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West Coast swing: Los Angeles IV (Downtown & the Hills)


View Southern California 2018 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Our second visit to Grand Central Market was even better than the first, since we had a pretty good idea of the best the market had to offer. We didn't want to waste any valuable stomach space on generic noodle dishes or other food we could find anywhere and focused on the most unusual and appetizing options we could find. Eventually we settled on a spicy vegetable tom yam soup and beef rendang from the Malaysian restaurant, pork siningag from the Filipino stall, oysters on the half shell and scallop ceviche from the raw bar, a Cajun seafood stew, and a mix of pork nose and beef cheek tacos. We created an epic fusion meal that we washed down with local craft beers. It was the best possible cure for the sting of having missed Smorgasburg LA.
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Outside of the market we could see the orange arch of Angels Flight, the short funicular railway that ascends Bunker Hill. This is actually the third incarnation of the historic train, which reopened in 2017 after a four year hiatus for repairs. LA's tallest skyscrapers gleamed from atop the hill. The kids naturally wanted to ride but we were already behind schedule on a very busy day.
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It was a short walk to one of the destinations I'd chosen in advance of the trip. The Last Bookstore may not actually be the last bookstore in the world, but it seems possible that in ten or twenty years it could be. In an age when virtually any book you desire can be bought with one click on a keyboard, what do physical bookstores still have to offer? Chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble haven't been able to answer that question, and the result has been the disappearance of their outlets from major cities all over the US. What The Last Bookstore offers is an intoxicating immersion into a fantasy world where books transcend their basic function to become art and structure as well.
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All the visuals naturally attract a lot of foot traffic, but I was surprised to discover that the book prices were comparable to what I might find online. One area was crammed with classic children's books that I had loved in my youth that cost only four to six dollars each. I bought eight for Cleo including James and the Giant Peach and The Trumpet of the Swan and probably would have bought a dozen more if we didn't have to schlep them all the way back to Miami.
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I hadn't planned on doing more downtown but as I oriented myself on Google Maps I noticed a nearby neighborhood marked "Toy District". What on earth was a toy district? Some quick research indicated that the area was exactly what it sounded like: a few square blocks devoted entirely to stores selling imported toys and party favors at wholesale prices. We were only a couple of blocks away and had three small kids with us, so what did we have to lose? On the walk over we enjoyed some of LA's amazing street art which reminded me a lot of our recent stay in Valencia, Spain.
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The Toy District doesn't show up on any lists of recommended Los Angeles sights, and the reasons are understandable. The toys are cheaply made in third world countries, probably in horrifying sweatshops. The adjacent neighborhood is Skid Row, an area so awash in homeless and addicts that its name has become synonymous with urban blight. Needless to say, the proximity of Skid Row means that one will encounter numerous colorful and aromatic characters in and around the Toy District. If you're a country mouse, you will definitely prefer Target. But to our kids, a toy store is a toy store and they thought they'd landed in Heaven. Getting them through the district was like trying to pull an open umbrella through a ficus hedge. I think trying to find a specific toy in these stores would be an exercise in frustration, but for buying bulk gifts for young kids and especially party favors it's a great option to have. There were also a lot of fireworks stores, and we got an obscene amount of sparklers and bang snaps for New Year's Eve for about ten bucks.
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Having absorbed enough colorful grittiness downtown, we decided to literally head for the hills. The Hollywood Hills are what many people think of first when they think of Los Angeles. They represent glitz and glamour, and the opportunity for the wealthy and famous to live up in the sky looking down on the heaving urban sprawl. We weren't expecting to rub shoulders with celebrities, but we did want a closer look at the legendary views from the top of the hills. We had one last stop to make in the city before heading into the heights. Papa Cristo's is LA's most well-known Greek market and restaurant, and I thought it would be nice to check out a European scene after the variety of Asian supermarkets we'd visited. It proved to be an interesting stop, although we were still way too full to even consider trying anything at the busy restaurant inside. The market was a little smaller than I expected, with an enormous amount of space unsurprisingly devoted to olive oil and olives. The owner was conducting a tasting of Greek wine inside and we ended up buying a bottle that was crafted from the classic Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Malbec. He called it "the best Bordeaux outside of Bordeaux", which made me wonder why one wouldn't just buy a bottle of Bordeaux. Personally, I prefer Agiorgitiko but they didn't have any on offer.
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The classic driving route in the hills is along Mulholland Drive, the historic serpentine road that is the heart and soul of the Hollywood Hills. We entered the road from the eastern end off Cahuenga Boulevard and drove the entire fourteen mile length to where the road closes to public access at the state park west of Highway 405. Mulholland picks up again on the other side of the park and continues until it reaches the Ventura Freeway, but apparently there's nothing remarkable about that section of the road. The most scenic section is generally considered to be that between Cahuenga and Beverly Glen. There were a number of viewpoints with space to pull over and take photographs, but it's difficult to do justice to the sense of boundless expanse that we felt standing atop the narrow ridge that Mulholland Drive traverses.
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Once we'd finished Mulholland we turned off the main drag and got ourselves lost in the winding side roads around Encino, admiring the eclectic Spanish Colonial mansions that are the dominant style in the area. Eventually we found our way back to Highway 405 which took us south to Beverly Hills. Beverly Hills, of course, is another legendary element of the Los Angeles zeitgeist despite not being a part of the city at all. Current residents would probably prefer to forget that the city originated in the early twentieth century as an all-white enclave where blacks and Jews were legally prohibited from owning property. Oddly enough, in the original Beverly Hills there were no hills at all. Even now, the only part of the city on a hillside is Trousdale Estates which was annexed in the 1950's. In recent decades Beverly Hills has lost some of its mojo after numerous other wealthy enclaves arose in the Los Angeles area, many of them even more expensive and exclusive. But Beverly Hills still has Rodeo Drive, a short stretch of road that defines opulence and ostentatiousness even more than Fifth Avenue in New York City. It's practically obligatory for a fashion house to have an outpost on Rodeo Drive to be considered a preeminent brand. We slowly made our way down the clogged artery and admired the festively decorated fashion outlets and numerous exotic sports cars on the road, but didn't feel tempted to park and stroll around. We still had unfinished business at the Original Farmers Market.
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When we left the Original Farmers Market on our first morning, we were so confident we'd be back that I hadn't even bothered to make a video. On the three ensuing evenings circumstance had led us elsewhere for dinner but tonight we had no particular plan and it was the perfect opportunity to return. We'd already decided Monsieur Marcel's French seafood restaurant was where we wanted to eat, and when we called I was surprised to hear they could have a table ready in for us in twenty minutes. Perfect timing. It turned out to be a good thing I called ahead because by the time we arrived the only tables left were far out into the market away from the heat lamps, and soon enough those were gone as well. The food was unimpressive but Ian enjoyed the escargots. Afterwards we took a last walk through the market before it closed for the night and I bought some jambalaya to take home. I can't say enough how awesome it was to experience these huge food halls in LA. The best part is not even having to decide what kind of food you want for dinner until you get there and see what tempts you.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 23:01 Archived in USA

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