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Taste of Little Italy 2011

In an effort to reacquaint myself with San Diego, get into the swing of things and enjoy all the wonderful fun this fabulous city has to offer, I jumped at the opportunity to get tickets for the Taste of Little Italy. I bought my tickets about two weeks in advance so that there was no risk of being turned down. The website said they do sell out every year.

My friends Michelle and Carrie joined me, and were equally excited for the event.  Who doesn’t love the idea of trying a lot of great Italian food, strolling through Little Italy and fitting in a glass of wine somewhere in the evening?

With e-tickets in hand, we checked in at Date and India streets and were handed a map/passport to guide us through the evening.  We decided to start at the outskirts, The Restaurant at the W and Karl Strauss, and work our way toward the heart of Little Italy.  Both of these establishments helped set the bar.  The W was serving an absolutely exquisite morsel of Achiote rubbed tuna with tomatillo corn relish and lotus crisp. Divine.  Depending on reaction during the tasting, they were considering this for their new menu. I think we’ll see it featured.  So tasty, that tuna!  The presentation was fantastic as well with nice little, black plastic plates and super cute plastic appetizer forks.  Karl Strauss served generous pours of two of their award winning beer. I’m guessing a good 3-4oz pour was on offer. Awesome!

Aside from these two, there was only one other stand out, the Burger Lounge at India and Cedar.  Their sample “sliders” were enough to make a meal in themselves and were perfection between a bun. They served a sample of the beef and vegetarian burgers. Smart idea. The casual atmosphere invited guests to be seated while eating, versus the typical standing-only style at most of the restaurants.

One restaurant (I’ll spare them the shame) served a polenta that was cold, nearly crunchy and looked as though they had poured canned mushroom soup over the top.  Another served what was a really great wine, but in a jello shot-sized plastic. That comes across as cheap.  Toward the end of the evening, one of Little Italy’s more upscale restaurants served a fusili with tomato, basil and mozzarella balls.  If anyone is so incompetent in the kitchen enough that they cannot make that dish themselves…yikes.  This was, I’m sure a far cry from the brandy cream sauce pasta advertised on their passport. Someone didn’t calculate portions correctly. My question to most all of the participating restaurants – This is the sample that best represents your restaurant?

We did appreciate Craft & Commerce for the atmosphere and tasty corn dog, but after a few other Italian restaurants served meatballs and sausage samples, it made it hard to appreciate a corn dog.  Craft & Commerce is worth a second chance, though, as the people were lovely and the vibe of the place was very hip and cool. I’ll also give a nod to Po Pazzo’s tiramisu. Surprisingly moist for sitting outside for awhile and pretty yummy.

The cost to the participant is $35. I’m not sure what that pays for exactly as I do not know what is the maximum number of guests they allow, and given that, how much of the fee goes to each restaurant to help cover the costs for participating.  There was not a lot of advertising, so that could not have been the majority of the expense.  I’d love to see the cost breakdown. I didn’t feel the value of $35.

Given that the restaurants are so spread out, we didn’t really enjoy the experience of a special event, only the sense that the streets were a bit busy for a Wednesday night.  We didn’t even bother to visit the Spicy Pickle (so sorry), as they are three blocks off the main street. I’m sure others also skipped this venue.  I wouldn’t expect the Spicy Pickle to participate again. We also skipped The Waterfront, who was also serving sliders. Frankly, we were full on beef/meat/sausage samples and also had already enjoyed a slider at Burger Lounge. It was clear the restaurants didn’t communicate with each other to offer a variety of dishes and no repeats.

Only Puerto La Boca was clever enough to hand out a coupon to participants.  Now they will be able to track who comes back after the Taste of Little Italy event (if the coupon was exclusive).  But the others?  How will they be able to measure their ROI?  Or is it a write-off? The marketing person in me was and still is going crazy with ideas for how to improve this event, from promotion to execution, to follow-through with the restaurants involved. I will venture to say that they do not feel it a worthwhile event but more an obligation to participate.

I’m thoughtfully drafting my communication with the Taste of Little Italy and the Little Italy Association of San Diego. I really enjoy attending functions like this and I’d like to help them make this a more rewarding event for all involved.  If any of you know members of the Little Italy Association San Diego, please have them contact me at [email protected]. It’s unfortunate when a highly anticipated event misses the mark.



Bun Ook Pan Saa II

I love festivals.  I think you all know this by now, especially if you’ve been following ON THE BRIGHT SIDE since the days I wrote from Japan.  My first festival was the Fuji festival, where I first lived in Japan.  One of the last festivals I watched in Japan was the Fire Festival in Fujieda (Rokusha Shrine Fire Festival).  My favorite of all in Japan, though, was probably the Fukuroi Fireworks.  Two hours of non stop fire works, young and old, men and women dressed in yukata…that was a very special night.

Last year, I happened to be in Laos during a special holiday called Bun Ook Pan Saa or end of the Buddhist lent.  I enjoyed seeing hundreds of candles floating down the Mekong River, locals dancing in front of their homes and shops, and everyone lighting sparklers, fireworks and little whizzers and things which pop.  I knew last year that I had to comeback.

