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Tasting Taichung’s Most Expensive Donut

Mmm…donuts (drooling sound)”
-Homer J. Simpson

Donuts are not something I write about often, mostly because I rarely eat them. I indulge in sweets and junk food, but it’s limited–most of the food I ingest is healthy. I will, however, make exceptions for certain unhealthy delicacies.

When I was in Boston, I specifically went to jm Curley’s for the foie gras glazed jelly donut, which was served on a pedestal. I wasn’t hungry for dessert, but I just couldn’t pass it up, even if it was $6.

boston donut

My donut was served on a freaking pedestal

And when Voodoo Doughnut opened a location in Taipei, I was excited. I went there a few times to introduce friends to the crazy American donuts. Of course, that didn’t last long as Voodoo Doughnut shut down its only shop in Taiwan after about a year. But I still managed to try their signature voodoo doughnut and their 101 cream (it was probably just a renamed donut for the Taiwan market).

Search for food in Taichung

I attempted to plan my trip to Taichung a little better than I had planned some other trips. I used some Google skills to look for restaurant recommendations–I wanted to find something special and I didn’t care about the price. Unfortunately, most bloggers in Taiwan focus on street food or types of food that I have no interest in trying again. After tasting the recommended street food in Tainan, I was skeptical of those writers’ taste buds.

CJSJ

This might’ve been a better choice to order

And then there’s TripAdvisor. It sucks in Taiwan. No, it’s worse than that. If you search for best restaurants in Taipei, about five of the top ten are Indian restaurants owned by the same people and Din Tai Fung shows up at least twice. There’s definitely more variety than that.

Everything I found that was interesting was non-Taiwanese cuisine, and most of the restaurants were far from where I’d be. Considering the heat while I was in Taichung, and the amount of time spent sweating outside, I think it was a good decision to skip the added travel time for those restaurants.

I was, however, convinced to make a trip to a dessert shop in the city. At first I blew off the recommendation, but I agreed to go after hearing more about CJSJ.

Best chocolate in town

CJSJ, as I was told, was started by French Michelin star pastry chef Soriano Joaquin. This little shop opens at 11 am and has a line down the street before it opens. And everything seems to sell out quickly.CJSJ Taichung

By the time my travel companion and I made it to CJSJ in the afternoon before heading back to Taipei, there was no line and almost nothing left in the pastry case. At least we didn’t have to wait long for a seat upstairs with a wonderful view of the Calligraphy Greenway across the street.

CJSJ taichung

Dining area on the third floor

The shop is known for it’s small chocolate buttons, which cost NT$75 each (little more than $2). They are beautiful to look at–works of art in a tiny piece of chocolate. It’s a hard outer shell with flavored liquid chocolate inside. I wasn’t interested in these, but after trying one I was tempted to get more (my wallet said otherwise).

CJSJ chocolate

Mmm…chocolate

I ended up ordering a cake-like thing that reminded me of a circus. It was actually a bit bland, though the jam inside was terrific (if only there were more of that to go with the dry cake).

CJSJ donut

Mmm…overpriced donut

And, finally, my companion and I split a donut. At NT$175, it was comparable in price to that delicious donut I ordered in Boston; therefore, I had to compare the quality as well. I was disappointed that there was not special presentation like I had in Boston.

CJSJ taichung

CJSJ kitchen on the second floor

There are two things that make this donut worthwhile–the chocolate and the gold flakes. The chocolate is the same as those buttons I mentioned–hard shell and near-liquid inside. The gold flakes just make it sparkle, so you can show off to your friends with it the same way you did when you drank Goldschläger before you could legally drink.

Just like the carnival cake I had, the bread portion of the donut was dry and bland. We really only paid to eat the chocolate anyway.CJSJ pastries

On a side note, the chocolates as well as the donut should not be cut when shared. It just makes a mess.

I would still recommend going to CJSJ if you’re in Taichung, but definitely get there earlier than I did. I’m sure there are much better pastries and chocolates that get sold out regularly. Also, don’t expect a great cup of coffee despite the price, but I needed something to balance out all that sugar I consumed.

Eating through Vientiane

You see statues everywhere to politicians, poets, bishops, but none to cooks or bacon-curers or market gardeners.”
– George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

During my week-long stay in Laos, I was determined to eat as much as possible–I knew little about Laotian food and wanted to taste what the country had to offer. I had heard from friends who had visited years before that some of the food was closer to Thai than Cambodian; either way, I knew I’d enjoy it.

There were some websites that recommended certain local dishes, but it was more difficult to find any that recommended restaurants. As an underdeveloped country in Southeast Asia, I figured Laos was better for street food anyway. And for the most part, I was right.

vientiane restaurant

I eat at the finest restaurants

Searching for Food in Vientiane

The first thing I noticed about Vientiane was that there were a lot of pizza places. I mean there were a lot. Could it be that Laotians like pizza or that there are that many expats in desperate need of a pizza fix? After all the mediocre pizza I’ve tried around Asia, I wasn’t about to try out any of what was on offer in Laos–I wanted the foods I couldn’t get in Taipei (or back home).

Of course, after my journey to get to Laos with my layover in Bangkok, my first stop was a coffee shop. I asked reception at Riverside Palace Hotel for the nearest coffee shop and was directed to what sounded like a long walk in the midday heat. I headed in that direction and found a closer chain coffee shop called Café Sinouk.

Chao Anouvong statue

Chao Anouvong, the last monarch of Laos, near the night market on the Mekong River

Café Sinouk has some decent coffee, and I bought some to bring back to Taipei. It was, however, much more expensive than I expected. I usually bought coffee cheaper at take-away places in Taipei. But I was desperate and wanted my coffee before wandering around to see the sights on my first half-day.

Going in search of food in the early afternoon is not the best idea. Most restaurants are closed post-lunch and even street vendors don’t have much. I was fortunate enough to find a little outdoor restaurant near my hotel–I ordered a light meal of crispy noodles, vegetables, and chicken. It wasn’t anything special, but was good enough to get me out for my long walk to Patuxai. That was probably the worst meal I had in Laos, and it was still pretty good.

Lao food

First meal in Vientiane. Not the best, but still good

Later in the day I found myself still hungry and came across a street vendor cooking food I didn’t recognize. After some research, I think this is khao nom kok, a dessert made from coconut milk and filled with scallions and sometimes meat. It’s basically halved coconut dumpling made on a griddle with the scallions and meat (or possibly other stuff) added in between. It was a little sweet and salty–it was well worth the less than 50 cents I paid for two.

lao coconut dumpling

Cooking the khao nom kok

That evening I wandered around the night market, which did not have much in the way of food. I did, however, find an outdoor restaurant on the fringe of the market for a Lao black beer and a small plate of laap, one of the few dishes that I found recommended. Laap is minced meat (could be pork, water buffalo, or chicken, depending on what you order) with a lot of green vegetables and herbs.

khao nom kok laos

The finished khao nom kok

It’s a rather light and spicy meal in the heat of Laos. My version had minced chicken in it with basil leaves, chili, and scallions. The sweetness of the basil matches well with the sharp, spicy chili. There were cucumber slices on the side of the plate to help cool off from the spiciness.

