Archive for November, 2010

Peru Day 9 – Sacred Valley (Pisac and Ollantaytambo)

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010 by virginia

We had yet another early morning flight, departing Juliaca (the closest airport to Puno) at 7:30 in the morning and getting to Cusco around 8:30. We were pretty exhausted and the flight was too short to get in a good catnap. When we arrived in Cusco, we dropped our bags off at the hotel we would we be staying in two days later and took with us just a small bag with enough supplies for the next two nights. The reason for this was because we would be taking the train to Machu Picchu the next day and there are luggage limits on the train.

Our tour guide picked us up from the hotel and we began our Sacred Valley tour, driving up into the mountains away from Cusco. The first stop on our tour was an animal sanctuary where rescued animals are nursed back to health. There are lots of really cool animals there, including a pair of pumas and a few condors. The sanctuary is a bit small but they’re in the process of expanding. We were able to walk around and get up close and personal with a few of the animals. The sanctuary is run by a family and relies on donations and I think it’s a very worthy cause.

Gorgeous puma


Condor up close (kinda looks like a turkey!)

Adorable but vicious Andean kitty (seriously, if you waved your hand in front of it, you'd probably lose a few fingers!)

Hairless Peruvian dog

Our next stop was Pisac, and more specifically, the famous Pisac Market. The market is ginormous and filled with stall after stall of people selling all sorts of wares. We were there on Sunday, which is one of the busier market days. It was pretty packed and there was a lively, festive atmosphere to the place. Before setting us loose to shop our hearts out, our guide took us to a bakery in the market that is famous for its empanadas.

The location of the bakery

The big oven used by the bakery

The empanadas were not like the ones we’re used to at home. The outside was more like bread rather than a pastry, and the filling was chunky. There were potatoes, vegetables, and cheese in the ones we had. The bread was a little thick but when we hit the filling, the combination was really tasty and savory. Plus they only cost 1 sol each, a true bargain.

Empanada innards

I wish that we had more time to explore the eating options in Pisac Market but we only had 45 minutes to shop and we had a lot of souvenirs to buy. It seemed like a lot of stalls were selling the same kinds of things so basically we just picked the one with the most options and did a bit of haggling since we were buying a lot of stuff. Once we got everything we needed, we only had a little bit of time left to wander around and take a few photos.

After Pisac, we headed to Ollantaytambo to visit an Inca archaeological site. It was our first true taste of Inca architecture, and the site was absolutely fascinating. The main structure had lots of steps and terraces, with alcoves carved into the rock and trapezoid-shaped doorways, an Inca signature. In the more sacred temple areas, the rock is smoothed down and are cut perfectly so that each rock fits into the next without any mortar, and the angles are really precise.

Huge Inca structure at Ollantaytambo

Steps and terraces

Trapezoid-shaped alcoves cut into smooth rock walls

Trapezoid-shaped doorway

The rougher stones in the lower, "less important" sections

It was super windy at the top of the structure, but we also had a wonderful of the city down below and the surrounding mountains. The town itself still has some of the original Inca walls and trapezoid-shaped doorways, as well as the same water channel that runs through it.

A view of the city below

There are Incan storehouses in the mountains where they used to keep their grain, which are still intact. The more interesting thing about the mountain right in front of the large structure, however, is that archaeologists believe the Incas carved the mountain so that it follows the different solstices. At one solstice, the sun bursts out right over the top of the mountain, which has a cradle shape at the peak. At another solstice, the sun appears from behind the side of the mountain, where there appears to be a profile of an Incan face. It’s actually pretty incredible if they really did manipulate the mountain in that way.

A view of the mountain. The markings around the middle are the storehouses. See the flat cradle shape at the top.

Can you see the profile of the Incan face? Look to the bottom right of the hole in the clouds.

An evil face carved into the mountain?

There was a fountain at the base of the structure that was also really neat. There was a trapezoid-shaped window behind the fountain that framed the mountain perfectly. And, unsurprisingly, during one of the solstices, a ray of sunlight shines directly on the point where the water starts to fall into the pool.

Water fountain with picture perfect window view

After leaving the wonders of Ollantaytambo, we were taken to lunch at a restaurant called Alhambra. The restaurant has beautiful grounds and we spent a little time wandering around after we finished eating. Our guided tour was over after this, and we were dropped off at our hotel, the Tambo del Inka. It was by far the most luxurious and beautiful hotel we stayed in our entire trip. We had a king sized bed, a sitting area with a couch and a desk, a walk in closet, and a huge bathroom with separate stalls for the shower/tub and toilet. It was awesome.

The ironic thing was that while we were staying in the lap of luxury, the town the hotel was in, Urubamba, was the poorest town we saw on our trip. We took the short walk to the center of town, and it was kind of run down and nothing appeared to be open. We walked through the Plaza de Armas where there was a church (of course) and not much else.


There is an Inca wall at one end of the town, which we walked to. The wall itself is pretty well kept and if you stare at the rocks long enough, you can start to see flower shapes.

Inca wall

There was supposed to be another Inca ruin to visit in the town but dark clouds quickly started rolling in (we had heard thunder rumbling in the distance earlier but didn’t think much of it) and all of a sudden the skies opened up and it was pouring rain. It got really dark almost immediately and there was thunder and lightening all around us. It was kind of scary, actually, and we started running back to the hotel which was a good 15-20 minutes away by foot. We had no jackets and no umbrella of course so we were getting soaked. While we didn’t care much about ourselves, we didn’t want Josh’s camera to get ruined.

