Spruce Tacos

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I’d anticipated going to Spruce Taqueria for a while but its opening hours just didn’t do it for me. Not working in the area, it was practically impossible for me to make it there for the week-day lunch only opening hours. Imagine my joy when Travis tweeted that they now serve tacos in the evening between 5.30 and 7.30pm at Spruce itself. Sure, it’d take a bit of a rush there from work, but at least it was doable.

DC and I got there at 7pm and only went in after they assured us that tacos were still available. The head server must’ve thought we were totally bonkers when suddenly we lit up and rushed in upon hearing the taco affirmation. Last orders for tacos were taken at 7.15 so we had to quickly decide how much we wanted. There were three flavours: short rib, snapper and pork carnita. We went for the short rib and pork carnita first. When these arrived, it looked manageable to have more, so we quickly added to our bonkers quotient by asking for the third snapper flavour while just starting our first tacos.

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Only two pictures because they all pretty much looked the same. In order of yummyness, we both agreed that the snapper was the best, followed by the short rib and then a distant third with the pork carnita. Each dish consisted of two tacos and each taco came with two tortillas topped with filling, then taco sauce, shredded cabbage and guacamole, and garnished with plenty of coriander, which unfortunately looked a bit sad in patches. It was finished off with bits of radish and lime. The lime was a bit of a mistake because we’re both big lime fans and ended up squeezing too much on it. The sour drowned out much of the taste of the pork carnita. A pity.

The carnita was basically pulled pork and a bit stringy, though the sauce helped. I liked the tenderness of the short rib but wasn’t sold on how the flavour was drowned out by the rest of the taco. The fish surprisingly held up very well to the robust flavours and its soft, almost mushy texture was a nice counterpoint (plus it was much easier to eat, less effort to bite through the taco).

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The dragon breath later was terrible but it was definitely worthwhile.

Spruce
320 Tanglin Road
Phoenix Park
Tel: 6836 5528

Just a week later, DC and I were fortunately to be in the area on a weekday and we made it to the taqueria itself. The stand is perched at the top of hill, way to the right along the little curved street just coming up from Spruce itself. They were pretty slow to serve the food even though it looked like a fast food shack. Didn’t help that lots of stuff was already sold out by 12.45pm, like beef tongue and watermelon agua fresca. Disappointed, DC went for the short rib taco set that came with tortillas, salsa and lemonade. It was just as good as the tacos sold downhill for twice the price. I’m glad it’s consistent.

I went for the salad bowl, basically the same pile of stuff arranged differently: filling, salsa, guacamole and taco strips crisped to turn into tortillas. I liked the extra dollop of sour cream, it complemented the fiery salsa and filling of mushroom and poblano chiles very well. Plus, the salad is great for avoiding the greater part of the dragon breath (though you still get some).


July in Vietnam: The Imperial Capital of Hue

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It was early morning when I got into Hue and hopped out of the night bus. A lovely long day of sightseeing across the Perfume River awaited.

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Here in Central Vietnam, there was a slight change in personality. Somehow I felt that people weren’t quite as hardened by war and that commerce, tourism and the free market had penetrated somewhat.

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The first stop was the Imperial Enclosure, a large citadel built by the Vietnamese emperors. These were largely in the Chinese style, given the vast influence exerted by their vast northern neighbour. First, I had to get past the outer moat.

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The walls surrounding the Enclosure were thick earthen ones with squat yet somehow very fitting gates and gatehouses built into the packed earth.

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And then there were the grand linkways between the various buildings topped by intricate carvings and prosperous sayings.

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The buildings themselves were very grand. Again, the strong Chinese influence was unmistakable, particularly in the Thai Hoa Palace, a receiving hall for the emperor.

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Further towards the back of the Enclosure were little residences of a slightly less grandiose nature, like the Truong San Residence, recently rebuilt after being devastated in the war. The pretty garden with rockery and pond added lots of charm to the place.

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I liked the little details I saw while wandering through the city in miniature. Looking up at the eaves of gates, I wondered why the decorations were made that way, whether for good luck or merely for ornamentation, perhaps to please the whim of a favoured concubine.

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Other decorations were more for impressing visitors, like this stone qilin (unicorn).

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There were also old cannon left behind from the old days. I wonder whether these were just for show or they really were meant for battle.

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Nonetheless, these weren’t spared the Fun with English sign of “No laying sitting on the selics.” Evidently done by someone with poor copyrighting skills.

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Outside the enclosure but still within the compound of the ancient city, there was plenty of living city. People carried on their daily business amidst the backdrop of beautiful lotus pond fringed by banana trees.

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After walking round imagining what life in ancient Hue would be like, I went to Y Thao Garden, a restaurant that specialised in imperial Hue cuisine. It had a little garden in the style of the imperial palace.

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The menu here is a Viet version of the degustation menu, with lots of little course that never quite seem to end. The only problem for a one-person meal was that the little courses weren’t as little as expected, as evidenced by this starter of deep-fried spring rolls masquerading as feathers atop a pineapple-carrot phoenix.

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Then came the less highly decorated poached prawns with salt and pepper.

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Followed by a slightly greasy but very yummy pancake called banh khoai. It was stuffed with meat and beansprouts and dipped in a peanut-based sauce.

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Next came a meat salad of sorts, a bit like the Lao/Thai larb gai. Combined with herbs and topped with ground peanuts, this aromatic mixture was eaten by scooping some up on a crunchy prawn cracker.

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I so full I was about to give up when the rice arrived. I thought it was going to be a run of the mill fried rice but boy was I wrong. This appeared to be fully vegetarian. The rice was cooked in a lotus leaf  with carrot, lotus seeds, black fungus and other vegetables. The fragrance of the dish blew me away. I don’t know what they did to make it taste so good but they sure did the right thing.

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Dessert was slightly less inspiring. There was only one, masquerading as table flowers. They’ve changed with the times and use plastic flower stems as the base, sticking on little soft pastry desserts. The filling was yellow mung bean, which was encased in a soft glutinous rice pastry, then painted over with some glossy jelly. It was pretty but not particularly tasty. Nonetheless, it was overall a great introduction to Hue imperial cuisine.

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Y Thao Garden
D Thach Han
Hue, Vietnam

[edited to include name and address of restaurant]

Singapore Youth Olympics Opening Ceremony

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It’s a week late in posting, but better late than never.

DC managed to get free tickets to a very special event taking place in Singapore this month –  the opening ceremony of the inaugural summer Youth Olympic Games. After seeing the fantastic opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, we knew it would be a tough act for Singapore to follow.  However, we knew that the ceremony would still feature plenty fireworks, dancing and hopefully a great party atmosphere.

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It was held at the floating platform at Marina Bay.  Knowing that there would be a huge crowd of spectators, we decided to go to there early and have dinner there first.  We were lucky enough to find a parking lot right next to the main entrance to the grandstands at Marina Square, and after having a quick dinner, we walked over to the entrance to find a large crowd already forming.  We queued up dutifully, but after a while we started to wonder why the queue was moving so slowly.  At first we thought it was because of the stringent security checks, but when we finally got to the ticketing entrance, we found to our dismay that the reason why we had queued for so long was because the ticket sensor wasn’t working properly!  For the event, the organisers had very proudly announced that the ticket would be a newfangled swipe card that also doubled as a Visa pre-paid card. It was all very good except that the ticket sensors were having trouble reading the swipes, so every ticket required several tries before they could finally be read.  This delay caused the logjam of people at the entry point.  It wasn’t a great start to the night, and we wondered what the international community would be thinking of Singapore’s much-vaunted efficiency.
Things got worse when we finally got to the grandstands.  The tickets are priced in accordance with the different zones in the grandstand, with Yellow being the closest to the action (short of Red, for the VIPs).  We had the Yellow tickets, but we soon realised that this didn’t mean anything as no one was checking to see if people really did hold Yellow tickets or tickets of some other colour.  As a result, I think a lot of people were sitting in the Yellow zone without actually holding Yellow tickets.  Moreover, we were unable to find a seat for some time as the ushers seemed to be confused about where the empty seats were.  But this wasn’t the worst thing – what really annoyed us was that some people were reserving empty seats and claiming that they were waiting for their friends, but as the night wore on it became apparent that no one was turning up and said “people” were simply hogging extra seats so that they could put their bags somewhere. One woman and her young son took up five seats! So much for the Olympic spirit.
We tried not to let these events dampen our spirit – after all, it was the YOG and it was held in Singapore.  The stage was certainly beautiful.  Because it was a floating platform, the backdrop was the Marina Bay reservoir fringed by the tall skyscrapers, including the infamous “surfboard” that was the new Marina Bay Sands resort.  What was particularly interesting was that a large portion of the platform was partially submerged in the water.  We realised as that this was to allow the performers to wade through and achieve some rather stunning visual effects, such as the opening act that featured performers making Olympic rings in the shallow water.  It was all rather clever.

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The next few performances, however, were a bit dubious.  One of the acts featured the origins of Singapore.  Coming hot on the heels of our National Day celebrations the week before, it was all a little dejavu.  DC felt that we were watching the National Day celebrations part deux.  Yet another performance was labelled “Monster”, and had a huge monstrous puppet that was operated by 20 people as the centrepiece of the stage.  I think the idea was to convey how the youngsters are able to face their fears and conquer them to achieve future success, but somehow the props seemed a bit too frightening for some of the audience.  The last performance that was a bit controversial featured a young girl who was told by her mother not to play with fire, but gleefully ignored her and proceeded to set the whole stage on fire.  While this made for an excellent visual spectacle, I wonder what sort of message the organisers were trying to send here.

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Fortunately, a few other performances managed to produce a decent effect.  One example was the glowing dragon that arrived by boat and waded through the shallow water.  The dragon’s body was actually comprised of a horde of performers.  It was very impressive.

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Yet another performance that was apparently very visually appealing was the arrival of the Olympic flame on the back of a glowing boat shaped like a phoenix.  Unfortunately my vantage point was a bit off, so I didn’t manage to get a good look at the phoenix boat or the dozen dragon boats that flanked it.
Finally, it was time for both the Singapore and Olympic flags to be raised. I found it rather impressive and was even more wowed when the wind picked up such that both flags actually flew during the raising ceremony!

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And the flame being lit was of course quite something.  I think the flame tornado idea is awesome.

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And finally the Olympic torch was light and here it will burn for the rest of the games.

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Overall, the opening ceremony left me with mixed feelings.  Personally, I think some things could have been done better, such as the organisation and seating arrangements.  These are things that are absolutely essential, and we were let down.  As far as the performances were concerned, I think they were very much a matter of personal taste and while I didn’t agree with some acts, I don’t think the performers can be faulted.
I am aggrieved at one thing in particular though.  And this was the release of hundreds of helium-filled plastic doves into the air when the Olympic flame was lit.  While it was indeed a very lovely sight that elicited gasps of appreciation from the crowd, the lack of long-term perspective galled me. We were close enough to see that the plastic being released into the air was the plastic-bag variety, which will have to come down at some point and end up in the sea, contributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and posing a dangerous hazard to the sealife.  Great environmental message that the organisers are trying to send to the world’s youth, particularly at an event that celebrated youth and the potentious future ahead. It was simply appalling and I can’t condemn this enough.  To me, this event was ruined by one very stupid act.
Not a good start for the world’s first YOG.