Category: Charlie


Charlie at the subway entrance to the Museum of Natural History

I’ve been pressed for blogging time. That is, the time I formerly stole from my dissertation and used for blogging has been returned to dissertation-matters for the time being.

But my husband and I took a little jaunt to the Natural History Museum in New York City this past Friday.

[We used a Museum Pass from our local library. We got in free! Maybe a library near you has a similar program.]

It was wonderful, educational, everything a museum should be. (Except that art museums are my very favorite.)

Dinosaur fossils in foyer (which is under construction)

Afterward, we went quite a ways out of our way to go to Hanco‘s in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Now, their Yelp! reviews are great, but I might not have gone out of my way just for that.

[It was actually an easy subway trip on the B train downtown, switching at Rockefeller Center to the F train to Brooklyn. Having our iPhones handy certainly doesn’t hurt. Especially since the NYC metro transit system does not seem as user-friendly to me as others (London, Berlin, D.C.) do.]

Instead, I heard about Hanco’s from a recent episode of the best radio show ever, This American Life. (My husband and I are regular supporters of the program, which is saying something on a tight budget. I promise you, NEVER have I wanted to do housework more than when I have an not-yet-listened-to podcast of the show waiting on my iPod.)  Their episode called “Million Dollar Idea” starts with a story about Hanco’s.

Unassuming store front, Hanco's of Cobble Hill

There’s another location in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which I know to be a nice area. I’m not really sure how the locations compare. This was a small restaurant. A lot of their business is either take away or delivery, I’m pretty sure. If I lived in the area, it would be hard not to order from Hanco’s very frequently … or hourly. There were two other tables occupied during our time there, and several people were in and out over the duration. But the restaurant definitely wasn’t busy like it reportedly can be during lunch hour.

Inside Hanco's, looking at the entrance

I am quite a fan of Vietnamese food as it is. I love their cold, summer rolls (with shrimp and peanut/hoisin dipping sauce). I am a big fan of the vermicelli that mixes sweet and savory, cooked and raw, soft and crunchy.

So, it’s no surprise that I should love Vietnamese sandwiches. But until hearing about Hanco’s, I had no idea that Vietnamese sandwiches even existed! Now, I shall never forget:

Please witness the unmitigated deliciousness of the Hanco's original sandwich.

Patrons can pick the sandwich they desire based on their contents, which can be pork, chicken, or tofu, at least. Variations in spiciness are the second attribute one must choose. I went with “medium.” It was spicy, but a just right kind of spicy. The texture and flavor variations that I love in vermicelli were also packed into the sandwich, encased in a crunchy pressed roll.

Crunchy? Soft? Tender? Yes.

The other attraction at Hanco’s is the bubble tea. Unfortunately, they were out of tapioca (bubbles) the day we visited. Tapioca is, by far, my favorite way to have bubble tea. But we could choose between lychee jelly and mango jelly. I chose the former, Charlie the latter. We both got our “bubbles” with a coconut flavored milk concoction that may have included green tea. I’m not quite sure.

Lychee Jelly Bubble Milk

Again, the play with textures is just part of what makes bubble tea so much fun. I’ll have to try them again, since the jellies just can’t compete with tapioca in my book. The coconut flavor was very fresh and cool, perfect for a beautiful August day in the City.

So, Hanco’s, until we meet again …

Cafe Central (Wien/Vienna) - excluded from the running in this post

The Coolest 1 Coffee Shops 2 in the World 3 so far

I love footnoting, so every superscripted number here points to a caveat at the bottom of the post. They’re very important for understanding my rationale in choosing the places I did.

1) The Flying M Coffee Garage – 1314 2nd Street South, Nampa, Idaho

The picture below shows only one of the distinct areas of this roomy Firestone-garage-turned-coffee-shop-heaven. There’s an eccentric gift store area. There’s a couch and tables, more traditional “coffee shop” area, with huge windows all around. There’s a space for bands to perform. There is an area for bigger groups sitting around tables. And, finally, it has a balcony (pictured below) with work stations, complete with plugs. The one time I had the opportunity to use it, I found it incredibly easy to write there.

Flying M - The Study Loft area (in the garage), which is part of why I love it so much.

The space aside, the Flying M Coffee Garage has excellent coffee drinks, competitively priced, and the most consistently good baked goods I’ve ever experienced in a coffee house. It’s constantly alive with activity and draws an eclectic crowd in this mid-sized Idaho town.

