Tag Archives: travel

Apres-surf cuisine in Punta Hermosa, Peru

Where and what do Peruvian surfers (and their friends!) eat after long rides down El Pico Alto? Find out here!

I consider it the ultimate privilege to have been let into a secret few but the most worldly of surfers or locals know: the gem that is the area surrounding the Pacific seaside town of Punta Hermosa, Peru. I sincerely hope my friends don’t wish me ill for sharing a few great spots with you.

Though technically it is not even 40 km (around 25 miles) from the center of Lima, sleepy Punta Hermosa feels a world away from the extreme traffic and congestion of Lima. For comparison, driving between the two is somewhat like driving from Pasadena to Malibu in the Los Angeles, California metropolitan area (time wise, with arguably better traffic conditions in LA. Those who know LA traffic know just how insane this comparison is. Worse traffic? Lima is the equivalent of a mass of people in the boarding line at an airport elbowing each other out of the way. Physical contact happens regularly. But I digress…)

   
  Hence a daily drive to Lima for dinner and drinks is not the greatest idea if you choose to visit Punta Hermosa. The area, moreover, has only a couple of hotels, which most international travelers would find more like a hostel and not up to typical standards. Instead, if you’d like to visit as a foreigner, check out AirBnb, especially during low season (remember: summer in the Southern Hemisphere is December to March) for a long weekend getaway. Many houses or condominiums are rented by their owners, and many are configured to accommodate large or multiple families vacationing. During summer months, families often rent units for the entire summer, so availability is limited and prices are much higher. Early fall is a good time to visit.

  

 Lounging by the beach (remaining mindful of the equatorial sun), stand up paddle boarding, surfing, and ATV riding are popular pastimes – and the latter is a key mode of transportation around the dusty roads encircling the beaches north of town. Cooling off with a cold Cusqueña or Trujillo beer – especially paired with some chips de camote (sweet potato chips) or Habas (dried, fried fava beans, my personal favorite) is a great antidote to the tiring sun. If you’re lounging at Playa Caballeros during summer months, a small beachside stand offers fresh oysters, by which my friends swear (oysters are not my jam, so I can’t attest).

Our group enjoying Cusqueña quinoa beer at Marcelo Sea Food waiting for our ceviches

So what does one eat? In the mid-afternoon, surfers flock to Marcelo Sea Food in Playa Señoritas for fresh ceviches and tiraditos made to order from seafood caught that morning by Marcelo himself. I have eaten there many times, and each time, the corvina (sea bass) and lenguado (sole) ceviche is perfect, firm and tart, not fishy. Though you’ll wait a bit for your food, pass the time with oyster and scallop appetizers and Cusquena’s earthy (and gluten free!) quinoa beer. Ocean to table doesn’t get more direct than that!

 

Two custom pizza halves – mushrooms, basil, bleu cheese, and more

 
For dinner, Tio Richi’s pizzeria is a must. With a beachy, tiki hut-like ambiance, their pizzas are unexpectedly delicious. They offer an impressive array of toppings, from bleu cheese (queso azul), fresh basil (albahaca), and prawns (langostinos) to leeks and corn. But their specialty pizzas shoudn’t be missed, either. Their seafood pizza is like a creamy shrimp scampi on flatbread.

 

Lomo Saltado pizza (rear left) and seafood pizza (lower right)

   
But best of all is the lomo saltado pizza, which converts Peru’s national dish into an interesting and flavorful pizza. Soy-marinated beef, peppers, and onions combined with cheese? The seemingly discordant flavors marry exceptionally well and make it difficult to stop after a slice…or two… Paired with Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, I could eat the lomo saltado pizza every day.

For a more upscale pizza experience, Moana Restobar is a classy, open air restaurant right on the sand at Playa Caballeros. By night, it becomes a bustling nightclub with DJs or live music and a wide array of cocktails you wouldn’t expect outside of Lima.

If you look hard enough (and ask around), you can find plenty of other hidden gems, especially along the Antigua Panamericana Sur towards Lurin and on the way to and from the Panamericana Sur freeway. The road is lined with restaurants, some of which locals will dismiss, but a few even taxi drivers from Lima will point out enthusiastically.

But the best meals perhaps are those made at home. If you’re staying in a rented home, you likely are perfectly equipped for a DIY barbecue or ceviche. Numerous markets in the area sell fresh, ripe produce – palta (avocados), choclo (Indian corn), papaya, mangoes, bananas, chirimoya, and more. Wait, chiri-what? you ask? Chirimoya was a new discovery for me on this trip, when a beach hawker stopped by our rental home and our landlord decided I must try it. Large and green on the outside, the flesh is almost snowy white, studded with large, black seeds that must be picked out. It is incredibly soft, sweet and juicy, its flavors seemed to me like a cross between pear and papaya. I wish we had it in the US. My friends tell me you can find a similar fruit in India, but the South American version is superior, so they say.

My perfect breakfast (desayuno perfecto) was homemade: fresh, soft brown bread spread with creamy, mashed avocado and slices of salty queso fresco. Ultra-sweet, Orange-hued mango added a sweet counterpoint. Words can’t describe how good the Peruvian mango was. Sigh, another item that is hard to find in the U.S. Our mangoes are dull, hard, and lifeless in comparison.

In past visits to the town, I’ve had incredible homemade ceviche and helped grill steak, chicken, and vegetables that somehow taste better grilled in the salt-tinged ocean air. Assuming you wash your produce correctly, I can think of few better ways to experience the bounty of Peru and the majesty of the Pacific.

Have I put any grand ideas about a trip to Peru and visit to Punta Hermosa in your mind? It is truly a special place for so many locals and their friends – and certainly for me. If you do visit, please do your part to be a respectful guest and keep it spectacular!

Mole triumphs at Salt Lake City’s Red Iguana

Who knew Salt Lake City was a destination for Mexican food, let alone the complex and elusive molé?

The city known as the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (AKA Mormonism) and site of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games also happens to have a Mexican restaurant so known for its unique molés that bus loads of tourists are willing to brave Utah’s brutally cold winter nights to wait outdoors for a table: Red Iguana.

The restaurant itself is fairly small, and its decor exudes typical eclectic Mexican hole-in-the wall vibe. Clearly, that charm has earned them part of their appeal and keeps locals coming back for more. For those that don’t want to wait at the original, demand led Red Iguana to open a second location a few doors down.

 

Pescado a la Veracruzano, one of Red Iguana’s great (non-mole) specialties.

 
The menu is full of delicious dishes for those who don’t care for molé, but if you don’t dislike it, you really must try one of their molés. If you read this, thinking uh, what the heck is molé, I’m sorry, stop reading right now because you’ve been living under a culinary rock. Or in Africa. Kidding! Sidebar, I’ve had terrible Mexican in Vienna and pretty good Mexican in Phuket, Thailand, which goes to show Mexican is universally loved – and bastardized.

Anyway, molé, known in the rest of the world as an Oaxacan dish, is an incredibly complex sauce that I myself want so badly to make myself. I am a bit terrified of the steps involved: toasting, sautéing, blending, and repetititon. The simplest way to describe it is a Mexican version of curry, or as a kitchen sink” sauce – a of seemingly incongruous ingredients – chicken or other stock, toasted seeds, chiles, dried fruit, other spices, and chocolate. Molé should make your mouth sing; the resulting flavors are far better than the sum of each individual ingredient – richly sweet, savory, and spicy. The traditional Oaxacan molé prominently features dark chocolate, chile, raisins, pumpkin and sesame seeds.

 

Mole negra

 
Red Iguana takes molé to another level. It creates no less than a half-dozen different molés. I myself tried their molé negra (black molé), which was darker in color than the typical brown molé Oaxaca. I have tried many good and bad molés in the past, and as a result, I rarely order it at a new restaurant unless I am assured it is good. Red Iguana met my expectations of good molé!

Another atypical Red Iguana molé is its spicy habañero mango molé amarillo. It packs the heat and is not for the faint of heart, but if you can bear it, it is truly a rare treat!

 

Enchilada duo (special request): Mole amarillo and Mole Colorado

 
 In addition, the bright orange molé Colorado, served with pork, was not quite as spicy or sweet, but it was as complex and delicious as the others. Everyone in my group raved about their molés; I should say instead that nobody raved until their plates were clean.

If you find yourself in Salt Lake City or its beautifully mountainous environment, step out of your Mexican food comfort zone and try a molé or two from Red Iguana.

The CD Road Trips down California’s Historic El Camino Real

How does The CD road trip? Join us for our first – food filled – drive down the historic El Camino Real (U.S. Highway 101) from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

 

Virginia road trip

 
I was born to road trip. At a young age, I stayed alert and curious of my surroundings on our many family road trips, even memorizing the exit numbers and sign descriptions on the oft-traveled 75 mile (125 km) route to my grandparents’ house. As soon as I became a licensed driver, I road-tripped whenever I could. I remember one of the first entailed carting my friends to my dear friend Caroline’s parents’ river house for a long June weekend, blasting Spice Girls and No Doubt along the way (forgive me, it was 1997!) Just over a week ago, the world lost Caroline, far too young. Her passing brought up so many memories I hadn’t thought of for awhile. They show me how life changes, as we do, and yet some things never do.

 

the Pacific Coast Highway (CA 1) at the end of the journey

 
With only a short long holiday weekend (intentional oxymoron), I took my first major road trip down California’s coastal region via US Highway 101, which also holds the designation as part of California’s historic El Camino Real (Royal Way/Highway) between San Jose at the southern end of the San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles. And of course, the trip involved food and wine stops – all of them spontaneous, which can either be the best or worst kind. Shall we see my hits and misses?

The road: Historic El Canino Real
Unlike the jarring, otherworldly contrast one might see after flying hundreds or thousands of miles point to point, I love the continuity of a long drive, where the terrain and cultural shifts are more subtle and more meaningful.

Highway 101 meanders through a broad range of terrain and microclimates: from the green(ish) forested hills between San Jose and Monterey; to sweeping valleys of farmland and grassy plains, to somewhat sandy-soiled hills covered with vineyards, to rocky, desert mountains, to coastal cliffs. It originated as a Spanish government road that connected the numerous missions in Alta California down to Baja California, back in the good old 17 to early 19th centuries when the former was not an American territory but instead a Mexican province controlled by Spain.

Today, the 101 connects large cities (San Francisco, San Jose, Salinas, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Oxnard, and LA) with small beach and farming towns (Gilroy, San Miguel, Paso Robles, Pismo Beach, Santa Maria, etc.) and isolated stretches that offer few signs of civilization. And in between, many food and wine adventures are to be had. Alas, I could only try a few.

The Paso Robles wine fail

Turning off the freeway – around the halfway point of the outbound trip – literally was a spur of the moment decision spurred by an equally last minute Google search and the small, annoying voice of Future Regret (Oh, and Siri, as usual, was of little help. Way to go, Siri.).

 

Vineyards are a common sight along the rolling hills and plains near Paso Robles


 
Had I done (any) previous research or experienced much Paso Robles wine before, I might have ended up with a better experience. As it was, I picked one with slight name recognition from the search results. Call it Wine Roulette. I will refrain from naming the winery, as I don’t want to give negative publicity, but if you must know, email us (or just figure it out). A short drive four miles east of the 101 on CA 46, I was pleasantly surprised to find a rustic but busy (good sign?) lodge-like tasting room with friendly staff. Even better was the complimentary tasting of up to five wines of one’s choice – Toto, we’re definitely not in Napa anymore! (Tastings in Napa without a club membership often can cost between $25-50 per person). For those of you concerned about responsible driving, know that I sipped and dumped here!

  
Alas, I found every single wine to be incredibly bitter, regardless how many of their oversized, mutant oyster crackers I ate to cleanse my palate. Their Viognier was the most interesting to me. The rosé of Syrah was the biggest disappointing (tannins, lack of complexity). The Cabernet Sauvignon had a wonderful nose reminiscent of black cherry, cola, and vanilla, but it just tasted tannic with a very “green” oak finish. The staff was simply too nice not to make a purchase, so I walked away with a Viognier and some photos.

The taco stand:  La super rica taqueria, Santa Barbara

Two thirds of the journey down, I finally made it – very hangry – to my late, quasi-planned lunch in Santa Barbara at the urging of a friend, who swore she would road trip to this taqueria just for tacos.

  
Tucked back from the main drag (State Street) in Santa Barbara is La Super Rica Taqueria on Milpas Street. Though its humble turquoise structure would be easy to miss when passing by, the long line snaking around the entrance is a hint as to why it is everyone’s recommendation.

I have to admit that I was a bit nervous that it might be a tad overhyped. Looking at the crowd, it was a mishmash of ages and ethnicities but almost certainly majority tourist. I shouldn’t have worried about the product; the food was fantastic and the not so fantastic wait in line set me back only in terms of my arrival time to LA.

