Thursday, September 26, 2013

Where to Eat: Gourmet pizzas and more @ Sammy's Woodfired Pizza

The Eats: Gourmet pizzas and more

The Location: El Segundo

The Vibes: Casual, laid-back, open, chill

With-Whom-To-Go: Great for large groups and kids

When-To-Go: Open daily starting at 11am; daily happy hour 3-6pm

The $ Factor: $; Everything a la carte is in the $8-$15 range

The 4-1-1: There are more than 18 locations in Southern California and Nevada. The original Sammy’s opened in La Jolla more than 30 years ago; the El Segundo location opened as the first LA location slightly more than two years ago.

I'll be back: For the pizzas, but also the appetizers, the salads, the entrees, the desserts, and definitely the Messy Sundae, yes, definitely that...

I’ll admit—I judge books by covers.

My downfall?

I have a thing against chain restaurants. Applying a cookie-cutter approach to a throng of establishments feels against everything my blog is about: finding those unique, one-of-a-kind, L.A. gems that can’t be duplicated.

So with some hesitation, I ventured into Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza in Plaza El Segundo, mostly because the positive reviews I kept reading and reading and those tempting pictures of the Messy Sundae (more on that later) had more than sparked my curiosity enough to put aside my irrational bias towards chains to find out what made this place so special that it could not only stay in business for 30 years, but continue to expand year after year.

And thus my admiration and respect of Sammy's was born. 

The first noteworthy fact to mention is that while yes, Sammy's is a chain, each location has its own individual flair. The Studio City location is completely different than the El Segundo one, which is very laid-back, very casual and super kid-friendly. The manager explained to me that even customers’ orders differed by location…multitudes of martinis in Studio City, but never in El Segundo. Here, the cocktail of preference is the margarita, pictured below, made with agave nectar and Cointreau, and other key ingredients, like tequila, lemon and lime.

That brings me to my next point … Sammy’s cocktails are pretty decent. The ones I sampled met the three simple standards to which I hold all my cocktails: be pretty to gaze at, be tasty to sip and most importantly, do be strong. The menu of handcrafted signature cocktails balances a good dose of originality and classics, along with a versatile range of options.

But onto more important things like their namesake: the pizzas. Sammy’s uses organic flour and a woodfire oven to create little round masterpieces with their own little personalities. The crust is more on the thin side, very crispy and very light. It compliments all of the different toppings and isn't mushy or too overbearing. Check out the “LaDou’s Barbecue Chicken” and the “Prosciutto” pizzas, pictured below, respectively.

But honestly, as much as I enjoyed the pizzas, I really enjoyed everything else on the menu: the appetizers, the salads, the desserts. I cannot stress enough; Sammy’s is so much more than pizzas. They have exceptional light, California-fare, so don’t be afraid to venture out and try something amazing, like the Crab & Shrimp Dip with artichokes, served with herb-encrusted grilled flatbread, pictured below.

Or...try the Organic Kale Salad, tossed with figs, feta cheese, almonds, crisps and a pomegranate dressing. It truly bursts with fresh flavors, the perfect balance of all of its featured ingredients. Don’t wait too long though; it’s on a special Mediterranean menu that will only be at the restaurant for a limited time.

And, you absolutely cannot walk from the table without first treating yourself to the Messy Sundae. Talk about fireworks in your mouth. The crunchiness of the walnuts juxtaposed to the smooth, velvetiness of the warm chocolate and caramel sauces—all slithered on top of ice cream and underneath a mound of frothy whipped cream—is divine.

So the next time you’re in the mood not only for delicious pizza, but for light California-inspired fare that won’t leave you in a food comatose, in a chill environment, where you can kick back in your Bermudas and rock your open-toed sandals, I highly recommend heading down to Sammy’s in El Segundo.

See you there soon!

For more information:

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Where to Eat: Global Cuisine @ Grand Central Market

The Eats: An array of foods, products and beverages from around the world

The Location: Downtown L.A.

The Vibes: Lively, crowded, colorful, intriguing, authentic, historic

Good for: To try something new

When-To-Go: Although open daily 9 a.m. – 6 p.m., lunchtime is a great time to go because that's when the market is the most animated

The $ Factor: All depends on which food stand you order from

The 4-1-1:
1 hour free parking, with $10 min. purchase

I’ll Be Back…: To try one of the food vendors I haven’t tried yet 

Fresh produce, spices, specialty drinks, international dishes, a liquor store and even a jewelry stand…Chinese, Indian, Thai, Mexican, Japanese and Hawaiian cuisine…It might be hard to believe, but all of these aforementioned items share something in common: they’re all housed in downtown’s Grand Central Market.

