July 29, 2014

Mount Rushmore

If you asked me a year ago which state Mount Rushmore is in, I would have had to look it up before answering. South Dakota has always seemed like the middle of nowhere, but I feel that Americans can visualize Mount Rushmore pretty easily. It must be South Dakota's premier attraction by far, pulling in 3 million visitors annually. People come from all across the country and around the world to see this national monument, created by sculptor Gutzon Borglum.

The monument was carved over a span of 14 years (1927-1941), with the efforts of over 400 workers and several influential politicians. The grounds don't include much - after walking through the Avenue of Flags, you'll find yourself facing four of our nation's most esteemed presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

Other than admiring the monument, you can visit the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center for exhibits and a short film, experience ranger-led programs if available, or walk the half-mile Presidential Trail to get a closer look at the sculpture. I recommending coming just before the sun sets, so you can enjoy views of Mount Rushmore in the day and attend the evening lighting ceremony (late May-September).

image courtesy of C.J.

The lighting ceremony is pretty cool - about a half hour long, including a ranger talk, a 10 minute film that ended with us all singing the national anthem, and a flag ceremony in which US military and veterans are invited to participate. When the film ends, Mount Rushmore begins to illuminate.

image courtesy of C.J.
image courtesy of C.J.

All in all, visiting Mount Rushmore was a very cool, very patriotic experience. You'll definitely walk away with that "proud to be an American" kind of feeling. It's a perfect bucket list destination, and really quite amazing that it attracts so many people from other countries.

July 25, 2014

Driving in South Dakota

This month, I went to South Dakota to cross off another state and visit Mount Rushmore. Little did I know, South Dakota has much more to see, aside from those four presidents. There's an abundance of national parks and monuments, really beautiful places to see, and very cool camping sites, if that's what you're into.

With just 24 hours here, I had to be selective in what I did and saw. I flew into Rapid City and visited Mount Rushmore the first night, and the next morning, I drove about an hour over to Badlands National Park. For the first time in my life, I had to get a rental car to explore, and Hertz gave me this super cute little Fiat. Zooming around in it was such a blast!

The drive to Badlands was so much fun. The scenery was incredibly beautiful, with gentle rolling hills and grassy fields. I had to pull over on the side of the highway to snap a few pictures. But once I got to the park, the views became infinitely more amazing. It was such a beautiful day to enjoy nature! The geologic formations at Badlands are quite spectacular. I especially love the colors of the Yellow Mounds.

Next, I wanted to tour Wind Cave, one of the longest caves in the world. I heard it was well worth it, but I ended up getting lost and drove the poor Fiat on a bumpy dirt road for about 45 minutes before I gave up and turned around. However, because it's South Dakota, I at least got to see some nice views, including buffalo!

Even though I didn't get to explore a cave (Jewel Cave is the other popular one) at least I got to see something cool. Really, driving around beautiful, rural South Dakota was such a pleasant experience, especially being used to big cities. It was refreshing to just relax and take in views I'd never encountered.

Take a good look at where I'm standing...

It's really amazing how much the United States has to offer. Who would have thought I'd have so much fun in South Dakota?

July 20, 2014

Death Anniversaries

My grandmother passed away nine years ago. I never spoke to her very much, because she only spoke Vietnamese, and as an ignorant kid, I was never inclined to speak much of the language. I never met my maternal grandparents before they passed away, so my paternal ones were all I had. I remember my grandmother as an active woman, though. I remember her pedaling on the house's stationary bicycle for her daily exercise. I remember her always offering us food, words I could always understand.

That's my grandma in the light blue printed shirt. I'm on the left, in a classic Mudd shirt.
I had a great sense of style, obviously.

She took a nap on the couch and never woke up. They say I take after my grandmother in looks, but I'd really like to take after her in the way I go. She raised three successful men, and passed peacefully. Every year, we gather to celebrate the anniversary of her death.

Death anniversaries aren't really a thing in Western cultures. Americans prefer to celebrate birthdays. Sometimes memorial services are held, particularly for famous people. While death anniversaries are more commonly observed in Asian cultures (and Judaism), they are festive occasions in few.

In Vietnamese culture, we celebrate death anniversaries. Traditionally, extended family gathers and the women spend the day cooking a feast to honor the deceased person, and the whole family will enjoy it together. It's a family reunion where we light incense and eat. These days, cooking for so many can be time consuming, so families may purchase food instead.

In my family, the death anniversary celebration (đám giỗ) for my grandma takes place every year at my uncle's house. Ours is maybe more relaxed - just about everyone brings something to share, whether it's an entree, fruit, or cookies. We gather, we exchange greetings, we eat, and eventually we turn on the karaoke machine. Everyone dresses nicely, and the kids find ways to play amongst themselves while their parents are engaged in more boring matters. I went to đám giỗ for my paternal grandfather one of the times we were in Vietnam. There was more emphasis on ritual and prayer, but still a lot of cooking and tons of food.

Grandma and I opening presents at Christmas -
me, typically disinterested, with super short hair and another Mudd shirt.

It's interesting, though, when I mentioned to a friend that I wouldn't be able to go to đám giỗ this year. I realized "death anniversary" really isn't a common thing here. It's not a memorial service, and it's certainly not a birthday party. But they're a beautiful way to pay respects to your ancestors, and reunite the family.

150. Thanks to my Dad for pulling these pictures out of the vault.

July 16, 2014

State #20: Pinellas Park, FL

Phở Kiên Giang
Pinellas Park, FL

My quest to hit all 50 states by the end of the year slowed down considerably. I hadn't hit a new state since January, but earlier this month my parents and I went to a wedding in Clearwater, and I made sure to have some phở too.

To be frank, the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area isn't the ideal place to have phở in Florida. My first preference would have been Orlando, which has the largest Vietnamese population in the state. My second choice would probably be Ft. Lauderdale, but I frequently have to turn to restaurants out of convenience. With that said, one of my mom's old classmates took us to Phở Kiên Giang.

In humid, muggy Florida, entering any restaurant with air conditioning felt like a godsend. While it looks bland on the outside, as just another establishment in a strip mall, Phở Kiên Giang is surprisingly cute on the inside, with soft blues, purples, and flowery tablecloths.

Shabby cute?

The menu here has all the usual items. Most types of phở are $7.25, and an additional 75 cents for a large. It seemed a little pricey for pho in a small city, but still affordable. I had to concede that the garnishes looked beautiful. Bright green leaves and limes, including saw leaf! All our entrees came in about 10 minutes. We had a party of 6, which seemed like a better test of the restaurant's abilities.

Ph tai bo vien

I changed it up a little and ordered phở tai, bo vien, sach (mostly because phở tai nam wasn't on the menu). There was no sach (tripe), so I don't know if they forgot it, or if the server didn't hear me properly. That was a disappointment, but I didn't feel like having them bring me some on the side. Even though I said I didn't need it, another member of the party started to ask a server about it. "Sometimes it blends in with the noodles," he said, and my dad and I kind of rolled our eyes. Uh, excuse me, I would know if there was tripe in my phở or not. It doesn't take an expert to dig through the bowl.

On the plus side, the portion sizes here are huge! My regular size bowl would have been a large in many Vietnamese restaurants, and my dad's large was gigantic. Now I know why it seemed pricey. I thought the broth was pretty good, a little on the sweet side, but my dad didn't like it. He didn't come close to finishing his monster-size bowl, either (but who can blame him?). The noodles were firmer than I would like, and the meat was a little bland, so overall it wasn't a very good bowl of phở. Just a decent tasting big bowl with really good garnishes. It's unlikely I'll ever be in the area again, though.

Rating Breakdown

Taste (10/14)
  • Broth flavor- 4/5
  • Noodle & meat quality- 2/5
  • Garnish selection- 2/2
  • Portion size- 2/2
Restaurant (13/16)
  • Service- 4/5
  • Cleanliness- 5/5
  • Atmosphere- 3/4
  • Speed of arrival- 1/2
Total: 23/30

July 14, 2014

Giving Thanks in Dallas

I didn't know what there was to see in Dallas. What is notable there, besides the Cowboys and the Mavericks? As it turns out, it's a worthwhile city to visit. Like most big cities, there are a variety of nice parks and museums, and there's a lot of history there. It's also where JFK was shot in 1963.

I stumbled upon Thanks-Giving Square, right in the center of downtown Dallas. It opened in 1976, as a dedicated place to reflect on all the blessings we have in life and express appreciation.

The Hall of Thanks-Giving goes over the history of Thanksgiving and traditions around the world.

You may hear clanging from the bell tower, with three bells cast in France that collectively weigh 5000 pounds and are shaped in the form of the Liberty Bell. In front of it, you'll find the Ring of Thanks, which is made of aluminum and gold leaf. If you step inside and voice your thanks, you'll hear your words echo. You can also take notice of the Norman Rockwell mosaic, illustrating Do unto Others as You Would Have Them Do unto You.

The highlight of Thanks-Giving Square must be the Chapel of Thanks-Giving. A standout building composed of white Texas marble aggregate, its upward spiral suggests the infinite reach of the human spirit. Inside is the gorgeous Glory Window of stained glass, the largest horizontal stained glass in the world. Guests are welcome to lie down on the floor for the best view. You can write your thanks on a special card and leave it in a bowl on the marble altar.

Glory Window. Glorious indeed.

I can't say Dallas is my new favorite city, but it has a handful of things I'd like to explore next time, provided it won't be too hot! It was very nice to find a place filled with such beauty and positivity, though. After all, it's never a bad idea to express gratitude for what you have.

July 11, 2014

State #8: Dallas, TX

Phở Colonial
Dallas, TX
Website | Yelp

Phở Colonial calls itself an "authentic Vietnamese diner" and is the only Vietnamese restaurant downtown. With such a prime location, it seems like it does very good business. The only other downtown choice is the Nammi Truck, popular for Vietnamese fusion, but they don't have phở! So I had to pay Phở Colonial a visit.

It's not a traditional Vietnamese restaurant, though. You order at the counter and get a number, walk past the food prep area, and take a seat in the dining room. The menu consists of Vietnamese staples like phở, banh mi, vermicelli, and rice plates. They describe themselves as "creating an affordable casual Vietnamese-French Colonial, urban dining environment." It's definitely casual, with paper towel rolls and condiments in Sapporo beer carriers placed on each table.

Prices aren't cheap, but considering that you're downtown, they're pretty affordable. I had a small "Phở Your Way" with my choice of two meats: sliced tenderloin and sliced beef brisket. The small is $7.74, and a large runs a dollar more. It was hot and humid in Dallas, so I wanted to cool off with their cucumber lemonade - an excellent choice! It was just the right balance of sweet and tart, perfectly refreshing for a hot day.

Food comes out very quickly here, based on what I saw. I had hardly taken my seat and gotten my note-taking situated before the server delivered my food with a "your order, señorita." Yep, phở from a clearly native Spanish speaker. That's Texas for you. Not only that, but the pieces of meat seemed more like Texas barbecue than typical pho fare. Those slices were thick! They were flavorful, a little tough, and all fully cooked, as rare steak wasn't an option. And the broth was very meaty, with a nice blend of spices.

However, I was extremely disappointed with the garnishes. What a pathetic looking plate! The bean sprouts were brown and wilted looking. If I were the owner of Phở Colonial, I would be so embarrassed to serve these ugly sprouts, and such a small amount of garnishes too. Plus I think I was supposed to pick up my own utensils somewhere, but my food came so fast and I wasn't sure where to get them. It wasn't clear, so I just asked my phở amigo (phomigo?) for some. It worked out.

All in all, this the place in Dallas to get decent Vietnamese food in a lively, Western atmosphere. I say Western because it's going for that French colonial feel, and because there were hardly any Asians to be found, among the staff and clientele. It was busy when I came for lunch, but I only spotted one other Asian. Well, I think she was Asian...

Rating Breakdown

Taste (9/14)
  • Broth flavor- 4/5
  • Noodle & meat quality- 4/5
  • Garnish selection- 0/2
  • Portion size- 1/2
Restaurant (13/16)
  • Service- 4/5
  • Cleanliness- 4/5
  • Atmosphere- 3/4
  • Speed of arrival- 2/2
Total: 21/30

July 5, 2014

Pho Challenge, Anyone?

When Phở Across America's first anniversary rolled around (February 11, if you wanted to mark your calendar), I wanted to commemorate the occasion with a phở party or a phở challenge. What is a phở challenge, you ask? Oh, it's just a really big bowl of phở you have to eat in one sitting.

Oh wait, we're talking three large bowls of special combination phở merged into one super bowl. We're talking four pounds of meat and noodles. If you finish within an hour, the meal is free and you get bragging rights for life. If you fail, well, at least you'll (hopefully) live to tell the tale.

The thing is, it seems like the phở in these challenges is not the most high-quality, delicious food. And even if it was, why would I want to stuff myself silly? I guess I rethought my priorities. I want to be proud of the (sober) decisions I make in life. So I shall abstain.

But for kicks, we can watch other people take phở challenges for us. Comedian duo The Fung Brothers took this challenge at D'Lite Pho Lee in Los Angeles. The restaurant has since closed, though.

Comedian David So took the one I thought about challenging, at Pho Garden in San Francisco. After watching this video, I'll definitely have to pass!

I definitely don't think I could finish. I could probably eat half. Would you ever take on a phở challenge?

June 28, 2014

State #1: San Diego, CA (Mira Mesa)

Phở Ca Dao
San Diego, CA (Mira Mesa)

When my family went to Phở Ca Dao (pronounced yao) in Mira Mesa the other day, I had to wonder, is it a sin if I go to a phở restaurant and don't order phở? Possibly. I'm not sure. I'll confess right now though, I traitorously didn't order phở that visit. I was craving the freshness of a vermicelli bowl.

Bun thit nuong
I mean, just look at that big bowl of simple goodness! I guess there's no need to hate, though. Phở Ca Dao is a friendly, welcoming Vietnamese restaurant - I mean, they call themselves "Your neighborhood Phở & Grill." The Spider-Man of phở restaurants, if you will. Just take a look at their menu, which has a convenient guide to phở for beginners-

Phở here is really affordable, at $5.95 for a regular size bowl and 90 cents more for a large. My dad and sister both had phở tai, and they always order theirs with the rare steak on the side. That way, you can ensure that it won't be overcooked.

I snagged a spoonful of broth from my sister's bowl, and it had a nice flavor. A little salty, a little savory, I could particularly taste the sweetness of the onions. Interestingly, they brought out a plate of onions on the side, along with the usual garnishes. We didn't need the onions, but the amount of garnishes they gave was stingy. What they gave was only enough for one bowl, so we had to ask for another. To their credit, if we needed something, it was delivered quickly.

My dad said that the meat and the noodles were good, so some of this rating is based on hearsay. The noodles came in a clump, which I'm not a fan of, but I believe that the meat was good. It helps that the grilled pork in my bowl of bun was delicious. This Phở Ca Dao location is pretty darn good, but I still like Phở Hoang Express better.

Rating Breakdown

Taste (11/14)
  • Broth flavor- 4/5
  • Noodle & meat quality- 4/5
  • Garnish selection- 1/2
  • Portion size- 2/2
Restaurant (15/16)
  • Service- 4/5
  • Cleanliness- 5/5
  • Atmosphere- 4/4
  • Speed of arrival- 2/2
Total: 26/30