Eating California

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Recently, we were out of the kitchen for more than a week. Instead, we were feasting on the abundant and varied wonders along California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Here are some of the highlights. These aren’t restaurant reviews, by any stretch of the imagination—just some nice memories of some great places and moments.

First, some lovely mornings were spent at the table of our hosts Cara and Jun in San Francisco, whether over pastries picked up at a bakery a few blocks away or omelets filled with cheese and enoki mushrooms, prepared by Jun and accompanied by much discussion of Japanese cooking. He sent us home with some dried kelp that will be central to future soup experiments.

And now on to restaurants:

Mandalay, 4344 California Street, San Francisco. This was the emergency back-up Burmese restaurant when it was determined our first choice would be too crowded. We were impressed. Chicago has, at last count, zero Burmese restaurants. Mandalay also offers some Chinese dishes, but we were there for Burmese. The spices are different from Chinese cuisine, and the food is less “saucy.” Jun guided us to the most distinctively Burmese dishes on the menu: the salads—rainbow, mango and green tealeaf. Tossed by hand by the waitstaff at the table, ingredients include roasted lentils, garlic, coconut, sesame seeds, crunchy fried garlic, sesame seeds and pickled green pepper. We had all three—all three were wonderful. As was everything else, six or seven dishes in all. And the pre-tip bill for six of us, including half a dozen drinks and one dessert [sweet-toothed Cara tried to share, but we were all happily full], was a whopping $109. Which leads me to ask, who do we have to talk to to get a Burmese place here in Chicago?

Fifi’s Bistro, 1188 Forest Avenue, Pacific Grove. This was a delightful Internet find by the always resourceful Marion. Pacific Grove is a small town [its own words] on the Monterey Peninsula, filled with wonderfully restored Victorian cottages. It was also the last community in California to give up temperance, not until 1969. So longtime resident and total non-teetotaler John Steinbeck had to leave town to get drunk. The name Fifi’s didn’t fill us with confidence, but a quick look at their website did. And the restaurant delivered: a lovely, relaxed setting and delicious food. Marion had a sea bass special; I had the Petrale Sole Piccata, with lemon butter sauce and capers, a regular offering. Both were excellent. And happily, Fifi’s has embraced the repeal of temperance with a great wine list. We embraced it too.

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Nepenthe, Highway 1, Big Sur. That’s about as much address as you get in Big Sur. Ask locals for more directions and you’ll get, “It’s about half a mile past the…” And when we asked at our hotel, the Glen Oaks Big Sur [address: “Highway 1, Big Sur”], at 4:30 in the afternoon when we should go to Nepenthe for dinner if we wanted to see the sunset, both locals in the room said, “Now.” They were right. This time of year, the sun drops like a shot ox.

Seated atop a cliff on the edge of America, with spectacular views down the coast and out across the Pacific Ocean hundreds of feet below, Nepenthe could get by on looks alone. We all know restaurants that do. It doesn’t. The wonderful food is every bit the match for the scenery. And Nepenthe is staffed with friendly, helpful people who genuinely want you to have a good time. When we bravely chose the terrace rather than the fireplace-heated dining room [it was chilly, but the view was so enticing], the busboy dragged one of the heat lamps over to our seats along the railing. [Except for one bartender in Santa Monica, we found this kind of attitude to be the case everywhere we went in California. And in the bartender’s defense, he probably thought he was supplying needed etiquette lessons to one hapless patron—not us, of course.] We both had the glazed duck, half a Maple Leaf duck generously and mysteriously equipped with an entire extra leg and topped with a mango glaze. It. Was. Incredible.

Olde Port Inn, the end of Avila Beach Drive, Avila Beach. No doubt about it—California has some interesting addresses. This restaurant is on the end of a working pier jutting into the Pacific, just north of Pismo Beach. That means much of their seafood is especially fresh. It is also quite good. We had the Fisherman’s Plate, a plentiful combination of grilled fresh fish, shrimp, scallops, clams and calamari. And no, we don’t always [or even usually] order the same thing. It just worked out that way.

As good as the food was, the entertainment was even better. California sea lions live in the waters around the pier, and at night, they congregate on a dock under the pier—and more to the point, directly beneath the restaurant. Their LOUD barking often drowned out the quiet jazz on the restaurant’s sound system. After dinner, we walked around on the pier a bit—again, a working pier, not a tourist attraction. At one point, Marion looked down a gated wooden staircase and saw several LARGE sea lions sitting there, conversing loudly.

Café Angelica, 490 First Street, Solvang. Solvang calls itself the Danish Capital of America. It is, in letters five miles high. Just a brief walk down its relentlessly cute streets lined with shops relentlessly stuffed with all kinds of precious, fragile blue and white… what’s a polite word for crap… I was struck by the desire for an aluminum baseball bat. In my mind’s ear, I could hear the satisfying ping of aluminum contacting porcelain.

We got to the restaurant just in time. Café Angelica is a Cal/Italian oasis in a sea of kitsch. We were on our way to wineries near Los Olivos, but it sounded like our best shot at restaurants was Solvang. Fortunately, our guidebook pointed out this fabulous non-Danish option. One thing about just about everywhere we ate in California, by the way: Everything was incredibly fresh tasting. Café Angelica was no exception. I can’t even remember specifically what we ordered now, but it was delicious. If we ever have the misfortune to end up in this hyperquaint town again, you’ll find us holed up here.

Daikokuya, 327 E. First Street, Los Angeles. After a few days of breathtaking nature and out-of-the-way places, we were ready for big city fun in LA. We checked into The New Otani Hotel downtown and headed out for some gallery openings. A whole gallery district has opened up downtown since the last time we’d been there, and there were people galore trawling the scene. Then we headed for this amazing noodle shop around ten. Daikokuya is a narrow little place with booths along one wall and a handful of stools along a counter facing the open kitchen. Even at this hour, it was more than a half an hour before we got a couple of stools. One taste of the exquisite Daikuko Raumen told us why it was so popular—and why it had made L.A. Weekly’s 99 Essential Restaurants: The Metropolitan Palate list. While they do serve other dishes, the raumen is the reason to go. The soup is made from pork bones boiled for almost a full day. It is then topped with [stuffed with, actually] noodles, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, green onions, slices of tender kurobuta pork and an entire boiled egg. The place was loud, bustling and lively—the perfect change of pace from the laid back meals of the past few days. We ended the evening with a set of jazz at 2nd Street Jazz Bar & Grill. All these places were walking distance from our hotel, a rare treat in LA.

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Chez Jay, 1657 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica. When Chicago transplant friends Lou and Marie suggested we meet in this nondescript little dive near the Santa Monica Pier, one look at the menu online was enough to sell Marion. They had Sand Dabs. Pacific Sand Dabs [also sanddabs, depending on whose spelling you believe] are smallish relatives of halibut and other flatfish. Marion had read that they are also hard to find, and that when you do, you should order them. Period. So what makes a flatfish a flatfish? They start out looking fairly standard issue, but as they mature, one eye migrates to the other side of their heads, right alongside the other [see the photo, cadged from Wikipedia, as I recall—God knows where they got it]. They then spend much of their lives lying on the sandy ocean bottom, nicely disguised as they wait for prey to move within range. Some of them are then caught and become the amazing, delicate fillets served at Chez Jay.

As a place, Chez Jay is reliably, comfortably divey. Great bar [with the aforementioned bartender the night we were there], checkered oil cloth on the tables and a great history. Hard-drinking celebs like Robert Mitchum used to hang out there because Jay knew how to keep his mouth shut when gossip columnists called. Even today, they frown on cameras in the place.

Frying Fish Restaurant, 120 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, Los Angeles. Chicago expat Lou also turned us on to this place, a lively little sushi joint in Little Tokyo, also walking distance from our hotel [I think we perplexed some California friends with our propensity for walking in LA]. There are a few tables, as I recall, but the action is centered on the stools and narrow counter in the middle of the room. A conveyor belt travels the edge of this island, carrying individual small plates of sushi. A sushi chef works continuously inside this loop, creating new dishes and adding them to the conveyor belt. As the small plates pass by, you grab what you want—the plates are color coded by price, and at the end, the cashier counts up your plates and charges you accordingly [the prices are quite reasonable, by the way].

Everything is fresh and delicious, and the chef keeps an interesting variety coming. And if you have a special request, you just call it out and the chef prepares it, sometimes with a side of editorial comment. Someone called for California rolls, and he let out a big sigh and said, “Ohhhh, okayyyy.”

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Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. This landmark market in downtown LA dates back to 1917. Its produce stands and restaurants—mostly Asian and Latino food vendors with narrow counters around their booths—are always bustling. On this visit, a mariachi band was roaming the huge hall. The food we had here was mostly just filling—an important factor before we headed for LAX—but the atmosphere was wonderful. Director Ridley Scott filmed much of Blade Runner across the street at the historic Bradbury Building. Looking around the market, at diners crowded at counters and a constantly moving sea of shoppers among the stalls, I could imagine him getting inspiration for his dark street scenes in the movie.

Okay. I know this sounds like much more than a week’s worth of meals, but there are actually places I left out. Just about everything we ate was wonderful, though. And I would happily return to just about every place we hit.

 

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6 Responses to “Eating California”

  1. Helmut Says:

    An absolutely stunning travel and food report. How can you keep improving on your already so well-written and fascinating articles?

  2. Terry B Says:

    Thanks, Helmut! California is an easy topic to prattle on and on about. Early on in this trip, we were already talking about future visits.

  3. Thunk Different. Says:

    Cool, where did you see that fish?

  4. Terry B Says:

    Thunk—I have seen similar live specimens at the Shedd Aquarium here in Chicago, but the only sand dabs we saw on our trip were filleted, sautéed and delicious.

  5. Cara Says:

    We loved having you and Marion stay with us, Terry! And that dessert I scarfed down was coconut sticky rice with mango…

  6. Terry B Says:

    Cara—You and Jun were fabulous hosts! It was so nice to see San Francisco through your eyes.

    Readers, Cara Black is a best-selling mystery writer whose books are set in Paris. Besides great mysteries, she treats you to fabulous Paris background that puts you right there.

    Her husband Jun runs the wonderful Foto-Grafix Books next door to the Cartoon Museum of America, in downtown San Francisco. It’s filled with an amazing collection of photography and art books as well as very carefully chosen gifts.

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