This year, I was excited to enjoy all aspects of the festival.  Pete and I planted our bums on the balcony of Tam Nak Lao restaurant, ordered Beer Lao and far too many dishes and waited for the procession of floats to come down the street.  This is a parade and a festival in one – bonus!  All sorts of people walked down the street along side those carrying the floats made of colored paper mache, and little bottles serving as lanterns all held together with a bamboo frame (bamboo, paper and fire together – totally safe!).  The floats are taken to the main temple and then to the pier where they are launched into the water, even escorted by a team of people in a long boat.

The floats are all made by the monks in the temples and they are just beautiful.  I’m not so good at night photography, so my photo doesn’t capture these so well, but I hope you get the idea!

What was so fun is that there are fireworks for sale everywhere you go. And everyone is lighting and shooting them off.  Pete and I turned into 12 year olds and bought a butt load of poppers, cherry bombs and all sorts of other goodies.  The large firework we bought, we ended up lighting in one of the temples.  You see, the monks, after all their hard work to make the floats, decorate the temples and after a 3 month lent…well, they can’t really celebrate like everyone else.  They are not allowed to participate.  And most of them are teenagers and young men and you can see that it’s just killing them to not go out of the temple grounds.  We were at the same temple where I met Bo and Kit in August, and I was able to find Bo and chat with him again before we lit the big firework.  It was nice to see him again and he was glad for the visit.

We ended up hanging out with some locals…it was nice to bring our little candle to the pier among the crowds and have some little kid swim it out to a point where the current would pick it up. (We paid him in fireworks, which was completely agreeable by him!)

I just loved it.  I loved the chaos, the beauty, the colors, the fireworks, the music and dancing….it was a real celebration and I am glad I made a point to enjoy it.

Hanoi’s 1000th Anniversary

In just about a year’s time, the city of Hanoi will be celebrating it’s 1000th Anniversary.  Considering my country is a fraction of that age, this is quite a milestone.  After living in a country where festivals and summer firework shows are the norm, I’m eager to see how the Vietnamese celebrate such an amazing moment in history.

Just as people speculate whether Beijing would be ready for the Olympics, South Africa for the World’s Cup, the speculation begins about the organization and progress for celebrations in Hanoi.

Below is an article I found in the ThanhNien News:

With 700 days to go until the Thang Long – Hanoi 1,000th Anniversary, the celebration’s director’s chair is still unfilled.

That means there is no one person in charge of overseeing all of the 80 affairs schedules for next year.

But Nguyen Khac Loi, deputy director of Hanoi Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said there was no need for one central director as celebrations would take place throughout the country.

“There will not be a general director, instead we’ll have directors for each event around the country,” he said. “This is a collective program from north to south, so there is no need for a general director. We only need the National Steering Committee to supervise the events.”

Of the 80 performances, ceremonies and activities, the department has been assigned to organize 50 of which it has agreed to complete plans for the other 30 before the end of this month. The plans will then be evaluated for approval by a quality board under the committee.

Loi said he has invited many of the country’s leading entertainment writers and directors all over the nation to create each ceremony.

But many involved still think there needs to be one central person in charge of everything

In need of a captain

Nguyen Trong Tuan, deputy chief of the 1,000th Anniversary’s National Steering Committee, told online newspaper VietNamNet that the committee was still waiting for the right candidate to give the general directorship to. He said many famous directors experienced in organizing major festivals and events probably didn’t know much about the 1,000th Anniversary as information released had been sparse and ambiguous so far.

“The public has not been given a chance to understand the event yet,” Director Le Quy Duong told Thanh Nien Daily. “Directors like me haven’t been given a chance to contribute, even just a small part, to the largest celebration of our 1,000-year history,

“There has been no public forum for the public to voice their opinions on the matter and everyone seems to flinch from participating. Some are even afraid of their ideas being stolen. Maybe the producers have not cast the anniversary in the right light,” he said.

VietNamNet quoted director Pham Hoang Nam as saying it might be too late to choose a general director and that such a selection should have been made in the beginning of the planning process.

“It is really strange that there is no general director for such a big event,” he said. “They [organizers] ought to have a test to select the right director, but it is too late to talk about this ‘imaginary’ event. Nothing will come true if it is just based on dreams and ideas. Fundamentally, the event already lacks solidarity, professionalism and national pride.”

Other problems

This void appears to have manifested itself in several problems in the planning of the director-less event.

A major film project to celebrate the capital’s history, Thai to Ly Cong Uan (King Ly Cong Uan), has just been deemed infeasible and replaced by Chieu doi do (Proclaim to move the capital).

None of the artifacts for the archeological exhibit Gui toi mai sau (Sent to the Future Generation) have been chosen, while organizers had originally set the deadline for doing so in 2008.

The exhibit aims to show off 1,000 cultural artifacts from the last 1,000 years of Vietnamese history.

Organizers had originally said they would recreate a massive archeological dig and place the artifacts at the mock-up site as if they had just been dug up. But they had not taken into account the underground water systems in Hanoi’s museum quarter, where the event will take place, so they have had to cancel the unique presentation. An alternative has yet to be proposed.

Reported by Y Nguyen-Kim


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