Friday, August 20, 2010

Learnings from a run-of-the-mill shopping trip

I went to get some bike accessories and groceries today after work.  Sounds like a fairly typical Friday evening so far.  I'm not sure if I got particularly reflective today, but a few incidents made me think about a few life's little principles.

Best advice is useless if it does not fit the context
I went to MEC to get some bike accessories.  While I had the attention of the very helpful and knowledgeable staff, I asked him for some advice on bike locks.  He went into great length explaining and demonstrating the proper way to lock my bike, which involves taking off my quick release front wheel.  I told him it may not be always practical to take off and put on the wheel.  Somehow, the idea of not wanting to go to drinks with dirt on light colored clothing or go to dinner with dirt in my finger nails seems foreign to him.  After 5 minutes of circular discussion, this nice MEC staff still refused to tell me any other "not the best" options, or at least explain the pros & cons of the various options. 

Best option is usually just around the corner
While I was at the Chinese grocery store, I wanted to get some noodles.  I cruised up & down the noodles aisle, noodling over which noodle to get.  I wanted to get something I have not tried before and packaged in a compact way that won't get crushed in my bag while I biked.  After what felt like eternity, I finally gave up and decided to check out.  Just as I exit the aisle, a stack of boxes caught my eye.  There they are!  Medium wide egg noodles in a tight non-easily crushable bag!  And they were on sale!

Law of diminishing satisfaction
As I went through the checkout line, I heard this escalating noise of 2 people arguing.  It turns out an old man and a cashier was in a screaming match.  The dialogue was in mandarin and went pretty fast, so I could not catch much of the content.  It seemed to be about some kiwi fruit - either the old man got charged more than he should, or the cashier forgot to pack the kiwis in his bag.  Every time the old man looked like he was walking away, he would turn around and yelled more at the cashier, or the cashier would start to yell at him, both in escalating screams.  Walking out of the grocery store, I can't stop thinking how more screaming can provide more satisfaction either way.

And on my way I went to get some freshly made bahn bao ... no drama there - just drooling over the dessert counter while I lined up at the cash ...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

El Paso & Surrounding Areas on A Tank of Gas

I was recently in El Paso cheering a few friends in their bowling tournament. Of course it would be a waste to fly that distance without some sightseeing.

This is the story of how my rental Toyota Corolla used up its 1 tank of gas. 

I stayed at the Holiday Inn near the airport, on the east side of downtown. The hotel was quite old, and the swimming pool is an odd configuration of half indoors & half outdoors. It does have a courtyard that is good for chillaxing at night when there is no blazing hot sun shining down.

El Paso is not that big, probably a 20-min drive to pretty much everywhere. I would highly recommend having a car as it is definitely a low density sprawl type city. There are several places to eat and a club within walking distance of the hotel.  One of the places is Jaxon's Restaurant and Brewing Company - They don't offer beer flights so I was only able to try out their Borderland Lager and Cactus Jack Amber Ale.  I wouldn't say it's exceptionally good, but it is refreshing to have some microbrew while out in the boonies.
Mexican Lager
Amber Ale
First stop was downtown. There is a free city hall parking right next to the convention center and various museums. The signage is very confusing as it says free city hall parking after 6pm on weeknights and all day on weekends. But it also says parking for Insights Museum only. In any case, I parked there on Fri night and Sat all day with no problem. Street parking is generally free on Sundays and holidays. If you cannot stand heat, I would highly recommend spending the $3-5 for indoor parking at the convention center or across the street in the parkade.

If you are the cultural type, there are 3 museums right next to each other. Mind you they are not the scale of any museums in major cities, but can't beat free general admission either.  A group of us toured the El Paso Museum of Art one afternoon.  They have an eclectic collection of classical and modern art.

Of all the exhibits, I actually found something in the gift shop the most intriguing - a bracelet made with twist ties!  How ingenious!  

For the shopping type, there is the Golden Horseshoe extending from the convention center to the border with Juarez, Mexico. If you are on the hunt for cheap socks and underwear, football [soccer] jerseys, brand name sneakers and women's clothing that is way too tight for anyone who eats more than 500 calories a day, you will find yourself in paradise here!

For the rest of us, this Mexican "Magnificent Mile" is an amusing way to sweat off at least 10lb. I did manage to gain some pounds back from the yummy pistachio paleta I got from a "street vendor" - i.e. a woman with a rolling cooler standing on the side of the street. True Mexican spirit!

[BTW, from all the research I have done and people I have talked to, there is no real reason to go shopping in Juarez ... Your life is worth a lot more than some cheap merchandise!] 

