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  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
Rice in lotus leaf and shrimp dumplings are among the varied dim sum offerings in the San Gabriel Valley.
Rice in lotus leaf and shrimp dumplings are among the varied dim sum offerings in the San Gabriel Valley. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Dim sum is a brunch parade of Chinese tastes. There's no better place to enjoy California dim sum than Los Angeles County's San Gabriel Valley, where several cities boast populations of 40% or more Chinese Americans. And in this territory, NBC Seafood of Monterey Park is an institution.

What: NBC Seafood, a vast Cantonese banquet hall in a busy mall on Atlantic Boulevard, serves dim sum daily from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Diners pick dishes in baskets from an armada of circulating food carts, sipping tea between bites. The options are almost endless (including Jell-O and pickled chicken feet).

(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

On my last visit, besides the usual shrimp-crab-pork-beef-broccoli-rice-dumpling favorites, I tried the boiled beef stomach (which was chewy, like octopus). Next time, maybe the chicken palm in abalone sauce...

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  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
Elephant seal pup at Piedras Blancas.
Elephant seal pup at Piedras Blancas. (Armando Arorizo / European Pressphoto Agency)

Why: Because this stretch of Highway 1 is more than a jaw-dropping drive. It often features hundreds, sometimes thousands, of portly pinnipeds flopped on the sand at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery.

What: An uncanny bellowing beckoned me off the road last winter. On that trip, I joined a crowd on a boardwalk looking down in delight and wonder as these mega-sized marine mammals jockeyed for dominance on the beach. (Males get up to 5,000 pounds and 16 feet long, and this was mating and birthing season.) In the spring, we found a second visit equally intriguing: molting season. The beach was full of tan, brown and silvery lumps that looked like driftwood, until one would yawn or another would toss cooling sand over its hot, heavy body.  

Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas.
Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. (Sara Lessley)

It was the early 1990s when growing numbers of Northern elephant seals (so called because of the mature male's large nose) began gathering here. Since then (with support from many conservation organizations) the lumbering beasts have claimed about six miles of shoreline as a haven for birthing , breeding, molting and rest. Though the elephant seals spend most of their lives at sea, there’s something happening here most months. In September and October, for example, young ones arrive for the fall haul-out. 

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  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
Tea on the patio.
Tea on the patio. (Jakub Mosur / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Back before anybody carried Chihuahuas in purses, in the days when comfort animals were an uncommon sight in America's planes, trains and restaurants, this place in quaint Carmel was already eager to see your dog. And Doris Day, co-owner, singer, movie star and advocate, is the reason.

(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

What: It's neither the fanciest hotel in town nor the most affordable, but the Cypress Inn stands in the middle of the village, full of Spanish Colonial flourishes.

It goes back to 1929. I've stayed there without a pet and been pleased. If you don't mind stairs, ask about the Queen Tower suite. Views on three sides.

  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Many people don't realize this upstairs viewing space exists, nine stories above the ground. Or that it's free. Its glass walls give you a 360-degree view of Golden Gate Park, beginning with the wavy green roof of the neighboring California Academy of Sciences.

What: The museum goes back to 1895, but its modern history dates to the unveiling of its new industrial-sleek building (and tower) in 2005. The collection is American art from the 17th through the 20th centuries, with additional works from Africa, Oceania and elsewhere in the Americas.

The art is worth your attention -- Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, Mary Cassatt, Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe, Chiura Obata, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Jacob Lawrence, Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn are all here. Pay them respects, if you're inclined. Then catch the elevator to the 2,600-square-foot tower.

  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Why: With its twin towers, stalwart facade, pink highlights and uncrowded setting, this might be the most imposing of California's 21 missions. It's also the resting place of the woman whose story inspired the beloved Scott O'Dell novel "Island of the Blue Dolphins."

Near Juana Maria's plaque.
Near Juana Maria's plaque. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

What: The building, completed in 1820 and rebuilt after the quake of 1925, is surrounded by 12 acres of gardens. Since the 1830s, this mission has been a major center for storage of mission system records, which makes the place popular with scholars.The site includes a nine-room museum, library and archive.

