Why I’m REALLY Going to New Mexico

Hatch Chiles Roasting

After what I posted yesterday, I thought I’d say why I’m really going to New Mexico this summer. When you live in a particular climate zone for most of your life, you yearn for the foods of the region. As a not quite but almost native Californian, that means corn and chiles. And the best chiles in the world come from New Mexico. The joke is that there is a state question: “Red or green?” If you can’t make up your mind, there’s another answer: “Christmas” means a mixture of red and green. I will probably switch between red and green from meal to meal.

There is a nifty local restaurant site called Roadfood.Com. Take a look at the restaurants and dishes they recommend for New Mexico by clicking here. (Compare with what’s available in your state.)

Now poor Martine isn’t going to be able to eat any chiles, but she likes hamburgers and chicken and beans; so there’ll be plenty of generic American food to keep her happy.

The Frontier Restaurant Near the UNM Campus

Fortunately, there are some parts of the United States which have their own cuisine. Of particular interest to me are the shellfish of New England, the anything from Louisiana, the fried catfish and BBQ of the Southeast, and the chiles of New Mexico. All are American food at its best. Originally, I hailed from Ohio. Other than great home-cooked Hungarian food, I can’t say much good about the whole state.

What’s Happening to American Food?

Yeah, Well, I Mean Other Than That ….

In the big cities on the Right and Left Coasts, what we know of as American food is—I think, anyhow—starting to disappear. Not that American cuisine is necessarily the best in the world. Being Hungarian, I know it couldn’t hold a candle to a home-cooked Magyar meal. But there are some good American dishes of which I am quite fond. For someone who truly hates the Confederacy, I like Southern food: fried catfish, grits, collard greens, black-eyed peas—though I stop short at chicken. (Martine, on the other hand, is a big time poultry devotee.)

I think the problem is those guys with toques who like to think of themselves, standing in their kitchens, as masters of all they survey. The Food Channel has introduced us to a whole generation of soi-disant chefs who basically like to screw around with food, mix flavors like crazy, and build photogenic little towers on the plate. I think of these toque-n chefs the same way I think of those little kids who like to mix Coke with Mountain Dew with Root Beer at one of those automatic soda dispensers, thinking they’ll come up with something new and interesting. Of course, they never do.

Martine is unable to eat the range of food that I can. I would be perfectly content eating nothing but Asian food all my life, or Mexican, or Argentinean. She has irritable bowel syndrome and needs good plain food. We usually compromise when we go out: one meal to make me feel good, and maybe the next to make her feel good.

Today, for instance, we found that a restaurant chain we loved that had been out of business for over 10 years still had one branch in Sherman Oaks, near the intersection of Moorpark and Van Nuys Boulevard: It was Hamburger Hamlet. The food was not great—not like pigging out in New Orleans on a po’ boy or in Boston on scrod—but it is good; and the menu is large enough and interesting enough to make me feel better than dining at Denny’s or Norm’s.

In our lifetimes, I think the American coffee shops will disappear, at least in the big cities. I hate to think what the chefs of tomorrow will do to our stomachs.

The Original Pantry

Open 24 Hours a Day ... for 92 Years

Open 24 Hours a Day … for 92 Years … with the Usual Line

Yesterday was my birthday, so Martine took me out to lunch today. My choice was a restaurant which I last visited over thirty years ago with my father, who loved the place. The place in question was the Original Pantry at the corner of Figueroa and 9th Street.

Opened in 1928, the Original Pantry serves American comfort food only, with very few concessions to the ethnic diversity of Southern California. My cheeseburger was on toasted sourdough bread, and accompanied by French fries and fresh cole slaw. We had to wait three quarters of an hour for seats, but the crowd was good-natured and gratified by the Pantry’s no-nonsense menu.

One interesting fact: There is no front door lock. The restaurant has literally been open all day and all night since its opening. Even when the building had to move because of a new freeway ramp on the 110, it was open for breakfast at the old location and open for dinner at its present location. And once, a few years back, they were closed for a few hours for a health violation.

If you plan a visit to L.A., I recommend you try the Original Pantry. Good food at a reasonable price—but you can leave your credit cards at the hotel: The Pantry takes cash only.

The Street Food That Hijacked a Cuisine

A Typical Yanqui Mexican Dinner

A Typical Yanqui Mexican Dinner

The food pictured above is an almost archetypal Mexican meal. Except that you might have some difficulty ordering the same dishes in Mexico. First of all, tacos are almost never served in a crispy shell. You may get the beans as shown, but you are probably just as likely to get potatoes .

Mexican restaurant menus consist primarily of foods which, south of the border, are usually referred to as antojitos, or street food as sold by street vendors or market stalls. Typically included are such items as tacos, enchiladas, burritos (but only near the border with the U.S., else what you are ordering is a small burro), gorditas, quesadillas, tortas, chalupas, and tostadas. Common elements include corn (and very occasionally flour) tortillas, corn meal, chiles, a tomato-based sauce, meat fillings, and cheese.

