Monthly Archives: June 2013

“Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in the Warm California Sun”

Santa Cruz is like my Northern California Disneyland but with more hippies and less magic (though probably more magic mushrooms).

In fact, Santa Cruz is in many ways similar to Southern California. It’s kind of a beach town, it has a pier even if the Boardwalk is not actually on a pier, and during the summer you are likely to find scantily-clad beach-goers in large quantities. True, it will likely be at least twenty degrees cooler than the average summer day in SoCal, and you will have to be extra lucky to see the sun, but more than anywhere else north of Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz speaks of Southern California beach towns.

So if you, like me, find yourself yearning for the warm sand and surf of Southern California this summer, Santa Cruz can help you feel a little more at home (or more likely, make you miss SoCal even more, but hey, it’s better than nothing…sort of).

Start your Santa Cruz Beach Day at the Boardwalk.  For me, thinking of Southern California without thinking of amusement parks is just missing the point, and with the ocean mere yards away, you are not going to get better scenery for your screams than at the Boardwalk.  Go ahead, buy an All-Day Wristband.  It will likely pay for itself in a couple of hours, and then you don’t have to worry about tickets.  From roller coasters to haunted houses to log rides, the Boardwalk has enough variety in entertainment to keep you happy.

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Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

For lunch, you have some options.  If you want something easy, there are plenty of restaurants by the Boardwalk that are perfectly good, or you can take a walk down the pier (the actual pier) and eat over the water.  Trekking over to Downtown Santa Cruz will give you a larger variety of options that are less overpriced, but personally, I would bring a picnic and eat on the beach.  This will allow you to maximize your beach time and save some money.

By the time your hunger has been sated, hopefully, if you’re really lucky, the fog will have burned off.  In all likelihood, it never will.  In fact, you should probably check the weather to see when the fog is supposed to dissipate, and if you see cloudy skies after about 1pm, just try a different day.

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But if you’re lucky, you’ll get some clear skies.  Now, if you are planning this beach day because you are in fact from Southern California, you should probably brace yourself.  It’s going to be cold.  Really fucking cold.  At least compared to what you’re used to.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.  Wear a bathing suit but also bring clothes that you can get dirty.  This is not the time to strut in your bikini unless you’re looking for the fun side of hypothermia.  Bring something to do–a book or a frisbee or sandcastle-making materials–because you’re probably not going to want to go swimming (unless you bring a wetsuit).  And most importantly, wear sunscreen even though it’s cold.  Just because you would be comfortable in a coat, doesn’t mean the sun isn’t out to get you.  It’s just sneakier here.

I like to set up camp on the east side of the bay away from the Boardwalk.  It’s a little less crowded and much more beautiful.  Your path to the beach is paved by trees instead of roller coasters, and your relaxation will not be plagued by screaming teenagers.

When you’ve had enough sun/are so cold you can barely move, it’s time to pack it up for dinner (or more likely, an early happy hour).  There are countless great dining options in Santa Cruz, but I am going to recommend Sabieng Thai Cuisine.  Their food is exceptionally good and very reasonably priced.  Or if you need to stay by the beach just a little bit longer, you can drive down to Capitola and visit Margaritaville.  It is definitely touristy, but it has decent variety in its drinks and eats, and it is literally on the water.  The whole place is ocean-themed all the way down to the bathrooms, so it will give you a taste of home just a little longer without making you freeze your ass off (have I mentioned it’s cold up here?).

It’s hard being a Southern California native in NorCal.  You get made fun of all the time for liking your home town, and finding a decent bathing suit is even harder than finding a decent milkshake.  But at least in Santa Cruz you can pretend that the beach you’re visiting is halfway decent.  That is, if you can find a patch of sun to sit in.

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Hmm, I wonder where you’ve seen this before?

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Categories: Bay Area Day Trips, Local Travel, Northern California, Santa Cruz | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Cafe Giovanni

You would think that finding great Italian food in the Bay Area would be a piece of cake.  With all of its varied and tasty cuisines, anything should be easy to find, particularly something as universal as pasta.  However, finding good, affordable Italian food outside of North Beach is much like trying to find good fried chicken in the Bay Area.  That is, surprisingly difficult.  This plagued me to no end when I lived in Berkeley.  I basically live on Italian food and yet finding it at a restaurant involved actual effort!

Worry not, I can save you from the terrible fate of having to do a Yelp search.  If you’re in Berkeley, and you want something better than Gypsy’s, go for Cafe Giovanni.

Unlike Ghetto-plagued Gypsy’s (the only Italian place anyone knows in Berkeley), Cafe Giovanni has ambience.  It also lacks hoards of hungry freshman.  Always a plus.

