Category Masticating With Mellzah

The Pit Room in Houston, TX

We made a cardinal error attempting to go to The Pit Room in Houston for the first time in the evening–they were sold out of everything except sausages and chopped pork, because that’s what happens at BBQ restaurants: you have to arrive early enough in the day to get what you want before it sells out or you get the dregs of everyone’s last choices. So we went to Jinya Ramen for dinner and resolved to be back first thing in the morning for some world class barbeque. 

I am not even kidding: we were the first people through the door in the morning and though there was not a line, there should have been, because this was the best barbeque I’ve ever eaten in my life. We ordered a beef rib, pork ribs, brisket, elote, and mac & cheese. Of them all, the mac and cheese was the weakest component, coming off as rather bland. Everything else was the best in its class, so delicious that at one point it felt like my soul left my body because there was no room for it in there with all of that BBQ based joy I was feeling from head to toe. 

The beef rib alone was a cool $30, and it was enormous, like something Fred Flintstone would eat, a slab of meat baaaaaaaarely attached to a prehistoric bone, heavily crusted with a beautiful bark. It was so meltingly tender that you could just pull bites off with a fork, and it was rich and juicy with a peppery bite. The brisket was incredibly tender and flavorful, and the pork ribs were perfection: toothy but tender, not so soft that they fell off the bone immediately, but pulled clean with a light amount of pressure. None of the meats needed any of the provided cups of tangy BBQ sauce, but it was a delicious extra.

Also perfect were the elote: charred streetcorn, served in a cup* and fully dressed with mayo, cojita, cilantro, and chile powder. The heat of the corn melts the mayo, softens the cheese, and turns into a smoky, crunchy, creamy delight with a bit of brightness. 

And then there was the pickle bar. The Pit Room is the first BBQ restaurant I’ve visited to have a full complimentary pickle bar, stocked with all kinds of pickled veg and salsas with varying levels of heat. These briny, tangy, spicy bites made all the difference, because the acids cleanse the palate of the meat’s richness which makes every bite of barbequed meat like the first, best bite. 

We laid waste to that tray, friends. They have an entire selection of desserts at The Pit Room that I had no room in my pit for, but I wouldn’t have done anything differently. After I got home, I sent The Pit Room an email begging for their elote recipe, but no dice. It’s fine, in the intervening time I’ve learned to make a pretty solid elote myself. Now all I need to do is learn to smoke a perfect beef rib and I’ll never have to go to Houston again.

 

 

 

*My understanding is that they are esquites when served in a cup, not elote, but I’m calling ’em by the name on the menu.

Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, TX

One hundred and forty four people live in Driftwood, Texas. At any given moment, visitors to Driftwood’s Salt Lick BBQ outnumber the residents: cash in hand, waiting in line for their turn for pork, bison, and beef ribs basted with their signature pecan sauce, their tender brisket, coleslaw flecked with mustard, thick slices soft white bread with a generous sifting of sesame seeds on top, and slabs of pie and warm cobbler, nestled with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. On the weekends, there’s a bonus menu with items not on offer during the week with a down-home comfort food feel, like scalloped potatoes and green bean casserole. On our BBQ tour of Texas, Salt Lick was Jason’s favorite–he really dug the bison ribs and he’s also a big fan of the pecan sauce, so much so that we ordered some to try in tandem with our new smoker. Now to find a bison rib supplier…

VIA 313 and Steel City Pops in Austin, TX

I visited these places one right after another and I’m not even going to pretend like I didn’t. Via313 was recommended to me as an Austin must-try, and I kind of love that an Austin must-try is Detroit-style pizza. What is Detroit-style pizza? It’s a soft, tender thick crust baked in a rectangular pan for crispy edges all the way around, and the only sauce is a thick swipe of red down the center of each piece. Cheese and toppings are generous because the more substantial crust can hold it. It doesn’t reach the casserole-y levels of a Chicago deep dish but it’s a thick bite. I ordered “the detroiter” which added a layer of smoked pepperoni under the cheese and still more pepperoni on top. All that generosity makes for a heavy pizza, however, and my appetite tapped out after one piece. But leftovers are a good thing–of course, it’s pizza!

I visited Steel City Pops for the first time after eating at Via313, but over the course of my two weeks in Texas, I went back several times. If you’re a new customer at Steel City, they give you a popsicle stick to redeem for a free pop on your second visit, but even if I hadn’t gotten a free pop, I still would have gone back. And then Jason joined me on the trip and I had to take him. These fresh popsicles are perfectly balanced icy treats. The cucumber lime pop was super refreshing with a good balance of flavor, not too vegetal, not too tart. The lavender in the lavender lemonade pop was subtle but I’d rather that floral flavors be subtle than bold anyway. And their patio is a great place to hang with a book and watch cute dogs walking by.

