San Diego, animal style

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Everyone told us we would love San Diego, a short two-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles. The city is known for its Gaslamp dining and entertainment district, the zoo and its beach communities.

I was expecting it to be a little more laid-back than L.A. is.

So I was a bit surprised when Kenley and I arrived at Searsucker for dinner in the Gaslamp district Saturday night. The valet attendant and then the doorman checked our names off a reservations list when we arrived. The valets had parked a Tesla and a Maserati before our modest Toyota, and Kenley and I were underdressed in the jeans we had been traveling in.

The majority of the women wore short, tight dresses with five-inch platform pumps. Thumping club music played in the background. I hadn’t experienced this type of scene so far in Los Angeles, or even when we visited Vegas. I’m not sure we would have been granted access if it weren’t for my practice of always booking reservations through OpenTable.

I should have been more prepared. Searsucker has been voted one of the best new restaurants in San Diego. The chef is Brian Malarkey, who was a finalist on “Top Chef.” The restaurant markets itself as “emphasizing approachable and unpretentious food.” Though Malarkey’s background is West Coast, the menu seems to have a Southern flair. I had a tomato, watermelon and mozzarella salad, followed by shrimp and cheesy bacon grits. The shrimp and grits had a spicy, tomato-based sauce, which I love, and the grits were just about the right consistency. Kenley had a steak, which seemed a little dry.

The reason for our weekend getaway was to visit the San Diego Zoo. Our friends Lauren and Will Mancke had given us a zoo membership when they learned we were moving to Los Angeles. The zoo has a world-class reputation and is one of the first zoos to use moats instead of cages to show animals in a more natural habitat.

We had been advised to go to the Panda Canyon exhibit first to avoid long lines. The zoo is one of four in the U.S. to house giant pandas. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait too long and were entertained by the very active red panda, Lily, who stole the show from the more sedate giant pandas. Red pandas, which have bushy tails, are more closely related to raccoons than the giant pandas, which are related to bears. Lily was having fun running around her habitat, and Kenley had a hard time capturing her in a photo:

We came face to face with a capybara, the largest known rodent. (Kenley says this would have ruined a trip to San Diego for his severely rodent-phobic mother.)

A capybara — which is not generally found in the U.S. (rest easy, Mrs. Young) — was spotted in the Paso Robles sewer treatment plant earlier this summer. You can find out where officials think it came from in this Los Angeles Times story.

We also got a glimpse of a wolf going for a walk among the public — on a leash and with a trainer. The wolf was part of the zoo’s “animal ambassadors” educational program.

Across the path, a husky mix was playing with a very unusual friend: a cheetah. (Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!). The exhibit featured other animal ambassadors used in zoo programs such as the Backstage Pass tour, which costs an extra $99 but might just be worth it next time. And if they’re enrolling huskies? Hmm …

In the Lost Forest exhibit, we encountered very active and entertaining gorillas and orangutans, but were sad that both of our phones had died, preventing us from taking any photos. Two younger gorillas wrestled while an adult looked on to make sure they didn’t hurt each other. The orangutans mugged for the crowd.

For dinner, we ventured back to the Gaslamp Quarter, where it was a little more subdued on a Sunday evening. We ate at Cafe Sevilla, where we ordered the Jamon Iberico croqueta. It was yummy, but the filling probably included very little of the world’s finest ham from black Iberico pigs.

Our best discovery of the weekend was The Tipsy Crow, a bar that features a drink exchange, a la the stock market, where you can “buy low, drink plenty.”

For example, if no one is ordering Avery Ellie’s Brown Ale, you might be able to buy a glass for $3.50. If everyone is ordering Blue Moon, the price might be $7.50. A computerized ticker tape keeps track of the market’s bears and bulls. Even better, there’s no Jim Cramer yelling at you.

You can also bet on futures — buying coupons while drink prices are low and then using them on your next visit.

On Monday, we made a pilgrimage to Chick-fil-A for our first taste of the juicy chicken sandwiches and waffle fries in more than six months. The chain exists out here, but locations are few and far between.

We even got to try the new Heinz dip-and-squeeze ketchup packages.  (Kenley has long complained about the inadequacies of the traditional ketchup packet.) It was “our pleasure” indeed. We’re eagerly awaiting the location in Hollywood to open next month.

The San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park, about 30 minutes northeast of San Diego, has many of the same animals as the zoo does, but they are kept in much larger areas, where they seemingly roam free. Apparently this more natural environment encourages natural behavior such as mating.

While the apes at the safari park were less playful than those at the zoo, it was sweet to watch mother Kokomo cradle her two-month-old baby in her large arms. She held her youngster with her back to the crowd, seemingly protecting it from onlookers. The baby is the first born at the park since 2000. The mom will nurse him for three years. You can watch a video of the mama and her baby here. The father, Winston, kept watch from afar.

The lions at the Safari Park were accommodating enough to sleep facing the glass, instead of away from it like the lions at the zoo.

The feature of the park is the African Plains habitat. You can take a tram on an African safari, where you can see zebras, giraffes and rhinos wandering in open fields.

(Kenley says that when the machines rise up and take over, this is the kind of natural environment we humans will be housed in — if they don’t decide to eradicate us.

Moving on.)

The most fun animals to watch in the more natural environment were the huge elephants, who had plenty of room to roam around and spray dust onto their backs to cool off. Four baby elephants were born at the Safari Park last year, including the youngest, Tsandzikle, who weighs 257 pounds and will be a year old in December. He didn’t wander too far from his mom, Litsemba, who is nicknamed “Drama Queen” and weighs 6,300 pounds. You can watch the elephants even after you leave on the Safari Park’s elephant cam.

Back in Los Angeles, we picked up our own animal ambassadors from The Kennel Club.

Then, we made another great dining discovery of the weekend: After almost nine months in Los Angeles, we found an authentic go-to Mexican place just down Venice Boulevard: Gloria’s Cafe. Gloria’s specializes in Salvadoran and Mexican food. We tried pupusas, a Salvadoran appetizer similar to quesadillas. Kenley got his beloved chicken nachos, and I got a Mexican combination served with rice and beans for less than $10! I have a feeling we’ll be going back soon.

I’d also like to get back to San Diego for a Padres game, for one of several craft-beer brewery tours, and for the penguins at Sea World. And next time, I’ll know to pack my sexiest dress for Saturday night in the Gaslamp Quarter.

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2 thoughts on “San Diego, animal style

  1. Great info, and more California memories for you two. Just make sure that calybara (I know I spelled that huge rodent’s name incorrectly) is no where around when we come back to visit—nightmares at the thought of him/her!

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