Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Taste of the Eastside: Like Walking From Los Feliz to Downtown, But With Beer, and All in One Place


The annual Taste of the Eastside festival and benefit for local organizations happens Sunday, May 1 at the L.A. River Center, and there are still tickets available at this link. Rose Scharlin preschool and Friends of the L.A. River are among the organizations that will be helped by you stuffing your face with tastes from all over Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Atwater, Downtown, Highland Park, Frogtown and Echo Park.

To eat, there will be tastes from Momed, Madcapra, Jeni's Ice Cream, Pazzo Gelato, Lemon Poppy, Ozu East, Donut Farm, Madcapra, Kitchen Mouse, Malo, Spitz and many more.

Drinks are supplied by Highland Park Brewery, Greenbar Distillery, Mohawk Bend, Silver Lake Wine, Strand Brewing and more.

There's also live music, and dj-ing by Garth Trinidad and Anthony Valadez, so if you haven't gotten tickets yet, now's the time to get them and save on the same-day surcharge. Do it for the river!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

You've Got Until Sunday to Celebrate Thai Restaurant Week

Chef Nooror, center, her daughter Sandra, and an enthusiastic garlic pounder
There's still time to get in on Thai Restaurant Week, a promotion tied to Songkran, the Thai New Year, that features special dishes at many of the city's best Thai restaurants. I brushed up on my Thai cooking skills Wednesday at a class at the New School of Cooking taught by chef Nooror, owner of Blue Elephant Cooking School in Thailand. We learned how to make Thai curry paste from scratch, used in the red curry beef in the photo, as well as lacy egg baskets for minced chicken and shrimp and a refreshing shrimp salad topped with a poached egg, reflecting chef Nooror's time living in Europe.
red curry beef tenderloin 

I wish I was in Phuket cooking with Blue Elephant right now, but until I can get there, here are some places to sample amazing special Songkran dishes. Among the restaurants participating in Thai restaurant week:

Luv2Eat Thai: My current favorite offers a special shrimp and mackerel vermicelli salad
Lacha Somtum: Another one of my favorites has two special dishes: Steak Lao and Thai rice vermicelli with crab curry
Night Market: Scallop Tostada
Jitlada: Phuket curry noodles
Ayara: The hard to find dish khao kluk kapi of rice with a variety of toppings
Wat Dong Moon Lek: Issan set with fried chicken and papaya salad
The Original Hoy-Ka: Issan set with fried chicken and papaya salad
Pa Ord Noodles: Spicy basil crispy pork, crispy catfish, doo dee noodle soup, seafood salad with green apple, drunken noodle

There's also one more day to win a trip to Thailand in the #SongkranStories promotion -- go to this link for details.


Wednesday, March 09, 2016

'City of Gold:' Jonathan Gold Documentary is the Opposite of an Anthony Bourdain Show


I was a little worried about seeing the Jonathan Gold documentary "City of Gold." There's something about making a whole movie about a writer that seems suspect to me, unless it's "Capote" or something equally lofty. And surely we've seen enough about the L.A. food scene by now -- us local writers are pretty jaded. We've been all over the Southland, to the taco stands in South Gate, the Thai temple and farther afield, and seen every episode of the food TV shows that have come to town, so as much as we may enjoy reading Gold's writing, it's not like we really need to go there again.

But it turns out I was totally misguided in my apprehension. Director and Mt. Washington resident Laura Gabbert, who previously made "No Impact Man" as well as another look at a distinctive slice of  L.A. in "Sunset Story," has woven together more aspects of the city than any half-hour TV travelogue can ever touch on. And the insider view of the city's varied cultures as seen through its restaurants is interwoven with getting to know the singular Gold himself as he drives the freeways in his pickup truck, eats with an array of local writer friends, meets with editors at the L.A. Times, tours a museum with his family and muses about his influences.

Of course it's always a treat to see familiar L.A. figures like Jazz and Tui at Jitlada and Bricia Lopez at Guelaguetza, some of whom credit Gold with helping stimulate business at their restaurants.

But for me, the revelation of the film was how you could immerse yourself in all 96 minutes of it and feel like you too were cruising along with Gold past endless mini-malls, along rows of tall palm trees, watching ribbons of traffic flow by during a fuchsia sunset. Gabbert is able to capture the beauty of the sometimes-ugly streets of L.A. in a way that's so cinematic that it demands to be seen on the big screen.

In this regard, watching "City of Gold" is 180 degrees away from watching Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" or "No Reservations" or an Andrew Zimmern-type show. Those are all fun too, but it's a much richer and more rewarding experience to relax into the flow of the film without the frenetic editing, commercial break recaps and all the other trappings of reality shows.

"City of Gold" is also valuable as a snapshot of a certain time in the L.A. food world, circa 2014 or so. Grand Central Market is starting to transform; the produce vendors are still there, but other stands are shrouded under wraps, just before Wexler's and the like are about to open. It's a time when the Guerrilla Taco truck is at the pinnacle of L.A.'s endless wave of baroque taco experiments, when Trois Mec is the red-hot target du jour of aspirational eaters.

It's an eminently satisfying portrait of a person who, like all of us, is quirky and sometimes cranky but who, unlike all of us, can write the hell out of an essay about burritos or hagfish utilizing his exhaustive knowledge of anything we put in our mouths. In this way, it resembles "Bill Cunningham New York," another portrait of a fascinating artist that's also a love letter to his city and his subject matter.

Gold and I both spent our childhoods eating around the Westside at places like Senor Pico and our young adult years going to UCLA and punk rock shows, so we have a certain amount in common. While his family frequented Junior's Deli, ours was more partial to Nate 'n Al (When I reveal this at a press lunch, he says, "Ooh, classy"). Near the end of the film Gold says, "I can't tell you how much I love Los Angeles." That's something else we have in common.

"City of Gold" opens Friday, March 11, at the Arclight Hollywood and the Landmark in West L.A. And no, it's not on Netflix yet. 


Sunday, February 21, 2016

Laurent Quenioux Cooks at Home: You Will Eat Cardoons and Fiddleheads and You Will Love Them

Mezcal cured wild salmon with horseradish espuma
Chef Laurent Quenioux can be hard to pin down, but once you find him and buckle in for his Ma Maison tasting menu, you will not be sorry. After his elegant and imaginative Bistro LQ closed on Beverly, he cooked at Vertical Wine Bistro off and on for several years while doing a series of over-the-top dinners involving marijuana, massive quantities of white truffle and pretty much the most impressive cheese cart in town. He still does pop-up dinners in restaurants like Sangers & Joe in Pasadena, but the real action these days is in his Garvanza living room (or on his patio), depending on the season. Hence the Ma Maison name -- there's no relation to the 1980s L.A. restaurant.


Artichokes Barigoule with bottarga crumbs & bone marrow, & a genius wine pairing with Chateau de Trinquvedel's Tavel Rose
We were invited to try the "First Spring Series" dinner heralding the products of the season, sharing a 10 course tasting menu with 10 other people and one adorable and exceedingly well-behaved toddler. The menus change radically from season to season, with very few dishes repeating. His style is heavily informed by his classic French training, but he's been in L.A. for decades now, delving into the local Latin American and Asian food scenes. It's not unusual to find ingredients like masa or pandan in his dishes, though the Ma Maison dinners skew a little more French than some of his other gigs.

Free range hen, wild spring onions
Around the dinner table was a great mix of people -- including an extremely knowledgeable San Marino woman who has been following Quenioux since his days at pioneering hidden foodie temple Bistro K, the baby's parents and their friend who were all well-versed on every morsel of the L.A. dining scene, and a couple from Brentwood who were bemused but impressed to find themselves in deepest Highland Park after randomly Googling "cheese dinner."


Alaskan king crab waits for clam chowder to be added
Quenioux is meticulous about sourcing, looking for local products like Chino's Label Rouge hen and polenta from Grist and Toll. He forages some ingredients, uses arugula from his garden and even shot two ducks in Paso Robles for a wild duck ballotine whose earthiness was tempered by tart pickled kumquats. Here are five of my favorite things from the indulgent dinner.


Octopus with cardoons & lemon air
 1) Cardoons. For some reason I'm not sure I've ever tried the celery-like vegetable that is said to have a hint of artichoke flavor. But cooked as a base for supple Spanish octopus with plenty of lemon butter, its flesh became soft, creamy and altogether captivating.


Fiddlehead ferns, morels, polenta
2) Fiddlehead ferns. Combined with the first morel mushrooms of the season and coarsely-textured polenta, the dish was like the first trip to a warm spring forest after the winter chill.


Quenioux explains the cheeses, including "social cheeses"

3) The cheese cart, of course. Many unpasteurized varieties, some of them smuggled into the country, make this a spectacular finish to an already-elaborate dinner. One of my favorites was the bright orange Mimolette, a French cheese similar to aged gouda. Various fruity condiments and homemade truffle honey put this cheese cart up there with the best.


foie gras with rye bread poridge and civet jus
4) Foie gras with with a savory, not sweet, orientation: Frankly, coming at the end of the meal and wanting to save room for the cheese course, the foie risked being de trop. But cooked rare, the Hudson Valley liver quivered under a warm blanket of rye bread porridge in a pool of wild-tasting civet jus (no, not the ringtailed racoon-like animal, but the rabbit stew). Without the usual fruity accompaniment, it was another foray into the spring wilderness that paid off with big flavor.


coconut cheesecake, green tea tuile, pandan ice cream, pineapple with galabe sugar

5) The pandan ice cream -- How many French dinners have you been to where most of the guests were already familiar with pandan? This was one food-friendly crowd. But we all loved the pale green delicately-scented ice cream with coconut cheesecake and pineapple candied with fancy Galabe raw sugar.

The wine pairings were all terrific, with an all-French list befitting the Sologne-born chef. A great mix of china, friendly, expert service and a fascinating mix of diners in addition to the imaginative and expertly-executed menu make this one of the most compelling dining experiences in town at the moment. Even without the ant eggs, cockscomb or 420, Quenioux is cooking up some beautiful modern French tastes. The suggested price for the underground Ma Maison dinners is $120 with $45 for wine pairing; make reservations on Resy.com.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Shake Shack Gets Ready for a Spring Opening in West Hollywood

The signature Shackburger: cheese, tomato, lettuce and Shacksauce
Angelenos are highly faithful to their In 'n Out Burgers, but they're also accepting of burger innovation like Umami Burger. So hopefully we won't feel too competitive when New York's Shake Shack opens in West Hollywood in a couple of months, because they make a darn good burger. We had a preview last weekend, including a screening of the original "Star Wars," in the lot next door to the Santa Monica Blvd. at La Cienega location (the former site of the famous Koo Koo Roo), though the actual building won't be finished until about March.
Burger fans enjoy a winter outdoor screening of "Star Wars" on the site of the eventual patio and parking lot
A double cheeseburger, which will cost around $8, is twice as much as a similar In 'n Out Burger. But Shake Shack, which started as a hot dog cart to benefit Madison Square Park in Manhattan 15 years ago and has grown into more than 50 locations worldwide, is a step up in the burger heirarchy. The menu includes burgers, a chicken sandwich, hot dogs and also shakes and concretes -- made with frozen custard that's basically soft serve ice cream, but better. We tried the dense and lightly salty buttered popcorn flavor -- an ode to Hollywood, perhaps?
The Roadside Double with Swiss cheese, onions, Dijon mustard

The all-natural, 100% Angus beef burger is flat and flavorful - its meaty distinctiveness stands out even when folded into a potato roll with cheese and Shacksauce. If that's too basic, they'll also have a Smokeshack and a Shroom burger. The first California location will also get a special L.A. burger that pays homage to the French dips pioneered by Philippe's and Cole's.

The Roadside double adds Swiss cheese and Dijon mustard to bacon-simmered onions. Very beefy and substantial, it was perhaps a little too macho for my taste but Matt was a big fan. I preferred the classic, which seemed to subtly improve on a typical burger stand sandwich without crossing over into pricey gourmet burger territory. Shake Shack will also have locations Downtown, and later this year on Brand Blvd. across from the Americana, close enough to In 'n Out for an easy burger taste-off.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Casbah Cafe and Alma Closings: It's Not the Media's Fault



(Casbah Cafe photo courtesy of Harriet's Tomato)
There was a time when the Casbah Cafe seemed like the kind of place I might stop in every day on the way to work and find a crowd of regulars. Local artist Jon Huck was usually hanging out there with a few friends, and at the time it was about the best Silver Lake had to offer, especially if you weren't a fan of the Coffee Table or Backdoor Bakery. The sad truth was that all three had pretty terrible coffee. It was the early 2000s and Intelligentsia, Lamill and all that followed were still several years off, and L.A.'s standard for cappuccino was fairly low. I never quite became the regular I imagined, since I find it hard to give up my home-brewed coffee, and after all, I had a job to get to and would never be the kind of flâneur for whom Casbah seemed made to order.

But like everyone in the neighborhood I appreciated its funkiness, its quirky selection of Moroccan textiles and South American teas. It was a place you could meet up with a friend to chat and not feel rushed, the kind of place you thought would be there forever until suddenly it wasn't. The management posted a statement Thursday making now-familiar accusations of gentrification, landlord troubles, rising rents and increasingly corporate environments. Read the full statement on EaterLA. I'm not sure what the answer is to those problems. I dislike boutiques where I can't afford anything, but I like good coffee and good cheese. I don't think landlords should use any illegal tactics to get businesses out and I think every effort should be made to help beloved community businesses survive, but it's also hard to understand why they wouldn't need to charge the market rate to survive as property owners.

But what I do understand is that it's not the media's fault for not supporting Casbah, as the cafe's statement said. That's the nature of restaurant coverage and most news and content -- there has to be a news hook, or a reason to write about the place. Casbah got plenty of coverage when Sunset Junction first became hip, but inevitably it was upstaged by the massive wave of new businesses that have opened since then. Would it have gotten more media attention if a quality coffee program was offered, or a better menu? Quite possibly, if it was promoted in the right way, though maybe not, if the economics of the place still rested on regulars hanging out for hours after buying just a cappuccino.

Strangely, the media and the expectations it creates was also at least partly to blame for the recent closure of Alma, according to chef Ari Taymor -- but for the exact opposite reason: It brought too much attention to the tasting menu-focused Downtown restaurant that started as a pop-up.

Damned if we do, damned if we don't? We get it, running a restaurant is extremely challenging, whether it's for two years like Alma or 20 years like Casbah -- which by the way, pretty damn good run, right? Sure, it's the media's responsibility to treat restaurants fairly, not to jump in with early negative reviews and to try to have just a little compassion for hard-working chefs and entrepreneurs. But it's not our job to help you revitalize a restaurant that never got a menu update or served a memorable dish, and it's definitely not our job to NOT let readers know about a place we think they should know about. Unless, of course, we want to save it for ourselves, and then you won't hear about it.

