Photo of the Day (01.10.11)

photo of the day

Some meals are just made for the beach. When I think of sandy picnics, I imagine sandwiches, potato chips, fresh seafood (lobster rolls!) and lots of fruit. Other foods, however, just don’t seem right for the beach. I’ve never woking up from sunbathing and said, “Man, I sure could go for a shepherd’s pie right about now.” Not once have I wished that the vendors walking up and down the beach has piping hot lasagna in their carts. Beach food can be a fickle thing.

This photo by Flickr user Bernard-SD got me to thinking about what foods make the most sense on the beach. Noodles on the beach may seem odd, but after surfing in Bali recently, I slurped up a bowl of ramen just a few feet from the water and could not have enjoyed it more. This photo was taken in Lombok, not far from Bali, and I’m beginning to think Indonesian beach food might be better than the turkey sandwiches I’m used to back home. Hm, maybe a shepherd’s pie wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Taken any photos of beach food? Or maybe just some fantastic pictures of the people, places and things you’ve encountered on your travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Top 10 restaurants on Maui

Being isolated in the middle of the world’s largest body of water doesn’t mean you have to be isolated from top notch cuisine. On the contrary, so many cultures mingle in these off-the-beaten-path locales, some of the best food in the world can be had here. Maui’s cuisine is an example of one of these melting pot food cultures. Native cuisine, Asian accents, mainland staples, and completely new creations mix to form a very fun island dining experience.

Picking the top 10 restaurants on Maui is like picking the ten best places to drink in Ireland. The variety of menu options, price ranges, and atmospheres can be mind-boggling to a tourist only on Maui for a short time. Lucky for you we’ve done the research (read: extensive eating and sampling) and selected some of the best places to get your grub on. These picks cover a wide variety of cuisines and are hot spots for both locals and visitors.
Mama’s Fish House

Mama’s (photo above) is the place all romance-seeking couples must visit before leaving the island. Many walk away with tears in their eyes – both from the extraordinary service and food, and from the price of their check. Mama’s is not cheap. In fact, the prices are down right outrageous. But a meal at Mama’s is required dining, and for good reason, the restaurant has a long tradition of being the most romantic spot on the entire island. There aren’t many places that can rival the perfectly curved palm trees and immaculately manicured garden grounds in the light of a Maui sunset. After the valet parks your car, because there are no other parking options, stroll through the grounds to see the outrigger canoe and a traditional wooden tiki before being seated. The menu typically includes fish caught off the shores that day by local fishermen. The name of the angler who pulled your fish in will be listed on the menu above the description. The service is impeccable – we didn’t even notice when our glasses were being filled. The chef prepares some scrumptious dishes and incorporates fresh local ingredients such as coconut and macadamia nuts.

As mentioned, the valet parking is a must, since the space for your ride is non-existent beyond what is reserved for valet. The restaurant is located just beyond Paia on Hana Highway. There is no slow night at Mama’s, so reservations are highly recommended. Dinner for two and a bottle of wine will easily set you back a few hundred dollars. The food and service will impress, for sure, but it’s the million-dollar sunset you’re paying the premium for. If celebrating a special occasion, let them know when you make your reservation – a personalized card will await you along with other special treats.

Merriman’s at Kapalua

Mama’s may be the place the locals recommend to tourists, but Merriman’s is the place they keep to themselves. Merriman’s prices could put a dent in your vacation budget, but the food will be etched in your memory forever as one of the best dining experiences you’ve had. The chef, Peter Merriman, takes the “farm to table” concept and makes it a reality with this restaurant. Working hand-in-hand with local fisherman and farmers he has sculpted a menu packed with fresh-from-the-garden (and sea) foods that explode with flavor.

Merriman’s features several organic menu items and the friendly management and staff pride themselves on the restaurant’s support of locally grown foods. Of the menu items we tried, the butterfish with lobster was superb, and the scallops (pictured above) were creamy and seasoned to perfection. Since the fish is caught only hours before it hits your plate, it holds its full taste. Both menu items we tried paired well with the grenache we ordered. The wine list is extensive and has something for every taste. Merriman’s makes for an excellent alternative to Mama’s for your fine dining experience on the island. Located north of Lahaina, this indulgence is situated in the Ritz Carlton complex.

