I Went Down To The Crossroads

Quartzsite, Arizona

The official quartz map of Quartzsite

The official quartz map of Quartzsite

Picture a place where quirkiness is de rigueur and places like Portland, Oregon; South Austin, Texas; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Venice Beach in Los Angeles immediately come to mind, but the unsung bastion of cheerful insanity is undoubtedly the dry scrap of earth in the middle of nowhere and between everywhere, Quartzite, Arizona. For most of the year, this 36 square mile patch of desert at the intersection of Interstate 10 and Arizona Highway 95 is relatively quiet, but in January and February, over a million people descend on the self-proclaimed Rock Capital of the World for weeks of swap meets and the largest gathering of rock hounds in the United States. The city was founded in 1867 at what was then Fort Tyson and named for its most plentiful resource, quartz; the gems and minerals found in the area attract the bulk of Quartzsite’s visitors, but its strategic location between Yuma to the south, Parker to the north, Phoenix to the east, and Los Angeles to the west makes it a year-round oasis for truckers and RV enthusiasts.

Paul Winer, aka Sweet Pie (nude pianist and book store owner)

Paul Winer, aka Sweet Pie (nude pianist and book store owner)

Summers in Quartzsite can be brutal, with Fahrenheit temperatures reaching as high as the 120s, but there’s still an ore car’s load of joyful lunacy to be found in the off season. One resident who is likely unfazed by the heat is the owner of Reader’s Oasis, the town’s bookstore on Main Street. Paul Winer (aka Sweet Pie, the Nude Boogie-woogie Pianist) dresses for work in little more than a “ball bag” and a pair of sandals, a trademark from his days as a musician in New England. In the 1960s and 70s, the Lynn, Massachusetts-born Winer played clubs throughout New England in his birthday suit, prompting the government to revoke clubs’ licenses when they couldn’t get him to cease and desist his nude pianist act. Winer made Quartzsite his home in 1972, and occasionally performs there in various stages of attire (with occasional gigs as far as New York City), but these days you can usually find him in the massive book store featuring many out-of-print and hard to find titles. Although you may catch him donning a sweater in the colder months, Winer is mostly au natural and will happily pose for pictures and share his life story with anyone who cares to listen.

Paul Bunyan's belt buckle

Paul Bunyan’s belt buckle

Many of the shops that sell gems, minerals and jewelry along Main Street are open year-round; Main Trading Post is a kitschy outlet that would make Elvis proud – a sign outside proclaims the world’s largest belt buckle on display inside. The belt buckle (adorned with turquoise, coral and silver) is approximately five feet wide and is wheeled around on a small cart; apparently Paul Bunyan decided not to pick up his order and left it for the store to proudly display at the entrance. Inside, a 7-foot tall grizzly bear stands decked-out like Texas rapper in turquoise jewelry, looking a little ragged at the edges from wear-and-tear. Shacks and stands are interspersed between the vendors selling everything from homemade root beer to fried cheese curds and western-style scones. One watering hole (constructed of two car ports surrounded by a cedar fence) honestly proclaims “Real Bad Beer, Food and Music – Enter at Your Own Risk”. Also not lacking a sense of humor, there isn’t a body of water closer to the Quartzsite Yacht Club motel than the Colorado River some 20 miles to the west.

A rusty whale at Hassler's RV Park

A rusty whale at Hassler’s RV Park

Even if you’re just passing through, as long as you’re on Main Street it’s worth a quick drive through Hassler’s RV Park, a dusty land that demonstrates what happens when you have a truckload of rebar, a blowtorch and too much time on your hands.  If the row of iron candy canes don’t catch your attention, what is most likely the world’s largest fishing rod will. While a colossal fish laden with not-so heavy metals dangles from the end of the line, a whale comprised of welded metal rings rusts in a tiny pond nearby; a veritable iron menagerie grazes from every patch of ground not occupied by camper or RV.

