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Mike and The Wife Do California, Part I: Reflections Among The Big Ass Trees

For the first vacation The Wife and I have taken in over three years, we decided a road trip through California was in order.  Yeah….I know….three years.  When greedy scumfuck banks decide to jack your credit card rates up to 30% for no reason at all other than they are greedy scumfuck banks, sacrifices must be made.  And besides, we live in Las Vegas, it’s like living in a vacation anyway…except for the whole work part.

Big Ass Tree in Sequoia National Park

Big Ass Tree in Sequoia National Park

But I digress, it was good to get out of the heat and see something new.  We took 8 days to drive first to Sequoia National Park, then up to San Francisco, then a quick day in  Yountville, then down the coast to Santa Barbara where we would then come home.  Not only was this a vacation, but it surrounded The Wife and I’s 5th Anniversary, which we celebrated while in Yountville.  Why the hell that woman has stayed with me for 5 years is beyond me, but who am I to question.

Another part of the trip was to get away from Tasting Las Vegas for a bit, which a few of you noticed.  It was indeed nice to look into The Wife’s blue eyes during meals instead of FourSquaring and taking notes.  It was also nice to have a conversation with her rather than say, “Get the hell away from me, I’m writing.”  And while I could use another 2 or 3 years..I mean weeks away from the Bill Payer, I missed TLV and you fine folks dearly.

So it was off to the open road we were, cooler packed with lots of water, lemonade and cranberry juice and a bag full of chips, pretzels and other processed foods one should only eat while on a road trip or in the middle of a bout with deep depression (Oreo Cakesters, FTW!).  I finally subscribed to XM / Sirius Radio or whatever the hell they call it now.  The soundtrack to this trip was provided by the 80′s on 8 and Howard Stern.  Unfortunately, Howard was on vacation the very same week, so they had a “Gayest Week Ever” thing which was all of his offensive, homophobic shit about gays from over the years.  Most of it wasn’t funny, especially the sketch bits, however I almost drove off the road from laughing listening to George Takei pick who has The Prettiest Penis or hearing Artie Lange’s story about getting spooge on his chest during a threeway.

The Mad Greek

The Mad Greek

Our first pit stop was the one made by countless other travelers on I-15 between Vegas and LA, The Mad Greek in Baker, CA.  Eating at the Mad Greek brought on thoughts of a growing concern within myself, and that is since I started to write about restaurants and food, constantly thinking about it with my Holier-Than-Thou Judgment Cap (patent pending), I’m starting to enjoy shitty, greasy roadhouse food, less.  The diners, drive-in’s and dives are starting to appeal to me less and less, and it’s not just because Guy Fieri makes the hair on my balls curl even more than it’s supposed to.

Where in my youth the gut rot from a greasy spoon used to be worn like a badge of honor, it now just pisses me off.  Now I look for shitholes that make good food and use good ingredients.  The days of Sysco Whipped Imitation Butter and chemical eggs are way behind me, which unfortunately makes 90% of American breakfast joints now suck.  It’s not just that I don’t like it anymore, I can’t really eat it anymore. Period.  If I eat that poison, now it feels like my gut is on fire, there’s a vice on my chest and it only goes away once I do a scatological imitation of the Bellagio Fountains out of my ass.  It sucks getting old.

Gyros From The Mad Greek in Baker, CA

Gyros From The Mad Greek in Baker, CA

Anywho, I got the obligatory Gyros at the Mad Greek, and where it was once a dish that I would scarf down and ask for more, it was now just another roadside plate of shit that’s going to give me The Agita in about 20 minutes after consumption.  I must say though, it was sort of worth the burn.  The Gyros at the Mad Greek is certainly nothing special in and of itself, but it’s one of those rites of passage travelers in our little corner of the Earth should do.  And if you’re hungry and in Baker…it’s not like you have many other choices.

All of the Middle of California Looks Like This

All of the Middle of California Looks Like This

We pressed on from the Home of the World’s Largest Thermometer to Three Rivers, CA, the entrance to Sequoia National Park.  For those not familiar with driving through the guts of California, it’s something you really need to see.  The rolling golden hills look so soft from a distance that you want to pet them.  Once you get off the exit on your way to Sequoia National Park, much more of the greens come in with jagged rocks jutting through.  The winding roads were a wake up call for this Pennsylvania hick now turned Certified City Boy….well…maybe Certified Suburbia Boy.

Three Rivers is a cute no-traffic-light town that appears to solely exist to be one of the entrances to the park.  No one in the history of big ass trees (and that’s a long history as many of the trees are over 2,000 years old!) has ever gone to Sequoia National Park for the food, so I’ll try not to shred the food too much, but it was certainly something that made me reflect on life in Vegas.

One reflection is that where Las Vegas might not have the baseline of produce (more about that in Part II where I’ll talk about San Francisco) found elsewhere and while the prices in Las Vegas might be jacked up for mid-range joints on up, Las Vegas kicks the ass off of any town’s service across the board.  Whether you are rolling 3-Star at Robuchon or whether you are getting a quick nosh at a place like the Weiss Deli, service in Las Vegas is MILES beyond most other comparable establishments elsewhere.  Is it because the jacked up prices attract the cream of the crop?  I don’t know.  But it’s just better.  A good side effect from living in a town built on the service industry, I suppose.  It shouldn’t be rocket science to keep a water glass full, check on the table every now and then and for shit’s sake to pick up the damn check once we stick the credit card in the folder…but in many places, it is.

Buckeye Tree Lodge at the entrance to Sequoia National Park

Buckeye Tree Lodge at the entrance to Sequoia National Park

The view from our balcony

The view from our balcony

We stayed at the Buckeye Tree Lodge which I would recommend to anyone thinking about hitting up Sequoia National Park.  We had a stunning view from our balcony of a mountainside whitewater creek running in the backyard of the inn.  There’s no food at the Buckeye, but next door was the closest place and by looking at a selection of menus in our hotel’s office, the fanciest place in town, the Gateway Restaurant and Lodge.

Spiders Come Free!

Spiders Come Free!

“Rustic” doesn’t quite describe the Gateway.  More like infested shed.  The Gateway also has a fabulous view from their back balcony outdoor seating area.  Unfortunately the tables were strewn with bird shit on the tablecloths and spider webs, complete with the spiders that spun them, riddled the railing along side the table.  Needless to say, we didn’t sit out there for long and relocated to their indoor dining area.

Surf and Turf, or Suffer and Tough

Surf and Turf, or Suffer and Tough

Once inside, we ordered our food, The Wife going for Ribs and I springing for the $30 Surf and Turf of Shrimp Scampi and Filet Mignon.  Isn’t that cute?  I don’t think I’ve ordered Surf and Turf since living in Upstate NY.   I should say that beforehand, even the nice lady running the office at our hotel warned us of The Gateway, however I assumed it was because of the exorbitant-for-the-area prices, which were half of what we’re used to in our Little Twinkle in the Desert.  However, I didn’t take into account that the quality of the food was below a Village Pub, thus making the meal twice as expensive as a comparable meal in Vegas.  Needless to say, the fanciest restaurant in Three Rivers, CA is a far cry from the fanciest restaurant in Las Vegas, NV.  The evening was capped off when a spider came down on a web from the ceiling and crawled into the bread basket.  Hilarious!  For the rest of the trip, the Gateway was officially known as “the place with the spider bread.”  I wonder if they’ll add that line to their advertising!

The view on the way up to the Big Ass Trees in Sequoia National Park

The view on the way up to the Big Ass Trees in Sequoia National Park

The next day we made the trek up to the star of the area, Sequoia National Park.  The difference between Sequoias and Redwoods is that Redwoods are taller and found on California’s coast, Sequoias are thicker and found more in-land.  These are some big fucking trees.  It’s about a 45-minute twisting, winding and stunningly gorgeous drive from the entrance to the park to the Grove of the Big Ass Trees (I think they call it the Giant Forest, I’m partial to my version).  I can’t even count the number of times I nearly drove us to our ultimate demise off the side of the mountain due to being awestruck by the scenery.  I’m not even much of a nature person, and this is something I’d recommend anyone to do at least once in their lives.

Makes for a nice Commemorative Paperweight!

Makes for a nice Commemorative Paperweight!

