Craft Beer, Fine Wine, Artisan Spirits, and Mouthgasmic Food.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Vaals, Three Points in Europe, Printen, Lebanese Eats, and Aachen

While we were in the Maastricht area, we rented a car to travel the roads less taken. Driving in the area gave me a better idea of the geography and lifestyle of Europe. In just 40 minutes, we were able to go from a college center of the Netherlands and pop over into the spa town of Aachen, Germany. I can barely get from one end of Austin to the other end when there is no traffic in that time. It is wild to think that I can drive into another country in such little time.

I'm in three countries at the same time. It is possible without the use of body doubles!
On the way to Germany, we made a stop in Vaals to visit the point where three countries meet. On top of the hill of Vaalserberg, you can hop from the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. If your arms and legs are long enough, you can be in all three countries at the same time. This point sits in the middle of what seems to be an enchanted forest with no rigid physical borders for kilometers around.

This elephant was in the labyrinth.
On the Netherland side of the point, there is a fun labyrinth that will give you either hours of joy or frustration. For just 5 euros, you can join many other people running around in a maze of hedges, raised platforms, and motion triggered fountains. The goal is to get to the center of the maze, and then out of the maze. The GPS claimed that I went seven miles running through this maze before reaching the center with some help. That must have burned off a Belgian Wafel or more. I’d recommend it for children and adult, especially those children with an abundance of energy.

I'm at the center platform of the labyrinth after too much time running around in the rain.
The labyrinth had mazes for you to play to help you forget how long you were stuck in there. This one is the run away train concept. You at the entrance in the bottom and you can only turn in the direction of the curves. No curve = no turns.

Next on our drive through Europe was a stop in Aachen, a border down in Germany. Aachen is know for the mineral springs and plethora of fountains, and there are a few interesting activities for visitors. We visited the Charlemagne Museum, we had a treat at Noobis including a taste of Printen, took some photos of the fountains, had some very delicious Lebanese food, and then visited the Carolus Thermen Spa

Here's a delicious treat from Nobis.
Nobis is a popular eatery with many sweet treats including a printen shop next door. We had a light cake in the eatery along with some samples of printen. Printen comes in different shapes and sizes, the hedgehog being the cutest. The printen cookies are a hard and crunchy spiced with cinnamon, ginger, clove, anise, cardamon, coriander, and allspice.

The cutest little printen I've ever seen.

Many more trays of pastries at Nobis.
While in Aachen, we found a lovely Lebanese restaurant called AKL. The website isn’t in English, but you can point to whatever you want when you arrive. We ordered the grilled meat plate for two, and it might feed up to four people who aren’t quite so hungry. While verbal communication with the staff was a little difficult, I did manage to get the ingredients for the an amazing delicious sauce they served. It was an orange slightly tangy and rich sauce made of onion, orange juice, and sesame paste. My best guess is that it is a variant of Lebanese garlic sauce

Grilled meat platter for two.
After the delicious meal of smokey meats and fries, we drove over to the Carlos Thermen Spa. While it says spa in the name, there are some things that are different from spa in the United States. At Carlos Thermen, you’ll need to bring your own towel. There aren’t clean towels and robes provided for you. You’ll need to bring your own sandals or flip flops unless you want to run around barefoot. You’ll also need a bathing suit of sorts. The spa areas are communal, and there are occasional youngsters around. Make sure your stuff is covered. In terms of changing, there is one very large changing room with individual stalls. The showers and bathrooms are split by gender. 

So many things here are covered in gold.
There are several warm pools with massaging jets, one very chilly pool, and a steam room for your enjoyment in the main areas. There are other amenities too along with food and beverage service, but I didn’t use those services. I spent my time in the larger communal area that is included in the pass price (12 euros for 2.5 hours). The spa was very enjoyable, and I might even splurge to be able to use the additional services offered next time.

One of the fountains in the center of the Aachen Square. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Bun Vietnamese Food in Antwerp, Belgium

One of the most intriguing dining experiences during the trip was at a place called Bun in Antwerp. We discovered that it had pretty good reviews and menu items that were off the beaten path, and that pretty much fits the dining on vacation criteria.

The restaurant’s tag like is "Our story is one of East meets West" referring to the chefs, Hoa Truong & Huibrecht Berends. I spied some books for sale in the restaurant so there’s a larger story about the restaurant’s history and chefs that I would certainly love to explore if we had more time in Antwerp. The books are written by the chef of Bun’s sister restaurant, Little Asia in Brussels. To clarify, Hoa Truong’s sister is the owner of Little Asia, so they really are sister restaurants. At least what’s what I can piece together with the translations. 

