The Finger Post Travel: Looking for the quintessential Los Angeles sandwich (April 15-18, 2019)


The Finger Post Travel (May 24, 2019)

 

If you’ve never watched Mark Wiens YouTube channel you are really missing out on something special. This guy is living the life: he just travels the world and posts videos of him eating food. Nothing else, but damn if he isn’t the culinary version of cat videos: you don’t know why, but you can’t help but enjoy the simplicity of it. Although he seems like a really down to earth guy, the biggest appeal of his videos is that he really, really loves food. I mean, when he bites into something you can tell it is truly a magical experience with him. Sure, I love good food but after watching Mark Wiens bite into a BBQ rib in Phoenix I realized that he takes food love to another’s level.  He’s the quirky guy from the romantic comedy who overcomes his fear of heights to get on an airplane and profess his love for Sandra Bullock before she marries Billy Zane. I’m Homer Simpson buying Marge a bowling ball for her birthday.

But I digress, this isn’t about YouTube food videos, it’s about the City of Angels.  After watching Wiens go on a food tour of Los Angeles I realized that I had never really appreciated the culinary scene of LA. I mean, I lived in Los Angeles County, but with a vibrant Korean culinary scene in Rowland Heights (where I lived) I was seldom tempted to go outside my comfort zone and usually elected to eat at one of the exceptional Korean or Chinese restaurants in that city.

But after watching Wiens take a bite out of a pastrami sandwich at Langer’s Delicatessen I realized I had been missing a lot the city had to offer…

and I was determined not to make the same mistake again.

So when I visited LA last month I knew that Langer’s was at the top of my list of places I had to try.  The more I researched it the more I realized how much I had to try the #19.  Some foodies said it was the second best pastrami sandwich in America (next to Katz’s Delicatessen in New York City , which I also overlooked when I was in New York City in December of last year, another mistake I sorely regret).

But there was also Philippe The Original, birthplace of the French dip sandwich  (or so they claim). The French dip was born much like many legendary sandwiches were: by accident. Legend has it that in 1918 the original owner, Philippe Mathieu, dropped a  French roll into a roasting pan full of juices from a roast. It seemed to be a common theme in the early part of the 20th century: legendary sandwiches being born when some restaurant owner dropped something and then went ahead and sold it. Some might have some suspicion over the origin story of the French dip, after all, about the same time that the French dip was born Mexicans would be introduced to another similar accidental sandwich with an identical origin story in: the torta ahogada.  But although it may be difficult to separate truth from myth with the French dip, I tend to embrace the John Ford school of thought when it comes to culinary history: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend

Nothing is too good for the man who dropped the sandwich in the roasting pan.

So after a late drop off at LAX I decided to give the original French dip sandwich a try. After all, even if it was the first that doesn’t mean it was the best. Hell, there might be a Wrath of Khan French dip somewhere in America that has blown Philippe’s out of the water.

But after having tried the Original French dip sandwich I have a hard time believing I’d find a better one anywhere else. No,  The was the original Jaws, and I had been living my whole life on a steady diet of Jaws the Revenge.  I came in right before closing and was blown away by the atmosphere of the place…but above all by the sandwich itself. The bread was perfectly flaky and the hot mustard there might just be the best condiment I ever had at a restaurant.

I have to hand it to Mark Wiens, his enthusiasm for this establishment was well placed.

But the best was yet to come.

The following day was going to be my opportunity to try another LA institution in Langer’s Delicatessen, home of what was called back best hot pastrami sandwich on the west coast (and to some, the best on the planet).  Outside of Katz’s in New York, this was suppose to be the best.

Well, all I can say is that Katz’s will have to bring its A-game when I visit New York again because I really have a hard time envisioning I will ever have a better sandwich than the pastrami sandwich I got there.

Seriously, this wasn’t just the best pastrami sandwich I ever had  this might have been the best sandwich I ever had period.

At $18.95 the sandwich wasn’t what I would call cheap (although I heard you can easily drop $30 for a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s in New York) but it is still very much worth every penny. That first bite isn’t something everyone should experience at least once in their life, it’s that amazing of an experience.

But there was one more stop I had to make…one more sandwich I needed to try.  Watching food videos on YouTube can easily lead you down the culinary rabbit hole.  One click leads to a recommendation of another.  And then another  and before long you are convinced you need to try a steak cooked with a sous-vide, ribs cooked in a insta-pot, something sweet for the kids, and to try and make the Armenian version of pastrami: basturma.

I watched a few videos of different people making basturma and it looked very much like a labor of love.  Soaking the beef in salt water for over a week, putting a rock on it to drain it of the remaining water, and then after several days letting it cure for another week meant that I needed to commit to almost a month before I couldn’t try this dish (that I never ate before and had no idea if I would like).  But the YouTube videos made it seem like something I should try and I began prepping.  My homemade basturma would be ready the week I returned…but I wanted some authentic basturma to compare.  As I say and looked at my basturma in cheesecloth curing in my kitchen I just didn’t have faith that I hadn’t mess it up and I wanted my first taste of basturma to be legit.

And was going to be just a few miles away from Little Armenia in Los Angeles.

Yeah, this was an opportunity I wasn’t about to pass up.

So I made my way to Sahag’s Basturma, which was the only place I could find in America that had Basturma in its name.  I was about to try basturma for the first time.  In fact, I was going to try Armenian food for the first time, and although Sahag’s was more of a grocery store than a restaurant, it still seemed a great way to start off.

The staff at Sahag’s seemed reserved and polite, but not even remotely interested in this American’s story of trying basturma for the first time.  After giving me a free sample I realized that basturma is…an acquired taste.  It was a bit salty and the seasoning (called chaman) was a bit overpowering (something I realized since my house smelled like chaman.)

I ordered a pound of basturma for $18 to take home and figured I’d try it cooked.  It was advised to fry it with scrambled eggs and I was not willing to close the book on basturma just yet.  And it was a good thing I did because basturma really, really compliments scrambled eggs nicely.  It was an excellent breakfast and with some Bulgarian cheese it made for a decent sandwich with some lavesh bread as well.

And I also discovered something else by getting some LA basturma:

I really suck at making basturma.

