Porto With the Whole Dang Crew (Days 3 + 4)

I did good

I did good

It’s very unusual for a man of my age to be on a cruise ship. This isn’t a young thing to do. It’s not even a middle aged thing to do. This is what you do when you retire. You go on cruises and you meet other retired people, and you experience parts of the world that you didn’t get to see earlier in your life because you were busy working. I feel lucky that, essentially, what I am doing is living out somebody’s retirement trip at 34. Today, four different people stopped to ask me why I’m on this cruise. One older gentleman flat out said, “What are you doing on this geezer mobile?” I explained that I was a writer, and his response assumed quite a bit, “Wow. Fun way to make a living.” Yes. A fun way to make a living. It’s beautiful that this experience has made me forget that I’m still quite a deal in debt and churning out a few articles a month for freelancer money.

The crew loves that I'm in my 30’s. As soon as I walked onto my ship everybody was like “Hey, you old son of a bitch! Where ya been pal? You want a glass of wine? How about a bottle?” People keep making jokes that I’m never actually on the ship, and they crack wise when I stumble out of my cabin at 11AM hungvoer. Everyone is super accommodating, excited I’m here, and it feels like I’m going to be eaten. I have humble Pennsylvanian roots; it is difficult for me to accept luxury.

Porto is this beautiful, river-docked city that’s beaming with character. It’s also a docile town, but it has these little pockets of surprises, too. One minute you can hear nothing but your footsteps, and then the next you stumble upon a lively wine bar packed with people. I’m already getting the sense that Porto is about pork, and I’m down with it. Sebastian, the ever helpful program director on the Viking Helgrim (my ship), suggested I go to Casa Gueda to get bifanas, the tiny pork sandwiches which are sold for about 4€ a pop. I like the aesthetic of these things; it’s essentially the size of a half-sandwich, smaller than a burger but bigger than a slider - these little pork rolls makes it easy if you’re only kind of hungry. Casa Guedes serves some of the best pork sandwiches I’ve ever had. Their process is simplified to ensure intense focus on the pork flavors - They roast entire legs of meat, which are dripping with juice, slap it on a bun, add some sheep’s milk “mountain” cheese, and then a man with blue plastic gloves squeezes it all down on a bun. Packets of Heinz mustard are available if you want condiment. At Casa Guedes, there’s little need for anything else; just some basic yellow mustard; anything too complicated will take away from the stars of the show. The part of the my brain that can’t turn off “evil, opportunistic, colonizing white guy” thinks bifanas absolutely smash in LA.

The lead cook that evening, Pedro, was a kind man with whom I identified. We both apologized immediately for not speaking the opposite’s language more clearly. We did finally land on a good stream of broken English, though, which was absolutely necessary if we were going to get to know each other. I chatted with Pedro about Los Angeles, and we exchanged a list of things to do in each other’s cities. Pedro has a whole list of things to do in the cities his customers are from. He showed them to me - New York, Toronto, Sydney, all these lists with very basic things to do like see a sunset or go to a baseball game. We began to chat about Spanish liquor and he brought me a shot, a rose, and some Portuguese coffee on the house. I left charged up on booze and caffeine, and continued to my nightly activity of wandering the streets aimlessly. Porto is a safe city. It is a video game of a town. There is seemingly no danger, and it feels like it would be impossible to die. I get lost for hours at night and feel no hostility by anyone in the streets. Maybe this has nothing to do with Porto and everything to do with Los Angeles. Maybe this is just what a pleasant city is like.

Night 2 at O Alonso

An Anthony Bourdain pilgrimage is a rite for anybody interested in writing about food. I didn’t see the Portugal episode of Parts Unknown, but I knew he went to O Alonso, and I knew the restaurant served franceinhas, one of Porto’s culinary notables.

bridge city food

bridge city food

As soon as I sat down at O Alonso, the waiter brought be some lupini beans and what I can only perceive to be roni rolls. Pepperoni rolls are an important part of Pennsylvania/West Virginia food culture. They are mostly dough, usually bland, but with a soft, pillow-y texture that almost makes the lack of invention and flavor acceptable. So, to recap, right off the bat this place in fucking Porto, Portugal brought out two foods I grew up eating as a kid in Pennsylvania. Maybe there’s a lot in common with Western Pennsylvania and Portugal. Maybe Portugal is Europe’s Pittsburgh. Those appetizers certainly served as a hot tip for what was about to come - the francesinha is essentially an amped up, Spanish croque madame. It is a sandwich made of ham and linguica (smoke-cured pork sausage) pressed in a griddle, topped with melted sheep’s milk cheese, and then covered in a reduction of beer, beef stock, and tomato. The whole thing comes with a side of golden french fries that you’re going to want to throw in that sauce like a poutine. This was a substantial meal, and that’s the thing I’m realizing about Porto: The food is surprisingly heavy. There is some weight to the notion that all cities of bridges are the same. Serving pork sliders and pressed sandwiches with beer sauce and french fries feels pretty blue collar to me. This cuisine could exist in Chicago.


The Omelette Chef (Day 2 in Lisbon)

This is where they filmed Joker

This is where they filmed Joker

Hotel Tivoli in Lisbon serves a breakfast that feels more like a mid 19th century luncheon; Long plates of cheese, cured meats, sausages, waffles, endless amounts of fruit, sugary plums, croissants, and smoked salmon with capers. After I finish doing what I can only describe as “loading up on cheese” I feel ready to start my day. Before I leave the breakfast lounge, though, there is somebody that I must see. There is a person in the room with whom I feel a strong, cosmic connection, and I have been eyeing him up all morning trying to figure out how to express my gratitude for his service. He is the omelette chef. This stoic, prison guard of a cook stands solemnly in front of his station like he mourns the mere concept of eggs. He is a sad man who lives to serve you. You see, breaking each egg breaks his heart. He is affected by everything and nothing. Even the tall, ridiculous looking chef’s hat can’t hide the sadness behind his eyes. Looking at him, it brings back memories. I used to flip omelettes at a country club on Saturdays and Sundays, and I remember standing that still, like a lone tree in a cleared woods, waiting for dentists, lawyers, and local elites to decide what the fuck they want in their omelette. This man has my respect, even though truth be told, I’m not crazy about American omelettes. They’re always a lot of bell peppers (nothing but water content), bacon bits, ham cubes, and shredded cheese - stuff that comes in Value packs or on those eerily shiny menus at Denny’s. This omelette chef did have chives, though, and with his golem hands he made me the perfect French omelette (soft, still a little gooey inside). I was impressed. I took my omelette, wept for a moment while holding his hand, then went on my way.

