June 30, 2015

Chicago Stuffed Pizza

I like walking around Chicago. The stark juxtaposition of modern and traditional architecture is very cool, but the weather is unforgiving. The first time I was there, it was March and 20 degrees, so Amanda and I only lasted long enough to run to The Bean and get some pho before we retreated to our hotel. The second time, it was rainy and I was sick, so I didn't leave my room.

It had been at least a year since the last time I'd been there, and rain was forecasted again. I arrived in the morning after working all night, and when I finally woke up, it was actually sunny, so I didn't have an excuse to stay in all day. As a food blogger, I felt it was my duty to finally try some Chicago deep dish pizza, so I headed to Giordano's, who famously specializes in the stuffed variety.

People were waiting for tables, as Giordano's is immensely popular, but they sat me almost immediately in the bar area since I was alone. (Full disclosure: the host sat me at a table, another employee kicked me off the table as if I'd done something wrong, I went back to the host and was seated at a table next to the original. Awkward.) After perusing the menu, I figured I had to order the Chicago Classic stuffed pizza. Unfortunately, I didn't know it took 45 minutes to create. Most people order ahead online so they won't have to wait so long when they arrive.

Stuffed pizza options

After being advised of the wait, I placed my order and was forced to do nothing but drink beer in the meantime. I ordered Goose Island Green Line, a refreshing beer currently only available in Chicago. Poor me!

Goose Island Green Line pale ale

As promised, my pizza arrived after 45 minutes. It was huge! The server served me my first slice, and I think I just stared at it for a minute. Stuffed pizzas are legit pizza pies. They have a crust on the bottom, which is covered with toppings (cheese, pepperoni, onions and peppers on mine), then another crust is layered on top, and it's finished with a layer of pizza sauce before baking. They're not joking when they call it deep!

Chicago Classic

The operative words here are rich, thick, and decadent. The small size I ordered can serve two or three people. I ate half, but I think it would have been better to go with three people and share this along with an appetizer. I took the rest back to the hotel, clutching it close as rain fell and lightning flashed overhead.

Poor pizza.

I was really mad at my hotel though. I had a box with half of a $22 pizza, figuring I could eat it the next day and that would be two $11 meals. But the Hyatt Regency apparently charges $25 to bring a fridge to the room, which would bring my pizza spending to almost $50. And because that is insane, I ended up having to throw out my leftovers.

I'm really glad I finally tried it, but stuffed pizza is definitely not my favorite. The quality was good, but I thought it was too bready and filling for my tastes, and it was too expensive for one person. Especially when I essentially paid $22 for half a pizza. That's not Giordano's fault, but it does leave a bitter taste in my mouth. Overall, I'd say Giordano's is a good place for pizza as long as you order ahead and have some friends to share it with. It's still pizza - meat, cheese, and tomato. You know exactly what you're going to get.

June 28, 2015

Portland, ME: My Favorite Things

My trip to Portland was so much more fun than I expected. It's a lovely city for a quiet getaway, fully equipped with everything I need: beauty, tasty food, and free beer.

One of my first stops was Portland Head Light, a famous, picturesque lighthouse dating back to 1787. If you've ever looked at a lighthouse calendar (I had a few when I was a kid), you've probably seen it. It captures a New England kind of country essence, and it's striking in person, so I felt fortunate to be there. It's within Fort Williams Park, a perfect location for a scenic walk. I also visited the small museum on the grounds - admission of $2 is nothing if it helps protect a beautiful piece of history.

Another sightseeing attraction I made sure to visit was Victoria Mansion, because I'll always be obsessed with things named Victoria. This historic landmark was originally built as a summer home for a wealthy New Orleans couple who hardly ever made it up to Maine. It's an example of pre-Civil War opulence hard to find anywhere else. Its grand architecture and elegant, expensive interior design is fascinating to see. Entry is only available with a guided tour, which is about an hour and costs $15. I enjoyed it.

