Last Bit of Toronto Recap

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Ah, Toronto. You’re going on my list of places to return to. Jimmy’s Coffee on Baldwin was around the corner from my Air BnB rental. Albany John found them and they were a favorite morning stop for us. They even made me a really tasty decaf cappucino (I was on a decaf kick for a while there). They also had a pretty tasty pecan butter tart, which makes for a fabulously decadent vacation breakfast.

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Since I was staying in the heart of Hipsterville, Toronto (Kensington Market), I decided to check out one of their many unique food offerings. Bunner’s Bake Shop on Augusta Ave was just a skip away from my rental. The storefront itself was minimalist once inside, with an open plan so you could peep everyone making goodies in the background. They have a vegan soft serve which I had to try just out of curiosity. It was a small cone, about 3-4″ high for around $3. We’d probably call this kiddie-sized here in the Capitol Region.
Overall it wasn’t really my thing. It was icy, had a bit of a lingering aftertaste that was parts cloying and bland. I think it was an almond-milk based plain vanilla cone that tasted mostly of almond milk, which is to say, not much. Hard serve vegan ice cream has a better texture and flavor to me. It was fairly icy because of the milk used (coconut milk, with its higher fat content, would yield a creamier confection). If I were vegan, this would rock my world because I hadn’t seen vegan soft serve before. But since I’ve been eating dairy-based ice creams all summer I found this gritty and generally unsatisfying.

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But thankfully Bunner’s is right next door to Dolce Gelato. Someone tipped me off to their pistachio gelato, and I had to get in on that (left). Oh man, was that ever delicious. They use real pistachios, and the flavor just shines through. This rich, toasty pisatchio gelato just hit the spot for a creamy, rich dessert. The pink grapefruit on the right was also a winner – tart, sweet and perfectly nailing grapefruit in frozen form.

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And then I got a cold, because what else do I do on vacation? Albany John and I walked around downtown Toronto as much as I could (not much). We came upon a street fair and watched some buskers perform. That was cool. This guy was great, too. He really knew how to work the crowd and heckle rude audience members.

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More walking called for some banh mi. Not as good as Montreal or NYC, but better than we have in Albany.

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And a disappointing falafel wrap back in Kensington Market for dinner.

We grabbed some Montreal-style bagels at NuBugel on our way out. I like the size. They are a little more dense than NY bagels, smaller, and sweeter. Good for what it is, and something I’ll grab if it’s around, but not something I’ll go out of my way for.

I still hate crossing back into the US. The guards in Toronto were more aggressive than in Montreal. I wish the US guards would take a note from our neighbors to the north. The Canadian guards are nothing but polite, convivial, and generally nice people. The US border guards in my experience are usually aggressive and combative, as if they assume that you’re doing something illegal and want to catch you. The last time I had a positive interaction with US border patrol was over a decade ago. I just don’t see the point in the current mentality. Dude. I didn’t buy anything. I just went to Toronto for the weekend to see family and tourist around. No I didn’t buy anything. No, really, I’m not bringing anything over. Ok, did I buy anything? Yes, I bought dinner last night. And some chips at duty free. Which you should see since I have to give my license to check out at Duty Free. We could really be doing a better way of policing our border without coming off as stereotypical American bully types, you know? When I was at the 100th birthday party dinner everyone else spoke of how much they disliked crossing into the US because of how rude the US border patrol was. I am embarrassed as an American for this to be the first interaction someone may have when crossing the border, for this to possibly be their first interaction with an American.
The silver lining to this is that while the border patrol agents are more aggressive at the US/Toronto border, the line also moved much faster than Montreal, where I’ve usually had a 45 minute wait to return on a good day. Toronto was about a 20 minute wait. So I guess if I have to pick, I’ll go with ruder but faster border (ugh, one time I waited 3 hours in line to return to the US from Montreal. People were getting out of their cars and playing football on the side of the road).

Mother’s Dumplings (Toronto)

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Toronto was such a great city to visit. I’m still happily remembering my trip for my Uncle’s 100th birthday celebration. I’d heard Toronto had a big Chinatown with lots to see and do, and wanted to stay nearby. I booked an Air BnB reservation in the heart of Kensington Market, which was basically like a little hipster neighborhood in the middle of Chinatown. A microcosm in a microcosm (also, holy wow on hotel and rental prices in that neighborhood). It was cute and a great place to stay while on vacation. There was a ton of stuff to see in just a 1/4 mile radius, and even more to walk to within 5 kilometers.

One such place was Mother’s Dumplings on Spadina Ave. If there’s one thing I love it’s a good dumpling. Most reviews touted Mother’s as a must-try. The hardest thing was deciding on only two types of dumplings to try for Albany John and myself. We decided we’d get an order of 12 boiled dumplings and 10 pan-fried dumplings. Ah, the perils of being but two diners in a city full of treats to try.

They were out of lamb shu mai, so we went with a dozen pork and dill boiled dumplings. I never see this combination, so it was a must-try, and I’m really glad I did. I usually think of dill as an Eastern European flavor, but it went incredibly well with juicy pork and Chinese spices. Even soy sauce. I’ll definitely be making pork and dill dumplings of my own in the future. Seriously – a  nice bright punch of dill leaves really counterbalance the rich juiciness that good pork dumplings possess.
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Oh. My. Glob. Yes on those pan fried dumplings.
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DO YOU SEE THAT GLORIOUS LACEY CRUST ON THOSE PAN FRIED DUMPLINGS??? DO YOU?

I almost couldn’t even. But then I could.
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We got the pork and shrimp dumplings for our pan fried order. Juicy pork meatball with bits of shrimp inside, made even more texturally appealing by crisping up one edge of the dumpling. These were well executed – each skin was nice and crispy without being greasy. Oh, that fine lace edge was just divine, too. The skins on both the boiled and pan fried dumplings tasted the same – a  nice and hearty, thick dough that complimented the rich flavors inside. Held up well to boiling and pan-frying.

