Listen—Do You Want to Know A Secret?

28 Apr

by Nancy Bestor

IMG_1991On a recent trip to New Orleans, Bob and I were studying Yelp reviews, looking for an interesting place to have dinner, when the words “Secret Feed Me Menu” caught my eye. That’s right, the Louisiana Bistro in the French Quarter has a “secret” menu. You tell the chef that you would like either a 3, 4 or 5 course meal and that you want him to “feed you.” After letting him know of any allergies or strong dislikes, you put your meal in his hands, and he prepares whatever he feels like cooking for you that night. This option isn’t listed anywhere on the restaurant’s menu, you have to know about it and ask for it, kind of like the animal or protein style burger at In N Out (but a whole lot better!). The restaurant is even a little off the beaten path, down a quiet street in the Quarter, with a simple unobtrusive front.

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Bob and I could not pass on this opportunity. We both like to be fed, have no strong dislikes, and love secrets (well I do anyway). How could this meal go wrong? Turns out, it could not. We arrived at the Louisiana Bistro at 7pm on a Saturday night and left 3 hours later, both fatter and happier. We felt like royalty in this quaint spot. For every course (and guess how many courses we chose), Chef David would come to our table with our dishes, telling us exactly what he prepared for us. He got down on his knees at the edge of the table and told us his secrets—okay they weren’t really his secrets, but he did break each dish down by ingredient, and let us know exactly how he made it. I saw someone at another table ask the waiter what we were having, and when he told them it was a dish specially prepared for us, I couldn’t help but sit a little straighter, and delight a little louder in what I was eating.

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And boy, did we eat well. Our meal included mirliton (or chayote/squash for us laymen) and gulf shrimp in a whiskey caramel sauce, alligator bread pudding, pork ribs and collared greens, blackened catfish in a creole tomato sauce and alligator tail with sweet potato hash. For all the food we got and the personalized service, the meal was not horribly expensive at about $65 per person. The dinner was delicious, the service great, and the surprise of not knowing what you were going to get an enjoyable aside. It reminds me a little of choosing a hotel on Priceline or Hotwire. You know the quality of the hotel you’re going to get, and the location, but you just don’t know the hotel name itself. We knew the quality of our food would be good, but just didn’t know what we would be eating. It was fun, and it also made me feel like I was in a secret club. And who doesn’t want to revert to middle school and join in a secret club every now and then?

 

Cab Driver—Once More ‘Round the Block

28 Apr

by Nancy Bestor

IMG_2015When I was a little girl, my Dad talked to everyone he met. He still does. Trips to the grocery store, the post office or the bank would always take a few minutes longer because my Dad would chat with the clerks. He’d find out their names, their ages, and almost always something interesting about them. Then he’d come home and tell my Mom everything he learned. As a teenager, I was incredibly embarrassed by my Dad’s talkative nature. I would cringe standing next to him in line, thinking that these poor people just wanted to get along with their day and really didn’t want anyone, especially my Dad, prying in their business. But then I grew up and realized that people do like to talk about themselves (maybe all except for the age bit), and they enjoy being treated as interesting individuals, and not as servants.

Fast forward to the present, where I find myself talking to people who help me out at the bank, the post office and the grocery store. It’s easy to make friends this way, particularly in our little town of Ashland, Oregon. And when traveling, it’s a great way to learn both about the place you’re visiting and about different cultures throughout our world.

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Apparently, I’ve married someone a bit like my Dad, because when Bob and I are in a new city, riding in a taxi, the first thing he does, after telling the driver where we’re going, is introduce himself, and ask the taxi driver where he is originally from. The majority of drivers we’ve met, whether in New York, Las Vegas, or New Orleans, are immigrants to our country. Most seem delighted to talk about what brought them to the US, and to share details of their home country. We’ve met drivers from Egypt, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and more. We’ve learned about their obtaining green cards and permanent visas via lottery. We’ve learned that in every city, there is a community of immigrants that spend time together, that there are drivers who diligently send money back to their family, and save money too, in the hopes that they can bring more members over to the States. We’ve discovered the best local ethnic places to eat, and learned a lot about civil unrest around the world. We’ve even seen photos of drivers’ children and families.

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I’ll long remember the interesting conversations we’ve had with our taxi drivers, and I hope they might remember them too. Because I imagine it can be a dull job driving people around all day long if they aren’t interested in chatting with you. And maybe I’m sentimental, but I believe talking to people makes our great big world just a little bit smaller. Thanks, Dad.

