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Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia

One of our favourite channels on TV (besides FoodTV, of course) is the OLN, especially the Pilot Guides series. A few weeks before we left for Washington DC, coincidentally, the channel happened to show an episode in Virgina which focuses on the Historic Triangle of Virgina which included Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown. It is that episode that had us change our itinerary to include a day here.

The Colonial Williamsburg is located about 2.5 hours south of Washington DC. It is quite a distance seeing that one would need a total of 5 hours of driving time in all. The drive was pleasant and with the GPS it is easy to find.

Visiting Colonial Williamsburg is more of an educational trip than anything. So, if you have kids like ours who had zero interests in anything older than 6 months, then this is NOT a place to bring them to. The primary reason for the creation of Colonial Williamsburg is to educate the people of the origin of the idea of America before the days of the American Revolution.

Williamsburg was the former colonial capital of Virginia. It was the center of the Virginia Colony government, culture and education of its time. The entire area you see above had been painstakingly restored to it’s original condition as it was in the early 1700s. Its restorations began in the early 1900s and today about 85% of the Williamsburg capital’s buildings had been restored. Today, the entire area is a living museum.

This being a colonial capital, the town was named Williamsburg after King William III of Great Britain.

Everyone starts the trip to Colonial Williamsburg at the Visitor Center. There is a free movie here that helps all visitors understand the issues of the day — the life and struggles of those who remain loyal to the King of England and those who desires independence.

Although a one day trip would be sufficient, there are many who spend a few days here together with visits to the other nearby historic towns of Jamestown and Yorktown.

The tour options were plenty. It took us a while to decide what we wanted to do.

Although you could visit and walk through Williamsburg for free, you will not be able to pop into the buildings unless you have a dated pass.

The map was handy. You will want this as a reference as you walk through Williamsburg.

There is a regular shuttle bus that brings us to the historic site. Williamsburg is located in a secluded area from the modern part of the town which is important because you do not want to hear the sound from the highway or see the top of a modern high rise building while in Williamsburg, do you.

You get to stroll down the street. Some buildings are opened to public while some are not. You will know when there is a Union Jack flag outside the building that you could pop into it.

Some of the buildings serve as housing for employees and have a small discrete sign that says so. We originally thought that all buildings are opened to public and attempted to try to open a locked door to get in!

The highlight of the tour is the outdoor performances which lead you from one recreation of historic event to another along the main avenue. You should check the times of the performances if you want to catch it. I think they only show it once a day. We were not aware of this and just managed to get to the starting point in a nick of time.

All over the town there were interpreters who work, dress and talk as if they were in the 1700s. They are more than delighted to pick up a conversation with you.

There are also various tours you could join. Some of the tours you get to participate where they give everyone a role to play out.

He he he … the best part was when we visited a kitchen where they showed us the food they had in the 1700s. They are all real food, mind you and also prepared using the techniques of the time. No tasting allowed.

Is the above called the Virginia Ham?

I had no idea what these dishes are called … but just feast your eyes on them.

Some kind of pie.

This one looks really yummy, don’t you think so?

Each building that is opened to the public, you can go in and watch the people at work and speak to them on their work. I must say everyone of them was quite knowledgeable.

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Washington DC: Breakfast at Waffle House

This is the last day of our stay in Washington DC. The day was going to be spent in Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Since it was going to be a 2.5 hours drive southbound from Washington DC, we had an early start and make a stop somewhere along the way for breakfast. We knew there will be lots of eating places along the interstate, so no worries there even though we don’t know of any particular place.

We stopped at a Waffle House. I remembered going to a Waffle House once when I was in Atlanta on business and really enjoyed the food there. I blogged about it here.

I would describe the Waffle House as a greasy spoon place. Not sure about you. I mean, I see many of their customers scruffy looking, unshaven, etc. LOL! The place was so unexpectedly noisy … full of chatter. I expected breakfast places to be quiet because most people would have been still half-asleep. Not here … boy, the customers and the workers sure had a lot of things to talk about!

And I do also term Waffle House as smoker friendly. This is because they actually have a smoking section which is what you see at the row at the far end. First thing we walked into the place, we were asked if we wanted smoking or non-smoking. Suanne half wanted to turn around immediately as second hand smoke irritates her big time. It was not so bad where they put us … no hint of smoke there.

Their coffee was awesome — double thumbs up, I say. They came with the breakfast order and unlimited refill too. Great stuff.

I had the All Star Special which consists of toasts, two eggs, hash browns and a choice of sausage or bacon (I had bacon). I ordered the eggs scrambled and it was too dry for my liking. It was alright because I drenched it in ketchup anyway. I prefer soya sauce with my eggs but I forgot to pack them on this trip even though I had that on the packing list. Ketchup was a good alternative.

Wait … that’s not all. The All Star Special also included a waffle. For $6.99 which also included the coffee, this is good value for a breakfast.

Suanne ordered the Toddle House Ham and Cheese Omelette. The sausage was OK. The cheese omelette on the other hand was much better … it was very fluffy and creamy. Toddle House … know what that means? I think it refers to the precursor restaurant to Waffle House where the small outlets have no tables but just a counter with a row of stools … and that people pay with an honor system (i.e. drop the right amount on the way out).

It was a good meal … and one good measure is how your clothes smell like on the way out. They smell like grill — not smoke.

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Washington DC: Ray’s The Steaks

Jason is a Vancouver area food blogger who hailed from Washington DC. Check out his blog at Eat Vancouver. He is the one who provided us idea of places to eat in Washington DC and they turned out excellent. Of a few suggestions, he specifically mentioned of a place that is a “must try”. That place was Ray’s The Steaks.

Ray’s The Steaks is undoubtedly a hugely popular restaurant judging by the crowd. It is located on a strip mall with rather limited parking. We had to wait 10 minutes to get one spot. By the time we got a spot, someone else promptly double parked behind us and left it there even until we were done with the dinner.

I read that Ray’s The Steaks is quite spartan and it shows. Even the sign is just painted on and does not catch one’s eye at all. They even set up a drinking bin outside obviously for the customers who had to wait for a long time for a table.

Like I earlier mentioned, the place is spartan. There is hardly any decor here — just the basic tables and chairs and empty walls. Their claim to fame is their steaks … and nothing but their steaks. So everything else does not matter. Even the menu is a piece of overused xerox’d paper. Suanne and I had a good chuckle over this because we had never seen a cheaper looking menu with such high prices on it.

We got served very fast. They gave us two glasses of ice water which was what we needed.

Ray’s The Steaks do have wine and a respectable selection of that too. Suanne and I are not wine people — we erupt in sensitive rashes that lasts for days the moment we drink more than two glasses! I believe it is in Asian genes … some of you may disagree but I do think that the Asian body does not tolerate wine as well as the white’s body.

The knife looked meaner than the normal steak places. Looking around our neighboring tables we can see why — all of them have mean looking chunks of meat. The cuts are so big I got quite of a shock. I mean, I had seen large steaks but seriously not so many all around me. I thought … man, this is going to be fun. I LOVE steaks.

The free cashew nets were slightly spicy and salty. We like this.

The bread was disappointing. They served this without butter. We did not care much for the bread anyway. We were waiting so anxiously for the main course.

We ordered a sauteed mushroom side dish which costs $5. It came served in a skillet and there were so much of it too. The mushrooms were absolutely delightful with the steaks although frankly, we did not even need to order this because of the food to come.

The steaks came with two sides, also served on skillets. We were set …

The star picture of this post above was awful. Too bad. The above is the House Special we got. Since it was a huge menu, we thought we would not go wrong to order something called “The House Special”. All restaurants should name their top dish like this so that new customers would know what their top dish is.

The House Special is formally known as New York Strip Au Poivre with Brandy Mushroom Cream, Topped with Bleu Crumbles. This slab costs slightly over $30. I should have taken this picture with some perspective against a fork or something to show the size of it. It is 1.5″ thick.

They apparently takes pride in making the perfect steak. Of course when they took our order, they asked how we wanted our steak done (medium rare is what we always wanted it). When they serve us, they asked that we cut the steak and confirm if this is exactly done correctly because if it is not, they take it back to the kitchen. Oh … best!! I must declare that this piece of steak falls under one of the most memorable steak I ever had. It was huge … he he he … and after a while, it became disgustingly huge!!

The other steak we ordered is nicknamed The Signature Steak. The Signature Steak is described as “The Cowboy Cut — a 28 ounce (at least!) Bone-In Rib-Eye”. This piece is at least 1″ thick, 7″ by 4″. It came with horseradish and grilled onions. You only get a choice of rare, medium rare and medium only — apparently they refuse to make their signature dish in any other way lest it damages their reputation!

The outside was extremely charred — shuddered a bit at it because it reminded us this could be “carcinogenated”. The shudder lasted only a brief second or two … we dug in. Oh … this one costs in the region of $30 too.

This is one meal that started off with excitement over the looks of the steak but sorry to say that for us, it ended with somewhat of a disgust! It was way, way too much meat that it really puts us off. As best as we tried, we could not finish the steaks. Too much of a good thing huh?

We left this untouched.

The total damage was $88 with tips and taxes.

Seeing we had some left, they came by and gave us a box to take home the left overs. Almost everyone had their to go because of the amount of food they serve. We politely took it but when we got back to the hotel, it went straight into the dustbin. We can’t bear to look at another piece of steak … at least not for today, tomorrow maybe. Anyway, steaks are awful as leftovers.

Oh, don’t get me wrong … Ray’s The Steaks is a fantastic place. The food was awesome but it’s just that we ordered obscenely too much food. Will we go to a place like Ray’s The Steak again? Absolutely — in a heart beat … but we now know that our puny stomachs cannot take the abuse from a 28-ounce (at least!) piece of steak.

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Mount Vernon: Home of George Washington

Fourth day … we finally got wheels. We rented a car from Hertz which will allow us to travel outside of Washington DC. Besides we also needed a car to get to Philadelphia and New York City later on.

Just a bit about car rental according to my experience. You know, I think that the business model of car rental companies is not really renting you a car … it is selling you the insanely exorbitant insurance. That is where they make money. They don’t make money renting you a car for $20 a day for sure. If they stop pushing you to get their insurance, they will close down in a heart beat. Do you agree?

We never buy their insurance because we have quite comprehensive coverage anyway from one of our “driver” credit cards. In the event of an unfortunate accident (touch wood), our exposure will only be compensating the car rental company for “loss of use” but other than that they (should be) sufficiently covered by the credit card company.

Oh … one more thing. We rented a compact car. When we went to pick up the car, they tried to push me to get an upgrade for something like “$5 per day only”. I declined and guess what … they gave me the upgrade all the same. I bet they already know they don’t have a compact car on their lot and why not see if I would pay extra for nothing.

OK, I digressed … back to the actual topic of this blog … Mount Vernon … Home of George and Martha Washington.

Mount Vernon is the estate where George and Martha Washington lived from the time they got married until the day that George Washington passed away. It is in this house above that is the center of Mount Vernon.

Mount Vernon is a huge estate and it is not easy covering the entire grounds. You will need to spend almost the entire day here. So, don’t expect to just see it all in 2 hours.

Mount Vernon is located about 30-40 minutes from Washington DC. Adult entrance is $13. There are extra tours like a Winery and Cruise which costs a few buck on top of the entrance fee.

The tour of Mount Vernon started at the Ford Orientation Center where they showed a film of young George Washington.

There is also a rather interesting doll house of Mt Vernon which shows how the house was laid out.

After spending some time at the Ford Orientation Center, we picked up our audio guide and off we went exploring the estate.

Mount Vernon overlooks the Potomac River which flows all the way to (from?) Washington DC. I can see why this particular spot is one of the best place to build a mansion. Although the design of the house is not overly grand but considering that this house is over 200 years old, well, it is the best as it could get then.

The Mount Vernon house is the most popular place … long line which snakes all the way through three buildings. Sigh … no photography allowed inside. We got a glimpse of how life was during his time and particularly his favourite rooms.

They have everything here in Mount Vernon. Back in those days, almost everything is home made. In Mount Vernon, they have a building specifically for washing, for repairing shoes, for making ropes, making paints, making linens, etc. This estate is actually a little town.

I just gotta share with you a cutting edge facility that is available in Mount Vernon back 200 years ago. it is what is called a necessary. You know what a “necessary” is?

A necessary is a necessary thing. Back then there are no flushing system but at least they locate this a bit of a distance from the house. I just wonder why there are three seats … and for that matter, why they are arranged sort of facing one another.

If George Washington had not been a soldier and a president, he would have been a farmer. His estate is one large experimental farm where here they devised very creative farming techniques of its time.

George Washington died in Mount Vernon and is buried here too. The above is the original burial chambers. His body was kept here until the structure began to crumble and they made a bigger, better one.

The father of the nation is now buried in a more respectable tomb.

Next to George Washington is Martha, his wife.

We took the ($9) cruise down the Potomac River from the Mount Vernon Estate. The cruise is fully narrated. I recommend opting for this cruise as it’s actually a good chance to rest yout tired feet from all the walking around the estate.

Actually Washington DC is not that far from Mount Vernon. We could actually see the Washington Monument and the US Capitol from the ship.

After spending something like 4-5 hours around the estate, we ended up at the Education Center and Museum. It was perhaps the best place in the entire estate because (1) they have chairs, (2) they have drinks, (3) the “necessary” flushes and and most important of all (4) they have air conditioning.

For a history buff like me, I enjoyed this part a lot.

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Washington DC: Breakfast at Johnny Rockets

We started day 4 in Washington DC with breakfast at Johnny Rockets. This is going to be a day we’re going to venture outside of Washington DC. After three days in the DC area, I guess we had seen enough.

At this particular morning, we at least have more choices having just discovered the Food Court at the Union Station the day before. The food court is kind of quiet in the morning compared to dinner time but at least this food court is opened early.

Johnny Rockets is actually a burger joint. Their tag line is The Original Hamburger. Anyone know why they call themselves the original hamburger? I am quite certain they did not invent the hamburger.

Their intention is to create an atmosphere of the good old fashioned American diner in the 1960s or something. They have a mini jukebox at the table. It was just 5 cents. I popped a nickel into it, selected the song “Donna” but it did not work. Oh well, it was just 5 cents.

Got ourselves a cup of coffee each. It was pretty good … and free refill some more. All coffees should be of free refill like this — especially when they come by asking if we wanted more without us asking for it. Little things like this makes me happy.

I am not sure where Suanne got the appetite from but she ordered ‘The Works’. It is made of fried potatoes with onion, green pepper, cheese, bacon, tomatoes and ham. A delightful mix of everything. It was an excellent choice, I say.

The waitress offered to serve the chili on the side as she is not sure if Suanne will like the chili. It was so thoughtful of her.

For me, I ordered the “Eggs My Way”. It was alright … nothing to really shout about except that I love eggs (and Suanne hates them). It consists of 2 eggs, some bacon, fried potatoes and toast.

Toast was alright too. Suanne’s breakfast beats mine hands down.

The total bill came up to $20 including taxes, tips and ADDITIONAL tips. If not for the fact the jukebox swallowed my 5 cents, this breakfast is perfect. The food was alright but the service exceptional. We enjoyed a quiet unrushed breakfast … just like the way breakfast is meant to be, right?

Alright, boys and girls. I had just closed the poll. As much as chowtimes is MY blog and I get to blog about pretty much as I please but I am hearing most of you are foodies at heart. So, this is what I will TRY to do. I want to really chronicle this vacation of ours. As Suanne puts it, we want to chronicle the vacation for ourselves. On the other hand I will make every attempt to post one, maybe two, times a day so that I get over with this series sooner than later. Also, am going to interperse this series with more of our recent local food adventures. BTW, thanks for taking the time to respond to the poll.

