Micro Road Trips—They Exist

We call an overnighter a Mini Road Trip. So what about one that transpires completely inside of a single day? I submit: Micro Road Trip. In little more time than would be spent on regular errand-running, it’s entirely possible to see and do a lot of interesting stuff.

Billy's Egg Farm barn

(Photo courtesy VMB Foto)

In connection with a regular visit to the grandparents, a destination that by itself is a solid hour’s drive, we took a micro road trip. Spurred by needing eggs and more than need specifically wanting eggs from Billy’s Egg Farm in Chino, I checked and ascertained that a drive-by of drive-through Billy’s would add a mere 6 minutes to our travel.

Billy's Egg Farm sign

Seems an improbably tiny amount of extra time, but you know how numbers and distance are magical and weird, sometimes revealing surprises like that. A huge concomitant plus of this plan was the avoidance of the very worst part of the suburban-sprawl freeway grind—indeed, the drive instantly becomes good. And the bonuses keep on coming: Collaterally, this route makes possible a jaunt on Carbon Canyon Road, which passes through the mysterious community of Sleepy Hollow as San Bernardino County becomes Orange. The next Carbon Canyon landmark a few miles on would have been La Vida Hot Springs, only it is no more. Its built environment, at least—no reason to suspect the natural hot springs aren’t still a-burbling.

My La Vida memories are considerably more noisy and less health-giving than they would have been if I’d gone there to take the waters and indulge in spa treatments. For a short, lovely time, a teensy subset of the surrounding, larger-but-still-short late 1970s, a couple of ambitious Cal State Fullerton students put on multi-act punk shows at La Vida. The gone-to-seed health resort/biker bar—and I do mean actual bikers, not the craft-beer-swilling RUBBies who keep Cook’s Corner, our local canyon biker bar, in business, and God bless ‘em for that—turned out to be downright idyllic as a venue for all the best people’s favorite music. For some reason it was completely unsurprising that the bikers enjoyed the shows, too. Today, there’s nothing left of La Vida, nor of the mini, and, as it turns out, entirely ephemeral, world that produced punk.

And what of Sleepy Hollow? It looks much as any of our California canyons, including the one in which I live. As a child I wondered who lived in the houses and cabins built in the style I grew up to call Canyon Vernacular, sited here and there on non-standard parcels along the curvy road. The whole place seemed mysteriously overgrown, quite a contrast to the suburban front yards I saw every day with their bloodlessly manicured juniper shrubs. Up close, junipers are prickly, awful, welt-raising things, whether carved into spheres, cones, or cubes. My family’s front yard was blessedly juniper-free—maybe the Japanese owner of Sandan Nursery, from whom my Dad got his landscaping advice and supplies, didn’t favor them.

As an older teenager, I heard that Sleepy Hollow was a place where Orange County gay people felt comfortable living. I have no idea if this is in fact true, but however improbably Brea was always quite a bit gayer than the other small cities surrounding it. Other than that, it really doesn’t have much going for it at all. I was able to conclude at a very young age that it was clear most gay people want what most people in general want: a job, a home, a quiet life. And, God knows, Brea was so up to providing the latter.

Billy's Egg Farm guests of honor

Anythewho, micro road trips. My infatuation with Billy’s Egg Farm is the result of an odysseggy or eggyssey (we’ve tried both on for size), a micro road trip on the topic of eggs. We visited a whole slew of egg ranches in the great Inland Empire, and Billy’s was the winner in a walkaway, or rather a drive-through, and not just because we happened to get Billy his own darn self at the window only too glad to expound on his chickens, 80 percent of which are cage-free, and of course the rest in the expanded cages required by California law. Billy’s eggs won because they were so far superior in taste and freshness, it’s not even funny.

Billy's Egg Farm in context

We quickly came up with several scenarios for working a Billy’s stop into daily life, in addition to grandparent visits: driving in from the desert, driving to the nearest, only-in-the-I.E. Baker’s Drive-Thru for one of their excellent burgers, driving to… buy eggs. Great eggs are their own raison de road trip.


Route 66—Helendale Breakfast and Oro Grande Eggs

Like many of the road-trip stories in my head, this one’s about Route 66. But also eggs, and dust storms, and weird I-don’t-get-it hybrid weather of dust-sun-rain-wind. But we’ll begin with corned beef hash.

Corned beef hash on Route 66, actually. Molly Brown’s Country Café, one of apparently four locations, though I don’t know this empirically since I’ve only been to the one in Helendale, is on one of the Route 66 segments euphemistically called National Trails Highway, but don’t let that fool you. And order the corned beef hash, which might be the best ever if I’d never had Tadich Grill’s: Tadich corned beef hash 12-2015

But since I have had Tadich Grill’s, and will continue to, whenever I can, we’ll call it—a contender.

Oeufs pochée, X-toasted English muffin—and that, as Mario Batali used to say on “Molto Mario,” is the dish.

Molly Brown's cbh, cfs

Unless your dish is chicken-fried steak, because Molly Brown’s is the best-ever iteration of that dish, no additional qualifier needed. I only ever get a mooched bite (or two), because I’m so way gone on the hash, but I know a best-ever chicken-fried steak when I taste it, don’t I. SUPER SPECIAL COFFEE NOTE: I love Molly Brown’s coffee, which one drinks like water all through the meal, plus before and after.

Driving on what I think of as the Helendale loop, the segment of Route 66 that goes from Victorville to Barstow, or vice-versa, depending, you could stop at Emma Jean’s Holland Burger, which isn’t a bad place at all. But drive over the excellent 1930 Rockview Bridge, which, if it existed anywhere east of California, would be venerated as one of the finest on Route 66:

Rockview Bridge Route 66 Victorville

and continue a further just-over-10 miles, making a mental note to return to charming, tiny Oro Grande as you pass through, and eat at Molly Brown’s. Breakfast and lunch only—you can thank me later.

So, Oro Grande. Built on the promise of gold and the cash delivery of cement, charming and tiny as aforementioned, with a lot worth stopping for, if, like me, you’re at all interested in looking at other people’s cast-off junk. I’m not so interested in edited—curated, in today’s hypervocabularization—vintage-ware shopping. What I like to do is sift through passels of stuff and make my own decisions, and this is easy to do in Oro Grande, where there’s a surprising number of unassuming yet merch-packed shops. Pyrexers, especially, might want to pause to peruse. In the Antique Station, a large, rabbit-warren-y place, I saw masses of sets and singletons, including a lot of the awful 1970s colors I adore. Also, not a few pieces of Hall China. That said, I didn’t buy anything because I have too g.d. much stuff already, but I note it here as a public service to you, my reader(s). Would have bought any Midwinter Stonehenge crossing my purview… as my regular dinnerware it is exempt from the do-not-buy rule.

For me, the best find was the little feed store around back of the main strip of shops. Eggs! Yes, again with the eggs, for which we’re constantly on the lookout, gorgeous brown eggs from the building owner’s own chickens, which are soon to be relocated to an enclosure right out back there. If the feed store’s closed, you can buy them from Annie’s Transformed Treasures on the street side.

While we shopped—for eggs, as it turned out–oh and a letterbach for the person in the family who didn’t have one of his own already, the wind was increasing. It was whipping things around when we first parked. Very evocative, for Route 66 Sunday drivers like us, but unusual, according to the locals.

More evocative: A freight train rumbled down one of the parallel tracks just across the street, blasting his horn a bunch of times, maybe even extra because I was standing there gorping.

dust storm coming Route 66 Oro Grande 31 January 2016

See that cloud down the street there? Brown sandy dust. It was on its way, right quick. We drove out through it, wild whipping wind, thick dust and grit, a little rain, and, sun. All at the same time. And then, a gigantic rainbow over Victorville when we stopped for the requisite Costco gas.

VV rainbow

Thus concludes this Route 66 mini-chapter, and the continuing, not to say neverending, mega-story My Life with Eggs. Assume more to come on both subjects.

Letter from Lompoc: Serendipity & the staff of life—not to mention, beans

Lompoc’s a favorite road-trip destination for SO many reasons—most of ‘em vegetable in nature. Bakeries, though, always loom large in my travel research as well, and for an October trip I turned up a bakery, or, more like, a baker… how, I forget exactly—through the usual combination of food-related social media and circuitous keyword searches, I learned that Piedrasassi Winery, whose tasting room is in the charmingly light-industrial Lompoc Wine Ghetto, had a wood-fired oven, and, moreover, a baker wood-firing it: Jonathan Eng.

Jonathan Eng with bread

Jonathan Eng among his loaves.

My first thought was, wow that’s weird—Jonathan Eng is the name of a professional baker I interviewed a few years ago, a French Culinary Institute graduate who came from New York to open the first Orange County Le Pain Quotidien in Newport Beach. (LPQ’s giant multi-grain sourdough miche is one of my very favorite breads.) We had a great discussion about flour, having a meeting of the minds about King Arthur Flour’s dependable consistency making it good for professional and home baker alike. And you’re probably way ahead of me here: yep, it’s the self-same Jonathan Eng at Piedrasassi. After LPQ he helped open Superba Food & Bread in Los Angeles, and now, he’s here, just him and a handsome, hardcore, wood-fired oven.

Piedrasassi bread oven, racks

Piedrasassi wood-fired oven.

And I do not exaggerate the solitude of his role. After training and managing large staffs in professional kitchens, he’s on his own here—completely. Every single rustic sourdough loaf that emerges from that oven has been mixed, shaped, proofed, slashed, and baked by Eng, to the tune of 275 a week. Maybe you have to be a recovering bread baker like me to fully appreciate how impressive this is. I mean, every single one! Kind of mind-blowing, really.

And not only mixing shaping proofing slashing: He also mills the flour himself, from heirloom grains grown right in the Lompoc Valley. The on-site mill was imported from Germany. Organic rye grown by Pence Ranch and durum and heirloom Sonora wheat come from about an 8-mile radius, some from Piedrassi’s vineyard land. Only a garden out back could be hyper-er local.

Piedrasassi grain mill

On-site mill for hyperlocal grains.

I was thrilled to hear another familiar name is part of the process, too: Lompoc Valley Seed & Milling screens the grains for Eng and Piedrasassi. Incredible resource. When in Lompoc, don’t miss the chance to stop in for super fresh local beans—including the famous Santa Maria-style pinquitos. They’re open weekday business hours and SO worth a detour.

But: bread. Baking the wood-fired-oven way is a world unto itself, even for a baker with Eng’s training and experience. His former instructor at New York’s French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Institute) cautioned dryly, “It’s not as romantic as it looks.” But something about the process catches a baker’s fancy, or some bakers, anyway. A big part of the mystical hold bread-making has on a person is definitely the connection to something primal, fundamental, downright ur. Wood-oven baking is a Zeno’s-paradox-step closer than conventional gas or electric to this ephemeral feeling. Of course I don’t know that all this is what drew Jonathan to his current gig. But I suspect it’s a factor.

Piedrasassi bread cropped 2

Seeded and plain Sonora and Durum.

Of course, the proof’s in the pain. It is excellent. Just look at those interiors—not to mention, the crusts. Such a sweet, subtle wheat flavor. Certainly the fresh-milledness and freshness of the grain itself plays a part. I have at times milled my own flour for bread, from organic grain, but this flavor is something else. Maybe it really is the taste of local. Very light acidity, too, which is how I like my sourdough. Lucky that Jonathan feels the same way.

My habitual flours are the fine organic Central Milling products from Keith Giusto Bakery Supply—the same source that Acme Bread and Tartine Bakery use. I’ve been watching the current local-heirloom-flour phenom, wondering if it can grow enough to be relevant to the wider home bread-baking world, let alone the stringent standards and volume needs of a professional bakery. There are bakers selling bread from local wheat commercially, already, but so far it’s pretty boutique-y in scope. I know there are those aiming to change this, notably the Tehachapi Grain Project, and I’m following along with interest.

Jonathan Eng at oven

Those rye loaves in the back there weren’t ready to come out yet… NEXT TIME.

For several years I bought my flour from an organic farm in Kansas that both grew and milled, and while I completely trusted the purity of the product, it wasn’t consistent enough for me as a home baker—it varied a lot from 50-pound-bag to 50-pound-bag. (When I got bit by the bread-baking thing it progressed pretty fast from supermarket-sized 5-pound bags to 10x that amount roosting in the front-hall closet… I told you I was recovering.) Professionals making 100s of loaves a day have even a greater need for predictable results.

I love and adore the idea of my flour being as local as my veg, and will happily experiment whilst awaiting further grain-related developments. And of course I’ll buy armloads of Jonathan Eng’s bread whenever I’m within striking distance. You should, too—he bakes Mondays and Fridays, and bread is available at the Lompoc tasting room and bakery those days, as well as at the Saturday Santa Barbara farmers markets.