2) RIM Café – 1172 S 9th St, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

My husband and I stumbled upon this coffee shop when we were looking for a late-night place to wait out a friend’s delayed plane. Most coffee shops were closed between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., which happened to be when we needed them. A Yelp! search alerted me to RIM, so we drove there. It’s in the Italian Market part of town, right down the block from the incredibly famous and popular dueling Cheesesteak franchises, Geno’s and Pat’s (Pat’s is better).

Rene, working his magic.

As my husband said, “You’ll never pay more for a latte, but you’ll never have a better one.” It’s a small, dimly lit shop, run by Rene, a man from Nice in the south of France. He’s the artist of the coffee mixes, and the charismatic heart of the shop. Patrons watch as he mixes drinks, shaves exotic chocolates into the mix, spins the concoctions around while drizzling syrups on them, and turns out potable masterpieces. All the while, he’s shouting, “I’ma gonna make it hap-pen!” and “Oh my God!” (We were quite taken aback the first time we went in, since we had no idea what to expect!) Drinks cost between $7-12, I’d say (I’ll have to check to be more precise). But it’s more of a gourmet dessert experience than a simple latte. His peanut butter hot chocolate (the Nutty Volcano) is, I can assure you, divine.

3) Tea Drops 4 – 4111 Pennsylvania Avenue, Westport, Kansas City, Missouri

I’m pretty sure you can’t get any coffee here. But the shop design, menu, and tea/tea-brewing merchandise is pretty fabulous. I’ve had bubble tea elsewhere, but it’s never as good. Of course, I like the milky versions better than the plain teas, but it’s the black tapioca bubbles that are my favorites. I love the look of surprise on a newbie’s face when their large straw shoots a chewy bubble into his or her mouth. Ha!

I cannot find a photo of Tea Drops in all my pictures, even though I’ve been there at least a dozen times. I can find pictures of me grinning with friends in the premises, but they show our faces … not the coolness of the shop.

4) South Street Café – 105 South Street, Bennington, Vermont

This is one of the places I’ve stopped while passing through and I thought, “Oh, I wish we had this. I’d read here all the time. As strangers to town, we walked in and felt comfortable. I moved it so high up the list because it seemingly had something for everyone, and used space really well. The coffee was affordable, with free refills (with their on-site mugs), and good!

The front door of the South Street Cafe - Bennington, Vermont

We stopped here on a frigidly cold day in February on our way back from a weekend in Woodstock, Vermont. We needed lunch – and I usually don’t like coffee shops standard panini or pre-made sandwich lunches. We saw on their chalkboard menu that their soup of the day was African and inquired what that meant. The barista highly recommended it, so we said “sure.” It was a steaming crock of root vegetables and legumes in a thick, richly-spiced broth. It warmed us up wonderfully, along with some tasty bread on the side. We ordered, also, a spinach and feta pastry (I believe). Together they were almost too filling.

5) Caras Gourmet Coffee – Neue Schönhauser Straße 9, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin has a lot of great cafes and they all serve really stellar coffee. Many are designed beautifully. But many serve lots and lots of different things in the category of food and alcoholic beverages. Caras is a more “American-style” coffee shop. And, because much of their menu was in English, I suspected that it wasn’t not actually German, but I think from their website that it is. Germans do that sort of thing and this was along a popular shopping street, very close to the very-touristy Hackescher Markt area.

Charlie trying out Caras Gourmet Coffee, which was near my school in Berlin.

This shop had a front seating area, as you can see above, with wide windows looking onto the bustling street. There is also a long, more narrow seating area further back where I had success finishing up my daily homework. The most popular place to sit, as I observed in nearly all German cafes, is outside. There were many, street-facing seats where people would come to sip their coffees, smoke, talk, read, and people-watch. Sehr Deutsch.

6)  [The Original] Starbucks – Pike Place Market, Seattle, Washington

There’s nothing special about this Starbucks (at least when I last visited), excepting the large gold post in the shop marking it as the flagship store for the worldwide franchise. But if you like Starbucks (and I do) and if you like pilgrimages (and I do) and if you like city markets like the one in which the shop is found (and I so do), then you’ll like visiting the first Starbucks.