Since we arrived at the restaurant for lunch right at opening, we were able to snag some seats near a large window. However, do be warned that the restaurant is limited in seats so you may want to make reservations during busy hours.

We ordered a variety of dishes, and each one was distinctly unique and delightful in its own way. Let’s take a walk through the menu.

We started with the dog cockles, otherwise known as European Bittersweet clams served with Vietnamese flavors. These were refreshing, simple, and divine. 

Next up was a warm beef bun that oozed of umami. This was comfort food!

And the next savory course was the ca kho which was spicy caramelized plaice fillet over white rice. This was one of the best rice and fish dishes I have ever had, and I have had many rice and fish dishes. The fish was sweet but not sugary. The texture was firm yet delicate. I would highly recommend this dish. 

Dessert was fermented sticky rice. It does not sound interesting, and it certainly did not look sexy. However, it was super tasty. Fermented sticky rice is made with the same yeast that is used to make sake. This tasted like a porridge spiked with fizzy sake, and it was very interesting.
And you know that a dish is really remarkable when you look up how to make it at home. I ordered some rice yeast balls from Amazon in preparation for my next experiment. 

Lastly, we were gifted with some ginger chocolate truffles to finish off our lunch. If I had an extra meal to spend in Belgium, I would ride over to Brussels and try the sister restaurant, Little Asia.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Tips on Getting Tickets to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam

We must not forget what history has taught us. History has shown us that people can be cruel, unjust, and unrestrained in their destruction of people. While in Amsterdam, making a visit to the Anne Frank Museum is an absolute must to keep the lessons from history seared into our minds. 

The entrance to the Anne Frank Museum

The museum is the house in which Anne Frank, her family, the Pels, and Fritz Pfeffer. Do note that photographs inside the museum are not allowed as respect for people connecting with the meaning of the house. Visiting the location where one of the greatest works of literature was written during the darkest hours of history is something that many others want to do.

You can purchase tickets to the Anne Frank House, but you should do it well in advance. There are regular admission tickets (9 euros) to the museum, and there are special tickets (14 euros) that include an introductory program with museum staff. The special tickets typically had much fewer time slots available. When I looked at tickets in October, the regular tickets were sold out for several weeks in advance as were the special program tickets. On occasion, a few tickets would become available on same day or a few days in advance. 

Model of the house in the museum gift shop.

My best guess about why this happens is because new tickets for existing time slots are uploaded into the schedule. My experience in trying to catch one of these newly added tickets is to check the website early in the morning Amsterdam time zone. My first day in Amsterdam, I found six regular tickets for same day. The other days I was in Amsterdam showed no tickets available, but I kept checking to see the website regularly to see if any there were any available tickets. And that’s how I discovered the addition of available tickets the same day or a few days in advance.

I wound up spotting available special tickets that worked well for our schedule, and I snagged them. It appears that the museum staff schedules are solidified a few days in advance so it is more likely that you’ll find the special program tickets being added, particularly if you notice there are days when special program tickets time slots are very limited. Staffing for that day is probably still being solidified, and thus, the higher chances that you’ll see available tickets and additional times closer to that date. Keep in mind that all is this is speculation on the operations end of how tickets are made available for purchase online. I could be really inaccurate, but hopefully this post will get you tickets anyways. 

Front view of the museum.

You might be asking if it is worth 5 euros to pay for the special program, and I would say that it is worth the additional and nominal cost. In the program, a museum staff member guides you through the story with details about the museum and family that you cannot get anywhere else. By the time you are ready to visit the museum, you are well-educated in the story so that the visit makes sense to you. Instead of trying to absorb new information, you are able to experience the museum and get a deeper understanding of the significance of the items and space. I would highly recommend getting tickets for the special program. 

 This is the middle section of the line.

If you decide that you want to show up to buy tickets, do be prepared for an extremely long wait. Walk up tickets start being sold at 3:30pm, and the line is about two hours long just to buy ticket. After seeing the line at the Museum, I am very grateful that I spent time every morning looking for tickets.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Turkish Pizza, lahmacun, in Europe

You want Turkish pizza. You really, really want Turkish pizza. We stumbled across this gem of a dish late at night while searching for a tasty bite in Amsterdam near the Anne Frank Museum. Sefa Grill had pretty good reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor, so we decided to give it a try. 

It may not be the most photogenic dish, but it is a tasty one.  