As I said before, no one has ever gone to Sequoia National Park for the food, and the Lodge at Wuksachi Village certainly won’t buck the trend.  I knew before even entering the restaurant that there must have been something called a Sequoia Burger with my name on it, and not to disappoint, the Giant Sequoia Beef Burger was nearly top billing on the menu for $10.25.  I think the namesake trees might be easier to chew and swallow, but I didn’t expect anything less.  A half-pound incinerated gray puck of despair.   Strikingly flavorless, however, was the Onion Soup.  I didn’t know that it was possible to make beef broth and onion to have no flavor, but they figured out a way.  I’d like to imagine a world where food served in the middle of the wilderness didn’t have to suck, but I guess I’m going to have to keep imagining.  The moral of the story is…if you’re going to Sequoia National Park….pack a sandwich.

The General Sherman, A Really Big Fucking Tree

The General Sherman, A Really Big Fucking Tree

Sequoia National Park is home to the largest tree in the world by volume, The General Sherman Tree.  Many of the trees in the park were named in the Civil War era, so there was the General Grant, the General Lee and so on.  Neither words, nor pictures can appropriately describe the size of the General Sherman.  It’s a really big fucking tree. That’s about as good as I can do.

The path to the General Sherman from the nearest parking lot is about a half mile, but it is very steep and at over 7,000 ft.  If you wanted a good laugh, you should have seen my fat ass struggling to make it back up the mountain to the car.  I thought I was going to die.  If you want an even better laugh, I present to you an (as far as we know) unnamed tree that is still pretty big which The Wife and I named The Lance Armstrong.  Behold…

The Lance Armstrong Tree

The Lance Armstrong Tree

That's my girl!

That's my girl!

Exhausted from the walk back up to the car, we said goodbye to the land of the Big Ass  Trees, drove back down the mountain and retreated to our hotel room before going to a restaurant that’s name tugged on my Vegas-centric heartstrings, Serrano’s.

Far From Julian...

Far From Julian...

The Don Jesus Burrito from Serrano's in Three River, CA

The Don Jesus Burrito from Serrano's in Three River, CA

The Three Rivers version of Serrano’s however is of course a far cry from our hometown hero.  This Serrano’s is a Mexican joint.  I won’t knock it too bad, as it was the best food we had by a landslide thus far on our voyage.  Again, it was a name on the menu that dictated what I ordered and the Don Jesus Burrito it was.  It was a huge carne asada burrito with all the fixin’s.  While anyone that is of Mexican descent or has ever seen a person of Mexican descent will think that Taco Bell is closer to the truth, the food was certainly edible and met my needs just fine.

No Bueno.

No Bueno.

A Plate of the Unchewable and Flavorless

A Plate of the Unchewable and Flavorless

Unfortunately, the some of the worst food of the trip was had the following morning on our way out of town and onto one of my favorite places on Earth, San Francisco.  Breakfast at the We Three Bakery & Restaurant was brutal, and no matter how bad you expect the food to be at such an out of the way place, this is one to pass as you’re on your way to some other hole.  I went for the Steak and Eggs and I wish I didn’t.  The restaurant itself looked like the Republican Party exploded all over the walls.  Military, America and Apple Pie.  While I’ll certainly always support our troops, it’s a rarity that I support the people that support our troops, if ya know what I mean.  Regardless of the politics, the food was inedible.   It’s from this Tea Party Hookup House that we left the woods and made our way to civilization once again.  Good civilization.  Civilization with good restaurants.  San Francisco.

Home of Unmatched Beauty, Not So Hot Food

Home of Unmatched Beauty, Not So Hot Food

Our trip to Sequoia National Park not only had me reflect on the majestic beauty of Mother Nature, still un-raped by mankind, but it also made me reflect on how sorry I feel for people that don’t live within a reasonable distance of a good restaurant.  It’s such a joy that I take for granted living in one of the premiere restaurant towns on Earth, it takes moments like these to remember not everyone has our luxury.  And sure, people can’t imagine people living in a place with billboards about starring in internet porn, but everybody eats, and it’s too bad some people can’t leave the pots and pans in the cupboard and go out once in a while to eat well.

I suppose ignorance is bliss to a certain degree, but it still makes me sad. My desire for everyone to experience the best in life almost makes me want to help these fine folks like a Red Cross Doctor would aid a poor child stricken with malaria in the African bush.  A Restaurants Without Borders, if you will.  If only I could put Rick Moonen in a backpack and have him whip up some Cioppino at some distant, Middle American land.  Move over American Cancer Society, I think I’ve just founded the greatest charity. Ever.

I guess I’ll split our California Road Trip up into three parts. The next will be solely dedicated to San Francisco and I’ll round out the series with Yountville and Santa Barbara being the third.  Stay tuned for more adventures.  I promise, the next one will be more about food.  Good food.  Until then, to my fellow Las Vegas valley residents, go to your favorite restaurant soon, kiss the chefs and toss a few extra bucks into the tip jar for the servers.  Be thankful for what we have.

—–
Mike Dobranski is a professional musician, amateur blogger, eater of good food, poker junkie, master of the inappropriate comment and bad husband to a wonderful wife.

Follow Mike and Tasting Las Vegas on Twitter at @TastingLasVegas

You can vote once per day from now until 09/30/10!  Thanks for your help!

You can vote once per day from now until 09/30/10! Thanks for your help!

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5 comments to Mike and The Wife Do California, Part I: Reflections Among The Big Ass Trees

  • Heather

    i just tweeted this but: do you think these places have just lost the will to cook at least decent food? Or figure people will just settle since that’s all there is? That cheese burger was the saddest looking thing i’ve seen in a long time.

  • Hey Heather, I just sent you an answer on Twitter too, but this is a great question that deserves more than a 140 character response.

    I think there are a lot of contributors to the less than stellar food in the Three Rivers area. First and foremost, it must be a ridiculous pain in the ass to get quality, fresh ingredients to the area. A lot of twisting and turning, narrow roads and some steep elevations.

    I also think that a really low bar for quality tends to snowball on itself. If there is no one there pushing the envelope, the restaurant community in a whole will be in a lull.

    Thirdly, the main attraction of the area is not really a dining out crowd. There’s a lot of people camping out, grilling their own food. I didn’t want to hit the restaurants here too hard because of these factors. The overview of the quality and my impressions with only one visit to each were only to illustrate my point on why I’m thankful for the things we have in Vegas because of where my twisted set of values lie.

    Yes, with a little care and some elbow grease, the food didn’t have to be as bad as it was….but I’d be willing to bet that I’m one of the few people out of the thousands that visit Sequoia National Park that actually even notice.

  • What is the “fanciest restaurant in Vegas”?

  • I grew up in a small town and my second restaurant job was the one and only attempt to open an upscale, for that town, restaurant. They actually brought in a chef and used quality ingredients for everything. Everything was made from scratch. It was the only place in town whose wine menu went beyond “red or white?”. They made it a year and a half before going out of business. They only made it that long because they already owned the building and had several other successful businesses whose profits they could use to keep the lights on. Rich people and their money I guess. I remember going whole shifts with only 2 or 3 tables. Point being the same as yours, most of the population didn’t care. They were not going to pay $25 for a steak when they could get one at the Golden Corral for $10 with full access to the salad bar.

    I think the one thing that kills the DDD’s is Sysco, or whatever supplier they use. Thanks to them don’t have to make their stuffed jalapeños from scratch. They can just order one of the 20 varieties Sysco offers that come frozen in boxes of a 100 and just toss them in the frier. You don’t have to cut your own fries or press your own patties. That picture you posted of the burger looks like those fries were probably frozen ten minutes before they appeared on the plate. That patty probably arrived in a box frozen along with 50 other patties. I hate frozen hamburger patties…

    But again, most people don’t care. They get to cut costs, cut staff, people still come in. They order the frozen, pre-battered, chicken fried steak with powdered gravy and frozen fries and it’s their treat for the week.

    Try Kathy’s Southern Cooking sometime. http://www.tasteofvegas.com/html/kathys.html

  • The fanciest restaurant in Vegas? Bachi Burger, of course! Ha!

    Chemical food factories like Sysco, Monsanto and Tyson have ruined our food culture. They are really a black mark on this country….so sad. I hope more documentaries like Food, Inc. keep coming out until the lesson is learned.

    I went to Kathy’s a few years ago, I don’t remember much about it. I’ve yet to have soul food in Vegas that has made a significant impression on me. I was really spoiled when I lived in New York and had a friend that was a ridiculous cook. I’ll definitely give it a second look.

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