Laguna Beach and Catalina Island

The final portion of my trip to the US was for work, meeting colleagues in Orange County south of Los Angeles. We had decided beforehand to extend the trip for an extra two days as a few of my colleagues had been to Catalina Island before and wanted the rest of us to join them for another trip.

Training Team

Relaxing with colleagues after a long week. We went to a nice resort in Laguna Beach called Surf and Sand, arriving just at sunset to enjoy a few drinks (I was designated driver) and to nibble on some food.

Laguna Beach Sunset

The sunset view from the outdoor lounge, just about the most beautiful sunset photo I’ve ever taken. It is now wallpaper on my phone.

Newport Beach Pier

We left the following morning for a day trip to Catalina Island, which is about an hour’s boat ride off the Orange County coast. This is a view of the pier at Newport Beach, near where we departed. I’m of mixed opinions about the panorama mode on the iPhone but think it does capture the sweeping views pretty well.

Newport Beach Fisherman

Because one of my colleagues did not buy her ferry ticket online early enough, we had to arrive at the pier at approximately 7:00 so she could put her name on the wait list. Too early for a Saturday! I did get this nice view of some locals fishing in the harbour across from Balboa Island, though.

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The Catalina Flyer, the catamaran that took us across the channel and to Catalina Island. It held several hundred passengers and was a smooth ride.

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View of the harbour in Avalon, the only town on Catalina Island. There are many boats anchored in the harbour although I don’t know if they are people who live on the island or people who have sailed from the mainland.

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At the far end of the harbour, kind of hard to see in this picture, is a lovely Italianate style building called the Casino. If I understand correctly, it used to be a ballroom.

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The Casino is pictures on the right side of this picture. The view is of an area known as Descanso Beach, just to the north of the Avalon harbour. We staked out a table with a view over on the left side of the picture and spent a few hours drinking (again, me sticking to iced tea) and nibbling on food. There was also a fair amount of shopping, all of which seemed to be for ticky-tacky touristy items. Not my scene, but that’s okay. 

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The ferry home. Many people were drunk and talking loudly. The ocean breeze felt lovely, though. In the evening, we went for dinner after stopping in to visit another colleague who had been hospitalized during the week with pneumonia. Thankfully, she is recovering.

 

Chloe, Ella, and Savor – A Trio of San Francisco Breakfasts

During our final pass through San Francisco, we set out on a small project to revisit a trio of our favorite breakfast restaurants from when we lived there. San Francisco is a great city for breakfasts – the same cannot be said for Bangkok, at least for Western style breakfasts – and we were excited to indulge in some early morning reminiscing with a few cups of coffee and plates of eggs, pastries, and meat products.

Savor

Our first breakfast was at Savor, a southwestern themed restaurant located on 24th Street in Noe Valley. In addition to Miss Millie’s, a now-defunct restaurant that was located on 24th at Castro Street, Savor was a frequent stop for breakfast when I first moved to San Francsico in the late 1990s.

The interior space is pleasant. You walk past the kitchen at the front of the restaurant and find a large dining room and a bright but shaded patio behind the restaurant. The interior is, as mentioned, southwestern and a fireplace lends a cozy atmosphere to the high-ceilinged space. We visited on a weekday morning and the restaurant wasn’t crowded. A friendly bear was our server and he had an amiable, almost maternal manner.

Tawn ordered the Coronado frittata. Years ago, frittatas were on the menu but have been removed and only omelettes remain. Tawn enquired with the waiter, though, and he said they’d be happy to make any of the omelettes as a frittata. This was a nice touch. The Coronado has avocado, sharp cheddar cheese, and onions and is topped with black bean chili, salsa fresca, and sour cream. 

I ordered the Santa Fe, one of Savor’s many crepe selections. The Santa Fe has grilled chicken apple sausage with scrambled eggs, green onions, provolone cheese, and salsa fresca. The side of home fried potatoes was disappointing as they are under seasoned and would benefit from the use of some herbs.

One treat at Savor is their spicy cornbread, which is toasted and served with jalapeno jelly. This is what I remembered about the restaurant and was eager to try it again. Like the potatoes, I found the cornbread underseasoned, begging for a little more salt.

Overall conclusion was that Savor remains a comfortable place with friendly service and decent food, but the food seems more about quantity than quality. The quality isn’t bad, mind you, but it doesn’t stand out from the crowd. If they could reduce portion sizes slightly and improve the flavors, then they would have something really special.

 

Ella’s

The second of the trio is Ella’s, a self-described “neo-classical American” restaurant located on Presidio Avenue where Laurel Heights meets Lower Pacific Heights. More upscale, Ella’s has a sophisticated but inviting look. Waits can be long on weekends but on a weekday morning, we were seated immediately.

One of the two dining areas. Banquettes line the windows and tables are tightly spaced. On a busy morning, there is an energetic vibe and service is very prompt, encouraging a quick turnover. Service was detached and while employees were not outwardly rude, they also weren’t very friendly.

We started by sharing one of Ella’s famous cinnamon pecan rolls. These gooey delights are generous enough for a quartet to share but not as overwhelmingly sweet as, say, the rolls from Cinnabon.

Perhaps the most famous item on the menu is the chicken hash. (Which, unfortunately, is hidden under the eggs so you can’t see it!) Made with a combination of Russet and Yukon Gold potatoes, their hash is an immensely satisfying breakfast. The lumpy mashed potatoes are combined with sage, thyme, parsley, sauteed onions, and mustard, then formed into a patty and fried. My only complaint with this dish is that they garnish it with a heap of raw green onions, which give it a “grassy” feel. I just brush them to the side and enjoy the hash ungarnished. 

Tawn tried some French Toast, which was nicely battered and cooked to that perfect point where the bread is rich with the eggy custard but not soggy. Portion sizes are more moderate than at Savor, leaving you feeling satisfied but not stuffed.

One of Ella’s charms is that they bake their own, very good bread. The entry area shows off their baked goods, which are available for takeaway purchase. Overall, Ella’s hasn’t changed in the years since I left and remains a nice place for a special breakfast.

 

Chloe’s

My final morning in San Francisco, I headed down Church Street to Chloe’s while Tawn slept in. Arriving a few minutes before the restaurant opened, I browsed the newspaper and waited on the seats outside. A long-time neighborhood attraction that occupies a small space, Chloe’s quickly has a queue and waits can be long on weekends.

Not fifteen minutes after they opened, most of the inside tables were full. The space is cozy and the staff is buzzing about, refilling coffee, taking orders, and keeping things moving without ever making you feel rushed. Only open for breakfast and lunch, the restaurant’s daily specials are written on the chalkboard and always include a scramble of some kind as well as a soup of the day.

I decided on buttermilk blueberry pancakes with scrambled eggs. Most breakfasts come with the option of toast, a pastry, or a bowl of fresh fruit. Obviously, I took the healthier option. While simple, the food is made with top-notch ingredients and is well-prepared. Your cup of coffee never gets cold thanks to the attentive employees who keep filling it up.

An F-Market car passes Chloe’s, heading up Church Street to start its day. There’s enough housing the in neighborhood to support a restaurant twice Chloe’s size, but they keep it small and are able to stay on top of the details. Chloe’s really has a neighborhood charm to it.

 

Conclusions:

Of the three restaurants, Chloe’s remains my favorite. While the food at Ella’s is a little fancier, Chloe’s has the scale and charm of a true neighborhood restaurant. Ella’s, located on a busy corner, seems more isolated. Although not a bad choice, Savor is a distant third when compared with the other two restaurants. Its service is friendly but its food isn’t as good as at the other two restaurants.

 

Cooking: Easy Taco Salad

A picture posted by my cousin Jane was all it took to inspire me to try making taco salad at home.  But something I didn’t want to deal with was deep frying tortillas to make the taco bowls.  Not only does deep frying add a lot of fat (and, thus, heaviness) to the meal, but it is also more work than I want to deal with.  The key was finding an easier, lower fat way to make the taco bowls.

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After some searching on the internet, I found two techniques for baking taco bowls that sounded promising.  The first involved spraying a tortilla with cooking spray (Pam, Crisco, or another brand).  The second technique involved pouring a tablespoon or so of oil on top of about an inch of water in a large container such as a roasting tray and then dipping the tortillas into the water.  Regardless of which method you used, you then shaped the tortilla between two oven proof bowls and baked for about five minutes in a 400 F oven.  Ofter that, you remove from the bowls and bake the bowls another five minutes until crisp.

Both techniques work well, although if you are going to spray the tortilla you need to be careful about overdoing it.  It also works better if your tortillas are at room temperature or even zapped in the microwave for a few seconds before trying to shape them, otherwise they may crack or tear.  The flavor of the baked bowls was very enjoyable, albeit less oily than with the fried bowls.

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As for ingredients, you could use whatever suits your budget, sense of taste, and amount of prep time.  I used chopped romaine lettuce for a base, although mixing in some spinach or other greens would have been a nice alternative.

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To the lettuce I added chicken and beans.  The chicken had been marinated in a coconut chili sauce that I had handy, although simply sprinkling the chicken with some salt, pepper, and cumin and pan frying would have been fine, too.  For the beans, I drained a can of kidney beans (no black beans were available at the store), then cooked them for just a few minutes with some chopped onion and chopped red bell pepper. 

On top of the protein, I aded freshly boiled corn, chopped tomatoes, and some more red bell pepper.  For a dressing, I used homemade tomato salsa, although if it were the right season, some homemade mango salsa would have been spectacular.

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Garnished with some shredded pepper jack cheese and sliced green onions, these taco salads made for a healthy and tasty treat.  Many thanks to Jane for inspiring me.

 

 

Croissants in North County: Loïc

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The last night of our June trip to California was spent in Oceanside, a small beach town in northern San Diego County, visiting friends.  The following morning, I decided on a whim to search for a French patisserie, or pastry shop.  Perhaps I was in the mood for something like Tartine, a corner bakery in San Francisco’s Mission District that I make it a point to visit each time I’m there.  We ended up driving a quirky route through the hills until we wound up at Loïc, a bistro and patisserie in Rancho Santa Fe.

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The bistro and patisserie are adjacent buildings nestled in a small shopping complex at the foot of a large housing development.  The design is meant to evoke an Italian village, which it more or less succeeds in doing.

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Would an Italian village have a parking lot like this?  Probably not.  Just a small concession to Southern California’s car culture.

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The interior of the patisserie was a little stark but the smell and sight of freshly baked goods were every bit as welcoming as the lady working behind the counter. 

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As we ordered, the lady explained that the chef is French.  After several years working aboard cruise ships, he decided to settle in the Rancho Santa Fe area and open his own restaurant and patisserie.

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We sat in some comfy chairs, sipped our café au lait, and picked apart our croissants, smearing eat bite with jam and pretending we were back in Paris.  The croissants were very nice: light, flaky, and buttery – everything one wants in a croissant. 

Afterwards, we took a few more pictures then climbed back in the car for our drive back to Orange County, where we met another Xangan for lunch.

 

Food in LA – Musha in Torrance

About two years ago, Gary and William took me to the Santa Monica branch of Musha, a Japanese izakaya, or small plates, restaurant.  They have another branch a few miles south in Torrance and I took the opportunity during our June visit to Los Angeles to take Tawn there.  It remains a satisfying place to dine.

An izakaya is a drinking establishment that, in the same way that Spanish bars serve tapas, provides small plates of food to patrons to accompany their drinks, encouraging them (or, perhaps, enabling them) to drink longer.  After all, you can’t continue to sell drinks to someone who has passed out and a little food in the stomach delays or prevents that happening.

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While at first Torrance may seem an unlikely location, the city is home to many Japanese businesses, including Toyota’s North America headquarters.  As such, there are countless restaurants and other services geared towards the many Japanese who live and work in the area.  Musha is located in a strip mall on the northwest corner of Carson Street and Western Avenue.  With its dark green awning, the building could just as easily house a Starbucks.

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The restaurant is a small space with a large table running down the center.  Smaller tables line the walls and on the left is counter seating facing one of the two kitchen areas.  The interior is a cozy and several fans are running to dissipate fumes from the grill-your-own dishes that are on the menu.

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We opted for the counter, giving us a good view of the action in the kitchen and a tempting view of plates and bowls full of some of the previously prepared foods that we could order.  It took a lot of will power to not help ourselves.

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A must-order item is the Aburi Shimesaba.  The description on the menu, complete with spelling errors that seem to authenticate the Japanese ownership of this restaurant, is as follows: “New creation from the great chef of Musha!!  Fresh mackerelmarinated with rice vinegar, sliced like a sashimi then torched at your table.  Try the taste of “Holly Mackerel !!”

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While I’ll avoid speculation about the holly mackerel, I will say that this is a wonderfully complex dish made of only the simplest of ingredients.  The rice vinegar helps to cook the fish in a ceviche-like way.  It adds a sweetness to an otherwise fishy tasting flesh.  Then the torching give the skin a crispy texture with caramel flavors.  To top it off, the banana leaf on which the fish is placed starts to char a bit so you get the smoky fruit aroma.  While the dish is really only two ingredients – fish and vinegar – the flavor is multi-layered and complex.

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The second dish was the lobster roll, a riceless bit of sushi that uses a thin springroll wrapper instead of seaweed filled with lobster and cucumber.  Very tasty.

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One of my favorite dishes is the spicy tuna dip served with rice crackers.  The name pretty much describes what it is, but doesn’t have any superlatives that convey how tasty this dip is.  Might I suggest something like, One of the Tastiest Things You Will Ever Scoop with a Cracker?

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Another Musha signature dish is the Takotama.  This is their take on okonomiyaki, a “Japanese style pancake”.  In the case of Takotama, you have the two-layered omelette (pictured sitting on the counter above) with chopped octopus, Tokyo leek, red ginger, bonito flakes, chives, and nori seaweed.  The sauce is a thick, sweet sauce topped with mayonnaise.

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To finish we had a plate of Typhoon Char Han, a spicy fried rice prepared with ground pork, chili, bamboo shoot, ginger, garlic, and Tokyo leek.  Tasty and filling.

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Stuffed and running out of time to head to LAX and pick up my sister and her family, we skipped dessert, cleansing out palettes with the complimentary salted plum tea.

All in all, I think Musha offers tasty food at a fair price.  Like all “small plates” restaurants, you have to watch out because the bill can rapidly increase.  That isn’t a matter of the prices being high; instead, it is a matter of ordering more food than you really need.  If you are in the South Bay part of Los Angeles, or in Santa Monica, a stop at Musha would be worth your while.

 

Food in Long Beach: Starling Diner

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Near the end of our trip to Los Angeles last month, while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway to visit Janet for tea, we stopped for brunch at the Starling Diner.  Located on East Third Street in Long Beach, the look and feel of the Starling Diner is that of an old-time neighborhood institution.  The food is comforting, the service friendly, and the fellow diners are, well, neighborly.

Starling Diner is all this despite having been around for less than five years.  It is no surprise then to learn that owner Joan Samson made a very conscious effort to create a space that had that neighborhood institution feel.  From their website:

In times past, neighborhoods were Communities where everyone casually knew each other and the gathering places were icons such as the front porch, the corner store and the neighborhood diner. It has always been our personal mission to create gathering spots that provide a sense of place along side the highest quality food and drinks. We live in and love Long Beach. We just made a place where we would like to meet our friends and connect.

My cousins had first brought me here in 2009 and I was eager to share the cute restaurant and tasty dining experience with Tawn.  He wasn’t disappointed.

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This pale green cruiser parked outside seems to exemplify the Starling Diner.  Located amidst houses on a quiet street, this is the type of place you would hop on your bicycle and ride three blocks to meet some friends for breakfast at.

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The tables are crowded with little tin tubs of all the condiments you might need.  Interestingly, they serve water in these biodegradable corn-based plastic cups in order to save the environment.  As I pointed out to the server (in a friendly, non-complaining sort of way), they would do more to save the environment to serve their cream, jellies, sugars, etc. in bulk containers rather than individual sachets and packages. 

The fact that our server took that suggestion with a thoughtful smile and remained friendly and welcoming is a good example of the type of consistent service I’ve enjoyed during both my visits.

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The highlight of the menu is the San Francisco stuffed French toast.  Unlike most French toast, this is broiled not fried, and is made from baguette, not square loaf bread.

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It does not disappoint!  The result is something that is light and crispy rather than heavy and soggy like most French toast.  This is a recipe I would like to learn to recreate at home.

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Tawn had the crab cakes sandwich, which had these wonderful, large lump crab meat and tons of fresh greens.  This was really tasty, too.

All in all, the only disappointment at the Starling Diner was that there were just the two of us and, as such, we were only able to try two items on the menu.  Mark this on the list of places to come back to on a future visit!

 

Food in LA: Johnnie’s Pastrami in Culver City

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The first few nights we were in Los Angeles in June, Tawn and I stayed at the Travelodge Culver City on Washington Place just east of Sepulveda Drive.  As down-market as you would expect a Travelodge to be, this one has received well-deserved high rankings in TripAdvisor and other review sites.  In addition to the really tasty Metro Cafe located downstairs from the motel, just around the corner was the timeless Johnnie’s French Dip Pastrami.  Of course, I wanted to try it.

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Established in 1952, Johnnie’s is this small shack of a diner.  As their menu explains, the jukeboxes are originals and some of the waitresses are, too. 

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The restaurant is open until 2:30 am and an hour later on Friday and Saturday nights.  A wide mix of people stop by, young and old, well-off and those barely making ends meet.  They all are there for one thing: good, honest food.  The menu is simple: burgers, dogs, and sandwiches, with the pastrami taking center stage.

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Complimentary dill pickles, sliced thick.

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Combine the pickles with a root beer float made with hand scooped ice cream and, despite it sounding like the food cravings of a pregnant woman, I was in heaven!

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The ambience is all chrome and naugahyde.  The pastrami boils for a while then finishes in a steam bath, coming out moist and thinly sliced.  What’s that machine on the left?  Well, for you youngsters out there, that’s how a real milkshake is made!

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The pastrami on rye arrived.  While pastrami is generally a fatty meat, I found my cuts to be quite rare.  The fat that was attached was well-cooked and not overwhelming.  Compare the construction of this sandwich to a pastrami I tried at a wanna-be place in Bangkok called New York Cheesecake, which served me only a thin layer of meat topped with a third slice of bread and several inches of lettuce and other veggies.  Needless to say, Johnnie’s came a lot closer to satisfy my pastrami craving.  As for the flavor, it was fantastic.

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Tawn ordered a veggie burger.  What’s that!?  A veggie burger at a place like Johnnie’s!?  Well, as my dearly departed paternal grandmother used to say, if we all liked the same things the world would sure be a boring place.  Truth be told, it was a pretty tasty veggie burger probably thanks to all the burnt-on beef bits on the grill!

Overall, we could debate whether Johnnie’s has the best pastrami in LA or not.  People have different preferences, of course.  I just know that Johnnie’s hit the spot for me, filling a need for good pastrami that I had been carrying with me for many months.  Next time I’m back in LA, I may return.  Or I may seek out some of the other recommended pastrami shops.  We’ll see.