Monday, March 27, 2017

Wilson’s Words of Wisdom: March Round Up

This month, I did a lot of dining. Like, a lot. Probably way too much, if the way that all the clothes in my closet now fit may indicate. But, there’s a silver lining to every cloud. And while I may have gained 100 pounds, it wasn’t in vain; I found five amazing restaurants — from creative Mexican cuisine to outdoor brunch spots and women-owned Ethiopian eateries — to share with you, that I’m sure you’re going to love as much as I do.

Check them all out below, and leave your recently found favorite destinations in the comments section below!

Where to Eat: Viva Hollywood

Right in the heart of Hollywood, Viva Hollywood debuted this month, in all its glitz and glamour. The newly opened upscale restaurant has taken over what used to be Eva Longoria’s longstanding Beso restaurant, remaking the two-story space into a light and airy oasis, with a lounge-like feel. Viva features luxurious Mexican food and classy cocktails. Definitely try the Arugula Caesar Enselada — the Mexican version of a Caesar salad, with cilantro croutons, red peppers and a spicy yet creamy cheese Caesar dressing — and tacos from the taqueria, made with some of the softest, tastiest tortillas out there (pictured above). Viva’s other highlights: a piñata room (you really gotta see it to believe it) and a jammin’ live salsa band, each and every night.

For more information

Where to Eat: Cocina Condesa

Another noteworthy Mexican restaurant I checked out this month was Cocina Condesa, on Ventura Blvd. in Studio City. It literally has the craziest, coolest combinations of ingredients. Like, would you ever imagine chewy spiced mango bits and crunchy crickets — yes, crickets — in your guacamole (pictured above)!? Can’t believe I’m saying it, but it's actually amazing! There’s also a ton of delicious antiojos, a.k.a. appetizers, perfect for sharing, including the Ceviche de Pescado, Street Corn and Chicken Empanadas. And, the creativity doesn’t stop with the food; the signature cocktails hold their own, too, smoothly blending super fresh fruits, juices and purees with bold ingredients like grapefruit bitters and cinnamon simple syrup. Tip: definitely order the Pineapple Express drink, a pleasant juxtaposition of smoky mescal tequila and sweet pineapple juice.

For more information

Where to Eat: Firefly

Remaining in the Studio City area and literally a mere few feet from Cocina Condesa, sits Firefly, a restaurant / lounge that somehow manages to be simultaneously chic and chill. IMO, one of the biggest selling points of Firefly, is its semi-enclosed outdoor patio, pictured above. It’s absolutely gorgeous, complete with a fireplace and secluded, tucked away seating areas. While weekend brunching at Firefly has been a thing for a few years, head chef Perry Pollaci only recently came onboard last Fall, but he's been shaking up the menu ever since. Now on the brunch menu: items like the lobster and farmer’s market veggie scrambles, the Thick Cut Brioche French Toast and an assortment of indulgent pastries, including flaky croissants topped with almond butter and chopped almonds.

For more information

Where to Eat: Leona

After debuting the updated version of my Top Black-Owned Restaurants, Bars, Lounges & Eateries list last month, it was promptly brought to my attention that I forgot to include one place in particular: Leona in Venice Beach. And shame on me, because how could I forget to add this wondrously adorable place? Low lighting, high ceilings, white exposed brick walls and a smooth soundtrack of old-school R&B, neo-soul and chill rap, makes this one-room restaurant feel quite quaint and intimate. There’s a seasonal rotation of eclectic dishes, and, the detail is in everything — right down to the presentation of the food on your plate. No hard liquor (yet) but there’s still a respectable selection of wines and beers.

For more information

Where to Eat: Azla vegan

And finally, in honor of Women’s History Month in March, I'm adding Azla vegan to this March Round Up list. Spanning two generations, a mother-daughter duo is making history by running this casual eatery housed in the Mercado La Paloma, which is an incubator for first-generation business owners, just south of DTLA and east of USC. Owner Nesanet and her mother Chef Azla cook up vegan Ethiopian food that's colorful, healthy and filling. They also have an adjacent store, where you can pick up goodies like spices.

