Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sinbad's Restaurant

On Tuesday, the most unseasonably warm day of the year, John and I took a lovely stroll along the sunny Embarcadero. We wanted to have a nice drink or meal on the waterfront and actually sit outside! We perused the restaurants at the Embarcadero's Ferry building but were disappointed that most had an hour wait so we trudged on. We eventually found ourselves in front of Sinbad's. I was on the fence whether this was a good idea, but they had outdoor seating and plenty of it. The moment we walked in I felt I was either magically transported to Cooper's restaurant in Scranton, PA or an old school mob restaurant in San Fran circa 1980. The decor is old and dark, reminiscent of Alioto's on Fisherman's Wharf. Clearly this is a tourist trap restaurant with the dingy interior, great view and exorbitant prices but we didn't care, we were there for the view. The view! What a spectacular view of the bay bridge and the lights of Oakland dancing at sunset but I found the people watching to be even better. Sinbad's is located directly to the right of the ferry landing so we were able to watch the ferries arrive and depart for Oakland. I got to make up stories about the passengers waiting in line and those running for almost missed ferries, a very entertaining time. The crowd at the restaurant was might I say interesting. It seemed as if there was a mid-west end of conference party going on. At one point we watched a good portion of the dining room get up and come outside for a smoke, very non-SF of them. Clue # 1 we were dealing with outsiders. The second clue was the MC who got up and talked about how great the group was and how they were like his family, etc, etc. I still wonder what industry this group was from because it clearly breeds smokers by the dozen.

The food and service at Sinbad's wasn't that great compared to the view. The server acted a bit as if we were putting him out by being there. He forgot our drinks, then delivered John's appetizer about 20 minutes prior to mine. Timing is not something that Sinbad's has down. I had the crab cake appetizer which was delicious. Lump crab meat, not a lot of onion or other fillers but it did have a hollandaise sauce which took away from the flavor of the crab meat. John's clam chowder was delicious and packed full of fresh clams. The food and drinks were overpriced as the bill was $40 for crab cakes, soup, a glass of wine and a beer. But the view and the entertaining clientele made up for it. I don't think I'll come back to Sinbad's as it was a one time tourist trap experience (with a view). Next time I'll make a reservation at one of the nicer and more 'modern' restaurants in the Ferry Building.

CGrooves magazine

Wonderful news. I am officially the new travel writer for CGrooves magazine, an expat magazine based out of Xian, China. My fabulous brother hooked me up with his friend Maggie, the editor, who has commissioned me to write a travel story a month for the magazine. I'll be covering trips I've taken in China and SE Asia. First story is about Jiuzhaigou National Park in Sichuan Province. I'll be sure to post each story on my blog and a link to the online magazine. If you want to check out the magazine prior to my first piece in the November issue visit Looking forward to sharing my amusing travel experiences with everyone.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Laid-back Laos: A hut, a hammock, a sunset

Laid-back Laos: A hut, a hammock, a sunset was my first published travel story. Published in the Arizona Republic over three years ago on February 18, 2007. I had recently come back from a trip in southeast Asia where I spent a month in Laos. I had been living in Dalian, China and traveled south to Laos on a little adventure through Southeast Asia before heading back to America. Laos was a refreshing change from the fast paced frantic life of big city China. The people were so gosh darn nice and helpful, everyone was chill and relaxed, I never felt unwelcome, felt completely safe as a solo female traveler, and a dollar could buy you a hotel room (and a pretty nice one). Over the course of a month I traveled south from the northern boarder with China to Si Phan Don in the southern Champasak region. Si Phan Don a.k.a. "the 4000 islands" is a cluster of tiny islands, inlets, sandbars along a 50-kilometer stretch of the Mekong River. I spent the most relaxing week of my life on Don Det, one of the larger islands. I met a group of 5 single travelers on the boat ride to Don Det and we all got huts together along the coast of the Mekong. We literally did nothing for a week  but eat, drink, relax in our hammocks, wade in the Mekong, ride bikes and gaze at the stars.

I wanted to share my amazing experience with others so I wrote up a story and sent it to the editors of the Arizona Republic and within a month it was published. I have a feeling the 4000 islands aren't as secluded as they were in 2005, most likely there is electricity and Internet now, but I bet you can still find a hammock to relax in and a room for $10 instead of a buck. A few days ago my mom found an original print of the article and scanned it. Its difficult to read so I've typed it up.

