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 )
You know these places. They're laid back, they may or may not have a drive-through, they serve everything from burritos to grilled cheese to milkshakes, and they're usually called Tom's, or Pete's, or Paul's. This is Rick's*.
Laid back it is, a comfortable place to pause before getting on the 5 freeway or going up Riverside Drive to a Dodger game. It would be the hangout if there was a high school nearby. If you aren't going through the drive-through, order at the counter; they will bring it after they've located you by shouting your name over whatever music is playing in Spanish on the jukebox.
The burgers are not so much genius as genial, with familiar patties not quite as thick as your pinky, and like Damon says at A Hamburger Today, you really need two of them to obtain enough flavor with which to work. Get cheese with this, not for taste, but for greater structural durability. I like the pile of shredded lettuce, fresh and apt to rain endlessly down onto one's plate and hands. The tomato is also fresh, but may be too thick for this endeavor. The presence of thousand island dressing makes this reminiscent of a Big Mac, except edible. It's simple and understandable, a little perilous to your arteries, and probably won't be your favorite, but you know you can rely on it if you need to.
Rick's does make Chili Fries as satisfactory as they come, the half-inch beams of potato stained under a mantle of yellow and white shredded cheese. And, hooo! they will put a ton of fresh, pungent onion on this if you ask. The chili is a rocky beefy sort, made for fries, and the fries are made for chili, and the whole affair is a dysfunctional family of comfort food that Bianca would really prefer I don't consume since she cares about my health and such.
There is a thoroughly unMexican oddity particular to North America, which I admit is one of my favorite childhood foods. It is the crunchy taco, and Rick's does it up proper: ground meat, iceberg lettuce, and enough of that yellow and white shredded cheese to fill an Austin Cooper, melted slightly into the ground beef. The shell is forced open to a 45-degree angle by its contents. They give you a fork, because they know.
The carne asada burrito is a neatly wrapped torpedo, cooked to an honest government-approved greyness yet retaining its moisture. Crisp, dark green leaves of cilantro line the tortilla, along with rice, onions and, as if startled to be there, beans.
Both the tacos and the burritos are made an order of magnitude greater with some liberally applied salsa from squeeze bottles. Both the green and the red are seedy and strong with chile flavor, just hot enough for a sniff or two.
The milkshakes here are thick, with real ice cream, just liquid enough to draw through a straw without hurting yourself.
Rick's is also comfortably ensconced in Alhambra, Gardena, East L.A. and Whitter.
* And this is their motto: "Anytime You're Hungry, Everybody goes to Rick's!" ... Wow! Every time I'm hungry, everyone else has to go on a road trip. I had no idea I affected the world that way.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, Diner, Los Feliz/Silver Lake/Echo Park, American, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs )
More American diner, revised
13359 Sherman Way (in North Hollywood)
Phone: 818-765-7111 | map
Like Armon's and Tokyo 7-7, the Hungry Fox is a comfortably homely diner hosted by absurdly nice Asian women bantering with the regulars. It sits along a bone-dry stretch of Sherman Way, ignoring the Valley heat and happily broadcasting its motto: Happiness You Can Eat.
The decor is a composite of doctor's office (salmon tabletops, scratchy neutral wallpaper) and blue-collar eatery (wooden plaques, dry green carpet, paintings of wolves*). Thai statuettes are dotted in corners and... er, what is that hanging on the walls? Is that a square of fake clover? Yes, I believe it is.
A nice touch is the four tins on your table with homemade jams and salsas, and one notable feature: the pumpkin spread. At first one thinks, is this a bean dip? but then discovers how wonderful it is on toast. It's lighter than peanut butter, thicker than Nutella, and I believe they will sell a jar of it to you if you ask.
The menu is as broad as a deli's; the breakfast specials have friendly, inexplicable names like Fountain Rock, Early Fox, Camping, Volcanic Rock, and Bee's House. They do waffles a little darker and drier than desired, and the bacon might be crisped to splintery brittleness, so experiment.
The Spicy Thai Sausage and Eggs, for instance. The sausage is pleasantly griddle-blackened with a spark of heat. Eggs are done properly here (I like them over medium or over hard; my days of "um, scrambled, I guess" are past) and the Home Fries are fork-tender with bits of green pepper. The flavors of both are brought farther out with spoonfuls of the homemade salsa.
Later in the day is when I really wish Hungry Fox was closer to my neighborhood, because they do a satisfying Turkey Melt Royal, grilled screamingly hot, its swiss cheese melted into long strands. With bacon, tomato and sourdough with a glint of butter, it all settles comfortably together, like a twenty-year marriage where love still lives. The fries are decent and unsurprising, well done and finger-thick.