While we were running down the road back toward our hotel, we saw a “taxi chola”, which is kind of like a motorized pedicab. We flagged the guy down and hopped into the back, which is covered in vinyl, happy to get out of the pouring rain. We asked him how much it would cost to get back to our hotel, which was about a mile away. Keep in mind that this was a torrential downpour, with gusting winds and lightening and thunder. He could have quoted us an astronomical price and totally ripped us off because we were clearly desperate. There was nowhere for us to duck in out of the rain since nothing was open. So what price did he tell us? 2 soles. Yes, 2 soles. About 75 cents. Unreal!

The ride itself was kind of fun, with us bouncing around in the back while the moped drove through puddles and over potholes. He dropped us off at the entrance gate to our hotel (I guess they don’t let taxi cholas up the fancy driveway!) and we gave him 5 soles, which was still a bargain in our minds.

Because of the rain and because we didn’t see any restaurants to try (the one our concierge recommended was closed) we decided to stay in and eat at the hotel bar. We actually had a great time eating, drinking, and chatting, and then we went to sleep in our fluffy and comfortable bed. It was definitely one of the best days that we had on our trip, and we were giddily excited for what was still to come (hint: Machu Picchu).

Alma Cocina Viva (Puno, Peru)

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010 by virginia

Because our hotel, the Casa Andina Private Collection, was so far out of the main area in Puno, we ended up eating dinner at the hotel restaurant, Alma, both nights we stayed there. We stayed at many different Casa Andina PCs during our time in Peru and the hotel restaurant was always named Alma but we didn’t know how similar the menu was from place to place. Based on the menus on their website, it looks like each restaurant serves local specialties as well as some standard Peruvian dishes that overlap at each location.

Our meal on both nights started off with a basket of bread. There were some soft dinner rolls as well as seeded breadsticks. The rolls were a bit stale but tasted good when dipped into a garlicky spread topped with sweet balsamic vinegar.

Dinner rolls and breadsticks

Garlic spread with balsamic vinegar

On the first night, neither of us were really hungry so we just ordered entrees and no appetizers. We chose a dish that was described as being a traditional Puno dish, called saqta de gallina. Gallina is hen, but we didn’t know what saqta meant. When the dish arrived and I saw it was in a yellow sauce, I was terrified that it would be the ocopa sauce that I disliked so much. My fears intensified when I saw a bright green herb sprinkled on top of the dish, which I thought would be the dreaded Andean mint. Fortunately, it wasn’t. The yellow sauce had a mild sweet flavor and reminded me of korma sauce, which I love. The pieces of chicken were tender, and it was mixed with onions and potatoes. There was Andean cheese on top of the dish but they were easily moved aside. Josh and I both ended up really enjoying the dish, and we were pleasantly surprised.

Saqta de gallina - a traditional Puno dish

Our other entree was lomo saltado, a standard Peruvian dish. It’s stir fried beef with onions, tomatoes, and peppers, served with french fries and rice. The beef was a little salty but it was tender and flavorful. The french fries were pretty good as well, I just wish they had given us more because there were only about a dozen fries altogether. I do love my french fries!

Lomo saltado

On our second night eating at Alma, Josh got a yellow potato cream soup to start. Peruvian potatoes are a bit more starchy than the ones we’re used to, but the soup was rich and creamy with lots of potato flavor. There was a chili oil on top but it wasn’t spicy, and once it was stirred into the soup we didn’t notice it at all.

Yellow potato cream soup

For my entree, I selected the alpaca steak frites because I loved the alpaca we had at Zig Zag, and I love french fries, of course. Unfortunately, the menu did not say that the alpaca would be crusted in cumin seeds. The pieces of meat were absolutely covered, and while I like the flavor of cumin, crunching into whole seeds with every bite was really not pleasant. I tried to scrape of the seeds as best as I could but it kind of ruined the dish for me. The alpaca was also a bit tough and chewy, and I was disappointed with the dish overall. To add insult to injury, the portion of fries was once again pretty paltry.

Alpaca steak frites

Josh ordered a dish that was recommended, which was glazed kingfish in a sesame honey sauce served with mashed potatoes and garlic tempura vegetables. The kingfish came from the lake, which meant that it was fresh. However, I took one bite and almost spit it out. The fish had been crusted in sesame seeds, which I found overpoweringly bitter, and the honey sauce was so cloyingly sweet. I wanted to try another bite, thinking that maybe I just got a bad piece, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The first bite had taken me a lot of willpower to swallow and not throw up. It was such a strong reaction that even Josh was a little shocked. Josh liked the dish though, so I guess our palates just reacted very differently to the flavors.

Glazed kingfish in a sesame honey sauce

Overall I wasn’t so thrilled with the food at Alma, but it was certainly convenient for us since it was right in the hotel. I did like the saqta de gallina dish from the first night, and the lomo saltado was decent, but nothing was really super impressive. Prices were on the higher side for Peru, though not very expensive by NYC standards. Entrees mostly ranged from 30-40 soles, or about US$11-14. Service was fine, and they actually brought a phone to us one night when our tour guide was trying to reach us. Still, I kind of regret not eating in the city, especially since we generally don’t like to repeat restaurants when we’re away. Oh well. While I can’t really recommend Alma unless you’re in a bind, I do think that Casa Andina PC is a great hotel chain.

Alma Cocina Viva
Av.Sesqui Centenario 1970
Puno, Peru

Peru Day 8 – Copacabana (Bolivia), Puno, Floating Islands (Uros)

Monday, November 22nd, 2010 by virginia

We had a relatively low key morning when we woke up on our catamaran, as we were still docked at Sun Island. We had the option of going into town early in the morning but Josh and I opted to sleep in instead, which was a luxury for us considering all of the early wake ups we’d been having. Then we were able to enjoy a long breakfast while the boat sped off back to Copacabana.

