Sky Island - Chapters 1 and 2

Sky Island - Chapters 1 and 2

The following is the first two chapters from the novel Sky Island by Travis Spencer

Sky Islands are isolated mountains surrounded by radically different lowland environments. This has significant implications for natural habitats. Endemism, altitudinal migration, and relict populations are some of the natural phenomena to be found on sky islands.

-From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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The Foodist Chronicles - I Will Survive

When I was fifteen years old, I saw a news report I would never forget.  The year was 1995 and the Bosnian War had been going on for three years.  Up to that point, the war was something occurring another world away, a conflict I didn’t understand being fought by nations I’d never heard of.  Then NATO got involved, and on June 2, 1995 an American fighter pilot named Scott O’Grady was shot down.  After hiding in the woods for six days, narrowly avoiding capture by Bosnian-Serb forces, he was rescued by U.S. Marines.  After returning to safety, a press conference was held and O’Grady explained how he survived the ordeal.  When asked what he ate in the Bosnian wilderness for food, his response has stayed with me for 20 years- bugs.

     The notion that bugs could be consumed for survival officially blew my mind.  My mom had to further explain their high protein and nutritional value because my teenage brain couldn’t wrap itself around this idea.  In my mind, the only purpose an insect served this world was to be squashed by adolescent assholes like me.  Thankfully, my maturity and worldview have grown and evolved since then.  Okay, maybe not entirely because if you’re an insect trying to set up residence in my house I’m going to spray, squash, and swat you until I’m convinced you’re no longer alive.  But in cases of survival, I’m no longer freaked out by the idea of consuming bugs to live another day.

     Since starting The Foodist Chronicles, I’ve made an agreement with myself to dine and write about foods I wouldn’t ordinarily order.  I’m not going to go to a place with the intention of writing about it, only to play it safe and order a burger, then share all the juicy details.  You don’t need me for that because you can get a burger absolutely anywhere in this town.  So when my family sat down at Guelaguetza my eyes immediately began scanning the menu for something different.

 Mole.

Mole.

     Guelaguetza is an Oaxacan restaurant located in Koreatown on Olympic Blvd. Spacious, family-owned, and extremely hospitable, they are well renowned for producing authentic Oaxacan cuisine, and have one of the most extensive tequila and mezcal lists I’ve ever seen.  The first thing to hit the table was complimentary tortilla chips topped with their first class mole.  Truly exceptional, I couldn’t stop eating them while my survey of the menu for that “different” dish continued.  And then it happened, an appetizer dish just waiting to be ordered, if only I had the courage to go through with it- Chapulines a la Mexicana: fried grasshoppers sautéed with jalapenos, onions and tomatoes, served with Oaxacan string cheese and avocado.  Twenty years after being shocked at what Scott O’Grady had to eat to survive, I was going to eat grasshoppers just for the sport of it.  

 Those sexy grasshoppers!

Those sexy grasshoppers!

     For me, grasshoppers can stay in the grass.  There’s no pretending they’re something else, these are definitely insects being ingested.  After the initial crunch, a brininess covers the palate.  The flavor profile isn’t bad, I just couldn’t get passed grasshopper legs and antennae getting stuck in my teeth.  I tried masking the next bites by wrapping them in a tortilla and adding the avocado and string cheese, which provided only the slightest improvement.  Nope, it’s confirmed: grasshoppers are not for me.  Thankfully, the mezcal sampler we ordered was there to help wash it all down.  When my entrée hit the table I couldn’t have been happier.  Costilla de Puerco Enchilada:  chile-marinated grilled pork ribs, served with rice, black beans, and green salad.  This dish was truly outstanding and was devoured in minutes.

 Mezcal sampler, thank god!

Mezcal sampler, thank god!

     I definitely recommend Guelaguetza to anyone looking for an authentic dining experience.  The entire staff was extremely friendly and knowledgeable, and the space itself is quite large with plenty of seating available.  They also sell their famous mole and other merchandise up front.  And while I’ve learned consuming grasshoppers isn’t for me, it’s nice knowing that I could survive off of them if I’m ever stranded in the wild.  For now, I’ll stick to city living.

 Chile marinated pork ribs, so good!

Chile marinated pork ribs, so good!

 

Restaurante Guelaguetza

3014 W. Olympic Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90006

(213) 427-0608

www.ilovemole.com

 

Follow Joe on Twitter @JoeFoodist  

Golf and Sausage

 

   I belong to the faction of people who believe that golf is the greatest game there is.  Anyone can play, young or old, male or female.  It’s all offense, the only defense present is the course itself.  There’s no finger pointing, a bad shot is because of you and you alone.  It’s also one of the most frustrating ways you can spend a Sunday afternoon.  When I play, most drives slice, an occasional good one is followed by a duff where the divot flies farther than the ball, and three putts are commonplace.  But occasionally you have those moments where everything comes together.  If I’m lucky it’s one hole, but I’ll settle for back-to-back good shots, or a putt that’s good enough for SportsCenter.   Those are the ones that keep you coming back for more misery.  So when my buddy Brian asked if I was free to play, how could I possibly say no?

     I picked him up at his place, drove over to Venice to pick up our buddy Pete, and the three of us headed over to Penmar Golf Course about two minutes away, where our stoner friend Cole joined us.  Now, walking 9 holes of golf in the middle of August has the potential to be a miserable experience.  But Penmar is in Venice, a mile inland from the beach, which makes the conditions utterly exceptional.  The temperature is about ten degrees cooler than where Brian and I live, with a nice breeze coming in from off the beach.  Plus, the fairways are straight and wide so you can pretty much play your driver on every hole except the par-3’s. 

     The outing was as expected- Pete killed it off the tee, Brian and I would have a good shot followed by a bad one, and Cole with his circa 1970 clubs and Happy Gilmore technique somehow managed to hit it straight every single time.  His philosophy- don’t think, just go up to the ball and hit it.  For those of us who know Cole, this approach makes total sense.  Afterwards, the four of us enjoyed a cold Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and tried to figure out what to do next.  Cole had to split, but Pete, Brian, and I were starving.  So Pete suggested a sausage joint on the corner of his street.  “Sausage and beer, that’s all they serve,” he explained.  Nothing sounded better, but if you had told me earlier that morning what I would be having for lunch, I would have said you’re on drugs.  You see, these are no ordinary sausages.

     The place Pete took us to was Wurstkuche on Lincoln Blvd, and as soon as we walked through the door I was all in.  The set-up is pretty simple: all sausages are served on a fresh roll, you pick two toppings (sauerkraut, carmelized onions, sweet peppers, or spicy peppers), self serve varieties of mustard are at the table, and if you’re in the mood for a side they have double dipped Belgian fries available to order.  As I scrolled over the menu there were so many sausages to choose from I had no idea which one to get.  Bratwurst, hot Italian, kielbasa, they all looked so good.  Then at the bottom, one caught my eye and I immediately knew there was no way in good conscience I could order anything else- rattlesnake & rabbit with jalapeno peppers.  For the first time in my life, I was about to consume snake.

  Rattlesnake & rabbit with jalapeño, kraut and onions, with spicy whole grain mustard. F-ing delicious!

Rattlesnake & rabbit with jalapeño, kraut and onions, with spicy whole grain mustard. F-ing delicious!

     Wurstkuche is counter service, so you order your food and drink up front, then take a number and find a seat in the back.  The seating is comprised of long community tables covered with brown paper, crayons are available for the kids or if coloring is something you’re into, and there’s also a patio available if you’d like to sit outside.  I ordered the rattlesnake & rabbit w/ carmelized onions and sauerkraut and went with a Reissdorf Kolsch as my beverage, both receiving nods of approval from Anderson working the counter.  With our food in, the three of us found seats in the back and waited in anticipation.  As I sat, I had that slight churning of anxiety going on inside.  What the hell did I just order?

     Luckily, I had my kolsch to ease my anxiety as I waited.  It’s a German beer made of top-fermenting yeast like an ale, but is then cooled at lager temperatures.  The result is a beer with the body and smoothness of an ale, but the straw-yellow hue with a touch of crispness you expect from a German lager.  Translation- it’s a fantastic beer, especially if you’re not into the whole California IPA craze and want to look cool by ordering something different. 

