Ann Arbor Art Fair 2017

Every couple years, we make a pilgrimage out to the Art Fair, so we can blister our feet in humid, skin-scorching weather. But the art is always great, with prices that actually are affordable, and the set-up is (equally important, in my opinion) unpretentious.

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Penang, Malaysia

We were recently in Penang, Malaysia for a whirlwind trip, due to some family events.  Usually for Asia trips, we try to have at least a week of actual downtime, just so we have the time to get over the jetlag, but this time we could only manage three full days on the ground.  One less layover, but weirdly, I think I preferred the two-layover flight, since sitting for fifteen straight hours makes you end up with cramps in places you didn’t even know you had joints.  Taking advantage of the airline’s little sleeping cubicles (full bed! not a scrawny twin!) was surprisingly small mitigation.

Still, landing in warm, humid heat was a nice change of pace from the dry cold winter back home.  The humidity was also merely sticky as opposed to a slap in the face, which helped ease the constant wooziness from the jetlag.  We took it pretty easy as well, going light on the tourist activities and concentrating on food.

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New York: Momofuku Noodle Bar

I love noodles, and since the weather recently decided to take winter seriously, I’ve had a serious ramen craving.  A giant bowl of chewy noodles and luscious fatty steaming broth just sounds perfect when the chill’s hitting.  So when entropyenator finally booked time at a Manhattan cat cafe, I decided it was time to get the ramen on as well.

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Cox Arboretum, Dayton, OH

As terrible as the weather has been, it’s also been warm enough to make it awkward to be a couch potato the whole winter holidays.  Also, even as people originally from the Midwest, there are only so many times we can go to the mall.

So the other day we took a trip out to Cox Arboretum to stretch our legs.  We’ve both been there before, but years and years ago as children, and like all such places, it differs significantly from memory.  Mostly in a good way: the observation tower was a good step exercise, and also offered great views of the surrounding park.  With the fog and a little imagination, we could even pretend it was a dreary English moor, or something slightly more atmospheric than the reality.

The park was, predictably, almost free of visitors, and pretty barren, but here and there we found little dots of color.  I’d like to return–although in the spring.

Cafeteria and Rico Pan, Morristown, NJ

Rico Pan - beef and chicken processed

Rico Pan: On Speedwell Avenue, this one is split between sweet and savory foods.  The shell is on the crispy cornmeal side of the spectrum, though it’s a little thicker than Raul’s and thus a little juicier, which helps a lot in soaking up flavors from the filling.  Beef was actually beef pureed into a chunky potato filling, which was well-seasoned and really tasty; the potatoes add a complementary smoothness and heft to the beef flavor.  Chicken was pretty blah, with enough salt but otherwise it was basically shredded chicken, no additional seasoning.  The hot sauce appeared to be tabasco-based with a lot of onion chunks in it, medium-spicy with basically just a strong onion flavor, and wasn’t one of my favorites.

Entropyenator: Definitely a lot better than Raul’s, due to the filling and the shell as Justtwomorethings describes above. Surprisingly, I did like the beef better this time–usually I like the chicken ones, but chicken really does need some sort of sauce or seasoning–it was too blah otherwise to carry the emapanda on its own.

Cafeteria - beef processed

Cafeteria: Speedwell Avenue again, across from the CVS.  The shell is a happy medium between bready and crispy; it’s cornmeal but it’s thick enough so that the crunchy outside gives way to a nice, not too thick, pillowy inside.  They had chicken (not shown) only once out of the four times I’ve been there, and it tasted exactly like the beef, which was shredded and mixed into potato chunks.  Filling holds together well, is keep-eating-it savory but is definitely heavy on the salt.  I like salt but it’s borderline for me, much more junk-food tasting.  Hot sauce was very vinegar and onion (and barely any heat), which did a good job of cutting through the salt, but overall this one is probably an occasional treat rather than something you could eat all day.  Very strong flavors.

Raul’s Empanadas and Pan Casero, Morristown, NJ

I’m currently hanging out with entropyenator in Morristown, NJ, which seems to have a lot of empanada joints.  Empanadas are one of my favorite foods ever, and since I have some time on my hands, I’m going to undertake a completely opinionated, unscientific taste test of every empanada place I come across here.  For vague consistency reasons, I’m going to try one plain beef and one plain chicken, with and without any hot sauce the place might have.

