Tuesday, November 28, 2023

What's the Oldest Restaurant in Silver Lake?

This article ran in the Los Feliz Ledger in 2019, but the demise of Café Tropical seemed like a good time to republish it. 


What’s the oldest restaurant in Silver Lake? With rising rents and upscale options fast replacing old favorites, a handful of longtime spots remain.

Though it’s been through many owners and several names, Millie’s has operated as a diner in the same spot since 1926, so it would appear to be by far the longest-running restaurant in the area—though in Atwater, the Tam O’Shanter opened in 1922.

Not many locals remember Millie’s before its first hipster rebirth, when Paul Greenstein bought the diner in 1984. The Devil’s Mess—now its signature dish—is just one of the many names Millie’s has had over its long history and the diner recently opened its first spin-off in Pasadena.

Perhaps the next oldest is the Red Lion, which is seeking city permission to upgrade and remodel after opening in 1959 as a British pub—it switched to a German theme in 1963.

The year 1962 was a big one for restaurants in the area: Taix French restaurant moved to Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park that year, after starting out downtown in 1927. Also opened in 1962 were Casita del Campo, still going strong on Hyperion Avenue, and El Cid, which was a curious jail-themed restaurant in the 1920s before turning to flamenco dancing.

In the early 1960s, thousands of Cuban refugees settled in the Echo Park and Silver Lake areas, opening travel agencies, shops, bakeries and restaurants. Few of those spots remain, but Cafe Tropical, which opened in 1975 and and El Cochinito, in 1988, give a glimpse of what the area once known as “Little Havana” was like during that era.

From Ed Ruscha's Sunset Boulevard

Locals were worried when Cafe Tropical’s distinctively purple-painted building was sold last December. Manager Alfredo Morales says that although the building’s ownership changed hands, there are currently no plans to sell the business or change anything.The clientele no longer features cigar-smoking Cuban gentlemen like it did in the 1980s, but it remains a favorite for the flaky guava cheese pastries and cafe de leche, as well as providing a community space for numerous meetings each week for the recovery community.

On a recent weekday morning, longtime customer Robert Williams said he appreciates how Tropical is “welcoming to all kinds of people.” Williams said he was happy to find it nearly the same when he returned to Los Angeles after moving away for more than 20 years.

A recent visit to El Cochinito showed the 31-year old restaurant is still a vibrant gathering place for the community, despite upscale arrivals like Trois Familia next door. Families and friends pack the mini-mall restaurant for hearty fare including one of the best Cuban sandwiches around. Another standout is the giant plate of lechon asado (slow-roasted pork), with sweet plantains, black beans and rice.

Up until the 1990s, Sunset Boulevard used to be lined with burrito joints, pupusa stands and old-school Mexican restaurants including El Chavo, El Conquistador, Zamora Brothers and La Parrilla. Just a few are left. Yuca’s on Hillhurst opened in 1976, while Tacos Delta has provided an informal option in the Sunset Junction area since 1981 and El Siete Mares, which operates several locations, started out in 1968.

Gentrification and the influx of higher-income residents are affecting businesses across the greater Eastside, and it’s inevitable that some of these old favorites will not survive. So as always, think about supporting Silver Lake’s restaurant pioneers along with the newcomers.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

Imperial Western Beer Co.: Before and After Photos of the Impressive Renovation of the Fred Harvey Restaurant

Imperial Western's cavernous main hall
Though I wasn't fortunate enough to get married there like some people I know, I've always loved the Fred Harvey restaurant at Union Station and hoped that someday it would re-open in its former glory. Designed by Mary Colter, the restaurant opened in 1939 and was the last of the Harvey Houses that operated across the U.S. at train stations and tourist attractions. The restaurant closed in 1967, so the re-opening as Imperial Western Beer Company comes 51 years later.

The vintage Powder Room
There were several attempts along the way to re-open the space, but the confusing mix of owners and the economics of running such a large restaurant in a spot that wasn't necessarily conducive to expensive fine dining made it challenging. But nightlife entrepreneur Cedd Moses came up with the smart idea of utilizing the vast and potentially wasted kitchen area as a full-scale brewery and making the atmospheric space into a kind of Grand Central Oyster Bar-meets-craft brewery, with a side of cocktails in the vintage Streamliner lounge.

Restored front booth area                                                          (Credit: Wonho Frank Lee)
All the vintage details like Colter's parrot-patterned cement tiles and Navaho rug-patterned floor are cleaned up and glowing. The aqua glass tiles of the kitchen have been carefully replicated, and loads of character-filled details also remain in the Streamliner Bar, the Powder Room and in the small patio bar that adds outdoor seating to the mix.