laap lao

Laap at the night market

The next day on my bike ride around the city, I came across an outdoor organic market–I was surprised that in a developing country such as Laos that there would be a such a market for locals. Of course, I later learned that there’s a lot of organic farming around the country.

lao organic market

The organic market on the way to Pha That Long

Painful and Tasty Lao Food

The following day I found a restaurant similar to the first afternoon’s for lunch and ordered papaya salad, fried spring rolls, and a dragonfruit shake. The waiter asked if it was ok that the papaya salad was spicy, and I said sure–spicy papaya salad sounded refreshing on a hot day. I almost regretted my answer.

papaya salad laos

This papaya salad doesn’t look spicy

The papaya salad was possibly the spiciest thing I have ever eaten, and I’ve eaten a lot of spicy food. I probably would’ve stopped eating it due to the fire in my mouth, but the flavor was wonderful. I was sweating and crying from the spiciness. I couldn’t taste the spring rolls when they came out. I was thankful for the dragonfruit shake to dull the pain.

spring rolls laos

I couldn’t even taste the spring rolls. And they looked so good

Dining on the Mekong

As most of the restaurants around my hotel were of the non-Laotian variety (there were a lot of Indian restaurants), I headed for the nearby night market, which mostly sells clothes. Farther along the Mekong River I found tables and grilled food–it would’ve been a nice view if I could see out into the darkness.

mekong river restaurant

Sitting at a restaurant on the riverside

Along the riverfront I wandered past all the restaurants–for lack of a better word because they were just a large grill and plastic tables outside–and drooled over the selection. I contemplated what to eat after all the little snacks I had already eaten. I wanted to eat everything but I knew my eyes were bigger than my stomach.

grilled fish laos

Who wants some grilled fish?

I settled on grilled fish stuffed with lemongrass and coated in salt because I always enjoy a whole grilled fish. Eating along the river after sunset was the best dining experience I could’ve had–I only wish I had discovered it sooner. It was lively along the Mekong and the aroma from all the grilled food made it better.

grilled fish laos

The sauces were good too

The fish I had wasn’t particularly good–certainly not as good as the one I had on the Mekong River in Luang Prabang–but it was a worthwhile introduction to more of Laotian cuisine. I followed up my second dinner with a trip to Laodi Rhum Bar, which was a converted shipping container across the street from the grilled food vendors.

I’m sure there was more that I missed in Vientiane, but I didn’t have a lot of time in the city. On my way back through, I spent more time enjoying the New Year’s Eve festivities before returning to Taipei.

In Search of Traditional Japanese Food in Tokyo

It’s good when food tastes good, it’s kind of like proof you’re alive.
-Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

For my fourth time in Tokyo, I was determined to seek out the best Japanese food I could–I had little interest in sightseeing more. Sure, I’d visit neighborhoods and sites that I hadn’t previously been to, but food was at the top of my list.

I took a short trip to Tokyo because my friend was visiting from the US and didn’t have enough time to take a side trip to Taipei. Fortunately, during non-holiday times, there are plenty of inexpensive flights between Taoyuan and Tokyo’s two airports.

spicy ramen tokyo

What’s a stop in Tokyo without spicy ramen?

Getting acquainted with Shinagawa

Although my friend’s connection for a place to stay fell through, he managed to find a nice hostel in Shinagawa, which is just a short train ride from Haneda Airport. ARTnShelter was a convenient location for both of us, and it provided me with the opportunity to stay in a new neighborhood–it also had a bar and a small outdoor area for guests so we could run down to FamilyMart and buy beer cheaper. The only problem was that there were many desirable restaurants in the immediate area. Of course, my friend and I weren’t in the area all that much.

soba

On our first day of wandering around Shinagawa Ward, we stopped by some interesting sites along the main road as we searched for a light lunch. As I had arrived on a red-eye flight that had me sleep on the floor at Haneda until the trains started running, I was exhausted and there were no available beds yet for me (a long nap was necessary before going out for dinner).

On the walk back to ARTnShelter along Higashiōi, we found a tiny soba noodle shop–the owner spoke a little English (just enough for us to figure out what the different soba noodle soups were). It was the best choice at a reasonable price in the area. The interior did not match the restaurant, however, as the walls were made of French wine boxes.

soba noodle restaurant

The soba noodle restaurant in Shinagawa

For dinner, we met up with my other friend and my student from Solaris Space PR agency in Iidabashi.

My student suggested we try Craft Beer Server Land because she knows I like beer. The food and beer selection was good, but my friend and I were really looking to eat more traditional Japanese food. Of course, I was happy drinking the Iwate Oyster Stout; I just wanted non-bar food for dinner. So, after eating a little with our beers, we went in search of a well-known yakitori restaurant that my student had heard about.

Eating the best yakitori in Iidabashi

Shin-chan しんちゃん

Shin-chan (しんちゃん) yakitori restaurant. The back wall is full of sake bottles held for regular customers

After searching maps, we found the restaurant, which was a nondescript storefront that didn’t look appealing compared to the rest of the area. Shin-chan (しんちゃん) is a barebones establishment that has been run by the same man for a long time (I think close to 50 years), and it has a loyal customer base. More importantly, this restaurant has excellent food. It’s even been featured in a manga series about a young man being introduced to better restaurants around Tokyo (Japanese manga here).

tofu

Some sort of tofu

Unfortunately, I wasn’t thinking about photos that night and ended up with only my phone for photos at Shin-chan.

We ordered a variety of small dishes, including the best asparagus wrapped in bacon that I’ve ever had. This is a yakitori staple that I’ve had before, but this one was by far the best. The bacon was thin and cooked to the point that it was melted to the asparagus and had the consistency of melted cheese.

bacon-wrapped asparagus

bacon-wrapped asparagus is delicious

We also had plenty of more common skewers of meatballs, peppers, and quail eggs. We even started off with whelk, which was better than the ones my friend and I cooked at our table in Tokyo on my first stay in Japan. That time around the whelk was tough and bitter, but this one was more tender (it’s still a bit bitter, but it wasn’t as strong this time around).whelk

Wandering through the salaryman’s paradise

After a bit of wandering through imperial gardens and unfamiliar neighborhoods with towering new buildings, I found myself walking in the direction of another friend’s office in Shimbashi. As it was approaching dinnertime, I began checking out the little restaurants in the area–and there were tons to choose from. Of course, I had to ask in each whether staff spoke English (which I can say in Japanese) or if they have an English menu.
sashimi

After failing in a few attempts at eating in restaurants because I didn’t have a reservation, I came across 雑魚 Public Bar Zako tucked down an alley away from the busy, slightly wider alleys. While they didn’t have an English menu, the staff spoke a little English and the menu had enough Kanji characters for me to figure out some of was offered. Plus, there was a seat for me.

fish lamp

Zako had these light fixtures that were mesmerizing

I ordered their special three piece sashimi, which was sardine, yellowtail, and mackerel. Usually I’d say the yellowtail was my favorite, but the other two were delicious–the mackerel melted in my mouth; I’ve never had mackerel this good.shimbashi tuna head

This place turned out even better as my friend was able to meet me after work. Unfortunately, his wife had to work late and wasn’t able to join us. As I had one serving of sake with my light dinner, I only had to order another while I waited for my friend to come along. When he arrived we shared a grilled tuna head, which was delicious.

sake cups

I choose my sake based on how entertaining the label is

Missing out in Yanaka

We made a mistake while walking through the touristy historic streets of Yanaka. We decided to check out the Daimyo Clock Museum before lunch. By the time we wandered back to the main area, many of the restaurants were closed for their post-lunch break.

