A Travellerspoint blog


West Coast swing: San Diego II

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We kicked off our last full day in San Diego with another awesome breakfast, this time in the resort town of Coronado across the bay from San Diego. Whether Coronado is an island or not remains the subject of debate, since the town is connected to the city of Imperial Beach to the south by a long strip of sand called a tombolo. This technically makes Coronado a "tied island" but some locals refuse to consider it an island because one can drive there over land without a bridge. We arrived via the Coronado Bridge, which provides amazing views of the San Diego Marina and downtown.

More than half of Coronado is given over to a naval base. The remainder is a fairly sleepy resort town with pretty residential neighborhoods and lots of beaches. The main commercial area is Orange Avenue which has a lot of upscale boutiques and the occasional chain store. Our breakfast place was a crowded, old-fashioned diner style restaurant with a long counter and bright crimson vinyl upholstery. Each booth had a personalized jukebox, and once again the food was outstanding. Southern California seems to be one of those places, like Vermont and Napa Valley, that's just great for breakfast.

The only actual sight on Coronado Island is the historic Hotel del Coronado. This enormous 19th century wooden hotel was a frequent hangout for Hollywood celebrities in the 1920's and 30's. We had a lot more to see that day so we were satisfied with a close look at the exterior of the building.

One of our quirks when we travel is that we're more likely to visit an ethnic or specialty food store than a museum. Such was the case with our next destination in San Diego, Catalina Offshore Products. Mei Ling had put this wholesale seafood market on our schedule without even realizing that they are the origin of our regular shipments of California sea urchin. Catalina is considered one of California's premier online seafood retailers, and they also have a commanding physical presence in San Diego's industrial Morena neighborhood.

Aside from the seafood counters, there were a lot of interesting products on display including cuttlefish ink and a variety of fish eggs. The smell wasn't as bad as the kids seemed to think.

Although there weren't many retail customers in the store, one of the fishmongers was busy preparing sashimi samples at a small kitchen in the back of the store. We were curious about whether the Pacific fish opah could be eaten sashimi and he generously cut us a few delicious slices. Opah is almost unknown as a food fish in the US outside of Hawaii, but it's gradually making inroads thanks to the efforts of the fishmongers at Catalina and other California seafood promoters.

Just south of Catalina Offshore, Old Town San Diego is a miniature theme park that celebrates San Diego's colonial history and Mexican heritage. It is built on the site of the first Spanish settlement in California. There are a few historic homes and churches but most of the buildings are reconstructions. There's a large central square with majestic trees and picnic tables surrounded by small museums and stores selling local and Mexican goods and souvenirs. The kids got a kick out of dyeing candles at a crafts station we encountered. There's nothing like hot wax to keep kids entertained.

At one corner of the complex is an enclosed area designed to look like a Mexican hacienda, with an open central area for musical performances. In the periphery were a number of restaurants as well as stores selling Mexican art and ceramics. I was surprised by the high quality of the handmade ceramics on display after seeing all the souvenir shops around the square.

Overall we were happy with our visit to Old San Diego. It was touristy and just a little cheesy but also very pretty and pleasant to walk around in. We still had plenty of daylight for our next destination, La Jolla Cove. One of the great things about travel is the opportunity to see different animals in their natural habitats, and La Jolla Cove is one of the best and most accessible places to see seals and sea lions in the United States. Fortunately my interminable search for a parking spot in the commercial district of La Jolla Village coincided with the kids' naps, so they were fresh and ready to go once someone finally pulled out right in front of me. Just before the cove there's a beautiful, grassy park with great views over the Pacific.

I was expecting to see a lot of sea lions but I was still surprised at their abundance and how easy it was to approach them. There were a number of tourists on the rocks but there could have been far more, and no one was getting too close or bothering the animals. large_IMG_2335.JPGlarge_IMG_2337.JPG

I didn't want all three kids out on the rocks together so I brought them out one at a time to get close to the sea lions. Ian was the only one who seemed to mind the strong smell of animal waste. Fortunately there was a stiff breeze to keep the worst of it flowing away from us.

A little further east along the shoreline was a small beach and a few hardy souls were even swimming in the frigid ocean. Hundreds of cormorants were clustered along the rocks and cliffs behind the beach, as well as a few seagulls and pelicans.

The Friday evening market was in the inland suburb of La Mesa. The size and energy level were about midway between the two previous evening markets, and we concluded that Ocean Beach was the best of the bunch. That didn't stop the kids from breaking out some moves to a spirited bluegrass performance.

We sampled a few things at La Mesa, but we saved most of our room to eat at San Diego's outpost of the Korean supermarket chain Zion. There were three or four small restaurants in the supermarket's food court, and we had our second highly authentic Korean meal of the trip.

One very smart thing I did when I planned this trip was to schedule our return flight home from Los Angeles at 11 PM. That meant that we could take our time getting back to Los Angeles on Saturday and have a good dinner before going to the airport. It also meant the kids would be sleeping most of the flight and would get a jump on adjusting to the time change before school started Monday. We still had the Saturday morning market in Little Italy, which was gorgeous in the overcast morning. The streets were lined with colorful and sleek modern townhouses, with San Diego's attractive skyline providing the background to the south.

The market turned out to be the best of all the ones we had visited in Southern California. It was as big as the one in Santa Monica, but had a more local vibe and better crafts and artisanal food.

The highlight of the morning was a seafood stall which was stocked with enormous live purple sea urchins that they were splitting open and filling with ceviche. There's nothing more fulfilling for us when we travel than this kind of unique and exotic food experience.

We'd seen a little of San Diego's amazing Balboa Park two days earlier when we'd visited the zoo, but I didn't want to leave without a closer look. Aside from the sixteen museums, the park houses countless gardens and performance venues. We couldn't find a parking space when we arrived, so Cleo and I struck out on our own to explore the beautiful Alcazar Garden, which was like being transported to a palace courtyard in Granada or Seville.

Behind the Alcazar Garden is the majestic California Tower, constructed a hundred years ago for an exposition in a whimsical blend of architectural styles. The tower and the building it is attached to house the anthropologic Museum of Man.

We were able to find temporary parking long enough to explore the Palm Canyon together. A wooden walkway and staircase lead down to a narrow canyon with a distinct prehistoric vibe. Afterwards we walked as far as the Japanese Friendship Garden but decided we didn't have enough time to justify the price of admission.

Our last stop in San Diego was Liberty Public Market, where we put together our final food hall meal of our California road trip. After the exhausting zoo trip, we'd never summoned the motivation to go to SeaWorld but we didn't have any regrets. We'd found more than enough in San Diego in three days to entertain and amaze us. On our way back north towards Los Angeles, we eschewed the interstate for the coastal Highway 101. We slowly made our way through all the small seaside communities all the way back to Oceanside, detouring frequently into residential neighborhoods to admire the Southern California architectural styles.

We made it back to Los Angeles in time to spend an hour or so at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I'd been warned it wasn't a good museum for kids but the descriptions I'd seen had made me very curious so we went for it. Naturally, the warnings were correct. The museum was a dark labyrinth of small rooms connected by narrow hallways and it was very crowded. The kids could barely understand any of the displays and honestly I couldn't figure out why most of the things I was seeing were worth exhibiting. The few things I found interesting I was unable to focus on because I was too busy keeping the kids from touching the stuff they weren't supposed to touch. So perhaps we'll go back when the kids are teenagers, or maybe not. Photographs were not permitted.

Our final task in California was to stuff ourselves before the flight back to Miami. We still hadn't seen Little Tokyo and I had a craving for authentic shabu shabu. Unfortunately, Little Tokyo was absolutely packed even at 6 PM and every restaurant we inquired at had a wait of over an hour. In the end, we drove back downtown to a Japanese restaurant we'd seen next to Grand Central Market which was practically empty and had excellent shabu shabu. Mission accomplished for dinner, but Little Tokyo would have to wait for the next visit. We carried onward to the airport, thoroughly exhausted and exhilarated after our whirlwind tour through Southern California.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:56 Archived in USA Comments (0)

West Coast swing: San Diego I

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The drive south from Los Angeles to San Diego is one of the more pleasant we've made on an interstate highway in the US. The highway was lined on either side with housing developments whose units were eerily identical, except that they were often constructed on terraced hillsides that created a strange similarity with the ancient towns of Sicily. I had to wonder if I was the only person who ever saw the resemblance. Unfortunately it never occurred to me to pull the car over and take a picture of these peculiar planned communities, but here's what I was reminded of.

The other remarkable sight from the highway were the mountain ranges, always a formidable presence somewhere in the background. Being used to the east coast where the terrain is generally flat anywhere near the seaboard, the mountains seemed quite incongruous yet beautiful.

We spent New Year's Eve with friends of Mei Ling in one of those cookie cutter developments inland from the town of Oceanside. Oceanside itself had little worth seeing, but since we were there anyway we made a brief stop at Mission San Luis Rey, a two hundred year old Spanish church that was originally established as one of twenty-one California missions that served to extended the power of the Spanish kingdom to the new frontier.

The only other place we visited around Oceanside was the Museum of Making Music, in the neighboring coastal community of Carlsbad. This was quite a fun museum oriented towards kids, and I think ours learned quite a lot about instruments from the interactive exhibits and from experimenting in the small studio.

We'd had amazing success with food halls in Los Angeles, so naturally when we arrived in San Diego we made a beeline for lunch at Liberty Public Market, one of San Diego's two food halls. The hall opened in 2016 in the Liberty Station commercial area, and contains about twenty small restaurants. There was a lot of energy and a great variety of food although not quite to the degree of the big Los Angeles food halls. We mixed it up with some Italian arancini, seafood, and Cajun.

Our Airbnb was another great choice, an apartment in an incongruous complex of Victorian houses downtown wedged between the Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy. The exterior was full of pleasant little touches like wicker furniture and a collection of succulents growing in creative pottery.

All the farmers markets from Wednesday through Friday were in the evenings, which worked out great with our schedule. On our first night we drove out to Ocean Beach, an eclectic residential neighborhood at the base of the Point Loma peninsula west of downtown. It was more like a night market than a farmers market, although there were a few produce stands. The emphasis was more on prepared foods and crafts, and there was a really good live band. The food stalls were very diverse and we had more than enough options to provide a satisfying dinner. It was probably the closest thing we'd encountered in the US to a Taiwan-style night market.

We still had a little energy left after the night market so we drove to Seaport Village, an outdoor shopping and dining complex by the San Diego Marina. There turned out not to be much going on at night, although a few interesting places were still open. The strangest was a store almost completely devoted to socks. How do they stay in business in San Diego where everyone wears sandals and flip-flops? We decided if we had time we'd return during daylight hours for the views of Coronado Island I'd read about.

The Gaslamp Quarter is San Diego's historic heart and soul. After decades of neglect, the neighborhood was revitalized in the 1980's and is now home to some of San Diego's best restaurants as well as numerous historic buildings and the eponymous lamps (which of course are electric).

The breakfast place I chose from TripAdvisor turned out to be outstanding, both in terms of food and decor. It was truly one of the most beautifully designed and ornate restaurants I can remember, down to the most minimal detail. Coupled with the magnificent buildings outside, it left a lasting impression of the Gaslight Quarter as having a very sophisticated design aesthetic.

A short walk from breakfast we encountered a splendid outdoor plaza called Horton Plaza Park, which had just completed a major renovation three years earlier. The design was magnificent with eight towering, angulated metal light supports arranged in a semi-circle around a sunken plaza with a pop-jet fountain in the center. Surrounding us was an interesting juxtaposition of modern skyscrapers and historic edifices. The plaza serves multiple purposes as a performance venue, relaxation spot, and unfortunately as a homeless hangout.

The San Diego Zoo is one of the largest and most famous zoos in the world, and shares top billing for local animal attractions with SeaWorld. I had figured we would have time for both and opted to do the zoo first, since it seemed easier to plan. After all, a zoo is a zoo, right? Of course, the logistics were a little more complicated than most zoos. For example, the parking lot alone was the size of some other zoos we've visited. Fortunately we found a ticket line that moved quickly but wow, those tickets were expensive. Two hundred bucks later we rolled through the turnstiles and began a very long journey that took us through maybe a quarter of the zoo. I'd recommend doing some research in advance if you're planning on visiting this zoo, because it is not possible to get small kids around the entire place in a day. Spenser got tired after about an hour and I loaded him on my back for a nap. This blog may be called Babies in Backpacks, but now that my youngest weighs over thirty pounds and I'm pushing fifty I might need to change up my brand. By the time Spenser had woken up an hour later, I was feeling a knife stabbing into each of my shoulder blades. I got a brief respite while we ate the sandwiches we had brought with us, and then it was time to load up Ian. The kids enjoyed some of the exhibits, but they're not really zoo lovers and at the end I was wishing we had chosen SeaWorld instead.

The highlights of the zoo were a very active troop of baboons in a large, natural-looking enclosure and the Skyfari aerial tram. By the time we stumbled on the tram and realized it would take us directly to the exit, we abandoned all thought of queuing up for the pandas. We'll catch them in Hunan one day. The Skyfari provided great views of the zoo, Balboa Park, and even downtown San Diego.


The Thursday afternoon farmers market was in North Park, another pleasant residential neighborhood northeast of the zoo. The market was a little bit of a letdown after the previous night's extravaganza at Ocean Beach. There was just a solitary musician instead of a rock band, and many of the booths were repeats from the previous night. However, I did get to try some food from Mozambique which was a first.

For dinner we went to the Little Italy Food Hall, on the short pedestrian street known as Piazza della Famiglia. The piazza was a beautiful sight with illuminated buildings and a colorful Christmas tree persisting from the previous month. The food hall itself was underwhelming and underpopulated, but we managed to put together enough of a dinner to carry us through to the next day.

Posted by zzlangerhans 09:39 Archived in USA Comments (0)

West Coast swing: Los Angeles V (10 Things I Loved about LA)

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Our five days in Los Angeles had gone by in a flash. Fortunately, we didn't have to be at our next destination until the evening which left us most of the day to see the last few things on our list we hadn't gotten around to earlier. One major facet of LA we hadn't fully experienced was the huge influence of the Mexican community. This can be felt in the food and culture all around Los Angeles and Southern California but is probably best experienced in East Los Angeles, which at 97% has the highest percentage of Latino residents of any city in the US.

Our first destination on Monday morning was El Mercadito de Los Angeles. El Mercadito is technically in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, a block away from the edge of East LA, but we might as well have been in the middle of Mexico. It was a typical, smallish market with an emphasis on clothing, souvenirs, restaurants and sundries rather than produce. The first thing I went for was a bag of peeled purple cactus fruit, which the Mexicans call "tuna". It's not for everybody, since it's messy and the seeds are hard to crunch, but I find it delicious with lime juice and fun to eat. The kids clustered around for some bites as well although they quickly got bored with it.

On the second floor of the market were the small restaurants along with the more upscale clothing stores. We hadn't eaten much Mexican food yet on the trip, so we gorged ourselves on our usual favorites of menudo, caldo de res, and enchiladas for the kids. The place had a fairly local, authentic atmosphere. Maybe it's different on the weekends, but there didn't seem to be much traffic from the Anglo side of town.