Some notes:

Lisbon is amazing during the day. I probably walked 10 miles today just getting lost down little alleyways and streets. It’s touristy (people constantly trying to sell me cocaine), and yet not overrun by Americans yet. Actually, an elderly American woman completely butchered “thank you” to me in Portuguese. A friend pointed out that this went to my head, and she’s not wrong. As a white man all you ever want is someone to go “hmmm are you sure you’re white?!” and somebody mistaking me for a Portuguese local is a huge boost to my ego. I am tan, and therefore, of worth.

Can the Can was overrated

So far the best restaurants i’ve been to have all come from personal recommendations (shout out to Karl Hess and Sarah from Loupiotte). However, an article for Eater suggested Can the Can, and I had a feeling early on that it was going to be lacking in quality. Still, I was drawn to the anchovy hamburger, which was fine but nothing special. A mistake. I’m also a little upset that Eater told me I couldn’t write about Portugal because I’m a tourist, meanwhile whoever-the-fuck made this list of Essential Portuguese restaurants put this place that does an anchovy hamburger with bland steak frites and body-less homemade ketchup. This also proves a great point - yes you should be reading about where to go, but also pull some contacts. Ask around. Honest to god, you probably know somebody in Portugal. Ask them where they eat. That’s been the best food I’ve had so far.

close enough

close enough

Also, I have seen tons of signs for Italian restaurants. Crazy. Italian food truly took over the world in a hurry. No cuisine is more ubiquitous across the world, right? I have written in the past about chefs’ disdain for the food of the Italians, and seeing the number of Italian estaurants in Portugal also confirms that attitude. People love mediocre pasta, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, society’s culpability in its success seems to be a sore spot for many.

pastel de nada at ???

pastel de nada at ???

Pastel de nata are worth the hype. I had been subconsciously avoiding them because they’re so common in Lisbon, but damn they’re good. Admittedly, I was very drunk when I decided to purchase one. You see, I had been stumbling around random alleys for hours, shooting off in different directions based on random impulses before I suddenly made a b-line for some pastries. So, I don’t exactly remember the name of the cafe. It’s actually probably right underneath the pastel in the picture, but alas I can’t move it now. First of all, It’s like 1 € for a pastel. That’s cheap. They’re like donuts here. I wasn’t crazy unfamiliar with pastel de natas, as there’s a few Portuguese restaurants in Los Angeles that serve them, however they are nowhere near Hollywood. One is in Sherman Oaks and the other is in Artesia, called Portuguese Imports, which I wrote about here. The pastel at Portuguese Imports is good but the quality of everything is just heightened so much more in Lisbon. The custard is rich and gooey, and the nutty, browned sugar plays a key role as well. Truly a delight. There is some extra care that I can’t quite put my finger on, although you would definitely be hard pressed to find a pastel de nata that wasn’t good. By far the best thing I’ve eaten on this trip yet.

I haven’t spent much time with the other people going on the Viking cruise, but I imagine that will happen tomorrow when we take a shuttle to Porto (with a stop in Coimbra) to board our Viking Helgrim ship.

Lots of Dead Fish in Lisbon

Dead Fish

Dead Fish

All the restaurants in Lisbon seem to be in competition to see who can have the most gratuitous display of dead fish in their window. Makes sense. There are a ton of tourists here, and when a person sees a bunch of dead fish piled up on ice they think, “WOW-WEE. Look how fresh and dead those dead fish are.” Whatever the price is, it’ll get rationalized in your head somehow because the dead fish-to-table concept has taken over your brain. It’s no different than any marketing strategy Kellogg’s uses, or when a pack of gummy bears says, “Made with fresh fruit!” I understand that the seafood is Lisbon is indeed very fresh, but not you or I truly knows what goes on in the back of a restaurant kitchen. Lisbon isn’t a place to just stumble upon a great restaurant; there’s too many traps. You want to go in with a plan. I came with a ton of restaurant recommendations, and most of them are out of my budget. My plan is affordable. It is the plan of a conman who somehow talked his way onto a cruise. I am interested in canned fish, which luckily is suddenly very chic.

Fashion

Fashion

Conserveira de lisboa has been selling tinned fish since 1930. I stopped into more than a few conserveiras and this one is obviously the least commercial. It feels like a shop from the 1930’s, and yeah that might be a hipster thing to adore, but there is something nice about being able to see the emotional and historical attachment of a business. Everything at conserveira de lisboa is reasonably priced, whereas a lot of other stores opened up in the last 10 years and charge 15-20 € for grilled sardines. This is the only store that didn’t have an army of people wearing polos ready to tell you all about their most expensive products. The two people working here were both women, who upon my entrance did not once stop their conversation for me. Nobody accommodated me. Just, “Here, figure it out stupid.” I love that. The most freeing thing in the world is nobody giving a shit that you’re on vacation.

Tinned fish gets a bad rap in America, and it even felt that way in Portugal for a long period of time, but it’s making a comeback. I’m not entirely sure why that is - I think part of it is people appreciating the novelty in it. The old cartoon logos, the historical aspect of it all - it’s like buying a souvenir. Also, canned fish is delicious because most of the eating process is inhaling olive oil. Forget the anchovies you buy at Ralph’s. Here you’re consuming good olive oil and quality seafood. It’s a delicacy. Everybody in Lisbon has a shiny chin from eating canned sardines.

