A Foodie Weekend in New York City

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Happy Tuesday everyone! I just returned from an amazing, food-filled trip to New York City. I’ve been to the big city numerous times for numerous reasons in numerous seasons – Christmas trips, visits with relatives, job interviews, school trips, mission work, random fall weekends – but this was primarily a FOODIE WEEKEND! I had a US Airways companion pass that I needed to use by June 30, so my friend and I decided to head up to NYC to have a food- and drink-filled girls weekend. I have a lot of friends from college living in the city so it was also a great reunion with good friends I hadn’t seen in a couple of years.

We stayed in a friend’s beautiful apartment in the Upper East Side and enjoyed being able to walk to Central Park and great restaurants in the area. Since the friend who came with me and I had both been to the city before, we didn’t need to fill our time with tourist activities. I put together the perfect foodie itinerary for us so we got a taste of quite a few different neighborhoods around Manhattan. I’ve broken down where we ate by neighborhood, and would highly recommend all of these places!

Lower East Side

Russ & Daughters Cafe
This cafe is an off-shoot of the original Russ & Daughters shop specializing in smoked fish, caviar, and bagels and bialys. We couldn’t go to NYC without getting a bagel, so Russ & Daughters Cafe was our first stop for lunch when we got in on Friday. I got the Classic Board with a bialy and smoked salmon, cream cheese, tomatoes, onions, and capers. The salmon had the perfect smoked taste, the tomatoes were so fresh, and the bialy was amazing. If you don’t know, a bialy is similar to a bagel, but only has the hole in the top and is just baked instead of boiled and then baked. My friend got the Shtetl Board with smoked sable (black cod), goat cream cheese, tomato, onion, and capers. We also got housemade Blueberry Basil sodas to wash it all down with.

Stanton Social
Stanton social is a gourmet small plates restaurant that my New York friend said we absolutely had to go to. We took his advice and made dinner reservations for Saturday night. The three-story restaurant was packed and had a really cool and trendy atmosphere. Since it’s small plates, you order a bunch of dishes to share, and they come out as they’re ready, instead of all at once. There were four of us (one vegetarian, sorry Eva) and they told us 8-10 dishes were typical for 4 people but we decided to start with 6 and see how we felt after that. My favorites were the phenomenal Potato & Goat Cheese Pierogies with caramelized onions and truffle creme fraiche; the French Onion Soup Dumplings covered by a layer of baked melted cheese; and the Mexican Street Corn Ravioli with roasted poblano crema, jalapeño, cotija, and cilantro.

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French Onion Soup Dumplings

Everything we had though was delicious. The other dishes we got were Red Snapper Tacos, Chicken Arepas, and Chicken and Waffles that had Louisiana hot sauce butter that I want to put on all things, always. We felt totally satisfied after the 6 dishes, but I think it depends on what dishes you order (also our vegetarian friend obviously wasn’t eating all of them). It seemed like the dishes on the left side of the menu were a lot smaller than the ones on the right side, so I think it’s a matter of whether you order 6 little dishes or 6 larger dishes.

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Arepas and Mexican Street Corn Ravioli

The cocktails were also amazing. We tried the Strawberry Fields with Grey Goose Citron, muddled fresh strawberries, lemon syrup, fresh lemon, and a Riesling floater; and the Notorious F.I.G with Bulleit Bourbon, fresh fig, pear-cinnamon syrup, and fresh lemon.

Strawberry Fields Cocktail with pierogies to the right

Strawberry Fields Cocktail with pierogies to the right

Beauty and Essex
This was the coolest speakeasy lounge/bar right around the corner from Stanton Social. It doesn’t look like much from the outside and you walk through a pawn shop to get to it, but inside, it’s a huge three story lounge and restaurant that looks like a mansion. There are crystal chandeliers in every room, leather couches, and a grand staircase leading upstairs. It was packed. They have a list of handcrafted cocktails, and I opted for The Geoffrey with Milagro reposado tequila, cinnamon St. Germain, lemon, and Magners Cider. It tasted like an updated margarita, so of course I loved it.

Upper East Side

Felice 64
My friend whose apartment we were staying at recommended this Italian restaurant and wine bar for our dinner Friday night. We went to see An Act of God with Jim Parsons (Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory!) and were looking for some place to do a late dinner after since we’d had a late lunch. Felice 64 was just a block away from where we were staying, so it was perfect. I ordered the Risotto alle Capesante which was carnaroli rice risotto tossed in broccoli purée and served with seared scallops, buffalo ricotta cheese and lemon zest. It reminded me of my favorite pasta my grandma makes. It was delicious and I loved that they sliced the scallops up and mixed them in with the risotto. My friend ordered the Fusilli al Ferretto with homemade tomato sauce and burrata cheese. Also great – the pasta was homemade and the tomato sauce tasted very authentic. Plus burrata cheese is my favorite! (Sorry for the bad picture — the light was basically non-existent inside.)

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Cascabel Taqueria
We went here for brunch on Sunday because we couldn’t leave New York without doing bottomless brunch. And what goes better with bottomless brunch than Mexican food?! This taqueria offers refined Mexican street food and bottomless drinks for only $15 (a really good deal considering most drinks in NYC cost $15 for one). The best thing about the bottomless deal is that you can try as many of the eight drink options as you want — you’re not confined to just one drink. We tried the Sangria, La Lola (grapefruit juice, cava, and aperol), and the El Capitan (cava, passionfruit, and domain de canton). They were all so good! For food, I ordered the Chilaquiles with chicken and fried eggs and my friends got the Carnitas Benedict on cornbread with chipotle hollandaise. Everything was delicious!

Little Italy

Ferrara
Ferrara is a famous Italian bakery that you have probably heard of before. They have the best cannolis you’ll ever have. I always get the chocolate dipped ones. I also love their lobster tail pastries. They are huge and stuffed with so much cream they feel like they weigh two pounds each! You can get mini ones, too, but who wants that?! Go here for dessert and coffee one night or grab a sweet afternoon snack.

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Nolita

Cafe Habana
This little Cuban cafe has become known for their Mexican-style Grilled Corn and the affordable price they offer great food at (corn is only $3). There is a sit-down part of the restaurant and also a to-go counter around the corner where you can grab and go. We stopped in for an afternoon snack of the corn. It really is served true Mexican-style, grilled and coated with Cotija cheese and a sprinkle of hot chile powder on top. Be careful — the chile powder is very spicy, but you can always order it without. I wanted to eat this corn every day! We also got a side of plantains because I can never resist plantains.

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Chelsea // Chelsea Market

On Saturday, we went to Chelsea Market, a specialty food and product market, for lunch. We sampled dishes from a few different places. Here were my favorites:

Los Tacos No. 1
This place probably had the longest line but trust me, it’s worth it to wait in it. These are true Mexican and West Coast-style tacos, and the Carne Asada taco I had was one of the best I’ve ever had. The steak was so tender and flavorful, and was topped with guacamole, salsa, and onions and wrapped up in a corn (or flour if you prefer) tortilla. My friends also loved the Pollo Asado and Nopal (a type of edible cactus) tacos.

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Mŏkbar
We have a lot of ethnic food options in Birmingham, but traditional ramen is not one of them, so I knew I wanted to have some while I was in NYC. Luckily, we came across Mŏkbar in the market, serving Korean-style ramen. I got the Classic with pork broth, braised pork, and seasonal vegetables which included greens and mushrooms and added a poached egg to it. The pork was incredibly tender and flavorful, as was the broth. So much better than ramen from Cup Noodles!

Mokbar Ramen and Carne Asada taco from Los Tacos

Mokbar Ramen and Carne Asada taco from Los Tacos

Doughnuttery
This place makes the cutest mini donuts and you can watch them being fried right in front of you. You have the option to coat them in a variety of flavored sugars. We got a dozen and tried them in flavors of Urban Monkey, Mulled Green Apple Cider, Cheeky Peach, and Fruity Cereal. They were all really good and we loved their little bite-sizeness. The best part though was the Beer Caramel that we got to dip them in. It really tasted like beer mixed with caramel and it was amazing, especially with the Mulled Green Apple Cider donut.