 

How United Did NOT Break My Guitar

28 Apr

by Bob Bestor

DSC02757We’ve all seen travelers lugging oversized bags on board and straining to cram them into the overhead bins. And when we see it we ask ourselves, “Man, how’d that guy get that on board?” Well, it’s likely that he skipped the ticket counter altogether by checking in and printing his boarding pass online. Then he was able to head straight to security where the TSA didn’t bother to do anything but x-ray his luggage. After that the gate agent was the first and only airline representative who could have even looked at his luggage before he got on board. But gate agents are often working alone and doing two or three things at once. So he made it. And oversized or not, as long as he could stuff it overhead, he was good.

On my recent trip to India I was that guy. Well, sort of. But at least I did it with the blessing of a friendly United gate agent.

I arrived at Rogue Valley International Medford Airport (no, really—that’s what it’s called) with a standard, maximum-sized 22” wheeled carry-on, a daypack, and a guitar in a soft-sided case. If you’re counting, and the airlines usually do, that’s three bags. Now I was fully prepared to check the suitcase, although my preference was not to check anything. But traveling internationally, I knew that at least my checked bag would be free.

I was not able to print my boarding pass online, so I had to go to the United ticket counter first, where I was only asked if I “wanted” to check anything. Of course I answered “no”. TSA didn’t take notice either and soon I was at the gate with my three bags and my boarding pass in hand. The gate agent took a look at me and my bags and frowned. “Do I have to check something?” I asked. “Well, she said, “you’re not allowed to bring three items on board. But, a few years ago a country singer had a big hit with a song about how United breaks guitars.  So I’m not going to be the person who starts another round of that.” And voila, no checking for me. This time at least.

Money, Money, Money—Must Be Funny

31 Mar

by Nancy Bestor

While I’m not big on name brand clothes or cars, every once in a while I wonder what it would be like to live the lifestyle of the rich and famous. The fantasy of walking in to a restaurant where the prices aren’t even on the menu, in my Manolo Blahnik shoes, my Harry Winston diamond necklace and Vera Wang dress does give me a moment of pause (and then I laugh hysterically imagining myself in such an outfit). But when Bob and I were invited to a private party at the Hardwood Suite in Las Vegas last month, I felt like it was our duty to check out how the really rich really live, and if this suite in the Palms was any indication, they live one highfalutin life.

The Hardwood Suite is any wealthy basketball fan’s dream. From the hallway, its door looks like any other hotel room door inside any Las Vegas casino. But walk inside, and holy cow. The Hardwood Suite is a 10,000 square foot hotel “room” on two floors, with a regulation half basketball court, NBA-sized beds that fold out of the walls onto the court (in case you want to shoot hoops from a mattress), a jacuzzi in the middle of the living room, a full bar to boot so you can drink in between, or while, hot tubbing and playing H-O-R-S-E. It also sports a professional locker room, a pool table, and of course, huge high definition televisions all around.

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We were visiting Las Vegas for the Travel Goods Show, where we get to preview the latest and greatest “innoventions” in luggage and travel gear. Who knew we would also get the chance to check out a hotel suite that costs $25,000 a night to rent? I can’t say that the Hardwood Suite is my style. I do like basketball, but not enough to want to play in my hotel room. Plenty of folks must like it a lot however, as it is apparently booked out most of the year.

The Hardwood Suite was fun to see, but I was happy to go back to my $99 a night room across town, in my canvas Converse tennis shoes, with my ExOfficio wrinkle resistant top on. Because let’s face it, I can’t even pronounce “Manolo Blanhik”, and just the idea of me wearing his high heels is surely an accident waiting to happen.

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us

31 Mar

by Bob Bestor

gogoWe all complain about commercial airlines, and they probably deserve it. There is little argument that historically they have done one thing (and one thing only) very well—they get their passengers to their destinations quickly and safely. Everything else, whether it’s comfort, cuisine, or anything that might make the experience even the slightest bit more pleasurable, is sorely lacking.

But in a small but very nice step to reverse that trend, United, Alaska, American, Delta and more airlines now offer in-flight streaming of movies and TV shows to laptops, tablets and smartphones.

The beta version from United is free (so far). It kicked off last year and is available on about 200 of their aircraft. On two recent trips it was available on most of my flights and I found it easy to use, reliable and a big improvement for the in-flight experience.

United’s Personal Device Entertainment is actually part of a suite of services in the United app that includes flight status and access to your personal United information like reservations, boarding passes and your Mileage Plus account.

The entertainment service comes on almost instantly after take-off, offers about 50 movies and mulitple episodes of about 30 TV shows, and shuts off right around touch-down. Prospective users must download the free app from either Apple or Google before traveling. Here is the link to United’s Personal Device Entertainment page.

