Sunday, January 20, 2013

Grocery shopping in the Lehigh Valley

It's been well-established that I love Trader Joe's, blah blah, you've heard it before and maybe you cry a little in your TJ's black bean soup when you can get it when you're out of the area. But I'm also a fierce bargain shopper, especially when it comes to groceries.

I do most of our household shopping at Price Rite, once I did the math and figured out that short of "Extreme Couponing" type behavior (which I don't have time or space for), about 75% of our groceries are a better value there than anywhere else. This is not a store-brand or off-brand situation. I'm talking imported Italian specialties like prosciutto and mozzarella, every flavor of Chobani yogurt, organic milk and soy milk, Arnold Palmer iced tea, organic spinach, dried fruits and nuts, and sometimes Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

For bulk stuff, it's Sam's Club. I don't love it, but it works for our family, for paper towels, diapers and Dunkin Donuts coffee. I can't beat the prices, even on sale at Weis, with coupons. I've tried. The Valley is getting a Costco soon, on Krocks Road in Macungie. I shopped at Costco when I lived in the DC area, and the one in Alexandria was so crowded you had to get there before it opened in the morning to get a parking space. So I never really fell in love. I doubt I'll go "all the way" to Macungie for the same privilege.

For the really special stuff, like ingredients for Asian dishes I cook, Ezekiel bread, and organic produce, I'll go to Wegman's, Nature's Way and Queen's Market (and farmer's markets, in season). But you'll never find me at any of the three Wegman's stores on a weekend afternoon, when it's ridiculously crowded!

But just for fun, every now and then I'll add a little to our pantry collection by shopping at Big Lots. They're a discount closeout store. I've found they carry brands I buy at the regular stores (Kashi, Nature's Mill) at a fraction of the price, undamaged and still "in code" (not expired). How do they do it? Check out this story.

I have read about Swann's Pantry (240 S West End Blvd. Ste 2, Quakertown, (215) 529-0220), but I've never been. Any thoughts? Any other local grocery shopping tips?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Ethiopian food in the Lehigh Valley

Finally... Ethiopian food in the Lehigh Valley! Mariam's at 446 N.7th St Allentown. Injera & wat, I have missed you!

When I lived in DC, a neighborhood called Adams Morgan boasted more than one Ethiopian restaurant (and an Eritrean restaurant, and a Ghanian spoiled). Friends would gather on a weekend night at Meskerem (or one of the other places) to sit around a huge tray. We'd break off pieces of injera and scoop up different kinds of with it. No utensils, lots of vegetarian options and tea. We'd stop short of the tradition of feeding one another, though. :) 

I feel like rallying a small group of friends to share the feast - "family-style" the best way to enjoy Ethiopian IMHO. If you love Ethiopian cuisine or even if you have never tried it before. Who's in, after flu season is over? 

Call (484) 661-5000 for reservations and information.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lehigh Valley natives: on the whole, nice, but not friendly

Since moving here in 2006, I have held the belief that Lehigh Valley natives are nice, but not friendly.

True, there are exceptions. The friends who go above and beyond, the neighbors who are now like extended family members, the co-workers who show they truly care. And also - the guy who took the time to roll down his window and lecture me about how stupid I was for letting people go at an intersection (where I would have sat at a red light and they would have waited forever), and another guy who verbally assaulted me for "nearly killing him" when he and his wife stepped into my path in a parking garage without looking. (BTW, the wife looked mortified and I felt worse for her than I did for myself). There's no knowing whether those two men - I won't call them gentlemen  because they didn't behave like gentlemen - are natives or transplants. But I would be willing to bet that most people who have lived anywhere with real traffic problems would not get so bent out of shape.

I digress. Recently my nice-not-friendly belief was reinforced when my 92-year-old grandmother moved from the senior community where she lived in New Jersey to an assisted living community here in the Valley. When I asked her what she thought of the place, she seemed pleased with the staff and the facility, but remarked that although people say hello in the hallway and make a little small talk at the dinner table, not one person has reached out in a friendly way to make her feel welcome.

It made me sad, since she's "the new kid" and is still figuring out how things work there. Maybe they all think someone else will be her friend. Maybe they think she's weird since she's not from here. Or maybe, more likely, they don't think about it at all. I think that's the case with many natives. They have their friends and family close by. Work, school, church, soccer, birthday parties, repeat. No room or real need for new friends who don't fit in their tightly knit circle. And when you're 92 or thereabouts, I guess you have a network so deep you don't even notice the new kid.

Natives, what do you think? Transplants, what's your experience been?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

South Bethelehem restaurants: Jenny’s Kuali

I have long held that downtown Allentown – especially the Seventh Street corridor – is the best place to go for authentic international cuisine. Winston’s, Aci Halal, Sweet Italian and Kow Thai are some of my favorite restaurants, anywhere.

In my opinion, South Bethlehem is emerging as just as diverse, just as accessible and perhaps less likely to be overrun by hockey fans (shortly). There’s no shortage of great Latin American: General Zapata’s (15 E. 4th St.) crispy taco shells, Tulum’s (17 W. Morton) burritos, La Lupita’s (4 W. 4th St.) tacos, Machu Picchu’s (1330 E. 4th St.) Peruvian roasted chicken. Nawab (13 E. 4th St.) has been serving up Indian cuisine since before curry went mainstream on the Food Network. Sal’s (313 S. New St.) has killer Italian everything. 24 East Asian Bistro has the best sushi in the valley IMHO. Charly’s Thai (832 E. 4th St.) serves up Thai take out close to the casino. And quietly in the shadow of Wendy’s and McDonald’s at Five Points, Olive Branch (355 Broadway) and Thai Kitchen (347 Broadway) have been preparing authentic cuisine for savvy diners with a taste for homestyle cooking. 

I enjoyed a lunch at Olive Branch not too long ago, and after a healthy lunch of spanakopita, falafel and fatoush salad, I purchased a slice of the chef’s special baklava to go. 

A week later, we celebrated Christmas with my parents by attending the Pennsylvania Youth Ballet’s rendition of “The Nutcracker” after lunch at Jenny’s Kuali (102 E. 4th St.), another affordable BYOB restaurant located across the street from a liquor store (convenient!). Jenny’s Malaysian dumplings, soups and stir frys are so obviously made with love. There are vegetarian options and you can substitute brown rice. I have been there three times, and each time, the restaurant is full of patrons, a mix of Lehigh staff, Asian students, and neighborhood residents. Service is quick, and I can get a great meal for under $10. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

“You have a baby! In a bar!” Trapp Door, The Mint and Two Rivers Brewing Company

In themovie “Sweet Home Alabama,” Reese Witherspoon’s character gawks at an old highschool acquaintance and remarks, “You have a baby! In a bar!” I sometimes feellike that acquaintance when we roll up to a restaurant with our kid strappedinto her car seat. Yes – on a Friday night, there might be women in designerboots and sparkly tops and guys in trendy jeans sporting hipster glasses andfedoras. But on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, we think taking our baby to abar is just fine.

We firsttook her to The Mint, and found we weren’t the only parents who brought theirkids for lunch. No, there aren’t any chicken fingers on the menu. But forparents who are introducing their kids to new foods, there’s nothing liketruffle mac and cheese, mussels and frites, and baseball steak. Ours is stillnursing, so she’ll taste the post-digested version in a few hours. 

Over NewYear’s weekend we checked out two “new” places with our munchkin in tow: theTrapp Door for brunch and Two Rivers Brewing Company. We hadn’t been to theTrapp Door since it changed owners and names (from Tap & Table). It’s stillbeautiful inside, and the brunch menu was fantastic. There were a few othertables full of foodies enjoying bloody marys and beer with their eggs. I had abeautiful frittata with spinach and goat cheese, served with potatoes, and Iordered a crisp cider to go with it. The restaurant’s hot sauce bar ismarvelous. And the service was really great. We remembered that the last timewe visited, the parking lot was completely snowed over and icy, and it was thistime, too (has it never melted since? Like the South Pole? Is that a joke abouthow far Macungie is from civilization?). The baby had fun watching everyone andwas sound asleep by the time we left. 

The following day, we drove to Easton tocheck out Two Rivers Brewing Company. You may have heard about this place. Itis so hipster Easton. If you like Porter’s and Black and Blue, this place issimilar in vibe but has the novelty factor and the benefit of gorgeousarchitectural details and. Terrazzo floor, tin ceilings, huge windows. When wearrived, every seat at the bar was taken, with townie types and city hipsters,already claiming “regular” status at a place that’s been open a few weeks. Thedining room was empty except for a family with two grade school-aged boys.Though the lunch menu was limited to only seven items, we each found somethingwe liked. I ordered the short rib poutine, served with cheese curds (first timeI’ve seen those on a LV menu!). My MIL had a black bean burger. We each enjoyeda craft brew on tap and were impressed by the prompt service. 

I thought aboutthe relatively empty dining rooms at both of these places and wondered, is thiswhat Red Robin looks like right now? Is Applebees mostly empty? Does arestaurant have to be a chain to be considered family friendly? And what abouta place makes it family friendly? We thought both places were friendly enoughto bring our three-month-old and we’ll be back again.

Two Rivers

Friday, January 11, 2013

Running Mantras

Whenever I train for a race, I pick a word as a training mantra. By the time it’s race day, that word is second nature and serves as a focal point when my mind wanders.

For my first 5K, it was “live.” The joke was that I’d never run one before and the goal was not to win, but to survive.

For my first sprint triathlon, it was “galvanize.” There was a great Chemical Brothers/Q-Tip song by the same name in my training mix, and I knew the word meant “to stimulate somebody or something into great activity.” And God knows, tri training is not second nature. You really do need to be motivated to do it. But it also meant doing something great for myself, my health.

For my first 10K, my training mantra is “push.” It’s a little tongue in cheek, inspired by the fact that although my husband and I completed Lamaze training, after 12 hours of labor, I had an emergency C-section to deliver our daughter. So I never actually pushed. This race is pushing the limits of what I thought I could do – how far or for how much time I could run – and I am pushing myself to get back in shape.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Run on the Canal Towpath in Bethlehem

This Sunday, the weather was mild and I’d just fed and put the baby down for a nap. Stella shot me a hopeful look and I concurred: it was time for a good run. We geared up: me: running shoes, warm running socks, moisture wicking pants and hooded long-sleeved jacket with a hole in the pocket for headphones, a new sports bra, gloves, ear warming headband – all purchased at Aardvark Running Store on Main Street in Bethlehem. IPhone for music (Pandora Alternative Endurance Training station) and emergencies, Garmin watch. Stella: harness, hands-free leash (attaches to a strap around my waist), poop bags. No, I do not have booties or a sweater for her… that would be excessive. J
“We’re” training for “our” first 10K, though on Super Bowl Sunday, I’ll be running without my furry companion. The race, organized by Lehigh Valley Road Runners, is already sold out. I will be one of 500 people running on the Lehigh Parkway, just four months after giving birth and two years after a scary bout with pericarditis that sidelined me from competing in the LBI Sprint Triathlon.

I deposited her in the back of my SUV for the ride to the entrance to Sand Island. There, we pick up the towpath and get going. I underestimated how much mud and snow we’d find on the path. Not to worry, Stella’s tongue is hanging out, her curly tail salutes the sky. She’s nudging the leash – let’s go, Mom. A half an hour later we are in Freemansburg – I can see the Hogar Crea building across the canal – and the path is now completely covered. I’m holding the leash to keep her from pulling me on the hard, icy snow. “That’s enough,” I say to Stella, and we turn back. It’s quiet, just a few other friendly bikers and runners and dog walkers hardily navigating the trail today. Every four minutes and one minute, the watch beeps a countdown: get ready for the next interval. Our feet make rhythmic squishing sounds every muddy step. We are covered in mud and if I had a tail, I’d wag it, too.