Mystery novelist Denise Hamilton spent years eating around the city as an L.A. Times reporter, honing a taste for ethnic delicacies from North Hollywood to Rosemead. I met Hamilton at a reading for L.A. Noir, the short story compilation she edited, and when she proposed touring some of the places where her reporter/detective character Eve Diamond eats at in her novels, we leaped at the idea. She's our kind of detective -- while she's usually frantically crossing the city investigating dangerous crimes in various ethnic enclaves, she always finds time to grab a lahmajune on the way.
Hamilton at Bahooka Family Restaurant in Rosemead
The author packed her two boys off to school and we took off on a citywide food adventure, with Hamilton expertly piloting her small manual shift sedan around the most desolate stretches of Rosemead Blvd. When Hamilton was an L.A. Times reporter, she lived in Silver Lake, and her detective character often races her car up and down the steepest hills while fleeing the bad guys before eating at Millie's or the long-gone Greek restaurant on Glendale Blvd.In her latest book, Prisoner of Memory, Diamond gets mixed up with the criminal elements of the Russian immigrant community. One of the detective's first stops while investigating the case of a teenage boy who was murdered in Griffith Park is a Russian deli somewhere near Studio City.
Chenar's deli case
"She slid open the door of the refrigerated glass display case, pulled out a large bowl filled with a reddish-brown dip, and scooped generous spoonfuls onto a plate. Then she added a grape leaf, a knish and a stuffed cabbage roll," writes Hamilton.So our first stop was Chenar Deli in North Hollywood. A round-cheeked young Russian woman helped us select the wonderfully smoky eggplant and red pepper dip; cabbage salad perfumed with dill; cherry-cheese pirogi, like a hearty strudel, and syrniki, hockey puck-shaped disc made of sweetened farmer's cheese, which make a perfect breakfast treat.
The deli, which is strictly takeout, also stocks many varieties of sausage, bacon, smoked fish, cheeses, three types of mushroom salad, three types of eggplant salad and several preparations of stuffed cabbage.
eggplant/red pepper spread
eggplant/red pepper spread
In Hamilton's Last Lullaby, Diamond has to drive all over the city trying to penetrate Cambodian adoption scams and Korean cybercafes, so she stops to grab a snack at Sasoun Bakery.
Sasoun's spicy cheese boreg
"I grabbed some takeout from Sassoon Bakery, a tiny storefront in East Hollywood where a sweating Lebanese-Armenian baker slid cheese and spinach boregs and lahmahjuns in and out of pizza ovens with a wooden paddle. As I drove, I bit into the flat Armenian pizzas smeared with tomato paste, herbs and seasoned beef....Reporters are the original dashboard diners."
Hamilton's first book, The Jasmine Trade, is set among the fascinating world of the parachute kids of the San Gabriel Valley, where Hamilton worked as a reporter for several years.
Sasoun's counterwoman with fresh lahmajune
"At San Gabriel Village Square, you could gorge on Islamic Chinese food...heaps of lamb and seafood and fresh-baked bread studded with scallions and encrusted with a layer of toasted sesame seeds."Hamilton's favorite Islamic restaurant, Tung Lai Shun, is no longer there, so instead we tried Dong Ting Spring, a new Hunan place in San Gabriel Village Square.
We also dropped by the hallucinogenic Tiki fantasy Bahooka, where Eve meets up with a friend in The Jasmine Trade and indulges in a few too many Bahooka Bazookas. "We can get huge pink frothy drinks in hairy coconut shells," she tells her friend, before the tropical fantasy leads to making out in the secluded booths.
tofu with sun-dried vegetables at Dong Ting Spring
It was a great day of multi-culti feasting, and like Diamond in Prisoner of Memory, I went home with bags and bags of treats to feast on for the next few days. Hamilton's books, which are full of the L.A. native's actutely detailed observations and fictionalized real events like the armed robbery of a Chinese seafood palace, are a great way to get to know the underbelly of the city -- and the actual belly, as well. And what other detectives pack a bento box of noodles for lunch every day?