Mahjong Couture

So I’ve had a cold for well over a week now and I’m getting sick of it (haha). I haven’t been able to really work out and am starting to feel like a vegetable. I did actually put in seven weak-effort rounds of Bas Rutten’s MMA Workout last Wednesday, but I’m wondering if that exertion might have actually slowed my recovery. Oh well, back to sitting on the couch until I get better I guess.

I did put some of my couch time to good use though. For years I’ve thought about putting together a Cafepress.com storefront to sell mahjong themed t-shirts online. Being sick with nothing else to do, I decided this would be a good time to set it up. But after a little online research I learned that when it comes to print-on-demand websites, Cafepress’ product quality seems to have deteriorated through the years, so I decided to go with Printfection.com instead. After fumbling around trying to teach myself how to use Gimp to create my designs and then figuring out Printfection’s administrative interface through trial and error, I finally got things set up. All told, it took about a day to get things working the way I wanted, but voila, now you have a place to buy my mahjong themed apparel. Here’s one of the designs:

Mahjong Style

I don’t know if I’ll actually ever sell any of these (marketing is not my strong suit), but regardless, going through the exercise of pulling this project together feels like it was a good way to spend my downtime. So while this cold is still kicking my butt, I may not be feeling any better, but at least I’m feeling productive!

Holmes in New Orleans

Kudos to HGTV for bringing the Holmes on Homes series back to U.S. viewers. Even if they have given it a crappy time slot (8am Saturday mornings), it’s great that we can see the show again. It used to be carried on the Discovery Home Channel, but they dropped it when that channel became Planet Green.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it follows Canadian contractor Mike Holmes and his crew as they step in to fix the problems left behind by other contractors. In some cases the previous contractors were inept at best and in others they were outright criminally unscrupulous. It is one of the most informative shows ever produced when it comes to home repair and construction. Viewers learn best practices and what to watch out for when inspecting a home or dealing with contractors. But the biggest difference between Holmes on Homes and other instructional shows like This Old House is the human element. You get to know the crew. You feel for the homeowners and the injustice of what prior contractors have done to their lives. But you also share in the emotional payoff every time Mike’s crew finishes a job and you see the homeowner’s reaction. Every time Mike turns a house back over to the homeowner, it’s like he’s given them their lives back. That’s the real draw of the show for me.

This morning, August 29th, marked the 4th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and its destruction of the city of New Orleans and so it was fitting that HGTV chose today for the U.S. premier of Holmes in New Orleans. In this two-hour special, Mike Holmes takes his crew to NOLA to try and build a prototype sustainable LEED-certified home in 10 weeks, start to finish. The effort was to support Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation (coincidentally named the same as the motto Mike Holmes has been using for years) which is attempting to rebuild homes in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. The Holmes house would be the very first of the 150 houses planned for the first leg of the Foundation’s efforts.

And what a home it would be. A crazy design with all kinds of funky angles with the main structure raised over 8 feet off the ground so that if another flood ever came through it would just wash under the house. Solar panels, insulation and ventilation designed to reduce electricity consumption by over 70%! Just incredible. Plus you get to see Mike’s workmanship put to the test as the house was just completed as Hurricane Gustav was rolling in.

But as with most Holmes on Homes episodes, it was the human aspect that made this show special and got Holmes in New Orleans nominated for so many awards. Not to give away any spoilers, but from the story of the homeowner Gloria Guy to the trials and tribulations dealt by mother nature, it was quite the emotional roller coaster. For those of you who have watched Holmes on Homes through the years, you’ve come to know the crew like old friends and it is cool to see them here in the States. It’s great to see how much Damon has come into his own, able to keep his cool in a leadership role under intense pressure. Also grown up and contributing in a big way are Mike’s kids, Mike Jr. and Sherry. Mike’s other daughter Amanda also took part, working behind the scenes doing public relations. But it wasn’t all good; it was particularly hard to watch some of the others, especially Pinky, wither under the adverse conditions. As much as I respected them in the past, I think twice as much of them after New Orleans, all of them, but especially the ones that had the fortitude to see this project through to the end. What great people and what compelling television.

For past seasons of Holmes on Homes on DVD or a copy of one of Mike’s books, check them out here.

An Epic Birthday Week – Episode XI (The Last Supper)

Sunday morning I woke up feeling a little tired but more or less ok because I was smart enough to quit drinking earlier than the rest of the crew the night before. CS, superman that he is, somehow managed to get up early too and was going to go sailing with his dad that day. I said my goodbye to him and packed my suitcase as I waited for Lily to wake up and get the day started. My flight wasn’t until late at night (planned that way in case I was hungover from our Sonoma trip the day before), so this was to be a day of relaxing and hanging with family.

First up was dim sum with my grandmother, aunts, uncles and other cousins. I didn’t catch the name or location of the dim sum restaurant (if any of you cousins are reading this, maybe you can add a comment to let me know), but the food was surprisingly good. Better in fact than the dim sum places I’ve been to in NY or Boston. The pork blood (the same kind that appeared in the Bún bò Huế from my previous post) was especially good, as was the crispy deep fried taro dumplings. But pretty much everything we had was above average to great.

After dim sum we headed back to Tony’s mom’s place to chill out. And for those of you who have had big dim sum meals before, you know that kind of chilling out amounts to dozing off on the couch. It was exactly the sort of lazy afternoon I needed after 10 fun but exhausting days. From there we popped over to uncle Simon’s place for a little while and had some some soup. Good ol’ homemade Chinese soup. Didn’t realize how much I missed it!

By then it was late afternoon and we were planning to round up the families again for dinner, Pho this time. But before we did that, Tony insisted I needed to try the taco truck before I left. I still wasn’t even remotely hungry, and we had dinner coming shortly, but what the heck, you know I can always eat. So Tony took me and cousin Merlinda deep into the ghettos of Oakland to what would otherwise have been an abandoned lot if not for the two big taco trucks stationed at either end. He explained that they own the building behind one of the trucks but they choose not to use it as a storefront and instead only sell food out of the trucks. Fascinating. This was definitely the kind of place that you would not want to come to alone at night unless you had a death wish. But fortunately it was daylight out, and all the unsavory types around us didn’t look very menacing because they were happily chowing down on tacos from the truck. I ordered one lengua (tongue) taco and one al pastor (barbecued pork). Can you believe these little beauties are only $1.25 each?

Taco Truck Tacos- Lengua and Al Pastor

If that picture doesn’t make your mouth water, there’s something wrong with you. As CS might say, these tacos were “ridiculous”. So good. So fresh. It was like tasting a real taco for the very first time. The lengua was my favorite because it had a more substantial chew to it, but flavor-wise they were both superb. Like I said, I wasn’t even hungry, but I scarfed these two puppies down like nothing.

From there we went back to Tony’s place, rounded up the family and went to a local Pho restaurant so I could have one more Vietnamese meal before I left. Sorry, I didn’t catch the name of this place either (can you tell I had already mentally shut down by this point in my trip?), but I ordered the medium sized bowl of pho with sliced beef and tendon. I had been impressed by the quality of all the Vietnamese food I’d had during this trip and this final meal was no exception. The flavor of the soup was so comforting and the tendon had been properly cooked long and slow to the point where every piece was meltingly soft. It was a good, simple heartwarming dinner with family. I can’t think of a better way to close out a trip.

Big thanks go out to everyone who was a part of my week out there. Especially to Nancy, Charlie, Lily, CS, Tony, Mat and Beth. You guys are the best family and friends a guy can have. You gave me a place to crash and kept my plate full the entire time, both literally and figuratively! You guys rock. Thank you.

An Epic Birthday Week – Episode X

Day 10 was the main reason I planned my trip to span two weekends. It was the day that cousin Nancy was renting a bus to take a group of us to Sonoma for wine tasting to celebrate our birthdays and Evy’s business school sendoff. Since it was the main event, we had planned on taking things easy the night before. Of course it didn’t work out that way though. After two wine bars, wine at dinner, and then a bar after that, most of us were toast. When we got back to Lily and CS’s place, I went straight to bed, and I know Lily was feeling queasy too. But CS? He’s more machine than man when it comes to drinking and somehow he stayed up until 3am drinking with friends that came over. Crazy, considering we had to be up at 7am in order to get to Nancy’s in time for the bus pickup!

Impressively, Jin, who was going to drive us to Nancy’s but was one of the ones who stayed up late with CS, showed up right at 7am with a box o’ bagels. Nice. I should point out that the real reason we were getting up so early was that we wanted to stop by Philz Coffee before heading to Nancy’s, and well, you know coffee at Philz takes a little while to make. So as hungover as we all were, we were also coffee junkies that sacrificed an extra half hour of sleep in order to get our Philz fix.

We were a group of walking wounded when we arrived at Nancy’s and in truth I don’t think any of us really came back to life until we got to Sonoma and had our first glass of wine. From there, the rest of the day was a whirlwind. We hit about 6 wineries for tastings with one stop at The Girl & The Fig for lunch (where I didn’t eat because I was deeply into drink mode by that point). I didn’t really love any of the wines I tasted that day, but to be honest, by the 4th winery, Margaux and Manichewitz probably would have been the same to me. I had mainly been drinking reds all day and the tannins had turned my tongue to sandpaper. Even the oysters we had at B.R. Cohn couldn’t refresh my palate. But it didn’t matter, because this trip wasn’t really about the wine. It was about celebrating and just chilling with great family and friends. The bus ride was a hoot, especially with the shots of Cazadores tequila being passed around and CS’s crazy friend Hector holding court and entertaining everyone. It was a great day and by the time we were on our way home, most of us were nodding off as we were stuck in traffic.

But that wasn’t the end of the festivities. We got back to Nancy’s place and fired up the grill for some terrific bbq chicken and kalbi. Nancy also makes a mean spinach dip. Meanwhile Hector taught us all how to properly drink Mexican beer with lime and salt (a flavor profile which I have developed quite a fondness for after having those micheladas and chavelas). CS and Hector are old drinking buddies and the two of them just seemed to feed off of each other’s energy, egging each other on and keeping a fresh beverage in each others’ hands at all times. Very crazy considering CS had been up until 3am drinking the night before, and really, with me as a house guest, he had pretty much been drinking heavily all week. But then again, with Lily as a girlfriend, I guess you could say he’s probably been drinking heavily for two years, hahaha. Speaking of which, happy anniversary to them!

Since I was flying home the following day I knew I didn’t want to drink too much that night and wake up feeling sick. Nothing worse than being trapped on a plane when you’re feeling ill. So with that in mind, I switched to water after my 3rd shot of tequila. Lily also stopped drinking because she was designated driver. And she filled that role properly, as opposed to the kid, Mike I think his name was, who was supposed to be the DD for some of the other guys at the party, but who I guess fell victim to Nancy’s sudden urge to make people do shots (Nancy never does shots, but she was doing them that night!). When we left the party, the poor kid was on the sofa wincing, clutching a pillow to his side as if Bas Rutten had just kicked him in the liver. I felt bad for the kid, but that didn’t stop me from laughing hysterically of course.

So somehow 6 of us crammed ourselves into one car and Lily drove us back to her place, a good half hour drive. I now know what it must be like to get smuggled across the border. Those of us in the back seat were all contorted and my left leg was totally asleep by the time we got back. Oh well, as I told Hector, I guess I’m not very good at Mexican yoga.

An Epic Birthday Week – Episode IX

On Day 9, CS was busy but Nancy was able to get out of work early so Lily and I made our way out to meet her for lunch at her favorite Caribbean restaurant in a slummy area of East Palo Alto. This place was seriously in the ghetto. To give you some idea, as we walked from the car to the restaurant, we passed a little alley where I saw two young children chasing a chicken around. I guess that’s what kids have to play with when they don’t have toys in the barrio!

But it was daylight out so it didn’t feel dangerous, and I know Nancy knows good food so if she said Back A Yard restaurant was worth the journey into the hood, I knew I was in for a real treat. In fact, this combo of jerk chicken and ox tails turned out to be perhaps one of the greatest plates of simple honest food I’ve ever had:

Back A Yard Chicken and Ox Tails

I know it doesn’t look like much, but trust me, you would love it. Ok, maybe the salad was a throw away, but everything else on that plate was pure heaven. The jerk seasoning on the chicken was better than the best barbecue you could ever imagine. The ox tail was deeply flavored and cooked so long that the even the little caps of cartilage around each bone would melt on the tongue. The rice and beans were moist and actually had flavor. So often rice and beans are under-seasoned, dry or otherwise lackluster, but not at Back A Yard. Somebody cooked all this stuff with real love. And those plantains were just killer. Sweet with just the right amount of caramelization to them. This for me was the pinnacle of Caribbean food. I don’t know how it could possibly have been any better. I left there extremely happy.

