Photo by Debra DiPaolo
Paella for eight may be a dinner party, but supper for 30 is a battle royal. And while I have endured more than my share of mass feeds, frying 200 pieces of chicken or 300 latkes in an afternoon, peeling and chopping vegetables for 22 quarts of soupe au pistou, timing acres of soufflés, supervising half a dozen pots of coq au vin, it is often more entertaining to leave production-style cooking to production-style kitchens, preferably somebody else’s. In Los Angeles, the most important appliance in the well-equipped party kitchen can be your car.
1 The single most important factor in choosing takeout for a party is the window of palatability. Which is to say, as tempting as it may be to set out platters of Tommyburgers at your boyfriend’s 23rd birthday party, everything will disintegrate into revolting mush before half an hour has passed — and the chili will take forever to scrub out of the drapes. Those Vietnamese spring rolls that are so crunchy and luscious in the pho shop will become indistinguishable from chopped snorkels by the time you get them home from Chinatown — although the fresh spring rolls called goi cuon (rice paper wrapped around cool noodles, shrimp and pork) work perfectly. Know that hand-patted tortillas turn into flat, sodden rocks. Curries congeal. Pastas turn to rubber. When planning a party, avoid almost any kind of food you wouldn’t be happy eating out of the refrigerator for breakfast the next morning.
2 Middle Eastern cuisine is always appropriate, or at least that part of Middle Eastern cuisine that is listed on the takeout menus under the heading “meze,” a category including hummus, stewed fava beans, eggplant dip, tabbouleh, and cool grilled sausages in lemon juice, among many other things. Meze were designed to be eaten with the fingers at room temperature in less-than-temperate climates, and are likely to survive in fairly edible condition at least until the beer runs out. Plus, the food is likely to be fresh, and most of it is palatable to that vegan couple you couldn’t avoid inviting. It’s easy enough to order all the food from one place, but if you’re adventurous, consider assigning each guest a geographically appropriate pickup duty: the red-pepper dip, mouhammara, from Carousel; the delicious toasted pita salad, fattoush, from Marouch; falafel from Aladdin; hummus from Wahib’s; tabbouleh from Carnival, etc.
3 That being said, don’t be afraid to get in the car. People love the opportunity to taste food from places that they never seem to get around to visiting on their own, especially if that food is from a geographically inconvenient part of town — the spectacular meats and cheeses from La Española, for example, located in a Harbor City industrial park that is convenient to absolutely nobody, or the delicious Gujarati snacks from the Surati Farsan Mart in distant Artesia, or even the close-by pastrami from Langer’s Delicatessen across from MacArthur Park. Everybody may like Zankou, but your guests will appreciate the effort you make to get your chickens at Pollos a la Brasa on Western instead.
4 It is not physically possible to bring in too much barbecue, especially from Woody’s, Phillips’ or Jay-Bee’s. I have witnessed a mere 20 people reduce $400 worth of spare ribs to splinters in less than an hour, and certain hungry boys have been known to buzz through two pounds of hot links in less time than it takes a chainsaw to get through a sapling. Figure half a rack of ribs per person whether barbecue is the main event or simply one of many. Barbecue is never a side dish.
5 Takeout Thai food may seem like a good idea, but trust me: It just isn’t. The flavors of great Thai food are balanced in a way that rarely lasts more than a few minutes, and you don’t want to bother with the other stuff. Thais themselves, of course, enjoy perfectly marvelous party food, but the raw pork lozenges, stinky sausages and salted-fish goodies are unlikely to win immediate favor with your guests. Although a platter of the transcendent Isaan-style grilled chicken from Sapp Coffee Shop, an informal noodle shop in Thaitown, may not be a bad idea at all.
6 Do not underestimate the appeal of sandwiches. Many parties have been saved by the timely appearance of Cuban sandwiches from the Café Tropical, Vietnamese banh mi from Ba Le, or the delicious pre-wrapped tomato-and-fresh-mozzarella sandwiches that La Brea Bakery sells by the bushel. Stack them in an artistic fashion.
7 You don’t have to go to ridiculous society-caterer extremes, but finger foods are better than the alternative, especially if you don’t want to find your good silver tossed into a rosebush. Jamaican goat curry is difficult to serve in optimum condition, but the patties (Jamaican turnovers) from Coley’s Carribean-American Cuisine are superb; come stuffed with greens, chicken or beef; and reheat to a wonderful crispness in just a few minutes in the oven. Dim sum is always popular, easy to pick up and eat, and, as a bonus, the old-school pork buns from Hong Kong Low Deli in Chinatown almost seem to be baked with longevity in mind.
8 If you like, supplement your takeout efforts with an easy cooked dish or two, say a roasted leg of lamb or a big tossed salad. Just don’t attempt anything that will take more than a few minutes to throw together during the party itself. A little farmers-market produce goes a long, long way.
9 Many really good wine stores, like Wine Expo in Santa Monica or Chronicle Wine Cellar in Pasadena, practically specialize in great inexpensive wines, and you would be foolish not to take advantage of their specific expertise. You may end up drinking wines from Sardinia instead of Tuscany, or Oltrepo Pavese instead of Merlot, but you will be happy. Leave the Two Buck Chuck to everybody else.
10 Tableware? One word: IKEA.