Saturday, June 05, 2010

La Golondrina

At the risk of turning my blog into a tweet fest, I thought my readers might be interested in this Patt Morrison interview with the owner of Olvera Street institution (and one of my favorite old-school Mexican restaurants), La Golondrina. Her ideas for giving the street a shot in the arm are excellent and necessary. Go buy a margarita and some taquitos to support her"

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Good F&ckin' Tacos -- Pinches

Pinches Tacos‎
8200 West Sunset Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90046-2414
(323) 650-0614‎
Open seven days. MC/Visa/AMEX. Free parking.

For much of my life, the corner of Sunset Blvd. and Havenhurst, just west of Crescent Heights was one of my favorite corners in Los Angeles. As a twentysomething cartoon geek, I'd make occasional pilgrimages there to visit the Dudley Do-Right Emporium, the only place (back in the pre-Internet era) where you could buy officially licensed Jay Ward merchandise. I'd load up on Mr. Peabody figurines and George of the Jungle t-shirts and worship the iconic statue of Rocky and Bullwinkle outside the doors..

Alas, the Emporium closed permanently in 2004 (though the statue blissfully remains), but I'm going back to that corner regularly again. Not to see and be seen at Bar Marmont across the street. I'm there for the stellar Mexican food at Pinches Tacos.

There is so much to love about Pinches. First there's the name. If you don't even speak that much street Spanish, well... you need to get out more, but it's translated in the title of this post. Suffice to say goes well with puta and cabron. Beyond the name, there's the pleasant corner location, where you can sit on the shady sidewalk patio and watch entourage-laden Escalades and Range Rovers pull up to the Chateau Marmont. And there's the fact that this tiny establishment offers... wait for it... free pinche parking! On the Sunset Strip, this is pinche rare and pinche awesome. Pinches is open til midnight, but stretches out to 3:00am Thursday-Saturday, for those late night post-club burrito needs.

The interior is perfect for a taco stand, and surprisingly down to earth for such a high rent location. Except for the Dayglo pink exterior with the bright blue neon sign on the side, it feels like any friendly neighborhood taqueria. Sombreros and the usual pictures of Mexican revolutionaries, artists and chanteuses adorn the walls. The menu is written on a white eraserboard, and features a deceptively simple array of tacos, burritos, tortas, sopes and enchiladas.

The food is perhaps best described as a meeting point between the Yucatecan stylings of the hip but overrated Lotería restaurants (at Farmer's Market, on Hollywood Blvd. and in Studio City) and your local taqueria. The servings at Pinches are larger, the offerings more kitchen-sink; my wife often complains that Lotería doesn't put enough "stuff" on their tacos and burritos. At Pinches, burritos ($7.50-8.95) come with the works: beans, rice, guacamole, onions, cilantro and salsa. Tacos ($2.00-2.95) come with whatever the chef thinks belongs on that taco. No overachieving salsa bar here: they give you what's good for the goose, not the gander.

Al pastor -- though a little dry for my taste; those who prefer a gooier, sweeter pork will want to go for the excellent marinated pork adobado -- comes with a sweetish red. The delicious Angus beef grilled carne asada comes with onions, cilantro and a fiery roasted salsa verde. The Veracruz style pescado comes with a well-matched slaw and an medium-spicy roja that adds a little heat without overwhelming the delicate fish flavor.

Ingredients are excellent and carefully prepared. The guacamole is tangy, chunky, perfectly seasoned; rice is fluffy, seafood items fresh and tender. Like Lotería, their rich black chicken mole is a star here, and especially nice to be able to get in that big burrito format -- with all the "stuff."

In addition to the standard taco and burrito fillings, there are California touches like optional wheat tortillas, and a unique array of unusual regional items: Oaxacan cheese enchiladas ($7.95), cactus tacos ($2.00), and taquitos or flautas filled with potato and Manchego cheese ($2.95-3.95), corn on the cob served street-vendor style, and homemade guava flan. But let's face it, you're probably getting a burrito or that 3-taco combo plate (a bargain at $8.95) pictured above.

True, prices may be steeper than your local taqueria, but hey they gotta pay the rent, and... isn't that pinche Lindsay Lohan naked in a window across the street?