The majority of the tank of gas was spent on a road trip to the White Sands National Monument. The trip is about an hour and a half from El Paso. I would recommend starting early, and stopping by the Little Diner on the way for brunch. According to the advertising in tourist books, George W Bush has eaten here; I didn't know he's considered a gourmet? For those who have time, there is also a relatively large outlet mall at the same exit.  After this section, there are not many selection for decent food on the deserted highway.

As I started late on the trip, I drove directly to White Sands. I also bypassed White Sands Missile Range Museum on the way. This is the site where the atomic bomb used in World War 2 was tested, so it should be a good stop for military buffs. I did stop on the way of the scenic drive to take in the landscape a bit.

White Sands is a very unique place. It almost look like a snow covered ground in the middle of a desert. The whole place is blindingly bright thanks to the reflection of the sun by the sand. Seeing such vast coverage of white sand, and without being by an ocean, is a strange feeling. It feels lonely, like a companion is missing.

On the way back, I took a detour to Mesilla in New Mexico. It is a quaint old town square with a church and some shops in old Southwestern style buildings. I only had time for a whirlwind walk-around and to pick up some locally produced pistachio as gift for my friends back home.

Continuing down NM-28S, the drive suddenly turned into a lush green path through the Stahmanns pecan farms. It is such contrast to the White Sands scenery that I just visited hours ago.

I was not able to bring some pecans back, as they are only available in either fresh form that requires refrigeration, or candied forms that will melt in the car within a minute.

I took Woodrow Bean Transmountain Road back to El Paso. This route passes through the Franklin Mountains State Park. I like the feeling of driving through a mountain pass - climbing in between the rocks, then the sight opening to a vast space. In this case, the sight opened to El Paso and extending into Juarez, Mexico.

I drove to the Wyler Aerial Tramway hoping to get a view of El Paso from the mountain. The drive up to the base station was very steep - I had to drive in first gear of the Corolla to get enough power for the incline. Unfortunately the tram was closed by the time I got there. For those planning to follow this itinerary and want to be a bit more leisurely, I would recommend reversing the route and start with the cable cars. I took in the city view from the base station before heading to some dinner.

After all the sightseeing, I was thirsty at this point. I stopped by Flautas y Paleteria Tepalca, an unassuming restaurant in what seems to be suburbia strip mall. This place sells a large selection of agua fresca (Mexican fruit juices) and paletas (Mexican popsicles). I have not had these many agua fresca flavors to select from since working in Los Angeles years ago - it took me almost 5 minutes to look through all the choices and decided on a mango one in a gianormous styrofoam cup. While sipping the refreshing juice, I checked out their wide paleta selection, wishing for a place like this in Toronto some day.

Last stop of the day is the famous Cattlemen's Steakhouse in Fabens, about half hour Southeast of El Paso. I got there in time for sunset, which is an amazing view, even though it was a cloudy day.

The restaurant is part of a ranch, with live animals around. Aside from the usual suspects like dogs and horses, I got a glimpse of a peacock on the roof of one of the buildings. And while having dinner, a pack of coyotes also showed up to eat some of the fresh meat left outside for them. It was a rare treat having dinner with coyotes indeed!

And the food? My 12oz ribeye was aged to perfection - juicy and buttery without being too fatty! The baked bean side dish has just the right hint of smokiness, although a bit on the sweet side.

The evening concluded with the night view at the hotel and some desperately needed rest after a long day of driving.

Of course, my El Paso trip had to conclude with more food! On the way to the airport, I made a pit stop at a local favorite Chico's Taco. Chico's has a very limited menu. Their El Paso style tacos are more like taquitos with beef filling served in tomato soup then topped with shredded cheese and green chili salsa. It may sound odd, but the tacos were quite tasty in its own way. They also serve "round" hot dog, with a halved sausage in a hamburger bun. I couldn't take more food after 3 tacos, but it did look tasty.

The gas tank warning light came on, so it's time to fill up the tank, return the car, and say adiós!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Nyonya + Korean = My [Successful] Fusion Experiment

I used to be a fusion snob.  I still am, but to a lesser extent.

What I don't like is fusion food created for the sake of being fusion, chefs who pride themselves on using different "ethnic" ingredients and making new food.  Over the last couple of years, I have started reading about fusion food created out of "necessity".

What I mean are food items created by immigrants trying to recreate dishes from their homeland.  Often, the immigrants craved food from their homeland, but needed to improvise due to limitations in ingredients.  Sometimes, the immigrants run restaurants, and try to appeal to the locals by incorporating their usual ingredients, spices and herbs.  For example, I find Caribbean Chinese food not only tasty, but also reflective of the Chinese immigrants' life on the Islands.