Scrambled eggs with ham on toast

Bananas, papaya, and pineapple

Back in Copacabana, we split up from the Australian couple as they were headed to La Paz (lucky!) and we were returning to Puno.

Back at the Copacabana marina

The tour company had arranged for us to leave at 4 pm, and considering it was only about 10 am and we had already seen most of Copacabana, we opted for an earlier bus at 1:30. Our guide suggested that we walk to the top of a large hill that overlooks the city, called Calvary Hill. There are many many steps that go up, and along way are the different stations of the cross. On Good Friday, there is a procession that goes up the hill with someone carrying a large cross to replicate the passion of Jesus.

The entrance gate to Calvary Hill

Sadly, we were completely winded by the stairs and only made it halfway up the hill before we called it quits. We had been stopping at every station to catch our breaths, and we calculated that we wouldn’t have enough time to make it to the top and then back down before we had to catch our bus. At the midway point there was a lookout that gave us a nice view of Lake Titicaca, as well as an encompassing view of of the city.

A lot of steps going up

The first station of the cross

At the midway point up the hill

Lake Titicaca


It’s a good thing we turned around when we did because surprisingly, it was harder to go down. The steps were pretty steep and super slippery. It was a struggle not to fall on our rear ends so we slowly inched our way down. We definitely would have missed our bus had we continued all the way to the top.

Another view of the city

When we got back on flat ground, we went back to the Basilica to see the black Madonna, a famous statue of the Virgin Mary made out of dark wood. We didn’t have much time to admire the statue though, because they were preparing for a wedding in the church. On our way out we passed the bride who was resplendent in white. We tried to see an Inca site but it was up another hill and we knew we’d never make it. We headed back to the center of town to check out a local agricultural market. We also did a little souvenir shopping and just walked around for a little while.

Produce stalls at the local market

Ceviche from a streetcart (no, we didn't have the guts to try some!)

Satue in the main square

Lunch was included for us at a little restaurant across the street from the tour company’s office. I was a little worried because we were only allowed to choose from the set menu of the day, not the regular menu. The set menu included soup, entrees of the day, and dessert, all for 25 bolivianos, which is about US$3.50. The rest of the menu was pricier so I couldn’t imagine that we’d get a good meal for $3.50. For the entree, we had a choice between beef, trout, and spaghetti bolognese. We had no interest in the bolognese so we opted for beef and trout.

The soup was an Andean soup with assorted vegetables, grains, and pieces of beef. I was worried that it would have mint in it but it was actually very clean tasting and refreshing despite the heat.

Andean soup with vegetables, grains, and beef

They also gave us a small loaf of bread to munch on, which was accompanied by a super spicy tomato salsa.

Bread and spicy salsa

The trout entree was pink trout from the lake and it was a huge filet just simply grilled. It was nicely seasoned and surprisingly really delicious with just a squeeze of lime over the top. It came with a side of french fries that were a tad starchy but not bad.

Grilled lake trout with french fries

The beef was also simply grilled and perfectly seasoned. It was slightly chewy but the flavor was terrific – really beefy. Overall we were pretty pleased with both entrees.

Grilled beef with vegetables and fries

Dessert was a simple scoop of strawberry ice cream topped with chocolate sauce, which was perfect on a hot, sunny day.

Strawberry ice cream with chocolate sauce

After lunch, we took a bus back to Puno. Sadly, no one picked us up from the bus station so we took a cab back to our hotel. We were in a rush because we wanted to take a tour of the floating islands and we weren’t sure what time tours ended. We asked at the front desk and they managed to arrange a private tour for us that conveniently left from the dock behind our hotel.

Boat to take us to the floating islands

Our guide was a native of the floating islands, which was pretty cool. He told us a bit about the setup of the islands, which are actually pretty incredible. They are made out of reeds from the lake and there are homes, stores, restaurants, and a school on these islands. Each individual island is home to about six families, and they travel from one island to another using reed boats.

Speeding past the reeds used to make the floating islands

Uros is the name of the floating islands

Homes on the islands

More islands

We stopped off at one island where we met the president, who demonstrated how the islands are actually made. Basically blocks of reeds and roots are tied together, then topped with layers of cut reeds. The reeds need to be replaced every two weeks, which just seems to be a crazy amount of work.

The president demonstrating how the islands are made

We took a tour of a home on the island and dressed up in native clothing. The people were so friendly and so excited to be with us, especially the children.

We hopped into a reed boat to visit another island, and everyone sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” to us in several different languages. A few of the children came in the boat with us and played around us. They were absolutely adorable

The reed boat dropped us off at a different island that had a hotel (really just a room), a grocery store, and a restaurant.

It was pretty dark by the time we finished touring the second island so we hopped on our boat and headed back to our hotel. The floating islands really are an incredible place, and I was happy that we were able to book our own tour last minute. They were definitely the highlight of Puno. Even now when I think about all those happy and excited children, they just bring a smile to my face. Tourism is obviously a big factor in helping these islanders sustain their way of life so I encourage everyone to visit these floating islands and see for yourself just how amazing these people are.

Peru Day 7 – Copacabana (Bolivia), Lake Titicaca, Sun Island

Sunday, November 21st, 2010 by virginia

We had a super early start to our day, as we were picked up from our hotel in Puno at 6:15 am to take the three hour drive to Copacabana. We barely had time to bolt down a few bites of an omelet before it was time to go. We were taken on a minibus and our group included three Australian couples. The ride itself was pretty uneventful, though we got to see a lot of the countryside that borders Lake Titicaca.

