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Mysterious Vietnamese Noodle Dish Makes An Appearance In New York City

The most memorable, awkward meal of my life took place in an alleyway. Memorable for what I was about to eat, awkward because I was a 6-foot, 200-pound Westerner molded into a red, plastic child-sized chair, my knees rising above the matching table, like a Brobdingnagian who went on a walk and ended up in Hoi An, on the central coast of Vietnam, lost and hungry.

When an ancient woman in a conical hat placed a small bowl filled with noodles, pork and vegetables in front of me, I quickly forgot about my lumbering self or that I had crossed into a realm few other tourists here do; in a town crammed with Vietnamese restaurants that cater to Western tourists, these alleyway eateries are tucked away almost out of the view of most visitors.

I looked around: I was the only non-Vietnamese sitting at the dozen or so tables flanking the alley, and realized I had found the travelers' holy grail: authenticity. But that's not necessarily what had motivated me to wedge myself into this form-fitting chair. I was there to eat cao lau, an enigmatic noodle dish that I'd read about in an out-of-print book about Vietnamese cuisine.

I grabbed a pair of chopsticks and dug in.

The Best Street Food In Amsterdam

Tourists don't come to Amsterdam to eat. The Dutch city of debauchery attracts legions of travelers for other things – like, say, flowers or pretty paintings or twee canals – all of which build up quit an appetite. So one would think the city would have a flourishing street food scene to feed all these munchies-craving visitors. And not just in terms of availability but that some culinary entrepreneur would have realized this potential in the market and offer some seriously creative food (think state fair everything-on-a-stick cuisine or some variety on the theme of comfort food).

I recently found myself in Amsterdam with a sudden case of the munchies. After becoming hungry from ... um, looking at so much art (yeah, that's it), I wandered the city hoping to find something good to eat. I had to walk for a while, scouring the streets, peeking into storefronts, but I eventually found the best spots to quell my hunger.

Here, in no particular order, are best street bites in Amsterdam.

Where They Ate: Food Writers' Favorite Eating Experiences Of 2012

I get annoyed with myself when I eat a bad meal – especially at a restaurant. And even more so when I'm traveling. Such a waste of time and money and calories, I think. Yes, these are first-world problems but frustrating nonetheless.

Rather than meditate on the meals we'd prefer to forget, let's remember the ones we want to stick with us; the ones we wish wouldn't end; the one's we'd travel halfway around the globe to savor again.

This is the third year in a row I've asked chefs and food writers to compile their favorite meals of the previous year. (Read 2011 part 1 and part II and 2010 part I and part II.) I had such an overwhelming response this year, I broke the post into two. First chefs and now food writers.

Here are some of my favorite food writers' most memorable meals of 2012 (in alphabetical order).

Where They Ate: Chefs' Favorite Eating Experiences Of 2012

Two months ago I was at the New York Wine & Food festival. I happened to be walking by the main stage – where star chefs had been giving cooking demos all weekend – when the next chef was announced. When Guy Fieri hit the stage, the 200 or so people in the audience roared. They leapt to their feet. They fist pumped to the southern Rock that was blasting from the PA. And I stood there, my mouth agape, wondering when (if ever) will our veneration of chefs ever slow down.

Not that this reverence for food and the people who make it is necessarily a bad thing. But you have to admit, did anyone see this coming two decades ago? (You're lying if you say yes.) As someone who, um, eats food and also makes a living writing about it, I'm obviously elated with the phenomenon. And there's nothing more I like than hearing about where chefs eat when they're not in the kitchen. And so I recently got out my virtual Rolodex and asked some chefs where in the world they had their favorite eating experiences of 2012.

Amsterdam's Most Unusual Teacher

I first heard about Lieka from her boss. He runs a tour guide company in Amsterdam. And over beers, he listed the types of tours his company offers. "There are Red Light District tours, there are food tours and there are drinking tours."

"Oh yeah!" he said, "I also have a woman offer a workshop in giving oral sex to men."

That's when there was a record scratch across the heavens. Wait, what? It's for tour groups who want to do a little something different while in Amsterdam and it's for bachelorette parties. "It's really quite fun," he said. And then he mentioned the teacher was going to be stopping by his office – conveniently located next to the pub we were sitting in – and offered to introduce me.

And so, smack in the center of the Dutch metropolis and a herring's throw from the Red Light District, where packs of guys roam to gawk at the ladies in their little booths, I met with Lieka. An attractive brunette in her mid-20s, and as long as I wouldn't use her last name (or her photo), she kindly allowed me to interview her about her most unusual profession.

A Dead Duck In Amsterdam

There are parties and then there are parties in which one of the guests is standing in the corner caressing a dead mallard duck. Then again, this is Amsterdam and it's sometimes hard to tell if one is hallucinating from taking too much ... um, jetlag, or if, in this anything-goes city, people really do never leave home without their taxidermied animal.

I was visiting a friend in Amsterdam and we ended up at the opening party for the flashy new Andaz hotel there. The party, apparently, was filled with Dutch celebrities and some members of the country's royal family. It was also attended by the mayor and the hotel's designer, Marcel Wanders. There was a DJ spinning hip-hop and pop tunes. There were crazy (and apparently permanent) video art installations (like one of a girl jumping up and down on a hotel bed). There was great food. There were enough cocktails to drown in. But I just wanted to talk to the man with the dead duck.

Gadling Contributors' Favorite Restaurants Of 2012

I take pictures of my food at restaurants. Do you hate me now? Yeah, I thought so. I do it because I'm a food writer and I use the photos to jog my memory when I'm writing about a restaurant. But also sometimes I do it for the same reason a lot of other people do: because I'm so smitten with the taste of what I'm eating that I want something to take with me when the flavor has long disappeared from my palate. There's an anti-foodie backlash, that dismissive irony that hipsters gave to the world – the one that says: we can't be enthusiastic about anything and if we appear to look that way, it's just because we're being ironic.

Remember when you had to go to an Italian specialty shop to get olive oil? Or when the only tacos you could find were made of ground beef and impossible-to-melt cheddar cheese? No? Well, trust me. The year 2012 is a much better time to be a lover of food than the past decades. It's a good thing that we care about what we eat; that we want to know where it comes from; that we're supporting more farmers and fewer corporations. And it's okay to be so crazy about what you're eating that you can't help but snap a picture of your plate. Go ahead.

Below is a list – in alphabetical order – of Gadling writers' favorite restaurants of 2012. No word on if they snapped shots of their food. They did, though, leave very satisfied.

Stockholm's Spirit Museum, A Bizarre Museum

Sweden has a strange relationship with alcohol. After going through a period of prohibition in the early 20th century, booze officially resurfaced but under strict government control. Today, for example, you can only find three brands of vodka on store shelves: Absolut, Good ol' Sailor, and Explorer. If you want a more high-end variety – say, Karlsson or Purity – you'd have to find it in a bar or order it online.

Whatever the case, you might need a bit of vodka before visiting the new Spirit Museum, or as it's officially written, Spiritmuseum, in Stockholm. This is not a place dedicated to the ghoulish and ghostly; it's all about alcohol. You won't, though, learn much about the history of booze in Sweden. You won't learn, for example, that Swedish Protestants played a large role in implementing Prohibition in the United States. Or that in Sweden, a "bar," as we know it cannot exist: the establishment has to serve food. Or even that in the 1950s the Swedish government had ration books that kept track of how many bottles of booze you were purchasing

On The Insatiable Global Hunger For Italian Cuisine

Does the world really need another Italian restaurant? Apparently, yes. Every time an Italian restaurant opens up in New York City, I like to think that somewhere in the universe a puppy dog is wrapped in prosciutto, stuck with a giant toothpick and eaten. Well, not really. But as a denizen of the Big Apple, I'm continually amazed by the insatiable appetite New Yorkers have for Italian food. There's an Italian restaurant on nearly every block in the city. Or so it seems.

But it's not just New York. It's the entire United States. It's the entire planet, really. It wasn't always this way. Italian food outside of Italy was southern Italian fare that morphed into Italian-American fare, the now generally maligned cuisine that is often perceived as sloppy and goopy and unsophisticated. And before World War II, big cities in North America were sprinkled with Italian restaurants here and there. Pizzerias were blue-color taverns but the pizza pie hadn't really caught on yet.

But all that's changed, of course, as Italian restaurants have become nearly ubiquitous on the American dining landscape. Just how did Italian food conquer the world (to reference the title of a recent book on the subject)?

Notes on the Great Manhattan Blackout of 2012

The machine has stopped. The night after the hurricane took a bite out of the Big Apple, I lay in my West Village apartment dangerously close to three tea lights trying to read. I couldn't concentrate on the book, though. The silence was too distracting. I could feel myself descending into my own personal darkness. Without electricity, hot water, heat, and cellphone service, the loneliness ran deeper within me than anything I'd experienced in a very long time. Like there was an impenetrable fortress wall around me; a solitary confinement sort of alienation; or, worse, a purgatory-like solitariness, as if I'd been condemned to live in this blackened paralysis for the rest of my life.

It sounds dramatic, but the machine really had stopped, to paraphrase the title of a prophetic 1909 short story by E. M. Forster. The sci-fi tale is about a society in the future who lives underground and in isolation from one another; they communicate via instant message and video using something called "the speaking apparatus." Their quotidian existence, their very being, is totally dependent on this Kafka-esque machine – until one day it inexplicably stops and no one really knows what to do or how to interact with each other.

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