As a Las Vegas resident, it was often difficult to get to absolutely everything that the city offered in food, at least that which interested me. There'd be that long stretch of summer in which practically hibernating in one's apartment with the air conditioning running 24/7 was critical, at least until 9 or 10 p.m., when you'd strategize about what to put in the cart at Smith's or Vons that wasn't so critical in refrigeration, and then try to get deli last so that it wouldn't be so affected by how warm it still was outside. Ice cream you'd have to rush home, and forget doing that during the day because it would immediately melt. It's why we never bought cans of shaving cream during the day, and then even when we were looking toward summer, we'd stockpile them so we wouldn't have to buy them as often. Otherwise, they would have exploded when bringing them from Target to the car. And in winter, sure you could stay out a little longer if you were bundled up enough, but the desert cold is still uncomfortable enough to make one laser-focus enough on what's already known. In most cases, it would be a long, pilgrimage drive to IKEA with the heater on full blast in the car.
So based on the weather in Las Vegas, and how hard it was to live there most of the time, in apartment living and in work, options were comparatively limited, but no less interesting or reliable. Vietnamese iced coffee came from the VeggiEAT Express counter in the small food court at 99 Ranch Market on Maryland Parkway, near Ross and Goodwill further down, which backed right into the Boulevard Mall on the same property. Although I've heard since we moved that VeggiEAT Xpress closed at 99 Ranch Market, I worshipped it. Every time I went there, I knew I was getting heavenly Vietnamese iced coffee and always the warning when I ordered it without ice that it would be too sweet. I didn't care! We went to 99 Ranch Market once a month, maybe twice, and I wasn't wasting the chance. I knew I could go there and it would always be excellent.
And then there was roast pork from #1 Hawaiian BBQ on Eastern Avenue, which was next to the street that was the main artery to the Walmart shopping center, next to the back of one of the runways at McCarran International. This particular Walmart was one of three options for us. There was the one on Marks Street in Henderson, a slightly sprawling shopping center, which always had the Sunset Station hotel tower in full view, as well as a 99 Cents Only store further down to the right that had more books than I've ever seen at any other 99 Cents Only store, in Santa Clarita and in Ventura. I think it was because this store, as well as the Whitney Library on Tropicana and the main Clark County Library on Flamingo, was attuned to people's needs during the summer. Being that we couldn't go out much, if at all, during those torturous hours, they knew what people might want and they supplied it. I got the sense that more people read in Henderson, even in Vegas, than they seem to here.
There was also the one on East Serene Avenue, which had a Wienerschnitzel nearby, an Office Max next door, and a Home Depot on the far right end of the property. That one was the more serious of the Walmart Supercenters in Las Vegas. It didn't loom like the one on Marks did, and in fact, I have an idea for a novel set in that one. And it didn't have the momentary distraction of planes taking off next to you at the McCarran one while you got out of your car and locked up before going inside. You simply joined the subdued herd and went in to get whatever you wanted. That was the domestic game, though. If one Walmart didn't have what you were looking for, you went to the next one, and then the next one, and always kept track of which Walmart had what, in case you didn't want to spend too much time in one.
Anyway, about the roast pork, I knew that was the ultimate for me. They did it well there and it was the only place I'd swear by for roast pork. Same with Capriotti's Sandwich Shop and their Bobbie, with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and mayo. Once in a while, I'd drift to the Slaw Be Jo (roast beef, provolone cheese, cole slaw, Russian dressing and mayo), but 90% of the time, the Bobbie was for me. I love Jimmy John's here in Ventura because they don't show off like Jersey Mike's does, and their sandwiches are often better, but I still miss my Bobbie. However, I never want to go back to Las Vegas, for anything, so the Bobbie will remain a fond memory.
It's different in Ventura and its relatively nearby environs within the county. Take tomorrow, when I have to go to the Ventura County Community College District office in Camarillo for a test for an Office Assistant position. The office is on East Daily Drive, and about a block or two from it is an intimate strip mall that contains Basil & Mint Vietnamese Cafe. Now, when we moved to Ventura, I swore by the Vietnamese iced coffee at Pholicious, which has since been renamed Pho & Tea, in the food court at the Pacific View Mall. But the first time I had to go to that district office for a test for another job I didn't get, we discovered that strip mall, that Vietnamese restaurant, and I was curious. Could they possibly have Vietnamese iced coffee? And what was it like?
As it turns out, if I must compare Vietnamese iced coffees between the present and the past, the iced coffee at Basil & Mint is worlds better than the iced coffee at the VeggiEAT Xpress counter at 99 Ranch. After the second or third time, I learned from my favorite waiter there that they make the iced coffee every morning, using Cafe du Monde coffee from New Orleans and condensed milk of course, and it's the coffee that makes it because of the chicory. Now, I could buy the coffee and the condensed milk and try to make it myself, but I prefer to anticipate it. I don't need it all the time, and I know, having been to Basil & Mint four times, that there is absolutely no chance I could be disappointed by it in the future because the owner of the restaurant is entrenched in Camarillo, as his cousin owns Bigstraw Boba on Verdugo Way, in that leafy shopping center, near the Old New York Deli & Bakery. And there, at Basil & Mint, I always get a Vietnamese iced coffee right when I arrive, and then another, to go, on the way out. That's my tradition there.
I also think about the sandwich I had from Westridge Market in Ojai a few weeks ago, when my mom, my sister and I went up there for the day. It was a baguette sandwich, from Boars Head, an Italian sub, as they called it, with Genoa salami, pepperoni, capocollo, lettuce, tomato, their deli dressing, red onion, and provolone cheese. I'm not into Italian subs, and I only try a bit if someone else in my family gets it, but this was the most perfect sandwich I had ever had. I didn't know much about baguettes before this, but I think it is the perfect sandwich bread because it requires the sandwich maker to be subtle, not to overload it, to offer flavors not often considered, and to meet the demands of the bread. It all has to work together and not spring apart because there's too much between the baguette slices.
I won't ever forget that sandwich and I'll hope to have it again the next time we go to Ojai, if we don't end up at Ojai Pizza Company again, or even Bonnie Lu's, a country cafe that has pico de gallo that I swear was made by fairies. I've never tasted other pico de gallo so fresh like theirs is. That sandwich taught me that it's not enough to simply make a sandwich. You have to think about the bread and you have to think about the ingredients you want to combine. My other favorite breads for a sandwich is straight rye and marble rye. I can't imagine any other kinds for a sandwich and the only time I make an exception is for a standard peanut butter and jelly sandwich with whatever bread we have in the house, which is usually wheat bread. But even with that simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich, that baguette sandwich still looms in my memory.
I know it's the consistent weather here that allows for such ongoing desire to have what one loves in food. The second best Vietnamese iced coffee, to me, is at Boba Smoothies in what they call the Rose Shopping Center on North Rose Avenue in Oxnard, that strip of stores facing, yes, a Walmart. In fact, we go to that Walmart because our own, much smaller Walmart, doesn't have everything we need, although our own Walmart is still our go-to for disposable razors, toilet paper and paper towels, and I hope they stock Producers Egg Nog this year, although they don't stock much else of the Producers brand anymore, which is still around. It helps that we have it across the street from us, along with Trader Joe's, and our apartment complex is located directly behind the Ralphs supermarket.
That particular Vietnamese iced coffee from Boba Smoothies is sharp and involving like Vietnamese iced coffee should be, whereas the one at Pho & Tea in the Pacific View Mall is sometimes drowned out by the condensed milk they overuse. Even at the Pho & Tea at The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks, where the prices are higher, there's still the risk of getting the same kind of Vietnamese iced coffee as at the Pacific View Mall, namely because the same company owns both malls, and it's the same owner for both locations.
There's a contrast to all this, of course. Last night, we had takeout wings from Wing Stop, and I decided on an order split between their Louisiana Rub and garlic Parmesan, instead of all garlic Parmesan like I usually get. I'm not fond of Wing Stop. It gets boring and the only reason I got a different order than usual was just to see what the Louisiana Rub was like nowadays. Not out of genuine curiosity, but just something different to look at and get it over with. After I finished, it all disappeared from my mind. No further thoughts like the Boar's Head baguette sandwich from Westridge Market in Ojai, no anticipation for it again like the Vietnamese iced coffee from Basil & Mint. Wings don't interest me much, which is probably it. Give me pork, give me turkey. In fact, with turkey, it always interests me how different places roast it, what they use. We don't cook a whole turkey for Thanksgiving. We generally order a roasted turkey breast and it looks like this time it will be from Sprouts, provided my father orders it by the end of the week, which is what he wants, but man, we're getting down to the wire on that. Even so, I never get tired of turkey because of the different ways that I can find it. And I think I know why all this continually fascinates me.
I never knew who made the Vietnamese iced coffee at VeggiEAT Express at 99 Ranch Market, since it was always already in containers in that glass door refrigerator on the wall behind the register. It had likely been a while since we'd been there and I just wanted it. With the roast pork at #1 Hawaiian BBQ, I sometimes thought about when they might have put it in the oven to roast, what might have been done to it beforehand, but that was it. Once I got my order, I didn't care any more about the methods to my dear madness.
Here, I know. I can imagine them making the Vietnamese iced coffee at Basil & Mint after the waiter told me all about it. I can imagine the care that went into it, because I can taste it. I don't know who made the Italian sub that I bought at Westridge Market, but it's clear that they love sandwiches. In fact, that sandwich is what shifted my list of my favorite foods. My top two are quesadillas and nachos. My third used to be Fettucine Alfredo, but that one sandwich is what put sandwiches at #3, knocking Fettucine Alfredo to #4, if I even still go for it. I know it was also the setting at Westridge, when we found a table nestled behind a sharp "U" shape of bushes outside the store, that looked out at those majestic Ojai mountains that always make me think, "Who the hell needs TV?" For that lunch with my mom and my sister, there was also deviled eggs and orange milk that Meridith had wanted to try from a glass bottle in that refrigerated section. She and my mom had had sushi, but all that mattered to me was that sandwich.
Here, within food, it's also the people. Here are people in Ventura County who care. In Camarillo, the rest of the Basil & Mint Cafe menu, besides the Vietnamese iced coffee, is phenomenal. I love their sandwiches there, especially their pork offering, and I can sense the dedication from the kitchen, the pride in their work. Here in Ventura, there are good people. The ones at Jimmy John's are not only fast, but they know exactly what's wanted in each sandwich. They must glance at that order receipt right away and then commit it to memory in a split second.
Oh, and CJ's Barbecue in this Ralphs shopping center! I nearly forgot about the rib tips and the black-eyed peas there! Pork rib tips, which was already a plus with me, and they do some magic to those, too, but it's clear that whoever does it has been fascinated and completely in love with barbecue for years. And their deep, rich, salty flavoring for their black-eye peas makes it my favorite side.
See, we're not a demonstrative town. We won't hype anything up like Los Angeles hypes things up all the time, from movie premieres, to expensive Apple store openings, to whatever else requires media coverage. You have to look for what might interest you and then decide, on your own, what's worth your time. There are no outside influences, and that's what I like here. And when you find it, you hold onto it. I don't know who actually makes the ham and cheese croissants, for another example, that Master's Donuts sells across the street from me, but they're the best I've had in Ventura County. If it's actually the ones who run the store, more power to them. I'm not entirely sure because when we ordered one of their enormous donuts in order to thank the movers that we had on the morning we moved from Via Ventura to Island View Apartments, behind Ralphs, it was a croissant box that looked like a shipment box, from somewhere deeper in Southern California. So maybe they do order the ham and cheese croissants to sell in the shop. Even so, they know quality. They're aware of what's wonderful, what would raise their profile even more than it already is.
It's also like Luna Grill, which is in the Vons shopping center, which I worshipped when we lived nearby at Via Ventura. I haven't been there in a long time since there's been other, closer (and not so close) distractions, but besides their gyros quesadilla being one of the best quesadillas I've ever had, they have baklava wedges that I swore by. In that small kitchen, though, they definitely don't make those. They come from Baklava King in Santee, in San Diego County. And this is another example of people here caring, of wanting what matches the quality of what they already serve. Someone probably fielded offers from different bakeries that make baklava, and decided which one would be best for Luna Grill. And it is indeed as if they made it themselves.
It'll be the same with Thanksgiving. Yes, we're likely having the roasted turkey breast from Sprouts, and the cornbread stuffing from the Trader Joe's box, and the cranberry sauce from the Trader Joe's jar (the best I've had in so long), and probably green bean casserole and the usual candied yams, as well as pumpkin pie, wherever that might be coming from (I haven't decided yet, although I did like the pumpkin pie we got last year from Vallarta Supermarket in Oxnard, which came from the Jessie Lord Bakery in Torrance, but I might want to try a different one), and very possibly apple pie, too. But I will still read up on how others are celebrating Thanksgiving, what they like, because there is always an interesting combination of flavors to be found in any Thanksgiving feast and actually, despite quesadillas, nachos, and sandwiches being my favorite foods, my favorite meal is a Thanksgiving feast. Not even an hour and a half at Golden Corral (which had its grand opening in Oxnard today, so we'll be going soon) can top that. And there again, I wonder about all those who make this possible. The knowledge. The passion. The care. That's what it means here in Ventura, and I'm glad to have it.