Thursday, April 14, 2016

Soda Series Round 1

I recently explored San Jose suburb Campbell for the first time. The downtown has a charming small town throwback feel. And look, there's even an independent bookstore! After a delightful cocktail at newly opened The Vesper (and yes, I did order the Vesper and it held up), I wandered into the Rocket Fizz Soda Pop and Candy Shop

Rocket Fizz is a national franchise chain, though you might not suspect as much given the character of the store. Though the chain started in 2007, the shop in Campbell felt more personable like a mom and pop shop. I suppose that's their corporate theme, but it worked for what they were selling. I picked the six sodas below--Moxie, Boylan's Birch Beer, Reading Draft White Birch, Faygo Grape, Rocky Mountain Soda Co. Evergreen Elderberry and Cheerwine. 


Last year, I read Stephen King's novel 11/22/63, now made into a Hulu miniseries staring James Franco. The book was long and tedious, but the brief mentions of this Maine mainstay stuck in my mind. One of the oldest mass-produced sodas in this country, Moxie is branded as an elixir, an echo to the drugstore days of fountains and jerks. Taking a sip, I immediately recalled medicinal qualities. Moxie is flavored with gentian root extract, which is an extremely bitter component. Although there are cola flavors, the root gives it a bitterness not unlike the Campari you might find in a Negroni. It's not so bitter to be unpleasant, but you certainly feel more like you're drinking a soda for adults. 

Boylan Birch Beer

Boylan Bottling Company has carved itself a solid niche in cane sugar sodas. It has never used corn syrup as a sweetener and you might find it in some fast casual restaurant chains with its own fountain. 

I often seek out birch beer, the rarer cousin of root beer, wherever I can find it. It's much more popular in the Atlantic northeast; Philadelphia and New Haven come to mind. Think root beer but with an initial blast of spearmint. Boylan's first soda was its birch beer. I could see the appeal but its flavors are two-noted--crisp mint followed by lingering sweetness. 

Reading Draft White Birch

On the other hand, the Reading Draft White Birch Beer had much more subtlety and complexity in its flavor profile. There's less of that overwhelming mint upon first sip and much more calm balance. Granted, this bottle was white birch, compared to the black birch for Boylan's so this isn't a one-to-one comparison. This is a refreshing sipping soda that would feel terrific on a hot and humid day.

Reading Draft & Universal Carbolic Gas claims to use a low pressure slow carbonation process that keeps smaller bubbles in the sodas longer. I couldn't say I could tell the difference, but it did make for a smooth drink.

Faygo Original Grape

I first heard of Faygo as the beverage associated most with juggalos, the fan culture of the Insane Clown Posse. While I know next to nothing about juggalos or ICP, I did remember the name of the soda and reached for it when I had the opportunity. The quick verdict is that it is reminiscent of a liquid purple Otter Pop. It left my mouth cloying and dyed a dreadful shade of vampire purple.

Faygo calls the Midwest its fan base and home. Although the grape is one of its original flavors, the root beer has drawn rave reviews so maybe I'll give it a shot.

Rocky Mountain Soda Co. Evergreen Elderberry

I'm a big fan of St. Germain and elderflower. To me, the herb flavors make balanced and refreshing cocktails. Rocket Fizz actually had a variety of elderflower or elderberry sodas, so I picked one at random. This was one of my favorites of the batch. It was very drinkable by itself, not needing food to cut the sugar. It wasn't too sweet and tasted of slightly woody raspberry. 

Rocky Mountain Soda Co. prides itself on its natural, vegan, GMO-free and kosher ingredients. While none of those designations matter to me in soda selection, I do appreciate that they, like all the other soda makers on this list, use real cane sugar. According to their website, they also offer a prickly pear flavor that intrigues me. 


While many people in this part of the country probably aren't familiar with Cheerwine, this is a North Carolina mainstay. Whenever I meet people from North Carolina, I often ask for their opinion on Cheerwine and Bojangles', the chicken place, not the entertainer. Cheerwine is a cherry soda. It has a deep burgundy color and none of the cola flavors you'd get in a cherry Coke or Pepsi. It's too sweet for me, no surprising considering it also comes the same general geographical area as sweet tea.

Do not confuse Cheerwine with Big Red, another Southern soda that while sharing the same color, has a completely different flavor. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Destination Maui: Feast at Lele

While I can't speak to the authenticity for native Hawaiians of any of the luaus on Maui, I can say that the luau has become a tradition for Hawaiian tourists. As with all such tourist traps, no matter how noble the origins, luaus have generally become more like Medieval Times--entertainment for kids while the parents get too drunk on watered-down piƱa coladas--rather than anywhere an adult would actually want to be.

Because of these pitfalls, I relished that I had no children to amuse or their picky appetites to satiate. For my luau experience, I traded picnic tables for private white tablecloths, a buffet for sixteen courses, and arts and crafts demonstrations for live music. The Feast at Lele in Lahaina is about 20-40% more expensive than the other luaus on Maui. Its focus on fine food, highlighting dishes from the four regions of Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Samoa, with accompanying performances, catered to those who were tired of teriyaki chicken and poi served out of steam tables. There were few kids at this luau, and you could stay seated comfortably while the attentive and friendly waiters made sure that you had whatever luxury you needed.

The dishes are divided into regional specialties highlighting four Polynesian areas. Pictured above are the famous locals, pohole salad and kalua pork. The pork was among the most succulent roast pig I've ever had, carnitas and barbecue pulled pork included. As the sun set, the dishes were too dark to photograph and I refused to intrude on the romantic atmosphere with flash photos. Among some of the other dishes were locally-caught coconut fish, baked scallops, passionfruit shrimp, grilled squid and duck salad. Much of the food may have been too exotic for all but the most adventurous or prodigious kids' palates. Almost all dishes had some sweet component, such as a fruit glaze or sauce. Yet nothing was overwhelmingly sweet. Each of the sixteen dishes could have stood on its own on a menu, far from the lukewarm concoctions spooned out of steel chafers.

Gentle island tunes set the scene for an amazing sunset. Lahaina, on the west coast of Maui, receives very little rain so the outdoor venue was ideal. All the luaus start about an hour before sunset and are located to take advantage of the gorgeous oceanside views. I felt especially thankful that I could enjoy such a magnificent scene free from the scampering and noise of little children.

As required for any luau, there were hula and other Polynesian dances. The performances were increasingly energetic, culminating in a thrilling fire knife dance. By the time the fire dancer brought out the flaming torch, he had to allow enough clearance between the flames and the guests, who gave off alcoholic fumes from too many of the delicious tropical drinks.

As thankful as I was to be able to enjoy a luau the way I wanted, I recognize that Hawaii holds magic for everyone, whatever their circumstances. Luau, as feasts or parties, are family affairs at heart. Whether a big family vacation, a romantic getaway, or something in between, you can find your own aloha whatever you decide to do.

Make sure to book your tickets early. The Feast at Lele sells out early and never at a discount, which should indicate to you its popularity despite its premium price.

Feast at Lele

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Destination Maui: 808 Grindz Cafe

Don't let the name deter you. Yes, 808 Grindz Cafe sounds like the concession stand attached to a community-run skate park, but the breakfast surpasses anything you'd find on the mainland. Open only for breakfast and lunch, the restaurant is off the beaten tourist path. Nestled away from street view in an unassuming shopping center, nothing about the exterior of the restaurant would attract the skeptical traveler. Note that the photo above was taken from the balcony of my hotel, not the restaurant, the interior of which you'd find in any coffee shop in the country.

Time seems to run at a different pace in Hawaii. Here especially, the waitstaff were friendly and laid back, not at all perturbed by the three unbussed tables despite several waiting parties standing outside. Perhaps the slow service is a throwback, much like their website, decorated by spinning and sparkling gifs. More likely, those who run 808 Grindz simply know that this place survives on the strength of its food and word-of-mouth alone, even though this Lahaina location has only been open for less than a year.

Come for the macadamia nut pancakes. Ask for the nuts in the pancakes and on top as well. Indulge in the sweet cream mac-nilla sauce. It isn't as cloying as you might expect. The pancakes are light and fluffy, even after sitting in a takeout container for close to half an hour before consumption. Get at least a full stack. You won't be able to get enough...

...unless you order the rainbow French toast as well. The bread itself is sweet and chewy, before being dusted in a cinnamon-vanilla mixture set loose on the griddle. Again, get the sauce on top and skip the syrup or powdered sugar.

Besides the sweet, also try some of the savory dishes. We ordered the crab cakes, which came with a generous portion of crab meat, and the fried rice moco. The loco moco here is a bit sweeter than the other ones I had; the sauce is more similar to a teriyaki.

If you're in Maui on vacation, set aside a leisurely morning for breakfast at 808 Grindz. Get away from the glitz of the beach resorts and opt for the better food at an even better price. These days, local gems like these don't stay secret, so expect a modest wait. But hey, you're in Hawaii. What's the rush, brah?

808 Grindz Cafe