Food Madness USA – Spring 2015 !

I spent some time in the US recently, mostly in the Bay Area. The food scene is incredibly diverse and I had a lot of fun eating out in a bunch of different places.  This is what a months worth of eating out looks like :

  • Infinite Thai Eatery: The Thai food is a little different from the Thai restaurants in India. I guess they use fish stock in cooking the curry, so I was put off by the smell a little. I remember that the Green Curry was pretty good and the portions are generous.
  • Fenton’s Creamery: Ah, glorious Fenton’s. This place has been around for years, is an Oakland legend and is always really busy with queues. They are known for their desserts, especially the sundaes which are crazy in terms of toppings and combinations and are ginormous. Three of us had to fight a long and hard battle to finish a single sundae ! The stand-alone ice-creams are fresh and taste good, but the sundaes are the clinchers really.
  • Barney’s: Again in Oakland. This is a decent burger place. The burger’s are pretty innovative in terms of combinations. However, things are on the pricier side.
  • Baja Taqueira: This was the first Mexican place I tried during my trip. I ate a chicken taco, it was well-made and the portion size was good. The salsa was really good. It’s a fairly busy, self-serve place to grab to something quick if you fancy Mexican in Oakland.
  • Lo Coco’s: This is a slightly fancy Italian place. The place is fairly small, so you end up feeling a little cramped. One thing that stood out about the food was that it tasted extremely fresh. We ate a lasagna which was pretty good (awesome tomato sauce!). Also, these guys bake their own in house speciality bread, I forget what it’s called, but it’s served in chunky loaves with a crunchy exterior. First time I ate bread that was fresh out of the oven and so good! Would go there again just for the bread.
  • Little Shin Shin: Chinese restaurant. They have a lunch combo which is value for money. Rice, main-order, soup and starter. However, the Chinese food in the US tastes a little different from “Indian Chinese” food. The Indian variety I think deep-fries stuff, but the US version only sticks to stir-fry ? I don’t really know, but the Indian variety is much better. Anyway, the food here is strictly average and the decor looks straight from the 90’s. The nice thing in this place is they serve complimentary fresh orange wedges for dessert, which is probably the best part of the meal.
  • Lush Gelato: This is sort of a gourmet gelato place, with the place claiming to make everything from scratch using local ingredients etc. The set of flavours is limited, although some are unique. However, the taste is average and probably not worth the price. Nothing in there that would drag me there again.
  • Cato’s Ale House: This place has a huge selection of beers on tap. When I was there, they had a trivia night going on and the place was really lively. The food however was strictly average and the pricing a little on the higher side for a neighbourhood kind of place. But, great place to hang out and catch a few beers especially if with a large(ish) group.
Piedmont Ave, Oakland - Restaurant Alley !
Piedmont Ave, Oakland – Scene of the action !
  • Burma Superstar: This is the best restaurant in Oakland period. I never knew Burmese food was so fucking good. It seems to be this crazy combination of Indian and Thai cusines. All the reviews recommend the Tea Seaf Salad and why not ? This is actually called Lahpet and it’s the Burmese national delicacy. The salad is served with all the ingredients laid out separately in a plate. If I remember correctly, they were fermented tea leaves, lettuce, roasted crunchy garlic, roasted peantus, some other crunchy seeds, sesame and something else, tomatoes and lemon. The server then tosses together everything on the spot. The result is a brilliant mix of flavours and textures. The rest of the dishes were very good too, I had something called the Samosa Soup – samosa’s in a Thai’ish curry. The restaurant’s always busy and seatings a bit cramped, but killer food and the standout tea leaf salad.
  • Zachary’s: Zacharys are known for their Chicago style deep dish pizza. I’ve always been a fan of the “deeper” style of pizza – the thin crust pizza just seem like a roti with some cheese on top. So I was really looking forward to eating here and Zachary’s does not disappoint. The pizzas are really deep – almost like a pie, with tons of fresh tomato sauce and mozzarella. Given this, the pizza is not suprisingly heavy. The two of us ordered the smallest pizza, but still ended up not being able to finish it. (The leftover pizza, tasted really great the next day too). Highly recommend.

