Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Important Edibles

About two weeks ago, we went to the Cheesecake Factory at The Oaks Mall in Thousand Oaks to pick up slices for each of us for what we thought would be a visit to the beach here in Ventura and having our cheesecake there. But the Thomas Fire and the subsequent smoke blanketing our region made that impossible. So we had our slices at home a day or two later.

At the Cheesecake Factory case, I spotted one called Chris' Outrageous Cheesecake and decided to try that without knowing anything that was in it. When my mom, my sister and I were at the Cheesecake Factory a few weeks before that for dinner, I tried the Adam's Peanut Butter Fudge Ripple Cheesecake, and that was more palatable than the monstrosity I subjected myself to: Chocolate cake, brownie, coconut-pecan frosting, and chocolate chip coconut cheesecake, to crib from the order that the layering is listed on the website. It made me wonder: Why does Chris hate people? What happened to shake that life so badly early on?

Now, I've done bad to myself over the years. In my mid-20s, I devoured tubs of Extreme Moose Tracks ice cream from Ralphs in the middle of the night, while not going to bed until 5 a.m. Yeah, I was an idiot, both to myself and to my health. In that same time period (it may have been because Santa Clarita tended to feel isolating, and what are you supposed to connect with there besides going out of the valley in order to do anything interesting?), I also inhaled so many Dr. Peppers over a span of months, that I had a worrisome caffeine problem. Mainly too much of it. Try sleeping under that condition. No chance. I finally pulled myself out of it after realizing how truly awful all this was.

But none of that was as bad as that slice of Chris's Outrageous Cheesecake. I sat at the dining room table, forking my way through it, appalled at how this one slice of cheesecake completely disrespected the sanctity of cheesecake, and decided right then and there that I need to taste again simply to enjoy it, not to just taste to shovel whatever into my mouth and go back for more and more, unthinking. In other, thinner words, I needed to get back on a diet and fast. Forget all the milk chocolate squares I had indulged in in weeks' and months' past. The worry of job hunting will do that to you. Never mind the one bag of pork rinds my mom, my sister and I shared in one shot back in early November (my love of all things pig knows no bounds, though). Forget the different root beers I had tried, and the egg nogs I had tasted in order to find the best one here (that was necessary, though, because having left Las Vegas, I no longer had the egg nog from Anderson Dairy, which, to me, was the best one there, and that's a local brand). I needed to partition my eating life once and for all. Keep it to more fruits and vegetables for my daily eating, and save the really important things for every now and then, but also know what those really important things are. Keep a list so there's never any doubt.

That list, diet-motivated or not, has varied from place to place, everywhere I've lived. In my teens, living in South Florida, I loved the chicken nachos at Miller's Ale House in Pembroke Pines. Huge portion, and I cleared off the entire platter. Extra cheese and no jalapenos always helped. Come to think of it, I also loved them in Las Vegas because there was a Miller's Ale House at Town Square. It's the one restaurant I've been to where my order has never wavered, from then to now. But those days are done. There's no Miller's Ale House in Southern California. As to boba tea places, such as No. 1 Boba Tea in Las Vegas, I ordered a peanut butter and banana smoothie from the first time we went there, to the last time five years later, no matter if we went to the one in Chinatown in Las Vegas, the newer Galleria at Sunset location in Henderson on Mall Ring Circle, or the one on Eastern, in the massive Target shopping center, which was our go-to-location.

But that's gone, too. I don't lament it because here I am, with so many new experiences, and still more to try. In Oxnard, which is one of the unhappiest cities I've ever been to, I was relieved to find that they have a Vallarta supermarket, so we don't have to schlep to Santa Clarita for one. They have two in Oxnard, and Mom and Dad had gone to the dingier one when they were visiting here, but we were lucky to bump into the much cleaner one last month when Dad was looking for a Fallas bargain clothing store. There, I discovered something that, when I have it, is better than books. Seriously. It's chicharrones which, in this case, are mainly pork fat. I'll have to get the name of this type right next time, but when I had it, I knew that this was paradise. That slice of Chris' Outrageous Cheesecake is what put me back on a diet, but those chicharrones are what keeps me on a diet because I want to be ready for the next time we go to Vallarta.

With this in mind, I've come up with a list of those foods important to me. Not the daily essentials, like bananas. I already know those. But those which I most likely would go to great lengths for if I had to, but fortunately, I don't have to for most of these. Some may require adjustments, as will be noted. But all this is who I am in foodstuffs:

Tillamook medium cheddar cheese.

Kroger blended vanilla yogurt (especially in the large tub from Ralphs. I have given up other yogurts for this one).

Grilled pork sausage spring rolls from Pholicious in the food court of the Pacific View Mall here in Ventura.

Vietnamese iced coffee from Pholicious in the food court of the Pacific View Mall here in Ventura (Vietnamese iced coffee became my lifeblood after my sister introduced me to it at 99 Ranch Market on Maryland Parkway in Las Vegas at VeggiEAT Express in their little food court. The iced coffee at Pholicious isn't as good, but it's good enough. At The Oaks Mall in Thousand Oaks, they're opening a Vietnamese place in the food court and I must try the iced coffee there. I hope for it to be like the iced coffee at VeggiEAT Express, but considering my limited options in this part of Southern California, I'm not going to get too choosy).

The ham-and-cheese croissant at Master's Donuts that is not only generously filled, but is also the longest croissant out of all the donut shops I've been to thus far in Ventura.

The carnitas quesadilla at Vallarta (the best quesadilla in the Ventura County area. The runner-up is the cheese quesadilla at La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill in the food court at The Oaks Mall. My local quesadilla at La Mancha Mexican & Seafood in the food court at the Pacific View Mall is way too heavy, although the basic quesadilla at Snapper Jack's Taco Shack in downtown Ventura is acceptable).

Peerless Coffee & Tea's black tea, from Oakland (I tried this tea at Ojai Pizza Company in downtown Ojai, and it was the first tea that made me want to search for teas that taste like they should be in libraries. This one tasted like a wood-paneled, gently-lived in reading room, like the Ojai Library is to me. However, the Thomas Fire caused the Ojai water supply to shut down entirely at one point, and Mom doesn't trust the water supply to get back to what it was before the fires, so advised me not to go for the tea next time when we're there. The next time we go, it'll have been a while since the fire passed through a section of Ojai, so they might have already settled the water issue, or at least set about making sure it doesn't go off again like that. Even so, after we go to WinCo next where Meridith told me that there's a tea strainer there that would be useful for me, I'm going to order the black tea sampler they have to find out if the other teas are just as good, and to pinpoint the one I loved at Ojai Pizza Company. Or I may just stroll on in next time and ask them the exact name of that particular tea. Based on what the Peerless website offers, I think it's the Peerless Royal Blend, which boasts a "smooth, fragrant aroma and flavor." And yet there's also the Assam, "a strong, dark flavor with a heavy body." Yet this was for iced tea, so it might well be their Organic Tropic Star Classic Black for iced tea. Either way, I know I've found my tea company).

Lean Cuisine's Roasted Garlic White Bean Alfredo (This, with Great Northern beans, is what got me deep into beans. They'd always been on the periphery of my life, because of my mother's love of baked beans, and especially black beans and rice, so I guess the interest was just lying dormant. I love this because of the beans and have set out to see what other beans I might like. I'm not big on baked beans like Mom is, but give me beans as part of other dishes or flavored well enough on their own (even refried beans as it turns out), and I can be occupied for quite a while on this subject alone).

A large order of angel hair pasta with pesto (basil, garlic, olive oil, cheese and nuts) and fresh basil from Presto Pasta in the Vons shopping center right down the street from our apartment (I'm actually starting to get tired of this combination, despite my love of basil, so I may try the pomodoro sauce again, or venture into marinara. I don't know yet).

Producers Dairy Premium Egg Nog from Fresno (I can only find this at our sole Ventura Walmart, but it is the best one because not only is it thick enough like egg nog should be, but the nutmeg appears just enough to show that it's nutmeg, but not enough to start to taste like it was made in a homey arts and crafts store. Trader Joe's egg nog is too thin and tasteless, and Kroger's egg nog remains too expensive here, at $3.50 for a quart, but that one was just so-so).

