Category Archives: Landmarks

El Sabor de México

For some, it’s the mountainous villages of the Himalayas.  For others, it’s the expansive vineyards of France, or the five star spas that dot the American Southwest.

For me, it’s the colorful spirit of Mexico that keeps me returning time and again — despite my world map being riddled with “to go” pins.

From the turquoise waters of the Yucatan’s Caribbean coast to the desert paradise of Baja California Sur, and from ancient Mayan ceremonies to the bustling urban mercados, Mexico’s people (love you, Claudia!), culture and food occupy a very special place in mi corazón.

There was a spectacular stretch of time when I ate more ceviche than tuna fish, and “hola” rolled off my tongue more naturally than “hello.”

But now, it’s been more than two years since I’ve set foot on Mexican soil.  Despite a potent call to head south, my recent travel time and budget has been dominated by family and friend gatherings in New York, Michigan and other, well, far less Latin destinations.

I’ve been due for a taste of Mexico for quite some time.

But with no imminent plans to cross the border, I looked towards a more proximate alternative to tide me over — a twenty-minute trip downtown to Olvera Street on El Día de los Muertos.

On any given day, Olvera Street — which lies at the heart of the city’s birthplace, El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument — ­sparkles with brightly hued textiles, ceramic and leather goods, and the sweet scent of sugary churros and horchata.

Colorful Carts Line Olvera Street

 

Hanging Huaraches

Lucha Libre Masks

But on El Día de los Muertos, the street literally teems with life — and death.

Calaveras de Azúcar

It is far from morbid, however.

Celebrated primarily in Mexico, El Día de los Muertos has its roots in a pre-Hispanic festival dedicated to Mictecacihuatl, Aztec “Lady of the Dead.”  Now associated with the Catholic All Souls’ Day, the holiday — arguably Mexico’s grandest — celebrates and honors the lives of those who have passed beyond this world.

And it offers up a colossal feast for the senses.

Everywhere you look, strings of orange, green, yellow, pink, purple, red and blue papel picado, or paper cut out designs of flowers and birds abound.  The pan flute and mariachi music provide the day’s soundtrack, while Mexican flags and bougainvillea blow in the breeze.

Papel Picado Surrounds an Altar

 

Pre-Columbian Music

The people are no exception.

Men, women and children dress up in “dandy” outfits, and paint on skeleton faces to embody and celebrate the duality of life and death.

La Familia Solano: Ike, Maribel y Juan

La Vida y La Muerte

Altars to those who have died are strewn with photographs, flowers, fruit, blankets, sombreros, bread, and calaveras de azúcar, or sugar skulls.

Life After Death

The Music Lives On

Mexican Marigolds, Pan de Muerto and More

Some are poignant, honoring a young man, for example, whose life was extinguished several decades too early.

Remembering ...

Others are more whimsical, giving a gleeful nod to the deceased’s penchant for popping open a cold one.

This Bud's For You

But no matter which way you turn, one thing’s for certain: El Día de los Muertos on Olvera Street offers up an intense flavor of Mexico — both figuratively and literally.

Chomping on a Churro and Sipping Horchata

Now I think I’ll be able to hold out a little longer — at least until Cinco de Mayo.

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Filed under Cultural, Food, Holidays, Landmarks, Los Angeles

Painting The Town Pink

Most incarnations of pink make me cringe.  The mere sight of certain shades seems to spontaneously force-feed me sickeningly saccharine candy and cause Hello Kitty hallucinations.

My aversion to the color is traceable to at least 1983.  That was the year my parents bestowed a great gift upon us kids — an apartment big enough for my younger brother Justin and I each to have our own bedroom.

Now, those in the know have informed me that, well in advance of my second birthday, I had grown rather adept at articulating my opinion.  It’s understandable then, that by the age of eight, I had stated in no uncertain terms my preference for lavender — NOT pink — as the theme color for my new room.

So imagine my mortification on move-in day when I, eager to affix my Simon Le Bon and John Taylor posters inches above my pillow, rushed in to find pink carpet AND a pink canopy bed.  Gross!

(It turned out that the painter had convinced my parents — who apparently out of short-term self-preservation thought it best not to convey that information to me — that the limited natural light on that particular side of the apartment would make lavender appear a dull and unattractive gray.)

More than 25 years later, pink is still a personal pariah.  I cannot recall a time when my lips or nails have been painted any color on the spectrum between cream and tomato red.  I’ll pick peppermint over bubblegum any day.  And the only pink articles of clothing or accessories for which I have exchanged cash or credit were soon thereafter gifted to Britney, my cousin Nicole’s six-year-old daughter.  Simply put, I don’t do pink.

