West Coastin’: Last Call

RT8_sushiIn those final days, our adventures kept us tethered close to Anaheim, cleaning our hotel rooms, gathering souvenirs, and worrying that the airport would not choose to jettison nearly a thousand dollars worth of wine (Mom’s frequent and incessant doubts, to be honest, worried me.  I imagined ourselves forced to drink thirty-six impounded bottles in the airport terminal only to miss our flight or have our stomachs pumped – whichever came first.).

At the time, we were quite content to remain within an hour of the hotel.  Mostly we focused on our stomachs, sampling local bakeries and restaurants recommended by various family and friends . . . and the internet.  I should note here that this form of research notoriously tests wills and tempers, breaking friendships and ruining meals to the tune of ‘But . . . but they said it was good!’ and ‘How can so many people be wrong?’

Advice as Tolkien writes often is a dangerous gift . . . as all courses may run ill.  Yet in the case of dining, this can be taken quite literally.  A bad meal can ruin evenings, sending the unlucky diner tumbling into the bathroom, hugging about the toilet for days.  Good advice is of course aimed to prevent this, yet even precluding sickness, the combination of high expectations, modest fare, and poor atmosphere alone may ruin any meal.

Many people have a habit of recommending hole-in-the-wall restaurants, small cramped cafes tucked away from the mainstream and thus more expensive dining halls, promising excellent fare and original tastes in exchange for unassuming environments (i.e. fly-encrusted tables and claustrophobic dining where you are practically sitting in your neighbor’s pasta bowl).  In such cases, originality and a good story or two is the true fare, not the food.  At one such diner back home, my efforts to dislodge myself from the table and visit the bathroom nearly forced the entire dining room out into the street.

I never relish throwing away money on expensive meals, yet the old maxim often holds true: you get what you pay for.

Yet as mentioned before, the driving force for this trip was food, and so we chose two restaurants recommended by friends and family back home before flying home.  In both cases, the restaurants were stationed an hour from Anaheim’s border, and so once again we boarded our Sebring for another road trip.

RT8_bakeryOur first stop gave us hope.  The Karen Krasne bakery in San Diego greeted us with dozens of freshly made cakes, pies, cookies, and assorted baked goods.  Apparently the selection constantly changes depending on the whims and moods of the cooking staff, thus no dessert menu is given; our waitress asked us to step up front and select from the gooey pastries, creamy custards, and chocolate dripped cakes.  Moreover, the entire staff was made up of well-dressed women, a charming feature for three guys on vacation.

“You guys should look in the back,” Dasad said, returning from the bathroom just as his chocolate sundae arrived layered in home-made chocolate syrup.  I dug into my own dish: shredded coconut blended with dark chocolate and molded into the shape of an evergreen tree.  Our waitress, a beautiful blonde model, smiled at three of us digging into our desserts.

“What?  Did you see them make anything?” I asked, patting the chocolate from my lips.

“No, it’s just that everyone in the back is rather . . . homely or male.  They must shuttle all the beautiful girls to the front.  Keep the . . . less than ideal staff in the back.”

“For presentation purposes?”

“Sure, helps with the elegant look, right?  If you’re running a restaurant, you don’t assign a cranky morbid waiting staff.  You get someone perky and energetic, keeps the customers happy.  Restaurants have décor, atmosphere: paint, landscapes, stained wood . . .”

“. . . basketball hoops, jungle gyms, giant rat mascots,” I added helpfully.  Jay ignored us both and stared without reserve at the bartender, drying martini glasses near the cash register.

“Shut it.  My point is why not hire attractive people too?”  Dasad asked pointing his spoon at me.

“Well, the reverse might be more accurate also,” I said, after some consideration.  “Happy competent people are more beautiful, thus more likely to serve food.”

“Perhaps.   Anyway, I’m not complaining and it’s not sleazy.  They don’t sell wings and tank tops.  The separation was just very apparent to me.”

“That’s cause you’re a perv,” I said, chewing on coconut.

“Shut it . . .”

RT8_cakesSatisfied both body and soul, we waddled outside with three slices of chocolate cake.  Our gastronomic odyssey continued.  Dasad’s cousins had made mention that a truly great roasted chicken dwelled in the heart of L.A. so after dessert we drove north to see about dinner, finding the small establishment in a small strip mall just off Sunset.  It was a little past four when we passed through Anaheim and collided with rush hour traffic into L.A.  Moreover, neither Jay nor Dasad knew where to go, and after consulting Google (Thank Heaven for the iPhone; without the maps, restaurant reviews, and Journey videos – ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ is essential for the long car rides – we would not have survived.), we located the place on the corner of what looked like a strip mall.

Parking was sparse, but we found a space wedged against the wall of the next building, adorn with graffiti and ‘Spaces for Customers Only’ signs.  We kicked coffee cups across the small lot before entering what looked like a school cafeteria: plastic neon orange seats, wobbling tables, overhead menus misspelling chicken with the number 1.  Not exactly what I imagined but honestly, having arrived, the unassuming atmosphere excited me a great deal.

“Finally,” I thought, “A genuine culinary diamond-in-the-rough, known to few, appreciated by only the culinary elite.   The perfect fried chicken . . .”

Yeah.  So the chicken was . . . well, chicken.  Nothing particularly interesting or special.  The seasoning – if any – was on par with the local supermarkets here in Maryland.  Based upon the recommendations, we had expected something extraordinary, a gastronomic masterpiece: savory chicken rotisserie, a roasted bird dry rubbed in garlic and oregano, dribbled with succulent juices, perhaps even infused with warm stuffing or berry compote.  Instead they handed us an animal one would expect beneath the heat lamp at 7-Eleven: good but hardly worth the commendation.

Our late night snack . . .

Our late night snack . . .

The meal had a similar effect on Dasad who as I recall cried aloud at the lack of hearty seasonings.   Yet last weekend, a month after returning to Maryland (our wine arrived safely much to Mom’s chagrin and utter joy) while driving out for a late evening flick (The Invention of Lying in case you’re wondering; another disappointment) I learned that online reports seem to have affected a change of heart:

“You know that chicken wasn’t that bad,” he admitted.  “In fact, it was probably the . . . best I’ve ever had.”

“You said it sucked at the time,” I countered calmly.  “That the bird had no real flavor.  That to Californians, chicken must be some rare delicacy in order for this ‘meal’ – I believe you used the air quotes – to entice so many . . .”

“I did not use air quotes.”

“Okay . . . but you did suggest KFC might be more authentic . . .”

“Yeah but . . .”

“Also if Gordon Ramsey had visited the place, he would have F-bombed the whole block to outer rims of Hell.”

“Alright already,” Dasad said, sighing behind the wheel. “I had expected more, but so many people online praise it.  We must have missed something.  Millions of people can’t be wrong . . . whoaaaa!” The car suddenly braked, veering to the shoulder as a herd of deer bounce nonchalantly across the highway

“Millions of people oppose hunting too,” I muttered as the Acura crept tentatively onto the highway again.  “Experience is everything.  My point is you tasted the chicken and left unimpressed.  I remember that much.  How can you be swayed otherwise?”

Dasad seemed to consider this a bit, diverting his attention every so often at the trees to the right of the car.

“No . . .,” he said finally. “We probably just did not order the right thing.  Like that In & Out Burger.  Apparently there’s a secret burger that’s not on the menu.  Everyone orders it, but you have to know.  We couldn’t because we didn’t.  Yet those who have tasted the burger say it’s incredible.”

“What?  Do they press two layers of paper-thin patties together?  Add more lettuce, tomatoes, and secret sauce to make the burger appear thicker?  To hide the absence of real meat?” I asked sardonically, trying to flush out my own feelings for these on-line gourmands.  Unrivaled majority support for anything only proves to heighten my suspicions.

“Either way you order it, dude, it’s still fast-food.  They don’t keep fresh ground beef stored in the freezer waiting for some knowledgeable customer to speak the secret code and unlock the invisible menu.  Pleease . . . just accept your own first impressions.  It sucked . . . deer to the left”

“See ‘em.”  This herd feasted peacefully in the middle median, potential torpedoes ready to leap into traffic.  “So what’s for dinner?”

“Uh . . . Sushi?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Good, a month after California and I’m dying for yellowtail.  The last month has been murder too.  Wanderlust has set again . . .”

“Ha,” Dasad laughed.  “Whereto now?  Montana?  Mexico?  Europe?”

“Or Japan,” I smiled.  “You know me . . . I won’t be happy until we’ve circumnavigated the globe.  In the meantime, turn up the radio.  You can hear my warbled voice until we reach the restaurant.”


And so our journey to the West Coast ended.  We’ve only opened one bottle of the wine so far – Mom learned of the cost and refuses to open more.  I’m still considering our next destination, possibly overseas or near a comic convention.  Dasad and Jay returned to their jobs in good spirits, while I returned to my laptop and my stories.  All in all it was a great time.  In closing, I wanted to post some traveling music, a song that sped up time through wine country and back down to San Diego again in our cramped Sebring.  Thankfully our caterwauls have been excluded from this version:


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West Coastin’: Of Meals and Temples

‘Last scene of all

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.’

Our post-Mass breakfast

Our post-Mass breakfast

Sunday morning, crawling to the bathroom, my sense of touch had the nerve to up and leave me.  Even after stubbing my toe on one of the wine boxes, the numbing sensation in my accelerator foot had lingered long after escaping our Sebring; moreover, my sense of balance insisted that my body was floating underwater.  This of course pointed towards some livid dreamscape, and as I lay there considering the possibility of that mermaid appearing again, Dasad woke.  Damn.  Another night Ariel, my love.

“Dude, what are you doing?”

“Wondering why I lost feeling in my legs . . .”

“No, on the floor,” he yawned.

“Oh, I tripped over one of the boxes in the dark.  On the way to the bathroom.  So very dark in here,” I pondered.  “When you close the blinds like this, its amazing how inclined you are to believe it’s two in the morning.”

“It is two.  Go back to sleep.”

NOTE: I may have imagined all this.  Throughout much of the trip, the line between dream and reality continued to fade and establish itself elsewhere, like the world seen through the bottom of a wine glass.

At any rate, we woke (later?) Sunday morning quite exhausted and indescribably drained from our six-hour exodus to Anaheim, in no mood whatsoever for early morning mass.  Yet sloth could not have its way.  Mothers – especially mine – possess an innate knowledge of their children’s foibles, both mortal and venial, and before we got that phone call, I roused our troops early and ushered them out the door.

The theater at Downtown Disney

The theater at Downtown Disney

Mass in California differs little from services back home.  My presence was still something of a minority, trading in a congregation of aging seniors for young Hispanics and Asians.  Nor did I quite grasp the point of the homily, a heavily accented digression into the meaning of faith, a topic which my own pastor would have muddled with several multi-layered tangents and an unnecessary explanation of didacticism – whatever that means.  Even the church’s heavily stylized windows displays and murals complimented my own: a tangled collage of pictures and symbols buried deep within colorful stained glass, like something by Seurat broken and reassembled with Jolly Rancher shards.  Yet Anaheim’s depiction of the Annunciation of Mary gave me pause.

Along one of the walls, Mary communes with an aged angel; in their midst a dove descends, a red beam fired from the bird’s beak pierces the Blessed Mother.

“It was like a holy laser beam had been shot into her chest,” I remarked afterwards to a yawning Dasad.  “I realize the need to conceptualize the Holy Spirit as something more than swirling air currents and fireballs, but doesn’t the divine ‘pregnancy ray’ oversimplify things a little too much.  Hell, they probably stole the idea from a Superman comic.”

“You would know,” Dasad muttered.  “So what’s the plan for today?  LA?  San Diego?”

“You said something about a triple feature.  A day to kick back and watch movies.”

“Okay . . . yeah, let’s do that.  It’d be good to do nothing for one day.”

I refuse to bore you with many of the details that followed.  As is often the case, these rare relaxing moments seldom translate well as good stories, while relating our ubiquitous humiliations and regrets often prove rather interesting – if not downright amusing.  We decided on three flicks, just recently released and from various genres:

  • Ponyo – a child’s fable, but nonetheless whimsical and beautifully told
  • District 9 – awesome and intelligent; excellent science fiction
  • 500 Days of Summer – if you’ve ever downloaded specific music tracks simply to attract a girl; or abhor dating; or simply enjoy honest funny movies

So excellent was the theater fare that without realizing it, we ate little else but stories for the remainder of the day.

You see, good tales possess a unique aroma, such that one might discuss an excellent tale with the same enthusiasm some reserve for fine cuisine or century-old merlot.  This analogy may be a bit off-putting to some, like my sister Katie, who suffers through most books like a sick child with castor oil, yet for bibliophiles the metaphor is all too accurate.  In my time, many books of such excellent vintage have incited periods of prolonged fasting and isolation (the night I discovered Harry Potter springs to mind), only to emerge again physically weak but nonetheless spiritually enervated several days later.

Excellent stories, thus, provide food for the soul.  And if the soul dies, the body follows shortly, right?  Therefore, reading is more important than food . . . or breathing.  For this reason and more, my family worries for my health and sanity.

Nevertheless, having fed our souls well, we left the theater satisfied and finally able to focus on our all-too-needy stomachs.  Late night dining (a little after ten) is sketchy at best, limiting hungry patrons to stale burgers or scraped bean paste wrapped in doughy tortillas.   Luckily we found a 24-hr Subway across the street from the hotel, wedged in between a Mexican take-out and Chinese restaurant that sold grease spiced with chicken fat (noodles were extra).  Jay opted for Chinese and Dasad tempted the Fates by ordering Mexican.  All in all the movies were better, and we returned to the hotel with satisfied hearts and stomachs in need of Alka-Seltzer.

NOTE: the bathroom at the theater was enormous and clean.  This may sound like an unusual topic to mention in closing but those who have traveled far through many a gas station or rest stop restroom can appreciate the joy of stumbling across clean public bathrooms.  It was breathtaking that I actually took a picture of it (thank the weekly matinees that it was empty).

So clean!

So clean!

West Coastin’: From L.A. with Love

“The one you said was haunted?”

So having arrived in California, our first task was to get lost.  For some reason the roads leading into Disney and thus the hotel had been blocked by the Anaheim police department.  We circled the block several times, analyzing the various routes, double-checking our GPS, wondering if our room had somehow exploded and left us lodge-less for the remaining week.  On our third try, the cop moved off, allowing traffic through; Dasad and I looked at each other, shrugged, and drove on to the Disney Paradise Pier Hotel.

Upon checking in, we discovered a gas leak had closed the street when a gaggle of construction worker busied themselves with repairs at the resort.  Our concierge assured us nothing was amiss and although flammable material spewed onto the road, we were perfectly safe.  After nearly seven hours in flight and nearly one attempting to enter the resort, I would not have cared had they admitted digging for uranium with dynamite.

Now before delving into the details of our travels, I want to say something about California weather.  In Maryland, humidity can sap nearly all of one’s energy, leaving one lethargic and crawling toward the nearest air conditioner like a drowning man clawing at the sea breeze.  Yet on the West Coast, sunshine and blue skies dissipate morning fog each and every day and nearly constant breezes found us rolling down windows and anticipating long walks through nearby shops and gardens.  It’s no wonder that many of the environmental reforms stemmed from the Californian coastline; with the constant seasonal threat of humidity, hurricanes, blizzards, and floods, East Coasters have a love/hate relationship with Mother Nature, at times indifferent to whether she’s healthy or near-death.

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