Zut! est Bien

We had hoped to pass through Berkeley at around noontime or so for a quick snack. Visions of a legendary dessert at Bette’s To Go—the chocolate espresso twinkie—played with my mind. This Hostess namesake, a dense chocolate cake filled with espresso cream and enrobed in chocolate icing, landed in the Sterns’ 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late and was featured on NPR. As it turned out however, our arrival in Berkeley was closer to late afternoon. So we modified our plans. We’d have dinner at Bette’s Oceanview Diner (also greatly admired) next door and have the twinkie for dessert. I should’ve done my homework because the restaurant closes at 2:30 every weekday and BTG at 5pm. We barely got through BTG’s door before closing to order a twinkie to-go. What for dinner? The saleslady recommended Zut! across the street.

​Zut! (which literally means “Damn it!” in French) serves food inspired by the Mediterranean. We were too early for dinner which would have begun at 5:30pm, but the restaurant was still serving its afternoon (small plates) menu. Good enough. 

The Fried Brussels Sprouts (☆☆☆☆) were outstanding, clearly a signature dish, cooked to a perfect texture, nicely browned and accompanied with bacon bits and shredded Parm. A lemon half was thoughtfully wrapped in a mesh cloth jacket. The juice added the tartness that always seems to complement Brussels sprouts.

Zut!'s fried brussels sprouts

Zut!’s fried brussels sprouts

I’m usually tempted by hamburgers made with grass-fed beef. The Zut! Burger (☆☆☆) was a very good version with a slice of white cheddar cheese between a ciabatta roll. The fries were exceptionally good, almost upstaging the burger itself.

Zut! Burger

Zut! Burger

So, what about the twinkie? It (☆☆) has no resemblance to the Hostess dessert except for an oblong shape. Its chocolate and coffee flavorings are a virtual can’t-miss combination. Was it? Maybe if we had gotten this treat first thing in the morning, but the cake was dry, almost as if it were a day old. If that were indeed the case, then shame on Bette’s. We were not impressed.

Bette's chocolate espresso twinkie

Bette’s chocolate espresso twinkie

Spectacular Elk

The small town of Elk, CA, population of just over 200, can boast that it has one of the most spectacular collection of sea stacks offshore. To the north on California Highway 1, there is a turnout high above the ocean that offers as dramatic a coastal view as you’ll ever see anywhere. Some of the massive sea stacks can be seen much closer from Elk Cove, which can be reached by a short trail from a parking area in the middle of town. The tide was relatively low so we could approach and enter some of the sea caves in the headland at the cove’s southern end.

In the parking area, we talked to a group of about a half dozen bicyclists who were in the middle of an epic journey that started in Reno and will end up in San Francisco.

View from the top of the trail to Elk Cove

View from the top of the trail to Elk Cove

Sea stacks in Elk Cove

Sea stacks in Elk Cove

Sea caves can be entered at low tide

Sea caves can be entered at low tide

Pygmies among Giants

In the middle of the vast redwood empire where the tallest living things on Earth live, a small section of Van Damme State Park just south of Mendocino features a pygmy forest. The trees are so small that their trunks can be only 1/4″ in diameter yet be almost a hundred years old. The forest is protected by the state of California. With soils no more recent than half to one million years old overlaying them, they have been leached of nutrients by rains ever since, creating an almost inhospitably acidic and hardpan environment that stunts the growth of two species of pine and the Mendocino cypress, causing some to use bonsai forest as a moniker. Other plants, including acid-loving California Rose Bay rhododendrons, normally achieving great heights in the redwood forest understory nearby, are also dwarfed.

An interpretive trail of boardwalk loops through the forest that can be reached either from the campground by trail or from a parking lot on the eastern edge of Van Damme.

Dwarf Mendocino cypress is only 3 feet in height though many years old

Dwarf Mendocino cypress is only 3 feet in height though many years old

Forest to Sea—Brookings to Mendocino

We had hoped to time our arrival to Brookings when the Easter lily fields would be in bloom. At least, that was what we were expecting after reading about the farms. Left to their own devices, they would naturally bloom in July. You’re probably wondering like I did, isn’t Easter-time their time to flower? It turns out that there is a labor-intensive science to forcing them to produce on Easter, which occurs annually on different dates. The bottom line is that we (or anyone else) wouldn’t ever see fields covered in white. Brookings and Harbor (across the Chetco River) grow 90 percent of the Easter lily crop in the U.S., the result of perfect conditions for bulb growing. We drove along Oceanside Drive where the farms are located. Eventually, we noticed the characteristic silver green foliage planted in neat rows. On closer look, there were the multiple leaves growing from each stalk.

Easter lily farm in Harbor, OR

Easter lily farm in Harbor, OR

Redwood trees were already in abundance here in southwestern Oregon. It was a short drive to the California state line.

Our next hope was that we would see the California Rose Bay Rhododendrons in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park that were flowering relatively abundantly when we drove through here on June 10, 2009. There was nothing. Instead, the roadside was flush with lilies of a different kind—tiger lilies.

