Saturday, June 29, 2013

Blue Baker Review

Blue Baker is one of my favorite bakeries in College Station. They are an artisan bakery that bakes everything from scratch, starting from 3 or 4 am in the morning. Doubling as a restaurant, they serve fresh bagels, pastries, breads, pizzas, sandwiches, desserts, salads, and soups. Every month features specials, such as peach pecan scone, candied orange twist, and key lime tarts for this month of June. Additionally, they have weekly bread and pastry specials. I typically go to Blue Baker to eat their scone specials, but everything on their menu is superb.
Today, I went to go on their bakery tour, which happens twice a year, I think. I will give a summary of the tour in the next post, but first, I will give a thorough, thorough review of Blue Baker's offerings.
Their breads are moist, have the perfect crumb and texture (a little chewy, perfect crunchy golden crust that you can bite through, a little sweet, moist enough for bread), and show off that artisan, made-by-hand look. Their sweet breads and pastries are delicious and varied. My favorite sweet breads are the zucchini bread sold every Sunday, the blueberry peach bread (THE BEST THE BEST THE BEST) on Tuesdays, and the cinnamon swirl bread on Thursdays. I have yet to try the red, white, and blue sweetbread, but I am very excited to get it when July 4th rolls around.

Cupcakes are large, maybe 2/3 the size of Costco-sized cupcakes. I have gotten the Boston Cream Pie and the Zucchini cupcakes before. Tasty, not too sweet, but definitely sweet. Good, standard. Maybe a bit dense for cake texture.
Cookies are huge too. They offer many types every day: chocolate chip, chocolate walnut, chocolate decadence, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin. Special flavors are rotated in weekly and monthly, such as white chocolate macadamia, sugar, ginger.
Scones are about the size of the ones as Starbucks, but feature different flavors that allow the buttery saltiness of the bread shine while melding with the sweets of the fruits incorporated or the sugar crystals on top. With the addition of nuts, the scones also give a nice crunch.
Their pizzas are made Neapolitan style, which is a thin crisp crust, a touch of marinara sauce, and a delicate addition of fresh, quality toppings. Once before, I went with my BF and we ordered the four cheese tomato and the D'Vinchee.
The four cheese tomato was delicious, with fresh slices of tomato, melty spots of mozarella everywhere, freshly chiffoned (sp?) basil, and drizzles of just perfect marinara over a bubbly thin crust. I liked mine better than the D'Vinchee, which was also good but I'm not a meat person and not as big a fan of portabella mushrooms. The D'Vinchee has olive oil, mozarella, sausage, roasted portabella mushrooms, chicken, and cilantro. These pizzas are not as filling as Pizza Hut or Dominos (as in one slice won't fill you, but 1/2 to a whole 9" pizza will), but they are high quality pizzas.

Prices are somewhat high, upwards of $8-10 for a meal. Individual breads and pastries are quite affordable. Scones are about $2.25; cupcakes around $3.50 (a bit pricey, but they are large); breads about $4.50 for a loaf (I get day-olds for half off) or $3.00 for baguettes, ciabatta, focaccia. Despite the somewhat higher prices for meals, you are paying for the quality of your food. All the workers here are also extremely nice, fast, and wonderful.

This is, again, one of my favorite places in College Station. Hit either location on University or Dominik Drive in College Station, or their newest store in Austin, TX. This is one artisan bakery and restaurant that truly deserves to be tasted!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Hong Kong Day 3

There are a lot of little boutiques, food shops, and other shops around the hotel. BF and I woke up and went out to get breakfast and head to any mall nearby.

