Into the Abyss
Monday: The Cuban food that popped up on nearly every page of Oscar Hijuelos' Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love was widely considered to be fantastic when the novel came out 20 years ago, a magical-realist symbol that bopped through the book like music. I knew better. El Colmao was one of the first restaurants I ran across in my attempt to eat in every restaurant on Pico Boulevard in the 1980s, and Hijuelos' accounts of stacked pork chops, tubfuls of black beans and mountains of boiled yuca root seemed like fairly precise descriptions of what lay on El Colmao's tables on weekend afternoons.
I haven't varied my order at the restaurant in 25 years or so, and although I hadn't been by for a while — the lineup of autographed photographs of baseball players on one wall was new to me, as was the collection of autographed musician portraits on the other side of the room — I'm not about to change now, even if there is arroz con calamares on the menu.
There was a salad of avocados and onions, which I dressed myself with cruets of oil and vinegar, and a plate of tostones, double-fried coins of smashed green plantains that crackle under the teeth. I got a carafe of cold, red wine, whose sole redeeming virtue is the ability to stand up to numbing quantities of garlic — you can get a bottle of solid Rioja for a few bucks more — and an order of pan-fried pork leg, which is basically a vehicle for tangles of sautéed onions and the aforementioned garlic. As always, I passed up the black beans and rice for a vast, inky midden of moros y Cristianos, which are fried black beans with rice. And then a demitasse of strong, overextracted Cuban coffee, which is what espresso used to be before the advent of Starbucks.
I went to pay at the cash register, and the owner stared at me hard for a moment as I handed her my credit card.
"You used to come in here,'' she said.
"You — you were young.''
Golden Deli: pho and fried spring rolls. Ever has it been, ever shall it be.
815 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel. (626) 308-0803.
Elements Café, a tiny lunchroom on the southern edge of Old Town, had always struck me as the kind of Pasadena restaurant I tend to avoid: a feminine dining room where the fresh flowers are sourced more carefully than the produce; a repository of soft, faintly exotic sandwiches and hibiscus-lemonade punch. When I dropped in for lunch the other day, it turned out to be ... a repository of soft, faintly exotic sandwiches and hibiscus-lemonade punch. But the Brie-and-pear sandwich, which is the first thing Elements fans tell you about, is less a ladylike teatime nibble than an ultrarich gut bomb that goes down as easily as a patty melt, while the cheesesteak — tri-tip prettily arranged on a Euro Pane baguette — really is delicate, almost fragile. There was a killer mac and cheese with bacon, although, if you insist, you can get it with truffle oil. Sandwiches come with freshly made potato chips. And the iced tea tastes like iced tea. Will I be back for a duck confit sandwich? Probably.
107 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena. (626) 440-0100.
Daisy Mint, another Pasadena café, may be on few lists of the sharpest Thai restaurants in L.A., but I end up recommending it to a surprising number of people, and not just for the whimsical collection of framed toy insects or the inexpensive lunch specials. It really is a pleasant place to spend an afternoon; the Thai curries are light and carefully made, and the fried rice with chile and mint is spicy enough to command your attention but not incendiary enough to tie your stomach in knots.
1218 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 792-2999.
Twohey's: three spoons, three people, the best hot-fudge sundae in town — dinner. Since the demise of C.C. Brown's, nobody has come close to the bittersweet fudge sauce at the heart of the sundae at Twohey's, a swank coffee shop that began as a drive-in in 1943. The fudge is dense enough to bend spoons like nothing since the glory days of Uri Geller.
1224 N. Atlantic Blvd., Alhambra. (626) 284-7387.
North Long Beach may house the biggest Khmer community outside Cambodia, but boasts nothing like a dedicated Khmer restaurant since the mid-1990s. There is precedent for this — there don't seem to be many purely Khmer restaurants even in Phnom Penh, where it is much easier to find a splashy Chinese joint than one specializing in regional Cambodian food — but it still can be disconcerting to dig through the long Chinese menus at places like New Paradise and Siem Reap to find the dozen or so Khmer specialties. Sophy's, a huge, gleaming restaurant near the base of Signal Hill, has a different take on the cuisine — it's Cambodian-Thai instead of Cambodian-Chinese. And while much of the menu is definitely in the tradition of the suburban American Thai restaurant — crispy and crackly and well-sugared — the Khmer dishes tend to come out pretty well as seen through this aesthetic: an anchovy-inflected curry dip for raw cucumbers and eggplants; banh chiao, the Khmer equivalent of banh xeo, a kind of Khmer taco made with turmeric-yellow crepes wrapped around vegetables, and meant to be broken into chunks and wrapped into lettuce bundles with herbs; and a salad made with fish, lettuce and the bitter green sadao. The lesson? Fried chicken, especially marinated with spices in coconut milk, is good in pretty much any language.
3240 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Long Beach. (562) 494-1763.
The Gold Standard event at the Petersen Automotive Museum: The Nickel's Maple Bacon Donut chased with a shot of Bulleit bourbon? LudoBite's chorizo velouté with crunchy cornichon ice? Palate's banh mi with pork belly and pig's ear; Babita's perfect tacos de barbacoa; Kogi's tofu tacos wrapped in fresh ggaenip leaves instead of tortillas; Bulgarini's espresso granita ; Jitlada's dry-pork curry; Mo Chica's albacore seviche; Sona's salmon with Meyer lemon; Beacon's supple short-rib tostadas; Mozza's epic ricotta crostini; La Casita Mexicana's tiny jalapeño chiles en nogada; Saffron Spot's rose-water ice cream; Little Dom's oyster po' boys? That's not even the half of it. Good Girl Dinette did miniature versions of its wonderful curried-chicken potpies, and Meals by Genet did its epic doro wot; Let's Be Frank rocked the hot dog, and Tiara made doll-size cupcakes in sparkly Mardi Gras colors; Wurstküche grilled rabbit-rattlesnake sausage, and Bistro LQ had sliders stuffed with stewed hare, as well as jiggers of sea urchin–inflected tapioca. Huckleberry brought bacon scones; Angeli brought lasagne; Lou brought 10-year-old cheddar. Jar's pot-roast sliders with horseradish were nose-clearingly fierce. Border Grill made avocado tacos, and Lotería did tacos with veal tongue. It was overwhelming, and overwhelmingly good. I can hardly wait until next year.
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