Friday, May 03, 2013

COLUMN: Albania

The Republic of Albania is a proud nation on the banks of the Adriatric Sea in Southeastern Europe. Rife with unspoiled beaches, breathtaking mountain views, and ancient architecture, Albania is a vacationer's dream. Whether it's a lost weekend in the honeymooner's city of Sarande, a panoramic drive down the Rreshhen-Kalimash Motorway, or an educational getaway to the Gjirokaster National Folklore Festival, there's something for everyone in the rich culture and colorful heritage of Albania.

And the cuisine...?  Oh, don't get me STARTED on Albanian cuisine! Umm, really, don't get me started, because I have NO idea what Albanian cuisine is like. But thanks to this past weekend, it's officially NOT for lack of trying.

Truth is, I'm a food bigot. I try to be worldly, I really do. My favorite music comes from England, my favorite car comes from Germany, and my favorite fly definitely hails from Spain... but when it comes to food, I am a flag-wavin', red-blooded, red meat consuming American.

What can I say? I like my food simple and free of surprises. If I could live on a diet of hot dogs and cherry pie, I probably would. If it looks weird, I'm not eating it. If I can't pronounce it, I'm not eating it. I'm just not very adventurous when it comes to trying food that's outside my comfort zone. I'm a basic staples kinda guy -- flour and sugar, bread and butter, ketchup and mustard, cake and ice cream, cows and pigs and chickens and turkeys. Occasionally I'll be brave and eat some tuna. I have enough adventure in my life as is; I don't need to eat things I can't identify in order to feel alive.

There's just one problem: It turns out that a simple red-white-&-bland diet where Pizza Hut is considered "ethnic food" is actually really, really bad for you. It's not exactly NEW news, but a study came out last week that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a Western diet high in red meat and high-fat dairy literally takes YEARS off your life. It's becoming clear that I need to start being brave.

It's not like I'm afraid of exploring. There's nothing better than setting off with a tank full of gas, a car full of friends, and a mission to get as lost as possible. Some of my greatest stories have come from aimless driving, and the first good weather weekend of the year is always reserved for taking the first back road out of town. In 2013, that day was last Sunday. It was early when the phone rang.

"Hi, how are you?" came the voice of Friend Jason.
"Bored. How are you?" I replied.
"Also bored. Shall we?"
"We shall."
"I'm on my way."

With those pleasantries out of the way, it was just a matter of grabbing the iPod and hitting the open road. The day's adventures took us in a northeasterly direction into the blissful weirdness of rural Illinois. It was a delightful way to waste a day. We shared many a polite wave with passing farmers, saw some spectacularly terrifying lawn ornaments, visited a picturesque country cemetery, took a wrong turn and ended up trespassing onto a private club, marveled at a huge wind farm, and there may even be a chance that if you were driving along a back road last Sunday, you may have caught a glimpse of two grown men laughing hysterically as they stood in a country park attempting to launch a kite. Not that those two guys were us, because we're far too macho and mature for something THAT silly and DEFINITELY way too cool to have a Spongebob Squarepants kite at the ready in the trunk of the car.

But the real highlight came when hunger kicked in. Our eyes were peeled for any weird little restaurant with a lot of character. Enter Amboy, an unassuming rural community in Lee County. That's where we saw the sign, and brakes were screeching within seconds:


That's right, I have now traveled to the exact junction where pizza meets Mexico meets Albania. And heck, why not? I like tacos, I like pizza, and I'd never heard a bad word about Albania in my life. Maybe it's like peanut butter cups -- you know, when good things come together to make greatness. "You got Albania in my pizza!" "You got pizza in my Albania!" It was time for dinner. Or kho ishte koha per darke, as they say in Albania.

Pizza Junction might be my new favorite place in the world. There's barely an inch of wall that's not covered by odd pieces of history. Above the clear ceiling tiles, someone had placed decorative bird statuettes, most of which had fallen on their sides, creating the sensation of eating just under some kind of strange bird apocalypse. The menu sadly told us that Mexican cuisine was only available on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but I was feeling adventurous and we wanted to try Albanian food. Whatever that was.

The Albanian portion of the menu was plentiful. Lots of interesting sounding dishes with virtually no explanation as to what they were. The waitress came out and we hit her with questions.

"We want to try something Albanian! What's good?"

"Umm, I dunno," was her reply. "Nobody orders that."

"What's an Albanian beef roll?" Jason asked.

"Umm, I dunno," was her reply. "Let me go check." She returned a moment later. "It's the same as our regular beef roll."

"I want the Albanian baked beans and Albanian sausage," I chose.

"Umm," she said. "Let me go check." She returned another moment later. "We don't have that."

I began to wonder if by "Albanian," they were referring to the haute cuisine of Albany, New York. In the end, at least I TRIED to be adventurous, so it's a baby step. I ended up with a plentiful  salad, an amazing cup of vegetable beef soup, a large baked potato, and a giant ham steak slathered in pineapple sauce. It was HEAVEN, and I'm pretty sure it set me back all of seven bucks. Friend Jason, meanwhile, enjoyed an American-yet-apparantly-also-Albanian beef roll, and it turned out to be a gyro-type pita thingamajig that he spoke highly of as well. So if you're ever in the Amboy area and hungry for, well, pretty much ANYTHING, head for the Junction.

American or not, the food was amazing -- and even though I still know nothing about their cuisine, I can now find the country of Albania on a map, so I can't say the day wasn't educational. My health might fail from eating like an idiot, but if that starts to happen, I now know I can convalesce along the curative beaches of coastal Velipoja in scenic Ada Bojana. See you there.

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