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The Finger Post Travel: Ollantaytambo, Peru (November 5, 2018)

The Finger Post Travel (February 2, 2019)

 

You sometimes can’t help but wonder if Ollantaytambo has a Laughlin, Nevada problem.  It is an amazing archaeological site.  In any other country in Latin America it would be the highlight of any tourist’s visit and probably featured prominently on their currency.   Just like if you threw Laughlin in any other State other than Nevada it probably would be a pretty cool town that would be a favorite weekend getaway for locals and maybe even a bit of a tourist draw.  At the very least it wouldn’t be the butt of jokes.  But when your just a (sort of) cool little casino town less than 100 miles from Las Vegas you just never get a fair shake.  You just can’t ever get out of your big brother’s shadow.

Yeah, Ollantaytambo is sort of like that.

Almost always ignored by the thousands of tourists making their way to Machu Picchu, the town of Ollantaytambo seldom gets more than a cursory glance as the tourists make their way to the train station where their Peru Rain train to Machu Picchu Pueblo (aka Aguas Calientes) departs.

I know on my first visit to Peru I spent just enough time in Ollantaytambo to get to the train station and didn’t spend any time touring the only remaining inhabited Incan town…or the Archeological Ruins of Ollantaytambo (a former military, agricultural, and religious center). The city of Ollantaytambo was the scene of fierce fighting between the Spanish and the Incans in 1537 and much of the complex (and town) was subsequently damaged. But even if not as well preserved as Machu Picchu it was of considerably more importance and considerably more important historically.  And considering my father and I both planned to visit some of the sites in Cusco, we knew that the 130 sols (or about $40 USD) for a “”Boleto Turistico del Cusco” (tourist ticket of Cusco) would be a good investment. The toursit ticket of Cusco is a ticket that allows you to enter sixteen different toursit sites in the greater Cusco area, with Ollantaytambo being the most notable. What was most promising was that the tourist tickets of Cusco were available for sale at the entrance of the ruins, something that didn’t seem to be always the case according to other bloggers (although they only took cash payment). We purchased our tickets at the front and soon made our way up the stairs to the Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun), which remains one of the most impressive sites in the Sacred Valley despite the fact that much of the Temple was destroyed in 1537.



From the top of the stairs the views of the town (and the terraces along the stairs) were amazing, and it was enough to prompt me to expand my visit to include Inka Watana.

 

Inka Watana was a, well, I’m not sure what it was but it was the highest point at Ollantaytmbo and included a 45-minute hike up the side of the mountain on a narrow dirt path.  Although time was a concern once I reached the top I was happy with our decision.  It was quiet, peaceful, and well worth it just for the view.



Our return down the path included a pass through the Military Zone and Qolqas before we took a tour of the Inka Misana near the entrance.

The whole tour look less than three hours and that was taking our time to admire the site.  Again, I can’t help but think this would have been the highlight in any other country…but it Peru it was just a side trip folks did on their way to Machu Picchu.  But if you do find yourself at the train station at Ollantaytambo waiting for your Peru Rail train to Machu Picchu Pueblo someday, take a few minutes to tour where the Incan Empire made it’s final stand against the Spanish…and admire what will be the second most breathtaking place you’ll visit in Peru.

 

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The Finger Post Travel: Vicksburg Mississippi (May 27, 2018)

The Finger Post Travel (December 28, 2018)

With the long Martin Luther King Jr. weekend coming up I wanted to revisit one of the many “weekend road trips” I’ve taken over the past few years and in particular my trip last year to Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Right off the bat, Vicksburg is a must for any Civil War history buff (which I classify myself as).  But it also is a great location to get your first taste of Mississippi.  Vicksburg seems to find that perfect balance of Southern charm, living history, and a moderately hip night life.  And let’s be honest, Mississippi takes it’s lumps in the important game of public perception, and Vicksburg will help you revisit any preconceived notions about the state that reportedly earned a dubious reputation for finishing last in every survey of American states.  I’m not sure how true that is but I reckon there is a reason Wikipedia added a page on the phrase “Thank God for Mississippi“.   Sure there were some supporters yelling against the storm (Johnny Cash and June Carter did make me want to go to Jackson after one particularly depressing break up) and The Charlie Daniels Band did strategically place a lyrical homage to the state right after “Devil Went Down to Georgia” on their Million Mile Reflections album.  But Charlie Daniels and Johnny Cash aside, there isn’t a lot of praise heaped on Mississippi.  Although I drove through Mississippi once before I didn’t spend enough time to challenge that preconception.

Which made Vicksburg so refreshing.

I won’t say it felt like a college town, but the young people wandering the streets of Downtown Vicksburg certainly was proof that this was a vibrant town for young Mississippians.  Cool and hip but with a bluesy undertone that we northerners simply could never duplicate (well, maybe Chicago, but nobody else).  Vicksburg was quite simply a fun little town.

But then again, I didn’t see much of the town so maybe I should add that caveat.  I arrived somewhat late and decided to stop off for a quick snack and drink at the Cottonwood Public House.  It was a quite place, and I had just missed the live show from Randy Cohen, a blues musician from New Orleans.  But I grabbed one of his CDs and I will say this, if you’re ever in New Orleans and he’s playing somewhere…you’d be wise to stop there and check it out.

But my friend and I didn’t drive across Texas and Louisiana to hear blues music…we came to see the battlefield.

The following day we made our way to the Vicksburg National Military Park, a 1800 acre national park where a bloody 47-day battle that saw Union General Ulysses S. Grant capture the city from Confederate defenders in 1863.

Actually, battle isn’t a good way to describe it.  It was a siege.  And if you are someone who enjoys visiting Civil War Battlefields then Vicksburg should be at the top of your list.  Because it is really unlike any other Civil War Battlefield.  When visiting Gettysburg or Bull Run or Fredricksburg you can’t help but feel the battle for what it was…two armies throwing everything they had at each other in an attempt to destroy the enemy.  When you visit the Vicksburg National Military Park you can’t help but feel something different.  This was a battlefield that felt disjointed and confusing and spread out.  It felt like a powerful army bogged down by a determined, but outgunned, adversary.  It felt like the battle lines owed more to chance than to strategy.

It felt like modern war.

Unlike other battlefields Vicksburg is seen from the car, where 16 miles of road snake across the old Union and Confederate front lines. Much of the battlefield is also peppered with numerous monuments (over 1,300 in total) from all of the states that took part in the battle.


 

Two antebellum homes are also on the tour, as well as the U.S.S. Cairo, one of the first Ironclad warships that was sunk on December 12, 1862 in the Yazoo River.  The Cairo, having been raised in October of 1964 and been opened officially to the public in 1980 the Cairo is a fascinating snapshot of naval warfare in the Civil War. But since being raised the Cairo has suffered from the elements…and one can’t help but wonder how much longer she will be able to hang on as a living museum.

In the end Vicksburg was an amazing and powerful way to spend a Memorial Day…and it remains one of the most powerful Civil War battlefields you can visit.

 

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The Finger Post Travel: Panama City, Panama…more than a hub? (October 29-November 2, 2018)

The Finger Post Travel (November 19, 2018)

 

PTY…Tocumen International Airport just outside of Panama City, Panama.  Nobody who flies anywhere in Latin America can avoid it.  It’s the major hub for Copa Airlines (which makes it the major hub for United Airlines for anyone flying anywhere in Latin America with United).

Needless to say, I have had more than my share of layovers in Panama City.  But the city, and the country, had always escaped me.  Back in 2012 with an overnight layover at PTY I was able to explore the city somewhat.  But it was a rush job, and I didn’t really feel that I really saw the city (although my cab driver did show me a few sites that were off the beaten track like the house John McCain use to live in).  I saw the Panama Canal from the side of the road at a rest stop and the rest of the sites…well, I saw those from the taxi cab.

But with the 31st Annual WBO Boxing Convention being held in Panama City this year I was given a rare opportunity: the chance to really visit the elusive city whose charm I always brushed up against but had yet to experienced.

And my take?

Well, it’s one hell of an airport.

I know, I know…I usually am not such a Debbie Downer.  And right off the bat, the WBO Convention was an absolute knockout.  Hosted by the Hotel El Panama I couldn’t ask for a better locale for a boxing convention.  And seeing local boy Jason Sanchez win the WBO Youth Title in Panama City while sitting a row over from “Manos De Piedra” Roberto Duran was a memory that I won’t forget anytime soon.

But at the end of the day Panama City itself felt a little like an Epcot Center exhibit of what a Latin American city was suppose to feel like.  Panama was clean…too clean.  It was prosperous…but somewhere between the Trump Towers and the skyscrapers and international banks I couldn’t help but wonder is something had been lost.  Because in some ways Panama City felt like Miami.  A big, thriving economic powerhouse with a McDonald’s and a Starbucks on every corner and lots of traffic.  A typical big city.  But a city that in many ways was a cookie cutter copy of so many other big cities.

But then again, it is easy for me to say that.  For the Panamanians who are benefiting from  the economic prosperity and growth there is probably no complaints.  After all, Panama and Costa Rica are the two most successful and prosperous Central American nations.  While Nicaragua teeters on Civil War and Honduras sees thousands of refugees flee their nation Panama sits back and enjoys nearly 6% annual growth and a GDP per capita of over $24,000 per citizen according to the IMF.  Considering both Honduras and Nicaragua are hovering around $5,000 you can understand how Panama is a nation on the rise and an economic powerhouse of the region.

Maybe that is the price to pay for economic growth and one of the highest standards of living in Latin America: a certain loss of uniqueness.

My time in Panama City was admittedly spent mostly at the Hotel El Panama where I covered the events associated with the World Boxing Organization convention, but I did get an opportunity to visit some of the sites in the city.  Most notably I had two visits to the Miraflores Locks and the Panama Canal.  I went with my father and I couldn’t help but think about my grandfather when we went.  It was well known in my family how my grandfather loved to see the Soo Locks whenever he was up in   Sault Sainte Marie. Michigan.  He would find a bench on the river and sit down and just enjoy the modern marvel that was the locks.  I couldn’t help but feel like my grandfather was with us as we made our way to the Miraflores Locks…to the worlds most famous locks.

Until we got there and we discovered that at least half of Panama was with us at the locks.  Sadly, the Miraflores Locks are designed for functionality…not tourism.  And the small museum, theater, and viewing deck just can’t handle the number of tourist wanting to see one of the great wonders of the world.

We paid $30 for dual tickets which allowed us to also see the Biomuseo (Biomuseum) located near the Amador Causeway, which was also listed as one of Panama City’s “must see” attractions.  Sadly, I was tied up with my report on the third day of the convention and we didn’t get to the Biomuseo until five minutes after they closed.  Still, the guide gave us a nice tour of the outside of the building and some of the history of the region.  And from the museum we were able to briefly walk down the causeway and take in an amazing view of both the Bridge of the America’s and of the City itself.

With the sun coming down we made a quick stop to the old town (Casco Viejo) which ultimately  felt like a somewhat less impressive version of dozens of other old towns I visited in Latin America.

Even our visit to the Multicentro Mall seemed underwhelming.  The Mall was deserted, as was the one Casino we went inside…and I couldn’t help but wonder if Panama City had reached that point in economic development where Amazon replaced Best Buy.

But still, I was glad I got the chance to see Panama City up close.  I met Roberto Duran there and saw a side of Latin America that we don’t often see: the prosperous and vibrant Latin American city.  The Latin America that has, much like us, found comfort in uniformity.

 

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The Finger Post Travel: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters in Mostar, Bosnia (July, 2004)

The Finger Post Travel (November 18, 2018)

I realize I may be two weeks late, but it occurred to me that we just passed a very dubious anniversary earlier this month.  November 9, 1993…twenty five years ago.  On that date we witnessed what would go on to be perhaps the most iconic image of the Bosnian Civil War: the destruction of the Stari Most Bridge in Mostar.

Admittedly I’ve already posted about my view that we sometimes ignore the suffering of people in a civil war when it doesn’t affect us.  In those instances it is the destruction of a building, a historic site, or a bridge, that seems to rile us into action…or at least get us to care.

It was Bosnia where I first noticed this phenomenon.  As a youth I remembered a photo of what appeared to be a Nazi concentration camp on the cover of a 1992 issue of Time Magazine.  And yes there was anger and outrage…but ultimately it was followed by inaction.

But when Croat rebels destroyed the Stari Most Bridge in Mostar the following year it seemed to be a turning point.  A moment in which the world collectively started to say “we have to do something.”  Sure it took three more years for the war to actually end (and less than one year for the Croats and Bosniaks to reach a settlement) but there was something different about the outrage over that bridge.

As a kid I suddenly knew about the legendary Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, whose student (Mimar Hayruddin) who built the bridge in the 1560s.  I suddenly became a student of that bridge.  And yet it wasn’t until years after the war that I would learn the history of Harush Ziberi, whose fearful face in an iconic photo would haunted me for years.   I didn’t know his name or his story, but to me this was the face of the Bosnian Civil War…and sadly his story, unlike the story of the Bridge in Mostar, would not have a happy ending.  Ziberi, I would discover years later, was executed by the Serb paramilitaries that captured him shortly after this photo was taken.

Photo by Ron Haviv
Photo by Ron Haviv

But the Bridge would be rebuilt.  The tourist would come back to watch young men jump into the Neretva River below.  The city of Mostar would again be forever joined at the hip with the bridge that connected it’s Croat and Bosniak citizens across the river below.  Yes, there would be scars…but unlike with Ziberi there would a future for Mostar and the bridge.

For me, my internship in Bosnia in 2004  after my first year in Law School did give me a rare opportunity to  witness the return of the Stari Most Bridge.  I was living in Sarajevo in the summer of 2004 and although I didn’t get a chance to go to Mostar on July 23rd, 2004 for the official opening of the rebuilt bridge, I was able to visit later that month with a handful of my fellow NGOs from Denver, Colorado.

Right off the bat I could tell that the bridge was very much an integral part of the city and I had trouble imagining how they got by over the last eleven years without it.  Dozens of young men stood in swimsuits on the bridge offering to jump into the shallow river below (for a small fee).  Although the bridge stands less than 80 feet from the river below you learn to appreciate how high 78 feet really is as you watch the young man crawl over side and jump feet first into the river.

 

We had an NGO with us named Ben Porter who possessed an adventurers spirit and he did attempt to do the jump himself, but he was strongly discouraged by the locals, who probably didn’t want to deal with having to fish a dead American out of the river.  I’m sure there is a method to the jump, one that your typical American thrill seeker would be unaware of…but I wouldn’t have bet  against Ben pulling it off.  He seemed to have a knack for being able to do the impossible when it came to things like jumping off bridges.

The city of Mostar itself was a beautiful place, but the scars were still ever present.  Sure a lot of the main streets were cleaned up nicely, but all you had to do was go down a quiet ally or side street to see the bullet holes in the side of the buildings.  To see a stark reminder of the war that seemed to define the nation to many foreigners.  Bosnia is, and probably will remain, a word associated with war to many people.  Even those who were born after the war, the word itself has developed a new meaning.  Lebanon.  Chechnya.  And Bosnia-Herzegovina.

 

Then again, that was almost fifteen years ago.  Mostar, it appeared to me in 2004, would be a city that found a way to overcome.  I could tell that if Bosnia-Herzegovina would spend decades trying to heal the wounds of the conflict…and fix the endemic corruption that was birthed from that conflict and which seemed to hold the nation back.  But Mostar seemed different.  It would not be a city that let the war define them.  They would not forget…but they would overcome.  As long as they had that bridge they would overcome.

But a recent visit to Tripadvisor seems to indicate that maybe that was a little too optimistic.  I hoped that maybe by now the scars of war have been plastered over.  But it appears that the bullet holes still can be seen on the side of the old shopping mall in Mostar.

Maybe in another decade the city will have covered up all of the ugly memories of the war.  Maybe in another decade the last remnants of the conflict will be the Catholic Church tower, which appears to have been built at an unusual and unnatural height for one purpose only: to ensure is higher than the minaret of the local mosque mosque.

There are no shortages of memories of the war in Bosnia, and cities like Sarajevo and Srebrenica  are yes even Mostar don’t want to let anyone forget what transpired from 1991-1996.  But Mostar seemed to want to give tourist another image of Bosnia i Herzegovina as well…a more hopeful image.  I can’t blame them for that,  Mostar was a nice change of pace when visiting Bosnia.  It is a beautiful city whose identity doesn’t seem to have been molded by the war even after her most historic landmark was destroyed by it.

I just wish Harush Ziberi could have seen what it became.

 

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Travel: The search for the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia (October 8, 2018)

The Finger Post Travel: October 18, 2018

 

So I spent the Columbus Day weekend visiting my aunt and mom in Philadelphia. Well, Norristown technically, but close enough. And although I didn’t get nearly enough time to revisit the City of Brotherly Love, a city I had not visited in well over twenty years (Lions lost to the Eagles in the wildcard when I was last in Philly, with Scott Mitchell as our QB and Barry Sanders as our running back. It was a simpler time before cell phones and the internet…when I still had hope that I would someday witness the Lions win a playoff game).  Although I enjoyed my time in Philadelphia back in the mid-90s, I have to admit, those pre-internet days resulted in a lot of missed stops. I had no clue that Benjamin Franklin’s grave was in Philadelphia at the time, or that the debate between where the greatest Philly Cheesesteak on the planet was a unassuming intersection at Passyunk and Wharton. It was there where 2018’s internet promised me was the culinary Subway Series between two powerhouses.  It was at that intersection where I would find, right next to each other, the top two places to get a Philly Cheesesteak on earth: Pat’s King of Steaks and Gino’s.

With an afternoon flight on Columbus Day I decided to give in and try one of these legendary sandwich shops. I wasn’t sure which one, but I was leaning towards Pat’s. After all, they were the place where the legendary Philly Cheesesteak was “invented” (although let’s be honest, I can’t help but think that at some point in the great history of cuisine someone put grilled onions, steak, and cheese together in a hoagie roll before 1933). Rival Gino’s next door was nonetheless inviting. I tend to find that any restaurant that has police patches hanging up on the walls tends to have good food.  I never met a police officer who wasn’t a steak connoisseur, and that seemed a good sign.

But then again…Pat’s invented the sandwich.  How could I say no to that selling point?

