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Ellen Lee's East Bay Livin'

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

East Bay Livin' is moving

The East Bay Livin' blog has moved. Here's a link ( to its new home. Unfortunately, none of your comments survived the move, so please feel free to re-post your comments.
Monday, August 01, 2005

Low carb livin'

I admit I jumped on the Atkins bandwagon last year. I ate protein burgers at In 'N Out, held the fries. But it didn't last too long, since I love eating breads and rice and pasta and chocolate and french fries.

Fast forward to this afternoon, when I made a trip to the Castus Low Carb Superstore in San Ramon, for a story about Atkins Nutritional Inc., the company founded by Atkins Revolution guru Dr. Robert C. Atkins., and how it has filed for bankruptcy. Was this a sign that the low carb diet's 15 minutes of fame has finally ended?

It isn't, according to Kevin Carpenter and Leland Turner, owners of Castus in San Ramon, part of a chain that also includes stores in Pittsburg (also owned by them), Fremont and San Jose. Here's the story.

So anyhoo, I'd never really been in a low carb store before. And it sold a lot of stuff that I didn't expect you could eat if you were on the Atkins diet: donuts, chocolate chip cookies, ice cream, pancake mixes, mocha cappuccino mixes, Chicago-style deep dish pizzas, enchiladas, sugar-free chocolate and more. The store is small and not jam packed, and the popular stuff sells out quickly so some of the shelves were a little sparse. All in all, the store carries nearly 1,000 items, including Atkins products like its shakes and protein bars and its books, prominently displayed. Carpenter and Turner also have a soft serve machine; they make one flavor of ice cream a day packed with protein supliments. (I had a sample of huckleberry and it tasted pretty good). They also sell some of this stuff online at

Of course, you do pay a premium for low carb, sugar-free stuff; it's certainly not as cheap as the high-carb, transfat-filled, sugary, fatty alternative. And it's up to you to judge if it works. (I think this is when Dr. Phil would interject and say it's all about moderation).

As a sample, here's what I bought and the prices:

Aramana Cheddar Cheeseburger Pasta: a Lo-Carb meal mix. Soy pasta and cheese sauce mix. Like Hamburger Helper. 6.6 oz. Cost: $6.99

Carbquick Complete Biscuit and Baking Mix: Like Bisquick, but without all the carbs. You can use it to make pancakes, waffles, muffins, pot pies, etc. One of their top sellers. 1 lb. Cost: $7.99

Aloe Splash Orange Mango: No calories, no carbs orange-mango flavored drink. Sweetened with Splenda. 20 fl oz. Another popular seller, and I think that Turner said they're one of the few (or only) stores in Northern California that sell it. I can't say I'm a fan, though. I didn't like the taste, which seemed artificial. Cost: $1.79

Atkins chocolate chip granola bar: Only 3 grams of net carbs. It tastes pretty good, but I prefer Luna bars. Cost: $2.79.

Carb Slim mint chookie crunch bites: My favorite flavor is mint chocolate and this box won hands down as the yummiest thing I purchased. Sweetened with Splenda, so it's sugar free. Zero carbs. 1.5 oz. 114 calories, 87 total fat calories. Kind of like a box of mint chocolate-flavored Whoppers. I shared them with some friends during rehearsal and they liked it, too (either that, or they were just being nice). Cost: $2.99

Chicago-style deep dish personal pizza: I ate this for lunch and ripped off the label so I confess I don't have the details. But it is exactly as described, and tastes really good (not too much cheese, which I like, and barely, if any, sauce). I don't know if it really qualifies as deep-dish, but it's certainly a good cheese and sausage pizza, considering it's low carb. The pizza, though, is small, about the size of a large cookie. Cost: $4.99

Atkins Endulge chocolate mint patties: I haven't tried them yet (saving them for tomorrow). Three cups; they look like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, but smaller and mint flavored. 1.2 oz. Like the Atkins granola bars, I'm pretty sure I've seen these at the supermarket and places like GNC. Cost: $1.99
Saturday, July 30, 2005

Miss Saigon, Part 3


Don't worry, this isn't going to become the Miss Saigon blog. It just happens that it's taken up most of my time this week.

One of the numbers we've been working on is "Morning of the Dragon," which I have to admit I didn't fully appreciate when I saw it on Broadway. Now I do. It's challenging because the rhythm keeps changing and there are so many moving parts, which must be performed with military precision, and we have to sing and dance at the same time (pretty much my first time; in opera, we tend to "stand and bark") and the music (in three different parts) doesn't always match the cheoreography. The piece comes after the war has ended and the U.S. Marines have left. We all wear head-to-toe black (I think -- or it might be a military costume) and I get to dance with a ribbon and then re-enter carrying a gun. Whoo-hoo!

Our choreographer, James DuBeq, is from Miss Saigon's national tour, so much of the staging and cheoreography is the same. The actors who plays Chris (the American G.I. who falls in love with Kim) and the Engineer (the pimp) have also performed with the national tour and we met them for the first time today.

We also have a new director. Grant Rosen was hired to direct the national tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream, and was replaced today by Daren A.C. Carollo, who directed Contra Costa Civic Theatre's Jekyll and Hyde, which I discussed here (you need to scroll down).

We haven't seen the set yet, but it sounds incredible. It comes to us from Southern California, where Fullerton Civic Light Opera recently produced it (you can see pictures of it here). It features a helicopter (blades and all, we're told) that actually flies across the stage and lands, as well as a pink Cadillac for one of the show's over-the-top final numbers. I am not sure how all of this will fit inside the Regional Center for the Arts, but the production crew is working hard to make sure it does!
Monday, July 25, 2005

Eulogy for my neighbor's cat

My neighbor's cat died this morning. He was hit by a car.

My husband found him in the road as he was walking to work.

I am crying as I write this. I probably sound nuts, but you have to understand that we thought of this cat as one of our own. His name was Sinatra, a blue-eyed Siamese, and we had known him since he was a cute little kitten who hung out in our apartment complex. He was the friendliest, sweetest cat, and always greeted us and wound his body through our legs, and flopped over to let us pet him. A few times he even met our tabby, Hello, our indoor, only-child cat who doesn't like other cats but was okay with Sinatra. Sinatra's only vice was he tended to spray everything, including, when he followed us home one day, our front door. He was clearly an adventurous cat who loved to be outdoors and around people (I am pretty sure we were not the only ones who doted on him).

I was the one who told our neighbors. It is the hardest conversation I have ever had. My husband and I didn't know them, but we had heard them calling for Sinatra before and they had a bowl of water outside their front door. I rang their doorbell, and caught them as they were getting ready for work. The woman bowled over in tears, while her husband ran outside to make sure I was talking about their cat.

I stammered an explanation of how my husband had found Sinatra this morning, and how we knew it was Sinatra because we had just played with him last night, and that I was very sorry. And then, because I didn't know what else to do, and because they obviously wanted to be alone, I went home. And hugged my cat.
Sunday, July 24, 2005

I Scream for Ice Cream

This crazy hot weather has had me craving ice cream all the time.

Last night I indulged in mint chocolate cookie ice cream, topped with chocolate syrup, whip cream and a cherry, at the Old San Francisco Creamery Co. in downtown Walnut Creek. The ice cream was incredibly rich, and I could not finish the entire thing (believe me, I tried), even though I had only ordered one scoop (it was a very large one scoop). At the table next to us, a group of teenagers had ordered the "Kitchen Sink," which is a massive piece of ice cream art. It really does live up to "everything but the kitchen sink." They all pulled out their cell phones to take a photo of it, with one of them even video taping it to get the full picture. It cost about $25 and could probably feed a dozen people (although the menu said about six).

The Old San Francisco Creamery is a cute little establishment, a nice place for a date, to cap off a movie or dinner or show. The restaurant (it also serves dinner and lunch) looks like an old-fashioned soda fountain, complete with soda fountain jerks in their paper hats and aprons. Not surprisingly, the place was bustling last night and there was a line outside at the take-out window.

If I had to rate all the ice cream shops in the Walnut Creek area, though, I'd have to say my favorite is still Gelateria Naia. Ben and Jerry's in Concord comes in second. The Old San Francisco Creamery and Ghirardelli (in Walnut Creek's Broadway Plaza) come next, but for both, you have to be really, really hungry and be up for eating something really, really rich.

I'm not a big fan of Maggie Moo's (also in downtown Walnut Creek) or Cold Stone Creamery, although Cold Stone does make good ice cream cakes (and the manager at the one in Walnut Creek on Ygnacio Valley Road is very nice and came through for me when I had a last minute ice cream cake request). And Baskin-Robbins is dependable, although I wasn't treated very well the last time I was in there (the manager there barked at me when I tried to buy an ice cream cake, so I left in a huff).

Oh! I forgot about Dairy Queen (one in Sunvalley Mall and one in Concord on Clayton Rd.) Of all places, I stopped there in Maui after I saw a man come out with a chocolate dipped ice cream cone. I had what he had, and it was fabulously yummy. I haven't been to Dairy Queen here, though.

One place I haven't tried but is on my list since a friend told me about it is Bombay Ice Cream, newly opened in Pleasanton. It features flavors like rose, chai (Indian tea), fig, chiku (tropical fruit), cashew raisin and Bedam Kesar Pista (almond/saffron/pistachio). If anyone has a chance to check it out, please let me know how it is!

UPDATED: I forgot to mention Fentons Creamery & Restaurant, another favorite in Oakland, and which also serves huge portions. I like Loard's Ice Cream and Candies, too. Where else? Please keep the suggestions coming!
Friday, July 22, 2005

Miss Saigon, Part 2

I am just getting to know the Miss Saigon cast (about 40 of us), but already I've been hearing the same thing over and over again: Most of us have wanted to be in this show for a long, long time and are so excited just to be in it, never mind that we play a small part (though I do wish I could have just one solo line). One guy I chatted with described this week's rehearsals as a surreal experience, as we sing the songs that we've heard so many times on CD.

The Bay Area has only seen Miss Saigon twice: when the national tour came to San Francisco several years ago and when the American Musical Theatre of San Jose performed it three years ago. This is the East Bay's first production, so it's a huge opportunity for us, and for Asian American performers.
Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Miss Saigon, Part 1

Miss Saigon rehearsals began yesterday. It's the start of what I expect to be an intense, exciting few months. From now until September, we will be in back-to-back rehearsals, in the evenings from Monday through Thursday, and most Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Then for the entire month of September, it's back-to-back performances, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (and sometimes two shows on Saturday).

The rehearsals move quickly. For the first two weeks, we are concentrating on learning and honing the music, and then we move on to staging and choreographing it. By the end of last night, we had tackled and memorized one huge, three-part ensemble piece ("The Morning of the Dragon," for those who are familiar with the musical. As the director, Grant Rosen, joked, it's more like "the morning and the afternoon and the evening of the dragon" since it's so long and elaborate). The expectation is that by the end of two weeks, we'll know all the music by heart and be able to concentrate on adding movement.

This is probably my favorite part of the process (besides performing it of course): singing it, hearing how it sounds with everyone else and imagining how it will look on stage. It's only been one night, but it's already beginning to jell, so stay tuned (ha, ha).
Monday, July 18, 2005

Harry Potter Parties On

I checked out a Harry Potter launch party at Borders in Pleasant Hill Friday night. I arrived about 15 minutes before midnight and, by then, the bookstore was a zoo -- at least a hundred people milling about. One had dyed his hair orange, wore a green sweater with a G painted on (that's G for Gryffindor, the house that Harry Potter and his friends belong to) and was carrying a broom; another young boy looked just like Harry Potter, with the same black framed glasses, a black robe and a very authentic-looking red and orange scarf.

In terms of an actual party, however, there was none, and I was sorely disappointed. Where were the costume contests? The Harry Potter games? A Harry Potter reading? A dramatic unveiling of the new book? The only activity the bookstore had was a hat making corner in the children's section, where you could staple together purple construction paper and turn it into a wizard's hat. Yawn. I was told that the Harry Potter release parties two years ago were much more festive; the one I attended was more about just getting the book into the hands of eager Harry Potter fans.

To keep chaos down, the bookstore handed out numbered tickets -- it went up to at least 300 just for those who had pre-ordered. Then it seemed to skip to about 1700 for those who had not ordered in advance. It wasn't until 1:30 am that my friend's number was called -- no. 1825.
Friday, July 15, 2005

Harry Potter Mania

I can't wait to read "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince," the sixth in the series by J.K. Rowling. I was a little skeptical at first about all the hype, but then I picked up the first book during a long, 10-hour airplane ride, and I pretty much devoured it before the plane touched down.

Anyways, I've spent the past few days surfing the Internet for anything and everything Harry Potter. Here's a story in today's paper about what I found, like online wizarding schools and pages upon pages devoted to the budding romance between Ron and Hermione.

I'm also thinking about attending a Harry Potter release party. I've never been, but I heard so much about it that now I'm really curious. Just what happens at these parties? ;)

To find one close to you, check out this site. You can search by zipcode -- there are quite a few at East Bay book stores. And here's a Times story about East Bay libraries throwing Harry Potter parties, another Times story earlier this week about fans who have grown up with Harry Potter and a Times list of local Harry Potter events. Yes, some of us here are Harry Potter crazy.

I didn't have an opportunity to mention this in my story, but I even heard about a summer school class completely devoted to Harry Potter. It's called Hogwarts Haven at JL Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto. Now there's a summer school class I'd be interested in taking.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Will Taste Food for Money

I gave my two cents on a test product this evening for the National Food Laboratory in Dublin.

Because I signed a confidentiality agreement, I can't give details on what I tried out. But here's how it works:

A few years ago I signed up on a whim to be a taste tester on the laboratory's Web site. Since then I've gotten a call about once every several months.

Each time, the laboratory asks me a series of questions and if I pass that part (I haven't always), I am asked to come in to the laboratory's Dublin office.

That was tonight. After filling out some paper work (my age demographic, my buying habits), a woman in a white lab coat escorted me into a small, narrow room. I sat down in a partitioned cubicle, in front of something like a roll top desk or a metal bread box. This connected to another room with the researchers. It opened up and inside was a tray, a survey, the sample, and a cup of water and a saltine cracker to cleanse my palette. Once I was done trying the first product, I put it back inside, closed the lid and flipped a switch to alert the researcher I was finished. Then the researcher re-filled the tray with another sample and sent it through the metal bread box.

The entire process took about 15 to 20 minutes, and I was rewarded with $15 in cash. Clearly, I'm not going to get rich being a taste tester, but it's sort of fun if you have the time. You never know what you could be trying and how you could make a little difference in how a product ends up.