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Food Cart Crawl – Austin, Texas

Within moments of entering the Austin city limit’s it is clear to see that these people are awesome.

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

Austintonians love their food carts and it’s not hard to see why. What’s not to enjoy about a freshly prepared meal out of a truck on the side of the road– a wonderful truck that uses fresh corn tortillas for their expertly prepared  tacos or fresh blackberries for their sorbet or who bakes their cupcakes each day, fresh, instead of sticking them in a fridge for a week. Who wouldn’t want their food cooked that way?

To explore the mouthwatering and mind-changing possibilities of the food cart, we set out on a local tradition known as the food cart crawl, whereby we selectively mapped out “top-tier” food carts throughout the city aiming to sample a piece of what each had to offer, without exploding from excessive food intake, of course. What happened as we tasted our way through the city was part epic, food-lust fueled experience and part life-altering, taste bud entrancing magic, but ask those who enter into the food cart crawl and live to tell the tale and they’ll tell you, more than any of that, it’s a whole lot of super tasty, Austin-themed awesomeness.

“The Crawl”

After a midday trip to Barton Springs Pool, a wonderful 900 foot natural limestone pool in Zilker Park, of which I unfortunatly have zero pictures, we headed out on our “crawl.” As is the case with all tasting experiences, like tapas or tasting menus, we wanted to start off with lightly flavored dishes and progressively move towards more heavily flavored items as the day wore down.

As it turns out, we couldn’t have picked a better place to start than Edible Earth, a newly opened vegan food cart, where we chatted with the owner, sipped sun tea, and ate fresh blackberry sorbet, all of which were perfect compliments to the continuously glaring and, at times, over-bearing mid-morning Austin heat.

“Edible Earth”

Sun tea with oranges and lemons

“Sun tea made with green tea, lemons, and oranges”

“Fresh Blackberry Sorbet”

After our refreshing visit to Edible Earth, we headed off on a harrowing, death-defying journey across the parking lot (hey, I said we mapped them out not that they were far apart) to Izzoz Tacos, a new age Tex-Mex taco trailer run by John who serves an assortment of tortas n’ tacos spiced up with a little attitude and more than enough knowhow.

Izzoz Tacos

“Izzoz Tacos”

To call these tacos “good” is not only wrong, it’s downright insulting. These tacos defy words and are, without a doubt, among the most delicious street food we had in the entire country, in competition with only The Odd Duck, a farm to trailer establishment located, oddly enough, only miles away in Austin. In fact, these freshly inspired tacos, like the Fried Avocado, with its layers of perfectly peppery arugula, wonderfully tangy and smoky chipotle sherry sauce, Cotija cheese, and flash-fried avocado, and The Padre, a traditional carnita pork taco, topped generously with rich slices of avocado, sweet roasted pineapple, and tangy tomatillo salsa, make me quiver with excitement just thinking about them. Not to mention the fact that it literally pains me that I can’t visit for lunch more often, as in, everyday. So, John, until we meet again some day or you kindly accept my begs and pleas for you to allow me to work for you (hint hint), I proudly salute to you for making, what is, without question, one hell of a taco.

Izzoz Tacos

“Fried Avocado Taco”

“The Padre”

Looking for something a little different following our terrific Tex-Mex taco tasting, we headed over to a popular Vietnamese cart known as Me So Hungry!, a feeling which, as it turns out, is perfectly captured by the scheming oriental woman plastered on top of the Ninja Turtle green paint job of the truck.

Me So Hungry - Austin, Texas

“Me So Hungry”

Me So Hungry is famous for their Banh Mi, a traditional Vietnamese sandwich made with a french baguette and filled generously with pickled carrots, cabbage, cucumbers, cilantro, chili peppers and a meat, usually pork, chicken or ham which has been grilled, roasted, or charbroiled.

Me So Hungry's Banh Mi

While this was my first time tasting a Banh Mi, I’m not at all unfamiliar with the flavors of grilled meat and vegetables and I happen to know a great sandwich when I see one. This is a great sandwich. The contrasting flavors and textures of the crunchy baguette, caramelized pork, and super fresh vegetables are the kind of stuff unforgettable food memories are made of and, conversely, what food related crime will be committed for if I don’t get my hands on another one of these very soon.

Banh Mi Sandwich

Amidst chatting with the owner of Me So Hungry and asking for a refreshing drink to cool me and the now sun burnt Brittany down from the unbearable Texas sun, I learned that Cheer Up Charlies, a nearby bar with more than enough lesbian appeal, specialized in a fermented mushroom drink known as Kombucha.

Now, I consider myself to be a pretty adventurous person. Can I be a little timid, at times? Sure. Am I off climbing Everest, swimming with sharks, or trying to tickle bears? No way. In truth, I might hesitate to do more than a few things that might put myself into even possible mental or physical danger, but some things are just worth it. New food experiences happen to be one of those things. So to satisfy this craving, alone, without trepidation, and in clear violation of the rules of the “crawl,” I headed off into the mystical void of experience to track down the mysterious mushroom drink they called Kombucha.

As I walked into the bright white and turquoise brick building I was met by an unmistakable menacing glare. It was the glare of young hipster women, artfully inked and sporting trendy ‘alternative fashions’, and only young hipster women, that resided in this low-key and surprisingly not very cheerful bar. Welcomed was the opposite of how I felt.  In fact, really the only vibe that I got was one that screamed in an all-to-stereotypical, startled, husky female voice,  ”woah, what the hell is he doing in here?!”

But before you wrongfully accuse me of being even the slightest bit intolerant, let me be clear. Seeing as no one specifically told me, I have absolutely zero proof that Cheer Up Charlies is a lesbian bar nor do I have even the slightest problem with it if it is. All that I ask is for a little warning next time. That way I can make Brittany go, for the comic appeal, that’s all.

Cheer Up Charlies

According to Wikipedia, Kombucha is “a fermented tea that is often drunk for medicinal purposes,” Although there’s currently no scientific evidence to support the purported benefits of the mushroom tea, I believe in them.

The drink– lightly carbonated, tart, slightly sweet and lacking in any noticeable fermented flavor– is served on tap at Cheer Up Charlies and is loaded with healthful items like Yerba mate, green tea, a small amount of vinegar from the fermentation and, I’m sure, more than enough antioxidants to count.

The flavor is pretty intense, though, and certainly not for the faint of heart. To me, you have to really want to be healthy to get more than a few sips of this stuff down. Although the sun melting the ice down did make this one easier to palate, unlike a few others we’ve now tried without ice.

Cheer Up Charlies Kombucha

“Kombucha”

Surprisingly refreshed from the Kombucha experience, we headed off to what would be our last destination on the crawl and, not surprisingly, the only one that Brittany really lobbied for– the cupcake place. And when I say lobbied, I mean lobbied hard. Repeatedly reminding me that, before days end, we’re getting cupcakes! … or else.

To match her excitement and save me from the … or else part, we headed over to Hey Cupcake! to take a bite out of their famous red velvet cupcake.

What we found was not only a place that was passionate about serving gourmet cupcakes, but also one that has become rooted in Austin culture, sitting as the silver bullet trailer lined up alongside other food stands, restaurants, bars, and shops which cover the curbs of the district known as South Congress, in South Austin.

Hey Cupcake! South Congress

“Hey Cupcake!”

I’m not sure if there’s a better way to end a limestone pool and fantastic food filled summer Austin day than to sit down and eat a couple of  freshly baked cupcakes, sip on a bottle of cold milk, and listen to the rustic twang of a beat up acoustic guitar. I’ll let you imagine…

Hey Cupcake! Red Velvet Cupcake

“Red Velvet Cupcake (front) Strawberry and Chocolate Cupcake (back)”

Acoustic Guitar

“Guitar Man”

Music to “crawl” to Matt the Electrician – Made For Working

July 20, 2010   3 Comments

Austin, Texas – Shipping Box Pastries and Tacos Served From a Truck

To be honest, I’m really not sure where to start with my description of our time in Austin and, in a way, I’ve been avoiding this post because of it. I know that it’s more than a bit cliche to say that I’m hardly ever left speechless after a great experience, but with Austin, it’s just true.

‘Meeting Austin’ was a lot like running into someone who’s strikingly familiar and gives you a weird, intuitive sense that maybe I’ve met them before? Simply put, Austin was too familiar. The food? Fresh, locally sourced and prepared in a variety of styles by the coolest, most passionate people on the planet. The wildlife? Diverse, beautiful, and scattered throughout the city. The music? Let’s just say that more than a few of my favorite musicians are from Austin. The people? As cool, laid-back, and unbelievably friendly as they come. Pardon the personal depth, but for the first time in my life, I felt like I actually belonged in a city.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I just can’t find the words to explain why I love something. Words lack the meaning and depth to translate the feeling, the connection.  Even the most impassioned of efforts come up inevitably short. As one of my favorite lyricist, Jeffrey Foucault,  writes, “the finest pen could never hold a butterfly.” To me, it goes to show that there’s something about beauty that’s above words– above silly adjectives and washed out clichés. It must be experienced. It must be felt. In it’s simplest form, it just is. To me, Austin just is.

La Boite

After a night camping in the McKinney Falls State Park about 20 miles south of Austin, we headed to La Boite, a local eatery serving high quality french pastries, coffee, and other breakfast goodies out of a shipping box on the side of the road. Pretty cool, huh? A lady and fellow customer inside remarked that the pastries were as beautiful and tasty as any she had in Paris. Now, I’m a skeptic so I’m going to take that with a grain of salt until I make my way to Paris, but I do know that La Boite serves food as beautiful and tasty as anything I’ve ever eaten.

la boite

We had really just planned on ordering their famed Almond Croissant and a Cafe Mocha to satisfy Brittany’s insatiable appetite for coffee, but upon seeing the range of food they offered, I couldn’t help but satisfy my insatiable appetite to to try as many delicious-looking things as possible.

Cafe Mocha

Amidst chatting with the remarkably tattooed and helpful (both common traits among Austintonians) young girl at the register, I pointed out that I’d like to try every macaron they had. See, I consider myself somewhat of a rube in the world of desserts. I’m more of a savory food lover, choosing to endlessly gorge myself on as many salty and fatty foods as I can cram into my mouth. Because of this, macarons are completely new to me. So much so that I pronounced them ‘mackaruune.” Which is just plain embarrassing. Though, I quickly learned through my keen observational skills that it’s actually pronounced ‘mackaRON’. Though, after some detective work, there may be more to it than I ever imagined (see discussion on Chowhound – “Macaron vs. Macaroon”)

Whatever the case, these delicious little cookie-like contraptions are beyond delicious. I had heard of them, seen them, and read recipes to make them before trying them, never with the intention of actually doing so because I falsely imagined them to be rock hard little cookies with filling in the middle. As it turns out, they’re perfectly crispy on the outside, tender on the inside with a melt in your mouth filling that leaves you craving just one more bite. If I could only eat one cookie-like-thing for the rest of my life, it would be a macaron with a drop of hesitation.

Macaron

“Left: Pistachio with chocolate ~ Middle: Lemon and ginger ~ Right: Fluer de sel salted butter caramel”

Since I’m not a huge coffee fan, and Texas is frankly the hottest place I’ve had the pleasure to step foot on, I decided to quench my thirst with a cup full of lavender lemonade. Lemonade– an already perfect combination of sweet and tangy was only heightened by the slightly floral qualities of the lavender. It wasn’t too far off from a recipe for honeysuckle lemonade that I was tinkering earlier in the summer.

Lavender Lemonade

Torchy’s Tacos

Tochy’s is an Austin institution, famous for it’s creative and extremely delectable Tex-Mex tacos served out of a spruced up catering truck. It goes without explanation that when you stop in Austin, you stop at Torchys, likely more than once.

Torchys Tacos

It’s hard to decide what to eat as you’re perusing the chalkboard menu littered with selections like slow roasted pork simmered in green chilies, onions, and cilantro, hand battered shrimp topped with cooked cabbage slaw, pickled onions, and jalapeños, and the ever-famous fried avocado taco with pico de gallo and a poblano ranch sauce.

Okay, actually, it’s not that difficult of a decision, being that no matter what you choose it’s going to be delicious and all. There certainly could be worse predicaments, I’m sure.

To satisfy this new found hunger for great Tex-Mex, we chose a heavily spiced seared albacore tuna taco with cilantro, slaw, and the always appropriate lime wedge.

Albacore Tuna Taco

Along side that, and my personal favorite, was a taco filled to the brim with chunks of slow-roasted chicken, grilled jalapeños, gently roasted mango, sour cream, cilantro, and a spicy, spicy, spicy Diablo sauce, which is okay, because I like it spicy.

Torchys Brushfire

More on Austin to come!

June 9, 2010   2 Comments

Road Trip 2010: First Stop, New Orleans, LA

As of yesterday, we’ve embarked on a month long, sixteen state road trip traversing the central and western United States with no itinerary, a tent for ‘lodging,’ and a 2 door Honda Civic worth of luggage. Insanity, you say? Adventure, we respond.

I will say, though, that for all of my ability to simply “go with the flow,” there is a certain way to start a trip of this magnitude, the adjectives of which sound something like stress-free, relaxed and methodical, with the ultimate goal of being as prepared as possible for whatever obstacles lie ahead. What you shouldn’t hear the day before you leave is, “Mr. Blackwell, that car you’re planning on driving across the country needs new front tires, a left front axle, front brakes, adjusted rear brakes, air filter and a serious alignment after you hit that truck tire driving down to New Orleans some odd months back.” Oh, really? You don’t say? How ‘bout we fix that axle when I get back? Right…

Here’s where I insert my sincere and much needed public apology for allowing my wonderful parents to ‘handle’ the potentially trip ruining repairs. Mom and Dad, I am so very grateful.

Anyways, after a torturous amount of stress, tirelessly waiting around, and getting on a first name basis with the fine folks over at the Honda Service Center, we finally set off for our first stop, New Orleans, Louisiana, at 5 p.m. in the afternoon with dinner reservations at our favorite spot, Boucherie, four hours later. Which, as it so happens, is the exact amount of time that it takes to get there. Lucky us, huh?

Boucherie is our favorite spot in town for three reasons—it’s absurdly cheap, the food is awesome, and James, a server and part owner (I think), is a seriously knowledgeable beer geek who will, upon the slightest request, immaculately pair any chosen dish with a beer from Boucherie’s stellar beer list. In fact, he’s so good at pairing beer with food that I consider him a good friend, but only in a kind of weird and slightly creepy “he doesn’t even know who I am” kind of way, of course.

For this visit we went with a shared appetizer of Boudin balls, a heavily spiced rice sausage of traditional Cajun cuisine that is rolled and deep fried, with a creamy garlic aioli served alongside a bowl of perfectly fried pomme frites, aka French fries, topped with herb butter and freshly grated parmesan cheese. Both of which were delicious down to the very last scrapings on the plate, though the Boudin balls were missing the peppery crunch of arugula that had made them so delicious on numerous occasions before.

For an entrée, Brittany decided on seared scallops served with crunchy green beans alongside what I would consider a meaty and heavily acidic hybrid between tomato gravy and chutney. Whatever the case, the acidity of the tomato paired nicely with the richness of the impeccably seared scallops while the green beans provided a crunchy and remarkably fresh contrast to the meaty tomato sauce. For my entrée, I went with a pan seared duck breast, smoked black-eyed peas, duck cracklings, and a foie gras milk gravy—no further explanation necessary, if you ask me. To cut the richness and support the gently spiced duck, James recommended a Triple Karmalleit, a full-bodied, moderately carbonated, and distinctly “Belgian-tasting” beer brewed with a combination of three grains that results in a slightly spicy, herbal, and crisp compliment to the rich duck dish. Thanks James, I owe you one.

Boucherie New Orleans

“Boucherie – sorry for quality, Iphone photo”

After dining at Boucherie we set off for the first night of our many planned nights camping at state parks in and around the cities where we’ll be exploring. Now, midnight in the pitch black of a riverside Louisiana state park probably isn’t the best time for a first time ‘tent pitching’ experience. Hell, a bright incandescent light bulb lit living room would have been perfect for a test run. But in an effort to make things as difficult as possible during a day when everything else had gone wrong, pitch black seemed like the right move.

Luckily and contrary to popular belief and movie portrayals, pitching a tent really isn’t all that difficult, even in the dark with way too many bugs around. The tent was set up in a mere twenty minutes thanks to Brittany’s intense and quite inspired workmanship. To be honest, I had fully expected the tent pitching to be a solo experience for myself, wrought with frustration, anger, and likely a few echoing obscenities. But what happened amazed me. Throw a special someone in a situation they absolutely don’t want to be in, but otherwise have no choice, make sure there’s a ton of bugs, a stress-filled day, and the urge to get a good night’s sleep and watch them go. It was like an experiment in human psychology at its finest, mainly because I was the observer and not the subject.

Camping in Louisiana

“Fairview Riverside State Park – Madisonville, Louisiana”

The next morning, on our way to head out for Austin, Texas, we set off on a “greatest hits” tour of New Orleans, featuring two of our favorite New Orleans specialties: Po-boys and Chocolate Azteca Gelato.

For the first, we went to the very place where we first experienced the meat packed, incredibly messy, and perfectly dressed Po-boy sandwich: Crabby Jacks. The small and eclectically decorated eatery is a local favorite for Po-boys, Boudin sausage, red beans and rice, and nearly every other New Orleans specialty you can think of, and with good reason, it’s delicious. For this visit we decided to share a 12” stewed Cajun pork Po-boy. It actually went by a more complicated, “French-like” name, but I can’t remember what it was, but who cares. It was good.

Crabby Jacks Po Boy

For dessert, we headed over to La Divina Gelateria for their Chocolate Azteca Gelato. There really isn’t much to say. La Divina, as we call it, is locally sourced, artisan quality, and basically the best gelato this side of Italy. And if you’ve never eaten chocolate ice cream spiced with Mexican spices like cayenne pepper, cardamom, ginger, etc. then you’re missing out. The sweet heat is to die for.

Chocolata Azteca

“La Davina Gelateria – Chocolate Azteca”

Now we’re off to explore Austin, Texas! Wish us luck!

June 3, 2010   3 Comments

Wondering Where I’ve Been?

The River :)

The River

In my mind, ‘the river’ will always be  synonymous with childhood summers spent floating on the murky water of the Coosa river lying under the sweet heat of the Alabama summer sky. Each summer our family would take a trip to an old cabin on the side of the river and, to me,  that mean’t wildly adventurous pontoon boat trips to the general store, near back-breaking tubing on the concrete-like water, pulsing splinters gathered from an old wooden pier, fragrant piles of burning wood, dusty life jackets from an old shed, home cooked cornbread, minimum air conditioning, lemon meringue pie, and shooting fireworks off of the pier.

The trip was a yearly ritual for our family as I grew up, the memories of which I continue to cherish into my budding adulthood. And while childhood has all but passed, with only vague memories of those important events remaining, the mysterious and murky waters of Alabama’s Coosa river are still a place for good company, sweltering summer skies, and childish adventure.  I will admit, however, that at this point in my life, as numerous ‘responsibilities’ have been tacked on with only more to come,  I’ve thrown in my fair share of rest and relaxation by way of chilly nights listening to music or laying on the pier gazing at the stars and listening to nature, things I would have only scoffed at as a ‘kiddo.’

But more than anything, as time passes and memories fade, the river is a place to enjoy the finer things in life, whatever they may be at the time. And so, I’ll leave you with pictures of what were the ‘finer’ things on my recent trip.

Elephant Garlic

“Elephant Garlic from Birmingham’s Pepper Place Farmer’s Market”

Garden Fresh Radish

“Freshly Pulled Radish from My Mom’s Garden”

Local Strawberries

“Fresh Strawberries from a Local Farm”

Grilled Chicken Pesto Pizza

“Grilled Chicken Pesto Pizza with Fresh Mozzarella”

Critter Friends

“Critter Friends”

Local Grass Fed Eggs

“Local Grass-Fed Eggs”

Yoga

“Yoga on the Pier”

Sunset 1

“Sunset on Jet Ski”

"Shoot the Moon Between the Eyes"

“Shoot the Moon Between the Eyes” – John Prine

Sunset

“Sunset”

Music to float the river to: River Mix – Various Artists Listen for free at Grooveshark.com!


May 22, 2010   4 Comments

Stuffed Summer Squash

Stuffed Summer Squash

My favorite memories are always captured in the spur of the moment. Whether in a childhood game of “hey, try and block this racquetball with my mom’s couch pillow” or improvised trips to faraway lands (see Misadventure in Peru), the times in which worrisome planning subsides to unadulterated enjoyment are second to none and are moments that I will always cherish.

This past Easter-weekend was filled with such pleasureful moments; the raw heat of the springtime sun illuminating the bright purples, whites, and greens of newly blossomed trees on our drive through the Alabama countryside; the gratifying moments of a well-received and heart-felt meal for family; a spontaneous trip to a wonderful antique store in an otherwise unassuming small town on the outskirts of Birmingham.

Why we decided to turn the car around and patronize the small store I’ll never know. Perhaps it was out of sheer curiosity or the need to break the persistent boredom that encompasses a six hour trip that should take two hours at most. Whatever the case, I sure am glad that we stopped by to enjoy what the little beige store had to offer.

Inside, we met a nice man, who later introduced himself as Felix, along with a vast array of vintage southern folk art that would make anyone’s grandparents proud. If we weren’t broke from the recent trip to Whole Foods it would have been nearly impossible to resist the urge to buy something. Sure, explaining how I spent the money reserved for Easter dinner would have been difficult to explain—but time would pass and memories would fade and I’d still be the proud owner of my so-very-awesome vintage southern sign. But I digress…

While we were there, the subject of food came up, as it inevitably does with me around, and Felix, a former cook and café owner himself, shared a recipe he thought that I might like– summer squash stuffed with cream cheese and spinach and topped with parmesan. It’s old-school and southern just the way I like it, and as he described it, “it looks like you did a whole lot and you really didn’t.” Perfect.

I decided to use his suggestion as inspiration to create my own version which combines his uniquely southern dish with the Italian flavors that I love and know so well.

Stuffed Summer Squash Recipe (serves two):

Preheat oven to 350ºF

For the filling-

  • 2 medium yellow squash, halved and seeds removed
  • 4 large basil leaves
  • 80z package cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup homemade crème fraîche or sour cream
  • 2 cups fresh spinach, sautéed and well-drained
  • 1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp fresh cracked black pepper

To sauté spinach, place a frying pan over medium-high heat with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and cook for 4-6 minutes until it has reduced in half. Press with a fork to remove liquid. Remove from pan and allow to cool. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Combine the cream cheese, crème fraîche, spinach, parsley, salt, and pepper.

Place a single large basil leaf in the bottom of each squash.

Yellow Squash with Basil

Stuff the squash with equal parts of the cream cheese mixture.

Yellow squash stuffed with cream cheese

Bake at 350º for 25-35 minutes, depending on the size of the squash, until fork tender.

For the garnish-

  • 2 slices thick cut, hickory smoked bacon
  • 4-6 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 6 sprigs of thyme, picked
  • 6-10 small basil leaves
  • Freshly cracked pepper
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Shaved fresh parmesan (I forgot to add this, but it would be great!)

Cut the bacon slices into 1/4 inch strips and fry over medium-heat until crispy, but still slightly chewy.

Arrange two squash halves in a stacking pattern. Scatter cherry tomatoes, fresh thyme, and bacon around the plate. Top with basil leaves,a light drizzle of olive oil, and freshly cracked pepper. Serve hot.

For anyone interested in visiting Felix’s antique store in Vincent, Alabama, be sure to check out his website at SpringCreekAntiques.com for directions and store hours.

April 6, 2010   5 Comments

Brittany and Chases Big Misadventure


Griffiti in Lima/Amazon Basin in Iquitos, Peru

What’s playing? Dave Rawlings Machine – A Friend of a Friend

So, after weeks of long nights spent tweaking, twiddling, pondering and performing countless other generally creative activities, it’s finally time for my first blog post.  (A little disclaimer: I’m going to skip straight to some content, so if you’d like to know more about who I am and why I’m writing head over to my About Me page.) Now, where were we? Oh, right… my first post.

This summer Brittany and I planned a trip to South America to explore the expanses of Peru. And by planned, I mean decided and left in the short span of, oh, you know, three weeks or so. There was that midnight run from Birmingham to New Orleans to pick up our passports short on notice and on sleep, purchasing plane tickets, arranging virtually no travel plans, and departing for Lima with hostel reservations for the first four nights of our trip… [Read more →]

February 9, 2010   1 Comment

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