Thursday, November 01, 2007

Where the Food Craziness Began -- Lupe's Mexican Restaurant

Lupe's Mexican Restaurant
1710 Thousand Oaks Blvd.
Thousand Oaks, CA
(805) 495-3573

Maps and Info at

This is the very first restaurant I ever went to. My memory of that first visit is as blurry as this dying-battery photo. Yet I do remember it, even though I could only have been 2 or 3 at the time. Lupe's used to be set back about 50 yards from Thousand Oaks Blvd., tucked into the oak trees against the hillside and painted a bright, fiesta green. I remember the screen door you went through to enter, and I remember formica and naugahyde. I think I had a hamburger. I remember a fly.

That photo is actually a painting of the restaurant during those days, that hangs on the wall at the current Lupe's.

By "current," understand that it hasn't changed significantly since that last remodel in 1966 or so. Even the black velvet paintings of toreadors lining the interior walls are the same.

I will receive comments about why Lupe's sucks, about the better Mex food even in Thousand Oaks, about how it isn't "authentic" Mexican food, blah blah. In this case, it doesn't matter. It was my first restaurant, my favorite restaurant, and it informs everything about my take on food since.

I used to go once a week. My mom would take me bowling on Thursdays. She didn't bowl, but she'd watch me, and keep score, and then we'd go to Lupe's. They had a good jukebox. I remember my favorites as "Yesterday," "Raindrops Keep Fallin On My Head," "Sugar Sugar," and "ABC", which places me there a lot in '70-71.

The food hasn't changed since then. Not an iota. And I suspect it hasn't changed much since 1947, when it became the first established eatery in the Conejo Valley. As one post on says, "It's as old as the oaks in Thousand Oaks."

Lupe's still serves California Mexican cuisine of that era, which happens to be what I love. Scratch that, it doesn't "happen" to be what I love... I love it because it's what I grew up eating, right here.

Originally owned and operated by a sweet and tough lady named Martha and named after her eldest daughter, Lupe's has the distinction of now being operated by Lupe herself. That's cool.

The salsa and chips are perfect, the salsa served in little metal bowls. Ground beef tacos are quintessentially SoCal tacos of the era. The Chile Colorado is delicious, smoky and intense like it's been stewing in the pot since 1947. Combo plates are just like you want 'em, big and inexpensive and cheesy and tasty.

But what keeps me coming back are the taquitos. They're utterly addictive: fresh, crispy tortilla; stringy-yet-moist hand-shredded beef; a pile of fresh guacamole and shredded lettuce on the side; finely shredded mild cheddar on top, some Thousand Island dressing, and a couple of black olives to boot.

Did they always serve it with sour cream? I don't think so; I've never cared for sour cream on Mexican food. When I was ten, I remember winning a bet with my waitress that I couldn't eat two orders of 'em (that's six taquitos) plus a guacamole and ground beef taco. She lost. If she'd been paying attention she would never have made the bet because I ordered and devoured the same mountain of taquitos every week. These are, you heard it here, the best taquitos in the world. Because they were my first.

For someone who's lived and traveled and eaten over the world, it is supremely satisfying to be able to re-visit one's first foodie love and find it entirely unchanged.

If only "Yesterday" were still on the jukebox.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

While I Get The Attraction -- Cassell's Burgers

Cassell's Hamburgers
(or, if you read the small sign in the window, "Hambugers")
3266 W 6th St
Los Angeles, CA
(213) 480-8668
Google Maps, Reviews, Info

In case you haven't been paying attention, Cassell's Burgers has consistently rated among the best burger joints in Los Angeles for many, many years; right up there with Apple Pan, Tommy's, the recently departed Mo' Bettah Meaty Meat Burger, and everybody's favorite In 'N' Out. L.A. Food Crazy loves him a good burger, yet I'd never made the pilgrimage to Cassell's, until yesterday.

I have probably made more hamburgers in my life than anyone you know. Not only did I work at Carl's Jr. as a teenager, but I still cook a couple hundred a year, most of them in one day -- I insist on personally grilling the burgers at our annual summer party. So I have opinions about 'em. And my opinions and prejudices very much color my take on Cassell's.

Cassell's has been making burgers since the thirties, and the room, tucked inconspicuously on an entirely nondescript corner in the Koreatown stretch of the Wilshire corridor, has a cool wartime vibe. The burgers are slung cafeteria-style. You grab a tray and order your burger, 1/3 or 2/3 pound, cheese or no. Your burger is cooked to order and the bun toasted in a single proprietary double broiler-device while you stand and read the articles on the wall extolling the virtues of the burger to come.

One lengthy L.A. Times feature posits three varieties of burger-stand burgers: "primo patties," which use high quality beef and usually fried and served with a plain bun to highlight the quality of the patty; mid-level "char-burgers," which are more likely to use flame grilled patties and sesame seed buns; and "grease bombs," where condiments are dominant, the patty merely a protein layer to act as a platter for the other ingredients. Who knew?

Once your burger is plated and delivered, you sidle down the condiment bar. This a truly impressive smorgasbord of burger bits: homemade mayonnaise, ketchupy relish, another spicier relish, hand-leafed lettuce, and most delightfully, beefsteak tomatoes and slices of onion that are uniformly huge and ,in fact, sized exactly to cover the entire beef patty. The resulting burger is an aesthetic delight, a stack that rivals the Capitol Records buildiing for rounded symmetry.

Then why did I find the Cassell's burger, while good, not great?

Part of it is personal taste. Cassell's claims to be a "primo patty" joint. You can even buy their grade A patties by the dozen to take home and cook yourself. But personally I prefer the flavor of a burger with grill marks and a hint of charcoaly char, and a sesame seed bun. And I frankly didn't find Cassell's patty to be that interesting... to my palate, ground beef patties rarely are.

That said, if you believe that a good burger is essentially about the condiments -- a greasebomb fan -- this is the place, because the condiments and your ability to adjust their quantities to taste is fantastic.

Oh, and those fries are terrific!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

New York Pizza Round Two -- Village Pizzeria, Tomato Pie, Little Toni's

Village Pizzeria
131 N Larchmont Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90004
(323) 465-5566
Google Maps, Reviews, Info

Tomato Pie
7751 1/2 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 653-9993
Google Maps, Reviews, Info

Little Toni's
4745 Lankershim Blvd
North Hollywood, CA 91602
(818) 763-0131
Google Maps, Reviews, Info

As I expected, my last post about New York style pizza in Los Angeles generated a mini-firestorm. Not so many comments here, but a record number of daily hits on the site, a nice link from la.eater, and recommendations from half a dozen friends about their favorite NY style pie in town. Your dedicated Food Crazy is nothing if diligent in following up recommendations, particularly if by doing my culinary duty I can escape my low-carb diet for a day or two. So here are the latest entries, and the current standings.

Village Pizzeria I've been up and down Larchmont Blvd. dozens of times in the past decade. I get my hair cut there, I go to Le Petit Greek every now and again, and there's some great Italian bistro food. But somehow I'd never noticed Village Pizzeria until my friend Terry (who cites his NY pizza faves as Grimaldi's in Brooklyn and Lombardi's in Manhattan) sent me here. It's very much in the same mode as Lamonica's. The walls are covered with sports memorabilia from New York and (oddly) San Francisco. It took me a while to figure out why photos of Jerry Rice adorn the walls of a Brooklyn pizza parlor: apparently, the first Village Pizzeria outpost opened in SF. It has the feeling of a step-up-and-order-a-slice place, but it isn't. It's table service, and after standing unnoticed at the counter for a bit I was told to take a seat. The slice that arrived is what I, before I began this quest, imagined to be classic New York pizza. Ultra thin, floppy crust. My friend oB told me, if you can't fold it in half lengthwise, it's not New York pizza. Village Pizzeria fits the bill.

My slice featured spicy, ultra thin sliced pepperoni, curled up around the edges like Quisp cereal, and with a little puddle of grease in each one. The mozzarella was unusually tangy. My Coke came in a classic, logoed red plastic cup. Jerry Rice says, "two thumbs up, this is good NY pie, go Niners." Another branch is scheduled to open in December, 2007 on Yucca and Ivar in the heart of Hollywood.

Tomato Pie My friend Tom sent me to his favorite, Tomato Pie on Melrose. Tom extolled the owner's obsessive chemical analysis of Los Angeles vs. NYC tap water in his effort to recreate that elusive dough. Again, this is a fine slice.

The dough thickness is somewhere between Vito's and Village. The sauce is tangy, the slice is foldable; but the vaunted crust, chemically analyzed though it may be, didn't work for me. It was slightly undercooked, and a little chewy for my taste. But I'll go back to give it another try. It's worth the trip if for no other reason than to sit at a sidewalk table and watch the fashion parade that accompanies the end of classes at Fairfax High across the street. I note that a goodly number of students sally forth from their studies and charge immediately into Tomato Pie.

Little Toni's Little Toni's is really in a different category from the other joints here. It's a classic, old school, red naugahyde and red sauce sit down Italian, complete with Shakey's style stained glass in the windows. I worked for three years less than a quarter mile up Lankershim from this spot. How did I not know about it? This is the old school Italian of your dreams, kicking all manner of ass over Miceli's, Antonio's, and the like.

Yes, it's dark. Yes, the bottles of house chianti are cheap and drinkable. Yes, there is as much crust on the waitresses as on the pizza. But the pizza is simply sublime. I was with a group, so we had a big combo of sausage, onion, garlic, mushroom and olive.

Even with all the toppings, the crust managed an almost supernatural combination of crispness and lightness, equally so from the tip of the slice to the outer rim. This would not pass oB's fold-in-half-test; the crust is too firm. But for me, the pizza is greater than the sum of its parts, an eluctable and indivisible whole that includes the comfort of the surroundings, the beverage that washes it down, and the capacity to share it all with friends in a big comfy booth. And Little Toni's delivers, pardon the pun. It's my new favorite VENUE for "NY Style" pie in town.

But my favorite NY style pizza... just the pie itself? It's still Pizza Bella, the odd little booth at the back of Whitley Heights market on Franklin and Highland. I reviewed it here. It's not perfect... it can take 10-15 minutes to get your slice, delivery takes forever, the puchasing process (get tag here, go to front of market to pay, return with receipt) is arcane, and you have to endure the gaze of those Star Wars standees while you wait. But the slice itself is, for me, unbeatable.

The current standings (until I get another must-try recommendation) for best NY-style pizza in Los Angeles:

1. Pizza Bella
2. Little Toni's
3. Vito's
4. Lamonica's
5. Village Pizzeria
6. Tomato Pie

NOTE: I wrote this yesterday to post today. I see in today's obituaries that Sam Martorano, the founder of Casa Bianca in Glendale has passed away. I love Casa Bianca, though I can't see categorizing its unique style as being "New York." But I do plan to go have a pie there, just to pay my respects.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

New York Pizza -- Vito's vs. Lamonica's

1066 Gayley Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90024
(310) 208-8671
Google Local Info

Vito's Pizza
846 N La Cienega Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90069

Get Directions
(310) 652-6859
Google Local Info

Before the NYC pizza smackdown, a plug for my wife Sa. This is the final weekend of EEMED, an Evening of Experimental Middle Eastern Dance. It's some of the Southland's best belly dance troupes in a group show featuring non-traditional music and choreography. From Sa's Pirates-inspired piece with the Perfumes of Araby to Desert Sin's jaw-dropping Hut of Baba Yaga, it's a very cool evening of watching scantily-clad ladies shake it to slinky tunes. For more info and tickets, click here.

Okay, on to the chow.

The ragingest foodie debate in in town has to be about the "best New York style pizza." Not only who serves it, but if, in fact, it exists in California. (Logically, of course, it doesn't. If it's not served in New York it's no longer New York by definition. The same could be said about Santa Maria Style BBQ, or Ensenada Fish tacos, or Hong Kong style seafood. Anyone who's tried to find a proper chili cheeseburger outside of LA knows what I'm talking about.)

Now, I'm a native Southern Californian, but I've done some time in Manhattan. I ate a lot pizza there, at some of the "right" places and some of the "wrong" places, and found it all to be, you know, pizza. Some of it was very good, some of it unremarkable, but I didn't find anything quintessentially or homogenously "New York" about it. There were thick crusts, thin crusts, saucy pizzas, cheesy pizzas... just like here.

But to New Yorkers, there seems to be something ineffable in their pizza, such that they find SoCal pie, in all of its variety, to be unworthy the name. So I went to two of the top contenders -- or, some would say, pretenders -- to the title of "best NY style pizza in L.A." to see what all the fuss is about.

Lamonica's has a nondescript storefront on Gayley Ave. a few blocks south of the UCLA campus. (Sorry, no photos... Food Crazy forgot his digital Elph). Inside, it's a classic college-town vibe -- if the town is New York. The walls are decorated with New York street signs and a lightup subway map. You might as well be in the East Village. Lamonica's (a sign proudly proclaims) flies in their dough from New York. Some New Yorkers say their pie is all about the dough. (They say the same about their bagels. Some even assert that it's the ... ahem... savory qualities of the East River water table that gives New York dough its signature texture and flavor The pie at Lamonica's is not what I picture when I think New York pizza... it's not a big, floppy, thin-crust triangle, it's an average-looking, Pizza Hut-sized slice. But the quality is remarkable. It's a perfect balance of cheese and sauce. The sweet italian sausage on my slice is intense with fennel and sweet spice. But it is, in fact, the crust that's noteworthy. Perfectly browned and crisp on the bottom, with a gentle char. There's a custardy top layer that tastes like "more!" In fact, whether because of the surprisingly small slice or the deliciousness of the product, I was still hungry after one slice, and ordered another (pepperoni). In any rustic contruction like a pizza, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and that's the case here. The Lamonica's pie has a an intense, slightly gritty quality that, combined with the funky decor, certainly evokes New York.

Or maybe it was the East River I was tasting.

Vito's, formerly of Los Feliz, has moved into a nondescript strip mall on the stretch of LaCienega filled with art galleries, rug emporia, and mid-end restaurants. No Manhattan vibe here like Lamonica's; it feels more like a Subway than the subway. But the slice is awesome. It has the same custardy crust as Lamonica's, but here, thin slices of jalapeƱo offset the sweetness of the slice's Italian sausage. Maybe I'm just being influenced by surroundings, but the pie tastes somehow "cleaner" to me, less gritty, perhaps more Californian, and -- for my taste at least -- a little better.

I'm not sure yet how these pies would compare side by side to some of my other favorites -- Antica, Dino's, and my personal favorite Pizza Bella. And being a non-New Yorker, I wouldn't presume to venture an opinion about their "authenticity" (the most overrated word in food criticism, IMHO). But they are tasty, tasty specimens of the species, and if you haven't checked 'em out, you should.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Posh Nosh - Emmy Governor's Ball Sneak Peek

The Primetime Emmy Governor's Ball Sneak Peek
Shrine Auditorium
Sept. 6, 2007

I've made a bit of noise here about my journalistic integrity. How I always pay for my meals and prefer not to let cooks and servers know that I blog about food, so that I receive no special treatment that you, my readers, wouldn't. But when I got an invitation to the Media Sneak Peek of the Emmy Awards Governor's Ball -- including tasting the food catered by Joaquim Splichal -- how could I refuse? I figured since you, my readers, can't actually buy this food, and unless you're Anthony Bourdain or Oprah Winfrey you probably won't be attending -- what could it hurt?

So Sa and I went and checked it out.

The Ball is held in the Shrine Auditorium's banquet hall adjacent to the theater itself. We stroll in the back door and within two seconds are proffered a tray of the signature martini of the event, "The Emmy." It's a mixology of Grey Goose pear vodka, a rare vanilla/hazelnut liqueur called "43," grape juice, and a twist. You know I don't generally countenance vodka tainted with fruit flavorings, and prefer my martinis dry and straight... but this drink is delightful. We have two. Okay, three, if you count all three of them.

We turn our attention to the room. It's pretty fucking fabulous. All done up in Art Deco black and white. A gigantic 100' by 40' billow of gathered white voile forms a faux ceiling. Four 10' by 10' fabric "chandeliers" in a shape suggesting a picture tube hang from the corners. (The 4x3 TV ratio is mirrored throughout the design of the room, from small hand-sewn sequins on the tablecloths to mirrored pillars).

Four silhouetted Emmy shapes --and she is the most graceful of the big awards statues -- billow languidly in fabric pedestals on the floor. Boxes of tightly bunched white roses form the centerpieces. White orchids grace Lalique vases around the hall. Calla lilies are wrapped in delicate bondage around flowing, nouveau, wrought iron stands. It's all unspeakably elegant.

After a not-dreadful amount of speechifying, the food comes out. First there are full-sized portions, meant for photography only. The press are snapping away with cameras the size of howitzers, and I feel a little out of place with my little digital Elph.

But we're soon distracted as the tasting plates go around. The appetizer is a Tower of Mango and Dungeness Crab, an architectural structure with chunks of avocado and mango on a bed of thinly sliced cucumber and topped with a lotus-root crisp. I say architectural, though you'd fire this architect as the thing falls to pieces at the first touch. It's delicious, though... with those ingredients, how could it not be?

Next came the main course and a beefy one it is: Filet Mignon AND Braised Shortrib, with Cippollini Onions, Marrow Flan, Potatoes Fondate and organic asparagus. This is all good stuff. My mignon, thin-sliced for the tasting tray, was overcooked. I doubt this will be a problem for the thick serving portion on the Big Night. The shortrib, braised in red wine, was to die for. Tender and not too slimy in the way that makes me generally avoid shank meats. The potato was a potato. But the marrow flan... oh my. As creamy and fluffy as the finest custard, with a mellow savoryness imparted by the marrow. This was a revelation. One can't help but wonder, though, why Splichal has chosen to serve asparagus, a famous wine-killer, when the bar is spilling a quite lovely BV Georges Latour 2003 reserve Cabernet (along with a less successful BV Chardonnay)?

For dessert, the Milk Chocolate Mousse with Champagne Gelee and Berries was lovely, though the Dove® Dark Chocolate Cup it came in was a bit much. (But then, Dove® is a sponsor of the event, along with Grey Goose® and BV®, so they may be forgiven.) The tiny "cherry vanilla cake" alongside was more breakfast muffin than dinner dessert.

I did wonder aloud to one of the servers if they had a vegetarian option; I was informed that not only was there a delicious butternut squash ravioli, but that the chef would be creating all manner of special requests on the spot to cater to the whims of whatever A-listers might order fussily.

Sa and I came away from our "tastes" quite thoroughly stuffed. She couldn't help wondering why they would bother serving larger portions to a group of people who, collectively, do not eat. The full size beef dinner is more than Calista Flockhart has eaten in her life.

Okay, I had one more of those "Emmy" cocktails before leaving. Which left me uncertain about much aside from this: if the food press regularly gets plied with alcohol at mid-day like this, you shouldn't believe anything they say in print, because they were drunk when they wrote it. As was, I suspect, the Emmy bigwig who announced: "The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences is very excited about this Governor's Ball... in fact we're excited about BOTH the Governor's balls."

I really don't know what that means, and I'm not sure I want to.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Most Underrated - El Pollo Loco

On foodie boards around town, there is a constant debate about what establishment most typifies Los Angeles. An out-of-towner will post "In LA for One Meal... Where?" They usually want something near their hotel, on a budget, not too adventurous, and a million other restrictions.

The most common replies are things like Spago, Pizzeria Mozza, and Saddle Peak Lodge on the high end; El Cholo in the middle; and Pink's, Tommy's, and In N' Out Burger on the low end. Now these are all fine places. But I'd like to propose that the quintessential, and perhaps most underrated Southern California classic for a quick, tasty, low-end meal is El Pollo Loco.

It doesn't get written up much. It's just there, plugging along as it has done since the mid-eighties. The menu continues to evolve, with burritos and tacos al carbon and, most recently, crispy-shell chicken tacos. But the staple is still the 2-piece chicken combo. Flame-grilled chicken in a unique, tangy marinade, taken fresh from the grill and hacked to the cuts you've requested before your eyes, and served with your choice of two sides, two tortillas (corn or flour), and a stack of goodies from the salsa bar. I strip off some of that hot, juicy chicken, lay it in a tortilla, add some of my whole beans and side salad (no dressing), some pico de gallo, a slather of the guacamole salsa, and some of my own Cholula... it really doesn't get much better than that at even the best taco joints.

