Tuesday, July 18, 2017

LA & Joshua Tree 2017: Top Ten.

My goal for capturing my personal adventures on this blog lately has been to condense everything into a Fave Five list. But in thinking about the jam packed week we just spent in Southern California, documenting only five things simply doesn't feel right. So this will be a Top Ten kind of adventure! 

Top Ten adventures, especially in the heat of summer, are exhausting but epic. I am happy to be home in my green, temperate Pacific Northwest, reunited with my cat and dog and my own bed, but also grateful for the time I got to spend in both the desert and the adrenaline fueling freeways of LA. While it had been a while since my last visit, I've been to LA a few times now, and even though it's sprawling, overwhelming, and gritty, there is something I love about it. There is something freeing about exposing as much skin as possible to the hot sun (even though I know how bad it is for me), and something refreshingly primal in remembering how green-blue the Pacific can look, in contrast to the stormy, overcast blue-gray I'm used to in the Northwest (even though I love that Pacific, too).

I love the food and the street art. I love the palm trees and the Spanish language flowing everywhere, listening to KROQ while sailing down freeways in a smooth rental car. I love how different it is from everywhere else I have ever belonged, but how I can still feel a small tug from somewhere inside towards those unforgiving landscapes and streets. All week we kept saying, "There are too many people here." But like New York, like all major metropolises, there are reasons why so many humans flock to a single place. And the more people, the more stories, the more possibility. It's a vast, complicated place, but that means there is always more to explore, more to want to return to and know.

Here's what we discovered this time, starting, of course, with food:

10. Komodo & Chego (& okay, more)

When we first got in, we spent the day exploring Venice, always an entertaining venture. But during a day that involved air travel and an unforgiving heat wave, we were wiped and needed a break from the crowds pretty quickly. Dipping in to Komodo for lunch was the perfect respite. I had three of their tacos: the Asian Marinated Chicken, the Loco Moco, and the Banh Mi Chicken. They were all delicious, but the Banh Mi (in focus in the photo) was undoubtedly the juiciest and my favorite. Although in terms of prettiest, props need to be given to the Loco Moco, which had the cutest, tiniest little fried egg atop the cutest little beef patty.

I also splurged for one of their "nectars," fancy SoCal word for juice, in the seasonal special of kumquat. And not only was it delicious and ridiculously refreshing, but the excellent workers in the dining room gave us constant free refills, which I was not expecting at all. I would definitely go back and try everything else on the menu.

In other Korean fusion news, another favorite place of mine was Chego!, a Roy Choi creation in a Chinatown mall that you might miss behind the line for Howlin' Rays chicken. This was, in fact, how we ended up eating it, once we realized that a 2+ hour wait for chicken wasn't going to quite work in our timeline, but I'm really glad we did. I opted for the Sour Cream Hen House bowl, along with an order of the Ooey Gooey Fries. Both were outstanding--those Ooey Gooey Fries were really something else--but my only complaint was that I truly wish the serving sizes were smaller. That might be an obnoxious thing to say, and it is very likely that I created my own downfall by ordering TWO dishes covered in that ultra rich sour cream sambal, but I could only dig into half of each before feeling completely overwhelmed and overfull. It's always disappointing to me when I have to waste so much good food, especially on vacation when I know there's not many other options, aside from finding a homeless person to give to, which I don't always remember to do.

We did make Howlin' Rays a goal though, and returned the next day determined to survive the wait and eat that Nashville hot chicken because, like, it's good not to give up on goals. I had an anxiety attack about an hour into the wait, but with the helpful donation of a Xanax by Manda and a trip around the block to the Chinatown branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, I made it through. Thank you, public libraries, for not only contributing to the betterment of our societies but for providing an air conditioned place for a girl to take some deep breaths in.

As for the chicken itself once we finally achieved it, I got the hot level of heat because it's called HOT chicken, right? Even though I was warned it contained ghost peppers and the description on the menu is "burn, baby, burn," I didn't know if I'd be able to do it after the first bite. But again--goals. It took a lot of focus and a lot of pickles and comeback sauce but I ate it, and it was really good, but to be honest my memory is more of the pain than the taste. Like, if hiking 150 miles on the PCT last summer was a 10 in difficulty for me, finishing this fried chicken breast was probably about an 8. I just want to make the people who love me proud.

Finally, I don't have any pictures of it, but I must also mention the mac & cheese from Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown, outside of Joshua Tree. This was the strangest location of anywhere we ate, but it was worth the weird drive to nowhere. My actual entree was the pulled pork sandwich, which you could tell was actual freshly pulled pork with a great sauce, but my side of mac & cheese was out of this world. I couldn't finish it because at a certain point my stomach forced me to stop, but I ate enough until I was in pain because it was SO GOOD.

I promise the rest of this list won't be as long-winded as this. There was just a lot of food.

9. That "Lock Trump Up" Guy on Venice Beach

As we walked up and down Venice Beach, we kept crossing paths with a man who was pulling a boombox in a wagon, blaring over and over a little rap diddy he had clearly penned himself entitled "Lock Trump Up." The chorus of this was pretty easy to catch on to, and it brought me pleasure each and every time. This was a couple days before the Trump Jr. emails, so I imagine now he could definitely revise his Russia verse!

This guy was in fact different from the guy who resided over the booth pictured above. But they are both true American heroes.

8. Little Tokyo

We spent time in a lot of different neighborhoods, but I found myself particularly charmed by Little Tokyo, specifically Japanese Village, a pedestrian friendly plaza full of shops and restaurants. Cafe Dulce is the heart of this inviting neighborhood, and it's full of donuts, rotis, sandwiches, salads, matcha, and strong coffees and teas. I tried the Hong Kong milk tea and it was intense and delicious. 

7. Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams

While I've already talked about food a lot, ice cream deserves its own number. Shockingly, we didn't eat a ton on this trip, but we saved the best for last with a visit to Jeni's Ice Creams on our last night in town. The shop was bright, attractive, and friendly, and I got a scoop of salted peanut butter with chocolate flecks and a scoop of orange blossom buttermilk frozen yogurt. Both were wonderful.

This ice cream date followed a dinner at Yuca's Taco Stand down the street in Los Feliz, where I got a cheap and perfect burrito. One thing I will say about a trip to LA is that it is almost prohibitively expensive--I don't know how we survived it--especially the food and drinks. Having an authentic, simple, and completely affordable last night meal--taco stand and ice cream--was so thoroughly enjoyable.

6. San Gabriel Square

For the last half of our trip, we stayed at a nice hotel right across from San Gabriel Square, a huge shopping mall full of Asian shops and restaurants that was so fun to explore. We had dinner one night at Wang Xing Ji/Juicy Dumpling on the second floor of the mall, and everything we tried was really good and our waitress was so kind to us, even though it was clear we were ignorant white people. I ate my whole meal with chopsticks (a skill I have always been poor at) and I don't think I made too much of a fool of myself! We also learned the proper way to eat a dumpling (even though I still just popped the whole thing in my mouth).

We bought a bunch of Japanese candy at Aji Ichiban, some Hong Kong pastries at Kee Wah Bakery, and of course, a bunch of adorable and cheap things from Daiso Japan, the BEST STORE EVER. Another morning, I got a lavender milk tea boba at Boba Ave 8090, and was so delighted when it came in this fat little bucket of a cup. This photo sadly does not really capture its delightfulness.

5. The Abbey

The food was just fine, the drinks were expensive (although they were expensive everywhere), but goddamn, there is something about a gay bar. I just immediately felt so happy here, in such a deep and safe way, like I immediately feel happy and comforted when I feel the rumble of Dykes on Bikes about to start a Pride Parade. If we had more money and time, I would have stayed there all night. I understand why straight people are jealous of us. We are special and we are fabulous.

4. Seeing Good People

Because we are lucky enough to know a lot of wonderful and talented folks, we know a lot of people in LA. We were able to meet up with a lot of them: singing "That's Amore" with Cat at C&O Trattoria and watching her kill it at karaoke, having a fantastic brunch with Ali at Messhall Kitchen, enjoying a long lunch in Chinatown with Ann, and being able to squeeze Zoe and Pablo in Malibu on our very last day. All of it made my heart richer. And still, we missed being able to catch up with Erial, or Ellie and Matt, as well as some of our extended families who live in the OC. Guess we'll just have to go back...

3. The Broad

Manda was able to reserve us tickets to The Broad, a new-ish art museum in Downtown LA that is free but so popular that you have to reserve a spot weeks in advance, and people wait in a standby line outside every day for the chance to get in. I am so glad Manda is on top of these things, because this really was a wonderful museum. 

The top attraction is Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrored Room, for good reason. A room full of lights, mirrors, and water, each visitor enters alone for 45 seconds. You have to sign up for a chance to visit the room pretty much as soon as the museum opens, or you might not get in at all. I know, intense art museum times! I was happy we were able to get in, especially since the exhibit is only on display through September of this year. While I enjoyed my time in the room, what I enjoyed as much or more was watching a small girl, maybe six or seven years old, exit the room ahead of me, her eyes wide and full of wonder.

The rest of the museum is also great, though, and includes a lot of video installations, as well, to an extent that I hadn't experienced before in art museums. I understood approximately 10% of these films, but still, it was cool. What I was most taken by were a number of huge sculpture pieces by the African artist El Anatsui, almost all made from found materials like wrappers and aluminum and copper. They were absolutely astounding. 

2. Universal/The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

This was the original intention for our trip, and as with all theme parks, it was amazing and exhausting! Disappointingly, though, this day helped me discover that I am, in fact, old. Meaning, apparently my system can't handle 4D things, or, I don't know, anything fun. We had expensive but incredibly useful Front of the Line passes, so within twenty minutes of being inside the park, we had already accomplished the Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster, which was short but fun, even if some of the rotations made my stomach hurt a little. We then raced into Hogwarts for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride. The design of this ride and the whole building itself is really incredible. However, once we were strapped in and started racing through the air, I very suddenly thought, oh no. Oh dear. And I proceeded to close my eyes, grip my constraints tightly, and just pray pray pray that I wouldn't throw up. A quick jaunt into the dark, cool Three Broomsticks helped considerably, but eventually we had to stop going on the 3D/4D rides. Which consisted of most of the rides in the park. And I love rides. While in line for a Krusty Burger, there was a generic old white dad in front of me who said, "Hogwarts made me even sicker than the Simpsons ride," and I was like RIGHT?? and immediately thought, oh my god, I am a generic dad. This is who we've become.

Anyway, I also got drunk off of one huge, overpriced Duff Beer, thoroughly enjoyed the Jurassic Park ride, and loved Waterworld. We returned to Hogsmeade later in the day to shop at Honeydukes and visit Ollivander's. Both were wonderful, but Ollivander's was truly magical. My favorite part of the Wizarding World for sure.

1. Joshua Tree

Apparently visiting Joshua Tree in the middle of July is not something most tourists do, as the temperature each day we were there made its way into the 100s. Still, even though it was hot AF and we literally couldn't do a lot of things outside for any extended period of time during the day, I still found myself feeling really connected to this bizarre desert landscape. I can definitely understand why artists and freaks, a population I typically feel a kinship with, are drawn to it. Even if I don't think I could ever live there. Because I like feeling the sun on my shoulders but I also like sweaters.

Kathy and I woke up early one morning to do a short hike at Hidden Valley in the park, which I highly recommend. Even though it was only a mile loop, it was so full of weird plants and rock formations and landscapes that it felt like we had traveled to a whole different world. In town, we loved Crossroads Cafe, and pastries and smoothies from Natural Sisters. I loved the friendly park rangers and learning all about Joshua trees in both national park visitors' centers along Highway 62. And of course, I loved looking at all the strange art and random stuff around Art Queen.

We stayed in this really awesome little camper, nicknamed The Cubbyhole on Airbnb, and once the sun started to go down it was cool enough, meaning in the 80s, to sit outside or enjoy the hammock. This was my favorite part of Joshua Tree, and perhaps of the whole trip--just sitting outside the Cubbyhole, reading and looking out at the landscape, enjoying the golden hue the sun shone onto everything as it made its way through the sky. Our first night there was lucky enough to be a full moon, and it rose quickly and suddenly, a bright red fireball at the horizon from the haze.

We also saw lots of animals in the desert: a coyote, lizards, quail, and a bunch of roadrunners! One animal that we saw too much of, though, was bees. At both Keys View and Cholla Cactus Gardens in the park, there were actual warning signs about the bees, and as we saw them literally swarming in the parking lots like a horror movie, we decided to stay in the car. I don't know if this happens all year or just during the summer, but let me tell you, it was NOT advertised in the brochure.

We learned a lot of things on this vacation like: never try to drive to Malibu on a Saturday. Always take advantage of a pool and hot tub if your hotel has a pool and hot tub. Budget more money for parking. Budget more money for constant hydration when you visit the desert in the summer. A Joshua tree is not a woody tree but an agave! We might want to kill each other at the end of long, hot days, but we still love each other. All we probably need is a good night's sleep. From the food to the desert dust still residing in all of my shoes, I'll be processing this vacation for a while.

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