Taste of Richmond

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A true bon vivant relishes good food, and the inaugural Taste of Richmond did not disappoint. While the event took place weeks ago, I figured it was better to post late than never. The historic John Marshall Ballrooms were packed with the top restaurants in Richmond. Many were still riding the wave of romanticism surrounding New Southern cuisine, which has swept the nation. There were gourmet samples of shrimp and grits and pork belly macaroni and cheese.

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But to further prove that Richmond is a foodie town beyond Southern fare, there was 14 carat gold-flecked sushi. And the best amuse bouche was being dished out by the stellar Indian restaurant Lehja. I can’t remember what they called it. But it was heaven.

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It was a way for Richmonders to sample all the places we’re been meaning to try but hadn’t had a chance to. There was a cooking show by Comfort’s Jason Alley, winestopper party favors and that overall glow from being well-fed.

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Ecuadorian Feast

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“Friends with benefits” should include friends that cook. When my friend Jackie entertains, guests are spoiled rotten. Picking up your finished plate will earn you daggers.

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First, you’re served a hand-muddled cocktail, made with small-batch tequila, lime and sugar.

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While you sip, you can linger in Jackie’s spotless kitchen and steal plantain chips fresh out of the fryer.

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Buen provecho! Shrimp ceviche, home-fried plantains, tortillas and homemade salsa are served fresh.

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After the meal, guests are offered shots of  MamaJuana, an earthy libation from the Dominican Republic that’s said to cure any ills, from digestion to libido.

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Dessert is a tres leches-style cake with fresh fruit. The creaminess tempers the heat from our spicy meal. Not too sweet and 100% delectable.

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Every time we leave Jackie’s home, we’re left wondering what we could have done to deserve such star treatment. But we keep that to ourselves. We wouldn’t want Jackie to start wondering that too.

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Cheers!

Virginia Wine Country

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Veritas Winery

Virginia had been quietly making wine for centuries, but lately, it’s been hard to contain the enthusiasm. In the past 20 years, Virginia has become the 5th largest wine-producing state in the US, and many claim (including Forbes) that it’s becoming the Napa Valley of the East Coast.

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Central Virginia, particularly the Charlottesville area, is considered Virginia Wine Country. The rolling hills are lined with rows of grapevines, and set against the backdrop of mountains, it easily mimics Napa in the summer.

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Tasting at Blue Mountain Brewery

Gourmet grocery stores spot the landscape. They’re quaint, with chalkboard menus and outdoor tables shaded by umbrellas. And like the wineries, they have their resident dog. Benign but watchful, sweet but aloof. These small markets are packed with truffle pate, French bread and an array of cheeses for impromptu picnics.

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Many dirt roads lead to intimate, family-owned wineries.

Both wineries and breweries feature local farm-to-table menus. The nearby farms that supply them sell peaches and strawberries at dusty, roadside stands. The mountains offer getaways for wine enthusiasts, and range from rustic cabins to elite ski chalets. In the winter, the area is bustling due to the ski resorts. But in the summer, the area accommodates wine lovers and the endless stream of wedding guests who attend nuptials at the wineries.

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Running free through vineyards, careful not to crash any weddings

The difference between Virginia Wine Country and other wine regions would have to be history. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is at the heart of wine country, and Monticello grows grapes too. Tours are available, from his gardens, to a specialized Slave Tour that sheds life on the Hemings family, his direct descendants. Dave Matthews owns a winery next door. There are old plantations, Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields and many museums.

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Gathered with friends for a relaxing wine country weekend

Visitors have long been coming from Richmond and DC. Lately however, it’s opening up as a national destination, and for good reason!


It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

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If you’re throwing a holiday party, rest assured yours will be one of many during the season. What can you do to make your party stand out? Everyone will have cocktails and a nice spread, but I’m all for an activity that keeps people engaged, whether they’re laughing or crafting. A cookie decorating area with to-go bags add more to do and an instant party favor.

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The Spiked Peppermint Cocoa was adorned with a candy cane in each cup.