    Zacharys deep dish goodness
    Zacharys deep dish goodness
  • Forge Pizzeria: Impressive location in Jack London square in the pier. However, I really didnt like the pizza too much. The pizzas are thin crust style & the veggie pizza we had was quite average. The toppings didnt have any flavour. However, the fried cheese curd starter was something unique and really good. Dessert selection was very ordinary. A mixed kind of place with a great setting by the water.
  • Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen: This is a US Southern Style of cooking restaurant. I ordered a fried chicken dish with sweet potato mash. However the potato had an overwhelming amount of ginger, I really hate ginger, so while the mash put me off, but the chicken was good. My wife however ordered the veggie gumbo which was awesome.
  • Jupiter: This is a Berkeley classic and very popular student hangout, since its close to UCB. Anyway, great pizza, great beer – cant go wrong with that combo. Nice open air outdoor seating with heaters for chilly nights, Jupiter is a great place.
  • Venus: Was here for a Sunday brunch. They had an interesting range of egg based dishes on the menu with varieties of bread to choose from. I think I had an omelette based dish, which was good. Overall, decent brunch place but nothing outstanding.
  • Comal: This is a slightly upscale Mexican restaurant with some Mexican food that cant really be found in the Taco Bell’s et al. I had something called Chile Relleno. Basically a Mexican chilly stuffed with cheese, fried and served in a gravy. Really really good. They had an extensive list of cocktails. Lots of them were Tequila based, but they also had cocktails that were made from Mezcal. I had never heard of Mezcal before, it comes to a difference in what kind of Agave cactus is used in the production – Tequila is a specific kind of Mezcal. Anyway, I tried a Mezcal cocktail, it was really potent and gave me a good buzz and improved my appetite. Anyway Comal is a great place to celebrate occasions.
  • Great China: Gigantic Chinese restaurant in Berkeley. Standard American chinese fare. They have a good varieties of locally brewed beer – I remembered trying a chocolate ale, which was quite good.
  • El Burro Picante: A nondescript Mexican fast food place. The system is you go upto the counter and make your own dish by choosing a variety of toppings. All the standard burrito, taco with a variety of meat and veggie options. The portions are generous, the taste is great and prices are great on the wallet. Highly recommended.
  • Cafe Colucci: This is an Ethiopian restaurant. It has an Italian name, possibly because Ethiopia was an Italian colony for some time, but the restaurant never explains the origins of the name. I had never tried Ethiopian food, but had heard a lot about of it. The menu was large with a billion items on it, however we tried a vegetarian platter kind of thing. The platter comes a variety of gravy dishes, plenty of them were lentil based – couple of them tasted like Indian Daal. The curries are eaten with something called Injera which is like a Ethiopian set dosa. It’s fermented so had a strong sour taste which I really didnt like. The spice used in the curries is something called Berber – a strong red chilli based spice mix. This is actually quite spicy. Well sour and spicy, both things that dont agree with me, so my experience with Ethiopian wasnt off to a good start, but I want to have another go, simply because the cuisine is so diverse and there were simply so many other things to try !
  • Tartine Bakery: This is a bakery that has acquired a reputation for being one of San Francisco’s best bakeries. We went there on a Saturday and the line was around the fucking block. Groan. Anyway, stood in the line for a good 20 minutes and got in. We actually went there around brunch time and ordered a bunch of things that are supposed to be good. The Banana Cream Tart, something called the Morning Bun, some Tart and a couple of other things as well. It wasn’t really great – I liked the Banana Cream Tart, the others were just average. Really not worth the lines or navigating your way through the crowds for.
  • Pearl’s Burgers: This is a small, hole-in-the-wall kind of place but has acquired a great reputation as a super burger place. Was there on a late night and was really really hungry, so just wanted to go and smash some burgers and fries. The burgers come with different toppings, fillings etc. – I ordered a Chicken burger in Mediterranean style. The burger was enormous and wouldn’t fit in a single bite, so the fillings kept falling out. The chicken patty however was bland while the fillings were really spicy. The side order of garlic fries was mind-blowing though. Good place to grab something filling when in down town SFO.

