June 19, 2012
Isaan, the northeastern region of Thailand, is the poorest area of the country, beset by droughts, floods and depleted soil, making for a hard-scrabble life as far as eating goes.
Yet somehow the food is seriously great. Isaan cuisine is more sour and spicy than what is found in nearby Central Thailand. Som tam (green papaya salad) — a.k.a. the dish I’d most like to be stranded on a desert island with — is from Isaan, where it is served with sticky rice rather than the usual steamed jasmine rice. Sticky rice is the staple crop I’d learn to grow on my island, in case you didn’t know. If it wasn’t for the whole girls-getting-married-when-they’re-as-young-as-14-for-the-dowry thing, I’d wish I had been born in Isaan, so I could have spent as many years as possible eating the food.
So I was excited for Khun Dom, a Thai restaurant in a barren region of Melrose, an area beset by graffiti, exhaust and generally awful traffic, making for a hard-scrabble life as far as eating goes. The place secretly specializes in Isaan-style salads, a fact apparently unknown to most of the patrons, who load their tables with pad Thai, fried wontons and the other usual Thai menu suspects.
With that in mind, Rob and I ordered three salads: beef nam tok (grilled beef salad), nam kao tod (pork and crispy rice salad) and som tam with dried shrimp, along with the essential sticky rice. After the rice arrived, wrapped neatly in foil, the beef nam tok appeared, accompanied by a plate of Thai basil, Chinese long beans, cabbage and other greens — the perfect thing to munch on between fiery bites of beef. (It wasn’t until my first visit to Thailand that I realized why my dad used to often chow down on, say, a fourth of a head of cabbage alongside his stir-fry and rice. I always just thought he really liked cabbage.) The nam tok ended up being Rob’s favorite dish, the grilled beef dripping with spicy lime dressing and meaty juices.
The nam kao tod was the highlight of the meal for me — I loved the gingery bite and the slick, crispy bits of rice — but what made it even better was following up each mouthful with a chomp of fresh greens and a chunk of perfectly cooked sticky rice. Isaan synergy! The rice was a restaurant sticky rice revelation, delicately chewy, without the unfortunate soggy spots often found at the bottom of bowl.
The only disappointment was the som tam, which was overly sweet and not spicy at all. Next time I’ll try the blue crab som tam instead of the dried shrimp.
There’s no alcohol on the menu, but I bought a beer at the shady liquor store next door, which the waitress kindly opened for me and poured into a frosty glass. Sitting in Khun Dom sipping a cold beer and munching on nam kao tod and greens could almost make me forget I didn’t go to Thailand with my sisters this summer. I’ll just pretend it’s my own Isaan desert island.
4681 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90029
May 20, 2012
The two best things about summer are:
1) That it is acceptable to eat ice cream at least once a day, every day.
2) That riding my scooter becomes the perfect pastime.
Don’t get me wrong, I almost always like riding my scooter. But chilly midwinter scootering can’t compare to a sunny August afternoon ride, sunglasses on, arms recklessly bare, my little Buddy 125 humming happily beneath me. There’s nothing better than that. Except maybe ice cream.
Which is why fellow scooter rider Javier (a.k.a. Teenage Glutster) and I decided to combine the two and have an ice cream scooter crawl, starting with scoops at Scoops, ending with beer floats at The Golden State and trying to avoid any sugar-fueled collisions in between.
We met at Scoops in the early afternoon, so early that the ice cream was mostly untouched, still mounded in creamy swirls and somehow looking even more irresistible. Javier, his lady friend and I split two double scoops: one cup of vegan salty chocolate and coffee-cardamom, which Javier wisely sprinkled with chopped peanuts, and one cup of black currant-sour cream and vanilla-whiskey. I view the combining of two flavors of ice cream in one cup something of an art form and I think we really nailed it this time, especially the salty chocolate and coffee-cardamom with the peanuts. The peanuts were crucial. The other cup worked just because the black currant-sour cream was one of the best Scoops flavors I’ve ever eaten, rich and tangy with a deep berry taste.