Fried anchovy

Fried anchovy

I also went to Chu Chu on the recommendation of a mutual friend who lives here in Lisbon. They had an excellent display of dead fish in their window (a good sign that they serve fresh, dead fish). I got octopus salad and fried anchovy. The octopus salad was good (very fresh, very dead), but didn’t blow my mind flavor wise. The fried anchovy was excellent, though. I keep thinking about how the presentation was unlike anything you find in America. In America, this would be served modernly with a minimalist touch. The anchovy would shine bright. It would look sexy; not hidden completely by a pile of shredded onion and carrot. Here the anchovy seemed to be fried in oil, then hit with a mixture of vinegar/tomato puree. Fatty, crunchy, and acidic. Also, I often forget how excellent shredded carrots are in things. They add a nice natural sweetness to any dish. Plus when you douse them in vinegar like that, you forget that the thing you’re eating is even a carrot. It’s delightful. Bottom line: The fried anchovy at Chu Chu didn’t feel like an elevated seafood dish at a pricey restaurant; it’s more homey and practical. Glad I got to experience that.

tuna paste for bread instead of butter packets

tuna paste for bread instead of butter packets

A man on the street tried to sell me weed. I got the classic, “My friend, my friend” right up top. He showed the weed slyly, and I laughed, which was all he needed to follow me another 2 blocks down the street. Then he says, “Lisbon, it’s too many people. You smoke this? It’ll be OK.” This dude looked at me ONCE and could sense anxiety. Good lord the drug dealers in Lisbon are intuitive. For a second I thought he was going to start listing things that happened to me when I was 9.

I also bought a pack of cigarettes as soon as I got here. Something about being in Lisbon made me think, “Ahhh, I should relax with a nice, unfiltered Camel.” I smoked two and realized I would not be traversing up many hills if I kept doing this. A Portuguese man asked me for a cigarette, so I gave him the whole pack. He reacted like I was the richest man in the world. This is not a smoking town. I get the feeling that this is a place to drink. Tomorrow I’m going to buy a few bottles of wine, get drunk, and stumble up and down the tiled streets of Lisbon saying “no thanks” for as long as I can to people trying to sell me cocaine.

I am very grateful that Viking is sending me on this trip, although I still have no clue why they agreed to this. I’m too old to be an influencer, and my reach isn’t necessarily huge when I get something published. Speaking of Viking, I have had minimal contact with the representatives so far. Upon exiting the Lisbon airport, I saw several elderly men and women wearing their Viking stickers, and the looks on their faces seemed to indicate, “Hello, we are here and we are trusting our entire lives in your hands. Please find us.” I did not wear the sticker, but that’s only because I did not know we were supposed to be wearing stickers. I also didn’t read too much of the itinerary or the procedures. I hope this doesn’t get me killed. A Viking representative found us and herded us into a large SUV. Everyone around me was over 70. I get the feeling that I will not be hanging out much with my…crewmates? Castmates? The people that are also on this fucking trip. I don’t know, maybe we’ll all get drunk on the boat and bond. I would love to get to know these people and then ask them for 20 dollars.

The whole experience is a little surreal, mainly because I didn’t pay to be here. I get why other people do this, though. It’s really easy. If you know nothing about another country but want to go, why not just give somebody your money and have them do all the booking for you? Otherwise you’re having to look up hotels and book rides and the all that nonsense that keeps us all from taking trips like this. I don’t know, I’m speaking as if I know what people with money would do. I am beginning to understand the appeal of going on a cruise, although I have yet to step aboard the actual ship yet. The hotel I’m staying at, The Tivoli, costs about 800 € a night. Crazy. Going to be really hard not to rob this place.

7 Months Ago I Wasn't A Food Writer

I’m not sure that I am now, either, but that’s how I scored a free trip to Portugal on Viking Cruises. All I did was say, “I’m a food writer?” a few times in the mirror, then sent an email saying, “Yes, I’m a food writer” to Viking’s media representatives. It felt nice to be the one doing the scamming for a change. I only had a couple bylines at the time I billed myself as an accomplished writer/reviewer, and every day I get to look like a dumbass when somebody tells me what bagoong or naengmyeon is. Chengu is recognized by UNSECO as the epicenter of Sichuan gastronomy? Yes yes, of course I knew that. Friend, I wasn’t born in rural Pennsylvania. I didn’t go to a high school with zero people of color and a designated holiday to celebrate tractors. I didn’t just eat 20 candy bars last week to make $200 freelancing. I’m a foodie, you bitch. I know everything.

Over the last 7 months, I started to become confident in my ignorance. That’s been a big part of realizing who I am and what my philosophies are. I fucking hate when people think they know everything. Just admit you’re unqualified. Admit that anybody could do this. While I don’t actually think I’m certified to write about the food in Portugal or traveling abroad, I also don’t think anybody is. If there’s one thing food writing has made me realize, it’s this: Everybody is a fraud, so join the fray.

Viking paid for my entire trip to Portugal (about $12,000) and currently the only writing I have planned is this travel blog. Most of the other pitches I suggested got denied, which is a lot of what freelancing is. Eater told me they don’t want people parachuting in to a foreign place to write about the experience (dumb, close-minded) and they’d rather have locals do it (that’s fetishizing). I pitched some things to Delta Skyline and Vice, and neither bit, although I got a very refreshing “no thanks!” from Vice after 2 business days, which felt like an expedited rejection. The Takeout is one of the only sites that really lets me be myself, but unfortunately they don’t do travel pieces. So here I am, blogging for 12 people that I probably already know (Hi, Mom). I do know this, though: This trip is happening regardless. I leave tomorrow, and technically I can write about anything I want. I could do nothing but eat chocolate and play Nintendo Switch, then review the food in Portugal with, “Good, but not great. Everything tastes like chocolate?”

Let’s take a step back, though, because I do intend to do some actual writing. My goal in this blog is to communicate my experience, yes a charmed one, while hopefully getting to the bottom of what a fucking cruise is like. Who are the people that get on these things? What’s their story? What’s it like to experience a country through a floating country club? Are people really going to use the putting green on the top deck? You’re in fucking Portugal, man. Whenever I enter a situation like this, my initial thought is to subvert the entire experience. My second thought is to reserve judgement. These days, I’m trying my best to reverse the order of those thoughts. I want to be open-minded, and there are questions that I’m dying to know the answers to: Is there such a thing as a truly genuine way to visit another another country? Is this cruise ship any less real than backpacking through Europe or staying in a hostel? Is this shit worth $12,000? I intend to think long and hard about these things, which is crazy now that I type that. I do an awful lot of thinking for an idiot.

Two Stars Means Good

As soon as I get a little bit of money, I spend it on some novel dining experience. One time my brother and I hit 4 restaurants in the same night. Another time I drunkenly slammed 40 dollars on a bar counter to purchase all the little bags of chips at a bar in Pittsburgh. I've picked up a lot of checks just to look and feel cool. Nothing feels better than saying the words, "I got it.” I’m not going to mince words here: Spending money is impressive to me, especially because I usually have so little of it to manage. One rare evening in Chicago, though, I got the opportunity to do something several degrees above my pay grade and social status.

In 2014 I ate at L20, a two Michelin starred restaurant where the chef de cuisine just so happened to be our friend, Bob Broskey (the only thing cooler than saying “I got it” is “I know the guy”). My brother, Anthony, was getting married and instead of a bachelor party he wanted to have a private, drunken gorge affair of the highest quality. Anthony's best man, Rod, would also be in attendance. Rod's the type of guy that would wear a Steeler's jersey to dinner if he could. When he showed up to the rooftop of the Lincoln hotel in Chicago, I'll never forget that he ordered a Yuengling and our server just stared at him with blank disdain. Rod wasn't a foodie. He didn't care that the chefs at L20 worked with Laurent Gras or that we'd be dining in one of the best restaurants in America. My man had no clue what a Michelin guide was and I loved that he was in the mix. Not a one of us had ever been to a Michelin starred restaurant before, but how different could it be? You sit, you eat, then you leave. We were boozed up and high before we even got in the cab.  

big doors for big restaurant

big doors for big restaurant

As soon as I walked through the cartoonishly large wooden doors of L20, I immediately lost my buzz. It was like being pulled over by the cops. "Oh, shit," I probably whispered out loud. There was almost no noise. Most restaurants have at least a little bit of chatter, but this seemed like a sensory deprivation tank. It was so quiet, dark, and ominous that I thought for a second this was going to be one of those scenarios where it turns out that I was the one being eaten. I was blindsided by the ambiance. The lighting portrayed a secret society and I was to be in consideration for membership. Everything screamed, “This is the last meal you will ever eat.” Also, I was having this crazy week and forgot to put on a belt before we left the hotel. I did that move where I casually had my hand in my pocket but really I was holding up my pants. We sat down. I looked at my brother, who looked at his best man, who looked at me. We all communicated telepathically. "We shouldn't be here," we whispered to each other's minds.  

They bring hot towels, and the waiter presides over our table as he watches us use them. The only problem is we didn’t use them at all. We were so high that we had no clue what to do with the towels. We just looked at them, then looked at each other, then the waiter who is just standing there like a god damn prison guard. Eventually he just took them away. I imagine he sighed heavily. Immediately, I became worried that we brought shame to Bob and his restaurant. Then, the first course comes out. It's a crab chip glued to a wooden orb with an apple cider fluid gel. It tastes like Maryland, a place I'd never been. We eat one single chip, and they take away the wooden orb. My paranoia subsides. My high stabilizes. I felt elation because I knew that we were about to go for a ride. 17 courses paired with wine. That's what chef Bob Broskey had in store for us. 

The very worn L20 menu from our visit

The very worn L20 menu from our visit

Anthony and I know Bob because the three of us got very drunk one Christmas Eve morning in Pittsburgh. We posted up on the back docks of a deli, at 7AM, and drank a lot of hush-hush free homemade wine brewed by the employees and served in Dixie cups. Now, I won’t disclose the name of the deli publicly, but if you contact me I will more than happily tell you where to meet us every Christmas Eve for free wine and the best meats and cheeses in the city. We got drunk, bought produce, and I think we talked to every stranger that crossed our path on Penn Avenue. Bob's incredibly down to earth. This wasn't some maniac from Chef's Table. This was Bob. This was the guy telling people at a fish market that I was John Stamos' nephew. It was bizarre to me that he was a chef of this caliber. Maybe I have a stigma that guys like him are supposed to be pretentious. My hesitance with fine dining and the chefs who produce it usually amounts to, "Who's this for?" When you start to look at the bill, it becomes clear that it’s not you or I. Artistic and thoughtful meals usually come with a hefty price tag. A lot of times it feels like cooking with money instead of cooking with love. Bob serving this type of food felt like an anomaly. Entering L20 felt like I was infiltrating high society. I was lower class trash masquerading as a wealthy man (still in poor people’s clothes, mind you). I was a spy. That’s how it started, anyway. By the end of the meal what I actually thought was, “I would be such a good rich person.”

At a place like L20, so much damn thought that goes into each dish. If you love food, you're going to pick up on those thoughts. You're going to see exactly what the chefs are trying to communicate without saying it. The lobster minestrone, for instance, tasted like the ocean. As I slurped the consommé I thought, "This is like drinkable sea water." Later, when Bob said, "I wanted it to taste like the ocean," I felt validated in understanding his intentions. Fun story about the minestrone: Each little vegetable - the carrots, celery, all of it – is cut so small and shaped like the tiny ditalini pasta that you would see floating around in soup. "I give that job to whoever I hate the most at the time," Bob said about the precisely cut micro circles. Without a doubt, cutting those vegetables takes the discipline of somebody fresh out of culinary school who is willing to take a beating just to obtain some sacred kitchen knowledge. What the minestrone made me realize is that that fine dining is cooking with love, but it’s not the love of your grandmother, it’s a love and appreciation of high art.

