January 22, 2013
Plant-Based Pizza, Willow Glen (San Jose)
Before Plant-Based Pizza opened in the Willow Glen district of San Jose in November, the Bay Area's leading vegan pizza spot was Pizza Plaza, inconveniently located in Oakland. Now, we have a hometown option! In fact, with the November openings of Plant-Based Pizza and Veggie Grill (just a few days apart), the South Bay vegan scene has gotten a lot more interesting.
Plant-Based Pizza has a small but clean facility with 5 eat-in tables, meaning they don't really expect most customers to eat on-site. On our visit, we got a peppers and shroom pizza slice and a 12" vegan BBQ pizza. The BBQ pizza had a thin crust, daiya cheese, an unobtrusively mild BBQ flavor, non-housemade fake chicken, and a few onion and cilantro here and there. Yet, the flavors worked surprisingly well together, creating an irresistible combination that meant we enjoyed every bite and had no leftovers.
Prices were on the high side but fair. The menu has many more intriguing options to explore. The world needs more vegan pizzerias! Please, let's support this place so it will remain a viable business.
Our photo gallery.
November 06, 2012
Veggie Grill Santana Row (San Jose): Opened November 8, 2012!
The Veggie Grill is an all-vegan restaurant chain that specializes in vegan "comfort food." It's got the kind of dishes you'd expect at an "American" restaurant--burgers, chicken sandwiches, fries, mashed potatoes, chili, etc.--but all veganized. The master chef behind the menu is Ray White, who was part of the brains behind Native Foods--another favorite restaurant of ours--along with Tanya Petrovna. Because of Ray's background, the Veggie Grill menu shares some similarities with Native Foods' menu, but we now prefer Veggie Grill over Native Foods. Customers place orders at the register and then have the food served to their tables. Prices are fair; entrees are in the $8-$10 range.
We first discovered Veggie Grill in El Segundo several years ago. See my prior review of that place. We fell in love with the restaurant instantly, and now we usually make a point of swinging by a Veggie Grill during our Southern California visits. Every time we go, we submit a suggestion card that they should come to the South Bay.
Our requests finally have been answered! This week, they are opening in Santana Row, less than 4 miles/15 minutes from my office. From the perspective of visibility and foot traffic, Santana Row is a great location for them; but it's a mild pain to get to/from--traffic is rotten and parking can be a challenge. The store is bright and colorful, although I could see them running out of seats during peak periods. It was hard not to notice the generational split in the crowd; I was about 20 years older than the average customer.
I like almost everything I've tried at the Veggie Grill (the biggest miss is the mac 'n' cheese--quinoa pasta is hard to do well). My favorite entrees are the V-burger and the Carne Asada, both excellent. I also especially like the chili and the sweetheart fries. I generally don't like kale very much, but their steamed kale is among the best I've ever tried, and I've chosen it as a side dish before.
Today, Lisa and I attended a soft launch lunch at Santana Row (our meals were complimentary). A report on the dishes we tried:
[see my photo gallery]
* V-burger with avocado. I rank the V-burger incredibly highly. I think it's one of the first-rate veggie burgers served anywhere, although the veggie burger at Source in San Francisco--a much different composition--may be my favorite anywhere. I don't think the avocado added much to the flavor, but I'm not an avocado fan.
* Sweetheart fries. These are outstanding sweet potato fries. I normally like potato fries more than sweet potato fries, but these are among the best sweet potato fries I've had. They are served with a ranch dressing for dipping (you can also get ketchup if you prefer) that complements the flavor nicely.
* Buffalo Bomber. This is a successful dish, but I liked it a little less than the V-burger. It's a big chicken patty with lettuce/tomato/onion on a wheat bun, with both buffalo sauce and ranch dressing. The servers warned that the buffalo sauce was spicy, but it was mild by my standards. I expected the sandwich to have a stronger "buffalo sauce" taste and more kick than it did. Still, a good sandwich.
* "Bean Me Up" Chili. The chili is hearty and flavorful. Personally, I think a cup is better than a bowl; the flavor can get a little tiresome after a while.
* Chill Out Wings. Their fried chicken strips with BBQ and ranch sauces for dipping. This was a satisfying appetizer.
* Carrot Cake. I'm not a big carrot cake fan, but this was an excellent carrot cake, especially for being vegan. Both the cake and frosting were moist and flavorful.
* Chocolate Chip Cookie. I thought this was average.
* Chocolate Pudding. Lisa was lukewarm about the pudding, but I thought it was tasty. However, like the chili, a little may go a long way. A small cup was perfect, but a larger serving could get tiring.
* Drinks. I tried the strawberry lemonade, peach black tea and pomegranate green tea. I thought they were all OK, but none of them did much for me.
I'm so thrilled to have the Veggie Grill in our neighborhood! I hope you'll check it out. I'd be happy to meet you there for a meal any time!
UPDATE: A group of 4 of us went back Wednesday night for another complimentary beta-test meal. This time, the place was so packed that all of the seats were taken, and a line formed outside the restaurant waiting until seats opened. I hope they are a success, but I hope they aren't so successful that lines out the door are common. Comments on our second round of menu sampling:
* Uptown Nachos. I loved the taste of these nachos, more so than most other restaurants' nachos. Recommended.
* Buffalo Wings. I would get either these or the Chill Out Wings; I wouldn't get both. These had a nice flavor, but once again I thought the buffalo taste was milder and less pronounced than I would like. What stands out about these wings is their texture, which is quite meaty. Our meat-eater companion raved about the texture.
* Blackened Chickin Plate. This was a big disappointment. Basically, it's a pile of the steamed kale, a pile of the quinoa pilaf--which is plain and thus indistinguishable from unadorned quinoa--and a cutlet of fake chicken, blackened, with a small dollop of papaya salsa. The steamed kale was fine, the quinoa was boring, and the chicken cutlet was surprisingly mildly flavored (tasted a little like a Gardein chicken cutlet), and the salsa didn't enhance the flavor much. If you like bland basic food, this could be a nice dish; but compared to the better options on the menu, I don't see any reason to pick it.
* Thai Chickin Salad. This had a great taste, and I recommend this dish as well. However, I could imagine eating the whole salad might get a little tiring. It might be better to split this dish with a friend; a half-salad might be the perfect amount before the flavor gets tiring.
* All Hail Kale Salad with blackened tempeh. My wife LOVES this salad! If you're a kale fan, this is a must-have; but even if you aren't (like me), this salad is very well-constructed. I didn't think the blackened tempeh added much to the flavor.
* Carne Asada. I still love this dish, but sometimes I love it more than others. I'm not sure why that is. The V-burger is a more consistent success with me, so I will probably pick the V-burger more frequently and save the Carne Asada for special occasions. Our meat-eater companion complained (quite fairly IMO) about the bun-to-meat ratio in this sandwich.
We also got samplers of the carrot cake again, and all of us loved it. The carrot cake is a crowd-pleaser! But then again, so is the entire menu, so if you haven't gone yet, definitely check it out.
UPDATE 2: We went back for Jacob's 10th birthday:
* I had the VG-Cheeseburger, El Dorado style. I enjoyed the burger, although I'm not sure if I liked it a lot more than just the baseline VG Burger. It was very, very messy!
* the red cabbage slaw. This is bland. Between the chili and slaw, pick the chili or pay to upgrade.
* Lisa tried the All-American Stack. We were both surprised that the stack isn't a single "patty' but instead loose strips. That made the stack messy. Personally, I didn't like it much better than the regular burger, but it's a fun and exotic option nonetheless.
August 02, 2012
"Island Hopping in the California Channel Islands" Tour Recap
In May, I took a 3 day boat tour of the California Channel Islands through the Sierra Club. The boat, the “Truth,” left from the Santa Barbara harbor and visited four of the northern Channel Islands: Santa Cruz Island, Anacapa Island, Santa Rosa Island and San Miguel Island. This wasn’t my first trip to the islands; I had done camping trips to Catalina, Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands over the past 2 decades. But I had longed to go Santa Rosa Island and San Miguel Island as well, and this tour meant I could do both in a single trip.
An overall word about the Channel Islands: if you ever have the chance to visit them, TAKE IT. The Channel Islands are one of the most amazing destinations in California, a state filled with great tourist destinations. Although they have been mismanaged over the years and invaded by non-native species, overall the Channel Islands are like a slice of California Coast as it used to be—beautiful, rugged, spectacular. The long and choppy boat ride, the frequently marine weather conditions and the lack of developed infrastructure have kept the crowds away, and you might be daunted by those too. Overcome the resistance and GO.
Our itinerary for the tour:
4 am Sunday: depart from Santa Barbara Harbor. Because of the early start, the organizers strongly encouraged us to stay overnight on the boat (we could board starting 8 pm the night before).
8 am Sunday: Normally the tour starts with San Miguel Island, but weather conditions prevented that. Instead, we headed to the Painted Cave at Santa Cruz Island. The Painted Cave is one of the largest sea caves in the world, going back 1200 feet deep into the island. The Truth anchored nearby and then ran small groups on skiffs into the caves. The water was too high to go in all the way, but it was a dramatic sight nonetheless. Along the way, we saw numerous sea lions, including a group feeding on a sunfish.
Midday Sunday: we stopped at Scorpion Harbor on Santa Cruz Island and checked out the wetlands restoration effort.
Sunday afternoon: We transferred to Anacapa Island and had the afternoon to check it out. Read my Epinions review about my 2001 camping trip to Anacapa, which I still believe is the best way to visit the island despite the foghorn. Even if you can only go for the day, Inspiration Point remains one of the most amazing views anywhere in the world and deserves a place on your bucket list. For such a small island, Anacapa packs a lot of points of visual interest, including western gull nests, blooming iceplant (not native) and a few buildings with 1930s Spanish-style architecture.
Sunday evening: we boated around the south side of Anacapa Island and then anchored on the south side of Santa Cruz Island. I didn’t fully understand why we anchored on the south side of the island (i.e., exposed to the Pacific Ocean) rather than the more sheltered north side, but the payoff was amazing views of the islands’ south sides at sunset. In particular, both islands’ south sides are dramatic wave-eroded cliffs. Spectacular.
Monday: we boated to Santa Rosa Island and skiffed to the pier. The group split into smaller subgroups. Four of us headed to Lobo Canyon, hiking about 2 miles through the Santa Rosa Island highlands to the Lobo Canyon trail entrance. I would rank the Lobo Canyon hike (at least in Spring) as one of the very best hikes in California, and you should consider adding this to your bucket list too. It’s carved by water and wind, exposing sheer cliffs of sedimentary layers and hoodoos. In Spring, the canyon is filled with water and flowers in bloom. The hike ends at a headlands overlooking the canyon mouth and the azure channel. We were blessed with a warm sunny day, making everything sparkle.
From Lobo Canyon, we hiked back through the ranch and along the shoreline to the Torrey Pines trail. The Torrey pines grow only in two places: San Diego and Santa Rosa Island. The trail is super-steep! The forest is in the most unexpected place; it’s unusual to see a pine forest silhouetted by the ocean.
The boat then picked us up from the Southeast Anchorage (requiring a skiff pickup from the beach), and we anchored on the south side of Santa Rosa Island (leading to another wonderful sunset boat ride), producing one of my all-time favorite sunrise photos.
The National Park Service is developing Santa Rosa Island into a more touristy destination. I hope they don’t botch that. Even though the NPS just fully took over the park in the last year, I was surprised that it was already in such good condition. I absolutely want to go back.
Tuesday: We boated to Cuyler Harbor at San Miguel Island and skiffed to the beach covered with elephant seals just a few feet away. As usual, the island was shrouded in fog, giving it an intimate feel. Once again, the group split up. Our group first hiked up the steep canyon and through a giant coreopsis forest to the Cabrillo Monument (not much to see in the fog) and the campground (foggy and wild) and then out to Harris Point. The hike mostly went through treeless scrub. The lupine was in bloom throughout the island, creating a carpet of purple. However, the views were all fogged out, especially at the point, where the wind and fog blasted us. On the way back, the fog just started to thin out, creating patches of blue sky and magical sunlit views. Unfortunately, the boat left in the early afternoon, just as the fog was burning off, leaving me hungry to see the island through the full range of weather conditions. We took the boat back to the Santa Barbara Harbor (a four hour ride), saw some whales on the way (but didn’t stop to check them out) and arrived back around 6 pm.
I don’t really know how to put San Miguel Island into words. It has an indescribably magical quality that’s unlike any other place I've been. I am desperate to go back, camp there, and experience the island completely.
About the Sierra Club Tour: The islands are so special, it’s impossible to complain about the trip. However, if you’re thinking about doing the tour, some things to know:
* pre-trip planning. The pre-trip communication was not great. Despite many repeated requests, we didn’t get a complete pack list or reading list. We also didn’t get an itinerary, which makes sense because the trip does dynamically adjust to weather conditions. However, the trip organizers could put together a list of the possible stops (even if they aren’t in order) with some background about each stop.
* the boat.
- The boat isn’t big enough to smooth out the choppy waters, so there will be some bumpy rides. I used wristbands, herbal anti-nausea pills and ginger chews to combat seasickness, plus I spent a lot of time in the open air.
- The sleeping pods are tiny bunks (maybe 3 feet by 3 feet by 6 feet) stacked into one big communal area separated by cloth curtains. If you’re tired enough (or take melatonin, as I do), you can sleep through almost anything, but the sleeping arrangements are not private in the least.
- the boat lacks side thrusters, so it can’t just pull up to a pier. This means every stop requires skiff transfers even when there’s a pier, which can mean wet landings and, more importantly, take time (about a half-hour each way to get everyone on or off).
- on the plus side, we ate well. The food was plentiful and very good. The chefs took extra steps to prepare and label the vegan options, so we were well taken care of.
* the leadership. As the maxim goes, there can be only one captain of the ship. Oddly, for this tour, we had THREE captains, and that created plenty of unnecessary confusion. First, we had the boat captain, who had final say over safety. Second, we had the Sierra Club tour leader, who was in charge of the activities schedule (which might conflict with the captain’s safety assessment). Third, we had two naturalists on board, one of whom was very experienced and had her own view on both safety and activities. Watching the three of them battle each other for power might have been amusing if it wasn’t so annoying. Instead, it led to changes in announced plans (when one captain countermanded another captain’s instructions) and redundant disclosures as the captains felt the responsibility to explain their view of the plan to the crowd. If this were the first time the tour was run, I might have been willing to chalk this up to a kink that needed to be worked out; but given they have been running the tour for years and still have this issue, I’m assuming it’s not likely to be fixed any time soon.
A few other considerations if you’re thinking about the tour:
* kayaking along the coastline is a blast, but the opportunity to kayak is weather-dependent. It’s possible that you’ll have limited or no opportunities to paddle. Before investing in a kayak rental, consider the cost-benefit.
* the median age of participants was probably over 60. At 44, I was undoubtedly one of the youngest participants. The age demographics make sense; after all, who else has the time and money? However, it does create the possibility of generation gaps. At minimum, the demographics has some implications for average group hiking speed.
* the islands will create different experiences at different times of the year. Summer likely brings better weather, although the fog can be worse in summer before it burns. I can make the case that Spring is the best time to go. We were blessed with nice sunny afternoons (and sun in the morning in some places) and flowers were in bloom, which made everything picturesque. (Although we just missed the coreopsis blooms—THAT would have been amazing!)
While my thoughts are designed to make you a smarter consumer, I hope they won’t dissuade you. If you have any opportunity to visit the Channel Islands, CARPE DIEM! Now, who’s up for a camping trip to San Miguel Island?
January 28, 2012
Best Hikes in California? My Opinions, and a Request for Nominations
My kids are getting old enough to pursue more ambitious hikes, so I've started to think about some of the must-do hikes in California that we should consider. I've done a lot of hiking in California, and some hikes that stand out as especially memorable for me, roughly arranged north to south (where I've done more extensive reviews, I've linked to them):
* Lava Beds National Monument. It's not exactly hiking, but exploring the lava tubes is loads of fun. Bring a helmet, sweatshirt and flashlight.
* Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. There are numerous fern canyons in California, but this gets my vote for the ferniest. It has the bonanza of being surrounded by a first-rate redwood forest. Gold Bluffs Beach is beautiful, and you're likely to see an elk herd along the way. Gold Bluffs Beach is a fantastic camping destination--it's where Lisa and I got engaged, August 9, 1995!
* Angel Island to Mt. Livermore. From the top, you get a 360 degree view of the San Francisco Bay, including downtown San Francisco, the Golden Gate, the East Bay mountains, Mt. Tam and Marin County. Often fog blocks some of the view, but the fog also adds to the visual interest. The military ghost towns on the island are worth a visit too. I enthusiastically recommend camping on the island as a bucket list item.
* San Bruno Mountain. On a clear day, the views of the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean are mesmerizing. When it's foggy (most of the time), at least you'll be able to enjoy the flowers blooming year-round.
* Mist Trail, Yosemite. Yosemite has many great trails, but this one stands out as a wonderful hike to a beautiful waterfalls--plus you're going to get wet, and you're almost certain to see rainbows. The big downside: people. Lots of them.
* Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park. These are the sand dunes you've seen in the Hollywood movies, and I think it is the prettiest sand dune system in California. Go at sunrise or sunset for the best scenery (or better yet, both).
* Telescope Peak, Death Valley National Park. On the east side, Death Valley. On the west side, Panamint Valley--which I think is even prettier. Beyond, views for up to 100 miles in every direction. As a bonus, Mahogany Flats campground is a fantastic desert campground.
* Anacapa Island to Inspiration Point. The view overlooking the other two Anacapa Islands and Santa Cruz Island is incredibly romantic.
* Hikes to the Desert Divide (part of the Pacific Crest Trail). To the west, Garner Valley, which I think is the prettiest valley in Southern California. To the east, the mountains of Joshua Tree Monument and the Coachella Valley stretching out to the Salton Sea. To the north, 10k+ feet San Jacinto and San Gorgonio mountains. To the south, 8k feet Santa Rosa Mountain. All around you, not a soul to be seen. All of the Desert Divide peaks are equally good in my opinion. Or, go straight for San Jacinto Peak for the best views (although you will see people there).
* Hiking in palm oases. Examples include Indian Canyons in Palm Springs and Borrego Palm Canyon in Anza-Borrego Park. My choice overall for convenience, cost and oasis quality is Coachella Valley Preserve in Thousand Palms.
You'll note that I didn't put any redwood-specific hikes on the list. For me, all redwood hikes are always worth doing, even when it's a second-growth forest--although old-growth forests are best. However, there's a certain sameness to redwood hikes, so it's hard to distinguish among them. Some of my favorite redwood destinations include Redwood National Park, Hendy Woods and Montgomery Woods. This site looked pretty helpful. Muir Woods and Big Basin, two of the most popular old-growth redwoods destinations, don't make my list because of the omnipresent crowds.
Still on my long-term to-do list: hike the Lost Coast, hike the Headwaters Forest Reserve, visit Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands, climb Mt. Whitney and climb Half Dome.
Other perspectives: Everytrail offers a fine list of contenders. Mt. Tallac is a strong contender for its Lake Tahoe panorama. The Berry Falls loop in Big Basin is a great Bay Area hike but it wouldn't make my cut overall. McWay Falls in Julia Pfieffer State Park is iconic, but it's a very short stroll and the trail doesn't really lead you close to the falls (the view is is fairly distant). The South Grove in Calaveras Big Trees State Park is worth doing, but it's "just" another redwood hike.
Another list from BestCaliforniaHikes. Golden Canyon in Death Valley is a wonderful hike; go in the early morning to get the best colors. Mosaic Canyon in Death Valley is pleasant but wouldn't make my top list.
Want more? Try Tripleblaze's top 100 list. However, I think this list is more about popularity than quality. For example, Jughandle State Reserve (#83) is entirely skippable. The Trails.com lists (North, South) are better but are still popularity-driven and not totally useful, e.g., it lists jeep trails, and #10 on the south list are "trails in Joshua Tree" (well, that narrows things down).
So, what are your favorite California hikes? I don't care where they are located in California, although I do prefer day hikes (including car camping if applicable) over backpacking destinations. Email me and let me know.
UPDATE: some of the suggestions I've gotten: Panorama Trail in Yosemite, Dipsea Trail (Muir Woods to Stinson Beach), Salmon Creek Trail in Big Sur.
UPDATE 2: I'll add Lobo Canyon on Santa Rosa Island to the list. Spectacular!
January 21, 2012
Rancho San Antonio County Park: Rhus Ridge to Black Mountain
See my photo album from this hike.
Rancho San Antonio is the nearest "hiking" park to my house, but I've never been a fan of it. I don't like the crowds or the fight for parking, but more than anything, I find the hikes there boring. It take 15+ minutes to get into the hills, and even after that investment, many of the trails are repetitive and visually uninteresting.
Recently, I tried a new trailhead in Rancho San Antonio, and it totally changed my attitude about the park. This time, I started at the Rhus Ridge parking lot and hiked to Black Mountain via the Rhus Ridge Trail and the Black Mountain Trail, a RT of about 9 miles and 2300 feet of elevation gain. In contrast to starting from the main Rancho San Antonio parking lot, the hike starts strong and keeps getting better. In fact, I think this is the nicest mid-range/half-day hike within a 20 (or even 30) minute radius of Mountain View.
Unlike many other trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains facing the Bay, where vegetation often obscures the view, the trail offers frequent panoramic vistas of the Bay from San Jose to Palo Alto, with Mt. Diablo and Mt. Tam poking up over the haze. Personally, I think the views along the way are better than the views from the top of Black Mountain. The trail goes through ecosystems ranging from moist and shaded ridgesides to fully exposed semi-arid chaparral. There was only one uninteresting spot when the trail goes along the power line easement for a bit (a number of Rancho San Antonio trails suffer from this defect), but it's brief. The first and last mile are quite steep, so it's a tough workout, but it's manageable for hikers that pace themselves, and the rest of the trail is nicely graded. Signage is excellent. I saw plenty of people but it wasn't "crowded" (the parking, discussed below, helps limit the crowds). All of Rancho San Antonio (and most parks in the Santa Cruz Mountains) gets frequent airplane noise. Refreshingly, the trail was mostly free of horse poop.
Two crucial downsides of this hike:
1) Like other Rancho San Antonio hikes, don't do this hike on warm days. I went when temperatures were in the 50s, and it was pleasant. Indeed, the perfect time to go is on a cool but sunny Winter day after a storm, when temperatures are comfortable but the storm has cleaned up the haze. In contrast, when the temperatures get into the high 60s or warmer, this hike will become miserable or even unbearable. On warm days (up into the 70s), I prefer hiking Wunderlich County Park because its trails are mostly shaded.
2) The parking lot is TINY! It holds maybe a dozen cars max. The local residents have done a good job making street parking illegal for a mile in every direction too, and I sense they take a perverse delight in towing illegally parked cars. The result is that finding a parking spot feels a little like winning the lottery. As usual, go early. The good news: if you can snag a spot, parking is free.
January 12, 2012
Fall Creek Unit, Henry Cowell State Park
I love redwood hikes, and we are blessed with many fine ones in the Bay Area. But finding the "perfect" redwood destination is tricky. It needs to be a nice redwood forest, and some of the more convenient redwood hikes aren't that redwoody. Plus, driving to the destination should not be a chore. The best redwood hikes, buried deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains, require a time-consuming drive over twisty roads that nauseate my kids and can ruin the experience for everyone.
When I'm in the mood for a quick redwood hike, I typically go to Wunderlich County Park in Woodside, which is quite good but suffers from less-than-peak redwoodiness, plenty of crowds, and lots of horse poop. When I'm in the mood to drive a little longer for a better redwood experience, my new favorite is Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell State Park. Its selling points:
* redwoodiness: the park is in prime redwood country. It was heavily logged a century ago, but it remains a first-rate second-growth redwood forest. The lovely year-round Fall Creek enhances the scenery.
* convenience: it's just a half-mile outside of Felton. Getting there via Highway 17 is no joy, but I find 17 OK if I leave early and drive slow. The park's official website instructs visitors to drive to Santa Cruz and then back to Felton on Highway 9, but it's quicker for Valley residents to take 17 to Mt. Hermon Road, which turns into Felton Empire Road as it crosses Highway 9. The park entrance is just a half-mile further on Felton Empire on the right. Door-to-door from Mountain View is about 40 minutes with no traffic (only about 15 minutes each way more than Wunderlich for a noticeably better redwood experience).
* bonus attractions. In addition to top-quality and convenient redwood hike, Fall Creek Unit has other points of interest, including limekiln ruins (lime is used to make cement, which helped rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 fire) and the ruins of a cooperage which manufactured redwood barrels to ship the lime. The park also offers its own named redwood tree, "Big Ben," which I found underwhelming and not worth the extra hike (but the extra hike was worth it for other reasons). My favorite part of the park was "Lost Camp," an incredibly scenic hollow. Note: when we went, the signage from the Fall Creek Trail going to the Big Ben Trail was missing, so we blew right past it. Pay close attention at that intersection. See the entire photo album from our hike.
* free parking! The parking lot isn't that big, so go early. On the plus side, once we got past the limekilns, we pretty much had the park to ourselves.
Wunderlich remains my default redwood hike, but Fall Creek Unit is a great option to add to my mix. Plus, Felton or Santa Cruz offer convenient after-hiking festivities if time permits.
January 07, 2012
Coachella Valley Preserve: Hiking Through Oases and Moon Country
Hikes in the Palm Springs area tend to come in three varieties:
1) Local hikes from the Valley floor up to a ridge. These hikes tend to be steep thighbusters but they usually reward fit hikers with nice views.
2) Flat hikes along the Valley floor, which are often boring.
3) Mountain hikes, such as along the Desert Divide or in the Santa Rosa Wilderness or in Joshua Tree National Park, which are wonderful hikes but usually require a long and twisty drive to get there.
This is why the Coachella Valley Preserve, located beyond Thousand Palms basically near the end of Ramon Road, is such a revelation. It has everything going for it: interesting things to see; some reasonably level trails; close to the Valley's cities, especially for people staying down-Valley like in Palm Desert; and as an added bonus, free parking! Among other advantages, this is one of the few hikes on the Coachella Valley side of Joshua Tree and the Little San Bernardino Mountains; most hikes in Joshua Tree require a lengthy drive around the mountains to Twentynine Palms.
We hiked from the visitor center to McCallum Oasis, then took the loop trail through Moon Country. Total hiking distance of about 4 miles. Had we not been dragging along two very tired kids, we could have done the trail in about 90 minutes. The trail had three highlights:
1) Thousand Palms Oasis, a nice oasis. I must say that I love hiking to and in oases. A stand of palm trees may be my favorite type of trees to hike in/to (after redwoods of course). The California fan palms are lovely. In addition, I love the feel of oases. They are cool, green and lush--a stark contrast to their surroundings--and they attract all sorts of interesting fauna, especially birds.
2) McCallum Oasis. A little smaller than Thousand Palms Oasis, it had the added bonus of a small gorgeous pond and a small stream running off it. Really stunning.
3) A vista point on the hillside above McCallum Oasis. The vista point has a wonderful birds-eye view of McCallum Oasis and a 180 degree view of Joshua Tree National Park, with a through-the-gap view of San Gorgonio Peak.
This is earthquake country; the oases are clustered along the San Andreas fault where springs come through the gaps in the earth's plates. The fault isn't really "visible" but it's still a neat (and slightly unsettling) context.
I love hiking to the oases in Indian Canyon, but I recommend this hike over those. The pricetag for admission to the Indian Canyons has gotten too steep; it would cost over $30 for our family of four to go there, while this hike is free. Perhaps the Indian Canyon oases are a little nicer (the views of the Desert Divide and Palm Springs certainly are nice), but not $30 nicer, and the Coachella Valley Preserve is close enough that the drive time from Palm Springs is worth it. So it's hard to justify the high prices of Indian Canyon when this option is free.
The signage is pretty good on the trail, but all of the precautions about desert hiking apply: wear good shoes, drink lots of water, use sunscreen and remember that everything looks closer in the desert than it actually is. Hiking here during hot weather would be just miserable.
Our photo album from our visit.
August 29, 2011
Northern California Staycation Notes
After my big trip to Russia earlier this summer, it made sense to keep our family vacation local. We spent 3 days in the Sierra Foothills, then I took a father-son overnight camping trip with Jacob to Angel Island, then I took a father-daughter day trip with Dina to kayak in the Elkhorn Slough. Comments on our activities:
Mercer Caverns, Murphys.
I've been to Mercer Caverns a few times over the past 2 decades. I like the caverns for their convenient location and visual interest compared to the other local cave options. Moaning Cavern in Vallecito is also convenient, but the main tour just visits one big chamber. California Caverns in Mountain Ranch is interesting inside, but it requires a long twisty ride on backroads from Highway 4. Mercer Caverns, just a mile outside of downtown Murphys, is easy to get to; and the tour goes through multiple chambers with diverse and interesting formations. The cave is a cool respite to a hot summer day. We were comfortable wearing our sweatshirts despite the 90+ degree day outside.
Overall, I was disappointed with the tour. First, it's pretty expensive. It cost our family of 4 about $45 for the 45 minute tour. Second, our tour guide was uninspired. The tour guides work off a script that's fine (it has some stock jokes and anecdotes that I remembered from many years ago), but our guide showed her youth. Third, although the kids seemed to enjoy themselves at the time, I don't know that the cave visit made much of an impression. The cave was soon forgotten and didn't make any highlights lists.
Yosemite. See the photos.
Yosemite is filled with icons revered around the world: Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and so much more. Yet, I haven't gone in decades because I've been deterred by the seemingly omnipresent and crushing crowds. This year, we decided to go despite the crowds because the huge runoff meant the waterfalls were running especially high.
We parked at Curry Village, took the shuttle to the Mist Trail trailhead, and hiked up the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls. The Mist Trail is noteworthy on three fronts. First, the trail is beautiful, especially as it goes into the splash zone and then to the fall's top with its emerald pools. Second, the trail was PACKED with people. At some narrow junctures, we had to wait for traffic going in the opposite direction. Third, it is dangerous! We went right after 3 people went over Vernal Falls to their death, and more people have died since. Some of those folks made riskier choices than we did, but the trail is very steep and very slippery.
Remarkably, both kids handled the trail fine. Jacob is a bit of a mountain goat, so I wasn't worried about him, but Dina likes the concept of hiking more than she likes the reality. My wife found a way to motivate Dina, however, by promising an ice cream cone back at Curry Village if she got to the top without complaining much. Dina got to the top, didn't complain much, and got her earned treat. Everyone won!
We went on a Monday, and Yosemite was still quite crowded. It was unquestionably better than going on a weekend or holiday, but the off-season is a better time to visit.
Angel Island is a fantastic camping destination. It easily ranks in the top 10 most scenic campgrounds I've ever camped at. If it weren't for one serious defect, I'd rank this one of the best camping destinations I've been to.
Getting There. Ferries service Angel Island from Tiburon, San Francisco and Alameda. The Tiburon ferries operate frequently, but Tiburon isn't convenient unless you live in Marin. We took the Blue and Gold Ferry from Pier 41, which only operates a few times a day during the week. We took the 1:05 pm ferry to the island (which stopped in Tiburon along the way) and the 1:45 ferry back the next day, giving us about 24 hours on the island.
As an integral part of our adventure, we took mass transit almost the whole way: Caltrain from Mountain View to Millbrae (we drove to the Mountain View train station), BART from Millbrae to Embarcadero station, the electric streetcar from Embarcadero to Pier 39, the boat from Pier 41 to Ayala Cove, and then a hike from the cove to our campground. The mass transit added a couple hours of extra travel time, but the multiple transportation modes was exciting to my son, more earth-friendly, cheaper than driving plus parking, and didn't involve us leaving a car overnight in a San Francisco parking garage.
The Campground. We camped at East Bay #3. This site was huge and fairly well set-off from the other two East Bay sites. We didn't hear our neighboring campers or see them except at the water spigot (although we could hear some shouting from the workcamp at the Immigration Station). The East Bay sites are much more private than the Sunrise sites, which have effectively no visual or aural privacy from each other. Both the East Bay and Sunrise sites have favorable microclimates compared to the Ridge campsites on the island's southwest side. By being on the island's east side, they are shielded from the fog pouring in from the west. Indeed, our tent's rain-fly was barely wet in the morning. The mountain ridge also blocks some of the wind, but we did get a little wind.
When the fog lifts, the Ridge sites have jaw-dropping views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate. However, in summer, the fog rarely lifts for very long In contrast, our campsite had fantastic mostly fog-free 180 degree views of the East Bay from Richmond to Oakland. Among other points of interest, the shipping lanes run along the island's east side, so we watched ship after ship trundle past. At sunset, I watched the fog roll through the Golden Gate and across the bay, hit the East Bay hills, and spread progressively further north. Check out my short videos of that scene. I could have spent hours just watching the fog, the ships and the sunset. It was amazing.
The campsite required about a 45 minute hike from Ayala Cove. It wasn't very steep or arduous, but we had packed light. The campsites have a water spigot for fresh water, so you don't need to pack water. The campground has an outhouse. Our campsite also had a picnic table and food locker.
The campsite, including the reservation fee, cost less than $40/night. If you want a comparable view of the Bay at a hotel, expect to pay many hundreds of dollars a night. Camping on Angel Island is unquestionably one of the best bargains in the Bay Area. Even better, because we were willing to go mid-week, we had no problem getting a prime campsite with about 10 days advance notice. Weekend reservations will require more advance planning.
Now, about the major downside. From East Bay #3, we could hear a buoy warning signal going 24/7. It wasn't very loud, but I'm sensitive to those kinds of noises. If you listen carefully to my videos, you'll hear it in the background. Then, as the fog deepened through the night, other foghorns turned on. By pre-dawn, 3 or 4 different foghorns were going simultaneously along with the buoy warning, each with their own sound and cadence. It was like a discordant symphony--beautiful in a way, but not very peaceful. I take melatonin when I camp to help get some sleep, so I ended up doing OK overall; and my son slept through it all. If you can sleep with earplugs, bring those.
What to Do. Angel Island activities mostly relate to nature, military or immigration.
For nature, you can hike or bike around the island and to the top of Mt. Livermore. We did both. Mt. Livermore offers 360-degree views of the San Francisco Bay, but the view depends heavily on the fog situation. For the best views, go on a clear winter or spring day. In summer, it's highly likely that some of the iconic sights--such as the Golden Gate Bridge or downtown San Francisco--will be partially or wholly obscured in the fog. The good news is that the fog is aesthetically pleasing itself...so long as it's not on top of you! The loop around the island offers constant beautiful views with the same fog caveat.
For military history, Angel Island is remarkable. I was blown away by Ft. McDowell (on the east side) and Camp Reynolds (on the west side). They are exceptionally well-preserved ghost towns with interesting ruins set among beautiful views. I could have spent more time poking around Ft. McDowell, where visitors have effectively unrestricted access to most of the abandoned buildings (be safe, but many of the buildings still look very sturdy). Camp Reynolds has a totally different feel, and it was instantly obvious that it was from a different military era. I didn't get much out of the batteries and Nike missile installations, but they are an important part of Angel Island's military history as well.
For immigration, the immigration station has been nicely restored. Unfortunately, we missed the guided tour, but we still enjoyed taking the self-tour and inspecting the remaining buildings. I include the quarantine station at Ayala Cove in the immigration category; and while it's less interesting than the immigration station, it's a nice complementary destination.
It's hard to see all of the sites during a single day trip to Angel Island, even if you catch the first boat in and leave on the last boat out. Overnighting on the island left us with the perfect amount of time to do everything. I would have enjoyed another night on the island (except for the foghorns) but only to watch the fog and the ships; we saw virtually everything else we wanted to see.
On a day trip, you might choose to take the tram ride around the island with its pre-recorded instructions or rent a Segway or bikes. If you're a Bay Area local, bring your own bikes on the ferry if you don't want to hike.
I plan to take Dina on father-daughter overnight trips similar to the trips I've done with Jacob the past 2 years, but I didn't think Dina was quite ready this year. Instead, I proposed a day trip, and she said she wanted to go kayaking. This might have something to do with the fact that I took Jacob kayaking last year when we went to Mendocino and he loved it. I chose the Elkhorn Slough for kayaking due to its proximity (less than 70 minutes from Mountain View) and the odds of seeing marine mammals.
Unfortunately, the kayaking trip was an unexpected bust. We took the 2 hour family tour from Monterey Bay Kayaks. This was a disappointment on a few fronts.
First, I misjudged Dina's readiness for kayaking. Her short arms just weren't strong enough to hold a kayak paddle, so kayaking wasn't very participatory for her. She didn't complain, but it wasn't the experience I planned.
Second, the tour guide wasn't very good. Inexplicably, he paid more attention to the other family than ours. More importantly, he didn't relate well to kids. He was soft-spoken, prone to tangents, and dry. Dina couldn't hear him, and when she could, his commentary didn't resonate with her.
Third, the two-hour tour barely got out of the Moss Landing harbor--and everything in the harbor could be easily seen from the harbor parking lot. So we didn't see much from the kayak that we couldn't have seen from our car. In fact, after we got out of the kayak, we walked back around the parking lot to get a better view of the sights we passed on the kayak. Naturally, a longer tour would go deeper into the slough itself, but a 2 hour tour was plenty for Dina.
On the plus side, we saw plenty of sea lions, otters, seals, jellyfish and birds. Elkhorn Slough looks worth another visit, but probably as an adults-only visit where I can see more of the slough.
We are vegetourists, and that's true even when we're close to home. Some of our stops during the week:
Garden Fresh, Mountain View. Garden Fresh has been one of my favorite restaurants since the 1990s. I became a little disenchanted with the restaurant when it changed owners in the early 2000s because I felt the quality dropped off some. Since then, I think the quality has improved, although it's been accompanied by higher prices and fewer freebies. For example, back in the old days, the lunch special used to include fried spring rolls, and all of the dishes included complimentary brown rice (even at dinner). Still, Garden Fresh is one of the better deals around, and its best dishes are excellent.
On our most recent trip, we got the lettuce cups and the veggie chicken curry. The lettuce cups were not nearly as good as I remember; something was "off" with the flavor. I don't think we'll try that dish again. The veggie chicken curry is wonderful comfort food. Sometimes I'm not in the mood for something tasting so "heavy," but this time it was exactly what I wanted.
Some of our other favorites: Mongolian veggie chicken and Hunan veggie chicken (these dishes are pretty similar), basil moo shoo rolls, the veggie curry noodle soup and the moo shoo vegetables. Many other dishes are good too. I also like the tofu chowder they frequently serve complimentary. My wife prefers the hot-and-sour soup, and sometimes they will substitute that for the tofu chowder without charging more.
The restaurant itself is hardly atmospheric, although it is slightly more spruced up than it was in the 1990s. It's basically a few rows of formica tables in a mini-mall. Then again, my culinary tastes were honed in Southern California, where the best meals always were in mini-malls, so the setting doesn't bother me. For us, its convenience is an added bonus; it's in easy biking distance from our house.
Mineral, Murphys. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around Mineral. It's an upscale vegetarian restaurant located in Murphys, a small and out-of-the-way Sierra foothills town. There probably isn't another all-vegetarian restaurant within 60+ miles in any direction. When Mineral first launched in 2007, it aimed for the high-end vegetarian connoisseur flush with dot com money. See my review of the restaurant in that phase. In 2008, during the last crash, it revamped into a more mid-scale vegetarian restaurant/cafe, broadening its audience and becoming a place where we felt comfortable bringing the kids for lunch.
The boom must be back on, because Mineral has abandoned its mid-scale orientation and is back to positioning itself as a high-end gourmet vegetarian restaurant. The good news is that the food remains excellent, with extraordinary attention to detail, and the prices are reasonable (compared to Bay Area prices) for the quality of the food and presentation. We had the Mineral Burger (an excellent burger), the "Land Scallops" (a tofu dish), the Watermelon Salad and the Green Papaya Salad, and we devoured everything from all plates before they went back. Total cost at lunch was about $65.
Unfortunately for us, Mineral has lost any pretense of being a kid-friendly place. Even if the menu options look passable to kids, the tastes are just too sophisticated for most kids' palates. I understand that not all restaurants cater to kids, but it's an issue when we're on a family vacation. The server basically warned us when we walked in with Jacob and Dina in tow, asking us discreetly if we'd been to Mineral before as a way of trying to signal that it wasn't a kid-friendly place. It's even more strange because the proprietors were warm and gracious towards our kids and let them watch the laborious presentation of each dish, which our kids totally enjoyed.
