Monday, June 22, 2009

Los Angeles: City of Food Angels

Street tacos: Quintessential LA Cuisine

Although I missed the talk last year regarding "What is LA cuisine," having finally left the city, I can certainly look back on my five years and tell you what characterizes Los Angeles food. It did take me several years to get over the superficiality of the Westside. In fact, living West of the 405 had left a bad taste in my mouth regarding LA's obsession with fads. By the time I graduated from UCLA, I thought I would leave the city thinking this shallow, pretentious image of Beverly Hills would be the one I'd take with me for the entire area. However, this last year I discovered the authenticity of the city actually lay within the unique geography and ethnic makeup of the city. And of course, I made that discovery by eating my way through this food destination.


Several weeks ago, I received a frantic call. My friend was looking for restaurant recommendations for a Chinese business executive flying in for only two days. This guy was coming in by private jet; money was no object. What were some of the best restaurants in LA when you can spend anything you want? Of course the usual contenders made their appearance--Urasawa, Providence, Melisse and the like. But beyond the few, I soon realized that the best food in LA is not the most expensive food. Sure, these restaurants offered what you might characterize as "LA/Californian," but fresh, organic ingredients with a combination of European and Asian influences didn't seem immediately indicative of LA. You could say the same of almost any fine dining restaurant in the world. So what makes LA unique?

Bless the Commutes

One of the most frustrating aspects of the city also makes creates an environment for the best dining. Does it really take two hours to drive ten miles? It can in LA! Everything's so spread out, streets and freeways are packed all day. Stuck on the 10 for the second hour, it is easy to lose sight of the benefits of being so dispersed. Given my upcoming move to New York City, I would hardly call LA a city. Instead, LA is more like a collection of various villages carved out by long running boulevards and concrete rivers. This combination of low-density and high population form ethnic enclaves each offering its own victuals. Unlike cities like San Francisco, the constant influx of new immigrants creates communities that don't exist elsewhere. Being so spread out, these communities don't meld and mix as readily as they do in other denser cities. It usually takes a traveling kitchen to mix Korean and Mexican food, though a drive through Koreatown will convince you that Spanish and Korean are both native languages of Mexico and Korea. The result is communities that have a certain cultural integrity and allowance for diversity within those cultures. The distances between cultural quarters allows restaurants to specialize and become incredibly proficient at a few dishes that would mostly appeal to a homegrown crowd.

Ho-tteok from Pizza Land in K-Town

Where else can I go on a LA Ghetto Goodies marathon and have Korean ho-tteok, fried pancakes filled with brown sugar, and tacos off four taco trucks on the same day? Los Angeles is home to the largest communities of Thai and Vietnamese outside of their respective countries. In fact, North Hollywood is home to the only Thai Town in the United States. I spent almost every Sunday in old Chinatown, and despite its dilapidated charm, it still has a vibrant community. Go further East and you'll run into the newer Chinatown cropping up in San Gabriel Valley. I lived in Westwood; Little Tehran was just down the street. When I felt like eating with my fingers, it was off to Fairfax's Little Ethiopia. The South Bay has a diverse and vibrant enough Japanese community to host a Japanese Marathon without a sushi restaurant. Not to mention almost all of Los Angeles has taquerias and taco trucs.

Cheap Food Draws All

Tostada Mixtiada from Mar Azul

As a consequence of all these immigrant communities, cheap, delicious ethnic foods abound. A seafood tostada is $3 from the Mar Azul taco truck. $7 for the best ramen at Santouka. Indulge in Seven Course of Beef for $14. This is the perfect environment for amassing friendly eating gatherings, and as I've mentioned before, food marathons.

LA's cultural geography makes it rich for food blogging. Instead of just debating the best Japanese restaurant in town, people can claim expertise in the best yakitori, izakaya or ramen. A restaurant can be terrible in all other respects but have one dish be its saving grace. That's the magic of the LA dining scene.

Where to Go From Here

Chocolate cake from Comme ça

As I have emphasized, the beauty in LA food is the influx of new immigrants. But the lack of Old World immigrants have also led to a lackluster collection of European eateries. In future returns to town, I'd like to see growth in French bistros and Italian trattorias. Yet, will this betray the new age cuisines that characterize LA? Maybe a return to classical cuisines wouldn't be so bad. After all, the sushi and Thai fads are fading, but it seems like anything served from a truck is immensely popular.

What are your favorite aspects of LA cuisine culture, and where do you want to see it grow?


Thursday, June 11, 2009

Williams, Arizona: Journey to the Grand Canyon

In a sleepy one-road town on Route 66, my girlfriend and I stayed for two nights for our trip to the Grand Canyon. Williams, Arizona, about sixty miles from the National Park is one of the closest and most affordable places to lodge if you're going to see this magnificent natural wonder. When asked if the Grand Canyon is worth seeing, I always respond the same way--while most landmarks look smaller in person than you expect, the Grand Canyon is hundreds of times grander than you imagine. Since this is Food Destination, I thought I'd profile three of the restaurants in town.


As you can tell from the photo above, there's not much to this little town. Mostly dingy hotels and a scattering of restaurants, the tourism on route to the Grand Canyon seems to be the only thing keeping it alive. Oddly, there's a very modern looking Safeway grocery store at one end of town though. I guess everyone's got to have their slice of the twenty-first century.

Night 1: Dara Thai Cafe

The town's dining options are dominated by steak and chop houses offering slabs of meat in various slices of Americana. We actually searched out the outlier in all these restaurants and visited the one "ethnic" restaurant in town. It's actually not that easy to find, since the listed address is actually a real estate office. The cafe is hidden up Grand Canyon Boulevard, just keep your eyes out for signs. Being a Thai restaurant in the middle of nowhere with no discernible access to fresh ingredients, I didn't expect much. Places like these could get away with serving whatever chicken satay slathered in Sriracha and call it Thai. But the first thing I heard when I opened the door was rapid chattering of a Thai tour group. They were interacting with the waitstaff and seeming to enjoy their meals. I took their lack of total disdain as all the assurance I needed. A tom yum soup, a spicy tofu stir-fry and a dish of chicken sauteed in coconut milk called "jungle princess" all held up to the standards of Thai restaurants in LA. Certainly it's no Ruen Pair or Lotus of Siam, but I would go to Dara Thai Cafe even if it wasn't the only option in town.

Night 2: Rod's Steak House

After a day of hiking the Bright Angel trail into the Canyon, we came back to down ready to satisfy our inner carnivore. Along Interstate 40 driving towards Williams, we saw a cow silhouette on those familiar blue boards that show dining options at the exit. That cow would soon be very familiar to us, as it's used all over Rod's Steak House.

As with most establishments along Highway 66, Rod's is old. Old enough to have switched hands over three sets of owners and have legacies going back to the 1940s. In fact, judging by the interior, it probably hasn't been refurbished in decades. Though I can see how replacing some siding and table cloths might impinge on its Old West façade. Steaks at under $20 is not a bad price. I actually ordered their signature "charred steak", dipped in sugar and grilled. Yes, I was just as skeptical as you. Indeed, the sugar caramelized, then quickly burned, leaving a blackened exterior. But the steak was thick enough to maintain a pink medium-rare center. As a matter of principle, I refuse to order steak at restaurants that don't specialize in steak. While Rod's beef was far from transcendent, a thick, juicy slab is exactly what you need after a long day's hike. I didn't care much for milking the historic Highway 66 vibe, but if that appeals to you, Rod's certainly satisfies.

Morning 3: Old Smokey's Pancake House

Before leaving town back for LA, we decided on an extended breakfast at one of the many diners around Williams. Old Smokey's, like Rod's, features a long history coinciding with Route 66. In its previous life, it had been a diner, barbecue, and now a pancake house. Given its claim to fame, I had to order the pancakes. An unlimited stack of buttermilk pancakes for $5.99 was the way to go. But when I got my order, I was shocked that the buttermilk pancake plate was just one gigantic pancake. With griddle cakes this wide, it's hard to cook evenly, but they did a great job. Consistent throughout, and topped with one of the flavored syrups added to my delight. Strawberry, boysenberry, and pecan syrups all added something different to my pancake Frisbee. Though I settled on the nuttiness of the pecan as my favorite. Since I had a long way to drive, I didn't get another pancake, though in retrospect, $5.99 for one pancake would be too much to pay. To make it worth your while, at least down two of those suckers.

While there are a few more restaurants up in Tusayan, a few miles outside the Park, and many high-end eateries within the Park, Williams offers that small town feel. That is, assuming the small town has no evidence of any of the services you'd expect in a fully functioning town besides the tourism. But most of all, Williams has the cheapest lodging if you're on your way to the Grand Canyon, a trip I highly recommend.

Dara Thai Cafe
145 W Route 66, Suite C
Williams, AZ 86046
(928) 635-2201
~$10 a dish

Rod's Steak House
301 E Route 66
Williams, AZ 86046
(928) 635-2671
>$20 a steak

Old Smokey's Pancake House
624 W Route 66
Williams, AZ 86046
(928) 635-1915
$5.99 unlimited pancakes


Monday, June 8, 2009

Ludobites, I Eat

Having heard about the famous Ludo Lefebvre on LA Food Hunt last year, I've been curious about this culinary prodigy. After stints at L’Esperance in Paris, Bastide in LA, and LAVO in Vegas, Ludo knows fine dining. This doesn't discourage him from flexing his casual muscle with limited engagements at Breadbar on Third.


Yes, that Breadbar is serving food by an elite chef. According to Ludo, he wanted an environment in which he could interact directly with customers; he certainly did so on my visit there with Christine. Chef Ludo was in the front of the house all night, talking to each party, taking pictures, describing many of the dishes that he personally brought tableside. I didn't know what to expect, hearing about his outspoken personality. However, he was congenial the whole night. In fact, he seemed to be having a great time making sure everyone was enjoying himself.

For $5 corkage, I think the restaurant was encouraging people to bring their own wine. We started off with a gift from the kitchen of Ludo's "Popcorn Experiment." Although it was called an experiment, I didn't think it was very adventurous. Seasalt and Parmesean--yawn. Plus the oil drizzled over the kernels stole the crunch from the popcorn. Being the Breadbar, I also expected more out of the rustic bread with honey butter.

The real fun started with the cheesy rosemary polenta, oxtail and yellow carrots. Each ingredient built on the other to create a complex flavor and texture combination. You get the sandy polenta with the tender beef and crunch carrots. However, each element didn't stand out by itself when separated from the dish. The foie gras miso soup was my favorite of the night. Much like the foie gras shabu shabu at Urasawa, the liver permeates the soup while leaving droplets of oil along the top of the liquid.

Foie gras miso soup

The tuna, watermelon, beets, and balsalmic vinegar had the perfect balance of acidic flavors, the sweetness of the fruit, and the brininess of the fish.
Also, the fried chicken was fried in duck fat. Anything in duck fat is good.

Fried chicken in duck fat

Among the mediocre dishes for the night, sauteed diver scallop with curry-yogurt sauce failed to impress. Scallops are good enough on their own; it takes an outstanding sauce to compliment them. I just didn't think the curry flavors melded well. The beef tartar with Vietnamese peanut sauce came in a rice paper roll. I honestly don't remember anything about this dish. While typically I have poached egg on black olive bread as a breakfast item, it tasted just fine for dinner too.


Most disappointing, I thought the brocamole wasabi and corn chips suffered from the lack of avocado. I'll applaud the attempt to replace broccoli with the alligator pear, but the dip suffers when there's nothing to replace the creaminess of a ripe fruit. If anything, the brocamole tasted healthy...a little too healthy for me.

Of the two desserts that night, the chocolate mousse and grilled bell pepper didn't seem to coalesce with quite the ease of the strawberry soup, rhubarb, hibiscus and marshmallow ice cream. I couldn't get past the odd flavor of bell pepper in my chocolate. But the strawberry soup had the refreshing feel of a fruity gazpacho that I greatly enjoyed.

This was the first night of the a la carte menu. I much rather preferred this over a prix fixe 3-course meal that was the standard before. Splitting twelve dishes between four people, we still got our 3-course fix and got much more variety. Better yet, it was about the same price. Come with friends, meet the chef, share a few plates, and don't take yourself too seriously--Ludo doesn't.

Ludobites at Breadbar
8718 W 3rd St
Beverly Grove, 90048
(310) 205-0124
$38 pp

Check out GourmetPig's review

Ludo Bites at Breadbar in Los Angeles