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Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

Mérida



Yucatán. Mérida. Describing this city after spending only 5 days there would be doing it a disservice. One can’t presume that they will comprehend an entire culture, a way of life, a region of an even larger and more diverse country unless they’ve spent the better part of their life there.

I had first heard of Mérida, rather embarrassingly, about 6 years ago as a junior in college, drunkenly watching Tivoed episodes of House Hunters International late at night. I was coming off of a three month solo trip through Europe the Summer before and had a ridiculously unquenchable thirst for information on anything remotely resembling what I experienced there. It was the Spanish influence that originally made me want to travel to Mérida. After finally going there, for however short a time, its everything but the Spanish influences that make me want desperately to go back.

Instead, it is the people, the food and the history that make Mérida, and Yucatán in general, the place it is, the place that is indescribable. Our first night in town, staying at The Hacienda San Pedro Nohpat, was an interesting, if not strange, way to begin the trip. At the Hacienda, which is located a good 25 minutes outside of Mérida itself, my girlfriend and I spent the night speaking Spanglish, sharing beers and whiskey, and experiencing a side of Mérida that not a lot people see, with a Congressman from the area who happened to be staying there for some R&R. The Congressman was an embodiment of Mérida itself: unique, big-hearted, honest, inviting and passionate. It was he who bought us our first meal, Panuchos, and introduced us to a broader understanding of Yucatán living.

Panuchos

As a huge fan of pork I had set my culinary sites on two dishes in particular that are inherent to the Yucatán region, Poc Chuc and Cochinitas Pibil. Also, a soup called Sopa de Lima (lime soup).

The first restaurant experience we had was just down the street from the small center of the village, Kanasin. Mind you, this is the center of the village that Hacienda San Pedro Nohpat was in, not the Centro Historico of Mérida. The restaurant was La Susana Internacional. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, to try and describe the ride on a small motor bike taxi in the darkness of night to the restaurant is impossible. It was an experience I’ll never forget and I can’t articulate my feelings in any other way. At La Susana we had Poc Chuc Tacos and Sopa de Lima.

Sopa de Lima and Poc Chuc tacos

The next day we traveled by taxi, which only cost about about 200 pesos for 45 kilometers, to Progreso Beach, directly north of Mérida. To me, the beach was not very different than beaches in other countries, if there was a giant Wings on every corner you could have just as easily been in North Carolina or Nassau. This was where I first felt like an outsider. As a 6’1″ tall Romanian I fit in just fine in Europe and other countries, but as untanned gringos, my girlfriend and I stuck right out. To compact the situation, the addition of drunken college-age kids pestering us to take a photo with them so they could “have it for facebook, a picture with the gringos”, didn’t help. My girlfriend and a few other expats who were on the beach saw the humor in it, I did not. An asshole is an asshole in any country you go to. This isn’t all to say that Progreso is a bad spot. Its great. The sun was out, the water was cool, the beers at Buddy’s Bar were cold. There sure are a lot of Canadian expats…

Playa Progreso

The next restaurant we tried was Hacienda Teya. The food, atmosphere and location were all great and I recommend it to anyone going to Mérida.

Pork SausageRice and Fried Plantaine
Cochinitas Pibil
Cheese and ground pork

Our last night at the Hacienda we ventured out into the area around us and picked up some snacks from the stands that were preparing for the bullfight the next day. I can honestly say it was the greatest deep fried hotdog I’d ever had in my life.

Deep fried hotdogs and fries
Churros

At this point I’d like to explain what kind of experience you have when staying at the Hacienda San Pedro Nohpat. First, all of the reviews you may read online are completely accurate, and then some. The owner/operators of the Hacienda are an open-minded, understanding and laid-back-to-the-point-of-reclining type of people. For our last two nights we were the only guests and our hosts made us feel more than at home. I can say with 100% confidence that we will be back. They even let us have free reign of the kitchen and bar, as long as we were honest about what we took. At 25 pesos a beer, it wasn’t hard to be honest.

One of about 100 pictures I could use to show you the beauty of the Hacienda

After our stay at the Hacienda we spent 2 days in the Centro at Hotel Medio Mundo. The hotel’s location was great, it was just far enough away from the Centro Historico to feel like you had your own slice of Mérida all to yourself. From here we went on a few adventures and tried some good food.

Cenote San Ignacio in Chochola

Tacos from a stand in the Centro

Food stands in the Centro

Cochinitas round 2… or 3…

A cerveza, a tequila and a great view of the Centro

The Ballet performing in the middle of the city. For everyone. For Free.

