Sunday, February 27, 2011

#4.5: Eat my way through the Big Easy—BURP!

New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.
- Mark Twain

Once upon a time, I was a girl who ate to live. As a 16-year-old ballet dancer, I would sit under the barre, feet shod in toe shoes, devouring a greasy cheeseburger before my pas de deux. But I did it because I didn't want to get any skinnier (and *ahem* flatter). But as healthy as my appetite was back then, I ate for a purpose. I didn't know that there was such a thing as eating for the sheer pleasure of it.

For good or bad, whether it's a blessing or a curse, sometime in the last five years a switch flipped and I turned into someone who lives to eat. Nothing brings me more excitement than figuring out what to fill my ever-expanding belly with next. Which is why while I was in New Orleans, it came to me that had I put more thought into it, #4 on my list should not have been "Party in New Orleans for Mardi Gras." If I were being really true to myself, I would've put down "Eat my way through the Big Easy" instead. But no matter. I did both!

What follows is a quick roundup of our most memorable eats in NOLA (see more detailed posts at The Chiconomist). If you ever come down South to experience Mardi Gras, try to stay hangover-free long enough to indulge in all the deliciousness New Orleans has to offer.

My #1 favorite thing to eat in NOLA, bar none, is Louisiana's state doughnut: the beignet (Yes, official state doughnuts exist, though only Louisiana and Massachusetts have declared one—MA's is the Boston creme doughnut, of course).
We tried the beignets at NOLA institution Cafe du Monde, as well as Cafe Beignet on Royal Street. Cafe du Monde lived up to its hype, with beignets fried to create a delicious crisp shell and a soft,  chewy interior, all of it generously dusted with confectioner's sugar. Cafe Beignet's version was lighter and fluffier, belying its fried origins. My friends preferred the chewy texture of Cafe du Monde's beignets. I think they're different but equally good. I do not discriminate between delicious deep fried doughnuts.
If there was a restaurant that I could vote to transport to New York, it would be Cochon. The ambience is casual but sleek, the service warm yet knowledgeable, and the food comforting but beautifully cooked. Plus, they worship all things pork. My kind of place. The highlights of our meal at Cochon included succulent roasted oysters, addictive alligator with chili garlic aioli, a fresh and perfectly cooked whole red snapper, the most flavorful spicy pork ribs I've ever tasted, and the marvelous pork cracklings topping the cochon—that's Louisiana-style suckling pig, yessiree.
One of the most memorable meals we had down south was just outside of New Orleans and one we happened upon out of sheer desperation. Starving after our swamp tour, we barged into a shack called Wilson's Kountry Korner willing to eat pretty much anything. God bless their deep fryers because in this little shack, we had the best fried chicken ever plus a serving of that majestic thing called swamp fries. What, pray tell, are swamp fries? It's a pile of french fries smothered in roast beef, gravy and two kinds of grated cheese, and as disgusting as that may sound, it is HEAVEN.
As partial as I am to the New York brunch scene, I was quite smitten with New Orleans' version: jazz brunch at Commander's Palace. It was so lovely to be in the beautiful Victorian-style Commander's Palace listening to live jazz while indulging in sinful Southern fare. My favorites were shrimp and tasso henican, hen's egg carbonara, shrimp n' grits, pecan pie, strawberry shortcake and that oh-so-decadent Creole bread pudding souffle.
There's definitely much more to New Orleans than the crazy Bourbon Street scene and I'm glad we experienced some of it. I'm sure we barely scratched the surface, however, and I would love to come back to explore the Big Easy further. Heck, why stop at the Big Easy? I foresee some sort of list in my future with a mission to "Eat my way through the South." It just has to be done.

Hurricanes and Easy Chairs

The first time I heard the song "If I Can't Sell It, I'll Sit On It" by Ruth Brown was at a burlesque workshop when Miss Jo "Boobs" Weldon taught our class how to do a sexy little chair dance. I loved it then and I loved it even more when this lady played it for us live at Pat O'Briens in New Orleans.