We were curious as to why most of the houses we saw were unfinished, and our guide explained that it was because when a house is finished, the residents have to start paying taxes. Because of that loophole, they would rather leave their houses unfinished to avoid paying taxes. We also saw many outhouses that were painted a bright blue or green color, which we were told was a representation of the residents’ political preferences.

We made a short pit stop before we crossed the border into Bolivia. There wasn’t much to see in that little town, just a church (of course), and some nice views of the lake.


View of Lake Titicaca

When we arrived at the Bolivian border, we had to get out of our bus and walk across the border. After going through immigration and getting our passports stamped, we boarded a different bus that would take us into Copacabana.

Beyond the arch is Bolivia

Welcome to Bolivia

After making the short drive to Copacabana, we had a quick city tour that took us through the Basilica of our Lady of Copacabana, a large church in the center of town that has beautiful domes that look like they came from a mosque. The inside was very colorful, not at all what you expect a church to look like.

Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana

Mosaic tiled dome

Inside the church

Beautiful ceiling

We also walked through a small outdoor market that specializes in popcorn. The popcorn here was all different shapes and sizes, not at all like the popcorn we eat at home.

All different kinds of popcorn

After walking through town for a bit, we headed to the marina where we boarded our Catamaran cruise ship that would take us around Lake Titicaca. We were joined by a few other tour groups, although it turned out that we and one Australian couple were the only people who would be staying on board the ship that night.

The marina in Copacabana

Our catamaran cruise ship

We had a little snack of fruit and sandwiches on board the catamaran as we cruised the lake, heading towards Isla del Sol, or Sun Island. There we had to climb up a really tall staircase, which was really difficult due to the altitude. Once we got to the top we had a great view of Lake Titicaca, which we admired for quite some time while we caught our breaths. Then we walked along some Incan agricultural terraces where we saw all different kinds of plants and flowers.

Statue at the bottom of the stairs

Female counterpart

Daunting set of stairs

At the top of the stairs, with our catamaran down below

Agricultural Inca terraces

Pretty flowers


One of the highlights for us was watching a short religious ceremony by a local shaman. He sacrificed some animal shaped candies for us, and blessed each of us.

The local shaman

Dropping animal shaped candies into the fire as a sacrifice

Next we went into a small museum where we saw some colorful costumes and masks made by the locals for Carnivale, which is similar to the celebration in Rio or Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Masks for Carnivale

There was also a museum that displayed the history of the Incas, along with a few artifacts. There was also a mummy and a few skulls, so I was sufficiently creeped out.

Artifact in the museum

We then got to see a demonstration of how reed boats are made. These intricate boats are gorgeous and must take forever to make. It’s hard to imagine that something constructed out of reeds from the lake can be turned into something so seaworthy.

Miniature reed boats

Before heading back down to the boat, we stopped to feed a few llamas and alpacas.

Llamas eating

Our next activity was going for a ride on a reed boat. We took turns donning ponchos and hats and taking our hand at rowing the boat.

The people who were actually rowing the boat

The head of the reed boat

Passing by some Inca ruins

Afterward, the rest of our group got on a different catamaran and sped off in the direction of La Paz while Josh and I and an Australian couple went back to our own ship. It was strange being on such a large ship with just the four of us and the crew but it was a good chance to unwind and get to know each other. We had a buffet lunch on board while the ship headed to the other side of Sun Island.

Pacena - beer from La Paz


Soup with vegetables and quinoa

Chicken (top), sweet potato tubers, potatoes, lake trout, rice, tomatoes and spinach, root vegetables, quinoa

Pudding with vanilla ice cream

After lunch, we got off the boat at the other side of Sun Island from where we were in the morning. It’s the biggest island in Lake Titicaca, so it was a pretty long way around. We got into rowboats and were rowed for about an hour to a different part of the island where we would begin our walk. We felt so bad for the local who was hired to row us, as it was a long way and the water was pretty rough. Hopefully the catamaran company pays him well!

Poor guy who had to row us for an hour

The other rowboat carrying Jo and Ross

The boats dropped us off at a dock at another end of the island

We hiked up a path that took us to the top of the hill. It wasn’t a strenuous hike but the altitude was really a big factor for us. We followed some boys who were tending to a flock of sheep.

They were going to the same place we were, some amazing ruins that overlook the lake. The structures are set up like a maze, with twists and turns and dead ends. No one knows exactly what these ruins were originally used for, but the boys were having a ball chasing the sheep around in the maze. We couldn’t help but laugh at their playfulness, and after they left, we stayed a bit longer to enjoy the peaceful setting.

After leaving the ruins, we continued down the path, passing a ceremonial site along the way. The terrain was pretty dry and rocky, but the beautiful bright blue lake was always in view.

As we continued on our way, we got closer to the town where our boat was docked. The sun was starting to set so all of the farmers were bringing their herds back. We were passed by donkeys, sheep, llamas, and cows. At one point we were in the middle of a sheep stampede and there was nothing we could do except freeze in the middle of the path while dozens of sheep ran past us, including itty bitty baby lambs.

Bull with pointy horns

Distorted donkey (Josh was playing with his wide angle lens)

Stampede of sheep

Lamb that looks like Stewie

More fun with the wide angle lens

Sunset on the lake

We walked around town for a little bit before getting back on the boat for dinner. We ate by candlelight, and they had arranged a little show for us afterward that included music and dancing by local villagers. We all got up to try our hand at the local dance, which was fun.

Pureed vegetable soup

Lake trout canneloni, Bolivian tortilla, roasted vegetables, beef in gravy, fried plantain, mashed potatoes

Flambeed fruit crepes

Local musicians

As you can probably tell from all of the pics in this post, it was a long and exhausting day but chock full of interesting sights. It was one of my favorite days in Peru, as we got to see a lot of different things, and Sun Island was absolutely magical. I loved the ruins that we wandered through, and being able to witness what town life was like firsthand. We promptly went to bed after dinner and were lulled to sleep by the gentle waves rocking our catamaran.

Liberty View

Saturday, November 20th, 2010 by virginia

At a recent Sunday night dinner with the family, we revisited an oldie but a goodie. When all of us lived downtown in the Financial District and Battery Park City, Liberty View was our go-to Chinese restaurant for Sunday night dinners. Since Josh and I moved uptown, we haven’t been to the restaurant in probably a year, which is too bad because the food is really quite good.

Every time we go, we always make sure to order the steamed juicy buns, or soup dumplings/xiao long bao. These are some of the best ones that we’ve had, and believe me, Josh and I have eaten our way through most of the soup dumplings in Chinatown. I was happy to see that they were still as tasty as ever. The skins are super thin but still slightly chewy, the meat full of porky goodness, and the soup inside is hot, flavorful, and has just the right amount of fatty richness to it. Delish!

Soup dumpling in all its glory

Another of our usual appetizers is the spare ribs, which are sticky and citrusy and not too sweet. They can be a little fatty sometimes but they’re generally pretty tender.

BBQ spare ribs

We also got an order of the cold noodles with sesame sauce, which something that we hadn’t tried before at this particular restaurant. It’s a pretty standard, simple dish, but unfortunately, this version was pretty bad. The sesame sauce was watery and not very flavorful, and there just wasn’t enough of it to cover all the noodles. The dish wound up being extremely bland, and it’s not something we would order again.

Cold noodles with sesame sauce

For entrees, the moo shu pork is one of our favorites. Strips of pork are stir fried with scrambled eggs and shredded cabbage, then rolled into thin pancakes dabbed with hoisin sauce. Just make sure you ask for the same number of pancakes as you have people, because if you don’t specify, I think they only give you a certain number. We were short the first few times we ordered so we learned our lesson. The good thing is that they’ll wrap up the moo shu for you and portion it out evenly across all the pancakes.

Moo shu pork

Another favorite is the crispy spring chicken in house brown sauce. The chicken is always tender and juicy with crispy brown skin. The house brown sauce is a mixture of soy sauce and chili oil, and is chock full of scallions and black pepper, which gives it a little kick. The dish comes garnished with crispy prawn crackers that are puffy and crackle delightfully if you leave them on your tongue. These were one of my favorite snacks growing up, and while they don’t really do much for the chicken, they’re a fun addition.

Crispy spring chicken and prawn crackers

My personal favorite dish is the Shanghai style pan fried noodles. It’s a bed of thin egg noodles that have been fried until crispy, then covered in a mix of chicken, pork, broccoli, carrots, snow peas, wood ear, mushrooms, and other assorted items in a flavorful brown sauce. You mix everything together and the noodles add a wonderful crunchy texture to the dish.

Shanghai style pan fried noodles

To add some veggies to our meal, we originally asked for hollow water spinach, which is my favorite vegetable, but they were out of it that evening. We settled for pea shoots instead, which are another leafy green vegetable similar to spinach. The pea shoots were sauteed with garlic and cooked until just wilted, so that the stems still had a nice crunch to them.

Sauteed pea shoots

Last but not least, we got an order of pork fried rice. It was fairly standard but there was lots of pieces of roast pork mixed throughout, and the rice wasn’t overly mushy or greasy.

Pork fried rice

Overall Liberty View is one of our favorite Chinese restaurants in the city. It’s a bit more refined than some of our go-to places in Chinatown, though I wouldn’t really call it fancy. It’s in a nice location though, right along the Hudson River, and has a nice view of the Statue of Liberty. Service can be a bit overbearing at times, however, because they try to plate and serve everything for you. What I like about Chinese food is that it’s served family style, so everyone should be able to help themselves. Aside from that, I think the food is really good, almost up to Chinatown standards. Now that we’ve rediscovered how much we like the food there, I’m sure we’ll be going back more often.

Liberty View
21 South End Ave. at West Thames St.
New York, NY

Iceland Update

Thursday, November 18th, 2010 by virginia

We’re back! We got back from Iceland on Tuesday night and I think we’re a little jet lagged. We’ve been falling asleep really early since we’ve been back, although we’re not waking up any earlier either. I guess it’s just because we’re lazy and like to sleep a lot.

Regardless, we had a great time in Iceland and we got to eat all of the items on my list, plus a few extras I hadn’t even thought about. Turns out, horse is absolutely delicious. Sorry, Mr. Ed! I also enjoyed puffin and whale, and while the rotten shark smelled absolutely disgusting, it didn’t taste too bad.

Sightseeing-wise we did get to see a lot of waterfalls and beautiful landscape. We squeezed in as much stuff as we could given the limited the daylight. Huge props to Josh for managing the manual shift car really well.

Lastly, I just want to rub it in to Josh and my sister one more time that I WAS RIGHT about the northern lights! We managed to see them our second night in Reykjavik, although I wish the weather had cooperated our last night when we were in Hella, away from all the city lights. Details to come eventually, and lots of pics of course.

Two Fat Bellies Hit the Road – Traveling Like a Bachelorette in Iceland

Thursday, November 11th, 2010 by virginia

We’re off tomorrow on a long weekend adventure in Iceland. My sister found a great deal through Iceland Air that included airfare, hotel, rental car, entrance to the Blue Lagoon, horseback riding, and a lobster dinner, all for a very reasonable price. I’m a bit concerned about the lack of daylight in Iceland during this time, but we’re really hoping to see the northern lights up there.

Things on our list to eat, aside from the lobster, include hot dogs, whale, puffin meat, and rotten shark. I’m not sure where to find the shark but we really do want to try it, even though we’ve heard it’s putrid. Aside from that, we just hope to see lots of cool things, as Iceland is famous for its waterfalls, national parks, and glaciers. Please keep your fingers crossed that we’ll have good weather! We’ll be back on Tuesday with hopefully lots to report.

Peru Day 6 – Sillustani and Puno

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010 by virginia

We had a super early morning flight out of Arequipa to Juliaca. Our flight was at 6:10 am and originally we were supposed to leave for the airport at 4:10 am but luckily our guide was able to get our boarding passes ahead of time, which bought us some extra time. We left for the airport around 5 am, which meant we still had to get up at 4 am to make sure we had everything packed and ready to go.

Needless to say we were pretty exhausted when we got to the airport but we saw a lot of people from our Colca Canyon tour group there so we had a good time chatting with everyone. We were the only ones headed to Puno, while everyone else was off to Cusco. Our hotel had packed us breakfast boxes since we left before the buffet started but we only drank the peach juice and left the ham and cheese sandwiches and yogurt behind.

The flight itself was less than an hour, and we had barely fallen asleep before it was time to get off the plane. We collected our luggage and waited for our transfer from Juliaca to Puno, where we would be staying. And we waited. And waited. Apparently the tour company had forgotten about us. No one knew we were coming. Luckily we met a tour guide from a different company who called our tour company for us, and eventually after waiting for an hour, we were picked up by someone from our tour company who happened to be dropping off another client.

It was sort of a frustrating experience for us but we shook it off and continued on our tour. The drive from Juliaca to Puno included a stop at the Sillustani graves along the way. The site is a pre-Incan burial ground that was used by the Chollas, a group of Aymaras who were conquered by the Incas. The place was so sacred though that the Incans respected the tombs of the Chollas, since they were for royalty. Now the site includes both Incan and Chollan graves. The tombs are called “chullpas” and are tall, round towers. The opening faces the east, and inside the tombs they found mummies of royals who were buried in fetal position, along with their servants.

The tallest chullpa

Inside the chullpa

Other tombs at the site

While I’m not usually one to enjoy walking around tombs and grave sites, I really loved the area. It sounds sort of silly but I could see why the place appealed to the Collas and Incas. It’s situated on a lake, Lake Umayo to be exact, and it was really peaceful there. The grass was a yellowish color, the lake brilliant blue, and there was a soft breeze that billowed through, bringing fresh air and a sense of calm.

Lake Umayo

Cows grazing in a field nearby

A lake on the other side of the site, where there were flamingos

After leaving Sillustani, we stopped at the home of some local farmers. We felt a bit awkward just walking into their place but I guess they must have a deal with tour companies because they seemed perfectly at ease with us poking our heads into their bedrooms and taking stock of their outdoor kitchen. Their home was really pretty simple, just a courtyard with a few small shacks that served as the bedrooms. We also sampled some of their homemade cheese, which I only nibbled at because it probably hadn’t been pasteurized, plus the flavor was too milky for my taste, as well as some small boiled potatoes that we dipped into bowls of clay. The clay was muddy and sort of gross looking, but it actually tasted pretty good with the potatoes. It gave them a sort of salty, earthy flavor.

The entrance to the home. The two cows above the doorway symbolizes that they are farmers.

They had llamas and alpacas out front

They also had a guanaco, which was the only one we saw on our trip

The inner courtyard and the little houses that served as bedrooms

Homemade cheese

Assorted potatoes and root vegetables, plus clay for dipping

Pen of cuy, for special occasions

Afterward, we were taken to our hotel in Puno, which is the city on Lake Titicaca. Our hotel was very nice but it was pretty far from the main part of the city. After dropping off our bags and settling in a little, we took a cab to the Plaza de Armas, or the main square. There really wasn’t a whole lot to see or much going on in the town.

Statue at the center of the Plaza de Armas

We pretty much just wandered around town, looking for places to shop and walking through some local outdoor markets. We also found the main market in the center of town, a two story building where people sell fruits, vegetables, meats, and other foods. It was pretty interesting but not a place where we would buy stuff for ourselves.

The main street downtown with lots of shops and restaurants and is closed off to cars

The main agricultural market in the center of town

Local outdoor market selling everyday goods like clothing and household supplies

We skipped lunch but decided to stop for some ice cream. Josh got cappuccino gelato at a little place called Il Gelato Heladeria Cafe. It had good flavor but was kind of icy and not creamy enough. The gelato flavors they had didn’t appeal to me so I stopped at a place called Chepy’s, which had a long line. It was really cheap (a cone with two different flavors cost 1 sol) but the ice cream was gummy and artificial tasting. I picked grape and strawberry, and both tasted like bubblegum versions of the fruit. Meh.

My grape and strawberry ice cream cone

Before heading back to the hotel, we made sure to see the sights noted in our guidebook. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much. We saw the cathedral, a wooden balcony that is supposed to be famous, and some other supposedly famous building but I’m not sure why.


Famous balcony

Famous building

We also stopped at a cafe with a courtyard and had a beer to kill some time but we were pretty bored. Since there was nothing else to see and nothing left to do, we took a cab back to our hotel, which is right on Lake Titicaca.