     After about ten minutes, the food arrived.  Brian had ordered the Belgian fries with for us to share and they were amazing.  A thicker cut, they get doubled fried which means they’re double the grease, extra crispy, and extra good.  As I stared at my sandwich, any anxiety I had went by the wayside and I was just ready to dig in.  I added some spicy whole grain mustard and took that first bite.  It was absolutely fantastic, before I knew it the whole thing was devoured and was tempted to order another.  Pardon the cliché, but in a lot of ways it tastes just like chicken.  If you don’t believe me then I suggest you go and try one.  It will not disappoint.

 

Wurstkuche

Venice

625 Lincoln Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90291

 

Downtown L.A.

800 E. 3rd St @ Traction

Los Angeles, CA 90013

 

Follow @JoeFoodist on Twitter 

 

Homecoming

Why do any of us leave home?  Obviously, there’s not one answer.  All of us who have said goodbye to our family and friends, leaving behind the place we grew up, did so for our own reasons.  Some leave with a smile, happy to be no longer tethered to a faulty foundation that was home.  For others, leaving means opportunity, but not without paying a huge emotional toll.  When you leave home to conquer the world, you realize there are certain things you’re going to miss- mom’s hugs, catch with dad, a pet left behind, close friends.  But as time goes by, you begin to crave certain aspects of home you had no idea you were ever going to miss.  For me, the one thing I didn’t consider when I packed up the car and headed west was how much I was going to miss the food I grew up on.  Specifically, Utz potato chips and the Maryland blue crab. 

 

It’s been ten years since I left Maryland, and every time I go back home I get a few bags of Utz BBQ potato chips. They just taste like my childhood in a way Lays BBQ never will.  However, these visits have also been during the holidays when crabs are out of season.  So several months ago, when my wife and I decided spend our daughter’s 2nd birthday on Aug. 2 with my parents back in MD, I knew immediately that we had to spend one day on the Chesapeake Bay’s eastern shore and dig into my home state’s greatest culinary tradition.  And for our family, the best place to do just that is the Crab Claw in St. Michaels, MD.  But first, we got to get there.

 The Crab Claw Restaurant

The Crab Claw Restaurant

 

Very few people I know can take the red eye from L.A. to the east coast and get any significant sleep.  I was able to once, before I was a married or a parent, and only because the fudge (very special fudge) I ingested before going through security had kicked in and zonked me out.  That was a good flight.  This time, however, I’m with a little girl who is about to turn two and doesn’t understand what in the name of Minnie Mouse is going on.  Just a few minutes ago she was playing ball with two other toddlers in a big room, with lots of people, chairs, and bags all around.  Now she’s in this very narrow space, in a chair that’s definitely not her car seat, with mommy and daddy leaning over her going “Ssshhh, ssshhhh.”  She ends up sleeping two out of the five hours we’re in the air.  I get about an hour, and my amazing wife who has been holding our girl almost the whole time dozes off for a mere 20 minutes.  We get off the plane and get picked up by my mom and dad.  Karina and I are moody and exhausted, but Ava is happy to see grandma and grandpa. 

 

We spend the first day resting and relaxing, eating Utz BBQ and drinking Yuengling (also not available on the west coast).  The next day we make the drive to the Chesapeake and spend the night at our family friends’ shore house.  I eat some more Utz and drink some more Yuengling.  Morning comes and the day I’ve been waiting years for has finally arrived- the day I once again have crabs!  We load into the car and head over to St. Michaels. 

 

Known as “the town that fooled the British,” St. Michaels is a place steeped in history, original architecture, and, of course, crabs.  Frederick Douglass grew up a slave on nearby Mount Misery farm.  During the War of 1812, as the British Navy sailed up the Bay, the town used a little trickery to survive a pre-dawn attack.  The citizens kept their buildings dark while hanging lanterns in the tree line behind them.  The British aimed its canons at the trees, over-shooting their intended targets, and the town was spared, hence the nickname.

 The view from our table.

The view from our table.

 

 

 

My dad parks the car in a nearby parking lot and we walk over to the Crab Claw Restaurant.  Family owned and operated since 1965, this place does crabs the right way- steamed, doused in Old Bay seasoning, some malt vinegar and melted butter on the side.  Resting on the water’s edge, we find a table we like and get set-up with mallets, silverware, brown paper covering the table, and a roll of paper towels.  Our server Sydney comes over and the order goes in: a dozen crabs, a pitcher of beer, one basket of fried clams to snack on, and chicken strips for Ava.  We drink our beer, admire the view, and thank mother nature for sparing us the usual humidity.  After a few minutes, Sydney comes walking over with crabs on a tray, steam still rising off the shells.  With my parents sitting across from me, Karina to my right, and Ava in her highchair at the end, I can’t help but think that life doesn’t get any better than this.  I grab my mallet and with a smile start cracking, it feels so good to be home.

 The main event.

The main event.

 

 

The Crab Claw Restaurant

304 Burns St.

St. Michaels, MD 21663

(410) 745-2900

www.thecrabclaw.com

 

Follow Joe on Twitter @JoeFoodist

A Perfect 'Union'

It’s just after 7:00 on a Tuesday night and my wife, Karina, and I are out celebrating our 3rd anniversary of being married.  With no pun intended, the restaurant we’re going to is Union in Pasadena.  So far, the night’s been a bit of a rush.  I’ve driven to my in-laws and back to drop of our almost 2 year-old, my wife came home from work, we both got ready to go out, and I’ve just finished navigating the drive from L.A. to Pasadena during rush hour with moderate success.  When we walk into the restaurant we’re immediately greeted warm and graciously by the hosts, thanking us for having called to say we may be a few minutes late. 

The restaurant is a smaller space with a 50-seat dining room and it’s completely full, ours is the only empty table.  The host walks us over, and as we’re sitting down neither of us has any idea that we’re about to enjoy the best dinner we’ve had a in a very long time. 

Owners Marie Petulla and Chef Bruce Kalman opened Union a little more than a year ago, and in that time it has received a flurry of rave reviews, establishing itself on numerous “best of” lists.  Believe the hype, folks, because it does not disappoint.  At the top of the chalk board next to the bar is a quote from Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley and matriarch of the farm to table movement: “Let things taste of what they are.”  Featuring a northern Italian cuisine with a California influence, Chef Kalman does a masterful job of doing just that.  From house made pastas, to in-house butchery, and farm to table ingredients, Union reminds you that, in the end, it’s all about the taste.

 

 Porcetta

Porcetta

At our server’s recommendation, we decided to dine family-style, and requested wine director George Pitsironis to pair the wine with our courses.   Anytime a restaurant has a wine director or sommelier, use them!  George amplified our experience by a factor of ten.  The portions, while not enormous, are certainly filling.  The dinner opened with duck confit ravioli that immediately let us know we were in for a special night.  With parmigiano-reggiano, ricotta cheese, pickled beets, arugula, huge chunks of duck, and a touch of a savory sauce, this pasta dish was truly exceptional. 

 Duck Confit Ravioli

Duck Confit Ravioli

This was followed by the squid ink garganelli with lobster, truffle butter, fennel, and meyer lemon.  Wow.  Oh my God, wow!!! Unlike anything I’d ever had, literally, since I’d never had squid ink before.  I ordered it like I completely knew what we were getting and then looked it up on my Wikipedia app.  This is one of their most insanely popular dishes and with good reason: truffle butter, truffle butter, truffle butter!  Just when we couldn’t get enough of it, our last dish hit the table.  Porchetta featuring Weiser Farms potatoes and topped with a touch of salsa verde.  Juicy pork with just the right amount of fat and spice: of course it was amazing and delicious.  Two bites in for each of us and we immediately knew we had to take the rest home, and I got to have the best leftover lunch ever.

 Squid Ink Garganelli

Squid Ink Garganelli

 

The ambiance is very intimate and reservations are a must.  The décor is made up of white walls on one side, exposed brick on the other, and mason jars with their house made pickled vegetables.  You’re definitely sitting in close quarters to other guests, and as a result it can get a bit noisy.  None of this is a negative.  It’s not about being sleek and chic, it’s about the food on the table.  For us, we honestly felt as though we were a part of a big dinner party in someone’s home.  As it turned out, the couples sitting to our left and right were also celebrating anniversaries, so we all raised our glasses toasting one another.  I can’t think of a better way to have ended our experience.  Three couples all celebrating their union at Union.

Union

 

Union Restaurant

37 E Union St, Pasadena, CA 91103

(626) 795-5841

unionpasadena.com

 Follow Joe on Twitter @JoeFoodist

The Foodist Chronicles

The Foodist Chronicles

 

     A few weeks ago I turned 35. Important because the only ones that matter after 21 are the ones ending with numbers 5 or 0.  On this festive day in June there was no celebratory round of golf with the guys, no cigars on the green with cold beers in the cart.  No posh steakhouse with family and friends in a revitalized part of downtown L.A.. No. This year I worked.  In the same industry I’ve been working in for the last 15 of those years- the wonderful world of restaurants.  And I love it.

 

Ever since I was a kid I’ve always felt at home in a restaurant.  Not only for the food, but the ambiance and company as well.  With a culturally inclined mom and a dad who just loves to eat, nothing was off limits.  Classic American taverns, Irish pubs, Greek, French, Italian, Lebanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, we tried them all, and nothing ever got sent back.  So when I needed a summer job while home from college, it seemed only natural that I get a gig waiting tables.  The night of my 20th birthday also was one in which I had to work, and I would experience more pain and misery than ever before.  By the end of the night, my pride would be gone and my soul consumed by banshees.

 

To paint the full picture, let’s just say my employer at this time was a major behemoth corporate restaurant.  Two weeks of intense training: daily food and bar classes, quizzes, floor follows, and checkout procedures.  It was boot camp for the food and beverage industry, culminating in the most extensive food and bar tests I’ve ever taken in my years in this business.  After two weeks of working lunches, I received my first dinner shift…on my birthday. I had been so busy since getting hired I didn’t even think to request the night off, and of course nobody wanted to switch shifts with the new guy, so stuck I was with not celebrating my birthday for the first time in my life.

 

     I was so green everything went wrong that night.  I couldn’t remember anything from the dinner menu, all my knowledge from training had vanished from my brain.  I couldn’t handle being double sat, then triple sat.  Share plates were forgotten, silverware wasn’t re-set, orders went on wrong checks.  Basically the whole night was me screwing up, apologizing, then screwing up again.  Also, I learned that people who only drink water or iced tea ask for more re-fills than anyone else. 

 

Finally, the end of the night arrived and all I wanted to do was go home, curl up in bed, and cry away any dignity left. I did my checkout, which took forever because my brain was mush and I was missing a credit card receipt.  My manager fixed it and, for reasons still unknown, didn’t fire me.  All total I had four tables leave no tip and the rest were barely 15%.  Walking outside to the parking lot, a couple of my coworkers were hanging out smoking cigarettes.  In an instant, everything changed.

 

They heard it was my birthday and knew I had been beaten up by the night.  We walked to a nearby park where the rest of the night’s crew was just chilling in the dark with a cooler of beer.  This is when I learned the other side of the restaurant business, the camaraderie of the staff that exists elsewhere only in the military, police stations, firehouses, and theatre companies.  We had such a great time I completely forgot how awful I felt just a few hours earlier.  The rest of that summer was the most fun I’d ever had.

 

Little did I know I’d stay working in this business after all these years.  Like so many others, waiting tables and bartending would be a means to an end.  A way to pay my bills, pursue my dream of making it as an actor, all at the same time.  Well, the acting didn’t work out, but there’s always another restaurant.  I’ve grown to love all sides of the industry, especially the new trends happening in Los Angeles and across the country.  With gourmet food trucks, farm to table gastropubs, whole animal butchery, classic restaurants re-inventing themselves, and pop-ups creating lines down the block, the food scene in L.A. is booming.  And I’m going to be here to tell you where to go. 

 

I’m not here to tell you what’s trending or where to be seen.  This is not about how to get on the list at that place you want to take your friends from back home, showing them how cool you’ve become since high school.  That’s not what this is about, and just being real, I’ve never been cool enough to get on any list.  I love restaurants and bars, it’s as simple as that.  I’m going to be finding those gems and sharing their stories with you.  Some will be spots you may have already heard of, others will be way off the beaten path.  What they’ll all have in common is being worth the time, effort, and money required to enjoy a night out.  From Venice to downtown, over to Boyle Heights and on up to Pasadena, there’s a lot of ground to cover in this town with plenty of stops along the way. 

I hope you’re hungry.

-Joe Corgan