From fried avocado tacos to pickled cactus tacos, here are a few of my favorite taco spots in the Southwest.
One of the only disappointing moments that occurred during our cruise through the Alaska Inside Passage was crab night on the ship. Despite what you might think, the crab on the ship was just a rubbery and tasteless vehicle for butter. Thankfully, however, our experience was redeemed by the freshest, most delicious crab I’ve ever tasted in Juneau.
Stumbling upon Tracy’s King Crab Shack was kind of an accident. We had spent the day hiking to Juneau’s enormous Mendenhall Glacier and only had about an hour left before we had to get back on the boat. The crab shack looked cool, it was basically an outdoor biergarten with an open kitchen “shack” right in the middle and a gorgeous backdrop of mountains and glaciers (pictured with a cruise ship blocking the view).
The menu is pretty simple: king crab legs, local Dungeness crab legs – all of it fresh, none of it cheap. If you order the king crab bucket, it comes with a few rolls and all of the melted butter and slaw you could ask for. I love shellfish like crab, lobster, oysters, and mussels because I really enjoy food that involves some work on your end. Mastering the art of hammering open a lobster claw with a wooden mallet and prying out the meat in one slab was something I learned at a young age from my Boston-bred parents. When eating requires that a skill, I’m always up for the challenge.
Without knowing, we found ourselves the best seats in the house at Tracy’s when we sat right at the counter of the open kitchen shack. If you ever get the chance to go here, SIT AT THE COUNTER. The crab on the menu is expensive, though worth it, but the chefs give you more bang for your buck when you sit at the counter by throwing you any scraps of hot crab meat fresh out the pot. We must’ve gotten 4 or 5 pieces, and I’ll never forget the first tantalizing bite I took into the crab meat that seemed to melt in my mouth without the aid of butter. Yummm!
Being a foodie doesn’t always mean finding the most elaborate recipes and intriguing flavor combinations. One of the great parts about food in Alaska is its simplicity – the food coincides with the pure beauty of the surrounding wilderness. When it comes to a meal in Alaska, the focus is freshness. Fish caught that day, jam made from fresh berries, smoked reindeer sausages in a bun are a few staples that seem simple enough, but taste unlike anywhere else in the country because of the environment they come from. That was the lasting impression Tracy’s crab left me with.
Getting from Long Beach, CA to our next assignment in San Francisco was the easiest, shortest move I’ve made in our whole 2+ years of traveling. So of course, we chose to make it longer and significantly more beautiful by taking the 1, or the Pacific Coast Highway, the entire way. This was a bucket list item for my fiance, so I let him pick all of our stops on the way up. Here are some highlights from everything we saw:
1. The Elephant Seals of Piedras Blancas
Getting out of our car to see the elephant seals was the first moment we realized that we were not in Los Angeles are anymore. It was COLD and WINDY, and I was NOT ready for any of it. I stuck it out though, and the elephant seals were pretty cute and amusing. But like every beautiful place in nature, it comes with a back story on how humans have altered it.
Elephant seals are the largest of their species, and can grow up to 16 feet in length, weighing in at about 5,000 pounds. Like every animal today, they have been hunted, and their habitats have been destroyed, near to the point of extinction. They used to live in remote coves and beaches far away from humans, but in 1990 people started colonizing those areas. Now you can pull off the Pacific Coast Highway to see hundreds, sometimes thousands of elephant seals laying on the beach in Piedras Blancas. This used to be a rare sight, something one would expect to find in a National Geographic magazine. But now it is a total tourist attraction.
Though the photo doesn’t really do them justice, the seals were actually pretty lively creatures. They were boppin’ around, throwing sand on themselves and each other to keep cool, and sometimes having a small spat over where to they wanted to lay (which was often on top of each other).
2. McWay Falls
This was the fiance’s find on the trip, a secluded 80-foot waterfall in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. If you look really hard at the back of this GIF, you can see the waterfall coming down onto the beach. The falls are named after Christopher McWay, who homesteaded the canyon in 1870. Helen Brown, another settler in the area, purchased Saddle Rock Ranch from McWay and named the creek and waterfall in his honor. She also named the park in which the falls resides after Julia Pfeiffer Burns, a “true pioneer” of Big Sur. One of my favorite parts of pulling off on secluded stops on along the west coast has been reading plaques about the pioneers, which are mostly Lewis & Clark in the Pacific North West. But in Big Sur Area, it’s all about the Browns and the Burns.
The entire park is now closed, as well as surrounding areas, due to the Soberanes Fire that has been tearing through Big Sur for the past several weeks.
3. Pfeiffer Beach
Also known as “the purple sand beach in Big Sur.” The sand really is purple, unlike the black sand beaches of Humboldt which are really just made of black rocks. The amethyst hues of the sand look like they came from fairy dust, but are in fact a result of the heavy minerals that inhabit it, mostly quartz and garnet. This is one of the most photographed parts of Big Sur. I also enjoyed it because it was the first time I could get on an actual beach on the coast (mostly due to our time crunch of having to get to San Francisco by nightfall). The extreme force with which the waves crash from the Pacific is exhilarating.
Some history of Big Sur’s settlers: The Browns were the first to own land that is now Big Sur, though no one quite knows how they came to be there. Julia Pfeiffer Burns was a daughter of the first settlers in Big Sur, Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer, who arrived at the area in 1869, when Julia was just under a year old. Julia lived as a single woman most of her life, leasing land from the Browns and living with her parents well into her forties. In her father’s old age, Julia managed the family ranch.
Julia married her husband, John Burns, in 1928, and together they ran cattle on Saddle Rock Ranch and rented a hot springs hotel, where Julia provided food and service to guests. Julia formed a very strong friendship with Helen Brown while living it what is now Big Sur, and it was this friendship that led Helen to name Julia Pfeiffer Brown park after her when she died. In the book Big Sur Women, Helen describes Julia as a hard worker who “loved people, picnics, dances, and whipped cream cakes.”
4. Advice for the Drive
First piece of advice is – definitely do this! Driving up the PCH is so relaxing and beautiful. Seeing such a long stretch of untouched landscape without any phone service to distract you is good for the soul.
Second piece of advice – figure out where you’re going to eat ahead of time. The coast is pretty barren save for a few private residences, and there is no cell service at all. So pick your lunch spot beforehand. We ate at Ragged Point Restaurant, which had average food but beautiful views.
Third piece of advice – get gas before you get to Big Sur. If you’re coming south, get gas in Carmel. And if you’re going north, I would stop at the cheapest spot you find. Gas is scarce and very expensive in Big Sur.
Last piece of advice – take your time. The road is has a lot of sharp bends and turns, and you will need plenty of time to look around and take in the views. Drive slowly, everyone else will be doing the same, and allow yourself to pull off and take some photos. There are many places that you can go back to and visit, but making an entire drive like the PCH twice is not exactly an outing you plan often.
Even if you try to speed through it, the PCH will stop you from doing so. So relax, and appreciate the now.
Anyone visiting New Orleans knows to hit up Bourbon Street. And if you’ve ever actually made it there, you’ll know that it’s a total shit show every night of the week. Bourbon Street is one of those magical places where the streets smell like piss, there are tons of people around you at all times and everyone is drinking outside, and yet you still somehow feel like a celebrity as people yell down to you from balconies and throw beads your way. I can’t even imagine how crazy this place is around Mardis Gras time, but I have heard stories. Tip for going to Bourbon Street on Mardis Gras – wear shoes you don’t care about, because they will get destroyed in 2.5 seconds of walking.
As you walk down the street, there are people standing outside of every jazz bar paid to solicit you into the bar, whether with drink coupons or just sheer southern charm. If you haven’t done your research, it’s pretty easy to get enticed into nearly any spot on the street. But my recommendation to you is to keep walking until you get about 8 blocks down, where you’ll find Fritzel’s, the oldest jazz pub in New Orleans.
In any other city, Fritzel’s would be considered one of those grimy yet charming hole-in-the-wall joints with a charming French-style, twinkle-lit brick patio in the back. But of course what takes it to that next level is small stage placed smack dab in the middle of everything where jazz players from all over the country congregate and jam together, without any preparation ahead of time. Unlike the other jazz pubs, the music in Fritzel’s is not a performance, it’s an immersive experience. We just happened to be shooed right into the front row, but even three rows back you would still have that trombone right in your face.
Being so small and intimate, Fritzel’s is the place to go to really experience good jazz music. The players often take recommendations from the audience, as they’re mostly just picking songs as they go anyway. And halfway through, there’s an intermission where everyone grabs a drink and you get a chance to sit and chat with some of the players.
My fiance and I sat with the pianist, whose fingers were like fire moving so fast with the music it was hard to look away. He turned out to be a pretty famous jazz player of both the piano and trombone, Richard Scott, who told us all about how he was born in Virginia and started playing piano at age 4, and traveled all over the place to do shows. He was actually only in New Orleans for the weekend and explained to us about how musicians just signed up for different nights of the week if they wanted to play, and then whoever showed up was your band for the night.
“The beauty of jazz,” he said, “is that once you know how to play it, you really can pick it up and play together easily even if you don’t know what song you’re playing.”
I loved hearing about this, and actually took the liberty of looking up “jam session,” only to find out that it originated from jazz music in the 1920s (sorry Phishheads). The term came about when white and black players would congregate after their regular gigs to play the jazz they couldn’t play in their “Paul Whiteman” style bands. When Bing Crosby would join on these sessions, people would say he was “jammin’ the beat” as he clapped on the one and the three beat. Thus, jam sessions were born and became more and more popular, especially in New York during World War II.
And now, after hours in New Orleans, you can find jam sessions happening every night of the week at Fritzel’s. If you want a really good experience of jazz music, I urge you to check it out.