Monday, August 20, 2012

Los Angeles 2012 - Day 1

As our summer of travel draws to a close before school starts, I managed to finagle one last trip, another solo venture (that makes 2 this year, which means my coffer of favors to be redeemed with family babysitters is now barren) to visit friends and, well, excessively eat. I was really looking forward to staying with Jaime and Lydia, my first voyage back to Los Angeles since their wedding almost 2 years ago, and to experience LA's food culture from their perspective (with some gentle nudges here and there from me). Before arriving, we agreed upon a couple of restaurants to try during my visit and I provided a broad outline of my dining hopes for the trip, trusting mis amigos to fill in the remaining gaps (which they did quite well, I might add).

So, without further ado, I showed up at O'Hare last Wednesday evening and began the bacchanalia before even departing Chicago, stopping to get dinner to go from Tortas Frontera, Rick Bayless's answer to drab airport cuisine. I had actually already eaten at TF's Terminal 1 location prior to leaving for Paris in June and left it out of the associated blog posting (too much material, you know), even though I found it to be superior terminal food by a wide margin. This time, in Terminal 3, I didn't have quite as good of a meal. Sure, the smoked pork mollete (open-faced sandwich) I had was pretty tasty, filled with shredded pork, chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, cilantro, fig spread, and 3 kinds of cheeses (Chihuahua, goat, and Cotija), but I might have overdone it with the chips (which were very salty and very crunchy) and salsas (which were very spicy), plus the EXTREMELY tart classic lime agua fresca. It's almost as if the flavors were too amped up in an attempt to distinguish TF's offerings from the hash slung throughout the rest of the facility, a rare misstep by the city's reigning Mexican chow king (or maybe I just caught the staff on an off night).

With taste buds buzzing, yet undaunted, I boarded my flight and made the 4.5-hour journey to the Left Coast, secure in the knowledge that I would soon be enjoying fried chicken and waffles with Jaime at Roscoe's, a late night LA-institution since 1975. We found locals cavorting with parking lot security on the restaurant's front stoop (one of whom told us it was "time to grub up" as we walked past) and hipsters populating the Naugahyde diner booths seeking a midnight snack. Anthony Bourdain had included Roscoe's on his No Reservations itinerary when filming in LA some years ago (which is how I got wind of it), but the only famous person enshrined on these walls was President Obama, who had decided to grub up here himself during a fundraising trip in 2011. The President had ordered a #9 (waffle and 3 wings); however, I went for the #13 (the Carol C. special), a delicious fried chicken breast (not the least bit greasy) and a wonderful waffle crowned with a dollop of butter (see photo above) that I unceremoniously shunted aside. The menu was expansive enough to give us many more dishes to try on future visits (chicken liver omelet?) and, although we were tempted to pop in to Pink's for a hot dog on the way to the homestead, discretion (and fatigue) drew the evening to a close.

My first morning in Cali began sunny and hot, with extreme heat advisories in effect for the duration of my visit. Jaime's sister had suggested that we check out the old Grand Central Market, which opened in 1917 as a venue for selling produce among downtown's historic buildings. The market is now primarily an ethnic food court/grocery (see photo above) and is open-air, so we opted to visit early before the day's heat enveloped the proceedings. The dining choices were non-chain (emphasis on Latino, but other cultures as well), varied and impressive, leaving me a little bit jealous that we have no comparable equivalent here in Chicago. After a lap or two to survey my options, I picked up a bowl of shrimp ceviche from the Marie's Fresh Seafood stand. The ceviche was simple in preparation, yet very flavorful, featuring lime, onion, tomato, and cilantro, with a couple of corn tortillas and a little hot sauce. Paired with a honeydew smoothie from a nearby juice bar, it made a fine breakfast (see photo below).

Now that we'd removed the edge from our morning hunger, we decided to take things up a notch and head a few blocks' away to Nickel Diner, downtown LA's hip diner hotspot. Featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives and vouched for by some of Jaime's friends, the Nickel is the perfect spot to grab a gourmet doughnut. Jaime swooned over the maple bacon, while I did likewise with one called the Irish Car Bomb, a decadent creation of Jameson-infused cream sandwiched between lobes of cake doughnut rolled in a Guinness crumble (reminiscent of gingersnaps). Apparently, Chicago's not the only town to embrace upscale fried dough these days.

At this point, my friend and I needed a little break in the action before lunch could be considered. From downtown, our next destination was another market, this one a little more focused on the cuisine, merchandise, and services sought out by the city's large Mexican population: El Mercadito in East LA. Inside the mazelike complex was a dizzying array of food stalls, boot and leather shops, hair salons, Latino music/video stores, and much, much more. Tempting as it was, I managed to resist buying any snacks and simply snapped a picture or two, including the candied fruit display below.

