You’re not really thinking of hitting the mall for some last-minute Christmas shopping, are you?
Just think of the misery that awaits. The bundling up. The freeway gridlock. The musical chairs of finding a parking spot. The jostling with fellow customers, who grab the last copy of that lauded toy or book. The sweating under a heavy parka in an overheated store. The lineups at the till. The person in front of you trying to return a sweater, without a receipt. Need I go on?
Now consider the alternative. Sitting quietly at your desk, sipping a Pinot Noir or an amber ale while scrolling through your online options. Click. Click. Done. Delivered, perhaps for free, to your loved one’s door without you ever leaving the house.
But wait, you say. With only a few days before the big day, isn’t it too late to get said online gifts delivered on time?
Well, I’ve got the perfect solution. It’s called e-books. I know, the publishing industry is properly chuffed about the revival of the printed book. And there’s no substitute for something that can be wrapped, placed under the tree, opened, held in the hands and lovingly flipped through.
But remember, this is about fulfilling your gift-giving duty—checking someone’s name off the list, if you will—without braving the last-minute horrors of the mall. Here, it doesn’t get better than an e-book.
Search. Select. Click on “give as a gift” to the recipient’s email address. Enter a delivery date. Pay. Done.
The beauty of this is you can even do your shopping at 9:00 Christmas morning, while hubby is poaching the breakfast eggs, none the wiser. And with a download, there’s no risk of an online retailer being out of stock.
But wait, you again say. There are millions of e-book titles to choose from and you don’t have time, at the last moment, to find the right gift.
Well, I just happen to have the perfect suggestion. Totally self serving, mind you, as it happens to be my own e-book, Marathon Mouth. If I do say so, it’s a lively, highly subjective guide to the best, affordable, independent places to eat and drink while on a road trip in western North America. It features nearly 900 cafes, diners, coffee shops, bakeries, brewpubs in 11 U.S. states (west of Texas) and two Canadian provinces and one territory.
I mean who doesn’t like to travel? Or eat? And if you happen to be on the road during Christmas, you can even find the best places to order a turkey sandwich. Dig in.
The big bell clangs at 8 am, just as it has for the past century, and a small gang of regulars trots to the far end of Grand Central Market, in downtown Los Angeles. They’re racing to be first in line for their Sunday-morning fix at Eggslut, a name that might not go over well in San Francisco but that has done nothing to deter a devoted following in its short time in L.A.
Eggslut specializes in deluxe breakfast sandwiches such as my Fairfax ($7), a lovely blend of scrambled eggs, caramelized onion, melted cheese and sriracha mayo, inside a warm brioche bun. The leader of the trotting troupe insists I should add some crispy bacon for a couple of bucks more. A simple brekkie sandwich but nicely pulled off by an efficient crew that keeps the growing line moving.
A couple of seatmates order a Slut, racily described as “a coddled egg on top of a smooth potato purée, poached in a glass jar, topped with gray salt and chives and served with slices of baguette.” Take that, SF.
317 South Broadway (Grand Central Market), Los Angeles
Daily 8 am-4 pm
It’s a great time to be an American, especially if you’re travelling to Canada. The soaring greenback is a big reason why Whistler, B.C. is enjoying a stellar ski season and Canmore’s vacation condo market is hopping in an otherwise bleak Alberta economy.
By contrast, it’s a terrible time to be a Canadian considering a U.S. vacation. The realization that it’s going to cost you $1.45 Canadian to buy one measly American dollar is enough to make most northerners curl up in the fetal position till the snow starts melting in, say, May.
But it’s still possible to have a reasonably affordable trip stateside, particularly if you make it a road trip rather than a flight to a destination resort. Mind you, the approach I suggest leans much more to the dirtbag than the five star. You have been warned.
Fill er up
The biggest advantage for a U.S. road-tripping adventure is the cost of gasoline. It’s traditionally been a bargain, given the much lower gas taxes south of the border. But even with the badly wounded loonie, you might still save some money.
It depends on where you live and where you’re traveling. In Alberta, for example, you can fill up right now for under 80 cents (Cndn) a litre, compared with more than $1 in B.C. Western U.S. prices range from about $1.76 (US) a gallon in Denver to $2.60 in Los Angeles. Obviously, there’s a price to pay for living on or visiting the west coast of either country. I call it a smug tax.
Figuring out your fill-up cost involves converting litres to American gallons and then converting Canadian dollars to those $1.45 American ones. For a fill-up of 50 litres (13.2 U.S. gallons), it will cost an Albertan $40 and a British Columbian more than $50, at home in Cndn. dollars. That same amount of gas will cost you $33.68 in Denver and $49.76 in L.A., in converted Cndn dollars.
The bottom line is the cost of gasoline isn’t going to be a deal breaker for deciding whether to hit the U.S. road or plan a staycation. And if you’re in Oregon, where you’re not allowed by law to fill your own gas tank, the attendant will usually clean your windows.