Victoria Mansion

This girl likes to eat, and I had a little extra money to spend since I was on vacation! I went to Eventide Oyster Co. in the Old Port to order whatever I wanted for lunch. I had to try their brown butter lobster roll and some good oysters, and I decided to wash it down with a bloody maria. The lobster roll was tasty, with a good proportion of lobster meat to bread. The bread was fluffy, and the brown butter gave the lobster a rich, sweet and smooth flavor, but what I really wanted was more lobster. I'd get that for dinner, though. I was glad I tried everything I did, but nothing at Eventide is cheap. I ended up spending about $50 after tip for lunch...for one. But hey, I was on vacation, right?

Brown butter lobster roll, oysters, and a bloody maria.

I followed my mom's advice for dinner, and went to the supermarket for some good old Maine lobster. Hannaford supermarket was selling lobster for $7.99 a pound, and they'll steam it for you free of charge. I paid about $18 for two freshly steamed beautiful creatures, and took it back to my hotel to eat. The photo I took turned out a little blurry - I guess I didn't pay much attention because I was ready to eat! It was delicious, but I couldn't eat the claws because I couldn't get them open without a claw cracker. I tried using my metal water bottle to crush them, but that was dangerous and fruitless, so ultimately I threw them out. It was fine, the ample tail meat and those delicious red and green parts (roe and tomalley) filled me up.

Even with lobster, the most enjoyable thing I did in Portland was visit breweries. The first one I hit up was Allagash Brewing, where they offer free tours on the hour, followed by a tasting of four beers. I got lucky and went on a tour with only three other people, so it was nice and intimate. Our tour guide was very knowledgable, and we were surprised to hear that he had only been working for the company for a few weeks! I liked hearing about how green and efficient the brewery is, and the beers we tasted were all really good: crisp, flavorful, easy to drink.

On my second and last day, I had a little bit of time before my flight, so I decided to cram in a stop at Shipyard Brewing. They don't offer real tours, just a 15-minute video. I skipped that and went straight to their tasting bar, where there were probably 8 different beers to try. Melonhead was my favorite, a wheat ale with essence of watermelon. It was a perfect summer beer.

I think I'll have to come back to Maine at some point or another. I had so much fun here, and I felt so happy. It was so peaceful to drive around, and I love that the beer and food scene is actually happening. Head to Portland if you need a personal vacation, for you'll find plenty of my favorite things.

June 23, 2015

State #28: Portland, ME

Going to eat phở was the very first thing I did in Portland. Mostly because the lobster places I wanted to visit wouldn't open until later, but still. There were a few Vietnamese options in the area, but I chose Thanh Thanh 2 in honor of my mom, Thanh-Toan.

The interior was larger than I thought, with an interestingly rustic, old-fashioned style. There was a fish tank that seemed devoid of fish, some artificial flowers scattered about, and a large bar area. The bubbly, friendly owner doubled as the server, and she helpfully bounced around the few early customers, engaging them in conversation. I observed her being honest with another customer about the MSG content in the food - "There is a little," she was saying. "We do put a small amount. Any Vietnamese restaurant in this area that tells you they don't, they're lying."

The menus were cute. I liked the engraved design, with a metallic girl in a classic ao dai and non la gracing the cover. Inside, the menu was surprisingly large, with the usual options as well as unexpected items like pad Thai. Phở came in three sizes - small ($8.50), medium ($9.50) and large ($10.50). I really wanted to try their spicy Thanh Thanh sate phở, which was only 50 cents more - it seemed more unique, but I did feel obligated to try their original.

I ended up ordering a medium phở đặc biệt. I was ravenous after a red-eye to Washington D.C. and a short flight up to Portland, and I immediately started digging in. And then I remembered that I was supposed to take a picture. Oops.

Phở đặc biệt

I couldn't help it, though. The phở was delicious! The broth was densely flavored with cinnamon and beef, exactly what I'd been seeking. The meats were tender, and the noodles had soaked in a lot of flavor. The portion looked small, but was larger than I thought as it filled me up. I was very impressed. The owner checked on me, which I appreciated. The only weird part was when she brought the phở and asked if I needed a fork. Um, I'm okay.

I was actually in the Vietnamese area of Portland. Thanh Thanh 2's owner told me that along Forest Avenue, most of the businesses are Vietnamese-owned. Just across the street was Saigon Restaurant (closed that day) and an Asian market.

I feel like I've been getting pretty lucky with my phở experiences. This phở was good, and the last bowl I had in Denver was also very good! Guess what, world: there is good phở across America.

Rating Breakdown:

Taste (13/14)
  • Broth flavor- 5/5
  • Noodle & meat quality- 5/5
  • Garnish selection- 1/2
  • Portion size- 2/2
Restaurant (14/16)
  • Service- 5/5
  • Cleanliness- 5/5
  • Atmosphere- 4/4
  • Speed of arrival- 2/2
Total: 28/30

Thanh Thanh 2, 782 Forest Ave, Portland, ME 04103 | Yelp

June 19, 2015

Portland, ME: So Quaint

This year, there were two trips I wanted to take once it became summer. I wanted to eat lobster in Maine and go white water rafting in Montana. With a couple of free days, I flew into Portland with lobster on my mind - and possibly fell in love with the quiet city.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Monument
Portland has a lot of history, and that New England feel I love. As a big city Californian, I couldn't help but describe it as quaint. That was exemplified right away with my stay at the Inn at St. John, a Victorian era inn built in 1897. It was lovely, with old-fashioned furniture, traditional fixtures, and wallpaper and carpet clearly from another time. I had a single room with a shared bathroom, and I didn't mind at all. It was much better than a budget room and more unique than a Hilton, and I loved it. There was free coffee, tea, lemonade and iced tea around the clock, as well as a free continental breakfast. The staff was very friendly, and the location was convenient, with the Old Port just a five minute drive away.

Inn at St. John

I made sure to visit Portland Observatory, one of the most prominent landmarks in Portland. A maritime signal tower built in 1807, it has long since served as a symbol of Portland's maritime history. It wasn't as picturesque as the famous Portland Head Light, but definitely cool to see something so old and well-maintained.

I loved the houses in the area. They were so different from the California homes I'm used to, cute with accented windows, flowers and bushes. Granted, not experiencing a drought probably helps with that last aspect. The nicest ones I saw were on the way down to Portland Head Light, and I was dying to take pictures of them because they were just so beautiful! I really wanted to show my mom. They were big, with grassy lawns, bright flowers and foliage. There was even a blue mansion that was absolutely breathtaking. I just felt so awkward snapping photos because it was obviously rich people living there, and you don't know what rich people are capable of...

Cute houses!
"Stealthy" shot of some grand houses

The downtown area of Portland seemed fun, especially the Old Port, which is known for its cobblestone streets, 19th century brick buildings, and fishing piers. It's filled with boutiques, bars, and restaurants like Eventide Oyster Co., where I ate lunch. The buildings were very cool - there were a lot that stuck out to me.

State Theater
Lobster v. transformer?
State Street Church
some kind of school. 
City Hall

I was very lucky with the weather in Portland. It was slightly chilly but not cold, and I only had to deal with a light drizzle for a short time before I left. I had a fun time exploring the city by myself, driving down the streets and taking in the sights. It was just so quaint! I suppose the hardest thing about driving around were the pedestrians though. They were crossing the streets everywhere, so I couldn't afford to be too mesmerized by the city. Eyes on the road, Victoria.

Still to come: a Maine pho experience and my favorite things in Portland.

June 12, 2015

Explore v. Sleep: Barcelona

Recently, I picked up a trip with a twenty-four hour layover in Barcelona. Trips like this are a great way to see new places, but are challenging because you just don’t have much time. You’re tired from working all night, so you want to sleep when you arrive...but you don't want to waste your limited time in a new city! So you have to decide which is more important: sleeping or exploring?

Arc de Triomf

In my case, the main thing I wanted to see was La Sagrada Familia, and I was advised to go as early as possible to avoid the queue. Once we arrived at the hotel, I hit the ground running and headed out right after a quick rinse and change. Unfortunately, I took quite a few wrong turns on the way, so I got there later than I'd hoped.

La Sagrada Familia is the city’s famous perpetually unfinished church, designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. Construction began in 1882 and continues to this day, as it was interrupted by Gaudi's death in 1926, funding issues, and the Spanish Civil War. Even unfinished, it's an incredible piece of Gothic architecture. Supposedly, it'll finally be completed in 2026 - 100 years after Gaudi's passing.

I highly recommend making a reservation on their website - it’s the same price you’d pay there, but you can pick the time you want to go and skip the wait. If you take your chances as I did and walk up, the next available entrance may be three hours later. Making a reservation is simply more efficient, especially if you’re short on time. I didn’t know too much about it, so I missed out on seeing the interior. Another crewmember showed me pictures though, and they were beautiful. The cathedral has ceilings 100 feet high, and remarkable stained glass that produces an ethereal light - it sounded amazing.

Without that nap, I quickly grew tired. It didn’t help that I kept getting lost, even though I was constantly looking at my map! Somehow Diagonal Avenue messed me up every time I crossed it - I'd look at my map and think, "okay, I do not want to be on Diagonal" and sure enough, five minutes later I'd realize I was once again following Diagonal. On the plus side, I saw some lovely buildings and treated myself to churros y chocolate in a cafe.

Churros y chocolate

When I finally returned to the hotel, I took a well-deserved nap. I set my alarm in the hopes of meeting some other crewmembers at 3, but still felt exhausted when it went rang. I went back to sleep. And then I woke up at 5! In the battle between sleep and exploration, sleep was dominating my whole layover. How much time did I lose? I rushed to get back out there and see more of Barcelona on this beautiful day.

Agbar Tower in the distance

I'd planned to meet up with more crew members at 6:30 for tapas on the hotel terrace, so I was determined to cram in a couple of sights before that time. With a few more wrong turns, I walked over to the Arc de Triomf and the beautiful Ciutadella Park behind it.

Palau de Justicia
Ciutadella Park entrance

It took me so long to get over there (since I apparently have no sense of direction) that I decided to take the metro back to the hotel. But from that time on, it was party party party. One of the pilots bought me a glass of sangria, and we snacked on meat, cheese, and bread. Then we went for dinner at a nearby restaurant called 336, where they have a fixed price dinner for 27 euros, and it includes champagne to start, a variety of tapas, red wine, an entree per person, sangria, dessert, and even after-dinner drinks! It was an amazing dinner, and very Spanish. I drank a lot of sangria and feasted on things like good bread with fresh tomatoes and garlic, shrimp, octopus, and creme brulee.

It’s hard to get a lot done in a limited amount of time. I probably should have taken a nap right when I got in, should have made a reservation at La Sagrada Familia, and should have gotten a ticket for the hop-on, hop-off bus if I wanted to see as many things as possible. But I hate should haves. I don't think I need to regret anything. I got a feel for the city, I got lost in the city, I saw the most important landmark at least from the outside, and I had an amazing free dinner (thanks pilots!). So what if I didn't handle my layover perfectly?

There really is no room for regret, especially when you don't know how things would have turned out otherwise. For example, I felt bad that I was too tired to walk around the city with a couple of crewmembers, but at the end of the trip, one of them told me I was really lucky that I wasn't there. Apparently the other crewmember was yelling some strange things on the Barcelona streets...So you just never know, and I continue to hate "should have." But next time, I'll definitely get inside La Sagrada Familia, and finally check out Barcelona's beautiful beach!