Hungry Fox is a breakfast-and-lunch affair, open daily from seven until three in the afternoon. There's a large lot, and endless parking along any of the streets.
As a side note, because I love diners with personality: the aquarium in front contains one brawny goldfish hovering alone, staring accusingly at you. Taped pieces of paper explain its solitude: My name is 'Goldie' and ... And I don't need friends! (because I ate them all!. Do not feed Goldie.
* Hey, who can find paintings of foxes nowadays? Sometimes you gotta work with what's thematically adjacent.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Diner, American, The Valley, Burbank/North Hollywood, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs )
On dusty Parthenia south of the ever-inflating Mall, this family affair has stood, thinking seriously about sandwiches, since I was two years old. Stained glass like jigsaw puzzle pieces stretches across the front.
The interior combines deli, with its long, sausage-hung counter disappearing into the distance, with coffee shop, made of wood and brick and frames with self-promoting reviews in them.
The booths are that chlorophyll gum color you might remember from those machines. Flowers sit on the table; Sirius Radio's '60s on 6 plays. The waitstaff will remember the last thing you order, and make you feel like a valued human being.
The first thing I try here is this magnetic draw, highly recommended by Brent's fans. The Black Pastrami Reuben looks civilized enough; the meat is lean and gloriously soft, not piled to the ceiling like a parched Jerry's pastrami but still taller than you can easily bite. You still need to choose your angle of attack, lest your sandwich begin its disassembly before your eyes.
The sauerkraut is mild and adds mostly texture; I usually pull off a few strands to reduce the amount my jaw must unhinge in order to encompass a single, thought-provoking bite. Melted swiss calms down the opinionated rye bread. It's all balanced.
I prefer multiplicities of meat between breads; I rarely get just a turkey or ham sandwich. So when I discover that the #30 (ground chicken burger) can become a #32 (the aforementioned chicken burger with some of that black pastrami draped over it like a romance heroine swooning on a couch), I point and say yes. Those people at Brent's just give and give and give.
The result is generous, and one needs to dig down a bit to get to the burger and marshall it into something one can pick up and devour. The chicken has that dry front-of-the-mouth heat, made peppery and briny by the cool strips of pastrami.
I've been on a kind of tuna/chicken salad kick lately--maybe I'm compensating for my longtime avoidance of celery and relish--so I gave the Whitefish Salad Sandwich a whirl.
The result is a great white cliff of salad that is insanely light and creamy without being cloying. Half a sandwich will do nicely--too much and its well-beaten lightness gets too airy to have fun with. I should have asked for the egg bread to be toasted a little for greater structural integrity. Always make sure your bread is sturdy, kids.
This is a not-terribly-guilty pleasure for me, especially since the chili itself is dwarfed by the accompanying bowls of shredded cheese and chopped onions (Too much cheese? Too much onion? Not computing). The chili is a burly beef-and-bean style, with a real "our camp chef is a big guy named Cookie who whipped this up for us after a long day of driving forty head of cattle" personality.
For sides, the fries are big solid crispy steak versions or the curly type; either is good enough. The baked beans are steamy hot and fresh, honest and slightly saucy. The cup of standard coleslaw hangs around the plate, trying not to be eclipsed.
Brent's is open until nine, at which time you might consider swaying next door to the Stovepiper Lounge (which has existed for two years longer) for drinks. There is a Brent's in Westlake Village, which is barely in Los Angeles County, so I'll barely mention it.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Deli, Diner, American, The Valley, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs )
The downtown area surrounding the Staples Center has been busy gentrifying itself with expensive lofts and acclaimed eateries, but this corner of Figueroa and 9th is holding steady.
Outside, choose a line under the red and white metal awnings; the one for tables forms along 9th, while the always-shorter one for the counter forms along Figueroa. The scent of coffee, singed meat and the constant clangor of dishes and metal emanate from inside. The line will move, I promise you.
The rhythm here is fast. It's simple enough: don't try the funny items. Don't go for fish & chips or baked salmon. The Pantry was born of an era where Americans ate animal parts and batter stiffened on hot metal, and washed it down with coffee and Pepsi.
The French Toast is not what you'd expect, being three densely crusted hulks of sourdough that are barely griddled enough to stiffen the egg batter. Get some butter and syrup on these big bastards and start working, for they will soak up every drop of syrup and sneer at you, daring you to pour more.
I might be able to finish the entire trio if serious money was riding on it, but since I like being able to do things after breakfast, it's unlikely.
This is a side of bacon.
I don't care for bacon that's still fatty and springy because no one pressed it down on the grill, so I love this. It's bacon the way it used to be, folks, nickel-thin and deeply bacony without being brittle and crumbly.