7) Coffee & Co. – Laurinská 135/5, Bratislava, Slovakia

We stumbled onto Coffee & Co. in the old city of Bratislava, picturesque, cobblestoned, and very Eastern European looking. Whether we should have been or not, we were surprised at how modern it was. It was very affordable and had all sorts of fun coffee drinks (iced and hot). The bright space was equipped with varied seating areas, including booths, sofas, and chairs.

Coffee & Co. - Bratislava - So good, we went here twice in 24 hours.

I can also state for the record that our Slovakian language skills were very, very poor, but the workers were quite patient and nice to dumb tourists like us. If I recall correctly, we twice heard Lady Gaga playing in the store.

8 ) Claire de Lune – 2906 University Avenue, North Park, San Diego, California

The North Park area is a fun neighborhood in San Diego; and on our recent visit to San Diego, Charlie introduced me to the long University Avenue that runs through quite diverse parts of town. My friend Rob met us at Claire de Lune – his suggestion – and we had some time waiting for him beforehand. We tried a dessert, which was delicious, but I can’t remember what it was. The brewed coffee was quite strong and not bitter — a good sign.

I wish I had better photos of Claire de Lune.

The place had a wonderful ambiance, and its balcony reminded me a little of my favorite coffee shop (Flying M, above). I can see myself sitting in one of these chairs for hours, reading and nursing a mug of hot coffee.

9) Kudu Coffee House – 4 Vanderhorst St, Charleston, South Carolina

Kude Coffee House - I really liked the lion! There was a beautiful courtyard, too.

This coffee house seemed to have a funky crowd. The group sitting in the back corner were, I think, discussing how to use grant money they’d won. There was discussion while we were there about the set-up for a concert that would be held in the evening. We watched groups of friends talking in the courtyard, and even a dog seemed to concur that it was a great place to spend a Spring afternoon.

10) Cupcake 5 – 36 Zionskirchstrasse, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

As the name suggests, this little German shop specialized in cupcakes (of the American sort, which differ from German-style cakes both in density and sweetness). It can be found in the cutest side-street in Prenzlauer Berg (northeast of Berlin’s city center), right across the street from Zionskirche, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught Confirmation for a time.

This photo cost me at Cupcake in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin!

The coffee was good, too, although I thought things were overpriced. * Please read the related caveats below. I want to emphasize: this place was amazingly cute, but I hope their staff has changed.

Honorable Mention: Small World Coffee – 14 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, New Jersey

Princeton's most popular coffee shop (Photo taken in the breathtaking Spring)

Caveats:

1 Okay, my taste for coffee has been strongly shaped by Starbucks. So, I often prefer the taste of Starbucks to other coffees. But by saying “coolest” and not “best-tasting,” I’m expanding the category and making up for the fact that the Corporate Beast has won my loyalty.

2 This includes the genre of coffee shop where various coffees and pastries are the main focus of the shop (which excludes places where warm drinks may be central, but along with full meals, alcohol, etc.). Specifically, I’m excluding the grandeur of Vienna’s “coffee houses,” many of which also serve gourmet $50 meals. I’ve only been to one of those and it was great, but it’s kind of a genre of its own. That would be an unfair comparison.

3 … the world as I’ve experienced it, that is, what do I know of coffee shops in South Africa or Ukraine? Nothing. And, so, I’m just basing my absolute statements about what I absolutely know and don’t know.

4 Okay, it’s not coffee, but it’s so good that I’m including it. What do you wanna do ‘bout it? I can break my own rules. Bubble Tea makes me giddy with delight. Giddy. My favorite is a Red Bean Bubble Freeze.

5 I hope against hope that they have better staff now than when I was there. Their cupcakes and décor make a visit worthwhile even if the Evil-Photo-Scrooge 6 is still employed.

Cupcake (in Berlin) strikes me as what it would look like if Anthropologie had a cupcake/coffee shop.

6 I wanted to say Evil-Photo-Nazi. That would work in the U.S. But when speaking of Germans (although she may not have been a German; she refused to speak to me in German, even though I was pretty good at this point in my stay … See one of the reasons why I was annoyed?!), it’s best to avoid the use of such a historically-real term, even though Americans use it just to be derogatory. She made me pay 20 Euro-cents to take a single lousy photo. After I took it. What a punk. It wasn’t even a good picture. Outside pictures were free.

Charlie's iced caramel latte from Rim Cafe

In summary: I love coffee.

I am married to a New Mexican.

And in the interest of family harmony, I’ll just say, not all areas of New Mexico were created equal.

Parts are awesome: Santa Fe, Carlsbad Caverns, Ruidoso.

Other parts are not: ________. (I’ll keep the location names to myself! The same, of course, is true of just about anywhere. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m from one of the homelier parts of Idaho!)

Being in-law to New Mexicans, I’ve learned that not only do they serve some delicious food (Green Chiles!), but there are some dramatically beautiful sights. At the end of June, we took a last minute trip to New Mexico for a family funeral. It was a sad occasion, but a blessing to be with Charlie’s family.

The drives from Albuquerque to Ruidoso (a mountain town) and back, which bookended our trip, were a delightful bonus in a journey like this one. We saw thousands of blooming yucca plants on our way down to Ruidoso. It is awe-inspiring that beautiful stalks of delicate white blossoms have found a way to thrive in the desert.

In New Mexico, however, it’s not only the land–mountains, valleys, vegetation, and plains–that make for lovely scenery. The star attraction is the sky, which is wide and open.

Having lived on the East Coast for four full years now, I don’t see this kind of sky often. There are a lot of trees, a lot of buildings, and most of the land (around here in NJ) is relatively flat.

So, even though all of the above pictures were taken with an iPhone 3G (not the best photo quality) they represent the kind of awesome openness that a place like New Mexico provides.

Land of Enchantment, yes.

I do love food (too much – I’m still trying to learn to balance) and I thrive on new experiences. Making new recipes at home, as well as tasting someone else’s cooking, is a chance to embark on a mini journey of flavor.

My idea when starting this blog was to post about my wanderings (as in, world and domestic travel) and my culinary wanderings (as in, experiences with food – eating out and in). Well, blogging while I was bombarded with new places, people, and subject matter in Germany in the Summer of 2009 turned out not to be my specialty. I was constantly on the move, trying to soak everything in, which made it hard to edit photos and to write (in English – when I was supposed to be immersed in German) about my experiences with enough background for anyone else to understand it.

But, now, we’re fully settled in New Jersey. We’re starting our fourth year here together (my fifth year!). And we’re even further settled into a new house with more space. I’ve cut back on responsibilities at school (and we’re cutting back our budget). So, maybe this is a better blogging atmosphere for me.

I’ve recently been posting quite a bit to the website Yelp!, adding reviews of places I’ve been, or that Charlie and I have been together, mostly in the last year. I think I’ll be expanding and reposting several of those reviews here.

The Yelp! website has the following star scale to guide reviewers:

1 = “Eek! Methinks Not”

2 = “Meh. I’ve experienced better.”

3 =  “A-OK”

4 = “Yay! I’m a fan.”

5 = “Woohoo! As good as it gets!”

Cafe Du Monde, New Orleans (taken by iPhone)

For the most part, except if the visit was very recent, the places I remember were my very favorites. The result is that at the time of this post I have never given any place a 1. I’ve given two places a 2 (one was a recent visit and bad service; one was because I was stretching to think of someplace I’ve been displeased with to balance out my ratings). I’ve given two places a 3 (and I felt really bad about one of them, even though it’s a nice rating!). I’ve given a whopping eight places 4 stars (which is pretty stinking effusive). And I’ve awarded the highest honor, 5 stars, to six different establishments.

I trust Yelp! because the reviewers are real people with real budgets and real preferences. We’ve used it to pick several restaurants and hotels and have, basically, never been led astray.

So, what do my overly-enthusiastic reviews mean about my reviewing mantra? Am I just uncritical? Have I, perhaps, majored in my favorite restaurants and forgotten about the poor or average dining experiences?

Kara, “The Simon Cowell of Life”

I am trained to be critical in some things: biblical scholarship, for instance. And, according to my husband, I’m really critical about “everyday life.” He’s taken, on occasion, to calling me “The Simon Cowell of Life” (referring to Simon Cowell of American Idol fame; he was my favorite of the judges the one season I watched, by the way).

But, thinking about my reviewing stats (see restaurants above; or, just ask me about TV shows or movies I’ve seen = probably 75% positive), I felt like I needed him to clarify. So I asked him: “In what way am I the ‘Simon Cowell of Life’?”

