Farina Pizzeria Sign

Farina Pizzeria

“Best pizza in America” is a title historically claimed by restaurants in the pizzalopolis’s of New York and Chicago. While the monarchs of the thin slice and deep dish, do pump out a plethora of perfect pizzas, Philadelphia’s coal fired pies and Napoletana’s from New Haven are also strong contenders for the tasty title. And so is a dark horse hailing from a city with an unlikely pizza pedigree, Albuquerque New Mexico’s Farina Pizzeria. With their use of local ingredients and Southwestern spin, they’re redefining Italy’s #1 import one green chile at a time.


Inside, Farina is a fusion of the classic and the modern with a Southwestern flair. It’s got brick walls with pictures, red wooden tables, mosaic tiles,

and the noisy din of a bohemian crowd.

They’ve got an interesting list of red and white wines exclusively from Italy including: Umbria, Apulia, Piemonte, Toscana, even Sicilia. For birra alla spina (draft beer), Farina offers hometown favorite Marble Brewery, and in bottle, Italian classics like Moretti, plus beers from England and Germany. While Italy is a wine powerhouse, it doesn’t come close to the U.S. in beer, besides I like supporting the home team, so I ordered a Marble IPA.

It’s a great beer and it only cost 5 bucks which is cheaper than I’m used to paying for a good draft beer. Marble’s IPA is summer meets winter with refreshing honey undertones and a caramel-cornish crispness with a robust roasted maltiness and assertive hops. It’s bi-seasonality paired well with my autumnal Verde salad of organic lettuces, roasted walnuts, apples, imported gorgonzola, and a champagne vinaigrette for $7.

The frisee, arugula, and endive added a nice bitterness which went well with the autumnal-crispness of a sliced granny smith. The walnuts and gorgonzola finished the salad off with a terrestrial depth of flavor. And the grilled bread was nothing short of bread nirvana – “Breadvana,” The Lord of The Bread – “One Bread to Rule Them All,” “Breadtopia”…you get the idea. It had a crispy, hard crust infused with the taste of the grill and an airy-cloud-like-chewy center drizzled with a beautiful grassy-green olive oil.
Farina’s menu has lots of veggie pizzas: Margherita, Melanzane, Funghi, and a Bianca with artichoke hearts. I’m a sucker for the heartiness of eggplant and mushrooms so the first time I went to Farina, I ordered the Melanzane which came with: marinara, eggplant, basil, oregano, mozzarella and I added New Mexican green chili peppers. You can’t beat their heat!

On a return trip to Farina, I traveled deeper into the barnyard by ordering a Funghi: mushrooms, fontina, talleggio, mozzarella, thyme, and shallot. Of course I had to add my favorite New Mexican ingredient: roasted New Mexico green chiles as well. It was $13 for the pizza + $2 for the chiles and was easily big enough for 2.

Farina makes a charred-chewy-thin crust as good as any I’ve had back East.

The Funghi was as delicious as the Melanzane I had last time but earthier due to the Criminis and green chiles plus had a slight but welcome cow-breath-like-barnyardy funk from the Taleggio. If you were paring wine with it, this pizza screamed for an earthy and fruity Pinot Noir.

I usually put those irradiated, been sitting on the table for a few years, red chili flakes on my pizza to add some heat. There was no need with the spicy New Mexican green chiles, which also added a bonus herbaceous flavor you never get from the flakes.

At $5 for a draft, $15 for my pizza and $7 for a salad, the prices aren’t outlandish like you see in some “gourmet” pizza shops. So the next time you’re in Albuquerque, stop into Farina and you be the judge whether they take the title, “Best Pizza in America.” Even a New Yohkah would have to admit, once you’ve tasted Farina, you can’t fuggetaboutit.
Farina Pizzeria & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

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Heat Meiser and Guy Fieri

Grinders West

I have a confession to make. I heard about Grinders West, in Kansas City, from The Food Network’sDiners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” I have another confession, I think the host, Guy Fieri, looks like the Heat Miser from The Year Without A Santa Claus.
And I think he’s a bit of a tool. I know a lot of people love the guy but you’ve got to admit with his spiky hair, ubiquitous wraparound shades, and abuse of cliche’s like “the bomb” and “flavor town,” his over-the-top personality, gets a little insipid. Grinder’s is my third of Fieri’s “Triple D” recommended joints and, like the others, it’s good but falls short on its way to flavor town.
Grinder’s West style is as funky and eclectic as Fieri’s shirts. It’s a casual place with glass tables, wooden chairs, lots of retro-futuristic Jetsons-looking lights,

old-school-meat-packing-district red brick walls, an austere concrete floor, an open but cluttered  kitchen, and a very casual vibe.

