Quin's Progress


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Anyone For Some Cuttlefish Jerky?

When you are enjoying a nice, frosty brew with your friends after a long day, or while watching the game, don’t you just want to gnaw on some desiccated mollusk flesh dipped in mayonnaise?  You do if you’re in Korea!

squids

Freshly Caught

In the States, the only consumers of cuttlefish may be parakeets (you know, the cuttlebone you’re supposed to put in their cages for them to nibble and rub their beaks on), but all over East Asia, cuttlefish is a very popular snack food for humans.

Cuttlefish, drying on the line

Cuttlefish, drying on the line

Despite the name, cuttlefish are actually mollusks, in the same class of marine Cephalopoda as squid and octopi.

The most popular way to eat it in Korea is dried, like jerky, often together with peanuts.  It’s especially popular as an accompaniment to drinking beer or soju.

At the movies

At the movies (with peanuts)

cuttle with peanuts

Snack pack with peanuts

You see it everywhere:  at street vendors’ carts, in convenience stores next to the chips, even at the concession stand at the movies.

The seasides are dotted with drying racks draped with the corpses of cuttlefish, and the markets are cluttered with stalls of vendors selling stacks of the flat, pressed product.

Vendor drying cuttlefish on the roof of his shop

Vendor drying cuttlefish on the roof of his shop

Cuttlefish in the market

Cuttlefish in the market

The way you eat it–at least, the way I was shown–is, if you can, you toast the dried cuttlefish over a flame and char it a little bit.  Not very much, just enough to singe it slightly and give it a smoky note.  (If you don’t have access to a flame to toast it, just skip this step.)

Flame-toasted cuttlefish with mayo and chili sauce

Flame-toasted cuttlefish with mayo and chili sauce

Then, you tear off thin shreds of the meat, like little ribbons, and dip it in mayonnaise first, then a chili sauce, and pop it in your mouth!  Mmmmm-mmm!

Tentacle Jerky

Fish and Tentacle Jerky Selection

Cuttlefish isn’t the only marine animal that people like to eat dried in this fashion.  For example, dried octopus tentacles are also to be had in the markets, as are all manner of dried, pressed fish.  But, cuttlefish is, by far, the most popular to munch on while you’re getting your buzz on with some good beer or soju.

Those of us with Western palates will probably jump to a conclusion about why it’s popular to eat while drinking; our tastebuds can have beer-goggles, too, after all!  But, I was sober as a judge when I had it, and I enjoyed it.  I thought it was savory and delicious, if a bit…cuttlefishy.  But, then again, dip anything in enough mayonnaise and chili sauce and I’ll eat it and think it’s good.


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Gettin’ Jjigae Wit It

Food, glorious food!  Oh, gentle friends, you know it is my raison d’être.  I think I’m going to have to tell you about the food I’ve been discovering in Korea in installments, because there’s just too much to talk about in one post.  Today’s Episode:  Soup.

Gamjatang, or Pork Spine Soup with Potatoes

“Gamjatang,” or
Pork Spine Soup with Potatoes

Koreans take their soup seriously.  Just as nary a meal is complete in the Land of the Morning Calm without kimchi, I’m finding that most meals–even breakfast–involve some kind of soup, whether as the main attraction, or as an accompaniment.  There are multiple words for soup in Korean:  guk, tang, jjigae and jeongol, and those are just the terms that I’ve encountered.  There are, doubtless, more.  Some may quibble that jjigae and jeongol are really “stews,” not “soups”–I’ve even heard them erroneously referred to as “casseroles”–but I’ve eaten enough of all of them now to feel that I’m on taxonomically solid ground putting them all under the general “soup” umbrella.  You wanna call them stews, get on with your bad self, I’m not going to argue.

"Kalguksu"

“Kalguksu,” or hand-cut noodle soup in clear broth (this one also had dumplings)

I have noticed that “guk” and “tang” each seem to refer to soups with clear (or clear-ish) broth, whereas jjigae often seems to involve red, murky broths spiced with the delicious, fermented chili paste, gochujang.  I could be wrong.  That’s just my observation.  But, otherwise, I honestly find it pretty hard to differentiate between the various sorts of soupy wonders that are called guk, tang, jjigae and jeongol, respectively.

Cooking Up Romance

Cooking Up Romance

One of the first Korean soap operas that I ever watched was called “Cooking Up Romance,” and was set in a traditional Korean beef soup restaurant.  (A soup opera!)  I used to laugh at these scenes where the owner of the shop would yell at his staff and cry about how they would commit the tiniest transgressions, deviating from his original beef soup recipe and bringing shame to his establishment and name, and how the grandma would scream at the owner’s college student daughter about her lack of filial piety in not wanting to take over the restaurant and serve the family’s beef soup to generations to come.  Seriously, the beef soup was, itself, a character in this show.

Vats of "Gukbap" (pork soup with rice) in front of a family restaurant in Busan

Vats of “Gukbap” (pork soup with rice) in front of a family restaurant in Busan

They were not joking around, either, these were not comedic scenes.  Luckily, the hapless young chef-Man Bong-came along, mastered the owner’s recipe, and fell in love with the owner’s prodigal daughter, keeping the restaurant, and tradition, alive and in the family.  So, now that I’m in Korea, and I see so many soup restaurants touting a multi-generational traditional family recipe, I can’t help but remember that charming and hilarious show.

