Last year at this time: Thanksgiving 2015 in Tokyo and Manila (Part II)

Laminated airplane menus

Airplane Food to Philippines

To read the first part of the trip in Japan, click here.

Flying from Japan to Philippines took approximately four hours and despite the relatively short trip, we were still fed on the flight. Paul and I were handed laminated menus with a choice of two Japanese dishes – interesting since I thought we would be served an amalgam of Japanese-Filipino food considering our departure and arrival points.

Flying into Philippines 2

Flying into Philippines 3

The airplane was only two-thirds full and we had the full row to ourselves watching the clouds slowly reveal the Philippine coastline. Paul’s first sentence on looking down on the landscape, “It looks really humid.”

Nino Aquino Airport

And it was. We arrived at Ninoy Aquino Airport at 1:45 PM to meet my my mom’s brother. My uncle hadn’t seen me in years and it took us about 30 minutes to locate each other. Once I spotted him and his wife, we were ushered to his mini van and they brought us to The Aristocrat, his favorite place to eat in Manila.

Aristocrat

Aristocrat_sigsig

Aristocrat BBQ chicken

My research shows there’s many locations of The Aristocrat and this one overlooked Manila Bay. It’s an institution that’s been open since 1936 and is well known for their chicken BBQ, which my uncle and aunt promptly ordered. For Paul, he opted for shrimp robosado (fried shrimp) while I ordered pancit and sigsig.

Before heading back on the road to our final destination of the day, my uncle bought a dozen of ensaimadas for us to snack on for the trip to San Fernando. Unusual to me since research showed that it was only 2 hours away from Downtown Manila. I was so wrong.

Philippines bicyclist

Here’s the thing about the Philippines. The traffic is mind numbingly insane. Manila traffic makes Tijuana traffic look like the middle of the desert in Nevada. From the backseat of the van, we watched my uncle’s driver maneuver around overloaded buses, up to five people piled into one motorcycle and cars upon cars trying to cut us off.

What should’ve taken two hours took about four. Mostly because of the traffic but also because my family wanted to drive Paul around to show him the sights. We passed by the hospital where I was born — a place my parents chose because celebrities went there to give birth — and other places of interest along the way.

We eventually made it to the freeway system and both fell asleep until we hit the City of San Fernando sometime during the evening hours.

After making a quick stop at mom’s place to visit some of my other relatives, my uncle dropped us off at the nearest hotel since there was no room at the house for us. Paul and I quickly discovered it was not your typical place to sleep; it was, to put it politely, for one-night rendezvous.

Hotel Menu

“Don’t drink the water!” my uncle told us as he left a few bottles of water with us in the room plus the pastries. He also added there was a menu to order room service from in case we got hungry. It was the menu that kind of clued us into the type of place were were staying in. Along with tocino, bicol express and other Filipino dishes, the hotel kitchen also served cocktails with names like Born to Be Wild, Wasted Cupid and Screaming Orgasm. As for the room itself, there was almost no privacy in the designated bathroom area. The toilet room had a semi-opaque shower door and the bathtub-shower combo had no curtain. Once we realized there was nothing but porn on the TV, we fell asleep to the lull of the AC.

We were both dead tired but managed to get up it was morning and dressed before my uncle’s driver rang the doorbell to the garage.

San Fernando

San Guillermo Church

First stop that morning en route to my mom’s house was the cemetery. My mom is buried behind San Guillermo Parish Church in Bacalor, the same church where she was married and where I was baptized. Bacalor is a municipality in Pampanga within the City of San Fernando and when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, more than 75% of Bacalor was buried beneath the lahar. My grandparents’ ancestral home was completely covered under the mud from the volcano and my mom eventually rebuilt a new, modern home over the same spot. The church with its 40-foot tall ceilings managed to survive. It isn’t as tall as before but openings that used to act as windows are now entryways into the church.

San Guillermo Graveyard

My maternal grandparents’ graves are buried under the lahar and my mom is interred in concrete stacks above the ground. And down the row from where she’s buried, they stowed away items of what my brother Allan wore when he died. It’s heartbreaking to know that my mom kept them with her all these years. It’s hauntingly sad to say the least. Due to the tourism appeal of the church (San Guillermo is the site of a popular Filipino soap area and buses regular line up outside), there was some trash.

Food spread

Shrimps

The one year death anniversary in the Philippines marks the official end the mourning period and back at my mom’s house, my aunts and uncles are prepping for a party. When Paul and I arrived, we smelled food being cooked the guests. Two full roasted pigs were delivered and plates filled with shrimp, squid, hot dogs, spaghetti, fish, etc. began to cover the counter and tables. (All food photos taken by my aunt BTW.) Paul began to worry. “They’ve been sitting outside for a while… are we going to eat soon?” Apparently, he’s not used to food staying out all day for parties. But before we can eat, there’s mass held in the courtyard.

