Lick

By Sierra Shear

Even Austin can out-Austin itself. Something has happened, and one tiny ice cream shop on South Lamar raised the pretentiousness quotient of the whole city by a large margin. And Austin has the Whole Foods mother ship, so that’s saying something.

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On Monday night we spotted a cluster of Portlandia people. Gigantic eyeglasses, hemp skirts, and the smell of organic deodorant abounded. A smattering of normal-seeming hipsters and a couple of college students filled the rest of the tiny room, forming a line to the door.  Obviously it looked and smelled delicious, but we could not stop laughing.

IMG_3379After about ten minutes in line we had moved far enough to see the list of flavors, each hand-written on a notecard. I didn’t get a picture of the more eccentric ones, but as far as I know marigold is a flower and cilantro is for tacos, maybe.

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More instructions on the wall informed us, lest we fear, that they strive to source the ingredients locally from “farmers” and ”artisans.” It’s great, really. Their care shows.

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Cooper and I tried two flavors: avocado and curd, and fresh mint and dark chocolate. They were both incredible. Not only were the flavors exotic and creative, but also the ice cream actually tasted like cream that originated in a cow and the mint flavor was fresh, rather than synthetically sweet. Totally pompous and completely delicious.

We followed up our extreme experience with a breakfast the next morning that included just the right amount of Austin. Counter Café, home to my favorite burger ever, is a happy little diner with bar stools and a nice short menu. Anything can be ordered at any time of the day, that is when they’re open during the hours of 7:30 AM to 4:00 PM.

Cooper went all in and ordered a burger for breakfast. Respect.

I stayed a little more conventional and asked for a blueberry pancake solely because I saw the chef making one in front of me and it looked spectacular.

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It was. A perfect pancake is a nearly perfect food. A bad one is a fluffy waste of space. This one was the size of a plate and not a bit too big. Fresh blueberry sweetness and a touch of sour buttermilk created a balance only improved by a pat of butter. Austin, I will miss you.

 

 

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Vietnam: Hanoi Street Food

By Sierra Shear

On our first day in Hanoi, Josh and I stood for an hour and a half in a line that was a mile and a half long. We weren’t waiting to see Beyonce, President Obama, or even Hillary Clinton. Like thousands of Vietnamese and maybe a handful of other tourists, we were waiting to see the embalmed remains of Ho Chi Minh, the communist president of North Vietnam that led the fight to defeat the French. When in Vietnam.

IMG_2756Uncle Ho, as they call him, looked pretty good for being dead for forty years. When the Soviet Union existed, the Vietnamese would ship the body off to Moscow to get touched up for two months a year. Now they do the work on their own, but don’t really acknowledge the defeat of the USSR.

Hammers and sickles adorn most government buildings and museums, and can even be seen on the murals on the walls of elementary school playgrounds right next to characters of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. If the former communist leader wasn’t stuck in a public tomb, he’d be rolling in his grave. I personally find the hypocrisy charming.

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Gucci in Hanoi 

We continued to explore Hanoi, hitting up a deserted museum where the Vietnamese keep an American B-52. Translations of questionable quality accompany the display. After consuming loads of propaganda, we were hungry.

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Following my friend Noel’s advice, we made our way to the best smelling place on the street. We sat down at a tiny plastic table on child-sized stools in a small open-air room that made up the entire restaurant. The lady cooking the food came to our table, smiled brightly, and pointed to the bowl of soup and noodles and the next man’s table. Josh held up the number sign two and the ordering was over.

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A minute later, my bowl of bun cha appeared. The waitress/cook set the meals down on the table and proceeded to spice them for us using the shakers of peppers on the table. We were clearly out of our element.

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Bun cha is a clear, sweet and spicy broth with grilled pork. It comes with a giant pile of rice noodles on the side that you dip in the broth and savor. The dish was perfect. It was hot and flavorful, and full of tastes that I had never experienced in America. It was one of the only meals during the whole trip that was completely different than the Vietnamese food Cooper and I get in Austin.

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Total (plus surprise spring rolls) = $2.50. Hard to beat that.

The next day, emboldened by our excellent street food experience the day before, we sat down at another outdoor restaurant with tiny stools. There were lots of Vietnamese people enjoying what the chef was cooking. We made false assumptions from that observation, including that we could handle whatever was going on there.

The shop owner, confused by our presence, saw us sit down and asked if we wanted the customary “two,” again with the universal hand symbol. We said yes and a few seconds later confronted a soup laden with congealed blood cubes and a bobbing pigs foot. I couldn’t do it. I’m a wuss. Josh, impressively, wanted to try it. I insisted we abort mission. We paid the guy about $5, 2.5 times what he would’ve charged us, and briskly walked away.

Immediate and intense regret: we didn’t take a picture. Disaster.

Still hungry, we sat down a place around the corner that served bun chat. Our confidence, however, was shot. We began noticing the dirt and dampness everywhere and that the woman was touching everything without even rudimentary plastic gloves. The soup wasn’t hot and we got nervous. After nibbling, we left to get ice cream and picked up our adventures with street food a few days later.

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Vietnam: It’s hot, let’s feast

By Sierra Shear

Last month, as Josh and I made our way through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, we discovered that we could easily be the most predictable, square folks traveling through Southeast Asia. People who travel through Southeast Asia tend to spring from a different breed. Compared to us, voyagers in this part of the world are generally a little “chiller” and grungier. They often lack a return ticket or formal employment back at home. Tan and rarely American, annoying yet refreshing, they comment freely on your country, your hair, and your accent. It’s truly lovely, as they say.

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Korean plane food

While Mark, our favorite British expat and a Saltlick BBQ and Sixth Street enthusiast, thought we were near Mormons when it came to engaging in a hard-hitting night on the town, Josh and I out-adventured the rest of our crew when it came to  exploring the countries and cuisines.

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We jumped head first into the whole Southeast Asia thing on our first day in the region as we set off on a four and a half hour bus ride, using both sides of the road, to meet the boat that would take us on a  cruise of Bai Tu Long Bay. We boarded a traditional boat and ate an extravagant lunch cooked by one man with two Bunsen burners.

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The Vietnamese eat community-style, where each person has their own small bowl to fill and refill and the food is placed in the middle for everyone to share. The meal was a perfect introduction to Vietnamese cuisine. Whole fish cooked with tomatoes and onions, tofu and tomotoes, roasted pork, stir-fried morning glory, fried taro balls (weird), and rice made up the meal. The fish was easily the best whole fish I’ve ever tried. Everything was fresh and abundant. Neither did the company, a  mixture of Germans, French, Australians, Vietnamese, and another wandering American.

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We arrived at our destination at dusk. The island where we were staying was about 20 miles south of the Chinese border and was home to about 1500 people. Most try to get visas to work in China and, as our guide said, stay in China as long as possible. Opportunities on the island our scarce, as we could tell as soon as we arrived.

We made our way to the home we were staying in via tuk-tuk, a small carriage pulled by a motor scooter. We pulled up to a beautiful house with doors and windows thrown open to the stagnant 85 degree 100% humidity air. Luckily, Josh cautioned me not to get too excited about a shower before we got to the house; that clearly was not going to be an option. At least one of us was less-than-totally naive (although I like to call it eternal optimism).

After freshening up by dumping some water on our faces and letting it evaporate, we headed out to the communal table to learn how to make spring rolls from the ancient lady who owned the house. The power, provided by a personal generator and only available from 5PM to 5AM, kept going out so she brought out a little plastic elephant with a desk lamp coming out of its back. I love Vietnam. She showed us how to fold the rice paper and make the traditional little pockets. We followed her lead, invariably putting too much filling into the pocket because we were all Westerners and therefore more is obviously better.

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The spring rolls disappeared into a room beside the outdoor table, where the woman’s daughter in a black t-shirt, sporting a sequin Chanel logo, squatted next to a couple of Bunsen burners and fried them up. Out of the little, nearly bare room came more morning glory, fried shrimp cakes, omelets, and rice in addition to our dozens of spring rolls. Practically in the middle of nowhere, at a house without electricity to speak of, came a pretty good feast. 