Sundubu Jjigae

This “Sundubu Jjigae”–spicy, soft tofu jjigae–brought me back from the dead after my night at the Room Salon. Amazing hangover remedy!

If you go to a Korean barbecue restaurant, where you grill the meat on the table, you’ll also get a big, bubbling pot of some kind of jjigae, along with ten or twenty different “banchan”–the ubiquitous side dishes that are served in every Korean restaurant.  The fattier and heavier the meat you are cooking, the spicier the jjigae will be, to cut the grease.  WILLSMITHBut, make no mistake, like it or not, you will be gettin’ jjigae wit it.  (Oh, forgive me, I have been waiting to use that line for weeks!  No one here gets the reference, they just look at me like “yeah, you always get jjigae, what’s so funny?”  Thanks, it’s out of my system now, I promise.)

Not Seaweed Soup.  Gukbap.

Not Seaweed Soup. Gukbap.

On their birthdays, Koreans traditionally eat seaweed soup.  This is, apparently, because that’s what is fed to new mothers after giving birth, to restore their strength.  So, eating it on your birthday is a sort of commemoration of your mother’s birthing experience.  Sounds fair to me.  She suffered, why shouldn’t you?  (Just teasing, the seaweed soup I’ve had–usually for breakfast, with rice–has been pretty tasty.)

See, I would spit those things out.

See, I would spit those things out.  Shows you what I know.

I have been lucky enough to join Korean friends in the soup restaurants, so that I could observe and imitate their strategy in attacking the repast.  It isn’t always obvious.  What condiments you add, what you pick out with chopsticks vs. what you slurp up with the spoon, what you spit out, what you gnaw on, what you soak up with rice, etc.  It’s a veritable faux pas waiting to happen.  blue crap(I’m still emotionally scarred from the whole “Soft-Boiled Egg in a Cup Incident of 1984” in Germany, where the whole table was politely waiting for me to begin eating, and I had no idea what to do with the damned thing; I’d never been served an egg still in the shell before.  Let’s just say, there was spoon violence, yolk explosion, shirts ruined….I swear, my poor German host family must have thought they’d taken in a teenaged barbarian.)  After a while, though, I realized that as long as you eat with gusto, and enjoy the food (which isn’t difficult), Korean cooks will be happy with you, and how you get it down your gullet is of lesser importance.  The other diners might make fun of you, but you probably won’t understand them anyway, so don’t worry about it.

Buddae Jjigae

Buddae Jjigae

I’ve seen it argued that the difference between “jjigae” and “jeongol” is the number of star ingredients, with jjigae having usually just one featured component, like kimchi or tofu, and jeongol having multiple, like “haemul jeongol,” which has several different kinds of seafood.  In response to this theory, I invoke the immortal Colonel Sherman T. Potter of the TV show M.A.S.H., and say:  Horse Hockey!  Were that the case, how would you explain Buddae Jjigae?  Ahhh…Buddae Jjigae.  The fact that this is, hands down, my favorite Korean soup so far is just proof positive that, whereas some folks’ bodies are temples, mine is a landfill.  It’s okay, I own it.

buddae jjigae cook 2

Sliced American cheese melting into the soup. You won’t know it’s there when the Buddae Jjigae is done, but you’d know if it was missing.

Buddae jjigae came about due to scarcity of food during and after the Korean War, when impoverished Koreans had to make do with scraps scavenged from the American military.  Originally made from leftover Army rations–hot dogs, Spam, canned beans, and whatever else they could find–it’s also called Army Base Stew, or “Johnson Tang,” referencing the common American surname.  It’s still very popular today.  Some people are very sentimental about it.  Everyone has their own recipe, but the classic has to contain hot dogs, ham, Spam or a Spam-like processed meat, ground beef, canned baked beans, instant ramen noodles, kimchi, onions, and a couple slices of American cheese that dissolve completely into the spicy, red broth, yielding a mysterious, rich, velvety quality that you just couldn’t achieve any other way.  It.  Is.  So.  Good.  If I had to compare the taste to something, I’d say it kind of reminds me of when I was a kid, when we went camping, my mom would cut up hot dogs into Campbell’s Bean and Bacon soup.  But much spicier, and with more stuff thrown in.

Buddae Jjigae Kit

Buddae Jjigae Kit

There are restaurants all over that specialize in Buddae Jjigae.  But, you can also get these kits delivered right to your house, containing all the ingredients, already chopped and prepped and ready to be thrown into the pot.

They should call it "Shame Soup"

They should call it “Shame Soup”

You just call on the phone and say how many you want, and shortly, a guy on a motorbike shows up at your door with your Buddae Jjigae kits, and 20 minutes later…it’s soup!  Genius, no?  Why don’t we have that kind of a service in the States?  Someone, get on that before I get home.


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Cocktail Kitsch

I have been back home in San Francisco for a week, getting ready to go to Korea tomorrow, and have been trying to cram into one week all the things I’ve been meaning to go do and see in San Francisco for the last 20 years.  I’m not sure I made it, but I had some fun trying.  A lot of it was cocktail related.

