Category: East Side/Downtown
The oldest public house in L.A. (since 1908), Cole's resides along the foot of the Pacific Electric Building (which is Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #104), and therefore the "P.E." (in "Cole's P.E. Buffet") stands for Pacific Electric, justsoyouknow. It had a brief span of remodeling and reopening in 2008, but would otherwise be the oldest continuously-operating eatery in this town.
This is the place most often brought up in context with Philippe the Original, since both claim to have originated the French-dipped sandwich. Cole's seems to want to make a point of this, while Phillipe ignores everything south of it.
Cole's has a different vibe. As opposed to the paper plates and aged trays of Philippe's workaday lunch counter, Cole's is more restaurant/saloon oriented; you can get a can of Schlitz or a dram of Auchentoshan 10-year single malt. It's draped in deep colors: scarlet ceiling tiles, velvet bordelloesque wallpaper, mahogany panels and burgundy booths.
Here's why you're here. The Big Dipper is not a large sandwich. The French loaf is nicely textural but nondescript. The Swiss cheese is low-key. This beast is practiced in subtlety, not power.
The meat--beef in this photo, but you can get lamb, turkey, pork or pastrami--is exactly what it needs to be, lean, puffy and thick, soothed into a mild temperament when dipped into the small dish of au jus (another difference from Philippe, where expert assemblers dip or double-dip it before serving). It is a plain darned good roast meat sandwich, a crisply attired noble of sandwichdom.
Cheddar, goat or blue cheese is available, and I'm told I need to get the lamb with goat cheese. I shan't say no to an expert.
That's pretty much your lot for the main course, except for a couple of alternates. The Grilled Cheese is on big, shiny sourdough, toasted enough to make your fingertips moist. Small stiffened spikes of yellow and white cheese protrude like armor. This also benefits from stolen dips into the au jus.
Bianca: It's like dipping magic, isn't it?
Dave: Yes, it is. Stay away from my juice.
Potato salad, I see. Whatever. But look. It's Bacon Potato Salad. And it's probably the finest potato salad on the planet. In Near-Earth Orbit, even. The obligatory potato salad at all those family gatherings would be a lot less miserable if bacon was added.
There is seasoning in every bite, it's not overdone with celery, and there is just enough mayonnaise to glue it together and give it a sheen. It tastes like they add a touch of pickle juice for that old-school zing. It is my favorite potato salad, ever.
There are other sides too, such as Spicy Garlic Fries, crunchy gold with a seasoned salt bite. They seem innocuous, but wait for the quick kick of spice before you cough.
A bottle of house mustard is near the wall, so grab it and use it sparingly. Like the devilish condiment at Philippe, it has that electric rampage-up-your-face jolt if you apply too much.
We're not done. Cole's has a real bar, and they're not afraid to use it. They make a good Cosmopolitan (their Cosmo is made with gin, rather like martinis are supposed to be*), and a fantastic Cable Car (spiced rum, Cointreau, and lemon juice).
I never would have thought gin with ginger together could be mild, but the Ginger Rogers is that. Ginger syrup and ginger ale combine with gin and lime and a sprig of mint atop, and somehow they all cancel each other out and put a velvet glove over the facepunch.
Desserts, too. I've been searching a long time for the chocolate cream pie of my childhood, only to encounter too many light tan, tasteless foam wedges from eateries that claim to specialize in pies. Cole's makes a good one. It's dark chocolate, and it's on an Oreo crust, and it's a dense whipped cream instead of something meringuish, and it's intoxicating, and no, you can't have any.
So who wins?
Historically, I don't really care who came first. In this duel of the dipped sandwich, for atmosphere and appeal and for a slight edge in sandwich caliber, I give it to Cole's.
This fine public house is open until 10 Sunday through Wednesday, ramps up to 11 on Thursday, and one in the morning Friday and Saturday. Attractive saloon specials appear in the afternoon.
* So sayeth I, the proprietor of DeadLounge.com.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), East Side/Downtown, American, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs )
On a stretch of Main which manages to juggle wholesale outlets, aging brick buildings pretending to be lofts, and high-end dog spas, populated by thin girls with expensive bags, people just trying to get by, and grumbling homeless, the Nickel Diner is becoming a shining beacon of downtown evolution.
It is down-to-earth, but chefly more than seedy. The decor is newish but has a retro honesty: new vinyl and chipped creamer jugs, shiny dark brown panels and battered tin signs.
For breakfast, before rolling up my sleeves and going to work on the docks*, the 5th & Main is a well-constructed source of fuel.
It's spicy BBQ pork hash, tender shreds of pork with rounded wedges of just-underdone potato. A pair of poached eggs adorn the top, smeary ovoids with yellow goodness waiting to add its soft opinion to the hash. It comes with a sweet red tomato chutney and a drizzle of spicy barbecue sauce.
For less carnivorous pursuits, the Vegan Ranchero delivers much yummunence (I just made that word up). Two cylindrical cakes of tofu, fried just enough to make their surfaces scratchy, are dressed with salsa. The golden exterior barely keeps their contents in check; breaking through with a fork yields a soft blossom of tofu.
Surrounding this is the heirloom house beans, rich and meaty, perfect chili-style beans if I had them in my kitchen. A sliced wedge of avocado rests nearby, and two corn tortillas are folded at either end, tasty but too sodden to perform any taco-creation duty. A few distracted strips of yellow soy cheese colors the dish nicely.
On to lunch. The BLTA is technically a bacon-lettuce-tomato-avocado affair, but more interesting due to its being suffused with a spicy aioli instead of mayonnaise. The bacon is thick and crisp but subdued, the tomato and avocado struggling to be present and adding a tasty cushioning factor. The arugula lettuce is highly successful here, necessary to stand up to the power of the aioli.
The sandwich is buried under a lattice of crispy, whitish shoestring fries that are just fine. However, you won't finish them, because the dessert tray will pass by you at some point, and your eyes will follow it, asking silent questions.
It's been written about already, so I'll let others pontificate on the devilishly crrayyy-zay charms of the Maple Bacon Donut. We have other goals.
For instance, Bianca is automatically in love with well-made red velvet cakes, and the version at the Nickel Diner is a lovely accident: a box of Valrhona chocolate balls had apparently fallen into the frosting, but they were stirred in anyway, and the effect is a properly moist, layered red velvet cake with crunchy ricey bits between frosty layers that are just sweet enough not to hurt anyone. It is insanely, eyes-fluttering-backward good. My only regret is a failed, blurry photo.
While I sputter in disbelief over the divinity of the red velvet cake, I also cannot help but acquire a homemade Ding-Dong. I mean, come on. Ding-Dongs. The king of snack cakes in my personal realm. And these are on. I crack through the chocolate armor to a gently moist, white-striped brown cake, my childhood screaming in envy from across the fence.
Co-owner Kristen Trattner came by to describe the delights, and nodded at my Ding-Dong-induced smile: "This made you wanna watch cartoons, didn't it?"
They make homemade pop tarts too, by the way...
The coffee here is quite good, hot or iced.
Nickel Diner is constantly reconsidering its menu and its hours, but is currently closed Mondays, open at 8 the rest of the week until 11pm, with a brief afternoon break. A large and gated parking structure lurches conveniently across the street.
* I'm slipping into some kind of turn-of-the-last-century industrialized humanity-as-commodity kind of mode here, don't mind me. I've been taking a lot of nineteenth-century literature classes.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), East Side/Downtown, Vegetarian/Vegan, Diner, American, Coffee/Tea/Desserts )
The sauce of kings
3014 W. Olympic Blvd. (@ Normandie/Irolo)
Phone: 213-427-0608 | map
3337 1/2 W. 8th St. (@ Irolo)
Phone: 213-427-0601 | map
11215 Long Beach Blvd. #1010, Lynwood
The first location on Olympic was once the VIP Palace, and the exterior is still tiled with blue Korean stylings. The interior feels open, with thin pillars holding up the ceiling and a stage with elegantly carved wooden marimbas reposing grandly along one wall. The blankets on the tables are checkered in warm color.
While you're reading the all-Spanish menu and working through the tortilla chips smothered in an almost too-sweet red mole, dare to order one of their mezcaladas. Bianca likes the Garra de Tigre, as kin to a conventional blended margarita as a tiger is to an irritable housecat. Instead of tequila, Mezcal (the one with the worm in it, mind you) is blended with orange juice (and maybe the worm), into a grainy snow the color of raw sugar. The glass is rimmed with lime and chili powder, keeping it hot enough to keep drinking but strong enough to make it a foolish proposition. The paw of the tiger smacks you if you get more than one.
A simple introduction to the mysterious mole of Oaxacan cuisine is the Enchiladas de Mole Rojo. Ordered with chicken, the tortillas are filled with white meat without much personality.
With chorizo, however, the tortillas are loosely folded and blanketed with sweetish mole, emanating a flair of roasted pepper. The chorizo is twisted into ping-pong ball-sized spheres and laid atop, breaking open into spicy gaminess. It is a simplistic dish meant to convey complexity, the brown-draped centerpieces merely a vehicle for the mole, which is thick but uncloying, roasty and almost intoxicating.
A clayuda is a huge corn tortilla cooked on a clay disc, rendering the tortilla crisp like pappadam and imparting a dry, peppery taste. They put toppings on it and serve it on a pizza tray, like creamy black bean spread, chopped cabbage, and the everpresent snaky heap of queso fresco.
I like the Clayuda Guelaguetza, which supports a trio of meats. An elastic plank of pork rules the upper right, hammered flat and caked with spicy rub. It is not pork-intense, and is the most subdued of the three. There are several of the chorizo spheres, earthy and crumbly, requiring knife work, with the corn tortilla crackling and snapping beneath. The tasajo is salted beef pounded into a quarter-thin sheet, succulent and juicy and the strongest feature of this plate.
Next trip: Barbacoa Roja de Chivo, tender young goat in broth, and I hear they have chapulinas: grasshoppers.
The Koreatown location is the original, and has two-dollar valet. The Guelaguetza on 8th cringes and creaks down the street from Taylor's Steak House and has a better kitchen; the one in Lynwood is difficult to map.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, East Side/Downtown, Mid-City/Koreatown )
You have to hunt for it, nestled among hilly avenues where the 101 and the 110 meet. Dip under the awning; a darkened counter, slowly turning ceiling fans, and the hum of refrigeration units greet you.
It's not like my family, but it is familial, and these men are serious about what they do. Sandwiches are rapidly assembled and rung up; your drinks are (pointing to the left) over there, dispensed or bottled. There may be a brief sense of "am I doing this right? Where am I supposed to stand? Is it supposed to be this dark?" before you get into the rhythm of it.
So. You know how some places quaintly offer "meat lovers" items? This Eastside specialty chases them down, takes their lunch money, and leaves them with a painful wedgie.
Vegetarians look away! Carnage ahead!
... Okay. Proceeding.
This predatorial paradise is the D.A. Special. Layers of roast beef. Pastrami. And one Italian sausage. And a meatball. Each of these is high quality content and makes a superb sandwich on its own, but combined they become certifiable and knuckle-crackingly dangerous.
All that "is he gonna live, Doctor?" red stuff you see is a sauce of cooked peppers and flattened tomatoes that binds everything together and adds sweetness. Strong, soulful sheets of melted mozzarella lie underneath, maxing out my alliteration allowance for the day. The roast beef is dark and supple, the pastrami pink and fatty, both moist and covering the pale, snappy link of Italian sausage like a winter blanket.
Can it actually be picked up and eaten? Not yet. Eventually. Go at it with a fork for a while. In any case, the soft, toasty Italian bread will become worn and sodden and unable to perform its duties as a meat delivery device. Once you get through half, the strata of meat looks like an intense cross-section of something out of a textbook, and you will probably give up and wrap it to go.
A little more recognizable is the Combination Cold Cuts sandwich. A nice three-quarter-inch layer of ham, turkey, salami and mortadella is stacked with mozzarella, tomato and shredded lettuce. The soft Italian roll is not so overpowered here. A very light basting of mayo and mustard can be savored.
Their potato salad is very slightly sour, and I'm not wild about it, but the macaroni salad is well-mixed, and properly cool and creamy.
Eastside is open until four during the week and two on Saturday. On Sundays they take a break. Street parking can be found easily.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Italian, East Side/Downtown, Deli, American, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs )
More afternoon food-caused relaxation
W-17 Olvera Street
Phone: 213-628-4349 | map
Still operated by the de Bonzo family, this is the first L.A. eatery to call itself a Mexican restaurant (instead of Spanish), in 1924.
We've never even set foot inside the Pelanconi building, the oldest firebrick structure remaining in Los Angeles. We're always trapped by love and laziness under the wood-shaded patio with old wagon wheels nailed to the sides, to enjoy the sounds and scents of Olvera Street, looking across the bricked lane at El Paseo Inn.
Bianca orders a La Cubana (Dos Equis and lime juice on the rocks in a salted glass) or "The Real Mexican" Margarita (teeth-stingingly strong, not overly sweet, on the rocks in an unsalted cocktail glass). I lean toward an agua fresca like jamaica or horchata.
The chips are hit or miss, usually fair enough but not heavy on salt or heat, and the salsa is mainly blended into a bubbly, runny liquid with a serrano bite. The guacamole is cool and fresh, but whipped into creamy collapse. They are not a destination in themselves. The soft tortillas here, however, are medium-sized, thin and springy, raspy with flour and have an intriguing hint of sourness. These will arrive with your meal.
Here, one does not (or should not) go for the typical combinaciones--the One or Two Items served with rice and beans. The page of specialties will give one more of a feeling of Mexican derivation.
The Enchiladas de Mariscos, for instance, has fine threads of shredded king crab and fat, pale shrimp rolled in tortillas like soft cloth. The affair is drizzled with white sauce, given some cheese, and glazed in a shroud of a tomatillo salsa. Half a chile pepper lies on the plate for heat.
The Guisado de Puerco con Nopales is what angels order when they come down to Mexican villages for lunch. The blanket of green on top is a wonderful stew of chiles and fresh julienned cactus, soft without being limp. Beneath that, imbued with the tartness of the cactus, is pork. I am slow and dreamy when I'm done, unable to scrape the bottom. I have no photo of it.
Bianca's new unexpected favorite is the Chile Relleno de Jaiba, a ladleful of that elegant king crab stuffed in a roasted pepper and draped with a tomatoey mushroom sauce. The dark green chile pepper is meant, I had assumed, to be a nonspicy poblano, but biting into it, it sneaks up on you and pounds you on the back like an exuberant uncle.
The specialties here can be expensive for an "authentic" Mexican restaurant, upwards of fourteen dollars. The drinks are a frown-inducing but typical-for-Los-Angeles twelve bucks.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, East Side/Downtown )
The old-fashioned scent of sliced meat and jus permeates the corner of Alameda and Ord Street, where the blue baseball-style logo beckons. Phillipe's is the oldest continually operating restaurant in Los Angeles and claims (along with Cole's on Main and 6th) to have originated the concept of the sauce-dipped sandwich. I won't argue with anyone, and you can read up on the details.
The photo you see here is a rare lull. Normally this long deli counter is anywhere from two to ten people deep, but moving reasonably. There are ten capable carvers behind the counter, slicing, scooping, adding and smiling. Long communal tables line the warehouse-like interior, and wood shavings are scattered on the floor.
There is no "Order Here" sign to focus your attention. Just get behind someone, and decide your sliced and breaded pleasure (it might be recommended to get to know the menu). Your food will be placed on paper plates, on an ancient tray that's been chewed on by dinosaurs. Despite the offering of wines and beers I just get lemonade.
Having your sandwich Double Dipped means that both halves of the bread, lightly toasted and crusty, will have tan marks creeping up their interior. Quick and painless, not a prolonged soak, the Double Dipped is what I always get.
The whole affair is less treacherous to your fingertips and clothing than expected, but demands your full attention. The sandwiches are not overly large, resting like ragged trilobytes on the paper plate. I usually get two.
The beef is well-sliced, not too fatty, and benefits from the extra juiciness imparted by the dunking. It tastes honest, hitting the bottom of the stomach in the right place, and it is hard not to wolf it down. The beef is the classic, but there is also turkey, ham, pork and lamb. The pork is as soft as the juice-kissed bread, almost too gentle. Blue cheese adds a gummy pungency that is not unwelcome, but I prefer the structural support and classicism of Swiss.
The house mustard used to be served deli-style in little pots with spoons, but is now in squeeze bottles, which I'm sure is healthier for the Los Angeles citizenry but less friendly. Carefully add drops of this to your sandwich; it is very tasty, but will race up your nose and start ringing bells if you're unsubtle with it. Buy some and take it home.
There are parking lots all around this venerable icon. Philippe's is open until ten daily.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), East Side/Downtown, Deli, American, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs )