Saturday, November 09, 2013

Travel guide: New Orleans

Last visited: July 2013 (4 days)

Things to do:

You have a lot of options both inside and outside of the city. Within the city, visiting the French Quarter would be an obvious choice. You can explore on your own, do a self-guided walking tour, or take any one of a number of guided tours. Haunted tours, historical tours, cocktail tours, voodoo tours - you name it, it's available. Further out is the Garden District, which is easy enough to visit on your own (and a fun ride on the streetcar trolley) or to visit as part of a tour. This area has a lot of nice older homes, an easily accessible cemetery (yep, cemetery tours are also available), and a number of interesting nearby shops. You can also go on tours which take you into a Mardi Gras workshop. Outside of town, if you haven't been into swampland before and want to see some alligators, there are a number of swamp tours that will pick you up in the city and take you out for a day. If it's your first visit, I'd probably try to cover the French Quarter, a Mardi Gras workshop, and voodoo (it's pretty easy to find a tour that combines all three - that's what we did when I first visited as a kid). If you've been before, maybe check out the Algiers Ferry for a free ride across the river.

Getting around:
The streetcar trolley is handy if you're just sticking to the main tourist areas but in general you're looking at either walking around or taking a cab. Keep the number of a cab company handy if you're going to an unfamiliar area so that you can call one to pick you up if necessary. 

Where to stay:
We stayed at the Marriott on Canal, between Decatur and Chartres, which was quite a good location. You're at the edge of the French Quarter so have easy access to the chaos without actually being in it. For atmosphere, you'll want to look for a place that's actually inside the French Quarter itself, or maybe someplace out in the Garden District, which would be quieter. 

Eating and drinking:
Cafe du Monde or Cafe Beignet - You want a beignet. It's fried dough covered in powdered sugar. Don't wear black and don't put anything down on the tables (sticky). You might also want to check out New Orleans chicory coffee.

Cochon Butcher - Really good sandwiches. If you want to try a muffaletta, I can't imagine that other places could outdo what's being served here. I didn't have a chance to try Cochon, the attached sister restaurant, but have heard good things about it.

Galatoire's (Friday lunch) - I didn't go but this sounds pretty ridiculous and therefore fun. Google it, I don't really know how to explain. It's like, a weird posh lunch with locals.

Hansen's - You want a sno-ball, especially when it's hot. I asked a woman in a shop where to get a sno-ball because it was ridiculously hot out and she pointed me to Hansen's. I stood in line, got the 2nd smallest cup, ate my sno-ball, got back in line and got a small cup. The owners are incredibly nice and noted that I am certainly not the first to get multiple sno-balls. These are like, the best sno-cones ever. There are other good sno-ball places around town, this just happened to be the one that I was happily pointed to.

Bacchanal - Hop a cab, it's a bit out of the way in relation to where you'd likely be as a tourist. This place is awesome! Step in and it appears to be a little wine shop - order some wine and/or cheese if you feel like it, then step out into the massive back patio with your wine/cheese to grab a table and listen to some music (dixieland jazz when we went). Feel like eating more? Head to the walk-up window on the side to order from a ridiculously good menu with your dishes brought out to your patio table. Not feeling the wine? Head upstairs to grab a tasty concoction from the cocktail bar. There need to be more places in this world like Bacchanal. Seriously.

Some other restaurants I've heard good things about: SoBou, Sylvain, Commanders Palace. Mr. B's had a good brunch too. Basically, there's a ton of good food in New Orleans. Po'boys are readily available, as are things like jambalaya, gumbo, miscellaneous crawfish dishes, and soul food. However, the downside of all this is that I find food to be pretty heavy in New Orleans so you may not actually get to eat as much as you plan to. It's ok, you can skip a meal and grab a drink instead. As the birthplace of the cocktail, you owe it to yourself to destroy your liver at least a little during your visit.

Sazerac Bar - Order a Ramos Gin Fizz! This is by far the best rendition I've ever had (normally I don't even like this). It's sort of like drinking an orange julius. The bar is posh and old-timey (as is the hotel it's in). We went early on a Thursday night and the place was basically empty, which was perfect.

Carousel Bar - If you're lucky, you get to sit at a revolving bar! Most people will not be lucky because this place seemed to always be crowded. Not a bad place to get a sazerac if you want to try one.

Dickie Brennan's - Frozen Bourbon Milk Punch! Wandered into this place randomly and chose this drink randomly. It's sort of like an alcoholic frappucino. Bourbon milk punch isn't a bad cocktail order to keep in mind for New Orleans, it's a pretty mellow drink.

Party time!
Bourbon Street - It's pretty gross but you're probably going to wind up here at some point. Just remember to drink water at some point.

Frenchmen Street - Live music everywhere, super-busy and popular but without the raging insanity of Bourbon Street. The photo above was taken at an evening street market on Frenchmen. You're likely going to need a cab to/from here.

Vaughan's - Definitely more of a lower-key, local vibe. It's around the corner (walkable) from Bacchanal so best bet is to do a 2-for-1 and hit both places on the same night since you're most likely hopping a cab out to Treme.

Monday, August 26, 2013

I Like Burgers

I like all burgers, really. Chicken burger, shrimp burger, whatever, it's all good. Sandwiches can be fun to make and easy to eat. But let's face it, when we think "burger", most of us are thinking hamburgers. And above all, I love hamburgers. I don't think that one hamburger is massively better than any other hamburger though. I'm happy if I'm eating a good burger. Give me a different burger on a different day and I'm pretty much going to be equally happy. So I'm unlikely to make much effort for "THE BEST BURGER EVER" because there isn't really a big difference for me. Happily, I live within a 5 minute walk of .... 7 burger places? Let's discuss further.
McDonald's - Sometimes I feel like eating the little kid's meal burger. It happens.
Hero Burger - OMG this place sucked so much. I went years ago when it was all hyped up and was amazed by how much I paid for a crappy burger.
A&W - I like A&W because I both root beer and burgers make me happy.
White Squirrel Cafe - This was ok. I actually like the littler burgers, this is the kind with a thicker patty, which I sometimes find a bit difficult to eat. The toppings were ok too.
Sense Appeal - I really liked this burger! They'll cook to your desired doneness. Thicker patty, on the smaller side, which is fine with me. Burgers here are cheap too, $6 for a basic one.
Big Smoke Burger - I like their cheeseburgers ok. Their burgers are kind of the size I like. It's easier to eat when they're flatter. Not sure if it's as good as it used to be; I got a burger from the Eaton Centre location and it wasn't as good as what I used to get from the King/Spadina location.
Burger's Priest - I don't like Burger's Priest very much. I think you're supposed to get one of their crazy burgers with all the stuff on it but I like my burgers to be pretty simple. I got a bacon cheeseburger here and it was kind of bland, which weirded me out. How can a bacon cheeseburger be bland?
Other burger places I've been to:
Gabardine - See photo above; this burger was pretty good. I liked how they used bibb lettuce.
Harbord Room - This was a good burger, I remember thinking I liked the Harbord Room burger more than the Gabardine burger.
Richmond Station - Small but so tasty; I like this burger quite a lot. I like their fries too.
Jules - This burger is a little weird, the bun wasn't a normal burger bun. I only got the burger once because I really like their club sandwich and quiches.
Queen and Beaver - I remember thinking this was underwhelming for the price.
Bymark - I'm not sure if I had THE Bymark burger or not? I was here for a lunch seminar and got a burger. It was ok. It had blue cheese I think, which I don't like.
Burger King - I haven't had a Whopper for years but if it was where McDonald's is, I would go sporadically.
Richmond Rogue - They topped their burger with a fried egg, bonus!
White Castle - I like this because I like small burgers.
Shake Shack - This is probably my favourite burger now. I had the Smokeshack and not only was it the size of burger I like, it was filled with toppings I like, plus the bun was soft but didn't get all soggy. Their fries were good too (surprising because crinkle cut kind of bothers me).

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ramen 101

Toronto is in the middle of a sudden surge of ramen restaurant openings so I figured I'd write a bit about one of my favourite things. Let's start at the beginning - ramen in Japan.