Just a short drive from El Mercadito was our lunch stop, Los 5 Puntos, named for the intersection of streets that converge at its doorstep (the "5 points"). Foodie media sources as divergent as Rachael Ray and Saveur Magazine both lauded the tacos churned out from Los 5, but Jaime's fond memories of stopping here with his family to get picnic grub when he was a kid was all the validation I needed.

Los 5 primarily sells meat by the pound for patrons to bring home (referred to as a "carniceria" - I've since discovered that we have a few of those around here, too), featuring the standard offerings such as carnitas (shredded pork) and some less attractive-sounding animal parts such as tripa (tripe) and buches (esophagus). There was little to no chance that we'd be able to consume a pound of anything at this point; fortunately, individuals tacos were also available. I picked up a carnitas taco and one filled with lengua (tongue), topping both with nopales (pickled cactus) and a mild red salsa.

Since the place was more market than restaurant, there was no seating, so we made like the locals and chowed down outside, using a nearby Spanish-language newspaper box as our table. The tacos were delicious, full of lean, well-seasoned meat inside a soft-yet-chewy house-made tortilla (see photo above).

Before long, the heat forced us back inside the car and we headed back to the San Fernando Valley. Amazingly, it was even hotter in the valley, topping out somewhere around 105F. We stopped by Jaime's childhood home to visit with his parents, hardy Mexican immigrants disinterested in the creature comforts of air conditioning, who we found sitting in the backyard under a canopy while a nearby thermometer registered 111F. After 20 or minutes or so, when the extreme warmth began muddling my thought process, Jaime's dad appeared with a welcome treat - a whole coconut cut open at the top so that the refreshing water inside could be sucked out with a straw. I quickly gulped down the coconut's entire contents, so much so that I must have given them the impression that I was also hungry, as his mother went inside to heat up some meatball soup she'd made earlier. I readily acknowledge the absurdity of eating hot soup under these conditions, but I'm sure glad I did as it was delicious, a nice mixture of seasoned rice and big meatballs in a tasty tomato broth.

Feeling fortified from the coconut water and meatball soup, Jaime and I retreated to the pool at his compound, then got ready for the evening's dining highlight. I had managed to score us a reservation at animal, a place I'd been wanting to dine at ever since I'd first read about it a few years ago. Chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo were early practitioners of the latest nose-to-tail cooking resurgence (along with Chris Cosentino, Paul Kahan, Paul Virant, Fergus Henderson, and many others) that's now de rigeur at so many trendy restaurants. Having heard of their rock-and-roll personas and occasionally-shocking menu items (that might include preparations of veal brains, for example), I was expecting a grungy, graffiti-laden dining room pumping out Metallica tunes and was surprised to find a rather genteel salon/classy-looking bar more in keeping with its upscale location near Hollywood and Beverly Hills (although I had to wonder what the proprietors of the kosher butcher shops across the street first thought when they discovered a pig-centric temple had moved to the neighborhood). The menu consisted of many interesting small plates (sadly, none of them included foie gras, now banned in California as of 7/1/12 - just my luck) and I negotiated with mi amigo to try a few things that might normally have been a little outside of his comfort zone.

We began with a schmear of chicken liver toast (see photo above), much lauded in foodie comments and a bargain at only $3. Jaime was hesitant at first, then later conceded that it'd had been the best bite he'd eaten all day (pretty high praise considering the ground we'd covered). The liver was rich and velvety, the perfect foil to the crunchy toast underneath.

Next up was a spring roll studded with shrimp and rabbit sausage, artfully presented with garnishes of sprouts, eggplant, carrots, and amazing green/red curry sauces (see photo above). Like our first dish, it was gone in a flash.

Having recently had a stellar plate of bone marrow in Paris, I convinced Jaime that we needed to try the house version, which was half a bone topped with chimichurri sauce and presented with more crunchy toast (see photo above). Although good, I was a little disappointed at the portion size, much smaller than the brontosaurus bones served up to me at La Boucherie Rouliere.

The room got progressively darker with the setting sun and my cell phone pictures got progressively dimmer, so we'll have to go photo-less from this point onward. Our next dish was a pair of bbq pork belly sandwiches topped with cole slaw, which were sweet and tangy and fun and sloppy, the fatty juices nearly running down our chins. This had to be about the best pork belly prep I could recall ever having. Not to be outdone was our final savory plate, a pile of housemade fries mixed with shredded cheddar cheese and a generous helping of oxtail gravy, a regal version of poutine fit for Louis XIV, had poutine actually made it back to France while Quebec was still under the crown (and I think that Jaime is now an oxtail convert). Desserts were also fabulous, including a vanilla custard laden with berries, lavender crumble, and opal basil, and a bacon chocolate crunch bar with salt & pepper ice cream. The crunch bar was enough to put my eating companion over the edge for the remainder of the evening (I was about there myself); even yet another fantastic farmers market (this time LA's Original Farmers Market, nearby at 3rd and Fairfax, absolutely packed with great food stands that took great pains for me to walk by) couldn't spur us to nosh again before calling it a night. Fitful sleep awaited....

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