Electric Balloon Tour: Things To Eat Besides The Lotus

We roll into San Francisco around midnight, and pull up to Different Fur Studios. Different Fur put the show together, and the powers that be have graciously allowed us to stay the night. This is the biggest and nicest studio I have ever set foot in, and recording there is definitely a long-term goal. For now, we are very excited to crash and play a show. They have plenty of couches and even a sauna. A sauna! For real. Before the end of our stay I will have my first shvitz, which makes me feel like I am dying in a good way. Bob Mould watches over me as I bring my luggage upstairs. Why the long face, Bob?

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We have some time to kill in the morning, which of course I spend seeking out and consuming food. Different Fur is right in the Mission District, about a block away from what I am told is an exceptional deli, Rhea’s. I have heard about their Korean steak sandwich, but they were all out when I tried to go last time. I am not about to miss it again. Rhea’s is a bit pricey; my sandwich costs nine dollars. There is a wait, which I spend catching up on work emails and trying to figure out where everyone else is. No one else is as excited as I am about the sandwich. I am quite pleased when it finally arrives.

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It is a beautiful sandwich. Tender, savory bulgogi shaved extra thin. A generous slather of red chili paste, plus pickled jalapenos and pickled red onions. Lettuce, tomato, garlic aioli. Cheddar cheese slightly melted by the hot meat. The bread is thicker and shorter than a normal hero, and the crust is perfectly crispy. This is several steps above your standard deli hero. The higher-quality bread is probably necessary to soak up the wet ingredients. It’s still a pretty messy sandwich, but well-balanced and thoroughly satisfying. Sated, I go to meet everyone in Mission Dolores park, where we admire the skyline and play with the dogs of various passersby. We walk around the neighborhood for a while, which is a highly strenuous activity on account of all the hills. I do have some spectacular ice cream (mango) and a delicious unnamed Mexican pastry at Five Star Truffles. I do not buy any truffles because they are mega bougie and expensive. Goddamn though, that is some good ice cream. Everywhere we go we see posters for the show, and we are getting excited. Krill leaves us some love notes in our absence. What a bunch of sweethearts.

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Yes, that is a pepper. For later. Before the show, we make another necessary San Francisco stop: Taqueria Cancun. We will be staying with our old friend Charlotte who has defected to the West Coast, and she assures us that it is the real dealIt is conveniently located a few doors down from the venue, and it is indeed the real deal. How do I even begin to describe the ways in which Taqueria Cancun is superior to all other Mexican food I have encountered? Let’s start with the chips, which come with every order, even the small ones. These chips are not bulk faux-Tostitos, they are a little thicker and crispier, suggesting that they are made either on premises or nearby by someone who really knows their shit. The chips come with both salsa and guacamole in little plastic tubs; this is not a place where guacamole inexplicably costs like almost as much as a taco for some stupid reason. The cost of guacamole is built into the cost of your meal. Dignified. Both the salsa and the guacamole are eye-wateringly spicy and very fresh. Before your order even arrives, your taste buds are primed for a high-level Mexican food experience. You are not disappointed.

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I order two “super tacos”, one chorizo and one al pastor. The “super” denotes the fact that it has sour cream and avocado and some other stuff not included on a standard taco. I find that chorizo and al pastor tend to be the safest bets at most Mexican places. That red grease that drips off the end of the taco as you pick it up is a very good sign. I have learned a long time ago to be wary of carne asada, which is often dry and tough, although in retrospect I would totally trust this establishment to make it for me. These tacos are perfect. Meat is tender and juicy and flavorful, offset nicely by the creaminess of the avocados and sour cream. I don’t really love sour cream but in this case I am not about to second-guess whatever they usually put on. The al pastor has that slow roasted quality where it takes on a slight sweetness. Fresh cilantro and onions cut through all the fat. The group also splits some nachos, two orders for nine of us, on top of our individual orders.

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That is a lot of food, and we are slowing down, but come on. Just look at that hot mess of Mexican goodness. The thicker chips really come in handy here, holding their crispness under the most merciless onslaught of beans and cheese and pico de gallo. Everyone is stuffed but we finish the whole thing. Later, between bands, I will nip out for an agua fresca. They don’t have jamaica, my favorite, but I settle for a delicious melon, which you or I would refer to as cantaloupe. It is full of little chunks of fresh fruit and it is spectacular. Refreshing and not too sweet. Taqueria Cancun is officially a thing. Fucking flawless.

At the venue, I am surprised to see that I know the sound engineer. She is an old friend from college, and we have not seen each other since graduation. This is the second time on tour this has happened, the first time being back at Oberlin. We have a good time catching up, and she does a spectacular job with the sound. Not a lot of people in our music department went on to actually be involved in the music industry in any capacity, and it’s nice to see another one. The show is a great success, drawing a huge crowd, which is an impressive achievement considering it’s all touring bands. Everyone who set up the show is pleased, and we are pleased. Our mellow is rather harshed-upon when we have to load all our gear up a bunch of stairs to go to sleep, but isn’t that always how it goes. We stay with our friend at her ridiculously nice adult-style house. I even get the couch, a rare treat.

Previous times in California have taken us straight from San Francisco to Los Angeles, but this time we have a show in Isla Vista in between. I manage to fall asleep on the drive, and the last thing I see is a gas station as we pull away. It is still light out. When I arrive in Isla Vista it is dark. I am highly disoriented. It is hard to say where exactly this disorientation comes from. As the night progresses, it will become clear. We take some time before the show to walk down to the beach, which is just a few blocks away. It is the sort of beach with no sand, just rocks, so I just stand on a walkway and look at the waves for a while. It is beautiful and a little forbidding. The whole town is beautiful; tropical plants, the beach, a gentle sea breeze, all the buildings are short and squat, maximizing your view of the stars.

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This is the venue, Biko Garage, which is indeed a garage. It is a great DIY spot, with friendly folk running it and lots of books and zines to read and nice couches to sit on. All the music they play between sets and after the show is top notch (The Ghost Ease and Yes Please!; you’re welcome). The guy who runs the space is a real DJ, which makes sense. He is on his game. Some friendly kids offer us a place to stay. They live in an apartment complex called Campus. I remember observing that that is odd because we are not on the campus of a college. But as the night wears on, I realize we might as well be. Isla Vista is not so much a town as a giant real estate development built to house UC Santa Barbara students. That is why I have been feeling weird. I have not seen anyone since our arrival who is not in college, with the exception of the mid-to-late 20s professional class that runs the restaurants and food co-op. The complex is brand new but extremely shittily constructed, as evidenced by the fact that we can hear people talk at normal conversational level from the apartment next door. It looks like a big dorm. It effectively is. Our hosts even get a discount on their rent for getting good grades, even though the building is not officially owned by the college. The kids are very friendly and accommodating, but it immediately becomes clear we have not a God-damned thing to talk about. We are grateful for the place to stay but no one is really trying to hang out after a few abortive efforts at conversation. We have to go out and get some food, and they don’t join us. They probably regret having invited us, and we all feel awkward. But what are we going to do? We already loaded all our shit into their apartment, and parked kind of far away, and the invitation has not been rescinded. We’re just going to have to ride this one out. I get a slice of pizza from Pizza My Heart, which I thought was “Pizza Heart” from a distance. I like “Pizza Heart” better. It has pastrami and banana peppers on it. It does the job. Our party has split up into two and both halves get terribly lost. We don’t see another soul on the street. Isla Vista is actively freaking us out. It is as if an episode of The Real World were an entire town. Pizza My Heart was built to provide the cast with jobs for the season. We pass by a business called Precious Slut Tattoo. So much to unpack there. The sexual politics implicit in the choice of name make me queasy. Madonna Whore Tattoo. I assume they specialize in the lower back. Just remember, ladies of the University of California environs, you are always coming up short on one axis of femininity or the other. The game is rigged.

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The following picture, in a similar vein, basically sums up Isla Vista for me.

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In Isla Vista, everyone is young and beautiful and tan and all the vulvas are totally denuded. You take classes in a building surrounded by palm trees, and nip out to the beach for some heady nugs during free periods. Aside from the incongruously wonderful Biko Garage, which attracts maybe thirty or forty people on a good night, there is no way to spend your free time other than to party. You and your bros and broettes can get a totally chill apartment made out of balsawood and packing tape and overhear each other partying and vomiting and fucking for four glorious years. Then if you get good grades in Intro To Business Studies you can be the manager at Pizza My Heart and watch another frosh-crop roll in to have the time of their lives, just like you did, an increasingly long time ago. College girls. I get older, they stay the same age. Outside the natural foods co-op, a white man with dreads expounds on the virtues of the sitar in trance music. That man in that setting discussing that topic has got to be some sort of Bingo. I can see how people would get seduced by this place if they got here young. It’s so pretty, and it doesn’t feel real. It is idyllic to the point of cloying. We thought that magical summer would last forever. The overall impression it leaves is one of dread. Where do you go after you live here? Don’t eat the lotus.

All that being said, the journey was made worthwhile by this amazing fruit, the cherimoya. Props to Marie and/or Julian for discovering it, I had never seen or heard of one before. It sort of looks like a weird stunted artichoke on the outside, with a wonderful fleshy, creamy pulp. It’s a little like a guanabana, but sweeter and more complex.

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I eat one of these in the morning as we depart for LA, washed down by one of those totally unhealthy smoothies that includes sherbet as well as fruit. I fucking love those things. We are fortunate to arrive in LA with plenty of time to spare. As is my wont, I use this time to eat.

The last time we were in LA, Carlos and I did a two-meal extravaganza in Little Armenia. It was so good last time, I decided I had to repeat the experience. I start off at Zankou Chicken, a Lebanese chicken restaurant of some repute, immortalized by that Beck song and I’m pretty sure the subject of the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode about chicken/politics. Look at this beautiful thing.

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Ten bucks gets me half a chicken with pickled vegetables, lettuce, tomato, hummus and pita. Easily enough for two meals, and it is the greatest. The skin is the best I have ever encountered on a non-fried chicken, perfectly crisp and savory and salty. Meat is thoroughly juicy throughout. Even the hummus, an afterthought at many of these sorts of places, is remarkable, with a generous amount of olive oil thrown in. The real star of the show is the garlic paste (not pictured), which is basically a creamy and light spread of pure garlic to put on your chicken and mix with your hummus and just eat whatever’s left over with a fork. I have no idea how they do it; it is a closely-guarded trade secret. It doesn’t taste like anything other than garlic, but the texture is so light and fluffy there must be some other stuff going on. The thing to do is make a giant pita wrap out of all of these things and eat it and pick at the rest throughout the day, which I do.

I’m pretty full from my meal, but I have to go on to the next stop: Little Ongpin. Carlos is already there when I arrive. Filipino food is of course available in New York, but I haven’t found the same combination of quality and price back home. Little Ongpin is a simple steam table setup, but the food is just spectacular. It’s cheap as hell, and everyone who works there is really nice. They are genuinely pleased with our curiosity, and give us little samples of things we ask about. Chicken soup, pork stomach. Last time I was there I got a whole fish stuffed with escabeche and roasted in a banana leaf. But I’m already full of chicken, so I just want to snack. I get some stir fried noodles, like lo mein, and some crispy spring rolls. Both are perfectly executed but not that interesting; I could get the same sort of thing at a Chinese place. But on my way out, these catch my eye.

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The cashier tells me they are fried sweet rice balls with coconut. Sold. These things are amazing, light and airy, but also sticky and glutinous, and just sweet enough to register as dessert. If I stuck around a little longer I could have some with sweet plantain, which I’m told are on the way, but I’m already beyond stuffed and want to walk around a bit. I’ll just have to come back next time. My wanderings take me to The Fretted Frog, which is one of the top five music stores I have encountered in my travels. They specialize in acoustic instruments, and their selection is amazing. They have a comfy couch to sit on while you try out the instruments, which I do: an acoustic bass guitar, a ukulele bass, a baritone ukulele, and a tenor guitar, which I have never encountered before. A tenor guitar is basically a banjo with a guitar body. It’s disorienting because the neck feels like a banjo and it’s tuned in fifths, but it’s a guitar. The only reason I don’t buy the baritone ukulele ($82!) is that I doubt its ability to survive the journey home. It really is a beautiful one. Nobody seems to mind that I’m not going to buy anything. Although in my defense, if they had a pedalboard I totally would have. The experience of being in such a quiet and comfortable place with all these instruments mellows me out tremendously, and puts me in a good state of mind for the show.

I have a lot of friends who have moved to LA from New York for career or school reasons, and a big crew comes to see us. It’s bittersweet, because I wish I had more time to properly hang, but it’s always great to see everybody. They all get a kick out of the fact that their friend is in a band. I get a kick out of the fact that my friends have built lives for themselves outside New York. I feel like that’s harder. Sure, I go a lot of places, but home is always the same place.

5 responses on Electric Balloon Tour: Things To Eat Besides The Lotus

  1. That garlic paste is the greatest thing. I think it’s just a variation on aioli, but better. All the Lebanese places up here in MTL get into it. You can get straight home fries (complete with proprietary seasoning!) smothered in garlic paste at most such restaurants.

  2. Do you think it uses egg, though? It seems more like olive oil must be the base oil. I have heard an intriguing theory that for Zankou in particular, potatoes are somehow involved for texture. Like maybe if you ran the right amount of garlic, olive oil, and a little bit of boiled potato through a food processor on high, you’d get something approaching the desired result.

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