Of Obsidian, Lava Casts and Waterfalls: Newberry National Volcanic Monument


The lava sparkles. In a sea of black, rocks reflect light like mirrors. It’s eerie enough to walk through a lava field where the ground beneath seems scorched by a cataclysmic firestorm, inhospitable to life, meager vegetation struggling to stay alive.

A pine tree gets a rare foothold

Here in Newberry National Volcanic Monument in Oregon there also happens to be an enormous obsidian flow, one of the very few in the world that can be explored on foot. Obsidian shines because it is glass created by Mother Nature.

Welcome to eastern Oregon, a stark contrast to the greenness west of the Cascade Mountains. The landscape is strewn with volcanoes and volcanic fields thanks to the relentless creep of plate tectonics. When hot lava consists almost entirely of silicon dioxide (SiO2), cools fast enough and free of gas bubbles, obsidian is created. I never thought of pumice in this way, but it is likewise a volcanic glass, also high in SiO2, where explosive events trap gas bubbles before cooling. It isn’t shiny as a consequence. Ancient peoples treasured obsidian for making tools and weapons, particularly arrowheads.

Because of glass shards, there’s a sign on the trail that warns of taking Fido for a nature walk or your traipsing through with flip flops or sandals. The hazard reminds me of a time when I saw three or four young ladies from Japan trying to negotiate the steep, rocky trail to the top of Diamond Head crater—in high heels. I don’t believe they made it very far.

The flow area is about one square mile (2.6 km2). The easy loop trail is 0.6 mile (1 km). At the far end, there’s a good view of the Newberry Caldera, the large shield volcano that dominates the park after which it’s named.

Newberry Caldera

The higher I went, the more black glass I saw, some in spectacular piles, some still in layers.

The most astonishing fact was that the Big Obsidian Flow, which is what this attraction is called, was created only 1,300 years ago. That must’ve scared the living bejesus out of the local peoples who likely fled. Locals today would flock toward it, smart phones in hand.

Casts of Thousands

Halfway into the monument is an attraction called Lava Cast Forest. Imagine old growth trees suddenly inundated by lava flows. Instant incineration, you’d think. Not quite. Turns out that the steam from larger flaming trees caused slow-moving lava around them to cool down and harden. After the trees eventually rotted or burned away, molds were left behind. Vertically oriented hollows look like small man-made wells.

The longest horizontal mold is about 50 ft long. I might’ve found it if I walked far enough on the trail.

The ‘forest’ is at the end of a 9-mile gravel road that takes a bit of patience to drive and that’s guaranteed to cake your car in mucho dust.

Twist of Fate

Another curious sight in the lava fields are pines, some very ancient, whose trunks appear twisted, the biggest ones in tight coils. It’s a remarkable adaptation to a hostile, arid environment, the most efficient way to channel water to the whole tree from a single tap root that extracted scant moisture from the ground while the other roots expended energy just to keep anchor.

Twin Falls

At the edge of Newberry Caldera is Paulina Falls. It’s a little odd to see it in an area as desolate as eastern Oregon, but here it was, not one but two. They spill over from Paulina Lake which replenishes not from rain but hot springs and snowmelt.

The falls are a short hike from the parking lot.

Lava Butte

Oregon seems to have more than its share of volcanoes, all part of the Cascade range, which also includes Mount St. Helens. Mount Hood stands majestically over the horizon in Portland as much as Mount Rainier does in Seattle. On a clear day, you can see several at once if you’re high enough, as we did when we hiked to the top of Smith Rock.

More numerous yet are cinder cones, which look like miniature volcanoes, but are really a conical pile of cinders, like the ones used for landscaping, that were spewed from and settled around a vent. I noticed many as I drove along US 97, a major north-south thoroughfare east of the Cascades.

One of the largest is showcased in the monument. Lava Butte stands at 5,970 ft (1,820 m). My wife and I took a shuttle to the top from where we saw the crater and walked an interpretive trail.

Lava Butte (image from wikipedia)

I was amazed by the size of the lava field surrounding the base.

