Go! Go! Giant Robot!
Photos by Anne FishbeinIn the great zine explosion of the mid-’90s, the pre-Web proliferation of self-published magazines about politics and culture and every conceivable permutation of punk rock, the Westside journal Giant Robot may have been the last zine anybody expected to make a lasting impact. Back then it was a crude, sporadically published testament to Japanese toys, kung fu movies and the same punk records that everybody else was writing about. While Maximum Rock & Roll and its descendants were busy teaching teenagers how to take anarchy to the streets, Giant Robot was writing about collectible dolls. While Flipside and its compatriots were dancing through the sixth and seventh generations of Los Angeles rock culture, Giant Robot worried about comic books. Sure, owners/editors Martin Wong and Eric Nakamura were exploring areas of Asian and Asian-American culture that you couldn’t read about anywhere else, and, sure, they were plumping for a school of Japanese pop painters that would end up dominating the art scene like nobody since Warhol, but it was considered nerd stuff, inconsequential. The standard crack about Giant Robot, even before the publication became actually beautiful and spawned an extensive bicoastal network of film festivals, art galleries, Internet sites, and its own art galleries and shops, was that it actually functioned better as a toy store than it did as a magazine. It is only now, in a world where the most influential new moviemakers may be Korean and Chinese, the most influential artists Japanese, the bloodiest action flicks Filipino, and the most influential cooks from everywhere but Europe, that most of us realize that everything, but everything, in 2005 descends from the obsessive otaku culture that the Giant Robot guys were trying to tell us about all along. gr/eats, newly installed near the Giant Robot stores on Sawtelle, is the culinary outpost of the empire, a small, chic café furnished with Eames shell chairs and the sort of harsh, glowing light one expects to find in Prada boutiques. The music kind of rocks, mostly the kind of indie stuff you hear from musicians whose passions extend equally to Neil Diamond and Neil Young. The densely packed hamburgers are made with Angus beef, and the mango-garnished fish tacos are pretty good. A platter of French fries includes crunchy banana shavings and squishy sweet-potato fries along with the usual shoestring potatoes; an occasional special of fried tofu comes hip-deep in a dashi-based sauce that will be familiar to anybody who has ever eaten a single dinner in a Japanese-American home. The chicken teriyaki is home-style too, moistened with a thin soy-based broth rather than smothered in a glaze. The seared sashimi-grade tuna salad is probably not going to put neighboring Sasabune out of business, but the asparagus-rich vegetarian fried rice is decent, real Japanese home cooking with a mellow, sulfurous smack of egg. Some of us may have expected the menu to act as a gallery of the best Asian food available in Los Angeles, a compendium of awesome Japanese ramen, Sichuan casseroles, Thai street food and Korean dumplings. But one of the great things about the Giant Robot guys is their anti-judgmental attitude. Yoshitomo Nara paintings? Cool. Samo Hung movies? Cool. Sumo wrestlers, Hawaiian ukulele wizards and Korean gangster flicks? Cool. Those weird, dusty bottles of Taiwanese hooch that linger for years in Chinatown liquor stores? Those are cool too. To me, the ultimate Giant Robot story, the one that seemed to epitomize the spirit of the empire, was an extended magazine spread on skateboarding at Manzanar, a brilliant piece that contextualized the darkest moments of the Asian-American past by defiantly smacking them into present tense.So the food at gr/eats is re-contextualized Asian-American home cooking: bland Thai shrimp curry and Japanese omelet rice; a mild Salvadoran seafood stew served over a yellow rice “paella” and slightly clumsy Vietnamese spring rolls wrapped in rice paper; a quite decent pan-seared Chilean sea bass drizzled with Asian pesto and squishy, salty, fried tofu “meatballs” painted with an orangey sweet-and-sour sauce.The Ai Yamaguchi mural, scattered on sawn-wood panels mounted throughout the dining room, is breathtaking if disturbing, a Superflat masterpiece worthy of any museum in the world.The food may be inexpensive, but to my family, gr/eats may be one of the most expensive restaurants in Los Angeles, up there with Urasawa and Bastide, if only because of its proximity to the Giant Robot store and its sister store GR2. The last time we stopped by for fried rice, we ended up with a Minimum Wage Ugly Doll, a Saleeh Oh woodblock print, an Ugly Doll T-shirt (small), a catalog from the recent Margaret Kilgallen show, two plush dolls of characters from Totoro, a plastic bull terrier, a back issue or two of Cometbus, a 2K T-shirt illustrated with a flocked-velvet stag’s head (XL), and a copy of the newest Giant Robot, the one with Seonna Hong on the cover. (Check out the show of Hong’s cel-on-wood paintings, up now at Sixspace in Culver City. Awesome.) My daughter tried once again to get me to buy the $300 Tadashi Murakami soccer ball. My wife admired a Deth P. Sun cat painting. I hefted a Marcel Dzama Saddest Ghost lamp. Only a short attention span and an age-appropriate lack of verbal agility kept my son from insisting on the fuzzy, smiling Tofu Cube he dragged around the store. gr/eats, 2050 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-3242, www.gr-eats.com. Open daily noon–3 p.m. and 5:30–10 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $15–$25. Recommended dishes: vegetarian fried rice; sea bass pesto; fried bananas and apples with ice cream.
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