Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream! Cottage Pie! Fishy Green Ale! (What ELSE I ate at Harry Potter World)

Given that my post about what I ate at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2014 is still one of my most popular, I figured I should follow it up now that I’ve just been back–and visited the newer section of Diagon Alley. There were many new treats to try, both of the delicious and the eyebrow-raising variety, and with the help of my trusty husband and our voracious kiddo, I sampled as many as I could.

(First, though, I should probably just point out that visiting Harry Potter World on a rainy, 40-degree midweek in winter and on a sweltering Friday at the peak of tourist season in July are two vastly different experiences. Still, despite the crowds and the sweat, we had a great time even at the height of summer.)

We began the day in Diagon Alley, and it is impressive. I’m sure you can find many photos online if you want to check it out, but I did have to share my capture of the dragon atop Gringotts breathing fire, as he does at regular intervals. (Fair warning, the fire is HOT if you’re standing under it, and my toddler screamed from the noise every time.)

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It wasn’t long before we found ourselves peckish. Word to the wise, there is no line at Florean Fortescue’s ice cream parlor at 10am! Also note that they do not give samples. They have hard ice cream and soft, and my husband got apple crumble and strawberry-peanut butter hard ice cream. Both were delicious.20170714_101321
I opted for toffee apple soft serve, which is really just vanilla with toffee and green apple flavorings swirled in. It was fine, but the hard ice cream was better, and since you’re paying crazy park prices anyway, it seems worth the extra 50 cents.
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All aboard the Hogwarts Express! Choo, choo!
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Over in the Hogsmeade section of the park, I made my best culinary selection of the day: frozen butterbeer. You may remember that on my last (rainy, freezing) visit, I only tried the regular cold butterbeer and was less than impressed. Well, frozen is a hippogriff of a different color. SO much better–like a rich butterscotch slushee. Prices on all drinks have gone up quite a bit, but I’d say this was well worth the $7.50 (especially when waiting outside in the hot sun for a show to begin on the Hogsmeade stage).
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On to lunch at The Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade. Luckily, I had remembered to reread my own reviews of the food from my previous visit, and knew that my favorite things on the menu were the potato dishes. So that’s what I ordered. This time, the seasoned wedge fries were far superior to the garlic roasted potatoes (though my kid gobbled up plenty of the roasted ones without complaint).
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My husband, who had not been to The Three Broomsticks before, got the rotisserie smoked chicken platter ($13), which came with corn and potatoes. Not exactly the most British of lunches, but we’d have much better and more British-y meals later on at the Leaky Cauldron.20170714_122618
Drink options at both The Three Broomsticks and The Leaky Cauldron now include apple and pear ciders (nonalcoholic), so we tried a pear one. Cheaper than the “specialty” drinks ($3 and change) but…meh. We suggest you save your sickles (and sugar allotment) for butterbeer and ice cream.
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Honeyduke’s in Hogsmeade is still where it’s at for candy, though they seem to have gotten rid of the amazing animatronic girl continuously puking Puking Pastilles who used to be in the window. (Probably because they now sell actual Puking Pastilles at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes in Diagon Alley, though I didn’t see her there, either.) They did have this nifty setup inside, though, showing house elves clipping black licorice strands from a man’s hair and beard. 20170714_164054

We would have loved to see the machine in action, but alas–sickles only.20170714_164057

Back in Diagon Alley, we admired the window dressings some more. Books!20170714_175016

Potions!20170714_181005

Fishy Green Ale! Wait, what?

We popped into The Fountain of Fair Fortune to try this specialty drink, which you can only find in Diagon Alley. Thankfully, it is not fishy, nor an ale (it’s nonalcoholic), though it’s certainly green. Ostensibly mint and cinnamon flavored, we thought it tasted mostly like sugar and were not terribly impressed. That is, until we got a mouthful of the “fish eggs” that live at the bottom.

I had read online that these eggs were like blueberry-flavored tapioca pearls, so I was expecting something chewy, along the lines of the “bubbles” in bubble tea. But…no. Somehow, the wizards of Diagon Alley have created supersoft little balls that explode in your mouth with a burst of fizzy blueberry flavor! The texture must be experienced to be understood. We still don’t know what they could be made of, and have decided we don’t want to find out. The toddler LOVED them, too. (We generally kept her away from the sugary drinks, but we figured these were the closest things she was gonna get to fruit all day, so we let her eat them.)  I still say the green drink itself is pretty icky, but the fish egg experience probably made it worth the $5 to try.
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At last, on to The Leaky Cauldron for dinner. Similar meal prices to The Three Broomsticks, but in my opinion, much better food. I got the cottage pie, which was filled with ground beef and vegetables with a potato top, and it was very good. (Then again, I guess all I’d eaten all day were potatoes and sugary drinks, so maybe I was just really hungry!) The salad was nice, too–not just iceberg, which is what you get at the other pub.20170714_183236

My husband got the bangers and mash, which we forgot to photograph until he was halfway through the meal. Oops! It was really good, too. Great flavor in the sausage, nice peas on the side, and a variety of roots in the veggie mix, including parsnip, which I don’t think we’d actually eaten since we were in Scotland a couple of years ago.20170714_183240

 

You may have noticed some drinks in the picture of my dinner. We wouldn’t have bothered, but we lucked into some meal coupons that included drinks, so I got a lemonade (ugh, too sweet and fake bright yellow), and against my counseling the husband tried pumpkin juice. I took a sip and it was just as I remembered, kind of like drinking a pumpkin spice Yankee Candle, but he managed to drink it down. He said it was worth the $0 we paid for it.

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So, in summary, some of the food lived up to its price in goblin gold, and some of it didn’t quite. The atmosphere of the parks is as stunning as ever, though, the rides are fun, and the shows–particularly Beedle the Bard in Diagon Alley and the Triwizard Tournament in Hogsmeade–are really enjoyable to watch.

Next time, I’ll be heading straight back to The Leaky Cauldron, Florean Fortescue’s, and anywhere I can get some frozen butterbeer. Cheers!

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Like this post? Then you’d probably love my middle-grade novels about tween restaurant critic Gladys Gatsby!

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Eatin’ and Authorin’ All Over Texas!

Hello, friends! As you may know, I spent last weekend traveling around Texas with my husband and with fellow middle-grade author Rebecca Behrens (whose debut novel, When Audrey Met Aliceis one of my absolute favorite reads this year). We did three author events together and ate a whole lot of very healthy food. Here are some pics!

Texas is known for having amazing barbecue, and we made sure to eat as much of it as possible. The first stop was Micklethwait Craft Meats in Austin.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABrisket, enormous beef rib, and pork belly sausage. A delicious start to the trip.
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Ice cream break! (Texas is HOT.) Austin’s Lick is known for having interesting, locally-sourced flavors.
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My favorite Lick flavor? Caramelized Carrot with Tarragon. Pretty sure it was my first time eating tarragon in ice cream. It was surprisingly fantastic. Hill Country Honey ran a close second.
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On to Dallas, where a big blue eye greeted us.
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Pecan Lodge is Dallas’s top BBQ joint, and probably our favorite of the trip. Gladys would have given the brisket, burnt ends, and collard greens all four stars. (Peach cobbler was just okay–maybe 2.5 stars.)
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Pecan Lodge also lets you doodle on the bathroom door. 🙂 I left a little mark commemorating our books and bbq tour.
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Our first book event was the Author Roundup at the Fort Worth Library. They set us each up with our own little station!
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Here’s Rebecca, looking adorable in her racecar dress (printed with just the type of car that Alice Roosevelt used to drive).
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Our fellow OneFour Kidlit debut author Christine Kohler drove all the way in from West Texas just to see us. Her debut YA novel, No Surrender Soldier, is fantastic.2014-08-16 13.16.45We also got to meet 2015 debut author Jenny Martin, whose YA novel is called Tracked. Here we are making a Jenny sandwich and showing off our All Four Stars temporary tattoos.
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One of the library’s copies of All Four Stars on the display table. This was my first time seeing the book jacketed in library plastic–a very exciting moment!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn Jenny’s suggestion, we headed to Roanoke, TX, for dinner: “The Unique Dining Capital of Texas.” It is an extremely cute small town packed with restaurants.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Butterfly interlude!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA And now back to food. After a whole lot of meat from Hard Eight BBQ, we stumbled over to the Oak Street Pie Company.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Raspberry-rhubarb pie. Quite possibly the best slice of pie I’ve had in my life. Rebecca said that her cherry pie was also some of the best pie she’d ever had. Looks like Classy Cakes has some competition in North Texas!PieMooooving on (heh heh) to the historic Fort Worth Stockyards…
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Where we got to see some lovely longhorns.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen on to Lockhart Smokehouse in Dallas…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhere we ate some lovely longhorns. Tasty brisket, plus sausage from the famous Kreuz Market.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFueled up on meat, it was on to Fort Worth’s Barnes & Noble for our next author event, where we teamed up with the wonderful Texas authors Polly Holyoke and K.A. Holt.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPanel time! We talked about writing convincing settings, our long paths to publication, and lots of other good stuff. 
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The next day found us back in Austin, seeking yet more barbecue. We ended up at John Mueller’s, where we had some delicious brisket (noticing a trend?), pork ribs, and cheesy squash. Thanks to Rebecca for snapping this pic of me and the mister.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a very interesting visit to the LBJ presidential library, we headed up to Round Rock for our final author event. But first, there was time to seek out the famous round rock itself!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere we are at The Book Spot with our fellow MG panelists Nikki Loftin, K.A. Holt, and Jennifer Ziegler. It was a fantastic panel, culminating in a fun trivia session with prizes.
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The trend of wonderful people traveling a long way to see us continued! Here I am signing a book for my friend Linda, who came all the way from Houston for the event.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe bookstore was awesome and got cakes for the party. They asked for one cake that said “Happy End of Summer” and one that had a unicorn on it. This is what the bakery delivered. #oopsOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA2015 debut author (and my fellow Emu!) Donna Bowman Bratton joined us for a post-panel Tex-Mex dinner. While it was hard to eat a meal that contained no BBQ, we did our best to power through.
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Texas was a blast–and I’m not just talking about the blast of furnace-like air that hits you every time you step outside in August. (Seriously, it was 100 degree every single day we were there.) Thank you so much to our fabulous co-panelists, the amazing booksellers and librarians who invited us in for events, the hard-working bbq pitmasters and dessert artisans who swelled our waistlines, and the friends who made us feel so very welcome. Can’t wait for next time!

P.S. If you are looking for a signed copy of All Four Stars, The Book Spot in Round Rock and the Barnes & Noble in Fort Worth each have a stash of them now. Happy reading!

Upcoming events in Texas, Denver, and NY!

Hi, friends!

I’ve been so busy since the launch of All Four Stars that I haven’t been doing a great job of keeping this blog updated. I’ve been doing a slightly better job on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, so do feel free to follow me in those places if you’re wanting up-to-the-minute news and pictures from my exciting authorly existence. 🙂

Or, better yet, come out and meet me in person. I have several events coming up, and you can find all of the info on my events page!

In brief, color-coded fashion: I’ll be in Fort Worth and Austin, Texas doing panels with other awesome middle-grade authors (Rebecca Behrens, Polly Holyoke, K.A. Holt, Jennifer Ziegler, and Nikki Loftin!) from August 16-18; in Denver at BookBar with Jessica Lawson and Lauren Magaziner on August 24; and at The Voracious Reader in Larchmont, NY (that’s in Westchester) with Rebecca Behrens, Lauren Magaziner, Laura Marx Fitzgerald, and Michelle Schusterman on October 20. I would love to see you at one of these events!

Speaking of events, I had two fantastic launch parties in July for All Four Stars: One at Books of Wonder in NYC, and one at Boulder Book Store in Boulder, CO. What a joy it was to share my book’s publication with so many family members and friends!

I’ll leave you now with a shot of All Four Stars, sitting pretty in the #3 bestseller spot at Boulder Book Store this week. Long may you reign, Gladys! 🙂

Boulder Books bestseller

Butterbeer! Pumpkin Juice! Puking Pastilles! (What I ate at Harry Potter World)

Foodie Kidlit Friday icon“I’m going to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter with my cousin this month!” I spent most of January telling anyone who would listen.

“Oh, that’s so nice of you,” a lot of them replied. This response baffled me at first, until I realized that they thought that my cousin was a small child whom I had volunteered to chaperone around Universal Studios. Then came the awkward moment when I had to explain that no, my cousin was my age, and that we were going to Harry Potter World… well, just because we wanted to.

Hogwarts

Whatever. Harry Potter is awesome, and Merrie and I have been wanting to check out the Universal versions of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts for years. (And as a kidlit author myself with a particular penchant for writing about food, I was especially excited to do some taste-testing of Potter-inspired foods at The Three Broomsticks and Honeydukes!) So in the last week of January, off we went to Orlando.

I would like to say that we arrived via Hogwarts Express, but apparently the track-elves are still working on the Denver-Hogsmeade line. Still, we were welcomed at Hogsmede station by a conductor, who seemed to be legitimately blown away by Merrie’s impervious (i.e. rubberized) rain pants. (The weather was shockingly British for our Orlando visit–high 30s and rainy most of the week!)

Hogwarts Express

Hogwarts castle was truly impressive from the outside.Hogwarts castleBut inside it was even better! There’s so much to see as you wait in line for the Forbidden Journey ride–such as the house points hourglasses filled with emeralds for Slytherin, sapphires for Ravenclaw, rubies for Gryffindor, and…what the heck is Hufflepuff’s stone, anyway?House points

You could stop off for a quick look in the pensieve in Dumbledore’s office.PensieveMerrie and I particularly enjoyed that the ride warning signs were provided by The Department of Magical Transportation. 🙂 Warning signCloser to the ride entrance are walls of talking portraits…Portraits…and right before you enter, the sorting hat recites a rhyme about how pregnant ladies and people with heart conditions shouldn’t get on the ride. It was brilliant.
Sorting HatIn retrospect, perhaps I should have paid more attention to the sorting hat’s warnings about dizziness. The Forbidden Journey is a thrilling, but also kind of sickening ride. Once was enough for me and Merrie.

On to Hogsmeade! The rooftop snow is fake, but it could have been real that day–that’s how cold it was.Hogsmeade

Into The Three Broomsticks to warm up. I was really hoping for a hot tankard of butterbeer, but alas, the only options were cold or frozen. I went with cold (drink on the right), and Merrie ordered a pumpkin juice and a strawberry-peanut-butter ice cream (which I believe is the flavor Harry eats at Florian Fortescue’s parlor in book 1). Butterbeer et alCheers!Tara with Butterbeer

Okay, honesty time–we were actually pretty disappointed with everything in this first order. The pumpkin juice was refreshing at first sip, but tasted more and more fake the more we drank of it, like artificial pumpkin-pie-flavored Kool-Aid. The butterbeer tasted kind of like cream soda with a thin butterscotch-flavored foam on top, and for me, once the foam was gone, so was the novelty. And the ice cream tasted mostly like peanut butter, which isn’t a bad thing, though it was frozen so solid that we really had to dig at it with our spoons.

We finished the ice cream because…well, it’s ice cream, but couldn’t make it to the bottom of either of our drinks. Alas.