Except when it comes to kitschy Los Angeles landmarks.

For such bastions of Americana, I’ll even suspend my ordinarily meat-free diet and embrace a plate full of it, enclosed in a bun and overflowing with too brightly hued condiments.

Enter Pink’s — a Hollywood mainstay since 1939.

World Famous Pink's Hot Dogs on La Brea and Melrose

71 Years and Counting...

More than seventy years ago, Paul Pink first parked his pushcart full of chili dogs at the intersection of Melrose and La Brea.  His hot dogs became so popular that, seven years later, Mr. Pink upgraded to a permanent establishment on the very same corner — out of which the Pink family still dishes up meaty treats to throngs of customers, locals and tourists alike.

Unable to remember the last time I had filled my belly with such forms of sustenance, I figured that my plans to see Judd, a fellow native New Yorker/high school friend now living in West Hollywood, provided the perfect opportunity to pop my Pink’s cherry.

Kitchen Antics

Meeting there at 8:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night enabled us to avoid the labyrinthine queue that customarily assembles outside Pink’s on any given weekend night.  We had only a few moments to scan the extensive menu, which has clearly been supplemented since Pink’s inaugural days.  For instance, I was particularly drawn to the Patt Morrison Baja Veggie Dog, a vegan “hot dog” topped with guacamole, onions and tomatoes.

Only in Hollyweird...

But I hadn’t come to Pink’s to play it safe.

After all, if you’re gonna go, go big.  Right?

And so I did: a hot dog, drowned in chili and sauerkraut, and then smothered in ketchup and mustard.  Oh, and a heaping portion of colossal, well-bronzed onion rings.

Yep, That's Right

Taking the Plunge

Childhood fans of Gray’s Papaya (a younger, but equally well-loved New York City hot dog mini-chain) and the ubiquitous food carts gracing countless city corners, Judd and I were a tough audience.  My ultimate conclusion was that I preferred Gray’s Papaya’s toasted buns, but that Pink’s onion rings were a crispy force with which to be reckoned.

Requisite Celebrity Wall

After eating all that we could stomach, Judd and I caught up on life, as our arteries processed the veritable shock into which we had sent them.

Inside Pink's Palace

As we tossed our chili-stained plates into the trash and headed south to the Little Bar for a post-feast beer, I was delighted, after all these years, to have finally crossed Pink’s off my to-do list.

And when I awoke the following morning, I was even more elated — I hadn’t needed a dose of a certain over-the-counter medication of the same color.

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A Semblance of Summer

For those of us living west of Lincoln Boulevard, the summer of 2010 is an utter oxymoron.

June Gloom far overstayed its welcome.  I drank more green tea on my couch than beers at the beach.  My skin remained an unacceptable shade of sallow.  And the ocean temperatures never grew tolerable.  (Well, except for that one time at 3:30 a.m. after a wedding and seven glasses of champagne…)

But in between all those wintry days were a few, precious sunny ones.  And you can rest assured that I was going to squeeze as much summer as possible out of them (even if they were chilly enough to pass for autumn on the Siberian peninsula).

And what screams “southern California summer” more than an afternoon at the Santa Monica pier?

The World Famous Santa Monica Pier

So, as soon as the marine fog miraculously gave way to an azure sky, I called on Tyrone — my Stanford friend and neighbor extraordinaire — to leave the world of gaming behind in his man cave and join me for an afternoon of good, clean fun.

Tyrone and I

We hopped on our beach cruisers and, within moments, turned north onto the beachside bike path, joining the throngs of others drinking in the glorious day.

As we passed under the pier’s welcome sign and advanced towards the water, I realized I needed to channel some of my New York City mojo to embrace what might otherwise have been an assault of the senses.

After successfully making that adjustment, I gazed upon the spectacle before me with wonder.  Within roughly fifty yards, I could buy a whopping portion of fluffy pink and blue cotton candy, soar on a trapeze, have my photo taken with a cardboard cutout of Tupac…and, most importantly, ride the “West Roller Coaster” and consume massive amounts of funnel cake.

Sugar!!!

Glittery Bumper Cars

Ah, American capitalism.

But first, a little history.

The Santa Monica Pier we know and love today is actually two piers, one constructed over the course of sixteen months in 1908-09 — initially built to support sewer lines extending past the break point — and a shorter pier, built in 1916 by a father and son duo of amusement park entrepreneurs.  More than two decades later, the bridge and entry gate were built in connection with FDR’s Works Project Administration.

