Tuesday, November 27, 2012

1MB Travels: Orlando: Disney Universal Adventure Part 1

This year, I am thankful to have had the opportunity to travel and see more of states outside of CA and NY, than I ever have.

Most of the trips are for work, but I managed to sneak in a short one for fun.

One of the major perks for working for The Walt Disney Company is the employee park pass - which admits the 'cast member' plus up to three guests for FREE to any Disney theme park in the world (except for Tokyo).  The pass also grants 50% off Disney hotels, 35% off all merchandise in-park, and 20% off all food.  So when my friend Curses, in possession of one such magical pass, said she was game for a trip out to Disney World and asked if I wanted to go this Fall - the obvious answer was: "Just say when!!!"

She booked us into a Disney resort hotel, which made everything easy: Disney Coronado Springs Resort, like all other Disney resort hotels, takes care of transportation at no extra cost - including a free shuttle (Disney Magical Express) that whisks you from the airport straight to your hotel (and back)! Just call ahead to make a reservation, then check-in at the counter in Terminal B Level 1.  On the return trip they will even check your bags in at the hotel so you don't have to deal with lugging them to and around the airport!

It was a very pleasant surprise to find Coronado Springs a relaxed, character-free haven with a summer camp vibe (lodges were arranged in cabins spread over sprawling and lush, green grounds around a 'lake').  The light-strung bridge was especially charming. *During the day the buildings are visibly more theme park like, but at night you would think it's just any other lakeside resort!

The room was the quality of a nice motel - but comfortable. As two single kid-free ladies, it was nice to be able to stay in a space that didn't blast character kitsch - we love and expect lots of it in the theme park, but it was nice to have an adult, calm space to return to at night. The lodgings felt like they could have been any lake resort, in anytown, USA. 
We woke up to / walked by this every morning.  They had hammocks around the lake too - it would have been nice to lay there and read if we had more time (but since it was my first time to WDW, we wanted to maximize every minute at the parks!)
We did find time to soak in the 'quiet' pool one night (much needed after a long day of exhaustive trekking). With time to kill before leaving, I also checked out the main pool with its Mayan themed waterfall and waterslide, a nice amenity.

They also really do take care of almost every need on property: Coronado Springs had a coin-op laundry room equipped with vending machines for detergent and fabric softener, as well as change machines for quarters.  So no need to overpack: you can save room in the suitcase for souvenirs!  They also had several eateries in the hotel so you can fuel up before you head out.  Pepper Market offers a breakfast buffet or $14.99, a bargain compared to food inside the parks! It's not gourmet and was designed to be cafeteria-like to appeal to the masses, and the decor is...a bright, multicolored visual assault...but some of the food is not bad, serves the purpose of filling you up, and I did LOVE their chicken tortilla soup which tasted fresh made, from scratch. 
So with accommodations all set - on to our theme park adventures! Walt Disney World really consists of four separate parks - below are the highlights from our trip to each.


We started off on the Kilimanjaro Safaris Expedition, a fun ride in an open vehicle where you can spot animals from giraffes to antelopes to hippos in a relatively open environment.  Disney is all about imagination, and providing adventure in a safe environment.  This provides that simulated, safe safari for most people - us included - who will probably not be going on a true African wilderness expedition. The bird sanctuary on the walking Forest Exploration trail was also a lovely, serene space with lots of exotic bird-watching!

Expedition Everest was a fun rollercoaster ride that goes forwards and backwards at high altitude (great view of park from the ride!) in an Everest themed attraction where the Yeti makes an appearance.  Loved the attention to detail and sense of humor in this whole 'Asia' area - the waiting areas for Expedition Everest had gorgeous, ornate Himalayan architecture and decor punctuated by visually contrasting, vibrant western 'tokens' like ski gloves and sleeping bags hung from its rafters - as if either an indication of explorers who 'came before us' or tribute to those who 'lost their lives before us' while in pursuit of the illusive Yeti...
As with its sister theme parks in California, alcohol is only served in the non-core, least Disney character branded spaces. Animal Kingdom serves some delicious frozen cocktails including this Yeti Blast triple frozen Margarita (mango, coconut-lime, strawberry).