  
The menu consists of 19 standard items, as well as a few daily specials (the latter of which that day included a mouth-watering vegetable tamal). Pay close attention to the menu descriptions; some items are served like small street tacos, while others are large plates full of meat and vegetables with tortillas on the side. All are priced to stuff oneself silly.

My friend recommended the #13 and the #6, both of which are be vegetarian options. As much as the joint looks like a hole in the wall, their vegetarian options are no joke. Unfortunately, the joke was on me, as they were sold out of the #6, Rajas, which consists of pasilla with herbs, cheese, and onions. It must be insanely popular, as during my 35 minute wait in line to order, I heard at least 8 others try to order that. That and the #7 and #19. Joke again was on me that I thought the #13 – cheese and homemade tomato sauce served on tortillas – was “too boring”. My friend later chastised me, noting the #13 is unique and like “Mexican fondue.”

  
At any rate, my two selections were filling and flavorful. I ordered for my “main” the #8, alambre de pechuga. It described the dish as grilled chicken with bell pepper, onions and mushrooms, plus three tortillas. The dish was a large plate full of the meat and veggies, served atop three hidden, homemade corn tortillas. It reminded me of the amazing Turkish Iskender Kavob. I asked for it to be topped with melted cheese and ended up eating it with their killer salsa verde and cutting the tortilla into chunks, mixing it together. I so ordered the #18, guacamole. It wasn’t a stand out but solidly good; it just needed added salt. The salsa verde offered the needed saltiness and the great tang of lime. The wait was worth it, and I was more than stuffed sufficiently for the rest of the drive.

The French patisserie: Renaud’s, Santa Barbara

On my way to LA, I spent too much time in line at La Super Rica Taqueria to have time to drive through Santa Barbara, one of my favorite cities in California. So I built in another stop on my return trip. I had been told that Santa Barbara had several great French bakeries, so I did a hasty yelp search and found three that sounded great. I went with one that seemed the easiest to access. Renaud’s patisserie and bistro, though tucked in a corner of a shopping center, is a Santa Barbara staple. Its clientele are predominantly locals – an encouraging sign. I ordered the almond croissant after reading numerous rave reviews (the croque Madame was the other frequently mentioned menu item).

  
The large croissant is covered in a not-too-sweet almond icing and thick slivers of almond. Inside is a very generous almond custard filling. My verdict: B+. I have to qualify that I have had some truly wonderful croissants in my day – most of them inexpensive and most outside of the US. Renaud’s version was a bit brittle for my liking on the exterior; the texture was soft but perhaps too dense on the inside. The filling and icing had nicely balanced flavors, but I really appreciate croissants with the strong almond flavor of almond paste, which did not come through in this one. Alongside coffee, though, it was one American breakfast I would never refuse!

This post is long in story but short in food adventures! I definitely will do another trip again with new – better planned and more obscure – food and wine adventures to share. Stay tuned!

That time I ate crocodile at Victoria Falls

There’s nothing like an exotic safari and near-death experience to make one open-minded about food. Travel back with me to the time I ventured to eat crocodile in Southern Africa.

Zambia 2010 002Zambia 2010 006

Victoria Falls is one of the world’s great natural wonders. The wide Zambezi River thunders majestically along the borders of four countries: Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia. Its surrounding flood plains and savannahs provide hospitable, seasonal refuges for testy hippos and crocodiles, elephant and antelope, hyenas, zebras, and even large cats.

Zambia 2010 022
It is a great place for safaris, and I was fortunate to experience one for myself. Staying near the Falls and Livingston, Zambia, it took a combination of bus, boat, foot (border crossing), and wagon just to start our Botswana safari. We kicked off the safari with a pontoon boat tour of the river that separates Botswana from a skinny slice of Namibia.


My colleague and I befriended a mixed group of Americans and Aussies, three of whom had amazing new digital cameras to shoot promotional material for a large camera manufacturer. We reveled at the ubiquitous hippos and crocodiles, as well as a few elephants bathing in riverside ponds.
After a buffet lunch that skewed Italian, our bunch made our way to guided Jeep land tours. Hoping to catch a rare November glimpse of a big cat, we weren’t successful, but we saw antelope and related species frolic, along with numerous birds, and elephants peacefully grazing nearby. Or so we thought.


A sudden thunderstorm arose. Here’s something to know about Elephants: They absolutely lose their (expletive) with thunderstorms. If you’ve ever seen a dog or horse panic with thunder, that has nothing on elephants. Because when a particularly loud clap of thunder shook our patch of earth from less than a mile away, probably every elephant in the area – males, females, and babies – took off running. No, stampeding. As in what you read in books when you are a curious child, never envisioning that it actually does happen in the wild.
A herd of elephants stampeding unidirectionally is a truly amazing and frightening thing. It is the sort of event that you don’t appreciate the full magnitude until after the fact. But when elephants began to swarm and crowd our Jeep, which stood between them and safety, our guide and driver froze, telling us not to move or make noise. No words, just freeze. The rest of us were silent, thinking, uh oh…if HE’S scared, and he does this almost daily, maybe we should worry. With the engine off and our obnoxious tourists’ dialogue ground to a halt, the stillness in the pre-rain air, the sound of strangely fast elephants lumbering through the underbrush and dust, the smell of rain in the not so far distance – it provided an eerie moment and reminder of the awe, beauty, and danger in nature.
Two minutes later, the vast majority of maybe 60 elephants had passed us without incident, running away from the river. We then turned around and slowly gained speed to get the heck out of there. We made it safely back to our wagons, then boats, then to the Zambian border, where I almost was detained because I’d made the mistake of a single-entry visa. Oops. A few phone calls later, we were allowed to return to Zambia and the comfort of our hotel. The day’s events certainly conjured up an appetite for dinner. Choosing to splurge on a sumptuous buffet, we sampled a range of what I call “safe” dishes cooked to appeal to the typical international traveler – African resort-ified versions of European and American standbys. If course, being an exotic destination for the average guest, the hotel also offered westernized versions of African dishes, including crocodile.
Having survived an elephant stampede, I had every reason to try crocodile. Note to the casual reader: I will try almost anything vegetarian and weird, but mystery meat scares me. So while this might sound like a no-brainer to many of you, it was not to me.
So I was pleasantly surprised at the tenderness and turkey-like flavor of the crocodile. It was easy to forget I was eating a scaly, carnivorous reptile capable of tearing me to shreds like a baby water buffalo. It was meat! It was simply grilled, allowing the flavor of the steak to stand for itself. Some say it tastes like chicken, but to me, the meat was visibly more pink, like turkey, and it had more flavor than chicken. So maybe chicken-eating crocodiles would taste like chicken…?
At any rate, the crocodile steak was much less exotic and more familiar than I would have expected. It was another reminder that our world is small, full of experiences we can all relate to as humans – well, humans with income and means. Despite my own American privilege and the shelter offered by a tourist’s bubble, I felt honored to experience this slice of Africa, its friendly and survivalist peoples, and even a crocodile steak.

Il Casaro – A cosmo-Neopolitan newcomer to San Francisco’s Little Italy

San Francisco’s Little Italy might not have the notoriety of New York’s. Within the city, it takes a backseat to SF’s more famous Chinatown. But newcomer Il Casaro is one example that proves it is worthy of the neighborhood monicker. It has added more youthful vibrance to a neighborhood steeped both in tradition and the trappings of tourism, which include several strip clubs.

When it opened in March 2014, Il Casaro attracted attention from the food media, including from industry powerhouse Eater. Public relations aside, Stopping in for a bite at this small but open, bright pizzeria, the true to form flavors and crisp, cosmopolitan ambiance will bring joy to your palate. 

  
The open dining room features a marble bar surrounding the visible oven and work area. This layout is perfect for watching the delicate clockwork with which the 3-4 cooks prepare everything from spiedini di calimari (skewers of calimari and zucchini roasted in the pizza oven) to bruschetta to fresh pastas to their signature Neapolitan pizzas.

Il Casaro serves Italian beer and an all-Italian wine list. On a hot day, the light rose I chose was perfection with both my salad and pizza.

  

Salad course

Needing a dose of vegetables, I chose the beets salad [sic] for a starter. This eye-catching salad pairs golden beets and goat cheese (the PB&J combination of the ’00s, but it still more than works) among spiky frisée and walnuts, all simply dressed in lemon juice and olive oil. It’s a synchronous combination that highlights the freshness and compatibility of each component of the dish. In my own case, I hit a stroke of good luck: My server informed me that the typical golden beets were supplemented by the fortunate purchase that morning of fresh purple beets. What a lovely, delicate plate.
Pizza Norma