The Hotel MedioMundo, Calle 55

Mérida, like any other city in the world, will show you as much about itself as you allow it to. Much like looking into a mirror you see only what you want, when you want. The stark contrasts of privilege and poverty, complicated and simple, anxiety and total calm are as abundant in Mérida as they are elsewhere in Mexico. In a city where one night, strolling through town, I feel the total and utter disassociation from everything around me I crave so much, only to have it all reversed the very next night by a boatload of tourists corralled in and out of shops full of factory produced knick-knacks and t-shirts and perpetuating the bad travel behaviors attributed to Americans. My short travels in Yucatán were just that, too short, but the impact they had on me will never be unfelt.

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New York. Trying to describe a few days in this city to anyone but your girlfriend, your mother or your friend who’s never been is like telling a group of teenagers that cigarettes are bad for them; everyone’s got their own way of doing it and, in the end, it will fall on, at best, ornery, overly-callous ears that will tell you you’ve got it all wrong.

Regardless, my experience in New York City was a great one. I’d like to go as far as to think, if not for a moment, that I “get” it. The style, the attitude, the similar-to-LA assumption that, even if you’re from a little farm in Iowa, here, you can be anyone you want to be. The moment I walked into Times Square I instantly found myself thinking things like, “Jesus, that’s a lot of overweight tourists” and “don’t these people know that some of the best chefs in the world are here, right now, running kitchens that I would give a body part to work in for a night?” And, I like to think, this is a good mindset to operating under while there.

New York is a city, mind you it’s a huge fucking place with more skyscrapers than any other city I’ve ever seen, but, still, it’s a metropolitan collection of different people, places and experiences unique unto itself just like any other urban hub on the planet. And, because of this, New York, hell the island of Manhattan alone, has more to offer than you can wish to see in a week. To hell with the three TGI Friday’s or the new Bubba Gump Shrimp they just built along 7th. If this is your, or someone you know, idea of New York then you, or said acquaintance, need help, and fast.

Before leaving I made a list of a few places I knew I wanted to see and, luckily for myself, I got to leave a check mark next to each of the items on the list (seriously, I’m a nerd, I checked each one off). Mind you I barely scratched the surface of what there is to see and do in Manhattan, let alone Brooklyn or Queens, but these are the places I checked out:

Gray’s Papaya Hot Dogs

As a Chicagoan I guess you could say I hold the hot dog to a certain degree of culinary scrutiny in other cities. The concept of a tube steak adorned with tomatoes, peppers, relish, onions, mustard, a pickle and celery salt is enough to make my salivary glands flow forth with anticipation. However, as a kid who grew up in Cleveland I, also, have an appreciation for the simpler kind of dog, some mustard, sauerkraut and yes, God forbid, some ketchup, too. In this regard, Gray’s Papaya makes the best hot dog I’ve eaten since the first time I tried Ballpark Mustard at Municipal Stadium with my dad as a wide-eyed youth. Luckily, there were two right around the corner from my hotel.


Bar Boulud

Unfortunately, I didn’t have my Canon while dining at Bar Boulud, but I did have my appetite. I had been waiting to try any of Chef Daniel Boulud’s creations, or a dish created by a chef who worked for him, for more than two years now. Finally, I was given the chance. It was perfect. The boudin blanc I ate there, coupled with the 2006 Coudoulet de Beaucastel I ordered with my appetizer of Oysters, was absolutely ridiculous. The only problem being, with this dish, that it made me hungry for a dish from Daniel. I fear it was only the beginning of a love affair with Boulud’s food.

Bar Americain

I am actually, and surprisingly, a big fan of Bobby Flay. I’ve been a fan, in fact, since I saw his show Boy Meets Grill on the Food Network back in college. The ginger chef with a hot wife and an affinity for chipotles and cilantro was one of the few things worth watching back then, let alone now, on the channel and, hell, he even cooked some kick ass food, on a Manhattan roof top no less. The lamb shanks I ordered were good. They weren’t the best pieces of red meat I’ve ever imbibed, but they were definitely better than any calorie and cholesterol explosion from Outback Steakhouse or similar. The beer selection was pretty cool, a good selection without a lot of the pretention you can get (I understand you have Rogue Dead Guy Ale, guess what, so does every other shit-hole bar on the planet). There was one surprisingly good offering that I went for, myself being on a budget, and it was the french fries. Sweet jesus they were good. I know, its hard to fuck up a fry and most, if not all, fine dining establishments make some really good french fries, but these were amazing.