But the pub atmosphere was great, and it sure is fun to eat in a place where Butterbeer is on tap!Butterbeer on tapThere was also a giant Butterbeer truck in the street. I bet that it’s really popular on non-freezing days.Butterbeer truckOn to Honeydukes!Honeyduke'sPossibly my favorite window dressing in all of Hogsmeade: an animatronic doll continuously puking a sheet of puking pastilles into a bucket. 🙂Puking pastillesWhile I thought that the prices at The Three Broomsticks were pretty reasonable for a theme park (specialty drinks around $3 and change, full meals $8-$15), the shops are definitely where they aim to get your galleons. Almost every candy package at Honeydukes cost at least $10. Still, it was fun to see so many items from the books–like Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans.
Bertie Bott's Every Flavor BeansThere were huge chocolate cauldrons filled with marshmallow…Chocolate cauldrons…and, in the bakery section, cauldron cakes, which apparently have about five different types of chocolate in them.Cauldron cakeMerrie bought a chocolate frog, which comes with a cool pentagon-shaped wizard card inside. The frog is just a massive, solid block of milk chocolate, though, and it’s pretty hard to crack apart and share. (However, packages of much smaller peppermint toads were available, and Merrie hacked the system by refilling her chocolate frog box with toads so that her kids could open it up and enjoy them without getting frustrated by the giant frog. That’s an engineering mind at work right there!) Chocolate frogMy haul from Honeydukes: Bertie Bott’s Beans and a chocolate cauldron for my students, and ton-tongue toffee for my husband. (Sadly, it did not turn his tongue into a three-yard-long purple snake–but it was sort of shaped like a giant tongue and did have a ton of calories!)Candy haulHere’s Merrie in front of Hagrid’s hut. Which, honestly, was a little nicer than I’d pictured it! Note the giant pumpkin in the yard.
Hagrid's hutHey, it’s lunchtime–back to The Three Broomsticks! I opted for the Cornish Pastie lunch, which included three hot little meat pies and an enormous iceberg lettuce salad. Lunch at the Three BroomsticksThe pies were good (mostly because they were hot). The salad was a salad. Merrie and I lamented that your meal does not magically float up through the table like it does at the Great Hall feasts in the books. That would be some good technology–er, I mean, magic.

At Harry Potter World, The Hog’s Head is actually just an extension of The Three Broomsticks, but I did appreciate the enormous head behind the bar!Hog's HeadAnd the head on the tap. I’m not sure what actually comes out of this tap, though. Anyone know?Hog's Head TapOh, look–it’s students from Durmstrang and Beauxbatons! Apparently they sometimes do an acrobatic show, but the stage was too wet for them to perform. 😦TriwizardWhile there were plenty of school scarves and hats and other expected apparel you could buy, what surprised me most was that you could also get Hogwarts cheerleading uniforms. Funny, I don’t remember cheerleaders in the books (though I can only imagine the height they could get on those basket tosses with the aid of a wingardium leviosa charm!).Hogwarts cheerleaderMerrie insisted that, as a writer, I take a picture in front of the quill shop. Thanks, cuz. 🙂Scrivenshaft'sIt was still freezing that afternoon, and we were hungry again, so we decided to give The Three Broomsticks one last try. We ordered two potato side dishes: the seasoned fries and the garlicky potato wedges. Both were really tasty, and this visit got our biggest thumbs up of the day. Potatoes at The Three BroomsticksI’ll wrap things up now in a different section of Universal, outside the Dr. Seuss bookstore. A perfect place to take a picture with your cousin: note the quote!CousinsDespite the weather, and the nauseating ride, and the “meh” drinks, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter didn’t disappoint us. The level of detail put into the buildings and atmosphere was really impressive, and I’m sure that once the new section opens up this summer, it’s going to be even better. I’ll probably skip the pumpkin juice and Butterbeer next time, but I wouldn’t mind having some of those hot potato snacks right about now. Hooray for Harry Potter!

**UPDATE: I returned to Harry Potter World in 2017 to try frozen butterbeer and eat my way through Diagon Alley. Read my updates here!**

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Like this post? Then you’d probably love my middle-grade novels about tween restaurant critic Gladys Gatsby!

***

A Quest for the Best Burger in L.A.

Foodie Kidlit Friday iconWhen you write books about a made-up restaurant critic, sometimes you get the urge to channel her and do a bit of critiquing yourself. Which is why my husband Andy and I decided to fly to L.A. over Martin Luther King weekend and eat as many different hamburgers as we could. 🙂

This whole crazy idea came about last year, when I tagged along with Andy on a work trip to L.A. I put out a call online for restaurant recommendations, and ended up with a lot more recs for burger places than I would have expected. There wasn’t enough time to hit them on that first trip, but Andy and I vowed to come back and eat at as many as we could in an effort to find L.A.’s best burger. Our friends Katie and Jason, who live in L.A., immediately agreed to join us, and a quest was planned!

Your judges:

Andy & Tara

Andy (financial professional) & Tara (children’s author)

 Jason & Katie

Jason (TV writer) & Katie (environmental communications expert)

In three days, we managed to hit nine places, running the gamut from humble fast food shack to high-end French bistro. I know that this doesn’t even begin to be comprehensive (I’m already compiling a list for next time!), but it made for a decent sampling.

So without further ado, here’s where we went and what we ate!

Stop #1: Hole in the Wall, Santa Monica
Burger base price: $8.95

Hole in the Wall is a cute little fast-casual place with a decent-sized outdoor patio.
Hole in the Wall

(And a mission statement!)
Hole in the Wall interior
You order using a handy checklist. Andy and I kept things pretty basic, though we did go for the pretzel bun and the cranberry mayo, which sounded like the most fun of the spread choices provided. Katie and Jason got cheese on their burger, and tried the mustard pickle relish.

Hole in the Wall menuThe burger:
Hole in the Wall burger

Verdict

Meat: I found the meat to be juicy, and Katie said hers had “solid char.” Andy thought the meat was on the mushy side. Quoth Jason: “It was good. I liked it.”

Bun: Everyone loved the pretzel bun, though Katie said the bottom of hers got a little soggy and that the cheese was poorly distributed.

Condiments & toppings: Andy and I found the cranberry mayo to be lacking in flavor, even when eaten on its own without a bite of meat. Katie and Jason gave the mustard relish a big thumbs up, though. The lettuce and tomato were fresh enough, though no one found them remarkable.

