For photographs of Auntie Em's, view the slideshow here.
Auntie Em’s may be the grooviest place in Eagle Rock on Saturday afternoons, a converted bungalow a few blocks from Occidental College, crowded with punk moms, rogue artists, Nina Simone enthusiasts and pretty much anyone who likes to eat breakfast after 3 p.m. The service is basically DIY, down to the menus tucked behind the napkin dispensers and the fetch-your-own Intelligentsia coffee. Maple syrup is in the old Coke bottle by the salt shaker. Cupcakes are what the people in that long line up front are waiting for, also chocolate chip cookies the diameter and thickness of old EPs.
Sometimes, Auntie Em’s feels less like a restaurant than it does like a house party gone slightly out of control, plates filled with Cobb salad scrambles, BLT sandwiches with sprouts, impossible concoctions of cheddar grits and andouille sausage, or open-face breakfast sandwiches piled with Gruyère, meatloaf, salsa and eggs — food that seems occasionally less put together by a cook than grabbed out of a well-stocked fridge.
Auntie Em’s has always had a punk-rock vibe. Every red-blooded male in the L.A. rock scene was crushed out on the restaurant’s owner, Terri Wahl, when she sang for the band Red Aunts — the band’s album #1 Chicken was a perfect expression of screechy mid-’90s L.A. garage-punk, and they were even better live. Chefs raved about the restaurant, whose anarchic energy they envied. Musicians hung out there. I probably got more letters and e-mails about Auntie Em’s than I did about any other L.A. restaurant, and every time I drove past the place on a weekend, people milled outside waiting for a table.
But the first few times I went there, the food was off: not just lasagne that tasted like a dorm-room project but lasagne that tasted like a week-old dorm-room project, then squishy tofu scrambles, dry cakes and big salads that tasted like the bottom of a vegetable crisper tossed with sugar. I liked being there, and I was happy that Wahl was successful, but I wasn’t compelled to return.
But a few weeks ago, somebody from the restaurant dropped off a small cooler full of produce at the Weekly as a promotion for its new organic-produce delivery, a subscription service that sends farmers-market fruit and vegetables to your door. The box was akin to the Community Supported Agriculture allotments popular in much of the country, and the quality of the produce was a huge step up from what you can buy in even upscale supermarkets. I usually make it to a farmers market once or twice a week, and I have my own list of seasonal essentials, but it is always interesting to cook for a few days from somebody else’s grocery list.
I tossed the parsnips, new potatoes, baby turnips and onions with rosemary and a few teaspoons of olive oil and roasted them with a handful of unpeeled garlic cloves; I made a salad with the greens, shaved radishes, seeds from the pomegranate and some Cabrales blue I had in my refrigerator; I braised the chard and turnip greens with pine nuts, garlic and some of the grapes; and I baked the beets in foil and ate them cold for breakfast, with a little goat cheese and toast. I meant to purée the small pumpkin and use it to fill some ravioli, but I overcooked it to squash jerky. The persimmon is still on my counter. The dates I ate out of hand. And my idea of Auntie Em’s changed: If Wahl took that much care in filling a produce basket, she had probably also improved the food at her restaurant. As it turned out, she had.
It’s not the refined-sounding stuff that necessarily shines — the steak sandwich served on focaccia with a little heap of sauce raifort tasted delicious, while a composed autumn salad with smoked blue cheese and a dozen kinds of roasted vegetables was kind of a mess; a crumbly meatloaf sandwich pleased the palate, but a grilled-chicken sandwich was dryish and unappealing. You want the three-apple pie instead of the bread pudding, and the coconut cupcakes instead of the berry crisp.
But Wahl apparently has a cheese fetish at the moment — superstar cheeses from Pleasant Ridge, Rogue or Cowgirl Creamery are apt to make it into your omelet or onto your sandwich, and the composed cheese plate is first-rate. And where Auntie Em’s is still a grungy breakfast joint, it is at the moment a grungy breakfast joint where the omelets are scrambled with all manner of organic squashes, the bacon is thick-cut and applewood smoked, and the puddinglike French toast, garnished with fresh berries, is lightly scented with orange and enrobed in a crunchy frieze of beaten egg. (A creamy “upside-down” French toast paved with organic pears, an occasional special, is even better.) The breakfast sandwich, a kind of haute Egg McMuffin in concept, can be taken as upscale as you like, with Cajun turkey sausage, Brie and asparagus, sliced turkey breast or grilled skirt steak.
If you show up too late in the day, you may find that all around you the main dining room has been transformed into a full-on catering kitchen, to the point where you almost feel guilty for not volunteering to help frost a few dozen of the splendid red velvet or carrot cake cupcakes. Order a few to go instead.
Auntie Em’s, 4616 Eagle Rock Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 255-0800, www.auntieemskitchen.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 8 a.m.-4 p.m. American Express, Mastercard and Visa accepted. No alcohol. Street parking. Takeout. Bakery. Catering. Breakfast or lunch for two, food only, $16-$26. Recommended dishes: French toast, steak sandwich, Cobb salad, cupcakes.