Calgary Restaurant Review: Bread & Circus

Art made for Bread & Circus

For my birthday weekend in Calgary, I had planned several meals based around available happy hour menus. One of the places that popped up during my search was Bread & Circus. It’s tucked away on 17 Avenue — a favourite area whenever Kirk and I visit the city — behind Una Takeaway on 6 Street.

The interior of Bread & Circus keeps your eyes moving.

I mean, anyone who walks into Una Takeaway will see the restaurant entrance right there, but it still kind of retains an in-the-know hideaway feeling when you show up for your reservation (booked through Resy). Prior to being seated, our winter coats were taken and hung up for us. We were then led to a table for two that was tucked into a small nook across from the chef’s bar.

As it turns out, only select items from the antipasti and pasta options were included as part of happy hour, but it was enough to satisfy us. NOTE: It seems that happy hour has changed since our visit as they now offer a daily $5 menu of house wine, specific cocktails and food items between 5:00pm to 6:00pm.

When we were at Bread & Circus, cocktails were on special for $6 each and certain marked plates were half off (costs listed here are regular price, unless otherwise indicated). That included their Garlic Bread ($7), Amatriciana ($19), Carbonara ($20), and Beef Carpaccio ($14).

The Pomme Pomme

The Pomme Pomme ($10) was a tall cocktail mix of Calvados, Gifford’s Ginger Liqueur, and lime juice, making for a refreshingly tart beverage with a hint of spice at the back of the throat. Very smooth and easy drinking.

The Beef Carpaccio was presented first, and it was superb. The paper thin, circular slices of bright red meat were generously covered with broccolini salsa verde, shaved mimolette cheese, and puffed farro. The salsa was creamy and cooling on the palate. The hard orange-hued cheese was nutty and slightly salty, pairing well with the florets of broccolini, and the puffed farro added a little bit of crunch. So many textures and distinct flavours came together to make one fantastic dish. Even Kirk, who does not like raw meat, ate his fair share of this one (citing the beef actually looked fresh and appetizing to him because of the colouring), and we ended up ordering a second plate.

Amatriciana pasta in the forefront with the Garlic Bread in the back.

Before we even got our first order of Garlic Bread, Kirk decided that we should get two, so again, another was requested. There’s a reason why this is charged at $7 each though. It’s because it’s a whole loaf of freshly baked, warm pull-apart bread. The outer crust was a tad dry in spots and sort of subtly flavoured throughout. That is, until you get to the portion where they stuffed it with the garlic butter. Then it turns into a potently garlic treat. I devoured almost my entire loaf, careful to eat all of the parts doused in that butter and leaving behind the drier bits.

Carbonara

The two of us split the Amatriciana and Carbonara pastas. Both were delicious. Yet, they were also kind of similar. The only difference was the type of sauce that each came with. Their Amatriciana is technically made with bigoli noodles — still a thick, round pasta that I couldn’t really tell apart from the spaghetti used in the Carbonara — tossed in a traditional tomato sauce, chilies, and pecorino romano. The Carbonara is prepared with a creamy white sauce made using a farm egg and cracked pepper before being topped with more pecorino romano. Each of the plates was elevated with the same protein of crispy pancetta. Either way, I’d order both again. Incredibly simple in execution, but perfectly al dente noodles and deep, rich flavours in the sauces.

Caramelized popcorn as a parting snack.

By the time we finished all of that food, we were so full. I would have loved to try dessert, but I just couldn’t fathom eating anything else. Thankfully, a tiny dish of caramelized popcorn was dropped off with our bill, so I got a little taste of sweetness to cap our meal.

From the fun, secretive nature of Bread & Circus and the eclectic decor to the friendly service and the wonderful food, I’d say that this is definitely a spot to visit if you live in Calgary or find yourself there for work or play. In a heartbeat, I’d recommend it, especially for that stellar beef carpaccio.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: OEB Breakfast

The entrance to OEB Breakfast.

Maybe I’m a little bit sheltered. After all, I’m not in Southern Alberta all that often, and, until a location opened here around the end of October, OEB Breakfast wasn’t on my radar in the least. But, supposedly, this Calgary-born restaurant is quite celebrated in and out of it’s hometown. OEB, which stands for Over Easy Breakfast (kind of redundant with the second “Breakfast,” no?), decided to expand north.

The owners insist that the business open only until 2:45pm daily to emphasize the importance of the first meal in the day. It’s often one that I skip (I know…). Nevertheless, I’m a sucker for things like bacon and poached eggs when I do partake. Since the breakfast/brunch joint was introduced to Edmonton, my social media feeds have been littered with droolworthy images of their food on a regular basis.

From what I gathered, OEB Breakfast was apt to get busy quickly on weekends. So, I was prepared when making the trek there myself. With an 8:00am start on Saturday and Sunday, I insisted that Kirk and I arrive early. If needed, I’d join the Yelp Waitlist on the way there. The service is a tool that the eatery utilizes to mitigate a giant crowd at their doors. Ultimately, it wasn’t necessary for us, but it’s good to know that it’s available.

The interior is definitely egg themed.

We made it to OEB Breakfast just before 9:30am and, thankfully, there was no line up. A table had just cleared and after a cleaning, we were seated to the left side of the entrance towards the far end. A large mirror hanging on the opposite wall allowed me a view of the rest of the space. Bright white throughout with shots of orange and sunny colours as well as egg themed light fixtures and giant rooster/chicken sculptures. The kitchen was completely open to the elements.

As we eyed the menu, I observed how many early risers there were. Pretty much every seat was occupied and they had gotten there well before us. I don’t often drag myself out of the house before ten o’clock on a weekend for anything. It seems that OEB Breakfast was an exception.

Mimosas!

Our server came over to take our drink order. I had my heart set on a mimosa. Coming with either orange, pineapple, grapefruit, or mango juice, they were a steal when priced at $5 a glass. Sadly, I was told that they didn’t yet have their liquor license, so they weren’t able to serve their listed alcoholic beverages. I do hope that this is no longer the case, considering it has now been two months since our meal. Anyway, with that realization having sunk in, I then proceeded to ask them about their juices because sometimes a glass of fresh squeezed juice is ideal. But, at $5.50 for an order, it better truly be fresh. To that, I was told that the juice is fresh; however, it’s not prepared there. They get it delivered from another company. That was kind of weird to me. If you don’t squeeze it yourself, how do you know it’s actually fresh? Learning that, I just opted out of drinks entirely and we both sat there with cups of water.

The selection of food is fairly extensive, ranging from standards to a number of breakfast dishes with twists. Broken out into categories like Farm Fresh, Blue Plate Specials, Breakfast Poutines, Benny’s, Omelettes, Sandwiches, Sweets, and Sides, there’s something for everyone. Kirk tends to go for more traditional options. This time though, he surprisingly got something other than a classic breakfast by ordering the Pulled Chicken Frittata ($19). I’d heard that OEB Breakfast was famous for their poutines. Therefore, I chose the Gold Digga ($20) and I added the Chicken Blueberry Bangers ($4).

Pulled Chicken Frittata

Starting with the Pulled Chicken Frittata, this was not served open-faced like it should have been. It was still folded like an omelette. The smoked chicken was more plentiful than I thought, but it tasted rather bland and there was definitely not enough fresh mozzarella. Severely under-seasoned, if you ask me. The best part was the semi dried tomatoes because they provided a shot of concentrated flavour. It came with a slice of toast, hash browns, and prettily presented fruit. In my opinion, this frittata isn’t worth ordering again.

Chicken Blueberry Bangers

My Chicken Blueberry Bangers, sourced from Spondin, Alberta, were lean and subtle in taste. I guess a plus was that they weren’t salty. My main issue was that they cooled incredibly fast. I stopped to take a couple of photos of the food and the sausage had lost all heat by the time I cut them open a few minutes later.

The Gold Digga Breakfast Poutine was the best thing I had, and I now understand why those bowls are so popular. They’re probably the best bang for your buck at OEB Breakfast. With huge portions and quality, premium ingredients, they are delicious to a point. In particular, the Gold Digga comes with poached eggs (soft is the only way to go), herb potatoes, Quebec cheese curds, bacon lardons (the online menu now lists Berkshire roast pork…not sure if that’s a recent change), black truffle, and hollandaise. I have to say that, upon reaching the bottom of the dish, I found the flavours sort of tiresome. At the beginning of my bowl, I was impressed by the rich truffle, creamy hollandaise, and perfectly fried bacon lardons. It eventually just got to be too much of the same. Regardless, if I return to OEB Breakfast, the Hog & Scallops poutine is the next on my list to try.

When our meal was over, only an hour had passed. Yet, due to the cold weather, the doorway was jam packed full of people who took up every nook and cranny they could find. There was no allotted waiting area taken into account when building the restaurant, leading to an incredibly crowded zone that would probably be considered a fire hazard. Guests, looking to stay warm inside while waiting, encroached on the personal space of diners seated around the front. I’m so glad that we hadn’t been given a table in that section.

It was a challenge to pay the bill, too. Servers do not bring machines to your table to take payment. You have to take your bill to a counter, inconveniently set up to the right side of the eatery entrance. That day, there was no way to get to it by going past the kitchen (too busy with staff), so we squeezed past all of those people at the door. In all honesty, it crossed my mind that it’d be so easy to dash and dine there. Of course, we would never, but seeing as how we literally had to pass by the exit to get over to the counter, and there were all of those other people blocking us from view, it would have been a piece of cake.

We did it though. We made it to the other side and someone showed up right away to put our charges through. The staff member thanked us for visiting, and we then happily squeezed back through the onslaught of patrons to breath some crisp, “fresh” downtown air.

I definitely found OEB Breakfast to be a hit and miss on this occasion. Based on this single experience, I can’t say I’m as in love with the place like so many others seem to be. Nonetheless, I’m not going to completely write it off. Perhaps a weekday visit is in order. It’s only a couple of blocks from my office and they actually take reservations during the week. Should a Saturday or Sunday drop-in be required, it’ll be planned for the early morning to avoid the wait and the throng of other people.

Calgary Restaurant Review: WURST (Brunch)

WURST is modern from the outside.

Flashing back to the beginning of December, Kirk and I were on our weekend getaway to Calgary. While we were visiting, I had planned several food outings. This included a Saturday morning brunch at WURST, available on weekends and holidays from ten o’clock in the morning to 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Located in the Mission district at 2437 4 Street, it was easy for us to get to by car (about a five minute drive) from Hotel Arts where we were staying.

I’d seen photographs of the place online, but, I have to say that the photographs don’t really do the place justice. The size of the interior is immense and I love the whimsical live trees growing in the center of the street-level room. We showed up for our OpenTable reservation and we were actually seated under one of the canopy of leaves (admittedly, somewhat dusty), which were decorated with string lights and Christmas ornaments. The bar stretches lengthwise across the room parallel to a handful of booths on the opposite side.

The bar is a nice focal point of WURST.

Towards the back of the eatery in a somewhat more private area, a large group of moms and their tots were having a gathering. Despite the occasional loud crying and shrieks from the children who ran rather rampant throughout the space, we managed to have a fairly enjoyable meal. The ambiance, through no fault of the restaurant, left a lot to be desired. Thankfully, the service and the food saved our morning.

Belgian Breakfast

Kirk went with the Belgian Breakfast ($19), which is a pretty typical plate of three eggs cooked to your liking with bacon, bratwurst, back bacon, house cut hash browns, Belgian waffle, and maple syrup. I mean, protein galore! The over easy eggs were perfectly prepared with hints of the yellow yolks emanating from behind thin layers of whites. The bratwurst and crispy bacon were delicious, too.

 

I always like to go for something classic with a twist. In this case, WURST makes their bennies using fresh baked cheese biscuits as the base rather than the usual English muffin. That made all the difference in the world with my Smokehouse Beef Eggs Benedict ($17) because I’m not a fan of English muffins. When broken, the soft poached eggs were beautifully runny, coating the shaved smoked beef brisket sitting beneath it. Super smoky and flavourful, the balsamic onion jam provided a touch of sweetness and the roasted mushrooms added an extra layer of texture and earthiness. Classic hollandaise finished it off. It also came with a side of the house cut hash browns and mixed greens. Overall, this was an excellent value and example of what their kitchen is capable of.

In addition to the food, we also took advantage of their $5 beverages. Kirk got a Caesar and I indulged with an orange Mimosa. Kirk commented that the Caesar, presented in a short glass, tasted like it didn’t have any alcohol in it, so I’m not sure if that will be for everyone. Nevertheless, I thought the mimosa was standard and acceptable for the price.

When we finished our meal, we wandered into the basement to take a look around. It’s set up exactly like a few of the German beer halls that we frequented on our trip to Munich last year, so it brought back some fond memories for us. Downstairs, they also have lockers that regular patrons can rent as storage space for their beer steins, which is a fun element.

WURST Brunch Menu

In the future, if we find ourselves back in Calgary, we wouldn’t hesitate to return to WURST for another meal. We’d happily do brunch again or maybe check it out for dinner next time.

Calgary Restaurant Review: Elbow Room Brittania

Happy Hour at Elbow Room Britannia

To celebrate my birthday this year, Kirk and I decided to take a page out of another local blogger’s book. Linda Hoang (a.k.a. Lindork) had gone on a road trip adventure to southern Alberta courtesy of Tourism Calgary. We followed suit, reserving a 2-night shopping package at Hotel Arts. For each evening we stayed, we received a voucher to be redeemed towards a $75 gift card at our choice of three malls — CrossIron Mills, CF Chinook Centre, or The CORE — meaning, for our mini holiday, we received $150 to spend (this deal is still on until February 28, 2019).

That turned out to be a really nice perk, and it was our major plan for our time in Calgary. We ended up going through the majority of our money within the first several hours of our extended weekend. Therefore, shopping was put on the back burner quite quickly . The rest of our time was broken out into memorable meals, including our initial stop at Elbow Room Brittania (802 49 Avenue SW).

There are so many fantastic restaurants in Calgary, but I really wanted to be able to keep within a decent budget. To help save or, at the very least, get the best bang for our buck, I made several reservations based on eateries that offered happy hour options. Elbow Room was one of those (2pm to 5pm, Tuesday to Friday; drinks and food starting at $5 each).

Elbow Room Britannia happy hour menu.

Located in Britannia Plaza, there are two stories available to patrons. The open kitchen seems to be situated on the lower-level, and the bar is upstairs. The mint green walls give the space a modern-vintage feel, and the big windows allow light to flow in. Kirk and I arrived mid-afternoon for a late lunch, and took full advantage of the discounted items by ordering Fries ($5), Brussels Sprouts ($6), Arancini ($8), Carpaccio ($8), Humboldt Squid ($8), Burrata Rossa Pizza ($12), and Tiger Prawns ($15). Had we been there outside of happy hour, we would have paid about $120 before tax and tip for the same items. The portion sizes seemed to be standard, not shrunken in order to alleviate the costs on their part, and, in total, it was about half the price for us.

Humboldt Squid

I’ll begin with the dish that was somewhat of a letdown. The Humboldt Squid was made from what came across as processed strips of the cephalopods. The lightly tempura battered pieces were pleasantly crisp, but the spongy texture of the squid wasn’t ideal. Although I do like other types of pickled vegetables, I have an aversion to typical cucumber-style pickles in the vein of dill or bread and butter flavours. The squid was covered in slices of pickle, which saturated the outer shell pretty quickly. Otherwise, the sweet and sour harissa (a Moroccan ketchup/chili paste) provided a different take on a cocktail sauce, and the lemon dill yogurt provided a cooling balance.

The perfectly prepared Fries were plentiful. Crunchy with a soft middle, these were elevated with three different dips: ketchup, gochujang mayo, and truffle mayo. I tried not to fill up too much on the cuts of potato, but it was hard not to snack on them when they were sitting in front of me the entire time.

Brussels Sprouts

Brussels Sprouts have fast become one of my top veggies. I love how the tightly packed heads can be flavoured with a variety of seasoning, cheeses, sauces, or oils. The outer leaves char up when fried, and they soften slightly while still retaining bite. The serrano pepper crema and sharp cheddar were excellent accompaniments, but what I think took these a notch further was the use of lemon, giving it a zest and acidity that I’d never seen utilized in Brussels sprouts in the past.

Burrata Rosa Pizza

As far as pizzas go, the Burrata Rossa was quite delicious. We were already nearing full by the time it was presented. Somehow, we still managed to eat half of it. The Neapolitan dough was thin and crisp, allowing for that helpful fold upon devouring. The San Marzano tomato sauce tasted light and fresh, and there was a decent amount of prosciutto. The only thing Kirk and I both thought was a little out of place were the ribbons of basil. In small quantities, the hints of mint and licorice can work. Here, there was just too much of the herb, which overpowered the rest of the ingredients. On the plus side, the huge dollop of burrata cheese in the middle added a sense of decadence with its warm and melty goodness.

The Arancini were orbs of delight. The rice had a wonderfully creamy consistency while still maintaining the grain’s texture. There was a bit of stringy cheese inside, too. The outside was crisp, and the red Thai coconut curry cream was divine. Just the right amount of heat on the palate.

Considering that the Carpaccio is made with Brant Lake Wagyu beef, I was surprised to learn that this plate only costs $13.50 regularly. To get it for $8 during happy hour is a complete steal. I lost count eventually, but I think there were probably about 15 or more slices of beef on the plate. Topped with shallot, arugula, Grana Padano, and mosto cotto (a sweet sauce that I thought was aged balsamic vinegar), I was in heaven. The side of truffled yuzu aioli solidified the umami flavours.

Tiger Prawns

Our top choice during our entire meal was clearly the Tiger Prawns. These were the bomb. The square of crisp sushi rice laid the foundation. Atop that was a beautifully butterflied prawn with a fried, but not greasy, coating. Sesame, scallions, anise soy reduction, and gochujang ebi mayo emphasized the Asian inspired plate. I could have eaten a dozen of those, if I hadn’t stuffed myself with everything else.

What a way to start our food adventures in Calgary. Elbow Room Britannia was definitely a choice that I did not regret. I’d go back in a heartbeat. Not only were the dishes superb, the service was great, too. Hopefully, it’ll be there for a long time to come, as it’ll be a regular haunt for me on future trips to Calgary.

California Dreaming: A San Diego to Los Angeles and Back Road Trip

A photo collage of some memorable moments on this Cali trip!

A photo collage of some memorable moments on this Cali trip!

Making a mad dash through the Edmonton International Airport, we caught our first connecting flight to Calgary. Aside from minimal rest we managed on the planes, it was a blur of a morning that started at 4:30am and didn’t stop until four and a half hours later when we boarded the flight that would take us to San Diego. Needless to say, we were a little bit exhausted as we landed in the golden state. But, as soon as we walked out into the bright sunshine, it was like all of our troubles melted away.

I always like to share my adventures with all of you when I get back. It’s my hope that what I experienced will inspire others to visit and explore things they may otherwise have not, or that my writings and pictures will remind people (in a good way) of their own past vacations.

So, without further ado, here’s a day-by-day recap of the trip that my friend and I took at the beginning of February!

Day 1

Arriving in San Diego before noon, and, having no real plans for the day, we took the shuttle from the airport to the Thrifty/Dollar Rent A Car lot by Harbor Island to pick up our rental vehicle for the week. Despite the rep’s best efforts to talk us into spending extra on a convertible, we stuck with our economy car. The uphill challenged Chevy Spark would be our transportation for the next six full days. Once we drove off the lot, we headed to Little Italy where were were staying in the adorably charming Hotel Vyvant. A small boutique hotel, we occupied one of 23 rooms in the two-storey building. Our two bedroom deluxe suite with kitchenette could have accommodated up to six people with the three double beds that were fit inside. The bathroom was also quite spacious. Compared to the rest of the hotel, the room felt like it could have used a little sprucing up, but it was clean, which was the most important thing. They also provided free bottled water and Wi-Fi. Plus, the included kitchenette housed a small refrigerator and microwave as well as a Keurig machine. For one night, it was more than I could have asked for.

