If you got chocolate, we’ll take vanoola!

21 Sep

I am a cookie monster. I can easily put away a few good chocolate chunkers or gingersnaps with no thoughts of guilt or calories or any frivolous nonsense, but do I have enough milk. And I regularly stop by the See’s counter at the Westfield mall for a bag of three or four (always butterscotch squares and california brittle, please) pieces to nibble on throughout the day. I can also, actually, bake an apple pie, relishing the plain but true steps to roll the dough and peel the fruit, cook it down and fill the crust up, until the final act of faith of sliding into the oven.

But no other dessert comes close to imparting the special joy of ice cream. To crawl out from under the humidity of midwest summer while visiting my grandparents, my family – parents and brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins – would pile into cars, and drive over to Gilles Custard on Bluemound Road, rolling down the windows and gulping in the night air as the wind whipped our hair into our faces. The low slung shack drew us, along with a mess of other desperately hot folks, with its brightly lit interior, so white and shiny it almost hurt to look. It’s as if we were staring into a brand new deep freezer as we hustled out of the car. Once inside we all recited our favorite combinations, etched in a primal survivalistic portion of our brains. A scoop each of strawberry and mint with hot fudge or chocolate with marshmallow and caramel and whipped cream, no nuts or my mom’s favorite, a turtle sundae with extra pecans, please. We ate in grinning silence, the minor spats between siblings and hushed marital disagreements melting like the custard dribbling down our hands.

Perhaps it’s because ice cream can barely hold its own shape, sliding from pert round sphere to nebulous puddle in a matter of minutes. Or maybe because it stands out as the literally cool stranger amid a dessert list of dishes that rely on a long snooze in the oven. Of course, ice cream resolutely adapts to any taste, as well, changing coats from a velveteen vanilla to a buttoned up butter brickle to a sleek salted caramel.  And when little Cindy faced getting her tonsils ripped out on The Brady Bunch, Carol promised her ice cream, not donuts. I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream – not brownies.  Whatever the reason, ice cream transcends the simple draw of its sweet cousins. Most importantly, it ushers in the flavor of summer and childhood – emerald green lawns wet with water balloons and blush-streaked twilight skies sparking with fire flies and a much-awaited kiss atop a whirling ferris wheel – no matter the season.

For all of these reasons, I was excited to check out Rodeo Drive Ice Cream Sundays. The month-long event launched this past Sunday, Sept. 16, with a lineup of distinctive sweet treats as well as the 100th birthday celebration of the Pink Lady, The Beverly Hills Hotel. The Beverly Hills Hotel chefs served up 500 pieces of birthday cake in an explosion of pink streamers for a cross-section of Rodeo Drive passerbys – skinnyjeaned shop girls, fabulously decked-out and Louis Vuitton-toting Japanese tourists, and laidback and sunglassed locals. (Full Disclosure: my husband, often glimpsed in photos on this blog, is a chef at the hotel. But, I would gobble up cake regardless of his employer, of course.) The mayor of Beverly Hills, the author of the newly released book, Beverly Hills Hotel – The First 100 Years, and Beverly Hills local TV were all on hand to commemorate the hotel’s birthday and it’s recent achievement as the city’s first historical landmark.

All this hubbub reminded me of the charm of Beverly Hills – that beyond the meter-parked Maseratis and parade of glossy-walled Prada, Chanel, and Fendi boutiques beats a small town heart. Neighbors wave to each other jogging down the Beverly Gardens Park’s paths, the Community Center offers computer classes to seniors and swimming classes for tots, and the guys at the local coffee shop have your order ready before Ronin, Andy and I make it through the front door.

To sample a bit of this local sweetness yourself, check out one of the next Ice Cream Sundays. For the next two Sundays, Rodeo Drive will be flanked by ice cream truck vendors. This past week, Cool Haus offered architecture-inspired ice cream sandwiches, Tango Mango served up Technicolor Italian ices, and The Flower Truck offered carnation sundae bouquets. Although purchases at shops will get you a complimentary icey cone or sundae or sandwich, you can always just pony up for a treat from each purveyor. Start with a cup of coffee and a macaroon at Bouchon and finish with a cupcake from Crumbs or Sprinkles and you’ve got a sugar-rush brunch.

Singular Nostalgic

10 Aug

“I been trying to tell you that I can tell you are a singular girrrrr-rl,” Rhett wailed, swinging his hips wildly, like a little boy, eyes closed, imagining himself a rock star. Which he was. Or at least to Slim’s packed concert hall he was. And to all of us pushed up against the stage, they were the only band that mattered.

We kissed shoulders and nudged hips and crushed toe to heel to the beat of Philip’s straight-through-your-belly drums, then arched our necks to catch Ken’s guitar riff on our eyelashes. Murray, my favorite whose genteel charm reminded me of my sister’s old boyfriend, the one from small town Minnesota, harmonized with a lonely call of a freight train crossing a flat land of dry prairie grass.

“Talking to you, girl, is like long division, yeah,” Rhett cried.

The Old 97’s captured my musical heart when I was in college. George and Brendan stumbled upon their album Too Far To Care in a bin of new release CDs at KDNZ, the student radio station. With lyrics that referenced everything from Greek mythology to Raymond Chandler to T. Rex set against music that churned like a John Deere driven by Joey Ramone on a bender, the band ignited exotic dreams of cowboys and small town Texas where the grass grows by the mile.

The boys are still at it and even better than ever. Marriage and kids and the small dramatics of life have made their music even more adept at hitting you in the gut and kissing you on the cheek. Check out their shows at The El Reyin LA later this month to see live alt country done right.

In honor of Singular Girl, one of the band’s finest songs*, I’ve included three amazing places of brazen, focused singularity below. All are in Burbank, a town of nostalgia and rebirth, fitting to spring to mind when discussing Old 97’s.

