Central America trip CliffsNotes

As I meet people now who are curious about my adventures in Central America, I want to share this blog with them but my prolific 100+ entries from the trip are a daunting pile to sift through. So to help I have put together a collection of entries that to me represent the essential narrative, the most important/meaningful/highlight moments of my trip. It’s not the whole story, but they are my favorites. It’s still a good chunk of reading (it was a crazy six months ok? There are a lot of stories!), but hopefully it is more a digestible guided tour. Enjoy!

Let’s get this fun in the sun started!

Origins story
Safety concerns for a solo woman traveler
What’s in my backpack
Mexico: Day 1, arrival in Merida
Mexico: My first cenote, the beginning of a water love story
Mexico: Tulum ruins
Mexico: Tulum cenotes
Mexico: San Crisobal de las Casas
Guatemala: Border crossing and arrival
Guatemala: Hiking Santa Maria volcano
Guatemala: Colored chicks, the first sign of Semana Santa
Guatemala: Lake Atitlan
Guatemala: Bugs
Guatemala: Chichi market
Guatemala: On traveling solo
Guatemala: Semana Santa in Antigua
Guatemala: Alfombras
Guatemala: Semuc Champey
Belize: I decide to get SCUBA certified
Belize: Open Water course, day 1
Belize: Open Water course, days 2 and 3
Belize: Caye Caulker, sunset at the split
Belize: Cat calls and drug dealers
Belize: Erin’s Caye Caulker food manifesto
Belize: Just say yes
Belize: Crystal Cave
Belize: Iguana photo shoot
Belize: I heart stew chicken
Honduras: Epic transit to the Bay Islands
Honduras: Roatan
Honduras: Deciding to extend the trip
Honduras: Settling in to Utila
Honduras: Advanced Open Water
Honduras: Le sigh roommates
Honduras: Makeshift rum cake
Honduras: Rescue Diver
Honduras: Falling in love with Utila
Honduras: Perpetual illness
Honduras: Snorkel vanity shots
Honduras: Stability in Utila
Honduras: Thunderstorms
Honduras: A birthday party
Honduras: Photo dive
Honduras: Nico’s 100th dive day
Honduras: Last Utila dive
Honduras: Leaving Utila
Nicaragua: Erin gets a travel buddy
Nicaragua: Lady at a cock fight
Nicaragua: The Fourth of July
Nicaragua: Granada
Belize: Epic three-day transit to Long Caye
Belize: The Blue Hole
Mexico: Diving cenotes
Mexico: Swimming with whale sharks
Mexico: Isla Mujeres
Utila throwback
Erin’s top 5 Central American hostels
Gratitude

My cooking show debut on xoxocooks: shakshuka!

Taste testing shakshuka.

While in New York, I was invited by my friend Adrienne to appear as a guest chef on her YouTube cooking show xoxocooks. A 3-minute “adult cooking” blitz complete with beer breaks and swearing, the only way to cook! 😛 My episode features cooking my most favorite easy-cheap-healthy-anytime dish: shakshuka. It was a super blast to tape and pretty entertaining to watch if I do say so myself. I’m really excited to share it with you all. You must must must check it out. 🙂

For the recipe-inclined, here are the deets:

* olive oil – 2T to start, then another 2T for frying spices
* tomatoes – 1 28oz can or approximately 4 fresh, or a combination of canned and fresh
* 1 yellow onion, chopped
* 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
* vegetables, chopped: my favorites are carrots, red bell peppers, and butternut squash, but use what you like/have
* leafy greens, thinly sliced: I like to mix in chiffonade spinach, bok choy, or other leafy green, but this is optional
* chili pepper, minced
* spices: this can also be adapted to what you have/like. I usually use a mix of cumin, coriander, turmeric, paprika, cayenne, cinnamon
* 2 eggs per person
* salt
* pepper
* toppings: chopped fresh cilantro, feta cheese or greek yogurt

1) Dice vegetables into small pieces all approximately the same size.
2) Heat 2T oil in pan over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic, sautee for 2-3 minutes then add other vegetables and chili. Sautee a few minutes until they begin to soften and are bright in color.
3) Add a little more oil, then fry spices in the oil for 60 seconds until they are fragrant.
4) Reduce heat to medium and add tomatoes with their juice. Cover and let simmer for 5-10 minutes.
5) Return to your pot; juices should have been released so it’s now a thick soupy consistency. Taste and adjust seasoning.
6) Add leafy greens.
7) Reduce heat to low. With a spoon make indents in the vegetable mixture and crack in the eggs, evenly spaced. Cover and cook for a few minutes. Return and base the eggs gently with juice from the vegetable mixture. Cook eggs to your desired doneness, often covered, jiggling the pot to test how cooked they are. I prefer a runny yolk so cook my eggs longer on a low heat, watching closely so as not to overcook.
8) Spoon out eggs and vegetables into a bowl. Top with salt, pepper, chopped fresh cilantro, and feta or greek yogurt and EAT!! 🙂 Great served with bread and a green salad.

All said, this is a customizable recipe. If you like butternut squash or mushrooms or chicken or whatever else–throw it in! Don’t like spinach? Take it out. Cook with what tastes good to you, be creative, and enjoy. Here’s another take on shakshuka that is more classic than mine, and I bet would be super tasty. 

Erin’s top 5 Central American hostels

Thinking about traveling in Central America? Do it, it’s awesome! 🙂 Before the overcast Seattle sky sucks away all of my travel tan, I thought I’d share some of my favorite backpacker-friendly places to rest your weary head in Central America.

As a solo backpacker, where you stay has a huge impact on who you meet and how you interact with a place. I stayed in a bunch of hostels in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua, but coming up with my top five was EASY. There are a few that stand out in my mind as utterly fantastic experiences, where a wonderfully-run hostel environment teed up awesome experiences and connections.

First, let me share a little about what I believe makes a great hostel, in order of importance:

1) Social scene: I want someplace with a bustling common room filled with my awesome fellow travelers. Let’s form a crew and have a blast for the next few days. That said, you don’t attract other badass travelers without the next three requirements…
2) Setting and grounds: Rooms and grounds should be clean, bright, and beautiful. Be it in the city, up a mountain, or on a beach, the surrounding location should be both breathtaking and convenient.
3) Amenities: I’m a backpacker; I aint got no money, honey! I want as many of these freebies as possible: drinking water, breakfast, wifi, kitchen access, movies, and social activities.
4) Caring management: Hostels are often a labor of love, and people who actually love running them and love backpackers do the best job.
*) Cost: This is a no brainer, so I’m not even going to truly count it but it is an important criteria. All of these fit into the backpacker budget, ranging from $3.50-$14 USD per night for a dorm bed.

Without further ado, let me introduce you to my top five favorite hostels in Central America:

Zephyr Lodge, Lanquin, Guatemala
$4 USD for a dorm bed
I heard about this place on literally Day One as a must-go spot and it did not disappoint. My three nights (the perfect amount of time) at Zephyr were KILLER fun. A party hostel at its finest. Two things make this hostel: the spectacularly beautiful natural setting and awesome other travelers who all hang together on hostel tours. Located in central Guatemala near the Semuc Champey national park, Zephyr is perched atop a peak overlooking the hills and river. The grounds are spectacular.

Overlooking the hills.
More palapas being built as new dorms.
Chilling in the open-air main lounge after a day of tubing.

It takes effort to travel to, but the cool kids come here. Shuttles are offered to Lanquin from hostels in Antigua, Tikal, and surely other hubs like Guat City, but the ride is a twisty one through the mountains. There is much fun to be had on inexpensive group tours, which everyone does: Semuc Champey for swimming and caving, then booze tubing down the river.

Everyone all loaded up in the back of a pickup truck for a bumpy ride down to Semuc Champey.
The gorgeous pools of Semuc Champey national park.
What better way to relax than a day of tubing and beer with friends?

There’s no wifi and very limited internet access, so everyone hangs out together in the common spaces. Games and drinking rule the night. You are at the mercy of the bar for most of your drinks and meals (breakfast is not included); expect standard Guatemalan hostel gringo food options. Pizza is their specialty. Be sure to check out the semi-enclosed showers with views of the mountains to experience the natural beauty more privately. It can be raucous and a little rough around the edges but overall I had an utter blast here. It is a special spot that stole my heart a bit. Find the full story of my Lanquin/Zephyr experience here.

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Yuma’s House, Caye Caulker, Belize
$14 USD for a dorm bed
Oh, Yuma’s. Yuma’s is the longest time I spent in any hostel, two and a half weeks. Right off the beach, it is well run, bright, smartly appointed, and clean. The rules and management can seem strict at first, but it is all to protect the experience of responsible guests and management actually cares a lot. In fact, excellent management, facilities, and guests are what make Yuma’s special in my book. Most definitely get reservations well in advance as Yuma’s fills up often!