Once we freshened up, we needed to fill our starving bellies. Pinpointing a place just a few blocks away, we wandered in the direction we thought we should go, and, while we didn’t find what we were looking for, Underbelly appeared in our midst. Bustling with people during the lunch rush, it beckoned us inside where we ordered at the till and then planted ourselves at the bar. The casual-cool atmosphere with a bar lined by taps was made even better by the food. My friend ordered the vegetable ramen which combined a variety of succulent mushrooms with asparagus and noodles. The flavour, enhanced by truffle oil, was delicious. I sprung for the tuna tataki and the trio tartar. The albacore tuna tataki was seared just right, giving it the perfect texture. Marinating in a ponzu sauce and accompanied by garlic and daikon sprouts, it was a light dish. My starch came from the trio tartar, which were plated as three squares of steamed rice, each individually topped with hamachi, spicy tuna and salmon and drizzled with sesame oil. Out of the three types of fish, my favourite was probably the hamachi. While I usually like spicy tuna, this one had a lot of kick to it – more than expected – so I would have preferred something a little more subtle.

After lunch, we had planned to stop by the cheese shop that we had spotted across the street. We thought we could pick something up for a wine and cheese supper to be had outside on the adorable patio space of our hotel. Alas, the store wasn’t open, so we continued a couple of blocks down to the waterfront where we walked along the boardwalk and took in views of the Maritime Museum, navy ship and tour boats.

Eventually, we headed back to our hotel where we picked up our car and headed to La Jolla as we were told we could find basking sea lions in the cove. As we ambled towards the beach, we came across the fabulous Bobboi Gelato. Sampling a number of unique flavours, I ended up with a piccolo size (small) cup with a pineapple & basil and goat cheese & grape combination. It was wonderfully refreshing. The rocky beach was tranquil and provided a gorgeous vista of the deep blue water. A quick perusal of the shops in the area landed us at Warwick’s, the country’s oldest family-owned and operated bookstore. My favourite find there: whimsical necklaces with kaleidoscope pendants.

On this particular trip, we decided to get most of our shopping out of the way at the beginning. Instead of going to the outlet mall, we actually ventured to Fashion Valley where they had an Anthropologie store. Honestly, with the Canadian dollar having dropped in value recently, we were inclined to buy a lot less, so we really made a point of being more selective.

Our first day was completed with a return to Little Italy where we ended up at the fantastic Prepkitchen for dinner. The steak tartar was amazing and the squid ink cappellini was incredibly rich with a nice cream sauce that was both savoury and ever-so-slightly tart. Their bartender, Simon, was stellar as well. He conversed with the two of us throughout the night and, before we left, he made us a whole list of recommendations for food and drinks in the city.

Day 2

The next morning we awoke early to take advantage of Hotel Vyvant’s provided breakfast before checking out. A lovely spread of Bread & Cie pastries, granola, Greek yogurt, juice and coffee, I was impressed. It was simple, but everything was yummy.

Probably our most relaxing day out of the whole trip, we headed back towards the waterfront where we boarded a 9:30 Flagship Cruises (tickets purchased through Groupon) boat for a three and a half hour whale watching tour with fantastic guides and volunteers from Birch Aquarium. As we departed from the dock and moved past the shoreline, the clear views turned cloudy and we soon found ourselves surrounded by a dense fog. The most memorable image was seeing a solo fisherman in a small open boat being engulfed by the mist. Perseverance paid off though. About an hour before we turned around, the blue sky and sunshine broke through and we observed a small pod of juvenile grey whales diving under and breaching the surface of the water. We even saw a couple of dolphins and some more sea lions.

The triple threat pork sandwich from Carnitas' Snack Shack.

The triple threat pork sandwich from Carnitas’ Snack Shack.

Leaving the water behind (and a few chilly/windy moments), we took advantage of the time we had to stop for lunch in North Park. Carnitas’ Snack Shack was one of the many places Simon the bartender suggested to us, and he didn’t disappoint. Literally a “shack,” we ordered at the window. When we turned the corner to the side of the shack, I was surprised to see the ample amount of outdoor seating. Our triple threat pork sandwiches were truly a threat to our health, but it was a holiday and we didn’t care. Stacked with pork loin schnitzel, pulled pork, bacon, pepperoncini relish and shack aioli, it was piled high. My only qualm is that the pulled pork is placed at the bottom and the sauce caused the bun to fall apart, which made it a bit difficult to consume. In fact, my friend ended up eating hers with a fork and knife.

As soon as we devoured our meals, we got back into the car and drove to the Hyatt Place San Diego/Vista-Carlsbad where we decided to stay the night because of its proximity to the Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido. The hotel staff could have been a bit friendlier, but rooms were good. Extremely spacious and quiet, I would stay there again if I had plans in the vicinity.

The second big event of the day was our 6pm tour of the Stone Brewery. Arriving quite early, we browsed the gift shop and had a pint in the bistro and gardens before being led away by an indoctrination specialist. For $3, we got to learn about the brewing process and then sample four of their brews. The glass used was ours to take home as a souvenir. Sitting on their outdoor patio underneath the stars while we had dinner afterwards was lovely. Sharing duck tacos, brussels sprouts and mac ‘n beer cheese, I felt full to the brim quickly. It was well worth the visit though.

