The Other Bay Area

June 30, 2011

They call it the Bay Area, and it’s on the west coast. A large metro area with Spanish roots, spanned by numerous bridges and causeways, known for its relaxed lifestyle and superior seafood. Are we on the same page of the atlas yet? The answer to today’s geo-quiz is Tampa Bay, on the west coast of Florida.

When I tell my California friends about my Florida vacation, they screw their foreheads into puzzled furrows and ask why? Why go THERE? If the East Coast is a mysterious foreign land to most Californians, Florida is the equivalent of Darkest Nowhere, where friendly serial killers and retired New Yorkers rub shoulders with Cuban gangsters and mullet-topped gator hunters under the sticky heat of a  Disney sun. And all of that may indeed be true for the east coast of Florida, but not for the west side.  Except, of course, for the mullet, which is native to all areas of the state.

But in west Florida the mullet is more than just a haircut, it’s also a fish. A small fish, typically smoked and mashed into something that looks like tuna salad, but is a million times tastier.  It is one of the appetizers at Waltz Fish Shak, an insanely great restaurant in Madeira Beach, just north of St. Pete on the Gulf side. Which is number one on my list of things to do on the Other West Coast.

Walt’z Fish Shack – Located in a brightly painted old house at the edge of the John’s Pass tourist district, just a few blocks from Hooter’s and Bubba Gump, Walt’z is one of the best seafood restaurants anywhere.  The chalkboard menu is short – three starters, three entrees, one dessert.  Everything is super fresh, and when it’s gone it’s gone.  If they have it, get the grilled grouper with rice and slaw. Or the crab cakes. Or the softshell crab. And don’t even think of leaving without a slice of key lime pie – they only have one dessert for a very good reason.

St. Pete Beach – Miles of fine white sand, water warm enough to swim in, great beach bars, this is one of my favorite beaches anywhere. And the sun even sets in the right direction – over the water! It’s like Mexico but without the nagging beach vendors and severed heads. Plus you can eat the salad without getting sick! But why eat a salad when you can have a big messy cheeseburger at Sandbar Bill’s Beach Bar, one of the amenities at…

The Bon-Aire Resort Motel – If you’re the all-inclusive type you can stay at one of the pink monstrosities down the beach, but if you love mid-20th century style you must stay at the Bon-Aire. Built in 1950, it is a fine example of mid-century architecture and just an all-around great place to stay. A clean, quiet, spacious room on the beach with powerful A/C and all the amenities goes for well under $100. And if you want to stay longer they have “efficiency” units, which are nice little apartments with full kitchens. Laze around on the beach all day and run up a tab at Sandbar Bill’s – you will not be disappointed. I’m not going to tell you what to drink, but the banana dacquiri is exceptional, with a velvety texture and a nice extra tot of rum poured into the straw.

The Dali Museum – If you’re a fan, you must go. This is the largest and most important collection of the artist’s work anywhere in the world, including Spain. Trust me – I’ve been to the Dali Museum in Figueres and the artist’s home in Port Lligat, and this is a must-see collection, notable for its numerous “best of” works: Daddy Long Legs of the Evening, The Disintegration of Memory, Columbus Arriving in the New World, DNA, Nature Morte Vivant – the list goes on and on. The building itself is also pretty stunning, and it’s in a great location on the St Petersburg waterfront.

Ybor City – Across the causeway in Tampa, Ybor City is the old cigar-rolling district, full of gorgeous old brick buildings, iron balconies, and other well-preserved architectural relics. Though it’s a bit touristy, it’s still well worth a visit, especially if you’re in need of a tattoo, a cigar, or a place to get trashed on Spring Break. Or if that’s not your style, check out…

The Tampa Brewing Company – Located in Ybor City, this is a truly great brewpub in an area not known for its craft beers. It’s an ambitious operation that may have as many as 18-20 house-made beers on tap, all respectable and some outstanding. The porter, the pale, and the seasonal ESB were all standouts on my visit. Throw in a solid kitchen, friendly staff, great atmosphere, and the historic location, and it adds up to one of the best brewpubs around.

Arco Iris Restaurant – Tampa isn’t Cuban the way that Miami is Cuban – it’s more Dixie and Conch – but there is still a sizable Cuban population here, and many good Cuban restaurants to choose from. We were directed to this one by a friend, and were not disappointed. It’s owned by a couple who came over on the Mariel boatlift, and it’s unapologetically authentic. Soups are especially good, and of course the Cuban sandwich.