Under some duress (since he doesn’t want to be critical), Charlie said, “I just notice it with anything that’s on TV, you feel the need to criticize things. Sometimes it feels like, ‘What did that person ever do to you?’”

I asked him to clarify. He said it’s mostly “people’s appearances and voices on shows.” (I can actually think of two very specific examples of the latter that drove me c-r-a-z-y!)

My husband insisted, “I’m not trying to be meeeeean.” But then he went on: “To say you’re the ‘Simon Cowell’ is like to be so brutally honest that it’s mean. Maybe that person didn’t deserve such a harsh critique.”

Hmmm.

Cooking Brussels Sprouts at home

I mean, I think he’s right. I can get bugged by something (a systemic evil, administrative red tape, electronics not working, a mistake I’ve made, a terrible Boston accent on a show, a grammatical mistake) and harp on and on and critique it ad nauseum. My verbosity and my willingness to “speak the truth” combine in a nasty way sometimes. (Note to self: Work on that.)

But how does that part of me—the critical Simon Cowell part—become (if you’ll allow the metaphor to extend slightly further) the Paula Abdul of Food. That is, I love it all, with the rarest of exceptions.

Kara, the appreciator of little things in life

More flattering than the Paula Abdul comparison, I guess, I’d say, I appreciate the little things. I notice beautiful trees on the side of the highway as we’re whizzing past them and point each one out to Charlie. I worked hard during seminary and college to find something I liked in every class I took, which made education a wonderful experience, even outside of my interest areas. When I don’t like something at first (music, an artist, a vegetable), I try it again to see if I missed something about it.

And as a kid, disliking the food I was served wasn’t an option. We were praised for adventurous eating. In that regard, I blame my parents both for my wide expanse of tastes … and my wide expanse of backside.

So, sometimes when I read other people’s Yelp! reviews I think: “Ouch. Why are these people so picky?!” I mean, I can find something I like at McDonald’s, at Ruby Tuesday, at random roadside grills in Turkey, at open air cafes in Vienna (see photo below for proof!), at the swankiest restaurants in Princeton, etc. Anywhere.

Our shared dessert of Struedels in Wien (Vienna)

I don’t think it’s that I’m undiscerning. I have favorites and some things impress me more than others. There are places I’m happy to have gone once and there are places that, as I exit, I’m planning my return trip. There are recipes that I toss out as soon as I’ve made them, and others that I mark with a quick “We loved this!” notation.

But on the whole, I like the experience of trying new food, or familiar food at a new place.

So what if my Yelp! reviews make me look like a wide-eyed big-eater from Idaho? That’s not so far from the truth. And I hope to recount here on “the Wandering Palate” what I’ve tried and just how good it was.

I wrote the following brief biography of my dear husband Charlie for class on the 11th of May. My writing in German has likely improved greatly since then … but I still thought I’d put it up here. 🙂 And, no, I won’t translate it for you. I have many friends who claim they want to practice their German. Here’s the easiest way to do so: Baby-Deutsch.

The last photo we took together before my departure for Berlin.

The last photo we took together before my departure for Berlin.

Mein Mann heißt Charlie. Er ist Amerikaner und kommt aus dem Staat New Mexico, der im Südwesten der U.S.A. liegt. Er wuchs auf einer Ranch auf und war deshalb natürlich ein “Cowboy.” Aber als er 18 Jahre alt war, wünschte er ganz weit von der Wüste wegzugehen. Er studierte Religion an einer Universität im südlichen Kalifornien, in der Stadt San Diego. Er hatte den Ozean viel lieber als das Leben mit Vieh und Pferden.

Charlie machte mir einen Heiratsantrag auf dem “Observation-Deck” des Empire State Buildings. Natürlich sagte ich: Ja! Obwohl es in Filmen viele Heiratsanträge am selben Ort gibt, überraschte er mich!

Jetzt arbeitet Charlie bei der Kirche als Pastor für Jugendliche von 14 bis 18 Jahren alt. In seinem Beruf muss man freundlich und geduldig sein. Er ist beides. Obwohl seine Frau oft zu genau and nervös ist, ist Charlie fast immer ruhig und lässig. Er ist auch kreativ und macht graphische Kunst. Am liebsten schaut und dreht er Filme.

Am 27. Juni wird er erstmals nach Deutschland reisen!