Proudly claiming to be Los Angeles’ oldest and largest open-air market, in business since 1917, GCM is a reflection of the many cultures that exist in L.A., a true example of why this city is arguably the most diverse city in our nation.

Weaving in and out of the stands, you’ll notice many sights, smells, sounds and tastes: the sizzling, crackling pop of pupusas being made…the butchers selecting, cutting and packaging fresh fish…frothy smoothies and boba juices being blended…decadent desserts staring at you from behind glass fixtures. Taking the time to wander and get lost within the maze of aisles upon aisles of GCM is truly a sensory delight.

For the most part, everything is reasonably priced. A well-proportioned lunch shouldn’t cost more than $10 and the prices for produce (pictured below) are well below the norm than from your typical chain grocery store. Now don’t go expecting gourmet food served up on the finest china, with crisp white linen tables and beautifully folded napkins. But what you lack in high prices and a fine dining atmosphere, you make up in originality, character and simply put, amazing out-of-the-box food options.

There’s also plenty of seating areas to choose from—both inside and outside. The hardest part will be choosing where to go and where to sit, but fortunately, you can always come back!

So the next time you find yourself interested in being immersed in LA’s cultural food scene, I highly recommend that you head to the Grand Central Market to do so. Grab lunch and also a few seasonal fruits for later.

See you there soon!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Where to Travel: One Week in São Paulo @ Brazil

A good friend of mine, Nicole and her boyfriend Tariq (both pictured above), recently spent several months living and traveling throughout in Brazil. She always had a strong desire to visit the country, so with admirable courage and a bold spirit of adventure, she quit her day job in the Bay area and headed south to turn her dreams into reality.

Although thousands of miles separated us, that most certainly didn’t stop me from incessantly nudging her to write about her travels so that I could vicariously live through her, as she jumped around from Salvador to Rio and eventually to São Paulo.

Thus, this blog post was born.

Nicole graciously shared her experiences of wandering through Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, encountering vegetarian restaurants, romantic date spots, festive parties and so much more. If you're ever wondering what Brazil is like or planning to visit in the near future and need ideas on what to see and where to go, read about Nicole's adventures in the following paragraphs. I'm ready to pack my bags and go!

From Nicole:

After two months of urban beach living in Rio de Janeiro, I was ready for another escape, this time to Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo. I headed to Sampa or SP—as the Paulistas like to call it—with my partner Tariq to conduct research interviews for the feature film we have been working on. Our plans were only to spend a few days there. But on our descent into Congonhas-São Paulo Airport, we quickly realized that a few days of work wouldn’t leave nearly enough time to experience all that this rockin’ metropolis has to offer. Good thing we only bought one-way tickets!

I like São Paulo for a number of reasons:

1 – You don’t need a car and you don’t want car. It’s true that Sampa is a concrete jungle, often difficult to walk around in without getting lost or lightheaded from the fumes of ethanol gas and cigarettes. I don’t dread public transportation, and the city’s ultra-modern and clean metro system can get you to each of its zones efficiently. Where the metro doesn’t go, buses and trains can take you. Just keep in mind the city is MASSIVE! It can take an hour to get from one side of the city to another, even on the subway! Step into a boteco (bar) and have a cerveja (beer) during hora do rush (rush hour), and forget about driving in this city unless you want to waste hours of your life in traffic.

2 – You can have a great time on a budget.
While São Paulo is Latin America’s economic powerhouse, it also is a cultural mecca. It has an incredible amount of museums, parks and cultural events happening on a daily basis, and most of them are free.

3 – More diversity, more international cuisine than any other city in Brazil!

Here are my recommendations for anyone living or visiting the city soon:

Where to Lunch/Vegetarian: Gopala Mãdhava

The Eats: A lactovegetarian restaurant; Indian-Brazilian fusion

Location: Centro (near Paulista & Consolação metro stations)

The Vibes: namaste

The $ Factor: R$18-$R30 ($9 -$15 USD)

When-to-Go: Lunchtime only

The 4-1-1: Only two three-course plate options to choose from, but the menu changes each day. Not open on Sunday. No alcohol served.

Why I’ll be back: More like a food retreat than a traditional restaurant. With items on the menu like creamy polenta with tomato sauce and artichoke, and deep-fried milk balls in rose syrup, come hungry. This food is divine, even for non-vegetarians! On your way in, help yourself to complimentary sweet ginger juice and on your way out, try the chai tea.

Where to Have the Best Date Spot: Terraço Itália

The Eats: Italian

Location: República in Centro

The Vibes: Romantic and chic, with breathtaking 360-degree views of the entire city

The $ Factor: $$

When-to-Go: 7 p.m.–later

The 4-1-1: You’ll break the bank at this $100-a-plate joint, but they also have a lounge/piano bar next door where you can enjoy the incredible views with a cocktail. The piano bar has a cover charge starting around 9 p.m.

Why I’ll be back: Soaring 40 floors above the ground, it’s the kind of place that makes you feel like you are in a James Bond movie. It’s also a popular meet-up spot for Americans and foreigners.

Where to Museum: Museu Afro Brasil

The Vibes: cultural, historic

Location: Parque Ibirapuera Portão 10 in Zona Sul

The $ Factor: Free

When-to-Go: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

The 4-1-1: The museum features more than 3,000 works highlighting the cultural heritage and history of Afro-Brazilians. When you visit, take a person who speaks Portuguese with you, if you can, to help translate and explain some of the history and significance.

Why I’ll be back:
We spent three hours in the museum and still didn’t get to see the entire collection! It’s also located in Parque do Ibirapuera, the central Park of São Paulo!

Where to Nightlife: Samba Rock Party

Location: Jabaquara (centro-Zona Sul)

The Vibes: Old-school meets new-school

The $ Factor:
Cover R$5 for women, R$10 for men

The 4-1-1: Black paulistas were heavily influenced by the American soul music of the 1960s and 1970s. They combined soul with samba beats and unique dance moves to create Samba Rock. The popularity of Samba Rock continues in São Paulo with beautiful black people getting together every Saturday night and showing off their dance moves.

Why I’ll be back:
The party starts at midnight and goes on until 5 a.m.!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Where To Drink: The Daily Happy Hour @ Kay ‘n Dave’s

The Drinks: Twists on Latin libations

The Location: Culver City

The Vibes: Casual bar scene

Good for: Creative cocktails and shots

When-To-Go: Happy hour is 4-7 p.m., every day

Alone or with one other person; not accommodating for large groups—there’s not enough tables or space for more than four in your party

The $ Factor: $; $3 well drinks, sangria, select shots, draft beers and house margaritas; $4 house wines, select shots and Mezcal margaritas

The 4-1-1: While there’s an outdoor patio and quite an expansive dining room, happy hour is only in the bar area, which can fill up—and stay filled up---very quickly

I’ll Be Back…: For their rotating specialty shots, like the mango paleta Mezcal shot, pictured above 

A while back I posted about one of my go-to happy hour spots on the Eastside, at Spring Street Bar. So I thought it only made sense to post about one of my go-to daily happy hour spots on the Westside: Kay ‘n Dave’s Cantina.

As a hip yet still casual restaurant in downtown Culver City, it specializes in food that's traditionally Mexican, but that also feels very Californian—think of a healthier approach to cooking time-honored Oaxacan recipes that are garnished with tons of fresh and colorful vegetables.

And just as equally important, the cantina has skillful bartenders, who whip out incredible cocktails and shots.

The best time to try these libations is during the afternoon happy hour, when everything is steeply discounted. While you can never go wrong with a $3 margarita, I’d kick it up a notch and splurge on the $4 Mezcal margarita, which has a rich, smoky flavor to it. Or, I’d order one of my favorites, the $4 Watermelon shot, pictured at the bottom right. It’s a frothy, chilled blend of watermelon and tequila, better to slowly sip than to take to the head. The sangria, pictured on the far left, is always a winner, too, as a light and refreshing beverage that’s perfect for the summer, or even autumn. Choose from either red or white.

I’m also a fan of the happy hour appetizers, both for their inexpensive $3-$5 price range and for how delicious they are. Another added bonus: they’re easy to share. My favorites include the mini chicken mole burritos (pictured below) and the BBQ chicken wings. In my opinion, they’re both the most filling and also the most flavorful off the menu. The wings have this tangy/spicy sauce on them, and they’re juicy and succulent. The mini burritos are lightly fried and stuffed with chicken and rice, topped with a subtle mole sauce. Can’t go wrong with these two.

