Amsterdam is a city of contrasts. On the one side there is the city of great art and imposing architecture, while on the other there is a somewhat more earthy side, to put it mildly. What’s even more interesting about the city, though, is the fact that so much of what makes Amsterdam what it is seems to lie inside its somewhat uniform buildings. Sure, there are the marvelous canals crisscrossed by beautifully undulating bridges packed with bicycles of all kinds, but enter some of those building lining the canals and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find inside.
Such is the case with two of Amsterdam’s most famous attractions: the Van Gogh Museum at Stadhouderskade 55 and the old Heineken factory at Stadhouderskade 78. From the outside, the buildings housing these two local landmarks are a bit industrial in character, but what lies inside is quite remarkable and more than worth the time you have to spend in line before getting inside (which on a rainy, cold day made the Van Gogh Museum line to get inside a bit of a challenge for the hundreds of people inching their way to the ticket booth). But once inside, you are treated to some of the most creative art you’ll ever see anywhere. The four-story museum was divided according to the different stages in Van Gogh’s short creative life (about ten years total), from the days when he was perfecting his style in Paris to his mental asylum days in Arles and Saint-Rémy. A definitely troubled life, but an incredible creative one.
About a quarter mile from the Museum Quarter park, a somewhat different experience can be found at the old Heineken factory (which moved its production to a new location in 1988). What is now termed the Heineken Experience will set you back about 18 Euros, but it will be some of the best money spent in Amsterdam. The old equipment is still there, to include the still-in-use stables with the black Heineken horses. They even “turn you into beer” in a small theater where the audience is put through the beer-production process as if it were the liquid itself with a vibrating stage that is at various points subjected to heat lamps simulating the fermentation process. And to top it all off, there is the tasting room followed by an incredibly slick bar where you get the two beers that were included with the admission price (which also include a free canal ride aboard the Heineken boat and a souvenir at their downtown store). Not too shabby, and quite educational to boot. This city is definitely growing on me.
Yes, like all our recent Presidents and entertainment celebrities, I must confess that I too have succumbed and gone to Ben’s Chili Bowl restaurant for a little 1,000 calorie snack. I wasn’t going to talk about it, but I started thinking that if I came out clean and made a full confession, that this somehow would help me with my caloric redemption. Since 1958 Ben’s has been serving some of the world’s greatest chili from its 1213 U Street NW, Washington, DC location, and to say that Ben’s knows chili would be a gross understatement. Get it in a bowl, over a whole selection of dogs, over fries, you name it and they have it. And the cheese covered fries? No comment, and I’m afraid that I must invoke the 5th Amendment. Total calories consumed during my short visit? Talk to my attorney, but if you have to ask, then you can’t afford it. All I know is that I’m headed back to Ben’s as soon as possible. Just need to do some prep work before I cross that U Street threshold again on my way to chili heaven.
Sometimes you just have to step out a little out of the box. Well, maybe a lot. Today was one of those days. The place: South Philly. After waking up this morning in Philadelphia after partying with friends the night before I got to thinking that if I left the city without having one of those 717-calorie Philly cheese steak sandwich the world would definitely come to an end. Yeap, not even the 189 calories from fat in that monument to blue-collar gastronomy could dissuade me from doing everything within my power to get to one of the local sandwich joints to get my much-needed fix, if you know what I mean. My first challenge, though, was sorting through all the different suggestions by the locals. It appears that everyone in Philadelphia has a very strong opinion on the subject.
For me this morning, convenience won the day. So the famous Jim’s Steaks at South Street was my “breakfast” choice. If you ever plan to visit, do keep in mind that South Philly is not for everyone. With bars and tattoo parlors in just about every block and a few “adult” stores sprinkled there just for character, this is definitely not a place for the Jaguar crowd. But Jim’s is there, and that alone makes a trip to South Street a must when visiting downtown Philly. Even at 10:00 Am when it opened, crowds were already lining up, with your truly and his Ricoh GR right there with them. Was the heart-stopping caloric intake worth it? Is the Pope catholic? This is great stuff, and now I understand why that fellow in 2007 consumed 13 of these sandwiches in an hour. Unbeknownst to him, he is now my new hero.
