Our US trip in November last year seems so far away now, but fond memories are still unforgettably vivid and fresh in my head. We flew into the west coast of America and landed in California. After a quick dash around San Francisco, we hopped back onto another plane and headed south to the city of rich and famous but more commonly known as the city of angels - LOS ANGELES.
The agenda of our US trip is to have 'no agenda', we are more than happy to just being tourists really. Since this is our first trip to America, everything excites us. We want to see anything and everything, whenever and wherever possibly can. No doubt that there is not enough time for us to really tap into the heart of each city, but we still managed to jam in as much activities as possible for the short three days stay in LA.
Tour of Hollywood
Again we used AirBnB for our stay in LA, we were lucky to find this place which is conveniently located only ten minutes walk from Hollywood Boulevard, as our friendly host is also actually a TV producer on Ellen DeGeneres show. Everybody in LA works in Hollywood, really.
It's natural that whenever you think of LA, you think of Hollywood, movie stars, celebrities, celebrities dining in restaurant, celebrities being snapped by paparazzi, celebrities hit paparazzi with their cars. Yep, that's LA for you. If you are a movie buff then this is the place for you, all the landmarks are sprawled out along Hollywood Boulevard within walking distance, and not to mention the 2,400 terazzo and brass stars embedded in the sidewalks along fifteen blocks of the boulevard to comprise the famous walk of fame. As we are chomping down burritos in a Mexican fast food joint on the strip for lunch, Bette Midler drops by and says Hi!
Almost every street corner in LA has been used in movies. There is Hollywood first national building right at the main junction between Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. And if you look up, there is the missing American flag from the pole on top of the building, because Superman took it. Not far from Hollywood Boulevard is the church where Whoopi Goldberg belted out a few tunes in Sister Act.
Don't expect too much here though, the whole strip is designed and catered for tourists, kind of reminds me of Surfers Paradise in Gold Coast but without the beaches. It is plastered with souvenir shops, fast foods and Hollywood memorabilia museums.
You will also have to dodge beggars, tourists, dudes that try to sell their CDs hoping to get spotted by talent agency, then there is also pushy salesmen who want you to take a ride in their half-car-half-ute tour buses around celebrities' mansions up at Hollywood Hills. Well, that's exactly what we did. We are being tourists, remember?
Hollywood celebrity home tour
Unless you have a car, if not then joining the celebrity home tours is possibly the only way you can get real close to the Hollywood sign. Piece of advice, never pay the full price for the tour. There will be lots of companies selling the same tour at Hollywood Boulevard, you'd be surprised how much you can haggle until the price reduced almost by half.
We have the coolest driver / tour guide on our tour, she is so Hollywood and full of attitude, girl! But I just love her because she sounded like Wanda Sykes! The tour starts from Hollywood Boulevard with a quick introduction to a few landmarks in the area, Chinese Theatre, Capitol Records, Dolby Theatre (formerly known as Kodak Theatre), Janet Jackson's favourite restaurant, Beso's restaurant owned by Eva Longoria, and so forth. Then we head up to Hollywood Hills where we have the first glimpse of how the celebrities live. Our driver points to a mansion with high fenced gate, "Here's where Jennifer Lopez lives." Then another mansion, "That's Paris Hilton's. Oh remember this one? This is where they filmed The Osborne. Now further up is where David Beckham and Victoria Beckham live, you can't see it but Tom Cruise's house is just right behind it...." Names dropping continue as our vehicle arrives at the pinnacle where the Hollywood sign is.
As the sun setting in the horizon, the tour continues west to the famous windy Mulholland Drive and eventually ends up in Beverly Hills. More celebrities live in this area, bigger mansions, PlayBoy Mansion with the bunnies house right next door, The house where Michael Jackson dangled the baby, and of course how can we forget the mansion owned by the man who created the popular TV hits, Beverly Hills 90210? Aaron Spelling and Tori Spelling also live there somewhere.
...And this is Britney's, b*tch!
The tour concludes with a quick drive through Rodeo Drive and also Sunset Boulvevard, more stories to be told along the street including the spot where River Phoenix collapsed on the sidewalk right outside the Viper Room. The tour lasted well over 3 hours and for $55 per person, I think it is well worth the money.
