Thursday, August 17, 2006

Hot Hot Heat (Ba Ren)

I have been defeated by Ba Ren. There, I said it.

All I can say to Kirk, Kady and the rest of their Chowhound fans is y'all must have some asbestos coated tastebuds.

This food was SO spicy...

"How spicy was it?"

It was SO spicy, that after TWO bites, my nose started to run...

It was SO spicy, that when we opened the containers, I could SMELL the red pepper dust...

It was SO spicy, that I soaked two napkins with TEARS.

I should clarify by saying that I am not a wimp. I love spicy food. In Thai restaurants, I order the dishes on the menu with four peppers next to them, and then add chiles. I order curries hot, I sprinkle red pepper flakes on Italian food, and I consider cayenne pepper my "secret ingredient" when cooking. My favorite hot sauce is Marie Sharps - made with habanero chiles.

But this was just too much.

I wasn't the only one affected - my husband almost choked on the first bite (that pepper dust'll getcha!) and Brandon - who in his own words "like-a da spice" - was talking about ordering his next meal from the "American Favorites" section of the menu.

I don't know if my husband did something to piss them off when he ordered, or if he simply lied to us when he claimed he didn't order the food extra spicy, but oh man. It was really something else. Halfway through the meal we started talking about where we were going for ice cream .

We ordered most of the dishes discussed on Kirk's blog in this post and a few of the cold appetizers. We ordered our food for takeout, and took it to our friends' house nearby. The dishes we sampled were the Dry Fried Beef, Hot Pepper Prawns, Cold Szechuan Noodles and Rice Crust with Sliced Chicken. The Dry Fried Beef and Hot Pepper Prawns almost had more peppers than meat. Literally, they were piled high with dried peppers, and you could see the liberal dusting of ground pepper on top of that. (They definitely had more peppers than the dishes pictured on Kirk's blog.) The photo below shows the peppers left in the dish after we had eaten most of the shrimp. All of the red bits are dried peppers - you can see one shrimp at the bottom. Sorry so blurry, but I was using an unfamiliar camera - unfortunately I forgot mine. I also didn't think to take a picture of the meal until I realized history was being made with the second spiciest meal I had ever experienced. (The first was when my friend accidentally ordered takeout from Taste of Thai "extra spicy." That meal was truly inedible.) Kirk's photo also seems to show a glaze on the prawns - and based on his description I had thought they would be a bit sweet. I love sweet and spicy combinations, but this was hot hot hot all the way. The dry fried beef (pictured at top) was much the same. I liked the cold Szechuan noodles quite a bit though, and the crispy rice crust was unique - it had a smoky flavor that I didn't quite expect. The crispy rice cake was an interesting contrast with the brothy chicken mixture. The buffet of cold appetizers in front looked interesting, and the ones we tried were quite good (seaweed, beef tendon and bamboo shoots).

The restaurant was very crowded, and the menu is extensive with a number of dishes that I have never heard of. I saw some that looked interesting, including several different preparations for spare ribs and short ribs. I would also like to try the Twice Cooked Fish - which seems to be popular with Chowhounders. I was concerned it might not travel well for takeout.

English is definitely a second language here. I tried to order by phone, but I had to go in because they weren't able to understand what I was asking for by name. They really prefer that you order by number. Incidentally they have recently changed their menu - so the numbers on Kirk's blog are out of date. We figured that out when the guy told me I had just ordered something with eel instead of the hot pepper prawns.

All in all I would definitely say try it. Not everything will set your mouth on fire, and they will modify the spice level upon request. I am also curious to see how they handle the "American Favorites."

I bet they make a mean Orange Chicken.

Ba Ren
4957 Diane Ave.
off of Clairemont Mesa, West of 805.

