I am the least logical travel blogger to write about Atlantic City. I’m that person you shouldn’t stand next to at a slot machine because my eyes are glazed over and I exude buzz-kill vibes. It’s not a judgment thing, exactly. Just being inside a casino bombarded by flashing lights and incessant mechanical noises makes me feel like an epileptic seizure is imminent. Which is not entirely unfounded — if you’ve read my memoir you’ll know why.
But I’ve found myself in this neon-throbbing, cash-flashing city twice in the past year, doing PR and media for sporting events. This time I head straight for the sushi bar with cell phone in hand to distract myself and earbuds ready to block out the noise. But Lady Luck is with me because I meet a chatty, handsome barkeep named T.J.
He’s a recent veteran and an Atlantic City native who was trained as a chef but should run for Mayor or at least Cheerleader-in-Chief for behind-the-scenes Atlantic City. He immediately confesses that the best food in the city is not to be found in casinos, which is why I am not naming the casino where this conversation is happening.
Instead he googles the address of a Vietnamese dive called Hu Tieu Mien Tay that he swears was written up in The New York Times as having the best pho on the East Coast. I look it up. He’s not exaggerating.
I still have my doubts. Maquest tells me it’s in a strip mall 10 miles from the casinos in a suburb called Pleasantville. And then there’s T.J.’s credibility. He claims to love Poutine so much he’s plotting a food-truck empire built around the slimiest of hangover food. But I’m a pho snob and I can’t resist comparing this reportedly authentic version to the best I’ve ever had. Which also happens to be in a strip mall on 185th street in Aloha, Oregon. So there.
The ambience might put off some. But for me, walking through a Walmart-sized Asian supermarket full of fresh green vegetables next to Hello Kitty clocks and weird Japanese candy is a good sign. The chef doesn’t have to go far for ingredients.
I order summer shrimp rolls, just in case I’m disappointed in the pho. And they’re spectacular. We grow basil in our backyard and catch shrimp from the creek out front in South Carolina but still haven’t mastered the art of rolling them together with noodles and coming out with something presentable.
When the herb plate piled with bean sprouts, mint, jalapenos and lime wedges comes out, I understand what most visitors to Atlantic City feel when they rattle the roulette dice in their hands: anticipation, bordering on immoral. This plate comes with a strange, long, ragged green herb the waiter says is tall Vietnamese cilantro. I think. That’s how authentic the accent is. He warns me it’s spicy, but I wad some into my mouth anyway. How could cilantro hurt?
Let’s just say I am relieved to cool off my mouth and lips with the steaming hot pho broth. Which is revelatory. The old man at the table in front of mine is spoon-twirling it into his mouth with much less slobber than I can muster, but he looks like he eats here everyday. I don’t get much pho practice in Beaufort. So forgive my runny chin.
And my runny eyes. I’m not going to lie. It is so good I’m crying a little. Which I’m going to blame on that weird cilantro since otherwise I’d seem like some pathetic white woman sitting alone under a vinyl painting of the Great Wall moaning to herself.
My faith in T.J. is restored. I’m never going to try the stuff but if YOU visit Atlantic City and get bored of gambling, take a chance on T.J.’s future poutine food truck. If it’s half as good as his palette and referral service, it’ll be worth the chance.
As a travel blogger and author regularly enchanted and transformed by other countries, I’ve often wondered what aspect of traveling in my own country appeals to foreigners. It’s not as obvious as you might think. We’ve got awe-inspiring natural splendors and incredible geographic diversity – but nothing a native Argentinean couldn’t find in Patagonia, or a European in the Alps or an African in the Sahara. As for history, even our 300-year old landmarks would underwhelm tourists from places more long in the tooth.
I’m convinced that the stories travelers take back from the United States have more to do with how proud (and free) we are to fly our freak flags. Take last weekend in Florida, for example. I make the 6 hour drive down I-95 to Orlando as infrequently as possible. Too many wrecks. Way too many weirdos. We were driving over a bridge in Jacksonville a few years ago when Gary noticed a white panel van, bungee-corded together, driving suspiciously slow in the left lane. Something or someone was thumping the walls of the van from the inside. What’s creepy about this story is that we both shrugged and said “Freaky Florida” – in unison – before snapping to our senses and calling in the license plate to 911.
Last weekend changed my view of Florida. My brother-in-law turned fifty and we got to Deland with a few hours to kill before his surprise party. As luck would have it, the main street of this charmingly “historic” city was reserved for Harley Davidsons. It was Deland’s “Bike Day” – the kickoff of the world-famous Bike Week in nearby Daytona. I have never seen so much muscle, machismo and flat out sexy machinery in my life. The riders today are a far cry from the Hell’s Angels that made the bike an American icon. I saw as many cappuccinos as beers clutched in the fists of baby boom bikers walking up and down the streets. The mood was more family reunion or corner bar happy hour than motor-revving tough. One couple even got hitched. The biggest surprise to me was the creativity – there were keg-powered hogs, Harleys crossed with old-time horse buggies, side car grilling stations and paint jobs that would make Michelangelo swoon. This was American ingenuity and can-do writ large. And loud.
No wonder tourists flock to America, and states like Florida. Especially when Sky Dive Deland is just up the highway. It was packed with foreign tourists spending their money with huge, skin-flappy grins on their faces. That’s what happens to even lithe, fit people’s faces when they fall through 14,000 feet of sunny Florida sky.
I’m not sure who invented skydiving, or where, but it could not be more American in spirit. All it takes to get started is renting a parachute, watching a short video and a willingness to have a complete stranger ride on your back controlling your tandem descent. Money, media and instant intimacy – followed by high-fives and beer at the “Perfect Spot” bar adjacent to the landing field.
Most of the foreigners were in Deland for an international team skydiving competition, pitching tents in the field to save money for jumps and beer. This is the “America” they’ll talk about for years. American ambassadors don’t serve in far-off embassies. They spit polish their beautiful bikes. Jump out of perfectly good planes. Smile for any camera. Raise a glass, or a can, to any celebration. America’s biggest tourist attraction is our freedom to be and do whatever we can afford, no matter how freaky.