Anatomy of a Birthday Weekend

Or, What We Did On Our Birthday Vacation

Thursday (our birthday weekends start early, by necessity)

  • Tour a school that we might want Baguette to attend next year.
  • Decide that we do not want Baguette to attend that school (it seems like a very good school–just not what we want for her).
  • Clean the house.
  • Clean the patio and back yard.
  • Go to speech therapy and music therapy.
  • Go to Costco and buy food and birthday cake.
  • Clean the house.
  • Make items for party games.

Friday

  • Clean the house.
  • Clean the back yard.
  • Do some work that needs to be done even if I am on vacation.
  • Clean the house.
  • Clean the back yard.
  • Clean the patio.
  • Welcome grandparents and great-aunt, who are visiting from out of town.
  • Go out to dinner.
  • Clean the house.
  • Make party favors.

Saturday

  • Make party favors.
  • Clean the house.
  • Clean the patio.
  • Make signs for food.
  • Clean the house.
  • Clean the patio.
  • Locate the Happy Birthday banner we bought two years ago.
  • Put up the Happy Birthday banner.
  • Locate more tape for the Happy Birthday banner.
  • Make the salad.
  • Put the Happy Birthday banner back up.
  • Welcome guests. Realize again that we have invited a really large number of people.
  • Abandon hope of keeping the Happy Birthday banner up.
  • Make sure parents and children are enjoying themselves.
  • Call the pizza parlor and confirm that the pizza is actually going to be delivered.
  • Make sure that Baguette has the chance to find some quiet time.
  • Put out the pizza, salad, and signs for the food.
  • Realize that I have left another parent supervising Baguette in the front yard for far longer than is reasonable.
  • Ask Baguette if she wants pizza. (“No thank you.”)
  • Ask Baguette if she wants macaroni and cheese. (“Yes.”)
  • Bring a chair we took outside for the party back inside, because Baguette wants to eat at the table in the breakfast nook like she always does, not at the table on the patio where her friends are.
  • Make sure everyone gets food.
  • Eat one slice of pizza and some salad.
  • Realize that, in spite of all the cleaning, the living room still contains a case of baby wipes and a 3-pack of contact lens solution.
  • Decide not to care.
  • Bring out the cake and put candles on it.
  • Try to light the candles.
  • Try to light the candles.
  • Try to light the candles.
  • Try to light one candle, which is the most that we may be able to keep lit with the breeze.
  • Abandon hope of lighting the candles.
  • Serve the cake.
  • Encourage Baguette to say “thank you for coming to my party” to as many children as possible.
  • Say goodbye to everyone.
  • Try to get Baguette to nap.
  • Abandon hope of getting Baguette to nap.
  • Regroup with grandparents and great-aunt when they come back from their hotels for dinner.
  • Order Chinese food.
  • Eat Chinese food (adults) and macaroni and cheese (Baguette).
  • Open presents from grandparents and great-aunt.
  • Accept that the most enticing part of presents is the paper, which tears interestingly and can be draped as a fetching hat.
  • Say goodnight to grandparents and great-aunt.

Sunday

  • Have morning meltdown (Baguette, with collateral damage to Mr. Sandwich’s hearing).
  • Regroup with grandparents and great-aunt.
  • Caravan to 7-11 for coffee.
  • Caravan to L.A. Zoo, because it is the weekend and therefore we go to the L.A. Zoo.
  • Look at zoo animals.
  • Get in line for lunch.
  • Take Baguette for a walk, because the line is too long. (Mr. Sandwich)
  • Realize that Baguette is screaming, and Mr. Sandwich is waving energetically from outside the cafeteria.
  • Take Baguette and try to comfort her.
  • Realize that 5 feet away, a zoo docent is holding a small constrictor.
  • Consider one’s pathological fear of snakes.
  • Ask Baguette if she wants to touch a snake.
  • Confirm with Baguette that she wants to touch a snake.
  • Hold Baguette while she touches the snake.
  • Wash Baguette’s hands.
  • Eat lunch.
  • Leave zoo.
  • After Baguette falls asleep in the car, take advantage of the situation to trim her fingernails while Mr. Sandwich runs into the hardware store.
  • Go home and let Baguette unwind.
  • Make brownies for Baguette to take to day care the next day for her actual birthday.
  • Watch Baguette start to spool up again when grandparents and great-aunt rejoin us for dinner.
  • Try to prevent meltdown.
  • Fail.
  • Take Baguette into her room, comfort her, and tell her that she can take time to calm down, but that we will be in the living room so she doesn’t feel abandoned.
  • Give Baguette iPad when she asks for it. (Mr. Sandwich)
  • Be grateful that, this time, the iPad helps her come out of the meltdown instead of exacerbating it, because there is no predicting.
  • Send grandparents out for In-N-Out.
  • Welcome Baguette when she comes back to the living room, feeling better.
  • Feed Baguette one of her favorite noodle dishes.
  • Tell Baguette that we will be on patio, and that she can come out when she wants to.
  • Eat In-N-Out while Baguette plays with party games on back lawn.
  • Say goodbye to grandparents and great-aunt, who are returning to respective homes on Monday.
  • Give Baguette a bath.
  • Open a few gifts for Baguette and talk to her about what they are and which of her friends gave them to her.
  • Write thank-you notes to those friends.
  • Wrangle Baguette into bed.
  • Sleep fitfully.

Monday

  • Put brownies in car.
  • Take thank-you notes to day care, along with party favor for one guest who didn’t get one.
  • Give brownies to teacher.
  • Realize that Baguette would still really prefer to have some quiet time.
  • Recognize that at this point there is nothing to be done about that.
  • Drop off thank-you notes.
  • Wonder how ABA will go tonight.
  • Wonder how birthday phone call with aunt and uncle will go tonight.
  • Wonder if Baguette will catch stomach bug that is running rampant through her school.
  • Think about how, at this rate, it will take several days to open Baguette’s presents.
  • Go to work.
  • Really, really intend to write the rest of the thank-you notes.

Little girl in chair, covering face with "Happy Birthday" balloon

Traditions: Chinese Food

Fortune Cookies - version anglaise

Yesterday was my mom’s birthday. She would have been 75. She should be 75. She should be here to see Baguette grow, and hear stories about what we’re doing, and pay long visits in which we’d spend time cooking together (or, given the way things work right now, she’d cook and I’d keep Baguette out of the kitchen).

But she’s not. So we made sure to have Chinese food yesterday in her honor.

Growing up, chow mein was never one of our family’s dishes. But my mom would have been delighted with how absorbed Baguette gets when she eats it. I know I am.

Photo by maza34, via Flickr.

Happy Mother’s Day

I can’t believe this applies to me! But lots of people have been calling and sending cards and posting Facebook messages–plus there’s a baby dozing a few feet away, so clearly it does.

A few days ago, Mr. Sandwich asked me what I wanted for Mother’s Day. My answer? “See’s Candies.” Then yesterday it expanded to “See’s Candies, and a chance to wash my hair.”

Since it isn’t just Mother’s Day, but also my mother’s birthday, dinner was (of course) Chinese food. Since our move, we have sampled a number of nearby Chinese restaurants and found them lacking. We were therefore delighted to find that Yang Chow has, in addition to their Chinatown location, a restaurant in Canoga Park. It’s a bit of a drive, but worth the effort.

And who took me to See’s Candies, made sure I had a block of time for washing my hair, and went to pick up dinner? Why, the always awesome Mr. Sandwich, of course.

I’m going to have to start planning now for Father’s Day.

Golden City Restaurant

We’ve discovered a very useful corner not too far from our new home. Because I can’t live without Chinese food, I am delighted to have found some that–on first acquaintance–is quite tasty.

Golden City Restaurant isn’t fancy, but it does have several banquettes. That means it is more of a restaurant than I expected it to be; when you drive by, it looks like a place that has only a to-go counter.

Not that this would matter, since so far we’ve only gotten food to go, and have not eaten in the restaurant. However, I can say that the walnut shrimp is really good, and the black bean sauce is tasty (Mr. Sandwich ate all of the chicken and left the bell peppers and onions, which he doesn’t care for. I do like them, and ate them as leftovers tonight.) The cashew chicken is also very good, and that’s a dish that normally leaves me shrugging. I’d order it again here, though, and I don’t think I’ve ever said that about cashew chicken before.

So far, the only dish that I wouldn’t revisit is the sweet and sour chicken. And by extension, I suppose, the sweet and sour pork. The sauce is just too tangy and sharp.

Still, there are plenty of options remaining. I have no doubt we’ll be back.

Remembrance of Black Bean Sauce Past

All of my life, we’ve eaten a lot of Chinese food. When my brother and I were very young, our family didn’t eat out much. One of the few excursions we could afford on a semi-regular basis was dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I think there were two reasons for this. For starters, Chinese food was proportionally cheaper than it is now. And also we would only order three dishes–one for my mother, one for my father, and one for both my brother and me (that one was usually Beef with Oyster Sauce).

Later, it turned out that we just liked Chinese food, although the restaurant name wasn’t supposed to be that all-encompassing. In my mother’s opinion, a restaurant that didn’t specify its region wasn’t going to be any good. It wasn’t enough to advertise “Chinese food,” it had to specify Szechwan, Hunan, Cantonese, etc. We liked them all, so a specific region wasn’t the deciding factor. She felt that if the restaurant didn’t have a predominant regional identification, the owners and/or cooks didn’t know enough about the food they were making. Interestingly, many of our favorite restaurants did not meet this standard.

In Rockville, Maryland, the Far East Restaurant was our establishment of choice. Although the naming principle doesn’t seem to have held here, we always noticed that the Chinese patrons got porcelain teapots, while the European-descended patrons got plain metal teapots. These days that policy has changed, and there is equality of teapots at the Far East.

We moved to San Antonio, where we found the Wah Kee Seafood Restaurant. After several years in San Antonio, a multiplex movie theater opened near us, and the Wah Kee opened up in the adjacent shopping center. Another favorite was the Chinatown Cafe, which we liked so much that in 2004 J and I had our wedding rehearsal dinner there.

I found good Chinese food right away when I moved to New Jersey (good Mexican food proved more elusive). Unfortunately, several months later the restaurant burned to the ground. While that was definitely a loss, I can recommend Lotus Cafe in Hackensack and Taipei Noodle House in Teaneck.

There is a surprising lack of good Chinese food on the Westside of Los Angeles. About the best you can do is Hop Li. It’s pretty good, but not what it could be. No doubt this is largely because the center of Chinese restaurants in the area is in the San Gabriel Valley, but it’s still surprising that so densely populated an area can’t do better. When my grandparents lived in Monterey Park, my favorite restaurant was the Dragon Regency, where one night the chef made me a special dish of lemon cod fillets. I never ordered anything else, and eventually they put it on the menu. My grandparents and I were such loyal patrons that not only did they make me special dishes, they also gave me impromptu birthday celebrations, complete with bean cakes and gifts. Prior to our wedding, J and I went to Engaged Encounter (we will never get that weekend back), and I suggested that we have dinner at the Dragon Regency on our way to the seminary. I was devastated to find that the restaurant had closed, and I have yet to find anyone who can make that perfect lemon cod. Not even the excellent NBC Seafood, where we had dinner with two of J’s friends last year, can manage that particular dish.

So Chinese food has always played an important role in my family’s meals, although these days I haven’t got the slightest interest in Beef with Oyster Sauce. Chinese food was my brother’s comfort food when he was home sick from school, and I love it so much that one year I gave it up for Lent. And it’s one of the ways that my brother and I choose to honor my mother on her birthday. The two of them both loved Peking Duck, so that’s one of the dishes he’s sure to order. I don’t order any particular dish–but aside from the Dragon Regency’s lemon cod, I’ve never had one.

Tonight J and I had dinner at Yang Chow, in L.A.’s Chinatown. We found it a couple of years ago with my brother and his girlfriend (now his wife), and it seemed like the right place to celebrate my mother’s birthday this year. That was a good choice, as was the Beef with Black Bean Sauce that the chef made on request (oddly, the menu does include black bean sauce–but only on squid).

I just wish she’d been there to join us.

NBC Seafood

If you don’t know that the best Chinese food in town is found in Monterey Park and surrounding areas, then you really haven’t been paying attention. So listen up!

NBC Seafood has been around for something like 20 years, which is an eternity in the restaurant business. My recent (first!) visit there helped explain why.

The restaurant is brightly lit, but not blinding. The menu focuses, as you might expect, on seafood–but there are terrestrial options as well. We had duck two ways (Peking and lettuce wraps; the latter was my favorite, but both were terrific), cashew chicken, lemon cod fillets (more on these in a moment), asparagus with black bean sauce, and some kind of beef that was delicious. Let’s say it was Mongolian, and move on with our lives.

Service was excellent. The waiter answered our questions and described the dishes well. The duck came out first, in two stages, which helped the later dishes fit on the table, and kept us from starving. (Hey, when you drive across town from the Westside, you’re going to be hungry. Sitting in traffic does not fill your stomach.) The prices weren’t amazing, but they were fair, particularly considering the quality of the food. Everything was really tasty, and the restaurant atmosphere was comfortable and welcoming.

My only disappointment was that I still have not found a replacement for the lemon cod fillets that were served at the now-defunct Dragon Regency. Those were wonderful, and I haven’t found anything that measures up. NBC’s are just a touch too sweet, and need to be a bit more lemony. Alas.

Still, if you’re looking for good Chinese food, NBC Seafood is a great place to try.

Eating near Yosemite

First, I will go on record as saying that the food in the Badger Pass cafeteria is nasty. That’s probably a given, but it’s worth pointing out, nevertheless.

Less well-known, perhaps, is the fact that Gummi Bears are better when slightly cold. I suspect that the ones in my refrigerator are, at the moment, too cold.

But the town of Oakhurst, a dozen or so miles outside the park’s south entrance, does offer some nice food options.

Crabcakes Fun Family Seafood offers not just crab cakes, but rich and hearty clam chowder as well. It’s definitely not the cheapest place in town, though.

For breakfast, try Country Waffles or Ol’kettle. Although they don’t have the websites offered by Crabcakes (hence the Citysearch links), they do provide affordable, filling, and–most importantly–good breakfasts.

There are also a variety of fast food restaurants (McDonald’s, KFC, etc.) and a number of small local ethnic restaurants.

On the other hand, if you’re staying on the valley floor, I wouldn’t drive to Oakhurst just to eat.

P.F. Chang’s

I’m not going to tell you that this is the best Chinese food in the world, or even the best Americanized Chinese food in the world. In fact, I’m a little put off by the “national chain” aspect of the place.

But if you do go there, and you order Beef with Broccoli, get a side of the sauce for their Mandarin Beef. It transforms the dish from quite tasty to really delicious. And the broccoli is excellent.