Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Gastronomic Adventure in the USA (Sam & Charis Speaks)

Charis: Sam and I recently went on a vacation to the US to witness Simon's (Sam's brother) graduation ceremony. When that opportunity came up, we thought we'd turn it into a mini holiday! As always, thanks to my hubby, our holidays are always infused with food and the search for good food. 

Samuel: "Here's the 101 things we need to eat while we're in US. Number 1: The Crab Pot, as featured on Man vs Food. Number 2: Clam Chowder as featured in...." and the list goes on ...

Charis: Our first stop was Seattle, a pre-planned 22-hour layover before arriving in our destination in LAX. Alas, we didn't plan our sleeping well and ended up very jetlagged. Seattle's wet and cold weather welcomed us as we took a train downtown to the famed Pike Place Market. 

Samuel: "Touchdown! Let's check in and get out! There's so much to do, so much to see, so much to eat". 15mins later after checking in ...ZzzzZzzz. Joking, we did go out (eventually) heading to the cold wet Seattle downtown straight to Pike's place. The interesting thing when we got our tickets for the train, it was purely based on trust. There were no one checking on any gates at the station to insert any tickets to pass. They assumed all will buy a ticket. (Culture shock #1!)

Charis: We had our first hot meal after getting off the train in Etta's where I had their grilled Salmon and Samuel got something common like Chicken Chop or Fish & Chips or something (hence no picture). We had wanted to see the activity going on in the market (we heard fishes were thrown at you) but we were just too late for that after taking a "short nap" at the hotel.

Charis: The next day we flew to LA, where the bright Californian sun and blue skies greeted us. It was so warm I actually felt like I was getting a tan! Here, we met up with friends, Ps Daniel and Molly Shiao, whom I met the last time my family came to California. Molly took us up from the airport and took us to... well, I'll let Samuel tell you this part!

Samuel: "I just need to sleeeeeep. So sleeeeepy. How to keep awake"

Charis: We're going to In-N-Out.

Samuel: "I'm awake". And so there we head over to had my first In-N-Out burger and it was...soooo yummy! The buns were soft as though just baked, lettuces and onions were so fresh and springy, a touch of ketchup and the patty, oh the meat, freshly grounded with the right portions of lean meat and fats to make it oh so juicy, pounded to the perfect thickness then grilled to perfection. The sizzle alone makes your mouth water. We got our orders then came the moment of truth - The first bite. The start of a beautiful relationship. The second bite. The meat gently melts in your mouth. The third bite.. 

Charis: And so! Before Samuel forgets that he's a married man...The next day, still very much feeling the effects of jetlag, we decided to stay around the city and go on a hop-on, hop-off tour of Los Angeles. We took the trail that would bring us around Hollywood and the exclusive neighbourhood of Beverly Hills. I was on the look-out for celebrities but despite the tour guide on the bus saying this place or that place was a favourite hangout of this and that celebrity, we saw none. Then we stopped in the Farmer's Market at The Grove where we had our first celebrity spotting - Mario Lopez!

Samuel: With In-N-Out checked off the list, we moved on to other items. Next stop, the legendary Pink's Hot Dogs. The only reason why I wanted to go was because it was featured several times on some celebrity TV that it's one of their favorite cheap places to grab a quick bite so we gave it a try. We queued for about 15mins (which was pretty fast considering the usual long line) then I ordered the most manly hot dog on the menu: The Martha Stewart :) which despite having a name like that was loaded with everything good that deserves to be eaten on a hot dog. Charis had a Chili Dog. 

Charis: After 3 days in LA, we took a Chinatown bus (an experience by itself!) to Las Vegas for a short visit and of course, another gastronomic adventure! Not only is Las Vegas famed for its casinos and "what happens in Las Vegas..."'s, she is also known for its fabulous buffet spreads! It took us awhile to choose one, but seeing that the prices certainly match the reviews, we decided on the beautiful Bellagio which is famous for its giant crab legs, meats and general buffet spread. It was getting chilly by then, so it was great to fill ourselves with some fuel. At one point, Samuel had 5 different types of cuts of meat on his plate - things I have ceased to wonder at now... :D

Samuel: We were there during the grand opening of the new casino and hotel, Cosmopolitan - the same place Jay Z and Beyonce had their super extravagant New Year's eve party. It was super packed with people but we managed to take a brief peek at their 3 storey crystal chandelier.

Charis: And finally we come to the day which started it all. We met up with my in-laws and Simon in College Station, about 2 hours drive from Houston. The yellow sash-like cloth he's wearing in the picture above meant that he graduated summa cum laude in Electrical Engineering. Way to go, Simon! Take it for the rest of the engineers in the family (we found out later that Sam's Dad, Samuel and I all hold engineering degrees). Simon played host and took us several places to eat but the most notable ones were Layne's Chicken Fingers and the juicy Texas BBQ ribs which we had in a little graduation party with Simon's friends. Amazing!

Samuel: Everything in Texas is HUGE in portions. Ribs. Steaks. Pizza. Burritos. But the best part about Texas was the HUGE heart. The people here are friendly beyond friendly. They'll go the extra two miles to make you feel welcomed. (Culture shock #2)

Charis: Then the family went on a mini vacation to the historical city of San Antonio, famous for being the place where Davy Crockett died in the Battle of the Alamo. As a start of our visit to the city, Simon took us to J.Alexander's, which we are told to be famous for their macaroni & cheese. Samuel and I shared a 32.oz sirloin steak which meant a 16.oz for me! Needless to say, I couldn't finish my share. But the dessert, aptly named the "Very Best Chocolate Cake", was one of the best I've ever tasted! 

Samuel: Driving on the right side of the road is something that needs getting used to. (Culture shock #3). Ok, more on the chocolate cake and ice cream (one scoop is the size of my fist!). Rich, hot fudge, cool creamy ice cream tops of a wonderful start in San Antonio. It did helped that we stopped by one of those premium outlets just before dinner this that helped built up our appetite. 

Charis: The following day we met up with a missionary couple serving in San Antonio and they brought us to a true Mexican Taco house and the boys were really excited!

Samuel: Uncle George and Aunt Pam gave us the full San Antonio Mexican experience from food to culture to history. Amazing. It's good to know people around the world. Patty's taco house has by far the best Tex-Mex food I've ever eaten. The service was great, the drinks were great, the people in the restaurant were friendly, and the food, oh the food. No words to describe the emotions my tongue and tummy felt (That's right, they have emotions too.)

Charis: Even after all that, our wonderful hosts brought us to a really beautiful Mexican bakery near the Riverwalk named Mi Tierra Bakery. Once you're in, you''ll be taken in by their decoration with mock & colourful piƱata filling the entire ceiling and waitresses dressed in colourful costumes. The spread on display was also simply breath-taking and  it took us awhile but we finally decided on a few sweet lovelies. I found out from their website that we got a Ricardo, Pecan Praline and a Dulce de Calabaza. Definitely a place to visit again and again.

Samuel: Over here Nacho Libre is a hero, for some weird reason. They sell those masks everywhere here. I was tempted to get one then I realized, it'll never look as cool when a Chinese wears those costumes. 

Charis: After a short rest, a laser show and a leisurely walk on the lovely Riverwalk, we stopped by Saltgrass Steak House for an original Texan steak! I had a 12 oz. New York Strip and yes I could finish it by this time! The environment was very cozy and suitable for hungry families hoping to eat big steaks. After that, a nice transition to a  stroll by the Riverwalk towards the Alamo for a night view of the historical building. It was truly a memorable night :)

Samuel: Oh yeah, you can't leave Texas without enjoying real BBQ Steaks!

Samuel: One of the experience that we needed to have was celebrating Christmas in the US, the real traditional way. This was one of the experiences we will never forget. The Santini's (who've been like a family to our family in College Station) gave us the experience of a lifetime for us Asian folks. We've never had a Christmas celebration this elaborate and heartwarming. I'll let Charis talk more about it.

Charis: Once we arrived in Texas, we felt ourselves welcomed into a community of warm friends with ready smiles and "honey's", "sweeties" and "howdies". It was really a vast difference compared to places we've been before this and later, New York. Like Samuel said, the Santini's were one of the families that took us in and made our stay very comfortable. 

Christmas Eve was a big and annual event in their house and it was always celebrated with other friends and family. We felt as if we were part of the family when they allowed us to help out with the decoration and the setting up of the place. The food was great and we had gumbo for the first time after hearing about it in "The Frog Princess". The turkey Robert (eldest son of the Santini's) marinated and later deep-fried was simply perfect! We had an impromptu caroling session after and despite singing in the cold, it was great fun just packing into the vans and driving to houses to sing. Truly an experience to remember :)

Samuel: Next stop, the Big Apple! We flew in Christmas day (a day just before the snow blizzard struck the city with 16 inches of snow!) to a freezing cold New York City. The first thing we noticed, the people here aren't really that friendly and they're always in a rush - feels a lot like home (Charis: except we're friendlier). Anyway, after relaxing for the past two weeks, we decided to go all out in NYC. Many more items on the checklist to eat and do. 

CharisNew York was just what we expected, always in a hurry, fast-paced and because of the winter season, the day passed by real quickly too. We trudged through snow & sludge, got delayed in the subway, walked endlessly finding for good food in the city. While we had hoped to see some snow, we hadn't expected it to slow us down. And it did slow us down a lot!

So first stop was the pizzas. And where else to get it than in Little Italy and in 
Lombardi's, allegedly the first pizzeria in NYC! They had a cute little sign out front saying "Yes, we're open! Not even the snow can stop us!" and with that kind of spirit how could we not order a Large pizza with 5 different toppings on top?! It was D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S. 

Charis: Another place that was recommended by our handy travel app was Pete's Tavern, famous for being a popular place for stars to have a nightcap after a movie premier or a shooting. But most of all, it's popular for being one of the oldest bars in NY and purportedly the place where O. Henry wrote The Gift of the Magi. Even the street it's on is called O. Henry's way. What a bit of history! :) (To be honest, I've not heard of this author and his book but the waiter said that it's a really popular book and they read it in school).

After that, the brothers had their usual fill from Five Guys and I had a $2 hot dog by the street, just for kicks. It's good if you're an Asian buying a hot dog in NYC, because right after I bought mine I heard the hot dog guy sell it for $2.50 to an American. Didn't know they have farang prices in the US too! :D 

Almost towards the last day of our visit, we had an American-sized Malaysian breakfast together with my cousin and his wife. Sam & I hadn't realized that we hadn't eaten Malaysian food 3 months and Simon even longer than that! We had 4 different dishes between the 3 of us, it's crazy we didn't gain any weight when we came back. I know, 'coz I had us weighed and had it written down before! :)

Samuel: Of course, our entire journey there wasn't just solely about food. We had a lot of other experiences as well but that's for another post.

Charis: So check back soon! :)


  1. I looked funny in the picture...Ken

  2. Howdy Samuel and Charis!

    This is JD2 in East Asia - north of y'all now.

    I didn't know you had a brother going to TAMU! I graduated from there - class of '98! My dad graduated from there with an EE degree as well! Crazy.

    The food y'all ate sure does look yum yum good!

    We hope y'all are doing well. It's been interesting adjusting to the cold climate with 2 little ones.


  3. hahaha! love this post =D