Fred’s Mexican Cafe

Now that we’ve gotten a few of the more foo-foo places out of the way, let’s talk affordable fun. Fred’s may not be a likely name for a Mexcian restaurant, but you’ll soon forget the name once you peruse their authentic Mexican choices. Fronting South Kihei Road, the main drag in Kihei, this double-decker restaurant/bar sees its fair share of traffic. Breakfast is a good choice at Fred’s, with excellent bloody marys and homemade muffins. Several shops and a busy local beach are located within walking distance making it a great lunch stop while you’re out exploring. Walk off that huge burrito after lunch, or just let it cook in your belly while sleeping in the sand. Lunches will cost $20-$30 for two including drink and tip, which is considered a cheap lunch on Maui.

Pupu Lounge Seafood & Grill

This is another Kihei favorite that doesn’t break the bank. Pupu means appetizer in Hawaiian, and you’ll find pupus all over the island. You can even buy a shirt here flaunting the fact that you ate their pupu. Interestingly enough, the Pupu Lounge isn’t the cleanest place. In fact it might be a little off-putting upon arrival with the dingy carpet and the scattered dirty tables. Squint your eyes a bit and allow enough time for your food to show up. You’ll be happy you stuck around. Seafood reigns here and they pride themselves on how fresh it is at the Pupu Lounge. Fried or grilled, they have a variety of the ocean’s bounty ready to be cooked up. Or if you prefer your food a little less cooked, try the ceviche. Ceviche is seafood, often shrimp or fish, that has been marinated in lime juice and spices. It is not cooked in the traditional sense. Instead the meat is broken down by the acidity of the lime juice. The Pupu Lounge has some of the best ceviche on the island, and if you like lime, cilantro, and seafood, you’ll be a happy camper.

Star Noodle

Star Noodle is located in Lahaina – well sort of in Lahaina. At the top of Kupuohi Street there is a small warehouse district, and tucked into the back of this is Star Noodle. Its location makes it a somewhat hidden gem in west Maui. While most tourists in Lahaina stick to the shops and restaurants on Front Street, those who venture up the hill a bit will find something special.

Sure, Star Noodle is a fun noodle restaurant, as you would expect, but their pupu selection is extensive as well. This makes for a great place to appetize into bliss, and snagging food off a table mate’s plate is acceptable, and completely expected. Prices are affordable at around $10 a plate, making this is a place you can bring the family and keep the bill to a minimum with wise ordering strategies. Star Noodle opens for dinner at 5:30 and the locals flock, so be there when the doors open or be ready for a wait. If you do have to wait, it’s worth it.

Big Wave Cafe

Back in the south Maui town of Kihei there is a mythical breakfast joint which breaks the laws of the Maui universe – Big Wave Cafe. The food is excellent, the seating is open-air, and the coffee is delicious and hot. Breakfast is breakfast though, right? Wrong. Maui has its share of waffle, omelet, and muffin slingers, but Big Wave has something most of the others don’t, mainland prices. The regular menu prices are affordable but if you eat before 9am you will be treated to a combination breakfast with meat, eggs, coffee, and more for as little as $3.99. Trust me when I tell you that a Maui meal for two coming in under $10 is as rare as a mountain in Kansas. That is, unless you are a big fan of Taco Bell.

Ono Gelato

Ono means “Good” in the native language and “Gelato” is an Italian ice cream delicacy – and “good ice cream” is exactly what they do at Ono Gelato. They serve up this whipped creamy delight in three different towns across the island – Paia, Lahaina, and Kihei. Ono Gelato may be considered an ice cream shop, and not a restaurant per say, but it’s still a must-try eatery on the island. Made fresh every day, Ono Gelato believes that, “gelato tastes better with organic ingredients” and “cows should just say no to drugs.” After sampling enough flavors to substitute a meal, I agree wholeheartedly. Their locally grown fruits are busting with flavor and the organic whole milk gives the gelato a rich texture. With dairy and non-dairy versions of their frozen specialty, and flavors ranging from coconut to doughnut, everyone in your group should be able to find something to love.

