Palm Desert

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It’s a little after four in the afternoon but Pacifica Seafood Restaurant in Palm Desert is jammed. There are so many people crowded around the bar that I ask the hostess if they’re hosting a special group or something. She takes a look around, shrugs. “Actually, this is kind of quiet for us,” she says. “Come back tomorrow night when we have Muscle Madness and you’ll really see a zoo.”

Muscle Madness? I have visions of dozens of desert rat Arnold Schwarzeneggers parading up and down El Paseo, shirtless in the heat, flexing their glutes and rippling their six-pack abs until the hostess sets me straight: It’s Mussel Madness, not Muscle Madness.

Never mind, then.

Maybe it’s the hip design, with stalactite spots over the bar or maybe it’s the long list of fresh fish from Hawaii to Maine. But then again, it is only four in the afternoon. On a Wednesday. How can they be so crowded?

Blame it on vodka. Lots and lots of vodka. For the bar at Pacifica Seafood carries over 137 vodkas from 19 countries—and if you drink it at the bar, as opposed to the dining room, it’s just $6. Imagine—they’ve got Poland’s Ultimat and Ireland’s Boru and France’s Ciroc and you can have them any way you want for $6.

Which explains the legions of bronzed cougars in sarongs and gold jewelry swilling pink cosmos and an equal number of sunburned and sweaty golfers, fresh off the links, in Panama hats and Tommy Bahama shirts.

To be honest with you, when I walked in, I was thinking of getting an ice-cold beer, but knowing that this place has 137 vodkas and they’re all only $6, how can I settle for a beer? So I order a Bombay Gin-Gin Mule from the bartender, Sandy, who looks at me like I’ve just asked her for Nicole Kidman’s phone number.

What was I thinking?

“Sorry,” I say. “Give me a gin sour.” And then before she can turn her back on my, I say, “Wait! Do you squeeze your own fresh lemon juice?”

Deal breaker. “Never mind. Just give me a dry martini up with Junipero.”


“Yeah, you know the gin made by the Anchor Steam guys in San Francisco?”

“We don’t have that.”

“You don’t have Junipero gin?”

“We do not.”

“But you have three thousand other gins?”

“A hundred and thirty.”

“But no Junipero?”

“No Junipero.”

“Never mind,” I tell her. “Give me a beer.”

“What kind of beer?”

“What do you have?”

She sighs, looks around at the busy bar and says, “You seem to have a hard time making choices. So I’m just going to pick something for you. Is that okay?” And before I can protest, she is gone.

Fine. Be that way. But I hope Sandy doesn’t think I’m coming back here tomorrow night, Mussel Madness or no Mussel Madness.


Searching for minotaurs by bike

Palm Desert sheep sport hieroglyphic tattoos. Photos by David Lansing.

Palm Desert sheep sport hieroglyphic tattoos. Photos by David Lansing.

This morning I walked over to a bike shop that’s a couple of blocks from The Mod Resort. Laura had told me that they rent bikes and I thought it might be cool to tool around on a road bike if they had one that was big enough for me. Which they did. Ryan at Funseekers! (yes, with an exclamation point) not only rented me a very cool hybrid for the day but gave me a bike trail map and suggested a couple of Funseeking! routes.

Just to get the feel of the bike, I headed up El Paseo, the main drag through Palm Desert. You know, it’s always interesting to see a place while biking instead of driving. It looks completely different. For some reason, despite the fact that I’ve gone up and down El Paseo half a dozen times this week, it wasn’t until I was on my bike that I realized there was so much public art around here.

A dog on stilts in the middle of El Paseo; Brad Rude's "Trick Ride."

A dog on stilts in the middle of El Paseo; Brad Rude's "Trick Ride."

It’s like I’m just pedaling along and—Oh, hey! Look! There’s a bighorn sheep! Not a real one, of course, but a very colorful one peeking out from the shade of an acacia tree. And a minotaur holding a hare…and a dog balancing a horseshoe on its nose…and a 15-foot-high apple red dragonfly!

In fact, there’s got to be at least two dozen startling pieces of public art in and around the El Paseo shopping district, all part of the city’s massive Art in Public Places Program which they’ve been doing since 1986 (basically, if you’re going to develop in Palm Desert, you need to put up a piece of art). What a great concept. And seeing it by bike was perfect.

A horse, a hare, and a coyote; Sophie Ryder's "A Conversation."

A horse, a hare, and a coyote; Sophie Ryder's "A Conversation."


A fine mist blows over Armando's in Palm Desert. Photo by David Lansing.

A fine mist blows over Armando's in Palm Desert. Photo by David Lansing.

There are a ton of restaurants along El Paseo, “the Rodeo Drive of the desert,” in Palm Desert. Unfortunately, there are not a ton of good ones. One of the ones I like is Armando’s. There’s nothing really special about it. It’s typical Tex-Mex food with oversized platters of tacos and burritos and enchiladas, all swimming in a lake of melted cheese. I don’t care. I love Mexican food so much—even so-so Mexican food—that I’m happy with my chile relleno and eat every last bite, right down to the stem, while a pair of black birds sit on top of the chair next to me, waiting for me to turn my head so they can steal one of my tortilla chips.

Anyway, I’m sitting there drinking one of those bucket-sized margaritas that you have to sip with a straw because the glass is too big to lift, the misters throwing a fine spray over the patio, when the woman at the table next to me starts up a conversation with the couple beside her. She tells them she’s a realtor, from Las Vegas, here for some convention, and wonders if the couple knows of any place good where she might have dinner tonight.

Why, yes, the couple says, they do. “Our favorite restaurant out here is the eye-talian place at the Desert Springs Marriott,” says the gal who, although she could easily be a contestant on The Biggest Loser is wearing denim shorts and a bikini top.

How can this be—not the outfit so much, but the restaurant recommendation? How can these people be local and be sending this woman to Ristorante Tuscany?

The guy she is with, who could also be on The Biggest Loser, nods his head in agreement and says, “It’s really incredible. It’s better eye-talian food than you’ll get in Italy.” Then he chuckles and looks at the woman beside him. “Not that, you know, we’ve ever been to Italy, but you know what we mean.”

The Vegas realtor thanks them for their recommendation and then asks the couple what they do out here in the desert.

The plus-size woman says she has a fortune-telling shop in Cathedral City. “Tarot cards, that kind of thing. I do spiritual readings, chakras, body balancing.”

The Vegas realtor asks her what the name of her place is.

“The Spiritual Wellness Center. I specialize in mind and body wellness. Holistic healing from the inside out. You should come by. I’ll give you a free reading.”

Mind and body wellness from these two. Imagine.


Disney boats deliver diners to Ristorante Tuscany. Photo by David Lansing.

Disney boats deliver diners to Ristorante Tuscany. Photo by David Lansing.

The Ristorante Tuscany dining room at the Desert Springs JW Marriott Resort feels like a cross between Vegas (the music playing when I walk in is Andrea Bocelli’s Con Te Partiro, which is the classic opera song used on the Bellagio commercial for their dancing fountains) and Disneyland (you can ride one of the Jungle Ride boats across the artificial lake to get to the restaurant).

It’s a very elegant room—if you’re big on murals of flamingos and Grecian urns and like chairs upholstered in faux-tapestry with bucolic scenes of Italy where you park your butt. But the elegance is thrown off by the diners, most of whom are sunburned and wear resort clothes, at best, or golf shorts with Old Navy tops. Well, like I said, this is part Vegas, part Disneyland, so what would you expect?

My waitress, Sally, comes by and asks if I’m ready to order and when I wonder out loud if they might have a cheese plate, Sally assures me that even though it isn’t on the menu, they can make one for me in the kitchen. Hmmmm….

“Is it really good cheese?” I ask her.

“Heck, yeah,” she says. “It’s unbelievable.”

