Summer festivals in Chicago are a big deal. For three”ish” months, Chicagoans do everything in their power to forget the months where they can’t feel their fingers and drink themselves into a dehydrated stooper. I, of course enjoy the variety of food stalls, typically rented from local restaurants and food vendors. This past weekend, I sampled a variety of selections at Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park. First, let me say that it has been a long time since I have seen that many people with braces smoking cigarettes. These kind of music festivals attract a fun variety of people. Hipsters, teens, hipster teens, hippies, music buffs, R. Kelly groupies (if there is such a thing), babies and me.
Admittedly, I love R. Kelly’s music. I don’t love him. There is a difference. I even went to his concert years ago in Detroit and stuck out like a sore thumb. This time was no different. Somehow I ended up listening to the majority of his performance by myself, as my counterparts had ditched me for a more politically correct band. I can say with a thick certainty that had most of the R. Kelly fans turned around and watched me breaking it down to “Step in the Name of Love” by myself, they would have found me more entertaining than R. Kelly.
There was a point in my life when I actually thought I was a good dancer. In my childhood dance classes I thought I was constantly put in the back row because I was tall. Last year, at my niece’s dance recital, my brother assured me that was not the case.
Moving on to the important things. Overall, the food was pretty forgettable, with the exception of a delectable frozen key lime parfait from Bang Bang pie shop. I am a big key lime pie fan and my rule for a good key lime pie is it must be ice cold. Frozen is just brilliant. I also love the combination of the graham cracker crust with the tart filling and in a slice of key lime pie, I constantly feel the need for more crust. The layering of this was genius because the crust/filling ratio was perfect. I am looking into making my own version of this for a summer barbecue or for breakfast tomorrow.
There were lots of vegan options available for the vegans. I felt bad eating some of the vegan food as I am an extreme carnivore, but it was in the name of research. I thought it might be fun to test my readers in this post. See if you can figure out which food is vegan and which food is not. Answers are at the bottom.
Scroll down for answers!
Vegan: Ice cream and Philly cheese steak
Not vegan: Really?
Last weekend, Adam and I decided to finally take advantage of our close proximity to Logan Square and try out a breakfast spot that has been on my list for a few months. Reno, which is backed by the same team behind Telegraph, Webster’s Wine Bar and Bluebird, first caught my attention when I viewed the menu online and saw wood-fired bagels. As a fully off the wagon carb-a-holic, for me, wood-fired and bread go together like frosting and my hand.
Six came up again during one of our tours in Chiang Mai. The tour guide, whose name was Tum Tum, told us his entire life story in the eight hours that we spent with him. By the end of the day, I was irritable and tired and could not even feign the obligatory smile I had plastered on my face earlier that morning. One such story, involved Tum Tum’s new baby nephew, who was born with six fingers on each hand. Yes, that happened. Adam and I tried to understand what his 12 fingered nephew had to do with our trip to Doi Inthanon National Park. We are still piecing it together. Nonetheless, it was something we talked about the rest of the trip.
A more boring observation was our total number of six flights, including those we took within Thailand. Last, but certainly not least, were the six buffets. Admission: buffets tend to give me anxiety. There is something about the variety of options that just sets me into panic mode. My indecisive/germ-a-phobic side comes out and my inner monologue just goes. “What do I try first? I don’t want to miss anything but I don’t want to over eat. Has this food been sitting out for a long time? Did anyone sneeze in these eggs?”
The end result was always the same. An overstuffed plate, maple syrup on my bagel and lox and an untouched egg white omelet that I chose at the beginning when I was trying to be healthy. The last time I dealt with this many buffets was on a cruise my senior year of college. By then, I had gained so much weight (six pieces of bacon status) that I was pretty much a fat boy at a Bar Mitzvah eating my feelings.
I learned from this trip that not all buffets are created equal. In fact, given my situation with the street food, the buffet was sometimes like a a warm blanket during the times that I cried in my coconut milk soup and just needed a piece of toast. Fine, a pancake with Nutella. Since I also came to the realization that I am not the biggest fan of Thai food, or as they say in Thailand, food, it was helpful to have some other options. I know. I am an embarrassment to the foodie culture, but now that I’m back to my homeland, I’m back on the wagon, promise.
