Our California Summer Road Trip - Everything Anna
Ever since Garance Doré travelled through Big Sur in her rented Volkswagen minivan, we've been planning to pack up and head out on our own summer road trip. We wanted to get a taste of the California coastline. Nancy Silverton's famous pizza, a Michelin-starred restaurant, L.A.'s taco trucks and some roadside dinner parties were on our list.
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Have you ever driven 6,600 kilometers just to try a pizza crust? It sounds kind of silly, I admit, but I can get obsessed. I've watched the show, I've read all the reviews, and I'm ready. Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathon Gold writes: "In the wood ovens of Pizzeria Mozza, Nancy Silverton has more or less reinvented the very idea of pizza, airy and burnt and risen around the rim, thin and crisp in the center. You will be happy eating her crust plain, drizzled with a bit of good olive oil perhaps, but you might as well have it topped with burrata and Van Gogh-bright squash blossoms, cream and crumbles of house-made sausage, or puréed anchovies and fried egg."

I call Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles to get an interview with Nancy. I explain my obsession, that I'm writing a story all about her pizza dough, and that we're driving over 30 hours to get there. And we are excited! "Shouldn't be a problem," her assistant assures me.

We plan our itinerary, pack the cooler, and head out. Down I29, music on, to North Dakota, through Montana and Idaho, through Utah and Arizona, right down the Las Vegas Strip, finally arriving at our destination: The casual but cool Hilton at 13480 Maxella Ave, Marina Del Rey, California, a few blocks from Venice Beach.

Palisades Park, Santa Monica, California. A short walk from our hotel.

Palisades Park, Santa Monica, California. A short walk from our hotel.

Santa Monica Boulevard, California.  Isabella, my daughter who matched the graffiti.

Santa Monica Boulevard, California.  Isabella, my daughter who matched the graffiti.

Stunning wild shrubbery line the Pacific coastline highway. Venice Beach, California, 20 minute walk from our hotel.

Stunning wild shrubbery line the Pacific coastline highway. Venice Beach, California, 20 minute walk from our hotel.

When well-known New York blogger Garance Doré drove through California's Big Sur in her rented minivan, she was so inspired that she returned to New York, packed her bags and moved to Venice, California. When we arrive in Venice, a 20-minute walk from our hotel, I understand why. Aside from the obvious world-famous boardwalk and gorgeous beaches, there's a beautifully natural and healthy vibe. On her recommendation, for breakfast we choose Cafe Gratitude, a plant-based restaurant specializing in gourmet cuisine. Their mission: To express gratitude for a world of plenty.

We enter and are greeted with a laidback but polished California vibe. Our waitress humbly bows to us in welcome and begins to explain the menu and the philosophy. "We select the finest organic ingredients to honour the earth and ourselves, as we are one and the same. We support local farmers, sustainable agriculture and environmentally friendly products. Our food is prepared with love. We hope you enjoy being someone that chooses: loving your life, adoring yourself, accepting the world, being generous and grateful every day, and experiencing being provided for."

We have fun picking our menu items. I choose “I am Open-Hearted,” gluten-free pancakes made of buckwheat flax with maple syrup ($12). Isabella chooses “I am Welcoming,” a Mediterranean sampler of falafel, roasted marinated eggplant, zucchini cilantro hummus, tomato jam, hempseed tabbouleh and lavash ($16.50).

“I am Open-Hearted,” gluten-free pancakes made of buckwheat flax with maple syrup.

“I am Open-Hearted,” gluten-free pancakes made of buckwheat flax with maple syrup.

The flavours are outstanding ̶ deep and layered and delicious. This isn't just lunch. Bring the holy water: this is a revival! Already a vegetarian, Isabella is ready to convert─ no meat, no dairy, full vegan. And I can’t blame her. I silently vow to lose 30 pounds and get back to daily meditation and yoga, while thinking about how I'm going to recreate these recipes.

We're sharing forkfuls back and forth and feeling grateful and peaceful when the manager, Michael, comes over to say hello. He tells us he's from Canada and wants to help me with my story and answer any questions. It turns out the restaurant was founded by a couple, both divorced, who met at a California retreat, fell in love and got married. Longing to share their gratefulness with the world, they opened Cafe Gratitude. All the menu items can be found on their website with detailed ingredient lists.

"How did you get to California?" Isabella asks him. He moved to New York for school, fell in love, got married and moved to California. Michael confesses he's not vegan but came to Cafe Gratitude with a strong restaurant background.

"I have two more questions,” I say. “Do you hire Canadians, and how does one get married in California...in three days?" He laughs, but says he will check. Then he buys us dessert and it's chocolate and strawberry and raw and organic and the most delicious thing that has ever touched my lips.

Cafe Gratitude, @cafegratitude 

Cafe Gratitude, @cafegratitude 

Right: “I am Welcoming,” a Mediterranean sampler of falafel, roasted marinated eggplant, zucchini cilantro hummus, tomato jam, hempseed tabbouleh and lavash.

Right: “I am Welcoming,” a Mediterranean sampler of falafel, roasted marinated eggplant, zucchini cilantro hummus, tomato jam, hempseed tabbouleh and lavash.

