Monday, April 13, 2009

from Serious Eats: I Ate LA

Note: A pretty good Los Angeles "casual dining" primer... If you aren't a vegetarian, live in or have visited LA, and haven't had the Pastrami Sandwich at Langer's you haven't lived... there are a few places i wouldn't have listed if i were writing this piece and some pretty obvious omissions that should have been included, but all-in-all a pretty good overview (though i don't agree with all of his conclusions... e.g., never been a fan of the burgers at the Apple Pan)...

I Ate L.A.

"For reasons I will never understand, Dodger Dogs are incredibly popular among the Dodger Stadium faithful."


Before my recent trip to Los Angeles, I had been there twice. I went on a family vacation about 25 years ago, and I returned five years ago for two days. Other than a stop on the second visit at the good but far-from-life-altering Pink's, I did not see much of the city’s culinary scene. I did get to sit in the studio audience for an excellent episode of Family Ties with guest star River Phoenix, but that did nothing for my stomach.

On this trip, I was determined to eat a lot, eat well, and eat relatively cheaply. My only real impediments were my hosts, G-Nice (his preferred name, which is largely unused) and his evil wife, Lana. I have known G-Nice for 15 years, and in that time I've seen his tastes evolve from the point where his favorite restaurant was Bakers Square to the point that he and his wife have a Valentine's Day tradition that includes a stop at a food court and a romantic meal at IHOP. To be fair, her dining tastes are much more refined than his, but helping me plan would have required her to be nice, so I was on my own. Thanks to LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold, the only food writer to win a Pulitzer Prize; hours of research on various food websites, especially Eating L.A.; and the gracious accommodation of friends, especially the aforementioned pair, I was able to go on an incredibly satisfying, mildly gluttonous tour of Los Angeles. Come along, after the jump.

I did not eat before boarding my flight, thinking I would go to sleep as soon as I got there and wake up hungry on Friday. The plan backfired—I was starving when my flight landed late that Thursday night, so we decided to stop for some doughnuts. L.A. has the highest number of doughnut shops per capita in the country (Canada wins in the nationwide category), so finding a place to stop wasn’t hard, even at midnight. Shockingly, there is not a single Dunkin' Donuts in Los Angeles.

We went to Yum Yum Donuts, a fairly large local chain that also owns the better-known Winchell's. Not much can be expected of a doughnut shop after midnight, but Yum Yum was sufficiently satisfying. I opted for a maple bar and an apple fritter. Understandably, neither was fresh, and the hours had left the fritter a little worse for the wear. The donuts were not bad - the taste was fine, but they had no crispness to them at all.

On Friday, I prepared for the day's eating by going for a run, during which I learned two things. First, Los Angeles has a lot of hills. Second, the main streets do not go in a straight line, which makes it remarkably easy for an outsider to get lost. I eventually made my way home and was ready to eat with G-Nice, who took the day off to play tour guide and chauffeur. Up first was Apple Pan, a place many say is home to the best California-style burger. Nick Solares already wrote a loving tribute to the Apple Pan for A Hamburger Today, so I won't go into too much detail. I got a Hickory Burger, which was excellent: A quarter-pound of freshly griddled beef smothered in a mouthwatering sweet, tangy sauce and placed on a soft, toasted bun with a slice of fresh tomato and what seemed like an entire head of lettuce. Nick thought the fries were good, but I found them to be flavorless. Given his thoroughness, I have to think that they have either changed suppliers or I got a bad batch. In any event, they were useful vessels for getting all of the extra hickory sauce into my belly.

As good as the burger was, I'm not sure that I'd opt to eat it instead of a double double from In-N-Out, which is about 80 percent as good, albeit with a different sauce, at half the price. What I would return to Apple Pan for is a slice of the banana cream pie that I had for dessert. I know I was supposed to get apple pie, but I have a problem passing up good cream pies. I'm confident I made the right decision. This fantastic slice of pie was creamy, rich, fluffy, and had about an entire sliced banana packed inside.

From there we headed to Westwood, home of UCLA and, much more important, Stan's Donuts, where Stan Berman has been making doughnuts for 45 years. Stan does sell regular doughnuts, so I went for some of his special offerings instead. With some help from my host’s increasingly less hostile wife later in the day, I got to try two of the peanut butter doughnuts, one filled with peanut butter and covered in chocolate, and one filled with peanut butter and bananas. I also got an apple fritter and a blueberry cheese doughnut, which was like a cross between a doughnut and a Danish. I ate the peanut butter and chocolate doughnut in the store and was completely blown away. Stan puts real peanut butter in the middle and fries them in soybean shortening to perfection—crisp on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside, and moist all the way through.

Around the corner from Stan's sits Diddy Riese, home of $1.50 ice cream sandwiches. Diddy Riese has a pretty straightforward setup. You line up (there is always a line), and when it's your turn to order, you pick which of ten kinds of cookies and 12 types of ice cream you want to put together to create an ice cream sandwich.