The third floor had larger, more elaborate restaurants that were closed at that early hour. On the ground floor we browsed the souvenirs and bought a Spanish picture game for the kids, hoping it might inspire them to learn some vocabulary. The only other place that seemed to be worth seeing in the area was Mariachi Plaza, also in Boyle Heights. Mariachi bands have typically congregated in this colorful square awaiting customers to whisk them off to a wedding or quinceañera. We didn't see any mariachis, so Cleo and I jumped out for a couple of minutes to take some pictures of the colorful storefronts and murals in the square.

So far we'd experienced a lot of pleasant surprises in Los Angeles. For one, the food had been a lot better and more diverse than we'd anticipated. Another was that despite LA's reputation for urban sprawl, there's a lot of ways to experience natural beauty within the city limits. Griffith Park, the Venice Canals, and Mulholland Drive had been revelations. There was still another famous outdoor space for us to experience, the Huntington Library and Gardens in the upscale suburb of San Marino, near Pasadena. I've always enjoyed the visual aesthetic of botanical gardens and do my best to get them on our schedule when possible. It's also a good opportunity for the kids to stretch their legs and blow off some energy in the middle of the day.

It was an easy decision to ignore the library and art galleries that are associated with the gardens, given the limited time we had and the natural boisterousness of the kids. Nevertheless, we didn't make much of a dent in the extensive grounds. My biggest regret is not having pushed a little harder to make it to the Chinese and Japanese gardens. Unfortunately we got off track and found ourselves in the Conservatory and then the Children's Garden. By the time the kids had finished interacting with all the exhibits in the Conservatory and playing in the Children's Garden, which was exceptionally beautiful, we were all exhausted and ready to move on.

The kids immediately fell asleep once we got back to the car and we set off southward to Oceanside, where we'd be spending New Year's with a friend of Mei Ling's. There was one final stop to make in Los Angeles. The Watts Towers has a lot in common with quixotic one-man projects we've encountered all over the world. Its builder, Sabato Rodia, was an eccentric Italian loner much like Filippo Bentivegna, who was the creative force behind Il Castello Incantato in Sicily. He built the tower supports and walls from concrete embedded with seashells and fragments of ceramic much like Father Mathias Wernerus did with the Dickeyville Grotto in Wisconsin. The texture of the embedded walls reminded me of Miami's own Coral Castle, also built by a single mysterious sculptor. The metal towers themselves were reminiscent of Dr. Evermor's Forevertron, also in Wisconsin. What force was running through all these men, living in different parts of the world at different times, that drove them to slave at these impractical projects for most of their lives?

The Watts Towers are only accessible by guided tour and these are not offered on Mondays, so I could only stand outside the metal gates and inspect the sculpture from a distance. Fortunately there were a series of plaques to provide information about Rodia and his creative process.

The houses across from the towers are painted in bright colors, in contrast to the drab appearance of the surrounding neighborhood. One was decorated in an especially pretty floral motif. There's also an Arts Center next to the towers that manages the tours and hosts exhibitions.

It had taken five days of solid work, but we had crossed off practically everything on our list of planned activities in Los Angeles. However, a lot of those are things like food halls and markets that one can do again and again. I'm confident that when we return to LA in the not-so-distant future we'll be just as busy and enthralled as we were on this occasion. I don't usually devote more than a couple of posts to one city, and I've certainly never done five before. I even put my most recent Europe blog on pause to write up Los Angeles while the experience was still fresh in my mind. Now that I'm done, I still don't feel that I've managed to do justice to this amazing city. Therefore, I made a list of the top ten things we loved about LA to complement the descriptions of what we did there.

Ten things we loved about Los Angeles

Architecture: Los Angeles has plenty of famous and uniquely-designed buildings such as Walt Disney Concert Hall and The Broad, but honestly we didn’t get around to seeing most of them. What we enjoyed the most were the gleaming skyscrapers around Bunker Hill and all the neighborhoods filled with classically-styled mansions to admire. Driving around LA was far from the nightmarish experience we were warned about, thanks in large part to the interesting houses and buildings that seemed to be everywhere.

Street art. Covering the side of a building in paint used to be done by hoodlums in the thick of night. Now an urban neighborhood seems incomplete when there aren’t any murals adorning the walls of apartment buildings or warehouses. Yesterday’s subversive nuisance has become one of today’s foremost methods of artistic expression. Art on the streets conveys a sense of freedom and insouciance that energizes the neighborhood and creates a sense of community. LA’s street art was ubiquitous, colorful, and dramatic in a way we haven’t seen since Valencia, Spain.

Eclectic. Too many American cities have stood by passively as soulless chain restaurants and brand name stores have absorbed all the available retail space in their communities. Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, and Pizza Huts have virtually eliminated competition from individually owned businesses and undiscriminating consumers have been complicit. In my adopted hometown of Miami locally-owned pizzerias, burger joints, and donut shops are practically nonexistent. In Los Angeles, I was amazed by the number of neighborhoods we drove through that seemed to be devoid of fast food chains and other familiar national outlets.

Ethnic culture. New York City is the benchmark by which we measure the ethnic flavor of American cities, and Los Angeles is the first that might actually give NYC a run for its money. When it comes to East Asian culture, LA wins hands down. Koreatown, Filipinotown, Little Tokyo, Little Saigon, Thai Town … what else is left? Chinatown is the only weak link in this formidable array of authentic Asian neighborhoods. LA’s got the most pervasive Mexican influence as well, not just in East LA but throughout the city. The best part is that most of the ethnic communities are central and everyone seems to mix fluidly.

Downtown. Every major American city has a downtown, and most of them are wastelands with little to explore especially after dark. Downtown LA has no shortage of blight and derelicts, but the dominant flavor here is creativity and energy. Food halls, the Angel Flight, street art, the Toy District, and The Last Bookstore are just a few elements of a truly unique and entertaining part of the city.

The suburbs. In most cities, these are pleasant but bland zones whose main purpose is to house middle class people and provide them with non-threatening dining and entertainment options. Around Los Angeles, the neighboring communities have their own bragging rights. Santa Monica, Pasadena, and East Los Angeles would never be mistaken for Anytown, USA. And those are just the ones we were able to visit in five days. Who knows what we would have found in Malibu or Long Beach?

Topography. There’s no shortage of urban sprawl in LA, but there’s also plenty of parks and other green space. Then you’ve got the mighty Pacific ocean, the stunning Venice Canals, and the winding, undulating hills and canyons in the north of the city. I still haven’t been able to think of another major American city where you can look out over downtown they way you can from Griffith Observatory or Mulholland Drive.

Farmers markets. We’ve been to other cities which punched above their weight in markets. Portland, Oregon is a perfect example. But we’ve never been anywhere that had as many big markets dominated by real farmers as LA. The best markets had their own vibe depending on the part of the city they were in and the time of day they were held. If Miami just had one farmers market nearly as good as South Pasadena or Santa Monica, I’d consider it a better place to live.

Food halls. This is a rapidly changing landscape, but I’d be amazed if Los Angeles isn’t the king of the hill right now. Grand Central Market and The Original Farmers Market are the two best food halls we’ve been to in the US, and it isn’t close. Squaremixx and Corporation are awesome on a smaller scale and there’s at least half a dozen we didn’t have a chance to try.

And finally ...

The people. Angelenos don’t enjoy a particularly good rep around the country, but our experience was the opposite. We didn’t find people to be vain, shallow, stoned, or particularly irate on the roads. On the contrary, the people we encountered during our five days were some of the most friendly and authentic we’ve met over the course of our American travels. People at the farmers markets and food halls were especially upbeat, and not in an artificial or servile way. I think most people are genuinely happy to live and work in LA, and it shows in the way they interact with others.

Posted by zzlangerhans 00:19 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Posted by zzlangerhans 23:01 Archived in USA Comments (0)

West Coast swing: Los Angeles III (The Coastal Strip)

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The farmers market schedule dictated that the first stop on Saturday morning would be Santa Monica, where there were actually two markets. The first was a very chilled scene at Virginia Beach Park, with a live band playing a trippy instrumental version of "Pumped Up Kicks". It was another very produce-oriented market with some cool varieties of mushrooms and radishes. There was just one food stall but the huge carne asada burrito I bought was the best I'd had in a long time.

The main act on Saturday morning in Santa Monica is the downtown market on Arizona Avenue. It's a busy affair extending for several blocks with a mixture of growers and artisans. Halfway through is the intersection with Santa Monica's famous Third Street Promenade.

The Third Street Promenade is the place to shop and people-watch in Santa Monica. Aside from the cafes and boutiques, there's innovative landscaping and some very talented street performers. It always drives me nuts when people watch these guys for ten minutes and then walk away without giving so much as a buck, so I enjoyed the ingenious ways some of these guys induce people to pay for their entertainment.

The promenade was only three blocks long and was lined with boring chain stores, so we reversed back to Arizona Avenue and walked a couple of blocks to the little strip of park that overlooks Santa Monica beach. To the south we could see the Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica pier. In the other direction we could see across Santa Monica Bay all the way to Malibu. On the beach was an array of no less than eighteen volleyball nets, none of which were in use on this chilly December day. We knew that going on the pier would inevitably result in at least a couple of hours lost to rides and games, and there just wasn't any time for that today. We managed to hustle the kids away before they spotted the Ferris wheel, but the catch was we couldn't find a decent place to eat in downtown Santa Monica that didn't have at least a thirty minute wait. I was desperate to get to Venice before sundown, so we bought the kids grilled chicken sandwiches and got back on the road.

We made it to Venice quickly enough, but the kids had passed out after eating and I had to idle the car for a while until they'd slept enough. Then we had to find a place to eat for ourselves, which ended up being an odd little Chinese fusion place called Mao's Kitchen. The food was decent, but we had to practically run to the Venice Canals to see them before darkness fell. As it was, we had about ten minutes of dusk before we were completely enveloped in darkness. It worked out for the best though since many of the houses were still elegantly decorated for the holidays which made for a beautiful spectacle at night. We ended up experiencing the best of both worlds at the canals.

Darkness and cold descended together and we hurried down to the Venice Beach boardwalk. Muscle Beach was already shut down for the night and there was little else to see. We decided to have dinner at Mitsuwa Marketplace, one of Southern California's many Asian supermarket chains. There's a choice of Mitsuwa for Japanese goods, Galleria for Korean, Seafood City for Filipino, 99 Ranch for Taiwanese/Chinese and other smaller markets for Vietnamese and Thai. Many of the larger supermarkets have food courts which can be among the best places to get authentic Asian dishes. We did pretty well at Mitsuwa, which wasn't much different from eating at a supermarket in Tokyo. Spenser especially liked the dried seaweed strips.

I had another special event queued up for the next morning. Smorgasburg LA is a huge gathering of food trucks and food stalls that's held in downtown LA every Sunday. It sounded like a weekly food festival with live music and a general party scene, and I was really looking forward to kicking off our fourth day in a row with a bang. On the way there we stopped by LA's small Chinatown just for a quick look. The neighborhood was virtually empty on a Sunday morning. Unlike other Chinatowns in the US, many of the buildings were painted in bright colors and topped by ornate pagodas so that they looked more like the China pavilion at Epcot than China or the US. One of the central pedestrian streets is named Mei Ling way, so of course we needed a picture of that before we could move on.

When we arrived at the Smorgasburg LA area, I couldn't seem to find the actual spot and there wasn't much pedestrian traffic around. Eventually a security guard confirmed my suspicion that the event was closed for the holidays. We were disappointed, but we knew it could have been a lot worse for us visiting LA between Christmas and New Year's. At least every farmers market and food hall had been up and running. We'd have to mark this one as an incomplete, but we already knew we'd be returning to LA within a few years. This would be just one more way to make the second visit unique. And on the plus side, this gave us the chance to make that return visit to Grand Central Market that we'd been craving.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:21 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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