Recommended dishes: Cold Szechuan Noodles, Rice Crust with Sliced Chicken.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Belize - April, 2005

Belize is one of those places that people tell you to visit now, "before the tourists ruin it." It's a bit ironic, but when you go, you understand. It's a curious combination of commercial and unspoiled - exotic and familiar. It was a British colony (known as British Honduras) until the early 80s, and as a result, English is the official language. The local Garifuna food is hearty and tasty - conch stew, fried conch and curries are staples - but it has a slight British/American flair. For example, full breakfast is served almost everywhere, and often includes both the local tropical fruit and waffles or french toast with Lyles Golden Syrup.
For now at least, Belize is certainly not overly commercial. There are no chain stores or restaurants (we saw one Subway), and most of the roads are unpaved. There are Mayan ruins everywhere you look, and in some places artifacts literally litter the ground. Mosquitos are rampant, and full vaccinations (including Typhoid and Tetanus) and and malaria pills are recommended. Nevertheless, it is increasing in popularity as a retirement and vacation destination - homesites can be seen for sale all along the coast. The two zones we visited, the jungle and the coast, each offer entirely different experiences. We split our two week trip in half, the first half on land and the second week on the water. We knew our second week would be spent on a chartered sailboat, hopping among the cayes (pronounced "keys") off the coast between Placencia and Belize City - but we needed accommodations for the jungle portion of the trip and for the two nights we intended to spend in Placencia before boarding the boat.

Central Belize has several eco-lodges and exotic accommodations in the jungle, most in the area surrounding San Ignacio, known as the Cayo. Some of them are very luxurious (and expensive) while others are spare. All offer trips and tours for an additional fee. After some exhaustive research, we settled on Ian Anderson's Caves Branch in Belmopan. They offered what we consider a happy medium in terms of accommodations and adventurous tours for an all inclusive price. Other highly recommended options we considered include Chaa Creek, duPlooy's, Hidden Valley Inn, Blancaneaux Lodge, Pook's Hill, and Five Sisters Lodge.

Our bungalow at Caves Branch had a terracotta tiled floor, king size four poster wooden bed and private bath with shower. Through the wraparound screened windows we could hear the sounds of nature at night - including the eerie Howler monkeys. The warm tropical air felt wonderful. There is limited electricity for a ceiling fan and bathroom lights, but in the rooms after dark we used oil lamps and the paths were lit by torches. This was also helpful for privacy, as the screens do not have any shades or covers (though the spacing and vegetation provide some.)

Meals are served family style on the open veranda of the main lodge. The setting is lovely, and the food is plentiful, fresh and tasty. They also serve cocktails and Belikin beer. Breakfast was really the best meal - tons of fresh fruit, oranges and a press for making your own juice, coffee, and plenty of eggs, potatoes, waffles, pancakes or french toast. It was needed too, for energy during the day ahead.

Caves Branch is not the place to go if you are looking to lay around in a hammock all day. We arrived right at dinner time, and the next thing we knew the tour guide was sitting next to us talking about which adventure we were going on the next day. Everyone goes on a tour each day - and they are not for the faint of heart. There is one called the "Black Hole Drop" - which is exactly what it sounds like, and another particularly strenous hike called the "Waterfall." Unfortunately, while we were there, the river was not running in front of the main lodge - so the cave tubing was limited and swimming in the river was out, but we did go on a hybrid tour of the caves that involved some tubing and hiking, and an opportunity for swimming. We also took a long hike up a very steep hill (holding onto vines, etc.) into a cave that was only discovered about ten years ago (pictured above). It was a sink hole that contained a lot of Mayan pottery and artifacts -literally laying on the ground all around us. It was like something out of Jurassic Park crossed with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Truly incredible.

After doing those two adventure tours on the first two days, we spent our third day going to Tikal, in Guatemala. A lot of people might wonder if this is worth it, since it costs quite a bit (about $150 per person in addition to the regular tariff) and involves traveling between 5 AM and 8 PM on mostly dirt roads. My answer is a resounding yes. It's not only a fascinating site, but the journey through Guatemala was interesting as well. We had no trouble with the border crossing because we were escorted by a tour guide. (We also saw several other tourist vans from Belizean resorts at the crossing.) There are occasional reports of muggings or other problems for tourists in Guatemala, so it's generally recommended that you go with a guide. Most rental car companies also will not allow you to drive their cars into Guatemala.

Our driver, Carlos, had no fear of the dirt roads, he barrelled over each bump with abandon. We stopped at one point to pick up our guide for Tikal and to eat breakfast. With breakfast, we enjoyed some Gallo beer (hint, don't eat the fruit!) We then bump bumped our way on down the road to the site of Tikal.

The Tikal ruin is the largest Mayan city thus far discovered (Caracol, which is currently being excavated in southern Belize, may yet turn out to be larger). It's a fascinating place and one of the strangest tourist destinations I have ever visited. The vegetation is extremely dense, making it difficult to see the monuments from the ground unless you are standing in one of the open plazas. All around, they are excavating new temples that appear to simply be hills covered with vegetation. The highlight was the view from the top of Temple IV, which appears almost exactly as pictured here at the end of the 1st Star Wars movie (it was used as the rebel base.) The staircase leading up Temple IV is actually stairs, while several other temples simply have ladders for climbing.

The next day, we drove from Belmopan to Placencia. The road from the main highway to Placencia was one of the roughest drives I have ever encountered. Our driver stopped to pick people up along the way and drop them off, so it also took a bit longer than it should have. If you are traveling to Placencia from Belize City - I say fly. I saw the Placencia airport, and yes it is the size of a gas station, but that drive was really something.

In Placencia, we splurged and stayed at the Turtle Inn, a small luxury resort on the beach. It is owned by Francis Ford Coppola, as is the Blancaneaux Lodge in the jungle. He purchased the Inn several years ago and had planned to remodel it, but then had to rebuild when Hurricane Iris swept the whole thing into the sea in 2001. The property consists of several Indonesian-tropical style bungalows dotting the beach, arranged around a central area that includes the restaurant and lobby, pool and beach bar.

The rate varies depending on the season, the location and size of the accommodations, and the number staying. The rates start at $195.00 for the garden view cottage in the summer season (which I would discourage as they have no air conditioning), and go up to $1800.00 per night for the villa used by the Coppola family when they are in residence. Generally a cottage in the mid to high season will run between $300-500 per night. They also have several two bedroom two bath villas that rent for $500-$750.00 per night.

The grounds include a restaurant with its own organic garden, a spa and dive shop, gelato bar, beach front bar and grill, and swimming pool with lounging area. The gift shop is stocked with nifty items chosen by Coppola, including Buck knives (which were manufactured in San Diego until they recently moved to Idaho), French Rhodia notepads, Milk Fed t shirts designed by Sofia Coppola, books and magazines, jewelry and sarongs, and Turtle Inn memorabilia.

Our bungalow was gorgeous, with hardwood floors, a small sitting area, a screened front porch, wet bar and gorgeous large indoor/outdoor bathroom with rock garden, outdoor shower and large japanese soaking tub.

We had a great time lounging around the pool and beach, and ate in the beach-front restaurant and bar as well as the regular restaurant. The food was good - we had pizza, pasta and native specialities like fried conch. Not surprisingly, they serve Coppola wines. They also deliver a nice continental breakfast to your room with pastries, fruit and good coffee. On our second night, we held a "kick off" party in the restaurant for the entire group that would be leaving the following day on the sailing trip. The after-party included a midnight dip in the pool for some.

The biggest drawback to the Turtle Inn (and even this depends on your point of view) was that there were a lot of kids. At 8 AM the next morning, we were awakened by some kids splashing around in the pool and yelling over and over again: "I am David Hasselhoff!." It took us a few minutes to figure out how the heck any little kid would even know who David Hasselhoff is - then we remembered that he was in the Spongebob movie. Nevertheless - I didn't exactly expect this to disrupt my sleep at such a fancy "honeymoon-worthy" resort. Perhaps this could be remedied by requesting a bungalow a bit further away from the pool.

The beach is fairly narrow, and not really good for swimming because the water is clogged with seagrass and jellyfish. In order to get to the good diving and beautiful scenery you have to go out to the cayes. There is not a whole lot to see or do in the town of Placencia itself, in part because it was devastated by Hurricane Iris in 2001. The hurricane also took a lot of the palm trees with it - both on the mainland and on the cayes, so it looks a little bare. We rented bikes at the hotel and rode down there on our first day in town - it was a nice trip, and took about an hour. All in all, I would recommend the Turtle Inn for a maybe a three or four night stay at the most. It's a pretty place, but very expensive, and the beaches and diving really are better out in the cayes.

The following day, we boarded the Legacy for our one week private cruise among the cayes. This was orchestrated primarily by James, who is a certified bareboat sailor, but did not want the responsibility of sailing the boat this time around. (He captained a boat with some of the same passengers around the Greek Isles a few months before we met.) The Legacy holds a maximum of 12 passengers and we had 9 - which seemed a perfect number. We were joined on the trip by some friends from as far away as Northern California and Scotland, as well as fellow San Diegan Tracy.

All of our meals were prepared on board the boat by the wonderful cook, Brenda, and we had a fantastic crew including Charlene, who assisted Brenda and prepared our afternoon cocktails, Captain Lisa, Tony the 1st Mate, and Dive Master Peter. The week-long cruise was absolutely wonderful.

We enjoyed unlimited scuba diving (after we learned from Peter on board the boat), great food and excursions to the shore. The water was unbelievably blue as far as the eye could see.

We drank our fill of Belikin, and we were treated to happy hour with a different cocktail and appetizer each day.
Most of our time was spent lounging on the trampolines of the Catamaran, or in the water.

Belize is a fairly easy flight from the U.S., and the English language and tourist friendly atmosphere also give it a slight edge on convenience over other Caribbean destinations. Ambergris Caye is probably the most popular (and most commercial) part of Belize. We did not make it that far north, but when we return we are hoping to make it out there and to some of the famous dive spots - like the Turneffe Islands and Lighthouse Atoll.

Belize City has a fairly serious crime problem, and is not a place you really want to stay for very long - but the Radisson did not look too bad if you have to spend the night on your way in or out of the country.
Things to know:
1. Mosquitos are a problem - in the jungle you will need 100% deet solution as well as a milder formula for spraying directly on the skin (you put the 100% deet on the clothing and bandanas, not on your skin). Pack at least two bandanas, long sleeve lightweight shirts, lightweight long pants, hiking boots, a hat and a good sweatproof/waterproof sunscreen.
2. The diving and snorkling on the coral reef are spectacular and not to be missed. You can get certified there, but it would be easier (and probably less expensive) to arrive already certified.
3. Violent crimes against tourists are occasionally reported. Women should not hike unescorted, and it would be preferable for anyone to travel on the highways in a group or with an escort.
4. Expect to get the runs at least once while you are there. It happens to everyone, but it won't ruin your trip. A wide array of vaccinations are recommended to prevent more serious diseases, as well as malaria pills.

Photo Credits: "Scottish Gregg" McLean Adam

TripAdvisor - search for "Cayo" (jungle), "Stann Creek" (coast) and "Belize Cayes".
Fodors - online Belize Guide
Frommers - online Belize Guide
Lan Sluder's Belize First - Best of Belize

Friday, August 11, 2006

Julian - August, 2006

Growing up, I always thought of Julian as a day trip kind of place. We would drive up the mountain, walk around the town, eat lunch in one of the mediocre restaurants, buy a pie and take it home. The town is charming, with it's buildings dating to the late 1800s, but as we discovered this past weekend - the real charm of Julian is in the relaxing atmosphere, the scenery and the homey little wineries - all of which are outside the town proper.
We stayed in a place called the Artist's Loft, which I simply cannot recommend highly enough. I almost want to keep it all to myself. It's owned by two artists, Nanessence and Chuck Kimball, and their creative touch shows throughout. There are three cabins: the Artists Loft itself - where we stayed, the Cabin at Strawberry Hill, and the Big Cat Cabin. Instead of the usual lace, antiques, dolls and teddy bears, the cabins are decorated with kilim rugs, Indonesian antiques, vintage fixtures and natural wood. The Artist's Loft and the owners' residence were lost in the tragic fires that engulfed the surrounding area in the fall of 2003.
They have since been rebuilt and the Artist's Loft just opened for guests in April, 2006. The Strawberry Cabin and the Big Cat Cabin were spared, but evidence of the fires can be seen throughout the surrounding area. You can read more about the innkeepers' experience with the fires on their website.
The most remarkable thing about the cabin was the view. We could see clear to the coast from the screened in porch. The landscape changed with the light from sunrise to sunset, and the result was absolutely mesmerizing.
The cabin (really a house) has two full master-bedroom suites with king sized beds and jacuzzi tubs; a fully equipped kitchen with a O'Keefe & Merritt Stove; a large greatroom furnished with comfortable seating and a woodstove; a loft with a twin daybed and easel; and a brand new washer and dryer. There were books, magazines, and games, and a cd-player -but no tv.
We brought food and cooked our breakfasts and dinners in the well-equipped kitchen - there were plenty of fiestaware dishes, glasses, kitchen gadgets, cookware and bakeware. They provided pantry items like coffee, milk, eggs, juice and some local lemon date nut bread.
On the recommendation of our innkeepers, we went into town on our first afternoon for lunch at a place called Soups n' Such. It was very good - fresh soups, sandwiches and the like. We then stopped by the Julian Pie Company for the obligatory apple pie (I lobbied for crumb crust, but James insisted on pastry.)
On our way back to the car, we stopped in at a place called the Candied Apple Pastry Company, which I had read about on the internet. We tried to chat with the owner, but she did not seem to be in a particularly good mood. In response to polite questions about her products and the bakery, she gave us only grudging monosyllabic responses. I asked her if I could take a few pictures, and explained what they were for. She agreed, but asked that I not photograph the sample wedding cakes on the central display table in the store. Her comment was "You put them on the internet, and suddenly they're everywhere." Now, I can respect that - it's her business - but I found her comment a bit puzzling, considering that there is a photo gallery of the cakes on her own website.
Aside from all that, her products were fantastic.** Update - Jan, 2007** - the business has been sold and is under new ownership. The next day, after a lazy breakfast, we ventured out for a hike around the neighborhood. We surveyed the nearby homes and peeked in the windows of the (unoccupied) Big Cat Cabin. We decided that we will try to stay here on a return trip. It's cozy for two people and has a slightly more rustic atmosphere than the Artists' Loft. There is a large stone fireplace, a small vintage kitchen, and an enclosed "sleeping porch" bedroom.
We lunched that day at the Miner's Diner, right on the main corner in town. It was fine but nothing to write home about. It's really just a half-step above fast food - you order at the counter and they bring it out to you. They do have a working soda fountain, which is quite rare these days. Remember the "five dollar shake" from Pulp Fiction? Well, here they're $5.50. I had a chocolate malt - it was ok but I've had better.
When Tracy and Brian arrived we went wine tasting at Menghini, J. Jenkins and the Orfila tasting room. At Menghini we sampled not only the wines, but some sausages the owner is curing in his cellar. We saw the bottling operation, which consists of one corking machine and a labeler. Menghini is a small operation, but the wines were very good. They were only tasting whites currently, and told us that they had to empty all of their vats soon, so they could start on their reds. We bought a couple of bottles of Sauvignon Blanc, and some of their Cabernet Rose called "Julian Mist" - which despite the strawberry-wine-sounding name was nice and dry. They are also somewhat famous for their apple wine, which the owner clearly resents. When we tasted it, she excused it by saying "it sells" as if she didn't understand how. It tasted like weak hard cider, but as if to prove her point, two people walked up and asked for it while we were standing there.
At J. Jenkins we sampled both reds and whites. We particularly liked their Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc dessert wine, which they said was a happy accident resulting from a miscommunication with a vineyard in Baja. They had specified a certain sugar content, but when the grapes arrived the sugar was "off the charts." The dessert wine was the result. Here we also tasted another Rose, the Vin Gris de Syrah - which I liked a lot. They are also selling a reserve Pinot and Chardonnay - I think we bought some of that too, but I honestly don't remember. All I know is we ended up with a full case of wine at the end of the day. The Orfila tasting room is in Wynola, just a hop and skip down the road from Julian. It's housed in the same building as a large antique mall. I didn't have a lot of time to check it out, but it looked interesting. At Orfila, we tasted the full complement. They give you one free taste, and for five dollars more you can taste five more wines of your choice. We really liked their Port and Sangiovese. These three tastings were just right for one afternoon, especially considering that we still had a full night ahead of us.
At the end of our tasting, we asked the server where we could find some ice nearby. He recommended a store "down the hill." Well, we didn't realize he meant Santa Ysabel until we were at the bottom. Turns out it's only seven miles from Julian, and we were already halfway there. When we got to the main intersection, we saw the Old Time Photo studio on the corner. You can probably guess what happened next. We pulled into the parking lot, and the next thing we knew we were dressed up in dusters and feather boas. Some of the pictures came out great. By the time that was over, we were definitely ready to head home. We picked up our bag of ice and headed back to the cabin. Tracy had signed up to make dinner that night, and she really went all out. She brought El Indio chips, salsas and guacamole, which we enjoyed with some Blackberry-Mint Margaritas. She then prepared some fantastic peel and eat shrimp baked in butter, garlic, lemon and orange slices. After all that, we ate the actual dinner - Chicken Enchiladas with Caesar Salad, accompanied by a Viognier blend from Pine Ridge that I had brought from home. Needless to say, by that time we were stuffed to the gills. No room even for pie.
The pie had to wait until morning, when everyone except me enjoyed a slice for "pre-breakfast" with their coffee. At a decent hour, we had fried egg sandwiches, prepared by the guys. This is one of our favorite breakfasts to make at home. These were made with brioche, romaine and tomatoes, organic eggs, neiman ranch bacon, shredded cheese and fresh salsa.
If we didn't already have half an apple pie in the car with us we would have stopped in at the Santa Ysabel branch of the Julian Pie Company for a frozen one. I don't think they sell them from their shop in town - but I like baking them at home because they taste fresher and smell so wonderful. The Julian Pie Company really is the best of all the pie shops. Dudley's Bakery is also in Santa Ysabel. I'm not that impressed with it, but a lot of people seem to like it. Their breads are available now in most grocery stores in San Diego.
We drove up to Julian along the road through Cuyamaca - which was beautiful, but kind of sad since the fire damage is still so noticeable. We drove back along 67. Honestly, there was not much difference in the amount of time on the drive - it's about an hour and fifteen minutes each way to San Diego. All in all it was a lovely getaway - easy and not terribly expensive. I think we have found a new favorite place.

The Artist's Loft
(760) 765-9765

Julian Pie Company
2225 Main Street or Corner of 78th and 79 in Santa Ysabel
(760) 765-2449 or (760) 765-2400

The Candied Apple Pastry Company
2128 Fourth Street

Soups & Such Cafe
(760) 765-4761
2000 Main Street

Miner’s Diner
2130 Main Street
(760) 765-3753

Menghini Wines
1150 Julian Orchards Drive
(760) 765-2072

J. Jenkins Winery
1255 Julian Orchards Drive
(760) 765-3267

Orfila Tasting Room
4470 Highway 78
(760) 765-0102

Grandpa's Old Time Photos
30350 Highway 78 (corner of 78 & 79)
(760) 765-1541

for more info, go to