Buzz’s Wharf

The atmosphere is decent, the service is fair, and the view of the harbor is good enough. So why did Buzz’s Wharf make the top 10 restaurants on Maui list? I have one word for you – shrimp. More specifically, the markea prawns flown in from New Caledonia in the south pacific. Buzz’s is the only place on the island you can get these delectable little sea monkeys. These prawns don’t taste like your average shrimp from the gulf of Mexico or Thailand though. The markea prawn tricks your palette into thinking you’ve just tasted a lobster rather than a shrimp. This doppelganger won’t set you back as much as its larger crustacean cousin.

The Tahitian platter costs under $30 and features the markea prawns. Dipping the tender meat into hot butter could convert even the most dedicated of lobster lovers. Dinner is the best time to indulge here. Enjoy watching the waves crash on the rocks, the lights of south Maui, and of the boats docked just outside in Ma’alaea harbor as you scarf down your lobster-like shrimp.

Sea House

Situated on Napili Bay, this favorite of west Maui has stellar sunset views. The sundown spectacle draws hordes of diners to Sea House every day. The location is directly on the beach, and perfect for romantics who want to enjoy the sun slipping below the horizon. The prices at lunch can accommodate a family on a budget. The combination of families at lunch and lovers at dinner is the secret to Sea House’s success – that and the food. Lobster, filet mignon, and a host of sushi and salad options provide enough variety to satisfy anyone. Sea House is located in the Napili Kai Beach Resort, north of Lahaina.

Cheeseburger Restaurants

Formerly known as “Cheeseburger in Paradise” this chain has adjusted its name due to some trademark conflicts with a certain island-hopping, guitar-strumming crooner. Cheeseburger Restaurants may seem like a generic brand for a business, and hopefully they’ll fix that, but their burgers are not generic in the least. Your cravings for meat will be satisfied here by plump portions of beef stacked with melted cheese and the crisp veggies of your choice. The original locations sits on the shore on Front Street in Lahaina, and this two-story open-air building is a fantastic place to catch a sunset, drink a talk cold one, and fill your belly. The fries at Cheeseburger are fat, salty, and delicious too. What did you expect from a high class burger joint?

Cheeseburger offers a truly Hawaiian restaurant experience, but don’t be surprised when you hit Vegas and see that the chain has spread its wings and landed on the strip. A good restaurant can’t be held down.

Cheap eats in Paris: dining in the Japanese quarter for under €10

Eating well in Paris isn’t hard to do, but it can easily cost more than you originally budgeted. After a week of dining on foie gras, duck, and cheese plates, I was ready for something simple — and cheap.

Less than a five-minute walk from the Louvre, the Japanese quarter is just that kind of place. With most of the ramen houses centered on rue Sainte-Anne in the area between Palais Royal and Opéra Garnier, the long lines outside the restaurants seem to be a reflection of the tiny eating spaces as well as the universal appeal of affordable meals.

I first heard about the Japanese quarter by following the culinary adventures of ex-pat food blogger Meg Zimbeck, who recently started the website www.parisbymouth.com. Though I was originally looking for restaurants that were actually open on Sunday, I ended up checking out the neighborhood on a Friday and Saturday night. By 9 p.m., most of the shops had already closed, but the lines outside the restaurants were just beginning to ramp up. Here are two places where I had dinner for well under €10.