In Japan, ramen is fast food. You're not going to a ramen-ya with five friends and catching up over three lingering hours of slow slurping. Every place I had ramen in Japan was, at best, a couple of communal tables; usually I'd just be sitting at a counter in front of the kitchen. There are also NUMEROUS styles of ramen (google is your friend here, or if you want a dose of awesome, hunt down a copy of Lucky Peach vol 1 which will give you an overview not just of ramen, but also has a section on eggs [these are probably my two main food obsessions]). However, one commonality I noticed in the various ramen-ya I visited was that there were always condiments on the table for you to tweak your ramen with - minced/crushed garlic, slivers of pickled ginger, and pepper flakes seemed to be the three basic add-ons. Bowls maybe averaged around $10 (Y1000) and were ginormous. And the flavour...eating ramen in Japan was like a punch to the face. The levels of fat you're dealing with can get pretty intense. But the number of flavours in a single bowl...the complexity you can find in just the broth...sure, you're taking a couple years off your life but it's worth it.

My favourite ramen in Japan was at Jangara ramen in Tokyo. I think I wound up here because it was in the guidebook and easy to find (I'm kanji-illiterate so it was reassuring to have a guaranteed, easy to find, goal). I think that Jangara may just be "ok" or "decent" in the Japanese pantheon but I would go to great lengths to get another bowl of this. The key was that I liked all the regular stuff in the bowl (pork, menma [fermented bamboo shoots], egg) but they also added a dollop of something I'd never encountered before - mentaiko. Mentaiko is marinated pollock roe and IT IS DELICIOUS. Actually the first Jangara bowl I had was too intensely porky for me (the bowl I ordered had two types of pork - charsiu and fatty), the second time I went I only got one pork. Japan was great though, because even though I'm illiterate, I just popped over to the Ramen Museum in Yokohama and stuffed myself some more. Plus I saw a line of people once while wandering the streets of Tokyo and hopped in line after realizing they were lined up at a ramen-ya. Basically, ramen in Japan is SUPER AWESOME.

Ramen in Toronto...not so much. Actually, ramen outside of Japan seems to be unable to reach the heights of ramen in Japan, which is not surprising when you consider the obsessive approach to cooking in Japan, where a ramen restaurant serves only ramen, udon restaurants serve udon, etc. So let's do a quick rundown of what's wrong in general with ramen places outside of Japan.

Toppings: Quality is highly variable but in general, even if you find a place with the same quantity of toppings as what you might get in a Japanese bowl, the quality is lacking (and vice versa). My other pet peeve is the lack of menma. WHY? I can buy this in the grocery store, it's not hard to get.

Condiments: WHERE ARE THEY? Where are my extra condiments? These are necessary.

Broth: Hahahaha! This will require its own paragraph.

See above - logic suggests that part of the reason why Japanese ramen-ya can churn out such insanely good broths is because of an obessive single-mindedness and years of effort. I've never had broth outside of Japan that really struck me with a "wow" moment. And part of that reason is because of how good instant noodles are these days. What's that you say? Instant noodles suck? Not anymore - in the past few years there's been a number of manufacturers cranking out surprisingly good frozen noodles complete with broth. My ramen preference seems to be Hakata-style, and if you pick up a tonkotsu frozen ramen and add few of your own choice ingredients, you're basically playing in the same space as the majority of ramen places I've tried outside of Japan. I will now proceed to judge the various ramen places I've been to outside of Japan, because I like to think about ramen for as much of the day as possible. Unless otherwise noted, these are all in Toronto.

Momofuku Noodle Bar (Toronto and NYC): Ok, let's get this out of the way - this is not real ramen. I'm not saying it's bad, but IT IS NOT REAL RAMEN. Which is okay, because I don't think they've ever claimed it's authentic. Like everything else at Noodle Bar, they're taking a familiar Asian dish and giving it a bit of a twist. Personally I actually don't really like this because the egg bothers me, I like mine firmer and marinated.

Kenzo: Ewwww, I went to the downtown one and got their special (King of Kings?) and it was so gross I felt sad while eating ramen. Ramen shouldn't make you feel sad, it should make you feel happy. I never went back to Kenzo.

Kinton: Went once; I like the noodles but found the broth was pretty boring. I had the spicy garlic I think. Um, hi, if I'm ordering a spicy garlic soup shouldn't this blow my head off instead of me poking at my bowl in mild disinterest?

Ajisen (various - haven't been in Toronto but went in China): Don't judge! I went to Ajisen like twice when I was in China because I'm illiterate and a cartoon girl holding a bowl of noodles is very reassuring to me. Like Momofuku, this is just "noodles" not "ramen. This is like food court food.

Sansotei: Went once and had the tonkotsu. Noodles were meh, broth was ok but I'd just as soon pop open my bag of frozen tonkotsu instant noodles and eat in my pyjamas.

Guu on Bloor: It's only served as a special and they seem to rotate what kind of ramen they're serving. The bowls are smaller than they should be, but the ones I've tried have been excelle. Everything in my little bowl was solidly good. Their ramen is pleasant enough that I've been more than once and would go again to see what they're doing.

Ramen Sanshiro (NYC): It's a secret ramen-ya! The ramen was ok, it wasn't the style I like and wasn't too memorable, but it's SECRET!

Ippudo (NYC): The first time I went, I had their akamaru modern, which is I guess their best-known/special ramen? I didn't like it. But that was partly personal preference instead of the bowl itself; Ippudo is actually my preferred non-Japan ramen-ya. I think I usually get their classic bowl now. They're skimpy on the toppings and from what I remember the bowls are a bit smaller than they should be, but the flavours and noodles are decent. I'd argue that this should be the baseline for a decent bowl of ramen.

Santouka: Toronto's ramen winner! This isn't too much of a surprise; when word spread that Santouka was coming to Toronto a lot of people were waiting for it to open. Santouka, like Ippudo, is a Japanese chain and like Ippudo, their ramen actually tastes like the ones I tried in Japan. Santouka and Ippudo aren't the same styles of ramen but quality- and value-wise I think they're pretty much equivalent. There's things I do/don't like about each of them, but overall I'm happy enough with either. I'm not sure what Santouka's non-noodle offerings are like but it'll be fun eating my way through the menu.

Raijin: I didn't particularly like their toppings but it sort of seems like they've taken Kinton's noodles and placed them into Sansotei's broth - plus it's the size of a normal restaurant so shorter wait times.

Ryoji: Ok, I admit that if you give me black garlic ramen, I like you better. Ryoji gave me black garlic ramen with no waiting in line and non-cramped seating; they will now be my 2nd preferred ramen place in Toronto. Actually, I now plan to eat ramen only at Santouka or Ryoji and ignore all the other places. I liked the broth, the noodles were fine, and the toppings were decent (note: the black garlic ramen at Ryoji is so much better than the one at Raijin).

Ryus: This sort of a dark horse contenter. Ryus is the only place in Toronto which is actually setup like a proper ramen-ya. I.e., the only thing you can order is ramen and it's almost all bar seating (note: there is a tiny patio out front, which is kind of cool because then you can have patio ramen). The prices and portion sizes are reasonable, the broth wasn't bad, the noodles were pretty good, but the toppings were underwhelming (WHY IS THERE NO EGG? I CAN'T EVEN ADD AN EGG?). I'm going to try them again to see how things evolve; having gone shortly after opening, I figure there's a good chance they could continue to get better. They even have a loyalty card!

Touhenboku: Chicken stock based ramen, which is a nice change of pace. Overall, I thought this was quite good. I liked the broth; the thick noodles could stand to be firmer but they weren't bad; pork chashu was ok; they give you a half-egg in the soup. You can get chicken chashu instead of pork, so this is a good place for anyone who wants ramen but doesn't eat pork. I'm likely to make this my regular ramen spot just because it's closest to home and quality was pretty good.

