Tuesday, December 23, 2008

More Porridge!!

We were so impressed with our first trip to Dduck Sa Rang that we’ve been impatient for a return. Second trip reveled only more of what seemed so right the first time.

The place is lovely. The service is easy-going and helpful. And the food is a steal for the price.

This time ‘round I got the beef & mushroom version which, if anything, made me miss the odd counter point of the slightly fishy tuna version I had on my first visit. Still, this was good stuff and certainly something that a first timer would find yummy and non-threatening.

The menu here has lots more than just porridge. We’re looking forward to working our way down the other offerings in the near future. In the meantime, head out to Annandale and grab a meal here before everybody else discovers it!

Dduck Sa Rang

4231 Markham Street, #N

Annnendale, VA 22003



Thursday, December 11, 2008

Return to China Star

We hit China Star again last night with our buddy SV, a true-blue fan of Hong Kong Palace.

We ordered the eggplant with garlic sauce in clay pot that Pleen enjoyed last time along with a pressed tofu dish and the cumin lamb.

Pleen & I will be back. SV, not so much.

SV didn’t appreciate the hellacious rush hour drive to the place and found the food underwhelming. Pleen and I liked what we had and saw a number of things to try next. Besides, it's an easy drive for us.

China Star

9600G Main Street

Fairfax, VA 22031



Discovering Korean Comfort Food in Annandale: Dduck Sa Rang

So, we know NOTHING about Korean food. Given that we live down the street from an enormous concentration of Korean eats, this always strikes me as a shame. Thus, imagine my excitement when Pleen agreed to go chowhounding around the back lots along Little River Turnpike.

We were running errands and needed something hot for lunch. Before falling back on a tried and true pho place along our route, we decided to snoop ‘round the back of a block just west of Annendale Road. We saw a storefront wedged between a dodgy looking gaming room and a hair
salon. The sign said “Korean porridge”.

Porridge? Hmmm. The Chinese do great porridge. The Japanese versions are a bit more refined. But Korean porridge? Well, one way to find out.

Bottom line up front:

Wow. This place is impressive. The food kicks butt. The place itself is sparkling clean, contemporary décor, brand new. We’ll definitely be back.


Mid 30s and pouring rain. Blech. No fun.

The cure? A big steaming bowl of richly flavored rice porridge accompanied by brightly spiced sides and warming barley tea. Yea baby!

Now, as romantic as it may seem to be an explorer of other cuisines, the fact of the matter is that NoVA is so multi-ethnic that everybody’s eating everybody else’s food. You’re never the only outsider in a restaurant. Hell, all the best Vienamese joints have their menus in Spanish since so much of their trade is Hispanic. Well, we were the only non-Koreans in Dduck Sa Rang.

The menu had English translations, but they were pretty non-explanatory. Still, the food on other tables looked good. We smiled, pointed, shrugged, questioned, and got what we thought was an appropriate order going. When the food came, it was accompanied by the restaurant’s owner. He quickly demoed how to serve and consume the various dishes and left us to it.

Porridge and a few accompaniments is a relatively simple meal. Still, the preparations showed care and even elegance. The banchan (side dish) included what I assumed were soya beans softened and dressed in a sweet-ish glaze, a conventional sour and spicy kimchi, a sweeter spicy kimchi, and a bowl of clear brine referred to as “white” kimchi. All were useful in highlighting the gentle flavors of the porridge. The white kimchi in particular was absolutely elegant.

But the main event was definitely the porridge itself. Pleen’s was mixed with vegetables and mine with veggies and tuna. The flavors were mild and fresh and remained distinct rather than being subsumed into the background. I had to force myself to take small bites as the soft porridge chased away the chills of the wet afternoon. While the ingredients and presentation were novel, the dish struck a familiar and comforting tone. This was universal comfort food.

As you can seen, it went down pretty easy

And Pleen’s attitude towards Korean food? You be the judge.

Dduck Sa Rang

4231 Markham Street, #N

Annnendale, VA 22003



Saturday, December 6, 2008

China Star, Fairfax

Our buddies OK & FL invited us to meet them for dinner last night at China Star. When I looked up directions to the place I hesitated – almost called and asked them to switch to Hong Kong Palace. I realized we’d been there years ago. We met our friends R&AS there one night to explore the Szechuan ma-la offerings. Pretty underwhelming.

“Oh well,” I thought. “I just want to see OK & FL. I’ll order some veggies and tofu and it’ll be fine.” Off we went to meet them.

Ooops. So much for memory.

China Star has either changed hands or undergone a significant upgrade. Certainly the interior is not at all what I remembered. It’s now simpler and lighter. Much more appealing. But the food? Oh, the food!

We need to return a couple more times in order to move more fully through the menu, but first impressions are HIGHLY promising. Pleen already thinks this may have unseated our previous favorite for Szechuan – Hong Kong Palace.

Pleen pointed out that lots of supposedly Szechuan joints seem to have one flavor to all their food. They pour their red chili oil (perhaps spotted with huājiāo) over dumplings or noodles, use it to braise their fish or lamb, and that’s it. China Star seems to be doing a much more nuanced approach. Lots of differing flavors.

Service was surprisingly pleasant. The place was filled with Chinese families. Portions were huge, and arrived at warp speed from the slamming kitchen. We all ordered soft drinks, a couple of appetizers, and four main course sized dishes. Admittedly, we ordered veggie-only, but still, the cost was $15/head. Looks like working through the rest of the menu is gonna be a deal!

Can’t wait to visit this place again.

China Star

9600G Main Street

Fairfax, VA 22031



Thursday, December 4, 2008

New Favorite Airline: Air Asia

As we started planning our month in Asia, it quickly became apparent that intra-regional air fare would be a major component of the total cost - maybe even a show-stopper. Flying Singapore Airlines is a delight, but too much such delight can empty the wallet quickly.

Enter the low cost airline phenomenon, which has fully hit in southeast Asia. Although there are a number of players in this space, we heard good things about Air Asia. We compared their offerings with conventional airlines. Very quickly it became clear that Air Asia’s pricing could make the difference between “affordable” and “undoable” for the itinerary we wanted.

Air Asia’s no-assigned-seat policy (al la US carrier Southwest Airlines) and super-low prices gave us a moment’s pause, but we decided it would make for an interesting experiment.

Short version?

We flew Air Asia seven times in 23 days. We each checked one bag on every flight. We experienced one delayed departure. No lost bags. We were never stranded or uncomfortable. Service was pleasant and efficient in all cases.

And the prices? Check out what we paid per head (converted to US dollar since Air Asia charges in the currency of the point of departure).

Bali to Jakarta: $60

Medan to Kuala Lumpur: $67

Singapore to Kuala Lumpur: $55

Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap: $73

Bangkok to Krabi: $31

Krabi to Bangkok: $52

Bangkok to Singapore: $102

And this is for international standard service on new Airbus and gently used Boeing aircraft. No livestock in the overhead bins (anyone else every flown Daalo Air?). No duct taped control surfaces. The uniforms were even cool.

Air Asia’s motto is “Now Everyone Can Fly”. At these prices? YA!

** Oh, that one delayed flight we experienced? Ya. There was an Air Asia voucher for about 1/3 the cost of the flight in our email box the very next day.

Air Asia


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Singapore Hotels

We passed through Singapore three separate times on this trip. Two of them were just brief overnight stops. For those, we crashed at the Crowne Plaza at Changi Airport's newly opened Terminal 3.

Super slick and wonderfully convenient, we were only sorry that we couldn’t stay longer. Everything from the toiletries in the rooms to the departure screens in the lobby caters specifically to the needs of a traveler. The lobby opens directly into the terminal. Airline check in desks are perhaps 200 meters from the hotel’s front desk. On our last night before returning to the States, thanks to the generosity of our buddy RS, we had a wonderful Cantonese meal at The Imperial Treasure restaurant in the lobby - just the thing to armor us for 20 hours of the culinary train wreck that is United Airline’s food service. This is a great hotel. The only drawback is the cost. If our old friend BL hadn’t gotten us a super-discount rate, we probably couldn’t justify the price.

For our longer stay in town with some friends, we chose the Intercontinental Singapore.

We stayed there perhaps a dozen years back and loved the decor and location. Sitting right atop Bugis Junction, the place is proximate to several different sides of Singapore. While many of the top flight hotels in the area isolate you from the neighborhood, the Intercontinental gives the feel of being in the midst of things. It was perfect for our needs. Unfortunately, the desk made a hash of our carefully coordinated reservations and left us feeling like a nuisance rather than welcomed guests. The final straw was when they attempted to charge us more than the rates contained in our reservations!! The management attempted to salvage the experience on the last day by comp-ing a van for six to the airport, and the concierge and bell staff were wonderfully helpful throughout our stay. Still, after their performance at check-in, I'm not sure if we’ll be back.

Crowne Plaza Changi Airport

75 Airport Boulevard #01-01

Singapore 819664

+65 6823 5300


Intercontinental Singapore

80 Middle Road

Singapore 188966

+65 6338 7600


Monday, December 1, 2008

Fish Spa Horror

While in Singapore, we were "conned" by some of our Singapore friends (who will remain unnamed - you know who you are!) into going to a Fish Spa. Described as a "relaxing" and "cleansing" experience, we all paid for the privilege of being fish bait for 15 minutes. At best, it is a surreal, unsettling and ticklish sensation -- hardly "relaxing." Note the guys in the background laughing as us too!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Back Home for Lunch

Two days back from a month-long Asian eat-fest. One day before Thanksgiving. So where did I force my buddy SV to take me for lunch?

Need you even ask? It’s Ray’s Hell Burgers all the way!

Look, I’m as American as the next kid. I’ve been gone for thirty-two days! I needs me a burger. I’ve been dreaming about one of these 10 ounce bad boys since I got on that big 777 in Singapore.

So how did Ray’s perform?

They’ve definitely still got it. They’re turning out a hell of a burger. All that grand good fat accented with the charred jalapenos and the roasted red onion? God. Bless. America!

If there's a better burger in the Nation's capital, I'd like to hear about it.

Ray's Hell Burger
1713 Wilson Blvd
Arlington, VA 22209

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Angkor Guide: John Teng

We were HIGHLY impressed with our guide in Cambodia. Trying to be useful, I posted a recommendation on several travel forums. On the off chance that anyone reading this is looking for a guide in Angkor, I thought I’d post it here as well.

I searched this forum and others looking for recommendations for a guide for our trip to the Angkor Wat/Siem Reap area. Eventually, I contacted John Teng and arranged for 3 days of guide service plus transfer to/from the airport for our party of 8.

We could not have been more pleased with John and his colleague Saru. At every turn, John’s knowledge and reliability inspired confidence and put us at ease.

From the first moment, John was consistent & dependable. If he promised something, it happened when and how he said it would. When he was unsure about something, he warned us in advance about possible pitfalls. He was particularly careful to explain costs in advance in order to avoid surprises.

John answered our myriad questions with skill and good humor (even the third or fourth time we asked them). He was flexible enough to accommodate our interests even when they diverged from the more standard itineraries.

The burgeoning tourist trade in the area results in constantly rising prices. However, John’s rates seem remarkably reasonable given the quality of the service(s) he provides. Based on our experience, we would HIGHLY recommend John Teng’s for anyone planning a trip to Angkor Wat/Siem Reap.

John Teng

(+855) 12 995 977, (+855) 16 518 888




Our particular itinerary ended up as follows:

Day 1:

  • Pick up from the airport & transfer to hotel.

