Inspiration to write (Somewhere over New Mexico, 2019)

Upon boarding my Friday afternoon flight, I had the option to continue working, read articles on my iPad, or listen to music while zoning out.

I was tempted to just get work done as quickly as possible. There was an unchecked box on my professional to-do list and I’m a leave-no-box-unchecked, deranged person.

Knowing that I needed the mental break and realizing that there was no urgency to completing the task till Monday, I popped on the AirPods and chilled out for 10 minutes to Fur Elise and Suite No. 1 in G major. I flashed back to a day in grad school when Yo-Yo Ma came to campus to speak about how automation and art had a harmonious future.

I bought none of it that day; I think our President just paid Mr. Ma a lot of money to make a celebrity appearance. He spent 10 minutes talking non-sense about machine learning, artificial intelligence, and nothing about music. Right about the moment I began thinking Yo-yo Ma is a fraud, he lifted his cello and start playing Prelude No. 1. It was as if he knew he was losing the technologist crowd with his attempt at speaking our language1 and then suddenly reversed to say “Alright, I’ll just do what I’m good at and why you’re all listening to me in the first place.”  

As I often do about people I admire, I mentally photoshopped my face onto Yo-yo’s stiff but firm body, flowing but controlled arms, and embarked on a 3 minute day dream of playing the cello. Papa and Mama Chao would’ve been proud.

Like Eminem raps in “Lose Yourself” though, Snap back to reality.

My mind was rested enough and I also had a backlog of articles to read within my iPad so I started a Zach Lowe article on the newly minted NBA champions, Toronto’s Raptors. He’s a talented writer, and I enjoy the facetious arrogance, deep knowledge, and social commentary all packed into his weekly 5 minute articles analyzing the NBA.

Then it occurred to me that I wanted to write. Perhaps, reading and good writing inspires more pen to paper,finger to keyboard.  I had a lot to think about recently, so this was an opportune moment. This week was an avalanche of to-do’s overwhelming my notebook; I also let my unread inbox pile up to triple digit numbers. This never happens.

I didn’t take moments to catch my breath, let alone read anything of value. WSJ accounts of crude prices or Facebook’s new cryptocurrency don’t count.

Maybe the solution is to force myself to read; make it a nightly task. Or find a moment on a flight in the cramped seat3 of 14C to read and then type with T-rex arms.

Whatever it is, I need to develop a habit, stat.

“He’s known as the globetrotter
Lonely roads, God only knows, he’s grown farther from home, he’s no father
He goes home and barely knows his own daughter
But hold your nose ’cause here goes the cold water
His hoes don’t want him no mo, he’s cold product
They moved on to the next schmo who flows, he nose dove and sold nada
So the soap opera is told and unfolds, I suppose it’s old partna,

But the beat goes on”


1 I don’t proclaim to be a technologist but the crowd clearly was. By transitive property, I was therefore a technologist that day.

2 Pete Wells of NYTimes restaurant reviews is also another personal favorite.

3 I normally wouldn’t complain about being in an economy, aisle-row seat. It’s a privilege to be able to fly at all, but I just wanted peace and quiet today. 14A really wanted to share all eight seasons of Game of Thrones while 14B reciprocated with his love for the Marvel universe. I have never gotten closer to buying noise cancelling head phones.

Rumination – Just want to sit outside (All of 2019)

Increasingly, my one request for the weekend is to be able to sit outside. Whether its in Mexico City, where I can sit in the courtyard of an old church-turned-restaurant or at a wooden bench along any river in any city, I derive whole hearted enjoyment from just being outside, enjoying the breeze, and people watching. Often, my mind isn’t wandering the way I imagined Thoreau’s mind wandered, nor is it fixated on problem solving, the way Turing may have been. Instead, it alternates between planning what to do in the future, deliberate enjoyment of the birds chirping, flowers blooming, or just straight up blank nothing.

I think this new found, albeit stagnant, hobby is a result of being holed up in a conference room all day, debating ideas with my colleagues in tight enough quarters where I get inadvertently spit on twice a week. In my bschool and San Francisco life, I had ample time to go for walk outside along the Charles or Embarcadero. These days, I’d be lucky if I can walk a lap or two around a parking lot once a week. (For a workout, I did run laps in a Best Buy parking lot in rural Louisiana for about 3 months. About 8 laps was a mile, and I would do at least 3 miles. The security guy in the golf cart loved me.)

This sitting al fresco seem inherently at odds with my restless, active nature. However, the pause is much needed in the middle of all this hyperactivity – flights, calls, to do lists, trip planning, people seeing, book reading, inbox zero-ing. Its in this pause, the red wooden benches, and the perching rocks by the river, in which I place a lot of faith.

Faith that one day, I will figure out all this madness. Or at least figure out where to run besides Best Buy parking lots.

Location: Within James Turrell’s Knight Rise. Scottsdale, AZ 2019

My Modus Operandi: Straight-up Hater, Die-Hard Lover

As my time in Boston comes to a close, I’ve been appreciating moments as if they were my last. The final pristine, snow-blanketed morning walk to school. The last time I would take a nap under MIT’s dome. The final jog along the Charles River Esplanade in my winter tights and running gloves. Albeit dramatic, its also an opportune moment to reflect upon my two years here.

My thoughts eventually drift toward an underlying sobering reality – I’ll be moving to Texas this upcoming fall. I won’t lie – I chose Texas for a career opportunity1. I will struggle with the new environment and I’ll definitely sit in a park alone and wonder what am I doing with life.

I rationalize the choice by understanding how I have always operated. I despise my new environments when I move. Berkeley felt like a place that vehemently opposed everything I stood for as an 18 year old coming out of Southern California suburbia. I gave Boston so much hate my first year here that I unintentionally and inadvertently persuaded friends not to visit. Shame on me.

Fast forward a year after I moved to each city, I fell in love with them. I embraced the social consciousness Berkeley embodies, waxing poetic to this day about how you can find professors, students, homeless, and Tibetan monks all sharing pizzas at the Cheeseboard cooperative. The walkability of Boston cast a spell on me, and the city flirts with me each time I eye the brownstones of the South End on my weekly walks through the city.

Knowing that my M.O. is starting as a straight-up hater but ending up as a die-hard lover, I’m installing tools to help me adjust. A friend from school as a roommate is a blessing. I’m also purchasing a Houston Rockets jersey (I haven’t decided which one though. Harden seems reverential and of the moment but Yao Ming would be classic and embrace my heritage). I’m not one to purchase or act symbolically but hey, we all evolve right? Lastly, I renewing my focus on enjoying foods and restaurants that allow me to understand a community. I had difficulty in Boston due to my schedule and the lack of a food culture I found tasty. Having Houston as an underrated but top 5 food city in the US is certainly going to help the transition.

Nothing grows in a comfortable place, Jeff. You’ve grown and learned so much from the communities you’ve been lucky enough to live in. Berkeley opened your eyes to learning about the world. Boston taught you how you can make your mark on this society. Houston and what’s next will be no different; Texas will bring unimaginable gifts.

Bro, let’s go.


1 Although my moves to Berkeley, San Francisco, and Boston have always been for the purpose of a furthering my career, I never struggled with these moves because I always lived as if I was returning home one day. Back to Southern California after the Bay Area. Back to California after Boston. Neither of these ever happened and its daunting to realize that I am not living with the comfort of pretending to know what’s next.

Vacation: checking kicks out since 3rd grade (Montevideo, Uruguay 2017)

I awoke to a sliver of sunlight singeing my upper thighs. The sounds of Montevideo lazily waking up poured through my open windows as I checked for itchy spots on my body – signs of surviving the night without any more mosquito bites. Realizing I went unscathed, I reconfigured my body to avoid the slice of mid morning sunlight.

Sure, I was trivially irritated from my clothes sticking on my body due to the lack  of air conditioning and from having a single half-functioning toilet for an apartment of eight friends. However, I was more amused that I had woken in a situation far away from my Boston life, physically and especially, mentally.

The previous 16 months had been a hustle. Not your Forbes definition of hustle but rather my own mid-20’s definition of the word. I didn’t save lives nor set out as an entrepreneur. Instead, I relentlessly explored career opportunities and threw myself into business school activities in the hopes I’ll learn something from it all. I became a markedly different person – more urgent, less forgiving, and a whole lot more tired.

But something was different that morning in Uruguay. Everything slowed and I felt refreshed.

Having walked a couple blocks to a bookstore turned coffee shop, I was seated in a shaded courtyard enjoying a simple medialuna, a croissant brushed with sugar and baked so that the ham and cheese melted within the pastry. It was satisfying and I felt fully present ..

.. listening to the Spanish spoken around me .. how is my Spanish so poor despite eating in Mexican taquerias my entire childhood? ..

.. reading about the weakening fishing industry in Cambodia .. its been too long since I’ve felt my heart throb during a fishing strike and it’s a shame how little I exercise my fish conservation college minor knowledge ..

.. and observing the shoes on everyone’s feet ..  How are New Balances so popular here? Am I really that vain? I’ve been checking out everyone’s kicks since 3rd grade ..

My mind wandered, connecting the past and present in a way that my scheduled and structured school life never allowed it to.

2017 is the first time I uttered the words “I need a vacation.’

Fortunate enough to be able to travel, I’ve always jetted with the intent of exploring a restaurant, seeing loved ones, or immersing myself in an unknown culture. Never has a trip meant to be relaxing – all inclusive resorts in the Maldives never sounded appealing and still don’t.

However, if a trip allows my mind to enter a reflective state, to connect the dots of my life, and to appreciate it all, then sign me up – I’m all about vacations too.

I’m about to embark on an adventure where I’m doubling down on my career. It’s a deliberate decision to give up some time for my hobbies in the hopes I find a fulfillment in a professional career. Maybe I find it. Maybe I don’t.

More importantly though, I hope to never forget the taco trucks ubiquitous in my home state California, the trout filled rivers of the Sierra Nevada, or my lifelong disdain for New Balance running shoes. Cause these shaped who I am and where I hope to go.

And if a plane ticket abroad is what’s required to weave all this back into my everyday, then you’ll find me thinking away in a foreign café, observing people’s shoes.

On vacation.


Dr. Pablo de María 1185
11200 Montevideo, Uruguay

Reliving the Past – Asador Extebarri (Basque Country, Spain 2017)

I didn’t think through it clearly. Why would I return to the restaurant that presented me one of the best dining experience of my life? Anything less than perfection would have offered disappointment. One simply does not muddle with such memories.

None of this crossed my mind until I walked down the cobblestone path to the entrance of Asador Extebarri, the restaurant in northern Spain that shaped how I have cooked and dined since my first and only visit in 2014.

I paused footsteps from the entrance, sharing with my friend that I was going to take photos of the entrance. Truthfully, I lingered to clear the emerging doubt in my mind.

The dining room hadn’t changed. The menu had a similar progression with a few familiar dishes. In fact, I sat at the same table three years ago. However, one thing about this experience would be different; I opted for the wine pairing. Within the last year, alcoholic beverages have found itself deeper embedded as part of my day-to-day. I left a job that often conducted breathalyzer checks to join a community where a drink a day was not out of the norm. During the entire meal, I felt like a sixth grade pre-algebra pupil sitting in an engineering graduate level course, eyes wide opened at the possibilities of wine but without a foundation for what any of it truly means.

But my visit was really about the food.

Within the first few courses, I remembered why I was here. Hints of charcoal from multiple dishes teased me; a subtle smokiness of the grill hid within the chanterelles mushroom cracker while the aromas of burning wood blanketed every bite of the grilled Palmamos prawns. The wafts and depths of the grill from each of the first seven dishes refocused me1. Regardless of the aforementioned doubt, I was ready for what was and remains the greatest single piece of steak food I have ever tasted, the Extebarri beef chop.

I chose to have the first bite whole, to capture the charred flavors of the grilled crust along with the muskiness of the interior, cooked rare. I had a clear palate, a full mouth, I couldn’t lose. Then, it all came back.

First, the best steaks from the last three years. Gwen in LA, VACA in Orange County, Els Casals outside of Barcelona, Peter Lugers in Brooklyn, the Weber grill in my yard. Every single one fell far short2 of Extebarri, my true and only benchmark of beef. Damn, I am fortunate to have visited all these places.

Next, the friends with whom I shared meals with and the defying conversations into the night that ensued. My college buddies who joined me 3 years ago for the first visit to this Basque country restaurant. The friend that day who was crazy enough to fly to Spain for 36 hours to join me in eating here. And all the friends, new and old, whom seen me not only grow into a world-class food snob but also an individual who cannot hit pause on this game of life.

Lastly, it was all that I’ve become, learned, and failed in the three years between visits to this fine dining temple.

I’ve shed some of my ridiculousness the last few years. Air-guitar shower solos less frequent. Midnight bike rides to the beach non-existent. I can’t even recall the last time I traveled solely to visit a restaurant, the hallmark of my post-college years.

Career progression, moving cross-country, and everything in between seemed to do that to me, but dining at Asador Extebarri this fall day rekindled something in me. If anything, it brought me back to 2014; a simplicity, a purity, and a naïveté that I too often long for today.

I placed the fork down as a droplet of a tear formed, ready to run its course.

And for a moment, all was right in this world.

Asador Extebarri
San Juan Plaza, 1
48291 Atxondo, Bizkaia, Spain


Note 1: I really shouldn’t discount the rest of the meal. The grilled gambas and the grilled porcini and aubergine dish really were spectacular, enough to fall within the top 10 bites of the year. However, when you buy tickets to see Kobe’s last game, no one cares if Gordon Hayward drops 20-5-5.

Note 2: The only experience that ever came close was on a flight from LAX to Calgary. I was eating leftover 60-day dry aged rib steak from VACA in Costa Mesa. I didn’t recognize the funk and greatness of the steak the previous night at the restaurant but upon eating the meat cold, it had a wonderful flavor that came halfway to Extebarri’s perfection. Do dry aged steaks taste better cold? I have yet to figure this out.

Asador Extebarri (Basque Country, Spain 2014)

It’s not every restaurant, especially a fine dining one, where I am greeted at the door by a chef reading a newspaper. However, this was Asador Extebbari, and the fancy norms of Michelin restaurants didn’t seem to apply in this Spanish foothill town of Atxondo.  Turning around and checking his watch, he casually put on his apron, smiled, and gestured us toward the dining room.

What proceeded that unexpected country side welcoming was a fifteen course lunch that brought an unadulterated excitement that I had only associated with my blissfully ignorant youth. Forget knowing which farm your strawberries came from or what temperature this egg was cooked at. The grilled food at Asador Extebarri was simply fantastic.

A few years back, I saw a post about the ribeye at Asador Extebarri in the Basque region of Spain. It looked gorgeous with its crisp edges and velvet interior – a quintessential iconic dish from a restaurant in the Spanish country side. Flying to Spain seemed ludicrous at the time, so I just buried it on my restaurants to try list.

However, I was in Scandinavia soon after, for noma.  Then, in the Pacific Northwest for Willows Inn on Lummi Island. A layover in Tokyo solely for Ryugin.  Again to Scandinavia, but this time to Jämtland for Fäviken. Another few days to the San Juan Islands in Washington, still for Willows Inn.

And in the summer of 2014, I finally visited Asador Extebarri.

Slices of chorizo, as a welcoming snack, jolted my senses awake as the flavors and spices fought for center stage.  Another snack, salted anchovies on bread so perfectly toasted that the crunch and chew countered all of the fish’s brine. A tomato with buffalo mozzarella course masterfully balanced the hearty, comforting cheese with the tomato at the peak of its seasonality and therefore, flavour.  Then, grilled prawns were served with no utensils. The sucking of the shrimp head juices was even better than the perfectly cooked slightly raw tail.  A slice of tuna belly followed. Lightly grilled on the edges, tataki style, I no longer credit nigiri sushi as the best toro preparation.

Finally, the ribeye arrived.

