Blue Penguin Colony (Oamaru, NZ)

Oamaru is home to a colony of blue penguins that visitors from all over come to see. They’re endemic to coastal New Zealand and southern Australia, the smallest of 18 species at 43cm (17in) in length and 1kg in weight. Unusual too is the fact that their color is distinctively blue (and white), while all other penguins have the conventional black-and-white markings.

I saw them for the second time in less than a year, the last time on Phillip Island in Australia (near Melbourne). I took my pre-school grandson to the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony because of his love of penguins and the fact that he wanted to witness firsthand the blues’ nightly march to their nests from the sea. This he got to see, as they arrived in several waves. Though there were 111 officially counted tonight as having arrived at the facility, the penguins come ashore all along the Otago coastline. On the tramp back to the hotel, we were able to walk up to several along Waterfront Road and the Esplanade, one of the best opportunities to get close to penguins in an urban environment.

Blue penguins nest wherever they can find a rock crevice or dig out niches in soil. At the colony, we noticed artificial structures throughout the grounds, clearly encouragement for the birds to make themselves at home at this former rock quarry.

Artificial structures for the blue penguins

Manufactured structures for the blue penguins

Along the facility’s periphery is a concrete breakwater, built before the turn of the 20th century. While the audience was waiting for the blues’ arrival, we could see and hear from the bleachers tremendous waves crashing into its side, accompanied by the roar of scrabbling rocks, an impressive show in itself.

Exciting as this experience was, we got an unexpected surprise earlier in the day. As my grandson and I were walking past a small building along the Esplanade, an employee called out to us from behind a chain link fence and asked if we were heading toward the penguins. We were. Don introduced himself and wondered if we’d be interested in seeing the penguins he’d built shelters for on the grounds.  Despite my suspicious tendency, I said, “Sure,” with some reservation, I admit. Don was quite jovial and explained that he’d been doing this for 8 years, keeping watch on blues that have nested in about 15 small shelters made out of wood. He lifted the roof of one to reveal a mother penguin and her two chicks. There was only one other resident in the compound, the empty homes awaiting the squatters’ return from the sea. Don encouraged me to take pictures, personally a great opportunity because no photography would be permitted at the Blue Penguin Colony.

Mother blue penguin and her chicks

Mother blue penguin and her chicks

Further down the Esplanade, Sumpter Wharf, its decking long ago rotted and damaged and therefore entry completely fenced off, was occupied by thousands of spotted shags (parekareka) who ignored the rickety underpinnings.

Shags on Sumpter Wharf

Spotted shags on Sumpter Wharf

While Oamaru has other tourist draws, including an historic distinct called theVictorian Precinct and being the steampunk capital of New Zealand, its main draw is the penguin colony.

Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony
2 Waterfront Road
Oamaru 9400
New Zealand
03 433 1195

Peri-Peri Chicken at Nando’s (Christchurch, NZ)

In a world awash in chicken restaurants, what makes Nando’s, a chain with outlets throughout the world, so different? For one thing, it had its commercial beginning in a Johannesburg mining suburb. But, its uniqueness is not that the chicken preparation is South African, because it isn’t, but that the marinade derives from a Mozambican-Portuguese recipe made with peri-peri (or piri-piri) chiles that belong to the same family as the tabasco pepper.

Although the pepper is hotter than a jalapeño, it isn’t classified as one of the world’s most blistering. Instead, it has been described as relatively tame up front, with citrusy and herbal notes, but packing a sneaky heat at the end. This might explain its huge success in the marinade that Nando’s has perfected, showcased in approximately 1,000 worldwide outlets, including (for now) American restaurants in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. It has been a big hit especially in the U.K. and Australia, which markets account for about half the total locations.

At New Zealand Nando locations, the chicken can be ordered in quarter, half or whole portions. It is marinated for 24 hours in lemon and herb or peri-peri sauce (mild, hot or extra-hot) before flame-grilling. You can additionally douse your chicken with any of the bottled (and commercially available) pepper sauces. The extra-hot peri-peri sauce packs heat and has a strongly lemony tang, almost rindy. Interestingly, the mild sauce (which is labeled ‘medium’ here in the U.S., available through Amazon) is not as mild as the less intrepid might think, and is much lighter in color.

My preferred chicken cut is dark meat, finding it more succulent and less prone to drying out than breast meat. Still, I’ve always found Nando’s breast meat juicy and tender (☆☆☆). The peri-peri marinade imparts a tangy quality and sustains a steady heat that never overpowers or blisters, even the extra-hot version.

I’d eaten  at Nando’s in Christchurch three times before, without realizing until now that Max’s World Cafe’s outstanding African Portuguese Chicken closer to home (in Issaquah) is the same thing. Hands down, Max’s is superior—but much more expensive. I suspect one day that Nando’s will make its way west. In fact, there is one outlet in Vancouver, B.C.

145D Colombo Street
Christchurch 8023
New Zealand
03 332 3207

Godzilla Invades Bellevue: Katsu Burger

Godzilla 2014 (image from

Godzilla 2014 (image from

The reaction wasn’t nearly on the same scale as Paseo’s passing, but the sudden closure last August of Katsu Burger in Seattle’s Georgetown district triggered waves of lamentation among followers. The word was that owner Kajime Sato was stretched too thin between the burger operation and Mashiko, his sushi restaurant in West Seattle. The concept was to add Japanese flavors to the American burger, in the same vein as the Japanification of the hot dog (Gourmet Dog Japon in Seattle, Japadog in Vancouver). A big fan, Stephanie Kang, who also has restaurant credentials, rescued Katsu Burger, re-opened the Georgetown operation in October of last year, and subsequently opened an Eastside branch in the Factoria area of Bellevue a month later, replacing her previous Kimchi Amigos. It happens to be right next door to Shanghai Cafe, my favorite Chinese restaurant on the Eastside, which is how I noticed its imminent opening.

How can so many tables and chairs be crammed into their minuscule space? If you eat your meal at one of the interior tables along the south wall, other patrons have to move out of the way for you to exit. One wonders how this arrangement doesn’t violate a fire code.

Cramped space aside, the interior design is whimsical, with an eclectic mix of Japanese pop culture artwork, anime, woodblock prints and ninja throwing stars (shuriken) partially embedded in the walls. A collage of Godzilla images is mounted on the south wall.

The whimsy extends to the menu, where some burgers take on humorous names. The word katsu refers to coating some sort of seasoned meat with panko and deep-frying it. Pork katsu (tonkatsu) is the most common at Japanese restaurants and appears in the Ninja Deluxe and Katsu Curry burgers. There is also a chicken katsu that shows up in the Teriyaki Chicken burger and, for vegetarians, the Miso Honey Tofu. But, burgers are usually about ground beef. It is the main ingredient in the Tokyo ClassicOhayou Gozaimasu and Samurai Select. And the beef is grass-fed, at that. They vary in their accompaniments. It also is the protein in the one I ordered, the Godzilla Attack burger. I’d never had a beef katsu before, let alone in a burger, but the idea of battering and frying it held great promise for keeping the meat moist, which would address the biggest problem of burgers these days.

Godzilla Attach with nori fries

The burger was attractively wrapped in red-and-white checkerboard parchment paper. Unwrapping it divulged a big sandwich piled high with tomato, onion, sweet pickles, a generous hank of shredded cabbage that stuck out like Godzilla’s fins. and sliced jalapeño peppers, 12 spice blend, pepper jack cheese and spicy mayo that roared his fiery breath. One bite revealed a superior bun that had a sheen of egg wash. Sure enough, the beef patty was juicy, helped by the fact that it was generously sized, about 3/4″ thick, its crispy panko batter crackling with every bite. But, it wasn’t strongly beefy in flavor. Tonkatsu sauce, which pairs nicely with pork, seemed out-of-sync with the beef, a bit too assertive perhaps, and the spicy mayo reminded me that I prefer my burgers without sweet flavors, the reason I’m not a big fan of de rigueur thousand island dressing and many ‘secret’ sauces. These quibbles aside, Godzilla Attack is a fine sandwich (☆☆☆) with superior ingredients.

Fries are extra. I would highly recommend getting them because they’re perfectly fried, not in the least mealy or too crunchy. Katsu Burger’s riffs include a sprinkling of sea salt, curry, 12 spice blend or nori. The last has just enough of a dusting of aonori to give it outstanding flavor (☆☆☆☆).

As a practical joke, Sato (the original owner) put the Mt. Fuji burger on the menu. It is a super-sized sandwich with the trifecta of meats (beef, pork and chicken), American and pepper jack cheeses, fried egg, wasabi and spicy mayos and tonkatsu sauce, not to mention the fresh vegetables. Even (currently) priced at $18.95, patrons do buy it, proving once again that it’s possible to sell anything if it’s outrageous enough.

Katsu Burger
12700 SE 38th St
Bellevue, WA 98006

Monterey Bay Aquarium (Monterey, CA)

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the world’s best. You could spend an entire day there if you have the patience to tolerate hordes of people who come from all over. My grandson did, as he is fascinated with sea life. The exhibits of jellyfish and tentacled creatures are superb, matched by the famed underwater 28-foot kelp forest exhibit and the Open Sea Gallery. At $40 for an adult, admittedly needed to cover the cost of maintenance, support educational programs for children and conduct research projects, it isn’t inexpensive by any means.

The Lone Cypress (Monterey, CA)

At roughly 250 years old, the much-photographed Lone Cypress sits on top of a granite rock that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. You can see it along the 17 Mile Drive that circles the Monterey Peninsula.

Santa Maria-Style BBQ at Far Western Tavern (Orcutt, CA)

For the past several years, it was a goal of mine to sample barbecued beef in the Santa Maria Valley along California’s Central Coast. But, the opportunity never came for one reason or another during the long drives between Seattle and Los Angeles. Either the timing was not right or we were in a hurry to get somewhere else. That would change today as we were headed out of L.A. en route to Monterey and we would be in the valley around lunchtime.

Why Santa Maria-style barbecue isn’t as well known as its Midwestern or Southern cousins is not clear. Maybe a lot has to do with what Americans envision as being quintessential barbecue—meats slow-cooked or smoked and slathered with sauce. The valley did not start out its tradition with pork, by far the preferred meat for American grills. Instead, it was and still is beef, these days typically top sirloin and tri-tip, rubbed with salt, pepper and garlic powder, then cooked over flaming red oak, which is abundant along California’s Central Coast. There is no barbecue sauce. Because of its beginnings in the old days of California’s rancheros and vaqueros, essential parts of the barbecue tradition are beans and salsa that evolved with their distinct regional styles. Salsas are more mild, tempered by the Europeans who moved into the area, and the beans are made with pinquitos that are native to the Santa Maria Valley.

I began to wonder early on if some unseen force was trying to prevent me from completing my mission. My choice was Roundup Market in Santa Ynez (in the middle of the Chumash Indian reservation), a short drive north of Santa Barbara. We drove up to shuttered doors and a “for sale” sign. It must’ve closed for good sometime in 2014. Not to worry because Hitching Post II was not far away in Buellton. We pulled up, only to find out from an employee that it opens only for dinner. Next, we headed for Far Western Tavern in Santa Maria in the heart of where the first barbecue restaurants opened in the 1950s. We were flustered when all we saw were a Jack in the Box and car wash on the corner where our GPS took us. Fortunately, a local told us where it was actually located in Old Town Orcutt, just blocks west. Another rare time that our Garmin failed us. All of this rigmarole took a good hour.

Far Western Tavern is one of three, legendary restaurants (Hitching Post and Jocko’s being the others) that started serving Santa Maria-style barbecued meats in the late 1950s, to commercialize the long tradition of what before was cooked only at social gatherings and fund raisers, much like huli huli chicken in Hawaii. The Santa Maria Elks were the primary practitioners of this mobile form of cooking (fire pits on wheels). Far Western Tavern moved a few years ago to Santa Maria from Guadalupe, a small town about 10 miles west of Santa Maria, and home to La Simpatia that our waiter Emmanuel claimed serves the best, most authentic Mexican food in the valley. What a coincidence, for we ate there in 2009, at which time the tavern must’ve still been located there.

The restaurant is very large. At the front is the bar. Toward the back is the more formal dining area, though it has a distinct western decor, including mounted steer horns, dark wood paneling and furnishings covered in cowhide. The menu is pricey, what one expects at a good steakhouse nowadays. This is a far cry from the informality of neighborhood cookouts and Elks fund-raisers where I suspect the prices are more down-to-earth. At lunchtime at least, a steak sandwich lets you try the Santa Maria-style in more affordable fashion.

Far Western Tavern bar

Far Western Tavern bar

As it was, our Rancher (☆☆☆), an 8-oz. ‘cowboy cut’ top sirloin sandwich, which we split with a nice, classic Caesar salad, was still $20. A basket of complimentary house-made potato chips was served. I made the mistake of ordering the steak ‘medium,’ when I should’ve asked for medium-rare. The steak was nicely seasoned and tasty but a bit dry with no pink in the center. There was none of the succulence that made these steaks famous. A rib-eye sandwich was also on the lunch menu, but I was determined to sample the ‘classic’ cut. The bread was the traditional slice of grilled garlic French bread, dipped in butter.

Complimentary house-made potato chips

Complimentary house-made potato chips

The Rancher, served with salsa and soup of the day (tomato-basil)

No Santa Maria barbecue would be complete without pinquito beans. Small and flavorful in their own right, they have the remarkable ability to maintain firmness and plumpness through long cooking times. FWT’s beans are simply prepared with water, bacon and ‘pinquito seasoning,’ which means a propriety blend. The beans might seem bland when compared to traditional barbecued beans, but their straightforwardness complemented the steak nicely.

Pinquito beans

Pinquito beans

In the future, we’d like to pass through the area on a weekend when the cookouts happen and enjoy the barbecue as it was meant to be experienced, in the outdoors and a community setting.

Far Western Tavern
300 E Clark Ave
Old Town Orcutt (Santa Maria), CA