Of course there’s a lot more to do, like thrifting, buying stuffed alligator heads, and getting fabulously sunburned. I will be back.

True Burrito Tales

June 22, 2011

You can go a lot of places in this world, but you can only be from one place, and I’m from the east side of L.A. Though I’ve lived in the Bay Area for more than twenty years, there are still a few things I miss about my hometown. The mild winters. The crazy profusion of FM radio stations. But above all, the L.A. burrito.

With all due respect to San Francisco’s  celebrated Mission burrito, let me be frank: it is not a real burrito. Real burritos are not packed full of rice like a Chinese freighter. Real burritos contain neither sour cream nor guacamole. They are made with lard-infused refritos, not whole beans and certainly not black beans. And under no circumstances are they wrapped in anything other than a large white flour tortilla. If it’s some weird color, like red or green, it is most certainly not a burrito.

Many world travelers conclude that the burrito, due to its widespread unavailability south of the border, is one of those made-up faux-Mex dishes like taco salad. Nothing could be further from the truth. The burrito was a regional invention, native to a part of Mexico that was ceded to the Yankees in the 1840s: Alta California. Some nameless rancho cook decided to make a few oversized flour tortillas for wrapping up the leftovers, and an important  culinary innovation was born, right up there with the sandwich on the short list of wildly successful workman’s lunches.

On a recent trip south, I paid a visit to Manny’s El Loco in East L.A. to reacquaint myself with the Real Thing. I was not disappointed. Thoroughly and unashamedly old-school, Manny’s has changed very little since I used to go there in the 1970s as a long-haired teenager.  Same orange-plastic decor, same clientele of working-class Chicanos and the occasional Anglo or Asian down from  Monterey Park. The few menu changes in evidence seem to be half-hearted nods to “healthy” eating: they’ve added a turkey wrap and something called a Santa Fe salad, and deleted the pastrami quesadilla, one of those freaky “only in LA” things that have now gone the way of the Chinese Kosher Burrito.

The king of Manny’s menu is and always has been the El Loco Burrito: beans, cheese, a chile relleno, steak picado, and salsa. It’s big, it’s messy, and it’s God-knows-how-many-calories. This is the burrito against which all others must be judged.

A great burrito is a symphony of flavors, and one false note can ruin the whole effect. At Manny’s there are no false notes. The tortilla is same-day fresh. the beans are runny, lardy, and cooked for days; almost a soup. The steak picado is likewise cooked down for savory goodness: round steak, onions, chiles, and tomatoes. There is no shortage of cheese or green sauce, made with hot peppers and tiny flecks of avocado. And at the heart of this beast, robed in deliciousness, is the mighty chile relleno, a study in contrasting textures and flavors: the chewy crispness of the fried batter, the sweet snap of the fresh Anaheim chile, and the gooey river of hot melted cheese inside.

Don’t get me wrong: there are some other great places nearby. El Tepeyac, for instance, is another classic joint, with an even bigger and gnarlier burrito called the Manuel’s Special. But El Loco remains my personal favorite, and the one I think of every time I settle for a riced-up, foil-wrapped Mission “burrito.”

Manny’s is located just off Atlantic Blvd on Pomona Street, a block south of the 60. Si mon!


A Tale of Two Toilets

January 3, 2011

Roadside rest areas are nice, but since when is it okay for them to be nicer than my house?  Check out this architectural wonder of a pissoir with its Craftsman details, custom tile work, automated faucets and flushers, and tasteful landscaping.  Seeing how California has a gazillion-dollar budget hole, isn’t this a bit much?

Oh, and did I mention that this elegant shite-chateau has a twin on the other side of the road?  Seriously: show me a public school anywhere in California that looks this good and I will buy you a golden fleece seat cover to cradle your deluded bum. Read the rest of this entry »

Hunting Wild Mushrooms

February 15, 2010

Black Trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides)

Shave off the veneer of civilization and we are all hunter-gatherers.  To deny it would be a vain argument against millions of years of hominid evolution. For the modern foodie-type ape, there remains an undeniable appeal in tracking down and collecting one’s own food, whether out on the Serengeti or down at the local farmer’s market.  But the acme of these quest-for-food experiences, the most innately thrilling,  rewarding, and potentially lethal, is the hunt for wild mushrooms. Here in northern California, hardly a winter passes without some horrific news story about a family poisoned en masse by the Destroying Angel or some other lethal look-alike packed with toxic alkaloids. And it’s not a pretty death either – catastrophic liver failure makes your typical e coli infection seem like a day in the sun. Even a hunting  trip seems like Safety Day by comparison. Unless you’re hunting with Dick Cheney, in which case you deserve whatever you get.

Waterproof gear recommended

But with great risk comes the possibility of great reward. Armed with the requisite knowledge, savvy, and experience, the wily mushroom hunter can bring home rare delicacies that would either be prohibitively expensive or downright impossible to find any other way. So when our friends Chris and Blake invited us out to the Mendocino coast to do a little shrooming, we did not hesitate. While neither would claim to be an expert mycologist, they are deeply familiar with their neck of the woods and its edible varieties, having successfully foraged for local fungi for many years. And both of them have healthy, high-functioning livers – let’s just say I know this for a fact, and leave it at that.


Read the rest of this entry »

Mission San Miguel Arcangel

January 5, 2010

Like every other graduate of California’s public schools, I learned about the Spanish missions in fourth grade by building a model out of cardboard and sugar cubes. But unlike most of my classmates I kept an interest in the subject after my voice changed, and went on to discover a lot of things that my teachers never mentioned. Did you know, for instance, that the soon-to-be-saintly Father Serra was in fact a notorious flagellant who liked to preach the gospel stripped to the waist, scourging himself with chains and burning his flesh with hot candle wax? Or that each of those quaint little mission cemeteries is actually a mass grave, packed with the bones of thousands of natives? No wonder the 4th grade lesson plan focused on arts and crafts.

Over the years I’ve managed to visit most of the 21 mission sites, and last weekend I cut another notch in my traveling stick, touring the long-shuttered Mission San Miguel Arcangel, just north of Paso Robles. Nearly destroyed by earthquakes, it has been closed to the public since the San Simeon quake of 2003, and only recently reopened. While most of the complex is still a private retreat for Franciscan monks, visitors can once again enter the main church and tour the adjoining wing of the quadrangle, which dates back to 1816.

Read the rest of this entry »

Santa Cruz Travel Notes

August 18, 2009

IMG_2414As a transplanted Sureño, one of the things I miss most about SoCal is being able to spend a nice day at the beach. San Francisco’s Ocean Beach is a great place to catch pneumonia in a foggy riptide. Alameda is nice as far as Oakland beaches go, but it’s hardly Laguna. But just an hour away there is Santa Cruz, a little spot of sun and sand that’s as good as anything in the O.C. I’ve been touristing in Santa Cruz since the late 70s, and no summer is complete for me without a few visits. While I’m hardly a local, I’ve traveled there enough to know what I like, and here are a few of my favorites.

Read the rest of this entry »

Take Me Out to the Bullfights

May 18, 2009

It’s not easy being a bullfight fan in California.  Sure, bloodless corridas are legal, but the Portuguese societies that sponsor them wisely choose to fly under the PETA radar, making them both hard to reach and hard to hear about unless you’re part of the community. Most of the venues are out in the dustiest corners of the Valley, in little farming towns that are hours from the cities. Most of the fights are on weeknights, conducted in Portuguese, and only written up in Portuguese newspapers. There’s a fan website in English, but it’s no longer being maintained, and the URL is up for sale. In other words, you’ve really got to love this sport if you want to see it.

And make no mistake, this is definitely sport. When a team of forcados leaps into the ring, eight brave men versus one angry bull, it’s like being catapulted back into the Stone Age, when bull-jumping and bull-baiting were some of the world’s earliest athletic spectacles.

Read the rest of this entry »

Alas, Amtrak

July 7, 2008

With gas prices up in the stratosphere, Amtrak is getting a lot of attention these days. Here’s an essay I wrote a few years back, after riding the California Zephyr to Denver. I can’t imagine much has changed. /sm

After huffing down $25 Billion in tax crack since 1971, and with a deficit that’s mounting despite growing ridership and a Congressional mandate to balance its books, you’ve got to ask the question: is Amtrak worth saving? That’s precisely what Mrs. M and I set out to discover when we booked passage on the California Zephyr from Martinez to Denver.

The Zephyr is one of America’s great historic rail routes, crossing both the Rockies and the Sierras on its way from Chicago to Oakland. You know the story: the line with the gold spike in it, the one that opened up the West to millions of Yankee yahoos. Today it’s one of the biggest money-losers in a money-losing system, and a prime candidate for the budget axe. We figured if we were ever going to experience this slice of living history, we’d better get aboard pronto. As it turned out, we were indeed taking a trip back in time, but not to the era we thought. Instead of the old West, it turned out to be more like a ride through communist Russia. Read the rest of this entry »