Having just eaten at Stan's, I did not have any use for Diddy Riese, but G-Nice insisted on buying me one since, in his mind, this is about as good as dessert can get. I ate part of an M&M cookie–espresso chip ice cream sandwich. The ice cream, which is Dreyer's (Edy's in the eastern portion of the country), is good enough, and the cookies are on par with those made in the bakery section of a mediocre supermarket. Compared to the sugary perfection that is a Stan's specialty donut, Diddy Riese is a letdown. But for a buck and a half, it's tough to complain.

From there we were off to wander around the Venice Beach promenade and then home, where I shared the remaining three doughnuts with the newly pleasant wife. Even though a couple hours had passed since I left the store, the doughnuts were still outstanding, especially the blueberry and cheese one. At that point, I had to take a break from eating to get ready for my experience at Pizzeria Mozza, the L.A. meal I was most looking forward to. It was excellent, and I wrote about it in detail on Slice.

After we were done at Mozza, we were well past full and were ready to go home, but first we had to accept the opportunity fate sent us. The Kogi taco trucks are the latest food phenomenon sweeping L.A. (read about them here and here on Serious Eats), and one of the trucks was scheduled to be less than a mile from G-Nice’s house that night until midnight. We got to the designated intersection with about 15 minutes to spare, but no truck was in sight. Kogi has had some issues about not sticking their schedule, but it's also possible it was a slow night at Cloverdale and Wilshire and they closed up early. I was disappointed, but given how much I had eaten, it might have been for the best.


On Saturday, G-Nice had some work to do so I was on my own. I got up relatively early and relied on the city's underrated public transportation system to go downtown for a little more tourist activity—the L.A. Conservancy's Historic Core walking tour. The 2.5-hour architecture tour covered downtown Los Angeles from about 1880 to 1930 and was really well done. When that was over, I went to go meet a couple of friends at Philippe's, where the French Dip was allegedly invented in 1918 (another downtown restaurant, Cole's, also stakes a claim). In addition to beef, Philippe's offers pork, ham, turkey, and lamb for your dipped sandwich pleasure. I had the lamb and blue cheese and loved it. I'm always concerned that places that achieve a certain level of fame will worry less about quality and just skate by on their name, but that was not an issue at Philippe's. Other than wanting a little more meat on my sandwich, I thought it was pretty much flawless: Tender, flavorful meat on a moist bun with a generous layer of blue cheese, all of which was made even better with Philippe’s spicy homemade mustard.

I thought I was going to have to spend the next few hours alone wandering around downtown while I waited for a friend who lives in San Diego to work his way through traffic on I-5 to get to L.A. so we could go to the Korea-Venezuela WBC game, but one of the friends I met for lunch was bored enough to keep me company for the afternoon. We decided to head back into downtown to check out the Grand Central Market, but not without making a couple stops on the way.

It was almost certainly the best taquito I've ever had, which made me realize that there is an upper limit to how good a taquito can be.

First up was Cielito Lindo, a little taco stand that is part of Olvera Street, once the site of the first non-Native American settlement in the area and now a tourist-heavy strip of Mexican restaurants and craft shops. The taquito, served in an excellent guacamole sauce, was very good. It was almost certainly the best taquito I've ever had, which made me realize that there is an upper limit to how good a taquito can be.

The next stop on the way to Grand Central was at Fugetsu-Do Confectioneries, a Little Tokyo institution that has been run by the same family since 1903, with the exception of the years spent in an internment camp during World War II. I left with a small assortment of fruit-flavored mochi: lemon, strawberry, grape and orange. I didn't eat them until much later that night at which point I discovered that the mochi was an excellent purchase that I wish I had tripled. Not too sweet and incredibly soft while maintaining a chewy rather than mushy texture, it was the best I have had in my limited mochi experience.

By the time we got to Grand Central Market, I was done eating for a little while and my friend had changed her mind regarding her produce shopping, but we still took the time to explore the impressive mixture of stands serving cooked food, fresh produce, and a wide variety of Mexican spices. We were done there around 3 p.m., and I had three hours to kill before the game started. It was at that point that the clouds parted, rainbows appeared, birds sang, angels danced, and my friend uttered the magical words, "Do you want to go to Bulgarini?"


Bulgarini is well-known locally for its mind-blowing gelato. The owner, Leo Bulgarini, is manic about the quality of his product. When I put together the list of places I wanted to try in L.A., it was near the top but I had to give up on it when I realized how far it was from anything else I was doing in town. It turned out I had time and a willing partner with a car, so we headed to Altadena, which is about 20 miles north of downtown L.A. Fortunately, traffic was light and we pulled into the parking lot in a little strip mall about 25 minutes later. Once inside the small shop, we were faced with the dilemma of picking flavors. A couple of high school students were working in the front, but it wasn't long before Bulgarini himself appeared from the back, did not acknowledge any of the customers, gave instructions to his staff, tried bites of a few of the gelatos to make sure all was right, and then went off to dismiss a salesman trying to convince him to participate in some kind of expo before returning to the back of the shop.

The choices for serving size are three, four, or five scoops (the scoops are small). The question for me was not which size but rather which five flavors I would try. I ended up with hazelnut, my go-to gelato flavor; chocolate almond; crema; lemon; and a blood orange granita. The flavors change based on what local fruits are fresh and what nuts Bulgarini has adequate supplies of, but the results are uniformly extraordinary.

I can say that Bulgarini’s gelato was the best thing I ate on my trip.

It's hard to come up with adequate words to describe how good this gelato is. The night before at Mozza, I had a Meyer lemon gelato pie that absolutely blew me away. Bulgarini’s gelato was substantially better than that. The creamy texture of the gelatos was stunning, and the potent flavors of each gelato and the granita were all so good that savoring each bite was a challenge, since my inclination was to inhale it. To the extent that it was possible to identify favorites (I also tried and loved my friend’s pomegranate granita and cream and marsala gelato), the two flavors with nuts really stood out. Each was packed with ground nuts that added an insane intensity of flavor as well as some depth to the texture that made chewing it an absolute pleasure. As I write this, a week after getting back from L.A., I can say that Bulgarini’s gelato was the best thing I ate on my trip.


After resisting the urge to go back inside Bulgarini, we went to Dodger Stadium, where I sat among a sea of very enthusiastic Korean fans and watched Korea dismantle Venezuela to claim a spot in the WBC Finals. The friend from San Diego finished the 120-mile drive in about 3.5 hours (including a good deal of time waiting to get into the Dodger Stadium parking lot), arrived in the second inning and soon left his seat to get a Dodger Dog. For reasons I will never understand, Dodger Dogs are incredibly popular among the Dodger Stadium faithful. A few years ago, the Dodger Dog was MLB's top-selling hot dog, although this year, it is expected to finish third in that competition.

I had had a Dodger Dog five years ago and did not like it at all. Reflecting typical Dodger fan pride, my friend was offended and sure I just had a bad one. He was so sure that he brought me back a Dodger Dog even though I had turned down his offer to do so. While I appreciated the generosity, the problem I was left with was that I had to eat an entire Dodger Dog. It was exactly as I remembered: a steamed, ten-inch mushy mixture of pork and beef that is missing a casing and, more important, good flavor. In fairness, there are apparently grilled Dodger Dogs, which I suspect are marginally better, at least texturally, but none of those stands were open near our seats.


After the game ended, we headed over to Koreatown to meet up with G-Nice and the belligerent wife (she’d regressed since the day before), who was not at all happy with my choice of A-Won, largely because she had never been there. I was happy to go to her favorite, Dong Il Jang, but it turned out they were not going to be open late enough to seat us. A-Won is mostly a Japanese restaurant (Korean-owned), which narrowed my choices for Korean food considerably.

The hwe dup bap consists of a huge bowl (about 12 inches wide) filled with a lot of fresh sashimi and lettuce with chogochujang, a sauce made primarily from spicy red pepper, bean paste, and vinegar. There was a bowl of rice that our waitress repeatedly tried to get us to mix in with the hwe dup bap, but Lana resisted, which I think was the right move. Rice would have diluted the flavors and made the dish heavier, both of which would have lessened the quality. While it was not the mind-blowing concoction that I expected, it was good enough to remind me that I really should eat Korean food more often.

Better than the hwe dup bap was the al bap, which is pictured above. The al bap features five or six different kinds of roe, pickled ginger, a couple of tangy seafood salads, and some vegetables all on a bed of rice. The mixture of flavors and textures made this a great dish unlike anything I had before. Dong Il Jang may be better, but I don't think it serves al bap, which is, as far as I can tell, not nearly as common. My only gripe with A-Won is with the panchan, of which we were only given three decidedly mediocre dishes.

Sunday morning meant a trip to the Hollywood Farmers' Market. I have heard that the Santa Monica Farmers' Market is even better, but that was a much longer trip. As it was, the Hollywood market was good enough to make me think that L.A. wouldn't be such a bad place to live. While I suspect many locals may take it for granted, the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables was absolutely astounding. Making the market even better was the wide range of prepared foods to eat. Other than trying out a lot of samples of various fruits, I limited my intake to an excellent cheese and pork pupusa, a fresh Catalina oyster (shucked right in front of me), and a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade with pulpy watermelon juice.

After a couple-hour break in which we accomplished very little, it was time for Peruvian lunch at Los Balcones Del Peru, which turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. G-Nice looked for the simplest thing on the menu and found a dish with grilled beef and potatoes. The now remarkably friendly wife and I split a few dishes. First we had the mixto ceviche, which was one of about ten different ceviches offered. The mixto featured fish, shrimp and squid, all marinated in lime juice and served with potato and sweet potato along with Peruvian corn and strings of sweet onion.

Up next were a couple of main courses. The chaufa de mariscos, a Chinese-influenced seafood fried rice, was surprisingly good; it was packed with seafood and not overly salty. While I added the aji amarillo sauce to everything I ate at Los Balcones, it was particularly good with the fried rice. The final and best dish of the meal was the pescado a la chorrillana, a lightly battered fried fillet of fish topped with red peppers, onions and tomatoes, all of which was covered in a light aji amarillo sauce. I washed everything down with a chicha morada, a drink made primarily out of purple corn, but also has some fruit juice and spices (perhaps cinnamon and clove?) mixed in. For those more familiar with Mexican food than Peruvian, I thought it tasted strikingly similar to jamaica, a drink made out of hibiscus.


After lunch, it was time for some tourist activity—a walk down Hollywood Boulevard to see the Walk of Fame. Past the end of the walk and a few blocks south (a much longer walk than I realized) sits Mashti Malone's, which was the next stop on my eating tour.

I was intrigued by the rather unique ice cream flavors, which the brothers who own the place have been making since working in their family's ice cream shop in Iran when they were kids. I opted for a scoop of creamy rosewater, which is the shop's signature flavor, and a scoop of lavender. People rave about this place, but I found it to be the least satisfying stop on my trip. The rosewater had a subtle, sweet flavor that was ruined by a shocking amount of large ice crystals. The lavender, which is a flavor I normally like, was a bit overwhelming. The first few bites were very good, but by the end I felt like I was eating frozen lavender body lotion. I'm glad I tried Mashti Malone’s since the flavors are so different from anything I’d ever had, but I do regret going at that time. I should have gone to Lucky Devils for its famous toasted almond milkshake.


After ice cream, it was time to watch some more WBC action. I skipped the Dodger dog as I watched Japan beat the U.S. After dinner, we headed to the original Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles. We got there at 9:30 on a Sunday night and the place, which is big, was packed to the point that there was actually a 15-minute wait to get a table. Once seated, it did not take long for me to settle on a Scoe’s, which is a quarter chicken with two waffles. The chicken was excellent—well seasoned and not too greasy. The waffles were just OK—good flavor, but far too chewy. Even with that flaw, the sweet and savory combination of syrupy, buttery waffles and fried chicken makes for some excellent comfort food. If you're looking for a reason to dislike Larry King, look at how little he ate when he went there with Snoop Dogg.

On Monday, I had to wake up early and head to school with G-Nice, where he banished me to the library while he shaped the leaders of tomorrow. I lasted for about two hours in the library and then headed out for a self-guided tour of the neighborhood. I swung by the L.A. Coliseum, which I learned is impossible to sneak into for a closer look, and then worked my way over to Mercado La Paloma, a community gathering place that has various eateries and shops on the first floor and a variety of neighborhood-oriented nonprofits on the second.

I was there to meet a friend for my first lunch of the day at Chichen Itza, a Yucatecan restaurant known for its cochinia pibil, which is pork that has been marinated in achiote (annatto), sour orange juice and mix of spices, and then wrapped in a banana leaf and baked.

The tender meat that resulted was excellent and the flavor was one that I had not had before. I also learned a valuable lesson: make sure you identify a pepper before taking a bite out of it, no matter how small, because you might be eating a habanero. For dessert, I had a poc chuc taco, which had marinated pork with a black bean dip, roasted pickled onions, and a roasted tomato sauce. The citrus flavor came through stronger in the poc chuc than it did in the pibil which made it, in my opinion, the better flavored meat. For those interested, there is a sit-down version of Chichen Itza downtown near MacArthur Park.


After a long coffee break, I was ready for G-Nice to pick me up and take me to the airport. But first, we had to take a detour for lunch No. 2 at the James Beard Award–winning Langer’s Deli, proclaimed by the proprietor and many customers as the home of the best pastrami in the world (Nora Ephron’s review is particularly spot on).

Before getting to the sandwich, I tried a cup of matzo ball soup, which was very good. The soup had a nice, deep chicken flavor, and the matzo ball found the right spot between firm and soft. The pastrami, which comes served on very flavorful rye bread with an especially chewy crust, is exceptional. The meat is thick cut, juicy, and has just the right amount of fat. It may well be the best pastrami I’ve ever had, but to the extent a sandwich is measured by the quantity of meat, this one came up short.

And so it was that my trip to L.A. came to an end. Thanks to some excellent hosts, accommodating friends, and spending a lot more time planning my meals than I should have, I think I put together a good eating itinerary.

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