Yuma’s as seen from walking the beach.
Yuma’s courtyard, guests only inside the orange fence.
Yuma’s dock, my fave place to catch the sunrise.

The kitchens are clean and well equipped–a huge plus for me–for when you crave something other than bbq or fry jack. The common areas are a great place to hang out, scattered with chairs, hammocks, and swinging benches. The six-bunk dorms are comfy, cooled by fans and ocean breezes. Private rooms are also available. Quiet hours are enforced by a night watchman, as diver guests are often getting up extremely early the next morning headed for the Blue Hole.

It is a chill place where you and your new crew of friends (over the course of two plus weeks, I rotated through three full crews) can easily slip into the Caye Caulker mantra of “go slow”. The slow life is oh so good. I took my Open Water course here and got good at day drinking at the Split. There’s a sweet rhythm to Yuma’s and Caye Caulker that is enchanting. After not too long, it felt like home. Read more about my Caye Caulker experience here.

Sunset happy hour at the Split with the crew… an essential part of every day.
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La Iguana Perdida, Santa Cruz La Laguna (on Lake Atitlan), Guatemala
$3.50 USD for a dorm bed
The Iguana is peaceful, homey, and friendly. It’s a great place to take a load off and chill around Lake Atitlan; far superior to any place in San Pedro, IMHO. There is a convivial spirit that permeates the hostel and just made me happy being there. I intended to stay just a night or two, but found the Iguana so relaxing that I stayed a whole week. The restaurant, balcony, and patio area is gorgeous. Right on the shores of the lake, the common areas offer awesome views of the opposite volcanoes.

Just a few steps from the Santa Cruz dock.
View of Lake Atitlan from my fave breakfast couch on the restaurant patio.

One of the awesome things about the Iguana is that is isn’t just a hostel. There are bunks but also private rooms and cabanas–so people of all ages and travel budgets can stay here comfortably–and activities that feel more like a relaxed resort. It’s a very versatile and pleasing place. I stayed in the open-air dorm, in the attic bed in Castillo.

My dorm. I was up in the tippy top bunk. 🙂
There is a full restaurant and bar, plus other services and activities are available on site too. There is a spa on site with reasonably priced facials (I got one and loved it) and massages. Yoga happens often in the mornings, there’s a well-stocked movie room, private Spanish lessons can be arranged, they were piloting trivia night when I was there, and best of all there is a dive shop: ATI divers. They do high altitude diving, Open Water courses, and more. Internet at Iguana is limited; there is no wifi and wired computers are sequestered in a side room for a fee.
3-course family meals are served in the dining room every night. Santa Cruz is a small town with limited dining options, but there are other hotels nearby that do a similar prix-fixe meal deal. But I often liked to stay at the Iguana (even though I never dug the soup course) for the social aspect. It’s where most people at the hostel go and hanging in the dining space is a great place to meet new friends. One of the owners, Dave, often makes musical appearances at the weekend costume party. Ask to hear his signature: the Chicken Bus Song! Read more about my Lake Atitlan experience here.
Waiting for dinner time…
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Oasis, Granada, Nicaragua
$9 USD for a dorm bed
Stepping into Oasis is just what it sounds like: beautiful, relaxing, and filled with little extras that make a traveler smile. The central courtyard is filled with greenery and rimmed with hammocks, swings, and lounging spots. The architecture, furniture, and marble floors bring you to an old and classy colonial Granada. Centrally located near the main square, it’s the perfect base to explore this charming city.

Who wouldn’t want to hang out here?

Amenities abound. Find free filtered water at a spigot near the communal kitchen (which has a blender… handy for making rum smoothies!). A movie library and book swap are available if you need entertainment. At the free breakfast, unlimited pancakes are doled out by the plateful accompanied by fruit and coffee. Off the breakfast courtyard is a small, shallow pool if you want to go for a dip.

The dorms are spacious with the tallest bunks I have ever seen and ceilings up to the sky. Private rooms are available, but the ones I saw were stuffy and small compared to the beautiful dorms. It’s a large hostel (easy to make new friends!) with people of all ages and background, including numerous families. A great place to stay. Read more about my time in Granada here.

Awesome dorms. Even with railing up top so you can’t fall off!
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Nomadas, Merida, Mexico
$11 USD for a dorm bed
Nomadas was my first hostel experience on the trip and I still remember it fondly. The helpful and kind staff assisted this day-one traveler with everything she needed and more. It is *the* place for backpackers to stay in Merida, but I would also recommend it to people who don’t usually stay in hostels also.

I stayed in a double bed in the large, airy female dorm just off the main courtyard. Private rooms are also available. Everything is brightly colored, clean, and well-kept. Nomadas is full to the brim with freebies: free breakfast (bread, cereal, fruit, coffee), water, computers and wifi, salsa dancing classes, morning yoga, Mexican folk singer in the evening, and cooking classes (love!!) multiple times a week.

Central courtyard, with communal kitchen through the right archway.
Escape the sun in the spacious women’s dorm.

A stand-out feature of this hostel is its pool, with hammocks draped leisurely over the shallow end. It is the perfect way to spend a hot Yucatan afternoon after a day out in the city sight seeing. It makes you forget you are in the middle of a city. Nomadas was welcoming and friendly; I’d recommend it as a beautiful refuge in Merida. Read more about my Merida experience here.

Ahh, the pool! Image from tripadvisor.com
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Best wishes in planning your trip to Central America. I hope you enjoy staying at all of these hostels as much as I did!

Pro tip: all of these places do fill up, especially Zephyr and Yuma’s. I know it’s not the typical backpacker way, but I *highly* recommend making reservations even just a few days in advance for all these places. A little bit of planning goes a long way and you won’t regret it. 🙂

Seattle, a preemptive love note

Rainier Brewery “R” back in action!!
Image credit seattletimes.com

Seattle Seattle Seattle… my home town. I moved back 24 hours ago and I already know these next few months are going to be a love story between you and me. I rolled into town last night and screamed aloud all by myself in the car when I saw the old Rainier Brewery “R” back up over the Seattle skyline. I’ve resisted spending extended periods of time in Seattle for years because I’m afraid I’ll adore it too much and not want to leave, and there are still so many other places for me to experience. Already I love being here. Think I might stay for a while. 😉 I’m am thrilled to be spending this time connecting with my parents, sisters, old friends, and new ones. I haven’t lived here since I was in high school so have no knowledge of current Seattle or how to hang/live here as a grown up. (Apparently Ballard is the up and coming happening place to be; when the hell did that happen?!?) Cannot wait to explore. Emerald City, show me what you got!

Walking the High Line

If you’re in search of a good New York City walk, check out the High Line! It runs along the west side of Manhattan from about 13th to 30th on an old railway platform now converted into a rambling park. I started at the southern tip at 13th and walked north to 23rd. Even on an overcast October day it was a delightful walk amidst the city buildings.
Enter the park up through old train station entrance points.

Elements of the old rails are woven into the paths, benches, guardrails, and landscaping. The old raised train track weaves through buildings, offering peek-a-boo views of the river and the NYC skyline. At 3pm on a Wednesday, it was busy… I can only imagine how crowded it might be on the weekends! Wild flowers bloom, trees surround, different spaces are available for resting. It’s a remarkably varied narrow park.

The are vendors of (what I consider) expensive food, drinks, and souvenirs periodically along the walk. Just as I was lamenting the lack of free public water, I found a single drinking fountain. Come on park designers, you can do better than that! After a bit, I found myself a nice spot to sit and catch up on some blogging. 
A travel blogger in her simultaneously always-and-never natural habitat.

Gummi Death Match: Haribo Classic Gold-Bears vs Haribo Juicy Gold-Bears

Who’s ready for a gummi-off?!

I ardently believe that Haribo Gold-Bears are indeed the gold standard of gummis. Kids and grown-ups love it so! Recently my world was rocked when I discovered a new variety: Haribo Juicy Gold-Bears. Amazing! I decided this new gummi varietal deserved serious investigation and evaluation against the original. To the tasting room! I enlisted a few friends to help.

The contenders: juicy vs classic.

THE JUDGES

 WENJUN

Lover of sugar, Wenjun has an infamous sweet tooth. In her office, co-workers consult her for what candies to purchase for their candy bowls because they know she’ll be the one eating most of it. She likes the sweeter the better, including artificial sweeteners and pixy stix, but hates salty-sweet combos. She digs ice cream, but not cake.