Hollywood Boulevard looks surprisingly different at night time, the whole strip is now lit up with billboards and neon lights, furry animals and superheroes are posing on the sidewalks for money, Marilyn Monroe is still sitting on a box, blowing kisses to everyone who walks by. One of The Pom's wishes is to watch a flick inside the Chinese Theatre, and hence we decide to skip dinner and go for movie instead.
Watch a movie inside Chinese Theatre
The TLC Chinese Theatre is indeed grand and impressive, two gigantic coral red columns topped by wrought iron masks hold aloft the bronze roof as the theatre rises 90-feet high. This theatre is filled with history and it has been a cornerstone of Hollywood for over 75 years. The theatre is famous for movie premieres, many celebrities had been seen walking up the red carpet into the theatre for the screenings.
Another famous feature of Chinese Theatre is its cement handprints and foodprints pavement in the forecourt. Some of the most elite movie stars have been invited to leave their marks at the forecourt to acknowledge their contribution in the Hollywood industry. This tradition has been going on since the theatre opened back in 1927, as the years gone by, many old imprints have been taken out and replaced with bright young stars.
Inside the theatre is just as over the top as outside, the cinema is covered in rich crimson red and shiny gold decor. Walls are covered in gold wallpapers with oriental motifs, draped with red velvet curtain with intricate golden embroideries. We were really looking forward to watch a movie in the theatre, unfortunately Silent Hill: Revelation 3D was the only choice at that time and the movie was shit house! It is an absolute abomination to be shown in Chinese Theatre! Oh well, at least we can tick off another item on the to-do list.
A day at Santa Monica
That's what our host said to us. He is probably right, it didn't take us long to figure out that it can be tricky to get around LA without a car. Day two, we decided to hit Santa Monica and bus seems like the most practical way to get there, if you don't mind the 40 minutes ride. As the bus pulls over at the last stop, the first glimpse of Santa Monica is something most Australians can relate to - sun, surf, and beach.
"What do you mean you don't drive in LA? Everybody drives in LA!"
In Santa Monica, all the people gotRemember this Savage Garden song?
Like Jake or Mandy
And modern bodies too
In Santa Monica, on the boulevard,
You'll have to dodge those in-line skaters
Or they'll knock you down
I never felt so lonely,
Never felt so out of place
I never wanted something more than this
The amusement park on the pier is the landmark of Santa Monica beach, it is also where the Route 66 ends. Route 66 is also one of the reasons that inspires us to take this US trip, some people probably think is a cliche, but I am so glad that we actually did it and had a fantastic time driving on this historic Mother Road. The starting point of Route 66 is actually in Chicago and finishes here at Santa Monica in Los Angeles, but due to how we have planned our itinerary, we will be doing it the road trip backwards.
There is also a souvenir shop at the end of the pier, a tribute to artist and cartographer Robert Waldmire who was responsible for many of the whimsical maps of Route 66. The shop is literally covered in Route 66 souvenirs and memorabilia. You simply can't come here and not taking a piece of history home.
A giant macaroni on the Pier!
Santa Monica beach stretches 5.6 kilometre long, from the pier all the way to Venice Beach and beyond. It is a nice stroll along the beach front where we encounter people from all walks of life. Stalls are set up a long the walkways selling Mexican folk arts, spray paint artworks, to something bit more adventurous, where hippies will invite you to have a happy puff of grass.
Now, who loves the movie Romy and Michele's high school reunion? Remember the scene where they were about to take the road trip to the reunion? It was filmed right here at the Santa Monica beach.
Ah, I love this movie!
Venice is known for its canals, beaches and circus-like Ocean Front Walk, a 2.5 mile pedestrian-only promenade that features performers, fortune-tellers, artists and vendors. This part of town was founded by tobacco millionaire Abbot Kinney in 1905 as a beach resort that was once called "Venice of America". Venice is today one of the most vibrant and eclectic areas in Los Angeles.
You can't come to Venice Beach without checking all the muscly dudes working out at Muscle Beach. The original location of Muscle Beach was used to be lot closer to Santa Monica beach but the outdoor gymnasium has since moved closer to the Venice Beach Recreation Centre. The whole complex is huge, comprises a number of facilities including basketball courts, tennis courts, volleyball courts and even a $2,000,000 skate park on the sand towards the north.
