fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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winter walkabout, part one – fueled by doughnuts

At the start of the New Year, we resurrected plans to act like tourists when we could in any place that wasn’t more than about an hour’s drive away. With long-accumulated lists of points of interest and plenty of restaurants bookmarked in Yelp, it would be easy to head out with only a moment’s notice. From our home, depending on the direction, a one-hour drive can put us in San Francisco, Sacramento, the Sacramento River Delta, the wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties, stands of redwoods or on miles of coastline. This day, Karen and I found ourselves high over the city by the bay soaking in a 215-degree view stretching from the Presido to Diamond Heights.

Cooler weather is a certainty on any January Saturday in San Francisco, a reminder of the bay’s power over local weather. But winters in Northern California offer many sunny days in between storms, enough to remind one that spring and summer will return. Winter daytime highs can be in the 50-65°F range. Lower temperatures are relatively rare. The weather this winter was supposed to be impacted by the climate phenomena known as El Niño. While this implies that California will receive more rainfall, it’s generally not until February or March that we see big storms. That’s why, in January, a forecast of proper sunshine prompted a day trip to visit two of the “hidden” stairways in San Francisco.

Dynamo

The Destination

Making the most of any trip, whether long or short, always revolves around food we can’t get near home. This means no chain restaurants and usually an establishment that’s unique or notable. This morning it meant following cops to doughnuts. Literally.

As the biggest fan of bacon I know, Karen was keen on visiting Dynamo Donut+Coffee to sample the Maple Glazed Bacon Apple doughnut. Hearing that lines form early, we arrived before sunup. In the Mission District along the 2700 block of 24th Street, Dynamo Donut+Coffee sits in an urban canyon of buildings. Sunlight’s different here, and dawn is slow in coming.

Arriving in relative darkness and in need of cash, we missed the Dynamo sign, for obvious reasons explained below. We pulled into the first parking spot that appeared, a rarity in any city and more so in San Francisco. (Only downtown San Mateo seems to be more lacking in on-street parking.) We parked, made a quick run to an ATM and walked in what we thought was the right direction. I joked that we should follow the SFPD Ford Explorer driving parallel to us. Then we saw it.

Apparently, we’d arrived too early. The Dynamo Donut staff was only starting to open up for business when we walked up. Opening for business means pushing open a panel of wood that closes off a small coffee counter facing the sidwalk. We didn’t see the shop because, when closed, there’s nothing to see. Only on the awning are the words “Dynamo Donut + Coffee” in a stylized font too small and too difficult to read when driving by in the dark. The lack of a neon sign is strong evidence that this is a neighborhood joint – the kind of place we like.

Calling the Dynamo shop “minimalist” would be misuse of the word. The store is a simple affair, dominated by a midcentury color scheme of green and yellow, with exposed woods and small tables. There’s a hipster vibe just under the surface and an open kitchen on display. When first approached, it appears to be only a take-out counter stuck in a random wall. Dynamo is not selling atmosphere. It does, however, offer an edible adventure that starts with an unassuming doughnut that is flavored, dipped and coated with sweet or savory ingredients and sometimes both.

Doughnut

The Doughnut of Her Dreams

A conversation with the young guy at the counter reveals that we’ve arrived well before the line forms and that there is seating inside behind unassuming canvas drapes. With excuses – didn’t know if we’d be back, we’d be climbing multiple stairways that day – we ordered four doughnuts: Chocolate Rose, I’m Not a Gluten Chocolate with Raspberry Black Pepper Glaze, Maple Glazed Bacon Apple and Spiced Chocolate. Drinks were fresh-squeezed orange juice for me and jasmine tea for Karen.

The choice of the Chocolate Rose doughnut was in the spirit of adventure; the Spiced Chocolate doughnut just because. Both were good, but we agreed that if we returned to Dynamo, we wouldn’t order them again.

The “I’m Not a Gluten Chocolate with Raspberry Black Pepper Glaze” is a shining example of deftly balancing incongruity. By now we’ve all become blasé about chocolate and chili, so chocolate and pepper isn’t too much of a stretch. Throw in raspberry and wheat-free dough and it becomes interesting. Amazing isn’t too strong a word for this torus of gooey goodness.

We try to eat better nowadays but without outright deprivation. Yes, food is fuel most of the time. But now and then food is part of the experience, the adventure and the reason. Savoring every bite, tranquility overruns my mind as a wave of intense flavors pushes away distractions and muffles noises. There’s nothing but the sweet and the savory, my wife’s voice and the soft comfort of a day without deadlines.

Days like this are too few; when awareness of the now is stark and bright. A promising beginning to a splendid day.

Soon read about the real walking (winter walkabout, part two – finding secret places); coming April 4th.

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the move that prompted a road trip that led to a short vacation

If you think you missed that New Year’s post in which I promise to start afresh — writing more, fishing more and worrying less — don’t bother looking for it because you won’t find it. Any intent to write was muddled by events that ensured there was no distinct end to last year or clear beginning of this year.

Our trip to Washington State wasn’t technically last minute but certainly hasty. A son accepted a position in Seattle and the cheapest option was to rent a second vehicle and haul him and all his worldly possessions up Hwy 5 in a single day. My parents graciously offered a bit of storage space in their garage. Plans were set in motion.

The day before our departure we expected to drop by the boy’s place and load up. His things would be packed, we were told. They were not. It took more than a few hours and 14,000 steps, according to my pedometer, to pack things in our two vehicles. It was a good thing we had upgraded to a rental vehicle one size larger.

Believing that I’m immune to the march of time, I still cling to the idea that the 800-mile drive from home to Seattle’s Eastside could be accomplished in a single day. All it takes a reliable vehicle, about 14 hours and a co-driver willing to quickly empty the bladder. My brother and I did just that some 20 years ago.

We were out the door that first Saturday of the new year as hoped, at 5 a.m. The three of us would rotate between the two vehicles, with more stops at Starbucks than gas stations. (I can’t help but think part of Starbucks’ marketing strategy is to offer clean bathrooms that lure travelers, who buy beverages, requiring a stop at the next Starbucks, where the cycle is repeated.)

Hwy 5 Sunrise

Sunrise somewhere along Hwy 5 in far Northern California.

An experienced traveler knows that the most boring sections of Hwy 5 are from Vacaville to Redding (California), Roseburg to Portland (Oregon), and Castle Rock nearly to Seattle (Washington). Traveling through at least one of those stretches during the dark early morning hours helps, and we didn’t see the sun rise until well past the puddle that is Shasta Lake. The miles droned by but, surprising, we all seemed none worse for the wear when we pulled into Eugene, with a longer-than-expected detour to Papa’s Soul Food Kitchen & BBQ.

As I have noted before, we will drive for food, and when travelling we will make time for food. (Rarely is a conversation among our family members not peppered with food references.) This is a place Karen and I had seen on Diners, Drive-In and Dives and thought to give it a try. We were met there before the 2:00 p.m. opening time by Karen’s friend Michelle and her husband Nik, who made the trip from Portland to join us.

I loved the Louisiana vibe of the place and friendliness of the staff. The food was good, but not worth-a-return great. The hushpuppies were the highlight. The red beans and rice were close to what I recall being served in the French Quarter. The brisket was tender, with a nice smoke ring, but relied on a sauce I found too sweet for flavor. The fried chicken was crispy but lacked zing. We lingered a bit longer than expected amid enjoyable conversation. Maybe it was the pint of Oakshire Brewing’s Original Amber Ale or simply not being on the road. Refreshed, we zipped through Portland with an unusual lack of traffic, even though it was midafternoon.

With the increasing latitude north, darkness came earlier, conflicting with our internal clocks. I’m not certain, but it seems that every trip north I end up stopping, in darkness, at the Toutle River Safety Rest Area 5 miles north of Castle Rock. As rest stops go, I think it’s one of the best and my earliest memory is from 1985. Dad and I were moving to Issaquah in the hope of finding jobs and stopped there, pleasantly surprised to find hot coffee and cocoa thanks to WSDOT’s Free Coffee Program.

Quickly calculating that we could skip the last planned stop for gas, I was soon in the familiar territory of Bellevue and Redmond, followed by the dark rural road that would take us across the Snoqualmie River and into Duvall. The short two-lane segment of N.E. Novelty Hill Road that descends toward the Snoqualmie River floodplain is slow. It twists almost back underneath itself along a steep grade, with no street lights. N.E. 124 Street crosses the river and in my mind Novelty Bridge marks the beginning of something a bit more wild. Perhaps it’s the wide expanses of undisturbed land. Or the seemingly uncontrollable volume of water flowing in nearby rivers. Or the smallness of Duvall’s downtown. It’s been a fleeting but persistent feeling during every visit.

But downtown Duvall was welcoming, with Christmas lights adorning street lamps and brightening our way. We pulled into the parents’ driveway a bit later than planned but not tired enough that we didn’t stay up and visit with Mom and Dad and my brother for at least an hour.

The next day we’d face the reality of being strangers in strange land unpacking the son’s stuff and dropping off the rental vehicle, and then, finally, take time to relax. We’d also learn that flooding is apparently no way to measure the water-wealth of a state.


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in the foothills for food

One of the best things about being willing to travel for food is that the allure of food…or wine or beer…can be the thing that motivates.

The release of monthly wine selection, which we elected to pick up rather than expanding our carbon footprint with door-to-door delivery, led to a last-minute decision to take a road trip last Friday that would loop through the Sierra Nevada foothill towns of Murphys and Jamestown. The last-minute part was a decision to make it a day trip rather than pack, unpack, then pack again for a short weekend stay at the cabin.

Spring Flowers at Ironstone Winery

Tulips at Ironstone Winery

Departure time that often dictates one’s route, and since we’d first stop in Murphys, timing put us in Stockton for breakfast. Yes, that Central Valley town, in the middle of some of the most productive farmland in the world. Yet is isn’t the prototypical farming community. Stockton is a city of 300,000.

When the real estate bubble burst, homes built on cheap agricultural land in and around Stockton — almost within commuting distance of San Francisco — were left empty. Without customers, businesses closed and shopping centers went dark. The construction industry that built both residential and commercial properties collapsed, increasing the rolls of unemployed. Income and property and sales tax revenue fell.

But Stockton is a city with a deep freshwater port handling over $1 billion in product shipment annually. It is home to the prestigious University of Pacific and its 7,000 students. During the boom years the city gained a new ballpark, a city activities center, at least one new hotel, an ice rink and a lovely marina. It’s been described as a slice of Los Angeles minus Hollywood.

Our stop for breakfast was at a restaurant within Stockton’s Miracle Mile Improvement District, three blocks south of UOP. Karen found the Midtown Creperie on our ever-present travel companion, Yelp. Years ago I spend half a week in New Orleans and Midtown Creperie offers any almost Disneyesque décor, and though dark, is complete with Mardi Gras beads at each place setting. The mood set, it was the King Cake crepe for me, with dark chocolate sauce substituted for the white chocolate glaze. Karen ordered an omelet with spinach, sausage and tomato with country potatoes. Per our usual strategy in a new place, we split our meals.

Apparently, I haven’t learned my lesson when it comes to trying a place for the first time, particularly one that specializes. The King Cake crepe was good, but with too much going on — apples, cream filling, chocolate sauce and multicolor sugar crystals — it was tough to judge the foundation of the dish, the crepe itself. It was good, to be sure, but I’d say the great presentation didn’t match the flavor. The omelet was good but the sausage was less present than I would usually hope.

After a 30-minute walk down Pacific Avenue and its eclectic mix of shops, we were headed to Ironstone Vineyards, the home of one of Karen’s favorite everyday wines. Outside planters around the winery always filled with the best-looking plants, and being spring, they were filled with flowers. We’re not extravagant with wine club memberships, but it is nice to walk in and taste all we want without a fee, so we did. A case of Karen’s favorite walked out with us.

We hadn’t planned for lunch, but after walking the grounds at Ironstone and up and down Murphys’ Main Street — and the result of my interest in the beers at Alchemy Market — we ended up at the Alchemy Café next door. My wife had suggested sharing a beer — gotta love her — and I suggested a small appetizer. That didn’t quite work out as expected.

We’d been to Alchemy Café before, and split the Thai Chicken Salad, which was more than enough. The idea was to just have small plate to nosh on. Karen ended up with a nice lamb soup. I ordered the Crispy Fried Calamari and forgot about the awesome and complimentary Alchemy’s Famous Gold Nugget Cheese Bread.

Despite its awesomeness, Karen won’t touch Alchemy’s bread. She doesn’t like cheese. But that’s okay. I got the whole serving of this spicy, heavenly goodness. It’s a foundation of ciabatta bread spread with a fluffy mix of salted butter, corn kernels, chopped green onions, minced serrano chiles, minced garlic, chopped cilantro, shredded white cheddar cheese and Parmesan cheese, the baked until golden brown.

Had I remember the bread would come, I’d have skipped the calamari. However, I’m glad I didn’t.

Then there was the beer. Both the Alchemy Café and the associated Alchemy Market offer a good selection of beer, along with a long list of local and not-so-local wines. I tend to gravitate to local brews, and most local offering on the list that day was
Knee Deep Brewing Co.’s Batch 135 from Auburn. To my tastes, it was a bonus that Batch 138 uses Simcoe hops in addition to three unnamed “C” hops (likely Cascade, Chinook, Columbus or Centennial). It was a good light but hopped up beer, though the Simcoe only served up a pine aroma and wasn’t too dominant in the drinking.

We sipped, talked and noshed. It was a great day.

Oh, there were flowers, too.


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my favorite outdoor food really isn’t mine… (and breakfasts of legend)

This post brought to you by the writing prompt “Share Your Favorite Food
from the Outdoor Blogger Network (OBN)

I’m a food lover.

That’s why it’s difficult to narrow down my list of favorite outdoor foods to a single dish. Or snack cake. Or junk food.

When I’m in the Great Outdoors, usually fly fishing, it’s an opportunity always seized upon to graze freely. Though not out of doors, there’s always In-n-Out on the drive to or from the Family Cabin, the forward base of operations. A short few minutes away is Diamondback Grill. (Yes, we likes our hamburgers, though I favor the buffalo burger, medium rare.)

If I make it to the Eastern Sierras, there’s Bodie Mike’s Barbeque and the Whoa Nellie Deli for sandwiches in Lee Vining. And trips with the club to “The Eastside” come loaded with calories: pork posole stew, pasta, and barbecue beef sandwiches, all washed down with homemade beer.

While the above can be consumed out of doors, none are truly portable in the Great Outdoors.

That said, I’m not afraid of roughing it. I’ve spent time sleeping on rocks under a canvas roof or in the back of a questionable fly fishing vehicle (e.g. minvan). But age brings on a certain requirement desire for comfort. That limits much of my outdoor eating to the time I’m on the water.

Breakfasts of Legend*

Old-School Campsite Grill/Griddle

The source of Legendary Outdoor Breakfasts

I’d be remiss to not mention those breakfasts cooked by dear ol’ dad on the ancient heavy steel griddles that seemed to dot every campground we visited when I was a kid. You know the ones. They were made of ½-inch steel, attached to a matching steel fire ring or two “walls” made of cement and indigenous rocks.

Who knows how long the detritus of the forest — pine needles, sap, bird droppings, dead insects — accumulated on that griddle. But the first morning in camp dad would take a scrub brush to it and stoke up the fire to “sanitize” it. Once only coals were left, the cooking of one of the best outdoor breakfasts began.

There was a specific order to the cooking of this morning repast. Sausage or bacon came first, and a lot of it, to ensure a good layer of grease that was necessary in an era before Teflon®. Then the eggs, popping and sizzling like nothing you’ll see today in today’s non-stick skillets. Last, and certainly not least — and my favorite — bread slathered with real butter and “toasted” in the grease and any bits of eggs still stuck to the griddle. These were the breakfasts of legend.

These days another of my favorite foods is more of a meal: lunch on a guide boat. The phthalo blue of the open water, fresh air carried on a slight breeze, and the ribbing about the last missed hookset become condiments to whatever’s on the menu. Like that awesome pastrami sandwich from the local deli, piled with provolone, pickles and peperoncini on a rustic roll and slathered with spicy mustard. Sure, it tastes mighty good, but even better is that inevitably the “bite” will turn on with a vengeance as I chew that first mouthful.

As alluded to above, the Great Outdoors can lend a flavor to even the simplest of foods. Most of the lunches I toss together before heading to a stream or river are simple. Beef jerky, an apple, water and maybe a granola bar. (The less time taken to assemble lunch means more time on the water.) And every time, that apple carelessly thrown into my vest tastes so much better when eaten streamside — while a hatch starts, of course.

Nowadays, my favorite outdoor food is the one I never finish eating because I’m up on my feet again making that next hookset because the fish are the ones eating a favorite food.


* I believe my brother will whole-heartedly agree that there nothing that compares to our memory of these breakfasts, if not the reality. I think he’d also share my opinion that although there’ve been great breakfasts in the intervening years, there’s still nothing like breakfast cooked outdoors on these griddles, and eaten in the cool morning air of the Sierra Nevada high country.