We settled on what passed for a dingy Tokyo diner for lunch mainly because there was nowhere else to go. If we had been watching the time (funny because we were in a clock museum), we would’ve rushed to find something better. Fortunately, a light lunch made it easier for us to wander around and find snacks later in the day.

yanaka sushi display

I bet this place had great sushi

I would’ve liked to try more of the traditional restaurants around Tokyo, but we didn’t have enough time. Also, I don’t have the language skills to eat at the better restaurants in Japan and my Japanese-speaking friends are not always available to go out. For subsequent visits to Japan I will have to make lists of restaurants and foods to try–while I may not be able to read Japanese, I can match characters for reference.

What are some of your favorite foods from Tokyo?

What to Eat in Bagan

I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk….food, for me, has always been an adventure.”
– Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

Myanmar isn’t known as a food destination–it’s not the reason people flock to the country as they would to Thailand or even Vietnam. But Myanmar should be on the list for travelers seeking an alternative culinary tour of Asia.

I’ll admit that I knew almost nothing about Burmese food before arriving in Myanmar. I figured with all the back-and-forth wars with Thailand that the food would be similar. The food was nothing like that, and that’s what made it amazing.

Burmese breakfast soup

Traditional breakfast soup at my Yun

The climate and availability of ingredients affects the style of food–most dishes have seasonal vegetables and light flavors to help cope with the heat. Also, as the majority of people are Buddhist, there are more vegetarian options available. The dishes I sampled were colorful and had a great mix of textures. The flavors varied a bit as well–though almost everything is a curry, there’s plenty of variety of flavor and spiciness.

vegetable curry burma

Varieties of vegetable curries, including eggplant and potato

I cannot comment on dining around other parts of Myanmar as I didn’t get to see as much of the country as I had wanted–I only had one full day in Yangon and almost got stranded in Bagan (which wasn’t such a bad thing). While in Yangon I noticed a lot of Indian and Chinese influence in the street food and restaurants, but some of that could probably be attributed to more recent economic ties. As I ate little in Yangon though, I can really only comment on the culinary delicacies that are found around Bagan. Because Bagan is such a tourist attraction, eating out isn’t as cheap as one would imagine–much like the price of hotels in Myanmar, dining costs tend to be inflated. Of course, there are still some cheap food options, particularly around Nyaung U where more of the backpacker hostels are located.

fish curry burma

Fish curry

Had I not been budgeting to avoid getting stranded in Myanmar, I would have tried more food–I was constantly tempted to order more. Most restaurants in New Bagan have set menus–you can choose a main course that comes with a few small side dishes that are mostly vegetable curries. At only around $7, the set menus were my best option for a filling meal after a day of biking.

Of course, I saved money with my hotel breakfasts, much of which wasn’t local cuisine, that allowed me to snag some fruit and bread to take along as snacks throughout the day. In the middle of the pagodas around Bagan, there aren’t many food vendors (yet), though I was offered to eat with a family cooking on an open fire as I started one of my bike rides around the area.

Myanmar dinner

How much food did I order?

On my first evening before passing out for the night, I searched nearby my hotel, Shwe Poe Eain, but there wasn’t much nearby. I also wasn’t willing to walk too far along unlit streets–I wasn’t sure about safety and nighttime wildlife at the time. I also had no local currency and prices were inflated if paying with US dollars. Fortunately, a nearby restaurant was willing to serve me despite the owner’s proclamation that it was closing time (he said they still had enough food and I could be the last customer for the day). I was served a small curry dish with fish and five vegetable side dishes. The vegetables were the best part of the meal–the variety of textures and flavors were delightful. If this was my introduction to the local cuisine, I was sold.

On the day I chose to just walk along the dirt roads through New Bagan, I chose to eat at Shwe Ou (there are multiple restaurants with the same name). It’s a simple restaurant along Kayay St. I chose this one because the restaurant that the front desk staff at Arthawka Hotel suggested was packed with noisy people from tour buses. Shwe Ou was quiet and I was the only hungry customer.

Shwe Ou

Welcome to Shwe Ou in New Bagan

I ordered two light meals–hsi gje khau hswe and Myanmar crispy bean salad. The former was a cold noodle dish with garlic oil and shredded chicken, while the latter had large fried beans, sesame paste, shallots, and cabbage. Both were delicious and refreshing for the hot, dry afternoon. The garlic in the chicken dish livened up what would otherwise be a boring dish of protein and carbs. The salad was the more impressive of the dishes as it had a great combination of crispy, sweet, and salty.

Shwe Ou food

Crispy bean salad wish noodles and shredded chicken behind

My Czech biking partner, whom I met while semi-lost on a dirt road, introduced me to the joys of dining in the open market just outside the ancient city wall of Bagan on the way to Nyaung U. She suggested a place that had been recommended by fellow travelers and guidebooks–The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant (also known as Be Kind to Animals). There are other restaurants in the area that use similar names, but this one is the original.The Moon sign

As a highly recommended restaurant at a reasonable price, The Moon is popular and can get crowded during peak tourist season. More than just the food draws customers to this restaurant–it’s one of the few restaurants that has a focus on decor; it’s quaint, airy, and colorful. This is also where I purchased a huge bag of tamarind flakes (an after-meal candy served everywhere that Burmese say aids digestion).

The Moon food

Spicy noodle stew at The Moon

The Moon was such a good restaurant that when I ran into Klara while riding around again, we stopped off for another meal. Getting there in the evening might have been more difficult with unmarked dirt roads and few streetlights.

The Moon Bagan

Inviting ambiance of The Moon

One of the more interesting meals I found was Irrawaddy River prawns in curry (which, of course, came with some little vegetable side dishes). I wasn’t sure what I expected from the prawns, but they were the biggest prawns I’ve ever had (I have since seen larger ones from Penghu at my local market in Taipei, and they sell for about US$40 for three). The three enormous prawns in curry were enough for a meal and the spicy curry made them that much more delicious.

Irrawaddy River prawns

Irrawaddy River prawns

The best meal I had was my final evening in New Bagan, when I knew I had enough money to splurge on a decent meal. I had seen signs for 7 Sisters and had even seen it mentioned on travel sites (though I never read any reviews of it).

The atmosphere of the restaurant certainly exceeded my expectations. Rather than the simple layout of most restaurants in town, this one was elegant–a high ceiling, open wall pavilion decorated in the local style. More surprising was that it wasn’t much more expensive than the cheap restaurants I had been dining at–my higher bill was mostly because I ordered twice as much food as usual. The waitress even warned me about ordering more; I’m glad I listened. My only complaint is that the restaurant is dark for dinner–it’s hard to even see what you’re eating, let alone take a photo to share with readers.

