Whenever I need a truly relaxing vacation, I love staying with our friends Kelly and Kris in San Ramon. They are the kindest hosts and they live in a pretty part of California. They have an Asian pear tree that serendipitously ripens right when we like to take our vacations. Picking a ripe pear off of their tree is a treat worth the trip to California alone.
Their home is a short drive to several other great destinations as well. On this visit, the old Bay Bridge closed and then the new Bay Bridge opened. We watched the time-lapsed video of the Bay Bridge’s construction with fascination, but we wanted to avoid the traffic associated with such a big change. We decided to explore the East Bay Area.
As soon as we booked our plane tickets, I asked Kelly if she could arrange for us to swim in of pool of guacamole from Blue Agave Club in Pleasanton. She’s good with requests like that. After a late night flight into Oakland (3 am Michigan time!), Kelly drove to In-N-Out to have hot food there for us when we arrived. Best hosts ever, right? She also arranged for a babysitter the next afternoon, so we could have Blue Agave Club’s guacamole.
We didn’t swim in guacamole, but we sure ate the heck out of the civilized kind that comes to the table. We ordered a pitcher of margaritas because it’s what you do on vacation. I had the carnitas and both Marc and Kelly ordered the restaurants’s old favorite recipes of stewed meats with authentic spices. Everything was delicious.
Bubble Tea in Union City/Gilroy/Dublin
On our way to Big Sur, I did a quick search to find bubble tea on our way. If you don’t know what bubble tea is, it’s a drink where you choose a tea flavor or a milk tea flavor and they add boba (chewy tapioca balls) to the drink. They taste like gummies and no, you don’t have to be a fan of tapioca pudding to love bubble tea. It’s sometimes called tapioca tea, boba tea or pearl tea. You get a large fun straw to sip the pearls up with.
Tapioca Express was a bit of a drive from the freeway, but well worth the trip. This Tapioca Express location had an insane amount of flavors on huge colorful menus. You could add yogurt, ice cream, fruit, whatever you like. I had my first almond milk tea with boba there and the rest is history. This particular cafe also had appetizers, gelato and a fish tank.
Kelly wanted to stop at the outlet mall in Gilroy on our way out of Big Sur and I spied another Tapioca Express across the street. That location had fewer options than the Union City location, but plenty of selection.
After I declared I wanted bubble tea every day, Kelly’s super search skills found Cafe Tapioca, a bubble tea place a few miles from her house. We visited Cafe Tapioca every day for the rest of our vacation. Marc went for different types of fruit teas, Kelly went for the strawberry smoothie with boba and I switched between almond milk tea and the red bean smoothie.
They heat-seal each cup with plastic and you punch the top with your thick straw. It makes it really easy to pick up a bunch to-go without spilling.
Kris asked his pho-loving friend where to get some good pho nearby. He recommended Pho Saigon and even though it was a hot day, there’s nothing like a big bowl of pho. Marc ordered the beef with all of the scary bits and I had the chicken. We added some of their spicy chili sauce and fresh thai basil. The broth is just fantastic.
Kelly and Kris have two favorite Mexican restaurants nearby and on this trip we tried Mexxi’s. Two years ago, it was all about Acapulco, but we had to give this new place a try. This little spot has great burritos with the added bonus of horchata and fresh churros!
We had Mexxi’s twice and the first time, I tried to eat a burrito on my own. It was delicious, but way too much. Well, with chips and churros and horchata anyway. On this second trip, I convinced Marc to share and he agreed to split the burrito if we could get it smothered in sauce and cheese. It was delicious. Just look at those churros!. They make them fresh to order, too. Now I’m thinking I should have added churros to my every day vacation diet.
On Labor Day, we went wine tasting with our friends and Kelly’s brother Phil and his fiancee Molly. I’ve known Kelly and Phil my whole life and it was fun to spend the day together with everyone. Livermore isn’t as large a wine area as Napa Valley or Sonoma, but they have some really nice wineries. Wente winery is located there and they have an incredible chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. I’m not even a chardonnay person, but it’s really good.
Kelly and Kris are members of the Steven Kent winery and they just found that they consistently enjoyed their wine. After a few other stops, we went to Steven Kent and I was really impressed with their wine, too. It is small batch and favorites can come and go quickly. They also have contests where winery staff use the produced wine to create different blends and the winning blend is bottled and sold. They also have another winery called La Rochelle that specializes in Pinot Noir and you can taste La Rochelle’s wine at the Steven Kent tasting room.
We purchased 3 bottles of wine, one of them being a La Rochelle Pinot Noir, and to our surprise ended up join the club ourselves. They have a nice tasting room and friendly staff. Marc expertly packed our bottles of wine in his checked luggage and thankfully they made all it safely to Michigan.
Dinner was a few hours away and we needed something to eat during our wine tasting. Kelly and Phil recommend Mr. Pickle’s Sandwich shop, a chain in California and Nevada. You choose your sandwich, the bread and the toppings. Marc and I were impressed with their flavorful sandwiches. It’s a nice place for a quick meal.
We ended the day at Wente’s restaurant for dinner and it is located in some of their beautiful vineyards. They also have an area for concerts, which would be a nice summer thing to do. The food is fresh, but some of the portions were on the small side. I had the scallops and Marc had lamb sausage over beans and both were excellent. Above is my plum, proscuitto and quinoa salad, which was probably my favorite part of the meal. Marc ordered an heirloom tomato and burrata salad, but it was sadly skimpy on the burrata. They have an excellent wine list, as you can imagine, and wonderful craft cocktails.
As our vacation was winding down, we had some unplanned free time and Kelly suggested an afternoon in Walnut Creek. We met Kelly for lunch at La Boulange Bakery and it was like walking into my happy place.
The cases were filled with French tarts, pastries, and macarons. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted for lunch and what I wanted for later. It was just one of those places where you wanted to look at everything.
I had to get a few macarons for after lunch and I about died when I saw how cute the box was that they came in. I chose chocolate hazelnut, violet-cassis, vanilla, pistachio and lemon. All amazing. A couple of them even made it to Michigan.
I ordered the salad nicoise which was the perfect light salad after the indulges on this vacation. The dressing was light and the vegetables had the perfect crunch. It came with a half slice of hearty bread and a creamy aioli that I happily spread on the bread. Then I stole Marc’s piece of bread for the rest of the aioli because it was just so good. The nutty bread with the creamy and tangy aioli tasted fantastic together.
Walnut Creek has an outdoor shopping center downtown with lots of shops you see in most major cities. It’s very pretty and great for walking off vacation calories.
One thing most cities don’t have is a See’s Candy Shop. Kelly put See’s truffles on our pillows (once again, best hosts ever) and she told us where the candy shop was before she had to head back to pick up the kids.
The lady working at See’s was very passionate about their chocolates and encouraged us to try samples. She wanted to know what kind of fillings we liked to point us in the direction of the perfect chocolates for us to try and purchase. Marc loved the white chocolate and coconut covered toffee and I chose the dark chocolate covered marzipan and the dark chocolate covered walnuts that Kelly recommended. The helpful lady insisted I try a sample of the caramel before we left. Don’t mind if I do.
On our last afternoon in California, Kelly recommended some lunch and shopping in Berkeley. Kelly’s friend lives in Berkeley and he texted a bunch of spots for lunch. Based on the menu, 900 Grayson was my first pick for a Marc-friendly menu with jazzed up comfort food and burgers. When we drove by, though, it was full and parking was scarce. Not expecting our first choice to be packed, I quickly looked up Gather’s address, one of the other recommendations.
I’m sure the other place is delicious and all, but our second choice was where we were meant to go. The small lunch menu featured lots of interesting combinations and they could have gone wrong, but it went so right. I ordered the pancetta pizza with egg, oregano, chili and onion. It was just spectacular. The pancetta was thin and crispy and tasted like a smoky pork rind while the spicy chili and earthy oregano rounded out the salty, crispy, spicy delight. The soft egg was the perfect finishing touch. I could go for that pizza right now.
Marc ordered a tender beef sandwich that came on soft fresh bread with a side of fermented cabbage, pickled beets and fresh sungold tomatoes. Marc was blown away by his lunch. The flavorful beef was so tender that you could easily bite into the heavenly sandwich without next thinking where you could acquire a toothpick or dental floss. You know what I’m talking about. Jars of pickled vegetables are part of their decor and they did know a thing or two about fermentation. The pickled beets in Marc’s side were delicious and I could quite figure out all of the flavors going on. It’s the kind of place where you can feel free to order anything because you know you can trust the chef. If you’re in the area, find a way to get there.
The Fourth Street Shops, coincidentally on 4th street, are a couple of miles from where Gather is located. Unique shops are mixed in with a few chain stores like CB2, Sur La Table and Crate & Barrel Outlet. I found the store selection more unique than in Walnut Creek. I never expected to wander into a little Japanese shop that had beautiful fabrics. My favorite spot, though, was The Gardener.
Each corner of The Gardener is beautifully curated with plants, succulents, glass vessels of all shapes and sizes, furniture, stoneware and general awesomeness. They also carry all of the best cookbooks.
INNA Jam is still my favorite jam in the world and I found this lovely display of their delicious jams and new shrubs. And who can resist pretty, pretty Weck jars in every size imaginable?
I want that vase with those spiky greens for my mantel at home right now. I tried to tell Marc that I could pack some of these fragile things in my backpack while he basically shook his head. We did end up buying a non-fragile Japanese shower cloth and wool balls for putting in the dryer to help clothes dry faster and reduce static.
We thought this place, Flight 001 was cool, too. The store is designed like the inside of a plane with the nicest travel gear. For some reason we’ve looked a luggage the last two times we’ve been to California. Everything was colorful and the staff was really helpful and friendly. If you want to bring home something unique from your California or East Bay vacation, the Fourth Street Shops is a fun place to look.
Our vacation was just what we needed and we can’t thank our friends Kelly and Kris enough for their hospitality and all of their suggestions on where to go and what to eat.