Dispatches: L.A. Food Report

I recently spent ten days in L.A., and despite being quite busy, I ended up with a pretty good picture of the food scene in that city-state.  My very first night was somewhat revelatory.  I was lagging, beat and needing to be up by five, and we took refuge around ten in Los Feliz’s Cafe Stella.  Somehow more French-seeming than similar bistro facsimiles in New York City, despite being in a strip mall, Stella calmed our nerves immediately.  I had an excellent steak tartare.  My only complaint was a slight lack of tang to the beef, it was more a clean-tasting piece of sashimi than a gamy lump of bloody beef tenderized under a horse’s saddle.  (Michael Lomanaco’s tartare at Porterhouse is similar, but has more tangy iron in it.) 

The Proustian element of my meal, however, was effected by a glass of Fleurie, which, as you may know, is one of the more elegant vintages of Beaujolais (other good ones being Brouilly, Julienas, Chiroubles and Morgon).  About ten years ago, I drove through Fleurie on my way south and bought a couple of cases of wine from various vineyards.  This glass at Cafe Stella brought back that trip involuntarily, instantly, and uncannily.  The restaurant itself is effortlessly atmospheric and surprisingly expensive, and I recommend it.

On a free afternoon, I snuck off to pay a visit to Pizzeria Mozza, which is at the crest of the current wave of obsessive, Neapolitan-style U.S. pizzamakers that includes the national champ, Phoenix’s Pizzeria Bianco.  Pizzeria Mozza is the brainchild of Nancy Silverton, one of L.A.’s two female superchefs, and a baker of world class, in collaboration with Dionysian ubermensch Mario Batali.  (Big Mario’s own pizza spot, Otto, does not rank in the top class).  I’d heard a lot about Mozza and was eager to compare it to the East Village’s Una Pizza Napoletana, which I believe is New York’s best pizza–better by a shade than the old-school legends, Grimaldi’s and Totonno’s.

And so I pulled my rented Dodge Avenger up to Mozza’s non-descript corner, was greeted by a very friendly maitre’d (they’re way friendlier in Lala; another true truism), and took a seat in front of the wood-burning oven.  Some superb breadsticks quickly appeared, and my water glass was refilled just as I became conscious of its emptiness.  My pie was… stunningly good.  Tomato; long, sliced red chilies; white anchovies.  The chilies were audaciously hot, perhaps reflecting how Mexican food has reoriented Los Angeleno’s taste buds.  I’m going to sound like a dope for saying this, but the plump anchovies were as bracing as the seaside.  Really, they were the perfect complement to a perfectly designed set of flavors that remained distinct yet conversed with each other.  The only reason I will say that Mozza finishes a close second to Una Pizza Napoletana in my book is the crust: Silverton’s is excellent, mottled by amber bubbles, but a touch, just a touch, sweeter and less astringent than Anthony Mangieri’s.  Mozza’s pies are brilliantly executed and more creative.  But Una Pizza’s still barely my champ.  Now I gotta get to Phoenix(!).

We also spent some time at the Mandrake, a bar on Culver City’s art strip that I highly recommend (especially on Wednesday nights).  Their sandwiches and plates are similar in quality and simple elegance to our own Clandestino, but the Mandrake’s vibe is more challenging.  It’s sort a Lynchian lodge that bears some psychogeographic memory of its previous incarnation as a rawhide gay men’s spot.  Drinkswise, it offers an edited, unpretentious yet high-quality selection.  Mandrake is to L.A. what the Club Charles is to Baltimore, and I don’t have many higher compliments for bars.

Later that day, on the way down Mulholland Drive and Laurel Canyon, a pit stop at In-N-Out Burger was decided upon.  Personally, I am starting to prefer Southern California’s thin-pattied, topping-heavy burgers to the New York variety, with its giant puck of beef.  The SoCal version is healthier and fresher than, say, the leviathan burger of Dumont.  Plus, the In-N-Out burger is incredibly cheap, yet you see whole potatoes being peeled, cut and fried in the restaurant, which is more than you can say for thousands of pricier pubs and sports bars that feature frozen fries.  Order “Animal-style” is my advice, though for the rest of the secret menu, check here.

(Speaking of fries, Alia and I had some classic, thick-cut steak fries in Burbank at Frank’s Coffee Shop, a diner that feels, like many things in the ungentrified precincts of Southern California, lost in time in the best possible way.  Hard to say more.  Just go there.)

(I also had some Thai food at Rambutan in Silverlake.  It’s perfectly decent, but the reports that Los Angeleno Thai food kicks New York’s insipid ass may not be entirely true–Queens’ Sripraphai is much better.)

Our last supper was at A.O.C., a project of the other L.A. superchef, Suzanne Goin of Lucques.  (I love the fact that L.A.’s two most celebrated chefs are women.  Does that make me knee-jerkily politically correct?)  The idea at A.O.C. is of sort of haute winebar, with endless courses of small plates.  Memorable ones: rabbit in mustard sauce, chanterelles with ricotta gnocchi, skirt steak with roquefort butter, clams with garlic and sherry, and salt-cod fritters with little orange segments.  The food was excellent and so were the wines, but it was all too rich, everything being fortified with major quantities of butter and cream.  The dependence on Old World technique–flavor enhancement through fat–felt slightly disappointing to me.  I want Los Angeles to be more fearless, less honor-bound, not to pay too many tributes and homages, but to express itself more uniquely.

The meal I enjoyed most, I must say, was a late night dinner at an outdoor white plastic table in front of the little blue shack that is El 7 Mares of East Hollywood.  It was quite late, and we were exhausted and hungry.  We had some blazingly refreshing fish  and shrimp ceviches, some tacos al pastor, and some truly superb fish tacos.  A squeeze of lime, two tortillas, some chunks of fish, white cabbage, and a salsa combined in that miracle of fresh complexity that great Mexican food always delivers.  As our second assistant director said, perspicaciously, “This is the real thing that La Esquina is the fake version of.”

A last word about Mexican food: it couldn’t be clearer that we Americans have assigned the wrong social meaning to it.  Maybe because of the place of Mexican laborers in the U.S. economy, Mexican cooking got associated with low eating, even with gastrointestinal problems.  This is the reverse of what should be: we suffer much more from overeating than undereating, in this historical moment of ours.  Yet we currently fetishize the saturated fat-dependent peasant cuisines of Europe, out of a vague sense that the European peasantry is somehow more authentic and closer to the earth. 

By contrast, most of Mexican cooking, its ceviches and guacamoles and posoles and salsas, depends on raw vegetables for flavor, in the form of cilantro, chilies, avocados, tomatoes, garlic, scallions and radishes.  There’s the habit of drinking fruit juices and infusions: hibiscus, blood orange, etc.  Then there’s all the papaya, the healthiest, most enzymatically active fruit going.  Not that Mexican cuisine shuns meat–in fact, it celebrates its variety more ecstatically than most cuisines, from beef tongue to pork belly to goat’s head.  Mexican cooking is what L.A.’s food truly is and should be: a powerfully flavored melange of the raw and cooked, that upends our outdated senses of high and low.

Café Stella
3932 W. Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 090029
(323) 666-0265

Pizzeria Mozza
641 N. Highland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 297-0101

2692 S. La Cienega Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90034
(310) 837-3297

In-N-Out Burger
7009 Sunset Blvd.
Hollywood, CA 90028

Frank’s Coffee Shop and Restaurant
916 W. Olive Ave.
Burbank, CA 91506

8022 W. 3rd St.
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 653-6359

El 7 Mares
3131 Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90026

The rest of my 3qd Dispatches.