Tiger lilies in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park

Tiger lilies in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park

Damnation Creek Trail is the best in Del Norte, one that leads all the way to the Pacific Ocean if you want to negotiate the final very steep, strenuous, exposed root portion to the coast (we didn’t). Short of that, the trail still goes past old growth forest, some of them showing evidence of severe burn from lightning strikes. On the trail, we came across members of a photography workshop led by Issaquah photographer Darrell Gulin. It always seems a coincidence that people you sometimes meet along the way are from your own neck of the woods.

Old growth redwood, Damnation Creek Trail, Del Norte State Park

Old growth redwood, Damnation Creek Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park

For lunch, we stopped in Arcata at Hole in the Wall (590 G St, 707.822.7407), a sandwich shop in a little shack on a parking lot that is very popular among the locals. There was no seating inside, but there were a few tables and bench chairs outside. We enjoyed a muffaletta (☆☆☆), the special of the day, filled with Genoa and Italian salames, prosciutto, Provolone and Mozzarella cheeses, olive spread and roasted red bell pepper, simply dressed with oil and red vinegar, salt and pepper. All of HITW’s sandwiches are enormous, so splitting one was essential, all washed down with an intriguing tangerine wheet beer (☆☆☆), made by Lost Coast Brewery in nearby Eureka.

Tangerine beer


After this morning’s inland drive through California, we headed back to the coast on a winding, tortuous road, starting where California Highway 1 begins in the north at Leggett on US 101. A mere twenty miles took over an hour, despite what my GPS estimated (it assumed an incredulous 55mph on this stretch!). Memo to self: avoid this road next time. The change in scenery was dramatic from the thickly forested redwood empire to the beautiful coastal waters of northern California, with its own sea stacks to rival Oregon’s and treed with cypress and eucalyptus.

We arrived at our destination, Mendocino, in the late afternoon.

Brookings to Mendocino

Brookings to Mendocino (Google Maps)

Osechi-Shopping at Marukai (West Covina, CA)

Every year, our family celebrates the New Year by preparing osechi-ryori, the traditional holiday food served in Japan and continued here in America by Japanese immigrants. My mother used to spend two whole days before the new year to make all the goodies, as did my wife’s family. There are certain dishes that have come to characterize osechi over the years. Being third generation Japanese-Americans, we no longer make some either because of their effort to make or because we’ve long since lost an appetite for them. Still, we are trying to make a few that we remember eating when we were much younger, thanks to cookbooks and the internet, a sort of mini-revival, you might say. Then, there are other dishes that are not traditional at all, crossovers as a consequence of living in a cultural melting pot, that sort of mirror our own contemporary family that extends beyond our Japanese roots. Foods like teriyaki chicken, char siu, Chinese salad, wontons and tamales are more of a reflection of where we grew up than where we came from.
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Lunch at Ton-Chan (San Gabriel, CA)—CLOSED

After taking care of some personal business, we stopped at Golden Deli to have pho. As usual, the place was packed and there was a waiting list (15-20 minutes, the lady said). Then, we noticed right next door a Japanese restaurant, called Ton-Chan, that specializes in Tokyo tonkotsu ramen. So rather than wait, we decided to give this place a shot. We’re glad we did because the ramen was excellent. The tonkotsu broth was really good, very milky and porky. There are only three variations: shio, shoyu and miso, though this is not traditional. Plus, you can dictate the heat level, anywhere from no spiciness to a whopping 6 (more on this later), another departure from convention, probably to appeal to chili heads more than anything. All of us ordered the miso. They all come with toasted nori, green onions, a half a boiled egg, and meltingly tender (and fatty) chasiu.

According to the waiter, the tonkotsu is made fresh every day, using a whole pig. Regarding the quality of the broth, I’d rank it pretty high. Like I said, it had the requisite milkiness and porkiness of flavor that you associated with the best ones, though not so extreme that it could be off-putting to some. You can choose two additional toppings for free. The egg was perfectly cooked: the whites were firm and the yolk just past runny, slightly hardened from the hot broth. The chasiu evidently was sliced from the sacrificial pig. And the ramen noodles had good texture.

Sapporo miso ramen

Sapporo miso ramen (with optional corn and baby bok choy)

Regarding the heat levels, the range is from 0 to 6, with 6 being classified as “my eyes are tearing.” If you can put away a double order of 6-level ramen, it’s yours free, a challenge that, if you succeed, will get your picture posted on the wall board. There were only a handful of pictures. Like I said, this adding of chile paste is not traditional. I suffered through the “4” that I ordered, sweating bullets and burning my tongue. Be forewarned that as you increase the heat level of ramen, your tongue increasingly loses its ability to discern subtle flavors.

Complimentary at meal’s end is a delicious dessert called an-nin, silken tofu topped with lychee syrup.

The restaurant opened in December of last year, so word hasn’t spread very much yet. It won’t take long.

So this strip mall has Ton-chan, Golden Deli, and Southern Mini Town. If Newport Seafood had stayed here (they moved down the street on Las Tunas), it could arguably be the best food haven in the San Gabriel valley.

Ton-chan (** CLOSED **)
821 W Las Tunas Dr
San Gabriel, CA 91776

Slaw Dog (Pasadena, CA)

The O.G. Thai Slaw Dog

The O.G. Thai Slaw Dog put Slaw Dog, a hot dog restaurant located in Pasadena, on the food scene in So Cal. The Food Network chimed in with a segment. The menu strikes you with this: choices, choices, choices. Not only is the standard list extensive, but you can even create your own from a staggering list of not only wieners, sauces and veggie toppings, but also other kinds of meat, cheeses, even kimchi.

The Thai dog consists of a split chicken sausage topped with a satay dressing, peanuts, sriracha aioli and a slaw (cabbage, carrots and cilantro). Pricey as it is at $6.59, it isn’t the most expensive. That honor goes to the TNT Super Dog (from their menu: “12-inch rippered dog, chili, cheese, bacon, pastrami, fries, grilled onion, wrapped in giant tortilla, fried egg upon request”) at $8.88. The Thai dog arrived so smothered with toppings that I had to eat it with a fork and knife. For such a resplendent creation, it wasn’t possible to judge it as a hot dog where the flavor of the wiener should be predominant, with condiments that support, not compete. I barely tasted the sausage.

Are we genuflecting before the gods of excess? When is too much, too much?

My advice? If you come here, keep it simple. Give me a Costco hot dog any day, with deli mustard, a small squeeze of relish, and minced onions. Plus I’d save $5.

Slaw Dog
720 North Lake Ave. #8
Pasadena, CA 91104
Also locations in Woodland Hills and Duarte

Lunch at Chang’s Garden (Arcadia, CA)

Chang’s Garden is a popular Chinese restaurant in Arcadia, enough so that you could wind up waiting to get seated. We got there early enough that we got seated right away. Within a half hour, the place was packed and customers waiting outside.
A small dish of boiled peanuts was given to every table. Interesting but not relishing, soft in texture (like legumes). The Dong Po (Tung Po on the menu) pork was everything that it was touted to be. The pork belly is about 7 inches square. The waitress cut it into 9 pieces. The pork fat literally melts in your mouth, and the tasty and tender meaty portion shreds nicely. If you have an aversion to melted fat infusing your whole mouth, then you’d probably not appreciate this dish. But friends and I enjoyed it immensely.

Dong po pork

Eggplant in Hot Garlic Sauce was a very good dish, vinegary, spicy, slightly sweet and lusciously silky. Some yelpers complained that this dish was too sweet, but I thought it was in perfect balance, definitely not cloyingly sweet.

Eggplant in hot garlic sauce

The Green Beans with Ground Pork was an adequate version, the beans cooked perfectly.

Green beans with ground pork

Finally, the Seaweed Fried Fish was extraordinary, the batter, laced with thin ribbons of seaweed, delicate and crispy, and the fish very fresh.

Seaweed fried fish

This restaurant deserves a return visit to try other dishes.

Chang’s Garden
627 West Duarte Road
Arcadia, CA 91007

Lunch at Daikokuya (Los Angeles, CA)

We could have eaten at Daikokuya in Little Tokyo on our last trip to Southern California, but the line outside was too long. Since we weren’t in any hurry today, we put our name on the list and waited over an hour to get seated. There are branches throughout the southland. Ramen addicts seem to love it. Food critic Jonathan Gold also chimed in with his praises.

Their ramen is truly special. The broth was wonderfully rich and the noodles had a nice chew that together make the Daikoku ramen a contender for best ramen anywhere. Some of us ordered the regular ramen; a kotteri version is available that will appeal to aficionados of extra porky and fatty broth.

Regular ramen

I noticed a paper menu on the walls that advertised the kichimen ramen, which is basically the regular ramen broth with added spiciness and tartness. This, I ordered. In addition, the noodles and condiments are served on the side, which means that you can choose to dip the noodles in the broth instead of combining it. I’m not a dipper (the dipper vs. soaker preference battle rages in our family when eating soba), so I dumped everything into the broth. Herein lies the problem because by doing this, the ramen gets cooled down considerably. While the broth is really delicious, I’d prefer my ramen piping hot. Halved barely hard-cooked eggs, whose slightly darkened egg whites hint at a soy sauce bath, tons of minced green onions, bean sprouts, sliced, almost slivered kurobuta and sour bamboo shoots complete the condiment ingredients. (The regular ramen has everything mixed together and the pork is sliced in larger pieces.)

Kichimen ramen

I noticed several people eating what looked like sausages, so when we left, I looked at their menu (posted outside) and saw “sausages” listed under appetizers. These too are made with kurobuta. I might have to try these the next time.

327 E 1st Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Western Azalea

One of the glorious native shrubs that grows along the coasts of California and Oregon is the western azalea. It is really not an azalea, but rather a rhododendron, a deciduous one at that. When in bloom, the shrub is very prolific. Since it was late spring, our road trip coincided with its peak blossoming period. We didn’t plan to seek it out, but as we pulled into Prairie Creek State Park, we noticed a number of them just outside the visitors’ center. As we approached, we caught their characteristic heady perfume well before we got a closer look at the flowers. It was an unexpected treat.

Azalea shrub outside the park visitors’ center