Photo by Anne Fishbein
IT'S MID-SEPTEMBER AND TEMPTING TO BELIEVE THE HEAT IS OVER. Mornings are cool; the air has a delicious snap. We dig out a sweater -- remember sweaters?
Every year, we fall for this illusion. Every September, there's a day or so when it actually gets cold enough to build a fire in the fireplace, pull on the Ugg boots, eat stew. The joke's on us, though. Unless nature proves me wrong this year (and how I hope she does), we'll have the occasional savage heat wave through the end of October. These heat waves seem especially rude -- it's autumn, for crying in the bucket. We should be knotting our mufflers, burning leaves, braising meat. It's hard to imagine that we ourselves will be braised several more times before the year is out.
During a recent vicious heat wave -- where inland temperatures topped 110 degrees and people stayed inside hugging their air conditioners -- I phoned over to Clementine to find out if chef/owner Annie Miler was still making her plum Popsicle-like treats. They were one of the few foods I was able to stomach in the immobilizing heat, and I was ready to drive across town for one. But the answer was no. Plum season, Miler said, was almost over. What's more, she had just that day launched her new fall menu -- though she was still serving cold soup. Recently the café has offered at least one of the following: green gazpacho with grapes, a chilled red beet soup, a golden beet soup, cucumber and yogurt soup, and cold carrot soup. (Several of these can be found, by the way, any time of year in the to-go case.)
Cold soups were not frozen plum desserts. But this phone conversation got me thinking: What other foods make heat-wave eating possible? Here are some random thoughts.
Cold soba noodles. I've been eating these cool, taupe-colored noodles a lot at Yashima in the shopping plaza on the corner of Sawtelle and Olympic boulevards. (Yashima used to be a Mishima, but was bought from the company by longtime employees.) A pleasant, small room, with reasonable prices and attractive ceramic tableware, Yashima serves cold soba traditionally, on a bamboo mat with chilled dipping sauce, wasabi and fresh scallions. They can be had plain (zaru) or with any number of additions, such as crisp bits of tempura batter (tanuki), grated Japanese radish (oroshi), shrimp and vegetable tempura (tenzaru) or my choice, sansai, Japanese vegetables. As an appetizer, try the cold tofu salad -- who knew Thousand Island dressing and bonito flakes were such a winning combination? And, whenever I'm in Gardena, I can't pass up a chance to eat the refined, delicate soba noodles at Kotohira.
Cold poached salmon. My favorite restaurant version of this French-bistro and ladies'-lunch specialty is found at Le Petit Café, a small neighborhood gem off the beaten path in Santa Monica. Served with a house-made dill mayonnaise, cucumber, and a baby-greens salad, this cold entrée was recently the subject of envy among my sweaty co-diners. "How did you even know to order such a thing?" said a friend, whose sand dabs, however delicious, were not cooling.
"Cold-seeking appetite," I said.
Of course, in the worst of all heat waves, nothing will do except ice itself. Ice water. Iced tea. Ice cream. Heat waves should be welcomed if just for giving us the rationalization to indulge in the following icy substances: soft-serve root beer floats at Foster's Freeze; tart brain-freezing citrus frosteds (orange, lemon or lime) at Twohey's in Alhambra; green-apple or boysenberry sorbet at Fosselman's Ice Cream Company in Alhambra; the frosted mocha (vanilla ice cream blended with freshly brewed espresso, chocolate syrup and milk, then topped with whipped cream) at Buster's in South Pasadena.
My latest ice-based obsession, however, is the selection of raspados at Zacatecas Raspadoson Ford Boulevard in East Los Angeles. Located kitty-cornered to the old Melmac factory, this small store sells both liquados and raspados. There is nothing quite like it: Served in a 24-ounce cup with a spoon and a straw, a raspado starts out as a semihard substance of packed, shaved ice (which requires serious chipping with a spoon). Mouthfuls of the glinting shards lower the body temperature in seconds. Eventually, however, the task lessens, and you're left with a juicy slush. One friend always gets the nunes, or walnut raspado, a milky, sweet, pale-yellow syrup with about a half-pound of walnut meats per serving.
Last year I couldn't get enough of the pineapple raspado; but now I'm stuck on the cajeta, a mildly spicy, pale-pink, quince-based syrup. To tell the truth, each flavor I try is my new favorite. Licking an ice cream cone is definitely meditative; root beer floats have their hypnotic straw-and-spoon ritual; but these raspados take you deep, deep, deep into the realm of sugar, iciness and silence. The cold pounding between your ears clears the mind of thought, and the tongue becomes so numb it's impossible to speak -- even to complain about the heat. In fact, what heat?
Clementine, 1751 Ensley Ave., West Los Angeles, (310) 552-1080.
Kotohira, 1747 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena, (310) 323-3966.
Yashima, 11301 Olympic Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 473-5297.
Le Petit Café, 2842 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 829-6792.
Buster's, 1006 Mission St., South Pasadena, (626) 441-0744.
Fosselman's Ice Cream Co., 1824 W. Main St., Alhambra, (626) 282-6533.
Foster's Freeze, 2760 Fletcher Drive, Atwater, (323) 663-2045.
Foster's Old-fashioned Freeze, 4967 Eagle Rock Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 256-2525.
Twohey's, 1224 N. Atlantic Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 284-7387.
Zacatecas Raspados, 422 N. Ford Blvd., East Los Angeles, (323) 264-7651.