In the end I went with Pat’s over Gino’s…and I hate to say this, but it’s like the Citizen Kane of Philly Cheesesteaks. You sort of understand how it opened a lot of doors and how it redefined the field…but it has long since been surpassed by younger, fresher competitors.  The sandwich was OK, I ordered it with cheese wiz as was recommended.  But it hardly seems like the sandwich that could redefine a city. In the end, it just tasted like steak sandwich with cheese.

Maybe it can’t live up to the hype anymore. I had hundreds of Philly cheesesteaks over the years and some folks tweaked with the formula to make something really special…but also really not a “Philly” Cheesesteak. But my last time in Philadelphia produced a cheesesteak that seemed to put almost all others to shame (oddly enough a place in Taos New Mexico had the best one I ever had, which probably has some folks in Philadelphia reading this fit to be tied).

But as for Pat’s…well, I suppose you should still try it. But the peppers were bland and the steak sandwich ultimately was a little salty. No it wasn’t terrible, in fact it was good.  But it wasn’t legendary.  And with that being said maybe if you’re about to try your first Philly Cheesesteak you should start with Gino’s. I can’t say if they are better,  but I just don’t think Pat’s is going to blow you away. At the end of the day, Pat’s is just a sled from a long gone era.  It’s Philadelphia’s Rosebud.  Important, yes.  But it just doesn’t stand the test of time.

 

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Travel: Accra, Ghana and my first taste of Africa (July 20-22, 2017)

 

The Finger Post Travel (October 10, 2018)

 

The moment I stepped off the plane I could feel it…Africa.  I was finally here.  The one elusive destination had finally become a reality when I was asked to come out and cover the Isaac Dogboe vs. Juan Chacon fight in July of 2017.  I had been to Egypt and Morocco, but as I often heard in both countries: “Africa…but not really.”

But Ghana was different.  There was no question whatsoever that this was Africa.

After passing through customs I met up with Charles Dogboe, uncle of the main even fighter and right hand man to promoter and trainer Paul Dogboe.  It was late and I was hungry…and we had a busy day tomorrow at the weigh-ins.  I hoped in his car and we made our way to my hotel: the Oceanic Resort in Accra.  Although the Oceanic was a bit out of the way it made up for it in charm and the simple fact that it had a kickin’ pool and an amazing view of the ocean.  It also had great service.  Although late at night they opened up the restaurant for me and cooked me up a traditional Ghanaian meal of jollof rice and goat stew.

Now let me say this: there are a lot of cultures across the globe that take pride in their ability to dial up the spicy to 11 when preparing a dish.  As a Korean-American I often took pride in my ability to out-spice most of my Anglo friends in Michigan and I couldn’t help but notice Mexicans sort of took a similar approach with their food as well.  I quickly concluded that everyone outside of the British, Irish, Germans, and a few others had some local phrase that roughly translated into “Thai hot.”

Well, I don’t use the phrase “Thai hot” anymore.  No.  There is hot…and then there is Ghana hot.

In one of Isaac Dogboe’s earlier fights in Ghana his opponent, an undefeated Ugandan named Edward Kekembo, blamed his loss to Isaac in Accra on the “peppers” of Ghana, citing the spicy food.  It earned a round of chuckles with a few of my boxing associates and myself, as we ranked it up there with “I was poisoned by my hairspray” as one of the more interesting excuses for a loss in the boxing ring.

But at that moment I have to admit, the theory held a little bit of water.  This rice had a serious kick to it.

But damn if it wasn’t the best spicy rice I ever had…and I have to say, we Koreans know spicy rice.  I felt like a French wine snob who just tasted his first Malbec from Argentina…my world view had forever changed as I tasted jollif for the first time.

The king is dead. Long live the king.

The following morning I discovered that several of the referees and the main event fighter, Javier Chacon, were staying in the same hotel.  Charles picked us up where we made our way to the luxurious Kempinski Hotel, where the weigh in was set to take place.  There were quite a few people with both the promotion and with the World Boxing Organization (WBO) who were staying there and I would become a frequent visitor of the Kempinski Hotel in Accra over the next few days…and all I can say is wow.  I was able to use their gym, which was one of the better ones I’ve seen in a hotel, and their pool was absolutely amazing.  I won’t lie, everything there sort of blew me away…I felt like that old white guy from the barber shop in Coming To America admiring King Jaffe Joffer’s shawl.

“This is beautiful, what is that, mouthwash dispensers in the bathrooms?”

The weigh-in had an energy that was refreshing for those of us in boxing.  It felt like the nation (and the nation’s media) wanted to be part of the Issac Dogboe story early on and I couldn’t help but feel a little bad.  Those of us in the States only jumped on bandwagons long after the train had left the station.  Covering fights in Michigan in the early 2000s I knew that most of my fellow boxing writers tended to watch with curious interest in the rise of Floyd Mayweather.  He was a champion but we were waiting to see just how big he would become.  When he fought Phillip Ndou in Grand Rapids back in 2003 we were interested….but we weren’t passionate.  In Ghana they had an young future world champion and with it they brought an energy that we didn’t.  It wasn’t an improper bias they had, no, it was something else.  A determination to absorb everything that would make this story of Isaac Dogboe complete, regardless of how it ends.  The Ghanaian sports writers were invested in the story in a way that really impressed me.

But alas, this isn’t a boxing story, it is a story of Accra.

I finished covering the weigh-in and in the process got what may be the best boxing photo I ever took, of a stoic Javier Chacon in enemy territory as a nation looked on.

A warrior in enemy territory

By the end of the weigh in I discovered I would be in for a rare treat.  The fighters, media, and boxing officials would be heading to the home of former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings, one of the most respected former leaders in all of Africa and a well known boxing fan.  Rawlings was a former flight lieutenant of the Ghanaian Air Force who seized power in a coup in 1979 and proceeded to purge (i.e. execute) two former presidents (i.e. generals who also seized power by way of a coup) by way of firing squad.  Rawlings also purged other leaders of the Supreme Military Council (the junta that ruled Ghana from 1975-1979).  It was, as Wikipedia described, one of the bloodiest incidents in Ghana’s history.  But from that bloody beginning was something the world was not expecting.  Rawlings, many assumed, would simply be another Mobutu like dictator.  A military man who would rule with brutality, force, and possibly a cult of personality.  But Rawlings would ultimately surprise many when he built the foundation of a true democracy in Ghana.  Many remained skeptical when he formed a “National Commission on Democracy” and some opposition leaders complained loudly when he ran, and won, in the 1992 Ghanaian presidential election.

