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Full of hot air

Written by Chaz on 29 November 2012

In early October, I made my third trip in the last year to visit my uncle Eric, aunt Teresa and cousin Madison near Albuquerque, New Mexico. My trip was timed to coincide with the legendary Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world’s largest gathering of hot air balloons. Yes, it’s kind of an unusual thing, but it was a terrific excuse for more time with my aunt, uncle and cousin. I arrived late on Friday, and they met me at a hotel downtown so that we could stay near the fiesta itself.

We rose early on Saturday morning, the first day of the fiesta, and at 5 a.m. began a marathon journey up the interstate through horrible traffic to the fiesta grounds. Just as we finally arrived at the parking lot, we heard on the radio that the morning’s mass ascension — the fiesta’s pinnacle moment, in which upward of 750 balloons rise simultaneously into the air — was cancelled. So we diverted course and grabbed some breakfast. My aunt and cousin returned home, while Eric and I headed north to Los Alamos, home of the nuclear research lab and Bandelier National Monument, known equally for its desert scenery and its petroglyphs and cliff dwellings that suggest human presence as old as 11,000 years ago. The park is accessible only by a shuttle bus operated by the humorously named Atomic City Transit.

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We set out on the ruins trail and were soon surrounded by the scenery of Frijoles Canyon, passing cliff dwelling after dwelling. It was a beautiful October day.

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Bandelier was severely affected by the Las Conchas forest fire in 2011, leaving the park much more vulnerable to flash flooding after much vegetation was destroyed. As a result, the facilities are now more spartan, and documentation of flooding was everywhere.

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We continued past the simple nature trail on another longer trail to Alcove House, a cliff dwelling so high that is accessible only by four ladders rising 140 feet.

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We returned to the shuttle bus via the other half of the nature trail loop, where more fire and flood damage was evident. From Los Alamos, we beelined back to my uncle’s house for rest, relaxation and a delicious dinner of dry-aged steaks.

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After dinner, we debated our plans for the next morning, when the balloon fiesta had another mass ascension on the schedule. But the weather again looked threatening, and it would likely have been another grueling trip through heavy traffic, so we decided to scrap it. This, of course, guaranteed that the 750 balloons ended up making it into the early morning air, a sight we saw only on television.

But we had a backup plan, and Sunday morning found Eric and me on our way to Pecos National Historical Park, site of both more American Indian dwellings and a Civil War battle. The drive up to Pecos was beautiful, beginning on a dirt road that seemed even more rural than others my uncle and I have traversed and continuing past the autumnal colors of the desert.

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We began our Pecos visit with a loop trail through the ruins, which showcase both the native dwellings and the ruins of the buildings constructed by the Spanish conquistadores who moved through the area. The trail followed a ridge, giving us excellent views of the area.

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From the ruins trail, we drove over to the park’s newest trail, a historical walk through time that explains the Battle of Glorieta Pass. One does not think of New Mexico as a theater of the Civil War, but in fact it was, and the trail gave us a sense of how the area’s geography influenced the fight. Curiously, the trail is behind a locked gate, and we had to get the code from the visitor center. Perhaps as a result, we were the only people there.

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Making sure to lock the gate behind us, we began driving back toward Eric’s house but took a short detour over to the tiny train station in Lamy, New Mexico. As it turned out, the Southwest Chief was arriving shortly, so we stuck around to see the train — the checkpoint’s second viewing, in fact.

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After the train rolled out of the station on its way to Chicago, we realized we were both starving. So we turned the car around and headed north again to Santa Fe, where we waited for nearly an hour for a table at Cafe Pasqual’s, an adorable New Mexican restaurant. I opted for the mole enchiladas while my uncle had the green chile bison burger, which had caught my eye as well. The mole was outstanding, and was definitely something one doesn’t often find in Boston, making it well worth both the trip and the wait.

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After our late lunch, it was finally time for a visit to the main attraction of the weekend that we had failed to take in thus far: the balloon fiesta. Though we would not make it to an ascension, we planned to see an evening glow, in which the balloons inflate and light their burners simultaneously to create a sea of glowing balloons around the fiesta grounds. We arrived just in time for the launch of the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, in which ballooners compete to see how far they can make it from Albuquerque before landing. The winners ended up making it 1,626 miles to the North Carolina coast.

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As the sun began to set, the balloons began to rise as they were inflated, and the main event was about to begin. Though it was no ascension, the evening glow was still very neat, and gave me a sense of the sheer number of balloons involved in the fiesta.

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And as it got darker still, balloons of every shape began lighting up all around us, creating an amazing evening scene.

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We left before the inevitable traffic began, my appetite whet for another more complete visit to the fiesta. I left New Mexico early the next morning, grateful for another terrific visit to the Southwest!

Family time and relaxing eats

Written by Chaz on 2 August 2012

Heading northeast from White Sands, we blew through Alamogordo and made our first stop about halfway to Tularosa. All along the highway was farm after farm growing a crop I had never seen before: pistachios. The nut, a desert native, thrives in high sun and low humidity and needs long summers to ripen properly. As a result, it has become very popular in New Mexico, which meets those criteria perfectly.

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We stopped at the Eagle Ranch pistachio grove and, after taking a look at some pistachio trees, went into their store to sample their wares, which included not only several flavors of pistachios but also a selection of pistachio wines. We had a taste of a few and selected one to take with us for dinner. There’s nothing like a bit of wine at 9:30 in the morning to get you going.

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Eric had promised that he would take us to a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican place attached to a gas station in Tularosa for huevos rancheros, which sounded like a location our food guru would approve of. But when we arrived, it became clear that we had made a huge mistake. What had once been was no more.

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Fortunately, there was another gas station nearby that also had a Mexican restaurant attached. Welcome to New Mexico. Eric had the huevos rancheros while I opted for another menu items that was basically the rancheros with scrambled, rather than fried eggs. The dishes were good, though no comparison to Eric’s own homemade version.

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From Tularosa, we continued northeast to Eric’s house in Ruidoso, where we spent the rest of the day enjoying the sun, swimming and having some family time with my aunt Teresa and cousin Madison. We discovered when we arrived that the forest fires we had seen from White Sands had become enormous and were very close to Ruidoso. The highway that we would use to return to Albuquerque the next day was closed, so we would have to leave much earlier to retrace our steps to Tularosa and head north from there.

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Eric was planning to grill steaks for dinner and add some New Mexican flair with a topping of onions, mushrooms and spicy tomatillo, a combination he had recently discovered.

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The steaks turned out excellently, and were joined by green beans, a delicious salad with strawberries and pecans, and the pistachio wine.

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We sat out for a while after dinner, watching hummingbird after hummingbird visit the feeder hanging near the porch, as well as a family of deer that made someone very excited.

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The next morning, we rose early in anticipation of our long detour back to Albuquerque and headed out for breakfast in downtown Ruidoso at Peña’s Place, where we beat the morning rush and grabbed a table on the porch.

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At Peña’s, the breakfast burrito proved to be the most popular choice at our table. I ordered mine “Christmas,” which refers not to a holiday in December but to the combination of both red and green chiles. My aunt Teresa opted for the eggs benedict. All were excellent.

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Before we headed off to drive back to the airport in Albuquerque, we took a moment to do some family portraits.

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After the pictures, Eric and I bid farewell to Madison and Teresa and hit the open road.

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A few hours later, I was saying goodbye to Eric at the airport. Though my visit to New Mexico was just a weekend, we had seen and done so much that it felt like a much longer vacation, peppered with excellent eats, terrific nature and wonderful family time.

Just shy of another border

Written by Chaz on 28 July 2012

I spent a weekend in early June with my uncle Eric, who lives outside Albuquerque, and his family. I last saw him over Christmas, when we explored local culture and did risky things in the snow. I’ve still been traveling to Texas to work, so I was once again able to tie a visit to a business trip. In fact, I met Eric on a business trip of his own. He had been in Las Cruces, N.M., so I flew into El Paso, Tex., not far away, and he picked me up there. We had planned quite a weekend: a bit of tourism in El Paso, a day in Las Cruces, a night camping in the backcountry of White Sands National Monument, and the rest of the weekend with Eric’s family at his vacation house in Ruidoso, N.M.

We started the weekend immediately upon my Thursday evening arrival with a visit to El Paso’s L & J Cafe, nicknamed “the old place by the graveyard” because it is across the street from the enormous Concordia Cemetery and vaunted by our favorite source as one of the best places in El Paso for Mexican food. (Though I had pressed Eric to take me across the border into Old Mexico, the violence in Juarez now makes this a terrible idea. Not so long ago, I crossed into Juarez with Eric and his family with no concern, but now that would be unthinkable.) Despite being in what looked like a bit of a seedy area of town (after all, next to an enormous graveyard), the streets around L & J were packed with parked cars, as was the restaurant itself.

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My uncle and I started by ordering a pair of margaritas, which my uncle immediately — and I do mean immediately — followed up with a beer order. Inspired by his boldness, I ordered a Mexican beer. The waitress skeptically asked whether we wanted all our drinks together. We said we could tolerate a slight delay on the beer, and put in an order for chile con queso. I was envisioning a beef (like chili) and melted cheese situation, but this was literally just chile con queso: fantastic green chiles in delicious melted cheese. Eric said it was the best he’d had, and I agreed.

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Our main courses were equally fantastic. This wasn’t the Tex-Mex that I’m used to in Dallas, but the real thing. Eric ordered chicken enchiladas with green chile, while I took the Times’ recommendation and went with the caldillo, a Mexican stew of potato and beef with green chile. Simple flavors, simple composition and an ethnic food experience totally new to me.

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Eric insisted that we follow up our main courses with a sopapilla, a puff pastry smothered in sugar and honey. Light and delicious.

