Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Gardena Adventure

Just east (~5 miles) of the bucolic beach town where I live lies a wondrous melting pot where the ethnic foods are genuine and the architecture shockingly diverse.

On a recent family outing we venture to Gardena with a few specific goals in mind:

  • Scout Shop for Cub Scout Supplies (Gardena Department Store)

  • Korean Tofu Lunch (Lee's Soon Tofu)

  • Japanese Groceries (Marukai)

  • Handmade Sausages (Eschbach)

On our drive to Gardena we pass through sedate suburban neighborhoods with sun-baked front yards. Some are well kept with family members working tirelessly on well clipped hedges. Some have fences surrounding the entire property and bars on all the windows. Still others seem to be neglected entirely with dirt yards, unpainted trim and dilapidated front porches.

We know we're close when we get to the Donut King 2 (My children always ask where Donut King I is located). This is one of the iconic buildings in Los Angeles with a 25' donut on the roof of a small shack of a donut store. We make a few turns and arrive in the central shopping district of downtown Gardena. The buildings have the faded facades of 1940's-50's architecture and give you the distinct outdoor shopping experience of the same era.

The Gardena Department Store is a discount clothing store which houses an amazing array of items. Most people come to the store for the scouting items, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, you name it. But they also carry every type of uniform you may need including most gang uniforms. Yes, I said Gang Uniform. You need a bandanna, do-rag, wallet chain, trucker hat, belt buckle, or pair of low-riding Dickies? This is the place for you! The selection of goods fascinates me and I usually find myself wandering through looking for a bargain because I usually find one. Last year I was in need of a tropical dress for an upcoming Hawaiian party. I wandered through the women's clothing and found the perfect all cotton, spaghetti straped, black and white flowered print, made in Hawaii dress and it was $19.99! Fits like a dream as well! I highly recommend the Gardena Department Store for your basic clothing needs, they sell all types of Levi's and a rainbow of Hanes t-shirts. This is cheap boy clothes heaven.

With the cub scout uniform updated and patches sewn on securely we venture towards lunch. At the corner of Redondo Beach Blvd. and Western Ave. there is a blue tile roofed mini-mall with a bounty of Asian food choices. Sushi? Noodles? Pho? Tofu? All this and more in one mall. We've tried most of the places but our favorite for lunch is Lee's Tofu. The hot pots of tofu soup are basic Korean fare done well, with all the vegetable trimmings to munch on as the blazing hot soup cools down. The kal-bi (bbq ribs) are excellent as well. My sons make a meal out of the ribs, rice and seasoned seaweed sheets. My husband and I add the wicked kimchi directly to the soup which adds a nice fiery flavor.

With lunch out of the way, it's time to get more errands out of the way. We drive down Western to Artesia Blvd. to the flagship Marukai market. Marukai is more than a Japanese grocery store, it also houses mini-stores featuring everything from cell phones to furniture. There is also a food court and we've had a decent lunch here as well. Usually we are on a mission for specific ingredients: rice, udon noodles, miso, and fish cake, lots and lots of fishcake. My oldest son can eat an entire fishcake loaf in one sitting. It's always fun to search the aisles for an adventure. Most labels are in Japanese so you'll need to know what you are looking for or be bold enough to ask a Japanese speaker to help you out.

We leave Marukai and again head further South on Western Ave. On a previous outing I had spotted a very interesting site. A place called Eschbach's Meats and Sausages. This tiny Sausage company seems to have been here since the 1940's. The building certainly has. It's cinder block construction is a bit off-putting from the parking lot. They usually leave the door to the back room open and you can see all the large stainless steel equipment used to make sausages there on the premises. The meat counter has everything from Bratwurst to ground beef, but the sausages are obviously the star. Many people swear by their inexpensive and tasty sandwiches and according to chowhound the place gets quite the lunch rush crowd. We are there on a mission - Brats for a birthday party. They have four types, regular and Hungarian both raw and smoked. We pick up 20 regular, 10 Hungarian (which have extra garlic and the spicy kick of hot Paprika), and one smoked Hungarian (for me to eat on the way home). The recipe for the Bratwurst is fabulous. They are flavorful and not too fatty. The smoked Hungarian one I snacked on was like the ultimate Slim Jim, except it wasn't slim, it was fat, chewy, spicy and smokey. Heaven in a meat stick.

Our adventures in Gardena usually end there. At this point our car has perishables that need refrigeration and we need to get our kids home. The adventure is always a success, bargains found, great lunch enjoyed, more sights and sounds that we have time to process. Gardena is a unique Southern Californian city/town that truly can boast a few very genuine ethnic experiences. A large population of Japanese have called it home for over 100 years. In the past 30 years Latinos have moved in to create a unique mix of people and place. If you get a chance, go explore.

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