Damn. Texas is big. Lots and lots of driving today. I never thought I’d be so happy to see Arkansas.
Another eight hours and another five hundred miles and we finally reached Little Rock, just in time for dinner. We found a great little place called Flying Fish and I had some awesome crawfish chowder, hushpuppies and a crawfish po’boy. It’s the simple things in life.
On the way out, I happened to notice a cool Jaws reference hanging on the wall. Well played, Little Rock. Well played.
Okay, I get it. Austin is pretty cool. We started the day in line at Franklin Barbecue. It’s usually about a three hour wait, but I’ve heard it can be up to five hours or longer and they run out of food every single day. We were very lucky and only had to wait for an hour an a half. They did run out of ribs before we got inside, but the brisket, sausages and sides were more than worth it. Donna actually preferred Franklin, but I am Team Salt Lick all the way.
Cattle, white pick-up trucks and oil fields. Jesus H. Christ. Are we there yet? And what is with all the fucking crickets?
Eight hours and 500 miles later, we finally made it to Austin. Before we checked in to our hotel, we stopped at The Salt Lick in Round Rock for some ribs, brisket and blackberry cobbler a la mode. Oh. My. God. BBQ heaven! This was one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life — definitely the best BBQ. Texas takes their BBQ very seriously and we have a shit ton of BBQ places on our list to try, but this place is already my favorite.
After checking in to our hotel, we headed downtown and wandered around a bit. Sixth Street was underwhelming. I really liked the food truck culture and indoor/outdoor set-ups of a lot of the bars and restaurants, but I just wasn’t feeling it today. A good friend of mine recommended Sway for an awesome Thai dinner. Tomorrow we’ll be spending the whole day in Austin and hopefully will get a better sense of what this city is all about.
Roswell was so much fun! We got a parking spot right in front of the International UFO Museum and Research Center and were the first ones in when they unlocked the doors at 9 AM. After taking WAY too many photos of the ridiculousness, we bought some souvenirs and then stopped at Alien Zone and took even more ridiculous photos. Truthfully, you only need a couple of hours in Roswell to get your alien fix, but I am so glad we stopped.
We went to Cowboy Cafe for a late breakfast before heading on to Carlsbad Caverns. I have wanted to see the caverns since I was a little kid. We did the self-guided tour, which took a little more than two hours. Seeing the caves and learning about the history of the park and how it evolved from a “one guy with a lantern” type of operation to an elevator and an underground cafeteria was really amazing.
Originally, were hoping to see the mass bat exodus that occurs nightly, but the bats’ schedule did not jive with ours. We still had a lot of driving to do before we could call it a day, so we had to pass on the bats. There is apparently a large bat colony under a bridge in Austin, so hopefully that will make up for not seeing them in Carlsbad.
Most of today was spent in the car. We stopped at the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ on Route 66 for a quick photo op before heading on to the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert. There are numerous trails and scenic viewing areas in the park, so we stopped periodically, walked around and took lots of photos. Then it was back on the highway for a lot more driving.
After our bellies were full, we got back on the road and started making our way towards Roswell. Once we got past Albuquerque, there wasn’t much to see. We drove through miles and miles of very flat ranch land and didn’t see a single building until we got to Encino, which is the most nightmarish little town I have ever laid eyes on. It was right out of a Steven King novel. Needless to say, we did not stop.
Several hours later, we finally made it to Roswell. We haven’t seen any little green men yet, but the dude at the gas station was kinda sketchy.
Red rocks and lush greenery as far as the eye can see. After the obligatory stop at Chapel of The Holy Cross and an awesome lunch at Creekside Sedona, we met up with a few good friends and hiked down to a swimming hole in Oak Creek under the Midgley Bridge. There are some gentle rapids that rush over a smooth section of rock, forming a natural slide.
After cooling off, we got back in the car and drove a few miles east to do a short hike near Bell Rock. We climbed up to a spot that provided excellent views of the surrounding peaks and rock formations. Even on an overcast, drizzly day, it’s not hard to understand why people fall in love with this place. I’ll definitely be coming back.
So. Today was an interesting day. One water main break, two moving companies, eight hours and seventy-five boxes later, we are no longer Los Angeles residents.