Laid-back Laos: A hut, a hammock, a sunset

Si Phan Don, along a 50-kilometer stretch of the Mekong River in Champasak province in southern Laos, is the ultimate relaxation destination.
Si Phan Don means “4000 islands.” In the dry season, the Mekong recedes to reveal hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny inlets, islands and sandbars. Don Dhet and Don Khon, the larger of the islands and linked by a bridge, offer tourists a year-round glimpse at island life and a chance to enjoy the traditional Laotian lifestyle.
The small, wooded islands lack modern necessities, such as electricity and telephones. Accommodations are thatched-roof huts balanced on stilts along the coast. The toughest decision is whether to choose a hut on Don Dhet’s Sunset Strip or on the Sunrise Boulevard, aptly\named by the locals. The basic huts provide only a bed, but what can you expect for a dollar a night? Each hut comes with a hammock strung outside your door, above the flowing Mekong waters.
The most charming aspect of Don Dhet is the locals’ trust of their guests. During your stay, you write your meals and drinks in a notebook, and the total is added up at departure. My total was $24 for a week.
The island offers a wide range of activities; two of the most popular are napping and reading in your hammock. All the local sights are best reached on foot or by bicycle.
Tat Somphamit, a set of raging rapids on Don Khon, is a beautiful place to see local fisherman wading for their next big catch. The islands have many hiking trails. Kayaking and tubing are great ways to explore neighboring islands. A short boat ride off the coast of Don Khon provides a chance to see the rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins.
Peaceful sunsets are enjoyed on communal balconies along the Sunset Strip coast. Nights are spent traveling with flashlights to neighboring guesthouses in search of food, drink and company. Or you can lie in your hammock and enjoy the bright stars in the clear skies.
It’s a common saying in Laos that the farther south you go, the more relaxed it gets. You can’t get any more southern than the 4,000 islands.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Puerto Aventurtas, Mexico

Vamos a Mexico! We finally booked our Mexican adventure last night. After scouring the internet for over a month we came to a decision based on cost and location. The Dreams Resort in Puerto Aventurtas. Puerto Aventurtas is located south of Playa del Carmen and north of Tulum on the Riviera Maya. It's a great location, looks beautiful (in pictures) and fit both our requirements. I had wanted to stay in Tulum but the 2 star hotels there were the same cost as a 4 star in Puerto Aventurtas, and the food is included in the cost in Puerto Aventurtas. I also wanted to be near the various archaeological sites, Chichen Itza and the cenotes (freshwater sink holes sacred to the Mayans) so we could take quick day trips with our rental car. John got his resort on the beach and a free round of golf at a Trent Jones course, which makes him very happy (and me). It's not down and dirty Mexico but it's a nice balance for the both of us. Plus we only have a week and don't want to spend all our time on a bus. Can't wait to relax on the balcony sipping a margarita, and then have a little adventure and climb the stairs at Chichen Itza. Its going to be amazing!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Korean BBQ: I love you

I absolutely love love love Korean BBQ. When Friday night rolls around and John asks what I want to do, "Korean BBQ." When there's nothing to eat in the fridge, "Korean BBQ." When I'm looking to tie one on and cook my own food, "Korean BBQ." You get the picture. Korean BBQ is not only delicious but a highly entertaining way to turn your dinner into an experience. I am utterly sick of going to dinner and being in and out of the restaurant in an hour and a half. Dinner should be an experience, it should take most of the night. I'm not talking about eating gluttonously for hours on end, but a relaxing experience where you chat with your friends, drink, eat, chill. We Americans should revel in our meals like the Italians and be passionate like the French and not rush rush through it like we do everything else.

Back to Korean BBQ, its great way to spend a night with friends. Its fun and engaging. You get to cook your own food, pour beer from a 40-ounce of some unknown 'special' Korean beer, sip soju, snack on side dishes and spend time talking as you would at an traditional outdoor BBQ, but with no clean up. I'm always full, buzzed to slightly buzzed and happy as a clam when I leave Korean BBQ. There is nothing like grilling some meat on a tiny grill in the center of your table!

Korean BBQ can be cheap but it can also add up. Look for all-you-can-eat restaurants or for specials as most individual grill items such as chicken or steak run $20-25 a plate. You can find delicious all-you-can-eat restaurants for $19.99. Most Korean BBQs restaurants automatically serve you side dishes and loads of em, kimchi, bean sprouts, seaweed, cabbage, potatoes, green salad and many more yummy sides I can't identify.

Most common meats are: marinated beef ribs, brisket, short ribs, rib eye, marinated chicken, prawns, pork belly, intestines and organs of all sorts, tongue, etc. The best kind of grilling meat is thinly sliced in strips like fajita meat. You don't want to be waiting 10 minutes for a thick steak to cook. I usually order one to two plates of meat per person to grill and a few side dishes like rice, noodles or vegetables to break up what can be an all meat meal. Grilling chicken can be questionable, so always cook it thoroughly and ask for a grill grate change after you're finished. Never mix chicken with any other meat. And leave your vegetarian friends at home!

San Francisco has some of the best Korean BBQ restaurants and lucky for me five good spots are just around the corner in Japantown, ironically.

My top three favorites are: # 1 Yakini Q, # 2 New Korea House # 3 Seoul Garden.

Yakini Q is party party, fun fun and my number one choice on a Friday night. I was a bit tipsy the first night I went there. At around 10pm, John and I finished happy hour and walked down to this place. We easily got a table. I remember there was a flat screen TV on with Korean pop dance videos, a strobe light and endless free beers. It was great. I felt I was magically transported back to Asia minus the old men with their shirts off rubbing their bellies. The place is hip, the meat is good to OK. If you are looking for fun go to Yakini Q but if you are introducing someone to Korean BBQ and want quality over booze and quantity go somewhere else. All-you-can-eat costs $19.99 for the 'basic' and $24.99 for the 'deluxe', personally the foods available on the deluxe plan aren't worth the $5. FYI: Yakini Q was formerly the Korea House, another fine establishment. (1640 Post Street, San Francisco, no website)

New Korea House is conveniently located below Yakini Q. It serves all the traditional dishes a la carte without the party fuss. Its clean and a step up in class than Yakini Q. Its no frills and often uncrowded. It exudes traditional BBQ as seen in the groups of older men who come in their house clothes at 11pm. If my mom was in town I'd take her here, she'd think it was a hoot. It can be a bit pricey, plan on spending $50 a person at least. (1620 Post Street, San Francisco,

Seoul BBQ is the nicest and most expensive of the three. The tables are set up around a room with little red curtains. Its a bit more of a show for the tourists as its located on the Peace Plaza but the menu still has a wide variety of delicious traditional items. If you want to impress a lady or take out a picky friend, this is your place. Plan on spending at least $70 a person. (22 Peace Plaze, San Francisco,

Korean BBQ is by far my favorite food. Try it if you haven't yet!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Chinatown's checkered past

Duncombe & Ross Alley
Chinatown, San Francisco

After 3 years in San Francisco, I realized I have never actually spent any real time in Chinatown. Sure I used to live in North Beach, literally streets away from the divide into Chinatown and I rode the Dirty 30 and 45 Muni buses everyday to work for almost a year through it. I had never really spent anytime just being in Chinatown. Feeding into my China and anything criminal obsessions, John and I took a little night tour of Chinatown with host yours truly. For people I've traveled with, my tours can be informative and at times utterly ridiculous. The typical tour inclues a location appropriate Lonely Planet in hand and a makeshift microphone or better yet some sort of official tour guide 'flag' waving high, I've provided guided tours (sometimes unsolicited) to my traveling companions in South and Central America, Asia and Europe.

With a sense of adventure, John and I slowly walked through Chinatown from the Imperial Palace restaurant to our first stop, Ross Alley. I had googled on my iPhone the location of the alley, but was really unsure that I was actually going to be able to find the street sign in the almost utter darkness. The lack of street lights and random neon sign gave the walk and search an eerie feeling. After looking at random sides of buildings for signs and squinting to read, we finally found Ross alley. Ross Alley is located between Stockton and Grant running the entire block length between Jackson and Washington Street.
Ross Alley was home to gambling houses and brothels back in the famous Barbary Coast days. The alley contained over 20 hidden gambling dens. The gambling dens were often secret back room with classic cover-up store fronts and the doors were known to be booby trapped in case of police raids. They were violent places were people could win and lose fortunes or even their lives. Gambling was run by the Tongs and the more popular games were Fan Tan and the Chinese lottery.

