On the road again

The road beckons.  We bid family adios and turn Horatio’s nose north, picking up the Mother Road in Amarillo, Texas.  Dinner at the Big Texan Steak Ranch is ridiculous and absolutely necessary if you’re ever in Amarillo riding Route 66.

It's literally too big for my camera.
It’s literally too big for my camera.

Why?  Three reasons:

1. The vittles 

The food, though pricey, is downright delicious.

texas vittles

If you have a notion, you can step up to the 72-ounce steak challenge – if you can eat it in one sitting under an hour (plus side items), you get it free!

2. Practice your shootin’

While you wait for a table, you can shoot some stuff.


3. Show off your new boots

Nothing says “cowgirl” like a chair with horns on it.  Yee-haw!

chair with boots

Kentucky Fried Adventure

We turn Horatio to the Blue Ridge Parkway and back roads to close the gap between Virginia and Kentucky.  The Appalachian mountains rise and fall in their autumnal glory as the hours roll sweetly beneath our wheels.  Kentucky is smothered in morning fog; the rolling land dripping in kudzu flattens briefly into blue-green fields dotted with horses and black barns.

We pull into Corbin, Kentucky for a very special lunch stop.

The very first KFC restaurant
The very first KFC restaurant

Lunch at the Harland Saunders Café and Museum isn’t the frantic gobble-fest of a typical fast food stop.  This KFC is slow-paced, reflective, informative.  Artifacts of the Colonel’s slow saunter through history are displayed in glass cases.  Among the treasures are a “rare” Colonel Saunders Halloween mask from the 1960s, red checked tablecloth from the original restaurant, and a Czechoslovakian moose shaving mug that belonged to the Colonel’s father.


Americana at its finest.

And you can count it as a field trip, kids, because it’s an official Historic Place!

Really, Department of the Interior?  Really??
Really, Department of the Interior? Really??
Sal and the Colonel
Sal and the Colonel
Creepy squared.
Creepy squared.

Eclectic East Coast Eats

It’s easy to eat your way through 3,000 miles of Big Macs and Starbucks lattes.  But the road less traveled has much to offer the road tripper in gastronomic treasures and oddities.  As we trek across the U.S.A., I’ll share with you some diners and cafés worth a detour.

Paper Moon Diner, West Baltimore, Maryland

Paper Moon ain’t a diner, it’s an acid trip with hamburgers.   I don’t know what I love more about this place – the bizarrely artsy decor or the bizarrely delicious menu choices.

Only a tiny slice of the crazy. A respectable collection of Pez dispensers. Baby doll parts, Legos, army men – all of your favorite toys deconstructed and rearranged to form a nightmarish fun house.

They have BACON SHAKES, people.  Yes, you heard me — a milkshake flavored with freaking BACON.


We order the crab mac & cheese, a beautiful chicken salad, moonburger with cheese, and sweet potato fries.  The sweet potato fries are crispy pillows of pure delight.  Burger is juicy and perfect, everything is lovely.  While the prices are a bit high for diner food (about $9 – $11 for a burger), the atmosphere, service, and experience is well worth it.



New York Pizza, Vinton, Virginia

New York Pizza is a local treasure of my beloved Southwest Virginia – we make a pit stop in sleepy, sweet Vinton just for this restaurant.  Why?  Two reasons: the best pizza in a 100 mile radius, and the enormous plaster Jesus welcoming us with open arms in the parking lot.

ny pizza2

Prices are decent, the vibe is jukebox-casual, and the booths are teeming with locals in baseball caps sipping on Coke and Budweiser.  On nice days, you can sit on picnic tables shaded by grape vines.  Ahh…just like Italy.  Or, New York.  Whatever.  Just go with it.

ny pizza1

Pizza and Jesus.  Why ever not?
Does McDonald’s welcome you like this?  No it doesn’t.

Europe Farwell Tour Day 4: In which I ingest a questionable substance in Amsterdam

Yes, the rumours about Amsterdam are true.  The “coffeeshops” dotted on every corner heave with partakers from morning to late.  Pot smoke doesn’t just waft, it penetrates everything – by dinnertime, you are breathing about 40% air and 60% second hand pot smoke.  And the infamous Red Light District?  As it sounds – a square of several blocks teaming with sex shops, coffeeshops, and yes, ladies beckoning from red backlit windows.

It strikes me that I am the wrong demographic for Amsterdam.  I don’t care, I love it.  Wander along the canals, shimmering with golden lamplight, and try not to fall in love with this city.  No house or building is alike, and they lean whimsically – as if the city arched its spine and the buildings shifted to and fro like disjointed vertebrae.  It’s something to do with the foundations, having first been built of wood, then re-poured with cement.

Amsterdam has about 1,000 bikes per capita. *Photo courtesy of Sal.
Amsterdam has about 1,000 bikes per capita. *Photo courtesy of Sal.

We stop for tea in the courtyard of Hofje Wijs – a charming café on Zeedijk with a respectable selection of teas and coffees.


Of course, the menu’s in Dutch but sprinkled with English.  White…red…green…even ‘blue tea’!  Never heard of that, let’s give it a whirl…I order something called “Opium Hill”.  Sal raises an eyebrow.

“You want to ask what’s in it?” he mummers.

“No, I’m just going to try it.”

The tea comes out in a lovely metal pot, decorated in leaves that look like…marijuana.

“Um…”  Sal nudges me, “you sure you don’t want to ask?”

I pour a bit into the teacup.  It has a golden colour – not blue at all.  I take a cautious sniff.  It smells like tea.

“I’m sure it’s fine,” I say with confidence I no longer feel.  “Besides, I don’t think you drink weed.”

Sal disagrees and we debate this quietly.  “They put it in brownies.  You eat brownies,” he argues.

I raise the lid of the pot.  “It looks like tea.”

He laughs, “It’s leaves!  What else is it going to look like?”

“Maybe there’s weed in your beer,” I jeer.  He’s drinking a very benign-looking beer, golden with a silky foam on the top.

I take a tiny sip – it has a light, buttery taste.  “It tastes like tea.”

Well, the only thing to do now…is wait.

Look closely at the teapot...
Look closely at the teapot…

it’s true what they say about Ireland

The Guinness does taste different!  Had a pint of the good brown stuff in the Guinness Storehouse’s Gravity Bar, looking out over Dublin.  You get a free pint on the tour, in which I learned how tall hops grows and that there are actually three different types of Guinness: draft, extra stout, and foreign extra.

For good measure, I had another half pint in Dublin’s tiniest pub: The Dawson Lounge (check out Timeout’s review here).


The pub was just my size.


It was so nice – I felt like I really fit in.

A pillow mounted on the ceiling in the ladies' - to protect your head when you stand up! They really thought of everything!
A pillow mounted on the ceiling in the ladies’ – to protect your head when you stand up! They really thought of everything!

The owner, Conner, let me hop behind the bar and pour my own pint.


In this intimate setting, conversations among strangers are easy and natural.  We chatted with some dudes from Wisconsin about the beer industry and its tendency to squeeze out microbreweries.

A little economics chatter in a tiny pub with a half pint of *real* Guinness.

Can’t beat that!






buckwheat promises

You know that overwhelming urge, the one that comes suddenly on a Sunday afternoon around 4:00, for a buckwheat sandwich and some crepes?

And then comes that crushing disappointment with the knowledge that no place houses both these beautiful dreams under one roof.  And finally, the familiar ache that turns into quiet sobs as you pick at your beans and toast.


malokoTucked under unassuming blue awnings is a tiny little paradise – a new café called Maloko, on the corner of Camberwell Church Street and Camberwell Grove lane.  The décor is simple but unique –   the floor bursts with colour, green drums for tables, coffee bags for a ceiling.  It’s light and airy and filled with happy vibes.

The owner’s usually there to greet you, a young guy bursting with smiles and good wishes.  His joy in opening the new business, and hope for its success, is palpable and catching.

Not many choices on the menu (yet!) but what glorious few they are!  crepes

Crepes, crepes, beautiful crepes – crepes filled with chocolate, lemon, Grand Marnier,  with unicorns and sunshine.

And yes, buckwheat sandwiches filled with cheese, spinach, yams – vegetarian stuff.  The coffee is quite good (this coming from a coffee snob) – I had a macchiato and was well pleased.

The prices are typical Camberwell – cheap!  And Maloko has great hours – everyday from about 8am to 10pm-ish – though I’m sure this will adjust with time, I’m hoping it doesn’t.

Because that buckwheat urge can strike at any time.


that fussy Muse

Atmosphere matters terribly to the sensitive writer.  For writing to happen, everything must be just so.  Just so much light, preferably low in lamps, not too interrogating, not judgemental.  Not dark and spooky.  Just so much noise, preferably a blend of uninteresting chatter and music.  Music must not be too catchy or loud, and maybe nothing from the ’80s, because I know all the words to every song that came out of the ’80s.  Noise must find a snug corner in the subconscious and stay there, buzzing gently.

I haven’t even gotten to the chairs and tables yet.  Not to mention the coffee.  To be honest, I can forgive slightly less than terrific coffee for great atmosphere.

I’m writing this from Bermondsey Street Coffee, which excels in coffee but not in atmosphere.

bermondsey st coffee

I couldn’t write great things in here, I know this.  This is one of those passing-the-time places.  A place to surf the net, or write down some jumbly thoughts, maybe a blog entry.  Nothing too serious or important.

The chairs are great – comfy and leather, and arranged well for conversation and general chilling – but not for solitary pondering and writing.  I can see too many people from where I sit.  Artsy people.  Reading people.  Studying people.  But mostly talking people.  They move, they walk by, they distract and alarm the nervous birds of thought and idea that may wish to land in my head.  They flitter away at the slightest provocation, these birds.

The room throbs with music that is too carefully selected for ‘hip’ and ‘eclectic’ to fade into the background.

Who can write great things with Michael Jackson singing in the room?  Who can do that?

Nobody can.

year of the snake


It’s Sunday, 10:00am, 3 degrees with a persistent, grey drizzle splattering the winter-weary ground.  Dude, let’s go to Leicester Square and watch a parade!

The Chinese New Year parade is bound to be amazing, right?  This is freaking LONDON, and they have their own China Town, so I’m expecting Incredible Sights here.

Ha!  Look, a snake!  It’s the Year of the Snake, that’s awesome.

Snake parading down Charing Cross road
Snake parading down Charing Cross road

What’s this?  A bus with some nicely-dressed people in it.  Hm.  Ok.

people on bus

Oh, cool, martial artists!  No, wait.  Those are fencers.



This is making less sense as the parade progresses.

Oddly reminiscent of the Olympics Opening Ceremonies...
Oddly reminiscent of the Olympics Opening Ceremonies…

I’m pretty sure none of this is Chinese related.

Dude, Morris dancers?  Are you kidding me, London?

See those badge-thingys on their backs?  They also had them on their nipples.  Dancing to an accordion.
See those badge-thingys on their backs? They also had them on their nipples. Dancing to an accordion.

We try for the ‘fireworks’ at Trafalgar Square.  Dodging umbrella jabs to the eye, weaving through the hoards of people, we’re rewarded with a couple minor spurts of fireworks and some British announcers making lame jokes about speaking Mandarin.  Some stuff probably happened on stage.  But at 5’2″, I can’t see any of it.

Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square

We go for Dim Sum at the New World.   A dragon appears outside the door as we go to leave, accompanied by drummers wearing tee-shirts that read ‘Shaolin Fist’.  This is all second-hand knowledge.  All I see are backs and bums.

"I ordered that dim sum 15 minutes ago. You bring it here or it's a cabbage in the face!"
“I ordered that dim sum 15 minutes ago. You bring it here or it’s a cabbage in the face!”

“What’s happening out there?”

“The dragon is throwing cabbage at the people.”  A tall man informs me.

“Why would the dragon do that?”

“It’s lucky.  Cabbage is for luck.”  Tall Man shrugs.

Once, in Camberwell, someone threw a lemon at me.  It missed, fortunately.  “I don’t think I’d like to be pelted with cabbage.  That doesn’t sound lucky to me.”

Tall Man makes a non-committal noise.

The dragon moves on, we jostle through the crowd, under the red paper lanterns, brolly-fighting as we go.  We pass a store with cabbage hanging from the doorway.

Tall Man spoke true, I think.

