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Liver 

And the end of being hip

Wednesday, Feb 11 1998
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I live for liver.

I have to, 'cause I don't have one. (Well, that's not true. I have one. But it lives in Miami and only writes when it needs money. More or less.)

But I exaggerate. The thing, if you must know, is that I fucked up my big pink organ, not so many years ago, through prolonged participation in the whole IV-narcotic craze that's plaguing so many of our young people today. In need, say, of a stray squirt to soften that Mexican roofing tar clogging my perpetually dull-as-a-piano-leg syringe, yours truly was not above uploading H20 from whatever bus-station toilet he happened to be holed up in. Which does something to a fellow. Shoot that in your neck and there's no telling if you're getting off from heroin or from the industrial-strength cat chowder the last lunkhead left as a souvenir. But don't get me going.

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The liver, as those of you who showed up for hygiene class may recall, is "the janitor of the body," the organ responsible for filtering the muck. Thus, according to the battery of experts employed to keep my weary little janitor in semi-working order, it was all those filthy drugs that turned me into FTAM - Future Transplant of America Material. ("You don't get hepatitis C from swallowing your gum," as one crusty Cedars-Sinai substance-abuse ace was wont to say.)

But enough about me. As a rule, nobody under 38 eats liver voluntarily. For children, it's punishment food, one of those creepy, foul-smelling dishes Uncle Doody and Gramps whip up and chomp in their boxers in front of World Wrestling Federation marathons. (My own mother, God bless her, gave me the choice of "eating my liver" or scrubbing the bathroom with my slipper-socks. Needless to say, I grew to love the smell of Lysol.) Indeed. The idea of willingly consuming the little janitor's squeegee is more than most nondebauched under-38s can handle. But then, something happens. You wake up one day and - poof! - the party's over. You want something but you don't know what. Could it be . . .? Good God! Suddenly a little voice in your head begins to whisper, "Get up! Leave the house! GO GRAB SOME LIVER!"

Yes and yes again! It's a milestone, really, one of those "passages" Gail Sheehy somehow forgot: the moment a grownup morphs from the non-liver to the need-liver lifestyle. On the Jerry Stahl HPR (Heinous Personal Realization) scale, a citizen's first voluntary liver meal falls somewhere between buying that first minivan and squeezing into your first Depends. Stepping up to liver is the kind of move that says, "Doggone it, I'm through being hip! It's all about surviving now . . . doing what I have to do to drag this two-legged bus wreck of a body through another day on the Planet Middle-Aged."

Which brings us, at long last, to Musso & Frank Grill, "Hollywood's Oldest Restaurant" and home to the freshest liver you can get without actually biting into a cow.

Why mention Musso's after this litany of viral insult and chronological torment? Well, I'll tell you. According to my homeopathic practitioner, Swami Chuck, when you have a bad liver, one way to pump it back up is to eat some good liver. Who knew? Whether or not this nutri-symmetric approach applies across the board - in which case desperate baldies willing to scarf chinchilla pelts can snag full heads of lustrous, Moe Howard-level hair - is anybody's guess. All I know is, when I take my liver out on the town, Musso's is the place I take it, and there are plenty of reasons why.

Out of the gate, of course, there's the nostalgia factor. How many great livers, from Spencer Tracy's to William Faulkner's, have been pickled to throbbing, cirrhosis-ridden slabs in this very edifice? It's hard not to go a tad misty-eyed at the thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald's liver trying to crawl out of his pinstripes at the thought of absorbing one more world-famous, bone-dry martini. But forget the Alcoholic Hall of Fame. How 'bout the eats?

Not to be sniffed at is the fact that, unlike so many of our nation's big-bill red-meat emporiums, Musso's does not offer just one choice of bovine janitorial organ. Au contraire! You have to be careful. A close reading of M&F's famed War and Peace-size menu will reveal a mismatched duo of liver offerings. Up front, needless to say, there's the Standard American Liver dish plunked square in the middle of the usual entree roster. And, as old liver hands will tell you, you're perfectly free to order it - if what you want is a flat, thin, unsatisfying, curled-at-the-edges liver event, a sort of liver pancake packing all the gastronomic intrigue of a Jimmy Dean Link over which a Chevy Blazer has backed up, parked long enough to pop into the 7-Eleven for Pepto-Bismol, and pulled off.

Which is no knock on Musso's. Most restaurants, if they even sport liver, pretty much restrict themselves to the same sort of chew-till-you-drop sole-of-Hush Puppy textbook liver presentation. What makes Musso & Frank so special - no, so beloved - to liver aficionados from as far away as Minsk and as near as Cherokee and Selma, is its second liver offering, its alterna-liver, what devotees (be still my heart!) like to refer to as "Jumbo," "Mister Big" or "Da Chunk."

Where will you find this hearty customer? You'll never guess. Under "Steak." That's right. Stashed among your he-man porterhouse, urbane New York and ever-humble "minute," those bold traditionalists on Hollywood Boulevard have inserted what, for lack of a better term, can only be described as a virtual "leg of liver."

Roughly the width of a car seat and the length of a baby's forearm, your Musso's Liver Steak is a liver lover's dream. Moist as a kitchen sponge, neither overmushy nor requiring a claw hammer, with just the right ketchup-friendly savor, your slice of paradise arrives with the obligatory liver sidekick, a mess o' onions, along with potatoes prepped anyway you like 'em: mashed, baked or boiled. Myself, I'm a mashed man - or was until I found out the reason they tasted so darn great, without having to slather on gobs of artery-clogging butter, is that the butter is already mixed in. Story of my life! What I thought was a heart-friendly veggie was in fact laced with enough cholesterol to send Godzilla swishing his tail to the Pritikin Center.

But that's okay! Life's full of tradeoffs. And if, as a result of beefing up my liver, I end up tongue-chewing, clutching-my-chest, face-down-on-Mickey-Rooney's-star dead from a monstro coronary, well, what the heck! It'll all have been worth it. I hit the jackpot at Musso's, and that's as much high-cal heaven as any guy on Earth can expect. Or at least any guy in L.A.

What do I mean? Well, listen. Trying to track down a good piece of liver in Los Angeles is like trying to find hot pants in a nudist colony. Two of the city's biggest flesh-peddlers, the Pantry and the Pacific Dining Car - the kind of joints where the wait staff might just as well double as open-heart surgeons - don't even let liver into the kitchen. Neither, for that matter, does the great Kate Mantilini's, despite boasting a menu so red, white and blue you don't know whether to eat, take a nap or sing "God Bless America."

Where, then, does a liver-jonesing Angeleno run when the fever hits and Musso's is closed? Well, here's a rule: If the place has valet parking, it won't have liver. Grim but true. If you must know, your archetypal liver-friendly venue is the Astro Family Restaurant in Silver Lake, a diner so old-school the waitresses still sport Supp-hose and stack the pies in a revolving glass case.

Not, mind you, that the Astro-Liver is exactly stellar. On a bad night, it's like a bathmat with onions. On a good one, it's like a tasty bathmat. But so what? The Astro's open 24 hours. Better yet, if you smile politely and ask the waiter, "How's your liver today?" he won't pull up his shirt and show you the swelling. He'll either tell you it's great or recommend a five-egg Greek omelet.

And there it is. Keep your Chateaubriand, motherfucker. Liver well is the best revenge.

Recommended liver: Musso & Frank Grill, 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 467-5123; Astro Family Restaurant, 2300 Fletcher Drive, Silver Lake, (213) 663-9241.

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