Although the secret gambling dens and brothels have moved out (or so they say), looking down the dark alley its easy to imagine the glory days when Ross Alley was full of drunk gamblers and the whores were a plenty.

Next stop: Duncombe Alley

Opium Den, 1889
Duncombe Alley amazingly was located almost directly across from Ross Alley off Jackson causing me to believe this little city block was once one hot bed of illegal activity. Duncombe Alley was once the center of the great opium trade and where the poor and middle class went to get high in Chinatown. Opium dens started to pop up in the 1850s and spread to the non-Chinese San Francisco population within 20 years. In 1878 San Francisco passed its 1st anti-opium ordinance and in 1913 opium became illegal. Most opium dens had cover up store fronts with a tightly sealed basement or backroom for smoking.

I was pleased to find the alley was just as shady as ever. The sign was hidden in the shadows and was faintly highlighted by a depressing neon green sign. The lighting and fact that the alley could only be accessed by a metal fence with a deadbolt lined with barbed wire led me to believe a little opium was still being smoked. I took a few pictures from behind the fence and quickly got that childhood feeling that I was doing something I wasn't supposed to doing so we continued on. We strolled for about another half hour listening to the sounds of the sirens, the young teenagers talking boisterously trying to impress the girls, the old men in dramatic heated conversations and the random sounds of Chinatown.

Golden Dragon Massacre, Chinatown, San Francisco

Imperial Palace Restaurant

About a year ago, I watched a documentary about the gangs of SF's Chinatown. It was absolutely intriguing and fed into my obsession with not only prisons and gangs but China in general. I have a sick fascination with all things China. Having lived there for a bit and being an honorary member of my best friend April's loud and entertaining Taiwanese family, I can't seem to get enough China. When I lived in China, she often treated me as a red headed step child and often literally slapped in the face. I was even mistaken for a Russian prostitute once and had fruit thrown at me, but that's the fun of China. When I saw the documentary, I vowed one day to go to the site of the famous Golden Dragon Massacre.

Original Golden Dragon 1970's
The Golden Dragon Massacre is one of the largest mass murders in San Francisco history. The massacre happened as a result of a war between the Joe Boys and Wah Ching gang over control of Chinatown. On September 4, 1977 at 2:40am, three Joe Boys members entered the Golden Dragon Restaurant with the intention of killing the head of the Wah Ching gang, Michael Louie. Spraying the restaurant with bullets from their automatic weapons, they killed 5 tourists and wounded 11 other innocent bystanders. No member of either gang was hurt in the shoot out. The city offered a reward of $100K and subsequently established a SF Police Asian Gang Task Force dedicated to combating the gang problems in Chinatown. In the end four Joe Boys members were convicted and received life sentences for the murders.

Imperial Palace 2010
The original name Golden Dragon is no more as the restaurant was shut down in 2006 due to failed inspections and owing their staff a year's worth of paychecks. Leading me to believe this restaurant was shady and remains shady today. The restaurant is now known as the Imperial Palace, located at 816 Washington (at Grant).
From the outside it looks like any other Chinatown restaurant but to know the history makes it much much more. Ironically we decided to go there on Saturday which was September 4th, the anniversary of the killings. I was super excited that there would be some sort of ceremony or alter or something set up to commemorate the anniversary but I was sadly disappointed. As my best friend April pointed out, that would be bad Feng Shui or Chi, thus the owners would never highlight such a dark moment in their restaurant's history. Although I knew she was right, I was still waiting for some sort of sign or even a shoot out!

The Imperial Palace did not disappoint. When John and I arrived there was a little old lady trying to coerce tourists to eat there. I overheard her say again and again, "you eat here, very good food", which brought a smile to my face. To avoid her, we scurried by as she was harassing some German tourists but unfortunately she spotted us from the corner of her eye and proudly escorted us into the restaurant as if she had magically convinced us to eat there. I had wanted to ask for a table in the rear so John and I could sit with our backs against the wall (Soprano's style) but I didn't think the old hostess would understand nor appreciate it.

The restaurant was a mix of tourists and Chinese families. John and I quickly spotted the owner in his 1980's Member's Only leather jacket. Immediately, I thought ex-gang member or something shady because you just don't up and buy this place without connections, its Chinatown! His wife and family were seated at the table to our right. She looked equally as interesting as her husband in too tight lilac bell bottoms jeans. To me they were the perfect couple to own this place. I kept looking over at the table and searching the restaurant for some indication that this was the site of the killings but nothing, not even a bullet hole. Even my trip to the bathroom, which was down a dilapidated staircase didn't reveal any clues. I could feel that this place had some history but there were no visible signs.

The food was fantastic. I can say this was some of the best Chinese food I have had in a long time. To start we ordered two ice cold Tsing Tao beers.  The waiter gave me a little smirk when I ordered with the correct pronunciation, Ching Dao and not Sing Tao like most Americans. We ordered the egg rolls and pork dumplings to start. The dumplings melted in your mouth, they were a perfect balance of green onion, pork and spices. The egg rolls also did not disappoint as the outside was so flaky and golden brown. John ordered the Mongolian Beef and I got spicy Shrimp with Black Bean sauce. Although my entree wasn't on the menu, the server didn't even flinched when I ordered, literally making this an actual REAL Chinese restaurant in my mind and not a tourist trap.  In China you generally don't order directly off the menu you just order what you want and if its not available they let you know (or not) and you pick something else. Our entrees were delightful. The food came out staggered, adding to the authenticity of the restaurant. After enjoying our meals, casing the joint for evidence and eyeing the somewhat shady owner and his family we decided to head out for a self-guided Crime Tour of Chinatown.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Capitola, CA

Capitola, California is a quaint beach village in Santa Cruz county, 80 miles south of San Francisco.

Yesterday John woke up with the brilliant idea to take a drive to Capitola for lunch and possibly stay the night. It was going to be busy but we thought we'd give it a try being Labor Day Weekend and all. We packed a quick bag covering all sorts of weather patterns. Living the cold summer months in foggy San Francisco, its hard to trust that its going to be sunny outside the city, let alone in Santa Cruz county. Bag in hand we started our drive to Capitola. According to GPS, the trip should take 1 hr and 14 minutes. We hit a bit of traffic as we merged onto the 17S from the 85. At first, I thought 'what the hell its noon, we shouldn't be hitting any traffic' but then I got a sinking feeling that this may have been a bad idea altogether. After about 15 minutes of stop and start traffic, it began to look promising.

The rest of the drive down was uneventful. We pulled into Capitola with just about everyone else off the highway. The traffic was dense in this normally sleepy place. Our one lap around the tiny one street village took about 20 minutes. Keeping our eyes out for rooms, we noticed all the No Vacancy signs but we're still hopeful that we'd find a room. Of course there was no close street parking so we started to head out of the downtown area toward the residential district. We parked past the railroad tracks where you didn't need a neighborhood parking permit.

I yelped some restaurants in the car ride down. We decided on the Paradise Beach Grill for lunch After waiting 20 minutes for an outside table overlooking the busy beach, we ordered 2 Longboard Ales, a lobster salad and cheddar melt for me and a bacon cheese burger for John. The food was delicious. The lobster salad wasn't as good as the lobster rolls of New England but it was a close second. Throughout lunch, I was pleasantly entertained by the large number of cougars (older women on the prowl) at the restaurant. I don't know if we stumbled upon the cougar den or if they were in heat this weekend and all descended on Capitola but something was in the air. There was age inappropriate clothing everywhere and too much leathery skin exposed for my liking.

The beach was crowded for Capitola. There were a few tourists learning how to surf to the left of the sandy beach area. One girl was out of her mind in a bikini and no wet suit. Although it looked nice and warm out, it's still the cold Pacific Ocean. After a short walk around town, we figured out there was a festival going on! The annual Capitol Begonia Festival was happening this Labor Day weekend The whole town seemed to be fired up about the festival. Old retired couples were driving around in their golf carts decorated with begonia flowers. The night promised a live band from 4-6pm and a movie in the beach park starting at 6pm. We were even more excited to find a room and enjoy the relaxed yet festive vibe of the place. Unfortunately, like Mary and Joseph, we just couldn't find a room. There was one room available halfway from Capitola to Santa Cruz but none in Capitola proper. With a mild sense of defeat we left but vowed to return soon to rent one of the beach front condos and show Capitola who's boss. Possibly even next weekend as its the Capitola Art and Wine festival (two of my favorite things).