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Non-Koreans, apparently, don't go to the Flushing Koreatown. And from the looks of it, they don't go to the one in Manhattan much either.
It's 11:07 p.m. on a Thursday night in Manhattan's Koreatown and every table is full at Pocha 32 – but with young Korean hipsters. I'm with my food-writing friend Matt Rodbard, 32, editor-at-large at FoodRepublic.com and an all-around swell guy.
This would be our third meal of the night, as part of a K-Town crawl we were doing. The reason? Matt's the author of a just-released book on the Korean restaurants of New York City (called, appropriately enough, "Korean Restaurant Guide New York"). I have a strong yen to learn more about Korean cuisine, which has always seemed nebulous to me. So when you have a friend who writes a book on the subject, you take him out.
I was at a laundromat in Santa Cruz, California, reading the New York Times travel section. It was the spring semester of my senior year of college, a period of complete uncertainty for me. I was about to graduate. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I only knew what I didn't want: to stay in Santa Cruz or move to San Francisco and get an office job of some sort. I needed a purpose. I needed a direction.
And that's when a life-changing thing happened to me at the laundromat. When the guy next to me, who was reading the main news section of the Times heard the buzzer to his dryer go off, he dismissively tossed the paper over his shoulder. It hit me in the face. Well, okay, it skimmed my face. Alright, it almost hit me in the face.
The unibrow is the face of travel.
Let me explain. I recently took a trip to Azerbaijan. I strolled the streets of Baku, which are flanked by plus-sized Beaux Arts palaces, the ground floors of which usually house a designer shop. I ate enough grilled meat to keep a slaughterhouse in business. And I sat in smoky bars nursing Turkish beer. It was all very nice. But what struck me the most about the country was the unibrow. I first saw it on Rashid, a 30-year-old computer programmer I met through a friend. It was like a black cat had rested its tale across his forehead. Furry and thick and stretching from temple to temple, his unibrow was the most prominent aspect of his round face.
The unibrow (or monobrow), which scientifically is called a synophrys, is an embarrassment in modern, Western society and culture. People get made fun of, laughed and pointed at. It's even worse for women, who have to landscape their brows on a regular basis. People will go through great labor to ensure they have not one but two eye brows.
But in other parts of the world, things are different.
In September 2010, on the banks of the Caspian Sea, a plus-sized Azerbaijani flag was raised on a very tall flagpole. With an international audience looking on, Azerbaijani officials proudly made a proclamation: that in Baku, the capital of the country, the world's largest flagpole at 531 feet now stood, thus besting South Korea and Turkmenistan. Sadly, the odd global flagpole war was not over: a year later, in Tajikistan a 541-foot pole went up and Azerbaijan had to move on to other things.
And that they did. There's a lot more rising in Baku these days than flagpoles. The city is going through its second oil boom in a century and a half and is suddenly flush with cash. And lots of it. I spent a few days here recently rendezvousing with a friend and traversing a country that few people seem to know exists.
Friends and family members, people I meet at cocktail parties, always ask the same question: where are you going next? Azerbaijan, I'd say in the run-up to my trip here. I received a lot of blank stares in return or sometimes an "Azerbai what?" When I called my cell phone company to get on an international roaming plan, the woman with the southern accent on the other end of the line asked me where I was headed. Her response to hearing Azerbaijan was this: "Now is that in the Paris, France area?"
I first encountered Juma outside the castle in the Azerbaijani town of Sheki, a town of 60,000 people about a four-hour drive from the capital, Baku. Juma had planted himself just outside the castle gates. I didn't realize it at the time but he was waiting for me. He was sitting on the ground, his hands resting on a 3-foot-high object that was covered by a Persian rug.
Few tourists seem to make the trek to Sheki. But for those who do come, there are a few highlights: to escape the bright lights of Baku, to sample the unique halva they make here, or to just get a bucolic feel for what this country can offer. And, as I officially did about 15 minutes later, they might also meet Juma a local septuagenarian. I emerged back into the sunlight from a drab, stodgy museum that had been displaying historic Azerbaijani costumes on fashion mannequins and there he was waiting for me again, the carpeted object in front of him. I was, it seemed, the only tourist in town and he was intent on showing me what he was hiding underneath the rug.
