Nickel Diner is not your ordinary diner, with dishes of pulled pork and quinoa and pozole sharing a menu with egg scrambles and the kind of donuts that often seem more like the Platonic ideal of a donut rather than the sort normally found on diner counters, next to cups of coffee and the atavistic morning newspaper. So when Nickel's pastry chef Sharlena Fong (Bouchon, Per Se) left recently, it came as no great surprise to learn that her successor was also a few notches above ordinary. Koa Duncan has been at Nickel Diner about a month now, having come down from San Francisco (Delfina, Boulettes Larder). Before that, Duncan was pastry chef at Water Grill. And before that? At Bastide, where her tenure overlapped that of both Ludo Lefebvre and Alain Giraud.
Duncan and her fiancé both have family in Los Angeles, so the move back made sense. Also L.A., said Duncan yesterday over a plate of cake and cookies, has “more room” for the place of their own they want to open someday. Nickel Diner, so named because of the diner's downtown Skid Row location (listen to Tom Waits' magnificent “On the Nickel“), has what Duncan calls a “really agressive pastry program.” Unusual for a diner, especially one with a very cramped kitchen. “I have a 20-quart mixer. It's really challenging.” (Turn the page.)
Duncan, who is from San Jose, was born in Hawaii — hence her first name, which means 'brave' in Hawaiian — though her family is Scottish-Icelandic. She went to culinary school in San Francisco and began cooking there before moving to Los Angeles the first time. Nickel Diner might seem an odd place to find a white-tablecloth pastry chef, as a diner with a serious pastry program is still a diner. But Duncan says that she likes the fact that it's not exclusive, and that their price point is accessible. You also get to wear cool t-shirts, unlike Bastide, where the chefs were required to wear actual toques.
Don't look for radical changes on the pastry menu, which has a devoted fan base (“people come in here as if it's a bakery”) that usually engenders a long line down the dilapidated street on weekends. The bacon-maple donut is not going anywhere. (Duncan, a former longtime vegetarian and, for a time, a vegan, is now a carnivore. Life at Nickel as a vegetarian? No bacon donut? “That would suck.”) Duncan has put an Abuelita snickerdoodle sandwich cookie on the menu — check back later for her recipe — and an Irish Car Bomb donut. Lemon meringue pie with gingersnap crust. And coming tomorrow, butterscotch pudding. So no high-end rah-rah desserts with foams or nitrogen clouds. “I'm tired of chefs trying to reinvent the wheel.”
Nickel Diner: 524 S. Main Street, Los Angeles; (213) 623-8301.