Patty O's is one of the most popular spots on Bourbon Street, and rightly so because it's the home of the almighty hurricane. This classic New Orleans cocktail was invented at Pat O'Briens during World War II as a means of getting rid of rum, which was a less popular spirit during that time. The drink's name comes from the glass it's served in, which is shaped like a hurricane lamp. The hurricane contains equal parts of dark and light rum mixed with passion fruit juice, lime juice, orange juice, simple syrup and a splash of grenadine. It is not an artisanal cocktail by any means (the hurricane mix is sold behind the bar) but it is what it is, and is a fun drink to get sloshed on no matter what.

As finicky as I can be with my cocktails and as much as I usually dread touristy places, I have to say that I enjoyed all our visits to Patty O's (yes there was more than one). We had one fun afternoon knocking back hurricanes with a couple we met from San Diego and thereafter cheering on some older ladies determined to show us that they knew how to down blowjob shots. It was also cool to just sit in the piano room listening to raspy-voiced ladies give Southern flavor to everything from country songs to Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." If you're ever in the Big Easy, a hurricane at Pat O'Briens cannot be missed.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

#4: Party at Mardi Gras in New Orleans—CHECK!

Shrove Tuesday is a day to be remembered by strangers in New Orleans, for that is the day for fun, frolic, and comic masquerading. All of the mischief of the city is alive and wide awake in active operation. Men and boys, women and girls, bond and free, white and black, yellow and brown, exert themselves to invent and appear in grotesque, quizzical, diabolic, horrible, strange masks, and disguises.
- James R. Creecy, Scenes in the South, and Other Miscellaneous Pieces (1835)
On February 19, 2011, I got a glimpse of the mischief and madness that has made the New Orleans Mardi Gras the stuff of legend. Our visit to the Big Easy was timed to coincide with the parade that traditionally kicks off Mardi Gras season: the traditional, satirical and risque Krewe du Vieux CarrĂ© parade. Vieux CarrĂ© is another name for the French Quarter and is suitably appended to this krewe's name as its parade is the only one that still goes through the French Quarter, as well as Faubourg Marigny. Unlike the larger, more commercial Mardi Gras parades that utilize tractors to pull their floats, the Krewe du Vieux's floats are pulled by mules or marchers, which enables the parade to go through the narrow streets of this historical district. The floats in the Krewe du Vieux parade follow the old tradition of poking fun at local politics and customs with their unapologetic, no-holds-barred satirical themes. Themes that surfaced this year include the BP oil spill, TSA patdowns, Don't Ask Don't Tell (lovingly renamed "Do Ass, Do Tail"), the Tea Party (the opportunity to encourage tea-bagging being too tempting to resist) and Wikileaks (appropriately taken on by the Krewe of Drips and Dis-charges).
The great music accompanying the Krewe du Vieux parade also sets it apart. No pre-recorded music here—New Orleans' best brass and jazz bands roll through the streets, turning the event into one big street party. I shimmied my butt off with the music but decided to forego the infamous practice of flashing in order to get more beads. It seemed more of a prevalent practice over on boozy Bourbon Street and not on this parade route anyway. Instead, I got cozy with the locals and mugged for photos, took a shot out of a contraption made to resemble a certain body part, and got a faceful of raspberry candy powder from a Tinkerbell-like krewe member. My parade haul, strangely enough, consisted of a few beads, numerous condoms, teabags and a dreidel. That's Krewe du Vieux for you.
The revelers decked out in costumes and bawdy disguises were feast for the eyes—and in some cases, the hands, too. I will not deny that the hand in the photo below is mine. Nor will I deny finding myself in similar situations at other times. My ten cents on walking down Bourbon Street: don't engage the flashers in conversation if you don't want to get a handful. I had to oblige even though I really didn't want to because I didn't want to offend an older lady intent on convincing me she was "all natural." You've been warned.
A really cool thing that happened during this trip was that I ran into an old high school friend, Pia, and met her friend Jennifer. What do we all have in common? All of us have 30 Before 30 lists and had one hell of a good time together crossing New Orleans off those babies!
I had such a great time at Krewe du Vieux's Mardi Gras parade! I loved the feeling of being amongst locals and experiencing the authentic New Orleans vibe. Friends had warned me that Mardi Gras parades can get rough and I was weary of getting pickpocketed and/or groped. But this parade turned out to be quite safe and the crowd was very civilized. The only interaction I had from other parade spectators was from a sweet man who tapped me on the shoulder after I took my raunchy shot to tell me, "You're awesome!"

