Six Places to Drink Beer in Brussels

We only had a weekend in Brussels; a quick stop on our way to the Tour de France with one goal and one goal only: drink as much beer as we could.  Nowhere in the world has better beer than Belgium, and Brussels is the place to go for the lion’s share of it.  And the people of Brussels are clearly proud of it, because it’s everywhere.  I hold Philadelphia up on a pretty high pedestal as far as beer selection and availability goes, but when we stopped into a small organic café for breakfast and they had a beer list that could rival any bar in Philly, I knew this was a special place for the beer drinker.

As you can imagine, it’s not hard to find beer in Brussels.  It’s not hard to find exceptional beer.  But you can’t go everywhere (our livers wouldn’t allow it), so here is a whittling down of our six favorite places to grab a beer in Brussels.

Affligem

Having outdoor seating on the pedestrian-only Boulevard Anspech makes for a wonderful night, especially when it’s low-70s and breezy.  We stopped here for our first beer(s) and couldn’t have been happier. Our server was very knowledgeable about the local beers and pointed us to a few local breweries we hadn’t heard of (which were unfortunately closed that weekend).  Beer highlight: their beer of the month was also Lindeman’s Faro, a beer we’d never tried but become a running theme throughout our vacation: a tart lambic brewed with brown sugar. Refreshingly sweet and tart. Boulevard Anspach 81

Delirium Café

Part of the Delirium Village cul de sac of eight bars, when I asked my friend if Delirium Café was super touristy or a place we should definitely check out, he just said, “Yes.” I would recommend going on an off-hour; our first attempt on a weekend night found the place overflowing with people.  But for good reason: the downstairs café has over 2,000 beers on offer (most by the bottle) with a massive magazine “menu” to browse. The café itself is decorated with branded beer trays from all kinds of breweries, and the stairs leading down are lined with old Delirium bottles.  Definitely a cool place to spend a few hours. Beer highlight: Delirium Red. While Delirum Tremens has become somewhat old hat, I could have had multiple glasses of this kriek (cherry) version. Impasse de la Fidélité 4

Au Bon Vieux Temps

Down a small alley off one of the main touristy pedestrian areas is this little bar, tucked in a back corner.  The inside is everything you’d want an old-world bar to be: stained glass windows, carved wood paneling, and plenty of mugs and trinkets that look like they’ve been there since the bar opened.  We grabbed a spot at the bar and ordered the highlight of the menu: Westvleteren 12, consistently rated one of the best beers in the world.  Our bartender apologized for only having two Westvleteren glasses for the four we’d ordered, so she gave them to the ladies.  Well worth the stop, even though we were drinking a 10% beer first thing in the morning. Impasse Saint-Nicolas 8/4

Moeder Lambic

There are two Moeder Lambic outposts in Brussels, but the newer on is closer to the downtown/Grand Place area and a little more accessible if you’re walking.  Like everywhere, it had a great beer list (and was where we had our first Cantillons of the trip—more on that later), along with some good-looking food.  We opted for meat and cheese boards, because we’re fancy, and drank our fill. Beer highlight: Tilquin Mure, a tart but refreshingly fruity gueuze brewed with blackberries. Place Fontainas 8

Poechenellekelder

While the name Poechenellekelder may be hard to say, the bar is not hard to find.  Right across the street from Manneken Pis, you can grab a drink and do some sight-seeing at the same time.  There is plenty of seating at this quirky bar, whether outside in their courtyard, inside, or upstairs.  The entire bar is filled with weird little dolls, trinkets, and photos to peruse while you drink some of the freshest Taras Boulba you’ll ever have. Beer highlight: a bottle of Cantillon Nath, a rhubard beer that none of us had ever heard of but all thoroughly enjoyed. Rue du Chêne 5

Cantillon

Finally: the cornerstone of our trip to Brussels.  Opened in 1900, Cantillon is one of the most sought-after breweries in the world and, for my money, the best. No one makes a better lambic, and we put them to the test by spending hours in their surprisingly modern tasting room.  We ended up splitting four bottles and some additional glasses before we went down to raid the small gift shop, and it was the highlight of our time in the city.  It’s a bit of a walk from the city center (about 2km) but well worth the trip.  Beer highlights: all of them.  Fou Foune (an apricot lambic), 2016 Lou Pepe Kriek, Vigneronne (brewed with muscat grapes and aged in oak barrels), 2015 Lou Pepe Framboise (raspberry), and Rosé de Gambrinus (another raspberry lambic). Rue Gheude 56

If you’re a fan of beer, it’s no secret that Brussels should be your Mecca.  And while a focused strategy will definitely improve the amount and quality of beer you will be able to sample, you could really walk into almost anywhere to find a top-shelf beer list.  But whether you go to these places or not, drink as much as you can (safely), and drink as local as you can.  And don’t miss Cantillon.

Tips for following the Tour de France

A few years ago, having friends who were into cycling, I had some time to kill before a beer event and decided to check out the first stage of the Tour de France. While I wasn’t sure of the rules or what exactly was going on, I loved it. This was in 2013, and as the peloton raced to the finish, the Orica-GreenEdge team bus got stuck in the finish line banner. What was going to happen? Would the cyclists have to go around it? Would it be able to move in time? Then there was a crash! Combine the excitement of the finish with the soothing and informative commentary of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, and I was immediately hooked.

It took a few years, but this year I was finally able to go and spectate live with my sister and two of our friends.  We planned on seeing parts of four stages (though that didn’t exactly pan out) over seven days.  While I was happy to take the reins, the logistics took a fair bit of planning.  If you are a fan of cycling and one day want to see the Tour live for yourself—and I very much recommend it—I’ve put together some tips to hopefully help you along the way.  Allez!

One of the Haribo cars during the caravan

Rent a car

As an American, I generally assume you can get anywhere in Europe by train.  While this is mostly true, many of the small towns or mountain passes the Tour winds up in will not be.  We had four days between two large cities, so we rented a car to hit the stops we wanted between the two and took trains the rest of the way—but the car was absolutely necessary.