Tyson’s Tacos in Austin, TX

Still not 100% on what a kiss blown is. A kissairconditionerasted?

clockwise from upper left: burnt ends, al pastor, crispy duck, tasty basterd

Tyson’s Tacos is a charming restaurant with an inventive menu, though none of those things are what brought me here. I was lured to this establishment by two rumors: first, that there’s a ukulele at the ordering counter and in case anyone would like to sing for their supper, Tyson’s is willing to make that trade, at a going rate of one song per taco. The second rumor was that of a gold toilet in their restroom. I stalked my way all the way around this building and the only toilet I found was tragically white.

The ukulele, however, does exist, though the kind of off-key error-riddled song I could play on a uke would only be worthy of the saddest taco, the lonely little scamp trying to run away from home and make a new life in the dumpster. And I didn’t want a sad taco, I wanted a robust taco. Four of them. Al pastor, burnt ends, tasty basterd, and crispy duck, specifically. Plus a horchata, like the two kinds of agua fresca they had available gratis wasn’t good enough. 

The decor at Tyson’s is eclectic, with chippendale chairs next to chunky blonde wood chairs with carved in butt grooves and neon rainbow spatters dot the black ceiling. Rainbow dots among other things–birds come right inside and conduct their business. In addition to the type of business you already thought of, they also hop on the tables and chairs and scream at people for food.

They couldn’t have mine.  I did not love my al pastor taco, as I found it full of gristle. However, the tasty basterd, a surf & turf taco with shrimp, fajita steak, sriracha, and cheese surprisingly works. I mean, come on, it’s an unholy trinity: seafood and steak and cheese. Those very specific textures don’t tend to enter my mouth in tandem, but I was intrigued enough by the pure fortitude it took to invent this taco and then put it on a menu to order it and it really does work. By the end of it, I was a little creamied out, I think it ended up being too much of a good thing. I felt the same about the burnt ends taco. With onion rings, jalapenos, and valentina cream, it was delicious but I was done with it before it was finished. The last, the crispy duck, was a perfectly fine taco. I thought the crispiness of the duck and the fresh crunch of the cucumber was a wonderful pairing; I’m just not personally a huge fan of duck. I would’ve loved to see all these tacos in a smaller version so I could try more kinds of tacos, but that’s just greed talking. Greed and my failure to order five tacos so I could try the Prince taco. 

Iceland’s South Shore

We added a short stopover in Iceland on our way home from England. It was an opportunity to revisit favorites, see some new things, and, even better, break up the flights. Because, you know, even though I can travel thousands of miles across continents in a single day I can still find a way to complain about it. I suppose I’m inured to the marvel. Overseas travel used to involve a high risk of scurvy, a disease that ravaged the mind and body, but I’m complaining because sitting the whole way from London to Seattle might make my butt ache slightly. 

When I say “short stopover”, I mean it: we had one evening, one morning, and one full day sandwiched in between. On our evening, we went back to Grillmarkaðurinn, because how could we not? I had the most amazing rack of lamb, perfectly pink and luscious, which came with three small ramekins of yogurt, rhubarb sauce, and crushed nuts for self-saucing and experimentation and a side of crispy kale and garlic fried potatoes. I also stuffed myself on crusty bread with Icelandic butter and black lava salt and a side of fresh hot corn with the same accoutrements, and surprise, I again had no room for dessert. Jason’s meal had three kinds of fish, and he said each one raised his bar for how good fish could be. On our morning, we went back to the blue lagoon until we were driven inside by a violent hailstorm. All of those people surging out of the water while shrieking and flailing  looked like a scene from Jaws

On our full day, we went on tour to Iceland’s south shore. We were picked up early from the hotel and shuttled to the large bus terminal from which I could see the beautiful pink sunrise, and, on the hill, the place at which I’d made reservations that evening: The Pearl, where we’d eat in a glass dome under the stars with a 360 degree view. I had some time to contemplate my dinner plans and doze on the bus while we waited for some late arrivals. This late start unfortunately impacted our day as we had to blast past our first two stops, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, with assurances that we’d hit them on the way back.

Seljalandsfoss-adjacent

Skógafoss

We made a bathroom break/snack/gift shop only stop at the LAVA centre in Hvolsvöllur, but our first official activity stop was at Sólheimajökull glacier. One of my favorite teachers described his awe upon laying eyes on a glacier for the first time: “It was Tidy Bowl* blue!” This refreshingly unpretentious and product placement laden description had the kind of staying power it took to stick in my memory for decades, much like how Tidy Bowl lasts, flush after flush.  After a short hike from the parking lot, I finally got my first good look at a glacier, and it did indeed glow a gentle electric blue. We were not allowed to walk right up to the glacier but even at a distance it was immense. Less immense every year, however: it recedes the length of an Olympic size swimming pool annually.

