Adventures in Idaho

Over the holidays, with a rare bit of time off, I was dying to go somewhere, so I told Jan we had to do something (like that for a specific wish list?). He suggested Sun Valley, Idaho—a place neither of us had ever visited, and not too far for us to drive with all our ski gear. Besides, Jan had a coworker who lived nearby who once suggested we visit if we were ever in the vicinity.

It had been a strange weather year with our nearby Sierras still lacking snow, so a good ski vacation seemed perfect for us to finally realize that the season was, in fact, winter.

In typical fashion for us, we embarked without much of a plan. Continue reading

Favorite Day in Morro Bay

Morro Bay, California gets to claim a lot of my favorite days, actually.  For me and Jan, it’s been host to relaxing weekends, our wedding, and even a lunch destination when we were craving fresh seafood and were willing to drive two-and-a-half hours to get it.

This past weekend we stayed at a friend’s beach house in Los Osos to celebrate our four year wedding anniversary.  We escaped the fog in Fresno for sunny and warm weather at the beach, accompanied by lots of great food.

Seagull scavengers at Giovanni's in Morro Bay

Our first stop in Morro Bay was Giovanni’s Fish Market and Galley, home of my favorite clam chowder and Jan’s favorite raw oysters.  The fish and chips is also excellent, and the attached market is the perfect place to buy a half bottle of wine for a picnic in the outdoor seating area overlooking Morro Rock (just remember to bring a corkscrew).  This time, there was something new on the menu that we just had to try: fried Twinkie.  Battered, fried, and topped with a sweet berry sauce, the warm, gooey dessert did not disappoint.

Seaweed salad at Giovanni's

Oysters at Giovanni's
The fried Twinkie

The next stop was Coalesce Bookstore and Garden Wedding Chapel to wander and reminisce in the garden, and report to the folks at the bookstore (and also our wedding officiants) that we are, in fact, still married.  The bookstore is a great place to stop even if you’re not getting married, as it regularly hosts concerts, classes, and of course, offers a great selection of used books.

It was takeout for dinner from Noi’s Little Thai Takeout in Los Osos.  The restaurant has a small space and limited hours (Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-7 p.m.) but makes some of the best Pad Thai I’ve had.  In addition to Pad Thai made with small rice noodles, chicken, egg, ground peanut, bean sprouts, and cabbage, we also ordered egg rolls and Pad Kee-mow, which is flat noodles with chicken, egg, chili paste, basil, tomato, red bell pepper.  I think when we were ordering the Pad Kee-mow and confirming that it was, in fact, spicy, we were actually ordering the dish extra spicy, which I don’t recommend.  The flavor was great, but I could only take a few bites before my mouth was on fire.

Takeout from Noi's: Pad Thai
Super-spicy Pad Kee-mow

The next day we headed to Cambria for lunch at Indigo Moon, a great café with fresh, simple dishes and a beautiful outdoor (heated) patio.  I ate a Cobb sandwich with grilled chicken, bacon, blue cheese, tomato and romaine on a warm ciabatta bun, with mixed green salad tossed with mustard lemon vinaigrette.  I was in sandwich love.  But I think Jan was even happier with his sandwich: duck confit, bacon and slaw served on ciabatta bun, with sweet potato fries and spicy pepper aioli on the side.

Cobb sandwich with grilled chicken, blue cheese, bacon, tomato and romaine
Duck confit with bacon and slaw, served with sweet potato fries

When it was time for the necessary walk on the beach, we headed to Cayucos, where the beach was populated only by a few other people.  When I spotted a swing set and no children nearby, I jumped at the chance to be a kid again, if only for a few wonderful minutes.

After a day of walking and eating, we were ready for some rest, so we headed to the grocery store so we could cook a relaxing dinner back at the beach house.  Jan bought a rib eye steak for us to share, spicy Italian sausage, prawns, a lobster tail, asparagus, and French bread.  We cooked everything on the charcoal grill while looking out on the ocean at night.  It was just the kind of surf and turf that perfectly completed the weekend.

Barbecue on the balcony
Rib eye steak and prawns

We didn’t make it to all our favorite stops on the Central Coast this time (not enough meals in the day!), but there are a few other favorite spots worth mentioning:

La Parisienne French Bakery located on the ground floor of the Front Street Inn in Morro Bay offers excellent desserts and pastries, and even has mini-sized cakes for the perfect two-person celebrations.

Tognazzini’s Dockside Too, is a fish market in Morro Bay offering outdoor dining, with live music on Saturdays and Sundays.  They make my favorite fish and chips.  The dining area offers dog-friendly dining, so when we’ve got Benny with us, it’s his favorite place too.

Jan likes to stop and get saltwater taffy to bring home to his brothers. Carousel Taffy in Morro Bay has giant bins full of different flavors, and you can try samples while you fill your bag full of all your favorites.

Canoeing and kayaking is a fun activity in Morro Bay, and it’s great to oar our way back to check out an alternate view of all the places we’ve walked before.  We’ve launched our own canoe from The Kayak Shack at State Park Marina, but rentals are also available there.