Rawlings would win re-election in 1996 but it wasn’t what transpired from 1992-2000 there that cemented his status as a beloved former president.  It was what happened in 2001.  Rawlings could have easily “suggested” that the constitution (that he pushed for) be amended to allow him to run for a third term.  He refused.  And when his vice-president lost the 2000 election to opposition leader John Kufuor Rawlings could have somehow stepped in and refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Kufuor’s victory.  Rawlings didn’t do that either.

No, instead Rawlings stepped down, and that simple act planted a seed of democracy that is still growing in Ghana.

And I was about to meet the man who emerged as not just the father of democracy in Ghana, but as one of the father’s of democracy in Africa.

Rawlings came out and met with the fighters, referee Tony Weeks, and several WBO officials before I was introduced to him.  I won’t lie, I was a bit star struck.  I’ve met a lot of fighters from Canelo Alvarez to Manny Pacquiao…but Jerry Rawlings was the first man who had me star struck.

After we left I realized I had the entire day off and I decided to use it to explore Accra.  I started to wander down the streets of Accra, where I emerged as something of a minor celebrity.  I wasn’t in the tourist section…I can’t even say where I was.  All I know is it teemed with life.  As I walked down the beach I was greeted by, well, by everyone.  From the kids waiting for the school bus to the fishermen wondering where I was going and what I was doing.  And of course by the hucksters and hustlers who tried to sell me whatever it was I was shopping for.

I soon made my way to what I was told was one of the more bustling marketplaces in Ghana, and although I didn’t stand out as much as I did on the way down, I wasn’t exactly blending in.  Gringos tend to be seen as a profitable mark in most marketplaces the world over and I got the sense Ghana was no exception.  But with that being said, after buying a homemade Africa dress for a reasonable $7 I assumed that if I was being ripped off I was still doing OK.




But as much as I enjoyed window shopping, there was something I really was interested and that was the street food in Accra. I knew fufu was high on my list and I did get the opportunity to see it made by hand, well, see it getting made by hand.  I was told it was a long and difficult process that required endurance and dedication.  But that the reward was very much worth it.

but I wasn’t really ready to sit down and experience it just yet.  No, watching fufu getting made was like watching a carpenter make a table.  You had to be ready to appreciate the process…and the labor of love that went into it.

Instead I decided to get some grilled meat on a stick from a street vendor.  After all, I seldom am disappointed from grilled meat on a stick wherever I am, and I assumed Accra would be no exception.  There were several choices and most look familiar…so naturally I picked the one that didn’t.  But as I bit into my skewer I quickly came to a disturbing conclusion: it tasted like someone emptied an ashtray in a bowl of cottage cheese…and whatever I was eating was the intestines of some small mammal.

Yeah, needless to say I don’t want to think about it too much.  As I made my way into what I quickly concluded was something of a “food ally” of Accra I soon discovered a woman and man running a small homemade stand in a particularly tight alleyway.   I was a little gun-shy over trying something new again but this looked different…it appeared to be a spicy fish stew…and there was no way the Korean in me was about to pass up on some spicy fish stew.

“What is this called?” I asked the man.

“Shito.” he replied with a smile, one that gave me the sense that he was messing with me.  After all, the first syllable of that word didn’t instill me with confidence, especially considering I could still taste the rat intestine in my mouth.

“Seriously?” I said suspiciously.  “You call this shito?”

“Yes, he said with unmistakable pride and enthusiasm.  “Please, try some.  It is very good!”

I decided to take him up on his offer.  Yeah, I was nervous, but I wasn’t about to let one grilled rat ruin my favorite part of travelling: the experience of trying something completely out of my comfort zone.

And I am glad I did…because shito is the bomb.  I bought a bottle for the road and then sat down and chatted for about half an hour with the shito salesman and his wife.

As I headed back I couldn’t help but notice that Ghana was above all a boxing country.  Now don’t get me wrong, Ghana is a football country first and foremost…but from the former president to the shito salesman I got the sense that every Ghanaian was more than just a casual fan of the Sweet Science.

I made a few more stops on my way to my hotel…tonight would be the fight and I wouldn’t have time to spend in Accra tomorrow, where I had hitched a ride with Tony Weeks to visit the Cape Coast Castle.  So this would be it…my time in Accra.  As I made my way back to the coast I noticed a small beach front village near the lighthouse and wanted very much to explore it.  But I also recognized I was out of time.

Before catching my flight to Ethiopia I was able to squeeze in one more stop thanks to Charles Dogboe: the Independence Arch.  One of Ghana’s most famous monuments I had seen it almost every day in Accra…but I hadn’t had a chance to see it up close.  Charles stopped long enough to allow me to explore…and yeah I suppose I can check that one off the list of things I saw in Ghana.  But deep down I know I’ll have to go back.  I only scratched the surface of Accra…but it still left a mark.  There is still so much more to see in Accra, and Ghana, and someday soon I plan to check a few more of those places off my list.

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Travel: Before Machu Picchu, Spending a day in Cusco, Peru (October 17, 2012)

The Finger Post Travel (August 19, 2018)

 

Well, it’s official.  My dad and I will be travelling to Peru after the WBO convention in October.  It’ll be an exciting trip, and although I had already visited Peru I was keen on going back.  Peru was really something special and I couldn’t argue with my father’s logic when he said “I’ve never been to South America before and I don’t know if I’ll go again, and if this is my only trip I really would like to see Machu Picchu.”

I couldn’t disagree, and to be honest, I wanted to go back myself.  Machu Picchu was the kind of place that you have to see once in your life…unless you get the chance to go twice.

But like a lot of people who visited Machu Picchu, I ignored the gem that was Cusco.  Everyone stops in Cusco en route to Machu Picchu and few truly take in it’s wonders.

I know I didn’t.

Although my hostel was just a ten minute walk to the Plaza de Armas I knew after I returned from Peru that I should have spent more time exploring the plaza.  Much of what I saw was in passing, and it was clear there was much more to offer.

But one thing I did take advantage of was spending a few hours wandering through the San Pedro Market, which was advertised as “by Peruvians for Peruvians” on Wikitravel.  I found it to be a very appropriate description.  This felt like true Peru (even though some tourist shops sprinkled the marketplace).  And like many local marketplaces it had no shortage of examples of local cuisine.

 

Of course, as I mentioned, there was also no shortage of local vendors targeting tourists…only with prices that were much more attractive than those in Lima or at the Plaza de Armas.  I ended up buying a poncho, which proved the perfect addition to my wardrobe for Machu Picchu the following day.

Unfortunately I passed on the matching hat, which was a shame since it reminded me of one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes.  But such is life…I’m sure I’ll get a second bite of the apple when I go back to Cusco in October.

In hindsight I should have got the matching hat.

 

Before we left I ended up stopping at a local vendor to purchase a snack that seemed appropriate: maize.  I had seen Peru’s colorful ears of corn back in Lima and I was determined to give it a try.  With fat kernels and darker colors it looked like something worth checking off on my bucket list, and although it was ultimately just corn, I still couldn’t complain (although the New Mexican in me wanted to try it as elode, but again, maybe next time).

 

In the end, Cusco deserves more than a day, and one would be wise to take advantage of their time there to explore one of Peru’s most historic cities en route to Machu Picchu.

 

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Travel: When you have a layover in Tokyo’s Narita International Airport

The Finger Post Travel (August 13, 2018)

 

Every traveler dreads the infamous overnight layover.  You can’t be a world traveler without having at least one restless night sleeping on a bench waiting for a connecting flight.  I use to try and get around those with my free United Club passes but United Clubs tend to be closed at night and to be honest, I have never been blown away by them during the day time.  If you want to hang out in a waiting area with cheese and crackers then yeah, they are OK.  But at $50 a pop I never really understood the appeal.  But if there is one airport that I don’t mind long layovers in it is Tokyo’s Narita International Airport.

Right off the bat, it has one really big thing going for it.  Showers in Terminal 1.

Seriously, why don’t more airports have these.  I mean, truck stops do.  If you are getting off a ten hour flight from Houston and you have a nine hour wait till your connecting flight, a shower would really hit the spot.  But it seems like showers are a rare commodity…except in Tokyo where a mere $10 can get you a hot shower in between flights.

Sure, it was no truck stop shower: it was small as most showers in Japan are.  But the water was hot and the pressure was great.

And if you wanted, you could even get a day room and get a few hours of sleep, which I passed on.  Admittadly this was not as impressive as the showers to me, there is a Marriott inside the Houston airport and I have seen a similar setup inside of the Dallas airport.

But still, the showers…that was just amazing.

Next to the showers in Terminal 1 was a display of traditional Japanese clothing, which in the big picture wasn’t anything that special…but still, after a hot shower everything looks better.

The other thing that blew me away about Tokyo’s airport was the food.  To be honest, Japanese food is amazing, but it actually felt like they had some of the best Japanese food in the country in Narita Airport.  One of my favorite Japanese dishes is deep fried pork cutlet: Katsu.  And in February of 2017 I had what I thought would be the best katsu I ever had inside of Tokyo’s main train station.  I wanted to go back there but elected to get a dish of katsu from the airport instead.  I was not disappointed with my decision.  A stop off at Tonkatsu Shinjuku Saboten in the Narita dining terrace was something every visitor to Japan should experience.  Although they have branches in various locations, I couldn’t help but wonder if Narita had the best of the bunch.  According to their webpage they’ve been doing it for over 50 years…and I could certainly understand why.  It was simply amazing.

It wasn’t my only authentic Japanese meal that day as my previous layover in Haneda Airport allowed me to try authentic Japanese dip noodles as well.  I was down to try something new, although I didn’t find it to be anything extraordinary.

But hey, one airport at a time.  Shopping in Japan isn’t cheap, and shopping at any airport anywhere isn’t cheap either, so it goes without saying that I didn’t spend a lot in Narita.  I did pick up some Kit Kat bars, for whatever reason Japan seems to love Kit Kats and have a lot of unique and local flavors.  Yeah, Kit Kat is Japan’s Lays Potato chips.

Although I wanted to get a XL Ninja t-shirt, a giant Godzilla flag and a Yomiuri Giants baseball jersey, that was out of my price range and I elected to pass.  Still, it was a fun way to spend a few hours window shopping in Narita.

 

Instead I elected to dump the last of my pocket change on the toy vending machines and get a tiny storm trooper figure, which seemed the best way to dump off a few bucks worth of yen.

 

At the end of the day, I actually really enjoyed my time spend wandering around the Narita Airport.  Sure it doesn’t make many people’s list of “Things you have to see in Japan” but it is still one of the better airports to kill a few hours.  And if there is one lesson for other airports the world over that can be gleaned from Narita it is this:

Never underestimate the power of a hot shower.

 

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Travel: Visiting Cape Coast Castle, Ghana’s most infamous slave fort (July 23, 2017)

The Finger Post Travel (August 12, 2018)

 

Sometimes if pays to be a card carrying member of the press.

I had been sent to Ghana to cover Issac Dogboe’s fight against Argentina’s Javier Chacon on July 22, 2017…a fight that the local Ghanaian won handily.  And after emailing in my report from the fight I was ready to explore the country.

Of course I only had  one day to see Ghana.  Having elected to fly out the following day to Ethiopia I was unsure of what I would do in Accra, and I grudgingly accepted that I wasn’t going to see much of West Africa.  But a chance discussion in the press box during the boxing event had given me the opportunity to see one of Ghana’s most powerful, and important, sites: Cape Coast Castle.

An American businessman named Joseph Trowers who had somehow attached himself to the promotional team in Ghana had invited legendary Boxing referee Tony Weeks to a tour of Cape Coast Castle.  I had not been invited, but much like Sam Rockwell’s character in Galaxy Quest, I found a way to beam aboard.

Trowers had arranged a private car and driver for Weeks and I and the following morning I met with the two men at the Kempinski Hotel in Accra, where Weeks and Trowers were staying.  Once I arrived I was pleased to discover that I wouldn’t be the only media tagging along.  A local radio host named Emmanuel Austin Baah would ride with us while a film crew would meet us there to film Weeks journey for the local press.