Where to Refresh

After all this outdoor activity, especially in warmer months, your stomach can work up an appetite and throat get pretty dry. Over the years, I’ve eaten at many places in and around Bend but only a few stood out.

I’ve yet to find any place better for a great dinner than Diego’s Spirited Kitchen, located in Redmond about 15 miles north of Bend, a Mexican restaurant with a menu more interesting than a typical one. Despite that and I’ve had this three times already, Diego’s flat iron steak is hard to beat, topped with an incredible sauce reduction and blue cheese butter. It doesn’t sound very Mexican yet it’s one of their specialties. Forget the side of fries and opt for green rice.

The margaritas are potent, none made from a mix and all customizable from a long list of premium tequilas. Gratis tortilla chips are wonderfully light and crispy served with a very good, zippy salsa.

Voted by Yelpers as one of the top 100 places to eat in 2017 and 2018, Bangers & Brews serves an excellent hot dog with suds to gulp it down with. The sausage, one of a dozen to choose from, is grilled nicely with casings that make each bite snap. The way it works is you order sausage, two toppings and one sauce. There’s enough variety to satisfy everyone. One of their signature sides is Bacon Gorgonzola Fries that is a meal in itself, savory and rich, but even its small portion is more than two people should sensibly eat. Craft beers from several local breweries are available.

Bacon gorgonzola fries

Smoked polish, sauerkraut, relish and whole grain mustard

Hot smoked andouille, caramelized onions, sweet peppers and spicy mustard

Bakeries are always nice places to get freshly made bread and pastries but few have outstanding meals to start the day. The savory morning sandwiches at Sparrow Bakery are the stuff of legend. Its croque monsieur combines slices of brioche, ham and bechamel all topped with Gruyere.

The most popular seller is bacon breakfast sandwich, a messy but delicious creation of poached egg, bacon and arugula aioli in a toasted croissant.

Bend is a popular winter sports destination but it should be part of the summer’s exploration of outstanding geological sites.

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Getting Serious About Restaurant Dar Hatim’s Pastilla (Fes, Morocco)


“It’s jam.”

So said Fouad when I asked him if the reddish chile seed-laden paste was harissa. He chuckled. A little dab on my tongue told me it was ground up fresh chiles and preserved lemon, salty, intense, definitely spicy.

Later, as the pastilla was served, he pointed at the plate of powdered sugar.

“This is cocaine.”

Another big grin.

What’s with all the clowning around? He definitely had a refreshing sense of humor.

Fouad was confident that I would thank him when he picked my wife and me up from our riad to have dinner at his restaurant. He said it was a two-hour drive when it was only 15 minutes. We walked into Fes’ old medina near the tanneries (our noses told us) and up into a dark, narrow alley, which we’d never have found on our own. Once we walked through the front door, it was another world, a beautifully decorated dar and restaurant with linens and silverware.

Karima Bouaa’s pastilla (Restaurant Dar Hatim) was a tour de force, head and shoulders above the pastilla I had the day before, also in the medina.

Karima Bouaa’s pastilla

The filling for pastilla of shredded chicken, almonds, egg, cinnamon, sugar and herbs was moist, savory, just a touch sweet and the phyllo dough casing was shatteringly crispy and oil-free. Unlike most pastillas, ours were not dusted with sugar or cinnamon. But we did have ‘coke.’ If I ever have this dish again, it will be compared to hers.

“You’re a lucky man,” we beamed after we polished off every last morsel.

“No, no, she’s lucky to have me,” he chuckled only a few feet away from where she stood. “I make her laugh all the time.” Karima just smiled. Seriously.

Kona Kitchen: Ono Grinds in Seattle


Loco moco is not the first thing I’d normally order when breakfasting in Hawaii. Steamed white rice topped with a fried egg and brown gravy sound tasty enough, not so different in concept from an egg benedict really. It’s the ground beef patty that gives me pause, the potential always there for lean and rubbery meat like many a burger. Even the celebrated loco moco from Rainbow Drive-In (Honolulu) failed to impress. It’s not that I don’t like beef patties (I do); it’s just in combination with rice that doesn’t do it for me. Go figgah.

I had lunch at Kona Kitchen recently, which many consider the best Hawaiian restaurant in Seattle. On the menu was the classic loco moco. For lunch, there’s also katsu loco. Instead of ground beef, rice is topped with battered and fried chicken thighs. More than that, you have the option to substitute fried rice for white. Yowza! To me, this sounded much more appealing.

The serving size is hefty. The waiter hinted it would be a challenge to finish. Was he right. Crispy chicken katsu and an over-easy egg sat on a bed of Hawaiian-style fried rice. We’re talking an enormous quantity, an umami bomb of soy sauce-laced rice mixed with little cubes of Spam, barbecued pork and green onions. And that divine gravy! Though the rice is softer than I like, this dish alone should put Kona Kitchen on the culinary map. This couldn’t be better made on the islands.

Mochiko chicken is marinated and sweetened with sugar, batter and fried. Kona Kitchen’s is good, with hints of ginger, served with two scoops of white rice and a very good mac salad. A few nuggets were a bit dry.

Mochiko chicken

The menu also has saimin, that favorite of Hawaiian noodle soups. It also has wonton min that adds housemade wonton dumplings with the noodles, and includes a hard-cooked egg and barbecued pork. The noodles are cooked to the soft stage as Hawaiians like it.

Wonton min

On the menu are lots of Hawaiian faves, including pork lau laukalua pigHawaiian-style beef stew, Spam and Portuguese sausage as ingredients for a number of dishes, Hawaiian sweet bread. It will be tough for me to stay away from the katsu loco though. Fortunately, my daughter lives close by so sampling these other dishes is but a short drive away.

Kona Kitchen
8501 Fifth Ave NE
Seattle, WA
206-517-5662

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Eggslut, More Than a Fatuous Name


It’s pretty much a sure thing that where there is a line out a restaurant’s door, therein lies good food. The first two times I walked past Eggslut in L.A.’s Grand Central Market (GCM), the queue was astonishingly long. No other food establishment in the Market came close to being as popular. I’m not particularly keen to wait in long lines for food, so I just made a mental note, check this place out.

As a restaurant name, Eggslut is a touch bawdy, provoking curious stares and skeptical ears. It isn’t so unusual anymore when expletives litter social media and words like ass, bitch and bastard now appear in business names. Eggslut didn’t have its beginning in the Market but as a food truck, a genre crossover no longer rare. After the ‘crash’ of 2008, vacancies at GCM went up. When owner Alvin Cailan saw the empty space facing Broadway, he jumped at the chance to set up a brick-and-mortar, recognizing the similarity of the new venture to his food truck operation: serving eager customers while facing the street in a semi-enclosed space. It opened in 2013 and was an immediate hit.

I went back to GCM with my wife and sister-in-law on a weekday morning. We got there at opening (8am) when the Eggslut crowds don’t yet materialize like they do on weekends when 1,000 eggs typically get served.

The Slut is the eponymous menu item. Picture a mason jar filled with puréed potatoes and topped with an egg, which gets coddled when the jar is immersed in hot water. What’s recommended is that you stir the whole thing together, then scoop out with the accompanying buttered baguette toasts. Quite a unique preparation, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. The potatoes are nicely seasoned and buttered. The egg is barely cooked, white and yolk still jiggly, sprinkled with chives and sea salt. If you’re averse to barely cooked eggs, you likely will pass on this. For the rest of us, the Slut is a revelation, an inspired, luscious combination of simple ingredients.

The Slut partially stirred

Though the Slut is the signature dish, what might have become more popular since the transformation from food truck to Grand Central Market stand is the morning breakfast sandwich known as the Fairfax, presumably named after the street in L.A. where the truck used to ply its trade. It’s not the usual sausage, cheese and egg in an English muffin but a glorious mess of soft-scrambled eggs, cheddar, caramelized onions and chives billeted in a brioche bun. The sandwich gets zing from sriracha mayo. Optional (and extra cost) is bacon. Unless preference or dietary laws prevent it, add the bacon. The mess factor is high. After the first bite, breakfast starts to fall apart: bits of egg drop, a slurry of mayo and cooked onion liquid pools in the hand and dribbles down the arm, bacon pulls out. I saw suits with ties flipped over their shoulder. The sandwich wrap does its valiant best to stem the tide. Eyes closed, I shifted into an alternate reality that I was sad to leave when breakfast was over. Sublime.

The Fairfax

If you insist on more familiar grub, also on the menu are bacon or turkey sausage sandwiches with medium-fried egg and cheddar. There’s also a cheeseburger.

Angelinos no longer have a monopoly on such goodness. If you live in Las Vegas or NYC, there’s an Eggslut near you, too.

Eggslut
317 S. Broadway, Stall D-1
Los Angeles, CA 90013
213.625.0292

Wow, Vegan Ramen? You Betcha!


OG Ramen (image from ramenhoodla.com)

Any pretensions I had that a good vegetarian ramen could never be made was dashed recently. The revelation happened when my sister-in-law had me sample her OG Ramen from Ramen Hood, a completely vegan stall in Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market. Visually, it looks like a ‘typical’ ramen, broth like milky tonkotsu, slices of chashu floating on top, a square of nori poking up along bowl’s edge, a pinch of chile threads sprinkled on top. It lacked for nothing in presentation. Yet, as I was ready to taste the broth, I had serious doubts that it would be remotely interesting. So imagine how stunned I was, not that it was anything like meat-based ramen broth but that it was in and of itself so savory, complex and substantial.

How in the world did the chefs pull this off? This from their website:

Our broth is made by simmering kelp and shiitake mushrooms to extract their maximum umami. Then we roast sunflower seeds with white miso and combine that mixture with the kelp/mushroom stock. Then it is all pressure cooked to release the natural oils and starches from the seeds. What’s left is a rich, creamy, broth that rivals it’s non-vegan counterparts flavor and texture.

Never underestimate the genius of creative chefs. The ramen tastes genuine. Recent converts to vegetarianism might be moved to tears, genuflect at the feet of its creators. I still prefer tonkotsu or miso ramen, more because slices of king oyster mushrooms would never replace slices of tender chashu, and vegan ‘eggs,’ though they’re ingeniously made at Ramen Hood (including yolk that oozes), can’t substitute for perfectly made ajitsuke tamago. But, as a change of pace or to take a break from animal products, I wouldn’t hesitate to devour a bowl of OG ramen. A wondrous achievement.

Ramen Hood
(Grand Central Market, Stall C2)
317 S. Broadway Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013

Antica Forma: Neapolitan Magic in Vernal (Utah)


What do dinosaurs, pizza and Israel have it common?

Trick question. The city of Vernal is close to Dinosaur National Monument, located in the little visited corner of northeastern Utah, the state with the most bang for the National Park Service buck. The monument has 1,500 dinosaur bone fossils on display in situ, making it a destination for paleontologists and tourists. Vernal also attracted the talents of chef Israel Hernandez, who learned the art of Neapolitan pizza-making in New York City under the tutelage of masters Don Antonio Starita, a third-generation pizzaiolo from Naples, and Roberto Caporuscio (Keste Pizza & Vino). In 2015, Hernandez even won third place in the USA Caputo Cup, the pizza world’s annual cook-off. Somehow, he was lured out of NYC to open Antica Forma (with a business partner Jody), a Neapolitan pizzeria in Vernal (population 10,000).

To have such a place in town, let alone a few blocks from the motel, was totally unexpected for me and my wife. A quick look at TripAdvisor and Yelp made me aware of it.

We started off with an arugula salad mixed with house-grown grape tomatoes, micro-planed Parmesan and a balsamic vinaigrette glaze. Excellent.

Fresca salad

The pistacchio pizza impressed us with its masterful crust, thin, chewy, crispy on the outside, nicely blistered in spots. This is a hallmark of an excellent dough, likely “00” flour, and mastery over a blisteringly hot pizza oven. The pistachio pesto was a sleight of hand; it was hard to tell the ground nuts from the finely ground Italian sausage. A cream sauce with house-made mozzarella cheese, basil and EVOO completed the delicious surprise (top image).

We were ready to pay the bill when the waitress mentioned that one of the dessert specials was peach pie. Fond memories of Marie Callendar danced in our heads. What arrived was a fresh peach pie with the lightest, barely sweet glaze, topped with whipped cream. And, oh, that crust—so incredibly light. The desserts, it turns out, is made by Jody, the business partner. He also makes gelati. The waitress encouraged us to try the banana cream pie the next time we come back. Come back? Now, that’s a thought.

Fresh peach pie

Our return. How could we not enjoy one last meal here? For the second night in a row, we ate at Antica Forma.

Salad: the Primavera—baby mixed greens, candied pecans, sliced Granny Smith apples, shredded Havarti, roasted tomato vinaigrette. Very good.

Primavera salad

Pizza: the Funghi—tomato sauce, house-made mozzarella, minced mushrooms, basil, EVOO. The same superb crust, a fresh tomato sauce. Excellent.

Funghi pizza

Our waitress last night informed us that Antica Forma will be opening a branch in Moab (in February 2018). Edward Abbey fans, rejoice.

Antica Forma Pizzeria
251 E Main St
Vernal, UT 84078
435.374.4138

Northern Chinese Treats at Beijing Restaurant (San Gabriel, CA)


Exasperation sometimes ends up for the better. Along the San Gabriel Valley Asian food mecca of Valley Boulevard, I was looking for a restaurant (whose name I couldn’t recall) where several of us had wonderful noodle soups many years ago. (At my age, my memory plays tricks; Kam Hong Garden is in fact in Monterey Park on Garvey Avenue, less than a mile away.) After searching along most of ‘The Magic Mile,’  I turned into a mini-mall I recognized and came to an agreement with my wife and sister-in-law that we’d eat somewhere here regardless. Kam Hong wasn’t there of course, but Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village was, and so was Beijing Restaurant, both on the second floor. Our less than impressive visit to the former two years ago made the decision for us.

Beijing Restaurant was packed for lunch, a good sign. The impressive menu is more like a slick catalog than something to order from. This was no ordinary menu. The restaurant serves what is regarded as authentic Beijing-style food where wheat, lamb, pork, offal and river fish rule. Boiled yellow croaker, braised intestines in brown sauce, ‘sizzling squid head,’ spicy kidney, ‘wandering liver tips,’ lamb spine hot pot and fried lamb bones appear alongside chicken hot pot, kung pao chicken, moo shu pork and sweet-and-sour pork ribs. Fish here tends to get served whole. Beijing duck is on the menu.

Beijing Restaurant

Our inability to read Chinese limited us pretty much, so the English ‘translations’ had to suffice. I often wonder how much more non-Chinese-reading customers would order from better descriptions.

Sauteed Green String Beans was impressive, both in size and appearance. The seared beans reminded me of blistered shishito peppers. These would’ve been perfect if the beans retained crispiness, but they were a little mealy. Still, the sauce of sliced garlic and savory ingredients raised the dish above the ordinary. Even with dried red chiles, the beans were only a touch spicy.

Sauteed Green String Beans

Sauteed Green Beans

It wasn’t advertised as a clay hot pot dish, but Stewed Pork with Rice Noodles and Napa was served in such a vessel, the meat a combination of pork belly and a less fatty cut. The whole wonderful thing was glistening with sauce and fat, the bottom layered with glass noodles (not rice noodles) that soaked up flavors of oyster sauce, soy sauce, ginger and star anise, that are next to impossible to serve with just the accompanying spoon without slithering back into the casserole. The sauce begged to be lapped over rice.

Stewed Pork with Rice Noodle and Napa

Stewed Pork with Rice Noodles and Napa

The best preparation, a remarkable creation simply ‘translated’ as Eggplant Cakes in Garlic Sauce (pictured at the top), is a layered surprise of Chinese eggplant, shrimp and minced meat or sausage, bound together in the lightest batter and bathed in a most subtle sweet-and-sour sauce.

On getting seated, I walked by other diners who were having eye-popping things I’d never seen before, making me regret not knowing what they are on the menu. The service tends to be pokey. This time, I’ll burn into my memory where the restaurant is located for I definitely plan to be back.

Beijing Restaurant
250 W. Valley Boulevard
San Gabriel, CA 91776
206.570.8598