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Eat, Memory

A couple of Januarys ago, my wife brought a bag of blobby, yellow fruit home to the Manhattan apartment where we were then living, cradling the fragrant parcel as if it were a rare gift from a distant land. I would have recognized this fruit even hidden among a thousand tables of fresh produce at a farmer‘s market. These were ripe grapefruit from an old tree in our own Pasadena back yard, still marked with the bits of soot that tend to accumulate at the very top of the fat, yellow globes, that a colleague had picked on a trip to California. The flowery, bitter scent of grapefruit planted within pollinating distance of a promiscuous kumquat tree, an early-century gardeners’ trick for coaxing a little extra sweetness out of the fruit, seeped from the bag like a thick fluid.

Our tree may not produce the tastiest grapefruit -- in fact the juice from the grapefruit that has not overwintered is entirely too bitter to drink -- but there is a tang, an antique pungency to the lumpy second-year fruit that I have experienced nowhere else in the world, the horticultural equivalent of a browning souvenir post card from the 1914 Rose Parade. In the middle of a cold New York winter, the flavor spoke clearly, piercingly, of home.

What does it mean to miss Los Angeles?

In my time in Manhattan, I searched so assiduously for passable Mexican food that my closest friends started to make fun of me. Although I eventually found a passable taqueria (El Grano de Oro 2000 in Corona, Queens, if you‘re keeping score), I used to daydream about sidling up to the counter at Burrito Express, an exceptionally solid Pasadena stand I hadn’t thought about much when I lived a half-mile from the place, and asking the guy behind the counter to make my pork burrito with a little extra chile. I sampled potstickers in half a dozen Chinatowns, but found nothing that even played in the same league as the pan-fried dumplings I used to take for granted at Mandarin Deli. I gave up looking for New York hamburgers to compete with memories of the Apple Pan and Pie ‘n Burger, pastrami sandwiches either classically constructed in the style of Langer’s Delicatessen or freestyle in the manner of The Hat, pupusas made to order or fresh octopus tacos, chilaquiles or chili dogs, juicy tangerines in February or truly ripe peaches in August.

New York, of course, has its culinary virtues -- just try to find a decent spleen sandwich, knoblewurst or Georgian khachipuri in the Pacific time zone -- but they are distinctly not ours. And even now that I am in Los Angeles at least half of the time, my various local food yearnings seem to follow a routine, from the supper at Luk Yue on the way home from the airport (deep-fried tofu stuffed with shrimp, hollow-stem vegetable sauteed with garlic, claypot rice with salt pork and Chinese sausage) to the superb croissant at EuroPane the next morning, the obligatory lunch of pho and Vietnamese spring rolls at Golden Deli, the festive plate of plov -- Uzbek rice cooked with lamb, garlic and unbelievable amounts of wild cumin -- at the Uzbekistan Restaurant, and a couple of hard-shelled tacos with cheese and lettuce at Tito‘s Tacos in Culver City, which may be as foreign as pelmeni to visitors from Mexico City, but which taste exactly like a Westside childhood to me.

A week in town would be unthinkable without at least one trip to San Gabriel Square, the big, restaurant-filled mall that is at the center of Chinese food culture in Los Angeles, to see what is new. The center of gravity seems to be shifting toward Eastern Chinese food these days, and in what may be only the third best Shanghai-style restaurant I’ve visited there in the last month, a truly inexpensive cafe called Shanghai Snack, I had a hotpot of eel and chestnuts that had the gutsy, sticky power of an early Mudhoney single.

Awesome.

And even on the grayest day of an East Coast winter, it is sometimes enough to lean back, close my eyes, and imagine that I am at Ciro‘s, my single favorite place in East Los Angeles. You can astral-project to Rajasthan if you like; I’ll take the iron-barred, low-ceilinged room, the funk of frying meat, a plate of warm flautas, and the tiny dish of fresh, juicy avocado salsa that the house brings out for free.


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