It’s a great atmosphere to enjoy some grub and what Grinder’s does best, beer. Lots of beer. Whether you like Belgians, large scale American domestics, or my favorite, microbrews, they’ve got a brew for you. I started with a Schlafly American Pale Ale from St. Louis.

It’s proof that, despite the popular mass produced swill St. Louis is famous for, the city can craft a great beer with loads of personality. Schlafly APA masquerades as a summer sipper with its caramel color and grapefruit rind finish but in-between it flexes a hoppy muscle and an earthy attitude that asserts itself on your palate. I only ordered one but the waitress brought an extra that was poured by mistake and I couldn’t let an orphaned beer go to waste.
Grinders West has a food menu that’s a bar fly’s dream, whether they’re an omnivore or vegetarian bar fly. There are nachos, wings, burgers, hummus, guacamole, a veggie Philly, and of course pizza. I started with a half order of Hail Caesar, which was a grilled wedge of romaine, topped with red onions, garlic parmesan aioli, and fresh parmesan. $7.75 for a full.

Half a salad is BIG, plenty enough for one, and had great flavor, especially from the salty parmesan and the earthiness the grilling imparted to the lettuce. The smoky taste and great-looking grill marks on the still crisp lettuce would make this salad at home at any summer BBQ.

At home, but to make this salad the king of the Que, I’d suggest a few suggestions. Garlic croutons for a little crunch, more aioli so you have enough dressing for the whole salad rather just the top, grilled red onions or half grilled/half raw, freshly grated parmesan added while the lettuce is still warm, and a few roasted tomatoes would make this salad so good you wouldn’t have to be named Brutus to want to stab this Caesar.

Oh look, while I eat my salad, my pizza is placed next to it so it could start getting cold while I’m finishing my salad. Awesome. I know Grinders isn’t fine dining but there was one other table when I was there so it’s not like anyone was slammed. Note to the owner – teach your waitstaff how to stage an order.
Grinders West has lots of 10″ Gourmet Pizzas for only $12.50 which they’ll let you combine any way you want with their “Have it Your Way” attitude. My apologies that in one of the BBQ capitols of the world I ordered a 1/2 Fun Gi (Fun Guy) – Shitake and button mushrooms with creamy white sauce and extra parmesan and a 1/2 The Levitt (Hippie) – Red Sauce, green peppers, black olives, spinach, tomatoes, artichoke hearts and almonds. Yes, almonds.
Is there anything more disappointing than mediocre pizza? All those calories consumed when you could have had dessert or another beer. It brings a tear to my palate. The Fun Gi would have been more fun with simple additions such as fresh basil, oregano, and parsley plus a mozzarella that didn’t taste like plastic grocery store cheese. The veggie side was no better with flavorless black olives that should be illegal on any pizza, and almonds that tasted boiled rather than crunchy and nutty. On the plus side, I loved the huge variety of veggies they topped it with.

I love thin crust pizza but the crust of my pizza tasted a little raw and dense like the dough had been manhandled more times than a frequent flyer by TSA.

I’m a huge fan of hot sauce when it adds a kick to food but doesn’t overwhelm it. Grinders has an array of hot sauces for sale and with names like Insane, Near Death, and Molten you know they mean to inflict the kind of harm chili heads prefer. Since I’m a Mid-level chili head, I skipped the Wimpy and went for the the Molten followed by Near Death.

The Molten had an early and persistent burn, like a 6 on Thai menus. It’s a hot lovers palate pleaser you want to return to again and again. Next, I tried Near Death. It was like gargling with lava; It had the kind of uncomfortable heat that seems to burn before coming out of the bottle and lasts forever and a day. Humbled by my Near Death experience, I skipped the death sauce, but if that’s what you like, I’m sorry for the tragic accident you must have had earlier in life when you lost all your taste buds.

When the Heat Miser finished dancing on my tongue, I ordered another beer. This time an Arcadia Hopmouth IPA from Battle Creek Michigan. Its dark caramel color matched its deep roasted caramel flavor and it finished with a honeyed quality.
Overall Grinders West is a cool and casual place to hang out and drink great beer but when it comes to the food, it passes creative ville but falls short of reaching flavor town.

Grinders West
417 East 18th Street  Kansas City, MO
(816) 472-5454

For more about me, check out my About page.

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Portobello Burger and Eggplant Salad

Robin’s Restaurant

The next time you’re on the 101 freeway, around the city of San Luis Obispo, take a 30 minute detour off the beaten path to the quaint enclave of Cambria, where you’ll find plenty of pines, a plethora of painters, and a place that brings the woodsy and artsy together: Robin’s Restaurant.
Robin’s has three dining areas, an indoor dining room, a big beautiful outdoor garden where you can eat under a gazebo warmed by the sun or large patio heaters,

and a commodious sundeck with many windows, which gives it a bright and airy feel. The sundeck feels like a cross between a mess hall at camp and an artist’s retreat space.
Adding to that artsy homespun feel are the many bird houses, flying-insect art, a couple of Thai statues, and colorful mosaic-tiled tables.

If the decor isn’t enough to make you feel that you are in a yoga-retreat, have Kimberly, the world’s friendliest waitress, wait on you. She encapsulates the spirit of Namaste with phrases like, “Are you pleased with your lunches?” and “Have a beautiful day.” Slices of refreshing cucumber in your water round out the vibe that they care about your well-being here.

The only thing better than cucumber in my water is beer in my glass, especially when it’s from one of my favorite breweries, the Central Coast’s own Firestone. I ordered their Firestone DBA which is an English Style Bitter Amber Ale with 30 IBU’s, and is hoppy enough to make me happy.

Robin’s describes their food as handcrafted global cuisine and with dishes such as Vietnamese Banh Mi, Curried Chicken Salad Melt, and Cumin Black Bean Nachos, you can see why. I decided to go Mediterranean with a portobello sandwich topped with fresh tomato and sauteed red onions on a bed of basil, and substituted the included side for a delicious-sounding eggplant salad with red bell peppers, tomatoes, parsley and feta.

I appreciated they were accommodating with my substitution without a charge; I only wish the food was as pleasant as their attitude. The eggplant was too large, too firm and someone in the kitchen added too much vinegar. Also with the Lilliputian portobello on the Brobdingnagian bun they should have called this a porto-bun-o sandwich.
Something’s wrong when the bun tastes better than what’s between it. While the bun was fresh, homemade, and flavorful, the mushroom was dry and in desperate need of a marinade such as a balsamic vinegar. The mozzarella on top would have been better too if it were melted or if a buffalo mozzarella had been used. If this was all I had for lunch, I would have been disappointed with Robin’s; fortunately Gail ordered the Halibut Fish Tacos – Corona beer battered fish with lime crema and fresh mango salsa served with a jicama slaw, tortilla chips and salsa for $14.

I prefer my fish tacos grilled rather than battered and fried, and even though the halibut was a little fishy, with the mango salsa, shredded cabbage, and red onion, I still enjoyed every bite Gail would let me steal. She also had to guard the fresh tasting corn chips and jicama slaw, topped with a very tasty cilantro lime and jalapeño dressing, that came with her tacos.

The well tended garden outside was blooming with fresh flowers when we were there and would have been an excellent place to have lunch if it had been a little warmer.

Robin’s restaurant defines themselves as “creative meets local where international inspiration collides with the season’s bounty. Authentic. Sustainable. Wholesome. Surprising.” I agree but unfortunately with their dedication to Authentic, Sustainable, Wholesome and Surprising, it’s Surprising the food isn’t better. It’s worth checking out if you’re in Cambria but expect more of that Namaste spirit from the vibe and servers than from your meal. Oh well, we were drinking beer on vacation on a beautiful day in a beautiful place so Kimberly, you got your wish, we did indeed “have a beautiful day.”

Robin’s Restaurant
4095 Burton Drive  Cambria, CA 93428
(805) 927-5007

For more about me, check out my About page.

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Fava Beans and beet greens salad

Peter Lowell’s

On a recent trip to Napa/Sonoma, Gail, my partner in wine, and I were on a hunt for the perfect pinot in the Russian River Valley. While we were excited to find beaucoup of Burgundy’s famous red grape in this fog shrouded area of Sonoma, we were equally happy to discover, with a search for “organic restaurants Sonoma” on the iPhone, organic Nirvana at Peter Lowell’s in the town of Sebastapol.

We had the option to wait for a table on the quaint and popular outside patio in the back of the restaurant surrounded by trees, a fountain, and unfortunately cars in the adjacent parking lot.

But since there were pinots waiting and our hunger wouldn’t, we opted for an available table inside which, with tan wooden chairs and tables, a red cement floor, and hanging industrial lighting and exposed ducts, sports a look of country chic meets urban industrial.

It also feels a bit like a European bistro, especially from the chalkboard over the kitchen which communicates the restaurants organic and seasonal convictions including what they are currently harvesting from their own farm.

Many years ago, on a Bay Area Backroads television shoot in Sebastapol, a local jokingly told me that the town was named as a mispronunciation of Zeebestapple because of the area’s storied history as an apple growing region. While many of those apple trees have been replaced by more lucrative vineyards and tract houses, the area still churns out some great organic eats as evidenced by the deli case overflowing with fixin’s for the perfect wine country picnic.

We started our lunch, as every good one should, with a delicious beer such as Gail’s Scrimshaw Pilsner from North Coast Brewing Co. and my hoppy muse: an IPA from Moonlight Brewery Co. in Sonoma. Both were $6 on draft.
The IPA had a great caramel color, a hoppy-rich-full-bodied mouth feel, a sparkling/effervescence, and a lingering earthy bitterness with a looooong finish. To sum up: It was delicious.

Peter Lowell’s menu states they have a “…slightly off-kilter attitude towards business – one where people, animals and the environment come before profits, where organic is a way of life, and where the highest quality cuisine is a top priority…” To paraphrase the Beach Boys, “I wish they all could be California Peter Lowell’s”

A great mantra was just the start of a menu chalked full of tempting dishes but the beans and greens salad sounded especially appetizing: braised beet greens, bread crumbs, garlic, chili flakes, Parmigiano Reggiano and fava beans.

The dish was an explosion of soul-satisfying-melt-in-your-mouth flavors with a nice ratio of creamy and chalky fava beans to crunchy, earthy, and bitter beet greens, with a pleasing background heat, nice garlic flavor and subtle saltiness. I almost wish it wasn’t so perfectly seasoned so I would have had an excuse to use the Himalayan sea salt and peppercorn dispensers on on our table.

After our salad, we ordered the pizza panna off the lunch specials menu: Roasted Spring Onions, Melted Leeks, Green Garlic, Cream, Calabrian Chiles, Fava Leaf Pesto and Parmigianno Reggianno for $16.

Typically I’m not a huge fan of cream sauces on my pizza however it was the perfect base for each Spring-garden-flavor-packed bite of: sweet and succulent leek, green onion, piquant Calabrian pepper oil and earthy green pesto.

Unlike some pizzas that suffer from cheese and dough overload, this pizza had just a highlight of cheese and a thin, charred, biscuity crust which was a great base for each flavorful bite.

I only have two complaints about Peter Lowell’s. The first is that we didn’t return for dinner to sample more of their menu and try their wines.

The second is that more restaurants don’t share Peter Lowell’s philosophy “…where people, animals and the environment come before profits, where organic is a way of life, and where the highest quality cuisine is a top priority…” It would be a tastier world if they did.

Peter Lowell’s
7385 Healdsburg Avenue
Sebastopol, CA
(707) 829-1077

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Rubirosa Pizza Sign

Rubirosa

I love the West Coast with its open spaces, towering mountains, and bounty of fresh produce year round. But when it comes to pizza, the East Coast steals my heart; especially New York’s five boroughs. So when visiting, I can’t resist taking to the streets in search of the perfect pizza pie. This time, my quest has brought me to Nolita (North of Little Italy) – a neighborhood long considered part of New York City’s Little Italy which has lost much of its Italian character in recent decades due to the migration of Italian-Americans out and yuppies in. From the outside, Rubirosa looks like many other ristorantes decorated with the colors of the Italian flag.
Inside, however, Rubirosa is more modern than those old school Italian joints; sporting a warm, European palace meets mountain cabin feel. The vibe comes from low lighting, wooden chairs and tables opposite a looong wooden bar and a copper ceiling rimmed with ornately decorated copper trim.
The crowd is young, hip, urban…and me. There’s lots of lively conversation swirling about mixing with mellow rock tunes decidedly not Italian.

I started my meal, as I start all good meals with a draught beer. Rubirosa has some nice craft beer options. I opted for a Dale’s Pale Ale from Oskar Blues for $7. I’ve had Dale’s at Oskar Blues in Colorado which ran me about $5 but I guess when you add shipping plus New York City, $7 sounds about right. Still, it left me wondering when did a good beer become as expensive as a cheap glass of wine?

And Dale’s is a good beer; amber-gold in color with a full-bodied rich flavor and a great bitter finish that lingered in my mouth like a roasted hoppy kiss. (Please don’t ask how I know what a roasted hoppy kiss tastes like. It was an experimental phase in college.) Anyway, my delicious beer arrived with two pieces of equally delicious Italian bread; a crusty exterior with a porous center which perfectly soaked up the full flavored olive oil. A match made in Italian heaven.

I began my meal in earnest with an arugula salad loaded with red and golden beets and topped with goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette for $11.

My bowl ‘O salad, big enough for two, was loaded with lots of fresh-flavorful arugula sitting atop beets which were cooked perfectly; thankfully not watery. It was topped with creamy goat cheese and the perfect amount of balsamic which added just a touch of sweetness. Each bite left me wanting more and embodied the Italian cooking philosophy of making simple food simply. Still, being a lily guilder, I can’t help but wonder how some roasted pignolias on top would have tasted.

As I was enjoying my salad, my pizza arrived. It looked like a work of art but see if by looking at the picture you can guess why my first reaction was, UH OH.
Danger! Danger! ARUGULA overload. When I ordered my arugula, cherry tomato, pecorino, eggplant and balsamic vinaigrette glaze pizza for $19, it hadn’t occurred to me (nor to my waitress apparently) that I was ordering my salad on a pizza. Maybe with the tomato, pecorino and eggplant, it would taste different.
Maybe not. The pizza had some highlights but some low lights too. The flavor was good and I enjoyed the technique of topping it with big slices of pecorino as a way to add cheese without overloading it. The crust was nice and thin but could have been crispier. My least favorite part of this pizza was a cloying sweetness that could have come from the tomato sauce but tasted more like it was from the balsamic glaze. With the ups and downs the best I could give this pizza is a B+. For some extra credit, I thought maybe the right wine would help to mellow the sweetness of the pizza.
The wine list is loaded with Italian options and the waitress allowed me to taste a couple of options. A Nebiolllo (one of my favorites) and an ’09 Velenosi Rosso Picento DOC Mentelpulciano/Sangiovese – Marche $9. I chose the latter hoping its hint of sweetness would mellow the sweetness of the pizza. It did…a little.

Rubirosa suffers from the same affliction I’ve experienced at many New York Restaurants. The inattentiveness of young under-informed servers that leaves you feeling slightly neglected. It was great to get a taste of a couple of wines but after an initial how is everything, my waitress was a ghost to my table. If you’re looking for an above average pizza and a hip crowd, check out Rubirosa. As for me, I know this is not the best pizza the East Coast has to offer so it’s back to the streets to continue my search. Stay tuned…

Rubirosa
235 Mulberry Street
New York, NY 10012
(212) 965-0500

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Taco Temple Veggie Burrito

Taco Temple

I first heard about Taco Temple when I was filming The Winemakers in Paso Robles in 2007. Since then, I’ve made many pilgrimages to the Temple with offerings of an empty stomach and have always been rewarded with a satisfied soul. The place is legendary in the area but with its location in a nondescript parking lot East of Highway 1 on the Northern end of Morro Bay, it’s location is not. Neither is it’s shack-like appearance.

It also doesn’t look like much from the inside but has some fun decorations; brightly painted surfboards hanging from the ceiling that look like they belonged to a Maori surf club and eclectic Mexican tchotchkes and paintings decorating the walls and alcoves. It’s old school California beach culture but looks aren’t the reason to trek to the Temple.

The food is. And so is the wine and beer. Taco Temple offers affordable local wine and beer from Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo including popular Firestone Walker Brewing Company. So, with all the local offerings what did I opt for? A $4 pint of Scrimshaw Pilsner on draught from North Coast Brewing in Fort Bragg – 400 miles away. I love draught beer and it sounded like the right beer for my lunch. It was.

Scrimshaw Pilsner tastes like the perfect beer to drink when you come in from the harvest or perhaps a tough day of whaling. It’s color is proof blonds have more fun. It has a medium body, a crispness highlighted by a touch of caramel sweetness and a sprightly finish with the lingering taste of grains; plus it was served American cold. I don’t share many American’s love affair with overly air conditioned indoor spaces and water glasses overflowing with ice cubes. But when it comes to beer, God Bless America. Nobody does it colder. Makes me feel sad for the rest.

It also makes me feel sad when Mexican restaurants charge for chips and salsa. Taco Temple does not. Their chips and salsa bar include freshly made chips with a few different salsas: A red piquante with a roasted flavor. Your typical pureed Mexican red sauce; tongue burning and sweat inducing. A pico de gallo which had a boring canned taste. It needed more cilantro, some onion and garlic, fresher tomatoes and some fresh jalapeños. Fortunately, they also offer fresh jalapeños by themselves which provided me with some ammo to perk up the pico. I give the Temple high marks for having fresh jalapeños at the bar and not using those disgusting pickled jalapeños from the can.

Taco Temple is renown for their fresh and local fish BUT as they say when haggling South of the border “es muy caro”; It is very expensive e.g. one fish taco for $16. I’ve had them before and they’re excellent but pricey so instead I opted for The Kind Veggie Burrito. A monstrous affair too big for one sane person; served in a sun-dried tomato tortilla slightly charred and served with dollops of guacamole and sour cream.

Under the hood, you’ll find a delicious salad of spring mix, tomatoes, rice, cheese, black beans, radishes and carrots. If you look around you’ll see many other plates with a similar accompaniment. They like using the spring mix. And I appreciate that it’s healthier than a lot of Mexican food with its characteristic gobs of cheese overflowing every nook.
However my burrito, like the salsas, was tasty but not mind blowing. The ingredients aren’t seasonal and you can taste they lack a freshness. Still, if you’re hungry and in the mood for good Mexican food in a casual kick-back atmosphere accompanied by a nice selection of beer and wine, Taco Temple is worth a trip.

Taco Temple
2680 Main Street  Morro Bay, CA 93442
(805) 772-4965

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Bridgeport Brewing Facade

Bridgeport Brewpub

Bridgeport Brewpub Facade
Bridgeport Brewpub Facade

If you like beer, than you would love Portland, OR with more brewpubs per capita than any city in the U.S. It’s my favorite beer city. Bridgeport Brewpub in the historic Pearl District is a great place to knock a few back. With distribution in many states, maybe you already have but it’s always better at the source. Especially if you’re there for the $3 a pint happy hour. Where else can you get a great draught beer for $3? In Portland, everywhere. I’m always astonished at the quality and affordability of beer, wine and food when dining out there.

India Pale Ale is one of my favorite styles of beer when it’s not too heavy but has a noticeable but not overwhelming hoppy bitterness.  And while Bridgeport’s IPA was a beautiful amber color, it tasted very light and was slightly effervescent with a citrus character rather than a hoppy or bitter one. It was a refreshing beer but not my favorite IPA ever. I thought it lacked some complexity and richness in flavor that I’ve had in other IPAs. The alcohol was a respectable 5.5%. Still with so many other beers to choose from on draught and in such a great old building, if you’re in Portland and thirsty for beer Bridgeport is definitely worth a stop.

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