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Washington DC: Food Court in the Union Station

By the time we were left the Arlington National Cemetery, it was already getting late. We did not want to go to unfamiliar neighborhood looking for food and decided to just head back to the hotel and pick up some food at the Union Station. Frankly, we did not care too much for food. We were just too hot and thirsty … both of us thought of only one thing — smoothies.

We did not know that there was an even bigger food court at the basement level of the Union Station. For the past three days using the Union Station, we had always thought that all the eating places were at the street level floor until I peeked down an escalator and there was it … a huge food court with quite a lot of variety of food.

Suanne and I simply need rice. If we go a few days without rice, we felt like we had not eaten at all. There were the Chinese food stall but we did not really like that … it is, as expected, American Chinese food. You know … what they call fried rice is more like soya sauce rice.

So we settled for the stall called Kelly’s Cajun Grill.

They claim is that their Bourbon Chicken is world famous. This is their signature dish. It is a large serving and consists of succulent marinated chicken.

Frankly, this looks suspiciously more Chinese than the name implies. It is just like Char Siew rice. Instead of using pork for char siew, they used chicken instead. It is a simple meal but a truly filling one.

We both got ourselves a smoothie each. You know, we rarely have smoothies normally but for the duration of our vacation, we were practically searching for smoothies everyday.

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Washington DC: Arlington National Cemetery

At the top of my list of places to visit when we were in Washington DC was, believe it or not, the Arlington National Cemetery.

I was not expecting a lot of visitors here in this sprawling military cemetery, not expecting many people would care enough anymore these days about people who died in wars long past. I guess I was wrong.

The Arlington National Cemetery is located on a hilly area across the Potomac River. It has a direct line of sight from the Arlington House and President John F Kennedy’s grave to the Lincoln Memorial. We got there using the MetroRail.

Although you could walk through the grounds, it would not be easy. For one, the entire area is huge and also it is very hilly. Many people get around on open air trolleys.

We got the tickets to the trolleys at the Visitor Center. So they are not free. Time yourself well as I recall the trolley buses stop running quite early, like 5PM or something.

I wished I had more time at Arlington. This place is so provoking especially when you take the time learning of the many sections of the cemetery.

I enjoyed taking pictures here. And it was great day too for pictures. The light were just perfect and no harsh midday sun.

The Eternal Flame. This grave is where President John F Kennedy laid. The Eternal Flame is designed by Jackie Kennedy. This is the most visited grave site in Arlington. This is also the grave that is the most strategically placed overlooking the Potomac to the Lincoln Memorial.

Just standing a short distance from JFK’s grave is a small cross and a plaque standing all alone at one corner is the grave of the brother of JFK. Robert Kennedy was assassinated just as he was to become the second Kennedy president. It was such a simple grave for a man of his stature.

Another popular place is known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. This is where they place the remains of unidentified soldiers from four of the wars that the US fought in the 20th century — World War I, World War II, Korean War and the Vietnam War.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded 24 hours a day, 7 days a week since 1937. The honor to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was given to the US 3rd Infantry Regiment and only the select few gets selected to do this. They do take this job seriously and guard the tomb no matter what happens. There was once when a deadly storm hit Washington DC and most people had evacuated the place, the guards voted to remain.

Only one guard at a time. The guard will always walk 21 steps in one direction, turn to the direction of the tomb, watch for 21 seconds and then march in the other direction. 21 steps, 21 seconds … that 21 number is based on the highest military honor, the 21 gun salute.

We wanted to also visit the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater but it was closed because of the visit by the Brazilian Minister of Defense. There was a ceremony held but there were too many people to properly see what was going on.

The Arlington National Cemetery is old having had the first grave in the mid 1800s. That shows in some parts. See that gravestone above?

There are about 300,000 graves of soldiers here who fought in every war since the birth of the United States. Many of the graves are cenotaphs like the ones you see above. Cenotaphs are empty grave for those whose remains were not found or were somewhere else.

The Arlington National Cemetery was originally the estate and mansion of the the great Confederate general, General Robert E Lee. The cemetery is named after the mansion, the Arlington House. The US Government converted Robert E Lee’s properties into a cemetery to prevent him from returning home after they considered him a traitor to have fought for the Confederates. They do that by placing graves of dead Union soldiers in the front of his mansion. Robert E Lee did not return to Arlington House after the start of the Civil War and the US Government seized his properties charging that he did not pay his taxes.

We had a great view of the Pentagon from Arlington House. It was a huge building and I think it is the largest building in the world. Does anyone know if the Pentagon is opened for tourists?

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Washington DC: Ben’s Chili Bowl

Despite the name of this post, nope, this is not about my recipe. This is about an unpretentious eating place which had turned out to be a Washington DC landmark and had been here since 1958.

We went to Ben’s Chili Bowl right after our visit to the Library of Congress. We had actually wanted to also visit the US Mint too but … oh wow … those guys at the US Mint did not allow anyone who has a camera in. They don’t care if you put it in your bag, or even take out the batteries but if you have a camera, they won’t let you in. They don’t even have lockers for you to lock up your camera. Ooops … I digressed … back to food.

Sorry if I don’t understand food like hot dogs and sausages. What amazes me is how a place like Ben’s Chili Bowl had become such a landmark of a national capital. If I am not mistaken, I recall someone (Jason?) remarked on chowtimes that the food here is over-rated. I think that observation is right. But then it is still a great place to grab a quick bite.

Judging from the looks of the place, this is certainly a local favourite. Lots of people for sure but the place is larger than the looks from the outside and the table turnaround is very quick. I see quite a lot of office workers (or at least they look like office workers) here.

I read that Ben’s Chili Bowl had always looked the same right down to the furnitures, menu and look for the past 50 years.

Bill Cosby made Ben’s Chili Bowl famous around the world. Story has that this cheap guy brought his future wife to Ben’s Chili Bowl on dates. And that is dates with a “s”. He had also often had press conferences at this restaurant. That is why there is a posted sign here that says here a list of customers who can eat here for free … and that list has two lines: “Bill Cosby” and in capitals “NO ONE ELSE”.

Oh I went into their washroom and guess what I found. They actually provide chalks and encourage customers to draw grafitti on their walls!

The above is the food that makes Ben’s Chili Bowl famous — the Chili Half Smoke. I am not sure why they called it a half smoke as I can clearly see they grill the sausages. Anyway, a Half Smoke is basically a larger, meaner, coarser version of a sausage with more spices.

It is topped with chili con carne and diced onions … lots and lots of it. It came with sides of potato chips which I wished was fries. The above costs $4.95.

Eating this is messy — really messy. They gave us an unbelievable number of serviettes. It’s like they gave us a stack of four or five for each order item we had. The Chili Half Smoke is impossible to be eaten by hands. You really want to use the fork and knife they provide.

We also ordered the $4.95 Chili Cheese Fries. This is the most wicked looking fries. You can just get your arteries blocked just by looking at it. But they were absolutely delicous. Again, you need the fork for this. You can use your hands but it will be like eating, say, gumbo with your hands. LOL!

The above Chili Cheeseburger was my order … $5. Again it came with plastic knife and fork. It certainly had lots of meat in here. What I like best about the food here is the chili corn carne used as they made them more moist and juicier (I hate dry looking burgers and hotdogs).

We washed, or at least tried to wash it down with their famous Milkshake. It was awfully thick but noticed that it was not too sweet — ah, at least they have one healthy item on their menu. LOL!

On a side note … what do you guys think of the new chowtimes look? I had been playing around with this new template the entire weekend and I like it — clean lines and I could now change the colors with just a click! (OK, I admit I am a sucker for things like this).

And, could you please take a second or two to respond to the poll on the sidebar? I wanted to take a temperature check on what I should do with this Travel series. Cheers!

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