For now, assume Mineral is an adults-only place. Murphys has better kid-friendly options just across the street if you're on a family vacation. If you're on an adults-only vacation and you haven't tried Mineral, I highly recommending taking the trip to Murphys for a meal. It's worth the detour.
Sunflower Drive-In, Fair Oaks. This is a funky place. Old Town Fair Oaks is a ramshackle business district with undomesticated chickens wandering around. Then, this restaurant seeks to be the cost-effective vegetarian fast food mecca that we as vegetarians dream about. Most seating is outdoors, amidst the chickens, with unappetizing views of the parking lot baking in the hot Central Valley sun.
Sunflower Drive-in a holdover from the 1970s, and the menu mostly reflects a conception of vegetarianism from 4 decades ago. Their flagship item is a 1970s-style nutburger. Nutburgers have become trendy again, but their recipe is anything but trendy. The nutburger was the best thing we ordered, but it hardly compares with the veggie burgers at Mineral or Source or even Smart Alec's.
Other items were hit-and-miss. The falafel--which some people raved about at Yelp--was only vaguely reminiscent of a "real" falafel. I thought it was bland and uninspired. The kids' menu items were about what you'd expect--the burrito was lots of bean and cheese but not much else; the quesadilla was cheese and not much else. Chips and salsa were run-of-the-mill. The vegan potato salad was pretty good. Vegan cupcakes were as dry as you would expect. The root beer float was a rare overpriced item: $4 buys a paper cup, a dollop of ice cream and a can of off-the-shelf root beer.
As many other reviewers have noted, for a restaurant called a "drive-in" and hawking pseudo-fast food, they process orders at a maddeningly glacial speed. I don't know exactly why things take so long for what should be a well-oiled machine after decades of practice. We placed our order at 11:35 am and the bulk of the order took about 20 minutes on an ordinary workday. With properly calibrated expectations, this wait isn't insufferable; but compared to a place like Smart Alec's in Berkeley or Oreans in Pasadena where fantastic vegetarian food comes speedily, it's nevertheless baffling. I guess their method of operation works for them, but I imagine they could boost profits and throughput if they upgraded their operations.
Although I can't say the food rocked my world, we'll revisit Sunflower Drive-in when we go to visit my stepfather (now living in an assisted living facility just a couple miles away). It's cheap, filling and tasty enough to justify the small detour.
Plant Cafe, San Francisco. Jacob and I patronized the location right by the Embarcadero BART station (101 California Street). At lunchtime, it's a high-volume operation. Order at the counter, hunt for a seat, and wait for the food to arrive.
We tried four dishes: the Plant Burger, Masala Vegetable Stew, Shiitake Spring Rolls (we took it for later) and a Chocolate-Banana Smoothie. The Plant Burger was a little disappointing after all the Yelp raves. My son rejected it outright; I thought the burger was average. Personally, I think Source has the best veggie burger in town. The Masala Vegetable Stew, which comes with some nice flatbread, tasted excellent, was a generous portion, and was priced attractively. My son hijacked my bowl and ate most of the stew. The Shiitake Spring Rolls were tasty but fairly expensive for what you get. The Chocolate-Banana Smoothie was fantastic, but it had an unexpectedly "adult" chocolate taste that I expected my son would reject. He loved it anyway. My overall assessment was strongly positive, and I'm sure we'll be back. I know some reviewers have complained about the price. We spent about $35 for our meal, and I thought that was fair.
I noted that my old law firm (Cooley Godward) is in the same building. If I still worked at the law firm and had this restaurant in the building, I would eat there nearly every day. We need more restaurant options like Plant Cafe. Please come to the South Bay!
Saturn Cafe, Santa Cruz. Saturn Cafe is a venerable vegetarian institution, but it easily can get lost in the shuffle. Trendy restaurants like Source and Plant Cafe have stolen some of its thunder, and Saturn Cafe's chainification has diluted its uniqueness. But Saturn Cafe always delivers a hearty, tasty, cost-effective meal, and it retains a special place in our heart accordingly.
I kept Saturn Cafe as a secret post-kayaking destination for Dina. Even when the kayaking trip went bust, I knew Saturn Cafe would be a hit. We took Dina there a year ago and she loved it--the decor, the coloring menu and the food. What fun!
This trip she had banana walnut pancakes and I had the very tasty vegan breakfast burrito. Both were completely devoured before we left our seats, feeling quite full. The bill was a paltry $15.
I wish Saturn Cafe would come to the South Bay. It would compete directly with Hobee's in both food and price, but I would pick Saturn Cafe over Hobee's (a long-time favorite of mine) both for being completely vegetarian and for its more flavorful options.
May 31, 2011
Alternatives to a School Field Trip to In-and-Out Burger
You may recall that my son's school took an official school field trip to In-and-Out Burger as part of their lessons on food distribution chains and economics. I sent a polite but pointed email to the school principal explaining why we were opting-out of that trip. The principal sent me an appropriately polite response to my email and invited our suggestions of alternatives. My wife Lisa sent the principal this email describing what she did with Jacob instead of the In-and-Out Burger field trip:
I just wanted to follow up with you about alternatives to the In-N-Out field trip. Since both the field trip & our decision to pull Jacob was kind of last minute, I didn't have much time to research alternatives. I ended up taking Jacob out for breakfast at Hobee's & while there, discussing the cost of his entree & what went into that. We discussed the expenses restaurants incur (cooks, servers, rent, utilities, etc.); we also touched on the differences between "fast food" restaurants & other types of restaurants as well as regular vs. organic. Then we made notes about the ingredients used in his entree. From there we went over to Trader Joe's and priced out those ingredients (going through the store with a notepad & pen, noting prices, quantities & serving sizes - we didn't actually purchase anything). Then, we came home and calculated the total price, and then did a lot of division to calculate the price of one serving. (BTW, the $8.50 Florentine Scramble at Hobee's can be made at home for $2.83, and that's with about 50% organic ingredients to boot! :-))
The same morning Jacob's class went to In-N-Out, our daughter's class went to Hidden Villa Farm where they saw how crops are raised, eggs are harvested, goats milked & pigs born. I thought that was a nice view into "where food comes from," and since HV also sells commercially, they can also discuss/show how they choose what to produce, how they package, transport, market & price it, etc.
If I'd had more time, I would have looked into possible "behind the scenes" tours from places like Whole Foods Market, the local Farmers Markets, Trader Joe's and other local farms. If you would like me to research these sorts of options further, please let me know.
Lisa's alternative excursion made quite an impression on Jacob. He became especially interested in organic foods, but the cost accounting also seems to have made an impact. Lisa also told me that several people at Hobee's and Trader Joe's overheard her talking to Jacob and gave her unsolicited compliments for her efforts.
In terms of alternatives, I think a visit to Hobee's is a little better educationally than a visit to In-and-Out Burger, but I think both of them are inferior to a trip to where students could get multiple vendor perspectives, such as a farmer's market. I think it would be really neat to hear different farmers at a farmer's market explain why they think their product is superior to their competition and why it's financially advantageous for farmers to sell their product via a farmer's market as opposed to other distribution options. My guess is that the students would never look at Safeway's the same after hearing that.
May 15, 2011
Thoughts About a Second Grade Official School Field Trip to In-N-Out Burger
[Introductory note: next week my son Jacob's class is taking a school-sanctioned field trip to In-N-Out Burger during normal school hours. We have decided not to participate in that field trip. I sent the following email to the school principal explaining this:]
I know you get a lot of gripe emails. This isn't one of them. We love the school and have been super-pleased with the education and other support that Jacob is getting. However, we decided to opt-out of an upcoming field trip and we wanted to explain why. It seems to us that there may be an issue that warrants further scrutiny in future years.
This coming week, Jacob's class is going on a field trip to In-N-Out Burger. [Jacob's teacher] has indicated that the trip has the following pedagogical objectives:
"Students understand basic economic concepts and their individual roles in the economy and demonstrate basic economic reasoning skills.
1. Describe food production and consumption long ago and today, including the roles of farmers, processors, distributors, weather, and land and water resources.
2. Understand the role and interdependence of buyers (consumers) and sellers (producers) of goods and services.
3. Understand how limits on resources affect production and consumption (what to produce and what to consume)."
These are great pedagogical goals, but we're a little confused how a trip to a fast food restaurant advances those goals. It seems like any single vendor is going to extol the virtues of its offerings. Without any critical analysis of those explanations, the vendor's explanation will be impliedly endorsed by the school and treated as credible by students.
This could be especially problematic in the context of fast food restaurants, whose resource allocation practices and efforts to advertise to kids have come under significant criticism; yet unrebutted favorable descriptions of their practices will not yield any insights into those concerns. Jacob is very much still learning how to critically scrutinize marketing claims, and I don't think he is ready to defend himself against such a subtle form of marketing. I suspect most other 2nd graders are about the same place.
Ordinarily, I'd recommend counter-speech as the fix, such as bringing in a critic of fast food restaurant marketing and practices and letting the students decide who they find more convincing. However, that back-and-forth sounds pretty sophisticated for a 2nd grader audience, and certainly it is well outside the lesson plan.
Thus, my wife and I are left wondering (a) if a school-sanctioned field trip to any fast food restaurant actually advances the stated pedagogical goals, (b) if it does, if there are more effective alternatives (my wife Lisa has been researching options and can provide suggestions if that's useful), and (c) even if not, if the risks that the field trip acts as a form of surreptitious marketing to kids outweighs those pedagogical benefits.
Despite all of this, we are not complaining because we've decided to opt Jacob out of the field trip this year. It's a small nuisance to do so, but we understand its our decision, and we are comfortable with that decision. Given that many classes sought to participate in the In-N-Out Burger excursion, I also want to reinforce that we don't intend to criticize [Jacob's teacher] or single her choices out. Instead, we hope that the faculty and administration will review the pros and cons of any fast food restaurant field trip for future years; or if that conversation has already taken place, we'd welcome any further explanation about the deliberations.
Many thanks for listening and for your and your teachers' and staff's hard work and dedication to educating our children. We remain very appreciative.
February 13, 2011
Review: Royal Greens Vegetarian Restaurant, San Jose
I love trying new vegetarian restaurants, but the Royal Greens Vegetarian Restaurant in San Jose (on De Anza, very close to the Cupertino border) did not rock my world. My wife and I tried three dishes:
* kung pao chicken
* a "hot plate" sizzling chicken dish
* a noodle soup with vegetables
They also brought out a complimentary pot of tea. Brown rice was $1.25 a serving.
The kung pao chicken was just OK. It was mock chicken (passable but not the best I've had), celery, peanuts and dried chilis. It was a little spicy for my wife but not too bad. The flavor was good but not great.
The sizzling dish had mock chicken, green peppers, mushrooms, carrots, ginger chunks, basil and some other stuff. This sounded better than it was. Surprisingly, the flavors didn't really blend together. The green peppers tasted mostly green peppery, and neither the basil nor the ginger influenced the dish's overall flavor. The hunks of ginger weren't really edible, either. This wasn't a bad dish but it was forgettable.
The noodle soup had the long, thick Chinese noodles plus large chunks of veggies. My wife and I both thought it was bland. The soup included some strange white balls that did not taste great.
In addition to being relatively bland, we thought the food was pretty greasy. Perhaps not greasier than most Chinese restaurants, but more greasy than I prefer.
We arrived at about 7:45 on Sunday night. The place was empty except for another patron group that left soon after we arrived. They closed the restaurant at about 8:10 (earlier than their posted 8:30 closing time). Service was limited by typical language barriers, but we got served quickly because we were the only people in the joint. Total price was less than $20/head for 3 entrees and rice. However, some of their dishes were in the mid-teens.
Their website is still "under construction," so you can't check out the menu online. It was filled with lots of strange mock meats: veggie squid, veggie eel, veggie kidney, veggie mutton. The menu clearly indicated which dishes were vegan vs. vegetarian.
If you like Taiwanese food and are looking for a vegetarian version, this may be a good choice. Otherwise, if you're willing to make the drive (or if it's more convenient), we definitely recommend Garden Fresh in Mountain View over this place for very similar food. Garden Fresh is slightly cheaper, less greasy, better tasting and all vegan.
January 03, 2011
Sunol Regional Wilderness--A Mild (Not Wild) But Enjoyable East Bay Park
Sunol Regional Wilderness suffers from several branding problems. First, calling it a "wilderness" is overly generous. Most of it is a working cow ranch. It also is along the flight paths for both SFO and Oakland airports, so planes constantly pass overhead (with the attendant noise). And its relative proximity to the millions of East Bay residents means a steady stream of visitors, especially at attractions like Little Yosemite and Cave Rocks. On a cool and partly cloudy Dec. 31, I saw people everywhere, even in the relatively remote parts of the park. I also saw a lot of off-leash dogs, as this is one of the rare places permitting that.
Second, one of the park's main attraction is called "Little Yosemite," where the Alameda Creek flows through a narrows surrounded by high cliffs on both sides. The creek tumbles over boulders, creating little waterfalls. The combination of the cliffs, boulders and waterfalls is vaguely reminiscent of the Merced River flowing through Yosemite Valley, but calling it "Little Yosemite" massively oversells the experience. On my first pass, I walked right past the area without realizing it! Then again, Yosemite sets such a high bar that any comparisons to it will inevitably disappoint. Personally, my favorite part of the park was above Little Yosemite, where the Alameda Creek, surrounded by oak trees and rolling green hills, bubbled through a wide valley. This section of the park would be an excellent destination when the leaves turn colors in Fall.
Third, another main attraction is the Cave Rocks, a big hit with the dozens of kids I saw scrambling around. But one thing I didn't see at the rocks--any caves.