Partying it up at this Mardi Gras parade turned out to just be the cherry on the top because I fell in love with the mouthwatering food, beautiful architecture, vibrant history, and fun-loving and easygoing nature of the people of New Orleans. Stay tuned for more tales of my romp through the Big Easy!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

#17: Give snowboarding a shot—CHECK!

It's been almost a year since I wrote my 30 Before 30 list, and looking back I wonder about my choice of words. Why did I write "Learn the art of aerial silks", which implies commitment and firm belief that I could actually do it? Conversely, why did I phrase #17 as "Give snowboarding a shot", as if I didn't really want to do it but thought well, I suppose it's something I should at least try?

I guess a year ago I didn't know what I now know about myself. As far as physical capabilities went, all I knew was that I'm flexible at least, so I thought learning aerial silks would be easy (boy, was I wrong). I did not consider myself remotely athletic or adventurous so I didn't know how I'd take to snowboarding. But over the course of the year, I learned a few things about myself: I am athletic enough to run for 5 hours straight, and adventurous enough to jump off a plane, hike up a cliff with sheer drops, and keep surfing even after getting whacked by a surfboard thrice in one day. So by the time I finally got to the slopes to learn how to snowboard yesterday, you could say I'd become a different person from that girl who first wrote this list. I didn't just want to give it a shot; I really wanted to do it, falling and bruising be damned.

So off we went for a Saturday at Shawnee Mountain in the Poconos in Pennsylvania. I started my morning on the slopes with Monica (who's also a newbie, so I had company getting my ass kicked), and Noah and Moey (who had the patience to teach and babysit us as we got slammed by the slopes). Our friends Mia, Monina and Steve were also learning to snowboard that day but had gotten in an hour early and were in a different class from Monica and I. While we waited for our beginners class, Moey and Noah taught us some basics like how to skate, how to get up, and how to fall. I have to say, I felt like our "pre-lesson" was the most productive part. Monica and I learned how to keep our balance on the board and do some riding.
The problem was, I couldn't really get the concept of stopping. At the same time, I loved riding and the exhilaration of picking up speed. Not a good combo. I would ride and speed up until I got scared and then ... I would throw myself on my ass. Kinda fun for the first few times but not a good longterm strategy.

At 1:45, Monica and I went for our beginners class. Our teacher, a nice kid from Pennsylvania, was skillful and taught us the concepts of toe turns, heel turns, toe sides, heel sides and the falling leaf. I say "concept" because I don't think I really got it. Well, okay I'll be honest, I really didn't get it. What happened next illustrates just how much I didn't get it.

By the time we'd finished our late lunch of cooked-to-death burgers, onion rings and improvised cafe mochas, it was almost 5PM. Our more experienced boarder buddies John and Mitch suggested we come along to take on the green slope. Blissfully delusional as usual, I wholeheartedly agreed. I had absolutely no concept of how long or high this slope was, by the way. Our friend Gi said it would take us about 30 minutes to get up and go down, which would be perfect cos he had to get back to the city soon. It didn't occur to me that he was estimating based on the time it would take for people who actually knew what they were doing.

