Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Hot Chick – California Condor Makes Flight in Monterey

Betty the Condor, 2 months old-NPS Photo by G. Emmons
An endangered female California condor chick took flight from a nest in early October 2016 in Pinnacles National Park in Monterey County, for the first time in more than 100 years. Earth-shattering news? Not to most people. Important beyond our scope of understanding? Oh hell yes. The “historic flight,” as the Pinnacles NationalPark people put it, was under the supervision of her parents, both of whom were released into the wild through a partnership between the National Park Service and Ventana Wildlife Society. The chick, a hot little number in that prehistoric beauty vibe, is unceremoniously known merely as Condor #828. Let’s call her Betty.

Volunteers and staff have been observing the nest, found in a remote location in the park, since Betty’s parents started incubating the egg in February. The five-and-a-half month old chick piqued the attention of park biologists when she left the nest one month earlier than expected. “Condors nesting in the wild and surviving on their own is what it’s all about and this is yet another milestone towards that goal,” says Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, which first initiated condor releases in central California back in 1997. The federal government and conservation groups have dedicated considerable resources to the restoration of the condor population that was brought to the brink of extinction in the 1980’s.

Condor #340 (dad) in the nest with Betty-NPS Photo by G. Emmons
“The young condor’s flight from the nest gives us a strong sense of hope,” said Karen Beppler-Dorn, superintendent of Pinnacles National Park. “However, our hope is tempered by the challenges that still exist for her and all wild condors.” What “challenges” might there be? Lead poisoning continues to hinder recovery of these magnificent birds and they can become ill and die when they inadvertently ingest fragments of lead ammunition in carcasses they feed upon that are left over from hunting or ranching operations. “Condors and other scavenging wildlife, such as eagles, benefit from carcass remains left behind, if non-lead ammunition is used. Hunters and ranchers have a long-standing tradition of wildlife conservation,” said Beppler-Dorn. “Shooters who have switched to non-lead ammunition have made an invaluable contribution to the health of all scavenging wildlife.” Of course loss of habitat due to human expansion is always an issue as is pollution, be that water, air and even noise pollution.

With continuing threats to condor’s survival and recovery, volunteers contribute immeasurably towards the protection of wildlife in the park, particularly the condors. Female condor #236 (Betty’s mom) was first released from Big Sur and male condor #340 (Betty’s dad) was released from Pinnacles. Now that Betty, has left the nest, she will remain close to her parents as she learns where to go to forage for food and how to interact with over 85 other condors in central California. These may seem like small victories, but every instance where we as humans give respect to the natural world only makes our physical world, and yes our spiritual world, that much better.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Helena Avenue Bakery – Good Bread in the Best Place

“How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?" - Julia Child

Bread is important.
Pastry is supremely important.
And a good bakery is the cornerstone of civilization.
At least to me.
So when I heard a new bakery was opening in Santa Barbara, I was delighted. For a city the size of mine, we are woefully short of enough bakeries. Yes, we have a few very good ones, but more is always better, and location is everything.

Housed in an industrial warehouse building and retrofitted to be hip and trendy the  Helena Avenue Bakery is the latest addition to an ongoing stunning change to the Funk Zone, a former unsightly industrial area two blocks from the beach. There are multiple tasting rooms, Figueroa Mountain Brewery, a distillery, art galleries and multiple places for food, like Mexican street food at Money’s, to food trucks to Seven Bar & Kitchen, Lucky Penny and The Lark - these last two owned and operated by Sherry Villanueva, who started the bakery. “Having a bakery was a logical progression for us,” Sherry Villanueva told me when I stopped in. “It’s exciting to see the growth in high quality businesses opening up in the Funk Zone. The need for a wholesome bakery that appeals to people of all ages became quite clear to us as the neighborhood continues to unfold.”

And the Funk Zone is unfolding rapidly and smartly. “We are trying to build a sense of neighborhood,” Sherry says. “It's not about making a quick buck, It's about building the long-term relationships.” Helena Avenue Bakery serves as a wholesale bakery providing custom-baked goods for Lucky Penny, The Lark, Les Marchands and other coffee shops and restaurants throughout Santa Barbara. What’s cool is that now it’s open for retail, via a shared door of the Santa Barbara Wine Collective. And Helena Avenue Bakery has a two pronged approach: bakery and picnic lunches. The bakery offers various quiche selections with a deftly crispy crust; baguettes; walnut batards; ciabatta bread not to mention egg croissants with arugula pesto and prosciutto; apricot-thyme croissants; and cookies including their rich peanut butter.

But there is also The Picnic Counter offering prepared foods for take-away like house pickled veggies; couscous salad with cherry tomatoes, cucumber and feta cheese; Brussels sprouts Caesar salad; focaccia with roasted corn, pasilla peppers, queso fresco and cilantro; and fried chicken sandwich on ciabatta.

These foods are ideal for dining on-site, or heading the scant two blocks to the beach or picnics around the Santa Barbara area. Open 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. daily, bread is now king in the Funk Zone! So check it out, eat up and enjoy some of the best of Santa Barbara.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Baby You Can Drive My Car: West Coast Kustoms

I’m not really a car guy. Sure, old cars are cool and I’ve detoured to see the Bonnie and Clyde death car and visited auto museums in Vegas, Los Angeles and Texas just because you have to appreciate the workmanship and often sheer beauty that the American automobile represents, let alone the rest of the world’s great automakers. But when I heard the original Batmobile will be at the 35th West Coast KustomsCrusin’ Nationals in Santa Maria (May 27-29) well, you need to know about this.

800 auto entries are expected with cars from as far away as New Jersey and Texas as well as an entry owned by James Hetfield of the band Metallica. The event is open to American-made autos that were manufactured prior to 1961 so you get classic, historic and downright American originals.

As a tribute to George Barris, who died in November of 2015 and the creator of the original Batmobile, the actual Batmobile will be brought to the event by his family. Designed exclusively for the 1966 "Batman" TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward, this sleek was styled and engineered with many different special effects innovations by Barris Kustom Industries. Originally it started off as a $250,000 1955 Ford Lincoln Futura concept car originally built in Italy. Barris bought the car directly from Ford for a buck, and started working on it. With a deadline of three weeks before the cameras were ready to roll, this Lincoln was transformed into one of the world’s most famous cars and it had its TV debut on January 12th 1966. Sure I watched the show as a kid but in 2015 when in Hollywood I went to original Bat Cave where the car was filmed zooming in and out of the cave, located on the path up to the Hollywood sign.
At the real Bat Cave in Hollywood

Besides the Batmobile and other cool customized cars there are live bands, food booths, a ton of vendors and presentations of auto-customizing. All in all, I’d say it will be a smooth ride.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Raptors Poetic – Of Ojai, Eagles and Owls

Birds of Prey. Sounds pretty cool. But what does it actually mean?
“Raptors” is a word given wider accessibility because of Jurassic Park when the clever thinking raptor dinosaurs decided to attack the humans killing that Australian dude. That notwithstanding, raptors are actually birds of prey, meaning they eat meat. Yes, some birds are vegetarians, but for raptors, meat is what’s for dinner. The official definition: A raptor is a bird of prey that uses its sharp talons to catch and kill live animals. The word raptor comes from the Latin word rapere which means “to snatch or grab.” According to the Ojai Raptor Center people often group Vultures into this category but they are not genetically related (the birds, not the people), and do not hunt live prey.

The Ojai Raptor Center (ORC) opens their doors to the public twice yearly and it is a fantastic chance to see these rehabilitated birds up close, within a few feet actually, and marvel at the stunning grace, agility, beauty and all around wonder of these birds. I recently visited, and the next time they open up, you should too.

The fee is a mere $5 per person, about the cost of a lame Starbucks coffee drink – and you get way more. The ORC is housed in what used to be an honor farm – a place for juvenile delinquents - and now is home to multiple non-profits, of which ORC holds a great place with open aviaries, a small theatre, a Kids Corner and a stage. There are bird pelts (which you can touch), live birds, and eggs on display and this is meant to be a place of wonder, a place to connect with the best of nature and remind ourselves that we as humans, though probably smarter and more able to use logic, pale in comparison to the sheer beauty and jaw dropping efficient design of these birds who actually have to hunt for their food, not sit at a drive-thru. 
All of the birds at ORC are birds that have suffered some injury and are being rehabilitated in Ojai, given new life and a reimagined purpose. What’s great is that each bird has a name and the caretaker for that bird, perched on their gloved hand, knows virtually everything about their bird. No, you can’t pet them (again, the birds, not the people), but you can get closer than you ever could in the wild.
You’ll see owls, falcons, eagles, vultures and other very cool birds. It’s a great place for kids though many of the adults were as transfixed as the kids were. So remind yourself that we share this planet with other species and that we have an obligation, since we sit atop the food chain, to protect, safeguard and treat well all other species. In doing so we become better animals ourselves. A visit is not an all day occurrence, and it’s a 10-minute drive to Ojai, and you’re right near Casitas Lake for fishing or boating, so fly up to Ojai and prepare to be amazed. 
The wingspans on some birds is bigger than me!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Found It. Discovering Eureka!

I’m typically not a fan of chain restaurants because as food writer for the last decade (Santa Barbara News Press, there are plenty of individual restaurants that are worthy of your dollars. Also typically, chain restaurants are either so homogenized, bland and tedious or, like the Planet Hollywood concept, it’s all about a barrage of stimulation, a perfect place to eat if you have ADHD. But Eureka! elevates food and drink creating a more local experience while still crafting creative, consistent food. The Santa Barbara location uses reclaimed wood walls to encompass the interior, and the indoor and outdoor seating and open windows expand the look and casual vibe. One of Eureka’s selling points is that they feature American made craft beers and whiskies, not mainstream ones like Jack Daniels or Sam Adams, but small batch stuff. In fact they carry 58 whiskies at their brown spirits bar and 30 craft beers, which are constantly rotating. And each restaurant utilizes local ingredients and, if possible as is the case here in Santa Barbara, offers local brews and whiskies – we have AscendantSpirits in Buellton and Eureka carries some of their very good spirits.
Fried Chicken Sliders and Scarves and Yoga Pants
I stopped in recently (I’ve been several times) to sample a new seasonal dish - Fried Chicken Sliders ($11.50), and cocktail - Scarves and Yoga Pants ($12, see recipe below). The two sliders served with hand cut fries is crispy pieces of chicken, herb mashed potatoes, what they call confetti slaw and their spicy reaper chili sauce with plenty of heat and spice. The lightly toasted but is a counterpoint to the crisp chicken and crunchy slaw and the reaper, while not deadly, is a spicy-hot concoction. The cocktail (you need not wear lululemon to drink this) uses rye whiskey, a pumpkin spiced simple syrup and cream among other ingredients to make a near milk shake-like drink which is mild on the rye, offering that coveted pumpkin note with a creamy viscosity –perfect to warm you up and the fall temperatures drop. 
Pearl Street Blues Burger
Of course Eureka! has a terrific menu including a Jalapeño Egg Burger ($12) that uses a fried egg atop a burger with cheddar cheese, bacon, and a spicy chipotle sauce. Rich and moist, sloppy and spicy this meets every expectation. The egg gives a creamy gooiness to the burger and the spiciness from the jalapeno is potent but not overwhelming.
There are small plates, and appetizers like the Lollipop Corn Dogs ($7.50) which are five small round Polish sausages breaded in sweet corn batter, deep fried and served with three dipping sauces including a porter mustard sauce, a house made ketchup, and a cheddar cheese IPA dip which, for my tastes is delightfully rich and savory and the better sauce. The Bruschetta ($7) is five toasted baguette slices topped with ripe diced tomato, basil goat cheese, lemon zest and balsamic vinaigrette. This is fairly typical of bruschetta however the spreadable goat cheese adds a savory element and creamy texture.
The Cobb Salad ($12) is a mix of grilled chicken, crumbled blue cheese, hardboiled egg, avocado, bacon, onion and a spicy ranch dressing. There is spicy heat on the dressing and the ingredients are fresh and clean with definable flavors. It's the totality of the various components which make this work. The dressing too, minimally applied, provides an extra dimension of flavor. If you haven’t tried Eureka! Yet, now is the time.

601 Paseo Nuevo, Santa Barbara
(805) 618-3388,

Scarves and Yoga Pants
1 1/2 oz Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey
1 oz Pumpkin Spiced Simple Syrup
1/2 oz Orange Juice
1/2 oz Lemon Juice
1/4 oz Heavy Cream
3/4 oz Egg Whites
2 dash Herbal Bitters