The grave of camel herder Philip "Hi Jolly" Tedro

The grave of camel herder Philip “Hi Jolly” Tedro

One of Quartzsite most celebrated citizens was Philip “Hi Jolly” Tedro, a Syrian-born camel driver who participated in the U.S. Calvary’s Camel Corp in 1857. After converting to Islam, Tedro changed his name to Hadji Ali, which was mangled by the locals as “Hi Jolly”, the name applied to a variety of places around town. After the failure of the U.S. Army to use camels for transportation, the animals were released into the desert where they became a familiar sight to miners for years; Tedro stayed in Quartzsite hauling freight, prospecting and acting as courier until his death in 1902. As a tribute to the colorful character, the Arizona Department of Transportation erected a quartz pyramid over his grave site in 1934, topped with an iron camel-shaped wind vane, now the main attraction at the burial ground now known as Hi Jolly Cemetery.

Mountain Quail Cafe's chicken-fried steak

Mountain Quail Cafe’s chicken-fried steak

If all this lunacy has given you an appetite like a vulture waiting for something to die, skip the plethora of fast food establishments and “family” restaurants clustered along Main Street; the only thing besides water absent from the desert landscape is fine dining, but the old-school Mountain Quail Cafe on Moon Mountain Avenue serves up hearty, home-style cooking that will satiate you for your continuing journey to the four corners of the Southwest. The building and interior resembles a senior citizen recreation room, but don’t let that dissuade you from dining; the Mountain Quail Cafe serves up the meanest chicken-fried steak this side of the Rio Grande. The atmosphere is friendly – expect the wait staff to ask you to share the story of your personal journey through the crossroads of the golden west.

It will never be an alternate to that family Wally World vacation, spring break in Cancun, or your pilgrimage to see the world’s largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas, but you’d be remiss to pass up the opportunity to experience the festive madness that makes Quartzsite a diamond in the rough.

Hi Jolly Cemetery
West Main Street
Quartzsite, AZ 85346
GPS Coordinates:  33°39’52.30″N 114°14’10.81″W

Hassler’s RV Park
400 West Main Street
Quartzsite AZ 85346
GPS Coordinates: 33°39’57.63″N 114°13’25.34″W

Reader’s Oasis Books
690 East Main Street
Quartzsite AZ 85346
GPS Coordinates:  33°40’1.39″N 114°12’20.26″W

Mountain Quail Cafe
490 Moon Mountain Street
Quartzsite AZ 85346
GPS Coordinates: 33°40’27.99″N 114°13’44.14″W

Main Trading Post
1170 West Main Street
Quartzsite AZ 85346
GPS Coordinates: 33°39’44.32″N 114°14’12.98″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s day in the quirky, off-beat city of Quartzsite, Arizona

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I Believe I’ll Have Somoa

Samoa Cookhouse
Samoa, California

Communal dining, sawmill-style

Communal dining, sawmill-style

As the sun peeks its smiling face over the horizon, a clang of the bell and a call of “Come and get it” echoes over the channel into Arcata Bay, beckoning early risers to a hearty breakfast to sustain them during a grueling, back-breaking day at the saw mill. Burly and bearded sawyers, graders and edgers all make their way to their usual spot on the bench at the cookhouse for eggs, pancakes, bacon – whatever the single women employed in the kitchen happen to be serving this morning. Generous portions fill the plate, and when a mill worker has a real hunger, there’s plenty more where that came from. These days, the steam whistle screaming the end of the work day remains silent, and the once bustling cookhouse that nourished the employees of the Vance (and then Hammond) Lumber Company now feeds the dinner crowd that constitutes a night out for some of Samoa, California’s 300-odd citizens.

A breakfast plate fit for a lumberjack

A breakfast plate fit for a lumberjack

The red, wooden-shingled canteen on a spit of land across the channel from Eureka has been serving breakfast, lunch and dinner since the 1890s for employees of the lumber company until going public in the 1960s. Red checked plastic tablecloths cover picnic tables that once were draped in linen, and meals are served communal (or family-style) just as they did when lumberjacks ruled the northern California redwood forests. A home-style breakfast will set you back a little more than a saw buck, and the staff ensures that your plate is only as empty as you want it. There’s no menu, just a grid on a white board that indicates how much you’ll pay based on your age (kids from 5 to 7 years old pay less than those between 8 and 11, and the wee ones under 4 eat free). On any given day, this might include pancakes, juice, scrambled eggs, sausage, biscuits with cream gravy, pancakes, and a cup of coffee. Unless you want to end up strapped to a circular saw, don’t ask to substitute.