Spotted Pig

I had really high hopes for this place. Located in the middle of the Village, right down the street from where Friends the TV show was set, it has the perfect location. To set the mood even more, picture a colder, rainy evening in the Village, a Thursday, with Autumn right around the corner. Feeling a little sick to my stomach from what I really hope wasn’t Bobby’s lamb shanks (but it might have been, that’s another story) I stepped into this place at what seemed to be fairy tale-caliber perfect timing as they were just about to begin seating customers. The ambience was relaxing, the perfect place for that first, second or third date, when you know you’re ready to sleep with the person you’ve started seeing. I ordered some house-made olives and roasted almonds to start out. Olives are one of my favorite foods and these were right up there with some of the best imports from Spain and Italy I’ve had.

I, also, ordered the skirt steak with horseradish and beets. It was melt in your mouth good and, for anyone who has tried to cook skirt steak at home, this is not easily accomplished, especially such a small cut of it. What made it even more fun was the fact that chef April Bloomfield was in the house, which was cool.


Sake Bar Hagi

I heard of this place from Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. I like sake and love tempura so this seemed like a good choice for a late night snack and some alcohol. It was a cool place, underground and hidden from plain sight. The weird thing being, though, that it was right in the middle of everything. An almost literal stone’s throw from Time’s Square, I would have assumed it would be filled with tourists and crying babies however, fortunately for myself, it wasn’t. As a matter of fact I would say that the clientele were young, under 35, and a nice mixture of young Japanese business men, travelers, locals and hipsters. The sake selection was alright, the food was great and inexpensive and the atmosphere… well, I think that’s probably this places’ greatest asset. And there is nothing wrong with that.


And some random pictures:










This pretty much sums up Times Square.







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As an American in his mid-twenties, I grew up in a time when soccer, especially youth soccer, was just as viable of a choice as playing baseball or football. Barring the usual comments of “soccer isn’t as physical as football” and “its a wuss’ sport”, it really was no different in the eyes of, say, someone like my father, who didn’t really get the sport, and, even though he’s a 2nd generation Romanian immigrant, frequently called it an immigrant’s game. Soccer has slowly become a popular sport to play and, now, a sport to watch here in the US.

While soccer will probably never reach the status of the NFL, MLB or the NBA it still has a place in our country. It really shouldn’t come as a big surprise to anyone that soccer has increased in popularity since the early nineties, when the MLS was founded and the US hosted the World Cup. As the world slowly shrinks thanks to the Internet, more accessible cable television, etc. it makes it much easier to learn about different cultures and their sports. As a teenager, playing soccer in high school, had I had more access to international games from Fox Soccer Channel, ESPN and online portals such as Ustream and ESPN3 I feel like not only would it have made me a better player, but I would have had more of interest in it as a culture, not just as a sport.

Compared to the NASL from the seventies, and the MISL in the eighties and nineties, the MLS seems like the best chance soccer has had in America so far. This may be because of the people in charge, who aren’t looking for a quick phenomenon like the Cosmos, but building a tradition, a culture, like the rest of the world. As the US Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati has put it:

The MLS is not trying to be baseball. It’s not trying to be the NFL. These are both sports with major history behind them. My favourite catchphrase when people ask me how long it will take for soccer and the MLS to prosper is simple, tradition takes time. We don’t expect a single event and the viewing figures to change the landscape of our game overnight, but the sport has been on a pretty upward trend for a while now. The difference between 1994 when the US hosted the World Cup and now is that we have a sixteen team league, ten soccer specific stadiums, soccer on TV and players who the public know about.”


With the arrival of David Beckham in LA in 2007, even though his time there has been short (I can’t really blame him), and now Thierry Henry in New York, Soccer should have an even better chance of gaining national attention and, hopefully, creating a sustaining culture in the decades to come. Also, with these aging players coming from Europe to extend their careers and get a little more playing time, perhaps the MLS can find its niche in the global Soccer arena as a place for players, like Henry or Beckham to, to do so. If that is the case, maybe we’ll see Van Bommel, Juninho or Del Piero stateside at some point?

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Romania



As an American from Romanian descent, and having a Romanian last name, I get a bit frustrated with the way my great grandparents’ home country is represented in the media. Especially after I watch the Romanian episode of No Reservations, where one of my heros, Anthony Bourdain, traipses through the country with Russian stereotype Zamir and depicts the place as a backwards, down-trodden Dracula theme park with no culinary history.

Can I blame Anthony Bourdain and the crew of No Reservations for making a show like this? The answer is an unwavering “No”. After reading his subsequent blog entry about the episode, one can take away that they weren’t trying to make a show like this and they weren’t trying to paint Romania in a bad light, that’s just what happened, much like the episode in Sicily. However, I can say that the way the show was edited made it seem that, much like every other representation of Romania in the English speaking media, Bourdain and Co. didn’t want to, or try to, show any of Romania’s good points, of which it has quite a few. In my opinion, it was just another biased joke at an entire nations expense.

