Food in LA: Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner

One of our dinners, per my sister’s request, was at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner restaurant at Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park in Buena Park.  Knott’s Berry Farm is “the other amusement park” in Orange County, located just up the road from Disneyland.  Jennifer requested that we go to Mrs. Knott’s as she had fond memories from a visit there when we were children.

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The history of Knott’s dates back to 1920, when Walter Knott and his family sold berries and preserves from a roadside stand.

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In 1934, to make ends meet, Knott’s wife Cordelia (1890–1974) reluctantly began serving fried chicken dinners on their wedding china. For dessert, Knott’s signature Boysenberry Pie was also served to guests dining in the small tea room. As Southern California developed, Highway 39 became the major north-south connection between Los Angeles County and the beaches of Orange County, and the restaurant’s location was a popular stopping point for drivers making the two hour trip in those days before freeways.

These days, the wait for dinner is still long.  Admittedly, we were a larger group than normal – about 10 people – but the wait was still about an hour.

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Prices have gone up over the years (by about 100 times) but the menu remains pretty much unchanged.  Frankly, this was more food than I wanted to have, as I was more interested in the boysenberry pie than anything else.  Walter Knott was responsible for naming and popularizing the boysenberry, a blackberry, raspberry, loganberry hybrid cross-bred by Rudolph Boysen of nearby Anaheim.

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The interior of the restaurant, made up of several medium sized dining rooms, looks very run-down, badly in need of a makeover or, at least, a deep cleaning.

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Buttermilk biscuit – okay, but not nearly as flaky or tasty as mine.

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Rhubarb compote served chilled as a starter.  Very, very sweet.

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Very sad salad.  “Farm fresh”?  Pathetic, really.

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The main course itself – three pieces of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and corn.  The food was okay, although I found the chicken a bit oily and, like pretty much all chicken in the US, the meat lacked any discernable flavor.

The dessert – the boysenberry pie with ice cream – was pretty good.  So good that I managed to not get a picture of it!  But overall, the meal proved the conventional wisdom that things are better in our memories than they are in real life.  At least I was surrounded by family, so in good company for an otherwise mediocre dinner.

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A nearly full moon climbs over the structure of GhostRider, the park’s wooden coaster.

 

Two Visits to the Happiest Place on Earth

The main objective for our vacation in Los Angeles was to take my nieces, ages eight and five, to Disneyland.  They have never been to California, nor to any of the Disney parks, and the last time my sister went was at least two dozen years ago, so it seemed like the right time.

At their California location, Disney now has two theme parks: the original Disneyland and California Adventure, which is more geared to the Pixar characters than the classic Disney ones.  Since there were two parks, we decided to get a two-day park-hopper pass.  One thing we learned was that you do not have to use the passes for consecutive days.  This is helpful because going to an amusement park can wear you out.  Doing it two days in a row with young children can be overwhelming.  As I observed while walking around the park, Disneyland may be the “Happiest Place on Earth” but it is also the most tearful!

We arrived a few minutes before opening time the first day, a Thursday, tickets already purchased online and printed out at home.  Thankfully, the typical Southern California weather pattern known as the “June gloom” lasted most of the day, giving us cool temperatures (around 70 F) and an overcast sky that made walking around the park a pleasant experience.

Crowds were not too heavy and we used the FastPass system to secure tickets to the most popular rides – the recently reopened Star Tours, for example – so that we did not have to wait in line for a long time.  One thing we learned is that when the park opens, most people head to their right into Tomorrowland and Fantasyland, and not to their left into Frontierland, Adventureland, and New Orleans Square.  If you want to beat the crowds, head to the left and do those rides first.

I was shocked to discover a sign leading into Mickey’s Toon Town that has a spelling mistake!  Do these things really happen in the Disney organization?

For lunch we ate at Cafe Orleans in New Orleans Square.  For amusement park food, it was pretty decent eating.  I may write a post with the pictures of the food later on.  For now, I will share a picture of the Mickey Mouse shaped beignets.

Among my niece’s many objectives was collecting autographs from the various characters, including the princesses.  At the back of Fantasyland is a Princess Pavilion, which offers various princess-themed activities as well as the opportunity to meet princesses from the different Disney films throughout the day.  Ava and Emily met Belle, Cinderella, and Mulan (pictured above), to name just a few.  I’ll give credit to the young ladies who play the princesses: they do an amazing job of being tirelessly friendly, gracious, and engaging for their young guests.

Something fun to do at Disneyland is to look for the hidden Mickeys.  These are representations of the Mickey Mouse silhouette that are intentionally, but subtly, placed throughout the park.  Can you spot the hidden Mickey in the above picture of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad?

Our first day at the park went very well.  We were there about twelve hours – from opening to closing – and except for one minor bit of lunchtime moodiness by niece number one, everyone was in good spirits the whole day.  Above, the section of the It’s A Small World ride that is themed after Thailand.

The following Monday we headed back to Anaheim, this time to spend most of our day at Disney’s California Adventure.  This newer park is themed around various areas of California, including Hollywood, the aviation industry of Southern California, the beach boardwalks and amusement piers found along the coast, etc.  As you can see from the above picture, it was a sunnier day.  While the temperature was only about five degrees higher (75 F), the intense sunlight made it a much tougher day for everyone.

There is an area of the park called A Bug’s Land, themed around the Pixar animated film, A Bug’s Life.  It offered a number of fun rides that were perhaps just a little too juvenile for our nieces.  The above ride is called Heimlich’s Chew Chew Train, named after the caterpillar in the film with an insatiable appetite.

On the Hollywood Studios Backlot, the girls pretended to talk to each other on a variety of different phone booths ostensibly used in different movie sets.  With the hot sun shining on us and a greater amount of open space reflecting that heat, we experienced some after-lunch defections.  Tawn left the park and went to the next door Downtown Disney shopping and entertainment district to seek out some air conditioned comfort in a movie theatre and my brother-in-law and older niece went back to the Disneyland park, which has a bit more shade.

My sister, younger niece, and I persevered, though, and took a ride on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.  This drop tower thrill ride is a lot of fun and my adventurous five-year old niece (who is only an inch taller than the minimum height requirement), announced upon exiting from the ride, “Let’s go again!”  

We concluded our visit to the Disneyland parks by stumbling into Mickey Mouse back on Main Street USA, letting the girls collect their most prized autograph of all.  Hindsight being 20-20, I think we could have stuck with just a single day of Disney, visiting Disneyland and not the California Adventure park.  But it was a fun visit nonetheless and was probably the highlight of the trip.

Huntington Library and Gardens

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After visiting the Farmers Market on Saturday morning and being denied the opportunity to pick cherries, thanks to the unseasonably cool weather that had held their ripening at bay, we decided to visit the Huntington Library.  The Huntington is an educational and research institution that includes art collections, extensive libraries, and several specialty gardens including a Japanese garden (currently closed for renovation), a rose garden, and a cactus garden.

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The Huntington sits on over 120 beautifully cared for acres on the San Marino estate of former railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington.  It is such a large space that I don’t think you could reasonably expect to cover even a fraction of it on a single day!

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The sun shining through a skylight made this interesting pattern on the granite floor as we passed through the buildings on the Huntington’s grounds.

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Stopping in the Conservatory, we saw a collection of plants from different growing climates, including tropical.  When we walked into the mist-filled section, we felt right at home!

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The primary part of our afternoon was spent in the recently opened Chinese Garden.  It is very beautiful, although you can tell there are many areas in which room has been left to expand.

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A sculpted window frame in the garden.

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A beautiful red maple.

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The gardens, looking roughly west.

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A caterpillar that was walking along a ledge along the water.

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View from the other end of the garden, looking back roughly east.

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Three of our four high school friends with whom we spent time during the weekend.  Samantha, Lalima, and Anita.

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Gorgeous trees, a covered walkway, and the beautiful blue sky.

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In the Chinese Garden there is a restaurant and tea house that serves surprisingly decent food.  Tawn had a lemon chicken, which I realize doesn’t sound terribly authentic, but at least it was tasty and pretty fresh.

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I had a bowl of soba noodles with a sauce of beef and pork.  Also pretty tasty.

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The food was so filling that the son of one of our friends just had to lay down for a nap.

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Finally, we walked through the Rose Garden, where Tawn snapped lots of pictures of flowers that inspired him.

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And that was our trip to the Huntington, a site I’d suggest to anyone who visits Los Angeles.

 

Fish Tacos with Avocado-Cilantro Lime Cream Sauce

First, off, this isn’t my recipe.  It came from Michael, known variously as Arenadi on Xanga and chow on IReallyLikeFood.com.  He’s been AWOL for the last several months, wrapped up working on a congressional campaign in Hawai’i.  He took the time a week or two back to post this recipe on his Facebook account and it sounded so good I figured I should do my part to share it with Xangaland.

As is often the case, I managed to vary the recipe a bit.  It still turned out quite nicely.

Fish Tacos with Avocado-Cilantro Lime Cream Sauce

You’ll need:

Yellow Corn Tortillas (the 4-5 inch kind)
Red Cabbage
Red Onion
Cilantro
Garlic
Avocado
Mayonnaise
Lime
Tabasco Sauce
Cream or Half-and-Half
Fish (firm white fish – snapper or cod are good)
Panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs)
Egg

Prep work:

First thing you want to do is get your mise en place set up for dressing the tacos. This means chopping the red cabbage and mincing the red onion.  Chop your cilantro roughly.  Slice your avocado about 1/4″ thick and remove the skin.

Put a handful of cilantro, a clove of garlic, about 1/4 of the avocado, a liberal dousing of Tabasco sauce, the juice of 1/4 of a Lime, a small scoop of mayonnaise, and about 2 Tbsp of cream into a blender/ food processor, and combine until you have a nice creamy sauce.  Add more or less cream depending on how “loose” you want the sauce.  Not being one to follow instructions carefully, I put the entire avocado into the sauce, making it very avocado-y and leaving none left for the taco itself.  That’s okay, though.

Optionally, make some salsa. 

This wasn’t in Michael’s recipe, but it is easy to make.  Chop some tomatoes, onion, chili peppers (to taste), and green pepper and pulse a few times in a blender or food processor.  Add some cilantro and a few more chopped tomatoes and then season to taste.  A squirt of lime juice is nice.  Some salt will work, too.

Make the taco shells:

Note – if you like your tacos soft shell (the way I do) you can skip this step, opting instead just to warm up the tortillas in the microwave or in a skillet.

Heat your oil in a skillet at about 1 to 2 inches depth to about 320 F.  Using tongs or chopsticks, hold half of the tortilla into the oil and let it cook for about 30 seconds.  Release it, pick up the other side (that was in the oil), and hold the side that wasn’t in the oil down into the oil to cook.  Repeat until the desired crispness is achieved.

Cook the fish:

Heat the oil (1 to 2 inches) in a skillet to about 340 F.  Cut your fish into strips.  Roll in some flour and then shake to remove excess.  Then dip the fish into a beaten egg, and then roll it in the panko bread crumbs.  Fry fish strips in the skillet for about 3 minutes and then turn over for another 2 minutes.  Note that the timing will depend upon the thickness of the fish and could be much shorter.  It is a good idea to try one piece first, remove it once browned and cut it open and see if it is cooked through.  Increase or lower the heat as necessary to ensure that the fish isn’t browning on the outside before the inside is cooked the way you like it.

To assemble:

Place red cabbage (you’ll notice I used green, which tastes fine) and red onion on the tortillas. Lay avocado slices on top of that.  (Whoops – none left thanks to my mistake with the sauce!)  Lay the fish on top of that.  Put a nice dollop of avocado-cilantro sauce on the fish.  Add some salsa (optional), a squeeze of lime, a splash of Tabasco sauce, and you are ready to serve.

Serve with some black beans on the side.  I made some homemade beans with some sofrito to flavor them – a combination of onions, red bell peppers, and various spices.  Easy and very healthy.

The finished product.  Very tasty.  Extremely tasty.  That avocado sauce is amazing.  Deep-frying the fish was an extra step that might be more work than I’d always want to put into it, but I think I could have just pan fried the fish and it would have turned out equally nice. 

Thanks to Michael for sharing this recipe with me and I hope he puts it on his Xanga site soon enough. 

 

The Rusty 1968 Ford Fairlane

Few stories so well epitomize my childhood than that of my first car, a rusted out 1968 Ford Fairlane.  To be fair, it wasn’t truly my first car as my parents retained ownership of it.  But it was the car I spent my entire childhood in, the car in which I learned to drive.

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This was the first brand-new car my father ever bought.  Everything else was a used car.  It was metallic blue with a vinyl top, a “California edition” of the car, similar in appearance to the photo above except the color.  Like pretty much all cars of the day it had a powerful V8, no air conditioning, Philco AM radio.

I remember that this car got scorching hot in the summer, back in the days before those cardboard foldable sun shades.  (Thinking about it, I remember that the first time I ever saw those sun shades was in 1987 in the parking lot of Disneyland.)  We would get in the car and the vinyl seats would be so hot we had to put beach towels on them, towels we kept in the car all summer long just for that purpose.  Of course the metal seat belts were much too hot to wear at first so we had to wait a few minutes with the vents blowing before we could buckle up without branding ourselves!

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Back in those days, metallic paint wasn’t terribly stable and a black vinyl roof wasn’t ideal for sunny California.  Despite my father’s meticulous care and weekly hand-washing, the paint began to chip and the roof started to crack.  By the time I learned to drive in it around 1985, large splotches of undercoat were showing through.  A minor rear-ending after I got my license resulted in a missing high-beam light.  A few years later a piece of the metallic side trim broke off.

Inside, the blue vinyl ceiling’s glue came undone and hung, canopy-like, from beam to beam.  As the stitching came undone, my father used chopsticks to help hold up the ceiling, leading friends to call it the Chopstick Car.

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My sister posing on her graduation day with the Chopstick Car.

Something about the transmission was fiddly and by the time I learned to drive, you had to reach over the wheel with your left hand, holding the gear lever just to the left of “Park” and turn the ignition key with your right hand, all the while gently pumping the gas with your foot.  If you pumped too much, you would flood the engine and had to wait a few minutes before trying again.

The car was symbolic of several things: my father’s thrift – he liked the car because unlike the “new fangled” cars that had computerized components, he could get under the hood and do most repair work himself – as well as my parent’s lessons to me and my sister on sufficiency.  The car wasn’t pretty.  It was actually the ugliest car in our high school’s parking lot by far.  But it was good enough to get us where we were going and we didn’t have to pay for anything other than the fuel for the tank.

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In 1994, when the car was 26 years old, my parents were in the process of selling their house and packing for their move back to my father’s new job in Indianapolis.  Just a few days before moving, by complete coincidence, a man driving through the neighborhood stopped and asked if they were interested in selling the car.  This solved the problem of what they should do about moving it to Indy.  If I recall, the agreed-upon price was something like 50 dollars, cash.

 

Chef Shiro’s Orris

Saturday evening in Los Angeles, I met up with Curry, his brother Eric and William for dinner at Hideo “Shiro” Yamashiro’s Orris, a five-year old “small plates” restaurant that borrows heavily from the Japanese izakaya, or eating pub, tradition.  A fusion of Japanese and French cuisines, Shiro’s emphasis is on the ingredients with unfussy presentations that highlight the clean flavors of the food.

It was a table full of foodies and we met several of the qualifications of the list of ten things you should know about food bloggers, so much so that an older diner who had been sitting inside the plate glass window and had noticed our photographing, stopped by as he left the restaurant to enquire about it.

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William and Curry snap away.  What you don’t see is Eric, to my left, taking pictures with his iPhone.

Let’s take a look at the small plates that we enjoyed over our leisurely two hour dining experience:

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An amuse-bouche of ratatouille with fresh eggplants, tomatoes and capers.  Lovely, bright flavors like summer piled on top of a slice of baguette.

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An off-the-menu special, freshly smoked salmon on top of potato pancakes served with creme fraiche and tobiko – flying fish roe.  This was also very nice and I’m tempted to try this one at home.

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Dungeness crab salad “nests” – Freshly handpicked dungeness crab served on top of julienned cucumber in a light ginger dressing.  This was tasty although other than a few slices of ginger, I couldn’t identify any “dressing” – something the cucumber could have benefitted from.

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Squash blossoms stuffed with shrimp mousse and pistachios, lightly friend tempura-style and topped with a calmatta olive salsa.  Very nice.  These zucchini were beautifully tender and the salsa gave it the right zestiness.

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Another off-the-menu special: halibut tempura on a tomato tarragon puree with garlic aioli.  The halibut was very light, not at all oily, but also with such a delicate flavor that it got lost in the puree.

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Tender Berkshire pork loin medallions sauteed in a zesty green peppercorn sauce.  The pork was exceptionally tender and the sauce was very rich.  This was a satisfyingly meaty dish.

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We concluded with slices of roasted beets topped with Etorki Basque sheep cheese and finished with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil with a sprig of dill.  Shown in detail below.

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The presentation (which I ruined by putting a slice of beet on top) was clever and visually pleasing.  The flavor was perfectly balanced: the beets were sweet and earthy, which complemented the earthy richness of the cheese, which was cut by the balsamic vinegar.  The dill provided an aromatic contrast that was very nice.  This was my favorite dish.

The restaurant was a good value, with the bill not breaking $100 for four diners even with two of us enjoying glasses of wine.  The food is creative, superbly high quality and intellectually engaging.  Worth a return visit.

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Chris, William, Curry and Eric in front of Orris.

The one drawback of the restaurant was the limited and not very inspiring dessert menu.  Since it was still early and a pleasant summer evening, we decided to stroll down Sawtelle Boulevard to the local Pinkberry.

The Sawtelle district, which was an independent city until its residents voted to merge with Los Angeles in 1922, has an extensive Japantown, a suburban neighbor known informally as “Little Osaka”, as compared to Little Tokyo, which centers on Second and San Pedro Streets in downtown Los Angeles. 

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Among the many shops on this street are two branches of Giant Robot, the Asian American pop culture store (and magazine) that also has locations in SF and NY.  In addition to GR there are plenty of nurseries, karaoke parlors and frozen yogurt shops.

We went to Pinkberry, an upscale frozen yogurt chain owned by Korean Americans that is a copycat of South Korean chain Red Mango, which has recently made inroads into the US market itself.  While I had heard much about the Pinkberry mania, I had never tried it myself.

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The deal is similar to the frozen yogurt shops of the 1980s but perhaps a little higher quality.  The yogurt actually is tart, like yogurt really is, and the choice of toppings is slightly more eclectic.

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Original flavor with lychee, mango and almonds – Eric’s choice.

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Original with mango and blueberry – William’s antioxidant-rich choice.

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Original with mochi and fresh Bing cherries – my choice.  Curry opted for a granola parfait that did not photograph well.

As luck would have it, the West LA Buddhist Temple was sponsoring the annual Obon festival, a sort of “day of the dead” ceremony that is full of dancing and celebrating.  Large processions of dancers, many glad in kimonos, parade around the streets to traditional music. 

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As the pleasant ocean breeze blew in from the Pacific, we enjoyed watching the crowds and taking in the sights.

Before calling it an evening, I heard someone calling my name.  At first, I ignored it, since my name is common and the only people who would know me were standing right next to me.  But when it was called again, I turned around to see a young lady whom I did not recognize.

Instead of pretending to know and hoping she would say something that would trigger my memory, I acknowledged that I didn’t know her name.  Wouldn’t you know, it was another Xangan!  What are the chances of that?  “I thought you had left LA already,” she said.

Actually, this is the second time someone has randomly recognized me on the street because of my blog.  The first time was about three years ago in the elevator at my previous apartment in Bangkok.

With the recognition of how small the world really is, we called it a night.  I let the boys head home and returned to Bill and Alex’s to do my packing.

 

Brunch at the Starling Cafe

Saturday morning my cousins Alex and Bill took me out to the Starling Cafe, voted one of the best brunch places in Long Beach.  It is a cute place, reminding me of the now-defunct Miss Millie’s on 24th Street in San Francisco.

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Thankfully, by the time we arrived the breakfast crowds had thinned and we had no wait for a table.  The menu had all the usual suspects including a French Toast that they claimed was absolutely unlike any French Toast you had ever eaten before: stuffed with marscapone cheese, the baguette was dipped in creme anglaise and then broiled instead of the usual frying.

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The French Toast, above, was absolutely every bit as good as they claimed with a nice light crunch on the outside and a moist but not soggy interior.  With plenty of fresh berries and some whipped cream, it was a nice treat.

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There were several scrambles, too.  This one was a smoked salmon scramble that was very tasty.  Alex had a pulled pork scramble that had some of the tenderest barbeque pork shoulder I’ve had.

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A trio of cousins, Chris, Alex and Bill.  Would you believe she’s already six months along?  Barely showing!

Afterwards, we made a few stops in and around Long Beach, cruising down Second Street and seeing the sights.

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Looking towards the harbor with an oil tanker off in the distance.

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A beautiful dog in a stylish kerchief waits for her owner at a sidewalk cafe.

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A pair of cats wait for adoption outside a pet store.  They were sitting in the shade and were huddled together as if they were chilly.

Saturday afternoon I drove to Culver City to visit my high school friend Lalima and her husband Aaron and son Devin.  Sadly, I didn’t take any pictures but had a fun time visiting with them and eating a fresh peach pie they had bought especially for me to enjoy.  Oh, summer fruits!

Saturday evening I met Gary, W and Eric for dinner.  It was so fantastic that I’m going to wait and give it its own entry… stay tuned.