As we were finishing, Jessica — my passenger/lady friend — arrived and we worked out a game plan while she polished off a scoop of ice cream.
The next stop was Helados Pops, just a couple blocks away. A tiny shop specializing in sorbets flavored with Central and South American fruits, it was the place I was most excited to bring Javier to, mainly because I was so curious about all the flavors. Javier immediately started chatting with the woman behind the counter, who dished out brightly colored samples of nance (a yellow crabapple-like fruit with a slightly funky taste), arrayán (a kind of guava), marañón (cashew apple, a yellow fruit with a sweet taste reminiscent of pineapple) and lúcuma (egg fruit, a dry-fleshed fruit from Peru with a unique caramel flavor). We ended up getting scoops of the last three in a pint container, along with a half-scoop of the nance because we asked nicely. Lúcuma, the only non-sorbet of the bunch, was the flavor that most interested Javier due to its rarity outside of South America. My favorite was the arrayán: green, slightly sour and utterly refreshing. They also make arrayán paletas!
Next we made a brief savory stop at Mush Bakery for fresh lahmajun, to halt the onset of acute sugar shock. At 90 cents each, they were an amazingly affordable curative.
Bhan Kanom is my favorite place in Thai Town for sweets, so I assumed they would also serve a good Thai slush, but although the ingredients were intriguing — palm toddy? — the ice was chunky rather than slushy and drowned in a syrup that tasted like children’s cough medicine. Never again.
Thankfully, our last stop was a sure thing: award-winning beer floats at The Golden State. The ride from Thai Town to Fairfax was the longest of the day, so by the time we arrived we were more than ready to get out of the sun and relax with our floats. Jason, one of The Golden State’s co-owners, welcomed us with his usual laid-back friendliness and set about making us a couple floats when we told him our ice cream mission. First up was Old Rasputin with Scoop’s signature Brown Bread gelato, a now-classic combination of rich, dark stout and creamy, brown sugar-tinged ice cream. Our second float was a lucky off-menu score, a summery combo of The Bruery’s Hottenroth Berliner Weisse and strawberry-basil gelato. Jason pointed out that the sour ale makes the float taste almost like it’s made with champagne. It was light and refreshing, undoubtedly my favorite of the two, at least on that warm summer day.
After draining our glasses, we sat back and sighed, contented and full of ice cream, looking forward to a leisurely ride home. We’re already discussing our next scooter crawl: a San Gabriel Valley winter hotpot marathon. Who’s in?
712 N Heliotrope Dr
Los Angeles, CA 90029
1010 N Vermont Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90029
5224 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
5271 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
The Golden State
426 N Fairfax Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90036
April 10, 2012
People, there’s no reason to ever eat crappy food on an airplane again. Front Page Jamaican Grille is less than 3 miles from LAX, so an extra 30 minutes and a short trip down Manchester is all that stands between you and a container full of curry goat or oxtails or jerk chicken with a side of rice and beans. Doesn’t that sound better than a soggy $8 turkey sandwich wrapped in plastic? I thought so.
I was lucky enough to be invited to a lunch at Front Page Grille last weekend by an intrepid eater named Josie, whom I met the last time I visited Breed Street in Boyle Heights. She, Javier, Jessica and I met at the restaurant, just a counter and a few tables in a small space painted a dazzling green, tucked into a nondescript strip mall in Inglewood. It is, as Javier put it, like sitting inside a giant Jamaican flag.
We started with a couple appetizers. Vegetable patties, which were like savory handpies stuffed with spinach, are not made on the premises but produced in some other magical Jamaican patty location where the crusts are always flaky and the fillings never soggy. Festival bread was like an unsweetened, slightly dense donut hole, proof that fried dough is the right way to start any meal.
