Pinkberry: I’m not a groupie…really!

For many months now, folks have been buzzing all over town about Pinkberry, the new frozen yogurt craze that is “swirling” the nation.  When I discovered it’s origins in West Hollywood, I thought to myself “OMG! It’ll be totally radical dude!”

Well, not really. I was sure it would highlight the plasticity that is Los Angeles. Just looking at the website made me cringe a little (and turn off my computer speakers). Pinkberry’s marketing strategy focuses on three things; happy, peppy employees, store design and atmosphere and a great product.  They are community-concsious (like most of our local businesses), but it comes with that California pretension and, well…insincerity.

When I visited the first New Orleans location on Magazine Street yesterday, I was not at all surprised by the clientele packing the tiny shop.  The parking lot was a money-scented slew of BMW’s, Lexus and Mercedes and their owners carried Louis Vuitton purses and wore Moss Lipow sunglasses. I suppose I could also blame that on the Whole Foods across the street, but it was still unnerving.  Every single person who walked through those spotted lime-green doors oozed affluence and an innate sense of privilege.  It all felt so elitist…so materialistic…so very California.

In my mind this shop represented everything New Orleans wasn’t. New Orleans is wonderfully down to earth and folks take you for who you are, not who you are trying to be.  They’d love to share a meal or a drink and it doesn’t matter one whit that you drove a beat-up Pinto to get there.

My only problem now is that not welcoming a unique shop like Pinkberry would be very inhospitable and very unlike New Orleans. Well, that and the fact that the yogurt rocks!

A novel classic: The Mexicali Rose

On 7th and Clay in Oakland, California lives what is touted as the oldest Mexican restaurant in the Bay Area, the Mexicali Rose. Open since 1927, this classic restaurant was completely unknown to me until just this past weekend. During the 33 years that I lived in the Bay Area, I had become familiar with many of the cities, from San Francisco to San Jose and there were very few towns that I had not explored. Oakland just happens to be one of them. I can’t tell you how cool it was to visit my friend Shalom in a Bay Area city where I felt like a newbie as opposed to an old hack.

In New Orleans, Shalom and I used to go out for a huge breakfast at 5 am after a hard night of drinking and it seemed to me that Mexicali Rose is the Mexican equivilant of St. Charles Tavern.  The food may not be spectacular but there was a lot of it for a great price in a comfortable atmosphere.

We pulled into the small parking lot outside the Mexicali Rose at around 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday night.  The restaurant was full of diners crammed into red leather booths with wood-flavored Formica tables, a stark reminder of late 60’s and early 70’s decor.  I couldn’t help grinning at the walls featuring large murals of Incan-like art (also very 70’s) as we slid into a large circular booth in the corner…the only one that would hold a party of five and reserved, as it seemed, just for us.

We were immediately served tortilla chips and a searing hot salsa. Someone requested a pitcher of margaritas as we browsed the menu.  From their a la carte options, I selected the Chicken Enchilada with Chile Verde sauce while my friends ordered Pork Burritos, combination plates of Chicken Enchiladas and fresh Tacos. We also put in an order of guacamole, a must-try according to my friends. I have to admit, I was a bit fuzzy on the other orders since my friends had showered me with libations before we even arrived at the restaurant.

Along with more tortilla chips, a huge pile of guacamole topped with grated jack cheese was brought to the table and no one hesitated before grabbing a chip and digging in.  It proved to be fairly tasty and chunky with avocados.

My eyes popped when I saw my friends’ entrees arrive. The burritos were easily as big as my head! At only $8 a plate, Shalom and Scottie’s entrees could easily provide them with sustenance for several days.The burritos were tasty too, loaded with chunks of moist pork, lots of melted jack cheese, rice and refried beans. My enchilada was a much more manageable size, not to mention slathered with a tasty chile verde sauce that was tangy and plentiful, which I preferred over the red sauce on Shalom’s burrito.

Although we couldn’t help but giggle a bit at the “classic” atmosphere and our handwritten “reserved” sign posted on binder paper, the Mexicali Rose is, nonetheless, a great spot for affordable Mexican food in Oakland…especially late night. We ordered another round of margaritas (heavy on the salt!) and discussed where to head next. The night had only barely begun…

Much needed serenity at the Japanese Tea Gardens

In the past month, I discovered that my father’s health was rapidly deteriorating. Through the years, he’s endured asthma, emphysema and two triple-bypass heart surgeries. After several frantic telephone calls and too many unanswered questions, I returned to my birth city of San Mateo to be with my family during this difficult time and to more closely monitor my father’s condition. On the day I left Louis Armstrong Airport headed for San Francisco International, my dad was admitted into Peninsula Hospital after they discovered he had a blood infection. Before he was admitted, his condition was so bad that he couldn’t walk at all and could barely form his words.

In the past couple of days, I have watched the color return to my father’s face and strength return to his limbs after being treated intravenously with antibiotics. Being the father of four children (and two grandchildren), plus being the “alpha” male among his brothers and cousins, when my father loses strength, it’s like the entire family feels a loss of stability. My mother and sister were especially affected in their daily efforts to care for him and interpret what the doctors meant behind all of their words, but we all needed a break when the smoke had finally cleared.

We decided to take advantage of an unusually gorgeous day (summers in the Bay Area are notoriously cold) and visit the Japanese Tea Gardens in San Mateo’s Central Park.

Although I hadn’t visited this gem in at least 20 years, it seemed like the perfect outing. As we entered the wooden gates to the garden, I almost gasped…I had almost forgotten how beautiful they were.

A landscape architect from the Imperial Palace of of Tokyo designed the Tea Garden for the city of San Mateo back in the mid 60’s commemorating its designation as a “sister-city” to Toyonaka, Japan. The garden features bamboo groves, a tea house, a granite pagoda and a large koi pond. The flora is gorgeous at any time of year, but it is especially impressive in the springtime and winter.

Although the Japanese Tea Garden is located right in the heart of downtown San Mateo, there is an overwhelming sense of peace and tranquility present in this more intimate version of the gardens in San Francisco. Many people have weddings here and it’s easy to understand why.

My sister, mother, niece and I wandered around the little paths, crossed the small wooden bridges and peered into the waters of large koi pond. Strolling through these simple, yet elegant surroundings did a lot to help us renew and regenerate after the stress of almost constant uncertainty. I could feel the tension draining from my sister and mother as we enveloped ourselves in its serenity.

Next time, I hope we can bring my dad too.