|Photo by Anne Fishbein|
Like many others who grew up in America, for the longest time I thought of noodles only as a plate filled with spaghetti and meatballs smothered in tomato sauce, or elbow macaroni floating in pools of very yellowy cheese. The noodle world changed for me, however, in 85, while researching an L.A. food-shopping guide. As I struck up conversations with good cooks about where they got their spices or their specialty ingredients, theyd eagerly ply me with tips on other good things to eat. More often than not, their leads involved some sort of noodle perhaps a wonderful bowl of ramen from a hole-in-the-wall in Little Tokyo, or a German restaurant that made fine spaetzle.
Those were the days when fresh pastas were thought to be the ne plus ultra of noodledom. But as I poked around various food stores, I came across Hungarian tarhonya, Korean dang-myun, Hawaiian saimin, Vietnamese banh canh, even Persian toasted noodles called reshteh. I began to think of L.A. as the most wildly diverse noodle city anywhere. Fifteen years later, the single most obvious thing I notice is how much more refined our noodle choices have become. Hand-pressed chitarra, hand-swung Chinese mein and handmade soba, among other artisanal noodles, have raised every noodle lovers standards. What follows is a sampling of some of the best noodling around.
New Comfort Foods
Many new hip semiretro coffee shops like Axe, the Standard and Fred 62 are redefining comfort food just as seared ã ahi redefined what was once acceptable on a French menu. Soba in dashi broth, or Korean glass noodles in cold spicy sesame dressing, appear on their menus as nonchalantly as if they were a BLT or a tuna melt. Yet for me, and a lot of others who ate in school cafeterias here, a bowl of unadulterated Americana means macaroni and cheese. I went everywhere hunting for the best, from home-cooking places to supermarkets, delis and coffee shops, and sadly found the dish defiled with mushy noodles and insipid cheese sauce. I did, however, come upon one great version, the MacDaddy and Cheese, at Fred 62. Its a soup bowl full of perfectly cooked elbows in a creamy, soupy, cheese-intensive sauce, spiked with bits of fresh green chile. Topped with a thin brûlée-like crust of buttery crumbs, a spoonful brings up wonderful stretchy strings of well-ag ed sharp Cheddar. A slightly more elegant mac and cheese comes from Greenblatts Deli. It stands on its own, like cold lasagna, with a sauce thats almost pure cheese, wedged between perfectly cooked noodles. A thick layer of Cheddar forms its crumbless topping. Its easy to wreck this dish while warming it up later, so cover it, use a 300-degree oven, and pull it out exactly when the cheese becomes molten.
The European Noodle
Deli foods of Russian extraction, and the noodles of Greece, Germany and Mittel Europe, are seemingly on the wane. Yet they are thriving, if you know where to look. Kasha varnishkas, the bow-tie noodles with toasted buckwheat, used to be one of my favorite Jewish-deli dishes. Lately Ive found sloppily made versions in Nate n Als, Arts, Canters and even Brents. But Langers, the King of Pastrami, puts forth a perfect, steaming plate of bow ties, encrusted with still-slightly-toothy buckwheat redolent with sweet, smoky notes of caramelized onion. Langers also prepares one of the best noodle kugels. It looks kind of homely next to the tall, beautiful one from Greenblatts, which ties with Brents for second place. But Langers pudding is a soft, meltingly tender, egg-rich custard, rather than stiff or dry and rubbery, as inferior versions can be. Pastitsio macaroni layered with ground beef or lamb, infused with Greek seasonings and crowned with a savory cheese-custard topping has to be one of the great Greek noodle creations of all time. I remember loving the pastitsio at Josephs Café, yet when I last ate it there it was truly a sad example. Fortunately, Ive found two marvelous replacements. Delphi, an okay restaurant in Westwood, surprised me with its savory, tender-topped version, and the Greek Bistro in Encino not only does a fine, creamy pastitsio, but offers a long menu of Greek-inspired linguine with charbroiled octopus or crumbly, aged mizithra cheese, both with garlic and olive oil, or with oven-roasted lamb in its own juice.