Because You Care What I Eat

(You probably don’t.) (Care what I eat.) (But I do.)

When your coworker comes back from a trip from Europe and proceeds to describe every meal she had while you listen raptly, visualizing every spread, you probably have a problem. Or maybe she has a problem. Either way.

While scrolling through my phone photos after our trip to Colorado, I realized I had quite a few photos of the things I ate. So please allow me to take you on a short culinary tour.

First stop: lunch at the Cozy Inn.

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A coworker from Kansas casually mentioned this place. It was on the way, and we’d be passing through right around noon, so we decided to make a stop. The store is located downtown Salina. I wasn’t prepared for the tiny size. It can best be described as a hole in the wall. The store is maybe seven feet wide. The original counter, stools and cabinetry.

Two employees (one was the owner, as it turned out), stood hip to hip in front of the grill. Owner Steve Howard grilled onions and coaster-sized burgers with a practiced hand, flipping them onto slider buns, while another employee packed them in sacks of 6, 12, 18 and 24.

That weekday lunch hour the Cozy Inn door bell jingled with a steady stream of customers picking up to-go orders. We sat at the counter and opened up a tab. Anytime our red-checked wax paper was empty, Steve slid hot sliders straight off the grill into our baskets. He kept going until we pleaded with him to stop.

Kim rating: A place with a story and good food to boot. Two thumbs up.

(On the return journey, we stopped at Boogey’s, which has an extensive milkshake menu. Not my favorite and not recommended. Skip it.)

Next stop: Denver, with my husband’s cousin.

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He showed us around his remodeled ranch house with modern Dutch style, and cooked a great meal of steak, asparagus, potatoes and mushrooms.

Kim rating: Exclusive and hard for anyone else to get into. Two thumbs up.

The next stop: Bean Fosters

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I got a lavendar latte, and when I was asking about their drinks, they instantly offered me a sample of the salted caramel sauce. The coffee was good, and the atmosphere fun. Though it’s in a strip mall, it has a cozy feel. There was a large table in the center for what looked like a women’s crafting club, chatting away as they knitted and did bead work. Along the perimeter bar by the windows were college students and work-from-home types. One corner had a kids section with crayons, books and LEGOs.

Kim rating: Super chill, and my kids didn’t even break anything!

My husband’s cousin wisely recommended we take the scenic route to Estes Park instead of the freeways, and I was happy to oblige, since it meant we’d be driving through Boulder! Around lunch time, of course.

We found: Rincon Argentino

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It was so good my kids ate their empanadas and then asked for more. I got the Criolla and the Caprese and my husband got the traditional steak. The kids opted for cheese and chicken. And lo, it was good. We sat at the bar and watched them make dozens of these dreamy hand pies. That chimichurri dipping sauce is to die for. They also had flan, but I was way too full to fit that in. The whole culinary experience brought back good memories of our week in Buenos Aires.

Kim rating: Can I open a local franchise? Mainly just so I can eat there? Two thumbs up.

We forged on for Estes Park, where we ate forgettable cafeteria-style food at our accommodation. However, the day we left, we made sure to stop at Scratch Bakery, a place I’d been eyeing every time we ventured into Rocky Mountain National Park.

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Be Ye Not Like Me: split a sandwich with one you love. Or even the homeless guy down the street. The sandwiches are huge. The bread is heavenly (mine was focaccia!) and the fillings vast. Even the grilled cheese (for the kids) looked amazing. Also, we spent like $40 on three sandwiches.

Kim rating: Take me back. Two thumbs up.

Guys, we slid into Silver Grill Cafe in Ft. Collins at 1:30. They close at 2 p.m. But they were so gracious, and the 20-something waiter kept calling me “darlin'”, which was weird. All the breakfast options were good (yougurt parfait for the girl, pancakes for the boy, Mexican-style hashbrowns for the husband), but let’s be real: it’s all about the cinnamon rolls. Which I didn’t even take a picture of because we were so busy devouring them.

