Michael Strickland's blog on all things travel: news, deals, destinations, dreams and more.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Six hours in San Diego

I occasionally enjoy reading the New York Times, and their Travel section in particular is typically well worth a read. One of the more interesting regular features is their "36 Hours" column, which offers up a sample 36-hour itinerary for a given destination.

Their most recent "36 Hours in San Diego" feature, however (published in tomorrow's newspaper, but available online now), showed sufficient lack of "insider knowledge" that I'd guess it was written based on a 6-hour layover reading travel brochures, not a 36-hour visit talking to locals.

Go read the article now, and then come back here to read the locals-only tips the Times missed.

1) EASE ON DOWN. Good: Walk on the Embarcadero. Better: Avoid Seaport Village. What the Times missed: "Free" concerts in Embarcadero Marina Park. The concert venue is not free, but the music is amply audible in the park right outside the fence, so bring a blanket and cooler and enjoy some free live music.

2) GASLAMP GLAMOUR. Good: Avoid the hipper-than-thou W. Better: The abundance of frat bars is "depressing." True dat. What the Times missed: The Ivy?? Recommending an L.A. icon's San Diego satellite as the place to go is beyond lame. The bolder choice would have been to warn people away from the overcrowded and overrated Gaslamp to begin with. Or at least recommend a true San Diego Gaslamp original like Croce's or Cafe Sevilla.

3) CULTURE CLASH. The Casbah is a good rec, but if you're really musically adventurous, go to Brick by Brick, a 10-minute drive away in the seedy Morena Blvd. district. Alanis Morrissette would get her ass kicked there.

4) GREENSWARD GIANT. Good: "No visit to San Diego is complete without taking in Balboa Park." Better: The recommendation to take a walk or drive, probably the best way to sample this large park in a very brief 36-hour trip. What the Times missed: Um, everything? They can be forgiven here, though, because you could spend your entire 36-hour stay in Balboa Park alone and still miss a lot. But, as worldly as the Times likes to think of itself, you'd think they would have at least mentioned the International Cottages in passing.

5) CALIFORNIA PAST. Good: Mention of the Old Town Mexican Cafe where, contrary to their advice, the food is decent. Better: Mention of the "tortilla ladies" at same. What the Times missed: No mention of the Whaley House, San Diego's famous haunted house? Or the Presidio and site of the very first Spanish settlement in 1769? That is why they call it Old Town.

6) TACO TREAT. Sigh. The Times just shouldn't have gone there. New Yorkers don't know tacos. Okay, if you're already in Old Town, grab a bite at the rebranded "Plaza del Pasado" (I'll always know it as Bazaar del Mundo, but the business people behind Plaza del Pasado were willing to pay more when the lease came up for renewal). If you want the best tacos in San Diego, go to Robertos. Or Albertos. Or Aibertos. Or any hole-in-the-wall taco shop with the suffix "-ertos," named by the many Robertos imposters. Better yet, get in your car in Old Town and drive 5 minutes away to Jimmy Carter's Mexican Cafe for the best Mexican food in the whole city.

7) BEACH BUM. Good: Recommending O.B. over one of the other, more frat-boyish beach communities. Better: The Antique Mall, several blocks' worth of antique stores, something even some locals don't know about O.B. What the Times missed: When you talked about tacos in the previous paragraph, how can you possibly not mention the uber-famous fish tacos at O.B.'s South Beach Bar & Grill, just a short stroll from those antique shops?

8) SALTY SEA AIR. Good: Sunset Cliffs, along with La Jolla is indeed one of the jewels in San Diego's coastline crown. Better: Brief mention of tidepooling, one of the best ways for those not familiar with the sea to get up close and personal with the ocean and its denizens without getting anything more than their hands and feet wet. What the Times missed: Cruising the streets above Sunset Cliffs to see some amazing, multi-million-dollar homes, and then keep driving a bit further to the crest of Point Loma and the million-dollar views of the city.

9) DINNER AT A DINER. Good: Recommending some casual dining, which better suits San Diego's personality. Better: Corvette Diner is a lot of fun. What the Times missed: Corvette's burger with peanut butter. To those adventurous enough to try it, you'll never stop talking about it. Yum.

10) THE FOX ROCKS. Good: Mentioning a quality dive bar, of which San Diego has many. Better: The Red Fox is one of the best. What the Times missed: Ould Saud, the Lamplighter, the Alibi, NuNu's, the Morena Club, to name a few.

11) IF THEY BUILD IT. I'm sure Legoland appreciates the nod. The place needs all the buzz it can get. There's a reason why it's not crowded, though as the Times mentions, it's worth a visit if you have kids. But a "hot and dusty" snub of the deservedly "world famous" San Diego Zoo? Three letters: WTF? Well, okay. If you're a New Yorker, then I guess all that open space and nature can get on your nerves real fast. Maybe one of the monkeys threw poo at the writer.

If you've got more than six hours to spend in San Diego, I hope these tips help you enjoy your stay.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

I finally ate in Chinatown

Chinatown is about as much a part of New York as Little Italy, Central Park or the Empire State Building, yet it took me a year to finally go there to eat. Not for lack of desire; it just didn't work out till now. We're both fanatical about Mexican food, so that's always the fallback. We live in Brooklyn, so it's often easier to eat there. We have to drive through Chinatown traffic to get to the Holland Tunnel when we want to escape the city, so there's no incentive to stop then.

But finally, last week, we found ourselves downtown at small claims court (as spectators). Our friend's case got postponed, so we wandered out into nearby Chinatown for dinner. My, what I've been missing this past year! Being a group of five, we ordered family style and got a variety of dishes.

The pork & crab dumplings we started with were scrumptious, as well as fun to eat. First, put sauce into the bottom of a soup spoon. Then gently grab the tied-off top of the dumpling and lay it into the spoon (careful, or you'll rip it open). Next, delicately bite a small hole into the lower half of the dumpling and suck the soup out of the interior. When you've sucked it all out, pop the whole thing into your mouth and enjoy!

The rest of the table was covered with plates of General Tsao's chicken, shrimp & meat sauce, Singapore noodles, some type of eggplant dish and more goodies. I've never claimed to be good at writing about food, so all I can really say is "Yum!" It was fantastic, and unlike eating at the typical fast-food Chinese joint, I didn't feel bloated afterward. Just pleasantly, satisfyingly stuffed. Like a human dumpling.

I won't wait another year before I go back!

This guy does know dick about cutting hair

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

They call it "Factory" for a reason

Today we traveled to the exotic land of Nuj Ersy on a quest for portage paraphernalia (Cassie needed a new backpack). Before we could make it back to the Motherland, we found ourselves famished, so we decided to sample the indigenous fare.

Big mistake.

In New York City, we live at the center of the dining universe. On seemingly every other corner, you can eat in an excellent, locally owned and operated restaurant. But Nuj Ersy natives are forced to congregate at large shopping centers bordered by carbon-copy feeding troughs with names like P.F. Chang, Maggiano's and Cheesecake Factory. We zeroed in on the latter, much like a moth that can't help flying into a campfire.

Sure enough, like that moth, we got burned. Joining the thronging Nuj Ersy masses, we found a hostess, who told us the wait would be 15-30 minutes. Almost an hour later, nearly fainting from hunger, we asked about our table. Apparently they'd called our name a long time ago—though I'm not sure how we missed that, since we had a pager and stood at the hostess station for nearly the entire hour.

Upon sitting down, we immediately placed an order for Vietnamese summer spring rolls, which were the highlight of our dining experience. They were light and scrumptious, came with two delicious dipping sauces, and literally arrived only a minute or two after we ordered them (they were served chilled, so clearly were already prepared).

The rest of the meal pretty much went downhill from there. Had we not had that appetizer, they would have had to wheel me out on a stretcher with a feeding tube down my throat. It took what felt like another hour for our dinners to come out. The couple next to us had their plates brought out well before ours, even though they'd been seated after we placed our order. And when my plate came, our server had to explain that my asparagus would be coming out separately.

The quality of the food was mediocre at best. I ordered Hibatchi Steak, and Cassie chose the Chinese Chicken Salad. Mine was adequate, but nothing outstanding; Cassie's bowl of salad could have fed my entire family--but half of it was rice noodles. The bowl was covered with a layer of rice noodles so thick that you could not see a single wisp of green leaf.

All in all, the experience was wholly unsatisfying. The word "Factory" in the name is apt, because we felt like we were on an assembly line from the moment we entered the place. We knew better; we made fun of ourselves for even deciding to try a chain restaurant. But we were starving, so we rolled the dice. Too bad we crapped out.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

I have no memory for food

I've mentioned before that I'm not a foodie. I live in New York City, so I don't have to travel to enjoy a world-class meal (Cassie's latest find: Luz, right here in Clinton Hill). But whether I'm dining in Paris or Paso Robles, I can barely remember what I ate the night before, no matter how amazing the meal was. For me, travel isn't about the food, so while I might sample some of the most fantastic cuisine I've ever tasted, it's the people and the experience that will stick with me.

In Torino, for example, I remember that I enjoyed the most delicious meals of my six-week tour of Italy, but I'll be damned if I can recall what I ate. It's the beautiful architecture that stands out from that visit. The high point of my trip to London last November was a three-course meal that Cassie and I ate with her brother and sister-in-law. But it's the good times we had with each other, not the food that we ate (quail, I think? I do remember the limoncello) that stuck with me. And I know I ate well last time I went to Hawaii, but the memories I have come from the priceless time spent with family members I see too rarely.

That's not to say I remember nothing that I eat. I'll never forget the succulent whole fried fish I ate in a nondescript food stand outside Tegucigalpa in Honduras, an experience that makes me want to order the same thing anytime I see it on a menu. The most amazing calamari—my favorite seafood—that I've ever tasted was found far from the ocean, in Chicago of all places. And, as embarrassing as it is to admit that an appetizer from a chain restaurant made such an impact on me, I can taste the improbably juicy fried zucchini sticks at San Diego's Claim Jumper whenever I summon them from my memory.

So just because you don't often find me raving about this restaurant or that meal doesn't mean I don't appreciate fine cuisine or that I dine at McDonald's. And I'm not suggesting that I'm above people who are foodies, like my friends and Yelp aficionados Michael and Carlton. It's just that, when it comes to travel, food is the fuel for my experiences, not the objective.

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Monday, March 31, 2008

No Reservations for this non-foodie

When it comes to travel, I'm not a "foodie" (someone for whom sampling the local fare is the raison d'etre of travel). So if you, like my friend Carlton Lear, are a foodie, you're not going to find a lot of food blogging here.

Don't get me wrong; I love to eat, and I dig trying the local cuisine wherever I may find myself. I'm just not a picky eater, and I don't have a very discriminating palate. And often I'm too busy exploring the local sights and sounds to give much thought to appeasing my hunger.

Having said all that, however, my favorite show on the Travel Channel (and possibly my current favorite TV show overall, except for "Battlestar Galactica") is Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations." If you have not seen this show, stop reading this blog and go turn on your TV (it's on tonight and every Monday at 10 PM—and the Travel Channel reruns old episodes at various other times).

Being a New York chef-cum writer, Bourdain's show focuses on the food in the places he visits around the world. But the reason he became a best-selling author is also what makes his show so great. Unlike many travel programs, which can often seem as bland as a watered-down cocktail at an overpriced poolside bar, Bourdain's show goes down like a shot of top-shelf tequila. His writing brings out all the colors in the places he visits and the food he tastes, and his personality makes even the most ostensibly mundane locations seem worth a visit (such as his shows on Cleveland and New Jersey).

But just as any program about food can take you only so far—you gotta taste it for yourself—this blog can only sing his praises so much. You gotta watch his show for yourself.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Side order of crazy

For my final dinner in Los Angeles last night, a friend recommended I try a little Mexican food joint between Santa Monica and Venice Beach. It was on the way to my hotel by LAX, so I gave it a try. La Playita was more of a "shack" than a restaurant, but that's just the way I like them. Some of the best Mexican food I've ever tasted have been Baja street tacos, and sometimes it seems the bigger and more fancy the Mexican restaurant, the crappier the food.

I got a carne asada burrito, and according to my friend's recommendation (and what I would have done anyway), I squirted some of the homemade hot sauce on every bite. The burrito was decent, but the sauce was awesome: plenty of kick, but not so much that you're panting half an hour later. It was definitely worth the stop.

What my friend didn't tell me was that the burrito came with a side order of crazy. The shack didn't have any outside seating, so I ate standing up at the front counter. As I took my first bite, a woman came riding up on a bicycle. Our eyes met for just a moment, but that's all the time I needed to recognize that half-wild, off-kilter look that you only see in the demented or drugged-out. She'd hardly dismounted before asking me if I had a relationship with Jesus Christ.

I groaned inwardly, knowing what was coming. I glanced around: I could eat my burrito at the counter, at a bench next to the shack, or in my car. I wasn't about to let some Jesus-crazed beach bum ruin my meal, so I defiantly glared at her and kept eating. She placed her order, and then turned to me and launched into a tirade about how damned people like me were, how Armageddon was coming, California was going to fall into the ocean, and on like that.

Deciding to try to nip this one in the bud, I turned to her and told her to shut up. In retrospect, I'm not sure why I thought that would actually shut her up; it had the opposite effect. She proceeded to describe how hot Hell was going to be when I got there, that she wished she'd brought a tape recorder to record my heresy, and God knows what else (pun intended).

I wolfed down the rest of my burrito, but not before her rants devolved into diatribes against the White Man and how the U.S. had been stolen from the native peoples. As I got in my car and drove away, it occurred to me that I got what I'd come for: some authentic local flavor.

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