Friday, September 26, 2008

A Taste of Kyrgyzstan/Uzbekistan in New York

I lost count of how many times people in Kyrgyzstan told me about their compatriot who opened a restaurant in New York City. They all knew the name, Arzu, the same name as a popular restaurant in Bishkek. They told me it was wildly successful, that all the New Yorkers ate there. So of course, when I returned to New York, I had to look this place up.

I found it described as a hole-in-the-wall, with rock-bottom prices and great food. So I went to see for myself.

Arzu is located in Queens and the sign is so easy to miss we walked right past it. It caters to people from the former Soviet Union and the waitstaff exhibit the typical sullenness and will speak to you in Russian before English. The menu is very much like one you’d see in Kyrgyzstan – featuring pelmeni, Korean carrot salad, manti, kebabs, lepushka bread.

The lepushka was the big disappointment. It lacked the doughy, yeasty softness that makes a good lepushka in Kyrgyzstan. The other items had been modified a little to meet American tastes (ie. the Korean carrot salad lost some of it’s typical spice), but they were good. The winners were the pelmeni soup and the kebabs with tender, succulent meat.

With nothing over $7 or so , no one will complain about the price. You’ll leave stuffed and will probably have some cash left over after a substantial meal.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Visit to the Rachael Ray Show

Earlier this month I was in the studio audience of the Rachael Ray show. Overall, I’d rate the experience as so-so. The hour or so I spent in the studio, seeing Rachael live, laughing at the warm-up comic’s humor, seeing her guest Ty Pennington, learning how a show is made (including all the natural-looking things that are actually scripted), and spinning around on the rotating audience platform were all fun. But the three hours of waiting it took to get in (most of it standing) was not. If someone is a huge fan it would probably be worth it for them. If, like me, you have other things to do with your life, it’s probably not.

Here’s how the experience went for me:

1. Somewhere around January or February 2008 I request tickets for the show. I did this on behalf of a relative who lives in the Midwest and who LOVES Rachael Ray. I thought I’d make her happy if I got tickets and I’d join her just for the heck of it.

2. I hear nothing for a very long time. I think I didn’t get tickets.

3. Out of the blue, on August 29th, I receive an email saying that tickets are available. I’m given the choice between four shows on three different dates, September 14th, 15th and 16th. If those dates don’t work for me, I’m kindly requested to “resubmit another e-mail request form for tickets on our website. Please do not ask us for another date to choose from.”

4. I must reply by September 2nd if I want the tickets along with the ages of those attending. Of course, I receive this on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, so it would have been easy to miss and not reply on time. I did, however, meet the deadline.

5. On September 4th, 12 days before the show, I receive my virtual ticket. It says the check-in is at 2:15. “Entry is not guaranteed,” however, as the ticket reads. So if you want to make the schlep to New York worth your while, you better get there sufficiently early to make sure you get in. How early is early enough? Who knows. You must guess.

6. It’s not easy, nor is it cheap to fly across the country on 12 days notice. Because of this, my sister-in-law is not able to come and I have four tickets in hand.

7. I invite all my friends. They all have jobs and/or children. None of them consider it worth taking the time off or paying for a babysitter.

8. I freecycle my three extra tickets and take strangers with me.

9. We arrive at the studio at 1 p.m., an hour and 15 minutes before check-in. We stand outside. There are no benches to sit on and the street is inclined, which kills your feet after a while.

10. We stand outside until around 2:30. We, who got there over an hour early, were one of the last groups allowed in. Most of the people behind us were sent home without much remorse from the staff. They reminded us that “entry is not guaranteed.” Certain people are treated like vips (escorted in right away instead of having to wait in line).

11. We get in and go through check-in and security, which wasn’t too bad.

12. Then we are herded into a room that is way too small. There aren’t enough seats for everyone. They say coffee and snacks are available, but the snacks are nothing more than Sara Lee packaged white bagels. Yuck. One would expect better from a cooking show.

13. People are escorted to the bathroom. Then we are told we should go to the bathroom only if it’s an emergency.

14. A warm-up comic comes in and cracks jokes. He’s pretty funny. But he tells us the show appreciates us, relies on us, succeeds only because of us.

15. A staff members barks at us that cameras are not allowed and if anyone is even seen with a camera, we will be sent home, even though we’ve been waiting for hours.