For more information

Monday, March 20, 2017

Where to Travel: Oahu, Hawaii

This past holiday season, I traveled to the beautiful island of Oahu, Hawaii. My initial plan was to get lots of R&R — you know, soak up the sun on the beach, sip a Mai Tai and chill.

But lo and behold, I found myself exploring every nook and cranny that I possibly could in my short time there. What amazed me the most was how much the island has to offer — not only amazing beaches (and trust me, there’s scores of them), but an amazing and diverse dining scene, cultural and historical activities, and just mind-boggling beauty literally at every twist and turn.

My trip inspired me to write this #WilsonsGuide Top 10 List of Honolulu. I couldn’t pack in everything and there are still so many places I want to visit — like Diamond Head, the Dole Plantation and Manoa Waterfalls — but it's definitely a start. So, in the meantime, check out my suggestions below and feel free to leave your favorite Oahu destinations in the comments section!

10) Where to Eat: Helena’s Hawaiian Food @ Honolulu

Right off the bat, one of the first places you absolutely have to visit is Helena’s. This inter-generational, family-owned restaurant is located in a more residential area of Honolulu, not too far from the main Waikiki drag. It’s super casual, super low-key, and serves up traditional Hawaiian fare accompanied by outstanding customer service. Try items like Kalua Pig (pictured above, top left corner) — flavorful shredded pork cooked with cabbage; Fried Butterfish Collar (pictured above, bottom right corner) — a simple white fish that’s softly fried; or my favorite, the Pipikaula Shortribs (pictured above, bottom left corner) — grilled short ribs with incredible flavor. You can also order Poi, a purple, soupy-like side dish made from the taro plant that’s a popular Hawaiian staple (pictured above, top middle photo; not my cup of tea, but hey, go for it). Best part, Helena’s prices are very reasonable and portions are substantial. Last thing to note: Reservations aren’t accepted and it’s cash only.


9) Where to be Merry: Waikiki Beach @ Honolulu

Yes, it’s touristy and yes, it’s crowded, but you can’t go to Oahu without visiting one of the most famous beaches in Hawaii, in the U.S., if not in the world. Located on the South Shore, Waikiki Beach is on the smaller side (two-miles long in total) but that doesn’t stop it from boasting incredible eye-catching attractions at every turn. Diamond Head, the colossal volcanic crater, looms to the east, the famous status of Duke Kahanamoku is nearby and scores of posh, upscale resort high-rises are inches away from the sand. Hordes of tourists frolic in the water, cruise along the boardwalk or simply bask in the sun. If you’re looking for R&R, this is not the beach to go to, but it’s still super fun to take in all of the stimulating sights.


8) Where to Eat: Duke’s Waikiki @ Honolulu

And while you’re on Waikiki Beach, you might as well stop by Duke’s Waikiki, a beachfront restaurant and bar that has killer cocktails and a pretty impressive menu. It’s standard bar fare, but with a few tropical twists and higher quality ingredients. The Waikiki hot wings feature free-range chicken and Duke’s special sauce. If you’re looking to keep it light and healthy, go with the caramelized beet salad, pictured below. It’s a delightful blend of beets, arugula, goat cheese and candied macadamia nuts. There’s also not a shortage of libations, made with tropical ingredients like coconut cream, passion fruit juice and pineapple bitters. And when you go, IMO, there’s only one place you need to sit; right on the outdoor patio to get the best view of all of the action happening on the beach (pictured above). Allow yourself a couple of hours to kick up your feet, kick back a few cold ones and truly enjoy Duke’s!


7) Where to be Merry: The World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument @ Pearl Harbor

I’m not a history buff and I’m a lover, not a fighter, so I assumed that visiting a war memorial wouldn’t move me that much. Boy, I was wrong. Incredibly wrong. The World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which comprises museums, the sunken USS Arizona Memorial battleship and a handful of other outdoor exhibits, eloquently and honorably pieces together the Attack on Pearl Harbor and the historic events and cultural atmosphere that led up to it. It’s sobering and humbling to walk through the grounds, and to consider all of the men and women who bravely died fighting until their last breaths. Most of the monument’s points of interest are free, like visiting the USS Arizona Memorial, pictured below, a sunken battleship that remains the final resting place for 1,000+ sailors and marines. For additional fees, you can visit a museum located on the USS Bowfin Submarine or the Pacific Aviation Museum. Tip: The Monument gives away 1,300 free tickets daily, which go pretty quickly. Whether you go on your own or with a tour company (speaking from experience, I highly recommended not going this route — at all), you’ll have to stand in an exorbitantly long line that starts to form very early in the morning — I’m talking like 6, 7 a.m. — to ensure you get a ticket to enter.


6) Where to be Merry: The Devil’s Den Tour @ Chinatown

I often associate Hawaii with beautiful beaches, much-needed relaxation and happy-go-lucky charm — not with the Bubonic plague, disastrous fires and leprosy. But lo and behold, these unpleasant occurrences are a significant part of Honolulu’s history, and more specifically, its Chinatown’s past. Honolulu Exposed runs the Devil’s Den Tour, a nighttime tour that highlights some of the most significant and also some pretty dismal happenings of this neighborhood, in a little over an hour. While the modern day Chinatown looks somewhat lackluster, it’s interesting to imagine what it must have been like during the turn of the 20th century, as you listen to incredulous tales and view old black-and-white photos.


5) Where to Eat: Dinner @ Chinatown

Speaking of Chinatown, it’s also the location for a burgeoning urban dining scene, with trendy bars and upscale restaurants popping up everywhere. There’s places like The Pig & the Lady, Lucky Belly and Grondin French-Latin Kitchen. One top contender I stopped by was Fete Hawaii. This corner restaurant has a laid-back vibe and curious menu — with items like the Mexican Lasagna, pictured below, with goat cheese, roasted poblanos, black beans and Mexican rice (soooo good!). And, they know how to throw down with the drinks. My Ma’I’i Tai — also pictured below and made with fancy ingredients like Creole Shrubb, Poha Berry Shrub, Orgeat and two types of rum — is seriously one of the most potent drinks I’ve had in my life. Lastly, I also love the neighborhood vibes. The owner routinely walked around to check in on guests, and after their shifts finished, wait staff sat at the bar to relax and chop it up with the bartender.


4) Where to Drink: Night Caps @ TR Fire Grill

Housed in the Hilton Garden Inn in Waikiki, TR Fire Grill officially opened its doors in December 2016 (random fun fact: it's the second TR Fire Grill to open; the first debuted in Winter Park, Florida back in 2015). A sleek white bar runs down almost the entire length of the unassuming, modern space, and, it’s also where all the magic happens. Bartenders make a mean Maui Daiquiri (pictured above), complete with limes, house made simple syrup and wood-grilled, pineapple-infused rum. But better yet, we had a bartender who was able to make delicious specialty cocktails based on flavors we liked. Now that calls for an A+ for effort, creativity and the ability to think quickly on the spot. They also serve American fare that’s easy on the palate. The Chocolate Mayhem pictured below — chocolate ice cream, coffee ice cream and a molten lava chocolate cake — were definitely worth all the miles I’m going to have to now run to burn off all these calories.


3) Where to be Merry: Sandy Beach 

A 30-minute drive heading east from Waikiki will take you to Hanauma Bay, one of the most frequently recommended beaches to visit on the island. However, should you find yourself unable to enter this beautiful beach like us (if you’re not there literally by 7a.m. or 7:30 a.m., the parking lot fills up and staff will not let anyone enter to park) or just want to perhaps see another beach in the area after checking out the bay, Sandy Beach is nearby. It's a brief one-mile drive heading northeast up a windy, one-lane road that hugs cliffs jetting out into the sea (pictured below). Sandy Beach was pretty deserted when we went, save for the few brave souls facing the massive waves and a few locals walking their dogs or chilling on the sand. Apparently, it’s nicknamed “break-neck” beach for the amount of injuries that happen every year, so just be careful should you choose to swim here. Regardless if you swim or not, there’s still so much to see…like the powerful 10-feet waves pounding the sand or the 50-feet waves that soar high into the sky and then violently crash against the cliffs, that are to the south of the beach.


2) Where to be Merry: Lanikai & Kailua Beaches @ Kailua 

There’s a duo of beaches on the eastern side of Oahu, about 45-minutes from Waikiki, in the town of Kailua: Lanikai and Kailua Beaches. Less than a mile apart, they’re very similar. They’re both located in residential areas, both boast picturesque views and both have sweeping stretches of pristine sand and deep blue-green seas. While you’ll definitely see people out and about, these beaches are way less crowded than Waikiki. They’re great to visit if you want to get in the water — the currents aren’t as strong as say Sandy Beach — and you don’t want to deal with the whole touristy or commercialized scene. Since they are located in more residential areas, though, there aren’t a lot of restaurants or stores around; so, pack a picnic and all necessary supplies to take with you. Kalapawai Market is a nearby local health food store and deli that serves up great sandwiches and burgers to carry out, and has a wide variety of beverages, including fresh coffee, beer and wines.


1) Where to be Merry: Beaches @ North Shore

Hands down without any hesitation, my favorite place (for now) in Oahu is the North Shore. This seven-mile stretch of coastal land is wildly untamed, with vehemently powerful waves and a breath-taking, feral beauty. The area features 10+ distinctly different beaches. Three beaches I checked out while there:

Waimea Bay Beach Park – It’s more of a beach to watch experienced surfers riding along waves that swell up to 30 feet, rather than swimming and frolicking in the waters. In fact, when I went, lifeguards were barking orders at people to get completely out the water unless they had fins on and were very experienced surfers. The lifeguards even ended up having to rescue two people out of riptides. Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop hordes of people from gathering on the sand to watch the surfers in awe or to simply enjoy being beachside.

Shark’s Cove – At this small stretch of beach, rocks stand in formation close to the shoreline, creating a natural barrier to the aggressive ocean. They make a pool of water where you can swim in and get up close and personal with schools of fish. Giant 10-foot waves still come crashing against the rocks, raising the water levels in the pool, so definitely still swim here with caution. 

Sunset Beach Park – Sunset Beach was recommended to go to — you guessed it — watch the sunset. Here, long stretches of sand melt into the beautiful blue ocean, which in turn melts into the beautiful blue skies. Definitely a great place to sit and contemplate life!


Monday, March 6, 2017

Where to Drink: 1950s Cocktails @ Birds & Bees

The Drinks: 1950s-inspired cocktails with out-of-this-world ingredients

The Location: Downtown

The Vibes: Earthy, underground, mid-century modern

Good for: Alone, dates, groups

When-To-Go: Mondays – Wednesdays, 5 p.m. – midnight; Thursdays – Saturdays, 5 p.m. – 2 a.m.; closed Sundays

The $$ Factor: All cocktails are $14

The Names behind the scenes: Owners Dev Desai and Ankur Desai, Template Consulting’s Cocktail Connoisseur Marcos Tello, GM Nikki Sunseri and Bar Manager Bethany Ham

The 4-1-1: No food served here; live jazz coming soon

Parking Situation: Nearby parking lot and metered parking

I’ll Be Back…: For the Desi Arnaz Classic cocktail!

A new hidden cocktail den has claimed its stake in downtown Los Angeles!

Birds & Bees officially launched late January 2017, bringing a 1950s flair and tons of craft cocktails with cleverly creative names to the DTLA area. I mean, who wouldn't want to sip an Ella Fitzgerald?!

But while the names may be charming, the ingredients are quite curious and potent. Maybe it's just me, but I'd never heard of Chinese five-spiced cordials, masala-infused cognacs or butternut-squash-infused rums. Most of the current rotation of libations include two to three types of these rare and exotic liquors and mixers. For example, the Doris Day, pictured below, comprises honey, lemon and bourbon, all topped with matcha tea foam. 


In total, ten cocktails are evenly divided into two categories on the menu: Seasonal Classics and Forgotten Classics.

The décor pays homage to the ‘50s decade, with sleek orange couches, retro lamp fixtures and other knick-knacks from the era.

There's also a fun and unusual way to find this underground bar, but I won't give away any secrets — you'll have to figure it out yourself.

See you there soon!

For more information: