Berlin's Better Philly Cheesesteak

Last week my friend Tom and I went on a hunt for some good Philly cheesesteak here in Berlin. He grew up near Philly, and we became friends when we were both living there, so we are pretty discerning when it comes to cheesesteak.

The Bird

We first tried The Bird (Kottbusser Damm 95, right by U Schönleinstrasse) which has a lunch special: Philly cheesesteak, fries, and a drink for 8.50€. Tom and I split one, since we knew we'd be having a second cheesesteak in short order. Verdict? Decent, but didn't scratch the Philadelphia cheesesteak itch. The fries were pretty good, and there were plenty of them.

The cheesesteak was on a hamburger bun (though they use English muffins for their burgers, so maybe it's their thing?) and therefore not cheesesteak-shaped. Traditionally it's on a longer Italian roll, or at least what people in Philly call an Italian roll. The meat was good, but very chunky instead of being more thinly sliced. The green peppers you can see are a nice touch, though we didn't ask for them. I can't even remember what kind of cheese was inside.

Hamburger Heaven Kiosk

Our second stop was Hamburger Heaven, of which there are two. We went to the one at Graefestraße 93, which is basically a food stand with some outdoor tables. Dress warmly if you're going in winter! There you can get 6" cheesesteak for 6€ or a footlong (12") for 8€, so we got a big one and split it.

Berlin Philly cheesesteak number 2!

A photo posted by Powen Shiah (@polexa) on Oct 10, 2014 at 6:53am PDT

This one reminded me a lot more of the cheesesteaks of yore. It was cheesier, it was in a long, crunchy roll, it had onions and peppers, and came wrapped in paper. Needless to say, both of us were much happier about this cheesesteak.

Since I've only been to two places, I can't call this the best Philly cheesesteak in Berlin yet, but of the two I've tried so far, Hamburger Heaven's is better by far. But in neither place do you need to worry about how to order a Philly cheesesteak properly. There weren't any options.

Crowdfund it: My Sister's Documentary to Circumnavigate Taiwan; End Big Money in Politics; Chicken Soup for the Social Entrepreneur

HuanDao: a modern exploration of identity

My younger sister SueAnn has launched a really exciting project to document the journey of riding through the entire island of Taiwan, where our parents emigrated from. Instead of backpacking through Europe or journeys of self-discovery (says the 30-year-old on sabbatical) like recent college grads do, she's put together a meaningful way to explore identity and the differences between the US and Taiwan. You don't have take my word for it, here's the fancy Kickstarter video:

If you want to find out more (or want to read it in Chinese!) SueAnn and her fellow producers have put together a great multilingual website about the documentary: HuanDao Documentary

Rooster Soup in Philadelphia

This is the best kind of social entrepeneurship that I can imagine — taking the waste (who knew there was such a thing as chicken backs?) from Federal Donuts as the base for another endeavor, Rooster Soup, creating jobs and profit to support the work of the non-profit Broad Street Ministries. Best of all, it's happening in the city-of-my-heart Philadelphia, which is an amazing laboratory for great ideas like this one.

I just chipped in $20, and I can't wait to pick up my 3 donuts the next time I'm in town.

MayDay PAC

I'm a little bit behind the curve on this one. MayDay PAC has been flying around the internet, its idea being to end the influence of big money in politics by using money to help candidates win who support getting money out. It's already hit the $5M goal, but I just threw a few more their way, since every dollar is being matched by some wealthy altruists -- putting their dollars against their own interests for the public good.

Here's a video, and if you prefer reading, a write-up on MSNBC.


Housing in San Francisco got you down? Our house is looking for a roommate from August to May 2015

Another creative re-subtitling of this famous scene of Hitler blowing a gasket from Der Untergang (Downfall) has been making its way around the web this week, this time as he tries to find a place to live in San Francisco.

House Valencia is looking for a subletter!

You're in luck! My wonderful roommates and I are looking for someone to sublet a lovely sunny room from August 2014 - May 2015 (10 months). One of us is going to grad school, so you could be the one to join our merry home. It's a 4-bedroom 2-bathroom top floor apartment off Valencia Street (at 22nd) in the Mission. 

Update: photos of the actual room

It's $1000/month for the furnished room, including utilities and wifi. The roommates are 29, 30, and 35, and we request that you have experience living with housemates. No pets, please.

Update: better pictures of the rest of the apartment and building

If you're interested, or know someone who is, get in touch! Please include some information about yourself, but if you're serious about house-hunting in San Francisco, you'll already have figured that out.

The sweet reward of a recipe "translation" well-done: banana bread

With a couple of bananas making their way from ripe to too-mushy-to-eat on my shelf in the kitchen, I decided to dust off my recipes and try my hand at banana bread.

Two things that are different about baking and cooking in Germany. First of all, they use metric units like grams and milliliters, which is to be expected. Second of all, and this catches me off guard every time, they don't use volume measures in their recipes, e.g. 3 cups of sugar, 2 teaspoons of salt. Instead, most recipes call for a certain number of grams of flour. To make things even more confusing, baking powder (Backpulver) and baking soda (Natron) usually come in single-use packets instead of in jars or containers, so while an American recipe may list 2 tablespoons of baking soda, a German one might just say two packets of Natron.

My very simple banana bread recipe (courtesy of my friend Miler) looks like this:

  • 1/2 cup of oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 3-5 bananas
  • 2 cups of flour
  • 1 teaspoon of baking soda

Converted into metric and weight units, this is what I ended up with, using the guidelines on this handy reference "the Metric Kitchen":

  • 120mL of oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 200g of sugar
  • 3-5 bananas
  • 240g of flour
  • 7-8g of baking soda (1 packet)

(Mix oil and sugar, then add eggs, then bananas. Make sure it's all evenly mixed. Add flour and baking soda and mix until completely blended. Bake at 375*F / 190*C for about 30 minutes)

The main thing that takes some getting used to is that volume to weight conversion depends on the density of the substance. A cup of sugar weighs significantly more than a cup of flour, so when converting, you have to find the right table for that ingredient.

After overthinking this, I went into the kitchen and actually started getting ready to bake, when I discovered that there isn't a scale! Instead, there's a giant measuring cup with markings for how much volume is approximately how many grams... so after taking the time to convert from volume to weight, I wound up using volume to approximate the weight anyway!

Here's how it looked part way through baking process:

I'm not enough of a baker to know how important the exact ratios of the ingredients are, but it tastes to me like the banana bread turned out fine. It tasted especially delicious fresh out of the oven.

Can you imagine being in love with someone for several centuries?

That's the premise of this movie featuring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as vampires, if it has a premise at all. I won't bury the lead, I enjoyed watching it. But the caveat is, there isn't really that much plot or explanation, things happen but they don't really drive the story in any deeper way. Mostly, I simply found it beautiful to watch two fascinating characters interact who have been deeply, spookily (quantum) entangled with each other for hundreds of years. Movies without action-driven plots seems to be my luck these days, since that's how Boyhood felt too.

If you haven't heard of Jim Jarmusch's latest film, here's a trailer to give you an idea.


Tuesday night, I finally had my wish of going to one of the outdoor movie nights that pop up in Berlin over the summer. This particular one was set up by Nomaden Kino at ://about blank, which I've also been meaning to go to -- the club hosts the monthly (twice in June) Homopatik party. If we had gone the night before, Nomaden Kino had shown Only Lovers Left Alive at Badeschiff which is a pool on a ship (or from the pictures, it just looks like a pool in the middle of a river).  Also potentially a neat place to see a movie, right?

I swear I had listened to some group of people on a podcast talk about the film. After I saw it, I tried to find some mention of it in the show notes for any one of the many Slate podcasts that I listen to, but to no avail. I started to doubt that I had actually heard anyone review or discuss it, but then I remembered someone rhapsodizing about the scenes in the movie where Tilda Swinton dances. I don't think that's the kind of memory or discussion I would construct. Unfortunately, podcasts are difficult to search through, and even a publisher like Slate that does a pretty good job of documenting everything that gets mentioned seems to have let this one slip through the cracks.

In which I meet an old friend and finally see the enormous Tempelhof Park

As I've mentioned before, Berlin has an old airfield which they've just decided to keep as public open space instead of building more housing.

Yesterday, I met up with my friend Mehregan who spent a year as a volunteer in Philadelphia and Camden. Since she lives pretty close to the Tempelhofer Feld, we decided to go there, and it was really was amazing to finally see the what airport turned park looks like.

It's a huge open space with a small community garden off to one side of it, but the rest is really just an enormous grassy space where people can hang out, picnic, barbecue, and relax. It was very sunny and hot yesterday, and I would have liked to sit partially in the shade, but there are no trees (yet)!

Even though Mehregan and I haven't seen each other in years, it felt like we were able to pick up just where we left off and talk about the really important and meaningful changes and conundrums going on in our lives right now. It feels really amazing to be able to do that, and in the middle of an enormous former airplane field under a brilliant blue sky was a gorgeous place to do it.

Lost in Translation: English and "Chinglish" in Taipei

I wasn't looking for instances of mistranslated signs when I was in Taipei in April, so when I went digging through all my photos for this post, I didn't find many photos of noteworthy or particularly amusing uses of English. A few of these are classic Chinglish (more examples on the very popular Engrish site), others I just thought were funny.

On the ATM

"Attention! The gangster may use the english operation interface to cheat you"

This message recurred over the course of my trip, but not every time I tried to use an ATM. This particular ATM when I was quick enough to snap a picture was in the Guang Hua Digital Plaza. Each time, It made me wonder, who is this gangster? Do they just mean thief or con artist? In Berlin, the signs at the public transit ticket remind us to be aware of "tricksters." How is this gangster going to use the English operation interface to cheat me?

On park signs

"Danger: Deep Water"
"No Release Any Animals"
"No Fishing"
"No Toast and Cracker"
"No Littering"
"No Bicycle"

This is the classic example of Chinglish, confusing rules on signs in public parks. This isn't a very good one though, since almost all the strictures make sense, except for "No Toast and Cracker," and even that one makes sense if you look at the picture – it's just about not feeding the fish. I'm going to charitably assume that people were releasing animals into the pond, prompting the authorities to include that rule. 

On construction sites

"all design endeavors express the zeitgeist"

This is not exactly poorly translated, it just seems very high-brow for what is basically gussied-up scaffolding. It would make a good debate resolution, if you think about it... who wants to take the negative?

In bookstores

"Dictionaryies"

I feel a little bad for pointing this one out, since spelling mistakes can happen to anyone. It seems particularly egregious though, given the word that is being misspelled, and the fact that it is in a fancy English-language bookstore in the mall at Taipei 101.

On monuments

"Visiting the Chungshan Steles in addition to the powerful character being profoundly fused with the essence of chirographic beauty, we feel an awe-inspiring righteousness flooding in our chests and emerge out of a sentiment to model ourselves on martyrs and past sage's spirits to share themselves with the life of all creatures, carrying forward the cause and forging ahead into the future, so as to set an immortal foundation for the country and establish a peaceful world for all ages."

They said a lot in that one sentence, I don't need to add any more.

My thoughts on Boyhood, the 12 year film project by Richard Linklater

Last night, I went with Thomas Weigelt to see Boyhood at Kino International. Boyhood was directed by Richard Linklater, who also made Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013) starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (NB: I've never actually seen this movies, but I keep hearing about them and I really want to).

The first thing about the movie to pique my interest was reading that it was filmed over the course of 12 years with the same actors, in particular the main protagonist Mason, who is played through the entire film by Ellar Coltrane. It's an impressive long-term project, considering how everything in media feels like it's moving faster and faster, with shorter lead times and quicker production. It's a totally different category, but I had a similar feeling of temporal disconnect when watching Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom, which premiered in June 2012, dealing with real events which took place a little over two years before the airing date.

The Verge did a good job going over all of the neat twists and turns that came about from filming over 12 years, if you want to find out more. 

The song in the trailer is beautiful and fits the feeling of the movie perfectly. I've been listening to it on repeat for hours every couple weeks, and somehow I still haven't gotten tired of it. It's Hero by Family of the Year, and here's the original video:

The last bit that I was really curious about is to see what the movie had to say about growing up, about adolescence, and being a boy in America today. I think masculinity and manhood are underexplored topics in mainstream US discourse, and I really wanted to see what this film had to say about it.

In that respect, it was a disappointing film, but that's why I shouldn't make movies. By avoiding shining the spotlight directly on the socialization and education of boys into men, Boyhood is a better piece of art. There were no big turning points in the story, no huge decisions that altered the course of Mason's life. Without being overly preachy or having a pat message about the meaning of him growing up, Linklater put together a compelling, beautiful, yet strikingly normal story of a boy from age 5 to 18. There were funny parts, a few scary and sad parts where I was really worried about what was going to happen to the family, but no crazy reveals or plot twists to keep me on the edge of my seat like your normal summer blockboster. In fact, it's a testament to the acting and the storytelling of what a non-story that I got so into the lives of a fictional family that I couldn't bring myself to go to the bathroom at any point in the 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Patricia Arquette plays Mason's mother, and she is an amazing character and actress whose presence underpins the entire movie. Olivia ("Liv") is strong, weak, loving, confused, and terribly human. She does the best job she can raising Mason and his sister Samantha, making hard choices and doing her best to provide a good home and pursue her own dreams at the same time. While her evolution from single mom to twice-divorced college professor is only peripheral to the focus on Mason's life, it's the one I admired and sympathized with the most. Ethan Hawke who plays Mason's father has his own interesting development over the course of the movie, but it's not nearly as fraught or compelling as hers.

I definitely recommend going to go see Boyhood. It's long, but it's worth the time. There are no huge plot twists or anything really to spoil -- it's not that kind of story. It's meant to be enjoyed, and it left me with a lot to think about what it means to grow up and be responsible for creating your own life.

Final note: Kino International is a really interesting and beautiful theater. It was designed to be the place where film premieres were held in the former East Germany, so it only has one screen and it has some 50s/60s fancy decor inside. They yelled at me for taking pictures, so this is the only one you'll ever get to see: