Thursday, March 30, 2017

Three days in LA: Food finds on a non-foodie trip

A very LA breakfast at Sqirl
Last week my wife and I went to enjoy the World Baseball Classic final round in the City of Angels. The trip was defined by night baseball games, and thus not restaurant visits. Nonetheless we managed to enjoy some uniquely LA food experiences that I recommend for out-of-towners.

Sqirl: My veganish friend Michelle vetoed my suggestion of Langer's for lunch and insisted on meeting us at Sqirl, the spelling of which really threw Siri for a loop when trying to get directions. Sqirl was THE most LA place we visited, and we liked it so much we went back for breakfast on our way out of town.

Why is it so LA? Where else do Americans eat salad for breakfast? (Not to mention lacto-fermented hot sauce and Turmeric Tonic.) It's a great success story: a Brandeis graduate started by making preserves and now has a full-service all-day breakfast place.

The first item on the menu, the Sorrel Pesto Rice Bowl ($8.25) is perfect for LA: it's delicious and healthy enough to allow me to keep my girlish figure. (Walda Frey: also a girl). To be honest, I didn't notice the namesake sorrel pesto but I have no complaints. It's a small treasure hunt of tidbits. Slivers of preserved Meyer lemon pop into almost every bite, making it the rare bowl of breakfast one could call "refreshing," and giving nice contrast to the sheep feta. You don't see the lacto-fermented hot sauce and you're not always aware it's there, but it leaves a nice buzz on your lips as you finish.

In-house baked goods are excellent, and I would be ashamed to list every one the three of us tried. Let's just say the blueberry mint scone was good and leave it there. But we weren't going to be veganish for our whole trip so ...

Langer's: The West Coast's answer to Katz's Deli in New York, Langer's is in its 70th year and looks it. I'll get this out of the way from the beginning: Nobody beats Katz for pastrami. But Langer's is a more pleasant place to eat. The wait staff is friendly and helpful, and you can relax in a booth or sit at the counter and watch the staff make all sorts of fatty stuff you think you might order next time. There's even a free parking lot! In downtown LA!

I had #44: Hot pastrami, sauerkraut and "nippy cheese" (a sharper style of American cheese) on grilled rye. I love sauerkraut but despise Russian dressing, so this is a perfect non-Reuben; it's a ballet of saltiness from the mild kraut and cheese and pepperiness from the ends of the rough-cut pastrami.

Having experienced Dodger Stadium food once (see below), we bought extra sandwiches to go for the WBC final and that got me a consultation with Langer's manager, who was concerned about spoilage and vetoed my first two sandwich orders. I respect that.

"I'm seeing a theme here."
Pussy and coffee: We didn't do much LA tourism outside of the ballgames, but we did go to Hauser & Wirth gallery, where they have an amazing collection of all 6 major installations by Jason Rhoades. Rhoades, who died in 2006 at age 41, was obsessed with pussy (i.e., vaginas.) Many of us are, but Rhoades made a career of it. Three of the six works are mainly a lot neon signs with slang words for pussy in many languages hanging from the ceiling.

I'm sorry to spoil this for you. I didn't know this and we went first into his final work, "Tijuanatanjierchandelier," without knowing anything. It's awesome: it's not just neon signs but also a collection of tourist geegaws, Indian blankets and other cultural artifacts. I made an entire circuit of the room before pausing in front of a neon sign reading "Stench Trench," and that made me look back at the room. Many of the signs now made sense: others, like "Wonder Bread," still make me wonder.

We paused in our character-building art exploration to visit Blacktop Coffee across the street. It's the hippest coffee shop I've been to yet, and that's saying something.

They don't take cash. All drinks with milk are classified as "White" and cost one price. There are blocks of wood to sit on outside that look like outtakes from an art studio. And the cortado was damn fine. Wait -- couldn't "cortado" also mean ...

Banchan at Jun Won
Jun Won: We stayed in Koreatown and I had no idea how big it is. I think by area it's at least half the size of San Francisco, maybe more. We visited a grocery store in Koreatown Galleria that I want to shop at every week: the kimchi bar, the banchan bar, the takeout barbecue beef, the very solid whiskey selection. I bought my favorite Korean grocery store snack, salted nori, and a bottle of bitter melon tea and rued all the other stuff we passed up.

We found Jun Won Restaurant on Eater's list of 38 top places in LA. The seafood was super-fresh;  the steamed mackerel doused in hot sauce was a highlight, along with the many terrific made house banchan. The clear soup, often a lazy bowl of lightly flavored water, was so delicious, with an earthy, daikon-heavy note, that I finished it far too early in the meal. Word of caution: Koreans are never kidding when the menu calls a dish "spicy." For a feast that was way more than we could eat, the price was very reasonable. They don't sell beer or liquor but it seems like you can bring your own.

Dodger Stadium: I tell one of my food-loving friends that we're going to LA for three days and she asks, "Where are you eating?" and I say, "Dodger Stadium, twice." She is puzzled. Why would anyone do such a thing? I explained about the baseball tournament. She tch-tches. Wasting my life, I am.

But she's not wrong culinarily. When Japan played the US in the semifinal, the Dodger Stadium concessionaire offered a choice of US dogs (with chili, cheese and mustard) or Japan dogs (with teriyaki sauce and green onions). Dodger Stadium's regular fare looked pretty bleak so my wife and I decided to take our familial conflict from the baseball diamond to the hot dog arena. The semifinal was a tough night for my wife, as Japan lost 2-1 on a couple infield misplays on a miserably drizzly, cold night. But she did at least enjoy the better hot dog. Teriyaki sauce on a hot dog works. Who knew?

Team USA takes a victory lap

Harris Ranch: There and back again

Prime Rib "sandwich"
Considering that I-5 in California is the main road between two of America's most food-loving cities, the absence of good places to eat in between SF and LA is bizarre. There's nothing, then fast food chains, then nothing, then gas stations, then nothing, etc. ... but there is Harris Ranch. It's better when you approach it from the north on a day when the wind is blowing easterly, so that you don't see or smell the enormous herds of cattle too much before you arrive. On hot days, I have lost my appetite for beef before getting to the turnoff.

This was March, though, so we stopped in both directions. On the way down I had the prime rib sandwich ($25): it's just an 8-ounce cut of prime rib on top of a slice of bread. Magnificent. I had a $10 glass of Pianetta Paso Robles Petite Sirah with it, which I ordered because it's great to see a small winery on a high-volume wine list: nice pairing, too. This was a pricey stop, but also one of the best meals of our trip.

Tri-tip sandwich
On the way back, they were smoking tri-tip right outside the restaurant on the way in so I had the tri-tip sandwich ($19) and it was even better: succulent rare beef with a smokey edge, with a touch of parmesan cheese and some sauteed mushrooms and horseradish. My wife had recovered sufficiently from Japan's semifinal defeat to enjoy a burger in a place that seems like authentic old-style Americana in between two cities that celebrate the new and trendy. It was enough to bring me to quote from my favorite patriotic song, the song I always go to after a big US victory in international competition:

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1 comment:

guren said...

The ultra-hip Blacktop Coffee does not take cash? Do they make you pay in bitcoins?

By the way, was the salted nori from the Korean grocery store labeled as "laver"? When I go to Korea, I often buy packets of Korean seaweed at the airport for gifts, and it is referred to as "laver" on the package.