Part 10: The Voyage East

After two days in the shop and $2,200, I finally got Dolly back. I was supposed to leave on a Wednesday, and it was really now going to be Friday. But, I got new brakes and new shocks, both of which were sorely needed, and I got it handled before I hit the road, and by a mechanic I trust. If I had left San Diego with my brakes in the state they were in, I wouldn’t have made it far — probably somewhere on a desert mountain. Let’s not think about it.

Anyway, despite the hit to my bank account – I get a disability check and Social Security Disability payments, so I am not destitute, but I was feeling like all of the “cushion” I previously had, had just evaporated – I was super excited to finally hit the road.

Belinda joined me for this leg of the adventure as well, because she was going back to Louisiana. She works for a roofing contractor and travels to where the natural disasters cause the most problems, so she needed to pack up to move out of state. In the meantime, we enjoyed another adventure together!

The day, we drove through the beautiful Los Padres National Forest, and I have to say, Dolly’s new brakes did beautifully on those steep hills and forest mountain roads.

No matter how much I travel through California, I am always amazed at its diversity of beauty. Not just its beauty. The different types of breathtaking beauty. Everywhere.

That first night, we stopped briefly at Sagebrush Annie’s Winery – a Harvest Host restaurant that was already closed.

The host generously allowed us to come after hours, but we didn’t go inside or buy anything. We enjoyed a nice sunset and hit the road early the next day, so we could go to our favorite places in Paso Robles before we left the state.

Belinda, of course, insisted that we go back to the incomparable Il Cortile restaurant, and thank goodness she paid because my wallet was hurting after that brake job. But the only reservation we could get that night was for 8:30 p.m. (way late to eat if we wanted to hit the road to Vegas early in the morning), and we couldn’t get into the tasting room at our favorite winery, Chronic Cellars, so we decided to stay an extra night in Paso. It was lovely and exactly what we needed to steel our spirits for a long drive through the desert and plains for the next several days.

Our first night in Paso Robles was actually spent at a winery in San Miguel, which is just slightly north of Paso. The Four Sisters winery is pretty nice, if you love the whole sweeping vistas and lush vineyards and jaw-dropping views sort of thing.

We simply couldn’t rush drinking here.

So we were nice and buzzed and relaxed when we headed to Il Cortile, where again, just like in February, Belinda and I shared appetizers and a pasta dish and got huge entrees. I wanted the lamb rack, but they were sold out, so I was forced to eat the veal shank (I know right).

But the real star of the meal was the ravioli … it was stuffed with corn, so it almost tasted like a tamale, and the creamy mint sauce was studded with bits of mushrooms and bacon, but somehow the whole dish still felt perfectly light and almost airy. It was incredible.

The next night we went back to Tobin James (where we also parked on the Harvest Host program when we were there in February). They have an enormous lot and they are right off of the highway that goes to Barstow, so it was perfect. After we checked in, we took an Uber to Chronic Cellars and enjoyed a glass of wine and bought some of their incredibly cool merchandise, as well as an enormous amount of wine.

We also were advised to check out the Vines on the Mary Crest, another cool winery that’s literally across the street from Chronic. They had a tasting room that was still open at 4 p.m. (unlike Chronic, who closes early), and all of their wines are named after cool rock songs since the vintner/ co-owner Victor used to be a sound engineer for all of the greats.

We really loved this place, and we looooove Victor and his wife Jennifer. They’re both super friendly and into good music and good wine. I mean, their wine club includes concerts and free CDs! After we enjoyed ourselves and bought a bunch of wine, Victor not only recommended a lovely dinner spot, but he drove us there when the Uber didn’t show up. I don’t know if that’s included in the wine club, but I highly recommend their wines and their family.

The dinner he recommended that night was almost better than the Il Cortile dinner the night before… we went to The Hatch, and had prime rib and this appetizer of smoked mushrooms and cream.

They also have an award-winning cocktail artist who designed all of their signature drinks.

I had an Old Fashioned and it was killer.

So after all of that, as you can imagine, we slept like babies that night and were on the road at 7 a.m. the next morning. We headed towards Vegas and stayed with our friends there (we parked in their apartment’s parking lot), and again left early. It’s a pretty unremarkable drive, so luckily we had some good music to keep us alert.

The next night we were in Page, Arizona, this time we paid $30 to the local Elks club to have an electric and water hookup instead of a Wal-mart, like I stayed in the last time I was in Page. Page is over 100 miles from anything on either side in the Arizona desert near the Utah border, and all of the RV parks and recreational areas are super expensive. The last couple of times I came through, I stayed at the Wal-Mart, but $30 is definitely worth it to charge everything and have some electricity and water.

For the next three days, we basically had to go through the most scenic, yet most desolate, parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and west Texas.

Belinda finally got to drive Dolly, because we were basically going for hours and hours, and it’s difficult to drive something that size for more than 5-6 hours at the most. It was nice for me to ride in the back for a while.

We made a brief stop in Colorado at the Four Corners and then headed south to Albuquerque, staying at a truck stop outside of the city. (They’re not fancy, but truck stops are invaluable – there’s 24-hour security and showers, and usually a semi-not-terrible breakfast.)

Then we headed straight east, stopping near Lubbock for some fried chicken livers …

… Seriously, Bush’s Chicken has the best fried chicken livers ever … and then we stayed at another truck stop near Sweetwater, Texas. From there it was just over 5 hours to my sister’s house in Houston, were we enjoyed the weekend before we headed to Louisiana.

My birthday was on April 1, and I celebrated in my (former but always) home of Ocean Beach in San Diego. Since my sister didn’t see me for my birthday, she had her home decorated for my birthday – complete with an amazing s’mores cake from the infamous Red Dessert Dive. I was really surprised … mostly because it was over two weeks past my birthday.

I still ate this amazing cake, though.

And it was great to spend time with my family. I’ve spent more time with my mom, my brother and my sister since I started this adventure than I had for the previous decade. I love being able to see them almost every time I travel.

After a relaxing weekend, Belinda and I drove to Louisiana, where she stayed and I kept going. It was bittersweet: I am so blessed to have friends who are able to join me for these adventures, and I know I’ll travel with her again.

