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A ONE-HOUR RACE AGAINST ALCOHOL

October 26, 2014
This station contained Sakes... and MORE

Just us, a glass, and a lot of alcoholThe list of available beverages practically covered the sheet! I was horrified. Every few feet was another station manned by a smiling attendant. More alcohol to try. My hand holding the empty wine glass trembled. My two-wine-glasses-a-week liver hissed. Yet everyone was laughing and chatting.

My more alcohol-tolerant friends had invited to this event at South Tampa’s ABC Fine Wine and Spirits. For only $10 (including a souvenir glass) a large variety of alcoholic beverages were available for sampling—Vodka, Sake, Beer, etc—and Wine of course. As a budding wino, I jumped at the chance to learn from the more experienced. The parking lot was packed! Luckily this ABC location was bigger than most of its sister stores and much more clean, modern, and new. With an hour left to the event, BF Shoes and I stumbled inside late… we had a lot to experience in a little time.

With only an hour remaining my group took on the perimeter stations beginning with the lone Beer table. With a half dozen Craft choices, I made sure to try Harpoon’s Pumpkin Ale (gotta stick with the season’s offerings although I would’ve preferred a stronger Pumpkin and Spices flavor) as well as a Swamphead Smoked Porter (keeping it local now). A smaller handful of popular cold Sake like Nigori and Rei followed. Suddenly these tasted much stronger and smoother and began my descent into dizziness.

This station contained Sakes... and MORE

This station contained Sakes… and MORE

Sweet Red CatSeveral Cabernets (like Handcraft and Justin), Moscatos (Risata), and Merlots (darn I don’t remember) found their way into my glass. Each station was well-stocked with water pitchers to rinse out glasses as well as Bread to rinse out mouths. The attendants were patient, courteous and allowed us to discover our own tastes without pushing their particular brands. I’ve begun recognizing and appreciating more the little nuances in differing Wines (so that means I’ve graduated past the newbie stage) but there was no way to truly appreciate everything I tasted that night. Blame it on the lack of discussion between my friends after each sample, or no teacher telling me what to look for, or even too many styles and flavors in a short time period, and definitely blame it on the subtle countdown making us rush to try as much as we could during the time remaining.

Yet I could hear the volume from my friends growing louder as the hour flew by. More giggles escaped my throat. Maybe I couldn’t fully appreciate the tasting but I was having damn good fun! Another Cabernet by Belle Ambiance was followed by the sweet Red Cat. My more alcohol-weakling BF ran off to try and ease his liver with a snack from the Firehouse Subs station.

My two standouts from that night were the Orange Flavored Vodka by the local Florida Cane as well as the Apple Pie Moonshine by Ole Smokey. The Vodka had a great candy Orange flavor with a very mild Vodka taste—I would totally sip this during a party but this would also be great as shots. The Moonshine was insanely smooth and really tasted like Apple Pie—I imagined sipping this during cold holiday evenings. I don’t sip much Vodka or Moonshine so this was very new to me.

Three flavors of Moonshine to try

Three flavors of Moonshine to try

Well done ABC. I’ll definitely do this again. My Vino knowledge level actually grew and I met new people along the way because many of the tasters were eager to strike up conversations. Most important my friends and I had a great time. Next time I promise not to race against the clock and sip time slowly too.

ABC Fine Wine and Spirits Tasting Event
3015 W Kennedy Blvd, Tampa, FL 33609
Date of visit: Oct 23, 2014 6pm-8pm

Before and after taking a candy-tasting shot called "Porn Star" Whew!

Before and after taking a candy-tasting shot called “Porn Star” Whew!

Thanks for reading my Pyra-dise. I’m an experiencer. Not a foodie or a traveler. Follow this local explorer’s experiences at…
Twitter: @Pyra_Danny
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Fotki Photos: Pyra-Ako

HOWLING AND SCREAMING AT THE CURSE

October 7, 2014

Pouring rain, drifting fog and a crowd full of zombies, clowns, and man-eating plants couldn’t stop me from having fun. Howl-O-Scream just reeks of that giggly atmosphere all under the guise of a CURSED theme. Scary? Kinda. Instead of dwelling on that never-ending debate on “Which Florida event is scarier? Howl-O-Scream or Halloween Horror Nights?” (see my old response here) I’ll focus on the bottom line—I had a lot of fun. Here’s why.

Howl-O-Scream Entrance

With a lower budget and no ties to movies (compared to its eastern neighbor), Howl-O-Scream has instead been getting more creative recently and I’m really liking the shift. Looking back, most of the ideas seem silly and simple—but this is what memories are made of! Armed with two free tickets (not a bribe—I WON them from a Wiregrass contest. Thank you!) BF Shoes entered HOS during the 2nd Friday of its 2014 CURSED year.

TIMING AFFECTS EVERYTHING

What’s scarier than a snarling clown? Waiting in long lines!! To max out your HOS fun it’s best to go when there’s less crowds. Seriously—nothing but good comes out of that. The further away from Halloween you go the less crowded it will be (Unless it’s the very first weekend which tends to be a ‘preview/insanely-low-priced-admission’ weekend bringing in as much crowds as Christmas eve mall shopping) THERE’S MORE SURPRISES = With less people In front of you, the element of surprise won’t be ruined because everyone in front got scared first. FEAR IN NUMBERS = Sometimes I’d lose the person in front of me. AHHHH it felt like it was just me against a haunted house full of scares. SHORTER LINES = self explanatory. This goes for both the houses and the rides. Not only did we go the 2nd weekend of HOS 2014, but heavy rains kept out more crowds yet by our 9pm entrance it was clear skies. Despite the late entry we were STILL able to visit every house, watch the show, and take it easy all without buying the Quick Queue.

HOWL-O-SCREAM HOUSES
OoOoO so what scared me out there? Although the commercials were eerie, the actual CURSED area consisted of a mountain of old electronics watched over by gremlins wearing tights. (Gremlins do like electronics right?) But what does that have to do with a curse?

The Cursed Icon

It looks like a Gremlin on a mountain of old electronics to me.

There’s enough descriptions of the houses peppering the internet so instead I’ll mention anything that stood out to me. If a review isn’t mentioned it’s not because the house was bad—every single house made me leap a few times—but some houses had that extra OOMPH.

ZOMBIE CONTAINMENT UNIT 15 – simply and surprisingly fun. This new addition isn’t really a house but a warehouse containing zombies you have to shoot. After being split into groups of four, we were each handed a futuristic, plastic toy gun and released into the warehouse where you could render the charging zombies immobile for a few seconds if you shot at the light on their chest. Through the sirens, smoke, and crates it wasn’t complete chaos as the fences directed us through the undead reaching from both sides. Even though it wasn’t difficult- you could probably have walked the entire maze without ever firing and still be okay—there was something insanely fun about pretending to be part of the interaction and fighting back. I still felt fear whenever I came face to face with a zombie yet raced through like an action hero unfazed by my surroundings.

ZCU 15

Entrance to the new, interactive house: Zombie Containment Unit 15

DEADFALL – This is the second and final ‘new’ house. The majority takes place in a Victorian-esque garden. Most of those you’ll meet are the creepy, happily psychotic variety. Notably, I got startled from several large plants—really—Little Shop of Horrors anyone?

DEATH WATER BAYOU (escaping the Cajun curses), BLOOD ASYLUM (a psychotic killer loose in an asylum) and THE BASEMENT (killing and grinding up humans to make meaty meals) were good but not show-stopping. Both Blood Asylum and The Basement contained too many obviously fake body parts and blood it was almost distracting however I enjoyed tiny moments of The Basement more. The Basement contained a cool trick of forcing a guy into a stew amidst gluttonous chomping of human meat; the result turned my stomach into a vegetarian for the duration of the house.

THE EXPERIMENT is this year’s go-alone house. We held onto our money and skipped this upcharge.

ZOMBIE MORTUARY – From death to vengeance this was a mostly typical zombie paradise but there were a couple really good surprises resulting from the scares appearing over a doorway or at my legs.

CIRCUS OF SUPERSTITION – 3D glasses? I almost groaned aloud because past 3D houses in my HOS experience have been a waste of creativity. This ended up being one of my favorites not only because it used the disorienting aspect of the glasses well but the 3D effects blended well with the circus theme. Real clowns hiding among mannequins were a blurred together. My biggest and best scare came from this house—I won’t ruin the surprise but let’s just say it leapfrogged at me…

FIENDS (SHOW)
Normally I get some good LOLs from this HOS staple ripping on pop culture but this year it seemed every joke between the potty-minded Igor and Dr. Freakenstein only captured mild “hehes.” Perhaps it’s because the longest running joke there revolved around selfies. (I have nothing against the act but the multiple mentions of it bordered annoying) This time around Igor is looking for love. Once again the dancing was well done and straddled a thin border between contemporary and sexy. The naughty nurses in their pink wigs and bras stole many photo ops. When did this show totally get rid of its talented singers? Ah well, it wasn’t a deal-breaker but all the ‘singers’ lip-syncing while holding a mic seemed silly.

My tickets

Thanks for the tickets Shops at Wiregrass

THE SCAREZONES/ROAMING HORDES
Due to the threat of rain, most scare zones were devoid of scareactors but still spewed fog, eerie music, and flashing lights. However, the roaming hordes were in full swing ensuring you may run into the crazies even while waiting to buy ice cream. The best ones were perfectly disguised as bushes. Another particular group used an ice cream cart in a funny way…

GO WHILE THERE’S TIME
When you throw in the dance club by the entrance, scattered DJs, and plenty of thrill rides Howl-O-Scream delivers a lot for your admission. Now for a tiny scaredy-cat-Pyra confession… Although the scares chased me I handled it much better this time. The last time I entered a Halloween theme park event with BF Shoes we weren’t even in the ‘talking’ stage. Now not only did I have a human shield permanently attached to me, but I had someone to throw as bait if I wanted to run the other way… haha jk.

I apologize for the lack of good photos… it’s soooo hard to really capture the essence of this event.

ENTERING A WORLD OF CHOCOLATE

September 26, 2014

Living near Orlando produces a few #FirstWorldProblems like… “Seriously? Another murder-themed restaurant?” or at the same time, “I won’t go there. That’s soooo touristy.” Both thoughts were fighting each other as I purchased admission to the World of Chocolate.

Among worldly sculptures

Touristy? Perhaps. Orlando is flooded with places trying to grab every dollar from visitors who want a break from Disney. This has resulted in more mini-golf and over-priced restaurants than wanted. But we were stuck in Orlando for my Dad’s birthday and we wanted to bring him somewhere that tied learning with fun. Although it hasn’t been open long, half-off admission to the museum through websites like LivingSocial and Groupon eased our wallets.

WOC EntranceThe World of Chocolate is located slightly away from all the International Drive action. I was dismayed at most cars in the lot visiting the neighboring buffet instead. I disliked empty entertainment venues. That fear literally melted away as soon as the doors opened and both my eyes and nose were treated to… chocolate! Rows of brightly colored gourmet treats were waiting patiently to be chosen and devoured while that unmistakable aroma lingered in the air. Handfuls of people were relaxing at the little Café while consuming the treats or waiting for the next tour.

After watching a short video following Cacao Beans from its beginnings to harvesting, our energetic guide David continued the history lesson leading up to the ‘discovery’ of the chocolate bar. A jungle-themed room, canvases, and European furniture assisted in the story. We tasted how the first Chocolate drinks must’ve tasted—blech—it was very watery with a strong Chili kick.

Chocolate sculptures

[Left] Taj Mahal in ‘white chocolate [Top right] The first sculpture– Aztec culture [Bottom right] Ramses in chocolate

A larger room housed landmarks from around the world: Taj Mahal, Big Ben, Barack Obama and more—all captured as large, Chocolate sculptures. David told us special lights had even been installed to prevent the room temperature from rising and melting everything. I didn’t notice a temperature difference at all. Although the sculptures had been left out past the point of eating it safely, I still drooled at the sight and the smell. Cravings aside, the sculptures were already impressive especially when you realize the difficulties of molding such delicate food.

One of the chocolate samples

One of my favorites from the samples

A short walk past molding equipment brought us to another tour highlight—the sampling area! Tour Guide David emphasized us savoring and not merely chomping. Although the samples were tiny… wow… they were packed with creamy flavor! My favorites were the Dolfin Chocolat infused with Earl Gray tea (I was surprised to enjoy the Lavender hints) and the Santander Wild Blackberry which featured a good contrast of slightly bitter Berries. Another room was a gallery containing Chocolate wrappers and smaller sculptures from brands around the world—but we flew through this area.

Paying the full-price admission (around $16) is higher than the tour’s worth. I believe the worth and price of the World of Chocolate breaks evens at $10 or less per person. Food-factory related tours are often free with the guides teaching about the how-tos or the ‘insider info’ one can’t easily find from an online search; a good portion of WOC’s tour is a verbal history lesson which is why I feel its admission cost goes more towards the gallery-related exhibits. I understand it’s difficult to have a food tour not focused on a specific brand (like Hershey’s or Yuengling) but like in a wine-tasting I would’ve wanted my guide telling me what ‘notes’ to expect during each tasting.

David was still an excellent guide especially in creating entertainment with the limited material a place like this gives. My family took great photos out of the experience. Even the small chocolate cakes we purchased from the Café were good reflections of the tour—full flavored with extra dimensions from an infusion of fun.

Chocolates at the CafeWorld of Chocolate Museum and Cafe

11701 International Drive
Orlando, FL 32821
(407) 778-4871

A RETURN JOURNEY TO THE EAST

September 20, 2014

I’ll admit I wasn’t very kind in reviewing Journey to the East Banquet during my last visit. Back then although this ‘celebration of Asian culture’ was still in its toddler years, the overwhelming covers of Top-40 pop songs didn’t allow me to view ‘cultural performances’ as the event boldly proclaimed.

JE - Sign

Fast forward to last weekend—the University of South Florida was hosting its 7th annual Journey to the East Banquet. As a USF Asian organization alumni (specifically from the Association of Filipino Students) I felt compelled to show some support. This Banquet was the final celebration to a week full of JE events celebrating Asian culture.

And now I’ll admit—I was blown away. Dare I say jealous too? The theme this year revolved around Elements and Change. Although there were still hints of the old JE, all elements had evolved. We could only dream of something this grand when I was still a USF student helping to organize events.

Lo Mein and Fried Rice

Not the best photo I’ve taken I’m sorry. But here’s the Lo Mein and Fried Rice

The lights within the Student Center’s Ballroom were dimmed allowing the flickering from tea candles (battery powered to avoid the school’s fire hazards) to cast shadows around the tea pots serving as centerpieces. Rather than the Ballroom’s cluster of wall lights projecting distracting glare, a very large poster was placed over the lights with the words “Journey to the East” in cut out. The result served as a background for many group photos while being both artistic and imposing.

As with other JE events, free admission and food were a draw. Instead of the pasts’ stampede to the buffet line, volunteer student servers dropped both drinks and food to each table. I nibbled on the lukewarm Fried Rice and Lo Mein while wondering out loud the discipline of these servers. During my USF years as soon as the performances began the volunteers would mysteriously disappear—but these guys were professional throughout.

JE - Folk

Philippine Performance Arts Company

Ah yes—the talent is what makes the Banquet. Among the variety of entertainment celebrating Asian culture were brightly colored Filipino Folk dancers waving their flower arcs, a Lion Dance that weaved its way around the room before settling on stage, Judo demonstrations, and even a rap in the Chinese language. Scattered between performances were entertaining videos strong audio following the inception of Journey to the East and all the organizations involved.

JE - Performers

[Left to right] Lion Dance… Joe Lin rapping in Chinese… Din Tao Drum performance

Although a handful of performances weren’t explicitly cultural (does having Asian performers count?) I’ll give them passes. The two dance groups kept up high-energy moves while the singer Sabrina Santos belted out powerful vocals. Out of all the performances perhaps the only questionable one was the ending headliner, a budding singer named Albert Posis. Although talented in vocals and guitar he was just a stranger wooing a crowd full of students who were more excited at seeing their friends perform.

Final Boss Dance Crew capped off the USF performances

Final Boss Dance Crew capped off the USF performances

I’ll admit my expectations going in were rather low but that’s not why I was greatly impressed and entertained the whole time. This Banquet was better planned than other events I’ve attended organized by older adults. Perhaps next time I’d just suggest more interactive elements—who wants their name written in Chinese Calligraphy? Or their photo next to costumed entertainers?—but nahhh this is a free event after all totally run by volunteers and donations. I’m proud of the current leaders of the USF Asian organization and (in some way) I’m also wishful this JE event became this good because of the bases left by my generation.

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