April 17, 2015

Omaha, Part 1: Old Market & Bob Kerrey

O! What a city.

The people of Omaha are very friendly. Those passing by on the street are very likely to greet you, and people are always smiling at you. It’s behavior that puts me a little on edge, until I make myself relax. It’s a safe city, not like the bad part of Atlanta I stayed in a couple of months ago. While I didn’t encounter any Asians, even at the Vietnamese restaurant I visited, I also didn’t encounter any ignorant rants like that one day in Oklahoma City. (It still doesn’t make sense, since Oklahoma has that big Vietnamese population…but don’t ask me to figure out what goes on in the minds of idiots.)

My trip here was pretty spontaneous. I was already in Texas for recurrent training, so I figured I should hop on a plane and knock out another state since a) I failed to do it last month and b) I was already in the middle of the country. I chose Omaha based on the flight availability and its nice weather. It was in the 70s and sunny the day I arrived, perfect weather for wandering a city. I discovered that Omaha has a lot of parks - so many that I decided to leave them for my next post.

My first stop was the Old Market, where all the action happens. It's in the heart of downtown, and filled with restaurants, boutiques, and interesting secondhand shops. Nearly all the buildings are made of brick, and you have to drive a little slower on the bumpy brick roads.

I popped into Ted & Wally’s, where they make ice cream the old fashioned way. I had a sample of cinnamon ice cream after lunch and wanted to come back when I wasn’t full to bursting, but I ended up having a big dinner as well. It's a shame, because that little taste of ice cream was smooth, creamy, and rich. I would have loved to have an actual scoop!

Ted & Wally's ice cream makers!

I had dinner at M's Pub, where their carrot dog is quite popular. This vegetarian yet filling twist on a hot dog uses a marinated and grilled carrot, served with greens, sauerkraut, relish, and some excellent stone ground mustard. It was tasty and fresh, and I was so stuffed since I ate it after a baked brie appetizer...and had a cocktail and a beer. But I had to. It was quite lively in there; I wouldn't have thought it was a weeknight.

M's Pub Carrot Dog

Driving in other states is pretty fun. I got a rental car so I wouldn’t have to wait around for the bus, and now I think I’ll be getting a rental car in every new state I visit. It makes things so much more convenient!

Speaking of new states, I went over to the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which connects Nebraska to Iowa over the Missouri River. I didn’t realize Omaha was right on the border of the two states. My hotel was actually in Iowa. The people living here seem to weave in and out of the two states, and one way is by crossing the bridge from Omaha, Nebraska to Council Bluffs, Iowa. There are parks on each side, and it's a popular place to run, walk or bicycle. The line between the two states is denoted on the concrete, so you can pinpoint exactly when you've crossed the border.

Standing in two states at once.

The footbridge is an award-winning piece of architecture, and one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the country. It has informative stations talking about the Missouri River, and how attempts to control it with dams and shaping have come with costs, as the river has shrunk greatly and the life associated with it has reduced or even become endangered. A handful of government entities are working together to regain the lost habitat and protect the existence of the declining native species.

The Old Market and the pedestrian bridge were pretty cool places. In my next post, I'll show you some of Omaha's parks and gardens.

April 13, 2015

Get Happy / Spa Days are Here Again

(To the tune of the duet between Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland)

When you want to forget your troubles and get happy, a spa day is ideal. I've been obsessed with spas ever since last month's cruise, but I can't help it! The spa is just so relaxing. I like steaming out my toxins and soaking away my worries. It might only be a temporary fix, but I think I'll go once a month just for my well-being.

The best spa I've ever been to must be Spa World in Osaka. Katy loves that place, and she took me last time we were in the city. Their baths are divided into two floors, one European themed and the other Asian themed. Depending on the month, one floor is dedicated to women and the other to men.

Spa World

When we went last May, we used the European Zone. There must have been over ten different baths, saunas, and steam rooms. A few examples are pictured below, but my favorites were the Finnish salt bath and the green tea bath. I'm not good with very hot baths, so there were a few I couldn't use or could only bear for a minute, but the wide variety let me want for nothing.

