The Long Haul to the Crab Cooker

crab

Last August, I realized that I had reached a total shit-or-get-off-the-pot moment (apologies for the unfortunate expression) in writing my dissertation. As in, if I didn’t sit down that very minute and write the darn thing, there was no reason for me to keep pretending that I was going to finish the degree I had started when, well, if not when dinosaurs walked the earth, certainly well before my looks had faded and I turned into my current, mean old crone iteration. Appropriating the title of a rather unremarkable Asian Dub Foundation song that my college boyfriend had liked, August was declared “New Way New Life.” I woke with the sun, packed a PB&J, hauled my ass to the library, and staked out my favorite carrel. I wrote, in the great words of Cheryl Strayed, like a motherfucker. All day, every day that I wasn’t at my consulting gig.

At the end of the month, my dissertation wasn’t exactly done, but I at least had enough written that I felt I would have a fighting chance to enter the fall academic job market (snort, chortle, etc.). To half-heartedly celebrate, we decided to go to the beach in Newport for an afternoon and muck around on the jetty, known in these parts as the groin. As you well know, B positively lives for any imposing rock feature that he can scramble around on. We started out about an hour before sunset, easily making our way out on the initial stretch. Close to the shore, the boulders are tight against one another, making it easy to jump from one to the next. But it’s a really, really long jetty, you guys, and as you get further out, it becomes increasingly tougher going. In a grand tradition of bad footwear decisions, I was wearing sandals and found it difficult to keep my footing on the boulders, many of which were now slick with water from the rising tide and the waves crashing against the Balboa side. Lest you think I’m kidding about the size of these waves, take a quick Google of The Wedge. It was cold, I was miserable, but we just kept going. And going. And going.

As we neared the end, we started to reach groups of fishermen, many of whom make their living by fishing daily off the groin. It was of course mortifying to watch their nimble negotiation of the jetty rocks, as I flailed and slipped and scraped my hands. Nearing the end, I made my way over a particularly gnarly stretch only to find myself suddenly face-to-face with the bloated corpses of two big manta rays, likely abandoned by a bewildered amateur fisherman days or weeks earlier. They stunk to high heaven, and I was so startled that I actually screamed when I saw their putrid, cloudy grey eyes.

I thought, of course, of this:

ladolcevita

The whole trip had taken on a totally manic quality by that point, and I was psychically overcome with fear as we neared the furthest reaches of the jetty. Fear that if I didn’t go all the way that B would be angry and disappointed in me, fear that we wouldn’t have enough light to navigate our way all the way back to the beach, fear that the tide would come in even higher and that I would slip and fall to my death. Fear, quite frankly, that I had reached some kind of turning point in my life where all of my good luck had run out and the darkness was descending. As we reached the lighthouse—rank with fish guts and littered with trash and used condoms—B awkwardly attempted to stage a romantic moment, putting his arm around me as the wind whipped through our hair. The stench was overpowering, and I choked back fear-or-fish-smell induced vomit, smiled weakly, and said, “Great, we’re halfway there.”

Yet somehow—and this I knew from years of hiking—the turn-around point is never really halfway. It’s actually much farther along. I found myself suddenly more agile on the rocks, deftly jumping over those dead mantas and nodding happily at the disinterested fishermen. B and I began to chat, and in this direction, we weren’t just talking about the best trajectory or how miserable I was. “You’re taking me to the Crab Cooker tonight,” I declared, “and I’m getting a cold beer and entire Dungeness all to myself.” B, who was likely amazed that I hadn’t chickened out much earlier, eagerly agreed to my terms. We jokingly began to compare climbing Newport jetty to the process of writing a dissertation. “Where are you in the writing now?” he asked. “Here!” I announced, just as we reached the final section where the boulders were suddenly closer together, smooth from the many casual feet that had only ventured this far. The beach was close, and I could practically taste my crab.