We ordered a pretty standard meat platter, and what we thought was a pizza. What came out was more of a wrap than a pizza, and it was absolutely delicious. The crispy and flakey wrap warmly hugged hot, juice doner meat and sauce. It was so good that I could have finished one in 90 seconds. I probably could have easily eaten 3 or 4. 

The mixed grilled platter at Sefa.

You  might be confused about why something that looks like a wrap is called a pizza. We had this dish a second time at a shop on the busiest shopping center in Leiden, and we got a sneak peek at how they are made.

I took this photo from over the counter. 

This dish does start out as a pizza cooked in a pan. The cooked crust is the dressed with sauce and toppings, and the entire thing is cooked in a pan. Then the entire thing is rolled up tightly into a delicious wrap. 

This one had more traditional pizza toppings. 

These pizzas are very affordable at just a few euros. You can always add more toppings for a more extravagant pizza. They were on the menu at shops every few blocks in Leiden, and they are also plentiful in Amsterdam. Sometimes Turkish pizza is called lahmacun, though it is typically served flat instead of rolled. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Egyptian Kapsalon: Fries + Meat + Cheese

Growing up, chili cheese fries were a thing you ate a the Sonic on a Friday night after the high school football game. Piping hot fries covered with spicy chili and cheese out of a can were classic. It was the Texas version of fries + meat + cheese. Another famous take on meaty fries is the poutine, a Canadian dish of fries covered with cheese curds and gravy.

The dressed up fries don’t stop there. Chilantro based in Austin, TX has their version which is covered in bibimbap meat, caramelized kimchi, cheddar + monterey jack, onions, cilantro, magic sauce, sesame seeds, and sriracha. Salt Traders in Round Rock has the chowder fries: fries covered in clam chowder, bacon, and leeks. And the new Soursop Austin has a version of crispy fries covered with rice cakes, five spice flank steak, rau ram, Thai basil, and pho gravy. 

These dishes aren't always the prettiest of dishes, but the taste makes up for that cosmetic short coming. 

 There are a few other versions of fries + meat + cheese concoctions including the carne asada fries that are served in the San Diego area, Halal snack pack in Australia, and the mitraillette in Belgium where it is served as a sandwich.

While in Maastricht, an American exchange student who recommended a version that he likes to have after a long night of studying. It was called the kapsalon, which oddly means hairdresser in Dutch, at an eatery called Isis Grill (as in the Egyptian God Isis). So one day, we took a short walk to the restaurant and ordered the kapsalon. 

A large pile of fries was covered in lettuce, doner meat, garlic sauce, and melted cheese. It did certainly taste like what I’d have after a long night of studying. I’d recommend it at least once because fries are always good, and so it garlic sauce and cheese.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Tips I learned in Europe

You might have noticed that I took trip over to Europe, and it was incredible. I’m breaking up the vacation into a series of short but deliciously fun blog post. The trip started in Amsterdam with a run down to Brussels, Antwerp, Maastricht, Valkenburg, Vaals, Aachen, and then back up to Amsterdam with short jaunts over to Wageningen and Leiden. This first post will be a combination of travel tips and what I learned while I was in Europe.

Hello, Wafels!

1. European facilities are tall. The toilets are tall. The mirrors in the bathroom are tall. I could barely see the top of my head in them. If you are short, you might have some challenges.

2. People there use TripAdvisor much more than Yelp. Yelp has little to no presence.

These flower pots were a genius way to hang them on the side of the rail. Genius I say. 

3. When you are driving in Holland and Germany, you still drive on the right side of the road like you do in the United States. The driver’s side of the car is the same as in the United States as well. However, most of the roads are just wide enough for 1.5 cars and there is no dividing line. Everyone shares the road. You don’t get a lane. You just move over to let people get by and you pray that the other person is in sync with your driving intentions.

4. Even though Discover card doesn’t have a foreign transaction fee, the only place in Europe that took Discover was the Enterprise rental car in Maastricht. Otherwise, get Euros or bring your Charles Schwab card.

Cappuccinos of Europe. They were all so consistently tasty!

5. Tea and coffee in Europe gets dressed up with snackies. Sometimes it is served with cookies, truffles, or other little bites. And the cappuccinos always come with a cookie or biscuit. 


6. There are some pretty neat ways to solve annoying problems. For example, to keep doors from slamming, a leather pouch is attached to the door jam to keep it quiet. And a few photos above was a smart way to hang flower pots on the rail.


This anti-door slamming device was at the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam.