Categories: Cuisines (by Specialty), Bakery/Patisserie, BBQ, Cajun/Creole, Coffee/Tea/Desserts, Deli, Diner, Healthy/Organic, Late Night/24 Hours, Pizza, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs, Seafood, Soul/Southern, Vegetarian/Vegan
Not far from where Bianca grew up, the neighborhood of Jefferson Park had a heavy Creole influence back in the '50s, since dwindled to a few fish markets and sausage makers. Harold & Belle's came about in 1969 and remains a cultural locus.
The interior is elegantly airy with textured damask wallpaper, black chairs and an expanse of white cloth. The menu needs only a few pages. There are a few soul-inflected offerings like fried chicken, steak and crab cakes, but you probably shouldn't bother with these. Concentrate on what you are looking for when jonesing for Creole: jambalaya, gumbo, poboys, red beans and rice.
The service is friendly and crisp. Food and drink orders arrive in overwhelming succession: from behind you a waiter will bark, "Excyuse meh! I have here an order of filé gumbo?", reducing potential confusion to nil while you clatter dishes around to make room.
Speaking of Filé Gumbo, I knew there was meant to be a collage of ample ingredients, but there is a lot going on here: a single chicken wing, sodden with juice and falling apart. Cylinders of smoked beef sausage, intensely soft and moist, from Pete's Louisiana Hot Links down the street.
And crab, I cannot help but see. Soft-shelled and clicky and requiring some dexterity, the crab is less a source of meat than a lender of its essence to the gumbo. Oh, and shrimp. And ham. All merged in a deep, dirty, divine roux that might be the jus of the gods. A mound of just-sticky-enough steamed rice provides some absorption.
This is a small order, by the way.
For a main course--for I am foolish enough to have both the gumbo and a main course--the Shrimp and Crawfish Étoufée is a robust swamp of richly spicy crawfish gravy. Thick curls of shrimp are firm and springy, and the tiny, fiercely red-striped crawfish tails are luscious.
There is a heavy-handedness with the gravy, which leaves less texture to enjoy, but it's not like you aren't going to keep forking it into your mouth with rice until you reach the point of regret.
The Seafood Platter, aside from being an art piece, is a collection of breaded abandon, and not for the single diner. Fillets of red snapper are tender enough so that only their scratchy exterior holds them together. Shrimp and oysters are also fried, all heaped atop a highly effective platform of buttered bread. So much battered seafood gets to be a little much, but the tartar and cocktail sauces make this less of a hardship. The oysters are the best part of this dish.
Naturally in an eatery of New Orleans descent, we try the Hurricanes. These are fairly bitey and valiant, and will help keep you in your seat, but you will need two to induce that familiar lurching-along-Bourbon-Street feeling you want to recapture.
We are of course rendered useless afterward, chatting peacefully in an unconcerned euphoria, without a hope of trying dessert.
Harold & Belle's leans toward the pricy, most of its dinner items lingering in the twenty-dollar range. They're open every day until 9, until 10 on Fridays and Saturdays, and have valet.
Many sleepy thanks to Tuesday and Christian, who via the latter's birthday offered us a perfect opportunity to finally make it down here.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), American, Cajun/Creole, Mid-City/Crenshaw/Jefferson Park )
Yes, it means what you think it means
8200 W. Sunset Blvd. (@ Havenhurst, in West Hollywood)
Phone: 323-650-0614 | map
8665 Washington Blvd. (Culver City)
Phone: 310-837-5000 | map
395 Santa Monica Place (@ 4th, in Santa Monica)
Phone: 310-394-0373 | map
Despite being open until three in the morning, this doesn't possess the comfortably shabby demeanor of a neighborhood taco stand, into which you stumble in sore need of some well-deserved grease and spice; it's priced a little too high for that. This is the latest inspiration by the Anaya Brothers, owners of Cha Cha Cha.
The ceiling is awash with miniature piñatas* and colorful cutouts; the walls are adorned with off-brand loteria paintings (the El Pinche seeming particularly irreverent). The tables have absurdly blue checkered cloths.
As might be expected, the easiest introduction to a place with "tacos" in the title is the Pinche Combination Plate: a trio of tacos, with rice, beans and chips. The rice is properly fluffy**, and the refried beans are plain tasty, full of themselves without being whipped to senselessness.
Each taco embraces the holy duo of small white onion shards and cilantro, huddled together in malleable corn tortillas that are prone to tearing on contact with moisture. This contributes to the non-taco-stand feel, as I prefer to eat these at the table with fork and fingers rather than hunch over a rickety aluminum counter devouring taco goodness and fighting off pigeons.
The adobada consists of intense little cubes, marinated in a chili sauce with a wink of vinegar; they demand a determined chewing to extract maximum flavor. A briskly chopped salsa sits atop. The pollo a la parrilla is blocks of chicken breast, grilled to a pleasing stiffness on the outside, painfully moist inside. The carnitas are exquisite, not shredded, but large, imposing cuts of rich, shiny, citrusy pork.
Luxuriating on a stretchy tortilla, the pescado taco is thinly golden, not crunchy like Baja style but tender and collapsing. Oddly, it has a Veracruz coleslaw rather than naked cabbage, but I think I like it. The red salsa on this is among Pinche's best.
For burritos, I like the al pastor, pork strips marinated and broiled to a steaky firmness, muddled together with strings of sautéed onion and nicely gritty, dirty rice.
The chips here are fried hard, the pico de gallo can be thin and oniony, and there may not be many favorites among the salsas, although the cool spicy red used on the fish tacos is good to request.
Some Yelpy complaints have emerged regarding the staff at the Sunset location, which is, statistically, also more likely to attract its share of obnoxiously assumptive clientele. However, both locations have statistically unlikely free parking lots, suggesting that the universe is somewhat balanced. In any case, tacos, and I want them again soon.
Thanks to Adam for letting me drag him to yet another lunchtime foray.
* "Would you say I have a plethora of piñatas?"
** I realize that I rarely have much to say about Mexican-style rice. I am incomplete if it is not juxtaposed with my beans and main course, but it tends to be either satisfactory, or dry and uninteresting like your Uncle Theodore. I have never yet had a forkful of amber rice with a touch of vegetable and said, By God and the Queen's grace, Janice, this rice is damned fine!... I also don't know anyone named Janice to whom I can direct this ejaculatory observation.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, West Side/West Hollywood, Santa Monica/Culver City, Late Night/24 Hours )
On the next occasion where it happens to be a perfect Southern California day, and you're moseying along the unpolished lower stretch of Venice, past vendors of jewelry, art, love, and hemp artifacts, past examples of the ripped and the haggard, dodging rollerskates and peeking into freak shows, and you come across the red-and-white awning, take a break and get in line at the door.
There is a bar inside, noisy and neoned and pool-tabled, but your focus is to smell the ocean air a little longer, so you wait for a table on the patio, under arches and columns with bas-relief faces looking bemusedly downward.
It isn't that the Sidewalk Café is a swirling tidepool of culinary brilliance and innovation. It's that it's an icon, sprouting from the fabulously literate and independent Small World Books next door. The building dates back to the Abbot Kinney days, replete with bootlegger tunnels and beatnik artist studios. Kerouac crashed here, I believe.
They are, however, well-versed in their alcohol. They serve greyhounds here! Grapefruit juice and gin, in a lowball glass. Also try the Mississippi Mimosa, which adds a touch of Triple Sec to the champagne and OJ. For our late-afternoon purposes, however, Bianca and I like the Sidewalk Summer Tea: sweet tea and lemonade. And vodka. You'll need two pairs of these to get properly on the road* to toasted.
Bianca: I feel like I should be fanning myself on the veranda.
There's lots of habitual bar food, normally a beery afterthought in other joints. The Grilled Cajun Shrimp Skewers, despite their trendy name, are good, firm and snappy and fingertip-staining, riotous with herb butter and a paper tub of vinegary, Tabascoan red pepper sauce. They aren't large or many, so consider two.
Also in the realm of the familiar is the Calamari Basket, brittle puffs of amber, with a chunky tartar sauce that Bianca lets me have because she dislikes tartar sauce, and also... kids, let me tell you about a concoction called cocktail sauce, and how we adults love it so, while laughing over our martinis. It's a classic, horseradishy enough to bring memories of Mom and Dad's parties.
The Café keeps its literary roots, and names its Bookshelf Sandwiches for books and authors, a theme of which I always approve: you can get the Hemingway, the Odyssey, the Thesaurus, the Larry McMurtry, et al.
Since I recently reread Slaughterhouse-Five** I zero in on the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. It's a fine mess, a California-style burger with a superb bite, not nearly enough bean chili (So it goes), a schmear of thousand-island, onions and cheese. You get the sense that this taste, this intellectually escapist vibe, would have been the same fifty years ago. The fries next to everything you get can be big-plank style or a thin, seasoned heap.
It's still late afternoon and we're still working a quartet of Summer Teas through our systems, so I get a slice of Key Lime Pie. It's not pretty. It's messy and unkempt, just like an ideal Venice lifestyle; thankfully it's banana-yellow instead of green, and sour as a spinster aunt, causing our tongues to bang around dingdingding like a pinball machine.
Try the Sidewalk Café as the sun dips behind the ugly cement bunkers into the Pacific. You'll remember why you're here.
* No, that wasn't a Kerouac reference. Or was it?
** I would totally try a sandwich called the Kilgore Trout.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), American, Pizza, Santa Monica/Culver City, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs, Seafood )
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 )
This unassuming corner spot in the brutally warm mid-Valley is billed as a "Vietnamese Vegan Restaurant & Tofu Factory", which is an important distinction as you will see. Kevin Tran invents, experiments, and triumphs, coming up with brilliant vegan food and sneaking new daily specials onto his Facebook profile.
The smells from the kitchen are highly attractive, apparently enough so that Kevin has locals coming in and out all day calling him by name; Kevin will often slouch over the counter chatting with regulars. The colorful wall of photos is a little bewildering, so grab a multi-paged menu. After you order, he will shrug and tell you to pay after.
On a recent 108-degree afternoon* my brain is braised enough to think that a nice hot bowl of soup is a fine idea.
The Curry Duck Soup smells superb, the broth nuanced with a sly coconut twang, pepper-flecked and oil-spotted. It is stunningly balanced, each spoonful of curry broth worthy of contemplation by itself.
And this, despite appearances, is not actually duck. Somehow Mr. Tran has matched the rich, elastic oiliness of duck skin, goosefleshed and chewy, wrapped around a more conventional grained "meat" of gluten, and there's quite a bit of it hiding in the broth. If you have issues with gluten, this shan't be your choice because it gets seriously heavy after a while, but it's so good.
Stiff, disinterested carrot slices and tofu (somewhere) is here, too, along with a clean pile of bean sprouts and your choice of rice or rice vermicelli, available to populate your soup. A few bottles of sriracha and hot red pepper paste line the wall, but you won't need them here.
A fine example of a glass noodle dish that isn't a congealed, chopstick-defeating mass, the Stir-Fried Mung Bean Noodle has clear white onion, violently verdant bell pepper, and mean little slices of serrano. It usually comes with "fish sticks," half-Isosceles triangles of breaded crunch, but I prefer this with "chicken", translucent strips sauce-soaked to a tea brown, completing the textural firmness of meat and egg. Zingy, bonito-like flakes dance atop.
Possibly the most head-clappingly revelatory dish, the Ginger Chicken is of course soy, firm and ungrained like dark meat chicken; collected by a stack of steamed brown rice, the chicken is pale and gleaming from the warm ginger sauce, sweet and unbelievably lovely to the point where you consider buying a ring and declaring your love for it. The dish is ringed by cucumber slices and shredded carrot, made lively with a vinaigrette.
They make stuff to go too, cut sushi rolls and buns and banana desserts, that you are tempted to snatch up from the counter and add to your bill. I won't stop you.
Vinh Loi is open from 9 to 9 daily.
* Mind you, this had cooled down to a hundred and eight. There was a spot on the 101 around Coldwater Canyon where the Mini Cooper was registering 113 that day.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Vegetarian/Vegan, Thai, The Valley )
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 )