Thursday, October 06, 2011

Chili Dog Smackdown Part II

At the end of my recent post on L.A. chili dogs, I asked you, my readers, if I'd left any of your faves off the list. Thanks to responses on Facebook and Chowhound (no one comments on actual blog posts anymore!), I was forced out of journalistic duty, to try all of your recommendations. Here's the roundup of other places I visited, and my final rankings. Will Carney's reign supreme?

Original Tommy's
2575 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90057
(213) 389-1682
Yelp It

And by Original, I don't mean any old shack that claims to be an Original Tommy's, even if it is part of the same chain; I mean the one and only original location of the Original Tommy's, on First and Rampart, in the no-man's land between Silver Lake and downtown. I've had a few dozen burgers here in my time, but it had never occurred to me to try their chili dog (in fact I don't think I knew they made one), recommended on Chowhound by malibumike.

Now I have. It's... fine. The chili is Tommy's: say no more. They make the perfect chili for dogs and burgers, dense but still fluid, full of all those secret savory spices that are a chili-maker's heart and soul. Simply delish. As for the rest of the dog, it didn't quite carry its weight. It's possibly the largest, messiest of the dogs I tasted. While it was flavorful, it was a little bit on the tough side, without being snappy. In a dog, one wants the resistance on the outside, tender juiciness in the middle. This was curiously reversed on my Tommy's dog (sounds weird, saying that!) Also the bun was a little stale... as if it had been sitting in the sun behind the streetside shack... oh wait, it probably had been. A possible disadvantage to the "original" location, or at least of the streetside service area as opposed to separate one set back from the street.

Cupid's Hot Dogs
9039 Lindley Ave
Northridge, CA 91325
Yelp It

This was by far the most-recommended other dog, and with good reason. I was told to go to the original branch across from the entrance to Cal State Northridge. On approach, I was immediately comforted that they make hot dogs, and nothing but hot dogs. This is the entire menu:

Hot Dogs - 2.50
Cheese - 0.25
Everything is - Mustard, Onions & Chili
Upon Request - Ketchup, Relish, Cheese

Chips - 0.75

Small - 1.00, Medium - 1.25, Large - 1.50
Refills - 0.50
Bottled Water - 1.00
Milk - 0.75
Instant Coffee - 0.40
Hot Tea - 0.40

***Tax Included On All Items***

I love that when Cupid's makes you "One with everything," it's just the way I like it: mustard, onions, chili.

This is bare bones doggery, man. No indoor seating; three outdoor picnic tables. And it's an excellent chili dog. If I lived in the northeast reaches of the Valley, it would be my go-to. Cupid's chili is unique in this group. I'm no expert on chili, but this one is more of a fluorescent orange color than a brick red. My guess is it's greasier. It's also got more of tang; perhaps the presence of more tomato in the sauce? And although there isn't a lot of beef in it, it's what I consider a delightful texture: creamy. Mind you, this isn't the type of meat-forward chili you'd want to eat a bowl of; it's strictly a hot dog topping. The dog itself was good, but (especially after Tommy's" it seemed a little small; you'd definitely want two to make a meal here, where I'm usually good with one. The bun was steamed to perfection.

6654 Hollywood Blvd
Hollywood, CA 90028
(323) 468-3647

This is also a dogs-only joint, a couple of years old, on Hollywood Blvd. It's a hipster/retro version of the Cupid's vibe. Which is fine.

What's unique and delicious about Skooby's is their buns: more a French sandwich roll than a bun, nicely steamed to a chewy but not difficult texture. The dog is snappy, tasty, but unfortunately, the chili here isn't in the same league as the others on this quest. It's bland and watery.

Papaya King
1645 Wilcox Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90028
Neighborhood: Hollywood
(323) 871-8799
Yelp It

The new kid on the block in Hollywood, and the current "it" dog. A New York institution, but I gather it's more because of their papaya drinks and shakes (I tried one, too sweet for me!) than their dogs.

Their chili dog (by far the smallest of the group) is okay, flavorwise, but somehow it doesn't have the left coast balls to the wall panache that homegrown chili dogs do; chili is not, after all, a New York calling card. This pup just doesn't stand out against the rest of the group here. I plan to come back, though, and try a New York style dog along the lines of the ones to be found at the original Nathan's on Coney Island, with those orangey grilled onions. (Perhaps the next quest...after my triglyceride levels have recovered from this one.)

