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.

Hope Springs Eternal


Spring is my favorite season. Winter chill gives way to a time of regrowth, awakening, rejuvenation and hope. Naturally, this is the time I like to visit local gardens.

Seattle has a little treasure, not nearly as well known (if at all) as University of Washington’s Arboretum, Kubota Garden or the Bellevue Botanical Garden. At the northern end of South Seattle College is its own arboretum, entirely designed, built and maintained by students. Within its six acres, surprises are at every turn. I saw signs of spring all around: azaleas and rhododendrons, flowering ground cover, bulb plants, new growth on evergreens, fully leafed Japanese maples. Admission is free. Spring is here at last!

Japanese maples

Rhododendrons, heather

Light and shadow (woodruff)

Crossing the border

New buds (fir)

Columbine

Pine pollen cones

South Seattle College Arboretum
6000 16th Ave SW
Seattle, WA 98106

Great Blue Heron


This is as close as I’ve ever gotten to a great blue heron. I also had a little help from a telephoto lens.  The snapshot was taken at the estuarine reserve called the Skagit Wildlife Area north of Seattle where on luckier days I might’ve seen thousands of snow geese resting or flying overhead.

What’s in a Tulip?


Washington’s Skagit Valley has some of the world’s great tulip fields. In April, hordes of visitors descend on Mount Vernon to take in the brilliant displays, a spectacle well worth the hour and a half’s drive north from Seattle. Admirers take plenty of pictures because the swaths of color never cease to amaze. The tendency is to take snapshots and move along.

But take a look inside the tulip. When the sun strikes the petals, the interior glows to reveal the most beautiful colors and patterns, another of Mother Nature’s wonders.

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COA, Great Mexican Dining in the Skagit Valley


Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

The Bard came to mind because the broth bubbled non-stop in a fiercely hot molcajete, like a fire underneath that didn’t extinguish until dinner was almost done. This wasn’t a witches’ brew but a tasty stew of grilled chicken, carne asada, shrimp, nopal, tomatoes, pico de gallo, pickled red onions and queso asadero (top image). The molcajete (the dish has assumed the name of the basalt vessel it’s served in) was sublime, the best I’ve eaten outside Orick (California). If there’s anything that’s a problem with superheated vessels, it’s that the proteins continue to cook and become tough. Even so, this molcajete was glorious, a riot of color, flavor and texture, but was more than two of us could finish.

It was clear that COA Mexican Eatery and Tequileria aspires to be more than the run-of-the-mill Mexican restaurant. The revelation started with lunch where pollo en molé was so good that we returned later for dinner to assess the molcajete. Always on the lookout for great molé, COA rewarded me with a sumptuous version spooned over chicken breast slices, though I would’ve preferred a more succulent leg. A combination of many ingredients, molé, if not Mexico’s most famous sauce, is surely the most complicated, typically consisting of fifteen or so ingredients, including dried chiles, spices, nuts, seeds, dried fruits and sometimes chocolate. COA’s has over 30, evidence that the restaurant has serious aspirations. North of the border, making molé from scratch is rare, a great one even more so. Chocolate-based molé doesn’t appeal to everyone (my immediate family included) because chocolate and fruit components seem more appropriate for dessert, but done right it rivals the world’s best sauces. What passes for molé at most restaurants is, in fact, too sweet, one-dimensional. It likely comes out of a jar. Beneath the understated sweetness and bitterness, COA’s had a savory foundation from rich stock, and complexity that defied description.

Pollo en molé

COA’s side dishes show nice touches, too. Instead of refried beans, whole dried pintos are stewed to perfect creaminess on the inside and accented with queso fresco. A mango pico de gallo tops a side of salad.

Then, there are the salsas. A flavorful mild one comes with freshly made tortilla chips (gratis), which are thicker than usual and served in a small bucket (refillable) rather than basket. If heat is more to your liking, be sure to ask for the spicier salsas. One is a creamy avocado salsa verde, the other made with nothing but ground dried red chiles and oil, both addictive and plenty hot.

Avocado salsa verde and red chile salsas

Billing itself as a tequileria is an indication that COA promotes serious tasting of Mexico’s national spirit. The lineup of blancos, añejos and reposados can be tasted neat, as flights or in cocktails. Mezcal makes an appearance, too. While enormous, their cadillac margarita was too sweet for my taste, the only letdown in an otherwise great dining experience.

Catching the end of a late tulip season in the Skagit Valley was the occasion for finding COA in La Conner. (There’s also one in nearby Mount Vernon.) Restaurants like this make me glad that dedication to quality is alive and well in small towns.

COA Mexican Eatery and Tequileria
214 Maple Avenue
La Conner, WA 98257
(360) 466-0267

COA Mexican Eatery and Tequileria
102 S. 10th St
Mount Vernon, WA 98274
(360) 840-1938

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

Beast or Alien?


My 9-year-old grandson loves reptiles. He’s fascinated so much he takes pictures of all of them at the Los Angeles Zoo, every single time he visits, to the exasperation of his younger sister. It’s no surprise then that he wanted to go through the reptile (and amphibian) exhibit when my wife and I took both our grandkids to the San Diego Zoo recently. I find frogs more interesting if for no other reason than their extraterrestrial appearance. I saw this pair that look straight out of a sci-fi movie. I failed to note what they were called.

Update: the San Diego Zoo was kind enough to answer by email inquiry. This frog is commonly known as White’s Tree Frog, otherwise known as Litoria caerulea.