That was, until they ran out of gas.

After making it to the outskirts of Accra we were surprised to see the van carrying the film crew turning away.  Unfortunately, I would discover that being a journalist in Ghana was not the easiest way to make a living.  Baah, after calling the other reporters, discovered that they simply didn’t have enough gas to make it to Cape Coast, and it appeared they were too proud to ask us to cover the gas for the trip.  I would discover from Emanuel that such a development was not unheard of in Ghana.  He described the difficulty of making ends meet on his end, with much of his income going to transportation to and from work.   Even the police operated with tremendous difficulty due to prohibitive transportation costs.

“If you call the police and they come over you need to give them money for gas,” Baah told me.  “otherwise they can’t afford it.”

The thought of having to pay the police gas money for them to come over to a crime scene was absolutely shocking to me, and I suddenly understood how easy corruption could run rampant in such an environment.

As we made our way out of town we were stopped by our first military roadblock, where I assumed we would be asked to contribute a small “tip”.  But if the soldiers were inclined to ask for some baksheesh then they were quickly dissuaded by the personable Weeks.  Weeks pulled out his cellphone to show a photo of him refereeing a Floyd Mayweather fight.

Ghana is a country of die hard boxing fans, and those soldiers were no exception.

The soldiers instead requested selfies with us, which certainly was a surreal experience.

I think the guy on the left is the only one who figured out I’m not a notable boxing celebrity.

We made out way back on the road and after a few hours we arrived at Cape Coast Castle.  We were mobbed the second we stepped out of the car, but this didn’t have that Denzel on the red carpet vibe to it.  No, these were the vendors.

I’ve been around the world, and I’m use to aggressive sales tactics, but Cape Coast Castle was up there with Fez, Morocco for the most relentless.  I made the mistake of letting a guy named Kofi show me his art (I am a sucker for art) and I quickly determined that he was in the process of hitting me with that “I’ll give you a gift scam” where I’d subsequently be expected to pay for the gift.

I tried to tell him I didn’t want a gift from him but I knew it was not going to work.  Kofi knew my first name and I knew when I walked out of that castle he would have something with my name on it.

I was a bit hungry and fortunately there was a local vendor selling authentic Ghanaian fante kenkey.  Now admittedly I had no idea what fante kenkey was, but as of yet I had not been disappointed by Ghanaian food and this had sort of a tamale vibe to it so I was sold.

Unfortunately I would be told later that fante kenkey isn’t really all that good plain.  You are suppose to put some sauce on it or eat it with soup.  I basically bought some hatch green chiles and sat there on the side of the road eating them raw.

Yeah, this was no chile relleno

Before entering the castle we walked to the back, where we saw an amazing view of the ocean and where some local children were eager to visit with us.

As we made our way to the front I couldn’t help but notice that the John Atta Mills Presidnetial Library was next door.  I won’t lie, I really wanted to check it out.  I’m a sucker for Presidential Libraries and although I knew nothing about Mills, I was very curious to see what a Presidential Library in Africa was like.

 

But it was time to enter the Cape Coast Castle and begin the tour.  Regardless of one’s heritage or ethnic background, this was a powerful experience.  Arguably millions of African-Americans could trace their heritage to this very castle, and to discover what they endured during their final days in Africa was shocking and appalling.

We soon made our way down into the “main slave dungeon” where one of the most powerful displays was exhibited.  1,300 concrete heads created by famed Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo depicting the lives of those who were transported across the Atlantic to a life of slavery in the New World.  It was shocking, powerful, and effective and continues to haunt this visitor even a year after visiting the castle.

 

We then made our way out to the grave of former Gold Coast Governor George MacLean.  MacLean was governor from 1830-1844, although I won’t lie, after the visit to the Slave Dungeon I was not really able to process much from the part of the tour talking about MacLean’s life.

Nonetheless the courtyard was a stark contrast to the dungeons below, and I couldn’t help but think about how peaceful it was up here compared to the terror that the slaves endured below.

From the courtyard we made our way down to the most infamous site at Cape Coast Castle: The Door of No Return.    This doorway was the final passageway out of Africa, where they would be loaded on ships to the New World.  I could only imagine the fear and terror of those passing through the doorway hundreds of years ago…and one could not help but wonder if these poor men and women would think back about that moment for years after they arrived in the New World as slaves.  Did they know this would be their last walk in Africa?  Would they think back on that moment in the New World and wonder if there was some way they could have avoided that doorway…that final walk?

Because on the other side of the doorway was Africa in all it’s splendor.  A small but vibrant Ghanaian fishing village and the ocean…a sharp contrast to the terror this castle once housed.

As we made our way back into the castle we made a quick stop at the walls where the cannons protected the British against potential attacks from the Atlantic, and then we made our way to the museum located in what was once the Governor’s Chambers.  The stark contrast between the Governor’s Bedroom and the Slave Dungeon just below was shocking, and to see more of the concrete heads, only this time in the light, was another powerful moment.  As we made out way to the museum where there was a display talking about the Slave Trade in the United States I realized how important this museum was, and how important it was to remain in the consciousness of all Americans.

As we made our way out a young man who worked up front called me back.  He wanted me to sign the special “VVIP” guest book.  I quickly surmised that he had not reached the same conclusion as the soldier at the roadblock and he thought I was someone important.  I readily agreed and suddenly realized he handed me the same signature book that former President Barack Obama had signed when he visited in 2009.  I had never been trusted with a president’s signature before and I felt honored that they would consider me worthy enough to sign the same book.  I quickly obliged and then had them snap a picture of me holding it up before I ran forward and called Tony Weeks to get his picture with it as well.

By the time we left we were again mobbed by the vendors and their homemade trinkets that they designed just for us.  Kofi had written a short message on a conch with my name on it and of course expected payment while Tony Weeks was given a larger conch with a message addressed to “Tony Whisky”, which we all admittedly had a good laugh over.  The journey was over, and we now had to make our way back to Accra…but deep down I knew this would not be an experience I would soon forget.  I really believe that nobody who walks on those hallowed grounds ever does.

 

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