This year, I put together a photo booth at my Christmas party. Holiday-themed props are easy to come by; Santa hats, reindeer andlers, red nose etc. I threw in a couple of converation pieces, such as a plastic butcher knife from Halloween. It guarantees funnier photos.

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And along with my friend Jules, we hosted a Yankee Swap (or, a White Elephant Exchange). All guests were encouraged to bring a wrapped present, unmarked. All presents were piled under the tree, and people drew numbers. Guests took turns picking out a gift, and the following players had the opportunity to steal a gift they coveted.

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Grinch santa hats

From stacks of lottery tickets to a box full of DVDs, guests laughed, lamented and stole items from one another – multiple times. From the next room, it almost sounded as if I had a movie theater in-house, as all the reactions were loud and silumtaneous. As the exchange got more heated, I passed out slices of pumpkin pie and refilled drinks, such as Jules’ spiced mulled wine and my spiked peppermint hot cocoa.

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Happy holidays to all!

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Hamilton helping with the set-up

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Part of the fun is destroying him

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Canapes: Mexican polenta bars and artichoke parmesan spread over toasted baguette slices

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Yes, someone brought a case of beer to the Yankee Swap

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The Yankee Swap gets heated!

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Backyard Pop-Up Wedding!

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A sweet chalkboard message and carport strung with white curains serves as a warm welcome.

Attorneys Marcus Lange and Zawadi Brown were already engaged, but when a San Francisco law firm offered Marcus a dream job, he and his fiancée decided to start this new venture as man and wife.

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the happy couple

We had two weeks to pull off one of the happiest days of their lives, and it was a success!

Sans Fancy Venue!

Everyone knows that a wedding date is at the mercy of the wedding venue. Since official venues were out, we chose our backyard! Since it’s the East Coast, we got a spacious white tent in case of rain.

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Sans Caterers!

Instead of locking down official caterers, the couple cherry-picked their favorite foods, and dishes that highlighted their heritage. The groom is German, which meant schnitzel and sauerkraut potato balls. The bride is from Trinidad with a Rastafarian and vegetarian family, which meant a mix of vegetable patties, jerk chicken and plantains. They also offered one of their favorite dishes: mutton biryani from India.  Guests are still raving about the All-Around-the-World menu!

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Sans Bakery Cake!

Instead of trying to score a last-minute wedding cake from a bakery, they called on food artist Carol Brown, known for her impeccable baking at Dixie Donuts and beyond. She outdid herself, with a homemade red velvet cake, chocolate brownies and a classic pound cake. For good measure, Marcus and Zawadi provided chocolate-covered strawberries as well.

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Sans Decorators!

Rather than hiring a decorator, Zawadi and friends, (including myself) created hand-made decorations in various shades of purple, the wedding color. Silver was the accent color. Billowy tissue paper balls were strung about, wisteria hung from the railings and the ceremony took place under a tree that was positively dripping with colored ribbons and strands of crystals. When the wind blew, it was ethereal.

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Sans Florist!

The couple skipped major florist fees by marrying outdoors, as our yard has a peach tree, fig free, Concord grape vines, a weeping cherry, daisies, hydrangea bushes and more. In fact, every flower from the purple hydrangea was snipped and placed on every table. Adding to the rustic theme were mason jars filled with sand and lit candles, lanterns hung from the trees and burlap runners featured ladylike polka dots.

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The ceremony was short, sweet and personalized with the couple’s own vows.

Sans Bartender!

Rather than hiring a bartender, the couple offered a conveniently pre-mixed signature drink, the Trinimeister. Combining both their heritages, it was a mix of Jaegermeister, coconut rum, pineapple juice and Sprite, which fit right in with the summer day. Beer and wine were also available, though as the party went on, more and more bottles of liquor filled the bar.
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Who needs a wedding planner when you have friends?

It was a day with zero humidity, sunshine and a cool breeze. It may well have been the prettiest day of summer. Mr. and Mrs. Lange were surrounded by love, with friends and family who all rallied together to make this day unforgettable.

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Bree Hall (pictured right) was a force during the wedding planning.

We wish Mr. and Mrs. Lange the best of luck with their new adventure in San Francisco!

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Hydrangeas popped on every table, and wedding toasts made guests laugh and cry.

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Silver accents complimented the purple and white decor.

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Gift bags were filled with homemade air freshener spray (created by the bride’s brother) and German beer.

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The couple’s friend Mark is also a taleted musician, who performed a warm, personal tribute.

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happy to open our home

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Build Your Own Taco Bar!

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Dixie Donuts food artist Carol Brown and her son Acie

The late, great Nora Ephron once said that people love to play with their food. That might explain my obsession with Korean BBQ.

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I had friends coming to dinner with their three boys in tow. As a kid, it can be a bore being dragged to adult dinner parties. So I took a cue from the Nora Ephron playbook and decided we would play with our food. I created a Build Your Own Taco Bar!

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It was a weeknight, so the dinner needn’t be fussy. The mother and children are vegetarian, so I served alternative proteins and and kicked the veggies up a notch with chipotle-spiced eggplant and Southwestern-style summer squash. I laid all the toppings out, and we had a great time building unique tacos – no two were the same!

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This greeting lets the kids know it’s not all about the grown-ups!

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The drinks let grown-ups know it’s not all about the kids!

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I get to rock my fabulous Mexican folk art runners!

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For extra long tables, be sure to place fixings to both ends of the table. Less passing, more eating!

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A sweet end to the meal: Carol’s homemade pound cake

 

 

How to Throw a 50s-Themed Sock Hop!

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Over the hill? Over that theme!

Birthdays are meant to be celebratory, but tacky party ideas for these poor people are mocking, suggesting that death is just around the corner.

When my mother turned 60, we opted instead for an upbeat 50’s-themed party, which would be reminiscent of her childhood and a much simpler time. People are still talking about it, and it even inspired other family members to do the same!

How to do it…

1) Make it a costume party! It will set a great atmosphere, and lots of laughs when friends see one another!

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2) Vinyl records make great decorations for the walls, dangling from the ceiling on strings and as a centerpiece. Speaking of centerpieces, it’s easy to make a mock milkshake with glasses, shredded paper and striped straws! Glass soda bottles look great too – extra credit if you score vintage ones!

IMG_76763) I say this for every event, but have a themed cocktail. We named ours the “Beauty School Dropout.” And since it’s a sock hop, wholesome root beer floats and milkshakes really hit the spot!

IMG_76994) The birthday cake is a perfect opportunity to reinforce the theme. We used a lot of vinyl records, so one went right onto the cake!

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5) To keep things lively during our meal, we had karaoke. But that’s only because we hired a special DJ who had a trick up this sleeve….IMG_77166) HE WAS ALSO AN ELVIS IMPERSONATOR!!! I now truly believe that one should not throw a sock hop without an Elvis impersonator. It just takes things to a whole other level.

IMG_77197) We used vintage candy as party favors, and it brought back old memories to everyone, from baby boomers to millennials! Using the language of the time, we told guests we hoped they had a “swell time,” added a poodle graphic and tied it up with a bow!

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The party hosts enjoying the fruits of their labor

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The birthday girl being serenaded

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How to Host an International Dinner Party!

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Embassies from around the world dot the landscape in Washington, D.C. and the streets are filled with reckless foreign diplomats. You can spot their special license plates, which allow them to drive like maniacs since they’re granted immunity. D.C. was a true mixing bowl, where the Italians weren’t the Jersey Shore type, but the type who spoke Italian and made their own limoncello.

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My childhood in the Washington suburbs was multi-cultural, but not in that forced, PC way that makes everyone nervous. My school featured students from France to India, Vietnam to Ireland. To celebrate this mash-up, Beech Tree Elementary hosted International Dinners, where families cooked food from their native country to share. Stations would be set up with homemade flags, dollops of food were shared and adventurous eaters would mill about.

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The event brought families together in an organic way. It inspired me to host an International Dinner Party of my own!

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Chocolate from around the world

How to do it:

1) The hardest part? Cooking food from around the world. The most fun part? Cooking food from around the world!

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The spread featured homemade duck pate and Korean kimchi and rice with seaweed!

