Category Archives: Food

Arepas, Truffle Oil, and Pizza: Three Places to Eat This Winter

As I wait to hear back from grad schools, I am beginning to acknowledge the possibility that I might not be living here next year. Everything is still up in the air (will it be Boston/Philly/NYC?! It’s still anyone’s game!), but I think it’s time to capture a few more of my favorite Cambridge/Boston spots before this whole year in Beantown melts away quicker than that first snowstorm.

Harvard Square, first snow. Cambridge, MA.

Harvard Square, first snow. Cambridge, MA.

Let’s start with Orinoco. I was at a friend’s party talking with a guy I just met about travel and food, and he told me I had to try this Venezuelan place. He didn’t know me well, but based on our discussion I trusted his recommendation. The moment my first arepa craving hit, I decided to give it a try. As I approached the restaurant down a small alley slightly off of the main foot traffic in Harvard Square, I already felt pleasantly surprised. The little pathway to the restaurant felt delightfully unexpected, and I was intrigued with what I might find. I got there early, perhaps 30 minutes before they’re used to getting their first customers, and merengue was blasting throughout the cozy space while a cluster of waiters chatted loudly in Spanish. Ahhh, yes!! I felt instantly at home. They seemed a little surprised to see me, but I was seated promptly at the table of my choosing where I could easily take in the candle-lit quirks of the restaurant. I had an instant crush on Orinoco and its vibe. Sadly, the music was turned down while I waited for my friend, but luckily the Latin beats continued to pulse throughout the meal (just not as aggressively as I may have secretly liked).

We began with a delicious pitcher of sangria, which was just the right amount of sweet for a cold night. As I entered a tropical daydream, our Pelua Arepa arrived (a traditional fried corn pocket with Venezuelan-style stewed shredded beef and yellow edam cheese). It was everything I hoped it would be; it was hot, the meat was tender and flavorful, and the arepa had just the right amount of crunch to it. I could have easily eaten only arepas all night, but like a good Argentinean girl, I had ordered the Parilla Caraqueña (an assortment of strip steak, chorizo, chicken, guasacaca, and fried yuca with mojo — oh how I love yuca). I was full, to say the least. But my appetite wasn’t the only thing satisfied. I loved the adorable space, which was originally built in 1900 and housed Cambridge’s first Spanish restaurant. They’ve done a wonderful job decorating it with multicolored wooden chairs and colorful painted religious figurines throughout. There is no way I am leaving this town without at least one more trip to Orinoco, preferably after winter thaws so I can enjoy the Venezuelan comida in the outdoor patio. Who will be lucky enough to join me?!

Inside Orinoco. Cambridge, MA

Inside Orinoco. Cambridge, MA

To switch things up a little, I was happy to receive an invitation to a new restaurant in the Financial District called Granary Tavern. I’d call it swanky but comfortable. I loved the atmosphere, which was sleek and modern but with rustic undertones. I’m not usually a cocktail gal, but seeing as my time in Boston has been so cocktail-infused, I had to give the Ginger Rogers a try (Absolut Vodka, ginger liquor, fresh squeezed lemon, mint, and a splash of ginger ale). And then, I had to give it a second try — you know, just to make sure that the first one wasn’t a delicious fluke. (It wasn’t.) And then I had to give it a THIRD try… Err, ok ok, just kidding. Only two (I swear!). I shared the Porcini Flatbread, which cast its spell on me as soon as I got my first whiff of truffle oil… Oh, I’m such a sucker for truffle-anything. I’d give the flatbread a high ranking. It was followed by the pan-seared scallops, which were extremely tasty as well, although a bit too buttery/creamy for my liking. I do not blame the scallops though; they did their job, I just happened to be in the mood to go slightly out of my comfort food-zone and was inspired by the predominantly seafood menu. I definitely owe Granary Tavern another visit, but with so many other places to try I am not sure how or when I will get back there. If nothing else, I hope to at least spread the word that Granary Tavern is definitely worth at least a good drink and a yummy flatbread.

Somerville sunset. Somerville, MA.

Somerville sunset. Somerville, MA.

Lastly, for this entry, I feel like Cambridge 1 deserves a nod. So, I live with a pizza editor/food writer, which makes it very hard not to be critical of (or impressed with, if such is the case) the Boston pizza scene. It seems the strength is in flatbreads, not the deeper-crust or “NYC slice” styles, and I’m ok with that. One day, I met a friend for lunch at this cozy Harvard Square spot, which I hadn’t even noticed after walking by it at least 100 times. Unassuming from the outside, I was happily surprised upon entering the simple warehouse-like space. It was a dreary day, and the green of an outside pre-winter tree lit up the large back  window, illuminating the otherwise beer-hall brown benches of the restaurant. I went with the Iceberg Lettuce Wedge (drizzled generously with a shallot vinaigrette), followed by the Spinach, Artichoke Hearts, Chevre, and roasted Tomato pizza, per the waitress’ recommendation when I couldn’t decide. The pizza was fantastic — although it could have been hotter, and the salad wedge was refreshingly crunchy. I returned a separate evening to find that the place was a different scene at night. It was totally packed, and I actually had to wait 30 minutes to sit down. Ordering the Bolognese Meat Sauce pizza the second time around was a mistake, as it was a soggy experience, thus taking away the initial satisfaction I felt with my first pizza choice (Note to self: trust the waitress). Nevertheless, a great beer selection and satisfying flavors (despite lackluster texture) made Cambridge 1 a very convenient and pleasant option to keep on file.

