Saturday, 30 November 2013

On the road in California

Driving all around California you realise how much local life and food culture revolves around the road. A whole discipline of marketing and architecture developed around luring drivers in off the road, and new iterations sit alongside original Googies all along the roads.

Household name chains - like Denny's, Wendy's, Taco Bell - all seem to mostly exist out in the middle of nowhere, on a cross-section, where its convenient for people to meet and, crucially, parking is free. Nobody likes to pay for parking.

The ultimate Californian roadside eating experience is the cult SW chain In-n-Out, serving up affordable and delicious burgers, fries and shakes decades before muppets like us were standing in the cold, queuing to get into MeatEasy. This is the real deal, and there's not a carefully-crafted beard in sight. Just regular families getting served by super efficient, politely scripted staff in pristine uniforms.

The official menu is short and simple - one burger or two (their Double-Double is the inspiration for MeatLiquor's Double Bubble), cheese or not, fries.

But their cult status rests on the loyalty of their customers who know about their "not so" secret menu. It's basically the same core ingredients, but varied up. You could have a triple burger, a grilled cheese (extra cheese, no meat - their veggie option), grilled onions instead of fried, or their Animal Fries - which is fries with their sachet sauce, topped with melted cheese and grilled onions.

We ate twice on the road, and once, late at night, we drove through the In-n-Out in central Hollywood for a surreal LA experience. It was packed at 1.30am, and we enjoyed their faultlessly polite and efficient service while teens hung by their cars slurping down milkshakes.

Motels are a big part of the scene too - outside the big cities and picturesque lodges in the countryside, tourist accommodation is centred on the idea that you're just passing through on your way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The same chintzy accommodation could cost you £200 a night in ritzy-parochial Carmel-by-the-Sea but £60 100 miles down the coast in San Simeon. But the most famous of all lodgings is the incredibly kitschy Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, midway between California's most famous cities.

It's like something from a Disney-drenched dream of fibreglass seashells, grottos and caves, swirly carpets, winding staircases, turrets and lots and lots of parking for people coming in off the motorway roaring past outside.

We stopped for lunch and had fittingly kitschy pineapple and chicken sandwiches, prawn salad with copious volumes of thousand island dressing, and pink champagne cake.

Fellow diners were retro roadtrip fans, local ladies doing birthday lunch, all served by vintage tattooed ladies. One of those "only in California" places.

Our final roadtrippin' destination was Santa Barbara, which is a well-heeled university town 100 miles north of LA. We shunned its fancy seafood, yachty seafood restaurants, for Los Agaves,  the city's top Mexican taqueira, by the coastal highway.

We had the best Mexican food we've ever ever ever had - mine was a shrimp and halibut enchilada, topped with pineapple, served with a mango salsa, red rice and local cheese. All for $13. Venture a little bit off the highway and you can avoid the dull chains and have some really good food at a very good price.

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