We weren't sure whether we'd be subsisting on churros and burgers / chicken nuggets for 4 days.  But Disney took great care with their food as well - there was the AYCE meatfest at Tusker House in the African area (which we missed :( advance reservations advised!) and we were excited to try Yak & Yeti  - a Himalayan themed restaurant in the 'Asia' region.  Though the menu is 'Pan-Asian' and made us think PF Chang's (with even more lowest common denominator appeal for tourists), the two dishes we ordered were *shockingly delicious*.  I got the Seared miso-glazed Salmon, bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, jasmine rice - which blew me away (possibly because of where my expectations were for theme park food overall) with how well the fish was cooked, perfectly tender, juicy and with bold yet skillfully restrained and balanced flavors.
Curses got the Maple Tamarind Chicken which was also fantastic.  It was the first time I've encountered that combination of ingredients but it all worked really well together - and the chicken was also skillfully cooked - if we didn't know any better you'd think we were at any 'regular' concept restaurant out in the city. 


The heart of Walt Disney World for kids and families is Magic Kingdom - that's where all the classic Disney characters and attractions are. Grateful for the free passes which gave us the luxury of not feeling pressure to experience every last thing to get our money's worth - we actually spent the least amount of time in this park, since a lot of the rides were the same or similar to those at Disneyland.  The first obvious difference between Magic Kingdom and Disneyland is the castle, which is a Cinderella castle versus the Sleeping Beauty one featured at Disneyland. 
This castle didn't house a walk-through of the princess' story like Disneyland's does - but underneath the castle, next to the restaurant, were beautiful mosaics which told Cinderella's story.  Adorable little girls gazed up at these murals, dreaming, in their princess costumes.  Much as we avoided the well-used word, it was indeed 'magical'. In contrast, one fun tangent: there is a Cinderella's Wishing Well outside the castle - which was amusingly used by several ladies as a smoking area when we were there - it was like a jolt of reality in a land of fantasy.
Haunted Mansion is a classic that we have at Disneyland as well, but we saw that it had a 'cemetery' attached to it at WDW, and decided to check out that detour.  Turns out the walk through was just as entertaining as other wait areas at Disney Parks - the tombstones had amusing messages and some were interactive, like the one pictured here where you can press on the embossings to contribute to the funeral song.

The Bluebeard gravemarker was also a fun read for adults! Our only disappointment, since we were there in October during Halloween timing, was that the ride didn't have the special Jack overlay that we were used to seeing at Disneyland (neither did Space Mountain, which has a Ghost Galaxy overlay in October at Disneyland).  But, as Curses smartly noted: WDW is more of a vacation destination, whereas Disneyland services a lot more local guests - so WDW keeps to the original so guests who likely only make it there as a special occasion treat can get the full classic experience, versus Disneyland which tries to create promotional events with their rides to bring local people back in.
In any case, a fun quick excursion to Magic Kingdom - though as a SoCal resident who can get a lot of the same rides at Disneyland, and ones without kids, we're not sure that we would have spent the bulk of our time at this park.



Built to give guests a taste of key countries / cities and cultures around the world through themed areas and restaurants serving 'iconic' local foods, Epcot Center's World Showcase with the best of intentions is in some ways is a cross between Cliff's Notes to the World and World Cultures for Dummies.  But if you see it with the good intentions in mind and knowing that most tourists may not ever venture to the countries they see here...it's a nice way for people to get quick easily digestible samplings of each culture.  We happened to go at a time when they had two initiatives running that helped make the experience of theme-park versions of each 'country of the world' be a deeper and more engaging one:
  • Phineas and Ferb - we LOVED this alternate reality adventure, a really fun way to experience Epcot Center's faux mini setups inspired by countries around the world. You basically pick up a flip phone from one of the stalls around the park, choose which 'country' you want to run your mission in, and Major Monogram comes on screen to give you your assignment. It's a scavenger hunt type game where you have to use clues to locate key places or objects in each 'country' - and the coolest part? Once you find the place or object, pressing a key on the cell phone actually triggers something to happen in that area that you wouldn't have been able to see before - for example, in China, locating a stone by the pond and pressing a phone key triggers a monkey statue to rise up from the pond.  In France, you can trigger a 'spy' camera to take your photo, and trigger Agent P to make a special appearane, ziplining across two rooftops.
  • Food & Wine Festival - no additional admission fee needed.  We were handed 'passports' that you could take around to each 'country's booth, and collect passport stamps for a great (free) souvenir. 
Each 'country' offered small bites of signature foods at ~$7 each, as well as wines or cocktails.  A lot of the choices didn't make sense to me, and I'm ashamed to admit the food snob in me turned my nose up at everything at first - until we reached France. As to be expected, there were crepes - and escargot.  But what was different about the escargot was that they were served in individual baby brioche bread bowls with garlic butter - the first time I'd ever seen them served this way.  Loved the presentation, and the little guys were delicious, too! We didn't eat in the 'bistro/brasserie' in 'France' - but I think they did a nice job capturing that Parisian vibe, at night.
The nightly water/fireworks show over the 'lake' is also fun to watch.   We were told 'Canada' or 'Norway' are the best locations to catch the show, and were well directed.  We stood by Canada and had a great view of the show.

Inside Epcot's iconic globe is 'Future World' - a ride that takes you through the history of civilization and where we're headed.  Like Innoventions at Disneyland, it's nearly impossible to build something that 's going to cost millions and be able to keep up with the speed of technological advances - it was an ambitious attempt at capturing the breadth of human history and projecting our future - maybe if they are able to upgrade to IMAX screens a la Transformers/Harry Potter at Universal, so that it can be more easily updated with the latest advances - it would be a bigger draw.

As it was, our favorite thing at Epcot was the Phineas and Ferb interactive scavenger hunt - the not so hidden geek girls in us wish we had more time to go finish all the missions!



This park was Hollywood themed - we didn't spend much time here since we have the real Hollywood at home. We just made time for the rides that are not at Disney California Adventure - like the Rock N Rolla Coaster (most people love this but as someone who doesn't really enjoy rollercoasters - this was too much for me.  An assault of neon, full blast Aerosmith, and with my head pinballing between the sides of the headrest.)
In exchange for going to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal, Curses let me drag her to Tower of Terror. The main (cool) difference from the one in Disney California Adventure is that the elevator moves into and down the 'hotel hallway!' for an even more immersive experience before the vertical drops!  Though, I thought the drops weren't as fast and jarring in Orlando.

The villains store was one of our favorite stops at this park - they have really cool, fun, tongue in cheek products with edgier designs.  Loved the witch with apple and vinylmation figure window that says "Which one did you get?" (referencing the mystery figures where you don't know what you're getting).  I also loved the Donald Duck tee that said "The Original Angry Bird"!  Curses bought some adorable Alice in Wonderland tea presses.

We got lucky with our spontaneous food choices on this trip: though initially disappointed that we couldn't get into The Hollywood Brown Derby, a fine dining (!!) spot evoking Golden Era Hollywood, with duck on the menu (sorry Donald!!) along with other decadent sounding dishes, we were excited to get a table fairly easily at the next best place: Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano.  The fabulous smells of good Italian food cooking served as warm welcome the minute you set foot in the door.  In terms of decor, it is casual and 'family friendly' which translates to just a notch up from Bucca di Beppo.

The food though, was fantastic.  To start, we split a Wild Mushroom Flatbread ($12.99) with roasted cremini and button mushrooms, garlic-shallot spread and balsamic reduction - SO good, and since this was an entree, it's generously sized with enough to take leftovers to go (though it is hard to carry it around the park all day, we just couldn't leave any piece of this behind - it was that delicious).  A great gourmet deal especially for in-park dining!

For the 'real' main, we feasted - the strategy? Fill up on one real, hefty, relatively reasonably priced meal versus many small bites of expensive fried salty/sweet things that are not good for us all day.  I got the Pork Osso Bucco ($21.99) braised in red wine and served over roasted garlic polenta and seasonal roasted vegetables. The meat fell away from the bone with a light flick of the fork - with evenly infused, rich wine flavors - I would say seeing the presentation on this plate and tasting this dish, you could easily forget that you're dining in a theme park 'concept' restaurant.  Four thumbs way up.
Curses got the Wood-grilled Tuna ($21.99) over a seasonal vegetable risotto, warm vine-ripened diced red and yellow tomatoes, and olive-caper butter. This wasn't mind-blowing, but perfect for Curses, who was craving something on the healthy side (and she loves vegetables...incomprehensible...) We left very impressed with Mama Melrose's - it was like a restaurant that you would go to anywhere else in the city, even when you had a choice - and we would totally go back, next time we're at the park.


