L.A. has many spots that transport you away from the freeways, smog, and traffic — you just have to know where to find them. Hidden in Cliff’s Edge, on busy Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, is a glorious patio shaded by an ancient Ficus tree. Hugged by sky-high bamboo hedges, the outdoor space plants you in a tropical wonderland, where you can splurge on cocktails and comfort food to your heart’s content. But because Cliff’s Edge is hardly a secret, it’s best to make a reservation if you want to be seated for Sunday brunch.
This was our second time in LA’s Little Tokyo – my first ever to any Little Tokyo, for that matter. On previous trips downtown, this enclave filled with shabu-shabu restaurants, bakeries, and Hello Kitty adorned boutique windows had kept itself a secret. Our initial discovery had been by chance, on a Sunday, when the space was packed with people; finding such a bustling spot in the midst of the usual weekend slow-mo was unexpected and welcomed. Dodging the lines that snaked out of every doorway, we found ourselves in a supermarket, distracted at every turn. Sweet and savoury, the colourful packaged goods decorated in anime and Japanese writing seduced themselves into our carry basket. We left $50 richer in rice crackers, matcha, and mochi, and made a vow to return on a quieter day. So that’s how we found ourselves in the area on a Tuesday, ready to explore.
From Little Tokyo you can see the tops of the buildings that comprise downtown LA; you have the Arts District to one side of it, and the Japanese American National History Museum at its end. The area is made up of about 5 blocks in total.
The Japanese American National History Museum opened in 1992 – 50 years after Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the imprisonment of Japanese Americans. At the end of WWII, many Japanese returned to Little Tokyo; today however, most live in the surrounding cities of LA. We didn’t have time to explore the museum, but visited its store brimmed with Japanese knick knacks, art, and books.
Says Wikipedia…because of the global and local growth of overseas Japanese investment, Little Tokyo has resisted eradication and has continued to exist as a tourist attraction, community center, and home to Japanese American senior citizens and others…
On my visits, I haven’t noticed a distinct tourist vibe in Little Tokyo – a good thing, and while many Japanese Americans may have moved out of the area, it is obvious that they congregate here.
FOOD: red bean ice cream from Mikawaya Mochi Ice Cream, pour over coffees at Dulce Cafe, a green tea Malaysian Roti pastry, and rows of sake bottles – from specialty stores to grocery aisles, the international influence is woven into a strong Japanese fabric.
Fully prepared to suffer the consequences of another grocery trip of riches, we made our way towards Weller Court, the location of the supermarket we’d found on our first visit to J-town, as the area is nicknamed. What we weren’t prepared for was a greeting of yellow police tape.
Baffled and feeling as if we’d overstayed our welcome, we turned around and made tracks to the car. We did stop at a smaller Japanese supermarket along the way, though our state of mind was firmly rooted back in the US of A.
When I think back on the two years we lived in San Clemente, I begin to miss it. Living near the beach was always on my wish list, and that wish was granted when we relocated to the ‘Spanish Village by the Sea.’ However, a couple of years later, I felt the pull of the city and longed for the urban sprawl; our move to LA was short lived when a job opportunity came up in New York. I seized it; we moved back. Now, over a year later, I am frequently in a California state of mind. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
You may have heard of San Clemente through its associations with Nixon and his ‘Western White House.’ Perhaps you have spotted photos of residents such as actor Dominic Purcell, or professional skateboarder Ryan Sheckler, snapped unawares on their home turf, within the pages of a magazine. You may have even visited, lived in, or driven through San Clemente. After all, it is the midway point between Los Angeles and San Diego, and the final pit stop before you embark on a long stretch of uninterrupted army base. Maybe San Clemente is completely lost on you. Before relocating, I knew nothing of the place. I hadn’t even heard of it.
My first impression of San Clemente was that it reminded me of a beach town just outside of Sydney, Australia called Terrigal. About 25 years ago, my family used to pack up the car and set off on a week’s holiday to this beachside spot. But today’s Terrigal suffers from overdevelopment, and has lost its small town appeal. To me, San Clemente feels like Terrigal during its golden years, and I was immediately drawn to that. Until a huge hotel plops itself right across from the beach, San Clemente will continue to be a cute beach town in Orange County.
I loved to catch sight of the ocean on my daily walks. I remember breathing ‘wow’ as its blue would came into view. The Pacific Ocean was always welcoming, especially on sunny days when it would glitter and shine. On most days, the water looked like a still infinity pool, disrupted only by the waves as they lapped the shore. On other days, when the mist would fall thick and the waves would kick up a notch, surfers would suddenly appear on the horizon. They’d lay on their boards, perched like seals, in anticipation of catching the next wave. The haziness of such days was temporary as the sun would eventually peek out.
I also miss taking strolls in and around San Clemente’s maze of gently curving and undulating streets, quiet, except for the sound of an oncoming car or the blare of the train’s horn as it passed through the beachfront station. Each street was punctuated with Spanish Colonial style homes and fully tended-to gardens. On show: robust citrus trees, blooming bougainvillea, cacti, and if I was lucky, a hummingbird hovering over a bottle brush tree (this is when nostalgia would set is in as the bottle brush is endemic to Australia). As symbolic as palm trees are to the city of Los Angeles, San Clemente’s streets are filled with them. They are not the city’s official city tree – that’s the Coral tree — they aren’t even native to the terrain, but they look like they belong and the scene wouldn’t be complete without them.
Why all this reminiscing? Well, when I think of San Clemente, three things come to mind. The ocean, the outdoors, and the Blue Danube restaurant, which was the reason we moved to San Clemente. If it wasn’t for the Blue Danube, where my husband was offered a job, we might have never moved to the West Coast. And we recently found out that the restaurant will be closing its doors forever. San Clemente is not renowned for its dining scene; however, it is undeniable that the Blue Danube Restaurant is the grandest of all the dining establishments in the area, spanning 10,000 square feet. Its Austrian-inspired menu never failed to please with Weiner schnitzel, spaetzle and red cabbage. Formerly the site of San Clemente’s first jailhouse, the restaurant includes a number of themed rooms, including two jail cells that were transformed into private dining rooms.
We hold a great many memories at the Blue Danube. I remember feasting on gravy-soaked turkey and my favourite side of mash on the restaurant patio at Thanksgiving, surrounded by family and friends. I remember attending an elaborate family wedding – just when I had thought it would be impossible to use every square inch of the restaurant space, I was proven wrong on that day. I’ll never forget enjoying a delectable homemade cheese strudel with a Vienna coffee, appropriately surrounded by Gustav Klimt artworks. I’ll never forget the beautiful sounds of the piano, as the restaurant’s owner played classical music upon request. Not having the Blue Danube around means that it won’t be possible to create any more memories there. Aside from the memories, perhaps the thing that sticks out most in my mind is the love and support that the restaurant’s owners – Ali’s family – extended to us during our time in San Clemente. I hope their next adventure will be as exciting as the one of the past decade.
And San Clemente – we’ll be back sooner than you think.
I was born in Australia, but grew up with a strong connection to my Russian heritage. When we were kids, mum and dad brought us up to embrace our Russianess: we went to Russian School on Saturdays (mum was a teacher there too), we ate homemade Russian cuisine, we holidayed on Russian cruise liners, I traveled to Russia on my 21st birthday, we attended Easter midnight mass at the Russian Orthodox Church every year, which is held at the same church Ali and I were married in on 1 May, 2011.
Now that I live in New York, I look back with nostalgia. Luckily, I live in Brooklyn and am close enough to Brighton Beach, the home of a significant Russian community, where Russian is widely spoken, and many of the stores feature Cyrillic signage. There are plenty of beauty and nail salons, bookstores with Russian works and DVDs, and stores carrying designer brands such as Gucci (or is that Guci?). In the cooler months, people don’t sport leisure suits because it’s so cold by the ocean. Instead, everyone is rugged up in classic jackets and boots while shopping and socialising at the markets.
Referred to as “Little Russia By the Sea” or “Little Odessa” after its many Ukrainian immigrants, the area was developed in 1868 and only became known as Brighton Beach after a naming contest in 1878. The name is based on the British seaside resort, Brighton. The Russian Jewish population settled here during the 1980s, and an influx of residents from the former Soviet Union came in 1991. Brighton Beach holds the largest Russian population in the US.
The main street, Brighton Beach Avenue, runs through the neighbourhood, and is the best place to stock up on Russian food staples. Piroshki (savoury deep fried doughnuts with meat, potato or cabbage filling) and cheese danishes are sold from sidewalk stands. The supermarkets sell a variety of Russian packaged goods, breads, meats, and cheeses, and in-store food buffets offer plenty of dishes by the pound. Beet salad, potato salad, fish cutlets, pork chops, herring, caviar, pickled cabbage, meat-filled blinchiki (crepes). A great recipe for them can be found here: http://www.azcookbook.com/meat-stuffed-blinchiki-crepes/
Coney Island Beach runs parallel to Brighton Beach Avenue. A walk down one of the side streets will lead you to an expansive, unobstructed view of the Atlantic Ocean. Benches line the boardwalk, and in summer, this space is jammed with people. As it was fall, however, only a few were enjoying the sunset or shooting the breeze.
I noticed that the Millennium Theatre on Brighton Beach Avenue will be hosting a Russian Holiday Circus & Carnival. I may need to come back for it.
SLIDESHOW with more images of Brighton Beach (there are quite a few and you many have to scroll through those already included above):