Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Retro Russian River

I've spent much of the summer up at Sonoma County's Russian River, which seems to undergo transformations every few years (the latest is an influx of San Francisco-style hipsters, including some fine chefs). But some things never change.

Take Johnson's Beach, where the annual Jazz and Blues festival is happening this weekend. You can still drive down to Johnson's and park for free.You can spend a lazy day on the river's rocky shore. Bring a picnic and nibble all day. Wander over to the snack bar for a beer and a burger, splash in the water and, when the sun gets too hot, rent a big beach umbrella and have one of the young staffers set it up for you.

You also can rent inner tubes, paddle boats, canoes or kayaks and paddle under Guerneville's two side-by-side bridges (the old one from the 1920s is pedestrian-only).
Inner tubes are big at the river and may be the most fun. Kids get a bunch of them, stack them up and plop around for hours.

Hamburgers and hot dogs are only $3 and a big vanilla Frostie soft ice cream cone is $2.

It's still a family-run operation as it has been since 1918. At the snack bar is 92-year old Claire Harris,who cheerily serves up beer and rents the canoes and kayaks. Just like when I was a kid, a while ago.

And, from chatting with others, it's a generational thing: people came here as kids and bring their kids and grandkids to Johnson's today. Maybe it's the old-time atmosphere but even teenagers seem to pick up the vibe: you don't see them glued to their smartphones and electronic gadgets.
Around 6 p.m. Claire gets on the loudspeaker and announces that it's quitting time.
Then he puts on the sweet old tune "It's Only a Paper Moon" which is background music as the crowd, including tired, sunburned kids and slow-moving adults who reluctantly rise from chairs and sleepily from their towels, makes its way up the dusty hill to head back to their cars and to home.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Edible Oakland: Temescal Treats

Edible Excursions, which has been exploring San Francisco neighborhoods and finding the most interesting and delicious food offerings for several years, expanded to Oakland's Temescal recently and its timing couldn't have been better.
Lisa Rogovin, the company's founder, has been running regular San Francisco tours and in the East Bay in North Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto but the new programs to Temescal cover a burgeoning food mecca not yet known to many Bay Area foodies. It won't stay that way for long.
By the month it seems new eateries are springing up along Shattuck and Telegraph avenues in this once-blighted area that is drawing refugees from San Francisco's high rent districts.
The tour has already gotten favorable national press, including in Forbes, and in local media.
On a recent Sunday morning, I joined Edible Excursions at the bustling Temescal market, one of several Urban Village Farmers Markets, in the DMV parking lot at 5300 Claremont Ave., where we sampled the spectacular Kouign Amann, a delectable croissant-like French pastry, from Starter Bakery (upper left) and tasty fish tacos and agua fresca from Cholita Linda stands.
Then it was onto the streets of Temescal, where Sunday mornings are quiet but you nonetheless get a feel for how the area has been transformed with the spruced up storefronts along Shattuck and Telegraph.
Along a row of former Oakland fire department horse stables on 49th street is a charming lane called Alley49 lined by several very hip and cool places to stop, including pint-sized The Cro Cafe, which serves shots of strong, dark Sightglass Coffee, and Doughnut Dolly (right), where friendly servers fill scrumptious doughnut holes with cream or jam to order as you wait.
The main drag of Telegraph along Temescal has some wonderful well-known restaurants and eateries, including Bakesale Betty, Pizzaiolo, Dona Thomas and Genova Deli (where the lines are long but whose artichoke frittata has no equal).
Save those for later: this tour focuses on newer and lesser-known places.
You'll sit a while at cozy two-year-old Sacred Wheel, a cheese and specialty market that offers Virginia country ham, and have a half of grilled cheese sandwich with a small bowl of tomato soup. Then you'll hit several ethnic restaurants, including the colorful new Juhu Beach Club, where chef Preeti Mistry uses local and organic produce to serve up savory Mumbai street food based on her mother's recipes.
Temescal has been home to wave after wave of immigrants (a few remnants of mid 20th century Italian-American community remain, including Genova Deli and an Italian social club) and more recently it has drawn thousands of Ethiopians and Koreans. There's a mind-boggling array of ethnic restaurants to choose from.
The tour stops at Abesha, where participants mingle with Ethiopians stopping in for lunch after church, indulging in a variety of appetizers, such as sambussas (pastries filled with lentils, onion and peppers) and the traditional Ethiopian spicy stews of meat and vegetables scooped up with injera, the sponge-like bread.
At Sura Korean, which opened in 2007 and specializes in natural ingredients and lighter fare than standard Korean restaurants, we dove into a large sampling of kimchee (photo at right) and an outstanding tofu soup and then headed back out to the warm Oakland sun to explore a bit more on our own before heading home.
Edible Excursions' Temescal Tastes tour operates Sunday mornings 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
The cost is $75 per person. Check it out to discover this up-and-coming neighborhood that you'll be hearing a lot about in the coming years.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Point Bonita Lighthouse on a Full Moon Evening

Tunnel leading to the lighthouse
There are bucket lists for the big events and adventures in life and then there are lists of things to do locally that you never seem to get to: visiting Point Bonita Lighthouse was one for me.  This winter -- on a crisp, clear evening when a golden full moon rose over San Francisco -- I joined a group for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area's monthly evening walk to the lighthouse. It's an adventure, about a half-mile walk down a steep cliff-side trail from a remote Marin headlands parking lot that itself seems perched on the edge of the continent.
But it gets better. You walk through an 118-foot hard-rock tunnel, hand carved by workmen in the late 1800s and reach another point where a white suspension bridge stretches over a gap in the cliffs, the surf pounding far below.
The park service recommends dressing warmly and bringing a flashlight and that can't be emphasized enough. It's cold out there and, even with a bright moon glow, it's dark after sundown.
The views are awesome and unforgettable, with the the lights of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco to the east, the coastline extending south to Half Moon Bay and beyond  and the vast, sparking Pacific to the west. 
There's much fascinating history to learn about, including the lives of the lighthouse keepers, but much of it is grim: the many shipwrecks in the treacherous fog, sometimes so dense that even the lighthouse's powerful lens was invisible from below. 
The lighthouse, built in 1877, is still in use today, operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. It's the only lighthouse in the U.S. to be reached by suspension bridge, a narrow strip that sways with foot traffic (not for those prone to vertigo), rebuilt in the last two years. The crossing of the bridge, the crashing surf on the rocks and shore far below, is one of the memorable parts of the evening.
Docents who lead the monthly full-moon hikes describe the history, geology and the flora of the rugged landscape -- and they throw in an astronomy lesson when the stars twinkle in the evening sky.  
Point Bonita is also open for visits during limited daytime hours (Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays 12:30 p.m.-3:30 p.m.) but try to nab a spot on one of the full-moon walks. Make reservations a couple of months in advance because there is a 40-person limit and the groups fill up quickly. Apparently, it's on many Bay Area residents' local bucket lists, and for good reason.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Fireworks, Drums, Dragons

It's the time of year for San Francisco's biggest celebration: the annual Chinese New Year parade this Saturday February 23, starting at 5:15 p.m. from Second and Market streets (up Geary, then Powell and Post) to Kearny and Jackson in the heart of Chinatown.

Expect almost 100 floats, marching bands, drum groups, fireworks, lions and, of course, the long colorful golden dragon to cap it all off in a San Francisco tradition that dates from the Gold Rush days.

Grant Avenue will be abuzz with a street fair 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, sidewalks along Stockton Street even busier than usual with holiday shoppers and cavernous dim sum restaurants packed -- all in celebration of the Year of the Snake.

My San Francisco Chinatown travel app -- a guide to the neighborhood's historic sites, shops, restaurants and old alleyways -- has been updated for the occasion with more photos and entrees than before. Maps, contact information and links to websites are included.

It's available for iPhones and iPads in iTunes and also in the Android store. (However, the updated Chinatown app won't be ready until March 2 for Android).

Gung Hay Fat Choy!