My mom often spoke about three young men in Bacalor who she put through seminary school to become priests and on this day, they were presiding over her memorial mass. They knew all about us— asking us about Paul’s cartooning and how my brother Warren was doing in Ohio. It’s comforting to hear their stories of my mom from their first meeting (she sat like a mermaid with her ankles crossed) to how she would invite them over for dinner (the kitchen was free reign).

After eating and meeting with relatives, the rest of the day was a blur. The humidity (which Paul said reminded him of an Indiana summer especially with the chickens heard in the background) and jet lag got to us. Paul and I wandered upstairs for a nap in the only air conditioned room of the house and slept until it was time to leave for central Manila to my uncle’s house and prep for our departure back to the U.S. the next day.

Welcome to the Philippines

View of Makati

Philippines skyline 2

Returning to the airport was uneventful except that we were taken to the wrong terminal. Since my family had already said their goodbyes and left, we took a taxi to the correct terminal and the cab driver took on upon himself to ask Paul for a “holiday souvenir” which pretty much translated to a tip. We were both warned about the bullet scheme that was rampant at the airport and noticed that a few people had wrapped their luggage in plastic wrap.

We had a 2-hour stop-over in Japan on the way back to Seattle, then Los Angeles with a drive back to San Diego. Whew. Five days to and from Philippines? It can be done.

Last year at this time: Thanksgiving 2015 in Tokyo and Manila (Part I)

Japan Connecting Flights

Thanksgiving last year was unlike any Thanksgivings of past. The previous holiday (2014) passed me over after getting the news of my mom’s passing and her wishes to be buried 24 hours after her death which made a trip to attend the funeral impossible. So in 2015, I made an effort to visit her on her one-year death anniversary which is an important date in Filipino culture and marks the end of the mourning period.

In August I booked two tickets roundtrip from L.A. to the Philippines for a five-day trip— an insanely quick trip because of our freelance work (we have no vacations) and other obligations (like our dog).

Paul had just returned from the Reno Comic-Con and had only Monday to recover before we set off on the international trip on Tuesday. Our flight was at 11 AM and at dawn we set off in my car to LAX to avoid any pre-Thanksgiving rush. Lucky for us, things went smoothly; not a lot of people were leaving on international trips and we breezed past security onto the plane with no problem. After 12 hours on the airplane, first stop was Narita Airport in Japan. 

I had purposefully planned a long layover and looked forward to the 16-hour Tokyo excursion before the big emotional reunion. We had very short list of things to do and we had planned not to sleep during our stay in the city so we wouldn’t miss our connecting flight the following morning at 9 to Manila.

We packed light for the trip and once we landed we stowed away our belongings in an airport locker instead of lugging it around with us. Narita is about 44+ miles outside of Downtown area and we took the commuter (aka cheaper) train to the city to our first stop: Shinjuku.

Tokyo Ramen

Our first order of business: food. It was raining and cold and there was no other thing I wanted more than ramen. I hadn’t had it on my last trip to Tokyo and ramen was at the top of my list to eat. We finally chose on a nondescript place where Paul ordered a pork tonkotsu and I went with the spiciest thing on the menu to warm me up. We sat on the second floor of the restaurant (where Paul almost slipped down the stairs) and watched as the rain continued to pour.

Godzilla from far away

Paul and Godzilla

Hotel Gracery Godzilla Floor

Godzilla through window

After filling up, we wandered around a bit in the rain with our tiny collapsible umbrella to look for the Hotel Gracery, also in Shinjuku. Tokyo is known for all kinds of crazy, memorable buildings but this one is set apart with Godzilla perched on top. Once you see the building, it’s easy to see spot and we took the elevator up to the 8th floor hoping to get up close and personal but found the patio was closed because of the rain. If we had extra time, you betcha I would’ve reserved a spot in their special Godzilla room.

Star Wars display from far away

Star Wars display upclose

As we were wandering to our next stop, we spotted this special Star Wars display for a department store from the across the street. 

But look closer, you’ll see it’s not the familiar Star Wars characters. It’s actually a creative design trick using common items to create an illusion that you’re seeing Chewbacca, R2-D2, et al. Truly amazing.

Hachicko statue

Hachiko Mural

Also on our list was looking for Hachiko statue in Shibuya. People were lined up, even in the rain, to take a photo with Japan’s most devoted dog who waited every day to meet his owner from the train — even for many years after he passed away — until Hachiko died himself. Weirdly enough, we had been at that very spot more than a decade earlier but didn’t know the statue existed.

Paul and I had this plan to wander all night and it was soon approaching midnight so we made the decision to head back to the Narita before the trains shut down for the night. We made it — almost.

We got as far as the train would take us and took a cab the rest way to the airport. The airport was also closed for the evening so we couldn’t fetch our bags. With 9+ hours until our flight, we decided to stay at a capsule motel at the airport instead of huddled under an umbrella outside in the rain.

