In Oaxaca, A Place For Friends

oaxaca

Sundays in Oaxaca are quiet. The stores are closed; the streets empty.

There is buzz around the churches, as families mill in and out dressed in their Sunday best. Near the Zocalo, children play with oversized balloons, pushing them high into the sky.

But otherwise, the city is silent.

On a recent Sunday, I decided to embrace the calm and seek a quiet resting place where I could sit with a healthy meal, an iced coffee and the words of Carlos Fuentes. The spots I had in mind were closed, so I wandered the streets until I caught sight of an entryway leading into a courtyard shaded in bougainvillea. “Yoga, vegetarian food,” the chalkboard sign read. I had found my place.

I entered and asked for a table. The kind-eyed host explained to me that here, they do things differently, that this is a place for friends. She asked if I wouldn’t mind sharing a table, and she gestured toward my new seatmate: an elderly gringo in khakis and a Panama hat.Inwardly, I groaned. The last thing I wanted was forced conversation with a senior citizen. I wanted to feel Mexico, not be reminded of home.

Outwardly, I smiled and sat down.

De donde es?” he asked.

De los Estados Unidos,” I replied.

“Oh, you’re American,” he laughed. “Could’ve fooled me.”

Uh-huh. I pulled out my book and set it on the table.

“Where in the States are you from?”

“New York.”

“Oh, I lived in New York. In Manhattan?”

“Yes, the East Village.”

He laughed. “I used to live right near you, on 4th between B and C. But this was a long time ago, in the 1960s.”

Now he had my attention. You had to be a certain kind of person to live in the East Village in the 1960s.

“Do you know Allen Ginsberg? The poet?”

I nodded. I only idolized him.

“He was my neighbor.”

From there, the conversation flowed: from his life as an art student in the ’60s, to my writing ambitions in the ’10s, to his sons, my sister, his newly remodeled home, my newly redecorated apartment. Mitch was a man in transition, having just retired after decades of working as a museum exhibit designer for the federal government. I too was in transition, on the cusp of returning to graduate school and charting a new career path. He had come to Oaxaca to draw; I had come to write.

I didn’t expect Mitch and I to have much in common, but we did. I was reminded of a basic travel lesson: the necessity of being open to new people and new experiences.

Throughout our nearly three-hour conversation, the host, whose name I discovered was Rosaura, kept us fed and refreshed with a three-course vegetarian meal: crunchy jicama salad, hearty chickpea soup and a yogurt-oatmeal dessert, complemented by hibiscus tea. At the end, she only asked for $35 pesos (about US$3) to cover the cost of the ingredients. Every Sunday, Rosaura hosts this special gathering in the courtyard of the Comala restaurant on Calle Allende in downtown Oaxaca. The morning starts with a yoga session, followed by a meal. All are welcome – so long as they are open to new friends.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

A Travel Guide to Oaxaca, Mexico

Fried Chicken In Ulan Bator: KFC To Open In Mongolia

Would you like home-style biscuits or mashed potatoes to go with your yurt?

No country is out of reach for global food brands these days, and this week it’s Mongolia. In partnership with Ulan Bator-based Tavan Bogd Group, Yum! Brands is opening up four KFC outlets in Mongolia this year.

A country known for its nomads and ger yurts, it’s the most sparsely populated country in the world. But it’s also growing: the Mongolian economy is expected to expand 15.7% this year, the fastest pace in Asia.

That means it’s prime real estate for a large restaurant chain looking to expand. But how do you go about introducing fried chicken into a place that’s usually known for mutton and goat?

“We are conducting a market survey together with a global research company to determine the market potential and identify eating habits of Mongolians, which will outline our development road map,” said Ts. Baatarsaikhan, chief executive officer of Tavan Bogd Group.

Which begs the question: do Mongolians prefer original or extra crispy?

[Photo credit: pshegubj]

Off The Beaten Winter Path In Colorado: Backcountry Dining At The Tennessee Pass Cookhouse

“We’re going to ski in to this place where you get lunch served in a yurt.”

My Colorado friends know what it takes to get me excited about life; combine an outdoor pursuit with eating and I am almost always game. I didn’t even need to know the details of where we were going. The fact that I was going to a restaurant in a backcountry setting was good enough.

Near Leadville, Colorado, which at an elevation of 10,152 feet is the highest incorporated city in the United States, the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center is the kind of place for outdoor enthusiasts looking to get off the beaten path and away from more common places like Aspen and Vail. From here you can snowshoe and Nordic ski on over 25 kilometers of set track trails (hike them in the summer of course) and if you want an experience with a little more speed, spend the day on the downhill slopes of Ski Cooper.

