Live from Quincy

It is late and I haven’t the energy to go into a lot of detail.  Suffice it to say that this afternoon and evening with Zakiah and Mohammed was fantastic and I ate… very… well…

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There are lots of pictures, many things to share and lots of video.  Yes, if ever you wanted Dr. Zakiah to star in her own cooking show, you will have your wish fulfilled, with all of the wit and charm you’ve come to expect from her!

I return to Kansas City Friday morning.

 

Custards and Tatoos

A large part of Wednesday was spent with my maternal grandparents, who are both 89 years old and still very active.  While they, if asked, would qualify that description of “very active”, the number of activities they are still engaged in exceeds what most retirees do, regardless of age.

Despite all my other activities while I’m here, spending time with my grandparents is the most important thing.  I’m working on a larger project which includes scanning hundreds of photos that my grandmother has organized into albums over the years, as well as capturing audio recordings of them telling stories and sharing memories about those photos.  Realizing that our lives have a finite length, I want to capture this part of our family history while I still have the opportunity.

Of course, before that there was some work to do.  My grandfather was sanding and repainting the door, door frame and screen door from the house into the garage.  Since he doesn’t need to be up on a ladder anymore, after lunch I worked on the top half of the project, eventually working my way down and completing it by mid-afternoon.  Painting isn’t my strong point, but I think I did okay.

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P1180015 Sometimes two young nieces are quite a lot to handle – witness the trip to the Mexican restaurant – so divide and conquer is a good technique.  The young one goes to day care, giving some quality time with the older niece.  After running errands on Tuesday with my sister and Emily, we stopped at Sheridan’s for some frozen custard.

Frozen custard seems to be a midwestern specialty – a richer form of ice cream.  They also do “concretes” which are frozen custards blended with toppings, kind of like the Dairy Queen Blizzard, but better.

Here’s a special concrete with brownies blended with vanilla custard, topped with hot fudge.  Tasty combination but of course the hot fudge caused the custard to start melting!

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Emily and Jenn with frozen custard smiles.

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P1180306 There has also been quality time with niece number two, Ava.  After the last day of swim lessons, she received a “tatoo”, one of the temporary stickers that adhese to your skin for days at a time.  This one was a tree frog tatoo, significant because her most recent new stuffed plaything is a small brown frog called “coqui”. 

The frog was a gift from my sister and brother-in-law after they took a holiday in Puerto Rico.  It seems “coqui” is what a number of species of small frogs are called there.

This morning, it was off to the tatoo parlor (well, the kitchen) for the application of the new tatoo.  Left side or right side?  Arm or leg?  So many decisions to make when getting such permanent body art!

Left, Ava poses with her new tatoo and coqui. 

After a few days here in Kansas City, I’m heading out today for an overnight trip to Quincy, Illinois to visit Zakiah, also known by many Xangans as ZSA_MD.  This will be a short trip, but one that strengthens the bonds of Xangan community!  Stay tuned for more reporting in the days to come.

 

Trading Urbia for Suburbia

After a fantastic dinner Saturday night and a late-night snack of caprese salad made from tomatoes fresh out of Bill and Alex’s garden (below), I packed my bags and caught a few hours of sleep before leaving LA for Kansas City.  Sadly, it was only a few hours.  Since I got to bed so late, I decided not to take a sleeping pill.  Two hours later, though, my jet-lagged self was awake and wouldn’t go back to sleep until an hour before sunrise.  There’s nothing like exhaustion to get you ready for a flight.

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On the way to the airport, I followed William’s suggestion and stopped at the Manhattan Beach branch of Le Pain Quotidian, a Belgian bakery chain that had excellent croissants.  Really nice place, good food and friendly service.  Hoity-toity customers, though.  How many hybrids do you need in a square block?

The flight to Kansas City was uneventful.  Two pictures captured the change of environment quite distinctly.  I went from this:

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to this:

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P1180033 The first few days were spent mostly working, although now that Wednesday has come around I am transitioning into vacation mode.

Last night my sister and brother-in-law decided to go to the movies, leaving me in charge of my two nieces.  Instead of cooking at home, I decided to take them out to a Mexican restaurant, which my sister thought was an ambitious choice.

