I'm not apologizing for the absence - we get enough of those anyway, right? The reason I've been gone is because I've been busy, and the kinds of things I've been busy with will make excellent posts in the coming weeks. So stick with me, friends. I promise there are good things coming.
I'm trying to decide how to begin my recap of Day 3: Westside / Santa Monica.
Oh, wait. I think I just did.
More specifically, I'm trying to decide how democratic an approach I take to my recollections. Cool, indifferent observer? Impassioned freak blogger? Somewhere in the middle? After all, those of you who know me well are too well-aware of my distaste for - eh - certain areas within Southern California, namely those that are near the coast, north of Venice but south of Malibu. Didn't click the link, did you? Well, click it and weep. There are few things I get so worked up about (melon being one of them) than How Do You Solve A Problem Like The Westside. (Period! For emphasis!)
So the very fact that Day 3 of Eat Your Way Through L.A. flung us mercilessly into the bowels of Santa Monica Blvd necessitated a gut reaction from yours truly (sidenote, Sheryl Crow, if you truly wanted to have a little fun before you died, you and William could do a whole lot better than watching the sun rise on gridlocked traffic on SM Blvd. I mean, what a waste of a perfectly good sun rise, Sher. And I suppose when you later wanted to soak up the sun you meant from, like, Van Nuys right? Whatever). And all tourette-y bracketed outbursts aside, I'm really trying to hold my tongue here. The last thing The Internet needs is another kook spewing bitter missives at the unsuspecting masses and while I have a burnin' fire in my bones most of the time for (usually) meaningless battles (melon?!), I also have a few friends who have chosen [HOWEVERMISGUIDEDLY] to make the Westside their home. So no disrespect.
But...really? REALLY? The traffic and the crowds and the traffic and oh my heavens, y'all, there are cars EVERYWHERE, everywhere! How and why and wherefore?!
See? Can't do it. Ergo, I'm going to play the cool, professional critic (of the food, guys) on this one and tell you about a couple of delightful places Ashley and I visited on Wednesday
[THEONLYTWOREDEEMABLETHINGSABOUTANOTHERWISEFESTERINGBOILOFACITY]. Our first stop was Apple Pan on Pico for their hickory burger. Red vinyl seats flanked a horseshoe counter facing the grill, and our order was taken before we'd even gotten a chance to set our purses down. Hickory burger, please, and a Diet Coke. No cheese. Thanks. The burger itself is a lunch counter burger in every sense of the term, warm and steaming under a towering stack of lettuce and wrapped in white paper. No plates at Apple Pan - just the burger, a smear of ketchup and mustard, maybe a pickle or two hidden in the wad of lettuce leaves. Eating it, I recalled the burgers at Court Street Dairy Lunch in my hometown, Salem. The fries are crisp on the outside, soft in the middle - but lacked a bit of saltiness. It's a no-frills burger at a no-frills joint, but like many things I've come to expect from the Westside, it's all neatly wrapped in a price that screams, "FRILLS! FRILLS RIGHT THIS WAY, FOLKS!" Our two burgers, two cans of Coke, and a side order of fries between us came to $26, a sum that would easily feed a car full of hungry dudes at In-N-Out - which, incidentally, is arguably the superior burger anyway.
Next on deck was a search for yet another bacon-y treat: the maple bacon biscuit at Huckleberry Cafe. Dense and scone-like in consistency, with an ample amount of bacon baked into its buttery dough, the biscuit was all the things you'd expect from the name: sweet and savory, chewy with a bit of crunch, satisfying without being overbearing. The desserts at Huckleberry looked divine but after our lunch at Apple Pan, we had a one track mind. I've always found reason to scorn breakfast pastries for their unyielding allegiance to sugar (that early in the morning, the only thing my stomach can handle is more sleep or, of course, bacon), and this biscuit is the perfect antidote.
I wish I could say we went to Chinois and Cut and Annisette and Border Grill. I wish I could say the marrowbone flan was life-changing and the tamales equally illuminating. But the truth is, by the time we wrestled our way to the neighborhood, the bloated cavalcades of traffic and block after block of full parking garages had exhausted us. We hightailed it to Venice to meet up with a friend, then took sweet refuge in our beloved Long Beach. After all, the temperature was nearing 80 and we simply couldn't be confined to a vehicular prison any longer. Sorry, Santa Monica. Maybe next time.
But mostly likely not.
In the canon of Foods That Change Lives (Or Possibly End Them In The Process), you'd have your garden variety fried fare: french fries, fried chicken, tempura. Then there's the chocolates of the world, and, of course, whiskey. Belonging to a category all its own, however, is the mighty bacon. decadent and fragrant, the very best part of the pig sheared, sizzling, and slippery with its own juices. It's democratic in nature, too; even my friend Kelsey - herself a staunch (though not stodgy) vegetarian - admitted an affinity for the stuff before she axed meat altogether. It's the one thing that most people can agree upon, and one of the only pleasant ways to wake up in the morning. I'd drag myself out of bed at any ungodly hour if awakened by the smell of a few strips cooking on the stove.
Even after completely overindulging in the stuff this weekend, I can never get sick of the sweetest of meats and today I found a variety of new ways in which to shamelessly give in to unabashed hedonism. It's no secret that bacon is totally having a moment, right? You can't throw a scale in any direction without hitting someone bearing a devilish grin, eyes aglow: "I just tried bacon-wrapped ______. And it's life-changing." Much like the baptism by fire at the roiling depths of a deep fryer, even the most unsavory flavors can be absolved if penance is paid at the altar of Bacon. Oh, and contrite were we too, heads bowed at the back corner booth at Nickel Diner in Downtown L.A. (5th and Main).
Day two of our gastronomical journey through the City of Angels found us sipping mint-infused lemonade and an egregiously overpriced can of Diet Coke at Nickel, whose menu boasted a variety of typical hip-diner fare. But we weren't there for poached eggs or a short stack. No, we were awaiting something so bad it should be the eighth deadly vice: Bacon Maple Doughnuts. Chewy with a hint of crunch around the edges, the doughnuts are smothered in a semi-opaque glaze and sprinkled with generous clumps of bacon. The effect is less discombobulating and more revelatory: a marriage of flavors destined to find one another and bask in the languorous bliss of eternal love. And predictably, we were equally smitten.
A few blocks down on San Pedro we found yet another nostalgic dish wrapped up in a shiny bow and presented as new. In this case, it's the palaron with kumquats and Cream of Wheat at Lazy Ox Canteen. Essentially pot roast and mashed potatoes, this dish hit all the crucial elements surmising a childhood favorite and then bettered it: a shivering roast of beef is doused in a red wine sauce and presented on a bed of Cream of Wheat - yes, that Cream o' Wheat - the childhood breakfast of champions. The result is unexpected - tart kumquats, earthy brussel sprouts, and meat cooked to juicy perfection. It's a fantastic update to the stuff you used to drown in A1 and ketchup on a Wednesday evening.
Though not on Jonathan Gold's list, I took the liberty of directing Ashley to a hole-in-the-wall dim sum place on the outskirts of Chinatown. If I'm ever able to concoct my own collection of Must Eats, dim sum would be near the top of that list. And the best place I've found is ABC Seafood (708 New High Street, Los Angeles). (Full disclosure: I've yet to exhaust the possibilities lurking in Monterey Park / Alhambra yet, so take this suggestion with a grain or two of sea salt.) Don't let the B rating fool you; this place makes the kind of steam buns you'd rhapsodize over at parties after a couple of cocktails (to the chagrin of nearby guests). Airy clouds of steamed dough, obese and slightly sweet, surrounding a pocket of BBQ pork. The whole thing is roughly the size of a fist, but you'll want to consume them by the fistfuls after foraging to the savory center for the first time.
Our final stop took us north of downtown to the shaded avenues of Los Feliz. Little Dom's (on the corner of Hillhurst and Avocado) is the type of neighborhood establishment that looks like it belongs in New York, but the menu is resolutely southern. Our intended entree was the oyster po' boy, a New Orleans go-to that had found its way onto the menu 3,000 miles away. Delicately fried oysters tossed onto a bed of arugula atop buttered french bread. The bacon, in this case, was a mere garnish; the real spotlight belongs to the mollusks. Faintly flavored by sea water but hardly fishy, it's the type of sandwich you'd likely find in a neighborhood establishment in the French Quarter, but a sunny outdoor table in Los Feliz will do, too.
But what better way to end the day than in the same manner we started it? I spied the cocktail menu at Little Dom's and gave it a quick once-over. While the libations posted are inventive and enticing, what stopped me dead in my tracks and resulted in a heady pre-pre-dinner drink before 2pm was the Bacon Old Fashioned. Bourbon house-infused with applewood smoked bacon and paired with maple, bitters, and a fresh orange peel - it's an old fashioned for the classicists among us, but with a twist to satisfy the aperitif savants. A mouthful of smoke mellows quickly to the familiar brown sugar notes of the bourbon, while a slow wallop of sweetness in the form of maple stops just short of dominating the conversation - thank the bitters. It's restrained and riotous all at once, a potent combination of two of God's greatest gifts to humanity: Bacon and Bourbon.
The first taste...and it's a hit.
