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Whimsical Tour Delights Los Angeles Chocolate Lovers - 2004-07-16

Tour guide Marlene Gordon has an unusual business, showing people the sights of Los Angeles that are off the beaten track, from aromatic gardens to gourmet kitchens.

And there are apparently many chocolate lovers in southern California. A large bus-full of them stopped in front of a Pasadena teashop, led by tour guide Marlene Gordon.

"We'll go in and have a little bit of chocolate,? she said. ?Obviously, you have a lust for life coming on a chocolate tour, especially on a warm day. But if the chocolate melts in your hand, there's a problem. You're not eating it fast enough."

Ms. Gordon conducts many kinds of tours, but says her so-called "Chocolate Covered LA" tour is "deeply satisfying."

She points out that ancient Mexican civilizations considered chocolate the food of the gods.

"I talk about the history of chocolate from the days of the Olmecs and the Toltecs and the Aztecs, up to the time when chocolate came to Europe, and became what we love today," Ms. Gordon said.

Each stop on the tour has to do with chocolate, its history, its varieties, and how it is manufactured.

The first stop, Chado Tea Shop, offers pastries and 1,100 varieties of tea. Co-owner Tek Meheretab, an Eritrean immigrant, says the focus for these customers is chocolate.

"They just come in the morning and have a cup of chocolate tea or chocolate-flavored tea, and a very nice slice of chocolate cake," Tek Meheretab said.

Tour group member Becky Bates is indulging in one of her passions. She says she's a chocolate lover. "Yes, born and bred," she said.

Like most on the tour today, she lives in the city of Long Beach.

"That's my home town. And I've been traveling and eating chocolate wherever I can get the chance. White, pink, orange, yellow, purple, I'm right there," said Ms. Bates.

She has just finished some chocolate cake, and says it was "delicious."

"It was filled with chocolate in the middle, on the outside, on the inside, and it had chocolate chips on it. And you can't get much more chocolate than that," she said.

Her friend, Jean Ballantine, is not a chocolate lover, but is having fun anyway.

"I come for the camaraderie of the people with my friend Becky. And I love tea. So, I thought it would be a nice experience, and it's wonderful. I just love all of this," Jean Ballantine said.

Tour guide Marlene Gordon is an inveterate explorer. That's why she started her business, called Next Stage Tours, 26 years ago.

"I worked as a legal secretary, and I was always looking out the window, because I wanted to be out, exploring and enjoying the outdoors,? Ms. Gordon said. ?And I finally decided to take the big leap. I couldn't quit my job completely. I had to keep on working part-time, because I didn't have the financial ability. I was paying rent. So little by little, I got my business going, starting in 1978."

Most of her tours are whimsical. They include one for insomniacs, who visit bustling early morning locations like the Los Angeles produce market and flower mart. Another tour views the city's most interesting elevators and escalators. Yet another visits the downtown lofts where artists live and work.

Doreen Hagan, who is now on the chocolate tour, has been on Ms. Gordon's tour that looks at gourmet cooking.

"We got to see behind the scenes of what goes into providing a gourmet meal, and that was exciting,? she said. ?We've gone into some of the kitchens of the large hotels, down into areas where you can purchase all the equipment to do gourmet cooking. It was really very interesting."

Ms. Gordon also led a river-rafting tour, and another that views blooming wildflowers from high above the ground in hot air balloons.

But for those afraid of adventure or heights, this chocolate lover's tour is a perennial favorite. By late morning, she has stopped at a Korean-owned French bakery. Sandy Kim manages it.

"Two bakers in the back, they've been classically trained in France and in Japan, and so they do a lot of everything,? she said. ?But one of our pastry chefs, his specialty is chocolate mousse, so a lot of chocolate."

Chocolate lover Kaete Brauer, an immigrant from Germany, has bought a cheese bagel and chocolate cake, which she's been enjoying.

"Very good. I have to get out of here, because I ate too many samples. I love chocolate, yes," she said.

Guide Marlene Gordon has some reassuring words for members of the tour group who are feeling a little guilty. Remember, she says, chocolate comes from a vegetable, and she adds that some researchers now believe it contains healthful substances. Comforted, the group gets back on the bus to go to the next stop.