This is pretty much a deli counter tacked on to the Pavlovian-response treasure that is the Surfas Restaurant Supply. After wandering the aisles and telling yourself you do not need a four-bottle dispenser system nor a single blade mezzaluna, you dry your eyes and step into the brightly lit interior of the Cafe Surfas deli. Nice people work here. It's rather like Porta Via in demeanor, though smaller and without the impulse-buy jars of artisan mustard and wedges of cheese.
Not photographically imposing but a good start, the Black Bean soup is not the thick, moody affair you might be used to from Cuban restaurants but is more like a tortilla soup that has black beans in it. It's rather thin but fresh and vegetal; crispy finger-staining little cheese bread accompanies it.
Their flagship sandwich is Jorge's Chicken Sandwich. Jidori chicken and Nueske bacon are the most prominent champions here; the chicken is super tasty and tender, the bacon fairly limber and cooperative rather than crispy. White cheddar, baby arugula, red onion, tomato are soft-voiced, slowly turning green with the cilantro avocado spread. Lots of napkin work is required.
Besides meeting my coworker Adam for lunch, one of my current triggers for driving clear across town is the Kurobuta Ham Panini. The bread is toasted hard with a snappy crust, which I normally avoid but is brilliantly sour and tasty. Its interior is softened by a thin spread of quietly confident homemade chutney, and it's a good platform for the black pork. The ham, true to its name, is robust and pink and dark and marbled and ever-so-slightly briny. White cheddar pulls and drapes and makes everything even nicer.
They do salads, of course, and put everything into crisp, recycled-looking to-go boxes.
To drink I like their Blueberry Lemonade, but they also make a dandy, strongly chocolatey iced mocha.
Outside the warehouse and the deli counter is a pleasant outdoor patio with strains of classic rock. Surfas has a good-sized parking lot, the easier to stagger to your car with your Hamilton Beach Triple Spindle Malt Mixer.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Bakery/Patisserie, American, Coffee/Tea/Desserts, Santa Monica/Culver City, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs )
Our ritual: after achieving tonsorial brilliance for Bianca at Static Salon (ask for Tony), we walk hand in hand along Melrose to grab brunch from Blu Jam. It's smack in the heart of Melrose's Shopping District, where an expensive footwear shop or a tattoo and piercing parlor is a stone's throw in any direction.
Named after the location's historical identity as a blues and jazz club--not a stylized fruit spread--Blu Jam emits a typically high-end coffee haus demeanor with an experienced kitchen. The claustrophobic sidewalk area is a jumble of umbrellas; the interior has a wall of brick, benches of blond wood, soaring log cabin ceiling beams, and inoffensive classic rock. You will invariably be seated by a pair of complainy white girls on your left and a trio of guffawing dudes on the right.
The Homemade Vegan Split Pea Soup is our current favorite comfort liquid, a pear-hued purée sweetened by the freshness of the peas. Herb-crusted croutons retain a deafeningly crunchy aspect. The Potato Leek soup is more earthy and very nearly as good. Note the newly color-conditioned and blown-out Bianca enjoying the last of her soup.
A Veggie Heaven Wrap, also vegan, sounds like a typically halfhearted attempt to cater to those with the audacity not to eat meat, but it's nicely constructed for such simplicity. Chopped veggies--carrot, zucchini, bean sprouts, lettuce, cherry tomato, avocado, mint--all play well together and share secrets with a drippy balsamic vinaigrette, in a grilled flour tortilla. Bink gets this with fruit on the side.
The Power House breakfast is not the desperate, expressionless, "sigh, at least it's low-carb, right?" health-minded breakfast typically available at other cafes (Eat Well, I'm looking at you). It's a brawny pair of firmly flame-broiled chicken breasts, heaped on six egg whites beaten into tofu-like density and striated with green, green spinach.
The best part of this is the sautéed cherry tomatoes and basil, which collapses nearly into a marinara faint. The tomato flavor is wonderfully dominating, and a couple of shakes of Cholula make my midmorning.
Like a plate of chilaquiles on a motorbike to Hell, the Migas has a sassy kick but not as tempestuous as the menu suggests. Bell peppers, eggs, disappearing bits of beef chorizo sausage, and the ever-present cherry tomato halves are clustered with tortilla chips. The effect is totally ungreasy, although I wouldn't have minded if it was.
With this mess is a jumble of crispy Red Potatoes, diced and rendered until crunchy french-frian ends are infused with the potatoness.
Blu Jam is known for their Brioche French Toast, the Crunchy version of which is rolled in cornflakes and maybe blessed by a priest before serving. It's not quite the crunchfest of Jinky's Cafe, nor the padded comfort of Fred 62's Bearded Mr. Frenchy, but it's cushy inside and fulfilling.
They're mostly a breakfast/brunch/late lunch affair until the early evening, and each server is sweeter and friendlier than the next. The coffee is good, real good, with artful baristan touches when foam is present.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Hollywood, Vegetarian/Vegan, American, Coffee/Tea/Desserts )
I've passed by here many dozens of times without taking a second glance, missing out for the last few years on what should have been my local-est coffee joint.
If people are waiting you'll have to shift around to find room. There's a comfy couch, a couple of small tables that you won't get because someone else's purse, smartphone and laptop are on them, several barstools along the window, and tables outside. At least three patrons will be parked in any of these spots when you arrive and when you leave. One of them will have a dog.
The owner, Julie, and one or two women with arm tats and spritely dresses bustling and hurrying in this space, somehow getting everything done. They do coffee, naturally, almost as a rebuttal to the eternally long line of Intelligentsia down on Sunset, and they do it superbly well. The Iced Hazelnut Mocha is a full-flavored wakeup call; the nice little powdery grit at the bottom feels almost intentional, like a childhood glass of cocoa. I prefer this iced version over the ice-blended mochas. They also do a Spanish Latte, which needs no sweetener.
Do this for your morning, and you'll thank Bianca and me. While you're still yawning, order a BBJ: Bagel, Butter, Jam. Simple, but devious. The bagel, its crust bubbled and brown, is heated and a bit crushed, and the butter (the amount of which depends on who makes it) is outside as well as in, resulting in finger-lickness and a lot of ohmygodding.
There's a Scramble on a Bagel, which is harder to eat but blended into warm simplicity: a folded quilt of scrambled egg, tomato, cream cheese, and a smidge of black pepper. It tends to squeeze out the sides, so don't eat this in the car.
There are other playful items, at least two of which are Elvis-themed (the Elvis Bagel has, as might be expected, peanut butter, banana and honey, and the Elvis Smoothie is mocha with PB & B).
I never thought I'd crave tuna salad. The Tuna Roll at Bossa Nova is something i have a hankering for here and again, but this superior sandwich might be my new favorite. The Tuna Melt (on a bagel or a croissant) is a spicy bully, beige with harissa sauce and little dried peppers. Even a caper or three is tucked away, adding bite. White cheese speckled with red blankets it, along with avocado, tomato, and slivers of red onion.
MorningsNights opens up at seven and closes at 8:30 in the evening, every day. Now that's a reliable independent coffee house.
I have a lot of catching-up to do.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Los Feliz/Silver Lake/Echo Park, American, Coffee/Tea/Desserts )
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 )
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 )
Finding it was like a smile from a long-lost friend, hiding in a dingy alleyway in a particularly San Franciscan manner among the gloomily aged buildings of downtown.
It's an art gallery, a living space, a local coffee house like you remember before the corporate beaneries sprouted, that quietly absorbs the soul of Los Angeles. Small chairs and tables lurch uncertainly in the open space. The tiles show the war wounds of past drywall. Open pipes snake through the ceiling above knobby plaster, as if the building grew here over millions of years. The industrial hum of air conditioning muffles the reggae playing overhead.
They do crêpes here in a big, quesadilla-esque way, a slightly burnt experience that is more savory than fluffy. They have the expected Nutella-or-fruit inclusions, but my current guilty pleasure is the Pizza Crêpe; a thin veneer of marinara brings together pepperoni, salami and mushrooms with mozzarella, cheddar and parmesan. I have a knife but prefer to shred it into wedges with fork and finger.
Sandwiches come on sunbread, a pilipino [sic] pandesal bread with a powdery tang, more sweet than salty. The Tuna Melt is a pillow of cuteness, hidden under a cap of melted pepper jack and OMG good, made zesty with a slice of tomato and light mayo. The lost souls here also do wraps.
There are teas of serious nature here--Yerba Mate, Plum Oolong, French Lemon Gingergrass--but I always dart straight to the blended beverages. The Cookie Monster is a creamy epiphany of a deep asphalt hue, with toddy coffee (concentrated cold-brewed, coffee), vanilla, milk and annihilated Oreos. The Ube Shake is lilac-colored and lighter than The Oinkster, with a smack of sweetness at the finish. Bianca and I drink these far too fast and have to go get a bottle of water to accompany the food.
There are counter goodies, and we are blind to most of them because of the red velvet cupcakes, and ridiculous cookies with Reese's peanut butter cups jutting from them like ancient ruins. While you're considering, peruse the flyers and pamphlets dotting the small table against the wall
Fourth Avenue is one-way going east, so come down Spring and park in one of the public lots. When you're done with your crêpe ritual, consider crossing the street over to Bar 107 and soaking in some kitschery.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), East Side/Downtown, French, Bakery/Patisserie, Vegetarian/Vegan, American, Coffee/Tea/Desserts )