Friday, May 31, 2013

Dining alone - Beauty for the eye and palate

Sometimes you just need to take yourself to lunch - alone.

I had a mid-morning meeting at an office in downtown Santa Monica, and I told my co-workers I'd take lunch before returning to work. And it was a good thing, too, because the meeting gave me a lot to think about. I wanted a quiet place to get my thoughts settled, and hide away for a moment.

Blue Stove is a restaurant in a department store, and if you think that's a throw-back to the era of ladies-who-lunch, you've got a surprise. Blue Stove is Nordstrom's new enterprise - fresh, sustainable, locally sourced food in a casual yet elegant setting.

The Santa Monica store's restaurant is tucked away in a little niche on the third floor. It feels very private - on a lunchtime Thursday, there were a few occupied tables, but I felt soothed and calmed by the quiet. The menu offers small plates at reasonable prices, but never skimps on flavor or artistry. Watermelon and feta salad with microgreens, above, cost only $5.95 - and it was beautiful, in the bargain.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Paletography of Los Angeles - like a frozen pickle!

Much as I like the idea, I fail to be thrilled with the execution. Of cucumber-chile paletas, that is.

This one is from Cascada Refrescante, and it's a beautiful paleta - soft frosty green, and with a touch of the artistry this little South Central paleteria brings to all its products. Here, a slice of cucumber, with its dark green peel, adorns the base of the pop.

Cascada's pops are also generous - they are larger and thicker than pops from comparable paleterias.

But when I bit into it, I recoiled from the sensation. Salty, sour and hot all at the same time, it was like biting into a frozen dill pickle. Spiced with cayenne! It didn't seem to have the slightest bit of sweetness at all. It made my lips tingle!

Now, I like spicy dill pickles. But this didn't work for me. And it didn't work for [The Man I Love] who usually loves all things spicy, and almost all kinds of pickles.

What do you think? Would you try it? There are a lot of variations on this flavor, so perhaps it would be better with more sweetness, more citrus.  I'm willing to give it another try from another palateria - would you?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Wherein I shamelessly grovel for your favor

Claudia's Bridal shop in Huntington Park, CA
 I've got just a little more than 30 days before I have a major change in my life and routine. Oh, I won't go into some of the palace intrigue that's being rumored at work these days, but no matter which scenario plays out, I will have a major change in my life. I might be unemployed; I've enrolled in some summer classes; and there's even a remote possibility I might have a job offer to consider.

One thing I would like to do is use this change to explore more options. I'm going to try to get a wider audience for my writing. Whether I'm selling it or giving it away, I'm going to try to reach more audiences.

I need to put together a portfolio, and I'm asking for your help. If you've enjoyed the writing you've read in this blog, help me choose my best work. Several of you have liked my posts about travel. Can you tell me what blog posts are your favorites?

Tell me your top three favorite posts. You can write it in the comments. There's an archive on the right, organized by date, and there's also a list of topics, or labels, below that. Or if you don't have time to search, but you remember something you liked, tell me. Or email me directly, at my profile, if you'd prefer.

I want to put together a portfolio of maybe a dozen samples, and see if I can take it anywhere. Your help will be immensely valuable to me.


A Paletography of Los Angeles - Part Two

The Warner Theatre in Huntington Park, closed
 If a helicopter were to drop you down on the sidewalk of Pacific Avenue in Huntington Park, you'd think you were in some small town in America's Midwest. On a sunny summer Saturday afternoon, the sidewalks are full of families shopping in the stores that line the street with its old-fashioned buildings, some from the early years of the last century, some art deco. There's a J.C. Penney, discount clothing stores, jewelry stores, bakeries, coffee shops and mom-and-pop restaurants.

There's even a old art deco movie palace - closed up, as it probably would be in any small Midwestern town, but fabulous with its ziggurat tower, scroll-topped pilasters, and curved neon marquee.

And on a warm summer afternoon, it's nice to see an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, hand-painted sign, kids' bikes parked outside, cheerful flowers in pots.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Up, up and away!

 If you're looking for a special getaway, with wide open spaces and a view that's rare in Los Angeles, why not go to the airport?

