Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Thai Pepper

Location: Ashland, OR

Food: Thai

Close To: Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Oregon Cabaret Theatre

Thai restaurants have attained a foothold in American cuisine in the past twenty years, and they range from inexpensive places that offer takeout (such as Lotus Thai Bistro) to more upscale restaurants whose offerings transform and uplift common favorites like Pad Thai. If you want to combine first rate Thai cuisine with a show at OSF for an unforgettable evening, Thai Pepper in Ashland is an excellent option.

Thai Pepper’s menu items are a combination of twists on common Thai menu items and its own interesting creations. Seafood (especially shrimp) sees a lot of use, including in its tiger rolls ($10), won ton rolls stuffed with crabmeat and cream cheese served alongside a sweet-spicy chili sauce. You may have tried this as “crab golden bags” or "crab rangoon" at other locations, but the two-bite size, graspable shape, and appealing plating makes the dish more appealing. The chicken satay skewers ($13), served with peanut sauce, are also an excellent choice.

For the main course, diners have a host of diverse options. Many restaurants offer pad thai, but Thai Pepper’s version ($17 with chicken, $19 with shrimp) emphasizes tangy citrus notes, especially lime. Thai Pepper also offers a number of specials; one of the most common is a rack of lamb glazed in soy sauce and served with a platter of vegetables ($27). The lamb is cooked perfectly, with the smoky notes from the sauce combining well with the tender texture.

More meat-heavy dishes include the Evil Jungle ($18), a coconut beef curry served over a bed of cooked spinach. The fresh spinach provides a contrast to the savory beef flavor. If you prefer curry, there are a number of options ($16 to $19), all made with fresh vegetables and served with a delightfully sour cucumber salad.

Thai Pepper's vibrant atmosphere is part of what makes it such a great dining experience. Housed in a two-story building overlooking Ashland Creek, you can have a nice dinner in the more social bar area, go downstairs for a quiet, intimate space, or enjoy your meal at a heated table outside. Even when in a hurry to get to a play,

For those of you whose vacations in Ashland are largely taken up by theatre performances, it can be nice to take a break from your busy schedule and enjoy some good food. When it comes to upscale Asian cuisine within walking distance from the theatre, there’s no better choice than Thai Pepper.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Rogue Valley Morning Trip

If you’ve signed up for a lot of shows at the Oregon Shakespeare festival, it can sometimes feel like you can’t stray very far from town. On a day you don’t have a matinee, it can be fun and relaxing to take the ten-minute drive to the nearby towns of Medford and Central Point and experience their great food and attractions.

Your first stop will probably be two neighboring buildings that both offer a lot to taste, Lillie Belle Farms Artisan Chocolates and Rogue Creamery. Lillie Belle, built with a small storefront adjacent via window to the chocolate production area, specializes in a wide variety of rich truffles ($2 each). They offer a tab service, so you can pick and choose your favorite truffles at leisure and eat them fresh, right there in the store.

Some of my top picks for truffles incude: The Añejo cup, filled with tequila cream and lime and topped with salt; the fleur de sel lavender caramels; candied orange peel dipped in chocolate; pyramid-shaped piña colada bon bons; delicate absinthe ganache chocolates, with a  hint of anise flavor; and of course the incredibly rich Madagascar chocolate ganache. Their flavors change rapidly, and with over 20 to choose from, you will have a hard time making a decision (or leaving!)

Rogue Creamery offers a number of fresh cheeses but specializes in blue cheese, the powerful savory notes of which are perfect after your half-hour eating rich chocolates. (They don’t necessarily have to be separate, though: The two food stores have collaborated on a sinful blue cheese truffle!) The store offers eight to twelve varieties of cheese to taste, alongside their signature blue cheese powder, which is great on a large number of foods. My favorite is corn on the cob.

The store isn’t limited to cheese, either – they carry food from all over the Rogue Valley. There’s fresh-baked bread, fig and blackberry preserves, salami, beer, and soda. If you want to have a nice picnic around Medford or in Lithia Park, you could do worse than to stock up on your favorite food at the Rogue Creamery.

If you’re looking for a more substantial meal, you could try Great Harvest Bread Company in Medford. Though technically part of a chain, the bakery has become a part of Medford’s community, winning twelve consecutive awards for Best Bakery from the local newspaper. Great Harvest bakes five or six different types of bread each morning, many of them very dense and chewy. For all-purpose uses, I prefer the honey whole wheat, but for straight eating with a little butter, the Cinnamon Chip is the best.

Great Harvest also offers a variety of cold and hot sandwiches. My personal favorite is the grilled cheese ($5.65, with optional add-ons), which – in an evolution of the already excellent grilled cheese formula – adds a garlic and herb spread. Their impressive bakery counter makes it hard to pass up a dessert to end your meal.

After eating, you might want to pay a visit to the Crater Rock Museum in Central Point. Many different minerals are on display, including a black-light section for naturally luminescent rocks. There are also regular lectures and a section for art made with semi-precious stones. The museum is small, but you could easily spend an hour or two wandering through its rooms and marveling at its displays.

A half-day out in the Rogue Valley is a great break from attending shows. If you find other places you like to go to, mention them in the comments. Building your own Ashland traditions is part of the fun of the trip!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Palo Alto Players: Chinglish

Joyce F. Liu and Chris Mahle. Photo courtesy Joyce Goldschmid.

Comedians since Plautus have used misunderstandings to make audiences laugh. For nearly as long, unskilled playwrights have overused this technique, dragging scenes out far longer than they need to be or unnecessarily obfuscating the characters’ viewpoints. However, David Henry Hwang’s cross-cultural comedy Chinglish uses the comical misunderstanding with a master’s stroke. There is a point at which the main character, after describing several incredible Chinese-to-English mistranslations, stops, saying “I could go on, but…” Indeed you could, and thank God everyone in this play goes on just enough to keep it moving.

Misunderstandings – cultural, professional, and romantic – are at the heart of Chinglish, which combines a rollicking comedy of manners with a mid-scale boardroom drama. Former Enron salesman Daniel Cavanaugh (Chris Mahle) attempts to sell his family’s sign-making services to  a small (only 4 million!) town in China, but faulty translators, political corruption, and a whirlwind affair with a minor political official causes the business trip to slowly devolve until it stands at the edge of disaster.

Mahle’s Daniel Cavanaugh is a very interesting comedy character, a composed businessman who quickly falls apart when dealing with his Chinese clientele. The main characters in most comedies are either stoic straight men or wacky pratfallers, but Mahle switches his character’s status as frequently as the numerous English-Mandarin bilingual characters change their language.

Other notable cast members include Jeffrey Sun as Minister Cai Guoliang, a nepotistic government official. Sun plays his character as externally fun-loving but internally calculating, not because he’s necessarily sinister but because he’s found he has to make compromises to get ahead in politics. Cai is played up as the villain as well as a remnant from China’s prior Cultural Revolution era, but he faces his eventual comeuppance with a stoicism rare for antagonists in a straight-up comedy.

Joyce F. Liu plays Xi Yan, a vice minister who begins an affair with Cavanaugh while simultaneously trying to get his signs to go through. Liu’s performance here is excellent: She simultaneously occupies a position of power while having to act like a clown to get Daniel to understand her. Liu will make you laugh while you shake your head at the poetry of language dashed against the rocky shore of understanding.

The Palo Alto Players rendition of Chinglish is a fun, punchy comedy that’s extremely rare in both its tone and its excellent quality. It only lets jokes go on for as far as they are funny, and the mistranslation-based humor stays fresh and interesting for the entire performance. It runs for another three weeks, and if you have the chance to see it, you should definitely go.