Also had some great food during a road trip to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon :

  • Las Vegas: Everything in Vegas is overpriced (at least on the Strip) and caters to the captive tourist audience. We stayed at this place called the Luxor (yeah it’s a freaking pyramid with a Sphinx and everything). Anyway, the buffets in Vegas are supposed to be really popular with every hotel trying to outdo one another with extravagant displays of food. I actually really like buffets, so we tried it. The food was pretty good and the variety was ridiculous. I really liked whatever I sampled though, although I probably ended up tasting only a quarter of the dishes. The other restaurants are costly and mediocre.
  • Stopped at this little diner called Little City Grille in Boulder City, Nevada. This is situated off the highway when driving from Vegas to Hoover Dam. What a find, one of the best breakfasts I’ve had ever. Ordered a cheese omelette which came with breakfast potatoes, sour cream and toasted sour dough bread. Mindbogglingly good. My wife ordered French toast with maple syrup. Thick slices of toast with crispy edges with gooey Maple syrup. Heavenly stuff, we were so full, that we skipped lunch and were able to power our way through dinner.
  • While visiting the Grand Canyon, we stayed in a little town called Williams in Arizona. Williams appears to be running on the tourist economy, considering its proximity to the Grand Canyon as well as situated on the Historic Route 66. Williams therefore a large no. of restaurants for a such a small town. The Pine Country Restaurant really stood out. It’s an American style diner. I ordered something which was like a chicken schnitzel and was really good. However, this place is really famous for its Pies. Tried something called the Cherry Cream Cheese pie – mouthgasmic !
  • While on the way to Yosemite, we stopped at this little town called Oakhurst and stopped at this place called the Southgate Brewing Co. for lunch. Lunch was average, but I tried a root beer that was flavoured with Sarsaparilla – really unique taste. I later learned that the computer gaming company – Sierra started out in Oakhurst. I spent hours playing King’s Quest as a kid, so was nice to know that I was where it once all started. While on the way back, we stopped at this place called Jantz Bakery, in the small town of Mariposa. Everything looked really good, though I finally settled down on Apple pie. The pie was moist and crunch and the coffee was hot. Great little place !

Gujarat Triplog

I took a trip with mum and dad to Gujarat a while ago. Overall, the trip was “fun”, although some experiences did come close to marring it. The broad trip itinerary was to travel to Ahmedabad, Vadodara (Baroda) and Kutch. We decided to drive down from Mumbai to Ahmedabad in our SX4. Yeah, it’s a good-looking car, despite the cheesy tag-line. “Men Are Back” – who came up with that ? Anyway, the driving route from Ahmedabad to Mumbai involves taking the NH8.  Well the trip’s only bad experiences were because of this infernal stretch of tarmac.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the road – no potholes, that kind of stuff.  The problem is traffic. Mind bending, soul-crushing, spirit-dampening traffic. Heavy container trucks, flat-bed trailers and even several CAT 797’s.  OK, kidding about the last one. But, you get the drift.  All this heavy traffic is a potent combination for – yeah – you guessed it – traffic jams. We got stuck in a huge one as soon as we got past the Vasai creek and on to the highway. Ultimately, it turned out to be an upturned truck, but the whole mess just was made worse because many drivers decided to drive on the wrong side to jump the queue.  Then, both sides ended up getting miserably deadlocked. Take a look for yourselves:

Stuck on both sides
Stuck on both sides

Extricating ourselves took a painful 3 hours and frayed nerves.  Not a very auspicious start, but a start nevertheless and we were glad to be on our way.   Anyway, we got stuck again – for a short time – just before entering Bharuch while crossing the Narmada.  Oh, and the same routine happened on our way back. Moral of the story folks do not contemplate of driving from Mumbai to Ahmedabad (or even the bus). Take the train, or fly, you’ll be a happier person.

Allright, Ahmedabad then.

