Thursday, April 7, 2016

Los Angeles Eats - March 2016

It recently occurred to me that, in the 3 years since we've moved to Florida, I haven't taken a single trip away from the family (save for a funeral, but that doesn't really count, right?). Mrs. Hackknife, on the other hand, when she's not traveling for work once or twice a month, has gone out of town with girlfriends probably 6 or 7 times during that same period. This is how I came to find myself on a late-night flight a few Thursdays ago towards the West Coast for a brief and overdue getaway to see my good friends Jaime and Lydia in Los Angeles. As per usual when I visit other cities, I'll take in some of the tourist attractions, but my main focus is food and, in this case, my guides were more than happy to oblige.

Every time I go to LA, I'm more and more impressed with the breadth and diversity of the cuisines available, the likes of which are unmatched in any other American city - it seems as though each strip mall (and there are many, many of them) has 3 or 4 different restaurants to explore. I applaud the efforts of local food critic Jonathan Gold (who happens to be the subject of a documentary film that's out now called "City of Gold" - we watched it one afternoon between meals) to cover this sprawling and shifting wonderland of gastronomic treasures, but I suspect he'll pass on to the great diner in the sky long before he's able to experience even 25% of them. Compared to that, the idea of me attempting to take in a representative slice of the local grub in 3 days is laughable, but that didn't stop me from trying.


Pastrami Reuben, Canter's Deli, 419 N. Fairfax

I can always count on my man Jaime to deliver on all night dining options when I get off the plane and this trip was no exception. Canter's has been a mainstay in the entertainment district on Fairfax since the 1940s (countless celebrities have popped in for nosh over the years) and a fine purveyor of New York City Jewish deli culture (the original owners came to California from NYC during the Depression to start a deli).  The restaurant is a weirdly-alluring combo of bakery, diner, deli counter, and cocktail lounge, seemingly frozen in time with fake wood veneer tables and brown Naugahyde booths.  Although the waning hours of St. Patrick's Day were upon us, I was still surprised at the number of patrons occupying said tables and booths at 3 am on a Thursday night, reminding me that there's a whole different world out there going about its business while I usually sleep.

For my money, you're unlikely to ever find better pastrami than Katz's in New York, so I opted for a slight variation here, namely the pastrami reuben, which was loaded with snappy sauerkraut and sweet Russian dressing on house-made grilled rye bread (the fries and pickles were also terrific, by the way).  It might have been early morning in Tampa, but my body was happy to indulge as if I hadn't eaten in days (negative consequences a few hours later be damned).

California Dodgers Roll/Vegas Roll, Xevichez Sushi Bar, 14117 Hubbard St.

What do you do after eating a giant deli sandwich in the middle of the night? Why, you go out for all-you-can-eat sushi for next day's lunch, that's what. Jaime and Lydia raved about this neighborhood Mexican-sushi fusion joint, which was bursting with a Friday afternoon early happy hour crowd. Fortunately, we were able to snag some stools at the sushi bar, allowing us to petition the chef to give us his version of a sushi "progression" meal.

Generally speaking, I'm leery of buffet-style sushi; however, I admire Xevichez's willingness to include even hot dishes and special rolls in their all-you-can-eat package (it's a steal at $24 a person as long as you come hungry). The fusion rolls on the menu were impressive - the California Dodgers Roll (see above) included a blend of avocado, crab, and cream cheese, deep-fried then placed on a bed of ground tuna/tuna chunks and finished with creamy sauce (their term, not mine) and eel sauce, while the Vegas Roll (see below) featured salmon, tuna cream cheese, and deep-fried avocado with spicy mayo and eel sauce on top. Add in the fact that you can watch basketball or soccer on the big screen in front of you during the progression meal and you've got the makings of a fine lunch (assuming you can go back home to nap instead of returning to the office).

Lucuma Ice Cream, Helados Pops, 450 N. Maclay Ave., San Fernando

Rather than shell out dough for overpriced desserts at Son of a Gun (more on that in a bit), my hosts brought me to a small ice cream parlor for after-dinner sweets one evening. Helados Pops specializes in ice creams and sorbets made of "exotic fruits of the Caribbean, Mexico, South & Central America", an intriguing concept if I've ever heard one (think mango, cashew, horchata, soursop, even cucumber with chili powder). The young man behind the counter (whose father developed the recipes and works back in the kitchen) was gracious enough to let us try at least 10 different flavors, which is how I discovered lucuma fruit, native to Chile and other parts of South America. Allegedly, lucuma is unpleasant when eaten raw, but works well as a flavoring in desserts - the lucuma ice cream at Helados really perplexed my palate at first, eventually offering up hints of curry and other Indian spices, a frozen treat like no other. I'd go so far as to say this was the best thing I ate on my LA trip and it was all I could do to keep myself from returning to get a chocolate-covered lucuma popsicle (something that was, in fact, on the menu).

Lamb French Dip Sandwich with Blue Cheese, Philippe The Original, 1001 N. Alameda St.

I know that I've written before in this blog about how some long-time "institution" restaurants can get away with having substandard grub because of their longevity - Philippe definitely does not fall into that category.  Open since 1908 and in its current location since 1951 (relocated for a freeway - a typical SoCal cliche), the purported originator of the French dip sandwich (a disputed title they share with Cole's, located a short distance away) is still serving up not-exactly deli fare, but more a selection of cafeteria goodies like omelets, pancakes, soup, and pies. The service is gentle (cadres of uniformed waitresses politely take both orders and payment from a collection of lines at the counter) and decor utilitarian, with diners sitting at communal tables perched in small piles of sawdust.

As you might expect, the main draw here is the French dip sandwich. The story goes that founder Philippe Matthieu accidentally dropped a sandwich roll into some beef juice before serving it to a customer, and he was so enamored with his "dip" sandwich that he brought several friends back the next day for more of them. Whether true or not, I can tell you that the French dip here is the real deal - I chose the lamb French dip with blue cheese per the recommendation of First We Feast (whose various LA-focused postings like this one last year were invaluable to my pre-trip research), requesting it "double-dip" (self-explanatory) as opposed to "wet" (where the whole sandwich gets dunked). When paired with some of the house potato salad spiked with paprika and just a smidgen of Philippe's famous incendiary horseradish mustard (a bottle of which I briefly considered bringing home until I realized that the airlines might consider this condiment to be a hazardous item), I was instantly transported to Flavor Country.

Crawfish Mac and Cheese, Little Jewel of New Orleans, 207 Ord St.

Speaking of Guy Fieri, it just so happens that a Triple D favorite resides just up the hill from Philippe on the fringes of Chinatown. When you enter the front door at Little Jewel of New Orleans, you find a market filled with all things Louisiana and a take-out counter to sample the best cuisine that New Orleans has to offer. Jaime and Lydia swear by the crawfish mac and cheese here and we decided it would be a criminal offense to be this close by without picking up a bowl to share.  Dense, cheesy, and mega-rich (and, amazingly, no calories), this bada$% creation of Chef Marcus Christiana-Beniger found a welcome spot in my belly.

Sweetheart Cake, Queen's Bakery, 809 N. Broadway

After Philippe and Little Jewel, our small party needed to burn off some excess energy in a bad way, which we proceeded to do while exploring the ins and outs of LA's modestly-sized Chinatown.  Of course, I just couldn't resist popping into a curious-looking bakery as we passed the display in the window and had to plunk down a couple bucks to try something new.  In this case, new took on the form of a winter melon bun, or what's called a sweetheart cake back in its home environs of China and Hong Kong (I have no picture, but you can see an example here on Wikipedia).  The golden round bun consisted of phyllo-like pastry (made with lard, if I understand correctly) layers filled with a slightly-sweet paste of almonds, sesame, five-spice powder, and candied winter melon (a popular fruit/vegetable in Southeast Asia).  Simple, yet deeply satisfying and not terribly heavy considering what we'd already consumed so far.

Mole Poblano/Calabacitas Tacos, Guisados, 2100 E. Cesar Chavez Ave.

Not having the good sense to leave well enough alone, I had to continue stuffing my gullet for the better part of the afternoon, which would eventually prove to be a bit of a hindrance (more on that to follow).  Still, you can't visit LA without having tacos at some point, and in a city blessed with world-class taquerias on almost every corner, Guisados stands out from the crowd.  Started by the De La Torre family in 2010, Guisados specializes in taco fillings that have been slowly stewed or braised over several hours (a departure from the usual carne asada or al pastor served nearly everywhere) and they consistently show up on the lists of best tacos in Southern California (no easy feat, mind you), including Jonathan Gold's.  Conveniently for us, the original store location in Boyle Heights was a quick ride from Chinatown and we soon found ourselves sipping horchata and futilely trying to clear space in the digestive track for more high-quality grub.  Heeding my growing discomfort, I restrained myself to just a pair of tacos, a wonderful shredded chicken in a dark mole sauce with dried chile, queso fresco, red onion, and sour cream (in the foreground) and an equally-beguiling vegetable blend (calabacitas) of corn, squash, bell peppers and tomatoes with more queso fresco and chipotle sour cream, both on handmade corn tortillas made from masa prepared at the bakery next door.  I also got a bite of Jaime's fiery cochinita pibil (shredded Yucatan-style pork) taco, who for some inexplicable reason asked the cooks to make it a 7 on the heat scale of 1-10 (even the menu advises to "proceed with caution").  This, as you might guess, caused him some distress for a little while and gave his wife and I a good chuckle (sorry, dude).


Various Dishes, Son of a Gun, 8370 W. 3rd St.

Let me start out by saying I had absolutely no issues with the food at Son of a Gun; it was very good, in fact.  Unfortunately, the remainder of the experience left us a little disappointed.  First, a little background: SOAG is one of a growing empire of restaurants belonging to Chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who gained national recognition with their temple to all things meat Animal (we ate there on my last LA trip and it was terrific) and have since expanded into other dining endeavors.  Both cooks are originally from Florida and wanted to showcase their interpretation of coastal cuisine; hence, SOAG was born.  Although I initially questioned the wisdom of flying cross-country to eat at a place that I could find a reasonable facsimile of not far from Tampa, I trusted Messrs. Shook and Dotolo to deliver on what appeared to be a slightly-elevated take of seafood shack and Southern cooking, so I made us a reservation here.

If you've never been to Animal, it's small and loud; however, SOAG is smaller and louder, not much bigger than an actual bait shack with a whole bunch of tables and even a bar packed inside.  Our server was able to steer us toward some of the more popular dishes on the menu, such as the lobster roll with celery and lemon aioli:

and the shrimp toast sandwich with hoisin sauce, sriracha mayo, and herbs:

plus, an inventive linguine and clams dish featuring uni (sea urchin) sauce, breadcrumbs, and chili:

We even received from the kitchen a complimentary plate of smoked baby back ribs with pineapple glaze, chili-soy sauce, scallions, and sesame seeds:

All great dishes - so, what's the problem?  The lobster roll - $10.  The shrimp toast - $13.  The linguine -$23 (yes, I know uni is a luxury ingredient; however, that's not a big bowl of pasta).  And yes, having the comped ribs certainly helped, but we were splitting everything 3 ways, so we weren't exactly filling ourselves up on a tab that quickly surpassed $100 with drinks.  Although the dishes were interesting and well-prepared, I didn't really feel like we got our money's worth here versus our meal at Animal.

Capirotada, Mr. Churro, 12 E. Olvera St. (in the pedestrian mall)

Near Chinatown, you'll find the historic Olvera Street shopping district, a collection of museums and vendor stalls focused on the early Mexican settlements of old Los Angeles.  Inside a pedestrian mall lies Mr. Churro, a stand popular with both tourists and locals visiting Olvera Street looking to satisfy their craving for, well, hot and fresh churros, which I will admit are pretty tasty, especially when you have them filled with custard as Jaime and Lydia did (they have a machine expressly for the purpose of adding filling to churros - it's quite magical, actually).  Anyway, Mr Churro was advertising a specialty dessert called capirotada, a sort-of Mexican bread pudding that's generally available only during Lent.  My hosts informed me that capirotada recipes vary from family to family, but the standard dish includes toasted bolillo bread (similar to baguette) soaked in cane syrup, cinnamon, and cloves, into which various nuts and dried fruits (like raisins) are added.  Some versions also include crumbled white cheese on top (as did this one).  Rather than go with what everyone else was buying, I had to get the Mr Churro capirotada and it was, well, just ok, more savory than sweet, and a gut bomb the likes of which I didn't really need at this point (seeing as we were situated between big lunch/Chinese dessert and taco snack).  Jaime also tried some and stated that his mom's capirotada was better (of course, I can confirm that his mom is an outstanding cook and I was foolish to think I could get quality bread pudding from a mall churro peddler - you win some, you lose some).

Peanut Butter & Jellousy Burger, Slater's 50/50, 61 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena

Maybe it was because I was so full that I was starting to get drowsy, or perhaps it was sitting through the 90-minute documentary film about a famous food writer and his culinary exploits right before dinner, or possibly it was just because I didn't order the right thing, but I had a tough time psyching myself up for the behemoth burger that sat in front of me at Slater's 50/50 in downtown Pasadena.  Our group had attempted to nibble on some of the house vampire dip with carrots and celery sticks (which we ordered mainly due to the fact that we were so desperate for vegetables at this point) prior to the arrival of my Peanut Butter & Jellousy Burger, which is described on the menu as consisting of "Brandt beef, thick cut bacon, peanut butter, strawberry jelly, honey wheat bun".  This sandwich certainly looked good, but I found the bacon to be limp and chewy and the rest of it (including the fries) to be a little uninspired given the vaunted description.  The "50/50" in the restaurant's title refers to the house's signature burger patty blend of 50% ground beef and 50% ground bacon (my burger was not one of those), so perhaps this is what I need to focus on the next time I'm in town.


Caldo de Albondigas de Pollo, Vallarta Supermarket, various locations

When I woke up on Sunday morning, I felt sick - not so much the overindulgence type of sick (there had been plenty of that earlier), but more of the impending cold/flu/unspecified viral infection kind of ailment coming on, sapping my appetite on the last day of my visit and leaving me longing for some lighter fare.  Luckily, many of the Latino supermarkets in the San Fernando Valley (our base of operations for the weekend) have an impressive array of take-out food selections and we stopped in at one called Vallarta.  I've had lengue tacos here that were amazingly good before, but on this day, it was the caldo de albondigas de pollo (chicken meatball soup) served with freshly-made flour tortillas that rejuvenated my constitution.  This giant bowl was more than enough to get me going again and surely helped me endure the red-eye flight back to Tampa later that evening.

Many thanks to my gracious hosts Jaime and Lydia for (as always) going above and beyond the normal call of duty to show me the finer dining spots in their hometown.  I can't wait for my next trip to SoCal as I know so much more good grub awaits exploration...

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