Photos by Anne Fishbein
“You need no teeth to eat our beef,” the barbecue chain Mr. Jim’s used to advertise. In a spot of bad timing, I had all of my wisdom teeth out last week, but the last Mr. Jim’s closed down more than a decade ago. Sometimes I think I could survive on a permanent diet of Southern-style spoon bread, especially when it’s made with fragrant stone-ground cornmeal mail-ordered from the venerable Weisenberger Mills in Midway, Kentucky. This was my chance. But I now know that a couple of days of spoon bread is plenty. And while the rest of my teeth wouldn’t have minded staying home for a week chomping ripe avocados or pints of Dr. Bob’s superb Sour Cream–Strawberry–Brown Sugar ice cream, I eat out for a living.
My wife brought me a chicken potpie from Broadway Deli in Santa Monica, but the third day after the extraction, even the peas demanded more exertion than my poor mouth seemed up to. I glanced over at the bowl of apples on my dining-room table. Even Granny Smith was laughing at me. It was looking like a week of custards and mashed turnips, what my late friend Jac used to call softy-puddy cuisine. (You may have noticed I reviewed a tofu restaurant last week.)
The oatmeal at John o’ Groats seemed to do the trick: steel-cut, cooked almost to jelly, sluiced with rather more cream than may have been appropriate. The soontofu at Beverly Soontofu was nice after it stopped bubbling and sputtering in its red-hot bowl: velvety-smooth chunks of just-made tofu in a thick, briny broth flavored with bits of meat and clams that I was destined not to eat. The sweetened soymilk, hold the cruller, at Yung Ho Tou Chiang, a popular Taiwanese breakfast spot, made my sore gums happy indeed.
Tonny’s, a high-quality but fairly obscure Pasadena taqueria, makes the soft kind of chile verde: pork cooked down to a luscious tenderness in a delicious, tart purée of green chiles and tomatillos — homemade corn tortillas too! The long menu at Musso & Frank Grill is almost a thesaurus of soft, soulful foods, and I had a long, drowsy lunch of Vicodin, jellied consommé and Welsh rarebit, followed by a desert-dry Gibson and a long nap — an experiment in what one friend of mine calls gout-stool cuisine. Ethiopian cooking is usually pretty unctuous, right down to the spongy, sour bread injera, and a supper of doro wot, tibs and lentils at the newish Fassica Ethiopian Restaurant, across from Sony, was pretty great — not as refined as the cooking at the best Fairfax Avenue places, perhaps, but solid and intricately spiced.
One afternoon, I drove down to Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa, a central-Vietnamese restaurant that had recently been remodeled into something approaching gentility. The restaurant is well-known in the local Vietnamese community for its nem, dense grilled meatballs that you wrap into neat rice-paper bundles with fresh herbs, marinated carrots and various greens before dunking them into bowls of sweetened fish sauce. The skewered nem nuong pork meatballs are especially good here, well-seasoned, picking up a nice flavor from the grill, and I am fond of the crackly shrimp cakes wrapped in tofu skin and fried. The wispy shrimp egg rolls are thin as pastry cigarettes, and the flattened pork patties charbroiled inside folded banana leaves absorb intense amounts of green flavor, like the Chinese dish of pork cooked in lotus leaves multiplied by 10.
Usually, I get a half-dozen kinds of nem, plus maybe a bowl of bun bo hue, a funky, spicy Vietnamese noodle soup dosed with squares of jellied pig’s blood and a big hunk of pig’s trotter. But this time, it was all about the banh beo chen, a Hue-style dish of tiny, slippery rice cakes steamed in little condiment saucers, a dozen to an order, dusted with bright-orange powdered shrimp and served on elegant ceramic plat-ters. (Before the remodel, the banh beo chen used to come regimented on plastic cafeteria trays, which always gave me the impression that I had mistakenly been served the lunch of an entire army of elves.) Drizzled with fish sauce, sprinkled with minced bird chiles and pried from their saucers, banh beo chen were exactly right, sliding down the throat with the lubricated panache of fresh oysters.
Next week, if you see a column about congee or delectable bacon mousse, you’ll know the reason why.
Beverly Soontofu, 2717 W. Olympic
Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 380-1113.
Broadway Deli, 1457 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, (310) 451-0616.
Fassica Ethiopian Restaurant, 10401 Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 815-8463.
John o’ Groats, 10516 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 204-0692.
Musso & Frank Grill, 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 467-5123.
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Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa, 9016 Mission Drive, Rosemead, (626) 286-3370.
Tonny’s, 843 E. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 797-0866.
Weisenberger Mills, www.weisenberger.com.
Yung Ho Tou Chiang, 533 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 570-0860.