Il Casaro’s menu is indicative of only small deviation from the purist’s Neapolitan pizza-making techniques. (I haven’t seen indication that any of their pizzas meet the strict standards for D.O.C certification). A fan of pizzas that skew vegetarian, I picked the Nonna (pictured in the featured image) for its eggplant and two cheeses. Its thin crust is layered first with a base of simple, but naturally sweet and tangy San Marzano tomato sauce. Salty, soft ricotta salata and fresh mozzarella offset lightly fried eggplant, the latter of which is kissed by a nutty extra virgin olive oil. Not a touch of excess grease remained, which made me very happy. Further, no single ingredient or flavor overpowered the others – a sign of a well-constructed pizza. The crust was nicely charred but not burnt, and the edges were nicely soft and chewy.
Il Casaro was a solo dining experience I more than enjoyed. For simple Neapolitan flavors in their natural habitat, and modern ambience, I’m hard-pressed to find anything for the restaurant to improve upon. I certainly will return.

Oktoberfest: De-mystifying the world’s most famous state fair

Munich, Germany’s Oktoberfest is the stuff of legend for most college students and twenty somethings in North America. It is seen as the holy grail of beer festivals, imitated, but never duplicated, every year worldwide. It is that safe, friendly environment for all to sport traditional Bavarian costumes while yelling “Prost!” and singing (or slurring) German drinking chants or folk tunes more times than anyone would care – or functionally be sober enough – to count. It is a festival so many of us aspire to attend, just once in our lifetime.

That is the myth, the legend of Oktoberfest.

The reality is a bit different. If you have ever been to a state fair or community festival, Oktoberfest is much larger and distinctly Bavarian, but it is not vastly different. It is Bavaria’s state fair and harvest festival, albeit heavily focused on beer.

Two years ago, I had the good fortune to experience The Oktoberfest for myself. Already in Europe at the start of Oktoberfest, my friends and I scrambled to find last-minute train tickets, lodging, and coordinate other logistics to make the trek to Munich for Oktoberfest’s opening weekend. Interestingly, “Oktoberfest” is a bit of a misnomer to most of us, as most of it actually takes place in September, finishing its two-week run at the start of October.

Our adventure began with a 545 am Saturday train ride. Most passengers, understandably, were quiet and groggy with sleep deprivation, aiming to nap on our way to Munich. That plan was thwarted by a group of four 70-something German men, already getting an early start to their Oktoberfest by drinking several pints of beer throughout our 3+ hour train ride. The drinking led to a continuous increase in the volume of their conversations and singing. It’s not what you want to hear when trying to nap and to this day, I’ve never heard a group of four men so loud.

It also didn’t help that I was wearing my adorable dirndl (the traditional, “beer wench”-esque female costume and foil to male lederhosen). Dirndls, with their corseted bodice and layer of crinoline for volume, aren’t terribly comfortable and limit a person to a very few comfortable seated positions.  

Arriving in Munich’s central Hauptbahnhof (main train station) mid-morning, we set off on foot directly to the fairgrounds. As we walked in the main gates, the resemblance to any large state fair in the USA was striking. Large, colorful tents, small food stands awaiting crowds in need of calorie overload – it wasn’t unfamiliar. It was strangely quiet at that hour, and it felt like we were trespassing.

The real deal is that on opening day, nothing officially begins until noon, after the opening parade and after the mayor of Munich officially opens the festival – and the taps – with a ceremonial tapping of the first keg.

    
Each large brewery/brand has its own tent. Don’t visualize a typical, temporary vinyl, white festival tent or booth. Referring to Oktoberfest’s beer houses as tents does them a disservice, as they are ornate and exquisite, combining carved wood, metal, heavy fabrics, and with plenty of large benches for seating.
If you choose to visit Oktoberfest and have advance notice, it is highly advisable to reserve seating in advance. The majority of seating in most tents is reserved; what’s left is first-come, first-served. In other words, if you have no reservation, plan on a bit of standing and waiting in line. 


If you show up without seats on Opening Day, you are wise to come early. We beelined to the Paulaner tent, which has rare outdoor seating space and table service. We made space for our groggy group at a large table shared with American tourists, a middle-aged German couple, and a few young Eastern European adults. Though it was a clear, sunny morning, it was quite chilly for dirndls, and the disappointment of having beer unavailable for another two hours was hard to overcome. Luckily, a few in our group ordered and shared a few snacks – a pretzel (which seemed a bit stale for opening day) and a flatbread.