Head brewer Devon Randall has a lot of vats to fill
Making the space accessible and affordable, with menu items all under $20, is the right thing to do as transit improvements at Union Station make the area into even more of a hub connecting all parts of the city. The menu is from the Hungry Cat's David Lentz, with dishes like fish tacos, crispy oyster po'boys and house smoked mussels, as well as ribs, fried chicken and a burger for non-seafood fans.

Ready to brew!
Imperial Western is named for one of the great train lines that services Union Station, as are some of the beers like the Super Chief IPA. Moses' 213 Hospitality opened Arts District Brewing three years ago, so they've had some time to work on their brews before opening Imperial Western, which has 18 beer taps, with mostly their house-made beers.

The cooler doors were retained in the patio bar area
The challenge with a room that holds 435 people is getting everyone served and fed efficiently and keeping up the food quality. It's a challenge that was apparently too much for another large, historic venue, Clifton's Cafeteria, which has abandoned the cafeteria idea and turned into a multi-floor amusement park of a bar.
Streamliner Bar                                                                                        (credit: Wonho Frank Lee)
The cozy Streamliner Bar off to the left looks much the same as ever. The Varnish's Eric Alperin designed the Streamliner's menu of cocktails that are served on tap, perfect for rushed travelers, with reasonable prices under $10 per drink.

BEFORE: Abandoned kitchen area
Back in 2012, I took some photos before the restoration at the L.A. Beer Week festival, so it's interesting to see how sensitively it has been brought back to life.
BEFORE: A beer seminar in the main room

BEFORE: Original ceramic tiles at the Streamliner Bar

BEFORE: Powder Room

BEFORE: Kitchen area

BEFORE: Front booths

BEFORE: Streamliner Bar

Friday, August 03, 2018

Jonathan Gold on Silver Lake-Area Restaurants: 'It didn't just reflect a Silver Lake afternoon; it was a Silver Lake afternoon'

Courtesy Jazz Singsanong

Many have eulogized Jonathan Gold far more eloquently than I could, but when the Los Feliz Ledger asked me to look back at the restaurants he loved around the Silver Lake area, I was happy to comb through his reviews.

One of the many admirable things about Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold, who died July 21 of pancreatic cancer at 57, was that he didn’t slavishly chase trends. Oh, he was quick to try the newest place to open, and excited to tell his readers about it, but he was also faithful -- sometimes inscrutably faithful -- to some of his old favorites, places that managed to hang on for decades as flashier spots opened around them. Those old favorites included East Hollywood’s Marouch and Thaitown’s Sapp Coffee Shop, which re-appeared like clockwork each year on his 101 Restaurants list.

When he wrote about Sqirl, you just didn’t get a review of a place that served toast. You got a literary disquisition, a reference to a place in Spain that only served toast, his knowledge of Jessica Koslow’s deeply-flavored jams from the farmer’s market.

Even when they were served with a side of gentle ribbing, his reviews managed to sum up how the food fit into this point in time, the neighborhood -- essentially what it felt like to be there, not just to eat there.

“I ate this toast outside in a sort of side yard next to the restaurant, chased with sips of milky espresso, in full earshot of the auto body shop up the street and the banda music pounding from the passing cars. It didn't just reflect a Silver Lake afternoon; it was a Silver Lake afternoon,” he wrote when Sqirl first opened.

Gold had a deep reverence for Thai food, one of the formative cuisines of Los Angeles, from the comforting boat noodles of Sapp to the fiery Isaan cooking of Night+ Market to the possibly even more incendiary Southern Thai dishes of Jitlada. On his first visit to Jitlada under the cooking of the late Tui Sungkamee, he wrote about the kua kling curry, “The heat was almost unbearable, and I was surprised to briefly lose muscular control of my knees, but the curry was undeniably better, more balanced in flavor, than it had been in its slightly deracinated version. And then the endorphins kicked in.”

Night+Market owner Kris Yenbamroong has said that his West Hollywood restaurant risked failure until Gold stepped in to write about it.

“He literally pulled us back from the brink,” the chef, who went on to open Silver Lake and Venice locations, told the L.A. Times.

At Kismet, the food reminded Gold of the vegetable-driven cooking of Alice Waters, and his descriptive powers were in full flower.

“You dip tiny halved turnips into sweet butter glazed with salty-tart preserved lemon and chase them with a draught of fizzy natural wine,” he wrote.

Gold admitted that restaurants in the Silver Lake-Los Feliz area tended to be more trendy than serious, but he admired Alimento, saying of owner-chef Zach Pollack, “Silver Lake may be an appropriate place for chefs as well as musicians to go indie.”

At Salazar, he spent a lot of time contemplating whether they got the flour tortillas right, but he also seemed to relax into the restaurant’s Austin-eque atmosphere.

“The side dishes are kind of great,” he reminded, “gooey potato purée with small, plump sausages floating in it like strawberries in oatmeal; chilled, fire-blackened corn kernels tossed with chiles, cream and herbs; beans cooked with all manner of pig products.”

One of his last reviews was of Freedman’s, the nouveau-Jewish deli on the Silver Lake-Echo Park border whose opening chef spent time at Noma. As a uber-nosher who was eating at Junior’s Deli in Westwood long before the entire staff of Freedman’s was born, he seemed bemused, captivated, and utterly intent on capturing the restaurant’s essence -- in the singular way only Gold could do it.

Friday, June 22, 2018

5 Things to Know if You Go to Portugal

Maria da Mouraria, Lisbon

Our recent trip to Portugal only lasted six days, barely enough to scratch the surface of all there is to see, eat and drink in the compact country. We quickly learned not to speak Spanish -- Lisbon residents speak excellent English and though many words are similar in writing, the languages are by no means interchangeable.

Here are a few other things to know if you go to Portugal:

The best gin 'n tonic at Palacio Estoril, Portugal

1) All the national drinks

So many kinds of favorite drinks! Buckle up for some serious drinking if you go to Portugal, because there are a lot of national specialties to sample.
Port: Start with port, obviously, which comes in both white and red varieties and several degrees of aging. It's not only consumed as an after-dinner drink -- port and tonic is a popular aperitif.
Vinho verde: It means young wine, but actually it's a wine region in the north of Portugal that was once known for its un-aged, naturally fermented wines. They're apparently no longer naturally fermented and now sometimes aged as well, but either way the whites especially are incredibly refreshing with the country's bounty of seafood and warm days.
Ginja: Neither gin nor ganja-related, it's a sour cherry liqueur that packs a pretty good punch and also works well mixed with tonic and ice. It's available pretty much everywhere, but the Time Out market in Lisbon has a popular ginja stall if you want to start there.
Gin: There are a few varieties of Portuguese gin but Portugal is in love with pretty much any kind. Fevertree tonic water comes in several varieties to pair with the various characteristics of different gins, and the Palacio Estoril hotel, where Ian Fleming used to hang out in the bar, serves a particularly delectable one in the country's favorite large, bulbous glasses.
Capirinha vs. Capirao vs. Caipiroska: The cocktail list at most restaurants will include Brazilian favorite, the Capirinha, made with lime and the Brazilian cachaca spirit. For a Portuguese twist, try a Capirao instead, made with the sweet, herbal Portuguese liqueur Licor Beirao. The Caipiroska is made with vodka instead of cachaca.

2)  The hose next to the toilet

"What's the hose next to the toilet for?" I asked Matt. "Probably for hosing down the bathroom floor," said my notably squeamish partner. Upon Googling, I had to inform him that is definitely not what it is for. It's a Portuguese and Brazilian version of a bidet, and it's actually required by law in all new construction like our renovated Airbnb bathroom.

3) How to order coffee

Six days wasn't quite enough to nail my coffee order. The usual choices are espresso or coffee with milk (meia de leite), but that's going to result in a pretty weak drink with a lot of milk with just one shot of espresso. It might have been easiest to order one coffee with milk and one espresso and combine them. But if you want to get more specific, here's a guide to ordering coffee in Portugal. Although nata does also mean cream, just don't order a coffee + nata unless you want an espresso and a pasteis, a common breakfast order that is a total bargain at around one euro.

The inevitable but still delicious Pasteis de Belem

4) Food tips 

The pasteis de nata --custard tarts -- from Antigua Confeitaria de Belem are deservedly famous. It's not necessary to get a table among the tour bus hordes, since the to-go line moves fast. But make sure to eat them while they're still warm, possibly in the park across the street.
croissant integrale, Pastelaria Garrett, Estoril
One of my favorites of the zillion of other pastries was the croissant integrale -- a whole wheat croissant studded with seeds that gives you the slight impression of actually eating fiber, which is otherwise elusive when travelling.

Don't forget to eat fruit and vegetables: Order whatever sides are available besides French fries, even if it's only chickpeas. Stop at one of the fruit stands and get some of their terrific strawberries, or at a market if you don't run across a stand. We liked the Mercado Figueria in Praca da Figueria, a convenient gourmet market with fresh fruit, a very reasonably-priced coffee and snack bar, and a selection of food gifts like salt and sardines.