H9 exterior

Security escorted us to the front of the 9 Hours. The name stands for the maximum number of hours you can stay in the hotel. It was well past midnight by this point and we couldn’t just ask for 5 hours, we were charged the full 9 hours which was about $49 per a person instead of the $15 per an hour. Once we paid, we given a small mesh bag of toiletries and shown the entrance for the men and another area for women.

It’s around this time Paul starts to freak out. What if we miss the plane? How will I get in touch with you? We find there’s free Wifi and are able to communicate via text messaging. Whew. 

H9 Sign Directions

H9 Sign
9H-toiletries

Back to the capsule motel. The first place I enter is a locker room to stow our stuff. In the mesh bag is a button-up gown, slippers, toothbrush, mini toothpaste, washcloth and towel, plus a numbered key assigning a locker and sleep capsule. 

H9 Locker Room

H9 Wash area

I hadn’t showered since San Diego but had energy to wash my face, brush my teeth and take off my contacts in a separate wash area and find my way to the capsule area.

H9 Slippers outside

H9 Inside sleep capsule

I was completely dark by the time I enter the sleeping area and I’m the only one crawling into bed. I fell off a step and tried to muffle my scream so as to not wake anyone sleeping. Somehow I made my way into the capsule leaving my slippers outside by like everyone else.

Each capsule included shades to draw down in the front for privacy, plus lights, a power outlet and some kind of white-noise machine imitating waves. The buckwheat pillow and the rest of the bed was pretty comfortable.

Between catching the flight and being in a weird place, I only slept for a few hours and Paul was messaging me that he’s dressed and waiting in the lobby for me. (Note: Paul unlike me, didn’t pack extra underwear, medicine, etc. in his walkaround backpack so he’s still wearing yesterday’s clothes.)

H9 Toilet

H9 Toilet Controls

By the time I get up, the ladies’ side is busy with women of all ages and nationalities getting ready.

The wash up area also included toilets and shower stalls. Like Japanese toilets throughout the country, these toilets are top-of-the-line and the showers aren’t too shabby either with shampoo, conditioner and body wash inside pump dispensers. The towels, gown and slippers were returned and tossed in a hamper.

Narita Breakfast

We gathered up our luggage, grabbed some breakfast of French toast, eggs and sausage and made our way to our connecting flight to Manila.

Next up: Not quite 48 hours in the Philippines

Comic-Con 2016: A Tale of Two Stents

Comic Con 2016

San Diego Comic-Con 2016 is finally over and quite honestly, we’re not sad to see it go. If you were one of hundreds of people who stopped by the table to say ‘hi’ and buy a book or shirt, you likely got a story about Paul’s current medical condition. He has a kidney stone but it’s not that malady which hampered him this year— it was the two stents opening the passage from his kidneys to bladder that caused him the most discomfort these days and two months preceding the event. So he wasn’t his usual chipper self, standing up and talking. Until his surgery to finally remove the kidney stone and stents in mid-August, we’re keeping things on the down low.

Setting Up Table

But on to comic-con… I had a new book this year and sold all but two copies that we reserved for the show! We’ve restocked and will add it to the Cool Jerk store soon. In addition, we’re planning for a San Diego signing for those people requesting a copy but didn’t have tickets to the big event. To everyone who I talked to and bought a copy — thank you! I’m extremely touched and so sorry for the sad ending but life goes on.

Pins

This year I fell hard for enamel pins and bought several for myself. ‘Fuck Cilantro’ was gifted to me by a friend and sold out during the ‘con! I went back and bought ‘Part Bread’ from Night Cake, a company based out of Los Angeles. Those two pins were supplemented with a boba pin and Sriracha pin by Giant Robot. One pin — the handsofrespect.com pin — was designed by Stan Lee and has nothing to do with food. It was priced at $10 for two pins: one for yourself and one that you give to another person.

Me John Lewis

I bought the Stan Lee pin shortly before running into Congressman John Lewis who was there to sign his graphic novel, Bridge, at the IDW booth. It was earlier enough in the day when he wasn’t surrounded by an entourage and we were able to take a selfie. If you don’t know who John Lewis is, do a quick search and you’ll see he’s one of the original superheroes of the civil rights movement. It was quite an honor I tell you.

Enfu

Aside from pins, I was quite taken with a selection of stickers by enfu. The stickers featured doughnuts, slices of layer cake, ramen, sushi, breakfast, etc. There were lots of stickers to choose from and if you wanted to upgrade to a full-sized print, they offered a menu. Clever!

Sarah Kuhn

My goal this convention was to get Heroine Complex signed by friend and author extraordinaire Sarah Kuhn. I have so much I want to say about this book because it touches me in so many ways. Aside from the Asian superhero protagonists, super hot sex scenes, food references and nods to fashion, it’s everything I ever wanted in a book where male characters fall to the wayside and strong women are featured front-and-center. I’m slowly taking my time reading this book until the two follow-ups are released next year and the year after. In short, buy a copy!