16. People begin to complain. We’ve been waiting for three hours. It really is quite pathetic. I hear one woman say to her friend
a. “You’d just be getting out of work now.”
b. “Yeah,” her friend replies. “And I’d be less tired.”
c. “Are you ready to do this again soon?”
d. “No. I’ve been to other shows and stood in line, but once we got in, the show started a few minutes later. Not this hours and hours of waiting.”

I think a show that appreciates their audience could respect them. One idea would be giving away less tickets than are available, not more, but making them a reserved, guaranteed seat, given with advance notice. Then have a standby line available for people who happen to be in NYC and who can fill in the remaining seats. Just my idea.

17. We enter the studio and enjoy the hour of taping. We’re given a bag of multi-grain snacks as part of a promo.

18. The show ends and we are escorted out. The smell of spaghetti squash with a tomato-meat-basil sauce wafts up as the staff eats it. Cranky staff members yell at us to cram back into that room that’s not big enough. We are handed out cheap samples and a copy of Ty Pennington’s new decorating book.

19. I asked a staff member how one can get tickets with more advance notice (so someone like my family member could realistically come). She told me to write on the ticket request that advance notice is needed to travel. However, when I look at the ticket request form again, I don’t see a space to note that. They also say that two weeks notice is needed to accommodate handicaps. And let me tell you, if you have any handicap that doesn’t allow you to stand for three hours, you’ll want this. However, I received less than two weeks notice from the date my tickets were confirmed to the date of the show. So I don’t know how that works.

Some other reactions from people who’ve had this adventure:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Trip to New York

I recently spent a day in New York City. It was my first visit there in quite a while. I’m one of those people who would never want to live in New York, but enjoy visiting. Upon emerging from the Port Authority bus station, I took in a host of scents, sights and sounds. As I walked to a restaurant, the scent of baked bread and fried food wafted out from storefronts to mix with the smell of garbage and exhaust. I was truly surprised by the number of smokers. I found myself constantly dodging smoky clouds on the sidewalks. I saw representatives from Grey Line tours, dressed in red jackets, try to approach potential tourists. One man looked at the agent with incomprehension.

“No speak English,” he said.

“No English?” the agent asked, without becoming discouraged. “Spanish?”

Since I’m so used to being the foreigner, it was funny to see the other side.

What I most looked forward to was some good food, since I’m tiring of the mediocre, overpriced food where I live. I timed my arrival for lunchtime, since the weekday lunch selection in New York is vast and the prices reasonable.

My lunch spot - Pongsri’s Thai restaurant – was the winner of the day. This is one good place near the theater district among many tourist-oriented mediocre restaurants. Visit weekdays at lunchtime for the $6-8 lunch specials. The food arrives piping hot within five minutes. It starts to fill up around 12:15 p.m. My pork entrée had a nice, lightly spicy, ginger taste. The service was quick and efficient, the atmosphere cozy. Great value and worth seeking out.

I would rate my other food stops as nothing out of the ordinary.

I was excited to try Red Mango frozen yogurt because I’d heard about the recent spread of this chain. The yogurt had a very tart taste though, like drinking frozen kefir. You almost need to buy one of the attractive toppings (I went for Ghihardelli dark chocolate) to lighten the tang. With a cup with one topping starting at $4, I won’t be returning.

Les Sans Culottes is a little French restaurant with a cozy interior and very cool appetizers. They bring you a basket full of raw vegetables and slices of cantaloupe, as well as a rack of sausages that you can cut off yourself. Almost everyone gets the $25 prix fixe three-course dinner. It sounds like great value, and it could be, but the food is just blah. The vegetables look cool, but I’d actually prefer them cooked or blended together in a salad. My flan dessert tasted like it had just been removed from the freezer. And my entrée, a beef stew that came with mashed potatoes and sides of fries and rice, was OK, but the sauce and all the carbs overwhelmed the meat.

I just happened by Buttercup Bake Shop and a huge line had formed by the time I left. Mouth-watering cupcakes, cakes and goodies line their cabinets. The key lime pie with a gingersnap crust was pretty good. A small pie, which serves 3-4, is $7. I was disappointed with my peanut butter mud bar though. I expected it to be rich and gooey and was disappointed to find it crumbling and not all that delectable.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Early views

I visited Nicaragua during the rainy season, though I didn’t see a drop of rain. And despite being “winter,” the temperatures remained in the 90s. It was strange to adapt to the tropical humidity, to the sweat gelling on my face, to feeling like a smushed pancake in an uncooled cafeteria, where diners moved about with sweat stains growing under their arms or against their backs.

One afternoon, I visited the Mercado Oriental, the largest market in Nicaragua, and supposedly in Central America. This market supplies the entire country. Vendors buy their products there, where rock bottom rates are offered, then resell them throughout Managua and the countryside.

The hustle and bustle of the market has given it an unsavory reputation and my guidebooks advised caution in going there. I went with Henry, a local known by many in the market. So I was able to walk around without much concern for security issues.

It was a fireworks show of colors, sounds, smells and activities, simultaneously beautiful and disgusting, one image alternating with another. I spoke to a woman who sold plastic bags, plastic utensils and shelf lining. Old sheets of corrugated metal hung in all directions, with strips of torn fabric underneath. A bare-chested man with a potbelly leaned against a chair nearby, sweat glistening on his shoulder. A little girl with stringy hair and unhealthy eyes, but a friendly smile and jump to her step, approached the table to buy some orange plastic bags.

I watched a mouse run nearby and I twitched nervously as I anticipated it approaching my foot. Among these dark, smelly, dirty surroundings, the woman selling plastic bags looked bright and hardworking.

Women sold items from the tops of their heads, including a large pink iced cake, sold by the slice. Vendors juiced fresh fruit into plastic bags and sold them with a straw. I saw mancha, a beautiful red and pink powder made from corn, used to made a drink, next to cocoa.

At a watermelon stand, I bought a small, round, light green melon for just over 50 cents. At the back of the stall, a toddler shit on a rock with his mother’s supervision. His mother picked up the feces with a plastic bag, as if a dog.

We walked through smoke, heat and oil, through dirt-cheap piles of bananas and limes. Men sold blue plastic rectangles of water, carried in a plastic bag of chilled water. Buyers bought these bags, that looked like water balloons, drunk half, dribbled the rest on their heads, then threw the plastic to the ground.

On another day I headed two hours south to the town of Rivas. The town itself was attractive, with a large cathedral and a newly painted central square with benches in the color of the rainbow. Yellow bicycle taxis, called pepanos, pedaled along the narrow streets. Children in navy blue uniforms lined up in front of the blue and white flag, singing the national song in preparation for the independence day holidays the next week.

Rivas’ proximity to Costa Rica leads to many locals migrating to Costa Rica for work. Despite the geographical nearness, Beatriz, an employee in Rivas, said the cultures are distinct.

“The Nicaraguan people are very hardworking,” she said, “especially the women. In Costa Rica, they don’t work as hard and the women are different.” She said the Costan Rican government invested in tourism and that the resources are divided more equally than in Nicaragua.

“In addition,” added my colleague Armando, “we spend 20% of our taxes on an army we don’t need. Costa Rica doesn’t have one.”

I caught a glimpse of Lake Cocibolca, the giant lake that fills up much of Nicaragua’s western space. It’s not often I see the form of a volcano, Mount Concepcion, rising up over lake waters, so that was a nice treat.

We drove through banana plantations, past guava and coconut trees, and among fields of sugar cane, on our way to visit a small banana and lime farmer. We passed a lot of home that displayed black and red (Sandinista) or red (Liberal) flags. There were many more black and red than red only.

“Those who have flags are fanatics for that party,” a Rivas resident, Jose, explained to me.

We drove down a hot dirt road, passing field workers riding bicycles with chemical tanks strapped to their backs. Local residents constructed their homes out of sheets of corrugated metal. One had a heart painted on it, “Unity, tranquility and peace” written within it. A wide guarumo tree trunk, whose large leaves are used to wrap cheese, was painted bright pink, the color of the Sandinistas. “Yo voy con Daniel 2 (I’m going with Daniel),” it read, referring to the Sandinista candidate, Daniel Ortega.

The roads were uniformly lush and green. But the standards of living were poor and I found the poverty sad, overwhelming and dirty. The woman we visited lived in two rooms with six others. The house was stifling hot, with mud floors and spiderwebs. Her 16-year-old son had dropped out of school and was working for $50 a month. Her younger children, including the little boy innocently sleeping in the hammock, seemed destined to follow the same fate.

Another day, I paid a visit to a farmer at the opposite end of the spectrum. This family owned a nice house and truck and exported their products – okra, squash, green beans, cantaloupe, watermelon and eggplant – to the U.S. They had an alter to the Virgin Mary, on which they’d placed a sample of their different veggies, to keep them always blessed. The large, fertile fields used modern irrigation and technology.

Not many miles separated these two families. But they moved in different worlds.