Angelenos often drive across town for food -- say, to the San Gabriel Valley for dumplings, Artesia for samosas, East Hollywood for pad thai, Melrose Ave. for celebrity-chef creations, or Venice for burgers on the boardwalk. Amy T. Shuster says we should also frequent the restaurants close to home, wherever that may be, and support our own communities. Her determination to support local, independent businesses drives her blog, Backyard Bite. We talked with Shuster about her dining-local philosophy, blogging style, and background as a food-lover and Chicagoan-turned-Angeleno.
Squid Ink: On the blog, you write you founded Backyard Bite to foster awareness of high-quality, independent restaurants and encourage readers to visit places in their neighborhoods. Why is that idea important to you?
Amy T. Shuster: I kept seeing so many "for lease" signs. I would go to my local bar or restaurant and find it suddenly shuttered. I started to wonder how many more customers it would have taken to keep places open. It seemed so unfortunate that 10 or 30 year-old businesses were forced to pack up shop. Angeli Caffé is a recent example. [The restaurant closed last week after 27 years.] I wanted to tell others about the great local business that I came to know and love, too good to stay unnoticed. I wanted to tell friends about the restaurants in their backyards that they never went to. These places represent one's community and we should get to know them! Finally, Backyard Bite grew out of the notion that people are more likely to save a friend than a stranger.
SI: How is that concept particularly important in LA?
AS: There are so many celebrity-chef and high profile restaurants that boutique restaurants and ma and pa shops are being forgotten. The independent spots can't complete when everyone wants a reservation at the latest trendy restaurant. The little guys don't have big PR firms. Often you'll find a family-owned restaurant that's been around for 80 years that simply doesn't have the knowledge or manpower to Tweet and Facebook and say "We're still here -- and we're still good!" It's up to the community to spread the word and create buzz.
SI: You call these spots "local independent foodie gems." How do you decide what qualifies?
AS: I like to write about that awesome place in some strip mall that no one notices. I think, "Here's a place in a shady back ally with a wonky looking sign... I bet it's good." Yuca's is a shack in the middle of a parking lot, for example. While I sprinkle in a few classics like Philippe's, or occasionally cover an opening, I mostly love an underdog success story.
SI: Are your posts reviews?
AS: My posts started off as reviews but aren't so much anymore. I always look for unique ways to tell a story whether through writing, pictures, video or a song. Sometimes I get journalistic, with research and information that's not so "on-the-surface." I've been doing more interviews with chefs and restaurant owners to find out how they started and learn about what makes them special.
SI: How would you describe your writing style?
AS: I'm enthusiastic about the places I write about. You're not going to find anything negative. If it's good, I write about it. If it's not, I don't. I write like I'm talking to a non-foodie. I try to be as thorough as possible without being dry. I also like to include a tip, funny tidbit or random link.
SI: What neighborhood do you live in?
AS: I've been in West Hollywood for about four years. I love this area. It has such a diverse community and amazing restaurants in every direction within walking distance. This was how the name "Backyard Bite" came to mind. I would talk to my neighbors about a fantastic taco shop or burger place I discovered up the street and they would have no idea what I was talking about. I would say, "But it's right in your backyard, you could walk there!"
SI: What are some favorite local spots that you've blogged about?
AS: There are so many. Just to name a few: The Golden State for it's beer floats and burgers. Shaky Alibi has the best liege waffles. Sweet Lady Jane Bakery is a birthday tradition. Some others are Allora Cucina and Olio Pizzeria.
SI: How long have you lived in L.A.?
AS: I've lived here for almost eight years, in the Valley, Beverly Hills and Hancock Park. I moved for work and the weather, but the food is a huge bonus! Los Angeles is a melting pot of so many cultures and cuisines. Where else can you wait in line for pancakes for two hours (The Griddle), have amazing Taiwanese dumplings for lunch (Din Tai Fung Dumpling House) and authentic Salvadorean pupusas for dinner (Jaraguá)?
SI: Where are you from?
AS: I'm a Chicagoan. Midwestern comfort foods like Portillos hotdogs and deep-dish pizza were common growing up. I still smuggle back frozen deep dish from Lou Malnati's whenever I visit. I'm amazed at how the food scene has blown up there. I hope to take Backyard Bite on the road soon and do something like "Backyard Bite Does Chicago" or "Backyard Bites the Big Apple."
SI: What was your interest in food growing up?
AS: My grandma was always teaching me Puerto Rican dishes and how to experiment. I took those recipes with me to college and would use the dormitory ovens to cook and really stink up the place. Everyone knew when I was there because you could smell the salmon! I would get food from the school cafeteria, bring it to the dorm kitchens and make something better. I loved watching Jamie Oliver on The Naked Chef. He was an introduction to the food world for me. I probably paid more attention to the Food Network than I did my classes!
SI: Did you say Puerto Rican food? What is your ethnic background?
AS: I'm the best blend of Puerto Rican-German-Austrian-Russian (and quarter Jewish). I'm pretty sure I'm the only Puerto Rican girl who's food blogging about LA, though I do hope I'm wrong.
SI: Aside from food blogging, what do you do?
AS: I'm an actor. I've worked in various film industry fields, in front of and behind the camera. I've also worked in restaurants, catering, photography, art and graphic design. I write for blogs like Buy Local Market and do restaurant copywriting. I've recently begun making promotional videos for restaurants looking to increase their web presence.
SI: Can you recommend a few L.A. food blogs that you follow?
AS: Noms not Bombs, Gas•tron•o•my, The Minty, The UnVegan, The Gracious Pantry, Kahuna Of The Kitchen, and Marian The Foodie. I see the other bloggers not as competitors, but as peers. We share ideas, recipes, restaurant news and our love of food. It's a wonderful thing.
Past "Meet Your Food Blogger" interviews:
Adam Roberts of The Amateur Gourmet (Jan. 9, 2012)
Billy Vasquez of The 99 Cent Chef (Dec. 30, 2011)
Javier Cabral of Teenage Glutster (Feb. 1, 2010)
Pat Saperstein of EatingLA (Dec.10, 2009)
Matt Armendariz of Matt Bites (Nov. 16, 2009)
Tony Chen of Sinosoul (Oct. 29, 2009)
Chris Bostick of The Varnish (Oct. 16, 2009)
Rickmond Wong of Rameniac (Oct. 8, 2009)
Jeni Afuso of Oishii Eats (Sep. 29, 2009)
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Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA (Sep. 16, 2009)
Amanda Simpson of FoodPornDaily (Sep. 10, 2009)
Cathy Dahn of Gastronomy (Sep. 2, 2009)
Eddie Lin of Deep End Dining (Aug. 18, 2009)