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California: Brentwood Country Mart

One of the gems of Santa Monica is the Brentwood Country Mart.  Its a collection of shops, most are specialty and local in nature, with an upscale farmer’s market vibe.  We first visited the Farm Shop, a restaurant slash artisan market with a fabulous bakery making a plethora of delicious pastries and baked goods.  I tried a number of yummy items but the bacon cheddar scone was especially memorable, moist with chunks of bacon and chives.  On another day we went to Caffe Luxxe for a pick me up.  Something new for me, I ordered the Shakerato – like a shakened sweetened latte lined with a chocolate sauce, so good.  Finally on my last day in California, we made a final stop before saying our byes to friends at Sweet Rose Creamery.  An organic ice cream shop making unique flavours from scratch and in small batches.  I had two scoops, one scoop each of earl grey and Rasputin stout.  Both were subtle flavours but completely identifiable.  My friend MA got fresh mint with homemade chocolate chips and to be honest, it was the most refreshing mint ice cream I have ever eaten!  It really was bursting with fresh mint – I’d definitely go back again.

The Farm Shop in Santa Monica.

The Farm Shop in Santa Monica.

The Farm Shop.

The Brentwood Country Mart collection of shops including the Farm Shop.

My breakfast before the drive to Joshua Tree National Park - Iced drip coffee and Bacon Cheddar scone.

My breakfast before the drive to Joshua Tree National Park – Iced drip coffee and Bacon Cheddar scone.

Homemade granola bar.

Homemade granola bar.

Strawberry streusel croissant.

Strawberry streusel croissant.

The bakery in the Farm Shop.

The bakery in the Farm Shop.

Delicious cinnamon bun from the Farm Shop bakery.

Delicious cinnamon bun from the Farm Shop bakery.

A slice of coffee cake.

A slice of coffee cake.

Caffe Luxxe at the Brentwood Country Mart.

Caffe Luxxe at the Farm Shop.

The Shakerato from Caffe Luxe.

The Shakerato from Caffe Luxxe.

Inside Caffe Luxe.

Inside Caffe Luxxe.

Sweet Rose Creamery at the Farm Shop.

Sweet Rose Creamery at the Brentwood Country Mart.

Inside Sweet Rose Creamery.

Inside Sweet Rose Creamery.

My double scoop of organic ice cream - one scoop of Old Rasputin Stout and one scoop of Earl Grey tea ice cream.

My double scoop of organic ice cream – one scoop of Old Rasputin Stout and one scoop of Earl Grey tea ice cream.

California: Venice Whaler

Staying in Santa Monica and being so close to Venice, you know we had to make a visit to the famous muscle beach! After hanging out at the beach for a couple of hours and taking a walk on the boardwalk, we were starving for some lunch.  So right at the foot of Venice pier and on the boardwalk is the Venice Whaler, an “upscale dive bar”, the upscale being the food – and the food is good!  You will see that the culinary side to my California trip centred around 3 things: seafood, asian food and tacos :)  And when you see chicharrones tacos on a menu, you just have to order them….who can resist deep fried pork belly, I certainly can’t!  And good thing we ordered them, they were the highlight of my California taco experience.  Salty crispy cubes of pork belly that are counter balanced with fresh thinly sliced cabbage slaw, cucumber, tomato, radish and topped with an avocado crema.  It was the perfect freshness and completely satisfying.

Local beer and cocktails.

Local beer and cocktails.

Getting close and personal with the chicharrones taco.

Getting close and personal with the chicharrones taco.

The Venice Whaler.

The Venice Whaler.

Inside the Venice Whaler.

Inside the Venice Whaler.

I couldn't resist throwing in a photo of the famous muscle beach gym.

I couldn’t resist throwing in a photo of the famous muscle beach gym.

Chicharones tacos.

Chicharones tacos.

Grilled shrimp tacos.

Grilled shrimp tacos.

Crispy cod tacos.

Crispy cod tacos.

California: The Hungry Cat

One of the benefits of knowing locals where you travel is that first hand recommendations on places to eat.  The Hungry Cat was one of them, a restaurant recommended by my friend’s cousin J.  There are a few different locations of Hungry Cat but we went to the Santa Monica locale.  Known for the seafood and located right across from the beach and ocean, the vibe was coastal casual, almost a homey feel.  We started the night with a serving of peel and eat shrimp, jumbo-sized and sweet tasting.  I ordered the braised mussels made with a spicy broth as opposed to the traditional white wine version – these were just as delicious!  Although an east coast thing, the lobster roll looked yummy stuffed in a toasted challah bun.  Desserts were just as great but the seafood is why you want to come and eat here.

Cocktails to start the night.

Cocktails to start the night.

Appetizer - peel n' eat shrimp.

Appetizer – peel n’ eat shrimp.

Braised mussels with fried potatoes.

Braised mussels with fried potatoes.

Pork tenderloin.

Pork tenderloin.

Maine lobster roll with fried potatoes.

Maine lobster roll with fried potatoes.

Hungry cat's version of cheese cake.

Hungry cat’s version of cheese cake – panna cotta style.

Hungry cat's bread pudding with caramel, roasted peanuts and ice cream.

Hungry cat’s bread pudding with caramel, roasted peanuts and ice cream.

The Hungry Cat - Santa Monica.

The Hungry Cat – Santa Monica.

Inside the Hungry Cat.

Inside the Hungry Cat.

California: Taco Loco

Of course, going to California means tacos!  Driving up the Pacific Coast Highway in search of dinner, we found a total dive.  Seriously, it was attached to a parking garage and because the space is so small its divided into two separate storefronts, one on the right side of the garage entrance (photographed below) and one on the left side.  The menu, posted on a white board hanging on the door as you walk in.  And pure kitsch on the inside.  Being located in Laguna and on the PCH, its all about seafood.  I decided to order blackened swordfish and blackened mahi mahi tacos.  With the fresh guacamole, spicy salsa, cilantro and the grilled fish, the tacos were delicious with strong, bright flavours. And at $5 each, a pretty good deal too!

The tiny Taco Loco joint.

The tiny Taco Loco joint.

The kitchy interior.

The kitchy interior.

Thursday's menu.

Thursday’s menu.

My order of blackened swordfish taco and blackened mahi mahi taco.

My order of blackened swordfish taco and blackened mahi mahi taco.

Fresh guacamole, spicy homemade salsa and cilantro topped tacos.

Fresh guacamole, spicy homemade salsa and cilantro topped tacos.

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California: Pizzeria Luigi

Next stop on my Southern California trip was a pizza joint that I saw a couple of years ago on an episode of Triple D (Diners, Drive-ins and Dives).  Sad I know, that it took me so long to finally visit the west coast but alas, I made it.  And boy was it worth it.  Pizzeria Luigi is not like the think crust pizza franchises I’m used to – and don’t get me wrong, everyone now and then I like a good Pizza Nova slice but the pizza at Pizzeria Luigi is tasty!  Typical flavours are available but the unique topping combinations and thin crust really make this pizza for me.  Normally, I hate pineapple on pizza (I can’t get my head around the sweetness of the pineapple mixed in with the salty pepperoni) but I’m glad I took the server’s recommendation to get the Spicy Kevo.  The hot jalapenos cut through the sweetness of the pineapple and combining it with mild taste of ricotta and salty pepperoni – it was delicious. Definitely worth the stop.

Pizza window.

Pizza window.

You know Guy Fieri's been here.

You know Guy Fieri’s been here.

Spicy Kevo and Capone slices.

Spicy Kevo and Capone slices.

My favourite slice, the Capone!

My two favourite flavours.

BBQ chicken and Leonardo pizzas.

BBQ chicken and Leonardo pizzas.

Pizzeria Luigi.

Pizzeria Luigi.

Inside Pizzeria Luigi.

Inside Pizzeria Luigi.

California: In & Out Burger

Looking outside my window and watching the snow come down, I really wish I was back on vacation in California.  This was my first trip to the west coast of the US and having landed at 9pm, my colleague (I was here for a conference) and I were feeling pretty peckish.  So you know it was the perfect opportunity to make a pit stop at California’s famous In & Out Burger.  We were in a cab so drive-thru was the only option and its a good thing we did, when we pulled up to the window, our cab driver suggested I order “animal style fries”, a not-so-secret menu item.  As soon as I hear non-menu well, that was it, I was going to order to it.  Animal style fries are composed of classic fries topped with cheese sauce and sauce – kind of like a version of poutine (which is better).  Surprisingly, the burger was delicious! Topped with fresh lettuce, a thick slice of tomato, their “secret sauce” and what made it over the top was the toasted bun!  Yes, the toasted bun!  My guess is the bun is toasted with butter which gave the bun a crisp outer crust.  A fast food joint definitely worth making a stop!

The 24hr drive-thru.

The 24hr drive-thru.

In & Out menu.

In & Out menu.

Our order of regular hamburgers and animal fries.

Our order of regular hamburgers and animal fries.

The infamous In & Out hamburger.

The infamous In & Out hamburger.

The off-the-menu "animal fries".

The off-the-menu “animal fries”.

Japan: My Favourite Things

When my older brother returned home from a month’s vacation in the Phillipines and Japan, he brought home a package of goodies containing some of my favourite things!  If you’ve been to Japan, you will know that they love making KitKat using different flavours.  The flavours are usually available during their corresponding peak season – strawberry is one of the most popular.  He also brought back green tea and chilli (which was pretty spicy).  Another food trend in Japan is the use of milk.  In chocolate or milk chewy candy – think sweetened condensed milk, but my favourite of all-time has to be Calpis,  a milk base concentrate…delicious!  I was first introduced to Calpis as a child when I would visit my grandparents in Japan during the summers.  Thinned with water (or vodka for an adult version) and made with a variety of flavours (strawberry, grape, etc.) – if you find it at an asian store, give it a try!

Sample of goodies from Japan - chocolate and candies.

Sample of goodies from Japan – chocolate and candies.

Calpis concentrate - my childhood favourite drink!

Calpis concentrate – my childhood favourite drink!

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