Have you ever had the experience of eating at a restaurant, one that you sort of took for granted, and as you’re chewing mid-meal you realize that this isn’t just a good restaurant, it’s a great restaurant, and the whole world should know about it only you don’t want them to because that’d make it harder to get a reservation, even though this restaurant doesn’t take reservations?
That’s what happened to me last night at Hail Mary Pizza in L.A.’s Atwater Village (the village in which I live). In the space that once housed the beloved restaurant Canele, something exciting is happening. I knew it when I tasted the tomato salad, but I also knew it when the pizzas hit the table. Actually, I knew it when I stood at the counter ordering.
I was just about to tell you about this quesadilla at Salazar in Frogtown here in L.A. — I’d just posted the picture — when the room started wobbling and the pictures on the piano started rattling and Winston gave me a worried look and I realized I was experiencing my first feel-able L.A. earthquake.
Wow, that was unsettling! I do feel a little woozy: it’s hard to talk about quesadillas. But I’m going to soldier through, just for you.
My shame was very great indeed. Din Tai Fung, the world famous emporium of soup dumplings, had opened up at the Americana Mall literally ten minutes from where we live in Atwater Village. I’d seen the sign go up when I was Christmas shopping, and–a few weeks later–I saw life through the windows. But any time I’d plead, “Soup dumplings? Din Tai Fung?” to Craig, there’d be some reason we couldn’t go. I was getting restless. I had to try it. So, right before Sundance, when Craig was still picking out his premiere outfit, I agreed to help him find a pair of shoes at the Americana if he’d agree to eat lunch with me at Din Tai Fung. A deal was struck. Soup dumplings would be mine.
Look, it’s Friday, and I need to get something off my chest. Two weeks ago? I ate the first pupusa of my life at the Atwater Village Farmer’s Market and didn’t tell you about it. I’m sorry! Things just got busy and I had to tell you about that toasted almond gelato and how to squeeze a lemon without getting the seeds everywhere. But look, here we are now, and it’s time to make amends. Let me tell you about my pupusa (isn’t that a Missy Elliott lyric?).
The weirdest thing: we moved to Atwater Village, right next to Glendale, only a few weeks ago. When our New York Times weekend subscription kicked in, I eagerly opened the magazine, as I always do, checking out the food column before attempting (and failing at) the puzzle. To my total amazement, Mark Bittman’s column celebrated a restaurant not in New York or even Connecticut…it was a restaurant in California, but not just anywhere in California: GLENDALE. Right down the street from us. 7 minutes away according to Google Maps. I nearly fainted with surprise.
Have you ever eaten something so strange and beguiling you can’t quite wrap your head around it? But you keep eating it and eating it because it’s such a curious phenomenon and, eventually, you decide that you love it but you’re not sure why? That’s precisely what happened to me last week when I finally visited SQIRL headquarters down on Virgil after having enjoyed their jams over the past year and a half that I’ve lived in Los Angeles. The headquarters, which is actually a cafe, may be my new favorite secret lunch spot that’s not-so-secret because lots of people know about it.
I mean, look at it: it’s totally outrageous. It’s puffed up like a blowfish and it’s filled, almost defiantly, with a Meyer lemon custard. Dusted with powdered sugar and served with a lemon wedge, this pancake puts all other pancakes to shame. Is it a Dutch Baby? A riff on the David Eyre’s pancake? Possibly.
One thing I know to be true about cities is this: they’re best judged by their neighborhoods.
I fell in love with some of my favorite cities–Seattle, Atlanta, New York–by visiting off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods with hidden-away restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, book stores and movie theaters. In Seattle, there’s Capitol Hill and Ballard; in Atlanta there’s the Virginia Highlands, Little Five Points and East Atlanta; in New York there’s the West Village, the East Village, Williamsburg and Park Slope. In all three of these cities, you could easily go there as a tourist and miss the best parts: you could stay downtown and see the Pike Place Market or the Coca-Cola museum or (midtown) Times Square and never venture into the parts that make these cities so beloved. Then you miss the whole point.