Upon eating a piece, the crunch of the crisp edges lingered longer than any steak I’ve had. Maybe it was my mind holding onto the perfect charred texture or maybe it was just grilled that flawlessly. Then an unfiltered musk followed. A tinge of sweet. Hints of smoke. Cheese? The flavors were so complex and satisfying, it gave me pause.

It was undoubtedly and in every essence of the word, perfect.


See photos from the rest of the meal here.

Willows Inn on Lummi Island (Pacific Northwest 2014)

To visit a destination restaurant without understanding their terroir is a waste. I’ve gone to many exceptional restaurants without any due diligence and left rather confused and frustrated, knowing  I squandered an opportunity to understand the experience.1

A second visit to Willows Inn on Lummi Island, paired with an extended trip in Washington state, allowed me to more fully embrace the experience of this special restaurant. Half a year ago, I visited and was excited d by the sorrel picked by the side of the road, the grilled escarole, and the exclusivity of trying to reach the place. I was intrigued but it wasn’t enough time. I was in and out of the area within 24 hours.

This trip, I parked myself in Washington for a week. I explored coastal tide pools. I hiked mushroom and berry filled trails. I wandered in farmers markets. And at Willows Inn, everything I discovered was highlighted in a meal – the salmon berries, the parade of local “snacks”, or even the progression of the meal fittingly following the trajectory of the sun, ending as the sun set.Together, they represented the Pacific Northwest experience.

Since my last visit, the meal has added a few more small bites to start. The snacks, all locally sourced, range from smoked shellfish and salmon to kale chips with black truffles. They set the stage for you to understand where you are at that moment.

Grilled mustard green with shaved herring roe.

Weathervane scallops and horseradish

Spot prawns poached with its roe.

Porcini mushrooms in sweet woodruff.

Grass fed lamb and grasses.

Salmon berries with wild roses. Chef Blaine explained that the two ingredients here overlap only 2 weeks of the year.

Given the opportunity to spend a week in the San Juans and the surrounding areas, I got to give context to my unique meal at Willows Inn. It’s hard to understand a sense of time and place without actually spending some time in that place. Unfortunately, it’s also difficult to spend more time than just the day of the meal when it comes to visiting destination restaurants. But for a restaurant like Willows Inn, the trip surrounding the restaurant is worth it.

It is the restaurant to understand time and place. Perhaps that’s what Michelin meant when they describe a restaurant as worth a journey itself.

See photos from the rest of the meal here.


1 L’Arpege, Pierre Gagnaire, Sushi Mizutani come to mind where salvaging the uninformed  experience on the spot was out of the question due to language barriers.

2  I recommend visiting in the summer. The three hour meal ends as the sun sets. A meal that doesn’t take advantage of its surroundings more than that.

Climbing out of the Clouds (NYC 2014)

The onslaught of food started not an hour after I stepped off the plane. First up, a lox bagel at Russ & Daughters. I have not found anyone else that masters the balance of lox, cream cheese, bagel, and red onions as well as them.  I stopped by Dominique Ansel to pick up some gifts for others. The last time I was there, I had waited 3 hrs in the early morning for a tasty cronut. He’s up to something new craze, but I’m in no hurry to wait in line. A lavender grapefruit pavlova, which I waited 3 minutes for, was great too.

Anytime I find myself near NYU area, I gravitate toward Momofuku Saam. Its not really that close, but I love the idea of just sitting at the communal counter and wolfing down a rotisserie duck rice bowl. Another neighborhood favorite revisited, the burger at Corner Bistro in West Village. Both guilty pleasures I guess.

I booked a single person lunch at Del Posto since everyone I knew was at work and was treated like royalty by the staff. I thought the luna piena to be one of the best pastas I’ve tasted. The other dishes I had here were all very solid. This is a restaurant I’m glad I finally got to try.

I returned to Robertas after having a great meal there 4 years ago.  I’ve eaten a lot more the past few years and now conclude that the cooking there doesn’t justify such lines. The food is good, but I find the Bay Area quality of mid range restaurants to be of similar style and caliber. The grunge space counter-intuitively draws me back for a fun evening with friends though. The Eastham mussels dish was memorable.

The next evening, I found myself back in Roberta’s courtyard for Blanca. If Roberta’s is a indie rock concert, a pianist in the corner of a hotel lobby would summarize Blanca well. With a kitchen counter seating, Chef Carlos Mirarchi and his two chefs prepared 20+ courses where I enjoyed the dry aged meats the best.  I half expected Blanca to be the best meal of my trip, a la Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare of 2013, and that might have rendered my expectations unachievable (The parallels being kitchen counter seating and banned photography.) While Cesar Ramirez’s cooking at BK Fare pushed out luxurious dishes that wouldn’t seem out of place at destinations like The French Laundry, the food at Blanca was focused. Dishes had a main ingredient with one or two supporting ingredients.  It made for 20+ tasty bites of what a talented chef would have most fun cooking. Chef Mirarchi shared with me that he didn’t want people’s experiences pre-conceived with photos online or posted menus, so I’ll stop with any more details.

I stayed near West Village so I paid a visit to Kesté. The place introduced me to artisan pizza 4 years ago and I had a wonderful buratta pizza this time around. You always remember your first….

Somewhere in all this eating, I walked across the Williamsburg Bridge and had a great peanut butter & jelly ice cream at Odd Fellows in Brooklyn. How does that jelly not freeze?

My friends, Sam and Grace, took me to Delaney’s BBQ in Brooklyn. The brisket is a rock star. Didn’t think anything could resemble to Franklin in Austin, TX but this as close as you could be. By the way, congratulations you two!

There’s a ramen joint in Tokyo, Bassanova, that has proved elusive my last three visits to Japan. The chef left for NYC and opened up Bassanova a while back. While he left the American counterpart as well, the signature green curry ramen remained on the menu. It was good but their tonkatsu version was even better. Around the corner from Bassanova, my friend took me to her childhood favorite, Great NY Noodle Town of Chinatown. The congee here was probably the best I’ve had. Move over Halal cart, a new late night post bar option! I did visit  the Halal cart the night before too though.

While I acknowledge cooking at Jean George’s to be top notch, I have always left disappointed. This time was no different, but here’s a plausible explanation why – the dining room at Jean George out classes the food being served at lunch.  I regard the dining room at Jean Georges to be among the most cleanly beautiful I’ve sat in on a sunny day. The food on the lunch menu is comforting, but something I’d want to eat in an Asian-influenced bistro. The Black Sea Bass in Sweet & Sour Jus and the fried sweet breads were excellent but I find myself eating wanting to enjoy those without the fuss of dressing up. I heard Pete Wells of the NYTimes came in recently for a re-review; I’d probably trust his words more than mine.

Le Bernardin was what I expected it to be – prodigious. The seafood cooking is just incomparable. A few friends wanted to try the best NYC fine dining had to offer so suggested the seafood temple despite it meaning I would have visited twice in a year. I’ll order something besides the Chef’s Tasting menu as I had the same Langoustine dish 6 months ago and two of the dishes had the same main ingredient (halibut and king crab). Regardless, everything was still perfect.

I squeezed a last minute lunch on my last day at Gramercy Tavern. It had been on my list over the years but I never made it in because of all the other “hot” restaurants fogging my mind. I regret not climbing out of the clouds earlier.  The one meal I’ve had there elevates it into my one of my favorites of the city. A perfectly cooked ricotta cavatelli and comforting pork chop dish stood out, as did the gorgeous, comforting dining room. Thanks Bui for indoctrinating me, I will return for sure.

With each trip to New York City, I am learning and understanding the restaurant scene more; no longer just blindly labeling it as the vanguard of American dining (although I still think it is). Each trip remains a mix of the new and old – some old favorites that I can’t help but jump in and some that I’ve eyed from across the country for a while.  Hopefully I find myself in Saam bar sometime again this year.

Russ & Daughters
Dominique Ansel Bakery
Momofuku Saam
Corner Bistro
Del Posto
Odd Fellows Ice Cream
Delaney BBQ
Bassanova Ramen
Great NY Noodle Town
Jean Georges
Le Bernardin
Oddfellows Ice Cream
Gramercy Tavern


Finding a Piece of Me Everywhere (Austin, TX 2014)

I felt like a regular in the Lone Star State capital. Having never set foot in Texas before, I imagined it to be a 180° from the California cities I’ve resided in. I wasn’t too wrong (Lexington, Texas is unrelateable to every molecule in me except one or two Western movie sets at Universal Studios), but Austin seemed like a place where I’d fit right in.

I’ve seen Austin listed as a top city for young professionals and I am often skeptical of the criteria for judging a city’s friendliness toward my labeled group. Nightlife isn’t high on my list despite it seemingly taking up a significant slice of the judgment pie. However, my few days in Austin were how I would want to spend a relaxing weekend, dining and lounging in public spaces, validating the title that I was so unconvinced of prior to the trip.

It’s not my everyday wish to wait in line from 7:30 till 11am for brunch, but Franklin BBQ demanded it and I would do it again. I will unlikely order brisket ever again anywhere else unless it’s known to be on par with Franklins. I could never get a hold of an entire piece of the fatty brisket. Not on my first nor my second or third tries. The slice would just separate due to sheer gravity each time. The tenderness is incredible, but the moisture and flavor paired with the fragile texture made Franklin’s brisket a staple in my day dreams.

Franklin’s seems like the place where people go to hang out before having a good meal – a tailgating of sorts. Folding chairs were set up starting at 8 in the morning where friends would just open a few beers and just hang out like a back yard BBQ. UT students throwing footballs and families sitting on picnic blanket were all in line, hours before they would taste their first bite of brisket. Standing in line for Dominique Ansel’s Cronut last year for 3 hours was the definition of a wait, Franklins was a tailgating festival for the ultimate show.

I also had Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, TX. For all the accolades it has received, I just thought it was a regular place. Franklin spoiled me but I’d rather wait 3 hours in line than drive the hour from Austin for Snows. The location in Lexington made the side trip enjoyable though – it doesn’t get more real than having BBQ in a small Western town with a gravel parking lot filled with huge smokers, pigs squealing behind the ranch fence next door (50 yards away), and the clear blue sky.

( I have to note real quick that Texas BBQ is enjoyed with white bread, the Wonderbread kind. California is commendable for pushing consumers to healthy whole wheat, whole grain options but white bread just tastes great. I miss it.)

The days were spent lounging in the many public spaces Austin has to offer. Lounging in Zilker park for a picnic or people watching seemed like a popular activity as was running along the Colorado river. I’d do both regularly if I resided here. I’d probably end my run with some fishing in the same river. It was awesome seeing families sitting on benches, fishermen in their boats, paddleboarders, and bikers weaving in and between the runners … all from a viewpoint on the Pfluger Bridge.

Trailer parks where food trailers like Torchy’s Tacos are located were definitely a gem too. Similar to a food truck festival, these trailers are parked in trailer parks with outdoor wooden benches, bonfires for warmth, live music, and crude lights strewn overhead across fences. It’s a way of eating and life here – San Francisco can learn from such festive eating standards. Parking food trucks in a parking lot with makeshift tables and benches underneath a bustling freeway just isn’t the same.

I had dinners at both Qui and Barley + Swine. What I found at Barley + Swine was baffling at first. A roasted cauliflower dish with microwave cake? Cobia with romanesco and turnip cooked in a bag? Pancakes, fermented peas, and hot sauce? The tasting menu was filled with combinations that I had never remotely encountered before. Most of them were on the border of tasty or bizarre. It wasn’t until the latter half of the meal did I realize and appreciate what Barley + Swine was doing. They were utilizing the strictly tasting menu format to showcase their style of cooking – exactly what a tasting menu is supposed to be about.  It was one of the few times I’ve ever thought a tasting menu made sense. Too many haute cuisine tasting menus bring forth a myriad of styles, stealing technique and flavors from the el bullis, the nomas, the “gargouille.” Barley + Swine sticks to a personal style and the entire dining experience upholds this commitment.  I had some good bites there but for the thought provoking food, I would point a diner to Barley + Swine when visiting Austin.

