Dear Mr. Gold:
What's your favorite fake restaurant in Los Angeles? (However you feel like defining it.)
—David Chow (via Facebook)
Dear Mr. Chow:
What is a fake restaurant, exactly? Is it a place like Happy Family, serving kung pao chicken whose fowl is carefully crafted from gluten, or like the celebrity hangout Philippe, itself an imitation of an imitation of an imitation, where the scallion pancakes taste like fourth-generation photocopies of a scallion pancake? Is it the eighth Cajun seafood restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, the 19th food truck selling Korean tacos around the corner from Yahoo, or the skillful mimics at the Cheesecake Factory? (When Beachbum Burt's, a long-defunct quasi-tiki restaurant serving an entirely fabricated menu, reconstituted itself in the Redondo Beach Cheesecake Factory for a night last summer, the ricochet of simulacra were enough to give Baudrillard a frozen-margarita headache.)
I am rather fond of Northern Chinese Restaurant, which used to list one of its specialties, a dish of cold, cumin-scented pork, as “fake dog meat.” The winey “neutralize goose” at Shanghainese restaurants like Mei Long Village, filets artfully constructed from tofu skin and minced mushrooms, coming from an old tradition of Buddhist cooking, barely counts as fake at all — a really good version tastes even better than the poultry it purports to duplicate.
But you asked about fake restaurants, not fake food. And while the idea of wonderful fakes somehow works supremely well in cocktail bars — each of the best half-dozen or so bars in town was fabricated from the bare walls — my favorite “fake” restaurant at the moment might be the Nickel, a coffee shop that may resemble a hard-luck diner, and may occupy the former quarters of a hard-luck diner, but which exists, decent coffee, fried catfish, maple-bacon doughnut and all, through a sheer act of will. Did they serve pulled-pork sandwiches or tofu scrambles in the Great Depression? Didn't think so.
NICKEL DINER | 524 S. Main St., dwntwn. | (213) 623-8301