The strips contain an inherent juiciness within the bone-dry exterior, like a desert stream bed hiding moisture deep below the surface. They repose atop the potatoes in a kingly fashion, or perhaps a badass porcine quintet striding along an alley like in Reservoir Dogs, caring nothing for the alien words "applewood smoked".
The pancakes are more sensibly sized than the french toast, falling apart from their own gravity, butter-soaked and superior. I lean more toward these since they're so savory, but sometimes the french toast calls to me like Stanley Kowalski bellowing underneath Stella's window.
Eggs over easy are properly rendered: no fuss, some muss, good for dousing the local-ruins pile of crisped potatoes with yellow and for accepting generous dashes of pepper and hot sauce.
Some will complain of bland food and the wait, claiming you might as well eat at the nearby Denny's--but remember, these are people that would choose Denny's over something else, and whose tongues have been raped and pillaged by four-digit sodium levels, so their opinions can be safely disregarded.
The Pantry is still cash-only, the floor in front of the cashier's cage worn through to the concrete by the shoes of untold thousands. Get yourself a thick Pantry mug for five-fifty, and breakfast for two will still only be a touch over twenty dollars.
There's lunch too, but that's another workday in Los Angeles.
There is a brief parking lot on the opposite corner.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), East Side/Downtown, Diner, American, Late Night/24 Hours )
Please keep all hands and arms inside the bus during this quick tour: Duke's Coffee Shop opened in '68 as part of the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Blvd., hence the kitschy signs hanging above the cash register. The Tropicana was demolished, and Duke's moved to Sunset where it replaced London Fog, or maybe Sneaky Pete's*, which explains why the interior looks like it was once a smoke-filled nightclub.
Old faux-wood tables teeter on dingy red carpet worn to paper thinness. The walls are a hodgepodge of movie posters, signed band flyers, and black and white photos; David Bowie and Echo and the Bunnymen glance loftily at Starship Troopers and Urban Dance Squad. Your water appears in old-school butterscotch-colored plastic cups.
Duke's uprooting from its original location sort of dilutes the history flowing through its veins, but still, it's tucked between the Whisky a Go Go and the Cat Club on Sunset, wallowing in Hollywood, unconcerned with whether it's cool or not. It's a dive, and needs no flashiness.
You're here for a late breakfast or an afternoon lunch after last night's shenanigans. For the former, I've had good luck with the Vegan Breakfast Burrito.
It looks woefully dry and scratchy, but put some pico de gallo and Cholula on that and dig into the rich glow of soy chorizo, soft tofu and enough soy cheese to provide cohesion. The hash browns are loosely shredded and grilled nicely, not too burnt. The omelettes are also simply presented but wholesome and puffy; Bianca likes them with tofu, mushrooms, red peppers and a melted square of jack cheese atop.
Lunch is also part of Duke's post-party palliation. The Tomato Basil soup, perhaps unexpected in a humble diner as this, is thick and pumpkin-colored, with a slightly sweet tomato bite like a pasta sauce. Coupled with a Vegan Grilled Cheese sandwich (where somehow they've figured out how to make soy cheese melt and then stop melting) and a handful of thin, crispy sweet potato fries, it makes Bianca happy indeed.
It's a bit inapt to describe the dishes of an L.A. diner by sampling only vegetarian things, so I try a Spicy Blue Cheese Burger, a broad-shouldered madman, custom-ordered with a ghost-white, thumb-thick turkey patty. Crumbled blue cheese hidden under a shredded mass of lettuce adds a sneer to this burger. The bun is shiny and comfortable, and might be egg bread.
When I'm not getting the no-nonsense coffee on ice, the Green Tea Smoothie will do me well, a pile of minty slush that needs no stirring. The chocolate shakes come in a statuesque metal tin, and are what they need to be: a nice raspy-around-the-edges ice cream with a casual tangle of whipped cream from the can.
I realize Duke's is probably trying to reinvent itself into a hipper, more urbane, less "I need some ham and eggs after all that acid" persona; its website has some new graphics and a more conscious attitude toward its history. Duke's is still Duke's, and I don't let it cramp my cultural high; I just go.
* Lots of people say it replaced London Fog, but London Fog was at 8919 Sunset. Or was it? An aerial shot seems to show London Fog where the Melody Salon is now and Sneaky Pete's a little further up. Maybe the addresses were split up into several businesses. I don't know, but whatever the solution to this Hollywood mystery, the fact remains that I was still born almost two decades too late to catch Morrison and the boys telling me about the End.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), West Side/West Hollywood, Hollywood, Diner, American, Coffee/Tea/Desserts, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs )