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:

West Coastin’: Castles and Misconceptions

RT3_hearstOutside Hearst Castle is a true wonder.  In truth, even if you care nothing for architecture, the view from the top is well-worth the tour fee and the yodeling bus soundtrack.  At the top, mountain peaks spread out before you in beautiful green and earthen waves; the furthest of these – now pale blue in the setting sun – we were told marks the boundary to old man Hearst’s property, back when I suppose land was cheap and plentiful. Marble statues of the gods and goddesses stare from behind curling vines and purple gardens.  Roman columns surround deep pools and fountains, adorned with faux Italian masterpieces of stone and tile.  The assorted mixture of guesthouses and buildings, a hodge-podge of various European styles, both modern and ancient, were constructed (and thus named) with specific scenery in mind: Casa del Sol, Casa del Monte, Casa del Mar.

This warmth and liveliness disappears in the gloom of the mansion interior.  Inside, the mansion feels dark and dangerous, the setting to some grisly tragedy or nightmare like a medieval dungeon.  Marble busts become pale leering faces; ancient imported wood absorbs all light; giant tapestries of forgotten wars hang from the walls, fading into the stone like ghosts.  On our way to the dining chamber, we passed through one of Hearst’s secret passages, carefully disguised as a panel in the wall.  I could imagine the castle’s master staring at his guests from peepholes in paintings, then suddenly appearing from nowhere to summon them for dinner.   Or a turn on the rack.  Our tour guide assured us that the various movie stars, celebrities, athletes, and playwrights that visited enjoyed their time here, but in the dim yellowing light, the place felt more haunted than homely.

Returning to the visitor center, the voice over the bus’ loudspeaker told us to gaze at the herds grazing outside our windows.  Hearst kept a zoo on his estate, but though most of the more exotic animals had been sold off to state zoos, many zebras and llamas still roamed about the mountains fields.  Deer too.  Our fellow tourists flattened themselves against the windows, nearly tipping the bus as they pointed and giggled at a herd of deer dining among the tall weeds.  Dasad and I simply sighed.

RT3_montereyThe average Marylander encounters white-tailed deer at least once a week, typically in the car and occasionally across its hood.   I imagine that – if anyone bothered to count – more deer scamper and frolic about here than trees . . . well, whatever trees do.  The absence of natural predators has set hind against man, antlers and muscle versus semi-automatics and SUVs.  Casualties have been inflicted on both sides, for against most automobiles, the animal’s muscular body bends as well as a brick wall.

And then we have the parasitic relationships between stags, deer ticks and sickness; the latter always stemming from the formers.   I nearly cried out to our bus driver to try aiming for a few of the bucks if he didn’t care to discover the joys of lime disease.  Movies like Bambi are clearly sending the wrong message out here.

More animal hijinxs ensued in Monterey along a tour through its famous aquarium.  After a rather restless night in a soggy EconoLodge, our room just recently cleaned leaving the carpet slightly but uncomfortably soggy, we vacated immediately to shore front.  Seeking out our morning coffees and iced teas from the local Starbucks, our path carried us to the aquarium.  Unlike its brother here in Baltimore, the Monterey Aquarium had all the trappings of a tourist destination without the dumbed-down dolphin shows, offering packed presentations of the institution’s research such as the habits of sharks and jellies.  The speaker explained how they tagged sharks and studied where they traveled and which oceanic territories they fed.  It was both intelligent and interesting.

RT3_aquariumFor the rest of the morning, we watched jellyfish bob like ghost lanterns against liquid blue walls.  Sea horse couples waltz among the seaweed, to some silent composition instinct conducts beneath the waves.  Rock-shaped crabs would come to life and snap at bits of shrimp during feeding time; Jay and I watched as their blender-like maws tossed and puree their meals in seconds.  We witnessed vine-shaped snakes, draped over thick branches.  The serpents hailed from Asia and looked as if . . .

“Hey Maw, look here at dem snakes,” a young boy shouts tapping the glass with two fingers.

“Well, I’ll be a rabid mule . . . they’re trying to escape,” the old woman said, watching as the snakes hover their heads before their plastic cell.

“Ar dey poisonous?”

“Says here dey from Asia.  Must be. Everting’s poisonous dere.”

Dasad bristled at the woman’s comment as she walked away into the otter exhibit.

“I’ll bite you lady,” he muttered glaring at her floral muumuu, as it disappeared behind a corner.  “Show you how poisonous we Asians really are.”

“A pathetic threat,” I sighed.  “Your bark is ten-times worse than your bite.  Particularly that post-burrito ‘bark’ the other day in the car.  I would have lain down with a hundred snakes than suffer that again.”

“ ‘Lain?’”

“Doc Fitz.  Senior year composition.  He had us repeating grammar rules each day for an entire year.  We’d be correcting each other while BS-ing in the locker rooms.  Even now, I manually place commas and periods when texting.”

“Freak,” Dasad said, drifting off into the gift shop, which is just as well as I heard that Asians can kill with just a glance, like basilisks.  Thus, while he’s getting me out of trouble, I try to keep him calm.  It’s safer for everyone that way.  Particularly the ignorant tourists.

RT3_squidBefore leaving the aquarium, I bought a few shirts and a beautiful stuffed octopus, which I only mention as I’m currently wearing it on my head.  When my sister walks into the room, I scream: “Bree, the alien has latched onto my brain!  Help me before my mind turns to muusssssshhh . . .”  Not exactly the use intended by the manufacturer (nor the cute cashier I bought it from, I’d wager) but seeing as we’re driving off towards wine country, I felt that a little madness in closing would be appropriate.

Next time: wine, women and Sonoma!