Pro Tip: After you fill up at Chelsea Market, walk it off on the High Line right near by — the elevated park on an old railroad track. It’s beautiful and has great views of the Empire State Building.

Financial District

Loopy Doopy
If you venture down to the Financial District (I know you want to see the new Freedom Tower), this rooftop bar at the Conrad Hotel serves alcohol-infused People’s Pops in glasses of Prosecco. Yes, you read that right. I will now be dipping all my popsicles in Prosecco. You choose your flavor of pop and then they drop it in the glass and you can enjoy it and beautiful views of the Hudson and Lady Liberty. I opted for the Pear Vanilla pop and my friends got Peach Ginger and Blackberry Mint. It’s also fun because the pop you choose flavors your Prosecco. But this isn’t a place to stay and drink all day — these cocktails will set you back $20 (before tip). Definitely a one and done place!

Let me know some of your favorite foodie spots in the Big Apple!

Why Eating Local is Important

I promise, within a week, I will have an original post up here! I have been slacking but I have also been in a whirlwind of grandma visiting, my mom visiting, and a trip home to North Carolina. But things are leveling out here and I can get back into my regular routine now, hopefully!

In the meantime, check out this post I wrote on Family Travels on a Budget about why I think it’s so important to eat local on your vacations.

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Travel Tuesday: Aruba on a Budget?! Yes!

Hey y’all! This is a quick Travel Tuesday post this time since I haven’t had any extra time this weekend/week to prepare one. My grandma is visiting so I’ve been busy entertaining her but will hopefully be back into my regular schedule next week!

Remember last week when I told you about my Adventure in Aruba? Well I wrote a post on how to do Aruba on a budget for my friend Karen over at Family Travels on a Budget.

Karen and I met while I was on a work trip in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and we immediately became friends. She was the best travel buddy and she has an awesome site that shows you how to make your family vacations fit into your budget. Check out her site and make sure to read my post while you’re at it!

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Travel Tuesday: Adventure in Aruba

Arashi Beach, Aruba

“Aruba, Jamaica, oooh I wanna take ya….”

That song has been stuck in my head for the past two weeks and you know why?! Because I took a trip to Aruba! And it was amazing. And now every time I think of Aruba, I can’t help but sing that catchy little line from Kokomo. Thanks, Beach Boys.

Anyway, back to Aruba (but actually, can I really go back?). I’m such a beach bum, and I have wanted to go to Aruba for years. I’m not exactly sure what sparked my desire for Aruba (maybe it was The Beach Boys’ song) but something just draws me to the sand and the sea and I knew Aruba would be the epitome of perfection of the two.

Eagle Beach at dusk

Eagle Beach at dusk

What I didn’t realize until I started researching was that Aruba is actually a desert, so it has an arid climate, an average temp of 82 degrees all year round, hardly any rain, and a nice steady breeze from the tradewinds. 18 miles off the coast of Venezuela, Aruba is even located outside of the hurricane belt, so there will hardly ever be any bad weather. So basically, to sum things up, Aruba is perfect all year round.

Exploring the Island

There are many different geological regions of Aruba, even though the island is only about 20 miles long, and it’s really interesting to drive around and see all the different parts of it. The western side of the island, where most of the resorts are, has the calm, bright blue Caribbean Sea with gentle waves that lap on powder white sand.

Eagle Beach

Eagle Beach

These are the beaches you want to spend your time at, with the most popular ones being Eagle Beach (where we stayed) and Palm Beach. Eagle Beach has the low-rise resorts and condos and Palm Beach has the tall, glitzy resorts with all the nightlife. You can also watch the sun set over the ocean at these beaches.

A divi-divi tree at Eagle Beach

A divi-divi tree at Eagle Beach

If you go north of these beaches, to the northern tip of the island, you’ll find Arashi Beach and Malmok Beach, which have some reefs right off of them that are popular for snorkeling, and California Lighthouse that looks out from the tip of the island. The beaches to the north are more rocky though, but also less crowded.

