April 25, 2013

Giving aid to homeless becomes a passion

Posted in Between Us column, Health, Spirituality, Women at 12:41 am by dinaheng

About 20 years ago. Pearl Huber would take her sons — then ages 3, 5 and 7 — to a Los Angeles neighborhood park to play. While the kids ran on the playground, Huber noticed that homeless families were living there at night.

That December, the Hubers decided to bring Christmas to two families in the park, so Pearl, her husband Terry, and their sons wrapped up food, toiletries and some gifts to take to the families who had none.Dinah Eng

“It made quite an impact on the boys,” says Huber, who was a stay-at-home mom at the time. “After that, we starting doing things at Thanksgiving, Easter, and other holidays, and it made us aware of how many homeless are out there. We started keeping sack lunches in our car to give out. We’d make a peanut butter sandwich, and put it with an apple, a toothbrush, and a bar of soap.”

In 2008, Huber decided to establish a 501(c)(3) non-profit to expand the family’s outreach to more homeless people, and HopeMill, Inc. was born.

“HopeMill’s named after my mom,” explains Huber, executive director of the organization. “My maiden name is Hope, and her name was Mildred. Her brother always called her Mill. She was born in China, where her parents were Lutheran missionaries, and lived there until she was 12. She returned to China as a missionary in her 20s.”

Clearly, the desire to help others was passed down to Huber, who shows what one woman can do to make a difference in the lives of many whom society ignores. From two families in a park, HopeMill has grown to help an estimated 2,000 homeless people a year.

Volunteers with Adat Ari El in Valley Village, Calif. assemble Hope Mill CarePacks for a Mitzvah Day project.

Volunteers with Adat Ari El in Valley Village, Calif. assemble Hope Mill CarePacks for a Mitzvah Day project.

Based in Encino, Calif., the non-profit puts together backpacks filled with essentials that are distributed to homeless individuals, missions, and shelters in California. Essentials include items like non-perishable food, water, hygiene packets with toilet paper, laundry detergent, soap, bandages, toothbrush, blanket, and more.

“It’s the kind of things you’d need if you were suddenly without a home,” Huber notes. “People assume there are resources, and if people wanted to get off the street, they could. But that’s not the case. Here, there are probably fewer than 900 shelter beds available in the San Fernando Valley, and more than 7,000 homeless people in need.”

She says while there’s a stereotype of the homeless being drug addicts or alcoholics, most do not fall in that category, and would love to find a way out of their predicament. Homelessness affects families with young children, teens, veterans… in other words, everyone. The reasons run the gamut from job loss, foreclosures, domestic violence to you name it.

“It doesn’t take much to make someone homeless,” Huber says. “A house could burn down, or a medical catastrophe could bankrupt you. We carry a couple of backpacks in our car, and one day, I met a woman in a gas station who was clearly trying to wash up there, so I gave her one. She started to cry, saying no one had ever given her anything before.”

Hope Mill CarePack includes donated essentials.

Hope Mill CarePack includes donated essentials.

Giving to the homeless, wherever you are, could be such an easy thing. All it takes is noticing a need, and stopping to help. Not everyone will care enough to start an organization like HopeMill, but every act of kindness makes a tangible difference.

“I know we’re not going to change the world by doing this,” Huber says. “But if we can help someone a little, it matters. It’s a small thing that can touch many people.”

To make a cash or in-kind donation to HopeMill, check out http://www.hopemill.com/.

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April 19, 2013

Queen Mary graces Long Beach harbor

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Travel at 6:40 pm by dinaheng

My sister Linda and I fell in love with London a few years ago, so on a weekend trip to Long Beach, we had to make a stop at the Queen Mary.

One of the biggest attractions in Long Beach, this historic vessel was considered the grandest ocean liner ever built when it launched in 1936. During World War II, she was pressed into service and became known as “The Grey Ghost,” carrying more than 800,000 troops through dangerous battles. In her retirement, she was purchased by the City of Long Beach, and is now a hotel and tourist destination.Dinah Eng

The ship offers numerous tours and exhibits pegged to its history during the war, and paranormal activities that have been reported aboard over the years. We took in two of the tours, “Ghosts & Legends,” a 35-minute walk with special effects that took us through the old boiler room, the hull and First Class swimming pool, and “Haunted Encounters,” an hour-long tour that explored more of the ship and gave an overview of the ghostly sightings that have been reported.