Bottom line? If you're in Toronto and new to ramen, I'd start with Santouka because you might as well start with the best in town. If you've eaten your way through ramen in Japan, then I bet you've already been making your own so either stick to that or drop by Santouka (or maybe try it at Guu if you see it as a special). If you've tried and liked the non-Santouka ramen options in Toronto, I'd suggest either trying Santouka or simply buying some of the frozen premade stuff and playing with it - might save you a few bucks and you can eat in your pyjamas. And I'm pretty sure we can all agree that's a good thing :)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Why I like my city

Let's get this out of the way first - Toronto doesn't have the best of anything in particular. Pick any random thing and you can probably easily find some other city that has a better version of that thing. But we have a little bit of everything and chances are it's all close to where you live. Consider:

  • We are pocket-sized with big city things! I'm lazy and only like to wander within a 30 minute walking radius but that gives me access to pretty much all of our fun city stuff. Expand that to an hour's walk and I think that would cover all of our fun city stuff.
  • We have so much food! In terms of variety and cost I haven't found anywhere else in the world quite as satisfying. My biggest constant complaints are that there aren't any Taiwanese restaurants downtown and that I haven't found a place that serves samosas at 2am.
  • We have music! Most bands will drift through at some point and it's generally pretty easy to get tickets to stuff.
  • We have movies! Over 70 film festivals each year on top of the normal movie theatres and the rep theatres. Not to mention the gigantor which is the annual Toronto International Film Festival.
  • Actually, we have all sorts of arty things! Musicals, plays, art galleries, museum parties, opera, ballet, symphony, literary festivals. There's plenty of things to keep you entertained without being overwhelmed!
  • Our weather is less terrible than you think! Downtown Toronto doesn't actually get much precipitation - rain or snow - and summers here can get suprisingly hot (30+C / 90+F)
  • You can easily leave! If you're bored or want a more awesome version of something we have here, just leave for a while. We're Canada's main transporation hub so it's easy to escape!
  • Brunch is a critical part of our lives! Toronto's pretty food-obsessed in general; the battle to have more varities of street food is as big a political issue as public transporation. And we have two weekly event listings devoted to food. Yeah it's kind of weird but we are a simple people.
  • Our public transportation is ok! Yeah, it's not particularly good. But choose the right location and there's a good chance you'll rarely use it. So I don't mind that it's kind of crappy because riding transit is basically just a novelty for me.
  • Cross-border shopping! Our prices are too high, but the border is right there so you have easy access to what is overall the best shopping in the world just by popping down to the U.S.
  • We won't hurt you! Probably! It's pretty safe downtown, biggest issue I've had is avoiding drunk clubbers.
When I travel, I wind up slipping into semi-residential life for the place I'm visiting and I've found that Toronto holds up pretty well in comparison. The key here is ease of living. I'm not sure we have "world class" anything (although National Geographic would beg to differ) but I'd rather have a decent version of everything than have two world class things and a pile of crap. For "world class" whatever, I'll just travel to the source - but for daily life I want as many conveniences as close as possible and for that, I haven't found any place with easier living than Toronto.


Monday, August 15, 2011

Travel guide: Philadelphia

Last visited: July 2011 (1 day)

Yeah that's right...1 day...

Things to do:

Not to shortchange Philly; there's actually a lot of things to do in the city which can keep you occupied for a while. The one-day trip was a bit of a lark and it wasn't my first time to the city. If you're into history, then the Old City area is a no-brainer, just make sure you get tickets in advance where possible. Tickets are generally free for things like seeing the Liberty Bell, but getting a ticket in advance should help minimize the amount of time you spend in line. 

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is huge (there's actually a main building and a smaller building that you can either walk to or ride to via a free shuttle bus). The city also has a number of murals and there's a company which runs mural bus tours, or they also have an online guide for a walk that takes you through several of the murals (Philadelphia Mural Arts Program). And Franklin Institute is cool! I remember visiting when I was a kid. Science museum.

If you're looking for something a bit different, Eastern State Penitentiary is awesome. I cannot emphasize enough the awesomeness of this place - it's an old prison which has been taken over by the state and reopened as a tourist attraction. Amazing for photography, plus there are various art installations throughout the year, different types of special events and *drumroll please* a self-guided audio tour narrated by STEVE BUSCEMI. At this point you either think this is the best thing ever, or else you're still wondering why anyone would ever visit an old prison. If you are the latter, then maybe you'd prefer an aquarium or a battleship?