Sailor Benny hits the high seas (more like low tide in Morro Bay)

Driving north past Cambria, Sebastian’s General Store and Cafe is a great stop for beer and ice cream.  Open daily until 4 p.m. at W.R. Hearst State Beach, the café was recently remodeled and reopened, serving sandwiches made with Hearst Ranch beef.  It’s a great place to watch elephant seals in January.  And this section of beach seems to always be sunny when Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, and Cambria are overcast.

And we even discovered a new place to try in the future.  The Gold Rush Steakhouse at the Madonna Inn was not open when we peeked our heads in for a look, but with its pink booths and floral pink carpet, it’s at the top of my list for our next visit.

Thinking pink at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo

One Year Ago: Reminiscing on the Vantastic Voyage


Last November, Jan and I (and our dog Benny) embarked on a month-long cross-country road trip in a van Jan converted into a mini RV. It was the trip of a lifetime—we experienced new things, places, activities, sights and tastes. We lived out of our van and stayed mostly in campgrounds of the national parks. We ate at restaurants and with some friends we visited along the way, but mostly we visited unfamiliar grocery stores and Jan cooked our meals on our wonderful Weber Baby Q.

Our route started in a clockwise direction from Fresno, CA.  A total of 5,341 miles were driven. We returned home the day before Thanksgiving with many good memories and hundreds of photographs.

At camp in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Pizza bread made on the grill
Potato, egg and bacon skillet in Arches National Park, Utah

Fast forward a few months after our return, the trip had a big part in the formation of this blog. Being on the road boiled life down to the simplest things: being with family, enjoying good food, and experiencing new things. When you’re on the road and living out of a van, there isn’t room for much else. Even now that we’re at home, these things remain important to us, which is probably how they transformed themselves into the focus of Our Life in Meals.

Bacon for breakfast in Zion National Park, Utah
Brussels sprouts in the skillet, sausage, and bacon-wrapped pork chops

A discussion of the trip came up recently, as Jan and I stared out our front window and at the van, agreeing that we needed to take another trip with it, and soon. But before we could do that, some reminiscing on the Vantastic Voyage was in order. Here are some highlights in photos:

Barbecued bison for dinner

The plan: In 2004 I drove with a girl friend from San Francisco to Boston in five days. Ever since then, I’d wanted to do another road trip, but this time, taking time to visit all the places off the interstates I’d missed. For a while, I’d thought the best vacation would be to rent an RV and hit the road for a month. I told Jan about my crazy idea and he was game.

Stopping to pick apples outside of Zion National Park, Utah

The van: I started researching RV rentals but found the cost to be ridiculous. Nearly $100 per night plus $.32 per mile in addition to gas for the thing? Jan and I decided a better option would be to purchase a used van to use for the trip, then sell it afterwards. This became Jan’s project. He found a 2002 Dodge Ram Van and proceeded to build the best mini RV I’d ever seen. We did check out the Sportsmobile factory in Fresno to copy their best ideas for a tiny fraction of the cost of the 4×4 Sportsmobiles.

Night before departure, the van is coming together
In the van with the essentials: solar-powered mobile kitchen, bedroom complete with mini blinds, Benny's bed, and barbecue

The trip: I’m a planner. Jan hates having a plan. I acquiesced to the idea that nothing about the trip would be planned except that our turnaround point was going to be the Jack Daniel’s factory in Kentucky, and we had a month to get there and back. We’d just drive and take in the country at our own pace.

Following the laws of the land -- different for each of the seven states!

Of course there were some bumps along the way. We didn’t make it cross country. After driving about a third of the way to the other coast, we realized we’d be driving all day and night while seeing nothing if we were going to make it there and back within a month. Despite the fact that Jan never got to Lynchburg, we did make it one of the best vacations we’ve ever had.

Making s'mores outside of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Best burger I've eaten in my life: barbecued by Jan outside of Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
It wasn't just us focused on food: The guide at Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada, called these cave formations "bacon"
Jan assured me more calories were burned in colder temperatures, hence bacon for breakfast daily was not only OK, but necessary

Did we last a month? No. We thought about celebrating Thanksgiving in Las Vegas and slowly making our way back home for the remainder of November, but decided a bigger, better adventure would probably be hosting our first Thanksgiving dinner at home (which we ended up doing, very successfully). Besides, after all the great food we’d eaten along the way, the all-you-can-eat buffet was a bit anticlimactic.

At the Mirage in Las Vegas

Did we get ever mad at each other living in such close quarters? Yes. I really don’t need to say much besides: men, women, and directions. They do not mix well. But then again, if you don’t really plan where you’re going, you can’t ever be lost, right?

The navigator

Would we do it again? Yes. When you sit back and let the road take you where it wants to take you, some fun discoveries are made along the way. For example, Super Wal-Marts were our savior. With grocieries (including bison steaks in Utah!), camping supplies, and a McDonald’s all rolled into one, I changed my standards for what made a good town—if it had a Super Wal-Mart in it, it was a happening and awesome place. After driving for miles and miles and seeing not much besides the desert, the glow of its neon sign became a welcome sight.