On Cameron Road, there is a very small shop that sells fresh fruit and vegetable juices. You can get a wide selection of fruit and even vegetables juiced: pear, dragonfruit, bittermelon, starfruit, kiwi, celery, tomato, carrot, orange, mango...Each is about $15 HKD, which is about $1.88USD. We went with the mango with sago (little tapioca pearls), which was only $8 HKD and came in a small cup (about 8 or 12 oz, I think).
We were trying to head to a mall called "The One," which was supposedly nearby but with my limp was much farther. Plus the rain started coming down a bit and so we stopped into some little restaurant for breakfast. BF got a plate of ramen with chicken wings and a bit of veggies. I got the Hong Kong style (french?) toast. The noodle plate was rather small and underwhelming.
 I poured sweetened condensed milk and some liquidy peanut butter on top of my toast. This is how the Hong Kong people eat their french toast: with condensed milk, peanut butter, and honey. Pretty tasty and different than the french toast I'm used to eating. Not bad. The price tag for these two items plus a drink was around $8.50 USD, which is very affordable.
 For lunch, we met up with the grandma and aunt, uncle, and cousins on BF's dad's side at Maxim's Palace. This restaurant is housed in what used to be a theater. Going inside, I was awestruck by the grandeur of the interior. There were two stories, chandeliers, and fancy wall decorations.
Click image to see full size of the panaroma shot!
Maxim's Palace is a dim sum restaurant. Ladies go around pushing carts with various dim sum, but we primarily put in orders from the papers on the table.

Fried noodle with some sauce, chicken, and bean sprouts
Bitter melon with fish
Honeydew panna cotta: yum!
Sweet tofu pudding with longan and dates
Everytime we go to dim sum, we get so much food and I get so stuffed by the end of it, trying a bite here, a bite there. Also ordered were char siu bao (BBQ pork buns), fried rice, beef rice rolls in soy sauce, porridge, and more.

We then went karaoking at Red Mr with the cousins. You can rent out a room, in which there are several couches, coffee tables, and a TV. A touchscreen next to the TV lets you browse music and then add music to the queue. They had a good selection of old and new songs, popular and not as well known artists as well. Some that we sang were: Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, LFMAO, One Republic, Usher, Chris Brown, Lonely Island (I'm on a BOAT!), Justin Timberlake, Pink, Beyonce, Jay-Z and Kanye West, and Kelly Clarkson.
We spent over 3 hours in there singing. It was pretty fun. Each person gets 2 free non-alcoholic drinks. The parents (BF's mom, aunt, uncle) ordered some food for us: fried platter (fries, shrimp, onion rings) and a meat platter (skewers, cucumber with pork floss or something). BF's grandma came and stayed the whole time. I was soo amazed by her and felt a lot of respect for her because it's hard to be patient and stay doing nothing for 3 hours just to be with her grandsons. She also managed to nap while we sang really loud and horribly, which I thought was also amazing.
  A famous tourist attraction is the light show at the Kowloon Public Pier (south Tsim Sha Tsui), which occurs every day at 8pm. We gathered amidst the other tourists (and locals, I'm sure) on the edge of the pier and waited for the show to start. Across the water, you can see all the tall buildings and the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Center in Wanchai. At the start, the Samsung building has a large LED banner that proclaims "Symphony of Lights". Basically, lots of buildings light up with many colors in coordination with the background music. People can also take the ferry around the harbor to watch. It was a little underwhelming. Pretty, but I got bored after 5-10 minutes.
Click to see full-size panaroma image!

Once it ended, we headed back to the hotel while window shopping. BF's family stopped by a jerky store. Jerky in Asia is sooo much better than in America. The jerky is not tough; rather, it's sweet, soft, and super flavorful. The flavor is dynamic, not just like smoked meat flavor like in America.
I wanted to walk around a digest still, so we wandered a bit. Went into a McDonalds and was impressed by their McCafe. Totally classy like a Starbucks. Fast food usually seems to be so much nicer in countries other than the USA.

Cheesecake, lamingtons, and muffins!?
After this long day, we finally headed back and passed out on the wonderfully hard beds. I knew I was excited for the next day and fell asleep planning what I could potentially do and eat...

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Hong Kong Day 2

I think I have lost track of everything already! So much has happened already. It is hard to believe that it is already the end of Sunday here and coming onto Monday.

(Happy Fathers' Day too, by the way!)

We are currently staying at the Ramada in Tsim Sha Tsui, which is in the heart of many tourist spots and shopping in Hong Kong. The hotel is an old one and, therefore, has rather small rooms but is good enough, considering that we are out all day and only come back at 10 or 11 pm to clean up and sleep. The room has two twin beds pushed together to make it look like a large full or queen bed occupies the small space. The bed is rather hard, but we can still sleep fine in them. They give you a fruit basket (apple, orange, bananas) and some water. A small refrigerator and mini-bar is in the room as well, but drinks are for purchase (single-serve Bacardi, whiskey, vodka...).
BBQ pork bun
Shrimp in fried tofu
Late Friday (6/14) morning, we got dim sum at Star Seafood Restaurant near Amoy Plaza. For all these meals with my BF's family, I just let the adults do all the picking, because I cannot speak or read Cantonese and the locals know what's best. The spread is always generous and quite tasty. Everything is served in the center and you can pick and choose as you please, allowing you to eat as much or as little as you want. The two twos are the same as before: Ti Kuan Yum and Pu-erh.
Steamed meat and bitter melon rice
I got to meet the grandparents on my BF's dad's side of the family that day. Another aunt joined us. It's cool how fun the Hong Kong people are. The family chats a lot over the food, laughing and chatting away. The food may be in the center, but is only a side to the experience of people's company. The family always jokes around and even gets the waiters to join in the laughter. It's a truly jolly time.
Afterward, we went to Salon di Beauty (near Hollywood Plaza, I think) to get our hair done. This salon was recommended by BF's mom's sister. BF's mom and I got are hair permed (permanent curls) while BF and BF's brother got their hair trimmer. BF got a new style that I like, in addition to his usual haircut. I really like my new curls. This salon did really well, but I should hope so because the treatment took about 4 hours to complete. They even have really crazy looking machines inside to hot air dry your hair, or heat your curls, and such.
Once my hair was done, the boys and I wandered in the small plaza of the salon. We went into the Circle K (or is it "OK"?) convenient store and we got Vitasoy soymilks and cola candy. The Hong Kong people have such a wide selection of cola-flavored candies. I have to admit, these are pretty good. BF also got some curry fish balls and egg tarts from the little bakery next door. Pretty tasty, but the egg tarts were just decent (as he reports).
Finally, we went off to explore the mall. We wandered up and down, I got some new Reeboks (not much cheaper than in America, but I really liked the color and the feel of the shoes), looked at a couple bakeries.
Egg tart cup!
Asian savory baked goods
We went into a bookstore and I luckily found a cookbook in both Canto and English! It has a load of Canto dishes that I definitely want to learn and try out when I return to the US. The author is food blogger: Christine Ho from Christine's Easy Recipes.  Some highlights include  BBQ pork, egg tarts, shredded pork noodles. I am very excited and happy about this book.
 We got some snacks in the mall as well. There was this one bakery selling good looking egg tarts. One of them was an egg white tart. Highly intrigued, I got one. The BF said this one was really good, and by just looking, I could tell it was. I ate my egg white tart and was in heaven. The crust was buttery and slightly crumbly. It was also thin so that you get a lot of the egg filling. The egg white filling was light, fluffy, not too runny, perfectly sweet. It was the best egg tart I've ever had. I seriously want to go back and get some more.

After wandering down the mall, we stumbled upon the BF's favorite dessert place: Hui Lau Shan. We got the trio sampler.

The first is mango ice cream with fresh mango and some kind of jelly. The second is mango puree with fresh mango and tapioca balls. The third is fresh mango with mango flavored and filled mochi rolled in sweetened coconut flakes. They used sweet mangoes and everything was good. The curry platter in the background was standard packaged stuff and was fine. Tasty but standard, just like the instant House Curry stuff you can get in the supermarket. It comes with fish balls, white radish, and octopus/squid.

Cute cartoon candies at snack shop
BF looking at single-serving jerky in snack shop
They have a music store in the mall. I went inside and was enamored by the gorgeous pianos. It felt so good to brush the keys with my fingertips again and hear the full and beautiful resonating sounds come forth as I depressed the keys. I pulled out a piano book of 50 favorite songs and tried to play some. I want the book so bad. One song I tried was "Eye of the Tiger".
 There were so many amazing things I saw. Every thing and place was new to me and amazing and enticing. Hong Kong is really the City of Asia!

More excitement and pictures of the next days to come!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Hong Kong Day 1

This summer, I am taking my first Asia vacation! My boyfriend (hereafter referred to as BF) and his family invited me to come with them to Hong Kong in June to celebrate his grandma's birthday. As a graduate student with an advisor who puts down strict regulations, I only get 10 vacation days a year. Additionally, it is difficult to take a long time off of work, because research does not take a break. Luckily, though, I saved up all but one of my vacation days to use for this trip this summer, and we have undergraduate assistants over the summer that are capable of doing what I need when I am gone. So, I am able to take this long trip without worrying too much about losing valuable research time.

