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Do Fries Go With That Ube Shake? 

André Guerrero’s pastrami lessons at The Oinkster

Wednesday, Apr 18 2007
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{mosimage} There are a lot of ways to cook a French fry. You could sizzle a basketful of precooked frozen fries in hot oil, which can sometimes produce a spectacular result — as at Cora’s in Santa Monica and even, reputedly, at the Napa Valley’s French Laundry — but usually does not. You could cut up a fresh Idaho potato and dunk it in hot fat, which will result in sweetish, overbrowned sticks with the texture of foam coffee cups, because not enough of the tuber’s sugars have converted into starch. (The original McDonald’s fries were great because the fresh potatoes were aged into submission in San Bernardino’s dry desert air.) You could use the new, technologically advanced French fries, sprayed with a thin layer of food-grade starch, which will stay crisp for unnatural amounts of time, but have an odd, Splenda-like aftertaste that seems to stay in your mouth for hours. Or you could do it the way the Belgians do it: blanch starchy potatoes in relatively cool oil, then finish them in hot oil after an appropriate interval. It is not an accident that Belgian fries have their reputation, even when they don’t happen to be cooked in pure, molten lard. Belgian-style fries are the best in the world.

The center of Belgian fries in Los Angeles at the moment is probably The Oinkster, a converted Eagle Rock joint saturated with the smell of wood smoke, a formidable, fragrant blast drifting from a restaurant that until recently was a branch of the Jim’s chain, red roof gleaming in the late-afternoon sun — smoke that just happens to be flavoring Carolina-style pork barbecue and what is probably the only house-smoked pastrami currently being sold within the Los Angeles city limits.

The Oinkster is the newest child of André Guerrero, who has been chef of Max and Señor Fred and a lot of long-gone places that you’d recognize if you used to read Kathie Jenkins’ old restaurant-news column in the L.A. Times. Oinkster is a perfected fast-food restaurant, the old-school paradigm of pastrami, burgers and chicken reinvented for a new age when a remodeled hamburger hut can be enjoyed for the stark loveliness of its mid-century modern architecture and nobody thinks it odd that a famous chef might seek an apprenticeship with a revered deli counterman.

The sign outside Oinkster proclaims “slow fast food,” and that seems just about right. As San Francisco chef Judy Rodgers often says, “Stop. Think. There must be a harder way.” I mean, who else but obsessives like Guerrero makes their own catsup?

Where Leonard “Zeke’s” Schwartz threw his hard-won reputation behind barbecue and Wolfgang Puck behind pizza, Guerrero places his behind smoky Carolina-style pulled-pork sandwiches on hamburger buns, chopped salad, and fast-food-style Angus-beef hamburgers with that sweet housemade catsup. A rotisserie turns out tiny but full-flavored roast chickens, neither as crisp-skinned nor as artfully marinated as they are at the branch of Zankou down the street (they are also more expensive), but perfectly serviceable nonetheless, homemade-tasting, especially in a chicken-salad sandwich with sweet pickles. Would you like to pay a couple dollars extra to experience artisanal soda pop, Fosselman’s-based milkshakes purpled with the Filipino tuber ube and other fast food with a chefly edge? Guerrero is betting that you do.

{mosimage}A lot of Eastside stands sell pastrami, which is an atavistic souvenir of the decades when Chicanos and Jews both lived along Brooklyn Avenue in Boyle Heights. Alhambra’s Hat may be the most famous pastrami palace, selling giant, dripping sandwiches stuffed with pastrami sliced thin as proscuitto, but every Eastside burger stand worth its jalapeños also sells pastrami dips, pastrami burgers, pastrami burritos, undercooked and rubbery perhaps, but salty and kind of good. Guerrero studied the arcane arts of pastrami service with Al Langer, the Yoda of the Los Angeles pastrami world, who may, unlike Guerrero, buy his pastrami off the shelf, but steams it into a state halfway between old-fashioned corned beef and good Texas barbecue. Langer’s hot pastrami is one of the 1,001 things you have to taste before you die.

The Oinkster’s pastrami absorbs a lot of smoke, fragrant, chi-maximizing applewood smoke, and while it has been steamed nowhere near as long as Langer’s, it is better than good served with deli mustard or stuffed into a bun with gruyere, red cabbage slaw and a slug of Russian dressing; doused with a furtive shot of vinegary Carolina barbecue sauce; or eaten plain. Guerrero’s Mannerist pastrami aesthetic may not be not that of Al Langer or Art’s Art Ginsberg, but it is persuasive all the same.

With all of the above, of course, it is necessary to have an order of Belgian fries, fried twice to leave them light and hot, their fluffy potato essence encased in a stiff, perfectly golden capsule of crunch. With the fries comes a jigger or two of aïoli, just enough to coat your mouth and leave you in a happy garlic haze.

For dessert, there are fluffy peanut-butter-and-jelly cupcakes and some of the best frosted brownies in L.A.


The Oinkster, 2005 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 255-OINK, www.oinkster.com. Open Mon-Thurs., 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. No alcohol. Takeout. Dinner for two, $15-$25. Recommended dishes: pulled-pork sandwich; Belgian fries; ube milkshakes.
click to enlarge Nothing could be finer: The Oinkster’s Carolina-style pulled pork (Photos by Anne Fishbein)
  • Nothing could be finer: The Oinkster’s Carolina-style pulled pork (Photos by Anne Fishbein)

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