I had been 30 minutes late (navigating tip: Manchester Avenue is not the same as Manchester Boulevard, although the two do eventually meet), so by the time I arrived the others had already put in an order for the roasted perch, which takes 30-40 minutes to prepare. It is well worth the wait, even if you do spend most of the time driving up and down an abandoned block of Manchester Avenue wondering if the restaurant is behind a car wash maybe. Our foil-wrapped fish was brought to the table by John, the chef and co-owner, who has a smile as bright as his green-painted walls. The steaming fish was buried under a pile of chopped cabbage and peppers, totally unphotogenic but so good, the whole mess fragrant with jerk spices and tender enough to cut with a plastic fork. John says the roasted fish is a favorite among the ladies, but he doesn’t know why. Gentlemen, get on board. You’re missing out.
We loaded up our “plates” (actually opened-up takeout containers — it’s kind of awesome) with fish, rice and beans, sticky green okra pods and sweet slices of plantain. The jerk goat was coal-black with a wonderful chew and the oxtails fell apart with the tap of a plastic tine. Nothing was particularly spicy until topped with a little of the homemade hot sauce, a slurry of Scotch bonnet peppers that made my lips tingle. The plainness of the vegetables, boiled and only lightly seasoned, offered an occasional break from the complex spicing of the meats.
The drinks at Front Page Grille are as intriguing and authentic as the food. Pine ginger beer’s spicy bite was tempered by its subtle pineapple sweetness. Cran moss is a bizarre mix of cranberry juice and Irish moss, a.k.a. carrageen moss, a sort of seaweed that lends a slightly gelatinous texture that was certainly unique, but not exactly thirst-quenching. For that, I turned to my favorite of the day, the sorrel drink. Brewed from hibiscus flowers, it is basically like jamaica, but imagine the most perfect jamaica ever, one that is not tooth-achingly sweet but instead slightly tart, like a well-made lemonade. I could drink buckets of this.
We finished the meal with a couple slices of carrot cake — really more of a carrot pudding, dense with shredded carrots and barely sweet. When we told Pam, the other owner, that we liked it, she seemed baffled but pleased to hear someone enjoyed her husband’s latest creation. “He never tells me what he’s going to make,” she said. “He just tells me what it is when he’s done.”
The vibe is mellow, the music is good, the service is friendly and the whole place reminds you why LA is a great place to live — because if you don’t have time to pick up some cheap and authentic Jamaican food on the way out of town, you can always get it when you return. Just make sure your ride doesn’t mind taking a little detour on the way home from the airport.
March 4, 2012
Southern barbecue is sort of the antithesis of parking in LA. Think about it: barbecue is slow and generous — piles of meat infused with the sweet scent of smoke, tended for hours and often served at large gatherings — while LA parking is quick and ruthless, a hair-pulling experience liable to leave you hating your fellow man. So it was in the spirit of slow and generous living that I proposed a Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 meal* for my friends on May 30th, with food from Territory BBQ & Records, a brand-new Southern-style barbecue joint just at the end of my street. No car required.
Territory is the brainchild of Tony Presedo, a former indie record label co-executive, and Curtis Brown, ex-frontman of the band Bad Wizards. A North Carolina native, Brown is also behind the Brooklyn taco truck Endless Summer, so he’s used to bringing regional foods to the hipster masses. The restaurant itself is sparse; all the seating is at outdoor tables covered with checked tablecloths, alongside a refrigerator that diners can open up to grab sodas in glass bottles. It’s charming, but no match for my own apartment, where my friends and I can stay as long as we want and go back for seconds or even thirds — slow and generous, remember? I got our meal to go.
Back at my apartment, my friends gathered around the kitchen table as I opened to-go containers brimming with pulled pork, beef brisket, fried chicken, fried catfish, collard greens, mac and cheese, baked beans and gigantic biscuits. Two small boxes were filled with apple butter, caramel-brown and flecked with spices, to be slathered on the biscuits. One container held only sauces: pepper vinegar and sweet red barbecue sauce, to appease fans of various barbecue styles. To drink there were sodas from Territory — Bubble Up, Jolt cola, orange and grape Crush and cherry-flavored Cheerwine — or the fresh mint limeade I had made that morning. Without ceremony, just a communal “Let’s eat!,” we started loading up our plates and filling our glasses.
The chicken with its thin, crunchy skin and juicy, flavorful meat was quickly voted a crowd favorite, as were the baked beans, which had a big ham bone planted like a flag in the middle. The cornmeal-dredged catfish was crisp yet succulent, but tasted a little bland until I dabbed on some of Territory’s tartar sauce, a light, wonderfully smoky version of a condiment I normally dislike. Of the two barbecued meats, the brisket seemed more deeply flavored than the pork, more redolent of smoke, and was a great match with the fresh-tasting barbecue sauce and plain white bread.
Speaking of bread, let’s talk about the biscuits. When I picked up the food, there had been a short wait because the biscuits were still in the oven. Freshly baked biscuits? No complaints from me. I carried them home in a roasting pan, their toasty, buttery smell drifting into my face, tempting me to just bite into one there on the street. I refrained, just long enough to get inside and grab a plate. Then I split one open, spread on a thick layer of apple butter and bit into warm biscuit heaven — one stop past cinnamon roll paradise, just before croissant nirvana — a place of moist, buttery layers and browned, deliciously crusty edges. If you love bread, you will love these biscuits.
Some of us went back for seconds. A few of us even went back for thirds. Miraculously, though I had ordered enough food for 15 people, the nine of us managed to finish almost all of it. This was not due to paltry servings on Territory’s part, I feel, but to the general spirit of the gathering. We ate a little, we talked a little, we ate a little, we listened to some records, and then we ate some more. Slowness and generosity and eating till you bust — isn’t that what Southern barbecue is all about?
February 19, 2012
On a recent Saturday my friend Meg and I headed to the Fashion District in Downtown LA for lunch and fabric shopping. We were both hungry (Meg because she had swum probably two hundred laps that morning at the pool and me because I had slept in until 11 AM and hadn’t eaten breakfast — sad, that contrast), so we went to Clifton’s first to load up on hearty starches and gravies.
Clifton’s Cafeteria is one of the oldest remaining cafeterias in Los Angeles and undoubtedly the most bizarrely decorated. The first and second floors have a cabin-in-the-woods feeling as seen through a Disney lens, with a giant forest mural, faux caves and a moose head mounted on the wall. After shuttling through a narrow mirrored passageway, you step into the sort of bustling, bright cafeteria serving area loved by geriatrics and small children everywhere. There is Jell-O. There is three-bean salad. There is a man getting a medieval-looking, ginormous turkey leg smothered in gravy, with mashed potatoes on the side. Awesome. You pile your tray with the cold sides, breads and desserts of your choice, and then the nice ladies manning the entrees will plunk whatever hot dishes you want onto a plate. To drink, giant cups of fruit-adorned Olé are set out alongside the usual soda, coffee and tea. I always get the Olé.
The first floor has the forest mural and moose head and the second floor has low ceilings and giant light-box photos of idyllic outdoor scenes. But it’s the third floor that I always go for, with its red flocked wallpaper and crown molding that you know must have been so chic and elegant in 1935. It’s also usually the least crowded. People who frequent cafeterias generally don’t like to walk up stairs.
Too bad the food isn’t very good. On this day, the three-inch layer of ham slices paving my plate was far too salty. The biscuits were, as usual, fluffy and inoffensive. The bean salad tasted only of vinegar and had a funky smell. Meg’s turkey enchilada was decent, though, and we both finished at least half of our desserts. It’s hard to mess up strawberries and whipped cream.
After eating we walked around the third floor, looking at pictures of children’s meals at Clifton’s through the ages and marveling at the now-demolished South-Seas-themed Clifton’s, which had also been in Downtown LA and was notable for the giant waterfall tumbling down around its entrance.
We left the cool dimness of Clifton’s and waded through the bustling heat of Broadway toward our next destination: Paletería La Michoacana. Paletas are Mexican ice pops, way better than, say, Rocket Pops because they come in flavors like cucumber-chile, peanut and soursop. I don’t even know what soursop is, but it’s really fun to say. The freezers in Paletería La Michoacana were stacked neatly with colorful bars, too many to choose from, and when I asked the adorable girl behind the counter what she recommended, she pointed out the mango-chile (“it’s so spicy”) and guava (“it’s so sour”). Meg got the mango-chile and I considered the guava, but wanted to go for something totally different — there’s a pico de gallo flavor on the menu, but I didn’t know if I could handle that. I asked about chamoy. “It’s so spicy.” It was red, studded with yellow chunks of fruit. I got it.
Outside we peeled away the plastic and started in quickly, the bars already starting to drip in the heat. Meg’s was full of mango chunks and chile flecks, sweet and spicy and sour. Mine was spicy and salty, the red chamoy frozen around pieces of pineapple. More than anything, it tasted like someone made a popsicle with Sriracha. Which isn’t surprising, since chamoy is the brine used to pickle fruit, concentrated and seasoned with chile. It’s basically spicy pickle juice. I like pickle juice, but this paleta was too salty for me and I sadly abandoned it halfway through. I might have been better off with the guava. I hear it’s so sour.
I’ll definitely be back to try more paletas the next time I’m in the area; the nut-based flavors sound awesome. But no more pickle juice desserts for me.
648 S Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90014
Paletería La Michoacana
306 W 7th St.
Los Angeles, CA 90014
January 20, 2012
I first moved to Silver Lake when I was 19. Going out for dinner and a drink back then often meant choking down a watery chicken tostada at El Conquistador while sipping a potent margarita and being dazzled by the explosively colorful decor.
Ten years later, my tastes have changed — and so has Silver Lake. How else to explain my thoroughly enjoyable evening at Barbrix, the sleek new wine bar on Hyperion? Seated at the back bar, I got to watch the kitchen action while looking over the menu and reasonably priced list of wines by the glass. I picked the Kogl Mea Culpa Saemling, a white wine from Slovenia our server described as “crispy” — yes, it is difficult for me to resist crispy things — which turned out to be a great match for the meal.
Veal meatballs were juicy and delicate, sitting in a pool of herb-butter sauce that was so good mopped up with chunks of the La Brea Bakery bread, I had to get a second round of bread. The McGrath Farmer’s Plate was like a slice of garden on the plate — dark, earthy beets, sweet sunshine carrots, curling green pea tendrils — exactly right for a cool May evening. We asked a passing server about the saba mentioned in the menu description (the only saba either of us knew was the Japanese mackerel) and he deferred to the chef, Don Dickman, who came over and gave us a quick but thorough explanation of the process of making saba, a sort of unfermented, deeply concentrated grape juice. He squeezed a few droplets of balsamic vinegar onto a plate for us to taste and contrast — an unexpected and welcome lesson from a chef who undoubtedly had better things to do.
The Greek sardine, grilled until the skin was crisp and slightly blackened, was meaty with an oiliness nicely offset by a squeeze of the lemon wedge served alongside. Is there any better way to get your omega-3s? I only wish it had been sardines, plural, so I could have eaten more.
The roasted halibut with sunchokes, chard and mushroom was slightly overcooked, veering from Silky-Supple Town into Dense-Flaky-ville. The flavors were spot-on though, and I loved the contrast between the slightly crunchy sunchoke slices and slippery mushrooms.
We didn’t order dessert, though I was sorely tempted by the ginger shortcakes with berry compote that kept passing by. Jessica, the ideal dining partner in so many ways, seems to unfortunately lack betsu-bara (literally “another stomach” in Japanese), the affliction I was diagnosed with during my first week in Japan when I could eat five courses of food and still have room for dessert. I always have room for dessert.
I’ll undoubtedly be returning to Barbrix, and not just for the shortcake. The service was friendly, the space intimate without feeling cramped, and everyone in the room, whether patron or employee, seemed genuinely happy to be there — including me.
Silver Lake, it’s official. We’ve grown up.
2442 Hyperion Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90027