Warning: You are stepping into the territory of a overly excited wannabe photographer who was convinced she saw million-dollar shots every where she turned. So be ready for a flood of pictures.
I used to want to live in New York City. After all, that’s apparently the “greatest city” in America, though many New Yorkers will extend it to the ranks of all the greatest cities in the world. And each time I visit, I get wooed by the city’s glittering skyscrapers rising out against the background of this historically and culturally rich metropolis.
But then I discovered I really, really don’t like the bitter chill and snow storms of Manhattan. I also found the super ambitious, super speedy pace of the general East Coast population rather stressful. Plus, when the people keep insisting that NYC is the best city in the world, you kinda want to rebel and prove them wrong.
So I decided I wanted to live in San Francisco, where the people are chill and open-minded. But it turned out to be a bit too liberal for me. And again, the weather in San Francisco can be just as atrocious.
Currently I live in Los Angeles, and I love the weather, love the eccentric and multiethnic people, love the balance of liberals and conservatives, love that there’s always something new to discover and do. I love everything about L.A…except the traffic.
The freeways in Los Angeles is the one place where no matter what race, what gender, what political party or religion you belong to, you all turn into herds of road rage models displaying all forms of aggression.
San Diego has many of the nicer qualities of all the cities mentioned above—without the head-busting L.A. traffic, the East Coast stress, or the SF summer parkas. Thus when I visited San Diego this weekend, I let myself dream a little about making San Diego my future dream city.
I blame my friend Joanna. She really planned out the perfect itinerary for me.
The first night, she took me to Happy Hour at a chic Japanese restaurant in the historic Gas Lamp Quarter. And then she whisked me off to stroll by the peaceful waterfront. She pampered me with a spacious kitchen and Food Network.
The next morning—Saturday, Feb 18, 2012—we got up nice and early (early for me anyway) and drove about half an hour up north to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve for a brisk hike.
Torrey Pines is a stretch of hill-like island brushing against the Southern California coast, paved with gentle trails that grant stunning views over pristine beaches. It is also the highly protected home of Torrey pine trees, the rarest native pine tree in America.
Here’s a tip: You can find street parking about 10 minutes walk away from Torrey Pine, instead of paying $10 for its designated parking lot. No need to park right in front of the island, when you can get in about half a mile of scenic walk by the beaches.
Another tip: Come early in the morning when the waves are perfect for surfing. Then you can goggle at ripped surfers in their tight wetsuits striding out among the waves with their surfboards, whipping droplets of gleaming sea water from their ocean-bleached hair.
Okay, that didn’t really happen for Joanna and me. We were sorely disappointed because for some reason, that day’s surfers were all middle-aged, pot-bellied and pale-skinned. So disappointing.
But I imagine that like the weather, there are high tides for hot surfers too.
Okay, back to Torrey Pines. There are eight trails in the state reserve, all of them really short; none are over a mile long. Joanna and I picked the Guy Fleming Trail just because it was the first trail presented.
It’s also the easiest, most level and scenic trail with a 2/3 mile loop offering diverse sceneries from ocean views, sandstone formations to picturesque vegetation.
So here’s a closer look into the rare Torrey pine tree:
I’m not a naturalist and I don’t usually take note of trees, so I’m not going to pretend I know what’s so interesting about this tree. If I hadn’t learned from Joanna how rare this tree is, I would never have taken a closer look.
Apparently what’s special about this pine tree is its resilient character. It’s not super tall, super beautiful, or even useful for fires and lumber. But it survived, despite all of nature’s torments from baking sun to torrid storms. It’s the classic tale of stubborn survival.
I pinched the spiny, needle-like leaves hard and good, and prayed that somehow the tree transfers just a bit of its will and persistence to me.
I think we stumbled into the best trail. It’s a very short loop, but within that 2/3 mile we got to observe all sorts of nature. For example, this sandstone dune:
Just look at those age-old ridges and patterns cut and whipped into the hardened sand by the weather.
Gorgeous strokes of never-ending blues:
I think this area is called the South Overlook? Not sure. Either way it seems like a nice spot for wedding pictures or romantic dates.
There are lots of spectacular views of the ocean, and I heard if you’re lucky you will catch a school of dolphins twirling out of the water surface, or even a mob of gray whales heaving out for a bask of sunlight.
As with the surfers, Joanna and I weren’t that lucky. But we still had a blast.
We did have one colorful finale to our hike though. As we were walking down back to our car, a group of motorcyclists zoomed past us in droves.
I have no idea what the occasion is, but it reminded me of the motorcycle gang that stormed my home at northern Virginia every Veterans’ Day.
We were both hungry—no, famished by the time we reached Joanna’s home. A quick swig of coffee, and we trudged out to Little Italy, which was conveniently just a couple blocks away from Joanna’s condo:
To be honest I didn’t really see much “Italian” traits about this neighborhood except for some Italian restaurants and boutiques, but apparently it used to be a predominantly Italian neighborhood, where Italian fishermen gathered in search of good tuna.
But now it’s a fun, densely packed strip of bars, art galleries, eateries, antique shops and residential lofts. There’s even a tram for “city tours.”
We weren’t here for Italian touristy stuff though. We were here for the Little Italy Mercato, a weekly farmers market stretching about three to four blocks on Date Street, showcasing over 100 artisanal and local booths.
This place is amazing. I couldn’t stop running around, trying to make it to every booth within the limited time frame.
You can find just about everything you want here.
Fresh, organic vegetables and herbs…
Brilliant fruits of all colors…
Smoothies, juice, coffees and teas…
Raw cheeses from farmers who cuddle with their goats…
Multi-colored eggs from what I presume are happy hens…
Prepared dips, spreads and various condiments…
How can you say no to something called Bitchin’ Sauce? And for people with diet restrictions, the Mercato also offered plenty of diet-friendly products from gluten-free to vegan raw; like this brand, which was vegan and gluten-free, too.
Had my eye on these hot-cross buns and big-ass oatmeal cookies…
But then I got distracted by these beautiful, roughly seasoned almonds:
Oh I have such weakness for these tear-shaped beauties. They had Mexican Chocolate-coated ones, too!
There were also tons of prepared food vendors, such as ethnic cuisine like Masala Cottage’s homemade Indian curries and naan…(I also spotted Thai stir-fries)…
Other prepared items included street foods like crepes and paninis:
You had to beat the long lines to finally get your hands on one though. They were very popular!
There were also dessert-like condiments:
I’m glad these jars are pricey, because they are lethal. It’s the kind of binge-worthy delicious goodness that you’ll lick down to the last scrape within a night. I mean, toffee peanut butter made from just two ingredients: real toffee bark and peanuts. It’s ridiculously good.
And check out these ceramic garlic graters from Edward Jacobucci:
It’s a plate with jagged edges so you can grate stuff like ginger, garlic, chocolate bars, hard cheese and nutmeg. Cool beans, huh?
In between every block, small bands of musicians were playing up lyrical music that amassed quite a group of fans.
Even this little boy, who kept leaping and twirling around. I think he was trying to dance.
He was the chubbiest, most adorable short-legged ballerina.
I can’t possibly highlight every of the 100+ vendors here, so I’ll just focus on one highlight: the fresh sea urchin.
Fresh-caught, still wiggling spiny creatures releasing salty and briney ocean smells. They sold this at a stand from Carlsbad Aquafarm that also sold other sea creatures like oysters and mussels:
If you want, you can get a plate of just-shucked oysters.
Just order, wait a few minutes, and choose your condiments.
Hot sauce, lemon or lime wedges, even sriracha.
But Joanna and I? We wanted the sea urchin, baby.
The guy at the seafood booth let us pick which sea urchin we wanted to devour. And then he stuck a pick into it, cut out a portion, sliced it into half, and started washing out all the brine from the insides.
It’s a pretty laborious job that the guy finished within 5 minutes.
Our lunch appetizer:
Can’t get much fresher than this. We just spritzed some fresh lime over:
Here’s a closer look:
And with the two happy sea urchin-eaters:
Want to know how it tastes? It tastes like oysters, or a richer fish roe. Briney, but with a sorta buttery texture.
We caused quite an attraction with our plate of sea urchin. Passer-bys started stopping and taking pictures of us, and we were happy to advertise the delicious sea animal in its full poky glory.
After all the bites of samples, we were already half-full. We ditched our original plan to make pasta and salad at home, and instead brought home some instant lunch:
We got three kinds of garlic spreads from Hani’s Market (beet, spicy peppers and olives), a garlic hummus, a package of pita bread and some Spinach Paratha from Masala Cottage. The deli turkey is leftovers in Joanna’s fridge.
It was a wonderful, simple spread. I can’t get over how much I love garlic when it’s creamed up with a bit of olive oil.
The spinach paratha is really good, too. It’s two pieces of thin dough encasing some spiced spinach. I should have gotten the yogurt dip with it though. Just not the same without something cool and tangy like that.
This farmers market made my day. Joanna has been raving to me about this place. She said the moment she stepped into this jostling crowd of savory aromas, ice cream-licking kids and basket-totting couples, she knew I would love it here.
I wish I could come here every weekend. You know stroll through the happy shoppers licking an ice cream cone, jiggle to a bit of guitar music, sniff at some citrusy fruits. Los Angeles has a lot of neighborhood farmers markets too, but they aren’t as big and they always appear on odd weekdays.
So. You can see why I’ve been considering San Diego as a future home.
Question of the Day: What’s your ideal city? Anything at the farmers market that makes you flip out?
San Diego recap:
1) First Night in San Diego: The Embarcadero and Gas Lamp Quarter
2) Next Day in San Diego: Torrey Pines and Little Italy Farmers Market
3) Out of San Diego: Wine-Tasting at Temecula