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Leaves. Cloud forest in Mindo, Ecuador.

So there you go. Winter is all about staying warm with good food, good people, and sure, some good booze. I am feeling inspired to take on the Boston winter and take advantage of the many places that make this city so beloved by its inhabitants. I might be a New Yorker at heart, but at least for several more months, I am a Bostonian/Cantabrigian (I’m sorry, but I count both cities as my home right now). So, bring on the restaurants, the bars, the museums, and the accents because I’ve still got some serious Beantown exploring to do. (Suggestions welcome and encouraged!)

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Filed under Boston, Food, List, Massachusetts, Somerville, Winter

Sweet, Friendly, and Homemade

Last night, as the temperature dropped just past comfortable and I read my Anatomy & Physiology textbook in bed, I realized that it was time. I walked over to the window, contemplated the need for another set of hands, decided I could do it by myself, and I removed my AC unit. This moment is always bittersweet, as it represents The End (of summer, at least). By now we all know how I feel about summer…

Sea Lion basking in the sun. Galapagos, Ecuador.

It wouldn’t be right for me to let summer go without acknowledging a few more of the places that made this summer post-Physics so sweet. And it’s not just the places; it’s the people I’ve been hanging out with here in Cambridge/Boston. I feel like I’ve made some really great new friends, and I’m kind of loving it. But who wants to read about that? BORING!

Praying in a church in Salta. Salta, Argentina.

SWEET CHEEKS Q: Let’s start with Sweet Cheeks Q. It was mid-August, and my roommates and I had yet to do a roommate dinner. Having an in-the-know food editor roommate has its perks in moments like this. Considering that it was already August and I had yet to consume anything drenched in BBQ sauce, I was delighted when she suggested this happenin’ spot (which, for those who don’t know, is owned by Tiffani Faison — the tough red-head from Boston who appeared in “Top Chef,” Season 1 — and almost won). Also, for those who don’t know, I was the PR Intern for Food & Wine (and Travel + Leisure) magazine when they were filming the first season of “Top Chef.” I helped when the PR team was media-training “Top Chef” judge, Gail Simmons and hung out with her quite a bit (she was awesome, btw). So anyways, yes, I was excited about this meal (can you tell yet?!). Fortunately, Sweet Cheeks Q delivered on all fronts.

I will start where every dining experience begins — the bread. Before delving into the stack of fried okra (which I’ll get to in a second), four oversized, warm biscuits arrived with a sprinkle of sugar and a dish of what I thought was butter. As soon as I put the first bite in my mouth, I was blown away. No, this was not just butter. This was HONEY butter. And holy crap, was it DELICIOUS! Tiffani, you had me at honey butter…

But then it kept going. We ordered the fried okra, which couldn’t have been cooked better, as well as a few solid Southern-inspired cocktails. By the time dinner arrived, I was already pretty satisfied… And then I tried the pulled chicken. Look, I’ve had my share of pulled chicken. It doesn’t sound very special, but let me tell ya — this was the BEST pulled chicken I have ever had. In fact, I’m not sure how you can make a better pulled chicken. It was smokey, salty (but not too salty), tender, soft, and straight-forward — no sauce slapped all over it, no anything-else sprinkled throughout it — just delicious, mouth-watering, well-made pulled chicken. Other notable standouts were the pork belly, the pulled pork, and the Cita’s Broccoli. I’ll forgive her for the brisket being a little dry because, when even the cole slaw is good, you know you’ve got a winner.

Eye contact with an Alpaca. Cotopaxi, Ecuador.

THE FRIENDLY TOAST: On a more casual note, let’s talk about brunch. In NYC, going to brunch isn’t a matter of IF but a question of WHERE? It is one of my absolute favorite things, yet brunch seems to be under-appreciated here in Boston. Sure, maybe it’s unnecessary to spend money on pancakes and eggs when they are so easy to make at home, but what better way to start a Saturday or Sunday than with BOTH, plus a side of friendship?! Well, The Friendly Toast had all the brunch items I could have wanted (pancakes, fruit, waffles, bagels (!!), eggs). The vibe is different from my usual NYC brunch spots — there were more tattoos, and it was sort of like a funky diner colliding with a hipster cafe, plus lots of kids. Our server was very friendly (like the toast!), and everything tasted just like I needed it too — with no surprises and no gimmicks. Brunch spot: found!

Baby. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.

The rest of the places I want to mention — like Hawthorne’s, the classy bar-in-a-hotel (that had a zebra print couch, and represented a different Boston “scene” than I had experienced until then), where I got to taste some really special cocktails, or Yenching which, at the opposite end of the spectrum, was my first Cambridge Chinese restaurant, and surprisingly satisfying — will just have to slip under the radar for now.

Guy hanging out. Old Town Quito, Ecuador.

As fun as all these restaurants have been, one of my favorite things about being in Boston is spending time in people’s homes, and cooking together — something I did much less of in NYC, where the size of a kitchen was inversely proportional to the cost of having it.