From Penn's Landing you can hop a ferry to the other side of the river - Camden, New Jersey. The ferry ride is $7.00 round-trip and although it's short, it's still fun. In Camden, you can visit an aquarium or take a tour on a real (decommissioned) battleship. Haven't been to either so can't vouch for what they're like.

Getting around:

Philly has a bus system but you could be waiting 30 minutes between buses, so I wouldn't count on it. There's also a subway system but I didn't use it so I'm not sure how useful it would be. The commuter train goes out to the airport, which is useful. If you're just staying around Old City, everything is walkable. Getting out to the museum area is a pretty far walk from Old City so I would be inclined to just cab it. Cabs aren't too expensive since most of the places a tourist would go are pretty close together. Maybe around $10 - $15 if you're going from the far end of Old Town out to Eastern State Pen?

Where to stay:

Old City is the priciest location but if you don't have much time and are focused on the main tourist attractions, then it makes sense to stay there. But personally, I'd rather stay by Rittenhouse Square - it puts you between Old City and the museum area. It also keeps you in easy striking distance of the main shopping and nightlife area - and you're just far enough away from Old City to not feel like it's tourist central all the time. Pretty much all the sights and restaurants are walkable from this area.

Where to eat:

Cheesesteak - Sorry, can't help. I like cheesesteaks, but the city has more interesting stuff on offer so I kind of ignore them. Go forth and google for this one.

Di Nic's - Di Nic's is in Reading Terminal Market, which is a fun place to eat through in general. But roast pork sandwiches seem to be what many Philadelphians think of as their sandwich, not just cheesesteaks, and Di Nic's is a favoured destination. There's two types of sandwiches - if you go early, one type will be ready but the other may not be (I think....sliced pork is ready but pulled pork isn't?). I went early and what I had (sliced) was still good, so I wouldn't worry about it too much. HOWEVER. I am going to warn you that the sandwich handed to me was the heaviest sandwich I've ever held. It's...I the weight of a jar of pickles. Whatever, this is some serious shit, so don't say I didn't warn you when you're faced with a monster sandwich. You may also be faced with a monster line, everyone knows about this place.

Paesano's - Um...two locations? Maybe three? I've only gone to the one in the Italian Market. FOR SANDWICHES! I can't even explain, go look at their online menu. I had the lasagna sandwich topped with a fried egg (uh huh, you read that right). I would visit as many times as it takes to work through the menu. Might be a wait, this place is popular.

Isgro's - Speaking of the Italian Market, I'm not actually a big sweets person so I've had maybe only three cannolis ever. And let's face it, most cannolis are kind of lacking...the shell often just seems kind of...lame. But Isgro's cannolis are not lame. They are awesome. I only bought one, thinking it would just be some strange, sweet, slightly mushy thing like the others I'd had, but then I was sad because I ate it and didn't have any more. Be prepared to wait and remember to grab a number when you walk in.

Fish - Duh, come here for seafood. Popular, so you may want to reserve ahead although we were able to just walk in and eat at the bar (two people). Good cocktails, good seafood, interesting preparations. Little Fish is their sister restaurant, not sure where it is - Fish is in the Rittenhouse Square area.

Various dinner / lunch - I've heard Kanela is good (Mediterranean), Zahav (Israeli), and Han Dynasty (spicy Chinese dry hot pot). There's also a couple of Jose Garces places (Iron Chef). Village Whiskey is supposed to have an amazing burger and one of the Village Whiskey chefs told me that A.Kitchen has really good food also.

Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. - If you're looking for a drink, this is a faux speakeasy. Everyone working there is friendly, although I'd argue that cocktail quality is just 'ok' vs other faux speakeasies. Fun for the novelty of wandering into a semi-hidden place and because you're guaranteed to get a seat.

Oyster House - This was interesting because I ate raw clams here. I didn't know you could eat raw clams since I'd never seen them on a menu. They even had two different types. Oh and they have a late night happy hour for oysters. I had an octopus appetizer - it wasn't very exciting but it wasn't bad.