7 Sisters dinner

My main course at 7 Sisters, with the remains of the vegetable tempura

As a starter, I ordered fried vegetables–it was more like a vegetable tempura, but the plate was piled high. I was only able to eat half of it. My main course was a difficult choice with so many delicious-sounding foods on the menu, but I settled on a squid curry stew, which was plenty to each especially after that heaping plate of vegetable tempura.

I would have stayed out for dessert, but I had stuffed myself to the point of no return. The walk back to my hotel at least provided enough space for me to enjoy one last beer before sleeping on my final evening in Bagan.

A Different View of Hong Kong

In Hong Kong you don’t take the tour bus to find good food. You don’t need to know where you’re going; you just press start.
-Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations

I planned this trip to be different in some ways. Hong Kong is still a familiar city to me, despite aesthetic changes over the years between my visits. On this short journey through Asia’s premier international city I experienced the familiar and the new.

Star Ferry

Familiar Star Ferry in Kowloon

Months ago my friend in Hanoi asked if I could meet her in Hong Kong–it would be her first time there and she knew that it wasn’t far from Taipei. I took this as an opportunity to not only see my friend but also as an excuse to return to a city I hadn’t seen in over seven years. Unfortunately, problems with my friend’s visa prevented her from traveling–it meant that I had to quickly come up with new plans for sightseeing in Hong Kong.Star Ferry View

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I escaped to Hong Kong often while I lived in Shenzhen–it was a mental rejuvenation trip of sorts to run from the chaotic mainland city to a more westernized city just a short distance away. As I didn’t have much money back then, I opted for cheaper meals and wandering through the streets of Central for most of those trips. I could only dream about fine dining in Hong Kong while earning a little more than $1,000 per month across the border.

Hong Kong Convention Centre

Hong Kong Convention Centre

This time around I had a healthy bank balance thanks to the relatively low cost of living in Taipei. I didn’t have to worry about budgeting as much (although I still thought about the cost of a lot of things because Hong Kong can be very expensive).

Despite not being able to see my friend from Vietnam, I was able to see a couple friends from New York who have been living in Hong Kong for about six years. I was also surprised to find a friend from Taipei was traveling around at the same time. I had a full day planned just to see my friends.

Hiking across Lamma Island

Lamma Island

Lamma Island

On the first day I met up with my Taipei friend and headed to Lamma Island on the ferry.

Sok Kwu Wan

Sok Kwu Wan, Lamma Island

The weather was nice as we arrived and we began hiking from Sok Kwu Wan Pier to Yung Shue Wan on the other side. We began our hike in the wrong direction–a matter that I noticed after checking my offline map with GPS after 15 minutes of walking. It turned out to be perfect timing for misdirection as a thunderstorm rolled in as we reached the line of restaurants on the water. We decided to sit down at LoSo Kitchen and have a local Hong Kong beer (one amber and one pale ale) while waiting out the storm.

hong kong beer

Hong Kong amber

The rain dissipated as we finished our beer and we decided to brave the uncertain weather for the hike–the woman running the restaurant said it was only an hour hike rather than the two hours I was previously told.

Lamma Island

Power plant near the beach at Lamma Island

It was an easy hike across Lamma Island–there was only one five-way intersection at which we were pointed in the wrong direction (along with four other tourists). Other than a few scenic spots, there’s not much to see along the trail. And the town around Yung Shue Wan was busy and foreigner-friendly (i.e., more western-style bars and restaurants). Rather than hang around for another drink or a light meal, we headed back to Kowloon to refresh ourselves for our respective evenings.Hong Kong night

Drinks, dinner, and comedy in Wanchai

Nearing dinner time, I headed out of my hotel, which was not the hotel I had thought it was. I thought I had stayed at a hotel called Evergreen the last few times I was in Hong Kong, so that’s what I booked. This was not the same hotel. Fortunately, it was decent for the price and location (next time I might stay farther outside Kowloon/Central).

I met m friends in Wanchai at The Optimist for happy hour drinks. For such an expensive city, Hong Kong has some great happy hour deals. There isn’t a set discount, but Optimist has a tiered menu of inexpensive drinks, like a bramble or margarita for HK$48 (about US$6). The atmosphere of the bar was lively and it got crowded just before my friends arrived–like so many newer bars and restaurants in Asia, it looked like all the other trendy joints in Manhattan or Brooklyn. We only stayed for a drink before heading to the 30th floor for Italian food at Pirata.

bramble cocktail

Bramble at The Optimist

This was better than the Italian food I had with my uncle years ago. It was so good I forgot to take any photos (also the restaurant was dark, which would’ve made it difficult). I was told that Pirata is owned by the same group that owns Optimist, which explains the decor. Unfortunately, we were not seated near the window for views of the city.

After dinner we headed to another bar for a comedy show featuring British comic Stephen K. Amos, who was quite entertaining. Certainly not an experience I had expected when I first planned the trip. The opening act was a Scottish comedian who spoke quickly with a thick accent, making it difficult to understand much of the act. It reminded me of the guy from Glasgow I met in Edinburgh years ago (I have no idea what that guy said).

Wandering around Stanley

Stanley Hong Kong

Stanley, Hong Kong

On the second full day, I headed to Stanley on the south side of Hong Kong Island. I had heard it was a nice area, but had never been there. I decided it was a better choice than attempting a hike of Dragon’s Back trail with potentially rainy weather. It was a long bus ride from Kowloon to Stanley, but the views from the winding roads in the hills of Hong Kong Island made it more worthwhile. Once I arrived, I didn’t know where to walk or what to see–I just wandered.Stanley Hong Kong

The street market was nice to walk through if I had been interested in buying souvenirs, and it led to the coast with rocks against the waves. From there I took the coastal walkway to Stanley Market and its more popular shops and restaurants as I searched for lunch.

smoked duck salad

Hami melon salad with smoked duck

That’s when I found Pinot Duck. It wasn’t nearly as crowded as the other restaurants in the area and the prices looked reasonable, plus I love duck. I ended up ordering Xinjiang hami melon salad with jasmine tea smoked duck. I was tempted to order more, but I decided it would be better to have something light and then go out again later. The hami melon was sweet to complement the savory flavor of the duck. There was also a slight citrus flavor to the salad dressing that held the opposing flavors together. After looking at what other customers ordered, I was tempted to eat more.

Instead of eating more, I wandered the streets some more and ended up at the Hong Kong Museum of Correctional Services. As it was free, I decided to take in the air conditioning for a bit. While not the most interesting museum, it did have quite a bit about Vietnamese refugees in the early 1990s.

streetcar Hong Kong

View from the streetcar

Back to Wanchai for drinks

On my ride back to Central Hong Kong, I decided to stop in Wanchai to search for some dinner and nightlife. I got off at the wrong stop from where I wanted to be, but ended up with a cheap happy hour of rum cocktails Rummin’ Tings. With the magic of Wi-Fi, I was able to locate the beer bar I had wanted to try, a bit farther away–I was told to take the streetcar (another first for me in the city and a cheap choice for transportation). Fortunately, The Roundhouse – Chicken + Beer (there are two) was not far from the stop as it started raining again.

Roundhouse Hong Kong

The Roundhouse

Roundhouse has a great selection of craft beer, both imported and domestic. Of course, I went with the domestic beer because craft beer in Hong Kong didn’t exist last time I was there. I tried Young Master Brewery’s Mandarin Citrus IPA and Kowloon Bay Brewery Nut Brown Ale and Imperial Stout. Neither Kowloon Bay beer was particularly good–the imperial stout tasted too light for such a strong beer and nut brown was alright, but lacked a bit of punch. The citrus IPA was a much better choice–it was a double IPA with more flavor, but it was still light enough match the day’s humidity.

Young Master Citrus IPA

Young Master Citrus IPA

I ended my trip with a ride back to Kowloon on the Star Ferry from Wanchai. As I stared at the lights of the city, I wondered how much more there was that I could enjoy in Hong Kong–the sights and sounds that I hadn’t previously experienced. As I have friends there, and it’s an inexpensive flight from Taipei, I will likely return to discover those new places, or just the ones that went unnoticed before.Hong Kong night

Have you returned to a place that was familiar just to seek out new experiences? How was it?

Eating Cheap in Singapore

All the stories I had read about Singapore had to do with food. Life there revolves around eating (or maybe it revolves around business, but that’s not exactly what I’m interested in). I’ve been to Malaysia and Indonesia, so I knew some of what to expect on this trip–the flavors of curry, coconut, and lemongrass, mixed with the spices of the Asian subcontinent and international influence.

I planned on eating my way through Singapore, though the plan was to eat on the cheap because I didn’t want to spend money I wasn’t making. It’s an expensive place to visit and live, but the food in working-class establishments is affordable, which suited me just fine.

Nasi Goreng Kampong

Nasi Goreng Kampong

Not the variety I had hoped for around my hostel

As I arrived late in the day, I wanted to grab a quick bite to eat and get some sleep to enjoy the cooler morning for sightseeing. There wasn’t much near Pine Hostel–I wandered around and saw mostly Chinese food at rundown open air restaurants. After all my years in China and my most recent stint in Taiwan, I wasn’t interested in Chinese food (though it looked to be spicier and more interesting than the variety I get in Taiwan). I settled on an outdoor food court because I was too tired to walk farther–I ordered Thai food that was pretty good considering the mediocre Thai-style dishes I’ve tried in Taipei. It even came with the stall owner sharing a beer with me–he was happy to know I enjoyed my $3 meal.

Maggi Goreng

Maggi goreng

Taking in the Indian flavors of Singapore

After a long day of wandering around the city, which involved walking much farther than I had expected, I ended up in Little India. It wasn’t far from my hostel, which made it convenient for dinner, also I hadn’t had Indian food in a long time. As I was tired and didn’t feel like eating in a more crowded restaurant, I found what was probably one of the dirtier restaurants in Singapore–the food was all pre-made to choose from (not that I knew what anything was). I ordered a plate full of whatever the server recommended (I never know what to order at Indian restaurants, so that seemed like the best route) and a beer.

Dinner in Little India

Dinner in Little India

After finishing my meal and relaxing with my beer, I began talking with people at the table next to me and I was invited to join. I met a few young Singaporean journalists who knew there was no money in journalism but still wanted to enter the world of media.

They ordered more food and beer to share and we split the bill in the end. Somehow I paid less than my original meal and beer should have cost. There may have been a discount to the meal as well because one of the guys eating with us was the owner of the restaurant (a young “retired” lawyer who decided he’d rather have a small restaurant).

Remains of our feast in Little India

Remains of our feast in Little India

Singapore’s hawker stalls!

On another day I took the advice of my friend Tom and headed to Old Airport Road Food Centre and Shopping Mall. There’s a great variety of food in this food court. Unfortunately, because I was there for Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral, many of the food stalls were closed. Still, I managed to find my fill of laksa (quite possibly my favorite food from the region). I also tried the maggi goreng, which is a spicy fried noodle dish with vegetables–it wasn’t overly spicy, but it did build on my tongue as I ate.

Food court at Old Airport Road

Food court at Old Airport Road

Although I had enough for lunch, I still had a small bite at this Indian stall on the end (there were no other food stalls open near this one). I had never tried dosai, but for less than S$2, I was willing to give it a go. It’s more of less an empty crepe with some sauce to dip it in.

Dosai

Dosai

I also got to enjoy kopi-o halia (coffee with ginger without milk) for S$1. I’ve never had coffee with ginger before, and it certainly took a little getting used to, but I was tempted to order more after finishing my cup. If it wasn’t so hot in Singapore, I probably would’ve ordered another.

Laksa

Laksa

Mall food courts aren’t all bad

On my last day in Singapore, after wandering the streets for hours just admiring the city, I ended up at a mall food court along Orchard Road. That’s where I found a delicious dish of sambal stingray. It wasn’t like the grilled banana leaf stingray I had years earlier in Penang, but it was still great. It was spicy, and the stingray flesh is meatier than most fish (the bones are also rather large). It was more food than I needed after exhausting myself in the midday heat, but it was also a delicious send-off to Singapore.

sambal stingray

Sambal stingray, and it was spicy

I was disappointed that I didn’t come across a restaurant that had chili crab (I must’ve been looking in the wrong places). But it’s just one more reason to head back to Singapore.

What are some of  your favorite foods in Singapore? What should I eat when I return?

Rum Tasting in Siem Reap

“And together we’re so drunk
We’re making sense. Little
By little, with rum the color
Of a woman’s arm, we’re seeing things—”
Gary Soto, The Jungle Café

On New Year’s Eve, my final evening in Siem Reap before taking the boat to Phnom Penh, I wandered around Pub Street awaiting the celebration. I was exhausted from my 40-mile bike ride around Angkor Wat and in a bit of pain after the Khmer massage that felt more like a $4 muscle-twisting torture session. The heat hadn’t subsided as I walked through the streets in search of dinner, which added to my exhaustion. I was so tired, I don’t even remember what I had for dinner that night.

As it was still too early for the New Year’s revelers to crowd into Pub Street in preparation for performances, fireworks, and who-knows-what-else, I wandered out across the Siem Reap River. It would be my last opportunity to see what this Cambodia tourist city had to offer.

Pub Street ready for New Year's Eve festivities

Pub Street ready for New Year’s Eve festivities

I headed into the Siem Reap Art Center and browsed the stalls filled with tourist souvenirs and local crafts, most of which I couldn’t purchase because I was constantly moving. As I contemplated the souvenirs and food and drinks nearby, I noticed a stall full of liquor. I was invited in to try samples of Georges Rhum Arrangé, rums infused with local flavors; they had 10 flavors in all. These rums were infused to the point that it was unrecognizable as rum to people used to the likes of Captain Morgan and Bacardi. It was nothing like the Abuelo rum I bought in Panama.georges rhum arrange

The first I had was cinnamon, which was strong. I like cinnamon, so this was a good drink for me–it would be great in a dark & stormy. I didn’t enjoy the mango flavor as much because the fruit overpowered the rum, but I could see its usefulness in cocktails.

georges rhum

Georges’ son gave me more than enough samples

After tasting a few of the flavors, I was convinced to go visit his father at Georges Rhumerie Restaurant, which had only been open for two months. They even paid for my tuk-tuk to the restaurant, which was down some dark streets (definitely not the place to walk, even if it wasn’t that far). When I arrived, I met three people, two of whom were the owner and an employee.

