Cuba: Viñales: Cave, Cigars, Horseback Riding

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I booked a tour through Havana Journeys to check out Viñales. Our driver and tour guide were great! The car was air-conditioned and clearly well taken care of. Highly recommended!

Cuba

Coffee with that sugarcane.

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

Cave tour. $5.

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Cuba

Tobacco farm.

Cuba

Cuba

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Rode a horse. It was sad because the horses looked weak and skinny.

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Great view at this restaurant.

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Ropa Vieja again. Food was okay here; tourist prices.

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Back in Havana, dinner at Castropol:

Cuba

Seems like there are always great views at restaurants in Cuba.

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

 

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Cienfuegos, the Paris of Cuba

Cuba

The taxi driver that I booked came to pick us up in Trinidad and asked if we wanted to take a look at Cienfuegos, since it was on the way back to Havana. We pretty much had him for the whole day and could go wherever we wanted at no extra charge, so why not? Inside my head I was screaming with joy because I had researched about the city before, and it was nicknamed “the Paris of Cuba”.

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

Cuba

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The colonial town of Cienfuegos was founded in 1819 as a Spanish territory but was settled by immigrants of French origin. Since it was a coastal city, it became a trading place for sugar cane, tobacco and coffee. I love that there were so many beautiful buildings with French influence!

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My favorite building.

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Cuba

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There’s always music everywhere you go in Cuba.

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We walked into a random restaurant because we were hungry and wanted a sandwich.

Cuba

Cuba

It was just a cheap, simple sandwich with ham, cheese and… tuna?!?! That sandwich ended up to be one of the BEST things we ate on this trip. For some reason it just worked. We should’ve ordered more. It’s called El Palatino, in case you ever want to check it out!

Cuba

 

Back in Havana, we ate at an unlimited buffet place called Ana’s. It was recommended by our host and very affordable ($10 per person). All the meats were dry and salty… but the view of the Malecón was great. I would not recommend it.

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Cuba

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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!

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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.

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.

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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

Tanoshi (NYC)

Tanoshi offers one of the most affordable omakases in NYC, and it’s quite easy to make reservations online. I also love that it’s BYOB. For $99, you get 10 courses of amazing fresh fish, and you can add more if you want from their menu on the wall (which changes according to what’s in season).

Tanoshi

Tanoshi

Tanoshi

Tanoshi

Cherry trout

Tanoshi

Amberjack with cherry blossom leaf

Tanoshi

Sardine

Tanoshi

Botan with uni (one of my faves)

Tanoshi

Blue fin toro

Tanoshi

Tanoshi

XXX (FAVE)

Tanoshi

Tanoshi

Miso soup

Tanoshi

Tanoshi

Tanoshi

Additional courses that we ordered a-la-carte.

Tanoshi

Tanoshi

Salmon belly

Tanoshi

I had to get more of this!

Tanoshi

Yellowtail belly.

Tanoshi

Nakaochi

Tanoshi

Sea eel

Tanoshi

Crab brain

Tanoshi

 

Tanoshi
1372 York Ave
New York, NY 10021
b/t 73rd St & 74th St 
https://www.yelp.com/biz/tanoshi-sushi-sake-bar-new-york

Eleven Madison Park’s 11 course menu (2017)

It’s been one year since I last updated this blog. I guess I’ll get back to it and start off with food. Last year, Eleven Madison Park offered an 11-course retrospective tasting menu featuring signature dishes from the years it’s been opened, for a limited time only. Named “The World’s Best Restaurant” of 2017, I booked a table right away, since I had never been there. Pro tip: ask for a tour of the kitchen. They brought us to the back after the meal was over and mixed us dessert cocktails! That was probably the highlight of the entire meal for me.

Eleven Madison Park

Gougère with grated gruyere (2006)

Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park

Sea Urchin – cappuccino with peekytoe crab and cauliflower (2006)

Eleven Madison Park

Little neck clam – clambake with velouté and parker house rolls (2011)

Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park

Prawn roulade with avocado and yogurt (2007)

Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park

Foie gras torchon with maple syrup and pain d’epice (2004)

Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park

Carrot tartare with rye toast and condiments (2012)

Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park

You have to put in a little work here, mixing according to your liking.

Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park

Turbot poached zucchini and squash blossom (2007)

Eleven Madison Park

Winter in Provence – black truffle, celery root, potato and chèvre frais (2009)

Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park

Suckling pig confit with rhubarb, leeks and cipollini onion (2010)

Eleven Madison Park

Milk and honey with dehydrated milk foam and bee pollen (2010)

Eleven Madison Park

Chocolate palette with peanut butter and popcorn ice cream (2008)

Eleven Madison Park

More desserts.

Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park

Complimentary apple brandy at the end.

Eleven Madison Park

Goodie bag with the menu and granola.

Eleven Madison Park

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

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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”

Spain

Spain

Ceviche decontruction

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

Spain

Macaroni carbonara

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Spain

Liquid salad, anyone?

Spain

Spain

Langoustine “al ajillo”

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Red mullet with pork belly and eggplant gnocchi

Spain

Spain

Moroccan style pigeon

Spain

Dessert #1: mango sorbet sandwich

Spain

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

Spain

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.

Spain

Chocolateria San Gines for churros and hot chocolate

Spain

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.

Spain

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