A Tale of Two Hospitals, Part I

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Most of my first week in China is a blur. I don’t know if it was just adrenaline, or every waking moment being more bizarre than the last, but a large part of my memory gap is probably because of the time I spent waiting in lines. Whether you are activating your bank card or connecting to your dorm’s wifi, you soon find out that in China nothing is as easy as it should be. Every simple transaction is dragged out into a bureaucratic nightmare. Take the bank card for example: After a two-hour wait (and 30 minutes of Chinese-to-English translation practice with the teller), I discovered my school had not given the bank my middle name. So because the name in their system did not exactly match the name in my passport, I couldn’t access my account. Now this is all in the computer, I figured, so it should be an easy fix they can do on the spot, right? Wrong. “You need to go to the main branch,” the teller told me in Chinese, handing me a slip of paper with hastily scrawled directions, also written in Chinese. At home this would have been annoying, but in an unfamiliar city in which I still hadn’t gotten my bearings or grasped the language, I just embraced the absurdity and had to laugh rather than cry.

Line at the bank

Line at the bank

I found the main branch of the bank, a short twenty minute walk away, and was joined by one of my fellow exchange students who was facing the same problem. She was from Lesotho, a little country I learned is actually within South Africa. Because her English was better than my Chinese, we were able to commiserate about the situation as we waited for yet another hour. I wondered aloud if the situation might be different if I had chosen to study abroad in Lesotho. “Well yes,” she said, “at home they assist you. But here in China you’re just on your own.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. This would be the recurring theme throughout my journey in China, whether it was sorting out my arrival or my eventual return home. Not only are many of the professionals in China unable or unwilling to help you, their offices look as disorganized as they feel. My school’s main office was stacked high with cardboard boxes and old computer equipment, looking more like a hoarder’s apartment than an office at a major university. This sloppiness and disorganization extends even to the medical system, which brings me to the hospitals.

My first hospital visit was scheduled in advance. Part of applying for a residence permit is a mandatory medical exam, which includes everything from an EKG to a chest x-ray, as well as blood tests for HIV and syphilis. I never heard an explanation as to why they did this, but my guess is it’s all about the HIV and syphilis. Nor did I find out what they do with you if you are indeed found to have some contagious disease. Deportation seems a little extreme, but compared to summary execution or reeducation-through-labor camps I guess “extreme” is all relative. The irony of getting a chest x-ray before living in Beijing wasn’t lost on me either. Maybe their hope is to find every pre-existing case of lung disease they can so they don’t get all the credit. In any case, the exam is very thorough, and the first show of China’s ability to literally put its fingers into your personal life.

On the morning of the exam, my fellow exchange students and I all gathered in my university’s apartotel lobby (See below. I didn’t know it was a thing either.) to be bussed out to the hospital. It was still in those earliest weeks, and in spite of a pretext that should scare anyone—today I’m going to a Chinese hospital for my mandatory medical exam—I was still able to approach it with morbid curiosity and even a little excitement. As I stood waiting to be herded on to one of the busses, I chatted with a fellow American student. “I always get nervous going into exams like this,” she said, “I mean, what if it turns out I actually have AIDS?” As I wondered about her lifestyle, I began to hear the shrill twang of instructions being shouted in Chinese. We were starting to board. I think there were five busses, four filled only with Koreans, the fifth reserved for the people from everywhere else. At least that’s how it felt. Even in the exchange student community we Anglophones were completely outnumbered.

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The bus ride was long, taking us well beyond Beijing’s fifth ring road. In the normal world this would be like driving to a completely different city, but here we were merely going to another part of the city, a more quiet and creepy part. If there was a scenic route to this hospital, we didn’t take it. Something about the gray cityscape reminded me of old war movies. The dreary apartment blocks, barbed wire fences, and propaganda billboards passing by the window made me feel as if we should have been riding in cattle cars rather than comfortable busses. When we finally arrived at the hospital, it did little to lift my spirits. Even if the place had been clean and new, it would still be a particularly grim example of communist architecture. As it stood, it was not only oppressive, but dilapidated, its color palette reduced to rust and Bolshevik gray. A sad collection of trash cans sat rotting in front of us as we disembarked from our busses. Weeds grew happily in every direction, while shady looking men with their verifiably shady black taxis (hei che) milled around and smoked outside the entrance. These are the illegal taxis you take if you’re in a hurry and willing to overlook the risk of getting shaken down or kidnapped.

Some edifying propaganda. Take THAT, everywhere else!

Some edifying propaganda from our journey. Take THAT, everywhere else!

After yet another wait in the longest line I had ever seen, we were released into the hospital to make our own way to the various exam rooms. The first stop was to get our blood drawn (surprise surprise), which was done by friendly women who weren’t wearing gloves. After that disconcerting encounter, I stepped out into the hall to see a pair doctors in surgical masks enthusiastically waving me towards another open door. As I bounced from room to room, exam to exam, the whole thing started to feel like the carnival midway: “Step right this way! We have your chest x-ray right here!” I can say this for the hospital, it may have been the only place in China that seemed to operate with any efficiency. Each test was so quick it seemed to be over as soon as it began. I’d walk into a room and suddenly many pairs of hands would be pulling up my shirt and sticking electrodes on my chest, and then—done. On to the next room. The whole thing probably took less than fifteen minutes. So again I found myself on the blighted street, a little dazed, left to find a (legitimate) taxi ride home.

Outside the hospital. No, really.

Outside the hospital. No, really.

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but this would be the easy hospital visit. My next trip was not planned in advance, and not nearly as pleasant. That story is just another example of China’s ability to top itself, and to throw something unexpected at you just when you think the worst is over. As time went on, my friends and I began to see it as a contest: us vs. China. In other words, we were keeping score. Each time we met, we would discuss whether we had “won” or China had. Did it manage to break our spirit today, or did we stay resolute? After making it home from my medical exam, I felt I had won. But it wasn’t over. “If you thought that first hospital visit was weird,” China seemed to be saying, “just see what I have in store for you next. . .”

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Beijing Part II: Welcome To The Future

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The first morning I awoke in Beijing I decided to hit the ground running by connecting with my fellow American exchange students. They had arrived in Beijing a few days earlier, and many of them had visited before. Needless to say, they knew their way around much better than I did. Because I was still a little shaken and disoriented, I decided it might not be a bad idea to spend some time with them (read: cling like a barnacle.) But I couldn’t help feeling excitement and thirst for adventure. It was a new day, and time to take in the city I had traveled so far to see. So how did I begin my journey to discover Beijing? Why, by going to the mall, of course!

My classmates brought me to Xidan. Not just a mall, but what can only be described as a mall district. Gucci, Armani, Apple, TGI Friday’s: Should you want for any of the same brand names we’ve become so inured to in America, look no further. But walk across the street from the Louis Vuitton store, and you can browse through a plethora of dirt-cheap knock-off brands, plastic trinkets, and fluffy animal slippers. There’s something for everyone!

Welcome to Xidan

Welcome to Xidan

Okay, our first stop was actually Tiananmen Square. But Xidan was the first place in China that really awed me. Sad as that may sound, I’m not starry-eyed about it. I recognize Xidan for what it is: tackiness in epic proportions. Besides, Tiananmen Square, though impressive in its own way, was more or less what I expected. Neither it nor Xidan create the same kind of awe that The Forbidden City, the Great Wall, or the Summer Palace do. Those places are impressive for their beauty, their historical significance, and the sheer audacity of their design. All of these qualities are heightened by their age. Building something on the scale of the Forbidden City would be a feat today, but in 1420? Even something as modest as a courtyard home in a hutong (the old Ming and Qing dynasty alleyways unique to Beijing) gave me a better sense of the city. These are places with history, with soul.

A Typical Hutong

A Typical Hutong

Xidan, by comparison, is decidedly soulless. I imagine the “awe” I felt is a lot like that of someone seeing seeing Vegas for the first time. All big monuments are impressive at first, even if they’re monuments to bad taste. But then you spend some time there and realize the place, though enormous and shiny, is just as hollow and artificial as amusement park scenery. But still, there are things about Xidan that can’t be ignored. It’s a massive concentration of money, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before (think 5th avenue put into a taffy puller.) It also boasted the largest concentration of people I had seen in one place before I became completely desensitized to this. Then I saw Shanghai, but that’s a whole other post.

We arrived in the afternoon, and the moment I stepped out of the subway station I knew I was seeing something that I had no conceptual tools to understand. Everything is bigger in this part of Beijing. The streets are wider, the buildings set on larger, rambling lots. In a city like New York, even the large streets feel pretty cramped. Building on an island has forced Manhattan to become dense. And no matter where you are, the size of things is not readily apparent because you’re wedged right up against them. You can never get enough distance on the buildings to understand the volume of space they occupy. Beijing has no such problem. It’s still mind-bogglingly populous (a city with twice as many people as NYC,) but still has enough room to allow wide vistas. Being in such a place makes you feel as if you’re standing in a normally-proportioned city, but you yourself have been reduced to 1/3 scale.

From the subway my friends and I went directly to an above-ground walkway which towers over the streets and allows people to enter the malls from about three stories up. As soon as I reached the top of the escalator, I found myself staring Kate Winslet in the face. A giant, 25-foot Kate Winslet face selling perfume. The tops of buildings are littered with these ads (a surprising majority featuring western models and actresses,) from the immediately adjacent mega-malls to those stretching off infinitely into the distance. It looks like Times Square laid on its side. This ostentatious display of capitalism is no doubt sending Chairman Mao spinning in his grave.

Walking along Xidan’s main thoroughfare, the malls are so immense that you can walk for ten minutes and still be passing entrances to the same building. But before you know it, that building has blended into another adjacent monstrosity. Though built at different heights and using different materials, the buildings are all mashed together, creating a ham-fisted sort of unity. The malls on what I came to recognize as the expensive side of the street (the side with the Apple store) are actually quite glitzy and well-designed. I got a kick out of the escalator that goes up 6 stories in a single run inside Xidan’s aptly named “Joy City.” It’s a vertically-oriented mall with a staggering array of clothing stores (North Face, Nike,) high-end accessories, electronics, even wine. Towards the top there are whole floors filled with different chain restaurants. They’re not as big as your brick-and-mortar Chili’s, but the Chili’s that have been scaled down for airport terminals. There’s also a movie theater at the very top, as well as apartments because, well, who wouldn’t want to live there?

Joy!

Joy!

Walk across the street from the glamorous Joy City, and you receive a lesson in contrasts. Most buildings do not have uniformly spaced or sized entrances. Instead, there will be an open door through which you can only see a stairwell (with no hand rails) leading precipitously down into the dark bowels of the building. But the door immediately next to it will open into another set of stairs going up, or into a bathroom, or a courtyard. These places do not seem to have been constructed with any logic. They have the mad non-organization of Hogwarts, or the amorphous buildings you encounter in dreams.

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Step inside, and it feels as if you have entered a gargantuan human beehive. The first of such places my friends and I visited was nominally a mall, but it was more like a collection of indoor street-hawkers. Navigating the tangle of escalators, I dizzily browsed through floor after floor of surly shopkeepers and aisles upon aisles of crap: Purple velvet jackets, fake sunglasses, cell phone cases, plastic cats that wave their arms, honey-roasted fish on a stick. I soon tired of these surroundings, and pressed my friends to find a restaurant. Surely there was an authentic Chinese meal to be had around here?

The Aforementioned Escalators

The Aforementioned Escalators

If there was, no one with me knew how to find it. We first wound up at McDonald’s, but the deep shame of that led us to find greener pastures. So we started by going down one of the mall’s extremely narrow stairwells, finding at the bottom a dire looking Chinese fast food joint. We noticed a small doorway across the dining room, and decided to investigate. Naturally, it opened onto a set of ascending stairs. “Hmm,” I thought as we reached the top, “that flight of stairs wasn’t nearly as long as the one that took us down here.” Then I realized my head was almost touching the ceiling. We had found another restaurant, but it would seem that this one existed on some make-believe floor between floors. You may wonder how this is even possible. For that I refer you to “Being John Malkovich.”