In addition to traditional Portuguese food (At Cozinha da Felicade in the Time Out market, I had a traditional yet elevated dish of cod in a cream sauce olive dust and pennyroyal over sweet potato chips), make sure to try food from some former Portuguese colonies. Tentacoes de Goa has terrific vindaloo and other Indian dishes much spicier than most places in Europe. Just up the Beco Surradores stairs from there is Cantinho do Aziz. We didn't have time to try it, but I'm sorry I didn't get to try the cuisine of Mozambique for the first time.

5) Go to the places the tourists don't go! Or go really early.

- Castle timing: Don't skip the Castelo de Sao Jorge atop the hill above Mouraria and Alfama, which has an amazing view around the whole city, ancient ruins and a camera obscura. It's not that hard of a walk, especially if you find the free Elevador Castelo that zips you partway up the hill. I recommend getting there between 9 and 10 am before the tour buses arrive, when it's uncrowded, the greenery is freshly watered and the peacocks are wandering freely.

- Belem hack: Everyone goes to Belem for the famous custard tarts, the Tower of Belem and the monastery. The tram ticket is included if you have an all-day transit pass, but the tram was slow, hot and crowded. Instead try the train that leaves from Cais do Sodre station and whisks you to Belem in a few minutes. Just don't try to board the train in Belem to return to Lisbon without a ticket, because you won't be able to exit in Lisbon, as we found out when we had to appeal to a long-suffering station agent!

Atira-te ao Rio, Almada, Lisbon

- We're on a boat: Although the restaurants on the pier in Almada are shown on Phil Rosenthal's "I'll Have What Phil's Having," the package-tour folks are not that into taking a ferry across the river and walking 10 minutes along a semi-deserted warehouse street, despite its great street art. But it's well worth it to sit in this semi-remote spot along the river watch the sun set, and although Ponto Final restaurant fills up fast, Atira-te ao Rio next door is also good.

- Little-known gem: We visited the Palace of the Marquises because James Bond film "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" was filmed there. But the private villa is also known as the "Sistine Chapel of tile" and I'm so glad we were able to see the elaborate tile and mosiac work. Even if you miss the tour inside the villa, the gardens are worth seeing. The palace is an easy 15-minute walk from the Lisbon Zoo, which has its own metro stop, but few tourists seem to make the trip.

Marisco Na Praca, Cascais

- Cascais by the sea: If you're not exploring other beach towns, Cascais makes a nice day trip from Lisbon. The train (the same one that stops in Belem) takes around 45 minutes and although the charming port town is crowded with day-trippers, they seem like mostly locals. (If you haven't figured out by now, I'm kind of allergic to tour buses.) We tried razor clams and giant red shrimp at the tranquil and classy Marisco Na Praca, which is upstairs in the marina and also at the Mercado da Vila.

But probably the most important thing to know is that we'll definitely need to return another time to investigate all those wines some more and get that coffee order right!

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Celebrate 90 Years of Taix French Restaurant With a 90 Cent Chicken Dinner

Taix in 1956 (Courtesy LAPL)

It's not quite L.A.'s oldest restaurant, but Taix French Restaurant is certainly one of the city's most beloved. The venerable old-school French dinner house, which moved to Sunset Blvd. from downtown in 1962, celebrates its 90th birthday this month with a traditional roast chicken dinner for 90 cents.

On Sunday, Oct. 8 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., Taix will serve soup de jour, salad, and Taix Roast Chicken with au jus. Of course there will be a big line, so consider celebrating this long-lived institution at another time when the full menu is available.

At a recent anniversary reception, owner Michael Taix, grandson of founder Marius Taix Jr., said he would recommend diners try the trout almondine, the frog legs, the boeuf Bourgignon when it's offere as a special, and of course the roast chicken.

Taix also reminded us that chef Laurent Quenioux continues to consult on the menu a few days a week, making sure the cooking is more authentically French than it has been probably for decades.

Taix opened at 321 Commercial Street downtown in 1927, serving chicken dinners for 50 cents. After the Hollywood Freeway was built, it moved to Echo Park where it has been ever since.

I love the slogan on one of the original menus that the family preserved: "Save time, no worry, no thinking. Leave that to us."

So what are L.A.'s very oldest restaurants? Philippe the Original and Cole's were both established in 1908, while Musso and Frank came along in 1919. After that, Barney's Beanery, Pacific Dining Car, Original Pantry, La Golondrina and El Cholo came along during the 1920s. Make it a point to try all these places while they're still going strong!

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Tintorera Restaurant in Silver Lake: A First Look

Hidden Sunset Blvd. entrance

Tintorera's main dining patio

New restaurants are opening in Silver Lake, Atwater and the surrounding area faster than I can keep up with them. Last week Sweetfin Poke in Silver Lake and Journeymen and Good Measure in Atwater, this week Tintorera in on Sunset Blvd. in Silver Lake. I was invited to try Tintorera with some other writers.

Stylish indoor bar area at Tintorera in Silver Lake
The space: Tintorera (a type of shark in Spanish) is located in the old Cowboys & Turbans space, which has been completely overhauled to create a spacious enclosed patio. As at Salazar, most of the tables are outdoors with a small indoor bar area. What will happen in the winter? "We will think about that later," says chef owner Maycoll Calderon, whose sceney restaurant Huset in Mexico City is designed with the same outdoor feel. At night, strings of lights brightly illuminate the large patio, which is set to get an even larger extension with an outdoor bar.  
Tamarind mule comes with a giant chile garnish
The bar: The indoor bar is smartly designed with au courant leafy wallpaper, marble counters, and large globe lighting fixtures. An array of cocktails with Mexican touches (most are $14) include the Tamarind Mule with mezcal, ginger, tamarind and pineapple and the milk-glass green Aguacate with tequila, horchata, avocado and pineapple juice. Three different mocktails are offered for the non-imbibers, which is a nice touch.
snapper aguachile
grilled tuna with ginger rice ($34)
The food: At the moment the menu is small, but Calderon, a native of Venezuela, assures that other dishes will be added. The focus is on ceviches and grilled fishes and meats, including a hamachi tostada ($14), roasted red snapper ($34)  with a bright sesame emulsion, and NY steak ($68) with a subtle black mole sauce topped with nuts. 
Prime NY steak with black mole
The verdict: The patio instantly shoots near the top of Silver Lake's best patios, and once the outdoor bar is installed, it's likely to be a very hopping spot. Calderon will likely need to add some appetizers and small plates to keep repeat visitors engaged, as there is currently a lack of snacky options. Prices are on the very highest end for the area, although the ribeye at Salazar is not far away at $58. Prices in this range should be reserved for the most innovative menus with excellent service, so we'll see if Tintorera can bring its excellent Mexico City reputation to hard-to-please Angelenos.
Tintorera, 2815 Sunset Blvd., is currently accepting limited reservations in a soft opening mode. Grand opening to come in the next few weeks. 

Monday, July 03, 2017

Fat Dragon Review: Upping Silver Lake’s Chinese Restaurant Game

A communal table sparks conversation at Fat Dragon

Residents of the Silver Lake and Los Feliz area have spent decades waiting for good Chinese food to hit the area. Tired of hearing “Just go to Chinatown,” or “Monterey Park is only 15 minutes away,” we were thrilled when Pine & Crane opened a few years ago and significantly upped the Chinese food game.

Now along the same stretch of Sunset Blvd., Fat Dragon has joined the party, adding those guilty pleasure dishes like orange chicken that so many people crave, but with a light and modern approach.
Located in the same mini-mall that houses boho brunch spot Trois Familia, Fat Dragon has no lettered sign, just a neon dragon glowing above the storefront. As at Pine & Crane, you step up to the counter to order and the food is then delivered to the table. Some people are confused by the prominence of the tea menu on the board behind the counter, thinking it’s just a teahouse, and Fat Dragon does have a wide selection of teas. But don’t be fooled. There’s a full menu of crowd-pleasing Chinese dishes carefully prepared using high-quality ingredients like Mary’s chicken and Angus beef.

This isn’t San Gabriel Valley-style Chinese -- spice levels are on the subdued side, and there is no toothpick lamb or braised eel to be found (five-spiced quail is probably the most adventurous dish). Most dishes are clean-tasting with lots of fresh vegetables, though there are still plenty of indulgent and/or deep-fried choices. Honey walnut shrimp is almost dessert-like and too rich for just two people, but a few bites of the beloved banquet dish are just right. Orange chicken is deep-fried like the familiar mall version, but fresh orange slices and a light touch with the sauce keep it from being cloying.

Ma-po tofu at Fat Dragon

Some less common dishes well worth trying include Dragon fried rice, with Chinese sausage and bacon combined with the unusual addition of kohlrabi; and pork jowl stir-fry with dried tofu. Mapo tofu and Szechuan eggplant are both exceedingly solid versions. Mild-flavored moo goo gai pan and pan-fried noodles include plenty of vegetables, while dry-fried string beans, cauliflower and orange tofu are among vegetarian choices. The menu isn’t large -- hot and sour soup and more dumplings would probably be popular additions. And the Szechuan spicy wontons are perfectly good, but won’t make anyone forget the ones at Chengu Taste.