One of my favorite nights thus far was spent at a new friend’s home in the North End. W invited me to his and his wife’s place for dinner, where we began by drinking whiskey sodas and wine while devouring the most incredible cheeses I’ve had in a long time (North End — I’m coming back for more!). But hang on… the night really began with a thunderstorm — and not just your average thunderstorm. This bad boy was RIDICULOUS. Low and behold — I did not have an umbrella. I arrived at W’s house soaked to the bone — the kind of wet that squishes when you walk and leaves soggy footprints behind you. While this may seem miserable, I was quickly given a pair of W’s finest sweatpants, as well as a sweatshirt. This “dinner party” became a sweatpants and pasta-making party very quickly, and ya know what? It couldn’t have been better. We spent the next few hours laughing while kneading and drying pasta dough. Meanwhile W — who is Italian (shocked?) — made an incredible pasta sauce. We finished things off with some homemade almond biscotti. Although I could barely move at the end of the night, sometimes getting home around 2am after a home cooked meal (in someone else’s sweatpants) is better than any nice restaurant experience.

Makin’ pasta in the North End. Boston, MA.

What I like about being in Boston is that life doesn’t revolve around where you go to eat and what neighborhood you grab drinks in. Not that NYC is all about that (please, I am NOT hating on NYC — I LOVE NYC! So there), but my life here in Boston has been much more about the people I’ve met than the places I’ve been. As much as I love going to new restaurants and new bars, and experiencing new neighborhoods (and yes, I am loving the explorations! Keep the restaurants coming!), what I like even more is the new people with whom I’m exploring all these places…

So, that’s kind of where it’s at.

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Sweet and Savory

Since finishing summer classes last week, I have been trying to balance my desire to completely veg out and have daily Madmen marathons with getting my grad school applications started… and exploring the restaurants, bars and cafes of Cambridge as a free woman (OBVI— it’s still me over here, people — even if I know a thing or two about quantum physics now).

Looking up. Somerville, MA.

For better or worse, my urge to be productive always beats out the urge to be lazy, but a gal can TRY once in a while (I’ve found it doesn’t take much). I’ve already made a lot of additions to the very elaborate grad school application spreadsheet I’ve been maintaining, and I may or may not have written a rough draft of my personal statement essay in one burst of inspiration (now that I finally know the topic). I’ve registered for fall classes and labs, run around town rushing health insurance documents out before quickly approaching deadlines, and I’m working on volunteer, or even potential paid PT Aide positions for the fall. I guess getting some free time these days doesn’t directly translate into “vacation,” but there is something to be said for having the time to catch up on all the OTHER stuff we have to do to stay organized. Of course, there is a lot more to do — it’s called being an adult, and you all know what that’s like — but the best complement to hard work is easy fun. Lots of it. That’s how I feel about THAT.

Luckily, I have some great friends who have been treating me very well and introducing me to new places to celebrate being free, or just enjoy the simple things about summer (sitting outside in the afternoon with a Hefeweizen, strolling by the river, impromptu oysters, and sangria…). It’s time to pause and acknowledge a few more of these places, and add them to my TwT Boston list. [Warning: I have discovered Instagram (I was slow to warm up to it), and I’m not afraid to use it…]

EMMA’S:  There was something special about this place from the moment we first walked in. I’m not sure if it was the Indie-vibe, the dim lighting, or the extremely friendly host (who even moved us to a better table after seating us at one, acknowledging his own preference for the second table and aiming to please two already content customers). The cozy spot is like a hug from a best friend; you get the comfort of delicious thin crust pizza (with the usual spattering of toppings to choose from — and even some unusual options, such as dried cranberries, artichoke hearts and sweet potatoes), accompanied by the edge of a good sangria. Meanwhile, the kind of music that breeds nostalgia plays just loud enough in the background, making one of the colorful chairs an easy place to get comfortable. Emma’s is a great low-key date spot, but it could also be the dinner sanctuary that you run to in the middle of a cold winter, when you want a badass pizza and a good glass of red wine before turning in for the night and watching movies. Pencil me in for many more visits and slices as the temperature in this town slowly drops. I’m not sure who Emma is, but I think we should be friends.

FLOUR BAKERY: Before leaving New York, I wondered outloud where I might find a good bakery in Cambridge. My friend looked at me and said one word: Flour. The name remained a distant fantasy, as I found less and less time and more and more need to treat myself to something yummy during the nonstop cyclone of physics work. At long last, I got to go there today, and I haven’t stopped thinking about my breakfast since. While not in the most scenic spot (I went to the one between Kendall and Central Squares), the cafe itself is just right for a constantly coming-and-going ground. I tried the breakfast sandwich — a surprisingly artistic souffle-like square egg on a delicious homemade roll, with just the right amount of dijon mustard, arugula, and a slice of tomato. I opted for bacon (it always seems to win the ham vs bacon battle) and even the bacon was a standout on its own. But the constant dilemma of savory vs sweet had me in a pickle, so I decided to share (I promise!) the seductive sticky bun as well. It may have just been the best sticky bun I have ever had. Somewhere between that egg sandwich, the bacon and the sticky bun, I found myself lost in a perfect breakfast. I guess all I can do now is go back and sample everything else on the menu, one delicious treat at a time… Who’s coming with me?!

Breakfast at Flour Bakery. Cambridge, MA.

THE CHARLES RIVER: For me, “The Charles” has always been synonymous with “rowing.” Rowing rowing rowing, Head of the Charles, and rowing. Most of my trips to Boston during college were to cheer on the Bowdoin crew as it raced (and sometimes won) “the world’s largest 2-day rowing event,” according to the HOCR website. But only recently did I have the opportunity to walk beside it as afternoon and evening slowly blended together. Seeing sailboats and the river in a slightly different light, in a slightly different mood, with a slightly different life made me appreciate it in a whole new way. For me, nothing does it like summertime strolls by the water… And maybe a little booze wouldn’t stop this moment from getting even better.

Boats int he summer. Charles River. Cambridge, MA.

As you can see, I’ve gotten some stuff done, and I’ve purposefully NOT gotten some stuff done in the past week. We talked a lot about balance in physics this summer — from the constant forces acting upon an object in static equilibrium, to the force of microscopic photons bouncing electrons off of things (ok, so I may know a little more about this than it sounds like I do, but you don’t strike me as the physics-loving crowd…). What I hope to accomplish with the last few weeks of summer — my entire summer, in a sense — is just more of the same; I want to be productive, but also be completely and totally, beautifully, wonderfully unproductive once in a while. Is that too much to ask?

In life, it seems we must always choose between savory and sweet, or try to balance the two. And then sometimes, we don’t get to choose at all.

(This song has been stuck in my head since my last workout…It is just the right amount of angry.)

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A New York Girl In Old San Juan

I didn’t expect “beautiful.” No, not necessarily. Puerto Rico isn’t the most culturally “exotic” place for a New Yorker to visit since we’ve actually got more Puerto Ricans in NYC than there are in San Juan. Plus, the island is a US territory; although they consider themselves their own country, culture, and nationality, no passport is required for Americans to enter (nice!). But I did want a taste. I wanted to know what it would feel like to walk the streets of Old San Juan surrounded by Puerto Ricans and enveloped by warm ocean breezes, rather than riding the subways of New York City surrounded by the same people all bundled up in the frigid stillness of an East Coast winter. It quickly became clear that, even while many Puerto Ricans and I call New York City “home,” this island, this colonial city, is where their heart is. And for one week, mine got to be there too.

View from Fort of San Cristobal. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Part of me expected Spanglish to fly out of everyone’s mouth, because that’s what I’m used to in NYC. But when you’re on the island of Puerto Rico, you’re far, far away from the urban jungle. I found myself speaking Spanish like I was in South America — how I love when I have to speak Spanish. While most locals speak English as well as Spanish, many do not. I quickly realized that I was farther away from the US than I expected to feel, although the first sight of a Starbucks, Chili’s, and Walgreen’s helped to remind me of the connection. It’s Miami meets Cuba meets New Orleans. That’s how I’d sum up this town. The Latin energy thickly coats the muggy nights, and the colors, architecture, and rhythm are undoubtedly Spanish-influenced. It’s exotic but familiar, foreign but navigable, us (U.S.) but them, here but there

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Often when I travel, especially to Latin American cities or even Caribbean islands, I find myself confused by a feeling that I am almost more in my element and more at home in these places than in my beloved Manhattan. I definitely feel more at home in Latin cultures than anywhere else in the US where, even though I look white, I never feel as white as the general culture around me.

Fort of San Cristobal. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

I love to dance. For anyone who doesn’t know that, there it is. But, as I have joked, I can’t really dance to “white people” music — the kind they play at weddings and in well-lit rooms. It just doesn’t feel natural. I’ve got to get my hips shaking and I need the right beat, but without forcing anything — it’s got to just start happening on its own. I like to get close, to sync-up with another person charged by the music. I like to be spun and led by a Latin man who knows how to work it. I can’t just listen to salsa, merengue, reggaeton, reggae, bachata, cumbia, dancehall, soca, tango, etc. and not MOVE. It gets in me, as white as I may seem, and works its way through me with a determined vigor that rock (or whatever you call it) just doesn’t give me.

Graffiti in Old San Juan. Puerto Rico.

This all became extra clear on Saturday night, when my mom, my sister, her Australian boyfriend and I headed to the Hotel San Juan just down the street from our swanky hotel, where we were told the locals love to go for the live salsa music and dancing. We sat in the old, massive lobby and watched as Puerto Ricans of all shapes, sizes, and ages got up and shook their hips, gliding across the dance floor with their partners in an effortless haze of natural talent. These people are so unafraid, so uninhibited, so free and HAPPY when they dance — and boy can those men dance! At one point, we all found ourselves completely mesmerized by the hips of a tall dark-skinned man with moves that could slay vacationing gringas with one perfectly placed thrust. Women wore anything that resembled second skin — words that come to mind: short, tight, revealing and/or excessively sparkly. Men wore loose, airy button-down t-shirts with white belts and comfortable pants, many with that dark complexion that beckons a panama hat and cigar. They danced because they couldn’t help it. They danced because it was in their sangre. They danced and danced and all I wanted to do was transport this place to New York, take all of this energy with me, and dance with them as one of them on my island. But this time, I was an onlooker.