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After dinner, we walked across the street and into the cemetery to find the grave of John Wesley Hardin, a Civil War-era cowboy and outlaw eventually shot to death in a saloon in El Paso. The cemetery fit perfectly into the desert landscape: cactuses between graves surrounded by orange dirt. Hardin’s grave was surrounded by a cage to protect him from people like us.

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From the cemetery, we drove across town to the University of Texas at El Paso, where there is a desert garden that was one of the very few tourist sights I could find in El Paso. The Centennial Desert Gardens were actually very nice, with a variety of plants that I don’t see everyday, and Eric rolled his eyes as I walked around taking pictures of things I found interesting and beautiful.

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From the garden, we headed onto the interstate to drive back to Eric’s hotel in Las Cruces, stopping only briefly for a view back toward El Paso through mountains.

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Before long, we had crossed the border into New Mexico, and were soon heading to bed.

The next morning, Eric headed off to work while I opened my computer and made a virtual commute from his hotel. Thanks to the time difference, I was able to start early and finish early, so I was nearly ready for the weekend by the time Eric and I headed to a late lunch at Nellie’s Cafe, a well-known Mexican restaurant in Las Cruces. Even though the restaurant was just barely a storefront, when Eric texted a picture to a friend of his, the friend replied that they must have made improvements. But the little hole-in-the-wall was still sporting pretty legitimate credentials.

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We were seated by Nellie’s exuberant son Danny and began our meal with tortilla chips and salsa. These weren’t your mother’s tortilla chips, though — they were still hot, and more flavorful than any I can recall. Inspired by their quality, we ordered another round accompanied by more chile con queso. For my main course, I ordered the tostadas compuestas, which featured three hard tacos of different compositions: one with red chile, one with green chile and one with avocado. The dichotomy between red and green chiles is a recurring one in the cuisine of New Mexico. As I learned, either color can be hotter in a given restaurant, and either can be tastier. You have to ask at each restaurant and balance your preferences. Eric went with the combo platter, which was roundly recommended. It was immediately apparent from our plates that we were beginning to transition from the Mexican food we had had in El Paso to the unique culinary blend that is New Mexican cuisine.

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Though not quite as flavorful and exciting as L & J Cafe, Nellie’s was much more of a scene. Las Cruces is, of course, a much smaller town that El Paso, and I’m sure that contributed to the sense that everyone in the restaurant knew everyone else. It was a fun dining experience, which you can’t always say.

From Nellie’s, Eric and I drove slightly west, to old Mesilla, a small town near Las Cruces known for its historic square and old-timey feeling. Having not so long ago been to both old Albuquerque and old Santa Fe, I had to comment to Eric that I was starting to get the feeling “seen one old square, seen ’em all.” There was a pretty Catholic church and a nice square whose architecture wouldn’t feel out of place in old Mexico, but that was about it.

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Mesilla, of course, receives a lot less traffic than its historic neighbors to the north, which did give it a bit of a more homely feel. I was able to take one photograph that may be the closest we ever come to the caption: “The checkpoint visits Havana.”

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Having scoped out the scene in Mesilla, Eric and I high-tailed it east out of town and through the mountains toward our next destination.

Presenting (and eating) the Great GoogaMooga

Written by Emmy on 21 July 2012

When work is a little slow or I’m feeling a little restless, my distractions of choice include an array of local food blogs. On one such day, I noticed a preview for the Great GoogaMooga — a food festival planned for a weekend in May with all the top restaurants of the city. Intrigued, I marked my calendar for the day free tickets were slated to be released and on a workday in March, I barely secured my “purchase” only five minutes after the tickets went up for sale. In the course of just a few weeks, GoogaMooga had blown up in foodie news and was now suggested to be the event of the year.

So two months later, on a very sunny day in May, I headed back out to Nethermead Meadow in Prospect Park with my roommate Dana and our friend Karen for a day of planned gluttony.

We set rules: any food item had to be endorsed by at least two of us; all items were to be shared; and when in doubt, skew ethnic. The 75 or so food stands included a whole area with the best pizzas of New York and another with the best burgers, but we collectively agreed to bypass both sections in favor of spicy noodles and unpronounceable dishes.

(We also bypassed the area dubbed “Hamageddon,” a piece of the dark devoted entirely to pork cooked in every possible way, including on a giant spit within a massive metal barbecue.)

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The Great GoogaMooga was actually a two-day festival, but we only had tickets to the Sunday proceedings. Saturday had been reported by friends and media outlets to be a sort-of disaster with absurdly long lines and stands that ran out of food. We came prepared on Sunday morning with sunblock, water bottles and a picnic blanket, but were pleasantly surprised to find that food was in reach.

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Each stand was hosted by a famous or up-and-coming NYC restaurant purveying the item they are best known for. We dug right in. The first set of stalls featured ethnic delight after delight and not knowing where to start, we just started everywhere.