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All I got was a pic my college roommate texted me from the waiting area as we were coming to me her.

And they were so good I bought a 4-pack to take with us on our long drive home the next day. So. Worth. It.

Kim rating: Giant Cinnamon Rolls, my love. Enough said. Two more thumbs.

There you have it! And this concludes your brief tour of Where I Ate.

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Yet Another Motorized Vehicle Cake

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This dude turned 7 this past weekend, so we celebrated by inviting a few friends over for a water balloon fight.

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We tried to get organized, but the balloon toss quickly devolved into this:

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We followed it with our traditional donut-on-a-string eating competition and then a little limbo.

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Some of the technique was dubious, but it was all in good fun.

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As usual, the pinata was much-anticipated.

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I suppose they just love whacking things with the promise of sugar.

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When Batman’s poor head released his saccharin-filled chest, there was much shrieking and jostling for candy.

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And plenty of hoarding.

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Finally it was time to reveal the cake.

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Designing and decorating the cake is always my favorite part of a birthday.

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This time the request was for a racetrack.

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I’m pretty sure no one but me cared what it looked like.

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The kids had one thing on their minds: FROSTING!

Because donuts and candy aren’t enough.

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We finished it all off with poppers and presents, before letting them run wild in the yard as the parents arrived to pick them up.

Colorado Lyfe

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It seems like everyone in Oklahoma wants to head for the hills once summer starts. It feels like nearly all our friends and acquaintances spend time in Colorado during summer. And this year, we weren’t going to be left out.

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We had a good reason: my high school classmates were gathering to celebrate 20 years since we’d graduated from school together. When you go to an international school and then end up spread across the US and the world, you simply pick a spot and meet up. We’ve been doing it for the last 15 years and it’s always a great time of catching up.

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I feel much closer to my high school friends than I do most of my college friends; there’s just a deep bond between us because of the way we grew up. We were the minority, the outsiders, speakers of second languages, not quite fitting in where we lived but definitely not fitting in in our parents’ home countries. So we carved out our own space, our own culture.

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We may not have been driving ourselves to the high school football games on Friday nights, but we had a lot of freedom to roam around our big city in the mountains.

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We reminisced about beach trips, about class antics, about cultural references. We caught up on siblings and family and others from the community. A couple of my classmates have weathered situations so hard they take my breath away.

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It was so refreshing just to be, not to have to explain myself, at least my younger self. The older self is a little changed and has more experiences that have to by layered on top of that younger self.

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We held our reunion in Estes Park, just outside the Rocky Mountain National Park. Note to self: next time you drive up to 11,000 feet, take jackets.

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My kids were miserable but we still forced them to get out of the car and explore a little. I loved the crisp weather and mostly sunny days that we had. I can definitely see the attraction to Colorado life.

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For some reason, I’m super into scrambling up rocks lately. I love that we can get out and move our bodies.

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So that made our short little family hike and the l-o-n-g 8 mile hike that we did with classmates and kids really fun. Even if my feet were done by the end of it.

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One day we explored that little meadow above for a while, and it felt magical. But then the most-giant mosquitoes I’ve ever seen started biting my ankles.

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So I booked it back up the path to where my family was, and crashed down hard after I stepped in a grass-covered hole. Very literally: pride before the fall.

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It was a really good break: time with family, time with old friends, time in nature. It was so good to see these people again and to miss the ones who couldn’t make it.

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We just might have to hit Estes Park another time.

How to Fire Pit So Hard

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When we bought our house, I had visions of the brick pizza oven we were going to build near the back patio. Turns out, brick pizza ovens are pretty far down the list of house projects in terms of both time and money when you have a 1939 house that needs some love and repainting.

Last fall/this spring, we finally accomplished the goals of replacing the driveway and back patio. That meant the way was cleared for the fire pit of our lounging around a flame dreams.

We have a stack of cinder block left over from the last residents of our house, so at first we tried to go cheap and free. But it was ugly and I wasn’t sure the cement blocks would stand up to the heat over time. So one weekend, we go our rock on.

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The first step was to dig out and level the area where we wanted the fire pit. Start with sand for stability.

I bought three of the stones I wanted from Lowe’s, measured and figured out how many stones we’d need. I also decided three layers stones would look best. Then I beat it to Lowe’s to count out those rocks onto the pushcart, simultaneously trying to keep the 3-year-old from wandering off or crack her head open after doing too many flips on the pushcart handle.

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Next up: set the first ring, along with a level and a rubber hammer to pound them down.

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We used construction adhesive to lock those babies in place. We didn’t do this with our planter out front, and yes, sometimes the kids take a tumble off a wiggly rock.

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Then, layer and level as you go. Alternate the stone placement in a “brick” pattern. (Where one stone is centered on the seam of the two beneath it.)

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We did a final step, which I’m not sure was necessary, but gives me peace of mind. We recycled the old heat-proof bricks that were in the deteriorating built-in grill next to the house and lined the inside of the fire pit with them.

Finally, more sand to fill in all the cracks and keep things from shifting.

We spent around $100 for this project, not including the tools we already had and those heat-proof bricks.

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We tested it out and the following evening grilled some leftover Peeps.

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Awww, yeah!

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Then, even though the idea was to keep things inexpensive, I was lulled into buying four Adirondak chairs that will hold up to all this crazy Oklahoma weather. My wooden ones from last year are already cracking.

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Since then, we had approximately 12,000 inches of rain in April and our backyard alternates between pool and mud pit. And we’ve dealt with water in the basement…

But as soon as it dries out, we’ll be fire pitting so hard.

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Taffy Town

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When I was a kid, we spent many a long weekend in the town of Baños, which lies under the shadow of one of Ecuador’s active volcanoes, Tungurahua. It was probably one of the only towns near us with a tourist industry to speak of at the time. Ecotourism wasn’t a thing yet, and Ecuador’s jungle region remained undeveloped.

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When we met my grandparents there, we’d sometimes stay in a stuffy guesthouse called Gertrude’s. The waitress wore a French maid-esque black dress, frilly white apron and starched white cap. I didn’t like the food, probably because there was always a soup course, and my parents were always stressed out that my sister and I were being too loud or too wild for the old, staid owners.

My dad LOVED to joke about how the sign for the pool was missing a ‘p’, because “there’s no ‘p’ in the pool!”

It’s still not funny.

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Later, we often stayed at the Sangáy, a typical hotel with a pool, tennis courts and a billiards table. The Sangáy was near the hill overlooking the town and the waterfall that trains down its flank. Here’s where the town gets its name: the Baths. There’s a big public pool at the base of that waterfall.

In the 80s, Baños was a quiet town with an ice cream place, a sugar cane industry, a zoo, and a few adventurous German backpackers.

These days, it’s transformed itself into a eco-paradise with a side of spa-town. I was super surprised when I visited in 2008 to see the zip lines, rafting, mountain biking etc., etc., etc., places with locations along the road outside of town, and offices lining the main streets in town. Every hotel offers a spa, and every block offers quaint little restaurants.

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Swing at the edge of the world. We didn’t make this one, but my sister was there a couple of weeks ago. Photo courtesy of Kelley.

All that to say, if you are visiting Ecuador for the first time, please make Baños one of your stops. There’s something for everyone.

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We didn’t have much time there this time around. We stopped for coffee and a wiggle break atone of the many parks on the way down to the jungle.

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We intended to spend a little more time on the way back, but then this happened:

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Car sick.

I think.

And I’m sorry it happened to him, because he felt miserable, but it was hilarious having to rush to the public restroom on the plaza, scrounge for change to buy toilet paper, then have him throw up again when he came out, right into some lady’s trash can. I’m so glad I took a picture. #heartlessmom

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We popped into this Catholic church on the square that has been beautifully restored since I was there last. It’s attached to a museum and has a section on the side where people donate their crutches and other artifacts after being “healed” by using the church’s holy water.

I remember being in that church as a kid and watching a priest with a bucket at the front. Desperate people waved cash above their heads, which he deftly collected before sprinkling them with water from the bucket. They hoped for a miracle, he gave them tap water and false promises.

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Sadly, I was unable to introduce my kids to Baños’ greatest attraction for me as a kid: the promise of a warm, sickeningly sweet lump of sugar cane taffy.

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I don’t know why, but Baños is Taffy Town. Nearly every shop has a worn smooth piece of wood mounted to the door frame, where a young man strains to stretch the golden strands of taffy before quickly looping it back over the hook for another pull. For a little bit of change, he’ll break you off a piece and wrap it in colored wax paper, so you can gum it all day as you explore the shops.

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Or, you know, window shop.

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Or pet puppies.

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As a kid, I loved that stuff. (The taffy, not the puppies.) And my mom would always complain about how bad it was for my teeth. But my dad would sneak me a couple of hundred sucres (RIP old currency) so I could get some.

They also sold sugar cane juice on the street corners by the bus station. And little bags of freshly cut and peeled sugar cane that I loved to gnaw on.

Hmmm. In writing this, I’m suddenly realizing I exposed my children to none of this. Our fru fru lunch in a trendy coffee shop with boutique coffee from an eco farm and a trickling fountain in the corner did not expose my children to any of these glories.

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We also had to skip the zoo, which since my childhood has been transformed from a sad little spot at the top of the town to a somewhat magnificent animal sanctuary on the side of one of the ravines overlooking the river. You can literally watch the condors (Ecuador’s national bird, with a wingspan of 25 feet) soar.

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You’ll also make friends with the monkeys, jaguars, toucans and Ecuador’s most famous residents (apart from Julian Asange, I guess): the Galápagos turtle.

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When I was a kid, these roamed free in the dirt-packed center of the zoo. For a small fee, you could sit on its back, and a “trainer” would coax the turtle forward by stringing it along with a piece of pineapple. Unbelievably cruel, I’m certain, but very fun to say you’ve ridden a turtle. Today, the turtles are safely behind a fence, and no pineapple inducements are allowed.

Make Baños a part of your Ecuador itinerary. There’s plenty of lodging, and definitely look into all the adventure tourism options around. And I suppose you could spend a little spa time, as well. There are tons of things to see, do and experience.

Authentic Life at Iñaquito Market

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Let’s start with the colorful.

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Growing up, a trip to the capital city meant a stop at Iñaquito market for fresh fruits and vegetables was likely.

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Then later, my mom or the lady who helped around the house would hit the market up weekly for produce. There was always the typical grocery store, but Iñaquito was different in that these women were selling what they or their community had grown themselves. It was high quality and super fresh, right from Ecuador’s growing region a little south.

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Before, the outside of the market was peppered with indigenous women carrying a length of rope. For a little money, they’d tie your basket to their backs follow you through the market as you made purchases. Then, basket full, they’d follow you to your car and help you unload. I didn’t see any of those women on this visit.

In the past 20 years, the market has gone from a dark cave laden with the smells of over-ripe fruit and meat to a bright and clean place with orderly stalls.

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Outside, small stores ring the central market; before they used to be filled with flower-seller after flower-seller. But these days, more and more flowers are being exported for greater profits, and the outer stores now sell candy, crackers and cheap Chinese-made goods.

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Even if you’re just visiting and don’t need to shop, a quick walk around the market is worth it for the true experience. (Hang on to your wallet, though.) You’ll see the huge variety of Ecuadorian produce at it’s finest. And if you do decide to make a purchase, definitely haggle over the price. And if you buy a lot, ask for a “yappa”, or a freebie, kind of like a baker’s dozen.

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