Sunday, July 19, 2015

This city I now call home

Griffith Observatory, an LA landmark

I did not like living in Los Angeles for the first year that I was here.  My decision to move here had been based on a certainty that the medical school and research training programs at UCLA were an intellectual fit, along with a vaguer sense that I would "click" well with the program ethos and its students.  I knew there would be more than enough in the way of cultural opportunities, outdoors activities, and gastronomy, and I also felt reassured to be just a six-hour drive from Davis. 

Those rationale did not make the transition easy, though.  LA is a city dramatically different from the NorCal college town bubbles (Davis and Stanford) that were so familiar, and this reality confronted me in some unexpectedly silly ways.  For instance, one of my favorite activities in Palo Alto was biking from my apartment to the Sunday morning Farmers Market on California Avenue.  On one of my first weekends in Los Angeles, I thought I'd rent a bike at the Santa Monica Pier and go for a leisurely ride along the beach path.  Little did I know that a weekend afternoon in June is a terrible time to seek peace and quiet anywhere near the Third Street Promenade.  After twenty minutes of navigating around clusters of tourists both on foot and on bike, I accidentally swerved off the path, fell into the sand with the bike on top of me, and decided it was high time to get a disgruntled ice cream.  (Also, this was several years before people started biking along the beach while using selfie sticks, a phenomenon which has become lamentably common this year.)

In fact this afternoon was documented in an early blog post, though at the time I chose to recount it in stubbornly cheerful and dessert-centric terms.  

I also vividly remember the first time I drove from West LA to Pasadena to visit friends and found myself stuck in - all together now! - traffic, resulting in a GPS-guided detour through East LA before finally arriving at my destination 45 minutes late.  That is very late, and I was mortified.

Now, over four years later and halfway through med/grad school, the smoggy car culture bothers me a little less, and I've gotten used to inflating my estimated travel times by at least 25% to allow for traffic and parking.  I’m surprised to find myself quite comfortable here, especially in West LA, and I enthusiastically recommend all sorts of restaurants, hikes, and other outings to people who are even newer to LA than I.  LA has plenty of serious problems, including its disjointed sprawl and lack of earthquake preparedness.  But it is also stunningly diverse in its people, culture, scenery, and food, and it is a city full of unexpected opportunities for excitement and inspiration.  I believe that everyone can find some part(s) of this city with which they resonate.

And if home is where the heart is, then this summer LA has truly become a home, since Andrew completed his PhD and moved here in June.  After four years of Skype and short visits, exploring LA together without counting the hours left is a blessing.  Being able to establish our daily and weekly routines in the same city and same apartment has made me indescribably happy.

At this transition in my life, I wanted to describe three places in West LA that I have found to be consistently welcoming and comforting, and played a considerable role in my adjustment to this city.  There are always more new places to try - just last night Andrew and I visited The Wallace in Culver City for the first time and had a wonderful meal there -, but here are the places to which I keep returning.

Breakfast sandwiches at Milo & Olive

1) Milo & Olive.  I first came here for dinner and lunch with my friend Ivana, who has sadly since moved to Boston (boo!) to become a fabulous internal medicine physician (yay!).  I think I prefer Milo & Olive's pizzas over Pizzeria Mozza's.  What I like most about this restaurant, however, is their breakfast, which I've enjoyed on my own, with friends, and with Andrew.  The menu is refined but comforting, delicious, and not overpriced, and the case of photogenic baked goods is impossible to ignore.  My favorite pastries here are the sticky buns and brioche, and the seasonal fruit tart - quince makes an appearance in the fall - with a thick laminated crust and tons of vanilla custard is also a must-order. They serve great coffee, are friendly and unassuming, and take care of single diners just as well as groups.  The restaurant has recently expanded, so waits are presumably shorter, but the morning atmosphere remains soothing and welcoming.

2) The Getty Center.  I'm not sure whether I can or even should try to describe this work of art that contains a remarkable trove of artwork, yet is a soul-feeding place even for people who don't think of themselves as "liking art" or "arty."  You can picnic, read, learn, socialize, and meditate there.  It's beautiful at all angles, in all kinds of weather, at all times of day.  Parking is $15/car, which is a staggeringly low admission fee if you carpool, and you can also avoid that if you take a bus from Westwood.

3) The Saturday morning Santa Monica Farmers Market, at Virginia Park on Pico Blvd.  I've been to the markets in Pacific Palisades, Larchmont, Westwood, and Brentwood, and I know the Wednesday Santa Monica Market is legendary, but the Virginia/Pico market suits me perfectly.  It's on the smaller side, which makes it easy to navigate without feeling overwhelmed by options.  The atmosphere is mellow, and there is no petting zoo, bouncy house, or cluster of stands hawking dairy-free, gluten-free, antioxidant-boosted, high-protein "power food" cupcakes / juices / handwoven hemp pillows.

My favorite produce vendors are on the right side of the first row as you enter from the parking area: strawberries from the first stand (Gloria's); citrus or stone fruit from the stand in the middle; and greens, tomatoes, herbs, and eggplant from the stand at the end of that row (the one with an eye-catching display of cherry tomatoes).  The bulk salad greens and Weiser farm potatoes in the second row are also reliably great.

Market haul from a couple weeks ago

An aside: last weekend we went to the Sunday morning Brentwood market because I was busy on Saturday, and I took a photo of cherriums that got featured in Food52's weekly recap of market photos:

With exceptions like last Sunday, Andrew and I have already made breakfast and shopping at the Virginia Park market our Saturday morning routine, starting with coffee at the Local coffee stand ($1 if you bring your own mug) and a pastry from Rockenwagner +/- a fresh tamale.  It's a happy Saturday that begins at this market and ends with dinner at home:

In my new-to-me apartment kitchen I have and use two pots that belonged to my former Palo Alto landlady Mae (may she rest in peace).  These days I am frequently reminded of something that Mae once said to me as we stood in her kitchen on a summer afternoon: "We have so much to be grateful for."  Indeed, I do.