Top 3 go-to candies: Nerds, Hershey’s chocolate, Airheads

 ERIN

Erin loves flavor in her sweets! Fruit candies should taste like fruit and chocolate should be dark and complex. She adores gummi bears, but laments that many only taste like sugar and gelatin. Her favorite by far is Haribo Gold-Bears, as is evident by her administering this taste test. (It’s serious business!) She gets a little hankering to eat sweets at night.

Top 3 go-to candies: Haribo Gold-Bears, Skittles, other Haribo gummis!

JOAN

Not an avid candy-eater, Joan prefers subtle sweetness and natural flavors. Her favorite fruit flavored candies are Jelly Belly jelly beans because they taste like an actual thing! Joan enjoys the mix of salty and sweet, favoring chocolate with caramel, nuts, or pretzels. She also likes a mix of soft and crunchy textures.

Top 3 go-to candies: Twix, Ferrero Roche, green tea hard candies

METHOD

Step 1: Separate both bags by flavor into tasting groups with one of each flavor. The classics were easy to sort but juicy was another story; so many of flavors appear VERY similar in color. We had particular difficulty telling the difference between peach, pear, and lime but after much deliberation nailed it.

Hard at work, sorting juicies. 

Step 2: Head-to-head blind taste test for the only overlapping flavor between the two varieties, raspberry vs raspberry.

Step 3: Alternating non-blind tasting for other flavors, all unique. Used chilled water for pallet cleansing.

Step 4: Non-taste evaluation. How do ingredients, nutrition facts, and price compare?

RESULTS

FLAVOR
We began with a blind head-to-head taste test of raspberry, the only flavor classic and juicy have in common. One by one we each blindly tasted both raspberries in randomized order. All had the same tasting notes: juicy was more pronounced and tart, while classic was milder and chewier. All correctly identified which was juicy and which was classic. Joan and Erin preferred the strong tang of juicy; Wenjun preferred classic.

Let the tasting begin!
Photo courtesy of “oh Joan…” 😛

The remaining flavors (JUICY: black currant, peach, pear, apple lime; CLASSIC: strawberry, pineapple, orange, lemon) were tasted with open eyes, alternating between juicy and classic.

Classic pineapple, strawberry, and orange were all categorized as having a sweet and light flavor. Lemon was the strongest of the remaining classics, and was the favorite when pitted head-to-head against the similar citrus juicy lime. The juicies had more flavor in general and were longer-lasting in taste. Black currant was particularly strong and divisive, which Wenjun found far too tart but Erin quite enjoyed. Joan was had high hopes for pear but was disappointed, experiencing a bad aftertaste. Wenjun preferred the milder pear and apple, while Erin and Joan preferred grape-y black currant, zesty lime, and tangy peach.

Preferences were remarkably consistent, with juicy more flavorful (preferred by Erin and Joan) and classic sweeter and subtler (preferred by Wenjun).

INGREDIENTS AND NUTRITION
Juicy is billed as more natural: “NEW! Contains more than 20% of fruit juice” and “no artificial colors”. The top two ingredients are the same for both: corn syrup and sugar. Further down the ingredient list, both have the same mix of gelatin, citric acid, corn starch, fractionated coconut coil, carnauba wax, and beeswax coating for that signature Haribo sheen and chewiness.

But from there they diverge. As ingredient #3 for juicy is fruit juice concentrates (raspberry, peach, pear, black currant, apple, lime) for primary flavor and are also indeed additionally naturally colored/flavored with other plant concentrates (lemon, orange, apple, kiwi, elderberry, black currant, aronia, red grape, passion fruit, mango, spinach, nettle). Classic contains none of these, instead relying on natural and artificial flavors and artificial coloring agents Yellow 5, Red 40, and Blue 1.

Serving sizes are comparable (classic 39g, juicy 38g) and both had nearly identical calorie and carb counts, but classic had 16.7% more sugar (21g vs 18g) per serving.

APPEARANCE
Classic is more brightly colored. Juicy colors are more muted, but Wenjun (the aesthetic designer of our bunch) found them more visually appealing.

Flavors defined left to right.
TOP, classic: pineapple, orange, raspberry, strawberry, lemon
BOTTOM, juicy: black currant, peach, pear, raspberry, apple, lime
Photo courtesy of “oh Joan…” 😛

TEXTURE
Classic is slightly more hard-chewy, but both have a pleasingly toothy texture.

Note: Gummis can get harder with time, but the packages I purchased were comparable in age (juicy had a best by date of June 2014, and classic by Sept 2014), so we determined age should not be a differentiating factor.