And if you're like me, when you walk back to your freely-parked car, you can take a few extra steps and take a moment to bow your head to Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

It's Chinatown, Jake -- Ocean Seafood

Ocean Seafood
747 North Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90012-2819
(213) 687-3088

Everyone knows that the best Chinese food this side of Hong Kong is in the San Gabriel Valley: Monterey Park, San Gabriel, Alhambra, Rosemead... You know that, right? It's true. But sometimes that extra five is just too many minutes on the 10. Sometimes you're stuck downtown. Jury duty, maybe. Who knows, maybe you're using public transportation, and Monterey Park isn't an option. Maybe you're like me, and you just like the vibe and the romance of L.A.'s original Chinatown. After all, San Gabriel doesn't have one of the great movies of all time named after it. To paraphrase Lucy Van Pelt, "How can San Gabriel be so great if it doesn't even have a movie named after it?"

Many folks will tell you that if you're having Chinatown Chinese food, you should go to Empress Pavilion. And if you were looking for dim sum, I'd say they might be right. But when I want dinner in Chinatown, I head for Ocean Seafood.

It's located on the top floor of the same arcade that houses Mandarin Deli, Pho 79, and Kim Chuy -- all utterly worthy restaurants. It occurs to me that if I could only pick one building in L.A. in which to eat, it would be this one.

Aside from the simple loveliness of its name (isn't "ocean" one of the prettiest words in our language?), Ocean Seafood serves awesome meals in classic Hong Kong Seafood style. Entering from street level, you're greeted by a mirrored foyer with a burbling, stone-waterfalled koi pond.

You're already feeling pretty blissed-out by the time you arrive at the dining room upstairs, where your first sight is of bubbling saltwater tanks full of the little and not-so-little sea beasties you're about to consume.

The room is what you want in a Chinese Seafood palace: huge, gilt, filled with lazy susan bedecked tables and a "full bar" that's as perfunctory as the typically crappy service.

We usually bring another couple, and get the same half dozen dishes here. Other stuff is good, but it's always these dishes that I crave.

Start off with the Peking Duck. I once got into an online spat with Jonathan Gold because I love the Peking Duck here, which he argued was like ordering pasta in a French restaurant. Screw you, I basically said, I've had some great pasta in French restaurants, and if you won't order the Peking Duck here because it's regionally not a authentic Hong Kong style dish, your loss, Pulitzer dude.

Peking duck, for those not familiar, Is a whole-or-half duck, roasted. Its skin and a layer of fat are sliced off at your table and placed on a fluffy pancake with a smear of sweet plum sauce and a scallion, and served on a small plate with a shrimp cracker, to be eaten as finger food.

The remainder of the fowl is taken away, cleavered into chopstick-sized portions, and brought back to you for further consumption.

This is just one of the best dining experiences there is, and at $14.50 for half a duck or $26 for a whole, worth the price of admission.

We then move on to the Crab in XO Sauce. The crab you will have formed a personal relationship with: they bring the live one you order straight from its tank in a plastic bag, to wave its goodbyes to you before hitting the pot. The XO sauce is kinda dated by now -- it was big in the 90s -- but I still love it. A family-secret concoction of finely garlic, onion, chilis, tiny dried shrimp, salt cured fish, and the like, it's spicy, tangy and oceany. Eating this dish is a freaking mess, but worth every stain.

The golden ticket on this plate are the crab shoulders, not the legs... put the whole donut-hole sized shoulder piece in your mouth and suck until it's empty. Then use the hot towel provided to clean up.

After that, a nice palate cleanser of Chinese broccoli, steamed with garlic.

Okay, the garlic isn't exactly palate cleansing, but the broccoli is fresh and crunchy. I could eat this stuff all day.

Finally, after all that protein, a traditional "filling-in-the-corners" carb dish, just to make sure you don't leave hungry. We generally go for the House Special Pan Fried Noodle, a mixture of chicken, pork, fish and veggies atop your crispy-browned-giving-way-to-saturated soft noodle.

For dessert... well, why have funky Asian dessert when you can just order the sweet honey walnut shrimp instead, smothered in a rich, creamy mayonnaise and honey sauce, with crunchy candied walnuts?

All this can be had for about $30 pp for four. Wash all this down with a Tsing Tao, and I guarantee you won't be hungry again in an hour.

They also do a fine dim sum brunch. There's free parking available underground; they validate for the parking lot adjacent.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Boatload of Noodles - Sapp Coffee House and Thai Town Noodles

Thai Boat Noodles at Thai Town Noodles

5170 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 660-8006

5136 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 667-0934

5183 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 665-1035


Suddenly it's winter. The weather has turned from dry and brittle to apocalyptic downpour. It is a time when the cold, hard world chills the fires of the soul. We seek light, warmth, and spark. Recently, I've been finding spiritual and gastronomic solace in the strip malls of Hollywood Blvd. that make up the main drag of our Thai Town, where in utilitarian, but bright, clean and pleasant noodle houses, everything, for a few slurp-filled minutes, can seem well with the world.

I have long been a devotee of Sanamluang, a cacophonous and seemingly always-crowded favorite of foodie idol Jonathan Gold. As Gold notes, Sanamluang has the advantage of being open until 4:00 am, but with their giant, confusing menu and perfunctory-at-best service, it can be difficult to get at the admittedly delightful delights of their menu -- such as the General's Noodle Soup that Gold describes as "thin, garlicky egg noodles garnished with bits of duck, barbecued pork, crumbles of ground pork and a couple of shrimp, submerged in a clean, clear broth," and the dry, soupless version of the same dish that I actually prefer. But I haven't visited Sanamluang in some time... at my last visit, I nearly missed the beginning of The Two Towers at the Arclight because the service was so slow.

Then last year, when on his (also perfunctory) Los Angeles episode of No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain visited Sapp Coffee Shop with a local blogger who operates both the Eat Drink & Be Merry and Noodle Whore websites, I noted it: never been. when the first frigid days of December hit, and I found myself both in need of winterizing supplies at Home Depot and craving something spicy and soupy, I took myself to Sapp, tucked in the corner of an unassuming strip mall. I ordered the Bourdain-approved Thai Boat Noodles.

These may be my new favorite noodles, topping even the delicious Korean-style black bean and onion sludge served at House of Joy in Glendale. A pho-like blend of beef shank, tendon, tripe, liver -- almost every imaginable part of a cow -- simmering in a rich broth of beef blood and swimming with scallions and herbs -- this is a hearty as the heartiest beef stew, but leaves you feeling as light as a feather. Don't be too afraid of the ingredients. The soups are assembled to order, and the friendly and helpful English-speaking waitstaff will be happy to omit any ingredient that offends sensitive Western sensibilities. One even asked, when I ordered the "Noodle soup with Pork, Ground Pork, Pork Liver and Fish Ball," if I was cool with pork liver. Yes, but thank you for double-checking! Soups are only moderately hot even when ordered spicy, but an array of chilis, powders and sauces on the table make for endless customization.

Thai Boat Noodle at Sapp Coffee Shop

After some further research into the noodleries of Thai Town, I found myself going back less than 48 hours later to Thai Town Noodle, a couple of blocks away from Sapp, across from Jumbo's Clown room. Don't bother looking for the sign unless you can read Thai... only the address is clearly visible in the window.

This classic Asian lunch counter defines the term "less is more." It is, if anything, less conspicuous than Sapp, a tiny, clean, spare room with four or five tables and seating for another half dozen at the counter. Two kind, generous, friendly women, even less unapproachable than the staff at Sapp; a menu clearly written and with pictures in English above the kitchen counter. And it costs less too, all the noodle dishes here being five bucks. On my first visit, they threw in a free soda to welcome me. I sat in noodly heaven, watching some locals cheering on the Thai handball team in a grudge match against Vietnam, which led to a jovial discussion of Thai vs. Vietnamese noodles. The only thing not-less at Thai Town Noodles is the food. The Thai Boat Noodle bowl pictured above is treasure trove, bits of tender beef of various sorts lurking behind, around and under the perfectly cooked rice noodles. The Duck Soup... to die for. And when I went back a second time, to take my wife, one of the kind ladies smiled, said "you forgot this?" and handed me the Esquire magazine I had accidentally left behind two days before. (I was thrilled because there was a great interview with Mohamed El Baradei that I wanted to save.) Talk about service!

It is pouring rain this week. Perhaps your rain gutters need mending, or roof needs patching; you're headed to the Hollywood branch Home Depot or OSH, or perhaps a movie at the Arclight. You want something, quick, warm and comforting?

Get on the Boat.