Wednesday, January 17, 2007

So So California

On yet another diversion from Chicago... I just got back from a long weekend in Los Angeles, California, where I played in a beach ultimate frisbee tournament called Lei-Out, and sampled some tasty So Cal cuisine along the way.

Travelling to LA was a bit of a pilgrimmage for me. I'd never been, and my image of the place (colored by all I've seen of Entourage, Laguna Beach, and The O.C.) was one of endless sunshine, star-studded boulevards, golden sandy beaches, and casually extravagant boutiques and bars. And the people-- of course the people-- would be impossibly georgeous and put-together, effortlessly cool, and they would (as I had many times been warned) give me just one lingering glance-- the chilling "LA Once-Over"-- before deciding I was unworthy and turning back to their own self-important business.

Some of this turned out to be true... the place is pretty sunny... and certain parts of it are quite "casually extravagant"... but other than that I was proven wrong. Let's see how:
- Southern California is not ALWAYS warm... in fact it barely broke 60 while I was there (brrr!)
- I did not see a SINGLE star on ANY of the boulevards (even Rodeo Drive!)
- Hollywood Boulevard is a DUMP except for about a half of a block
- None of the locals even stopped long enough to give me a once-over... they just breezed right on by
- The locals I DID meet were TOTALLY down to earth and awesome - not snobby at all!

One thing that did strike me was how seductive the place was... and how susceptible I felt to it. Even though it wasn't exactly as I expected, experiencing it for myself made me realize just why people go to great lengths to "make it big" there. There is, admittedly, something magical about the decadence of Rodeo Drive and the breathtaking way the land rises and falls with reckless abandon, tapering out to the sapphire sea. And the knowledge that so many celebrated individuals live there-- and could be hanging out just around the corner. Superficial? Maybe. But I think deep down, everyone dreams of what it might be like to have a taste of that life. And I can't say that I didn't get an extra bounce in my step as I waltzed down Rodeo Drive, pretending I was rich or fabulous enough to be able to shop in any of the stores I passed.

But fantasy aside, I was also struck by a reality of the city-- it's incredible cultural diversity. Being there made me realize just how segregated Chicago is. LA has very significant east asian and hispanic communities, and they are present in every part of the city. While Chicago is arguably just as diverse, our diversity seems to be relegated to specific neighborhoods... Devon, Uptown, or Chinatown for example. Sure, LA has a Chinatown and "Little Tokyo", but those aren't the only places the presence of those cultures are felt in that city. They are everywhere. They are in the languages on billboards... they're in the authentic shops and markets... and they're in the restaurants. I would be willing to wager that anywhere in downtown LA you can walk out of your apartment and in just a few blocks find a place serving real Chinese, Japanese, or Mexican food. And you can find the families who support that place living nearby. I really don't think you'd have that experience in Chicago. It's a little bit... upsetting. But it made me realize that I need to work harder to seek out those cultural experiences in Chicago, and that's something I definitely plan to do. If you have suggestions of places to go, let me know!

In the end, I went to LA to play some frisbee, but more importantly to gain an understanding of the spectacle and fantasy that defines that part of the country. I came away feeling like I had a better idea of what it's all about--but also feeling like I'd only scratched the surface. I know I need to go back at the least and live there at the most to really gain a better appreciation of what makes LA what it is.

But I digress. Philisophical reflections aside, here is some of the dee-licious California cuisine I was able to sample while there:


First up: In-N-Out Burger. Our host the first night took us to this fine California institution for a late-night meal. The company's motto is "Quality You Can Taste", and they boast of always using fresh, never-frozen ingredients and making each order fresh for each customer. Their fries were especially good, and are made from real potatoes right in the restaurant. The really unique thing about the place is that it's a kind of phenomenon in California: there are only three burgers on the menu: Hamburger, Cheesburger, and the Double Double (a double cheseburger). However, many years ago, a whole secret menu was invented by a few zealous customers, and spread through the whole of Southern California seemingly by word of mouth. This menu is basically a collection of different ways the burger can be prepared, and includes names like "Protein Style" (the burger comes wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun), "Animal Style", and "Flying Dutchman". Check out what they mean and see more secret menu items here.

Yeah, it's fast food. But it's fast food done right.


On our first morning, Leanne and I fueled up for some touring with coffee from The Coffee Bean, a ubiquitous Starbucks-esque California coffee chain that basically competes with... Starbucks. I opted for the free sample while Leanne bought the whole thing-- which she later regretted. Leanne, being the big coffee drinker of the two of us, gave this coffee two thumbs down, and I have to agree as mine was a bit dark and heavy for my taste.


Next up: Diddy Riese, serving exclusively cookie ice cream sandwiches in Brentwood. Leanne's friend Greg insisted that we give this place a try, and I'm glad he did. I had a chocolate chip walnut cookie with vanilla ice cream -- boring by their standards, but tasty combination nonetheless. My only complaint was that the cookie was a little hard-- which is the most difficult part of the ice cream sandwich equation. But Greg says that at night there's usually a line down the street for this place, so they pretty much slap the ice cream on the warm, soft cookies right out of the oven. Next time I'll have to go at night!


On day two, our friend Shannon took us for lunch at the California Fish Grill. This place serves up great fresh fish and seafood for a low price-- I got this Cajun Charbroiled White Roughy for only $7!


Having worn ourselves out "window shopping" on lovely Rodeo Drive, Leanne, Shannon, and I stumbled into this place on a corner for a coffee and pastry. Only they were out of almost everything: all they had left were carrot cake, an apple muffin, and a chocolate chip muffin. But they warmed them up for us!


I'm kind of a sucker for crepes, so when I saw this place while strolling the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, I couldn't help but pop in for a nutella crepe, to-go of course.


On Sunday evening, I nursed my aching muscles with a candlelit beer from the Library Alehouse in Santa Monica, a really funky, cozy bar serving a really delicious (if expensive) assortment of craft and specialty brews. When Matt asked if they had a Miller High Life, the waitress sort of rolled her eyes and said very slowly, in an "oh, honey..." tone of voice, "Nnnnooo".


On my last morning in California, I went for breakfast at The Rose Cafe & Market in Santa Monica. The menu was a georgeous assortment of organic fruits, veggies, and baked goods, and I chose a fruit bowl (which was probably the best restaurant fruit bowl I've EVER had) and this oatmeal-rasin muffin. With coffee, of course.

When I flew out of LA on Monday evening, I was more than a little sad my trip was over. But... I know I'll get back there. Eventually.

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