Crucially, Fat Dragon, which is part of the Sticky Rice group of restaurants, works with a number of delivery services including GrubHub, Caviar and Postmates, so that Holy Grail of good Chinese delivery is now accessible to the Silver Lake-Los Feliz area. But the food, especially fried items, is even better when eaten in the restaurant, which has a large communal table in the center as well as tables along the wall. There’s no beer and wine, but cold brew wild berry hibiscus, lychee lime green tea, and Hong Kong milk tea keep the drinks interesting. And not to be ignored: the housemade fortune cookies with irreverent sayings blow any mass-manufactured ones out of the water.

Upscale ingredients and a central location mean a meal for two will run at least $50, but the quality and flavor makes it well worthwhile.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Wolfdown Review: Secluded Spot Flies Under the Radar in Silver Lake

Citrus radicchio salad at Wolfdown
Here's EatingLA's review of Wolfdown from the Los Feliz Ledger. Click through to see how many forks it received.

In the four years since Nicky D’s stopped serving pizza on Rowena Ave., Silver Lake has changed a good bit. Restaurants in the area have upped their game; real estate prices have climbed. Maybe because of its understated Rowena location, the seven-month old Wolfdown, which replaced Nicky D’s, has flown somewhat under the radar.

Wolfdown, which focuses on Asian-influenced dishes, comes from Jason and Chrissy Kim, the owners of Forage, the Sunset Junction cafe that incorporates produce fresh from neighbor’s gardens. The Kims freshened up the funky bungalow, and the woodsy patio now sparkles with twinkly lights, while several seats at the bar look out over the open kitchen inside the cozy house. Like at Forage, the menu highlights bright bits of acidity and crunch that put the spotlight on startingly fresh produce. But unlike Forage’s counter, this is a full-service restaurant with wine, beer, and sake.

The top of the menu offers shareable plates like tangy citrus and radicchio salad textured with crispy wontons, or grilled calamari with lemon and mayo. Coconut black rice ($13) melds several intriguing flavors: deeply flavored oil-roasted vegetables, nutty rice, and fresh pea tendrils.

black rice with root vegetables at Wolfdown

The fact that chicken and shrimp dumpling is listed as a singular item might tip you off that it’s not a plate of potstickers: It’s more of a large pancake with a delicious dumpling filling on the inside, though the presentation is unexpected. Brussels sprouts are slicked with chili oil and contrasted with crispy chicken skins, while other vegetables like beets and broccoli also get their flavor amped up with olives or black bean sauce. The kitchen knows how to make vegetables complex and fascinating in a way that completely escapes some of the vegan restaurants in the area.

Main courses include proteins like Korean fried chicken with spicy chili or soy honey butter and slaw ($25); noodles with beef cheeks; or a $45 Prime New York steak with herring butter. Braised black cod ($25) arrives in a ceramic bowl in which pieces of buttery fish alternate with chunks of purple daikon, swimming in a lightly sweet and spicy sauce with a side of fragrant Mori’s rice.

Pan-Asian restaurants often get a bad rep for covering everything in sickly sweet soy-based sauces. Luckily, Wolfdown’s much more nuanced dishes include plenty of tart notes to balance the sweetness, while sauces are differentiated with varying flavors like miso, sesame, and regional sauces like Korean kochujang.

Desserts also incorporate creative uses of fruits and vegetables, like sugar snap pea gelato with strawberry shortcake or black and blueberry compote with dense, creamy peanut butter semifreddo --a sophisticated take on peanut butter and jelly.
Black- and blueberry compote with peanut butter semifreddo at Wolfdown
Is there anything not to like? Both the menu and the servers can seem a bit quiet and serious -- a few more snacky hors d’oeuvres or welcoming bites might give the menu a little more sense of fun and generosity. Or how about a ramen night once a week? Dinner for two will run around $100 -- fairly standard for the neighborhood, though still a splurge for many. But overall, Wolfdown’s setting is relaxed and the cooking is perfectly calibrated.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The Luau, the Brown Derby, and Hamburger Hamlet: Eating Around L.A. in the 1960s and '70s

The Beverly Hills location of the Brown Derby

I once sent a long letter to the L.A. Times about where I remember eating growing up, long before blogs and Vintage Los Angeles and Old L.A. Restaurants. Here's an expanded version of my L.A. eating memories of the 1960s and '70s.

My parents loved nice restaurants. They both grew up eating boring Illinois food -- in my father's case, his mother was a terrible cook who mostly mangled Jewish staples, and he felt liberated and excited to try pizza and spaghetti for the first time in the Army during WWII, though he never lost his taste for Hebrew National salami fried up with eggs and sardines with Gulden's spicy brown mustard on crackers. My mother grew up in a small town famous for corn and pork tenderloin sandwiches. The corn-on-the-cob was uber-fresh, but it was plain cooking, and she was dazzled by encountering artichokes and shrimp DeJongh when she moved to Venice Beach after high school, and later Manhattan and Chicago.