Listed below are mini-reviews of the infamous six buffets. I rated them on a scale of 1 to 6, for obvious reasons. 1 is Old Country Buffet, 6 is my grandmother’s Yom Kippur spread. I hope you enjoy!
J.W. Marriott breakfast buffet, Bangkok
Overview: This was our first buffet in Thailand. For 40 U.S. dollars, this buffet had legitimately everything under the sun to appeal to every culture. Cue up the anxiety. Every piece of breakfast meat you can imagine, made-to-order, made-to-order ramen, made-to-order pancakes and waffles, Israeli salad with hummus, just to name a few.
Highlights: This was pretty much our first real meal in Thailand, so at that point, toast actually was a highlight. The homemade blueberry muffins and bacon were also stand outs, but the ravenous factor may have wafted my judgment.
Low lights: The sick feeling I had for the rest of the day after completely overdoing it.
Miscellaneous Anecdote: At this point I hadn’t yet mastered my two Thai phrases (hello and thank you), so I kept saying hello to the waitress in Thai, thinking I was thanking her.
Overall rating: 4
The Rim Resort breakfast buffet, Chiang Mai
Overview: This self-serve boutique hotel buffet had all of the American basics, along with Asian noodles and fried rice.
Highlights: Amazing fresh sesame bread that was even more amazing toasted with butter
Low lights: Six pieces of bacon
Similar to Carnival Cruise breakfast buffet: yes
Overall rating: 2
The Twinpalms breakfast buffet, Phuket
Overview: This buffet was somewhere between the J.W. Marriott and the Rim. The egg station upgraded it from the Rim, the lack of pita and hummus downgraded it from the J.W.
Highlights: Fresh mango, watermelon and orange juice served from the blender were a treat. Free champagne and a nice smoked salmon bar with good toppings, both channeled my inner Yom Kippur.
Low lights: Bacon sitting in a hot pot was not always crispy. I need crispy, dammit!
Overall rating: 3
Catch Beach Club dinner buffet, Phuket
Overview: This buffet was the fanciest of the group. A non-buffet lover would love this buffet. The slew of options initially triggered the anxiety again, especially since there were so many of my favorite foods. Fresh wheels of cheese with baguettes, made-to-order sushi, spicy octopus salad and all sorts of fresh seafood.
Highlights: Since Phuket is right on the Andaman sea, it is known for its seafood. The ahi tuna and smoked trout were especially noteworthy.
Low lights: The dessert bar had eye potential, but the chocolate mousse and creme brulee fell short in the taste department.
Overall rating: 5
John Gray Sea Canoe Tour lunch buffet, Phuket
Overview: This was the most authentic buffet of the trip, as it was essentially just a Thai family-style meal. For lunch, they served noodles with vegetables, Thai spring rolls, a variety of raw vegetables, fresh fruit and three different kinds of iced tea.
Highlights: The noodles were perfectly seasoned and cooked. Loved them!
Low lights: The teas. I was sweating bullets and hoping for something refreshing. Instead, they were like drinking a mouthful of honey.
Overall rating: 4
John Gray Sea Canoe Tour dinner buffet, Phuket
Overview: I saved the best for last. An amazing spread of all different kinds of Thai dishes. Chicken, fish, beef, vegetables and fresh Tom Yum soup were all involved.
Highlights: There was a beef dish with cashews that had just the right amount of kick for me, which is almost none. I loved it! The soup was also perfectly flavored and the chicken was tender and juicy.
Low lights: Massaman curry. This isn’t entirely fair as I really don’t like curry. The smell irks me.
One tuk tuk, two taxi cabs and one sleeper train/Hell on wheels later, I am pleased to announce that I have broken the seal and tasted Thai food in Thailand. Dare I say, I’m sick of it? Dare I admit to eating at Pizza Hut last night? Let’s digress. None of that is neither here nor there. The purpose of this specific blog is to tell you about the Thai cooking class I partook in during my first night in Chiang Mai; my second stop in Thailand.