From the new Cambodian lunch spot, Nam Pang Sandwich Shop, we sampled pulled pork sandwiches with pickled vegetables and cilantro and a side of spicy grilled corn…

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From Baohaus, a hugely popular though grungy-looking spot near my apartment, crispy chicken baos, topped with some more cilantro…

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Switching from Southeast Asia to a very different side of the globe, a spinach and cheese pupusa loaded with hot sauce, slaw and jalapeños from a new Venezuelan hotspot…

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Circling back to Southeast Asia (really, my palate never seems to stray for long), we sampled a spicy Thai sausage, which kind of reminded me of items I sampled at the highly authentic Ayada in Elmhurst

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We came up for air and realized we had plowed through all the ethnic delights near us that we wanted to try. We had set rules about not eating “common” food items, but there is one comfort food I am on occasion willing to break a whole host of rules for: grilled cheese. Grilled cheese is one of those foods that has suddenly become trendy in New York, with a slew of random restaurants popping up that serve nothing but the gooey goodness. One in particular has been on my to do list for a while, a Lower East Spot called Little Muenster. They had a booth, and so we decided rules were made to be broken and ordered the Oaxaca grilled cheese, filled with spicy peppers and drizzled in cotija cheese and salsa.

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While on the grilled cheese line, we spotted a man wearing a shirt with the state of Wisconsin on it with a tattoo of Wisconsin on his arm. For most people, this would be nothing more than a little oddity, but for Dana — proud Wisconsin native — this was worth exploring. Even more bizarre was when we discovered the Wisconsinite was peddling — yep, you guessed it — Southeast Asian sandwiches.

Though his restaurant serves next to nothing from his native state, it’s located in what the owner hopes will soon be considered Lil’ Wisco — a short block in the West Village that also features Kettle of Fish, an unassuming bar that becomes home exclusively to Packers fans during football season.

Sensical or not, we enjoyed another crispy chicken and spicy vegetable sandwich, topped off with a bit of sriacha.

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The sandwich was delicious, and my eating about a third of it put me over the edge. Not a bad way to end a day of dining.

Taking the subway to Singapore

Written by Chaz on 15 July 2012

In the middle of April, I went to New York to see a live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion with my mother and a few friends, as we do nearly every April and December when the show is in New York. The show was great — in fact, one of the best I’ve seen — but for blogging purposes, the events before and after were more significant.

On my way down to New York from Boston on Saturday morning, I was trying to coordinate plans with Vernie, who was planning to come to the show with us. She revealed that she was planning to spend the day at Singapore Day, an event for overseas Singaporeans being held in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The event even included chefs flown in from the most popular hawker centers in Singapore, Vernie said. I called Emmy right away and told her to scrap whatever she had planned for the day. This sounded like an event we couldn’t miss.

IMG_8892Singapore loses tons of its citizens to other countries, not least because it’s such a small country, and as a result, the government goes to great lengths to keep the diaspora connected to the homeland. And it appears to work. Vernie was super excited to go to Singapore Day, and as soon as we got there, it was clear she wasn’t the only one. People had come from all over the country for this event. In addition to hawker center chefs, the Singaporean government had also brought in Singaporean celebrities, who were performing on an enormous stage surrounded by exhibits about how great life in Singapore is. And lest you miss the point, the entrance gates to the event were modeled after the fare gates on the MRT, with big signs reading, “Welcome home.” Though Emmy and I were probably not their target audience, we nevertheless felt a bit like we were making a triumphant homecoming to our favorite tiny island nation.

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By the time Emmy, her roommate Dana and I made it to Prospect Park, the event was in full swing, and the food lines were already long. We immediately jumped in the roti prata line, which was one of our favorite foods in Singapore. Perhaps it was because it’s not actually a complicated food item, but it was just as delicious as I remembered it in Singapore, with a small fraction of the journey.

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Our next stop was at the penang laksa booth. We had only had this Peranakan dish’s cousin, katong laksa, during our time in Singapore. Penang laksa is more sour and less spicy than katong laksa, and even though I didn’t enjoy the flavor as much, it did take me right back to the plethora of noodle dishes we had in Singapore.

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Our next dish was rojak, which we had in Singapore as a side to the katong laksa. The rojak suffered the most from being 10,000 miles from home. I remembered it as crunchy in Singapore, but this was soggy at best, and rather than being spicy and sweet, it just tasted overwhelmingly of soy sauce.

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Our final dish, of course, was the mystery, the wonder: chicken rice. By this point in the afternoon, we were quite full, but we nevertheless recalled our professional training on assessing the quality of chicken rice and dug in. Simple in its elegance, chicken rice did not disappoint.

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After sitting for a while and enjoying the sun and entertainment, we headed back to Manhattan for a breather before heading to the show, where we met my mother. Afterwards, we made our way to Ngam, a new Thai restaurant that Emmy had chosen for us. At this point, we had been joined by Ben, Diana, her boyfriend, my mother, and a friend of hers, and had become a somewhat unwieldy group of eight — the benefit, of course, being that we could order more dishes. After a bit of an ordeal as we attempted to claim our reservation, during which we observed the open kitchen, we were seated.

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Emmy was quickly deputized with ordering for the entire table, and before long, we were showered with appetizers. Ngam is a Thai restaurant, but they take a bunch of liberties from tradition, which was immediately noticeable. Our appetizers included a crab cake, sweet chili chicken wings, a papaya salad topped with strawberries and cashews, “Chiang Mai fries” made from pumpkin and sweet potatoes, and spring rolls with noodles and mushrooms. Nothing was familiar, but everything was fantastic.

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After some ordering confusion with our main courses, we ended up with quite a selection. One of our favorite dishes in northern Thailand was khao soi, a spicy coconut milk curry that includes both soft noodles and fried egg noodles with which we had recently become reacquainted when we came across it in suburban Boston. Ngam had a new variation on the dish: instead of the more traditional chicken, they had prepared it with lobster. It was delicious.

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Our other dishes included curried vegetables, a curried duckling with lychees and pineapple, crispy chicken laab, and a shrimp pad thai that featured papaya instead of noodles. Everything was just one step away from a dish we were familiar with, making each dish a new, innovative twist on an old standby. For me, the lobster khao soi and the papaya pad thai were the real standouts. The duckling and crispy laab were a bit fried for my preference.

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We headed back to Emmy’s apartment for the rest of the evening, having reenacted a couple of the cuisines of our trip to Asia using only the New York City subway system.

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A little bit of love

Written by Emmy on 12 July 2012

Lest we leave you to believe all that happened when a group of ex-editors hit Boston was a well-documented drinking session, there was much much more.

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After our session at drink, we took in a quick movie followed by a very long dinner. Never a group to pass up a good ethnic meal, we headed to Addis Red Sea.

IMG_0195In my favorite movie, “When Harry Met Sally,” Harry tries to make a joke about a relatively bad date he had gone on:

“We’re sitting and we’re talking at this Ethiopian restaurant that she wanted to go to. And I was making jokes, you know like, “Hey I didn’t know that they had food in Ethiopia? This will be a quick meal. I’ll order two empty plates and we can leave.”

Our experience at Addis Red Sea: less quick. Though the food was delicious — a big plate of spicy and savory meats and vegetables on top of injera — I think they had to go back to Ethiopia to collect the ingredients. Several hours later, we emerged.

The next morning we combined two of our collective favorites — more omelets and a store full of books — with a bookstore cafe brunch. Just what the blog was missing: more images of breakfast eggs.

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I don’t want to give the misimpression that all we did on our weekend together was eat food; it’s just that it’s hard to photograph friendship and we favor photography on this blog. But jokes aside, it was a fantastic weekend and while we had a blast traipsing around Boston, we really could have been anywhere. After spending so much time trapped in a newsroom and so many additional hours together by choice, there is very little that this scrappy group could not enjoy doing together.

IMG_0200Note: This wine was named for a brigade of Chilean revolutionaries; we have appropriately adopted it as our own

The crew trickled out over the course of the afternoon, heading back to points south. I held out for a midnight train to Georgia (really, for a 5am train to New York, but same idea). Chaz and I still had one activity to get in. Can you guess? An authentic Thai dinner.

We headed out to Brookline to Khao Sarn, which our best internet sources claimed would be the best around. We walked in at nearly 9 p.m. and found ourselves to be essentially the only diners present. That on its own might have been disconcerting, but there were a couple delightful surprises on the menu.

Yes. Hello, betel.

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Okay, it wasn’t actually betel, but spinach leaves, a substitute that is more easily acquired in America. It nevertheless evoked our sidewalk picnic in Bangkok. The other appetizers were delicious, even if they did not cause such heartfelt nostalgia for the checkpoint. We sampled a spicy, crunchy papaya salad and a very refreshing summer roll.

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As we walked ourselves down memory lane, we were also blown away to see khao soi grace the menu. Many of Thailand’s wonderful dishes have made it firmly to the United States. Pad thai is nothing if not an American staple at this point. Khao soi, on the other hand, has not made quite the same exodus from its homeland. The spicy broth, filled with crunchy egg noodles and tangy vegetables, is a staple of Northern Thailand’s cuisine and we ate quite a bit of it up in Chiang Mai. It tasted spectacularly familiar. We also sampled a mango Thai curry, spicy and fruity all at once.

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The spice and authentic leaves made for the proper condiments on top of a lovely weekend.

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What’s cookin’, good lookin’?

Written by Emmy on 12 June 2012

Much of my childhood was spent discussing, looking at, making or eating food. So it’s no surprise that I was fascinated with the idea of cooking long before I had any idea how to do it.