So restaurants, blame greedy landlords or fickle investors or changing tastes -- but please don't blame the very people who would love to help you spread the word if you're doing good work. We're on your team, really. Now Yelpers, they're another story altogether.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Why Pok Pok LA Might Need to Make More Changes Than Just the Service Charge

Tamarind whiskey sour

From the start, Pok Pok has been in a tough place in L.A. Owner Andy Ricker kind of confused everyone first with a ticketed reservation policy via Tock that seemed appropriate only for a wildly popular place like Trois Mec. Customers were also confused by the 5% service charge that was one of the first of its kind in Los Angeles, leaving people not sure whether to tip 10%, 15% or what in addition to the 5%. He talked to Playboy today about the service charge issue and what the new minimum wage will mean to restaurants.
larb patties

Though Ricker later said he loves L.A. and meant no disrespect, the headline "Pok Pok's Tipping Experiment Didn't Work and Chef And Ricker Blames L.A." made it seem like L.A. isn't ready to treat its restaurant employees fairly, which is probably true. But if restaurants need to charge more to pay decently, it's probably easiest to just fold the costs into the menu prices. Though Pok Pok has now ditched both the ticketing system and the service charge, here are three other reasons it could still have issues gaining traction in the city with the biggest and most established Thai population in the U.S.

1) The size: It's still not clear how it's going to consistently fill the vast upstairs and downstairs space. Pok Pok is not only bigger than any other Thai restaurant in town, it's as big as the Chinese banquet and dim sum places that survive on weddings and family gatherings, not couples and small groups of friends. It's big enough to house the crowds that line up in Portland and Manhattan, but in a part of L.A. that's maybe not quite yet ready to be a happening nighttime restaurant destination.

2) The menu: Like Night + Market, Pok Pok's specialty is Northern  and Northeastern Thai cooking. After the Pok Pok's Phat Thai noodle shop opened in Chinatown with middling to positive reviews, I was excited to see what Andy Ricker could bring to L.A. that we didn't already have.

The verdict? After just one dinner, I'm not qualified to do a full review yet, but with so many great Thai restaurants in L.A., I'm just not dying to rush back. The signature roasted chicken was indeed nicely grilled and caramelized and used a much better bird than the average joint, and the fried larb patties had a good, complex flavor. But the server didn't seem concerned that we didn't finish the blah Jaw Phak Kad mustard greens and pork ribs, which seem to have now left the menu.

Why not offer the Phat Thai noodle menu too, so customers can have a wider choice of dishes like their excellent Phat Sii Ew?

3) The bar: That tamarind whiskey sour is as tart and refreshing as it was in Portland the first time I tried it, but I'm not sure I want it while I'm eating dinner at long banquet tables in the dining room. Beer seems like the best match for a spicy meal, but I might stop by if there was a dedicated cocktail space.

Why not turn part of the upstairs into a more intimate, funky cocktail lounge with the drinking snacks menu, and encourage people to come even if it's just for drinks? 

L.A. loves Thai food, but it also loves value and lack of pretensions. And noodles. If Pok Pok can strike the right balance, the city will welcome it with even wider arms.



Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Mexico City Food Trip: Tacos, Tlayucos, Mezcal and Eating Tips

Shark (cazon) tacos at La Morenita in Mercado Medellin

There's so much to see and taste in Mexico City that a few days is barely enough to scratch the surface. One thing I realized on my first visit there last week is that you can do sightseeing, walking and museums or you can track down the restaurant and taco stand treasures you may have researched beforehand, but it's pretty hard to do both.

So our eating was not planned particularly strategically, but fortunately, it seems hard to go wrong in DF (Distrito Federal, what the locals call their city, while the slang word for a local is Chilango). As I explained in my earlier post, Why You Totally Have the Wrong Impression About Mexico City, for our first visit we mostly stayed around the Condesa and Roma neighborhoods, which are safe, walkable and full of great tastes. Also, if you're wondering how safe it is, please read the earlier post. Here are a few highlights.

The markets and their food stalls: Mercado Medellin, Mercado Roma, Tianguis CondesaThese three were the perfect intro to Mexico City's broad selection of indoor and outdoor markets. Mercado Medellin is an indoor market that despite being in the trendy Roma neighborhood is not too gentrified -- think Grand Central Market before the new places arrived. It's a manageable size, with clean and welcoming stalls, many of which cater to the surrounding Cuban and Central and South American community. A long corridor on the side is lined with full-service restaurants serving extensive, very well-priced breakfasts and lunches. In the center of the market we tried a terrific fruit juice stand, Las Delicias, where my breakfast was a huge bowl of yogurt topped with granola and several kinds of freshly-cut fruit. The mixed juice drinks there are named for their health benefits like energy or digestion.
Breakfast #2 was right next door at the well-known seafood stand La Morenita, where we tried just-fried shrimp empanadas with mayo and crunchy shark (cazon) tacos.