I think this is the best photo to help understand scale–look at those tiny people in the lower right, off to hike on the glacier itself.

Our next stop was the farthest from Reykjavík we’d travel on the trip, the village of Vík í Mýrdal. As its southernmost coastal village, Vík enjoys the reputation of the warmest place in Iceland, a balmy one or two degrees warmer than average. Despite this heat wave, Vík’s population of 318 has yet to embrace shorts. To be fair, I can’t say I would have embraced them, either, as I spent the entirety of this visit in the puffy, noisy grip of cheap snowpants and still felt cold. Despite its small population, Vík offers a robust amount of services for travelers, as owing to its location along the ring road, it’s one of very few places in the area to fuel one’s vehicle and purchase food, which makes it a very different kind of “must-stop” on a road trip. Our tour group was given an hour and a half in which to eat, shop, and sightsee at our leisure, if anything done on a ninety minute timer can be said to be done at leisure. Jason and I ate at the Ice Cave restaurant, which is essentially a cafeteria attached to a huge gift shop and a grocery store. I finally got some Icelandic meat soup! It was…soup. Meat, potatoes, vegetables, water. It wasn’t objectionable in any way, but it had two main things going for it that had nothing to do with the flavor: it was extremely hot and therefore warming, and, unlike just about everything else on the menu, it’s ready to go off the line so you don’t have to use precious sightseeing time waiting twenty minutes for your mediocre burger. After Jason finished his mediocre burger, we hit the restroom and hustled down to the black sand beach, giving the gift shop a pass because however huge, it was still stocked with the same stuff we saw at every other single shop in Iceland. What did they even sell before China stitched its first stuffed puffin?

But a black sand beach…I’d never seen one of those before. The sand at Vík, due to its origins as basaltic lava, has the inky depth of rich topsoil, or, learning the lesson from that former teacher and using a metaphor that’ll stick with you, it’s a beach of Oreo cookie crumbs. To be more exacting, the black sand mingled with the pure white snow and ocean foam looked strikingly like the dirt cakes my brother requested for his birthday several years in a row (always served in a flower pot). 

I didn’t learn my lesson from last time about the perils of buying cheap snowpants online and gleefully abandoned this second terrible pair in the hotel. 

At the appointed time, we all loaded back on the bus and the driver hauled us up the hill and back down the other side to Reynisfjara Beach. Reynisfjara Beach is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful in Iceland, with its striking basalt columns and stretch of black sand, but it’s also one of Iceland’s most dangerous, with sneaker waves and an extremely strong undertow, a one-two punch that will knock a person’s legs out from underneath them and then drag them to sea. Although warning signs have been posted and tour guides stress the importance of not turning one’s back to the ocean, people still are caught unawares and several have died. Even when we visited, there were people toying about at the water’s edge, because, I guess, do you even have a life if you don’t take the risk of having it violently ripped away from you by the freezing ocean? 

The basalt columns in the ocean at Reynisfjara Beach are known as Reynisdrangar. Icelandic legend tells of two trolls who decided to drag a ship to shore in the night, but the task took longer than they anticipated (darn that strong undertow!) and they were caught by the sun and subsequently turned to stone. Also basalt, the step pyramid on land is called Hálsanef and it looks like the entrance to the lair of the troll king if only the cleft in the rock went deeper.  Scores of birds wheel about the top of Hálsanef–we were here at the wrong time of year, but I hear it’s very popular with puffins. It’s funny, these two black sand beaches are so close to one another, but one of them feels like an epic scene straight from a movie, and one of them feels exactly like what it is–a stretch of beach behind a parking lot. 

The sands at Reynisfjara Beach were rockier than their brethren at Vík í Mýrdal, with large areas covered in smooth dark grey stones. I don’t know what came over us, but both Jason and I coveted these stones, and even though we never do this, we agreed that we could each pick one to take home. I know, it’s a bad practice: if everyone did this, or even if a lot of people did this it would dramatically change the characteristic of every wild place for the worse. I knew it was wrong as I picked up the stone and closed my hand around it and slipped it into my pocket. But that stone had a grip on me. It was somehow The Perfect Stone, so smooth, so dark, so symmetrical, satisfying to look at and hold. Precious.

 

After our petty thievery, it was time to board the bus and head back to the waterfalls we’d blasted by on our way in. We made it to Skógafoss just as the sun was starting to set–you may recognize Skógafoss from Thor: The Dark World or a handful of other films. When we arrived, we were informed that we wouldn’t have time to go up to the viewing platform unless we were comfortable with the idea of running both up and down the entire set of stairs. Anyone who reads this blog or knows me or could make an educated guess about my general fitness level based on the sheer amount of Lord of the Rings references knows that running isn’t my bag. Me running up and down those entire stairs at full tilt is exactly equally as likely to happen as it is for Chris Hemsworth to have shown up just then, in his Thor costume, solely for the purpose of carrying me to the top.

Sheep!

We inched toward Skógafoss: every inch of terrain near the waterfall’s “splash zone” was coated in slick ice, and the ground itself was covered in irregular large rocks, which were also slick with ice. It was like trying to walk on bubble wrap made of ice, and while my feet tried to slip out from under me a few times, thankfully I kept my balance. Ultimately, I didn’t want to get very close to Skógafoss–the icy mist pelting me from a distance was plenty, I didn’t need to soak my jacket through, sit on a cold bus for a while, and then walk to and from our dinner reservations when we got back to Reykjavík in my still-wet jacket.

Speaking of not wanting to soak my jacket, at our final stop, Seljalandsfoss, visitors can walk behind the waterfall itself, which sounds like a great idea in the summer. When I visited, someone would have needed to credibly convince me that a puppy needed my help to get me back there, so either all puppies in the area were safe and accounted for or no one there realized that was part of my skillset. Either way, I ventured nowhere near the waterfall because I was already cold to my bones. The little heating packets in my pocket felt more like holding the memory of warmth–a pale ghost that just reminded me how cold I was, the LaCroix of heat.

 

We boarded the bus for the last time, and it was then that things took a turn for the worse. A horrible storm kicked up and an accident on the road forced us to a halt. I can no longer recall how long we sat there, but the time for our dinner reservations came and went and we had yet to arrive back in Reykjavík–and we were still lucky, because the snowstorm got bad enough that the roads were closed behind us, and in that instance, we would have had to backtrack to the nearest town and try to get lodgings for the night. Moreover, it was looking increasingly likely that the storm was going to stick around for a while, which kicked off my anxiety about our flight potentially being canceled. 

Then it struck me. In my run-up to my previous visit to Iceland, I did some research into their story culture. In addition to Norse mythology (because Vikings), Icelanders have a strong storytelling tradition about elves. In a 1998 survey, 54.4 percent of Icelanders said they believed in the existence of elves. Plenty of people have mocked them for it, regardless of whether or not that survey accurately reflects the population in 2018, but Icelanders’ belief in elves isn’t nearly as pervasive as the nearly 80% of Americans who believe in the existence of angels and I don’t think that little tidbit makes it into the guidebooks for the land of the free and the home of the brave. Let’s at least be consistent in our treatment of invisible people! The book that I read about the elves, The Little Book of the Hidden People by Alda Sigmundsdóttir stated unequivocally that Icelanders do not believe in elves, and that the stories of the elves (or hidden people) were to help the people of Iceland deal with their extremely difficult circumstances. For example, back in the day when most Icelanders were peasants working the land for someone else, they were not allowed to marry until they had achieved significant financial resources, which wasn’t really a thing because nobody had a track record of paying peasants well–so if a woman were to somehow become pregnant outside of wedlock, well, a hidden person did it. Or, more grimly, if a child was to go missing in the harsh Icelandic weather, parents could console themselves with the idea that a hidden person had led their child off to the land of the hidden people, a prosperous place that would care for them for the rest of their lives, because the alternative was too horrible to consider.

Regardless of my day to day belief in the existence of elves, in my mind at the time I was convinced that our earlier stone thievery royally pissed off an elf since they are known to be touchy about stones and things they view as their property. When we got back to Reykjavík, Jason and I each took our perfect stones out of our pockets, sincerely apologized to the elves, and put them on the ground. And to be certain, this is just an anecdote with no scientific value whatsoever…but within 20 minutes of setting down those stones, the storm that was supposed to last for days completely cleared up. We missed our dinner reservations but made our flight and I got to eat another pepperoni taco sandwich, so all in all, I’d say the elves let me off easy, perhaps taking into account that it was a first-time offense.

 

 

*I’m fully aware how it’s really spelled.

High Five Tea at Balthazar London

One of the things I really wanted to do whilst we were in London was to have a proper afternoon tea–scones, clotted cream, tiny sandwiches, the works. There are a lot of places eager to cater to tourists looking for this experience, and if I’d wanted, I could have taken tea every single day of my stay and still not visited all the most lauded options. And while I do love tiny crustless sandwiches, I don’t know that I could eat tiny crustless sandwiches for nine days straight and still be excited when the tenth tower arrives at the table, so I elected for one posh appointment: the High Five tea at Balthazar. I’ve since read Balthazar described as an American take on a French brasserie, so it may have been an unusual choice for an English tea, but I stand by it.