But the cheese plate is for desert. First, I order the calamari fritti which comes out so pale and lightly breaded that it looks like a plate of round French fries. And it’s really fishy tasting. The way frozen-thawed-sat-around-forever seafood can be. Next comes some lobster ravioli that look almost exactly like the stuff that comes in the little plastic trays in supermarkets and tastes nothing at all like lobster (when I ask Sally if it is really lobster ravioli she bends over and looks closely at my plate, moving her head around, and finally says, “It kind of looks like it”).

I want to like the food at Ristorante Tuscany, I really do, but it’s not going well. And I don’t even blame the restaurant as much as I blame the two guys from Amish country who came into the steam room this afternoon while I was sweating up a storm and had a long conversation in which they tried to figure out what, exactly, an en-chee-lada was. “I guess it’s kind of like a soft Mexican taco,” one said, “but I never liked them either.” The other Amish dude agreed with him and suggested that tonight they eat at “that eye-talian place they’ve got here. At least we know what spaghetti is.”

And there, indeed, are the Amish boys, not two tables over, forking up the spaghetti.

Let’s face it: This is a convention hotel and so everything from the lousy mojito I had in the lobby bar to my ridiculous version of calamari fritti is dumbed down. Way down. For the Nachos Generation.

But what is the point of having linen tablecloths that the bus boys meticulously sweep the crumbs from with those little brushes they hide in their black aprons if the food sucks?

The lobster ravioli was certainly an improvement over the calamari (or maybe it was just the second glass of Orvieto Classico Sally poured me that helped), but that isn’t saying much. It obviously isn’t house-made ravioli. Not even close.

I keep reminding myself that if I was in Havana right now, as I was a year ago today, I’d think this was incredible food. Because Cuba has the worst restaurants in the world. But this isn’t Cuba. It’s California. And this is an expensive restaurant in an expensive resort; they should do better.

The manager of Ristorante Tuscany keeps cruising by to check on me, see how things are going. I lie shamelessly. On one of his drop-by visits, I ask him where, exactly, the Orvieto is from.

He seems confused. “Italy?” he guesses.

Yes, I know, I tell him. But where in Italy? Umbria?

The word “Umbria” really sends him for a loop. He’s never heard of it. Which perhaps makes sense when he tells me he’s from Bulgaria. He’s here on a work visa.

Well, who cares, right? It’s good. So I have another glass. And then Sally brings me my cheese plate. Which consists of a square of Monterey Jack with jalapeno, another square the color of a pumpkin that has absolutely no taste whatsoever, and a little foil wrapped wedge of something with a red laughing cow label. I dare not open it.

A few minutes later, Sally comes by and asks about the cheese. “You were right,” I tell her. “It’s unbelievable.”

And I wasn’t even lying.


The Hoppy House

The Hoppy House in the early '60s.

The Hoppy House in the early '60s.

Another thing I really like about The Mod Resort: it’s so close to everything. In fact, since I got here, I haven’t gotten in my car once (and, yes, I actually have left my room—on occasion). Sometimes in the morning, before it gets too warm out, I’ll just stroll aimlessly about the neighborhood. There are a lot of interesting homes out here. For instance, just a block away is Hopalong Cassidy’s old house (officially called the William Boyd House but known to locals as “Hoppy House.”).

Boyd, who always dressed in black and rode a pure white horse named Topper, decided when he built the house in the early ‘50s to stick with the black-and-white color scheme. So just about everything inside and out was either black or white. Wild, huh?

I got to see the house a few years back when the then-owner, a local contractor, had rehabbed the home before putting it up for auction. He’d repainted both the interior and exterior in Hoppy’s trademark black and white colors. There wasn’t much inside in the way of furniture since Hernandez had already cleared out a lot of the memorabilia—like the old saddles that Hoppy had turned into bar stools—for a memorabilia auction in the Bay Area.

Boyd and his wife, Grace, lived in the house until 1971. He died a year later at age 77. And what happened to the house? Well, it was sold at auction to a direct mail executive for $467,000. Stan Fedderly, who bought it, said after the auction, “I’m just a lucky guy. I didn’t think I was going to get it.”

Lucky indeed.


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