Sunday, March 21, 2010
WHAT TO EAT IN LA BEFORE YOU DIE PART 1
20 March 2010
While most of our friends had headed to Austin for the South by SouthWest festival, Noah and I had very different plans.
Being too broke to fork over the cash for a plane ticket, and too lazy to drive the 20 or so hours to Texas, we decided to partake in a special Saturday excursion, involving our favorite activity...EATING!
I had recently been perusing the LA Weekly article, of 99 things to eat in LA before you die, and thought it would be fun for us to start chipping away at it, and come to our own conclusions.
Many of them we had actually already tried ourselves, and being on a pretty meager budget, we decided to target those amazing hidden treasures aptly named "hole in the wall".
We got an early start on Saturday morning (10 am) and headed downtown to the Nickel diner, to try their famous "Maple Bacon Doughnuts".
Since Noah drives so much on a daily basis, we took the subway, which is conveniently located right across the street from our apartment, and I, in my excitement for the day began taking pictures with my crappy digital camera of the scintillating train scenery.... lots of concrete.
10 minutes later, we were in downtown proper, walking through the streets from Pershing Square to Main street.
What first struck me about the diner was the fact that I had probably driven past it a hundred times, and even taken second glances at the monogrammed 5 cent red and black sign above the glass window,pining for the days when hot dogs were indeed a nickel.
The diner decor was perfect.Tiled floors the color of eggshell, accented with red, with a small dining area.We felt immediately welcome,and watching the cooks who are situated at the front of the restaurant prepare a multitude of dishes, made us salivate on the way to our table.
Our waitress quickly came by to take our order. "2 maple bacon doughnuts and coffees please." We narrowly avoided ordering a variety of other dishes( being over indulge-rs to the extreme)that sounded great, since we were determined not to get full to fast, and were rewarded a few minutes later with 2 piping hot cups of coffee, and 2 sinfully sticky, creamy, glazed doughnuts, peppered with flakes of juicy red bacon.
Noah and I smiled at each other before taking our first bite, and were not disappointed.
Now, while I could go on, and on about the word of mouth this doughnut already has in this city, I will instead stick to the facts.
The doughnut was not the best doughnut I have ever had in my life.
The doughnut itself was not that awesome, in fact it was just your average decent run of the mill doughnut.
What makes it great is the maple glaze, and fat flakes of bacon. The bacon is the magic guys, let me tell ya. It just about melted in my mouth, and I found myself licking the plate, and scouring the table for errant bacon flakes that had gotten away.
I totally believe, if we had gotten there at 8am when they open, the experience would have been even more intense, due to their freshness, but as it was, I will definitely be going back for more doughnuts, and of course.. THE BACON!!
A free Saturday in Los Angeles could be spent doing anything. Though for Aja and I, there is nothing else we would rather be doing than exploring new tastes. I was optimistic for this maple glazed bacon doughnut, though was curious how good a doughnut could really be? However, we all know anything with bacon in or on it is delicious. -- This doughnut, not so much. Its dough had the consistency of old cold cake. However, the bacon, sugar, and maple glaze blended happily together in my mouth. I would have preferred to just eat a bowl of fatty bacon bits, maple glaze and sugar. I will try this doughnut again, though only if assured that they are fresh.
I try to eat healthy sometimes, so I ordered a small bowl of fruit. This seems like a dish hard to screw up, especially if one uses fresh fruit. Though I was disappointed that the center of all the fruit was still frozen from its time being spent in the freezer over night.
Even though I am not a big coffee drinker, I did enjoy my coffee. I will come back to the Nickle Diner, for I really appreciated the charm that this small space produced, enjoyed the diversity of the diners and the didactics of what American diners are all about, quick, cheap, hearty foods, something that will be explored on our next visit.
524 South Main Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013-1422
On our way back to the subway station,we stopped off at the newly reopened Angel's flight. The shortest railway in the world.
Closed since 2001 ( after a fatal accident), and having just reopened 5 days ago, for the amazing price of 25 cents, we got aboard the railway car, and headed up.
With a great view of Angels Knoll Park ( you know that 500 days of summer park, and that infamous bench), I started snapping away like a regular shutter bug, and enjoyed all 120 seconds of the ride.
Noah's grandmother used to take Angels Flight everyday to work back in the 50's, something that made him smile while on this short ride.
Bottom line: Only waste your time if you are downtown with an extra quarter.
351 South Hill Street,
Los Angeles, CA - (213) 626-1901
Directly across the street from Angels Flight is the incredible Grand Central Market.Open since 1917, this place is truly an awesome site to behold. Housing close to a hundred different vendors, you can find just about anything you could think of here.
You've got your basic fresh fruit, vegetables, poultry,and seafood, but things get really interesting when you start to notice the mole,grain, and yes,....the liquor vendor.
As I stood before the insane amount of alcohol just a few feet away from me, I immediately got the urge for a bloody mary.
Noah spent his time walking around in a kind of daze, while sporting an ear to ear grin. Meanwhile I was starting to wonder when we could come back to actually sample the plethora of mini diners that peppered the massive warehouse space.With eyes wide, we walked out of the market eager to return, and on to our next restaurant location.
Grand Central Public Market
317 South Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90013-1226
Our next stop was to the Huarache de Azteca in Highland Park. This place has been getting great word of mouth for years, and is a community staple.
Noah and I listened to KCRW’s live South by South West broadcast while driving out there, which made us feel included in some small way in the festivities.
Huarache de Azteca is your typical hole in the wall. Across the street from a Super A Market, it looks to be your usual local taco spot, and I would definitely recommend not looking down at the floor when you walk in.
We ordered from their menu that is posted above their kitchen counter, and what struck me right away were the prices. $2.50 for huaraches, which is the house specialty, and not a thing over 10 bucks.
A Huarache,(the dish we were seeking) is a popular Mexican dish consisting of an oblong, fried masa base, with a variety of toppings.
Still trying to be good, we decided to spilt just one pork huarache between us, and drink a large horchata ,which is a refreshing rice-based drink made from ground up rice and sugar.
The place was full of locals to be sure. Families, and local workers wandered in, and it was obvious that they had been there many times before. The 6 tables filled up in minutes.
A waitress brought our drink along with 3hot sauces for the table, and Noah and I were so hungry at this point, that we started just eating the hot sauce by it’s self.
Finally, the moment arrived, and we were brought this oblong shaped masa with cheese, pork, and cilantro on top. Grease was already starting to stain the paper plate it was laid upon, and we dug in feverishly. IT.WAS.SO.GOOD! I mean delicious. The meat was very tender, and well seasoned. I easily could of eaten about 3 more apiece, and I was very disappointed that we couldn’t truly indulge since we had another restaurant to go to. In fact, we devoured our huarache so quickly, that we forgot to take pictures! (Fortunately, we made a special stop back the next day…..for documentation reasons of course, and ordered pork tacos, and a beef sopa as well.)
Huarache’s are my new favorite food. There’s no atmosphere here, it’s all about good eats. The only thing I didn’t love was our Horchata, since it was pretty watered down.
Bottom Line: it’s a Los Angeles must!
We left downtown eager to get to our next destination. We took the subway home and jumped into my car for a short drive to Highland Park. On our way, we passed dozens of taco trucks and carts. The smell of the fat and grease almost lured me to pull over. Though, we knew our destination had something special, we would not dare to fill up before we got there.
As you walk into this place, you will notice there is a green B, placed on the window next to the door. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has a system rating restaurants on their cleanliness. Usually (A,B,C). Most people I know wont go anywhere if it does not have an A in the Window. When you walk in this place, you will understand why it has a B, but when you taste the food, it won’t matter. The Huarache as Aja describes is amazing. The masa layered with carne adobada (is marinated pork meat), onion, cilantro, queso and cream is simply amazing. The plastic forks and knives they provide are too flimsy to cut through the thick masa, so you use your hands, as one should anyway.
As you bring this oval shaped tostada like deliciousness to your mouth, grease and hot sauce will slowly run down your hands and drip into your paper plate quickly absorbing through onto the table. There is a reason they provide infinite amount of napkins tableside. One is not enough. Though, as described above, we had other plans.
The Horchata, tasted like bad soy milk watered down with no cinnamon.
On our second visit the following day, the huarache was just as delicious as our first. Three Adobada tacos, GOOD. The melon, cucumber and lime juice definitely was something to talk about compared to the poor horchata we had experienced the day before.
They have a visa/Mastercard sticker on the window, though their machine is broken, as I am sure it always is. However, there is an ATM across the street at the SUPER A Market.
We Left happy and full.
Huarache De Azteca
5225 York Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90042
After leaving the mmmm-goodness of Azteca, we trekked back to the car, to start our voyage to Alhambra for some Chinese grub.
Throwing our original plan away, Noah took the lead, and we headed to the Sam Woo B-B-Q house.
Walking up to the cobble stone building I felt pretty good.
“Dead Duck hanging the window?”
“More Chinese than Caucasian people eating?”
We seated ourselves in the small dining room, and were quickly greeted by a very nice waitress, who handed us their laminated menus, and poured us some tea.
Uh-oh, I looked at Noah.
“Is this a chain restaurant?” I whispered .
Yes sir-re, we had made the mistake of entering a chain establishment. It’s usually my rule of thumb, that if there are more than 3, it’s not for me.It's like going to an ethnic style KFC....why bother?
The prices were pretty cheap, so we decided to make the best of it, and order a half duck, and a soy chicken.
Of course, after making our order, we glanced around, and noticed that just about everyone had shrimp or lobster on their plates……not a good sign.
I’ll cut to the chase. The presentation was good and simple. Seeing a whole chicken on a plate is always cool to see, and it wasn’t too bad.
The duck, I felt was under cooked, and tasteless. The fact that as far as the eye could see, patrons were devouring what looked to be sweet tasting lobster tail didn’t help matters one bit.
I admit we did eat quite a bit of our food here, but only because we had been so good, and were so hungry, that we couldn’t stop ourselves.
Bottom line: Try someplace down the street.
As we left Highland Park, I was still in the mood for Mexican. Though, the thoughts of steamy torched duck sounded PRETTY GOOD as well. We drove fifteen minutes northeast of downtown to the city of Alhambra. Driving down Valley Boulevard, there are Asian (Chinese) restaurants nearly everywhere. This is because Alhambra’s Asian population is approximately fifty percent.
Finding parking in Alhambra was easy compared to LA, a spot right in front, with no meter.
The golden crispy ducks displayed in the front window takes one back to any China Town around the world. As you enter you make a left into the aesthetically unpleasing dining area
We sat in the dining area and immediately ordered half duck and half a chicken. They both came out within one minute of placing the order. They were okay. They both had lots of flavor, though were room temperature, if not cold. We ate it anyway. Even if we tried asking for replacements, our waitresses would not understand us, as I believe the only words of English they new were “yes” ,”no” and “thank you”.
I was upset leaving Sam Woo, though was looking forward to our next stop, The Must, Downtown.
Sam Woo B-N-Q
514 West Valley Boulevard
Alhambra, CA 91803-3227
It took us 30 minutes to get downtown at four o’clock on a Saturday. Los Angeles’s transportation system is really screwed up. As we made our way to the city, parking was literally unavailable, unless you wanted to pay twenty dollars to park in a lot. However, I found a loading zone near the bar and placed an old parking ticket I keep in my car on my windshield.
We walked down 5th street a couple blocks just south of Spring to The Must Bar. I had been here once before with my brother when it first opened and had a nice experience but was incomparable to the one that Aja and I were about to have.
We walked in,Sat at the Bar and were instantly greeted by the bartender. As we ordered our first round of drinks, “Casey” the bartender got the idea that we were high quality beer drinkers. Delirium Tremens for Aja, and La Fin Du Monde for myself. As bartenders often do, he quickly made conversation with us. He explained to us the philosophy of The Must and how they do not carry any mainstream domestics like Coors, Budwieser, and Miller, something that made both Aja and I smile. This is a place where one can come and get (Beer) that is not light, (Beer) that is truly flavorful and where you only need a couple to get a buzz.
La Chouffe, A Belgian golden ale, which has been around since the late 1980’s is one of the best tasting beers your will ever have, and has been my favorite ever since I got it for a Hanukah present a couple years ago. I ordered this on our second round while Aja ordered the Toasted Coconut Porter. She is often not too fond of extremely dark beers, but this one was a hit for her, as it tasted similar to an almond Joy.
I then ordered a Dales Pale Ale, which the Bartender explained to me was created by “stoner snowboarders in Colorado”. This was a great Pale Ale, refreshing, bitter and strong.
Following that, Aja and I shared a German Classic, the Weihenstephaner Hefe Weisse, which is from the oldest Brewery in the world. This wheat beer is delicious. Soon, my brother and his girlfriend had met up with us, and we were all having a blast. By this point in the day, everyone knew our names, everyone was our best friend and we invited everybody to come along with us to our next destination.
Though we slowly stumbled our way out without anyone really taking us up on our offer.
It gets pretty busy at night so I recommend coming in the early afternoon. We will be back soon to The Must as it has become our friend.
My brother grabbed my keys, and proceeded to drive us to our next destination.
The Must Bar
118 West 5th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013-1418
It only took us about ten minutes to get to Natraliart, which is located on Washington Blvd just east of Crenshaw. From the outside, this place is not too inviting, but once you get inside, it might just feel like Jamaica (possibly because we just had a lot of beer). As you walk in, the black and white checkered floors remind you of Vermeer, though the cheap Caribbean blue walls take you to paradise, all in Mid-City LA.
Our waitress, who chewed on a plastic toothpick the entire evening, could tell that we had not been here before.
Before looking at the menu, we asked for some beers, though quickly learned to accompany our meal with these beverages, we had to walk down the street to a liquor store and buy our Red Stripe there. Because we technically weren’t allowed to do this, we willingly gave our generous waitress a beverage in appreciation for allowing us to do so.
More friends had met up with us, and by the time they got there, we were eating our jerk Chicken appetizer, which was fantastic. Very flavorful and tender, though I wish it was spicier. Most people that evening ordered the Jerk Chicken as their entrée. I ordered the goat, which was also amazing. It was dressed in a spicy brown curry sauce that tasted perfect. Its only flaw was that there was more bone than meat on the plate. Though, the rice and collard greens that accompanied it were some of the best I have ever had. I usually don’t even eat rice, for it is a filler, but this stuff is amazing, and the sauces you can put on it were just soo GOOD. And the plantains made me happy!
The food, the ambiance, the waitress, the location, and the people I was with by far made it the best meal of the day! Aja and I will be visiting Mid-City again soon, for we have found a new love.
My memory is a little foggy on how we got the Jamacain restaurant Natraliart, but I do remember that this place is located in my old neck of the woods (mid-city), which is chock full of great ethnic eats. From Ethiopian, to soul food,to Mexican tacos, you can't really go wrong here.
We found our location, and assuming this was a BYOB kind of place, we walked half a block to buy a six pack of......Red strip, of course!We hastened back toward the restaurant, and were greeted by another small dining room full of Rastafarian's, and local patrons.
All of a sudden our group seemed to slip away, and I was at the front of the crowd facing a pleasantly plump Jamaican woman, with a tooth pick in her mouth...which by the way stayed there the whole evening.
Noah whispered to me," Ask her if we can drink our beer here."
"Why me?" I countered. He just gave me one of those looks that seemed to say," oh, come on!"
So I walked up to her and kindly asked if their establishment was ok, with our Red stripes. She quickly started to say no, but I just as quickly offered her one for her trouble. She paused, smiled, and after a short discussion with the owner we were given the go ahead.
The place had an ok feel. No different then anywhere else we had eaten that day. It was about the food, not the atmosphere.I do not adore Harsh florescent lighting, but I put this out of my head and popped a Red Stripe open.
Noah and I had originally come here for the sprats, which are a small marine fish similar to herring that are one of this restaurants specialties. Unfortunately, our waitress informed us, that they were out of season, so we quickly opened our menus to see what else we might enjoy.
Natraliart is also known for their vegetarian dishes, but we were all about meat that day, so I ordered the oxtails, with a side of plantains.
Oxtail, is quite literally the tail of a ox,but restaurants tend to use cow's tail these days.It can be absolutely delicious if made correctly. Noah ordered the curry goat, and the rest of our crew ordered jerk chicken, and a vegetarian dish, that I didn't try.
The food arrived very fast, with our new friend Tooth Pick Betty I dubbed her laughing along with us, as we exclaimed over the flavors.
First of all, my oxtail was very good. The seasoning did not overwhelm the tenderness or flavor of the meat. The jerk chicken I sampled was very good as well, and wasn't slathered with sauce, like so many other places do, to cover up the fact that they don't know how to cook a chicken.
The collard greens were alright, but I've had better. The rice, which was a pinto bean /rice combo, is some of the best rice I've ever tasted, and our table agreed about it's general yumminess. I could suck that up with a biscuit everyday and be just fine, if I wasn't worried about the size of my ass.
We washed it all down with a few more beers, and were all completely satisfied, and vowed to return soon, and try their Daily Specials.
We headed from there to our local AWESOME liquor store Cap n' Cork, where we got a six pack of Weihenstephaner Hefe Weiss, and headed home to discuss the adventure with family and friends....and then pass out from the total excess of the day!
Natraliart Restaurant and Market
3426 W. Washington Blvd.
L.A., CA 90018
Cap n' Cork
1674 Hillhurst Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90027