Hello Uncle Foreigner

it's hard to find a decent drink

Feb 20, 2013

Winter Break: Georgetown bar crawl

Boozin’ along Jalan Penang

Visiting the Argylle
Margarita time
Peter magically doubled our margaritas at D’Joint.
Slippery Senioritas
Slippery Señoritas doesn’t actually have tapas, but they do serve the best mojitos.

Some nights, a refined round of cocktails at the Eastern & Oriental was an end unto itself, but other times it was the prelude to future parties down busy Jalan Penang, a bar-lined thoroughfare just south of the hotel. Whether you’re looking for shots on fire or a cold quiet beer, you can find it there.

The northernmost bit of the street, just a short stumble from the E&O, is a pedestrianized home to a bunch of cheesey tourist bars that WANT YOUR BUSINESS. Touts sit out in front of each bar, throwing enticing deals at anyone who walks by. The competition is fierce. We chose D’Joint, ‘cause they had 2-for-1 cocktails. They were as good as you’d expect 2-for-1 cocktails to be.

Across the street from that passel of pubs is “tapas bar” Slippery Señoritas. To be honest, it looks like the kind of place where people go to party ‘til they puke! There was a sign on the wall reading “Platform dancing: For ladies only,” and the lights and music were both flashy and loud.

But! They make a damn fine mojito; potent and with plenty of mint. Go on the early side, and you’ll have the whole place to yourself.

A ways down Jalan Penang sits the far calmer Soho Free House. They have “more draft beers than any bar in Malaysia.” Four draft beers, to be precise: Guinness, Kilkenny, Strongbow and Heineken.

I quickly got over my initial disappointment that they weren’t the 100-tap craft beer paradise I was unrealistically expecting. Draft Guinness is still delicious, and I was happy to have it. The atmosphere was chill, and the people were friendly. What more are you after?

We went back a few days after our initial visit and met Dan, a local of Chinese descent, who struck up a conversation with us about the beaded bracelet that Peter was wearing. Buddhists wear beads like that, he told us, because “they remind you not to get into mischief.” From there, our discussion meandered from reincarnation to local history to international travel. Typical pint talk, and bar buddies for an afternoon.

Still further south, there’s Cafe Argyll, another simple pub, but with a full menu of Indian food. The cocktails were much better than D’Joint’s, and the curries we sampled were amazing. After having only snacks our first time there, we made time to return for a full dinner later in our stay. Delicious.

Soho Free House
Why would you even want more than four kinds of beer?

Feb 15, 2013

Winter break: Penang Hill

Our local attraction

The view from Penang Hill
Up the funicularOn the HillPeter enjoys the viewEmily enjoys a sandwichInside the Owl MuseumMore views of the city from Penang HillA snack at David Brown'sLet's toast to the city

The one thing tourism-wise our hostel had going for it was that it was super close to Penang Hill. Now, it’s called a hill, but the mini-mountain’s peak is more than 800 meters above sea level. It may not be Everest, but it’s not an insignificant height. At that elevation, the air is even a little cooler than it is on the ground.

On a sunny afternoon, we cabbed over to the base (just five minutes, take that Georgetown!) and ascended via funicular.

Just off the upper station, there’s an asphalt pathway that leads towards the small commercial area on the hill, as well as some dirt pathways that take you off into the greenery. We hiked our picnic lunch — cheese sandwiches with hot English mustard on German sourdough with mini gherkins, how international! — a short ways down the dirt and found a perfect little gazebo. The terrible pop cover tunes wafted down from the pub above, but the view and the relative privacy made for a nice atmosphere. There were signs warning not to feed the monkeys, but none approached, so confrontation was duly avoided.

After lunch, we returned to the pavement to see what was to see. There was stuff like: Get your picture taken with a snake; or Eat more at the small hawker center. We chose: See some owly stuff at the Owl Museum. Why not?