CB Herb and Wood

I made every effort to connect with friends outside of the convention center and have a meal with them. On Friday night, Paul and I were graced with a dinner invitation by Marvel’s C.B. Cebulski. I had interviewed him several times over the years but this was quality time over a selection of dishes at Herb & Wood in Little Italy. We all talked comics industry, travel, kidney stones and food while sharing a bounty of small plates, entrées and dessert.

Ladies Lunch

Every comic-con, I have a standing lunch date with some really lovely comic book ladies— Wendy, Angela, Shannon and new girl Sonia. Previous years we hit up Puesto (where we spied Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd going to and from the now-defunct Pizzeria Mozza) and last year’s Double Standard. This year, we went to the new Carnitas’ Snack Shack by the Embarcadero, soaking up the cool air and views— and also hitched a free ride close to the convention center on a trolley tour bus!

The Crack Shack

Also becoming a tradition is a post-con dinner with friend, writer and artist Deb Aoki who visits every year to cover manga. This year, she had several panels as well. After the convention was shuttered on Sunday and we washed off all our ‘con stink, we delved deep into fried chicken goodness at The Crack Shack in Little Italy.

Ronald Thor

I don’t think any of my comic-con posts are ever really complete without at least one costume photo. In keeping on theme with food, here’s a mash up of Ronald McDonald as Thor with a Happy Meal Mjolnir.

New at San Diego Comic-Con: The Girl Who Kicked the Donut Habit

GirlWhoKickedDonutCover

By now I would have posted my top choices of where to eat downtown during this year’s comic-con. But you know what? I’ve been hella busy over at Zagat. More importantly, Paul and I pumped out a new comic book that we finished TWO WEEKS ago and we just received the order today. How’s that for last minute?

I think this comic is my best yet. It’s full of original content except for one page that I swiped off of My Burning Kitchen. And while funny, there are some sadder moments to it hence the title. Like the previous comic, The Girl With The Donut Tattoo, look for a commentary for each page as well as few recipes. It retails for $6 with $1 of every sale benefiting the Colon Cancer Alliance.

Page5Preview

If you’re still hungry for comic-con related content, check out this piece on Zagat San Diego of superheroes of the dining scene. The photos alone are worth a look.

Paul and I will be at the convention starting today until Sunday. Hope to see you there!

Cutting Corners and Making My Own Caffeine Drinks

Coffee and tea

Here’s a revelation for you folks reading this: I pay for my own food. In my last three plus years of doing the professional food writing gig, I’ve spoken to a few dozen people who do the same thing as I do and discovered that whatever they eat out for work, it comes out of their own pocket. Shocker, right?

In doing filing taxes this year, my total food costs in relation to my job was approximately one month of pay. Don’t even get me started on tips — a item that is also tax deductible — I like to tip well and often. No need to make someone else suffer.

This has nothing to do with a “boo hoo is me” theme. It’s quite the opposite. I’m not going hungry and thankfully have a spouse who is able to pick up part of the mortgage. And while I would like to eventually upgrade both our cars or just get my radiator replaced so I can drive without fear of breaking down, we live modestly in our townhome with our sole dog child.

On the other hand, we try to cut corners whenever possible. Vacations usually revolve around business (again, so we can write it off) and I don’t eat at extravagant restaurants unless I can write about it. The biggest money drain is drinks— specifically coffee. There’s no denying I love my cold brew but it adds up quick. But I’ve found few ways to still get my caffeine fix without handing over a few dollars for every serving.

My favorite is Vietnamese coffee — a super-charge caffeine jolt that moves me from “nap time” to “you better get your ass moving so you can churn out stories” mode. Usually priced around $4-5, it’s waaaaay cheaper to buy a filter and make it at home.

Buy some Cafe Du Mode (usually around $4) and condensed milk and you’re set for more than a dozen servings. Now that’s a fantastic deal!

Matcha Green Tea

Another favorite is green tea matcha. In doing last year’s taxes, I spent nearly $200 on coffee at 85º Bakery on their salted mountain green tea. Yikes! If you spend a little time at Trader Joe’s, look for their Matcha Green Tea Latte. It runs about $3 per a container and makes about 8 servings. Meant to be hot, the tea can easily be transformed into a refreshing iced beverage.

That’s my rant. Now who wants to meet me for coffee?

All The Guts and Glory

Vomit Gnome

Here’s something I thought I would never ever write about: gut health. But considering my job requires me to keep my tummy in tip top shape, I always have my gut in mind.

I hate to even utter the words ‘food poisoning’ because I haven’t suffered a case in about 3 years. In addition, have a proud anti-puking record. Minus the extreme case of vertigo a few weeks ago that caused me to regurgitate my burger lunch, my puke has been on the down low. (Side note: I’ve just discovered I really enjoy typing out puke.)