When you are at Venice Beach, you simply have to give it a go.
Funny skull shaped palm trees.
A large mural on Windward Avenue that celebrates Orson Welles 1958 film noir classic, Touch of Evil.
Whilst the gym junkies are working hard at Muscle Beach, I find myself a funnel cake at the street food stand nearby. I was introduced to funnel cake on the TV show Top Chef, I was utterly fascinated by this utterly ugly looking cake that actually isn't a cake but deep fried. Anything deep fried I am pretty sure it will taste good. This is my first funnel cake, deep fried batter in hot oil then covered it in lots of powdered (icing) sugar, it is the simplest and tastiest deep fried ever. Exercise can wait.
True Food Kitchen
It is not aways deep fried, burgers and fast food in the States, Americans are getting more conscious on what they are putting into their mouths and restaurants are also pushing out a healthier eating option. We stumble across True Food Kitchen back at Santa Monica Place as we notice the place is heaving and packed with lunch goers and office workers.
The restaurant is an open wide space with different dining areas from sitting down tables, bar stools to chef's table that offers a viewing platform of all the actions in the open plan kitchen. True Food Kitchen offers globally inspired cuisine with the menu that focuses on seasonal, sustainable produce. They are also embracing the raw food eating culture as on the menu indicates that some items will be served raw or undercooked.
The winter ingredient salad with grilled salmon gets thumbs up from The Pom. The salad is a healthy mix of roasted cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, squash, cranberries, white beans and clumps of chewy quinoa, all dressed in horseradish vinaigrette that has a subtle kick. The big hunk of salmon fillet is grilled with a nice smokey char, it is just cooked on the inside that is still soft and pink.
My low-carb Shirataki noodles is actually Thai inspired, the yam noodle is stir fried in green curry sauce with snap peas, cauliflower, kale, chicken and cashew nuts. They intentionally undercooked the vegetables as they are still squeakily crunchy.
The Fat Cow at The Grove
Healthy eating obviously needs to be compensated with something a little naughtier. We spend the evening checking out Gordon Ramsay's new joint, The Fat Cow at the nationally-acclaimed LA shopping mall, The Grove. One thing that Americans do well is Christmas, the whole shopping mall has turned into a whimsical Christmas wonderland, choirs are singing, Santa is waving, manmade snow flakes are falling from the sky every thirty minutes.
The Grove also has an impressive food hall (they called it the farmers' market) adjacent to the shopping area that offers a great selection of meal choices. I'd have happily eat at the food hall if I haven't made a booking at the restaurant already. Nevertheless, I am just as equally looking forward to our meal at The Fat Cow.
The Fat Cow is a casual gastropub that serves gourmet pub grubs in a warm and rustic industrial setting. The restaurant is extremely busy as everyone is flocking to this newly opened 2-month old eatery. After a forty minutes wait, we eventually get seated at the bar table. Sadly, I also didn't bring my camera along with me this evening, hence the only dish that was taken on my iphone that I can share with you is the buttermilk fried chicken with biscuit and gravy. Fish & chips and Lobster Mac & Cheese were also the two other dishes we ordered, so no photos.
The menu is actually priced reasonably except this dish at a whopping US22.00, but is all forgotten as soon as I sink my teeth into the big hunk of fried chicken. Crunch! Crunch! Crunch! It doesn't take long to have crumbs all over the plate and on table, the meat is succulent and not dry, with the buttermilk marination gives the chicken a nice sour and briney flavour. I probably can do without the gravy and the biscuit, is all about the chicken!
It is the same old story, the portion size, the over ordering that leaves us no room for dessert. It is a sad day for the dessert loving Pom.
A day at Universal Studios
Did I mention me being a tourist in LA? We decide to spend our last days in Los Angeles at Universal Studios. I actually also wanted to go to Disney California Adventure Park simply because I want to check out the Cars Land since we are actually going to do Route 66, but due to our short stay in LA, it will have to wait till our next visit.
First thing first, if you want to beat the crowd and jump the queue especially during school holidays and summer, then I'd suggest you to pay a little extra and get the Front of Line Pass to save you from hours of queueing. We visited the Studios in November last year, the crowd was bearable and most of the time we didn't really need the pass but it has its own advantages.