Last but not least, there is Downtown Disney.  All WDW resort hotels provide free shuttles to Downtown Disney as well. Like the commercial strip in Anaheim, Downtown Disney Orlando is filled with plenty of ways to relieve any overly burdened wallets.  There's the requisite World of Disney store with a huge selection of Disney merchandise (and a fun Stitch statue over the entrance that will 'spit' on unsuspecting passersby).  There are the epic LEGO models.

 ...and then there is Pleasure Island, or what I like to call the Disney after dark park.  It's an area of Downtown Disney that's open til 1am, and is packed with bars, pubs, and other places adults will want to escape to after a long day at the parks with hyper kids.
The place that stopped us cold though was Ghiradelli Soda & Fountain Shop - yes, I know there's one in San Diego and tons in San Francisco, but we were there in Orlando and really craving a heavy hit of chocolate. I got the Midnight Reverie sundae ($8.95) made with two scoops of chocolate ice cream, fresh
homemade dark chocolate hot fudge, dark
decadent chips, whipped cream and an
Intense Dark Midnight Reverie 86% chocolate. I almost died - it was so deliciously decadent. Curses got a Very Berry Sundae ($8.95) with strawberry cheesecake ice cream topped with
sliced strawberries, vanilla ice
cream with blueberry topping, whipped cream,
chocolate-covered blueberries and homemade chocolate-dipped waffle roll. The Disney employee silver pass works here too for a 20% discount!! Which doesn't help those without their own Disney employee friend - what does, is that AAA cards work here also for the same 20% discount - score!

A month later, I still remember that Midnight Chocolate Sundae - may have to plan a trip up to SF soon just to get my fix.

Ok, so we did stop by one pub: Raglan Road - a high energy spot with live music inside (modern Irish music, rock covers) and out on the patio (rowdy Scottish folk music?!).  For those into craft beers - they have a menu of them here.  The food - at least the Pub Grub selection - was not impressive - my Smokie City ($13) of creamy smoked haddock & Dubliner cheese dip with potatoes, tomatoes and crostinis promised novel adventure, but delivered single note (salty) disappointment. Curses barely finished her burger as well.  If I had a choice I'd probably only go back for the music and drinks, but for late nighters - this is one of the few spots open late and serving food past 11pm.

All in all, we had a blast on our Disney World trip - thanks Curses for making it all possible!
[To see more photos from our trip, see the album on my Facebook page]

Up next: recap of our Universal Studios Orlando adventure including Harry Potter and Halloween Horror Nights!

Disney Coronado Springs Resort
Pepper Market on Urbanspoon
Disney's Animal Kingdom 

Yak & Yeti Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Disney Hollywood Studios

Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano on Urbanspoon

Downtown Disney
Ghiradelli Soda Fountain Shop
Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop on Urbanspoon


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Black Friday / Small Business Saturday / Cyber Monday: Delicious Deals

Initiate countdown to Shopocalypse...

Oh yes, as you are just coming out of a tryptophan induced haze thanks to the start of a solid month of celebratory feasting...

The time has come around again - holiday shopping season starting with that ominous sounding harbinger of retail madness: Black Friday.

Most of my money nowadays goes to food - but in the spirit of 'giving' (that includes gifts to myself, right? Might as well, at insane % off sales...?) - here are some of the deals to scope out this holiday weekend (and where to fuel up for your shopathons at a discount):


  • Pressed Juicery: 20% off gift cards (stock up now, I don't know any other way to get a discount on these juices - my favs are Greens 2 and Greens 3!) Friday 11/23 and Saturday 11/24, in-stores only
  • Gilt Taste Black Friday Sale: up to 70% off gourmet goods!
  • Tasting Room: 30% off wines + $5 flat fee ground shipping. Use promo code: BLACKFRIDAY30
  • William Sonoma: 15% off electrics. Use promo code: ELECTRICS ends 11/25 11:59pm PT
  • Saveur / Bon Appetit magazines: Discountmags.com is offering deals on magazine subscriptions including Saveur $8.98 for 2 years, 18 issues and Bon Appetit $8.98 2 years, 24 issues.  Sale ends Sunday
  • Rebecca Taylor: save extra 25% off sale items. Use promo code: RTEXTRA2512
  • Shu Uemura: 20% off + free shipping with orders over $50 Use promo code: WISH2012
  • Zara: up to 50% off select items + free shipping
  • Express: 50% off everything online through 11/23
  • J Crew: 25% off + free shipping on orders of $150+ Use promo code: COLOR25
  • Shoes.com: 15% off sitewide (use promo code 15off) or 30% off shoes on sale (use promo code: YAMS) ends 11:59pm CST 11/23
  • iTunes $100 gift card for $80 at Best Buy
  • Disney Store 20% off Use promo code: THANKS
  • IKEA: eat for free when you make furniture purchase of $100 or more.  Just dine at the IKEA restaurant, get a coupon with your receipt, and when you make your furniture purchase of $100+, present your coupon to have your meal deducted from your furniture bill. Valid Friday 11/23-Sunday 11/2
  • Hotels.com: Gift a getaway: 50% off select hotels - through Cyber Monday


Support your local small businesses!  Do your holiday shopping with them on Small Business Saturday, November 24th - if you need some extra incentive, some are offering special deals that day, and many are participating in the Amex offer where you can get $25 statement credit (see below)!
  • American Express: Get $25 in statement credit! Just pre-register your American Express card here, then spend $25 or more in a single transaction at participating local small businesses on November 24th, then get $25 in statement credit within 8 weeks!  Check their searchable database for partipating businesses near you - highlights I've seen included in the list (or on the business' social media outlets):
    • Sprinkles Ice Cream (Beverly Hills)
    • Raphael (Studio City)
    • Sushi Katsu-ya (Studio City)
    • Firenze Osteria (Studio City)
    • Take A Bao (Studio City)
    • Studio City Car Wash (Studio City)
    • The Edison (DTLA)
    • Cafe Demitasse (Little Tokyo)
    • Marukai Kawaii (Little Tokyo)  
  • Pressed Juicery: Don't forget you can still get 20% off all gift card purchases at Pressed Juicery locations through Saturday!! I've become a little bit addicted to these hydraulic pressed juices that taste amazing and are good for you - not overly sugary like the juice blends from 'smoothie' places. It's an expensive habit but I figure I'm saving on the juicing machine and time washing/juicing veggies & fruits.  This deal gets it to a much more palatable price...(yep, totally 'self-gifting' this one)
  • Starry Kitchen: Free appetizer or dessert with dinner for each group with purchase of entree! (If they haven't sold out of their Singaporean Chili Crab yet, gotta try it!)
  • Flavour Gallery 30% off cool food inspired clothing and accessories including tee collections designed/inspired by Ludo, Chris Cosentino, Andrew Zimmern and more! Use promo code: SMALLBIZ through Sunday 11/25
  • Mother Moo part of Sierra Madre Who Ville festival.  Sample Plow & Gun Coffee and purchase Jenkins Jellies.


Happy deal hunting!!! And stay safe out there!!

Happy Thanksgiving! Travel Well, Fellow Foodies!

There is so much to be thankful for this year: good health (relatively, considering the lack of effort), amazing friends (special thanks to Lindyhopper for taking in the stray on Thanksgiving again, and all that you do all year, love you!!!), incredible new job that I love that comes with so many opportunities to meet interesting new people and travel to new places (and of course, check out good eats)...

For those who are travelling this Thanksgiving - I am especially thankful that LAX has started to catch up with the rest of the modern world / metropolitan airports and began to install feeding posts that serve actual, edible food (oops, not supposed to let sarcasm through on this feel good holiday...).  With all the travelling this year I've had a chance to try some of the new spots, and thought I would start a running list here...do share if you've tried something good, even great, so we can all vote with our $$$ for better dining options!  Foodies unite!

Of all the new spots announced to roll out at LAX, I was most excited about Skewers by Iron Chef Morimoto, one of the most creative and skilled Iron Chefs in my opinion. So I couldn't wait to see what he would serve up at this eatery in Terminal 5.  Judging by the name, you could expect meat on a stick.  But I happened to go on an early morning - they were serving only a limited breakfast menu, of which the most appealing thing to me was: Oyako Don chicken, egg and onion cooked in sweet soy sauce, served over white rice. If you go in with expectations of Iron Chef quality fare, you will be disappointed - the rice was tough and not fragrant, the egg a little congealed - it tasted like fast food, something you can get from the refrigerated case at your local Japanese grocery store.  But everything is relative, and compared to other food at LAX, I would say this is decent.

Since breakfast really isn't the specialty of Skewers though, I need to come back on another trip to check out their lunch offerings.  I managed to grab a glimpse at the lunch menu - see pic to the right - which focuses on kushiyaki (small bits of robata-grilled meats and seafood on a stick) and kushiage (deep fried panko-crusted meat and seafood skewers), all served over rice with veggies, and with curry options. Prices range from $9.95-$15.95.  Will let you know how these taste the next time I get a chance to visit.
Where the real treasure trove was for me on that trip to Skewers was the refrigerated case.  You know how it sucks that you can't have any sizeable drink in your carry-on anymore, so you're stuck with whatever the shops/stands at the airport care to sell you before you're stuck for hours on a plane with even more limited beverage choices? Well, now there's a place to get CALPICO and decent green tea at the airport - yep, at Skewers.  And that's not all - you can get DORAYAKI here!!!!!  Red bean filled pancake 'sandwiches' in a 5-pack. These were my favorite as a kid thanks to Doraemon, and actually make the perfect in-flight snack as they're not dry and salty and won't make you as thirsty. 
Update March 2013: Kushi yaki (pork) $13.95 for 3 skewers + steamed veggies + rice: if Yoshinoya served meat skewers, this is what it might taste like. Also totally oversauced and overpriced.Curried Kushiage (chicken) $13.95 for 3 skewers + steamed veggies + rice: panko crusted chicken skewers topped with thick curry sauce was better than the Kushi yaki and the chicken was quite tender and juicy. These skewers also seem bigger than the kushiyaki and definitely more filling. Given the still limited food options at LAX, I'd go for the kushiage again next time I'm at this terminal around lunch time.
Skewers By Morimoto on Urbanspoon
Another place with edible food is Lemonade, also in Terminal 5 pretty much right next to Skewers.  Yes, this is a branch of the popular chain that serves a wide variety of gourmet salads, entrees and flavored lemonades.  At LAX they have similar set up where you move through an assembly line where you can customize your plate from their offerings.  It was another early morning trip for me that would go through lunch, so I got the egg and cheese souffle and smoked salmon 'towers' to eat there, and a small container of truffled mushroom cous cous, and curried cauliflower to go.  The egg souffle was light and fluffy, but in the end not super flavorful and a little too rich in terms of amount of cheese and portion size for breakfast.  The smoked salmon was nice to be able to have at the airport, and tasted fairly fresh and delicious.  I loved being able to get a drink that tasted semi healthy and clean before being locked into a plane for a few hours - on this particular trip I got the watermelon rosemary lemonade.  Not as good as Pressed Juicery juices, but obviously not nearly as expensive either, and definitely great for LAX fare.
Lemonade on Urbanspoon

Another welcome sight at LAX is Sammy's Woodfired Pizza and Grill in Terminal 4 - with an actual wood burning oven you can see just beyond the open kitchen! I really wanted to try their Margherita pizza, but as it was another early morning flight I got their breakfast pizza to eat on the plane.  There was a huge line for the take out counter, no surprise, and I barely made my flight - even though they had some ready made pies in the case so I didn't actually have to wait for it to cook - the wait was for the cash register, and all the people who frustratingly were there just to get coffee.  So if you're planning to hit up this counter - depending on your flight time, try to make sure there's at least a half hour or so to stand in line and get your food.

The breakfast pizza ($14) was topped with egg, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, bacon and cheese - and though the crust of course does not measure up to some of the amazing pies you can get in the city (i.e. Stella Rossa), it was leaps and bounds above what you have ever expected at an airport.

Nate 'n Al's Deli in Terminal 2 has a Matzo Ball Noodle Soup ($6.75) - which I would not crave when not at the airport especially at that price and quality (the matzo is a little dry and too dense, soup is fairly bland), but is a good soul-soothing comfort food option for weary travelers stuck at the airport for a while (beats $7 for fast food). You can also just slide up to the counter at the bar versus waiting for a table.

(Update April 2013): United Terminal 8: Marmalade Cafe offers some fresh-er looking salads, sandwiches, wraps and soups and also serves breakfast.