First up is Pan Casero bakery (Ecuadorian?) on Speedwell Avenue.  Judging from the display cases, this is really more of a sweet bakery, but this is an empanada mission so I’m ignoring those.  The chicken is just shredded chicken, nice and juicy and very deeply chicken-y, without much in the way of spicing, while the beef is ground beef with potatoes that could use a little more salt, and that is kind of bland; chicken is better.  Both casings were crisp on the outside, thick enough to be sturdy but not so thick it’s like eating a piece of bread.  Hot sauce is tangy, not hot, but it appears to have tomato pureed into it, which gives it a little more body and some nice rounded flavor.

Entropyenator: I’m not a empanada aficionado like Justtwomorethings, but I like eating things 🙂 These were pretty good. The chicken version was surprisingly most, even hours later, and I actually preferred it without the sauce. The beef wasn’t bad, but I do agree that it did need the sauce, which I guessed had tomato, tabasco and maybe cilantro.

Second was Raul’s Empanadas, the only place we could find a recommendation for in two seconds of Googling.  It was a bit of a disappointment.  The outsides were very thin, almost like crispy taco shells, and just as hard, which removes one of my empanada pleasures: the sauce-soaked casing.  The fillings were very loosely packed, with nothing to bind the meat together, so we had to spoon them back in after cutting the empanadas in half (because sharing is caring.  Also, they were on the dry side, although reasonably well-seasoned.  Chicken and beef were both boring; the bonus five sausage + lime was much juicier, but ultimately kind of ill-balanced, just a jumble of differently-spiced pork chunks.  The sauces (criollo and mango habanero criollo), however, were great, clearly not just dressed-up tabasco sauce.  More flavor than heat, as neither of them rose above medium, but they were bright with citrus, tangy with the hot peppers and with just a spike of cilantro to round it out.

Entropyenator: Raul’s might have been decent, if we hadn’t had the ones from Pan Casero first. I wasn’t a fan of the crispy/crusty shells, which didn’t play off the fillings as well as the softer, more doughy versions from Pan Casero. And the fillings were no great shakes either–as Justtwomorethings noted, you got less since they weren’t as densely packed, and flavor is best described as “meh.” A pity, since the sauces deserved to be put on something better–whereas Pan Casero’s, while not bad, seemed more of a run of the mill tabasco mixture, Raul’s sauces were clearly mixed from scratch and unique.

Trip: Newport, RI

Entropyenator and our mom were up to visit me recently.  We’re not really beach people, but it does seem a shame to go an entire summer without at least seeing the ocean (Atlantic, since I did the Pacific in June).  So I drove them up to Newport, RI.

We’d been there before, years ago, to tour the gigantic turn of the century summer houses of the rich and extremely rich.  This time, we went a little more lowkey and walked the Cliff Walk.  It’s a public path that cuts through the backyards of the aforementioned summer houses, giving you both views of the mansion backsides and of the seaside.  At the Forty Steps location, you can even walk all the way down to the water, if you want.  We didn’t want, but the blast of wind on the steps was a nice breather from the hot, muggy day.

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After the Cliff Walk, we strolled around the shopping areas looking for, since it’s New England, lobster rolls.  While we did find one, I have to say it was a disappointment compared to the fantastic rolls I’ve had elsewhere.  I know it looks great in the photo, but the lobster was slightly overcooked and tasted oddly stale, even though we were literally eating next to the lobster boats.

Roadtrip: End of the loop

Eventually you come back.  I returned in a driving rainstorm, just ahead of some flood warnings, and the weather proceeded to be much the same for the next one and a half days, as if underlining the realization I’ve had that this is probably just an extended stopover.  I’ve tried and living in New England doesn’t suit me, and I’ve seen so much of the U.S. that I could try instead.

In other words, still no exact idea of where to go next.  I don’t think roadtrips really solve your problem, but they do a pretty good job of clearing your head of other things.

But anyway, some stats on where I’ve been in the past month.  About 10,000 miles (my Honda Civic held up great, but ouch, paying for two tire alignments in three months hurts–those western roads and those New England potholes).  27 states that I at least drove through.  20 that I slept in.  I’m just Alaska short of the whole 50.  Budget was originally about $1000 per week, or $6000 for six weeks, and I came in under that at around $4500, although it’s probably fair to add on the $400 I spent on car maintenance afterwards.  And countless memories.