crabcooker

The Crab Cooker, for those of you not in the know, is a Balboa Peninsula institution that opened in 1951. I suspected it was a landmark of sorts when I first arrived in Orange County back in the dark ages, as my teenage guilty-pleasure show The OC had featured a thinly veiled “Crab Shack” in many episodes. The Crab Cooker is a small seafood market and a bigger restaurant, and it’s one of those remarkable places that just keeps doing the thing that they do well, year after year, paper plate after paper plate. Nothing is fancy, and the sides are pleasantly retro, but if you want a cup of soul-soothing clam chowder, some deep-fried soft shells, or a skewer of some of the plumpest scallops you’ll ever eat, this is the place. It’s touristy, and there is often a long wait, so we don’t go very often. But, I’ll tell you what, nothing has ever tasted as good as my cold Bud and my Dungeness crab did that night after we climbed the jetty.

If you’ll continue to humor this entry’s odd metaphor for a moment, I’ll confide to you that I was of course not even remotely as close to the finish line as I thought I was that night. Sadly, I was probably only at my first glimpse of the dead manta rays, nauseous with fear and still twenty yards from the lighthouse turn-around point. I still had to spend months searching endlessly for jobs, sick with worry like clockwork every morning at four a.m. I still had months of near-misses on dream gigs, punctuated by stomach-churning rejection letters from schools in places like Pocatello, Idaho (no offense). It was a real fish-gut-and-old-condom kind of experience, if I’m being totally honest. I still had another New Way New Life period in store for three weeks this spring, days where I battened down the hatches, snarled at anyone who came near my carrel, and wrote an introduction and a last-minute chapter. I wrote again, dear reader, like a motherfucker.

jettynofilter

I’m happy to tell you that I have finally reached those smooth, evenly-set boulders. I sent my full dissertation to my committee a few weeks ago, and now I am just waiting for their scrawls of approval on my filing form. I have a bit of work to do—some copyediting, a bit of shuffling, a few citations. But I’m almost there. I think I’ll skip the climbing the jetty again and stick with the most delicious part of my reified analogy. I think you know where I’ll be going to dinner the night I officially file this damn thing. I’ll keep you posted.

Dat Thanh

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I recently met up with my friend K in the city of Westminster, where she had been storing her belongings for several years while she was living in Tokyo. Yes, I totally just said that as if that is a completely normal, not absurdly fabulous way to spend a few years. Do we want K to teach us all about Japanese food, dear reader? I think so! If nothing else, I do think that she should be our guide for a Los Angeles ramen Hungerdome, yes? Let’s relentlessly pester her until this happens, Bear-Gardeners.

I can’t recommend Westminster’s self-storage facilities, as poor K’s space was vandalized during her time away. Clarence and I can, however, recommend Westminster for eating. Among the OC’s many attributes is one of the largest (the largest?) Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam. Westminster boasts some staggeringly good Vietnamese food, though I’ve yet to find the bánh mì of my dreams. Don’t worry, I’m looking, but in the meantime, my heart remains true to this place.

springrolls

We met for lunch at a place called Dat Thanh, which is a completely wonderful, family-run spot. The friendly son runs the front room, and his parents cook in back. We started off with Vietnamese iced coffees (natch), which were so delicious that we were actually warned to take our time or suffer a too-quick caffeine buzz. We started with an order of nem nuong cuon thu duc (pork sausage spring rolls) that were just the right mix of crunchy bits, pressed meat, and fresh herbs. The real standout in my opinion, however, are Dat Thanh’s broken rice dishes. K and I shared a tom nuong & ga nuong (BBQ chicken and shrimp), a positively revelatory combination of charbroiled meat and fish on some of the most addictive rice I’ve ever tasted. Neophytes that we were, the owner instructed us to mix chile paste with a sweetened, reduced fish sauce in small bowls, then pour it over the whole dish. One of the things I like best about K is that she immediately said that she wished we had gotten our own plates and not shared, which is basically how Clarence feels about everything. And at a door-busting seven bucks for the entire plate, I certainly won’t be sharing again.

