The International House of Pancakes is not, by any standard, a hip place to eat. Leave it to Chef Roy Choi (a chef I cooked with for my cookbook, best known for starting the Kogi Truck) to turn an IHOP into a must-visit L.A. dining destination, one that effortlessly oozes panache and cool.
Located in Culver City, you might not recognize A-Frame, at first, as a former IHOP. Paper lanterns hang over the outside tables:
The tables themselves are carefully designed and adorned with quirky plates and candles and fork/knife holders:
California has a thing for converting something trashy into something classy. The Ace Hotel in Palm Springs is a former Howard Johnson’s; the restaurant attached to it a former Denny’s. This is all fine and dandy, but if the food’s not good, none of it matters.
The food at A-Frame isn’t just good, it’s remarkable. Let’s start with the pickle plate:
There’s lots to notice here. First of all: the pickles are all made from farmer’s market vegetables that are left relatively untouched. So the fennel isn’t overly trimmed, the multi-colored carrots aren’t peeled. This keeps them rustic and, more importantly, helps you appreciate their origin—these pickles are as far as you can get from an antiseptic, government approved jar from your conventional supermarket.
The second thing to notice (in addition to the pickled pears at 12 o’clock, which are unusual in their own right) is the dip at the center. Yes; these pickles have a dip. From what I could discern, it was a yogurt dip, drizzled with olive oil and dusted with some kind of herb mixture (za’atar?).
Though the idea of pickles with a dip sounds odd, it makes lots of sense when you think of those pickles as crudité: they’re just cut up vegetables that happen to be a little more sour than typical vegetables. Dipped into yogurt, they’re even better. It’s all rather brilliant.
Next up, we shared crab cakes which came with leaves in which to wrap them:
You tear off a little piece of crab cake, wrap it in a leaf (Boston lettuce or, the waiter’s preference, sesame leaf) and dip it into the sauce on the right. This is a great mash-up of two familiar things (crab cakes, lettuce-wraps) and it works surprisingly well. You end up extending that crab cake for several minutes whereas, alone on the plate, you might gobble it up in seconds.
One of my favorite bites of the night was this, a plate of sweet and sour beans:
Those are all seasonal, farmer’s market beans–favas, string beans–stir-fried with chorizo (that’s the red stuff) and a sweet and sour sauce that somehow heightens the flavor of everything on the plate. It’s like those beans were wholesome little nuns and Roy Choi turned them into showgirls; from drab to fab all with the help of high heat and a little tangy sauce.
The lamb meatballs were nice, with two sauces in which to dip them (a yogurt sauce on the plate, a more vinegar-y sauce in the bowl):
And this chicken was so wonderfully caramelized and crisp, served with two bright and acidic sauces, it almost didn’t matter that some of the meat was dry:
My favorite bite of the night, though, was the dessert—an individual peach pie topped with some kind of homemade ice cream (I forget the flavor!):
That pie was right in so many ways. The peaches were sweet and fresh (I think California has the best stone fruit on earth; I’ve been eating a peach over the sink almost every day this summer) and the crust was flaky and just sweet enough. Cut with the creamy ice cream, the whole thing was sublime in ways not appropriate to describe on a family food blog. Suffice it to say I had to fight the urge to eat the plate.
If you’re visiting L.A. sometime soon, you’ll definitely want to visit A-Frame. The food Roy Choi’s making is exciting, surprising, comforting, and memorable. It’s so good, in fact, you won’t even think about the fact that a few years earlier someone was sitting in this very spot eating funnel cake pancakes with a dirty fork. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
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