Georges Rhumerie Restaurant

Georges Restaurant

Despite being full from dinner, I ordered a light appetizer to go with a little more of the rum–the samoussa (samosa) platter sounded like the best option. It was tasty, filled with tuna and came with a sweet and spicy sauce. The menu is full of a fusion of French and Cambodian cuisine–Georges is from Madagascar and moved to Cambodia by way of Reunion Island, where his son is from.

A delicious snack while drinking more rum

A delicious snack while drinking more rum

While I waited for the samosas, I ordered the coffee rum for $2–I always have to try the coffee-flavored varieties of anything. Before departing in search of New Year’s festivities, I ordered the vanilla rum. It was a more complex flavor than the other rums as it included more than just one flavor. There was orange peel, lemongrass, anise, and cloves, and the flavors all stood out with each sip.

If you’re in Siem Reap, I recommend visiting Georges Rhumerie Restaurant for a bite to eat and a sip of local rhum arrangé.

A Very Taipei Thanksgiving

“Turkey: A large bird whose flesh, when eaten on certain religious anniversaries has the peculiar property of attesting piety and gratitude.”
– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

I’m fortunate to have a few friends here in Taipei. Some of them were able to join me for my birthday last week. And my two American friends joined me for Thanksgiving dinner in Zhongshan (we didn’t go back to Dream of Hobbiton though).

Interesting benches outside this dog-friendly restaurant

Interesting benches outside this dog-friendly restaurant

The original plan was to have a fancy roast duck dinner. Unfortunately, the restaurant I found wasn’t quite what we wanted (it was also a bit overpriced). Instead, we decided to try a Dongbei restaurant (for those who don’t know, that’s northeastern Chinese cuisine) called 東北軒酸菜白肉鍋 at 79 Chongchun Rd. All three of us had previously lived in mainland China and love the Dongbei food. I was a bit disappointed to not get my roast duck, but everything else was great.

The staff at the restaurant was friendly, and even waived the corking fee for our wine so we could celebrate more.thanksgiving-friends

We contemplated going out after dinner to find some small restaurant for the duck, but decided that we had enough. We ordered 水煮鱼 (a spicy fish stew), garlic eggplant, 鱼香肉丝 (fish fragrance shredded pork, which the staff mentioned did not actually contain any fish), and spicy cabbage.garlic-eggplant

While all this food wasn’t really what we were used to in mainland China, we still enjoyed what we ordered. Of course, it didn’t quite matter what we ordered as we enjoyed sharing our stories of life in the mainland and circumstances that brought us to this island that’s China but not China.thanksgiving-fish

As we finished dinner and the restaurant was closing at 10pm, the staff wished us a happy Thanksgiving (I’m still not sure what the Chinese word for Thanksgiving is, but I’ve always been partial to using 火鸡节 (fire chicken festival)). Rather than head home after dinner, we stopped in Family Mart for some beer to drink in Linsen Park before catching the last MRT home.

Despite the lack of turkey, or in my case duck that I was so looking forward to eating, Thanksgiving had a wonderful Taiwanese atmosphere that I’m happy to have shared with my friends.

Another Birthday Abroad

“We all have our time machines, don’t we. Those that take us back are memories… And those that carry us forward, are dreams.”
-H.G. Wells, from The Time Machine

I’ve come up with a theory that birthdays while living abroad don’t count. That doesn’t matter, of course, as I’ve decided that I don’t feel like celebrating anything other than my 25th birthday, though I may change my mind when I hit 50 or so. I suppose it’s not so bad to admit that I’ve now turned 35–I was mistaken for 40 a few weeks ago, which forced me to shave my beard (I’m told I look younger than my age when I shave).

taipei-101-sun-yat-sen-parkLast year I celebrated on my own in Tokyo–it was a quiet affair of sorts that culminated in treating myself to a confusing journey through the local onsen. This year I departed Tokyo a few days before my birthday and returned to Taipei.

Why would you return to Taipei? is what you’re probably asking right now. I generally don’t plan on returning to cities I’ve already visited, but I already made an exception in the case of Tokyo. Over the last few months I’ve been applying for new jobs, most of which are in Tokyo. Unfortunately, I haven’t found anything yet, but I may return to teaching at the beginning of the spring semester if all goes well with applications. Unfortunately, I can’t stay in Japan for more than 90 days without a visa, so I took a visa run of sorts–and the cheapest flights were to Taipei, where I can also stay for up to 90 days without a visa (it’s also a little easier to find short-term private students to help pay the bills).

The Presidential Office Building in Taipei

The Presidential Office Building in Taipei

If I hadn’t chosen to stay in Tokyo, I probably would have moved to Taipei (or possibly Kaohsiung) as it’s the most livable city I’ve visited (unless you count the horrifically humid summers).

But that’s neither here nor there and I’m getting off topic while musing about this whole aging process. I should tell you about all the great partying I did to celebrate this birthday, but then I’d have to lie.

A couple days before my birthday, I met a friend for drinks near where my hostel should have been (seems it moved to a less desirable location since my friend stayed here). She wanted to take me out earlier because she had to work on my birthday. The miscommunication was entertaining upon review: “I’m here.” “Where? I’m outside.” “I’m at the door.” “No you’re not.” “Did the hostel move?”

I ended up drinking a bottle of Queue de Charrue Brune, a Belgian sour brown ale. It wasn’t as strong as I expected at 5.5%, but the flavor was almost overpowering (I couldn’t taste my friend’s beer after a few sips of this one). It had a chocolate cherry aroma and tasted like a slightly sour brown ale.

Spicy pork pasta at Dream of Hobbiton

Spicy pork pasta at Dream of Hobbiton

On my birthday, another friend visited from Hsinchu to have dinner at Dream of Hobbiton, a Hobbit-themed restaurant in Zhongshan. I had read about this restaurant last time I was in Taipei–when I lived in Zhongshan–but I never tried it. Now I had an excuse to try Hobbit cuisine.

sweet-hobbitAlright, so the menu has nothing to do with the books or the movies–it’s mostly an Italian-style restaurant with pizza and pasta. There was one cocktail called the Sweet Hobbit, which was made with rum and some sort of sweet mixer, that I had to order to fit with the restaurant’s attempted theme.

Lord of the Rings corner

Lord of the Rings corner

The decor is halfway to the Hobbit. As my friend pointed out, it looks like they spent too much money on movie props and filled in the rest with whatever they could find. The bar downstairs at least looks like it’d fit in the Shire, if it were a bit shorter anyway. The corner by the door has the majority of the Hobbit memorabilia, but there’s also Smeagol upstairs (I didn’t check the upper floors for more). gollum

We’re still not sure about the Iron Man hand and mask on the door or the waiter statue wearing a pirate hat outside. Did Robert Downey, Jr. have a cameo in one of the Lord of the Ring movies? Was there a pirate butler in Rivendell?pirate-waiter

After dinner we walked around the neighborhood and ended up at the izakaya that plays punk near my old apartment in the seedier part of Taipei. The staff welcomed my friend back, even though he’d never been there before. When he mentioned to the staff that it was my birthday, they offered us a shot that contained cheap absinth and some awful Polish liquor that claims to be 160 proof. It was worse than the medicinal snake liquor I had in Vietnam.

