Loteria & Gjelina

August 5, 2011 | By | COMMENTS

tacos

Folks, it’s been a busy week here in Los Angeles. I came last Sunday on a mission; the mission was: FIND AN APARTMENT. Or, more specifically: FIND AN APARTMENT THAT’S CLEAN AND NICE AND IN A GOOD LOCATION AND THAT HAS A DECENT KITCHEN.

Funny enough, that mission really turned out to be a mission impossible. I saw dusty, disgusting apartments that looked beautiful in their pictures (the equivalent of going on a bad internet date); I saw an adorable apartment that was designed by Julia Morgan (who designed Hearst castle) but that had an awful kitchen. We may have hit on something yesterday, but I don’t want to jinx it. Thank God, in the in-between moments, I’ve been feeding myself well. And my favorite meals so far have been at Loteria (in the Fairfax Farmer’s Market) and at Gjelina in Venice Beach.

Loteria was a major factor in my decision to move here to L.A. I lived here 7 years ago for a summer, and I remember experiencing my first truly authentic Mexican food at Loteria; it’s a humble little place, buried in the giant food court that’s called the “Farmer’s Market” but which isn’t really a farmer’s market (as far as I can tell).

It’s funny, I was so looking forward to our first meal at Loteria that when Craig and I flew in last Sunday morning–our flight was at 7 AM, and we woke up at 4:30 AM to make it (1:30 AM L.A. time)–I made us go straight from the airport to the Farmer’s Market so our first bite could be a memorable one.

Only: we were both hit so hard by the travel, that when our food was ready, Craig had the equivalent of a migraine headache and I felt like I was going to hurl. It’s too bad too because the plate set before me was a remarkable plate of Chilaquiles de Mole:

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Those would be handmade tortillas, cut into triangles, deep fried (to make tortilla chips) and then soaked in a mole sauce. On top, fried eggs and sour cream. It looks glorious now, but in that moment I could barely handle a bite.

Craig also ordered Chilaquiles, but his were Chilaquiles Verdes (in a green tomatillo sauce):

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These were a bit lighter and I ended up nibbling more on his chilaquiles than my own. Either way, two things to take away from this story: (1) don’t take a 7 AM flight from New York to L.A., it’s not worth it; and (2) the chilaquiles portions at Loteria are HUGE and you only need one order for two people.

But worry not, fans of Loteria. This wasn’t my only Loteria experience. In fact, I went back the next day to grab a quick lunch before looking at an apartment; and that’s when I had the revelatory Mexican food experience I was looking for. It happened with these humble shrimp tacos (Tacos de Camaron):

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Fresh corn tortillas. Perfectly cooked shrimp (were they fried? I couldn’t tell). Raw onion, a drizzle of tomatillo salsa, and a gorgeous slice of California avocado. People: in one month I will live here and I can eat this whenever I want. I feel very lucky.

And then yesterday, I went to Loteria AGAIN and ate the tacos you see at the top of this post. Those were Tacos con Pollo en Pipian Rojo (Chicken in a Spicy Pumpkin-Seed and Peanut-Sauce). Again, revelatory. There was a complex flavor to them that was unlike the typical saucy chicken you get in a chicken taco or burrito at a chain place like Chipotle. These were soulful chicken tacos, not to be missed.

Now, there was a little blip of a moment, in our apartment search, where we thought we might move to Venice Beach. Only problem: I’d never been to Venice Beach. So on Monday night, I met Craig there for two reasons: (1) to check out the neighborhood; and (2) to eat at Gjelina.

When I was writing my cookbook, my editor suggested that I try to cook with the chef at Gjelina, Travis Lett. Turns out, he wasn’t able to do it, but I made a mental note that the next time I came to L.A. I would eat at his restaurant. And on Monday night that’s precisely what we did.

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Craig was meeting me there from work so I ended up standing outside for a little bit. Look at the sunny Venice street:

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Look at these guys riding bicycles with their surfboards:

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While I was waiting, these little girls leaving the restaurant freaked out because they saw Lea Michelle from “Glee” eating at a table near a window. They didn’t freak out when Craig finally arrived and we were slightly insulted.

There was a little snafu with the hostess that rubbed me the wrong way, at first. I’d put my name down at 6:15 PM and she said it would be 45 minutes. I said, “Perfect” because I knew Craig wasn’t arriving until 7 or so. So when Craig arrived and it was 7, I said “hi” to the hostess again and she said, “You guys are next!”

We didn’t have a reservation so we were waiting for one of the communal tables in the front. We kept our eyes on all the crowded seats, doing the math of who was likely to get up first. And then, sure enough, four people got up. It was our turn!

Only the hostess called two other parties and seated them. “That was weird,” I said to Craig. “Do you think she forgot about us?”

At this point it was 7:30 or so. I went up to the hostess and I was like, “Um, hi?” And she said, “Oh, Adam, I called you a few times and you didn’t answer.”

What! We were standing right next to the doorway, right near the hostess stand. “Oh we were right here,” I said, pointing to the doorway.

She could’ve been really bitchy here and said, “Too bad.” But instead she was really apologetic and, a few minutes later, she did something really nice. She apologized again and led us to a nice table outside; the kind of table you had to make a reservation for. So that’s a frustrating story with a happy ending.

And then the food! The food at Gjelina is amazing. Only, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the darker it got, the worse the pictures got. So look at this still-light-outside appetizer of grilled nectarines with prosciutto and burrata and arugala:

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This dish may as well have been called “Welcome To California.” That nectarine was so sweet and so juicy, it should win some kind of medal; and the arugula was peppery and intense in a way that I’d never experienced arugula on the east coast.

We shared this pizza that had shaved asparagus and some kind of cheese infused with truffles. But the most remarkable thing aout this pizza is in the center:

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That there is an egg–presumably poached–and when it arrives at your table and you pull off your slice, the yolk oozes out all over the pizza. How in the world do they make that happen? Wouldn’t the 800 degree pizza oven cook that yolk to smithereens? I guess not!

Now a bunch of food came that I tried to photograph, unsuccessfully. There was grilled Oregon albacore tuna with a fennel salad; there were braised pork meatballs with tomato and grilled bread; and–my favorite–these Thumbelina carrots with cumin yogurt, orange, sesame and cilantro. That’s a dish that’d be worth trying to recreate at home. (Also a dish worth returning to Gjelina for, in the daytime, so I can take a picture of it.)

But the dessert at Gjelina is justifiably famous; and worth photographing, despite the dark (we used a candle). That would be their famous butterscotch pot de creme with salted caramel and creme fraiche:

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Salty, sweet, creamy and slightly bitter, this is a dessert for the ages. It’s impossible to stop eating, no matter how full you are. I can’t stop thinking about it.

And thus ends my first post as a future Californian (I’ll be an actual Californian at the end of August). But if the rest of the food I eat rises to the level of the food that I ate at Loteria and Gjelina, there’s a very bright future ahead, indeed.

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