Things started unraveling for me as soon as we stepped out of the lodge. First of all, my rented board disappeared. We spent about 10 minutes looking for it before going to the rental area to ask if someone had taken it by mistake and returned it. "Do you just want a new board? Don't even worry about it; it happens all the time," said the sweet girl at the counter. She gave me a new board and off we went to the ski lift, me feeling a tad unsettled already. As we strapped on our boards and skated to the line, John starts to explain the technique for getting off the lift. Crap. There's a technique? It only hits me then that ski lifts don't stop to load and unload people like, say, a ferris wheel. (Please don't think I'm a moron; I just grew up in a country where the only seasons are "dry" and "wet.")

So we get on the lift, which keeps climbing ... and climbing ... and climbing. We get to the top, dismount, and end up in a giggling heap because of course Monica and I don't know what we're doing. We get up and skate our way to the start of the green slope. I look down and realize, holy crap, this is quite a ways down. And then we get up and go.

I snowboard down ... pick up speed ... and WHAM! I fall so hard that my silly little winter hat flies off. Mitch boards down and brings me my hat while Moey sits beside me and talks me into giving it another go. I get up, go again, and don't get very far before I feel like I hit a bump and come crashing down again. Noah comes and tells me I keep falling because I'm going on my toes too much which causes me to brake hard. And then we hit a bit of a bad spot where I can't get myself going because every time I do, I seem to veer in the direction of the trees. At one point, Noah takes off his board and tries to walk me to the center of the path but I actually manage to take him down. It starts to turn into my own personal shitshow. I start feeling panicked and hopeless. Shoot, I know this feeling. The last time I felt like this was during my pre-test driving lesson. I hate being a bad student and failing makes me go into total shutdown. I have to fight it.

I apologize to Noah profusely and try to go again. I get up, get going, pick up speed, freak out and crash. This pretty much happens in a loop for the next 45 or so minutes. We make it two-thirds down the way before I throw in the towel. By now I am exhausted and can barely pull myself up. Plus my hands are freezing because I forgot, of all things, to buy waterproof gloves. Noah lets me walk down as it's getting late and we all need to get going.

So tail tucked between my legs, I trudge down the slope feeling somewhat sucky. I didn't kick ass at snowboarding; the slope kicked my ass instead. But you know what? It's okay cos I took the blows and tried to keep going for as long as I could. I got slammed around pretty hard: my hat flew through the air a couple of times, I got the wind knocked out of me once when my rib connected with the ice, and I took enough tumbles down the slope to qualify for a gymnastics event. But I kept standing up and trying again, and as a witless beginner, that's all I can do really. When the lodge finally came into view, I found myself stuck in the middle of three merging slopes. Dammit. I couldn't walk down from there without potentially causing a pileup. The only way, I realized, was to snowboard down. So I strapped my feet into the binding one last time for a final ride and crash, and blessedly I was home free. Completely covered in snow, exhausted to the core, and with knees and bum starting to swell up from absorbing so many crazy falls, but back on safe ground nevertheless.

Later, however, when I finally met my friends again and got ready to go home, these words somehow flew out of my mouth: "Don't kill me for saying this. I completely sucked out there ... but when can we go again?"

Yup, I got my ass kicked by that mountain. But I can't wait to come back for another beating.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Baby you're a firework

I never really listened to the words of Katy Perry's song Firework until recently so I'm pretty late in saying this: I love this song. Listening to it brought me back to a not-too-distant time when I felt absolutely lost, aimless and alone ... and how a few encouraging words from a complete stranger gave me something to cling on to and helped me get out of that dark hole I was in.

I'm not a very superstitious person—which is something seeing as how I grew up in the Philippines where many an establishment has statues of Baby Jesus, Buddha and that darn waving golden cat side by side for maximum luck. I don't own a single amulet, evil eye or dream catcher.  And as much as I may harp on about Saturn Return, the truth is, I don't know the difference between a Libra and Virgo.

But in 2009, I hit a crossroad—and I was at such a loss that I decided to sit down for my first (and quite probably last) tarot card reading. I couldn't decide which road to take and would take any advice at this point. One road was an extension of the life I'd led for the last three years—years that were blissfully  happy until I found out that the dazzling scenery on this road was just a painted backdrop. An illusion that hid some unpleasant truths. But I had been happy here and I couldn't seem to leave. The other road was bare at the outset and started with a leap off  a cliff into a place I'd never seen before. But it led to a new frontier, a new world that I could make my own.

The woman didn't show a flicker of emotion until she started laying out my cards. Once she read them, she delivered the crushing blow swiftly. I couldn't stay on this road, she told me. It was taking me in circles and it would bring me back to the same place over and over again if I didn't get off. She didn't know me from Adam and I suppose I'll never know whether she really has a gift for seeing the future or not—but at the very least she saw my pain and told me what I needed to hear

As the last embers of hope for my old life died within me, she stoked a new fire. She started to tell me what the other cards said.

"Do you see this one? It shows someone emerging from a dark place and coming into the light. That's you. You've been through something very difficult and painful, but you're almost out of it. You're going to get to the light soon."

She pointed out another card that showed several cups standing in a row. "Do you see that? You've gone through a lot but at the end of it, all your cups are still standing. You're very strong. You have so many good things ahead of you."

What does all of this have to do with Katy Perry's song?

At some point in our lives, we all hit devastating lows. That moment stands out in my life as a time when I felt so betrayed and beaten down that I didn't even know what I was worth and what I deserved. But this woman, god bless her, gave me hope that better things would come if I could look inward for strength and find the courage to go for the life I deserved to have. I love this song because it  could be for others what that tarot card reader was for me. And if a song is not enough, I hope that my experience can give some measure of comfort. Looking back at that road from the other side, know that this uncertainty, emptiness, frustration and loss eventually passes. When you get to the other side, you'll be glad you picked this path because the view from here is bloody brilliant.

As the song says, "Maybe the reason why all the doors are closed is so you can open one that leads you to the perfect road."

* * *

... if all that was a tad too heavy or sappy for you, shake it off with Katy Perry singing Firework + Akon + the Victoria's Secret fashion show. Have a great weekend, my dears!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

13.1 on 5.21.2011

On the day I turn 30, I will hit the ground running. Pretty much literally. 
Last Tuesday I signed up for the Brooklyn Half Marathon, which is taking place on May 21, 2011. That means no getting drunk on the eve of my birthday—at most, dinner, a drink and maybe some cake? But early to bed and early to rise. I'll have to keep my eye on the prize: the funnel cake, Italian ice and beer at the finish line in Coney Island.

Since I got into running, it became an unwritten goal for me to run all of the borough half marathons. Last year, I ran in the Queens, Bronx and Staten Island half marathons. This year, I'm adding Brooklyn to the list and planning on running the other three boroughs again to get guaranteed entry in next year's NYC Half Marathon. I haven't been too good about running the past few months because I can't stand the bitter temperatures outside and found it difficult to get motivated to run on a treadmill. But as usual, signing up for a race worked its magic. Today, I was able to pry myself out of bed an hour early to get a bit of running in even though I have a cold and was quite honestly a little tired from a late night of hookah and cocktails with the girls. Hopefully, the motivation continues in days to come.

In the meantime ... as of today I have exactly 99 days left to go! Isn't that just unreal? I can't believe how much has happened since this project started—and it blows my mind that there's still so much more to come! This Saturday, I'm hitting the powder (numerous times with my ass, I'm quite sure) to give snowboarding a shot. Next week, I hop on a plane to New Orleans for the kick-off of Mardi Gras season. Zoe and I are done booking everything for Mexico and our mini road trip to Chichen Itza in March. Coachella music festival tickets? Bought long before they sold out. Plans are starting to firm up for a quick visit to Hong Kong to visit my dearest Tamara, who will join me in bungeejumping off Macau Tower. And my bestest girlfriends in Manila and I are in the midst of planning trips to swim with whalesharks, spelunk into caves and swim in volcano craters.