Punishment for the young

Punishment for the young

At about 9 courses in, our friend, Rod, turns to us with agony and says, "I'm so full." I looked at my brother, then our friend, and whispered, "Rodney, I don't think you understand. We have to finish this." There was no wall for me or my brother. We knew what had to be done, and we helped Rod finish his salad gourmande soon after. The salade gourmande was one of the heaviest dishes of the evening. It was a precise, tweezer-constructed French "salad" of foie, haricots verts, truffle, and mojama - a Spanish salt cured tuna. It was snorting umami off a broken mirror. It almost felt like a joke to give us a salad course this heavy. "You're serving them foie two courses in a row? Why?" That is apparently what chef Matthew Kirkley said to Bob as he prepared our dinner. Bob knew what he was doing. He knew Anthony and I were pirates like him. There wasn’t going to be any empty plates, even if it meant discomfort. Being too full from foie and jamón ibérico and truffles and geoduck is as intense as it sounds. “My body is filled with….treasure?” I can still feel the time sensitive mussel tart melt away in my mouth like some sort of decadent seafood candy. I can remember the smells and tastes like they were something I ate a thousand times after baseball practice. I had to question my upbringing. "Wait, did I grow up near the ocean?" In a word, L20 was memorable, even moreso because I knew that I'd never be back. It was a vacation. I wasn't married to eating like this. 

The bill was close to $800 and it should have been way more. I think we estimated $1,400 or something. Point is, this wasn't affordable even with the "I know a guy" discount. We paid and tipped not nearly as much as we should have. I think it was a cool 20% but when somebody gives you a discount of $600, that warrants a lot more than industry standard. We were scum, and we didn’t belong. Bob invited us to see the kitchen, then I used the bathroom (hilarious to me that people use toilets at high-end establishments). After three hours of eating and drinking, the host finally waved us a cab. I took it back to a friend's apartment. It was towards the end of this wonderful week in August that I spent doing shows and connecting with somebody I hadn't seen in almost 10 years. We were both going through bad break ups and found comfort in each other for the week. I was too full to have sex and thankfully she was asleep by the time I got back. I crawled into her bed. The next morning, as I was packing, she said, "I’m not really ready for you to leave yet." I felt the same way. We talked about seeing each other again, but it never happened. It wouldn't have made much sense. That week was so good, I haven't been back to Chicago or seen her since. Matter of fact, I haven’t seen Bob or been to another fancy restaurant either. Maybe that’s what fine dining is - an unsustainable, but perfectly in the moment Summer fling.

L20 closed less than a year after our visit - but Bob’s new restaurant in Chicago is Beacon Tavern

Better Than Cake

A cookie table for your wedding

A cookie table for your wedding

I love a good wedding. I also love a bad one. To know what's good, well, we must understand what is bad. We must embrace bad. We must study it. I've seen wedding menus so bland they seemed computer generated. Salad with raspberry vinaigrette and chicken cordon bleu, that sort of thing. One decision that is usually consistent and idiot proof (that means very hard to fuck up) is the wedding cake. Nobody complains about cake. To me, though, the wedding cake seems boring. Isn't it kind of dull? I mean, this one type of cake has to be something everyone in the room can enjoy. It's the laugh track sitcom of desserts, and yet, we accept it as tradition. Wedding cake gets ratings. 

But friend, there's an alternative to wedding cake that you're missing out on: It's called a cookie table. It's a stupendously vast array of cookies, a truly a spectacular display of treats. It's fantastical in presentation and conception. A good cookie table looks like overkill. It should be the mirage of a desert straggler. It should feel royal. You should be afraid to touch one cookie for fear of the whole thing falling apart like the later stages of a Jenga session. Growing up I remember pizelles, Hungarian butterhorns, biscotti, buckeyes, lemon custard bars, peanut butter blossoms, and so many more being spread out on fancy, yet cheap plastic trays and paper doilies. A true symbol of community, the cookie table has roots in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio. It's supposedly an immigrant tradition. The assumption is that when couples were too poor to afford a traditional wedding cake, they had both families contribute an absurd amount of cookies to compensate. Its origins are disputed; the exact kind of thing people from Ohio and Pennsylvania fight over. But, I'm not here to talk about where the cookie table came from. Who cares? It's already arrived. We live in this reality. I'm here to tell you why you should have it at your wedding. 

Can I put my hand on your shoulder and call you that shortened version of your name that nobody else calls you? Great. I'm a numbers guy, Al. I like facts. Right now, we're discussing one type of cake versus dozens of different cookies. The cookie table vastly outdoes the wedding cake in terms of variety and flavor. There's something for everybody, and the best part? There's no rules. Just go have a cookie. You don't have to wait. Not like cake. Cake takes an eternity to arrive and leaves in a few short minutes, but cookies at a wedding are eternal. From the beginning of the reception till the end of the night, the cookies are there for you. They're the last person to leave, and get this, you get to take them home. That's right, a traditional cookie table has takeout containers or bags. You can take them home or eat them in the car to sober up. You'll be a hero. People will say, "God damn, remember that cookie table?" and they'll think of you fondly. 

Coffee? No, I don't, but I can run to the AutoZone next door and they usually let me take some from the pot. You sure? OK. Where was I? Oh yeah, remember how poor you are? Remember how you caved into the pressure of society and planned a wedding? While you insist on getting "married" or whatever, you might as well save some cash, and this dessert won't cost a dime. All you have to do is commission your family to bake. In its purest form, the cookie table is a dessert potluck, and you can bet on your relatives taking it way too damn seriously. You're essentially setting up a competition for your family to engage in while you tie the knot. Remember, everyone who bakes for your wedding is trying to have the best cookie, so there's tons of room for conflict. This is the big day. Some will fold under pressure, but someone, probably your grandma, will be completely on top of her shit. The end result of all this familial competitiveness is one of the most awe-inspiring displays of treats you've ever seen. I've seen cookie tables so beautiful I cried at the mere sight.

Now, I know you've got your suspicions, and hell, I would too, but I've seen a whole lot of weddings and the ones with cookie tables are the most successful. I'm not trying to sell you a bunch of bells and whistles; I can promise you that. There's nothing in it for me. I don't make a commission here anymore, and I sure don't have any cookies to sell you. I'm just a guy on an hourly wage that's passionate about his job. I like hospitality. Treat your guests, Al. Ditch the cake, and plan a cookie table. 

A New Thanksgiving

Every Thanksgiving I feel the same. At the end of the night, when that lukewarm malaise of gravy and watching people watch football washes over me in bed, I think, “What the hell just happened?” I seemingly can’t discern whether or not my day was good. Did I enjoy myself? Was it fun? Did it even happen? I never nail the holiday; it always feels like something is missing. Thanksgiving is like leaving the house and forgetting to put on deodorant. It’s also watching YouTube videos with a laptop on my belly at 9PM on a Friday night. The feeling is always uncomfortable sedation. As a kid, I must have pondered the holiday on my first go-around, 

“OK, so this isn’t Christmas. There aren’t any presents as far as I can tell. Also, no signs of Jesus, so, this is just...dinner? Super special extra thankful dinner without Jesus – got it, got it.”  

I haven’t celebrated Thanksgiving with family in over 7 years. Good Lord, I’m not flying home to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving – that's insane. My family would smell the desperation. I think if I showed up in my hometown for Thanksgiving my Mom would say, “Tone it down, will ya?” For me, Christmas is the main attraction. It doesn’t get any better than episode 1 of Jesus. How good is Christmas? It's actually two holidays, and if it was up to me, every celebration would be a Feast of the Seven Fishes. That’s right, I brought salted cod instead of cake for your office birthday party, Zach. Also, look, Thanksgiving is a month before Christmas. Do we really need to be celebrating a pre-Christmas? I thought that’s what Christmas Eve was. Like President’s Day – Thanksgiving has just been another confusing excuse for me to get drunk for the last 5 years. 

In the last half decade, I’ve done a Friends-giving and they’ve all been refreshing and needed. Taking a holiday and turning it into a drunken gorge fest has been a highlight of my late 20’s and early 30’s. Everyone’s busting chops and inside jokes are flying around recklessly. Friends talking shit and shop. Two years ago, Avery Moore and I made lasagna, and that day started with bourbon shots at 11AM. It’s always been a huge party where nobody gets laid. Actually, that sounds like the tagline for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving: You Won’t Be Fuckin’. So, my usual tradition has been hanging out with friends on Thanksgiving. But, this year, I’ve decided to do something different. This year, I’m going to volunteer. Why? My friends suck. 

That’s right. My friends are now so bad, I’ve decided to go volunteer my time in a kitchen to avoid them. That’s how much I hate my friends. They’re always whining about how things in their life aren’t perfect or they’ll say something like, “We should play a board game!” Ugh. Shut up. Honestly, I wouldn’t have to go volunteer for Thanksgiving if my friends were at least a little bit interesting. But no, they’re always going on about some movie they just saw or this new album they really like. Somebody I barely know will inevitably say, “Hey, we should hang out sometime, like outside of Thanksgiving,” then I’ll have to slip away with my trusty line, “Oh, shit. Hang on, my Mom is calling and she has cancer.” This line has never failed me, and I will continue to use it so long as my Mom has cancer.  

Also, none of my friends know how to cook. As far as I can tell, they only eat boiled hot dogs. Recently, a peer had the audacity to say to me at a party, “Oh man, if I knew they were going to have hot dogs here I wouldn’t have eaten hot dogs at home.” I never think it’s possible to hate my friends more than I already do, then somebody will make green bean casserole but forget to blanche the green beans first. They’ll just throw it in the oven and wonder why the green beans taste like candle sticks, and then I end up excusing myself to the bathroom to scream into a shower curtain. Two things I know for sure: I’m not flying home for Thanksgiving, and I'm tired of having to repeat myself because one of my self-absorbed acquaintances is buried into his phone.  

So, I’m going to volunteer this year. I just can't imagine a scenario where I’ll miss Thanksgiving. It just isn’t special to me. If it isn’t special to you, maybe give volunteering a try. Maybe you’ll want to do it more often. At the very least, you’ll likely make some new friends. 

If you’re in Austin, the folks over at Do512 have compiled a great list of places you can contribute here.

I Know The Guy: Ham Hung in Koreatown

"Eh, Italian food. You add clams to some pasta and charge $25." That was the reaction that Sam, the owner of Ham Hung in Koreatown, had when I told him that I used to cook in Italian restaurants. I keeled over laughing because I knew he was right. Sam's funny and painfully aware about the restaurant business. Ham Hung has been around since 1985. They went to their new location off Olympic in 2011, so he's seen the evolution of Korean food in Los Angeles. Every time I see Sam he's wearing a pair of light blue jeans with a tucked in shirt and belt. His cellphone case is attached to his hip so he knows where it is at all times. He's serving traditional food, and baby that cellphone clip matches the menu. The conversation is easy; talking to weathered restaurant owners is usually where I feel most comfortable. We discuss growing up in Seoul, coming to the States, and why he doesn't do sashimi anymore, "I was driving to Santa Barbra every morning. Too much work, man." I circle the conversation back to overcharging for low quality Italian food and he laments, "I can't do that here." He's right again. 

The first time I met Sam, my friend and I had stumbled into Ham Hung and ordered veal intestine. The server said, “It’s spicy” and I responded, “That’s great.” Then, she went to get Sam so that he could explain to me that it was not just spicy, but “pretty spicy.” I imagine this happens a lot at Ham Hung: A guy like me walks in, orders something with chili sauce, then complains because the nothing-in-English menu full of food that isn't for you didn't have a picture of a fucking pepper on it to signify it was hot. We finish our veal intestine, and Sam brings us 2 dishes of cold naengmyeon (North Korean cold noodles). My friend doesn't understand why we've been brought free food, but I do. We got the, "good hungry boy" treatment. You see – my friend and I showed that we loved food, that we appreciated the restaurant, and that we could eat well. I was a cook, once. Anytime a customer showed the slightest bit of taste or passion, I always gave them the good stuff. Sam knew we were good hungry boys, so he brought us the dish he was proud of, what he hangs his hat on. It's also possible that the restaurant was slow and he just wanted to find how much we could eat before tapping out. I once fed a friend an entire plate of seared diver scallops, piled high like fat stacks of cash, just to see if he could finish them all. I get it. 

I'm back at Ham Hung today. It was 109 degrees just 16 hours ago, and the place is packed at 10AM. It's cooler, but that lingering threat of 109 didn't just suddenly go away, either. The restaurant is packed with people who want naengmyeon. Most of Sam's naengmyeon is served Hamhung style. Hamhung is the 2nd largest city in North Korea, and also the restaurant's namesake (The restaurant is spelled Ham Hung, the city spelled Hamhung). What exactly is Hamhung style naengmyeon? Well, that depends on who you talk to. To explain his dish, Sam immediately offers up some musings about its rival, Pyongyang naengmyeon. The distinctions are coastal. Pyongyang is North Korea's capital and Hamhung's west coast counterpart. The Pyongyang style cold noodles involve a tangy beef broth served with Korean pear, cucumber, protein, and boiled egg. The broth and noodle are the key difference to each coasts' serving style. In Pyongyang, the noodles are made from buckwheat, and when coupled with that flavorful, chilly beef broth – it begins to vaguely resemble ramen. The noodles are submerged in tasty liquid. There is a version of Pyongyang style naengmyeon at Ham Hung, and that mellow broth is vitalizing. Sam is reluctant to call it Pyongyang style because he doesn't use buckwheat noodles. "They're harder to digest," he argues. He mentions that Kim Jon-un recently brought Pyongyang style naengmyeon to the summit in South Korea. Pyongyang style is getting the hot press right now, but what Sam specializes in is potato starch noodle. What he's proud of is his Hamhung style naengmyeon. 

To make the potato starch noodle, Sam uses an extruder; one of only 10 in Los Angeles made specifically for naengmyeon, he says. He emphasizes the labor-intensive process to create the noodles from scratch, "Google 100 restaurants that serve naengmyeon, and I bet 90 of them use frozen noodles. I would bet you. It's too much labor. Kitchens are too small." The potato starch mixture, which goes through an extruder several times, creates an elastic, bonded noodle that is indestructible in comparison to the buckwheat. Sam's noodles are delightfully chewy, filling, and seemingly endless. They come right out of the extruder and into boiling water before they are shocked in an ice bath (in case you had any questions about freshness, it doesn't get any better than a machine churning out noodles directly into a pot). They cook in mere seconds, and the result is what feels like an invincible piece of food; a texture you've likely never had, and one that isn't all that common to begin with. It's one of the best noodles I've ever eaten, and few people are doing it right. 

Ham Hung Naengmyeon

Ham Hung Naengmyeon

Hamhung naengmyeon shines through its east coast qualities. It doesn't woo you with a tangy, refreshing broth like the west coast style. Hamhung naengmyeon is dressed in a red chili sauce, and Sam's red chili sauce has just a bit of the Pyongyang style beef broth – a compromise of sorts, giving his naengmyeon a more soup-like quality, "So the noodles absorb the sauce." It gets served in a stainless-steel bowl to help keep everything cold. Mixed with skate, pork, or beef, and served with a thermos pitcher of hot beef broth, the naengmyeon Sam makes represents the perfect summer meal: A constant cooling and warming of your body that feels surprisingly pleasant on a warm day, but also one that can be enjoyed year-round, unlike the Pyongyang style which is more of a Summer dish. 

Sam beams when he talks about version of naengmyeon. His father grew up just outside Hamhung, and it's how he learned to cook the classic North Korean dish. He thinks the style his father showed him is often underappreciated, "Nobody makes it like I do. Some people don't even acknowledge Hamhung style exists. But my friend's Uncle had a restaurant [serving Hamhung style noodles], so, explain that."  It makes sense that a dish like Hamhung naengmyeon would get lost a bit. It was a city damaged by the Korean War only to later be ravaged by famine in the 90's. Sam uses the landscape to describe his dish – the modest potato that makes the full and nourishing noodle, the spicy red chili sauce needed to get through Winter – Hamhung was a desolate place of exile. Sam muses, "When you're in exile, where do they send you? Fucking Timbuctoo." He later confides to me that that they get Hamhung style wrong in Seoul, where he grew up, "They put the sauce on the side." He's now rubbing his temples and I'm smiling, "You wouldn't just top pasta with sauce, would you? You'd toss it in the pan." Sam's talking to me like I only understand Italian food, and he's not wrong. A noodle not tossed in sauce is a missed opportunity. It thrives when it becomes infused with the flavors of the pan. He then eases up on the South Korean interpretation, "But, they do a lot of business in Seoul. Here, we have time to toss everything." 50% of Sam's sales are his naengmyeon, but still he runs into problems with customers. The noodles often require to be cut with scissors, but I get the sense that's for people who aren't gamers. "I don't cut mine when I eat them," he tells me. Naengmyeon is an old school dish. Most people don't grow up eating it, and they especially aren't familiar with the rubber band-like potato starch noodle, "We get complaints all the time because the younger generation isn't used to it." You can look at Sam's face and see a hundred Yelp reviews. 

"Business is OK," he tells me. Finally, I see an opportunity to bust Sam's balls, "Hey man, this place should be filled with white people." We're outside now because he wants a cigarette. He laughs, tilts his head, and says with modesty, "They don't know yet."  

Smelt Lady

At the first restaurant I worked, we paid an old Italian lady to clean smelts for us. Buckets full. She would just sit in front of her TV at night and rip the spine out of these little Lake Erie sardines. Over and over. Truly, cleaning smelts is a pain in the ass. No clue how we even found this woman to do it - it was just a reality I walked into. It was a work responsibility. "Drop the smelts off to the smelt lady,” then my car smelled like fish for a week. Years later, at another restaurant, the chef dropped a large bucket full of uncleaned smelts in front me, and I brought up that "actually" I knew somebody who would clean them for cheap. He said, "Oh, the smelt lady? She's dead." Then I repeatedly ripped out the spine of about 500 smelts. 

Here’s a poem I wrote 10 years ago about the Smelt Lady. It is the only poem I’ve ever written. Enjoy.

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Watermelon + Feta Salad

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I was eating a watermelon and feta salad the other day and thinking about my total willingness to eat foods that I'm not crazy about. I can't throw away food. I have to finish everything, even if I made a regretful decision. Also, I just flat out choose to eat bad food a lot. Sometimes I eat Triscuits and mayonnaise late at night. Even when food's good, I fuck it up by not knowing when to stop. I have lost entire days by eating too much barbeque when I know I have things to do. At this point, I think I know bad food more than I know good food. I cooked bad food for a long time. I cooked in restaurants I didn't respect while serving dishes I knew were bad. It resulted in a strange fascination with the mediocre. I'm fascinated about why we don't eat bad food, and why we're so judgmental about people who do. I would love to see the person – hungry on a sad, drunk, and lonely night, who earlier this year lampooned Donald Trump for eating a well done steak with ketchup – ravaging through their cupboards looking for the perfect snack, and when they don't find it, settling for some cold cheese and bread with mustard. I announce foolishly that if somebody served me an overcooked steak, I would eat it. Now's probably a good time to tell you that I get sick a lot. I got food poisoning at a restaurant in Austin once and went back the next week because I thought they deserved a second chance. Point is, I'll eat almost anything terrible if I'm hungry enough, but recently I had a very hard time finishing a watermelon and feta salad. 

My main complaint about the watermelon and feta salad is that the cheese gets juicy. Say that out loud. "The cheese is juicy." Oh no, right? Watermelon is, what, 92% water? That's like if you poured some feta cheese in your Brita pitcher. Feta by itself? Wonderful. For me, salty cheeses are the best cheeses. Feta sold out and went pop in the last 20 years for sure, but it's still very good even when it's produced by some made up farm and sold at a grocery store that has birds flying through the aisles. Solo watermelon? Mamma mia, few foods in their natural state are as enjoyable and comical as eating a watermelon. It's a cartoon fruit. A classic. Spitting seeds everywhere is a great activity if you're a problem child. Watermelon and feta together? It feels like an arranged marriage. Neither watermelon nor feta seem happy. The popularity of the watermelon and feta salad is troublesome. What's really going, here? What politician benefits from putting these two together? Who had the most to gain from the death of summer salads? I apologize if this takes a gross turn, but the two in my mouth at the same time, quite frankly, felt like eating ass. To be clear, I'm not saying it tastes like ass; I don't think that watermelon and feta salad bears any likeness in flavor to a butthole. It just feels like it. Does that make sense? Probably not. OK, let me explain, and don't walk away. 

If somebody asked you to eat their butthole and you said no, well, you're a bad person. I just picture you discarding tomatoes and olives from your plate saying, "Ew, gross! Things have to be the way I want them always!" I also get why you wouldn't want to. It's definitely not the first thing I look forward to during sex. It's fine. You do it because you love somebody. It's like picking up a friend from the airport. It's only a big deal if you make it one. Oh, and the people that love eating ass and talk about it constantly? They are also full of it. There's a little bit of projection there. You don't have to say you love it. Yeah yeah, we get it, Andrew Zimmern. You eat bugs. I'm not saying it can't be enjoyable. You should feel good and be happy about doing anything that makes another person cum for Christ's sake. But, the people that talk about how much they enjoy it and now everyone is doing it because it's trendy, well partner, now we're talking about watermelon and feta salad. 

Here's what I'm saying: Don't believe the hype. It's good, not great. You should eat it if it's there or if somebody's serving it to you. You should also smile and say how great it is so that the other person feels OK about themselves. But, it's got some problems. Everybody will tell you what food is "epic" or what is "essential" but sometimes food is just OK, and that's fine. 

Also, the watermelon and the feta together does kind of taste like somebody's sweaty butthole after they went jogging. 

Italian Fest: What To Wear

It's that time of year! Soon, the smell of tank top sweat and meatball subs will be permeating the air because people all across the Midwest will be celebrating Italian Fest! Italian Fest is a wonderful celebration filled with lost children, fighting, and bocce. The date of Italian Fest varies from city to city, so If you're going to this celebratory event this Summer, Fall, Winter, or Spring, you'll want to be prepared. That's why I’ve developed a short Italian Fest fashion guide to help you look your best! 

One thing we know for sure: Italians are the sassiest people on earth. Michael Corleone, Tony Soprano, Henry Hill – they were all adventurous, free spirits that were a little saucy. They also dressed the part. Italian fashion is bold and always makes a statement, and nothing says, "I'm Italian" like a t-shirt that says, "I'm Italian." News flash my Medigan friend, there's no such thing as TOO much Italian pride. So, when it comes time to dress yourself the morning of the biggest festival of the year, don't worry, you've got a wide selection of t-shirts that will let everybody know, "Hey! I'm Italian!" 

I'm not yelling. I'm Italian

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Look, Italians yell a lot. It's a fact of life that we all have to just deal with. Do you find yourself being overly aggressive in public and don't feel like explaining why? Do you never want to deal with your issues? Pop one of these babies on and let the shirt do the "I'm not really apologizing" for you! 

FBI  

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No, this doesn't mean Federal Bureau of Investigation. This shirt means Full Blooded Italian. That literally translates to, "I'm the most Italian.” What a power move. Wear this shirt, puff out your chest, and let everyone else at Italian fest know that their best-case-scenario is being the same amount of Italian as you.  

I survived an Italian father 

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Your Dad hit you because he’s Italian. People will say, “No, that’s not true. Come on, Frank’s a good guy.” Then, you’ll point out that “Survived” is written in blood red. This shirt is a cry for help but also gets the point across: You are in fact Italian.

Pray for me. My Wife is Italian.

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Your wife hit you because she’s Italian. Bummer. The good news is this shirt will help make light of a tough situation. They don’t make any “Pray for me my husband is Italian” shirts because the implications are much more sinister.

That's my fashion guide for this year's Italian Fest! Don’t forget, even though you've never been to Italy, make sure to call it the “Old Country.” Ciao!