Monday night, BF and I flew back home to Orange County from Texas. I came home, got fed a delicious Vietnamese noodle soup called Bun Thang (homemade chicken broth, noodles, cha lua (Vietnamese steamed meatloaf), and egg) and got to eat a slice of amazing Asian-style cake from our favorite Van's Bakery. Asian cakes are much lighter, airier, and less sweet than Western-style cakes. It is more of a sponge cake with a lightly sweetened whipped cream frosting. My family always gets the mocha flavor with slivered almonds decorating the side. So delicious. I definitely want this to be my wedding cake, not some cloyingly sweet American sugar-butter bomb of a cake.

Tuesday, my mom, sister, and I went to get measured so that we can get our ao dai sewn. We are getting our fancy Vietnamese traditional dresses made for my uncle's wedding on September 1st. I am so excited. I have not been to a wedding since I was maybe in middle or high school. My uncle's fiancee is such a sweet, nice, and generous young woman. She loves going out to eat with my sister and I. She also knits really well. Last Christmas, she knitted nonstop to make scarves for everyone. She is very talented.

After getting measured, my family went to my Ong Ba Noi's house (grandparents). We brought along both Cody and Hershey, my sister's dog and my dog, respectively. The two dogs would not stop playing the night before. They were so excited to see each other. My family was just happy Cody was not bullying and attacking Hershey like he did when I brought Hershey home the first time during Tet. Now, they wrestle, but they do it for fun and Hershey loves just following Cody around. They are so cute.

We ate good noodle soup (Bun Soong) and eggrolls made by my ba noi. She cooks so well. She also made banh bo nuong. Oh man, I cannot stop singing it's praises. She got the texture perfectly: the raised honeycomb airpockets in the center, the nice brown skin on the outside. The best part, it was moist, not dry like the ones you get at the supermarket. She really perfected making it. I really have to learn from her!

My ong noi likes Hershey. He fed him chicken and pork fu, petted him on the couch, and even - get this!!!!i - playfully run with him between the living room and family room. My grandpa is not one to get up and move around much or smile too often. He smiled, laughed, and played with my dog!!! He loves him ^_^

At 9pm, I went with BF's family to the international airport and we flew the red-eye flight at 1 am. It was a 14 hour, nonstop flight with Cathay Pacific. Wow! Asian airlines are awesome! The airplane was more spacious, and economy class had 3 rows of 3. Each seat has a TV screen on which you can watch movies, TV shows, select music, see the location and progress of the airplane, request service. The tray is better designed than on American planes. Instead of just one large rectangular platform that comes down, it is folded in half so you can have a short tabletop for jut a drink or small item or a full one for eating or your laptop or writing.

Supper, breakfast and snacks were provided. Supper was a selection of either chicken with rice and vegetables or salmon with mashed potatoes and green bean. They were out of the salmon, so I went with the chicken. The sides included a delicious and refreshing shrimp quinoa salad, a surprisingly tasty bread roll with butter, and always delicious Haagen Daaz vanilla ice cream!

Throughout the flight, you can ask for tea (Chinese, English, or green tea), coffee, other sodas and fruit juices, snacks (spring onion cracker, macadamia nut shortbread, peanuts, apple), and small meals (cup'a'noodle, lettuce wrap, mini turkey sandwich). BF skipped supper and ate 2-3 cup'a'noodles.

I watched "Mind of  Chef", where in the chef of Momofuku, David Chang, went to Japan and tried out some amazing ramen places and talked about how ramen is made and how he makes it at home and at the restaurant. With BF, I watched "This is 40" (hilarious! good movie about a crazy mid-life crisis, like a sequel to "Knocked Up"). I also peeked over as BF watched "Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters" and "Identity Thief". Both seemed entertaining to me, even though I couldn't hear what was going on, although BF said "Hansel and Gretel" was good but lacked character development.

I really hate long flight though. I kept feeling sick throughout the flight, and it didn't help that I ate all the meals so I kept feeling full, which usually exasperates my nausea. I was so happy to get off, but up until the late afternoon today, my body just felt messed up. I think I was still suffering from jetlag and too much food.