I tried the Quinoa Vegetable Soup ($7.95 large) as it was morning and I felt like something lighter but hot, before a business trip packed with what I know will be days of endless heavy handed Tex Mex. While it really needed more flavor, the soup was light, not greasy and tasted fairly fresh - and the quinoa actually had a nice soft but still structured texture. I also liked the look of the free range chicken pot pie, but it was too much food for an early morning flight. Making a note to check that out next time I have a flight out of this terminal.

(Update June 2014): Farmers Market at LAX is a new addition that I'm very excited about.  Located in Terminal 5, it's a mini market place inspired by the original and iconic Farmers Market on Fairfax.  There are little fruit stands and displays with delicious staples from famous food stalls at Farmers Market like jams and preserves from Monsieur Marcel, nuts and candy from Magee's.  There are also hot food stations from Farmers Market represented at the LAX food court.

On a recent trip, I loved that I could get a flavorful taste of  something that finally does LA food some justice on my way out of LAX, at Loteria Grill. 

Loteria Grill offers several breakfast served all day items as well as a menu of tacos organized by protein type (there is also one section for all veggie).  I went for the Pork Tacos with roasted pulled pork, citrus-pickled red onion and chile habanero a la carte no rice and beans.  It was served on a plastic tray fast-food style, but it is many levels above and beyond what you would have ever gotten in days past at LAX.  The pulled pork was tender and packed with flavor and delicious heat that toed the edge of my pain threshold in the best way.  All counterbalanced by the crunch and sweet acidity of the pickled onions and soft, fresh made tortillas. 
Given the great bites I had this last time and the full bar (with seating) next to the food counter: I will definitely be returning, and likely with Loteria Grill as my top choice in Terminal 5.

Oh, and did I mention they also serve agua fresca and horchata here?  Fantastic.

 Loteria Grill on Urbanspoon

 I also love Monsieur Marcel for brunch at Farmers Market, and was excited to try the offerings from their counter at LAX.

For breakfast, and because they are still fairly new, a lot of the menu was unavailable.  Thankfully, the Croque Monsieur was - I managed to grab one to go with minutes to spare to make my flight.  It was fairly decent, with cheese pleasingly pliable and flavorful even 15 minutes into the flight, when I finally got around to being able to dig into it - and the quality is definitely leaps and bounds above any breakfast sandwich that you could have gotten at LAX previously.
The other thing I love about Monsieur Marcel's Farmers Market set up at LAX is the marketplace: not only could you pick up delicious bites pre-flight (including Fabrique Delices pates and various charcuterie), you can also score some last minute gourmet goods as souvenirs, whether for yourself or those back home. And finally, items that are NOT just generics (mugs, t-shirts etc.) lazily emblazoned with 'Los Angeles' in some form of garish typeface, but thoughtfully curated goods that actually represent the incredible locally sourced products or flavors inspired by the makeup of the city, from Malibu honey (though, at $30 a jar, a bit painful) to Peach Jalapeno jam. 

LAX has a long way to go yet before it can become a place where travelers *want* to arrive early to grab a bite before heading out - and before that last bite can be capable of being the icing on the cake of happy adventures in LA for tourists - to be a place where you would *want* to schedule a layover, like Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Miami or other major international airports where they take utmost care with their dining offerings, as a last impression of the city for travelers.  But, it's a solid start and for that we give thanks to all the good people behind the scenes who set this in motion, and continue to move us forward on the culinary front.

I'll continue to add to the post as I check out more of LAX's offerings.

Happy Thanksgiving and safe travels!


LAX Los Angeles International Airport Dining (highlights)

Terminal 1 directory (departures)
  • La Brea Bakery (still need to try at LAX)
  • Pinkberry (still need to try at LAX)
  • California Pizza Kitchen ASAP (think this has been there, but a decent food option)

Terminal 2 directory (departures)
  • Nate 'n Al's Deli
  • La Brea Bakery (still need to try at LAX)
  • Wolfgang Puck Express (still need to try at LAX)

Terminal 3 directory (departures)
  • La Brea Bakery (still need to try at LAX)
  • Gladstone's (still need to try at LAX)

Terminal 4 directory (departures)
  • Sammy's Woodfired Pizza & Grill

Terminal 5 directory (departures)

  • Farmers Market: marketplace / mini food court that includes:
    • Loteria Grill
    • Monsieur Marcel
  • Campanile (still need to try at LAX)
  • Cole's (still need to try at LAX)
  • Burger Bar (still need to try at LAX)
  • Skewers by Morimoto
  • Lemonade

Sunday, November 4, 2012

1MB Travels: New Orleans: Commander's Palace

Funny thing, how the passing of time is relative - mere seconds can feel like a lifetime to an Olympic diver, especially as they wait with bated breath to see the results that are the culmination of years of their lives spent in training; years can feel like mere moments to a parent of a grown child they will see as their baby forever (so I hear :P).

But on a more everyday and personal level...It's been just over a year since I started my new gig, and it feels simultaneously like it was yesterday, and a lifetime ago. It feels like a blur, for the flurry of new experiences I've been lucky enough to have, especially being able to see parts of the states I never would have otherwise had occasion or funds to visit. But also like a lifetime, for the things I've learned about this business, and myself, within this year.

Two of these trips brought me to the Big Easy, and I managed to squeeze in a few tastes of soulful southern food and hospitality - my favorite of these experiences was at Commander's Palace, winner of multiple James Beard awards including Best Chef: southern 2012. So good, in fact, that I found myself there twice: for lunch and brunch. Below are the highlights from each.


Commander's Palace is located in the Garden District, a slow paced neighborhood that lives up to its name. The famed Bourbon Street is not my scene for many reasons - so it was good to get to see a more serene, genteel side of NOLA, when I ventured out of the French Quarter to lunch here.

There is a more formal dining room with country-style decor, or you could choose to sit on the garden patio out back. For lunch, I stayed in the dining room - but definitely choose the patio for brunch as they have live jazz on weekends!

The menu was one of those that could cause serious whiplash for adventurous foodies: my eyes roamed all over the page of delicious sounding dishes, willing my stomach to be tested beyond all human limits to accommodate a taste of each.

With sympathetic looks and some help from my lovely server, I finally came up with a short list.

Even the amuse bouche was exciting: Boudin Blanc Rillette Croquette with Jack Daniels Relish.

Then, the truly foodgasm inducing Oysters & Absinthe in Pastry 'Dome', with Gulf oysters poached in cream, bacon, artichoke, tarragon and yes that previously illegal alcohol that was a favorite of artists, poets, authors, and rebels, absinthe. It essentially resembled in texture like a light chowder, but the layers of revelatory flavors were like nothing I had ever tasted.

The puff pastry 'dome' is a technique I'd seen before, which keeps the soup hot, while providing flaky, buttery accompaniment. Perfection in a bowl. I had to have this again on my second visit too (in fact, it's what drew me back).

The soups on offer all sounded so intriguing that I wanted to order them all: Snapping Turtle with splash of sherry, Chicken & Andouille Gumbo, and Lobster Bisque.

Luckily, my server was incredible and let me know that as an 'off menu' service they can create a soup sampler, so that I can try 3 soups in expresso sized cups. My favorite of the three was definitely the snapping turtle soup - they add the sherry tableside - it's fragrance is intoxicating on its own, but in taste it really adds a whole new dimension to the soup. I can only describe it as 'opening up' the flavors of the soup, the way adding drops of water to whiskey breaks up surface tension and allows the lovely complexities of flavor on the drink to be revealed.

Of course, I couldn't leave without trying the Crispy Alligator Grillades with cracked corn grits, Louisiana hot sauce and sweet chili gastrique! Yes, alligator meat does look a bit like chicken, but much richer in flavor. Loved this dish as well - I gotta get my grits too!

I don't know how I found room for dessert, but got the Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé which apparently they are well known for, and it did not disappoint - if I could have brought 10 of these home I would have!

On my brunch visit, it was charming to sit outside (you get to walk through the main kitchen to get there!) and hear the live jazz band.

I went for a southern classic this time with Shrimp and Grits, which was fantastically well balanced between the bold flavors of the shrimp and fiery red sauce, and the comforting mildness of the grits below.

For dessert, I got the Grand Marnier Soufflé and wished I hadn't. This was the only thing from the meal I didn't love - the alcohol was overpowering, I felt like I could get buzzed just from eating a few bites.

Both visits to Commander's Palace were unforgettable, and I look forward to more deliciousness whenever I get to go back to NOLA!

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $ (1 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 100% 

Commander's Palace

1403 Washington Ave., New Orleans, LA 70130
Ph: 504.899.8221

Website: commanderspalace.com

Commander's Palace on Urbanspoon


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