Surrounded by farmland, southeast of Stockton, is a surprising sight.
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Drive east of Highway 99 on East Carpenter Road until you come to an elaborate, formed-concrete portal, decorated with exotic calligraphy and guarded by dragons. Inside the portal is a magical world of brightly painted Buddhas, demons and temple buildings. It is the Wat Dhammararam Buddhist temple, which was begun in the early 1980s by Khmer refugees.
On the temple’s 30-acre site, over 100 gilded, intensely colored, jewel-encrusted, elaborate statues and structures depict the life of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha). On April 13 and 14, these temple grounds will be awash with vibrant colors, wafted by the scents of exotic incense and savory foods and reverberating with happy melodies created by jangling bells and the muffled thump of Cambodian drums when thousands gather to experience Cambodian cultural traditions at the Khmer New Year festival.
Wat Dhammararam is one of several surprising discoveries to be found in and surrounding Stockton, a city better known for what doesn’t work (city bankruptcy, political corruption, high crime and low literacy), than for what does. In this, the first of a planned series on Surprising Cities, California Rambling visits Stockton. If all you ever knew, heard or saw of Stockton are its troubles, visiting Stockton will change those perceptions.
Stockton has a beautiful city center with broad streets, stately buildings, a landscaped esplanade that embraces a downtown lake (McLeod) and docks for pleasure craft, surprising hotels (The Waterfront Hotel and Loft Apartments tender trendy, modern-minimalist accommodations at moderate cost), restaurants, the remarkable Haggin Museum (Bierstadt, Gauguin, Renoir), an outdoor amphitheater (Weber Point — home to the Asparagus Festival, April 25-27) and venues that are home to professional baseball, ice hockey and indoor football teams.
It is a city that made history as the deepwater port supplying the California gold rush and later as from where California’s agricultural bounty was shipped to the world. It is where caterpillar tractors, Duraflame logs and jazz great Dave Brubeck originated. So, it’s with a sense of their history and pride that Stocktonians are pioneering their city’s renaissance by operating remarkable businesses downtown and along Pacific Avenue, Stockton’s tiny district of one-of-a-kind shops, restaurants and nightclubs.
Bing Kirk typifies this movement. He left Stockton in the mid-1970s on an adventure to Central America, eventually becoming a coffee grower and buyer before being forced to leave during the Sandinista revolution. He returned to Nicaragua in 1999 to establish a coffee farm high atop Jesus Mountain surrounded by Nicaraguan rain forest and now operates Stockton’s only coffee roasting company.
At Jesus Mountain Coffee on East Miner Avenue, the rich aromas of freshly roasted beans from Kirk’s Nicaraguan farm waft out to attract coffee lovers to savor his original blends.
Around the corner on North Hunter, Bunny’s Café is famous for freshly roasted turkey and tri tip sandwiches. A block away on El Dorado, French 25, a bayou-inspired restaurant sits inside the venerable, mission revival-styled Stockton Hotel in the same space where Don Imus began his broadcasting career and where a Paragary’s Restaurant failed at satisfying what managing partner Greg May calls Stockton’s “curious palate.”
Jambalaya, Cajun-influenced Cioppino and Po Boys that Executive Chef Keith Breedlove describes as “off the hook” are among the restaurant’s signature dishes that combine tastes from Louisana’s Delta with those of California’s Delta, into something Breedlove calls “California Creole.”
However, it is along the Miracle Mile where Stockton truly surprises. This no-vacancy district of watering holes, eateries, nightclubs and shops along Pacific Avenue, south of the University of the Pacific campus, emits a vibe similar to that found on Stanford’s University Avenue. Establishments serving residents of stately homes surrounding Pacific Avenue mix with Al’s Comics and its formidable library of 400,000 periodicals visited by comic book fans, and with coffee shops and hot dog stands frequented by UOP students.
Restoring the Miracle Mile was what attracted speech pathologist and UOP graduate Kevin Hernandez to open Ave on the Mile, a stylish haunt known for its comfort food, big drinks and lounge atmosphere. Hernandez was also involved in establishing the sushi restaurant Co Co Ro and attracting a high-end design shop to the street. He also opened the Abbey, a pub that presents a litany of Belgium monastery dubbels, tripels, quadruples and ales.
At Mile Wine Co., certified sommelier Paul Marsh — formerly of Sacramento’s Firehouse Restaurant — operates a boutique wine and cheese shop that presents inventive, locally sourced, seasonal dishes to appreciative diners at modest prices. A mouth-watering plate of roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon lardons and balsamic gastrique is $6. Dave’s Panini with gruyere, cheddar, gouda and hickory smoked bacon is $8. A filet mignon flatbread with gorgonzola and dribbles with a cabernet reduction is $12. Not much else costs much more. On weekends, jazz musicians play.
Considering what’s reported about Stockton, you wouldn’t expect Stockton to be so full of delightful discoveries, but then that’s part of what makes it so surprising. More about Stockton is found at visitstockton.org.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.