I find these food items not just rich in flavor, but also rich in cultural history.  And if they were created early enough, they would be considered "authentic" cuisine nowadays.  Early trading areas like Shanghai have long attracted traders from different regions since the early days.  What we now considered "authentic Shanghainese cuisine" (沪菜) really came from a fusion of different cuisines in the old days.

A long way to bring me to today's topic - Nyonya (娘惹) cuisine.  I was trying to figure out what to make for dinner yesterday when I stumbled upon a recipe for Nyonya Stewed Pork Ribs recipe.  It looked simple enough to make, so I head down to my local Asian supermarket T&T to gather some ingredients.  Unfortunately, they don't carry the taucheo used in the recipe.  The closest substitute I can find is Korean soybean paste.

Although I haven't tried the original version, the result from my little fusion experiment turned out pretty tasty.  The saltiness, sweetness, sourness and heat are "fused" together in harmony, just like the recipe describes.  To add to the level of fusion, I added some Korean rice cakes.  The resulting half Korean half Nyonya meal was very yummy!

So look up some random recipe, get some "close enough" ingredients, and enjoy your own fusion experiments!

Monday, March 29, 2010

SXSWi(nteractive) ... My takeaway from SXSW 2010 ...

It's insane to think that one can summarize an event as large as South by Southwest (SXSW).  Only looking at the interactive portion, organizers estimated that about 12,000-13,000 people, a 40% increase from 2009, descended into Austin.  Google indicated that there are about 37,400 search results matching "sxsw interactive recap".  That's a lot to read.  And that's only the published text portion.

Since I have documented quite extensively my food journey in Austin while attending SXSW, I figure I should add a token journal about the actual festival.  It's totally my own observations from attending a relatively very small number of organized sessions, from talking to various people there, and from observing activities that went on during the festival.

Margaret's top 5 observations (in no particular order) ...

  • It's about people!: Even though it's a tech-focused conference, most of the sessions are more about the people element than the technology element.  Either it is about how people are changing because of newly available technology, or about how people are working behind the scenes to deliver new technology.
  • It's a good cause!: Business case is not holding the same weight in the minds of the new tech entrepreneurs as old business minds.  At least on the surface, a lot of talks about about the transformational factors and social value of new technology, and very little about the monetization.
  • It's about pooling resources!: Crowdsourcing is becoming more of a trend, and communications & collaboration becomes easier with the Internet.  I recall being in Silicon Valley back in year 2000, where buzzword B2C2C was everywhere in startup lingo.  After 10 years, this is finally becoming a viable reality.
  • It's NOT about devices!: The number of devices on the market & their proprietary operating platforms (yes, that's you Apple!) are fracturing the development world once again.  Consumer technology development went from PC vs Mac applications into the web-based applications back in the 1990's, where we started having hopes of one day developing one application that can run on any computer.  That dream is now crushed with all the proprietary mobile devices.  Growth & adoption of any new consumer applications will highly depend on cross-platform compatibility.  Think of all the ways one can tweet! 
  • It's NOT about North America!: A few eye-opening sessions for me are about technology use in other parts of the world.  We think North America is so innovative with Facebook & Zynga games?  That has already built numerous successful Internet business in China since a few years back.  (Do you know that the 3rd largest Internet business in the world, after Google & Amazon, is Tencent in China?)  We think privacy is a big concern in North America?  It's literally a matter of life & death in Latin America.

    Margaret's presentation picks ...

    Social Networking:
    Socialnomics – Erik Qualman

    How to Create Viral Video (#howtocreateviral) – Panel consisting of Damian Kulash (OK Go), Margaret Gould Stewart (YouTube), Jason Wishnow (TED) moderated by Jonathan Wells (Flux)

    Social Media & China: Different Than You Think – Panel consisting of Jacqui Zhou (Dell), Benjamin Joffee (Plus Eight Star), Sam Flemming (CIC)

    Changing Environment:
    Making Sense of Privacy and Publicitydanah boyd
    [Full transcript is posted here.]

    Thought Starter Technology Usage:

    Augmented Reality: Gimmicky Trend or Market-Ready Technology (#sxswar)  – Matthew Szymczyk (Zugara)

    Interactive Infographics (#interinfo) – Panel consisting of Casey Caplowe (Good), Eric Rodenbeck (Stamen Design), Shan Carter (The New York Times) moderated by Ben Fry

    For those who love technology ...

    Check out the finalists of the Accelerator (like a start-up Dragon's Den) here.  These are fine examples of the up & coming technologies coming to us.