Because I spent the majority of college living in dorms with a tiny, tiny kitchen and feeding myself on meal plan, I did not do much cooking. Plus the life of a newspaper editor was not quite conducive to laborious homemade dinners. I had a brief vacation in the form of my semester abroad, where I learned that all cooking was meant to include olive oil and garlic. I picked my pots and pans back up senior spring of college, when the end of newspaper editing left a big hole in my schedule. In my own kitchen, I had the ultimate taste-tester in the form of my roommate, Jillian. She was willing to sample any of my creations — particularly those with eggplant — as long as the only thing she had to do was wash dishes. On other occasions, I co-piloted elaborate vegetarian creations in Chaz’s kitchen.

I was determined to keep progressing my culinary skills after graduation, beginning, of course, at the hands of Big Mama in Chiang Mai. Back in New York and in my brand-new kitchen, I decided it was time to take on challenges, new and familiar.

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IMG_8404In my Manhattan apartment, I enlist sous chef assistance from one of my roommates, Dana. One of the few times I cooked with Dana prior to our cohabitation, she attempted to put a metal bowl in the microwave. “Guys,” she nonchalantly called into the living room, “Fire.”

Her skills have since improved since then, and she is particularly good at cutting and aggressively pounding things, which comes in handy given our new-found career in pizza making.

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My cooking experiments were at an all-time high in the few weeks after my last travel adventure and before I had to, you know, actually start being an adult and doing work. But I’ve still made time to fit in a few cooking projects alongside friends.

Vernie and I forewent eating Asian noodles in a restaurant for making spicy Mexican chicken meatballs on a cold wintry day, a dish that conveys its deliciousness in just its appearance.

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IMG_0101The next day, I served the leftovers to my roommates and assorted other visitors during an impromptu Grammys party, along with avocado and black bean quesadillas. My trick to making quesadillas, grilled cheese or really anything that requires melting cheese between pieces of bread is to put the item into a frying pan with a plate on top of it. The pressure helps it cook more evenly and get crispier. I have a personal penchant for food that’s half a degree short of burnt, though I know that’s not always the most popular choice.

For an Oscars viewing, I constructed another kind of chicken meatball, this time with an Asian spin and served alongside steamed edamame and peanut noodles.

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Big Mama’s lessons aside, Asian food is still not something that ever tastes as good coming from my kitchen as it does out of a take-out box or in its native environs.

I continue to make and perfect interpretations of eggplant parmesan. It remains the perfect answer to balancing the equation of cooking time and delicious outcome; it’s fast, easy and really, what could be bad about eggplant, sauce and melted cheese?

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Truth be told, not all of my cooking adventures in my new grownup apartment have been such a raging success. The most illustrative example would be my attempt to create my annual springtime dessert — chocolate caramel matzah crunch, a Passover specialty. I had made some at my parents’ house on Long Island, but it was quickly devoured and Passover lasts a long time. So I decided to make another batch; the recipe is incredibly simple and involves four ingredients: butter, brown sugar, chocolate and matzah. Step one of the recipe is to make the caramel, which is easy enough — just requires melting the butter and brown sugar together.

But somehow, something went awry. I think I let the butter melt for too long before adding the sugar or maybe the ratios were accidentally off, but regardless of the cause, my caramel suddenly started turning black and smoke started rushing out of the pot, filling my entire kitchen. My apartment has fantastic cooking amenities, especially for a group of twenty-somethings, but the one thing we lack is a fan over the stove. I opened the windows, but smoke just kept streaming out of the pot. Concerned about the unending nature of this minor debacle, I came to the only logical solution: I sat on the window sill, held the pot outside the window, and released the sticky sweet smoke onto unsuspecting passersby in Union Square. It continued burning for an impressively long time and when I pulled the pot back inside, there was a smoky, sticky black gunk stuck to it.

After my roommates finally stopped laughing at me, I scrubbed the pot, melted another stuck of butter and successfully made a new batch of the matzah.

Professional I may not be, but I keep concocting – sometimes with a recipe and sometimes fully at whim – and I continue to subject whoever is dining with me to a quick iPhone photo before anyone can take a bite. If a member of the checkpoint eats something and does not document it, was it ever eaten at all?

photo (13)photo (8)photo (10)photo (16)photo (15)photo (12)photo (9)photo (17)photo (19)Row by row, starting on the top left: stovetop cheesy penne with broccoli and cauliflower; whole wheat spaghetti with chicken sausage and sundried tomato pesto; Cinco de Mayo barbecue chicken nachos; brussel sprouts, baby zucchini and white beans; reinterpreted Mexico as casserole; spicy peanut tofu with Chinese broccoli; spicy penne with chickpeas and broccoli rabe; butternut squash, brussel sprout and chicken apple sausage omelet; turkey meatballs, broccoli rabe and sundried tomatoes.

Wat can be found in hidden corners of NYC

Written by Emmy on 10 May 2012

Just as the checkpoint has spread its way up the east coast, so have its friends. Following our time with newfound friends Fred and Carrie, we were able to catch up with a mix of friends from all places over Sunday brunch, every New Yorker’s favorite activity.