  
After what seemed like an interminable wait, the festivities finally got underway with the start of the parade. Suddenly, our chilly outdoor seating showed its benefit. Each brewery was represented, typically with horse-driven wagons (floats) carrying enthusiastic riders waving to the crowd. The mayor passed by, and just out of our eyesight, he tapped the keg.
Waiters certainly earned their keep. As i’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m not a huge beer conoisseur, so one liter of straight beer was all I could handle before switching to a Radler – a bizarrely tasty combination of beer and orange soda.

Plied with the commoner’s social lubricant, our mood lightened. We yelled “Prost!” (The German “cheers”) out to each other and our new friends of convenience, listening also to the drinking songs of others. It was a fun afternoon, complete with a small but triumphant act of rebellion against The Man. (Who exactly is the proverbial Man will remain a mystery).

We took turns sneaking inside the tent itself. A reservation and hand stamp was required for entry, so after one friend convinced a stranger to transfer his stamp to her, we recklessly transferred the stamp between our group, over and over, as the stamp became blurrier and blurrier each time. We finally had our glimpse of the off-limits, reservation-only fun inside the packed, boisterous tent. All I can say about it was that it was crowded, loud, and slightly chaotic – not much more fun than our outdoor area. So much for the hype!We may have received a few wary looks from the bouncer types there; however, we did not get caught. Waiting in an enormous line for the WC, I again was struck by the volume of Oktoberfest goers from the U.S. and Canada. Everyone else was in the minority that afternoon.

  
By five o’clock, we were exhausted and too hungry to be satisfied for the (good) festival faire, and we headed for central Munich and “real” food. We this never did experience the true revelry and party atmosphere of a later night at Oktoberfest. Moreover, our last-minute hotel reservations took us to the far outskirts of Munich, so staying out late was just too much time and effort. 

  
The next morning, we ventured back into the city to return to Oktoberfest. Whether most of the Saturday crowd was out too late the night before, or the fact that it was Election Day for locals, we found the festival quiet again when we arrived, allowing us to snag valuable seats inside another tent.

The change of venue instantly changed our experience. Gone was the outdoor chill, replaced with the warmth of band music and occasional tent-wide chanting. By mid-day, the crowd began to pick up and the ambience became more lively.

   
Though our afternoon was forcibly cut short by our return train tickets, one of my friends and I made a point of venturing to the Nymphenberger Sekt tent (I am not making that up).
Unlike most other tents, focused on one or two of each brewery’s popular beers, the Sekt tent was dedicated almost exclusively to sparking wine – though it also offered other varieties of wine and beer on tap. Smaller than the other tents, it was more intimate but laid out like a wood-accented music hall, packing festival goers more closely. A contemporary band and wood bar added to the more sophisticated but unpretentious feel of the tent relative to the beer-centric ones.

   
My friend and I had stopped by an outdoor stand that sold skewers of chocolate dipped fruit, which we brought into the tent and paired with a bottle of Sekt for a perfect lunch. The bar, as the bar layout typically does, offered more opportunities to people watch and chat with strangers – not without Sekt jokes. In one case, we chatted with a pair of other American tourists only to learn that both happened to live in my own childhood hometown, which added to the charm and comfort of this tent. Beer purists might scoff at the idea of a tent dedicated to sparkling wine at Oktoberfest, but I felt it offered a fun alternative to the other beer-focused tents. One can only drink but so much beer, anyway!
Just when we were really enjoying ourselves, it sadly was time to leave Oktoberfest and Munich behind.
Though the entire experience was hastily planned, and it was quite different than what I had envisioned Oktoberfest to be, I was thankful to have the adventure and experience under my belt. If you have ever wanted to experience Oktoberfest for yourself, do so – but do your research and plan in advance!

Burma Superstar: Proudly sharing Burmese cuisine with the San Francisco Bay Area

This post was written in coordination with guest blogger the mEAT Baron, who is perhaps Burma Superstar’s biggest fan and ardent ambassador.

Isolated Burma and its cuisine aren’t well known in the U.S., but one restaurant and its satellites is working to change that. Burma Superstar of San Francisco transports one’s taste buds to the exotic flavors of southeast Asia.

Visit any one of Burma Superstar’s four Bay Area locations – or its sister restaurant, B Star – and you’ll see why tables are often hard to come by, and even regulars wait for over an hour! Trust me though, it’s well worth the wait.

While they don’t accept reservations, call ahead and get on their wait list if you’re on your way. Otherwise, take-out is also an option. Whether you are a local or visitor, make sure to stop in for one of their lunch specials (although the full menu is available) or for dinner – but try to go early! Your taste buds will thank you, as this is truly a San Francisco foodie experience that is well worth the wait.

Each restaurant’s seating is fairly limited, so groups larger than four or five persons require a much longer wait time. We do recommend against going solo, however, because the dishes are perfectly sized for sharing and sampling. They also have large communal tables, which offer either the fun of meeting and mingling with others who are just stopping by, or an awkward dinner, depending on one’s personality and openness to adventure. What better way could you find to make new friends while enjoying exotic new dishes?

After hearing endless praise for Burma Superstar from my friend the mEAT Baron, whom you may recall as a guest blogger for the Culinary Diplomat from his post about an Indian-inspired tandoori chicken recipe, I had to try this gem for myself. He proudly touts it as his favorite restaurant in San Francisco and as a true hidden gem. With that kind of endorsement, I had no choice but to try it!

 

Burma Superstar passionately honors the country’s Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi

 
At first glance, you might recognize familiar flavors of other southeast Asian dishes – lime, mint, chili, peanuts, garlic, ginger, tea, pork, coconut, eggplant, basil, and others typical of various dishes from neighboring countries, such as Thailand, Indonesia, China, India, and Laos. Noodles, rice dishes, and soups may look familiar, but the combinations will bring new life to your favorite Asian flavors. The restaurant also is sympathetic to any dietary needs or restrictions, so don’t be shy about asking for your dish to be prepared to your liking – even if that means extra spicy.

  
An absolute must-try at Burma Superstar is the tea leaf salad. A vibrant mix of textures, ranging from crisp romaine lettuce to crunchy fried garlic, sesame seeds, tomatoes, jalapenos, and peanuts – all flavorful in their own right – but then add Burma Superstar’s special fermented tea leaf paste on top with some fresh lemon juice, and the salad becomes a transformative experience. Pungent, salty, and tangy, the tea leaves are reminiscent of a sharp bleu cheese. 

 

mixing the tea leaf salad

 
Servers mix the salad tableside, melding individual components into a refreshingly light and eye-catching starter unlike any other. The traditional salad comes with dried shrimp but can also be ordered vegetarian. 
  
Their lightly fried salt and pepper calamari might sound run-of-the-mill, but it is nothing of the sort. A sizable portion, large enough for two persons to share as a full meal, it is tender, flavorful, and served with a sweet chili dipping sauce.
 

extra spicy mint chicken

 
The spicy mint chicken is an outstanding main dish – and was the mEAT Baron’s go-to entree of choice, always opting to request it extra spicy and with extra garlic. CD note: Spicy at Burma Superstar is truly spicy. Extra spicy might have killed me, so I’m glad I ordered no extra heat in my dishes. Packed with whole red chilis and garlic cloves, surrounded by minced chicken, and flavored with a light soy sauce, the mint chicken’s burn is slow but intense. The mint adds complexity to the unique flavor. Ask for fried garlic on the side, which helps offset the heat. The fried garlic adds an entirely new layer of flavor to any dish without the bite of raw garlic.

Tip: Order a whole coconut, which comes cored and complete with a straw to drink the sweet, cooling water. That healthy treat happily reminded me of the (much cheaper) coconuts that hydrated me throughout places such as Rio de Janeiro and Mysore (India). 

  
Garlic eggplant, sauteed in a wonderful sauce, as well as their white-wine and garlic steamed broccoli are great choices for both vegetarians and carnivores alike. Both are tender and full of flavor, and like most of their dishes, they are perfect for sharing – although they’re so good, you may want to have one all to yourself.

I rarely eat dessert at East Asian restaurants, and on my visit, I was too full to order anything. The mEAT Baron, who does not live in San Francisco, is well known to Burma Superstar’s staff for his reputation for consuming the double portions of mint chicken – extra spicy, extra garlic, and no rice. They offered him complimentary coconut ice cream, and when he refused, the other two of us could not refuse a taste. It was unexpectedly thick and creamy, yet light with chunks of fresh coconut meat. I couldn’t stop after one bite. It was that good.

Virtually anything you could try at Burma Superstar is a sure bet. If you’re confused on what to order, just ask the table next to you what they’re having or what they recommend. Everyone is friendly – both the wait staff and customers – and are eager to help. Take a short excursion outside of touristy Union Square to discover the hospitality and brightest food traditions of Burma at Burma Superstar!