By the time we sat down for dinner, I was utterly worn down by the sensory overload of bright lights, music, and the never-ending throngs of people pushing past me. The effect of all of this is to make you feel very small. But what was the real takeaway message of my first day? All I could figure was that everyone in Beijing was at the mall. In retrospect, while this may be true, I realize I can’t really blame them for it. It’s hard to go anywhere in this city without having to at least pass through a mall. My favorite examples are the subway stops whose exits open straight into department stores instead of the street, though it leaves me wondering which came first. Is it a mall conveniently built on top of the subway? Or is it a subway built for convenient access to the mall?

My university back home offers a course called “The American Dream Reconsidered.” The course, as the name implies, offers a bleak outlook of the current state of American culture. It laments the loss of of our sense of common purpose and the rise of consumerism. As America has made its riches, the class told us, it has lost its soul. But in this regard, America can’t hold a candle to China. Xidan may have made a big first impression, but it’s hardly unique here. A drop in the bucket. Spend time in Beijing and you will undoubtedly come across many Xidans by a different name, each one more cheerfully commercial than the last.

It’s left me wondering if this is what the rest of the world is coming to. Maybe all cities are on their way to becoming giant shopping malls, and China has merely embraced it more quickly and thoroughly than anywhere else where dissenting voices might question it. Maybe my class was right, but least people in America still care enough to complain. Here though, the default line is to marvel at how much things are improving. Yes, wealth is preferable to poverty, and yes, many Chinese are better off now than they would have been a few decades ago. But when all semblance of culture has been bulldozed to make way for shopping which is the same everywhere, devoid of local flavor or soul, is that progress? When we’re all trying to one-up each other by having the newest Mercedes, the most accessories, the priciest Louis Vuitton bag, maybe it’s a good time to stop and ask, is this really what we want? For my part, I’ll take the hutong.

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Beijing Part I: Somewhere Over The North Pole

We're not in Kansas anymore. . .

We’re not in Kansas anymore. . .

My flight left Chicago at 7:20 pm. The plan was to fly over the pole and reach Beijing at about 9:45 pm local time. Anyone familiar with traveling great distances East or West knows this presents a problem. If I were to go to bed a couple hours after takeoff (the time I normally would), that would leave me rested and ready to take on the day right at the tail-end of Beijing’s evening. I didn’t want that. So I stayed up as long as I could. This meant keeping myself busy with reading, studying Chinese, and having a near-panic attack at the realization of how little Chinese I actually knew.

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I was flying on American, a Boeing 777, which gave me some comfort. This in spite of being on an airline which can’t seem to arrive or depart on time, and whose service is a notch below IHOP’s. This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in their ability to keep a plane in the air, but I have faith in the 777. This is because it’s one of few planes that has never had a hull-loss incident, meaning there’s never been a crash where the whole plane was destroyed/sunk to the bottom of the ocean. I wouldn’t say I have a fear of flying. I don’t have to be dragged, trembling, onto the plane. But my imagination gets especially vivid when I ponder what a crash would be like.

The other reason I like 777s is that they’re relatively new. 747s were flying when Roger Moore was 007. The 777, by contrast, was designed in my lifetime, and in fact was the first plane to have been designed entirely on the computer. An added comfort is that many of them have been outfitted with fancy new touch screens, with which you can watch movies and TV shows. For me, this is a roundabout way to practice Chinese since they had a huge selection of Hong Kong and Mainland films on my last overseas flight.

Would you fly on a plane this outdated?

Would you fly on a plane this outdated?

I was not so lucky on this flight to China. At the front of every section were flickering old tube TVs showing clearly ancient camcorder-quality footage of the American outdoors. You’ve seen these videos before: Slow panning shots of Yosemite, bubbling streams, babbling brooks, frolicking bears. Along with the spa music, I assume these videos are meant to pacify people like me who are already mentally planning how to survive for a week on a piece of wing floating in the Pacific.

This plane was even old enough to still have ashtrays. I looked up to see that they had installed the always-illuminated “no smoking” signs, and wondered why they hadn’t bothered to remove the ash trays at the same time. It made me wonder what else they had forgotten to do. Replace worn bolts? Change the oil? The other red flag was the empty seats. I’ve only ever been on full flights, usually with people waiting on standby. But this time I sat next to an empty seat. In fact, the whole rear section of the plane was half empty. Could it be that people weren’t just chomping at the bit to go to China?

I was also seated in the exit row, meaning I had no no window. This was frustrating as we made our final approach to Beijing. I like to see the city from the air as I’m flying in. It usually gives me a sense of the place’s size, and I figured that would never be more true than flying into the largest city I’ve ever visited. I looked around in vain for open windows, across the aisle, back to the row behind me. Everyone was awake, but no one had their windows open. What is wrong with these people, I thought. What could possibly be more interesting than the city they’re about to land in? After the touchdown I couldn’t see coming, the excitement set in. I was at Beijing Capital Airport, the same airport that Richard Nixon flew into in 1972 and began the historic rapprochement between the US and China. Thinking about the magnitude of this, I realized that my journey was really happening. Now there was no going back.

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Getting into the airport was easy. We zipped into the gate and were off the plane faster than in any American airport I’ve visited (China gets major points for efficiency.) Getting out was not as easy. In fact, it was as awkward as I could make it. After using my clumsy Chinese to buy as many bottles of water as I could carry in case I got stranded, I went down to the massive taxi pick-up level. Here they had us line up, and as taxis became available they would point and direct us to the nearest one. As I approached my taxi, I managed to topple my luggage cart and spill my 170 lbs of bags into the street. Several people, including the cab driver, rushed to help. I appreciated their concern, but saw their expressions change to annoyance when they discovered just how heavy my bags were. After stuffing them all into the cab’s trunk, which further provoked the ire of the driver (I think he was keeping fragile electrical equipment back there), I told him the name of my University in Chinese. He replied in a series of completely unintelligible sentences, and we were off.

Driving into a city like Beijing, especially at night, is surreal, almost frightening. After passing the tollbooths out of the airport, you find yourself among a sea of cars on an enormous, unlined expanse of pavement, which gradually narrows into a real highway. All of the lights had an aura of thick, polluted air, as if I were looking at everything through a sheet of gauze. In the darkness alongside the highway, enormous Chinese characters, glowing red, were suspended from the tops of high-rises. We had to have been on the road for at least 45 minutes, and it gave me a real sense of just how huge the city is. There’s another skyscraper, you think, and there’s another superhighway, over and over again. Until finally we stopped in a relatively sleepy neighborhood which I took to be my university’s.

The Drive

The Drive

The driver gestured out the window and said something that, again, I didn’t understand a word of. I peered outside, and saw a dark street lined with dark buildings. I had a vague idea of where my apartment was in relation to campus, but it’s a big campus and without the google maps teat I didn’t know which side I was being dropped on. Even if I had known, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this to the driver. But as luck would have it, I recognized the name of a nearby building. “Liyun Apartotel,” it said in big, bright, beautiful letters. I didn’t know what an “apartotel” was, but that name! I had seen it everywhere in my admission materials. And in my exhausted state, I even thought it might have been where my apartroom was. I decided that was good enough for me.

So I was left on the street with my bags, alone. It was past midnight now, and all of the shops and restaurants had closed. I dragged my three suitcases (plus backpack) through the only opening in the Apartotel’s fence (which took some time to find) and into the building. Feeling empowered after my victory over the revolving door, I approached the front desk and asked the concierge in Chinese whether this was, indeed, the Number 2 International Students Dorm. The woman at the desk curtly told me this was Number 3. My heart sank. I asked how to get to Number 2 from here, and the woman simply pointed out the door.

I turned and looked, just to make sure I hadn’t missed something. Outside were the same shuttered buildings and streetlights. “‘I’m sorry,” I might have said, “but I just flew halfway across the world. So before I go wandering towards the southeast. . . in the dark. . . with all of my luggage. . . could you be a little more detailed about where I’m supposed to go?” Unfortunately, my more than 24 hours of travel had left my Chinese as lacking as my sense of direction. So I politely asked if she could write down directions for me.

“Write down?” she repeated back in Chinese, her eyes widening. She looked at me as if I had asked for nuclear launch codes. I gave a timid nod, at which point she sighed, rolled her eyes, and pulled a piece of paper from behind her desk. She drew a little map which actually made good sense, and showed me that, thankfully, No. 2 dorm was on the same street. See, I wanted to say, was that so hard? But good manners prevailed, and since I had apparently ruined her night by asking for help, I opted instead for “thank you.”

Crossing a street as large as the one I had to cross (6 lanes, plus 2 for bikes) can only work one of two ways: You can either go all the way to the next big intersection and wait for the crosswalk, or you can use one of the above ground pedestrian walkways which are placed quite regularly along the road. As it happens, one of these walkways was much closer than the nearest intersection. The drawback is walking up and down two flights of stairs. Picture me slowly ascending the stairs two bags at a time, then leaving them on the landing to go back down to get my heaviest bag, then repeating the process. In retrospect, it’s really pretty funny. But that’s not what I thought at the time. At the time I thought I was all alone in a big city in the dark, and if someone wanted to jump me, or take one of my bags while I was busy climbing stairs with the other two, nothing was going to stop them.

My street

My street

Things started looking up when I saw, directly on the other side of the walkway, “Beijing Normal University No. 2 Int-.” The rest of the letters were burned out. But still, home was within sight! My joy faded when I saw another figure on the dark street below, pacing back and forth with what looked like a drunken stagger in front of my apartment. I cautiously corralled all three of my bags down the stairs at once, eyeing him warily. Turns out he was actually one of my building’s security guards. Lesson 1 from China: your first impression is usually not only wrong, but the total opposite of the reality.

I had made it, but there was one more hurdle: checking in. I entered a dark, empty lobby lit by a single eerie blue light. It looked like the set of a David Lynch movie. With me in this bad dream was a lone security guard. I leave it to you to guess whether he spoke English or not. I went to the unmanned concierge desk and stood there, waiting for no one. This got a laugh from the guard, and after a short game of charades I discovered I had to knock on the door behind the desk. I was willing to try anything at this point, so I crawled under the desk’s only opening (one of those with a horizontal trap door things that flips up to let people pass. This one wouldn’t budge). I gave the door a few taps, and scurried back out from behind the counter.

After a moment of silence I looked, incredulous, towards the security guard who was now joined by his staggering friend from outside. They both laughed again, nodding as if to reassure me I had done the right thing. Just when I began to think they were screwing with me, a woman poked her head out the door behind the desk, squinting into the lobby. “American?” she asked upon seeing me. I said yes, and she shuffled, yawning, out of the closet-sized room. I peeked back to see a bed, and felt another pang of embarrassment once I registered that it was 1 am (I’ve since found out they work 24-hour shifts and do actually sleep back there.)

At this point I was a sweaty, disheveled mess. Running on just a few hours of uncomfortable sleep had made the outdoor wrestling match with my luggage that much more difficult. My Chinese was reduced to grunting and pointing, but somehow, miraculously, I signed a piece of paper which produced the keys to my room. Except for going to the wrong elevator first (could this night ever end?) I made it to my room without difficulty. But of course it turns out the difficulty was IN my room.

When I moved out of my apartment in Norman, I was meticulous about cleaning it out. This was easy since it was gently-used to begin with. So when left it, there was maybe a little dust on the desk and a slight color change on two little spots above the window where I had used toothpaste as Spackle. For this, I was charged over $300 in painting and cleaning fees. By that standard, the condition of my Chinese apartment probably translates to about $10,000. The hot pink (not kidding) walls were riddled with cracks, scuff marks, and what, on CSI, they refer to as “splatter patterns.” There were half broken picture hangers still lodged into the walls, including one that says “sweet home” (the irony of which was lost on me at the time.) The room was so worn and lived-in I wondered for a moment if I had walked into someone else’s. When I realized this narrow pink cubicle was, indeed, mine, I felt an intense loneliness. I laid down on my rock hard bed under the buzzing fluorescent lights, and gave in for the night. What I wanted to do was get my bearings, to see and get to know this new, mysterious city I was to live in. But there was no place to go in the middle of the night. And even if there was, I was unable communicate with anyone here. I was trapped in this little room that I could not make feel like home, the previous tenant’s decorations notwithstanding.

