across a bridge covered in padlocks and undying declarations of love.

 Finally, I head towards the hostel I have booked.  But disaster strikes.  When I arrive, the house looks empty, no one answers the doorbell and the phone number is out of service.  Then it starts to rain.  A neighbor comes by and tells me that the hostel has been closed for nearly a month.

I almost cry, since I have no map (I didn't think to pick one up from the tourist office), and my cell phone has run out of credits.

Then, a knight in shining armor arrives.  Well, more like a businessman in a BMW.  His name is Stefan, he is born and raised Cracovian, and he asks if I need help.  Once I explain the situation, he calls his office and asks one of the ladies working to give him a list of hostels.

He then proceeds to drive me to one of the hostels and pay for my first night, simply because he feels very bad for me.  That was my first experience with Polish generosity, but by no means my last.

After that experience, I am exhausted.  However, I hear two magical words "PUB CRAWL" and, after taking a shower, am suddenly rejuvenated.

The rest of the night is a blur of silliness and laughter:

I meet a group of guys from the UK, a street magician amazes and dazes me with several tricks, there's dancing on top of a bar, several people get lost, I am introduced to a shot affectionately called "Mad Dog" (vodka, fruit syrup and Tabasco sauce).

I am even introduced to the game of "flip cup" and my team wins!

I don't get back to my hostel until 5 in the morning, the next day.