Another lesson learned? Throw out the guidebook. I’d scan it on the way to our next destination, excited to see Site A, Museum B, and Restaurant C, only to be disappointed. We’d just happened by the places the ONE day they happened to be closed, or the author made something out to be different than it really was. The best discoveries were the accidental ones, the places we stumbled upon, and the meals we threw together.

Notice the snow behind the Baby Q: Camping in the snow in Santa Fe, New Mexico
Fajitas at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
At the Coors Factory in Golden Colorado, they give you lots of free beer!

One year later, we still have the van. We want to go on one more trip with it before letting it find a new home. Of course, Jan’s got big plans for his next vehicle project. He says four-wheel-drive is required. The only thing on my list is a GPS.

Tired, happy, and full in San Francisco

Rosamunde's Sausage Grill

After a day of walking up and down hills, good food, great friends, and free-flowing drinks, I’m happily exhausted. I love how that’s the way things are on visits to San Francisco.

When Jan had a bachelor party to attend in the city and suggested I drive up with him and spend time with our friend Lucy, I quickly agreed.

After arriving at Lucy’s in Haight Ashbury, our first stop, before we could do anything else, was to get Jan some serious food. We walked to Rosamunde’s Sausage Grill, where Jan ordered the nuernberger bratwurst (savory pork). We waited in the small restaurant, which had a handful of barstools lining the counters at the front windows.

Two sausages were grilled and served with sauerkraut and peppers on a toasted French roll. This was the kind of gourmet hot dog Jan had been dreaming of. But we had to get back in time to head off for the picnic Lucy planned, so we tested the to-go qualities of the bun as we walked back to get the rest of the picnic ready. Jan might have had mustard all over his face, but he could now carve the chicken Lucy had roasted earlier without dying of hunger.

While Jan headed off to meet the boys at AT&T Park for a Giants game, Lucy and I caught the bus and headed toward the Presidio.

The multi-million dollar view

We met friends at the top of the Lyon steps at Lyon and Broadway, enjoying a beautiful view on a sunny day. Then we walked into the adjacent Presidio in search of a good picnic spot. Our map hadn’t told us of all the construction projects going on where picnic tables had been listed, but we finally found a table hidden away between rows of converted army housing.

Not your average picnic

Lucy was a picnic pro, and I was so impressed that she brought tablecloths, real plates, and silverware. I thought that was what had made Lucy’s backpack so heavy on our walk through the Presidio, at least until Lucy pulled out the 32 oz. bottle of Tapatio we’d gotten for her during our last visit! (See An open mind, and mouth, for oysters).

Zesty gazpacho

We feasted on roast chicken, sausages from Rosamunde’s, guacamole, cheese, pickles, dried fruits and several bottles of Pinot Noir. Though I’m not usually a gazpacho fan, Lucy’s gazpacho topped with avocado was excellent. I thought it would have also made the most delicious bloody mary.

But we stuck to red wine, and continued stuffing ourselves on tasty two-bite brownies and chewy peanut butter cookies from Whole Foods. We rolled ourselves to the bus stop and up the last hill back to Lucy’s place.

After resting our feet and several cups of tea at Lucy’s, it was time to continue work burning off our picnic. We met up with Jan on his way back from the bachelor party and all headed to the Castro.

The Mix bar on 18th street provided the atmosphere we needed. And it was conveniently located across from Nizario’s pizza, where Jan sampled a combination slice on our way into the bar and the California (chicken, pesto, spinach, and feta) on the way out.

Beautiful breakfast

In the morning, Lucy had prepared us a real Midwestern breakfast. (She’d asked me the day before if I preferred cereal and granola for a lighter option, and I heartily declined, saying I liked to use the vacation excuse whenever I could.)

Sausage, Canadian bacon, bacon, pancakes, berries, and more

We had breakfast sausage, Canadian bacon, and bacon served on the meat platter. There were also pancakes, strawberries, blackberries, and Greek yogurt. Then there was fresh walnut bread and butter. And Lucy even heated the maple syrup on the stove and put it in a mini-pitcher, the perfect combination of West meets Midwest!

Planter at Flora Grubb
Even the coffee was artfully arranged

We headed to Flora Grubb Gardens for some backyard inspiration, and Lucy enjoyed a beautiful cup of coffee as I took in garden ideas to duplicate at home (though I won’t be copying the car-as-planter idea).

Gravad lax: a taste of Sweden
Last stop: meatballs

After saying goodbye to our gracious host, Jan and I headed across the Bay Bridge. We already had our lunch in mind: meatballs at IKEA in Emeryville. It’s become the tradition that we’ll brave Saturday IKEA crowds for, even though we realize the meatballs aren’t the best. But, we did get to stock up on a staple in our household: Lingonberry preserves.

Finally it was time to head home, for some much-needed rest after our two-day vacation.