Trip Report - LA & Beyond

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.


Thanks for reporting back and glad you ate well in LA. Sounds like you covered a lot of bases. Surprised you didn’t like McConnell’s as I think it’s fantastic, but I’m not an ice cream connoisseur by any means.

Fabulous report!!! BTW, I think it’s spelled Chichen Itza (I would hate your report to not show up in a search!).

If you ever go to Cayucos again, I got a rec from CH for Ruddell’s Smokehouse. Thought it was worth the long (but fast-moving) line. I didn’t know about the cookie company! Argh. Love a good cookie…

I really like McConnell’s, too, but I’m not familiar w/ the NY place you’re referring to, so I can’t make a comparison.

i always want ruddells to be better than it is. i guess i just dont get it.
still in cayucos, try the full moon wine tasting room for a glass of wine or six. very nice women run the joint and theres an interesting selection.

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damn… someone goes to Pailin and gets none (aside from sausage) of the things I’ve explicitly assigned to eat there? :slight_smile:

Did you not get the porkneck stew at Ham Ji?

I really want to visit Chichen Itzah too

Los Agaves is great!

Thanks for dropping Go Get Em Tiger… In our general area and I haven’t heard of it. Yes, that ice cream place is just ok, we have better (Carmela for one)

Too bad you didn’t drop in for Paso recommendations. That’s my specialty. Justin is an abomination in my book… Owned by POM Juice company, humongous productions and property, weddings etc… everything i avoid when wine tasting… Opolo is also quite poor representation for the area. I can think of 20 better for your next time.

Cultura??? thanks for that… need to get back up there soon.

glad you had fun too… i dont mean to come on too strong, just that better food is kind of a big deal

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I only went the one time, so perhaps I caught them on an usually good day. What did you not like about it?

well, as you said, theres a line. and the food only tastes ok to me. i mean, its fine. but thats all. maybe the prices bug me for the amount of food you get.
honestly, i rarely go there when im in that part of the world. maybe its due for a revisit.

equally touristy, i prefer taco temple south down the highway. its not cheap, but the fish and vegetables are fresh tasting, and theres decent beer.

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I think McConnell’s is a solid brand but are a bit overhyped.

@foodforthought Thanks for the report! There is a Van Leeuwen in Los Angeles, it’s near downtown Culver City. I wasn’t that impressed by them and thought they were severely overpriced.

There’s one near you to try! At the Platform near downtown Culver City.


Hmmm… I WILL be in the Culver City area tomorrow for lunch. And w/ the weather being so hot… :wink:

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Thanks for the correction on Chichen. We only spent a few hours in Cayucos and I left with an impression of unaffected charm. Along with the cookies, which I assumed were famous but might not be, we enjoyed a taco shack near the beach with smoked fish tacos…

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I knew something of Justin’s negative reputation but not enough to avoid it for a tasting. The wine itself, particularly the Isosceles, was quite enjoyable. We also went to Tablas Creek, where we were told the story of how they pioneered the Rhone style in California, but the wines didn’t grab us. At Tablas Creek the shepherd’s wife recommended we go to Lone Madrone, and upon arrival we were (sheepishly) told that they shared the same winemaker.
What are your favorites in Paso? Top five (or ten)?
By the way, since I was driving we would order one tasting for the two of us and leave a nice tip.

Van Leeuwen is expensive. In New York, one scoop is $5.50; $6.00 for the vegan. Two scoops, $7.50 or $8.00, is probably the way to go. The quality is there.

Lone Madrone is ok. They have good values . we were members for years. I’m with you on Tablas, you have to be a real rhone geek to grasp their subtle elegance etc… The prices push me to others in the area.

My current top five is

Venteux ( always favorite… members for many years)
Herman Story
L’Aventure / Caliza toss-up

wineries like Turley and Denner are the more famous ones around there.


Good recs @Nemroz. Need to check out a couple of those vineyards.

I very much like Booker and Villa Creek, in addition to what you mentioned.

Herman Story is special, for sure.

If you can find Saxum being sold locally, they are fantastic, however I don’t think they are currently open to the public at the moment. They are not a great value, though. Incredible wine, though.

Also, Minnasian-Young will occasionally knock a zinfandel out of the park while still being a rare value. Worth a stop if possible.

aah yes Minnasian-Young i keep forgetting to visit. Also McPrice is up there, Aaron is great, Jack Creek, Linne Colodo (baller prices)

Van Leeuwen is pricey, but not more so, I don’t think, than any other gourmet icecream shop (Jeni’s, McConnels, Carmela)

They also have (or at least had) a truck that got around the greater LA area. They’re probably on the twitters or whatever the kids use now.

I only had them once, but the chocolate was seriously satisfying.

I just didn’t find the QPR there for me. It was good but not mind blowing and the portion sizes were ridiculously small to me.

Looking forward to trying some of these in October :wink:

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If you’re a baller make an appointment at Linne Calodo and Jack Creek too.