Best Of :: San Fernando Valley
Best Place to Eat Ice Cream While Filling a Prescription: De Soto Pharmacy
Merely thinking of ice cream can cast a magic spell. The idea conjures indulgence mixed with childhood memories, simpler times and even whispers of a bygone freedom. Once upon a time, when our country seemed far less complicated, soda fountains inside pharmacies, with their long laminate counters and vinyl stools, were among the de rigueur places to see and be seen. Although they filled the dual purpose of being a place to have fun and being a place to take care of otherwise boring errands, such as filling prescriptions and buying household necessities, such pharmacies have pretty much disappeared. Thankfully, the charm of this old-fashioned experience has been re-created by De Soto Pharmacy, which went back to its midcentury roots and opened up the quaintly cool Jerry's Soda Shoppe inside the drugstore just over a decade ago. Serving amazing shakes, sundaes, sodas, egg creams and sandwiches, its specialty is ice cream served in a sundae glass coated with delectable hardened chocolate. Taking care of business while channeling your inner bobby-soxer has never tasted so sweet.
Wedged in between the 405 and 101 freeways and the L.A. River lies a magical land with castles and dragons and palm trees galore. Welcome to Sherman Oaks Castle Park, the best miniature golf course in the city. OK, so it's the only miniature golf course in the city. Nonetheless, this city-owned course is the perfect place for any number of outings, from a 6-year-old's birthday party to a fun, semi-ironic first date. Castle Park features not one but three very good 18-hole mini-golf courses, intertwined with windmills, pirate ships and disturbingly bright neon blue lagoons. At only $6.50 a ball for adults, it's about a third of the price of a ticket to the ArcLight. Castle Park also offers a batting cage with up to 80 mph fastballs, plus a densely packed arcade with air hockey, skeeball and myriad video games with truly horrible sound effects. And of course, prizes — a few thousand winning tickets gets you a gumball or something. Just don't try the pizza.
Nicknamed "the Russian Costco," Pacific Coast Food Co. sits in a warehouse just across the tracks from a Burbank Airport runway. Inside are aisles filled with every Russian foodstuff imaginable, from freezer cases of Russian dumplings — pelmeni and varenikis — to smoked fish and canned goods. There's a full-service deli, featuring traditional Russian dishes and a wide array of salads, plus a meat and fish counter, where you might see a whole sturgeon. Yes, there's a good selection of vodkas, but also plenty of other liquors and beers from all over Eastern Europe. There are well-stocked shelves of uniquely flavored Russian sodas (pear, tarragon) and kvass, the fermented bread soda. Most stunning is "Sweet World," a separate, climate-controlled room filled with a mind-boggling array of Russian chocolates. A broad selection of caviar is available at a counter near the front and there's even milk imported from Russia in the dairy case. If you're looking for anything foodwise from Russia, countries that broke away from the Soviet Union, or Eastern Europe in general, odds are it's here. Flavored gingerbread cookies from Moldova? Of course!
If you took midcentury style and stripped it of any design elements now considered kitsch, and took the tried-and-true steakhouse menu and added a dose of contemporary, international flair, you would get SOCA. The design theme is actually Mediterranean, but the blue glass and white embellishments that curve like wrought iron conjure memories of the Valley's past, while the menu speaks to its present. The steaks and seafood here come with a mix of Latin American, Middle Eastern and Asian flavors, courtesy of owner and executive chef Aaron Robins, and the same can be said for the cocktail menu. SOCA serves lunch, dinner and weekend brunch, and also has a great happy hour. If you're going for the shwarma sliders, try them with the Not My Jam cocktail, which brings together vodka and apricot preserves.
Lucuma and soursop are just two of the tropical fruit flavors you'll find at Helados Pops in San Fernando. Lucuma, an orange-fleshed fruit popular in Peru, has a unique flavor described variously as maple-like or like a candied sweet potato. Owner Marthin Ken doesn't follow an exact recipe for his pops, "because fruits aren't the same." Sometimes this means far more or far less of a particular fruit. Ken also believes in using as little sugar or sweetener as possible. One of the rarely seen tropical sorbet flavors is marañon, the cashew fruit. It requires seven to eight pounds of the fruit, acidic skin removed, to get the true flavor, which is a sort of a blend of mango and pineapple. Another sorbet you're unlikely to find elsewhere is arrayan, known in English as the sartre guava. Other tropical ice cream flavors include raw cacao, mamey and coconut. For that final tropical touch, you can get your ice creams or sorbets served in a coconut or a pineapple.
You don't need to be a relic of the San Fernando Valley to appreciate the Valley Relics Museum, but it helps. Founded by SFV native Tommy Gelinas, this lovingly curated reservoir of ephemera features a collection belonging to Bob and Julie Ream, longtime Valley residents who worked in the two industries that transformed the Valley into the suburban boomtown it became: aeronautics and entertainment. One smaller exhibit honors cowboy tailor Nudie Cohn, but for those of us who grew up in the high-temperature Valley during its hazy heyday of the '70s and '80s, the bitchin' wave of nostalgia swells inside the museum's main room. Here, the nondescript industrial warehouse space is transformed into an immersive time machine, stockpiled with old neon signs, retired mascots, local sports memorabilia, vintage BMX bikes, weird cars and neighborhood restaurant menus from an era when one could comfortably puff on a cigarette between bites of a $2.95 chicken dinner at Love's Wood Pit Barbecue. The one thing missing is a ride simulation with animatronic parents dropping off their kids at Topanga Plaza, only to have them cross the street and spend their food money at Licorice Pizza (or, better yet, Moby Disc).
Chef Daniel Elmaleh and his wife, Justine, opened contemporary Moroccan restaurant Mizlala in the space that once held his dad's eponymous Simon's Cafe. The elder Elmaleh's warm hospitality and love of cooking great food is much in evidence in Daniel's new restaurant (translated from the Hebrew vernacular, mizlala roughly means "eatery"). There's an open kitchen with roughly a dozen high-backed counter seats to view the action. The sound system is primarily tuned to Israeli pop music. Dinner may begin with a variety of freshly made salads, such as root vegetable slaw, sauced with rich tahini and apple cider vinaigrette, but the house-made merguez steals the show. The menu describes it as "Simon's Famous." Simon himself, though retired, still makes these beef and lamb sausages for his son's restaurant. The links are coarsely ground, with a hint of chili. One order is never enough. Justine, Simon's daughter-in-law, divulged that they simply could not leave the merguez off the Mizlala menu. The San Fernando Valley dining scene is rapidly evolving, and Mizlala is part of the new guard.
When the San Fernando Solar Observatory — one of the oldest of its kind — was finally moved to Cal State Northridge in 2016, it enlivened an already charming corner of the campus. The dollhouse-like domed structure sits next to a landscaped turtle-and-duck pond and historic orange grove, with a campus lunch bistro and Bianchi Planetarium (which hosts night-sky shows every other Friday) within spitting distance. The observatory previously was used for research in support of NASA's manned space and Skylab programs, but in its current iteration generates critical information on the sun and its effects on climate, satellites and spacecraft. The young astronomers plying the telescopes and computer systems within are literally on the front lines of combating climate change, which gives it the observatory importance beyond its visual scale. To visit, use parking lot G3 off Prairie and Zelzah, but you can usually nab street parking on Nordhoff. Non-students should contact the school's department of physics and astronomy for access.