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It would get better after this, and I would get adjusted, though my experiences that first night only hinted at the weirdness I would see on a day-to-day basis China. The lesson I’m still learning is to abandon all expectations. People will tell you this, and I thought I had done it pretty thoroughly before I left the US. But if I could go back and talk to myself a month ago, I’d say this: Don’t kid yourself. You have no idea what it’s going to be like, what’s going to bring you joy, what’s going to make you laugh, and what’s going to challenge you. There’s a lot more to say about this, and about a great many other things in China. There will be later posts about the food, the people, and the cultural differences I’ve observed in my short time here. But for now, I’ll leave it with the close of my first night, and the realization that my “welcome” in Beijing, like so many things, was not what I expected.

Dong-A Style

“Unlike almost every other food culture, the Koreans seem to have f****ed up their food the least.” – Anthony Bourdain

Who's that handsome guy?

Who’s that handsome guy?

Well said, Tony. It’s true. It would seem that nothing is sacred in the world of food once it hits our shores. Our so-called “Chinese” cuisine has birthed things as perverse as egg rolls and fortune cookies. Tim Ferris (another of my spirit animals) points out in The 4 Hour Chef that chains in China have had big success selling “California beef noodles.” You know the Japanese were probably scratching their heads at “California rolls.” We’ve even managed to Americanize something as humble as traditional Mexican food. Was the world really made a better place by the invention of the chimichanga?

Crouching Kimchi, Hidden Rice

Crouching Kimchi, Hidden Rice

Korean food is served in America without alteration. They have not dumbed down their complex, spicy flavor profiles for our vulgar palates. Kimchi, their famous fermented cabbage? Sure. Drink-able sweet potato? Why not. Beef intestine stew? It’s all there. If you’ve eaten Korean food in this country, it’s very likely you would find the same things in any Korean home. And if you haven’t ever eaten it, you’re about to find out that living near an air force base has its perks.

Meet Anastasia: Native of Seoul, good friend, and hairdresser extraordinaire.

I’m lucky to know Anastasia, and especially lucky that she knows her way around Korean food. As luck would have it, Tinker Air Force Base and its surrounding hamlets (Midwest City, Del City, Moore) which straddle Oklahoma city are a hotbed of Korean cuisine. Anastasia’s favorite place (and now mine) is Dong-A in Moore, a short journey down I-35 from Oklahoma City. The restaurant is located in a strip-center next to an other-worldly Korean grocery store which carries colorful, indecipherable packages of things like squid jerky and cylindrical rice dumplings. The whole things smacks of the kind of authenticity you’d expect from a side-street in Seoul.

Spicy Kimchi Stew

Spicy Kimchi Stew

Together with our friends Louden and Igor, we trekked South for an enormous, unforgettable meal. Anastasia conversed with the restaurant’s Korean owners and got us a seat in the barbecue room. Cordoned off from the larger dining room, this chamber of secrets is like having your own private kitchen for the evening. Each table has a built in grill which allows you to––you guessed it––cook your own food. And by food (and this is the best part), I mean meat.

A meal for 4???

A meal for 4???

We had only a small sampling of what the menu has to offer, but the three meat dishes alone probably could have fed the whole Romney family, sister-wives included. Before our beef-stravaganza we had pork belly, the fatty king of all the meats. Brought to the table raw and seared on our personal grill with garlic and a menagerie of side-dishes, the sweet meat allowed us to taste the whole spectrum of Korean flavors. You could try the meat on its own, or add a little bite of spicy vinegar lettuce. Or maybe you’d prefer kimchi, bean sprouts, or a little dip into sesame oil and chili paste. The whole idea is to mix and match and try new combinations, all of which are add new strong flavors and textures.

Pork

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Following on the heels of the pork was Bulgogi, Korea’s quintessential marinated beef. Sweet and rich like teriyaki, the beef was nicely complimented by the salty sesame and the tang of kimchi.

Bulgogi. A little rare for my taste.

Bulgogi. A little rare for my taste.

Finally there was Galbi: one beef to rule them all. These are the short ribs, bone in, which allow you to gleefully tear at the meat with your hands (that is, if you enjoy eating like a savage as much as I do). Marinated in soy before we grilled it, this was definitely the meat with the most flavor, even if eating it required a little more fortitude.

She's a beef stylist too.

Watch out, she uses scissors for more than styling your hair.

To say Korean food is “different” is a massive understatement. I mean, where else do you get to use scissors as a utensil? It is indeed un-f***ed up, offering meat dangling with tasty fat and fermented vegetables pungent and spicy enough to make your hair stand on end. This is not food for wimps. But it is a seriously distinct cuisine, like Vietnamese or Indian, which developed its own way of using ingredients and spices. Dong-A is as good as it gets in the Oklahoma City area, offering a fabulous menu beyond what you grill yourself. Not only that, the portions are huge, and everything comes with the obligatory Korean side dishes, all for very reasonable prices (think <;$10 per person).

So if you’re not squeamish about raw meat (why are you reading this?) and you want to try something totally, unapologetically unique, then take the drive down to Moore. I promise there’s nothing else like it.

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Dong-A is open Tuesday-Sunday for Lunch and Dinner.

Dong A Korean Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Mad Meal

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How bout a bite of… cocktail?

A trip to New York always yields a million things to write about: Sights, experiences, adventures that are just too numerous to recount in the detail they really deserve. I mean, I saw Phillip Seymour Hoffman play Willy Loman in the broadway production of Death of a Salesman AND brushed shoulders with Emma Stone in the same theater. Why aren’t I writing about that??

Well friends, it’s because I wanted (more like needed) to write about my last meal in Manhattan. I needed to commit it to paper while the memory is still fresh, before it fades into that ephemeral, warm recollection of something life-changing but long since passed. That last meal was at none other than Eleven Madison Park. It is indeed located on Madison Park in the flatiron district of Manhattan.

The dining room is a grand, high-ceilinged art deco lobby of a great, unfinished skyscraper, intended to be the headquarters of Metropolitan Life as well as the tallest building in New York before being cut short by the great depression. The restaurant began as a creation of the infamous Danny Meyer, it is now run by executive chef Daniel Humm. An impeccably executed farm-to-table blend of nouvelle cuisine and molecular gastronomy, it sets the standard for chef-owned restaurants.

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Goat butter, cow butter, sea salt.

Did I mention it has three Michelin stars? Oh, and it was also named among the top 10 restaurants in the world this year. Getting these accolades is no easy feat. Not only does the food have to be delicious, inventive (which basically means something “weird” needs to be in there nowadays, with the advent of molecular cuisine), and beautifully plated, but if you want to get that third star instead of just two, the service must be perfect. The staff needs to know the menu and wine list inside and out, the tablecloths must be spotless, and even the water holding the table’s flowers must be crystal clear. Aside from not having flowers on the table, Eleven Madison Park goes above and beyond these requirements.

The menu is beautiful in its simplicity. I mean just look at it:

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You get four courses, picking your dish based on its main ingredient while the prep on each remains a surprise. But if you ask me what to get at a place like this, I’ll tell you go big or go home. And that means the chef’s tasting menu.

No quantity of adjectives can convey the experience of a meal there. My most humble attempt will simply be to take you through the 13-course tasting menu that occupied a rapturous and unforgettable 3 hours:

Hors D’oeuvres

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The meal begins with a mystery: What’s in the box!? But faster than Brad Pitt at the end of Se7en, my curiosity got the better of me. Voraciously tearing into the neat package, I discovered our first course: black and white cookies. Although they looked like the classic New York bakery sweet, equal parts chocolate and vanilla, there’s a twist: these are a savory take on the pastry. The “black and white” are truffle and Parmesan, sandwiching a small dollop of goat butter over brioche. Savory, buttery, just a small bite to tease the palette and anticipate what’s to come.

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Apple

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Ahh, nothing like waking up to a nice, warm cup of tea with some eggs and toast. The next course was precisely that: neatly arranged little sunny-side-up quail eggs, no bigger than my thumbnail, on brioche with sea salt and bacon. To balance out the savory, the eggs are accompanied by a small cup of warm, herbal apple tea and a sprig of thyme.

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Yogurt and Chickpeas

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Ice-cold Greek yogurt lollipops with curry were sweet and a little tart, with crunchy shells dotted with fried lentils around a soft, creamy yogurt filling. For contrast, the chickpea panisse with a dab of yogurt were warm and savory.

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Smoked Sturgeon

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This was actually a smoked sturgeon “sabayon” (served in egg shells, no less). Know what sabayon is? It’s okay, I betray my own ignorance by admitting I didn’t know what it was either. Turns out its an italian custard made from egg yolks and whipped until light and fluffy. So this was a fish version of that dessert? Yes. Yes it was. It was the essence of smoked sturgeon in a warm, airy liquid that wasn’t quite foam but wasn’t quite soup either. With just a hint of chive oil, the flavor was breathtaking. This is the kind of dish which simply bears no comparison to anything else. The ingenuity of molecular gastronomy at its best is in this ability to produce completely new foods which manage to be bizarre in their originality while actually tasting delicious.

Clam

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Time for another surprise: a modern take on the New England clam bake! What you see is a pitcher of clam chowder surrounded by clam two ways (one with chorizo, another with apple), complemented by savory corn and potato cakes.

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Cocktail Hour

Our waiter tells us we’re invited back to the kitchen. Huh? Have they confused us for some important Manhattan real estate moguls? Has my blog really gotten that popular? Well, I don’t want to mess up what could be a fortuitous mistake by asking, so off to the kitchen we go. Inside there’s a small table (standing room only) set up for three, with a view of the entire kitchen. This is no mistake at all, but something Eleven Madison Park does for only a few customers! I guess they thought we were “cool,” or my constant picture-taking convinced them I would appreciate a little extra behind the scenes view.

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Family in the kitchen

A very nice pastry chef named Becky makes apple cocktails with liquid nitrogen-hardened pomegranate foam as we watch over 50 staff members meticulously prepare food at their stations (on a peak night there are more employees than customers!) The cocktail is light and refreshing and the kitchen is amazing to behold. After this little treat, it’s time to return to the dining room for more.

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Becky and the nitrogen

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Voila!

Almond

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“Variations” on the almond, to be exact, mainly a crispy chip over a tangy cream. This is mixed among greens (mostly flowers) and a balsamic vinaigrette, as well as a salty cured Mangalista ham.

Foie Gras

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Often mispronounced, never unwelcome: fatty goose liver. No upscale meal would be complete without it. This one was thinly sliced and coiled, making for a unique presentation, with a dark, sweet black sesame sauce and duck prosciutto.

Whey

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Whey and I go whey back (see what I did there?). But this isn’t just a workout supplement. This is the liquid runoff of yogurt, served warm and (appropriately) with buttermilk “curds,” as well as gnocchi and spring herbs to cut the heaviness of the broth.

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Lobster

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7 courses and we’re only just now getting to the first entree! This is lobster claw poached in Meyer lemon butter. I think that’s worth repeating: POACHED IN MEYER LEMON BUTTER. Served with shellfish bisque and “burnt leek,” which very cleverly cakes the roots of a fresh leek taking on the appearance of dirt.

Beef

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And finally, the heavy stuff. This was no ordinary beef, but cured and aged ribeye (the best cut, if you ask me), roasted and served with wood sorrel and roasted potatoes. Need I say more?

Cheuflada

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As much as my auto-correct wanted to make that “chef lady,” Cheuflada is actually correct. What is it? Well, since it’s not quite dessert, it’s the cheese course, of course! It’s a fragrant (read: stinky) cheese which is actually a thick liquid at room temperature. To give it balance and even a little something to hang on to, it is adorned with pearl onions, potatoes, and pickled whole mustard seeds.

Egg Cream

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Dessert begins with another New York classic: Egg Cream. This classy beverage transports you back to the soda fountains of yore, and Eleven Madison even uses an antique bottle to make seltzer. In a fun table-side presentation, I learn their egg cream uses orange oil (where the original used chocolate syrup) with the essence of cocoa nib. Mixed with milk and seltzer and stirred to frothy magnificence, the drink is a sweet and refreshing palette cleanser for what will be an incredible dessert.

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Cheesecake

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New York style cheesecake made with goat cheese. Sound good? Well, it is, especially topped with orange sorbet and a chilled vanilla “snow.”

Chocolate

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And now the grand finale: could it be anything other than chocolate? This most beloved ingredient still gets special treatment. The plate is a mountain of crispy flakes of “caramelized coco puffs,” and soft, frozen “chocolate snow” (think Dipping’ Dots). All of this is bordered by a sea of Meyer lemon cream sauce and just a touch of olive oil.

In a final touch of poetic creativity, the end is in the beginning. Another box appears before you containing the sweet black and white cookies which had been so successfully quoted at the outset. They’re at the same time unexpected, self-referential, and an ode to classic New York City food. I can think of no better metaphor for the restaurant itself, and the once-in-a-lifetime experience of its food.

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Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

Southbound and Down

Texas, for those not from around here, has a bit of a different feel from Oklahoma. It’s bigger, busier, but it’s also a state of contrasts; It has sprawling cities and vast swaths of desolate countryside (think “No Country For Old Men”), a strange blend of modern American cosmopolitanism and backwater secessionist crackpottery. This is the home, after all, of both the Kimball Art Museum and Rick Perry.

The Kimbell

But what makes such a place worth driving through hours of repetitive scenery laden with casinos and adult bookstores? Naturally, my friend Sarah and I drove to Ft. Worth and back one fine Saturday for one thing: a meal. Yes, one lunch and even one dish at Ol’ South Pancake House is well worth a 200 mile drive both ways. Don’t believe me? Read on.

I would be loath to ignore all of the fun sight-seeing attractions on a road trip like this, and especially all of the cool things to do in Ft. Worth and Dallas. Just because we came for or food and left without so much as a museum visit doesn’t mean you should! I couldn’t recommend the Kimbell and the Ft. Worth Modern highly enough. The former is an architectural masterwork by Louis Kahn (if you’re into that sort of thing) which is probably the closest thing to hallowed space this side of the Red River. The museum is small, but that means every single piece, ranging from ancient to modern, is a stand-out. The light and materials of the space give intimate and beautiful respect to the works displayed within. Much larger is the Ft. Worth Modern, another masterpiece, plain and simple, by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. It contains pieces by such names as Ed Rousha, Gerhard Richter, Francis Bacon, Mark Rothko, and that Andy Warhol guy you may have heard of.

Andy Who?

The best part? These museums are right across the street from one another! And only a short drive from our destined pancake house. Not into art? Well I-35 has plenty of diverse and exciting sights to offer! There’s the action figure museum in Paul’s Valley, Ardmore’s bustling Starbucks, even the world’s only osteology museum! The town of Moore, home to Toby Keith and a big movie theater should also top your list! You can even stop off at the monstrosity that is Winstar Casino, an amalgam of reconstructions of famous buildings from around the world which looks like a pile of greeting cards were willed into terrible, monumental reality by the same evil force that gave us Branson, Missouri. As if this weren’t enough Americana for one day, you’ll even get to see the NASCAR Texas Motor Speedway rising up alongside the highway like an ancient temple of beer, fried food and men in tank-tops.

But if you’re like me, you’d like to go straight through without any stops and cut the 4-hour drive down to 3 with careful observance of posted speed limits. The highway didn’t have an abundance of broken heroes on a last chance power drive during our trip, so we made pretty good time. And suddenly, there it was: right alongside downtown Ft. Worth Ol’ South Pancake House sits with a full parking lot, enormous as you’d expect a themed restaurant in Texas to be (Medieval Times is nearby). I’ll admit this restaurant is unusual for my blog. By that I mean it is really down-home. Desserts are displayed up front, and the wooden booths, old-timey lamps and murals of Southern Plantation vistas give the place a folksy, cracker barrel feel. There is no hint of the exotic quaintness of the foreign restaurants I usually seek out. There are no pillows to sit on, no hookahs, no ducks hanging in plain sight. It doesn’t even have organ meats on the menu! But our meal was phenomenal nonetheless.

I say meal, but really there’s one big reason to come to Ol’ South. When we let our waiter know we had come all the way from Oklahoma City, he instinctively replied “Ah, German pancakes then.” He understands. Yes, iHop claims to be the “International” house of pancakes, and this place also offers several international twists on the traditional breakfast pastry (Swedish Crepes, Belgian Waffles, Blintzes, etc.). But I promise, you have never had anything like these German pancakes. The cake itself is like an egg-based crepe: rich and fluffy like a soufflé but cooked nearly crispy on the flat-top. It arrives at the table flat, like an edible plate holding a gleaming dollop of melting butter and snowy coating of powdered sugar. But then the show starts. Your waiter carefully pours a bowl of fresh-squeezed lemon juice over the pancake until it’s steeped in the buttery nectar. Then he folds it over, making it a sweet, juicy present with a pancake wrapper.

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After

Now are these pancakes really just like those eaten in Germany? I don’t know. Somehow I doubt it. But it is one of the sweetest, richest foods you’ll ever eat. After cutting into the mound of pancake, your plate will be swimming in the butter and lemon. Each bite will be just as explosive, the hot, porous cake soaked in the magical liquid. Now my German pancake was actually what they call a “Dutch Baby,” the small version. The standard size is huge, as in hanging off the plate before they wrap it up huge. Should you be brave enough to try the full pancake, that’s a meal in itself. But in the interest of exploring more of the menu, my Dutch Baby was complimented nicely by eggs, bacon and Cheese Blintzes. You have the choice of strawberries or sour cream on the Blintzes, the latter of which I chose because I was already close to a sugar overdose. The pancake may be a hard act to follow, but the Blintzes were like hot cheesecake wrapped in a crepe (with packets of sour cream administered by yours truly). Need I say more?

Blintzes

So we left Ol’ South and Ft. Worth sated and filled with the food of the gods. There was no room for the pies and cheesecake beckoning to us from their glass case on our way out, but I have no doubt they would have been just as divine. This pilgrimage is one I would recommend all my Oklahoma friends take at least once. The German pancake may not be like anything you’ve eaten, but like everything else on the menu, it’s just great comfort food. Maybe the drive there is a little kitschy, a blend of Las Vegas and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it should put you in the right state of mind for a good southern meal. And Ol’ South is just that: Proof that Southern cooking, at least, isn’t gone with the wind (sorry about that one).

*Ol’ South Pancake House is open 24 hours/day.

Ol' South Pancake House on Urbanspoon

Inca Roads, Take Me Home

So, what does the average Oklahoman really know about the Incas? Far too little, thanks to their civilization being all but obliterated by the Spanish Conquistadors. To give them some credit, the Spanish didn’t just bring diphtheria, smallpox, forced labor and unparalleled cruelty to the Americas; They also brought some of their more. . . delicate recreational activities which, coalescing with the rugged new terrain and traditions of the native peoples, formed the unique culture of Latin America we know today. The most obvious result of this (and my personal favorite, of course) is the food. Yes, the Spanish had the foresight not only to preserve some Inca recipes, but also to use the indigenous ingredients to create a whole new cuisine.

For some perspective, Europeans did not eat corn or potatoes until they discovered South America. Yes, before the fifteenth century, most of the world had no corn and no potatoes. Corn and its derived products are everywhere now. It’s a part of the food you eat every day in many ways you’re probably not aware of. But it isn’t just the plant that’s pervaded every continent. The ways in which it was used by indigenous peoples (the tortilla, anyone?) have been immortalized in the familiar staples of the Mexican food we all know and love. Latin America may have been conquered by Europe, but its food, in turn, has conquered the world.

So we arrive at Inca Trail, the restaurant in Oklahoma city (and the only one I know of) which specializes in Peruvian cuisine. The first thing I want to get across about this place is that it isn’t Mexican food. Sure there are similarities, heavy use of beans, rice and corn being among them, but the flavors and preparation are something completely unique. And perhaps the best example of Peru’s contribution to food is ceviche.

Ceviche is a blend of chopped seafood (fish, scallops, shrimp, etc.) marinated in lime. There are many different styles, but the dish and most of its variations originated in Peru. Being such a point of national pride, my parents and I decided it would be the best way to start a Peruvian meal (after a complimentary cup of warm soup.) Inca Trail offers four different preparations, but how could we not go for the one called “Leche de Tigre?” ($7.99) That’s “Milk of the Tiger,” which turns out to be an appropriate name in more ways than one. The base of this particular ceviche is the highly acidic liquid runoff used to cure the fish, made up of lime juice and other seasonings. The glass is filled to the brim with the opaque (yes, it looks a little milky), pink liquid, and densely packed with bits of fishy goodness. According to the menu, the dish is both an aphrodisiac and hangover cure. That’s right Kids! Leche de Tigre can be your drink of choice for prom night and the morning after!

That tiger must be hard to milk

Take your first bite and you’ll see what they’re talking about. A spoonful of the fish cocktail is mouth-puckering tart. Served chilled, it manages to have explosive flavor while still being cool and refreshing. The kernels of corn on top, something I’d never seen used in ceviche before, are actually a great idea, providing a nice crunch for contrast. But even after a couple bites it still has time to surprise you. Yes, it’ll be faint at first, but lurking within the glass is the kind of spiciness that sneaks up on you. When your face starts to flush, you’ll realize the dish’s pink tint comes from a healthy dose of chili pepper. But don’t let me dissuade the faint of heart. I’m a wimp when it comes to spicy food and this is just the right amount; Perfect for getting the blood flowing (hey, it is almost valentines day, isn’t it?)

The ceviche is a hard act to follow, but the rest of the meal turned out to be diverse and just as interesting. My meal was the Parrillada Inca ($17.99), a platter of assorted meats (does this come as any surprise?) so big that the sides come on a separate plate. It covers all of the important bases: steak, pork, chicken and sausages, all with a side of rice, beans and Inca salad. The meats are all tender and juicy, grilled and marinated in what the menu calls “traditional Peruvian spices.” The chicken in particular is cooked in a charcoal oven and has great flavor and dark, crispy skin (just the way I like it).

For meat lovers only

Dad ordered the half chicken as its own dish ($9.99), while Mom had the Tacu Tacu ($10.99), a stir fry of rice and beans topped with sirloin steak and salsa criolla. But the best part of this dish, by far, is the fried plantains. This is the one thing I require you to try if you come here. The firmer, less-sweet cousin of the banana, plantains are a revelation when fried. Crisp on the outside, tender and warm in the center, they’re the best natural candy you’ll ever have.

Do u Tacu Tacu?

The menu is too big and diverse to be summed up with just these three dishes, but everything Inca Trail does, it does very well. The meats are all well-seasoned and fresh, with a wide variety of veggies and starches (Peru has over 2800 native varieties of potato, after all). If the plantains don’t satisfy your sweet tooth, they offer some fabulous desserts such as a traditional Flan custard, or ice creams made from fruits native to Peru (both $3.95). Another distinctly Peruvian treat is Chicha Morada ($2.50), a drink that dates back to Inca times made from sweet, purple corn and a hint of fruit juice. In my humble opinion, this was one of the best meals I’ve had in recent memory.

Mmm... Chicken

When I think on my meal there, all I can say is: they’ve done it again. This is city has managed to provide a home for yet another restaurant so interesting and well-executed, so far removed from our own culture, it seems to have dropped out of the sky. Like the fabled vehicle that came from somewhere out there just to land in the Andes? Nah, if the Incas really had aliens on their side, Pizarro wouldn’t have stood a chance. The credit for this wonderful food goes to the hard-working people in every culture who, through pure trial and error, tirelessly worked to discover the different combinations of spices and methods of cooking that work so well, and that we now take for granted; And especially to the people who keep those recipes alive so they can be shared in a city like this one. We’re lucky to have them.

*Inca trail is open daily for lunch and dinner. You can peruse their menu here: http://incatrailokc.com/

Inca Trail Peruvian Restaurant on Urbanspoon