Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top Travel Posts of 2013

In addition to my aforementioned incredible year with New York City, in 2013 I got to explore the world further. In recent years, I've only taken one small trip a year: St. Thomas a few times, London, Amsterdam. This year I took two bigger trips and I don't want to stop anytime soon. 

I spent a full month with my older sister as we traveled through Thailand and Hong Kong in January and Italy in July. My parents joined us in Italy for our first family vacation in a decade. Hopefully we don't wait another decade before our next.

Our trip to Thailand made Asia my fourth continent. I rode elephants. I held tigers. I fed monkeys. I freed birds. I got accosted and interviewed by Thai schoolchildren. I discovered egg tarts, egg waffles, dim sum, and hot pot in Hong Kong. I took a jello shot out of a plastic syringe. I visited holy places and got blessed by Buddhist monks. I made wishes.

In Italy, I saw ruins from thousands of years ago. I wandered around Pompeii, a city I'd been wanting to experience since I was six. I saw masterpieces by some of my favorite artists that I never thought I'd see. I got close enough to Michelangelos to touch them. I didn't touch them. I ate fresh pasta, tomatoes, seafood, and pounds of gelato. I made more wishes.

Here are some of my favorite travel posts of the year:
  • Operation Dumbo Ride - One of the greatest days of my life, hanging out with elephants in Chiang Mai

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Top NYC Posts of 2013

New York City and I had an amazing 2013.

I finished up my big "28 Things to do Before I Turn 28" project right before my birthday. I trapezed on the roof of Chelsea Piers. I walked the entire length of Broadway in one day. I went to speakeasies and four-star restaurants and on a bird-watching tour. I ate from food trucks for an entire weekend.

Making it to No. 1 Broadway after 7 1/2 hours

I became close enough with the guy at the local diner to get free mozzarella sticks each time I go in, provided I give him a hug first. I ate a ridiculous number of bagels, mostly cinnamon raisin with jalapeƱo cream cheese (the Aubrey special). I sang Lisa Loeb's "Stay" way too many times at karaoke. I talked to Andy Samberg, Rashida Jones, and the guy who makes the Cronuts.

"Selfies only," said Andy.

I got private tours of NYC on the back of a Vespa with a handsome gentleman even after I threw up on our third date. I swung on swings. I learned I'm not terrible at darts or ping pong or mini golf. I carved pumpkins for the first time. I started to cook more. I rode bikes again.

I'm not actually allowed to drive it

I celebrated birthdays, job changes, engagements, and a wedding. I said goodbye to a bar where I'd been a regular and became a regular at a few new places. I hung out with my family a ton but still not as much as I wanted to. I wrote for something that wasn't my own blog. I acquired a banjo.

Grom with Mom

Here are some of my favorite New York City posts from this year:

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Christmastime in the City

I've typically been a little behind when it comes to Christmas. I hope my family is okay with gifts purchased from Port Authority on Monday night right before I head home. But while my Charlie Brown tree may remain undecorated, my cards unstamped, and the second half of "It's a Wonderful Life" unwatched, at least I was able to get into the Christmas spirit a little by just walking around the streets of Manhattan this weekend with MK.

We saw the tree in the New York Public Library lobby and the lions, Patience and Fortitude, decked out in wreaths:

We marveled (and drolled) at the NYC scenes in the City Harvest Gingerbread competition at Le Parker Meridian (check out 2010's here):

We climbed on benches and sneaked behind barriers to get a better view than the boring rule-followers at the Rockefeller Center tree:

We maneuvered through the crowds and the scaffolding to see the nativity scene in St. Patrick's cathedral.

We counted and giggled at falling ice skaters at Bryant Park and hid under the tree to try to scare people.

If giggling at people and scaring them isn't getting into the Christmas spirit, I don't know what is.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Philadelphia - Which Cheesesteak Takes the Cake?

While walking through Philly these days, you're bound to see a "Philly's Best Cheesesteak" sign every 15 feet. Even with the abundance of options, MK and I wanted to try the old-school cheesesteak challenge on our trip to Philly last month - Pat's vs. Geno's. These rivals have been directly across the street from each other in South Philly since 1966. Rumor has it the cheesesteak started in the 1930s when a hot dog stand owner started to serve thinly sliced grilled steak with onions on hot dog buns. This owner was Pat Olivieri, founder of Pat's King of Steaks. Provolone cheese was added later to the mix, even though some argue that a "real" Philly cheesesteak these days has to have Cheez Whiz.

Going into this challenge, I assumed the winner would be Pat's. Only one person I asked had recommended Geno's as the best. Geno's had a flashy and overdone exterior with tons of neon lights, so I figured they needed that rather than just depending on a better sandwich. For this reason, I chose the Pat's line to stand in while MK got into the Geno's line. He ended up waiting a little longer than I did because he didn't have cash and had to get out of line to use the ATM (amateur). With my Pat's sandwich hidden in my purse, I strolled on over to Geno's and nabbed us a table.

We decided to get the original provolone cheese on our sandwiches and got the exact same order at each establishment. Don't worry, we ordered in the proper way: "provolone wit'" which is Philadelphian for "Hello, sir. How are you? May I please have one cheesesteak sandwich with provolone cheese and onions? Thank you so much! Have a great night!" I practiced ordering in my head for a few minutes in line because I was not going to be told, "No steak for you!"

When MK sat down with the Geno's cheesesteak, the Pat's one was a few minutes old. I worried this would affect the test, but it hadn't become soggy or cold, so we persevered. We did a bite for-bite test, analyzing the sandwiches in between sips of soda and dips into the fries we got at Geno's. MK and I agreed, no question about it, that Geno's had provided us with the superior offering. Each component was better - the roll was softer, the meat more seasoned, the onions stronger, and the overall sandwich more flavorful. No real difference in the cheese. We actually left a few bites of the Pat's sandwich in the wrapper to fully focus on Geno's steak.

If you have someone to split them with or if you have a larger tummy than I do, go for it and try both cheesesteaks, but I will only be eating Geno's from now on. Another one of my favorite people just moved to Philly last week, so I have a feeling this will not be the end of my cheesesteak experiences there. And it is a fantastic feeling.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Global Bites without the Flights: Philippine Cuisine at Pig and Khao

I started practicing for Thanksgiving (by expanding the capacity of my stomach) weeks ago, meaning that I've had some pretty amazing (and expensive) dinners lately. My training started off at Pig and Khao, former Top Chef contestant Leah Cohen's Asian (mostly Philippines-inspired) restaurant on the Lower East Side. KM (not to be confused with MK) came with me for the sixth installment of "Global Bites without the Flights."

As the name suggests, Pig and Khao is heavy on pork and that was just fine with me (I Like Pig Butts and I Cannot Lie). We decided to do the Chef's 5-course tasting menu instead of having the burden of choosing ourselves, which gave us the added benefit of having some dishes that weren't on the menu. The downside was not always knowing what we were eating.

The first item brought to the table was an amuse-bouche, some combination of foods inside a spoon, to be eaten as one. We could not hear the gentleman who dropped it off so we just went for it, not knowing what it was. Both of us noted that it tasted familiar but could not identify the flavors. 

The second item was fried oysters which were very plain and are not on the menu, possibly for that reason. The oysters did not fit in with the rest of the meal, flavor-wise, and it was the only dish we were not impressed with.

The next dish may have been a variety of the Grilled Pork Jowl on the menu - pig cheeks, with Brussels sprouts, lemongrass, mint, and pork rinds. This was definitely one of our favorites.

We may not have understood the tasting menu correctly because we thought the next dish was going to be the entree - our fourth dish. This was the Sizzling Sisig, right off the menu - pork head, chili, whole egg - and was my favorite course of the evening. It came out as its name indicates, sizzling and crackling, with an egg in the middle of the plate which we were told to spread out and mix with the pork while the egg fried. It would have made a perfect entree and specialty dish, but then, to our surprise, we were brought out more food.

Our actual entree was the menu's Green Rice Crusted Dorade fish, with cockles, chinese sausage, and yuzu dashi, a mandarin-like fruit broth. I typically prefer shellfish to fish fish, but this was a good light white fish, covered in green Rice Krispies to give it a crunch which I didn't expect. 

For dessert, a ginormous Halo-Halo was served. It is a traditional Filipino dessert of shaved ice, leche flan, ube (purple yam) ice cream, macapuno (coconut), and pinipig (the crisped rice). We were encouraged to mix it all up into a soup but tried each component individually first. There's no way we could have gotten through even half the bowl after all that pork, but it definitely was delicious and refreshing.

Check out Pig and Khao if you like different pork dishes and huge helpings of ice cream. If you're feeling adventurous, try the tasting menu, you never know what you'll get, and you may even have an unexpected course. Next time I will be ordering the Sizzling Sisig again and will then try their take on the traditional dishes of Pork Belly Adobo and Crispy Pata (pig knuckles). 

Just don't watch Babe before you go.


PS - Help people affected by the recent typhoon in the Philippines here.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

I May Never See the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (and that's okay!)

The other week, one of my coworkers invited me to his apartment for Thanksgiving morning because his apartment overlooks the trail of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. I thanked my friend for the invite but told him I was heading home to South Jersey for my favorite holiday ever. Because it is such an iconic NYC event, I would LOVE seeing the parade, but I have a feeling I will never see it in person. And that's okay!

My parents have hosted Thanksgiving for our extended family (the frousins & co.) for over 25 years - and I have been helping for one of those years. I think it became my favorite holiday when I was younger because it was the only one we didn't have to drive up to Trenton for. I could sleep a little later, didn't have to beg my dad to buy me a new notebook at the gas station to entertain myself for the two-hour drive, and I got to show off all my toys (or, later on, my *N Sync posters) to my cousins.

If you think my frousins and I are weird now, you should have seen us when we were younger. In 1992, we spent the day practicing every single word to the Aladdin soundtrack and then performing it to the adults (who I hope had all had some wine before sitting through it). I remember stopping the performance abruptly because some of the adults were not taking it seriously enough and kept interrupting by walking through our stage. A few years later, we started making original movies with super weird plots and characters. For some reason, I usually played a villain - most vividly, the leader of the aliens who kidnapped the stupid girl ("tonight is a good night for aliens!"). I also remember being cast as a set of twins who sang "The Boy is Mine" together while fighting over the male lead (Frousin Mike).

When we weren't making movies, we were busy drawing on giant rolls of paper strewn across the kitchen floor, making acorn rings outside, playing spoons or drugdealer (that's a card game for the record), and overappetizing (overestimating the size of our stomachs and filling up too early at the appetizer table). Luckily, everyone saves room for my dad's apple pie and my grandmother's pumpkin pie - so famous that the recipe has been on the Libby's pumpkin can label for decades. 

In recent years, we've also had lots of good news of engagements and babies at the Thanksgiving table. Or, tables, I should really say. Last year we had 23 family members so there were two long tables, a kid's table (no, I didn't sit there), and a few at the counter. It's tight, but we're all in one room, and nowadays, that's my favorite part of the holiday.

This year, it will be a small gathering of just 18, and that includes someone brand new. My cousins have promised to embarrass me in front of this particular guest, as if I don't do a good enough job of that myself. And I can't wait. Parade schmarade. Bring on the appetizers.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

5 Pointz: One of LIC's Coolest Jointz

When Banksy took NYC by storm last month (which I wrote about here), suddenly everyone became interested in graffiti, including this girl. Banksy's New York exhibition brought a lot of attention to the graffiti mecca in Long Island City, 5 Pointz.

5 Pointz, named to recognize the five boroughs of NYC and not after the old Irish slums of the early 1800s, is in danger of being torn down and replaced by condominiums. But because New Yorkers don't give up that easily, there is still a force working to establish it as an NYC landmark. When MK and I were there on Sunday, I signed a form in favor of this so stay tuned. The city may have just been waiting for my feelings on the matter. Take the 7 train out to Court Square and get there as soon as you can, just in case.

Editor's Note: The morning after I posted this, the news came out that the owner of 5 Pointz had white-washed the walls the night before to prep for the demolition process. I'm really thankful that we made it out there just a few days before this happened. Apologies if you missed seeing this in person, but hopefully you can still get something out of these pictures.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Day Trippin' - I Went to Philadelphia and I Liked It

I have had beef with Philadelphia before. And not chopped up, grilled, and covered in Cheez Whiz kind of beef. I'm talking about, you tell me you're from Philly or going to Philly or like the Eagles and I raise my eyebrow, scrunch up my face, and sigh kind of beef. This all stems from growing up on the Jersey Shore. On our particular beaches down south, every summer there is a huge invasion of Philadelphians to our otherwise calm and pleasant seaside towns.

this is how empty our beaches should stay

Despite me holding a grudge against an entire city because of tourists who bring tons of money to the Jersey Shore every summer, when I heard MK had never been to Philly, I immediately thought we should take a trip. I wanted an opportunity to change my mind about the city and its residents. I did go there several times in my first two years after college before I moved up to NYC, for birthdays or nights out, but I hadn't actually explored the city like I do now when I travel.

I'm calling this a "Day Trip" even though we stayed a little longer because you could absolutely go to Philly in a day from NYC. It's less than two hours by car or train. We took a little longer on NJ Transit to Trenton + SEPTA to Philly because it was a lot cheaper than Amtrak. 

Here were my favorite things about our trip to the City of Brotherly Love:

Getting to see old friends!

MK and I were able to spend time with two of my favorite friends from college and their wonderful significant others while in Philly. I hadn't seen either of them since Alumni Weekend in June so catching up was long overdue, plus I've told Ash at least twenty times in the past five years that I was going to come visit Philly at some point. We also randomly ran into one of my very best friend's parents on the sidewalk which was super fun and unexpected.

The Corner Foodery!

MK and I hopped into The Corner Foodery for dinner on Friday night. We ordered the porchetta sandwich (with aged provolone, broccoli rabe, & long hots), sides of marinated mushrooms and warm mozzarella, and picked out two Philadelphia-themed brew-skis. Lucky for me, MK took the first bite of the sandwich. He hadn't noticed the long hots on the menu and I hadn't really realized how hot they were. MK's mouth basically set on fire and I didn't know what to do except attempt to feed him the mozzarella since I know milk helps in these situations. The mozzarella did not help. So I just giggled for a few minutes, picked anything off my sandwich half that might be painful, and continued to eat. My sandwich half was absolutely delightful.

For Saturday, I set up a historical tour for us with Marta at Free & Friendly Tours, a tip-based company. We started off on the wrong foot when I accidentally brought MK, AM, & GK to the wrong coffee shop where I thought we were supposed to meet. This resulted in MK and I waiting 25 minutes for our coffee and two really gross croissants. But once we got started, we walked around the town learning a ton about William Penn, the Quakers, the signing of the Constitution, the Liberty Bell, and Independence Hall (below left). We traveled to Ben Franklin's home and tossed pennies on his grave (to commemorate his witticism "a penny saved is a penny earned") AND learned what a womanizer he was while he was traveling in France. 

Not only did Sabrina's Cafe have a special "Hunger Games" themed menu (with dishes like "Peeta Peeta Pumpkin Eater Pancakes" and "Haymitch's Hangover Cure Egg Sandwich"), but it also lived up to its reputation of having one of the best brunches in Philly (is that Stuffed French Toast even real?!?!) AND the waiter gave MK a "To my Daughter" mug for his coffee. Home run.

While most of the exhibits at the Franklin Institute are actually geared toward children, MK and I enjoyed everything interactive. We climbed inside the two-story model of a human heart, touched a chunk of a meteorite that is a billion years older than the Earth (below right), and watched a movie in the planetarium. MK's favorite part was getting shocked in the electricity exhibit and then poking me so the shock got transferred over. I'm not sure that we learned much but we did have fun playing. 

Philly, I think I want to see more of you. Let's be in touch. Just please don't shock me anymore.


PS - Of course we ate Cheesesteaks! I'll be writing about that on a later date!
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