Santa Monica Municipal Airport began as the home of Douglas Aircraft. Today, it accommodates small planes and private jets. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Paletography of Los Angeles - Part One

Display case of paletas de agua at Mateo's
 It's a tough job, but someone has to do it. The mission? A comprehensive survey of paletas, or Mexican ice-pops in Los Angeles. No simple popsicle, paletas are made in small shops with fresh fruit and exotic ingredients, and can be simple and sweet or complicated combinations of flavors that include chile, cucumber, dried fruits, and other seasonings.

I have a list of a dozen paleta shops, ranging from Culver City to Anaheim and El Monte, that are noted as great examples of the Mexican paleta tradition. It will take several excursions to explore them all, but today we made the first foray. We packed a cooler with ice so we could bring samples back to taste and compare.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Annual gloom

Click to "embiggen"
 This morning I awoke and looked outside and realized we are about to enter that annual Los Angeles weather phenomenon, June Gloom.

"Morning low clouds and fog," reads the weather report - a report that we'll see almost everyday for the next couple of weeks. Low altitude stratus clouds form over the ocean and beach - this is what Angelenos call the "marine layer."

This will burn off by the end of June, but each year it makes Memorial Day barbecues and school graduation ceremonies a little greyer, colder and gloomier than we would wish.

Even so, [The Man I Love] and I are up for a weekend adventure, and I'll have more to show you later.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sunny blue

This is a California native wildflower. It's the large-flowered Phacelia, or Phacelia grandiflora. Here, it's growing on the steep, south-facing side of the hill just beside our roadway in Topanga.

Cheerfully blue, for a sunny spring day!

Rainbows everywhere you look

Such brilliant color, at the Palisades Farmers' Market.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Marketing tutorial

While serving as the editor of a local arts and cultural events newsletter, I came across an example of amateur marketing that is so egregiously bad it should go down as a textbook example of Failed Branding.

A local Hooterville musical group is losing its long-time performance venue to the wrecking ball. At its final performance, it offers a musical tribute to the beloved old building. But as I tried to include the event in my own newsletter, I discovered there was some confusion. All names have been changed to protect the innocent.

On the organization's website, the event is promoted as "Gershwin Spectacular! A Farewell Tribute to Hooterville's Orpheum Theatre!"

When you click through, you find an article titled: "Tribute to the Hooterville Orpheum."

They also send out an email newsletter. In it, the subject line says, "Farewell Tribute to the Hooterville Orpheum Theatre."

In the top graphic banner of the email, it says, "The Hooterville Quartet presents: A Farewell Tribute Concert to the Hooterville Orpheum."

If you scroll down, you are treated to this: "The Hooterville Quartet Singers present: A Farewell Tribute to the Hooterville Orpheum Theatre."

Just what is the title of the event, anyway?

Adding to the identity crisis, on various pages of the website the person in charge is called Music Director, Musical Director, and conductor.

I know consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, but, really, people? Isn't this something that gets covered in Branding 101?

Sunday, May 19, 2013


I just came back from the supermarket, where, in the frozen foods aisle, a woman of a certain age had opened one of the freezer doors and was standing in front of it, with her backside inside the freezer case. To the shoppers strolling past with their carts, she was unabashed. "I'm not apologizing. It's cool and it's free."

Friday, May 17, 2013

Violets and roses

Rosa glauca, from Wiki-commons
 It's been a year since my friend Laurie slipped away from the world, despite her brave fight.
When I visited her in Seattle, just a few weeks before she died, I remember walking into the little bungalow house she shared with her husband, my dear friend John, and their two grown daughters. The front walk passed beneath a wooden arbor that John had built for her, twined with a species rose just burgeoning with red new growth, and there were violets blooming in the small garden bed just inside the yard.

I told her how beautiful I thought they were, and John quite proudly told me about the rose. It was special, he told me, a rare and special rose that Laurie had planted years ago.

During that visit, she was still strong and we all thought she would stay with us longer. I went back to the hotel I was staying in during that visit, and thought about the rose, and how even in her illness Laurie was still surrounded by beauty and love. Then it came to me. The rose was rosa glauca. I had given Laurie a rooted slip from the plant that grew in my own garden, over fifteen years before - when our children were still babies.

What lasts are memories and love. Violets and roses.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

It's all good

Here's a beautiful pastel sunset in the Santa Monica Mountains this evening.

I went back to the Imaging Center today, got squooshed and prodded and slimed. It's all good, nothing to worry about.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Sad sack

The beach at Castellammare, Pacific Palisades
 Sad Sack was an old comic strip character, dating from the 1940s. He was a lowly private in the U.S. Army, a poor dumb schlub experiencing bad luck, humiliation, and indignities at the hands of an uncaring establishment - and due to his own ineptness.

It's funny, though, to think of how one's sadness or depression would be something you carried along with you, in a sack, or a bag - a piece of scuffed up, awkward, burdensome luggage you can never check.

I've been feeling like a Sad Sack lately. It's 45 days until my job ends, and I still haven't succeeded in finding a new one. Job hunting is always a challenge, and I know from experience how much you have to deal with rejection and uncertainty when you job hunt. But knowing that doesn't makes me feel any less like a failure, and that makes me sad. I regret imagined things I might have done to deserve this; I think of opportunities I failed to rise to. I feel like I am carrying my sack of Sad along with me in everything I do, these days.

The Cat who sits

Heidi at Smalltown Me is the official curator of the Online Gallery of Vernacular Cat Art. I know she'll appreciate this graffitti example in Mexico City. Just past the Cafe La Habana on the Calle Bucareli, this mysterious cat waits serenely on a wall of a wine and liquor store.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Thematic photographic - Frozen

Carmi at the blog "Written, Inc." posts a photographic challenge each week at Thematic Photographic. This week, the theme is "Frozen."

Cantaloupe flavored paleta
In Los Angeles, as in Mexico, these icy, frozen fruit bars are called paletas, and they're available in a vast array of flavors. Not just a popsicle, the paleta can be chock full of natural ingredients, chunks of familiar or exotic fruits, suspended in their own juice or in cream, sometimes with nuts or spices like chile.

In Mexico City, there are plenty of ice cream shops, but for some reason the paleta is strongly identified with the state of Michoacan. Here on the busy corner of Calle de Lopez and Vizcainas, the La Michoacana Paleteria sells ice cream and frozen ice cream bars.

In Los Angeles, the brand of La Michoacana persists - this is an ice cream bar bought from a local corner store, flavored with cucumber and chile. Throughout the streets of L.A. as in Mexico City, paleteros, or paleta-vendors, push low, wheeled carts, jingling with bells.

Sour yellow cherry flavor
But business is good enough to sustain brick-and-mortar stores, too. Some ice cream stores also sell shakes, juice or vegetable smoothies, or licuados - shakes made with milk or cream.  For a restorative, you can get a vampiro, which is a bloody-red smoothie made with beets and carrots as well as orange and pineapple juice.

Mateo's paletas
Here's the array of paletas sold at Mateos, a small business with stores in Culver City and in the Pico neighborhood.

Fresa - strawberry - and cream
The name paleta means, literally, a trowel - a play on the shape of the ice cream bar.

Paleta vendors in Chapultepec Park, Mexico City

Paleta flavors can be creative, with tropical fruit like mamey, tuna - the fruit of the cactus, guanabana, or soursop; you can get them made with cajeta, the caramelized condensed milk beloved by Mexicans; the rice-and-vanilla horchata - and many more.

Explore the frozen world beyond the popsicle! Try paletas!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Frida and Diego lived here

I wonder if it would strike Frida Kahlo as odd that she has become such an iconic and popular figure?  Overshadowed during her lifetime by her larger (literally!) and much more famous husband Diego Rivera, it wasn't until a 1983 biography by Hayden Herrera was published that she became well known outside of Mexico. Today, her brooding face with its signature bold eyebrows stares out at us from tote bags, coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets. She has become a mixed-up symbol of feminism, Mexican nationalism, sexuality and a kind of voluptuous suffering, all suffused with a kind of retro-glamor beauty that commands attention like a rock star.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Dancing with coyotes

Right in the heart of Coyoacan, two playful bronze coyotes crown a fountain in the Jardin Centenario. Coyoacan's name comes from the Nahuatl language and may mean "place of the coyotes" - but no one's quite sure. The park is at the heart of this historic and beautiful neighborhood, once a village but now absorbed into the urban sprawl of Mexico City.

Coyoacan's shady streets lined with historic buildings, its plazas with street cafes and shops,  naturally attracted artists, actors and writers. Diego Rivera, the famed muralist, and his artist wife Frida Kahlo lived in Coyoacan, as did Mexican movie star Dolores del Rio and filmmaker Luis Bunuel. Much like other similar charming artsy neighborhoods throughout the world, it has become a tourist attraction, and the streets are crowded on weekends and holidays, the sidewalks jammed with vendors and sightseers.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Street music

She stands on the corner of Calle Lopez and Ayuntamiento in the Central Historic District of Mexico City, wearing her khaki uniform and hat, and she balances the hefty Harmonipan barrel organ on its collapsible stick. Then she cranks the handle and the sounds pour forth. Piping, piercing, eerily wavering and yet also breathy with air pumped from its bellows, this is street music that hearkens back to the nineteenth century.

A moment of serenity

 We are traveling back to LA today, and as you can imagine it is hectic. Here's a moment of serenity, from a visit yesterday to the National Cathedral in Mexico City. Click to "embiggen."

NOTE: I inadvertently deleted this post, but have reconstructed it. Unfortunately, what I can't recreate were the kind comments from BBBB and Mrs. G.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Bird men

A steel pole stands in Chapultepec Park, on a grassy area just by the entrance to the National Museum of Anthropology. The paved walkway beyond throngs with strollers and food vendors, and people sit on benches and on the broad raised curb of the fountain.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Cinco de Mayo in Mexico City

Cinco de Mayo doesn't mean much in Mexico. It's a Mexican-American holiday, celebrating the Mexican army's defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The French supported the Confederacy in the American Civil War, so when the French were defeated, Mexicans living in the western United States were delighted.

Here in Mexico, people celebrate September 16 as Mexican Independence Day, the day in 1810 that Mexico began to war to throw over Spanish colonial rule.

No matter the date, though, at the Monumento a la Revolucion Mexicana, that Art Deco massif in downtown Mexico City people are celebrating - on Cinco de Mayo as on any other night.

Originally planned in 1910 as a palatial new legislative building, but abandoned as a steel skeleton in 1912, the monument has experienced repeated rebirth. First in 1936 when it was redesigned as a bombastic public monument to revolutionary ideals, but again in 2010, when the nation rescued it from 1970s era deterioration.

These days, it's always busy, with strolling families and sightseers riding the elevators to the viewing deck. Right around the corner from our hotel, we can hear the sound of marching bands drilling in the wide plaza.

But tonight the best attraction is the centennial fountain - playing its light and water show continuously from dusk to 10 pm.

What better way to celebrate than with hordes of happy, delighted, shrieking kids splashing around in spray of water and colored light?

Street sights

The sights and sounds of Mexico City come at you fast. Here's some of what we encountered on a Saturday in Mexico City.  A street musician at a cafe.

Fruit displayed at the Mercado San Juan.

A shrine in the workshop of an auto garage.

Chapulines - grasshoppers - for sale at food cart.

The fish market at the Mercado San Juan.

The garden at the Frida Kahlo Museum.

Blue corn quesadillas being made on the sidewalk at the Calle de Lopez. Click all photos to "embiggen."

Saturday, May 4, 2013

City in the sky

View from the car to the hotel
The plane shuddered as we descended through the cloud cover, and then we could see the city spread below us, beneath a yellow hazed sky, vast and dreary. Then we banked and into view beyond the tipped wing, I could see the broad green swath of a tree-lined avenue cut through the tan and ochre stucco mix of buildings. A traffic circle like a bead on a string. A massive stone edifice, crowned with a dome, rising among the trees. I hoped to remember this landmark and check the map. But then it slipped from sight beneath the wing as we continued the descent.

We landed on the tarmac wallowing and slipping wildly enough for one voice to cry out softly, and then it was a relief to feel the wheels grip down.  Welcome to Mexico City, said the captain.

Hotel lobby
 Our hotel is a tired but elegant throwback to the '70s, sleek teak and dramatic sculptures, and the guest rooms are both garish and cheap, like a candy-colored Ramada Inn, but charming in an odd retro way. We had a beer in the lobby bar, served by a bent and courtly old bartender, before venturing out to hear a concert at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Palacio de Bellas Artes
We hustled to get into the concert hall by curtain, so it wasn't until a breather at intermission that I could appreciate the Palacio, an Oz-like Art Deco pile dedicated to the arts. Bold striped marble, murals, and bronze fittings, domed above, stepping on the floor or stair made you wonder if your foot would break the gleaming surfaces of an illusion.

Parque Alameda Central
At night outside, we strolled back to the hotel along the verge of the Parque Alameda Central, the oldest park in the Americas, where couples sat together on wrought iron benches on the wide sidewalk. In the street, taxis and cars surged by, sometimes a squad of police strobe-ing blue and red, sometimes a stakebed truck filled with empty yellow trashbins piled like hay bales.

Papier mache skeleton
 At a bicycle rental station, we encountered a macabre yet jolly figure, the perpetual customer.

Home to the hotel, relax with a Victoria beer and a dish of peanuts salty and touched with lime. A musica romantica trio plays "Besame Mucho," requinto guitar bright magic above the drum machine's hitching bolero, as the middle-aged ladies and gentlemen at a nearby table sway and sing along.

It's our first night here.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Hola, D.F.

The dahlia is the official flower of Mexico
We are flying into Mexico City tomorrow. Also known as D.F., Distrito Federal, the city is the capital of Mexico.

I have only been inside the country of Mexico once, when I was about eight years old, and my family was visiting Texas. We traveled to El Paso (I think) and went across the border for maybe two hours. I think maybe we bought a tortilla press.

Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world - both in terms of geographical area and population. It is also an old city, founded by the Aztec people around 1325 a.d;, but it was built on the site of a much older city founded by a long-lost indigenous people.

It is 12,000 feet above sea level, which makes it higher than the highest city I've ever visited, Denver, which is just 5,000 feet. Wonder what it's like to breathe that rarefied air?

Tomorrow, as luck would have it, our U.S. President Barack Obama is visiting Mexico City, and we've already been alerted to the possible airport and traffic disruptions that might affect us.  Well, it's not that different than when he comes to West L.A. and ties up the 405 while attending a fundraiser in Holmby Hills!

And, honestly, I guess I'd be more pissed off if it were Mitt Romney slowing down my taxicab.

S3x in the Canyon

 There's a little bistro in our canyon that [The Man I Love] and I sometimes like to go to sit out on the patio and enjoy a glass of wine at the end of the workday.

The other customers represent a cross-section of Topanga, which one could stereotype if one wanted - there's the young man with the laptop, poaching on the County Library's wi-fi; there's a couple of long-haired pony-tailed music industry guys; there's a young family taking their elderly Topanga-dwelling ex-hippie grandpa (or ma!) out to lunch, marveling at the idea of a Frenchified bistro rising up in Pine Tree Circle where the old rug shop used to be.

But today, we nibbled our ahi tartare and shared the patio with another Topanga phenomenon - the power-girl, yoga practicing, health-conscious young mom cohort. There were probably six of them; all late 20s. Obviously girlfriends from way back - college or school or work. Perhaps they'd all gone on a hike. Or decided to have a glass of wine after Pilates. Or maybe after Mommy-and-me.

They clustered round the table, cooed at I-phone photos of babies, and doted upon the one real baby who was there - now awake and gurgling, after having been nursed beneath a properly batik-ed sling carrier for the first fifteen minutes of the gathering. Oh, and a dog. With a bandana.

They talked about babies, herbal healing for asthma  preschools, web design and their husbands. And shoes. A lot about shoes.

It's like Sex in the City, only it's in the Canyon.