Hiking To The Hollywood Sign (No GPS Required)

hollywood signI studied abroad in Ireland but I never kissed the Blarney Stone. I visited the Great Pyramids at Giza but refused to pony up for the classic photo on the camel. And I went to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, but didn’t bother to put a wish or prayer in one of its crevices. I don’t have an interest in checking off travel cliché to-do boxes or even making bucket lists, but for some reason that I can’t really explain, I wanted to hike up to the Hollywood sign while in L.A. last week.

In many ways, I hate everything Hollywood represents and rarely spend money on the kind of mindless, big budget movies that are produced there. But I love hikes that have some goal at the summit and, well, I wanted to see the damn sign up close. Don’t ask me why.

Earlier this year, there was quite a bit of press about how people who live near the foot of the Hollyridge Trail that leads up near the sign are sick of lost tourists following their GPS’s onto their dead-end streets in search of the trailhead. So rather than use my GPS, I Googled “Hike to the Hollywood” sign and was surprised to learn that there are a few ways to see the sign.

directions to hollywood signI drove north on Beachwood Drive in Hollywood until the street came to a dead end. There I found hand painted signs that pointed towards a horse stable to the left and the Hollywood sign to the right. It was a warm Thursday afternoon and there were only a smattering of people on the dusty trail, most of them speaking foreign languages and clutching cameras.

The wide path leads you on a gradual ascent through the scrubby, camouflage-colored landscape of the Hollywood Hills. After about 15 minutes, the trail split – to the right was an uphill path and to the left the terrain was level. There was no one around to ask, so I went left and in another 15 minutes came to a little rocky plateau where some French and Russian tourists were posing for photos with the sign as a backdrop.

hollywood signIt felt like a dismal letdown. We were relatively close to the sign but, in honesty, the darn thing looked more impressive from a distance when seen from Beachwood Drive. I headed back in the direction I’d come from and when I got back to the fork I asked a woman who was jogging down the hill from the other direction what was up that way.

“A great view,” she said. “Just follow the trail up and you’ll end up right on top of the Y and W in the sign.”

I followed the path up for about 20 minutes and eventually arrived at the top of Mt. Lee, where a 10- to 12-foot fence stops tourists from trying to hike down and actually pose with the sign itself. I stepped on a rock in order to snap off a few photos and was joined by a couple from Wisconsin that was irate when they saw the fence.

view from above the hollywood sign“We can’t even take our photo with it,” the woman complained. And her male companion was annoyed that only half the sign would fit in his camera frame. Nonetheless, they asked me to take their photo standing in front of the fence and I gladly obliged. It may not have been exactly what we imagined, but it was a little piece of Hollywood for us to take back to the Midwest.

[Photo credit: Dave Seminara]

7 Deadly Sins: The Best Fast Food Mexican Restaurants In Southern California

fish tacos at bull taco californiaIt really isn’t fair. California has sun, beaches, mountains and legions of fit, attractive people. But Californians also get to enjoy otherworldly tacos and burritos too. I know, I know, there are good tacos and burritos to be had in other parts of the country, but when it comes to fast food Mexican, California is still king.

Here’s how I like to roll when I’m visiting California: start the day with a breakfast burrito, feast on an grilled fish burrito for lunch and cap the day with shrimp or lobster tacos at dinner time. If I wasn’t always falling asleep early on the West Coast due to jet lag, I’d probably do another round of tacos late night too, if I could only stay up late enough to squeeze it in.

It’s very hard to distinguish where to get the best fast food Mexican fare in Southern California. Try one place and you’ll think it’s the best thing you ever tasted and then travel down the block to realize there’s someplace even better. But what follows is a run down of the best fast-food Mexican seafood tacos and burritos I had on a recent trip to Southern California (save for Rudy’s, which doesn’t do seafood).

La Sirena Grill (Laguna Beach, El Segundo, and Irvine)

I had a blackened shrimp burrito and my wife had a blackened wild salmon taco and a blackened tilapia taco here and everything was incredibly fresh and tasty. They have a sweet, tangy salsa that is out of this world. Much of what La Sirena serves is organic and even the containers they serve tacos in are made of corn.

carne asada tacos rudy's californiaRudy’s Taco Shop (Solana Beach, La Costa)

This place is the polar opposite of trendy La Sirena – there are no advertisements boasting about sustainability or humanely raised beef at this hole-in-the-wall joint but their carne asada is melt-in-your-mouth delicious and their chips are first rate too.