Breakfast was served about an hour and a half before touchdown. We were given a choice of chicken mushroom congee (rice porridge) or scrambled egg. I chose the scrambled egg, which came as a fluffy egg patty, with a sausage link, spinach with a bit of cheese, and herbed potatoes. Sides included strawberry yogurt, bread roll with butter and jam, juice coffee or water, and fresh fruit. All very tasty. I was surprised how good the egg platter was. (I didn't take a picture because I felt embarrassed to).

We finally arrived in Hong Kong and after being greeted by BF's aunt and cousin, we took the train to their home in Tsuen Wan. The train is so clean and nice; nothing at all like the dirty BART in the Bay Area.

Hong Kong is full of high rises. Residences are actually flats, which is basically a large apartment per floor. The train connects the different parts of the island and we drove past tropical looking trees, but when you get into the city, it is primarily roads and buildings; little greenery. Cars drive on the right side of the road, and there are more taxis and buses than individual cars. Lots of people walk around. You can see people's AC machines and clothes hanging right outside their windows.

We went to Jade Garden and had dim sum for breakfast. Wow oh wow. This was real Chinese food. His family ordered several dishes and we just selected whatever we wanted off the lazy susan. At the beginning of the meal, you are supposed to wash your dishes with some of the hot water from the pot on the table. My BF showed me how by pouring a little water into his teacup, swirling it around, and using the same water to clean another small bowl and chopsticks. There were to teas on the table: one was Pu-erh tea (pronounced "bo leh") and the other was Ti Kuan Yin. I really liked the latter and am definitely going to bring some real tea leaves of this kind back with me.

Egg tart with bird nest jelly on top
Something like fried wonton wrapper
Legit baked BBQ pork bun (with pineapple bun topping)
Fried fish and corn cake
Inside BBQ pork bun

Cantonese style soup dumpling (with pork, cordyceps, and shredded conpoy)
Steamed bun with some egg-like filling
 There were also red bean (or red date?) thick pudding cubes, beef in rice rolls, shrimp in rice rolls, BBQ pork bao, corn and fish congee, and carp filled green bell peppers in black bean sauce. Everything was rather tasty, and you can choose to eat what you like and not to eat what you didn't. I did not particularly like the steamed bun with egg filling. The filling was not smooth and had little coagulated balls of yellow egg inside. At the end, the cost basically amounted to about $10 a person.

We went back to BF's aunt's flat and rested for a bit. I got extremely jet-lagged and my body kept going through phases of slight nausea and fatigue. Eating more made the gross groggy feeling go away temporarily but then it would return in a few minutes with a vengeance. I eventually too a nap in the afternoon, after having lunch. BF's grandma made steamed glutinous rice dumplings, filled with fatty pork, dried shrimp, and mushrooms. Tasty home cooking. She also made an herbal broth that helps fight colds, which is what Michael and I have right now. These herbal broths are also good for your general health, so other people can drink it when they are not sick too.

After my nap, I felt a lot better, but I was still uncomfortable because all I did all day was eat and sit or sleep. I made BF walk with me around the local street markets. We walked by gorgeous looking Asian bakeries, affordable shoe stores with a shoe that I am thinking about getting because it's only about $20 instead of like $80 in the US, and a 7-11. I mention this 7-11 because it has so much more awesome stuff than in America! They had Asian ready meals, like fish ball curry, Portuguese baked rice, congee, tofu, soybean milk of all different flavors, Dreyers and Haagen Daz ice cream in interesting flavors (mango and green tea bars!!!!), and more. I am so getting one of these ice creams.
Pineapple pastries!

We returned to the flat and had a special dinner prepared by BF's grandma. It was special in honor of the Dragon Boat Festival which happened yesterday. The spread included grouper, abalone and bok choy in oyster sauce, mushroom and sea cucumber and greens, some cashew vegetable stir fry, roast goose, roast pork, and scallops over cucumber. My favorite was the abalone and bok choy in oyster sauce and the cashews in the stir fry.

The way his family eats (and I'm assuming Hong Kongese people) is by placing everything in the center and a bowl of rice for each person. You use one pair of chopsticks to put the mains into your bowl and the other pair of chopsticks to eat with. The table is lined with a disposable plastic tablecloth so you can your refuse like bones and skin on the table.

That's it for today! I am excited to go shopping at the big malls, street stands, night markets, and more! We also plan to g to see the Big Buddha among other sights! So stay tuned and continue with me on my trip through Hong Kong!