About a month ago, I couldn't stop myself from effusing rhapsodically about Jonathan Gold's "99 Things To Eat in L.A. Before You Die" over at LA Weekly. I shared the list with everyone I could think to share it with, including posting about it here. It was - it is - practically perfect in every way, a treasure map writ large by an intrepid explorer who is apparently as in love with Los Angeles as I am. And while I'm no nearer to death's door than I'd imagine any of you are (and He'd have to take me kicking and screaming, natch), I still feel an urgency to discover as wide a swath of territory as I possibly can. And why not? If I can still clutch a few dollars of expendable income to my chest in these recessionary times, then I can sure as hell spend it on a few gallons of gas that will transport me from home base to the Great Wide Somewhere.
Being the adventurer that she is, Ashley agreed that Gold's poetic, swooning descriptions of places both near and far to our Long Beach address were too good to pass up. So with a week of free time (hers a Spring Break, mine a week of calm before the storm), we delved into the meatier portion of Gold's article, tearing it apart and repairing it again, forming a slightly condensed version to suit our time frame, budget, and culinary desires. Thusly grouped by region, we partnered our gastronomical adventures with days of the week and today, I'm happy to report, was Day 1: Pasadena / Alhambra / 210 Corridor.
Our first stop was Little Flower Candy Co. (1424 W. Colorado Blvd.), a tiny cafe facing the 134 Fwy. Though the pastries looked delicious, our purpose for stopping there was for their sea salt caramels - which, at $14 a bag, were certainly not cheap. But oh, are they ever worth it. The candies literally melt in your mouth, sliding around the four corners of the tongue, indolent and unhurried. As far as caramels go, these are on par with what you'd come to expect from the stuff: buttery, warm, inviting. But the real kicker is the unexpectedly savory rush of sea salt developing near the back of the mouth, working its way forward with a tart nip and receding back again, a literal wave of flavor ebbing and flowing with every bite.
From there, we made our way to Alhambra - a culinary capital if there ever was one. If Banh Mi's your thing, if Dim Sum is your thing, if excellent food is your thing, then Alhambra's a destination in and of itself. Despite a slight altercation with Google Maps (Me: "Valley Blvd East? We're on Valley Blvd WEST!" Goog Map: "Watch me not care at all."), we eventually found our spot: 101 Noodle Express (1408 EAST Valley Blvd, Alhambra). And the object of our affection? The beef roll. We ordered one for the table ($6.75), and still had leftovers after the three of us had eaten our fill. Sweetly tangy shavings of beef are rolled around a bushel of cilantro and onions and sheathed in a flaky, slightly crispy flatbread - not unlike a tortilla, but more substantial. The simplicity of the dish - unencumbered by weighty sauces or superfluous accoutrements - is the secret to its perfection. With the grassy tang of cilantro as its partner, the meat's smoky, salty goodness is experienced wholly with every bite. Pair it with a porcelain cup of herbal tea and little else. You won't need to.
Stop number three was in the same neck of the woods: Shanghai Xiao Chi (828 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra). The restaurant itself was a nondescript part of a blander whole - quivering blinds, an address, and little else to announce its presence. Inside, the 15 linen-covered tables were empty save for a trio of businessmen in the corner. I ordered the pork pump, unsure of its menu equivalent but our waiter - quite possibly the owner - nodded quickly and pointed to a dish near the end of page 3. I'd never have picked out this particular entree without a prompt. What arrived at the table was the stuff dreams are made of. A glassy mound of pork rested in a fragrant pool of glaze, accompanied by stocks of fennel and a bowl of white rice. The meat itself simply came undone if you so much as glanced in its direction. The flavor was rich and savory, the bounties of a meat treated well. There weren't many words spoken during our meal. There didn't have to be. Aside from the occasional appraising murmur, we were utterly transfixed by the flavorful interaction of sweet, pliant pork and a sauce so self-possessed, so assured of its perfection, the only response is reverent silence.
We finished the day in the most fitting of fashions: with an old fashioned doughnut from the Donut Man (915 E. Route 66, Glendora). I think Jonathan Gold's explanation for this treat far surpasses anything I could get at past "Yum," so here it is:
Have you ever seen a strawberry doughnut from Donut Man? It is an iceberg of a doughnut, a heavy, flattened demisphere big enough to use as a Pilates aid, split in two and filled to order with what must be an entire basket of fresh strawberries, and only in season. The fruit is moistened with a translucent gel that lubricates even the occasional white-shouldered berry with a mantle of slippery sweetness — oozing from the sides — forming frozen whorls, turning the bottom of the pasteboard box into a sugary miasma in the unlikely event that the doughnuts actually make it home. The tawny pastry itself is only lightly sweetened, dense and slightly crunchy at the outside, like most good doughnuts, with a vaguely oily nuttiness and an almost substantial chew. It is the only doughnut I have ever seen that is routinely served with a plastic knife and fork. The stand is on the way to nowhere, but the doughnuts are worth all the irreplaceable fossil fuel it takes to get there.
And there you have it. End of Day One. On deck tomorrow? Downtown. Stay tuned. Or better yet, join us!