My wife and I lived in Japan for 2 1/2 years in the mid ’90s. We were often amazed when our Japanese students would come back from vacation having visited sites in Northern California that we, born and raised in the Bay Area, had never seen. So when we moved home in 1997 we vowed to start playing tourist in our own backyard.
This led to a personal re-discovery of some very cool places. We went to the Marin Headlands and took pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge. We went to Fort Point, Fort Baker, Muir Woods, and the lighthouses at Pt. Reyes, Montara, Marin Headlands, Camarillo, and Pigeon Point, where we spent the night at the hostel and sat in the cliff-side hot tub watching the whales migrate north.
We also went through Pacific Heights in SF, down Lombard Street, on a Segway tour through North Beach, on a fishing boat tour around Alcatraz, to the Palace of Fine Arts and the Legion of Honor. We went champagne tasting in Sonoma, wine tasting in Napa, kayaking down the Russian River, to the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, saw the sun set at Carmel beach, drove the 17 mile drive in Pacific Grove, bought T-shirts on Cannery Row in Monterey, hiked through Big Sur, and took three tours at Hearst Castle.
We were feeling pretty proud of ourselves, and frankly, thought we’d seen it all. Until the day we stumbled on the hidden gem that is the Red Top Market. It happened on Highway 152, about 19 miles east of Los Banos. We’d passed this spot hundreds of times before and never noticed a site worth seeing.
On this trip though, I’d spaced and forgot to stop for gas in Los Banos. Soon we were headed through desolate farmland with no development in sight and the needle pointing at E.
Finally we spotted a gas station up ahead, and pulled off the highway onto, get this, Road 4. That’s right, Road 4. After gassing up, we went inside the bodega style mini mart next door, where the local farm workers were stocking up on fried pork rinds and beer. But outside, between the exterior shell of the building and the inner wall of the mart, was the most amazing taxidermy collection of big ocean fish I’ve ever seen. 100 miles from the ocean in the land-locked San Joaquin Valley, somewhere between Dos Palos and Chowchilla, is this incredible catch of fish out of water.
The Fish Museum, as we call it, features full-sized displays of Hammer Head Shark, Sail Fish, Swordfish, Tarpon, Marlin, Tuna, Mako Shark, Sea Turtle, Piranha, and Barracuda. Caught all over the world, from Hawaii to Panama to Peru to Florida and the Bahamas, they look like they’ve been here for a couple of generations at least.
Since then we’ve told everyone heading that way to stop in at the Red Top Market and Fish Museum. So far though, no one we know has followed in our footsteps.
Maybe you’ll be the first. I promise, it is totally worth it and the Chicharrones are always fresh!