Day 3

Deciding to take the scenic route on the way to Los Angeles, we followed along the I-5 until we were able to get onto the CA-1, which allows us views of the coast. It was double the time, but it was interesting to see all the beach towns and their differences as we passed by each of them. Four hours later, we successfully made it Santa Monica where we had lunch at The Albright on the pier. My buttery lobster roll was awesome. It tasted super fresh and the flavours were pleasantly subtle.

When we were done eating, we strolled the pier, which is actually smaller than I expected, and then we descended the stairs to the beach where we dipped our feet in the water and kept our eyes peeled for sand dollars. The sound of the water and the waves hitting our feet and legs as we continued down a stretch of beach was so relaxing. I could have stayed there for longer, but we wanted to get into L.A. while it was still relatively light out.

Our initial stop was our hotel in Burbank. Tangerine Hotel, an upgraded little motel with free parking, in the studio area was really cute. Staff were so nice, making sure to point out their complementary coffee/drink machine and the fact that they bring in breakfast pastries from Porto’s Bakery & Cafe in the mornings. We quickly freshened up once we were assigned a room and then we jetted off to Hollywood Boulevard, so my friend could see the hand and footprints at the TCL Chinese Theatre as well as the stars on the Walk of Fame. Since that was a quick detour, we ended up back inside Hollywood & Highland Center for dinner at Cho Oishi. The sushi there was good. Although, compared to what we had during the remainder of our trip, it didn’t really compare.

A night view of L.A. from the roof of the Griffith Observatory.

A night view of L.A. from the roof of the Griffith Observatory.

The cap to our evening was a visit to the Griffith Observatory. A stark white building, it shines even in the darkness. Free to enter, we walked around the exhibits and onto the roof for a wide view of the valley below and a dark, shadowy inkling of where the Hollywood sign was located (why don’t they spotlight the iconic sign at night?). Unfortunately, there was quite a long line-up for a look through the telescope. It would have been really cool, but we didn’t feel like waiting, so we skipped it.

Day 4

This was our most relaxing morning. Even though we still woke up relatively early, we didn’t need to be anywhere until 12:30pm, so we caught up on our emails and played with our tablet apps until we had to leave the hotel. Months after obtaining my pass through Conan O’Brien‘s 1iota ticketing site, we were finally going to see a taping of his show. Just a few minutes away by car, we drove to Gate 8 at Warner Bros. Studio where we parked and then lined up in the cordoned off area on the main floor of the parkade. The organizers recently decided to tighten up the whole process by starting check-in later in the day and, while the line was half full by the time we arrived, it was a quick wait. I’d say we were in and out within 15 minutes – going through security, getting our hand stamped, trading our pass for tickets, wristbands and a number, and having our photo taken – before we were allowed to leave for lunch.

Since we only had a couple of hours until we needed to return to Warner Bros. for the show, we decided to venture over to Universal CityWalk where we ended up at Karl Strauss Brewing Company (Make Beer, Not War). Turns out this restaurant is San Diego based, so it’s funny we tried it in L.A., but it was great to soak in the sunshine on their patio. The tree hugger mac and cheese was decently portioned and yummy, and the Windansea Wheat brew on tap was refreshing. If you’re going to spend a short amount of time at CityWalk between the hours of 11am to 3pm on weekdays, do choose to valet park. If you make a purchase and get your ticket validated by that store/restaurant/cinema, your first two hours are only $2. Plus, the valet service offers free drinks, such as bottled water, coffee or hot chocolate, while you wait for you car.

When we returned to the parkade at Warner Bros., the waiting area was packed with excited people. A small portable souvenir stand was open for business, so we took a gander and I couldn’t resist buying a shirt where Conan was depicted as a bird. Soon after, they started calling up numbers in groups of ten and leading each pack towards the stage. I’d say that whole process took about a half an hour, but they did have a giant basket of mini chocolate bars to hand out to people as all of us entered the set. Once we were all seated, a guy came to warm up the crowd and explain the whole filming process and what was expected of us. Then, right at 4:30, the whole production started and didn’t stop until an hour later. It was so much fun. Guests Jeff Bridges, Lily Collins and Slash with Myles Kennedy were great. The biggest surprise to me was what Jeff Bridges is like in person. He was incredibly laid back; he even led us in an “omming” session where he conducted Conan, Andy Richter, the band and the audience to meditate together. Being that this was my first experience of a taping, I’m sure this is something I’ll never forget. I’d love to go back to L.A. to see someone else’s show, like Jimmy Kimmel Live, or attend a taping of a sitcom.

To finish off our L.A. adventure, we thought we should check out The Grove where the pretty people hang out. Dinner was had at Umami Burger where sides must be ordered separately. The truffle burger was so juicy and flavourful though, and the ketchup with truffle oil was a stellar dip for our cinnamon dusted sweet potato fries. Those calories were minimally worked off with a quick walk around the Farmers Market, and then quickly gained back and then some with dessert from the Sprinkles Cupcakes window. I’d like to thank the lady in line behind us who kept asking her daughter what the phrase of the day was because I then found it on Twitter for all of us to use and, when spoken to the employee, we each received a free cupcake! I opted for two flavours, one lemon and one banana.

With a detour to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills where we just did a quick pass through (all the stores were closed for the evening), we then made our way back to our hotel where we crawled in bed with cups of Stone Brewing Co. beer and watched the episode of Conan O’Brien that we were at (trying to spot ourselves in the split second shots of the crowd). Seeing it on TV was great. Being in the studio during the live taping was one thing, but getting to view the final product was neat, too. Very little was edited out, if anything at all, but the close-up shots of Conan and Andy that we didn’t catch on set had me cracking up in the confines of our room. That’s the magic of film for you!

Day 5

The following day we turned our car south and headed back to San Diego via the I-5. On the way, we sang along to top 40 hits and oldies on the radio and kept an eye out for different state license plates.

Our one stop was in El Cajon for the tour of the Taylor Guitars factory. Highly automated compared to other luthiers, they’ve found ways to make guitars that are consistent in quality and sound while maintaining beautiful craftsmanship. I wouldn’t have known about the free tour, which is offered every weekday at 1pm, if I hadn’t found the suggestion listed on the back of the fantastic San Diego explore series map from AMA. It turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the trip. The information shared by the guide was interesting, and getting to peek at each step of the manufacturing process was cool. All visitors were also invited to test out the guitars hanging in the showroom, so there were a bunch of musicians each sitting on their own stool strumming and singing away.

Knowing we’d need dessert later in the evening, we thought one last Sprinkles Cupcakes run was in order. There was a shop in La Jolla, so we popped in to pick up a couple of cupcakes each. This time I chose the chai latte and the pumpkin flavours. Alas, there was no phrase of the day!

Then we headed to Inn at the Park where the check-in was lightning quick. The only thing that was disappointing was that the price of the stay didn’t include free Wi-Fi; we had to pay extra for that on a daily basis. The only good thing is that the cost of use included two devices, so both my friend and I were able to use the internet. Our two bedroom suite was pretty and super spacious, and, if we were going to be there for an extended stay, the full kitchen would have come in really handy.

When we were home planning this trip, I made an effort to search for a list of the city’s best restaurants and came across San Diego Magazine‘s 2014 compilation. Since the two of us love sushi so much, I wanted to see if we could make it to Azuki, which was the critic’s pick for best sushi. Luckily the restaurant was only a couple of minutes away by car from our home base. Upon entering, I noticed and loved that in the main dining room they were playing Jiro Dreams of Sushi on a wall screen. How appropriate. Although we didn’t have a reservation, they managed to seat us at a table in their cozy enclosed patio space. We even made it in time to order the albacore tuna tataki off of the happy hour menu. The fish was so fresh, and the dish wasn’t overly adorned, which was good because it allowed the fish to be the star. After some deliberation over my main meal, I selected the By the Border and Spicy Scallop rolls. Oh man! It was as if the entire thing, rice included, just melted away in your mouth. As I was eating those, my friend was enjoying the salmon special, which includes five different types of salmon sushi. She liked it so much that I was convinced I needed an order of my own. In all seriousness, this was probably the best sushi I’ve ever had. It was also our most extravagantly priced meal of the trip – four dishes each and a cocktail and I paid about $75 CDN – but it was well worth it. I have absolutely no regrets. It’s on my wishlist to go there again.

The poster for Aziz Ansari: Live! We were close, but not close enough to the stage to get decent photos of him pretending to do stand up using our phone cameras...so, here's the poster, which I obtained from his website. Aziz, please don't hate me.

The poster for Aziz Ansari: Live! We were close, but not close enough to the stage to get decent photos of him pretending to do stand up using our phone cameras…so, here’s the poster, which I obtained from his website. Aziz, please don’t hate me.

The evening’s entertainment led us to Valley View Casino Center (truly one of the dumpiest arenas I’ve been to) to see Aziz Ansari: Live! I guess a special recording of his performance in New York City’s Madison Square Garden is being released on Netflix next month, but I’m glad that I went to the actual show. It was hilarious and everything Aziz brought up – mostly dating and relationships – had that ring of truth to it. One of his biggest jokes still makes me smile every time I think about it. We were even treated to an unexpected, yet very welcome additional set by opener Ron Funches who I knew of from the show Undateable. He has, literally, the most adorable man giggle.

A damp cold and heavy fog thwarted our plan to find a drinking hole with a good view after the show. Instead, we called it a night and headed back to the hotel.

Day 6

Honestly, I’m not sure why I didn’t heed the warnings from reviewers who had stayed at Inn at the Park. As great as the actual accommodations are, the hotel is now part of Wyndham’s timeshare program, so they usually try to talk all short-term guests into attending a presentation. They sucker you into it with the promise of incentives. Since we love free things, they succeeded in getting us to sign up. Our session was only supposed to be 90 minutes and we were supposed to be shuttled back to the hotel by 10:30am, but, despite our constant reminders to the sales representative and his manager, and the fact that we were given a “faster” presentation, we didn’t get out of there until 11am. We actually missed a walking tour that we had already purchased tickets for, so we were a bit livid when we left in an Uber car that they had to pay for to get us back to the Inn because their shuttle driver was nowhere nearby.

