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.