* (but if I had to name a top 5, I’d pick: 1. Bel Air 2. Timebomb 3. St. Ignatius 4. Doreen 5. Question. Oh, hell, let’s call it a top 10 with: 6. Rollerskate Skinny 7.Crash on the Barrelhead 8. Salome 9. Melt Show 11.Four Leaf Clover),

Porto’s Bakery and Cafe

Porto’s Bakery and Cafe creates great Cuban small bites —empanadas, mariquitas, tamales—in a big setting. I first sought out the family-run bakery over ten years ago when I was tooling around town in a big truck with skunk streaked hair and ears ringed in piercings, having heard whispers of its amazing pastries and tortas. Though Porto’s has expanded, opening this grand Burbank location, not much has changed. And that’s good. Andy and I ordered a mess of pastry bites to snack on while we waited for the Cubano sandwich and Southwestern steak salad. While the mains were perfectly solid, the savory treats—chorizo and meat pies and rellenito—were the standouts.

Porto’s built their reputation on their sweet delicacies and these lived up to the hype. A take-home box of Salvadorian quesadilla cake and cuernito de guayabas, barely lasted a day in our house. When I recently packed up a care package for my mom’s friend who moved from Cuba years ago, we received a message exclaiming that “I must be in Cuba!” as she recounted breakfasts of the flaky guava pastries as a girl.

Porto’s Bakery and Café 3614 West Magnolia Boulevard Burbank, CA 91505 (818) 846-9100

Rocket Fizz

When I order a root beer or a cola, I ask for a pop. Not soda. We summered most years in Milwaukee at my grandparents; the culmination, usually, of a cross-country station wagon road trip with my mom and dad switching off driving to avoid stopping overnight. Now that I’m a parent, I understand why they would want to limit the time that 2 adults, 3 kids, and a couple of dogs would be adrift far from the comforts of home on the great highway. At the time, I found the glowing neon beacons of roadside motels exotic, with names like Sleep Tite Inn and Three Bears Lodging and Starlight Motor Inn illuminating the night in flamingo pink and electric blue lights. I imagined the little bottles of shampoo and logoed matchbooks and Andes mints left on the bedside table in towns across Wyoming and Nebraska and Iowa. But we would whir pass to pull into my Nana and Boompa’s driveway in record time. Even if it was midnight, the yellow lights in the kitchen would pop on and, after a flurry of hugs and hellos and hands on shoulders and patting heads, my grandfather would fry up meat, whether sausage or steak or pork chops, and my grandmother would start a kettle for tea. We kids would crack open pops and the kitchen table would expand to hold all of us around into the even smaller hours of the night.

Rocket Fizz stirs up just these kinds of memories of late night reunions and Midwest road trips. The store stocks the stuff of childhood obsession – pop and candy – along with an entire wall of reproduction tin signs. The cold sodas fill three large refrigerator cases, sell by the bottle or the six pack and include modern companies such as Jones Soda as well as the entire line of Reed’s Premium Ginger Brew and an impressive selection of low-sugar alternatives. I generated to the candy, of course, happy to find a huge selection of nostalgic brands such as Twin Bing and Sifer’s Valomilk as well as a collection of that bittersweet bad boy, black licorice, including offerings from England and Germany.

Rocket Fizz 3524 Magnolia Boulevard  Burbank, CA 91505 (818) 846-7632

Dark Delicacies

Besides the ability to put away massive amounts of good food, my husband and I share the reading gene, enabling us to lie in awkward positions, beneath dim light, in a noisy room if the story is compelling enough. I sometimes imagine us as kids under the same sky on different coasts of the country, both crouched under the covers trying to fit in one last chapter. Fortunately, our tastes in books diverge so that we are never fighting over my copy of Joan Didion or his copy of Christopher Moore (though we’ve found common ground with Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, and Neil Stephenson).

Andy can be found leaning against the aisles of graphic novels, horror, or fantasy in most bookshops and has found nirvana in horror shops like Borderland Books in San Francisco. Most of these outposts tend to skew to the geekishly cool side, though, imparting outsiders with the distinct sense that they’ve stumbled into a gothic no-girls-allowed tree house. Refreshingly, Dark Delicacies welcomes all, even if your dressed in white shorts, a cabana top and a sun hat with a baby in a stroller.

This sizeable shop houses a full range of horror, from smarty-pants Bram Stoker and Edgar Allen Poe classic horror to witchcraft guidebooks to modern takes by Patricia Briggs and Jim Butcher. In addition, an aspiring pagan lovely can anoint herself with one of dozens of essential oils and Black Phoenix Alchemy Labs perfumes or deck out a home with gothic glassware and plates. Best of all, Dark Delicacies tucks a children’s nook into the front of the store with handmade girls’ dresses, Halloween and monster-themed books, and Jolly Roger-printed bibs. The owner, a writer and editor in his own right, welcomes everyone with a smile and a good story or two to boot.

Dark Delicacies  3512 West Magnolia Boulevard, Burbank, CA 91505 (818) 556-6660

Use Your Thai Illusion

25 Jul

The mural at LAX-C

LA is the land of illusion, of course, where cavernous warehouses are transformed into a New York diner or the bottom of the ocean and actors are granted a reprieve from time itself by talented makeup artists. Alabama accents are smoothed over with hours of elocution worthy of My Fair Lady and a Brooklyn-born

Before she was Hayworth

daughter named Margarita Carmen Cansino can be reborn as a redheaded vixen with a bit of electrolysis and a bottle of dye.

And though some find this abhorrent, I find that in all this lies the magic of this southern land. It’s a place of the belief in renewal and rebirth and the certainty of childhood games that a pile of cardboard boxes really can be a arcade.

Even the real estate here ignites fantasies. Around these parts, one lawn corrals a safari of iron animal statuary while another boasts a topiary unicorn ready to charge off to Xanadu. Amusement parks filled in the desert long ago, with Disney leading the way with promises of an escape to a small world and pirate enclaves. Best of all, pockets of lands far-flung can be found in just about every neighborhood in LA.