I eat takeout from our local once a week or so; I wonder why have I never taken a visiting guest there? It's a uniquely SoCal chain serving uniquely SoCal food at great prices on every other street corner. You won't find anything quite like it west of the Mississippi. I think it's time someone gave Pollo Loco its due, and started talking it up. The time is now, and the one is me. What do you think?

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Good News From London

LA Food Crazy in the UK

My only excuse for not posting these past two months is that I've been busy, and traveling. I recently returned from a three-week long business trip to New York, London and Stratford. I came back with many tales to tell, of Manhattan publishing houses and West End theatrical intrigue and encounters with legendary Shakespeare scholars in Shakespeare's birthplace. But for my Food Crazy readers, I really have just one, albeit earth-shattering, item to report: English food no longer totally sucks.

In London, I was ensconced at the Arts Theater in Great Newport Street just around the corner from Leicester Square, where my old Reduced Shakespeare Company partner Daniel Singer and I were directing our newly-revised version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) to celebrate the show's 20th anniversary. (Yes, 20th... obviously we started performing the show when we were six!) The revival is going really well, thanks for asking -- you can see the reviews from the London press by clicking HERE.

Coincidentally, the Arts was the last place I performed the show in 1992. Back then, the neighborhood of the theater was a poster child for England's well-deserved reputation for crappy food -- bad pub meals, chip shops, kebab houses, Pizza Hut, Burger King, KFC. One could take a 15-minute stroll to some decent Chinese in Chinatown; there was a Mexican restaurant in Covent Garden, Cafe Pacifico, that made a passable facsimile of Mexican food; and there was always Pizza Express.

But now, Great Newport Street is emblematic of the culinary Renaissance that has hit London. The four closest restaurants to the Arts Theater, all within a minute's walk of the 's front door are: a tapas bar; an authentic Japanese Okonomiyaki restaurant, a 50's burger joint; a Korean place with kickass kimchi-chili pancakes; and an outpost of Britain's own fast food sensation Pret a Manger.

What happened since I was there in '92? Simply put, London has caught up with, and in some cases surpassed, California for food freshness, seasonality, sustainability, and yes, even convenience. Right across the street from the Arts is one of the many outposts of Pret a Manger, or, as locals call it, Pret. As the French name suggests, it's ready-to eat food -- sandwiches, salads, wraps, and coffee -- but with a totally fresh and organic aesthetic. No preservatives, no artificial flavors, no frankenfood, no transfats... think Subway meets Whole Foods. Sandwiches are made fresh every morning in each individual store, and packaged up for the day's business -- in cardboard rather than plastic. There's no such thing as "shelf life" at Pret... any leftovers at the end of each day are given to charity. The All-Day-Breakfast sandwich of egg salad and bacon with watercress on whole wheat bread was something I took advantage of often. The crawfish and avocado sandwich -- after the addition of some much needed salt and pepper -- was worthy of the trendiest Westside cafe.

You grab your sandwich or salad from the deli freezer, take it to the counter and request your beverage -- which can include a Coffee Bean And Tea Leaf-quality espresso drink -- and you're out the door with a perfectly satisfying lunch.

My readers know that I'm crazy for Korean food, so you can imagine my shock and surprise to find a restaurant called Corean Chilli (okay, they haven't learned how to spell in the UK) on the nearest corner to the theater.

I was in like a rocket for lunch on our first day of rehearsal, and had a sublime version of the ubiquitous Korean egg-and-kimchee pancake. Perfectly cooked, and reddened through with a piquant tang that absolutely demanded something to wash it back. You guessed it: soju, just as chilled, refreshingly delicious, and sneakily alcoholic as you find it in Seoul or on Olympic and Vermont. (A bottle smuggled into the theater helped me get through the stress of opening night!) The side dishes, panchan, were a little less generous and varied than I'm used to here, but the sweet, grilled beef bulgogi and the bibimbap were just like home.

Directly across the street from the theater is Abeno Too, a Japanese restaurant specializing in okonomiyaki. Some of you may remember my earlier post about my quest, on behalf of my friend Kent, to find the Osaka comfort-food specialty here in L.A. The sauce-drizzled grilled cabbage and egg concoctions here were superior in every way to those in Little Tokyo. Made with Japanese precision and style on the stainless steel grill in front of you, the wasabi mayo and special okonomiyaki sauce were drizzed on, not haphazardly, but in a mandala-like design of concentric spirals that made it almost too pretty to eat.

Nice! Mine, with pork and scallop, two of my favorite foods but rarely found in combination, was simply fantastic.

Even Cafe Pacifico, still hunkered down in a side street, has come up in the world of Mexican food.

Mex food in the UK, even in London, used to be so hard to find and poorly executed (we're talking "enchiladas" made of a crepe filled with canned baked beans and white rice, and topped with catsup) that Sa and I would travel there from California with salsa, bags of tortillas, and cans of Rosarita refries in our luggage. (Note to self: don't drop luggage from a high place when filled with jars of Pace Picante. ) We once took a two hour train ride from Nottinghamshire just to have lunch at the Taco Bell that once graced Leicester Square.

No longer necessary. True, grocery stores still don't stock Mexican ingredients beyond boxes of stale Old El Paso taco shells and beans, but you can go to Cafe Pacifico and have a thoroughly credible Mexican meal. A pitcher of margaritas and a basket of chips with fresh pico de gallo started things off nicely. But I nearly fell off my chair when my order of "five assorted street tacos" arrived, and looked exactly like tacos I might get from a taco truck in L.A.

Good, too. Though the lamb was marred by a cloyingly sweet sauce, the carnitas and carne asada were both crispy and tender, the grilled shrimp juicy on the inside and nicely seared on the outside. The duck (foreground) was out of this world. All were garnished with perfectly authentic onion and cilantro, and a comfortingly familiar bottle of Tapatio stood on the table, ready to do its Tapatio thing.

Of course, the Indian food in London is as good as it has always been. My hosts took me to their local, Indian Ocean on Holloway Road in Islington. Look upon it and weep.

But the London culinary revival isn't confined only to restaurants.

My hosts had just finished planting a large herb garden, and treated me on my early-morning arrival to an omelette made with organic, free-range eggs, a bit of artisanal cheese, and tomatoes and herbs fresh from their garden. Their local grocery store, Waitrose, specializes in organic, sustainable foods, fresh local produce, and environmentally-sensitive household products. Even the scariest local pubs now generally serve a decent house wine -- though you'll still get the odd look for ordering it. And the week after I left, all of the UK was going smoke-free in restaurants and bars, so pub owners were nervously erecting outdoor patios and beer gardens that promised to give dreary old London a positively Parisian flair during warm weather... which, thanks to global warming, is becoming increasingly common.

But fear not, my culinary life in London wasn't all Asian food and organic veggies. I had an occasional pasty, a fish and chip or two. I even decided to re-visit the traditional English Breakfast. Turns out that those once-scary piles of pork sausage, bacon, roasted tomato and eggs make for a fine low carb repast, and now that I've swapped my glycemia-bomb former breakfast of cereal, fruit and yogurt for a more protein-based first meal, this (leaving aside the beans) was right up my alley. I even discovered that the mushrooms in your standard English Breakfast are likely some of the best to be found anywhere.

In short, this is no longer the London of greasy Chinese takeaway, gloppy pub curries, and overcooked vegetables. To my great joy and surprise, I returned from the UK a bit... just a little bit... London Food Crazy.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Super Bowl — T.O.T.

T.O.T. (Teishokuya of Tokyo)
345E. 2nd St.,
Los Angeles, CA
(213) 680-0344
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Over the past holidays, I had the dubious pleasure of serving jury duty. You'll be happy to know that I sent a probable gang-banger home to his momma for Christmas. (Yes, he was a gang-banger; no, the prosecution did not prove their weapons-possession case.) But more importantly, I pledged — for the edification of you, my readers — to visit a different Little Tokyo eatery each day of my service. I visited Suehiro Cafe for the seventh or eighth time, and decided that despite foodie claims to the contrary, it's really not very good. It's gritty, and not in a good way. I visited Sushi Go 55. And on the third day, I stumbled into the sleek confines of Teishokuya of Tokyo, thankfully abbreviated to T.O.T. I never made it to another restaurant.

The photos says it all. I've gone back several times over the past few months intending to take my camera and post about it, but the food is so good, I keep forgetting to snap a picture before diving in! I've finally given up. So let's just consider the half-eaten photo here a "cross-section" shot of T.O.T's genius: the humble rice bowl.

I suppose that in Japan, this would be donburi by any other name. But where all the donburi I'm familiar with involves chicken, beef, or perhaps fried chicken tonkatsu, T.O.T presents a stunning array of different combinations of ingredients, a couple dozen in all. I've worked my way through many of them. It's usually safe to go for the first item on any ethnic menu, and T.O.T. is no exception. The "Tuna-Tuna Bowl" is a ring of lightly seared albacore tuna, with a scoop of sushi-style Spicy Tuna on top, all on a bed of perfectly seasoned rice with a dusting of seaweed and sesame oil. The "Dragon Bowl" takes one of my favorite sushi combos — avocado and baked sea eel in a sweet sauce — and puts it over rice. The "Tuna Avocado Bowl" is spicy tuna and fresh chunks of avocado on a bed of fresh lettuce laid over the rice and drizzled with a sesame soy sayce and a delicious and tangy wasabi mayonnaise. The "Spicy Chicken Bowl" is utterly addictive, the savory chicken leg meat in a perfectly balanced blend of sweet and spicy. Baked scallops with egg is creamy and swathed in a subtle sauce that will have you coming back the next day for more. Only the Carne Asada Bowl, with grilled beef and guacamole, felt entirely out of place.

They make a decent udon, too, and I've seen plates of enticing chicken curry go by as well; but I'll be working my way through every bowl on the menu before I bother checking it out. Lunch bowls are in the $7-8 dollar range, and include a tasty salad, miso soup, and orange slice for dessert, all served up in tastefully lit, stylish surroundings by eye-candy wait staff. Throw in validated parking in the Little Tokyo Plaza lot, and it all adds up to, for my money, the best, healthiest dining option in Little Tokyo.

If anyone manages to take a picture of the bowl before beginning to consume, please share!

Monday, April 16, 2007

Pulitzer Prize for Jonathan Gold!

The 2007 Pulitzer Prize winners have been announced, and it gives me great joy to see that L.A. Weekly restaurant critic Jonathan Gold has become the first food writer ever to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Mr. Gold's work -- including the "Counter Intelligence" column at the Weekly and his book Counter Intelligence: Where To Eat in the Real Los Angeles -- is certainly my favorite writing about food, and some of my favorite writing in general. The man can describe garlic in a way that actually leaves your pores reeking. In fact, you could call me, in my Food Crazy guise, a Jonathan Gold wannabe.

Congratulations to the granddaddy of L.A. food writers.

You can check out the announcement from L.A. Weekly, and some of Mr. Gold's recent articles, here.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Neon Crab — Won Jo Kokerang Agurang

Won Jo Kokerang Agurang

3132 W Olympic Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90006
(323) 766-0007

When you're truly food crazy, every restaurant sign is a siren song. "Here," each one sings to you. "I am the one... the best restaurant in the world that no one else knows about." But in the world of food blogging, there are very few restaurants no one else knows about. No matter how off the beaten track a place may be, I usually a find that a blogger, or Jonathan Gold -- damn you and your lifetime of experience! -- has already written it up. But aside from one reference to "that dancing crab place" on Chowhound LA, I can't find a single review of Won Jo Kokerang Agurang. Perhaps this is because no one has been brave enough to try to write out the name?

Whatever the case, I believe this is an L.A. Food Crazy scoop...

Driving down Olympic Blvd. at night, as we do fairly often, to a Kings game or to Beverly Soon Tofu, one sign calls to me like a spoonful of smack to a junkie. A red, neon crab, its claws flickering in its two neon positions: up, down; up, down; up, down. There's no English on the exterior signage at all. It's one of those inscrutable Koreatown bunkers that line the boulevard, each one sheltering who knows what culinary delights.

Every time we drive by the Neon Crab, the windows are fogged up. If customers enter or exit as we pass, a puff of steam wafts out the door, through which I glimpse a small spare room packed with Koreans. I tell my wife -- like ten times -- "we have to try that place." Finally I talk her in to it. As we approach, I say, "I'm picturing steaming iron bowls of roiling, spicy crab stew, with noodles and legs stickings out all akimbo."

I am almost entirely correct. There are no noodles, but there is rice.

Oh, there is rice.

The room is tiny. Ten or so tables. No one speaks a word of English. This is a good sign. The menu is small, so don't bother picking and choosing, much less asking whether this or that is good, or whether this or that comes with this or that appetizer, or whether the food is too spicy. Your questions will not be understood. Just order the Spicy Crab Soup. This is the steaming bowl of crab in question. Or, if you hate soup, order the Spicy Crab Casserole (pictured). It's identical to the crab soup, with sauce rather than broth.

As I say, there are no noodles. What look like noodles in the photo are bean sprouts. This is excellent news for those of you who, like LA Food Crazy, are low-carbers. It's true -- people ask me, how do you stay so thin when you eat so much food? To which I have three answers: 1. Low carb diet; 2. I actually only post once a month or so, which doesn't require lots of eating' and 3. Do you really think I look thin!? I love you! This means, btw, that whenever I discuss noodles or burritos or french fries here, I have unselfishly broken my diet and researched meals in excess of 20 carb units just the edification of you, my readers.

But I digress. Back to the meal.

There are panchan (the ubiquitous side dishes that are the bread and butter or chips and guacamole of Korean dining) galore: tangy, refreshing cucumber salad, tsukomono-style bean sprouts, tofu, kimchee, pickled turnips, seaweed, and yes that is potato salad with apple chunks.

Then the lady comes with the crab and the scissors. I've decided American waitresses don't use enough scissors. She cuts up the crab like your crazed third grade teacher attacking construction paper, chopping it into manageable pieces. She makes a little plate for you out of one of the crab's shells, and leaves you to it. (She may also try to embarrass you by placing a lobster bib around your neck. Please, for the dignity of all white people in Koreatown, politely decline it.) You go to town on Dungeness crab, the spicy broth, the bean sprouts and greens and onions soaked in spicy crab sauce. It is probably more crab than you can eat. You drink soju. Oh, the price of the crab soup for two ($45, if I recall correctly -- notes are not LA Food Crazy's strong point, he's too excited about the food to write stuff down) includes a beverage. You want soju. God bless soju, and I don't even believe in God.

But the best is yet to come. You say to the waitress while making a stirring motion over the detritus of your soup/casserole, "fried rice, please."

The waitress comes back with a rack of ingredients: some rice, some seaweed, some sesame oil, some spices. She takes a ladleful of your crab soup/casserole, and mixes it up into a risotto that comes out looking like this.

It is, I guarantee you, one of the best things you have ever eaten. Spicy, savory, with a rendered-down crabby essence... you will find yourself getting out of bed at three a.m. for leftovers, because you couldn't possibly finish the rice right after all that crab.

Okay, so the word is out. I suspect the next time I drive by, and that crab blinks at me, and the door opens, and steam wafts out, that I will see one or two of you, trying to talk to the waitress and asking "what's in the "mixed seafood casserole?" and "do you have noodles?" and "Could you make it medium spicy, please? And do you have a wine list?"

Jeesus, did you not read what I just told you? Seven words:

Spicy Crab Soup.
Fried rice, please.