If you’re in Toronto, this is the place to check out. Cash only. Condiments at the table. Fast serivice.

Toronto – 100th Birthday Party

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I went to Toronto last month. Why? Well, that’s a great question with a long answer that starts with my dad. When my dad was a kid in Hong Kong, there were these families with kids the same age who he’d play with. After many decades, my dad reconnected with one friend, who immigrated to Toronto along with the rest of those families my dad knew as a child. This man and his siblings were throwing their dad a 100th birthday party, and, as my dad explained, he was practically family, so just consider him “Uncle”. And you know how Chinese parties are – BIG. You invite all of your family and close friends (and their families).

So I drove up to Toronto with Albany John and my little sister, for this “Uncle’s” birthday party. Hey, Toronto has one of the biggest Chinatowns, food’s gotta be good right? And I was also just a wee bit excited to meet these people my dad had known as a child. Everyone was so nice, and we got to sit with one of the “kids” in our generation at the table. And then I met her sister, and my dad goes “Wow, you two look alike!” and we both did a double take since we actually did look pretty similar in the face (I’m a little bigger than her since I’m only half Chinese). And her Chinese name is one letter off of mine. You know, I’m usually in the minority any where I go, and I guess it’s just something I’m used to. My siblings and I look a lot alike, but we don’t really even resemble our cousins on either parent’s side very much. So it was a very different feeling for me to see someone who looked like me. A new kind of fuzzy, if you will.

Okay, they do not mess around with 100th birthday parties in Toronto. The first course was crackling suckling pig. Each platter marched out on parade by a server, with sparkler and glowing LED maraschino cherry eyes.

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The skin was so good. The exterior was crackly and delicate, yet substantial. The fat underneath melted away as you bit in. I haven’t had a suckling pig this good in years, if ever.

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Next up was shrimp two ways – fried in a sweet-and-sour style, and pan-fried with some broccoli and garlic. Plump, briny shrimp. The sweet-and-sour preparation wasn’t my favorite, but the vermicelli basket was novel.

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This dish was a first for me, and one I quite took a liking to. It looks like a fish patty, but stuffed inside is a tender scallop. The briny roe made it pop with salinity, and man that asparagus was a great supporting character.

Bday Party 4 Birds Nest Soup

Bird’s Nest Soup – Yay! Not shark fin soup. Very progressive. Usually for a party like this shark’s fin soup would be on the menu.

Bday Party 5 Sea Cucumber

The womp womp dish of the night that wasn’t so much a dud, just a very… uh… traditional food that no one really seemed as interested in. If I’m trying to conserve stomach space, I’m going to give a little less to sea cucumber. Sorry, sea cucumber, but that’s just how it works. This was actually one of the better preparations – the sea cucumber was stuffed with fish paste, so it added a bit of flavor and a slightly firmer texture. I don’t think anyone at our table finished this one.

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Crispy garlic chicken was a big hit at the table – succulent chicken with crisp skin – what’s not to like?

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Whole steamed fish! One of my favorite dishes ever. This was great – the fish was cooked perfectly, and that salty sauce compliments the sweet flavor of the fish so well.

Bday Party 8 fried lobster

Ginger fried lobster – this is where most of the table started tapping out from all of the different courses. And where I ate 75% of the lobster our table was served. Oh my gosh, it was so good. Chopped into easy-to-eat chunks, covered in that delicious ginger-scallion sauce.

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And then I started tapping out once the wonton noodle soup came out. Fresh noodles, gai lan, and shrimp wontons. I had a wonton because, hello, seafood.

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Oh yeah, then fried rice, and then some of the birthday cake. Stuffed. Absolutely stuffed.

At some point in the night, my dad was talking with one of the Aunties, and it turns out that we were all related, and we were all cousins of some sort. Even more of a fuzzy! The connection requires a flow chart to explain, but the gist is that there’s a connection from 3 sisters from the same village. They’d previously thought that when the sisterhood was talked about, they used “sisters” meaning they were in Hong Kong from the same village on Mainland China. But nope, turns out they were sisters and most of us were related by blood at the party, and the birthday boy is actually my Uncle!

The Tomato Pie Tour

Last weekend Jon in Albany and his two kiddos drove down to Princeton with me to eat as many tomato pies with Daniel B. as we could. The tomato pie is native to NJ. It is a dainty, delicate pizza compared to NY-style pizzas. The crust is incredibly thin, and the main star of the pie is the tomato, which usually plays second or third fiddle to the other components of a pizza (crust, cheese) in NY.

It was a whirlwind trip full of tomato pie goodness. I’m lucky to have such awesome folks in my life who are willing to ditch their real lives and go have foodventures with me.

Jon’s write up is here. Daniel B.’s is here.

A ton of pictures below:

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First up was Gennaro’s. This was probably the most upscale setting of the tour. Cloth napkins, and waiters dressed in blacks.
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We were some of the first customers of the day. Gennaro’s had the best tomatoes of the day (to me). So freshly sweet without seeming cloying. Jon took an “accidental” detour through the kitchen and saw that they were using canned tomatoes. We would all love to know how they got them to taste so fresh.

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Crust was okay. A nice and crackery crust. Overall, this was a solid example of tomato pie and probably my favorite of the day if I had to pick one.

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Halo Pub was literally right next door, so we made a stop in. You may have read Daniel wax poetic about this place, and it really is a well-priced gem. I would really love to get a look at their business plan and financials. I am really intrigued by how they can stay in business with the quality they have, overhead, and such low prices.

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The Halo Pub van, restocking the ice cream stores from the farm. Golden cow on top. Sadly, I opted against ice cream since I saw they had soft serve, which they make on the farm, but it had just opened so it hadn’t had a chance to freeze and solidify.
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Pizza stop # 2 was good old Papa’s.
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Daniel and I were able to cross off the (half) anchovy mustard pie off our bucket lists. Mustard pies are a specialty of Papa’s, and well… I was imagining something different in my head. The reality of this pie is a swirl of mustard around the crust, and then the toppings laid as normal. I don’t really see the appeal, or what it really adds to the pie. It was something different to try for certain.