This past weekend, we vacationed in Thailand just by turning east at the Chinatown gates and crossing onto the 1100 block of Main Street downtown. Sandwiched between factories and open lots, the LAX-C complex looks like just another hard-scrabbling market at first glance. But drive into the gates and you’ll discover a collection of small businesses, including an open-air kitchen, anchored by the relatively massive “Thai Costco.”

The entrance to LAX-C

It’s worth the visit just to see the mural of 20’ tall Aztecs, caught astride galloping horses and driving buffalo,running along the side of the LAX-C warehouse. Step under these painted hooves and arrows, and you’ll feel a blast of mist spray from the entrance’s eaves, while to the right tangerine and white koi flutter in a long narrow pond squeezed next to the parking spaces. This layering of culture, where Thai coffee advertisements float in the breeze next to Mexican mural work finds the heart of LA beating beneath the illusion.

LAX-C

This family-owned truly-super market covers all of the bases with Asian ingredients and supply, offering many in bulk along with specialty items. How many other stores, big or small, can boast a coconut aisle, with products ranging from bulk coconut milk and cream to oil to water to canned? Rice is available in bulk for Cal-Rose and other long and short grain or in smaller quantities for more uncommon types such as black or red. Fresh produce, such as mangos and coconuts, can be found as well as a tank of fresh lobster and fish and a mortar and pestle for $24. You can even pick up a gallon of pig’s blood; no need to settle for a pint, while filling your cart with sriracha, soy sauce, pickled fish, and cases of ramen. Towards the back of LAX-C, a supply of carved wood tables and stools are housed on steel shelving, including a whimsical mushroom table and chairs for $350.

Fish at LAX-C

I found lovely finds in the beauty aisle with salt scrubs spiked with cucumber, yogurt, or green tea, similar to The Body Shop, for a little over $3. Likewise, bars of frangipani-scented soap will turn a bath into a tropical spa for a couple of dollars. If trawling the rows of goods works up an appetite, a small counter of Thai food with booth seating is stationed just before the check stands. We sucked down a plate of spicy green curry, fried catfish, rice and great steaming hunks of fried taro for about $6.

LAX-C 1100 N. Main St. LA, CA 90012 (323) 343-9000

Mae Ting’s Coconut Cakes

Mae Ting’s Coconut Cakes being poured

Located in a tin-roofed shack tucked into a corner of the market parking lot, Mae Ting’s Coconut Cakesexudes a breezy, thrown-together charm. While we waited for our coconut cakes, a string of regulars stopped by to pick-up boxes of the creamy treats. Thick coconut batter filled hot iron pans punched with half-sphere indentations, then sizzled and threw off steam, resulting in bite-sized cakes with a delicately crisp crepe-like exterior giving way to a molten cream filling.  Order a stick or two of grilled pork and a freshly tossed papaya salad, spiced to your specifications, to round out the meal.

Mae Ting’s Coconut Cakes 1100 N. Main St. LA, CA 90012 (323) 632-2071

Thong Lo Station

Stop by here after the shopping trip at LAX-C for a sugar rush, a selection of Thai magazines and books, or a few carved masks or textiles. Thong Lo Station stocks prepackaged treats such as Pocky (thin semi-sweet cracker sticks often dipped in chocolate) and jelly candy as well as some great spicy cashew nuts and chips. It’s a one-stop shop for little pleasures to sweeten your day.

Thong Lo Station 1100 N. Main St. LA, CA 90012 (323) 276-5835

Rajprasong

A Buddha altar piece at Rajprasong

Next time you get a hankering to throw some money down at Cost Plus or Pier One for some carved wood accents or a ceremonial bell, check out Rajprasong’s wares instead. While the ambiance is bare bones, you can find these plus flatware and silvery bamboo handled serving pieces worthy of a Ralph Lauren Home set for $12.  A huge collection of Buddha figurines are available as well for practitioners as well as yogabees (those spiritual wannabees that thank the barista at Starbucks with a loud utterance of  “Namaste, brother,” instead of a tip.)

Rajprasong, LAX-C 1100 N. Main St, LA, CA 90012 (323) 343-9000 x232

Chimney

Having a baby makes one appreciate the most simple and elegant gifts in life. Like coffee. And pastry. After a night of two-hour wake-ups, the comfort of good coffee wraps itself around my core with each swallow – and I’m drinking decaf.

Chimney barista prepares a single-origin coffee pour-over style

Chimney carries an impressive range of single-origin coffees and brews them up pour-over style for a cup that’s smooth with that tingle of bitter darkness that pulls at the edges of your tongue. Since it’s located between the LAX-C complex’s seafood outpost and the candy store, we were expecting a coffee shop more akin to what we’d find on Irving Street in San Francisco, with tile floors, neon signage and pop music. While those hold a special place in my heart, Andy and I were happily surprised to find our new favorite coffee shop (well, second only to the Blue Danube on Clement Street in San Francisco).

Beautiful wood paneling, cozy seating, high ceilings and chill-out-with-your-tablet music create a welcoming backdrop to enjoy not just the coffee but house-baked pastries. The menu includes on-trend flavors such as salted chocolate brownie, but plays with Asian flavors as well with Thai tea puff pastry. Most exciting is the Nutella and bacon croissant that balanced two aggressive flavors expertly.  The delightful Ivy, who helped us counter-side explained that the café was opened by the son of the complex’s owner. Seems like this son is grinding out his own path.

Chimney 1100 N. Main Street, Suite C LA, CA 90012 (323) 343-0030

Chimney’s cozy interior

Queen Calafia’s Call of Summer

18 Jul

Queen Califia, from The Room of the Dons mural, Mark Hopkins Hotel, San Francisco

Cross the desert, past the siguaros, who raise crooked arms in salute, forever at attention, and the prickly pears, who wear their violet and amber blossoms tucked in like corsages. Or journey south from the grimacing cliffs of the Pacific Northwest, where redwoods stretch into waves of fog to tether the clouds to the earth. Even sail across the Pacific, where tropic trade winds sing the tortoises to sleep and coconut trees whisper good night. California beckons, echoing with the call of Queen Calafia to her legions of Amazonian women.

California, it would seem, was named after a hypnotic island popularized in a 16th-century Spanish novel

A citrus farmer at the Beverly Hills Farmers’ Market

Las Sergas de Espandian. So beautiful and fertile was this stretch of land, that early explorers mistook it for a place of legend and myth. California still strikes me as such and happening upon a summer’s farmers’ market lays all of the evidence for such a belief out in a spread of plenty. A farmers’ market’s charm relies on a careful balance between actual produce vendors, ready-to-eat stations (to snack on while you shop), specialty booths (be it bison filets or baskets of fungus), and hippy dippy entertainment like a Brazilian timbale band or, ideally, a drag cover band of Creedence Clearwater Revival called Proud Mary.  The Beverly Hills Farmers Market crams all of these (except for the cover band) into a stretch of Civic Center Drive adjacent to the deliciously deco Civic Hallevery Sunday morning.

Stand-out finds this time of year include several stone fruit vendors, breads and pastries from two bakeries, sprouted legumes, and fresh goat cheese. Gorgeous plants, including plumaria and fuchsia, are offered up, as well as a couple of cut flower vendors with bunches for $5 or less. Pick up a jar of kimchee, spicy chutney, or bottle of small batch olive oil to round out your pantry and a dozen free-range eggs and you’ll have no need for Pavilions or Whole Foods save for a bag of rice and a sixer of beer. Each week we load up Ronin’s stroller – the basket below brimming with tomatoes, bags of peaches and nectarines and lemons hanging off either side of the handlebars, and a market bag of pretzel rolls tied to the center – until she resembles a tiny cowgirl driving her cargo-laden burro.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Kenter Canyon Farm Greens

  • Kenter Canyon Farms sells the largest assortment of greens so newly-picked that a bag has lasted two weeks in the fridge without wilting. Greens and a wide range of herbs are all available to mix and match.  Their Spicy Mix tosses in arugula with the usual suspects for a bit more bite that can stand up to the creamiest of dressings or the sweetness of fruit. Grab a handful of edible carnations or posies to add a wonderland sparkle to your next salad or a bunch of lavender to scent your drawers (in a muslin bag) or add a sweet perfume to humdrum sugar.
  • Pluck a toothpick from the box, study the options and spear the pale sunset orange flesh of a peach. Then take a bite and smile as the juice trails a sticky ride down your chin. You’ve just eaten summer. Honey Crisp fruit farmers proudly display a range of samples – yellow and white peaches and nectarines, pluots and plums – knowing that their stone fruits’ flavor yells louder than any market barker.  Beneath the expected sweetness of these pin-ups of the fruit world, expect to find vanilla underpinnings and grassy legs.

Frank and his avocados

  • I picture Keiko and Frank of Westfield Farms rising with the first golden rays of sun to weave hand-in-hand between a grove of avocado trees. She whispers, Good Morning to each one, cradling the green and black-skinned fruit in her warm palms. He shines their skins on his shirtsleeve and nestles each one into a bentwood basket, tucking it in for the long and bumpy road to the market.  They sort out their brood by days to ripen and can answer any question about this finest of California crops. Together, they’ve introduced us to a world beyond the mighty Haas. Our favorite remains the huge, softball-sized Zutanos – nutty and thin-skinned with a firm fruit, although the Walter Holes add a pleasing bite to a salad with their slightly bitter, edible skins.  You’ll know their booth as it is one long stall of avocados, without other vegetable frippery frap to clutter up the place.
  • Nothing stirs up a hunger like dodging strollers and hand carts while hunting for the perfect peach. Luckily, the chile-swimming scent of Mis Padres grabs you by the nostrils and pulls you through the crowd to the end of the market with a big-bellied pay-off of griddle-sizzling chilequiles. Mike starts by frying chips on his flat top and then heaping on salsa, cilantro, and jack cheese.  Top it off with a dose of the house-made hot sauce and the heat will get your toes tingling for the walk back home.

Ronin loving the Beverly Hills Farmers’ Market

3 Continents, 2 (and a half) Happy Bellies, 1 hour

13 Jul

Fields in Queltzaltenango, photo courtesy of carbon-based-bhg.blogspot

“Helter skelter in a summer swelter,” we sang as the pick-up jerked up the mountainside, our hips and elbows glancing off each other as we were jostled from our stances in the truck’s bed.  We gathered each morning as the early fog dissipated, hoisting ourselves up by the steel cage welded to the truck bed. The road cut through the sub-tropic brush in quick turns and sleek stretches like a black snake slithering. At its rough-cut edge, crumbling asphalt shone in the morning sun like slick scales. Around us the crops of Guatemala, coffee and cilantro, plantains and potatoes, stitched across steep inclines in proud rows, gathering plots of dark brown earth into a green quilt.

“So Bye, Bye Miss American Pie,” we yelled, breathing in the sweetness of ripening fruit until the bitter sting of the local trash burns scraped the back of our throats. Later we would try to help build a house. We would stand dumbly in work gloves and boots as barehanded kids stacked concrete blocks and their teen-age brothers figured perfectly square and level rebar foundations with a length of yellow string and knowledge of geometry beyond our college educations. The families working with Habitat for Humanity were gracious and patient with us, inviting us to a house-warming at our visit’s end.  We ate sticky rice and simmered pork wrapped in banana leaves like a present and played with the children, awed by the sweat equity that built the concrete block house as raindrops sputtered on the tin roof.

Perhaps it’s the recent July 4th holiday that reminds me of this American Pie memory. Or Ronin practicing “Bye, bye” with a wave of her fat hand over and over again. Or maybe the heat wave. Summer always teases out a yearning for travel in me like a breeze toying with clothes on the line, pulling at a sleeve, flipping at a pant leg.

If you’re feeling a bit of wanderlust yourself, head-on down to Santa Monica where you can taste three continents within an hour. While your strolling around, poke your head in Gaga by Gordana to checkout the Project Runway alum’s beachy-cool designs (and tag one more country – Yugoslavia – to boot!) We happened in and found the designing lady to be lovely, friendly, and quite a baby-charmer.

Tacos Por Favor

Tacos at Tacos Por Favor

Standing in line to order at the counter of Tacos Por Favor, I felt at home for the first time since moving from San Francisco. The front door creaked and the grey concrete freckled through the painted floors, shiny from years of diligent mopping. Tables full of social-media lunchers and a couple of Mercedes-Benz workers sat hunched over tacos next to construction workers and a couple of hipster kids. We polished off a trio of soft tacos—fish, chorizo, and lingua, a plate of milanesa, a small cactus salad and horchata. The lingua tacos stood out with the tongue fried perfectly, its crisp exterior giving way to a tender meat. Best of all, a fresh salsa bar is tucked in the corner to spike each bite with a bit of heat.

Tacos Por Favor 1408 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica, CA (310) 392-5768

Sunny Blue

Making onigiri!

This tiny joint rolls up fresh onigiri (or musubi, by way of Hawaii) while you wait. A dollop of warm roasted pork or spicy tuna or any other filling is encased and shaped into a triangular wedge of rice and wrapped in nori (seaweed) to create a perfect snack with which to stroll Main Street. You can make a meal of a few or grab just one for an appetizer or afternoon pick-me-up. Bubble tea and frozen yogurt are also available.

Sunny Blue 2728 Main Street, Santa Monica, CA 90405 (310) 399-9030

Groundwork Coffee

Groundwork in Santa Monica, photo courtesy of javawalking.blogspot.com

The Santa Monica outpost of this SoCal roaster chain feels like a scrappy independent with its narrow shotgun apartment layout and pleasantly worn wooden shelves. Happily, the coffee lives up to the quirky ambiance with organic and fair-trade blends as well as single-origins hailing from locales such as Ethiopia, Bolivia, and Papa New Guinea.  When we visited, Craig brewed excellent hand-drip cups of a light single-origin for Andy and a decaf for me while welcoming us to LA. He filled the small counter space with the magnanimous grace of a lion sunning himself, shaking our hands with large gentle paws and telling us of a great spot to watch the sunset directly behind the shop.

Groundwork Coffee 2908 Main Street, Santa Monica, CA (310) 452-8925

The Root Beer Float Grows Up

26 Jun

Stout gelato float at Venokado

As the white frozen floe  melted, it bobbed in the dark, fighting the inescapable pull under the surface. The liquid reflected black, churning , spitting, and popping. Bubbles of foam gathered and rode the waves where the two met and swirled in icy cold together. And then were sucked suddenly, violently in a great vacuum to the unseen bleak below. All trace of the two disappeared; perhaps a whole civilization gone or a species extinct.

A good root beer float has the power to spark the imagination. The slightly bitter, exotic root flavor swallows the sweet cream extravagance of vanilla ice cream just as the carbonation of the soda begins tapping around your mouth like an ambitious spelunker excitedly exploring a new cavern.

Rooty, the A&W bear

My dad first introduced me to root beer floats as a kid at an A&W off of Highway 101 in Terra Linda. Everything about the place seemed more interesting than McDonald’s or Burger King. The brown and orange color scheme reminded me of Halloween and the bear mascot in cap and sweater raising a mug in cheers seemed more friendly than a creepy flame-haired clown or bearded king. Plus, I could munch on a hot dog along with my float. Stopping at A&W usually followed either a trip to the mall or a visit to my dad’s teaching job where I would often sit on his desk and sing a song to his class with six-year-old moxie. So, root beer floats always stir a feeling of adventure in me as well.

Which is why I urged Andy to order the Beer Float Father’s Day special at Venokado during our most recent foray to Santa Monica. In my last post, I covered the allure of one of the area’s independent outposts, Huckleberry, on Wilshire Boulevard. In contrast, Venokado is located in the most heavily financed and larger scale constructions, Santa Monica Place. However, by adhering to a localist philosophy and offering tightly edited goods, this wine and gift shop transcends its slick mall surroundings. Many of the wines offered are California grown as are many of the gift items.

Clutch gifts at Venokado

Venokado will package great little pieces into a wine box they call Clutch Gifts for shipment anywhere. Items range from roughly hewn metal pendants in the shape of California to of-the-moment Butter nail polish to white matte squirrel-head wall hangings. All the pieces adhere to a current, witty and gracefully designed aesthetic. A great gift idea would be a bottle of Petite Sirah with organic baby wash and baby bath towels so that mama and baby can both relax.

The true lure of Venokado, though, beckons from beyond its back door. A small balcony offers a view of Santa Monica building tops, lending a welcome dose of urban cool to this land of flip flops and board shorts. Andy, Ronin, and I relaxed on one of the lounge sofas and ended up chatting with another couple out with their 15-month-old and dog. We sipped the beer float, made from a local stout and vanilla gelato,as talk ran from teething to weather to all the other topics that new parents commiserate over. The couple hid their dog from mall security behind a potted plant  turning the outing into a canine speakeasy as well.

The view from Venokado’s balcony lounge

Perhaps because Venokado started as a stand-alone store in West Hollywood, it escapes the monotony of other mall vendors. We checked out the other offerings in the mall and found them ranging from solid but pricey (Chocolate Opulence) to satisfying but uninspired (Tutti Frutti Frozen Yogurt) to disappointing (Kitson– possibly the most overhyped store, at least in its Santa Monica incarnation). Venokado serves a strong selection of local cheese and wines as well, so next time you’re stuck in the land of the big boys like Bloomingdale’s

and Nordstrom, take a break for some local flavor.

Venokado Santa Monica Place 395 Santa Monica Place Santa Monica, CA 90401 310.576.2500

A mother’s town for Father’s Day

22 Jun

Santa Monica by Mimi Haddon in Santa Monica, California – check out global yodel.com for an interview with the artist

As the most western city in LA, Santa Monica meets the ocean, stretching out to grasp the briny water with her graceful beaches. She waves from cliff bluff’s with palm tree arms and offers her lap to cradle the curves of the PCH. Legend holds that the city was christened by a Spanish soldier who likened the cold spring waters of the land to the tears shed by St. Monica who pursued her boozing and carousing son, Augustine, across continents to eventually aid in his converting to Christianity. Today, she’s revered as the patron saint of mothers.

Of course, since Andy and I tend to grab the expected by its shoulders, foxtrot it around and flip it over a shoulder, we headed west to this city of mothers on Father’s Day. We sampled both the scrappy and independent and the large and corporate sheltered, beginning the day with brunch at Huckleberry and winding it up wandering around Santa Monica Place, the shopping mall adjacent to the famed Promenade. I’ve reviewed Huckleberry below – check out my next post for the findings, great and grimace-inducing, at Santa Monica Place.

Huckleberry

The chalkboard menu at Huckleberry

I’ve read mentions of the Rustic Canyon family of restaurants since arriving in LA and had become apprehensive that their outlets couldn’t live up to the warm reviews. I tend to procrastinate experiencing heavily hyped places not because I’m too cool for school but because I hate that sinking feeling when something crumples under the weight of its own reputation. I feel like I’m gamely struggling to derive pleasure from a wretched circumstance, much like C3PO chattering away just as he’s about to be dismantled in Star Wars. I still haven’t seen Titanic or Forrest Gump or listened to all of Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster album for the same reason.

Happily, Huckleberry more than lives up to the reviews. The place was humming at 1 pm on a Sunday afternoon, prime brunch hour for surfer girls in Hurley shorts and older couples in suspenders and cardigans, urban granola-beards and behoodied techies. Young families queued up to order at the counter, their children pressing noses against the dessert-laden glass case or staring upward at the shelves of bread with loaves browned and rounded like turtle shells. We had worried that the wait would be too long, but Huckleberry runs like a beautiful old piano, polished, warm and tuned to a sonorous harmony. Line up, scan the blackboard menu for specials, order at the counter and then find a seat. Huckleberry’s servers excel at keeping guests from holding tables while they order, resulting in a natural rhythm that ensures an open spot for all. Circling a café with coffee cup in hand in search of a table feels too much like jostling for a parking spot at the mall on Black Friday and Huckleberry avoids this by paying attention to guests and keeping the pace moving. Our dishes arrived barely ten minutes after sitting down.

Now this is breakfast.

Huckleberry’s exec chef Zoe Nathan (and co-owner with husband Josh Loeb) cut her dough at San Francisco’s Tartine and it shows in the spectacular quality of the pastry. Since the duck confit was 86’ed, Andy ordered the egg sandwich. The humble breakfast on-the-go  was elevated by the chewy bread, perfectly cooked egg — soft yet crackled on the edges, and Niman Ranch bacon. I snatched a piece of Andy’s crust to sop up the remains of my quinoa with vegetables and poached eggs and could have happily made a meal of leftover bread rinds. My dish reminded me  of a customer while I was bartending— flanneled and denimed with a SF scruff around his jaw, he’d settle onto a bar stool and quietly watch the Giants lose, nursing a Pabst. Neither tall or short, slim or wide; even his hair grew in a not quite brown or blond hue. Average. But mention film noir and he split wide open with cheeks flushing, hands flying, and eyelashes fluttering. Given the chance, he blossomed. So while my quinoa could have visually benefitted from a garnish of radicchio or greens (thanks, husband for the idea), the taste was all there, just a bit hidden at first.

Tart but good

We rounded out brunch by finishing off a lemon verbena posset. The herbal citrus flavor cut the heaviness of the creamy panna cotta-like dessert and had us wishing that we’d already started Ronin on dairy so that she could try it too. She was fascinated by the whirring, happy vibe of the cafe, though, and was content to munch on her plate of avocado and the attention of the servers. Overall, the service excelled from counter staff to food runners to cashiers. The best complement to any dish is family and Huckleberry accomplishes this with their tight-knit staff.

Since Huckleberry also sells a full-range of pastries and bread out the door, we’re still reliving the meal with a loaf of seeded whole wheat bread. As I type this, Andy’s frying up some cubed pieces in a pan of olive oil for home-made croutons. We’ll be returning very soon for another loaf and to finally try the duck confit.

Huckleberry 1014 Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica, CA 90401 310.451.2311

A new fan of Huckleberry

Get that grad a prize!

17 Jun

Poised for flight

I got lost yesterday for the first time in LA. I’ve felt a bit too reliant on my phone’s map app to guide me from start to finish. Too easy, too perfect, too fixed to the road most traveled. So I swung left on Westwood to avoid the rush hour march of brake lights on Santa Monica. I expected to hit Sunset. Instead I found myself in the midst of the UCLA campus during graduation.

From the campus road, the dispersing new graduates looked like a gathering of exotic sea birds, poised for flight. Their black robes ruffled in the breeze; a sharp angled hat skittered across the ground. And all around a rushed chattering as moms and dads, sons and daughters called out excitedly to one another. A whirling plume of black robe jumped in front of my car. She looked up surprised, then smiled, waved and leapt back onto the sidewalk, skittering on glossy black heels.

That new graduate reminded me that the first lessons you learn, such as looking both ways before crossing the street, still hold true. She also reminded me of the magic of graduation, a day when all of the late nights and early classes, stressing over exams and stressing over papers and stressing over schedules, and  are put to rest and the stirrings of a new path awakens.

In case you’re attending a graduation this weekend and have yet to find a present or if you’ve just put off sending one, I’ve listed a few last-minute options below.

Cover of "Oh, the Places You'll Go!"

When I graduated from college, my friend Laurent gave me a copy of Oh, The Places You’ll Go! Like all Dr. Seuss books, the story of roaming far speaks to adults just as well as kids. Pair it with a gift card to an airline or a Eurorail pass if you’re feeling extra generous.

How to give a classic present like a pen without making the recipient feel like the broken-hearted Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) in Say Anything? Couple it with something beautiful and personal such as monogrammed stationery. Even better, include crisp thank you notes to teach the new grad the importance of gratitude. Peartreegreetings.com creates lovely ones and Finestationery.com carries a huge selection from a range of vendors.On a side note, why is it that thank you notes seem to have waned in popularity? That’s a whole other post but I always experience the joy of reliving the gift when writing the note. Plus, it’s just the right thing to do.

Calling cards from ArtsyNikki on Etsy

I possess atrocious luck in all things raffle and chance related. So the first time I dropped my business card in a jar at Rubio’s to win lunch for my office I didn’t expect to win. I admit I briefly envisioned my coworkers regaling me with tosses of tortilla chip confetti and tortilla frisbee tosses. But of course I didn’t win. I did however take home with me a little flutter of pride in pulling that card out of my wallet and marveling that my name was printed in bold-face type on a piece of ecru cardstock. Official. Give that sense of solid work-a-day-joe-belonging to your new grad with a card case. Ferragamo crafts handsome ones but they can be picked up just about anywhere. Go one better and include calling cards from an Etsy craftsperson, including phone, email and twitter handles if your grad is yet to land that first big break.

Just about every week, my local NPR station includes a story about the daunting future for college grads as they try to navigate a sluggish job market. So your new grad might not be landing her dream position at a big behemoth corporation or at a little ol’ non-profit but be slinging coffee or treading the concrete retail floors. None of which usually offer retirement benefits. Of course retirement seems a million years away when you’re thinking more about deferring college loans, but helping to set-up an IRA account will ensure that the recipient will be able to gas up an RV and go cruising instead of counting his pennies when he’s 67.

Feather Earrings from SaraHiX on Etsy

“Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.” Enclose this amazing quote by local LA boy Ray Bradbury (and honor his recent passing as well) with a piece of handmade feather jewelry from SaraHiX on Etsy. She’s a gorgeous, feisty and quite stompy lady who creates pieces with natural stone and feathers that look cool and a little bit dark instead of hippy dippy. You’ll be giving your grad a start at her wings and supporting local artists along the way.

A chic silver necklace or cufflinks from Tiffany & Co. will always be appreciated. Or resold on eBay for post-graduate dinners at least. But to truly give a memorable gift, try a sterling silver harmonica from the classic silversmiths. Add in a copy of Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone on vinyl and you’ll be giving the gift of music with meaning to your wandering grad.

Tastes just like chicken feet

13 Jun

Ronin Feet

I shot down Parker, through a yellow and onto Geary, dodging a double-parked delivery truck and straddling the lane to miss an open car door. Slid into a parking spot and slammed Calamity from drive into park, jumped out and ran up 5th avenue, boot straps flapping and long key chain swinging wildly. The keys bounced against my thigh in rhythm and rang out like altar bells, you’re late, you’re late, run, run.

I ran perpetually late in those days. Most afternoons I would barrel into The Other Place, gasping for air, 15 minutes late for my bartending shift. The owner ran an hour late though and as long as there was someone to pour, the patrons didn’t mind. I’d serve the construction boys off early from work and eager to wrap cracked hands around cold glasses of Pabst, and catch up with the neighborhood ladies, our chins together in whispers as we leaned across the bar. Rotate the bottles, wipe the stick of spills from the counters and wedge lemons and limes, then switch out a blown keg, nudging it with my foot like a bloated soccer ball through the narrows of the back bar.

The bar buzzed and jangled, bodies shifting, leaning and jostling one another; eyes flashing and wet mouths all saying hi there, hey, how’ve you been. An ale glass raised high caught a strain of sunlight and glittered out of the dark like amber stained glass caught in its lead frame. I’d duck out to grab dinner next door – dim sum to go. The waiter snapped up har gow (shrimp dumplings) and shumai (pork dumplings) from large round stainless steel pots with tongs, carefully avoiding spotting his perfect white shirt. Chopsticks? Sauce? No, thank you, I’d say and pop one whole in my mouth.

The fog today in LA has me waxing nostalgic like an old lady creaking on her porch swing. In honor of this, I’ve reviewed an amazing dim sum place, CBS Seafood, below.

CBS Seafood

Jellyfish

We had hoped that the packed parking lot on a Sunday afternoon was a harbinger of good things to come. And on pork fattened wings, the dim sum fairy granted our wish with a wave of her shrimp-stuffed wand.

CBS serves up serious dim sum. The Chinese wonderland of small bites served tableside from carts appeals to my love of spectacle. Who needs the Rose Parade when you’ve got a never-ending and ever-changing line-up of clanging metal carts snaking between 10-tops to your table. Regular suspects like shumai are elevated by a filling perfectly balanced between hunks of pork and finely minced onion and ginger. Likewise, the pork buns stood out with springy dough as opposed to the dried out versions that can be found elsewhere.

Chicken Feet

My unexpected favorite though ended up being the cold chicken feet. Now, I love platform heels and painted toe nails (I’m currently on a chalky grey kick) and deep arch-penetrating and Achilles tendon-pulling massagesbut until now my appreciation of feet ended there. My dad has always loved pig’s feet but until CBS, I’d resisted. Maybe it was that the bowl of feet was served cold, negating any imagined foot stink. More likely it was that I love trying new dishes. Plus I love chickens and the idea of nibbling on some hen’s or rooster’s toes seemed somewhat delightful. Which probably means I could become a cannibal easily. I guess I should make sure Ronin keeps her socks on. The feet, however, rewarded my adventurousness with bits of flesh spiked with a briny, vinegar taste. The skin pulled off easily and offered the chewiness of a good sear but lighter and tangier. Plus, chatting with Andy about where to explore next in LA and spooning pureed peaches to Ronin is a lot more fun with a foot hanging out of my mouth.

Like many dim sum restaurants, CBS straddles the line between casual and special with contractor special tile floors and mirrored walls mixing it up with chandeliers and white tablecloths in the main dining room.  Families out for a Sunday brunch sit beside young hipsters seeking the honored hangover cure of pig and dough.  The host easily accommodated our baby stroller even in a tight space and a few of the servers took the time to play peek-a-boo with Ronin. Want to sample a few of the more esoteric items or see something interesting at another table? Just ask. We ended up trying a plate of jellyfish this way. Served cold, sliced into slim ribbons and dressed in sesame oil, it acted as a refreshing pause between the fried and steamed meat bombs.

Ideally, dim sum is best with a large group of 8 or 10 so that the largest number of dishes can be sampled. With just Andy and Ronin and I we filled up fast on a few dishes with leftovers (enough for dinner that night) to spare for about $30. Next time, we’ll save room for dessert as we spied it as we rolled out to the car.

CBS Seafood 700 N Spring Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012 (213) 617-2323

Chopstick fun at CBS Seafood

You break it, you hide it

8 Jun

When I break something, I hide it. Not from others or to avoid consequences, but from myself. Last time I chipped a mug, I hid it in the back of the cupboard for a couple of days. I knew it was there, but nudging it to the far corner let my guilt dissipate so that when I finally got around to using it, I could glance at the chip and shrug.

While unpacking, I broke the wing off a ceramic bird. I’d bought it at a rummage sale for a couple of dollars, but I loved the bird’s vibrant 1950’s Miami colors and his fierce pre-flight stance. In a frantic burst of emptying a box, I balanced him on a side table in an undeservedly precarious manner and our cat, Boo-Boo, took a liking to him. Perhaps the cat didn’t quite realize the bird was born of clay and full of stale air and would never reward such actions with a tickle of feather and a flurry of heartbeats. Boo-Boo can be a bit dim. Or more likely he was merely following his feline instinct to knock things over. Regardless, Boo-Boo jumped, the bird fell, and suddenly I was shoving two pieces of bird under the bed. I know the pieces are there. I’ll dig them out and glue them together in a few days. Maybe a week. I really liked that bird.

My instinct to banish my accidents, however, can sometimes pay off.

What LA lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in sun light so we decided to plant an herb garden in the living room. My mom was visiting when this was decided and we three ladies, including Ronin, drove off to The Home Depot for inspiration. I think my mom secretly knew that a plant would lift my doldrums about moving. She bought a jasmine to perfume the air around our front door and I grabbed a basil and rosemary. A few days later my mom returned home. The jasmine flourished and rewarded my re-potting efforts with constellations of white star-shaped blossoms. The herbs drooped, then wilted, and soon tiny black flies were circling like miniature buzzards waiting for the dead. Unrecoverable root rot I discovered when the basil dropped its leaves and keeled over. It wobbled like one of those party girls teetering along the road after the clubs shut down, missing her jacket and one shoe, shakily trying to hail a cab with one pale cocaine-skinny arm. The plant was broken. Instead of bagging it up and returning it to Home Depot (up to a year after purchase according to their generous return policy) though, I hid it in the garbage. I couldn’t bear to catch sight of its sickly head flopping around in the backseat. This must be how taxi drivers sometimes feel at 3 am on a Saturday night.

And so my semi-compulsive burrowing of the broken led me to two new discoveries for garden supplies in LA, Anawalt Lumber and Hashimoto Nursery. Along with The Home Depot, they compose a trifecta of sizes whose attributes I liken to Bay Area beer.

The Home Depot

The Budweiser of the group – available just about anywhere and can satisfy most, but lacking a bit in overall quality. Individual plants run the gamut in health, making the nursery a bit like the waiting room of SF General, where a buttoned-up office worker checks his Blackberry next  to a man who thinks he’s Mussolini picking his belly scabs. I found most of my pots here though, thanks to the large selection of cheap and lightweight options. Bonus points for a taco truck in the parking lot and for genuinely helpful but generally less knowledgeable staff.

Home Depot 5600 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90028 (323) 461-3303

Anawalt Lumber

The Anchor Steam – started out small, but expanded due to well-deserved popularity, resulting in an overall solid result. The Hollywood location offers a wider selection of plants but, oddly, fewer pots than its western cousin. At the Hollywood location, a big bear of an employee made Ronin giggle hysterically and the nursery gave me pieces of screen to cover drainage holes in my pots. At the West Hollywood location, though, they solved my black fly problem in one day with organic spray and good advice (to dry out the soil). A third Anawalt is located on Pico, but that’s for another day.

Anawalt Lumber 641 North Robertson Boulevard West Hollywood, 90038 90069 (310) 652-6202, 1001 North Highland Avenue, Hollywood, CA 90038 (323) 464-1600, 11060 West Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90064 (310) 478-0324

Hashimoto Nursery

The Lagunitas* of the bunch – completely independent, but still offering a wide array of choices, creating a unique experience. Years ago, Sawtelle Drive in the Little Osaka area of LA was dotted with scores of nurseries owned by Japanese families. These gradually disappeared, gobbled up by strip malls, but Hashimoto, along with Yamaguchi Bonsai Nursery, have persisted. Beyond the usual suspects, the nursery carries a wide range of herbs and vegetables including Japanese shiso and sansho pepper tree. The lovely ladies at the counter offer great advice and supplied a bucket full of broken terra-cotta pots to shield the pot’s drainage holes.

Hashimoto Nursery 1935 Sawtelle Boulevard  Los Angeles, CA 90025 (310) 473-6232

If you haven’t heard of Lagunitas Brewery, head on down to BevMo and pick up a bottle of their IPA. Even better, check out this Petaluma, CA brewery’s seasonal offerings, such as Censored and Brown Shugga. Most of the beers weigh in at 6-9% but balance the high alcohol and hoppy finish with complex openings.

Boo-Boo up to no good with the shiso plant