A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Monday, September 26, 2005

Sept. 7.

Lyon - Lyon seemed beautiful through the glass of the speeding tram. Unfortunately, the tram was carrying us out of Lyon and into Bron, the town on the outskirts of France's financial capital. We had decided to play it safe by booking a cheap hotel in advance, knowing that its location might not be ideal. In the reality of the situation, ¨might not be ideal¨ translated to ¨fuck-far away.¨ On the bright side, I had managed to grab a simple baguette of jambon, fromage et beurre, or ham, cheese and butter, from a cafe outside the train station. On the dimmer side, Hotel Stars, which was located by the scenic expanse of highway and strip malls, had a cruise ship theme. Let me repeat that: a cruise ship theme. It had life preservers on the walls and portholes for windows. The rooms were also claustrophobically appropriate. I found myself hoping it might sink.

We made the most of the remote location though, checking out the shops and gazing at the food in the French supermarkets. I tried to pick up le vocabulaire wherever I went. The day was looking slightly improved until even that brief streak came swiftly to an end. To pass the time, Vince and I spent stretches of our trip playing cards and making bets. Most of them were fairly innocuous (see Mar. 13)-- buy the other person a postcard, bed choice in the next hostel, shave a strip of hair on your legs-- but sometimes, it became painfully serious. One of the Bron bets was that the loser had to eat a meal at McDonald's... cruelly, I lost. Even worse, Vince got to select the meal.

Unique to French McDonald's were the limited-time offer of the Mythics, which consisted of the McFarmer, the McSummer and the bizarrely-named McTimber. They alternated based on a schedule so of course, we happened to be there for the McTimber. A man of my word, I ignored the unappetizing description and ordered the burger covered in cheddar fondue, Monterey Jack fondue and a sauce made from cheddar fondue. I even got to show off my burgeoning French skills, specifying ¨sans oignons,¨ and adding ¨frites moyennes¨and a ¨Fanta orange.¨With trepidation, I peeled back the cardboard lid and took in the sight. The burger looked like some defeated shell of its photographed self, all squashed and squishy. With growing trepidation, I took a bite. The kindest thing I could call it was interessant, but tres mauvais would be more like it.

I'd heard before that French McDonald's were better than the original because of stricter governmental regulations. Whether the beef was any better was hard to discern because the gloppy fondues were so overpowering. I have to hope the meat is an improvement though, because otherwise, the shocking popularity of the chain in a country of such culinary magnitude would be even more depressing. But hey, at least the frites were still as great as ever.

The next morning, it was onto Lyon proper. We only had until four o'clock to see as much as possible and we were determined to maximize the time. Our first destination was Les Halles, or the market-halls, France's version of Spain's large markets with all sorts of vendors. The differences here were that absolutely everything looked ravishing, plucked from a gourmand's elaborate dreams, and that all of it was priced accordingly. If I had been on my old salary, I would've run rampant, but this time, we limited ourselves to a hundred grams of a high-quality jambon du maison. Finding nothing else we were prepared to splurge on, we hit the nearby Champion supermarket to stock up. There, I got a pamplemousse, or grapefruit, mainly because I love saying pamplemousse, my first post-Tomatina tomatoes and the first bad bread of the trip. Stale and altogether awful, this baguette was an insult to Frenchmen everywhere.

From here, it was onto sightseeing. We ventured into Vieux Lyon, or the old part of town, which involved crossing two scenic bridges. Charming cafes and cobbled streets awaited us, with a comfortable appeal reminiscent of Bordeaux. It was interesting to see such traditional Gallic architecture against the backdrop of Lyon's modern sections, where the norm was very corporate buildings with mirrored glass. It was almost like the city had a split personality, divided between the competing impulses of history and commerce. I would've loved to see more, but it was onto Paris, that beautiful nucleus where all impulses come to converge.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Sept. 5.

Nice and Monte Carlo, Part Two - On our second day in the Riviera, we daytripped to Monte Carlo. If Nice wasn't an unending monument to luxury, I expected Monaco to pick up the slack. In honor of that, I decided to have caviar for breakfast. At the Monoprix supermarket, I bought a bag of brioche and a jar of oeufs de lompe, little and crunchy black eggs. The meal was in total under four euros but between it and the champagne, I was doing my best millionaire impression. By the time the train rolled into the station, I'd finished half of the fishy dip and Vince and I were off maneuvering the lofty climes of the city. It seemed like everywhere we went meant ascending mountainous staircases or breathlessly scaling up tall hilly curves. Down below, the water looked regal in the shadow of cruise ships.

That everything in Monte Carlo was picturesque was no surprise. That most of the restaurants weren't at all prohibitive took me more aback. Maybe I've been inured by Manhattan prices, but a dinner prix-fixe at most of the inviting bistros apppeared downright reasonable. Still, I resisted their Circe calls, headed back to Nice around six and had more of my caviar and brioche instead. Damian and Lynne returned from Monaco's beach next and Vince turned up around seven. We talked some more, they cooked, I wrote and we ended up back on the beach with new bottles to conclude the night.

The next day was supposed to be my beach day. Apparently, that was the plan all around as we each gathered at the window expectantly. "It's looking quite ordinary out," Lynne said charmingly to describe the grey soup brewing outside. Soon, it was misting, drizzling and chilly, definitively dashing my plans for a swim. Instead, I spent all day walking or writing until the rainstorm that had been building all day burst. It sent me into the refuge of a Virgin Megastore, where I bought a French-English dictionnaire, tired of half-assing my way through the country. I had spent three weeks learning the language in early 2004, before being hired at the law firm ended that pursuit. Now that I had the time and the interest though, I could finally make good on the goal.

When the rain dissipated, I found myself back in front of Ah-Ha Chinese Fast Food. Missing Thai food like a cokehead misses rolling up dollar bills, I ordered their Poulet Thai Curry, a milky orange chicken curry with squash, peppers and potatoes. It sated my craving and was decent enough, but it also made me miss the marvels of Sripraphai. Then I had the idea of spooning in healthy doses of hot sauce and pickled chilis. Suddenly, it went from average to exciting, lighting up the roof of my mouth. It wasn't at all what I was expecting to find in Nice, but it did give an otherwise ordinary day some much-needed heat.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Sept. 4.

Nice and Monte Carlo, Part One - Our trip to Nice didn't quite live up to the town's name. Trying to save money and time, we took our first overnight train from Bordeaux. The ride itself was smooth and painless, but no matter what acrobatic position I contorted into, it didn't invite any sleep. Other passengers were whispering in front of me; suitcases were perpetually thudding and crashing. By the morning, when the train rolled through Cannes and into Nice, I had probably snuck in three hours. I didn't care though, figuring there'd be apt opportunities to relax on the Riviera.

To kill time while our hostel was being cleaned, we circled the vicinity around the beach. I quickly discovered that, instead of sand, Nice made do with large oval stones. The women were tanning topless, the old, flabby men favored bikinis-- the older and flabbier, the skimpier the cut, and Lacoste T-shirts behind glistening vitrines cost sixty-five euros. Other than the stores, it was much like I was expecting. But as we ventured further from the curving coast, something interesting happened. Homeless people appeared, the ethnic restaurants multiplied and prices were within reason. The area of luxury in Nice was much smaller than I would've guessed.

Our hostel still not ready, we made another loop and found a boulangerie-patisserie to get breakfast. It was crowded and everything looked beautiful. I went with a tarte aux abricots, to compare it to my stellar apple tart from Spain. This pastry had a firmer base and sweeter glaze and tasted as good as it looked. It couldn't match its Madrid competitor, but it still sent me back to the same shop just a few hours later. Now checked in, I got a croissant and brought it back to my room. I cut it open and spread Nutella across it. Buttery, sweet, flaky and rich, it seemed to encapsulate everything great about France.

At this point satiated, I went to the beach. The water was a little too cold but that didn't stop plenty of people from swimming. I laid my mat over the stones, stripped off my shirt and wrote. It had been so long since I'd written poetry, but suddenly, I felt inspired to do so. A gentle sunshine was dappling my shoulders, I was studying the curves on gorgeous women, and I had Nutella in my belly. How could life get any more inspired?

