Twisted Fir


The Cascade Lake Loop on Orcas Island in Washington is a pleasant way to explore part of Moran State Park. Its most interesting feature is a twisted Douglas fir that seems out of place. The other evergreens all around it are straight and tall, making you wonder what traumas it withstood during its lifetime. Its shape mimics old junipers I saw in the Southwest.

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Golden Deli Holds Court in San Gabriel Valley


Jonathan Gold knows a thing or two about Southern California food. (He no longer is with us, though his legacy and influence remain.) The Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer once named Golden Deli one of L.A. area’s 99 essential restaurants. 

Located in a strip mall in the food mecca of San Gabriel Valley (SGV), doing business since 1981, it routinely draws legions of ardent customers who are willing to wait for a half hour or more to get seated. I’ve eaten here several times when visiting relatives nearby. 

Though the menu is substantial (intimidating actually), Golden Deli is popular for its pho. The broth is well-balanced and soup noodly, by which I mean that Golden Deli is very generous with the rice noodles. If the soup isn’t eaten fast enough, the pasta will soften and swell to fill up the bowl. A solid pho. 

On warmer days especially, bun calls out to me, a salad of cold rice noodles, plenty of lettuce and bean sprouts, herbs, nuoc cham dressing and choice of topping. GD makes one of the better bun thit nuong (charbroiled pork). Instead of more common do chua, pickled scallions provide the familiar vinegary-sweet accent. And praise to the kitchen for scattering fried shallots on top. I can’t have enough of the stuff. 

Bo kho (beef stew) is another Vietnamese specialty, similar to French pot au feu but with Vietnamese flavors, served with either banh mi bread on the side or ladled on rice noodles, take your pick. Five-spice, tomatoes, curry powder and lemongrass are the usual broth ingredients. The broth made at Golden Deli is intensely reddish-orange in color, likely from annatto, and thinner than some but complex and delicious. The beef is meltingly tender, accompanied on a recent visit by a single carrot. More would’ve been nice. 

Customers sing praises of their cha gio, otherwise simply referred to as egg rolls. It’s a superlative version, savory and bigger than most versions, an umami bomb of ground pork and woodear mushrooms. These are not delicate, bite-sized pieces either, but bigger than cigars. Oily on the surface, their fried rice paper skins are shatteringly crispy if not aesthetically pleasing. Fresh lettuce and herbs come on the side: mint, cilantro, perilla leaves, bean sprouts, sliced cucumbers. Eaten by itself or wrapped in lettuce with herbs and dipped in nuoc cham, Golden Deli’s cha gio is impressive. 

Cha gio (image on Yelp by Jeff T.)

The general consensus is that Banh Mi My Tho rules in the 626 area code for their namesake sandwiches. Lost in its encyclopedic menu is Golden Deli’s own that if for no other reason than its perfect bread surely should be regarded as royalty in this highly competitive market. It’s the kind of bread that’s supple on the inside and so crackly on the outside that shards rain down on the table and clothes with every bite.

Pork banh mi

While one can argue that this place or that in SGV serves a better such-and-such, for sheer variety and quality, Golden Deli continues to hold court.

Golden Deli
815 W Las Tunas Dr
San Gabriel, CA 91776
626.308.0803

Shanghai Cafe Continues to Surprise—Beef with Black Bean Sauce


Shanghai Cafe remains my go-to Chinese restaurant even as new ones open in the Seattle area. My wife and I tend to order the same things every time, menu items that have stood the test of time over the 20 years we’ve been customers. (You can read about our favorites here.) Years ago, one of the long-time waitresses kidded us on our (almost) unwavering selections. 

Last night for dinner, as the year’s first snow started to fall, we decided to give a new dish a go. 

I want to enthuse about their Beef with Black Bean Sauce. After the first bite, it was obvious that this would join our other favorites, a dish so savory and funky from fermented black bean sauce that all my wife and I could say was ‘Mmm.’ Many Chinese restaurants seem stingy with this condiment as if to insinuate its flavor. Douchi should be the star, not a shrinking violet. Dishes using it should be emphatic like chicken with black bean sauce at Yea’s Wok, refinement be damned. For the same reason, I downgrade restaurants that use pesto to color its pasta green rather than generously sauce to highlight basil’s herbal and pungent qualities. There were enough mushrooms to compete with beef slices in volume, maybe a cost-cutting measure. Yet they were perfectly cooked without being spongy while adding their own earthy flavor. Basil leaves lent nice anise notes and color. Despite the sauce verging on being too salty, tempered when spooned on steamed white rice, I’ve found another gem at Shanghai. 

I’ve said before that Shanghai Cafe is unsung and under-appreciated. For good reason, it’s lasted decades at the same location in the Factoria commercial area of Bellevue. For sure my wife and I try new Chinese restaurants but seem always to return here because it’s comfort food. Likewise to my daughter and her husband who crave Shanghai’s vegetarian options whenever they’re in town. 

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Parting Shots at Portland’s Japanese Garden


My wife and I have never driven I-5 through the Northwest in October. This year we did, en route to Southern California. The autumn leaves were gorgeous all along the interstate, mostly yellow with occasional spots of orange and red. They helped break up the monotony of having gone this route many times before.

Randolph E. Collier rest area (California), Interstate 5, just south of the Oregon state line

When I was in Southern California it dawned on me that we’d be passing through Portland later in the month on the way home. I tried to keep a close tab on the fall colors as they were developing in the Japanese Garden.

Trying to find out the current status of the maples wasn’t easy. The website japanesegarden.org didn’t do frequent enough updates to be helpful. So fortune would have to shine on us and it wouldn’t be too late by the time we got to Rose City. As it turned out this year, for best color, the third week was probably best. Yet when we arrived the following week, fortunately there was plenty to admire, in particular the stunning lace leaf maple whose glory I was able to capture on camera. Here is a view from a slightly different angle.

Portland’s Japanese garden is recognized as being the finest outside Japan. I’ve seen it grow and mature over the years, infrequent though my visits have been, and become the breathtaking ambassador it is today. My last time here was in early October 2013, a bit early for best fall color. So it was with great anticipation and fingers crossed that my wife and I arrived on Sunday (October 28). Because it was two hours before closing, we had to keep up a faster pace than we wanted, but we were still rewarded with splendor. The forecasts for thundershowers didn’t materialize; there was only an occasional sprinkle.

After leaving, we headed straight to Ataula, one of our favorite restaurants in Portland. Not wishing to get stuck in Portland’s awful rush hour traffic on Monday morning, we got a room for the night in Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River.

Portland Beauty


If there is one outstanding beauty in Portland, Oregon, my vote goes to this laceleaf maple that shines the brightest in late fall at the Japanese Garden. I was fortunate to see it in its full glory when I passed through the city last Sunday on my way home to Seattle. Five years ago, I visited too early in October to enjoy the best color.

The Majesties of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks


The park ranger held it up between her thumb and forefinger. It was a mere two inches long.

“This is a sequoia cone.”

Sequoia cone on forest floor

Behind us was a colossus, the General Grant sequoia, the second largest in the world and located in Kings Canyon National Park, standing at a prodigious 268 feet in height. That a seed from a cone can produce one of these giants is one of nature’s wonders. 

General Grant tree, Kings Canyon National Park

The word majestic doesn’t enter into my vocabulary often. I seem to use it when I travel because of amazing things I see. It’s even more rare for me to apply it to a living thing. The giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is one of them, a tree so massive and tall that on first sight you’re likely to be left speechless, in awe. Today, they are endemic only to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas in California.

The ranger continued to describe additional interesting facts about the tree as well as its historical and political importance. The sequoia isn’t the tallest tree. That distinction belongs to its cousin, the coastal redwood (S. sempervirens), though the sequoia’s height is no slouch, mature specimens reaching 250ft or more. But by the sheer volume of its height and massive, slowly tapering trunk bottom-to-top that can reach 20 feet in diameter, it is earth’s biggest tree. When looking straight up from the base, I was unable to appreciate its relative size.

However, on the Giant Forest Loop, I got to see just how big it is in relation to us mere humans.

There’s another impressive attribute. At Sequoia National Park’s General Sherman Tree, I pondered its extreme age, estimated to be 2,100 years old, earth’s largest living organism. At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it would’ve been 1,850 years old. When it was just a sapling, Caesar would’ve uttered his mortified words to Brutus. These trees are some of the oldest living things on earth. There’s no telling how long they can exist if left unmolested. Some are estimated to be over 3,000 years old. (BTW, if that age astonishes you, the oldest living bristlecone pine, also found in California as well as Utah and Nevada, is estimated to be more than 5,000 years old, making it more ancient than The Great Pyramid of Giza.)

Here’s a curious fact. The longer a sequoia lives, the better it’s able to defend itself against intruders. Tannins will foil bugs and fungi and the thick bark and resin-free sapwood will hinder fires. Lightning can scorch the tree, blackening the exterior and core, but the sequoia remarkably heals itself. I should be so tough in my golden years.

Sequoia is resistant to fire and insects

For all its hardiness, the sequoia is defenseless against humans. Some very large specimens were cut down in the latter half of the nineteenth century. What it took for a tree to grow in excess of a thousand years was undone in three weeks by two-man saw and axe. Even in the age of Manifest Destiny, people were outraged that trees much older than Methuselah were destroyed. Many stumps can still be seen along the Big Stump Trail in Kings Canyon.

USNPS ranger hat (image from askaranger.blogspot.com)

The fight to save the sequoia was so seminal to the conservation movement and establishment of our national park system that the ranger I mentioned above informed us the sequoia cone symbol appears on every Park Service ranger’s hat band. I will be sure to look for it when I visit the next national park.

 

Fall Colors of Sequoia National Park


To say that I was privileged to see fall colors at Sequoia National Park is an understatement. This gift was totally unexpected. The plan was simply to experience the giant sequoias. While the ancient trees lived up to expectation, it was a bonus that the dogwoods, maples, aspens, cottonwoods, oaks and willows were changing color to give the forest understory a radiance, a shimmering glow of yellows, oranges and reds. Serendipity doesn’t strike often.