Cuba: strolling through the streets of Trinidad

Cuba

I hired a taxi through BestCubaGuide.com. They emailed me to make the arrangements. The price for a Modern Taxi from Havana to Trinidad was 160cuc(160 USD) back in May of 2017.  We paid the driver directly in CUC. When the driver arrived, he had his wife/partner with him. He didn’t speak much English so we communicated in Spanish. Afterwards, I made arrangements with him directly to come back the next day to pick us up.

Cuba

Havana to Trinidad by car: 4-5 hours. In between, we stopped for a bathroom/snack break. Bought a hot dog for $1 and it tasted very strange… We saw a lot of local people getting it but it didn’t jive well with us.

Once we arrived at our casa (also through Airbnb, and I highly recommend this one!), our host Yacquelin presented us with ice cold fresh mango juice which was amazing. She didn’t speak English at all so we communicated through Spanish. For some reason, I understood her more than I understood the driver — maybe she was used to tourists so she spoke slower and used more simple vocabulary? Yacquelin was the perfect host.

Cuba

The casa was a house connected to their family-owned ceramics factory, where people took tours! You can also buy souvenirs here.

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

After our mini tour, Yacquelin helped us order a taxi to go hiking.

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We hiked to this waterfall and spent some time in the water.

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Our casa was about 15 minutes walking distance away from the city center (Plaza Mayor), so we walked through the neighborhood, which was interesting.

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My favorite part of the Cuba experience was live street music.

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What I noticed while walking through the neighborhood was that you can see through most homes and stores – there were no glass, no curtains. We saw family pictures, furniture, beds, people sitting on their couches watching television — everything could be seen from the outside. It was bizarre, like looking into someone else’s life. Passing through the neighborhood, we saw a lot of locals sitting in front of their houses just chatting and spending time with each other. It was nice to see that they weren’t on their phones typing away in silence, like we often see in the U.S. When we went back to our casa that night, we hung out on the balcony, sitting outside feeling the breezes, just like the local people. Even though it was hot, the breeze felt nicer than the AC.

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We encountered a couple of local Cuban people who asked us for our “things” — my friend’s plastic wrist band, my pusheen keychain hanging off my bag, in exchange for some goods that they were selling. It broke my heart when a father of a little boy begged and said “please, we can never get it here…” A little girl asked my friend defiantly for his wrist band, and her mother said it was her birthday (the father of the little boy also pulled the birthday card). We got the feeling that it was a common thing to do — foreigners would give away “things”, just little things that we usually don’t even notice, but they would treasure them because it was nearly impossible for them to get them. They never asked for money, just things.

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Our host recommended this restaurant, Esquerra – right next to Casa de la Musica, and they had a live band too!

Cuba

Complimentary drinks.

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Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

Ropa Vieja

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Flan

Cuba

Casa de la musica at night.

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Casa de la musica during the day time.

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Staying at a casa meant home-cooked breakfast for $5! Our breakfast here was the best meal we had in retrospect. Yacquelin prepared all this for four of us. I LOVED THE FRESH MANGOES.

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Trinidad was my favorite part of Cuba. Definitely worth the trek.

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New York to Havana, my Cuba trip (Part 1)

The Basics: 
Non-stop flight from JFK to HAV (back in May 2017): $272.56 USD
Visa: $50 USD

At JFK, there was a level below the general check-in floor just for Cuba check-ins. We paid for our visas there right before our flight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Money Exchange:
– $1=1CUC, but if you use USD to exchange, there’s a 10% penalty. We bought euros from the bank beforehand to exchange.
– US debit/credit cards do not work
– Some places will take USD if you run out of CUCs
– You can exchange money at Cadecas, which we did
– We were planning to exchange money at the airport, but the counter was empty and this well dressed taxi driver approached us and said he would take us to cadecas in the city and then to our airbnb for 30 CUC (=$30). He was helpful and did not kidnap us.
– Be careful when you buy with CUC (the foreigners currency), they might be priced at CUP (the local currency). We also found that some places add 1 cuc to whatever you’re buying for no reason at all so check your change! We didn’t bother arguing for 1 cuc but it was inconsistent. There’s no tax so there’s no reason to pay extra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuba

WiFi:
Unless you stay in a fancy hotel, internet will only be available at government sanctioned hotspots, usually public parks (you will see everyone sitting/standing around on their phones together and then you know there’s wifi). To access the internet, you need to buy access cards (1 hour increments) from the kiosks (maximum 2 per person per purchase) You must have ID (passport or driver’s license) to purchase the card.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuba

We saw buildings like this everywhere in Centro Habana, where we stayed at a casa particular (via Airbnb). The host was great and spoke English, and we were lucky to have working AC which some places did not. We did run out of water for a couple of days because it was being rationed.

 

 

Cuba

 

 

 

Cuba

In Havana, you can get around by taking taxi or just walking — taxis are everywhere and easy to catch; just ask for a price beforehand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuba

Cuba

 

 

 

 

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Local grocery store.

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Entering La Guarida, a Paladar.

Cuba

Food was just ok but the building itself was amazing, beautiful and some parts looked dilapidated, almost felt a bit forlorn.

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Malecón at sunset.

 

 

 

 

 

 

For updated rules and tips on traveling to Cuba as a U.S. citizen, check this site.

 

Texas road trip: Dallas & Austin

DALLAS highlights

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  1. Walk around Deep Ellum: a neighborhood that is quirky and has lots of wall murals everywhere.

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2) Get a donut from Glazed Donut Works 

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3) Get BBQ from Pecan LodgeGet here when it opens! Beef rib is where it’s at. One of the best BBQs I’ve ever had. Also got brisket but man, that giant beef rib is SO worth it! We got there at opening time and there was already a congregation of hungry people waiting around.

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BEEF RIB.

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*A little out of the way, but if you’re in the neighborhood, stop by 9 Rabbits Bakery.

On the way to Austin, there is a stop in between that’s called Czech Stop. Open 24/7, they sell kolaches which are these:

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AUSTIN highlights

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1)  Hamilton Pool Preserve such a cool place with a waterfall and places to sit and chill. $15 per car (cash). Plenty of parking. The day we went there, the water had high levels of bacteria so we were not allowed to go in. Would’ve loved to dive right in!

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2) Salt Lick BBQ was one of the highly recommended bbq places but kinda out of the way. We still made it though! They also helped us take pictures in front of the meats that were being smoked.

3) Next, we have LA BARBECUE (Fave of the trip!!!) — I preordered via email and they didn’t have a weight minimum like Franklin’s, so it was pretty easy. We got there at opening time and there was already a huge line wrapped around a few times, but I walked right up to the window to pick up my meats. #winning

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Again, BEEF RIB IS WHERE IT’S AT.

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4) Barton Creek Greenbelt – turns out there’s some hiking in Austin.

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5) Go for sunrise at the Austin 360 Bridge aka Pennybacker Bridge A short 5-10 minute hike up to the overlook.

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6) Check out the graffiti walls at Hope Outdoor Gallery

Barcelona: Disfrutar – Best Meal Ever? (Feb 2017)

Spain

Making a reservation at Disfrutar (in English meaning “Enjoy”) was super easy — I used their website to book in advance. They hold one Michelin star right now, but I believe they deserve more. It was reminiscent of Alinea in Chicago, where I first experienced the world of molecular gastronomy. When we arrived at the restaurant, I instantly felt the warmth from our host, who received us and gave us a quick tour that eventually led to our table. Every single person who served us was welcoming and explained everything clearly.

Spain

You can choose between the Classic Menu or the Festival Menu, and both featured an option for 20 or 25 courses. I went with the “Classic” since it was my first time there and I wanted to experience it as a newbie. Of course, I had to get the wine pairing with my meal.

Spain

Spain

Frozen cocktail with passionfruit, rum & coffee

Spain

Lychee and roses with gin

Spain

The beet that comes out of the land

Spain

Spain

Spain

Salted candy walnuts with mango, tonka beans and whisky

Spain

“Multipescadito frito” with fresh trout roe

Spain

Spain

These were NOT olives! They were made of hard chocolate shells filled with soft chocolate inside. SO surprisingly tasty. One of my favorites and it looks so simple! Together with the olive oil and bread, they worked quite beautifully. Amazing.

Spain

Mille-feuille of Idiazabal

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Spain

Crispy egg yolk with mushrooms gelatine

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Perfectly crispy on the outside, runny egg yolk on the inside

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Spain

Mushroom “dumplings”

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Spain

Ceviche decontruction

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This was my favorite wine of the meal, tastes like… mushrooms?!

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Macaroni carbonara

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Spain

Liquid salad, anyone?

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Spain

Langoustine “al ajillo”

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Red mullet with pork belly and eggplant gnocchi

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Spain

Moroccan style pigeon

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Dessert #1: mango sorbet sandwich

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Dessert #2: Cheesecake cornet

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Spain

Dessert #3: Chocolate peppers, oil and salt – another mind game, these were not peppers at all!

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Favorite dessert of the meal: Cotton of cocoa and mint — the waiter had to point out which were the real cotton and which were candy, and we picked them off the stem to eat! Really tasty, loveeeeeed the mint!

I loved this meal so much! Everything from start to finish was a delightful surprise, and I hope to go again the next time I’m in Barcelona. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Madrid: Where to eat & run (Feb 2017)

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Madrid airport. I was in love with the architecture here already.

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Plaza Mayor at sunrise.

Many people told me I should spend more time in Barcelona and that I would like it more, but they were wrong. Not that I didn’t like Barcelona, but I feel like Madrid is underrated. I loved Madrid for its old cobblestone streets, the architecture, the random flower shops, the huge park where I went for a sunrise jog, and all the colors and history.

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Spain

Spain

Spain

Spain

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CaixaForum 

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Spain

Templo de Debod

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Mercado de San Miguel was a food hall with lots of vendors selling jamon, wine, tapas, and I loved it. I loved walking around trying out different things.

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Spain

Tapas for 1 Euro each!

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Spain

Jamon everywhere.

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Spain

A glass of wine was only 1 Euro more than water, so I ordered wine everywhere I went.

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Chocolateria San Gines for churros and hot chocolate

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Spain

Street XO, a casual hip gastronomic restaurant whose menu features these:

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StreetXO is Chef David Muñoz’s more casual and affordable restaurant. We waited for maybe 15 minutes before getting a seat at the bar where we got to see the chefs work right in front of us.

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Spain

PORK BELLAYYYY! All of their dishes were creative and the decor reminded me of a Willy Wonka world.

And amazing, unique cocktails:

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Spain

Suckling pig at Botin, “oldest restaurant in the world” — tourist destination

Spain

Rioja is a must.

Spain

Of course I played around with some nighttime photography.

On my sunrise jog the next morning, I stumbled upon a glass palace inside el Parque del Retiro:

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Loved the details.

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This park reminded me of Central Park in NYC. I loved running solo here, and I felt safe. I used my offline Google Map (that I downloaded ahead of time) to get from the hotel in Plaza Mayor to here (~1.5 miles) and back. Highly recommended if you like to run on vacation.

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Sunrise + rainbow!

 

 

Travelogue: Nashville (Dec 2016)

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

BEST THING ABOUT NASHVILLE? HATTIE B’S HOT CHICKEN! Go there go there go there go there go there. We went twice on this trip and we only had 2 days!

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

We went to Puckett’s as per my coworker’s recommendation — I love how there’s always a live band at restaurants here!

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

After dinner we headed over to Honky Tonk Central because it’s the most touristy thing to do and we had to check it off the list!

It was actually pretty chill there, we grabbed some beers and sat down near the stage — the music was so good I didn’t want to leave.

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Biscuit Love for breakfast. SO MUCH GRAVY.

Had a tour of the Belle Meade Plantation (photos not allowed inside) and ended up buying wine from their wine tasting!

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Acme Feed & Seed — another casual restaurant with a live band.

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Food was mediocre, but what we were REALLY here for was the rooftop view. Take the stairs all the way up for it!

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

We HAD to get more hot chicken.

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Bolton’s spicy chicken & fish.

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

THESE RIBS WERE FINGERLICKING GOOD.

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

The hot chicken here was hotter than Hattie B’s. Be warned. Not as juicy as Hattie B’s though.

Next — Pepperfire Hot Chicken. Even hotter! But we still concluded that Hattie B’s was #1!

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

That’s it for our short/long-weekend trip to Atlanta & Nashville!

I loved Nashville for its live music, hot chicken and wall murals!

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Travelogue: en route to Nashville (Dec 2016)

Chattanooga!

On the way from Atlanta to Nashville, we stopped by this town for the night.

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Champy’s boasted having the best fried chicken in town. I only went to one here, so I would agree.

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

There’s a huge parking lot but there were no spots! So we parked across the street, which is not bad at all. It’s a very casual Southern diner kind of place.

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Clumpies featured a lot of unique ice cream flavors like sweet potato casserole… very interesting.

Next morning, we went to Maple Street Biscuit Company for… well, biscuits.

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

After we fueled up on food, we drove about an hour and 40 minutes to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery for some whiskey tasting.

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

It’s strange because this county is “dry”, but you can taste alcohol here. According to Wiki, “while it is legal to distill the product within the county, it is illegal to purchase it there. However, a state law has provided one exception: a distillery may sell one commemorative product, regardless of county statutes.”

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Next up — Nashville!

Travelogue: Atlanta (Dec 2016)

Long weekend means road trip time! We flew into Atlanta and began there.

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

I’ve always wanted to go to the largest aquarium in the U.S. — the Georgia Aquarium.

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

It reminded me of the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, which to this day remains my favorite (for blog post on that, click here).

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Next to the aquarium is the World of Coca-Cola.

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

With the admission fee, you get a “free” coke at the start of the tour:

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Here you can test out all the flavors of Coca-cola products from all the continents in the world.

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

After loading up on excessive sugar, we went to eat some BBQ because Atlanta.

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Twin Smokers BBQ

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

The brisket was good but the BEST part was their DINOSAUR RIB!

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

The picture does not do it justice. And also the corn souffle (SO GOOD):

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

 

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Ponce City Market reminded me of Chelsea Market in NYC, with lots of food options and retailers selling hipster things:

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

The “Beltline” also reminded me of the Highline in NYC, attached to Ponce City Market like the Highline is attached to Chelsea Market.

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

I saw a lot of people riding bikes here.

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

And of course, the main reason for coming here was for the wall murals nearby:

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Dinner at King + Duke:

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

My chartreuse!

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Bone marrow and amazing steak.

After dinner, we went to the Ivy for drinks and met up with a friend from college.

Of course I had to do a long exposure night shot of the city skyline:

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

Next morning, we went to grab some amazing banh mi for $3 (SO FAST AND SO CHEAP):

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

GET THE BANH MI DAC BIET!!!!!!!!!

It’s located inside an Asian shopping center which means lots of parking space and bakeries.

Tea House Formosa for bubble tea:

Atlanta & Nashville 2016

And that was it for Atlanta! It was a fun 1.5 day(s?) there, lots of good food and wall murals, kinda rushed because we were short on time. We could’ve eaten more fried chicken there. Next, we head to Chattanooga on the way to Nashville, Tennessee!

LA: Santa Anita hiking & eating (Nov 2016)

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Started off the morning with some baked goods from Duke Bakery. Their buns are huge. Look!

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They’re like buns for giants.

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We drove to Santa Anita Canyon.

Los Angeles 2016

Los Angeles 2016

Los Angeles 2016

Pretty easy hike to the waterfall (note: since there is a drought, there is a very little stream and not as much water as it used to have). Only 1.8 miles to Sturtevant Falls!

Los Angeles 2016

Los Angeles 2016

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Los Angeles 2016

Los Angeles 2016

Los Angeles 2016

After hiking, we went to the Westfield Santa Anita mall nearby for food.

Los Angeles 2016

Side Chick had these Hainanese chicken over rice, but what I really liked was their soy sauce egg… The yolk was golden. I can’t stop thinking about it. I’d come here just to order some eggs.

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Los Angeles 2016

Los Angeles 2016

Los Angeles 2016

Also inside the mall is Sweet Lab, which makes nitro ice cream and cereal balls infused with nitro.

Los Angeles 2016

“Dragon’s breath”

Los Angeles 2016

 

LA: Arts District, Korean ice cream, and finding angel wings (Nov 2016)

Uber and Lyft were SO cheap in LA (compared to NY). If you want to avoid looking endlessly for parking or spending a lot of money on parking garages, just take an Uber. I took one to Downtown LA.

Los Angeles 2016

Chimney Coffee House.

Los Angeles 2016

BEST. BURGER. EVER. They call this the “Rogue”.

Los Angeles 2016

The “Rogue” sandwich has 2 eggs in it. TWO. Scrambled eggs and thai style fried egg, separated by juicy sage-black truffle pork sausage, cheddar crisp (omg crispy cheese), and sriracha yuzu mayo on a toasted house made milk bun. This combo is bomb. I was amazed at how all the flavors complemented each other and surprised my tongue at every bite.

After that, I was stuffed, but I had to get ice cream at Ihwamun.

Los Angeles 2016

I got the citron and ingeolmi (their signature flavor). They’re known for their Korean flavors — try Choco Pie! Their matcha is also really good. Some of the best ice cream I’ve had.

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I always seek out wall murals wherever I go.

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The Arts District Co-Op reminded me of Chelsea market in NY. Lots of vendors selling their own unique clothing and jewelry.

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Finally found my wings.

After that, I took an Uber to Rowland Heights (20 bucks for 1 hour in traffic, crazy affordable right?!?!) and serendipitously found another set of wings.

Los Angeles 2016

Zero Degrees.

Los Angeles 2016

Boba ice cream.

Los Angeles 2016

LOVE the unique bubble tea flavors here, and they come in a glass bottle as an option (+$1.50). Everything is so fresh and they don’t use powder.

Los Angeles 2016

Water drop cake with matcha.

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Next up, Korean food at Junkabok by Mokkoji.

Los Angeles 2016

They offer 3 set menus in addition to a la carte options: the Piglet, the Piggy, and the Pigzilla. I got the Pigzilla, of course.

It comes with: small stew or hot stone + small BBQ dish + seafood pancake + braised pork cartilage. It’s enough food for 3-5 people…

Los Angeles 2016

Los Angeles 2016

Los Angeles 2016

Los Angeles 2016

Los Angeles 2016

SOOOOO GOOOOOOD.