A Taste of L.A.
Remember the nuclear devastation of Los Angeles in Terminator 2? Karen and I saw that movie in L.A., and we were the only two people who chortled over Linda Hamilton's dream of mushroom clouds. That's how much we liked L.A. Of course, that was before we lived in Texas, and that was also before we lived in the land of "Oh, God, please let that be a new restaurant, because our town really doesn't need a seventh auto parts store!" Without further ado, here are eight things I miss from Los Angeles, all food. (Sorry, Beth & all those other vegetarians out there, but I like meat.)
Mr. Creosote1. Baci D'Alassio from Il Fornaio restaurant in South Pasadena. Think of Baci as two chocolate-hazelnut macaroons fused base-to-base with a dollop of semisweet chocolate. Here's the recipe, and here's a picture. 2. Fried smelt at Cafe Santorini in South Pasadena. Oh how I love my little fishies. I really, really don't want to look up the mercury content of smelt on Fanatic Cook's mercury chart. (Hah! They're not on the chart. They must be mercury-free.) Imagine a huge dish piled high with lightly battered smelt, fried to a golden crisp, sprinkled with finely chopped Italian parsley, and served with no shortage of lemon wedges. You eat these bad boys whole -- head, tail, fins, bones, everything. The crunch is part of the experience. Oh, lordy lordy lordy lordy. 3. Creme brulee at Cafe Santorini. Perfect creme brulee should have a warm, flawlessly crisped top, and a smooth, cold center. No damned bubbles. If there's bubbles in the puddin', the cook don't know WTF about creme brulee. Here's the Cook's Illustrated recipe -- I haven't tried it out yet, but I will very soon. My beloved has a yen. Karen, a creme brulee purist, hates to discover funky flavors on the first bite (Funky = anything other than vanilla). But I like a surprise. My favorite-ever creme brulee at Cafe Santorini featured a strong hint of bay leaf. 4. Basturma at Sahag's Deli on Sunset. Basturma is the king of cold cuts, the ur-pastrami. Food critic Jonathon Gold called it "less a foodstuff than a force of nature." It has the beefy intensity of bresaola, but the spice rub (hot paprika, fenugreek, and garlic) packs a wallop. Eat some basturma and give your unsuspecting Dearest a deep, deep kiss for a food sex memory that will last a lifetime. Here's Sahag's address. 5. Peking Duck at Quan Jude in Rosemead. World famous for their Peking Duck, Quan Jude sports photos of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon dining at their Beijing restaurant. You can eat any part of the duck here -- they even have duck tongue aspic on the menu (trust me -- stick to the Peking Duck). Here's the address. If you've never had Peking Duck, this needs to be on your list of Things I Must Eat Before I Die. The whole point of Peking Duck is to render the duck skin of its fat and elevate it to crispy snips of heaven. The skin is served with a bit of meat, a bit of green scallion, and a dollop of plum sauce (or is it hoisin?) all wrapped in a thin, rather tasteless pancake. The pancake ain't the point. 6. Pommes frites at Benita's Frites on the Santa Monica Boardwalk. Pommes frites are the basturma of French fries. 'Nuff said. What's so great about Benita's Frites? Not only do they get the frites just right, but they also have the greatest dipping sauces. My favorite was the sundried tomato aioli. Here's a write-up and a recipe, but I can't believe it's that easy. 7. Vietnamese iced coffee . . . anywhere. This stuff is ubiquitous. You can't walk into a Vietnamese restaurant and not get perfect iced coffee. Here's the idea: aqua regia-strong espresso combined with sweetened condensed milk, served over ice. Take a look at this pictorial essay. True fact: my evil wife once got my office staff addicted on this stuff to increase productivity. Who needs coca leaves? 8. Banh mi at any Vietnamese restaurant. I can think of many fine sandwiches: beef tongue on rye; hot pastrami on rye; Philly cheese steak sandwich. They all have their place in the Great Order of Sandwich Being, but even the best Jewish deli pastrami can't compete with an average banh mi. They're that good. Banh mi come in a variety of styles, but they all consist of a French or Italian roll slathered in mayo and/or liver pate, layered with cold cuts (thinly sliced roast pork is my favorite) and produce. It's the produce that makes the banh mi: cilantro, thinly julienned carrots and cucumbers (lightly pickled in nuoc cham), and a few julienned strips of hot green peppers. Assemble the sandwich and heat it up so that the crust gets crusty. Like great creme brulee, a perfect banh mi will be warm to hot on the outside, cool on the inside. Read more about banh mi at this link. You know what all of these things have in common? I can't eat any of them. (Well, I could eat the basturma without any bread, but where's the fun in that? And Peking Duck without the pancakes . . . the Chinese already think we're barbarians.) While living in L.A., I got up to my all-time max weight, 178 lbs. Take home message to me: be happy you're not living in L.A., or else you'd have ended up like poor Mr. Creosote. D.