Dude, The Surf’s Always Up In San Diego’s North County

del mar north county san diego

If you want a taste of quintessential California beach culture, complete with a heaping dose of surf, sand and tacos, head north of San Diego to North County. When I’m in Southern California, I don’t mind soaking up the cliché tourist experience: I want to be on the beach, gazing out at the limitless Pacific Ocean, watching the surfers, preferably with a taco or three in hand. Here’s an idea for how to spend a totally epic day in North County and La Jolla, dude.

Start the day at Pipes Café, a killer breakfast spot very close to the beach in Cardiff by the Sea. Step up the counter and order the #1 breakfast burrito ($5.95), which comes with sausage, avocado, cheese and, get this, five eggs. Five eggs for God’s sakes! When my bad boy arrived, the beast took up the entire basket (see photo) and I practically needed a forklift to get the damn thing up and into my mouth.

I’m a total glutton, but I couldn’t come close to finishing this frightening, but very tasty creature. I liked it so much that I couldn’t help but ask some locals sitting next to us about the feasibility of moving to the area with my wife and two little boys.

“Well, North County is really expensive,” said the guy who would have looked right at home in a J Crew catalog. “Basically, the closer you get to San Diego the more expensive it gets. Oceanside isn’t too bad, then Carlsbad, Encinitas and Solana Beach will be more expensive than that and things really get crazy in Del Mar and La Jolla.”

My hopes of moving to North County dashed, I knew we’d have to make the most of our visit, so we drove south along the Pacific Coast Highway, taking in peeks of the Pacific when it wasn’t hidden by large homes, shopping and hotels along the way.

I worked off about 5% of my ridiculous breakfast burrito with a short walk in Encinitas’s attractive little town center followed by a longer walk on the beach in Del Mar, a pristine beach community if ever there was one. I watched the surfers, who were out in force on a day when the waves were up to a gnarly 8 feet, and fantasized about winning the next Powerball drawing and moving to this fine place of soaring palm trees, trendy restaurants and stunning Pacific vistas.

Before I knew it, it was lunchtime and since I tend to follow an all taco & burrito diet when I’m in California, we backtracked north a couple miles to Rudy’s Taco Shop, a hole-in-the-wall place in a strip mall in Solana Beach that specializes in carne asada. I was ready for a siesta after scarfing down two of their salty, melt-in-your mouth carne asada tacos, but summoned the energy to press on south to La Jolla, which means “The Jewel” in Spanish.

La Jolla is filled with pricey shops, but we were in town to soak up the natural splendor of the place so we headed straight for the waterfront. I don’t think there are many more scenic places for a stroll anywhere in the country than the area around Scripps Park in La Jolla. There’s a long walkway set up high above the crashing waves of the Pacific below, flanked by neat rows of soaring palm trees.

We walked down to Seal Beach and my sons, ages 3 and 5, got a huge kick out of seeing dozens of seals lying comatose on the beach as though they were sleeping off hangovers. Every few minutes one of them would decide they wanted to change their spot and would hop around awkwardly as the assembled paparazzi fired off shots of them.

A local, who told me I was standing too close to the seals, also mentioned that the seals give birth right on this beach each year from January through March. After my kids had their fill of the seals, we walked a half-mile north to gawk at a colony of sea lions that were all huddled up on top of each other on a huge rock.

There’s been a huge controversy over the supposedly foul smell of bird crap in La Jolla, with many merchants claiming that the smell is scaring away customers, but I didn’t even really notice it other than for a brief moment when we pulled into town. Anyone who dwells on bird crap in a place this beautiful is a little jaded, if you ask me.

After a few hours wandering in La Jolla, we repaired to Bull Taco, a taco stand located up on a bluff above the Cardiff State Park beach that advertises itself as “inauthentic Mexican.” It only seemed fitting to wind down my culinary day the way I started it – with a tortilla in hand. This time, I had three tacos – shrimp curry, sea bass and a lobster, chorizo and bacon beauty. Inauthentic? Maybe, but damn good as well.

We drove further north and enjoyed an extravagant sunset at South Carlsbad State Park beach. On a late Saturday afternoon in December, the beach scene in North County was magical for a cold weather family like us.

Families were taking their Christmas card photos on the beach, no doubt to taunt their cold weather friends, surfers of all ages were emerging from the crashing surf, raving about the “epic” waves and people who drive posh sports cars happily mingled with surf bums living in beat up old camper vans with rusted old California plates. In the fading light, we beat a retreat, intoxicated from a day of Pacific delights, not ready to go home but determined to return one day to this idyllic little corner of America.

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]

Roadside America: El Paragua Restaurant, Espanola, New Mexico

chilesThe little city of Española lies just 25 miles north of Santa Fe. It sits on the crossroads of SR 68 and NM 76 (aka the Taos Highway), which leads to the village of Chimayo, famed for its handwoven blankets, Santuario, and chiles. Española is also surrounded by some of the region’s famous Indian pueblos. Until about five years ago, I never saw any reason whatsoever to stop there, aside from filling up my gas tank. When you’re a dusty town located between some of a state’s biggest tourist attractions, you tend to get overlooked.

It’s my obsession with New Mexican cuisine – and posole (a dried hominy soup) in particular – that led the owner of a Santa Fe street food cart to tell me about El Paragua. I can’t recall our conversation, but he basically told me if I wanted to taste some of the best food in New Mexico, I should hightail it up to Española.

So that’s what I did. I pulled up to a large, imposing hacienda constructed from massive blocks of hand-hewn stone, located all by its lonesome on the corner of NM 76 and Highways 84/285. Inside, it was dimly lit, all rustic wooden beams, (vigas), terra-cotta floor tiles, and those same stone walls. El Paragua looked like an old-school Mexican restaurant and to a certain degree, that’s what it is.

El Paragua started out as a roadside food stand in 1958. Brothers Larry and Pete Atencio, the sons of plumber Luis Atencio, decided they were going to sell their mother Frances’ tacos and tamales. They added a table, and opened for business. Luis provided the boys with a multi-colored beach umbrella (paraguay) for shade, and El Paragua was born.

In 1966, the Atencio family converted their tack room into a restaurant, and continued to add expansions over the years (including converting Luis’ plumbing shop). Today, El Paragua is legendary for both the quality of the food (the Atencio’s are still actively involved in the daily operations, and use Frances’ recipes) and the service, which is unfailingly warm and friendly.

Let’s get to the important stuff, shall we? Never have I tasted posole or carne adovada that comes even close to touching El Paragua’s. Every dish is an explosion of flavor. The posole is a rich, well-seasoned, porky broth brimming with hunks of fork-tender meat, chewy morsels of hominy, and a goodly amount of chile (I prefer mine Christmas); eat it with greaseless puffs of sopapilla drizzled with honey. The fiery adovada sauce is brick-red and earthy, the pork succulent. The plate comes with a side of whole frijoles mixed with chicos (smoky bits of dried, then cooked, corn). The tortillas are made in-house. If you’re in a hurry, there’s also the parking lot taco-stand, El Parasol, a tribute to the original El Paragua. What’s not to love about quarts of green chile to go?

I now plan my New Mexico visits around El Paragua, to maximize the number of meals I can have there. If food is love, then El Paragua is a long-distance relationship worth staying in.

[Photo credit: Flickr user alasam]

Global Street Food Celebrated In Recipes And Stories In New Book

susan fenigerFor those of you who are unfamiliar with the reign of the “Two Hot Tamales,” Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken were the badass female chefs/restaurateurs of the ’80s and ’90s, and the darlings of the Food Network in its infancy (read: when it was good). They helped to put world and regional Mexican cuisine on the radar in the United States with their L.A. restaurants CITY, City Cafe, and the Border Grill, and subsequent TV shows and cookbooks.

Today, they’re still at it. Feniger competed on “Top Chef Masters” last year, and also has her first solo restaurant, STREET, in Hollywood. The menu is dedicated to one of her enduring passions, which is global street food. In July, “Susan Feniger’s Street Food: Irresistibly Crispy, Creamy, Crunchy, Spicy, Sticky, Sweet Recipes” (Clarkson Potter), hit the shelves: a lively collection of recipes adapted from her favorite street foods worldwide.

In June, I caught Feniger doing a pre-release-inspired cooking demo, “Irresistible Street Food,” at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. I’ve attended a lot of cooking demos in my day, and she’s without doubt one of the most engaging, down-to-earth chefs I’ve ever seen, and not just because I’m piggishly besotted with street food.

Caught up in sharing the travel stories behind the recipes she was preparing (the book is packed with anecdotes from her trips to places like India, Turkey, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Singapore), Feniger was reminiscent of a modern-day Julia Child. “Oh! Salt. Forgot the salt. Oh well, let’s add some more gin!” she said of her Honeydew Cucumber Cooler. In her defense, I, along with the rest of the audience, was suffering a classic Food & Wine Classic hangover right along with her. The weekend’s motto should be, “You play, you pay.”

Feniger also prepared Indian Puffed Rice Salad, and Egyptian Bus Stop Kushary (a lentil dish), in between anecdotes. Whether you’re an armchair traveler or a street food-obsessed adventurer, her book will leave you inspired, intrigued, and hungry for a taste of what the world’s back alleys have to offer.

If you’re in the Bay Area, catch Feniger at a “Cooks with Books” event sponsored by Book Passage, featuring a meal made from the book’s recipes. She’ll also be doing a signing at Omnivore Books in San Francisco on September 21, and at the Book Passage in the San Francisco Ferry Building on September 22.

Why Do I Continue To Patronize Crap ‘Mexican’ Restaurants Around The World?

mexican restaurant in greeceI love Mexican food. In fact, I love it so much that I keep getting suckered into eating at “Mexican” restaurants with about as many Mexicans as there are Peugeot dealerships in Alabama. I’ve patronized “Mexican” restaurants in places like Newfoundland, Big Fork, Montana, Budapest and Macedonia in order to have a break from the monotony of the local cuisine and because I love Mexican food. But my experiences have ranged from appalling to mediocre.

Yet somehow I never learn my lesson and yesterday I found myself having lunch at Picasso, a Mexican restaurant on the Greek island of Naxos that claims to cook “extraordinary Mexican food.” After nearly a month in Greece, eating out at Greek places almost every day, I practically have skewers of souvlaki growing out of my ears, so when I read in the Lonely Planet Guide to the Greek Islands that this place had “world class” Mexican food, I wanted very much to believe it.The place also has rave reviews on Trip Advisor, though in fairness, most of those folks are European and, let’s face it, most Europeans wouldn’t know a good burrito if it smacked them in the face. Folks, we’re talking about a “Mexican” restaurant that plays flamenco music, is named after a Spanish painter and is owned by a Greek guy. I should have known better.

We started out with a plate of chips and salsa, which cost the equivalent of $5.35, or about what I’m used to paying for a burrito at home in a hole-in-the-wall type place. Chips and salsa should be free, but if you’re going to charge for it, it had better be damn good and this wasn’t – it was just a big blob of massive chunks of tomato with some other stuff thrown in.

My wife and I both ordered enchiladas and the first thing I noticed when it arrived was that there were no enchiladas; there was just an enchilada, as in one, which looked suspiciously like a burrito. It had no sauce on top, but rather just some hunks of tomato inside the thing. It was completely dry and flavorless, and cost the equivalent of $15. It came with a tiny side of rice and beans that was actually a pile of rice with about six or seven lonely little black beans sprinkled inside.

But as aggressively mediocre as that experience was, it wasn’t my worst Mexican meal ever – not by a long shot. In fact, I’ve been to at least three other “Mexican” restaurants around the world that were significantly worse. Once, my wife and I convinced ourselves that we should try a “Mexican” restaurant in St. John’s, Newfoundland, one of the whitest, least Mexican places on earth, based on the strength of a magazine article posted outside the place.

The place had been named the best Mexican restaurant in Newfoundland by a local magazine, but we later found out that it was also the only Mexican restaurant in Newfoundland, which, at least in my eyes, diminished the stature of the award just a touch. We had to explain to the waitress, who, in fairness to her, said it was her first day on the job, what the difference between nachos and chips and salsa was.

After about an hour wait, she brought us a couple of burritos that looked like someone had vomited on them, and for all we know, perhaps someone had (likely another diner).

We lived in Macedonia for two years, about a decade ago, and there was a sad little “Mexican” restaurant in a strip mall in the Kapistec neighborhood that served Doritos and had no real tortillas or anything else resembling “Mexican” food. I’m quite certain we were the only patrons they ever had and we only went there occasionally just to have a laugh.

But if I had to give an award for worst Mexican restaurant it would go to a place I was almost thrown out of a couple years ago – an all-gringo “Mexican” place in Big Fork, Montana, near Glacier National Park. I ordered an enchilada-style burrito with red sauce on it for takeaway and it was easily the most revolting dish I’ve ever seen in my life.

It was absolutely swimming in a nasty ketchup-like red sauce, and even after I drained the Styrofoam container into the toilet, the tortilla itself was disgustingly wet and soggy. The chicken was grisly, dark meat and after two bites, I just couldn’t do it. I brought it back, more just to let them know how bad it was than to secure a refund, but when the young lady gently insisted I try something else, I acquiesced.

I sat and waited a half hour for them to make me some fajitas and then when they were ready, the young lady wanted to charge me for both the burrito and the fajitas, albeit with a 50 percent discount on the burrito. I took one look at the dodgy looking fajitas and told her no thanks, and then the owner came out and berated me.

“We’ve been in business for seven years and you’re only the third person that’s sent a dish back,” he yelled. “Now if you don’t like our food you can just get the hell out of here!”

And he was serious too! I left a negative review for the restaurant on Trip Advisor, and the owner sent me a private message stating that he was “sorry, very sorry.” It was an interesting approach to customer service, to say the least.

Now, at this point, you’re probably thinking I’m a hardcore foodie snob, who only likes the very best, most authentic Mexican food. I’m actually not that picky; in fact, I love eating out in Mexico, but I also like the chain burrito joints like Baja Fresh, Chipotle and so on.

After this latest Mexican food debacle in Greece, I have a new rule of thumb: if you’re looking for good Mexican food, take a look around. Are there any Mexican people within a 100-mile radius? No? Well then, why they hell are you eating in a “Mexican” restaurant? There are some non-Mexicans capable of making great Mexican food and there are some Mexicans who can’t cook to save their lives, but from now on, I’ll stick to the local cuisine wherever I am – no matter how tiresome it may be.

mexican restaurant in greeceUPDATE 6/21: Today I passed a “Mexican” restaurant in Santorini called Senor Zorbas, which advertised All You Can Eat BBQ Ribs. And I didn’t even stop, except to take this photo. Now that’s progress.

A Taste Of Mayan Cuisine In Playa Del Carmen

mayan cuisine

On Playa del Carmen‘s main drag, you have a world of cuisines at your feet. Falafel? You’ve got it. Bagels? Right around the corner. Cuban bars, French patisseries, Italian pizzerias … the tourist districts of Mexico‘s Mayan Riviera certainly don’t lack for international options.

But authentic Mexican food? Well, that’s a different story.

I arrived in Playa after a multi-hour journey filled with layovers and bus transfers. My body was tired and my stomach was empty. I was hungry, but not just for food; I craved the tastes of Mexico, preferably paired with radish, lime and an ice cold Dos Equis.

Instead, I found Subway and Starbucks. About 20 minutes into the food hunt, I was about to throw in the towel and settle for a slice of pizza. But then, my nose caught a whiff of warmth and spice. There, on the corner of Avenida 5 and Calle 22, was exactly what I’d been looking for – Yaxche, a small but sophisticated spot promising a “journey into Mayan flavors.”

Before the Spaniards introduced their preferences, the people of the Yucatan peninsula subsisted on a staple diet of maize, squash, beans and chili peppers. Today, it’s rare to find traditional Mayan dishes in the over-touristed resort towns of the peninsula. But a culinary revival is afoot, with Yaxche at the forefront of efforts to rescue and preserve ancient Mayan cuisine.

The restaurant menu looked foreign, and not just because my Spanish was rusty. The majority of dishes are indigenous to the region, with names unfamiliar to my Western eyes and unpronounceable by my Western lips. I was intrigued by a section titled “Grandma’s Favorites,” as grandmothers tend to know their stuff.

I settled on a sampler of her suggestions, which promised a “journey into Mayan flavors.” There was Tsotolbilchay, a Mayan-style tamale filled with a spinach-like green called chaya, boiled eggs and pumpkin seeds, wrapped in a plantain leaf and covered in tomato sauce; Pibxcatic, an eye-wateringly spicy dish of grilled Xcatic peppers filled with slow-roasted pork; Papadzul, a type of egg taco covered with pumpkin seed sauce and epazote spice; Shrimp Panucho, another taco contraption, this time with refried black beans, shredded turkey, avocado, onions and perfectly grilled shrimp; and Tsic, a ceviche variation of shrimp and fish marinated in sour orange juice, Xcatic pepper and coriander.

“Mmmmmhh!!” read the menu after the Tsic description. “Mmmmmhh!!” was right. Each mouthful unlocked new, exotic tastes: the burning spice of the Xcatic pepper, the slight bitterness of the chaya leaf, the smoky sweetness of the pumpkin seeds. Yaxche wasn’t the 10-peso fish taco stand I had pictured, but it certainly served my craving for a taste of authenticity in an otherwise manufactured corner of Mexico.

Yaxche is located at the corner of Avenida 5 and Calle 22 in downtown Playa del Carmen. The “Moloch” sampler costs 205 Mexican Pesos (about US$15).

Visit Playa Del Carmen in Mexico