Best Of :: Food & Drink
By Matthew Fleischer
You did it. You may not have wanted to, but curiosity overcame you. You drove all the way out to Glendale to check out the Americana mall. Now, depending on your personal philosophical outlook/response to trauma, you're either packed to the gills with crap from Forever 21 or questioning your faith in God.
What do you do now?
You could go to Katsuya for some overpriced, but admittedly delicious, sushi. But I have a better idea. Life did exist in Glendale before the Americana came to town. There is exactly one day's worth of stuff to do in the area — most of it accessible either by foot or by the local bus routes. It's time to see the sights.
But first some lunch.
Grabbing a quick Cuban sandwich at Porto's is always a popular choice, but I would argue the massive deli sandwiches (big enough to share) at Mario's Italian Deli on Broadway are the way to go. Though Mario's has a perfectly serviceable eating area, if you can control your appetite for a bit, take your sandwiches with you and head north for two miles on Glendale Boulevard toward an excellent picnic spot. Two miles sounds like a lot, but the Glendale Beeline bus will take you there for 25 cents, and it's perfectly walkable if you so choose.
About halfway through your journey, stop at Coffee Express for a cool glass of fresh-blended watermelon juice. You can take it to go, but it might be worth hanging around to finish your drink. Coffee Express is like a time-warp — a strange Armenian version of the '50s where anachronistic Muzak versions of popular '70s rock hits leak softly through the speakers.
Another mile up, bear left at Glendale Community College and you're there — Verdugo Park. Whip out those sandwiches and have yourself a picnic. Around you are mature oak trees, grass, picnic benches crowded with families of all races and nationalities — even the occasional Glendale Community College hottie catching some sun. So simple yet so beautiful. (It's an absolute crime Los Angeles can't seem to replicate spaces like this.)
When you have your fill of nature, go north on the Beeline or by foot for another three miles to Honolulu Avenue in Montrose — in many ways the anti-Americana. An actual Main Street — an abundance of public benches, trees, shade, mom-and-pops. None of the stores are especially bold or novel, but it's still fun to walk around and people watch. Yes, there are people walking around. Marvel at the novelty of competent urban planning. (If you're reading this and happen to be an L.A. developer, please go to Montrose and take notes.) Duck into Andersen's Pet Shop for the pleasure of being greeted by a 70-year-old cockatoo. On Sundays, all of Mayberry comes out for the Montrose Harvest Market. Pony rides, smiling children ... produce. And Montrose Bowl is a delightfully old-school eight-lane alley that serves strong German beer and lets you keep your own score. You have to rent the whole place out if you want to actually play — private parties only — but definitely worth a scouting run.
If you crave sustenance, Java Brew has tasty coffee-based beverages, warm snacks and a beautiful sunken courtyard to enjoy them in.
Honolulu has plenty of options for dinner. Zeke's is the original barbecue spot opened by chef Leonard Schwartz (there's a second in West Hollywood), while La Cabanita, just off Honolulu on Verdugo, has a Mexico City–style menu and ice-cold Mexican beer — when available, try the poblano chiles stuffed with shrimp and almonds.
If you took the Beeline to get up here, however, the bus stops running at 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, 5 on Saturdays. As charming as Montrose is, you don't want to get stuck here.
Instead, head south for some reasonably priced dinner options. On the inexpensive end, Taco Azteca has reliable Mexican cooking. I tend to judge a taco shop by the number of digestive organs they serve in taco form. Taco Azteca has a bunch — and they're delicious. Kim's Kitchen offers home-style Korean cooking — most notably an interesting variety of soups and stews. On the more expensive end, and kind of out of the way unless you decided to drive, Polka has absolutely marvelous Polish cuisine and a completely unexpected variety of international herbal teas. If you're really hungry, try the all-you-can-eat Hunter's stew, pierogi and stuffed-cabbage combo.
After dinner, stop at Mignon Chocolate for a dessert that couldn't get any more sinful if they set up an illegal massage parlor in back. I'd work a truck stop if I had to for the homemade drinking chocolate. And, this being Glendale, the Armenian coffee is a nice, strong complement. Though you probably won't be able to sleep for a few days.
After dessert, continue the Armenian theme by smoking the nergileh. Normally an establishment by the name of Hookah Lounge would conjure up some unpleasant thoughts — but this place breaks all stereotypes. No Bob Marley on a loop or stink-hippies at this joint. We're talking bumping Central Asian techno music and Armani Exchange as far as the eye can see. For most people, this is the closest you'll ever get to Yerevan.
Across the street from Hookah Lounge, The Scene makes me want to punch someone in the face. I really don't know why. The place must magically fuse some long-abandoned synaptic connections in my amygdala that fuel my primeval rage. And I'm not the only one. It's not uncommon for BMW-driving Armenian youth to drive by and pelt hip, innocent bystanders with lemons and figs. I've seen it happen twice. But for a cover of usually no more than five bucks you get to see some pretty great live music and drink cheap beer late into the night.
Not too bad if you think about it.