The Sidi Sayyed Mosque: A  tiny building really – but it has the famous ‘Jali’ carvings that form the inspiration for the IIM Ahmedabad Logo.

Sidi Saiyyed Mosque
Sidi Saiyyed Mosque

The Jama Masjid: In one word: breathtaking.  The effect on entering the mosque for the first time is quite dramatic, because the entrance is an obscure side gate and the entire mosque is hidden from view because of the busy bazaar that surrounds it. So as soon as you step in,  you’ll gasp because there is this freaking HUGE courtyard that is impossible to foresee if you are just ambling out side.  Beautiful Islamic architecture with countless (actually, 260) pillars. Don’t miss this one.

Jama Masjid
Jama Masjid

The Gujarati’s have an inordinate love for fried stuff.  Although they do have non fried alternatives available (the most famous being the Dhokla) my take is that the whole cuisine is just a heart attack waiting to happen.  Anyhow, I would recommend that you try the “Fafda” – (fried chick pea batter!) which is sold literally everywhere.

Gujarati fried snack food called Farsaan
Mounds of fried snacks are to be found all over Gujarat
I wasn't exaggerating

Ahmedabad has something unique called the “Jhulta Minara“or the shaking minarets. However, note that you will not be able to see the Jhulta Minara’s shake anymore. Folks are prohibited from climbing up the minaret and giving it a shake. Also, one of the minarets has been dismantled  by a pesky Britisher during the Raj – who wanted to see what makes the minarets shake, but couldn’t put it back together later. Visit if you have the time or skip.

The Jhulta Minara
The Jhulta Minara

A popular mandatory stop for tourists to Gujarat is the Akshardham temple located in the administrative capital of Gandhinagar.  So we trudged along as well. I was quite disappointed with the whole experience.  It is extremely crowded which is always a bad start.  Next, I realized that it is  more a theme park than a temple (with fun rides and attractions). This was quite disconcerting because umm a place of worship should not have amusement rides ?  The architecture and interior is also nothing much to speak of. Everything smacks of kitsch and has an overall tacky feeling. My recommendation is to knock this off your itinerary and save yourself some serious time.

An excellent antidote to the jading Askshardham experience is the Adalaj step well, which is located off the Ahmedabad Gandhinagar highway. I had never seen anything like it before. Essentially as the name says it is constructed to function a well, but the structure is so ornate, that it could very well be a subterranean palace. There are various “levels” that one has to descend to get to the level of the water and at each level there are exquisite ornate carvings. Don’t miss this place.

The levels of the Adalaj Step Well
The levels of the Adalaj Step Well

The must see attraction is of course Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram. Immaculately maintained it offers a beautiful insight into the life Gandhiji spent while staying at the Ashram as well as his message of non violence.

Next, the Calico Museum of Textiles located in the heart of Ahmedabad. Rated as one of the best textile museums in the world, it is owned by the Sarabhai family.  The museum is housed in a beautiful intricately carved wooden Haveli surrounded by a lush garden which shuts out the heat and dust of Ahmedabad.  Inside, there is a stupendous collection of textiles, fabrics and garment designs all over India.   The artwork and the variety is stunning and will leave you breathless and in awe of Indian craftsmen. Note that the museum is very restrictive in how it allows visitors.  There are only a fixed number of visitors allowed during a narrow time window.  Visitors are accompanied in the museum by a guide who talks one through all the exhibits on display.  Note, one must call to book in advance.  If you don’t, you can still stand in line, but will be allowed to get in only if those who had booked earlier don’t show up. So, make sure you plan in advance to visit this hidden gem in Ahmedabad. Contact the museum here.

Oh and avoid eating at the “famous” Vishalla. The food is overpriced and underwhelming.

Next on the agenda was to visit Kutch. More precisely the Little Rann of Kutch (LROK).  The direct route to LROK from Ahmedabad is via Viramgam, but we chose to take a longer route via Modhera which is famous for it’s Sun Temple.  The temple although vandalized by Islamic invaders still remains quite beautiful. I would recommend that you hire one of the guides at the temple who do a good job of explaining how the sculptures represent events from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and how the temple is constructed according to Vastu principles. Quite fascinating.