View of Lake Titicaca from our hotel terrace

We ended up just relaxing the rest of the night and ate dinner at our hotel because we didn’t feel like taking a cab back into the city. We were pretty tired from our early morning flight, and to be honest, Puno just wasn’t that exciting. We were basically there because it was the jump off point for Lake Titicaca, and the rest of our time on the lake was much nicer. But more on that later.

Zig Zag (Arequipa, Peru)

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010 by virginia

After our early morning start to see the condors at Colca Canyon, we were pretty tired by the time we got back to Arequipa, a four hour drive away. Our experience with altitude had left us feeling a bit sluggish and took away our appetites so I couldn’t stomach the thought of eating anything complicated. While the Peruvian food we had eaten so far was tasty, some of it was really rich, and there were a lot of spices and herbs mixed into the sauces. I was in the mood for something plain and simple, and Zig Zag fit the bill.

One of the couples in our Colca Canyon tour group had eaten there before and recommended it to us. They said that we would probably need reservations but we decided to chance it, arriving at the restaurant at an early hour for dinner. The restaurant was empty but every table had a little “Reserved” sign on it. Uh oh. However, because we were there so early, they told us they could accommodate us if we finished before a certain time, when the reservations were to be honored. Since that gave us an hour and a half to eat, we had no issues. We settled down to eat and they brought us a small dish of cheese and olives to start. The cheese was crumbly and salty, like feta.

Cheese and olives

The menu featured all different kind of meats, most of which were sold by the gram and simply prepared. We picked out three dishes to share, including an appetizer of three different tartares – trout, tuna, and salmon. All three with simply prepared with a little bit of olive and citrus. Each was topped with a sundried tomato that was intensely flavorful. The plate was garnished with cornichon, hearts of palm, capers, peppers, and a tiny quail egg. The fish was super fresh, and nicely cut into small cubes. The portions of each tartare were ample, and we enjoyed every bite.

Trout, tuna, and salmon tartare

While we were eating our tartares, they also brought us some small rolls of bread with herbed butter. The bread was soft and chewy and the butter was flavorful. They were fine to nibble on.

Roll with herbed butter

For the main part of our meal, they brought us paper bibs to wear. Yes, bibs. Our waitress told us they were “necessary”, and when our food came, we saw why. We had ordered a grilled platter that came with four different kinds of meat. The meat was served on hot volcanic stones and were sizzling hot. The juice from the meat was literally sputtering when the platter arrived, so the bibs protected our clothes. In reality, we probably didn’t need bibs but it was all in good fun. We found them amusing and wore them proudly. What astonished me most, however, was the amount of food we were brought.

When we ordered the assorted meat platter (which I actually thought came from the appetizer section), we told the waitress we would be sharing it. When the platter came, there were actually two sets of stone, each with its own set of four meats. It also came with a huge bowl of french fries that could have easily fed four people. I couldn’t believe this was one order, and I worried that the waitress had misunderstood us and had placed two orders instead. Turns out that wasn’t the case. It really was an order for one, and boy, that was a lot of food. The meats were marked with toothpicks so we could identify what each one was, and it came with ostrich, alpaca, beef, and lamb.

Huge platter of meat - ostrich, alpaca, beef, lamb

The meats were already cooked to perfection so we quickly removed them from the stones to prevent them from overcooking. They were very simply prepared, just a little seasoning and grilled on the stones. After all the rich foods we had eaten on our trip, it was a welcomed change. The alpaca was tender and tasted similar to veal or pork. The beef had actual beef flavor, and the lamb was nicely gamey. The only meat we didn’t like was the ostrich, which was tough and bland. We dipped the meats into the various bowls of sauce that included an ajo sauce (garlicky), tartar sauce, herbed butter sauce, and a spicy rocoto (pepper) sauce.

The fries that came with the meats were heavenly. They were super crispy on the outside, potato-y on the inside, and not greasy at all. They were seasoned with salt and that was it. I ate handfuls, even without ketchup, and enjoyed every one of them. I am an avid french fry eater and even I couldn’t get through all of it. We left half the bowl behind, and let me tell you, I was really tempted to ask them to pack it up for us.

Awesome french fries

We had been worried that the meats wouldn’t be enough food so we got a small order of camarones, or crayfish, which are an Arequipan specialty. The camarones also came sizzling hot on a volcanic stone. We were too busy eating all the meat first, however, so they did get a bit overcooked sitting on the hot stone. They were still really tasty though, fresh and flavorful.

Camarones on the hot volcanic stone

The camarones came with a choice of a side dish so we opted for fried yuca. They turned out to be breaded yuca croquettes, with a crisp exterior and creamy interior. They were really good but a little starchy, and we were beyond full at this point.

Fried yuca

The veggie action in our meal came from a side dish of ratatouille. To be perfectly honest, we really didn’t eat it because we were too busy stuffing our faces full of meat and carbs.


Josh and I had walked into the restaurant not feeling so hungry, and the amount of food we ended up ordering (by accident) was pretty hilarious. Our table was absolutely filled, and despite not having an appetite to begin with, we made a pretty good dent into everything.

So much food!

Overall we both absolutely loved Zig Zag. It was one of the best meals we had in all of Peru, even though it was one of simplest meals we had. The meats and camarones were all top notch and the presentation was pretty neat. The fried sides were all well prepared, and I couldn’t stop eating the french fries even after I was stuffed. The restaurant was empty when we arrived but by the time we left, it was packed and there was a line at the door. The vibe was upbeat but not stuffy, and it’s someplace that I wouldn’t have minded hanging out at the bar. Service was great and the prices were actually really reasonable. For all of our food, which included the trio of tartares, the assortment of meats, the camarones, all sides, plus a few Cusquena beers, the total was S/182 after tax and tip. That’s about US$67, which would be an absolute steal here in NYC. If you find yourself in Arequipa, run, don’t walk to Zig Zag! Reservations are definitely recommended.