Hershey's Symphony bar (the creamy milk chocolate kind, not the Hershey's standard that comes in Kisses and such. This is what makes me not have as much of Reese's anything as I have in the past, so I can have this every once in a while instead).

Veggie omelette from Busy Bee Cafe in downtown Ventura (The newest addition to my list. The first time Meridith and I went to the Busy Bee Cafe, it was so-so. Meridith's fried chicken was mostly dry, and the stuffed French toast I had of peanut butter, banana, and strawberries didn't taste all that worth coming back again. But this second time, along with Mom and Dad this time for their first time, this was the right time. Better cooks in the kitchen, for one, and I tried a veggie omelette that had carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, and red and green peppers. It wasn't your typical omelet because they used pieces of all the vegetables, so you got basically a golden-brown sheen of eggs all over the vegetables, which was fine with me. Broccoli and cauliflower done like this is pretty much the only way I can eat them, and I loved how well-browned the cauliflower was, along with the sourdough toast and their home fries, with smaller cubed potatoes than I normally see in other home fries. I know I'll be getting this every time we go. It felt simple and unassuming, and I liked that, too).

It's not as urgent to me as all these, but I'm also looking for a decent chocolate malt (one in which I can taste the malt, too, rather than it being drowned out by overly sweet chocolate ice cream) and a patty melt. Busy Bee Cafe has a patty melt, but after that veggie omelette, it's going to be hard for me to consider anything else (witness the peanut butter and banana smoothie from No. 1 Boba Tea for five years, and the chicken nachos from Miller's Ale House for practically all of my life, though the gap begins now. But come to think of it, there was that gap for nine years in Santa Clarita, too).

I would also like to find great grits that don't come from the Quaker Oats packets I use all the time, besides the crock of it that I liked at Bonnie Lu's Country Cafe in downtown Ojai. However, I suspect that that'll be the ultimate for me. They're not easily found here like that. By the way, the quesadilla at Bonnie Lu's places third on my list, with the exception of their pico de gallo, which is the best I've had anywhere! There are idle nights when I get lost in the reverie of the memory of that pico de gallo! To have tomatoes and onions and cilantro as fresh as what's in there, besides whoever makes it having the power of God to make it like that, I think they must have the Shangri-La of gardens hidden somewhere in Ojai.

So, with the exception of that Lean Cuisine alfredo, all this is why I'm sticking a diet for good. I don't know when we'll go back to the Red Brick Pizza right near our apartment complex, but that California Club salad I had there could surely help me stick to my diet. Despite what it sounds like, the calorie count isn't so bad on that one. They've got salad artists over there who know how to layer salads so that you're not left with a heap of romaine lettuce as you get further into the bowl. I can't wait to have that again.

I don't think I'll be adding to this list as quickly as I would have when I lived in Santa Clarita and Las Vegas (with L.A. being closer to Santa Clarita, as well as Anaheim, Burbank, and Buena Park, and Las Vegas being, well, Las Vegas, with doing things like coming up with a list like this as a distraction against the hard living there), but I know that I can look at this list for here, and be sure that I'll be getting something good every time.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Southern California, Part II

Now I know that I can split my years in Southern California into two parts. It wasn't enough to find out on Bing that to get from where I live in Ventura to Downtown Disney in Anaheim is close to and a little above two hours, depending on the route. I needed to see it on a map, even a partial map, as the case was with postcards I bought as bookmarks at a cozy gift shop at Ventura Harbor Village yesterday, one of them a map of Southern California.

There's Anaheim, with Buena Park just slightly north of it. Let eyes wander past Carson, Montebello, through Los Angeles, up to Simi Valley, and diagonally to the top left where Santa Paula is, and Ventura doesn't show up. But we're up there. Going from that Highway 150 marker at the top left, back down to Anaheim? Yeah, that's a distance. So the Southern California I knew from 2003-2012, from when I was 19 up until I was 28, is practically no more for me. It's true, anyway, because the Po Folks restaurant my family and I loved so much in Buena Park closed years ago, a staple for us when we lived in Florida, where I grew up. I can't pine for what's no longer there. I can imagine that it might be interesting to visit Pasadena again at the time of the Rose Parade floats being on display the day after the parade, but would it really be worth that drive? Certainly, with how long it would take to get there, the expectations would be even higher than they ever were before. Sure, the distance is less at only an hour and 13 minutes to an hour and 26 minutes, but on one January 2nd, when we were living in Santa Clarita, we left at 5 in the morning to get there by 7 so we could get in early to see the Rose Parade floats before the crowds built up. I don't think we'd try to do the same thing from here in Ventura, because from Santa Clarita, it was closer.

I don't mind perhaps not seeing that again, nor not going to Universal CityWalk either, or even visiting the Getty Center as often as I might like. In fact, we didn't do it that often when we lived in Santa Clarita, but it was a revelation every time, of the heart, mind and soul. Even so, we are here in Ventura, I'm now 33, and things change. Life changes.

To that end, this is indeed Southern California, Part II, smaller and more focused on what I want and need in my life, what's important to me, rather than the ephemera that was Universal CityWalk and other attractions. I'm still young enough, certainly, but I'm getting older. What do I want to do? Where do I want to be? What matters?

Here, it's having an actual downtown area, which I've never had accessible anywhere we've lived. Downtown Henderson was a drive that took us past the Fiesta Henderson casino, in an area that felt like a no-man's land, and while it was pleasant enough with City Hall there and a few smaller casinos, it wasn't enough to sustain an extensive amount of time. In Florida, at least when I was there, I don't remember there being such a thing as downtown Pembroke Pines, for example. In Ventura, all I have to do is take the 6 bus, and there's the Foster library, there's the movie theater, there's many different places to eat, many of which we still have to try. There's the Bank of Books bookstore, with no air conditioning, which the library also boasts, along with the Calico Cat Bookshop, which is sweatier than Bank of Books. And set further back from the library, up the hill, are two houses I adore, one built in a Queen Anne Style just after 1900 and historically preserved (a construction company called McCarthy is headquartered there), and a two-story house for sale by Berkshire Hathaway with a half-wraparound porch. If I could hit the lottery early enough for a few hundred million, I would buy that house and the old church diagonal from it that was a bed and breakfast before it closed. That would be my piece of Ventura.

In Ventura, it's also having three local libraries now, as opposed to two just a few months ago. It's the E.P. Foster Library downtown, the Ventura College library which is closed now from two days ago until January 7th, and then it opens on January 8 for the start of the spring semester. That disappointed me because I had hoped to check out the 1998 anthology A Southern Christmas for something to read to lead up to Christmas, but with the wildfires and the campus being closed due first to the fires and then to the pervasive smoke, that didn't happen. However, I may check it out when the library reopens, because I don't think I feel like waiting until Christmas starts to come around again.

Now there's also the Hill Road Library, just up the street from where I live on the east side of Ventura, past the Government Center where I took a test to qualify to be considered for a library page position, and where I'll go again early tomorrow morning to take a test in order to qualify for a librarian technician position (essentially the people behind the counter who help with searching for books and setting up library cards for new patrons). The size makes it more of an express library, something small for the community to come in, browse, and go, for the sake of convenience. If they have a little more time, they can certainly stay. It was also the first grand opening of a library we had ever been to, and I already had two books in mind even before we went, that I knew the new branch had: The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty and Strays: A Lost Cat, A Homeless Man, and Their Journey Across America by Britt Collins. We got into the library before the festivities began, so I made a beeline for where those books were and I got both of them. Brand-new copies. In fact, that's one of the happy things about this new library: Most of the books there are brand-new, and there's still more to come. What I couldn't find readily from other branches is well-stocked here. Plus, I can walk to this branch whenever I want, though not ignoring the Foster library not only because of my love of the downtown area, but also because they have extensive stacks, with nonfiction books dating back decades even, novels, too. I like browsing through history like that. I hope they keep that going.

Let's see what else. There's my grilled pork sausage spring rolls and Vietnamese iced coffee at Pholicious in the food court at the Pacific View Mall, halfway to downtown. The mall is considered Midtown Ventura. There's the generous ham-and-cheese croissant at Master's Donuts at the start of the Walmart shopping center on South Victoria Avenue. I've tried a few other ham-and-cheese croissants at other donut places and this is the only one that really stuffs it well. There's the donut place a few doors down from Discount Grocery Outlet far down on Telephone Road, where they automatically cut the croissant in half for me (not that I want it that way, but I like learning about the different styles of donut places in Ventura), but I prefer Master's Donuts' croissant.

Oh yes, and if you turn off of Main Street downtown onto Thompson, there's the beach right in front of you. I can't forget that part because it's pretty much the main reason I was impatient to move to Ventura when it became possible: I was born and raised in Florida, therefore born to ocean breezes, and I needed ocean breezes back, desperately so after five years in the Mojave Desert. I'm not the sort like my sister and my dad to walk in the sand or get close to the waves. I like just sitting on a bench looking out at the ocean, simply in awe. To have it whenever I want now is still a little unreal to me. I'm still getting used to such pleasure close at hand.

There's still more to come, I'm sure. I haven't yet been to the Regency Buenaventura 6, Ventura's second-run movie theater, in the same shopping center as WinCo. This, despite them still showing Only the Brave, which came from Joseph Kosinski, one of my favorite directors. Job hunting is just slightly more important at the moment.

Reading that back, I feel like I have covered everything here. I've been to every part of Ventura, I've seen all of downtown, though I still want to walk through Mission San Buenaventura at nearly the end of downtown. Yet it doesn't make me wish for Downtown Disney or Universal CityWalk, or even Buena Park, which I liked because of its heavy ghosts of history that hang there. Even knowing as much of Ventura as I do now, there's still the history to learn. That continued yesterday in that gift shop with one of the postcards I bought. When I looked at this aerial photo of Downtown Ventura, I noticed that what's now the Crowne Plaza hotel used to be a Holiday Inn. I'm not sure yet how many years back that goes, but I want to know. That reminds me that there's also the Museum of Ventura County I haven't visited yet, where I'd hope for some room for me to work in their research library. I need to call the director of that library to find out how often a position might open there because they work within the same budget that's also for the Ventura County libraries. I'd like to be steeped in that history.

I've gone all this way and I almost forgot the Salzer's Music and Salzer's Video stores, across the street from each other on Valentine Road. I've bought DVDs from both places already, while searching each time for a copy of Employee of the Month, the one with Dane Cook and Jessica Simpson. Before, it was a frantic search because I had seen a few minutes of it on Comedy Central when we were staying at the La Quinta Inn on Valentine, waiting for our new apartment to be ready to sign for, and then for the movers to finally show up from Las Vegas, and I thought it was funny as hell. Last month, I saw it in full on Comedy Central and yeah, it was still funny, but the plot was labored, and the search isn't as urgent now, but I still want to listen to the audio commentaries for it. Each Salzer's store is great to browse and get lost in for a little while, not just to search for a specific DVD.

I actually don't miss the tumult of getting to downtown Los Angeles, even for a french dip sandwich at Philippe's. I don't miss us trying to find a space in the parking lot at Downtown Disney. But I do miss Porto's Bakery and Cafe, a Cuban paradise in Burbank, and if we ever get back there, I'm not only starting with my beloved mango mousse before moving on to my standard Cubano sandwich, but I might just try their roasted pork sandwich too (owing to my deep love of roast pork, started by #1 Hawaiian Barbecue near McCarran International in Las Vegas in that Walmart shopping center), then go on to another mango mousse, and take home at least two trays of mango mousses. I'm dead serious about that.

While I don't like what we had to go through in five years in Las Vegas and Henderson, it's interesting to have a clean break between Southern California lives and for each one to be completely different. Even with still looking for a job, I think I'm more content with Part II because we're not landlocked (including our nine years in Santa Clarita, we were landlocked for 14 years, all told), we can breathe better here (except for the smoke from the Thomas Fire lately, which has lessened, but it's still worrisome for our part of this region. It hasn't come back, but it still affects all of us), and there's a slightly slower pace to life here. I still have to adjust to that, but I'm getting there. This feels like it could be the right kind of life.