So the next you find yourself in Culver City, looking for a happy hour on any day that ends in “-day,” head to Kay ‘n Dave’s for satisfactory Mexican snacks and fantastic cocktails.

See you there soon!

For more information:

Sunday, September 1, 2013

And Where Do You "Where To?": Writer/Producer/Actress Madia Hill

In an industry that inhales people, chews them up and then spits them out mercilessly, writer/producer/actress Madia (pronounced MAH-di-aye) has managed to successfully wear many hats in the entertainment industry for more than 20 years.

She started off as a child actor/model, appearing in her first national commercial at four years old. She’s had a whirlwind of a dance career, performing with scores of recording artists, including Nicki Minaj, Diddy, Chris Brown, Shakira and Miley Cyrus. She’s conducted celebrity red carpet interviews for BET and SprintTV; she’s been a Jr. Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader.

And, she’s done this all while also receiving her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from the University of Southern California (Fight on!). Now that’s what I called talented and smart.

Recently, Madia added the title “producer” under belt, with the creation of Solely, a short film about the tough decisions one dancer must make once she finds out she’s unexpectedly pregnant.

While she’s been busy hosting inaugural screenings for Solely and producing other exciting projects, fortunately, I had a chance to catch up with her over the weekend. She candidly shared everything with me, from Solely’s upcoming debut in the LA Shorts Fest to the film’s bloopers, and advice for making a short and for surviving in the entertainment industry.

Quite honestly, I respect Madia as one of the most resilient, hard-working women I know, and the story of her journey to the creation and ownership of her own projects is one of inspiration for anyone who’s ever contemplated launching any type of project without the backing of major investors. Read on to hear what she had to say!

Miss Wilson: What’s the genesis for Solely?

Miss Madia: Solely began as a therapeutic expression. One day, I woke up with this little idea in my head and sat down to write it. I didn’t know where to begin or how the story was going to end, but I was always extremely inspired by the story. I had a strong dance background, so I knew I wanted to showcase my dancing skills. But also, I wanted to showcase my ability to carry a dramatic film as lead actress. Once I got into the story, ideas just kept flowing. When you read the screenplay, it reads almost like a novel. It’s very poetic. I thoroughly researched for this project because it’s important to be authentic and accurate.

Miss Wilson: How long did it take to create the short, from writing to post-production?
Miss Madia: After making the transition to acting after a very successful dance and hosting career, I felt very stalled. I wasn’t working nearly as much, barely auditioning and felt frustrated with my acting career. It was during this rough patch that I discovered my love for writing. I began writing roles that I saw myself doing. But more than that, I love storytelling and bringing that story to life.

Solely was my first solo writing project. It began more as a therapeutic expression. A year and several drafts later in June 2012, I knew that I had to make the film, and right away. In July 2012, I began my pre-production process, which I originally planned to be about five weeks. I was eager and overly ambitious. Being the first film I wrote and produced, I had no idea how much time and preparation is needed to put all of the pieces together. The director Anna Nersesyan thought I was crazy and really pushed to push shooting back a month. Thankfully I did and we began shooting at the end of September 2012, for four very long, hectic days (as most indie productions are).

We definitely took our time with post-production. Anna is very brilliant at what she does. She was very particular about the shots we used, the way it sounded, the way everything flowed. I have really learned so much from her.

The movie was finalized in July 2013.  

Miss Wilson: Abortion is an extremely tough and sensitive topic subject matter, but you managed to address it in a manner that was relatable and very human. What steps did you take in the creation process to ensure that it was transparent to viewers?
Miss Madia: During the writing process, I knew I wanted Solely to be this ‘fly-on-the-wall’ experience. It was very important for me for the audience to go through the journey with Lexi and really feel everything she was feeling: the loneliness, the pain, the difficulty. I wanted the audience right there with her, as if they were going through the whole experience themselves. Throughout the movie, there is very little dialogue. Everything must be conveyed through her facial expression, her eyes, body language. It’s a very raw movie and I didn’t hold anything back.

Miss Wilson: Although this is a serious matter, were there any bloopers?
Miss Madia: So many, where do I begin? Well, we had a lot of crazy people who needed to be fired—and some that were. People who quit in the middle of production. People who threatened to call the cops on us. People that came hung-over to work, dropping the $200,000 camera used to shoot. We ran out of tape one of the shooting days and were delayed about an hour. And, I have always been number dyslexic so I gave the wrong address—twice. Although I was lead actor for the film, I was also the producer, in charge of making sure the production went smoothly. It was quite the boot camp experience, those four days. I took a two-month hiatus after shooting.

