I just got back from my first trip out to California, and man, was it a whirlwind adventure!
We – that is, my roommate, boyfriend, and self – arrived at LAX late Thursday night and were greeted by one of our closest friends, JD, who moved out to LA a few years ago. This was not only our first trip to visit him, but our first trip to the West Coast AND the first time we’d seen each other in over six months. Needless to say, the anticipation and excitement were all running high!
Once we landed, we headed to our friend’s pad in Echo Park and crashed out, since it was close to 3 am East Coast time. Plus, we had a jam-packed schedule for our trip and wanted to kick Friday off bright and early.
And so we did, as our Friday morning began with a home cooked California-style breakfast (it only took me a few minutes to take over the host’s kitchen) made from farm-fresh ingredients from JD’s local market. Sweet local honey on hearty slices of whole grain bread, buttery wedges of ripe California avocado, thick-cut bacon from a nearby farm, and of course, sunny-side up eggs sizzled right in that bacon fat.
It’s not every day you have a breakfast like this, and we dug deep in to fill our bellies for the first stop on our trip: Griffith Park!
We headed up to Griffith Park, just a short drive from JD’s digs in Echo Park, arriving well before noon, and thankfully, before most of the crowds and heat. This gave us ample time and space to circle around the observatory and take in the views of surrounding LA (though the morning fog / smog hindered our photos) for the first time. Personally, I couldn’t (and still can’t) get over how geographically different LA is from New York. I can’t help but compare all cities to the horizontally limited, vertically stacked layout of NYC, and Los Angeles could not have been more different. Between the sprawl, the lack of taxis, and the juxtaposition of palm trees and mountains, it was hard to remember that we were technically in a “city,” not the ‘burbs. Only the small cluster of smog-obscured sky scrapers served as reminder.
After checking out the observatory, we began a hike up into the mountains as the sun rose and heat mounted. Once again, my mind was blown by the diversity of terrain out west – one minute we were in a foggy valley surrounded by palm trees; the next we were up on a dusty mountain path, trekking past scrubby dessert bushes and passing wild coyotes. The comparative landscapes were both beautiful and intriguing, as there was always something new to look at.
Not too long into our hike, our stomachs began to grumble and all talk turned to lunch. We headed back to the car with the promise of true-blue West Coast fish tacos on the menu. And these did not disappoint…
We pulled into a divey take out spot that only had three things on the menu: fried halibut tacos, fried shrimp tacos, and drinks! Sure made ordering easy, so I opted for two fish and one shrimp taco. We watched as the cooks pulled thick pieces of fish out of batter and dropped them straight into a vat of bubbling oil, where they sizzled and popped for a few minutes until declared done. Then, they went straight onto doubled-up hot corn tortillas, and were passed over to us.
In one corner of the shop stood a counter with several types of relishes, salsa and sauces. My tacos got topped with some shredded Napa cabbage, pico de gallo, the house salsa: a sweet red radish chutney, and a small squirt of sour cream, which I can safely attest made up the strangest assortment of taco toppings I’ve ever come across – but it looked and smelled delicious! We headed outside to snag a table in the breezy shade, and dug in.
Absolutely delish! West Coast fish tacos did NOT disappoint; the fish was still hot and insanely crispy, which played nicely against the cold crunch of cabbage and refreshing notes of the pico and radish salsa. I started with the fried shrimp tacos and couldn’t believe how mouthwateringly scrumptious they were, but they were quickly upstaged by the fried halibut, which had the creamy, flakey texture of the fish upping the game. Three tacos equaled the perfect lunch, washed down by some refreshing iced water.
Once our bellies were full, it was onward and upward to our next adventure – touristy Hollywood sightseeing. Since as New Yorkers we get our fair share of crowds on a daily basis, we passed on walking around the heart of downtown Hollywood with the throngs of tourists; instead, JD gave us a wonderful tour of Hollywood by car. And by this, I mean that we spotted an actual Hollywood Tour truck, and wound up tailing it for over an hour.
That tour led us past all the hottest Hollywood sights, including the Osbourne Mansion, Kodak Theater, and tons of celebrity houses – we even saw Sean Kingston in his driveway! It was all in good fun until we inadvertently followed the tour truck into a cul-de-sac, and realized the driver was on to us when he shouted over his loud-speaker, “You’ve gotta pay for this tour – and I’ve got your plate numbers!”
Whoops! After that, we figured it was probably time to ditch the tour – and hunt down a snack.
We did a bit more driving and wound up in Westwood, the cute college town surrounding UCLA. The promise of ice cream sandwiches hung in the air, and we made tracks to Diddy Riese Cookies, a small spot with a line out the door.
Okay, here’s the deal. This was pretty much the best dessert spot ever. Warm, gooey, chewy cookies in all sorts of flavors are used to make homemade mix-and-match ice cream sandwiches and ice cream sundaes with cookies, fudge and whipped cream. All for about two bucks!! The boys opted for ice cream sandwiches, while Cara and I each got a sundae with an extra cookie (which would be two cookies per sundae. That’s right… don’t judge).
That would be a chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, whipped cream, hot fudge, a peanut butter cookie, and a white chocolate macadamia nut cookie. Sighhhh. We sat outside in the sun and totally blissed out while dipping chewy, melted soft-baked cookies in custardy ice cream. One of these is needed in New York!
After a crazy day of indulgent delights and a dozey car ride back to Echo Park, we were all on board when JD suggested we head to his favorite vegetarian restaurant for dinner, figuring we all needed some nutrients after the tacos and ice cream. Luckily, he scored a reservation at the small, chic Elf Cafe, so we walked over (yes, we walked in LA) during golden hour to snag our table on the sidewalk. Elf, gloriously, is a BYOB restaurant, and we wound up working our way through not one, not two, but three bottles of wine during dinner. Hey, when in Rome, right?
Ever since my life-changing dinner at Candle 79, I’ve been fascinated with the creative fare at vegetarian and vegan restaurants, and Elf did not disappoint. We started off with the Tahini-Avocado puree, an avocado-laden spin on hummus that was served with warm, doughy pita slices, sour oil-cured olives, and whole cloves of roasted garlic. This dip was extremely addicting, and of course, we wound up requesting extra pita.
Another starter rounded out our appetizer course – cornmeal and herb dusted buffalo oyster mushrooms with a blue cheese cream reduction. These crispy mushroom bits were almost like fries, but the real winner was the blue cheese sauce, which was more like a blue cheese butter that melted, dripping all over the warm pita bread. Insane.
As the sun set, we switched the red wine and our main courses arrived. I went with the Morrocan Vegetable Terrine, which was, to be honest, just okay – a little one-note in both flavor and texture (and color, from the looks of this picture).
The other’s seemed way more satisfied with their entrees – a decadent, creamy wild mushroom risotto, the baked tart with thyme and garlic, stuffed with roasted tomatoes, fingerling potatoes and smoked mozzarella, and the special which was stuffed grape leaves with crispy risotto cakes. Though this food was vegetarian, overall it felt indulgent and soul-satisfying – we were not left wanting at all.
Which is exactly why we finished the meal off with dessert ;-) It’s hard to resist ordering dessert when you have four friends to share with! Elf only had two desserts that night, and we went with the Banana Tart. After a few glasses of wine, I must admit, I couldn’t tell whether this was vegan or gluten-free (was there a crust, or just caramel?) but one thing is for sure – it was delicious. The bananas were layered in a criss-cross fashion, dripping with a caramel sauce and topped with plump raisins. The dish was served with some cream sauce, which we daringly drizzled all over the tart. The bananas were so tightly packed, they were almost dough-like in consistency. This was such a high note to end the meal.
After that, we meandered around the corner for a few more beers, where I learned that strawberry beer is never a good choice, before calling in a night. After all, we had another big day ahead – in Santa Barbara wine country! For more on that, stay tuned….