Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On to the next trip!

As you may have gathered, I love to travel. Near or far. But usually far is preferable.

After the busy spring, I have a few travel-less weeks to look forward to (well, maybe I might just go cross country for an overnight to see a friend and get some miles.... haven't quite decided yet). And then we're off to Spain for a two week trip in early June.

I've never been to Spain before. After last year's banner year of new countries (Egypt, Jordan, Turkey), it looks like Spain will be the only new one for 2009. I'll have to survive somehow.

Part of the enjoyment of going to a new place for me is the joy of planning a trip to an unfamiliar destination. I also have a definitely weakness for travel books - guidebooks, memoirs, history books on the place, travel essays... you name it. For Spain, I'm up to 4 guidebooks, 1 history book, 3 travel essays, 2 children's guidebooks and 1 gourmet food guide. Plus other borrowed books including my sister's copy of Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra, which she purchased at the Alhambra as a souvenir.

I think I'm going to stop here and start reading some of them...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thai Town in L.A.

I had heard of Thai Town before, but can't ever recall going there. After our long day at Universal Studios, we headed back to Pasadena for dinner. But were stuck in traffic on 101, so I did a nearby search on Yelp and ended up with a long list of Thai restaurants. We were right by Thai Town!

So we speeded off the freeway and ended up at Saap Coffee Shop. Once again, it was a total hole-in-the-wall, but hey, there was a parking space right out front! And it was virtually empty - this might have been due to the fact that they were about to close in 30 mins. They serve from 7 am, so the owner was worn out by 8:30 pm.

This place was known for its Thai Boat Noodles (kway tiao reua) - in fact, as I found out later, Anthony Bourdain had included it in one of his episodes of "No Reservations". This is basically a spicy beef broth with noodles and various kinds of meat added. The truly adventurous add tripe, liver, tendon and blood. Me? Just beef balls, thank you - I'm Thai, I don't have to prove anything ;) The food was good and the soup hit the spot (I was still chilled from a wet ride on Jurassic Park at Universal).

Next doors was a little Thai dessert place that had lots of different homemade desserts. And a large TV blaring a satellite Thai station. Just like home.

Thai Town was wonderful - many, many places to eat. Thais like their food. Plus video rental shops, book shops, travel agents etc. With all the signs in Thai. If we weren't so tired, I would have liked to explore it a little more. Next time...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Our Day at Universal Studios

A few weeks before the trip, I made the tough decision to buy the special, front-of-line tickets for Universal Studios Hollywood. Now, this was no trivial decision from one who can spend hours online looking for the best travel deals. I may like my luxury but I want to get it at the lowest possible price!

The front-of-line tickets basically allows holders to by-pass the main attraction lines. It's like having a permanent Fastpass at Disneyland. The downside is that it works out to be almost double the entry price.

Since we weren't early risers and since it was the Saturday before Easter, front-of-line seemed the best way to go. I bought the tickets through Viator, an online travel agency that I've used in the past. This provided a savings of $20 over the full retail price per person.

We were given entry tickets and also a front-of-line pass on a lanyard that we were supposed to wear all day. Overall, I thought it was worth it because we could be totally lazy about how we approached the park (useful since I hadn't been there for over 15 years). Would it be worth it to others? It depends - you wouldn't need this if you planned your sequence of attractions carefully and also arrived when the park opened.

Anyway, the best rides were the new Simpsons ride (a virtual roller coaster - rode it a few times), the Mummy roller coaster (really cool, goes backwards and forwards) and the Jurassic Park ride (really old but I had never been on it). And we waited no more than a few minutes for each ride, plus had early entry into all the shows.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Savoy Kitchen in Alhambra

My husband accuses me of having some special search criteria when I'm looking for a restaurant on Yelp or Chowhound. He notes that my special criteria probably include "difficult parking", "long wait", "overcrowded" and "hole-in-the-wall". Now I must admit I do have a certain fondness for Asian dive restaurants, but I categorically deny the other factors.... unfortunately, they just come with the territory.

So we were in Pasadena and wanted a quick, early dinner before my parents headed to the airport. I looked on Yelp for Alhambra (just south of Pasadena and a treasure trove of Asian restaurants in the Valley), and found Savoy Kitchen. It was noted as serving Hainan Chicken Rice that people drove for hours to have. Chicken Rice is one of my most favorite foods on the planet, which is saying a lot. My kind of place!

It was a Friday night, but only 5:45 pm - how crowded could the place be?! As we came around the corner, I saw groups of people massed in front of a small corner shop... so I hopped out to hurry and put our name in.

After a 15 min wait, we were seated in the outdoor area. And it was all worth it! This place did not disappoint. It had a very eclectic menu, kind of like an Asian coffee shop - the chicken rice was the star of the menu but they also had pastas and pizzas, seafood casseroles, various Singaporean noodles, curries, shrimp spring rolls and oddly enough, some excellent escargots in a rich garlic sauce. Plus some very good, freshly brewed chrysanthemum tea.

The chicken rice was the best I've had in a very long time. Possibly the best outside of Singapore. The chicken was poached just right and the rice was light and fluffy, with a subtle ginger flavor. And while I didn't really care for the chili sauce (too spicy!), my dad thought it was great. I loved the minced ginger sauce though - had to get a refill.

The only downside is that this place is 400 miles away from where I live...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Langham Huntington in Pasadena

Whilst in L.A., we stayed at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena. It was the Ritz Carlton Huntington for many years and is a very old building that was extensively renovated in 1991. Even though we got a dirt cheap internet rate (relatively speaking... for a 5 star property!), we ended up with a very large room overlooking the rear gardens.

I like old hotels. There's a certain majesty, especially in the public spaces, which tend to be large and impressive. The rooms are a bit more of a gamble but it paid off at this location.

On Easter Sunday, we were looking forward to a nice egg hunt in the beautiful gardens. Meh - as with many hunts these days, the property is too afraid of damage to really hide anything in the gardens. So the hunt turns into a foot race for kids to pick up eggs and candy that are just strewn on the lawn. Maybe my kids are just getting too old for this...

Monday, April 13, 2009

L.A. Farmers Market

After a week in Carlsbad, we drove up to L.A. to spend a couple of days. My younger daughter had some birthday money burning a hole in her little pocket and really really wanted to go to the American Girl store at The Grove in L.A. and give it all to them.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the AG phenomenon, just count yourself lucky. All I can say is that it's masterful merchandising, both at the kid and the adult level!

The best thing about The Grove is that it's next door to the old L.A. Farmers Market. I remember going there on my first trip to the U.S. in 1974. I have a photo of little me, with a big grin on my face, eating a huge corn on the cob. A lifelong glutton!

Anyway, aside from the addition of a Pinkberry, the market is remarkably similar to what it was like 30 years ago. It's not like a true farmer's market in the current sense, but a combination of a unique food court, lots of food-related shops, bakeries and a few stalls selling fresh food. My family's favorite place to eat is Singapore's Banana Leaf, where we had some nice roti prata, chicken satay and a beef rendang. Plus really good mango juice and limeade.

Thus fortified, we wandered around to look for dessert. The kids shared a nutella crepe at the French Crepe Shop where they let you serve yourself whipped cream after the crepe is prepared. This is a not a good thing for us. After we were done, we could barely see the crepe for the whipped cream mountains on it. I couldn't even pause to take a photo - for fear of not getting a bite edgewise as my kids inhaled it!

We also bought some toffee, fudge and various chocolates at Little John's.

And finally, some nice donuts at Bob's Donuts, reputed to be the best donuts in L.A. The kids said it was a cross between Krispy Kreme and a more cakey donut. It was very good...

I had wanted to get some Pinkberry but was feeling a little ill at this stage, so practiced some restraint for once.

Brockton Villa in La Jolla

So my dad decides he wants to go back to this place in La Jolla where a good friend took him for some really great cioppino. Actually his words were more along the lines of "I want to have lunch at this place on the water, in that nice town, where there was this seafood soupy thing that was really good"...

Good daughter that I am, I figured out he meant Brockton Villa in La Jolla - and no, not bouillabaise, but cioppino.

You now have a sense of where I get my marginally obssessive eating tendencies from...

It turned out to be a lovely place in an old house, overlooking the cove, with a nice covered patio where we had a great lunch on a gorgeous day. Besides the aforementioned cioppino (which was probably excellent but I wouldn't know, since I wasn't offered a taste - must have been really good since we always taste in my family...), there were some nice Kobe sliders with three different kinds of cheese.

But their most famous dish is apparently something called Coast Toast. Which I forced my mother to order so I could try some. And which she couldn't finish, so I scarfed up almost half her dish, in addition to my somewhat bland ahi tuna salad. So much for being good...

Coast Toast is basically their special version of french toast - made with rather large baguette slices, sauteed in butter and then baked for a nice souffle-like finish. The outside was nice and crispy, although I found the middle a little gooey for my taste.

I thought it was a nice recipe since the baking allows you to produce the full set of french toast at once, as opposed to my usual french toast production that leads everyone else to be done eating by the time I finish up the last batch and am ready to eat myself.

Here's how you make Coast Toast a la Brockton Villa:

Coast Toast Recipe

1 loaf soft French bread (sliced)
1 qt. whipping cream
10 eggs
¾ cup orange juice
½ cup sugar
a pinch of salt
2 tbs. vanilla
2 tbs. orange flavoring

Combine liquid ingredients. Pour over bread slices. Cover and refrigerate at least one hour.

Remove bread and discard liquid. Spread butter on flat grill.

Cook bread until golden brown, then bake at 450° for 5 -7 minutes or until bread is puffed up like a soufflĂ©. Dust with powdered sugar.

Serve immediately.

Serves 6

Spring Break in Carlsbad

We spent most of last week in Carlsbad (north San Diego county), at the Four Seasons Aviara Residence Club - we bought a week's timeshare about 7 years ago and have been going there almost every year. Unfortunately, it's been getting more and more difficult to get the weeks we want, which I understand is a fundamental time share problem (particularly for those of us with school-age children).

The upside is we get a beautiful large apartment, Frette linens, Bulgari toiletries (they switched from L'Occitane :( , great pool and fitness center, an extensive collection of DVDs and games, and Four Seasons service.

It takes close to an hour to get to San Diego proper, so we didn't bother going in this time - the furthest south we got was to La Jolla. But there's plenty to do in the north county, with the biggest attraction being Legoland. Alas, my kids are almost too old for that park, but we still had a fun time there. The coolest thing was that the Washington D.C. section of Miniland was set up like the Inauguration, with many recognizable figures!Aside from that, we had many meals with old friends, went to the pool (where the kids were immune to the cold temps but I was huddled under a pool towel) and played some tennis. All in all, a nice little spring break for the family.