While “Ghosts & Legends” was entertaining, the special effects seemed rather cheesy, and the narrator couldn’t have been more bored, telling stories he’s no doubt told thousands of times over the years. Being able to walk through areas of the ship that once hummed with life on the “Haunted Encounters” tour, without the artificial theatrics, was much more satisfyng. History, after all, has a way of speaking for itself.

Queen Mary in Long Beach - Photo courtesy of the Queen Mary

Queen Mary in Long Beach – Photo courtesy of the Queen Mary

The highlight of our visit to the ship was seeing the exhibit on “Diana: Legacy of a Princess.”  The collection of dresses, photographs, hand-written letters and other memorabilia associated with Princess Diana and the Royal Family gave me a greater appreciation of the woman the world loved; sadly, more than the man she married loved her.

As a banner quoting her said, “I think the biggest disease the world suffers from is the disease of people feeling unloved. I know that I can give love for a minute, for half an hour, for a day, for a month, but I can give. I am very happy to do that… I want to do that.” If only everyone felt that way.

A deck of gift shops offers plenty for browsers and shoppers to enjoy. We couldn’t resist getting a sweet teddy bear t-shirt for one of our nephews, and knowing that I love stuffed animals, Linda bought me a Queen Mary Captain Teddy Bear.

Diana: Legacy of a Princess exhibit - Photo courtesy of the Queen Mary

Diana: Legacy of a Princess exhibit – Photo courtesy of the Queen Mary

For dinner that evening, we sampled the offerings at Chelsea Chowder House, a fish house that features what I call “safe food,” the kind of menu you can find at most conventional restaurants catering to tourists who may not have adventuresome tastebuds. With entreés ranging from Bass Ale Battered Fish and Chips ($21) to Surf & Turf ($40), there’s sure to be something that appeals.

Linda chose the Fried Seafood Platter ($29), shrimp, scallops, crab cakes with basil, lemon, tartar sauce, with French fries (which she substituted with Yukon mashed potatoes). I had the Black Board Market Fresh Fish ($28), which that evening was sea bass grilled with lemon butter sauce, rice pilaf and seasonal vegetables

As we waited for our meal, we enjoyed the lovely sunset out the window, while a manager explained that the restaurant was once part of the ship’s deck, converted to give nighttime diners a view of the harbor. It was easy to sit and imagine diners of the past enjoying their meals in the civilized luxury of the times.

Our dinner, unfortunately, was a disappointment. The food was inconsistent and tasted like something you’d expect at a casual restaurant like TGI Friday or Red Lobster. While Linda’s broccoli was nicely sautéed, the Yukon mashed potatoes were watery. My sea bass was in need of some seasoning, but filling. The bread, a warm French baguette from La Brea Bakery, saved the meal from being totally pedestrian.

The service was excellent, though, and as we walked off the ship, it almost felt like a cool London night.

For more information, check out www.queenmary.com.

April 18, 2013

Long Beach offers leisurely weekend activities

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Travel at 7:13 pm by dinaheng

My sister Linda and I love weekend trips where there’s something new to see, great food to sample, and time to just be together without planning out every minute.

One recent weekend, I picked her up at Los Angeles International Airport and we decided to go to Long Beach, about a 40 minute drive away. The name Long Beach may evoke images of longshoreman at a port of call (which it is), but it’s also a city with a rich history and lovely neighborhoods.Dinah Eng

Originally settled by the Spanish, the area grew as a commercial center and resort town, known for its long, wide beaches.  In 1921, oil was discovered, and building boomed, until the earthquake of 1933.  Much of the downtown area was rebuilt in Art Deco style, which can still be seen today.

In more recent years, Long Beach’s proximity to Los Angeles made it the site of four Olympic events during the L.A. Olympics in 1984, and a number of tourist attractions from whale watching to this week’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (April 19-21, 2013) now draw visitors to the area.

We decided to stay at Hyatt the Pike (http://www.thepikelongbeach.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels-thepikelongbeach/index.jsp?null), a lovely boutique hotel in the middle of The Pike at Rainbow Harbor, a shopping, dining and entertainment complex near the beach.

