Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Debut of Adventure Sundays: Santa Anita Hike & Din Tai Fung Dumplings
When Chaya and Chrissy asked if I was in for Adventure Sunday, even without knowing what that entailed, I was in. How could I turn down something called Adventure Sunday?
Their proposed activities to make Sunday more Adventurous started off with a hike in the Arcadia's Santa Anita Canyons followed by "the best dumplings in L.A.". An unorthodox pairing but Chrissy has talked up these dumplings for a while and if hiking beforehand is a good excuse to drive to far-away Arcadia to enjoy the dumplings, so be it.
According to Chrissy's Wild L.A. hiking book, the Santa Anita Loop is listed as one of L.A.'s top hikes to take out-of-towners --and why should tourists be the only ones exploring the best of LA? The hike also earned 5 stars and many positive comments on the same website where I found our Malibu hiking & dirty pond swimming adventure a month ago.
Never really going east of Los Feliz for spots like Home, Alcove and Good Luck Bar, driving to Arcadia via the 405, 10, 110, and 210 freeways seemed like a mini-adventure in itself.
We exited the 210 off Santa Anita Ave and headed up the windy mountain to Chantry Flats. There aren't any "yes keep going, you ARE supposed to drive up the mountain for a ways" signs so just as you're wondering if you've gone too far up the mountain, yes, keep going, you ARE supposed to drive up the mountain for a ways. You'll soon see a parking lot with a small Chantry Flats sign on your right.
The map we got from the general store gave us three hiking options, a nice 4 mile roundtrip hike to some waterfalls and back, a 5 mile waterfall-less but still picturesque loop with 12 river crossings and old cabins or an ambitious 9 mile loop which encompassed the waterfall plus more. We opted for the waterfall hike with the option to continue on with the 9 mile loop if Chaya, Chrissy, Rachel and myself all suddenly had a personality change and became psycho-obsessed hikers.
Immediately, the woodsy--and thankfully shaded--surroundings make this mountain hike very different from the typical dry, hot and unshaded L.A. canyon hikes (a la Runyon). The fun rock-hopping creek crossings and changing terrain past the time quickly and we made it to the waterfall in 45 mins.
In a delusional, "we're so outdoorsy!" moment, we decided to forge ahead with the 9 mile loop. Multiple uphill turns and twists lead us through deeply shaded woody areas, up along narrow (and apparently poison oak-lined trails) mountain ridges with beautiful views of next door neighbor mountain ranges, back down towards wood-shaded creeks and abandoned cabins from the early 1900's and more uphill hiking until we got to Spruce Campground.
According to our poorly scaled map, we had maybe 1 (or just as easily 5) uphill miles to go before the half way point. With our growingly loud growling tummies, we decided to turn back. We trudged back quickly, fueled by the thought of dumplings. Towards the end, we ran into a park ranger who said when we turned back we were only 1/2 a mile away from Sturdevant Camp (the halfway point) which has an amazing view overlooking all the mountains. Darn. Oh well, next time. Besides, by turning back early, we were still 1/2 a mile closer to dinner so we didn't regret our decision. The last .6 miles is pure 60 degree incline agony. Dumplings, dumplings, dumplings...each..step..closer..to..eating...dumplings.
We shot down the mountain back onto 210, 2 exits later (Baldwin Ave) we were at the famed Din Tai Fung Dumpling House. This Taipei-based restaurant--who has a team of dumpling-masters in the glass-encased kitchen handmaking fresh dumplings to order--is known for their exceptional dumpling wrapper consistency, best compared as that perfect, al dente bite of fresh, homemade pasta. The ever-present line is intimidating but goes fast (the line in the photo is the equivalent of 20 minutes), and faster still if you can't wait and have to go next door for a fruit smoothie made with real fruit (my peach icy was good but Chrissy's ice blended cantalope juice was better. 2 for the price of one! $3.75!)
Ordering the majority of the menu, we dug into 6 trays of 10 dumplings each between the 4 of us. Oh, plus shrimp noodle soup and two sauteed plates of broccoli and spinach. Between the chicken, fish, vege (cabbage, shiitake mushroom and silver noodles) and their signature juicy pork, the house specialty dumplings were my favorite. A tender pork and leek meatball swimming in its own broth, encased in an individual yielding pasta parcel. While there is a trick to eating these without dripping away the yummy juice, (directions are on the chopstick wrapper), my preferred way was dip it into the ginger/vinegar sauce and plop the whole dumpling in my mouth. We finished off with dessert dumplings--sweet red beans inside the steamed, mochi-like wrapper. (For more dumpling descriptions and pics, check out Hungry Hedonist's detailed review.)
Yeah, we may have gorged on an unnecessary share of dumplings, but they were small, surprisingly light and quite delish--not to mention twice as tasty when you know you've already pre worked them off on a hard 8 mile hike. This was definitely a strong debut for our proposed monthly Adventure Sundays.
Big Santa Anita Loop: $5 for parking pass
Din Fan tang Dumpling House: $60 for way too much food for 4 people (which, granted we did finished)
1108 S. Baldwin Ave. Cross street: W. Duarte Rd, Arcadia. 626.574-7068
Boba Tea and Juice place next door: $3.75 for two real fruit smoothies
Adventure Sunday: $23 per person!