As for the icons of entertainment subsequently constructed on top, the famous carousel, which features a calliope (a musical instrument of large, chromatically tuned whistles through which sound is produced by steam or compressed air) and 44 hand-carved horses, was built in 1922.  During the middle of the century, La Monica Ballroom (now closed) hosted Spade Cooley, a famous swing musician, whose career came to an abrupt halt when he was arrested and convicted for murdering his wife.  The ballroom later served as a roller skating rink.

Today’s pier contains Pacific Park — home to a massive Ferris wheel and other carnival-style games and rides — as well as an aquarium, arcade, restaurants, a trapeze school and more.

Pacific Park

There are even concrete slabs for use by the ubiquitous fishermen and women — right underneath the conspicuous signs warning that eating mussels caught there could result in three-headed babies and gender reassignment.  (I embellish.)

Bait Plate

Since reading them did absolutely nothing to eliminate our hunger, Tyrone and I decided to pack in some calories before embarking on the superhuman test of patience that is the roller coaster line on one of the summer’s only sunny weekend days.

After perusing our somewhat limited options while meandering and marveling at the views of Santa Monica Bay, we finally settled on Mariasol Cocina Mexicana at the far end of the pier.

View of Pacific Park Outside Mariasol Cocina Mexicana

Now, when you’re smack dab in the middle of one of America’s most visited tourist attractions, you can generally count on two things when it comes to a restaurant: (1) it will be preposterously overpriced and (2) it is likely to suck.

I can’t say much about the quesadilla I ordered, other than the fact that, sitting on a plate as large as my kitchen table, was a tepid tortilla with some undercooked onions and mushrooms stuffed inside.

But Tyrone’s strawberry margarita?  Damn.  It transformed my “play it safe” decision to order a beer into a seriously chump move.  I don’t ordinarily go for blended drinks, let alone flavored ones, but this vessel of deliciousness alone was worth the exorbitant bill that Tyrone so graciously covered.

The Man, The Shirt and The Drink

Bellies full, we bought our roller coaster tickets and, amongst the childish mayhem occurring at waist level, we located the end of the line and stoically began to wait.  And wait.  And wait.

And it wasn’t getting any warmer.  The summer dress I had donned hours earlier because, well, it seemed like the right thing to do, was slowly but surely beginning to feel like a shrinking piece of gauze.

Despite an acute case of goose bumps, there was no turning back.  I huddled close to Tyrone, and creatively visualized myself baking in the steamy hot Caribbean sun, while we slowly made our way through the labyrinth and up the steps.

And then it was our turn.

It wasn’t the biggest or scariest or most gut-wrenching roller coaster I’d ever had the privilege of riding.  But we were sufficiently tossed about — while the southern California sun shone on our faces, and the Pacific Ocean sparkled all around.

I would endure the wait all over again…with a scarf and sweatshirt.

As we giddily put our feet back on the “ground,” the thought of a hot bath at home sounded very tempting.

But before I let this semblance of summer slip through my fingers, Tyrone and I still had some unfinished business to attend…

Funnel Cake!

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Shrine of Synchronicity

Go ahead, roll your eyes or call it what you (or my very East Coast parents) will — new age-y, mumbo jumbo, California beach brain — but I firmly subscribe to the notion that there are no coincidences, only universally intended synchronicities.  Sure, their underlying significance may be elusive, but when they happen, I can’t help but take notice.

So, cut to a sunny afternoon in Santa Monica at my beloved Café Bolivar, where the nourishing food is as delicious as the rich coffee, the staff as warm as the sunlight drenching the bright orange chairs, and the music as global as the Manu Chao station on Pandora.com.

After savoring the last bite of a steaming hot arepa (Venezuelan corn bread with a dose of magic) stuffed with mango and avocado, I flipped open my MacBook Pro and began typing.  In between paragraphs, I smiled hello to a man settling in to the table next to me, with a folder in hand.  We had never met, but recognized each other as Bolivar regulars.

After affably introducing himself, Marty — who reminded me of my father, only five inches taller and considerably more mellow — asked what I was writing.  Tickled to talk to anyone who might be interested in hearing about my blog, I enthusiastically explained the concept behind The Local Gypsy, and began rattling off the adventures upon which I had already embarked.

As I navigated to http://www.thelocalgypsy.com and pointed the screen his way to give him a glimpse, Marty asked what my next activity would be.  Before the words “Lake Shrine” fully escaped my lips, he slapped the wooden table in exclamation.

Lake Shrine's "Wall-less" Temple

Umm, was it something I said?

My confusion was extinguished a moment later, however, when he extracted from his folder a black and white photo of Paramahansa Yogananda.

Wow.

Paramahansa Yogananda

Paramahansa Yogananda — Indian guru, author of Autobiography of a Yogi, and founder of the worldwide spiritual organization, Self-Realization Fellowship — established Lake Shrine Temple in 1950.  A ten-acre gem located just east of the Pacific Ocean on Sunset Boulevard in the Pacific Palisades, Lake Shrine is home to astounding natural beauty: a spring-fed lake and waterfalls, countless species of trees, dazzling flowers and abundant animals, including swans, koi, turtles and dragonflies.  The lush grounds also feature the Mahatma Gandhi World Peace Memorial (where some of the famed leader’s ashes are consecrated in a 1,000-year-old Chinese sarcophagus), a “wall-less” temple, a Dutch windmill, Court of Religions, a houseboat — and, since 1996, a hilltop temple in which large group meditations and services are regularly held.  (See here for the event calendar.)

Paradise on Sunset Boulevard

Lake Shrine also happens to be nestled directly across Sunset Boulevard from Paseo Miramar, a winding road that leads to a Topanga State Park hiking trail that I frequent.  I must have laid eyes on Lake Shrine’s welcome sign close to fifty times, yet I had never turned into its parking lot.

And now, a fellow Café Bolivar lover, whom I too had seen on many occasions but had only just met, turned out to be a Lake Shrine volunteer and Yogananda devotee, offering to take me on a personal tour.

Yes, please.

And so we arranged to visit Lake Shrine together on a Thursday, in order to catch the weekly 12:00-12:30 p.m. monk-guided meditation.  As Monday turned into Tuesday, and Tuesday into Wednesday, I began to sense that, although it had taken me five years to get there, the time was ripe.

Indeed it was.

The preceding week had been extraordinarily frenetic.  My birthday, a houseguest, friends’ parties, and the final days of the World Cup kept my social calendar buzzing and liver working overtime; the penetrating and unrelenting June Gloom prevented the sun from offering calming respite and recharge.  And bubbling excitement over a new project was energetically challenged by physical exhaustion and the scratchy-throat threat of a cold.  Let’s just say that I needed to chill — badly.

And that’s exactly what happened when I stepped past the “Welcome to these Meditation Gardens” sign and into the tranquil vortex that is Lake Shrine.

It was as if I had walked through an invisible doorway that sifted out all my stress and tension, and then, weightlessly, I entered another dimension full of light and color — sort of like Dorothy must have felt when she and Toto were deposited in the Land of Oz.

Turtle and Dragonfly Haven

Perhaps the most striking realization I had while gazing out on the landscape before me was that this place is actually real, and not a psychedelically inspired scene from a film.  The sights, sounds and scents were truly intoxicating.

The Court of Religions Honors the World's Principal Five: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam

And I could not have been more grateful for Marty.  As we meandered down the path surrounding the lake, he enlightened me on historical points of interest; the site, for example, had been a movie set in the early days of Hollywood.  We discussed the lotus flower motif in the wall-less temples’ pinnacles and the dedication of Gandhi’s memorial.  Marty also described how he, ten years earlier, had found the Self-Realization Fellowship, and touched on Yogananda’s teachings and the ancient practice of Kriya Yoga.

Dutch Windmill Meditation Chapel

Upon reaching the Dutch windmill that had been converted into an airy chapel, we took seats and adjusted our postures in preparation for meditation.  Save for my occasional dry cough that at times frustrated my concentration and which, for a moment and the sake of others, led me to consider walking outside, the thirty minutes seemed to fly by — a bold statement, mind you, for someone as antsy as I.

Mahatma Gandhi World Peace Memorial

Following the meditation exercises, Marty graciously introduced me to the gentle monk who had guided them, and then led me up a set of stairs to the stunning hilltop temple.  Unlike many of the synagogues and churches I’ve visited, this edifice was flooded with light, and seemed to glow from within.  I made a mental note to check my schedule and return soon for a Friday night group meditation.

Magical Place

After delighting in the colorful koi congregating near the houseboat, talk of the Krishna sculpture reminded me that, through two separate groups of friends, I knew a man in LA named Krishna, who had grown up in and met his girlfriend through the Self-Realization Fellowship tradition.

Krishna

When I mentioned this to Marty, his expression shifted.   I went further, stating Krishna’s last name; Marty’s eyes widened, and, before he finished saying, “He lives with my daughter,” I blurted, “Your daughter’s Samantha?!”

WOW.

This simply can’t be reduced to mere coincidence.

But why these synchronicities?

I can’t say for sure.  Perhaps someday it will be abundantly clear.

In the meantime, I’m going to crack open my brand new copy of Autobiography of a Yogi.

With Marty in The Court of Religions

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Filed under Cultural, Landmarks, Peaceful

American “Pie”

What’s big and round and has America written all over it?

Nope, not apple pie.

I’m talking BIG.  REALLY BIG.  Like 32.5 feet in diameter.

In case you haven’t already guessed…

The Famous Randy's Donuts

The well-known Los Angeles landmark — a giant donut perched atop the roadside shack that is now Randy’s Donuts — has been drawing the likes of locals, tourists and, of course, Hollywood for decades.

Designed by Henry J. Goodwin and built in 1953, the donut shop was originally the second of ten locations of the Big Donut Drive-In chain.  Like the famous Tail o’ the Pup hot dog stand in Los Angeles (built in 1946 and currently awaiting its second relocation), it is a prime example of the kitschy “programmatic architecture” that became popular in the first half of the 20th century.  The “onomatopoeia,” if you will, of building construction, the term is used to describe shops and restaurants built to resemble the goods they sold — an architectural gimmick to draw in the throngs of people riding the explosive wave of American automobile culture.

Tail O' The Pup (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

While many of these novelty buildings have fallen prey to demolition, this particular one continues to thrive well into the 21st century.  After changing hands several times and acquiring the name “Randy’s Donuts,” the shop was purchased in 1978 by brothers Larry and Ron Weintraub, who have been churning out the sugary treats ever since.

Today, Randy’s Donuts is recognized on a global scale.  Not only is the colossal donut structure in close proximity to LAX (the world’s 6th busiest airport in terms of passenger traffic), it has also made multiple pop culture cameo appearances.  Notable examples include the films Earth Girls Are Easy and Coming to America, as well as Randy Newman’s music video for his 1980s ode to the City of Angels, “I Love LA.”  (Watch this and travel back in time.)

It is also the cover image for the critically acclaimed Time Out Los Angeles city guide – a copy of which happens to have a home on my bedside table.  Glancing at it the other day, I thought how curious it was that I had yet to sample the doughy deliciousness and snap a shot of the iconic building.

There are at least two reasons for that.

The first is simple:  I love donuts.

While in recent years I’ve traded in pizza for quinoa and Mr. Goodbar for organic dark chocolate, donuts will always occupy a special place in my palate and heart.

The passage of more than two decades has done nothing to diminish the thrill of crowding around the kitchen table with my brother and cousins, as my Grandma Helen and Grandpa Phil strolled in the door, sporting grand smiles and a paper box stuffed with glazed, powdered and chocolate frosted circles of sweetness.

The second reason may be a bit quirkier.

I have an obsession with Americana.  Something tells me that, in a past life, I cruised down Route 66 in a turquoise and chrome convertible, weaving through red desert mesas under the azure western sky.  Just ask my brother, Justin; not a day passed on our cross-country road trip when I didn’t drag him to Graceland, Cadillac Ranch or the Big Texan.

So how was it that Randy’s Donuts  — a mere 7.2 miles from my front door — was sure to serve up a dose of both guilty pleasures, and I had yet to indulge?

Well … as they say, timing is everything.

And July 4th was just around the corner.  What better way to celebrate American independence, I thought, than to stuff myself with thousands of calories at a tourist attraction?

As the afternoon sun beat out the morning fog this past Saturday, I visually shape-shifted my 2005 Subaru Outback into a 1957 Chevy Bel Air and headed towards Randy’s Donuts.

Located at the intersection of Manchester and La Cienega Boulevards in Inglewood, Randy’s Donuts is open 24 hours a day and boasts both drive-thru and walk-up window options.  Though the former seemed more in the spirit of the era that spawned such a spectacle, the promise of warm sun on my face was too enticing.

After taking some requisite photos, I practically skipped to the menu to decide what it would be.  Apple fritter?  Chocolate glazed?  Cinnamon?  After a few moments of indecision — I wanted them all — I decided to go with the sugar-glazed classic, a mere 70 cents.

As I handed the cheery clerk a dollar bill, and she in turn placed in my palm a donut that seemed nearly as big as the replica towering over us, I started to salivate.

As I stepped away, I took my first bite.  It was positively scrumptious.

And then I did what any good American does.  I ate the whole thing.

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