Spa World was cheap, too. It was just a little over $10 for a pass, because they were running some kind of special. They have a variety of services you can add for a price, like a pass to specialty saunas from around the world, massages and facials, and a fish spa. It's a great place, just hard to visit since Japan is so far away!

Luckily, there are a lot of spa options back in San Francisco. While there isn't anything quite as good as Spa World, I've come to like Korean spas. I've only tried two so far, but I really like Immersion in Palo Alto. It's a concept spa by Aveda, and it's very clean. I like how they provide their quality Aveda soaps and their signature tea!

Immersion Spa

Korean spas offer Korean scrubs, where ladies use exfoliating mitts to scrub layers of dead skin from your naked body, leaving behind soft, glowing skin. I had my first one at Immersion and felt great afterward! It's crazy to see all the dead skin get left behind in little black pellets.

I wish I could get discounts for writing about this place. A day pass costs $25, but you can get free entry if you purchase a service. I went for the Silky Scrub Plus, which included a scrub, massage, shampoo, and milk rinse for $100. It was a relaxing hour, and I spent another two hours just enjoying the facilities.

I tried another Korean spa in San Jose, Family Health Center. With so many other places to check out, I don't think I'll come back. They had some cool coed sauna facilities that you can enjoy with a member of the opposite sex, as you're provided a t-shirt and lounge pants, but otherwise, I didn't like it as much as Immersion. Their no-name shampoo didn't impress me, the scrub services had extremely little privacy, and the food at their little restaurant was too expensive.

The good news is, I can keep trying out new spas! Happy days are here again!

April 9, 2015

Vietnamese Food 101: Hoisin Sauce

The other day, someone asked me "What is hoisin sauce?" and I was at a loss. It's a staple in Chinese and Vietnamese cooking, and it's in almost every Vietnamese restaurant right next to the Sriracha, but I couldn't name its ingredients. It's brown, so maybe soy sauce...?

Pacific Rim Cafe - Rapid City, SD

After a bit of research, I can now say with confidence that hoisin sauce is a vegetarian sauce made with fermented soybeans (or miso), garlic, chilies, sugar and vinegar. It's thick and generally used with meat, in stir-fries, and for dipping. It's like the Chinese version of barbecue sauce. Lee Kum Kee is a popular brand, but you can also make your own.


"Hoisin" actually means "seafood" in Chinese, but hoisin sauce isn't typically used with seafood, nor is there any seafood in it. Weird. It's also sometimes misidentified as "plum sauce." In Vietnamese, it's called tương đen, literally "black sauce." That's not to be confused with soy sauce, which is called nước tương in Vietnamese.

Interestingly, it was a lady with fish allergies who asked me about hoisin sauce. When I replied with an eloquent "um," she asked, "Is there fish in it?"

"No, it's not like nước mắm," I told her. She wasn't reassured at the time, but I'll definitely be ready next time someone asks!

April 4, 2015

Seven Courses of Beef

On a long layover in Boston, I had dinner with my good family friend David and his new wife, Ha. They just got married last summer in Florida, and I hadn't seen them since Christmas, so I called up Chi Ha. I said I was down to eat anything, which will surprise no one, but when she suggested bò 7 món, I jumped for it.

Unlike phở, bò 7 món (pronounced baw-bay-mong), or seven courses of beef, isn't something you can eat all the time. It's higher-end cuisine, a little time consuming to eat, and harder to find than most Vietnamese foods. The name Anh Hong has become closely associated with bò 7 món, with locations in northern and southern California. According to their website, the restaurant was first established in 1954 in Phu Nhuan, Vietnam, where they created the 7 course beef menu. We went to this location in Dorchester, the Vietnamese town of the Boston metropolitan area.

It's not listed on the Anh Hong website, so maybe they just share a name?