The historic Samoa Cookhouse

The historic Samoa Cookhouse

If you’re one of the early birds that get there when the cookhouse opens at the crack of 7, you’ll probably encounter Jeff, who in addition to making sure you’re stuffed like a sack of sawdust will give you a history lesson about the mill, the cookhouse, and the lumber industry in the Eureka area. A tiny museum resides at the far end of the cookhouse featuring antique appliances from its heyday, as well as tools and images from the golden days of lumber, a fascinating and educational exhibit to peruse before setting off up Highway 101 to the Avenue of the Giants. If you happen to be there later in the morning, the adjacent Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum is worth a visit – it resides in what was formerly the head cook’s house, and was established in 1977.

And those are just kitchen appliances

And those are just kitchen appliances

The last morning whistle sounded back in 1980, and although the mill days are a distant memory, road trippers on California’s scenic Route 101 can still enjoy the experience of a cookhouse meal. The only Beard Awards the line cooks might get nominated for is for bushiest or longest, but they’ll get you going with the energy you’ll need to square off with the axe against Paul Bunyan.

Samoa Cookhouse
511 Vance Ave
Samoa, California 95564
GPS Coordinates:  40°49’10.02″N 124°10’53.57″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s breakfast at historic Samoa Cookhouse in Samoa, California

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The Happiest Place In South America

Parque Jaime Duque
Tocancipá, Colombia

A scale model of India's Taj Majal

A scale model of India’s Taj Majal

With world travelers like Anthony Bourdain touting the success of Colombia pulling itself up by its bootstraps to become a modern tourist destination, can the Andean paradise be far from gross commercial Americanization? While the influx of tío Sam’s favorite eateries represented by the likes of El Rey, El Payaso, El Coronel and La Sirena is beneficial to stimulating a flowering economy and putting the global image of a drug-funded war zone behind them, one can only hope that the lush land rich in resources doesn’t lose its identity in the global melting pot.  It comes as somewhat of a surprise that Colombia has managed to stave off colonization by The Mouse (Mickey Chigüiro doesn’t have that same familiar ring), especially when considering that in 1983, while Pablo Escobar’s heyday was in full swing, Jaime Duque Grisales quietly set aside a sizable tract of land in the Metropolitan Bogotá area to open a theme park of sorts that paid homage to Colombia’s culture, natural history and world presence. Colombian travelers on the ramshackle road between Bogotá and Zipaquirá no doubt recognize Parque Jaime Duque by the scale model Taj Majal that towers over the wall surrounding the park on one side and the giant condor making its permanent roost atop Edificio El Cóndor, the circular building that serves as the entrance to the park on the other side.

A topographical map of Colombia (note woman sweeping for scale)

A topographical map of Colombia (note woman sweeping for scale)

Parque Jaime Duque is a mashup of Disneyland, Caesar’s Palace, South of the Border, and Claude Bell’s dinosaurs without the revisionist history, debauchery, racism and intelligent design present at the other bastions of roadside kitsch. The park has grown slowly over the years (its most prominent feature, the Taj Majal was added about ten years after it opened). The park’s founder was an aeronautical engineer and pilot, having served in World War II and serving as the first chief of Colombia’s national airline, Avianca; busts of Captain Jaime Duque Grisales can be found throughout the park (including under the rotunda dome at the entrance), and a 1946 Douglas DC-4 HK 136 flown by the man himself is mounted across the tiny lake from the replica of Mumtaz Mahal’s memorial. The Taj Majal model serves as more than a hollow prop – the bottom floor is a column-lined ballroom with a grand chandelier and furnished with replicas of famous works or art. A spiral staircase rises to two additional floors, one bearing a cyclorama depicting Colombia’s independence and the top floor featuring an exhibit entitled, “El Mundo del Doctor Ariel”, featuring a fictional scientist who has grown household insects to creatures of epic proportion and gloriously displayed in Fiberglas.

A cement scale model of the Brig Admiral Padilla in a tiny Caribbean Sea

A cement scale model of the Brig Admiral Padilla in a tiny Caribbean Sea

There are currently two aquatic vessels on display in a giant pool that on closer inspection is a “tiny” model of the Caribbean – on one side, a cement replica of the Brig Admiral Padilla (a 19th century warship); on the other, the Colombian Navy’s WWII-era destroyer ARC Cordoba (DT-15). If you’re not up for the brisk walk from the entrance to El Bioparque Wakatá (a preserve for seized animals that rivals many small zoos), you can take what looks like Parque Jaime Duque’s version of Thomas the Tank Engine meets Disneyland’s monorail to the giant thatched-roof hut that serves as el Restaurante Barbacoa Parque Jaime Duque. Among the Bioparque’s more notable residents are a hippopotamus father and son (the former of which was a member of Escobar’s menagerie), and a habitat where the denizens of a grassy enclosure were capybaras (known in Colombia’s finer asaderos as chigüiro), truly R.O.U.S.s. In the hills above El Bioparque Wakatá, Parque Jaime Duque captive raises the Andean condor (whose concrete family members perch around the park) in an effort to replenish the dwindling species in the wild.

The oxidized Hand of God looks like a bowling trophy

The oxidized Hand of God looks like a bowling trophy

The opposite end of the park could accurately be dubbed Fantasy Land; the most prominent structure is a massive metal sculpture dubbed “Monumento a Dios”. The hand of God rises from the ground holding a sphere which in the days before oxidation was a copper-clad globe with the land masses etched in; in its current state it resembles God’s bowling trophy. This stretch of park is rife with culture; the Mythological Fountain is lined with sculptures from Greek, Mesopotamian and other ancient cultures. In between the fountain and a courtyard featuring miniature models of the seven wonders of the ancient world (guarded by a 40-foot tall Colossus of Rhodes where entrance is gained by passing beneath the statue’s exposed genitalia) are several larger-than live, rather jovial looking dinosaurs. T-Rex is simply represented by a head with a gaping mouth that allows a photo opportunity, and a sharp-toothed apatosaurus that has a tunnel carved out of its innards featuring Cretaceous imagery.

Dante Alighieri says, "Sit back and enjoy Hell"

Dante Alighieri says, “Sit back and enjoy Hell”

Don’t expect amusement park rides of Six Flags proportion; aside from the tram and your standard carnival attractions such as tea cups and bumper cars, there are two themed boat rides that put a different twist on Pirates of the Caribbean and It’s a Small World. The first is an aquatic indoor maze where rowboats navigate past still dioramas of One Thousand and One Nights, oddly scored with a traditional Andino soundtrack. One has to appreciate the ride’s honesty; the desire to remove your own throat while enduring that mundane repetitive song in Anaheim’s tribute to youth disappears when you wonder if they really needed to portray Ali Baba’s brother’s dismembered body in one of the tableaus. Next door, the kids will love the imagery of the 9 circles of Hell depicted in Dante’s Divine Comedy as demonstrated by the screaming youngster in the boat in front of us who was apparently unable to discern that the demons swooping down from the ceiling were in fact, fake.

Sobrebarriga with fries AND rice

Sobrebarriga with fries AND rice

If you underestimate the amount of time you’ll spend in the park, a visit to Restaurante Bocatipicos is in order for a traditional Colombian lunch. Standard fare that we’ve come to know and love is available, including lomo de res, sobrebarriga, ajiaco, bandeja paisa and the curious side dish anomaly of plating rice together with French fries. The park occasionally features concerts by big-name international performers, and will soon be expanding, as they are leasing 7 acres to the Colombian Air Force to develop a Colombian Aerospace Museum.

For about $14 US, you can enjoy every nook and cranny of the sprawling theme park, a tiny fraction of the pesos you’ll drop visiting Walt in Southern California or Florida and may accidentally learn something about the wonderful people and culture of Colombia in the process; unfortunately you won’t be going home sporting capybara ears on top of your head.