The Lagoon at the Tonga Room.  It actually rains!

The Lagoon at the Tonga Room. It actually rains!

My third Mai Tai

My third Mai Tai

I finally made it to the Tonga Room, at the Fairmont.  It’s a tiki wonderland!  You don’t go for the food, trust me.  You go for the faux rainstorms and lightening over the lagoon in the middle of the dining room, the swashbuckling decor, and the southern fried Don Ho house band that cranks out 80s tunes on a moving barge in the pool festooned with tiki  thatch.  The house cocktail is a Mai Tai, served in a coconut with an umbrella, so I had to have…three. It’s a bit of San Franciscana that has to be experienced at least once, kind of like Beach Blanket Babylon.

IMG_3874

Tilt-a-Whirl table!

Tilt-a-Whirl table!

But, I think, the award this week has to go to Straw, on Octavia.  Carnival themed fare!  Not Carnivale, like in Rio, but carnival, as in carnies and side shows.  There’s even a Tilt-a-Whirl car made into a table in the corner, for lovebirds who don’t mind canoodling while consuming their corndogs.

IMG_3882IMG_3884Oh yes, there are corndogs.  Mini corndogs, in fact, served on a Wooly Willy plate, with a trio of dipping sauces.  Nothing poncey, mind you, it’s liquid nacho cheese, ranch, or mayo and sriracha (which I think is the most genius dipping sauce since Ranch dressing made its debut).

Yes, I ordered it.  Don't judge.

Yes, I ordered it. Don’t judge.

They also serve their burger, The Ringmaster, on a house-made donut bun, which is just…cheeky.

IMG_3889Their cocktails were carnival themed, as well, which was all kinds of fun.  Fernando had a Coney Island lager, that had a scary clown face on the label, but my drink took the funnel cake.  It was a cotton candy cocktail — check it out!

How much fun is that?  It’s made with sparkling something and house made cotton candy, so the flavor and color is different depending on the day.  The day I was there, the finished product looked like carbonated Windex, but it was pretty tasty, and went straight to my head, like a good cocktail should.

Dessert Menu

Dessert Menu

My contribution.  That's me in an airplane.  You can tell by the boobs.

My contribution. That’s me in an airplane. You can tell by the boobs.

I really loved their dessert menus.  Not for what the offerings were, oddly enough, although they were fine, and included funnel cakes, of course.  But because they were little slam journals, served with crayons, that guests are encouraged to doodle in.

Out of all of the technicolor unicorns, and crayon sketches of various girlfriend’s faces, for some reason, this entry cracked us up.  IMG_3902Poor boring John.  But, you know me, a challenge is a challenge…. Did I call poor boring John?  After that cotton candy cocktail hit my bloodstream, you bet I did.

Oh yes, I did.

Oh yes, I did.

And it was boring, because he never even answered the phone.  But, you have the number now, you could try….


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Buckle Up For A Whirlwind Road Trip!

Time for a quick update, to bring y’all up to speed.  Since the last post, I’ve been across the country and back, getting ready to leave for Korea tomorrow.  I don’t want to bore you with too many details, so here’s the nutshell account.  Let’s see, where did I leave off….oh yes, the Grand Canyon.  Okay, so, we’re in Arizona….P1030112

P1030116I had been driving for hours along the old Route 66 between Flagstaff and Winslow, and I desperately had to pee, so when I saw this funny little unofficial looking sign saying there was a meteor crater at the next exit, I figured, what the heck, there’s probably a bathroom, I’ll check it out.  P1030101

That's one screamin' fast shuttle!

That’s one screamin’ fast shuttle!

Six miles down the road off the highway, there’s an asphalt parking lot, with tremendously stimulating signs leading up the hill to the entrance of the aforesaid meteor crater visitor center.  They only tell you after you’ve climbed the hill that it’s $16 to get in, which I thought was kind of mean; they should tell you that before you hike your butt all the way up there, because, you know, there might be some people out there who don’t want to spend $16 to look at a big dimple.  But, I didn’t want to have climbed that hill for nothing, and the potty situation was closing in on dire, so I paid my sixteen bucks and went in.

The floor of the crater is bigger than 20 football fields

The floor of the crater is bigger than 20 football fields

Holy cosmic pock marks, Batman, that is one big hole in the ground!  After the Grand Canyon, the threshold for big holes in the ground being impressive had been raised quite a bit, I must say.  But if you go through the little museum, and watch the short film they have, the significance of the place becomes clear–it’s one of the only confirmed meteor impact sites in the world.  Most other craters are the result of a volcanic caldera.  I never knew that.  P1030099Anyhoo, the really groovy thing about this spot is that, in the 1960s and 70s, NASA trained astronauts here, including the Apollo astronauts, because of its similarity to craters on the moon.  They even had a lunar landing capsule on site that the astronauts used for training purposes.  Very I Dream of Jeannie.  Ooh, and remember that 1984 movie “Starman” with Jeff Bridges?  The spacecraft impact parts of it were filmed here.  Cool, no?