The first course is one that my mom sometimes prepares at home. Thinly sliced beef, just like the kind found in pho, cooks in a vinegar broth right at the table.

Most of the courses are meant to be eaten in rice paper rolls that you assemble yourself. You're served dry rice paper sheets and a bowl of hot water to reconstitute them, then build each roll individually. You're given lettuce, herbs, bean sprouts, cucumber, and carrots. Vermicelli noodles can be added to your roll to make it a little more filling.

Add the meat, roll it up, and voilà! You get a fresh spring roll, crunchy from various vegetables, savory from the meat, and 100% delicious. The sauce they had to dip it in was a perfect complement, very satisfying.

The next course was also thinly sliced meat, but this one was seasoned and cooked in butter instead of broth. I'd actually never had it before, but it was rich and tasty! I was used to a steamed meatloaf that was traditionally my least favorite part of the meal, but thankfully, never appeared at Anh Hong.

The third course was gỏi bò, a Vietnamese salad with sliced carrot, daikon, rare beef, and crushed peanuts, dressed with nước mắm. I didn't eat very much of this, as it didn't have as much flavor as the other dishes. I did wrap some of it in a roll when the greens ran out, though...

The next three courses were grilled meats that came on one plate: beef meatball, beef wrapped around sliced onion, and my favorite, bò lá lốt. It's grilled ground beef wrapped in lolot leaf, which is similar to grape leaf. I love the scent and flavor of that combination, and it's probably been my favorite part of bò 7 món since the first time I tried it. These are wrapped in rolls as well, and they were all very good!

The final course was cháo bò, rice porridge with ground beef. It's a great way to end the meal, a little reminiscent of ochazuke at the conclusion of a Japanese meal. This one was particularly good, and I had two bowls.

Then, we had dessert!

Just kidding. We were still hungry, and this was lẩu dê, or hot pot with goat meat. I think it was my first time having goat. Chi Ha likes it because it's like beef, but has a deeper flavor. Personally, I thought the meat was just okay, but the broth was absolutely delicious. (And we had real dessert afterward.)

Two things I really like: Chi Ha, and meat!

With seven courses, this meal will cost you a lot more than a bowl of phở. I think it'd run you about $18 at most places, if not more. It is a lot of food, so it's better to go with a group. For those reasons, I don't know when I'll be able to have it again! So I'd like to genuinely thank David and Ha for treating me to bò 7 món! I hadn't had it for years, and I'm already ready to go back!

March 30, 2015

Cruising: Ports of Call

Sea days on a cruise ship are fun, but you enter another world of adventure when you get off the ship in your ports of call. On our Mexican Riviera cruise, my mom, sister and I would arrive at three brand new destinations. Our main priority? Hitting the beach.

Cabo San Lucas
The ship's pool was not very big, so we really needed the freedom of swimming in the ocean! But before we started the trek over to the beach, an onslaught of locals offered us activities like glass bottom boat tours, snorkeling, or parasailing. The three of us have parasailed in Thailand back in 2003, and are the only ones in my family who can do it, as my dad and younger sister have a fear of heights. I really wanted to go, so I inquired about pricing and scored a deal of $35 per person, rather than the initially quoted $50. Just, I didn't have enough cash for all three people in my party and in a moment of weakness, was turned off by a $7 fee to use the ATM. I had more cash back in the room, and figured we could go in another port.

Thinking about it afterward, that was a huge mistake. Sometimes you lose out by being cheap. The weather was great that day, we were all in great health, and we had a good deal. What if I'd gotten sick the next day? What if one of us got injured? What if the weather suddenly turned for the worse and parasailing wasn't an option anymore? I was annoyed with myself for letting a mere $7 stop me from doing something I wanted. But it was the decision I made at the time, and I was going to enjoy the day regardless.

It really was a beautiful day. The walk from the marina to the beach took about 20 minutes, with restaurants and shops lining most of the way. When we got there, I paid $10 for an umbrella because I didn't want to get too much sun and because I sure as heck wasn't going to be cheap anymore. My mom said we didn't need it, and maybe she was right, because we spent a lot of time in the water. Maybe.

The water was very pretty, with shades of royal blue, turquoise and seafoam green set against golden sand. It was refreshing to swim, and it would have been perfect if not for the boats coming in and out of the shoreline. Every time one came in the vicinity, it would bring an unpleasant odor of oil or gasoline. Despite our occasional wrinkled noses, it was still a great beach day. We had a good view of the ship, and the ship apparently had a great view of Cabo San Lucas.

The next day, we arrived in Mazatlán, a city I'd never heard of before the cruise. Apparently it's become a popular tourist destination, but nowhere near as popular as Cabo or Cancun. I had no idea what we should do there - I couldn't see a beach from where we docked, and I didn't think they had parasailing. After sleeping in, we chatted with some cruisers who enjoyed walking around the city. One lady told us that we had to see the cathedral, so we went to explore the city, the Catedral de Mazatlán as our target.

Catedral de Mazatlán

We found a beach, but no parasailing. Just places to sit, relax, and enjoy the breeze. The city was pretty, and I really liked the open-air taxis. They were a cheap way to get around, and my mom didn't get motion sickness when riding in them.

We started the hike up to the Mazatlán lighthouse, but gave up about twenty minutes in, making a handful of excuses: it was steep, we weren't dressed for hiking, and we were lazy. Looking it up later, I don't think we missed out on much, because the lighthouse is pretty small and unimpressive. The view is supposedly great, but I think we got a decent enough view from this height:

Click to enlarge

Puerto Vallarta
I once worked a brutal flight from Puerto Vallarta to San Francisco. Flights out of PVR had increased while the staffing hadn't, and the airport had seemingly lost all sense of organization that day. It took passengers three hours just to check in for their flight! Then, they had to go through security and be bused from the gate to the plane, a very lengthy process. The boarding was achingly slow, so we were even more delayed, and the passengers were understandably irritable. Everyone was hungry and thirsty, many had connecting flights, and there was that one guy who was all but yelling in my face. That flight kicked my butt.

But this time, I was in Puerto Vallarta on vacation! I didn't have to think about any of that. The only thing I was dead set on doing was parasailing. Unfortunately, we had to take a taxi to get to the nearest beach with parasailing, and it was $18 for the three of us. The outcome of not wanting to pay a $7 ATM fee...

But actually, Los Muertos Beach was nice. Puerto Vallarta is very LGBT friendly, and the beach was covered with gay men. It was funny when we were looking for a place to spread out our towels, and we thought, where are all the women?

There are a lot of water activities to take part in, like banana boats, jet skis, flyboarding and of course, parasailing. We negotiated another $35 deal, and off we went!


They whisked us off very quickly, and I was first to go. We were given some brief instructions, and then I was launching into the air before I knew it! My mom didn't even have her phone out for picture taking when I took off. It was a fun ride, maybe 6-8 minutes of soaring through the air, rising high above the ocean. It felt long enough, and I definitely got my money's worth. My mom snapped this picture on the way down:

After parasailing, we just swam and laid out. The water there was just all right - it had a lot of debris and in the back of my mind, I was worried about jellyfish. When we relaxed on the sand, I didn't get an umbrella as I had in Cabo. We were just about out of cash, with the unexpected taxi cost - and yet, I still had more cash in the room that I probably should have brought. The thing is, we didn't get an umbrella in Puerto Vallarta and all three of us discovered huge sunburns when we got back. I'll say it once again: sometimes you lose by being cheap.

While relaxing, you could say my vacation was also educational. I learned the importance of weighing out priorities. Saving a little money isn't always worth it, and often, time is the deciding factor. The things you want to do most should really be done right away, because you never know what might prevent you from doing them later. Vacation can be cut short at any time, and you don't want to waste it. Why fly tomorrow when you can fly today?