The mustard with anchovy was pretty decent, but the mustard pie plain/just cheese was pretty ho-hum. I don’t need to try it again.
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Half sausage, half plain. This came out a bit more burnished than the mustard pie. I brought some home for Albany John, and he declared the sausage very good as well. Papa’s reheated the best out of all of the tomato pie’s.
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Corleone’s. Oh, Corleone’s. Clunker. Skippable. Friendly folks, but not very good pies.
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Well, okay, their pizza was decent if a bit lackluster. Guess who was in charge of ordering and completely screwed it up and ordered a pizza? (WHAT? I’m from New York! It’s a reflex!).
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The deep fried calzone was on the list, though. $6.95, and the fried calzone came out looking like a burnished football.
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Daniel B stabs at it to divide it up.

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Full of ricotta, and a bit of mozzarella. I could have used a bit more mozzarella, as it was fairly heavy on the ricotta. But the fry job was spot on and deceptively light and ephemeral in an “oh god, this cannot be healthy” kind of way.
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The menfolk and the children tapped out after a few bites, so I ate a little over half of a football of fried calzone by myself. What? I love cheese and fried things. It wasn’t the greatest thing in the world, but it was pretty darned good for what it was.
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And then the tomato pie came out. Weaksauce. The tomatoes were too sugary-sweet, and the crust had major tip sag (as in, couldn’t even get it flat, so soggy and sad). Very bland, too. This reheated very poorly and when reheated the cloying sweetness in the tomatoes became more pronounced.

But I was drunk on deep fried calzone, and as I bade farewell to the counter dude, he told me I’d be ready for a nap. 10 minutes later I was glad Daniel B was hauling us around.
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But thankfully we made a stop at the Yardley Ice House for some water ice. Which is like Italian ice, but with a finer grain.
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I went with a “small” key lime pie. I don’t know how people can eat more than a small. It was tart, sugary, and refreshing. Enough to perk me and my growing pizza baby of a stomach up.
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The final stop of the tour was La Villa, which served more of a PA-style tomato pie.
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Rather garlicky, but pleasant in its own right. I don’t think I’d call it a true tomato pie like the Trenton/NJ pies are, but it was a good one.

I can’t believe how full I was after only a few stops, but then again, I did eat over half of a massive deep fried calzone on my own. I am blaming that calzone for taking up way too much space in my stomach and not leaving more room for pies.

This trip was just what I needed to recharge my batteries. Getting out of town for a day, doing something crazy with friends (don’t tell me it’s sane to decide to drive 8 hrs RT in one day to go eat some tomato pies). It’s just fantastic being around other pizza obsessives and, well, geeking out over the variations and nuances of each pie. I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert, but when you’re around people all day who have a lot of the same passions that you do, well, it’s just so darned refreshing. Extroverts, I think I kind of get part of what makes you tick.

The drive, aside from being long, was actually really easy. No traffic either way, and Jon was an awesome navigator and brought his GPS (and also cheddar bunnies! which are as tasty as they are adorable), which came in handy when my phone decided to crap out after leaving the 518 area code and take forever to do anything (oh, phone…). The kids were angels. Seriously. Parents like Jon & Daniel (and their respective partners) make me entertain the possibility of caring for some small human child in the future.

Princeton, NJ

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Sometimes you need to get away from it all. Sometimes the location is important, but sometimes it’s the people that help you reset. Fall 2013 has been one heck of a doozy for me. Being an adult is a wonderful thing, but sometimes responsibilities and things like that toss in a few complications. I’d been planning on visiting Daniel in Princeton, NJ for a few weeks, and by the time I got there it was exactly the mental reset I needed. You can read his account of our adventures here.

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I left Albany Saturday morning, and by the time I got through all of the craptacular NJ traffic (seriously, it was smooth sailing until exit 17 on 87S, then a bunch of eye rolling until I got to Princeton) it was time for lunch. Greasy and so-bad-but-so-good sounded good to me, so Hoagie Haven it was!

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I loved the interior – one big open space with a menu and chips on the left, and the ordering line up front. You could customize any order you wanted, and they had a cute menu of their own custom sandwich combos.
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Daniel suggested we go with sandwich halves, which was a good call. Like, a really good call. Each half was about the size of my forearm. Dan and I split a Sanchez (fries, chicken cutlet, mozzarella sticks, cheese, special sauce) and a Wakeup Call, which is more of a breakfast sandwich that Dan customized as eggs, bacon, cheese, pork roll, .hash browns, and mozzarella sticks (mozz sticks in place of their “steak” slices). And we also got fried mac and cheese. The kiddos split a half sub which was a Sanchez, but with marinara sauce in place of the sweet sauce we got.

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Overall, the kids deemed the mac & cheese better than their sub, which I have to agree with. Those were freakin awesome fried triangles of mac and cheese. Just the right amount of crunch exterior and creamy interior. Get the mac and cheese bites from Hoagie Haven.
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We paired the subs with River Horse Hop Hazard beer.
The Sanchez. Meh. Not my thing. The sauce was way too sweet, and the fries were too heavy and didn’t add anything to the sub. The chicken cutlet was okay because it was meat, and how do you not like meat? But overall, just “meh” in terms of sub. Thank goodness Dan also got the wakeup call so I wouldn’t forever judge his select sub shop with a raised eyebrow. The wakeup call was pretty freaking awesome. Hash browns are a way better sandwich choice than fries at Hoagie Haven. If you see fries, just swap them for hash browns. But no, the pork roll, bacon, and eggs were pretty tasty. I didn’t think the mozzarella sticks added much flavor on either sandwich, which was pretty disappointing and weird that they didn’t add much flavor.
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After lunch, the food coma started to set in, so Dan made some of his super sugary Cuban coffee for me.
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The mixing of the espresso with some sugar, turning it into a creamy fluff of sorts.
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The pour

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Bam, energy shot in a glass
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And then, get this, we went for a WALK after coffee time! I know! The Veal of People wanted to go for a walk. I am so happy for the exercise addition in his life!

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Princeton’s grounds are beautiful.

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Okay, enough of walkies, let’s get back to food. We went for two dinners, because that’s how we roll. The first place was Papa’s Tomato Pies.

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There was a magician at Papa’s, which the kiddos enjoyed, and was a nice distraction from the relatively short wait until our plain cheese pie came out. From what I can tell from this brief experience, Tomato Pie is kind of like a really thin (crackery) crust pizza with chunky tomato sauce, or chunks of sweet tomato sharing the spotlight with cheese.

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Papa’s crust was nicely thin. Not quite crackery, but quite ephemeral on its own. Papa’s tomato pie had a very short half-life in terms of enjoyability. The first slice was great. The second slice just a few minutes later was firmer and less enjoyable than the first as it cooled off. Still enjoyable, but just not as good as the first slice.
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Our second stop was DeLorenzo’s, which had one hell of a wait, and one hell of an inefficient hostess. The waiters were all taking peoples names and putting them on her list, telling her to seat people quicker. Yikes. And for some reason, she just kept telling the servers to wait, and slowly seating people. It was a weird experience. I’ve never seen waiters so openly tell the hostess they could handle more tables, and to seat more people.

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DeLorenzo’s pie was more of a crackery-crisp crust, which Dan and I preferred. The kids deemed Papa’s pie to be their preference of the two.

Compared to Papa’s the atmosphere at DeLorenzo’s was more chaotic – lots of TVs, bright lights, and not much in the way of noise control. It was a little overwhelming for me. BRIGHT LIGHTS, LOUD SOUNDS, AND PEOPLE EVERYWHERE. Bit the pie was a nice crackery crust, and the tomatoes shone through.

Prices for both of the pies were in the $13 range. Not expensive, but I could see an adult eating a whole pie with ease.

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Then we were off for two desserts for our two dinners. First up was The Halo Pub, which is an ice creamery and not a pub.

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I got a scoop of peanut and cashew praline. The cashew was really good. The peanut, eh. This was only like, $2.50 for the ice cream, though!

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Then it was off to the Bent Spoon. I suppose you could call the Halo Pub an old school institution. Lots of wood everywhere. The Bent Spoon would be like the hipster child of the Bent Spoon. They had banana “ice cream” and more non-traditional flavors than the Halo Pub (but Halo Pub had more selection).

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Wall of hard to read flavors (for old people. I could read them just fine).
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Flavors for the sampling! These seemed more like gelato than ice cream by how they had them displayed.

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I got their Wild Turkey & caramel flavored ice cream, along with the very locally sourced NJ pumpkin and NJ mascrapone ice cream. They were both so good. Expensive, but so good. Something like $4 for this small ice cream. But really good. Like, I couldn’t pick a favorite between the two. They just nailed those flavors.

One of my favorite moments here was when Little Miss Fussy almost started crying. Why? Because she was full and sad that she couldn’t finish her ice cream. So freaking cute.

So then we went and slept off our foodings. To prepare for more foodings the next morning:

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Nino’s Pastry Shoppe for their icing filled donut. Which Dan said was more of a frosting sandwich, so of course I was all in.

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Their portions were enormous. Every good here was gigantic.
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Then it was off to the Eet Gud Bakery. Love those signs.
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Also very large portions.
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Here are the sweets we got from Nino’s: frosting-FILLED donuts, cream puffs, and cookies for the kids. The cream puffs were pre-filled, but maintained crisp exteriors. Nice job.
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We may have gone a little crazy at Eet Gud. So many things just looked so gud, though.
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So here is Nino’s frosting-filled donut on the left, and Eet Gud’s frosting-filled donut stick on the right. Nino’s frosting had more of a buttery feel to the filling, but it wasn’t great butter, so it had a bit of a greasy lingering thing going on in your mouth after you ate it. Not too sweet, either.

Eet Gud’s donut stick was my favorite of the two similar donuts. A slight shell of an exterior on the donut, cushy interior, and a sweet, thick frosting inside. Nice textural differences. Dan preferred Nino’s to Eet Gud’s for those same reasons, haha. He liked the softness of the whole dougnut and wasn’t a fan of the different textures of Eet Gud’s donut.

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Raspberry filled donut on the left, “mango” on the right. I say “mango” because that filling seriously tasted like Pez. There was no mango in there, but a whole lotta Pez.

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Pumpkin filled on the left, custard on the right. The pumpkin was awesome. Mixing the pumpkin with their frosting, Eet Gud churned out a donut with a great pumpkin flavor and a mousse-like texture filling. The custard on the right was like a Boston cream, but without the chocolate.

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I wasn’t a huge fan of the custard. It was kind of weak in the flavor department, so this was my wee dreg of donut.

And then I drank an entire pot of coffee, filled up with some cheap NJ gas and was on my way to Flushing, NY to see my uncle.

2013 NYS Fair

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The NYS Fair would like to give away a pair of tickets, parking pass, and a Best Bets Bargain Book to one lucky commenter here on AlbanyEats!

I attended last year, and it was a fair worthy of the drive out to Syracuse from Albany. There was plenty to see and do to last you all day, traffic went smoothly, and the parking was easy to get to from the highway while still being close to the fairgrounds. Even if you don’t win tickets, you can buy tickets for $10 at the gate, which is pretty sweet for an entire day’s worth of stuff to see and do.

The 2013 NYS Fair will be running this Thursday, August 22, through Monday, September 2. The gates open at 8 am, with exhibit booths going opening at 10 am. This year’s theme is “Sharing the Bounty  and Pride of NY”, celebrating cultural, economic, and institutional strengths with emphasis on agriculture.

Contest rules/info:
All tickets will be mailed to the winner, or you can pick up from their main office M-F, 9-5 (no Will Call/box office this year)
Include your email address so you can be contacted if you win.
Contest ends the evening of Tuesday, August 20th, so get your comments in quickly!