Worth mentioning: The fries were solid–worth ordering. Also, Hole in the Wall had a great assortment of shake flavors (including peanut butter and malt), which, sadly, we did not try. But they also has a fridge full of awesome-sounding soda flavors, including Shirley Temple soda, Cheerwine, and various cream sodas. I just had to get the praline cream soda from Louisiana. It was a little scarily sweet, but I appreciated the opportunity to try it.

Hole in the Wall soda

Bottom line: We all gave Hole in the Wall a solid for its burgers. We would return if we were in the neighborhood, though we probably wouldn’t drive across town just to go. The pretzel buns and fun beverage selection give it an edge.

Stop #2: The Apple Pan, West L.A.
Burger base price: $7.10

The only thing more adorable than the outside of The Apple Pan…
The Apple Pan
…is the inside of The Apple Pan! It’s just one giant counter (and in the middle of the afternoon, well past peak lunchtime, we had to wait for seats).
The Apple Pan interior
But while you wait, you can gaze into the back kitchen, where rows and rows of deep-dish apple pies wait to be cut up.
The Apple Pan pies
The menu features two “original” burgers–the Steakburger and the Hickoryburger–so we had to try both.
The Apple Pan menu
Burger cross-section:
The Apple Pan burger

Verdict

Meat: These are thinner, smaller burgers than most of the other entries out there. While no one found the steak burger remarkable, we all agreed that the hickory burger had excellent flavor.

Bun: No one was very impressed. Comments included “generic” and “not substantial enough for all the condiments.”

Condiments & toppings: The condiments were overwhelming, exploding out of the sandwich to make this our messiest burger-eating experience. The relish had an interesting flavor, but everyone agreed that there was way too much of it, and the delicious hickory burger was almost drowned in ketchup. As for the toppings, Andy said “I liked that there was half a head of iceberg in my burger. I could have taken the extra home to make a salad later.”

Worth mentioning: The beverage selection was poor (no shakes or interesting sodas). The pies looked amazing, though, and it wasn’t until we were a neighborhood away in the car that we realized we really should have tried a slice while we were there. Our mistake.

Bottom line: The Steakburger got a B- from everyone, while the Hickoryburger’s grades ranged from B- to A- for an average grade of B/B+ (terrific meat surrounded by lackluster everything else). However, The Apple Pan gets an A for atmosphere, and we’d go back to try some of that pie, at the very least.

Stop #3: Father’s Office, Mid-City
Burger base price: $12.50

Atmosphere-wise, Father’s Office is pretty much the opposite of The Apple Pan–very slick and modern. (Though, like at The Apple Pan, you order at the bar/counter!)

Father's OfficeFather’s Office makes a lot of “best burger in L.A.” lists–but the thing is, they won’t do any substitutions. And since Andy doesn’t eat cheese (and I don’t like melted cheese), that meant that their famed burger (which contains gruyere and blue cheese, as well as bacon and arugula) was untasteable for us. And by the time we got there, Katie and Jason were burgered out, so we didn’t end up having a burger there at all.

We couldn’t pass up dessert, though. Here’s the gingerbread ice cream sandwich with pumpkin ice cream (looks kind of like a burger, no? 🙂 ) And even better was the sticky toffee pudding a la mode. YUM.

Father's Office ice cream sandwich
Verdict

Nice desserts and beer list. Couldn’t try the burger, so if you’ve had it, feel free to weigh in in the comments.

Stop #4: Stout, Hollywood
Burger base price: $11

Stout, which focuses on burgers and beer, was a late addition to our first-day agenda…but a great one. Read on.
StoutThis is a sit-down, table-service place, though it’s not fancy or fussy. And while you can’t mix and match toppings here, you can have them removed, which is what Andy and I did to the cheese on our choice, the “Truffle Shuffle.” Jason had his burger mojo back by this point and went for the “Goombah,” while Katie sampled the bean-and-quinoa a veggie burger.
Stout menu
The “Truffle Shuffle” burger (minus cheese):
Stout burger

Verdict

Meat: Comments from the meat-eaters included “juicy,” “delicious,” and “solid.”

Bun: This is a tall, substantial bun–very aesthetically pleasing in its perfect roundness.

Condiments & Toppings: Stout eschews the typical lettuce/tomato/pickle for its own custom topping combinations–and we think they should keep at it. The sauteed mushrooms and truffle aioli on Andy’s and my burger was terrific, and Jason loved the combination of cheeses and prosciutto on his.

Worth noting: Our side of sweet potato fries was definitely worth ordering–a good “crunch to softness ratio” as one of our tasters (okay, I) put it. The beer and wine list is extensive and was enjoyed by Katie and Jason; Andy and I would have liked to see more interesting nonalcoholic options, but at a place called “Stout,” we weren’t going to hold our breaths.

Bottom line: Solid A- grades across the board (including for Katie’s veggie burger). As Jason said, the whole experience just worked altogether. We’d definitely go back to try some different varieties.

Stop #5: Astro Burger, Hollywood
Burger base price: $3.20

Moving now from the gourmet to the…less gourmet. We kicked off day 2 of burger-eating at Astro Burger, which Katie described as having a “Greek diner meets fast-food burger joint” vibe.Astroburger

The burger:
Astroburger burger

Verdict

Meat: “Bland,” “thin and gray,” “well-done,” and “just like a Whopper.”

Bun: As Katie put it: “average and unnoticeable.” Andy, when pressed: “It had sesame seeds.”

Condiments & Toppings: Toppings were average/disappointing: bland shredded lettuce and mealy tomato. Katie and Jason got an avocado burger, and the avocado was nice and fresh, but Katie said it added more texture than flavor.