Mercado Roma, clockwise: View of the bar and vertical garden from the restrooms; El Moro churros; inside the ritzy restroom; chocolates in flavors like mezcal or tamarind with grasshoppers at Que Bo


Just a few blocks away, Mercado Roma is the exact opposite: Think Grand Central Market with only the new merchants. It's brand-new, caters to whatever the Spanish word for yuppie foodie hipsters is, and despite being more expensive than regular markets and the kind of place you might spot a man-bun, it's still packed with delicious edibles like the best churros I've ever had at El Moro, fried up to order with a choice of sweetened condensed milk, chocolate sauce or cajeta (caramel) sauce. The Bendita paleta stand where we had a creamy mango chamoy popsicle is also worth a stop. It's open from about 11 am to 7 pm, except the restaurant and beer garden, which are open later, and is probably one of the few places in Mexico City to get banh mi, pastrami sandwiches, and a large selection of craft beers. Some of the stands, like Azul Antojo, are offshoots of well-known restaurants in Mexico City. The only one that seemed kind of ridiculous was the cold-pressed juice stall, selling bottled juice at nearly Silver Lake-level prices in a city where every street corner has a perfect fresh juice stand.
Fun fact: The trendier places in Mexico City go all-out with their bathroom design. Fun sinks are key, apparently.
Tianguis Condesa, clockwise: Making tlayucos and gorditas; pre-cut vegetable mixes; pink bananas; candied pumpkins


Even if you've toured the indoor markets (on my next trip, I'll make sure to make it to Mercado San Juan, apparently the favorite of chefs and gourmet home cooks), it's fun to check out one of the weekly farmer's markets. Fortunately we were there on a Tuesday for the Tianguis Condesa near Chapultepec park. First we toured the fruit and vegetable stands, admiring the pre-cut veggies waiting to be made into soup and the shiny fruits that looked like they had been scrubbed down, and trying samples of unusual fruits, such as several different types of sapotes, including mamey.

Tip #1: Samples are freely handed out everywhere you go in Mexico City, a very handy way to try a few extra flavors. Take advantage!

Market stands specialize in foods including flautas, tamales, carnitas, seafood, barbacoa and guisados. We tried the tlayucos, oval disks made from blue cornmeal, and gorditas, round disks pre-filled with cheese. After choosing which you prefer, you customize the base with toppings that include potatoes, huitlacoche, mushrooms, spinach and more. Though the tlayucos were more unusual, we found the gorditas had more flavor, probably due to the hidden bits of crunchy pork in the middle. Three gorditas and two cups of jamaica (hibiscus punch) cost about $5.

Contramar contrasts: minnow taco, coconut flan


The restaurants: Contramar, Broka, Xnic

Everyone from one of Mexico's biggest movie producers to an L.A. bookstore manager recommended we try hotspots like Pujol and MeroToro. They didn't fit in our schedule, though we did hit Contramar, the exceedingly civilized lunch-only seafood spot from the owner of MeroToro. It was one of the few places where the waiter spoke good English, so why did I still insist on ordering a minnow (or anchovy?) taco? I'm still not sure. I found it to be an interesting contrast between tiny crispy fishies, smooth avocado and fiery curtido, Matt was not a fan. Our other dishes were perfectly cooked and startingly fresh, but the highlight was the caramelized coconut flan tart for dessert. If you go to Contramar, you might want to step it up a notch since many of the businessmen are wearing suits. Also, make sure you get a Spanish-language menu if you want to see all the day's specials (La Guerrerense-style tostadas, anyone?).
ceviche-style nopales (cactus) at Broka
I found Broka when browsing Chilango.com, and it turned out to be a lovely hidden restaurant in an old house in the Roma neighborhood.  Soft jazz playing, tender, meaty grilled octopus and the momentary pleasant surprise when you enter the courtyard through the kitchen are just a few things that make Broka an excellent place to recuperate from the day's sightseeing. Their blackberry mescal cocktail doesn't hurt either. This would be a great place to catch up with friends on a quiet weeknight.

Tip #2: Broka was one of the few places nearby open on a Monday night, as many restaurants are closed both Sunday evenings and Monday all day. Make sure to call ahead or check a reliable source. Also, many of the interesting restaurants are lunch only, which lasts from about 1 pm to 5 pm. Try to plan a big, late lunch and a light dinner, though it's not always easy when sightseeing.


Xnic, on Tabasco at Insurgentes, specializes in cochinita pibil


We came upon Xnic after a tiring day climbing the pyramids of Teotihuacan, just as we were about to run out of steam. Just off the Avenida de los Insurgentes in Condesa, it's a tiny, brightly-painted storefront that specializes in the Yucatan marinated pork dish cochinita pibil. Starving, tired and thirsty from scaling ancient rocks in the warm sun, I devoured a set lunch ($5) of cucumber-lemon agua drink, tortilla soup, a cochinita taco and a panucho (rolled tortilla with cochinita filling). It looks like a great spot for a hearty breakfast, as well.

Tip #3: Even in the most upscale neighborhoods, there are still plenty of lunch stands and smaller restaurants to choose from. If you're trying to keep it cheap, even ritzy Polanco has street food, falafel windows and bakery samples.

candied fruits and vegetables are among specialties at Celaya



A Centro Historico Sweet Shop and Bar: Celaya and La Opera

After checking out the Diego Rivera  murals at the Palacio Nacional in the Zocalo square and a curious exhibit of horror statues called "Miedo" nearby, we walked down 5 de Mayo, a street which has some of the city's oldest shops and restaurants. Celaya, at number 39, is a more-than-100 year old candy shop with a beautiful art nouveau glass storefront and gold mirrored interior. Their tamarind candy was some of the best I've ever had and the cajeta fudge also looked wonderful.

If you need to rest your feet, stop in at no. 10 and have a cocktail or beer at La Opera bar, a baroque spot dating from 1876 covered in dark carved wood and flocked wallpaper. According to the website, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Octavio Paz were among the patrons who enjoyed drinking there.


Taqueros at Los Parados



Tacos, Tortas and Chilaquiles:

We fell down on the job when it came to trying all the famous taco places, I'm sorry to admit. The first night in the apartment we didn't want to go far so we had tortas and tacos al pastor at Tortas al Fuego. Extremely cheap and two steps from our door, it had very solid food, but it's not well known like Tacos El Guero or El Tizoncito. But at least we did make it to Los Parados, which means "the standing-up people," a popular stand open until midnight every night with a huge menu of grilled meats and even nopales or poblano tacos for vegetarians. Even better than the bistec and chuleta (beef and pork chop) tacos were tocino or bacon, fried to a light crackle on the griddle and eaten standing up at the counter, dripping with an array of condiments, in full view of a pretty amazing-looking hamburger laden with chiles and cheese.

Mercado Roma isn't open for breakfast, but we lucked out when a guard directed us next door to La Boheme. I might not normally seek out a French cafe in Mexico, but our breakfast of tangy green chilaquiles and eggs en cocotte with bacon and fig-topped baguettes was the perfect ending to four days of walking, eating and drinking.


Scenes from Los Insurgentes Pulqueria: guyaba and apple pulque; jugs of pulque behind the bar; a cheese, chorizo and Russian salad sampler; outside the pulqueria



The mezcal and pulque bars: La Clandestina, La Lavanderia, Bosforo, Pulqueria Los Insurgentes

After spending a few days in Cabo San Lucas, we were ready to move beyond tequila. Mexico City has a number of cool little mezcal bars that generally feature interesting music, a youngish crowd, and lengthy mezcal lists that can be tricky to figure out if you're not familiar with each type. Some bars serve only straight mezcal, beer and a few snacks; others do cocktails.

The barman at La Clandestina explained the drill: Each shot of mezcal comes with a few slices of orange sprinkled with chile powder. You order a beer or a  jamaica agua to chase it. We asked him to bring us a flight of three, from light and floral to very smoky and higher alcohol. Though it's made from the maguey plant, which is a cousin to the blue agave tequila is made from, mezcal in general has a milder and purer flavor. We tried one called pechuga (breast), which I could have sworn the bartender explained had something to do with chicken. I looked it up later and sure enough, the mezcal is distilled with a chicken breast, fruits and herbs, giving it a hint of savoriness and umami.

La Clandestina in Condesa is cozy, dark and of course has no sign. It has a few small tables and a long and well-annotated mezcal list, and the staff is very helpful with suggestions. If you prefer a mixed mezcal cocktail like the spicy one we tried garnished with several whole grasshoppers or fresh fruit ponche & mezcal, right next door is La Lavanderia, which has more tables and a menu of Oaxacan snacks.

Bosforo is on a side street just off Avenida Independencia in the Centro neighborhood, and like La Clandestina is signless and intimate. There are no tables -- most people sit at the long bar while others climb a staircase in the rear to recline on pillows in the carpeted loft. Bosforo's eclectic music mix of Turkish disco and indie chill-out tunes gives the place kind of an opium bar vibe, depending on how much mezcal you consume. English is spoken, and it seems to be popular with ex-pats.

Tip #4: One great thing about Mexican bars is that even the smallest ones seem to be able to rustle up a plate of cooked food with no more than a hotplate at their disposal. If you've had a big lunch, you can easily have a hearty snack at the bar, skip dinner and do late-night tacos instead.

Pulqueria Los Insurgentes, right on Insurgentes, the big street that separates Condesa from Roma, specializes in pulque, another drink made from the maguey plant. Slighty fizzy, the milky, fermented drink is about as alcoholic as a beer and is an acquired taste for most, but you need to try it at least once. Los Insurgentes's pulques, displayed in large jugs behind the bar, are made with fresh fruit flavors that do a heroic job of covering up the drink's inherent backwash quality. After you finish your pulque you can order beer and a snack plate packed with green chorizo, cheese and more while relaxing to New Order and the Cure and admiring the historic mansion it's housed in. With some bigger tables and and a second floor, this place could accommodate a larger group if necessary. Later at night, there's a dj and dancing. Cash only.

A Few More Tips for eating in Mexico City
If you want to get to taste the maximum number of things and could use a little guidance, there are several food tours of Mexico City. We were there during the week so we weren't able to try Club Tengo Hambre's street food tour on Saturdays, but it can also be arranged for other days. CTH was co-founded by L.A.'s own StreetGourmetLA Bill Esparza, starting with trips to Tijuana and Ensenada, and has branched out to Mexico City.

Yelp usually has only a few reviews per restaurant in Mexico City, but it's helpful for addresses and hours. Trip Advisor gives a general idea of places more likely to appeal to tourists. Don't take the reviews as gospel on either site, of course.

If you can read even a bit of Spanish, I recommend Chilango, basically the equivalent of the L.A. Weekly. The restaurant listings are pretty easy to figure out and much more descriptive and up-to-the-minute than guidebooks. Their yearly city guide, which was thoughtfully provided at our AirBnB, is very helpful for getting the lay of the land.

Of  course there are many food blogs covering the city, some in English -- one I came across several times is Culinary Backstreets. Let me know if there are other blogs, restaurants, tacos, etc. you recommend. Next time we'll be seeking out some great mole, tacos guisados, traditional restaurants and much more.

And finally, here's a pretty good list of Mexican menu words. Buen provecho!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Why You Totally Have the Wrong Impression About Mexico City

Upstairs at El Pendulo bookstore
Despite my love of Mexican food and several great trips to Tijuana and Ensenada, I have to admit I hadn't really been dying to visit Mexico City. I assumed it was impossibly congested with crazy traffic like Bangkok, horribly smoggy like Beijing, and far more dangerous, dirty and chaotic than other big cities.

But since I needed to spend a few days in Baja covering the Los Cabos film festival (seriously, I was working!), I decided it was time to finally spend a few days in DF, as the locals say (like our DC, it stands for Distrito Federale).

I was incredibly surprised to find out how wrong my impressions were, so I wanted to share my experiences with readers who might not be sure about traveling to Mexico City. I planned the trip on my own, and didn't get any comped meals or rooms.

Disclaimer: I'm just an American tourist and food blogger, not an expert. If my impressions are wrong or naive, feel free to let me know, politely. 

Misconception 1: Crime 
Certainly the biggest concern is whether it's dangerous to travel there. Obviously after four days, I'm no expert in Mexican crime, cartels or anything else like that. But I'd say that for an American tourist (or any other kind, really), the crime is no different than most other major cities. I know there are kidnappings of high-powered figures, and, mostly outside of Mexico City, horrific murders. But like gang activity in L.A., it's extremely unlikely to affect tourists. Like in Oaxaca and the Yucatan, there is no U.S. Government advisory in effect advising of problems in Mexico City.

In fact, I felt safer than in places like Barcelona and Rome, where pickpockets and bag slashers abound. The usual precautions remain: Keep an extra credit card and your passport in a safe or locked bag at your hotel or Airbnb in case you lose your purse or wallet. Try not to call attention by loudly yammering in English on the metro or streets, or constantly displaying an expensive camera. But those common sense suggestions go for just about anywhere.

There's a large police presence everywhere in Mexico City, and in the evening police cars often circle the streets with their lights and sirens on, seemingly just to show people they're around. I think this is a good thing, right? Anyway it seems better than NOT seeing police keeping an eye on things. But it can be pretty cacaphonous between dusk and midnight, when things quiet down.

El Pendulo bookstore in Polanco is a great place to browse, rest your feet and have a cup of tea or full meal.
Misconception 2: It's chaotic, and the traffic is terrible. 
There aren't as many "walk" crosswalk signs as in the U.S., but it's still not particularly difficult to cross major streets. Just watch the signals for when the opposing traffic has a red light, and follow a local if possible. Like in L.A., rush hours can be trafficky, so that's a good time to take the Metro instead. You might have to stand for a few stops at busy times, but it's not horrendously crowded like Tokyo.
I was afraid the city might be hard to figure out, but even without a phone it was no problem (Like ancient vagabonds, we used the Streetwise Mexico City map we bought at the beautiful El Pendulo bookstore in Polanco.) It helps to read a guidebook first -- we picked Mexico City: An Opinionated guide for the Curious Traveler because it's compact and recently published. With only four days to explore, we stayed mostly in Condesa, where our Airbnb was, Roma, Centro and Polanco, so naturally our experience was skewed more towards those more upscale and very walkable neighborhoods. Just watch out for uneven sidewalks.

The leafy view from our apartment could have been in Paris. 
Misconception 3: It's incredibly smoggy.
My throat tickled a bit from time to time, and due to the altitude, the three flights up to our apartment sometimes left me winded. I'm not sure whether it was Mexico City's efforts to get polluting cars off the road or we just lucked out with weather (around 80 degrees and cloudy or breezy), but the smog seemed no worse than, say, Pasadena or Riverside. Honestly, you won't even notice once you're strolling the tree-lined streets of Condesa.

Misconception 4: It's dirty, trashy, public bathrooms are scary, etc.
Totally wrong in our experience -- maybe outlying areas are rougher around the edges. Public toilets at the Mercado Medellin, in the Metro, museums and everywhere else were uniformly immaculate, and it seemed as if workers were constantly washing everything down with bleach. Be sure to carry several 5 peso pieces for public bathrooms and Metro tickets, though.