IMG_8433We gathered roommates, high school, college and study abroad friends and met up for a classy mid-morning meal of excessive amounts of coffee, fresh banana walnut bread, several classic brunch favorites, eggs stewed with tomato, and an unusual offering of breakfast pizza.

The brunch itself was good, but it was really most notable because we were able to bring so many friends together at one time in one place.

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We spent the afternoon catching up and playing competitive card games, and preparing for an evening adventure. Since returning from our summer jaunt to Thailand, we’ve experimented with all varieties of Thai take-out cuisine in our respective cities. But nothing quite measures up, and honestly we suspected nothing outside the borders of old Siam could. Los Angeles has its own Thai Town and as an east coast elitist, I assumed New York had to have one too. We just had not yet looked in the right place.

Sure enough, 45 minutes away from lower Manhattan, a winding ride on the R train, is a little Thai enclave in Elmhurst, Queens. The neighborhood is so authentic as to include metro New York’s only operational wat. And as we learned on the streets of Bangkok, where there’s a wat, there’s a way, and usually an impromptu restaurant or two.

The title of most authentic Thai restaurant in Elmhurst is seemingly a competitive one. It’s a topic that has been debated by the best of New York’s food writers and at least for now, the honor rests with a small family-run restaurant on bustling Woodside Avenue. As one New York Times food critic wrote, “I knew Ayada was a serious Thai restaurant when I started weeping at my table.”

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We had company on our journey in the form of Chaz’s high school friend Kim and her boyfriend Bing because we had not seen them yet — and also we thought Kim’s Thai heritage might come in handy when deciphering the menu. A perk of bringing a bigger group meant more ordering. But on our walk to the restaurant, Kim and Bing commented that they were not that hungry. We decided that would not impact our decisions.

We started with a fairly aggressive number of appetizers based on food-critic guidance and recommendations from Kim. The long parade included a papaya salad, fish cakes, crab rolls, chicken larb salad and E-sarn sausage. Before you judge, there were four of us and we just sampled. (Sort of.)

But to be a little more discriminating: The papaya salad pictured above nearly blew our heads off in true Thai style (and was still just as good the next morning out of its plastic container). The crab rolls were a fascinating and unusual composed item. With an inside of crab and pork and an outside of crispy tofu, the rolls were definitely unusual, and also very delicious. We wrapped the E-sarn in pieces of lettuce with onion, chili peppers and peanuts, in a style somewhat reminiscent of betel leaves.

The fish cakes and chicken larb were my least favorites… the former was a little too bland compared to the other items on the table. The larb had a little bit of a gritty texture, and as far as composed salads go, just gets me less excited than shiny, spicy, brightly-colored papaya.

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We were nearly full when the main courses arrived, but that’s irrelevant when there’s a Thai feast on the table. We ordered two of my favorite dishes, both of which were completed to perfection at Ayada.

Pad see ew is one of the simplest Thai dishes to prepare — something we learned at the hands of Big Mama — but that doesn’t mean it’s always done well. The dish is simply composed of rice noodles, Chinese broccoli and in this case, chicken. But the secret lies in the sauce, a delicate balance of black soy, sweet chili and several other critical items that I sadly do not remember from my one day of pad see ew expertise. Thankfully, the chefs at Ayada did have that list handy.

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The other winning item on the menu was the penang curry. My occasional objection to curries is that they are too liquidy. Penang is my personal favorite because it is spicier and thicker than the typical curry, meaning it sticks more to the protein but still provides a big oomph in flavor. We ordered ours with chicken and it was delightful.

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We chose a third entree at the suggestion of the New York Times — chinese broccoli with crispy pork. I was interested in the dish for the broccoli. The dish was spicy and flavorful, but just didn’t do as much for me as the others. I might have been more into it with a different protein — I could see it working well with tofu — but that’s a dish for another day.

I did not actually even try the other entree on the table, but that was largely because I was so full by the time it even reached my side of the table. Plus it was the most daunting looking: spicy frogs’ legs ordered by Bing. I’m not saying I would be unwilling to try them… there were just several other things I wanted to get to first.

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By the time the entrees had all been cleared, I felt like I could barely move. Conveniently, most Thai desserts feature the two foods I like least — milk and bananas. However, everyone else seemed to really enjoy the palette cleanser of fried bananas with ice cream, the sweet ending to a fantastic meal.

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Ayada provided the most Thai food I’ve had outside of Thailand. And compared to a 24-hour journey to Bangkok, a 45-minute train to Queens is definitely something I can do on a more regular basis.

Put a bird on New York

Written by Chaz on 6 May 2012

As has been discussed extensively before, Emmy and I think the show Portlandia is pretty great. It’s clever, funny and catchy. But one of the biggest reasons we love it is the relationship between the two actors who star in the show, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. It’s very clear that they’re best friends who are having a really good time making something together.

“We would email a link [of our sketch-comedy videos] to our friends, but they were mostly for us. It was very understated and silly, and we were just sort of reveling in the absurd.” — Carrie Brownstein to NPR

Reveling in the absurd mostly for our own selves is essentially what Emmy and I do on this blog, so we naturally feel some kinship to Fred and Carrie, who, even though we’ve never met them, feel like our really good friends. So when Fred and Carrie announced that they were taking Portlandia on tour, I immediately emailed Emmy and told her to get tickets for the New York show, promising that I would find a way to be there.

We actually attended two Portlandia events in one day. The first was a panel discussion with Fred and Carrie at the Paley Center for Media. I had never heard of the center, but it seemed like a pretty neat media organization.

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The moderator left a lot to be desired — she didn’t really get the pair talking about anything that mattered, and considering that we were at a center for media, it seemed like a missed opportunity to ask searching questions about their contribution to pop culture. But we were still in awe of being in their presence, and during the question and answer session at the end, Emmy asked them a question that we have frequently pondered ourselves: What makes your friendship different from other friendships you have? Carrie called it the hardest question they have ever gotten.

Seeing the two of them in person was just about everything we had imagined it would be. And the afternoon event was just an appetizer, to use a technical food-blog term.

After the panel, we walked over to Pure Thai Cookhouse, which Emmy and I had visited once before when it had a different name thanks to a recommendation from our most reliable source for everything under the sun. At first, we just ordered curry puffs and a papaya salad with salted blue crab, because we were just having a snack, really. But we were still a bit peckish afterwards, and we were intrigued by the sound of pad kee moa with calamari.

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Though the curry puffs were state of the art, both of the other two dishes were lackluster. This doesn’t speak very well of our food blogger credentials, but we were literally unable to figure out how to eat the crab in the papaya salad, and the texture of the calamari was just a bit off for our taste in the noodle dish.

We retreated to Emmy’s apartment to rest up for our evening, and took the subway down to the Bowery Ballroom for Fred and Carrie’s evening performance. It was, essentially, a live version of their sketch comedy television show — they joked, they sang, they told stories, and they were all around awesome.

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Fred and Carrie also welcomed Kyle MacLachlan, who played Dale Cooper on Twin Peaks and plays the mayor of Portland on Portlandia, and jammed out on the Portland theme song that the Portlandia version of themselves wrote at the mayor’s behest.

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And they dressed up as two of our favorites characters from the show — feminist bookstore owners Toni and Candace, who are more exclusive than inclusive in their attempts to create a safe space for women. At this point, we were just about losing ourselves with delight.

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But perhaps the moment most relevant to us came during a slideshow of old pictures of themselves, including an adorable one of the two of them. They talk a lot about how they live on opposite sides of the country, Carrie in Portland and Fred in New York, so they need a project to keep them together. This resonates a lot with us.

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In short, seeing Fred and Carrie in person didn’t do anything to dispel the idea that we know them really well without knowing them at all.

After the show, we met up with some friends before heading home, still giddy about our day in Portland in New York.

Ringing in the new year

Written by Chaz on 23 March 2012

After Christmas in New Mexico, I winged over to Washington for New Years with my friends Joanna, Seth, George and Ben. The visit had two culinary highlights, an authentic Szechuan feast and a great brunch, but one of our first activities was a chilly picnic at Gravelly Point Park right next to National Airport.

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Our Szechuan feast was at Sichuan Pavilion in Rockville, Md., though it has apparently since changed its name to Sichuan Jin River. It was unsurprisingly a recommendation from the ever-reliable Tyler Cowen, who started it all. It was my first Szechuan food since our Szechuan meal in Hong Kong, and I was curious to see how the two compared, as our Hong Kong meal was unlike anything I’ve had or seen in the United States. It was much, much spicier and generally more willing to experiment with very strong flavors.

We began the meal with four terrific appetizers: dan dan noodles, which were extremely spicy in an unusual and different way; jelly noodles, also very spicy and of a texture I have never before encountered; dumplings; and Chinese pizza, which was actually delicious even if the scallion pancakes were the most vanilla thing on the table. The two noodle dishes were really the highlight of the visit, though. Both were recommendations from Tyler and he did not mislead us.

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Our entrees were equally impressive. We had a ginger pork with crispy rice cakes that was phenomenal both in its flavor and its textures, a chicken dish that was thankfully not as spicy as the dish it most closely resembled in Hong Kong, an eggplant dish that Emmy would have loved, and and a duck dish that came with these Michelin-man-like puffy buns.

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The food was really fantastic, and I say that as someone who is very disillusioned with eating Chinese food in the U.S. It had distinct flavors, textures and combinations that I’ve never had before at a mainstream Chinese restaurant. This was the real deal, and it was great.

Our brunch was at Kramerbooks, the Dupont Circle institution known for its hybrid excellent bookstore and excellent restaurant. Between us, we had a crab quesadilla (great and surprisingly large), eggs Benedict, a lox and egg scramble, and oatmeal.

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Though not nearly as exciting and adventurous as our trip to Rockville, it was still a great brunch. And, of course, it was great to welcome the new year with my friends in D.C.!