Miss Wilson: How did you manage to get through the challenging times when shooting?
Miss Madia: During shooting, I had this crazy laser beam focus, unparalleled to anything I have ever focused on. My heart definitely fluttered with panic for a second when anything would go wrong. But then immediately after, I would think “Ok, everything is going to be fine” and began talking about possible options to fix the problem. I think with any new project or business, you realize you can’t avoid the chaos that will occur and the only way to get through those challenging times is just figuring it out. Simply put.

Miss Wilson: Do you have a favorite scene?
Miss Madia: I have to say after Nurse Clara leaves Lexi in the room to change. What we see in the final edit was completely spontaneous and happened truly in the moment. I think the audience at the moment really feels for Lexi and empathizes with her. I also love the dancing scenes, because it’s shot so beautifully and really symbolizes so much in the movie.

Miss Wilson: What was the most rewarding part about creating a short?
Miss Madia: When I can impact someone with what I have done or created, it’s really one of the most rewarding experiences. I truly feel honored. That is why us actors act. Or writers create. So we can leave someone feeling a little bit differently than before they saw the piece. Also, what has been extremely touching is that so many women, close friends but many not, after seeing my film have shared their own personal experiences. It’s almost a form of therapy where you can feel like you’re not alone and that someone can relate to what you have been through.

Miss Wilson: What advice would you have for anyone attempting to making a short?
Miss Madia: Just do it! With Solely being my first project, I had no idea where to start or what I was doing. Do your research and always, always, always ask questions. A filmmaker friend of mine gave me the best piece of advice: “Don’t try to get it perfect.” As I can be a bit of a perfectionist; I had to release that and take making my first short film for the experience that it was. I made a lot of mistakes and learned plenty along the way. Now I’m that much more prepared for the next film project!

Miss Wilson: What’s the secret to maintaining longevity in the entertainment industry?

Miss Madia: I think you have to put the power back in your hands. This industry can be very demoralizing and draining. I hear a lot of “NOs.” All the time. It’s very easy to begin to feel like you’re not good enough or deserving. For me, I focus on the work, on honing my craft. I really believe that at the end of the day, as long as I put all of my energy into the work, I can’t go wrong. Plus, I love to write and create, so I can always create these roles for myself, without having to depend only on casting directors, executives or directors casting me.

Miss Wilson: What’s your proudest professional accomplishment?
Miss Madia: I really would have to say watching the final cut of Solely for the first time. I was taken aback by this beautiful piece of art, that by the grace of God, the cast and crew had created. All the work and pain, and stress over the last year was worth it. All of the pieces really came together and now I can call myself writer/producer/actress. I hope to have a long career ahead and have other “proudest professional accomplishments.“

Miss Wilson: What’s next for Solely? And Madia?
Miss Madia: We just got accepted into the Academy Award-qualifying, LA Shorts Fest, one of the largest international short film festivals in the world. We play September 5, 2013 at 3:15 p.m. and it is the first stop on our festival journey!

I am so excited to share this film with enthusiastic audiences. I really put my heart and soul into this—not to mention my bank account [laughs]. I look forward to the progress of Solely. I just want everyone to see it. I think it’s a beautiful film with a very powerful message. I would love to do an educational tour with the film, because every young man and woman needs to see this and realize the consequences of unprotected sex; it’s not a game and not a joke.

I have a web series coming out late September, completely different from Solely. It’s called Girl’s Guide to Blacking Out, or gg2bo. I created, produced and directed the series. It’s a mix between Mean Girls and Hangover and follows Jess on her misadventures in blacking out. The actors in it are hilarious and I can’t wait for our launch date. Check out the site at and follow us!

I am also in the process of pitching my thriller feature, The Stacks.

Miss Wilson: Where is your favorite restaurant, bar, lounge and/or social setting in LA and why?

Miss Madia: I have a favorite lunch spot that has to die for sushi—Shiki Sushi. It’s hidden in a Studio City shopping complex. They have awesome lunch specials and a cute patio. The sushi always tastes so fresh. Add a glass of plum wine and it’s the best lunch spot. My mouth is watering for it now.

For more information,,