t is the coldest night of the year, the winds have started to blow, and I am driving along Olympic Boulevard in East Los Angeles, ravenously hungry, looking for one of the itinerant flame-throwing taco carts that sprout in that neighborhood around midnight. You also may belong to L.A.’s great brotherhood of taco eaters, huddled around trucks late at night, balancing three ounces of highly spiced meat and drawing furtively from an icy bottle of imported Mexican Coke.
There’s something about the smell of charring meat, the fire, the island of warmth and light in the cold dark, that can practically compel you to stand around, to eat off soggy paper plates balanced on the roof of your car, to inhale varieties of sweet, dilute fruit juice that you ordinarily wouldn’t drink on a bet, to watch the cone of marinated pork blackening on its flame-licked spit as if it were the final minutes of the World Cup. You munch still-muddy radishes to sweeten your breath, but the stink of onions and garlic and cilantro and pig flesh will haunt you like a friendly ghost for days.
You might actually strike up a conversation with your fellow devotees if not for the certainty that all that is beautiful and holy about the mess of corn and gristle in front of you would evaporate as soon as you said hello. If you’ve been there, you know: The chi, the elusive fire-energy of tacos, vanishes seconds after the tacos are served. Unless you happen to be standing outside in the dark, you’ll never experience it at all — the moment when the guy who owns the cart dips the tiny tortillas in a fetid-looking vat of oil, toasts them on his propane-fueled griddle, and sprinkles them with a few grizzled scraps of freshly grilled al pastor and a sliver of burnt pineapple that has been roasting atop the tower of flesh. You eat the tacos when they are still hot enough to raise small blisters on the roof of your mouth. There is no better food on earth.
Does it matter that my favorite stand, set up most evenings in front of an auto body shop, has no name, no license, and may not be there tomorrow or next week? Does the stand’s precariousness, the fact that its lights are powered through cables attached to the battery of a constantly running old car, and the surreptitious nature of the transaction flavor the experience? Or is it the lashings of cumin in the meat’s marinade, the careful grilling and the elegant green salsa that has a family resemblance to a hotly spiced Punjabi chutney?
There are few things in this world more primal than bits of meat and bread snatched off the communal fire, a form of eating as old as mankind itself, and there is scarcely a culture outside the Arctic that does not have its version of the ritual. Anthropologists tend to point to the transition from grilling to pot cooking as one of the earliest signs of civilization, but there is something about the smell of smoke, the dripping grease, the feeling of teeth tearing into flesh that awakens the hungry animal in us, probes the deepest pleasure center in our brains.
The meals that have meant the most over the years have almost always involved live fire — the plate of wild mushrooms roasted by the side of the road in the mountains of northern Catalonia; the sizzling skewers of lamb cooked by elderly Malay men on braziers set up near Singapore’s municipal cricket pitch; the flattened chickens crisping over a hot wood fire around the corner from Perugia’s cathedral; the magnificent skewers of beef heart grilling on half the street corners in downtown Lima.
When my wife and I hitchhiked across Gascony to eat lunch at Michel Guerard’s restaurant in Eugenie-les-Bains, the foie gras and the caramel dessert may have been the best of their kind in the world, but it is the buttery, fragrant chimney-smoked lobster that still inhabits my dreams almost 20 years later. Italians are geniuses of fire, and although I have eaten in many of the famous palaces of cuisine, it is the thick steaks cooked in the fireplace of a country house, the spit-roasted quail, the Umbrian flatbread born out of an olive-wood blaze, the cracker-thin Roman pizzas pulled out of wood-burning ovens, that speak most profoundly. I have never been able to go to a famous restaurant in Italy without looking longingly at that loud trattoria just off the main square, the one with grilling sausages in the window, a house wine grown within sloshing distance, and a menu of the gnarly local specialties that will never make it to Beverly Hills.
The welcome of the smell of wood smoke — the slightly acrid reek of mesquite, the spicy note of oak, the rustic, burnished sweetness of hickory — lets you know, from the moment you walk into a dining room, that you are someplace warm, safe and companionable, where nothing bad could ever happen to you. The inability of chefs to get certain dishes quite right in their traditional form — paella, bouillabaisse or even carnitas — may have less to do with the availability of ingredients than it does with the lack of a roaring, wood-fueled blaze.
Southern California cooking is an easy cuisine in its most basic form: Dad on the patio grilling steaks, Mom making a big salad, a pot of beans on the stove, a cold, sweaty beer. Los Angeles is a young city, but it has always had its own cuisine, based on the quality of its produce, the ease of its style, the pleasantness of being able to barbecue outside in your shirtsleeves almost every day of the year. The vaqueros ate like that in California’s early days, and so did the Midwesterners when they settled here at the beginning of the last century. The Sunset magazine, men-grilling paradigm of the 1950s was a continuation of the aesthetic. When it is 72 degrees outside and the surf is up and Vin Scully is on the radio, who has the patience for casseroles or stews? People may be flexible about Chinese noodle shops, but they will defend their favorite barbecue pit to the death.
Still, traditional high-end restaurant cooking has always shied away from live-fire cooking. Exalted Italian chefs leave the grilling to their country cousins. French chefs, I suspect, think that the flavors developed by the grill are too strong, too alarming, too likely to overpower the delicate bouquet of an old La Lagune.
“When I worked at the old Ma Maison,” says Mark Peel, feeding an oak log into a firebox at his restaurant Campanile, “we didn’t even have a grill in the restaurant. When somebody ordered a steak, we’d heat a metal rod until it was red hot, and then — sssss, sssss, sssss — we’d brand grill marks into the meat before we sautéed it. It looked great, and I don’t think anybody ever knew the difference.”
In 1982, the chef at Ma Maison, Wolfgang Puck, opened the original Spago on the Sunset Strip, the restaurant that took wood-fire cooking out of the patio in Los Angeles and placed it squarely in the context of fine dining, possibly the first kitchen in the United States to put the grill man (who happened to be Peel) at the number-one position on the hot line. At Spago, not just the steaks but the squab, the chicken, the John Dory, the tuna, the calves’ liver and the salmon came off the big grill. The duck and the lamb and the sea bass passed through the wood-burning oven, which also cooked the pizzas. There was a new kind of cooking in Los Angeles, with a flavor as old as time.
Nearly 25 years later, live fires still burn everywhere in every neighborhood, baking bread in Indian tandoors and Iranian tanours, charring Japanese yakitori and Indonesian satay, blackening Mexican carne asada and Peruvian chickens and African-American ribs. When Mario Batali, the most notorious Italian chef in the country, came to Los Angeles to open an upcoming restaurant with Nancy Silverton, the first thing they looked for was a space that would let them fire their ovens with wood.
But ironically, in the recent resurgence of fire in Los Angeles, Spago has reverted to its haute-cuisine roots, and less than a third of the food at the Beverly Hills restaurant ever sees live flames at all.
“The grill man is still the number-one guy,” says executive chef Lee Hefter. “But now he has to do the pan roasts too.”