Naniwa-ya (11 rue Sainte-Anne)
This tiny space has six tables and a bar, where I sat with a view of the chefs preparing the noodles. When I asked a man sitting to my right for tips on what to order, he was nice enough to tell me that the noodles tasted better than the donburi. Seeing that he had completely emptied his bowl of noodles, I followed his cue and ordered the ramen. Before the man left the restaurant, he told me to help myself to the tea, which was stationed near the door. For a mere €6.50 ($8.20), I was content with the noodles, hard-boiled egg, slices of pork, and miso broth. As you can tell from my bowl, I wasn’t disappointed. I wanted to try more of the menu, but was too stuffed to fit in anything else.

Hokkaido (14 rue Chabanais
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In this deceptively small restaurant, a narrow staircase took me downstairs to the overflow room, which was painted white with an arched ceiling. After asking my server which ramen dish was the most popular, I happily slurped up the Champon Ramen. At €8.30 (about $10.50), this version had a little more substance than the one I’d tasted the night before at Naniwa-ya: one-inch strips of pork, Napa cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, and just the right amount of sesame seeds.

Unfortunately, by the time I’d inhaled the bowl of noodles and downed most of the soup, I once again wasn’t hungry enough to be able to sample anything else — that’s one of the drawbacks of dining solo; it’s much harder to eat your way through a menu. Looks like I’ll just have to go back on my next trip.

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Shanxi International Noodle Cultural Festival

Each week, Gadling is taking a look at our favorite festivals around the world. From music festivals to cultural showcases to the just plain bizarre, we hope to inspire you to do some festival exploring of your own. Come back each Wednesday for our picks or find them all HERE.

It isn’t known if Marco Polo stole the secrets of noodle making from China when he traveled the Silk Road, but in Taiyuan, Shanxi, China, during the first week of September of every year, it no longer matters. Chinese noodle makers have been plying their trade for 2,700 years, and at the Shanxi International Noodle Cultural Festival they show off their skills and invite noodle chefs from around the world to do the same.

Besides the wonderful food, noodle chefs in Shanxi are great performers as well. The best noodle restaurants in Taiyuan are willing to give anyone that spends enough money a show, but the first week of September is when they truly shine.

Want to learn more about China’s most delicious noodle festival? Keep reading below.

The Noodle Festival, as the locals call it, is held in restaurants all over the city, as well as along the streets in the city’s center. But most of the focus is on Yingze Park, the huge park in the middle of the city where vendors line the paths giving noodle demonstrations, or on Shi Ping Jie (Food Street), a cramped and colorful alley full of restaurants hawking noodles and other local fare.

Perhaps the best part of the Shanxi Noodle festival is trying the region’s special noodle dishes. Shanxi’s most famous noodle specialty, Dao Xiao Mian (Knife Shaved Noodles) has a very unique history. It is said that during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), people were not allowed to own knives. Ten families would share control of a single knife, and if someone wanted to use it they had to wait their turn. One hungry father, tired of waiting for his dinner, grabbed a thin piece of iron and just started shaving away. Shanxi cooks have been using that method ever since.

Yingze Hotel, one of the better hotels in the city, is located directly between the park and the street that the festival is focused on and enjoys the reputation of having a wonderful noodle restaurant attached as well. Taiyuan has a number of ancient parks and temples, so there are plenty places to visit while waiting for the noodles to digest.

Think you know Chinese food? Think again. Shanxi’s unique noodle festival will surprise and delight food-lovers everywhere. This year’s festival will be held September 10-12.

South by Southeast: Eating in Saigon

Amniotic fluid tastes like chicken soup. At least, that is, the amniotic fluid that comes from Hot Vit Lon, a Vietnamese delicacy consisting of an duck egg with a half-formed baby chick nested inside. As I squatted on a flimsy plastic chair in one of Saigon’s labyrinth of steamy back-alleys, with a cracked-open Hot Vit Lon in one hand, sweaty bottle of Saigon beer in the other, I had to wonder – just what exactly was I about to put in my mouth? Like so many of the favored foods of this rapidly changing Vietnamese metropolis, it was a question with many answers. Saigon’s top notch food scene is much like the city itself – a range of conflicting identities shouting to be heard – a place where the traditional, the sensuous and the social merge as one.

Understanding Saigon in 2010 means juggling these different personalities. It’s a place that’s modernizing rapidly, a mish-mash of high-rises and wooden houseboats, Gucci stores and low-budget guesthouses. Cao Dai, a religious sect based near Saigon, counts Jesus, Buddha and Victor Hugo among its deities. Even the city’s official name, Ho Chi Minh City (adopted in 1975), is up for debate, often rejected in favor of the historic moniker “Saigon.” Yet somehow these conflicting traits manage to work together, particularly when it comes to the town’s legendary culinary diversity. Saigon eating is much discussed in food circles, not only for the quality of the ingredients but also for the mind-bending variety of cuisines on offer. Everything from Western Haute cuisine to street food can be sampled.

This past January, I visited Saigon in order to see for myself why everyone has been talking about Vietnamese cuisine. I found a world-class food city with many different facets, each more tantalizing and top-notch than the next. Curious to get a taste of Saigon eating? Keep reading below.

%Gallery-85632%The Traditional
For hundreds of years, the hallmark of Saigon food has been its simplicity and wealth of high quality ingredients. The city sits along the edge of the Mekong Delta, a fertile agricultural breadbasket that provides a fresh-from-the-garden array of produce, locally produced meats and a mouth-watering array of flavorings. Perhaps no dish better epitomizes this blending of simplicity and freshness than Pho, a simple noodle soup made with beef, bean sprouts and a farmers’ market-worth of fresh veggies and herbs.

I arrived in Saigon fresh off an arduous 10 hour bus ride, exhausted, hungry and looking for comfort. I found my salvation just blocks from my guesthouse at Pho Quyhn, one of Saigon’s many top-notch Pho restaurants. Soon a steaming bowl of broth was before me teasing my nostrils with its beefy aroma. Beside me a whole plate was piled high with fresh mint, cilantro and salad greens, ready to be added. It was a “hug from mom in a bowl” – warm, comforting and familiar.

The Sensuous
According to a traditional Vietnamese food proverb, “To eat you must first feast with your eyes.” It’s a statement that rings true for much of Saigon cuisine, says Vietnam food expert and “Indiana Jones of Gastronomy” Richard Sterling one day over lunch. Richard has volunteered his expertise to help me experience a totally different side of Saigon, one that will expose me to the riotous colors, textures and sounds that are just as important as taste to the enjoyment of Saigon cuisine.

We convene that night for a “seafood feed” at Quan Ba Chi, where we devour whole soft-shell crabs cooked in a sticky-sweet tamarind sauce. We grab at huge plates of pinkish-orange crustacean that yield their sweet meat with a satisfying CRACK and shower of juice. I’m overwhelmed by not just the delicious taste, but the sloppy tamarind goo and bits of crab shell that work their way between my fingers and onto my shirt. It’s a feast not only for my tastebuds, but for my eyes, ears and fingers as well.

The Social
Daily life in Saigon doesn’t happen at home. It’s best experienced out on the street. The neat line that divides public and private life in the West is blurred in Vietnam, a fact that is frequently on display here. Everything from shopping at food markets, to locksmiths carving keys, to barbers cutting hair happens on the pavement, open to view. It leads to an environment where a meal is something to be shared, discussed and displayed: eaten in the open at communal tables.

To get a taste of this communal atmosphere, I make my way towards Saigon’s District 3 to a Quan Nhau restaurant – open-air Vietnamese beer halls where locals gather each evening to trade gossip, drink beer and enjoy plenty of tasty treats. I sit down at a shared table at Lucky Quan, kick back a glass of Bia Hoi and some grilled mussels with garlic and within minutes I’m trading stories with the Saigon locals sitting next to me. In Saigon, food is clearly a conversation starter.

Traditional. Sensuous. Social. Saigon cuisine is all of these things and none of them. Ultimately in place that claims so many identities, travelers have an opportunity to pick what they want the city to be. Much like choosing from among the city’s dizzying range of delicious foods, it’s something you must experience and settle upon for yourself.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.