Wednesday, September 30, 2009

City Night Magazine Pizza Review

During our marathon summer in UB, Nathan ate some pizza, and then he wrote about it for City Night magazine where the editor-in-chief for the English section is a former Peace Corps Volunteer. Click on the thumbnails or read the copy here.

"Za" in the Mongolian language is a word used much the same way Americans use the word "okay."

UB Pizza: Taking Za to a Whole New Place

Do you know where to get a good slice of pizza in UB?
That is the question I asked around town when I came in after thirteen months in my countryside soum center of Bayankhongor, where pizza is not a real restaurant option. I like pizza, and in the States, I especially go for non-franchise, local shops that work hard to provide good pizza for a thrifty budget. I also occasionally respect specialty pizzas that take a chance to be more than just crust, sauce and cheese. Fortunately for me and those who like pizza, Ulaanbaatar has something for everyone if you know where to look for what you like.

Where did pizza come from before it wound up in UB?
I will let the historians and food anthropologists fight over the exact details, but topping flat breads with oils and other ingredients has been part of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern diets for centuries. The modern version that has been adopted as perhaps America’s most favorite food, though, is fairly young and owes its roots to Italy.

As the famous story goes, an Italian baker named Raffaele Esposito created a dish to impress a visiting King Umberto, and his wife, Queen Margherita in the late 1800s. He achieved this by topping his flat bread with the national colors using red tomatoes, white mozzarella cheese and green basil. The monarchs were complimentary of the dish, and it was heavily copied. As with the office Canon, the copies of copies of copies started to become new things all their own.When Italians began immigrating in large numbers to the United States in the early 1900s, they brought their national dish with them to large cities like New York and Chicago, where they morphed to meet the differing demands. But it was not until after WWII when GI’s, who counted on the food to supplement their rations in wartime Italy, came home with hankerings for their familiar cheese-topped chow, that the dish really joined the national diet.

What makes a pizza a pizza?
Sometimes called simply a “slice,” a “pie,” or “za”, it is a whole meal in one dish. It is easy to make, it has a wide variety of nutritional necessities, and even when it is bad, usually it is still pretty good.
For me, pizza has to have a flat baked dough, sauce, cheese and toppings. With those general guidelines, almost anything is possible.

The basic varieties to look for in the States, depending on your tastes, are the New York style flat pizza in its many incarnations, mostly characterized by wide, thin, and foldable slices. There is the also flat but cracker crust variety typically made in brick ovens, which come more sparsely topped, are generally much smaller and are considered by some to be a more gourmet option. On the other end of the spectrum is the Chicago style that typically has a super deep, doughy, buttery crust and is generously topped. Chicago’s culinary cousin, which is not to be forgotten, is the square or rectangular-shaped Sicilian style pie with a tomato sauce on top of the cheese.

You might also find various varieties of white pizzas where the sauce is made of butter, cheese, milk, flour and heavy on the garlic, or the younger barbeque and Buffalo wing pizzas that use those sauces as their base under the cheese and other complimentary toppings.
No matter how you slice it, everyone has their own definition of the perfect pizza. The key ingredients of crust, sauce and cheese leave room for imagination, and that room takes pizza to an all new place: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where I visited all the best pizza places as they were recommended to me by friends and strangers.

Pizza Romano – mutton on the Hawaiian, delivery, decent price, showed up hot, no English
In the interest of experimentation, I ordered a Hawaiian pizza for delivery from Pizza Romano. This is my wife’s favorite variety, so throughout our years together I have eaten my fair share of this adaptation, though this was the first time I ever had mutton beside my pineapple. I appreciated the sweet flavor of the fruit and the pizza showed up piping hot from the driver with ample sauce, but nothing will erase the unexpected taste of sheep meat from my mouth’s memory. Also curious about this particular convenient way of getting dinner straight to my door was that even though the menu was in English, no one on the other end of the phone spoke any English. So, if you want to enjoy a slice of hot pizza in your house clothes, brush up on your address and directions in Mongolian before you call.

Nayra Café – good price, lots of options, good amount of cheese, undercooked, limp crust
Especially for the price and variety of options available, I like going to Nayra Café located on Tourist Street. Their pizza offerings are not the best in town, but they are good. They now have a petite pizza that provides the perfect portion for a lone eater looking to fill up or two light eaters, making it the best value among the UB eateries I visited. They also recently started serving beer by the bottle for those who enjoy a cold one with their hot pie. As is common among UB pizzas, though, the pizza was a little undercooked leaving the crust a little doughy and the cheese too limp. Even still, this little café holds its own against the big guys. Go to Nayra if you want a comfortable vibe with good, laid back English speaking staff, but keep in mind that you may not find the perfect pizza.

Marco Polo – bland, brick oven, overpriced, white pizza option, little sauce, biggest disappointment
Probably the most disappointing pizza trial I wrapped my taste buds around was at Marco Polo, near the circus. For my preference, the pizza was simply bland. The brick oven margherita had a good thin crust perfectly suited for this style of pizza, and the toppings were fresh. Those qualities aside, there was not a hint of garlic, oregano or anything else resembling flavor. If your palate is less demanding of these spices, this could be your place for a nice evening out. And for the lover of the unorthodox white-sauced slices, Marco Polo has your pizza too. If you are an American looking for a taste of the old familiar from the mother country, you could do better to save your tugriks for tastier food.

California –pretty good, 10% VAT, good size but moderately overpriced, great cocktails
California has some pretty good pizza. For the price and the 10% value added tax, you might want to suck down one of their many tasty cocktail options first as to better tolerate the equally high price tag. Rich with fresh ingredients, a respectable amount of cheese, and a relatively full fluffy crust, this pizza is not quite worth it when you consider more affordable options elsewhere. You might better enjoy some other menu items as California also churns out good salads, various chicken fair, burgers, and Buffalo style wings. This restaurant, on Seoul Avenue a few blocks east of the circus, is a good option if you have money to spare and enjoy a somewhat formal but relaxed atmosphere.

Pizza Broadway – pretty good pizzeria atmosphere, well prepared, relatively expensive, lacks pizzazz
I visited the branch of the UB franchise, Pizza Broadway, tucked in a comfortable cave-like basement on Peace Avenue, just east of the state department store. They have quite an extensive menu of pizzas and the deepest crust I found around town. The service here was uncharacteristically attentive, catering to mostly foreign patrons with wait staff that spoke English well. Disappointingly for me, I had to wait almost an hour and a half for a pizza that was promised in twenty. As my tablemates sat around ready to leave, they mercifully allowed me to sample their cold remainders while my waiter apologized for pizzas after pizzas that went to other tables full of customers who had arrived a full hour after I did. Kitchen blunders aside, I was afforded quite the sampling during my wait, and what I found was reliably decent pizza that just lacked pizzazz. No bite I chewed underwhelmed me, but for the price and the pomp, it did not overwhelm me either. Pizza Broadway is a pretty decent pizzeria.

Pizza del la Casa –good price, English speaking staff, good pizza, root beer
Pizza del la Casa on Peace Avenue was heralded by many as THE place in town for a good slice of pizza, and is credited as being the first real pizza option. The atmosphere with brick accents over the doorways, hand-painted Italian accents in the corners, and various Italian food items displayed within cut-outs in the walls, is a was a little forced, but actually quite reminiscent of a 1960s style New Jersey pizzeria, which I ultimately decided was a plus. Besides that, the pizza was pretty good too, though I did not feel the menu items were that strong. The vegetable pizza I ordered was topped with spinach and broccoli that were both quite fresh and tasty, but once again, they took it out of the oven just a few minutes early leaving an actual layer of uncooked dough just under where the sauce should have been. I was really expecting spectacular pizza here based on the recommendations, though really it just met the middle of the pack. The saving grace for my meal, I felt, was an ice cold glass of root beer. Go to Pizza del la Casa if you want some decently priced, passable pizza with an eclectic American-inspired ambiance.

Granville – surprisingly good, cheese perfectly browned, crust perfectly cooked, tasty
A favorite place for me and my friends to dine is the relatively new Irish Pub, Granville, just north of the Flower Center. Though the restaurant more resembles an Applebee’s or TGI Friday’s or wannabe sports bar rather than an Irish pub, Granville provides diners with ridiculously large portions, as you might expect in an American-style casual fine dining establishment. This enclave has a plethora of delicious options, including a surprisingly awesome pizza, which until recently, I had unfortunately overlooked for the head-sized burgers and buy-three-get-one-free cocktails. The Granville pizza I sampled sported perfectly baked cheese that was beautifully browned and hardened on the surface, and it still managed to retain the stringy elasticity I expect from a good mozzarella smothered pie. Underneath, the sauce was sweet and flavorful and the fresh toppings were even and sparse enough not to overwhelm each bite. It was simple, good and a moderately priced option with the characteristic UB-style thin, flat crust. Sporting a decent menu and friendly atmosphere, Granville’s got some good pizza.

No matter what you prefer on your pizza, it seems UB has its own style. UB pizza tends to be a little doughy and limp, and the sauce is conservatively served up underneath cheese that is usually removed from the oven before a splotchy, deep brown layer sets in. Despite this characteristic style, I look forward to a UB that is able to incorporate truly deep dish, buttery Chicago-style and the unorthodox Sicilian style pizzas. These heavier versions have a hearty quality that the thin, more pedestrian pies, cannot quite deliver.

I only tried the pizzas that were recommended to me, and despite some deficits, there are surely some good pizza options among this group for the differing palates among the international travelers, foreign expats, and both countryside and urban Mongolian pizza enthusiasts. There are more out there to discover for yourself, though, so ask around and find that perfect pizza – za yu [ok]?

Thanks to:
Brian O.
City Night

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bayankhongor American Culture Center Opens!

Excerpts from the grant we helped Tysen and Oyuntugs write:
"The Bayankhongor American Culture Center (BACC) is the brainchild of Oyuntugs, PCV Tysen Dauer’s counterpart. She noticed that Bayankhongor Aimag [Province] lacks a public English education center and adequate English resources. Community members have requested several English based classes. Over twenty five Bayankhongor residents requested a TOEFL preparation class. There have been over two hundred fifty requests for English courses ranging from elementary to advanced conversation classes... There have been numerous requests for English literature, TOEFL resources, computer classes, English language films, American popular culture magazines, and above all a safe and engaging space for Bayankhongor youth.

"To address these needs, Oyuntugs approached the aimag government in January 2009 about acquiring a space for the BACC. The local government has given the BACC two rooms in the aimag government center and has promised to provide rooms in the future Children’s Palace, which is currently being built in the aimag center. [At the time of the grant], the BACC [had] limited resources: four sets of benches, five tables with broken legs, a small desk, and a blackboard. Resources are being accumulated through additional grants. These resources include books, DVDs, CDs, music scores, computers, internet access, and electronic English language learning programs."
From the grants, we were able to get all of these items, paint the room, install electricity, and have desks, chairs and shelves made. And this made for a great atmosphere for the sample classes we taught during Saturday's open house.

PCV Peder and his counterpart teach a lesson together during the open house.

(Left) New PCV Wally teaches with his counterpart, Boldmaa, the head methodologist for the aimag. (Right) Students actively participate during a class.

The open classes were well attended, but the opening ceremony was the highlight of Saturday's events. Our Peace Corps Country Director Jim Carl flew in special to offer his remarks. He was set to come to Bayankhongor for a routine, periodic site visit and was able to arrange his schedule to accommodate our needs. He and one of the medical officers, Amy, stayed in a hotel in Bayankhongor for 5 days.

(Left) Peace Corps Country Director Jim Carl makes his opening remarks praising the work of the community and emphasizing that this is just the beginning of a new step toward bringing the USA, which is often referred to as Mongolia's third neighbor, closer to Bayankhongor. His counterpart representing the provincial government reinforced the same.

Nathan's counterpart Undrah, who has a commanding voice and personality, was the master of ceremonies. Here, he is making notes.

Leslie accompanies a group of students on "This Land is Your Land."

(Top left) A performer from the 4-member group, Baby Girls, from new volunteer Anna's school, stands in her school uniform anxiously awaiting a resolution to technical difficulties for her song and dance to "Eternal Flame". (Top right) Dancers from Tysen's business school danced to an upbeat number you might hear behind cheerleaders at an American sporting event. (Bottom left) A Mongolian dancer from Leslie's theater cuts an impressive rug. (Bottom right) Undrah holds the microphone for a student from Leslie's theater who is playing the horsehead fiddle or "morin huur".

Jim Carl and a Mongolian girl cut the ribbon to open the Bayankhongor American Culture Center on September 19, 2009.

A Special Thanks
We called out to our friends and families to show us Americana. With their help, we were able to print and display over 260 photos on the wall of our culture center. Here are some of the highlights:

Please check out all the photos here and here.

Thanks to our professionals:
Eric George
Piper Robbins
Rob Shore
Ashlee Christian

Thanks also to our keen-eyed amateurs:
Melody McFarland
Lydia Godfrey Donovan
Melissa Munoz
David and Melissa Reeder
Paige Robbins Elwafi
Cat Kruszka
Kristen Chamberlain
Mary Lou Chamberlain
Kendall Glouner
Cipperly Good
Jen Sokira
Nancy Nally
Bonnie Gruttadauria
Cynthia Rack

(Top, bottom left) Attendees gawk at the photo wall courtesy of our friends and family. (Bottom right) Students, teachers and Peace Corps volunteers and Peace Corps Country Director Jim Carl pose to commemorate the opening of the culture center.

Classes began this week, and the third consecutive week of American Movie Night hosted by Leslie, is set for this Friday! You can come, but just a warning, it will be packed like last week.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

MST 2009

After we finished training all the newbies, it was our turn to get together with our training class of M19s to discuss our successes and challenges during our first year at site. To date, we have been here just over 15 months - three months of training, and a full year in Bayankhongor (pr. "buy-in-hunger" for those scoring at home).

This three-day mid-service training (MST) was also designed as a working retreat to help us recharge our batteries. Thankfully, the budget our Peace Corps office requested for this gathering was accepted, and we were actually treated to a pretty decent few days in Terelj National Park, just outside of UB. We had some good food, meaningful collaboration, and believe it or not, one of Mongolia's two golf courses.

Thanks to Garrett for most of these pictures.

The driving range left a little to be desired, including a fence to keep out the animals and a machine for collecting the balls.

It wasn't exactly the best course ever, sporting hard as brick artifical greens, but beggars can't be choosers.

Fellow PCVs and great fellows, Brian and Patrick joined Nathan and Garrett for the walk and some picture taking. Their golf-like commentary was hysterical, especially Brian's, whose dual citizenship as a Brit grants him a native British accent - twas perfect for a day at the links whilst on holiday.

The skins game was spit almost even with Nathan upping Garrett by one. All 6 balls were lost in the impossible rough, which led to only eight of the nine holes being successfully completed. but who's counting?

During our down time one evening, there was also a Settlers of Catan tournament. It's a board game kind of like Risk meets Monopoly launched from the mind a super nerdy German guy in the 1990's. It was a blast, and though Nathan was knocked in the first round, Leslie and our site mate, Fahd, made it to the finals in this double-elimination extravaganza.

Thanks to Amber Barger [white sweater, bottom right] for these pictures and for organizing the tournament.

But it wasn't all fun and games. We spent from 9-4 everyday meeting in various small groups discussing our last year and developing strategies for next year. Despite the concerns from some of the Mongolian staff that there was a lack of strict structure, this open format proved to be really worth while and worked extremely well for us. Sections of the day were used for sector-specific meetings, fundraising/grant writing, safety and security, cooking, mental health, and of course, the Mongolian language.

Leslie, Patrick and Garrett have a silly moment during an otherwise very productive Mongolian lanugage session.

Leslie enjoying the cooking demonstration/class with Matt (with the hat) and Evan (with the classes) put on by the medical officer, Paul (kneeling, far left). Thanks to Matt for the photos.

All and all it was a great way to get new project ideas, and the much needed rest and relaxation gave us great energy coming back to site. Thanks to the Peace Corps Mongolia staff for a well orchestrated event from start to finish. Year number two at site is officially off to a good start.