Hot Fête'd (Taste It And See)

Right, so off we were to the chilli festival. I have to spell it that way, with the extra L, since a) this is metaphorical Rome, and b) that's its proper name: Araluen's Fremantle Chilli Festival.

The new car is whisper-quiet, and driving north along the Old Coast Road is like slipping down a tight length of silk. (I shouldn't indulge in metaphors because as soon as I type, I start picking them apart. Wouldn't an object on silk make a shrr-shrr sound? Are the tyres also wrapped in silk? Maybe they are silver balls, manufactured in a forest workshop by a blind craftsman. What would that sound like? Is the car really that quiet? Am I perhaps exaggerating? Why not just say what Mike says: "When we're at stoplights, it's as if the engine is off.")

(Whoa. I just reread that and saw that I typed "tyres" instead of "tires." We're deep in the Borg Cube now!)

We like the car. "Does it have (feature)?" our friends Chris and Robyn ask. No, but it has a six-CD player and a little screen that names the first 12 characters of the song and the glove box is a double and there are cup holders. And it is very quiet. Are there other things?

We are a simple folk.

My mother-in-law thinks the headlights could be cleaner, and there's too much lint on the passenger inside door to not be wary of the so-called detailing given by the dealership and thus the dealership itself, and why did we buy a 2009 car, anyway? "That's very old." But otherwise she likes the colour (registration says "graphite," I say "charcoal"), so it's all fine.

This week I've thought a lot about what it means to call a people "friendly." Aussies are known for being friendly. So are Americans. But, the way this friendliness manifests is worlds apart. The Aussie friendliness seems to be about being relaxed. Americans, I think, often show their friendliness through excitement. My theory is over-simplified, and it could very easily just be the circles I run in or something about the west coast, but as time passes I keep asking, "Why does nobody care about anything?" (Like, I don't know, making what I consider to be the obligatory fuss over a person's new car. People's reaction to so many things seems to be "Oh?")

This was illustrated to my amusement on the day we bought the car. The head salesman - the hardcore guy our regular salesman brought in for the last round of price negotiation - did something that no one else has done in the entire 10 months and two weeks that I've been here.

He mentioned my accent.

"Nobody cares about American accents," Mike has been telling me since last April. "We all see plenty of American television. It's no big deal."

Okay, except I'm used to the United States, where you can simply have an accent from another part of the country and be asked about it. It's code for "you have something different about you and I'd like to know more about your story - perhaps we have shared experiences that will weave our stories together."

I'm not saying one way or the other is better, just surprisingly different. So, given the well-earned stereotype of car salesmen as being over-the-top in their friendliness, I actually started laughing when this guy did the very normal-to-me thing of asking where my accent was from. Oh my, that's laying it on thick there, Aussie-man! What's next? A second question?!

Chilli Festival. Right.

We slipped into Fremantle to begin the hunt for parking, only to find a surprise tied up in the harbour:

Costa Deliziosa in Fremantle

Costa Deliziosa!

Our first Costa sighting!

How much do I miss cruising? So much. Sooo much. I can't wait until my spouse visa is approved so I can come and go from Australia without having to apply and re-apply for special bridging visas. (That's not a complaint - it's great that there is a system for me to rush to my parents' side if needed without forfeiting my application - but I do get wistful.) Every time I see a contest to win a cruise, I howl in disappointment. (Because, sure, I would win if not for the visa, yeah.)

I've said it before, but as much as I also like (love) travel where I can call all the shots and change things at will, there's just something about scampering up a gangplank, knowing that in a very short period of time your keys and wallet and phone will be locked in the safe and won't need to come back out for another week. Disconnect. Float.

Costa Deliziosa is on a 100-night world cruise at the moment.

It ain't easy being green.

Costa Deliziosa in Freo

Parking for the chilli festival was dreadful. We eventually got lucky on a side street, but I agree with the people who say to move the whole shebang out of this location. At eighteen bucks a head, they're probably already attracting the kind of person who is willing to drive a bit to see and taste the hottest peppers and pepper products in the world.

I should point out right now that we didn't get a Carolina Reaper, currently the latest heat champion. I was shocked; Mike usually likes to grow everything, especially the "elite" hot things. Also, I was kind of encouraging him to get it, and usually all he hears from me is moaning about how all the good spots on our lovely balcony are covered in peppers, including ones that no one will eat. (It's kind of bad sign when every time you move a certain pepper out of the way in the refrigerator, you then have to bathe your hand in milk.)

I was in non-shrew mode (a setting whose on/off switch is a well-guarded secret) because I like the name: Carolina Reaper. So WASPy and so waspy. So much better than all the other hot peppers that sound like they were randomly generated. Everything is "(Adjective) 7-Pot" or "Trinidad Scorpion (Noun)." Meh.

But Mike said it was a bit late in the season for a non-established plant (that would have to live in the wind tunnel that is our balcony), and besides, he'd rather grow one from seeds next year. Oh sure, it's all "let's not cheat by getting a grown plant" until he sees a five-foot-tall "Chocolate Brain Strain" (the worst name yet, practically defamation to the character of chocolate).

"You're going to carry that around the festival all afternoon?" He decided no, and by the time we were ready to leave he didn't want to bother with it anymore, so I was able to avoid having to flip the toggle back and ask "And where exactly is this plant going to fit on the balcony, then?"

Chilli Festival in Freo

I just couldn't get a pleasing shot of this train, but I told Mike that whenever we have our one-and-only house, we need a miniature train in the garden to use as a giant planter. (I pause to think of this and actually start getting excited.)

Signs told people that the gorgeous assortment of chillis wasn't for sale, but you know what was free? I think? The chillis that had fallen off the plants. Seeeeeds!

Mike spotted a pepper on the ground - a lovely cayenne lilac. Flickr is failing to find me a picture, and I failed to take one, and Google Images isn't showing anything appropriately pretty. Well, if Mike gets one going, I'll share it here. They look sort of like bunches of tiny purple heirloom carrots.

Chilli Festival in Fremantle

Just because I don't Instagram doesn't mean I can't abuse filters.

I don't know what these mascots were, but I think they make more sense if we squint and pretend they were part of a Midwestern fair long ago that would trouble Ray Bradbury's dreams if he were still alive.

Are they meant to be... hrm... bloodshot eyes after you pour bhut jolokia juice into them? I don't know.

Most of my photos are of the tops of people's heads with banners in the distance. Stall after stall offered no end of chilli-related products to sample, but good luck getting to any of it.

It's not so much that people are bad at moving in an orderly and thoughtful fashion once they begin tasting things, although they are bad at it, very bad. The real offenders are the ones who maybe try a bit, then step back about sixteen inches from the stalls to form a ring with five friends, their purpose being to have a conversation that would work as well eight feet away, still under the shady tent. Traffic reroutes and congests around them, and they never notice.

I can't imagine being so oblivious, but those people are always there, aren't they? One hundred lovely places to stand at no added inconvenience, but they'd rather stand on their right to be in the worst spot for everyone else.

We did buy a couple of things - perhaps not coincidentally the things that were the easiest to get to. One was a tasty little jar of lime and chilli preserves. The other was a couple of bottles ("buy two, get a free bag") of a stunning non-alcoholic beverage: Rochester "Dickensian Recipe" Ginger. It's gingery enough to make you gasp, but nothing like ginger ale or the most burn-y ginger beer. No carbonation, thin as water, with a sweetness that laps at the back of your throat like velvet air. We tried all four varieties, but the hands-down choice was the "Dark Ginger," which the website I linked (the official one hasn't worked all weekend) calls "an alluring drink that many find hard to believe is non alcoholic." Indeed. They recommend serving it over ice cream. I believe that will be happening.

Macarons at Chilli Festival

Now that Mike is a macaron convert, we had to try the chocolate-chilli ones from Maison Saint Honore. Best macarons in my life. Creamy yet with that creme brulee-like cracking. Why didn't we get a dozen?

Doesn't MSH have darling business cards out there on the table? (Trendy-precious, I know, but I was still enchanted.) Macarons have so thoroughly displaced cupcakes and cake pops that I've been wondering if that show 2 Broke Girls has updated their premise. What will be the next wave? And where will it come from, now that hipsters are too exposed (and derided) to be our tastemakers?

The quesadillas looked inventive, but my back won't let me sit on hard ground, and the very few tables or elevated resting spots were all taken. The vendors form a convenient square of non-stop tents around the park, so once you make the loop, either you're sitting or you're leaving. With only 30 minutes left on our two-hour parking, we bid adios to the festival and drove off in search of indoor dining.

I remembered that Mike recently learned of a bakery called "Lawley's" that advertises bagels. We headed that way.

No pictures, but as soon as we stepped inside and touched a "bagel," it was obvious that they were only selling doughnut-shaped bread.

"Do you boil your bagels before baking?" I asked.

"Do we boil our bagels?"

"Yes." (Smile.)

"Do we...? Um." (Turning to another guy.) "Do we boil our bagels before baking?"

"No. They're not real bagels."

(I had to laugh.)

For their honesty, we bought an olive ciabatta. It was not real ciabatta (no holes), but at least it didn't taste offensive. I'm sure their bagels are also fine, assuming you don't actually want bagels, just carbs.

Still, can't imagine going to Lawley's again.

From there we went to a place in Victoria Park that gets terrible-to-mediocre reviews online, but the menu looked good, and it's Mexican, so we had to try it out.

That Little Mexican Place

Jalapeños Rellenos

The jalapeno rellenos (not poppers) were nice, but one-note until you squeezed the lime wedge over them and added the cilantro garnish. I would get a half-serve (if that were available) to share and ask for extra cilantro (you can't make me say "coriander" for the leaf), which I think they would accommodate, given that the server offered us extra chips for the queso fundido.

Queso Fundido

This was our substitute when the quesadillas de flor weren't available. The dip had subtle flavours (even minus the chorizo), and I was glad to have something cheesy because I knew my main course was an iffy choice.

The reviews crucify this three-restaurant chain for their prices, and it's true, everything is too expensive, even by Perth standards. (The queso fundido? $17.50. Yeah, that's a rip-off.)

However, I don't think TLMP is crazily expensive compared to similar dining experiences. Just a bit too much. It seems like the reviewers expect Mexican food to be cheaper than all other kinds of food. This is Australia, not SoCal. We should just be grateful that the Mexican options have expanded so much, even in just the past year that I've been here.

Carnitas Tacos

Mike had the carnitas tacos, which he put on par with El Publico (high praise) and way above Big El's (which we love for their appetizers, not their disappointingly average tacos). I had a choice between cactus+mushroom tacos or pumpkin+goat cheese enchiladas.

%^$%$$^&*^*&(&^$^$^%^& I can't swear properly because my hashtag and at-sign keys haven't worked since some Windows update ages back. (Rollback/System Restore didn't fix it.) I guess what I'm trying to say is SO MUCH FUCKING PUMPKIN IN THIS COUNTRY.

Okay. I'm okay. It's okay. Everything's fine. No one is having a juvenile fit over how every single restaurant's vegetarian item is based in DAMNIT FUCKING PUMPKIN EVERYWHERE EVEN ON THE FUCKING VEGETARIAN PIZZAS WHAT THE HELL DAMNIT.

All good, all good. Soothing sound of the ocean. Tibetan chimes.

I like mushrooms. I like cactus. It's not like I was stuck with the pumpkin. I just... I miss enchiladas. A pile of sliced onion, salsa verde, and a row of cerdos en una mata. Miss.

And on the menu it sounded good. It wasn't just pumpkin but also mushrooms and quinoa. Interesting! With so much pumpkin everywhere (which I should point out is not "real" pumpkin to us Americans, but more like butternut squash), maybe I could start accepting it. It's not like I hate pumpkin. I'm just never going to make it, say, the favourite soup of an entire nation. Pointed look. (I swear, the two biggest things that NO ONE tells you about Australia is that everyone has a milk fetish and a pumpkin fetish.)

Pumpkin (as usual) Enchiladas

Even though I always order black beans on the side in the States, I chose refried pintos this time because I miss pinto beans almost as much as enchiladas. (Did I ever mention that there's a shop down in Margaret River that sells pintos in bulk for a good price?)

The beans and rice were delicious. Better than the stuff I usually leave ignored on the side of my plate back in the U.S.

The enchiladas, well, I could tell they were a quality product.

Alas, I think all of the ingredients were blended together? Because every bite was a tortilla wrapped around pumpkin fluff. You can see in the photo that everything is just sort of hanging together as a mush. That, or they forgot the quinoa and mushrooms. The service was so good that I hate to accuse them of completely ballsing things up when that may not be the case, but... I don't know. 

Anyway, once I spooned my garnish (tomato, a tablespoon of guac, another cilantro leaf, lime wedge) over part of it, the enchiladas were reasonably tasty despite my low interest in pumpkin. Luckily I was full, so I took most of it home to doctor up there. (In theory. In reality, I see it in the fridge and think "oh yeah, pumpkin" and eat crackers instead.)

The point of all this, I think, is that I have a lot of culinary gourd rage and it makes me feel better to be a brat about it here.

Current ranking of Perth's Mexican options as a vegetarian:

  1. Big El's Latin American (dinner only, appetizers only - don't even think about for lunch unless you're into designer hot dogs)
  2. Flying Taco (just a tiny cafe, but what they do, they do with excellence)
  3. That Little Mexican Place (lacks nuance and is too expensive, but different and yummy overall)
  4. El Publico (should be rated higher - it's Mike's fave for a reason - but absolutely tasteless and boring veg main + pounding music + everyone else fawning over the place while I'm unimpressed and annoyed = grumpy Shari)
  5. I'm forgetting someone.

Not tried: chains like Mad Mex and Salsa's or Perth's sole Mexican for many years, Pancho's Villa. Mike, who doesn't mind PV for what it is but has no reason to go there now that other options exist, assures me that I won't like it because it will be too cheddar-tastic. Like, nachos from the Kwik-e-Mart, I guess? We'll see. I'll probably give El Publico a second chance whenever they next change their menu before I try PV.


I wish we could've tasted more foods at the festival. (My eye was definitely on a grilled provolone concoction.) But people are awful at considering others, and that's not going to change. Besides, I know the festival has no reason to accommodate the minority of us who can't sit on the ground and aren't in wheelchairs and are too fussy to be able to relax and enjoy food while standing up. I get it.

So, I doubt we'll go next year. I can't see justifying the parking stress, the $18 admission, and the constant fight to get near the vendors - but it was fun to try it once.

On the way home, we washed away all these cares and plenty of bugs with the car's very first bathtime:

Car's First Bathtime

10 March 2014 |