Parque Jaime Duque
Km 1 Via Briceño-Zipaquira
Tocancipá, Cundinamarca 251017 Colombia
GPS Coordinates: 4°56’48.68″N 73°57’38.45″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s day at Parque Jaime Duque in Tocancipá Colombia

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Much Ado About Dunkin’

Dunkin’ Donuts
Santa Monica, California

The line stretching down Santa Monica's 12th Street

The line stretching down Santa Monica’s 12th Street

This is the city: Los Angeles. I work here. I carry a box of doughnuts. In a metropolitan area that nearly 12 million Angelenos and transplants call home, you would think a box franchise staking their tent would barely register a blip on the West Coast foodscape, but the recent opening of the first Dunkin’ Donuts in the area has polarized dough nuts across the Southland. Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A’s foray into Los Angeles would have gone largely unnoticed were it not for the tenets of its anti-gay management; Virginia’s Five Guys crept in and successfully convinced the locals to try a chain burger besides In-N-Out. Sonics are popping up, and it would not be surprising to find Whataburgers, White Castles, Shake Shacks, Portillo’s, or Culver’s setting up shop here in the near future. In the Boston area, another Dunkies opening would have simply created another obstacle in giving driving directions (there’s pretty close to one on every corner), but here in L.A. a strong anti-East Coast contingency is girding its loins for battle against this caffeine and confection behemoth.

The Manager's Special in SoCal blue

The Manager’s Special in SoCal blue

What is of curious interest is the legions making a big deal out of those making a big deal about DD’s presence here. For the doughnut dynasty’s opening in Santa Monica at the beginning of September, fans and the curious began lining up two days before the event. One could discount the first person in line, who held in their sights the promise of free coffee for a year, and the first 100 prize whores through the door who walked away with an orange Dunkin’ Donuts swag bag, but Angelenos’ heads were exploding, wondering why there would be a line around the block that persisted for days after the opening. Dunkin’ Donuts corporate office was not making any mistakes – three hours into the line (where I was) there was still a glut of sugary lumps of dough filling the trays behind the counter. Workers handed out loyalty cards; forms were distributed so that you could select your choice of sinkers to make up your dozen while waiting in line and have the box waiting for you when you reached the register; the full menu, including breakfast items, were available. The big brass were on hand, including president Paul Twohig (who designed the day’s Manager Special – a cake doughnut with blue frosting, Twohig’s favorite color) and VP of Operations Weldon Spangler, as well as a bakers’ dozen of news outlets and television stations.

DD's 1st venture back to SoCal in Camp Pendleton

DD’s 1st venture back to SoCal in Camp Pendleton

An impromptu poll by yours truly estimated that approximately 90 percent of those in line were East Coast expatriates (easy to pick out by their “Dunkie Junkie”, “Fluffernutter” or college T-shirts), possibly the most reviled demographic on the West Coast. Most of the outcry from the pitchfork-wielding villagers falls along the lines of, “We don’t want your kind here”, a sentiment echoed by local outlets such as Eater LA and LAist. Some media sources labeled those in line “hipsters”, although there was nothing even remotely similar about those waiting on a nostalgic bite of a Munchkin and the throngs who queued up for over four hours in the rain for a chance at getting an original New York-based Dominique Ansel Cronut at The Grove.  To put things in perspective, imagine a displaced Southlander living in the Big Apple, eschewing waiting an hour in line for a Shake Shack burger but camping out at the grand opening of an In-N-Out in Times Square.

The spoils of a 3-hour wait

The spoils of a 3-hour wait

So what is the appeal of Dunkin’ Donuts? Surely, even those who were nursed with a “regular” in a baby bottle will admit that Dunkies’ coffee is not the best by a long shot – the vended variety tends to be thin and bland. Part of their success in the coffee market is most likely attributed to what longtime caffeinator Juli Couture has dubbed “coffee for people who don’t like coffee” – it doesn’t have that just-burnt flavor that permeates every cup of Starbucks’ brew, and costs considerably less. And what of the doughnuts? There’s nothing spectacular about them – they’re about on par with Winchell’s or Yum Yum; in fact, there are superior doughnuts to be found on Dunkin’ Donuts’ home turf, including Kane’s in Saugus, Massachusetts. Gone are the days when Michael Vale’s Fred the baker let us know it was “time to make the doughnuts”, or DDs advertised their sinkers as “fresh every four hours” – most stores in metropolitan areas are supplied from distribution centers rather than having the doughnuts baked on site.  The phenomenon makes sense once you travel out of Southern California – in addition to the high concentration in New England, there are almost half of the 10 thousand-plus outlets located outside the United States.

A cop car in front of the original DD in Quincy MA

A cop car in front of the original DD in Quincy MA

The bottom line is that Dunkin’ Donuts has been an East Coast comfort food since 1950, and the teeming masses who emigrated to the land of swimming pools and movie stars from Maine down to New Jersey are happy to clamor to relive a part of their past, despite it not having a high class pedigree. They will have a hard time winning over the natives who think that Dunkin’ Donuts has Donut Man, Nickel Diner, or the appropriately named Donut Snob in their crosshairs, although DD has the unbridled audacity to set up shop a block in either direction from Starbucks and Krispy Kreme. There’s nothing to be afraid of – it’s a cup of coffee and a doughnut folks, and they’re not trying to inject it with foie gras mousse.

Dunkin’ Donuts
1132 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica CA 90401
GPS Coordinates: 34° 1’30.10″N 118°29’26.78″W

GALLERY: See images from the opening of Dunkin’ Donuts in Santa Monica CA and elsewhere

VIDEO: See what Val told Wendy Burch at KTLA Los Angeles about DD’s appeal (5th video down)

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Little Italy

Locanda Positano
Marina del Rey, California

Bread with three flavors of olive oil

Bread with three flavors of olive oil

Locanda Positano is a dot on the commercial stretch of Lincoln Avenue that runs from Marina del Rey through Santa Monica; you might just miss this tiny gem if you blink. The fare is southern Italian, reflecting Chef Michelangelo Pinto’s Old World origins (Positano is a 60 kilometer drive from his native Naples); the menu changes every month or so, with a Speciali del Giorno menu that is as substantial as the regular menu. Chef Pinto and paisano partner Paolo Scovolo opened the bistro in 2009; from the street, Locanda Positano presents a diminutive Mediterranean façade. The small dining room is a meld of rustic Italian and modern decor, with pictures of its namesake Positano hanging from the walls. The kitchen delineates the space, with a more austere back room that handles overflow on busy nights; diners are treated to a view of the climate-controlled wine room.

Rustic meets modern decor

Rustic meets modern decor

The restaurant prides itself on using local and sustainable produce, with much of it coming from the local farmers markets; the meat is sturdy and flavorful, with Italian favorites such as Piedmontese beef and wild boar; pasta is made in-house (including a gluten-free penne and tagliatelle). The obligatory bread basket arrives at the table with lemon, spice, and herb-infused olive oils, and the staff is adepts at pairing your selection with a fine Italian vintage. Locanda Positano’s Tagliere de Antipasto Misto features an amazing assortment of charcuterie, accompanied by olives and pickled vegetables – expect to see speck, bresaola, Salame Felino sharing a plank with buffalo mozzarella, Gorgonzola and a spicy Pecorino with pistachio and pepper.

Pappardelle al Cinghiale (wild boar pasta)

Pappardelle al Cinghiale (wild boar pasta)

With octopus, lamb, veal and a variety of other meats on the menu, carnivores may find selecting the appropriate hearty entree daunting, but Locanda Positano’s wild boar appears nightly and is not to be missed. This delicacy is available ossobuco over saffron risotto, or braised and served over pappardelle noodles – the tangy, tender meat is braised and then oven-roasted in wine for 5 hours; the reduction in the pan is used for the murky sauce that infiltrates the dish.  Forget the stereotypical cannoli and finish the experience with a house-made panna cotta with fresh berries or tiramisu accompanied by a sturdy caffè or sweet dessert wine.

In a city where authentic Italian cuisine is as rare as a 1998 Quintarelli Amarone, keeping an eye out for this piccolo ristorante is worth the unparalleled Mediterranean experience along the Pacific Coast Highway.

Locanda Positano
4059 Lincoln Boulevard
Marina del Rey CA 90292
GPS Coordinates: 33°59’20.01″N 118°26’47.47″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s dinner at Locanda Positano in Marina del Rey CA

NOTE: The cost for the food was provided by Locanda Positano. The content provided in this article was not influenced whatsoever by the organizer of the event.

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