Wednesday, August 20, 2014

There's Still Time to Get a Taste of L.A. on Labor Day Weekend

A preview of L.A. Times' The Taste brunch event included Loteria chilequiles and citrus bloody marys

August is a busy month for food festivals in L.A with L.A. Food and Wine coming up this weekend with a sprawling array of events from Santa Monica to Downtown.
Noelle Carter of the L.A. Times test kitchen's bacon cinnamon rolls
Labor Day weekend brings L.A. Times' The Taste festival, with five events that all take place at Paramount Studios. This one's got Jonathan Gold and other L.A. Times food writing folk like Russ Parsons, Betty Hallock and Noelle Carter hosting tasting sessions based around brunch, cocktails, fresh produce and the varied flavors of L.A. All events are discounted for L.A. Times members.
Here's what to expect:
Friday, Aug. 29: Opening night showcases restaurants like Jitlada, De Sano Pizza, Alma, Hinoki & the Bird and the Church Key, along with the awesome alternative cover band Black Crystal Wolf Kids.
Sat. afternoon, Aug. 30: Field to Fork is hosted by Parsons and Nancy Silverton, with lots of cooking demonstrations, wine, beer and cocktail tastings and restaurants including Canele, Coni' Seafood, Ammo and Pine & Crane.
Farmshop's flaky strawberry croissants
Saturday evening's Dinner with a Twist is a cocktail focused evening with demonstrations and tastes from numerous restaurants, hosted by Gold, Hallock and John Sedlar and Julian Cox.
Sunday Aug. 31 is a brunch extravaganza hosted by Carter and Thomas Keller, with pastries, brunch dishes and cocktails from Auntie Em's, Farmshop, Loteria, Bouchon and more. A 1 p.m. talk features Parsons interviewing Keller on 20 Years of the French Laundry.
Sunday evening is Tastes of L.A., hosted by Gold and Michael Cimarusti, including a foraging presentation and sardine cookoff. Restaurants including Fishing with Dynamite, Osteria Mozza, Cliff's Edge, smoke.oil.salt, Lum Ka Naad and Saint Martha.
Now go forth, and eat L.A.! Get tickets here. (And here's a hint: Alo check around sites like Goldstar since some food festivals are discounted close to the event.)

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Hero Shop, a Great Banh Mi By Any Other Name

The spread of banh mi across the land has been a mixed blessing for the humble Vietnamese sandwich. I was a relative latecomer to the Southeast Asian hoagie, but after my first taste in 2004 or so at a long-gone shop on Valley Blvd., I was hooked on the perfect interplay of crispy yet soft baguette, creamy pate, spicy jalapeno, crunchy daikon, savory sauce and sweet barbecue pork or smooth cold cuts. The rest of the world discovered them just a few years later, and suddenly there were banh mi trucks and gourmet banh mi, with varying degrees of success.

The Hero Shop, in downtown L.A. next to Cole's French Dip, does the gourmet banh mi thing much better than any others I've tasted, in a squeaky-clean modern storefront with tables for sidewalk dining out front. Run by the same folks as Silver Lake's Black Hogg, which just re-opened with a retooled menu, the Hero Shop takes the important components of the sandwich and improves on the ingredients without screwing up the balance like other places often do. Their sandwiches range from $7 to $11, so let's get this out of the way right off the bat: yes, you could drive 15 minutes east and get three or four for the same price. But they wouldn't be made of heritage pork or Spanish blood sausage or sambal-roasted broccoli for the vegans who are probably tired of tasteless tofu banh mi.
We tried the BBQ pork and the head cheese; other varieties include sardine, spice and sour chicken, blood sausage and peppers for the real hero lovers, fatty brisket and lemongrass tofu, if you must. In contrast to a traditional banh mi, these sandwiches are huge and yet the bread doesn't overwhelm the meat. The BBQ pork was delicious but almost too intense in its meatiness; I was full after just a few bites and snagged my son's headcheese to try. The thin, cool slices of headcheese marinated in lime juice and layered with pate and all the usual trimmings added up to a platonic balance of banh mi fillings. The bbq pork half made a great lunch the next day. 
This is a great sandwich, at a better prices than most sandwiches these days. The bread-averse can have their fillings over coconut rice in a bowl instead.
I was invited to try Hero Shop, but I would be back on my own dime in a flash -- in fact, my son has already been back for the fatty brisket.
Hero Shop
130 E. 6th St.
Downtown L.A.

Hero Shop on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tink's House: All Pop-Ups Should Be This Creative

Tink's house is located in a small unused office building on First St.
Is it an art gallery? A pop-up restaurant? An interactive progressive dinner? Tink's House, installed near Downtown L.A. from July 31 until Aug. 16, is all of the above. The entire project was planned by chef Jon Sewitz, who started the "culinary troupe" Samacon as a young teenager and cooked at places like Wolvesmouth and Noma, and 20-year old RISD art student Kelsey Isaacs. Now he's all of 19, and ready to head off to NYU in the fall to do "something non-food related." But this summer, they didn't want to just hang out, so they created Tink's House.
The kitchen room emphasizes the textures of materials and ingredients

Each room of the former small office building has been turned into an environment representing a room of the house, with its own sensory experiences -- music, textures, lighting -- and flavors to match with each of seven or so courses. Though they don't have a Twitter account and there hasn't been much publicity, all the dinners are already booked, and there's not much chance of extending the installation since everyone has to get back to school. So why am I telling you about our fun preview dinner? Well, for one thing, there's no reason other places -- or even your own dinner party -- couldn't incorporate some of the sensory ideas to enhance the eating experience. Plus, it's just great to see the kind of creativity that comes when chefs hang out with artists and start spinning ideas.
The Den has a sand-covered floor with the feel of a beach at night. Appetizers included lamb croquettes, with crunchy breading that echoed the sand.
The dining room is covered in orange netting. Even your bare feet feel caught in the netting, making you at one with the perfectly-fried pompano fish served on fine china with pompano tartare in the middle. 
Kelsey Isaacs explains The Kitchen, with foot-massaging balls, Astroturf, live plants to garnish rice bowls, and a wall of toppings for the rice..
Rice bowls could be topped with many ingredients including seaweed, shrimp chips, onion sprouts and just-picked herbs
In the bedroom: a roasted carrot with seaweed "hair" and oyster cream was a tad suggestive

The bedroom was all pale blue sheet-covered walls, benches and table, with lots of padding and dimmish lighting. We ate with our hands to enhance the sensual aspects of eating things like carrots with a lusty oyster cream sauce and spicy andouille sausages.

Sewitz's brother serves grilled sausages and vegetables on the plastic-covered, padded, bed-like table
Sewitz's cooking was very assured, so don't be surprised to see him cooking again in-between or after he explores other areas at NYU. All the courses flowed well, and the organization of the whole operation was extremely impressive. Now I want a padded room and a sand area for beachy dinners.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Quick Bite: Beelman's Pub is the Latest Downtown Drinking Option

Beelman's on Spring St. joins Downtown's buzzy bar scene

What: Beelman's Pub
Where: 600 S. Spring St., Downtown, 213.622.1022
Why: You want a nice after-work cocktail Downtown, but you also want something better to nosh on than just fried bar snacks, and you'd like to watch the street life unroll as you drink.
The goods: From the Acme Hospitality Group folks that run Sixth St. Tavern, Laurel Tavern and the King Eddy Saloon, Beelman's is named after the building's architect. It's a straightforward pub with a well thought-out cocktail list and a good-sized patio along up-and-coming Spring St. Order both food and drinks at the bar, and servers will deliver the order. The menu is elevated bar food, with trout, hangar steak, roast chicken, green beans and roast carrots joining pub staples like a burger, cheese board and charcuterie plate.
The look: Wood-paneled walls and long leatherette booths hint at a vintage look; a wall of taps for both beer and cocktails puts the focus on drinks. Outdoors, bright yellow-legged picnic style tables give the space a beer garden feel.
roasted carrots are spiced up with cheese, shallots and more
What to order: To eat: Oysters, roasted carrots, green beans, chicken liver spread on mini English muffins. To drink: English or Spanish-style gin and tonics, House of Jealous Lovers draft cocktail

(I was invited to try this restaurant.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Trencher Puts on the Sandwich Feed Bag in Echo Park

Low-key Trencher is tucked just off of Sunset Blvd. in Echo Park
EatingLA has been on a bit of a hiatus for the past few weeks, devouring oysters and salumi in Seattle and working on a fun cocktail and beer-intensive project. But of course we haven't stopped eating, and one recent visit was to Trencher, the former location of a dodgy-looking Cambodian place I never tried on Portia next to the Little Joy bar.
A hearty, legit brisket sandwich

On this first visit, we split a brisket sandwich, french fries and a kale salad and so far I'm impressed. The brisket sandwich ($10) featured thick-cut, tender slices that were more rustic than a deli-style brisket and heartier than the fairly delicate bbq brisket at Home State. It was well-balanced with the now-ubiquitous pickled onions and some roasted garlic parsnip puree for creaminess. The homemade potato chips were delicious; we ordered nicely-cooked fries too just because. A kale salad balanced things out somewhat, though the deep-fried croutons added their own layer of decadence.
kale balances out fries, right?
The menu will need more investigation into the fried chicken banh mi and open-faced salmon trencher, but it's a promising start. Best of all, Trencher is open until 10 on weeknights and midnight on weekends, and taking a sandwich into the Little Joy to have with a craft beer is encouraged.

1305 Portia St., Echo Park

Trencher on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Wexler's Deli Updates the Bagels, Lox and Pastrami We All Love

L.A. has been a little behind in the artisanal deli movement. While Portland's Kenny and Zuke's has been open for years, Micah Wexler's new Wexler's Deli stall in Grand Central Market is the first stab at a new-style deli in our area. There's nothing wrong with Nate 'n Al's or Brent's, but operating from a small space in the newly-gourmetized market, former Mezze chef Wexler cures his own pastrami, corned beef and lox and partners with local bakeries to get the breads just the way he likes them. The rye bread comes from Etxea, while the bagels are a special bake done just for Wexler's from Santa Monica's New York Bagels. And of course the dill pickles are house-fermented.

On a quick trip recently, I didn't get a change to taste the pastrami (though the fact that Wexler grew up eating at Langer's is probably a good sign), but I did have one of the chewy, flavorful bagels topped with cream cheese and one of the best silky, mild loxes I've ever tasted. The bagels aren't quite as dense as a true New York bagel but they're certainly closer than most in L.A., with so much more heart than the typical doughy local specimen. I'm not much of a babka person but I couldn't stop eating the dark chocolate-laced cake. The sturgeon was also a winner. Keeping the menu focused in the tiny space allows Wexler to work on getting a few things completely right, and Beverly Hills should be very jealous that Downtown gets a place like this before they do.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

It's Tacolandia Time, Now With an Olvera Street Tequila Garden

The first Tacolandia festival last year was one of the year's better tasting events -- unlike many of the high-end charity events, it's priced for normal people. And there's a tequila garden, so that speaks for itself. It's curated by taco experto Bill Esparza, so you know the most interesting and intense flavors will be representing -- renegade chefs like Bistro LQ's Laurent Quenioux and Starry Kitchen, new-style gourmet tacos from Guerrilla Tacos and Tijuana's Tacos Kokopelli and just plain great Mexican seafood form Coni' Seafood are among the 40 taco tastes that will be grilling in El Pueblo de Los Angeles, a much more fitting and pleasant location than last year's Hollywood parking lot.

Tickets are $25 to $45 depending on your cocktail choices. Sponsored by the L.A. Weekly, a portion of the proceeds will go to Homeboy Industries.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Pine & Crane: Silver Lake's First Good Chinese Restaurant, Like, Ever

Let us thank the restaurant gods that the space on Griffith Park Blvd. formerly occupied by Cru has been taken over by Pine & Crane, a restaurant that believes in actually applying heat to their food. Whenever the raw restaurant Cru was mentioned, the conversation always went like this: "I tried Cru. It's really not that bad. The salads were good." Well, aren't salads normally raw anyway? And isn't kind of fishy when "not that bad" is all most people have to say?
beef noodle soup

Fortunately Pine & Crane has arrived and remodeled the space with clean pale wood ceilings, modern furniture and vintage photos of the owner's grandfather at Taiwan's Pine Crane Noodles. Still in a soft opening stage, Pine & Crane has a short and simple Taiwanese menu that concentrates on dumplings, noodles and a few main dishes and sides.
Don't be put off by the line

Prices are quite reasonable and there are even six taps of draft craft beer and several bottled selections from Taiwan and California as well as wine and sake.
There's a line to order at the counter but it moves fairly fast and we were able to grab a table. With the street in front closed off anyway, I'm sure there will be tables outside as it gets warmer too.
Mapo tofu with pork

Soon our Taiwanese cabbage, scallion pancake, Taiwanese sausage, beef noodle soup and mapo tofu dishes started to arrive. The noodles in the soup were nice and chewy and it had a clean flavored broth with a hint of anise that wasn't quite as deeply funky as some SGV soups, but was still nice. Mapo tofu had a hint of heat and there were plenty of condiments to doctor everything up to your taste.

This is Taiwan-style comfort food -- no crazy amped-up flavors or bacon this and that, just fresh, well-priced regional food in an exceedingly pleasant room. And that's a big plus for Silver Lake. I'm looking forward to popping in again for some dan-dan noodles or potstickers, the beef roll and Jidori chicken. Plus, you can pick up some baby bok choy or pea shoots to take home from the restaurant's garden.
And don't forget, just like the places in the San Gabriel Valley, they're closed on the unusual-for-this-side-of-town day of Tuesday.

Pine & Crane
1521 Griffith Park Blvd.
Silver Lake

Pine & Crane on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Night + Market Song Spices Up Silver Lake

beaded curtains and flowered tablecloths at Night + Market Song

Night + Market Song is the second outpost (Song means two) from chef/owner Kris Yembamroong, who about five years ago started adding spicier and more authentic northern and Isaan Thai street food dishes, first at his parents' Talesai on the Sunset Strip and then at his own Night + Market next door. The Strip was always sort of an odd place for such an interesting restaurant, so it makes sense that Yembamroong has finally come east, opening Night + Market Song in a small Sunset Blvd. storefront just east of Sunset Junction.
Open just two weeks, Song is still in somewhat of a soft opening stage, so there's no beer or wine yet, and when we went, it was cash only. Also, check the website, as the restaurant will close to be at Coachella both weekends.
crispy rice salad (nam khao tod)
The room: Much funkier and louder than its Sunset Strip cousin, Song is meant to look like a cafe you'd stumble on in Bangkok, with a bright pink exterior, folding wooden chairs, flowered oilcloth table coverings, kitschy posters on the wall and bright fluorescent lights. It's a fun room but not the place for a leisurely talkative dinner with friends.
Thai sour sausage
The pros: All three dishes we tried were total mouth fiestas. Isaan sour sausage was the highlight, and the tender, juicy balls of pork had the slightly fermented flavor that makes Thai sausage so wonderfully different. Crispy rice salad is one of the best in the city, bursting with ginger, peanuts, cilantro and chile with just the right amount of burn. Chinese broccoli rose above the usual version with a hefty dose of garlic and chili, making it actually the spiciest of the dishes we tasted. I'm also looking forward to trying the market pad thai, chicken larb and startled pig, to name just a few.

The cons: I get that this is really good Thai food, featuring some unusual dishes that aren't that common even in Thai town. But nearly $60 for a smallish dinner for two with just water to drink seems a high price indeed, especially with the cash only policy. Also, there's no reservations, no takeout or delivery, no BYOB, few substitutions and just a few vegetarian dishes.
Verdict: If you're into big and authentic Thai flavors, spicy food, checking out the latest buzz spot, or pretending you're at a Bangkok hole-in-the-wall, you'll probably like Song, if you can afford it and don't mind lining up for a table.
But if you prefer cushy booths, menus with lots of different choices and spice levels, mild food for the kids, reservations or low Thai Town prices, it's probably not going to be the spot for you.

Night + Market Song
3322 W. Sunset Blvd.
Silver Lake

Night + Market Song on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 30, 2014

6 Reasons to Eat and Drink in San Diego Right Now

The patio at Carnitas Snack Shack on San Diego's University Ave.

"What food is San Diego known for?" asked Matt as we arrived at our AirBnB accomodation in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego. "Besides beer, that is," he qualified. I was kind of stumped. There's all kinds of amazing taco and seafood artistry going on just south  of San Diego in Tijuana and Ensenada, but we were just in San Diego for a chill weekend and didn't want to bother with the border formalities just to have lunch in Tijuana.
"Um, fish tacos?" I ventured, not really knowing if there actually were any renowned fish taco places in the city. After perusing Chowhound and various blogs, I and came up with short list of places to try, though the general opinion seemed to be that Mexican food isn't as impressive there as one might expect. Don't let the haters dissuade you: In addition to being probably one of the best beer towns anywhere, San Diego has lots of fun places to eat as well as a flourishing cocktail scene. Here are a few:
smoked turkey, left; carnitas taco, right at Carnitas Snack Shack
1) Carnitas Snack Shack. There's nothing quite like it in L.A., which is one excellent reason to check out the little building that really does look like a small snack bar from the front (with a long line down the sidewalk at peak hours). The other, of course, is the food: monstrous, meaty carnitas tacos made from sustainably-raised pork, an insane smoked turkey/blue cheese/apple sandwich made with local poultry, Niman Ranch burgers and more. In back, there's a spacious patio with vegetables and herbs growing and a separate beer bar that's open at night. It's the perfect spot for a sunny lunch in a city that's been proven to have the country's most pleasant weather. It's not taco truck-cheap, but then, why would it be for this quality of ingredients? Also, if you can actually consume two of those tacos, you'll likely not eat again for around 24 hours.

Cocktails on tap at Polite Provisions
2) Soda and Swine/Polite Provisions: When dinner time rolled around, we looked at the fun menu at the small and lively Soda and Swine, which specializes in beef, pork, chicken, chorizo or vegetarian meatballs and pie, but we were still too stuffed for meatballs. Instead we grabbed a spot next door at Polite Provisions, an old-timey pharmacy-themed cocktail spot that's about as hipster as San Diego gets. That means that the mixologists wear bowler hats but the friendly drinkers are still in t-shirts and flip flops, happily tucking into meatballs delivered from Soda & Swine along with communal punchbowls and cocktails on tap. Don't miss the Misty Mountain Buck, with homemade ginger beer, rye and lime juice.
3) 24-hour taco shops: By midnight or so, we were finally hungry again, and found out that San Diego has a wealth of drive-through 24-hour taco shops. We stopped for fish tacos at Los Panchos, which is probably not the most amazing Mexican food ever, but it's cheap and probably way better than what you can get at midnight in most of the country.
Mariscos El Pescador truck, Chula Vista
4) Mariscos El Pescador: The real Mexican seafood action was to take place the next day. After wandering around Coronado Island, we headed south on the 5 for a few miles to Chula Vista. I'm not sure if dining in a Toys 'r Us parking lot is high on every tourist's list, but when I hear fresh octopus tacos, I'm there, even if a curb is the only seating at Mariscos El Pescador. Actually we snared two of the few plastic chairs, the better to enjoy some terrific spicy shrimp and buttery octopus tacos and a citrus-y fresh scallop tostada. The menu is above, just so you can see the wide variety of super-fresh seafood available at this popular truck just a few minutes from the Mexican border.
After all that buttery, garlicky, spicy seafood, we needed to cool it down with some Mexican-style ice cream. Others may have Spidey sense; I have paleta-sense, and I knew that so close to the border, there would be sure to be a neveria featuring Mexican-style ice cream treats.
Mangoneada -- mango sorbet topped with fresh mango and chamoy sauce at Neveria Tocumbo

5) Neveria Tocumbo: A quick Yelp search led to Chula Vista's Neveria Tocumbo, which hit the spot with mango-topped mangoneada sorbet sundaes and ice cream in flavors including queso and mamey; other concoctions included numerous varieties of paletas and Tostilocos.
Modern Times tasting flight of Fortunate Islands, Black House, Lomaland and Blazing World
Of course, no trip to San Diego would be complete without visiting at least one brewery. Since we had already tried quite a few local beers at Toronado, Local Habit and the hunting lodge-themed cocktail lounge Sycamore Den, we only made it to one actual brewery on this trip
happy beer drinkers at Modern Times Brewery in San Diego
6) Modern Times: One of San Diego's newest breweries is a cool and cavernous space in the warehouse district near the Sports Arena. One huge wall is covered in pages from vintage comicbooks, while another features a mural made from thousands of colored Post-it notes. We had a tasting flight of all four beers being poured, and loved both the Black House coffee stout and the Fortunate Islands hoppy wheat.
Next time, we'll have those meatballs for sure with a house made almond soda at Soda & Swine, try homestyle Mexican at Super Cocina and finally get to Alesmith Brewing, among others. What are your San Diego favorites?