Thursday, July 2, 2015

Epic Taco Crawl in LA and OC & Raising Your "Taco Consciousness"

I embarked on a 7-hour epic taco crawl last Sunday with twelve other taco lovers.

Guided by Gustavo Arellano (author and editor of the OC Weekly), Bill Esparza (of Street Gourmet LA) and Lesley Tellez (author of the new cookbook Eat Mexico), we traversed the streets of Los Angeles and Orange County to raise our "taco consciousness" and enjoy some of the best street food and hidden gems SoCal had to offer. Between delicious taco bites and refreshing Mexican drinks, our intrepid guides introduced us to new neighborhoods and taught us about the differing styles of cuisine in each region of Mexico. We talked about how immigrants have innovated on these food traditions to give Americans the best Mexican food outside of Mexico and we lamented on the class warfare on street food and the often absurd and classist health department regulations on both street food and ethnic food traditions. Street food is not a crime!

One of the most memorable areas we visited was the Olympic Mercado / Pinata District. Gustavo called it "beautiful chaos" and I couldn't agree more. It's a shock to your senses. The giant piñatas (sadly did not find a Donald Trump piñata we could smash), vendors selling everything from household items to tchotchkes and of course, lots of lots of street food vendors. It's crowded but somehow orderly. The regulars and the savvy know when to slip through a crack in the crowd or make a gentle nudge to keep moving forward. It reminded me a lot of night markets in Asia and I absolutely love that vibrant energy. Olympic Mercado is only open on weekends and starts on Olympic Blvd cross Central Ave. From there, just meander along Olympic and let the scene or scent of grilled meat guide you.

                         Where's the Donald?                           Follow your nose at Olympic Mercado

Gustavo and Bill also gave us an eye-opening education on the tortilla evil that exists in Mission and Guerrero brand tortillas. In short, think Monsanto, think putting good small tortilla makers out of business and think corrupt business practices. This was one of the most important things I learned on this taco crawl. See Gustavo's write-up here to learn more. So, as Gustavo likes to say, raise your "taco consciousness" and eat good tacos by supporting good tortillas and stay away from that artificial, bland and evil franken-tilla!

But without further adieu, I give you our Epic Taco Crawl and I hope you'll go out and do some exploring yourself.

Epic Taco Crawl - LA Stop #1
Mariscos Jalisco specializes in seafood tacos, ceviches and more. We got there around 11:15am and there was already a sidewalk full of people enjoying an early lunch. We had to pace ourselves so we only tried the Tacos de Camaron (shrimp taco). It was so good. I'd take this over a fancy seafood dinner at Providence any day. Crispy taco shell, well-seasoned shrimp filling and the avocado salsa was a great paring. The owner said adding avocado is unique to his preparation for this style of taco.

Epic Taco Crawl - LA Stop #2
The stand on the corner of Kohler and Olympic has no name but you can't miss it. The stand was in full swing when we got there and there were no less than six to eight people pressing fresh masa tortillas, grilling the tortillas and manning the various ingredients on the grill. This was one of my favorites. I loved the charred crispy pork topped with Monterey Jack and salty cotija cheese. And the tortilla was outstanding too.

Epic Taco Crawl - LA Stop #3
Next, we drove about 5 minutes to Guerrilla Tacos which does creative spins on taco fillings and uses gourmet ingredients like veal sausage. The truck is always parked outside some fancy hipster coffee shop. On Sunday, it was parked outside Blue Bottle Coffee in the Arts District of Downtown LA. Standing amongst the well-dressed hipsters and the gleaming counters of Blue Bottle, I felt worlds away (and a little out of place). The tacos here were good but I prefer the energy and style at Olympic Mercado.

Epic Taco Crawl - LA/OC Stop #4
This was quite a find! Rocio's Mexican Kitchen is in Bell Gardens so I guess that makes it halfway between LA and the OC. The owner of Rocio's does a lot of restaurant consulting and this is her first brick-and-mortar which specializes in Oaxacan cuisine. The major highlight was this off-menu chileatole soup/stew. The chile gave the perfect spicy kick to the sweet corn and fresh masa in the soup. I want to eat this every day but especially on a sick day. It tasted like the perfect comfort food.

We also enjoyed chips with four types of mole and the chicken verde and pork purslane tacos. The pork purslane was stewed till tender in this fragrant herb sauce. I imagine that'd be delicious over rice or noodles too.


Epic Taco Crawl - OC Stop #5
Taco Maria is run by Carlos Salgado who was crowned best new chef of 2015 by Food & Wine Magazine. Classically trained, Salgado when back to the OC to help his family's struggling eatery and he ended up starting Taco Maria. It's a beautiful restaurant located in a slick shopping center in Costa Mesa and Salgado is doing something really creative and innovative here to expand and challenge people's assumptions about Mexican food.

We started our tasting with a Hokkaido scallop bathed in chilled aguachile broth. The sweet scallop paired extremely well with the spicy but refreshing aguachile. I loved the cilantro flowers that garnished the dish. Then we ended with a chicken mole taco topped with pickled onions, roasted almonds and cheese. The highlight of this taco was the blue corn tortilla that Salgada made fresh that day. I can't wait to go back for their 4-course dinner prix fixe. Gustavo says its an experience to be savored.


Epic Taco Crawl - OC Stop #6
Alebrijes Grill (aka Pink Taco Truck) is the David to the Goliath that is the City of Santa Ana. Eight years ago, the City of Santa Ana tried to enforce some absurd parking regulation that would have required food trucks to move every 30 minutes. Alebrijes sued the City and won!

Of course, Alebrijes is really known for their unique "Battleship Taco" (aka Taco Acorazado). What you see below is the half size which was still really big. The full size is a huge taco because it has a layer of deliciously seasoned rice and then it's piled with steak milanese, avocado, tomatoes, nopales (cactus) and grilled onions. In order to tackle this, you deconstruct it a little bit and eat some of the ingredients first. At some point, you'll see that you've eaten enough to wrap up the taco and pick it up to enjoy all the layers together. I won't lie. I was really full at this point but I soldiered on and was silently thankful that this was only a half-portion.

Extra Extra!
Olympic Mercado is full of opportunities for discovery. There were fresh crunchy chicharones (fried pork skin), chile lime mango, fresh coconuts, Mexican sherberts and all kinds of Mexican juices like lemon lime with chia seeds, tamarind, alfalfa and more. One of the most unique finds was this fermented juice called pulque made from the maguey plant. It's a milky and slightly viscous drink that reminded me of coconut water. Per our guides, pulque is made and drunk on the same day because the drink becomes too viscous from the continuous fermentation. And it is best made with fresh maguey; do not drink any that's made from canned maguey.


 Pulque drink. This picture is all sorts of awesome.

 Lemon lime juice with chia seeds.

With the end of our epic taco crawl, I just want to say again that street food is not a crime and raise your taco consciousness and support local tortilla makers! The OC Weekly has a regular Tortilla Tuesdays column that can help you find the best tortillas.

Monday, June 8, 2015

My 10-Day Guide and Tips to Driving Iceland's Ring Road

Almost ten years ago, a travel piece in the NYT about the ultimate Iceland road trip inspired me to add Iceland to my bucket list of places to travel to before I die. I finally fulfilled this dream last month.

Iceland is a beautiful country. To quote the NYT article, Iceland "feels like someone put the American West in a blender: California's poetic central coast, the Nevada desert's barren expanses, Alaska's glaciers and Yellowstone's geysers." I couldn't agree more. It's all there and no crowds or traffic! A sense of peacefulness settled into my heart and mind almost immediately and I felt so serene coming back from the trip. I can't wait to go back for the Northern Lights which is most likely to be visible in the winter time from October to March.

I want to share my itinerary and some tips and I hope you'll be inspired to visit this amazing land of fire and ice.


Plan on at least 9 to 10 days if you want to drive leisurely around the entire Ring Road which circles the country. The speed limit varies from 50 to 90 km/hr. We drove about 3 hours on most days and had ample time to explore and do the activities we wanted. If you want to include the West Fjords area too then add another two to three days. With the below, you should be able to take a map and get a good sense of the route and adjust the itinerary if you have more or less days in Iceland.