    For those who love videos ...

    Interactive films - Water Life (SXSW Web Awards / Activism), Prison Valley

    Presentation snipits: SXSW YouTube channel

    My final words about the festival ... Check out the Gary Vaynerchuk talk.  Having worked with many corporate clients on customer-centric business strategies since the 1990's, I am shocked to hear that marketers nowadays are thinking that corporations deliberately not serve their customers well.  I know first hand that many marketers deal more with the sales and dollars side of the business, and not the delivery side of the organization.  The truth is many delivery teams are treated as second-class citizen when it comes to corporate resources.  Even in corporations that proclaim to be customer-driven, many of them have the spotlight on cost when it comes to delivery & post-sales service.  Many marketers & sales people, as well as senior executives, don't put the time into understanding the complexity to implement what they perceive as a simple vision.  Hopefully people will see this talk more as a wake-up call that marketing (and sales) need to be more collaborative with delivery & post-sales service to form a total customer experience, and not another slam on the delivery teams for how they have failed to live up to marketing's expectations.

    More to come on some thoughts on the not-so-official part of the SXSW festival next ...

    Monday, March 22, 2010

    SXSWf(ood) ... Getting Chubby in Austin

     This is the first year I attended South by Southwest (SXSW).  It's arguably one of the largest music festival in North America.  But in recent years, interactive (affectionately known as SXSWi) is becoming a much more significant part of the festival.

    Of course, I used this opportunity to sample some great food offered in Austin.  I was pretty much around the main 6th street area of Austin throughout the stay, so I did not have a chance to check out some Austin staples like Magnolia Cafe.  But there are more than enough tasty treats downtown to keep my taste bud interested for the 5 days I was there.

    BBQ: When in Texas, eating BBQ is a no-brainer.  I went with my colleagues to the famous Stubbs Bar-B-Que one night to chow down some local favorites.

    I kick-started the meal with some fried green tomatoes.  The shell is crunchy, with just enough tartness in the green tomatoes to counter the grease from the frying.  A refreshing accompaniment to a pint of Franziskaner Hefeweiss beer after walking in the sun for a while.

    My pick was the Stubb's Minor plate with fairly traditional combination of beef brisket, ribs, fried okra and coleslaw, and of course a slice of white bread.  The meat is well seasoned with a dense smoky flavor.  The original BBQ sauce has a good balance of sweetness, sourness and spice.  I did find it a bit salty if I put it liberally on the meat.  Everything in moderation, right?

    And now a confession - I liked it so much that I hand-carried a pound of brisket and half rack of ribs along with a bottle of Stubb's original BBQ sauce home to extend that Texas feeling!!!

    Breakfast Tacos: Even the NY Times wrote about the significance of breakfast tacos in Austin, so it totally deserves its own category.

    My first encounter with breakfast taco was at Taco Shack, a taco fast food chain in Austin.  My pick was the Shack Taco, with scrambled eggs, chorizo, potatoes & cheese in a flour tortilla.  The chorizo was more like ground beef, with no chorizo-like spicy flavor.  The texture of potatoes in flour tortilla was also a bit strange for me.  The biggest flop was the shredded cheese on top that was not melted - that would have greatly improved the yumminess of the breakfast tacos.  (Little did I know, the non-melted shredded cheese seems to be the norm.)  I must say the salsa was really tasty, good hint of smoky chipotle.

    I also had breakfast taco from One Taco, a famous food truck in town.  I had very high expectation of this meal, after reading all the positive reviews about One Taco.  I tried going 3 times with no success getting tacos since the line was too long.

    When I finally made the line-up, I picked the One Fried Egg Taco with corn tortilla and chorizo and the One Barbacoa Taco.  Fried egg as the filling for a taco is an interesting concept.  However, the mashed glob of chorizo was not what I expected at all.  It has the spicy chorizo flavor, but the consistency does not relate to chorizo at all.  The barbacoa taco was a much better combination for me, even though the barbacoa was also mashed up in a glob.  I am not sure if the barbacoa was made with the traditional ingredient or just beef; it does have a bit of the gamey flavor that went very well with the beans and the spicy salsa.

    The last entry to the breakfast "taco" category is The Big Oh!, a breakfast "waffle" from Before Cone ... There Was Bacon (or simple BC).  This is an odd combination of a waffle cone stuffed with tortilla strips (probably to prevent the bottom of the cone from getting soggy), scrambled egg and bacon, topped with pico de gallo.  The concept is great for eating on the go, and I didn't have too much mess issue eating it.  If the waffle cone was not made so sweet, it would be a pretty interesting snack option.