The man at the entry only addressed Peter throughout the whole transaction, which was especially irritating given that I was the one handling the money. That happens to us all the time — people assuming Peter’s the boss because he’s the man — but it was way more noticeable in Penang because it was happening in English. (Though, it’s even more absurd in China, because out of the two of us, I have way more Chinese.) My strategy in the face of this is to quietly but firmly continue to assert my presence. It may or may not blow any minds, but it does keep me from feeling completely erased.

Anyway, inside the Owl Museum was delightfully weird. It was basically was two large rooms displaying a collection of internationally made arts and crafts that all depicted owls in some way. Paintings and illustrations of owls, ceramic owl statues, owls carved out of wood. The gift shop featured even more owls, if you wanted to take some owlness home. And we did.

After the owls, we set to wandering down a path that promised monkey cups at the end. Golf carts ferried lazier guests this way and that, but we were having a nice time walking. As we got further away from the commercial area, we started to see some very nice bungalows and houses. Tucked into the hillside, surrounded by trees with a gorgeous view of the island below, they were too perfectly peaceful. Though in the end, we decided that it would be impractical to live there — where would you buy groceries? — so we made no offers.

Before our descent, we stopped at David Brown’s, the aforementioned music-playing pub. It was a small open-air terrace, that was positioned to look right out over the north shore of Penang. The drinks were pretty watery, but with a view like that, who cares? We watched the tourists wander by as we talked and solved all the world’s problems (from the music industry to sexism) over bloody Marys and margaritas. It was a perfect tropical afternoon.

Dec 6, 2012

Chongqing: Cici Park

Seriously, go for the warmed plum wine

The cool crowd hangs at Cici Park
Plum wineCici Park

Cici Park came highly recommended in every piece of travel writing we read about the bar. And, in fact, we liked it so much that we went there both nights of our Chongqing stay.

Tucked away amongst closed-for-the-night shops on the second-floor rooftop of a large, old-looking building, we might have missed the bar were it not for the precise instructions that we got from the hostel staff. Cici Park is quiet, understated and chill as hell.

The weather was mild enough that there was competition for the outdoor tables and benches, but the inside was lovely as well. The walls were decked out with neon, Spirograph art pieces, and smooth, loungey jazz played softly over the PA.

This was yet another no-vomit-on-the-floor crowd (who would think that would be so special?), and we noticed that many merrymakers were drinking tea and soda in lieu of something alcoholic. Not us, though.

There was a small, handwritten sign advertising “The Naoke: Draft beer by handmade.” it came in two flavors — light and dark — there was just enough crisp in the air to make dark the right choice. And it was lovely: rich with a hint of coffee. Another highlight was the plum wine — nice flavor without being too sweet. After a consultation with the bartender, I chose to go for the warm over the cold, again, with reference to the crisp in the air.

We had to try the martini as well, which was OK. Served with ice in the glass, but you take what you can get.

Nov 1, 2012

Finding Golden Hans

Always remember to look up

Beer and meat at Golden Hans
The KegsThe buffetSome meatA table full of plates

A week or so after our return from Beer City, China, we were taking a walk by the river and Peter happened to glance up to a second story window.

“Beer, beer, beer, beer!” he said, or something more thoughtful than that. Because, visible from the street, there were four silver tanks, just the right size for a microbrewery.

On the banner below the window was pictured a cartoony German man and some prices. We had to know more.

Upstairs we found Golden Hans, a German-themed churrascaria with Chinese characteristics. There was an all-you-can-eat buffet, waiters carried be-meated swords from table to table, and they served honest-to-goodness, brewed-on-the-premises beer. A wheat and a stout that both beat the pants off of Tsingtao. (We love you Tsingtao!)

The place had probably been in Luzhou much longer than we had, and we had walked that strip of river many, many times before. But it was not until after we had traveled halfway across the country to drink beer out of a keg that we looked up. Luzhou is a vertical city, and there are a ton of businesses that are on the second floor, or above, of any given building. But we’re just not used to looking for things above street level. I think we’re missing out on a lot.

Golden Hans, anyway, was a terrific find. The food is unmistakably cooked in China, but they capture “western” better than any other local western restaurant. There are plenty of vegetable dishes at the buffet, and the meat-on-swords cuts range all over the place, from “too weird for me” to “honey BBQ pork, please give me much more!”

We usually spend a little more than 100RMB there, which is more than twice what a meal at sticks costs, so we’ve made it a special occasion place. But, with at least 4 return visits in the past two months, we’ve found reason to celebrate a lot of special occasions.

Oct 18, 2012

Summer vacation: Where are we?

A simple martini in an unlikely location

At the Russian Bar

I’ll be honest, that evening our pre-dinner libations had been many and strong, and we were having a little trouble finding the restaurant where we wanted to eat. But we did find this Russian bar with internet access.

We ordered drinks and I looked up our destination (which would turn out to be about 50 feet further along). I got an adequate bloody Mary, but Peter’s vodka martini was quite good. The bartender took his time making it, and he looked very proud when Peter told him that it was as good as any vodka martini he had had in New York.

Oct 11, 2012

Summer vacation: Old Jack’s Bar

Our after-dinner drinks go up in smoke

Old Jack's Bar
Old Jack's Bar

We had espied this bar from a bus earlier in the week, and it looked like something we’d be into. Located on a relatively quiet street, Jack’s has a nice outdoor space, and the inside has a simple, cozy pub feel. And they had (non-Tsingdao) beer on tap, which is something that we almost never see.

After our Italian feast, we were hoping to sit back and settle in for the night. The vibe was relaxed and calm, and the drinks were nice and tasty. (Martini status: Good, dirty and strong!)

But, indoor smoking! I keep forgetting that, in most places here, no one has Bloombergered those butts outside. After one round, these non- and recovering smokers needed some air. The patio was full-up, so we sadly said good-bye to Old Jack.

Next up: Wedding-photo crashing …

Oct 11, 2012

Summer vacation: Trattoria Verde

Our Italian splurge

Real Italian food!
Our new friend at the table next door took a picture of us all fancyPeter, outside the restaurant

The online expat reviews of this Italian joint were strong, so we made a reservation and got all dolled up.

The split-level restaurant is cozy, and has a breezy, beachy style — with quirky, cute artwork and tchotchkes on the walls — that wouldn’t be out of place on Main Street in Southampton. Upstairs is a little dark, but we were sat downstairs, with a view of the open kitchen. I can verify that everyone was working very hard.

It was exciting to see a real wine list after so much time. We were trying not to go too crazy, however, at a restaurant that was at the upper end of our budget, so I ordered a glass of the house red, which did me right. Peter’s martini was garnished with a black olive — the one small disappointment of the meal.

We started with an appetizer of roasted asparagus with some sort of hard cheese shaved over the top. (It was something delicious and fancier than Parmesan, is all we can remember; one lesson of this trip was: take better notes.) This was the first time we had seen asparagus anywhere in China, and so we anticipated the dish hungrily. And, oh, it was so good! The asparagus was roasted just perfectly, and the salty tang of the unknown cheese was a wonderful compliment.

As for mains: Peter went with a cheese ravioli, garnished with pine nuts — another rarity over here — and I got a pizza with prosciutto and ricotta cheese. The ravioli were incredible, and the pizza was the Best in China So Far. The crust was thin and crispy, and the sauce (which is most often what Chinese pizza gets wrong) was light and just the right amount of sweet and salty.

It was a pricy meal, but we definitely felt that it was money well spent.

The Trattoria Verde kitchen

Let’s repair to the bar for a digestive …

Oct 2, 2012

Summer vacation: Finding that Spark

Beer and pizza still works in China

A wide sampling of the Spark menuReal microbrewThe Spark exterior

Just up from May 4th Square is The Spark, a modern little microbrew pub specializing in fancied-up American diner food. The whole menu is tantalizing (and we were seriously tempted to come back for brunch), but we ultimately settled on a pizza, a salad, a steak sandwich with fries, and pickles. (Pickles are emerging as a surprise contender in the “what do we miss most” game.) And, of course, beer.

