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oaxaca, mezcal, mexico, travel, food, drink, fiesta

From 405 Magazine: The colorful spirit of Oaxaca and the magic of mezcal

From second-story balconies, families watch and wave as I step into the Oaxaca night – A frenzied parade of colorful skirts, twirling giants and brassy horns fill through narrow cobblestone streets. Wherever such a kaleidoscopic parade goes, an exponentially larger fiesta will begin. To read more from this story, click from 405 Magazine HERE.Jimedor

“What was in those pancakes?” or “When a wall isn’t just a wall…”: The Little Swiss Cafe in Carmel, CA

I had anticipated that the secret ingredient to my pancakes at The Little Swiss House in downtown Carmel, California would be something exotic. Perhaps the vanilla extract came from a rare Tahitian orchid harvested only by Aries between the hours of 2am and 4am on clouded nights when the moon is waning.

Carmel, with its elf-like cottages and ancient cypress trees, is an enchanted beach town that conjures up images of elves and magical fairies. Perhaps the secret to these dreamy flapjacks arrived by way of hobbit from Middle Earth. There had to be something esoteric that made these airy, almost crepe-like cakes so special.

“The reason the pancakes are so good here is that we add extra water to the batter and keep the skillet really hot,” my waitress tells me.

I take another bite and consider what she has just revealed. Heat and a couple of lousy hydrogen molecules chained up to a molecule of oxygen are all that separate these ethereal cakes from the likes of bisquick? Clearly the secret to the pancakes at this quaint local breakfast joint isn’t one to be shared.

The Little Swiss Cafe, a family run restaurant since 1972, is a lunch and breakfast spot located on the corner of 6th Avenue and Dolores just off of Ocean Avenue and specializes not only in pancakes and the usual breakfast fare but also cheese blitzes, Swiss Sausage and liver and onions. No matter what you get here, it is good.

Just off of the Carmel’s main drag, The Little Swiss feels very much as though you have stepped into a tiny eatery somewhere in the Swiss Alps.  It is divided into two rooms. In the front room are a couple of small tables looking out onto the street. The back room is a small, square room with several tight, upright booths.

The walls of this snug room are painted with murals of the Swiss countryside, each wall reflecting a season. At a glance, the landscape seems benign, if not slightly cliché and in disrepair. Duct tape carelessly hangs in the sky above one of the landscapes and on another, a nail, once intended to hang a painting, protrudes from the wall. At least that is how it appears… In truth, there is much more going on.

But if one were to try to remove the duct tape, they would be quick to discover that the duct tape, stringy on the edges and muted silver, is actually painted on the wall. So is the nail. Caught off guard by this peculiar artistic ruse, my eye begins to wander across the European countryside and as it does, what was once a fairly straightforward mural becomes a joyful exercise in observation.

Duct tape… Or is it?

The wintery mural at a glance, features a frozen lake surrounded by some humble cabins and inns. One of the Inns, however has a tiny Motel 6 light on it. On one of the logs coming out of the water rests a parrot. A matador with a red cape antagonizes a bull in a field of cattle. Gollum hangs out in a tree. A seal’s head pops out of a crack in the lake. A penguin reads a sign on the water’s edge that says “No Diving.”

The wall representing spring features a river running through a field of beautiful flowers. In the river, a shirtless man, with his hat on backwards, flyfishes for trout. Puss and Boots sword fight over a log. Shriek and his girlfriend Fiona soak in the stream and the couple from the classic Grant Wood painting American Gothic hang out in one of the rows of flowers while a tennis net stretches across another row of flowers and on either side of the net, two people engaged in a match. In the distance, barely visible is the Eiffel Tower and just a hop, skip and a jump from there, the leaning tower of Pisa.

What all can you see here?

There are more than fifty images playfully hidden in the landscapes painted in 2005 by artist Andre Baylon. By reputation, a serious artist, Baylon, born and raised in The Netherlands, currently shows his more serious work down the road at Jones and Terwillinger Galleries. At The Little Swiss House, however, he let his imagination run wild, much to the delight of both locals who call this eatery their own as well as tourists from all over the world.

Under the watchful eye of the old couple from American Gothic, I finish my pancakes. As I leave, I notice on the mural a strange man in the bushes smoking a cigarette. Above him, a flock of birds heading straight to where I once thought was a nail protruding from the wall. One of the birds is upside down….

Like the pancakes, it is too good.

Full and inspired, I head into the day. I glance into the bushes outside, now half expecting to see a gargoyle stoically eyeing me. Above I notice the clouds. One seems to be shaped like a car. In another, perhaps I see the face of a lion.  A car whizzes by and for a second, I think it might the driver might just be Mickey Mouse. As I take a breath of the Carmel salty sea air, there seems to be more to the world than there was an hour ago and I can’t help but wonder… What was in those pancakes?

Look closer….

 

 

 

 

 

A non-foodie’s journey into the world of Korean street food

Pohang Fish Market

For four days, I’ve been trekking across South Korea exploring the country’s delightfully diverse array of culinary expression. And while bibimbop (veggies, rice, thinly sliced meats and chili paste) and Korean barbeque (thin slices of beef cooked table top)  are the nation’s flagship dishes, it is in the hyper-stimulating markets of Korea that the country’s cuisine truly begins to reveal itself.

bibimbop

From the exotic street food of the Kwangjang Market located in the heart of Seoul to the implausibly fresh seafood of the Jukdo Fish Market in Pohang, even those with the most educated palates will find their imaginations running wild with the varying textures, flavors and temperatures of the fare of this frenetic Asian gem.

JUKDO FISH MARKET

Even with a small cushion, at 6’2″, sitting shoeless on the floor in front of a long table in a tightly packed seafood restaurant located at the Jukdo Market in Pohang is a claustrophobic exercise. But despite my constant readjustment in effort alleviate pressure on my aching legs, I find myself squirming not from discomfort but in guileless anticipation of the fresh multi-course seafood extravaganza that is about to turn me from mild-mannered travel writer to ravenous leviathan.

Shellfish, shellfish, shellfish!

When I ask the restaurant’s name, the look from the waitress suggests it is without. The menu is written in colorfully smeared Korean characters on a dry erase board on one of the peeling pea colored walls. Next to it, a television plays Korean baseball, capturing the attention of the majority of the clientele, most of whom are male, nursing a bottle of soju deep into the evening. Three generations of women bustle over boiling pots of seafood soup and rice in an open kitchen in one corner of the one room restaurant.

Just outside of this mom-and-pop shop, which I later learn is called Seong Jin Heotjib, are more than 200 other raw fish stores and restaurants that make up this open air market. The inescapable pulse of Psy’s Gangnam-Style wheezes through various blown speakers. Scale-covered purveyors clean their catch amid giant blue, halogen-lit tanks abounding with live mollusk, mussels, oysters, squid, octopus, crustaceans and fish otherworldly enough to make even George Lucas recoil.

Crabs!

Soon, along with an ample amount of the Soju (sweet rice wine) and Kimchi, Korea’s national dish made of seasoned, fermented cabbage, radish and cucumber among other vegetables, I will try a sampling of each one of these curious sea creatures immediately after it is taken from its respective tank, cut, cleaned and served. When they say that the seafood at the Jukdo Fish Market is the freshest in Korea, they mean it.

The meal begins with a giant tray covered in conch, mussels, oysters, soft shell crab, crab legs, sea snails, sea food salad filled with crustaceans unknown, roe, abalone, octopus, freshly sliced persimmon, and a rose for color. Served with a side of freshly made soy sauce and wasabi, the meal is a joyful exercise in extraction and exaltation and is only just beginning.

Shellfish, shellfish, shellfish!

Next, the waitress brings a selection of large raw prawns. We each select the ones we would like barbequed. She takes them to the fire outside, where they will be cooked on a bed of sea salt in foil over an open flame. As soon as she is gone, an assortment of sashimi arrives to the table. I ask what kind of fish it is and the waitress shrugs her shoulders. “Fresh. Caught today.” she says. Having earned my trust with the shellfish course and fortifying myself with a generous serving of soju, I dive in. She tell me to save room. The soup, rice and the prawn are still to come.

The fish soup is a fiery, fishy red broth with chunks of seafood, vegetables and a fish head floating on top. We cleanse our palate with a bowl of sticky rice and then it is time for prawn, served in their respective beds of salt. They are the size of lobsters and better than any lobster I’ve ever eaten.

shrimp on a bed of salt

By the time we are finished, the table looks like a battlefield covered with shells, scales, tails and bones. My muscles no longer ache and the soju has been as warming as the food was filling. As I wander back through the market, I note again the men covered in blood and scales, the jettisoning squid, the languid octopus, the menacing eel, the sea slugs, the crabs, the conch, and all the other indescribable but delectable creatures, and think… despite their off-putting exterior… they look delicious.

And with a last fleeting glance, I’m off to the next stop.

 KWANGJANG MARKET

Stacks of Mayak Gimbap

The Kwangjang Market is Seoul’s is oldest and largest market, not to mention the busiest. Built in 1904, the market hosts 35,000 people daily with more than five hundred shops and eateries. The size of more than eight football fields, the market is constantly chaotic, but no place more so than the food court.

The food court, located in the market’s epicenter, has long been an after-work gathering place where tenacious suit-clad Koreans line up at dozens of family run small counters. Each offer their own culinary specialty, to sip on rice wine called Makgeolli, chomp on one of more than two hundred varieties of Kimchi, and blow off steam over an incalculable assortment of freshly prepared Korean dishes.

No matter where my over-stimulated eyes try to wander, whether to the amorous Korean couple feasting on mung bean and shrimp pancakes, or to the cook, a short, terse woman, as she hovers over a pan of tiny whole fish as the snap in boiling oil, I can’t help but stare at the pig snout that sits in front of me as I wait for my next dish. While there are many culinary conquests in this market, something about pig nose makes me shudder…. I try to focus on my first dish: soft rice, mashed up into balls and covered in chili sauce almost hot enough to serve as a distraction.

Woman cooks at the Kwangjang Market

Moments later, the terse woman sets in front of me a firm, but chewy rice cake covered in hot chili sauce and a Mayak Gimbap which is loosely translated to mean “Addictive” or “Drug.” It is warm rice, carrots, radish, and crabmeat wrapped in seaweed. While this sounds similar to the standard roll found at any corner sushi joint in any city, when prepared in fresh at this bustling nighttime market, this roll is anything but…

I bite through the brittle seaweed into the rice, soft and warm, and then into crunch of the carrot before finally getting to the fresh crabmeat.  The flavors dance with the chili paste from the rice cake I had just finished, and as the flavors continue to blend, I barely even notice the pig snout staring at me through its nostrils. I savor the roll a moment more, thank the cook, and move through the cavernous, chaotic, night market.

Small trucks and scooters share the narrow, indoor thoroughfare with pedestrians browsing the cases of each of the local vendors. Someone mentions Sundae. And while a sundae sounds delicious, I’ve been in Korea long enough to know that they are not talking about ice cream and fudge.

Sundae is steamed pig intestine stuffed with glass noodles, the market favorite. Though daunting in its appearance and earthy in fragrance, the meat is chewy and its strong flavor yields to the soft noodles (sometimes rice) and a spicy, chili-based tteobokki sauce. It is often served with pig liver and/or heart. While it could be a meal in itself, I take only a few bites and press on.

pig intestines stuffed with glass noodles

 

There are stands everywhere, each with its own specialty. There is yukhoe, a beef tartare mixed with pear slices and egg yolk, and there is Kalmandu, a brothy hot noodle soup with dumplings cooked in anchovy stock. Maeuntang is a spicy fish stew boiled with an ambiguous recipe but usually is made up of assorted veggies and fish cooked with spices hot enough to make you sweat.

There are the surprisingly tender chicken feet, of course covered in hot sauce, and everywhere you go there is Makgeolli rice wine, served chilled and usually in tin cups. Traditionally this milky elixir, similar in taste to sake, is taken in shots, and as my experience has proven, can disappear very quickly.

 

mung bean pancakes

After a broad sampling of some of Kwangjang Market’s most delicious and curious items, it is time to settle down in one of the restaurants on the market’s perimeter. The restaurant, like most places, is packed. Predictably, within minutes, Gangnam style plays and diners do bashful, diminished versions of the dance.

Men crowd around televisions playing Korean baseball, and unlike in the Korean countryside coast, here, I get a chair. After roaming the market, to sit is a relief, and while I’m getting full, this place claims to be among the best. So good, in fact, that I don’t even order. Food just begins to appear.

The waitress first arrives with the most popular item in the entire market, and besides kimchi, as far as I can tell, in the entire country. Bindaetteok is mung beans (similar to garbanzo beans) that are mashed, mixed with various combinations of vegetables, pork, or seafood, then fried. The texture is more hash brown than pancake, but either way, they are delicious and the variations are endless.

Next is a plate full of jeon, which is similar to Japanese tempura. Shrimp, crab, carrots, mushrooms, onions, and meatballs are dipped into a sweet flour-based batter then fried. You can order specific ones, but in the spirit of all things food, I try every last one and go so far as to get seconds of the crab. Each greasy, unhealthy piece is an expression of fried goodness.

By meal’s end, I am exhausted. I exit the restaurant once again into the chaos of the market, narrowly missing a scooter rushing down the corridor. I notice that the pig snout from my first booth is missing. Someone has clearly taken it home for dinner. I am thankful that no part of the pig was wasted and more grateful still that it wasn’t me who had to eat it. Something about a snout I just couldn’t stomach… even if it is just pork.But beyond that, Korean markets are among the finest.