IMG_2710 In retrospect, the night was fascinating. At the time it was mostly just hot. The room had a small, slow fan which strained the move the heavy air. The mosquito net kept out bugs and geckos but, I’ll be honest, totally freaked me out. I was pretty sure I was going to wake up covered in lizards and ridden with malaria. Instead, I woke up feeling like I had just completed Mr. Baird’s Westminster Middle School gym bootcamp. This was mostly a bunch of jumping and running and doing the gym bleachers like stairs. I’ve never been one for athletics.  The night involved minimal amounts of sleep, mostly in twenty minute chunks with one luscious three hour long marathon rest beginning around 2 AM.

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You never know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone came; I did not realize the difference that the fan made until it stopped abruptly at 5 AM and jolted us awake. The sun was up, as were the locals. Breakfast wasn’t until 7, so we joked about our state of hygiene and explored the tiny town to bide the time. At no point did we regret our decision to stay on the island. This was what we came for. That morning we took a bike ride through the countryside to the beach, passing picturesque mountain scenery dotted with water buffalos plowing rice paddies. This could be the most beautiful place in the world.

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We returned to the mainland salty and tired, and on a total travel high.

 

 

 

 

 

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Rio’s Brazilian and Luke’s Inside Out

By Sierra Shear

I first experienced Brazilian food during the movie Bridesmaids, where a very familiar scene unfolded; a woman convinced her friends to go to a hidden restaurant with authentic and cheap ethnic food. The Melissas and I had the same discussion many times in D.C. and continue to here in Austin. We’ve never been hit by the affliction that overcame the women in the movie, but have ventured to our fair share of hole-in-the-wall, maybe kind of questionable, but delicious establishments.

Melissa B and I made our way to Rio’s Brazilian Café a few weeks ago, a tiny restaurant in a residential neighborhood on the east side. The building is painted bright green and yellow and features a drive-up window, which we found unusual for a joint that runs at such a leisurely place. It seemed more like they converted an old liquor store or gas station into an eatery. Respect.

This place wasn’t sketchy in its cleanliness or smell – which, in my opinion, are the usual tip-offs to a dining experience that might not end well. However, it did have its quirks. All the waiters looked like skinny, hipster versions of Fabio. Their hair varied in length, but they had the same mannerisms and seemed to move at the same, not particularly deliberate pace. Ultimately, we found it fascinating that the owners were able to hire matching waiters.

To start we ordered the cheese bread. It’s gluten-free and people freak out about it on Yelp. It’s more than rave; this bread has a cult-like following. Melissa and I liked it, but both found it a bit more gelatinous in texture than we would call bread. Tasty and cheesy, but misnamed.

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We both tried one of the salgadinhos, which were very similar to empanadas filled “with sautéed shrimp, garlic, tomato, onion, and green pepper, then rolled in bread crumbs.” They were good, simple, and about as filling as a taco. A spinach salad with walnuts, beets, and apples completed the meal. It was fresh and could easily be made at home, but it was satisfying.

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Later that week, Josh and I ventured down to south Lamar to try a trailer called Luke’s Inside Out. Guy Fieri, the host of my favorite show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives and the subject of my favorite New York Times restaurant review ever, visited the trailer and made them famous for a rabbit sandwich. As a former bunny owner, I opted out of trying the hare and we instead ordered barbacoa nachos with mango on shrimp chips and the spicy Szechuan fried chick sandwich. Both were delicious.

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Trailer                                                                        Barbacoa Nachos

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SANDWICH, obviously

Friday rolled around and it was finally time for my weekly lunch with Cooper. While always pleasant, sometimes these lunches end up happening at three or four in the afternoon. Cooper’s a busy guy, and I’m just over here watching West Wing until my eyes start to water. I can really only watch so much Netflix until I start feeling bad about myself, so I decided to be proactive and stave off my mid-day hunger by cooking until he had time to pick me up. This might sound counter-intuitive, but it works.

I decided to make Alton Brown’s Overnight Cinnamon Rolls recipe. I wanted something that would be good for breakfast and that I could keep in the fridge and bake the next day before going on a pilgrimage to see the Alamo. It was a labor-intensive recipe that would take me a while to prepare and used up a lot of ingredients I had lying around. Not that I needed to convince you, but I thought it was a pretty great idea.

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It was. After about 20 hours of rising and kneading and steam proofing (a first for me – you put an overnight dough in the oven over a pan of boiling water, and it again doubles in size), the rolls came out perfectly. They smelled so good that even a few of my friends on the Paleo diet couldn’t resist them, which was the biggest compliment of all.

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Strip Malls in Vegas

By Sierra Shear

Cooper insisted that we try an all-you-can-eat sushi place for brunch in Vegas. That statement contained a myriad of contradictions, which initially caused me to shy away from the idea of driving to a shady strip mall in the middle of the desert to eat raw fish. The idea of all-you-can-eat sushi brought to mind images of a Chinese buffet full of picked over lukewarm California Rolls and rubbery salmon atop of freezing cold rice. Something about sushi before noon felt un-kosher.

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I backed down after fifteen minutes of bargaining, which is code for someone gave me a piece of chocolate so I decided to let it go. For once I was very happy that I was wrong. The place was awesome.

We arrived at a strip mall about 20 minutes off the Strip. Squeezed between an Asian foot massage parlor and a Walgreens sat our destination, Yama Sushi. The restaurant is tiny, with ten or fifteen small tables and a sushi bar, and to our surprise was packed when we arrived right before noon.

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I saw no buffets or heating lamps. Most of the customers were regulars without menus and simply ordering “the usual.” From some strategic eves dropping I learned that the restaurant became really popular and crowded over the last year, which displeased the locals and inspired the owners of the restaurant to look into conquering the massage parlor next door.

The four of us sat at the sushi bar. One of three or four sushi chefs behind the counter greeted us and asked us what we would like to try. Confounded, we asked how the “all-you-can-eat” aspect worked. It was simple. You order a couple of pieces at a time, he makes them, and you eat them. Sometimes he goes rogue, making delightful, surprise creations.

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The fish was fresh, the rice delicate, and the atmosphere fun. The pictures below show our collective damage. $20.99 per person.

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The night before this adventure, we visited another sketchy strip mall in search of a good meal. We found Lotus Thai in a dark shopping center, recognizable only by its own sign and the fifteen people waiting for tables outside the door. It’s a place for locals and tourists with both classic and creative Thai dishes.

Our meal was good. Most of the difference between good and great was self-imposed by ordering kind of “weird” stuff. This curry without coconut milk took some getting used to.

IMG_2269 Cooper ordered raw shrimp because it seemed like the rebellious thing to do. We ate them with a little bit of chili and lime, which brought out a soft sea flavor. Kind of good, but once is probably enough.

IMG_2271 We try yellow curry and pad thai at every Thai restaurant we visit. They’re almost always good and trying the same dish at many places allows you to do a fair comparison. Lotus Thai delivered excellent renditions of both.

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The dessert, however, was a surprise and the highlight of the night. The mango served with coconut sticky rice paired a slight tanginess of fruit with creamy, sweet rice. The smooth mango and grainy rice were a perfect match. And I rarely like desserts without chocolate, so that’s saying something. A sweet end to a perfect vacation.

IMG_2273Other great things include:

Scottsdale, AZ at Cafe Monarch

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Austin, TX at Cafe Monarch

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Philadelphia, PA

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Quinoa porridge, who knew you were so good?

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Italy.

By Sierra Shear

My friend Elisabeth gently reminded me the other day that, while pork cutlets and lattes were interesting, I needed to write about Melissa and my Italian experience. I’ve been putting it off, watching West Wing and Girls and drinking margaritas with Elisabeth, but I finally decided that it’s time to share. Unfortunately my inspiration came while reading the ever fascinating article “Acquisition Reform and the Evolution of the US Weapons Market” for my Defense Policy class. I justify this transgression like the other bouts of procrastination I’ve suffered from lately – I’m just resting my brain for law school.