Either way, this isn’t an essay dedicated to bashing one of my literary, travel and culinary idols. I’m merely stating that Romania gets an unfair depiction in contemporary media. To quote John Peterson, from the Romanian Times:

“My feeling was (and still is) that Romania is a great “undiscovered” place to go, that it has lots to see and wonderful out-of-door venues.”

“What impressed me most was that Romania ‘fits together’. It is a culture and has a sense of place, with great landscape as a setting.”

“It is not a plastic tourist attraction, but a living, breathing neighborhood that is fascinating to engage, see and enjoy.”

In terms of culinary heritage, while nowhere near some of its neighboring nations, Romania has made some contributions. Being on the most eastern borders of the Roman Empire, many different cultures passed through the area now know as Romania and all left something different behind. One site that has showcased, perhaps better than I could, is The Culinary Anthropologist. Check it out here.

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Photos

Like I said, between work and the World Cup I don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to this blog, and my other two, but here are two random pictures that are pretty cool, to me at least.

I’ve been trying for a weeks to achieve the level of frothiness on my Greek coffee that I’ve seen others accomplish. This is definitely a step in the right direction.

Also, I’ve acquired a hand-cranked, burr grinder for grinding my own coffee into powder. Definitely worth it. I buy my coffee at the Coffee and Tea Exchange here in Chicago, which is a great place for spices, tea and a great variety of coffees.

I, also, have recently purchased a signed copy of Medium Raw. I’m huge Bourdain fan and I liked A Cook’s Tour and Kitchen Confidential, so this should be a good read. Plus, its signed, so that’s cool by itself.

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Rick Steves’



Rick Steves’ travel philosophy and television show are somewhat of a double edged sword. On one hand, he has some great quotes about travel, such as,

We can travel in a way that exacerbates the problems between us and the rest of the world, or in a way that connects us with the rest of the world. I do not want to encourage and enable Americans to travel in a way that makes the problem worse, and a lot of people do travel in a way that makes the problem worse. My travelers, I think — I’d like to think — travel in a way that connects them with the rest of the world and when they come home they are changed Americans. They are more likely to understand what the family of nations is all about.”

However, on the other, he seems to lie in some grey area when it comes to the difference of being a tourist or being a traveller.

His show is informative, interesting, well shot and paced. His guides are the same, and he’s been writing them for decades.

Steves actually started out, I like to assume, as probably an ex-yippy of sorts. He opened a piano/travel shop where he sold his self-published travel guide, Europe Through Backdoor, and taught piano lessons. His travel guide sold so well that he began giving guided tours of Europe and, eventually, producing his television show for PBS. The first episode of which he gave to them for free, cool.

This man loves to travel, and he clearly hates tourism as much as I do. However, and this is personal opinion, his shows’ content sometimes crosses the very line that he drew between travel and tourism. I am in no way insinuating that he and his television program are advocating being a tourist, but they do have an air of catering more to adventure-fearing yuppies.

Its still a great show, though. All episodes are currently on Hulu for your viewing pleasure.

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MOJO HD is like the Arrested Development of TV Channels, it might not have had a huge audience, but it made up for it with having kick ass content and, in the end, it was cancelled way too soon. An entire channel devoted to drinking, eating, cooking and travelling that wasn’t successful? Had to be an advertising problem…

Here are some of the shows they offered:


Three Sheets. This show was the first one I discovered from Mojo on Hulu. I watched all three seasons (at the time, all four are now on Hulu) in the matter of a couple weeks. Its the perfect job. Why? Because, unlike a lot of travelling chefs and other tv personalities, host Zane Lamprey auditioned for the role and won it, simply put. Zane is hilarious and genuinely likes what he’s doing and actually consumes alcohol, a lot. Its right up my alley.


After Hours With Daniel. A TV show about small parties after midnight. In some of the best restaurants New York has to offer. Hosted by awesome chef/restauranteur Daniel Boulud and guest starring new chefs every episode. How can this show not be good?


Pressure Cook. This show is a bit gimmicky, following chef and Italian-American stereotype Ralph Pagano as he travels to different parts of the world and “works” his way back home in different food jobs. It gets better after the first few episodes.


Beer Nutz. As a long time homebrewer, I’m a bit hesitant to call this show “good”. Its in no way unwatchable, its just clear that this particular show was produced and hosted by people who know almost nothing about beer and it brings the show down, way down, for people who know anything more than a little bit about beer.

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