travel

cruising down memory lane: l.a. in july

Ever since I’d returned from filming the show almost a year ago (can you believe it’s been that long already?!), I’ve been quite the jet-setter. I adore traveling because I love learning about other cultures and especially their foods. And when I say “other cultures,” I don’t always mean countries on the other side of the globe. “Other cultures” could refer to another region in the U.S. Or even that neighboring city a couple of hours down the interstate.

But, as I believe with most things in life, everything in moderation. Too much traveling can be exhausting, and now that I’ve found myself home with no foreseeable travel plans for at least a month or two, it feels so damn nice. Since last summer, I’ve watched the mileage in my airline frequent flyer miles climb; I’ve flown over 40,000 miles in less than a year.

Sometimes, I am still treated like I’m incapable at the airports. A recent trip found me in a strange conversation with a TSA employee at security checkpoint.

TSA employee: Can you see anything?
Me: Very little.
TSA employee: You look so normal.
Me: What do you mean? I am normal.
TSA employee: It must be scary flying alone.
Me: Not really. I fly alone all the time.


I wanted to sock him and say, “Scared to fly alone?! I survived MasterChef, biatch!” But of course, I didn’t. I have a respectable image to uphold, you know.

Anyway, looking back at all my travels, I realized I’m way behind on my blog posts. When I first started this blog, my goal was to blog at least once a week. Then I left for the show, and The Blind Cook went on understandable hiatus. Then I returned and was super busy with post-show obligations, and my posts became bimonthly at best. Now I just looked at the last post I wrote, and it was over a month ago! I know this is unacceptable, but please cut me some slack. I just finished writing a cookbook, came back from Vietnam where I was part of the production of “MasterChef” Vietnam, and now I’m trying to hammer out my thesis to graduate in May.

I was looking back at the long list of entries I need to write and decided I’ll just take a trip down Memory Lane. Here’s a trip I took to L.A. In July 2012. There’s not much to this trip in the ways of enjoyable gastronomy, but it was a nice trip nonetheless. FOX was holding their Television Critics Association (TCA) press conference and invited both MC3Felix and me to attend as reps for “MasterChef” season 3. They knew we were dynamic together and good friends, and what could’ve been an intimidating day turned out to be great fun. (After all, isn’t it always all about the company?)

In the same trip, I also did a cooking demo on ”Good Day L.A.”. I’m always nervous before a cooking demo or before I go on camera, in fact, but they usually turn out swell.

Since July, I’ve returned to L.A. A handful of times (including last week when I had that notorious conversation at checkpoint). More to come.

Till next time, wish me luck on my thesis!

taking a bite out of the big apple 1.4: eleven madison park

Finally. My long awaited post wrapping up my September trip to NYC. The ridiculous thing is I’ve been back to NYC since, so there will be a future post on my subsequent NYC trip. All this traveling is bogging me down.

It’s funny what they say about being careful what you wish for. Travel has always been something at the top of my list of favorite things to do in life. But lately, I’ve been traveling so much that all I really want nowadays is to read and sleep in my own bed.

Anyway, enough of my ramblings. Let’s talk about my first 3-Michelin star experience ever. I got us (and by “us,” I mean myself, my cousin Pauline, and Frank from the show) reservations at Eleven Madison Park. A couple of people who work at Pauline’s Manhattan firm had highly recommended 11 Mad, so we decided to pop all three of our 3-Michelin cherries together in one big hoopla of a meal.

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happy thanksgiving: a montage of my korea trip

I recently went to Japan and Korea for a much needed vacation away from my laptop and cell phone (though I ended up working throughout the vacation anyway–gotta get that much anticipated cookbook written!). I regret not doing crazier things in Japan worth capturing on video, but I made up for it in Korea. I ate so much food overseas that a friend’s mom rubbed my belly and exclaimed something in Japanese that alluded to my being pregnant. The thing is, I’m not pregnant! She’d just fed me a delicious dinner of shabu shabu, so if anything, I was pregnant with her shabu shabu baby! It didn’t matter that I was drinking beer over dinner…sigh. Time to lose the pot belly. It is no longer cute.

Anyway, here is a video of our time in Seoul, Korea. I try live octopus and do the Gangnam-style dance in the actual Gangnam district. I was quite embarrassed doing it because: (1) it was in public at a subway stop, and (2) I hadn’t had any shots of soju. But I did it for the fans since it got a laugh from so many of you. Enjoy the video, and happy Thanksgiving to all.

taking a bite out of the big apple 1.3: momofuku ssam bar

Okay, so I lied. I said I’d cover both Momofuku Ssam Bar and Eleven Madison Park in this entry. But the fact is I just discovered I have no photos from my evening at Eleven Mad, so I am awaiting my dinner companions to send theirs over. This means I won’t get to the Eleven Mad dinner till next post. But it’s all good because I have plenty to say about Ssam Bar.

Momofuku Ssam Bar is the closest thing to a gastropub of Chef David Chang’s family of Momofuku restaurants. (Ssam is in reference to the Korean term for “wrap” and indicates dishes in the Korean cuisine that involve wrapping some meat and pickled veggies in a lettuce leaf and dipping in condiments of sesame oil, salt, and pepper or soy sauce before enjoying.) We went on the Sunday night of Labor Day weekend and was told there would be close to a two-hour wait. Fortunately, like Ippudo, the hostess is willing to take down a number and text when the table was ready. That’s when we made our way over to our usual waiting spot at Sake Bar Decibel.
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taking a bite out of the big apple 1.2

In my last post, I discussed the cheaper eats in New York City. This time, I continue the NYC gastronomical tour by talking about some of the additional places at which I dined, the not-so-cheap but also the not-so-expensive (I’m saving that for part 3 of this NYC series). Basically, these are the in-betweeners, the delicious, the memorable.

Ever since I’d gone to Japan and tasted what real ramen is supposed to taste like, I’ve been on an eternal hunt for a close imitation this side of the Pacific. There is a place in L.A. that I find pretty yummy and close to what I’ve had in Japan. But I’ve never had ramen East Coast style, so of course, I had to pop that cherry.

The first place on my list was Ippudo in the East Village. This ramen joint is notorious for table wait times of two hours plus. But the nice thing is you can put your name and number on the list, amble on over to Sake Bar Decibel, and throw back a few bottles while awaiting the coveted text message from the Ippudo hostess saying your table is ready. And that’s exactly what we did the two times I went. I’m a purist a lot of the time when it comes to food, so I always like to try the classic of anything, especially when it’s my first visit. I found the classic pork ramen at Ippudo to be incredibly savory but not oily; since ramen broth is made by cooking pork bones for several hours, it can sometimes taste too fatty. (For almost all noodle soups, the clearer the broth, the superior the quality and taste.) You can add extra toppings like an onsen (hot springs) egg or extra pork. The pork buns are also worth trying: slightly spicy pork belly nestled inside a steamed bun with extra crisp veggies to cut the fat. I took Frank here one night, and he agreed the ramen was even better than the bowl he’d had at Momofuku Noodle Bar though he’s not nearly of ramen connoisseur status either.
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taking a bite out of the big apple 1.1

I was recently in New York City for some press and, of course, the finale reception party hosted by Joe Bastianich himself at his Eataly in the Flatiron District (where, I might add, I got to meet his famous mama, Lidia Bastianich). Being the vision impaired traveler that I am, sightseeing is no longerhp as exciting to me. Instead, all my vacations and trips revolve around (what else?) FOOD.

I hadn’t been to NYC since 2006, so I was looking forward to eating at joints I’d never been to before, especially since I’ve cultivated an even more discerning palate in the last few years. Of course, a discerning palate doesn’t mean I only dine on fine foods; in fact, I absolutely love cheap eats, street food, what have you. Some of the best foods cost just a few bucks, and you eat them standing in the street or seated at a tiny bench rubbing elbows with strangers. In the first of this three-part series highlighting my recent NYC gastronomical experience, I pay tribute to the less expensive eats. Who said you have to break your bank to eat well in the City?

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eating my way through the bay 1.2

Russian River in Santa Rosa

With less than two full days left in the Bay area, John and I tried to cram everything food-wise into our schedule. We woke up early Monday morning to a dreary, drizzly day and made our way north to wine country. We meant to drive across the Golden Gate bridge since we were heading to Russian River in Santa Rosa first, killing two birds with one stone so John can finally see the acclaimed bridge he’d so often seen in photos and on TV. But being heavily dependent of the GPS, we ended up crossing the Bay bridge instead. Oh well.

On the way to Russian River, we stopped by Lagunitas which was only a tiny store. The brewery wasn’t open that day for tours so John quickly ran inside to grab a few bottles while I waited in the car where it was nice and dry. We idled up the highway and finally came upon the famous Russian River who makes two of the top beers in the world (according to Beer Advocate). The place was filled with the lunch crowd. We immediately ordered the flight of beers which gave us a 2 oz.-serving of every beer on tap that day from both the California-style hop ales and the Belgian-style ales. It was a perfect marriage as John liked the hoppier beers while I preferred the sweeter Belgian ones. We also ordered two pizzas: one with mushrooms, the other with corn and cilantro. Both were very good and complemented the different beers. When it came time to check out, John bought half a dozen Pliny the Elders and one Damnation (or was it Salvation?). We left satisfied and full.

Joseph Phelps winery in Napa

Our next stop was the Joseph Phelps winery, recommended to us by our friend Stan whom was kind enough to house us for our visit. Admittedly, John and I know very little about wine, so while we paid $80 for a tasting, we liked them all but couldn’t define what it was that we liked about each one. I thought about buying a bottle, but the prices were too steep, and thinking about transporting them and all the other money we’d been spending on food discouraged me from dishing out the dough for a bottle of their pinot noir.

Two months before our trip, we had tried to get reservations at French Laundry. I actually called the restaurant back in May when I knew I’d be coming to the Bay area for my friend’s wedding, but they laughed at me and said reservations are only accepted two calendar months ahead of time. So I put it on my calendar, and on August 9, John and I began calling the restaurant to get our names on the list. We both got busy signals for quite some time, and I gave up after a few minutes. John got through a few hours later and was on hold for twenty minutes. Finally, he spoke to a live person who only told him we had to go on a waiting list. I also got through the next day on August 10, but I was disappointed again: October 10 is also full.

Dinner at Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc Restaurant in Napa Valley

So fast forward. We never heard from French Laundry. I ended up making reservations at Thomas Keller’s other more casual restaurant, Ad Hoc. We showed up right as they opened, and our entire meal from start to finish was delightful. The restaurant had a casual cozy yet modern feel from the decor to the furnishings to the staff uniforms (John told me they looked like simple Dickies work shirts). The menu is set, and the food is served family style. For that Monday, the first course was a mixed greens salad with sunburst tomatoes, prosciutto, and pomegranate seeds. The second main course consisted of Wagyu beef skewers, pork ribs, cole slaw, and smashed purple potatoes. The meat was good, but the things I could not get over were the purple potatoes. They were lightly smashed with a fork and roasted with what tasted like rich buttermilk, making the bite-sized purple things so simply delectable. I could not stop oohing and aahing about the purple potatoes, and ever since then, they have become my latest food obsession. (Stay tuned for a recipe.)

The third course was a cheese and apple mostardo platter, followed by the fourth and last course: cornbread topped with homemade vanilla ice cream and candied cashews. The service, like the ambience, was attentive but not at all stuffy. Best of all, it was a fraction of what we would’ve paid had we gone to French Laundry. Only regret was not coming on the day they had the fried chicken.

We drove back to the city with plans to eat a second dinner. We were pretty tired so decided to order it as take-out. Delfina Pizzeria is famous for their Neapolitan pizzas. We didn’t care that we just had pizza for lunch; we were going to eat it again for dinner. They had run out of the clam pie so we ordered one with a tomato cream sauce and another with prosciutto and arugula. Delfina was nice enough to pack the prosciutto and arugula on the side so they wouldn’t be wilted by the time we opened the box at home.

Neapolitan style pizza from Pizzeria Delfina

Never before in my life did I like arugula, but twice today I had it accompanied by prosciutto. There’s something about the fatty saltiness and mildly sweetness of the prosciutto that cuts so well into the bitterness of the arugula. Ever since I returned from our trip, I’ve been dreaming about prosciutto and arugula, combining the duo on top of homemade pizzas and salads.

We also hit up Bi-Rite, a creamery known for interesting flavors. I sampled the honey lavender and balsamic strawberry, both of which were amazing. We ended up walking out with pints of honey lavender and salted caramel. Lucky for us, it was a rainy Monday night so the line was short—only a five minute wait instead of the usual wraparound-outside line. After we pigged out, it was time for bed. Another day of eating ahead of us before catching our flight back home.

The next morning, we stopped by Tartine Bakery to see what the hype was all about. Lucky for us again, there was a short line. Upon the bakery’s recommendation, we purchased a morning bun and the bread pudding. We also threw in a regular croissant and a chocolate pain (“bread” in French, not that we were getting punched by the chocolate). Surprisingly, the two things we picked out on our own turned out to be the best in the bunch. The bread pudding, while good, was not something phenomenal or new to me. And the morning bun, which was like a fancy cinnamon roll, was also too rich for me. Maybe I preferred something simpler.

Our last Bay meal: Dim sum at Koi Palace

For lunch, we hit up Koi Palace in Daly City for some West Coast dim sum. We noticed everything, to our astonishment, was larger here than in Texas (at least when it came to dim sum). The xiu mai were larger, the shrimp in the dumplings were huge. Everything was so tasty, but we were seriously splitting our pants by this point. We had some time after lunch before our flight so we parked at a park overlooking the water and took a short nap in the rental car. It’s been several weeks since our trip, but we still talk fondly of the Bay area and all the awesome things we ate. Expensive, yes. But totally worth it.

eating my way through the bay 1.1

Men's Health named RoliRoti's porchetta the #1 street eat in America

My childhood best friend got married last month in Montery, and it was an opportunity for me to revisit the lovely Bay area. It would be John’s first time to northern California so naturally, we made a list of all the things we wanted to see and do. You would think our list included the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, Alcatraz, or riding a true cable car. But no, being the foodaphiles we are, we saw none of those. Each day was about getting from one food item to the next. It was insane but in an awesome insanity kind of way, as much as insanity can be awesome. Needless to say, we are already missing the Bay area: the weather, the atmosphere, the nature, and especially the food. Here is a little tribute to our recent trip to lovely NorCal.

We arrived late Friday night so of course we hit up the In-N-Out by the airport. I was not terribly hungry because I’d caved on the plane and bought a cheeseburger (which, surprisingly, was not bad for airplane food—thanks, Continental/now United), so I just ordered their animal-style fries. Now if you’re not familiar with In-N-Out’s secret menu, animal style just means adding caramelized onions and thousand island dressing on whatever it is you ordered. Thus animal-style fries means this topping on top of fries. In-N-Out is good but honestly, I prefer Five Guysto In-N-Out. I know, blasphemy…but hey, I have my opinions. Maybe there will have to be a future post on this topic.

Saturday morning, we immediately hit up the Ferry Building farmer’s market for we’d heard so many great things. I remember on John’s first trip to NYC, he came upon the Union Square farmer’s market and was in awe; it was the first farmer’s market he’d ever been to, and he was so happy gazing at all the vibrant produce and interesting local eats. Of course, the one in SF’s Ferry Building would be that much better. And better it was. Blocks of booths and stands and food venues. Asian pears, samosas, oysters, coffee…it was a food paradise. We tried New Orleans style coffee from Blue Bottle which we’d also heard about. The lines were long but there were two locations within the venue, so we got our orders after fifteen minutes. The coffee is very fresh—the beans are ground on order (which explains the wait). We also tried a few different types of oysters from Hog Island Oysters which also had two spots in the area. We opted to order ours from the farmer’s market stand rather than the restaurant inside the Ferry Building. At $2 each, they are not cheap, but they were definitely fresh, smaller and sweeter than the Gulf Coast’s larger and brinier variety. Here oysters tend to be eaten with just a little olive oil and shallots rather than cocktail sauce and horseradish, a method that supposedly preserves the taste integrity of the oyster. Either way, they were delicious.

We saw another long line at RoliRoti, a mobile rotisserie unit. The couple in line advised us to try the porchetta, a slow-roasted pork served on ciabatta bread. After the dude behind the counter chops up your pork, he takes the bread slices and mops up the pork juices so all that fatty goodness soaks into your ciabatta. A little sweet onion dresses the sandwich, and voila, you’ve got yourself a $9 sandwich. We ate the porchetta (which was featured in Men’s Health for being one of the 10 Best Street Eats in America) on a bench facing the bay with the sun smiling down on us. Life is good, man.

Hog Island oysters smaller and sweeter than our Gulf Coast ones

On Sunday, we returned to the Ferry Building to eat, this time, inside the Hog Island Oysters restaurant. John and I shared a flight (“flight” sounds better and less Applebee’s-like than “sampler platter”) of oysters with our friend Stan: a variety of 24 for $60—steep, but hey, we were on vacation. Upon Stan’s recommendation, we also tried the clam chowder. It came in a thin creamy soup that tasted heavily of bacon, and the small clams were swimming inside with their shells still on. John, who is used to thick chowder, made me happy when he said it tasted a lot like my clam chowder with the exception that I’d used canned clams instead of fresh—next time, I’ll have to try using live ones. We also ordered the oyster stew which wasn’t bad but wasn’t great. The portions are small (perhaps I’m used to huge impossible Texas dishes); and 24 oysters, three stews/chowders, and three non-alcoholic beverages set us back $130. Ouch, but as usual, when we’re on vacation, we eat like our wallets are bottomless.

Creative ice cream flavors at Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous

Next we grabbed ice cream at Mr. And Mrs. Miscellaneous in Dogpatch. I had the jasmine green tea on a cone while John tried both that and browned butter. Mr. And Mrs. Miscellaneous is one of the many ice cream shops serving up creative flavors in SF, e.g. candied violet (which tasted like a purple Skittle exploded in my mouth). The ice cream is served in a perfect ball on top of a skinny cone; it looked just like a toy and was so adorable that it made me love the shop even more for presentation. What is it about ice cream that gets your heart pumping? The scientific answer is probably all the cream and sugar that goes in it, but the romantic side of me prefers to say it’s the sweet coolness of it hitting your tongue that causes the endorphins to go out of control.

Some of the best sushi I've ever had, Kabuto served foie gras sushi.

For our first supper (that’s right, I said first,/em>), Stan took us to Kabuto Sushi where I had the best sushi I’d ever had in my life. Even when I went to Japan in 2007, the sushi was not as delicious as Kabuto’s. Okay, so there’s a huge caveat: when I went to Japan, we couldn’t afford to eat at the real sushi joints because they were way expensive so we only ate at the kaitensushi bars which, yes, are considered the fast food of Japanese sushi. I’m sure if I’d had the better sushi in Japan, it’d be comparable if not better than what I had at Kabuto. But regardless, Kabuto had the best sushi I’d had this side of the Pacific. Everything was ordered a la carte, and each piece was roughly $5 a pop. The traditional sushi we had was blue fin tuna (my favorite bite that evening), butterfish, escolar, Tasmanian salmon (which was disappointingly lavorless), and sea urchin. We also had some of their more creative sushi like the fatty tuna seared with a blowtorch; foie gras with raspberry on top of sushi rice; yellowtail paired with pear and hot mustard; a twist on the classic ceviche served on seaweed; and last but not least eel tossed with pear, foie gras, and chocolate sauce served in a martini glass. The presentation of this last one was a bit over the top for my taste but in terms of taste and creativity, it was the winner among the creative line.

Supper #2: Crab & garlic noodles at Thanh Long

Immediately after we settled the bill at Kabuto, we made our way across town to Thanh Longwhere we had our second supper of salt and pepper dungeness crab and garlic noodles. We also tried their shaking beef which used ribeye steak and came so flavorful that it didn’t need the traditional dipping sauce.

I left stuffed and was sad that I could not enjoy more of Thanh Long. That is what I get for being a glutton. We went home and while waiting to fall asleep, looked up where to eat the next day. We knew we’d be heading to Napa: more good food and drink. Stay tuned for more of our SF eating adventures.

why go on an all-inclusive vacation?

Cabo San Lucas

Wish I could see this with my own eyes

Summertime means summer vacations. I recently went on a short vacation with my cousin and two girlfriends to Cabo, a beach town on the tip of the Baja Peninsula of Mexico. I hadn’t been to the Pacific side of Mexico since my teenage days when my family would drive down to San Felipe and camp for days on the beach. I discovered that the west coast of Mexico–like the west coast of the U.S.–has much more temperate evenings and chillier ocean water than the Atlantic side and its Gulf of Mexico where the waters are much warmer and more swimmable. No matter, because the Pacific has us beat in terms of appearance. The water was a bluish-green (or so I was told by my travel companions), and best of all, there are mini mountain formations next to the surf which, I guess, makes for a fantastic postcard picture.

While I admit sightseeing and taking in beautiful views are no longer a priority since I’d lost my vision, I decided to go on this vacation because I’d always wanted to visit Cabo, and there was too good a deal to pass up at the Riu Santa Fe. It was the first all-inclusive vacation package I’d ever been on (not counting cruises), and while ideally, I’d love to explore and immerse myself in the cityscape and culture, it is just no longer feasible without vision. So I (reluctantly at first) came on this trip but soon found that all-inclusive packages relieve a great deal of stress on the vacationer. Sure, you don’t get to really venture out on the town and try street food and come in closer contact with the locals, but what you get instead is minimal headache and less stress. Your meals are already taken care of–just grab a plate in one of the many buffets or make a reservation at a sit-down restaurant and just get up and leave when you’re done without settling the bill. The mini bar in your room is already paid for; drink all the water, soda, beer, and spirits you wish. There is something going on every night at the various on-site venues. You never have to leave the resort to do anything.

Of course, it would be a different matter if I could see, but this all-inclusive thing made vacation a lot easier. Every morning, we ate, went to the pool or the resort beach, ate lunch, then sunbathed some more, then showered before going to dinner. After dinner, we’d have a drink or two while hanging out at one of the bars or in the main courtyard where onstage there’s live music or shows. Then we go to bed, next day: repeat. This may not be my ideal vacation, but all-inclusive resort packages are good when you just need to get away for a weekend to relax. You never have to deal with price haggling, exchanging money, getting ripped off, or finding your way around. And thus, it makes for the perfect sojourn for the NMO patient or sight-impaired person. Less things to deal with means less stress, and that’s always a plus during vacation. We have enough stress as it is; what good would a vacation full of worries be? There are many sites that offer all-inclusive vacation packages for reasonable prices. Try some of the following:

best fried chicken ever?

Babe’s Chicken Dinner House
1456 Belt Line Rd. #171
Garland, TX 75044
972-496-1041


5/5 drumsticks

Note: Sorry, no photos for Babe’s; the restaurant was just too dark.

We enjoyed trying out a new place in Dallas, but then I had to return to an old favorite. Every time I go to Dallas, I have to eat Babe’s. I first discovered the Southern cookin’ delight in 2005 thanks to Karen who took me to a fast food version of the diner. The last two times I ate Babe’s, however, it was at their actual restaurant which has the feel of a true Texas eatery with its heavily wooded interior and the quaint Southern drawls of the surrounding staff and patrons. I prefer this Belt Line location because ambience and atmosphere often add to the elemetn of experience.

But most importantly, the chicken is damn good. How it works when you dine in is you choose a meat (entree)–pot roast, chicken fried steak, chicken fingers, fried catfish, etc.–and then the sides come “free” with the meal. I highly recommend the fried chicken; even though I haven’t tried any of their other dishes, this is their signature entree. For $11.99, you get the entree (in our case, it was a basket full of fried chicken), crushed buttered corn, green beans, buttery mashed potatoes, and biscuits. The fried chicken is completely awesome. The skin is fried to a golden brown: crunchy and full of all the right flavors. It isn’t too salty, which is a problem a lot of tasty fried foods seem to possess. The corn and mashed potatoes were yummy (probably full of butter) but I found the green beans a little too “canned”-tasting.

John says this is the best fried chicken he’s ever had, and I may have to agree (although I’m sad to say I think my husband may have a more discerning palate than me). Better than Popeye’s, Frenchy’s, KFC‘s original recipe, and Catalan‘s gourmet fried chicken. Besides improving the green beans, the only thing I’d say would make the place even better is if they’d start serving sweet tea. I mean, sweet tea is a Southern thing, so why not?

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