Breathtaking Beauty Down Under: New Zealand

One of the most stunning places in the world to visit is New Zealand, a land of towering mountains, spectacular glaciers, turquoise lakes and volcanoes, a testament to the restlessness and creativity of immense geologic forces. It was for good reason that Peter Jackson filmed his entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and now the Hobbit, there in his own country, which needs very little CGI to showcase its spectacular beauty and double as Middle Earth. If you’ve been following my blog, you’d know that my daughter and her family live there, in Christchurch. In one month, my wife and I will be visiting once again, to flip over the season (winter to summer)—and again mutter about the British Empire for driving on the wrong side of the road. For the first time ever, we will also be visiting Australia, more specifically, Melbourne, Phillip Island and the Great Ocean Road in Victoria.

The image above was taken by my daughter in Mt Cook National Park, nestled in the spine of mountains, running north-south in the middle of New Zealand, called the Southern Alps for reasons not hard to figure out. (A larger image is available here.)

Lunch at Seven Stars Pepper

On the heels of eating at Chef Cheng Biao Yang’s Uway Balatang did a friend and I have lunch at Yang’s previously-owned restaurant just down the street, Seven Stars Pepper, in the Ding How Shopping Center in Little Saigon. Truth be told, this was not our first choice today but rather Lemongrass in the same shopping center for its magnificent (Vietnamese) beef stew. As we walked through the door, someone intercepted us and informed us that they were not open (for reasons unexplained), even though the neon “open” sign was lit and the front door unlocked. That’s how we wound up upstairs at Seven Stars Pepper instead.

Widely regarded as cooking authentic Szechuanese dishes, Chef Yang made quite a name for himself at Seven Stars Pepper where then rarely known dishes like chong gin hot chicken, cumin lamb, dan dan noodles and Szechwan crab became popular and beloved among non-Chinese Seattle diners, one big impetus being provided by the rave reviews of Nancy Leson, Seattle Times food critic at the time (and now its food writer). (I make the ethnic qualification because the Chinese community has its own network of the latest Chinese food and restaurant developments well before the English-language press reports on them.) Yang eventually sold the restaurant, reportedly unhappy about the dismal parking situation at Ding How (poorly lit, cramped underground parking where all weight-bearing posts show signs of vehicle scrape marks), and opened Szechuan Chef on the Eastside where more generous suburban parking was presumably more to his liking. He has since sold Szechuan Chef and gotten involved in two more restaurants, including his latest, the aforementioned Uway Balatang.

Despite Yang’s departure, Seven Stars Pepper is still short-listed by food critic Jay Friedman (Serious Eats) as serving some of the best Szechwan food in the city.

Friend and I shared two dishes: chong gin hot chicken (from the regular menu) and pickled vegetable fish (from the lunch menu).

The fish dish derives its distinctive flavor from the pickled vegetables (mustard greens) and pickled red chiles, and Szechuan peppercorns. Seven Stars Pepper uses a subdued amount of peppercorns which greatly diminished the dish’s typically fragrant and numbing impact. With tilapia, the kitchen also added thin diagonal slices of celery, carrots, tree ears and baby bamboo shoots to add crunch. Overall, while it doesn’t have the traditional tingling peppercorn quality, this was a tasty and savory if mildly spicy entrée (☆☆☆).

Pickled vegetable fish

Pickled vegetable fish

The same restrained hand with peppercorns made the chong gin chicken, shall I say, inauthentic but not necessarily without merit. While the crispy nuggets of battered chicken thigh, dry-fried greens beans, scallions and a liberal amount of dried red chile peppers were fine enough to earn good marks (☆☆☆), the hallmark má là quality was missing. For a more potent sinus-clearing and mouth-numbing experience, I’d have to go to one of Yang’s current restaurants (Uway Balatang and Spicy Talk Bistro) or Spiced.

Chong gin hot chicken

Chong gin hot chicken

I have to wonder if the decision to use less peppercorns has to do with appealing to a wider palette. This seems like an odd decision for a restaurant primarily catering to a Vietnamese and Chinese clientele.

Seven Stars Pepper
1207 S Jackson St
Seattle, WA 98144

Why This Little Problem at Trader Joe’s?

I am a big fan of Trader Joe’s. It’s my go-to store when I go shopping. Why? Because they have great values, no sale prices to worry about, have an increasing inventory of organic foods at excellent prices, and amazing variety for a store of its size. Furthermore, very few of their products have artificial ingredients. Trader Joe’s has a business model that works, high-quality and hard-to-find products at very fair prices. When I go grocery shopping at several stores during the day, I make it a point to go to TJ’s first because I will save a good deal of money.

That being said, there are some issues that have bugged me over the years.

When a new item is introduced—and each month brings new products—other things have to go. If those things include one of your favorites, you’re out of luck. With very limited shelf space, products that don’t sell well will be removed from stock, simple as that. Can I really blame them for that?

But, to me the most annoying problem is the tendency for some items not to be as fresh as they could be, so far confined to produce and food products that could go stale. Take, for example, their raspberries. I seek out organic berries whenever possible, since they are highly susceptible to pesticide contamination. Without chemicals, it’s pretty important that the time from farm to store be as brief as possible. I get the feeling that TJ’s sometimes gets their raspberries, a delicately soft fruit, toward the end of their freshness cycle in order to pass along good prices to shoppers. More than once, I’ve had to return raspberries that have spoiled within a day or two of purchase. By way of comparison, I’ve never had to do that for berries bought at Whole Foods or PCC. To be clear, I’m not saying this always happens, but it has enough times that I now closely examine all highly perishable groceries. (Tip: I’ve discovered that berries last much longer when removed to Mason jars than when left in their plastic clamshells.) Molding is not as much a problem with strawberries and blueberries.

Their organic Persian cucumbers are very prone to molding and organic onions to mildewing faster than when bought elsewhere.

On more than one occasion, I’ve bought avocados from TJ’s that absolutely refused to ripen.

In short, when it comes to produce at Trader Joe’s, while most of it is just fine, it does pay to be vigilant. To their credit, they will take back anything you don’t like.

I mentioned staleness. I no longer buy raw nuts from TJ’s. I’ve had to return many because they tasted stale straight out of the cellophane bag, a sign that the oils have gone rancid. One jar of an Egyptian-inspired mix called dukkah, consisting of fennel, anise, coriander and sesame seeds, ground almonds and kosher salt, a great accompaniment with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping bread, has also tasted stale even though it was eaten well before the pull date.

Lately, I’ve noticed a lack of freshness in some of TJ’s packaged snacks. A bag each of sea salt and pepper lentil chips and of soy sauce-flavored savory thins were likewise stale, again opened before their pull dates.

So what gives with Trader Joe’s? With over 400 stores nationwide, one would think that the chain would exert its clout to ensure more stringent food safety. Low prices doesn’t have to mean relaxed standards. I’m not alone in my concern, as any search on the internet will show. Complaints have been posted for many years now, which seems to suggest that TJ’s doesn’t care. Could that be?

Regardless, I still love TJ’s. Along with countless other fans, I would be genuinely bummed if they were ever to go out of business.