Tuesday, November 30, 2010

So Many Have Promised . . .

and until today, no one has delivered.

In addition to our friends, one of the things we miss the most about Philadelphia is the availability of really good cheesesteaks. Yeah, we have tried some places that allege to serve authentic Philly Cheesesteaks, but all have fallen short of the mark. There was the place outside of Phoenix than flies in shaved rib eye; there was the place in Tucson run by a transplant from Philadelphia; and there was the place in Salt Lake City run by a cousin of famed Philadelphia cheesesteak guru Tony Luke. They served a good sandwich but something was always missing.

Then someone (we suspect it was Mike Lieng at the Red Lotus, but we aren’t sure) told Chuck about Gaglione Brothers Famous Steaks and Subs. “…the tight-knit brothers: Joe, Andy, and Tony Gaglione have called San Diego home for many years. After one of many trips to the East coast to visit their father and huge extended Italian family and after many treks to the neighborhood eateries of Buffalo, NY, the brothers returned to San Diego with a craving for the authentic family style cheesesteak and hoagie shop. Unfortunately, offerings in the city were slim.

“In order to fill the void and also to satisfy their own cravings, in 2003, the Gaglione Brothers decided it was time to bring the very best cheesesteaks and subs to Southern California.

“Motivated by what a quality, superbly tasting sandwich should be, the brothers began cooking, testing and creating sub and menu items in older brother Joe’s kitchen in Pacific Beach. Once the three agreed on the menu, they broke ground in 2004 on their first location in Point Loma. Feeling confident that they had created a recipe for success with an authentic neighborhood sandwich shop, the brothers decided to open their second location the following year in Mission Beach. A third location, in the Friars Village Shopping Center, opened in July 2010” (from the restaurant’s web site).

The first clue that this wouldn’t be a Faux Philly spot was learning that Gaglione’s has their rolls shipped to San Diego from Philadelphia. To be specific, these are Amoroso rolls, and they have the requisite degree of “chew,” the requisite degree of soft to absorb all the meat juices, and the requisite degree of body (they don’t fall apart when met by said juices). Chuck describes this as the roll cradling the meat and cheese.

The second clue that this wouldn’t be a Faux Philly spot was, when walking through the doors, hearing the music of twin metal turners hitting the flattop while the cook (Cesar) chopped and shredded the meat for the cheesesteaks.

This place even looks authentic—like every suburban steak shop in the five county Philadelphia region where you order at the counter and wait until your name is called. Beverages are self-served, and next to the soda machine is the pepper lover’s fondest wish—an array of eight kinds of peppers that includes mild cherry peppers, hot cherry peppers, jalapeno peppers, sweet banana peppers, peperoncini, and giardiniera. There is seating for about twenty-five inside and another eight or so outside on the sidewalk.

While we were there for the cheese-steaks, they are not all that’s on the menu. “Some of the most popular menu items are tributes to the brothers’ family members. ‘The Turk,’ a tribute to their late father and a holiday-inspired treat served year round that includes fresh baked turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and mayonnaise. ‘The General,’ named after the brothers’ Italian Grandmother, features thinly sliced hot pastrami, melted Swiss cheese, homemade Russian dressing and fresh coleslaw. The newest menu item, ‘The Father Joe,’ a meatball sandwich dedicated to their Catholic priest uncle, uses the meatball recipe that has been in the Gaglione family for generations” (from the restaurant’s web site).

The steak sandwiches (chicken is also available) can be ordered in eight, twelve, or eighteen inch sizes and include your basic cheesesteak (American cheese), a cheesesteak hoagie, a Cheez Whiz steak, a mushroom cheesesteak, a Baja cheesesteak (with jalapenos), a pepper steak, a pizza steak, and the Works with mushrooms and cherry peppers.

For Chuck, it would be the basic with no onions.

For me, the pizza steak with onions which I enhanced with hot peppers and peperoncini from the pepper bar.

And now for the third clue that this was no Faux Philly—the paper that wrapped the steak sandwiches bore evidence of grease. Not nasty grease. The kind of grease that comes from real marbled beef.

When Chuck returned with the order, he muttered something about "perfec-tion," but before I could say, "Perfec-tion?" or "Don't forget the photo," he grabbed a bite out of the sandwich and just smiled.

While chewing and smiling, he began taking the food photos. While this was happening, the party seated next to us asked if we were eating at Gaglione’s for the first time and were we from San Diego. When I replied that this was in fact our first visit and that we had lived in the Philadelphia suburbs for nearly forty years, they were curious as to how the sandwich compared. I took a bite. I took another bite. I raised my eyes to heaven and proclaimed: “They’ve done it. They have it just right.”

Tender and gristle-free meat. Chewy roll. Pizza sauce that enhances the meat rather than obscures it. And, one of Chuck’s main criteria for a good cheese-steak, the cheese melts into the meat and bathes every morsel. No Faux Philly here. This is the real thing. So all of you Philadelphia exiles, head to Gaglione Brothers (10450 Friars Rd. #B, San Diego) for a taste of a real 5.0 Addie Philadelphia cheesesteak.

Just outside the restaurant, we met Tony Gaglione. As we praised the steps along the way that produced the outstanding sandwiches, he graciously accepted our compliments and credited his staff, especially Cesar on the flattop, for preparing consistently good sandwiches.

The Brothers will be around a long time.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Home, Home on the Lake

Over the past 30 months, we've been fortunate to have stayed in some fine RV parks and campgrounds. One of the finest is our current home base--Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve in Santee, about 20 minutes from downtown San Diego.

After entering the Preserve, we drove about one mile on a paved road past five lakes. This section is a day-use park with picnic tables, playgrounds, barbeques, horseshoe lanes, volleyball courts, pedal boats, rowboats, and canoes.

After passing these lakes, we checked in at the camp-grounds' office. Then another one mile past two more lakes and we were at our site. (Shown in these photos are lakes number six and seven.)

The campground with its 300 campsites is beautiful--the grounds are extremely well-maintained. Park staff are very visible throughout the day--mowing, sweeping, and picking up.

There is more than ample space for picnics, play, and general lounging.

Work on larger projects is evident--both in completed projects and on-going ones. The park has more than four acres of solar panels, providing enough power to meet almost 50% of the entire park's needs.

One of the on-going projects is the building of seven cabins right on the water’s edge of Lake 7 and three more that are actually floating on the lake.

Another item on the "To Do" list is the restoration of the islands in the lakes.

The campground has three measured fitness loops: 1k, 3k and 5k.

Amid this beauty is a reason for a bit of "excite-ment." Notices have been distributed that read: "Please do not approach or feed any wildlife. Rattle-snakes are common in our area" and "Coyotes are active in Santee Lakes."

A stream runs through a portion of the camp-ground. Just to the right of the stream in this photo (right) is one of the most beautiful and serene campsites in the park.

We're already making plans to return.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Not the Same Old . . .

same old.

I stumbled upon a local San Diego food blogger’s web site--mmm-yoso.com*--and was astonished that the most recent review was for Red Lotus, a Chinese restaurant just up the road from our campground in Santee, CA. Always on the lookout for good Chinese food, we made a note to check the place out.

The day arrived and we walked in at about 12:30 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon. NFL football (I don’t remember what game) was playing on the flat screen mounted on the back wall. Flanking the TV were two large black framed mirrors and off to the side was a fish tank stocked with large and multicolored fish. There were large colorful prints hanging on one cream colored wall, while another wall had been painted a vibrant red. The color scheme contrasted nicely with the dark wood tables and chairs.

While only open for four months, the Red Lotus has gathered a following among internet users. One Google poster described the restaurant as: “Red Lotus is the bomb, son! The menu has everything you could want made from the heart with family love; Mr. and Mrs. Lieng see to the kitchen with over forty years combined experience in Chinese cuisine, while the Lieng sons work in the dining room with great customer service. The eldest brother…works as a skateboard talent manger by day and in the restaurant by night…Me and my roommate drive out every week, I enjoy the vegetarian menu, and my roommate has vowed to eat every one of over eighty items on the menu!"

The food at Red Lotus concentrates on Mandarin and Szechuan cuisine. You will find a number of menu staples like hot and sour and wonton soups, egg rolls, pot stickers, Chinese BBQ ribs, and the ever popular pu-pu platter. You can fine egg foo young, chow mein, and chop suey. You can find Mongolian beef, Kung Pau beef/ chicken/ shrimp, orange beef, moo shu pork, and fried rice. But you can also find a wide array of out-of-the-ordinary appetizers, soups, and entrees.
On that visit, we began by sharing an order of the spicy fried calamari appetizer.

I am not sure what the coating was made from, but I do know that it was spectacularly thin and crisp with almost an audible cracking noise when bitten into. The tender squid pieces sat on a bed of scallions, red bell peppers, and sliced hot peppers. The calamari bites were delicious by themselves, but when combined with the relish, they reached an advanced state of deliciousness.

Chuck’s choice of entrée was the Ku Ting Crispy Shrimp—lightly battered and fried shrimp in a spicy and sweet sauce that contained a number of large dried chilies and a generous amount of candied walnuts. While a sweet flavor predominated, there was also a background hint of vinegar that kept the dish from being too sugary.

My choice was something that I had never before encountered—the Pau Ho or Hot Burned Pork. This is a dish that you will either love or hate. I loved it. And I couldn’t begin to tell you how it was made. My best guess is that thin slices of pork were battered and then stir fried until crisp. If you can imagine stir fried jerky, that is the closest I can come to describing the dish’s texture. And it came in a sauce that, like Chuck’s, was medium spicy and both sweet and mildly sour. The pork was served on a bed of crispy rice noodles that became coated with the sauce and added extra crunch to the meal.

We so enjoyed that lunch that we returned for a Second Act. That day, Chuck ordered the Sesame Triple Delight – battered chicken, beef, and shrimp in a honey sauce very similar to that on his Ku Ting Crispy Shrimp. This time, it was his meal that came atop the crispy noodles. I only tasted a piece each of the chicken and the beef, but both were tender and moist under the thin coating.

My lunch was the Szechuan Hot Braised Delight—chicken and shrimp in a spicy chili sauce and surrounded by crisp broccoli flowerets. When I wrote about the Ginger Café in Gilroy, CA (10/9), I quoted the About.com description of yin and yang: “People commonly think of yin and yang as opposing forces. However, it is really more appropriate to view them as complementary pairs...A basic adherence to this philosophy can be found in any Chinese dish, from stir-fried beef with broccoli to sweet and sour pork. There is always a balance in color, flavors, and textures…It also reinforces that it is not so much the individual ingredients, as balance and contrast between ingredients in each dish, that is important.”

My lunch on that day matched my understanding of yin and yang. There was the perfect balance of spicy, sweet, and tart in the chile sauce. And the soft and tender chicken pieces and the tender and moist shrimp were balanced by the crisp broccoli.

I am sure that Mr. Lieng had “velveted” his chicken pieces, and the shrimp were perfectly cooked. I know that this is going to sound weird, but I think that biting into a perfectly cooked shrimp is like biting into a natural casing hot dog. At first you experience the snap of the natural casing. Then you savor the softer meat inside. A great shrimp also snaps at first bite before you savor the juicy and tender shellfish.

We met Mike, the very personable son of the owners, on our first meal at Red Lotus, and he greeted us by name on our second time. This attention to his customers was apparent as he greeted and talked with others who followed us.

He spoke with reverence and pride about his father's attention to detail in the kitchen, especially as he talked about his father's creative dishes that were beyond the traditional restaurant dishes.

To say that the Lieng family impressed us with their food and hospitality would be an understatement, and we give the Red Lotus the ultimate 5.0 Addie rating.

We gave a wave to Mr. Lieng in the kitchen, thanked him, and wished him well as we left.
*As in, "yoso-silly," "yoso-hungry," "yoso-full," or best of all, "mmm-delici-yoso!!!!!"

Saturday, November 27, 2010


As we approached the San Diego Zoo's koala habitat, that was the sound made by members of the crowd assembled around the cage housing these cute marsupials. Yes, koalas are not bears.

"To help it climb, a koala has special hands and feet, both of which have claws. A koala has two thumbs on its hands, and the ridged skin on the bottom of its feet gives it traction for climbing. Strong arm and shoulder muscles help a koala climb 150 feet to the top of a tree and enable it to leap from treetop to treetop.

"Koalas are basically slow-moving animals that need to sleep a lot and take a long time to digest their food. Being on the ground all the time would be a disadvantage, because predators could catch them easily. So instead they adapted to live way up in eucalyptus trees, their behinds firmly planted in the forks of branches, so they can chew leaves and nap all they want without feeling threatened.

"Koalas only eat eucalyptus leaves, but there are more than 600 different kinds of eucalyptus trees, and each looks and tastes very different. They prefer the leaves of about three dozen varieties and eat 1 to 1.5 pounds of leaves each day.

"Interestingly, eucalyptus leaves are poisonous to most animals, but koalas have special bacteria in their stomachs that break down the toxic oils. Special cheek teeth grind the tough eucalyptus leaves.

Koalas don't get many calories from their diet, but they conserve energy by moving slowly and by sleeping as much as 20 hours each day.

"Koalas often eat a little dirt now and then to help them digest their eucalyptus leaf meal.

"The San Diego Zoo has the largest koala population and the most successful koala breeding program outside of Australia" (from the zoo's website).

Then it was on to another "a-a-w-w-w-w-some" resident's home. Fortunately, we were visiting the San Diego Zoo's panda habitat on a weekday in the fall. A weekday in the summer would in all likelihood have required us to wind our way through a number of S-channels just to reach the exhibit (above).

As with the koalas, there was a question of "whether pandas are bears, raccoons, or in a group all their own. Through studying the genetic code (DNA) in pandas’ cells, scientists have confirmed the panda's relationship with bears. Giant pandas are similar to other bears in their general looks, the way they walk and climb, and their skull characteristics.

"The Chinese call their beloved pandas 'large bear-cats.'

"Bamboo is the most important plant in a giant panda's life. Pandas live in cold, rainy bamboo forests high in the mountains of western China and spend at least 12 hours each day eating bamboo. Because bamboo is so low in nutrients, pandas eat as much as 84 pounds of it each day.

"Pandas grasp bamboo stalks with their five fingers and a special wristbone, then use their teeth to peel off the tough outer layers to reveal the soft inner tissue. Strong jaw bones and cheek muscles help pandas crush and chew the thick stalks with their flattened back teeth. Bamboo leaves are also on the menu" (from the zoo's web page).

One of our favorite habitats is that of the big cats. Lest you think that the comparison to (domestic) cats is a stretch, the zoo's description of the lion's behavior may erase that perception: "A lion’s life is filled with sleeping, napping, and resting. Over the course of 24 hours, lions have short bursts of intense activity, followed by long bouts of lying around that total up to 21 hours! Lions are good climbers and often rest in trees, perhaps to catch a cool breeze or to get away from flies. Researchers have often noticed lions lying around in crazy poses, on their backs with their feet in the air or legs spread wide open!" Sounds right on target to me.

Another similarity that we observed was the movement from one opening to their habitat to the second in anticipation (we think) of mealtime.

"Lions live in a matriarchal society. The lionesses work together to hunt and rear the cubs. This allows them all to get the most from their energy, keeping them healthier and safer. Being smaller and lighter than males, lionesses are more agile and faster.

It was mes-merizing just watching these animals walking around their habitat. We could only imagine them traveling a distance of one hundred yards in about six seconds.

The zoo's web page notes that lions are the only members of the cat family to have males and females that look distinctly different.

The Swahili word for lion, simba, also means "king."

The title seems to fit perfectly.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Meanwhile Back at the Zoo

Continuing our walk through a few of the San Diego Zoo's animal habitats.

This rhinoceros greeted us as we passed by their exhibit in the Zoo’s Urban Jungle.

At more than three times the size of the former elephant exhibit, the 2.4 acre site is home to seven elephants. The largest of several pools is 4,600 square feet and 7.5 feet deep in the deepest part.

Because elephants could easily mow down trees, their habitat has specially-designed "utilitrees"
(concrete structures) that provide shade, food, and treats for the elephants.

I have tried to identify which of the six females is shown here, but I have been unsuccess-ful.

Shown here are two Lesser Kudus.

This is a photo of Grevy's Zebra.

A Red River Hog is shown here.

Here is a capybara, the largest rodent in the world, "standing about two feet tall and built somewhat like a barrel with legs."

This photo shows the Chacoan Peccary from South America.

The Carribean Flamingo.

This colorful bird is the Saddlebill Stork. Its eyes are just above the yellow portion of the bill.

The habitat for the North Chinese leopard seemed to have everything the leopard could want. The resident leopard is on a ledge in the upper portion of the photo.

This is a closer look at the very handsome leopard.

And our walk continued.