PRICE
Juicy are 25% more expensive per gummi. The two packages are sold at the same price (usually between $1.50-$1.99/bag) but classic 5oz/142g and juicy is 4oz/113g.

Juicy: 48 gummis @ $1.99 = 4.15 cents per gummi
Classic: 60 gummis @ $1.99 = 3.32 cents per gummi

FINAL EVALUATION AND CONCLUSION
The two varieties are most definitely different! All judges could easily differentiate between juicy and classic. Overall, Erin and Joan preferred the stronger flavors of juicy, while Wenjun preferred the milder sweetness of classic.

After our “official” taste test, we sat around chatting at our girly slumber party and eating gummis like one would normally. In an uncontrolled environment, I discovered how much more I really enjoyed the juicy gummis; when given a choice I favored them strongly. Perhaps another reason is because I eat classic frequently so enjoy a change that is still a riff on a favorite.

My recommendation is classics are fabulous of course and still my go-to candy, but if you are able do give juicy a try. Classic have a far wider distribution and are easy to find, but juicy is much more unusual. So if you see a package of juicy, pounce!

Leaving no trace? Yeah, about that…

I’ve become more absentminded. Or at least I have more opportunities for things slipping my mind. Namely forgetting *things* behind at various friends’ houses where I’m staying. Leave no trace? 
When traveling in hostels I had a packing system followed more strictly and there was also a defined space I could call my own. Picking everything up isn’t too difficult; it’s easy to identify what is yours. Staying in other people’s homes though I find certain items of mine blending into the normalcy of their things: face wash left in the shower, an umbrella hung next to the front door, a computer charged plug into a power strip. My Aunt Peg used to say when I’d leave things behind at her house in Rhode Island that it just meant that I was coming back. I always liked that thought, but wish my stupid slip-ups weren’t happening!

I’m starting to look forward to Seattle and being in one place–one bed–for longer than just a few nights. It will be nice to settle into my own room and unpack.

I’ll have what’s she’s having… that’d be a Katz’s pastrami sandwich

I don’t remember how it happened, but somehow Katz’s Delicatessen popped up on my foodie radar early as a reputed ‘best pastrami’ in New York City. They are listed on just about every applicable best of NYC list, in business since 1888 it is an institution. It’s also the site of Meg Ryan’s orgasmic meal in “When Harry Met Sally”. The inside is a bustling self-serve cafe filled to the brim with gorgeous sandwiches, pickles, and other NYC deli favorites.
A slow late lunch hour at Katz’s.
When you enter the restaurant, they give you a little ticket that becomes your bill, then you proceed to one of the sandwich men (or other stations if you want soup, breakfast, etc) to order. Sandwiches are pricey, but in actuality are big enough to easily split between two people, which takes the sting out of the $18.20 price tag (including tax) for the basic pastrami.
Youch! This better be worth it…
When my turn came up, I asked to taste test the pastrami vs the corned beef, as I was tempted by the Reuben. There was no contest–pastrami! Served hot on rye bread and slathered with spicy deli mustard is the house standard. (I would add a second layer of mustard to the bottom piece of bread later; a necessity in my book.) The pastrami was served warm, broke apart easy when bitten in to, and absolutely melted in my mouth. Moist, flaky, savory, tender, mmm… ok, I’m starting to see where Meg Ryan’s outburst came from! I’ve eaten a bunch of pastrami sandwiches here in New York, but I have to say, this one is indeed my favorite.
What a beaut…
I required documentation of this event but the sandwich is a two-hand project; selfies were a total no-go. I asked my table mate, a gentleman delivering a bone marrow donation from Minneapolis, to take my picture. He told me I had a million dollar smile, which I then promptly obscured with a big bite of pastrami. 😛
NOM!

After he left, I was joined at my table by an older couple who had lived in Brooklyn for 77 years. They come “all the way over the bridge” for Katz’s regularly and raved that it was indeed the best in the city. They shared their french fries with me and gave me their strong opinions on their other New York best-eats, including pizza (15th and J in Brooklyn) and knish (three blocks down on Houston, order the cherry cheese). After chatting for a while, we said goodbye and they asked where I was headed next. I said to their amusement, “well, I guess going to get myself a knish…” Midnight snack secured!

Subway snafus

Why is the New York City subway causing me such trouble this trip? Some day are just so damn arduous! I’m traveling all over the city so am using many different lines at all times of day. Before this trip, I mostly just used the 4/5/6. Very straightforward. Now I’m moving between Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, and the Upper East Side for my home, and finding myself often up in midtown west or down in SOHO or Greenwich Village for fun. And it always takes me longer than I plan to get there. Why? Being distracted and getting on the wrong train, nearly missing the right train because it’s down a level on a practically secret platform, getting on the right train but unknowingly the express that zips 40 blocks past my desired stop… shit, we’re crossing a bridge. Argh!!!

Memories of falling for New York food

Food is a critical part of travel for me. When I go someplace, I want to know, what is the canonical flavor I should be trying? I have visited New York City over a dozen times over the past twenty years and each trip has had a food element that stuck in my memory.

The first time it was 1995 and I was twelve, traveling with my father and sisters. I was overwhelmed. The city felt big, dirty, loud, scary, and unfamiliar. Our hosts Mario and Judy fed us girls New York bagels for the first time and whipped cream cheese, which rocked my world. A planetarium show at the Museum of Natural History narrated by Tom Hanks simulated the explosion of the sun and destruction of all earth life, scaring me so much I walked out and huddled in the gift shop reading comic books until it was over. We saw Cats on Broadway, also a little terrifying. We went to church on Sunday at a Baptist church in Harlem. The gospel music so different from my familiar Episcopal hymn repertoire. My little sister Jill lost a tooth in the middle of the service and was fussed over by a cluster of very maternal big black women. I felt so very out of place the entire morning. Afterward we brunched on soul food at Sylvia’s, an experience I’m sure I would insanely dig now, but back then I didn’t know how to deal with such new flavors and atmosphere.

Our hostess Judy was emphatic that we must try *the best* butter cookies in New York; I think they were flakey little mini palmiers. She drove us into the city (we were staying across the river in Summit, NJ) to pick them up from the one particular bakery she loved. I remember my wave of terror as she plowed through New York City traffic and did a u-turn in the middle of a busy intersection, all of us crammed in the back seat, to pull up outside the bakery and dash inside to pick up our special order. She returned triumphant with a big white cardboard cake box filled with delicate butter cookies, more than we could ever dream to eat.

Subsequent trips have had their moments as well. On my second trip, a spring break retreat in 2002 during my first year at Wellesley to my roommate Wendy’s home on Long Island, she and I day tripped into the city for a visit to the Museum of Natural History. For dinner, we were surrounded by bad options and I acquiesced to her hunger so ate at her choice: Uno’s. I went along with the whims of my hostess peaceably but (sorry, Wendy, throwing you under the bus here!) thought “I did not come to New York to eat at Uno’s!! I can eat Uno’s back in Boston, and even then don’t really want to…”. I’m pretty sure we had mediocre Chicago-style deep dish pizza. I vowed never again.

See on of these? Order a cappuccino.
Image via http://www.afranko.net/

I fell in love with New York on my third trip in the summer of 2002. It helped that I was already feeling blissful, traveling with a hunky boy I was head over heels for. We stayed in midtown near Times Square, arriving to our hotel after a mad dash through the rain from Penn Station, laughing and splashing wildly through puddles as we ran down the street on a warm summer night. We had a basic uninspired Italian pasta dinner that first night but finished with the best cappuccino ever per his advice. To this day, whenever I see a Brevetti Gaggia cappuccino machine–burnished bronze crowned by a golden eagle–I cannot resist.

The New York visits kept coming throughout my remaining college years and thereafter. Kati rolls at 4am guarded by a bouncer. Sim teaching me her back-in-the-day drink progression from cosmos to a Bailey’s nightcap. 😉 Instructions from a Jersey Shore boy on how to properly fold pizza (which I still never do) and keys to ordering a good sub sandwich (changed my life and I still follow; among other points, as sandwiches are serious business no joke, never forget to ask for salt pepper oil and vinegar). Chocolate truffles in Brooklyn. Hangover dim sum brunch in Chinatown after the funnest wedding ever. Fried pickles in Long Island City. Bagels with scallion cream cheese everywhere. The buttery smell of caramelized onions and sickly-sweet honey roasted nuts that permeate the streets. On one of these trips I made the fatefully brilliant decision to try a bialy, my now breakfast/snack bread of choice. Mmm…

This New York trip shall be no different. In fact, it shall be more epic of a food adventure than before! Stay tuned.