Window and cobblestones. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

It made me nostalgic for Ecuador, where every Wednesday I would go salsa dancing with a combination of gringas and Ecuadorians (shout out to Victor, my favorite dance partner!). That’s probably what I miss most about living in South America: the dancing. The constant liberty to just move if you felt like it — the inevitability of dancing. This is what the US lacks. Americans can be so up-tight on the dance floor — so afraid. Especially the men. (Of course, this is certainly not ALWAYS the case.) It just isn’t a part of the culture the same way it is in the Caribbean, Africa and Latin America. And it’s not in Americans’ (oops, “our”) blood to just MOVE, to let a beat take them wherever it wants to, and to let go. When I travel and dance in other countries, all I want is to take these places and the people back with me to Manhattan where I can feel at home in my hometown. And yet they’re already here, already transported, immigrated, mixed right in. But it’s different here, on the continental US. The energy, the music, the weather — it’s just different.

Colorful homes in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

I’ve got to say: I loved Old San Juan. I was expecting it to be a little seedy or run-down, but it was quiet vibrant and — the travel writer’s most despised adjective — charming. Not to mention, Puerto Rican men can be quite friendly when you wear short shorts… Yeah… Hehe.

Ok let’s see if I can paint the picture for you: Imagine you’re walking up a hill, two sixteenth-to-eighteen century fortresses to your right are separated by a large expanse of bright blue ocean. To your left, a dark man with a potbelly in a too-tight bright green t-shirt shakes a bell, letting you know he’s selling coconut and mango flavored ices. Another man sells potato skins in a rolling cart. An overwhelmingly warm morning is whipping around you in the refreshing ocean breeze. When it stops, you realize your sunglasses are sliding off your sweat-slicked nose. The tops of your feet are burning a little in your flip-flops, but despite the excessive heat, the air is light. The streets are filled with colorful colonial-style homes, with balconies and shutters that remind you of the Creole-Caribbean influenced houses in the French Quarter of New Orleans. All the streets are cobblestoned and lined with leafy trees, bright magenta flowers, and the occasional graffiti. The energy is new even though the city reeks of history, pirates, cannon ball fire, large ships with the quest to conquer, and footprints of the Spanish.

Ship sketch on wall of dungeon in Fort of San Cristobal. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Dome next to El Morro. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Especially after the sun sets, Old San Juan comes to life from beneath the heat. Pulsing with a newfound chic-ness, this city is anything but dead or run-down. Puerto Rican food is generally unhealthy — chincharrones (the Puerto Rican interpretation of chicken nuggets) and fufu or mafongo, a sort of stew with a base of mashed plantains and black beans — are staples here. However, either I had very good luck with our restaurant selections for the week or Old San Juan has an amazing little selection of Nuevo-Latino restaurants with with which to play. (See list at the end of this post.) Let’s just say I ate well. Like, really well.

Tres Banderas: Spanish Military flag, Puerto Rican flag, American flag. El Morro. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

For those wondering, this was a family trip. Every year, my family (of seven) tries to do a spring break together. It’s a tradition that, for most families, fades after high school, but in ours, it has managed to continue, albeit with the occasional sibling missing in action. One nice perk to dating a Tavel: you get to join, courtesy of my dad. Not too shabby… Not that you need ANOTHER reason to date or hang out with me, but there it is. (HA! SO JUST KIDDING. This better be obvious.) Not bribing. Just sayin’…

Me strolling through Old San Juan.

Since I graduated from college, the annual Tavel spring break has taken me to Turkey (Istanbul), Argentina (Buenos Aires, Salta, Tucuman, Cafayate, Purmamarca), Portugal (Lisbon, Sintra), Austria (Vienna, Salzburg, Bruck), Italy (Rome, Pompeii, Vatican City), and now Puerto Rico. As you can see, most of the trips have been to European cities, where we spend our days exploring museums, ruins, and general neighborhoods in a nonstop fury of productivity, punctuated by heavy, excessively delicious three-to-five course meals that often happily backfire on us and slow things down. Getting four adult kids and an opinionated, sassy Argentine mom to agree on the daily itinerary can be trying, at times. It often feels like the opposite of vacation, and sometimes – by the end of the trip – I find myself needing another one just to dilute the intensity of the phantom vacation I supposedly just had. But it’s also wonderful, and it means a lot to my parents that we are still happy to do these trips. That said, I always end up in the middle  seat on every flight when I specifically request the aisle (why, WHY, will no sibling every trade with me!?). My mom acts like an excited puppy when she sees good shopping, at which point my impatience begins to take over (I am not a shopper). We all just have slightly different agendas, and it takes a lot of bending and shutting up to make things work in a big family. Alas, it somehow always does…in its own way.

Colorful street. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Needless to say, it’s getting harder and more complicated to pull off these trips without a clash of opinions, priorities (mine are always cultural – the art, the food, the people, the street life, the history, the desire to take in the big picture of a place), and moral/existential/social/personal preferences. To try something different (and save a little cash), I thought we should go somewhere that could combine our interest in another culture with our desire to completely RELAX (you know — the point of a vacation), and suggested Puerto Rico.