On The Farm

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I hadn’t seen my mom’s side of the family in about a decade. It was recently a cousin’s kid’s birthday, so I went down with my mom to see everyone. I’m glad I did. Most of the family lives downstate in the country – kind of on the border of PA.

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Liberty, NY seems to be embracing sushi. There were a lot of places along the way that tacked sushi on to their list of goods.

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Once we got to the farm we were greeted by poultry. My cousin raises some turkeys and ducks for them to eat. I was really happy to see everyone and reconnect. Sure, we’ve changed and all, but family is family, and that is what is important, imperfections and all.

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She also has a super cute little wiener dog.

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So there were some sandwiches and usual picnic fare, but this. Oh. My. Gosh. I loved this “fruit salad” way more than anyone should, probably because it is so incredibly bad for you. Mini marshmallows, canned mandarin oranges, maraschino cherries, and sour cream. Holy cow, talk about a creamy sugar rush. The cousin who made said that it was her husband’s favorite “salad”, and when they first started dating, his neighbor would bring it over for him. She thought it was disgusting just by looking at it, but after 3 years she tried a bite and, yeah, had to admit it was good.

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My uncle packed my mom and me into the back of his four-wheeler and drove us up the hill to his peaceful area – he had this pond made last year and it was absolutely gorgeous to be by it on a nice summer day.

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Blue skies, green grass, and enough space to hold a small festival.

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It sure made me think, hey, maybe I have what it takes to be a country gal like this side of my family. Up until this moment, I really couldn’t comprehend living more than 5 miles away from stores, but being up there, where it’s so peaceful and empty. Wow. I just wanted to stay up there all day.

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What do you think? Could Albany Jane become a farm-living country gal? Chucks, jeans, and sitting on a sunny dock could definitely make me into one. I could help with slaughtering, and while I like to maintain a nice manicure, I don’t mind getting dirty and rather enjoy heavy lifting.

Hmm. Maybe one day. But until then, I’ll just have to go back for more to get my country-life fix.

Manhattan & Queens

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Albany John’s Aunt and cousin were visiting NYC from California one weekend recently. Albany John and I took Megabus down, and it was hands down my worst experience with them to date. I will probably not use them again in the future because of how poor the service was. Their bus was 90+ minutes late with a heat index of 100+F  with only one update as I was driving there saying that the bus would be delayed, but not why, and just to stay in the area nearby the bus stop. The driver had extremely limited and poor communication skills, and there was a loose, capped syringe with needle on the bus entry way. When someone mentioned this to the driver, his only response was a frazzled shrug and “Heh, I don’t do drugs. I don’t do drugs!” The ride back was thankfully without incident, but after I emailed customer service, I only received a generic reply 10 days later that answered absolutely none of my questions or concerns. The main reasons I take Megabus is because of their timeliness, safety, and my previously positive experiences with them, but this was so awful… I’ll just drive myself next time I even think about going to NYC. Any way, once bitten twice shy, you know? Thanks for letting me vent.

So after all of that fun (the bus was also jam-packed, roasting), I made my way over to Copia to meet a friend where some of her friends were guest bartending with cheap (for NYC) drink specials.

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And then we continued the party at some pub place after that.

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Tasty fried calamari

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After that we huffed it to Rego Park to crash with Maka & CVS. Lunch the next day was from this place called Asian Bowl. They do some Thai & Chinese dishes. Sure, the name’s a little hokey, but they made some dishes that weren’t very heavy, and they’re all Kosher (no piggie :'( ), and only use olive oil.

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Albany John got Pad Thai and they had some really meaty shrimp in it. The chicken were really thin shreds, though. I thought it was a little heavy with fish sauce, but Albany John really liked it.

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I wasn’t super hungry, so I got some wonton soup, which they use chicken for. Very light, but good simple flavor.

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You know Albany John’s family is in town when we do something other than eating, hee hee. We visited the tenement museum in Manhattan that afternoon.

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Here are some houses that used to be tenements. But aren’t tenements any longer. I thought the tour was a little long, and they seem to really stretch out all of their information through multiple tours, which is unfortunate, because I’d like to be able to see everything in one go, not have to schedule 4 tours to see an entire building.

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Any way, enough with the educational stuff. I managed to convince everyone to walk on up to Big Gay Ice Cream on the East Side.

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The shop is tiny. Like, really tiny. Like, very easily under 400 sq ft tiny.

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So tiny. So very little waiting room. But they are fairly quick.

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I got the Monday Sundae which was a nutella lined waffle cone, soft serve twist, with dulce de leche, sea salt, and whipped cream. I’d read a bunch about them, and perhaps I’d built them up just a bit in my head, because while I enjoyed it, I didn’t think it was all that amazing or soul shaking. The dulce de leche was tasty with the sea salt, but the actual ice cream I didn’t really enjoy. It was okay, but nothing special. I’d say you can skip the Big Gay Ice Cream if you’re coming from Upstate New  York. The toppings are what set this shop apart, if only the ice cream matched it.

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Albany John got a $7 horchata milkshake, and it only dawned on me when we checked out that I’d just spent over $14 on ice cream for two people. Wow, a $7 milkshake makes that $5 milkshake from Pulp Fiction look like a deal.

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It started pouring, so we found the closest restaurant: Caracas for arepas. It was on the same block and reviews looked promising. We were a group of 7, and the guy who sat us told me that they normally don’t seat 7, but since they had the space he’d do it this one time, but they usually don’t. I kind of get the policy, but we 7 were in and out faster than a few other tables of two next to us. Eh, whatever.

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I was starting to drag, when I noticed that they had Blue Bottle coffee on the menu! Yay, my favorite! Unfortunately, this was a really bitter and sour cup. Oh, poor Blue Bottle coffee. All of the other adults went for some kind of boozy concoction, which I heard were quite enjoyable.

