Monday, January 31, 2011

Now That's a Hotel

After escaping from the dreadful Posada Don Valentino I checked into Hotel Aurora, and what a delight. It's a single storey structure built around a lovely garden courtyard, with spacious, charming, tastefully decorated rooms including a flat-panel TV with an amazing selection of international channels, though I only tuned in to a bit of CNN's coverage of the Egypt crisis. It's in a great location, two blocks off the Parque Central. One quaint service I kind of liked: since there are no phones in the rooms, a wake-up call is a knock on the door. According to The Rough Guide to Guatemala it's Antigua's original hotel, but the writer goes on to say that "it's a little old-fashioned." What's he looking for in this enchanting city of Spanish colonial wonders, the Hilton Garden Inn? Like many (most?) writers, Iain Stewart clearly doesn't know when to shut up. In fact, the hotel's motto is "Hay cosas que el tiempo no cambia..." (there are things that time doesn't change (even if it does bring CNN and WiFi)). I would recommend the Hotel Aurora without hesitation.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

I Booked My Ripoff Shithole Hotel Through Expedia

Unfortunately, for my first night in Antigua Guatemala, the beautiful Hotel Aurora (where I am now) was fully booked, so I ended up booking one night at Posada Don Valentino through Expedia, for a rate of $75. I'll post photos of the Aurora later, but for about the same price it's about ten times better. Luckily I didn't spend much time at the Don Valentino. I arrived last night at about 9:30 from Copan and checked in. The night clerk told me they needed payment up front. I handed him a credit card and he told me (in Spanish; he spoke no English) that they had a 10% surcharge for credit cards. I told him it was unacceptable, but that I had no cash. He told me I could pay in the morning.

He showed me down a dark, gloomy hallway to my room (it was almost too dark to find the keyhole). The room was spacious enough but had an overpowering moth ball smell, threadbare towels, and plenty of noise from adjoining rooms. It's been a long time since I've been in a room as unappealing, and the rate would almost seem high in New York

The next morning there were a couple of very nice women at reception who spoke perfect English. I complained about the credit card surcharge. I understand a 4 or 5% surcharge to cover costs, but 10% is usury. The woman told me that there was a note about the surcharge in the fine print on my confirmation, and indeed there was, but it didn't mention the criminal percentage. "I hope there's no extra charge for the moth ball smell," I told her. I told her I thought she should waive the surcharge, but she said it wasn't possible. I paid with a credit card anyway and told her, "There's a saying in English: Penny wise and pound foolish." I said that after I was through reviewing their shithole fleabag on every internet forum they'd lose a lot more than $7.50 in revenue.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Tikal or Copan? That's a question I've seen on a bunch of travelers forums when I was planning my trip to Central America. Both are renowned Mayan ruins, Tikal in northern Guatemala, Copan in western Honduras. Many travelers who only have time for one or the other are looking for advice. I'd say it all depends on what you're looking for and where you've been before. The two sites are very different in character. Tikal is vast, its buildings monumental. Copan is a smaller site, with generally smaller structures, but with a wealth of carvings, reliefs and sculptures you just don't find at Tikal. Tikal is also either more difficult or more expensive to get to than Copan, as it's much more remote, requiring either an arduous bus ride from Guatemala City or Belize, or a not-so-cheap quickie flight from Guatemala City (I paid $211 round trip). Copan is a 5-hour ride from Guatemala City, where I got the ultra-luxury Hedman Alas bus. Their Ejecutivo Plus service gives you a fully reclining first-class airline-style seat. By Central American standards their service is very expensive (Plus service costs $75 return with a 20% r/t discount), but it's a very comfortable ride. If you're less picky you can get a standard bus or minivan for a fraction of that price.

Both sites have pleasant, traveler-friendly towns nearby. For Tikal I stayed on Flores island, about an hour away, though one can also stay at expensive lodges near right near the ruins. The town for Copan is called Copan Ruinas. It's a small, easygoing town, just a 15-minute walk from the ruins. I'm guessing it got its name when tourism started coming to the area; it was probably an insignificant village that was able to capitalize on the proximity to the ruins.

Ultimately, I'd say that all things considered I'd vote for Copan, which may be a minority opinion. But the ease of access and the pleasantness of the town are major pluses. Also, having recently been to the sublime, massive Machu Picchu, Tikal, impressive as it is, came as a bit of an anitclimax. If you have the time and/or the money to do both, by all means do both.

And now for the photos of Copan.

Who the hell is J. Higgins? A Google search reveals that there's a J. Higgins Trucking in Copan, Oklahoma, purely coincidental, I have to assume.

Could this be the Mayan Jim Backus?

No extra charge for the birds.

In addition to the wonderful in situ carvings, there's an excellent museum at the site with other excavated treasures.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Tikal, in the low-lying Peten region of northern Guatemala, is considered by many the jewel in the Mayan crown. It's a vast site with many well-preserved structures in a jungle setting, offering a diverse range of wildlife as a bonus to one's archeological meanderings. The buildings were constructed over a period of about 1300 years. Tikal is pretty remote from the populous heart of Guatemala, much closer to Belize than to Guatemala City. I opted for a flight, costing about $211 round trip, which gets you to Flores, a pleasant island town on a lake, about an hour from the ruins.

Once a proofreader, always a proofreader.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ten Meals, 2007

1. My post about Shrimp and Grits has been one of the most viewed on the blog, as it comes up very high on Google results for the dish.

2. Fu Run (formerly Waterfront International) serves the cuisine of Liaoning province in northeast China. Their crispy lamb with cumin is one of the great versions of the dish.

3. One of my favorite San Francisco treats is the garlic roasted crabs at PPQ Dungeness Island.

4. I can't get enough of the calzagatti at Via Emilia.

5. Like Via Emilia, Bianca serves the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, and it may well be New York's best value Italian restaurant.

6. Imperial Palace, in Flushing, is quite possibly the best Cantonese restaurant I've ever dined at in New York.

7. I'd be hard pressed to name a better Middle Eastern restaurant in New York than Tanoreen.

8. I've been known to wax elegiac and nostalgic about Chickarina.

9. Hampton Chutney, home of the white man's dosa, has received a number of rave reviews. Mine was not one of them.

10. Caracas Arepa Bar has an extensive menu of delicious little sandwiches on griddle-cooked cornmeal buns. I've loved some, hated none.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Happy Childhood

On numerous occasions I've alluded to my unhappy childhood. All right, I didn't allude at all, I came right out and said it: I had a miserable childhood. However, a recently unearthed photo suggests that amidst all that misery there were at least a few moments of beatific bliss.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Ten Meals, 2006

This is the first installment in my fifth-anniversary series of forty memorable meals from my first four years of blogging. Since I just did my year-end roundup, I'm not going to bother with 2010.

1. The Olive Vine is one of my neighborhood standbys, but what prompted me to write about it was the woman who was mesmerized by my joie de manger.

2. There are now a number of excellent, authentic Sichuan restaurants in Manhattan as well as Queens, but for a time Wu Liang Ye was the standard bearer.

3. The first full-blown restaurant rant I wrote was about the now (thankfully) defunct Raga.

4. Early on I wrote this meditation on the Chinese tortilla phenomenon.

5. Another neighborhood favorite is El Gran Castillo de Jagua, a Dominican rice and beans joint. The food is great, but I really love the fact that it's my neighborhood melting pot.

6. Las Ramblas, in Greenwich Village, is one of my favorite places in New York for tapas.

7. In 2006 I returned to my old neighborhood to try the much vaunted pizza at Di Fara, which was just another good pizzeria, no better, no worse than many, when I was a kid.

8. In 2006 Devi entered my pantheon of great Indian restaurants.

9. In Philadelphia I ate my way through the Reading Terminal Market.

10. My post about Florence's and the subsequent discussion on Chowhound may have brought in diners from well beyond Harlem, but unfortunately it didn't keep this Ghanaian-Ivorian gem from closing a couple of years later.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Word of Mouth, Year 6 and Beyond

Next month marks the 5th anniversary of Word of Mouth. When I started, albeit reluctantly, I vowed to post something at least once a week, and I've generally kept that promise, though I did take a summer vacation from blogging last year.

Five years is a milestone, I guess, and it's also time to reconsider the future of the blog. While I still enjoy writing about food, it's becoming harder (except when I travel) to find new things to write about. I've mined my culinary memories and I've already written about many of my favorite New York restaurants. I don't have the time or inclination to scour the furthest reaches of the city for undiscovered gems; Chowhound and blogs like Eating in Translation are good for that. Anyway, I never intended this to be primarily a restaurant review site.

So here's what I've decided. From now on I'm no longer holding myself to a post (or more) a week. Word of Mouth will now be more intermittent. I'm hoping to devote more time to my fiction (or whatever those short things I do are), and will continue to post links to online publications.

If you want to be sure you don't miss any of my thrilling no-longer-weekly posts, you might consider subscribing to email alerts from Feedblitz.

Over the next few weeks I'll be publishing a retrospective, forty memorable meals from the first four years (in four parts) and a selection of my favorite food photos.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Pete 2010, the Year in Food

January in Asia (Cambodia and South Korea) provided me opportunities to try tarantula, bull's penis and blowfish. In all cases the bragging rights far exceeded the culinary pleasures.

I don't want to know how many calories there are even in the quarter of a ricotta-nutella dessert calzone I had at Toby's Public House.

The transplanted Montrealers at Mile End bring the classic smoked meat sandwich to Brooklyn, quite possibly the best deli sandwich in New York at the moment.

My love for the non-vegetarian cuisine of the Indian state of Kerala was consummated at 5-Star Indian, in New Hyde Park. Equally satisfying was Hoysala, in central Jersey, which serves food from the neighboring state of Karnataka.

As a birthday present to myself I spent a weekend in Flushing, sampling a cornucopia of Chinese regional specialties at food courts and restaurants.

A birthday dinner also introduced me to one of my new favorite restaurants, Antibes Bistro, on the Lower East Side.

A number of trips to Elmhurst solidified Chao Thai's standing as my favorite Thai restaurant.

I threw caloric caution to the wind when I had gelato on a brioche at Villabate, a Bensonhurst bakery.

I first had alambres when I visited Mexico City in 2009, for Thanksgiving weekend. After combing Sunset Park menus for the dish, I finaly found it at a place with the unlikely name of Gan Eden.

In San Francisco I sought out some of the city's most historic restaurants, and fell in love with Swan Oyster Depot.

Other domestic travel gave me the chance to try two national cuisines that were new to me: Cape Verdean in Boston and South African in Charlottesville.

In Spain I had fabulous tapas as well as this duck and apple still life.