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Sunday, April 22, 2007


I was just in the mood for someplace new to eat, someplace I hadn't tried before. And I didn't mind driving. My 2007 Zagat for Los Angeles is so worn already that I knew I was unlikely to get any new inspiration there. And then it struck me-- I had seen a story a few months ago in the New York Times about L.A. area Chinese restaurants. I hadn't had Chinese food in 4 years-- ever since my doctor told me they tend to cook the food in extraordinarily cheap and cancer-causing oil and to steer clear. But I was in the mood.

It was easy enough to pull up Mark Bittman's Times story, The East Is West: The Best Chinese Restaurants in Southern California, online. It was all about going out of town, away from the traditional Chinatown and east on the I-10 towards Jacksonville, Florida (just not that far). And not even as far as San Bernardino, although Bittman's point is that the whole 50 mile stretch of the I-10 between L.A. and San Berdoo is "a string of multiethnic communities that all have a large, dynamic Chinese population. There is strong evidence of this in the chains of Chinese supermarkets, the likes of which exist nowhere else in the country. (In these stores, announcements are made first in Mandarin, then in Korean, then Vietnamese; then Spanish, and last English. Really.)"

And one of those towns is Alhambra. Bittman was unequivocal "Follow my advice, drop everything, and rush to eat at Triumphal Palace."
The restaurant follows in the tradition of popular places such as NBC Seafood, Mission 261-- about which, more in a moment-- and the ill-named New Concept. Their menus are large and long-- several pages, at least — and often feature esoteric and very expensive ingredients such as abalone, shark’s fin and bird’s nest.

For my money-- and though it’s upscale by comparison, it doesn’t take much-- Triumphal Palace is the best of the lot, with food that is full-flavored, intricate and subtle, sometimes almost tame. The roast duck, which looks like every other Chinese roast duck you’ve ever had, is so good I suspect it’s not “roast” at all, but fried in clarified butter; it’s that crisp, tender and flavorful. It needs nothing, and certainly not the accompanying marmalade-like substance, which you should not allow to touch the duck. Other dishes are similarly simple, and just about as good: stir-fried Dungeness crab with scallion and ginger; pea greens with mushrooms and the distinctively flavored dried scallops; a pretty dish of chicken slices, huge shiitakes, ham and gai lan (Chinese broccoli), served in layers.

For all of this, Triumphal Palace is perhaps better known for its dim sum (served every day at lunchtime) than for its dinner dishes. Like many of the grand West Coast Chinese restaurants, from Vancouver on south, the dim sum is ordered from a menu-- you’re invariably given a short pencil and a printed sheet, to tick off what you want-- cooked fresh and served hot, rather than being hawked from steam carts. (Still, the problem of everything coming at once can only be solved by staggering your order.)

Six of us-- one of whom now claims she will be married here-- shared 24 dishes (about 18 of which came within 10 minutes), and while all except the predictably sad desserts were good, some were incredible. These were barbecue pork belly, firm cubes of slow-cooked, crunchy-skinned fresh bacon that, I swear, were a dead-on replica of a dish Alain Ducasse used to serve at about five times the price; Chiu Chow-style dumplings, with thick, chewy, slightly crisp rice-flour exteriors filled with (could it be?) jasmine-scented meat; deep-fried carrot cake, in fact a savory-sweet custard-filled dumpling; boiled baby bok choy in fish stock, which, like the duck I’d had at dinner, contained some secret ingredient that was the Bomb; and a wonderful layered creation of pan-fried sticky rice with egg.

On a recent Sunday morning, the place was packed, as usual. The design is faux Deco-slash-modern, not horrible, but with the inevitable stark lighting. Still, the walls are of wood, there are tablecloths, and the chairs are padded and comfortable. At dinner the napkins are cloth, and the plates are changed frequently.

Bittman is clearly insane. But I didn't know that until after I ate in this dive. Although I did know it before I came down with severe MSG poisoning. Before I left for Alhambra I decided to look and see what Zagat reviewers thought. The food rated a very undistinguished "20" (out of 30) and the review touted a "lit-from-behind Lucite bar" and "a spacious aquarium." Well, this New York Times food critic probably is a lot savvier than the John and Jane Does who did the rating for Zagat. Oh, was I wrong.

Let me take Bittman's review apart paragraph by paragraph. The menu was not "large and long;" it was medium-sized. The food was far from "full-flavored, intricate and subtle, sometimes almost tame." It was crap, MSG-flavored garbage and not "sometimes almost tame; always very tame. I took his advice and ordered the closest thing on the menu to what he called "pea greens with mushrooms and the distinctively flavored dried scallops," a soup that claimed those ingredients but which had no trace of scallops-- or flavor. I had asked the waiter if there was MSG in the food before we sat down and he shook his head enthusiastically. I figured he didn't understand. I was wrong.

I also asked him if the soup was enough for me and my friend. He said it was enough for 6 people. He wasn't exaggerating. All the dishes were oversized, which doesn't make up for quality in the slightest. My main course was a shrimp dish that was really bad and my friend had beef chow fun which he said tasted the same as beef chow fun does in any Hollywood dive.

Alain Ducasse should sue Bittman for comparing his creations to this swill. When I was around 16 I hitchhiked across the U.S. and a merchant seaman picked me up in a Cadillac and drove from Ohio to California. He claimed he had eaten in the best Chinese restaurants in Peking, Canton and Shanghai and that he would tale me to one that was better than any of them right down the road in Amarillo. I hadn't been to China yet but I had eaten enough Chinese food in Brooklyn to know that good Chinese food was not going to be served in a restaurant with baskets of rolls and rye bread on the tables. The restaurant was in a roadside mini-mall off Route 66, but it wasn't that much worse than the one off Route 10 in Alhambra. As for Bittman's other suggestions, if the Triumphal Palace is his "New Favorite Restaurant," I'll steer clear of #2, thru 5.

By the way, the next day I had the first headache I've had in many years and I was dizzy for two days. I didn't dare drive my car; something I never experienced in my entire life. I felt like I was going to fall over several times. My neighbor told me L.A. Chinese restaurants stopped using MSG years ago. I don't doubt it. Alhambra is like 30 minutes away though.

Monday, April 16, 2007


A couple of months ago my old friend Kristin and her husband Nick were thinking about going to Turkey and Kristin checked out what I has to say about Cappadocia after I got back last year. After a quickly arranged lunch she went home and booked her flights and reserved a suite at the Esbelli. This morning I got an e-mail from her and Nick-- from the cave.

Turkey is amazing.  This will have to rank as the best trip we have ever taken....Rein Daddy and Howie you were dead on and we are grateful for your education and advice...We had no idea how beautiful this country was, as well as how fantastic the people are.

We are in Cappadocia right now in the interior of the country. It is snowing outside, but we are toasty warm in a cave where we are sending this email (high speed DSL I might add) resting from a long hike into some deserted caves, valleys, villages, etc...

We have not encountered a single tourist here, let alone an American. We are truly living among the Turkish people, and they seem so fascinated with the site of an American.  On countless occasions, we will be walking into a tiny shop (like 40 sq') to buy a water or something when the owner rushes to grab some old chairs from the back for us to sit in while he serves us apple tea and then just sort of stands there smiling and looking at us.  It may sound strange, but their warmth and hospitality transcends all language barriers. Today, we were in a shop and this older woman (covered as most of them are here) comes up to Kristin like she just found her long lost daughter with a smile beaming ear to ear and just starts touching her face smiling and laughing and saying "Guzel...guzel" which we have learned means beautiful. The fact that this is a 98% Muslim country should not dissuade anybody from coming here. We have felt safe everywhere we've been, except for a crazy taxi ride in Istanbul a week ago.

So far, we have spent around 4 days in Istanbul, 3 days in Selcuk (Ephesus), and now we are in a small town called Urgup in Cappadocia. We have traveled region to region by airplane due to the size of this country and cheap tickets. Istanbul was a great introduction to Turkey, and the different customs and such. It's pretty crazy as you are walking down the street when you hear the Muslim Call to Prayer echoing from loud speakers throughout the city. This goes on about 5 times a day.  It's pretty cool, except at 5 am when you are trying to sleep. So, we went to the massive and impressive Blue Mosque, the Aya Sophia, Topkapi Palace, as well as shopped at the Grand Bazaar.  Of course, we did a lot of eating too. The food here is pretty damn good. Sort of a East meets West...The spices remind me of sort of a mix between Moroccan, Greek, and Indian, and Kapabs are the big thing here. I must have had a couple dozen by now. Turkish pancakes (like quesadillas) and Pide (like pizza) are also favorites of ours.

In Selcuk, we felt like personal guests of the hotel owner -- Erdal. We just couldn't believe he had other hotel guests, because he was our personal guide throughout the region. He drove us to all of the major sights, restaurants, and even to run our errands.  Anything we wanted, Erdal was there to provide.

Ephesus was, bar none, the best ruins that we've ever experienced. You are in an ancient city with tons of history-- Alexander the Great was here, Jesus's disciples Paul and John were here, the Virgin Mary was here, multiple Emperors were here. It's so easy to imagine what life was like 2000 years ago and what a bright and vibrant time the 200,000 citizens must have experienced. The frescoes, mosaic floors, fountains with multiple statues, and terrace houses were amazing and well preserved. The houses even had hot and cold water running in them!

If you come to Turkey, you are nearly required to purchase a carpet, and we've met our quota. We are thrilled with the 9x6 and 4x6 carpets that are on their way to California as we speak. Any carpet salesman is delighted to give you an education of Turkish carpet making (only women make the carpets), but we decided to buy from Erdal and his partner, Nazmi and we think we got a pretty good deal. 

We're on our first day in Cappadocia and we are in one of the greatest hotels that ever existed. We feel like we've landed in a parallel universe that is featuring "Cave Hotels of the Rich and Famous."  It's called Esbelli Evi (look it up online) and much like our experience in Selcuk, our host Ramazan has taken us under his wing and is directing our tour of the region. For the next three days we are hiring a driver to take us to see sights throughout the region. This costs nearly the same as renting a car and doing it by ourselves. We just can't wait!

Cappadocia's terrain is frequently compared to being on the moon with incredible rock formations, mountains, and valleys that are one of a kind. We were prepared for it to be a bit cooler in this region, but didn't expect snow. Don't worry too much about us too much though, 
today we bought 2 pairs of wool socks, 2 pairs of wool gloves, and 2 hats for about $15.00 and lunch consisting of 2 pizzas and 2 drinks set us back a cool $4.80 with tip.

Well, just as we were sending this a couple from Toronto just checked in to the "cave" and agreed to explore and hike Cappadocia with us and our driver making this even more affordable. I think $15 a head for an entire day with a private car and driver. As they say in Turkey, Hoshchacal for now.  We know about 7 words including two numbers (Bir, Ichi) but we're always learning more.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


The first time I went to an Afghani wedding something very much astounded me-- well, more than something, many things. It was 1969 and it was in a small city southwest of Kabul, Ghazni. I was staying with some college pals who were living and working there and we all got invited to a wedding. The first thing I noticed was a total separation of the sexes. The women-- including the bride, the groom's mother and sisters, etc.-- were in a different part of the house and we never saw them. So the wedding was kind of like a bachelor's party or maybe two bachelor's parties, one for men and another for women-- although not seperate-but-equal. The men were served a sumptuous feast. Servants and dogs were fed after we were done and then leftovers were sent to the women. That was all pretty shocking-- and I know that less than 30 years later our clueless commander in chief thinks he's building a pluralistic, democratic, secular society there (on the cheap... and fast) which is safe for women. That's called arrogance, cultural imperialism and hubris.

But what I saw as the inequality-- and even abuse-- for the women wasn't even the most shocking aspect of the wedding. After dinner the entertainment commenced. There was a small band that had been hired-- and a troupe of young drag queens. The band played traditional music and the drag queens danced. They were pretty bawdy. And many of them were pretty young. Everyone was smoking some powerful opium-laced hashish from Mazar-i-Sharif but many of the guests seemed genuinely disturbed when the groom's grandfather grabbed one of the young boys and dragged him behind a building and had his way with him. Later the boy, straightening his disheveled garb, came back and danced some more.

When I first saw this headline online-- After Drag Queens Are Beaten Up... Villagers Attack Taliban-- my immediate thought was some kind of incident between transvestites and Muslim fundamentalists in NY's Greenwich Village. But it turns out to be a report on an incident in a small town near the village of Adbulkhel, Pakistan, not far from Afghanistan.

The culture of the Pathan tribes on either side of the Afghan-Pakistan border are identical. The border is a colonial construct that has no relevance to their lives except as a sometimes annoyance. When Taliban religionist zealots beat up the local drag queens, shaved their heads and took away their instruments-- they react to nonconformity and music the same way, albeit usually more violently, western religionist zealots do-- the villagers got into a pitched battle, using heavy weapons and rockets, with the Taliban extremists.

The Afghan-Pakistan tribal regions seem like an utterly different world-- or millennium-- from Pakistan's big cities. And, in fact, the central government is engaged in a fierce and probably unwinnable war-- a very bloody one-- against the tribal areas right now. Karachi has different tribes, different cultures, different mores than the traditional-- and very primitive-- northwest. Small town, traditional hijras are very different from drag queens in the westernized big cities.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


The first time I went to Morocco, the 60s, it was all about the Marrakech Express. And once you got there, there were the gentle charms of Essaouira, not all that far down the road. On that first trip, before the Jamaa el-Fna was a parking lot during the day, Morocco and Marrakech were synonymous to me. I had driven my VW van down from Spain, taking a ferry to Ceuta and studiously avoiding what I thought would be Tijuana-like Tangier (a city I came to love in later years). We spent most of our time in Marrakech and Essaouira, slept in the van every night. But we also managed to visit many of the country's other main towns on that trip. I had a terrible case of dysentery when we got to Fes and I remember spending all my time in a camp ground outside of town.

I've been back to Morocco eleven times since then. And Fes has long since replaced Marrakech as my favorite city, although Fes has gotten a lot tamer and less dangerous feeling lately and Marrakech seems to have gotten cooler again, more like the way it was in the 60s. Fes, though, will always be exotic, basically because Fes is a functioning medieval city with streets too narrow and with too many steps for motor vehicles. Sunday's New York Times features it and calls it The Soul of Morocco. The title fits although you could ask almost any Morocco-hand and they'll think that title refers to Marrakech. The Times relied on a Fassi partisan, "a craftsman and cultural entrepreneur," Abdelfettah Seffar, to give them the lay of the land:
“Fez is really just the medieval city that it was,” Mr. Seffar went on, contrasting his hometown with its fast-developing jet-set sister and rival, Marrakech. “We are a little scared of what Marrakesh has become. Fez is the soul of Morocco. It’s the last bastion of what Morocco really is.”

Faded but stately, crumbling but proud, the walled city of Fez might well be the largest and most enduring medieval Islamic settlement in the world. It is indisputably Morocco’s spiritual and cultural heart.

You need only watch the daily procession of candle-toting mourners entering the tomb of the city’s founder, Moulay Idriss II — believed to be a great-great grandson of the prophet Mohammed — to feel the city’s connection to its past. A glance at the ninth-century Karaouine University, widely considered the world’s oldest operating institution of higher learning, reaffirms the impression.

As Marrakesh has opened to Tropezian swimming-pool clubs and branches of Ibiza night spots, Fez has turned ever deeper to its history, renovating architectural masterpieces and creating new festivals devoted to the city’s rich culinary and musical traditions.

Monday, April 02, 2007


It seems to be buried in the backpages, but you may have heard about a report on the airline industry that came out today co-authored by Dean Headley of Wichita State University. The short version: service sucks and everyone is pissed off.
More airline passengers bumped, more bags lost and fewer on-time flights. For the third year in a row, those problems grew worse for the industry, according to an annual study that rates airline quality.

"They just don't get it yet," said Headley. Who's "they" and what don't they "get?" Well, take this statement from a spokesman for the Air Transport Association: "We're going to see more delays and those delays translate to cancellations, mishandled bags and unhappy passengers," It's not a pretty picture." He doesn't expect that picture to get better soon and he blames... the weather. I think we could look for a better answer-- and solutions-- from Jonathan Tisch.

A lot of executives at my former company, Warner Bros. Records, used to stay at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue in NYC. Before I started working at WB, an incident at the hotel became part of Warner Bros lore. One night during a series of executive meetings at the hotel all the rooms on an entire floor were broken into and 4 of our guys were robbed. The hotel handled their complaints so poorly-- practically blaming them for the problem and telling them that the hotel was too busy to help them or to even call the police-- that the Regency went from being the hotel of choice for our company to a hotel no one trusted... or stayed at. This was long before Jonathan Tisch became CEO of Loews Hotels.

In fact, reading Tisch's new book, Chocolates On The Pillow Aren't Enough-- Reinventing the Customer Experience, is almost like getting a response to the whole hideous incident. Something like that could never happen under his leadership. Tisch is one smart cookie and this latest book by him is a must read for anyone involved in marketing. But aside from being an author, CEO of Loews Hotels and one of the heads as the whole U.S. tourism industry (as Chairman of the Travel Business Roundtable for over a decade), he is also mixed up with government and politics. That's what I wanted to talk with him about when I got him on the phone last week. It isn't what he wanted to talk about.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, he's flattered people are pushing his name out there to be NYC's next mayor but he just wanted to talk with me about his ideas about customer service. He's got a great reputation as an old-fashioned-- or is it futuristic-- CEO who champions corporate responsibility and believes-- as well as acts on-- the premise that a company can do well and do good at the same time. That's a very hard line to sell to Wall Street. (He told me it's his cousin's job to talk with the Wall Street analysts, not his.)

He says tourism is 100% non-partisan and that it's part of the lifeblood of every state and every congressional district in the nation. He spends a lot of time working with government on issues critical to the tourism industry. A Democrat, in 2003 he was appointed to the Department of Commerce's U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board and he was a founder of the Discover America Partnership. I asked him if the Bush Regime is trying to politicize the Board he serves on the way they have been politicizing the Department of Justice and the General Services Adminsitration. I could almost see him rolling his eyes on the other end of the line. "No," he said.

So what did Tisch have to say about today's report about the airline industry? By now you should be able to guess yourself. "It would be wonderful if the airlines could think of themselves like other parts of the travel and tourism industry, and not just in the business of transportation. These new numbers show that as a group, they may be wining the battle of profitability, but losing the war of customer service."

I don't know about you, but when I'm on a ridiculously long line 2 hours before my plane is scheduled to take off-- and it probably won't be on time anyway-- and I'm holding my shoes and praying my belt buckle won't set off an alarm and that I'll remember to take back my cell phone and keys, I'm just hating George W. Bush even more than usual. And every foreigner I've spoken to who either comes here to visit or contemplates coming here to visit, is a lot more pissed off than I am.

OK, now we're getting into Tisch's territory. Foreign tourism is down nearly 20% since Bush, at heart a paranoid, provincial hayseed and a xenophobic nativist, took over the White House. The Republicans may have once been a business friendly party but now... well, during the Bush era our economy has lost $93 billion in revenue from global tourism (and $15 billion in taxes)-- not to mention 58 million fewer visitors and nearly 200,000 lost jobs. Last week the Department of Commerce released figures that reveal that overseas travel to the U.S. remains below pre-9/11 levels in six of the top eight overseas markets-- Mexico and Canada being the two exceptions. Travel to the U.S. in 2006 fell further in five out of the top eight overseas markets. A 2006 survey of overseas travelers conducted by the Discover America Partnership found negative perceptions of the U.S. entry process to be the greatest deterrent to visiting the country. That's not pro-Business and it's not good customer service. Tourists and businessmen from Britain, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, and Brazil are opting to go elsewhere.

Friends who stay at Loews hotels swear that service and overall product are noticably improved since Tisch took the helm. I couldn't find a dissenting view. When I asked friends in NYC what they thought of Tisch as mayor, those who knew who he is were enthusiastic. By chance while I was writing this my old boss, Seymour Stein, called me to fret about the possibility of Giuliani becoming president. I assured him it wasn't going to happen and when he was calmed down I asked him about Tisch. "He's very smart and he has a good heart. His family are equestrians and they once wanted to buy my ranch. He'd be a great mayor. That Giuliani... he was the worst..."

Tisch has been a super generous contributor to Democrats over the years, although almost all of the donations have been to button down Establishment and conservative Democrats, from the Blue Dog PAC, Harold Ford, Joe Lieberman (a former Democrat), Evan Bayh, Ken Salazar, Rahm Emanuel... and (many) hundreds of thousands of dollars to the big Inside-the-Beltway committees like the DNC, DSCC and DCCC. I didn't find many contributions for Republicans other than to Mark Foley, and token donations to Al D'Amato (once a cost of doing business in New York) and Conrad Burns. This week Jonathan made a very cool contribution to Blue America: a boxful of personally autographed copies of Chocolates On The Pillow Aren't Enough. We'll be giving them away this Saturday at firedoglake as part of a live blog session with the man who represents-- among others-- Jonathan Tisch: Congressman Jerry Nadler. Come over and join us at 11AM est. The book is great.