Balthazar is located in the Covent Garden district of Westminster. Nearby is a shopping center, a former vegetable market, that is now lined with tall, narrow shops, many spanning two floors. When I visited, there were a number of street performers on the lower floor, their singing expanding to fill the entirety of the hall. Jason kept attempting to purchase food, and I kept preventing him, reminding him that our afternoon tea appointment was like to be more of an entire day’s worth of food than the light snack he was envisioning. We did note some goodies that we’d be interested in returning to purchase should the tea not live up to our expectations (spoiler: we did not return), and instead spent the time before our reservation idly browsing the shops as neither of us were in the market for a luxury watch.

For their 5th anniversary, Balthazar developed their High Five tea: a towering tray stuffed with all of their biggest hits of the past five years, appearing in a haze of dry ice that swirls alluringly around the treats.

The bottom layer is the foundation of the meal: tea sandwiches of crisp cucumber and bright mint with a smear of earthy hummus, egg salad with watercress (I don’t do egg salad, but Jason liked it well enough to eat both), smoked salmon and lemon crème fraîche, and the perpetual British tea classic, coronation chicken, which with its combination of apricots and curry spice manages to be lightly sweet yet richly savory and was my favorite of the lot. Also served on this layer were miniature lobster prawn rolls served on buttery brioche. 

The middle layer is comprised of buttermilk scones (half studded with plump sultanas, half without), served with generous pots of Devonshire clotted cream and house-made strawberry jam. These scones are soft, warm, fragrant vehicles perfect for mounds of cream and jam and utterly unlike the dry, crumbly triangles that serve as scones stateside. Ignore for now the boxes also nestled on that layer, we’ll return to them later.

The top layer is reserved for the crème de la crème: five cakes, one for each year the restaurant has been operating. Proceeding clockwise from the bottom right cake that reads “Balthazar”:

  • Balthazar Icon, a confectionary copy of their awning rendered in Valhrona chocolate on a shortbread base with raspberry jam fusing the layers
  • Union Macaron, a meltingly delicate red and blue cookie sandwich loaded with fresh blueberries and cream
  • Gooseberry o’ Clock, a roulade of choux sponge infused with elderflower and gooseberry compote and ensconced in a shiny, sugary cellophane
  • Queen of Tarts, a sweet strawberry tart topped with a white chocolate disc
  • The Golden Bombe, a creamy, dreamy chocolate and hazelnut pudding topped with crisp sugarwork

 

 

As though all that weren’t enough, we opted for the ultra indulgent version of the tea, which included a rosé champagne cocktail with crystallized rose petals and a 30g tin of imperial caviar, served with yet more crème fraîche and blini. I’d never before tasted caviar, and the briny oceanic burst of the eggs paired gorgeously with the heavy crème, each tempering the other and becoming more than the sum of its parts. I fair say we nearly rolled from the restaurant, stuffed as we were with every good thing, which doesn’t mean we were too carbohydrate-addled to pocket our take-home boxes on the second layer, each containing a crisp, deeply caramelized, divine cannelés bordelais.

They’ve since moved on to a flower-themed tea that looks return trip worthy, even when that return trip involves an international flight. Who is coming with me?

 

GŎNG Bar at The Shard

I should’ve used Jason for scale, this door is much smaller than it appears in this photo.

After touring a structure with nearly a thousand years of history, we headed across the Thames via the Tower Bridge to a much newer addition to the London skyline: the Shard. Side note: I adore the nicknames for London buildings, which include among their numbers The Gherkin, The Walkie-Talkie, and The Cheese Grater.  Completed in 2012, the Shard is 95 stories of neo-futuristic steel and glass looming over the city, complete with an indoor/outdoor observation deck located at its upper reaches. A costly observation deck, particularly if you don’t purchase tickets in advance, so I thought I’d be clever and go to the nearly-as-high GŎNG Bar instead for my sweeping city views and spend what I would’ve on elevator tickets on drinks instead. It’s twenty floors lower than the observation deck, but they craft a mean cocktail and you don’t have to pretend to be impressed at the “opportunity” to shop at “the highest gift shop in London”. Oh boy! 

The thing I should have gleaned from the name alone, with its insistent all-caps and needless diacritic, is that GŎNG Bar is also pretentious as fuck. And so whilst I saved myself an admission fee, I paid a different sort of price. The sort of price that sticks long after the temporary pain of parting with money has passed.  It began with the wait–reservationless, we were directed to a couch in the lobby to wait. And wait. And wait. Ostensibly, we were waiting for a table, but when we were finally allowed up, the many empty tables conveyed to me that during said waiting period, GŎNG Bar was also waiting: for me to leave.  Well, joke’s on them, as an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. (I’m talking about my butt*, of course, which stayed firmly planted on the couch until the receptionist heaved a sigh, hobbled over in the floor length red gown and heels that was her uniform,  and invited me up.)

