Reporting back on our three days in L.A., with remarks about other spots on our California road trip. Three days went fast and furious. We decided to drive everywhere, as parking did not seem particularly difficult on the street or expensive in garages, at least compared to New York (by which I usually mean Manhattan). Throughout the trip the parking gods were with us, and I never spent more than a few minutes looking for a space.
Our first stop was Spring. We had the place to ourselves at the end of lunch service. The space was very peaceful, the service very solicitous, and the prix fixe good if not great.
I had a list of places recommended or approved here, and the list served us well. Our dumpy motel was a short walk to Pailin Thai Cuisine, where we ate twice. The curries were excellent. The soft shell crabs with yellow curry had a healthy portion of crab, and I can still taste the sauce. The clams with red curry paste and the shrimp with red curry (or is it the reverse?) were just as tasty. The other dishes—Tom Yum soup, Northern Thai sausage, and papaya salad—were competent.
We had a couple of Korean meals, including marinated raw crab at Soban and the pork ribs at Ham Ji Park. Both were good (but Soban can’t compare to my raw crab experience in Korea, where we were served mounds of sweet crab in two sauces, in a restaurant that specializes in such).
I’ve heard a lot a talk about how much better the Mexican food is in L.A. and California in general, and it’s true. Chicken Itzah, in a food court with other temptations, was superb. Wood-grilled white fish filet with citrus-achiote sauce. Mmm. Smoky and delicious. Sopa de Lima. Turkey broth. Full of quiet flavor. We were limited to trying one food truck, Gracias Senor, after the Getty Villa. I don’t know where it stands in the food truck hierarchy, but my wife loved the surf and turf burrito, and I liked it too. Later, in the trip, we had grizzly-bear sized portions of tasty food at Los Agaves in Santa Barbara. If you could transport this place to the East Village as is it would be a phenomenon. But they’d have to double the prices to pay the rent so it wouldn’t be the same.
In L.A. we also liked Got Get Em Tiger for breakfast (esp. liked their iced turmeric almond macademia drink). McConnell’s next door was uninspiring for ice cream (when you come to New York, try Van Leeuwen). We never made it to SGV, and we had no Chinese food on the trip.
The big mistakes were a few of the tourist traps that one of us could not resist. Splash in Pismo Beach had average clam chowder in a bread bowl, and greasy fried oysters with crispless curly fries served lukewarm, in spite of the crowds. (Aren’t bread bowls the most wasteful food item ever created? Does anyone want to come to their defense?) Crab Cooker was another place to avoid. The seafood kebobs were unremarkable and the gluey cheesy potato balls were inedible. I wouldn’t call the Central Market in Petulama a tourist trap, as it seems to attract many locals, but it was the most disappointing meal of the trip for me. We had three dishes, and while the cooking had high aspirations there was no big payoff. The little lamb stuffed cabbages, for example, were no improvement on the comfort food versions. The bread and butter were excellent.
Some of the famous spots deserve their stripes. Butter Brown Cookie Company in Cayucos and Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes were both great. We had a few serendipitous finds to, including Happy Girl Kitchen in Monterrey (remarkable strawberry marmalade, waiting to try the big sur blend and the grapefruit), and Bai Tong—a Thai place in Saratoga where we had fantastic noodles. But I can’t guarantee they’ll be as good if you ever go there.
As Big Sur was closed, we spent a day wine tasting in Paso Robles. I didn’t have time to come back here for the suggestions that someone offered to provide. Justin was by far our favorite of five wineries we tried. The white wood-burned pizza we had at Opolo Vineyards was a very good start to the day.
After going to the strangely popular Dametra Cafe our first night in Carmel, we didn’t have great expectations for our second night. But food critic Michael Bauer led us to the best meal of our trip, at a modern Mexican place called Cultura. The mole was better than I recall from five or six trips to Mexico. The roasted half chicken with carrot-cumin puree was one of the top five chickens I’ve ever eaten, Mexican or otherwise. The chef also did a riff on chili relleno, with goat cheese, cotija (a hard cow’s milk cheese), dried cherries, pecans, pine nuts, black beans and pepita salsa, that was delicious.
I haven’t talked about the sightseeing, but the nature (e.g., Limantour Beach after the Muddy Hollow Hike in Point Reyes) as well as the food will stay with me a long time.