P1030075

Not a Painting

There was a red brick wall around the visitor center plaza, with this open viewing window in it; with the vista beyond, it so reminded me of a Magritte painting.  Don’t you think?

"Standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona...."

“Standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona….”

A few miles down the road, I had to stop in Winslow, Arizona and, well, you know…stand on a corner.  Because of the Eagles song.  I didn’t see any girls in flatbed Fords, and the only one to slow down and take a look at me was the guy driving the street sweeping truck.  That’s not very poetic, though.  There is, however, a loudspeaker on the appointed corner, that blares Eagles music on a loop, into the otherwise unoccupied atmosphere, and there’s an Eagles-themed shop on the adjacent corner, where one can buy all manner of “Take It Easy” t-shirts, etc., but I refrained.  I’m told I missed out on the classic gag, though, because I didn’t find a pay phone and crank call someone and sing a few bars of “Take It Easy” to them.  Sorry for failing y’all like that!  Moving on….

Middle of nowhere, New Mexico

Middle of nowhere, New Mexico

Driving through the southwest, you really do get a sense of how vast the United States is.  Miles and miles of open, literally amazing landscapes and endless horizons, with hours between towns.  It’s strange, too, how the landscape shifts subtly but so distinctly as you cross state borders.  Leaving Arizona and entering New Mexico, suddenly the Painted Desert splashes different colors across the land, and the surface of the earth buckles up in spots to replace the flat desert behind you.  It’s quite beautiful.

IMG_3607P1030141Zooming along toward Santa Fe, I had to pull over again to see the Continental Divide.  That’s got to be something, right?  Where the water flows in different directions from a specific cleft in the tectonic plates of the earth?  Well, turns out, all there is to see is a U.S. Geological Survey sign, and a truly weird curio shop, that was closed anyway.  Still, worth pulling over, just to note the occasion.P1030148

Santa Fe and I didn’t get off to a good start.  I was in an evil mood from the minute I got there; I seriously think I would have bitten someone in the leg if I’d had the chance.  Everything was annoying me, and I’m usually pretty easygoing.  Then, I overheard someone in a cafe say something about having trouble getting used to the altitude, and it hit me.  I butted into their conversation and asked what the altitude is, and when she answered it was 7,200 feet, I realized, I wasn’t just in a bad mood, I was oxygen deprived!  No wonder!  This happened to me in Mexico City, too.  I couldn’t walk a block without getting winded, and I felt so bitchy and mean for the first few days; it was ugly.  But, thankfully, the fix is easy enough.  Just slow it down, and drink steadily.  So, that’s what I did.

The Ladies' Room door at the Pink Adobe

The Ladies’ Room door at the Pink Adobe

Pink Dragon

Pink Dragon

Meet the Pink Dragon:  a prickly pear fruit margarita from the Dragon Room at the Pink Adobe in Santa Fe.  I plied myself with this elixir until I was restored to my usual state of near equanimity, and then Santa Fe’s charms were more obvious to me.  There’s really no disputing that the surrounding high desert is breathtaking.  Even if you aren’t a desert person, just stand still and stare and breathe for a while, and the palette of colors, and spectrum of textures will dizzy you.  Or maybe it’s just the altitude, I don’t know.

Old HouseI particularly loved how the oldest house and church in the United States has an adjacent beer garden.  Perfect for my altitude coping mechanism.P1030184

I happened to arrive in town on the eve of the annual Santa Fe Fiesta, which commences with a Burning Man type ritual in which they immolate the “Zozobra,” a 50-foot tall effigy of the boogeyman, intended to chase out the bad spirits for the coming year.  P1030228P1030281The remainder of the weekend hosts a festival, with booths of food and art and crafts and such all over downtown, and several stages of music and local dance troop performances.  It was just the thing to sand off my moody rough edges.

Navajo Taco

Navajo Taco

Especially, the Navajo Tacos, made with roast lamb and Indian fry bread.  Mmm-mmm!

I saw Melissa Etheridge wandering around town that weekend, and heard she was in town giving a concert at the Santa Fe Opera House, which is about 20 minutes outside town out in the desert mountains.  I’ve always liked her music, so, I snagged a ticket and went.

Santa Fe Opera House

Santa Fe Opera House

What a glorious place that opera house is!  The architecture of the theater is open on the sides, so you are basically sitting outside in the desert air, but covered, so it can storm and rain and thunder and lightening, and the show can still go on.  A fantastic venue for a Wagner opera, I’m sure.  But Melissa Etheridge was pretty good too.  I think the sound of her voice is like having whiskey poured down your naked back.

P1030284After a couple days’ break in Santa Fe, it was time to hit the road again, for two more days driving to Fort Worth to Dad’s house.  I must say, though, the highway through the eastern half of New Mexico is not exactly hard on the eyes.  Although, I did accidentally blast past the exit for Roswell, and didn’t realize it until I was almost to  Amarillo, because I was singing along with great gusto to Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits…that’s some good road trip music, right there.  Anyway, I had been hoping to bookend the meteor crater report with some shots of the Alien Autopsy and UFO museum for you, but oh well.  Sorry ’bout that.

cadillacs

Cadillac Ranch
Amarillo, TX

As a consolation, just west of Amarillo, I happened upon the Cadillac Ranch:  a plowed field into which someone has upended a bunch of old Cadillacs, nose down into the ground, in a sort of single-file Stonehenge homage.  It was very random and definitely hilarious.  cadillacs2Graffiti is welcome, and there are squillions of discarded spray paint cans strewn about, for anyone to use to add their mark to the Cadillac canvas.  Who says Texans don’t have a sense of whimsy?

As for the rest of my time in Texas, I discovered that macaroni and cheese is classified as a vegetable at the Cracker Barrel (I can get on board with that), and that this song exists:

Next stop, New York City!  My friend James and I were lazing about Washington Square Park, and this girl was sashaying around the fountain, workin’ it hard enough to throw her back out, throwing smoldering glances over her shoulder at no one in particular.  girl1She was like a living Virginia Slims commercial, and I instantly loved her.  So, I stalked her for a while, taking pictures of her….since that’s obviously what she thought was already happening.  Hate to let all that catwalkin’ go to waste.

Fabulous thighs on that model, no?

Fabulous thighs on that model, no?

We happened upon a real photo shoot under the steps in front of Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, and I felt bad that Ms. Virginia Slims wasn’t there to jump in on the fun.

Bethesda Fountain

Bethesda Fountain

I finally made it to the Tenement Museum on Delancey and Orchard Streets on the Lower East Side, which I’ve been meaning to do for the last several times I was in New York.

It’s a well-preserved example of the type of tenement homes that housed thousands of immigrant families in New York in the early to mid- 1900’s in cramped, sometimes unsanitary quarters.

I know the museum and tour were supposed to impress upon us the squalid conditions in which these people had to live, because they had no other options, but honestly, all I could think the whole time was “I know several people who would kill for this apartment!”

Then it was back to San Francisco, to see the doctor, the dentist, the bikini waxer, and basically get everything fluffed and buffed and ready to take off for Korea!


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Can You Dig It?

My Road Trip Route

My Road Trip Route

It has been an action-packed couple of weeks, gentle friends, and may I just say, I’m glad it’s behind me.  I sold my house, and got rid of the vast majority of my stuff in anticipation of the big upcoming adventure.  Moving sucks under the best of circumstances, but trust me, the air traffic control on getting rid of large quantities of crap is way trickier than for just moving it from one house to another.  So exhausting.  Anyhoo, now I’m road trippin’ to Texas, to put my car in my dad’s garage for safekeeping while I’m gallivanting about the globe.  It’s almost 2,000 miles!  I’m giving myself a week to get there, so I can go at an easy pace.

After the Hell Week of moving, every cell in my body was whimpering pathetically in pain, so my first stop was Las Vegas, where I planned to have myself a nice, calm, restorative spa day.  Checked-in to a sexy luxe room at The Cosmopolitan (although the Google Maps mobile app seemed certain that I was, in fact, reserved at the delivery entrance behind the Bellagio–it would not direct me anywhere else).  This room was gorgeous.  However, there had apparently been some fairly significant shenanigans going on in there earlier.  When I got up there, there was a maintenance guy re-hanging the closet door, the bathroom mirror was cracked, the articulating lamp next to the bed was dangling from the wall like a disembodied arm with a compound fracture, and the TV had suffered some kind of blunt force trauma, damaging the LED right in the middle, causing an electric green splotch to appear on the forehead of any face in the center of the screen, as though a radioactive pigeon had been plaguing the set of every show I tried to watch.

Keep Refrigerated!

Keep Refrigerated!

I didn’t complain, though, because I was already kind of on the hotel manager’s watch list after having to tell him that his bell man had, somewhere between my car and my room, lost a small styrofoam cooler containing several capsules of live Typhoid virus, and that he had to find it a.s.a.p., as the virus is vulnerable to the heat (it was 95 degrees out).  I waited until the cooler had been located to tell him that, although the viruses were, indeed, alive, they were deactivated–eunuch viruses, so to speak–not an outbreak waiting to happen.  (These capsules were among a battery of travel vaccines I just got.  The others were all shots, though.  The FDA apparently recalled all the Typhoid vaccine injections; hence, the capsules, which I had to take over the course of a week, and keep refrigerated the whole time, or they would die and be useless.)  He was not amused.

The next day went smoother.  After brunch with bottomless bloody marys, I did this:

SPF 1,000

SPF 1,000 Required!

And then this:

sahra

China Poblano

China Poblano

Followed by dinner at China Poblano, a Chinese-Mexican fusion dream that finally makes it possible for Fernando and me to both have our favorite foods at the same time!  Ooh, it was good, too.  I had a Singapore Sling, chicken flautas with mole sauce, and these really imaginative, scrumptious lamb potstickers under a crispy, demure veil of cumin “lace,” with edible flower blossom garnish.  I’ve never put anything like it in my mouth before, and that’s saying something.  Just look at them!

Lamb Potstickers under crunchy cumin "lace" and chicken flautas

Lamb Potstickers under crunchy cumin “lace” and chicken flautas

After that day of indulgences, I woke up in a much improved, yet saucy mood.  So, I did what anyone would do, and I went……and dug a big hole with an excavator.  Yes, you heard me.  An excavator.

My Steed

My Steed

A Cat 315C excavator, to be exact. There’s this place across the freeway from the Strip, called “Dig This,” that is a sort of heavy equipment playground.  You can actually go and drive a big excavator.  They have bulldozers, too, but I didn’t want to just push things back and forth.  I wanted to dig a trench and pick up tractor tires and stuff.

Safety Sandbox

Roger and the Safety Sandbox

They make you take a breathalizer test first, so they don’t have a bunch of drunks out there ramming into each other.  Then, there’s a little safety class with a cute little demonstration with models in a sandbox.

I'm so pleased to have a new marketable skill!

I’m so pleased to have a new marketable skill!

Then they take you out and put you in the cab of the machine, go over everything again, and hook you up with a headset so Roger, the instructor, can communicate with you the whole time.  (He also has a remote shut-down switch for your machine around his neck, so if you go rogue, he can stop you from crossing the freeway and crashing into the Strip like Godzilla.)

Inside the Cab

Inside the Cab

There's even a hook for your purse in there!

There’s even a hook for your purse!

Never having been inside the cab of an excavator before, it took some getting used to.  It taxes the coordination a bit at first.  This lever moves the boom up and down, that lever extends the arm back and forth, this other one rotates the cab, that one opens and closes the bucket, and those two in the front operate the tracks that move the machine around.  Oh, and there’s a purse hook in there, too, for the ladies.  Very important.

Scoopin'

Scoopin’

Dumpin'

Dumpin’

After a while, I got the hang of it, and I was an excavatin’ fool!  Zooming all over the yard, spinning the cab around, digging trenches…I even won the tire stacking contest.  We even played Excavator Basketball.  It was a hoot and a half, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Carrying a giant tire

Carrying a giant tire

Tire Stacking Champion!

Tire Stacking Champion!

The excavator basketball version of dribbling

The excavator basketball version of dribbling

Swish!

Swish!

I got so carried away, I kept digging at that trench, and digging digging digging, until look what I did!

Excavator gone wild!

Excavator gone wild!

Just teasing, Roger pulled the plug on me long before I excavated across Interstate 15.  But, I did drive on to the Grand Canyon the following day.  I hadn’t been since I was a kid.  I’m sure it hasn’t changed much since then, but I don’t recall the sight of it, coming into view as you crest the trail up at the rim, having such an effect on me back then.  You’re walking up the trail, la-de-da, looking at the wildflowers and the squirrels busking for food, and then…the earth’s mouth opens up in front of you.  It’s a sight that is very hard to turn away from.  It feels disrespectful, almost, to turn and go, not knowing if or when you are going to see it again.  So, I just stood there, taking it in, until the sun was long gone.

South Rim Grand Canyon

South Rim
Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

Go at sunset, if you get the chance

Go at sunset, if you get the chance


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Lords of Corndogtown

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Santa Monica Beach and Pier

Santa Monica Beach and Pier

I was hanging out in Los Angeles last week with my friend Wendy.  The weather was perfect, cinematic Southern California summertime glory, so we wandered over to Santa Monica to go to the Pier.  One couldn’t ask for a more perfect afternoon.  Seventy-four degrees, cornflower blue skies, beautiful, tan, mostly naked people everywhere, gentle zephyrs softly distracting me from the fact that I was getting a sunburn on my pasty San Francisco skin.  It was dreamy.

"Get your kicks, on Route...."

“Get your kicks, on Route….”

I didn't even have to ask him to do that

I didn’t even have to ask him to do that

Several interesting bits of historical Californiana and pop culture intersect at the Santa Monica Pier and beach.  It’s the end point of the notorious Route 66, for one.  The original Muscle Beach was located at the Pier’s base, before Venice Beach, just a couple miles south, later assumed the title.  And more importantly, multiple episodes of Charlie’s Angels, The Incredible Hulk and Three’s Company were filmed there.  Oh yeah…and Baywatch.

Moondoggie and pals, looking for Gidget

Moondoggie and pals, looking for Gidget

He just might be cuter than Paul Newman in "The Sting"

He just might be cuter than Paul Newman in “The Sting”

That scene in Rocky III, where Rocky and Apollo are frolicking training on the Beach, was shot on Santa Monica beach.  The carousel scene in The Sting?  Santa Monica Pier.  In fact, the carousel is still there, and still in operation (sans bordello).  And don’t forget about Lords of Dogtown!

The Pier at sunset, from Santa Monica Beach

The Pier at sunset, from Santa Monica Beach

Oh, if you haven’t seen it, Lords of Dogtown is awesome!  The acting is passable at best, and Heath Ledger’s bucktooth prosthesis was distracting, but the story is great, and it is set in 1970’s Southern California, which is when/where I grew up, so it really transports me.  The astonishing soundtrack alone gets it on my list of perennial faves (along with Pretty In Pink) to tune in to whenever it’s on TBS or WGN as I’m cooking and doing laundry on Sunday afternoon.  Plus, you can see Sofia Vergara, before she was well known, make a cameo as an honest-to-goodness Dogtown Chola, as well as Alexis Arquette in drag, of course, twist her ankle and fall off her stilettos trying to get into a limo with Johnny Knoxville, which was clearly not in the script.  PS: They were both fabulous.