I spent the night at Indian Creek, the awesome and beautiful Louisiana state campground that’s right near Belinda’s house.

It was a peaceful and lovely night by the lake, then I got up early the next morning and decided to get as close to Nashville as I could that day.

I had some friends I needed to swing by and say hello to in Nashville, but other than that I was in kind of a hurry – my mom’s birthday was coming up, and if I really hauled ass I could make it in time for her birthday dinner. I originally promised her I would be back for her birthday, but then I didn’t think I could make that after my repairs and the extra night in Paso Robles; I told her I would be at her house the day after, and of course bring a bunch of cool presents.

But I made really excellent drive time that day -nearly to Nashville by the time it was getting dark – so I decided the next day I would just stop briefly in Nashville and then get to my mom’s for her birthday dinner. And I made it!

As I type this, I am happily relaxing at my mom’s house, enjoying some of the wines I brought back from California and enjoying not driving for a few days.

My mom and my stepdad helped me to fix and organize a few little things in the RV, and tomorrow, I plan to hit the road again.

I am really, really excited about this leg of my journey. Basically, other than a college internship and a trip in high school, both to Washington, DC, I have, like, zero east coast experience. I have a lot of friends there, and a lot of things I would like to see, including another stop in DC, but I have never been. I am super excited about seeing something new. My plan is to head northeast from my mom’s house in east Tennessee, going to the Roanoke, Virginia area. The first night I will probably stay at a Harvest Host nearby and go to the Booker T. Washington monument, then head straight east to Virginia Beach. Then I plan to head north to Alexandria/ Washington DC, then to visit friends in the Philadelphia/ Jersey City area, then to Rhode Island and Massachusetts — then I am turning a sharp left and heading west, because I have to be back in San Diego for a bone scan on June 2. But, I also plan to go west through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and several other states where I also have never visited.

Simply put, everything from when I leave here until I get back to California will be new to me.

And I can’t wait.

Please join me and follow along on social media … this part will be awesome!

Are you enjoying this content? Please support my adventure by donating to my Gofundme here!

Part 9: This is Bat Country

After I got my poor window fixed, I spent a few days camping around San Diego. I wanted to do some desert camping in the month of March, before it got super hot or super crowded.

But before we headed to the desert, my brother and sister-in-law took me to the Taste of Boysenberry Festival at Knott’s Berry Farm. I had never been before and my last time at Knott’s was when I was like nine years old … but my big brother and SIL go there all the time (when there isn’t a pandemic). Attendance was limited, pandemic precautions were pretty intense, and all of the rides were closed; the park was open as a food festival only. And it was amazing. The park is a fun place to be no matter what the event is, and all of the food was great.

I was really impressed with their pandemic procedure … everyone had to wear a mask except for when they were actively sitting down and eating food. The rest of the time – walking, ordering, anything else – you had to be masked up. No walking and drinking or eating. Everyone over the age of 2 was in a mask. If you let it slip, they’d remind you to pull it up.

It was also super fun to hang out with my brother and sister-in-law … they’ve only recently come into my life, but we have a really fun and loving relationship, and I am so thankful for it. Plus, he’s a theme park blogger (check out Park Journey) and knew everyone at Knott’s. It was much better going there when it was limited in numbers and I was with someone who knew their way around.

And yes, I bought him that super cool shirt.

The food was really amazing as well. There were a few dishes that were really good, a few that were OK, and a couple of special dishes, like the bao bun with boysenberry kimchi, that slapped so hard I want them to sell me that kimchi in a jar. Or a 5-gallon bucket.

The next week, Belinda and I went to Lake Cahuilla, which is a man-made lake just outside of Palm Desert, and a Riverside county park that offers primitive and hook-up RV camping. (For the uninitiated, “full hookup” usually refers to electricity, water and sewer hookup at the campsite itself. Most of the ones that offer “partial hookups” only refer to the electricity and water, but those campgrounds invariably have a sewer dump you can use, just not at your actual site. Primitive is no hookups at all.) We had partial hookups and a dump station on site. We stayed there for five days, and it was super windy for a couple of those days, so we didn’t spend as much time outside of the RV as I had planned.

Lake Cahuilla is technically in the desert, but it’s in almost a canyon … totally surrounded by mountains. So when the wind blows, it’s pretty intense, but when it’s calm, it’s very nice and peaceful. We just had to do most of our cooking inside the RV, or if we did it on the campfire, the food was totally covered to protect it from dust storms.

But it’s a really beautiful place; and you can fish in the lake, hike in the surrounding mountains, or golf or shop in nearby Palm Desert. We opted to chill at the lake … we walked around a but but due to the wind, we mostly stayed indoors.

Of course, because it was Belinda and I, and because we had to be indoor-sy for the week, we ate really, really well. One day we grilled some kama (yellowtail collar, the most tender and delectable part of the fish) and made a beautiful salad, and washed it down with this lovely chilled rose from one of the wine tasting ventures we went on while traveling around California last month.

We also made some polenta cakes with a homemade “Sunday gravy” I was given as a gift, and paired it with the Big Ricardo red blend from Chronic Cellars.

We’re really getting the hang of this wine pairing thing!

I also forgot to mention that I got some amazing boysenberry mustard when I was at that Boysenberry Festival. Over the past month I have used it on so many things … as part of a dip for grilled artichokes, in a potato salad and multiple sandwiches, we coated some steaks in it before we grilled them, …

… and on a really epic homemade chicken salad. I will post the recipes soon (really because I need to get another jar to make a few more recipes from it).

I even got in a little bit of a spa day before the wind picked up again. Isn’t it lovely out there? I can’t wait to come back.

The next week, Belinda went to celebrate her sister’s birthday with her family in Big Bear. After my previous accidental snow driving, I did not want to go. Plus I had reservations at the Salton Sea state recreation area, which is another great desert camping spot. I was there by myself, but it was really lovely and peaceful.

Salton Sea is a very unique place with a lot of history … back in the 30s, it was a military test site. In the 50s and 60s, it was a vacation getaway known as the “California Riviera,” with more annual tourists than Yosemite. Then in the 70s and 80s, it all started going to hell. The sea dried up and became increasingly polluted, and everyone who lived there left.