2) Make signs for all the foods – it will encourage guests to try somehing unfamiliar. A charming accent? Label everything on airmail envelopes!

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3) Feature beer and wine from around the world!

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4) Ask guests to arrive dressed in native garb – clothing from their country. Many of my friends didn’t have such clothes, but they improvised. My friend Tess wore a custom dress she had made in Vietnam. A man of French descent wore a fake moustache and an English friend wore tartan and wellies! But hands down, the best costume went to Kim Burke-Connors, who celebrated her Russian roots with a babushka scarf, a basket of potatoes, a bottle of vodka and austerity!

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5) Buy a basket and fill it with international foods such as Italian pasta, German mustard and soy sauce. One guest will get to go home with this prize. How do you determine the winner? World trivia, based on geograhy, customs and food! At our party, competition was tight, with a lot of tension between the last two finalists.

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6) Give guests a small parting gift, such as Swiss chocolate or a small bottle of Irish whiskey. Guests will love being treated to a night around the world without leaving town. Enjoy!International Dinner Party 047

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International dessert bar, with sugared mangoes from the Phillippines, Scottish shortbread, American s’mores and much more!

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A deviled egg bar is a fun represention of the USA – Nora Ephron used to say that people love to play with their food!

Postcard from Barcelona!

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Exploring the cloistered Gothic streets

BUENOS DIAS!

Before we embarked on our Mediterranean cruise, we arrived in Barcelona early to explore a bit.

It was a sensual place – summer downpours that made the Gothic architecture slick and glittery under city lights. An azure sea that dotted our paella with its fresh offerings. And everywhere you went, locals were at leisure. At 10 pm you’d find them languid at sidewalk cafes. They’re laughing with their children, sipping sangria and enjoying a long dinner followed by a cigarette.

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One of the many courses in our “menu del dia” lunch

Whether you’ve been to Spain or not, you’ve likely enjoyed tapas at a restaurant. Eaters beware; Spain knows you enjoy tapas, and restauranteurs will charge an arm and a leg for the tiny plates. Darlings, put your menus down.

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Papas Bravas and more at Cal Ramon Braseria

Be savvy and do what the locals do. Order the menu del dia (daily special). You will be brought course after course of their freshest food and drinks, as the menu changes daily. You’ll enjoy just as much variety for a fraction of the price. In fact, you will never be able to finish it!

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La Rambla prepares for an intense thunderstorm

All tourists in Barcelona visit Via Rambla, the main strip of commerce that ends at the sea. While there’s plenty of shopping to do, I recommend ducking into the farmer’s markets. See the locals haggling and squeezing melons, enjoy street food from the vendors and buy gifts that are more authentic and reasonably priced than what you’ll find at a souvenir shop. I much prefer handmade Spanish chocolates or a tiny box of saffron to a porcelain bell with the word “Barcelona” on it.

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Exotic treats at the La Rambla Farmer’s Market

Of course, don’t forget to eat Papas Bravas (spicy potatoes) and drink sangria. In Spain, they like to add a kick to it and always add Sprite. In fact, when you order the menu del dia at any restaurant, it automatically comes with  red wine and a Sprite, which is meant to be mixed.

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La Sagrada Familia – spooky and dream-like

La Sagrada Familia is spooky and ominous, a must-see. And while in the neighborhood, don’t miss Cal Ramon Braseria. The spunky owner is free in-house entertainment and his generous menu del dia will not disappoint.

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When in Spain, try the paella

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At Montjuic Castle – a historical site with views of the Mediterranean

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Ramon in the 70s

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Ramon today

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A Culinary Tour of Los Angeles

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If you’re in the San Gabriel Valley, you cannot skip dim sum!

Every bon vivant knows that to truly appreciate food, you need a mix of the high and low. Beef Wellington is to die for, but so are street tacos.

Luckily, I’m able to write about food, and currently live in a city that takes it so seriously, they host an annual awards ceremony for chefs and restauranteurs.

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Coffee tastes better with old friends. With over 10 types of mochas, Oriental carpets and dark atmosphere, The Library is the best coffee shop in Long Beach.

But I often become homesick for my old stomping grounds – Los Angeles, California. Recently, I took a trip back to see old friends, and it inadvertently became a food tour. If a friend invited me over for cocktails, I’d suck air through my teeth and ask, “Actually, can we meet at Los Tacos? I’ve been craving their bean and cheese burrito.” This trip made me really think about where I wanted to spend my limited time, restaurants included. They’re rated first on taste, then price. I’ve eaten through a lot of second-rate establishments to provide this list, so take heed and bon appetit!

SUSHI STOP

At $3.00 a plate, they rival Sushi Mac in price, but not taste. Their menu is vast, more delicious and the yellowtail truffle handroll is perfection.

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The Vegas Roll at Sushi Stop

OMAR’S XINJIANG HALAL RESTAURANT

These guys are fusion without trying to be. China’s “Wild West” had been previously conquered by Middle Eastern countries, resulting in a heavenly mash-up of All Things Good. Their savory meat pie is addictive, their hand-pulled noodles are chewy and so thick they need to be cut with scissors, which is great because the texture helps drag out those sweet moments. Perhaps most exciting are their lamb ribs – deep-fried and dusted with cumin and powdered chiles. Once quiet and only known to Chinese immigrants in the San Gabriel Valley, the well-deserved hype for this place is steamrolling.

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Once obscure, now in-demand halal Chinese food in the SGV – get there early!

BAY CITIES

When you walk in, the unmistakable Italian deli aroma hits you. With chewy, heavenly bread that can hold together a monster of a sandwich, Bay Cities delivers top notch meats and cheeses with all the trimmings. I always go for the classic Godmother. And yes, there will be a line.

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Bay Cities is in Santa Monica, and I promise you the sandwich tastes much better if you enjoy it at the beach.

ZEPHYR

This California Craftsman home-turned-coffee house is a charmer. You can roam all the different rooms and sit anywhere you’d like. There’s always a Scrabble game going on. Local art hangs on the walls, making it a gallery as well. And the white chocolate mocha is fantastic. Recently, Armenians bought the place and turned the patio into a hookah bar, adding another dimension to the offerings, which include an open mic night, poetry readings, etc.

But mostly I love it because it’s in Pasadena.

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Soujouk Panini, salad and coffee

GOLDEN DELI

This place needs no introduction – it’s always rated the #1 Vietnamese restaurant in L.A. Plus, the L.A. Weekly/L.A. Times Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold has raved about it. Luckily I once lived walking distance from Golden Deli, and would feast on their pho when it was cold and their vermicelli salad when it was warm.

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Pork Bun (vermicelli) with fried spring roll

MR. CHOW

I remember this restaurant from 80’s movies as being the place to be (pre-Spago), and it’s been standing since 1974 for good reason. Every single dish is impeccable. None of the fried, sugar-glazed take-out junk and not the obscure stuff – just authentic, mind-blowing Chinese food. Of note: Mr. Chow himself used to be married to Vogue’s Grace Coddington!

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Mr. Chow’s Potstickers (Beijing recipe)

LITERATI CAFE & BOURGEOIS PIG

Both have much to offer as far as great coffee, but the back room at the Bourgeois Pig still has more ambiance than any Anthropologie Illuminati can imagine. Part harem, part Enchanted Forest, words do it no justice. Here’s a photo.

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CASTLE II

Reader, never take all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ for granted. Ever! I live in a town where there’s no competition driving prices down. All-you-can-eat does not exist, and what’s worse, BBQ for two easily costs $75. The original Castle on Western Ave was seeing ridiculous lines (thanks to all-you-can-eat for only $9.99!) so they opened a big, shiny Castle II – a mecca of meat and endless sides. I had plenty of friends who wanted to see me. Here, specifically. Get the brisket, burn it a little, and you’re welcome.

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HONORABLE MENTION:

LOS TACOS

Get the gooey bean and cheese burrito and their carnitas tacos – open 24 hours!

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Very Midsummer Night’s Dream in Topanga Canyon – a locally-sourced destination dinner

DU-PAR’S

The best pancakes I’ve ever had. Don’t ask how much butter is used. Breakfast 24 hours a day!