After lunch, Lily and I went to… you guessed it, Philz Coffee again. This time we checked out the Palo Alto branch. Yes, my trip was only 10 days long, but I managed to visit 3 out of the 6 Philz Coffee locations. This one had a much crunchier feel to it, not the modern coffee shop feel of the other two. It also had a quaint little outdoor seating area where I enjoyed my Jacob’s Wonderbar Brew while Lily tried their yummy Turkish blend which was fragrant with cardamom.

From there we returned home to bring CS the takeout we got from Back A Yard. He started eating it thinking he would just have a few bites before we headed out to a wine bar, but it was so good he couldn’t help himself and just decided to eat the whole thing!

We hit two wine bars that day, the first being Tessora’s located in The Pruneyard shopping plaza. There was nice outdoor seating and we had a bottle of wine and some apps there before heading off to the second place, Cin Cin which Mat had recommended. I opened the wine list there and what did I see? Why, it was our new friend the Martella Petite Sirah we had tried at One Market a week ago! This one was a 2004 vintage but tasted pretty much the same, i.e. fantastic. We also tried Cin Cin’s remarkable chicken liver crostini which brilliantly were made with currants and dried apricot. So good.

From there it was time to move onto dinner at Dio Deka, a Greek restaurant also in Los Gatos. We got a couple bottles of Turley Zin and enjoyed what was probably the finest example of upscale Greek food I’ve ever had. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever even seen foie gras at any other Greek restaurant like it was here on this foie gras and scallop dish:

Dio Deka foie and scallops

When you see nice touches like the hearts of palm on the plate you know these guys are trying to take things to another level. Superb. But Greek food to me is measured by the quality of their seafood, and Dio Deka proves their worth with this offering of a fish I believe is called Mero:

Dio Deka Mero

It was hearty like a black cod or chilean sea bass but not as cloyingly oily. Paired with that dill lemon butter sauce, it was very refined but still had the unmistakable flavors of Greece. Dio Deka was the only fancy place I ate at during the entire trip, and it was an excellent choice for the splurge.

An Epic Birthday Week – Episode VIII

On Day 8 of my epic west coast adventure, I slept in and woke up to an empty house because Lily and CS had stepped out. I wandered into the kitchen and microwaved two of those awesome Lucy’s Tamales and doused them liberally with La Vic’s legendary orange sauce. I’m sure I must have reeked of garlic afterwards but it was worth it; that sauce is excellent. Surprisingly, I found that I preferred Lucy’s chicken tamale to the pork. But frankly, anything that is a carrier for orange sauce is pretty damn good!

Later on, Lily and CS returned and CS had an old friend stop by with his girlfriend because they were on their way to the San Jose airport. We had time to grab a quick lunch together at a cool little Irish pub called CB Hannegan’s. I wasn’t hungry after having downed two tamales, so I just ordered a Caesar’s salad. Nothing too remarkable except for the fact that it contained avocado slices which I’ve never seen on a Caesar before. Maybe it’s a California thing.

After CS dropped the friends off at the airport we had the afternoon free and decided to make the drive down to Moss Landing to check out this famous place for Cioppino:

Phil's Fish Market

Phil’s Cioppino was featured on an episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay. You know, the show where Bobby challenges chefs around the country in a cook-off of their specialty dish, and where Bobby usually loses. Yes he lost to Phil at this Cioppino throwdown too, and I wanted to taste the winning dish. I knew it had to be good as soon as we got there because there is literally nothing else around the area that people would actually have reason to visit, yet there were plenty of cars in the parking lot. Inside, in addition to the tables for dining, there’s an actual fish market and a bar. You place your order at the counter and they give you a number which you take with you to a table and then they run your food out to you when it’s ready. You can buy a bottle of wine at the bar to bring to your table as well. Here’s a look at Phil’s famous Cioppino:

Phil's Cioppino

It was chock full of super fresh pieces of seafood, but for me, the pleasure was all about the broth. Tomato based and a little sweet, it had a depth of flavor that could only come from being cooked with lots and lots of fresh seafood, particularly shellfish. Great for sopping up with the pieces of garlic bread which would otherwise have been a failure because they were so soft (I like my garlic bread toasty!). We also had some nice steamed clams and grilled artichokes. Food-wise it wasn’t nearly as good as the meal I had at The Boiling Crab earlier in the week, but there is something tremendously enjoyable about sitting at an open air table on a beautiful afternoon, getting messy with seafood and drinking a couple bottles of crisp sauvignon blanc. That’s the way to spend an afternoon.

