September 30, 2014

Legendary Eats: Beiler's Doughnuts

Doughnuts! Donuts! However you want to spell it, I love a good doughnut. I can't resist that sweet, fried goodness. When I was a kid growing up in Massachusetts, we used to get a box of Dunkin' Donuts on the weekends. I particularly loved the apple filled and Boston Kreme. When we moved to California in 2001, we parted not only with snow and a 96% white community, but Dunkin' as well, considering it was only this year that California got its first Dunkin' Donuts. But I'm not as crazy about it as I once was. It's just a national chain, you know? It's enduring, but not legendary.

I found my absolute favorite doughnut shop in Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market. Beiler's is an Amish bakery that whips up amazing treats for just 95 cents each, or a dozen for $9.95. They have a large variety of doughnuts freshly hand rolled and fried daily. Flavors range from the usual glazed to PB & jelly, Elvis Delight, and banana creme. They are beautiful and delicious!

There is something very special about food that's made fresh and made by hand. You can taste the quality in each bite, and here you can also watch the staff make doughnuts right in front of you. My favorites are the blueberry fritter and the cinnamon cheese stick. Okay, I confess, they're the only ones I've tried. I really need to branch out.

There's almost always a line for doughnuts, which means business is booming! Don't ever be discouraged by the amount of people. The line moves quickly and you'll have your doughnuts before you know it. It's a much better experience than Voodoo Doughnuts, that's for sure.

Beiler's also has a bakery and "pickle patch" where they sell salads. I should probably try some other baked goods, but I keep coming back to the doughnuts! Whenever I'm in Philadelphia, I always have to swing by. You should too!

September 26, 2014

State #23: Bloomfield, NJ

Once upon a time, I had pho in New Jersey. It was long before I started Pho Across America, and I've long forgotten the name of the restaurant in Linden, but I do remember that the pho was bland and unappetizing. I told myself that when I visited New Jersey for this blog, I would seek out something better.

Through some stroke of fate, my friend Chu-Ping was able to meet me and drive to Binh Duong in Bloomfield. It's located in a strip mall with a small amount of parking, so you may find yourself waiting for someone to pull out before you can park. Luckily, we didn't wait long on this rainy day.

It was a nice change to see a Vietnamese restaurant actually full! The restaurant isn't very large, with just about 12 tables, but every one was occupied within 10 minutes of our arrival. Plus, the clientele was a mixed bag of Asians, caucasians, and other groups. Binh Duong must have a good reputation. Their menu is large and even offers lunch specials (rice plates). Pho is cheap at $6.50-7.95 a bowl. We started with an order of "summer rolls" (goi cuon) at $3.95.

These were great. They were a decent size - not large, but a good size for an appetizer. The slices of shrimp were generous and the dipping sauce was thick, dark, and flavorful. Next, Chu-Ping and I both had Pho Dac Biet ($7). The sizing here is a little strange - for example, my usual Pho Tai Nam only came in small, while Pho Dac Biet was large. I was really hungry, so I had to get something large!

I was very impressed by the pho, especially being in Jersey! The garnishes even had saw leaf, though we were missing fresh jalepeno slices. The broth was tasty, the noodles were perfectly tender, and there was a lot of meat! Well, proportionally, anyway. The portion could have been bigger considering it was large, because I could have eaten more. But for the price, I can't complain too much.

I would recommend Binh Duong to anyone looking for a good bowl of pho in New Jersey. The food is good, the prices are low, and the atmosphere is very pleasant. With welcoming blue walls and charmingly mismatched decorations that somehow work, it's like coming into someone's home where you know you'll enjoy a home-cooked meal.

Rating Breakdown:

Taste (11/14)
  • Broth flavor- 4/5
  • Noodle & meat quality- 5/5
  • Garnish selection- 1/2
  • Portion size- 1/2
Restaurant (13/16)
  • Service- 4/5
  • Cleanliness- 4/5
  • Atmosphere- 3/4
  • Speed of arrival- 2/2
Total: 24/30

Binh Duong, 61 Belleville Avenue, Bloomfield, NJ

September 22, 2014

Photos from Munich

If I were to go to Germany, I only wanted to go to Berlin. That's what I always thought, until I picked up a trip to Munich. I only explored for about three hours, but I think I got the feel of the city. It was my first time to Germany, and when most of Europe (Italy, Spain...) had nice weather in the 70s, Germany was 53 degrees and drizzly. Just my luck.

New City Hall
A cute restaurant.
Michael Jackson memorial at the Orlande de Lassus statue
It's sparked some controversy.

I was recommended to visit Marienplatz (Mary's Square), the city's main square, right in the heart of downtown. The biggest attraction there is the Rathaus-Glockenspiel, in the tower of the New City Hall. Every day at 11am (as well as 12pm and 5pm in the summer), it chimes and reenacts two 16th century stories, with moving dolls. I came right at 5 not knowing anything about it and wondered why people seemed so fascinated and enamored!

Virgin Mary statue

Quite honestly, Munich has a similar feel to many big cities. To me, there wasn't a vibe that set it apart, though there were some very cool looking buildings. I can always appreciate handsome architecture.

The city was lively even through the cold. Mastercard sponsored some city-wide event that had stages set up all over downtown, with different groups of musicians at each. There were food booths, sponsor booths, and free balloons!

I just walked around and explored. I bought a traditional pretzel to snack on, and it was huge. Bigger than my face. Just huge! As I snacked, I looked at all the shopping options available. There were high end stores, Forever 21 and H&M, and stores to buy traditional dress: lederhosen for men and dirndl for women, must-haves for Oktoberfest. I noticed that many stores were pretty bougie, with a good handful giving treats to their guests. One store had a cotton candy machine out in front, and another gave out bubbly!

