A West Coast Road Trip with Dash of Les: Adventures in Sightseeing and Eating

Nov. 19, 2013 by: Leslie Floyd

People often claim that they were born in the wrong decade. While that is probably true for me too, I can say without question, I was born on the wrong coast. Ever since I can remember - before I had boobs and before I ever uttered my first "f-word," I longed to live in California. An easy-going, beach-loving, free-spirit, the west coast just suits my soul. Once I entered college at FSU, I began saying that I'd definitely make the cross country move upon graduation. At the time, I only had one west coast trip to my name and yet, I just knew I was meant to be there.

Fast forward many years later. I'm still living in Tampa and can't shake my desire to move. Last Fall, Chris and I traveled to NorCal and spent some time in Napa Valley, San Francisco, Monterey, and Carmel. We fell head over heels in love. We were sure that in time, we'd move there. Chris is a software engineer so Silicon Valley offers him a land of opportunities. And for me, one who has been a passionate writer for over ten years, a career in journalism (even if it means starting from the absolute bottom) is much more achievable in big creative cities like San Francisco, LA, or NYC.

Not too many months ago, Chris and I revisited the idea of moving out West. But this time around, we began singing a different tune. Perhaps Southern California would be a better fit for us. While I had a preconceived notion that San Diego would steal my heart, Chris was more attracted to the idea of living in Santa Monica- which is conveniently becoming known as "Silicon Beach" with its large tech/start-up community.

So we decided we simply must make a trip out to Cali to get a good look at our potential future home. And rather than just flying straight to LA or San Diego, we chose to do something a little different. A road trip that would begin in Phoenix and end in San Diego would be one of the best vacations we've had to date.

Arizona

Arriving in Phoenix at a late hour, we checked into The Phoenician, a breath-takingly beautiful resort in Scottsdale surrounded by dessert and mountains. Because beauty sleep is so important to yours truly, we hit the hay within minutes of throwing down our luggage. The next morning, we woke up early and headed for Camelback Mountain. Having hiked what I thought was a serious mountain in Hawaii just a couple years ago; I had all the confidence in the world. And from the foot of Camelback, it looked like a piece of cake. I was so...regrettably...wrong.

Mistakenly taking the more difficult of two trails, I was trembling from my fear of heights almost the entire time. Our water was gone within an hour, my chest was tight, and my heart was skipping five beats every five minutes. A 2,900 foot mountain, we made it just 300 feet shy from the peak. Let's just say that I almost suffered a full-blown panic attack towards the end of it. And after a trek down the mountain that was even more frightening, I couldn't think about anything but cold water and cocktails...lots and lots of cocktails. So after a 3-hour mountain climbing adventure, we suited up and went to the resort's gorgeous pool, where we properly calmed our nerves.

I know this sounds crazy, but I had no reservations for our dinner in Scottsdale. Without a clue where we'd go, we ended up at a place that'd serve us one of the top 3 meals we'd have on the trip. Distrito boasted Mexican food like I've never had before. An uber contemporary joint with awesome al fresco dining, we were in for a real treat. We began with some of the chunkiest and most flavorful guacamole I've had from a restaurant. Rarely will I say that a guacamole is better than my own version. Distrito's guacamole was...better than mine. Okay, that hurt a little. From there, we ordered the Ceviche De Salmon which was a colorful and zingy assortment of tequila cured wild-caught salmon, charred pineapple, tepache, and shiso.

For our entrees, Chris went with the Chile Relleno which was stuffed with quinoa, kale, black beans, and topped with Queso Oaxaca and a delectable smoked tomato puree. A carnivorous kinda guy, he hadn't even realized that he ordered a vegetarian dish. And truth be told, he wasn't the least bit disappointed. With so many diverse tastes and textures going on, it'd be hard to miss the meat.

I went a completely different direction and chose the Pancita Al Pastor. Glazed pork belly came atop frijoles charros, grilled scallion, and pineapple. I'm pretty sure my eyes rolled back in my head as I ate this tangy meaty concoction. Perfectly prepared pork belly and decadent flavors made this meal one to remember. Since it happened to be Arizona's Restaurant week, we were treated to desserts with our meals too. I opted for the Chocolate Torte, an artistic display of spiced chocolate cake, espresso ice cream, and coffee gelée. Rich and heavenly is an understatement. Chris went with an even more impressive plate of art with the Bravo Gitano - a dish of Dulce de Leche crema, vanilla sponge cake, meringue, and Cajeta.

The next morning, with no set agenda for breakfast, we drove just a mile down the road to a little diner called Over Easy. The second we walked in Chris noticed that stamped on the wall was a cartoon dude with spiky hair and shades. Any fellow Triple D fans? Oh yes, Guy had visited this joint. It was meant to be.

With a menu that made me salivate with every description, I was torn. Our server insisted that their benedicts were out of this world. This guy was right. Chris went with the Country Benedict- cheddar jalapeno infused biscuits with juicy sausage patties, flawlessly poached eggs, and a house made Hollandaise that swooned. I don't know what had gotten into me on this day, but I went with Over Easy's Traditional Benedict. I practically licked my plate clean. Perfection.

That day, we left Scottsdale and drove to the Grand Canyon. It had been 23 years since I last stepped foot on the majestic site. But with an Elton John concert at 7PM that night in Vegas, we had less than an hour to explore one of the nation's most earth-defying places. I'm pretty sure my jaw was dropped from the moment we caught eye of the canyon to the sad moment when we had to turn around and walk back to the car. I can't wait to return someday soon.

Las Vegas

The drive to Vegas was grueling but we made it...barely. Arriving as the sun was setting on the city, we hurriedly walked into the Venetian. I was in awe over the beauty of the hotel that was ranked as my second choice in Vegas. When I swung open the door to our humongous and lavish suite, I was even more pleased that we had "settled" on second best. Rushing around the room, taking sips (and swigs) of champagne between buttoning and fastening, we were dressed to impress in record time.

Then, like magic, we were strolling into the Coliseum at Caesar's Palace...fashionably late. Showing up two songs into the show (trust me, I'm ashamed), we caught the tail end of my all-time favorite Elton John tune, Tiny Dancer. From there, the concert would prove to be one for the books. I do believe I was grinning from ear to ear for two hours straight. Bucket list worthy, indeed.

After witnessing one of the top musical acts of all time, we walked into Bobby Flay's upscale, modern Mexican restaurant, Mesa Grill. While we were ravenous, it was also quite late for dinner so we hesitatingly opted for a few small plates to share. Being the mad foodie that I am, I had already studied the menu and knew that the Blue Corn Lobster Tacos were an absolute must. We also chose the Crispy Squash Blossoms and the Smoked Chicken and Black Bean Quesadilla.

Stuffed with ricotta, corn, and basil, the fried squash blossoms were also sitting in a pool of sweet pepper sauce. My goodness, these unique fried treats were righteous as ever. After devouring a blossom, I snatched one of the most miniature tacos I've ever seen. The Blue Corn Lobster Tacos were insanely luscious. Filled with delicate lobster, pickled onions, avocado, and topped with a fennel and habanero relish, I was licking my chops with every bite. Let's just say if I was into cursing on my blog, there'd be a few choice words written in all-caps to describe my love for these tacos. I'm just sad I didn't catch a good photo of the beauties. 

I had questioned Chris when he suggested we order a quesadilla of all things. Ohhhh, sometimes I do underestimate my boyfriend. Holy mother of God, this was a mean quesadilla. Filled with flavorful chicken and beans, it was was topped with avocado and toasted garlic crème fraiche. But friends, the menu description does this baby no justice. Exploding with tons of rich and spicy tastes, the quesadilla was the best I've ever eaten. End of story.

Perfectly happy with our decision to stay only one night in Vegas, we packed our bags and walked over to the Bellagio and in true Vegas fashion, helped ourselves to an all you can eat brunch. Although the brunch buffet didn't live up to our cuisine dreams, we were given the ultimate Vegas farewell when we caught the famous fountain show on the way out.

Los Angeles

Oh LA, it had been too long since we met. For the last time I ventured your glitzy city, I was a celebrity-obsessed teenybopper wanting nothing more than to run into one of my favorite celebrities. But this time would be a much different experience. Not a star-struck kinda gal in the slightest, I was there to enjoy the slower-paced side of the city in the irresistibly, picture-perfect, Santa Monica.

Having booked a condo just footsteps from the SM Pier through Air B&B, Chris and I were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed over our bar-none location. We'd spend three nights by the beach, three nights that'd convince us, that this is in fact, where we're meant to be. With way too many fabulous meals and adventures to report on, I'll just tease you with a few highlights.

Quite possibly my favorite evening was spent on the rooftop of Hotel Erwin in Venice Beach. Overlooking the boardwalk, palms, and the Pacific, we scored the best seats in the house. The cool October night and the stunning sunset spectacle reminded me why I so adore the west coast. We got cozy on the couch with Afghans while we sipped on wine and munched on some seriously divine Ahi Tuna Wonton Tacos. Crunchy, creamy, and loaded with fresh, silky Ahi, we were officially in la-la land...go figure.

I'm a total noodle head. And since Tampa simply doesn't offer any notable noodle joints, visiting an authentic ramen shop in LA was a given. But we wouldn't go to just any old ramen shop. Nope, we went to a ramen shop that has been ranked supreme by Eater 38. Boasting the best broth and noodles in tinsel town, Tsujita LA scored high nods from the both of us. Chewy noodle goodness, fragrant broth, perfectly seasoned pork, and a damn tasty ajitama (seasoned soft boiled egg) made for a combination that we'd talk about for days. If only Tampa could catch the ramen buzz. It might be reason enough for me to hang out here a bit longer (kidding).

Another cool destination worth mentioning is Upper West, a trendy fusion spot that sits modestly on a busy street on the way out of Santa Monica. Visiting with my mom's long-time best friend who has called California "home" for forty-some years, we enjoyed a diverse spread of delectable fare. An Indian food lover, I ordered the Chicken Tawook which consisted of Tawook marinated chicken kabobs, chana masala, mango, herbs, and a tomato red-pepper relish. Scrumptious beyond belief, the dish provided an elaborate flavor party on my palate.

Chris made it his goal to eat Mexican/Southwestern fare for every meal of the trip. So he instantly decided on the Ahi Tuna crispy tacos. Made with crispy plantain shells and filled with fresh Ahi, jicama cucumber salsa, and chipotle vinaigrette, these texturally fun bundles were almost too good to be true and were probably gone in 40 seconds flat. (Not kidding).

In addition to good eats, we also spent a sunny day on Malibu beach, a night bar hopping with a dear friend in West Hollywood, and a memorable evening sipping on cocktails at Santa Monica's Huntley Hotel penthouse. LA came to an end before we could blink. But, we will be back. And when that time comes, we shall no longer be tourists.

San Diego

For those of you who are still reading; wow. Consider yourself some of my most dedicated fans! I must admit, this post isn't just for my readers. In fact, I generally don't write solely for you guys. You see, journaling my experiences brings me a certain satisfaction. Because blogging isn't an obligation for me. It's a past time that truly makes me happy.

Back to the trip. We were winding down our adventure through the west coast and would be commending it in the classy city of San Diego. Sorry, but I had to include an Anchorman reference. Again, we'd book a condo with Air B&B which would grant us a lovely condo in the heart of La Jolla, literally footsteps from the famous surfing mecca, Windansea Beach. We made sure to walk down to Windansea to soak up the sunset and the competitive surfers all four nights we were there.

Because Chris allowed me to sit back and relax as a passenger between cities, I was able to create lists of places to see and things to eat. And finding the food truck just 10 miles from the Mexican border that claimed the best fish tacos in all of SoCal was a given. Not surprising, the tacos at Mariscos El Pescador, which sold for $1.50, were the very best fish tacos I've ever eaten. Flawlessly battered and fried fish paired with crunchy cabbage, pickled onions, cilantro, and Mexican "white sauce" to make an edible that I'm still dreaming about. Traveling to the not-so lovely (or classy) Chula Vista was worth every fish taco bite.

On the second morning in SD, Chris woke up with only one thing on his mind. Surfing. We surfed in Hawaii a couple years ago and Chris made it a point to surf several times since. Even though I was successful "getting up" on the board in Hawaii, I was a bit nervous about attempting the sport again. But remembering the thrill of riding the waves was enough to force me to try. San Diego's Pacific Beach was intense that day and we both struggled. However, we persevered and made the best of it, even if it meant boogey-boarding and riding the waves on our knees half the time.

Staying in La Jolla afforded us an array of amazing restaurants just minutes from our place. One restaurant that I considered a "no-brainer" was George's at the Cove. Overlooking the awe-inspiring cove of La Jolla, the fancy eatery has both an upscale, indoor dining room and an al-fresco rooftop deck. Wanting to take in the warm and breezy weather, we sat on the deck, where we enjoyed killer views and delicious food. I ordered the Ahi Tuna with Soba Noodles, a plate that was as pretty as it was tasty. Sticking with his plan, Chris went for the Fish tacos which had him "oohing and ahhing" with every bite. Known for their standard in fresh, local seafood, it was no surprise that our food was downright glorious. An ambiance you can't beat and incredible cuisine made this establishment one I'd recommend to anyone.

If you remember from the very beginning of this extremely long vacation re-cap, I said that I was hoping to move to San Diego (though I had never even visited). I won't lie, I really, really liked the city...but I didn't fall in love with it like I had anticipated I would. But...with that said, we did wrap up the trip with 4 nights and 4 of days of perfection. With seriosuly tasty tacos shops, awesome craft beer breweries, fun rooftop bars, and stellar beaches, San Diego is a city I simply can't wait to visit again.

We've been back home for about a little over a month now and I swear I'm still in a post-vacation slump. But I must say, reliving the adventures in sightseeing and eating with this blog post really, really helped my unfortunate "condition."


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