After making our way back to San Jose, Mat met up with us for dinner. We wanted to go back to The Boiling Crab since Nancy and Lily didn’t get a chance to try it yet, but this time the wait really was two hours long so we opted for plan B- more Vietnamese. This time a place called Anh Hong which featured a set menu of “7 Courses of Beef”. It was a good meal with interesting flavors and sauces, but Mat put it best when he said four of the courses were pretty much the same. Some pieces were meant to be wrapped in rice paper sheets, others came wrapped in seaweed, etc. A pretty good meal, and as it was with all of these Vietnamese places, the price was very reasonable.

An Epic Birthday Week – Episode VII

Continuing to take advantage of the great Vietnamese restaurants in the Bay Area, day 7 of my trip to the wild west featured the most exotic dish of the week. It took place here, in this inconspicuous storefront in yet another generic looking strip mall:

Bun Bo Hue Restaurant

Bún bò Huế is a Vietnamese noodle soup featuring a fiery beef broth, thin slices of beef and pork, lemongrass and cubes of gelatinized pork blood. The noodles are thicker and more substantial than in pho, the more common Vietnamese noodle soup. It is an absolutely fantastic bowl of goodness and a thing of beauty. Check it out:

Bowl of Bun Bo Hue

Not exotic enough for you? No problem. At this place, you can choose the optional add-on of… ox penis! Don’t worry, it’s not as revolting as it sounds. In fact it didn’t have much taste at all. It was sort of like cut up pieces of cartilage, only softer. Here’s a close-up, or should I call it- the money shot:

Ox penis in bun bo hue.

While the ox penis didn’t really add anything but novelty to the dish, the rest of the bún bò huế was insanely delicious and was one of the best things I ate all week. The broth itself was the best part, a deeply flavorful and savory soup that made me hungrier the more I sipped. I think this stuff has gotta be one of the best hangover foods ever. Not sure what kind of pepper or chili oil they used, but it was unique in that the heat would light up your tongue and make your nose run but would cool off completely with just a teeny sip of water. Heat from most chili peppers just gets aggravated by water and leaves your mouth numb and unable to taste anything, but not with this stuff. The hottest bites surprisingly were the noodles themselves, probably because the chili oil would adhere to them as I lifted them out of the broth. But baby, it hurt so good. Then with a little sip of water I was ready to have more. This lunch was an incredible highlight in a week of great eats. Man, I’m craving some right now!!

After that fantastic experience, we stopped by the award-winning Lucy’s to pick up some tamales to go so we’d have something in the fridge if we got late night munchies.

We followed that up with a coffee run to where else but Philz Coffee. This time we hit the location at San Jose State U. I went for the Julie’s Ultimate again, CS had the same, and Lily started with a Mocha Tesora. I say she started with that because she didn’t love it and ended up getting a second cup, this time the Jacob’s Wonderbar Brew. Glad she did too, because I tasted it and loved it even more than the Julie’s because it was even richer and bolder and still had no trace of bitterness in the finish. Ladies and gentlemen, my new all-time favorite coffee is Jacob’s Wonderbar Brew!

Since Philz Coffee was located near a branch of La Victoria, we stopped in there to buy a squeeze bottle’s worth of their famous Orange Sauce. It’s an addictive garlicky, spicy mayo based sauce that would be awesome on anything but particularly good with those Lucy’s Tamales.

Later that night Lily and CS had their own dinner plans so I met back up with Nancy and Tony, this time in Palo Alto. We did dinner at a quaint little Italian restaurant called Osteria. It was not an extraordinary restaurant but it was definitely solid. They do pasta exceptionally well, the prices are reasonable, and the service was warm and friendly. Not a special occasion type of place but the kind of restaurant I could see myself happily eating at a few times a month just because their pasta dishes are so good.

After dinner, Lily and CS met back up with us and we hit a sports bar and wine bar in the area before calling it a night. I gloss over the details of these drinking portions of my trip because when hanging out with Lily and CS, the flow of alcohol is so constant that mentioning we were drinking would be like telling you how often I was checking my email. That’s how they roll; if you wanna hang with them, bring your A game!