Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Exploring Mexico's Ek Balam

Although Chichen Itza is one of the Yucatan's most famous ancient sites, Ek Balam, located just 30 minutes away, predates Chichen Itza by 600 years and displays striking structures still being excavated. Ek Balam translates to "Black Jaguar" in Mayan and the imposing size of the buildings demonstrate how significant the city was to the Maya from about 500-900 AD. Despite this, Ek Balam is one of the best kept secrets in the Yucatan Peninsula.  There are very few crowds and I was able to stroll leisurely throughout the site.

Restoration has been ongoing at Ek Balam since 1997 and the uncovered buildings include a ball court, a tomb, a palace and a 96- feet-tall Acropolis pyramid. The structures are scattered closely so that you can explore the ruins easily if you like to climb. I recommend sturdy shoes, I saw a lot of lost flip flops on some of the ruins.

This is the towering flight of stairs that lead to the top of the Acropolis. They were so narrow and steep that I could barely fit my long feet on them.  So I opted not to go all the way up.

Instead, I took a detour to the newly uncovered  royal tomb. They discovered 700 offerings along with the king's skeleton, including jade, obsidian and carved shells. Those artifacts are in the Museum of Merida.

The tomb is guarded by high priests with flattened heads and crossed eyes. This was supposed to emphasize their difference from the lower classes. All the intermingling with the upper classes produced a lot of deformities, which were considered lucky.

The Acropolis offers wonderful views from the top.

Chichen Itza supplies stunning evidence of the astrological and archaeological wisdom of the Maya but Ek Balam provides the other half of the story, illustrating how they lived on an every day basis.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Food Truck Feast at San Antonio's Culinaria

I moseyed down to Texas to experience the Culinaria food and wine festival and all I can say is like everything else, Texans do food big. I'm not just talking about portions, I'm talking about the sheer variety of dishes and flavors offered. My first dive into San Antonio's food scene was at the Food Truck Event, which  featured 14 popular food trucks offering everything from duck confit tacos to bourbon bacon brownies. To say the least, I was intrigued. And so was everyone else. Food truck culture runs deep in San Antonio, a reported 2,000 people crammed into a parking lot to sample these street food treats. The lines were long and the people were friendly. It reminded me of a more laid back Taste of Chicago, without so much jostling.

I was instantly taken by the charm and quirkiness of the trucks.  This one above, its name a clever take on satiate, was the most popular. It's hot young chef served up wagyu beef sliders and duck fat fries for 40-50 minute waits.

This truck supplied an array of spice-laden foods that matched its fiery color scheme.

Named the Duk Truck, this was also an extremely popular truck. Its versions of duck-themed dishes lured hour-long lines.

The Rickshaw Stop truck proved to be another San Antonio favorite, providing Pakistani street food like kebabs and samosas.  So what about the food you say? Well, it was totally worth the long lines.

Fries cooked in duck fat and sprinkled with Parmesan tasted as decadent as they sound. These delicacies from Say She Ate were my favorite dish,I would have been happy with nibbling on them all night but I felt obligated to sample other dishes.

Chicken wings in Thai coconut curry sauce with yogurt dressing from Spice Runner were delectable, with just the right amount of spicy kick.

Samosas stuffed with seasoned chicken and dipped in sweet tamarind sauce  from the Rickshaw Stop were flavorful  and light but they couldn't keep me from falling into a food coma. I was so stuffed, I could barely recall where I was. Bread pudding with pecans and bourbon sauce helped me remember that I was in San Antonio. I was too delirious to snap a pic but take my word for it, it was a yummy ending to an evening of Texas street food. Have you tried any tasty street food during your travels?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Chicago Doughnut Wars

I knew something was horribly amiss when I heard about the lines.  Lines snaking down long city blocks. In the rain, the cold, the snow. People waiting for HOURS, only to be turned away when the meager supply ran out. Chicago is a foodie town. Not in a highfalutin, Michelin star kind of way but in a it's- the -Midwest -and- we- like- to -eat, kind of way. We will jump on the latest foodie trends. We will sample newfangled ingredients and down weird beverages. But we do not do lines. All that New York, LA, velvet rope/insane waits because it's the hot spot has never worked in Chicago.  Many a New York or LA outpost has found their hipster dreams shattered in Chicago because we will shut a place down before we wait in unnecessary lines. It just insults our practical Midwestern sensibility.  So when I heard tales of crazy lines at the Doughnut Vault,  a closet-sized shop with a 1/2 in its address and a rotation of only five flavors of $3 doughnuts, I was appalled and intrigued.

It wasn't long before I heard whispers about another new doughnut shop. It was just as good as the Doughnut Vault but without the stupid lines. The Doughnut Vault limited their doughnut supply to only 400 to create a buzz, they said. This other shop, Do Rite Donuts ,was also tiny but the fine-dining chef owners produced enough donuts so that they didn't run out. Doughnut Vault was cash only. Do Rite took credit cards. I knew where Do Rite was located, I walked past the red awning all the time. It was conveniently located near stores and city agencies and I never saw any lines. On the other hand, the Doughnut Vault required a journey. Nestled into an easy to miss corner between the Chicago River and the Merchandise Mart Plaza, it was located in an area of the city that I rarely visited. You know that I chose the journey.

The first time I landed at Doughnut Vault, it was apparently late. It was 10 AM on a weekday morning and as I  gazed at the "closed "sign, with nary an indication that there were fresh donuts and hundreds of people present maybe 20 minutes ago, I realized that I would have to come earlier. The shop opens at 8:30AM and closes as soon as they sell out, which is typically after one or two hours. There is no phone, only a Twitter feed that counts down the dwindling number of doughnuts. So I planned to arrive by 9AM (super early for me) the next day.

The line was winding around the block when I stepped off the train but I gauged that it would still be a reasonable wait.  The sun was out and it appeared that many people took off  for the day to snag their doughnuts. I thought that it would be mostly tourists standing in a ridiculous line but no, these were real Chicagoans patiently waiting for doughnuts. People walked by and rolled their eyes at us. An elderly gentleman looked perplexed. "All this for a doughnut?"  he asked us. I laughed. I didn't get it either but I was here to find out.  As the time crawled , the shop keeper announced that they were out of pistachio. Then chocolate. Then old fashioned. I tensed a little. I did not come all the way here to end up with no doughnuts. 15 minutes passed. Then 25.

I watched the el train roll by over our heads.

I watched a butterfly flutter.

Then the shop keeper announced that they were sold out of everything except the gingerbread stacks. There were three to a stack and only a dozen stacks left but I was almost there. I could see the shop's crystal chandelier glimmering in the distance.

 And then I was there. Luckily, I like gingerbread so I ordered four stacks at $3 each. (They would need to last because I did not plan on standing in another line anytime soon.)  Cinnamon and sugar crumbled onto my hands as I cradled my bounty and carried it outside to eat at the Doughnut Vault's picnic table.

The doughnuts were warm and toothsome, the ginger flavor filled my mouth.  I took small bites, savoring the sensation of eating such a hard won treat. I had waited in line for 40 minutes and had watched all the more interesting flavors like chestnut and dreamsicle, sell out.  The doughnuts were good.  They tasted of high quality, definitely not the lardy, mass produced versions that you can buy in any store. Were they worth two trips and 40 minutes? I'm not so sure about that. But as I watched the "sold out" sign go up and dozens of distraught people drag away, I vowed to try Do Rite next week and come back for a comparison.