Is it possible to inhabit two distinct worlds at the same time? Well, for me this seemed to be the case when on Saturday I headed out to the preview event at the soon-to-be-opened Union Market at 1309 5th Street NE in Washington, DC. Just a couple of blocks off Florida Avenue in NE DC, and between 4th and 6th streets in the old warehouse market district, the simple act of crossing the street will take you from the hustle and bustle of dark meat markets where the constant sounds of meat cutters and banging cleavers compete for dominance with the multilingual cacophony of the working class clientele, to the gentile atmosphere of gourmet wine pairings and and delicately-prepared artisinal confections. Two worlds, only one block away.
But what perhaps caught my attention more than anything else this day was the fact that with one single exception, people in these two worlds didn’t seem to cross that invisible divide between them. As I wondered the dark retail and butcher shops in the old market, I never saw any of the folks from the upscale Union Market in any of them. And in case you were wondering, the reverse was also true. For all practical purposes, 5th Street NE acted as the functional equivalent of the Berlin Wall, with folks from each side looking over the wall while seemingly incapable of walking across it. The only exception: the famous A. Litteri. Never been there? Well, you are truly missing out. The cramped, floor-to-ceiling Italian products behind an always-shut front door are nothing short of amazing. It is perhaps the closest you’ll get to Italy in Washington, DC. And if you are looking for some of the best sandwiches in the area, navigate yourself to the back of the store where a large chalkboard with the day’s offerings are sure to induce uncontrollable Pavlovian responses from you. No wonder I like this diverse, crazy neighborhood so much. Just don’t go there at night.
It’s been a while since I visited a local food festival in the Washington, DC area, but this Sunday I grabbed by Nikon camera and headed to the very popular Taste of Arlington celebration in Ballston. I am glad I did. This particular event is relatively small in comparison with other similar food events in the area, but what it lacked in size it more than made up in quality. The reason: the number of great restaurants in the Clarendon-Ballston corridor that took the time to show up. The food was great and the atmosphere could not have been more energized as a result of the predominantly young crowd that showed up (Ballston and Clarendon are magnet communities for young professionals). And while you could find everything from Indian food to your classical sliders, it was Mediterranean cuisine that appeared to be at the center of the festival. From Lebanese lamb treats to huge Spanish paellas, the flavors of that part of world appeared to draw the largest lines throughout the day. After standing on some of those lines myself, I could understand why. We definitely need more of these festivals in the area.
By now it should not be a mystery that just about every big city in America is enjoying a proliferation of farmers’ markets, and to the local consumer’s delight. I’m not sure whether this food “renaissance” is the direct result of the Slow Food Movement or not, but the fact that most local organic farmers have seemed to embrace the philosophy of this international movement is great news for local consumers across America. You won’t find any mass-produced product at these markets, of fancy packaging for that matter. In fact, these local markets may be some of the few places across the nation where consumers are quite happy to see some crusty farmer’s hands with dirt on them handling the farm products they are about to buy. No doubt looking too well-kept behind a stack of onions, asparagus, or mushrooms may not be too good for business. Urban folks seem to want someone who looks like a farm hand behind those counters, or at the very least, that doesn’t look like their BMW-driving selves. For most of them this may be the closest they will ever come to a farm, so the visual connection to the soil has to be there somehow. Whatever the case, farmers’ markets are one of the best things in America these days. And even though people are not yet flocking to them in the numbers that flock to say, your average BBQ pit competition, the steadily growing number of people discovering them bodes well for the future. Count me in.
If you listen to the pundits on television these days, you could be convinced that nothing is made in America these days. Nothing could be further from the truth, although admittedly, you would never know it from a simple visit to your supermarket. But if you happen to be in Annapolis, Maryland walking down Main Street, you will inevitably stumble into the notorious Uncle Bob’s Fudge Kitchen. That is, because through the main window of this house of delicacies you will see fudge being made by hand with the rhythmic finesse of an orchestra conductor. What is even more impressive is that this arduous process is repeated all day long, with skilled hands endlessly twisting, turning, and folding fudge as bystanders crowd the store window in a Pavlovian trance. And what flavors! My only regret was that I had to drive more than an hour to find this little gem of a place. Places like this should exist in every city in America, so that instead of us referring to them as rare finds, we can refer to them as our neighborhood pastry shop, or bakery, or butcher shop, or non-chain coffee shop. That they exist at all certainly gives us hope. I just wish we could see more of them.