Day 1

After arriving in KEF airport, catch a FlyBus into Reykjavik. Laugavegur St. (aka Downtown) is the main shopping and dining area so stay near there and you can walk to everything. It's a small town (by LA standards) so you don't need a car (parking is expensive anyway). Take your time and visit local landmarks, enjoy the colors of the buildings, browse the shops and prepare for your road trip.
  • Eat: Fiskmarkadurinn (Fish Market). Before the trip, I was told hot dogs is one of Icelanders favorite foods so I wasn't expecting much culinary experiences on this trip. Boy was I wrong. We had an amazing 9-course tasting dinner here and both the food, service and restaurant decor/atmosphere were outstanding. Just to give you an idea, the bread for the table was served in a cloth bag filled with hot stones to help keep the bread warm. We devoured it with local butter. Reservations recommended.
  • Eat: If you're a noodle fiend like me and need to satisfy a craving, check out Noodle Station. They serve a Thai chicken, beef or tofu noodle soup and it was surprisingly good considering you're in Iceland. There are two locations in town on Skolavoroustigur and Laugavegur St.
  • Sleep: Room with a View. Super central location right on Laugavegur St and there's a supermarket a few blocks away in either direction. Most of the rooms have a mini-kitchen that has a refrigerator, hot plate and sink. The water at this hotel smells like sulfur but it is safe to drink and shower with and is perfectly normal for Iceland.

10pm in Reykjavik

Day 2
Pick up our rental car and start your road trip on Highway 1 (aka Ring Road). We drove counterclockwise and from what I could tell, the scenery is amazing either way. However, I do think you'll hug the coast more if you do counterclockwise so if you're wary of driving like that then do clockwise. The itinerary I'm describing will be counterclockwise.

Listed in order, these are key places you'll visit on the first day of driving which is usually called the Golden Circle.
  • Procar Car Rental. We rented a full-size Toyota Avensis with GPS. Grab a map at the car rental and with GPS and Google Maps on your phone, you'll be all set for navigating Iceland. You don't really need a 4-wheel drive unless you plan on driving what the F-roads. Car rental and gas is not cheap in Iceland. Procar picked us up at the hotel to our rental car. They're a local business.
  • Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park
  • Great Geyser area & Strokkur (an active geyser that spouts every few minutes). There's a restaurant, visitor center, gift shop and cafe here.
  • Gullfoss Waterfall (aka Golden Waterfall)
  • Kerið (Kerid) Volcanic Crater Lake 
  • EatRauda Husid (Red House). A restaurant in the middle of nowhere serving delicious dinner especially seafood and lobster bisque. 
  • SleepHotel Selid. This was one of our favorite BnBs on this trip and no sulfur smell in the water. You'll drive down a gravel road for about 10-15 minutes (#264) and wonder where the heck you're going and then be pleasantly surprised by this little oasis. I plan to stay here when I come back in the winter for the Northern Lights.
Gullfoss Waterfall. This is a huge and powerful waterfall. You'll get a little wet especially on a windy day.

Kerid Volcanic Crater Lake. The water was super blue. This picture doesn't do it justice because it was overcast that day.

Day 3
Continue on Highway 1 and you'll pass by the infamous Eyjafjallajokull Glacier and Volcano which erupted in 2010 and spewed so much ash into the sky that it shut down European airspace for 6 days and cost travelers and the economy billions of dollars. Here's a handy infographic if you want to see more numbers.  This day's highlights include:
  • Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. You can walk behind this waterfall!
  • Skogafoss Waterfall
  • Sólheimajökull Glacier. Off of Road 221, Arcanum Tours runs glacier hikes right at the foot of this glacier. If you Google it, there are plenty of other companies that do guided hikes here as well. I highly recommend it. It's an experience I hope to remember for the rest of my life - drinking cold glacier water, feeling the crunch of the glacier underfoot and admiring the majestic glacier views.
  • Dyrholaey Nature Reserve and Reynisdrangar. This is a black sand beach and there's a massive natural arch carved into the mountain by constant pounding waves. In the summer, it's a favorite bird nesting spot and we saw a few puffins high up on the mountain.
  • Vik. This is a small town with a grocery store so it's a good stop if you need to re-supply.
  • Kirkjubæjarklaustur. We passed this small village and saw the cute little waterfall behind it. There's supposed to be a "church floor" that's a protected natural monument but we missed it.
  • Eat/Sleep: Hotel Geirland. This hotel is sort of like a converted farmhouse. Plenty of sheep around. There's a restaurant onsite that we were very happy with.

Solheimajokull Glacier. The lava rocks are exposed as the glacier rocks. Unfortunately, the glacier is melting fast. According to the guide, where I stood to take this picture was where the glacier started last year.

Hotel Geirland. So peaceful.
Day 4
We were tired after the glacier hike but after a good night's sleep, we forged ahead. There will be some hiking on this day so if you're really sore then plan on taking it easier.
  • Skaftafell National Park. There's a nice visitor center here and we saw many campers in the area. We hiked 45 minutes one way to Svartifoss, a very picturesque waterfall hugged by these crazy looking rock formations known as basalt columns. Hike another 10-15 minutes from there and you'll get great views of glaciers all around. Tip: pack a sandwich and you can enjoy a picnic at the waterfall. 
  • Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon. This was truly breathtaking. Huge icebergs broken from the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier floats in this lagoon. Twice while we were there, we saw chunks break off of the giant icebergs and the loud crash was surprising to hear. There are boat tours that take you into the lagoon but it was too windy the day we visited so it was not safe to go in. Still, it was so beautiful that we spent more than an hour just taking pictures and admiring the icebergs.
  • Hofn. A seaside town that seems to be popular with locals for a quiet weekend of biking, hiking and exploring sights around the area. 
  • Eat: We had a great seafood meal at Ossin inside of Hotel Hofn. The pizzas and langoustines (aka lobster) were excellent and we had them as a bisque and grilled with butter.
  • Sleep: Hotel Glacier. This is family-run hotel about 5 minutes from Hofn and there are two buildings, one of which is renovated and the rooms are really nice. We were booked into the cheaper building (it's kind of like a hostel) but the room wasn't ready so they put us in the new building. Hotel Hofn is also an option.
Svartifoss Waterfall at Skaftafell National Park

Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon

Day 5
After seeing Jokulsarlon, we wondered what else could top that. But today, you'll enter the East Fjords where the scenery and driving will change dramatically. Part of it will be very similar to driving Highway 1 in Big Sur, California with towering snow-capped mountains and cliffs plunging into the Atlantic. Part of it will be vast highland desert and it's a stark but beautiful contrast against the snow that is still abundant in the middle of May. Also, today will be the most driving - about 5 hours compared to 3 to 4 hours on previous days.
  • Continue east on Highway 1. Enjoy the scenery but drive carefully and find turnouts if you want to stop for pictures. Watch out for sheep and reindeer or stopped cars (it's a really stupid thing to do but some people just stop in the middle of the road for pictures)
  • Papey Island (near Djupivogur). Starting June 1st, there are boat tours to this island favored by puffins for summer nesting. We were too early for it.
  • Stöðvarfjörður. This is a tiny village with not much but a Stone Museum and the Saxa Guesthouse. But on the day we passed through, the sun was out and this village was absolutely sparkling. It's hugged by snow-capped mountains and the bluest river runs through the village. We had a picnic of cold ham sandwiches and instant cup of noodles by that river and it was one of the best lunches I've ever had. If we didn't have to keep driving, I would have stayed there and just read by the river for the rest of the day. 
  • Namaskaro Pass / Hverir Geothermal Field. Boiling mud pools that's worth a visit. The sulfur smell is really strong here so beware. 
  • Mývatn Nature Baths. Hate crowds? Then skip the Blue Lagoon by the airport and enjoy a bath here. Here's a quick write-up by Iceland Magazine comparing the two but if you're doing the Ring Road, you might as well make a stop to soothe those tired feed. Oh, one thing that nobody mentioned to me was that both the Blue Lagoon and Myvatn Nature Bath smells faintly of sulfur. If you're allergic then you might want to skip. Both facilities are like a spa so check out their website if you're interested in body treatments.
  • Lake Myvatn. This lake is situated in an active volcano area but its immediate surroundings are extinct volcanoes and pseudo-craters. There are hotels, guesthouses and restaurants in this area and plenty of hiking. If you're into birds, this area is a favorite of many birds for summer nesting.
  • Eat: Vogafjos (Cowshed Cafe) was a farm and they branched into a restaurant and now also run a guesthouse. They have their own sheep and cows so you can order milk and cheese straight from the source! I tried fresh milk for the first time and it was the sweetest glass of milk I've ever had. There's also a nice gift shop onsite where we bought a bunch of sheep's milk soap.
  • Sleep: Hotel Myvatn. Okay hotel. Wifi didn't work in the room. Sulphur is strong in the water but makes sense considering the area. I would try staying at Vogafjos for a more intimate experience.
Stodvarfjordur village. Doesn't it remind you of the scenery in The Sound of Music?
Cows at Vogafjos Cafe

Namaskaro Pass / Hverir Geothermal Field
Myvatn Nature Bath

11pm in Lake Myvatn. You're closer to the Artic Circle here so daylight is even longer here.

Day 6
The day before was mostly driving and admiring scenery. Today, you can take some time in the morning to explore the Lake Myvatn area. Hike to Viti Crater, check out the pseudo-craters and drive or hike to Grjotagia Volcanic Cave which has an incredibly blue and hot thermal pool underground. After that you should forge ahead.
  • Lake Myvatn. Check out Krafla volcano area, Viti Crater, Grjotagia Volcanic Cave, Dimmuborgir
  • Detifoss Waterfall. Continue east on Highway 1 to Road 864 to reach Detifoss. Unfortunately, there was a major car accident that closed the road and we had to detour and could not visit Detifoss which is a shame because it's the largest waterfall in Europe. 
  • Asbyrbi Canyon. A naturally horseshoe-shaped canyon that we also missed because of the closed road and detour. A couple of Icelanders told me this canyon is their favorite site in Iceland.
  • Husavik. This town is know as the "Whale Watching Capital of the World." There are a couple of hotels, a whale museum, a maritime museum, several recommended restaurants and another hot spring you can go dip in.
  • Eat: Gamli Baukur. There are several choices in Husavik but we were craving something simpler. I had a juicy blue cheese burger. I didn't even have to tell them and the meat was medium with a hint of pink - perfectly cooked. If we were craving seafood, we would have tried Naustid on the harbor which serves only fresh seafood. Salka serves a varied menu of pizzas and entrees but they were closed for a private party. Oddly, the whale watching tour company also has a cafe with a patio that overlooks the harbor so beautiful views there while you're enjoying a latte.
  • Sleep: Fosshotel Husavik. This is a small hotel chain in Iceland. Has a restaurant onsite but we ate in town since there were several choices.

Grjotagia Volcanic Cave. You used to be able to swim in this hot pool but it's not allowed anymore. Probably because too many sharp rocks?
Viti Crater covered in snow.

Hiking around lava rocks and pillars in Dimmuborgir / Lake Myvatn.

Day 7
The previous night, we booked a morning puffin and whale-watching tour. We saw puffins from afar (couldn't get close for fear of disturbing their habitat) and about 5 whales coming to the surface. I didn't have a good enough camera to capture any of it in a worthy picture but it was a great experience. However, the Zodiac raft is not recommended if you get seasick or have back/neck issues; take the regular boat tour instead. You'll also get wet so waterproof your clothes. They will give you a suit for the Zodiac tour but it's not 100% waterproof.
  • Gentle Giants and another company run whale-watching tours in Husavik. The booking office is on the main road through town, by the whale museum. It's hard to miss.
  • Godafoss Waterfall. This is a beautiful waterfall and if it's sunny, I think you'll likely be able to see rainbows.
  • Akureyri. This town is the biggest besides Reykjavik and is the northern center of trade, education, and culture. We spent a lot of time with the whale tour and at Godafoss so we didn't have enough time to really explore this town. It looked beautiful and has museums, galleries, shops and a notable botanical garden.
  • Skajafjordur. This area is popular for horse riding and white-rafting tours which we passed on.
  • Eat: Eat in Akureyri or buy something. We made the mistake of driving on because it was getting late and there were no dining options at our hotel that night.
  • Sleep: Bakkaflot off of Road 752. Really cute cabins here equipped with mini-kitchen and small BBQ grill. If we knew, we would have bought groceries to cook dinner. We had a nice dinner of crackers, sardines, an instant cup of noodles and leftover pizza from lunch. They also run whitewater rafting tours here.

Cabin at Bakkaflot
Icelandic horses. Watch out for them too while driving. They were really curious and not afraid to walk up to our car.

Godafoss. Wow, this waterfall was like a giant churning washing machine. I can't imagine how much more powerful Niagara Falls must be. You can feel water droplets flying up from the waterfall - enough to get you wet.

Day 8
This day's schedule was pretty chill but oddly, we still managed to use up the whole day with a lot of stopping and sightseeing. We were supposed to be able to see seals but no luck.
  • Hvammstangi. Small town with the Icelandic Seal Center. The center was small but the guide there is really nice and gave us a small area map with tips/directions to go visit the 3-4 areas most frequented by seals. Luck was not on our side. Did not see any seals.
  • Stykkisholmur. Another small town you can explore and it was the town we spent the night in. Has a harbor for more tours to see puffins and other birds. On the way into town, you'll pass Helgafell, a small "holy" mountain where legend says that if you hike up the mountain without looking back, make a wish and hike back down without saying a word the entire time, your wish may come true.
  • Eat: While driving Road 711 looking for the seal areas, we saw signs to Geitafell, advertising the "best fish soup in the world." I'm not sure if it's the best in the world but it's definitely the best I've had thus far. It's a family-run restaurant and decorated with care. The soup is rich with spices and chock full of local cod, artic char and shrimp. It was about $25USD for the soup which came with salad and homemade bread. Pricey but when in Rome...
  • Eat: Narfeyrarstofa. Popular restaurant in Stykkisholmur recommended by both my guidebook and the hotel concierge. The menu was a mix of burgers and entrees and I had a great lamb entree. A lot of people ordered the local mussels which they are known for but we didn't. 
  • Sleep: Hotel Stykkisholmur. Oddly, the only hotel that did not provide us with a water boiler to make tea/coffee in the room. Wifi in the room is poor too. Overall, okay hotel with big breakfast spread. I'd choose a smaller hotel or guesthouse next time.

Fish Soup at Geitafell

Scenery on the Road

Day 9
The main highlight is enjoying the scenery along the famous Snaefellsnes Peninsula on the way back to Reykjavik. Drive along Road 54 and continue onto Road 570 to go explore Snaefellsjokull Glacier / National Park. Or continue on the peninsula to Road 574 for more beautiful scenery. Don't underestimate how long all of this will take. We stopped a lot and before we knew it, we realized we wouldn't make it back to Reykjavik in time for the Blue Lagoon and car rental return by 6pm. Some highlights to note on the peninsula:
  • Olafsvik. This is a small fishing town with a visitor center here and the guide in there has handy detailed area maps and can give more tips.
  • Ondverdarnes. Beautiful plunging cliffs here.
  • Cave Vatnshellir. You can go on guided cave tours here.
  • Djupalonssandur. Sandy beach with powerful crashing waves on the day we visited. 
  • Snaefellsjokull National Park. Great geological and historic sites here. This was the inspiration for Jules Verne's "Journey to the Centre of the Earth." And here is another chance to do a guided glacier hike.
  • Ytri Tunga. Look out for seals on land or in the water in this area.
  • Deildartunguhver Hot Spring. It's off of Road 518 near Reykholt (which also has a hot pool called Snorralaug). It's the largest hot spring in Europe and it's actually used to heat nearby Bogarnes and Akranes. Sadly, we missed it.
  • Hraunfossar & Branafossar Waterfalls. If you go to the hot spring, continue on Road 518 to check out these waterfalls.
  • Bogarnes From Road 518, head back to Road 50 and connect back to Highway 1. You can detour to Bogarnes known for the Icelandic Settlement Center which recreates the Icelandic sagas about the birth of the nation.
  • Blue Lagoon. If you didn't have to return the rental car like us, you can drive 45 minutes from Reykajvik (it's near the airport) and spend some time at this famous man-made lagoon. We could have joined a tour - many leave from Reykjavik - but they are very pricey since the lagoon admission is not cheap to begin with. Plus, I have to save something for my next Iceland trip. If you do go, do not purchase the beauty products there. Wait for duty free at the airport; it'll save you a ton.
  • Eat: Snaps. Reservations highly recommended and a meal here is a must. I did not expect to find such a wonderful French bistro in Iceland. The place was absolutely hopping with locals and tourists even on a Tuesday night and it's a short walk from the hotel. They make wonderful use of local ingredients like smoked salmon, mussels and a variety of fish. We had the bouillabaisse where every single piece of scallop, shrimp, mussel and cod was cooked perfectly - tender and sweet - none of the eraser tough business. We also enjoyed smoked salmon, Icelandic catfish and a lovely duck confit. 
  • Sleep: Room with a View. We were back in Reykjavik for the night before our flight home the next day and this time we were upgraded to a bigger suite with views overlooking the city and we could see the Harpa Concert Hall from our balcony. It was gorgeous.

I imagine a hobbit runs this restaurant.



 Room with a View

Day 10
Time to go home! Make sure you book your FlyBus the night before to get a pick up to the airport the next day. Your hotel should be able to assist with that. If you can, check out Dons Donuts, a truck favored by locals for delicious donuts. Or, enjoy breakfast at Sandholt Bakery on Laugavegur St. and grab some pastries and sandwiches to enjoy on the flight home. The sourdough bread here is really good.

I was on an afternoon flight with WOW (roundtrip from BWI) and it was a smooth check-in process so I had almost 3 hours to kill at the airport. However, my cousin and friend was on a morning flight with Delta and even though they arrived 2 hours early, check-in and security took forever so they had no time to visit the shops. Blue Lagoon has a tax/duty free store at the airport so all the products are a lot cheaper there. There's a gourmet store next to it selling Smjor Icelandic butter (love this butter), smoked salmon and other goodies. There's also a giant duty free store to sell you all the chocolates, booze and perfume you'd ever want.

A rainbow to bid me adieu.

Overall, this was a most memorable trip. The Icelandic people are really nice. The food is delicious. I really enjoyed all the outdoor activities and being able to take in so much amazing scenery and nature.  I want to hold onto that serenity as long as possible now that I'm back. 

Also, my cousin and a childhood friend joined me on what was originally a solo trip and I'm so glad they came with me. I appreciated their company, the nice, long dinners we had every night and the trip was much more fun to have someone to share experiences with. It also doesn't hurt to have someone share driving and navigation.  

I learn so much about the world and about myself every time I travel. It sounds like a cliche but it's true. Traveling really does open up your world.

General Tips
  • Purchase gravel insurance when renting a car. It's worth it. I normally don't buy the extra insurance but there are lots of gravel roads in Iceland (marked brown on maps). Our car got hit by a rock three days into the trip and gave our windshield a circular crack. Thanks to the insurance (cost us about $7/day), we didn't have to pay anything to fix it.
  • Visit a grocery store in Reykjavik. Stock up on lunch items before you head out of town. There will be other chances to get supplies but Reykjavik will have the best choices.
  • If you make big purchases, be sure to ask about a VAT receipt. You may be eligible for a VAT tax refund at the airport.
  • If you're a T-Mobile customer, check your plan before you go and you should have free international text and data (2G) while in Iceland. This really came in handy and I didn't have to buy a local SIM card this time. This PCMag article can tell you more about this deal.
  • You don't really need a lot of cash. Every place we went accepted credit cards regardless of amount except for one gas station where the system was down and we had to pay cash. Make sure your credit card has no foreign transaction fees and has a microchip and a 4-digit PIN number (although my Citicard did not require a PIN). If you do get cash, there's a Western Union counter when you exit customs that will exchange US dollars with no commission fees.
  • Reykjavik Grapevine has a good "Best of" list for good eats around the city. Please consider NOT eating whale or puffin meat; both are "at risk" populations. There are plenty of other good food you can eat in Iceland.
  • Pick up a copy of Insight Guides: Iceland or a guidebook you prefer.
Packing Tips
  • Clothing optimal for layering and easy drying. None of the hotels we stayed at offered onsite laundry. Iceland weather changes throughout the day and especially when you're driving to different places so layering is good.
  • Waterproof shell or jacket and pants
  • Waterproof hiking boots. I learned this just before my Iceland trip. REI has an annual sale where all returned merchandise goes on sale. I got a pair of nearly new hiking boots for $15! Normal price: $250. In general, REI was really helpful in helping me pick out the stuff I really needed.
  • Thermal wool socks. 2 pairs is enough. You can wash and dry.
  • Jacket with insulation 
  • Ziplock bags (To pack those lunches)
  • Thermos. This was the smartest thing we did. We filled our thermos with hot water, tea or coffee each morning and it was a lifesaver after a glacier hike or to make instant cup of noodles.
  • Insulated bag (To store your groceries in the car)
  • Sunblock / sunglasses
  • Hair conditioner. Most of the places we stayed at did not provide conditioner.
  • Towel Leave it in car and use it to dry off post-waterfall/glacier hikes
  • Swimsuit
  • NO NEED to bring an umbrella. I brought one and it was basically useless or not needed.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Hungry Kat and her Cat

After a stint in Portland last year, I am back in Los Angeles. Solo but not alone because I got my Gizmo with me. She and I have been back since January. We have grand plans to eat and travel the world. Well, I do anyway. Gizmo is just happy to sleep, eat and lay in my lap. I don't care what people say. Cats are the best!

Hopefully more posts about traveling and eating in LA to come.

Gizmo wants to read.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Best LA Eats #4 Jeon Ju's Sizzling Bibimbap

Bibimbap is a Korean rice dish served with a rainbow of marinated vegetables, meat and topped with a fried egg. The rice develops a nice crunchy layer from being served in a sizzling stone bowl hot enough to give you blisters if you touch it.

Located just off of Vermont Ave., Jeon Ju serves the best bibimbap in Los my humble opinion. Elsewhere, you might find versions of this dish where it's served in a regular bowl (what's the point then?), the rice is greasy from too much sesame oil or the vegetables are bland.  At Jeon Ju, you can taste that each vegetable in the bibimbap (shiitake mushrooms, chives, spinach, carrots, bean sprouts, daikon, kimchi) was seasoned with care. And what makes Jeon Ju's bibimbap unique is that they have several versions and their most popular one is the one topped with bbq short rib galbi meat. Mmmmmm.

The selections vary slightly from time to time.

Bibimbap with Galbi
The Korean hot sauce is technically optional but you should give it a try. It's not the same without it and it's really not that spicy.

Spicy Beef and Glass Noodle Soup
Perfect for a cold day. Guaranteed to clear your sinuses! But seriously, this soup is delicious with a bowl of white rice if you can resist ordering a bibimbap.

Beef Bulgogi
Sweet and slightly charred beef bulgogi that comes on a bed of sliced onions and sizzling hot plate. It's the perfect compliment especially if you like more meat in your meal.

LA's Korean food is hard to beat, except I guess in South Korea. My Portland food intelligence tells me to be prepared to miss LA's Korean food badly so I recently bought two stone pots at the Korean market with the naive hope to replicate Jeon Ju's bibimbap. Hey, at least I'm trying. 

Jeon Ju
2716 W. Olympic Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90006
(213) 386-5678 
*Parking in the strip mall is often hard. The strip mall is on the corner of Olympic and New Hampshire. Go past the strip mall on New Hampshire and there's a backlot that always has parking.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Best Eats #3 - LA's Best Tsukemen Ramen at Tsujita

It's rare for a ramen shop to be so elegantly designed and decorated but at Tsujita everything fades away as soon as your tsukemen (dipping ramen) arrives. Attention must be paid to the noodles and char siu because Tsujita serves the best tsukemen in Los Angeles!

Char Siu Tsukemen
When you order the tsukemen, you get two bowls. One is this bowl of thick al dente noodles topped with generous slices of braised fatty pork. This is the most tender char siu you'll ever taste. You also get a second smaller bowl of tonkotsu broth to dip your noodles in. Enjoy a few bites and then squeeze some lime on the noodles to help cut the fattiness. 

Tonkotsu Broth
Tsujita boils their tonkotsu pork bone broth for 60 hours. The result is a super thick and concentrated broth that glazes and clings to every strand of noodle. Sitting in the broth is a seasoned soft-boiled egg, house-made bamboo shoots, chopped bits of char siu pork and green onions.

The Perfect Egg
To me, a soft-boiled egg with an oozing orange yolk is the perfect egg with ramen. I can eat this egg every day.

Char Siu Don
If you're feeling extra hungry, this small bowl of hot, fluffy short-grain rice topped with the same pork that comes with the tsukemen is the perfect meal topper. Or, you can always order extra noodles and Tsujita will also add additional soup stock to your tonkotsu so it's drinkable.

If you don't like the tsukemen style, Tsujita also serves the usual pork ramen in a lighter tonkotsu broth. But I don't know why you wouldn't like the tsukemen!  Tsujita also has a sister location diagonally across the street known as Tsujita Annex but that restaurant serves a different kind of pork ramen that I'm less fond of. Portland is short on ramen shops that could compare to the quality in Los Angeles. I'm bracing myself...

2057 Sawtelle Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 231-7373
Protip: Arrive before Noon on weekdays to beat the office lunch crowd. Weekends are always crowded so be prepared to do some people-watching. The ramen is ONLY served during lunch.