But there are things that set me off – Cajun food, I’m looking at you – and I’ve recognized the onset of symptoms that have sometimes prompted me to delay restaurant visits until my stomach is at 100%. Since I’ve been doing the professional food thing for almost four years (even longer if you consider my blogging career is now at the 12 year mark), I’ve realized that a consistent diet consisting of fiber and water keep me running smoothly.

WasaCrackers

It all starts with a breakfast of Wasa crackers. I got hooked onto these dry crackers last year training for the 10K. There’s no sugar and two crackers rack in 80 calories! Depending on how I feel, I top the crackers with peanut butter, cheese or if I’m really hungry, scrambled eggs. Think of it more like a concrete lining for my stomach. Since the crackers are so dry I try drink a lot of water to keep myself hydrated.

Culturelle

My morning crackers are followed by probiotics. I’ve tried a variety of probiotics with mixed results. They either tended to be too expensive or were in yogurt form. The ones that seem to agree with me are created by Culturelle. Last year before my trip to Asia, Paul and I prepped our guts by taking one in the morning and evening. Now when my stomach begins to feel a bit off later in the day I take a second one as insurance. It’s a steal at Costco and available in packs of 80 capsules for $29.99.

Brown Rice and Veggies

After my breakfast of crackers, anything can happen. Sometimes it’s followed by a lunch visit to a restaurant, but more often it’s badly chosen snacks like potato chips. The few times I’m able to cook at home, I stick with brown rice and steamed veggies. (I really enjoy green beans with light douse of Trader Joe’s Green Goddess dressing.) Boring I know but it jump starts my appetite when I’m feeling palate fatigue and keeps my system running.

One Final Visit to Cleveland: Indian Food, Ice Cream and Doughnuts

Cleveland View

In an effort to catch up with posts, I thought I’d write about my visit to Cleveland last year. My brother was moving from Ohio to Kentucky later in the year so I made it a point to make one last visit before he and my sister-in-law packed up and left the state.

The visit was bittersweet. I hadn’t seen him in a while even after my mom died. Also too, I realized it would be my very last visit – that’s unless I’m sent to the city for an assignment. In the ten years since my brother has lived there, I’ve visited at least five times and the last time was with our mom. Who would’ve guessed that I would be so connected to Cleveland??

I made the solo trip in in August and  when I arrived I noticed that all throughout the city  the preparations for the Republican convention in 2016.

Choolah shirts

Traveling East is hard! You basically lose several hours and to get in while its still day light requires you to leave on the earliest possible flight. I didn’t eat all day and one of the first stops was Choolaah Indian BBQ on Chagrin Boulevard in Beachwood, OH. It’s a fast casual restaurant featuring four tandoor clay ovens behind glass wall that you can view from the dining room. The signage was very sleek (think McDonald’s but with an Indian twist) – they even sell their t-shirts. Choolaah has only one location and it’s a restaurant I can foresee it going national.

Choolah Chicken Tikka

As per any visit with my family, we ordered almost the whole menu so I can try a little bit of every thing. My order was the chicken tikka masala that came with freshly made naan and mint yogurt sauce. An interesting fact: any dish incorporating cheese is sourced from local Amish farmers.

MItchells Menu

We followed that up with Mitchell’s, one of my favorite ice cream places that I’ve visited on previous trips and I always order the bing cherry chocolate chunk. The ice cream at Mitchell’s is sourced locally encompassing chunk elements in the mix. It’s reminiscent of Ben & Jerry’s before the brand went national while Jeni’s Spendid Ice Cream caters to trendy tourists types, Mitchell’s is a local place as evidenced by the lines outside the door.

Mitchells

Since I flew late in on Thursday, I tagged along with my brother to his place of work at the Cleveland Clinic the following day. For lunch, he took me to another place he thought I should check out: Sokolowski’s University Inn on University Road.

University Inn

Open since 1923, the cafeteria-style restaurant has been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show for its Polish ethnic food. Grab a tray and fill it up with whatever looks good from the hot food bins.

Sokolowskis_decr Sokolowski's Salads

Sokolowski's chicken paprikash

That day, Sokolowski‘s featured their usual variety of salads and cakes. From the hot food bin was chicken paprikash, potato pancakes, mac ‘n’ cheese and fried fish just to name a few. It’s the kind of food that sticks with you all day.

Sokolowski's Potato Pancake fish mac nd cheese green beans

Here’s my fish (an ode to Paul since he couldn’t be with me during this trip) along with one potato pancake, a roll and side of green beans.

Sokolowski's sausage and dumplings

My brother went all out ordering Polish sausage with dumplings (pictured) and I tried a bit of his chicken paprikash.

Sokolowski's Dining room

Sokolowski's counter

Aside from the food, the decor looked like it was plucked out of time with photos of notable celebrities and regulars on the walls. If you’re in Cleveland, this is a definite must-visit.

One of the things I really wanted to do on this trip was check out the Harvey Pekar banners. They were installed a month earlier at Coventry Park where the late comic creator liked to hang out. After some exploring around in the area in the blistering Cleveland humidity, we found the banners attached to the lampposts at the intersection of Coventry Road and Euclid Heights.

Pekar plaque

Pekar Banners Pekar Banner 3

Pekar Banner 2

Much of the rest of the weekend was exploring outside of Cleveland. I somehow got in my head that I wanted to find Amish doughnuts. My brother had no idea where to find some so we settled on Lerch’s Donuts parked outside of a small shopping strip in Smithville, OH. They’re known for selling sweets during summer fairs.

Lerchs Donuts Truck

Lerchs Donuts

To Paul’s chagrin, I also sought out his beloved Faygo and found them in several grocery stores where they were selling plastic bottles of it at a staggeringly $1 each!

Faygo

Despite my brother’s misgiving about Jeni’s Spendid Ice Cream, he took me to the scoop shop in Chagrin Falls. Chagrin Falls is one of my favorite places outside of Cleveland. There town is host to gorgeous water falls leading into a stream and also popular because it’s the home Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes.

Jenis Menu Jenis ice cream scoops

We were unsure if Jeni’s was open (throughout the county, production had stopped several times because of a listeria outbreak) but we were in luck.

Upon suggestion of the counter, I ordered Ndali Estate Vanilla bean with a scoop of milkiest chocolate while my sister-in-law went with a scoop of Wildberry lavender. The ice cream was fine but I have to go with the locals and agree that Mitchell’s Ice Cream is far superior.

I’ll miss Cleveland but I’m looking forward to exploring his new place in Lexington, Kentucky.

For my ancient posts on Cleveland, click here, here, here, here and here.

The Story of Allan

It would have been some time today that I’d call my mom up to share our fondest memories of Allan, and even some sad ones. I’d set aside some time and just talk. Call it part of our shared grieving process but even decades after his death, knowing how January 22 defined us meant a lot to me. But unless you knew me when it happened, I never spoke of him unlike my mom who talked like he was in the room next door waiting for us. A visit to his gravesite was always casually phrased as “I’m visiting Allan.” And as years went on, I tucked him further and further in the back of my mind despite my mom’s suggestion that’s there no shame in sharing it with people and not a pockmark on me as a person. In retrospect, I did it because of the explanation of how he died is a jumble of childhood memories and emotions. And talking about death in general — even in the past tense — makes people uncomfortable. Sadly, with my mom’s passing, there’s no one I can share memories about him. So I’m opening up and sharing the story of Allan.

—-

Allan My maternal grandmother, Warren, Allan (wearing a Superman shirt) and me.

Allan came to my family in the blustery cold day in November. Me, at the age of five, was unaware that my mom was pregnant until one morning, the sweet grandmotherly lady next door came over and prepped me and my other brother Warren, for a trip to the hospital to pick up the newest member of our family.

My first sight of Allan was a shrunken little thing. I squished between the bucket seats of my dad’s Datsun as he drove home trying to get a better look at my new brother. Even days after, they wouldn’t really let me see him. Or maybe I was just too involved in the busy life of a kindergartener. My dad was my main caretaker tying my waist-length hair into a painful ponytail while my mom tended to the baby.

For Allan’s first Christmas and a little more than a month old, he cradled was in his cradle looking like Santa Claus with white eyebrows. (My mom never explained what was going with that.) And I received the best present: a baby brother.

Being five years old with a baby brother was a dream. Allan was a living doll and I didn’t care he was a boy. I changed his diapers, dressed him, fed him and appropriately teased him. Our favorite song was singing “Kentucky Fried Chicken, they do chicken right” at the tops of our voices into each other’s cupped ears causing momentary deafness. I also stole food from him at the dinner table for faux dinner parties later on in the day. No wonder Allan was the skinniest of all the kids and the most resembled my mom. More importantly, he eagerly played house with me while Warren, who was two years older than Allan, willingly pretended to be “our child.”

We were due for a family trip the Navy Exchange where all military families went to do their bargain, tax-free shopping. Before leaving, my dad was delayed inside the house fixing a lamp while Warren, Allan and I played in the front yard. At the time, I was obsessed with ladybugs while Warren and Allan were doing boy things, namely playing catch with a softball. In between head dives into a bug-filled bush in our front yard, I reminded Warren and Allan to look ways before crossing the street but there was no really worry for traffic. At that time, a small farm was across the street in our sleeping neighborhood.