AirBNB

If you want to be up close and personal, your best chances for accommodation are through AirBNB.  As the Tour starts and ends in many small towns, and there are an incredible amount of people associated with the daily running of the race, most hotels will be booked solid before the route is even announced.  If you don’t mind booking in another town and making your way to the start/finish, that’s fine, but we were able to get AirBNBs within 500 meters of two stage starts.

Don’t try to do too much

If you want to see the start of a stage, chances are you won’t be able to see the finish—and vice versa.  Waiting for the roads to re-open, getting out of the city, and being lucky if the roads are still open when you get to the end of the next stage (and there’s parking) is a very, very slim chance.  Instead, pick one or the other and take your time enjoying the atmosphere.  We lucked out at our first stage, in Nimes, that the end just happened to be about a kilometer from the start—one of the reasons we picked the stage.

The view from the Col du Galibier, with spectators lining the road

Know the route

The route for the Tour will come out in October (with the race being in July), which will give you plenty of time to book accommodation.  Be sure to do it wisely.  For example, we wanted to see a mountain stage on the Col du Galibier this year.  We stayed in Les Deux Alpes, which is about 45 minutes west of the mountain—but the race was coming in from the east.  With the roads the race is on being closed hours in advance—and sometimes days—we wanted to make sure we weren’t inadvertently closed off from the stage. 

Make a day of it (and be prepared to do a lot of walking)

The riders weren’t scheduled to get to the Col du Galibier until around 4:30, but we were there around 8am—and we still had to park about a kilometer away from the base of the mountain.  We made it to the spot we wanted on the mountain by around 10am, which gave us six hours to hang out, enjoy the atmosphere, and dig in to our cooler full of beer, meat, and cheese.  We spent a lot of time cheering on all the amateur riders taking advantage of the road closure to ride up the mountain.  Being there early also guarantees you the opportunity to see the caravan, a 45-minute parade of decorated sponsor’s cars throwing out all kinds of swag.  It comes through about two hours before the riders on every stage, so this is your best chance to get some freebie souvenirs.

Go near the end of the Tour

The first week is generally for the sprinters, without much reason for the peloton to slow down. So, unless you want to see a group of cyclists fly by you at 50km/h, there isn’t much reason to be around. We specifically went for a mountain stage to have a better chance at seeing the riders, even though they went past faster than I could ever imagine going on some of those climbs.

The peloton whizzes past on the Champs Elysees

Don’t expect much from the final stage

Don’t get me wrong—the party atmosphere along the Champs Elysees is amazing.  However, the caravan is done giving away freebies (they just drive by and wave) and while the peloton goes by eight times, they’re getting faster almost every time, so it’s mostly a blur each time.  Walking up and down the Champs, though, is a great way to get some good food, any merch you were missing, some sponsor freebies along the road, and (actually reasonably priced) beer.  And while spectating the final loops on the Champs isn’t going to get you much in the way of the race, I would absolutely recommend being there for the party.

Gorgeous bikes outside the Movistar bus

Stage starts are the best for rider sightings

After the stage, the riders are (understandably) tired and ready to get back on the team bus and back to the hotel.  Before the stage, though, the buses are lined up and riders may come out to greet fans.  They will, eventually, have to make their way out of the bus and to the start line (where they physically sign in before each stage), so if you want to see someone specific, parking yourself outside the team bus before the start is your best bet.

Enjoy the cities

Finally, be sure to enjoy the cities you most likely wouldn’t otherwise find yourself in.  On any given trip to France, there’s no chance I would have gone to Nimes or Les Deux Alpes, and chances aren’t good I would have ever even heard of Albertville.  But they all had their own charm and beauty, and we enjoyed each stage.  Many of the smaller towns also have celebrations or specials the night before of the night of the Tour. Expore!

Our balcony view of Les Deux Alpes

Hopefully this will make things a tad easier to plan your trip to see Le Tour.  There’s a lot of good (and sometimes more specific) information on DC Rainmaker’s blog, which I read a few times while planning our trip. I’m also always up for answering any questions or just talking about the Tour (and travel), so feel free to ask below or shoot me an email.

Great Chefs Return to Philly in Support of Alex’s Lemonade Stand

On Saturday, June 8, some of the top chefs in the country will gather at the Urban Outfitters HQ in the Navy Yard to celebrate the Great Chefs Event. The top-of-the-line food festival, which benefits Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, will return for its second year to the family-friendly timeframe of 1-4pm and feature an interactive kid zone. Tickets, which will run $195 this year, are available at GreatChefsEvent.org.

The list of chefs, as impressive as ever, is well worth the price of admission.  The list of Philadelphia chefs alone will feature Matt Buehler (Vetri Cucina), Jen Carroll (Spice Finch), Top Chef winner Nick Elmi (Laurel), Jose Garces, Emilio Mignucci (DiBruno Bros), Kevin Spraga (Fitler Club), Yehuda Sichel (Abe Fisher) and Greg Vernick (Vernick Food & Drink). If that list wasn’t enough to whet your appetite, attendees can also expect small bites from Timon Balloo (Sugarcane, Miami), Cesare Casella (Casella’s Salumi Special, NYC), Derek Dammann (Maison Publique, Montreal), Elizabeth Falkner (Falk Yeah!, NYC), Food Network star Alex Guarnaschelli (Butter, NYC), Top Chef alum Bruce Kalman (Square Peg Pizza, Connecticut), Ludo Lefebvre (Trois Mec, LA), barbecue genius Adam Perry Lang, Jon Shook & Vinny Dotolo (Animal, LA), Jonathan Waxman (Barbuto, NYC), and Rocco Whalen (Farenheit, Cleveland).

Cesare Casella doing what he does best.

Whew. Deep breath.  That’s only a portion of the 40 chefs that will be in attendance, in addition to mixologists, winemakers, and the second year of the outdoor beer garden, which will include Yards, Victory, Sly Fox, and Roadhouse Brewing Co. A full list of the participants can be found here.

Did I mention that kids under 12 get in free with an adult? Or that $95 of your ticket price is tax-deductible? How about that in 2018 alone, just the Philadelphia edition of the Great Chefs Event raised over $340,000 for Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation? There is also an online auction with some pretty incredible items, as well as a live auction that anyone interested in the best food will salivate over.

Yehuda Sichel’s Montreal-style smoked shortrib sandwich.

The price may seem prohibitive at first, but once you take into account the sheet magnitude of the chefs in attendance, as well as all the good this event does, it becomes much easier to justify.  Take the opportunity to treat yourself, and also to help children with cancer—what better one-two punch are you going to get with your money?

Jonathan Waxman’s Stracciatella with heirloom tomatoes

What Can I Say About Angkor Wat?

“It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what’s happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there – with your eyes open – and lived to see it.”

Anthony Bourdain

How does one write about a place like Angkor Wat? How do I go about saying things that haven’t already been said—more eloquently, even—or things that are impossible to say? Do I focus on the incredible heat, which only allowed us to visit the temples for a few hours at a time before heading back to our hotel? Do I talk about our guide Dy, his knowledge and pride in the area? His taking us down quiet backroads so we could enter some of the temples without running into hordes of other tourists?

Do I try to sum up the history of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temple complexes in a few words? Try to explain the sprawling immensity of the area? The incredible amount of slave labor that contributed to making something so impressive? Do I focus on Angkor Wat? Angkor Thom? The 216 faces carved into the Bayon temple? The intricate carvings throughout all the temples? Do I try to describe standing in front of Angkor Wat early in the morning, waiting for the sun to rise behind it, only to find that nothing—not words, not pictures—could ever capture that sight?

Then, do I just post pictures and let them speak for themselves? Can pictures even capture what we saw, the feeling of the place, the immensity, the beauty? Will anything other than actually going there, actually seeing it with your own eyes, ever suffice? How could it?

When you do visit Siem Reap and Angkor, I would highly suggest booking Dy as your tour guide. We received a free guide through our hotel, requested him specifically and were not let down. He was nothing less than stellar. From the looks of current TripAdvisor reviews, he seems to be working at Angkor Guide Sam.

Six Places to Eat in Montreal

One of the great drawbacks—if you can call it that—of trying to see as much of the world as possible is that it doesn’t leave a lot of time for re-visiting any favorites:  I’m dying to go back to Vietnam; I want to give the Inca Trail another shot now that I’m a little more in shape; I want to eat more of Montreal. It’s also for this reason I try to make the most of a place when I am there, and I think in my limited time I’ve eaten pretty well in Montreal. This is just a small collection of a few standard places in the city, but no trip would be complete without at least trying some of these.

St. Viateur Bagel

Regardless of where you fall on the New York vs Montreal bagel argument, Montreal bagels are damned good and should not be missed.  There are plenty of popular places, but St. Viateur is one of the most popular—they even have a 24-hour storefront in case you need an everything bagel at 3am.  Be prepared for a line if you go on the weekend, but don’t skip it just because there’s a line.  Any wait is worth your time. 263 Rue Saint Viateur O, Montréal, QC H2V 1Y1, Canada

Schwatz’s Deli

Another stalwart of Montreal cuisine, this one serving up the ubiquitous Montreal smoked meat sandwich.  Not quite pastrami but just as good, the generality of “smoked meat” may be off-putting, but a trip to Montreal without having some is no trip to Montreal.  Schwartz’s another cramped little spot you will have to wait in a line for, but once again it is worth every second.  Sit down, have some pickles, and stuff your face with layers of supple smoked meat. 3895 St Laurent Blvd, Montreal, QC H2W 1X9, Canada

La Banquise

If there is such thing as a perfect food, it may be poutine.  Quality French fries, delicious hunks of partially-melted squeaky cheese curds, and a special gravy all on one dish—I don’t know how you can go wrong.  And if you go to La Banquise, a 24-hour spot offering dozens of varieties of poutine, you absolutely can’t.  And while I can be somewhat of a poutine purist (I mean, what else could you possibly need), some of the combinations here are way too good to pass up. 994 Rue Rachel E, Montréal, QC H2J 2J3, Canada

Dieu du Ciel!

While this isn’t necessarily a food establishment, Dieu du Ciel! is one of Montreal’s best breweries.  As far as stouts go, Peche Mortel is a flagbearer of the style. The brewery has plenty of other great beers, though, and stopping in for as many as you can taste is highly recommended. The sample sizes make it easy to try a bunch, and should be taken advantage of. They do have food, though, in case you happen to take advantage of too many.

Au Pied de Cochon

If you have a problem with foie gras, do not eat here.  Au Pied de Cochon is a shrine to not only foie, but indulgence in general, as memorialized in the early Quebec episode of No Reservations. And while we didn’t eat the sheer amount of food Bourdain did, I still couldn’t get to sleep for hours after eating here due to the richness of the food.  We started with foie gras croquettes, followed by chicken nuggets with foie gras and a warm maple syrup dipping sauce.  I of course had to get the foie gras poutine, and then the special of that night: a pizza topped with arugula, cured ham from the Au Pied du Cochon sugar shack, house-made ricotta, black truffle, foie gras, and drizzled with maple syrup. And then add some maple bread pudding for dessert. Holy shit, what a decadent meal. Thankfully it was within walking distance of our AirBNB, because I needed some exercise afterwards. 536 Avenue Duluth E, Montréal, QC H2L 1A9, Canada

Joe Beef

Consistently ranked one of Canada’s best restaurants, it’s not hard to see why.  Joe Beef is tiny, but they pack a huge punch.  As LeeAnne said afterwards, “It’s been a long time since food has been so good I’ve burst out laughing.” You can’t go wrong here with their extensive chalkboard menu, and I would suggest doing what we did—we told our server that we just wanted six or seven courses of their best shit (those words exactly) and her eyes lit up.  My one requirement from the menu was the terrine as pot au pho, a terrine with pho spices topped with thinly-sliced tendon and herbs—it was incredible.  Also topping the list was was off-menu “pancake sandwich” of two fluffy pancakes with a fried egg, foie gras, maple syrup, and hollandaise. Despite how much I loved the over-the-topness of Pied de Cochon, Joe Beef was not only the best meal we had in Montreal, but the best we’ve had in all of Canada. 2491 Notre-Dame St W, Montreal, QC H3J 1N6, Canada

Montreal has a lot of great things to do—and if you’re a hockey fan, taking in a game at the Bell Centre should not be missed—but as a food town it ranks as highly as anywhere I’ve been. With its French influence and chefs that don’t hold back, though, be prepared to indulge. 

La Panarda 2019: 40 Courses in 7 Hours

We’re gonna do this again, right?

My good friend Ray and I went into La Panarda 2018 as a once-in-a-lifetime experience: we would pay a lot of money to spend an entire Sunday, from noon until who knows when, eating and drinking non-stop. But then, about a week after we’d completed that task (and when we had finally started to feel hungry again), it became obvious to both of us that we were going to do it again.

This year we arrived early once again, wanting to get seats not only close to the end of the table, but also against one of the walls–when you’re sitting and eating for eight hours, having the option to lean back against something is very welcome. I once again wore my most comfortable shirt, my Canadiens jersey, and Ray wore a Flyers jersey; both sparked plenty of conversation with Le Virtu owner Francis Cratil Cretarola, who has been an avid hockey fan since before I was born.

I also was surprised to be recognized by many people who had read last year’s description of the meal, saying it was what they had shown friends who asked what they were getting into, and what they had used to plan for this year. I was asked for my advice on how to make it through the entire day, and I just echoed Francis’s advice from last year: the race isn’t always to the swift.

Soon after we were seated, Cantina Fretana Cococciola Spumante Brut was poured, and introductions were made to the folks we’d be spending the balance of our day with, Cretarola made a small introduction thanking everyone for being there and introducing us to a musician who would start us off with some “war music” played first on a goat’s bone, and then on what amounts to an Italian bagpipe.

The first item to come out was the torta rustica, a small quiche-like square served cold. I wasn’t expecting it to be cold, but it was delicious all the same, and just like that we were underway. No one having eaten breakfast, of course, the first few courses went quickly–we were all hungry and ready to eat.

Along with the torta was the mushroom polpette, an umami bomb of salty mushroom goodness served in ball form. At this stage in the game, despite repeated warnings not to get too ahead of themselves, a few people took some extra servings so as not to leave any food on the table. I admit I was one of them.

We then had a crostini with olives, and all the salt was working to get our saliva and digestive juices flowing. It also made me pretty thirsty, so the first few glasses of wine went down a little easier than they probably should have.

The final course of our first section was vegetable fritto misto, a selection of vegetables lightly fried in a tempura-like batter that worked because it was neither heavy nor greasy.

How do you eat this thing?

After the initial amuse offerings, we got started with fish–a change from last year’s movement into cheese and charcuterie. The first course, octopus with fennel and red chili pesto, would stand the test of time and remain a favorite of everyone by the end of the meal.

With the octopus were mussels and calamari with saffron, another delicious dish that was light and easy to eat. It was at this point I realized the day would move a little more swiftly than last year: courses were coming out two or three together rather than one at a time, which was definitely a step in the right direction for moving things along.

Next were baccala polpette, little salty bombs of fried salt cod. These were much smaller than the mushroom polpette but just as delicious, and everyone got two (and I took one extra).

One of the final fish dishes was shrimp with brodo piccante, whole shrimp in a spicy broth. While the broth wasn’t too spicy, it definitely had a slow burn and was the spiciest dish we’ve had in the two years I’ve done this. We made sure to suck the brains out of the shrimp as best we could, and between this and the mussels, it was really hard not to ask for bread to soak up all the delicious sauce we were missing out on. Bread, however, would have been a terrible idea, and we had to be happy with spoonfuls of the broth.

The final fish course was sardines with salsa verde, and was the first course that was not served family style: we each got our own sardine. And while I’ve eaten a lot of food, I am very rarely faced with an entire animal to try to get through, so I was a little unsure of how to proceed. The gentleman across from me–a hearty Italian who knew his way around–pulled the spine out like some kind of cartoon cat and was left with only the meat.

I gave up on that method almost immediately and ended up treating the fish like pulled pork, pulling it apart with my fork. That worked, for the most part. I still ended up swallowing some small bones, but on the whole I made it through the entire sardine, despite it being one of my least favorite dishes thus far.

Oh, just what we need: beans

Following the fish course was our first break. Everyone got up, went outside, stretched their legs, and chatted about the nine courses we’d just eaten. Francis made his rounds, talking hockey and once again thanking everyone for coming out for the meal. Once again, we’d lucked out with a beautiful late January afternoon, and no coats were necessary.

We returned from our short break to personal bowls of lentil soup and while it looked like a lot, it was just a small layer on the bottom of the bowl. Still, lentils and bread aren’t really what you want to load up on this early in the game, so most people opted to not finish. I was not one of those people.

More groans came as we were delivered sausage with white beans, another course that was sure to be heavy. Of course, as with almost everything else, it was exceptionally tasty despite the heaviness, and it was very hard to leave any remnants in the bowl–but we did, leaving most of the beans to be taken away. It was for the best.

Next were lamb polpette, a succulent lamb meatball served with cherry tomatoes that almost tasted as if they were candied. While I only wanted one of the meatballs, I ended up taking an extra spoonful of the tomatoes–they were that good.

One of the highlights of the day was the pork ribs agrodolce, ribs in a sweet and spicy sauce that would win my family’s yearly wing competition without a problem. And while we all hemmed and hawed over how great the sauce was, Chef Damon Menapace told us it was simply water, honey, vinegar, chili, and garlic.

The final course of this portion of the meal, and course #14 overall, was scrippelle ‘mbusse, delicate crepes rolled up in a clear broth and sprinkled with cheese. These were soft and fluffy with a subdued flavor that was a bit out of place with the other courses in this section.

What is this? Salad??