Fab Hot Dogs
Loehmann's Plaza
19417 1/2 Victory Blvd
Reseda, CA 91335
(818) 344-4336

This place makes a big to-do about hot dogs, with a vast menu of replications of regional hot dog types and toppings. As I say in my reviews, I don't post negative reviews, but I thought readers would like to know that I did order a dog here. Suffice to say I didn't finish it.

And finally, after all this tasting, I went back to Carney's on Sunset Strip, just to make sure. Yeah, I'm sure.

My final rankings in the great Chili Dog Smackdown of 2011:

1. Carney's
2. Cupid's
3. Pink's
4. Coney Dog
5. Original Tommy's
6. Papaya King
7. Skooby's
8. Fab Hot Dogs

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Asian Invasion - Ikemen Dip Noodle and Soy Sauce Roll and Bowl

I'm all a-twitter and a-flutter. I love Little Tokyo, to the point that I actually look forward to jury duty because it means I'll get to eat my fill of ramen at Daikokuya and donburi at T.O.T.  Between rounds of public service, I make pilgrimages downtown, just to get out of the culinary wasteland that is central Hollywood and into some good Japanese food.

The options for a quick meal in walking distance of my house have been pretty grim: the big chains and awful pizza joints on Hollywood Boulevard; fair to middlin' Thai food; strip mall Hawaiian BBQ; El Pollo Loco. It's telling that even this Food Crazy, on those nights when my Better Palate is at an exercise class or whatever and I can indulge in take-out for one, usually settles for solid but unexceptional Singapore style Chinese from Le Mandarette.

But all that has suddenly changed, with the opening in the last two weeks of two genuine, delicious, Japanese  holes-in-the-wall that would be worthy of Little Tokyo, right here in Hollywood. Did I mention I'm a-flutter?

Soy Sauce Roll & Bowl
7131B W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 876-7000
Yelp Info

I know, I know, it's an awful name for excellent and authentic Japanese lunch counter food. LA. Eater noted its opening with understandable lack of enthusiasm a couple of weeks ago. But then I received a menu in my mailbox, and I was mightily intrigued by the photos. Nearly half of the menu is a variety of donburi bowls (protein and vegetables over rice): spicy scallop, baked lobster, eel/avocado, spicy seared albacore, chicken katsu, Japanese curry. There are also izakaya-style skewers, miniscule but delicious tastes of things like grilled pork belly, baby octopus, and quail egg at miniscule prices ($1.95 for three bites of pork belly). True, there are also the ubiquitous "special rolls" with names like "Super Crunch" and "Japanese Burrito." Bot don't let the questionable nomenclature fool you. This is real Japanese/Asian Fusion food, made and served by Japanese people. And the quality of what I've ordered has been excellent. 

The Spicy Scallop bowl ($7.50) comes not with the generic American broccoli and carrots pictured on the menu but a delightful salad of fresh greens; the bay scallops are plentiful and indeed very spicy, and made sans mayonnaise, with just a chili oil sauce. The bright red pickled ginger adds snap and color to the bowl. 

Rainbow Bowl
The Chirashi ($8.50) features generous portions of fresh, tender fish -- yellowtail, salmon (raw, thank you!), tuna, albacore, and shrimp. The "Bake Lobster" ($7.50),  is the dish that brings the mayo. If it's lobster, they're they're tiniest tails I've ever seen (think crawfish), but the creamy bake is rich and satisfying. One or two caveats: the "crab" in the Crab Bowl and Rainbow Bowls (pictured above... a chirashi with avocado and crab salad added) is actually Krab. And the fried "popcorn" scallops, by the time they're delivered to our door, are a bit rubbery.

