U.S. 395, the California Highway Least Traveled—and Its Most Epic

California is a really long state. In the north-south direction, drivers traditionally traverse the state on either U.S. 101 or Interstate 5. Highway 101 is more picturesque, going through seaside towns and redwood forests and boasting gorgeous coastal scenery and mild weather. It’s also slower. Travelers wanting to make haste take I-5, but south past Redding the penalty is long, boring stretches of flat valleys, farmland and orchards that go on forever.

My wife and I have made the drive from Seattle to Los Angeles (and back) several times to visit family, and each time we’ve taken one of these two routes. Early this month, we drove to L.A. on I-5 in three days over 1,200 miles, not a pace we particularly like. For the trip home, we decided to change things around and take our time on the overlooked easternmost route astride the Sierra Nevada Mountains on U.S. 395. We’d view it as a road trip instead of a way home. Maybe drivers avoid this highway because it crosses desert environments with very few towns along the way. Never before have we taken this way home, previously only having gone as far north as Mammoth Mountain to ski when we lived in L.A. many years ago.

This post is about the drive home, an eye-opener for me that made me rethink future road trips to and from Southern California. There are no big California cities on 395. Reno in Nevada comes closest. It’s an epic drive that the Sierra Nevadas dominate, but also skirts the highest (Mt. Whitney) and lowest (Badwater Basin) points in the continental U.S. We drove nearly the entire length of Highway 395 through California, from Victorville in Riverside County in the south to Susanville close to the Oregon state line, including the brief portion into Nevada, a drive of 500 miles.

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Mom’s Tamales—L.A.’s Best?

Nestled against the hills of Lincoln Heights, my wife’s old stomping grounds, is Mom’s Tamales, considered one of the best tamalerias in Los Angeles. Recipe handed down from grandmother, to mother and and now to current owner, the tamales are so popular that any of the six on the menu may be unavailable at any time because customers may have depleted the day’s stock. Bulk purchases can be made by the dozen either steamed or unsteamed ($3 cheaper).

The business’ exterior is not much to look at, the front of a brick warehouse from all appearances except for the restaurant’s name painted high on the wall in Mexican tri-colors. Similar non-descript buildings are to the north, a dirt yard surrounded by chainlink fencing and an overgrown property hiding a crowing rooster to the south.

Inside, things are more cheery, floor-to-ceiling windows on the west wall, tables spread out over the telltale warehouse space and a mural on the north wall. Still, for all the windows, it was dim inside.

momstamales - 1

My brother-in-law and I arrived at 9:30am shortly after Mom’s opened. The breakfast menu looked interesting—machacachilaquileshuevos rancherosspinach and eggs and one of my favorites, chorizo con huevos. But, this place is known for tamales, so both he and I opted for the tamale combination, any two tamales paired with rice and beans. My choices were spinach and cheese and chicken molé. I had never come across the latter before; since I love molé sauce, I had to have one. Both fillings were very tasty, as was my brother-in-law’s cheese and jalapeno. But what distinguished these tamales was the extraordinary masa, more light and fluffy than I can ever recall having eaten. Are these the best tamales in L.A.? Could be.

Incidentally, Guy Fieri featured Mom’s in his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives a few years ago.

Mom’s Tamales
3328 Pasadena Ave
Los Angeles CA

Super Latino Markets of Highland Park, California

Through the hilly neighborhood of Highland Park just west of the Arroyo Seco runs York Boulevard, the neighborhood’s main commercial thoroughfare. It supports not one, but two supermarkets, within blocks of each other, that serve the mostly Latino community. When my daughter lived in New Zealand, she rued that she couldn’t get Mexican products readily (or inexpensively). In Christchurch, there was one Hispanic market, but a can of black beans for $8 was a bit much. She even went so far as to buy a tortilla maker so she could make her own. She finally gave it to a friend over there before her family moved to Highland Park last year; she knew she’d never have to make a tortilla in Southern California.

El Super and Super A Foods not only have tortillas galore but every imaginable item for cooking Latino food. The usual staples are sold that are available in any well-stocked market, except that the quantities, choices and sizes are much more extensive. Where Safeway might carry one, maybe two, different brands of canned pinto beans, the Supers have many more and in sizes you won’t find outside of Latino neighborhoods. How about cases of Corona stacked to the ceiling? Or an entire aisle section devoted to Goya products? Or Mexican wines? More kinds of Mexican cheese than I’ve ever heard of? Chorizo made not only from pork but beef? A wide variety of dried chiles and beans in bulk? Fresh zucchini blossoms? Panaderia? Such is the surprise and awe that a shopper will feel when first surveying these markets. And the prices are laughably inexpensive. A pineapple for 99₵, 2 pounds of tomatillos for 99₵, a 2lb 12oz package of tortillas for $2.39. Whole Foods prices these are not. (As wondrous as these markets are, the most jaw-dropping I’ve seen is Supermercados Mexicano in Hillsboro and Portland, OR.)

Highland Park is becoming more of a hipster area, yet the commercial district seems to have kept its old character. There are no big name chain stores or franchises along York, only small shops and little restaurants, including several taco trucks. Gentrification can change things forever for the locals. For now, the community can only hope for some kind of balance and that the main character of the area will not eventually serve only the latté crowd.

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Super A Foods
5250 York Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90042

El Super
5610 York Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90042

Noodle Soups at Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo (Los Angeles, CA)

One of the best—if not the best—reasons for eating in Los Angeles’ sizable Koreatown is the opportunity to taste specialties not on standard Korean menus. For instance, take kalgooksoo (or kalguksu), a noodle soup similar to Japanese udon with its thick wheat-based noodles in a rich broth. Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo specializes in it, so highly regarded that a wait to get tables is all too common. Arriving early before the noon crowd is a better way to avoid human traffic at the door. Though my wife and I got there at 11am, within a half hour, all the tables were already occupied.

Instead of banchan, a sort of appetizer is served. A bowl of steamed barley is accompanied by three kinds of kimchi—cabbage, daikon radish and young radish leaves (yeolmu)—as well as a gochujang miso paste (dwaenjang) that can be daubed on the barley with a little sesame oil.

The soups arrived after a wait of 15-20 minutes. The bowls were quite large, holding a generous portion of noodles and broth with other ingredients. Manila clam kal guk su (☆☆☆½) easily harbored two dozen clams (bajirak) which started out perfectly cooked but not surprisingly became more rubbery as they sat in the steaming hot, delicious clam-flavored broth. Also included were slices of high-starch potatoes that were much too mealy and kabocha.

Manila clam kal guk su

Manila clam kal guk su

More impressive was chicken kal guk su (☆☆☆☆, top image). The small half chicken shredded easily with chopsticks, obviously simmered long to make the wonderfully rich broth enhanced by aromatics and other flavorings.

What make these soups a great comfort food, besides the broth, are the noodles. They are typically made from scratch with flour, kneaded and hand-cut with a knife, giving them a superb doughy, springy texture. Hangari delivers in spades.

Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo
3470 W 6th St
Los Angeles, CA 90010

Iris Explosion in Oregon

We were en route to Los Temos Taqueria in Salem, Oregon, when we saw them. Blooming in the fields were millions of irises laid out in swaths of almost every color imaginable. If it weren’t for the season, we would never have noticed, as we hadn’t in all our previous drive-bys. But, there they were in all their splendor, just up the road from Los Temos.

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The fields belong to Schreiner’s Iris Gardens that also has an eye-popping demonstration garden, a true gem in central Oregon, less than an hour’s drive south of Portland, almost exactly at the 45th parallel.

Schreiner’s Iris Gardens
3625 Quinaby Rd NE
Salem, OR 97303