I’m terrible at geography (please don’t ask me to find Iowa on a map) but I’m wonderful at food geography, especially when I know a city really well. In New York, friends would call me on a regular basis with queries like: “I’m going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and need a place for an afternoon snack before going to a 5 PM chamber music concert at The Frick.” (Answer: Cafe Sabarsky.) Here in L.A., though, I’m on shaky ground (earthquakes notwithstanding). I’m new here and when a food geography issue arises, I’m not as quick on my feet. But I’m getting better.
Take, for example, the scenario from last week: we were at Craig’s boss’s Christmas party at his home in Westwood (or was it Brentwood? (See what I mean!)). We had to swing by 20th Century Fox, where Craig works, because he forgot his computer power cord and he was leaving the next day for Seattle (I’m joining him there on Wednesday). My mission: find us a place for a fast dinner.
My brain entered Food Terminator mode where I see the whole city like a computer screen with lots of glowing dots and lines. Immediately, I recalled Jonathan Gold’s essay about The Apple Pan–a legendary greasy spoon on Pico. 20th Century Fox was on Pico. We could go to The Apple Pan.
And, sure enough, that was the correct answer. The Apple Pan is indeed very fast. It’s in a house illuminated by a neon sign:
When you walk in, there’s a U-shaped counter where people are scarfing down burgers. Behind them, people hover, waiting for a seat:
(The set-up reminded me very much of The Camellia Grill in New Orleans.)
Once seated, we studied the menu rather quickly:
Both of us chose the Hickory Burger with one order of fries to share between us. Almost immediately, the man behind the counter grabbed a carton of fries and placed them in front of us. Then he did something more interesting: he got a cardboard bowl, twisted the lid off a ketchup bottle and smacked the ketchup into it for us. Service with a smack, just the way I like it:
We snacked on fries for a bit and then our burgers came. This is the Hickory Burger, in all its glory:
There’s nothing beautiful about this burger. But burgers aren’t supposed to be beautiful—they’re there for you to devour like a savage beast. And devour the burgers we did, with relish. Well not relish the condiment, relish the word derived from “relaisser” in the 1640s (according to the etymology dictionary).
The burger was definitely in the same family as your favorite fast food burger–be that In-N-Out or Shake Shack–but a bit more thoughtful than the former and a bit grungier than the latter. The meat had good char, the sauce had good tang, the iceberg was a big cumbersome, but I got rid of it. All-in-all, a memorable burger in a memorable location.
For dessert, we decided to share the famous apple pie a la mode. When it came, there were two pieces of pie on two plates each with its own scoop of ice cream. “Oh,” I said, as nicely as I could. “We only ordered one piece of pie.”
“I split it for you,” said the man.
Now that’s service! And this is pie:
It was a good pie. Very sweet, yes; but the crust was tender–more tender than any crust I’ve made in recent memory. And the ice cream, while not the best vanilla from a carton I’ve ever had, did its job and made the overall experience as American as… well… you get it.
So that’s the Apple Pan.
The next day, when I drove Craig to the airport (very nice of me, if I do say so myself) I had another Food Terminator moment. “I’m near the water, aren’t I?” I queried myself. “I bet I could get to Venice rather easily and have a tasty lunch at Gjelina Take Away and then coffee at Intelligentsia.”
Sure enough this plan worked like gangbusters. You remember Gjelina from my first time there, don’t you? It’s one of my favorite places in L.A. I’ve been back for brunch (good coffee, lots of sunlight) and now here I was for lunch.
The Takeaway is right next door and they have an elaborate menu of sandwiches and pizzas that people study fervently before ordering:
My eye roamed to these three large bowls / platters on a counter behind the man taking everyone’s order:
I sussed out a farro salad and cauliflower. “What’s that third thing, next to the cauliflower?” I asked the man when it was my turn.
“Those are long beans,” he said. “With raisins and tomatoes.”
“Could I get like a vegetable plate? With the cauliflower, the farro, and the long beans?”
“Sure!” he said.
And here it is:
That’s pretty much the culinary antithesis of the Apple Pan burger, but that’s how my eating life works. I do a naughty thing, I do a virtuous thing, back and forth until I’m balanced.
But don’t get me wrong–even if veggies, in the abstract, are healthy–these were all wonderfully coated in olive oil and salt and flavorful pick-me-ups like chiles (the cauliflower) and other assorted spices (the farro, the long beans).
As a treat, I decided to buy an oat scone to carry over to Intelligentsia and that same guy who helped me earlier said, “We made a lot of extra scones today, so I’ll give you two.”
And funny enough, when I went to sit down at the Venice Intelligentsia, one of Craig’s co-workers, Barry, was sitting right next to me. So I gave him the other scone and as I ate mine while sipping an iced latte (with half the milk; it’s my new thing–sort of like an iced cortado) I almost forgot to take a picture. Here, this’ll give you a sense:
That scone was impossible to stop eating—again, like the vegetables, somewhat wholesome, somewhat decadent. That’s Gjelina’s style.
Now then, in terms of building my food geography skill set here in L.A., I think I was pretty much two for two: Apple Pan was the right choice for a fast dinner on Pico; Gjelina Take Away was the right choice for dropping someone off at the airport.
This third place–the Lazy Ox Canteen–had nothing to do with geography and everything to do with planmaking. On Friday night, I was going out with with my friend Brendan and his friend/colleague Jim Cantiello who you may know from MTV and his hilarious Glee recaps and Jim’s wife Jess. I suggested we try the Lazy Ox Canteen because I’d heard a lot about it but had never been there. Everyone agreed enthusiastically.
This time we were going for what proved to be eclectic food in a lively environment. So lively, in fact, that the table we reserved for 9:15 was stil being occupied by stragglers. The hostess couldn’t have been nicer. She described her strategy to get the people to get up for us (this was 10 minutes later). “We stopped giving them water,” she said mischievously.
Her plan worked and soon we were seated. First, we ordered drinks. Brendan ordered a beer flight for $15 which was a very clever thing to order, especially if you love beer and want to try a few kinds:
Jim and Jess and I shared a bottle of Zinfandel (recommended by the server). Here they are in a grainy picture (it’s a lighting issue) which is kind of cool, I think, if you think of it as an old picture I dug up from a trunk:
As for the food, we started with asparagus and burrata:
It’s a lovely presentation, though a bit spare for four hungry people to share. Luckily the beef tartare came next with lots of toasted bread and that started to fill us up:
The tartare came with either pickled lemon or cured lemon on top (one dish had one, another dish had the other). In both cases I loved how the lemon made the dish so dynamic; and the tartare was wonderfully tender and topped with a healthy mound of ricotta which made it creamy too. Jess declared it the best tartare she’d ever had.
Brussels sprouts are all the rage these days (anyone watch the Next Iron Chef finale? The winner served ’em up as a bar snack) and for good reason. When roasted at a high temperature and blasted with olive oil and salt, they’re insanely delicious. I can’t recall the extra elements that made these so good but we ate them enthusiastically:
Brendan was curious how this poached egg on a bed of quinoa with pork belly all around it was going to work out, but once he cut in and the yolk oozed everywhere I think we all knew it would work out ok:
And those flavors were so big and bold—lemony, creamy, salty, sweet.
The short ribs came beautifully shellacked with sugar snap peas on the side:
A theory developed that the short ribs (which were, unfortunately, rather tough) developed their color from maraschino cherries that had been braised along with them. I was wary of this theory until I stabbed a maraschino cherry on to my fork and ate it. I’m not entirely sure it was maraschino—could it have been like a brandied cherry? Regardless, it was a strange element in the only underwhelming dish of the night.
Gladly, though, the biggest star of the night came along with it—and that would be the spaghetti squash:
I don’t know about you, but I don’t get that excited about spaghetti squash. But when the waitress recommended it, we paid attention. And the squash–which had been flaked with a fork into strands–was positively coated in the most ethereal mixture of butter, Parmesan (or Pecorino?) and lemon juice that has ever been devised. Each bite was a blast of flavor and excitement and indulgence. It was my favorite taste of the night.
For dessert, we shared a rice pudding which was well made though strangely presented with whipped cream on one side and caramel sauce on the other:
I guess it was an attempt to turn rice pudding into an ice cream sundae but it’s already so sweet and creamy, those other elements are unnecessary.
All in all, The Lazy Ox Canteen is a place I’ll gladly go back to. It reminded me a lot of Momofuku Ssam Bar in the way that the flavors were so aggressive and daring. Plus the service couldn’t have been friendler.
As for my tackling Los Angeles food geography, the way that I tackled New York’s, I’d say I’m well on my way. Next stop (for filling in the gaps): Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley.