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food, travel, food culture

California: live it up, love it mad, dream it big

Prologue

I have a dream. I have many, in fact, but only one dream has always been with me since I can remember: the almost physical yearning for travel. It is in my earliest memories of watching the trains from my window as a kid, furiously waving to those fast-disappearing pink dots of faces in the hope of getting a wave back, of feeling part of that dashing rushing sense of movement. Fast-forward to today – with over 40 countries under my belt – and the dream is bigger and stronger than ever. 

I don’t just want to tick off countries and experiences from a bucket list; I want to travel deep, not just far and wide. I want to let the flavours and smells of a place to get under my skin (and most likely on my waistline), I want to get a real feel for the everyday life of the locals, I want time to be idle and to be busy, to feel exhilarated and soothed. The search for the perfect trip is never over, but in my case I came very close to it in California. Probably because it was unexpected and against the odds, like falling in love – you know, the Pride & Prejudice type, I wanted to hate it but was secretly attracted, etc.etc. With me and California, the happy ending may be just the beginning of a new trip…

 

California – much more than just an American dream

Even for the seasoned, cynical traveller, California is really the stuff dreams are made of – world class cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, iconic nature – sequoias in National Parks? check; beaches, cliffs and scenic drives? check. Food and wine? Only someone living in a cave would not know Napa Valley or wouldn’t have heard of the great restaurant scene. Yet, I was still unconvinced – wary of clichés, maybe, and the unavoidable discrepancy between expectations shaped pop culture (don’t make me list the movies and songs inspired by California) and the reality of the by American dream.

Yet, California blew me away. My 10-day trip, although it was quite long for the frenetic standards of flashpackers and weekend getaways, was one of those experiences that at the same time fulfilled me intensely, yet left me wanting for more. I felt I got an amazing taster of a multi-course feast, and I am fully intentioned to go back to experience more. The way to woman’s heart is through her…senses (no silly jokes here), and here’s how California won me over, through its food and wine, in subtle unexpected ways that surpassed all the must-see sights I was half-expecting to be disappointed by.

california best farmers market

Images from Los Angeles Farmers Market “at 3rd and Fairfax”; Los Angeles Central Market (Downtown).

Fresh, seasonal and local produce is available throughout the state in a way that it’s not naturally associated with the States. I was amazed at the variety and quality of the foods on offer, from supermarkets to local chains like the famous Traders’ Joe to farmers’ markets in every city, big or small. And we’re not talking of a display of local colour for tourists here – be it a grand, high-trussed affair like the Central Market in Los Angeles or a bunch of white plastic gazebos like the Saturday market in Ojai – the markets are buzzing with people doing their weekly grocery shop, and grabbing a (literally) market-fresh lunch whilst doing so.

No wonder the food was consistently amazing at most places we ate at: street carts, grand hotel restaurants, family-run cafes and trendy L.A. concept eateries – and no wonder people seem to be so sunny and kind, as well as having a genuine interest in food . At Gjelina in Venice where we were treated like A-listers and possibly rubbed shoulders with some . Yes, I am aware that the tipping policy makes for cheerful service, thanks – I’m a cynical traveller, remember. But the minimalist, beautiful Mediterranean-inspired dishes needed no other stars than themselves really.

gjelina restaurant los angeles

Gjelina restaurant in Venice, L.A. – a restaurant embodying the new wave of California food. Heaps of cool, but the food is still king.

 

California food & wine: Los Angeles, Seoul, Hanoi – via Naples and Bordeaux

California’s unique terroir and its multiethnic society is also reflected in the variety of cuisines you can find there. Immigrants have carried their own recipes and often recreated them using the great local produce- some being lovingly preserved, others tweaked and enhanced by “fusioning” (a pretty bad word, I admit, but you get the idea). Ok, this sounds straight out of a tourist brochure…and into my belly. But seriously, I mean it.

As guests of an South East Asian- Russian family, we had the chance of trying the California spin on coconut and banana pancakes, fried rice, vibrant vegetable stir fries – the result was mind-blowing. To thank our hosts, I cooked classic Italian-American fare of pasta bake and meatballs- the fragrant California tomato and the incredible beef gave it a wonderful local twist. We had the best Korean food I have ever tasted in a fairly dim place in a nondescript mall on the outskirts of Los Angeles – but it might as well have been Seoul, as we slurped glass noodles in rich broth from hot stone bowls.

Asian food in California rivals the variety in SE Asia

Pictures: A vietnamese diner, somewhere on the way to LAX. Pho soup, Mexican grub and my very own obsession – ramen – in the Japanese quarter.

Again, California refuses to be fitted into a stereotype- there is not just home-cooking and the obligatory dingy looking joints. A-Frame restaurant, a design wooden hut that started as a food truck in L.A., serves an eye-popping, almost OTT spicy version of Korean, Mexican and classic Americana dishes to a crowd that seems out of a videoclip. And the customers were not just lookers- a foodie conversation followed the spontaneous sharing of some friend chicken and we got tipped off on “the best burger in L.A., forget your Wallpaper guide“. We went, we ate, we were in organic-beef and greens heaven.

California's best burger?

Pictures: I went to the Fairfax district in L.A. on a mission to find california’s best burger (well, one of the best for sure) on a local’s recommendation. Yes, I actually stroke a conversation in real life, not on Twitter. Weird, uhu?

 

california coffee culture and street art

Pictures: Street art of a myriad styles covers the walls of L.A. Specialty coffee culture finds some temples here like Intelligentsia and Handsome Coffee Roasters.

Great coffee was half expected , not so with wine. How wrong I was, I should have brushed up on my knowledge before and not just chuckle at the memory of the “Sideways” movie. In my updated, fact-based version of California dream, you are never far from a great bottle. Our initial mild distrust and fear of generic fruity and sweet “New World” wines was soon proved wrong by the latest offspring of Napa Valley.

Pictures: be it crab or prawns, seafood fresh from the ocean has no rivals. P.S. we did not eat the seagull

Pictures: be it crab or prawns, seafood fresh from the ocean has no rivals. P.S. we did not eat the seagull

California, as dreamed by me, clearly sounds like an eating and drinking marathon. Fear not, there’s plenty of nature if you want to walk, run or climb off some of it; driving from place to place, in addition to helping build up your appetite, is an experience in itself and a surprisingly easy one even for me (men are from Mars, women from Venus so yes, we both need GPS). Driving smoothly towards the sight of Santa Barbara’s coastline glimmering and melting softly into the purple dusk was a moment of pure bliss, and I am not even a car fan.

california ojai valley.jpg

Pictures: my dream of visiting Napa had to be postponed for lack of time, but the Ojai area I visited instead didn’t disappoint with beautiful landscapes and healthy food (didn’t you get the memo? grass fed butter is the new kale).

California- Dream On

My own California dream has the smell of fresh oranges in Ojai, the crunch of sourdough bread at the Farmers’ market, it is as uplifting as a strong cup of coffee in Abbot Kinney and as intriguing as the layers of flavour of a soup in Los Angeles Koreatown. And yet, I dream for more.

San Francisco with its uphill streetcar lanes, its meandering Chinatown alleys and the iconic Bay views. Overhearing chats from locals, absorbing the energy of the entrepreneurial culture that is changing our world one startup at a time.

Exploring Alcatraz and the Spanish Missions, feeling the stories echoing from the ancient walls; being part of the history of travel at one of California grand hotels .

And you bet, I am going to see some of those damn fine grapes being grown and made into nectar, in a pilgrimage to ask the gods of wine for forgiveness of my initial snub of Cab Sauv.

I have fallen in love with this California girl and I am already dreaming of our next encounter.  It’s going to be amazing. Please don’t wake me up.

Sunset on Highway 101 on the way to Santa Barbara - love at first sight

 

If you are not dreaming of being in California right now, drooling over the food pictures and booking your tickets, there must be something wrong with you (sure, it may be that pre-payday bank balance as well. But the dollar is weak at the moment *hint hint*). Joking aside, if you simply aren’t a food-obsessed fat glutton foodie like me   you can visit this California Dream Generator and weave together your very own dream – be it sports, nature, culture or relax that you’re after. Dream on! 

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7 Comments

  1. Serena, I was exhilarated by all that CA has to offer when I visited last August. It actually made me wonder about spending so many euros in Italy each year. Glad you think the new world is doing ok! I trust your palate!

    • Thanks Helen! I really do think the New World can offer a lot food & drink -wise…the Californian produce was really stunning

  2. Beautiful! Like you I was taken aback by how much I loved California; San Francisco blew me away with it’s beauty not to mention the warmth of the people and of course the food

    • I so want to go back and see San Francisco…will ask you for food recommendations for sure :)

  3. Great crab, wonderful sunset

  4. Agreed with everything the writer says about California food scene..
    having lived in California for more than 30 years, we continue to be amazed by the great tasting variety of foods “fused” by people who moved here from all over the world…

    • Thanks! I am glad that a local agrees with me…I think a country’s cuisine cannot but get better by “contamination” from the outside :)

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