Once you get past the oversold appellations, Sunol Regional Wilderness is a terrific hiking destination. The paths are well-marked, there are fewer cow patties on the paths than at nearby Mission Peak (and far fewer visitors in comparison), and the scenery is classic East Bay mountains--grassy meadows, oak groves, little creeks (especially after the wet La Nina season we're having), soaring raptors, fine panoramas, and wonderful wildflower displays in Spring. The meadows are filled with an unusually large number of ground squirrels. If you want fitness, the park has plenty of excellent thigh-busters that will reward you with nice views. Another plus: the park has some really nice backpack campsites, a wonderful quick weekend getaway if you can tolerate the omnipresent airplane noise. The park lacks the jaw-dropping views you'll get at the top of Mission Peak, but in all other respects it's a superior destination.
The park's official directions instruct South Bayers to take Calaveras Road from the south. Calaveras Road peters out into a single lane twisty road all along the Calaveras Reservoir, which makes for slow and nauseated driving. It's much simpler and quicker to take 680 to Calaveras Road in Sunol and go south. Following the latter route, door-to-door from Mountain View was a little over 40 minutes.
August 01, 2010
Mendocino Coast Vacation With Kids--My Travelogue
This year, I decided to take my 7 1/2 year old son Jacob on a one-on-one bonding trip. I’ll take my daughter Dina on a similar trip when she gets a little older. In California, we are blessed with many top-notch kid-friendly tourist destinations. I chose the Mendocino coast, one of my favorite destinations anywhere, because I was pleasantly surprised how many good kid options it offered.
Let's start with the downsides as a kid's destination. A minor downside is that it's a 4+ hour drive from our house in Mountain View. There are closer destinations that don't require a half-day in the car. A more serious downside is that all of the roads getting to the Mendocino coast are twisty and not kid-friendly. We had to take a break on the way back after the Navarro River stretch of the 128 nauseated Jacob. Jacob ranked the twisty roads as his least favorite part of the trip. Another major downside is that fog is a constant fact of life along the coast, especially in July when the Pacific water is cold and it's in the 90s inland. So temperatures remained cool all day long right along the coast (and cold in the mornings), and we didn't get a lot of sun--even though it was a beautiful sunny day a few miles inland.
With that caveat, I'll narrate some of the things Jacob and I did in our 2 1/2 day trip. You can also see the photo album at Flickr.
Point Arena Lighthouse. Grade: A
Jacob has not previously shown interest in lighthouses, but frankly, who doesn't like lighthouses? The Point Arena lighthouse has a number of advantages, but the biggest attraction was climbing 125 stairs to the top of the 115 foot concrete cylinder. Jacob scrambled up the stairs like a mountain goat, reaching the top before all of the adults (many of whom huffed and puffed their way up). Note that the staircase is pretty narrow, so we had to stop a number of times to let opposite-direction traffic pass.
The old Fresnel lens is now on display in the small museum, so it's possible to get a good look at it too. Now, all of the work is done by a tiny light on the lighthouse top’s exterior. At the top, a docent provided some good color commentary; we then got to walk along the catwalk (I think he called it the "gallery") right below the lighthouse room for some excellent unobstructed views of the coastline. (The lighthouse room has the same views, but the windows were dirty). From the top, we watched a sea lion rookery just offshore and birds of prey (mostly turkey vultures) riding the wind currents over a nearby punchbowl. Overall, the tour within the lighthouse column took about 20-30 minutes, perfect for curious boys with typical attention spans of 7 year olds. We also poked around the museum a bit and the grounds as well. As a bonus, from the cliffs I easily spotted a whale within a few hundred yards of shore!
Admission was a little high for adults ($7.50 per) and a bargain for kids ($1 per). For the two of us, the $8.50 admission was an excellent value. For a larger group with multiple adults, the economics may be less favorable. Their hours aren't entirely predictable. Their website said they close at 3:30, but they were open to 4:30 on a weekday in July.
Overall, the lighthouse was a big hit. Jacob ranked this as one of his "highlights" of the trip.
B. Bryan Preserve in Point Arena. Grade: B+
In the middle of nowhere--Point Arena (population around 500)--and in the cool fogbelt along the Mendocino coast, is a globally important African game preserve, including 3 types of antelopes (kudu, sable and roan) and two types of zebras (Grevy's zebras and mountain zebras). Giraffes are coming next. The proprietors, Frank and Judy Mello, appear to be passionate African animal lovers with the time, money and curiosity to devote their lives to living a fantasy. Admit it--when you were young, you thought: wouldn't it be cool if I could live on a ranch with several dozen amazing African animals? For the Mellos, that dream is their reality.
Even better, the proprietors share the experience with all of us. They run daily tours at 4:30 to coincide with feeding time. Space is limited--they can only take as many people as they can fit in their Land Rover and truck--so reservations are essential.
The "tour" itself is a bit of a misnomer. This is a preserve, not a zoo, and it's run like a true mom-and-pop operation. There is no road signage or welcoming booth. You drive up the driveway, park next to the barn, and try to figure out where to go next.
The tour starts in the barn, where Judy gave us some background information on the preserve and each of the animals we would see. As props, she used taxidermied heads of the various animals. We then walked around the barn to see some mountain zebras, then climbed into the antiquated open-air Land Rover to drive around the preserve and see the other animals.
The result is like a bargain African safari. We had an up-close-and-personal encounter with dozens of majestic animals without having to travel 6,000 miles to Africa. The animals were just a few feet away, drawn closer to us by their dinner. The animals aren't tame, so for the most part they were behind fences, but this was still an intimate interaction. Judy let the kids toss some apples into some of the pens; Jacob gave several good tosses.
I downgraded the tour's grade as a kid-friendly destination for a couple of reasons. First, although Judy did OK as a tour guide, this was not a professional-quality tour. Rather, the Mellos are hobbyists sharing their hobby. Second, at an hour-and-a-half, the tour stretched Jacob's attention span. For him, I think once he saw one zebra, the marginal utility of the next zebra diminished rapidly. By the end, he was more interested in playing with the other kids on the tour than checking out the animals. As a result, Jacob surprisingly did not rank this tour as a highlight.
I should add that as an adult destination, I would grade this an A. Despite the tour's casualness, I thoroughly enjoyed the tour and loved watching the animals. Zebras are too cool, and the antelope were pretty nifty too. The proprietors have two really lovely cottages that they rent out, and what a delicious destination for an adult getaway.
The tour is almost exclusively outdoors, so no matter how warm you feel waiting for the tour to start, bundle up tightly for the inevitable chilling wind that will blast you. The tour cost $20 per adult and $10 per kid, a decent value for being immersed in the unexpected Point Arena savannah.
Kayaking. Grade: A
The Mendocino coast offers several kayaking options, including sea tours, river float trips and (in season) river whitewater trips. I think a tour of the sea caves or coastline usually will be more interesting than the river tours, but Jacob has never kayaked before, so I chose a less complicated river float trip.
We took a Noyo River tour from Liquid Fusion kayaking. This proved to be an excellent choice for three reasons. First, the tour was easy paddling even for novices. Second, we were the only customers on a Wednesday morning tour, so we customized the trip to our specific interests. The tour wasn't the cheapest, but having a private session for 90 minutes turned out to be an excellent value. Third, the proprietor Cate is a former schoolteacher, so she did a great job engaging Jacob.
We kayaked from Dolphin Isle harbor down to the main harbor and back on our 90 minute tour. Along the way, we saw a couple seals in the river, many birds (osprey, kingfisher, woodpecker, ducks, swallows and a beautiful Great Blue Heron) and evidence of river otters (but no otters themselves). Jacob initially loved the opportunity to paddle, but eventually he got distracted by the surprisingly fascinating (to him) floating seaweed in the river.
Jacob ranked the kayaking as a trip highlight. It was a great way to whet his appetite for more.
Glass Beach in Fort Bragg. Grade: A
Glass Beach is a triple play as a kid's destination. First, the beach is covered in seaglass washed up from when the area was a dump. It may be my poor memory, but it seemed like there was less seaglass than I saw in previous visits. Don't expect a mile-long carpet of multi-hued seaglass; instead, the densest parts now are just small patches. Still, the colorful mixture of seaglass, shells and rocks was fun to poke around.
Second, Glass Beach has some of the better tidepools in the area. Jacob spent nearly 2 hours running from pool to pool, watching the tide flow in and out. We didn't find many critters, but their absence wasn't a dealbreaker.
Third, the bluffs are covered in wild blackberries, and we spent a little time looking for a snack. Most weren't ripe in mid-July (too early in the season), but the quest was fun. Lots of flowers too.
Glass Beach is convenient and free, and our visit enjoyably consumed a few hours of time. An excellent destination.
After the success at the Point Arena Lighthouse, Jacob enthusiastically responded when I proposed visiting another lighthouse. However, this one was a mostly a bust for him. I think he expected we would climb to the top of the lighthouse, but that wasn't allowed. The park includes several 100 year old buildings that represent a complete lighthouse installation, including the lightkeepers houses and various other buildings. The tiny museum in the picturesque lighthouse building was not interesting to kids. One of the keeper's restored houses was open for inspection but Jacob was only mildly interested.
We walked around the headlands as well. The "South" trail started out strong, but when we turned inland, the trail petered out into a bunch of game trails. We didn't get lost (it would be impossible to do so), but I hate it when trails are that confusing. I assume the lack of trail maintenance is due to the state budget crisis (the visitor center was closed due to budget cuts).
Despite all those strikes against the park, the visit was saved by a seal colony right by the lighthouse that we could watch easily without binoculars (binoculars did help). We counted at least 22 seals at one point, and we spent a half-hour watching seals trying to get out of the pounding surf and then blubbering up the steep slopes to avoid the splash zone.
Entrance into the park is free, but they request a small donation to access the tiny museum. Parking is about 1/2 mile away from the lighthouse. It's possible to rent one of the keeper's homes for a vacation stay; that looked like an interesting choice.
Van Damme State Park in Little River. Grade: B.
The Mendocino coast is blessed with several excellent state parks. Russian Gulch State Park is my favorite. It has the most interesting hikes, and the headlands are amazing.
Van Damme State Park has a lot to recommend it, but it suffers from a few obvious limitations. The biggest limitation is that its centerpiece attraction, Fern Canyon, remains partially closed to hiking due to storm damage from over a decade ago. You can hike about 1.5 miles in (further than the trailhead signage misleadingly indicates), but even getting that far requires scrambling over a few massive downed redwood trees blocking the trail. However, not being able to complete the hike feels somehow like the park is cut in two. Even so, the Fern Canyon hike is very nice, although my favorite Fern Canyon is in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park north of Eureka. The hike is best in the rainy season, so the canyon was not at peak fern-iness during our mid-July visit.
Jacob enjoyed the Fern Canyon hike. The trail is level, wide and well-marked. Ferns and redwoods are everywhere. Most exciting to him was a tree growing out of a downed redwood at an angle that made it look like a "J." All around, this is a very kid-friendly hike.
There are two other hikes in the park: a short hike to a bog, and a loop around the Pygmy forest. We didn't do either on this trip, but on a previous trip I didn't find the Pygmy forest all that interesting. Due to the soil conditions, the trees' growth is stunted, so very old trees look like they are young saplings. But to the untrained eye, it just looks like a young forest. (The forests in the Yukon close to the treeline all look like this). Van Damme also has a small beach (with a kayaker concession) at the coast, but no headlands comparable to Russian Gulch's.
The campground has about 75 camping spots spread out over a mile or two. The layout is very typical for California state parks. Some sites are very close together; but even the more spread-out sites offer little aural or visual privacy. Fortunately, during mid-week, the campground wasn't too rowdy, but nevertheless you're likely to hear your neighbors for as long as they are awake. The campground "host" was invisible.
Each site has a park bench, a firepit and a food locker. Our site (#38) was shaded by a stand of evergreens (unfortunately not redwoods) on a sloping hillside, with two level tent sites. The bathrooms were a brief walk away. They were in OK condition but bring your own soap. The bathroom lights automatically turned on after dark, but we needed our flashlights inside the bathrooms at sunset/dusk before the lights turned on. We didn't take advantage of the various ranger-led activities (which were thin mid-week) but they were fairly typical for the state park system; most of them cater to kids. Firewood is sold at the visitor center, and the website advertises wi-fi at the visitor center too (I didn't try it).
In mid-July, we had virtually no bugs and it was light until about 8:45 pm, but temperature were cool--a damp high 40s with a light wind at breakfast-time that required us to put on jackets and use the car as a windbreak.
One of Van Damme's many advantages is its proximity to Mendocino town--3 miles and less than a 5 minute drive away. We paid $35/night plus the online reservation fee. I found a few sites still available for our mid-week stay with less than 2 weeks advance notice (Russian Gulch and other nearby state parks were all sold out by then). It was a good value for a prime sleeping spot on the Mendocino coast.
Some other things we did:
* Golden Gate Bridge vista point. I believe this was Jacob's first time over the Golden Gate Bridge, so we stopped at the vista point on the Marin side of northbound 101. I had faint hopes that we might be able to walk across the bridge, but at 10:30 am on an otherwise lovely summer morning, it was uncomfortably cold and completely foggy (i.e., couldn't see the tops of the bridge or across the Bay to San Francisco).
* picnic lunch at Sonoma Coast State Beach. Hard to go wrong with this. Jacob ranked this as one of his highlights.
* hike at a nameless (?) vista point in Sonoma County. There was a nice <1 mile loop that was perfect for stretching legs, seeing flowers and getting some views--though the fog blocked most of the panoramas.
* lunch at Cafe 1 in Fort Bragg. Jacob rejected the Living Light raw food storefront for lunch, which screwed up my meal plans. Instead, we tried Cafe 1, a few blocks up Highway 1 and recommended by the Living Light folks. In an old-style diner, the restaurant served a mix of old diner favorites and modern vegetarian cuisine--all organic. I wish more restaurants were like this. We heartily devoured everything we ordered.
* dinner at Lu's Kitchen in Mendocino. I have a love/hate relationship with Lu's Kitchen! It has erratic hours and only serves lunch, so more often than not, it's going to be closed when you visit. And it has only outdoor seating--a chancey proposition with the fickle coastal weather, and no table service. But the wonderful food--and the lovely flowers in the garden--makes it worth tolerating the many quirks. We got lucky and arrived just before it closed. Jacob ranked his Golden Tofu dinner with peanut sauce as a highlight.
May 23, 2009
Mountain View Ranked #4 Best Place to Live
Forbes recently ranked Mountain View as the fourth best place to live among towns under 100,000 people. As the Mountain View View points out, this ranking is despite the magazine's belief that we don't have good restaurants in town, even though we have a vibrant restaurant scene--especially in downtown on Castro Street, where the competition is particularly high. They don't even mention our year-round farmer's market, a huge treat within biking distance.
We used to live in San Carlos before our Wisconsin sojourn, and while I liked San Carlos a lot (especially the Bay views from the hills), Mountain View is even better. There are more services and resources in town, and there are more things to do in the South Bay than in the mid-Peninsula. And I have the apparently typical commute time of 20 minutes--a reverse commute, no less, as I rarely experience much traffic in either direction.
December 13, 2008
West LA Vegetarian Restaurants Quick Reviews: Veggie Grill, Real Food Daily, A Votre Sante, Interim Cafe, Rahel
Lisa and I took a 48 hour veggie-tourist getaway to Los Angeles last weekend. Our principal agenda was to visit some old vegetarian favorites and explore some new ones. A quick recap of the tour:
Veggie Grill, El Segundo. Website. This is a relatively new chain with 2 locations in Irvine and 1 in El Segundo just a couple miles south of LAX. The menu architect is Ray White, who was also half of the brains behind my long-time favorite Native Foods in the desert. Because of their common heritage, the menu at Veggie Grill reminded me a lot of Native Foods--which is a good thing! The restaurant has been receiving accolades, including this year's VegNews' restaurant of the year, so we were anxious to try it.
Physically, the El Segundo restaurant is attractively designed, with the now-standard high ceilings, concrete floor and modern furniture. It looked like a hip college hangout. Patrons order at the counter, put a number on the table and wait for the food to be brought from the kitchen. Wait times were minimal at 5 pm on a Saturday, and seating was ample. By 7 pm the place was crowded but not full.
We ordered four items: the V-burger, the Carne Asada sandwich, the Santa Fe Crispy Chickin sandwich and the Beam Me Up chili. Entrees were $8-10. Everything was good, although I especially liked the Carne Asada sandwich, which I thought was a first-rate dish. We got sweet potato fries and steamed kale as side dishes, and both were very good as well. I'm not a huge fan of sweet potato fries but these may be the best I've had. I personally don't like kale but they put a nice dressing on it and made it taste palatable. I'd say it was the best kale dish I've had, and I wouldn't be adverse to ordering it again.
So, very high marks for this restaurant all around. I can't wait to go back and sample more things on the menu and get the Carne Asada again. The restaurant is so close to LAX that I may just have to swing by next time I'm flying in or out of there. Even better, I'm crossing my fingers that maybe someday the chain will expand to the Peninsula. I promise to be a regular and hungry customer!
Real Food Daily, Santa Monica. Website. I like Real Food Daily. I've gone there numerous times over the past decade, and I've never had a bad meal. The problem with Real Food Daily is that it's just a few miles away from a restaurant I like even more--A Votre Sante--and given our scarce time in LA, A Votre Sante usually wins out.
We went for Monday lunch and tried the Tac-o-the-Town and a weekly special, the Burger in a Salad. The food was good, but as the server told us, RFD does Mexican food really well, and the tacos were IMO better than the salad. I might focus on the Mexican dishes on the next visit.
My real problem is that RFD is expensive and, frankly, overpriced. Lunch entrees were $14-$17, about $5 more than comparable dishes at A Votre Sante and Interim Cafe (discussed below). So while the food is good, I think the food at A Votre Sante is better and cheaper. So I will gladly go back to Real Food Daily, but preferably on someone else's dime!
A Votre Sante, Santa Monica. Website. If I had to pick a single favorite restaurant in the world, I might very well pick A Votre Sante. It's not fully vegetarian (only about 1/2 the menu is vegetarian), but their vegetarian food is consistently outstanding. I have loved this place for 2 decades, and I go as many times as I possibly can. I've been disappointed watching their empire consolidate--in the 1990s, they had as many as 4 locations, and now they are back to just their original San Vincente location--although I was heartened to see that they had taken over the neighboring space, doubling their seating capacity, and had done a renovation that gave the interior a decidedly more upscale feel.
The surface had changed, but the food was just as good as I remembered it. It was so hard to choose only 2 dishes! I got the T&T, one of my favorites (along with the Dragontail, a classic), and Lisa got the Stir-Fried Vegetables. Yum! Both plates were completely cleaned before I left. I'll be back!
Interim Cafe, Santa Monica. i couldn't find a website for them. I wasn't able to make it to Interim Cafe, but Lisa picked up a couple of dishes to-go for our ride to the airport. The Interim Cafe is by the same folks who launched Newsroom in West Hollywood. Two years ago we tried the Newsroom and were less-than-impressed. It was fine, but not worth an extra schlep to West Hollywood. This time, Lisa picked up their basic burger and a stir-fry. The stir-fry was pretty heavy on the tofu but was otherwise fine. The burger was excellent, and I really enjoyed it. The menu is about 1/2 vegetarian, but it's a big menu with lots of attractive options. Prices were $8-$10 per entree, making this substantially cheaper than Real Food Daily. I definitely want to sample more things from the menu, so next time in the area I'll try to swing by.
Rahel, Little Ethiopia/Fairfax District. Website. I love Ethiopian food. Indeed, it's a little known fact that Lisa and I went to an Ethiopian restaurant (the Blue Nile in Berkeley, sadly now closed) on our second date. There is a cluster of Ethiopian restaurants in Little Ethiopia, a modest district on Fairfax, but Rahel stands out because it's entirely vegan. Furthermore, on our first visit 2 years ago, we thought it was absolutely terrific food. We've been salivating to visit again.
I think the best time to visit Rahel is for their all-you-can-eat lunch specials on the weekdays for less than $10. That's a pretty good deal. We went on a Sunday for lunch and instead got the Veggie Paradise combo. It was more expensive than I expected ($15/person), and I'm not sure we ordered the right combo because I remember our last visit including more options that were truly terrific. Nevertheless, the food was good, the service was good by Ethiopian restaurant standards, and we got more food than we could eat. We will definitely go back to Rahel, although because our last visit was a 4 instead of a 5 star visit, we probably won't view it as an essential stop.
Farmer's Markets. In addition to all of this eating, we went to the Sunday morning Santa Monica Farmer's Market on Main Street and the Sunday afternoon Brentwood Farmer's Market between San Vincente and Montana. Both were fine farmer's markets, although the Brentwood market had a limited number of produce vendors. Both farmer's markets had numerous vendors of ready-to-eat vegetarian food that was absolutely mouth-watering, and it took a lot of restraint not to pig out there instead of our restaurant destinations. If you're around, you might decide to pick a meal at the farmer's markets instead of the local restaurants--there are some good options.
October 28, 2008
The Loving Hut, Palo Alto--Forgettable Vegan Fast Food
The Loving Hut is the oddly-named new vegetarian chain of restaurants with locations in Milpitas, San Francisco and Palo Alto. (The name practically invites salacious riffs). They are a spinout of the vegetarian stalwart restaurant in San Jose, the Vegetarian International House. Unfortunately, Lisa and I didn't enjoy our only visit to the International House a number of years ago. We didn't like the food, and more importantly, we were put off by the cultish overtones, especially the multiple TVs blaring promotional materials for the cult. Nevertheless, I hoped that the Loving Hut chain would transcend its origins and offer a new strong competitor to the marketplace.
The Loving Hut in Palo Alto is Palo Alto's newest all-vegetarian restaurant and the first in downtown Palo Alto since the Bayleaf Cafe closed a couple of years ago. It is one of only two vegetarian restaurants currently operating in town (the other is Cafe Soulstice, a raw food restaurant attached to the Equinox gym by Fry's). Unlike Berkeley, the sister college town across the Bay, Palo Alto has had an inexplicably difficult time supporting all-vegetarian restaurants. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least 3 recent predecessors that have been churned out of town, compared with at least a half-dozen all-vegetarian restaurants currently thriving in Berkeley. Why is it so hard for Palo Altans to keep all-vegetarian restaurants in business?
Unfortunately, I don't think the Loving Hut is a strong enough entrant to break the jinx against vegetarian restaurants in Palo Alto.
The facility is well located on University Avenue between High and Emerson. There is a limited number of seats, but this didn't seem to matter when I visited at 6 pm on a Monday as everyone was ordering take-out. The seating area is uniformly colored in a bright white plastic, which gives the restaurant a fresh and bright look but also felt a little sterile. There is a flat-panel TV on one wall playing the same kind of cultish promotional material as I saw at the International House, but the sound was off and it was easy enough to avoid (unlike at the International House, where there were TVs everywhere I looked and the sound was loud).
Customers order at the counter, which is next to a large deli case displaying many of the items available for purchase. (Other items are prepared in the back). I was very disappointed that the menu on the website apparently is only for their Milpitas location, and the actual menu at Palo Alto was much smaller. Right now, the Loving Hut offers a total of only 6 entrees, two of which are sandwiches, Worse for me, the most interesting sounding entree (the Guru's Curry) was unavailable because they had run out. The menu also has 3 salads, one soup and a few other sides/accompaniments.
I thought the food overall was average--not great, not bad.
* As I mentioned, they had run out of the Guru's Curry, so we tried the 7 Seas Rice instead ($6 for a decent sized portion). Without the sauce, it was bland and was dominated by the smell of nori (although the nori didn't overwhelm the flavors). With the sauce, it was a little less bland, but still not nearly as flavorful as it should have been.
* The Heavenly Salad was similarly average-tasting and comparatively expensive ($9 for an medium-sized portion, which isn't too bad except when you compare it to places like Intermezzo or Smart Alex in Berkeley, where you get twice the salad for half the price).
* The quinoa side dish was fine, a little more flavorful than the others but still inferior to the quinoa my wife makes at home.
* The fresh spring rolls ($5.50) were large but just OK--mostly good but there was a surprisingly bitter and tough-to-chew green included in the roll (not an asset). The dipping sauce was unremarkable. I think the fresh spring rolls at Garden Fresh taste better and are a better value.
* The daily banana muffin was flavorful and had a good texture. It was the best thing we ordered. However, it was not a good value--$3.50 for an average-sized muffin.
Overall, the Loving Hut may be hampered by its relatively high prices ($9 entrees/salads for counter service), which will reduce its appeal to the students, and its lack of flavorful options, which will limit its appeal to the Palo Alto high-roller crowd. Without those two market segments, who will be left to support the restaurant and its high-rent location?
Even so, I'll give it at least one more try. I have obligations in Palo Alto that routinely bring me to within 2 blocks of the restaurant, so it's easy enough for me to go back. But if it weren't so convenient and I wanted vegan Asian food on the mid-Peninsula, I would prefer to go to Garden Fresh in Mountain View, which has a more extensive menu, tastes better, and has a better cost-to-food ratio.
September 01, 2008
Best of Mountain View 2008
The local paper (the Mountain View Voice) published its Best of Mountain View edition. The best businesses. The best restaurants. As usual, these are generally competent lists of where we go as locals:
* House of Bagels (just down the street from us) satisfies even bagel snobs
* Hobee's is my favorite destination for business breakfasts
* Amici's pizza has become our standard lunch when we have parties at home. Their vegan pizza is pretty good.
* the Mountain View farmer's market is really terrific. We love biking to it on wonderfully sunny Sunday mornings. However, for more cost-effective and convenient produce just over the border, we're new fans of Foothill Produce next to Trader Joe's on Homestead, under new management by one of the key buyers from the Milk Pail. The prices are ridiculously low compared to the farmer's market.
* we were a little disappointed with Garden Fresh for a while, but it seems to have righted the ship and once again is a favorite vegan option. Among other things, we like the basil rolls, the vegetable curry soup and the Mongolian chicken (similar to the Hunan Chicken, also a favorite). I also like the "complimentary" tofu and corn chowder that starts the meal when you eat-in.
July 01, 2008
Santa Clara County "Staycations"
After literally traveling to the end of the earth on my last vacation (Kaktovik, Alaska), my next few vacations probably will be closer to home. On that topic, the Mercury News ran a special feature this weekend on Santa Clara County as a tourist destination for locals (a "staycation"). Santa Clara County gets a little overshadowed by some of its showier neighbors (e.g., Monterey, Santa Cruz, the San Mateo Coast, the Pinnacles, Berkeley and of course San Francisco) but there's still a lot of neat things to investigate:
From my perspective, a newcomer wanting to explore Santa Clara County should try all of the following:
* hike in the chaparral, the redwoods and the marshlands
* tour one of our educational institutions. Stanford is the most logical choice and has plenty to do and see, but Santa Clara University's campus is nice too (especially the old Mission)
* tour the Silicon Valley technology community. Because there's no "there" in the Silicon Valley, the Computer History Museum is a good place to start. A drive around the Googleplex, just around the corner from the museum, is a good supplement.
* eat. Check out how many of the reader-supplied suggestions relate to the fact that we have really good food here. With these culinary attractions, it would not be improper to organize a vacation around your lunch and dinner destinations, with other activities to fill in the gaps. Personally, I think any Santa Clara County gastronomic tour is incomplete unless it includes a stop at an ethnic restaurant on El Camino Real/the Alameda/Santa Clara Street (my favorite is Udupi Palace in Sunnyvale--get a dosa or the thali). The tour also has to include (1) a meal in one of the small suburbs' downtowns--there are hidden gems in each, (2) a stop at one of the local farmers' markets, and (3) a visit to one of the ethnic grocery stores, such as the Asian markets.
I guess you could also try to go to one of the more overt tourist traps, such as Great America, the Winchester House, the Gilroy Gardens or the Egyptian Museum. I've never been to the latter three, and I don't think most locals are attracted to places like the Winchester House.
Some of the places mentioned in the Mercury News articles that I haven't been but would like to go:
* Moffett Field hangar
* the Hanna House
* Hakone Gardens
* Mt. Hamilton, especially right after a snowstorm
For many years, I have also wanted to tour SLAC, but unfortunately the tours are on hiatus.
May 28, 2008
Bay Area Blawgers 3.0 Recap
Last week, we had the third gathering of Bay Area Blawgers at UC Berkeley Law School. Over 2 dozen bloggers and friends convened to discuss topics of interest to legal bloggers [see list of attendees below]. Some photos from the event. This event was co-hosted by the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, and a special thanks to them for their help (especially given that the event was scheduled at a very busy time for them).
This time, we started out with a short presentation by Mark Goldowitz on the application of California's anti-SLAPP law (California Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 425.16) to bloggers. The anti-SLAPP statute is a powerful defense tool that can result in the plaintiff paying attorneys fees. It also has certain procedural benefits for defendants, such as an automatic right of appeal for an unsuccessful anti-SLAPP motion. The statute is interesting to blawgers because it should apply to common activities by legal bloggers, such as blogging about lawsuits. Anti-SLAPP protection has been rarely applied to bloggers (we couldn't think of any cases around the table, but I had forgotten that the GTX v. Left case involved a blogger), but it looks like a powerful and important tool that bloggers--especially those actually facing a lawsuit--should keep in mind.
We talked about a variety of other issues, including how to respond to grousy/threatening emails from lawyers whose cases we're blogging about, bloggers posting C&D letters, rich content tools available for bloggers (including Redlasso and iMeem), and how courts are conceptualizing bloggers as journalists for various defenses to IP claims (such as how the blogger in the BidZirk case defeated a TM claim because of his role in producing news commentary). Next time, we'll try to talk about blawgers going on vacation or hiatus--a question on several attendees' minds as they have stopped blogging deliberately or implicitly. I'm also interested in how and why some bloggers (like me) write through multiple blogs. Good stuff for the next gathering, which I'm thinking will be early next year in the South Bay. If you aren't on the mail list and would like to be, let me know.
[Attendees at this event included: Tsan Abrahamson, Jerry Bame, Hudson Bair, Robert Barr, Bob Eisenbach, Cathy Gellis, Mark Goldowitz, Eric Goldman, Joe Gratz, Beth Grimm, Greg Haverkamp, Matt Holohan, Ethan Leib, Joe Mullin, Deborah Neville, Chris Peeples, Mark Perlman, Colin Samuels, Daniel Schulman, Jason Schultz, Tim Stanley, Colette Vogele, and Fred von Lohmann]
More resources related to the Bay Area Blawgers:
* Announcements of Bay Area Blawgers 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0.
* Recap of the first gathering. Beth Grimm has written an interesting meta-recap.
* Photos from the second gathering at Fenwick & West's San Francisco office. More photos.
* List of possible issues for a blawgers' discussion.
* Census of Bay Area Blawgers.
April 21, 2008
Coyote Ridge and Wildflowers
I think of Santa Clara County as mostly urban/suburban. After all, it's home to one of the 10 largest cities in the country (San Jose) and one of the world's largest and most vibrant economies (the Silicon Valley). However, it's also a place of amazing beauty and unexpected wilderness areas
As part of my continuing birthday celebration, yesterday I went on an organized hike to Coyote Ridge, operated by the Silicon Valley Land Conservancy. Coyote Ridge is hardly untouched wilderness; it's adjacent to a garbage dump and the 101 freeway, and it's been thoroughly invaded by exogenous plants and animals. Even so, just 20 miles from downtown San Jose, it provides habitat for all kinds of fauna, including badgers, coyote. elk and eagles, and many rare flowers that grow in its serpentine soil.
Fortunately for me, today the wildflowers were at their peak. It's hard to capture the beauty of California ablaze with wildflowers, but take a look at these Flickr photos nonetheless. As you will see, I love California poppies!
January 21, 2008
Pizza Plaza, Oakland--a Vegan Pizza Joint
I've mentioned before that I've found vegetarian restaurants in some pretty obscure locations, such as the five-star restaurant in Murphys and the raw restaurant in a Las Vegas mini-mall miles from the Strip. This weekend, using my typical technique of investigating vegetarian restaurant lists, we discovered another surprising find.
Pizza Plaza (6211 Shattuck Ave Oakland, CA) is an all-vegetarian pizza joint--and winner of a Best of Veg 2007 award in the vegan pizza category--in a most unlikely neighborhood in North Oakland. Perhaps its location isn't too unexpected as it's near the border of Berkeley, home to numerous excellent vegetarian options. However, like many parts of Oakland, this particular stretch of Shattuck is hardly confidence-inspiring. As we pulled up amidst the boarded-up shops and modest residential and commercial buildings, we looked at each other and wondered if this was a wise choice.
Our confidence didn't improve when we walked into the restaurant and saw 4 plastic tables, a large pizza counter, some wood beads "separating" the eating area from a storage area, and a leftover "Happy New Year" sign over the counter. Even worse, we were the only customers to be found on a Sunday afternoon at noon. What in the world had we gotten ourselves into?
My confidence turned around when our friend started chatting with the proprietors, a lovely couple from Sudan who fled the strife in Sudan looking for a better life. The husband is a microbiologist but when he arrived in the US, he started working in pizza joints to pay the bills. Eventually, as a vegetarian, he decided to start up a vegetarian pizza joint.
The menu offers a host of attractive options. They divide the menu into vegetarian and vegan, offering the most extensive list of vegan pizzas I can recall seeing. They offer other interesting items, including a vegan spaghetti with "meat" sauce and a vegan ceasar's salad with grilled vegan chicken. They even carry Maggie Mudd ice cream among other vegan desserts.
We ordered four "slices" of different vegan pizzas listed on the menu (each $6). Each "slice" was about 4x6 inches and cut diagonally into two. It was enough to satisfy most lunchtime appetites. The pizza crust was a sturdy whole wheat crust that I thought was tasty, the "cheese" was lightly sprinkled over each slice and pretty realistic, and the various mock meats were well integrated. However, the tomato sauce wasn't especially flavorful, and in the end I thought all four menu items tasted about the same. Taste-wise, I'd grade the pizzas as a "B"--competent but not spectacular.
If you're in Oakland and looking for something different, or if you're a vegan with a hankering for an old-fashioned pizza joint, definitely check this place out for a take-out lunch. (I would not go here after dark, and it's not well set up for eating in). As for us, I'd go back in the right situation; but if I'm coming from the Peninsula, chances are I'm going to drive a little further to some of our Berkeley favorites.
December 30, 2007
Global Warming and California
I don't think anyone knows exactly what's going to happen due to global warming, so the AP article on global warming's impact on California is more speculation than science. On the plus side, we can anticipate that global warming will extend our tanning season even longer. On the minus side, rising seas should inundate important and expensive parts of the state. Typically, we "joke" (in a macabre way) about inland areas of California becoming new beachfront property when the big earthquake hits and parts of coastal California drop into the sea (a la Superman I), but global warming could get us there first.
November 18, 2007
Mendocino Anniversary Trip: MacCallum House, Cafe Beaujolais, Mendocino Cafe, Living Light Cafe and More
Lisa and I celebrated our 10 year anniversary in Mendocino, my favorite tourist destination of all time. Great scenery, great food, lots to do. This time, we stayed at the MacCallum House right in town, which turned out to be a disappointment. See my Epinions review of our stay at the MacCallum House. Read my other reviews about Mendocino:
This trip we tried Cafe Beaujolais for the first time. It doesn't try hard to cater much to vegetarians, so I wouldn't recommend it on that basis. However, the two options we found were both excellent. The bread was terrific too. We went for lunch, and I think that's a much better value than dinner. Two odd facts: (1) the floor noticeably slopes, so it's like eating in a mystery house; (2) at our lunch, we were the youngest couple there by at least a decade--at my age, this doesn't happen very often any more.
We also went back to Mendocino Cafe, one of my all-time favorite restaurants. I like it because it's casual and fun with terrific food. However, I was disappointed to learn that some of the putatively vegetarian dishes have undisclosed fish sauce in them. Ask before you order!
Finally, we were blown away to discover the Living Light Culinary Arts Institute in Fort Bragg, which bills itself as "the premier organic raw vegan school in the world." Who knew that Fort Bragg could support a major raw foods cooking school? They have a cafe as part of the school, so we were thrilled to try it out. I'm usually not a big fan of raw foods restaurants; I find them overpriced and typically not very tasty. This place definitely wasn't cheap, but I thought it served the best raw food dishes I've had. I thoroughly enjoyed everything we tried. I think Fort Bragg gets unfairly overshadowed by Mendocino, but the Living Light Cafe is yet another reason to spend some time there.
August 05, 2007
Gary Rivlin in the NYT has a terrific article entitled "In Silicon Valley, Millionaires Who Don’t Feel Rich." The article discusses how a few million dollars of net worth doesn't go as far as they used to, especially in the Silicon Valley where there are tens of thousands of millionaires and perhaps you're not really rich (at least, compared to your peers) until you hit 9 figure net worth. It says:
Silicon Valley offers an unusual twist on keeping up with the Joneses. The venture capitalist two doors down might own a Cessna Citation X private jet. The father of your 8-year-old’s best friend, who has not worked for two years, drives a bright yellow Ferrari.
This is no joke. At my wife's former company, which had created hundreds of millionaire-employees, the talk at company parties often involved each person's personal jet. Those of us who didn't own private jets were awkwardly unable to participate in the conversation.
A side consequence of this competition, and the inflated housing prices, is that there are comparatively few single income families where we live. In turn, it's hard to arrange playdates during the middle of the week, and "mommy-and-me" classes frequently are more like "nanny-and-me" classes.
My wife and I expressly discussed these issues before we decided to move back to the Silicon Valley. Not only were we planning to live on a single salary in one of the most expensive housing markets in the world, but it's an academic salary at that, effectively ensuring that we would never be able to keep pace with our neighbors. This doesn't bother me in the least--it's a choice my wife and I made knowingly and for the right reasons--but I'm dreading the day when my kids start asking questions about why their classmates are doing things that we simply can't afford to do. Then again, like the birds-and-bees discussion (another conversation I dread), it will present a powerful opportunity to teach our kids some essential life lessons.
July 08, 2007
Wunderlich County Park
I have three main criteria for a great local hiking park: interesting enough to warrant multiple visits, reasonably quick to drive to, and no entry/parking fee. A number of parks along the 280 meet these criteria, but three stand out as my favorites:
* Edgewood Park
* Arastradero Preserve
* Wunderlich Park
Wunderlich Park makes the list for one major reason--only about 10 minutes up Woodside Road (Highway 84) from the 280, it's one of the most convenient ways to access a redwood forest. It's also nice because it offers a few nice panoramas of the Bay and has a number of great loop trails that get the blood flowing without being painfully steep. One other plus: below the Meadows, most of the trails are well-shaded, so this park is a good choice even when it's too warm for more exposed trails. Trails are well-maintained and signed, and there are free maps at the parking lot, so it's very hard to get lost.
My favorite hike is to start on the Alambique Trail and take it to the Alambique Flat, a terrific redwood grove that meanders up a quiet canyon. As second growth redwood forests go, Alambique Flat is as good as it gets. It's a perfect spot for lunch or quiet contemplation. I then continue to the Meadows, which isn't very meadow-like but does offer good mountain views. From the Meadows, I continue down the Bear Gulch Trail through Redwood Flat and back to the parking lot. This is a great 6 mile loop trail offering lots of redwoods, bay views and mountain views, plus some good exercise.
As a variation, at Redwood Flat, turn along the Redwood Trail (which exits the redwoods disappointingly quickly) and go to Salamander Flat, where there's a small and not especially attractive reservoir. I then take the Madrone Trail (which has more redwoods than the Redwood Trail) back to the Bear Gulch Trail. This adds a little extra exercise and variation to the trip.
Another variation is to continue from the Meadows up to Skyline. I must confess that this doesn't do it for me. After the Meadows, the trail follows a relatively boring fire road. It's satisfying to reach Skyline, but the ennui usually isn't worth it.
Instead of going up the Alambique Trail, an alternative is to hike up Bear Gulch Trail to Redwood Flat (3 miles RT). This portion of the Bear Gulch Trail goes through many redwood groves, making this a great redwood experience. At Redwood Flat, you can turn around and retrace your steps, or make a small loop by going to Salamander Flat and taking the Madrone Trail back to Bear Gulch Trail.
A few other things to consider:
* this park is popular with horses, so watch your step. On the plus side, no mountain bikes!
* even though it's well-shaded, always bring plenty of water
* at peak times (i.e., weekend mornings) the parking lot can be full
* Bear Gulch Trail follows Bear Gulch Road, so it will get a little road noise. Alambique Trail follows Woodside Road for the first mile or so; it gets a lot of motorcycle and truck noise. As with most parks on the east side of the Santa Cruz Mountains, it also gets a fair amount of airplane noise from planes heading to SFO or the local San Carlos/Palo Alto airports.
April 27, 2007
Best of Mountain View 2007
Everyone loves rankings, so here is the 2007 ranking of the best services in Mountain View. I think in general this list is very good, but of course we could quibble--our favorite burritos are from Bueno Bueno; we think Garden Fresh (a cherished institution in our pre-Milwaukee days) has slipped; and I've never understood the big fuss over Amber India. But other conclusions are spot-on: Amarin for Thai food (ask for the special/separate vegetarian menu), and Hobee's for breakfast. Good stuff.
February 12, 2007
California Legislature's Nanny-ism and the Scientific Method of Legislating
There are brewing concerns about the intrusiveness of the proposals floating around in the California legislature, sparked most visibly by the proposal to ban parental spanking of children. Some critics are calling some of these proposals "Nanny Bills" because they reflect a legislative paternalism; like citizens need a legislative nanny looking over their shoulders. (Nanny-ism was also referenced in this NYT article about requiring walkers to remove their iPod earbuds before crossing the street.)
Not having walked in their shoes, I must confess that I just don't understand what goes through the mind of legislators. However, as an academic and affected citizen, I remain a little frustrated that legislators don't seem to appreciate their role as experimenters where each passed law becomes a social experiment--but unfortunately usually the experiment is conducted trial-by-error. (Cf. Brandeis' defense of federalism because states can act as laboratories of experimentation). As a "scientific" experimentation process, our current legislative system has at least 3 intrinsic but fatal problems:
1) There is often little or no scientific basis underlying the initiatives. Instead, the rhetoric usually relies on anecdotes, intuition and ulterior agendas. But on many questions that legislatures seek to address, there is a rich scientific literature on the question that legislators should consult before making proposals. For example, academics have studied the pros and cons of spanking children. What do they say?
2) There is usually no explicit mechanism to measure the effectiveness of the experiment. Occasionally, laws are passed that delegate efficacy oversight to an administrative agency (for example, Congress asked the FTC for a report on the efficacy of CAN-SPAM), but this is the exception rather than the rule, and we have little evidence that legislatures heed the feedback they get from their "scientific" monitoring mechanisms (as opposed to other mechanisms, like popularity with constituencies or lobbying mechanisms).
3) There are very weak mechanisms to end failed experiments. Legislatures do occasionally repeal laws and more frequently tinker with the laws, but a lot of laws get passed and then left alone forever.
I can offer one possible solution to correct the experimentation process used by legislators: we could require legislators to follow a more rigorous scientific method--form hypotheses, do the research, and then conduct tests to measure the efficacy of various solutions. Unfortunately, this isn't realistic. Legislators aren't trained scientists, and legislatures are lousy venues to debate scientific merits. Yet, knowing that legislators are experimenting without following accepted scientific methods, we should hold them more accountable when they ignore the available literature in preference for their own intuition.
December 10, 2006
California Out-Migration Exceeds In-Migration
For many years, California has seen more in-migration instead of out-migration except in periods of economic downturn. But recently, California has seen net out-migration despite relatively good economic times. See the Mercury News story. There are a variety of possible explanations, although the relatively high cost of living here is a primary suspect. There's no question that living in CA has a premium attached to it; but depending on what a person is looking for, it may be worth every penny.
November 29, 2006
"It's Balmier in Buffalo"
Californians are wimps when it comes to weather. Low temperatures are dipping into the 30s at night (which is unseasonably cold), and this produces lead stories in the local paper that "It's Balmier in Buffalo." I'm still able to remember the many, many days in Milwaukee when I was thrilled that the HIGH temperature reached the 30s, so you're not going to hear any complaints from me!
November 26, 2006
Bob's Pumpkin Farm, Half Moon Bay
Half Moon Bay is our local pumpkin-picking capital. There are at least a dozen pumpkin farms in the area, most of them straddling Highway 92 as it heads west towards the ocean. These farms range from no-frills pick-your-own farmstands to Lemos Farm, a pumpkin stand on steroids that is closer to amusement park than agriculture. (Lemos Farm is also responsible for causing the near-gridlock on Highway 92 during pumpkin season).
Based on a recommendation from Sunset Magazine, we bypassed all of the options on hectic Highway 92 and went 5 miles south of the 92/1 intersection to Bob's Pumpkin Farm. What a terrific destination! It had all of the standard elements of a pumpkin patch--a hay bale pyramid, a few farm animals, a decent corn maze and lots of varieties of pumpkins and accessories like corn stalks. Bob's also had a great produce stand with farm-fresh fruits and veggies. But what really distinguished Bob's was its setting--it's on the east side of Highway 1, with uninterrupted 180 degree vistas of the Pacific Ocean less than a mile away. This stretch of the coast can be foggy regularly, but on the day we went, we were blessed with 70 degrees and sunny weather right along the coast. There may be nothing more enjoyable than picking pumpkins in shorts and t-shirts while gazing at the million dollar views of the Pacific Ocean where ever you look. Recommended.
September 27, 2006
It seems like there were 1,001 disclosures made in our disclosure package when we bought our house, and yet not one of them mentioned the risk of squirrel attacks. (Cuesta Park is less than a mile from our house).
UPDATE: The squirrels are facing the ultimate retribution for chomping on the 4 year old boy. FWIW, we're staying away from Cuesta Park for now.
UPDATE 2: The city has brought in the squirrel-crusher.
September 16, 2006
WaPo on Silicon Valley Ethics
By Eric Goldman
The Washington Post runs an article entitled Silicon Valley's Golden Past Tarnished by Latest Probes, a retrospective/catch-up on the evolution of Silicon Valley ethics, with quick stops in round-tripping, stock option backdating and the HP scandal. As we've repeatedly learned, hero worship cannot withstand scrutiny, even in the Silicon Valley.
September 07, 2006
Santa Clara Women's Soccer Team
It turns out that Santa Clara University has a strong women's soccer team. The San Jose Mercury News ran a lengthy story on its successes--the women's soccer team "has reached the national semifinals 10 times, won an NCAA title, visited the White House and been featured in the movie Bend It Like Beckham." Coach Smith tried to explain his success by describing the special approaches to coaching a woman's team, which I'm offering up without comment:
Tactically, technically, physically, there isn't much difference between coaching men and women....But psychologically, there's a huge difference. With guys, it's `How can I get mine?' With women, it's `Is the chemistry right? Are we happy?' Women are much more concerned with each member of the group being happy and healthy, and they want to do what they can to make it right"....Guys don't care about [feedback], but with women, it's critical. If a kid is having a bad day, I want to know it so I'm not as critical of them, or so we can talk before practice. They need to know that you care, that you're aware of their family and personal life.
September 03, 2006
Ferry Building Farmer's Market
Lisa and I took a quick 18 hour get-a-way to San Francisco this weekend. This finally gave us time to check out the Farmer's Market at the Ferry Building, reputed to be one of the best in the country. It was amazing! There must have been over a hundred vendors there, selling all kinds of produce, flowers, dairy, baked goods, meats, condiments and other goodies.
We got some things we had never seen before, like an "Israeli melon" (I'm not sure if it was a Galia or an Ogen melon) that was like an aromatic honeydew, and a Pink Pearl apple with pink flesh and a sweet-tart flavor (this was a big hit with our nieces). We loaded up on fruits (red grapes, green grapes, white nectarines, golden Pippin apples, red and yellow raspberries, dried kiwi) and vegetables (radishes, pineapple heirloom tomatoes, English peas, sugar snap peas, onion sprouts, sprouted peas, cherry tomatoes, basil) and other yummies (goat cheese, baba ganoush, pesto, hummus, tofu jerky). The selection really was overwhelming, but despite the competition, the prices weren't that cheap. Lisa won't even tell me how much we spent (I don't think I want to know). Nevertheless, there really is nothing like fresh-from-the-farm produce, and there are few places like California where just about everything can be grown locally.
July 25, 2006
Further Reflections on California Living
I recently posted some initial thoughts about California living based on my first couple of weeks as a repatriated Californian. Some further observations from the past few weeks:
* In Milwaukee, the local paper ran a traffic column once a week. The San Jose Mercury News runs a traffic column every day. It's that important.
(Admittedly, I can't complain too much. My commute is routinely less than 20 minutes, and I've hit bad traffic only a couple of times).
* My office has no air conditioning. It would have never occurred to me to ask about air conditioning--I just assumed that every law school building in the US has AC. Sadly, no. The good news is that AC is needed in Santa Clara only a few weeks out of the year. The bad news is that the last couple of weeks have been hot and sweaty. My fingers keep slipping off the keyboard....
* In Milwaukee, we had a 3/4 acre lot. It was so large and wooded that I couldn't see my neighbors. More importantly, I couldn't smell my neighbors. In Mountain View, we have a generous (by CA standards) 0.2 acre lot. Nevertheless, I can see my neighbors on all sides...and smell them too. The neighbor behind us (i.e. upwind) fires up the grill every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. The last few weekends haven't been too bad because we've kept the windows closed and blasted the AC. But otherwise, when I open up the window in my home office on the weekends, as I sit at the keyboard, all I can think is....TERIYAKI CHICKEN. Talk about a nuisance, especially for a vegetarian.
* In Milwaukee, people experienced general malaise in late January and February as the omnipresent cold and darkness took its toll. I've been told that in California, people experience a similar malaise in mid-December and mid-April...when property taxes are due. Property tax due dates are like days of reckoning--have we been good enough savers during the year to stash away the cash to write a check large enough to feed a small city in China? I for one am panicking already.
* BTW, I never shared the final stat--our Mountain View house was exactly 5X more expensive than the sales price on our Milwaukee house. And, get this--the seller of our Mountain View house had benefited from 3 decades of Prop. 13, so our property taxes are over 10X what he was paying. No wonder why everyone in Mountain View was so excited to see us--we just dramatically increased the tax rolls!
July 05, 2006
Initial Observations about California Living
I've created a new category for this blog, "California Living." This is the analogue to my "Life in Wisconsin" category, which I haven't officially retired but isn't likely to see a lot of posts.
To kick off the new category, some observations about my first two weeks as a repatriated Caliifornian:
* California is more "all-American" than Wisconsin. Let me provide 2 data points in support:
- We expected that Wisconsin would epitomize the stereotype of friendly people who welcome new neighbors with tuna casseroles or baked goods. Instead, when we relocated to Wisconsin, most of our neighbors ignored us. This isn't a criticism, but it surprised us a little. In contrast, in our new home in Mountain View, we've had 3 different neighbors ply us with baked treats, and at least a half-dozen neighbors have dropped by our home unannounced just to welcome us to the neighborhood.
- On Independence Day, we went to my sister/brother-in-law's neighborhood in Palo Alto. There, the neighborhood organized a "parade" of sorts. The parade's theme was "Fun with Food," so everyone in the neighborhood came out with various costumes festooned with food items (like the person wearing a box of Cheerios on her head). A fire truck (with lights flashing) led the parade and was followed by a marching band made up of neighborhood volunteers, which was followed by a volunteer flag team. Then, there were homemade floats, kids on bikes/skateboards/scooters, pets in costumes and people just marching. There were people on stilts, people walking while juggling, kids being pulled in wagons, and lots of red, white and blue. Very few people actually watched the parade from the sidewalks; just about everyone (including us) marched along. The parade then ended in the local park, where the BBQs were smoking and serving up a lunch of burgers, chips and watermelon. Then, it was time for the games--sack race, three-legged race, water balloon toss, etc. What could be more all-American than this? But, in the heart of the Silicon Valley!
(Speaking of which, my son ate like an all-American yesterday. He plowed through popcorn, potato chips, 2 big slices of watermelon (with juice dribbling down his chin onto his shirt), and 2 juicy plums (ditto). Then, he complained of a tummyache. You would think he would have known better because he’s read the Very Hungry Caterpillar many times!)
* On the subject of neighborhoods, I think of Silicon Valley as filled with lots of people in transition who are constantly moving in and out. So imagine my surprise when I learned that at least 3 of my immediate neighbors are the original owners of their homes (42 years!), another neighbor inherited the home from his parents, and we bought the home from the estate of a person who was an original owner. And the neighbors across the street have been there 25 years. So instead of being a revolving-door community, we've moved into a community that is way more stable than I could have ever imagined (and with even less turnover than our neighborhood in Wisconsin).
* In California, the newspaper headline reads: Technologists figure out how to bypass China's Internet firewall. In Wisconsin, the typical Internet-related headline was: more predators found online! (there were at least a half-dozen front-page articles on that topic in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel during my 4 years there).
* Google/Earthlink are building the infrastructure to offer free wireless service throughout Mountain View. In practice, this means that every 4th or 5th street light has a little box with 2 antennae on it. Unfortunately, the network isn't live yet, but I can't wait to get some free wireless Internet access! (yes, I am aware of the privacy concerns, but hey--AT&T is providing our DSL service. Need I say more?)
* Our local park has beautiful trees--Palm trees, Oak trees and (my favorite) Redwoods. The amazing thing is--all of these trees are right next to each other. It's like having 3 ecosystems, ranging from desert to chaparral to rain forest, within the span of 50 feet.
* In the past two weeks, we've eaten at a vegan Chinese restaurant (Garden Fresh, about 2 miles from our house), an all-vegetarian Indian restaurant (Udupi Palace, which is absolutely terrific), and an Ethiopian restaurant (Zeni in San Jose). Interestingly, the latter 2 restaurants cater to strong ethnic communities; my wife and I were conspicuous minorities when we went.
* Not a single Calfornian has yet commented on my standard attire of Tevas with white socks.