After the scrippelle, we were delivered two types of salad: escarole with citrus, and arugula with pistachio and pecorino. While we all jokingly complained that we were being given salad instead of real food, this turned out to be a brilliant move as far as meal pacing went. We were too fond of the escarole with citrus, but the acid probably went a long way to helping digest what was coming up. The arugula salad, however, was a big hit, and there was none left as we got up to venture outside to stretch our legs once again.

After our brief respite, we were treated to a course of charcuterie. As with the salad, this was a perfect way to slow things down before the pasta courses came up: we were given light ruffage, as well as a few small pieces of cured meat–not a lot of food to take up room before we got to the hard part. All the meat was house-cured, and included capocollo (or gabbagool for all your South Philadelphians), salame aquilano, ventricina vastese, fennel salame, and mixed pickles.

The fennel salame was the overwhelming favorite of the group we’d established, in no small part due to the delicious beets served with it. And being a sucker for anything pickled, I made short work of whatever was left of them once everyone had their share. The stewed tomatoes on top of the ventricina were also excellent.

You just have to make it through the pasta

The one thing that has stuck with me from all the articles I’ve read about Panarda is: you just have to make it through the pasta courses. Once you’re through them, it’s all downhill from there. This year, however, was slightly different. Chef Menapace said he went hard on the pasta, and it showed. Last year, there were five pasta courses and five offal courses. This year, offal was cut out entirely and we’d have to make it through eight pasta courses, separated by some vegetables.

It was time to put our game faces on. The first pasta to come out was the gnocchi with saffron and baccala, our second go-round with the salt cod. The gnocchi was dense, but the little pillows mixed in with the cod were all delicious.

Following the gnocchi was one of my favorite dishes of the night: juniper-smoked ricotta ravioli. Anyone who knows me knows I love smoke, and it was a subtle and delicious addition to these little raviolis. I definitely ate too many of them.

Next, the fazzoletti with swordfish and lemon may have been my favorite dish of the night. I don’t know why. Fazzoletti is known as “the handkerchief pasta” because it’s a long, flat sheet, and combined with the lemon flavor it was perfect. I love lemon as it is, and I think that contributed to my spooning serving after serving onto my plate.

I should mention that, after last year’s meal, I either wasn’t super full or don’t remember being super full. We had played the meal conservatively, being our first time, and so I felt I could dive a little deeper into the dishes this year. This thought process–especially as it relates to the fazzoletti–is where my hubris got the best of me.

The final course of the first round of pasta was the maccheroni alla mugnaia with garlic, olive oil, and peperoncino. This is an uneven, long, fresh pasta, and was very chewy, which I have really come to love in my noodles. This one was very good, but I only had one serving since I kept spooning the fazzoletti onto my plate.

After the first round of pasta (and after the first abandonment due to vomit out front of the restaurant), we of course went back outside to stretch and give everything a chance to digest. We came back to the duck and porcini timballo, which is a baked dish usually containing pasta, rice, or potatoes. This one, we were told, we should consider to be like duck lasagna, but the noodles were replaced with crepe, so it wouldn’t be as filling.

Despite looking like an odd lump, this turned into a quick favorite, and was the only thing I took home a portion of. After eating two slices, I couldn’t bring myself to eat any more, but also couldn’t bear to see any go to waste. Our tablemates seemed surprised that I claimed I could’ve eaten the entire portion were it the only thing served at dinner.

Along with the timballo was mushrooms with garlic and honey, a variety of grilled mushrooms that was meaty without being too filling. On any other day, I could’ve eaten much more than I did (I love mushrooms), but under the circumstances–as well as sharing the table with the timballo–the mushrooms were more of an afterthought.

The final dish in our pasta break was radicchio with apples and red wine vinaigrette, another salad that served it purpose: it was light, but delivered much-needed acid to combat all the heavy, fatty foods we were getting into.

And just like that, we were once again under attack, this time with anellini with pistachio and panchetta. The pasta was toothsome enough that some of the people at the table posited that it may be undercooked, but once again I really liked the bite the pasta had. I don’t know enough to know if it was undercooked or not, but I certainly enjoyed it.

Maccheroni alla chitarra with lamb ragu. This is where things started to blend together and get difficult to remember, and where I started to really regret taking fourths of the fazzoletti. If it makes things any better, I don’t remember this dish being bad.

Sagne e ceci, a flat pasta served with chickpeas–just what we needed, more beans to fill us up.

Finally, course 32 and the final pasta course: taccozelle with pork sausage, truffle, and saffron. Truffle and saffron makes this pretty decadent, and I am usually a truffle slut, but once again I couldn’t enjoy this dish to its fullest potential as all I could think of was getting up and going outside to get some fresh air.

Ryan, are you okay?

We came back in from our break to find a citrus sorbetto placed at our seat, which would have been a nice break from the pasta had I not been already getting too full. I made sure to eat it, though, as it was quite good and very refreshing. And then the piles of meat came out.

We started with aged ribeye with fried potatoes, cooked extremely rare. As put-off as some people would probably be, I ate an entire slice. It was soft, tender, and delicious. I did not find the “undercooked” texture off-putting at all, as some others claimed it to be.

With the ribeye was porchetta with long hots and broccoli rabe–an Abruzze nod to the Philly classic roast pork sandwich. The pork itself was succulent and tasted phenomenal, and I wish I had more room. I took one piece and struggled with that as it was.

Thankfully, there was only one more meat course to go, which was a lamb shank with polenta. Being in the same city as Zahav, I’m always leery of anyone serving any kind of lamb shank, but this stood on its own merits and I would order it again, despite only taking a small piece to taste, and not having any of the polenta.

After our final meat course, I immediately went outside and laid down on the convenient little wall they have in the courtyard. The cold concrete felt wonderful on my back, and my stomach felt like it was reaching to the sky, nine months pregnant. At one point I stood up and got the spins–maybe the two shots of limoncello among the endless wine wasn’t such a good idea. At one point Cathy Lee, one of the owners, came over to make sure I was okay. It was nice to feel cared about.

We went back in (with a little reluctance on my part) to a 75% ABV Centerba sorbetto and decided it would be a good idea to order espresso. When it arrived, I took a sip and almost immediately felt the pushing sensation on the bottom of my chin that signifies vomit is imminent. I excused myself from the table and walked to the bathroom, where there was a line. I waited, I took deep breaths. Luckily, I was able to get myself under control while I was in line so nothing came back in when it was finally my turn to go in. Disaster averted.

I came back to the table no worse for the wear (though no better, either) to find something I would have enjoyed seven hours before: cheese. There was a pecorino canestrato with honey, a ricotta passita with citrus preserves, and caprino stagionato with pepeoncino jam. They were all great–especially the sides served with them–but I could only bring myself to take a small bite of each.

We were also brought housemade lu parazzo, another plate of small desserts I only had a bite each of. This was the only thing that doubled up from last year, and the olive oil cake was definitely welcome back.

Finally, we had cicerchie, which was almost like a caramelized gnocchi. It was sweet, chewy, and had I been in a better state of mind and body, I could have eaten it all on my own.

We’re gonna do this again, right?

For Ray and I, La Panarda has transitioned from a once-in-a-lifetime marathon of food to a yearly friends day out, so we will most certainly be back next year. Last year I under-ate, this year I over-ate, so I feel like I’m really going to hit the sweet spot on the next go-round. I asked everyone at the table if they would do it again, and they all said yes. Whether I actually see them there next year, time will tell.

The whole ordeal is a great testament to the entire staff at Le Virtu: from the owners and servers making everyone feel welcomed and appreciated to the chef and his staff for the marathon of cooking they have to go through for us to have our marathon of eating. To do something like this really shows a love for and dedication to the Abruzzo region of Italy, and I almost feel like I’ve been there. I certainly know what their food is like.

A special shout-out, too, to Cantina Frentana, who supplied the wines for the evening. The wines we were served were Cantina Frentana Cococciola Spumante Brut (sparkling), Terre Valse Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2016, Cirelli Bianco Organic Terbbiano Pecorino 2017, Costa del Mulino Pecorino 2016 (all white), Terre Valse Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo 2015 (rose), Cantina Frentana Organic Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2015, Cantina Frentana Rubesto Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva 2014, and Cantina Frentana Panarda Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riverva 2012 (all red). I don’t know much about wine, but I would drink them all again.

To put something like this on with two new chefs in two years, and to not repeat a single dish (other than the dessert cookies) seems astounding to me, as does the ability to get it done in less than 12 hours. This year moved even more quickly than last, and we were done eating by 7:30 at the latest. In my short experience, it seems to get better every year, and the people in charge are able to tweak enough to make it run just a little more smoothly each time.

So, as things stand, I will see you next year. We’ll be in our loose, billowy hockey jerseys, hopefully not eating too much pasta or drinking too much wine. Although if we did, who could really blame us?

Tikal: Sweatin’ to the Oldies

After a four-hour shuttle ride from Panajachel to Antigua, followed immediately by a short shuttle ride from Antigua to the Guatemala City bus station, followed by some sitting around and finally an overnight bus from Guatemala City to Flores, all I wanted to do was stay in the air conditioning.  After the moderate climates in the southern parts of Guatemala, the heat and humidity of Flores was particularly rough on me, someone who hates heat and humidity anyway.  Throw in some personal discomforts I’d picked up during our vacation thus far, and the siren song of the bed under the air conditioning was strong.  But, there was one reason we’d made the trek to Flores, and one reason only: Tikal.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as one of the largest Mayan archeological sites in the world, any trip to Guatemala would be lacking without a visit.  As is the case with basically all transport in Guatemala, we scheduled a shuttle to pick us up in the morning and take us out to the ruins.  It was about an hour drive to the front gate, where we were dropped off so we could buy our tickets. No one had told us, but we needed ID to get the tickets.  Luckily, we had our driver’s licenses on us, which they accepted, as we had decided to leave our passports at our hotel.

Once we’d gotten our tickets, we had the option of procuring a guide if we so chose (we didn’t), and then our driver took us into the actual park, which is about a 20-minute drive from the gates. We arranged where we’d be picked up about six hours later, got our ticket stamped, and entered the park.

There are plenty of signs written in English along the way, so learning about the various structures, animals, and plants wasn’t a problem.  A guide probably would have come in handy trying to get around the massive park, but we managed just fine –even if we did miss some temples in the way back, we hit all the highlights. A lot of the paths we took were pretty empty, and many of the sites (minus the main courtyard) seemed deserted, so it was easy to feel like explorers ourselves, walking on paths and happening upon random ruins as we went.

We also ran into plenty of local wildlife, starting with a group of at least a dozen cute little pizote (aka white-noted coati or coatimundi), which seemed curious of us but also a bit skittish when we finally went to walk past them.  We also saw a line of leaf-cutter ants, which Kaitie was particularly excited for, as well as a few monkeys and some local turkeys. 

All in all, it was a great day, albeit long and hot.  And while I wasn’t as excited about Tikal as I have been about some of the other archaeological sites I’ve read about since I was a kid (Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, anything in Rome), it’s always impressive to see what people accomplished back in the day (even if they did accomplish it with incredible amounts of slave labor). 

Any trip to Guatemala should include a stop at Tikal.  A guide would give you a little more insight into the place than we got, but it’s not required.  If you do some reading ahead of time, or just stick to the signs, you’ll get as much as you want out of the trip.  I would also suggest camping at the site, which you can do in either rented tents or hammocks for a small fee. Unfortunately, we had to opt out of camping there, but from what I’ve read, it can be an incredible experience.  As can the sunrise tour.

Just be sure to bring some extra deodorant.

La Tortilla Cooking School, Antigua, Guatemala

For me, food is culture and I travel to eat.  I also love to cook and learn as much about the local cuisine as possible, so taking a cooking class wherever I go seems like a no-brainer.  There were a few to choose from in Antigua, but the reviews for La Tortilla Cooking School were excellent, and they also had the option of adding on a market tour.  Markets in foreign countries can be large, bustling, intimidating places with plenty of fruit and vegetables that may not be familiar, so having a guide is always a great idea.

The person who usually gave the market tour was out sick, so we had to depend on Sully, who had handled the English e-mail correspondence.  As seems to be customary (but never necessary), she apologized for her English, which was just fine.  We walked over to the market and she explained to us that Sunday was an off-day for the market, so it wasn’t too busy.  It wasn’t too packed, either, which was a relief, and she showed us around.  Unfortunately, being a non-market day, the produce wasn’t very good so she couldn’t find any samples she’d feel comfortable giving us.  Instead, we went to her favorite coffee shop, Guate Java, and had a coffee before our cooking class began.  The place was top notch.

After the tour, we went back to the school and waited for the remainder of our class—seven people in all—to arrive. La Tortilla offers a variety of classes, from a short two-dish class to the full six-dish class, which is the one we chose (and which includes unlimited wine).  Our instructor, Sonia, didn’t know any English, but her assistant did, and language was not an issue.  We all donned our aprons and lined up around the countertop.  We would be making a main dish (the local stew pepián), three side dishes (a beet salad, a rice dish, and tortillas), a dessert (rellenitos—mashed plantain filled with a chocolate and bean mixture and fried), and atol, a thick drink made of corn flour and seasoned to be either sweet or savory (I made mine plenty savory and spicy).

We were all given some prep to take care of, whether it was chopping onions and herbs, peeling and cutting potatoes, boiling and mashing plantains (be sure to drink the water the plantains were boiled in; it’s delicious)—we all had a part in helping to prepare the meal.  We would all also get a turn actually cooking things; some would be blackening vegetables on the comal (a flat metal griddle used in Latin-American cooking), some would make the chocolate and bean mixture for the rellenitos, and some would be mixing the corn flour and water for atol. There were also things we would all do—everyone would stuff their own mashed plantains for rellenitos, and everyone would get a turn making tortillas.

Having taken cooking classes in different countries on multiple occasions, and actually enjoying being in the kitchen, I felt right at home during the class.  Whether it was chopping onions or preparing the tortilla dough, I was having fun.  I’m sure the unlimited wine didn’t hurt, either.  It also helped me get over my intense hatred of doing things in front of people, so it wasn’t so bad when I had to stand in front of the class to cook the rice dish, or stuff plantains, or form tortillas—the last of which I turned out to be the best at; so much so that when there was enough dough for one more to be made, the class elected that I make it.  Thanks, mom and grandma—making pierogi every year at Christmas surely contributed to my success.

After we’d prepared everything, the class sat down for a group dinner of all the food we’d just made.  Our instructors didn’t sit with us, but I’m assuming they ate whatever we had left, because we didn’t even make it through half of all the food we’d cooked.  The class, in addition to being fun and informative, made a very filling meal—don’t plan on eating afterwards, and eat a light lunch beforehand.  For one of my favorite things to do while on vacation, La Tortilla didn’t disappoint.  We were able to simultaneously learn about the local cuisine and cooking methods, as well as eat many of the local foods we’d heard about (which also freed us up to try other things when we went out to eat).  As an activity, if you enjoy cooking (and drinking wine), this is a must-do when in Antigua.

La Tortilla Cooking School, 3 Calle Poniente #25, info@latortilla.com.gt

8 Places to Eat in Panajachel, Guatemala

When we were booking our trip to Guatemala, the most common piece of advice we got was not to stay in Panajachel. It’s a dirty backpacker tourist town, it turns into a huge thumping club scene at night, there’s nothing to do there. I was second-guessing myself, especially after looking up some food options, as we arrived. Luckily, though, all those warning turned out to be for naught and Panajachel turned out to be my favorite stop on the trip. The quiet, calm lakefront and quiet mornings, nice people, and surprisingly good food. It was well worth the two days we spent there.

1. Taqueria Orale

When we first arrived, we wanted to grab a quick bite before we settled in, and then go out for something later.  Taqueria Orale, set back in a small shopping area off the main street (Calle Santander) fit the bill.  The tacos weren’t anything special, but they were tasty—especially with the buffet of sauces, onions, and cilantro up front to choose from.  A solid choice to sit back with some cheap beer and cheap food.

2. Café Loco

We didn’t eat here, but the coffee was top notch. Run by two Korean gentlemen who clearly care about what they do, I don’t think you could find a better cup of coffee in Panajachel. We were trying to kill time and each had two iced coffees (in copper mugs so they stayed cold) and would have gone back for sure if we’d had more time. We also picked up a few bags of beans to take home with us.

3. Mister Jon’s

If you’re missing American food, this is the place to go. Fashioned after an American diner, this will give you all the things from home you’re missing, and a few extras. The service is still Guatemala-slow, but you can get some American craft beers, a decent omelet, free refills on your coffee, and if you’re there on the right night two-for-one margaritas (be sure to get the spicy one). If you happen to be in Panajachel on Thanksgiving, as we were, they even cook a standard American Thanksgiving dinner. If you’re not missing home, though, there really isn’t much reason to stop in.

4. Pupuseria Cheros

Neither of us had ever had pupusas, and we weren’t sure where to eat, so we stopped in here on a whim.  There was a really surly looking guy hanging around out front and the place was empty, so we almost didn’t, but we’re glad we did: it turned out to be one of the better meals of our trip. We found out the scary guy out front was the owner, and turned out to be a great guy.  He corrected our Spanish as we ordered (but not in a condescending way) and taught me the word for “check.” We ordered pupusas with beans, pork, garlic, and spinach (all with cheese, of course) and they came with sauce, slaw, and spicy pickles.  The bar filled up (with people and smoke from the cooking) and we had a great time eating pupusas and drinking Gallo.

5. Guajimbo’s

We wanted to go to Guajimbo’s for our “Thanksgiving” dinner, but they are closed Thursdays so we had to settle for it being our last lunch in Panajachel before moving on, and it was worth the wait.  The meal included huge portions of perfectly-prepared food.  Easily the best meal we had in Panajachel and one of our top in all of Guatemala.  We split the chicken and avocado soup (Kaitie was feeling a bit under the weather) and the avocado, tomato, and heart of palm salad (sorry, environment). We both finished with orders of kebabs; I ordered the beef and she the chicken.  Everything was cooked as it should have been, and was delicious besides. I’m glad we were able to stop here.

6. Taco Stand

I don’t think this place has a name, but if you’re walking on Calle Santander between 6 and 9 pm, you’ll see the crowd.  Both nights we were there, these folk were posted up at two long tables on the corner of Calle Santander and Calle El Chali (right next to the Romantic Fashions boutique), often with other vendors near them.  A tortilla topped with goodies is 7Q (about $1) and you’d do well to buy a few.  From what I could see, this was the most popular street food stand in the town.

7. Super Tacos Bell

I’m not sure where the name came from, but this street food vendor at the top of Calle Santander serves up some great pulled-pork tortillas with slaw and sauce.  She has a cool-as-shit contraption that looks like a sombrero with hot, flavored oil on one side that she cooks onions and tortillas in, and then a hunk of pork for shredding on the other side.  Cheap and delicious.

8. Humo En Tus Ojos

Translated to “Smoke In Your Eyes,” this outdoor grill cooks up some great-looking steaks and vegetables; and yes—with plenty of smoke.  We didn’t actually eat here due to stuffing ourselves multiple places, but the small table they had was packed and the smell coming off the place almost made me want to job a few laps up and down Calle Santander to make room for more food.  I would definitely consider it if you’re in town.

I’m not sure why people seem to shit on Panajachel so much—when we went on a tour of some of the lake cities, it didn’t seem any better or worse than any of the others (and it DID seem worse than Santiago).  The streets were calm and quiet, the temperature was excellent, the lake views were superb, and the food was worth eating.  I couldn’t have asked for a better stop, and would surely make that stop again.

Pacaya: Hiking an Active Volcano

Like many people who visit Guatemala, hiking an active volcano was at the top of our list of things to do.  Unfortunately, the one we wanted was a little too active.  We had originally planned, months in advance, to do an overnight hike on Acatenango with Gilmer Soy and Soy Tours, who I had read nothing but good things about (mostly from Bex at The Ordinary Adventurer).  The plan was to hike Acatenango and get a great view of the uber-active volcano Fuego right next to it.  The night before, from our hotel balcony, we were able to watch Fuego spew lava into the air and got more and more excited for our trip.

Fuego, the morning of our original hike

Unfortunately, the next day, Fuego was shooting out a ton of ash.  There was an evacuation order for the towns below as of 5:30 that morning due to Fuego’s recent activity, and as we waited to be picked up for our hike at 7:30 we got an email from Gilmer saying the government had shut him down from the hike that day.  Perfectly poor timing on our part, but what are you going to do? All in all, it’s a pretty bad-ass reason to miss a hike, and Gilmer offered to take us the next day when everything cleared up—we couldn’t go because it would have gotten us back to town after our shuttle was scheduled to leave, so we had to part ways.

A quick visual guide to the leg pain we’ll be experiencing

We scheduled a hike to Pacaya (the easier of the local volcanoes) for the following day (see below for more information on this)—we were determined to do some kind of hiking and not waste the gear we brought—and were picked up at 2:30 to make our way about an hour out of Antigua to the easier of the volcanoes.

Before you get into the park, it should be noted that there are a bunch of kids out front selling walking sticks for 5Q (about $0.75 US)—buy one.  It’s not only a great investment, but it helps the locals.  There are also people with horses that they will rent you to get you through the toughest part of the hike, which is about 1,600m of climbing in less than three kilometers, repeating “Taxi! Taxi!”and following most of the way up in case you change your mind.  And while I’m not in the best shape—once two other girls in our group rented the horses, I was pulling up the rear—I never fell so far behind that I felt I needed to get on a horse.

The view from one of the lookouts on the first part of the hike

The first part of the climb up, while the easiest of the volcanoes, was still a bitch.  It was mostly sand and volcanic ash, so getting any kind of decent grip was a challenge to say the least.  It didn’t help that there was a horse behind me, nudging me to go faster.  Clearly, he didn’t know what people from Philly do to horses.  But I huffed and puffed—glad to have quit smoking a year ago—and made it to the top, sweating my ass off and wondering why I brought along a jacket.  After we got to the highest point we’d reach,we went back down and ran into the Lava Store, a small shack with snacks and souvenirs (and beer).  After that, down more sandy ash-covered paths, we arrived at a field of lava rocks.

This wasn’t just like walking into a different landscape—it was like walking onto a different planet. The lush forest that had been shading us the first part of the hike was now replaced by an endless field of lava rock, black and bleak. Heavy fog was rolling in above us and the sun was beginning to set, giving the area an even more eerie feeling. We hiked up a path through the rocks to a small vent on the side of the volcano where we did the most touristy thing possible and roasted marshmallows over the heat, all while catching a few glimpses of actual lava rolling down the mountain above us.

As the sun dipped farther, we made our way back. Luckily, I had a light and Kaitie had a headlamp, so we were fine on our walk. After the rocks, we descended via a sandy path down to where our van was waiting, by now in pure black darkness. We arrived back in Antigua around 8:30, so a six-hour round-trip, tired, happy, and ready for tacos.

Post Script: The owners where we were staying suggested Alex at A Viajar Guatemala if we wanted to book a different hike, so we went there to do a hike up Pacaya for $30US each correction: $15US each for a total of $30US. While we were easily able to schedule the Pacaya hike, Alex tried to push a bunch of other stuff on us, and then even though we had already paid him for the service and were using his company, he started to badmouth Gilmer Soy for no reason, even claiming some random guy sitting next to him was Gilmer’s brother and they didn’t get along, as if that had some bearing on Gilmer’s ability to lead a hike. The whole exchange left a bad taste in my mouth, but we were determined to hike.

The cost ($30US each correction: $15US each for a total of $30US) included a guide but not the fee to get into the park (50Q per person), and a lot of people on our trip seemed extremely unprepared not only to pay the fee, but to do the actual hike (no warm clothes, no snacks, no idea where we were going). Once we got in, our guide turned out to not know any English, but we were able to follow along just fine for what we needed.