Laguna San Ignacio, Baja, Mexico

The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Hola de Laguna San Ignacio, Baja California, Mexico. I am fortunate enough to have fun-loving, adventurous friends. I guess it’s true what they say, birds of a feather flock together. But anyhow, some friends of mine asked if I would be interested and available to join them in flying down to Baja California in their little Cessnas. I checked my work calendar and managed my schedule such that I could take some time off to fly to Mexico and camp on the beach.

The friend of my friends—Dave—has been flying down to this one little beach in Baja for about 30 years. He has a deal worked out with the guys who run the fishing and camping village on the Sea of Cortez where he leaves his RV and flies back a couple times a year to camp, fish, and enjoy the great outdoors. He often invites anyone who is willing and able to fly down because it’s pretty remote but does have a landing strip. I was fortunate enough to get invited down and…you know me…I’ll seize any opportunity for adventure.

It was my first time in a small plane and let me tell you, I could get used to this! We flew from Monterey to San Diego where we fueled up and had lunch and continued on to San Felipe, an official port of entry for us to clear Mexican customs. But no true adventure is complete without a hiccup or two and we were told we couldn’t make it where we were going before dark. The FAA gentleman told us to relax, we would have to spend the night in San Felipe. He called a cab—his dad—who picked us all up and took us to a hotel in town and the next morning he picked us up again, brought us to the airport and we were able to fly to our destination of Punta San Francisquito where we buzzed the beach and found Dave and his 88-year-old mother and some of his friends waiting for us. I just learned that “buzzing” in airplane speak is flying low to get someone to see you. So fun!

One day of this whirlwind adventure was slotted for whale watching. So we loaded up the three little planes with the twelve of us and flew to San Ignacio so we could get into boats and head out on the lagoon towards the Pacific Ocean to see the grey whales before they migrate north. It was such a magical experience, being in a small boat close to so many whales. And the calves are so curious, they would come up to the boat and nudge it and let us touch them.

After a lovely and turbulent boat ride we stepped into the restaurant for lunch and based on all the shells we passed on the drive in, I knew I was to order scallops, grilled and served with garlic. With of course, piping hot, paper thin tortillas and a killer margarita. It was just the perfect thing, making my own little tacos with the scallops on the hot tortillas and drinking the cold margarita in good company.

I have to say, this is a beautiful life we live and I urge you to seize any opportunity that comes your way. Or make adventure right here in PG…grab a friend—or take yourself!—and head to Peppers for Mexican food if this article has got you craving Mexican food. Or, did you know the new Poppy Hall on Lighthouse offers $1 oysters on Monday evenings? Along with a cava (Spanish sparkling wine) special. Regardless, there is no shortage for adventure opportunities in our little PG. It’s a matter of making magic.

scallops and garlic, rice, and my margarita

San Diego

Carpe diem. Seize the day. 

Greetings from sunny San Diego! I’m on another work trip to San Diego and back in my old stomping grounds. (I went to university at UCSD.) Being so close to the border means San Diego has amazing Mexican food so naturally, my colleague and I found a new Mexican place to try every day.

The first day we were on our way to work in Coronado and my colleague had her GPS navigating us. I know they are supposed to be helpful but the automated voice drives me crazy. We missed an exit on the freeway and Gidget—as my colleague calls her—was attempting to re-route us. Well in doing so, we drove by a hole in the wall joint with a line out the door and down the street. “Lyla…what’s that? We need to go there.” We took note of the place but didn’t catch the name and kept driving. We did, after all, have work to get to. After we had finished our meetings for the day, we asked one of the people we were meeting with where we should go for Mexican food. We were hoping he would direct us back to this really popular place. He did not. So, the next day, we decided to find it ourselves, googling “hole in the wall Mexican place” plus the street it was on.

Lyla turned the phone around to show me, “this is it!” she said. “Petra & Nati Las Cuatro Milpas” read the sign on the photo in Google with the same green awning and line out the door we had seen the day prior. On our one-hour lunch break, we drove straight to Petra & Nati Las Cuatro Milpas and couldn’t find parking on the first go around. So, we drove around the block the other way and wouldn’t you know, someone pulled out immediately in front of the restaurant just as we drove up.

A woman sat on a blue checkered blanked and made beaded bracelets and sold colorful things: wallets, headbands, etc. And the line was—as we anticipated—out the door and down the street. When it got to be our turn we decided to split a bunch of things so that we could each try more things. This is my favorite route when eating at someplace new. The menu was on one of those marquee boards where you can replace the black lettering in the white lined board. The whole menu fit on one of those boards. We ordered a pork tamal, the burrito—“you choose whatever you think is best,” and two chicken tacos. They were frying the rolled tacos right there and were just barely keeping up with making the tortillas. A huge caldron of soup simmered on a stove. The food smelled amazing and the seating area was all family style, the tables donning light blue checkered tablecloths.

Our food—plus two bottles of water—came to $12 and some change and we found seats at a long table with a couple who looked like they came here often. We split up everything evenly and went to town, generously heaping the deep and oily red salsa they had given us on top of everything. The food was fantastic and greasy. The tortilla that the burrito was wrapped in was unlike any tortilla I have ever had before. Normally tortillas—to my knowledge—are made with flour and water (or corn flour and water). No, this one was different. It tasted to me like the flour had been kneaded with lard. It was soft in a way that only grease gets soft. Buttery.

The tacos were perfect, the chicken was boiled and it was reminiscent of chicken soup…so naturally comforting. And the tamale. Again, it felt like the pork grease had been used to make the masa (the dough of the outside of the tamal). Everything was flavorful and sitting in the warm, small place with the food cooking so close to us made the experience all the better. They say it’s a good sign if there are a lot of people in a restaurant. Who wants to eat at an empty place…that must mean the food isn’t good, right? Well following that logic, this place exceeded our expectations and all those people standing in line…both days…knew what they were doing. And I guess something good came from the annoying-voiced GPS.

Burrito with cilantro, tacos, a tamal, and the hot sauce in the background

Lumpia in Lemoore

Greetings from Lemoore, CA! What I call the armpit of California, with all due respect to Lemorons—someone who lives here told me it’s what they’re called—it’s because of the farmland, the location, and the weather. Anyhow, in case you didn’t know there’s a Naval Air Station there so I’m down here for a work trip.

The Navy has a large population—and a long history—of Filipinos serving. In 1901 President William McKinley signed an executive order allowing the Navy to enlist 500 Filipinos as part of its insular force. Later in 1952, on account of the Korean War more personnel were required in the Navy so an agreement was negotiated that up to 1,000 Filipino citizens could enlist in the U.S. Navy annually. In 1954, this was increased to 2,000 people. Also, with the Nationality Act of 1940, aliens who served honorably in the armed forces for three or more years could be naturalized as U.S. citizens without having to meet certain normal requirements of naturalization. This law was repealed in 1952 and replaced by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 which was essentially the same thing although it stated that they shall have been lawfully admitted for permanent residence.

Enough with the history lesson, this is after all a food column. I called a friend who lives in Hanford—just outside of Lemoore where another dear friend says the only thing there is to do in Hanford is die—and we decided to meet for beers at Plan B Taphouse. I guess there are things to do in Hanford besides die, like drink beer. He told me they didn’t serve food and asked if I could pick up lumpia at Zeny’s, a Filipino restaurant in Lemoore on my way. Lumpia is a Filipino spring roll made of thin crepe pastry skin and filled with chopped vegetables and meat. It is served with a sweet chili sauce. These particular ones were made with ground beef and shredded carrots.

So after work, I drove to the gym. From the car I called Zeny’s and placed an order for 25 lumpia, per my friend’s instruction but the nice Filipino man on the other end told me they only do orders by the dozen so I ordered two dozen. I went for a swim in the outdoor pool because the armpit of California is warm already. Feeling refreshed—and starving—from my swim, I went to Zeny’s and bought snacks for my eight-minute drive to Hanford. It’s one of those times when “my eyes are bigger than my stomach.” I bought garlic flavored crunch-covered peanuts, Thai iced tea (super sweet, unnaturally orange iced tea), the lumpia, and dessert.

Blasting country music on the radio I drove the flat highway to Hanford, drank Thai iced tea, and munched on crunchy peanuts. Life is good, I thought. I’m glad I had the peanuts because the smell of the piping hot lumpia was terribly tempting.

I arrived at Zeny’s and parked in the parking lot just to notice two big German Shepherds in the huge truck next to me. In case you don’t know, I have an irrational fear of German Shepherds. Maybe it’s rational because I’ve been attacked by dogs—on multiple occasions—but I’ll save that for another time. I took a deep breath and opened the door, the dogs both stood and started sniffing, the crack I had opened in the door had wafted out the delicious smell of lumpia…meat. Just then I saw my friend walk into the bar so I slammed the door closed and called him. He answered and I asked if he could come to the parking lot to help me. Within seconds he was there and per my pantomiming he opened the passenger door. I told him I was afraid of dogs and could he grab the lumpia. He laughed—or maybe he rolled his eyes, or both—and grabbed the lumpia and we went in for beers.

The lumpia were amazing. The outside crust is crunchy and the inside is warm, meaty, and salty. Dipping it in the sweet cold chili sauce is just perfect as the flavors go together really well. And of course, they went great with a cold beer and good company. If you ever find a Filipino restaurant serving lumpia order a dozen or two and enjoy with a friend. I don’t know for certain of any Filipino restaurants in the area but I believe there is a Filipino market in Seaside and a Filipino restaurant in Salinas.

piping hot lumpia

Soto Ayam

Greetings from Singapore! I am en route home from Brunei—a tiny country on the island of Borneo in the South China Sea. I was in Brunei for work and decided to have an extended layover in Singapore on the way home to visit a friend who lives here. My friend’s parents are also visiting and it’s always nice to see familiar faces.

Singapore is the city of the future, they say. High rise buildings, Wi-Fi on the busses, a financial hub…it’s incredible. The city-state, formally The Republic of Singapore, is teeming with people and you can hear every language imaginable—and even some you can’t recognize—on the street. It is cosmopolitan, people come from all over the world to work and create a life for themselves. As you walk on the streets you see a wide range of people dressed in a variety of outfits: stilettos and chic dresses, cargo shorts and Birkenstocks, hijabs, saris, you name it.

Despite being a heavily populated metropole, it is impeccably clean and crime rates are very low. Singapore has strict laws that are seriously enforced against littering, spitting on the street, vandalism, etc. You may recall the American teenager, Michael Fay, who in 1994 was sentenced to four months in prison, a S$3,5000 fine, and six strokes of the cane for vandalism. Chewing gum is forbidden. You won’t find street food, either, as they are banned. Instead you will find hawker centers—open-air markets with many stalls selling inexpensive food. It is fascinating.

While I have been indulging in my fair share of food from the hawkers, my favorite dish by far has been soto ayam made by Yati, my friend Emilie’s Indonesian housekeeper. Soto ayam is an Indonesian spicy chicken noodle soup. I was drawn to the kitchen by the smell of sautéed coriander only to find a huge tray with all of the ingredients neatly spread out and Yati hard at work behind a mortar and pestle. I asked her what the yellow paste was that she was pounding and she told me it was the marinade for the chicken: garlic, ginger, shallot, and turmeric. There may have been other ingredients, too. I watched fascinated; I have no experience with Indonesian cuisine. When it was dinner time, we were each served a soup bowl and on the surface there was sautéed celery and celery greens; a hard-boiled egg, cut in half; chicken sausage; fried chicken; fried tofu; a quarter of a tomato; and fried onions. Underneath this was fresh noodles, bean sprouts, and fried peanuts swimming in chicken broth. I watched Yati mix the contents of her bowl, add lime and chili sauce, and start eating with chopsticks in one hand and a Chinese spoon in the other. I followed suit.

The first bite was overwhelming. Overwhelming in the best possible way, it is incredibly rich and fragrant. Although I had never had this or anything like it before it was comforting. It was warm, sour, spicy, and flavorful. The crunch of the cool bean sprouts in the warm broth was delightful. The fried peanuts were so unusual to me in a soup and I loved it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t bring Yati back with me although I asked her if she would come and she loved the idea. And there are no Indonesian restaurants in the area but I found a few online in the Bay Area. I haven’t been so I can’t vouch for their tastiness but I do plan to try one the next time I find myself up north. 

They say when in Rome, do as the Romans, so if you go to Singapore, be sure to eat the hawkers’ food, find soto ayam—although it’s Indonesian, and look up the laws and be sure to abide by them.

Cornbread and Yuengling Beer

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.

–Henry David Thoreau

On my last night in Norfolk, I went to happy hour for dinner. I ordered a Yuengling on tap and cornbread from the appetizer menu and sat with a book at a high-top table. The part of town we were staying was a college town so the bar was empty when I first arrived at 6:30.

Yuengling is an American beer proudly claiming to be the oldest operating brewery in the US, established in 1829. If you’ve ever lived on the east coast, maybe you’ve had it. You can only find it as far west as Louisiana and Arkansas (in the south), Indiana and all of the states east of those three, except Michigan. I am no beer expert but I love their beer and try to have it when I’m back east. Their traditional lager—which is what was on tap and happy hour at Mojo Bones—is great. It is their flagship beer and an amber lager in the pre-prohibition style. The founder of the brewery David Gottlieb Jüngling anglicized his name to Yuengling when he immigrated from Germany and started the Eagle Brewery in Pottsville, PA in 1929. In 1973, the company changed its name to D.G. Yuengling and Son when Frederick joined David in running the brewery.

There’s something so refreshing about an icy cold beer after a long day of work. There are many ways to let out a sigh of relief after the tenseness of being “on” and, if you have neurotic perfectionist tendencies like myself, the stress of wanting everything to go right and the warm flush that rushes over your body when things start to go awry. So, on this particular day, that was long and rife with navigating interpersonal relationships, I was ready for a cold beer, a good book, solitude, and several deep breaths to relax. The first sip really is something of magic.

And cornbread. I love cornbread. Especially the kind with whole grain corn kernels floating in the bread and baked in a skillet, the edges crisping and caramelizing just so. It’s an added bonus for my taste buds when the cornbread is drizzled with honey, as this one was. I enjoyed bites of warm cornbread in between sips of cold beer and read a book and miraculously, the stress of the day washed away.

As I was leaving the college kids began to trickle in. While waiting for my bill I overheard that it was one guy’s 21st birthday and many of his friends were joining him to celebrate. I remembered my own college days and birthdays surrounded by friends and I couldn’t help but feel overcome with joy and nostalgia. I wanted to tell the kids to enjoy it—revel in the time where days consist of attending lectures, studying, celebrating your friends’ birthdays, and lots of sleep. But I didn’t. I watched from a distance with a smile on my face. I paid my bill and walked home to my hotel thinking of all my friends from college and those I’ve lost touch with. When we’re in the moment we don’t think life is ever going to be different in the future so I urge you—and myself—to enjoy each moment as we are in it. Tomorrow everything could change, your best friend could move away, you change jobs, you could lose a loved one, life as you know it, so cherish each moment just as it is.

Handsome Biscuit, Norfolk, VA

Virginia is for lovers.

“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.”  

–Bernard Shaw

Greetings from Norfolk, Virginia home to the world’s largest naval base. Landing in the Norfolk airport always makes me think of a life-size game of battleship with all the ships parked in the dock. It is quiet the sight. 

I’m here for work…another work trip you might be thinking but fortunately this time I had the weekend in between to rest a little—read, eat my way through Norfolk—before starting work again on Monday. When you’re away on work-travel over a weekend the weekend seems to have more time than back home because you don’t have to trouble yourself with laundry, cleaning, running errands, etc. So, on Saturday morning I found my way to a coffee shop and enjoyed a latte while I did some reading and writing until I was ready for lunch. A few years ago, I had eaten at Handsome Biscuit—a local biscuit joint—and remembered it being delicious so I hopped into a Lyft (similar to Uber) and went to Handsome Biscuit.

I walked into the small shack painted the orange of a traffic cone. I stared at the chalkboard menu where everything revolved around a biscuit: biscuit with PB&J, biscuit with a fried egg, biscuit with fried chicken. “How can I help you?” asked the young guy behind the counter. He wore a trucker hat over his red hair. His beard was orange and Merlot colored.

“What should I order?”

“You’re not from here,” he told me.

“No, I’m not,” I replied.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“California,” I smiled.

“I’m sorry,” he laughed at his cleverness, “just kidding. Welcome to the south. We eat fried chicken and biscuits.”

He gave me a quick rundown of the menu and suggested the Stevie, a sweet potato biscuit sandwich with fried chicken, homemade pickles, whole grain mustard, and wildflower honey. I added a side of apple coleslaw and a homemade apple and ginger soda. I wrote in my journal on the wobbly table until my food arrived at which point I put away my journal. Most of my journals have food and drink stains on them but this was a serious two-handed operation. I rolled my sleeves up and grabbed a pile of napkins. I took a bite of the coleslaw, it was excellent: creamy, tangy, and crunchy. Next, I had a bite of the fried chicken. There was probably twice as much fried chicken than biscuit which is a beautiful thing. And how to they get the chicken so crunchy? I love to cook but I’ve never made fried chicken. I don’t think I ever will, either. It’s one of those things I eat so rarely that I’ll leave it to the experts. It was delicious. Hot, tender chicken with a strong coat of fried crust. The honey, pickles, and mustard were just the right accompaniments to the fried chicken. Seriously it was perfect.

After I had finished my meal I got up to wash my hands…you’ve got to love a place with a red toilet. As I walked back to my seat to drink my soda and contemplate my meal, the young guy looked at me and said, “Congratulations! You cleared your plate.”

I get these types of comments often and it just cracks me up. The other night my boss and I went to an Italian place for dinner, after our first and second courses—that were excellent I will add—we both ordered a different cake for dessert, she wanted the almond cake, I chose the lemon-mascarpone. The host, who had told us his favorite dessert, walked by and said, “wow, you ordered one each!?” I don’t know why it’s surprising to people that I love food so much and indulge in it. As the epigraph says, food is the sincerest of loves.

Speaking of love, you might be wondering where “Virginia is for lovers” comes from and as it turns out it’s nothing more than a very successful ad campaign developed in the 1960s that has stuck. And since there’s good fried chicken here, I take that as Virginia is for food lovers. Well my friends, I hope I’ve left you with a craving for fried chicken and if that is the case I highly recommend the fried chicken at La Balena in Carmel. People are often surprised when I say that my favorite fried chicken is from an Italian restaurant in Carmel but there’s fried chicken in every culture. Don’t quote me on that, I don’t know about every culture but The South most certainly doesn’t have the monopoly on fried chicken although they do a really good job at it.

The Stevie, cole slaw, and homemade apple-ginger soda

Bern’s Steakhouse–Tampa, FL

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

–Anthony Bourdain

I am here to dispel the myth that work-travel is paid vacation. I often hear from people how great it must be that I get to travel so much (it is, but bear with me). In their mind they have painted a luxurious picture of me lounging in spas getting massages, leisurely visiting museums, and dining at the best locales the city du jour has to offer.

Let me repaint that picture for you based on my most recent work trip to Tampa. My flight was at 6:05am out of Monterey this past Sunday. I woke up at 3:13am despite having set my alarm for 4:24am. I couldn’t go back to sleep so I gave in and got up to cook all the leftover food I had in the refrigerator to take with me. This actually turned out to be a great inclination later on the plane. I left for the airport a little before 5:00am, parked in long term parking, and rolled my bags to the airport check-in counter. I flew to Phoenix where I had a quick cup of coffee before boarding my next flight. If you have ever flown through the Phoenix airport you’ll know that the terminals are quite far apart. While I always welcome a walk, especially when I have planned sitting all day long, what I’m trying to acknowledge is if you have a tight connection, a long walk may increase your stress levels…which may or may not be elevated due to a poor night’s sleep. I made it to Tampa and by the time I had collected my luggage, found a ride, and made it to the hotel, it was 5:00pm. I had intended to go for a walk but it was pouring rain and so settled in and prepared for my next day’s work. Monday we worked all day and, at the insistence of my colleague, we went to a late dinner—not my style—at the place to go in Tampa, Bern’s Steakhouse. We got to the restaurant at 8:00pm.

Bern’s is an institution Tampa, it has been in the same location since 1953, growing with time. It was opened by Bern & Gert Laxer initially as a luncheonette. Today, it has eight dining rooms, is dim-lit—bad for taking photos, sorry—has red velvet walls and gaudy renaissance looking artwork scattered around the place. In addition to the dining rooms, there’s a bar and lounge area, a separate dessert room upstairs (more on that in a moment), a huge kitchen that offers tours, and a huge wine cellar. We didn’t have a reservation so we got in line to put our name down with the hostess. The people in front of us were doing the same thing and after they finished one said to the other, “Where’s Harry?” I couldn’t help myself so I responded, “He’s with Sally.” Harry and his friends got a kick out of it and invited my colleague and I to join them in the lounge while we awaited our table.

Eventually we were seated and I was told to order steak, “this is no time to think about dieting,” chided my colleague. The steak came with French onion soup, a house salad, grilled vegetables from the garden, and a fully-loaded baked potato. The page on the menu for steak was a full sheet—legal-sized—arranged in a table with the rows telling you the cuts of steak and columns explaining the two thicknesses of cuts of each steak, its weight, how many people it serves, and the price. On the following page was another table describing to you how you should order your steak depending on how you like it cooked, according to its thickness, and the cut of meat. I ordered the 7 oz. châteaubriand, rare warm—as opposed to rare cold where the meat on the inside would still be cold. A châteaubriand is a thick cut of tenderloin. I couldn’t finish it or the baked potato. The soup and salad would have made for a lovely meal all alone but not at Bern’s.

After our meal my colleague insisted we take a tour of the kitchen and it was spectacular. We saw cuts of meats with specific instructions on receipt paper tooth-picked to them, sprouted greens for salad garnish, and the “onion ring” station where we were told that Bern’s goes through about 300-500 pounds of onions a night.

The wine cellar was unbelievable: cold, dark, damp, and expansive. We were told that it is the world’s largest privately-owned collection of wine. At any one time there are 100,000 bottles in the cellar…and another 500,000 bottles across the street at their storehouse. The oldest wine by the glass is a Madeira from 1900 and the oldest wine by the bottle is an 1845 vintage Bordeaux.

Next we hiked up the stairs to the dessert room where all the booths are made out of the wood of whiskey casks. In each booth is a land-line telephone where you can direct dial the pianist to request a song. He’s playing somewhere in the dessert room—I never saw him. We ordered a couple desserts to share: a baked Alaska that they flambéed at our table and the King Midas (carrot cake, chocolate ice cream, and fudge sauce). It was an exquisite and excellent experience and totally worth it.

By the time I got back to my hotel room it was after 11:00pm and I needed to pack for our 5:00am departure to the airport for the 6:15am flight to return home the following day, Tuesday. While work-travel is most certainly not a paid vacation it is thrilling if you love what you do, like I do. There is (usually) time to try a great restaurant at the expense of sleep and most of the time it’s worth it, like Bern’s was. As the late Anthony Bourdain said, travel isn’t always pretty or comfortable but in travel you are changed and hopefully leave something good behind. I’d like to think I left something good behind in Tampa or with you all, by sharing my experience and urging you to seek similar, positive experiences in any way you can.

Poor lighting, steak, vegetables, and super thin onion rings
That’s a lot of meat
More meat
Micro-greens, grown in the kitchen for salad garnish
Some of the wine in the 100,000 bottle cellar

Mama’s Fish House, Maui

Aloha from Hawaii! Here I am as a bridesmaid in another wedding. Please do not mistake this as sarcastic or displeased. I love weddings, I love traveling, I love being a part of a celebration, I love family (definitely my own but certainly meeting others’) and most of all I love love.

There was a movie that came out a few years ago called 27 Dresses about a young lady who is a perpetual bridesmaid. She has a whole closet dedicated to bridesmaid’s dresses, etc. I haven’t actually seen the movie…why would I? It’s my life.

I didn’t have too much time to explore so the first day we landed (I was traveling with the maid of honor), I booked us a reservation for lunch at a restaurant that I had heard—from fellow travelers and review sites/blogs—was a great place to eat on Maui, Mama’s Fish House.

Water lilies at the hostess stand

Our table wasn’t quite ready when we arrived so we ordered a couple Mai Tais from the bar and sipped our cocktails and admired the gorgeous orchids floating around the ice. What an amazing thing, to be in a place so abundant with flowers that every cocktail, lei, and countless other decorations are made of fresh flowers. That and the perfect climate make it obvious why they call it paradise.

Cheers! Mai tai with a gorgeous orchid

 

Once seated, we were brought an adorable little loaf of honey wheat bread and a side dish of butter. Bikini season or not, I love butter on my bread. The perfect accompaniment to a cocktail and a gorgeous view.

I had never seen this before on a menu but Mama’s puts the name of the fisherman who caught the fish on the menu. Evidently, Mama’s has a team of fishermen who go out fishing every day and everything served is caught within the past twenty-four hours. It’s not a large menu but it certainly is fresh.

View from our table

We split Papa’s sashimi as an appetizer and it was great, thick slices of three different fish each topped with some pickled fruit or vegetable or a jam and each with a different salt alongside—smoked, pink, and black. The waitress recommended we dip each slice of fish in its respective salt. It was a pretty cool experience, a crunch of salt that triggers that warm salivary response along with the soft meaty taste of the cool fish.

Papa’s Sashimi

I ordered the monchong (deep sea pomfret) a white fish served with black rice topped with onion chutney and vegetables—bock choy, broccoli, and carrots—with a ginger glaze. It was delicious. Melt in your mouth type of fish and perfectly al dente vegetables. The best way to welcome our vacation and enjoy a meal before the ensuing wedding activities.

Wonderful monchong and vegetables

You may have heard the word aloha, it is a Hawaiian greeting used for hello and goodbye but one thing I noticed while on the island of Maui was the notion of “living aloha.” Aloha means more than simply hello or goodbye, it means love, affection, compassion, mercy, sympathy, pity, kindness, and grace. Living aloha means going through life with compassion, love, mercy, affection, and peace. And what a beautiful thing. I leave you with a proverb I learned while in the Aloha State, Kahuna nui hale kealohalani Makua which means, love all you see, including yourself. So, I urge you to live aloha. We may not have orchids in all our cocktails here and tropical weather but we don’t have it so bad. Let’s embrace a little aloha in Monterey and love all we see, including ourselves.

Aloha

Just looking for Coffee in Connecticut

Life is not lost by dying; life is lost minute by minute, day by dragging day, in all the thousand small uncaring ways. –Stephen Vincent Benét

Greetings from Westport, Connecticut! My aunt and I are here for a wedding and we woke up on Friday, bleary eyed from having gotten to sleep at two a.m. and awoken by housekeeping pounding on the door at nine. Thinking we were in a cute, walkable part of town—how would we know otherwise, we Uber-ed in from the airport in the middle of the night—we went for a walk in search of coffee.

After quite a bit of searching, we settled for what everybody suggested…Dunkin’ Donuts. As we approached the strip mall just passed our hotel, next to South Beach Tan and before Dunkin’ Donuts, we read in blue lettering: Layla’s Falafel.

“Chris, they might have coffee! Let’s try…”

We went in and a jolly man, who had the air of not knowing how to sit still, greeted us.

“Do you have coffee?” I asked.

“Turkish coffee?” He asked with a slight Arabic-accented-East Coast-English.

“Yes.”

“Of course,” he bellowed with a smile, “sit down.”

We sat and watched the comings and goings of the slow fast-food joint. By this time, it was the lunch crowd and we were starting to get hungry so I went to look at the food offerings. He was helping a young girl, she told him in Arabic that she thought I needed help. In Arabic he responded to her that I was a regular. I had never been to the place—or Connecticut—in my life, I did not know this man.

I looked at the food in the display case and he joined me. I asked him in Arabic if he could heat up the manooshay (singular form of manaeesh, the thyme-spice blend (called za’atar) atop flatbread).

Chameeyay?” He asked, which means lady from Damascus. I said yes and he touched his hand to his head, “ahla w sahla” (welcome). The touching of the hand to the head means he would metaphorically put me on his head, like a crown, it is a sign of hospitality and respect.

Swamped with customers he asked, “Do you know how to make ahwe (coffee)?”

“Yes.” I responded.

“You come make it.” He motioned for me to come to the kitchen.

I twisted my hair and secured it with a clip. I was handed a dallah (stovetop Arabic coffee pot), I filled it with water and added a bit of sugar, and balanced its small base on the commercial burner.

The woman working in the back wanted to help. Rabia was from Morocco. “But don’t be afraid!” She said with a huge smile, “Layla taught me how to make everything, even kibbeh.” Kibbeh are Levantine meat pies that are very labor-intensive.

I made the coffee and tried small talk with the dishwasher in Arabic. He smiled at me and told me, “I’m Porta Rican, aldo evry-wun tinks I’m Arabian.”

Rabia and I searched high and low for demitasses and couldn’t find them. She said she couldn’t ask Dino during the lunch rush. Almost intuitively, he yelled out from the register that the cups might be downstairs. She put down the paper soup cups she had pulled out as a backup and I asked her if I should go with her downstairs.

“No no no,” She patted my arm. I followed anyways. We fished through boxes of to-go boxes and napkins until we found a box of demitasses.

Upstairs I found my aunt patiently waiting. I served the coffee and that was the beginning of a three-hour meal.

We started with the strong Arabic coffee alongside the manaeesh.

Ahwe and mana’eesh

When we got our demitasses refilled we were also each handed a piece of baklava. We nibbled and sipped, chatted and enjoyed. Some piping hot falafel with sesame dipping sauce appeared. Next, we were brought a spicy spinach and chickpea dish. Dino asked over the counter if we would like some chicken shawarma. “Just a little one,” he motioned with very Levantine hand gestures. We were brought a second table and a platter with tabouli (Levantine parsley salad), hummus, garlic dip, pickles, and a chicken shawarma wrap.

Chicken wrap platter

At this second table Saul and a basket of freshly fried French fries joined us. Saul is on his sixth post-retirement job, hangs out at Layla’s every day, and helps with catering jobs.

The flavors and the people were fantastic. We sat back, pleasantly stuffed, and were thankful we had gone in search of Dunkin’ Donuts.

**This column originally appeared in The Cedar Street Times on 2 November 2018

Placerville, Apple Hill, and Pilot Hill

“Forever is composed of nows.”

–Emily Dickinson

Autumn is upon us and it’s glorious. I love everything that comes with the autumn season—fires in the fireplace, crisp air, rain, sweaters, sunrises, sunsets, and all of the autumn foods.

I spent the past weekend in Placerville, my closest high school guy friend (yes, PGHS grads) was getting married on Saturday night and I was honored to be a part of the celebration of marriage for someone with whom I have lived through so many of life’s milestones…and here yet another.

Main Street, downtown Placerville

I drove up on Friday and stayed at the Historic Carey House Hotel, built in 1857. Placerville is formerly known as Dry Diggings and Hangtown, both remnants of it’s role in the California Gold Rush.

Cool sign in the hotel

The wedding was Saturday evening so I spent the better part of the morning at Apple Hill. Apple Hill is not a town, rather a conglomerate of apple orchards. Apples are not only a sign that autumn is here, but also one of my favorite foods. I drove through the curving, hilly roads of Apple Hill and marveled at the trees and changing colors. I stopped at one orchard and ordered apple cider and apple cider donuts.

Apple cider and apple cider donuts

I had never heard of apple cider donuts so naturally I had to do a bit of research. The trick—I read in all the recipes—is to reduce the apple cider down in order to have a stronger and more pungent apple taste. After the donuts are fried they are rolled in cinnamon and sugar and served piping hot. How could they not be good?

The converted barn at the orchard I stopped at was a mad house of activity. The line for donuts and cider was fifteen people deep but I had to do it because when in Apple Hill…do as the people do and I guess that’s eat apple cider donuts.

The menu

Yay! Autumn!!

I sat on a bench and watched the kids and the families picnicking in the breezy autumn sun. The orchard had set hay bales in a circle and children were running around on the tops of the hay. I heard a guy sitting next to me say, “what can be better than jumping from bale of hay to bale of hay?” And I couldn’t help but agree. I watched the kids whose everything was chasing their friends from bale of hay to bale of hay. Later their everything would be eating donuts or throwing a fit because their parents told them running-on-hay-bale-time was over. But for now, they were filled with sheer glee. So many philosophers and theologians tell us the importance of living in the moment but I think a lot of adults in our society struggle with that. I know I do. I’ll be sitting in a meeting and start to jot my grocery list on the margin of my paper. While sitting in a meeting may not be as fun as jumping from bale of hay to bale of hay, chasing a squealing friend of mine, I would like to be present for the meeting. And for everything.

So while you read this, I hope you are enjoying a cup of coffee or maybe a pumpkin spice latte. I hope you are present and ensconced in the reading and the moment. I leave you with one of my favorite quotes by Henry David Thoreau: “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.” I hope you’re enjoying the island of Pacific Grove as we welcome fall with open arms, well I at least do.

Welcome fall!

Life wants to live. Flowers growing through a crack in the pavement