And then, like some kind of magician, he pulled off the carpet to reveal ... a crudely taxidermied wolf. As Juma then told me, this was his job – his very odd job.
I pulled a few crumpled Azerbaijani notes out of my pocket, handed them to Juma, and commenced asking questions.
I was going to eat a dirty water dog.
Dirty water dogs, more popularly known around the world as hot dogs, were once an ubiquitous street food staple around the Big Apple. I didn't take my first trip to Gotham City until I was 28 but up until that time one of my main images of the city – besides, ya know, people having harsh violence inflicted on them – was locals and tourists alike standing pleasantly in front of a hot dog cart while the hot dog vender garnished dogs with condiments (of course, a minute later they were probably pummeled and robbed by New York thugs). I'd seen the image of people buying frankfurters in New York on TV and in movies so many times that it just seemed like the thing to do when one visits or lives in the Big Apple.
The first time I ever saw a bidet, I peed in it. I was young; I wasn't very well traveled, and, well, the porcelain bathroom apparatus for washing one's nether-regions found in many European hotels and homes looked like a toilet. That was in Florence. And it was also on that trip when I first learned about gnocchi (which I'd grossly mispronounced). And since then I've had a bit of a torrid culinary romance with the dumpling.
I order it in restaurants, where, if made right, is pillow soft. I buy them in supermarkets – at least when I can find them. Just last week, I was wandering around a big chain supermarket in Los Angeles unable to find my favorite dumpling. When I uttered the word "gnocchi" to an employee, she just stared back at me. After the third supermarket employee asked me "what's a gnocchi?" I gave up.
Yes, that's right: the subway. The Los Angeles Metro Rail, as it's called, consists of six lines, all named by color, that snake through the greater Los Angeles area, mostly above ground but, as in the case of the line I took, the red line, underground as well. An Angelino can now travel from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach. And that's just the Metro Rail. There's also the Metrolink, which goes even further afield and has been running since 1992.
Until recently, "public transportation" and "Los Angeles" seemed like antonyms, antipoles that were part of two different worlds. There are cities all over the planet with functioning rapid transit systems, subways and monorails and trains; and then there was Los Angeles, which seemed to exist outside the sphere of normal cities, an exception to the rule where cars reigned on the road and the most popular form of self expression was found on one's vanity plate or personalized license plate.
- In ancient Babylonia, where the first beer was supposedly made, they took the sudsy stuff so seriously that if you made a bad batch, you'd be drowned.
- The Vikings' version of heaven, Valhalla, was really a great meat and beer hall in the sky, complete with a giant goat whose udders spewed-you guessed it-beer.
- Light makes beer go bad, hence the reason one usually finds it in a tinted glass bottle. When exposed to prolonged light, beer gets a skunk-y smell (Corona, anyone?).
- The melody to the American national anthem, the "Star Spangled Banner," was taken from a beer drinking song. Seriously.
- Much of the corporate brewery beers from other countries that you might consume in the United States was either made in Canada or America.
Go to your local supermarket to buy pasta and you'll find about a dozen different shapes from which to choose. Travel from the ankle to the arch of the heel in Italy, though, and you'll find 150 different types. And those are just the pasta types that begin with the letter "C."
Each of Italy's 20 regions has a distinct cuisine. Pizza crust thickens and thins. Ingredients go in and out of certain sauces. Meat is cooked in entirely different ways. On the island of Pantelleria, for example, you'll find as much couscous on the menu of an Italian restaurant as you will pasta. In Sicily bread crumbs are an actual sauce you'll find in pasta. In Valle d'Aosta, in the Alpine north, you'll find fondue made with fontina cheese. Culinary diversity is one of the wonders of travel. And Italy is one of the best places to discover new food.
You thought you knew Italian cuisine? Not until you've traveled from Torino to Taranto. Here's a quick guide to some of Italy's best regional cuisine.