Rubios (Locations are mostly in suburban San Diego with a handful in other cities like Denver, Salt Lake City, Vegas, Phoenix and L.A.)

I know that some foodies are suspicious of chain places, but I am rooting for this one to make it out to Chicago. I had two grilled mahi-mahi tacos with roasted corn, cabbage and creamy chipotle salsa and a gourmet shrimp taco, which came with toasted mozzarella, jack and white cheddar cheese, bacon bits, avocado and two chili sauces.

fish tacos rubiosBoth were ridiculously good and were served with chips and beans on a real plate. The nice young kids who work at the Carlsbad location I patronized were fascinated by my interest with the place. To them, it probably seems a bit odd to be fussing over tacos and taking photos of them, but they’re spoiled they can get these beautiful things anytime they want them.

Bull Taco (Cardiff by the Sea, Oceanside, Petco Park)

This beachside taco stand advertises itself as “Inauthentic Mexican” but has become something of a local institution in just five years, serving unusual taco creations. Nathan, one of the chefs at the Cardiff by the Sea location, told me that all the cooks who work there are classically trained chefs. Only in California would serious chefs be found working in a taco joint and thank God for that.

bull taco shrimp tacosI devoured three tacos – grilled sea bass, shrimp curry and the coup d’gras, a lobster, chorizo and bacon beauty. Purists might balk at some of their concoctions but I would kill to have this place near my home in Chicago.

Bahia Mexican Restaurant (near the zoo in San Diego)

This modest little fast food place, with its colorfully painted chairs and tables, made me feel like I was in a working class neighborhood outside Puerto Vallarta. Big menu, low prices, no frills and it smelled great. After a long morning spent pushing my sons around in a stroller at the San Diego Zoo, I was starved, so I ordered a fish taco (grilled tilapia, $2.30), a shrimp taco ($3.30), and a lobster taco ($3.80).

bahia restaurant san diegoThe tortillas were very light and flavorful, the tacos were packed with seafood and everything was wonderfully fresh and delicious. My only complaint: the place is filled with vending machines selling junky toys and temporary tattoos, which my sons nagged me into buying. Halfway through my lobster taco, I relented and bought two sets of tattoos, but my 3-year-old didn’t like the one that came out of the slot for him. But even the tantrum that ensued couldn’t diminish the experience for me.

Taco Surf Taco Shop (Pacific Beach neighborhood in San Diego)

taco surf taco shopFor a place that’s filled with surfboards and is just a block away from the Mission Beach-Pacific Beach boardwalk along the ocean, this place is dark and slightly depressing. Taco Surf Taco has been featured as one of the best places to get a burrito in the country by Fox News and was also singled out by USA Today. I don’t agree with Fox News very often and I don’t agree with them on this call either.

The people working at TSTS are very friendly and my mahi-mahi burrito ($7.66) was big and tasty, but I didn’t think it was extraordinary. Another diner told me I should have tried their California burrito, which has steak, cheese and fries, but I’ll leave that one to Fox News and others. One other beef: horrible music. I had a Whitney Houston “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” earworm for days after hearing it at this place.

poquito mas tacosPoquito Mas (7 locations in L.A.)

I had two shrimp tacos ($6.50) at their West Hollywood location and I thought that the name of this place, which means “a little more” in Mexican, was appropriate – there were only three shrimp in each taco – not nearly enough for my tastes. They were tasty though and I especially liked their array of spicy salsas, but not their dicey tortilla soup.

Conclusion: If I had to crown my very favorite seafood, fast-food Mexican meal in California, and it really isn’t fair because all of these places are great, it would be a tie between La Sirena and Rubios. Their tacos and burritos literally brought a smile to my face. Please, please, please guys, come to Chicago. I’m begging you.

There are thousands of places to eat seafood tacos and burritos in Southern California and no list of the best places is comprehensive. What’s your favorite place?

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]

Solace For The Other 49 States: It’s (Not) Always Sunny In California

rain in los angelesIt isn’t always sunny in California. It only just seems that way for those of us who live in colder climates. On Thursday, it rained in Los Angeles. I swear, there was no sun or blue skies to be had anywhere. Before I travel anywhere, I check the forecast for my destination obsessively and I can tell you that this is the first time there’s been rain in L.A. in at least 6 or 7 years. Or it least it seems that way.

I’ve traveled extensively around California over the past 30 years and this was actually the first time I have ever – ever – felt any significant rainfall in this glorious state. Perhaps I’ve just been remarkably lucky, but I think Californians are actually quite unused to inclement weather.

On the drive to out hotel we were listening to the local NPR affiliate in Los Angeles and the hosts noted that there had been 188 crashes on L.A. freeways that morning, which, they said, was a big haul, even for L.A. The hosts chalked this up to the rain and I almost burst out laughing.I grew up in Buffalo and my adopted hometown is Chicago. The notion that large numbers of people are crashing their cars due to the fact that it was 65 degrees with a light drizzle seemed delicious, preposterous, wonderful! Only in a place with a truly glorious climate could people forget how to safely operate their vehicles because they are so shocked or unaccustomed to a little harmless precipitation.

Most travel writers like to wax poetic about how they don’t mind rainy weather while traveling. And most of them are full of crap for the following reasons. 1) They spend most of the year traveling and thus have a completely different perspective than someone who has just a few precious days to savor outside their office each year. 2) They typically aren’t traveling with small children they have to find ways to amuse in bad weather.

Anyone who travels frequently can tell you stories about how awful the weather was on one trip or another they’ve taken. Other than California, which has been my lucky destination over the years, I seem to have a knack for brining bad weather to even the sunniest of places.

Italy is a prime example. I’ve encountered day after day of torrential rain and winds in places like Capri, Polignano A Mare, and Siracusa, to name just a few. And on each occasion, everyone I met assured me that the weather we were experiencing was like a freak, supernatural experience. It’s NEVER like this! They say. Or, more commonly, The weather was perfect until you arrived.

rain in san franciscoI don’t care what anyone says, the truth is that no place looks as good in the rain as it does under blue skies and sunshine. You make the best of bad weather and sometimes it forces you to do some fun things that you wouldn’t do otherwise, but if you get nothing but rain in a place, the chances are, you probably won’t like it as much as if you’d had good weather there.

If you’re traveling with small children, inclement weather takes an even greater toll. If you aren’t with kids, you can lie in bed and curl up with a book or hit a museum, but you’re options are much more limited if you have small kids in tow. You can throw on a movie for them, but it’s hard to do that all day long for days on end. Bitching about the weather won’t help either, but it can be therapeutic.

Our first two days in California have been rainy, with yet more rain in the forecast and the weather is getting warmer in Chicago. It was 63 and rainy in L.A. on Thursday and 54 and sunny in Chicago, so take your pick. According to weather.com, though, L.A. had zero days with measurable precipitation in October and just two days with a wee bit of rain in November prior to my arrival. But L.A. averages 2.37 inches of precipitation in December historically, not much different than Chicago’s 2.57 inches.

Never mind the fact that Chicago is 50 degrees colder. (And there are microclimates all over California, so if you want different weather, just get the car and drive a bit) But on Saturday, we were in La Jolla, basking in the sunshine. And after a couple gloomy days, we appreciated the warmth of the sun all the more so. You can never take good weather for granted, even in California.

[Photo credits: Neil Kremer and Thomas Hawk on Flickr]

Rediscovering The Downtown Los Angeles Arts District


Downtown Los Angeles used to be a no man’s land. But now, thanks to the efforts of local artists and entrepreneurs, pockets of the downtown area are being transformed into an up-and-coming Arts District, complete with open coworking spaces, live-work lofts, organic cafes and trendy eateries. Murals from street artists like Shepard Fairey and JR fill the neighborhood, with hardly a patch of bare wall in sight. On Traction Avenue, tattooed freelancers congregate at sidewalk cafes serving niche foods like pie and bratwurst. Skateboards and thick-rimmed glasses are ubiquitous.

The Downtown Los Angeles Arts District is bordered by the Los Angeles River, Alameda Street, the 101 Freeway and 7th Street. Historically, the neighborhood was home to vineyards and citrus groves, followed by factories and freight companies in the years after World War II, according to LA DAD Space. In the 1960s, urban artists discovered the neighborhood and began converting the previously industrial buildings into progressive live-work spaces. In 1981, the city of Los Angeles passed the Artist in Residence Ordinance, which officially sanctioned these types of multi-use artist lodgings. But then the 1990s came, bringing high crime rates and homelessness. The neighborhood went into a deep decline, and for the past few decades, there hasn’t been much of a reason to visit.

Now, thanks to an active community of artists and entrepreneurs, the Arts District is once again reestablishing itself as the creative hub of Los Angeles. In 2005, the neighborhood was officially established as a Business Improvement District and given funding to improve safety, maintenance and other programs. Artists, drawn by expansive loft spaces and relatively cheap rents, are starting to move back in.


Much of the Arts District action is clustered around Traction Avenue. If you’re hungry, join the line at Wurstkuche, a “purveyor of exotic sausages” with an extensive selection of beers on tap. Be sure to save room for dessert across the street at The Pie Hole, which specializes in offbeat combinations like The Lonely Pie, with dark chocolate, peanut butter and potato chips. Further down the street, you can break out of your food coma with fresh-roasted coffee from Novel Cafe.

Unsurprisingly, the Arts District also offers some exceptional options on the shopping front. A highlight is Poketo, a bright open boutique filled with quirky design items, from graphic tees to spinning tops. A few doors down, Apolis offers stylish, functional menswear, sourced from social enterprises in the developing world. The showroom of upscale linen line Matteo is a must-see for home design junkies.

And then, of course, there are the artists themselves. For a full list of galleries and spaces, and more information about the neighborhood’s development, check out the Arts District website.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Is Eddie Huang The Next Anthony Bourdain? Watch And Find Out

If the name Eddie Huang isn’t familiar, it may soon be, if the folks at VICE.tv have their way. The Washington, D.C., native is a chef, former lawyer and, according to his website, a former “hustler and street wear designer” born to Taiwanese immigrants – a background that led him to become the force behind Manhattan’s popular Baohaus restaurant.

Huang’s new VICE video series, “Fresh Off the Boat,” premiered online on October 15. According to VICE’s website, the show is “Eddie Huang’s genre-bending venture into subculture through the lens of food.” That’s one way to describe it.

Huang has been positioning himself as a chef-turned-media-personality in the vein of Anthony Bourdain or David Chang for a while now. As in, he’s street smart, opinionated, and doesn’t appear to give a rat’s ass what people think of his renegade ways. Ostensibly, it’s a great fit for VICE, which is known for its edgy exposés and other content.

Here we hit the first divergence among FOTB and the canon of travel series. Regardless of how you feel about them, Bourdain and Chang are still, respectively, articulate, intelligent commentators of what’s been called “food anthropology.” Huang is obviously a savvy businessman, and thus, one must assume, not lacking in brain cells. But he isn’t as likable. Unlike Chang, a mad genius, he’s not so outrageously batshit that he’s funny. He’s not particularly charming, witty, or aesthetically appealing, and he comes off more wannabe-Bourdain and imposter street thug than informative host and armchair travel guide.

In the premiere, Huang takes viewers on a backwoods tour of the Bay Area, starting with a visit to Oakland’s East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club.

We’re briefly introduced to Rats president Trevor Latham, and next thing we know Huang and Latham are armed with rifles and wandering Latham’s Livermore ranch in search of rabbits. Says, Latham, an avid hunter, “People that eat meat and aren’t willing to kill an animal are fucking pussies, and fuck them.”

Of note, the below video is fairly graphic.

rabbitsFor his part, Huang appears suitably humbled, although I have to wonder why a chef of his standing and ethnic and familial background (his father is also a restaurateur) doesn’t appear to have been exposed to animal slaughter before. Still, he gets bonus points for trying to disseminate what should have been the primary message.

Says Huang in the final scene, “Every time I eat meat now, I have to be conscious that…I am choosing to enable someone to kill an animal and create a market demand for slaughter. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Just be conscious of the choices you make.”

Well done. I just wish the rest of the episode carried that levity.

“Fresh Off the Boat airs Mondays; future episodes will include San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles, and Taiwan.

[Photo credit: Eddie Huang, Youtube ; rabbits, Flickr user Robobobobo]