A few weeks ago, we headed down to Los Angeles for a quick getaway. Ostensibly, the occasion was our seventh(!) wedding anniversary, but truthfully the real purpose of our trip was to eat at all the places we’d been adding to our ever-expanding “must-try” list.
At the very top of said list was Pizzeria Mozza, the newish joint venture from Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton. After hearing rave reviews from pretty much every newspaper, magazine, blog, and friend, we decided to schedule Mozza in a prime Friday-night slot, to make sure we were getting the A-team of cooks and servers.
I won’t bore you with the litany of every thing that went wrong that night — we’re over the tedious exercise of writing negative restaurant reviews — but here’s the short version: Unexciting food, abysmal service, and pacing so unbelievably rushed that we were back in our car just 29 minutes after our first (and only) glass of wine hit the table. Seriously.
But every cloud has a silver lining. And at Mozza, that lining took the form of a fabulous melange of slender haricots verts, sweet shallots, crunchy hazelnuts, and creamy whole-grain mustard dressing (which, ahem, arrived in place of the roasted-cauliflower dish we’d actually ordered). Amid a menu of fair-to-decent dishes, this small plate stood out, and we quickly realized that we could easily duplicate it at home. We combed through every Batali and Silverton cookbook we own, but found nothing similar. However, Googling “beans + mustard + vinegar + hazelnuts” led us to a likely recipe — not from either of the Mozza chefs, but from Chef Dan Barber of New York’s Blue Hill restaurants.
Although we’re still a few weeks away from finding slim haricots at our market, their larger cousins are already becoming plentiful. And though hazelnuts aren’t grown in the Bay Area, we have plenty of other local options. We opted for walnuts, but made them a little more decadent by rubbing off their skins after toasting them lightly in a pan. After that, the rest of the dish comes together in a matter of a whisk here, a blanch there. And when served with a quick-brined pork chop and the first new potatoes of the year — as we did, for our One Local Summer meal this week — it makes for a great summer side-dish.
Summer Beans in Grainy Mustard Vinaigrette
– adapted from Dan Barber
1 T finely chopped shallots
2 T balsamic vinegar
12 oz trimmed green and yellow-wax beans (about 4 cups)
1/2 T whole grain mustard
1/4 cup good-quality extra-virgin olive oil
1 T chopped chives
1 T plus 1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 T blanched nuts (we used walnuts) toasted, peeled if desired, and coarsely chopped
Soak shallots in balsamic vinegar in a small bowl for 30 minutes; set aside for later use.
Fill a saucepan with 2 quarts of water and 1T salt; bring to a boil. Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with water and ice.
When water comes to a boil, add beans and cook until just tender, about 3 minutes. Drain quickly and shock beans in the ice-water bowl. When fully chilled, drain beans well, pat dry, and set aside.
Stir mustard into balsamic-soaked shallots. Gradually whisk in olive oil until blended. (If you’d like a creamier dressing, buzz with a stick blender until well emulsified.) Add the chives, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and pepper; stir until combined.
Toss dressing with beans and nuts until evenly coated; serve immediately.
Farmers and food artisans who created the ingredients for this week’s meal:
Marin Sun Farms
, Point Reyes: Pork chop
, Fairfax: Hard cider (for brine)
, Dixon: New potatoes
Dirty Girl Produce
, Santa Cruz: Shallots
, Sacramento: Olive oil and balsamic vinegar
, Brentwood: Green and wax beans
, Oakland: Whole-grain mustard
, Fairfield: Walnuts
…and our own homegrown
chives and homemade chicken stock
Once upon a time, Southern California was an agrarian epicenter where even small back yards usually boasted a mini-orchard, bursting with citrus or stone fruit.
My father’s parents lived in semi-rural Monrovia, on a plot that included chickens, a kitchen garden, and a small avocado orchard that Dad tended to earn his allowance. Mom’s parents lived in suburban Glendale, but even their yard was full of edible options, including an enormous orange tree that we harvested for fresh-squeezed juice. As late as the 1980s, there were were actual citrus groves still supplying fruit for roadside stands near my childhood home in Orange.
But these days, urban blight and suburban sprawl have plowed under this once-fertile landscape; the names of streets and boulevards offer the last hint of the area’s pastoral past. Sadly, you’ll find no nuts on Nutwood, no oranges on Orangethorpe, no chiles in Anaheim. A few last pocket farms remain, but by and large they’re limited to mono-crops like strawberries or pumpkins… the kinds of u-pick items that scout troops and school groups will pay to see.
As you might imagine, an area this divorced from its farming heritage makes for a pretty tough locavore life. Despite a few large, well-regarded farmers markets, even the notion of a dedicated farm-to-table restaurant is pretty out on the fringe. LA Weekly-überfoodie Jonathan Gold laments that “the idea of locavore dining is more admired than actually practiced in Los Angeles, even at the restaurants where farmer-celebrities like Alex Weiser or the McGraths are treated with more awe than Matt Damon.”
For home cooks, local produce is widely available so long as your schedule and location make it easy for you to visit the bigger farmers markets in Irvine, Hollywood, or Santa Monica. But if you’re not able to shop on Saturday, you’re pretty much stuck with food of unknown origin. During our recent trip to the area, we rented a vacation house with my family for the week, and so we had access to a kitchen. But we got into town too late to hit the farmers markets… a mistake we will be sure not to repeat!
Much like the supermarkets back home in Northern California, none of those we visited in Los Angeles or Orange County offered any indication of where their food came from. Even Whole Foods was a joke: Items bottled in Napa Valley — at the other end of the state — were proudly labeled as “LOCAL!”. When we asked employees about this, they pointed out Whole Foods’ store policy: Anything raised within 7 hours of the market was considered local… perhaps the most liberal interpretation of locavorism that I can imagine. And although we’re used to having to pay close attention to sourcing even at our local Whole Foods, we were surprised that we didn’t see a single ‘local’ sign in the produce section.
But it was Henry’s Marketplace — part of the Wild Oats chain — that won the hypocrisy prize: A giant banner on the rear wall of the store read: “Choose LOCAL! Enjoy the freshest flavors from your community.” But in fact, the only local products we were able to find in the entire store were Broguiere’s milk (locally processed from semi-local, non-organic herds) and Henry’s own-brand eggs. Not a single fruit or vegetable bin was labeled with its point of origin, much less its farmer’s name.
After much searching, we stumbled upon the website for South Coast Farms, one of Orange County’s last small-scale farm operations. We took a trek down Coast Highway to find that they do run a daily farm stand with a remarkably diverse set of offerings… our first clue that something wasn’t quite right. Turns out, only a handful of the items for sale are actually grown on site: Tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and a few herbs. Others are ‘local’ — alas, no indication on signs of farms or even towns — and many are simply big-organic imports from South America. (Apparently, their CSA is a little more focused than the stand.)
Working on a tip that Cal Poly Pomona offered local meat processed by their students, we took a trip out to the Farmstore at Kellogg Ranch. We did find local protein, but frozen chickens and a few sausages were all that the cases held. (Perhaps the stock is better during the school year?) Once again, it was anyone’s guess whether the fruits and veggies on offer were grown locally; there were a number of out-of-season crops for sale that made us suspect not. We got all excited over an entire wall of preserves, pickles, and sauces in quaint Mason jars, until we naively asked the store manager whether they were made by students, or just made from the farm’s own crops. “Oh, no…” she replied, with a tone that implied we’d just rolled off the turnip truck, “We just buy them from a company that puts our label on them.”
Defeated, we stopped into one of the smaller weekday farmers markets to see what we could cobble together. Although there couldn’t have been more than a dozen stalls, the mostly-Latino farmers offered a nice assortment of options: A basketful of tomatillos, a few heads of pungent celery, brown bags of fingerling potatoes, a huge pile of frying chiles, stacks of whiskery onions. Nobody seemed to be indulging in the luxury of specialization, which suited us just fine.
I won’t even go into the afternoon we spent trying to find local rolls for our sausages, but suffice to say we succeeded — even though we bought squishy commercial hoagie buns from the supermarket. A tiny corner store near our beach house supplied us with locally made tortilla chips, which we ate dipped in salsa verde made entirely from farmers market vegetables. For our entrees, we grilled up the German-style bratwurst we’d found at Cal Poly, topped them with a sauteed mix of peppers and onions, and served them on those supermarket buns. On the side, we had our favorite potato salad — everything locally sourced except the mayo and spices… and pickles from one of Kellogg Ranch’s faux-local canning jars.
Of course, it took us all week to get everything we needed, and our carbon footprint was enormous: We took the 100-Mile Diet to a literal extreme, racking up 90+ miles in the car on our search. I’m sure that with a little practice and a lot of hunting, we could find easier sources for much of what we drove around to find. But I’m thankful, more than ever, for the bounty that sits literally at my doorstep in San Francisco.
South Coast Farms
32701 Alipaz Street
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Monday through Saturday 9am to 5pm; Sundays 9am to 4pm
The Farmstore at Kellogg Ranch
4102 S. University Drive
Pomona, CA 91768
Sunday through Friday 10am to 6pm; Saturday 8am to 6pm
Tustin Farmers Market
Corner of El Camino Real and 3rd Street
Tuesdays, 9am to 1pm
On our trip to L.A. last weekend, we found ourselves driving west down Sunset Boulevard. As we rumbled out of Silverlake and into the fringes of Hollywood, we passed a cheerless cinderblock bunker in the middle of a barren lot.
“Oh, look,” I exclaimed, “It’s the Tiki-Ti!”
“What’s a Tiki-Ti?” Cameron asked.
“Oh, it’s this goofy bar we used to go to in college. It’s incredibly tiny and packed to the rafters with tropical crap.”
Alas, it was only 3 in the afternoon, so we couldn’t go in for a peek at the place I enjoyed some of my first drinks.
As dinnertime rolled around, we found ourselves strangely un-hungry. (Could it have been the massive plates of chicken and waffles we’d eaten for brunch?) Wanting to get out of the hotel but not yet ready for food, Cameron suggested we go for a cocktail. We ran down the short list of bar suggestions we’d gathered from friends and blog-buddies; nothing seemed appealing.
“Hey, I know: Let’s go back to that tiki place,” Cameron suggested. Hm, not a bad idea. It’s nowhere near the restaurant, but this is Los Angeles… nobody thinks twice about driving 45 minutes to dinner, after all.
As we walked in the door at 6:30p, there was exactly one seat left at the Tiki-Ti’s tiny bar. Just as I remembered, every surface was covered with float lights, tiki idols, and tropical kitsch. Behind the bar were two bartenders, working at a furious pace pouring brightly colored drinks for a festive group of customers. One of the regulars, an animated guy named Jim, welcomed us to the bar, quizzed us about the last time we’d been to the Tiki-Ti, and congratulated Cameron heartily when he heard this was his first visit.
“Tonight, you’re a tiki virgin!” he shouted, with a hearty back-slap and a giggle.
We ordered the drinks we usually save for tropical vacations: A Painkiller for me, and a Mai Tai for the bald guy. We chatted with the bartenders, inspected the amazing decor, drank our drinks, thanked everyone for a good time, and headed off to dinner.
Back home the next week, I cracked open the copy of Sippin’ Safari that I won in Kaiser Penguin’s tiki cocktail photo contest, searching for a trustworthy Mai Tai recipe. Beachbum Berry’s version looked interesting, although it certainly bore no resemblance to the fruity concoctions we’ve enjoyed in the islands. Imagine my amusement to discover that an old-school Mai Tai is really just a complicated daiquiri: No jumble of fruit juices, no bright tropical colors, and no goofball spirits… not even a pineapple wedge! It was a bit of a shock, but one I could easily digest — a well-made daiquiri is a thing of beauty.
But there was a bigger surprise awaiting me. Flipping to the index to look for possible mentions of the Tiki-Ti, I found neither a passing reference nor even a longer sidebar. In fact, the entire first section of the book was devoted to a man named Ray Buhen, one of the original Filipino back-bar “boys” at the legendary Don the Beachcomber — the world’s first tiki bar. In the early 1960s, Ray opened the Tiki-Ti in the space that used to house his father-in-law’s violin-repair store. He passed the torch to his son Michael and grandson Mike — the very same pair we’d met — when he retired in the late 90s.
Better yet, it turns out that this shoebox of a bar, which I’d naively assumed was an ironic hipster invention, was one of the vanguards of the Hollywood exotic-drinks craze at the height of its popularity. We had sat on the same stools that once propped up movie stars and millionaires, oblivious that our drinks were being made by the son and grandson of one of the original big kahunas.
Needless to say, it’s entirely surreal to discover that one of your old haunts is a cocktail landmark of this magnitude. It’s like finding out that your cousin is touring with Van Halen, or your next-door neighbor used to date Alice Waters. I’ve been chuckling to myself for the last couple of days, wondering what other legendary locations we’re breezing by with no more than a passing glance, and how many other legends stand unnoticed in our midst.
But back to that vintage Mai Tai recipe: It’s a curious thing. It tastes delicious, but it looks a little wan if you’re expecting a tropical icon. Adding a splash of good-quality grenadine — a fairly typical touch in most recipes — warms the drink’s appearance, and the popular dark-rum float adds a whiff of warmer latitudes.
But hey, it’s the weekend: Try it both ways, see which you prefer, and raise a toast to Hollywood’s last great tiki bar.
1 oz fresh lime juice
1 oz light rum
1 oz aged rum
1/2 oz orange curacao
1/4 oz orgeat syrup
1/4 oz falernum (or simple syrup)
splash of grenadine (optional)
Shake all ingredients except the dark rum with ice, and strain into an old fashioned glass. Top up with crushed ice, float a bar-spoon of dark rum on top, if desired, and garnish with a sprig of mint.
One year ago: Cape Codder
BACON BURRITO DOG
Big flour tortilla wrapped around 2 hot dogs, 2 slices of cheese, 3 slices of bacon, chili & onions.
Those words, announcing one of the many fat-tastic specials at Pink’s Hot Dogs on La Brea at Melrose, are among the many reasons why a trip to L.A. doesn’t feel complete without a stop at Pink’s.
On our last visit to El Pueblo, I ended up flying solo for a day while Anita was at the UCLA campus attending a blog writing “workshop.” My plan for the day: go play in Hollywood.
I’m not a fan of the typical Hollywood Boulevard shtick. My Hollywood starts at the corner of Sunset and Gardner, where there are about seven guitar shops in a two-block span, including a huge Guitar Center. But once again, Fate intervened. While walking from the car to my first guitar shop destination, I found the amazingly cool Orphaned CDs used CD store…which also happens to rent tuxedos, so you can get your outfit and ceremony music in one convenient stop.
I say that Fate intervened, because had I not found Orphaned CDs, I probably would have spent the morning as a much-hated “twiddler,” playing horrifically expensive guitars through exquisitely costly amplifiers that I had no intention of buying. But as I sat down with my first axe of the day, my newly-purchased CDs began to sing to me through their plastic bag. “Go,” they crooned, “Drive.”
And I did. I put down the guitar, walked out, climbed in the car, slotted “Welcome Interstate Managers,” by Fountains of Wayne, cranked the volume, slid down all the windows, and rolled out to cruise Paradise City. Did I mention that the sun was shining? Do I need to?
Yes, yes. We’re coming to the part with bacon.
I love banging around West Hollywood on general principles, but Pink’s was the touchstone of my day. Technically, it’s just a hot dog stand, the way that the New York City Marathon is technically just a footrace. Pink’s has been around for 65 years; a local legend visited by the unknown, the up-and-coming, the about-to-be, the recently-were, the has-been, the never-was, and occasionally, the OH-MY-GOD-IT’S.
There ain’t nothing fancy at Pink’s. Anything that don’t come from a can comes out of a package. You stand in a line that folds three times across the length of the front counter. When I queued up after finding a spot in the tiny parking lot, mirabile dictu, it was at about the two-and-a-half fold mark. It’s not uncommon for the line to stretch back another half block, which in L.A. works out to about two miles. As I waited behind six Japanese teenagers dressed in matching designer hobo rags and biker wallets (I swear on my life that two of them had identical leather shirts), the man behind me regaled his companion with the story of the time that he and a friend, criminally late for a gig and having already eaten dinner, stopped at Pink’s to chow down for no other reason than because there was no line. It’s that kind of place.
Meanwhile, behind sweeps of cafeteria glass a troupe of very serious Latinas (never seen anyone back there who couldn’t plausibly answer to the name Maria, and every one of them could and would kick your ass) hustles out onion rings, fries, and some seriously unreal hot-dog-based food. Hot dogs, polish dogs, turkey dogs even. Don’t like bacon on your burrito dog? How about pastrami? Yeah? Polish or Brooklyn pastrami? Nacho cheese, tomatoes, coleslaw, sauerkraut, pickles, sour cream. The list goes on.
You order. Fast. The crew member who takes your order sees it all the way through to completion while you pay the cashier. They have an odd array of bottled soda, including grape Crush. Out back, a batch of tables is mostly shaded from the eternal sun by umbrellas, and a small sheltered dining room is lined with signed headshots. Nicole Kidman appears twice, for reasons that are undoubtedly best left unexplored.
The Bacon Burrito Dog is my Usual, but we’ve got dinner at AOC lined up for that night, so I opt for the less gut-busting Bacon Chili Dog with my grape Crush. With cheese, natch. The dog colors my plate with greasy orange love. I finish and head out to the car, tool up Melrose and do some window shopping and people watching. I love L.A.
I hadn’t planned it this way, but we ended up eating at small-plates restaurants both Friday and Saturday nights of our L.A. trip. I’d made reservations at the wildly popular AOC a couple of months ago, and — without thinking — added Violet to the mix as I searched for a restaurant that would serve good food relatively late, and wouldn’t take us too far off the path between LAX and our Brentwood hotel.
When I realized what I’d done, we toyed with canceling our reservation, but we’d also pulled the ripcord on AOC on our last trip. So, we decided to stick with the plan, as it’s a relatively difficult place to get into on weekends and we didn’t know when we’d be back in El Lay.
We arrived in the neighborhood 20 minutes or so ahead of time, so we circled the area in search of street parking. Coming up empty, we turned our (very un-upscale) rental car over to the valet, and made our way inside. Or, at least as far inside as we could manage. At least three other couples were wedged into the foyer, and another pair perched on barstools around the corner. After a 10-minute wait for an audience with the hostess, we announced our name and reservation time. Searching, searching… no luck.
“When did you make the reservation?” she asked.
“Oh, probably five or six weeks ago,” I replied, consulting my Treo’s calendar. Yep, there it was: 8pm, Saturday, November 4. Just to be sure, I dialed up Open Table on the browser, as the hostess looked through her phone logs and people stacked up out the door.
“Here it is,” I said, turning the screen to show her, “8pm, November 4 on Open Table.”
“But we don’t have Open Table.”
“Um, this is AOC?” Yes.
“Is there another AOC?” No.
“Well,” she finally admits, “We did have Open Table for about a week, but we hated them and took it out.”
“OK, but here I have a confirmed reservation that neither you nor Open Table has canceled. How was I to know this?” I wondered aloud.
She asked us to wait a few more minutes, and assured me she would work something out. And, in fairness, she did: Ten minutes later, we were escorted through the dining room, past the charcuterie cooler, and upstairs to the enclosed rooftop patio, a spot that easily could have felt like being banished to Siberia, but actually resonated with cozy and intimate warmth, the white tent-like walls glowing with diffused light and the sky peeking through shades.
Our waitress appeared, offered us bottled water, and instructed us that two or three dishes per person would be “a good amount.” The menu’s a slightly longer list of dishes than at Violet — half a dozen salumi platters, salad-y choices, fish, meat, and a section of items from the wood oven — supplemented by a full page of artisan cheeses (AOC is, technically, a wine bar).
After nibbling on delicious marinated black olives and a tapenade spiced with smoked paprika and a hint of citrus, we started with a plate of Fra’mani salumi. I was particularly taken with the Nostrano and Cameron loved the Gentile, but all of them were quite tasty and well presented. Next up was a lovely and deceptively simple salad of crisp apples, walnuts, bitter greens, aged goat cheese and little slivers of red onion that you hardly noticed, but kept all the flavors dancing together.
Cameron pounced on the three fried oysters that followed the salad, but pronounced them a good news/bad news story: crispy, juicy and fresh, but blobbed with a dollop of cayenne aioli that flirted with greasiness. On the side, a lovely remoulade paired julienned celery root with a mustardy mayonnaise. The fourth dish, an open-faced riff on a croque monsieur, put the frisee that’s usually found on the side in between a slice of brioche and the top layers of egg, gruyere, and prosciutto. Again, delicious… but a bit overdressed, making the bread soggy and sour.
I paired the initial courses with a deeply-colored but otherwise unremarkable French rosé, while Cameron enjoyed a three-glass flight of sauvignon blanc from the Loire valley. For the last two plates — braised beef cheeks and fingerling potatoes crushed with gallons of butter and gilded with crème fraîche — we shifted gears to sterner stuff. I chose a glass of Flowers pinot noir/syrah (which was as good as I remembered), and Cameron opted for a cabernet from Napa’s 75 Wine Co. The beef cheeks were tender and very good, but the potatoes were positively orgasmic, brimming with fresh, potato-y flavor and skins that went snap.
Would that the service had been anywhere near as good as anything that we ate. Our waitress (one could hardly call her anything else) could have taught finishing school at a truck stop. Loud and ungraceful, she paired inattentive service with inappropriate comments — including “Wow, you guys wolfed that down!” screeched loud enough that other diners turned to gawk, at one point.
We also suspect that she botched the table numbers on our orders, as well as those of others near us, as we spent the night fending off dishes that we hadn’t ordered, waving at our plates as they headed for other nonplussed diners, and twiddling our thumbs between courses. By the end of the meal we were so fed up that we didn’t even glance at dessert, which is completely out of character for us. No matter how stuffed we are, we’ll always at least look at the menu.
But while we were done with AOC, AOC was not done with us. Cameron handed the ticket to the valet, who brought the car around, handed us the key, and bundled us in. But as we were about to take off, the valet rapped on the window, which Cameron rolled down, only to be asked if he had paid the as-yet-unmentioned $4.50 parking charge. Thoroughly exasperated, we pushed a five-dollar bill at the man (who we’d already tipped generously), punched the rental into “D”, and putt-putted into the night.
8022 W. Third Street (near Fairfax)
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Thanks to Cameron’s luck getting onto an earlier flight, we walked in to Violet a good 20 minutes before our reservation time. Greeted by a casually dressed but stylishly coiffed (and inked) host, we were seated almost immediately, and began perusing a list of seasonally inspired dishes, and a pleasantly extensive list of wines by the glass.
Our busboy appeared — bottles in hand — to ask if we preferred sparkling or still water. (I’m still of two minds about whether I found this annoyingly presumptuous or thoughtfully clever… I’m on the side of the latter, but I can’t put my finger on why.) Our waiter followed close on his heels, asking if we’d been to Violet before, and suggesting 5 to 6 dishes would be a good amount for the two of us.
We didn’t need to spend much time debating our choices — we easily found six dishes that appealed to both of us… a lucky thing, since the noise level (even at 9pm) precluded involved negotiations. Still, we enjoyed taking in our surroundings, a cozily-lit space with a modern palette.
Our first wine choices from the eclectic list turned out to be clear winners: A steely French rosé from Bieler, and an Alois Lageder pinot grigio with a flavor profile that seemed much more Gallic than Italian. A salad of grill-kissed Little Gem romaine combined bacony avocado and shreds of an unbilled Parmesan-like cheese to create a subtle Caesar-like effect, with an autumnal richness. Next up, a dish of ahi tuna tartare lacked flavor despite being overdressed with a ponzu dressing, and some of the fish was far too fishy to be enjoyed in the raw.
Our second set of dishes included a gorgeously indulgent take on macaroni and cheese, liberally dosed with gruyere and a smattering of Serrano ham bits. A pair of lightly breaded pork scaloppini served in a rich pan sauce rounded out the savory tastes. We enjoyed another couple of obscure, delightful wines with these dishes: A hearty and funky Gran Feudo crianza, and a hotly alcoholic but rather drinkable Velonosi rosso piceno.
None of the desserts screamed out for attention — will someone please tell chefs that crème brulee and molten chocolate cliché need to be left alone to die? — but we settled on a Key lime tartlet, which came with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream to set of its lime-curd-like filling. Cameron chose an unremarkable (but always pleasant) Taylor tawny port; I enjoyed a stem of the Nivole — a floral-nosed bubbly that reminded us both of a lightly sparkling Muscat de Rivesault — suggested by our waiter.
Throughout the meal, our server Trevor kept a close eye on us, pacing the meal perfectly, and always appearing just when we’d thought of something we needed. After tax but before tip, the cost for this little pearl of a meal: $109 (more than half of which was the bar tab).
3221 Pico Blvd. (near 32nd Street)
Santa Monica, CA 90405
This one’s a nod to this weekend’s destination: the City of Angels…
The Los Angeles Cocktail
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. sugar
1-1/2 oz. rye (or bourbon)
1/4 oz. sweet vermouth
Shake with ice, and strain into a cocktail glass.
Those of you who visit (or live in) Los Angeles have probably driven past one of the three Clearman’s North Woods Inn restaurants. They’re pretty hard to miss, looking for all the world like a giant log cabin, complete with “snow” on the roof and “icicles” hanging from the eaves. Inside, the rustique effect continues with stained-glass lamps, taxidermy specimens, and bordello-style “art” on the walls.
Once upon a time — in fact, until quite recently — the cocktail waitresses even dressed up in skimpy frontier barmaid costumes, complete with red-plaid shrugs and miniskirts short enough to show off their frilly underpants. The waiters still wear lumberjack outfits right out of Monty Python, with red-plaid vests, black pants, and arm garters. (No hats with ear flaps, alas.)
My mom and dad have been going to Clearman’s for more than 40 years, since before they were married. When we sisters were kids, it was one of the first nice-ish restaurants we ever went to. As you might expect from the decor, the menu runs the gamut from steak to steak, with a few minor detours into fried chicken and kabobs. Before your main course arrives, you always get a pair of salads — a red cabbage slaw and iceberg with blue cheese dressing — and artery-clogging cheesetoast, all served family style. And, of course, every steak comes with a baked potato as big as your head, groaning with fixin’s.
My middle sister’s the only family member who lives in Southern California these days, so our visits to Clearman’s are growing fewer and farther between. Truth be told, I don’t think the food’s as good as it once was. But we keep going, mostly because it’s a sentimental favorite… and probably also because you’ve got to love a place with signs in the bar insisting that you throw your peanut shells on the floor. We’re obviously not the only family that maintains a soft spot for the place, given that they sell their cheesetoast spread in almost every supermarket south of Santa Barbara.
Dad mentioned last week that he wanted us to make Clearman’s-inspired red-cabbage slaw for dinner over the weekend, and we happily obliged. We went whole hog (or is that cow?) by adding — you guessed it — steaks, potatoes, and iceberg lettuce with bleu cheese dressing to the menu. We hunted the local markets for the cheese spread, but came up empty.
When we told Dad about our fruitless search, it took him about 10 seconds to find a recipe for the stuff online. (You now know where I inherited my strong Google-fu from.) I whipped up a quarter-batch, Mom slathered it on some sliced sourdough bread, and we popped it under the broiler. The end result wasn’t bad — in fact, made with butter instead of the standard margarine, I think I like it even better than the original.
The red-cabbage slaw recipe comes from the L.A. Times, and we’ve made it regularly over the years. It’s perfectly fine on its own, but it’s even better mixed up with iceberg and blue-cheese salad.
“Just Like North Woods Inn’s” Red Cabbage Slaw
1/2 head red cabbage
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup + 1T red wine vinegar
4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. seasoned salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. onion powder
Shred cabbage irregularly, with some coarse and some fine shreds. Combine other ingredients in a bowl (or shake together in a jar or bottle) and pour over the cabbage. Mix well and let stand, refrigerated, for at least a few hours, or over night.
Makes 6-8 servings.
After a long afternoon of shopping, we picked up Dad from his appointment. As usual, he wanted a smoothie for his afternoon snack.
“Perfect,” said Mom. “Jamba Juice is right next door to Rubio’s.”
Dad and I sat outside in the afternoon sunshine, while Mom went into Jamba for Dad’s smoothie.
“Are you going to join us for fish tacos, Pops?” I asked.
“I’m not much of a fish guy,” he said, telling me nothing I don’t remember.
“Yeah, but these are good,” I countered. “They’re like fish-and-chips in a taco.”
He nodded, and said nothing. I figured he was just waiting patiently for his smoothie.
Rubio’s now styles itself a “Fresh Mexican Grill”, but everyone in Southern California — where the 150-plus chain started — still calls it by the original name: “Rubio’s Fish Tacos”. Their speciality, of course, is Baja-style fried fish wrapped in corn tortillas, shredded cabbage, and creamy salsa. Yummo.
When Mom finally came out, we made our way next door. We ordered two fish-taco combos, and joined Dad out on the patio. When the food came, he set down his smoothie… and promptly tucked into Mom’s tacos.
And he liked them.
Rubio’s #1 combo meal comes with two fish tacos, a small side of soupy pinto beans, and a few chips — the perfect size for a light lunch. Much like Burgerville, Rubio’s is unapologetically fast food, not health food. But it’s the kind of splurge-y meal that leaves you feeling comforted and happy, not bloated and gross.
Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill
1500 N. Green Valley Parkway
Henderson, NV 89014
As luck would have it, I’m working right around the corner from the new addition to the Westfield San Francisco Centre — home of the first NorCal outpost of posh grocery Bristol Farms, as well as the foodiest food court this side of The Loft at Bangkok’s Central Chitlom department store.
I decided to pass on the food court for now and take a gander at Bristol Farms. Unlike the L.A.-area locations that I’ve seen, this shop is definitely geared toward the lunch crowd, with passing nods to real groceries. Well, maybe that’s not entirely fair: The butcher counter is fully stocked, albeit with shockingly pricey all-natural cuts of meat. (I’m the bozo who paid $21.89 for 2-1/2 pounds of short ribs, yep.) Cheeses, fresh pastas, a full dairy and dry-goods selection… they’re all here, and I’m sure the folks moving in to those condo-hotels are celebrating having a real grocery nearby. The produce section seemed a little slim for a store with “Farms” in its name, but I suppose you can’t have it all.
I’m not sure if it’s because Bristol Farms has such strong ties to the Southland, but I was shocked to find both Bob’s Big Boy salad dressing and Clearman’s cheese-toast spread on the shelves. Who knows what other SoCal treats are lurking in the aisles?
The pastry and bakery cases are definitely drool-worthy, and the housewares department — across the mall from the main store — looked remarkably comprehensive, if a bit precious. Salad bar, deli, and hot food stations seemed pretty decent, and not terribly overpriced considering the neighborhood. I picked up a pint container of “roadhouse chili” and garnished it with cheese, onions and crackers for just $3.99.
The crowds were still pretty thick, just four days after the grand opening, but a dozen cheerful cashiers kept the queue moving briskly and helpful staff answered questions in the aisles. All in all, a good first visit. And, I have to say: It’s just so damned European to have a grocery store in the basement! Maybe we can get our public transit working, now…
San Francisco Centre (Concourse Level)
845 Market Street, Suite 10
San Francisco, CA 94103