The only plus side to that situation was that we did receive a $100 AMEX gift card and two San Diego Zoo passes for putting up with them. Those incentives essentially covered any costs associated with the last day of our trip. I also convinced the manager at the hotel to reimburse us the money we spent on the walking tour (since it was the fault of the presenters that we didn’t make it back in time), so, at the very least, I didn’t lose out monetarily.

A statue across from The Prado at Balboa Park.

A statue across from The Prado at Balboa Park.

With that behind us, we drove to Balboa Park where we had a speedy lunch in the lounge of The Prado. We had heard that the restaurant was beautiful, and, while the smoked salmon flatbread was great, the lounge felt a little chaotic. Unfortunately, it was a Saturday, so it was extremely busy and we didn’t have the time to wait for a table in the main dining room or for the patio. All things considered, the couple that we did share one of the raised tables with were visiting California for their anniversary, and they were lovely to talk to. That was one of my favourite things about this trip: the friendly nature of the people we were lucky to come into contact with.

No first trip to San Diego is complete without a visit to the zoo. Countless people told us that it requires at least a full day, maybe even two, to get through the entirety of the habitats. However, the website, which we checked the evening prior, suggested a minimum of three to four hours to take in the 100 acre zone and its 3,700 animals. That’s basically all the time we had, so we pulled up the map and made a plan to ensure that we wouldn’t miss the animals that we really wanted to see. Starting on the east side of the zoo, we worked our way through by following the various paths. Being a weekend afternoon, the zoo was packed with families, making it a bit harder to maneuver around certain exhibits, but we managed to check off everything on our list of must sees and then some. My top picks were the out-like-a-light koala bears and the happy looking giant pandas. They’re just so darn cute.

With daylight still on the horizon, we made a quick stop at the Botanical Building since it is a famous San Diego sight. The structure is visibly in need of repair, but it is beautiful and the accompanying pond provides a tranquil spot even when surrounded by the buzz of other tourists. Too bad the interior was closed for tours by the time we got there, otherwise it would have been nice to see as well.

A friend of ours suggested that we go to Sushi Ota to eat at some point on our trip, so that’s what we did for dinner. I didn’t realize until now that this restaurant was selected as the readers’ choice for best sushi in that same San Diego Magazine article mentioned earlier. We lucked out that a large party had a few no-shows, so, without a booking, the hostess managed to accommodate us (only for a little over an hour until the next reservation arrived). Another great restaurant where the fish tasted freshly caught, I felt spoiled with amazing food this holiday.

Before going back to our hotel, we made an attempt to stop for drinks at C Level on Harbor Island. One of the great Birch Aquarium volunteers from the whale watching tour earlier in the week recommended it because the views of the water and San Diego skyline are so pretty. The wait for an actual table was over an hour long, so we looked into the bar area, but everyone was packed in like sardines, so we gave up on that idea. Instead, we returned to our hotel, popping into the 7-11 across the street first to pick up a couple of beers. We grabbed glasses from our room and our last cupcakes, taking them to the rooftop patio where we chatted away and made friends with two couples from northern Los Angeles who had offered us amazingly good home smoked cheddar cheese.

The view of the San Diego skyline at night from Harbor Island.

The view of the San Diego skyline at night from Harbor Island.

As usual, we fit in a lot of things on this trip, but it never really felt like we were overdoing it. And, we understood that we could spend more time somewhere if we felt like it was worth it.

On a quick note, Californian architecture blows me away, too. Many of the buildings are somewhat understated, but they’re also very distinct. They’re just simply stylish, and I think the look fits in with the state’s culture and its inhabitants.

For a couple of people who assumed all there would be to do in San Diego was the zoo and Sea World, we were proven wrong. Between the two cities, San Diego seemed more laid back – traffic was better, the people came across as friendlier and it didn’t feel as hyped up – and was preferred to Los Angeles, which was fun, but didn’t feel like it required a longer stay (unless it was to see more late night talk show or sitcom tapings). The more Cali residents we spoke to, the more we we realized how much there actually is to occupy your visit. There were a number of museums located in Balboa Park that we didn’t even have a chance to set foot in. We barely broke the surface and I left thinking another trip to San Diego and along the coast must be in my future.

Tips

Watch where you park in California. They do have quite a bit of street parking available, but you should make sure to read the signs. Some are very specific and it would be a shame to get a ticket for parking in a spot that is available every day except Tuesday because of street cleaning.

If you intend to do anything, take into account added time for travel. Traffic is unpredictable.

Should you take the highway and you have more than two people in the car, go for the car pool lane. There’s a chance it’ll still get backed up, but it tends to flow more freely than the others. Just be aware of when you have to exit because it’s not necessarily the easiest to get through to the far right through four or five lanes.

Definitely get a GPS for your car. You’ll be thankful for the direction.

There are a lot of things that you can do in California that are inexpensive (also a lot that’s not). See what’s available and plan accordingly. Don’t overbook things if you’re not sure you can actually make it.