Querido Mexico…

22 07 2009

I haven’t been anywhere in a while…and though I know I’ve eaten some great meals recently, I’ve neglected to take any photographs.  I’m in the mood to write, though, so what to do?  Dig up an old, yet-unrecorded trip, of course.  Two and a half years ago Chris and I spent a few days in Mexico City and had a wonderful time.  I’ve been a little saddened by the news about Mexico recently, and sometimes wonder if I’d be up for this same trip again, at least right now.  While most of the violence I read about is taking place along the border, I have also read about brazen instances of violence in the resort towns as well as Mexico City.  I wish this were not the case, because I had such a great time, never felt unsafe (at least not too unsafe), and Mexico City and I have unfinished business.

We arrived in Mexico City around 4pm on a Friday, 30 November 2007.  We hired a taxi from the airport (I had done a great deal of research on taxis — we only used Super Sitio or Servitaxis) and began the long, slow drive into the city.  I had read that the traffic in Mexico City was bad, and even with an expectation that it would be bad, I was amazed at just how bad it was.  It took us so long to get to our hotel — the Hotel Camino Real in the Polanco — that we only had time to run in, throw down our stuff, then walk briskly to the National Museum of Anthropology.  It was almost 6 by the time we finally got there.  The posted hours for the museum said that it would be open until 7; however, around 6:30 guards started walking around turning out lights and rounding everyone up.  Unfortunately, this left us with no choice but to run around trying to see as much as we could see in very little time.  I wish we could have spent hours there!  The collection of artifacts is amazing and I’m sure its so much more impressive when you can take the time to read about everything.









Once we were officially kicked out, we walked back to the hotel to freshen up before dinner and stopped to take a look — it was a pretty cool-looking hotel.  The design was quite minimalist and modern.  Here are a few snapshots:



Fountain out front that changed water patterns

Fountain out front that changed water patterns

Standard bedroom

Standard bedroom

Loved the modern bathroom

Loved the modern bathroom

That night, we walked to La Fonda del Recuerdo for dinner.  The walk was somewhat long, but I enjoyed the stroll.  I don’t recall what we ate, but I do recall that we enjoyed ourselves and many tequilas y sangritas.  We both developed quite a taste for the Don Julio Reposado with a sangrita — so tasty.  The restaurant had a very festive atmosphere with jarochos performing traditional music, lots of tables full of happy people, and the odd (to me) roving people trying to sell you flowers and other items.  I’m still not sure what the deal was with the person who came to the table with a bird cage with little tiny birds in it…  After dinner we walked back in the chilly night air — this felt very good after a heavy meal and a few tequilas.  I have read that we should have taken a cab to and from the restaurant, but I enjoyed the walk and never felt unsafe.

The next morning we woke up super early and took a taxi to the bus station where we managed to get on a local bus out to Teotihuacan.  My ability to speak Spanish came in very handy here, although it was still a bit confusing and I was never 100% certain we were doing it right until we actually arrived at our destination about an hour later.  We were the only people on the bus going to Teotihuacan, so that also had me slightly worried that we were on the wrong bus…but, it all worked out.  The strangest thing happened on the way, though.  The sun was barely beginning to rise as we headed down the highway when suddenly the bus driver pulled maybe a foot or two to the side of the road (not out of the road — just barely to the side) and stopped…and got off.  People started looking around to see what was going on but no one seemed to know….all the while cars are just flying around us.  After a few minutes the driver got back on and we continued on our way.  Not really sure about that…this was one point on the trip where my imagination started running a bit wild.  But I guess he just needed to make a pit stop…or something.

When we got to Teotihuacan it was not yet open, so we had to stand around outside the (open) gates (I tried to walk in and was promptly sent back out).  Once it opened we headed in and started exploring — we were practically the only people there for a while.  It was simply beautiful.  The stairs up to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun were a challenge — the steps were tall and narrow — but the view from up top was profound.  The park abounds with interesting visual perspectives.  Here are some of my favorite shots from the day:









After wandering around this amazing ancient archaeological site for a few hours we caught a bus back to the city.  The bus ride back was cool — since we were on a local bus, we made several stops in little towns along the way and I felt like I got a greater sense of what the towns are actually like. 

Once we made it back to the hotel we hopped on the subway and headed down to the Centro Artesanal crafts market to do some Christmas shopping.  First order of business, however, was lunch.  There were several stands serving all sorts of foods near the entrance to the market, and after walking through once we settled on a fairly crowded taco stand where we got perhaps our favorite meal of the trip.  We ordered a few varieties of tacos — I wasn’t always sure of the meats, so I just pointed to what looked good (and it was, indeed, good).  Our favorite taco, we agreed, was the taco chile relleno — delicious queso-filled chiles rellenos that the woman working the stand tossed back onto the hot grill, cut in half, and stuffed into delectable corn tortillas.  This was exactly what we were looking for — fantastic street food.

After lunch we headed into the market and found all kinds of goodies to bring home and give our family members for Christmas…everything from cheesy magnets to lucha libre t-shirts (vamos, Mil Máscaras!) to a beautiful mirror set in tin and more.  Chris bought me a gorgeous hand-carved and painted wooden platter for my birthday.  Since we had learned in Turkey that I absolutely HATE negotiating, we had a system — I identified the goods and Chris worked for the best price.

Next we headed to Chapultepec Park and strolled about for a couple of hours.  The people-watching was great and the park is really beautiful.  I’m a big fan of urban parks and Chapultepec goes down on my list of one of the best.  I managed not to take very many photos for some reason…but here are a few.




That night I asked our hotel for a dinner recommendation and they sent us to La Hacienda de los Morales.  In retrospect, I’m a little disappointed in our dinner experience that night.  The building was beautiful but the atmosphere was a bit too fancy and it was not cheap.  I don’t mind paying more for food if it blows me away, but the food was just fine.  I wish we had found a local gem.  I would have preferred something a little more adventurous, more fun.  As this was our last dinner in Mexico City, I’m left feeling a bit unsatisfied.  This is the first of my unfinished business with Mexico City.

The next day, Sunday, we again woke up early and headed to the Zócalo  — a day I which I had been anticipating all weekend.  I could not wait to stroll the massive plaza and see the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Templo Mayor, and especially the National Palace to see the Diego Rivera murals.  When we arrived at the Zócalo, this is what we saw:


Christmas had arrived…as had a massive ice skating rink filling the entire plaza, making it virtually impossible for me to get any perspective on the vastness of the square!  Sure, it was fun watching kids and grown-ups alike skate around and the decorations were very festive, but Chris had been telling me how cool the plaza is, how many different things I might see…and instead all I could see through the bleachers set up all around was an ice skating rink, and forget about getting a good perspective on the cathedral or the palace.  Oh well — it’s still beautiful and I’m thrilled to be here, and as it was a Sunday morning it was cool watching people heading in for mass.  I did manage to get a few shots that turned out okay:







Our final stop for the day before we had to begin our return journey to the airport was to be the Palacio Nacional and the murals.  Although we had confirmed (through various written publications…) it would be open, when I approached the guard to go inside the told me it was closed today — no one could go in.  I fruitlessly tried to explain how I was flying home later that day and how I had come specifically on this day to see the murals — I’m not sure what I thought would happen, as if he’d say, oh, okay, well come on in for a special tour…  Needless to say, we did not get to go inside.  So, I had learned a few important lessons on this trip.  The first lesson is that posted hours in Mexico City are more like guidelines (I’m also thinking back to the Anthropology Museum).  The second lesson is that if it’s really important to see something, don’t save it for the very end of the trip!

Our quick trip to Mexico City was wonderful, but I know it was just a taste of what the city has to offer.  As I mentioned above, we have some unfinished business.  I want more time at the museum.  I want to see the Zócalo on a regular day.  I want to find better dinner spots.  And I want to see the murals!  Even with this unfinished business, though, I was instantly attracted to the sights, the colors, the sounds, the general festive and animated feeling I noticed everywhere we went.  Plus, it’s always a blast for me to travel somewhere where I can speak the language.  I know I’ll be back.

From Yachats to Olympia

23 06 2009

Chris and I just got back from another trip out to the Pacific Northwest, and yet again I am convinced this is the most naturally beautiful part of the country.  We hopped on a plane out of Austin on a Thursday evening, and after a five or six hour delay in Denver due to massive thunderstorms (allowing us to watch Game 4 of the NBA Finals), we arrived in Seattle around 2:30 in the morning.  Luckily, I had booked us a room at the Hilton Airport and Conference Center on Priceline (for a grand total of $58!) so we caught the shuttle to the hotel and crashed.  Around 9 the next morning my brother called and said he’d be there to pick us up shortly to begin our adventure down to the Central Oregon Coast.

No great adventure can start without full bellies, so we decided to stop first for breakfast in Olympia at an old favorite — McMenamin’s Spar Cafe.  My brother and I split an order of the biscuits and gravy, and I had an over-easy egg and hashbrowns on the side.  Who would have thought I could get one of the best biscuits and gravy I’ve had outside of Texas…let alone in the Pacific Northwest?  It was delicious.  The thick, dense biscuits were covered in a hearty sausage gravy and topped with crumbled bacon and green onions.  Upon first seeing the plate my brother and I both thought there was no way SPLITTING this dish would fill us up…but how wrong we were.  It was delicious and filling.  Chris got the chicken fried steak and eggs with hashbrowns.  The crispy fried steak was covered in the same delicious gravy and, according to Chris, fantastic.  Again, who would expect delicious chicken fried steak and eggs outside of Texas?  I tried a bite — it was indeed delicious.

After breakfast we made a pit stop at the local camping/outdoors store in Olympia for camp fuel and a few bag dinners, stopped by my brother’s place to load up his stuff, and then we headed down I-5 toward Oregon.  We cut over to Highway 101 through Corvallis, Oregon on 20.  At Newport, we stopped by a grocery store for a few more provisions then headed south on 101 until we made it to the Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park.  They had one walk-in campsite left so we decided to take it.  Although the campsites were somewhat close together, the campground was beautiful, and there were so many big trees and slight elevation changes within the campground itself it didn’t feel too terribly crowded.  I also liked how the drive-in campsites were completely separate from the walk-in sites.  We dropped our stuff at the site, threw a wine bottle and

cork screw in a day pack, and walked over to the beach to take in the sunset on the Pacific.


We walked all the way down the coast to some rocks covered with birds, then headed back and found a nice little spot to sit and enjoy the sunset with a little red wine.




It was lovely.  When the sun was almost gone we decided to head back to set up camp.  We munched on chips and salsa as we got a nice fire going in the fire pit, then whipped up some bean and cheese burritos for dinner.  That really hit the spot.

That night I had maybe one of the best nights of sleep while camping ever.  Whether it was the sound of the waves on the coast all night, the softness of the ground in the campsite, the perfect cool temperature, the popping and crackling of the slowly-dying fire, the sound of the light drizzle on the tent in the early morning hours, or the fact that I was really tired from a long day of travel, I don’t know…but it was wonderful.  I woke up refreshed and ready to go.  However, the early morning drizzle turned into a bit more of a heavy drizzle, so we opted to hop in the car and head up to Yachats to look for a good cup of coffee…and find one we did.

We happened to stop into this wonderful coffee shop and bakery called The Green Salmon — great coffee and perhaps even better baked goods.  I was only going to get coffee, but after sampling Matt’s maple croissant, I had to order something too.  I got a cinnamon croissant and it was flaky (but did not just explode into crumbs when you bit into it), buttery, cinnomony, and delicious.  After coffee we headed back to camp and set out on the hike to the Heceda Head Lighthouse.  The hike starts out in the forest just down from the entrance to the park.  This part of the hike is easy and absolutely gorgeous.



We encountered tons of salamanders in the path and found them quite difficult to see (they either looked like the ground or like sticks on the ground) — that, coupled with the fact that they moved incredibly slowly, kept us on our toes as we tried our best not to step on any.  After a few miles the trail crossed 101 and started into the woods on the other side of the road.  We quickly started going up and found ourselves high above the beach.


A little bit further, and we were at the lighthouse.



We spent at least an hour exploring the beach and the tide pools below the lighthouse.







I had never seen starfish or anemones outside of an aquarium…so cool!

On our way back, we took the Hobbit Trail fork to the beach (the fork is on the beach-side of 101 along the Heceda Head Lighthouse Trail).  The entire hike was around 6 miles and except for portions near the lighthouse, is easy.  The entire hike is incredibly beautiful.  As always happens with me in the Pacific Northwest, I am struck by the green, by the amount of life everywhere…not to mention seeing spruce, firs, ferns, moss, rocks, and sandy beach all in one place.  Amazing.

After the hike we had perhaps our one big food miss of the trip — the greasy eggs.  The plan was to have our late breakfast of tacos back at the campsite, so we cooked up some bacon on our little single burner, and this is where I made my big mistake.  I should have known better.  Even as I type this, I’m getting a little bit sick to my stomach.  For some unknown reason, I decided we did not need to pour out any of the bacon grease before cooking the eggs…so we just dumped 6 eggs into the grease and started cooking.  I can still see those eggs, floating in the grease…Matt had the great idea that we just add six more eggs, and maybe then there would not be so much grease.  So we added more eggs and cooked away.  They eventually firmed up and we mixed back in the bacon and added cheese, threw the mixture in tortillas and topped with salsa…but one bite and, as Matt put it, it felt like you put a thick coating of chap stick on.  Yuck.  But of course we ate them.  And then felt kind of gross for a while…

Once we finally felt like we could move around somewhat, we decided this would be a good opportunity to get in the car and see what we could see along 101.  I had read about the Sea Lion Caves (world’s largest sea lion cave, woo hoo!)  so we drove a few miles south and found the crowded parking lot, looked around at the cheesy signs, and decided to skip it.  Instead, we headed up to Devil’s Churn for a while and then Strawberry Hill.  Both spots were beautiful, and did not cost $11 per person.


For dinner that night we did our bag meals (even though we had scrapped our backpacking plans, the backpacking dinners came in handy) by another great fire then enjoyed good old-fashioned smores.  Then we enjoyed burning marshmellows for a while…

After another great night of sleep, we packed up and headed back to the Green Salmon in Yachats for more great coffee and pastries, then kept on going until we got to the Oregon Coast Aquarium.  I love aquariums, and this one was very impressive.  First, they had otters, perhaps my favorite animal.  Look at this fat and happy guy!  Second, the indoor deep sea life display was awesome.  Most of the tanks had beautiful blown glass pieces that, together with some creative lighting, made for some impressive displays.  On top of that, so many of these creatures were just so beautiful and interesting…  I was also able to touch (pet?) starfish, baby sharks, rays, and anemone (that was perhaps the strangest to feel — they stick to you).  The shark display was also really cool — sharks along with the bizarre-looking flounder and other big fish swim all around you.







Once we’d seen the entire aquarium (at a very reasonable $13.25 with a AAA discount, I might add), we got back on the road and stopped for lunch In Corvallis at American Dream Pizza.  While Chris’s and my pizza was only so-so (when you order by the slice it seems like they just throw some toppings on top of cheese pizza), Matt’s calzone looked pretty tasty.  I was also impressed by the photos of President Obama eating there on a campaign stop, and the roof-top table was a great spot in this cute town.  The weather was gorgeous — sunny but cool.  I bet Oregon State is a fun place to go to school…

We made it back to Olympia around 6 or so, got cleaned up, then walked over to Fish Tales for dinner.  Fish Tales is  a casual pub-style place with great beer and good food.  I had the fish and chips, Chris had oysters and chips, and Matt had the portabella mushroom burger.  Matt and I both enjoyed a couple of pints.

The next day, we headed back to our favorite spot — McMenamin’s — for breakfast.  This time I had the scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, green onions, and cream cheese.  Chris opted for the biscuits and gravy.  Matt went with a standard eggs, bacon, hashbrowns, and toast breakfast.  As usual, the meal was terrific.

After breakfast we hit the road for our next hike — the Hama Hama Trail in the Olympic National Forest (I’ve also seen Hamma Hamma and I’m not sure which one is right…perhaps the both are?).  It took us about an hour or two to get to the trailhead off of 101 on the Olympic Peninsula.  This hike was intense, but the reward was well worth it.  The trail starts out at a gentle but steady incline for maybe a mile, and then the serious incline starts.  It was probably two or more miles of up, and up, and up…I had to stop and catch my breath and let the burning in my legs die down a bit quite a few times!  There were even a few challenging spots over streams, alongside drop-offs, and up rocks (one where you had to use a rope — very fun!).  Near the top we started encountering patches of snow — much less snow than two weeks earlier, according to my brother (who, incidentally, has seen a bear both times he’d been out on this trail before — both in the past month — while I was a little anxious about a bear encounter, and it certainly seemed likely along this secluded trail, I have to say I’m disappointed now that we didn’t see one).  At the top of the mountains we arrived at Angel Lake, and while I’m trying not to sound like a broken record, I can’t help it — it was beautiful.  Waterfalls all around us, patches of snow on the ground and all over the higher peaks, a serene lake high above the trailhead…just breathtaking.







The hike down was almost as challenging as the hike up — perhaps not as tiring on the hamstrings and glutes, but I nearly went down on loose rocks a few times (okay, I did go down once, but it was a quick down and bounce right back up), and after a while my legs felt like pure wobbly jello.  It was much easier to descend with my knees slightly bent the whole time so as to bob up and down as little as possible, but that was quite a workout.  It was, however, much quicker than the hike up and it seemed like we were down in no time.

On our drive back, we stopped at a burger place right on 101 in Hoodsport.  I can’t remember the name, but it’s a tiny little town and it was right off of 101 with lots of outdoor seating.  The burger hit the spot and the crinkle cut fries took me back to my childhood.

After this late lunch/early dinner, my brother drove us all the way back to our hotel by the Seattle Airport and Chris and I settled in for some relaxing before our day of travel the following day.  The Hilton by the airport has a nice outdoor pool and hot tub — perfect for our tired legs.  The next day we made it home with no real delays — our flight had to hold outside of Denver due to more thunderstorms, but we had such a long layover it made no difference to us (other than cause me slight anxiety).  We made it home by midnight and thus another trip to the beautiful Pacific Northwest came to a close.

Testing the Top Ten Hikes Part Two – The Enchanted Rock

14 05 2009

A couple of weekends ago Chris and I and Chris’s mom decided to head out into the beautiful Texas Hill Country for another of the “Top Ten Hikes” according to Texas Monthly Magazine.  This hike consisted of the Loop Trail around Enchanted Rock and then, of course, heading up to the top of the main dome.  According to Hiking Texas by Laurence Parent, the dome is part of an ancient igneous batholith that covers about 100 square miles of the central mineral region of Texas, and is one of the oldest exposed rocks in North America with an estimated age of one billion years.


We left our house on a Saturday morning around 7 and made it out to Enchanted Rock State Park by 9.  It had been raining in the days leading up to our hike but the weather held out for us, and even cleared up and got quite warm.  Enchanted Rock is definitely not something you want to do in the middle of the summer — I can’t imagine how hot it must get climbing up the dome in 90+ degrees (which, on the rock, probably feels more like 120!).

I’ve been out to Enchanted Rock twice before — once for another day hike, and once camping out in the primitive sites you have to hike to.  Both times it was cold and rainy.  I was excited to see the area on a warm and clear(ing) day.  Though we missed the peak of wildflower season, there were still some wildflowers here and there, and the moisture on the ground from the rains made for some beautiful shots. 



Some of the cactus blooms were beginning to open too.



I’m not even sure what this is, but I thought it was pretty…


The Loop Trail is an easy hike that loops around the granite dome (around 4 or 4 1/2 miles long).  It follows Sandy Creek for almost a mile and then turns around the dome with small inclines here and there. 






Once you make it around to the north side of the main dome, you’ll encounter lots of smaller rocks that I think make for some beautiful shots.  




After we finished the loop, Chris’s mom headed to the shade to rest while Chris and I scaled the main dome.  While the trek up the rock is not long, it is steep, rising abruptly a few hundred feet.  Once at the top, the views are spectacular.

Chris at the top

Chris at the top



And of course, the obligatory shot of us taking a break after reaching the top…


What I like about this hike is the Hill Country setting — it’s beautiful out here.  The hike is a good distance — easy enough for a day hike but you can make it more challenging if you want to (by picking up your pace).  It’s hard to beat the views from the top of the dome, and really, the dome itself is really cool.  I also like how close it is to Austin.  If I had a complaint, it might be the crowds.  While we did not pass many people on the Loop Trail, the dome was crowded with all sorts of people…people wearing sandals (with heels!!) or flip flops and jeans who I’m sure must have turned around half-way.  Despite the crowds, though, I like the fact that people are out enjoying Texas parks, so I won’t complain too much about that.

After Chris and I came down from the dome, we headed back towards home — but stopped for lunch at possibly my new favorite burger place, the Alamo Springs Cafe.  This place was about 10 miles down Old San Antonio Road (just on the Austin side of Fredericksburg).  It’s casual, friendly, and the burgers were fantastic.  I had a burger with blue cheese, bacon, and mushrooms, onion rings, and a Fat Tire beer (probably not the most small-town Texas-y beer I could choose, but I think it’s a good beer and they were out of my first choice).  The burger itself was delicious, and they were very generous with the toppings.  The rings were sliced thinly and were fried perfectly with just the right amount of salt and pepper (which probably means they were fairly salty — I do like salt).  Chris had a cheeseburger with jalopeños on a jalopeño bun that had a touch of sweetness to it — according to him it was amazing.  Chris’s mom also got a cheeseburger and homemade chips.  Even the iced tea was great.  Next time I’m driving through Fredericksburg and I’m hungry, I’m definitely making a stop in Alamo Springs.

I only had my iPhone with me at lunch, so the photos are not that great…but I think it gives you a good idea of what I’m talking about.  Yummmm.







Update — The Dinner

5 05 2009

The 10k challenge dinner turned out well.  Really well.  A perfect team collaboration to create a wonderfully balanced, slightly indulgent, and all-around thoroughly enjoyable meal.  For my part, I made potato gnocchi with a traditional basil pesto and an Italian loaf.

I’m getting better at making gnocchi.  Six large potatoes made more than enough for 13 people…


I baked the potatoes roughly an hour in a hot oven, peeled them while still hot, and riced them.  I added salt and roughly a cup and a half or more of flour to about two pounds of riced potatoes (really this was eyeballed and then by feel) and worked the dough until it would roll into long snakes without breaking apart.  Once I rolled out about 20 snakes, I cut each one into 3/4 of an inch (or so) pieces, rolled each one off of a fork (apparently this not only makes it look the way gnocchi is supposed to look, but ensures the gnocchi cook evenly) and laid all of the finished gnocchi onto baking sheets covered in parchment paper. 

Next, I prepared the pesto.  First, I toasted pine nuts in a dry skillet until just browned. 


Next, I toasted several cloves of garlic in their skins for seven or eight minutes and set those aside to cool.  I threw the pine nuts, cooled (and peeled) garlic, salt, and gobs of basil (that I had bruised with a rolling pin) into the food processor and processed until nicely chopped. 


Next, I added olive oil and processed until smooth.  I poured this mixture into a bowl and stirred in finely grated Parmesan…


and voila! 

The finished product (only slightly blurry):


For the bread, I must confess I used the bread maker to prepare the dough (such a time saver)…but I formed the dough into a big ball and set it out to rise on an oiled baking sheet, glazed it with salt water just prior to baking, and sliced into wedges for the meal.

Rounding out the rest of the meal…

Mary stopped by Mandola’s, a wonderful Italian deli/cafe in the Triangle opened by the beloved Mandola family a couple of years ago or so (if it takes Houston coming to Austin to bring good food, I say bring it), and picked up a delicious variety of foods to create an antipasti plate.  We had two different cheeses, a Parma ham, lemon marinated sardines, olives, sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts…most nights something like this could be my entire dinner.  But tonight, it made for the perfect way to start.

Amanda made two different salads to go with the meal — one Caesar salad and one mixed greens with a variety of vegetables.  I think everyone ended up eating both salads with dinner.  Carrie (with her husband’s grilling assistance) did the steaks, all cooked a wonderful medium rare to rare drizzled with a bit of the leftover pesto thinned with a bit more oil.  Once we started eating, I completely forgot about shooting the food…but I did manage this shot of my plate before I completely devoured it.


Lastly, dessert.  Carrie made an absolutely delicious variation on Pastel de Tres Leches — I think we termed it Tre Latti due to the fact that she added a touch of Amaretto to the cake batter.  It was SO good.  The cake was perfectly moist, milky without being soggy, the Amaretto taste was fantastic, and the thick whipped cream topping, not too sweet, yum…… 

I have no doubt the guys could have created a delicious meal for us had we won the 10k challenge, but after this dinner, I have to say I think things turned out the way they should have, and if we happen to lose again next year…well, I’m ready to start thinking of the menu.

Paying my bets, or how does gnocchi sound?

24 04 2009

I’m not writing about travel today, but I am going to get to food.  I’m paying off a bet this Saturday night, and I’m actually looking forward to it.  A few weeks ago some friends and I competed in a 10k challenge, taking place during the 32nd running of the Capitol 10,000 in Austin.  It was a boys vs. girls throwdown.  Only four guys stepped up to the plate to compete, while eight girls came ready to run.  The total time of the boys would be compared to the total time of the four fastest girls, and the losing team would have to make dinner for the winning team. 

I’m always up for a challenge…I’m a competitor on many levels.  Just last night I got into it with Chris trying to name the three different types of rocks (for some reason I was convinced a “conglomerate” was a “type” of rock, but alas, I was wrong on that one).  I played volleyball in high school and college.  I absolutely LOVE games.  Trivia Pursuit?  I’m down.  Rock Star?  I’m on drums.  42?  I’ll shake.  So when the idea of a boys vs. girls challenge was thrown out there, I was definitely up for it.  For the most part, the attitude of the girls was just to have fun, it’s not about winning (I had to suppress my inner competitor to agree with that one).  Besides, we girls knew going into the contest it would be tough.  One of the participating boys (the guy who’s idea this whole thing was in the first place, actually, hmmmm….) runs 6 minute miles and recently qualified for the Boston Marathon.  Another of the boys averages about 7.5 minutes miles, and Chris can do around 8 minute miles.  Me?  I run 9ish minute miles, which, by the way, I happen to think is really fast.  The other seven girls who ran the challenge all run about the same.  We’re consistent, if nothing else.  Our only hope was that my brother-in-law, the one remaining member of the guys’ team, would be so slow, we might have a chance.

The morning of the race was pretty chilly for March.  I think it was actually in the 30s (though highs would probably reach the 60s).  Chris and I got up, dressed, and drove around the corner to pick up my brother-in-law, who was covered from head to toe…running pants, long sleeve shirt under a t-shirt, hat, gloves…I start thinking, okay, we may have a chance.  He’s going to get so hot, he’ll have to walk…right?  Well, no such luck.  He did get hot, and he did not run all that fast, but run he did, and he finished in plenty of time for the boys to pull off the easy victory.

The day after the race, the results circulated: 

Boys’ total time — 3:21:36

Girls’ total time — 3:51:25

Almost a half hour slower!  Next year I’m going to suggest doing it the way certain Olympic events are judged…toss out the fastest and slowest times and use what’s left.  Maybe that will help.

Anyway, all this is a lead in to what I think should be a delicious feast tomorrow night.  A few of the girls and I met for lunch earlier this week and planned the menu.  I’m making potato gnocchi with a basil pesto and homemade baguettes.  Amanda is bringing a huge salad, Carrie is doing steaks and dessert (we’re thinking something along the lines of a tres leches but with more of an Italian feel), and Mary is preparing an antipasti plate to munch on while we finish up dinner.  And everyone (boys included) is to bring a bottle of wine.  A simple, classic Italian dinner that I think is going to be delicious and sure to please everyone.  Besides, I’m *really* excited to get to use my ricer again…

Houston with family

6 04 2009

A few weekends ago Chris and I decided to show my sister, her husband, and their two kids what we like about Houston.  We lived there for many years, and my husband is originally from Houston (mostly — I like to tease him about this but it never gets me very far…he has huge Houston pride).  Several months ago my sister may or may not have said something to the effect of “I like Dallas better than Houston” within earshot of my husband (this is subject to dispute) and at that very moment he formulated plans to take them to Houston and show them what they have been missing.

We thought long and hard about the plans…there is so much to see and do and, more importantly, EAT in Houston!  We did not have much time.  We would also have to tailor this trip for kids — include things everyone in the family would enjoy.  We also wanted to keep costs as low as possible.  We would drive in Saturday morning and return by early afternoon the next day.  We would have to make time to drive up 45 to Chris’s parents house, acclimate the kids to my in-laws, then head back in for dinner and what-not.  Within those restrictions, we saw a lot, and I think we all had a great time.  The weather did not want to cooperate (it rained constantly and was unseasonably cold) but we were able to work that to our advantage…see, it actually rains in Houston.  Here in Austin, at least up until a few weeks ago, we were starting to forget what rain looked like…

Chris and I picked up the crew in my friend Mary’s Honda Pilot (thank you Mary!!) at 6:30 in the morning and hit the road, coffee in hand.  The kids tuned in to The Incredibles in the back-back and the rest of us settled in for the drive.  We made it to our first stop by 9:15 and headed in for a quick, “light” breakfast…


…at Crescent City Beignets.  To me, one of the great things about Houston is its proximity to New Orleans and its own Cajun culture.  So, we ate a few freshly-fried beignets and drank cafe au lait and we were on our way. 

We headed straight to the Children’s Museum, and on this day the museum was celebrating the grand opening of its expansion with free admission, all kinds of musical and dance performances, and I think the space was now double in size.  There was a lot going, and there were TONS of people, but we got there right when it opened at 10 and managed to handle the crowds without getting separated too many times.  The museum is absolutely fantastic…the kids had a blast, and I really want to take them back on a less-crowded day.  My nephew had a lot of fun navigating the “Powerplay,” which I can only describe as a three-story structure of almost petal-like platforms enclosed by netting.  It’s part maze, part jungle-gym…it’s really cool.  My nephew and Chris went back later and Chris tried it out himself.  They both had a blast.  Here are a few shots from the side…




We tried all sorts of pulley and lever contraptions, messed around with static electricity, and tried to do the climbing wall but the line was too long.  I don’t think we saw half of everything there, but what we did see was really cool.  We also checked out a few of the performances.  First, we saw the dance of the Lion with Lee’s Golden Dragon (my nephew really thought the dragon was coming after him…and really it kind of was!).  I mean, it was right on top of us.


Later I enjoyed the dance of the Mixteco Ballet Folklorico with my sister and niece.  I still have not mastered the dancing photography (you may remember this from my Buenos Aires post) but I do kind of like the effect I end up with…




By lunch time, the museum was really starting to get crowded, plus, we had a tight schedule to adhere to (this was my job — keeping us on schedule), so a little after noon we headed over to Rajin’ Cajun for lunch.  Chris and I used to love coming here for muffalettas and po’ boys…but today, I decided to give the crawfish another thought.  They were never my favorite in town when I lived here, but I have to say…they were pretty tasty, and seeing as how they are really hard to find in Austin, they really hit the spot.  Chris got an oyster po’ boy and onion rings.  I think everyone was very satisfied with lunch.  I took a few shots of the carnage…



After lunch, we headed over to my favorite museum in town, the Menil Collection.  There are so many reasons I love this museum, from the beautiful building designed by Renzo Piano that nestles so perfectly in the surrounding residential neighborhood of gray and white bungalows, to the grounds where I have spent many a warm afternoon lounging under huge oak trees, to the expansive interior filled with natural light, to the impressive collection of modern and surrealist works (including a huge collection of Magritte’s paintings) as well as antiquities and a large collection of objects from Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Pacific Northwest.  The kids especially loved all of the masks, tools, accessories, and weapons.  And I don’t think I mentioned another great thing about the Menil — it is free. 

Though we planned to walk over to the Byzantine Fresco Chapel next, the rain forced us to hop back into the car and drive the three or four blocks.  The Byzantine Chapel is part of the Menil Collection, and the way I understand it, these 13th century frescoes were stolen from a chapel in Cyprus in the 1980s.  The thieves broke the frescoes into 38 pieces and attempted to sell them on the black market.  The Menil Foundation in Houston managed to buy all 38 pieces with the knowledge and approval of the church of Cyprus and spent two years restoring them.  Today, they are the only intact Byzantine frescoes in the western hemisphere, and the building that holds them is a simple and fitting spot to admire the masterpieces. 

Next, we drove around River Oaks for a little bit, checking out the huge houses…some are really beautiful.  Others…they’re just huge.  At this point in the day, we are ahead of schedule due to the rain (we had planned on spending an hour or so on the grounds of the Menil, but no such luck).  So…what could we do inside in Houston…hmmm…of course.  The Galleria.  Suffice it to say, we were not the only people who had this idea.  It was packed!  The guys dropped my sister, the kids and me off and set out to find parking.  We headed in and immediately ran in to a fashion show.  After checking that out for a while, we met up with the guys and watched the ice skaters for a while (and my sister and I used this opportunity to leave the kids with the guys while we checked out a few stops).  Finally, it was time to head north.  The kids felt instantly at home with Chris’s parents who were really excited to have kids in the house.  When we left, my mother-in-law was in the midst of a ping pong match with my nephew and my niece was bouncing around watching them. 

Our night began with a late dinner at the best Mexican food restaurant in Houston, in my opinion — the original Ninfa’s on Navigation.  It is so hard telling people that my favorite Mexican food is Ninfa’s, because someone will invariably say “Oh, I’ve been to a Ninfa’s here.”  IT IS NOT THE SAME!!!  It is SO not the same.  Every other Ninfa’s is awful.  But the one on Navigation is where it all began, and it’s fantastic.  It starts when you walk in and right there, two women expertly making tortillas.  There is nothing better than homemade tortillas.  Also, every single time I’ve eaten there, and I’ve eaten there more times than I can possibly remember, I have had fantastic service.  Every time.  And I continue to recognize the same wait staff from years ago when I first ate there.  No matter how busy or big your party, you will be in great hands.  And of course, the food is great.  We started out with the queso fundido con rajas — the server prepares each cheese-filled tortilla tableside with two utensils.  It’s impressive, delicious, and a great way to start.  The margaritas are also a must.  Even the house margaritas.  Delicious.  I also devour my weight in the pickled carrots and chips every time I go.  They are highly addictive.  When I first started eating at Ninfa’s they were always on the table…now, you have to ask for them, but rest assured, they have them.  For the entree, it’s really hard to beat the beef.  We ordered enough beef fajitas for the table and before long we had a platter of beef, onions, peppers, and nopales in the middle of the table and other plates with frijoles borrachos, frijoles refritos, rice, guacamole, pico de gallo, and sour cream scattered about.  I usually ask them to throw in some grilled shrimp as well.  All of this with all of the homemade tortillas you can eat…makes for a great, and extremely reasonably-priced dinner.  I like to go back every time I’m in town.

After dinner we decided to hit up four different bars (thanks to Chris being more than happy shuttling us around)…two of which were old favorites from Chris’s and my days here.  First, we enjoyed a beer at the West Alabama Ice House.  Though it was cold and rainy, we settled up to the bar under the front cover and it wasn’t bad at all.  Chris and I once lived right across the street in the upstairs portion of  a duplex and have fond memories of this place…from the free hot dogs on Fridays (while they lasted) to the late-night blasting of New York, New York!  We also met so many fun characters over there…

Next, we stopped in at Rudyard’s…I always loved that place.  We used to see bands upstairs (especially when the Asylum Street Spankers came to town)…play darts downstairs…and its a great place to eat and drink a pint.  Even though it was a Saturday night we were able to sit right down at a table for a drink (I think more than half of the crowd was crammed into the outdoor smoking area).  Though it has been a few years since I’ve been here, it still seemed like the same great place I used to love.

For our next stop, we wanted to go upscale, so we headed downtown to the State Bar.  Do people not go here anymore?  Is this more of a happy hour spot?  I’m pretty sure we were the only people there.  Nice views, nice interior…but really quiet!  It was midnight by this point, but people go to bars at midnight, don’t they?  We didn’t stay long.  Our last stop was the bar at the Hilton by the Toyota Center.  The Hilton was not there when we lived in Houston, but I have been there before and think the lobby is pretty cool (especially the glass light fixtures).  Once we finished our drink, we headed back home to get a few hours of sleep.

The next morning we picked up breakfast at the Hot Bagel Shop on Shepherd and the bagels are still delicious.  The cream cheeses are delicious.  And, they make these breakfast bagels I absolutely love — bagels filled with eggs and bacon.  YUM.  The plan was to take breakfast over to Hermann Park and hang out for a few hours.  Of course, the weather had another idea.  We were able to eat our bagels at a picnic table, but by the time we made it over to the reflecting pool, the rain was coming down.  We didn’t get to see the Japanese Gardens…and Chris was especially sad he couldn’t show our niece and nephew how to slide/roll down the hill by Miller Outdoor Theater.  Oh well…next time.

Our last planned event also had to be nixed…we were planning on going out to the San Jacinto Monument (which, I hear may be the tallest monument column in the world?).  It is also a very important part of Texas history…but alas, we were a few miles east of Houston on I-10 and the rain was just getting worse.  As a side-note, with all the rain, we were able to show how quickly and easily Houston floods…and how everyone there just deals with it!  It did not seem like a great idea to head out to a low-lying area where we could get stranded, though, so we decided to head back home.  I think everyone was pretty exhausted by the fast-pace of our trip…but really, when you only have less than 36 hours to experience a city with as much as Houston has to offer, you have to keep moving!

The Arts in Fort Worth and Dallas in a Day

13 03 2009

A couple of Saturdays ago, Rob and Amanda came over early with breakfast tacos from Tamale House (on Airport — the BEST breakfast tacos in Austin) and by 7am we were on I-35 heading north, travel mugs filled to the brim.  We found ourselves in Fort Worth around 10am or so and, after navigating around an apparent marathon (i.e. lots of coned-off roads) we pulled into the parking lot of the Modern Art Museum and found ourselves face to face with one of our favorite Richard Serra sculptures — Vortex. 



The Modern Art Museum itself is modern art — it was designed by Tadao Ando and is a simple structure of concrete, glass, and steel, with lots of natural light.  I love wandering throughout the museum and looking from one room across the pond through another and into yet another.  There were two exhibitions this time — one was a sampling of works from the collection (“The Collection and Then Some”) and the other was a small exhibition of works by Jeff Elrod.  There were some interesting pieces, but I was most interested in seeing how each piece played off the structure of the building.



I do love Ladder for Booker T. Washington by Martin Puryear…it plays with perspective and you can see it from two different levels.

After walking through the first floor of the museum, we decided to break for lunch at the Café Modern.  Chris and I have always loved this cafe — it is to your right once you enter the building and is situated right on the pond.  While dining you can look out the glass walls, across the pond, and back into the museum itself.  The food is generally terrific and very reasonably priced.  It was here a year or so ago that we discovered the duck pb&j.  We had to order it just because it sounded so strange — and it was absolutely wonderful.  A combination of flavors I had not tasted before.  Unfortunately for us this sandwich was not on the menu the next time we came (they change their menu seasonally), but in talking with the chef I learned this was a Susan Spicer recipe and I have now tracked it down and hope to try to make it myself.  It was so good.  But back to this trip…and lunch.  I ordered the lobster and shrimp macaroni and cheese and a glass of Riesling.  How decadent is that for lunch?  It was very good…the aged Gouda and fontina sauce was very creamy…and the lobster taste really came through.


Chris had the Asian PB&J — a sandwich of Asian vegetables with plum jelly and a spicy peanut spread served with Szechuan potato chips.  The chips were delicious.  The sandwich was good — but not the most exciting thing we’ve ever tasted.  In some ways it tasted like a spring roll…not a bad thing, I love spring rolls.  I was hoping for a bit more, though.


After lunch we headed up to the second floor of the museum to wander a bit more.  My favorite area of the second floor is the little sculpture garden…




Next we jumped in the car and headed East toward Dallas.  Once we got to town we did a quick drive through Dealey Plaza and the grassy knoll and looked at all the people taking pictures of a little x on the ground or looking up towards the School Book Depository trying to figure it all out.  I’ve been to the 6th Floor Museum before and it is really well done — very moving.  If we had had more time we would have gone in, but we were on a tight schedule today.  So after taking a look at the sights from the car we headed over to my favorite museum in Dallas, the Nasher Sculpture Center.  I love this place not only because it is home to another of my favorite Richard Serra sculptures (My Curves Are Not Mad) but also because the sculpture garden out back is beautiful.  The landscaping is beautiful — it almost doesn’t feel like you’re right in downtown Dallas.  On top of that, the collection is great.  I have photographed it many, many times, so this time I focused on subjects I have not photographed as frequently, like elements of the grounds I think are beautiful…




Or pieces I revisit every time but try to photograph in different ways…


La Nuit by Aristide Maillol is perhaps my favorite piece there (other than the Serra) and I try to shoot a different angle every time I come…


And then this guy…La Caresse d’un oiseau (Caress of a Bird) by Joan Miró.  Miró is one of my favorite artists, but for some reason, I cannot look at this and NOT see that wine-holder guy you can buy from the catalogs on airplanes…the one that’s like an Italian waiter made from iron with places to hold wine bottles and glasses.  I’m sorry, Miró…if I had never seen that stupid wine guy think I never would have thought that….


After the Nasher we headed toward the sculpture garden at the Dallas Museum of Art via the back of the museum where you can find a huge, beautiful mosaic mural by Miguel Covarrubias – Genesis, the Gift of Life.  Here are a few details…





And then, on the sculpture garden.  The Dallas Museum of Art sculpture garden is also an impressive collection of works, but the grounds have nothing on the Nasher. 


After walking around the sculpture garden we found ourselves inside the museum and decided to check out the extremely cool exhibit we had been eyeing from outside — Take Your Time by Olafur Eliasson.  The exhibition consisted of large-scale installations of cool light and color environments.  The first piece we experienced was the One Way Colour Tunnel into a room filled withvivid yellow light.  The color tunnel was like walking through stained-glass that changed the further in you walked.  And the yellow room was…kind of insane.  It made the world look black and white, except for anything that was black — which became purple.  We all stared at each other in this room and it was literally like being in black and white world.  It also made our vision ultra-clear, and the guard in the room suggested we look at ourselves in the mirrored exterior of the One Way Colour Tunnel.  That was…eh…perhaps a mistake.  With the ultra-clear vision and all. 

Once we left the museum we took turns changing into fancier duds in the car and enjoyed an early, leisurely dinner at Aló – a Peruvian and Mexican tapas-style restaurant.  The Sips menu is loaded with fantastic-sounding cocktails, and I tried a few.  My first was the jimador margarihna (muddled limes, sugar, citronage, and crushed ice).  Delicious.  Next, I enjoyed the granada (lime, orange, sugar, white wine, and pama liqueur).  Also, delicious.  Third cocktail, the pomosa (cava and pama pomegranate).  Very, delicious.

Ordering about three plates at a time, we devoured a tuna cebiche, sweet plantains and crispy plantains with three different salsas, crispy calamari potato causas, ribeye and wild mushroom gringas (corn tortillas), Peruvian tiraditos (raw tuna), pork carnitas tacos, tempura crispy shrimp tacos, and chaufachino latin0 rice with chicken (perhaps the only real miss of the night — it just tasted like fried rice). 

And after dinner, it was time for the grand finale — the symphony.  The symphony is the original reason we were coming to town.  The night’s performance was entitled To Russia with Love, and featured a young, beautiful pianist, Yuja Wang, performing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 first.  I was brought to tears…twice.  First, by the beauty of her playing…she moved so easily from soft and gentle to fierce and frenzied.  It blew me away.  The second time I was brought to tears I was just trying to imagine what it must be like to be up there in front of an entire symphony orchestra, with however many people filling the Meyerson, and to be the center of attention.  I played the piano for 12 years growing up and played in quite a few recitals, and I was often a nervous wreck at those things.  I cannot imagine what it must feel like to take the stage, sit down at the grand piano, and nod to the conductor (in this case, guest conductor Arild Remmereit) that you are ready.  Wow.  After Intermission we were treated to a Prokofiev (Symphony No. 7) and Khachaturian (Suite from Spartacus).  Just beautiful.

Once the symphony was over we got back into the car and headed back home.  Roughly 3 1/2 hours later we were back in the comforts of our house and the long DFW arts day had come to an end.