Tag Archives: LA

Four million people at our feet

Debs Park, Los Angeles, May 2017

Downtown LA from Debs Park, Los Angeles, May 2017

Los Angeles is not a great hiking city. A mesh of sprawling, strangling freeways that cross a vast, concrete-laden, urban area, it’s hardly known as a spot for a hearty outdoors ramble.

This was my attitude before I first travelled to the city. On that initial visit I scratched off the idea that I’d get outdoors at all, given the daytime temps in the 90s.

This was despite the imposing presence of the San Gabriel Mountains, which overlooked my wife’s hometown of Temple City. From a distance though, they appeared smog-choked and dusty.

But luckily my wife’s family know LA, and know where to hike. Slowly but surely, subsequent visits introduced me to hill and mountain paths, most of which were within 30 minutes of Downtown (presuming traffic’s light, which is always a risky presumption in the City of Angels).

Hiking Topanga Canyon

Hiking Topanga Canyon

And so I’ve hiked up through Eaton Canyon to the falls at its head, spent an early morning walking the Los Liones trail in Topanga State Park, and filled the best part of a day traversing the trails above Millard Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Last weekend saw me add another route. Waking early, we travelled to Ernest E Debs Regional Park, a set of small hills and paths overlooking central northeast Los Angeles.

Unlike previous hiking spots I’d been to in the city, Debs Park is surrounded – or so it seems – by urban LA. The 110 freeway skirts the park’s northern edge; LA’s Eastside sprawls in one direction, with a view towards Downtown in the other. There’s graffiti on the tree trunks, and desolate, burned brush on parts of the hills.

But 20 minutes, and a steep tarmac roadway, later saw us perched on a dusty trail above the city. A slight breeze kept LA’s yellow smog haze at bay, and – despite the fact that it was a weekend morning – there was no-one else around.

For a few moments we had our scrubby, green-brown, hilly oasis. A city of four million people lay at our feet, but the only movement was the sparrows flying over our heads.

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Time, music, place: Broken Bells, LA

Broken Bells at The Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, October 2014. Pic: Cormac Looney

Broken Bells at The Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, October 2014.
Pic: Cormac Looney

A piece of music can be an instant ticket to a place or a time.

As I get older this phenomenon – notes firing down neural pathways, the intersection of time and music and place – preoccupies me more and more.

I’ve written about it here previously and an event last week brought to mind again. We visited with family and friends in Los Angeles, a busy trip involving catch-ups, food and drink, 30c days and one or two late nights.

This charming man - with James Mercer at The Orpheum Theatre. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

This charming man – with James Mercer at The Orpheum Theatre.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

One of those was spent at The Orpheum Theatre, where we caught a show by Broken Bells, the band fronted by Brian Burton and The Shins‘ James Mercer (the latter of whom I’d the pleasure of meeting afterwards).

And one of their encores on the night was Citizen, a song I’d heard umpteen times since picking up the band’s 2010 debut album.

Unlike the recording, heard live the song became an elegiac showcase for Mercer’s voice and his cry of ‘what’s it all about anyway?’, backlit with Jacob Escobedo‘s beautiful visuals.

The performance led to the rebirth of the song in my head. So much so that in the week since the show, which also saw my return home, the track has soundtracked my memory of the trip.

Listening to its chorus now, as I type this, puts me directly back in the LA light, jet lagged but energised, my memories a mix of freeways, glasses, huge amber skies, food and conversation.

I probably won’t listen to Citizen again for another six months. When I do – as with another song in another California at another time – it will bring me back, quicker and truer than photos or conversation, to LA in a few days in the late October of 2014.


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In praise of okonomiyaki

A load of crepes. They tasted good, once a year. Pic: French Recipes

A load of crepes. Pancakes tasted good, once a year.
Pic: French Recipes

‘Cabbage pancake.’

Two words, like ‘low-fat sausage’ and ‘mid-strength Guinness’, that are enough to send most Irishmen running away in mortal fear – to the arms of their mammy or the local chip shop.

For years I counted myself among them.

I am part of a generation that was raised on cabbage one way – boiled. In salted water, if you were lucky.

It was green and floppy and it was served with bacon. It filled you up and then you went back outside for another three hours of football.

Pancakes?

There were something we had once a year, crepe-style, on Shrove Tuesday. They tasted better than cabbage and bacon but they were such a rarity on our plate back then that we forgot they even existed for most of the year.

Until that one February mealtime when we ate ourselves in a batter stupor.

But cabbage and pancake on one plate? At the same time?

Suggesting that in mid-1980s Ireland would have landed you some odd looks – and an instruction to finish the rest of those turnips (but that’s a post for another day).

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Fast forward to 2010 and I’m standing on Great Russell Street in London. After three hours wandering around the British Museum I’m hungry.

Luckily my then-girlfriend-now-wife has sent me a recommendation – a cafe called Abeno on nearby Museum Street.

Okonomiyakia at Abeno, London.

Okonomiyaki at Abeno, London.

And so followed my first experience with cabbage pancakes. Or, as the Japanese call the dish, okonomiyaki.

It turned out to be be more hands-on that I expected. My table was a hot plate (or teppan), I was handed two spatula and presented with the mixed raw ingredients: cabbage, bacon, pork, in a flour and water batter.

After a few minutes of pretending to know what I was doing I had something approaching okonomiyaki.

Using the tonkatsu sauce to cover a multitude of culinary sins I sized up, and quickly inhaled my first cabbage pancake.

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Four years on I’ve eaten some incredible Japanese food, from the sushi served at my wife’s favourite spot in LA to sashimi overlooking the Pacific at Big Sur to, best of all, my mother-in-law’s New Year’s Day feast.

Until last week, I never returned to okonomiyaki though.

That changed when Clare, having come across an easy recipe for tonkatsu sauce, decided to put a spare head of cabbage to use.

She shredded and mixed it with beetroot, courgette and prosciutto, producing a savoury pancake she topped with Japanese mayo and her homemade tonkatsu sauce.

The result was the incredible comfort food – tangy, moreish, salty, substantial. And not unhealthy either.

It was the answer to my hunger pangs, the Sunday blues, the question ‘what’s your death row meal?’ and, possibly, my dreams.

In fact it left only one question.

What would the six year old cabbage-eating me have made of it?

Clare's okonomiyaki. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Clare’s okonomiyaki.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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