Karl Lagerfield had a DJ spinning tunes right in the front of the store and handed out bubbly to shoppers.

I passed a BMW gallery and cafe, and how can you escape Bavaria without celebrating BMW? Its headquarters and museum is in Munich, and I'd like to stop by another time. For now, this place would suffice. I got to check out the fancy, sporty BMW i8 and sip on a free smoothie. Bougie, I'm telling you.

That i8 though... 
"experience the sound of BMW"

Finally, I had dinner at Cafe am Marienplatz, and was dying for some bratwurst. Specifically, I wanted to try currywurst. I mean, there are two of my favorite things: curry and meat! However, it was disappointing, because there wasn't enough curry flavor. The sauce on the bratwurst was more like ketchup, and there was only curry powder sprinkled on top. If this is what currywurst is like, I don't know why people recommend it!

I rode the train back. The train is interesting - it felt old school, and you had to press the handle of the door to open it at your stop. Weird!

All in all, my first experience in Germany was a bit underwhelming. Though I had (chilly) fun and there was some cool stuff to see, Munich didn't feel special to me. Now, if I came during Oktoberfest, I'm sure I'd feel differently!

September 15, 2014

First Time on Broadway

I've never been a fan of New York. Despite much of America loving the city to death and inspiring a wonderful song by Frank Sinatra, I always found it overcrowded, smelly, and overrated. However, my last visit was pretty fun, and maybe even exciting. Dare I say, I wanted to be a part of it - New York, New York!

After lunch in the city with one friend, I had the whole evening to myself before I could crash with another friend in Brooklyn. I decided that the timing was perfect for one thing, and one thing only: attending my first Broadway show.

Broadway. It was a world I had always heard about but never touched. Regular price tickets are not cheap, and I didn't have the money to drop over $100 on admission at the box office. TKTS is a good option for same-day discounted tickets, but only to certain shows - generally not the most popular nor newest. Plus, I didn't even want to spend $60 on a ticket. For those with a limited budget like me, there are a few other options: rush tickets, standing room tickets, and the ticket lottery.

Times Square TKTS booth

The lottery process is simple and generally the same for all shows. It starts 2.5 hours before showtime, and all you have to do is write your name on a card, enter it in the drawing, and ensure that you have a photo ID and the accepted form of payment (card, cash, or exact cash). Two hours before showtime, names are drawn for about 20 seats. If chosen, you can purchase up to 2 tickets for an extremely low price of $25-40, depending on the show. Each show is a little different - some lottery seats are all in the first row, some are mixed throughout the theater, some are single seats.

You can leave after entering your name, as long as you return for the drawing.
Maybe see if you can spot the Naked Cowboy as you kill time.

When I was in New York City last year, Martha and I tried the lottery for Wicked tickets and lost. Of course, her stay was longer than mine and when she played again, she won. I hoped my luck would be better this time around. I first tried for The Book of Mormon and said a little prayer for my name card, but alas, no dice. I then tried the lottery for Aladdin, which took place an hour later. I had to improve my luck a little, so I drew 8 stars on the corner of my card, hoping my lucky number would somehow make it more likely to be pulled. Lo and behold, when there was only a single seat remaining, my starred card appeared. I was a proud holder of a ticket in the orchestra section for a mere thirty dollars.

I was excited for my first Broadway show. Aladdin just began its Broadway run this year, at the New Amsterdam theater. It has all the songs from the 1992 Disney film, some deleted tracks from the movie, and some unique to the Broadway production. My seat in the orchestra section was right on the end of row K. Plenty of legroom since there wasn't a seat directly in front of me, and I had a great view - especially for only $30!

It was really a wonderful show, starting with James Monroe Inglehart introducing a grand opening number. He single-handedly transformed the show into something special as the Genie, a role for which he won a Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actor. Any time he was onstage, he captured the audience's attention and hearts. Bud Weber stood in for Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, but I wouldn't have known he wasn't the original lead from his solid performance. The best numbers were the big ones- "Arabian Nights", "One Jump Ahead", "Friend Like Me", and "A Whole New World". Alan Menken's music is amazing. He's well known for his Disney scores, also having done Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Pocahontas. Here's the whole soundtrack for Aladdin:

The way the magic carpet ride during "A Whole New World" was conducted was the most spectacular point of the musical, in my opinion. It was gorgeous, romantic, and truly breathtaking. Unfortunately, I wasn't a fan of Courtney Reed's Jasmine. She certainly can sing, but I found her voice a little thin and gasp-y, and her character too over-dramatic and well, princess-y. While I love Princess Jasmine from the movie, this Jasmine was my least favorite character of the show. Even as I marveled at the two leads flying around a sky full of stars during their power ballad, I lamented that it wasn't Lea Salonga's voice :(

On the other hand, the villains in the musical were amazing. Jonathan Freeman, who voiced Jafar in the movie, reprises his role onstage and is a badass doing so. Don Darryl Rivera was a squawky Iago that some might find overly annoying, but I thought hilarious. For me, he made the show along with the Genie.

I definitely recommend going to see this show, especially if you enjoyed the Disney movie. In addition to being fun and entertaining, it's filled with elaborate costumes, tons of bling, and many bare male chests. Seriously, the men and women of the ensemble were great. For my first Broadway show, Aladdin was a perfect choice. I now understand the hype, and why people dream of being on Broadway! Now that I've had my first taste, I'll definitely be back for more.

Want to do Broadway on a limited budget too? Here's a guide to the cheapest tickets.