Day 2:


  • Ta prohm
  • Ta Keo
  • Victory Gate
  • Bayon
  • South Gate


  • Angkor Wat

Day 3:


  • Phnom Bakheng
  • Baksey Chamkrong
  • Preah Khan
  • Lo Lei
  • Preah Ko
  • Bakong

Day 4:


  • Tonle Sap Lake to see the floating villages
  • Les Artisans d'Angkor school


  • Banteay Srey
  • Cambodian Land Mine Museum & Relief Facility
  • Pre Rup for sunset

Day 5:

  • Pick up from hotel and transfer to the airport.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Kuala Lumpur Hotel

I know nothing about the KL hotel scene. That’s because every time I come to town I stay with family. This time, however, we’re traveling with friends and want to be downtown for a few days - see the Petronas Twin Towers, visit the museum, etc. After some internet searching and asking around, I booked three rooms at the Traders Hotel in KL’s City Centre. I’ve had a couple good experiences over the years at the Traders’ in Singapore, and the price for the KL branch was really reasonable.

Best. Deal. Ever.

Way cool, way cheap. Great location in the center of the city. Everything is a stone’s throw away and there’s even a little hotel-shuttle-golf-cart-thingy that runs you around the neighborhood. The staff are extremely helpful in arranging excursions, drivers, reservations, etc. Rooms are spacious and well appointed. The roof top pool and bar is ultra slick, but comfy with an expansive view of the city spreading out in all directions. This is a great city hotel. I’ll stay there again at my first opportunity.

Traders Hotel Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur City Centre

Kuala Lumpur 50088


(603) 2332 9888



Thursday, November 13, 2008

Favorite Finds in Singapore

Several people have asked us for current Singapore recommendations. In no particular order, here are some places we think are worth a stop.

Loof: Hidden in plain sight on top of an office building right across from the Raffles Hotel is the bar Loof. It’s made up in seriously contemporary style with lots of gray steel and pop culture iconography, but the crowd and staff maintain a chill vibe (the self mocking name probably helps them avoid being too solemn about their cool). The roof-top setting hovering just above the street fray makes it an oasis in the midst of the bustling Raffles City area. A great place to start or end an evening.


331 North Bridge Road #03-07

Odeon Towers Extension Rooftop

Singapore 188720

+65 6338 8035


Cookie Museum: Located right inside the ultra-modern Esplanade, this odd little shop is awash in Victorian tea-time décor. They push pricey cakes and flower-painted cups of tea in an over-the-top vision of what English ladies might have enjoyed 100 years ago while back in London from the colonies. Most of that stuff looks quite good actually, but that’s not why we stop. What draws us back is the constantly shifting menu of dozens of different dainty but full flavored cookies. Many of them are classic interpretations of fruit and nut and such. But their baking crew also has a funky side that emerges in odd-ball flavor combinations. Tins of lavender or rose or lemongrass or sardine or curry cookies are stacked around the shop. Their tasting cart contains samples of everything in the shop, and the staff will walk you through endless permutations to find something that suits you. In our experience, the weirder the flavor sounds, the more our friends back home dig it. Our buddy AS found that the curry-almond cookies in particular made a perfect pairing with prosecco, and she demanded a resupply. Unfortunately, on this visit we found that flavor discontinued. We’re hoping the nasi lemak version makes the grade for weird-but-wonderful.

The Cookie Museum

8 Raffles Avenue,

#01-02/04 Esplanade Mall

Singapore 039802

+65 6333 1965

Din Tai Fung: When I was a kid, xiao long bao, the classic Shanghainese miniature soup-filled dumplings, were virtually impossible to find in the United States. Thus, to this day I get giddy at the prospect of digging into a steamer-full of these comforting treats. The Taiwanese dumpling chain Din Tai Fung has a number of locations in Singapore these days, but my favorite is still the one in the basement of Paragon right on Orchard Road. There’s always a line, and it’s always worth the wait. While you wait, you get to watch hordes of masked chefs on the other side of the glass kitchen walls turning out numberless tiny dumplings by hand – a pinch of meat filling, a bit of broth, a twist of wrist sealing up the thin skin, and the little bundles of goodness are on the way. Yum, yum, YUM!

Here’s LG getting his dumpling on with good form.