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During this time of relaxation, I’ve found time to mourn the fact that I will probably not eat pizza quite as good as the pie we found in Naples for a very long time. Naples itself, however, is another story. I must preface my ode to Antica Pizzeria da Michele by saying we risked our lives to find the restaurant. Perhaps an exaggeration, but Naples was not what Melissa or I expected. And I heard it was a dump, strictly speaking.

I arrived with low expectations; I was cautioned away from staying in Naples and after stepping off the train, I immediately understood why. Melissa likes to compare it to Newark, but worse because it’s not in America and we couldn’t even understand what the people were saying.

We started charting territory and making our way to the restaurant, passing dirty buildings, people selling VHS players and knock-off everything, and vendors selling something that looked suspiciously close to a churro. After 20 minutes of wandering, we felt sufficiently uncomfortable and hailed a cab.

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Antica Pizzeria da Michele is a hole in the wall. An old man in a white lab coat presides over the small white tiled restaurant with a visible giant oven in the back and some simple tables in the front. He sells three types of pizza – marinara, with tomato sauce, olive oil, garlic, margarita with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil, and double cheese margarita, which is self explanatory. He offers Coke, water, and beer to quench your thirst.

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We shared a double mozzarella and a marinara. This was hands-down, 100%, easy decision my favorite meal of the trip and the best pizza I have ever eaten. The marinara was my favorite. The cheese-free pizza shined with the tang of tomatoes and the richness of the olive oil. With high-quality fresh ingredients, the simple flavor stood out in all its perfection.

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Together, the pizzas added up to 9 Euros. Never mind, Naples is awesome.

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While I am confident in my decision that the pizza in Naples is the best, Melissa insists that the pie at Gusta Pizza in Florence was better. And I can’t say she is wrong. It was amazing too. We tried a classic margarita, our favorite, and one with a thin spicy Italian sausage. We sat at a communal table across from a French couple, who worked through their pizzas with perfect posture and precise use of a fork and knife. Our style of attack was organic by comparison. 15 Euros.

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We concluded the trip in Rome. We decided that we wanted to end on a high note, and by that we meant the place with the best food. On our first night in the city we decided to go to a small family run restaurant called Ristochicco.

The dad runs the kitchen and his son runs the front of the house, giving mini lectures on the history of Roman and Italian food, advice on what to order, and general entertainment. As soon as we sat down 12 nuns and a couple of priests walked in sporting North Face jackets embroidered with the name of their church. This tipped us off; these sweatshirts were uniquely American. Soon we heard a distinctive Philadelphia accent and knew we would chat with them by the end of the night.

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Alex, who runs the front of the house, ordered for us. We told him we wanted what was good (and fairly cheap wine). He asked if we were hungry, which we were but later we decided that really he should have asked if we’d eaten in the past 2 days considering the amount of food he ordered for us. But, I’m glad he didn’t. Feasting was fun.

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Our first course was a combination of classic Roman starters, with three or four kinds ham, fried vegetables, fresh and creamy mozzarella with tapenade, and other cheeses.

Two pasta dishes arrived after the first course – a carbonara, with egg, pancetta, cream sauce and another pasta with cream sauce, rigatoni, carrots, and ground sausage – essentially two amazing versions of the same thing. We totally overdid it, on the wine and the food, but it was worth it for the taste and a great story with a best friend.

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During dinner we struck up conversation with the nuns, who concluded the night by offering us tickets to see the Pope during Mass on Sunday. We immediately accepted and two days later found ourselves in St. Peter’s Basilica surrounded by devoted Catholics from around the world and a few fascinated tourists like ourselves.

We hiked the three miles to the church during the wee hours of the morning and arrived just in time (an hour early) to find a seat near the back. We watched and listened to the service, lost but interested. Melissa instagramed a picture of the Pope entering the sanctuary and we called it a day.

Having skipped breakfast to get to the church early, we started on the next two and a half miles of our journey into a residential part of Rome. My friend Dan, who I met two years ago during a summer in Washington D.C., spent a semester in Rome and recommended Da Felice. It’s a well-priced neighborhood restaurant that serves classic Roman dishes, including a famous cacio e pepe. Most patrons didn’t even need menus, and order the usual or something that the waiter told them was part of the menu that day.

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(comes with parmesan on top, which they mix into the olive oil and pepper at the table)

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The meal was amazing. We split the pasta, the artichokes, and the award-winning tiramisu. The total for each of us was less than 15 Euro, an insanely good deal for a gourmet meal.

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 (yeah, kind of awkward that I only instagram some of these)

We liked it so much we ended up back in the same place the next day. On our second visit, we were famished after losing track of time and direction, which was a blessing in disguise because we decided to each get our own pasta.

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 There are not words to speak highly enough of the amatriciana (below), another Roman classic with tomato sauce and pancetta.

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Somehow after a week we tired of pasta and pizza. Luckily, by that time we were set to return to the US. As we touched down in Newark, I wanted the pizza again already.

 

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The Nosh-market

By Sierra Shear

Returning to Oklahoma seemed strangely similar to the adventures my friend Preston departs on to return to Dallas from the Democratic Republic of Congo. After seven flights and a number of stops in cities that have names consisting of 90% consonants, Preston arrives at DFW. Oddly enough, going back to Oklahoma from Rome is providing me with a schlep of nearly (but definitely not quite) the same proportion. Today, Preston told me it was because we were both flying into 3rd world countries. What a good Texan.

As Melissa accompanied me on the first three of my five flight journey home (Rome to Berlin to Frankfurt to Newark to St. Louis to Oklahoma City), we began discussing our favorite everything of the trip.

702512_10152372231825274_709395097_n (1)Vienna was our favorite city. It was actually so wonderful that it overcame being the only place that we were scammed during our three week adventure, when we bought classical music tickets from a guy dressed up as an ambiguous mixture of Mozart and Hapsburg era soldier. In our defense we paid about ¼ of the asking price, but the concert was of high school production value.

We resuscitated the night with café lattes and cake. Vienna is the Mecca for coffee and pastries. It’s the home of the Sacher torte (serious chocolate cake), the apple strudel (single serving apple pie), and hundreds of other delicious native sweets. Add a wealth of Hapsburg history, the Spanish Riding School, and an emphasis on efficiency, and how could this not be a dominant city?

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Our favorite dessert was the vanilla bread pudding at Café Diglas, a house special of the historic café near Mozart’s house. Sweet and savory, warm and soft. Literal perfection.

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I say favorite with certainty, but we did not come easily to that decision. The Sacher torte and apple strudel at Hotel Sacher epitomized deliciousness in their categories, as did the maroniblute (hazelnut mouse and chocolate cup) at Café Mozart. Even the cheese Danish at the place in the train station defined flakiness and buttery sweetness.

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Melissa became the expert on the café lattes that accompanied the pastries. She awarded Café Museum, another established purveyor of the artful form of espresso and milk, best café latte.

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Despite our desire to subsist on a diet of caffeine and sweets, we did occasionally have to eat what my mom calls “real food.” At Café Diglas, we shared two excellent omelets – one with salmon and dill cheese, the other with spinach and cheese. Are those French fries…? Yes, and they rocked.

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We also tried goulash, a traditional spiced beef stew, and Weiner schnitzel, a fried pounded pork cutlet. The goulash at Café Mozart was incredible, with an almost southwestern flavor. The Weiner schnitzel tasted like pretty good fried chicken.

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While we loved the cafés, our guidebooks insisted that we check out the Naschmarkt, an giant open air food market that happened to be 20 feet from our hotel. We went for breakfast one day and I chose a sampling of Mediterranean vegetables for my first meal. Melissa gave me judgment eyes, but the Mediterranean snacks were fresh and authentic.

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Lattes and cake only added to Vienna’s overall charm. Music, history, and art fill the city. We visited the Spanish Riding School, Schonbrun Palace, the Sisi Museum, the Albertina, and a long list of other sites. And try to resist this.

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