J.R. Tolkien

"Not all those who wander are lost." - J.R. Tolkien

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Mashallah Restaurant: A Delicious Food Trip to West Africa

I love quirky eateries and my recent find is one of the quirkiest places I've been to Louisville.  I came to Mashallah Restaurant, located inside Mor's International Grocery, on a rainy Sunday afternoon for lunch with a friend. From the outside, it's hard to tell whether there is a restaurant inside. Rest assured, it's there, and a little bit of food heaven is waiting for you.

Mashallah Restaurant from the outside
The "restaurant" is a small section of Mor's International Grocery, equipped with a few chairs and tables overlooking the parking lot and street outside.

If you are looking for the menu, there's only one and it's hanging on the wall behind the counters towards the back of the store, away from the cashier.

Here's a better version from their website.

Entrees from Mashallah

Appetizers from Mashallah
The chef/owner cooks 2 dishes a day.  The menu shows you what should be available each day, along with a few appetizers and specialty drinks.  But it's really just there for reference.  The menu is whatever she decides to cook for that day.  If you want to know what's available, hunt her down and ask or call ahead to see what's cooking that day.

I can't definitively tell you what we had that day. We asked, she answered, we nodded yes to both items and got our food a short while later.

Food from Mashallah
Referencing the menu, we figured one of our dishes is probably the chep garnar, red jollof rice with chicken.  A few clicks on the internet later, I learned that jollof rice is a pan West African dish cooked with tomatoes, tomato paste, and spices such as nutmeg, cumin and ginger.  The red color comes from the palm oil and tomato paste.  There are several regional versions, differing in the types of meats, vegetables and sides added.

I usually don't order rice in restaurants as often times the rice used is of cheaper low quality, a little bit dry and hard.  Higher quality rice is definitely used here, the texture is softer and and chewier and slowed cook to fully infused the savory flavor of the meat, vegetables and spices.  The chicken is equally well seasoned, tender and felt right off the bone delicious. I grew up eating plain white rice but jollof convinced me that there are definitely better ways to enjoy it.

The second dish is a little harder to figure out. From the menu description, the closest we can match it to is plasas (sahasahal), "spinach with palm oil and white rice, cooked with shrimp, meat and smoked turkey." We did not find the shrimp mentioned but found pieces of fish and other unidentifiable meat.  No complaints here though, because the creamy richness of the spinach, spices and meats paired perfectly with white rice.

The portions were big, the chef went ahead and packed it in to go boxes for us anticipating we won't finish.  She was right, there was a lot of food. We did make a good dent in it and happily brought the rest home for lunch the next day. It was $10 for each portion, you do have the option to get it small for $6.99.

We struck up a conversation with a regular and found out the owners are from Sierre Leon. Since the food are similar to other countries in West Africa, it's popular among other Africans missing a taste of home. By the time we checked out, there was a long line of men waiting for their to go orders.

Food is available from 12:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., or whenever the food runs out.  It's a small mom and pop business, the husband runs the grocery store in the front and the wife cooks in the back, so don't expect traditional restaurant service.  It's a very informal process of ordering at the counter, grabbing your own drink from fridge, seating yourself and paying at the front when finished.

Mashallah was  my first introduction to West African food and definitely will not be the last.  The dishes were delicious not only because of the deft combination of seasoning, ingredients and time but there was a lot of home and heart added to make them extra special.

Mashallah Restaurant
3927 Bardstown Rd
Louisville, KY 40218
Phone: (502) 491-3152
12:30 p.m. - 9 p.m.
(Grocery opens earlier)

Sunday, January 14, 2018

How to Fly to Paris (and other European cities) for $150 or less from Louisville

While people window shop, I plan fantasy vacations.  This means I spend a lot of time looking up photos and prices for places I want to visit.  Fortunately for me and fellow travel bugs, those fantasies can now be realities!

WOW Air, an Icelandic budget airline, will start offering flights out of Cincinnati in May 2018 at a base rate of $100 one way to Iceland and $150 to 18 European destinations and Tel Aviv.  Flights to Iceland’s capital Reykjavik are direct and 6 hours long.  All other destinations stopover in Iceland.

This means you can fly to select cities in Iceland, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, the UK, Spain, Poland, Sweden and France for cheaper and faster than flying to some U.S. cities!  Flying to anywhere in Europe currently is $700 - $1,000 round trip, so this is AMAZING news! So if you ever fantasize about flying away to Paris and never come back (or at least for a short vacation), you can finally do it for only $150 one way.

Ridiculously cheap?  Yes!  It comes with a few caveats, but you can do it and here’s how.

How to book the cheapest flights

You can book tickets now for 2018 by going directly to wowair.com but I found the process to be cumbersome.  Search results only show prices for a few days at a time and you'll have to scroll one by one to see better prices.

Instead, I prefer to go to flights.google.com (best on your desktop).  To book one way tickets to Paris for $150 and to Iceland for $100:
  • 1) Choose "one way" 
  • 2) Departure = CVG and Arrival: Paris/KEF/Berlin...etc., 
  • 3) Click on the "date".  A calendar will appear at the bottom and scroll through the months to see the cheapest dates. 
Cincinnati to Paris for $150
Cincinnati to Iceland for $100

It's easy to find cheap one way tickets to Iceland and Europe but finding a separate one way ticket back to Cincinnati is almost always more expensive.  To get a better deal, I suggest searching for "Round Trip".  When you click on the departure and return date, a calendar will pop up with a two-month calendar view of the prices.

 Pick the departure and return date with the best prices (in green).  The price for the dates you pick initially might not be the cheapest but you can refine your search further by choosing “flexible date” (next to "calendar" under departure date).  You’ll get a matrix with dates around your desired departure time with better rates.  For detailed instructions you can go here.

$260 RT to Iceland is an excellent price!

Once you find the dates and prices you like, Google will direct you to WOW to book.

If the price for your desired departure date is high, try these tips:
  • For $100 and $150 tickets, search and book months ahead.
  • Be flexible with your travel dates and destination.  Leaving a day early or later can save you hundreds.
  • Google flights has the option to track flights & prices.  It’ll notify you when the price changes.  If the price is too high now, it might be worth it to wait.  However, have an idea of  what a good price is. You don't want to wait around for an unreasonable rate that may never come.  A really good price for a round trip ticket to Iceland is in the $300 range and $400 range for other European destinations.
  • Prices change all the time, if you find cheap flights, book! By law, you have 24 hours to cancel free of charge.  That'll give you time to ask for your boss' permission :)  
  • WOW flies only on certain days of the week depending on the destination, choose those dates to ensure the best rate. WOW flies out of Cincinnati to Reyjkavik: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; out of Reyjkavik - Cincinnati: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday.
  • If you want to combine Iceland with other European destinations, consider their free Stop Over Offer. More info here
Europe and Beyond

If your intended European destination is expensive through WOW air or not offered at all, there's a great solution!
  • 1)  The cheapest option is to book your round trip ticket to Iceland through WOW and use Iceland as your travel base.  From there, you can fly to almost any European city for very cheap. 
  • 2) Go to skyscanner.com, my favorite website for inter-European air travel, to search for tickets to the destination of your choice.  If you are flexible on your destination and dates, try this search option:
    • Departure: KEF
    • Arrival: Everywhere
    • Departure month & Arrival: Cheapest month
      Search Sample

      You'll get this result.  Round trip to the UK from Iceland for as low as $50.
    Sample search results
    Or if you have multiple cities in mind, fly one way into one city and back from another city.  You can find one way tickets from Iceland to Europe for as low s $22 one way.

If you time and book things correctly you can fly to from Cincinnati to Iceland for $260 + $50 (RT to UK) + $62 (RT from UK to Paris via EuroStar train) + whatever other cities you want to visit....the options are limitless!  Here's further reading for tips and advice on budget airlines in Europe. Please NOTE: skyscanner is a search engine so you cannot buy the tickets directly from them. When applicable, it'll give you a list of travel agencies and/or airlines to book.  I suggest selecting the airline company directly to avoid complications with un-reputable third party sites.

Louisville to Cincinnati 

Yes, you’ll have to fly out of Cincinnati but the short 1.5 hour drive there from Louisville is worth the savings.  If you have friends or family in Cincinnati, park your car there and then Uber/Lyft to the airport.  Information here for a free Uber ride.

If you opt to park at the airport, there are a few options.  The cheapest is to park your car at CVG ValuPark, a long term open air parking lot for $9/day.  Directions here.  Before you enter the lot, the parking attendant will direct you to the appropriate row, a shuttle will then come to you to give you a ride to the terminal.  It's a well coordinated process and you can be at the airport in 10-15 minutes, depending on how many people they have to pick up in the lot.

Finally...the Catch.

Since the airfare is cheap on budget airlines, you’ll have to make some compromises.  Drinks and snacks are not free;  the seats are smaller and leg room is minimal; luggage requirements are strict and expensive.  Prepare yourself by reading the policies and guidelines from each airline so are not caught off guard by unwanted expenses and headaches.

I've booked my Iceland tickets and am looking forward to this scenery!

Photo Source: D. Tran
If you are interested in more travel tips, check this blog post on how to fly to the beach for as low as $30 or this for tips on booking cheap hotels and cars.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Mesa, A Collaborative Kitchen: Bringing Chefs to the Table

If you're looking for a place to eat in Louisville and southern Indiana, there's no shortage of great restaurants to choose from.  However, if you're looking for a culinary experience, there's very few places like Mesa, A Collaborative Kitchen.  This recently opened kitchen-classroom and cookware boutique in historic downtown New Albany creates a homey kitchen space that brings diners and chefs together for an intimate dining experience.

As soon as we entered Mesa, we were greeted by the owner and seated around a modern kitchen along with 20 other guests.  The space is designed to emulate the feel of coming over to a friend's house for dinner.  Behind the counter is chef Josh Weise, executive chef for Brown Forman who once cooked for president Bush and vice president Cheney on their visit to Louisville.  As chef Weise prepared dinner, he interacted with guests, explained where the food came from, shared personal stories and answered questions.

Chef Josh Weise interacted with guests as he prepared dinner. Photo: Mesa
Chef Weise preparing dessert
The chef for each event comes from well known local restaurants like The Exchange, Asiatique, Con Huevos, Brooklyn and The Butcher, or has certain area of expertise.

All the ingredients for our four course dinner ($75) came from local farmers, except for the mussels.

1st : Drunken mussels in a heirloom tomato broth with grill sourdough
2nd: Bibb salad, strawberries, candied pecans, caramelized cippolini onion & Kenny's smoked blue cheese dressing
3rd: Sweet tea brine fried chicken served with Kenny's white cheddar grit cake and Alabama white sauce
4th: Bourbon peach cobbler, vanilla whip and caramel sauce
The dinner took a total of 2 hours but time went by quickly as the whole experience was interactive and the food came out at the perfect pace.  

I won free tickets for dinner at Mesa through a Yelp Elite giveaway contest (Learn how you can become a Yelp Elite for cool prizes and events in the future) so am refraining from writing an actual review.  The short of it is: I came away full and happy with this unique experience.  I would recommend this for those looking to break away from a traditional dinner for a special occasion.

If you're interested, here are some additional details:
  • 23 tickets sold per session 
  • Prices range from $35 - $99, depending on whether it's dinner, breakfast, brunch or a special demonstration/tasting
  • Price of ticket includes a drink (including wine and cocktails)
  • Check their event page for dates, description, and prices.  Tickets are booked online only
  • 18% gratuity is NOT included and will be added at checkout & will show up as a tax
  • Join their mailing list for specials.  If seats are not filled, special discounts (usually 25% off) are offered on the day of the event
  • Mesa is available for private events such as wedding rehearsal dinner, birthdays, retirement, etc.
  • There's a professional photographer on site to take pictures of the event, check photos under "archives" on their website.
MESA, A Collaborative Kitchen
216 Pearl Street
New Albany, IN 47150
(812) 725-7691
​Tuesday - Friday 10:30 am - 6 pm
​Saturday 10:30 am - 6 pm

After dinner, check out the other half of the facility for unique cookware, local food products and gifts. 

If you are there on a Friday summer night, walk a block south on Pearl Street to the Bicentennial Park to enjoy the summer concert series free outdoor concert.

Historic New Albany, IN
Bicentennial Park, New Albany, IN
For other unique dining ideas, check out these places in Louisville.  I'm hoping to try them out in the future and will share reviews.
  • Cooking At Millie's Learn how to cook from local chefs and enjoy the fruit of your labor after, ~$95 for 2 people.
  • At The Italian Table Chef Gina spent 13 years in Tuscany and is now bringing the Italian flavor to Louisville via a communal style 5 course Italian meal at this establishment in the Frankfort Ave neighborhood.  She also offers demonstration cooking classes on certain days of the week. 
  • The Culture Club Presents There are many ways to enjoy international flavors with chef Sunshine Flagg: eating a communal dinner at her home with 12 other guests ($20), learning to cook at her workshop or bringing her to your house for a private cater meal ($250/12 people). 
  • My World Travel Co - Travel agency owner Katie Kubitskey and chef Colin Oliver host a monthly three-hour cooking class or a three hour dinner focusing on international food.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Asian Sweets and Treats

My husband and I were born and raised on opposite sides of the world.  As a result, our food preference is also a world apart, especially when it comes to sweets.  He grew up eating cakes and cookies for desserts, so has a huge sweet tooth.  My sweet tooth is practically non existent.  My desserts were bananas right off the tree in our backyard after each meal.  It was one of my fondest childhood memories growing up in Vietnam, as expressed by the excitement on my face when I saw this nostalgia inducing banana stalk.

Bananas at a Hawaiian farm.
Asian desserts in general include a lot of fruits and are not very sweet by American's standard.  Many are influenced by former European colonial rulers & traders (also not as sweet).  French pastries, for example, are very popular in Vietnam.

If you're like me and don't like your desserts overly sweet or just curious about Asian desserts, here are three places in town you can check out.

JW Cafe & Bakery | Korean
2301 Terra Crossing Blvd, Suite 105
Louisville, KY 40245
(502) 907-5248

This brand new Korean bakery just opened two weeks ago in East Louisville, the first of its kind here.  My foodie buddy Mia texted me yesterday morning and I was literally there in 20 minutes.  Grab a tray and fill it with pastries displayed on a small table, then head to the counter for cakes, a croissant sandwich or salmon salad.  Pair your sweets with some coffee, tea or bubble tea.  I thoroughly enjoyed the flaky croissant, with the perfect amount of sweet glazed on top.  The owner brought us a complimentary piece of cake that's light and soft.  The mango bubble tea was good, though not the best in town.

Complimentary of the owner
Photo Source: Mia

Mango bubble tea
Those used to larger Asian bakeries in cities such as Atlanta and Houston will be disappointed by the smaller selection, but can still appreciate the delicious and beautifully made desserts.  I'm hoping once the business is more established, the selection will grow.  The cafe itself is bright and cutesy, perfect for a coffee break with your buddy.

0 Degrees Ice Cream | Thai
5000 Shelbyville Rd
Space 5820 (Inside Mall St. Matthews by Cinnabon)
Louisville, KY 40207
(646) 736-8173

If you've seen videos of rolled ice cream made in the streets of Thailand, you know what this place is all about.  If you haven't, here's a quick version.

This extremely popular ice cream trend is well established in large cities but just made its way to Louisville last year.  First, choose a suggested combo or create your own, next the ice cream is made right in front of your eyes.  What makes this different is that the finished product is rolled into smaller rolls and topped with additional goodies.  The selection here is small and is a bit pricey ($6.59), but it's fun to watch and eat.  My matcha ice cream was okay, I recommend the Pink Lady.

Pink Lady
Menu. Source: 0 Degrees Facebook.

DaLat's Gateaux & Cafe | Vietnamese
6915 Southside Dr
Louisville, KY 40214
(502) 368-9280

For French inspired Asian pastries and Vietnamese desserts, head to DaLat's in ethnically diverse South Louisville.  The pastries are not as sweet, decently priced and plentiful.    There's also a good selection of bubble tea, coffee and smoothies. My favorite here is the bacon onion buns.  They also have a good selection of Vietnamese savory snacks, such as snail sausage, banh mi, jerky, etc.

Pastries. Photo Source: Shelley S.,  Yelp
For special occasions, you can pre-order cakes too.  Due to language barrier, be very specific with your request to avoid any confusions.

Our wedding cake from DaLat's

The picking is a bit slim here because of the smaller Asian population in Louisville, but I'm hoping that will change soon.  I also found desserts from other ethnic eateries to my liking as well, check out the paletas (ice cream bars) at Panchito's and Bosnian pastries at Jasmin's Bakery.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Dress Like a Cow for Free Chicken at Chick-fil-A

One of my favorite days of the year is finally here, Cow Appreciation Day at Chick-fil-A.  It's one day out of the year where you dress like a cow to get free chicken so you can eat like a pig! :)  

I've heard about the event for a few years but felt weird coming in to ask for free food, so never did it.   But after such a fun and easy first experience 2 years ago, we kept coming back.  Many of our friends even joined in.  It's a family friendly event and many come in large groups. 

All you have to do is dress like a cow, go to the counter and choose your free entree.  The staff is extremely friendly, everyone at the restaurant is there for the same reason (so it's not weird at all), and they accept anything remotely cow looking, no questions asked.  Chick-fil-A even has a kit you can print on their website.  Or draw some black dots on your white t-shirt and you are set.  As you can see our costume was very basic!

It was you've never done it before, here's a quick guide.  

  • Date:  Tuesday, July 11, 2017 
  • Time: from restaurant opening until 7 p.m.


These are the Chick-fil-A locations in Louisville

University of Louisville
2100 S Floyd St, Louisville, KY 40208

Bardstown Road
3420 Bardstown Road, Louisville, KY 40218
6:30 am - 10:00 pm

St. Matthews
5001 Shelbyville Rd, Louisville, KY 40207
6:30 am - 10:00 pm

Mall St. Matthews
5000 Shelbyville Rd Ste 1630, Louisville, KY 40207
10:00 am - 9:00 pm

Dixie Hwy (KY)
6630 Dixie Hwy, Louisville, KY 40258
6:30 am - 10:00 pm

Jefferson Mall
4801 Outer Loop, Louisville, KY 40219
9:30 am - 9:00 pm

2350 Shane Dr, Louisville, KY 40220
6:30 am - 10:00 pm

Jefferson Commons
4925 Outer Loop, Louisville, KY 40219
6:00 am - 10:00 pm

10501 Westport Rd, Louisville, KY 40241
6:30 am - 10:00 pm

7901 Bardstown Rd, Louisville, KY 40291
6:00 am - 10:00 pm

Middletown Commons
13313 Shelbyville Rd, Louisville, KY 40223
6:00 am - 10:00 pm

What can I get?
Spicy deluxe sandwich, fries and frosted lemonade
Free meal for two (2 years ago)

Official rule from the website states that you can choose from the entrees below.  But we got the whole free meal last year and this year, which includes an entree, fries and a drink (Stonybrook location). 
  • Breakfast Entrée includes:
    • Egg White Grill
    • Chick-fil-A® Chicken Biscuit
    • Chick-fil-A® Spicy Chicken Biscuit
    • Sausage Biscuit
    • Chick-n-Minis™ (3 or 4-count)
    • Chicken or Sausage Breakfast Burrito
    • Chicken or Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Bagel
    • Bacon or Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit
    • Greek Yogurt Parfait
    • Fruit Cup (any size)
  • Lunch/Dinner Entrée includes:
    • Smokehouse BBQ Bacon Sandwich
    • Chick-fil-A® Chicken Sandwich
    • Chick-fil-A® Chicken Deluxe Sandwich
    • Chick-fil-A® Spicy Chicken Sandwich
    • Chick-fil-A® Spicy Chicken Deluxe Sandwich
    • Grilled Chicken Sandwich
    • Grilled Chicken Club Sandwich
    • Grilled Chicken Cool Wrap®
    • Chick-fil-A® Nuggets (8 or 12-count)
    • Chick-fil-A® Grilled Nuggets (8- or 12-count)
    • Chicken Salad Sandwich; Chick-n-Strips™ (3 or 4-count)
    • Small hand-spun milkshake (Operator discretion), Small Iced Coffee, Small Frosted Coffee or Small Frosted Lemonade
    • No salad this year
  • Kid’s Meal:
    • Chick-n-Strips (1 or 2-count) Kid’s Meal
    • Chick-fil-A® Nuggets (4 or 6-count) Kid’s Meal
    • Grilled Nugget (4 or 6-count) Kid’s Meal
How many can I get?
You can go through the line once, but hey if you're up for it, you can visit as many restaurants as you want!

The restaurant is more crowded than usual but it's fast food so the wait is not long.  Be sure to be there at the counter by 7 p.m.  The cut off time is strict.  

This year is extra special for us because we got a new friend to join us on our foodie adventure (also the reason for the brief blog hiatus!)