But if you loved Karana, the brave hero of "Blue Dolphins," you might head straight for the cemetery. This is where mission leaders buried Juana Maria, a native woman who was found alone on San Nicolas Island in 1853, about 50 years old. She had apparently endured 18 years of solitude and weather. She lasted about seven weeks after her return to the mainland, then perished from dysentery.

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  • Family-friendly
  • San Diego County
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Fish don't get any fresher than the straight-off-the-boat offerings at Point Loma Seafoods. And if you eat on the spot, you'll be looking down on a marina with the downtown skyline beyond it.

What: Point Loma Seafoods, born as a fresh-fish market in 1963, has gradually grown into something more — a market, a sushi deli and an ultra-casual restaurant for lunch and dinner, its offerings changing with the seasons. From summer through mid-autumn, there's Pacific swordfish. From October through May, California spiny lobster.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

I like to sit on the upstairs deck under an umbrella and look east across San Diego Harbor. But if you crave an even closer relationship with the catch of the day, there's an option next door: Book yourself on to a deep-sea fishing trip (yellowfin tuna, rockfish, bonita, yellowtail, bluefin tuna, etc.) from H&M Landing.

  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

Why: In a perfect world, Leo’s Tacos Trucks would be as common as Starbucks. This is Mexican soul food, served off a spit, in a way that can turn a simple gas station or car wash into a tiny urban party.

What: Leo’s Tacos Trucks have established a big following in only seven years. The mother ship is located at the Sinclair Station at Venice Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, but the bright yellow trucks show up at five other locations around Los Angeles.

(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

The reason for such rapid success in a town saturated with tacos? Leo’s has set itself apart with its al pastor: marinated pork propped up on a vertical rotisserie, as the Greeks do for gyros.

  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
(Christina House / For The Times)

Why: These urban canals are a developer’s semi-successful dream, a fraction of what was envisioned as a Venice of America. Now lined with captivating residences, the setting remains serene and alluring.

What: The Venice canals opened to huge fanfare on July 4, 1905, in the days when passenger cars were still a novelty. Costumed gondoliers, brought in from Italy, worked the canals.

Twenty years later, many of the canals were filled in to build roads.

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  • Gold Country
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Once a booming Gold Rush town just north of Sonora, Columbia is now a 272-acre state park, staffed by rangers and others in period attire. State parks officials say it's their system's largest collection of Gold Rush era buildings, with restaurants, saloons (heavy on the sarsaparilla), various retailers, a museum, a gold-panning operation, two hotels, some cottages, stagecoach rides, plus a Thursday night farmers market from June through September. From September through June, there are plenty of school programs aimed at fourth-graders studying California history.

What: The town was born in 1850 when prospectors found gold. By 1860, its best days as a source of gold were over. By the 1930s, it was on the brink of collapse. The state stepped in to acquire land and make Columbia a park in 1945. It's just off Highway 49, the main thoroughfare of gold country. Most of Columbia's businesses are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. year-round.

I happened to arrive around 9 a.m., which meant I got to watch the denizens of Columbia arrive by car, stash their vehicles out of sight, then emerge in their historic garb to welcome another 1850s day.

  • Family-friendly
  • Central Valley
(Schat's)

Why: Erick Schat’s Bakkery in Bishop is California’s bread basket. About four hours from Los Angeles, the old Dutch bakery is a must-stop on the half-day ride into the Eastern Sierra. A travel touchstone for generations, Schat’s famed sheepherder bread was developed in 1938 to please Basque farmers who missed the bread of their homeland. Almost 80 years later, stopping for a loaf of the hand-shaped bread remains a California tradition. Oh, and don’t forget the chocolate macarons.

What: Schat’s big bakery is the focal point of a Main Street that features no-frills bars and fishing tackle shops. The bakery/deli offers sandwiches and pastries for the road for travelers heading to Mammoth Lakes or Yosemite. A beautiful city park across the street allows for impromptu picnics and a chance to stretch your legs.

The magic? The Sierra snowmelt that filters into the groundwater, and eventually into the famed breads. Stone-ground flour also is a key ingredient, and pecans and other nuts are provided by local growers.