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Mighty Cream Puff -- Beard Papa

Beard Papa
Hollywood & Highland Shopping Center
6801 Hollywood Blvd.No.1.5.-153
Hollywood, CA 90028
(323) 462-6100

Again, I'm not really a dessert guy. But the overwhelming response to my post about Mashti Malone's tells me that I should really let you know about Beard Papa.

The shopping center at Hollywood and Highland is surely one of the most curious destinations in Los Angeles. Aside from the rat's-maze escalator system (after six years of going there a couple times a week I STILL go the wrong way at every counterintuitive turn) and the utterly-without-irony giant white elephants that loom over the not-quite-failed enterprise, there are some truly odd food outlets. There's the taqueria that isn't quite a La Salsa or a Rubio's; the pizza place that isn't a Sbarro (althought their NY style pizza is not bad); and the bizarre, well-hidden mini-food court with just three establishments serving steak and potatoes, Mongolian BBQ and falafels.

All this is sure to confuse the tourists, but nothing leads to quite so much scratching of Midwestern heads as Beard Papa. Located in the middle of the staircase leading to the main courtyard off of Hollywood Blvd., a few steps away from the Red Line Station entrance, I stood and watched for several minutes as tourists waddled up to the menu, saw "cream puffs," glanced cockeyed at the Santa Claus-like Beard Papa logo and walked away as if their logic circuits were fried.

Locals know better. The cream puffs being squeezed out behind counter of the small, spartan shop are transcendent. You watch as the puffmaker squeezes a dollop of freshly-made filling into your freshly-baked puff. There are three varieties of puff on most days: one filled with simple, buttery vanilla cream, with just a hint of citrus; a chocolate-covered "eclair;" and a special puff-of-the-day that might filled with be caramel cream today, strawberry tomorrow, pumpkin in the fall. The pastry dough is unbelievably light and airy, the filling decadent and sweet without being cloying or overly rich. These babies make you ralize why the phrase "light as a cream puff" need not be an oxymoron. Add a generous dusting of powdered sugar (handle with extreme caution if you're wearing black!) and you've got the best reason I can think of to hop on the Red Line -- next to saving the planet, that is.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Perfect Lunch Special — Sushi Go 55

Sushi Go 55
333 S Alameda Street, Suite 313
Los Angeles, CA

Sorry for the absurdly long delay in posts; Thanks for keeping me in your RSS feed and your thoughts. Aside from surviving the holidays, sticking to New Year's resolutions, and finishing revisions to a novel and a play, I also spent a lot of time working on a longer foodie piece about all the streets in Los Angeles named after U.S. Presidents. It includes notes on Tito's Tacos, Mel's Fish Market, and a few other choice spots; you will also find out just what culinary delights Bush Way (yes, it exists) has to offer. Please check it out, and comment on it, lest NFT think I have no readers!

I also lost a couple of weeks to the Performance of my Civic Duty, serving on a criminal trial jury downtown. I got the dubiously warm holiday fuzzies by sending a kid -- who I'm quite sure was a gang-banger, but was clearly NOT proven guilty by the overworked and under-resourced DA -- back home to his momma for Christmas. I also had the perfect opportunity to sample the delights of nearby Little Tokyo.

It's a four-block walk from the courthouse to the heart of downtown's Japanese enclave; just far enough to work up a bit of an appetite. Since I was stuck on a two-week trial, I determined to try a different place for lunch every day. On Day Two, (after yet another mediocre experience at Suehiro -- some people like it, I think it's pretty skanky, and not in a good way) I was going to splurge and take myself to food crazy favorite Sushi Gen. Think a-gen! The line out the door was absurd. So I kept walking. There is, after all, a lot of raw fish in Little Tokyo. I found myself in the odd, sleepy quintessentially Japanese indoor mall on Alameda between 3rd and 4th. The third floor is a veritable Pacific Rim of restaurants, including a couple of excellent ramen houses. But it was too hot for soup that day (one of those 85 degree days in December. Curiously, I blame Al Gore). So I took myself to Sushi Go 55.

Never more I will never darken the door of Sushi Gen. At least, not for lunch. Sushi Go 55 -- aside from its oil saving, global-warming stopping name -- serves possibly the best value sushi meal in town. I know, I say "sushi lunch special" and you think, yeah, all the cuts of sushi I really don't like -- lox, a rubbery shrimp, a bite of an omelette, some flavorless tuna, a soggy California roll -- for $14.00. Not here. At Go 55, ten bucks -- that's right, $10 U.S currency -- gets you one piece each of tuna, albacore, yellowtail, salmon (okay, there's salmon), and snapper (the last three with a brush of light and delicious ponzu sauce, the yellowtail with a bit of wafer-thin shaved onion), a blue crab handroll, miso soup, a wee cucumber salad, and a couple of even wee-er side dishes. And the quality of the fish isn't "value" at all. It's fresh, perfectly chilled, and tender... a delightful antidote to a blazing hot winter day in L.A.

I went back to a couple of times for the very same meal. Each time, it simply, reliably, and cheaply kicked ass. Between Go 55 and my discovery of T.O.T. the following day (more about that in my next post!), I never actually made it to any other lunch spots.

Seriously, Little Tokyo is almost enough to make me want to serve on a jury again.