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Apps. Soup and fried yucca patties, i think.

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Plantains like woah.

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Arepas galore! These were all under $10 and quite enjoyable. We pretty much ordered half of the menu.

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The next day we wound up in a mall and my stomach reached “Eat something or be a grumpasaurus” level. So Boc Boc Chicken looked like my best option.

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Fair menu prices, and they touted organic chicken. Cool.

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I got the Korean flavored chicken strips/pops. Which were just breaded fried chicken. Sigh. I was hoping for spicy. Or at least some flavor. But otherwise they were fine, just bland. At least they weren’t dry.

Fried calamari at the mall? From a take out counter? And it was good!

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Oh, and if you need a discreet roomie in Rego Park, here’s your guy. These were all over the place outside.

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Boogied out to Flushing on my last day for nibbles with my uncle. We went to Jin Cheng, the place YehYeh used to go to a lot, especially with him. Beef and bitter melon as our nod to Yeh-Yeh.

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Special fried rice, the kind with scallops in it. Not bad for a rice dish.

Yeh Yeh’s Funeral (The Way He’d Want It – Lots of Food)

Don’t Worry – this post is only contains pictures of the food we ate and written things we did for Yeh-Yeh’s funeral service.

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Albany John & I drove down for the service. My lovely sib-in-laws, Maka & CVS, were nice enough to let us stay with them. We drove down late on a Friday night, so that I could be at the airport to pick up my sister, who was flying in from Seattle.

Once I picked her up, we went to the YehYeh’s condo in Flushing. The parking god must have smiled on me for driving late at night and waking up early to pick up my sister from the airport, because I found (free!) street parking almost instantly. In Flushing. On a weekend. My poor sister was sick, and the flight didn’t help, so she napped in the condo while I went out to lunch at Jin Cheng with my dad and Aunties.

Jin Cheng is stupid close to the condo, and it has free parking, so it’s in my family’s roster of restaurants to go to. And guess what? They actually serve a good lunch. Unlike the rest of Flushing, Jin Cheng was pretty quiet, not even half full. The meal was miles better than when I’ve been for dinner or Chinese New Year. They really can’t handle a crowd.

Seafood Congee up top. Light & gingery. I didn’t mind a bowl.

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I requested we get a plate of black bean squid. Good wok hei on the squid. Bleh to the peppers.

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Beef and gai lan. Very tender beef, also with good wok hei.

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Oop, sorry, this was chicken with hard chives cut long. Tasty stuff. I bought more chives to cook with at home shortly after this.

We hung around and just talked for a while. It’s just a whole other transition, a new step in life, to process with Yeh Yeh passing.

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We went to San Soo Kap San for dinner with my uncle, aunt & her husband/my uncle, and one of my cousins.  That dish with the red strip in the right bottom corner on the big plate? Raw squid. It was soooo freaking good! They only gave 1 plate of it as ban chan, and probably for good reason (I could have eaten about 10 of these). The rest of the banchan spread was also pretty impressive – fresh tofu, konjac (I think…) kimchee, cucumbers, small fish, pickled parsnips (MY JAM!), turnips. So much tastiness.

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One bubbling bowl of scrambled egg ban chan. Very delicate – like a savory custard.

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They grill all of the meat for you. Kind of expensive – most dishes hover around $30! Yikes! You can see tongue above. Thin rounds. Tasty.

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Pork Belly! Yeah!

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Galbi! We got two orders. My other cousin’s girlfriend is Korean and she said you don’t normally get 2 orders of the same thing, traditionally. My cousin said his parents know and do it any way, lol. I can’t argue, that galbi was great. Meaty, juicy, had that nice galbi marinade.

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I think we got some other kind of sliced beef, too.

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I still felt like eating my feelings after dinner, so my dad and I went to Tous Les Jours for some dessert. I was up for anything, but my dad says after going to Korea for a few months last year, he prefers Korean bakeries over Chinese ones because they have better quality ingredients & products, and are more innovative in what they make.

I think they are kind of expensive, but they are also the only bakeries open after 6/7 PM in Flushing. All of the Chinese ones close by then. There’s also a Paris Bakery nearby in downtown Flushing (that you can see from Tous les Jours) and is also open late.

I went for a black sesame doughnut and a cream cheese filled danish.

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My dad got a blueberry cheesecake.

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All sliced up:
Black sesame doughnut – mochi dough was chewy and kind of odd at first, then an addictive texure. Not too sweet.
Blueberry cheesecake – Asian cheesecake. Fluffy and cake-like.
Cream cheese danish – rich, rich rich, and crispy pastry exterior. Indulgent, but really good.

And like that, I was down with the more expensive Korean bakeries. Good stuff, and different than what the Chinese bakeries sell in Flushing.

Saturday I went to Flushing not knowing when I was going to leave. I wound up spending the whole day there & taking the subway back to Forest Hills. I was really happy to have late night public transportation – I wouldn’t have been able to drive, I was so sleepy!

The next morning we got up and ready to go to the funeral home for the Chinese equivalent of a wake.

Mama & Papa John had come in and were staying near the funeral home. We went out there to grab an late dim sum at … some place in Manhattan Chinatown. My bad, I forget the name. I was trying not to spill anything on my clothes and get to the funeral home on time (Thanks for lunch, Mama & Papa John!).

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Someone brought treats to the funeral home. Dan tats. Okay, I will have one. Still warm. Yum. Yeh Yeh. Sigh.

And we went in. It was a traditional Buddhist Chinese funeral, even though we’re not really religious. We folded lots of coins out of paper – that was pretty nice – having something to do with your hands at all times. These were burned as offerings. Although my cousins & I were smartasses and couldn’t help but jokingly bemoan how stereotypical it was to have origami at an Asian funeral, or how we were doing arts & crafts.
Showing emotion/sadness was discouraged, and certain curious circumstances before the funeral helped prepare me for this, although, really, I’d been fairly emotionally detached up until then, so I don’t think crying would have been all too much of an issue any way.

Two Buddhist Monks came in and read a chant. We thought it would just be for a few minutes, but it ended up being about 45 minutes. It wound up being very soothing. Albany John was sweet and took a video of it all for my brother, who couldn’t make it. I think he will really appreciate the monks’ chant.

The service was also bilingual, for us ABCs who don’t understand Cantonese. I’m thankful for that, so I could still participate and understand what was going on without feeling ashamed about my lack of Cantonese.

After the funeral, the sons (my dad & uncle) took all of the remaining guests out for dinner at a nearby restaurant on Mott Street. Eh, food was okay, but Manhattan Chinatown is mostly for tourists now.

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This was “special” chicken, in that it tasted like they steamed it one day not quite all the way, and then served it the next day. :X

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Salt & pepper pork – okay, this was good.

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Gummy lobster. Didn’t even finish it. My dad tried it and agreed. His table’s was good, though.

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I always forget how absurd banquet food seems to people who didn’t grow up with it.

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After this, we all went our respective ways. Albany John had to get back to Albany that night, so he took a train back.

The next day was the burial. We woke up early to get to the funeral home. Some more traditions/rituals that I didn’t quite understand. Drive to the graveyard, where YehYeh was buried next to Grandma.

Once Yeh-Yeh was buried, we went to one of his favorite restaurants in Flushing – Mellie’s. Another traditional post-service meal.

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Sticky Rice with lobster, sweet & sour pork, some soup.

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Then I spent the day hanging out with my cousins & sister at my Aunt & Uncle’s place just outside of Flushing. That was great. I haven’t done that since I was a kid. Just spend a few hours hanging out, watching TV, chatting. My sister was all about mahjong. We got Caribbean food & pizza for dinner.

I went back to Forest Hills for one last night with CVS & Maka. Maka took me with her to work in the morning. It was kind of like the world of tomorrow. How did it take me so long to visit this place? There were also snacks everywhere, so I left well fed & caffeinated on my way to Flushing to hang out with my Dad & head back to Albany with my sister.

My Dad and I decided to go out and try a bunch of food from all of the places in Flushing. My sister tagged along for the com First up:

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My Sweet Home Dumpling on Roosevelt for 10 tasty dumplings. Freshly made to order (including the dough rolled out!). So good, and under $5.00

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Then we walked to the underground food mall on Main Street. You know, the one past Starbucks? Any way, we hit up NY Lan Zhou La Mian. The guy at the stall evidently was asking my dad if my sister & I were single, and my dad quickly responded in the affirmative, haha (my sister is single).

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There’s one long folding table and some low stools near the menu board.

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Dad went with oxtail noodle soup. He loves oxtails, and I can’t seem to get enough of them, either. The broth was very flavorful, and came with a few pieces of baby bok choy.

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Hand pulled noodles were great! Springy chew, flavorful, and went well with the oxtails and broth. The bowl was enormous, and there were hot sauce condiments aplenty on the table. Dad let me spike the broth near the end when he was done with the soup. Yeah!

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Then we walked off our gluttony a little more around the edge of downtown Flushing. My Dad saw Forest House, and “Hong Kong Milk Tea” on the sign and wanted to go in.

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My Dad said he hadn’t had Hong Kong style Milk Tea in the US, and the difference between this and other Milk Teas you get is that they steep the tea for longer. He said in Hong Kong when he was growing up, the really legit places would strain the tea through a silk stocking.

It took a few minutes for this to come out, but boy was it good! Now I want Hong Kong Milk Tea ALL OF THE TIME – it makes other milk teas look weak and too creamy by comparison. There was a nice bitterness to contrast all of that dairy, and the bottom of the cup had some tea leaves (in Flushing Chinatown it’s usually a teabag in coffee + cream, and it’s not steeped for very long).

Our mini food tour was a nice segue into leaving (fat and fairly happy). There are plenty of things to think about when one of your loved ones passes. I’m lucky to have been able to connect with my Yeh-Yeh. I was still a kid when my other grandparents passed, and I didn’t get to know them as well.

San Diego

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After Albany John and I went to San Francisco , I cut off to San Diego for a little solo trip while he came back for some previous commitments. I like that we can take separate vacations from each other and aren’t joined at the hip all of the time. My camera also ate it while I was in SF, so all of my pictures from here on out are on my phone. So, not great, but they’re something.

Any way, shortly after I got off the commuter plane to SD, I met up with Albany John’s Uncle and his new fam for dinner. (Side note: we kind of forgot that they lived in San Diego (because we are evidently really bad relatives) until after we made plans, so only I met up with them and they really missed him. yeah. really bad relatives). But they are really good and nice relatives, and my new auntie took us all out for dinner at a place in Old Town that makes fresh tortillas. 

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See? Ladies making tortillas. 

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Queso fundido app. 

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Tortillas were okay, but kind of meh and heavy. 

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I got some pork, beans, and guac. Hearty stuff, lol. It was great to spend time with more family. Maybe this is weird of me, I don’t know, but I like being around people when I’m bad at expressing my feelings. Yeh-Yeh was not doing well at this point, and I’m not one to say it to family I haven’t seen in a while. I just don’t want to be “that guy” being mopey or having people think I’m trying to get attention because of my sick grandpa. Or just making things awkward with sad subjects. Besides, he wouldn’t want a big deal about that any way. But when times are tough it’s nice just to be around people you like, you know? Reconnecting/connecting and all. I spent several hours with them at their house, too. They have an orange and lemon tree right in their backyard! They smelled so good!

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Left to wander San Diego on my own (I was staying downtown), I ended up making foods I can’t get here in Albany a priority. Hello, Pho Express! My gosh, this place was awesome and I’d give a kidney for something like it in Albany. This was a small pho Tai, which is supposed to be rare beef. It was piping hot and basically cooked all the way through by the time I got it, but oh my gosh, still so freaking good. It was $6.25 and came with the side of Thai basil, lime, jalapenos, and bean sprouts that I tossed in the soup. There’s a condiment bar on each table, too. Great flavorful broth alone. And the noodles were vermicelli & flat rice noodles. Cool texture. 