I was spending a few days at the state park, which is on the northeastern end of the sea. I can see how this was such a tourism draw back in the day when it was clean and lush … from the eastern shore, you can see spectacular sunsets over the western mountains. But then every few years there is a huge die-off of fish, and the whole sea (some 40 miles wide and almost 60 long), which produces a smell and a sight like you can’t imagine.

I couldn’t live there, but I sure enjoyed a few days checking it out.

In a way it’s unfortunate that the Salton Sea has had such a bad rap, but I was happy to take advantage of a nearly empty state park. I made a really awesome untrimmed tri-tip (it was windy at the Salton Sea as well, but not the entire time like when we were at Lake Cahuilla), and it was several meals for me (especially since I was by myself).

After a couple of meals full of steak and potatoes (the best campfire side dish, in my opinion), I made garlic bread and tri-tip, tri-tip and eggs for breakfast, tri-tip salad for lunch, tri-tip nachos, and more.

Then, I was really tired of eating tri-tip.

I had a couple more weeks to kill in San Diego – Belinda’s mom had surgery at the end of March, so she committed to at least two weeks of being at home to help care for her post-surgery. We tentatively planned to leave on the 7th of April. That left me more time for more desert camping, and a bit of beach fun around my birthday on April 1. But first, I went back to one of my favorite places to camp in San Diego county: Sweetwater Regional Park in Bonita.

It’s really a beautiful and peaceful campground. It’s near the freeway so you are close to civilization, but it’s quiet and mellow and there are gorgeous sunset views.

That week, I also got to go sailing! My friend has a membership in a cool sailing club where you can basically use a boat for as long as you like, and they handle all of the maintenance, etc. We had a lovely time sailing around Coronado Island and the San Diego Bay. And it was perfect weather.

I was also really happy to get a new discount pass: both the national parks and the California state parks systems have a free (or super-cheap) lifetime pass for people with permanent disabilities. I’m really excited to have free access and super cheap camping at parks now!

Before the end of March, we did one more desert camping spot: Agua Caliente is a San Diego county regional park, but it’s inside Anza Borrego state park. All of the state park campgrounds were primitive only, so we opted for a county park spot. It was a full moon that weekend and the skies were incredible.

There were no lights other than campfires and campers, but it looked like there was a street lamp on, it was so bright. I have a pretty good camera on my phone, but my apologies because even my good camera doesn’t do justice to how pretty it was.

My brother and SIL joined Belinda and I for the first day there, and we had a blast hiking, taking mineral showers, and cooking up some deliciousness on the wood fire. I have gotten really good at building a campfire, and I had a lot of experience with a grill and smoker before so it’s a great time adjusting those techniques and recipes for a campfire.

One of my goals for this trip was to spend my birthday on the beach, and I was successful in that, at least. I parked for a few days on the street in Ocean Beach, moving my space during the day when the parking was easier, and hanging out with friends in the evening. I met people for happy hours and brunches and lunches and kombuchas in various rooftop bars and patios and outdoor seating areas. It was a few days of lots of drinking and eating and celebration, and it was wonderful. I won’t rehash all of the amazing food I ate all over again, but check out my Insagram for some awesome photos and videos (check out the video of me dipping a birria taco)!

Before I left town, however, I wanted to check out one more of the San Diego county parks. I think I have mentioned it before, but I was really impressed with the county parks. They have a great reservation system, they’re clean and the staff is friendly, and they’re always just good places to be with relaxed vibes. Travel can be stressful sometimes, and it’s nice to have peaceful places to camp. I mean, a truck stop parking lot will do if you just need a place to get some sleep, but if you’re gonna camp, you want it to be nice, you know?

So the last park on my list in San Diego was Guajome Lake park, which is technically in the city of Oceanside, but is also in the mountains with a lake. It had lovely birds and wildlife, and pretty trails for hiking and biking. Like Agua Caliente, it also has cabins for rent close to the RV and tent camping sites, so I think in June I might camp here again with my brother and his family (they would be in a cabin).

All of this desert fun has also done a number on my brakes; when I got back from the Salton Sea my wheel well was making a weird grinding sound. I wasn’t able to see my mechanic for another week so I kept driving. The brakes still seemed fine up until this past week, when I was driving from Sweetwater to a new campsite at Guajome. As I braked, the wheels made a horrible noise. I gingerly and slowly applied the brake again, and it made a worse sound, and shook the whole vehicle as it finally came to a stop. As I pulled into my campsite, I noticed fluid (presumably brake fluid) leaking from my wheel well.

(Photo credit: my sister-in-law Kristi Condon)

After that, I was too freaked out to drive Dolly to my mechanic … I was already planning to see him about an issue with my tail lights, but I didn’t want to risk my brakes completely failing so I called a tow truck. After a terrible ride (the driver wouldn’t wear a mask, and totally damaged my trailer hitch getting Dolly on and off the truck), my mechanic confirmed my worst fears: it was bad.

My brakes were completely shot. Since I don’t have any of the service records for my RV (the previous owner literally stole them out of the RV after he sold it to me), for all I know, the brakes on there are the originals. I know the shocks are the originals. Bernie (my mechanic) showed me how the front rotors were completely destroyed; one was cracked and the other was worn down to a sliver. The back drums weren’t much better and the shocks were old and frayed. Basically everything needs to be replaced. And the electrician had to rewire my whole trailer to get my back lights to work.

As I write this, my RV is still in the shop, and will hopefully be ready tomorrow, and we can hit the road the next day. It will likely cost about $2,000 total for all of the repairs, which is basically all of my money, but I feel much better knowing that it will all be fixed. I’m lucky that I have a trusted mechanic here, instead of finding out when I’m in the middle of nowhere that my brakes or my lights don’t work. It would cost me considerably more. I’m also blessed that I didn’t find out about my brakes by getting into an accident, although that last trip was kinda sketchy. This is lame but it was the best possible outcome.

I’ll be on the road in a couple of days and headed east. I plan to go through Vegas, the desert, Houston and Louisiana, then to my mom’s house in east Tennessee for a few days before I see the east coast. This is the part I am really excited about! Basically other than a school trip and a college internship in Washington, D.C., I pretty much have no experience on the east coast. I don’t have to be back in San Diego again until the first of June, so I plan to see some things and some people on the Atlantic coast before I head west again. I’m looking forward to finally checking more states off of my map!

I can’t wait to see more of our beautiful country, and to share it with you. Stay tuned for my next adventure!

Please donate to my GoFundMe to assist with repairs, of you are able!

The taste of home

I am officially homeless.

I moved out of my apartment in San Diego, the adorable beach bungalow where I spent 14 crazy years. I left all of my lovely friends and my boyfriend. Most of my stuff has been sold or donated. The rest was crammed into a cargo van and hauled 2,258 miles (give or take) to my mom’s house. I am comfortable here – goodness knows it’s nice to relax after that crazy fast drive from California – and my family is great, but I literally have no home to move into.

I am still waiting on my RV; I found the one I think I want in a town nearby. It needs new tires so the owner/seller has offered to deduct half of the cost of new tires from my purchase price. I am waiting to hear from him about a new microwave he is installing, and hopefully I will be bringing my new-to-me RV here to my mom’s house this week. Then, I plan to take at least a few days to spruce it up and get it ready to hit the road — plus I gotta find a road trip buddy.

In the meantime, east Tennessee is amazingly beautiful and I am enjoying my rest here.

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Our family moved from California to Tennessee once before, when I was about 12 or 13. My mom, my sister and I were living with my grandmother in Joshua Tree, then we all moved to Cookeville, Tennessee. I had more of a culture shock moving here then I did when I was in high school and did an exchange program in Germany.

It was all so different from what I was used to seeing landscape-wise, in the high desert east of Los Angeles; but also the culture is so different in so many ways.

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The lush greenery. The churches on every corner. The super-thick, country accents coming out of the mouths of people of every age. The smoky haze hanging over the tops of the trees. The roads that make no sense. The juxtaposition of torn-up trailers with rebel flags hanging outside, and stately farmhouses with perfectly manicured lawns. The liquor laws that change every few miles … where you can’t even have a glass of wine with dinner in one county, but in the next county five miles over, you can buy anything you like. Pickup trucks EVERYWHERE.

It was like another world. As my little sister and I were getting used to changes — spending the night with friends and having homemade biscuits in the morning (which at the time seemed impossibly fancy), farm work on the weekends, and prayers in our public school classrooms — we were also keeping up the recipes that warmed our hearts no matter where we were living.

My grandma was a Scottish immigrant in the late 1950s. I don’t know much about the food she cooked when she was in Scotland, but I imagine that she thought her fancy “Macaroni Mix” was very American. It’s basically a spicy spaghetti sauce, but tossed with elbow macaroni instead of spaghetti noodles. It uses up all of the extra veggies you have in your fridge. It feeds a bunch of hungry people. It’s super chunky, and my grandma’s version had a ton of ground beef, chopped onions and bell peppers. (Because I hated bell peppers, I was allowed to remove the chunks from my macaroni mix, but I had to eat the rest.)

Somehow, this macaroni mix became a family favorite. My mom still says it was the best dish and best recipe my grandma made (for me it was her barley soup, which you can find the recipe for here). My aunts and uncle would request Macaroni Mix for their birthday meal – the one time each year they got to choose what the family ate for dinner.

The meal is obviously not complicated or expensive (in fact, I am positive that is one of the reasons Grandma made it so much), but for us, it represents everything about home. It’s warm and comforting, it’s cheap and easy, it’s wholesome and healthy.

This time moving to Tennessee, it’s temporary. It’s the same, but different. The mountains are still smoky, the trees are still a luscious green, and the sunsets are still achingly beautiful. The accents are the same. There are still churches everywhere, but there are also reflexologists. The liquor laws are still wonky, but you can find homemade kombucha and craft beer around the corner …. er, mountain.

This time, it’s “Trump 2020” flags flying outside of the rundown trailers.

The roads still don’t make any sense.

But we still have Grandma’s macaroni mix, which reminds us that we’re back home.

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Try the recipe:

Macaroni Mix

(serves 6-10)

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. package of elbow macaroni
  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 2-3 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped (optional)
  • any leftover veggies in your fridge (recommended: carrots, squash/zucchini, okra)
  • 5-6 fresh mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 large (24 oz) can of pasta sauce (recommended: Hunt’s Four Cheese)
  • 1 small can of Rotel (or any kind of diced tomatoes and green chiles)
  • 1 small can of plain tomato sauce
  • 2-3 generous handfuls of shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 tsp. ground sage
  • 1 tsp. oregano
  • 1-2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
  • 1-2 tsp. steak seasoning (any blend of red and black pepper, garlic, paprika)
  • salt and pepper
  • seasoned kosher salt (optional)
  • grated parmesan cheese (for topping)

Directions:

Start a large pot of water boiling and in a separate (preferably cast-iron) pan, brown the beef and diced onion. Once the meat starts to brown, add the Worcestershire, the sage and steak seasoning, and the garlic, mushrooms, and other veggies (except the cans of tomatoes/sauces). Mix thoroughly as it continues to cook.

By this time the water should also be boiling. Add kosher salt (seasoned with rosemary or other herbs if you have it) and pasta to the water, and cover the pot.

Once the pasta, meat and veggies are fully cooked, drain the pasta and add the meat/veggie mixture into the pot. Turn off the heat. Add the cans of tomatoes and tomato sauces. Mix thoroughly. (Note: depending on how “wet” you like it, you might want to add another small can of tomato sauce at this point. This is usually where I think that this isn’t enough sauce, but then I just go with it, and it comes out perfectly.)

Mix the shredded cheese, mix completely, and then taste it before adding salt and pepper as desired. Serve immediately with grated parmesan on top.

NOTE: keep in mind that this is a Grandma Recipe. The measurements are not exact, and the basics can be adapted. It doesn’t matter what type of onion you use. If you only have rotini pasta instead of elbow noodles, do it. If you prefer ground turkey to beef, change it. I prefer to make this without bell peppers because bell peppers are gross, but I have been informed by other family members that it’s not “really Grandma’s recipe” if it doesn’t have the bell peppers. Make it how you prefer to eat it!

 – – –

I spent many years in Cookeville, and later I went to college at Tennessee State University in Nashville. But I never really spent very much time in the eastern part of the state, which is where my mom lives now.

Check out my Instagram and Facebook pages for more photos! Links to the right –>

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Since this is all new to me, we took some cool drives to nearby towns. We visited Historic Downtown Jonesborough, which is the oldest town in Tennessee, and where the first abolitionist papers were published.

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It’s a very adorable town, even in the summer heat and humidity.

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We also stopped at the Nolichucky River and enjoyed the scenery …

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… on our way to Asheville, North Carolina, which is only about 50 miles away. The drive there was amazing — 40 or so miles, on an interstate, where you feel like you’re literally in the clouds. You see why they call these the Smokies.

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I will update this space soon, when I either purchase this RV, or keep up my search.

Cheers, ya’ll!

Want to help me out on my road trip? Donate to my GoFundMe campaign here

Boysenberry Baby Back Ribs and Planning for the trip of your life

I have just under 30 days before I vacate my apartment and hit the road in an RV — which I technically do not yet have.

I have given away most of my clothes, I have packed up half of my apartment, and I have organized an insane amount of schwag. I pick up some cool promotional things from just about every 5k, festival, fun run, concert and foodie event I attend, which leads to a truly astounding array of can koozies, cup coasters, hats, lighters, posters, ticket stubs, race medals, and other random accoutrements.

And don’t even get me started on my collection of cookbooks. This is maybe half of it.

I have, of course, had my mom here to help me. She was in my apartment before I was even discharged from the hospital (see previous post), and has been here since, helping me with cooking, cleaning, laundry, and all sorts of other things, while my broken back heals.

I have also had other family to come cheer me up and help out; my sister and her partner came from Texas, and my brother came from Ventura county with his wife. It has been wonderful to spend some time with them all, especially since I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around.

Aren’t we all adorable?

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To make a very long story very short, my brother and I, for reasons beyond our control as children, didn’t meet each other until we were adults. Since then we have developed a truly wonderful relationship, but it’s kind of a bummer that we weren’t given the chance to know each other for our whole lives.

Regardless, we are making up for lost time, in the best way ever: with BBQ.

Big brother writes a blog, too, check out his theme park blog at Park Journey. Because he goes on so many trips to theme parks, I get the benefit when he shows up with things like a big bottle of boysenberry concentrate from Knott’s Berry Farm.

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I made the most awesome Boysenberry Baby Back Ribs! (See the end of this post for the recipe.)

We also went out with another friend to check out some RV sales lots, so I can get an idea of what type of vehicle I want. I don’t have a truck (or even a car) so I don’t want something I have to haul, and I need something with a standard bed, i.e., not one I have to climb a ladder to get into, or unfold from a table or something. It’s too hard on my poor broken back!

Anyway, I think I narrowed it down to the type of Class C RV I need for this trip.

I will continue to update as I prepare to take off on this amazing trip of a lifetime. I do not yet have an itinerary; nor do I plan to have one. I have a lot of people I would like to see, and there are a lot of monuments and national parks and just beautiful areas of the country that I’ve never seen, and now that I am running out of time, I am very excited to see. I even splurged and bought myself the best travel gift ever: a brand new, spiral-bound, Adventure Edition road atlas!

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This baby even has a full section on all of the national parks! I probably won’t be driving to Alaska (although you never know), but other than that, I really want to see all of the national parks. This will be so fun!

And, yes. I am excited. I have something truly life-changing and amazing to look forward to. I know it might seem weird, in fact I got a few comments and messages about how happy I seem to be about a bucket list road trip. All I can say to that is, I learned a lot from when I had breast cancer before; and I learned a lot about control.

When you have cancer, it’s easy to feel like you have no control over your life … you’re told what to eat, what medicines to take, what horrible treatments to do to your body. You feel like your own body is betraying you; like no matter what you do, this cancer is the one in control, not you. And to a certain extent, that is true.

But.

But.

You always have control over your own reactions to things. Sure, you can be a jerk to the nurse treating you, and probably nobody would blame you, because you have cancer and you’re in pain or you’re sick. But being a jerk isn’t going to make you feel any better. It certainly won’t make your treatment any easier.

A positive attitude, sometimes, is all you have.

I’ve always been a happy person. Sure, I have problems like everyone else, but I am generally happy. I have (had) a great career, a house on the beach, a great boyfriend, a wonderful family, amazing friends .. I don’t have a lot to be angry at the world about. And I am sure not going to let cancer take anything else away from me.

Being sick; I can’t control that.

But I can control how I react to it.

I choose not to be afraid.

I choose not to be angry.

I choose to be happy despite the pain.

I choose to make every moment count.

I choose to live my life as I want to live it.

I choose to end it the way I want to end it.

I am going to ride out on the greatest bucket list trip ever. Hopefully I will see everything I want to see, live another five years, and write a great book about my adventures. Maybe I will have to cut my adventure short if I get too sick or am in too much pain. But I will ride as long as I can and see as much as I can for as long as I can.

It’s gonna be so rad!

 

Boysenberry Baby Back Ribs 

(Instant Pot Recipe)

Ingredients:

  • Two (2) baby back rib racks
  •  about 1/2 of 1 bottle of Knott’s Berry Farm Boysenberry Punch Concentrate, separated (you can purchase online here)
  • 1 cup water
  • 8 oz. tomato paste
  • 3 tbsp. brown sugar
  • about 1/2 diced onion
  • 1-2 heads of crushed garlic
  • smoked salt* and fresh cracked pepper

To prepare:

  1. Place a rack in your Instant Pot inner pot. Add approx. 1/4 of the bottle of boysenberry concentrate and the water to the pot.
  2. Coat the ribs with salt and pepper, and arrange on the rack in the Instant Pot. Set on high pressure for between 15-25 minutes, depending on the thickness of the meat. (Don’t overcook, or the ribs will fall apart before you can eat them; more than 30 minutes will have all the meat falling off of the bone no matter how thick the ribs are.)
  3. While the ribs are in the Instant Pot, sauté the diced onion and garlic with the olive oil in a small pot on the stove. Once the onion is translucent, add the tomato paste and the brown sugar, as well as smoked salt and pepper.
  4. Whisk in about another 1/4 of the bottle of boysenberry concentrate VERY SLOWLY as the sauce simmers. Do not let the sauce get scorched.
  5. Allow the Instant Pot to depressurize naturally, which should take about 15 minutes, at the same time that you allow the sauce to gently simmer.
  6. Once the Instant Pot has depressurized, remove the ribs, coat them in the sauce, and place in your air fryer or under a broiler for about 5-7 minutes until the sauce gets caramelized. Serve and eat immediately.

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*Note: I do not believe in using Liquid Smoke, and smoked salt is an excellent substitute for actual smoked meats, etc. If you must (gulp) use Liquid Smoke, go easy on it.

 

 

 

Chillin at Jimmy Carter’s

I think I have found my new favorite Mexican food spot, you guys. They’re authentic, they’re classy, and they’ve got lots and lots of soups. What more could you want?

This past week, I finally got to check out Jimmy Carter’s Mexican Café in the Hillcrest/Balboa Park neighborhood. It’s been there for decades, but I am behind; I know. I had no idea what a great place I was missing. The service isn’t just great; the servers treat you like you’re a guest in their home … because you practically are. Most of Jimmy’s employees have been working for him for decades. It is quite apparent that everyone there loves their jobs, and loves Jimmy himself.

The food is ALL homemade. It is ALL authentic. It is ALL Jimmy Carter approved. But for me, the best part is the soup list.

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Albondigas (meatball soup)

There are four soups that are on the permanent, daily menu – Creamy Black Bean, Chicken Tortilla, Albondigas, and Chicken Pozole.

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Green chicken pozole

There is menudo every weekend.

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But that’s not all! Every day, the chef picks 2-3 more soups to have on special that day (Check out Jimmy Carter’s Instagram page for daily special announcements). There are over two dozen rotating soups, from calabaza y elotes and caldo de res, to Mexican clam chowder and spicy pork guerrero.

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Chicken tortilla soup

Their soup list is INSANE. I managed to escape with their internal soup list, which details the ingredients and garnishes for each one.

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I mean, right?! And this is just the soup list.

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I’ll take one of each!

You could eat here every day for a month and never have the same meal twice. I love it!

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In addition to the albondigas and green chicken pozole, I also checked out some delicious wet tacos (above) and some mini quesadillas (below) stuffed with chicken and carnitas.

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I also would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about their sauces.

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Every item on the menu can be topped with one of their handmade and super-authentic spicy sauces.

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I got to try them all, and I think the Tlaquepaque is my favorite. I see why it’s the most popular … it’s creamy and spicy and good on literally everything.

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There is literally nothing I would not like to eat with this sauce, but Jimmy himself recommends the cheese enchiladas with this gorgeous stuff on top.

Don’t forget the drinks and dessert! In addition to a super-huge menu of authentic Mexican cuisine, Jimmy Carter’s offers a fun assortment of cocktails and other drinks. As you know, I recently discovered the beauty of the tequila mule for myself, so I sampled JCMC’s mezcal mule.

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Outstanding!

And, although I was definitely slowing down by this point (those soups were so good I was licking the bowl), I had to sneak in a few tastes of the coconut flan.

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All in all, I am so glad I finally visited. I will definitely be back to try more of those amazing soups and sauces.

Instant Pot Mexican Food Night

If you have an Instant Pot, you probably already know about all of the amazing things it can do, and all of the ways it makes cooking for your family a little bit easier. My boyfriend had a special request for dinner last week, so I used my IP to make it happen.

First, being that we both live in San Diego, we eat tons of Mexican food. There is a taco shop on nearly every block in this town. But, since my beloved is allergic to most kinds of beans, it totally cramps our taco shop style. So I decided to make him some refried beans with navy beans – the only type that won’t make him sick. This recipe can be adapted for whatever type of beans you prefer or are not allergic to. 🙂

Refried Beans

  • 4 cans beans (I used navy beans but you can use any type)
  • one onion, chopped
  • 4-5 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2-3 tbsp. of (concentrated) tomato paste
  • 3 cups of GOOD vegetable stock*
  • salt and pepper
  • garlic powder
  • paprika
  • oregano
  • 1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • one jalapeno pepper, minced (optional)

Directions:

Put your IP on the sauté function and add the chopped onion, garlic, jalapeno (if applicable) and olive oil. Cook for 4-6 minutes or until the onions are somewhat translucent. Turn off heat.

Open the cans of beans, drain and rinse them, and add to the pot. Add the tomato paste and spices, and mix well. Slowly add the vegetable stock* and put the lid on with the valve closed.

Set on high pressure, and cook for 1-3 hours (the longer you cook it, the more the flavors will marry and get stronger, but cook it for at least one hour). Use natural release.

* About that vegetable stock… homemade is definitely best. Since you already have an Instant Pot (I assume, or you wouldn’t be reading this), I recommend doing this part first. Take all of the vegetable scraps that you have left over from a week of cooking … the ends of herbs and celery, the tops and peels of onions, the seeds from inside gourds, carrot tops and zucchini tips. Save them in a big baggie or mason jar. At the end of the week, empty that bag or jar into the IP, cover it with water, then add ANOTHER 2 cups of water, and cook on high pressure for at least 3-4 hours. If you open the lid and the stock doesn’t seem dank enough (you want it good and dark!), go for another 2 hours. Strain out the leftover vegetable scraps, and there you have some amazing vegetable stock. If you cannot do this, storebought is also OK. But honestly, the stock is where these beans get their flavor.

Of course, one cannot survive off of beans alone, so I also made some delicious chicken tinga … based on one of my favorite Del Real Foods recipes. I based it off of the recipe from A Pinch of Yum, but adapted it to a quick cook in the Instant Pot. This cooks up really fast, even using chicken that isn’t pre-cooked.

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Chicken Tinga

  • 2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  •  1 head of garlic, chopped
  • 1 10-oz can of crushed tomatoes
  •  3-4 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
  •  salt and pepper
  •  1 tbsp. cumin
  •  1 tbsp. dried Mexican oregano
  • 1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  •  1 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock (see above for tips on how to make the best vegetable stock)

Put Instant Pot on sauté setting and add onions, garlic, and chipotle peppers. Once the onions are slightly translucent, add the chicken, stock, and spices. Make sure the chicken is covered. Switch to high pressure and cook for 35 minutes, with natural release. Shred chicken and serve immediately.

We made the chicken into a bunch of different dishes … enchiladas, tacos, burritos, even nachos.

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Don’t forget the cocktails … a couple of weeks ago I went to Fred’s Mexican Café in Old Town, and had my first tequila mule (they call it a Donkey Punch). It changed my life.

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So, for our homemade Mexican food night, I subbed my usual whiskey mule for a big tequila mule.

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Pour a generous shot of tequila over ice and add ginger beer or ginger-lime Boochcraft high alcohol kombucha, then add a shot of bitters and a squeeze of lime.

Salud!

 

 

 

Saturday at H Mart

This weekend I finally got to check out the newly-opened H Mart on Balboa Avenue (the one on Mira Mesa is still there, but this second one just opened in early June).

The second H Mart is considerably larger than the older store, and boasts a huge food hall with tons of amazing food.

After perusing the baked goods (that are waiting for you as soon as you walk in the entrance), it occurred to me: one must never go grocery shopping while hungry.

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Luckily, there were plenty of options.

First, I tried some kimchi fried rice from Bann Korean Cuisine. The kimchi was delicious but the dish itself was a little TOO packed with green onions for my taste.

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The busiest part of the food hall, by far, was the Myungrang Hot Dog stand, which features delicious sticked hot dogs coated in a tasty rice batter (and in some cases, squid ink, cheeses, or potato), then you have the option to have them rolled in sugar or coated in any one of a variety of yummy sauces.

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And, of course, you can’t go wrong with the hot dog coated in cheese.

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It was quite interesting … I expected them to be crunchy but I wasn’t prepared for the chewiness of the dough. Also the sugar topping was a great addition, despite how it sounds – the sweetness of the sugar balances perfectly with the saltiness of the hot dog.

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After a quick perusal of the grocery part of the store, and picking up a few essentials – sesame oil, Korean pancake mix, Korean BBQ sauce for grilling later (see below) and some ginger candies – I headed across the street to Cross Street Chicken and Beer for some after-shopping sustenance.

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There was a short wait … but it was worth it.

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I tried the soy garlic wings and the spicy corn poppers, plus a nice flight of IPA beers. I usually drink IPAs, but the beers here were specifically selected to complement the chicken and other dishes.

This place is a gem.

I kept the party going when I got home …I smoked some chicken legs and pork belly using that Korean BBQ sauce …

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… and I used smoked meats, that oniony kimchi fried rice, plus homemade sticky rice and savory Korean pancakes, as my meal prep for the week.

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Smoke a (meat) fatty this weekend

There are a million amazing things you can make in a smoker, mostly involving meat. It’s a time-honored tradition now to coat a nice piece of protein in a spicy dry rub, perhaps inject it with some moisturizing, tenderizing marinade, and slow-smoke it over low heat for hours until the meat has reached perfection.

That’s one way to do it.

Another way take a little bit more hands-on work, but it’s an amazing smoked dinner that you can have on the table in half of the time it takes for your average brisket or pastrami or beer-can-chicken. One of the best things about smoked meats is that it takes very little work prior to smoking … you generally coat and/or inject your meat (as per above) and then the next few hours is hands-off, and you can enjoy a few beers while your meat cooks itself. A fatty takes a few additional minutes of prep time, but then you only need half of the smoking time.

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In a nutshell, you make a fatty with three main ingredients: 1) bacon; 2) ground meat; and 3) a stuffing of some sort. I have seen breakfast fatties with eggs inside; a Big Mac fatty stuffed with pickles and special sauce; and all sorts of other variations stuffed with mushrooms, cheese, vegetables, sauces … you name it.

This Thanksgiving, I decided to create two different Thanksgiving Fatties, both made using ground turkey, one stuffed with homemade cornbread stuffing and the other with some super-cheesy homemade mac and cheese. I think the mac and cheese version was better, mostly because (as you can imagine) the stuffing dried out the finished product — just slightly, but it was definitely dry. That isn’t to say not to make it, but just make sure you serve it with extra gravy.

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Mac and cheese on the top rack; mac and cheese-stuffed fatty on the bottom.

The mac and cheese version  -especially because my homemade cheese sauce tends to be extra saucy and cheesy – was very moist and flavorful. (See the end of this post for my homemade mac and cheese recipe!)

The procedure itself is very simple:

Step 1, make a bacon weave over a piece of plastic wrap:

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Step 2, cover the bacon weave with ground meat (make sure it is seasoned well):

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Step 3, add whatever stuffing you are using (this is the cornbread stuffing):

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and Step 4, roll and smoke.

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I smoked mine for about 3 hours over wood chips at approx. 300 degrees. The rack I used is actually for grilling vegetables, but it isn’t really necessary; it works just as well to use a bit of aluminum foil.

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As promised, here is my recipe for the most amazing homemade mac and cheese you will ever have:

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Starbright’s Kitchen Homemade Three-Cheese Smoked Mac and Cheese

  • 1 1-lb box of macaroni noodles, cooked to package directions
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup chicken broth (* or use vegetable broth to keep it vegetarian)
  • 2 tbsp. flour
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese
  • 1 cup grated Asiago cheese
  • 1 pinch nutmeg
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • salt and pepper
  • panko crumbs or cooked bacon for topping (optional)

First prepare a white sauce by mixing butter and flour over low heat, then SLOWLY whisking in milk and stock. Once the mixture has become a thick sauce, add the cheese and spices.

Simmer for an additional 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until the sauce is thick and creamy. Taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary.

Add the cooked noodles and mix completely. Add any optional toppings. Transfer to smoker-safe dish and smoke for 2-3 hours over low heat.

Happy smoking!

Hatch Chile Season in Full Effect

Hatch Chiles are truly a marketing marvel of modern times. Typically, from around the beginning of August through the end of September, you will see many of your local stores featuring the mild New Mexican chile pepper, and many of them will offer free roasting as well.

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I was lucky enough to be the recipient of a “Hatch bag” from the Lazy Acres Natural Market in Mission Hills (on Washington Street, if you’re in San Diego). It’s a wonderful natural foods market, and they make a ton of their own products. I was given a bag not just of the chili peppers themselves, but a plethora of items made with Hatch chiles.

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That’s pie, cornbread, wine, crackers, cheese, cream cheese, beef patties, orange juice, guacamole, cream cheese, fiesta mix, and of course, some Hatch chiles, both fresh and roasted. Wow! Who knew they even made Chile Wine? (Not me.)

The first thing I did was grate up some of that Hatch chili cheddar cheese, and I used it in my Sunday meal prep to spice up my breakfast casserole.

The recipe for the casserole is wicked simple: the crust/bottom layer is crumbled up biscuits, then cooked sausage with mushroom and onion, then scrambled egg mixed with a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. Top with cheese and bake til done, like 30 minutes on 400 degrees.

 

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Next, I used the Hatch chili cream cheese and the grated Hatch chile cheddar cheese, plus ranch dressing and chicken breast, to make this amazing little snack.

If you’re ever stuck needing a quick, easy, potluck dish, or just a regular appetizer or snack, this is for you. Simply mix the chicken (canned or fresh/cooked) with ranch and cream cheese, then top with grated cheese and bake until bubbly. This is a very versatile  – the original recipe is buffalo sauce and regular cream cheese instead of Hatch-flavored cream cheese and cheddar cheese – and will be an instant crowd-pleaser.

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I also used the spicy orange juice (I was too chicken to drink it) in my Instant Pot to make some delicious ribs … just cook the ribs (on their side, like pictured below) on a rack inside the pot, pressure cook on high pressure for 25-30 minutes (and natural release), and then finish off on the grill or under a broiler with your favorite BBQ sauce. You won’t be disappointed!

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I also used the cornbread for a few dishes … it was a perfect accompaniment to the sweet taste of the Mississippi “Coke” Roast I also made in my Instant Pot.

Coke Roast is one of those recipes that sound really crazy when you read the ingredients, but you know it’s for real as soon as you taste it. This particular insanely easy and fast Instant Pot recipe is a pork loin (or beef chuck roast, but I think the pork is more tender), a can of Cola-Cola, a stick of butter, half a jar of pepperoncinis (with the juice), a packet of ranch dressing mix and a packet of au jus gravy mix. Pressure-cook for about 30 minutes with natural release, and serve over something spicy.

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I used the Hatch chile cream cheese and cheddar cheese for variations on a few of my favorite recipes. In addition to the chicken-cheese dip, I also made one of my favorite side dishes with a spicy twist.

These onions are usually made with Asiago cheese … simply wrap a slice of bacon around a half an onion, then add broth, cream, and roast until tender. Then add a bunch of grated Asiago cheese on top. I followed this same recipe but added Hatch cheddar instead of Asiago. It doesn’t have the same funky Asiago flavor, but the spiciness certainly made up for it.

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I think my favorite item in the bag was the delicious beef patties … they were clearly handmade, stuffed with cheese and lots of chunks of Hatch chiles, and the meat was very tender and fresh.

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I served the burgers on cauliflower sandwich thins with ketchup, mustard and mayo, and topped it with some sautéed mushrooms and fresh Hatch guacamole from the Hatch bag.

It was EPIC.

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What’s your favorite Hatch chile recipe? Let us know in the comments and your recipe might be selected for our Hatch feature next summer!

BBQ Class with the ‘Czar of Char’

This week, I was lucky enough to be a part of a small gathering of food bloggers to meet with Chef Alex Benes at the Wood Ranch Restaurant in Hazard Center (San Diego). We were all treated to most of the items from the menu, including desserts, all while Chef explained to us some of his favorite tips and techniques.

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There was a lot of talk about meat – and I’ll get to that later – but to me, some of the biggest stars were the vegetables and sides. To start, we enjoyed sweet potatoes and cauliflower fresh from the grill:

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Or the Farmhouse Salad, with kale, Brussels sprouts, quinoa, black beans, roasted broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, scallions, cucumbers, radishes and hard-boiled egg (and to which many people also add chicken or other meat):

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And we got to sample this INSANE burger known as “The Ultimate,” which has pulled pork and slaw, brisket and cheese, kielbasa and jalapeno, and topped with shredded fried onions:

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To my surprise, Chef said that when he’s cooking for himself or his loved ones, his favorite food to grill is actually fish! You’d think he would be all about a brisket or a tri-tip, but his favorite thing is to grill a whole fish. Wood Ranch doesn’t feature a whole fish on its (already pretty extensive) menu, but they do have some amazing options for salmon and shrimp. We got to sample salmon three ways (with blackened seasoning, and with two different spicy glazes), and they were all delicious.

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And look at these sides! The mashed potatoes and mac & cheese were pretty standard but very tasty, and the peanut coleslaw is a perfect crunchy side for their smoked meats.

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We had a bit of a debate at the table about whether the tri-tip or the brisket, and honestly, while both of them were amazing, I think I liked the tri-tip more. The tri-tip was served with Wood Ranch’s signature BBQ sauce (which you can purchase by the bottle):

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… But the brisket was so tender, and it was served with this awesome housemade cherry chipotle sauce, which I would happily buy by the bottle if they let me.

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I didn’t partake in the desserts – but they looked amazing. You can choose from cheesecake:

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… chocolate cake:

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… peach cobbler:

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or Oreo Cookie Crunch:

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I was trying to stay on my diet but it was difficult.

I highly recommend this place, for the convenience (right off the freeway and the trolley line), the ambiance and the friendly staff; but most of all the food. The chef clearly takes the time and effort to put out a premium product.