So when they came to Los Angeles, around the time I was born, they began taking me to restaurants right away -- or at least as soon as I could amble around visiting tables at the Brown Derby informing diners that "my daddy is a producer," as a vintage Hedda Hopper column noted. Of the Brown Derby, I remember the pumpernickel toast best, buttery, warm and slightly crispy, nesting in a cloth napkin-covered basket. There were also tiny hamburgers that I thought had been invented just for me, each with a separate sauce -- ketchup, sour cream, Russian dressing. When sliders appeared decades later, I wasn't too impressed after having moved directly from baby food to adorable mini-burgers at the Brown Derby.

The Luau in Beverly Hills

We went most often to the Hamburger Hamlet, usually the one on Rodeo Drive. We were friends with the owners, the Lewises, and I remember a gala event at their Beverly Hills house with the swimming pool covered by a temporary dance floor. Like everyone else, we adored Those Potatoes and were impressed with the variety of toppings on the burgers, a new idea at the time. There was another Beverly Hills burger place -- Hamburger Habit? -- that advertised even more toppings but we were loyal to the Hamlet, which is the only place I ever remember my father ordering a beer.

Ice cream was one of our family's principal food groups, and our usual spot was the Baskin-Robbins on Canon Drive where black and white murals of placid grazing cows lined the walls. My mother and I were mad about chocolate Mandarin orange sherbet, a flavor that doesn't ever seem to get revived but is fondly remembered by many. My parents took me there in my footie pajamas and we went after my cat Fido was run over, as ice cream was thought to salve all wounds. But just Baskin-Robbins wasn't enough.

Wil Wright's Beverly Hills location where Marilyn Monroe was photographed.

There were also Wil Wrights and Blum's. Blum's was on Wilshire, and was famous for crunch cake with pieces of sponge candy deliciously suspended in a whipped cream frosting. Wil Wright's was on South Beverly Drive (also in Sunset Plaza) and had refreshing frappes in exotic flavors like pear. My mother grew up eating at drugstore lunch counters, and liked the cherry phosphates and lemon cokes at the fountain at the big Owl Rexall at La Cienega and Beverly (still a drugstore, but no more fountain, alas.) This was of course across from Beverly Park, or Kiddyland as we knew it, where my divorced dad took me to kill a Sunday afternoon, but I also remember my mom taking me to a big discount Standard Shoes next to a pumping oil derrick where the Beverly Center now stands. Later, when we moved to Westwood, we went often to Swenson's Ice Cream, where the best flavor was a coffee-caramel-mint combo. 

My father found Mexican food fascinating, but it was way too early for most Westside white folks to try to find the real thing. We had to content ourselves with the blandly corporate Senor Pico in Century City (strangely, they still exist in places like Dubai) and a place on Santa Monica Blvd. near San Vicente. By the early 1970s, interest in Mexican food had started to pick up, so every Saturday we had lunch at the Sundance Cafe on Robertson, where modern Cal-Mex like fried tostada bowls was just getting off the ground.

It was my mother who somehow got the bug for ethnic foods, maybe because she had lived in Manhattan or because when she worked as a librarian for Playboy in the 1950s, her friends would take her to eat in Chicago's Greek and Polish neighborhoods. She never met a church food festival she wouldn't check out, so we traveled up Pico for a Greek fair, way out to the valley and wherever baklava or other ethnic forms of buttery dough could be found. I doubt I ever set foot in Silver Lake as a child, but if she had known about St. Casimir's annual Lithuanian festival, I surely would have.

She hated driving and gave up her car before I was old enough to drive, so we took the bus all the way down Wilshire from the beach to Chinatown. We spent weekends scarfing pork bao and shrimp har gow decades before most people got around to it, usually at the Golden Dragon. We also took the bus to Little Tokyo (I can't really wrap my mind around people calling it J-town). I remember the red bean pancakes from Mitsuru Cafe being made in the same metal molds that are still in the window, though it was in a different location. I remember a tempura bar on First St. where we sat at a counter with our backs to the street, watching a man fry up course after course of battered shrimp and vegetables. It's no wonder I remain obsessed with fried seafood to this day.

When we still had a car, we drove in from Malibu to Santa Monica every Friday night, alternating between chicken pot pie at House of Pies and fish 'n chips at the Mucky Duck. (Again with the fried seafood!) Afterwards we walked the Santa Monica mall, where a very groovy tiki-themed coffeeshop called Horace Heidt's Java Time was one of the better places to eat, a step up from hot dogs at Orange Julius and the Newbery's dimestore lunch counter.

After Sunday school at the Methodist church in Beverly Hills, we would go to Nate 'n Al's for eggs 'n onions or cheese blintzes, although when I was almost too young to remember, the deli of choice was Linny's, a vast and bustling restaurant on Beverly Drive. All the smoked fish at the counter kind of intimidated me, with the scaly, gelatinous skin and sturgeon's eyeballs staring at me, but I loved going home with bags of brunch materials and constructing onion bagels piled high with cream cheese, chopped liver and coleslaw, even if I hadn't yet acquired the taste for lox or tongue. If you were lucky, you could pick out a Jewish candy at the cashier on the way out. I tried halvah and appreciated the chocolate-coated orange gels, but my favorite was the large orange and red fruit gel bar with a white stripe down the middle. Imagine my delight when I discovered pates de fruits in France a few years later that were much the same as the Joya candies, but with deep, true fruit flavors.

After deli food and and ice cream, Polynesian food was perhaps the next most important food group, and the Luau was my favorite. We also went to Trader Vic's and the Palm Springs Trader Vic's, but only the Luau had a gift shop and a lagoon with a bridge over it. My dad always ordered a pupu platter of sticky sweet spareribs, eggrolls and fried shrimp, then declared we were all full and didn't need to order more. But we always did -- I have no idea what the adults ordered but my mom had instructed me that "silver noodles with pork" were the best dish on the menu, and indeed this Americanized version of Filipino pancit was starchy and satisfying. I also got a virgin pineapple drink -- a whole pineapple filled with a juice "cocktail" and though the restaurant had an amazing array of zombies and other grog drinks, my family weren't big drinkers. Variety editor Peter Bart once told me the Luau bar was full of expensive call girls, but I had no idea about any of that -- I dimly remember a bar near the entrance, but much clearer is the strong licorice bite of the Sen-Sen candies they handed out at the cash register.

Kettle Black Review: The Right Formula for Silver Lake

Kettle Black's housemade pappardelle with maitake mushrooms

A few months ago, we took a look at Sawyer, one of the newer additions to Sunset Junction. Now we visit its sister restaurant, Kettle Black.

The side-by-side restaurants share the same kitchen, though the menu and decor are completely different. At Kettle Black, the chef is Sydney Hunter III, formerly of French standouts like Petit Trois.

The pair has in common a similar grasp on what the area’s diners seem to want right now: eye-catching interior design, solid cooking and a casual, buzzy atmosphere.

Kettle Black is perhaps an unlikely name for a rustic Italian restaurant.

The small front patio is enclosed on three sides with a heater, so even in cool weather it’s a fine place to watch the passing fashion parade on Sunset Boulevard.

In the center of the room, a long tall table with backless stools might not be the best place for a lengthy dinner, but it’s fine for catching up with friends over drinks.

As at Sawyer, there’s a full bar available, so start with a refreshing gin, cucumber and Thai basil cocktail, or bourbon revved up with tea and amaretto. Happily, happy hour runs from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. every day of the week, with $4 Italian beers, $6 wine and several $8 cocktails along with a few snacks.

The dinner-only menu focuses on vegetables, pasta, pizza and a few mains like branzino, a flat iron steak with a pleasant char along the edges, or roast chicken.
Arugula salad at Kettle Black

Pizzas with toppings like potato and egg or prosciutto and arugula are fine, but we like to concentrate on the jazzed-up vegetables, and the very competent pastas.

Vegetables are some of the stars of the menu, with vinegar, salt and chiles giving a flavorful oomph.

Eggplant is charred to amp up its soft lusciousness, then slicked with tart-sweet saba vinegar and doused in garlic and chili flakes. A simple arugula salad is the perfect lemony foil to rich pasta dishes, topped with a flurry of almonds, pecorino cheese and pickled chilis.

Cauliflower goes far beyond the familiar roasted or fried preparations that have redeemed the once-boring vegetable’s reputation. Fried capers, pine nuts, pickled raisins and savory bagna cauda (anchovy sauce) turn the vegetable into an umami bomb.

Another star of the menu is pappardelle, with housemade noodles that have just the right bite and a dusky sauce of maitake mushrooms swimming in nasturtium butter.

limoncello cake at Kettle Black

For dessert, Italian-accented sweets like limoncello cake strewn with fresh berries or panna cotta with stone fruit keep things light and refreshing.

Kettle Black’s menu isn’t large, and the food isn’t incredibly ambitious, but the restaurant does exactly what it sets out to: create a lively spot that works for both drinks and snacks or a full dinner, with food that won’t leave you feeling weighed down.

Kettle Black
3705 W. Sunset Blvd.
Silver Lake