Surfers practicing their balance skeelz on tightropes

Surfers practicing their balance skeelz on tightropes

“Dogtown,” of course, is Santa Monica’s nickname–more specifically, the nickname of the grittier south side of Santa Monica, all the way down to Venice Beach, around where the old P.O.P. (Pacific Ocean Park) Pier was, before it burned down, and where 70’s surf and skateboard culture spawned Zephyr Surfboards’ pro skateboard team, the “Z-Boys”: Tony Alva, Jay Adams and Stacy Peralta, among others, i.e., the Lords of Dogtown.  So, strictly speaking, Dogtown proper is a smidge south of the Santa Monica Pier, down the skate/bike path a bit toward Venice Beach.

But, there at the base of the Santa Monica Pier, at the site of the original Muscle Beach, is something far more marvelous than the P.O.P.  A holy site, of sorts.  A place to which every fiber of my being was drawn, as if by gravitational force, in an unplanned mystical pilgrimage.

They seem to have dispensed with the preposition and article...or maybe the "on a" stick came later

They seem to have dispensed with the preposition and article…or maybe the “on a” stick came later

I didn’t know why I was being pulled in that direction, down the steps behind the carousel to the sand, as if in a trance.  But when I saw it, my arteries vibrated with excitement, and I just…knew.  It was the original…Hot Dog On A Stick.  The very first one, opened in 1946!  Oh yes, gentle friends.  It was the place where it all began.  To be perfectly honest, I previously had no idea that Hot Dog On a Stick originated at the Santa Monica Pier, but as I stood there, awash in the angelic choir that emanated from the

Did I have one?  Why, yes I did.

Did I have one? Why, yes I did.

ancient temple/shipping container-like structure, under the watchful eye of the corndog archangel disguised as a giant pigeon perched on the light fixture over the order window, I had an epiphany (that I immediately confirmed by looking it up on Wikipedia on my iPhone).  It was the real deal; the corndog Mecca.  So, I did what the devout do, and I got in line to receive my corndog communion.

And it was good.


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Quinderella, You Shall Go To The Balls!

I was walking home from BART one day last week, and I saw this hilarious announcement in the window of Mr. Pollo on Mission Street:Mr Pollo

Of course, because I am irretrievably juvenile, I immediately thought of this:

But, after that, I remembered the sage words of Carrie Bradshaw in that episode of Sex and the City, where Carrie is trying to convince Samantha to go to Connecticut to crazy Laney Berlin’s baby shower:  “If  you’re driving down the road, and you see a sign that says ‘Two-Headed Snake,’ you pull over!”  I figure, a four course testicle tasting menu pretty much qualifies as the culinary equivalent of a two-headed snake, so I got my phone out right then and made a reservation.  (This mindset is also how I ended up taking fire-eating/breathing lessons, but that’s a story for another post.)

Chef Jonny Becklund and his fabulous gay cowboy apron. I couldn't get the sassy fringe on the bottom hem in the shot, but trust me, it really made the ensemble.

Chef Jonny Becklund and his fabulous cowboy apron.
I couldn’t get the sassy fringe on the bottom hem in the shot, but trust me, it really made the ensemble.

Best seat in the house

Best seat in the house

So, on the day after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA and Prop 8, when Mr. Pollo’s rock star chef, Jonny Becklund, busted out his teste-centric celebratory menu, I had a VIP seat, front and center.  I can’t say I’d ever eaten Rocky Mountain oysters, Prairie Oysters, Bull Berries, or whatever you want to call them, before.  I’ve eaten grasshoppers, ant larvae, all manner of organ meats, and something unidentifiable that was dug out of a hole in the ground with a stick in India, but never testicles.  It wasn’t really on my bucket list, either, I must say.  But, I went with an open mind, and Becklund’s sense of humor, as much as his cooking, really won me over.  Gentle friends, I can honestly report, Becklund’s balls were delicious!

Yes, that's a tea bag in the soup.   Not just for comic effect, either; it really gave the broth a lovely, lemony touch

Yes, that’s a tea bag in the soup.
Not just for comic effect, either; it really gave the broth a lovely, lemony touch

The first course–and my introduction to testicle cuisine–was what Becklund called a “Ball Matzo Ball Soup,” with ground bull teste meat in the matzo ball and a lemon tea bag steeping in the broth.  That’s right.  Tea baggin‘ broth with testicle meat balls.  I could tell this was going to be a humor-filled menu.  I had a seat at the counter, and got to chat with the chef as he prepared each course.  When I laughed at the tea bag flourish, he explained, with an impish smile, that it wasn’t just for comic effect; the lemony tea bag also gave the perfectly seasoned, light broth a sort of pho-like quality that was really surprising.

The ever-so-helpful server, Will, giving advice on what wines go best with balls.  Turns out, it's dry white wine. Now you know.

The ever-so-helpful server, Will, giving advice on what wines go best with balls.  Turns out, it’s dry white wine.
Now you know.

As for the Ball-Ball, well…it wasn’t bad.  I was worried about what the texture of testes might be like (I’m big on textures), but the meat was ground up in the matzo mix, so I couldn’t really tell.  The ball was dense, like you would expect from a matzo ball, and had a vague sort of organ meaty note that might have bothered me if I didn’t know what it was.  But, since I did, I was able to process it just fine.  You know what I mean?  Like, if you think you’re about to drink milk, but you actually take a swig of Diet Coke, it tastes ghastly, but if you know it’s Diet Coke before it goes in, it’s fine.  Kind of like that.  But really, the broth was what made the dish.  Very nice.

This, gentle friends, is a testicle pizza

This, gentle friends, is a testicle pizza

To follow the soup, Becklund made a love child between an arepa (which Mr. Pollo is known for) and a pizzetta–a pizzepa?  I dunno.  But it was good.  I watched him hand press out the little arepa crusts and cook them on the griddle; he’s an arepa makin’ machine.  Then he topped them with sautéed chopped testicle meat, mushrooms, some cheese, threw them under the broiler, and then served them garnished with sam-ball (har har, get it?) oelek chili aioli and arugula (an inside joke, Becklund said, between him and Will, the server, because suddenly, in SF, every chef in town is topping pizza with arugula).  So, this super-fragrant dish had the testicle meat in pretty much it original state, but for the chopping.  I didn’t hate it.  Kinda reminded me of Vienna Sausages.  The combination of flavors and the spices on this one made it my favorite of the four courses.

I could hardly stop laughing long enough to eat it!

I could hardly stop laughing long enough to eat it!

The humor of the main course was less subtle than that of the soup.  Foreplay was over by that point, and Becklund was gettin’ down!  Crispy fried balls, unapologetically perched atop grilled zucchini, resting on a bed of arguably the most perfectly executed grits west of N’awlins, and garnished with alfalfa sprout pubes.  I know…gross, but funny!

Oh, that Chef Jonny is cheeky monkey

Oh, that Chef Jonny is cheeky monkey!

I was a little disturbed by the angry red sauce drizzle.  Not sure what kind of nightmare inspired that.  I would have gone with a buttermilk sauce, I think.  When asked, Becklund told me he was trying to put a Buffalo hot sauce flavor in there, so it wasn’t an aesthetically chosen ingredient.  And the flavor was a nice addition.

The Happy Ending

The Happy Ending

What would a family jewel themed menu be without a phallic happy ending?  Well, fortunately, I’ll never know, because dessert came in the form of a semi-frozen chocolate banana.  Why only semi-frozen?  Because Chef Becklund likes them that way.  The fully frozen ones hurt his teeth, he said.  I have to agree, I have to gum the frozen solid ones to a pulp before I can bite through them, so I was pleased these were still sort of soft.  The chocolate mantle was lovely and dark and bittersweet, with a delicate whisper of an orange blossom infusion that lightly hit you right in the back of the throat, just like a surprise of that kind should.  (Dad, if you’re reading this, please don’t infer too much from that last statement.)  The whole kaboodle was then rolled in cracked malt balls (“because, ya gotta get balls in there somewhere,” Chef Becklund said), and treated to a drizzle of a perfect caramel sauce and a pixie dust sprinkling of espresso salt.  (He let me smell the jar of espresso salt, and it was really deliciously smoky and…um…espresso-y.)  All in all, the perfect way to finish off this truly memorable fertility rite of a meal.

Blink, and you might miss it

Blink, and you might miss it.  It’s right across from 24th Street & Mission BART Station.

I asked Chef Becklund how many balls he had to buy to make this special, two-seating, event.  Seventeen pounds worth, was the answer.  All beef, because he had a hard time locating any other kind from local purveyors.  If you want testicles from other species, you have to have them shipped up from L.A., apparently.  So, given Mr. Pollo’s diminutive size–three seats at the counter, and four dinky tables–and only two sold out seatings, that calculates to a half pound of testes per person, or, about one full-sized bull ball each.  I think that’s enough, don’t you?  I just hope it doesn’t cause me to grow chest hair or give me road rage or something.  I’ll keep you posted.

Mr. Pollo's interior is bedecked with the work of local artists, friends of Chef Becklund

Mr. Pollo’s tiny interior is bedecked with the work of local artist friends of Chef Becklund

In the meantime, if you are in the neighborhood, Becklund does a different, non-testicle-based four course menu at Mr. Pollo every day for only $20.  You can’t beat that.  But get there early, or you won’t get in.  I’m telling you, this boy can cook.  I know there has been some dreary Mission District hipster drama about the changing of the guard at Mr. Pollo, when Becklund took the helm at the beginning of this year, but I can’t be bothered with all of that.  All I care about is the food, and Becklund really turns it out.  Plus, he’s a hoot and a half to chat with while he’s working.  He has “foie gras” tattooed across his knuckles (as well as a neck tattoo of someone I think might be Edward R. Murrow), and literally threw a guy out of the restaurant one night for asking him to make him a vegan arepa.  (No disrespect to the vegans out there, but come on, you don’t ask a chef with “foie gras” tattooed on his knuckles to make you a vegan anything.)  He pairs a wicked sense of humor and a white trash sensibility with a truly sophisticated palate and an artist’s creativity, and he really seems to have fun with his work.  It’s a beautiful thing.  I’ll definitely be back.