Cafe Giovanni is cute but spacious, allowing for large parties or intimate dates without that hole-in-the-wall Berkeley feel.  It’s a nice place for a nice dinner which considering its location is something of a rarity.  I used to live two blocks from Giovanni.  Drunken bums would regularly scream under my window at night, hardly uncommon for Berkeley but still annoying and a touch disconcerting.  Having a nice restaurant nearby was a blessing and a comfort after a long night of throwing things out my bedroom window.

Also typical of Berkeley, the food is really good.  Not cheap, especially by Berkeley standards, but worth the price when you factor in the ambience.

I am all about the pasta.  I’m sure the pizza is very good as well, but frankly, good pizza is not something the East Bay lacks.  Good pasta is, and Giovanni is doing its best to fill the void.  They used to have an exquisite walnut and cream sauce pasta that changed the way I thought about food.  Alas, it seems to have gone the way of the Dodo, but there are other tasty options available.

The Fettuccine Carbonara is an excellent balance of creaminess and meatiness, and I have it on good authority that the Jambalaya Linguine is uniquely delicious (I don’t eat seafood, so I cannot accurately judge this statement).  Frankly, anything in cream sauce is delicious, their light yet decadent recipes fulfilling all your dreams of creamy goodness.  And the foccacia that accompanies your meal deserves its own spotlight.  Perfectly balanced, its rich flavors may have you filling up on bread before your food arrives.

Cafe Giovanni offers a number of unique experiences for South Side Berkeley:  it’s Italian, it’s nice, and it’s a genuine sit-down restaurant.  Next time you need to take someone on a date in Berkeley, take them to Giovanni, and you are sure to impress.

 

Categories: Bay Area, Berkeley, Food, Northern California, Restaurants | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Who Would Have Thought Ethiopian Food Could Be So Delicious?

Africa.  A vast land of many wonders, conjuring images of safaris, jungles, bright colors, primal dances, and gun-toting soldiers with too much time on their hands.

This continent is known for many things.  Cuisine is not one of them.

Nonetheless, there are a fair number of Ethiopian restaurants in the Bay Area.  I have no idea why this country of all African countries ended up with a cuisine palatable to Americans–perhaps it has something to do with the country’s proximity to India or the fact that is was never ruled by the British–but Ethiopian restaurants are if not common at least available in a way that no other African cuisine is.

One such establishment, Zeni Ethiopian Restaurant, resides in close proximity to my abode and is one of the best local restaurants I’ve experienced in San Jose.

I cannot pretend to be an expert on Ethiopian food.  I’ve been to all of three Ethiopian restaurants in my life, and while I have enjoyed the experience–not least because I am five and think eating with my hands is the greatest thing since finger painting–I haven’t really sought to educate myself in the ways of Ethiopian cuisine.

So with that pinch of salt in mind, Zeni Ethiopian Restaurant is by far the best of its kind I have ever been to.  By far.

It’s definitely a hole in the wall.  In it’s little strip mall on the side of a massive discount store, it is easy to miss.  But upon entering, you will forget that you were a little anxious to walk by alone at night.

Zeni has two sides, one for lame white people who like normal table settings and one for people who want the Ethiopian Experience.  You can probably guess which side I prefer to sit on.

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Boring Side
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The eye-catching decor on the traditional side along with the basket-like tables and eclectic chairs makes for an ambience that transports you well away from San Jose, an act I always appreciate.  On Saturday nights, they add traditional Ethiopian live music to the scene, giving you the chance to really get up close and personal with your entertainment.

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Ethiopian Side
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While the ambience is fun, I come for the food.

If you are new to Ethiopian cuisine, it is generally on the spicy side though it is possible to find milder options.  You eat family-style and instead of utensils, you use injera.  People call injera bread, but in the Western sense, it really isn’t.  I’ve heard it compared to sourdough and soda bread, and it does bare some resemblance to them, but for practical purposes, it is really more like naan–that is, it is used to pick up food and to dull the fire of the spicier items.  So, it looks, tastes, and feels nothing like naan but is used in the same way.

I have not eaten anything there I disliked, but as the options can be paralyzing, I recommend the Meat Combination and the Vegetarian Combination.  They provide a lot of variety in flavors and spiciness levels and allow you to figure out what you like.  Plus, it easily feeds four people.

But no matter what else you order, you really must try the cabbage (aka Atakilt Wot).  It’s excellent.  No, you read that right.  Try to remember the last time you heard, “Yeah, I got to get me some of that cabbage!”  That’s right, never.  Because it’s fucking cabbage.  But at Zeni, they do something to their cabbage to make it the best dish on the table.  So that’s at least one Yelp star right there.

There is something extra especially good about the food at Zeni.  I admit that I am not familiar enough with the cuisine to know why it is better than other Ethiopian restaurants, but everyone we’ve brought there has been impressed, so I know I’m not crazy.  If you like spicy food, you’ll be happy.  If you like ethnic food, you’ll be happy.  And if you’re looking for something different, you’ll be happy.

Categories: Bay Area, Food, Northern California, Restaurants, San Jose | Tags: | 1 Comment

Salinas: Hole-in-the-Wall Heaven

Upon entering Salinas, one might wonder, indeed, why anyone would want to enter Salinas.

I, being a super savvy traveler, stayed there during Memorial Day weekend.  Normally, when one goes on vacation during Memorial Day weekend, it is with the knowledge that she will be accosted by tourists, packed hotels, and the inability to find parking.

Not so Salinas.

We arrived on Sunday to find that at least half of the restaurants downtown were closed for lunch.  And not the crappy hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants, no, we are talking about the big, overly welcoming, “I’m going to charge you a minimum of $12 per entree even though this is fucking Salinas” restaurants.

It was weird.

I have never visited a town that looked more like a ghost town, aside from Detroit in 2009.  But there was just nothing going on in Salinas.  It was perfectly nice looking (well, OK, downtown was perfectly nice looking) and well-kept, it was just closed.

I cannot say whether this was normal or whether the entire town decided to leave for the weekend, but as my husband and I wandered the streets, we were quite unnerved by the stillness.

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Downtown Salinas “Art”

Eventually, we found a Mexican restaurant that was open, inexpensive, and, well, clean, and it actually turned out to be surprisingly good.  Based on our quick drive around downtown Salinas, I would say at least half of their restaurants sport Mexican fair, and they clearly know what they’re doing.  At least this one did.

Paloma’s Mexican Restaurant really impressed us both.  It is relatively small, has no inner lighting besides skylights, and is definitely a hole-in-the-wall kind of find.  Nonetheless, the food and service were excellent.  Before we even ordered, they brought us bowls of watermelon to snack on which was a new experience and quite an enjoyable one.   The chips and salsa were good with a rather unique flavor, and both of our entrees were fabulous.  Daniel got green mole chicken which we both immediately fell head-over-heels for.  I don’t know what they put in that sauce, but it was magical.  I ordered chicken tamales because I judge all Mexican restaurants on their tamales, a technique that generally does not work well in Northern California but sure worked out here.  They were quite tasty, especially when slathered in green mole.

Random, but delicious.

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Art at Salinas Transit Center

After gathering our stomachs and dragging them and their contents out of Paloma’s, we decided to ditch the Steinbeck Center in favor of extra time for wine tasting.

Monterey Country has some really fantastic wineries, and many of them reside on River Road, a short drive from Salinas.  Like the main strip in Napa, you can basically just drive down the road to encounter lots of delicious wine choices, and this is what we did.

Having somehow missed our freeway exit, we decided to start down the road a bit and work our way back.  Thus began the start of our tasting adventure at Pessagno Winery.  I was pleased with this turn of events because Pessagno was the winery I was most interested in, and apparently, my preliminary research paid off because it was super tasty.

Pessagno is small but welcoming with a long wooden tasting bar and very friendly hosts.  We were tempted to buy several of their Pinots and their Syrah, and I actually gave in to their Perelli 101, a Port without Port varietals that genuinely tasted like berries.  We greatly enjoyed their actual Port as well but not nearly as much as the Port-filled chocolates that we downed in one gulp.  Their pours were ample, and I was sufficiently tipsy by the time we left which in hindsight may not have been the best idea I’ve ever had, but hey, it was fun at the time.

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Fountain at Talbott Tasting Room

We continued up the road to the most established winery of our trip, Talbott Vineyards.  While it was pretty and clearly someone had put a lot of thought into the decor, we both found their wines utterly uninspired despite trying both of their tasting lists.  This is the most expensive winery we visited, and it was so not worth it.  Despite already being lubed up for the experience, we spent the whole tasting trying to find something that we liked and failed utterly.

I however was getting quite drunk by the time we arrived and needed to take a break before meandering back to the car.  We stumbled through the vines, lamenting that we were there in May when none of the grapes were ripe.

Though I probably should have just stopped there, there was only one winery between us and our hotel, so really we had no choice but to try it.  We’re very happy we did.

Marilyn Remark was the most surprising of the wineries we visited.  The tasting room was literally a giant metal shed complete with barrels, farm equipment, and a large chemistry set.  Our wines were served on folding tables, and our company included the winery dog.  And the wine was really, really good.

We wanted to buy at least half of the wine list and actually purchased their Viognier.  I do not like Viognier.  I have had maybe one other Viognier in my life that I liked at all.  These days, even though I have a penchant for whites, if I see a Viognier on a tasting list, I’ll most likely skip it.  This Viognier was clearly crafted by God.

You can probably imagine how drunk I was when we left Marilyn Remark.

Needless to say, I do not remember much else from our day.

At some point, I took a nap which is a respectful nod to the quality of the wines I drank and to the level of my intoxication.  I awoke in time to partake of some truly delicious Chinese food that Daniel had scavenged from China House Restaurant, a treat we were not expecting in a sea of taquerias.

And then it was time for me to have a nice long sleep.

Salinas is not the kind of place you’d expect to have a good vacation.  It is small, largely abandoned, and often looks like the kind of place you shouldn’t walk alone at night.  However, like the restaurants and wineries we visited, this hole-in-the-wall town was unexpectedly pleasant, and I actually kind of want to go back to check out some more wineries.  Maybe next time we’ll actually go to the Steinbeck Museum.

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Steinbeck House

Categories: Bay Area Day Trips, Local Travel, Monterey County Wines, Northern California, Restaurants, Wine | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Finding Cupcake Love at Fairycakes

Those who know me can tell you that I have an overactive sweet tooth.  Actually, they would probably tell you that they can’t believe I weigh less than 300 pounds after all of the sugar I eat.  Regardless, I like me some sweet eats.

So naturally when the cupcake craze hit the U.S., I immediately jumped on that food truck.  I never cared much for cupcakes growing up but quickly realized that this is because I had never had a good cupcake.  Now, I can’t get enough of them.

I have lived in various places where good cupcakes are easy to come by, and you would think that San Jose’s enormous size, proximity to San Francisco, and desire for gastronomic equality with the rest of the Bay Area would make for numerous delicious cupcake shops.

Not so.

For some reason, the vast majority of cupcakes found in the South Bay come from specialists who only make cupcakes on demand.  Since I generally only want one (or at least, should only be eating one), this does not feed my addiction in a satisfactory manner.

I was in fact starting to think that I would have to venture outside of Silicon Valley to find a good cupcake readily available for purchase.

Then I found Fairycakes.

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In keeping with the San Jose tradition of making cupcakes difficult to find, Fairycakes does not have a store front.  They do however have a food truck.  Which is probably for the best because it means I have to put out effort to buy a cupcake, saving me from the tasty yet artery-clogging fate of eating far, far too many.

Fairycakes makes most of their cupcakes with a particular formula:  bake cupcake, insert filling, top with frosting.  Since I am firmly of the opinion that filled cupcakes are the best, this works out pretty well for me.

They generally have a vast assortment of options though what those options will be on any given day is a bit unpredictable.  They’re all good, so it doesn’t really matter what they have.

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Nonetheless, there have been several that stood out to me as extra delicious.  There was one glorious day when they had a Butterfinger cupcake with chocolate cake and frosting mixed with actual Butterfinger bits that was pretty amazing.  The Salted Caramel is a known favorite for a reason with just the right mix of salt and caramelly goodness.  If you’re not a chocolate freak, any of the fruit-filled ones are tasty, especially if they have cream cheese frosting, though it is worth noting that most of the fruity cupcakes are merely filled with fruit instead of having flavored cake or frosting.

Whatever you choose, the cake is moist while still holding its shape, the ratio of frosting to cake is just about perfect, and the filling gives it that extra kick toward perfection.

The biggest downside to Fairycakes is trying to find the truck, but with a little effort, you shouldn’t have a problem.  You can track it on Facebook or Twitter, or you can find a Moveable Feast near you, and Fairycakes should be among the attending trucks.  Beware that the lines can be long, so plan to make sure you have time to stand in them.  Believe me, it’s worth the effort.

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Categories: Bay Area, Dessert, Food, San Jose | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Chillaxing at Clos La Chance Winery

So apparently there’s this thing called the Santa Clara Valley, and they have wine there.  Though I’ve been visiting the wineries in this area for well over two years, I just today learned it is called the Santa Clara Valley.  I call it Morgan Hill.  Or San Martin.  Or that thing off the 101 between San Jose and Gilroy.  Whatever, the point is, there’s wine there.

I like wine.

I like it a lot.

But I have not been particularly impressed by the wine in this region.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s perfectly drinkable.  It just hasn’t impressed me the way other regions in the Bay Area have.  Like the Santa Cruz Mountains.  Or Monterey.  Or Sonoma.  Or Napa.

What can I say?  I like the best.

The wineries in this area must know that they lack a certain flavor because in lieu of subtle hints of dark cherry fruit, they have style.

Clos La Chance is an excellent example of this phenomenon.

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If you are looking to get married at a winery but don’t want to drive to Napa, this one is well worth checking out.  Their grounds are huge for a winery and very nice as well.  Manicured lawns overlook row upon row of grapevines, and there are several decks with cute little tables and chairs that provide sun, shade, and a pleasant view whilst sipping your wine and nibbling on cheese.

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The main building is also something worth seeing.  It is quite literally covered in vines and sports rather unique decor–from tapestries to ancient books to a giant fireplace to metal-worked chairs sporting palm tree designs.  Eclectic much?  And yet it seems to work out.

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The tasting experience if not the actual wine is rather pleasant as well.  The tasting bar is long and pretty, the pours are ample, and the cost is a mere $5.  Plus, they let you wander the grounds while drinking which makes the experience that much more enjoyable.

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Like I said, the wines themselves are less than amazing.  I thought the Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir and the Reserve Petite Sirah were worth paying for but not worth their asking price.  The only wines I truly enjoyed were the dessert wines.  They have great pride in their Late Harvest Zin, and I greatly enjoyed the Port as well.  Port is the one thing this region actually does well.  Although you should probably take that statement with a heap of salt because my husband and I love Port in all of its marvelous forms.

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One of the things I really like about this winery is its desire to entertain.  During the summer, they have live music on Thursdays and Sundays, and their website actually tells you when and who’s playing!  Amazing!  (The website for my favorite winery in the South Bay has been “under construction” for at least two years.  Seeing one that actually gets updated is a welcome breath of fresh air).

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Clos La Chance is a nice place to hang out for an afternoon and sip some wine.  It’s ambience alone is certainly worth a visit.  Especially when paired with Port.

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Categories: Bay Area, Local Travel, San Jose, Santa Clara Valley, Wine | Leave a comment

Totoro Sushi Boat: the ONLY Place in San Jose My East Bay Friends Think Is Worth the Drive (Visiting Me Included)

(Note:  Yes, yes, I know Totoro Sushi Boat is gone.  Indulge me.  If I’m going to say something good about San Jose, I really need to pretend it’s still around.  It’s replacement just isn’t up to snuff.)

After expounding on how my town of residence is in fact the ultimate suburban Hell, I had better share one of the good things about it before my coworkers come at me with torches and pitchforks.

So let us travel to one of the best places to eat in San Jose:  Totoro Sushi Boat.

How do I know it’s the best?  Have I visited every sushi restaurant–or for that matter, every restaurant–in San Jose?  No.  I didn’t have to.  I know Totoro Sushi Boat wins because whenever my East Bay friends decide to grace us with their presence, we know where they want to go for dinner.

Totoro Sushi Boat holds a special place in my heart not only because it has fresh, tasty cuisine and a nice atmosphere but also because this was the first place I tried the sushi boat experience.  Given my love for food, Japanese stuff, ethnic treats, and the fact that I’ve been living in the Bay Area for six years, you might be surprised to hear that I waited so long to try a sushi boat.   There is a simple explanation:  I don’t eat fish.

Many people believe that when one does not eat fish, one does not eat sushi, but this is not true.  There is, after all, vegetarian sushi, and I am of the belief that California rolls do not count as fish (especially because they technically do not contain fish…as long as they do contain real crab…though it is entirely possible that I prefer the ones with fake crab that actually do contain fish…go figure).  Since my “not eating fish” rule is based on taste instead of any sort of moral code, as long as I cannot taste the fish in a sushi roll, I am willing to eat it.

This has lead to an entirely new world of sushi for me.  When I first realized that sushi does not have to taste like fish back in 2008, my palate was strictly limited to vegetarian sushi and California rolls.  However, as my sushi-eating excursions became more frequent, and as I started to attend them most often with my husband (whose slogan ought to be “go on, just try it”), I started to branch out.  I tried tempura sushi and to my delight discovered that fried trumps shrimp (usually).  Ultimately, he convinced me to try eel which essentially tastes like nothing, especially when covered with avocado.  Indeed, as I tried more sushi, I realized that there is an inverse relationship between how much avocado is on a roll and how much it tastes like fish.  Likewise, the amount of avocado is directly proportional to how much I like the roll.

This period of self-discovery prepared me to finally try the sushi boat experience.  I had been curious about this phenomenon before even trying sushi.  I mean really, how could you not want your food delivered to you on a little wooden boat?  Nonetheless, since the experience is generally not cheap, I waited until I thought I could eat enough of the food carried on the adorable little delivery devices for it to be worth the price.

Anyone else residing in the Bay Area would probably expect my first sushi boat experience to be in San Francisco, and that’s certainly how I imagined it happening.  However, this cute little sushi boat restaurant is within walking distance of our apartment (and in San Jose, that’s saying something), and it was there that I was fated to try my first boat.

And so it was that for our sixth dating anniversary, my husband and I trouped out to Totoro Sushi Boat.  It was quite the pleasant experience.  I tried a number of dishes whose names I cannot remember, some with decently-sized portions of fish in them, and enjoyed most of them.  I’m definitely never going to order sashimi, but I discovered that when it comes to raw fish, my issue is with texture more than taste.  Certainly helpful to know.  I also confirmed my belief that when something is fried and/or covered in avocado, it is almost definitely going to taste good.

I would definitely go again, especially because this is a great way to try several dishes without spending much when you’re not that hungry.  The staff was very nice and helpful as well.  One of the chefs made us some special rolls without even being asked, but we never felt forced to accept anything we hadn’t ordered.  I fully expect my sushi boat days to be long and prosperous.

But not at Totoro Sushi Boat because it’s gone, gone, gone, and Super TGI Sushi doesn’t have a single boat.

Categories: Bay Area, Food, Restaurants, San Jose | Leave a comment

San Jose Suburgatory

There are so many Hells to start with.  We could talk about Death Valley which is in all actuality hotter than Hell.  Then there is urban Hell and small town Hell…but really, the Hell that I think defines California the most–apart from traffic Hell–is suburgatory.

While the Southern California sprawl contains many excellent examples of suburban Hell, my current “city” of residence encompasses the very definition of “suburgatory,” so let’s start here in San Jose.

First of all, San Jose is a valley.  What’s so Hellish about valleys?  They make people feel trapped, like they can’t leave.  Or rather, that leaving the city limits is the equivalent of going far away.  This is complete crap, but even I have fallen prey to this idea on a number of occasions since moving here.

And so San Jose has become a mecca for chains, shopping malls, and ample parking lots.

And the vast majority of its residents never leave.

Though technically speaking it is one of the biggest cities in the country both in population and square mileage, no one in their right mind would call San Jose a city.  When morning traffic is worse moving away from downtown than toward it, you know you are not living in a real city.  When people looking to party would never even consider doing so downtown, you are not living in a real city.  When finding free parking takes no effort, you are not living in a real city.

To be perfectly honest, San Jose is not a terrible place to live.  There are good school districts, lots of trees, adorable neighboring towns, and ample places to visit that are actually cool and less than an hour away.  San Jose is a good base camp; it may not sport many worthwhile activities itself, but it’s not bad, and it’s relatively close to lots of other things that are genuinely good.

That said, it really is the definition of suburban Hell

It’s the ultimate suburb.  Despite it’s long and rich history, there is very little culture or personality in this “city.”  Perhaps this is because it is too large and sprawling to have many common features.  The people here identify themselves by areas (not neighborhoods exactly, but similar) and do not seem to have a common sense of identity or pride.

My experience with San Jose can be best described by a summary of its main features.  When I think of San Jose, I think of malls, freeways, curvy roads, malls, Asian food, overpriced farmers’ markets, malls, sprawling suburbs, tech companies, strip malls, chain stores and restaurants, parking, malls, and a curious number of mattress stores (We noticed the mattress stores early on.  There is a stretch of road near us that takes not five minutes to drive yet contains five mattress stores, two of which are of the same chain.  We are not sure where this curious fascination with beds came from, but it seems to have covered the whole city.  I guess you could assume we live in a sleepy town).

While San Jose does share certain features with the rest of the Bay Area—ethnic food, a certain expectation for and acceptance of diversity, organic-centric grocery stores, liberals, appreciation of local produce—it is in many ways separated from it as well.  The locals (and by locals, I mean people who have actually made a home here and intend to stay) don’t travel up to Bay Area Central much (for those of you who do not live in Northern California, that basically means within view of San Francisco…at least, on a clear day).

It is a world unto its own which is in fact what happens when you live in a valley.

Nonetheless, San Jose borders a number of small satellite towns that are actually adorably awesome.  Saratoga, Campbell, and Los Gatos may be small, but their downtowns are cute and lively.  More people visit them on a Friday night than Downtown San Jose.  Moreover, there is an abundance of wineries in the surrounding mountains, and the much more vibrant Palo Alto is just a short drive away.  So though San Jose itself lacks a certain flavor, it is surrounded by places that expound their identities.

I don’t want to sound like I think San Jose is completely dull.  It has good restaurants, lively bars, wine tastings, and entertainment, not to mention its own stadium, landmarks, and amusement parks.  It’s just that all of that is so spread out that it’s easy to forget about…and no one bothers visiting from the rest of the Bay Area.  Believe me, I pull my friends’ teeth regularly trying to get them to come down for dinner and drinks (free to them, I might add).

It’s a good place to live and raise a family, but I understand why twenty-somethings don’t flock to it.  After all, almost everyone who lives here grew up here or moved for work.  We certainly never would have come here were it not for Daniel’s job.  And we certainly have no intention of staying.

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California Has Two Faces

California has two faces.  Well, actually, technically it has three, but no one cares about the third one.

The first and most well-known is warm, sunny Southern California, land of beaches, movie stars, ridiculously priced housing, and theme parks.  The ultimate summer getaway that you don’t have to getaway to and that is summery even when it’s not summer.

Then there is Northern California, filled with hippies, tree huggers, redwoods (for hugging), even more ridiculously priced housing, and people who really like wine and organic food.  The opposite of a summer getaway since no one wants to be here during the summer due to excessive amounts of fog.

The third is Bakersfield.

I have lived in Northern and Southern California long enough to appreciate their respective appeals, and while I cannot claim to be an unbiased observer (my heart will always belong to the Southern California shore), I think I can represent them both fairly.

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Laguna Beach

The first thing you should know about Southern California is that no one in their right mind wants to live in L.A.  “But what about all of those millionaire movie stars and their mansions?” you ask.  Yeah, they either don’t want to live in L.A., or they’re not in their right minds.  Seriously.  All of the stories that describe L.A. as a stinking, dirty Hell pit are not exaggerating as much as one might expect.  Still, nearly everyone from Southern California claims to be from L.A. when talking to outsiders which is probably why most people do not differentiate between them.

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Laguna Beach

In many ways, Southern California is exactly what it advertises:  sun, beach, glamour; a better life.  The giltz and glimmer of Hollywood is long dead (walk alone in Hollywood at night.  Go on, I dare you.  Just don’t blame me when you get shot).  However, most of Southern California really is an amazing place to live.  While the sun does not shine year-round, rain is minimal.  While it does get “cold” there, it rarely drops below the fifties in the flatlands and often hovers in the sixties even in winter.  There is always something to do, and there are just so many different kinds of activities available—from spending the day at Disneyland to watching local bands in a dive bar to getting up at 6am to catch the best waves.  And best of all, they’re available year-round.

Of course, there are drawbacks.  Price of living, housing in particular, is unanimously considered the downside of living in Southern California, and when you visit other places, it really is shocking to compare prices of even simple things like groceries and gas.  The higher minimum wage does not come close to making up for it.  But in my mind, the sheer number of people that inhabit this land of excellent weather is equally troublesome.  Apart from the ocean, there is very little natural area left, and if you’re trying to get away from it all, you’re in for a long drive.  It can be depressingly oppressive to look out and see nothing but houses for hundreds of miles in every direction.

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The One and Only Golden Gate Bridge on a Not-so-foggy Day

Northern California is undeniably a different environment despite sharing certain features.  Though one couldn’t really call it cold in the inhabited portions, it does not share its southern counterpart’s warmth.  I like to think that Southern California is mild on the warm side while Northern California is mildly cool.  Of course, that depends greatly on where you are, but in the Bay Area (and let’s face it, how many people really live elsewhere in Northern California?), it holds true enough.

Unlike the south, people in Northern California do not all say they’re from San Francisco.  It’s much more localized than that.  People in the San Francisco Bay Area are broken up into factions:  San Francisco (if you actually live there or close to it), the East Bay (or Oakland if that’s where you actually live…not that anyone wants to admit it), the South Bay (more commonly known as San Jose if that’s where you live, Silicon Valley if you live anywhere else, or Palo Alto if you’re that lucky), the Peninsula (if you can’t quite claim to be from San Francisco or Silicon Valley), and Marin (where everyone secretly wants to live whether they admit it or not).  People are fiercely proud of where they reside for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.  Considering how close they all are, however, each section really does have a different feel to it, something noticeably missing from the Southern California sprawl.

While the Southland has tourists’ images of Hollywood to contend with, its northern cousin faces two brutal tourist stereotypes.  The more robust is that Northern California is basically the same as Southern California.  That is, that it’s warm there.  While San Franciscans love to laugh at tourists who brought nothing but shorts and t-shirts for their summer vacation and are now huddled in overpriced sweatshirts, it really stings NorCal residents that everyone lops them in with Southern California.  It truly is a completely different atmosphere up north, and Northern California natives crave recognition for it.

As such, Northern Californians kind of hate Southern California.  People in NorCal are proud of their home and all that it offers and look with disdain on vain, unnatural SoCal.  They say that they like the—(insert one) food, wine, culture, politics, environment—in Northern California, but I still think they’re jealous that Southern California gets all the attention.  One of the most interesting aspects of this relationship is that it is completely one-sided.  People in SoCal do not care about Northern California other than as a vacation spot.  They feel no jealousy, no disdain.  They don’t even really talk about the difference (even the words NorCal and SoCal are a largely Northern California based phenomenon).  They’re too oblivious to care.  This, above all else, makes me think that the difference in perception really does lie in NorCal’s jealousy of SoCal; they don’t want to be lumped in with the egotistical people there and think they should get credit for having a genuine culture.

The other not-exactly-true stereotype is that Northern California is peopled by tree-hugging hippies.  This is only half true.  Honestly, there are a lot of hippies that stuck around after the sixties and seventies, and there are a lot more radically left-wing inhabitants.  However, I would not call them the majority.  Texas might, but I wouldn’t.  Yes, Northern California is very liberal, probably the most liberal area of the country, but like anywhere, most of the inhabitants are moderate.  Left-leaning moderates, but still.  It’s not impossible to find a conservative, and while they are a lot less eager to share their beliefs than they would be in many places in this country, they are not entirely written off.  Not entirely.

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Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park

Once you get past the stereotypes, Northern California has a number of great things to offer.  The cuisine is unparalleled; I defy you to find another place in the world with such varied cuisine where everything tastes delicious.  San Francisco gets most of the credit for having fantastic food, but you can find it all over the Bay Area.  The East Bay in particular has fantastically cheap good food of all sorts.

Likewise, good wine is easy to find in the Greater Bay Area.  With Napa a short drive north, it’s easy to get world class wines without a ton of effort, and Sonoma, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County, and Mendocino County all provide excellent, less-touristy options.  Personally, wine tasting is my favorite Northern California activity, and getting to try wines at the actual winery is quite the pleasant experience, producing good conversation with the pourers and sometimes owners, offering a chance to try extra and special wines, and often presenting a lovely setting or picnic area as well.

But to me, the biggest draw of Northern California is the natural scenery.  The coastline provides some of the most breath-taking views in the world, and nothing in Southern California comes close to equaling it.  Because the water never really warms, people do not flock to it as they do down south, so much of the coast is essentially untouched, and seeing the beauty of the trees, cliffs, and sea combined in perfect, idyllic harmony is truly an unparalleled experience.

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The Lone Cypress Tree on the 17 Mile Drive near Monterey–One of California’s Most Stunning and Most Photographed Views

Of course, there is much more to see in California.  The redwoods are quite as majestic as the coast, and hiking through them is just as awe-inspiring.  The mountains and desert are a vision as well, and while it lacks the beauty of other parts of the state, Central Valley is something to behold.  After all, because of the valley, California produces more food than any other state.  People live in these parts of the state, but few Californians considered them inhabited.  Mostly, these are places people visit but do not stay.  That may be unfair to say, but compared to the number of people near the cities, the populations of the more rural areas are practically negligible.  Thus, we discuss the areas most Californians call home.

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California Redwoods

Northern and Southern California both have much to offer, and they are very different.  However, it is that difference that really makes California as incredible as it is.  California is all about diversity—of terrain, of people, of food, of culture.  Ask someone in California where they’re from or about their ancestry or where they like to visit, and you’ll get a whole list of answers.  The amazing thing about California is that it has everything.  And while there may be two main places to live in California (and countless smaller ones), what truly makes California unique is that it encompasses all of these things, creating a place in the world that can be home to anyone.

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So, What Exactly Are We Doing Here?

Why?  Why would anyone want to explore, or for that matter read about, the worst places on Earth (Earth obviously being synonymous with California)?  I mean really, what do you think you’re doing here?

Here’s the thing.  Nothing in California sucks all that bad.

That’s not true at all.  The Mojave Desert is the lowest circle of Hell.

Next to Kansas.

But that’s not the point.

I have always found California to be a truly amazing place.  There’s the whole “you can go skiing in the morning and surfing in the afternoon” thing (which by the way is extremely difficult to do if not impossible).  More fascinating in my opinion, you can also go shopping in Downtown San Francisco then half-an-hour later find yourself completely surrounded by nature, taking in majestic views without a soul in sight.

You can find one of the widest ranges of people on the planet, each equipped with its own tasty cuisine and fascinating traditions.  And there is truly something for everyone.  Whether you love the nightlife, crave fabulous local wines, spend your days at the beach, dream of working on a farm, hum to the beat of the metropolis, search for the finest cuisine, wish to sit quietly in a snowy mountain town, want your own cabin in the woods, or can’t get enough of Disneyland, California has what you dream of and a thousand other things besides.

Which brings me back to what wouldn’t you want to know about California?

Yes, not everywhere in this golden state is somewhere you’re dying to hear about.  I don’t think anyone is itching to see the sights of East L.A.  Central Valley ain’t exactly hoppin’.  And most of us who live in California consider everything north of Napa part of Oregon.

Still, there are a lot of hidden treasures in this most unique of states, and I intend to uncover them, wherever they may be.

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