After spending three years, one month, 22 days and handful of hours with Allan, we lost him. I had a ladybug in hand one moment and in the next Allan was lying on the road with a car stopped in front of him. He lay down broken with the softball next to him. There was a rush of things that followed soon after (I know because I had to recall it to a lawyer months later). I called out to my dad and he rushed out, immediately holding Allan on his lap in the middle of the street as a crowd of our neighbors formed. A passing car took them to the nearest hospital and Warren and I were shuttled off to our cousin’s house a block away as my mom followed in another car.

Day turned into evening watching “The World According to Garp” and eating popcorn. (The last thing Warren, Allan and I ate was Jeno’s frozen thin-crust pizza.) When it was time to go home, my uncle walked Warren and me home without a word where we found our dad sitting on the piano stool crying.

The days that followed were a rush of relatives and close family friends flooding the house throughout the week. And there were the unforgettable open casket visitations that have scarred me far deeper than anything to date. Lying in the baby blue casket wasn’t my baby brother. Instead a pasty, slightly bloated little boy looking similar to Allan was wearing a white suit — something I would never consider dressing him in. I couldn’t bring myself to touch him even as my mom kissed his forehead before the casket closed for the final time.

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Returning to school was surreal after a week off and things had changed. I was that student kids would point at, whose family was in the news making an already shy kid more unlikely to open up. Throughout my adult life, from elementary school to my adulthood, I never mentioned Allan again. I only had one brother to avoid explaining Allan. Realizing this my mom encouraged me to talk more and more about him, put out his photo. My favorite, is him as a baby and me posing with my pants cuffs sitting on our heads. You know how they say that time makes grieving a bit easier? It does but it never completely goes away.  I wish he was still around even more this year to help me share memories about our mom.

On The Set of The Taste: That One Time I Met Lawson, Lefebvre, Samuelsson and Bourdain

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Last fall, I received an invitation to visit The Taste. If you’re not familiar with the reality TV show, it’s where contestants of all walks of life compete on a cooking-reality show for a monetary prize. And it’s based on one fateful bite.

Produced by culinary superstars Nigella Lawson and Anthony Bourdain, it’s currently in its third season and we had a chance to visit towards the end of their season wrap-up. While I won’t spoil who lost when we visited, it was an interesting look at how the show is put together.

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First of all, all the filming takes place in a big, unmarked hangar in Los Angeles. I knew we were in the right place when I saw a printed parking spot for Ludo Lefebvre. (He drives a sweet motorcycle, by the way, which I’ve cropped out of the photo.)

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Once inside, it’s massive and very, very dark. Just as we arrived, lunch was about to be served. We were welcome to join the crew but we opted a bit of ice cream instead. I can’t pass up ice cream.

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Further down the hangar are several trailers dedicated to the stars of the show and decorated according to their preference. A French cafe surrounds Ludo’s trailer, a glamourous champagne and oyster bar for Nigella, Marcus went the way of a New Orleans night club and Tony’s was a Vietnamese market.

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On set, the surprising thing was how quiet it was even with filming in progress. We wouldn’t have known it was filming if the monitors weren’t on. It was fascinating to see that two filmings were going at the same time and based on what I previously read on Kirbie’s and Brandon’s site (who visited the set the day before), it was a continuation of the same show.

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There was a break in the filming and they gave us a chance to visit the set. Since it was only a brief interlude, the set was “still hot” and we were warned not to touch or move anything. Ingredients were spilled all over the floor and work areas were a mess.

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Paul and I took the obligatory “Hey, look! We’re on the set of The Taste shots.” but we more intrigued by the pantry. With the exception of Pam cooking spray, most of the major brands were covered up with tape. Think about that; someone had to go through all the products and make them camera ready.

To complete our visit, met with the real stars of the show, the mentors. Having met Anthony Bourdain before at comic-con, I was really interested in seeing the others. Tony was seated on a leather chair poring over the L.A. Times’ business section (I love that he reads local newspapers) and he talked to Paul and I about his favorite comic books (stuff by Steve Canyon and Jim Steranko). Nigella, who smelled like fresh lilacs as she sat next to me, gave me some sage writing advice and was far more elegant than I could have ever imagined. And Marcus was intense but also thoughtful about where the restaurant industry was headed. I would have like to continue talking to him but time was running out and they still need to finish up the day’s work.

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Unfortunately, Ludo was nowhere to be seen so we left for the day, leaving him a copy of The Girl with the Donut Tattoo (where he’s drawn and mentioned along with Tony and Nigella on the very same page). But as soon as we were driving off , they call us back on set saying that Ludo wanted to meet us. How’s that for a cool story?

The Taste wraps up soon and if you catch the episode tonight (January 8), you’ll also catch San Diego’s very own Javier Plascencia as a guest.