On the way out of town, we stopped at Kitchen 24 for one last amazing fried chicken sandwich and then it was three or four hours of highway driving before we could settle in for the night.
We arrived at our hotel near Joshua Tree National Park around 7 PM. After finally being able to take a shower, we grabbed some food and then started planning our itinerary for the next couple of days. My eyelids are already closing as I type this.
A few months ago, I was scrolling through one of my social media feeds when I stumbled across a concert announcement by one of my favorite bands, Sianspheric. Not only was the recently reunited outfit recording new material and playing live again, they were doing a handful of shows with another of my favorite bands, the also recently reunited Swervedriver. The opportunity to see both of these bands on the same stage was just too much for me to pass up.
The show was happening at This Ain’t Hollywood in Sianspheric’s hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. When I realized that the show was scheduled for Mother’s Day weekend and would put me within an hour’s flight of my own hometown, just outside of New York City, I bought a ticket for the show and began looking at flights immediately.
After a few days of research and planning, I convinced my girlfriend to join me for at least part of the long weekend. She was able to schedule a business trip to meet with some of her Canadian clients, after which we would meet up for a quick trip to Niagara Falls before I flew to New York to surprise my family and she flew back to Los Angeles.
I took a red eye on Thursday night and landed in Toronto at about 6 AM on Friday. After navigating a ridiculously long line at customs — and dealing with extra scrutiny, probably due to the fact that I had just traveled internationally with a one way plane ticket — I stumbled out of the airport and into a beautiful and unseasonably warm Canadian morning.
My girlfriend was already in Toronto and she left me a room key at the front desk of her hotel. After a short cab ride, a two hour power nap and a hot shower, I set out on foot to do some exploring. I walked south along Sherbourne St., past Allan Gardens and then west along Front St.
My first planned stop of the day was the St. Lawrence Market, which is known worldwide by culinary professionals and foodies alike, both for its size and wide variety of high quality offerings. The cavernous space is filled with two floors of vendors selling everything from fruits and vegetables to prepared foods, coffee, wine, cheese and seafood.
I walked the entire market before deciding on where to have lunch. I opted for Buster’s Sea Cove, which had the longest line in the market by far. The ordering process was fairly straight forward, but there was a huge bottleneck of people waiting for their food, with nowhere to go. There was a small seating area right next to the booth, but it was completely full and the line of people waiting to order wasn’t getting any shorter. By the time my Po’ Boy was ready, a few seats had opened up at the counter and I was able to sit down and enjoy my sandwich in relative peace. I originally wanted the crawfish, but sadly, they were sold out. The red snapper was an excellent alternative. It was lightly dressed with mayo and topped with red onions and cucumber and was absolutely fantastic.
Next on the list was the Hockey Hall of Fame, which is not the easiest place to get into. When you find what you think is the entrance, you must figure out that you actually have to walk around the corner and through a set of glass doors that leads to a courtyard. Once you’re in the courtyard, you then have to walk past a fountain, through the atrium and find the escalator that leads to the concourse below. At the bottom of the escalator, you have to make a 180 degree turn and walk to the very back end of the concourse in order to find the entrance to the museum. Clearly, the signage could be better.
If you ever find the entrance to the Hall of Fame, you will be treated to an amazing collection of assorted hockey ephemera. In addition to the hockey sticks, pucks, vintage jerseys and other gear, there is a screening room and numerous vintage hockey merchandise displays, as well as several interactive experiences. When you’ve had your fill, head up a separate escalator to the gift shop. The staff will be happy to ship your purchases to you if you are visiting from another country and don’t feel like lugging them around.
After the Hall of Fame, I walked along the waterfront for a bit and then over to the CN tower for a quick photo op before making my way to the train station. The train ride from Toronto to Hamilton was only an hour and cost about $12, which was cheaper than the five minute cab ride from the train station to my hotel. I stayed at the Admiral Inn Hamilton, which is small and inexpensive, but well run and very clean.
I still had a couple of hours to kill before the concert, so I decided to head out and grab some dinner. I found a place called The Ship, a nautical themed gastropub where I had an AMAZING meatloaf burger called The Bat Out Of Hell. It’s an actual burger patty, not just a slice of meatloaf on a bun, and is topped with house made sweet ketchup glaze and crispy fried onions. They have a great selection of craft beers and a small, but thoughtfully curated bar, stocked with some hard to find bourbons, whiskeys and gins.
After dinner, I walked another mile or so from the restaurant to the venue. There was a street fair going on, so there were a ton of people milling about. It was mostly the usual nonsense: food trucks and tables filled with crap as far as the eye could see. There was also a young rock band playing on the roof of a small building, but they weren’t very good.
This Ain’t Hollywood is a fairly good size bar with surprisingly good sound and the show was everything I hoped it would be. Melodic swells, waves of distortion and surges of feedback washed over the crowd. WTCHS opened to a sparse, but appreciative audience and Sianspheric played a really great set, but I was having trouble standing up by the time they finally went on. Somehow, I managed to get my second (or maybe third) wind for Swervedriver, but by the time they finished playing I had absolutely nothing left. When I finally left the venue, I had a hard time getting a cab and didn’t get back to the hotel until around 2 or 3 AM. After a quick shower, I passed out, completely exhausted from an entirely too long, but really awesome day.
The next morning, my girlfriend picked me up in Hamilton and we drove to Niagara Falls, which was only about 45 minutes away. Neither of us had ever been there before and we were really excited to see the falls, as well as to take in some of the kitschy tourist traps that fill the surrounding area. We stayed at the Niagara Falls Hilton on the Canadian side and our room had an unobstructed view of Horseshoe Falls. After a quick lunch at Pranzo Italian Grill, we walked down to Hornblower Niagara Cruises for a 30 minute tour. Maid of the Mist used to operate on both sides of the river, but now only operates out of New York. From what I could tell, the experiences are nearly identical (read: FUN!) and you should definitely go on a cruise if you visit Niagara Falls. It’s the best way to see the falls up close and personal.
After getting soaked and listening to people scream for a half hour, we walked back up past the falls, stopping often to take photographs and gawk. It really is amazing to see and hear all of that water roaring over the edge of the cliff and pounding the rocks below. It’s even more awe-inspiring if you are visiting from a drought-ravaged area such as southern California.
Once we exhausted ourselves walking around, we trudged back up the hill to the hotel to shower and change for dinner. The dining options in Niagara Falls were not very exciting. We decided to head over to Doc Magilligan’s. I had a burger, which was decent, but not quite what I was hoping for. My girlfriend was equally unimpressed with her meal. Entertainment for the evening consisted of a haunted house, some arcade games and a nighttime viewing of the illuminated falls, followed by a not quite long enough, but very deep sleep.
The next morning, I was up before dawn and on my way to Buffalo Niagara International Airport in New York, which was only about a 45 minute cab ride from the hotel. A couple of hours later, my sister picked me up at Newark and we went back to her place and waited for my parents and aunt to arrive. As hard as I tried to keep my visit a secret, my mother suspected that something was up. Even though it wasn’t a total surprise, everyone was thrilled to see me. There may have even been a few tears.
Mother’s Day was extremely mellow compared to the rest of the weekend. It was really nice to just sit down and relax and spend some quality time with my family, whom I hadn’t seen since Christmas. Unfortunately, it was a very short visit and the next day, it was right back to the airport and then home to Los Angeles.
Over the course of four days, I visited four airports, three cities, two different countries and logged almost 6,000 miles. It was certainly a whirlwind, but it was also one of the best trips I’ve ever taken.
We knew we were getting close to San Diego once we started seeing the yellow and black caution signs depicting families running across the highway. The law enforcement vehicle parked on the side of Route 5 turned out to be Border Patrol and I was surprised to see how much of a U.S. military presence there is in this part of California.
The drive to San Diego from Los Angeles is generally about two hours, without traffic, and as long as you’re not visiting during Comic-Con, the city has a pretty relaxed vibe. My girlfriend and I stayed in the Gaslamp Quarter at Hotel Solamar, which is a really nice, yet affordable boutique hotel. We were greeted by a very friendly staff and upon checking in, they informed us of their daily cocktail hour when they serve complimentary wine and craft beer in the lobby living room. We also learned that the hotel offers pet-friendly accommodations and despite a fair number of canines in residence that weekend, I don’t think I heard a single bark during the entire three days we were there.
After checking in, we immediately went back out to grab some lunch. I had bookmarked a few places on Yelp! and we decided to walk a few blocks over to Werewolf, an 80s-themed gastropub. I opted for the maple citrus glazed pork belly Cubano and it pretty much blew my mind. Donna had the Pork Belly Benedict (available only on weekends) and was equally pleased with her choice.
Our next stop was the Chuck Jones Museum, which is really more of a gallery than a museum, but if you’re a Looney Tunes fan, this is a must-see. After admiring various drawings, watercolors and prints of Bugs & Co., we hopped on the trolley and headed up to Old Town. For me, Old Town was kind of a bust. It’s really just a bunch of tourist shops selling tchotchkes. The one highlight was stumbling across a root beer shop and having an excellent butterscotch root beer by Dang!, which made that portion of the trip totally worthwhile.
Once root beers were consumed, we jumped back on the trolley and made our way back to the hotel to wash up and change our clothes. For dinner that night we decided to try a place in Little Italy called Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar. As soon as we walked in, I knew we were in for a good meal. The place was huge and fully booked. Our hostess offered us two seats at the chef’s table, which is basically a counter in the back overlooking the open kitchen. The entire staff was cheery and welcoming and we watched what appeared to be some really amazing dishes being prepared. I ordered beer braised mussels with Andouille sausage and a toasted garlic baguette. They were FANTASTIC. And for the record, yes, I did order a second toasted garlic baguette to soak up all of that delicious broth.
Little Italy was a little far from the hotel, but we decided to walk back and work off a few of the many calories we consumed at Ironside’s. On the way back, we stopped in at Extraordinary Desserts to grab something sweet to take back to our room (so much for working off those calories). This place was also packed and with good reason. The display case is insane and choosing one thing to share was not easy. We decided to go with the blueberry cheesecake coffee cake. We chose wisely.
The next morning, we got in the car and drove up to San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, which is about 45 minutes north of San Diego. This was definitely the highlight of the weekend. We embarked on a two hour safari through their expansive habitat and got to feed giraffes and rhinos. The rest of the park is made up of smaller enclosures, by comparison, but these beautiful miniature habitats were much larger than what you would normally see at a zoo. The animals have a ton of room to wander around and they seem very content. For the most part, I no longer visit zoos because of the way animals are housed, but this organization is very conservation focused and despite the fairly high ticket prices, I am happy to support them.
In hindsight, we could have spent the entire day at Safari Park, but we were a bit pressed for time and still wanted to see the original San Diego Zoo, which has an excellent reputation. After a quick lunch at Lourdes, we drove back to San Diego and headed over to the zoo. I must admit, by the time we started making our way through the zoo, I was already exhausted and started to feel like a cold might be coming on. Also, Safari Park had set the bar very high and I don’t feel as though the San Diego Zoo lived up to its reputation. Is it nicer than the average zoo? Yes. But it’s not Safari Park. The enclosures are much smaller and the exhibits are starting to show their age. If you have a limited amount of time in San Diego and are on a tight budget, the zoo is probably your best option. However, if you don’t mind the extra driving, I’d highly recommend Safari Park. Even if you can’t do an actual safari, the park is exponentially nicer than the zoo and I think you would have a much more enjoyable experience.
Dinner that night was at Queenstown Public House, a restaurant in a very charming old home. Unfortunately, between feeling under the weather and my wild boar burger being a little gamier than I expected it to be, I can’t give an honest assessment of this place. The menu is very creative and eclectic, as is the decor, and I would love to give this place another try the next time I’m in town.
After dinner, we walked south along the Embarcadero and saw some really interesting buildings and ships that were often partially obscured by the evening mist. We strolled past the marina and through Seaport Village, which is another touristy part of San Diego with lots of shops and places to eat. By the time we got back to the hotel, I was ready for a hot shower, some Airborne and a warm, comfy bed.
The next morning, after sleeping in, we walked over to Cafe 21 for a sidewalk brunch. There was a bit of a wait, but that’s generally the sign of a good brunch spot, so we scoped out the menu until we were seated. My half stack of pancakes with seasonal fruit was mighty tasty and a great way to end an awesome three day weekend. I’m already looking forward to my next visit to San Diego. Maybe I’ll brave the crowds for Comic-Con this year.
When I asked my girlfriend Donna what she wanted to do for her birthday, she provided me with a list of ideas and naturally, we did all of them. The week-long birthday celebration started with Sunday brunch, accompanied by a few close friends at The Mud Hen Tavern in Hollywood. The Mud Hen is owned and run by chef and restauranteur Susan Feniger. They were more than happy to accommodate our sizable group and even asked us in advance if we would like to split up the bill into separate checks. The restaurant has a semi-open floor plan with an outdoor seating area, numerous craft beers on tap and a fantastic menu. I opted for the Hangover Burger, a classic cheeseburger topped with a fried egg and Neuske’s thick cut bacon. Absolute deliciousness!
A few days later, there was a mid-week mini-celebration that involved a quiet dinner at home, some poorly chosen desserts (my fault, completely) and several bulldog videos on YouTube. Donna has a well-documented obsession with English bulldogs — more on that later — and I did my best to entertain her while we ate our desserts on the couch.
The following weekend was the two day, three-pronged grand finale. On Saturday, we drove down to San Juan Capistrano to visit the Mission. Although the grounds are very beautiful and the Mission is a large part of the history of California, visiting this place was a bit odd for me. I do not believe in organized religion and do not want to glorify Spain’s efforts to expand their territories or convert the native people of California to Christianity. If you enjoy history or are religious, I can certainly understand the appeal of this place, but I was kind of just along for the ride on this one.
After strolling the Mission grounds, we drove to Dana Point and checked in to our hotel. Once we dropped our bags and washed up, we got right back in the car and drove over to What A Dish Cafe for a fundraiser organized by Southern California Bulldog Rescue. As I mentioned earlier, Donna has an intense, life-long love of English bulldogs. I’m not quite sure where this stems from, but even the sight of a bulldog on TV makes Donna squeal like a little girl. We arrived at the fundraiser right at the scheduled start time and within a few minutes, there were about a dozen bulldogs waddling around the patio area. I’m kind of amazed that Donna’s head didn’t explode.
Between head scratches and belly rubs, we tasted some appetizers and met some really nice, but also bulldog-obsessed people. Many of the people in attendance brought their own bulldogs, or bulldogs they were currently fostering, to the event. They were all extremely welcoming and didn’t think it was at all strange that two non-bulldog owners drove all the way from West Hollywood to Dana Point, just to play with other people’s bulldogs. If we ever move to an apartment that doesn’t prohibit pets, I am in serious, serious trouble.
Post-fundraiser, we found ourselves still wanting something to eat, so we stopped at The Shwack Beach Grill. Don’t let the goofy name or the surfer speak on the menu fool you. This. Place. Is. Awesome. We snagged two seats at the bar and a few minutes later, the line was out the door. I’m fairly certain that the vast majority of the crowd were locals and that is always a good sign. I ordered the fish tacos and although the “mild” salsa that accompanied them was not quite mild enough for me, I enjoyed them nonetheless and would definitely go back.
After dinner, we walked along the beach for a while and enjoyed the cool night air. Neither one of us slept particularly well, due to an uncomfortable mattress, but we were still excited to get up early the next morning for Sunday’s drive to Huntington Beach and the Surf City Surf Dog competition.
Dogs on surfboards. It was ridiculous. And I mean that in the best way possible. English bulldogs like Tillman seem to have a natural propensity for skateboarding and surfing, probably due to their low center of gravity, but I was amazed to see all kinds of dogs getting in on the action. Smaller dogs like Brandy The Surfing Pug and even larger dogs, including labradors and pit bulls, were visibly excited to get in the water with their owners. We stood on the beach for almost four hours just watching them go. It was a beautiful day and the turnout was fantastic. In addition to the competitors, many of the spectators brought their dogs to the beach for the day. The Huntington Beach Junior Guard was on hand to make sure that dogs and people alike remained safe, there was an observation platform built right on the beach for the announcer and judges, and you couldn’t walk without tripping over a photographer wearing a “Puparazzi” tag. It was awesome.
On the ride home, I asked Donna if she had seen enough bulldogs and of course, she replied “NO! There can never be enough bulldogs!”