When I moved from Atwater Village over a year ago, things suddenly began picking up there. What can I say? There had long been rumors that Atwater would be the next best place, the next Mount Washington or Silver Lake, the next residential bastion of cool. When I moved there 10 years ago, the place was already supposed to be loaded with artists and writers, chic clothing and antique stores -- not to mention clever new restaurants. But the decade of my residency largely coincided with the post-Reagan bust years, and very little of the rumored bohemian bourgeois culture materialized. Osteria Nonni was -- and is -- Atwater’s long-surviving branch of the ‘80s restaurant revolution (it was, originally, a distant spinoff of Angeli), and I relied on it mostly for pizza with a bubbly, bready crust. For coffee and sandwiches, it was Say Cheese in Silver Lake, though the curiously dual-named Dutch American BakeryRollin’ Pin Bake Shop had a few good breakfast items. My friend Steve Blakely used to go there for one pastry in particular. “I want some of those,” he‘d say, and point. “What are they called?” he’d ask the counter woman.
“Tinamaroles,” she‘d say slowly, pronouncing every syllable. Teen-a-mar-oh-les.
A few days later, he’d be back. “Half a dozen of those -- what are they again?”
“Tinamaroles,” the woman said again.
And another time. “Those, please. And I‘m sorry, but what are they called?”
“Ceenamon rolls!” the woman hollered in frustration.
Atwater was a sleepy, integrated neighborhood all those years, and lacked the steady yupward push so palpable in nearby Echo Park and Los Feliz. But then my longtime, long-absent landlord announced that he wanted his house back to make some long-needed repairs (and, though he did not say this, to rent it for triple the measly sum I paid him).
Once I left the hood, friends began telling me that the place was spiffing up -- notwithstanding the gangbanging serial killer still at large. But more designer types were renting offices, painting with elegant spareness the storefronts between the bird and the coffin stores. And then a friend who has a studio on that block told me of an “above average” new Cuban cafe, and a good coffeehouse, and new bakeries over on Los Feliz -- not to mention a spanking new Starbucks by the Costco. My curiosity was kindled -- what was I missing?
I made some trips over to the old haunt to test my level of regret. The new Cuban restaurant turned out to be a modest, promising little mom-and-pop cafe called Baracoa, named after an eastern Cuban city and known, our friendly waitress said, for the very simplicity of its food. The first time I ate there, two of us ordered the night’s specials, which caused some serious second thoughts about having moved outside the area. The masitas de puerco, chunks of roasted marinated pork, were crisp on the outside, moist and juicy within, with a slow-cooked intensity of sweet pork flavor. The picadillo -- spiced ground beef with lots of onion, chile and garlic spiked with salty green olives -- was a kind of big-flavored and satisfying Cuban sloppy Joe. The beans, both black and red, were mildly spiced and good, and the portions were large; the fried ripe plantains and boiled yucca were perfect and the prices downright affordable. The flan proved sweet, dense, cold, and smooth as butter. I couldn‘t wait to go back and order off the menu. But when I did, I found that the pressed Cuban sandwich, a certain external oiliness aside, was the customary layering of pickle, ham, cheese, mayo and generic yellow mustard. And the other entrees disappointed; the ropa vieja had a musty undercurrent, the arroz con pollo was bland and underheated, and a good-sized pork chop, though tasty enough, was tough. I’d revisit Baracoa, but I‘d stick to nightly specials.
Kaldi, one in a local chain of three comfortable, modest coffeehouses, hit just the right note of industrialthrift-store chic for the village -- furnished in battered midcentury Danish modern furniture. The espresso drinks were very good, and the excellent pastries came from La Brea Bakery -- try the especially good, not-sweet, bran muffin. Here, they happily made my favorite Parisian sandwich: good ham, butter and provolone on a baguette. I was actually glad I had moved -- Kaldi is right on my old street, and those sandwiches are not slimming.
Over on Los Feliz, the L.A. Bread bakery is thriving, making rather generic artisanal bread in many shapes and forms. Sandwiches there were ordinary, but the cakes were especially nice: a small single-portioned marzipan cake is dense, fragrant with almonds, and covered in crunchy big-grained sugar. A plain custard-filled layer cake was frosted -- bejeweled, really -- with fresh pomegranate seeds. A saucer-shaped disk of cake was cut lengthwise, filled with pastry cream and dusted with powdered sugar: simple and lovely.
Now that I’ve satisfied my curiosity about Atwater -- it is picking up, but in its own sleepy, raffish way -- I feel at peace about the place. And I now know where to go for a really good ham-and-butter sandwich. And, as ever, some darn good tinamaroles.
Baracoa, 3175 Glendale Blvd., (323) 665-9590.
Dutch American BakeryRollin‘ Pin Bake Shop, 3156 Glendale Blvd., (323) 664-8633.
Kaldi, 3147 Glendale Blvd., Atwater Village, (323) 660-6005.
L.A. Bread, 3119 Los Feliz Blvd., Atwater Village, (323) 662-8600.
Osteria Nonni, 3219 Glendale Blvd., (323) 666-7133.
Say Cheese, 2800 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake, (323) 665-0545.