Ngweni Railroad Brewery (Hluhluwe, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)

After a day and a half of recovering from our long non-stop flight from the US, we took a domestic flight to Durban (on local low-cost carrier Kulula, which I actually highly recommend), and embarked on a 3.5 hour drive up to the Zulu Nyala Heritage Safari Lodge outside of Hluhluwe. Our safari visit to Zulu Nyala was configured a bit like a cruise: our visit included two daily game drives (sunrise and evening) and buffet-style meals, plus the ability to do a number of value-added excursions. Most of these were designed to take you for animal experiences beyond those of the smaller Zulu Nyala reserve, like seeing lions in the larger Manyoni reserve, a day trip to Hluhluwe National Park, or a trip into St Lucia to see the hippos. But a few of the excursions were smaller affairs that could be done during the mid-day break between the game drives, which is how we found ourselves at Ngweni Railroad Brewery.

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Olives & Plates (Hyde Park, Gauteng, South Africa)

Sometimes in our search for truly offbeat locations, Offbeat Eats finds ourselves in some interesting scenarios, like drinking Namibian beer in the back of a bookshop in a suburban shopping mall in Hyde Park, a northern suburb of Johannesburg. How we got here was an interesting story; going with friends to a charity auction for the Upper Valley Humane Society, we ended up winning a bid on a week-long safari at Zulu Nyala in kwaZulu-Natal, scheduled for April 2020. Well, we all know how 2020 turned out. Over the next two years, that trip got delayed a half-dozen times, and then more than a little drama with South Africa (riots in 2021, severe flooding in April 2022), a hotel getting sold and having to rebook, and United Airlines canceling a week’s worth of flights due to jet fuel shortage. These almost led to our May 2022 trip getting canceled. But despite all that drama, we ended up having a smooth 16 hour flight, arriving in the evening in Johannesburg and getting a driver to take us to our Johannesburg-area accommodations at the splendid Hyde Park Guest House and promptly crashing into bed. The next day, after an insightful, but historically sobering, tour of Constitution Hill, we ended up going to a quirky dinner spot that had been recommended by a fellow guest at the Guest House: Olives & Plates.

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Mon Kou (Attleboro, MA)

As I discussed in my 2018 review of House of Wu, there was a nice mid-20th century tradition toward Tiki culture, combining Americanized Chinese food and other Asian cuisine and Tiki-style cocktails in an over-the-top Polynesian theme. The result is a mix of cultural integration, cultural preservation, adaptation, preservation… as well as more than a little improvisation and occasionally appropriation, but there’s an entire two generations of Americans that grew up with this sort of joint. But while there’s been a recent resurgence in both cocktail culture and Polynesian cuisine, the last few decades haven’t been kind to a lot of these older venerable restaurants, and many in New England (Chicopee’s Hu Ke Lau, Worcester’s Ken Chin, Woonsocket’s Ho Kong, Lynnfield’s Bali Hai) have shuttered in recent years, and a few of the others like Wind Tiki in Webster, MA falling to other fates like structural fires. So it’s important to enjoy some of the places that still remain, like Mon Kou in Attleboro, MA.

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La Palapa Belga (Cancún, Quintana Roo)

Our last review in Cancún was one of the more unusual places in the Hotel Zone, La Palapa Belga. First, it’s pretty well hidden; La Palapa Belga is not on the main drag (Ave Kulkulcan), or at one of the large resorts, but instead is located behind the Hotel Imperial Laguna, one of the Hotel Zone’s smaller boutique hotels. The signage is minimal, so you have to find the Hotel Imperial, wander through the lobby to the pool area behind it, and then head for the grass-roofed palapa, with a very nice outdoor terrace looking over the lagoon (complete with crocodiles). The second unique bit is is the cuisine; as the name implies, La Palapa Belga serves… Belgian food. Yup, Belgian food. That makes it one of the more unique spots around Cancún.

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Fred’s Seafood and Raw Bar (Cancún, Quintana Roo)

One of the major dining attractions of Cancún is seafood; we really enjoyed our first night’s outing to Captain’s Cove, so when looking for another dining option, we decided that a trip to Fred’s Seafood and Raw Bar was in order. Located about a mile north on Avenue Kulkulcan from Captain’s Cove, it’s another restaurant with a pleasant terrace overlooking the lagoon, offering a seafood-centric menu with a wide variety of both raw and cooked seafood.

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Hacienda Sisal (Cancún, Quintana Roo)

For our next meal in the Hotel Zone, we decided to swing back to Mexican cuisine with a visit to Hacienda Sisal. Located at the partner resort The Royal Sands, Hacienda Sisal has a broad menu, relatively few of the surcharges for all-inclusive customers, and it was easy enough to catch the shuttle bus over there and avoid the usual taxi rigamarole. The restaurant itself is quite nice; it appears to be a converted ballroom, but it sports two large dining rooms (and possibly a third, although on our visit it appeared to have been converted to Covid-19 testing), a large bar, and live musical entertainment. Hacienda Sisal is a Mexican restaurant that’s distinctly aimed at the Hotel Zone tourists; the menu leans distinctly towards “Americanized Mexican” cuisine (for example, this is one of the few places we saw American-style fajitas on the menu) over “Authenic Mexican” or Yucatecan food, but they still had a nice cross-section of traditional moles, molcajetes, and carnitas dishes as well.

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El Conquistador (Cancún, Quintana Roo)

Our third night in Cancún was another indulgence in the various restaurants available in our All-Inclusive resort package, heading to the sister resort The Royal Islander located near the south end of the Hotel Zone, for a trip to their in-house restaurant, El Conquistador. Much like our visit to Captain’s Cove a few nights before, El Conquistador was a departure from the local Yucatecan places, offering a classic steakhouse experience, with a good wine list, white linens, and a wide variety of steak dishes.

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La Habichuela (Cancún, Quintana Roo)

While the majority of our Cancún visit was spent either touring around the Hotel Zone or taking excursions out of town (to Puerto Morelos for snorkeling, and Chichén Itzá to see the archaeological site), Cancún also has a lot of great restaurant outside of the Hotel Zone. Our hosts Geoff has been vacationing in Cancún pretty much as long as modern Cancún has been in existence, and he has a favorite restaurant that he always likes to visit over on the mainland in downtown Cancún: La Habichuela (“The String Bean”). On our second night in town, we packed into a cab and headed over to check them out.

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Captain’s Cove (Cancún, Quintana Roo)

For the last few years, our friends Geoff and Kristy had invited us to come down in the Spring and check out their villa at Royal Cancun Resort (aka “VCI”, Vacation Club International, one of the oldest resorts in Cancún ), and check out many of the sights and restaurants of the greater Cancún area. After two years of pandemic-related delays, we finally managed to get everything worked out to join them for a week. Royal Cancun Resort offers a pretty good deal on an all-inclusive package for your stay, with drinks and food at any of their resorts and restaurants included (sometimes with a few modest surcharges). They’ve got a pretty good arsenal of restaurants available, including several Mexican, Italian, steakhouse, and seafood options. For our first night on the town, we hopped a cab to the other end of the hotel zone, checking out Captain’s Cove, one of the seafood restaurants that was part of the all-inclusive options.

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Carlita’s Cocina (South Royalton, VT)

Prior to the pandemic, one of my more regular spots to visit in Vermont was South Royalton. It has several great places we like, including First Branch Coffee/Upper Pass Beer and Worthy Burger, but between reduced operating hours and fewer social gatherings, we hadn’t made it over that was as often. Early in the pandemic, we had noted the opening of Carlita’s Cocina, a primarily Mexican-themed food truck, operating in the large parking lot opposite Vermont Law School. When I had to reschedule one of my periodic Red Cross blood donations to the Sharon Academy, that gave me a good excuse to go on a short hike up to Kent’s Ledge, and then meet up with my friends Rick and Sarah to finally try out Carlita’s.

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