Later, for dinner, Vince and I headed north, back towards the ritz-free part of town. The big story, we observed, was the glut of Asian restaurants. Their sheer proliferation practically taunted us after the drought in Madrid. Strangely too, they almost all combined nationalities in some ambitious Pan-Asian mash. After walking by so many, we finally caved, cautiously hoping to redeem our last miss. Our goals set lower, we settled on Ah-Ha Chinese Fast Food, which claimed to offer Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese fare. It also billed itself as a traiteur, or caterer, which meant that all the food was pre-prepared and reheated to order. It seemed like a bad idea from the outset, but we soldiered on, splitting orders of Pork with Black Mushrooms and Chicken Mai Fun. Neither touched anything on the Chinatown barometer, but both were surprisingly tasty. The Mai Fun had just enough grease to make it go down addictively and the Chinese mushrooms in the pork dish were a great break from our usual diet, even if the salty sauce coating them was subpar.

But perhaps the nicest aspect was the self-service aspect. While we usually had to beg and plead for tap water, occasionally to no avail, here they provided pitchers and glasses for that express purpose. They also had a variety of sauces, including pickled chilies and Sriracha. Adding some chilies to the noodles suddenly invigorated them. It was just a little gesture but a meaningful one for us, and it proved enough to earn us our Asian redemption.

Afterward, we met back up with our friendly Australian roommates, Damian and Lynne. They were a couple from Sydney who had been traveling east to west for six weeks. She was a graphic designer and he was a cop. After my trip last year to Eastern Europe, I already knew how much I loved the company of big-livered, big-stomached Australians. And after not talking to anyone but Vince for so long, I found myself chatting with them prolifically. The four of us went to the beach with the cheapest bottles we could find. Vince and I split a semi-decent demi-sec Andre Gallois champagne. We all told our stories for hours, relieved to have new people to hear them, and watched the calm waves comb the stony shores.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Sept. 3.

Bordeaux, Part Three - It was our last day in Bordeaux and I was thoroughly enchanted. I spent hours just walking around, taking in the easygoing ambience. But my enjoyment only grew when we went to a supermarket called Auchan for lunch. It was massive, almost the acreage of a Wal-Mart, and it had three aisles dedicated to cheese alone. Going through the store, I got samples of an incredibly juicy cantaloup, bread, bouillabaise, dark chocolate and three kinds of cheese. Perhps even more excitingly, Vince and I found a two-liter bottle of spring water for 17 cents, shattering our previous record. Once the shock of possibilities wore off, we split a toasted sesame baguette and a smoked sausage that was very reminiscent of Polish kielbasa.

After lunch, we went to the bustling shopping district and visited the Cathedrale St. Andre. Then we drifted out to the more rundown area closer to the train station, where I found myself drawn to the mix of Arabic and African restaurants. But after walking through the Basilique St. Michel, it was back to the Auchan to dream up another meal. Somehow, this one turned out even cheaper as we split yet another damn baguette and a large 90-cent wheel of Camembert, France's favorite and smelliest cheese. Both were passable but the real star was our other buy, a package of two caneles.

I had developed the tendency of freezing in front of every patisserie I passed, gazing open-jawed at the glittering array of tarts and pastries. I knew most of them all too well, but foundmyself confounded by the little cake-like creatures in the shape of a lampshadeand the shade of a varnished deck. With a little investigating, I learned they were called caneles and the ones in Auchan's pastry department turned out to be the cheapest we could find. I took a bite of mine and immediately loved it. It was exceptionally moist with very prominent flavors of eggs and rum. It was similar though better than a baba au rum. I wished that I could have a few more, but unfortunately, my time in Bordeaux was through.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Sept. 2.

Bordeaux, Part Two - When we last left our hero, he was sick and homeless in Bordeaux. With the temperature dropping, I was also now shivering. But with nowhere to go, Vince and I settled on a bench and tried to kill the seven or eight hours until our hostel would open. Having finished my Murakami novel, I started in on Sartre. It was a great read but I found it impossible to concentrate. I was spending too much energy sniffling and rubbing my arms to keep the goosebumps down. I also really had to go to the bathroom now. But I forced myself back to the page to read as much as I could tolerate. When it felt like two hours had gone by, I got up to check the parking meter. Twenty minutes. I started to pace around the block, trying to endure fifteen-minute blocks. As long as I could get to one-fifteen, I reasoned, I could get to one-thirty. Still, time moved as slowly as a turtle on heroin. Around three, the pain in my bladder became too painful to take. I found a desolate, unlit street off the Rue Buffon and squeezed between two dumpsters. On my first day back in France, I was reduced to pissing like a bum.

Somehow, finally, five o'clock came. The first buses of the day were running again and a pallid blue hue started to peek through the black. We hoisted our backpacks back on and walked halfway to the station before we found the right bus. The few other passengers looked bleary-eyed and adrift. When we got to the Gare St. Jean, a man was twisting a coat hanger to steal chips from a vending machine. Bums in defeated winter jackets were pawing through trash cans. At least it was warmer here, I tried to convince myself.

Vince and I took refuge in the sale d'attente, or waiting room, with the other anxious travelers. I tried to get some sleep with my bag clenched between my legs but I was too nervous. I looked enviously at the man in the center of the room. He was lying with his face down on the floor, so still and straight and oblivious to the thundering noises of rumbling trains and slamming doors that I thought he might be dead. It was then that I realized what had happened: I was trapped in the middle of a Tom Waits song.

I ended up sleeping in paranoid half-hour intervals, more out of need than desire at this point. Then eventually, the ordeal had ended and we made our grateful return to the hostel. By now, the sun was shining and I was too numb to feel too bad. When we arrived at Hotel Studio, we even got the good news that we wouldn't be charged for the previous night. Still, I felt that Bordeaux would have to work pretty hard to undo its earlier slight.

I took a nap and ventured out to see the town. To my delight, it was not only well worth the trip but turned out to be my favorite stop on the trek thus far. Filled with shops and bistros, galleries and wine shops, I was utterly disarmed by its charming and unassuming allure.It felt like a modest neighborhood of Paris without the tourists or the city's accelerated pace. It wasn't centered around landmarks, souvenirs or double-decker buses. It just was what it was, an enchanting, relaxing ville in the heart of wine country.

For lunch, I found a Champion supermarket and roamed the aisles. I ended up with a baguette, a jar of store brand Nutella knockoff and, in the interest of recovery, a bottle of fresh-pressed clementine juice and some bananas. It had been ages since I'd had the silky brown chocolate-hazelnut spread and I'd forgotten how decadently good it was. After lunch and some MTV Europe and then a dinner of more Nutella and bread, I ventured back out to explore the town again, which I still couldn't get enough of.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Sept. 1.

Bordeaux, Part One - It was going to be a tense day, that much we knew. The only train Vince and I could take from Valencia was leaving at one and arriving in Norbonne at ten-fifteen. We would then have only thirteen minutes to transfer to the train heading to Bordeaux. Once we got there at midnight (if we got there), we would have to find a way from the train station to the city center a half hour away. Then if we accomplished all that, there was still the very real possibility that we would find our hostel closed for the night.

But whatever, I thought, there'd be plenty of time to worry. First, we needed to pay a last visit to the Mercado Central in Valencia and stock up on everything we'd be eating that day. Trying to keep it as cheap as possible, I went with a hundred grams of a generic-looking ham and a hundred grams of mortadela, a kind of bologna that's almost always the least expensive meat the vendors sell. I also got a whole wheat baguette and, just to keep things educational, two paraguayos. The fruits, also called doughnut peaches in the UK, intruiged me ever since I saw them. Still, I figured they couldn't be very good. They looked like squashed peaches, with the same fuzzy, faded coloring but also a flattened, depressed shape. However, all the signs at the fruterias promised they'd be "muy dulce," or very sweet, as if the ugly paraguayos needed to be defended.

I started the trip by making a mortadela sandwich. I probably haven't eaten bologna in about ten years, so I was kind of taken aback by how much I enjoyed the meat. It wasn't elegant, it wasn't subtle, it wasn't refined, but it was rich, fatty and filling, a hat trick of deliciousness as far as I was concerned. I also ate my first paraguayo and was very pleasantly surprised. Once I got past the off-putting outside, I was rewarded with a sweet, juicy white inside, similar to a white peach. I didn't even try to ration my second one, eating it right away.

Around six, when we were inching out of Spain's northernmost towns where people were still lounging on beautifully isolated beaches, hunger struck again. I had the second half of the baguette and the ham. It tasted better than it looked, but was still nothing special. I went back to reading my Murakami novel and wondering if we'd make our connection. Thankfully, the train was extremely punctual and delivered us to Norbonne with time to spare. We had completed the first iffy part of our trip successfully.

By eleven-fifty, we had reached Gare St. Jean in Bourdeaux. I was so happy and excited to be in France, in the land where vins and fromages were elevated to art, that I started to assume that everything would turn out all right. I was so enchanted by the fluid turns of French girls' tongues around hard R's and soft N's that I started to forget I had acquired a fever and a runny nose over the course of the day. Then we found the town's bus still running and rode it all the way to the stop we needed. By now, I was feeling really rough and I had run out of tissues, but at least we had reached the centre ville smoothly.

All we had left to do was get into our hostel. We'd e-mailed thel the day before to let them know of our late arrival, hoping that would prove enough. With our backpacks weighing on us, we trudged down the Rue Hugurie and saw the front office of the hostel dark. We rang the bell and knocked loudly. There was no answer. We tried again and again with the same result. It started to occur to us that we had been locked out. In my worst case scenario, I figured we could always find another hostel or at least a cheap hotel. So we went north, we went south, east, then finally west. All the lodgings were dark. Most were also full. Even the few bistros and cafes that were still open were closing. My forehead felt like a can left in the sun when it became painfully clear: we were stranded in Bordeaux with nowhere to go.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Aug. 30.

Valencia, Part Two - It was another morning, which meant another visit to the market. Today, I got ciabatta from the panaderia, jamon serrano from the carneceria, and a handful of mesclun and three ripe tomatoes from the fruteria. The mesclun was an important addition, providing some much welcome greenery and crunch. More important were the tomatoes, which I was eating because I didn't know if I'd ever want to eat them again. Tomorrow, we'd be going to the Tomatina festival, engaging in a brutal hour-long grand-scale fight. Biting into the rapturously succulent skin of the first tomato, I hoped I wouldn't have to turn against such a great fruit. Afterwards, Vince and I went to the Museo del Bellas Artes, which meant looking at three hundred more depictions of Jesus as an infant or Jesus being crucified. Luckily, they also had a special exhibit of Josef de Ribera portraits which I rather enjoyed.

For dinner, we decided we needed another "splurge." As it was the night before Tomatina, everyone was sitting at the outdoor bars, where round after round of drinks occupied all the tables. Walking around town was like being at the Tower of Babel and I was enjoying all the palpable excitement. We ended up at the Bar Pilar, another destination recommended by Vince's guidebook. It served tapas and specialized in mejillones, or mussels. The area under the bar was even lined with plastic buckets, where diners threw their emptied black shells afterward. Not ones to ignore a specialty, we went with an order of mussels, tried again with patatas bravas, split two sandwiches and each got a glass of their cheapest wine. Sandwich-wise, Vince ordered his standby, a tortilla francesa with jamon. I tried to branch out with the blanco y negro, which came with a white strip of lomo and a dark black pudding.

The mussels were tasty, soaking in a tomato-pepper broth. Still, it was the broth more than the mussels that was unique. On the merits of the seafood alone, I preferred the ones in the paella the previous day. As for the patatas bravas, the potatoes had a nice crispy outside, with a base of spicy sauce and topped with a thick dollop of mayo and in terms of the sandwiches, the omelette was quite good, improved by the salty cuts of ham. I also enjoyed my piece of lomo. However, resolved to give the ominous black pudding a try, I can now say that I have no need to try any more. Until I get resurrected as a Brit, ground meats masquerading as puddings will not be my cup of tea.

Then, finally, it was August 31st, a day that was nine years in the making. Ever since I first heard of Tomatina, the annual festival that's really just one huge tomato target practice, I knew I would have to attend. I dreamed of being one of those red-drenched lunatics in the bloodbath of seeds and skins, featured in a clip on the news every year, and I dreamed of venturing into the Spanish countryside to peg strangers in the head with projectiles and to have them assault me right back in a hailstorm of produce.

We took the half-hour trip to Buñol on a special Tomatren. Everyone headed there was either quiet or nervous, awaiting the carnage to come. In the town plaza, where all the buildings were draped in clear tarps, the crowd only grew and grew. As we assembled, we all focused on a soap-greased pole near the front, at the top of which dangled a giant ham. The goal was to climb to the top and capture the ham, thus kicking off the start of the festival. People piled on, desperately clinging to the slippery wood, eager to emerge the hero.

We watched, we laughed, we cheered, we booed when the selfishness sent the pile topping, we sang "olé olé olé!" when a communal mood struck. We were ecstatic and young and even those of us who weren't felt like they were. It took about an hour of anticipation, of false starts and near-misses, of rivalries and pulled down pants for the ham to come down too. Now all we had to do was celebrate and wait for the trucks of tomatoes to barrel down the streets.

Soon, it was madness. Hoses of water rained down on the crowd. A streak of red whirred past my ear. Another bright blur sailed over my head and splattered against the wall. I was covered in juice. We were so tightly packed. I grabbed eight weapons at once and launched them. I ducked and dove. Others rose up on the ledges and made themselves targets. They were pelted mercilessly and without pause. More trucks kept coming. I kept throwing. I kept being thrown at. An uncrushed tomato smashed directly into my eye. I started blinking red. Everything was red. Everyone was wet and gummy. People kept chanting louder, defiant. Another tomato smacked into my ear. I started getting malicious on innocent targets. Time went by and the center of the plaza turned into a swamp, a swamp that ate flip-flops and balled-up T-shirts and sometimes even whole people. I squeezed my way into the center, the swamp, the pulpy core of danger. The tomatoes flew even more ferociously there. Everyone was completely drenched. I was more tomato than man now, a tomato down to the atomic level. We had been swallowed up and shat out as a rough, crunchy ketchup.

Then a horn sounded and somehow, the war just as suddenly ended. The townspeople started to hose us down and sell us beer. Car radios pumped out catchy beats and former enemies danced together in the streets. The few men still wearing shirts stripped them off and the women walked around in their stained bikinis, basking in the adventure we had all endured together, the experience we had all contributed to creating.

Exhausted and still picking chunks of tomato out of my hair, I caught the train back to Valencia and took one of the longest showers of my life. I got a lot of food at the supermarket and ate ravenously. Still, I made sure that my jamon serrano, mixed green salad, bottle of horchata, rustic baguette and four containers of banana yogurt would also last into dinner. The bit-of-a-splurge ham was incredible and the special-to-Valencia horchata was cinnamon-y and interesting, but for once in the end, the food was but a detail in an insane day that took nine years to ripen.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Aug. 28.

Valencia, Part One - Neither Vince nor I cared too much for Valencia. It wasn't a bad city per se, but it couldn't compete with the heights of the previous three. To me, it felt most like a mini-Madrid, without the capital's grandeur. And speaking of Madrid, the comparison was all the more apparent, because we had to stop there and transfer trains, which added up to a very long day. During our layover in Madrid, we found a bar near the station, with the usual cast of characters: an old man smoking at the counter and meditatively sipping a glass of wine, an old woman obsessively feeding the slot machine, a few younger people grabbing a quick bite to eat. In that setting, I decided to try the calamari sandwich after seeing it on so many menus. The bread here was below average but the seafood made up for it. It was warm, fried and fresh, with six large rings for a reasonable 3.20. It filled me up until our eventual arrival in Valencia at eight, when we just went to the closest supemarket we could find. With the deli counter closed, we improvised with Emmental dip, ham, plum tomatoes, plums and a package of whole wheat toast. It was good enough for the night.

The next morning, we immediately headed to the Mercado Central, yet another massive market. This one was the largest yet with the capacity to hold a thousand stalls. The meat and cheese were by and large more expensive here, but the bread was more varied. We bought a triangle of very good Brie and, in an effort to add sole variety, Vince suggested we try the sobresada. Once the woman at the charcuterie cut it for us, we realized the bright orange meat looked raw. I asked if it could be eaten as is, and she said it was like a patè; It just needed to be spread on bread. So I got a baguettina and applied the cheese and sobresada across it. It tasted like mushy pepperoni, interesting for sure but probably not something I'd get again. I also went back and bought some sweet Valencia oranges, figuring this would be the place to do it.

For dinner, we left the city center, where we were staying and walked an hour east to the coast. We'd heard that the best paella in Valencia, which is supposed to have the best paella in Spain, could be found in an area called Las Arenas. It was right on the beach, and after some searching, we found a strip of restaurants all dishing out that famous pot of yellow rice. Compâring the prices and the popularity of the places, we settled on one called La Baraka. There we could get paella de mariscos, or seafood paella, for 8.70€ each. It took a half hour to prepare, but when it arrived steaming, the smell intoxicated me.

While I doubt we'd stumbled upon the best paella in the city, it was the best I've had. Oilier than its New York counterparts, it contained much firmer rice that gave it a crunchier texture. The seafood was also fresher, with the mussels being particularly great. I was surprised though that the portion, while certainly fairly-sized, wasn't more intimidating. So much of the food we'd encountered otherwise was so spoilingly affordable.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Aug. 26.