Skip the hotels and motels
I once did a month-long road trip where my total cost of accommodation was $50. How did I pull off this magic trick? Other than two nights of camping and a couple parked on urban side streets, I mostly stayed in 24-hour Walmart parking lots for free.
I’d much rather sleep in the great outdoors, preferably in a magnificent state or national park campground along the crashing ocean or beneath a lofty canopy. While it’s going to cost you about $30 US a night to camp in the redwood forests of northern California, you can find more spartan digs for maybe $10 elsewhere. Do a bit of sleuthing and you can discover national forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spots for free. Running water and toilets, however, may be optional.
Still, it’s a much more pastoral experience than parking in the distant corner of an asphalt Walmart parking lot, with blinding street lights and roaring vehicles and motorized street sweepers at all hours of the night. A camper of some sort, with curtains, is the best way to keep the glare and din at bay. In a pinch, though, good ear plugs and an eye shade will suffice if you’re curled up in the back of your car.
While you’re tossing and turning, just think of the $50 to $100 a night you’re saving by not booking a motel bed, TV and rattling air-conditioning unit. And who needs a shower? If you’re desperate, you can always make do with the sink in a Walmart washroom, open around the clock.
Until fairly recently, I figured eating out at American restaurants was 10 to 20 per cent cheaper than in Canada, even with the exchange rate (portions are generally bigger, too). But when you’re paying upwards of 40 per cent to exchange loonies into greenbacks, that advantage has more than disappeared.
Of course, the cheapest feeding solution is to buy groceries and cook them wherever you’re staying. But since this is a road-trip dining blog, let’s look at a few ways you can still eat out somewhat affordably.
- Beer and burger – At Moab Brewery, on the doorstep of Arches National Park in Utah, a burger and fries is $9 (US) and a 16-ounce pint of their ale $4.25. By comparison, a burger and fries in the Alberta resort towns of Canmore and Banff will set you back about $16 (Cndn), washed down with a $7.50, 19-ounce pint. So even with the steep conversion rate, the equivalent total cost in Canadian dollars is $19.20 Moab and $23.50 Banff. Obviously, prices will vary in different places, but clearly not a deal breaker.
- Better breakfasts – Breakfast is generally the best value, both in cost (often under $10 in the U.S.) and volume; you might not need to eat lunch. Omelettes don’t seem much cheaper stateside, but you can often find a stack of pancakes for $5 or $6.
- Stock up on sandwiches – You can find some monstrous, made-to-order, delicious sandwiches in many U.S. delis and cafes. At the Sandwich Spot in Palm Springs, the humongous Grand Slam—featuring turkey, ham and roast beef—was $8. I gave half to a street person, but it would have fed me for two days. A half sandwich at Grove Market deli, in Salt Lake City, was $7 and still weighed nearly two pounds. It was $8 for a similar behemoth at Compagno’s Delicatessen, in Monterey, California.
I could go on, but I have to wipe the drool off my face… and grab a road map.
Santa Monica’s Huckleberry can get kinda loud. Not pounding music loud. More happy customers chatting with friends and enjoying a late breakfast or lunch loud.
Oh, it can get pretty busy, too, with people lining up at the counter to order a brisket hash or a lentil ragu with poached eggs for breakfast or a butternut squash salad for lunch. I opt for a recommended warm turkey meatball sandwich ($12), hold the extra burrata cheese. Great choice. The meatballs melt in my mouth, the tomato sauce slops my chops, the soft bread making everything pillowy smooth.
It’s not cheap. But like it’s sister Santa Monica restaurant Milo & Olive, the first-class food is mostly made from scratch and imaginatively put together. If you’ve got room, the baked treats will weaken your resolve, I assure you.
1014 Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica, California
Weekdays 8 am-8 pm (lunch starting at 11 am), weekends 8 am-5 pm
I ask the guy at the counter of Stags Lunchette if they have a takeout (or even an online) menu. “No, we change it every couple of weeks,” he says.
I could stare up at the board and decipher the intriguing list of sandwiches currently on offer at this a bustling little place in downtown Oakland. Instead, I do something distinctly un-Canadian and start asking customers, seated at high tables in the darkened space, what they’re eating. One woman has turned a grilled wild mushroom tartine into a heaping salad, which she is jealously guarding with a fork. A nearby guy is tucking into a heaping smoked meatloaf sandwich, which he says is great, especially if you like extra bacon.
I decide to test them on a simple grilled cheese sandwich, which in Stags’s hands (hooves?) is a not-so-simple mix of Belfiore mozza and Wykes aged white cheddar. And how can I resist adding some whiskey bacon chutney, bringing this gourmet comfort-food total to $7, including a little spring salad and wee gerkins.
I could tell you what to order. But by the time you read this, you’ll have to do your own detective work on a fresh menu. Just make sure you go. I can tell you it’s damn good.
362 17 Street, Oakland, California
Weekdays 8 am-3 pm, Saturday 9 am-3 pm. Closed Sunday