Notes:

  • United’s service is free (so far).
  • This is not wifi. With United, wifi is a separate on-board service that is available for a fee on a growing number of their aircraft.
  • Download the app before you fly.
  • Other airlines, including Alaska, Delta, and American also offer similar services, such as the GoGo In Flight Video.

Dining Dhaba Style – Roadside Indian Eateries

30 Mar

by Bob Bestor

roadsideIf I lived in India I’d be much healthier. Well, at least I’d have better eating habits. Sometimes. Like when we’re on a road trip.

You see I am a man who likes his Ho Ho’s. I like Ding Dongs too. Those mini doughnuts that come six to a package? Awesome! Just about any Hostess product is okay with me. And you can add Corn Nuts, Barbecue Potato Chips and lots more to the list. And as the ladies in my life know, when we are in the Shredder Van (aka, our 2003 Toyota Sienna) cruising up and down I-5, and we pull over for gas, that’s my chance. And Dad is bound to prowl the always-attached convenience store for the finest in roadside cuisine. For a man whose willpower is easily broken, those convenience stores are too convenient.

But in India, as you might imagine, things are different.

Rajasthan is a big state in an enormous country, and I spent a lot of time on its highways, by-ways and back roads on my recent trip with my high school buddies. On several occasions, lunchtime found us at non-descript and rough-around-the-edges truck stops in the middle of nowhere. The type of place that if you encountered it in the US, the closest thing you’d find to fresh food would be a couple of withered hot dogs sweating on rollers inside a glass case. Not very appealing.

But in India, nearly every one of these roadside stops (know as dhabas) offered up some of the finest, fresh-cooked food of our 16-day trip. In fact, after the first few days of eating at higher-end restaurants, we told our driver, Promode, that while we enjoyed the nicer places, we really wanted to dine with the locals. We asked him to take us to the places where he eats. After that exchange, our first stop the following day was a truck stop lunch. And it was fabulous.

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This first foray into Indian truck stop cuisine turned out to be quite typical. A huge dirt parking lot fronted an open, dusty pavilion with basic tables and plastic chairs. Almost all of our fellow diners were men–most of them appeared to be truckers. We ordered palak paneer, a mixed vegetable curry, and a lentil dahl. The tandoor oven was not fired up yet, so naan was not available. But chapatis are a wonderful flat bread alternative and they kept delivering a steady stream of them, hot and fresh off the grill each time, throughout our meal. With a few drinks and a round of chai at the end of what turned out to be a feast, we had stuffed the five of us to the gills with some of the best food of the trip for 1,000 rupees, which is about $15 total. It was our kind of place in so many ways!

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So dhabas became one more thing to look forward to on our adventures in Rajasthan. Piling into the car for a long day’s drive to the next city offered quite a bit more anticipation with the prospect of truck stop dining on the itinerary. Although it certainly would have been nice to have some mini doughnuts to go along with the chai for dessert.

They’ve Got An Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil

25 Feb

by Nancy Bestor

DSCN0514I am a big fan of a good cup of coffee. Every morning, Bob and I grind coffee beans and make about four cups of coffee in a French press. Some mornings, when my alarm goes off, the only thing that drags me out of bed is the thought of that first delicious sip of joe. And it is delicious, every single morning. When we’re traveling abroad, we always try to sample the coffee. Sure, we’re willing to drink green tea in Japan, and chai in India, and those are both quite good. But in my book, tea and chai are imposters for the wake up beverage of the gods—coffee. It’s not just the taste. It’s also the smell of the coffee, and the touch of holding a coffee cup. It all gets me. You might say I’m addicted to coffee. You would be right.

I remember drinking a delicious espresso, standing at a bar in Vernazza, Italy. Many local bars serve alcohol throughout the day, but open up first thing in the morning to serve coffee. The bars were crowded with people standing (and sitting), drinking espresso. And then there was the food market in Barcelona, where we ate fried eggs and delicious bacon, and drank even better coffee. And I can’t forget dipping churros in café mochas in Mexico City. It doesn’t get much better than that.

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Maybe part of the appeal to drinking coffee in other countries is the fact that locals don’t get their coffee to go. You don’t see people walking down cobblestone alleys holding a paper Starbucks coffee cup. What the locals do is sit in a café, with their friends and loved ones, and enjoy their coffee while catching up. I get the sense that this isn’t a special once a month get together either, but rather an everyday ritual. So tomorrow I’ll sip my coffee while sitting on my couch, rather than carrying it into the bathroom while I’m getting ready for work. And I’ll try and channel those folks who take their time and savor their morning cup. And I’m sure it will be even more delicious.

Thrillist recently listed their Definitive Top 10 Coffee Growing Countries in the World.  I’m thinking I need to get myself some Ethiopian beans.

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