Qui was more familiar to what I’m used to on the west coast – food with Asian influences. I ordered the entire left side (smaller sharing plates) of the menu and I enjoyed every single one of them. The cabbage dish, which our table was mutually reluctant to order at first, was stellar. Sautéed and raw cabbage with crispy fried chicken skin, fennel relish, and spiced yogurt. Talent is in the kitchen when a dish labeled “Cabbage” on the menu is the star of the night.

I’d be perfectly fine skipping Lonely Planet’s top 10 things to do if I was able to find comforting spots in new cities like I have in my recent travels –  riding a bike to find Blaine Wetzel pick sorrel from the side of the road, experiencing Zen-like sushi at Sushi Kanesaka, or celebrating in line while waiting for Franklin BBQ. Of course, good eats are what guide my travels, and Seattle, Japan, and Austin have been phenomenal vacations the past few months. I’m having a hard time thinking of where to next ….



Finding Comfort in Parts Unknown (Seattle, WA 2013)

My trip to Seattle and its surroundings stood out among my travels this year. Despite never having set foot in Washington, I felt at home, at ease in this corner of the US. More so than how I sometimes feel in the Bay Area. It was the hints of my beloved Berkeley, the ubiquity of the outdoors culture, and the necessary glue of friendship that made Seattle somewhere I would like to call Home one day.

The trip revolved around paying a visit to Willows Inn on Lummi Island, a celebrated restaurant on the most northeast San Juan Island, a few hours north of Seattle. Much has been written about Willows Inn and its Chef Blaine Wetzel, and the restaurant has become a destination for food centric travelers in recent years. Needless to say, I had a fantastic meal that featured the islands bounty – salmon, mussels, vension, porcinis, shitakes, sorrel, and much more locally procured ingredients. (You can check out the photos of my meal here.) It was here on Lummi Island that I firsthand experienced true foraging.

I visited noma in Copenhagen earlier in the year (Chef Wetzel is an alumni). Most of the items I had on that day were still alive or growing in the surrounding countryside that morning. However, it was here in Washington where using local ingredients made a heartfelt impression

A white Jeep was parked in the middle of the street ahead of me as I biked along the main road that circumvents the island. A chef in the Willows Inn kitchen apron was picking some greens from the side of the road, inches away from the black asphalt. Gently tugging on the rooted greens, he would place them in his hand held wooden bowl. I asked what he was picking.

“Sheep’s sorrel. For dinner!”

Two hours later, the foraged sheep’s sorrel was featured on two courses, with the venison and then with these oysters. It was this moment when I understood a restaurants focus on “local” and “fresh. These roadside herbs were actively conducting photosynthesis just moments before! This was as close to “time and place” as I’ve ever experienced in food.

And it wasn’t until after the meal did I find out it was Blaine picking the sorrel from the side of the street.

If I was to move to another city, Seattle would be at the top of the list. I stayed at a friend’s apartment in the Capitol Hill neighborhood which had the renaissance vibe that I associate with Berkeley. Now my college town does not have bars where Macklemore filmed music videos, but the two towns share the cultured vibes and culinary promise where it would not be strange if street artists would perform on instruments unheard of in the Western world or if a restaurant could be internationally renown for serving just  locally sourced oysters or fresh untampered produce.

Good friends + good views + good food is a formula for memorable experiences that organically manifests itself in my travels. This trip had many of these but one stood out – Paseo’s messy but immensely satisfying pork sandwiches, Gas Work Park’s panoramic views of Seattle proper, and three good friends made for a moment that paralleled any previous formula proven experiences I’ve had. Its hell of a lot easier to appreciate life’s everyday pleasures during shared laughter and while you lick pork juices dripping down your wrists.

When I was job searching during senior year of college, companies asked for my location preferences. Foolishly, I checked the Seattle box as my #1, thinking that I would have an advantage because all the other Berkeley kids would want SF. After this recent trip, my collegiate attempts at a leg up seemed almost prophetic. The next recruiting opportunity, I’ll mark Seattle again. This time, with all earnestness.

(Marking Seattle as your #1 doesn’t work if you bomb your interview, just FYI. It might predict your future though.) 

Photos from my meal can be found here.