Frugal Fun in Pittsburgh

The good news: Pittsburgh is compact. The bad news: It’s built on a wedge, surrounded by two rivers. There’s no easy grid to get around. You’ll likely rely on uber/lyft; our buses are not easy to learn to use.

First, be sure to enjoy the view of Pittsburgh’s skyline as you enter the city from the airport, emerging from the Fort Pitt Tunnels. You can enjoy this view at your leisure too from atop the hill the tunnels pierce, Mount Washington. You can take our famous incline to the top from down below. The station is located near a dull mall, Station square.

Friday night: The Andy Warhol Museum is half-off, just $10 to visit this shrine to the creator of Pop Art. It’s the largest museum in North America dedicated to the work of one artist. It was renovated two years ago for its 20th anniversary. Should you not have time to visit, each Friday evening is Good Fridays—a happy hour in the Factory-themed silver lobby that is free to attend (though sadly the drinks are not). Current featured exhibition, from the Perez Museum in Miami:

The Museum is on the north shore. There are many bars and restaurants there, though none I’d really recommend for a unique experience. However, you’re one bridge away from downtown, and perhaps a mile and-a-half from the Strip District.

Downtown has many great restaurants. For an inexpensive and filling meal, try Emporio for a meatball sandwich and a beer. For a more upscale experience, take the lift to the 2nd floor for wood-fired pizzas at Mezzo; if the weather is agreeable, the third floor is a fun rooftop pub, Il Tetto, modeled on Eaterly’s Baita.

The Strip District is a must weekend visit. These few blocks where were food was trucked in and unloaded—and, as you might have heard, home to Primanti’s, which served large meals to busy truckers, between two slices of bread. (I wouldn’t waste a meal there; it’s more a novelty.) The Strip has more commercial offerings now. Avoid the snobby 21st Street Coffee (their motto should be “Have it Our Way) and instead visit the charming granddaddy of Italian espresso shops, La Prima (which actually IS on 21st Street).

Is it warm? Perhaps Lucy is back from her annual winter trip to her homeland in Vietnam. Lucy has been making the city’s best sandwich, on a gas grill on Penn Ave. near 18th Street, for decades, long before we knew to call them bahn mi.

How early did you hit the Strip? Was it very early, around 8am? If so, an Uber will get you to the South Side’s Carson Street in time for the 10am kickoff of several Premier League matches at Piper’s Pub, where you’ll be met with conviviality and a very good pint of Guinness. Should you choose to eat there, the food is good, honest, large, and very reasonable. I’d do the raised waffle and fried chicken, which would almost certainly get you through to dinner….

(Or, perhaps you’re an early riser, and made it to Piper’s in time for the early match, which starts at 7:30am, in which case I’d recommend the Scotch Eggs.)

 Is it baseball season? Are the Buccos in town? You should catch a game at PNC Park, the loveliest in America, with wonderful views of Pittsburgh’s gem of a skyline.

The South Side: unless there to watch Chelsea thrash a Premier League opponent, I’d say skip it, especially at night, when the region’s youth descend on it for drunken debauchery. (Though you may like that sort of thing?) In the evening something a little more rarefied is called for. Do sit at the bar at Union Standard—brand new, but great legacy. Share a few appetizers at $6-$12 each with a good beer or glass of wine.

The new regional darling is Lawrenceville. Get the best espresso of your life at Espresso a Mano, an then meander down Butler Street, stopping at galleries, pinball joints, and bars, for a hot dog at Franktuary.

Also on Butler, next to a movie house and beer bottle shop, is probably the restaurant I’d choose to eat in above all others, Smoker Taqueria. Cash only. But don’t get an appetizer, you’ll be too full to experience the wonderful tacos and mac and cheese, the best I’ve ever had.

Sunday, come to Oakland, in the city’s east end, Oakland. While waiting for the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History to open at noon (get both for $19), walk through the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. You can’t miss it. (Free.)  For decades it was the tallest educational structure in the world. Don’t miss the glorious gothic Heinz Chapel on its grounds (also free). The Carnegie Library is also a splendid building, located next to the Museums. (Free.)

The Museum has a wonderful new Carnegie CafĂ©, which now serves a good brunch on Sunday. The coffee is excellent. In Oakland there are some fun dining options. I’d recommend Spice Island, walking distance from the Museum. 

New York for Thanksgiving

New York remains one of the world’s great cities and as always, having visited, I leave wishing I had much more time to spend there. 

We had a great visit to reunite with dear friends Anne and Bill, whom we worked with in Oman 20 years ago. Now in Austin, TX, they rented a small flat in Brooklyn for a week and invited us to join them for a few days.

Bill, Susan and Anne in Washington Square Park

The drive was an easy 7-hours, with a couple of stops. Little traffic on Thanksgiving day as most were already at their destination. We arrived before Anne and Bill so picked up the keys from the flat owner. I’d brought along some vacuum-wrapped ham procured in Spain and a tin of foie gras and a great loaf of bread for our Thanksgiving meal, which we tucked into around 9pm.

The flat was pretty basic but the trip was less about luxury than seeing our pals, eating, drinking and laughing. (They would not take any money from us for the rental.) But I should add that the second-floor flat was right above a bar that featured LOUD karaoke on Friday night, til 4 am! Bill actually called New York’s Finest to complain, was told that non-emergency (violent) calls had an 8-hour wait…

Two blocks from the L Train (subway)which got us into midtown Manhattan in 10 minutes, we spent two fun days poking around the East Village and Midtown. We saw a fun Christmas Market with creative stalls and food vendors. 

Susan buying earrings at the Market

Making Churros (Mexican fried bread) at the Christmas Market 

We then made our way to a big fancy food mall that specializes in Italian food, Eataly: 

We also took the elevator up the 14th floor which has a bar and enjoyed a round of drinks:

That night we dined at Nomad Bar, highly recommended by a friend, and I ordered the $38 chicken pot pie. It arrived with a spoonful of truffle mouse and a skewer of grilled foie gras, both of which were introduced and vigorously whirled into the steaming hot pie, melting and flavoring the inside. It was rich and glorious.

On Saturday we visited the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side, home to millions of immigrants over the last two centuries. Initially densely German, after their generations succeeded and moved out it became home to Eastern Europeans and Jews, and finally Chinese. It was once the most densely populated part of the planet. A hundred years ago, NYC’s population was greater than it is today. We did not visit one of the tenement flats (another visit) but did visit the ground floor/basement business that makes up, still, most NYC apartment buildings. When owned by a German, this street-level business was a German pub, selling lagers to local residents, owned 150 years ago by a Prussian and his Hanoverian wife. (There was no “Germany” back then. The couple likely spoke different dialects and would have had trouble communicating initially.) There would have been several of these on each block. On Sundays—the only day off work for most—they’d be packed. Beers were $.05, and once ordered, you could take your plate to the table and fill it with food, purchased and cooked by the wife.

BTW, the USA has no official language owing to the debate that took place about it as the country was forming, we learned. Many pushed for German as the choice, so high was the level of immigration. (25% of Americans have German lineage). As they couldn’t settle on one or the other, it was deemed there would not be one.

Lunch on Saturday was also special—Babbo, a temple to Italian food, which Susan and I had visited before. 

Lunch at Babbo

This was followed with another old friend reunion, Elayne, who we have known for decades and is a professor at NYU. We quickly began verbally pummeling Trump. 

Sunday we left at 10am and got home by 5pm, not bad given how busy the roads were. It was, as always, great to see the dogs. 

Granada and Alhambra

Alhambra, the exquisite mostly Moorish fort that overlooks Granada... sounds exotic, doesn't it? Alhambra. Like the casbah. They beckon by name alone.

Built on an old Roman foundation in the 14th century and decorated with impeccable Arabesque motifs, it was augmented with the addition of a splendid Renaissance palace by Spain's reconquering catholic King Charles V. In 1492 it became the official court of Ferdinand and Isabella, and it was here that they underwrote Christopher Columbus' voyage that ultimately led him to North America.

It is a fort, a palace, a summer palace, and gardens and is to be seen to be believed. We have seen the magnificent Taj Mahal, and Alhambra tops it. 

It sits atop a hill, above Granada, and facing the Albaycin, the ancient Moorish part of the city, which offers superb views of Alhambra, which it faces across a valley:

View of Alhambra from down in the valley, the old town of Granada. 

We arrived in Granada late afternoon on a Sunday, armed with Alhambra tickets that allowed entrance to the "good stuff" at 2pm. (Ticketed visitors are allowed into the main buildings at :30-minute intervals). However Charles' Palace is free to all, so we went in ahead of our scheduled time. The interior of the rectangular palace has a circular courtyard: 

Now in the ticketed portion of the visit. View of Palazio Nazaries, the Emir's private quarters, from the Patio de los Arrayanes:

View from the Nazaries:

Sam view from within the Nazaries:

A 20-minute walk through gorgeous gardens (the Generalife) brings you to the Emir's summer palace:

View of the Albaycin from Alhambra

To get to Alhambra you walk, taxi or bus up a hill. We walked and after about 15 minutes entered through the lower of two entrances- clearly the less-used one. (Tickets are taken deeper in the complex.) As we left around 6pm it was so deserted that Susan had some fun with the door: 

A few random pics:

En Route to Granada: Arcos de la Frontera

Leaving our friend at charming Chiclana we headed north, then east, into the mountains and eventually to Arcos de la Frontera, probably the most visited of the famous hilltop towns. Towns named "de la Frontera" exist from the time of the catholic reconquest of Moorish Spain. As the Christians pushed south, they built border towns, to them "of the frontier"- "de la Frontera."

It was a quiet Sunday, which suited us well. We parked in an underground car park in the new part of town and began a leisurely walk up into the old town.

Homes in Frontera towns must by law remain whitewashed, and the view from afar is captivating, as are the views into the surrounding valleys.

Here is Susan looking from the edge of the main square, home to the Church of San Pedro:

That's a hotel to the right, and an ideal location for an overnight stay in this charming town.

As is was Sunday, it was largely quiet with few open shops. But we did enjoy the architecture and the scenery, and a couple of locals were showing birds of prey, still used in hunting regionally, off the square:

The streets were mostly deserted though as our visit also coincided with late lunch time, so locals were indoors. Though there was one local who caught my eye:

Cadiz and Chiclana de la Frontera

Susan's childhood friend Karen lives in the coastal town of Chiclana and invited us to stay with her a couple of days, so after two nights in Seville we picked up our rental car and drove south about 80 miles to the seaport town of Cadiz, about 20 miles from Chiclana. We had plans to meet in the lobby of a prominent hotel late Friday afternoon, but as we got there several hours early we enjoyed walking along the corniche, looking out to sea, and exploring an old fort. We then turned into the town's old streets, exploring several plazas. We were impressed by the plazas, the public squares that appear every couple of blocks in towns and cities all over Spain, where people gather as houses have little outdoor space of their own. Cadiz is a very pretty town, and the views, both in town and out toward Morocco, near the Strait of Gibraltar, were splendid. (Bonus trivia: its beach stood in for Cuba's in the Bond film "Die Another Day.")

We had a wonderful reunion with Karen, whom Susan knew from elementary school, enjoying tea in the outdoor lounge of the Parador Hotel. Karen had bussed in from Chiclana, so after I retrieved the car and picked them up, Karen directed us to Chiclana where we enjoyed a cool beer overlooking a bay filled with boats resting on sand as the tide was well out. Across the street was the Fishermen's Association (Asociacion de Pescadores), a sort of private club that allowed diners, and we repaired there for a large platter of fried fish for dinner-- delicious.

On Saturday we drove into Chiclana, parked and walked to the crowded public market. I've never seen such beautiful seafood. Oh for a kitchen. Perhaps I should have discussed with Karen first?

We got lucky for lunch, finding a small cafe just outside the market, where we repaired for a plate of fried anchovies and tiny prawns, with a couple of "canyos," 8- to 10 ounce draught beers. Fish and two beers each came to about $7. Though small the bar had a small outdoor area and was teeming with locals. It was delicious.

After lunch we wandered the town a bit more. The pedestrian commercial area was hosting a Spanish travel event, where people could buy tickets to sample regional foods. I didn't fancy a styrofoam plate of paella myself, but it was well-attended by locals, no doubt eager for a change to their usual Saturday ramble.

Later we and Karen drove to Chiclana's wonderful beach and Susan and I did our usual 5 minutes in the water. We later repaired to a beach cafe for some octopus and more beers, enjoying a truly beautiful sunset over the Atlantic.

Andalusia and Madrid

Susan and I were both smitten by Spain.

I found a great deal r/t to Madrid on Air  Canada on $550 each, the cheapest fare I've seen to Europe in decades. Perhaps this was aided by leaving on a Tuesday? Or flying just after the busy summer season? Anyway, I pounced. Air Canada turned out to be a great airline and flying through Toronto a delight. We even got an entire row of three seats in the middle of the plane for extra room. I managed a couple hours of shuteye on the overnight flight, a rarity.

Arriving in Madrid before 8am we had reserved a train to Seville at 11am. We took a bus into Madrid which dropped us conveniently at the train station. Turns out that we *could* have caught the 9 am train, so quickly did we exit the airport and quickly get to town via the bus/shuttle (about 30 minutes to the station). We briefly considered checking on changing our tickets. Instead we checked our bags and went out into morning hubbub for a cup of coffee. We were quite tired and didn't see much though I spied the popular 24-hour Cafe El Brilliante and we stopped in there for a Madrid specialty, a fried calamari sandwich.

Spain has excellent super fast trains, and we hit 200 mph en route to Seville, pulling out of Madrid's Atocha Station at 11 am. Madrid's splendid, regal city gave way to the usual orbital high rises, but soon we were out passing verdant plains, then rugged, dry, mountainous country. After 2 1/2 hours we were in Seville.

We opted for a taxi for the 10-minute drive to our hotel. Our first hotel, El Ray Moro, was a bit of a splurge and charming as all get out, its entry leading to one of those open courtyards, with a fountain in the middle, with three stories of rooms on three sides of the courtyard.
Ours was one flight up, small but cute with a fine foam mattress, which we hit for rest. But travel adrenaline soon kicked in for me so I went out for a walk while Susan rested.

The old center of Seville is a warren of narrow streets-- "kissing lanes"-- that remain cool even in the height of summer. They are, however, challenging to navigate; they didn't know from grids in the 9th century I guess. But I walked off in several directions for a few minutes, returning to the hotel after each brief foray, in an attempt to get the lay of the land. One way brought me to a good spice shop where I engaged the proprietess. I returned there with Susan a bit later and we bought some smoked paprika, saffron, and their version of the Moroccan mix, ras al hanout (which translates as "best in shop," each merchant's propriatory blend, and essential in the soups and tagines we both enjoy).

Spain is not short on bars, cafes and restaurants, and when asked where she enjoyed a drink and a bite the woman in the spice shop sent us around the corner to the wonderful Bodega Santa Cruz, which became our regular spot for a couple of nights. Small, crowded, vibrant, the food was average at best but the conviviality couldn't be beat. (The delightful bartender Angelita asked my name for the tab; I gave her my initials thinking they'd be easier than my name. A week later, when we returned to Seville for one night and beat a path there for some bites and brews I walked in and she shouted "DC!")
It's the only place on the trip that we visited where they did the old-fashioned writing the food and drink tabs directly on the bar with chalk:
Refreshed, we walked, ate, drank in this wonderfully pedestrian, historic neighborhood, awed by the massive Cathedral, built in the 13th century by men who wanted to be remembered as "mad" for their massive ambition. As always, built on the foundation and remains of the mosque it replaced (itself built on the foundations of a Roman temple)-- though incorporating the minaret-- it is indeed gothically gorgeous:
Now daytime:

Some food shots from Thailand and Laos

When I was in my mid-twenties, winding up my Master's Degree with an aim to teaching English overseas, I attended a language teaching convention in Atlanta, GA. My dad (in the English language field himself) put me in touch with experienced teacher pals of his to offer some guidance. Can't recall their names, but I got two pieces of advice from two of them. One told me to skip the language schools and aim instead to work at the college or university level (which I did). Another taught in Thailand. "How's the food there?" I asked him. I don't think I'd ever eaten Thai at that point you see. "Best in the world," he responded. He might have been right.

I'm not sure I remember my first Thai meal after that, but I've scarfed down my share of curries and noodles since then. We're lucky to have several good Thai restaurants near our house. And Thai curries are easy to approximate at home.

But boy did we eat well on this trip.

Market food in Pitsanulok, near train station, from where you catch the bus to Old Sukothai. A selection of dumplings and grilled chicken backs:

Chiang Mai. Two great dishes here, including a slow simmered pork hock flavored with star anise shredded and served with some of its sauce and a hard-boiled egg. I believe this is a Chinese dish in origin. (Tony Bourdain featured this on one of his travel/cooking shows; though we'd seen it it didn't click until we were chatting with a fellow tourist the evening we arrived, seeking recommendations. He told us about it and the female owner who wore a stetson-- that's when we remembered the show. Our drinking mate was unaware the dish was "famous.") 

Below a Chiang Mai curried coconut noodle dish called Khao Soi. Susan had hers with chicken but I couldn't resist the crispy pork belly whenever I saw it. Always topped with fried noodle bits. 

Overnight in Pak Beng, Laos, a small town layover on the Mekong en route to Luang Prabang. Early the next morning I found the local market, selling among other things grilled field rat and these balls of cooked river greens, a lump of which would hearten and enrich any soup or stew. 

Nutella. It's everywhere. Makes a good crepe. Night Market, Luang Prabang.

Lao coffee. Like Vietnamese coffee but not as good. 

Noodles for breakfast in Indochina. Really delicious. 

Fancy new year's eve meal, Tamarind, Luang Prabang, Laos. 

(Thanks for the recommendation Justine and Leslie.)

A favorite of mine: grilled river fish, Luang Prabang Night Market. 

Ventiane, the Lao capital, has many varied restaurants and we were happy for a break from local food after several weeks. 

Here some pate, pizza and baked pasta at French restaurant. 

Of course we started with a pastis each. We're not animals. 

LOVE fake japanese food. All restaurants should offer this in place of mere printed menus. 

More pizza at Via Via in Ventiane, run by two cute French guys. 

We ate very well on the island of Ko Samet, four hours by bus from Bangkok. 

Grilled ribs:

In retrospect a whole kilo of smoky grilled shrimp was probably a tad much. 

Following the trip Susan informed me all meat must now be served on a stick. Grilled pork belly:

Pork belly cooking. They were $.30 each. 

Dried pork with sticky rice. 

Never tried this in Vietnam, finally got around to it in Thailand. Dried cuttlefish, cranked through a tenderizer, then grilled. Like squid jerky. 

Susan's favorite meal of the trip. Fish poached in aromatic lime juice. 

A snack after the ferry back to the mainland, fresh coconut ice cream, served in the coconut shell. 

Back in Bangkok for 3 nights before departure. Fresh doughnuts with coconut dipping sauce. 

Sadly, despite a ban, this atrocity is served all over Chinatown. 

Braised pork with greens. 

Crispy pork belly, ready for slicing and adding to a variety of dishes. 

Served here at this restaurant, with variety of meats ready for serving. 

Our final meal in Bangkok was at this "restaurant."

We try durian for the first time. 

One final shot of delicious crispy pork. 

Our hero.