Thursday, November 11, 2010
Los Angeles Dining Notes
Ah, Los Angeles.....the sun, the movie stars, the traffic, the-eyepopping-number-of-strip-mall-Korean-BBQ-joints-and-taquerias.....it's all there. I had November 6 circled on my calendar for quite some time as the date of my good friend (and blog follower) Jaime's marriage to his lovely fiancee, Lydia. As the big day approached, I came to the realization that LA happens to be arguably the best city in the country for mom-and-pop ethnic restaurants, especially for Asian and Latin American cuisines. This knowledge came about mostly from reading reviews by Jonathan Gold, the LA Metro area's pre-eminent food critic and from Saveur magazine, which devoted an entire issue earlier this year to the virtues of Los Angeles eating. Now amply fueled with bravado and exuberance, I compiled a hit list of potential restaurants to visit while in Southern California: Bazaar, Campanile/Tar Pit, Animal, El Parian, Phillipe's (which claims to have invented the original French dip sandwich), plus the ever-present food trucks (which are still illegal in Chicago). The reality, of course, proved to be much less glamorous as Mrs. Hackknife and I had the progeny in tow on this trip: Jack-in-the-Box, Johnny Rockets, and two visits to McDonald's, to be precise (I admit that I may have had overreaching ambitions).
All was not lost in an avalanche of fast food mediocrity, however. There were still several high points on the trip for foodie fanatics like myself, beginning with the rehearsal dinner two days before the wedding, graciously hosted by the groom's parents at their home in Pacoima. Apparently, one custom in the local Mexican community is to hire a taco cook when hosting a large dinner gathering. The taco man at our gathering prepared a scrumptious array of taco choices, including carne asada, al pastor (i.e., pork cooked on a spit with pineapple juice for tenderizing), and pollo (chicken), along with salsas and sauteed jalapenos/onions for garnish. I was able to indulge in all three of these varieties (see Photo #1 above), but not as much as I would have liked due to child management responsibilities. Also sadly missed was the homemade nopales (cactus salad) prepared by the groom's mother, which I'm told by FOH Adam (who is becoming a regular fixture in these postings) was delicious (so much so that he expressed his admiration to Senora Quevedo, who then prepared another entire container of nopales for him to bring home to NYC - I trust that this fed him well on the 6-hour flight back).
The day before the wedding found me running errands with the groom in-between some food stops. I mentioned that I thought a pupusa sounded good to tide us over until lunch, and within mere seconds, here we are stopping at a small, nondescript restaurant serving pupusas (which are small fried corn tortillas stuffed with meat/cheese, native to El Salvador). Unless you're dreaming of hot dogs or Italian beef, this kind of imagine-it-then-immediately-see-it food trick is just not possible in Chicago, even in its most-Latino neighborhoods. Anyway, we both enjoyed a pupusa revuelta (a mixture of cheese, beans, and chicharron, which in this context is not fried pork rind, but ground pork meat paste) with a smattering of curtido (like cole slaw, but with red chile and vinegar) and a horchata, which was less sweet and a bit spicier than those I've had back home.
After picking up fellow groomsman Adam, we made an attempt to get lunch at a famous food truck: Grill Em' All, the winner of the recent Great Food Truck Race competition on the Food Network, who features among other things such insane creations as a "Dee Snider" burger (with peanut butter, jelly, sriracha, and bacon). Funny thing about fame when you're a food truck - it turns out that lots of people want to eat your food. Even at 20 minutes to 2 (which is the end of the truck's lunch service), there are 15 people in line waiting to order and another 15 waiting for their orders to come out. With stomachs growling and considerable envy at watching happy diners acting like they've just won the burger lottery, we instead proceeded a few miles away to Fab's Hot Dogs, reputedly the best hot dogs in LA. Having scanned their offerings (reminding me a bit of a slightly downscale Hot Doug's), I settled on the most local of choices, the LA Street Dog, a bacon-wrapped all-beef wiener with jalapenos, mayo, tomatoes, mustard, ketchup, and grilled onions/peppers (see Photo #2 above). Although I don't typically favor tater tots over fries, the groom recommended the tots and I must admit they were very good, nicely browned and crunchy with a soft interior (nothing like the cement lumps I remember from my freshman year dorm in college). I will hand it to LA: if they want to designate the bacon-wrapped dog as the "official" local variety (as one local hot dog chain is proposing), I enthusiastically embrace this initiative.
Errands completed, some of the other members of the wedding party and spouses met up with us at Katsuya in Glendale for dinner, an upscale sushi restaurant, where we enjoyed many tasty dishes, including a creamy rock shrimp (so nice it was ordered twice), rainbow roll, sunset roll (with grilled eel), blue crab roll, and crispy rice/spicy tuna. My only complaint with the evening's proceedings had nothing to do with the food - although the Phillipe Starck-designed decor throughout the building was very nice to admire, apparently, I'm too stupid to figure out how to activate the Phillipe Starck-designed sink in the men's room, with which I did everything except stand on top of to try to wash my hands.
Finally, the wedding was upon us and all went well as the ceremony was elegant yet humble. With a few hours to spare until the reception and with Adam's resounding endorsement, us two tuxedo-clad fools joined the throngs of humanity down the street from the banquet hall at the perpetually-crowded Porto's Bakery, a local institution for Cuban delicacies. Not only is Porto's known for its cakes (they happened to be providing the wedding cake for our bride and groom) and pastries, they also offer a number of hot dishes. Following recommendations, we ordered some meat pies, potato balls, pork tamales, and cheese rolls and proceeded back to the hotel, where we encountered many famished wedding guests (mostly MIT engineers) camped out in the lobby bar who were more than happy to descend upon our tasty treats like vultures disassembling roadkill. I was lucky to get a couple of cheese rolls (which were like danishes stuffed with melted cheese - delicious) and a few bites of a tamale before only the packaging remained (and I fear some of that might have been consumed as well).
We had a great trip to Southern California, but from a culinary standpoint, we've only just barely scratched the surface of what LA can be to a determined foodie armed with a box of Prilosec OTC. I welcome future challenges in this great dining town, yea verily.....