    Tacos: Now onto other tacos.  My colleagues & I went to Iron Cactus for dinner one day.  Sitting on the outdoor rooftop deck to dine in the perfect combination of sun & breeze was amazing!

    We started off with 2 appetizers to share - Ahi Tuna Ceviche, and Mexican Shrimp Cocktail.  I really like the texture & depth in flavor from the avocado in the ceviche; definitely something to copy in the future.  I rounded up my seafood dinner with the Yucatan Fish Tacos, served with mango salsa & jicama slaw.  All the seafood is very fresh.  The slight sweetness in the mango salsa goes very well with the tartness of the El Agave Margarita!

    Another memorable taco experience comes from Chi'lantro BBQ, a Korean BBQ taco truck.  Wait!  Am I not a purist?!  Normally I would prefer the original / authentic food over fusion.  But this fusion combination definitely works!  Korean BBQ beef & lettuce with spicy sauce, served in Mexcian style with double corn tortilla & lime.  The flavor is somewhat close to bibimbap, and somewhat close to asada tacos.  I wish I had more time to go back & try their other combinations.

    Empanadas ... Or should I say mmmpanadas: Another food truck find is mmmpanadas, of course famous for its empanadas.  I encountered this truck the first night I arrived in Austin.  Upon recommendation from the person at the truck, I got the Argentinean.  Honestly I was a little disappointed, as the filling was not as flavorful as I normally get at Jumbo Empanada here in Toronto.  The lack of raisin (or other dried fruit) was definitely a miss as well.

    However, by chance, I attended a party catered by mmmpanadas.  They served hors d'oeurve sized empanadas at the function, so I was able to try a variety of filling.  Soy chorizo with brie, spicy black bean, pulled pork & mango ginger (yes dessert!) were all amazingly tasty!  I had to really control myself to not overeat these yummy treats.

    Burger & Fries: One of my favorite Food Network show is Diners, Drive-ins & Dives.  So when "triple D" covers Casino El Camino in Austin, I put it on my to-eat list for this trip right away.  The decor of the place, as shown on TV, is dungeon-like, definitely stand out from the generic bar scene.  The patio at the back is a tranquil oasis.

    Back to the food.  I had the quintessential buffalo burger and verde chili fries (even though I know there is no way I could finish all the food).  The home made buffalo wing sauce was quite hot, even though I only ordered medium heat.  I never would expect wing sauce, blue cheese & medium-done burger to work together, but they do.

    The star of the show is totally the verde chili fries.  The tomatillo verde salsa is on the extreme garlic scale.  It livens up the traditional fries & cheese sauce combo, giving it a kick in the taste bud.  The fries are crispy, and the home made cheese sauce is light, a bit runnier than the usual cheez-whiz-looking glob at other pubs.  Now if only they would have burger topped with verde salsa & cheese ... Mmm ...

    Casino El Camino is definitely a food destination in Austin!  Thanks Guy for the tip!

    Hot Dog: Now we can't talk about burger & fries without also talking about hot dogs.  There are lots of gourmet hot dog carts / trucks in Austin.  I did not get a chance to try the crowd favorite The Best Wurst.  What I tried was the Cuban Franks from Chupacabra.  It's a hot dog topped with pulled pork.  Yes you heard that right - pulled pork on all beef frank!  It is like eating 2 sandwiches at the same time - pulled pork sandwich on top, hot dog at the bottom.  I do wish the cheese on top is slightly melted, bringing the two together more.  Interesting combination nevertheless.

    Ice Treats: The final category is dedicated to my new found love - Ice Cream Man.  These guys travel around to different music & culture festivals, and give out free ice cream & popsicle.  Check out their website for more information about the crew, and their mission.  Don't miss the Off the Wookie magazine they publish!  Check out their whereabouts, and follow them on twitter (@icecreamman) if they are in your neighborhood!

    What they give out is not your run-of-the-mill ice cream either.  They were giving out GoodPop popsicles and Blue Bell ice cream, both local favorites.  I focused all my visits on the various flavors of GoodPop, trying out mango, mango chile, pineapple basil and watermelon agave.  All of them are really good, although my favorite for a hot summer night is most definitely watermelon agave; it's like eating frozen concentrated watermelon with honey drizzled on top.

    So this pretty much sums up my chowing through Austin.  Being a street food fan, I love the food cart / truck culture in Austin.  I am also constantly amazed by the creativity in the fusion of flavors at the local joints.  I definitely look forward to visiting Austin another time, and exploring more chow.

    Watch out for my other SXSW 2010 sightings coming next!