A yogurt packed with granola and freshly-cut fruits at La Morenita fruit stand in Mercado de Medellin
At food stands in the Mercado Medellin and Condesa tianguis open market, plates were covered in plastic, fruits were cut to order and produce for sale looked like it had been washed and then polished. We didn't eat at the actual sidewalk stands only because we were usually en route to a different restaurant, but they looked perfectly fine.

Obviously there's significant poverty in Mexico, and the beggars on the sidewalk in more touristy areas are certainly tragic. But we actually never saw a homeless person -- I'm sure there must be a homeless population on the outskirts, but I think the city tries hard to make central areas pleasant to visit.

A few more tips on navigating the city:

Transportation: Yes, the city is huge, but many of the neighborhoods tourists will visit aren't incredibly far apart. We took the metro everywhere because it was so cheap (5 pesos = 30 cents) and often moves much faster than the traffic. It was easy to navigate and works exactly like the Paris metro. Since we were having phone issues, we weren't able to use Uber as much as we might have if we had a working phone with an international data plan, though we made do with the wi-fi at bars and restaurants.
Uber is so cheap in Mexico City that you might as well use it a lot to be able to pack in more activities, but the metro is even cheaper and sometimes goes faster. If you want a cab, have the restaurant call one for you or go to a taxi stand. We were told not to hail them, but with Uber there's no need. I tried to tip the Uber driver, but he refused. There are also EcoBici rental bikes everywhere, which could be fun for tooling around one of the parks. I wouldn't want to take one on the main streets, but there are plenty of bike paths and quiet areas to try them out, like the Avenida Amsterdam oval street that used to be a horse-racing track.

Water: Like everywhere in Mexico, it's not recommended to guzzle water straight from the tap. We used small amounts for tooth brushing with no ill effects, and the Airbnb provided a large jug of water. In most restaurants, there's a law that purified water must be available for free. Just ask for agua de garafon or point to the large water dispenser sitting on the bar and you'll save a few dollars a day on bottled water. We drank fruit aguas everywhere with no problem, though I have no idea if they use purified water to make them.

Customize your trip: One reason I wasn't in such a hurry to get to Mexico City is I just wasn't sure how many Frida Kahlo paintings and Mayan artifacts I was in the mood to see. But you can build a trip around any interest. My partner wanted to see the James Bond exhibit and the Zocalo and the Grand Hotel where they filmed "Spectre," so our trip was heavily 007-flavored. You can easily do a food trip, architecture trip or photography trip even if pre-Columbian art isn't your thing. But the wonderfully subversive Diego Rivera murals at the Palacio National (free admission!) are well worth a visit no matter what.

The Pyramid of the Moon is a LONG walk from the entrance to Teotihuacan park
Visiting the pyramids at Teotihuacan: If you have a full day available, you can get out of the city and visit the 2000-year old pyramids at Teotihuacan. Is it possible to take public transportation to Tethuouican, about 30 miles from Mexico City, and be back in time for a meal, a shower and drinks appointment at 7 that evening? Theoretically, yes, but you'll be very tired, even without climbing the 246 ft. tall Pyramid of the Sun. Expensive organized tours apparently stop at lots of shops and don't get there any faster, and I don't think you really need a guide to the pyramids. Taking the public bus from Autobuses del Norte station is quite simple and comfortable: here's good instructions on how to do it.
Leave as early in the morning as possible, preferably on a weekday -- before 9 is ideal -- and take a hat, sunscreen and at least one bottle of water per person or buy some at the entrance, as no water or snacks are available inside the park. Consider taking a picnic or having a big breakfast and taking some snacks. There are restaurants outside the park but once you walk to the pyramids you might not want to keep walking around, since the park is a mile or two long with numerous stone staircases.

Eating: That's a whole other blog post! Check back soon for some of our favorite tastes and what's on our list for next time.

Mexico City is one of the world's great cities, and if a trip to Barcelona or Madrid isn't in the cards, you can have a similar experience in DF with just as much great food and art for a fraction of the price. We can't wait to get back and experience more neighborhoods and even some Frida Kahlo. So what are you waiting for? Let me know in the comments if you have more tips.

Here's a post from last year from a travel blogger who had many similar impressions: Why I was So Dead Wrong About Mexico City.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Even Before Clifton's, L.A. Had Crazy Themed Restaurants


Here's a story I did for EaterLA timed to the recent re-opening of Clifton's about some of Los Angeles' craziest early theme restaurants, from pirates to jails to questionable African fried chicken huts. Read the full story at LA.Eater.com.

The Jail Cafe on Sunset where El Cid stands now. (Courtesy LAPL)
Even before the woodsy Brookdale Cafeteria opened in 1932, theme restaurants were an essential piece of Los Angeles's dining culture. The city is famous for dining establishments shaped like tamales, hotdogs, airplanes, and doughnuts. Some theme restaurants enriched the experience with garishly costumed waiters and entertainment, though they seldom attempted to link the fare with their outlandish facades.