Photo by Anne Fishbein
Stew is the stuff of memory, and, as such, can be very good: my mother’s blanquette, veal in velvety cream (served one time taffy-sweet, when she accidentally used confectioner’s sugar instead of flour in her roux); the peppery, fruity lapin aux pruneaux I ate, at 19, on the outskirts of Paris; my first bite of chili that didn’t come from a can. Of course, the memories can be equally bad, such as the stew a college roommate tried to make in an hour, resulting in hard potatoes, tough meat and a can of tomatoes sitting indifferently, like strangers at a party, in tinned beef broth. If there is one thing stew needs, it is what memory is handmaiden to: time. Time for the ingredients to meet, court and, eventually, marry. With the exception of oyster stew (a love-at-first-sight affair that requires only that oysters be flashed in a pan of bubbling butter and bathed in hot milk), stew is something to be started in the morning and eaten at night, or, better, the next day, for if ever there was a food enriched by time, it is stew. It is an ur-dish, no doubt made since earliest man needed to turn whatever was at hand into something edible. And in L.A., one would expect no shortage of bowls, cauldrons and crocks spilling pan-ethnic riches.
Beginning with the stew of (my American) childhood, I conjure an image of something bubbly and beefy, a bone-warming bowl enjoyed before a hearth. Perhaps at the Tam O’ Shanter Inn, in Atwater Village, where I’ve eaten excellent sandwiches cut from slabs of brisket. At Christmastime, carolers in 19th-century garb fa-la-la through the labyrinthine rooms, roast goose is presented before roaring fires, and there’s a stew that sounds divine: a Yorkshire pudding filled with filet mignon and mushroom caps, in a Burgundy wine sauce, charmingly called Toad in the Hole. Which no doubt would be more interesting were it actually a toad in a hole. Instead it is a dense disk of pudding, sodden with what tastes like canned gravy, topped with chunks of tasteless beef and blunt strips of green pepper. It is the sort of desperate “I’ll eat this because I’m starving” fare one puts up with in a ski lodge.
Not ready for another attempt at beef stew, I head to Far Niente, in Glendale, to try the caciucco Livornese, a shellfish stew from the seaport city of Livorno. I am entranced by the panini fritti, squiggles of fried and salted dough, and with the baby-spinach salad, served in a â portion that would win an Italian grandmother’s approval. And here is the caciucco, a gigantic soup plate brimming with baby clams, green mussels, giant prawns and tiny calamari, swimming in cup upon cup of a tomatoey broth that tastes like . . . nothing. No depth of spice, no pepper’s heat, perhaps one faraway cry of garlic.
I need flavor, and go to the Ethiopian restaurant Nyala, on Fairfax Avenue, to try its famed yemiser wot, a stew of red lentils. A vermilion paste made fiery with ginger and garlic and smoky with cumin, it is very good, though I cannot help thinking it would be better served as a condiment alongside something more substantial.
I can taste the time in all of these; unfortunately, I detect neither a discerning palate nor attention to detail. Perhaps stew’s relative ease of preparation has rendered it a dish to be thrown together with little heed as to how the ingredients are getting along. I need cooks who will give a stew both time and understanding.
Ah, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, and the south-of-the-border dishes at their celebrated restaurant Ciudad. I love the sun-drenched walls and napery; adore the Chilean wine; the waiters in their persimmon-colored shirts are enthusiastic. As I bite into an opener of nicely chewy plantain gnocchi doused with sharp tomatillo and smooth crema, I anticipate great things from what I’ve come for, the stew congrio con pebre, seared sea bass in a saffron broth. It arrives steaming, in a bowl big enough to provide a facial, the sunset-colored broth buoying slices of red potato and artichoke, and a peak of sea bass so overcooked it tastes like white paper. I reason that the responsibilities of the Two Hot Tamales do not include, at least this evening, being anywhere near the kitchen.
I am ready to admit defeat. There are no good stews in Los Angeles. But how can this be? I must be going about my quest the wrong way.
I send up flares.
“Guelaguetza” . . . “Polka” . . . “Song,” come the voices of those who’ve sailed these culinary waters before me.
How did I forget Saladang Song, the utterly beautiful Thai palace situated next door to its sister restaurant, Saladang, in Pasadena? With its entryway of towering steel panels, an immense patio, and a dining room with sky-high ceilings and walls of translucent glass, the effect is at once epic and airy. I have loved everything I’ve eaten here — the yum eggplant, amethyst-colored grilled Japanese eggplants, bathed in lime and chile, strewn with plump shrimp that taste as though they’ve been caught an hour before; the e-saan combination, a meltingly tender chicken, barbecued maple-brown, perfectly paired with a smooth black pepper sauce. The menu’s crowning glory, which I am elated to return for, is the poo-goong tom ga-ti, a schooner of chile-and-ginger-infused coconut broth, with succulent shrimp and a tangle of crab legs, cracked, so that the sweet meat is easily procured. This is a truly symphonic stew, the velvet of the coconut milk mellowing chile’s heat and softening ginger’s spark, suffusing the shellfish with a harmony of tastes.
Primed for absolute flavor, I find it and then some at Guelaguetza, the Oaxacan restaurant on Eighth Street famed for its moles (from the Nahuatl word molli, meaning “concoction”), those complex sauces that take days if not weeks to cook. A bright-ocher room with posters of Oaxaca, from where many of the moles’ ingredients come, Guelaguetza has the peaceful feel of a family-run place. The first mole, coloradito, comes drizzled atop a dish of tortilla chips. This red mole tastes of everything: the tang of raisins, the fire of chiles, the oily richness of nuts, the spike of coffee, the pucker of cocoa. I would be happy to eat nothing but this, by the spoonful, though I am thrilled with an entrée of amarillo de pollo o res, a deep dish holding many cups of mellow though sneakily hot yellow amarillo mole, sending up wafts of cumin- and clove-scented steam and submerging stewed chicken, a whole potato and chunks of chayote squash. The mole is very rich; I can barely make it through the entire bowl, and yet find room to share my boyfriend’s chicken with mole negro, which is perhaps the most intense food I’ve ever eaten. Black as an oil slick, rich as bittersweet chocolate, with a heavy kick of chile, the flavor is bottomless, and so forceful that my sweetheart experiences the palpitations and sweating associated with sugar shock midway through our meal. This does not deter me from buying more of the intoxicating mole, which is sold in takeout bags by the door.
A less dramatic chicken experience is had at The Kitchen, Silver Lake’s premier place to eat when you want home cooking but don’t want to cook. I’ve hauled the family to this friendly, low-key restaurant many times for the exquisite meat loaf, with its hillock of garlic mashed potatoes and best-bar-none brown gravy, and the risotto and carrots, The Kitchen’s riff on macaroni and cheese, cooked-just-right risotto and chunks of sautéed carrot, swirled with buttery goat cheese. The Kitchen’s most soothing dish may be one of its simplest, the chicken and dumplings. A huge bowl bobbing with wedges of white meat, chunks of still-crisp carrot and celery, and fluffy dumplings, it is more stew than soup — but it’s the depth of the pearlescent broth, tasting of a simmer for umpteen hours, that warms the heart and tummy. This is the dish to eat when you feel a cold coming on.
Then again, there are those flus that simply need to be blasted from the depths, which is what I find at Palm Thai, a big, almost always busy room with a sound stage at one end, where, on various nights, you can hear a set by Hollywood’s most famous Thai Elvis, Kavee Tongpreecha, a Thai rock band, or the sort of balladeers that sing “American Pie” so faithfully, you’d swear Don McLean was making a comeback. Although you can get tame favorites such as pad Thai, pad see eiw and panang curries — and they will be superior to those served at almost any of the several dozen Thai restaurants on this stretch of Hollywood Boulevard called Thai Town — do not be intimidated by the menu’s “Wild Things” offerings, such as frogs with crispy mint leaves (topped with little licks of frog-skin cracklings) or spicy barbecued beef, thick slices, lean on the inside, charred on the outside, to be swiped through a silken chile purée that will have you scrambling for your Singha. My favorite is the wild boar with red curry, a deep dish of thick, burnt-amber, coconut-milk-based broth, made screeching hot with green chiles, galangal, and branches of green peppercorns that appear positively primordial. Lime leaves and Thai basil impart a citrus touch, and the boar itself is fantastic: Cut into domino-size pieces, with a rim of wavy fat along one side, it’s chewy and tender at once, extremely rich and absolutely addictive. Though my eye sockets are sweating, I do not stop eating until I have swabbed up every bit of sauce. Unusual, and highly recommended, as it is not likely a stew many of us will attempt at home.
Home is usually the first place one thinks of when one thinks of stew, and perhaps no restaurant feels as much like actually being in someone’s home as Polka, on Verdugo Road, whose window tells in big letters what we’ll be eating: NUTRITIOUS DELICIOUS POLISH DISHES. I have come to Polka on the recommendation of a 10-year-old boy, who told me it is his favorite restaurant, and I can see why. The crazy quilt of a room is decorated with the sort of pink-elephant and puffy-fish mobiles made to dangle over a baby’s crib, and there are a thousand knickknacks, and a Polish waiter wearing suspenders who, even before we’ve plunked into a booth, delivers big mugs of mild cabbage soup, lightly creamy, yellow as a dandelion. I order the beef gulasz, with potato dumplings called kopytka. What arrives is enough to feed a family of four: big, chunky pieces of stew beef in a bland but good gravy, surrounded by mountains of carrots, peas, corn and a slaw of pickled beets. This is the sort of massive one-plate meal you find in diners from Portland to Portland, except for the delightfully chewy kopytka, a sort of finger-length gnocchi sluiced in butter. They are delicious, as are the large, floppy sauerkraut and stewed-mushroom pierogi, their interiors tangy and peppery, the noodle wrappers so delicate they fall apart on the way to my mouth.
I have relied on investigation and advice to navigate my course, and yet my final stew experience is the result of being lost. I am driving along Pico just west of downtown, looking for a dimly recalled fabric store, when I see a tiny storefront and a steady stream of people walking in and out. El Parian is a big hangar of a place, decorated with murals of Mexico and Central America and, inexplicably, an old oil portrait of George Washington in Mason regalia. The restaurant is filled with families, little kids in Catholic-school uniforms and workers on lunch break, and they’re all eating the same thing: goat. I order the goat stew called birria, watch the cook slice from a huge hank of roasted kid, plunk the strips into a bowl and hand them off to a waitress, who dips into a yard-high, boiling stockpot and ladles on the goat broth. I have not been in El Parian five minutes when I am hunkered over the bowl, inhaling the musk of the broth, working through the meat’s many textures: fibrous here, tender there, striplets of fat and tiny bones to chew on. I ponder the little plate of garnishes: sprigs of cilantro, chopped onion, lemon wedges, vinegary chile sauce. I add them all. Now the stew sings; it is sprightly and tangy, hot and meaty, gamy and sweet. The warm corn tortillas are the best I’ve had in L.A., and no wonder, as I can hear and see them being slapped onto the griddle in the open kitchen.
I sit back and finish my Tecate, thinking what a find El Parian’s stew is: the sort of dish that L.A. offers in abundance, for the looking.
Ciudad, 445 S. Figueroa St.; (213) 486-5171.
El Parian, 1528 W. Pico Blvd.; (213) 386-7361.
Far Niente, 204½ N. Brand Blvd., Glendale; (818) 242-3835.
Guelaguetza, 3337½ W. Eighth St.; (213) 427-0601.
The Kitchen, 4348 Fountain Ave., Silver Lake; (323) 664-3663.
Nyala, 1076 S. Fairfax Ave.; (323) 936-5918.
Palm Thai, 5273 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 462-5073.
Polka, 4112 Verdugo Road; (323) 255-7887.
Saladang Song, 383 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (626) 793-5200.
Tam O’ Shanter Inn, 2980 Los Feliz Blvd.; (323) 664-0228.