Am I certain that I was unwanted at GŎNG Bar? No. No one ever said to me “You don’t belong here.” But no one needed to say it aloud. The appraising up-down look (I didn’t look like a slob, but I certainly wasn’t wearing a gown), the artificial wait, the cruddy service: it spoke volumes. I felt unwelcome. Jason felt unwelcome, and he’s usually the one telling me that I’ve got it all wrong, that it’s just my inner critic dialed up to eleven and projected onto other people. It left us both feeling vaguely uneasy the entire time we were there.

The drinks, as mentioned before, are excellent–creative, complex, well-crafted. I truly enjoyed my drink, an ode to Peter Jackson with rum, New Zealand wine, beetroot, and pine honey, redolent of the deep forests of middle earth, served in a silver pipe. The views of the city with fireworks peppering the skyline? Also excellent. But I also could not see myself visiting again on a future occasion: I like myself too much to be subjected to an entire bar’s negative opinion of me.

 

 

*Their toilets are also incredible, and I’m not the only one who thinks so

London’s Borough Market

 

We ended up going to the Borough Market twice during our trip. The first time was our first morning in the country, and I wasn’t ready. Jetlag had a grip on me, yet, and I felt nauseated and entirely unready to eat until I died or even appreciate the smell of food. Which is why I had to go back a second time, because the Borough Market is glorious. 

The Borough Market has been around in some form or another for nigh a thousand years, though if you want to get nitpicky about it, it’s only existed in this exact location with this exact name since 1756. In the ensuing time, it’s perfected itself. It’s everything I want Pike Place Market to be–full of delicious food, with no huge wafts of urine or dead fish to sully the experience. Every kind of wonderful food to stock one’s home is here: charcuterie, stacked wheels of cheese, loaves of bread and pastries and homemade conserves and pickles and cookies and imported delicacies and fresh squeezed juice and foraged mushrooms…the list goes on. They also have stalls of made to order foods: I bought a sandwich from Roast Hog that ranks among the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. Chewy ciabatta smeared with applesauce, loaded with rosemary and fennel spiced roast pork chunks, bright greens, and topped with a healthy sprinkle of crispy skin, it was rich and savory and greasy and wonderful, and I almost weep to see that they do catering but probably not as far as the States. It was that good. 

Borough Market, twice was not enough. I’ll be back. 

Happy Place Los Angeles

In early December, someone shared a link on Facebook to the new Los Angeles pop-up museum, Happy Place. It was one of those made-for-Insta places where the whole point of the thing was to get whimsical photos to share on social media, with the tagline “find your happy place” and for some reason, it sucked me right in. Jason had been encouraging me to take some trips on my own, and this is the sort of thing he would more tolerate than enjoy, so it seemed like a good opportunity to dip my toes into the water of solo travel. I bought a ticket for one of the only dates in January on which they had a ticket available, found a cheap flight for a day trip to LA, and prepared to find my happy place. 

So, of course, not long before my trip, I got an email from Happy Place “reminding” me that the museum would be closed on the date on which I’d bought my ticket. What?! I checked my inbox to see if I’d missed any earlier messages: nope. Nice, guys. Thanks for the awesome communication. THIS IS NOT HOW YOU MAKE PEOPLE HAPPY. Later that day, I received another email stating that after “tireless work trying to gain the necessary approvals to get re-opened, it is clear at this time that the needed steps will not be complete until after the holiday season at the earliest.” In other words, they’d been shut down by the city. Great. Great. Evidently their person in charge of the permitting process was just as capable at their job as the one assigned to email. 

Well, I was not about to let some bullshitty “museum” I never should have purchased a ticket for in the first place ruin my day trip, and thus I visited Los Angeles determined to find my own happy place. I did do some preliminary research (I don’t know if I’m capable of full spontaneity) and determined that if I wasn’t going to rent a car, taking the flyaway bus was my best option. While I waited for my bus, a number of other buses and shuttles came and went, including some shabby vans supposedly bound for Disneyland but looked like a one way ride to Murderville. One of them had “Mickey sent me” written on the side, which didn’t so much evoke the warm umbrella of Disney so much as the stranger who pulls up next to your elementary school, rolls down his window, and says your mom sent him to come get you. Nope, not today, buddy. Especially if you don’t have candy OR puppies.

Waiting with me was an elderly woman, who asked me about my plans and told me all about her granddaughter, who she said is first clarinet for the John Williams orchestra, and that he’s a delight to work for. Cool, right? Before I could ask her a million more questions, her bus arrived, and she thanked me for the conversation. No, thank YOU, ma’am. 

My fly away bus finally arrived, and I took the one headed to Hollywood. Not because I particularly wanted to go to Hollywood (I’ve been. A few times.) but because it was the sort-of closest stop that would put me within walking distance of the places I wanted to start my day. So of course immediately after arrival, I put off my other plans and had pie for breakfast at The Pie Hole. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, after all. 

I had a nitro cold brew and a warm strawberry lavender hand pie. The crust on the hand pie is just meh, but the other flavors were on point, and I was glad to have some food in my belly before I proceeded on foot to my next destination, which was about an hour walk away. I briefly considered hanging around Hollywood until the Museum of Death opened, but since the day was about pleasing myself and not the harsh realities of life, I decided to give it a pass this time. And last time. And maybe I’ll just keep passing even though people keep recommending it to me. Either way, I knew that having a bunch of strawberry goo churning around in my insides while looking at gore wasn’t going to do me any favors. 

While out on my walk, I was stopped by a queen and asked if I had a dollar to spare for breakfast, saying she’d had a rough holiday. I told her I could do better than a dollar and gave her enough for breakfast. She pulled me in for a hug, told me I’d made her day, and that if I ever needed anything and saw her around the neighborhood, her name was Jasmine. 

Here’s some stuff I saw on my walk:

I have to assume that the reason it’s a gym for actors is that there is no gym equipment so one has to be adept at pretending one is getting a good workout.

I finally made it to my first destination: The Never Open Store. This place has notoriously unusual hours and equally notoriously unusual things for sale, but was, when I arrived, not open, with no indication that it would be opening soon, as the hands on the clock on their door were conspicuously missing. I’m not saying I needed an opium jar, but it would’ve been nice to have a look. 

Around the back side of the Never Open Store were a lot of different pieces of street art. I walked around the back of the block and circled around, because there was another place I wanted to visit, directly across the street: Gallery 1988. There were a few prints I was debating online and I was hoping to have an opportunity to look at them in person before I made a decision. Unfortunately, I caught them between shows and they, too, were closed. Siiiiigh. So I was thankful that I knew my next destination, about another mile away, was definitely open.

If there’s not, you’re in the wrong place.

I dig this bush a lot, it looks like it moved out of an ocean bed into someone’s front lawn. I’m thinking it’s a foxtail fern

That destination was ScentBar Hollywood. No one could have predicted when I was kid that I would grow up to be a complete and utter perfume hoor, considering I used to get a migraine whenever anyone with heavily-applied scent would walk by. Either I’ve built up a tolerance, or the choking oriental cloud style of the 80s has fallen out of favor, but I haven’t experienced a scent trigger for ages. It’s fun to dabble in scent, and there’s so much to try in the world of niche perfumes and oils. I’ve been buying little samples from LuckyScent for years, because the descriptions almost always suck me in, but I’m not always thrilled by the scents themselves, and who wants to splurge big bucks on a bottle of scent that they don’t like? ScentBar is one of LuckyScent’s physical locations, and I was excited to have this opportunity to go in and sniff ALL the perfumes I’d been intrigued by online and some I’d never considered. ScentBar also offers up to four samples free of charge, so in addition to a small bottle of scent I’d been eyeing for a while, I was able to walk out with four new things to try: Hummingbird (the floralest floral to ever floral), Kismet (recommended to me as an ambery vanilla that doesn’t read too gourmand), Confessions of a Garden Gnome (green and playful), and La Danza Delle Libellule, which is honestly something I never would have reached for based on its notes (apple? fruity? Naaaaaah) but I fell in love with at one sniff, because it smells like a warm secret garden where everything good lives. Which just goes to show me that I don’t always know what I’ll like, so I shouldn’t write things off before trying them.

After ScentBar, it was time for lunch, and there was no place I wanted to eat lunch more than Trejo’s Tacos. I once received a book as a gift that was essentially making fun of actors’ headshots–very “look at how stupid this person is, wanting to be a star”. It was deeply cruel, and I remember seeing Danny Trejo’s photo inside, so literally every time I see him in a movie or a show I am completely stoked for him. I’m also stoked that he was able to take his new fame and turn it into six thriving restaurants. 

When I arrived, I ordered a jackfruit taco, a carnitas taco, the street corn appetizer, and a strawberry lemon agua fresca, and I took a seat outside, because being able to eat outside in January is peak Happy Place. 

The street corn was charred grilled corn with a chipotle cream and popcorn, and it was totally bomb. The popcorn was a surprising element but it worked. The standout, however, was by far the jackfruit taco. I’d heard that cooked jackfruit takes on a texture like pulled pork, and that it soaks up the flavor of everything around it, much like tofu, but I don’t know that I believed it. Well baby, I’m a believer now. The cooked jackfuit was shockingly meatlike. Juicy, flavorful, delicious. I vastly preferred it to the carnitas taco–the pork was a tad dry and had me looking around for salsa or hot sauce. The jackfruit taco needed nothing because it was everything. EVERYTHING.