Din Tai Fung - Paragon Shopping Centre

290 Orchard Road

#B1-03/06 Paragon Shopping Centre

Singapore 238859

+65 6836 8336

Maxwell Food Centre: Nothing presents everything that’s right about Singapore more concisely than a good hawker center. While lots of the best tend to be out in the residential suburbs, the one in the heart of Chinatown along Maxwell Road more than holds its own (as opposed to dummed down locations like Newton Circus). Go. Browse. Order anything that looks good. Look for vendors with long lines. Ask anyone eating something yummy looking where they got it.

Maxwell Food Centre

intersection of South Bridge Road and Maxwell Roads

Crystal Jade: We tend to give Pleen’s parents some grief for their unchanging loyalty to the dim sum at Crystal Jade’s Ngee Ann City location. Whenever they’re in town, they only seem to eat here. They never branch out. You can’t swing a dead cat in Singapore without hitting a dozen dim sum joints. Who knows what they might be missing!? Well this time round, we were determined to give other options a chance. We asked several Singaporeans friends about alternatives in the Orchard Road area. Surprisingly, a consensus quickly emerged. “Try the dim sum at East Ocean Teochew Restaurant,” people said. OK. Off we went to Scotts Road with our buddies L&NG. With all due respect to our recomenders, this was a wasted meal. The execution of the classic dim sum dishes lacked refinement. The quality of ingredients was clearly lower. Even without their impressive atmosphere and service, Crystal Jade is superior and worth the cost premium on taste alone. It’s all about the food. If you’ve got limited opportunities for dim sum, don’t waste them on an inferior competitor – head over to Crystal Jade and tuck in. Mom & Dad were right!

Crystal Jade Palace

391 Orchard Road

#04-19 Ngee Ann City

Singapore 238872

+65 6735 2388

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Civilization Arrives!

Good news for weary travelers. If you’re passing through Singapore’s Changi Airport, Maker’s Mark bourbon is now available in the Duty Free. Although Loretto, Kansas may be 12 time zones away, now you can recover from your flight with a proper drink in the hotel room.

Maker’s Mark Distillery Inc.

3350 Burks Spring Road

Loretto, Kentucky 40037

Kentucky Straight Bourbon Handmade Whiskey


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Touristy Stuff Doesn’t Suck

For a long time, Singapore has been one of our favorite places. But, as is often the case with someplace you know well, there are a lot of things we never get around to doing. This time, however, we’re traveling with some friends who have never been to the Lion City before. And thus, we’ve actually included a lot of the stuff that we might normally dismiss. And guess what - in Singapore, the touristy things don’t suck! Among our favorites:

Singapore Flyer:

Singapore’s answer to the London Eye, this 165 meter ferris wheel offers a grand view of the lower half of the island – the financial district, port, east coast parks, and the hodgepodge of ships laying at anchor. The tickets are pretty reasonably priced and it makes for a lovely start to an evening. We reserved our seats for sunset before heading off to dinner on our last night.
Singapore Flyer
30 Raffles Avenue, #01-07
Singapore 039803
+65 6854 5200

Singapore Visitors Centre:
The Singapore Tourism Board maintains several visitors’ centers around town, but we have the most experience with the one on Orchard Road. Set up right in the middle of everything where Cairnhill Road intersects Orchard, this place is much more than an information counter. While browsing the gazillion informative brochures, you can soak up the air conditioning, get cold drink of water, give your feet and calves an automated massage, use a high speed internet connection – all for free. The staff can answer questions in multiple languages and make reservations for you directly (we bought our tickets for the Singapore Flyer there). There’s even a cute café adjacent. This is an awesome resource.

Singapore Visitors Centre @ Orchard
junction of Cairnhill Road and Orchard Road

Singapore Art Museum:

We wandered into the SAM to kill a bit of time on a rainy morning and ended up having to tear ourselves away. Situated in a lovely old colonial building, the visiting exhibit of contemporary Korean art was a welcome surprise – innovative and arresting work. Someone at SAM is doing a great job of finding compelling stuff. The staff were also awesome. When we asked where we could find a cab given the rain, the response was “If you’ll just wait over there, I’d be happy to call one for you”.

Singapore Art Museum
71 Bras Basah Road
Singapore 189555
+65 6332 3222