Granada, Part Two - To start our third day, we returned to the Mercado, revisiting all of the stands we'd hit the previous day. The proprietors recognized us and were even friendlier today. There was a real sense of community here. Afterward, we took our mild goat's cheese and fat-free ham to a bench in the park. I gave a bum some of my spring water for his dog, and he spent the next fifteen minutes raving about how America was destroying the world and how George Bush was evil. Unfortunately for my country, a lot of the non-bums I've talked to also share that opinion.

For dinner, we returned to the supermarket and pieced together more bargain sandwiches. Tonight, it was lomo (the pig's back) and a semi-cured sheep's cheese. In our effort to go upscale, we also upgraded from the 65 cent wine to a bottle for 1.26. It went just as quickly. Afterwards, we went to an Arabic teteria called Kasbah, that was decorated with billowing silks and colorful patterns. I had a pot of tea made from violets and we clapped along to the swaying beats as a beauitful bellydancer entranced the crowd.

On our last day, we got meat and cheese from a charcuterie, but both proved disappointing. The cheddar was painfully sharp and the chicken tasted processed and gross. At least, our bread was as good as ever. For dinner, as we wandered Granada's curving streets for the final time, I wqs determined not to repeat Barcelona and Madrid's mistakes. We laid our stakes on Kebab King, where I got a Shawarma Taj Majal, filled with yogurt, salad and pollo picante. The yogurt and salad were both great, but here, it was the very spicy chicken and hotsauce that won me over. Like Granada itself, the flavors lingered long after the meal was gone and I didn't mind at all.

Aug. 24.

Granada, Part One - The difference in Granada is instantly visible. It's located in Andalusia, Spain's Southern region and the area previously inhabited by the Moors. Thus, the Muslim influence is far more pronounced and in fact, central to the city's character. Women in burqas populate the streets, teterias, or tea shops, line the blocks, and the aromas of spices and fruity tobaccos drift through the districts. It's also home to the Alhambra, a mind-boggingly intricate 14th century Muslim palace and one of the world's most beautiful landmarks.

When we arrived in Granada though, I was too hungry and tired to take in the culture. It was only in the zeakness of this state can I rationalize what I did. Instead of seeking out some authentic and delicious secret of Spain, I settled on Bocatta, the local answer to Subway. (Though they also have Subway.) I thought Bocatta, a fast-food spot we'd seen in Barcelona and Madrid, might be an improvement from the weak fare most chains serve up back home. Apparently however, nothing was lost in translation. My bocadillo of jamon serrano wasn't terrible, but it was more expensive and smaller, with worse bread and meat, than any nearby bar serving the same thing. Disappointed, I wrote off the meal as a moment of excess optimism. Dinner was better, simpler and cheaper fortunately. We found a supermarket where we bought chorizo and turkey at the deli counter, some cucumbers and fruits, and a 65 cent bottle of wine. Best of all, the wine was surprisingly good, at least for the price.

Reinvograted the next day, Vince and I visited the Mercado San Agustin, Granada's version of the Mercat de la Boqueria. Again, we had tons of choices for fresh breads, produce, meats, cheeses, and seafood, with about a hundred and fifty vendors to select from. As each one specialized in one area, we walked around, comparing prices and assembling our lunch piecemeal. Today, it was a sandwich of burado, a cheese made from sheep's milk and a fat-free ham. The ham was average and bland, but the cheese wowed me, the best of the trip thus far.

After lunch, we went to tackle the Alhambra, our main reason for visiting Granada. It was as awe-inspiring as I remembered, with the walls of the Alcazabar palace being the highlight. They were as naturally harmonious as Fibonacci numbers, producing elegant symmetries that dazzled the eye. The Generalife, the sultan's retreat was also beautiful, with its plentiful flower gardens and fountains. After spending five hours touring the site, we decided to maintain the Arabic theme for dinner. Vince's guidebook recommended Al-Andalus, which specialized in kebab and shawarma, just like about forty percent of the restaurants in Granada. My shawarma mixto, with a mix of chicken, beef, salad, yogurt and mushrooms, proved to be a true standout though. In fact, I'd say it's the best shawarma I've had. Its best feature was by far the yogurt, which was creamy and deeply flavorful, but the cuts of beef were also a cut above the rest.