Zig Zag Restaurant
Zela 210 – Cercado
Arequipa, Peru

Pho Grand

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010 by virginia

So I realize that I’ve been neglecting this blog in terms of NYC restaurant posts. I’m really far behind on posting, considering I have yet to write about the fantastic anniversary meal that Josh and I had at Eleven Madison Park in May. Yes, May. It’s bad. I have restaurant pictures going back farther than that as well. Between work and all the travel posts, I really haven’t put much thought into the NYC restaurant scene, although we have been eating at lots of new places. So I’m going to start mixing in regular posts with the travel posts, and hopefully that will force me to start covering more ground. At the rate I’m going, I’ll still be writing about Peru for the next six months!

In terms of some good meals we’ve had lately, I had an odd hankering for Vietnamese food one weekend so we made the trip down to Chinatown where there are several highly touted Vietnamese restaurants. My hankering was odd because I’ve never really eaten Vietnamese food, aside from a bowl of pho in San Francisco five years ago, plus all the banh mi sandwiches we eat. But I had seen pictures of Vietnamese dishes in several blogs and I just got an uncontrollable craving to try some for myself.

We ended up at Pho Grand, a restaurant that I’ve read about, plus it was super close to the subway. We were pleasantly surprised to see that the restaurant had received an “A” rating on their health inspection, not that a lower rating would have stopped us from going.

The menu was massive, and I started to feel a bit overwhelmed because I had no idea what to order. We selected a pho, since the restaurant has “Pho” in its name. For our other dishes, we ended up choosing “Cari Ga”, or curry chicken, because we’ve still been searching for a curry chicken that is similar to the dish we had on Sentosa, in Singapore. Lastly, we ordered “Bun Cha Gio Thit Nuong”, which is grilled pork and spring rolls with lettuce on rice vermicelli.

The pho we chose was the “Xe Lua”, which was beef soup with rice noodles and six different cuts of beef, including brisket, tripe, tendon, eye of round, navel(?) and frank (flank?). It came with a little dish of fresh bean sprouts and basil that we mixed in, plus a wedge of lemon that we squeezed into the soup. It was an enormous portion and we dug in right away. The slices of rare beef on top were super tender but my favorite pieces were the chewy bits of tendon and tripe. The soup itself was flavorful yet light, and the lemon juice and fresh basil really brightened it up.

Pho xe lua

The curry chicken was pieces of leg and wing in a large bowl full of curry sauce and potatoes. The chicken had bones and skin so the actual meat was a bit sparse, but everything was tender and pretty tasty. The curry sauce was rich but not overwhelming with coconut milk, and it’s the best version that we’ve had so far in the city. I would improve it by adding some more spice and punch, since it was just slightly on the mild side.

Curry chicken

We had a choice of rice, vermicelli, or bread to accompany the curry. We chose the bread since that was what we had on Sentosa. It was a long piece of french bread that wasn’t as crispy on the outside as we would have liked, but it was fresh and chewy in the middle. We ripped off chunks of the bread and tucked in some chicken meat, then soaked it all in the curry sauce before gobbling it up.

French bread to go with the curry

The grilled pork and spring rolls with lettuce on rice vermicelli dish is the one that threw me off the most. I thought it was the dish where you wrap the pork or spring roll in lettuce leaves with some of the rice noodles and eat it like a summer roll (turns out that dish is called “Banh Hoi Thit Heo Nuong”). What arrived was just a large pile of rice vermicelli topped with some pieces of grilled pork and spring rolls. The lettuce was shredded and buried underneath the noodles. It came with a little bowl of nuoc cham sauce, a sweet and sour dipping sauce that usually accompanies fried spring rolls. We didn’t know if we were supposed to pour the sauce over the dish, or to pick up bites and dip it into the sauce. I was afraid of committing a faux pas, so I actually had Josh google how to eat the dish. Turns out we were supposed to dip bites into the sauce so that’s exactly what we did.

Bun Cha Gio Thit Nuong - grilled pork and spring rolls with lettuce on rice vermicelli

I was worried that Josh would think the dish was too plain and get mad at me for ordering it, but he absolutely loved it! The rice noodles by themselves were plain but they had a nice chewy texture. When combined with the pork or the pieces of spring roll and dipped into the nuoc cham sauce, it was a great mix of flavors. The pork was slightly sweet and smokey and the spring rolls were crunchy and meaty. There were also pieces of pickled daikon and carrots that added a nice  tangy crunch. It was a filling dish yet light enough that we didn’t feel heavy after eating the whole thing.

Overall we both really enjoyed our foray into Vietnamese food at Pho Grand. We thought all the dishes were really tasty and well prepared, though we really don’t have a basis for comparison since we’re Vietnamese food newbies. Service was fast and efficient, and prices were pretty cheap. We got a ton of food for about $20, and we had an entire takeout container of pho left over that we took home with us. I definitely plan on eating Vietnamese food more often, and this was a good place to get our feet wet. Vietnam is one of the places on our pre-baby bucket list, mostly because we’ve heard the food there is wonderful. If what we had at Pho Grand was authentic, then we’re definitely in for a treat.

Pho Grand
277 Grand St. at Forsyth St.
New York, NY

Bun Cha Gio Thit Nuong