Related: Reality Television: My Dinner at Gordon Ramsay’s Hotel Hell
Andrew Zimmern at Oasis Ice Cream

Mom Memories 1944-2014

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With the holidays here, I meant for this post to be roundup of my Thanksgiving meal. Like a good food blogger (which I haven’t been these last few months), I planned for pulled turkey tacos, corn salsa and bevy of desserts. I called it the anti-Thanksgiving, forgoing traditional items with a new spin. Instead, I mourned over my mom who passed away the day before due to failing health and colon cancer complications. The day was a blur, I didn’t sleep all night after hearing the news and wasn’t hungry. Instead, I resorted to eating a slice of pumpkin pie from Albertsons bought that evening. The most difficult part was that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to her one last time or see her put to rest (her last wishes was to be buried within 24 hours). To put it lightly, that wrecks me; we called and messaged each other all the time. I can’t stand the thought of ever deleting her number from my phone.

Coincidentally with her passing, my post on her momisms and recipe for mini pecan tarts peaked. On rereading it, it made me laugh and ease the pain.

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Grieving is hard I don’t know if I’ll ever stop. In an effort to keep her memory alive (including here on the internet), here are just a few of my favorite memories.

  • She loved carne asada burritos. Don’t give her tacos. Tacos just aren’t the same thing to her and she always preferred a big fat burrito. Pair it with a side of hot spicy carrots (she could empty out a bin if given the chance) and she was set.
  • She didn’t know what wasabi was only that it was edible. Upon taking her to a Japanese restaurant for a bento box, I witnessed my mom put a whole wad of wasabi into her mouth and spit it out like a cannon ball across the table.
  • One of the first things she taught me to cook was rice. To this day, I don’t use measure the water for the rice, I use my fingers to figure out how much water to use.
  • She knew all my friends whether she met you or not and would revel in our “cool modern lives.” When we finished talking about my life (she never really understood what I did), I would talk about my friends and what’s happening with them. And she would remember the names in later conversations and ask about them. She had a great capacity for remembering everyone.
  • My mom loved cheese. The earliest memories included her eating everything from stinky cheese like limburger to the weird Kraft cheese found in a tin can. She would buy cheese in bulk at Costco, freeze it and transport it home. There was no cheese she wouldn’t eat.
  • She respected my choice for not doing things the conventional way and appreciated my independent spirit that manifested itself as a hellish teen to a nonconformist adult. Regardless of our arguments, we always made up.
  • My mom loved figure skating and bonding sessions involved lots of time in front of the telly watching Rudy Galindo, Kristy Yamaguchi, Katarina Witt, Oksana Baiul and Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov perform half lutzs, axels and toe loop jumps on ice.
  • Music was a big part growing up. To this day, my iPod is littered with things I think she would like: Ray Conniff, Paul Anka, Neil Diamond, etc. But I got her into Elvis Costello — a win on my part — but she never got into The Smiths. She also loved to randomly hum and sing out of the blue whether it’s from the musicals she watched or just something made up.
  • She was a horrible hairdresser. When I was 6-years-old, she took it upon herself to cut my hair to mimic the Dorothy Hamill rage going on at the time. Many people I was wearing a wig until I went to a proper hairdresser. She followed it up with a perm a few years after with equally devastating results.
  • After the death of my brother, Allan, at the terribly young age of three, she always carried his memories alive hoping I would never forget. We never got over his death and every major holiday like Christmas, she would always decorate his grave. Since leaving San Diego, she left that duty to me but I could never replicate her same meticulous flair.
  • For one Halloween, she borrowed my brother Warren’s Star Trek (Next Generation red shirt) uniform to wear to work. It was completed with my Doc Martens and pips putting her in the officer rank.
  • After my dad left her and the family, my mom seemed to bloom. In their marriage, she always took the backseat to my dad’s strong personality but as evidenced by our wedding, my mom worked the floor trying to talk to as many people as possible. Every time I checked up on her, she was talking to another new person.
  • Paul once witnessed my mom take down an entire box of Crunch ‘n Munch in one sitting. She told him that she was “pigging out” and didn’t share one bite with him. It was a phrase I would often use in my chunkier teen years that she started using herself.
  • From high school on, my mom and I wore the same size shoes and clothes. My teen years was a weird mix of middle aged woman clothing to Morrissey shirts. Towards the end, it killed me that she shrank to a size 2 because of her illness.
  • My mom was a one-woman cheering crowd when my brother Warren was named salutatorian for his graduating high school class. Despite my best efforts to calm her down (I was after all, the cool college kid), she cheered and yelled in a crowded gym room when his name was called. Looking back, I would have joined her.
  • My mom always had cold hands. Blame it on poor circulation or anemia but when the days were hot, I loved putting her hand on my forehead to cool down.
  • She loved Paul. My mom always marveled that Paul and I were always laughing. From the moment in our wedding when got the giggles to every day conversation, she saw we always laughed. She often told me it brought her a lot of peace knowing that someone loved me as much as Paul and that I wouldn’t ever be alone.
I miss her so much.