We arrived at the Nordic Center mid-morning, kicking things off with a thermos of coffee as we rented skis and boots.

“The trail is a little bare in spots, but you’ll be fine,” instructed one of the owners.

Apparently she assumed our nordic skiing skills were a little more fine tuned than we knew they were; nordic skiing on flat, green routes is one thing, slogging uphill on icy trails is quite another, even for those used to skiing downhill. But the sun was out, the sky was blue, and we had nowhere to be except for at a yurt at 1:30 for our lunch reservations.

In the winter, the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse, which really is a full-scale restaurant in a yurt, is open for lunch and dinner, reservations required. As they put it, it’s “fine dining… backcountry style.” Is there anything better for the outdoor enthusiast?

The cookhouse is well equipped with a long list of wines and a few local beers. In the evenings, they serve up a four-course dinner for $80, and if you want to extend your backcountry experience, you can stay in one of the nearby sleeping yurts. Lunch is a little more low key, with entrees ranging from $10-17.

We skied the mile-long trail to the yurt, cresting over a hill and ending up with an overlook of the valley and the mountains behind. There are certainly worse places to eat lunch in the world.

“Who wants a beer?”

That seemed to be the appropriate choice, and with the help of a few extra layers that we had packed in, we took a seat on the yurt porch, outfitted with hefty picnic tables and torches made out of upcycled wine bottles. There are worse places to eat lunch.

A Cutthroat Porter (brewed by local Fort Collins Odell Brewing Company) was the perfect pairing for a cold day. And what goes best with a porter? A buffalo burger stuffed with feta cheese of course. I pulled out a dark chocolate bar for dessert (for outdoor adventures, it’s important to always have one on hand). After an hour of sitting outside, we warmed up by the stove inside the yurt, mentally prepping ourselves for what we knew would be an icy downhill for our return.

After looking at the map, we opted for Willa’s Way, which would take us on a loop trail, as opposed to skiing back on the trail we came in on. The main access trail to the cookhouse is frequented by staff driving back and forth on snowmobiles, meaning harder packed snow, and in the recent cold spell, very icy. We made a concerted effort to avoid Griz, marked in black as the most difficult course. Even those of us that like a challenge have our limits.

Willa’s Way meant a winding path downhill – challenging even for my expert downhill skier friends who are used to wider, more stable skis. But there is entertainment in challenge, and a few spills were merely cause for laughter. It’s hard not to feel good when you’re in the woods on a clear day. But that Willa … she’s a wily one.

Back at the Nordic Center, more coffee and one of Roxanne’s Cookies – a local favorite of the Tennessee Pass crew – for good measure. Lesson of the day: say yes to backcountry eating experiences, bring an extra layer, avoid Griz and always get the porter.

The Kimchi-ite: 10 Differences Between South Korea And The Rest Of The World

There are countless differences between South Korea and the rest of the world. Even the casual traveler bouncing around Asia will notice how everyday culture differs. In many ways Korean culture is somewhere in between that of Japan and China, but in so many more ways it is unique to itself. Here are some of the more interesting and unique differences I have noticed.


1. KOREANS AGE DIFFERENTLY
Babies that are born in Korea today enter the world as 1 year old, as opposed to much of the rest of the world, where they would be 1 day old. Additionally, that baby will gain a year to its age on the lunar new year (usually in late January or early February), instead of their birthday. So, a baby born in December would actually be 2 years old within just a few months. Somewhat confusing, I know, but a general rule of thumb is to just add a year to your own age, and that is your Korean Age.

2. SIDE DISHES FOREVER
When you go to virtually any restaurant in Korea, your meal will be accompanied by at least one banchan, or side dish (seen above alongside traditional porridge); most likely, there will be many. They will invariably include kimchi or some sort of pickled vegetable. Best of all, they are unlimited and will be refilled without you having to ask.

3. YEOGIO!!
When you are at a restaurant and you’d like some service, you don’t sit and awkwardly wait for some eye contact with the wait staff, you simply call out “yeogiyo!” which translates to “here, please!” Better still, more and more restaurants are installing call buttons on their tables.


4. I DON’T BLESS YOU
When you sneeze, people say nothing, no equivalent of “Bless you,” nothing. You did an involuntary bodily function, no big deal.

5. THE INTERNET
South Korea has the fastest Internet in the WORLD. Downloads can go as fast as 5 megabytes per second. It’s truly awesome.

6. POSSIBLY THE REASON FOR #5
Porn is outlawed in Korea.

7. YOU ARE YOUR PARENTS’ CHILD
Job applications, especially for large corporations, are incredibly different and include a lot of information that most people in the Western world would find outrageous. Notably, your parents’ education and their current occupation is a part of your résumé. This is somewhat indicative of how Koreans see family ties. Many of the big corporations in Korea are family run and newly elected president Park Geun-hye’s father’s past as the former dictator of the country was a very big topic during the election.

8. NUMBER 1 IN PLASTIC SURGERY
South Korea has the world’s highest rate of plastic surgery, 35% more than number two, Brazil. It has become somewhat common for parents to give their children plastic surgery as high school or college graduation presents. There are ads all over Seoul like the one above, seen in Gangnam, for plastic surgery clinics with before and after pictures of what actually looks like two completely different people.

9. OPENING AN UMBRELLA INSIDE
Not a big deal.

10. CLEAVAGE? NEVER! LEGS? NO BIG DEAL
It is pretty risqué for a woman to show some cleavage. But never will you see such a display of legs than in South Korea. Everyday of the year and everywhere, short shorts are being worn. In the dead of winter accompanied by thick stockings, or mountain climbing accompanied by high heels, it’s simply the norm.

Everywhere in the world is different, even different cities within the same state can be drastically different. What are some eccentricities of where you live or places that you have been?

Be sure to check out more on Korean culture from the other Kimchi-ite posts here!

[Photo Credit: Jonathan Kramer]

The New New Orleans: Life Takes A New Direction After Katrina

Until Hurricane Sandy slammed into New York and New Jersey in October, New Orleans was perhaps the biggest urban natural disaster story the country had ever seen. Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, the city has gotten back on its feet, regrouping after the storm of a lifetime.

Now, New Orleans isn’t just rebuilding what it was before. It’s beginning to move forward. Across, the city, new people, places and points of view are adding flavors to an already rich gumbo. People who weren’t in New Orleans before Katrina are helping to craft the city’s future. And places that have been derelict since the storm, and even before it, are coming back to life.

This New New Orleans has many of the elements of other successful cities. It’s attracting entrepreneurs, through the same kind of incubators you find in Silicon Valley. Young professionals, like the Emerging Philanthropists of New Orleans, a grassroots giving circle, are contributing money and time. Big name companies, like General Electric, are making investments and creating jobs.

But the most visible evidence of the New New Orleans is in the city’s food industry, which has doubled in size since before Katrina, and which has broken away from some of the traditions of the past. If New Orleans once rested on its food laurels, as critic Alan Richman proclaimed a year after the storm, it’s not doing so any longer.

“The best thing that happened with that experience, with Katrina, was that it forced people who were on their knees to come back and compete,” says restaurant owner and entrepreneur Joel Dondis (above).

“Whoever came back was going to get better. The beauty is what you see today.”

%Gallery-170745%Before Katrina, it might have been hard to conceive that New Orleans would have a new burger joint visited by star chefs in a neighborhood previously deemed unsafe. Or, in a city where supermarkets were the only place to buy meat, that MBAs from Tulane University would open a butcher shop.

No one could have imagine gumbo and music festivals and a concert series in a downtown park that nobody used. But all that’s happened in just the past weeks and months.

The New New Orleans is not without its obstacles. The French Quarter and much of the Central Business District are a construction zone, with the city scurrying to build a street car spur and make other improvements before the 2013 Super Bowl.

Crime remains high, and unwary tourists can get robbed at ATMs or rolled by unsavory characters late at night if they don’t have their wits about them (as can happen anywhere). Almost every neighborhood is still rebuilding in some fashion, and streets can be shut and rerouted on a daily basis with little explanation.

But the new New Orleaneans are pushing forward, anyway, and many of them are building on the city’s past as they create new opportunities.

Joel Dondis has been a part of the New Orleans culinary scene for a generation, but since the storm, he has pressed forward with new ventures in desserts, fine dining and casual meals.
One of his post-Katrina restaurants, Grand Isle, named for the island at Louisiana’s tip, sits squarely in a tourist zone, flanked by the convention center on one side, Harrah’s Casino on another, and faces a courtyard where visitors in name tags stroll in the noonday sun.

Inside, Grand Isle is the epitome of the expansive seafood restaurants you find on any shore, with tile floors, wood trim, big windows, and waiters bustling with platters of shellfish and pints of beer.

But Grand Isle didn’t exist before Katrina, Dondis explains, gesturing around the room. “This was a parking garage.” He built the place from scratch, drawing on the Gulf Coast tradition for ocean fishing and shellfish gathering, and it’s now part of a restaurant organization with five businesses and 400 employees.

The walls, made from cyprus wood, are decorated with stunning black and white photographs by legendary local artist Fonville Winans. Others show vintage scenes of VIPs at big game fishing clubs, beaming at their catches of giant ocean fish.

The New Orleans-dominated menu seems familiar, but the dishes have twists – the shrimp camanida po’boy has a citrus butter and Asian slaw, the blue crab claws are marinated instead of fried as they might be elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, and the gumbo has house-made andouille sausage. The chef, Mark Falgoust, also makes his own boudin, the meat and rice mixture served warm in Louisiana gas stations.

They’re making boudin, too, at Cleaver and Company, a just-opened butcher shop a few miles away in Uptown. It’s joining a growing trend across the country for high-end meat markets, supplied by local farmers, where cutting and curing takes place on the premises. All of Cleaver’s meat comes from within 200 miles of the tiny shop.

Cleaver, which opened at the end of October, had a line of customers waiting outside the door on its second Saturday in business. Simone Reggie, one of the Tulane-educated business partners, guided customers to three sheets of butcher paper taped to the wall that listed the cuts of beef and pork as well as the poultry available that day.

A delivery man brought boxes of ducks through the front door as a man at the counter gave specific instructions for how he wanted his ribs prepared: “I want a St. Louis cut, with the fly removed,” meaning the top flap of meat. Seth Hamstead, Reggie’s business partner, said he didn’t mind the instructions, because Cleaver can’t prosper without educated customers.

“People are making more of an effort to preserve the culture of New Orleans,” he said. Hampstead, who got his undergraduate degree at Tulane, worked in Chicago but chose to return to Tulane for his MBA. There, he met Reggie, who had worked for Chef John Besh as well as Cintas Corporation, and the pair concocted the idea for the butcher shop.

“You’ve had a change in the workforce. People aren’t staying in jobs 50 years any more,” Hamstead said. “They’re going off to do their own thing.”

Of course, New Orleanians love nothing more than a good party, and one sign of how far the city has come took place in November. Emeril Legasse, known as much for exclaiming “bam!” on his Food Network program as for his restaurant empire, held his second annual Boudin and Beer fundraiser on a temperate November Friday evening.

A year ago, the original Boudin and Beer attracted 1,500 people and 25 chefs from New Orleans and Mississippi, who prepared their version of boudin and served samples from individual booths. This year, the number of chefs swelled to 59, from all over the country, with beer and cocktails flowing and live music and dancing that went on into the night.

The varieties of boudin were as varied as the chefs, with grilled boudin, boudin kiev, seafood boudin, even nutria boudin prepared by New Orleans chef Susan Spicer. People crowded around Mario Batali as he cavorted with belly dancers, and laughed at the hot moves of the 610 Stompers, the area’s most popular men’s dance troupe.

The event was held in New Orleans’ warehouse district, not far from the convention center, which played such a tragic role in Katrina. But the area has rebounded to become a center for artists and museums, and restaurants like Cochon, the center of the universe for chefs who cure their own meats.

Many of those chefs ended up the next day on Freret Street, a seven-block district in the Uptown neighborhood that is filling up with bars and restaurants, creating a trendy new entertainment area miles from the Quarter, in both attitude and atmosphere. Others wound up nursing their hangovers at La Petite Grocery, another Dondis restaurant, and spooning up gelato at Sucre, his patisserie helmed by chef Tariq Hanna, which opened only months before Katrina.

After surviving four hurricanes – Ivan, Katrina, Gustav and most recently, Isaac – Dondis says he’s come up with a formula for how to get his places down to minimal loss. Sucre never lost power during Isaac, and became a kind of general store for New Orleanians, who came in as much to charge their phones and use wifi as they did for sundaes.

“Power and data connectivity,” Dondis says, have turned out to be the criteria for coming back from a storm. Throw in food, and they’re an analogy for the New New Orleans, too.

NEXT: A Stroll Down Freret Street

For more on the New New Orleans, click here.

[Photo credits: Micheline Maynard]