But if you eat at an actual restaurant in Mexico, you are unlikely to find any concentration on antojitos, unless a large portion of their diners are Gringos. At lunchtime, you can almost order a comida corrida, or set menu, which includes soup and/or salad, a piece of meat, potatoes, and a postre, or dessert. You will almost never get tortilla chips.

Mind you, I love antojitos. For dinner tonight, a had a combo of string beef tamal and chile relleno with rice and beans, and chips and salsa. The only real Mexican touch was the pickled carrot salad. If I were in Ensenada and points south, I would prefer to find filete de pescado al mojo de ajo (filet of fish sautéed with garlic) with potatoes, perhaps with flan or queso napoletano for dessert.

So if what is keeping you from going to Mexico is a dislike for tacos or other tortilla-based foods, you need not worry. There will, of course, be differences, such as beef that is tougher and not aged as much as our way. But the general impression of the meal as a whole is nowhere like the one pictured above.

Soup Wisdom: The Secret Ingredient

Swiss Chard

Swiss Chard

Over the New Years Weekend, two things happened. First, the weather dipped down into the 40s and 50s; then, Martine came down with a nasty cold. What that signaled to me was that it was time to cook a big tureen of soup. We settled on my mushroom and barley soup with added celery, carrots, and red potatoes.

What I’ ve been doing for a couple of years with good results is taking a big bunch of Swiss Chard and putting it through the blender either with water or stock—or both. For this, I prefer the green chard with white ribs, only because the brightly colored chards look a bit odd in the soups I cook.

The mixture of blended chard with, say, a good chicken stock such as the one I buy at Trader Joe’s, results in a really tasty broth. (Both of us went for seconds on the soup today.) Plus, you could hardly do better when it comes to nutrition: check this out. We tend not to eat enough vegetables anyhow.


The End of Summer

White Peaches

White Peaches

I do not regard Labor Day as the end of summer. Instead, I track the fruits that are in season. My favorites—cherries and apricots—have a short season lasting scarcely more than a month or so. Lasting about two or three months are when white peaches are in season. (I prefer them to yellow peaches, which I find to be too sweet.) When white peaches become pulpy, as I have observed at several places this week, summer is over.

Coming up is the season of Fuyu persimmons and pomegranates, which will last until some time in December. Then, or even before, I will have to switch to apples—preferably Honeycrisps. The worst time of the year for fruits is January and February, until the new season strawberries are ready for harvest.

As a diabetic, I am dependent on fruits for natural sweetness that does not tear down my health. And that’s why I am so fastened on fruit. I love going to places like Oak Glen in San Bernardino County, past Yucaipa, for fresh apples. There is a fruit stand called Cornejo’s near Fillmore where I can find wonderful fresh-picked fruit (though right now they are into Valencia oranges). The best fruits I have ever eaten were purchased from orchards in Tulare County on the road to Sequoia National Park.

So it goes, the year in fruit.


Eve Babitz and the Taquitos

Cielito Lindo, Specializing in Beef Taquitos on Olvera Street

Cielito Lindo, Specializing in Beef Taquitos on Olvera Street

As I was visiting the Taste of Ecuador Festival by Olvera Street yesterday, I decided to find the place that Eve Babitz writes about in her book Eve’s Hollywood about what could have kept rock star Janis Joplin from OD’ing. Toward the end of the book is an essay entitled “The Landmark,” which she dedicated to food writer M. F. K. Fisher. She starts at the very beginning of Los Angeles:

In 1781 a Franciscan with 24 ex-cons and runaway slaves decided to name something that didn’t exist La Ciudad de Nuestra Signora [SIC] La Reina de Los Angeles and proceeded to build a church and a street called Olvera Street. The church and the street are still there, preserved by this huge city called L.A. as a landmark from when one street was named the City of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels. The street is uneven and bricky and lined with terrific shops where you can get things you think you want, cheap. And taquito stands for in case you get hungry. Taquitos are much better than heroin, it’s just that no one knows about them and heroin’s so celebrated.

Now Eve’s book was written over forty years ago. I decided to see if I could find her favorite taquito stand, which she describes as follows: “The best place to get them [taquitos], though they are also sold in other places throughout the mall, is the place on the Northeast part of Olvera Street.”

Making Taquitos at Cielito Lindo

Making Taquitos at Cielito Lindo

It just so happens that the Northeasternmost restaurant on Olvera Street is Cielito Lindo (“My Little Beautiful Heaven”), which has been around since 1934 and specializes in taquitos in a way that none of the other restaurants on the Street do. Once again, Eve continues:

They have black frying pans with long handles that are about a foot and a half in diameter and have sides that flare out about 3 inches high so that oil won’t hit the cook. With metal prongs, the guy lays the raw taquitos neatly in the oil over a fire of coal that produces a heat of such intensity that blast-furnace clouds encompass the buyer as he watches the taquitos cook and the guy turns them over when they are done on one side.

Except for the coal fire, which is now probably against some city health or safety regulation, that’s pretty much what I saw at Cielito Lindo, such that I am 100% sure that this is the place to which Eve would have directed Janis Joplin to keep her from that nasty heroin.

By the way, the taquitos were delicious. I will return there for more. Their chile rellenos are pretty good, too.