The day after we arrive in Los Angeles, I receive an email from Nancy Silverton's assistant: "Sorry for the delay, looks like Nancy will not be able to make the interview leading up to her European vacation."

Feeling let down, we toss the message back and forth. Should we still go? Well, why not? We have come here to test Nancy Silverton's pizza crust! Still filled with anticipation and high expectations, we take a $40 Uber ride to 641 North Highland Avenue. I'm with my daughter, Isabella, a server at a contemporary pizzeria that specializes in traditional wood-fired pizza and has been voted one of the Top 50 Restaurants in Canada. She's our pizza connoisseur and fully immersed in the pursuit of the perfect pizza crust.

In fact, Isabella once convinced my dad to pay $70 for a lunch that included a pizza pie topped with potatoes, pancetta, pistachios and egg, and he loved it. You have to understand, my father doesn't eat in restaurants. He claims he fell in love with my mother for her good home cooking. So it means something when he gets won over by pricey restaurant pizza. And recently, when we had relatives staying with us from out of town, Isabella brought home some pizza from work. A few months later, my uncle messaged us: "We've driven clear across Canada and have never been able to find that pizza again, ever."

So we're ready and prepared for this review.

We arrive in West Hollywood at Pizzeria Mozza just blocks from the Sunset Strip. The design is sophisticated, with a Frank Lloyd Wright feel. Manicured boxwoods line the street and living green walls welcome us to the front door. It's extremely busy inside, and we're squeezed into our table. The waiter arrives and we explain we're here to write a review and could he recommend their top must-eat dishes. He rushes through a few recommendations, which we can't quite make out. I'm sure he's heard it all before.

We decide on Nancy's famous insalata tricolore with anchovy dressing ($13), mussels with marinara and saffron ($14), and Napolitano pizza with certified organic tomato, mozzarella di bufala, olives, anchovies, chilies and fried capers ($24).

I always say I wouldn't make an honest food critic because I don't like giving bad reviews. In this case, it seems unfair to judge an entire restaurant on a one-time try, especially when there were 24 pizza choices on the menu. Yes, the pizza crust is as good as Gold writes -- "Airy and burnt and risen around the rim, thin and crisp in the center." But the salad, though crisp and tart, needed a little something, the mussels were bland, and the pizza over-sauced.

Back in our Uber, we direct the driver back to Venice, which already feels like home.

Napolitano pizza with certified organic tomato, mozzarella di bufala, olives, anchovies, chilies and fried capers.

Napolitano pizza with certified organic tomato, mozzarella di bufala, olives, anchovies, chilies and fried capers.

No California road trip would be complete for me without finding a good authentic Mexican taco truck. I’m on Gwyneth Paltrow’s G. Spotting app checking out her recommendations, and I find one a few minutes away on the famous Abbot Kinney Boulevard.

We approach the truck and it looks great. People are lounging on the sidewalk, balancing take-out containers filled with brightly coloured tacos. They’re really good, one satisfied customer assures us. We order the black corn tortilla with sweet potato, almond chili, feta, fried corn and scallions ($4), along with the king fish tostada with raw tomatillo chile, white miso and micro herbs ($10). Don’t get me wrong: They’re both stunning to look at and beautiful to eat, and I will most definitely be making these when I get home. But I'm not convinced this upscale outfit offers the authentic taco truck experience. Isabella agrees. “They’re too commercialized,” she tells me.

Sensing our dismay, a helpful Los Angelino advises us to head to Rose Avenue: “That’s the real deal,” he says. We quickly jump in the car, navigate our way a few blocks north, and there it is, a small truck with a big line-up. This is where Mexicans eat. This is where I want to eat.

I walk up to the window where the owner welcomes me with a warm smile. I tell him that I’m writing a story about the best taco truck in L.A., and he assures me that I’ve found it. His name is Antonio, and he works with his wife, his son and his daughter. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Antonio says. “And everything I cook, I eat."

Asked for a recommendation, he tells us with a laugh that “it’s all good!”

We order tostada with ceviche ($2.50), tacos with marinated chicken ($2), and campechana, a traditional shrimp and octopus cocktail. A few minutes later, we’re balancing paper plates loaded with gorgeously fragrant Mexican food, finally experiencing the real deal. Everything is fresh and delicious, topped with beautifully braised and caramelized onion, sweet, mild-tasting jalepeňo pepper, crispy corn kernels, white beans and generous amounts of avocado. And I taste lime and cilantro on top of it all. The flavours shower down on me, and I embrace them with happiness.

We wash it all down with a Coke, and right there on a sunny sidewalk, with the most perfect roadside dinner, we find California taco heaven.

Black corn tortilla with sweet potato, almond chili, feta, fried corn and scallions $4. Shrimp taco with pickled onion, fried corn and cilantro $6.

Black corn tortilla with sweet potato, almond chili, feta, fried corn and scallions $4. Shrimp taco with pickled onion, fried corn and cilantro $6.

Antonio and his family. La Isla Bonita Taco Truck 400 Rose Ave Venice, CA @laislabonitatacotruck

Antonio and his family. La Isla Bonita Taco Truck 400 Rose Ave Venice, CA @laislabonitatacotruck

Isabella testing Campechana, shrimp and octopus cocktail ($7) and Tostada with ceviche ($2.50).

Isabella testing Campechana, shrimp and octopus cocktail ($7) and Tostada with ceviche ($2.50).

We pack our bags to begin the six-hour drive along the famous Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco. The view takes your breath away. Nature’s pure beauty is indescribable. It's a meditative journey curving along the ocean through Malibu to Santa Barbara to Big Sur. We drive by the Silicon Valley region and then into San Francisco on a six-lane highway that looks and feels as though it were paved yesterday. There is a real tech vibe here, and it feels as if everything is possible.

When we arrive at our hotel, just over the Golden Gate Bridge, I realize we are bordering both Oakland and Berkeley. I am only 20 minutes away from Alice Waters’ very famous Chez Panisse, the California restaurant that launched the modern farm-to-table movement in 1965 and currently holds a Michelin star.

Although not in our plans, how could I resist? Isabella is all in. “Mom, we have to go,” she tells me.

Big Sur, California with the most photographed bridge in the world.

Big Sur, California with the most photographed bridge in the world.

My heart skips a beat as we drive down Berkeley's Shattuck Avenue looking for 1517. We arrive at the restaurant, an important-looking heritage house, with a menu in copper posted to the front gate. Inside, I feel the difference, the Michelin star. The waiter arrives with a bread basket. Perusing the menu, I cut a chunk from the butter to eat like cheese on the bread. The bread is hearty, the butter cold and salty. I order the Chez Panisse Zinfandel, Napa Valley ($10). It is smooth and luxurious, a perfect pairing. "This is the French way," I tell Isabella. "Eating cold, salty butter on bread with a good red wine." She immediately adopts the method, and when our waiter (Berkeley-polished, we decide) asks if we would like a second basket, we eagerly agree.

We get the tomato and eggplant soup with yogurt and dill ($10). Isabella dips in and the Venetian red soup coats her spoon like custard. "This is the most delicious thing I have ever tasted," she enthuses. We slowly spoon the rest of the bowl into our mouths, savouring the layers of flavour and appreciating its thick reduction and fragrant fresh dill.

Then, poached eggs with crispy sweet corn polenta and wild mushroom ragu ($24). If I told you it was the best thing I have ever eaten, you may not believe me. But I can't think of any other way to describe it. The eggs are delicious, the polenta soft and mashed potato-like with a slightly charred, crispy outside. This isn't a lunch to rush through. This is a meal to pray over. We linger over every bite, tasting and reaching for words to describe each flavour and texture. It tastes of absolutely fresh ingredients, nurtured and prepared slowly, with love and precision. We don't want it to end, so we order shaved summer squash salad with lemon, mint, pistachios and pecorino ($12). It arrives looking exquisitely pretty, offering the best of the garden with sweet tasting mint, thinly sliced zucchini, perfectly roasted pistachios, shavings of pecorino and lemon dressing so delicate we can't find a hint of oil.

Suddenly, I'm thinking of my mom's hambone broth. She braises a hambone for days just to get the right base for her potato dill soup. It may be a very different dish from what we’re sampling at Chez Panisse, but it’s prepared with the same love and care. I can taste it now. How can I tell my mom that it took travelling all the way to California, to Alice Waters’ world-renowned restaurant, to appreciate the privilege she extended me my whole life. I think of my mother, and of all the years I took her cooking for granted.

"I'm sorry I didn't appreciate your homemade soups, Mom,” I think to myself. “I’m grateful and I thank you. You deserve a Michelin star.”

Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA. Inside the kitchen of the cafe.

Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA. Inside the kitchen of the cafe.

Bread and butter. Shaved summer squash salad with lemon, mint, pistachios and pecorino.

Bread and butter. Shaved summer squash salad with lemon, mint, pistachios and pecorino.

Poached eggs with crispy sweet corn polenta and wild mushroom ragu.

Poached eggs with crispy sweet corn polenta and wild mushroom ragu.

We realize that traveling this way, driving from place to place, brings new depth and dimension to one’s life. You begin to see the world in a new way. You evolve, and you become fuller. And mostly you realize that we're all in this together, figuring it out, taking in each new day, meeting a new friend, bringing a little more kindness into the world.

Driving through the serene mountains of Montana, the broad vistas of Idaho, the wonder of the canyons in Arizona, the breathtaking views of Lake Tahoe, it’s as if you're looking into the face of God. This world is filled with beauty that we don’t see unless we take the time to travel down these roads. The universe really has provided all that we need. How dare we be sad for one day. We need to get up and go out, explore and discover and be grateful.

I came here to eat pizza, but I found a truly tranquil place inside my mind, a space I've worked hard to get to. During my 10-day road trip, it was revealed to me as a grateful mindfulness in which you learn to embrace the moment. I truly believe this is the real meaning of life.

xo

Mari

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Edited by Alison Gillmor

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