The sun temple at Modhera
The sun temple at Modhera

From Modhera, we drove to the LROK.  The attraction of the LROK is a that it is a salty desert and is famous for being home to the Indian Wild Ass (Khur) as well as flamingoes. Luckily we managed to get a glimpse of both the animals. There are a lot of resorts near the small town of Dasada that offer packages to drive you into the LROK, however we drove ourselves and I suggest you do the same and save yourselves some money.  The Gujarat Forest Department checkpost in Dhrangadhra has a checkpost where you have to pay an entry fee, they also arrange for a guide to accompany you. There is also an excellent information display about the LROK. Be warned – the guides are locals who can hardly speak any Hindi, however they are useful in pointing out the spots where the khur and the flamingoes can be found. Beyond that, do not expect any interesting commentary. The empty flat treeless landscape is a  surreal and beautiful. Apparently, the landscape looks even better the moon light. Send me some pictures if you’ve ever made it there in the moonlight.  Salt making is an important commercial activity and you could easily spot salt pans and even mounds of salt. Interestingly I found that raw salt is in the form of huge crystalline chunks which are as hard as rocks.

Indian Wild Ass on the Little Rann of Kutch
Indian Wild Ass on the Little Rann of Kutch
A Salt Pan
A Salt Pan
A salt mound
A salt mound

On the journey back to Mumbai we decided to stop at Anand and then at Baroda (Vadodara).  Anand of course is the headquarters and home to Amul (technically the GCMMF) the world largest milk producer (and quite a few other records as well). Amul is a well known and well loved brand in India that has been around for a long time.  Amul’s  White Revolution was a phenomenal success which made India the leading milk producer of the world – a fact which has been drilled into Indian schoolkids through textbooks, so I was keen on visiting.  We did manage to find the Amul factory which has a museum, but we couldn’t visit the museum for some reason (either it was closed or we had to have some kind of security permission – I forget).  Anyway, to be there in Anand in front of Amul’s HQ had a sort of historical importance attached to it and it felt good.

Next destination – Baroda (Vadodara). Now, Baroda being the seat of a royal family has a different sort of feel about it. Definitely much cleaner and greener and a better looking city when compared to Ahmedabad. Our main reason to be in Baroda was to visit the Laxmi Vilas Palace.  An amazing, imposing structure, the palace is full of fine art and architecture. There is an excellent guided tour that is offered as part of the entrace fee. Our guide an amiable old man (who for some reason was in a tearing hurry) did a fine job in explaining the finer points of the palace and taking us through the various rooms.  Watch out for the fantastic Ravi Varma’s, the weapons on display as well as various art from Europe and elsewhere that have been collected by the Maharaja. The Ravi Varma paintings also seem to have an illusionary effect where the eyes of the portrait seem to follow you irrespective of your position in the room. This seems to be quite a popular effect in a few other paintings as well, which the museum staff are quite eager to point out.  There is also an adjoining museum that has beautiful paintings and a much bigger collection of European art.  Definitely worth a visit.

An outer wall painting of the Laxmi Vilas Palace
An outer wall painting of the Laxmi Vilas Palace
Inside the Palace with Mom and Dad. Apparently, people love taking photos with the marble lady's butt in the background. Don't ask me why.
Inside the Palace with Mom and Dad. According to the guide, people love taking photos with the marble lady's butt in the background. Don't ask me why.

So we trudged along back to Mumbai after getting stuck in countless more traffic jams on the highway. Before I forget, I must mention how helpful the iPhone’s GPS and GoogleMaps were in finding our ways both in the rural back roads as well as within the city.  Try out GoogleMaps as  as a free alternative in your phone instead of buying costly proprietary maps. It does make mistakes some times and needs GPRS (reception is extremely widespread – I had GPRS even on the LROK!), but definitely very useful.

Overall trip experience: excellent. Just dont drive thats all 🙂