First-timers at the Brooklyn Bagel Bakery, a squat factory in a part of town now better known for burritos and Filipino sinigiang, are often put off by the display in the cramped retail vestibule, glass cases full of blueberry bagels and strawberry bagels, cranberry bagels and chocolate bagels, banana-nut bagels and other affronts to the proud tradition Brooklyn Bagel has been carrying on since Sandy Koufax still pitched in his native borough. The most crowded bin is the one holding the puffy, blown-out, oversweetened plain bagels more or less identical to the ones at suburban bagelries. Has Brooklyn Bagel sold out? Posterity will have to decide. But the signature product survives here as Hearth-Baked Bagels — just another flavor here perhaps, like pumpernickel or jalapeño-cheese, but these plain bagels are dense, chewy, taut-skinned and properly boiled before baking. They are still the best bagels west of the Hudson.—Jonathan Gold
The Cobb salad was invented at the old Hollywood Brown Derby when owner Bob Cobb, faced with either an overfull refrigerator or a starlet with troublesome bridgework, chopped the elements of a standard chef's salad into chunks no larger than a pea. He was always a couple of steps ahead, that guy, just as you would have to be if your fortune was based on chiffon cake and the Hollywood Stars baseball team. A great Cobb salad is less a feat of cuisine than an exercise in customization: If you can't express exact preferences on chopped bacon, chopped avocado, chopped chicken or chopped egg yolk, tossed or not tossed, dressing mixed in with the salad or meted out on the side, you probably don't belong in Hollywood. It may seem like a modest innovation, chopping a chef's salad, but Cobb salads were on the menu of practically every restaurant in America through the '60s, and continue to this day not just at the Hamburger Hamlet but in, say, the Asian-inflected Thai Cobb salad at Tiara. The Brown Derby is long gone, but the time-honored Beverly Hills Hotel variant known as the McCarthy Salad, which includes shredded cheddar cheese and beets, is permanently on the lunch menu at the Polo Lounge — no matter how much the establishment may prefer to feed you warm goat cheese or ahi tartare.—Jonathan Gold
Los Angeles, as has been amply proven, is a melting pot of world hot dog culture, a city where it is possible to find persuasive versions of Chicago hot dogs, New York street dogs, Okinawan-Jewish-Mexican hot dogs, Dodger Dogs, Chinese hot dogs, West Virginia coleslaw dogs, Colombian hot dogs and Chez Panisse–influenced organic hot dogs with pedigrees more impressive than a prize Pekinese. Some would argue that the city's most vital contribution to the hot dog diaspora is the chilidog at Pink's, and those people are probably correct — right now, even if you are reading this at a rainy 2:30 a.m., 112 people are probably lined up outside Pink's waiting for a chili kraut dog with everything. But I can't help thinking that the most important homegrown hot dog is probably the L.A. street dog, also known as the Danger Dog, the Tijuana Dog, the Ghetto Dog and the Dog Dog — you know, the mayo-slathered, chile-sluiced, grilled onion–smothered bacon-wrapped wonders bought from bootleg griddle masters outside Staples Center after a Lakers game or on Hollywood Boulevard after the clubs close. Those dogs, as the saying goes, are so good they're illegal: Cops tend to impound the griddles on the spot, and the dash of illicitness (or is it salmonella?) seems to add a certain flavor to the meat. You could take your chances on a cart downtown, where your entrée may come with a side of handcuffs. Or you could go to Fab, a Reseda joint that actually specializes in a kind of deep-fried New Jersey–style hot dog called the Ripper, but prepares a drippy, spicy, crunchy version of the street dog, served with homemade tater tots instead of a misdemeanor warrant.—Jonathan Gold
We are living in an age not just of cupcakes but of cupcakes with publicists, exquisitely art-directed confections whose geometric decoration owes less to Betty Crocker than to Josef Albers. Cupcake manufacture seems to occupy the midlife-crisis Plan Bs that used to be reserved for interior decoration or jewelry design. Eat them, arrange them prettily on a conference room table, mount them on the wall — it really makes no difference. The cupcakes in the display case at the Eagle Rock hamburger stand Oinkster, Andre Guerrero's shotgun marriage of fast-food culture and classic French technique, look like examples of the new breed: pretty, swirly, just lumpy enough to give a Gourmet cover a peppy summer look. It is easy to imagine a box of the carrot-cake cupcakes sitting uneaten on a Stickley sideboard until they eventually stale, or the sticky, snowy coconut cupcakes at a society lunch with precisely one bite taken out of each. But Guerrero is neither a corporate lawyer nor a party planner with a truck-tire-size Rolodex — he's a chef. So the fluffy peanut-butter-and-jelly cupcakes taste like peanut butter and jelly, and those dense, cream-cheese-frosted carrot cupcakes would probably also be the best carrot cake in town if they happened to compete in that category too.—Jonathan Gold
Angelenos are spoiled for choice when it comes to roast chicken, from the smoky Peruvian-style chickens at Lola's or Pollos a la Brasa to the garlicky Armenian birds at Marouch and Carousel, the soft, savory hens at Brentwood's Reddi-Chik to the oregano-kissed chicken at Papa Cristo's in the Byzantine-Latino district. Nowhere else that I know of can you duck into a place like Zankou and walk away with a fragrant rotisserie chicken in about the time, and for about the price, of a soul-killing meal at Burger King. Still, even among the feathered plenty, the chickens at Grill Masters stands a cluck or two above the rest: extravagantly seasoned fowl cooked on rotating spits, perfumed with smoke, slow-roasted and glistening with juice, basted in its own fat plus probably a dozen other things, soft enough to eat with a spoon. And the skin! Like a thin sheet of crackly caramel, salty and drippy and saturated with herbs, chewy but taut and crisp enough to give way under your teeth with a magnificent thwack. But find a tree to eat under — the hot, succulent bird does not travel well. Grill Masters bright red catering wagons fold out like Mr. Haney's truck at local farmers markets, including the Tuesday Manhattan Beach market, the Wednesday noon downtown market, the Thursday South Pasadena market and the Sunday market on Larchmont.—Jonathan Gold