But wait -- they deliver?! Oh, yes, my friends, they freakin' deliver. Promptly and courteously. When one of my orders arrives missing a baked lobster bowl, Brian (the chef? owner?) returns almost immediately with the AWOL bowl, but also three miso soups, a giant order of edamame, and a voucher for another lobster bowl next time I order. That will, I assure you, be very, very soon. Note that the "dining room" of the place is tiny, although clean and stylish in modern Japanese lunch counter style: three small tables and counter space for maybe a dozen. The staff is almost impossibly friendly and enthusiastic. I have yet to work through the menu to decide if the food is better than the comparable T.O.T on 2nd Street in Little Tokyo; but that I even am considering such a question, regarding a place in what we call "the Pollo Loco mall" makes it a great day in Hollywood.

And then, just a long stone's throw away, there's:

Ikemen Dip Noodle
1655 N La Brea Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 800-7669
Yelp Info

In the same parking-challenged strip mall that houses our go-to takeout pizza (Raffallo's) and aforesaid go-to Chinese takeout, Ikemen quietly appeared in a soft opening a couple of weeks ago. The space formerly occupied by Casablanca (which was once our go-to Mexican but has for years been sad and inedible) is now home to a tiny, ultra-hip noodle counter serving black-belt ramen from a genuine celebrity Ramen Master. This little bit of Tampopo three blocks from Hooters and the Hard Rock is so wonderful and unlikely. This place couldn't be more Japanese-cool, from the "Urban Youth Smoking" art to the Louis IVX chandelier to the black painted tile to the chef and wait-staff wearing red or pink straw pork-pie hats. And the ramen might be the best I've had in L.A.

The "dip ramen" ($9.00) consists of thick, gloriously chewy noodles served cold, soba-style, with either chashupork tonkotsu (pictured below ) or grilled chicken on top and a bowl of richly seasoned hot broth, into which you dip the noodles bite by bite.

Zebra Dip with Chashu Pork and Onsen Tamago
The broth comes in four styles, from the garlicky "Zebra" to the heavily fish-powdered "Ikemen." My waiter recommends adding a "topping" of "Onsen Tamago," ($1.00) a perfectly poached egg, to my Zebra noodles. He's right... stirring the egg yolk into the noodles gives it a carbonara-like flavor and texture. This could be my new favorite dish within a three mile radius of my house.

The "Genuine Ramen," ($8.00) a manageable list of four varieties, is a classic thin rice noodle soup which I ordered with tomatoes (cherry tomatoes, to be exact, which were farmers market fresh and flavorful ). This is the real deal.

Genuine Tomato Ramen
The broth (a light chicken broth, not the heavy miso or salty soy sauce versions of ramen I'm most familiar with) is subtle and flavorful. The noodles are divine, and no wonder; Ikemen's "Ramen Master" (yep, that's what his business card says) is Sean Nakamura, who is currently in New York opening a Ramen Lab, teaching other chefs his mad noodling skillz. You can read about the rather baroque relationship between owner, chef and general manager, and their Japanese-cum-Torrance-cum-Beverly Hills foodie cred in an LA Weekly piece here. Again, I have yet to work my way through their menu, which promises other delights like grilled chicken and teriyaki pork sliders. But the lunch (or late night!) counter landscape is suddenly, and I hope permanently, altered in my 'hood.


Thursday, September 01, 2011

Chili Dog Smackdown - Pink's vs. Carneys vs. Coney Dog

For most of my formative years, the closest restaurant to me was an Orange Julius. My go-to item on their menu (Julius itself aside), was what. at the time. they called a California Dog. That would be a chili cheese dog to you and me. These days I'm more likely to dog it sans fromage, but I often get the hankering. Sometimes I make 'em at home. But sometimes, you gotta hit up a stand, and living in Hollywood, I have serious options.

Recently, two different friends from Detroit raved about the recently opened Coney Dog on Sunset Strip. Both told me that for lovers of chili dogs, it's the be-all and end-all. So, in honor of the upcoming Labor Day weekend, I set out with my Better Palate, Sa, and taste-tested three versions of the most American of all snack foods in the space of two hours: Coney Dog, Carneys and Pink's. The ultimate chili dog smackdown.

8873 Sunset Blvd
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Neighborhood: West Hollywood
(310) 854-1172
Yelp Info

My Detroit friends tell me that the Motor City -- not, ironically, from New York's Coney Island --  is where a true Coney Dog comes from. If Wikipedia is to be trusted on this, they are correct. There are two competing joints, originally operated by two Greek brothers and still family-run, next door to each other: Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island.

The two have engendered a rivalry that makes the Hatfields and McCoys look like the Brady Bunch. A Detroiter is born with a genetic allegiance to one or the other, and the fan of one never sets foot in the other, on pain of disinheritance. Both of my friends are Lafayette men (although American won a recent blind taste-off on Travel Channel's Food Wars), and they were over the moon when Coney Dog opened. It's owned by an ex-Detroiter who recreated Lafayette's look and feel, right down to the hexagonal off-white floor tile. Ingredients are shipped from Detroit for authenticity.

The service here is super-friendly; the menu is simple and to the point. Hot dogs. A "loose burger," which is actually a hot dog with ground beef in place of a frankfurter. And there is at least one ode to the L.A. location -- a bacon-wrapped L.A. Street Dog But I'm here for the real Detroit-style Coney Dog, or, as I'm told it's ordered in Detroit, simply a "Coney."  A chili dog with onions and mustard ($3.95, but two-for one during their weekday happy hour).

I like that.

The bun is steamed and soft without being squishy. The sausage itself is casing-on, as all great dogs must be. This one is a blend of beef and pork, and it's tasty. This contest, I know, will be largely about "snap," the level of fight-back the casing provides when biting in. On the Coney Dog, it's considerable, and the dog itself is not-unpleasantly chewy; one fears there might be a structural integrity issue, but there is not. It;s possible to get through one without getting mustard and chili stains on your shirt.

Then there is the chili. It's rich, savory, just the right thickness to provide creaminess without falling off the dog. But I immediately notice a slightly sour note to it. It is my Better Palate who wrinkles her nose and says, simply, "I don't like the chili. It tastes like chicken liver or something." A little research back at home reveals that she was in the right organ-meat ballpark (no Dodger Dog jokes, please). One of the "secret" ingredients to Lafayette's chili, and presumably to Coney Dog's, is beef heart. Now, don't let that put you off. If you're eating a hot dog out in the world, you're already eating internal organs you'd rather not think about. But it does impart a very particular savoriness to the dog.

709 N La Brea Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Neighborhood: West Hollywood
(323) 931-4223
Yelp Info

Love it or hate it, ya gotta love Pink's. Personally I love it, but the line, right? I usually go once or twice a year. Once, when I happen to drive by and the line looks less than 15 minutes. Once, when I visit the County Fair, where there are multiple Pink's outlets and you can step right up and get a dog. (incidentally, I posted about Fair food here. ) Today, I braved a fairly standard lunchtime line (25 minutes), just for the edification of you, my reader. You're welcome.

The frankfurter here, famously made "especially for Pink's" is Hoffy, all-beef, casing on. The bun is fractionally -- fractionally -- more firm than the one at Coney Dog. The chili dog ($3.45) is also fractionally more toothsome (a word that I use, incorrectly, as a synonym for "chewy'" I'm a novelist so I'm allowed): getting through the bottom casing without pulling out the dog or some chili is a challenge. Unlike Coney Dog, the mustard at Pink's is applied beneath the chili, which I find less pleasing aesthetically.

The dog is  delicious -- I have decided I prefer all-beef. The chili is definitive: perfectly creamy, perfectly spicy, perfectly salty. I have noticed something while waiting in line with my camera. The stand is decorated with pictures of the stand in past days. The one from 1946 has a prominently displayed neon announcing that they use "XLNT Tamales and Chili."

RU kidding?!? I have loved XLNT Tamales since I was a teen with the munchies -- and both they and their chili are available by the brick in Southern California supermarkets. I asked the manager if Pink's still uses the same brand, and she told me "yes." With all the discussion about the Pink's chili recipe, it's been right there in your grocer's freezer all along, the bastard! (Although One Guy On the Internet says that Pink's adds water, flour, and beaten egg to the brick starter, so it must be true.)

Yes, this a fine and noble chili dog indeed.

8351 W Sunset Blvd
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Neighborhood: West Hollywood
(323) 654-8300 (currently down)
Yelp Info

Carneys on Sunset Strip in West Hollywood is where I generally go when I crave a simple chili dog with a snap. I love the Southern Pacific Railroad car ambiance, the view of the Strip, the easy, free parking (I should note that Coney Dog has free parking too, on the roof). I've always considered Carney's a reasonable, no-hassle alternative to Pink's. Unlike Pink's, with its chaotic one-person-handles-your-order-from-beginning-to-cashier workflow, Carneys' dog is in front of you practically before you order it. The guy behind the counter is invariably efficient, seemingly gruff, but then personable and funny. (When the Better Palate calls me "Honey," which I hate (in public), he asks what my last name is. He laughs when I respond "Bear.  Or sometimes Pie.") We are sitting and eating within three minutes of walking in the door, having ordered the Carneys Dog without its Chicago-dog style sliced tomatoes: our benchmark chili-onion-mustard dog.

The bun is exactly the consistency of Coney Dog's: steamed soft, but with reliable integrity. Like Pink's, the mustard is applied before the chili. But the all-beef dog's snap is just right, popping juicily but not interfering with the bite; it's plump, slightly charred at the very tip, and delicious. The chili tastes a lot like Pink's; I'd be interested to do an actual side-by-side to see if, perhaps, they are the very same. This dog sings four-part harmony; bun, chili, mustard and onions are a perfectly composed quartet; the whole merges gracefully into a sum greater than its parts, and its parts are damn good. My Better Palate and I polish one off; I'm ready for more.


When I expressed fondness for both Pink's and Carneys to my Detroiter friend Danny over our  Coneys, he nodded vigorously (Danny does everything vigorously) and said, "I'd eat any of those dogs!" He's right. They're all great. (Alas, I'll never be able to test these three side-by-side with a dog from the original Nathan's on Coney Island, which is certainly great.) And frankly (ha!), very little separates the competitors. It's just a freakin' chili dog, after all. But Sa and I agreed: for the simple chili dog, Carneys comes out on top. Still, I won't hesitate to chow down at Pink's when the line is reasonable. And if listening to the excited, anticipatory chatter of tourists while contemplating an endless variety of kinky dogs (most recently, the "L.A. Philharmonic Conductor Gustavo Dudamel Dog," a nine inch hot dog, guacamole, American and Swiss cheese, fajita-grilled onions and tomatoes, jalapeno slices, topped with tortilla chips) and maybe mugging for the camera in a Good Day L.A. shoot is what you're in the mood for... well, ya gotta love Pink's.

Wherever you choose to eat a dog, why not do so this holiday weekend? Raise one to the American worker, and remember that Labor Day comes from a time that unashamedly celebrated, rather than demonized, the collective strength of our workforce.

Posts like this always generate "Why didn't you include..." comments, so bring 'em on. Cupid's? Skooby's? Tommy's? Let me know.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Not Just For Thanksgiving - Turkey

In lieu of a post about local food today, I'm sharing a link to a half-hour video I just posted to Vimeo of our trip last fall to Paris, Istanbul, and various sites around Turkey. It being me on the trip, there are plenty of yummy food shots. Anthony Bourdain's favorite purveyor of durum (think Turkish burrito) hole in the wall (if you look closely, there's a photo of him with the owner in behind the picture of Sa and me dining on the sidewalk). There's an array of Turkish mezes. There's a lovely fresh fish sandwich, served from a rocking boat on the Mediterranean. There's a breast of canard confit at a Paris brasserie. And that's a crepe that Sa's chowing down on in front of the Moulin Rouge. All you food crazies should know: Turkish food is utterly awesome.

Do expand to full screen if you wish. It's uploaded in splendid 1080p HD video. Hope you enjoy!

Jess and Sa Winfield in France, Istanbul, and Cappadocia from Jess Winfield on Vimeo.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Yes, It Rhymes With Mex - TAIX French Restaurant

TAIX French Restaurant
1911 Sunset Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA 90026
Info on Yelp

You've driven past it a million times, on your way downtown or to Dodger Stadium or to your hipster friends' houses in Echo Park and Silver Lake. It looks like one of those old school L.A. restaurants that's been there for so long, unchanging, that that can't possibly be any good. You know the type: Little Joe's Italian restaurant still hunkered down in the middle of Chinatown (terrible!); The Buggy Whip on the way to LAX; the Smokehouse.

Taix French Restaurant shares a period-LA vibe and catacomb-y, sprawling design with those places, and I confess it made me afraid to eat there. I generally avoid restaurants that take up an entire city block. But after finally, trepidatiously going to check it out about a year ago, I've been a dozen times since and it's become one of my favorite restaurants, full stop.

Pulling up to the valet under the Smokehouse-like covered motor court ($2.50 charge - a sign of good value to come) you realize you can be nowhere but Los Angeles. The wide entryway features Flintstones-scale brick pillars -- one can imagine Fred pulling up and ordering a car-tilting sized side of Boeuf -- as accent to the Tudor building that is the home to "French Country Cuisine." You're not surprised to learn that although the restaurant has been in operation as a strictly family enterprise since 1927, the current location opened right in the Flintstones wheelhouse: 1962. Entering through heavy wood and wrought-iron doors, you ambulate down a long flagstone hallway past the restaurant's 321 Lounge, which is worthy of another post all its own. Suffice to say it's a comfy, intimate space voted "Best Free Music Venue" by the LA Weekly), with a spectacular long bar that pours long drinks and serves the restaurant's full menu.

A pleasant if comfortingly aloof maitre'd' takes you to the main dining room, which is a pastiche of a tourist's imagination of a high-end French restaurant. Gold and black marble-glass walls, baroque chandeliers, Art-Nouveau etched glass; it's a tour of styles from Belle Epoque to Art Deco that somehow manages to hang together... just barely. Every table in the main room is a comfy booth. Another plus.

But the food and drink are where Taix shines. Their dinner menu (they also have lunch, late-night (service in the bar 'til 1:00am weekends) and even children's menus) strives for, and achieves, classic French country cuisine with none of the attitude, obfuscation, or overcharging of most French restaurants. Cocktails are expertly made, generously poured, and reasonably priced. Appetizers run the socio-economic gamut. If you're feeling peasant-y there's a simple, tangy Ratatouille ($5.50) and a classic Gratinée a l’Oignon (French Onion Soup) ($6.95). If you're feeling bourgeois, there are two kinds of Moules Frites (steamed mussels), a classic white wine "Moules Mariniére" and a Moules Maison, featuring leeks, both of which are bread-soppingly tasty. If you'd prefer to let them eat cake while you pop escargots, Taix's snails are imported from Bourgogne ($16.95) And if you're feeling ugly American, there's an $8.95 Macaroni Gratin that is plain ol' mac and cheese, an entree-sized portion, that's become one of my favorites in town.

The dinner entree menu is a tour of delights. The Poulet Rôti au Jus (roasted half chicken, $13.95) is the best I've had in any restaurant anywhere. The Côte de Porc Grillé (Grilled pork chop with port wine and caramelized onions, $19.95) is tender, perfectly cooked, the onions an ideal complement. Plat de Côte de Boeuf Braisé  (Braised short ribs in an exquisitely dark, reduced Cabernet sauce on garlic mashed potatoes) is heavenly and rich in the best French style. Trout almandine, rack of lamb, skirt steak... all have been yummed over by dining companions over several visits. On my last trip, on the waiter's recommendation, I had the Tagliatelles Aux Fruits de Mer ($19.95) a simple pasta with seafood, cream, and white wine that was simply splendid, despite its Italian roots. As you can see, the prices are ridiculously reasonable for Los Angeles. Most entrees are under $20.00, none is over $30.00, and, especially if you treat yourself to an appetizer or two, the portions are plenty. (although $4.00 extra gets you soup du jour and your choice of salad).

Also of note are the rotating "Cuisine Grand-mére" (Grandma's Cooking) specials. I've been back several times to get Thursday's heavenly Lapin a la Dijonnaise, a braised half rabbit with mushrooms, pearl onions and mustard sauce, and have in fact launched a personal campaign to eat more rabbit. So good. Tuesday's Braised Oxtail and Saturday's Duck a l'Orange are also exceptional. Basically, everything is good at Taix; I've yet to be disappointed with any dish I've ordered there. And the wine list is terrific, an array of both French and California wines, with loads in the $20-30 range (also lots of half-bottles, which is nice), and helpful and knowledgable waiters to help you choose one.

And yes, ladies, there is Mousse au Chocolate and Crème Brûlée to be had for dessert.

[Alas, my trusty point and shoot Canon Powershot 450 finally died while writing this, and I have no photos of the food. But somehow that seems right... firing flash photos against such tasty, classy dishes seems wrong, somehow. I'll try to fill in next time I go. In the meantime, there are some swell photos of a lamb chop and a review on the LAIST website.]

I never post bad reviews, and I don't generally give star ratings because of the difficulty of balancing quality and value. But Taix gets my strongest recommendation: a true LA institution serving outstanding food with excellent service and fun ambience at reasonable prices. It's my kind of place. And just today, as I was prepping this post, I received an e-mail that it was voted "Best French Restaurant" in an LA Times Readers Choice poll. Clearly, you should go dine there.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bânh Mi? Bânh You! - Jenny Mai Fast Food

Jenny Mai Fast Food

424 W. College Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90112
(213) 617-7638

Info on Yelp

[Note: this post has been edited to update the restaurant's name following a change of ownership.]

Between our matinee subscription series at Disney Hall, Sa's garment district shopping needs, and the seeming endless cycle of jury duty, we find ourselves downtown at lunchtime a lot. Lucky for us, this means FOOD. Of course, within ten minutes of the Civic Center there are loads of options, from the delights of Little Tokyo to the dim sum and seafood palaces of Chinatown. But you don't always have time for a full sit-down meal at lunchtime. One of our go-to tos for a quick grab and go is a handful basketful of taquitos from Olvera Street, which I discuss here. But lately we've been availing ourselves of the splendid and little known (outside the foodie community) Vietnamese sandwich they call bânh mi. Bânh mi literally means "flour roll" in Vietnamese: it's a baguette. You wonder why a baguette is an authentic Vietnamese culinary item, but as soon as you ask out loud, you'll remember that the French were colonizing Vietnam as early as 1850, and some elements of French cooking entered their cuisine.

So, a bânh mi is simply a sandwich made with Vietnamese ingredients on a light baguette. The ingredients are as variable as any sandwich, but you'll find a few common items: a choice of protein (maybe bbq pork, pork skin, chicken, ham, tofu, or more exotic stuff like head cheese); usually mayonnaise, sometimes with garlic; a slaw made of pickled daikon, shredded carrots and fish sauce; and cilantro, jalapeños, or cucumbers. Many of the "special" bânh mi combination sandwiches -- think Italian sub -- also come with a light smear of pate at the base of it all.

Yes, it's as delicious as it sounds, and surprisingly light. The bread is airy thanks to a high rice flour-to-wheat flour ratio, but still pleasantly chewy. My favorite bânh mi, the bbq pork with pate combo, is rich and savory at its heart, but lightened and brightened by the sweetness of the carrots, the tanginess of the pickled daikon, and the zip added by the cilantro. The sandwiches are nearly  footlong, but it's entirely possible to eat the whole thing without feeling overfed. You'll see bânh mi offered at many Vietnamese and Vietnamese owned Chinese restaurants and delis in Chinatown; there are no doubt serviceable ones scattered throughout L.A. I find myself on La Cienega Blvd. quite often and have sampled a couple at Absolutely Phobolous. But our favorite sandwiches are at Jenny Mai's Fast Food (until recently Rainbow Bakery; ownership has changed but staff, menu, and prices remain the same) located in an alley-like strip mall that, unusually for Chinatown, actually offers free parking with validation.

Order your sandwich at the brightly neon-lit counter from the numerous pictures on the wall, and the freshly made bread is toasted for you, the sandwich assembled to order. Eat at one of the small tables or, as we usually do, take it over to the lovely garden outside Disney Concert Hall for a picnic.

The other excellent news is that bânh mi are generally inexpensive: Jenny Mai''s are a measly $2.95.

The lasting influence of French colonization and American war in Vietnam is one for historians to debate. But at least all of that misery and death had one pleasant result: it led directly to the multicultural culinary phenomenon of expatriates bringing tasty, tasty bânh mi to Southern California.