I was born in California and have thus far spent my life in California. Without actually exposing my age, plus acknowledging that one doesn’t actually, consciously remember much from before around age 5, let’s say I’ve got a good quarter century of California weather observation in me. Give or take. And so, let me tell you that we have two types of year here. The first is what people will call drought. Most of my years in California have been called drought, which leads to a sense of vicitmization at the hands of Mother Nature. Actually, though, most of California is a desert and deserts don’t get much rain. So, mostly we don’t get much rain and people fret and complain, but we’re in shorts and t-shirts by March, deeply tanned by April, and sort of abstractly concerned about the future in general.
The second type of year is called “El Nino.” I do not know why. The El Nino years don’t come very often, but when they do it rains and rains and rains and all the reservoirs fill up, but so do the streets and the parks and the schools because even though people act like the dry years are abnormal, actually it seems that nothing in California was built to accommodate more rain than what falls in a “drought” year. And people fret and complain and do not understand how to be cold and wet in April. Myself very much included.
This was an El Nino year. It seemed like the rain would never stop. I, personally, gave up on the possibility of sunshine. One doesn’t need the sun for energy, I thought, when there are yoga classes and coffee to be had. It could be ok.
But it came back! The sun came back! It’s here now and it’ll stay until September, at least; and with it comes the kind of heat that makes bones sit easily in joints and ice-cold soda taste like heaven. I love summer! And so, with that, let me recommend our pool. True, it’s open all day long all year long, but now is the time when it turns from a means of getting one’s exercise, into a relaxing destination on a well deserved day off. And, after all, there’s nothing quite like a California glow to take home as a souvenir of your business trip!
In the last month two different friends told me that there was an amazing new restaurant in San Francisco that I had to try. Both were so excited to bring me there, each said they had not been to any place quite like it. They both took me to the same place, La Oaxaquena, a miniscule little Mexican place on Mission Street. Since then I’ve taken two friends there, telling them the same things I was told. And now I’m telling you.
La Oaxaquena is an example, I think, of the way that San Francisco can sometimes get a thing exactly right. You have to sift through the clutter of clichés to get here perhaps; oil-less vegan enchiladas that crumble on your fork for $10 at one place, $6 fresh pressed organic ginger-carrot-beet juice that tastes like childhood punishment at the next, but every now and then you get to a gem like this one.
La Oaxaqena’s menu ranges from traditional Oaxacan fare, banana leaf chicken mole tamales being the most popular example, fried grasshoppers the most exotic; to wild hybrids like zucchini pesto mozzarella pupusas. You can get traditional Mexican hot chocolate, to which you can add soy milk or chili powder if you’d like. There are people on Yelp saying that it’s the most authentic mole they’ve eaten since they left Mexico, and others saying that the vegan tofu tamales with collard greens are the best they’ve ever found. Several cultures have melted in the pots in their kitchen and it is so worth the drive to San Francisco to taste the result.
For the last three years, Alejandra has worked alongside her husband and her eldest son. She works in the kitchen, her husband, Sammy, is the bartender and her son, Sam Jr., is the bellman. Both preceded her here. In fact, she took over the job her husband had held for 20 years when he was made bartender. I’ve written to you already about both of the men. I asked all three of them what it’s like to work so closely with one’s immediate family. Husband and son both said it’s nice. No problem, said Sammy. A nice way to get to spend more time with my parents, said Sam Jr. Finally, from Alejandra, I got what I had, admittedly, been looking for! With a twinkle in her eye, she told me that she was shocked to find out how her husband had been preparing food for 20 years. Now it’s a regular battle, him teasing and cajoling her for taking too much time to do things, her incredulous at how lazy, sloppy and, well, man-ish he had been doing his kitchen work for all that time. Actually, she’s the only woman working now in this hotel’s kitchen. There was one before her for a short time, but our kitchen is typically for men only. Alejandra feels that she has the not-so-easy task, then, of forcing a woman’s touch into the operation. If the vegetables have been fresher, meaning cut less often, in the last few years, Alejandra had to fight someone to get them that way. In all likelihood, it was her husband, Mr. 20 years, she calls him, that she was up against. Go Alejandra, go!
And then I learned that Sam Jr., who talked to me about how nice it is to have this extra time with his parents, sometimes finds that his mother is grateful to have the time and space to tell him about some thing or another that she disapproves of. She feels bad, she says, again with that sly smile on her face, but there they are together for so many hours and sometimes, when it’s slow, she’ll take him into the kitchen and let him know what’s on her mind.
I feel, now, that I need to tell you that I was laughing the whole time Alejandra talked to me about these things. There was not a hint of malice in her voice, she did not mean to turn anyone against these guys. It just was, finally, the truth about what it’s like to work everyday with your immediate family. Thank you Alejandra!
The Willow Street Café is my brother’s favorite kind of restaurant. It surprised me to hear this because it is so far from mine. Not that it isn’t a good place to eat. It is good. Everyone that we were with enjoyed everything that they ate. My chicken was cooked perfectly and tasted exactly the way I expected it to taste. I’ve eaten a lot of other chickens that tasted exactly the same as this one, so I knew I would like it. It’s the kind of place where you already know what a thing will be like when you order it, so all you have to do is decide whether you feel like eating, for example, a big salad or a chicken dinner. This is fine with me; it’s an easy place to go with a group of people. It’s even the kind of place I would gladly agree to, and maybe even suggest, if I were super hungry and just wanted to be someplace I could trust to feed me. But it would never occur to me to call it a favorite.
But here I’ve just exposed a part of myself that I should maybe not feel so proud of. I get deeper into my 30s every moment and yet I’m still stuck with an adolescent need for cool and exciting. I might truly love the Willow Street Café, but if you ask for my favorite dining experience, I’m going to try to impress you with a story of some vegan-organic-raw-Eritrean-Burmese fusion cuisine that was so spicy I had to go to the emergency room, but boy was it ever a memorable night. My brother, however, will just say that he loves the Willow Street Café. The food will always be good, you will always be able to find things for everyone to like on the menu. It makes me think that my brother will get to be truly happy in his life, while I keep chasing cool.
Good wines are made here in Northern California. They’re famous, so that’s not a controversial sentence. A little past halfway through the last century, some people started planting grapes in the Napa Valley and it turned out well. But, let’s face it, the Native Americans were not making wine, the missionaries had other priorities, the gold miners were too busy and things didn’t really settle down in these parts until relatively recently. So, though these wineries are world renowned, it can feel a little embarrassing to when they boast of their histories. “Since 1971” they say, “Since 1980, “ even. I always feel like a company should not say “since…” until it’s been around at least 100 years.
It’s so refreshing, then, when Artesa proudly pronounces themselves the newest winery in the Napa Valley. They’ve got fresh energy, fresh ideas and this, after all, is how all things Californian get good. They boast of the entrepreneurship and youthful energy that pushes companies into the future, where others get tied down to their own pasts.
I guess it’s easy for them, though, to brag of newness. The Artesa Winery was started by the Cordoniu Group, Spanish winemakers who have been making wine since the 16th century. So, while it is a new venture, it lies comfortably under a very very old blanket. Is this the best of both worlds, or stodgy old Europe trying to fake young America’s élan? Come decide for yourself, here in our bar.