Nota bene, Dat Thanh is cash only, and the owner emphasized that it really is a family-run business, so don’t be coming in at five minutes until closing and expect to sit down for an hour. The place is such a gem, and I’m literally counting the minutes until I can get back for my own plate of com tam hay bun.

Behind the Orange Curtain

newportcultbunnies

People who know the social topography of Southern California are often appalled to find out that I live in Corona del Mar, the southernmost chunk of Newport Beach. It’s fancy, to be sure, but most of coastal Orange County is regarded as a kind of cultural wasteland. While much of inland OC is varied, economic, social, and racial diversity of any kind flatten as you move closer and closer to the ocean. By the time you arrive at Ocean Drive in our fair hamlet, you are suddenly confronted with a terrifying vision of twenty-first century American prosperity: orangey older men who work as “entrepreneurs” with second wives half their age, women who are uniformly blonde, nipped, tucked, and Xanax-zonked in between their numerous yoga classes. The children shriek unpleasantly while playing and otherwise act strangely morose, despite their obvious lack of want for anything. Migrant workers do virtually all of the domestic and manual labor, and there is a quiet exodus of people of color every single weekday at four p.m. While many people have observed the aggression that ordinarily placid Californians exhibit on the road, OC drivers are entirely oblivious to the presence of other vehicles, that is, when they aren’t being outright malicious in their leased Lamborghinis. The OC is a perverse realization of Louis C.K.’s funny observation of late capitalism: everything is amazing, and nobody is happy. So much so, in fact, that the phrase has become our shorthand for our neighbors’ bad behavior at the Fashion Island Whole Foods.

cdmstatebeach

Kvetching aside, coastal OC is among the most beautiful places in the country, and a dream for people who enjoy being outside as much as we do. We are a five-minute drive from Crystal Cove State Park, which boast four miles of undeveloped beaches and serves as the trailhead for miles upon miles of hiking along the canyons and ridges of the hills between Newport and Laguna Beach. We hike or beach (that can be a verb, right?) there several times a week, often doing a loop in Moro Canyon that culminates with a view of the coast stretching from Dana Point all the way to the Pacific Palisades. Many of our days end with a leisurely stroll to Corona del Mar State Beach, where we watch predictably gasp-worthy sunset over Catalina Island while dolphins and seals swim around at the entrance to Newport Harbor. The green markets, especially the one at UC Irvine, are the biggest and best I’ve ever seen. Our library in Newport Beach seems to be the only public library in America that is expanding and improving as the city grows. There’s a lot to recommend Corona del Mar, even if we do often feel like anthropologists in our own community. At any rate, it appears that we are here for at least the short duration, so we might as well enjoy it.

Sapp Coffee House

When I was still living in the Midwest, I asked my friend M if there was anything he missed about living in Los Angeles. He suddenly got a far-away look in his eyes and quietly murmured, “The boat noodles at Sapp Coffee House. Oh god, those noodles.” I’d never made it to Sapp during my previous time in California, and I more or less forgot about M’s haunted reference until I happened to be looking for a place to eat in Thai Town around Christmastime. We decided to give it a shot and were pleased to find Sapp to be a bright, friendly spot with some of the tastiest Thai coffee around (it is a coffee shop, after all).  B and I decided to share some boat noodles with beef and the also much-hyped jade noodles. The boat noodles were as amazing as M had promised: slightly chewy and swimming in a dark, silky broth. Yeah, I know, boat noodle broth is made from blood, but you probably know by now that blood doesn’t bother me in the least. This is the kind of thing you want to eat on a cold rainy day.

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But for me it was the jade noodles that were a total revelation. Roasted duck slices and barbecue pork chunks, a downy pile of crabmeat, scallions, cilantro, peanuts, chiles, and sugar top a mound of green noodles. Talk about trayf! There is something about the sparkly sweetness against the subtle heat against the herbaceous noodles that just really kicked it into gear for me. I could eat those noodles every damn day. And at about six bucks a bowl with some of the sweetest employees around, that doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Santa Monica Seafood

isn't it romantic?

On the first episode of the last season of the Real Housewives of Orange County (yes, I watch it, shut up), one of the ladies threw a New England-style clambake to get all the women together to start fighting. The hostess—a pinched-looking creature who is married to a successful Orange County plastic surgeon—called the event a clambake, but it was really a lobster boil.  I was under the impression that a clambake involved digging a hole, burying some clams with hot coals, and then unearthing the whole thing later on.  The centerpiece of this Newport Beach party was instead an awe-inducing spread of beautiful, enormous lobsters. Clambake? I think, “Eh, will I get sand in my teeth?” Lobsterbake? I’m in every time. Even if it means chowing down amidst shrieking harpies with immobile faces.

I was quite amused, then, to see that the housewife procured her lobsters and clams from none other than Santa Monica Seafood, a fish market located in Costa Mesa that I also happen frequent for my own piscivore yearnings. Santa Monica Seafood was one of the first places I found in Orange County that truly blew me away – coming from a landlocked state, this kind of fresh fish market is just mind-boggling. It’s pricey, of course, but everything they sell is positively gorgeous. Moreover, Santa Monica Seafood supplies all of the high-end surf and turf restaurants in Newport Beach, so I like to rationalize that while it may be spendy, I’m getting the same damn salmon as the Housewives and their “entrepreneur” husbands get at Mastro’s. And mine is always perfectly cooked.

lobsterlovers

Seriously, though, Santa Monica Seafood is particularly great if you are looking for locally-caught, responsibly-sourced fish in Southern California. I particularly like picking up California halibut or Carlsbad mussels for easy, economical fish dinners. If we’re feeling a little more decadent, I’ll get a dozen oysters for a weekend lunch – Santa Monica usually has a great selection of Fanny Bay, Malpeque, Kumamoto, and Coromandel oysters on hand at about a buck fifty a pop (sometimes less). As you know, B is our resident shucker and an excellent one at that, but the fishmongers at Santa Monica will do your shucking for you if you are weak-willed. And none of this business of bringing home a bag of shellfish only to discover that half of them perished before you even leave the store. These fishmongers are pros, tapping each and every shell to make sure your entire purchase is alive when it comes to dinnertime. I literally once watched one guy methodically tap through nearly five pounds of mussels I bought for a party. At only five bucks a pound, it wasn’t a particularly big purchase, especially not in an area where Real Housewives have Tuesday night lobster bakes. But Santa Monica Seafood has wonderful customer service for even the unnipped, untucked population, and it’s a pleasure to shop there.

And look, as I’m sure my regular readers may remember, we are also occasionally of the homarine persuasion. As has become our tradition, B makes a show of his love for me each Valentine’s Day by brutally murdering a lobster (sometimes two). In recent years, we’ve discovered that I am a far more coldblooded executioner of crustaceans than my kind-hearted husband, so now I’m usually in charge of the grisly part. The last two Februaries we have gone to Santa Monica Seafood mid-afternoon to pick out two big fellas (I like to choose the meanest-looking ones). With our new friends clanging around in a cooler, we stop at Hi-Times to pick up a nice bottle of Sancerre. Then we head home, boil up a big pot of onions and fennel, and send those lobsters to the great hereafter. After the most decadent of meals (two lobsters, drawn butter, and a smidge of Old Bay), we get to work frying up the shells along with shallots, carrots, celery, peppercorns, and bay leaves to make an enormous pot of lobster stock. We freeze most of it for bouillabaisse and cioppino, but I always do end up getting my bisque fix a few days after Valentine’s. If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll post B’s recipe. It’s so tasty that it would make even a Housewife jealous.

Sqirl

Los Angeles lifestyle blogs – and you can bet your ass I read all of them – present a positively warped vision of consumer life in this second-largest American city. If the Instagrammed object worlds of the Angelino taste-making elite are to be believed, life in these fair hills is entirely composed sun-drenched patios decked out in Heath pottery, succulents, and macramé wall hangings. Daily hikes in Runyon Canyon are de rigueur, as are evenings at the Hollywood Bowl. Everybody always seems to be slurping up a pizza at Mozza, a butterscotch budino at Gjelina, or a round of oysters at Hungry Cat. Or maybe they are snapping a quick shot of the tsukemen ramen at that place that everybody can’t stop talking about. There is a veritable catalogue of Angelino lifestyle blog clichés, and I can’t seem to get enough of them. One that has reached near-icon status is this guy:

sqirl rice bowl

Ah, Sqirl’s Kokuho rose brown rice bowl. Mysteriously tender brown rice doused in sorrel pesto and punctuated with preserved Meyer lemons, “lacto fermented” hot sauce, watermelon radishes, feta cheese, and a poached egg. With the addition of a house sausage patty, natch. I’ve seen so many photos of this bad boy that it’s positively egregious to add my own shot to the archive. And a filtered shot from my own Instagram, no less? The shame. The Nouveau parti anticapitaliste will never have me back.

But is it tasty? Yes, totally. My girl K, who is definitely in the know about all the best things in the city, took me to Sqirl when I requested a lady brunch at a place that would make my husband squirm. And oh man, would he have squirmed. A throng of calculatedly casual Angelinos in Priuses and handmade shoes? Check. Quince and rosemary jam? Check. Burnt toast for seven bucks? Check. I joke about the last one – the “burnt brioche toast” is quite deliberate and really delicious, smeared with fresh ricotta and apple butter. The whole place is a scene, but a good one, and that rice bowl is really worth a fuss. It’s such an unexpected breakfast combination, one that probably could be replicated to some degree in your own home. As B would grumble, come springtime sorrel grows in ditches all over the Midwest. Better snatch it up before the in-crowd catches wind.

The Rider’s Club

San Clemente has always held a special role in my imagination as something like the last beach community untainted by the various blights of the Orange County coastline (grotesque plastic surgery, obscenely decadent consumption, racist Minutemen, heteronormative gender policing that would do the 1950s proud, etc.). This assumption may not even be remotely true, and I’m well aware of the military base and enormous mammary of a nuclear power plant that might contradict this fantasy. Nevertheless, San Clemente is – in my mind – a sleepy town of surfers unencumbered by the venial sins of the rest of the county. Heck, Ruby’s hasn’t even co-opted their pier yet!

My dear friends J and BC lived in San Clemente for several years and did little to dispel any of these conceptions. Sure, they complained sometimes about their neighbor’s politics, but it seemed like they were pretty tan and eating a lot of fresh-caught fish whenever I came to visit. Whenever I get mad at Corona del Mar (which is basically every day), I tell B that we are moving to San Clemente. We probably never will, but I think it’s important to always give yourself a plan of escape, even if it remains only in your head.

carnitas sandwich

One entirely legitimate reason to move to San Clemente tomorrow is so you could eat at The Rider’s Club every single day. It’s nothing much from the street, but J and BC had raved about their carnitas sandwich for several years, so I was pretty darn psyched to finally try it. Dear lord. Shredded pork on a Challah bun, topped with carrot slaw, cilantro, a creamy sauce, and jalapeños. It’s like a perfect taco made out with a bánh mì on Shabbat. Their burgers are really special too; B claims that a cheddar, roasted green chile, bacon, and avocado combo makes for the best burger in SoCal. The draft beer list is off the chain, with Old Rasputin usually on tap along with other great selections from breweries like Alesmith, Green Flash, and Bear Republic. The soundtrack often veers loud with the Pixies or Love and Rockets blasting out onto the patio, though J and BC inform me that they’ll happily put on cartoons for your kid. The Rider’s Club is basically the perfect post-beach joint, and nothing tastes better after a long day in the sun than a cold beer and salty, fatty grub.

PS. If you really want to put that final sparkle on your evening, the little chocolate puddings housed in Dixie cups are basically all the things you ever wanted chocolate pudding to be. Just so you can’t say that nobody ever told you.