I was relieved to find out that there is indeed another way to experience culinary Thai culture that doesn’t involve flies or sewar water. Enter Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School of Chiang Mai. Sarcasm aside, if you ever have the chance to visit Chiang Mai, a cooking class at this school is a must. Our instructor alone was reason enough to take this course. Not only was her English stellar, but her comedic timing was phenomenal. She took every possible opportunity to make a sexual innuendo and had no issues making fun of the ignorant tourists (myself included) to our faces. Unfortunately, her name escapes me and I can’t find her on the website, so for all intents and purposes, I will refer to her as Betsy.
Our group of ten was given the task of choosing three out of five options: appetizer, stir fry, soup, curry and dessert. Not awkward at all when you’re working with a group of strangers. We chose soup, stir fry and curry. Within those categories I made chicken with cashews, tom yum soup and red curry.
Betsy began by giving us a tour of the school’s city garden, where they grow a slew of Thai produce and herbs, naturally, used in the dishes we made. She then walked us to the street market and showed us different kinds of thai rice, noodles, coconut milk and palm sugar. FYI, street markets in Chiang Mai appear in my nightmares much less than those in Bangkok.
The cooking portion was equally fun, as Betsy insisted that we flavor our food with our emotion. Salt lovers like me add more fish sauce, spicy lovers use more chiles and cut them into smaller pieces. Sweet lovers add more palm sugar. Too salty? Too spicy? Too sweet? Just add lime.
Of course, Thai cuisine is typically known to be spicy. Admittedly, I am a major wimp with spicy food. When Betsy portioned out our homemade curry paste, she used the analogy of kindergarten, high school and university; kindergarten being the least spicy and so on. I’ll let you guess what I chose.
At the end of the night, we were given a cookbook of all of the recipes to take home. I’m thinking I won’t be craving Thai food for at least six months but come December, I’ll be sure to host my own Thai cooking party. Emotion included.
I am writing this post from a hotel lobby in Bangkok, Thailand. I bought a bottle of water in order to utilize the free wi-fi. Over the next two weeks, I will visit Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket respectively. Of course I am here to experience the culture and beauty of this fantastic country, but as you might guess, I am also here to sample some of the most diverse cuisine in the world. As a lover of Anthony Bourdain, I have watched him repeatedly travel to the most remote places in the world to eat anything and everything. Since I personally coined myself a foodie, I intended to do the same. That is, until, I got here.
Confession: I have been in Thailand for three days and I have not sampled any Thai food. I know what you’re thinking. This girl is an amateur. If she was a real foodie she would be downing cockroaches and slurping bubble teas with the best of ’em. That was the plan.
I woke up early my first morning here, excited to walk to the nearby outdoor market, packed with rows and rows of food vendors. What would I try first? A green curry? Spicy dumplings? A beef skewer bursting with flavor? And then, I got there. I guess I was imagining the Thai version of the taste of Chicago. Not so. Pounds and pounds of raw meat sat exposed in the 90 degree heat with flies feasting on the gooey skin. The smell, a combination of sewer water, body odor and hot oil, made my stomach feel as if I had gotten food poisoning just from looking at the food. I reverted to my Frommer’s guide to Thailand and quickly re-read the section about overcoming a fear of street food. I had previously laughed off the section; no way a foodie like me would have any fear. The guide noted that Thai people are meticulously clean with their food. Whoever wrote that must have missed the guy I saw washing dishes in a muddy bucket with a twenty year old sponge.
So here I am. My last four hours in Bangkok and not a bite of beef curry. I have, however, eaten an egg sandwich from Starbucks, a mushroom pizza and an unbelievable breakfast buffet at the JW Marriott that had more options than a wedding cocktail hour at The Standard Club. I had an egg white omelette and pancakes.
Since Bangkok is known to be a dirty city, I am hopeful that my adventurous side will surface in Chiang Mai and Phuket. I promise to do my best not to let you down. For now, just be jealous of the tuna pie that you can’t get at a U.S. McDonalds.