Beer was the big reason we sought out the Spark, having read that Beer City actually had its own microbrew. And though we were well full up on Tsingtao (this was the meal had after our brewery tour), we did have room for one more — especially one more made small-batch, on the premises.

It was absolutely fantastic. The beer had a golden honey color, a good head, and it was cloudy and full of flavor. The food, also, did not disappoint. Everything we ordered was comforting, authentic and delicious. The steak on my sandwich was beautifully marinated, and it was served with hard-boiled egg slices, making it extra hearty. Peter’s pizza did pretty well by the standards of pizzas we’ve had in China.

We read about this place on some expat boards (obviously; we still don’t speak Chinese). But, as we’d seen in most of our western dining experiences in Qingdao, the Spark’s patrons were a good mix of westerners and Chinese. And everyone looked to be having a good time.

Now that we’re well fed, let’s get out on the water …

Sep 21, 2012

Summer vacation: Zwei bier, bitte

Hoisting a stein in the Far East

We've got sauerkraut
The Ratskeller

With all that German-ness around, it made sense to check out some German cuisine. The Ratskeller is on the luscious grounds of the former German governor’s residence, and it has an absolutely beautiful outdoor patio. The night was pleasantly warm, and the cicadas droned their lovely bagpipe tune all through dinner.

As is our habit, we shared many dishes between us so as to taste the most of the menu. The food was slightly on the bland side, though there was a squash soup that was pretty good. But my schnitzel was flavorless and the sauerkraut lacked bite. It’s possible that the cooks didn’t really understand the flavors; Peter’s salad had both shaved Parmesan and nori. But it was nice to have something different, and now I’m further inspired to try to make my own sauerkraut at home. (So many projects!)

A gentleman of leisure
A gentleman of leisure enjoys his martini.

The martinis were also weak and bland. But the beer (Tsingdao, of course) was served in tall, frosty steins, and it was just delicious. The drinking culture in China is completely different from the United States (it’s basically: do shots until your wife has to carry you home), and all summer I was dying for a place to sit outside and just sip a good brew. So if nothing else, the Ratskeller did that well.

You may be asking, “Isn’t this a beach town?” Well, hold your horses, we’re getting there …

Sep 20, 2012

Summer vacation: Mingling with ex-pats

Introverts meet extroverts, have a good time

Our new friends
The most fun drinks are on fire! A few of us tried a little absinthe.

We were going to make it an early night. One post dinner cocktail at the Old Church Lounge, and then bed. But, at the bar, we met Marisol.

Marisol was a very outgoing member of a group of students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They had done a three-week program in Beijing over the summer and were in Qingdao for a last hurrah before finals and then a return to the states. They invited us to join them for a night on the town and our early bedtime evaporated.

This bar was no fun
This bar was not fun.

We struck out at a defunct jazz club and a too-smokey and -loud bar before we settled on a just right pub with an outdoor patio. (We knew we were with a good crowd when it wasn’t either of us that had to complain that bar number two was too awful.)

We spent the night drinking fun drinks and trading adventure stories and impressions of China. One of them asked us if we lived with a bunch of hillbillies, which was a surprising show that east coast prejudice against western China is so obvious that westerners pick up on it. But it was all in good fun. We even managed to talk politics without any acrimony. Particularly insightful was Ricky, a Beijinger who worked at a car dealership and another of Marisol’s recruits from the hostel.

It got late and we returned to the hostel and said our goodbyes. There was no pretense that we’d keep in touch. It was just one of those transient ex-pat nights that can be really sad if that’s all you have, but is really fun as an occasional adventure.

Tomorrow we dine on schnitzel!