El Morro. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

To my happiness, this worked out PERFECTLY. Every morning, we’d sip our Puerto Rican coffee on the balcony of our hotel overlooking the ocean, and spend most of each day either basking in the sun by the pool, or submerging ourselves in the warm sea. We’d go for daily walks up and down the beach of Isla Verde, and order the occasional pina colada, mango smoothie, or beer from the comfort of our bright blue pool-side chairs. Most evenings, we’d venture into Old San Juan for a trendy restaurant, and spend a morning or two casually strolling through the city, only to follow the effectively calm morning up with an afternoon nap by the water. It really was heaven, and for a change, it truly felt like a vacation.

Beach. Isla Verde. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

And now we’re back in New York City. Gone are the beaches and the palm trees, the waves of calm water, the cilantro and plantain-filled meals, the constant pulsing desire to move my hips and speak Spanish. But here in Manhattan, I’ve still got the Puerto Ricans. A girl like me can only hope that I will find myself a slice of that Old San Juan energy somewhere within the crowded streets of this less tropical and slightly less Latin island that, like for many Puerto Ricans, I call home.

For those of you actually traveling to Puerto Rico, here are some restaurant suggestions:

Tavel’s Old San Juan Dinner Picks:

Marmalade. Considered “the best” restaurant in Old San Juan, it was an easy choice for the Tavel clan. The restaurant is very trendy, but backs it up with a really delicious and funky Latin-inspired menu. I opted for the four-course tasting menu, which included a paella with smoked chicken, then an unforgettable white bean soup scented with truffle oil and dusted with pancetta, followed by a perfectly tender beef tenderloin in a cabernet-rosemery jus with roasted mushrooms and three cheese potato gratin, and topped off by a killer chocolate mousse. Before dinner, I sipped a honey-chamomile martini (for a girl who hates sweet drinks, this was a good choice as it was like a chill, alcoholic version of relaxing and strong chamomile tea with honey). White curtains dangle between diners, and the hip but relaxed atmosphere of this primely located San Juan restaurant — not to mention the memorable food — hit the spot. It’s a great place to celebrate anything, or nothing. Basically, just come up with some excuse to go here if you find yourself nearby. www.marmaladepr.com.

Baru. The tapas-style menu, along with the flamenco music on the speakers and the outdoor courtyard in the high-ceilinged Spanish-style building, will temporarily transport you to Southern Spain. I loved this restaurant from the moment I walked in. Immediately, the interior architecture makes you feel like you could be in someone’s home, with the small rooms having the natural flow of a house, and the outdoor seating small enough to be intimate beneath the shade of a big palm tree, but large enough to feel you’re on your own even surrounded by other diners. Highlights of the menu include a salad with greens and incredibly sweet mangoes, plantain chips in fufu and a spicy black bean dip, amazingly light pan seared scallops in a coconut curry sauce, a delicate asparagus risotto, a fresh paper-thin halibut carpaccio, and possibly the best chocolate mousse I’ve had in a long time. The vibe is a perfect island calm, and it’s a great place for a small group dinner or a romantic evening for two. After dinner, the restaurants and bars on this famously beautiful street, San Sebastien, fill with locals grabbing a quick bite or setting up for a night of live salsa. www.barupr.com.

Dragonfly. Located on a bustling Old San Juan street with a string of outdoor dining just outside, this restaurant was modeled after a Shanghai opium den. The atmosphere is hip at this Latin-Asian restaurant, which provides a great getaway from the Puerto Rican standards while incorporating the strengths of the island’s flavors. The dark, red seductive interior goes well with dishes like the criollo BBQ pork steamed bun sliders, the pork and amarillo (plantain) dumplings, and the miso-honey halibut. Creative cocktails and tapas-sized dishes make for a fun dinner experience. More sexy than casual, I’d definitely go back — perhaps with a nice Puerto Rican man rather than my family, the second time around. If you can stomach it, try the ginger tres leches dessert. www.oofrestaurants.com.

And here are a few songs to finish off this post and complete your immersion into the San Juan mood (as always, ignore the actual videos and just enjoy the music):

Feel free to add links to your favorite salsa music as a comment!

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Filed under Food, Islands, New York City, Puerto Rico, Travel, Uncategorized, USA

Incredible Crunchy TwT Flavor

Travel, food… Food, travel… The two go hand-in-hand. Ahhh, yes (that was a content sigh, not an AHHH!!!! — just for the record).

Oooh, TANGENT ALERT!

This reminds me of the first essay I ever wrote in college. It was for one of my favorite professors, Kidder S. (we just called him Kidder). I was a young, nervous freshman taking an Asian studies freshman seminar called Seekers Lives, which focused on different paths to enlightenment and Truth (capital T – just trust me: there’s a big difference between Truth and truth). I had no idea what to expect when I got my first essay back. The second Kidder handed it to me, I saw this written in big letters across the top: “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” Now, I wasn’t sure what to think. So, after class, I asked Kidder what he meant: “Is this an ‘AHHH!!’ [I made an extended, horrified AH sound] or is this an ‘ahhhhhh, yes’ [I made a pleased and calm ahhh sound].” He looked at me, concerned, and said “oh, Tavel!” (yes he called me Tavel, as did everyone in college),”That was definitely an ‘Aha!’ ahhhhh, as in ‘yes yes yes!’ ” And that is when I learned the difference between AHHHH! and ahhhh…

Well that was a sloppy segway… (Asian studies… Asian food… errr…)

ANYWAYS: Today, my TwT blog goes hand-in-hand with one of my favorite food bloggers. In case you weren’t hungry enough, lets take a trip to China on a sub…

General Tso’s Tofu Sub

By IncredibleCrunchyFlavor, (also secretly known as Katinka).

i saw this recipe and was totally intrigued instantly. i mean, i love general tso’s and since i’ve been eating a lot of vegetarian bahn mi sandwiches recently (from eden center in falls church, virginia), flavored tofu on a bun with toppings was especially appealing.

so i got all psyched to make it, but then i actually read the recipe, and i realized you had to fry.

deep frying has always been the third rail of my cooking – the thing i won’t touch. my mom was (is) terrified of frying and never did it at home. i have carried on the feeling that frying is dangerous and best left to the pros.

fortunately, there was a note in the comments section that someone had pan fried it, so i decided to give that a try instead. (deep frying = entire pot of boiling oil. pan fry = half an inch or so of hot oil in a pan). but we’re not there yet.

i started with the edamame puree, which didn’t turn out so well. you are supposed to put ¾ of a cup of frozen, shelled edamame in blender with “just enough water to make a smooth paste.”


i don’t know if it was because it was such a small volume in my big ol’ blender or what, but i ended up adding more than a ¼ cup of water and it still never got nice and smooth the way i wanted it.


(Above: edamame paste next to ginger, garlic and soy sauce for the general tso’s sauce)

it occurred to me later that since you’re supposed to mayo the bread too, maybe i should have blended up the edamame with the mayo and some water to make one creamy spread.

next, the sauce. ginger, garlic, soy sauce, sweet soy sauce, white vinegar, mirin, sesame oil, red dry chinese chilis (i omitted), salt, sugar and xanthan gum (optional. i opted out) in the blender.


i didn’t know what sweet soy sauce was, and clearly didn’t have any, so i used an extra tablespoon of regular soy sauce.

this was probably a mistake. i learned later that sweet soy sauce is thick like molasses, which – with the xanthan gum – would have made the texture more like the traditional sticky general tso’s of chinese take-out fame. perhaps one tablespoon (instead of the required two) of actual molasses would have helped the texture without messing too much with the flavor.

also, the blender had a hard time with the ginger fibers, so if you have a microplane, i recommend microplaning the ginger first.

leave it in the blender for a long time…

for the pickles, i didn’t even bother with the blender. i chopped the shallot, ginger and garlic, and ended up shredding the scallions by hand, which worked well.


although, you better believe i was missing my mandoline for this part:


mix well and let sit.


now that we’ve got the puree, the sauce and the pickles, it’s time for the tofu.

make sure you are using extra firm. i used firm and it wasn’t firm enough, breaking when i was trying to handle it.


this breading-frying-assembling process moves really fast, so it’s best to have everything set out and ready.


make sure the tofu is very dry when you season it.


dip in egg, coat in panko and drop carefully into the oil.


while it’s frying away, toast the rolls, slice and schmear up.


when the tofu is golden brown, remove it from the oil and dunk it into the sauce.


(i can’t believe i was frying AND taking pictures. phew!)

load onto sandwich and top with some sesame seeds and pickles.


so for all my complaining, i bet you’ll be surprised to hear that the finished product was a huge hit.

the bread, which i had toasted gently in the oven, was warm and flakey on the outside, the tofu was crispy from the panko and super creamy on the inside, the pickles were crunchy and cool, the sauce was tangy… even the (chunky) edamame puree added a nice contrast in flavors.


would i make this again? no. way too much work for a sandwich. would i eat it again if someone made it for me? you betcha.

Incrediblecrunchyflavor is the creative outlet of a disenchanted federal government worker in Washington, DC (her name – yes her real name – is Katinka). Other things Katinka does to keep herself sane are kayak, volunteer, watch a lot of “Man vs Food,” discover really authentic Asian restaurants in the DC suburbs, and celebrate Champagne Thursday. If she could go anywhere in the world at this moment, it would be Tuftonboro, New Hampshire; Antigua, Guatemala; somewhere in Italy; or Tokyo, Japan. Check out more recipes and food porn on http://incrediblecrunchyflavor.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter, @crunchyflavor.

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Filed under Asia, Contributor, Food

Not Travels and Not Tavel

Yep, you heard me (errr… read… me). I’ve decided that February (which I’ve also apparently decided begins today) is going to be a month for TwT contributors. I want as many contributors as I can arrange, and I want the subject matter to span the world. This is my chance to introduce you to fellow travel bloggers, fellow foodies, friends, and maybe even family (any volunteers?!). However I identify them, they’re all people just like you and me who are writing/reading blogs because it’s fun. Together, we will spice up TwT (at least temporarily) by weaving a web of relatable stories and experiences. Maybe it will trigger your wanderlust, maybe you’ll start salivating, or maybe you’ll just smile. The bottom line: TwT isn’t just about me, it’s also about everyone who’s joining me for the ride.

Today, my good friend from college (and one of my favorite Kansans), Molly, has agreed to be the first contributor. I hope you show her a warm, comment-filled welcome and enjoy the different “flavor” she brings to TwT.

You were getting sick of me blabbing on and on about life anyway, weren’t you?! (SAY NO!!!)

A Kitchen Adventure in Jamaica Plain

By Molly

Today is Sunday.  These past few weeks have been quite busy… I’ve worked the past two Saturdays training college mentors and volunteers for both my own job with Jumpstart and as a guest trainer for an organization called Strong Women Strong Girls.  These days are fun, a tiny bit stressful, and great at depleting my energy tank.  Today I am in the mood for quiet and food.  The quiet will be easy, both roommates aren’t home today.  Now for the food.

Sunday mornings start with a big cup of black coffee and a stack of cookbooks.  Before I tackle the cooking, I need to go to the market.  And I can’t go without a list.  I can’t make a list until I have a plan.  Black coffee is perfect for planning.

Casco the Cat and Cookbooks. Photo by Molly

A colleague recently gave me Mark Bittman’s book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating and I’ve been thinking a lot about cooking and eating food that is both healthy and sustainable.  Bittman makes suggestions that feel very attainable and realistic.  I keep that in consideration and think about planning for leftovers (I’ve got another busy week ahead) as I peruse my books and favorite blogs.  I don’t love leftovers, and I struggle to figure out what I will still want to eat 3 days in a row.  I’ve fallen into the habit of baking on Sundays.  I have an office that would happily snack on fresh baked goods but all baked goods I make never seem to make it out of the apartment.  Hmmm…  back to the list.

On my way home from the market, I snap a picture of this tennis court covered in snow.  Clearly it’s time to get back home.

Snowy Tennis Court. Photo by Molly.

So once my groceries and I reach the kitchen, it’s time to get started.  I tackle Paula Dean’s Savannah Red Rice recipe first (I used her book, but you can find it here:  http://www.smithfield.com/recipes/recipe/savannah-red-rice).  Paula’s not known for sustainable or healthy recipes.  I put a lot of her recipes in my “Farm Food” category…. those are foods you would eat in Kansas but rarely in yuppie Jamaica Plain, MA.  But it is cold outside and I know I’ll be grumpy if I don’t have at least one “stick to your ribs” option.  The fact that Savannah Red Rice doesn’t call for cream of mushroom soup makes me feel a little better.

Savannah Red Rice. Photo by Molly.

Once that’s in the oven, I wipe off the cutting board and get started on the chili.  This time I’ll do better at sticking to Bittman’s teachings so I select Deb’s Three-Bean Chili on Smitten Kitchen.  I love love love beans, this will be great.

I decided to throw in carrots and green peppers.  The first time I made chili with carrots, I thought it was going to be weird.  But I actually liked it.  I think it adds nice color.  The green peppers are a different story.  Red peppers are far superior to green but today I talked myself into buying the green because they are half the price.  I keep telling myself that green peppers add nice color too.

Onions, peppers, carrots. Photo by Molly.

I see a lot of recipes that call for Chipotle in Adobo.  I am not quite sure what brand these cooks are using.  My local grocery cooperative carries a brand that burns so badly I am convinced my face will look deformed if I eat any more.  It’s really that spicy.  And I like spicy food.  I’m skirting around this ingredient by adding roasted diced tomatoes with adobo and some chipotle seasoning.  Crisis averted.

As I am reading the recipe, I see something about broth.  I can do better.  I look around the kitchen, and it hits me.

Beer? Photo by Molly.

My roommate brews beer and he has his brew on tap in the apartment.  Up next:  the secret ingredient.  I feel badass adding beer AND cocoa to chili.

Cocoa... and Dinner. Photo by Molly.

Just simmering the chili for a while.  I’ll taste it, but really this is for dinner.

Work-in-Progress. Photo by Molly

Rice and chili are ready.  Yum!  Leftover potential=Through the roof!

Earlier this week, my roommate brought home Red Velvet cookies.  They’re addictive.  As I was perusing cooking blogs, I remembered that Ali posted a recipe for Red Velvet Cupcakes on her blog Alexandra’s Kitchen.  Ali is my friend Katy’s friend and I met her while I was in California last spring.  I’ve tried several of her recipes and they are all awesome.  I have high expectations for these cupcakes.  I rarely stray from recipes in the baking department and I’m following this one exactly, except I’m using a bit less red food coloring.  For some reason, food coloring scares me.  The staining potential is just too much.

Makin' Red Velvet Cupcakes. Photo by Molly.

Red Velvet Cupcakes. Photo by Molly.

As I read the ingredients for the frosting, I notice that I’m supposed to use two sticks of butter and 2 cups of powdered sugar.  I know Julia Child would be disappointed in me, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.  I used a little more than half of what the recipe says.  The result–frosting is very cream cheesey but still good.

Red Velvet Success. Photo by Molly.

I’ve just surveyed the damage.  I have just made enough food to feed 6 people and I’m the only one at home.

I’m going for a run.

Molly lives in Boston and works in the non-profit world.  She loves to run, cook, and tap dance.  Sebago Lake is her favorite place to visit. You can follow her on Twitter for more kitchen adventures in Jamaica Plain at @molstherunner.

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Filed under Contributor, Food, Winter