It is a little like Movie World in Gold Coast but in a bigger scale, I seriously thought we will be able to finish the whole studio in half a day, but surprisingly we ended up spending whole day there and still didn't managed to check out all the attractions.
As soon as the gate opens, we walk straight to the first attraction at the entrance simply because there isn't a queue and we end up inside the House of Horrors. Bad move, I simply wasn't ready to be petrified and spooked by stretching arms and vampires, werewolves, mummies and serial killers with big cleaver at 10am in the morning! I was seriously scared shitless, but it definitely perks me up!
Most of the rides at Studios are actually using 3D media and flight simulation technology, one of the best rides has to be The Simpsons Ride. I felt the new Transformers 3D ride a little clunky, but we both loved Revenge of the Mummy - The Ride, which is actually a real roller coaster that speeds up to 72km/hr within seconds. It is the only ride that we actually went on three times! I am totally gutted that the Jurassic Park ride was out of order and we couldn't give it a go.
Apart from the rides, there are also shows for all ages. The Universal's Animal Actors show probably attracts younger audience, but being pet owners we actually find it quite fun to watch! Many of the pets at the show are actually trained actors and been in many films including Cats & Dogs, Ace Ventura, Doctor Dolittle, etc.
Fact - Do you know you can actually bring your dog to Universal Studios? They actually have complimentary kennel services for the park guests every day, how good is that!
No Kevin Costner, but the WaterWorld show is a tidal wave of explosive action and death defying stunts. The stage set itself is impressive, a nice rendition of the hit motion picture.
If you want to be in the midst of all the action, then the clearly labelled "wet" front seats is the best seat in the house and ready to get drenched. A group of Japanese tourists totally missed the sign and was so chuffed to score the front row seats, they have no clue what they have put themselves up for.
Dining options are a plenty at the Studio, but we just want a burger on the go, especially from the Flinstone's Bar-B-Q! Surprisingly the food here is actually quite good! The Pom's half-pound Angus cheese burger is actually not dry and packed with flavours, but I especially like it is served with homemade potato chips (we called it crisps).
And my tender smoked pulled pork on freshly baked Ciabatta roll is the bomb! There is a generous amount of pulled pork inside the bun, doused in a fiery homemade spicy BBQ sauce. It gets messy in the end but well worth it.
And one last thing we must do at Universal Studios is the Studio Tour. As we all hop into the tour trolley bus, we are soon greeted by comedian Jimmy Fallon on TV screen who will be our video host of the tour. The tour bus leads us down to Hollywood's most famous backlot which is also world's largest working movie studio.
There are 13 new city blocks on four acres of historic studio lot, as our bus roams past, it is hard to believe the whole city is actually fake. When there is no filming going on, the whole city actually looks like a ghost town which is utterly eerie and surreal.
You'd be surprised how many films have used the exact same spots for different films. Does this park look familiar to you?
And also this gas station...
That's right, it was part of Back to the Future film set. Remember that famous skateboard chase scene?
Further up the hill at the backlot is the Bates Hotel, the filmset for Alfred Hitchcock's classic, Psycho. Actually is weird to see the filmset not in black and white.
Norman is not looking happy at all....
One of the highlights of the tour is definitely the King Kong 360 3-D, without giving too much away, just prepared for a bumpy ride.
Next we encounter the eerie site of plane crash from War of the Worlds. They actually did bought a whole 747 and delivered to the site, pulled it apart to achieve such dramatic scene.
Next stop is the Amity Island, where JAWS lurks deep beneath the black water. In contrary, it is also doubled for Cabot Cove in the TV series "Murder, She Wrote". The tour goes on through The Mummy cave, wild wild west country filmset and a whole lot more.
There are still a lot more to explore at the studio but we simply don't have enough time. It is already getting dark by the time we walk out of the studio and the whole complex is now lit with fairy lights ready for festive season. We both had a great time at Universal Studios but I believe it is one of those places that you will only visit once in your life.
Outside of the Studio is CityWalk where you can pick up the last minute souvenirs or grab a bite in one of the restaurant chains. We were planning to have a simple meal here but the options are rather unexciting. Hence we decide to catch the train back to town and find a proper restaurant for dinner.
Susan Feniger's STREET
I am glad we didn't stay at Universal Studio for dinner and look for other option. Our host suggested us to go and check out Susan Feniger's restaurant, STREET, which is walking distance from our place. I am a Top Chef fan, that's how I learn about Susan Feniger, I am very much looking forward to dining at her restaurant. Susan and her business partner / head chef Kajsa have a very smart concept for the restaurant. As the restaurant's name suggest, they bring all the street food around the world to one spot.
The restaurant split into two dining areas, the indoor dining area is cosy and dimly lit with a bar near the entrance, there is a door that opens out to an outdoor dining space to the side of the restaurant. It gets even darker out here where tea-lights candles are the only light sources.
The friendly staff hands us the menu, follows by a complimentary plate of curry popcorn snack. These popcorn balls are wild! The popcorns are somehow stick together into tiny balls the size of a marble, the curry flavour works surprisingly well with buttery popcorns, they are ridiculously addictive.
The cocktails menu here is also just as exciting with its own twist. The spice pumpkin mojito is a refreshing concoction of rum, pumpkin puree, cinnamon syrup and mint. For only US12, I'll have two! There is no cocktail on the menu that is over US15, it makes me realise how expensive Sydney can be when comes to food and drink sometimes.
Let's start the meal with a few signatures. We are encouraged to order the barbeque jackfruit Bao, a Hong Kong styled steamed bun with sweet jackfruit filling, served with homemade peanut hoisin sauce and tangerine salad on the side. The combination might sound odd to you, but the flavours of each component works together marvellously. The steamed bun itself is not too shabby either, soft and fluffy, slightly grilled on both sides to give it a hint of caramelisation sweetness.
Kaya Toast also made it on the menu, another signature dish of STREET apparently. In all fairness, it will be very difficult to impress a Malaysian by serving him Malaysian food in a non-Asian country. As expected that there will be some lost in translation in the dish, it arrives with white toast filled with coconut jam, served with soft egg that is actually pan fried rather than soft boiled, drizzled with dark soy sauce and a smidgen of white pepper. I can ignore and forgive why the rocket leaves are on the plate as I am actually craving for some greens in my diet.
The waitstaff instructs us to break the yolk, make a mess and then dip the kaya toast in it, mix it up and eat it together. Usually we do eat the toast and egg separately back home, but hey, whatever floats your boat I guess. And the kaya toast is actually not too bad.
We do have a thing for Brussels sprouts so no doubt that we will love this dish. A simply delicious salad of shaved kale and brussel sprouts dressed with goat cheese and lemon picada. This dish will goes nicely with any meat dish.
The fish and chips takes The Pom straight back to England. Susan's fancy take on the fish and chip is actually rather special, a huge fillet of crispy pan fried striped bass in served with Peruvian panca chile, ginger and lime dressing. But the highlight is definitely the chips which is actually yuca also known as cassava, instead of using potatoes. The yuca chips are super crunchy on the outside, soft and starchy on the inside. Yuca also lends a sweeter flavour to the dish.
If The Pom can have the fish and chips, then I must go for the fried rice! The rice bowl is a seasonal dish that changes frequently on the specialties menu. Tonight's rice dish is inspired by Malaysian fried rice with peat shoots and five spice pork, and of course it has to have a fried egg on top. The rice is little sticky like short grain sushi rice, it isn't so bad when is all mixed up with runny yolk and little cubes of pork meat.
No matter how full we are, we are determined to have dessert tonight! The first dessert we try is a special from the blackboard. The pumpkin flan is baked in ramekin, topped with spanish anise ice cream, served with a giant olive oil cookie that is actually deliciously chewy like those you get at Subway. I adore the aniseed flavour ice cream that pairs well with olive oil and also the sweet pumpkin.
But it is the chocolate pound cake that makes our hearts stop, in a good way. The cake is decadently moist, crowned with utterly addictive peanut butter mousse and a few slivers of banana, then covers everything with a dollop of whipped cream.
Wait, that's not it! How about a few swirls of warm caramel and chocolate sauce and a sprinkle of salted peanuts on top? Indulgent much? This dessert seriously has made up of all the desserts we've missed out on for the last few nights.
I am glad that we conclude our time in Los Angeles with a sweet finale. I'd have loved to spend more time in LA, but there are more places we have to visit. Next stop, Sin City here we come!