When you’ve been traveling solo for an extended time, what do you do to celebrate your birthday or even holidays?

Eats and Drinks in Florence

I stayed in a hostel in Florence for a few reasons, the top being that I wanted to save money. I also wanted to meet people. Combining the two meant that I could find people in the hostel to go out for meals and drinks–and I’d still be able to afford those things because I wasn’t spending a fortune on accommodation.

Mercato Centrale Florence

Mercato Centrale

Along the tourist trail in Florence, there isn’t much in the way of food that I would recommend. Most of the restaurants are overpriced and don’t look so appealing (this is a theme around Italy). However, there are a few exceptions.

I met a fellow American tourist at the hostel to go around with for a bit after a day of sightseeing. Our first stop was McDonald’s. Usually I have to be drunk to even consider going there, but in Italy they serve Peroni for one euro. We had to go have a beer at McDonald’s just so we could tell everyone that we had a McBeer.

mcbeer

Peroni and McDonald’s

Our next stop was Mercato Centrale, which is a tourist and local destination not far from the train station–and it’s worth visiting (but I advise avoiding the souvenir hawkers outside). My hostel companion thought the market was just the souvenir crap outside; he didn’t realize there was a whole grocery market and hipster food court inside–the food court looked like something that came straight out of Brooklyn. It also gets rather lively and crowded in the evening. Had I stayed in Florence longer, I probably would’ve spent more time at the Mercato–there was also espresso in the downstairs market for less than one euro.

mercato centrale florence

Second floor of Mercato Centrale

We started with pizza, which was sold by weight, because it looked good it. The anchovies were delicious. It was some of the best pizza I had in Italy. After that we had some cocktails–I introduced my new friend to the spritz, which is made with Aperol (sometimes Campari or Select), prosecco, and a little tonic. After our first drink, we wandered into the crowd for something larger to eat. I ended up with some fried seafood and vegetables–the seafood was good, but the vegetables were unseasoned and bland.pizza florence

At Birrifico Mostodolce, down the street from the station, I found Italian microbrew. I decided to try the Black Doll stout. It was a decent beer, but like most in Italy it was nothing special. The bar seemed like a nice place to hang out, but I was there too early to enjoy much (I intended on waking up early for sightseeing anyway). They had other beers, but nothing that appealed to me at the time. I opted for a cheap bottle of wine back at the hostel instead.black doll stout

Just before I left Florence, I went in search of lunch prior to hopping on the train for Perugia. I wasn’t overly hungry, so I searched for something light–I was actually hoping for a salad. I managed to find one on the way to the station with my luggage. It was better than any salad I had seen in Italy–it was a smoked duck salad with balsamic vinegar. The thin slices of smoked duck made the meal (I find most salads in Italy rather boring).

smoked duck salad italy

Smoked duck salad

I’m sure if I had stayed longer in Florence, I would’ve found plenty more to eat and drink, but I only had two and a half days before I had to head back to my temporary home in Perugia.

Italy and the Death of Diet

Perhaps this title is a bit hyperbolic; however, it fits my feelings about staying in Italy for a little over a month. More than anywhere else I’ve been, the temptation to gorge on foods that are generally unhealthy in such quantities is ever-present here.

italian cheese

Can I just live in the cheese section of the grocery store?

I was trying to lose some weight

After two months of losing weight in Korea (not to mention a bit of an effort at the end of my stay in Taiwan), I’ve come to Italy to face the temptation of all the foods that the country has to offer. Fortunately, with the high cost of eating out and my odd work hours, I’m forced to at least eat breakfast and lunch in my apartment, and I have managed to find healthy foods to cook in the limited space I have.

Cheese is everywhere in Italy

I knew I’d be tempted by the cheeses and cured meats that are so prevalent in Italy. I cut down on cheese for over six months before heading out on this adventure, and Asia lacks cheese, which means another nine months without that deliciousness.

That's all for me, right?

That’s all for me, right?

Gelato beats the Italian summer heat

Italy is also home to some wonderful gelato. Some of what I had in Rome was good, but nothing exceptional–or at least good enough for me to want more all the time. I mostly wanted it because it’s hot walking around in late July and August. I was quite happy having a refreshing mojito gelato while walking around Florence two weeks ago. The other gelato I had the next day was overly sweet.

gelato

You mean I CAN’T eat all the gelato now?

That was until I discovered this little gelato shop in Perugia. I hate how businesses throw around “artisan,” but here it means something. This shop even makes its own gelato bars dipped in chocolate (the Nutella and coconut was wonderful) and gelato sandwiches. This shop is also much cheaper than the 5 or 6 euros some shops tried to charge in Florence–I only have to pay 2.50 euros for a medium cup. This is reason enough to visit Perugia.

perugia gelato

I have no idea what to get

Of course, it’s obvious that this is a university town when another gelato shop advertises cannabis-flavored gelato. Somehow I doubt it tastes good, but I may give it a try anyway.

Should I try it?

Should I try it?

Where have you been that offered too much culinary temptation to resist?

We All Scream for Beer Ice Cream

A variety of ice cream flavors from Snow King in Taipei

A variety of ice cream flavors from Snow King in Taipei

I’ll confess, I didn’t actually order beer ice cream in Taiwan. I guarantee, however, that should I move back to Taipei, I will try it. At the time, I was just distracted by the variety of flavors that sounded more appealing.

I ended up at 雪王冰淇淋 (literally: Snow King Ice Cream, not to be confused with Barney Gumble’s Plow King business) near Ximen with some friends before a film festival. I hadn’t planned on going to the festival because I wasn’t interested in seeing any movies until my friend mentioned that they were showing “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”–now how could I pass up on seeing that in Taipei? Unfortunately, my friends couldn’t get an extra ticket, but took me out for dinner and ice cream instead.

The flavors my friends ordered were brandy, pork floss, and the ever-boring green tea. I made the best decision of the group and ordered chili flavor. The chili ice cream had a nice little kick that was mellowed by the milk in the ice cream–it was a pleasant, refreshing flavor for a warm evening.

Menu from Snow King. Curry and wasabi ice cream?

Menu from Snow King. Curry and wasabi ice cream?

I still don’t know what possessed the one friend to order pork floss–it sounded disgusting and tasted like a frozen version of dry, salty pork. The brandy ice cream was disappointing–I expected it to have a slightly sweet flavor, but all we could taste was the alcohol. But it served as a warning to not order the baijiu-flavored ice cream next time, which was unlikely to happen anyway.

Getting drunk off the ice cream

Getting drunk off the ice cream

Snow King also has rose, sesame oil chicken, pig knuckle, and plum wine flavors. Which would you want to order?

It May Be Healthy, But I’m Not Eating It

Travelers love talking about “comfort zones” and “getting out of” that zone–it’s not something I tend to say. Yes, I attempt to do things that I wouldn’t otherwise try if I wasn’t traveling, but usually there’s a good reason for trying it. I now know that I do not enjoy Khmer massages despite it only costing $5 (seriously, my body felt better before the massage, which was after that 40-mile bike ride). I also now know that fugu sashimi is not worth the money.scorpions beijing

I’ve previously mentioned that there are foods that I won’t try–I have my limits; I’m not Andrew Zimmern and I don’t get paid to try all this stuff. In Cambodia, I saw plenty of tarantulas and little snakes on sticks that I didn’t want to touch (or pay $1 to photograph). Once again, I’ve met my limit here in Seoul. I already knew that Korea still ate dog meat–mostly in the winter because it supposedly keeps you warm–but I didn’t expect to see so much of it in Seoul.

Oh, the restaurant across the street is serving fish

Oh, the restaurant across the street is serving fish

Fortunately, this was not as awful a sight as I saw in Hanoi. I lost my appetite while wandering around for lunch one day as I came across a line of restaurants with piles of roasted dogs–heads and all. And while in Saigon, I avoided ordering the “grilled unicorn leatherjacket,” not because it sounded weird, but because I didn’t want to pay $20 to find out if it tasted like a leathery rainbow.

roasted dog hanoi

That’s OK, I’ll skip lunch today

Back when I lived in China, I was taken out for dinner one night to a restaurant that had a large sign advertising hot pot of cat and dog. I was assured that we would eat the goat hot pot (I still hope that’s what was in the pot).

Because Fido is the best drinking buddy

Because Fido is the best drinking buddy

Korea doesn’t seem quite as crazy about their pet dogs as Japan (that’s probably a good thing as I some of those dog costumes were disturbing). There’s not acupuncture for dogs like I saw in my Tokyo neighborhood; however, they do sell beer for dogs in Seoul.

Where do you draw the line on trying different foods in a foreign country?

Eating Banh Xeo in Saigon

For all the complaining I do about Anthony Bourdain mocking me with all his recommendations that don’t seem to exist, I did manage to find one restaurant he tried on “No Reservations.” I should, however, note that the reason I ate banh xeo was because my friend in Tokyo recommended it, and the reason I chose this restaurant is that it was the only one I found that served it–until I the restaurant at which I ate just before I left for the airport.

I think I can order banh xeo here

I think I can order banh xeo here

I had come across this outdoor banh xeo restaurant just down a narrow street, Ding Cong Trang, near Tan Dinh Market during one of my first days in Ho Chi Minh City. However, I postponed eating at the restaurant because I thought I’d have more opportunities to eat banh xeo, probably at a lower price. When I found the restaurant mentioned on the Travel Channel website, I decided to try it.

Banh xeo is a sort of giant wrapped pancake. It’s a thin, crispy layer of rice flour wrapped around shrimp, bean sprouts, and some other vegetables. It’s served with a plate of morning glory and basil that is used to wrap the banh xeo. The difficult part is cutting this dish with chopsticks to make it manageable to eat. Once it’s cut up into a mess (it really is a messy meal), it can be put into the morning glory leaf and dipped in a fish sauce. This is one of those few meals that you really have to use your hands to eat–there’s just no way around it.

Deliciousness before being ripped apart haphazardly by chopsticks

Deliciousness before being ripped apart haphazardly by chopsticks

Banh Xeo 46A is only open for lunch, which meant that the few times I walked past for dinner, I had to find alternatives. I finally made my way there for lunch–it was only a 10-minute walk from my apartment, but I had to arrive early to ensure I got a seat. By the time I left, the restaurant had a large crowd as I had seen most days I walked nearby to the market. For an outdoor restaurant in Vietnam, Banh Xeo 46A is exceptionally clean–I was impressed by the metallic shine of the open kitchen.

Quite a clean outdoor kitchen

Quite a clean outdoor kitchen

While banh xeo was not my favorite meal in Vietnam, it was definitely one of the most interesting I tried. A lot websites from a few years ago say that an order of banh xeo here is VND 35,000 (a little more than $1.50), but I remember it being at least twice that (or maybe I ordered something extra, I’m really not sure).

Anthony Bourdain Is Mocking Me

First it was his tweet about the egg sandwich at Lawson in Tokyo that didn’t exist at any of the Lawson stores I went to. I ended up with some other cheap sandwich that didn’t live up to expectations and wasn’t nearly enough for my usual lunch break. I cursed Anthony Bourdain for weeks after that. Fortunately, I tried plenty of other wonderful food in Tokyo.

com nieu saigon

This wasn’t part of Anthony Bourdain’s recommendation

I had forgotten about that disappointing sandwich encounter when I headed to Vietnam and Cambodia. During my last couple weeks in Ho Chi Minh City, I checked out the Travel Channel website for restaurant ideas–they have maps of places that Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern (and other travel show hosts) have gone. There wasn’t much near my neighborhood–most of the restaurants were in other provinces or far-off districts of Saigon. But I found two places on the No Reservations page that were just long walks from my apartment in District 1.

I found this rather empty restaurant in District 3

I found this rather empty restaurant in District 3

One of the restaurants sounded a little upscale while the other seemed more in my price range. Obviously, I searched for the lower-end restaurant. I sort of located it on Google Maps–it was down an unmapped alley, so I had to guess a little, but found the surrounding main streets to make it easier. The neighborhood was undergoing major construction/renovations. It appeared that almost everything had changed since Bourdain filmed his No Reservations episode there a few years ago. Fortunately, the other restaurant was nearby–I mapped that one as well as a backup plan. It also didn’t exist. I could hear Anthony Bourdain cursing and being bleeped out on the show.

A few blocks away from where that upscale restaurant should have been was another upscale restaurant with a similar name, Com Nieu Saigon, which happens to have several locations around Saigon. After glancing at the extensive menu, I decided to give it a try–it was over my usual budget, but I hadn’t splurged on a good meal since my last night Hanoi.

The only problem with eating at such a place during the final week of a stay is that you want to use as much of your local currency without spending too much. I had a budget for the week that included my airport taxi, food, drinks, and miscellaneous expenses. I had to budget my fancy dinner appropriately.

lemongrass chili tofu

No, really, I ordered fried tofu

There was also the problem that they menu sounded delicious, but I had no one with whom to share the meal–I couldn’t sample a few dishes; I could only order what I could eat on my own. I settled on a small vegetarian dish and a fish.

I’m not sure what possessed me to order tofu–most tofu dishes are bland and have the texture of mush. Somehow, chili lemongrass fried tofu appealed to me for a moment. And it was freshly fried tofu, which meant that it was a little crispy on the outside, but melted on the inside. And the ground chili and lemongrass that covered the tofu gave it enough flavor to mask the fact that I was eating tofu. It would have been better if the chili and lemongrass was more of a sauce to coat the tofu, but it was still pretty good.

butterfish saigon

Tasty butterfish

I wanted to order something that sounded different, and asked for cirrhinus fish country style, but I was told they didn’t have the fish that day. After a few minutes of browsing the menu again, I opted for the steamed butterfish with black bean sauce. The sauce was rather light, but there was plenty more flavor from the garlic, onion, and cilantro.

The restaurant was surprisingly quiet considering I arrived well after 6, but it got more crowded by the time I left. Most of the customers sat outside–I would’ve done the same had I not walked around in the heat for two hours before sitting down. Inside or out, Com Nieu Saigon offers a great atmosphere that really should be shared.

com nieu saigon

Interior of Com Nieu Saigon

There’s no need for me to follow Anthony Bourdain anymore. He provided good suggestions in Reykjavik, but I’ve now managed to find my own local delicacies.