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Monday, October 23, 2006

Weekend in San Diego

Despite living in Southern California, my hubby and I have only been down to the San Diego area a couple of times. Twice we went with family and friends to pay homage to San Diego’s main attractions, the world famous San Diego Zoo, Seaworld, and the Wild Safari Park. Another trip, with my parents and sisters, was spent in Carlsbad admiring the flower fields that showcased a breathtaking array of colorful foliage. All of our trips were weekend events and never included enough time to see the city and sample the local cuisine.

Last weekend, my friends Jeff, Yam and Valerie were visiting from out of town and we decided to spend part of the weekend exploring San Diego. We purposely skipped the theme parks and agreed to visit lesser-known tourist sites. We planned to leave Torrance bright and early on Saturday, but as with all big groups (there were 6 of us including Jules and Jojo), we ended up leaving past 10:30. We arrived at our hotel (Residence Inn in Scripps Ranch) shortly past noon. We checked in and ala Rachael Ray in her show $40 Dollars a Day, asked the front desk staff for their recommendations for lunch. The manager on dutry, Janelle, who happened to be Filipino too, recommended a small, local eatery that served authentic and very good Hawaiian food. Janelle claimed the place was fast becoming a local favorite and since it was hard to find (it was tucked away in the middle of an office complex), it was hardly tourist-infested.

So our group headed over to Da Kitchen – which was indeed small, hard to find, and a gathering place for the locals. The menu was printed on a white board and featured a selection of grilled meats (kalbi style), breaded and fried meats (katsu style), and teriyaki dishes, all served over rice or noodles with a side serving of fresh greens. Our server explained that Hawaiian cuisine is pretty much a mix of island flavors fused with Japanese, Korean and Filipino influences from early immigrants. I ordered a combination dish (pork kalua and pork katsu over steamed rice). The pork kalua is a traditional Hawaiian recipe of pork slow-cooked with lots of herbs and spices. Once cooked, it is hand-shredded and then cooked again until it becomes incredibly tender and flavorful. The pork katsu is a breaded and fried piece of boneless porkchop that was served with a sweet Hoisin-like dipping sauce. It was not bad, served hot but no longer crisp – which means the dish was reheated and not made to order. Happy with our individual orders, we all sat down to enjoy our meal. And although we were all hungry, none of us could finish the humongous servings.

Our next stop was the Fashion Mall to do some shopping. I know mall-shopping while sightseeing is kind of a cop-out, but we voted that it was too sunny to stay outdoors and since my friends were from out-of-town and needed to get their prerequisite shopping for pasalubong done, we gave in. We did attempt to be disciplined and not spend our entire day at the mall, so we agreed to regroup in an hour and a half.

Our next destination was La Jolla to visit its legendary beaches. The drive was very pleasant and we cruised thru the beautiful and expansive UC, San Diego campus. Set close to the water, in lush surroundings, it is amazing how students can get any studying done. La Jolla Beach was surprisingly average. I was probably expecting too much. The beach is reminiscent of all other the other beaches along California’s coastline. There were a few dozen surfers trying to catch a wave, kids playing in the sand, teenagers tossing a Frisbee, and couples lying on the sand. The water was cold, there was a slight breeze, and the sunset in the horizon was quite dramatic. The view made up for the washed up seaweed on the beach that gave off a strong fishy smell. We spent about an hour walking around and admiring the beachfront property before heading over to Our Lady of Confidence church to hear mass.

After mass, we drove to Old Town San Diego and visited one of the local Mexican plazas called Plaza del Pasado. The plaza was brightly lit, and had several shops selling a variety of odds and ends from Mexican housewares, costumes, trinkets to ceramics, candies and toys. There were several restaurants making homemade Mexican goodies and the smells of roasting tortillas filled the air. There was a mariachi band playing fiesta music and a few men and women were garbed in traditional Mexican finery and large sombreros. The night air had turned cool and the place was festive and alive. While waiting for Val’s cousins to join us for dinner we strolled to the nearby Bazaar del Mundo to browse their beautiful terra cotta pots and wrought iron artwork. I was tempted to buy a few colorful ceramic pots for our patio but was shocked to find out the smallest pot cost $32.00.

We had a late dinner at an open-air Mexican restaurant and shared a meal of carne asada, chicken taquitos, and cheese anchiladas, all served with rice and beans. My favorite part was the tortilla soup with creamy avocado slices and the baskets of warm tortilla chips and fresh salsa that started the meal. Of course, we also had to have the fried ice cream for dessert.

After dinner, we drove around the Seaport Village and stopped by San Diego’s nightlife scene at the Gaslamp Quarter (several streets lined with boutiques, restaurants and clubs). Parking was terrible, Jojo was not feeling well, and we were tired, so soon after we headed back to our hotel.

The next day we had breakfast at the hotel coffeeshop and headed back to LA since my friends were leaving that night. Thus ending our 1-day tour of San Diego city. I know there is a lot more to see and do and I am looking forward to another visit soon.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Dumpling Heaven

As I predicted, our culinary adventure in the San Gabriel valley did not disappoint. My brother, hubby and I had lunch at Din Tai Fung Dumpling House in Arcadia. As the name implies, they serve dumplings. Not any ordinary dumplings but the BESTEST dumplings I’ve ever tasted – EVER!

The restaurant is fairly small and located along a strip mall. You could miss the place if you were driving by, if not for the horde of people waiting outside. The place is quite clean and the staff by the front door is surprisingly courteous. The wait is long but you can pass the time walking around the small shops next to it (there is a J&J Bakery right across that has really good pork sung buns – although not wanting to spoil our appetites we got them to go). We also stood in the restaurant’s tiny waiting area and watched 7 or 8 workers expertly making the dumplings through a glass plated window. The men expertly kneaded the doughy wrapper, stuffed the dough with different meat mixtures, and twisted them shut before shaking them in flour and steaming them. We waited almost 40 minutes for a table and heard from others that we were lucky we got in so quickly. I’ve heard some people had to wait up to an hour and a half to get in.

We ordered 3 varieties of dumplings: pork, pork and vegetable, pork and shrimp and an order of fried rice. While waiting you can work on your dipping sauce – ginger strips, black vinegar and soy sauce (mine had some chili sauce too). The dumplings arrive soon after. There are 10 pieces in each order. Each one is a little larger than the size of a quarter (or one peso coin in Manila). The way to eat it is to start with biting a small part of the chewy dough. You will find inside the dumpling is a little bit of broth (I’m not sure how they keep them in the dumpling and why it does not spill out). But it’s a surprise to get the hot broth with the first bite. You then drain the hot broth (believe me it’s very HOT!) and then pour a bit of your sauce into the dumpling and enjoy the rest of it (meat filling and dough). I guess another way to eat it is to pop the whole thing in your mouth and chew everything at the same time. Nothing wrong with that. But like eating an Oreo cookie, there is a art to it – you start with taking the two pieces of chocolate cookies apart and licking the icing center before eating the cookie covers. In the case ofthese dumplings, the way to enjoy them is the biting the wrapper / draining the soup / pouring the sauce / eating the rest of the dumpling method. Trust me, I’m not making it up - it says so in their menus.

At first I thought 30 dumplings would be too much for 3 people. But we were hungry and they were so good that when we were down to our last 5 pieces, we unanimously decided we just had to get one more order. Come to think of it, the small order of fried rice was good too (the rice was fluffy, very flavorful and had lots of large shrimp and vegetables). But really, the day was all about the dumplings.

Any time you find yourself in the Arcadia area. You absolutely need to try this place. It is worth the wait and the drive.

(p.s. I wanted to post a picture of the dumplings but could not. If you are curious - click here and it'll take you to the CitySearch site and they have a picture there).

Friday the 13th (although Blogger posted this on Saturday the 14th)

This morning I facilitated a seminar for work and started the presentation by calling to everyone’s attention that today is Friday the 13th. I said it mainly to break the ice and meant nothing by it. My audience had mixed reactions though. During the break, a couple of folks came up to me and greeted me “Happy Halloween” (I’m taking that as a good thing). But a few others had actually asked me why I scheduled a seminar today of all days. Didn’t I think it would be bad luck? These folks were serious!

To be honest, it didn’t really occur to me. I’m not nearly superstitious enough to believe in the curse of “Friday the 13th”. Considering the workshop went well, maybe I was right. Who knows?!

Anyway, I’ll play it safe. To ward off any bad luck, I’m going to think happy thoughts and list 13 things that make me happy today:

1.) Well, have I mentioned it’s Friday? That says it all.

2.) Wait, actually there’s more, today is pay day too!

3.) Dinner with my in-laws tonight at the Elephant Bar.

4.) I have a book club meeting tomorrow and am looking forward to discussing Ender’s Game – which was strangely interesting.

5.) The weather the last few days has been absolutely gorgeous! Balmy, dark, cool. Today as a bonus – it even rained too!

6.) My hubby is really enjoying his new job – and because of his much shorter commute, is home much earlier every night.

7.) I’m spearheading a newsletter for work and after more than 6 weeks of writing, drafting, editing, lay-outing and designing, I finally got approval to send it for printing.

8.) Tomorrow we’re meeting my brother for lunch in the San Gabriel area – I love discovering hole-in-the-wall places to eat (where they serve authentic Chinese food).

9.) Next week my hubby and I are joining some friends for an overnight trip to San Diego. I am so looking forward to that!

10.) I got an email from my parents last night. They are on a 10-day tour in China and it sounds like they are having a great time. My dad actually did some cave exploring! I can’t wait to hear all the details.

11.) I got an unexpected email from a long lost friend yesterday. He used to be a really good friend and we drifted apart after graduation. My sister ran into him at her new job and they figured out they had knowing me in common. Long story short – it was nice hearing from him after all these years.

12.) I got a coupon (that expires this weekend) for a free oil change from my car dealer – the same week Rave is due for an oil change.

13.) My BIL’s girlfriend told us that the Torrance YMCA has badminton courts and we’re planning to check them out this weekend. (Apparently badminton is not a major sport in the States since we’ve been having the toughest time finding a court to play in).

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

To be or not (yet)to be ... a parent!

Last night, I had a conversation with my SIL about parenthood. We philosophized about when one knows one is ready to become a mom. I’ve read somewhere that for most women the maternal instinct kicks in somewhere between her early to late thirties. Just about the same time her biological clock starts ticking. I guess for most this age makes sense too in terms of the natural progression of events.

By mid-thirties most women would be done with school (graduate degrees and all), would have already had (or are having) successful careers, would have had lots of time to find herself, would have had plenty of time for girlfriends and girls’ nights out, would have had her share of meaningful and meaningless relationships, would have had experienced being in love and getting over love, and is most probably close to (or already at) the stage of settling down. So, after the honeymoon and adjusting to married life, what’s next? For most, having kids is the next logical step, especially if we choose to follow society’s predetermined path.

I have been giving that a lot of thought. I have now had a year and a half to settle into my thirties and have pretty much had my share of living the single life before settling down with the love of my life. We have been married almost two years now. We are both the “right age”, pretty stable financially, have good jobs, a nice home, are decent human beings, belong to good families, go to church regularly, and have never been arrested for anything. Does that make us ready? What is “ready” anyway?

Lately the more I spend time with my nieces and nephews, the more I’m excited with the thought of having kids of my own. I’ve spent time coming up with baby names and enjoy browsing the children’s section in department stores planning my baby’s nursery and what adorable outfits to buy. I actually look forward to babysitting and getting to practice my parenting skills.

On the other hand, every time I talk to my SILs and my friends who have gone thru pregnancies, childbirth and the traumas of first-time motherhood, I am actually more than a little scared that maybe I’m not quite ready yet. Just thinking about it sometimes really unnerves me. I keep thinking what if I’m not a good enough mom, what if I never learn how to change a poopy diaper, what if my kids like their nanny more than they’ll like me, and a million other what ifs. I’m actually a little bit terrified when my baby niece starts crying and I’m at a loss as to why such a tiny thing can make such loud noises.

I mean, yes, I enjoy kids and can spend hours playing, talking, singing, and eating with them. But at the end of the day, I’m also a little relieved when their moms and dads take over when the crying and the tantrums start. Maybe I just want to be the “fun aunt” and not the “responsible mom”. Does that make sense? And is so, is that really very horrible of me?

How do you really know when you’re ready? Am I over-thinking this too much? And is there such a thing as “selective maternal instinct”? I think that’s what I have. There are days when I am sure I’m ready and I want to have kids. And then there are days when I think, life is good, maybe we should enjoy the peace and quiet a few years more? Is this normal? Am I normal? Thank god my hubby (though I know he wants to have kids already) has not added to my mental pressure!

My mom used to tease us that she grew grey hairs because we drove her crazy while we were growing up. In my case, I’m starting early and driving myself crazy worrying about my kids before I even conceive them!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Columbus Day

This is the first time I am getting Columbus Day off. I guess it’s not a major holiday here since my nephew who is in second grade had class today. Other than Columbus discovering America, I’m not really sure what else we’re supposed to be celebrating. The post office and banks are closed. But pretty much everything else is open. Not that I’m complaining, after all, a day off is a day off

I was all set to spend a day of leisure just reading “The Man Who Ate Everything” by Jeffrey Steingarten (who is pretty hilarious!) and gossip magazines from back home, lying in front of the tv, and catching up on emails and blogging. Aaah, bliss! Sometimes it’s great having the house all to yourself. You can eat whenever and whatever you want – chocolate cookies at 9:00 am in bed! You don’t have to get out of your pajamas and you don’t have to worry about brushing your teeth. Even the weather was cooperating. It was dark and gloomy and almost cold. Perfect for me! I started my day with a cup of steaming Tim Horton’s hot cocoa and while watching Still Standing reruns on Lifetime. Now that’s what I call a day off!

My hubby left for work at 8:40 am. Today is his first day. Actually, I’m getting ahead of news I have not had a chance to share. My hubby resigned from his former job at the anime company two weeks ago and is starting a new job at a computer company today. It’s major news and I can’t believe I have not posted about it. But lately, there are not enough hours in the day and so I’ve sort of put it off. Anyway, the new company is offering him better pay and better benefits … but the real clincher is the fact that they are located 15 minutes away from our place. Now, in LA, to find work 15 minutes away from where you live is almost unheard of … the fact that both of us work 15 minutes away is a downright miracle!

As I was saying, Jojo left at 8:40 am but less than two hours later is back home. He needed to take a drug test at a local clinic before starting work and the results won’t be in till tomorrow. So technically he did not have Columbus Day off, but he did get the day off from work.

So much for my day of just lazing around. Now don’t get me wrong. I love spending time with my hubby and he can be just as big a couch potato as I can be. But since we both had the day off, we figured today was probably a great day to get all our chores done. The ones that we didn’t have enough time over the weekend to do! We had a quick lunch at Pollo Loco and spent the afternoon going to the dry cleaners, had my pants altered at my favorite seamstress (Mrs. Chong is a genius!), bought a vacuum cleaner on sale at Kohls, and went shopping at Del Amo for a dress for my SIL’s upcoming wedding. It was a frustrating afternoon since a teal-colored evening dress in my size and in the style I like is not easy to find. After that, we went over to my other SIL’s place to pick her and my father in law up for an appointment with a family-friend. We ended up staying over for dinner. Afterwards we played around with my nieces and nephew who were as rambunctious as ever! :)

It’s almost 10:00 pm and we just got home. I’ve finished making lunch for tomorrow and my hubby is ironing his shirt for work. In about an hour we’re going to have to get ready for bed. Strange how my day of leisure turned into another jam-packed day like all the rest!

P.S. Yesterday we belatedly celebrated the Mooncake Festival with our annual dice game here at home. My BIL, Lee, won the grand prize ( a $50.00 Target gift card). We had about seven or eight rounds of rolling the 3 pairs of dice to win prizes. And we had a lot of really nice prizes (crystal chess set, roadside assistance kit, camping chairs, sports tumbler, Bath and Bodyworks spa set, swiss army knife, television remote caddy, crystal candy dish, picture frames, and lots more) - but all I won was a Nestle crunch bar. I'm not normally superstitious but I hope my lack of luck playing dice does not translate to my being unlucky in life :)

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Food Galore

The house is quiet now. After having 3 weeks of guests, reunions, out of town trips, it seems strangely so. It was really nice having my friends over. Even if they kept me up almost every night, even if I had to do a little bit more housework, even if it meant playing tour guide most weekends, it was indeed worth it. One of the main perks was having an excuse to eat out almost every night. We paid homage to our favorite restaurants and got the chance to try several new ones.

Normally, Jojo and I eat out during weekends – as a way to treat ourselves for lasting yet another week! But we usually go to the same places and never really stray too far from home. Much like the qualities I love about him, my hubby is safe and dependable even when it comes to his food choices. :) Between the two of us, I am much more adventurous when it comes to culinary exploits, but it is hard to be daring when you are alone.

While my friends were here, we tried a lot of different places and varied cuisine. Towards their last night in LA, we had run out of gastronomic choices. We had had Japanese, Chinese, Chinese-American, Thai, Italian, Mexican, Hawaiian Brazilian, Traditional American, Barbecue, Korean, and Mediterranean. We had eaten in buffets, brunches, diners, five-star places, fast foods, steakhouses, and even take out. We visited coffee shops, doughnut shops, noodle houses, and ice cream parlors. And most of the types of cuisine we tried, we even did more than once. We literally ran out of choices, if that’s possible. Some nights we had to resort to home cooking just to try something new!

Of all the places we tried and enjoyed, two are worthy of actually mentioning here. These two join the ranks of becoming my favorite food haunts.

The first is Duke’s in Malibu. The restaurant is right on the Pacific Coast Highway and has a wonderful view of the Pacific Ocean. We had spent the day driving down PCH and were at the restaurant’s bar a little past six. The place was full and we were given the choice of waiting an hour for a dinner table or enjoying a more casual atmosphere (but the same menu) at Duke’s Barefoot Bar. We took the latter. Les, Ginger, Jamie, Jojo and I – and later my brother, Jules, sampled their cocktails (I had the margarita which was really refreshing). We had calamari strips and nachos for appetizers. The calamari was very tender and the nachos were really good (topped with cheese, beans, jalapenos, and pico de gallo). For our main course, Jojo and I shared the surf and turn platter (grilled steak and shrimp), Jules had the grilled mahi-mahi with mango salsa, while my friends shared the spicy scallops over rice and a huge order of Prime Rib. Everything was awesome. I liked the atmosphere of the place too. The Barefoot Bar had a tropical theme in keeping with Duke's Hawaiian style cuisine. It was very lively (there was a USC football game blaring from 2 huge tvs and you could hear the roar of the ocean waves as they rolled onto the shore).

My second favorite place is Lucille’s Barbecue. It’s a restaurant chain -- we went to the one at the Del Amo mall in Torrance. The place is so good that we went there twice in 3 nights! The first time, we went with Les and Ginger and shared the Backyard Feast and an order of jambalaya. The Backyard Feast came with tri-tip (super succulent), barbecue chicken (amazing flavor), and baby back ribs (so tender the meat was falling off the bone). The jambalaya was super too with andouille sausages, shrimps, bell peppers and onions. We rounded off the meal with homemade apple pie ala mode

The second time we went, we took Su, Mark and Jules. We ordered the Family Feast for 4 and an appetizer sampler. There was so much food – literally our table was filled from end to end! The Family Feast could have easily fed 6 extra hungry guys. Since there were only 5 of us and we had ate so much of the appetizets and biscuits, we had to take food home – we ended up with 5 cartons of leftovers (enough for lunch for all of us the next day!).

But it was worth it. The appetizer platter came with grilled veggie fajitas, steak tortilla rolls, fried green tomatoes, jalapeno poppers, chicken strips, barbecue wings, and onion rings. Our Feast was a huge platter of chicken and baby back ribs. It also came with 4 huge side servings – garlic mashed potatoes, shoestring fries, peanut coleslaw, and roasted corn. YUM! But what was really awesome was the barbecue sauce (which came in 3 varieties: regular, hot & spicy, and Memphis style – which was more tangy than sweet). We also loved, loved, loved the hot biscuits and the sweet honey butter.

It’s a true luxury to be able to eat food this good. But really too much of a good things can be bad too. After my friends left, Jojo and I have been sticking to soup and fruit for dinner. We’ve got to give our stomachs a rest – not to mention our waistlines too! It’s been a great 3 weeks though and I can’t wait for my friends to be back, for another chance to enjoy good company over good food too :)