When I think of everything that's happened because of this project, I can hardly believe it. It's given me amazing experiences and at the same time molded me into a person I'm truly happy to be. I'm glad that I'm choosing to start my 30s on a strong note by running in the Brooklyn Half Marathon. It's a statement to myself that turning 30 will not slow me down.

Monday, February 07, 2011

30 Before 30 in Lifestyle Asia Travel

One of the pleasant little surprises that came out of my 30 Before 30 Project was my solo trip to Portugal last September. It was a last-minute work-around for a visa issue that turned out to be one of the most fun things I've ever done. There's nothing quite like sitting in a bus by yourself, a tad uncertain of where you're going, and finding something special at the end of the ride. I met so many cool people in Portugal—a great side effect of traveling solo. In Ribeira Surf Camp, we had our own little gang: Magda, the target-skydiving, booty-shaking Austrian; Melli, the hysterical, photo-snapping other half of this dynamic Austrian duo; Noemi, med student and artist extraordinaire; and Rolf,  med student/Wushu man who would attempt handstands on his surfboard in the middle of the ocean. In Lisbon, I found a kindred spirit, Aileen, who not only carried the exact same Chowhound printout of must-eat-at spots that I had but also had the same propensity to take pictures and blog about everything she devours. What are the chances?

My little project (and life in general) was so hectic last year that I never got to do a proper Portugal recap on either of my blogs. But I did put together some tips for the Postcards section of Lifestyle Asia Travel, which appears in their first issue for 2011. I worked on the editorial team of Lifestyle Asia Travel and Lifestyle Asia magazine many moons ago, and still contribute stories here and there so these publications are very close to my heart. If you happen to be in the Philippines and are as inflicted with wanderlust as I am, I would recommend picking up this gorgeous glossy.

To read about what I discovered during my trip to Portugal, click on the image below to enlarge.
Hope that tickled your wanderlust cos it sure did mine! Thank god there's only nine days left until I leave for New Orleans to experience Mardi Gras season. Can't wait!

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Once upon I time, I jumped out of a plane

Looking out of my window on this Saturday morning, I see mostly gray skies, fog and dirty snow. So I thought today would be a good day to look back on a warm summer day of blue skies and heart-thumping thrills. Without further ado, here is the long overdue video of my skydive:  
It's a great way to get stoked for the next high altitude, adrenaline rush in my plans: bungee jumping off the Macau Tower. I can't wait!

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Get Your Groupon: Exotic Dance Central

So here's my dirty little secret: Since completing the New York Marathon in November, I don't think I've run a total of 26.2 miles in the last three months. As much as I miss running, the weather in NYC has been horrid and I don't fancy freezing and potentially slipping on ice to get a few miles in here and there. I also find the treadmill dreadful. So after whipping myself into pretty good shape for most of 2010, I've allowed myself to degenerate into a hibernating little sloth ...

The only thing I can seem to get myself psyched up for is poledancing. I took a class (and suffered through it) last Sunday at Body and Pole. While I loved the studio, I wasn't too keen on the format of the class I attended, which had very little structure and had me feeling lost most of the time. I was considering taking one more shot at it when I saw today's Groupon, which offers FIVE drop in classes at Exotic Dance Central for just $45! EDC doesn't have the most stellar reviews on Yelp, but it's conveniently located near my workplace and the Groupon is such a steal that I'm willing to give it a shot. I checked out their schedule and they seem to have lots of beginner classes on their schedule with a good variety of classes. There's Pole Pleaser, which teaches the basic spins, transitional moves and floorwork; Pole Spins, which focuses on teaching beginners spins; plus intriguing Lap Dance and Chairdancing Striptease classes! I'm pretty stoked to go. So far, I still prefer New York Pole Dancing's classes to everything I've tried so far, but the Hell's Kitchen location is just a bit inconvenient for me right now. I may come back eventually but for now, I'm willing to give EDC a shot. If you'd like to get in on this Groupon deal, click here.

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