I got the shrimp rolls, too. They were the shrimp pounded with a bit of sugar and then grilled. 

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I think regular shrimp might have been better than this, but just marginally. Can I please have fresh rice rolls like this? So refreshing. The peanut dipping sauce on the side was also the bomb. I was so full after eating all of this. Because no way was I leaving any of it behind. Although to be honest, it would have been enough to split with another person. So much!

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This new donut bar just opened.

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Vanilla bean glazed twist doughnut. Eh, just okay. On par with Bella Napoli in Troy. 

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All of that pho = afternoon walkies. Cool effect to walk on a sidewalk between water.

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Walked down to North Embarcadero park. 

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Sadly I did not get to try any of my delicious neighbors.

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Looking at South Embarcadero.

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Walking into the tourist section. There were a lot of chain restaurants here. Old Spaghetti Factory, Chili’s. They all had hosts outside kind of hawking for people to come in. Interesting. 

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And then I walked to a Grocery Outlet. Oh man do I love grocery store tourism. Forget a magnet, I wanna see what’s on your shelves. 

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BOXED WINE FOR $5.99. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! I cannot even fathom these prices. And they had Unjunked candy bars for $3 for 12. I may have bought a box. And ate a lot of them.

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After a good afternoon & evening of walkies, I wound up by J. Wok for some Asian tapas fusion. 

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I got a few small plates: Shrimp with lemongrass salad, papaya salad, and kalbi. Dinner was like, $13 with tax! I thought I would want to eat more, but these were good portions of food and I left feeling quite sated. 

The shrimp w/lemongrass salad had a hearty dose of sprouts and a light hand on the dressing. Papaya salad = refreshing and YUM! Galbi – how can you not like galbi, especially when it’s got a bit of char on it. 

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I walked on down to Crunch Time because I heard they make their own ice cream.

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Peanut butter ice cream with some caramel sauce. Caramel sauce was pre-made and too saccharine. Albany John’s caramel is way better. The ice cream was okay but melted really quickly (it wasn’t really hot) and I think we have better homemade ice cream in the Cap Region. This was also crazy expensive. Like, over $5 for a small ice cream. 

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The next day I woke up ready for more walking. I never did make it out of downtown, but there’s so much to do and see down there. Like the Chinese benevolence center, which was mainly a bunch of grandparents playing mah jong. 

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It was right next to the cultural museum that I peeked into, but then kept on walking. Maybe next time. It was pretty small. 

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More walkies into the south Embarcadero! I liked these things. Reminded me of the moving art sculpture at RPI. 

 

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The south embarcadero featured more homeless people and a fishing pier. No homeless folks ever hassled me in all of my walking, though.

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I liked this! How cute!

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This is the bridge for crossing the main road to the South Embarcadero. 

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And the view of the city. The other side is the more industrial port.

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I walked a little more to Rolando’s Taco Shop.

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Shrimp burrito & a fish taco! The fish taco was piled high with cabbage. I really liked the fish taco! It was only $1.50

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The burrito was like $7.50 and CHOCK FULL OF SHRIMP. And cheese. And it worked. I ate half of it easily, but the 2nd half I wound up picking the shrimp out and eating the burrito skin. So good, but SO. MUCH. FOOD. My stomach just cannot.

 

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My uncle & auntie wanted to hang more, so we drove around to the beach. Nice beach. Next time I will bring swim wear. Or find a beach where I don’t have to worry about forgetting a suit, lol. 

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Dinner time was, you guessed it, more walking to Gaijin Noodle. Is it weird that I was all about these Asian fusion restaurants in San Diego? We just don’t have anything like it up in Albany, so I kind of wanted to get my fill of any and everything I can’t get normally. 

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The bartender greeted me as soon as I walked in and invited me to sit at the bar so he could keep me company. Aw, sweet gesture even though I’m very comfortable by myself.
I ordered one of their shaved ice cocktails ($9), which was cherry syrup, chocolate pocky, and a side shot of sake to pour over. They put the cone in a cup with a wee spoon, so it makes for hands free drinking/consuming. I am super uncoordinated, so I wound up pouring about half of the sake on the counter. Whoops. Still tasty, though. It helped offset my meal, which wound up being EVERYTHING SPICY on them small dish menu. Even better, the bartender comped my drink at the end for whatever reason (I would hope my general awesomeness, but probably the pity comp for a single lady dining alone)

Yellowtail poke with purple potato cups on the bottom (with spicy togarashi dashed across!), a freebie salad on the left, and blistered shisito peppers sprinkles with more togarashi on the left. Oh man, I am all about shisito peppers now. They pack a punch, but nothing I can’t handle. Really enjoyable heat. 

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Fire chicken wings. Slathered in a spicy sauce with peanuts, the skin was cooked non-crispy style, so it was okay, but I think it would have put them on another level if they crisped the skin just a bit.

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I walked back to Pho Express for lunch on my last day. Papaya salad with shrimp. Oh man, I fell in love with papaya salad while I was in San Diego. I tried recreating it at home with absolutely no success. But this. Oh, this was great.

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Crunchy green papaya in a tangy-tart sauce (it didn’t reek of fish sauce), and a whole bunch of crunchy crushed peanuts and sliced shrimp. How can anyone not love this? One of my favorite things about San Diego was that I got to eat seafood every day I was there. Albany Jane, depleting the oceans one bite at a time.

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I grabbed a banh mi for a snack at the airport. It was like $4. Very reasonably priced. About 1.5 Albany Jane hands long. 

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The bread was so great! Crispy on the outside & pillowy-soft on the inside. Beat the pants off of any $5 foot-long or any other airport snack option. 

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Oh San Diego. I can’t wait to go back to you. With Albany John the next time. You weren’t as friendly as San Francisco, but holy cow were you full of so many tasty and dirt cheap eats.