Left: a photo in front of the restaurant after the meal.

Everything went fine.  Seriously.  Everyone was well behaved… well enough, that is.  Ava ate with her characteristic pokiness.  One could see the three minutes between bites as healthy for digestion.  Eventually, though, meals were finished and we headed back home without any major catastrophes.

Before bedtime, instead of reading books, the girls asked to perform a play.  This was pretty much fifteen minutes of free-form dancing to the soundtrack of “Mama Mia”.  I have some video of this but will have to wait to upload it until Tawn brings the Mac with him to KC. 

 

Chef Shiro’s Orris

Saturday evening in Los Angeles, I met up with Curry, his brother Eric and William for dinner at Hideo “Shiro” Yamashiro’s Orris, a five-year old “small plates” restaurant that borrows heavily from the Japanese izakaya, or eating pub, tradition.  A fusion of Japanese and French cuisines, Shiro’s emphasis is on the ingredients with unfussy presentations that highlight the clean flavors of the food.

It was a table full of foodies and we met several of the qualifications of the list of ten things you should know about food bloggers, so much so that an older diner who had been sitting inside the plate glass window and had noticed our photographing, stopped by as he left the restaurant to enquire about it.

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William and Curry snap away.  What you don’t see is Eric, to my left, taking pictures with his iPhone.

Let’s take a look at the small plates that we enjoyed over our leisurely two hour dining experience:

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An amuse-bouche of ratatouille with fresh eggplants, tomatoes and capers.  Lovely, bright flavors like summer piled on top of a slice of baguette.

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An off-the-menu special, freshly smoked salmon on top of potato pancakes served with creme fraiche and tobiko – flying fish roe.  This was also very nice and I’m tempted to try this one at home.

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Dungeness crab salad “nests” – Freshly handpicked dungeness crab served on top of julienned cucumber in a light ginger dressing.  This was tasty although other than a few slices of ginger, I couldn’t identify any “dressing” – something the cucumber could have benefitted from.

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Squash blossoms stuffed with shrimp mousse and pistachios, lightly friend tempura-style and topped with a calmatta olive salsa.  Very nice.  These zucchini were beautifully tender and the salsa gave it the right zestiness.

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Another off-the-menu special: halibut tempura on a tomato tarragon puree with garlic aioli.  The halibut was very light, not at all oily, but also with such a delicate flavor that it got lost in the puree.

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Tender Berkshire pork loin medallions sauteed in a zesty green peppercorn sauce.  The pork was exceptionally tender and the sauce was very rich.  This was a satisfyingly meaty dish.

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We concluded with slices of roasted beets topped with Etorki Basque sheep cheese and finished with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil with a sprig of dill.  Shown in detail below.

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The presentation (which I ruined by putting a slice of beet on top) was clever and visually pleasing.  The flavor was perfectly balanced: the beets were sweet and earthy, which complemented the earthy richness of the cheese, which was cut by the balsamic vinegar.  The dill provided an aromatic contrast that was very nice.  This was my favorite dish.

The restaurant was a good value, with the bill not breaking $100 for four diners even with two of us enjoying glasses of wine.  The food is creative, superbly high quality and intellectually engaging.  Worth a return visit.

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Chris, William, Curry and Eric in front of Orris.

The one drawback of the restaurant was the limited and not very inspiring dessert menu.  Since it was still early and a pleasant summer evening, we decided to stroll down Sawtelle Boulevard to the local Pinkberry.

The Sawtelle district, which was an independent city until its residents voted to merge with Los Angeles in 1922, has an extensive Japantown, a suburban neighbor known informally as “Little Osaka”, as compared to Little Tokyo, which centers on Second and San Pedro Streets in downtown Los Angeles. 

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Among the many shops on this street are two branches of Giant Robot, the Asian American pop culture store (and magazine) that also has locations in SF and NY.  In addition to GR there are plenty of nurseries, karaoke parlors and frozen yogurt shops.

We went to Pinkberry, an upscale frozen yogurt chain owned by Korean Americans that is a copycat of South Korean chain Red Mango, which has recently made inroads into the US market itself.  While I had heard much about the Pinkberry mania, I had never tried it myself.

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The deal is similar to the frozen yogurt shops of the 1980s but perhaps a little higher quality.  The yogurt actually is tart, like yogurt really is, and the choice of toppings is slightly more eclectic.

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Original flavor with lychee, mango and almonds – Eric’s choice.

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Original with mango and blueberry – William’s antioxidant-rich choice.

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Original with mochi and fresh Bing cherries – my choice.  Curry opted for a granola parfait that did not photograph well.

As luck would have it, the West LA Buddhist Temple was sponsoring the annual Obon festival, a sort of “day of the dead” ceremony that is full of dancing and celebrating.  Large processions of dancers, many glad in kimonos, parade around the streets to traditional music. 

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As the pleasant ocean breeze blew in from the Pacific, we enjoyed watching the crowds and taking in the sights.

Before calling it an evening, I heard someone calling my name.  At first, I ignored it, since my name is common and the only people who would know me were standing right next to me.  But when it was called again, I turned around to see a young lady whom I did not recognize.

Instead of pretending to know and hoping she would say something that would trigger my memory, I acknowledged that I didn’t know her name.  Wouldn’t you know, it was another Xangan!  What are the chances of that?  “I thought you had left LA already,” she said.

Actually, this is the second time someone has randomly recognized me on the street because of my blog.  The first time was about three years ago in the elevator at my previous apartment in Bangkok.

With the recognition of how small the world really is, we called it a night.  I let the boys head home and returned to Bill and Alex’s to do my packing.

 

Brunch at the Starling Cafe

Saturday morning my cousins Alex and Bill took me out to the Starling Cafe, voted one of the best brunch places in Long Beach.  It is a cute place, reminding me of the now-defunct Miss Millie’s on 24th Street in San Francisco.

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Thankfully, by the time we arrived the breakfast crowds had thinned and we had no wait for a table.  The menu had all the usual suspects including a French Toast that they claimed was absolutely unlike any French Toast you had ever eaten before: stuffed with marscapone cheese, the baguette was dipped in creme anglaise and then broiled instead of the usual frying.

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The French Toast, above, was absolutely every bit as good as they claimed with a nice light crunch on the outside and a moist but not soggy interior.  With plenty of fresh berries and some whipped cream, it was a nice treat.

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There were several scrambles, too.  This one was a smoked salmon scramble that was very tasty.  Alex had a pulled pork scramble that had some of the tenderest barbeque pork shoulder I’ve had.

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A trio of cousins, Chris, Alex and Bill.  Would you believe she’s already six months along?  Barely showing!

Afterwards, we made a few stops in and around Long Beach, cruising down Second Street and seeing the sights.

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Looking towards the harbor with an oil tanker off in the distance.

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A beautiful dog in a stylish kerchief waits for her owner at a sidewalk cafe.

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A pair of cats wait for adoption outside a pet store.  They were sitting in the shade and were huddled together as if they were chilly.

Saturday afternoon I drove to Culver City to visit my high school friend Lalima and her husband Aaron and son Devin.  Sadly, I didn’t take any pictures but had a fun time visiting with them and eating a fresh peach pie they had bought especially for me to enjoy.  Oh, summer fruits!

Saturday evening I met Gary, W and Eric for dinner.  It was so fantastic that I’m going to wait and give it its own entry… stay tuned.

 

Middleaged Muscleman Mexican Mason

Los Angeles is nothing if not diverse.  Driving back from Long Beach this morning we traveled alongside a convertible Corvette blasting a song in Spanish, a beefy middleaged man with a sunburned scalp showing through his thinning black hair sitting behind the wheel, singing along.  His vanity license plate read MSL MSTR and the frame explained: “Muscle Masters, Inc.”  Above the plate, the logo of the fraternal order of the Freemasons.  Where else but LA would you see this?

 

KennyCho After dropping my boss at John Wayne Airport at 4:00 Friday, I met fellow Xangan Kenny at Starbucks and then we continued to Fashion Island in Newport Beach for an early dinner. 

Since he doesn’t include an actual picture of himself on his site, I’ll respect that and show only the caricature he uses.  Suffice it to say that he closely resembles this cartoon.

We went to Cafe R+D (as in “research and development”) which is part of Hillstone Restaurant Group, the same chain that owns Houston’s restaurant.  The concept here is that Cafe R+D creates and tries dishes that will appear at other restaurants in the chain.  Based on their menu, I couldn’t identify anything that seemed like a trial dish.  Grilled fish, sandwiches, chops… nothing researched or developed.

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Nonetheless, the food was tasty and, nicely, the portions weren’t obscenely large.

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Appetizer of heirloom tomatoes and roasted golden beets served in a light vinaigrette.  A tasty, summery combination, I found the tomatoes a little mushy.  When the waiter enquired about the food, I told him this, resulting in a bit of an over-reaction.  He apologized profusely and said he would let the kitchen know. 

A few minutes later the chef came out.  “I understand you were disappointed with the appetizer.” he said.  He apologized again and said he had taken the item off the bill.  I responded that I wasn’t disappointed but was only providing some feedback about the ingredients.  In fact, I said, it was neither expected or necessary to not charge us for the dish.  In either case, it was good that the staff takes customer feedback seriously.

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My entree was grilled Copper River salmon served on mashed potatoes with a slice of baked tomato.  It was tasty enough but was uninspiring.

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The dessert: fresh berries with whipped cream.  Very simple and very flavorful.  The whipped cream was a little too sweet but other than that, a winner.

The best part of the meal was the opportunity to meet Kenny.  Lots to talk about and always interesting to learn more about someone you only know virtually.  Let’s hope that he and his boyfriend, who do a lot of traveling around the world, will make a stop in Bangkok one of these days soon.

Musings on Southern California

Los Angeles area. Twice I’ve moved away.Despite this, I find myself returning from time to time to see what has changed.In some ways, little has. Los Angeles is an enigma, the literal expression of a Tinseltown ideal. But there are some signs of change, interesting ones. I think of the gentrification of post-World War II housing in the cities surrounding Long Beach, units that were sold to bachelor soldiers and new families working at the Douglas Aircraft plant in the late 1940s and 1950s as Southern California experienced its post-war boom. I think of an increase in community events such as farmers’ markets and street fairs. Slowly, I recognize signs of renewal, of things that were always so new that they seemed like facades on a movie set.

Perhaps the biggest strength of Southern California is the rich diversity here. Of all the places I’ve lived in the US, I’ve most noticed that creeping change brought about by immigration here. When I first lived here nearly twenty years ago, there were certainly many different cultures present, but it has been wonderful to see how those cultures have blossomed, become increasingly visible and become such a part of the Southland fabric. Not living here anymore, it is hard to say how integrated those different cultures have become.But their visibility is a first measure of health.

Despite that, I don’t know if I would enjoy living here again. The weather is nearly ideal, yes, but it is still too suburban and sprawled an area for my tastes. Despite the buses and bicyclists, signs that there are at least some alternatives to individual car ownership, it is an example of that American dream that existed hand-in-hand with the post-war era: a dream that promised prosperity, growth and limitless consumption. A dream that gave everyone a sunny optimism and friendly, if plastic, demeanor while isolating everyone in their steel and glass bubble, ensuring no real connection.

This critique isn’t just about Los Angeles, of course.It is symptomatic of American culture in general, a good example of what I don’t appreciate much about life here and what I don’t miss about it.

It is easy to get caught up in the list of the things I don’t like, easy to identify the reasons that I don’t live here anymore. It is worth the effort, though, to categorize the things that are positive about the Southern California culture. There is an admirable optimism here that contrasts markedly with the nearly fatalistic outlook of the society where I currently live, one that believes fate, chance and inescapable karma have pretty much written your destiny. There is a continual push here, even amidst the congestion and traffic, to improve the quality of living and the breathability of the air.These are no small things.

Maybe these are just the musings of an expat, required every time I cross the border from current home to previous. Required because I have to understand why I no longer live where I once did. Required because – a common theme of long-term expats – I cannot help but to feel a bit of alienation in my homeland, a sense of being set apart from the rest of the society in which I was raised.

Time, then, to set those musings aside, turn on the radio of my rental car, and make my way to the local In-n-Out Burger for a double double, animal-style, with grilled onions.