Worth noting: Thanks to the burger’s low price, we sprung for a pineapple shake, which was fine (though not so pineapple-y). Of note, though, is Astro Burger’s extensive vegetarian/vegan menu, complete with a lot of different fake meats. (Maybe they are better than the real meat?)

Bottom line: Our grades ranged from C- to C+, averaging out to C. Quoth Katie: “It hits all the requirements, but makes no attempt to excel.”

Stop #6: Fatburger, Los Feliz
Burger base price: $4.69

On to Fatburger, a California chain. Apparently, most of them look like generic fast-food joints, but this one was very cute!
Fatburger

Well, at least from the outside. It’s hard to see the menu in this shot, but Fatburger operates on a “build-your-own” model; no special buns, but all of the expected basic topping and condiment choices are available.Fatburger interiorThe burger:
Fatburger burger

Verdict

Meat: Katie and I both found the meat to be tasty, and I liked that the patty was thicker and more substantial than the Whopper/Astro Burger style of fast-food burger. Andy, on the other hand, found it bland and said the burger taste was overpowered by the relish. Jason said that, of the fast food chains, it’s the best by far.

Bun: Andy enjoyed that the bun was toasted, and Jason said his didn’t get greasy. Katie found it unremarkable; I thought it was a step up from the average bun.

Condiments & Toppings: We all agreed that the relish was strong, and that pickles + relish is probably overkill on this burger. Next time, we’d pick one or the other.

Worth noting: Katie and I split a red velvet shake, and appreciated the novel flavor, though we wouldn’t run back for another one.

Bottom line: No one gave Fatburger the same grade; they ranged from a C- (Andy) to a B+ (Jason) for an average score of B-. Three out of four of us would come back, and I would definitely choose Fatburger over In & Out Burger (which we didn’t visit on this trip, but which we have tried twice before–I’m just not a fan).

Stop #7: Comme Ca, West Hollywood
Burger base price: $18

Oops, forgot to take a picture outside of this restaurant…or inside…or of anything but the burger. (But oh, what a burger!) Briefly, Comme Ca is a fancy French bistro where the burger–while being the most expensive of our quest–is by far the cheapest entree on the menu. It comes with skinny French fries, strong garlic aioli for dipping, and a crunchy, salty slaw as the burger’s only condiment (unless you have yours with cheese, also an option).

Le burger:

Comme Ca burger

Verdict

Meat: Ah, subjectivity. Andy found our burger to be “flavorful but a little dry,” while Katie said her cheeseburger was “fairly juicy but not so flavorful.” Jason and I both thought ours had great flavor and texture.

Bun: Everyone was a fan of the toasted and buttered bun. “No bun-sog!” proclaimed Katie. (I should also point out that, between the thick burger and the substantial bun, this is a very tall burger, which may annoy small-mouthed folks. Given that, though, I didn’t have as much trouble fitting it into my [small] mouth after the first couple of bites, and it was not nearly as messy to eat as I feared.)

Condiments & Toppings: We were fans of the salty slaw…well, except for Jason, who said “it’s not a slaw.” Though, actually, I think he still liked it.

Worth noting: The fries and aioli were delicious. If $14 cocktails are your thing, Comme Ca has plenty of them to choose from, and according to Jason, an excellent wine list. Not so much of interest on the nonalcoholic side. The one dessert we tried, a caramel pot de creme ($8) was amazing. All that said, our service was kind of off–and when I’m eating at a place this pricey (entrees other than the burger were around $30), I kind of expect the server to be a little more knowledgeable and on-the-ball timing-wise than ours was.

Bottom line: Our grades ranged from B+ to A, averaging B+/A-. Jason and I both named it our overall favorite burger, but for the group, it came in a close second to Stout. If you’re looking for a swanky evening out during which you can still enjoy a burger, this is a great destination.

Stop #8: The Habit, North Hollywood
Burger base price: $2.95

From the priciest burger of our quest to the cheapest! The Habit is another California chain, and we visited the North Hollywood location, which is in a strip mall. No picture of the interior, but I thought it was a step up in decor and cleanliness from Fatburger, while Katie likened it to a Panera or Starbucks.

The Habit

The basic burger choice is the Charburger, which comes with mayo, pickle, lettuce, tomato, and caramelized onions on a toasted bun. There are also a few other variations, such as the Teriyaki Charburger (featuring pineapple), which Katie and I tried.

The Charburger:
The Habit burger

Verdict

Meat: No one was blow away by the meat. Andy said it tasted like “a slightly less charbroiled Whopper,” and Katie felt it got a little lost among all the condiments.

Bun: “Normal.” “Unremarkable.”

Condiments & Toppings: Habit seems to go with a “more is better” condiment and topping philosophy, though Andy said that the caramelized onions on his burger were a nice touch.

Worth noting: Sweet potato fries were tasty. Shakes are available, and our malt vanilla shake was fine, though nothing to write home about. The price, however, really can’t be beat.

Bottom line: The Habit got B- across the board. (Personally, I’d rather sit down for lunch here than at Fatburger…but I’d rather be eating a Fatburger.)

Stop #9: Rounds Premium Burgers, North Hollywood
Burger base price: $5.45

Rounds is a little storefront on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. Not terribly exciting outside or inside.

Rounds Like at Hole in the Wall, you build your own burger by ordering off a handy checklist. We stuck to the basics, but chose chipotle ketchup off the list of sauces.
Rounds Menu
The burger:
Rounds burger

Verdict

Meat: Andy and I thought that the patty was juicy and had really good flavor. I liked the thickness, too. Katie was less impressed, calling both the juiciness and flavor “average.”

Bun: “Toasted.” “Above average.” “Solid.”

Condiments & Toppings: The toppings were pretty average; I wished that there had been fresh green lettuce instead of shredded iceberg. Also, while we thought the chipotle ketchup had a nice level of spice, it was too cold, even on a hot burger.

Worth noting: Drinks were uninspiring–no shakes, and just fountain sodas–and sadly, there is no public bathroom.

Bottom line: Our average rating was a B/B+. At $5.45, we all agreed that a Rounds burger is great value for the quality, and that if we were in the neighborhood, we’d make the effort to come back by. In fact, I’d be willing to pay a few dollars more for the same burger on slightly nicer premises, with a bathroom and better drink options.

***

Thus concludes our burger tour of L.A.–perhaps the first of many! Our winner overall was Stout, closely followed by Comme Ca.

Best meat goes to The Apple Pan for its Hickoryburger.

Best bun was the pretzel bun at Hole in the Wall.

Best toppings were found at Stout.

Best value was Rounds.

And for best fast food burger, Fatburger edges out The Habit.

Agree? Disagree? Couldn’t care less? Feel free to share your opinions in the comments. I’ll just say that I think we all had a great time channeling our inner Gladys Gatsbys for the weekend…and also that we’ll be quite happy not to eat another burger for a while. 🙂

There’s a Monster Inside Me!

Or, well, there was in December of 2009. Andy and I had just returned from the first leg of our round-the-world trip, but little did we know that I was carrying an extra-special souvenir from Central America…in my scalp.

I’d tell you more, but why read when you can watch? 🙂 That’s right–tonight at 9 p.m. eastern, you can watch the whole, disgusting story of my parasitic infestation with botfly larvae unfold on the Animal Planet “docu-horror” show Monsters Inside Me. There’s even a three-minute preview of our segment online!

We taped our interviews a few months ago, and in a fun twist, my sister Brooke (who is an actress in New York) was hired to “play” me in the reenactments. (The actor who plays Andy is a stranger to us, but has come to be known as “Andy 2.0” around the house.)

Here’s hoping you enjoy our national television debut–and if you have any questions about the whole process, feel free to post a comment, and I’ll answer as best I can.

Interview with Aiken Avery, author of The Disaster Tourist

Ahoy there, blog readers! (Yes, that nautical greeting was deliberate–you’ll understand why in a moment.)

The Disaster Tourist by Aiken AveryIf you follow me on Goodreads, you may recently have seen my ecstatic review for a book called The Disaster Tourist, which takes place on a round-the-world cruise and is one of my tippy-top favorite reads of 2013. But I wasn’t content merely with reviewing it and gushing about it to friends. I just had to hunt down the author, Aiken Avery, and lure him over for an interview at this here blog.

Luckily, hunting him down wasn’t too difficult, since Mr. Avery and I were college classmates (where we both studied creative writing with Ernie Hebert). And even more luckily, he agreed to share his insight and wisdom about travel, writing, travel writing, and today’s publishing options for literary novels. Hooray!

Here’s a blurb about the book itself, and my interview with the author follows. (Also, since this is a blog usually devoted to children’s literature, I should probably insert a disclaimer here that this is most definitely an adult novel, complete with strong language, queer content, and all that good stuff.)

About The Disaster Tourist:
When foul-mouthed RG boards the S. S. U. Sea for its fall semester voyage, she does so with her usual intentions: knock people down a few pegs and hopefully score some hot chicks along the way. But intentions and itineraries don’t always sync. Part international romp, part descent into madness, The Disaster Tourist follows a crew of sometimes thought-provoking, often ridiculous characters as they circumnavigate the globe on a cruise ship turned floating college. RG’s plans to corrupt her lovely, wholesome Midwestern classmate Dottie fail when she turns out not to be the simple beauty she seems. The two forge an unlikely partnership—straight with gay, principled with radical—as the climate on-board, and in the various ports of call, grows from silly to paranoid to downright dangerous. In the end, The Disaster Tourist strives to capture what it means to be an American abroad in the 21st century.

Tara Dairman: Welcome, Aiken Avery!

Your debut novel, The Disaster Tourist, takes place in so many different locations—Japan, Vietnam, China, and India, just to name a few—and you write about them so evocatively! Here are a couple of my favorite descriptions:

India was like an ice cream cone with every topping imaginable—not just ice cream ones but pizza toppings, too, salad toppings, cereal toppings, and then handfuls of dirt and sh*t thrown on for good measure.

The poor—which, from what they could tell, was everybody—subverted physics in order to balance great loads of merchandise on tiny carts and rickshaws and bicycles, Pisas of metal tins, breaching whales of straw baskets, to name only ten degrees of the surrounding three-sixty.

I was wondering how you carried out your research on these locations for the book. I believe that you’ve been to most or all of these places yourself—did you go back to journals or photographs? Rely on memory? Or did you need to look to books and the Internet to bring yourself up to date on these destinations?

Straight from the old photo album: Genbaku Dome, Hiroshima, Japan

Straight from the old photo album: Genbaku Dome, Hiroshima, Japan

Aiken Avery: I definitely appealed to my old photo albums for detail. I come away from a trip with a general sense of the place, but detail gets lost just because of the overwhelming abundance of it—especially in crowded places like China and India. In years past, writers might have needed to shell out for plane tickets to these places or bury themselves in books at university libraries (which I’ve done plenty of myself). Now, without the benefit of photographic memory, we have the Internet to help flesh out descriptions.

I’ll admit, it felt a bit like cheating, but I definitely made use of Google Earth! I could zoom in on a locale like Ho Chi Minh City and click on the icons for other people’s photos, a great feature of theirs. What does the Rex Hotel look like these days? What would a typical street scene bustling with locals look like? Now we have a wealth of evocative imagery and information right in front of us on our laptops. So yes, I’ve been to all of the countries in the book—authentic experience is still top dog—but technology helps to fill in the gaps.

TD: Follow-up question: Did you have any trouble separating your own, real-life experiences in and opinions of these places from those of your characters in the book?

AA: Like most people (I assume…), I leave a place with all sorts of conflicting feelings about what I’ve just experienced. Is India dirty and stinky and wretched in a lot of ways? Absolutely. Is it also a beautiful, diverse, fascinating place? Of course. I would go back and travel around it for a year if I was able (still barely scratching the surface). So I actually found that it wasn’t all that difficult to voice these varieties of opinions through characters; they already cohabitate, bickering in my head.

A scene on the Ganges river in Varanasi, India

A scene on the Ganges river in Varanasi, India

The really interesting question is whether or not I had trouble separating my real-life experiences from those of my characters. Fictionalizing real events, adding new people, contexts, twists—which I did often when writing this book, having gone on a study abroad program similar to The Disaster Tourist‘s “University of the Sea”—can change your memories of those events, or even replace them with the new ones to an extent. I don’t mean to say that I’m incapable of separating fiction from reality! I just mean that taking actual events and attaching meaning to them—in the way that the very deliberate process of writing always does for bare reality—can often place the fictional event even above the real one in importance. I now value my experiences much more because of what I was able to cultivate from them, if that makes any sense.

TD: Here’s another quote from the book that I loved, describing the main character, RG.

She could feel the claws of her personality climbing up the walls of her skull to predetermined places—a large, articulated crab getting into position—and then it was only through its eyes, the lenses of this refracted self, that she was able to see and act.

On paper, RG, might turn some readers off; she’s snarky and manipulative (not to mention doggedly, unapologetically anorexic). But I was completely charmed by her—just like many other girls on the ship are, and I’m sure many readers are, too. How did you come up with this complicated character—and did she take any turns over the course of the book that surprised you?

AA: RG is an amalgam of a few different people I’ve encountered: a solitary and obsessive exerciser from my college days (never knew her, but found her compelling); the beleaguered adopted daughter of relentlessly well-meaning Brahmin parents in Cambridge, MA (where I did a lot of private tutoring); and my own “Negative Nancy” inner voice. RG is a minority and a Devil’s advocate in every possible way, and as such, I risk alienating people who start reading and can’t handle her! Trust me, I worry about that.

But the intention was always for her to change, to soften and wise up over the course of the story. Really—without giving too much away, I hope—she was always meant to become more and more like her “silver linings” friend in the story, Dottie, while Dottie grows more and more (to RG’s horror) like the old, bitter RG. To say “the characters took on a life of their own” would be cliché, but yes, they changed in surprising ways—unpredictable even to me—as I slowly discovered what their motivations should be. I guess my long-term writing strategy is “plan, but in pencil.”

TD: You write such beautiful (and often twistedly funny) descriptions and observations. Here are a few of my favorites:

Her jokes were like puppies head-butting the gate to get out and play.

He’d been crying like an old man—which was to say that his eyes were completely dry over a low, trembling voice.

To go abroad, even to sail to the other side of the world, is to be taken for a walk on a leash—and then, inevitably, brought back home again.

This makes me curious about your writing process. Do the words just tend to just come out this way for you in the moment, or do you do a first draft more focused on plot and focus on the language later?

AA: I can’t say I’ve never written a passage and then thought of an improvement—either to the plot or to the language—later on. An advantage to undertaking big, novel-length projects is that you have as much as a year or two for all of the best “improvements” to occur to you, sometimes well after the first draft. But for the most part, I focus on the language and the tone as I’m writing for the first time, not later. I’m glad you liked the head-butting puppies comparison—I came very close to ditching that one!

TD: You self-published The Disaster Tourist as an e-book rather than pursuing traditional publishing. Can you share what led you to choose this path, and how it’s working for you so far?

AA: At the time I was writing my first novel (a yet-unpublished Civil War story), self-publishing was basically taboo. In most cases, doing so meant that you had tried traditional routes and no agent or publisher would touch you, so you must have written a dud. The only recourse for duds was self-publishing. I used to go so far as to say that I would rather not publish at all than self-publish.

However, as I was writing my second book, the Kindle was introduced, and e-books really took off. Opinions both in the industry and among laypeople have shifted pretty dramatically on the subject of self-publishing, so a writer no longer has to pray for a big publishing house to discover his needle status in the haystack of the “slush pile.” He can be much more proactive about getting himself noticed: by taking the book to market himself and by proving, sometimes in a big way, that customers are indeed lining up with dollars in hand. I’m still learning the ropes, but I hope my marketing campaign will do just that.

Well, Aiken, I’m with you in hoping that many, many readers discover this incredible book!

To that end, here are a few links where you can purchase The Disaster Tourist:

Amazon * Barnes & Noble * Kobo * Google Play

You can also find the book via the iBooks app on iTunes–and other digital formats (including optimized for laptop, if you don’t have an e-reader) are linked on its Facebook Page.

Thank you so much for this interview, Aiken Avery! And readers, if you end up reading The Disaster Tourist, please let me know–I’m dying to find some more folks to discuss it with. 🙂