The lobby, which has wonderfully cush rocking chairs, opens to a lively bar and restaurant on one end, and a small fitness center and business center alcove on the other.  A great rooftop pool, protected by glass partition windbreakers, offers patio and lounge seating, with panoramic views of the city and harbor.

Our room, done in contemporary soft gray tones, featured a fun sliding pocket door to the bathroom. If you love taking luxurious showers, this is the kind of large, walk-in stall you want, complete with a choice of rain head shower fixture or hand shower, and a wooden bench to sit on or put toiletries on.

From the hotel, it was a short walk to a number of touristy shops, so Linda and I strolled around Shoreline Village at Rainbow Harbor and the stores at the Pike. Readers who love used books stores should check out Piccolo Books underneath the Cinemark Theatres.

Belmont Shore shopping - Photo courtesy of Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau

Belmont Shore shopping – Photo courtesy of Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau

The best “specialty” shopping, though, was found on Second Street in a neighborhood called Belmont Shore. With more than 250 businesses, it was fun to walk through the gift shops and clothing stores, browsing the wares. Our favorite find was Luna (http://www.lunabelmontshore.com/), a lovely gift shop that features exquisite jewelry, art glass and hand-made pottery.

While interesting restaurants are everywhere, an eatery named Nick’s on Second (http://www.thenickco.com/nickson2.php) beckoned. We have a nephew named Nick, and a look at the menu gave me a good feeling, so we went in to try their classic American comfort food. With everything from burgers and sandwiches, to salads and short ribs, there was plenty to choose from.

Linda, who loves to make deviled eggs for family parties, ordered the Fried Deviled Eggs ($6), which were amazing. A Nick’s original, this version fried the white of the egg, and placed it between the mashed yolk topped with bacon bits. She chose Nick’s Ribeye Melt ($15), while I had the Tuna on marble bread ($12) and a side of Mac & Cheese ($5). We both split the restaurant’s Warm Butter Cake ($8), which was indescribably delicious. Think of a mixture of lemon, vanilla, and raspberry flavors, and forget the calories. As we waddled out the door, we both wished there was a Nick’s closer to home.

One of the best reasons to stay at Hyatt the Pike is its location, which also happens to be just across a pedestrian bridge to the Aquarium of the Pacific (http://www.aquariumofpacific.org/), a beautiful homage to the world’s largest ocean that is both entertaining and educational.

Aquarium of the Pacific sits on the water.  Photo courtesy of Aquarium of the Pacific.

Aquarium of the Pacific sits on the water. Photo courtesy of Aquarium of the Pacific.

“We have a very interactive aquarium,” explains Lori Perkins, interpretation manager for the facility. “You can go to Shark’s Lagoon, for example, and touch a shark. You learn that most sharks are not dangerous to humans, and are important to our ecosystem, so it’s important to protect them.”

We loved seeing the June Keyes Penguin Habitat, which has a crawl space that makes you feel like you’re in the exhibit with the animals. The Magellanic penguins live in temperate climates, so don’t need ice and snow to be happy. Linda was taken with the cute-looking creatures, and tapped on the glass of their swimming pool, hoping they’d swim over to her… and they did.

Another popular exhibit is the Lorikeet Forest, where more than 100 small, brightly colored birds from Australia live. If you buy a small cup of nectar, they’ll flock to you to get a taste of the treat. While I didn’t have any nectar on me, one chose to land on my  head anyway. I could feel its talons walking around overhead, but when Linda and I  walked toward the exit, the lorikeet decided to go in search of a nicer nest. Talk about feeling like you’re really in the middle of a forest!

For dinner, Linda and I both love Italian food, so we tried La Traviata (http://latraviata301.com), a wonderful restaurant-bar downtown that has both old world charm and food that would please any gourmet’s palate. The menu, deceptively simple, offers homemade pastas and entreés that would stand out in any fine dining restaurant.

For an appetizer, we tried the Coco Prawns ($12), which were large, tiger shrimps done tempura-style, with kumquat mustard sauce. They were so good, we were almost reluctant to move on to the rest of the meal. But the best was yet to come.

For our entreés, we started with the Chilean Sea Bass ($39), which came miso glazed, with Tobiko caviar, Jasmine rice and seasonal vegetables. This fish melts in your mouth, with a delicate flavor that clearly makes it a house favorite. Then came the Diver Sea Scallops ($28), wrapped in Dover sole, lemon, butter, capers, and fried Julienne vegetables.  I didn’t care for the fried vegetables, but a taste of the Wild Mushroom Tortelli ($19), stuffed with portobello, shitake and button mushrooms in a garlic parmesan sauce, more than made up for it.