Malmok Beach

Malmok Beach

The eastern side of the island is for the adventurers. With tall cliffs and crashing waves, it’s not the side that you can (or want) to go swimming on, but it is beautiful to see.

The eastern side of the island

The eastern side of the island

Also on the Eastern side of the island is Arikok National Park. It costs $11 a person to enter the park but inside the park are the Natural Pools, caves, and even a beach with pink sand called Boca Prins. Unfortunately, you need an off road vehicle (like a Jeep or ATV) to get to the Natural Pools, so we didn’t get to see those in our little Kia Rio, but we saw everything else.

Boca Prins is carved out of a cliff, and the sand has streaks of pink sand made from crushed up shells. It was beautiful for photographs.

Boca Prins

Boca Prins

The caves were also really cool to explore. Aruba was formed from a volcanic eruption, and it’s interesting to see how these caves formed. Some people believe that pirates hid their treasure in these caves!

Quadirikiri Cave

Quadirikiri Cave

As I mentioned previously, Aruba is a desert, so as you’re driving through the park and also around the interior of the island, it looks as if you could be in Nevada or Arizona, with cacti, shrubs, and rocks and dust. It’s really interesting to see this juxtaposed with the beauty of the beaches.

Arikok National Park

Arikok National Park

Get Your Snorkel Ready

One of my favorite things that we did while in Aruba was snorkeling at Baby Beach, on the southern end of the island. I went on the trip with one of my best friends and her parents, who had previously been to Aruba, so they were able to give us some insider tips. They had gone snorkeling at Baby Beach on their previous trip and raved about it. Instead of paying to do a snorkeling excursion, we purchased snorkeling gear at home and brought it with us since you don’t have to be taken out on a boat to snorkel at Baby Beach. This saved us money and also allowed us to snorkel all day and be flexible with our schedule.

Baby Beach

Baby Beach

Baby Beach is a semi-circle beach that basically acts as a holding tank for calm waters and tropical fish. The mouth of the beach goes out to the Caribbean Sea and can have strong currents near the outlet sometimes, but as long as you don’t go past the buoys, you’re fine. There is even a roped off area for snorkelers over the reef. You will feel the current pull you, but since it’s roped off, the ropes keep you in the area and you don’t have to worry about drifting.

Post-snorkeling at Baby Beach

Post-snorkeling

The fish were amazing. As my friend’s dad said, “it’s like swimming in a saltwater aquarium.” We saw so many tropical fish in shades of yellow, blue, yellow and black striped, silver, and more. My favorites were these type of boxy looking fish that were black with white polka dots and yellow fins. I think they are Trunkfish! (Soon I’ll have my underwater camera developed, too.) We also brought some bread to feed the fish and it was amazing to be surrounded by entire schools of multiple types of fish. Some even ate right from our hands! I would definitely recommend Baby Beach for snorkeling. And after you’re done snorkeling, you can relax on the beach under one of the divi-divi trees with a local Balashi beer. 🙂

Balashi Beer at Baby Beach

Relaxation at its finest

Aruba, mi Dushi

All in all, Aruba was amazing and I immediately fell in love with it. What also makes it interesting is that it is its own country, unlike many other Caribbean islands. It has it’s own culture and it’s own language (Papiamento), but it’s also part of the Dutch Caribbean, so you see the influence of the Dutch culture on the island, as well as a Latin influence from its proximity to Venezuela. Most Aruban people speak four languages (English, Spanish, Dutch, and Papiamento) and it’s fascinating to see all the cultures collide in one small little island.

Palm trees in Aruba

One of the words we learned from Papiamento was “dushi,” which means sweet or sweetheart depending on how you use it. Although it sounds like an American slang word that has the exact opposite meaning, we loved the saying and heard it used around Aruba quite frequently. So Aruba, mi Dushi, thanks for the amazing experience and I hope we will meet again someday!

Keep calm and be dushi

Want to know how you can visit Aruba on a budget? Check out my post on Family Travels On A Budget!

Travel Tuesday: Tulum, Mexico

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In keeping with the spring break theme, this Travel Tuesday’s feature is Tulum, Mexico and its surrounding areas. If you’ve picked up any travel magazine or read any travel website lately, you’ve probably noticed that Tulum is getting a lot of attention recently as a food, nature, and luxury resort destination.

Tulum is located in Riviera Maya in the Quintana Roo territory of Mexico. Situated about an hour and a half south of Cancun, Tulum is perfect for those looking for a more “adult” (aka calm) spring break getaway. There is plenty to see in and around Tulum (within 30 minutes), including sparkling white sand beaches, ancient Mayan ruins, and natural swimming holes. Unlike Cancun, the beaches aren’t stacked with high-rise flashy resorts. You’ll find more secluded, boutique hotels.

I visited Tulum in March 2012 and had a phenomenal trip. The natural beauty of the area is breathtaking and we enjoyed the serenity of the beaches.

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What to Do

Tulum Ruins:
This is one of the main tourist destinations in Tulum, but it’s an absolute must-do. It’s the archeological site of a Mayan city, and it’s built on a cliff overlooking the ocean so the views will take your breath away. You can also see the Voladores de Papantla, which are men who perform a traditional Mayan routine where they spin down from the top of a high pole (kind of like a may pole).

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Gran Cenote (natural swimming hole):
Gran Cenote is about 10 minutes from the Tulum ruins and it was one of my favorite things we did. A cenote is basically a natural hole in the ground that caved in to expose natural underground water. Cenotes are known for having the purest, cleanest water, so they make you shower before going in if you’re wearing sunscreen, lotion, etc. The water is fresh water and it’s crystal clear. You can swim, snorkel, or scuba in the pool. There are caves you can swim through and there are little fish and turtles but nothing that will bite ya. It was the most peaceful, serene thing I’ve ever experienced.

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Coba Ruins:
These are a little further (about 45 mins from Tulum), but another neat sight to see. It’s another Mayan archeological site but it’s in a huge national park. You can rent bikes for $2 (which is what we did) and bike around the park and through the ruins. There is also a large pyramid that you can climb to the top of. (You can’t climb any ruins at Tulum or the famous Chichen Itza ruins).

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Snorkel with sea turtles at Playa Akumal:
This beach about 20 minutes from Tulum is known as Turtle Beach. We went snorkeling here because I wanted to see sea turtles and it was the best snorkeling experience of my life. You can rent snorkeling equipment and snorkel close to shore, but we went out with a guide ($10 per person) who supplied equipment and took us on a boat ride farther out. We got to swim beside huge sea turtles and it was amazing. We saw about 6 total, and 3 of them were bigger than me. It’s amazing to watch them swim underwater because they’re so graceful and it looks like they’re flying. We also saw schools of tropical fish and even a few stingrays.

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Where to Stay

We stayed at Al Cielo, a boutique hotel with 4 suites and 4 villas, about 20 minutes from Tulum in Xpu-Há. All of the buildings have thatched roofs and dark wood beams, giving it a natural feel. The resort is beachfront, so all we had to do was step out our door to enjoy pristine white sand and bright turquoise water. Guests can take advantage of the cabanas and lounge chairs set up on the beach.

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The hotel has also gotten high regards for their culinary program, headed up by renowned chef Francisco Morales Tress. Each morning, we had fresh fruit and breakfast pastries in the open air cafe, and each night we dined on the beach on dishes such as paella, piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese, fresh shrimp, and marinated crab salad. My absolute favorite thing we ate was the ceviche of white fish, shrimp, and octopus. We literally ordered it every day on the beach as an afternoon snack served to us in our cabana. It was so fresh and flavorful, and served with homemade tortilla chips.

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I would highly recommend Al Cielo to anyone looking for a quiet place to stay with great service and even better food, and Tulum for a beautiful beach vacation that can be as relaxing or as activity-filled as you want it to be.

(Keep in mind most of the prices on these linked sites are in pesos, so things aren’t expensive as you might think at first! For example, right now 100 Mexican pesos is about $6.50.)