I keep my eye out for dragons.

underground concert

There’s no better way to ring in cold and flu season than spending a late Autumn evening in a dark, dank underground concrete shaft.  That’s right, we went back to Rotherhithe (Rotherhithe!) to check out the Brunel’s Museum’s autumn underground concerts series inside the Thames Tunnel Grand Hall.

Photo courtesy of Sal

Seated on a metal folding chair inside the dome, it’s hard to imagine anything filling the hollow, deep space but damp air or (shudder) torrents of water.  But from the first peal of the violin string, I’m convinced nothing can fill it so well as music.  Kosmos Ensemble underground is an ethereal experience.  Technically brilliant trio – 2 violins and 1 accordion – Kosmos is  creative and unafraid.  A dutch tango gets a boost from Jewish folk, then glides into a melancholy Polish piece called the ‘suicide tango’, onto a Romanian tango (there were lots of tangos).

Just as a tango is really lighting up to a feverish crescendo, a train rumbles in a low thunder under our feet.  Magic, timing, or happenstance?  On a night like this, I’d go with magic.

It’s not too late to catch the last of the Brunel Museum’s enigmatic underground concerts – there’s a Welch band playing next week, with a (!!!) harp.  While you’re there, grab a pint at The Mayflower pub.  So close to the river, it had flooded a little just hours before our visit.  The atmosphere is just right – quirky / nautical, with quotes from people like Ghandi written in your booth.  And the food – 2 steps above standard pub fare, at standard prices.

You know you’re going to get a cold anyway.  Might as well have a story to tell about it!

Camberwell pluses and minuses

I love my neighbourhood, but I don’t really know why.

People make fun of Camberwell (‘take a piss out’ of Camberwell?  Is that right?  That can’t be right.).  Anyway, people look down on the place, and a walk through the hood gives you plenty of reasons for pause.  The bins full of trash lining the sidewalks, the insistent beggars waiting to pounce as you exit Morrison’s, the intermittent drama outside the police station…I could go on.

But it has some good points, too.

Let’s make a list, because that’s fun!  Let’s do Camberwell pluses and minuses.


Cheap, good food: Camberwell delights the frugal foodie with several inexpensive neighbourhood eateries.  Top on my list are FM Mangal (Turkish), Caravaggio’s (Italian), and Lamoon (Asian fusion).

Vibe: The vibe is cool in Camberwell.  Walking down Church St, reggae pulses out of the local barber shop, Indian pop from a passing car.  People are chill, relaxed, artsy but not like, pretentious artsy.

The Greek Grocer: The guy I get my fresh veg from is a character out of a book somewhere, I’m convinced.  He always wears this white lab coat, like a white mountain.  He gyps me change sometimes, but I forgive him, as sometimes he gives me extra change.  I think he just makes up the prices.  He calls me ‘darling’, making me feel like I’m back in the American South, and has a calico cat.

Rat Records: A Camberwell institution.  The name says it all.


Drug People:  Often people who are on/want drugs ask you for money or lie on the bus bench or pee on the wall.  Sometimes a fight breaks out or someone gets yell-y.

Jesus People: I like Jesus and all, but maybe don’t want to hear all about him on my bus when I am tired.  Also the shouted sermons outside of the McDonald’s.  This is common in Camberwell.  Also sometimes your doorbell rings, and you think it’s a delivery or someone dropping by, and you rush out of the shower and throw on a bathrobe, but no.  It’s a Jesus Person.  And now everyone feels awkward.

Scary: Some people think Camberwell looks or feels scary.  I don’t, but I like to be inclusive of all opinions.  Of course, there were the riots.  During the riots one day we were let out early from work if we lived in Camberwell.  They said not to go to the Green, but I did anyway.  I asked the Greek Grocer if anything happened.

‘Eh,’ he said, making a face. ‘Nothing so much. They got the place over there. Some kids, you know, they walking around, but doing nothing.’

The only place that got rioted was this cheapo phone store I didn’t think much of anyway.

Sometimes weird things happen in Camberwell.  Like this one time when a bus ran into a building.  Everyone was just standing around, police, mums with buggies, me, others, just staring, trying to sort out what it all meant.  How did the bus get into that building?  I never got the answer to that.