Dessert was an amazing Tiramisu ($8) with vanilla gelato, strawberries and blueberries. We didn’t leave a bite.

The restaurant, which opened in 1997, is the creation of owner Mario Nasab, who managed small restaurants in London before moving to Long Beach. “I wanted to do something around the opera ‘La Traviata’ and Italian food,” Nasab says. The restaurant, housed in the Wiltmore Building, a 1920s Long Beach landmark, is an intimate setting that also features entertainment during the week. Nasab, who makes the rounds to greet diners each evening, has created a neighborhood favorite not to be missed.

For a weekend getaway, Long Beach had more to offer than we had time to sample. All the more reason to go back.

For more information on where to stay, dine and local attractions, check out the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau at http://www.visitlongbeach.com/.

Next: The Queen Mary

April 11, 2013

Wicked Spoon satisfies diverse tastebuds

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Travel at 10:04 pm by dinaheng

Casino buffets known for their cafeteria line, eat-all-you-want atmosphere are a fixture in most Las Vegas casinos, but a few upscale venues are turning to the more refined small plate concept in offering their variety of cuisines.

At The Cosmopolitan’s Wicked Spoon, there are six stations — an Asian kitchen, Italian kitchen, carving station with carved meats, “Comfort International” featuring classics with a twist (think shrimp and grits), a salad station, and the dessert station.Dinah Eng

The majority of items are served in small plates or pots, which is good for portion control but awkward for carrying selections to the table. With 120 items on the buffet, the restaurant averages 1,700 to 2,500 diners a day, depending on the day of the week.

“The theme behind the Wicked Spoon is an upscale food hall,” says Bryan Fyler, executive sous chef of the Cosmopolitan-owned restaurants in the hotel. “You get restaurant-quality food with different cuisines in small plates. Because we’re open all day, we want guests to have the same experience, no matter what time they come in.”

Fyler says the buffet’s most popular items include the Korean short ribs, crab legs, the chocolate-covered strawberries, and the gelato (you can choose from 18 flavors).

“We have a lot of repeat customers, locals and people from Los Angeles who come for a weekend getaway,” Fyler says. ”We change dishes with the seasons, using the ingredients that are the freshest.”

Fyler served as an executive chef for China Grill Management at the Mondrian Hotel in Miami and chef de cuisine of the Boca Raton Resort & Club’s Chauncey’s Restaurant before moving to Las Vegas to help open The Cosmopolitan’s restaurants.

“We didn’t want to call the Wicked Spoon a buffet, but the setting allows you to try a vast majority of the offerings in one shot,” he notes. “It’s all about value these days.”

Photo courtesy of The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas

Photo courtesy of The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas

The contemporary tangerine and brown decor of The Wicked Spoon feels like an upscale restaurant, and video screens above the various stations offer tidbits of culinary information, such as the definition of parfait (the French word for “perfect,” which began referring to frozen desserts in 1894). It’s unfortunate that the acoustics don’t dampen the clatter of pans in the kitchen area.

On a recent Thursday evening, the offerings were interesting, but the taste and presentation inconsistent. The prime rib was perfectly done, and mashed potatoes nicely seasoned, but the citrus-glazed salmon over peas had been sitting under the heat lamp too long. The steamed rice and wok-tossed Udon noodles in individual Chinese carryout boxes was a cute touch, but putting two pieces of duck ravioli in a pot seemed a little too stingy a portion.

The best station was the desserts, which had a wonderfully moist carrot cake, a scrumptiously tart strawberry key lime shot, and yummy cranberry oatmeal cookies.

The worst part of the evening was the inattentive wait service. Each time we went to get food, we’d come back to dirty dishes from the last round still on the table. We solved the space problem by stacking the dishes as we ate.

The Wicked Spoon isn’t wicked great, but it’s definitely worth trying if you’re looking to sample new cuisines without breaking the bank.

Brunch ($24) is served Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and on weekends ($33) from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Dinner ($38) is served Sunday to Thursday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. On weekends, dinner ($41) is served Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Alcoholic beverages are extra.  Alcoholic beverages are extra.