When my friend Nina and I were in high school we’d go to this park across from her house. We’d also typically bring along a little baggie of weed, because high school. We’d take a few puffs and sit around like morons making up nonsensical, bizarre phrases, like “The Purple Frog screamed, ‘Good Day!’” And “Uncle Christopher, where are your eyebrow reflectors?” And my personal favorite, “Malaysia has many.”

Malaysia has many. Many people? Many cities? Many cars? We weren’t sure, but it made us laugh for reasons no one will ever understand, myself included.

Weirdly enough, our stoned little minds were on to something. Because Malaysia really does have many. Many religions, many customs, many cuisines, and many cultures. Many places in the world are described as melting pots and those places have nothing on Malaysia. On a single block, it wasn’t unusual to see a Muslim mosque, an Indian restaurant, a Thai massage studio, a 7-11, and a barber shop owned by a Chinese family.

All of this sounds really cool in theory. And, in actuality, it is really cool. But when I first arrived in Kuala Lumpur, “cool” wasn’t exactly the word that came to mind.

Imagine you’re at a circus. But instead of each act entering the ring separately—first the trapeze, then the tight rope, followed by the bearded lady, etc., etc.—all the acts perform at the same time. The clowns are acro dancing above the ventriloquists who are lion taming, all while the elephants juggle the fire breathing unicyclers. Individually, these are all impressive, entertaining skills. But when they happen in unison, it’s an overwhelming mad house. You want to experience everything, but your brain can’t focus on anything. You can’t look away, but you don’t have a clue what’s going on.

This is Malaysia. And this is where my love story begins.

ROCKY START | KUALA LUMPUR

This romance doesn’t start like most. Instead of butterflies and love at first sight, it was more like torrential downpour and “what the hell is that smell?”

Kuala Lumpur is Malaysia’s capital—a monstrous city with gravity-defying high-rises, luxury cars, and business casual workwear. My first meal was at Central Market’s pinkish-hued food court with no natural light. I don’t know what this dish is called and frankly I’m still not exactly sure what was lurking beneath that inky black sauce. Definitely noodles. Definitely chicken. Possibly mushrooms. Despite its emo appearance it was actually quite good—salty and satisfying—especially washed down with the Malay-obsessed, Milo ice.

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The only other notable KL food experience was the Alor Street Food Night Market: 8 or 10 blocks of restaurants, food carts, mobile bands, and aggressive masseuses. I went a couple different nights and tried Char Kuey Teow (a staple noodle dish with prawns and cockles), juicy mango with chili, and a rainbow of dim sum dumplings, each one packed with a different soft, salty filling.  

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I spent most of my time in KL walking around the concrete jungle, gawking at the insane mega malls, meeting a series of strange individuals, and going to an overpriced (but kinda cool!) bird park.

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At this point, if I saw Malaysia on Tinder, I likely would have swiped left. Luckily, the food was alluring enough to keep me interested, so I swiped right and headed to Georgetown.

LET’S BE FRIENDS | PENANG

Georgetown is on Penang island and is best known for its colonial history, street art, and vibrant cuisine. A total contrast to the highbrow capital.

I had high expectations. Maybe too high. The first couple of days in Georgetown were fine; not terrible, but not particularly fun or interesting. The street art was cool, the street food was good. Maybe it was my mood, home sickness, or fatigue. But for whatever reason, I was having a hard time getting into a groove.

Then I tried laksa. Tasting laksa for the first time made me realize that although Malaysia may not have swept me off my feet initially, there were certainly some layers waiting to be discovered.

Penang laksa is rusty brown with soft, thick noodles. It’s also fishy—like really fishy—a bit spicy, and amazingly sour. At most shops they tend to top the bowls off with something fresh, like chopped lettuce or herbs. Or thin slices of pineapple, adding a sweet little surprise. They did this at Penang Road Famous Laksa, my first laksa encounter.

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The really interesting thing about laksa is that it’s a little mysterious. Each bowl came with a huge variation in ingredients and flavor profile. Each establishment (if you can call a fold up table on the side of the road established?) had their own tried and true recipe. All different, all delicious.  

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I also enjoyed a couple other Penang staples, including Nasi Kandar (steamed rice with a variety of Indian-influenced meats and curries) and Nasi Lemak (coconut rice with spicy sambal, fried anchovies, peanuts, cucumber, and egg).

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Malaysia was slowly, but surely, growing on me. 

A FLING | LANGKAWI

When you travel to a place where beer is cheaper than water, I think you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a good time. Welcome to Langkawi, a duty-free island bordering Thailand, complete with white sand beaches, lush jungle, and killer sunsets.

Whereas Penang helped me see Malaysia’s, ahem, inner beauty, Langkawi introduced me to the country’s physical allure.   

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I spent about 90% of my time at the beach, much of that bellied up at Ah Chong Beach Bar. I’m half proud / half embarrassed to admit they named a cocktail after me, the Spicy Molly. It resembled a margarita, with blue curacao and chili.

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The meals I had on Langkawi weren’t particularly inspired, but everything was satisfying: some tasty fried noodles, lace pancakes called Roti Jala with curry, and really, really good hummus from an Indian restaurant (who’d a thunk?). 

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Maybe it was the beer goggles, but Langkawi seemed to transform my fling with Malaysia into something a bit more serious.

LET’S GO STEADY | KOTA BARU

After Langkawi, a detox was in order. I headed to Kota Baru, an old city with a 93% Muslim population and virtually no tourists. The city has a ban on alcohol sales with only three establishments allowed to serve drinks (they had permits before the ban was put into place). There’s a beautiful beach just east of the city center. I was shocked by the desolation. There were a few restaurants along the shore with zero customers. I walked along the beach for 45 minutes and saw one other person; a local, fishing. It seemed a little sad. But simultaneously refreshing.

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What the city lacked in nightlife it made up for in culinary delights. I spent three days in Kota Baru, mostly eating, as there was nothing much else to do.

Peter, a local I met at Golden City (one of the three restaurants that serves beer), invited me to dinner to try Nasi Kerabu. A simple dish with blue-colored rice (cooked with flower petals), fried chicken or fish, egg, and a fresh little herb salad. This particular restaurant also included an entire bulb of pickled garlic. After trying it I immediately made a note in my phone: Attempt to pickle garlic.

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Peter also introduced me to the breakfast spot, Kedai Kopi Din Tokyo, a KB institution. This was one of those meals I’ll remember for a long time. Like tasting a bit of the past. The shop is setup like a bar, with long wooden benches surrounding the center, where all the magic happens. The magician was a cheerful old man who appeared to be doing 30 things at once with incredible ease.

We ordered their staple dish: expertly soft-boiled eggs with pillow-y white bread that is toasted over coals and slathered with kaya, a sweet, custardy coconut egg jam.

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There were plenty of food courts throughout the city serving a variety of rice and noodle dishes. In the early hours of the day, many of them had buffets set up; long tables covered with 20-30 metals trays of chicken, fish, curries, starches, spiced vegetables, and unidentifiable sauces. I popped in on my last day and loaded up. The fuchsia-hued food against this minty green plate made me smile. My love for Malaysia was starting to solidify.

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IT’S LOVE | KOTA KINABALU, BORNEO  

Borneo is equivalent to the New Year’s Eve party, when Harry tells Sally he loves her. When things start to solidify. This huge, lush island reconciled my love for this uniquely crazy country. It’s turquoise waters, wild jungles, and simple, distinctive dishes totally won my heart over.

The Malaysian half of Borneo is made up of Sabah and Sarawak. I started in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, best known for its tropical islands and namesake mountain.

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The first thing I ate was a big bowl of laksa. But get this, it was completely different than the laksa I had in Penang. Not just a variation on the rusty brown bowls I had a week before, but an entirely different dish. Sabah laksa is less of a fish stew and more like a coconut-based noodle soup. It’s orange and oily, topped with spongey tofu or chicken and fresh prawns. 

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Choosing between Penang laksa and Borneo laksa is like choosing a favorite child. They each have so much to offer, so many unique qualities. Penang laksa is loud and proud, while Borneo laksa is more calm and approachable. I’ll take a bowl of both.    

Kota Kinabalu has a great waterfront with loads of bars, markets, and food courts. Navigating the bustling, tiny aisles of one of the markets I came across an unassuming food stand with a steaming vat of liquid. I ordered by pointing to a picture that looked appetizing. They quickly brought me a bowl of thin rice noodles in a clear broth topped with chicken (I was lucky enough to get the foot 😳) and mystery meatballs.

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On each table sat a tray of bottles and jars filled with colorful sauces. One of my favorite aspects of Asian cuisine has been the customization. Serve a simple dish and allow each person to tailor it to their liking; a spoonful of chili paste, a dash of vinegar, a sprinkle of soy. It’s both fun and functional. 

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I went back to this stand a few times, and by the last day they had my “regular” on the table before I even ordered. Talk about feeling welcome.

HAPPILY EVERY AFTER | KUCHING, BORNEO   

My last Malaysian destination was the city of Kuching in Sarawak. Kuching, more than any other place I’ve been so far, felt extremely livable. Non-touristy, the perfect size, surrounded by outdoor adventures, and great restaurants. Friendly doesn’t even begin to describe the locals’ demeanor. Plus, it’s an Anthony Bourdain-approved city, which doesn’t hurt.

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My first meal in the city was at The Junk, a modern, Western-Malay fusion restaurant. I ordered a softshell crab salad and a glass of tuak, local rice wine. It was awesome. Hot, freshly fried crab, crunchy iceberg, marinated toms, tossed in an oregano-based vinaigrette. An incredibly satisfying salad. And a much needed break from rice or noodles.

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Speaking of satisfying, check out this fried chicken from local restaurant, Rumah Hijau. This is the traditional breakfast dish, Nasi Lemak, that I first encountered in Penang, but elevated. The chicken was bursting with fragrant fennel seeds and the sardine were still sizzling. Served with a cup of hot, thick coffee, it’s the perfect way to start a day.

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Knowing I’d soon be leaving Malaysia, I also ate all the laksa I could get my hands on. I had a bowl at Choon Hui. Anthony B. said it best with a simple, “Yessssssss.”

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I had another, final bowl at Chong Choon Cafe. By far the spiciest variation that made me cough and smile simultaneously.

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To end on something sweet, we’ll head over to Hava Café—a no-frills restaurant across from my Airbnb. One day I stopped in for a cup of coffee, was distracted by the rainbow cakes in the freezer, mentioned to the cashier how pretty they were, and she emerged 20 seconds later with platefuls of bite-sized morsels for me to sample. There were probably eight or nine different flavors, including a mint/chocolate combo, my kryptonite. I had no choice but to buy a loaf.

Not to be dramatic, but this Kek Lapis (layer cake) was the best cake, and maybe even the best dessert, I’ve had in my life. So incredibly dense and moist, indulgent and fresh, best served chilled. Look up ‘irresistible’ in the dictionary, and you’ll see this photo.

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Although my relationship with Malaysia started a bit rocky, I couldn’t be more grateful for the time I spent here. The best love stories aren’t butterflies and rainbows. They’re challenging, complex, and taxing. And they typically spit you out as a stronger, more resilient human. This country has taught me lessons I’ll take with me, not only on this adventure, but throughout my life, when I’m back in the ‘real world.’

Malaysia emphasized the importance of patience; that uncomfortable situations are nearly always worth tolerating and can lead to unexpected surprises. The best things come with a little struggle.

This country also reminded me that a sense of humor is absolutely crucial. If you can’t laugh at yourself and your retrospectively silly decisions, good luck. Waiting 45 minutes for a bus that no longer runs? Comical. Getting caught in a monsoon with all your luggage? Ridiculous! Accidental ordering crunchy, hairy pig ear for lunch? WTF?!

Most importantly, Malaysia taught me that a bowl full of spicy noodles is sometimes all you need to turn a frown upside down.  

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Ko Lanta means “to decompress” in Thai. Ok, that’s not actually true. But if you’re looking to relax, there may be no better place than Ko Lanta.

Lanta is an island off the coast of mainland Krabi, Thailand in the Andaman Sea. It’s a place where scooters outnumber cars, clocks have seemingly disappeared, and shoes are always optional. It’s like a real-life Jimmy Buffet song, but more exotic.

I was blown away by the island’s hospitality, the endless beaches to explore, and the ‘come as you are’ attitude. The only thing that didn’t knock my socks off was the food. Don’t get me wrong, the food certainly wasn’t bad. But so much of it seemed to be prepared to please the tourist palette. For example, at the majority of restaurants the menu was thick and laminated and included everything from pad thai and lasagna to veggie burgers and fish tacos. The food in Bangkok was so good! So, in fairness, the bar was set very, very high.  

What Lanta lacked in cuisine, it made up for in total and utter relaxation. Something we could all use a bit more of, am I right? If you can’t hop on the next flight to Thailand, here’s the next best thing. Follow these steps and you too can be as cool as a cucumber floating in a seaside mojito.  

Before we get started, set the mood with this Feeling Krabi Spotify playlist. It’s full of songs that evoke the Island-spirit, many heard playing at the local beach bars. One bar had a thing for 90s American Country, hence the Alan Jackson hit.

Are you listening? Perfect. You’ve already completed Step 1.

STEP 1 | GOOD TUNES ON REPEAT

My personal favorite is the Thai hit, Do Do Do by Job 2 Do. It was a nightly staple and I’ve caught myself humming the tune countless times. Fair warning, it’s an earworm.

STEP 2 | TAKE CAT NAPS

Like the Spanish siesta, every afternoon in Ko Lanta the island would get very still. The lunch bustle winded down and local workers retreated home to escape the hottest part of the day. I’m not a big napper, but I followed the locals’ lead, both human and feline, and most days enjoyed a leisurely cat nap.

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I woke up feeling recharged, refreshed, and ready for an evening of beach volleyball, another daily tradition on the island.

STEP 3 | NO WIFI, GET HIGH

It’s the unofficial official slogan of Ko Lanta, especially at my frequented hangout, Blue Wave Bar. Seeing as I’m still working remotely for my office in Portland I had to stay connected (Side note: I’m totally awed by wifi accessibility. I stayed in a bungalow with holes in the wall and no hot water, yet had 5G high-speed internet!) but there were plenty of nights that I left my phone behind and enjoyed digi-free life for a few hours.

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As for sampling the island herb? I’ll leave that up to the reader’s imagination.

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STEP 4 | PLAN YOUR DAY AROUND SUNSET

In a place where punctuality and set schedules are obsolete, Lantians(?) certainly make sunset a priority. Nearly all the bars have a sunset special, like 2-for-1s or 40% off, from 4-7pm. And during this time, it seems 90% of the island’s occupants are on the beach with eyes on the horizon. A peaceful, thoughtful way to close out a day, only made better with newfound friends. (Another side note: I met the best people on Lanta. Fun, adventurous, interesting, kind, beautiful people.)

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Even since I’ve left, Alec, one of said newfound friends, has been keeping the tradition alive by sending me sunset updates. Amazing.

STEP 5 | GET A BEACH MASSAGE

A one-hour massage. On the beach. For $10. How could one decline?

My massage was…intimate, to say the least. No, no, it’s not what you’re thinking! Although Thailand has a wrap for giving “special” massages, there was nothing sexual about this experience. It’s just that, at one point I had both of my legs wrapped around the woman’s body while she was up on her knees pushing both hands into my pelvis. Fast-forward 20 minutes and my head’s in her lap and she’s pulling on my ears.

It was very different than any massage I’ve had in the U.S., but it was clear that this woman is master of her craft.

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There you have it! The Lanta Guide to Relaxation. Follow these five simple steps and let the stress melt away. And in case you need a reminder after a stressful Monday meeting or a brutal rush hour commute, feel free to save this handy dandy pocket guide ;) 

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And for fun, here are a few of my favorite photos from Krabi, including some foooooooood.

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I arrived in Bangkok at 1am. The heat and humidity felt like a big, warm hug. I was over the chilly, wet PNW rain. The cab dropped me off at my Airbnb around 2am. And at 2am, the street was quiet, eerily so, with no real sign of life around, apart from the occasional 7/11 customer a few blocks up.

At this point I was feeling pretty confident that I made a bad booking mistake.

But the next morning, jet-lagged and popping out of bed at 5am, the street made a complete transformation. I walked downstairs and out the door and was welcomed by a street lined with pots of stewing curries, various street dogs making the rounds, and scooters zipping up and down the alleys. Vibrant in every sense of the word.   

I spent the first day walking, observing, and absorbing. Everything felt new. Like who had any idea this whole new world existed? Clearly, millions of people, but it’s one of those things you likely just have to experience for yourself.

This SE Asian journey has me excited for a million and one reasons, and towards the top of that list is the food. Food is sustenance and art. It keeps people fueled and inspired. And it helps to shape and define cultures. So, here are three great meals I enjoyed in Bangkok.

1. FEAST WITH JI AT BANG NAMPUNG FLOATING MARKET

A couple years ago I did a bike tour through Airbnb in Barcelona. It exceeded my expectations—it was small and casual, but really informative and fun—so I decided to book another ‘Experience’ in Bangkok: A food market tour.

It was supposed to be me, eight other guests, plus the guide. It ended up being me and the guide, Ji. Evidently, everyone else was dealing with food poisoning. Not the greatest omen pre-culinary experience, huh? 

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We headed to Bang Nampung floating market. Before we even got to the market Ji was stopping at street stands and ordering little bites for me to try: jackfruit, plus a roasted jackfruit nut. And little rice flour / green onion pastries called khanom khrok.

At the market we moseyed our way from stand to stand to try grilled chicken livers, egg pastries with big chunks of mussels and shrimp, rose apple, salty dried mango, fermented shrimp, Miang kham flavor bombs, Sprite popsicles, and crispy rice cakes with caramel sauce, just to name a few.

Eventually, we sat down to have a “meal,” because that was totally necessary. We split a bowl of tom yum noodle soup, some fried sausage / kaffir lime balls, and a huge crepe filled with cheese, spices, corn, and a slew of seafood—Ji says it’s a traditional Vietnamese dish although it seems like something you order at the Minnesota State Fair.

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I didn’t eat for the rest of the day or for half of the following day.  

Eating with a local is hard to beat. They know the must-haves, the things to skip, and they’re not going to get had by the local vendors. Plus, Ji was an amazing bank of knowledge, beyond just food. She essentially gave me itineraries for the next couple of days—which I adhered to more or less—and had a blast.  

The incredible assortment of dishes and the local insight made this one of my favorite meals, err, feasts(!), in Bangkok.

2. IMPROMPTU NEW YEAR’S EVE POTLUCK

For New Year’s Eve, I planned on going down to Khao San Road, also known as "the centre of the backpacking universe.” I watched a YouTube video of the 2018 New Year party and it looked like a shit show, but I figured I’d maybe meet some like-minded, or at least fun, people there.  

Before I headed that direction I stopped by the neighborhood “bar.” Really less of a bar and more of a third-world convenience store with a cooler and a couple of picnic tables. But the beer was cold and the people were friendly. 

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Very friendly, it turns out. After sitting there for a few minutes, the local crew asked me to sit with them. They didn’t speak any English so we relied heavily on Google Translate. As I was sitting there, I noticed that every five or ten minutes, with each bottle of Leo there’d be another snack or plate of food on the table. First, a super dark, super spicy soup. Next, some bright pink, puffed shrimp chips. And then big fried chunks of fatty pork belly.

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I was loving the drinking snacks, but I hadn’t seen anything yet. An hour or so went by, the rum made an appearance, and more people started stopping by, all with dishes to share. Like a potluck. 

There was a whole grilled fish served with a couple different sweet and sour relish-like mixtures. Another grilled fish, with very spicy chilies and mystery pods on top. And a tiny wood-burning oven full of a family-recipe tom yum soup.

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Every time a new dish came to the table, I was encouraged to take the first bite, everyone eager to see my reaction. I loved everything, except for maybe the mystery pods that were lethally spicy.  

Happily, I never made it to Khao San Road.

This meal was such a testament to the welcoming, come-as-you-are, genuinely kind Thai culture. And an amazing way to ring in the New Year.

3. SPICY CURRY IN A HOME-Y SETTING

On my last day in Bangkok I went to the Baan Silpin “Artists House” on the west side of the river. A Ji recommendation, of course. A very cool community art space, which can only be accessed by canal or by meandering through a series of alleyways. I chose the latter. When I arrived an artist was working on a temple painting. They also had local art for sale and supposedly do a live, artsy puppet show at 2pm every day. After checking out the space and sitting along the catfish-filled river for a while, I needed a little lunch before my trek back. 

There was one restaurant nearby, but it was packed with tourists. I kept walking and ducked into a friendly-looking alley and came across a home with a hand-painted sign reading “Restaurant.” I walked in and was greeted by three sweet, cheerful women. They sat me down in what appeared to be their living room and brought me a menu. (Rereading this now sounds a little creepy which it 110% was not!)

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The eldest of the three ladies came and sat right across from me and was thrilled when I told her I was from America. She loves America. Her English was great, in comparison to my non-existent Thai. But there was certainly a language barrier, so we stumbled through conversation with a lot of laughs, awkward pauses, and smiles.

Eventually I ordered a spicy seafood curry and the woman left without saying much—maybe she was the chef too? While I waited for my meal alone I tuned into the Thai crime drama playing on the back wall. I don’t like crime dramas in the U.S. and now it’s confirmed that I also don’t much care for them in Thailand.

But soon the food came and everything was right in the world. Shrimp, squid, big button mushrooms, chilies, and a bundle of aromatics, all in a spicy, warm coconut sauce, so clearly cooked with love. Perfection.

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I think I ate it all in like 12 minutes. And when I was done, another woman—not one of the first three to greet me—came in and offered me a platter of tiny fruits. I mean, come on!  

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I paid (a whopping $4) and left. The warmth from the hosts was special, something to strive for. And something that will stick with me for a long time.

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There's something especially fun about eating outdoors. Maybe it feels loosely like a picnic? Maybe because nearly all food comes from the outdoors and you've got those farm-to-table feels going on? Or maybe because in more cases than not, outdoor meals are accompanied by a cold beer or glass of vino? I'll place my bet on the latter.

This summer I had the pleasure of living with two of my great Portland friends. And with that came an excellent backyard full of foliage, a hammock, neglected garden beds, and patio furniture. One of my favorite things to do was make a simple, tasty meal and enjoy it on the patio. 

Here's a small sampling of my patio provisions. 

1. Egg, veggie scramble topped with homemade Nappa cabbage kimchi. 

2. Another egg scramble with spinach, avocado, and Hard Times Soilent Green hot sauce alongside a toasted everything bagel. 

3. Mixed greens with seared tuna, turmeric roasted cauliflower, egg, quinoa, and chia seeds.

4. Bon Appetite's berry tahini yogurt cake. Made special for 4th of July. 

5. Cheesy grits topped with shrimp and kale in a vinegary, green onion sauce. 

6. Whole wheat toast with some sort of yogurt-y sauce (or maybe it was a goat cheese spread?) and a fried egg. 

In a few short weeks I'll be moving out of this lovely home. There's a lot I'll miss, including quiet meals in the backyard. But new adventures (and patios) await! 

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AuthorMolly Streuli

Is it just me, or do tacos seem to be having a moment right now? Everyday I see a new taco meme, t-shirt, or greeting card. But I guess it’s for good reason. Tacos are hella delicious. 

I’m typically a fish taco fan. The salty fresh fish, paired with the crunchy cabbage and spicy sauce. A seriously ballin’ combo.

But every once in a while I’ll mix it up and go for the classic carnitas. Although carnitas can be amazing, I’m usually left feeling like I just ate a pulled pork sandwich but subbed the bun for a tortilla. Don’t get me wrong, pulled pork doused in tangy sauce, topped with crunchy slaw or sour pickles is nothing I would turn my nose up at. It’s just that carnitas should be different than pulled pork. Carnitas should be fatty and tender. Carnitas should be seasoned with a fairly heavy hand. Carnitas should have that dark, crispy char on the edges.

Carnitas should look like this.

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Los Pepitos Locos on 42nd Ave isn’t the best Mexican restaurant in Portland. I don’t even know that I’d put it in the top ten. But goddammit, they make killer carnitas. 

Keep in mind, I ate about half the meat out of this taco before I decided to take a photo. It was served on two white corn tortillas with, what seemed like, a half pound of pork nestled inside. The toppings were simple: cilantro and raw onion. Which is really all you need when the meat is done so well.

I did add a splash of both their red and green sauces. I'd give them both a 6/10. Nothing that'll blow your mind, but still tasty. 

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To round out the meal I also ordered a fish taco. Similar to the carnitas, they didn't skimp on the protein. The fish was plentiful and well seasoned, but overall it was missing a little something. I think a zesty, cabbage crunch would do the trick.

And to wash it all down I enjoyed a tall, cool michelada. Perfectly spiced and super refreshing on a muggy Portland afternoon. 

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Los Pepitos Locos. I think I like you. 

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AuthorMolly Streuli