This was across the street from Trejo’s Tacos, I wonder how many of these pink signs to God there are throughout the city?

After lunch, I made my way to Velveteria, a museum dedicated to black velvet paintings, located in Chinatown. This place deserves its own post, and it’s going to have one later this week. Watch for it! In brief: it’s weird and great and everything I hoped it would be.

From Chinatown, I made my way to Culver City, primarily because I wanted to be closer to the airport as my time grew short. I had fun just walking around, checking out some more street art, peeping in some more shop windows, and eventually ending up at Coolhaus, a super premium ice cream shop. I’d tried one of their frozen ice cream sandwiches from their grocery store line and was really unimpressed, but I also think it’s difficult to translate that fresh ice cream sandwich experience into a prepack, so I wanted to give the original a try. Verdict? Much, much tastier, particularly their ice cream. I tried their brown butter french toast ice cream (aces) and their churro cookie dough (even better), but their cookies leave something to be desired, and overall, I still think The Baked Bear is a better place to get your ice cream sandwich fix. 

I’m certain I saw a piece by the same artist in Iceland!

And then it was time to head back to the airport, where I finished the excellent book I was reading and met an aspiring novelist who bought me a drink and regaled me with the tales of her past twenty-two days in Mazatlan.

There’s no denying that I was pretty ticked off when my reason for purchasing nonrefundable airline tickets was going to be closed, but ultimately, I’m glad, because I’m certain that I had a much better time carving out my own happy place than I would have had there. I also learned that I do well traveling by myself, and that if I have a problem, I can figure it out. I also learned that people talk to me a lot more when I’m alone, which I’m generally down with, because I’m interested in people. Overall, I’m declaring this experiment a success and am looking forward to booking more impulse flights!

Hiking Point Defiance Park

This December, we bought Jason a new (used) car, because you could hear his old junktrap Saturn squealing down the street from a block away, its bumper held on with a bit of string, the oil puddle in the garage growing into a horrible pond. It was ridiculous, and we were both determined to get him into something that was less likely to heave a sigh and collapse in the middle of the freeway. Ultimately, we bought a Mini Cooper. It had some flaws in the chrome pieces surrounding the headlight and taillight, and since it was certified and the trim should have been pristine, they gave us a thirty day IOU to replace them.

When replacement day rolled around, they gave me a new Mini to tool around in until the work was done, and since it was a gorgeous day, I decided to go to Point Defiance Park and walk around. 

I parked near Owen beach and climbed the staircase back up to five mile loop road, backtracking to the rhododendron garden. I started wandering the trails and found myself on this absolutely magical moss pathway: 

How is it even possible that this didn’t lead to a witches’ hut?

While the branches here don’t sigh as heavily with mosses as the ones at the Olympic National Rainforest, it’s a close thing. Even in the winter, with dead leaves carpeting the ground, this place is verdant and full of life. Very few other people, however, so I almost shrieked a couple of times when someone I had been unaware of suddenly passed me by because I had been looking too intently at my camera and too deep in podcast land to sense their presence. I might as well wear a sign on my back that says “Murder me“. 

What a neat mushroom!

Olympic mountain range

Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Speaking of getting murdered out in the woods somewhere, I misinterpreted the map and ended up getting a little lost. Not, like, “oh shit I need some survival skills alone out in the wilderness for 72 hours” kind of lost but more like “this road keeps splitting and somehow every fork is marked with the fort going one way and the zoo going another but I never arrive at either”. If I only had access to those signs, it could have turned into the former kind of lost situation, but thankfully T-Mobile’s coverage has improved since I switched to them and I was able to use GPS to figure out that I was nowhere near where I thought I was. 

Once I had that information, I was able to orient myself back on the path toward Owen beach, and took myself out for a celebratory “I didn’t get myself killed out in the woods” lunch at Duke’s Chowder House. This wild salmon with goat cheese and blueberries was so good, and while I’m still iffy about mixing cheese and seafood (probably from hearing it my whole life and not because I’ve had a particularly heinous cheese seafood experience), the tangy goat cheese paired beautifully with the flaky, rich salmon, the balsamic blueberries a burst of earthy summer on a cold winter’s day. A window seat with a beautiful view of the sound was the cherry on top. 

I can’t believe how long I’ve lived in this area and had never been to this park before. I’ll have to make it a point to go back during the other seasons to see how it changes–maybe I can twist Mini’s arm into giving me a loaner for oil changes.