New food: bubble tea

March 30, 2011 at 12:35 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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At the end of our block there’s a cute little cafe called Oasis Tea Zone. Practically every time I walk by it is absolutely jam packed with young Asian people talking and playing on their cell phones.  Now you might wonder just exactly what kind of tea this place sells to attract such a crowd all the time. Well, the answer is… every kind. Case in point:

The most intimidating menu ever

The most intimidating menu ever

Seriously, this menu is practically designed to make you feel stupid. But stupid in a special kind of way… culturally stupid. I’ve been to a lot of coffee shops in my life, and many of them have had big menus. But at the end of the day those menus were filled with things I could understand. Beverages whose characteristics and names made sense. This menu, however, is filled with odd and mysterious things with names that sound benign — they’re in English, anyway — and yet they give you no clue what you actually might want to order: taro milk tea? Chocolate barley tea? Pudding milk tea? Milk pudding? (What’s the difference?) Or perhaps you’d like to go with something that’s chilled: winter melon tapioca juice? A refreshing coconut greenbean slush? Or maybe an almond snow or a green mungbean shaved ice. And while you stand in the undoubtedly long line waiting to order, you look up at this imposing sign and try to figure out the nagging questions: how is slush different from snow or shaved ice? Is pudding milk tea the same as milk pudding? It says pudding is a topping, too — how does that work?

And as you sit there pondering, you hardly notice that you’re slowly stepping closer and closer to the counter while the Asian teens in front of you quickly order and pay. And then, in one horrifying moment, you notice that you’re next in line with no idea how the menu even works, let alone what to order. The people behind the counter don’t always speak English very well — and with their usual clientele, why should they? — but in just a moment you’re going to be holding up the line and all eyes will be on you. The eyes of multitudes of Asian high schoolers who, in your mind, are perhaps wondering how this white girl strayed so far from the Starbucks around the corner.

Some of these are simple and undaunting

It’s time for evasive action. You abandon your grandiose plans of understanding the menu and which drinks are drinks and which are pudding and which are toppings. You’ll have to find out next time. “Surely,” you think, “there are items on this menu that I can understand.” So you scan down the list until you find something benign: almond milk tea. You like almonds, you like milk (kind of), you like tea. So you tell the friendly proprietors and then wait for them to call your name.


And everything’s fine. Nobody laughs, everybody is friendly, and they just treat you like all the rest of the customers. While you’re waiting for your almond milk tea to arrive, you look around at the couches and tables and realize that there are actually a few other people there who aren’t Asian teenagers. And that nobody is looking at you and wondering why you aren’t drinking a venti grande latte half caff macchiato. They’re just having grand old times with their friends and phones.

The tapioca pearls

Anyway, once you get over that stress, the almond milk tea is pretty good. It’s often called “bubble tea” because of the marble-sized tapioca pearls that get dumped into the bottom of the glass. Because they’re so large — and chewy and pretty good, actually — bubble tea is served with a super-wide straw so you can suck them all up into your mouth while you’re drinking it. It’s a little strange the first time — and maybe the second and third — but it’s actually very delightful.


This past weekend there was a breakthrough in the unending menu mystery: we went to Oasis with our Chinese friends, Terry and Eva! (As we walked in, Eva whispered “I always feel so old when I come in here!”) I was super excited at the impending understanding and I eagerly told Eva that I had about 300 menu-related questions for her. Happily, during our lengthy stand in line I had many opportunities to find out everything I wanted to know. Also, to my great relief, I learned that things that are green-bean flavored aren’t American green beans. They’re mungbeans, which are apparently quite common in Chinese desserts. When I explained to her that “green bean milk tea” sounded a lot like “broccoli milk tea” to American ears, she thought that was pretty hilarious.

Anyway, keep your eyes open if you’re interested in trying bubble tea. There were places that sold it in both Atlanta and Austin, and it’s probably not too hard to find in other parts of the country as well. (I wouldn’t expect quite such a daunting menu, however. I attribute that to Oasis being in the middle of Chinatown.) Just pick one that’s a flavor you like and you won’t be disappointed. Or, if you want something less sugary, go for the original flavor: “royal” milk tea. It’s far more refreshing than the ones with the chocolate or almond or whatever flavoring added on. And if you’d like to try it but don’t have the wherewithall to try one yourself, just come visit us in Seattle and I will be your bubble tea guide. Because really, it’s very simple.

My delicious royal milk tea with delicious tapioca pearls



Elvis Jong Il

March 26, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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At Uwajimaya the other night we saw this guy who looks like Elvis or Kim Jong Il. He and his lady friend were the only people seated– it was going to close soon — so I had a difficult time getting this photo without attracting attention. I took three or four, but most came out pretty blurry. This shot will have to do.

Elvis Jong Il


In other news, one day recently Blake and I went to one of our favorite Hong Kong bakeries in Chinatown. We’ve been going there for months, and Blake visited nearly every day when Amazon was right across the street. He always gets the same thing there — a cream cheese bun — and the girl who works there is always nice to us.

On this particular occasion, the place was super crowded and Blake had to wait in line behind three people to get served. (Waiting at all is extremely unusual.) When he was finally next in line, he overheard the girl in front of him order two cream cheese buns — the same thing he always gets (though he gets only one). So the bakery girl checked her little food-warmer and announced, “Oh, I’m sorry, I only have one left.” Blake, still not yet at the counter, was crestfallen. After all that wait! So he started reviewing the bakery case to find a suitable alternative. When it was finally his turn, he said, “No more cream cheese buns, eh?” But the bakery girl smiled a big smile, leaned over, and whispered, “No, I saved you one! I didn’t want you to wait all that time for nothing!” We like her. =)

Snow in Chinatown (in February)

March 25, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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In February we got an impressive amount of snow in the span of about two hours. I went out with Nano and Pico for a little while to enjoy it, but unfortunately I couldn’t manage both of them and my camera. As a result, all my street photos were taken with my iPhone — and in low light, even — so they’re really not my best work. I think they’re neat, though, so I’ll include them anyway.

After I dropped the dogs back off at the apartment, I grabbed my real camera and went to the tea garden with my tripod to see if I could get some neat shots. I was pretty pleased with the results. =)

The city looks so surreal with the snow and the sodium lights

Our neighbor's apartment and the snow

The King Street gate in the snow (Is "gate" the right word? I don't know.)

Nano is camouflaged

A Chinatown dragon with King Street Station in the background

The tea garden in the snow

The tea garden with Blake's old building in the background

Our spiffy arch. It looks so cool in the snow! The girls in the distance are making a snowman.

Building a snowman (I don't know who this is.)

Lunar New Year in Chinatown

March 24, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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A poster for the festivities

Lunar New Year was actually quite the celebration here. Aside from a big festival that occurred a couple blocks from here — albeit in some very cold rain — it was really a neat experience. Uwajimaya was packed, of course — mostly with Asian people buying (what I assume to be) various traditional new-year foods. There were lion dances and dragon dances and fireworks and people throwing cabbages up in the air. (I’m still not really clear on the reasoning behind the cabbage tossing.)

Aside from that, though, I was amazed at how many businesses got into it. The bookstore around the corner had rabbit t-shirts  (since it’s the year of the rabbit), all kinds of stores had rabbit tchotchkes (keychains, figurines, dangly things to attach to cell phones, pens, erasers, mirrors, etc.). And even the Wells Fargo here had a sign on its door offering a new-year-themed rabbit piggybank if you open a new account. Maybe that was a nationwide campaign, but I certainly have never seen anything like that any of the other places I’ve lived.

The dragon/lion dances were fun to watch. After seeing one up close one weekend, we were surprised to be awakened the next weekend by the bang-bang-banging on a gong/drum thing. When I looked out the window, I could see another lion/dragon dance occurring a block away, complete with flags and fireworks and banging. From our third-floor window, I was able to watch them walk up and down each block. They’d stop from time to time at one business or another and then the banging would change tempo and more fireworks would go off. Then, ten minutes later, they’d slowly march down another street, around another corner, to another business. And then more banging, more dancing, more fireworks. It was neat to see.

…for a while. I woke up from it around 11, and by 12:30 the magic had worn off. Then at 1:30 it had really worn off, and by 2:30 I was really ready for them to stop (which occurred around 3). As it turned out, somehow the lunar new year celebrations spanned three whole weekends. You can imagine my surprise when I was awakened the next weekend by still more banging and dancing and fireworks. Fortunately, that was the end of it. An experience I was glad to have, though really I would have been glad if it lasted 1/10th as long.

Anyway, please enjoy these lion/dragon dance photos!

(PS: A lion dance is two guys in a lion suit. A dragon dance is a bunch of guys holding sticks that form the dragon’s body like the legs of a caterpillar.)

Dragon dance in the rain

More dragon

A lion

The procession that occurred for the next two weekends. (This photo taken from our apartment.)

Homeless orator orates to nobody

January 10, 2011 at 7:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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One evening we heard the sounds of a loud conversation creeping into our apartment from the streets below. We didn’t really think about it, but after about an hour I got up to check out the group of people inconsiderately talking so loudly. Imagine my surprise when it turned out it was this crazy woman — who’d been going for at least an hour before I saw her. There was not a single person other person within sight for whose benefit she could have been speaking, and there was no pedestrian traffic either. After about thirty more minutes she went to a nearby garage, pulled down her pants, and had a good poop right there in front of our whole building. Seriously.

This is why I’m glad that we can walk the dogs in the tea garden instead of having to go down to the street late at night.

(Our area is really very charming — she is an anomaly!)

An evening in the quiet city

November 4, 2010 at 11:00 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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A few nights ago Blake and I were sitting in the living room when the power went out. Everything blinked off except for our laptops, of course, and things were eerily quiet. It was already dark outside, so I went over to the window and looked at the surrounding buildings to discover that not only was our building out — it went for several blocks. At least a 3×3 block square, and maybe more. In the hallway the fire doors had fallen closed — they’re usually held open by electromagnets — so in the glow of the emergency lights the empty hallway looked almost spooky and closed off and silent. It was pretty neat.

I took some photos of the dark street below with the tripod — it is now a permanent fixture here in our living room — and then I left the camera untouched so I could take the same photo when the lights came back on. (Blake’s idea.) The camera must have shifted a bit during the intervening time, but the photos are pretty close:

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In retrospect I would have aimed the camera a little bit differently, but it was pretty hard to see what I was taking a photo of when the lights were out. (For the photography nerds out there, the dark shot was a 15-second exposure and the light one was 1/40 ish.)

After about an hour the lights came back on, which was fortunate since we were getting pretty hungry. So we took off down the street around 7:45 looking for food. After a few blocks it became apparent that most of the restaurateurs in Chinatown had decided to close up and go home once the power had been off for a while, and our hopes for a sit-down dinner dwindled. But then, up ahead, we saw some lights and a neon “open” sign. Just as we were approaching to take a look at the menu posted outside, the store’s proprietor came out to… I don’t know, stand around or something. (Why do restaurant owners in cities hang out in front of their restaurants? I’ve never understood it.) He was a diminutive Asian guy and seemed very friendly. He noticed that we were approaching and smiled broadly, but we sort of paused — if we went over to look at the menu and then didn’t want to eat there, I’d feel terrible walking away with this nice guy grinning at us! So we looked at each other and decided to go over anyway, and the menu looked fine. So we went in, much to this guy’s delight.

Most of the menu was in Chinese, but it had English translations. It took us a long time to decide what to order, though — me especially — because of my plan to order interesting ethnic food. I may be culinarily adventurous right now, but I’m doing it in baby steps — I’m not going to jump right into the prawn “hot pot” (whatever that is — it’s on lots of menus around here). Anyway, I ended up getting the “chicken ball” with rice noodles, which turned out to be…  rice noodles with normal-shaped pieces of chicken in it. (I’m not sure how the word “ball” got into that translation.)It was good, though, and there were photos on the wall of many more dishes that looked pretty appetizing and unusual. I hope to go back and try more of them.

The best part of the meal was what I had to drink. The beverage menu listed quite a few odd items, including milk with an egg in it, horlicks (?), and lemon Coke. Determined to broaden my horizons, I picked one of the more benign-sounding beverages on the list: “honey lemon.” Thinking it could be a soda or tea or something else entirely, I asked what was in it. “Honey and lemon in water,” she said, which didn’t sound quite unusual enough for me. So I moved on to the next most interesting item on the list: “almond.” When I asked what that was, I suppose I ought to have been able to predict the answer: “almond in water.”  Hm. Clearly there was something in this description that I was missing, because I was willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that I wasn’t going to get a nut sitting in the bottom of a water glass. So I ordered it and braced myself.

When it came, it was delightful! It almost looked like warm milk but more cream-colored. She pointed to the sugar in case I needed to add any, but when I took a sip it was quite sweet enough. It was kind of a strange, sweet, delicious almond-flavored… something. Not tea, really, though I don’t know what else to compare it to. Anyway, it was very good and I was very glad I ordered it. When you all come to visit us in Seattle we’ll have to take you there and then you, too, can have some almond.


Dining in Chinatown

November 1, 2010 at 11:22 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Blake and his cream cheese puff

Blake and his cream cheese puff. You can see Chinatown's Chinese gate in the background on the left.

Well, we had a lovely weekend in the new apartment. Aside from the obvious benefits of living right next to Amazon, this is really a neat area. After sleeping til noon on Saturday morning (after our harrowing move during the preceding few days), we got up and walked over to the nearby Yummy House Bakery for breakfast. Like all the businesses here in the international district, it’s run by some Asians of indeterminate nationality. It was a charmingly rainy morning and we strolled the 100 or so feet under my big umbrella and then had coffee and other delicious stuff. Blake had a cream cheese puff and a sponge cake, and I had a ham-and-egg puff and an egg custard tart. We were the only non-Asians in there for most of the time, but everybody in there was friendly and chatty (with each other in some other language) and it had a real home-town neighborhood feel even though we were in an Asian bakery in the middle of downtown.

We’ve checked out a few other restaurants here, and I’m determined to try lots of interesting and different foods. It’s really easy for me to just order the chicken and broccoli at all these restaurants, but there’s so much authentic and different stuff on the menu that I don’t want to miss. We’ll probably never live in a place like this again, so I’m forcing myself to eat outside my comfort zone. Sometimes it backfires, though — the other day we stopped at a different bakery after dinner and I adventurously bought some sort of date-egg pastry and a tiny mooncake. The date-egg pastry was just awful, so I gave the mooncake a try. It was… acceptable, but sort of like a big Fig Newton with a disproportionately large amount of fig. I threw them both away but have resolved not to let them dissuade me from my goals.



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