A Traitor at the Dinner Table

My Taste in Foods Is Positively Un-American

It all started with Hungarian food. That’s what I was raised on, good Magyar chow cooked by my mother and my great-grandmother Lidia Toth. Along the way, I also started to like American food, particularly hamburgers and hot dogs.

But then something happened when I came out to Southern California. It started with Mexican food. When I lived in Santa Monica, there was a Mexican buffet around Wilshire and 12th Street called Castillo’s. One of the girls behind the steam table was quite cute, and I remember eating there and ogling her.

That was only the beginning. Then I moved to Mississippi Avenue between Sawtelle and Corinth, which was in the middle of a small Japanese neighborhood. I dined regularly at the Osho Restaurant and the Futaba Cafe. When my miso soup has tofu in it, I naively thought they were cut-up shark fins. Before long, I was eating sushi—despite the fact that, while I lived in Cleveland, I saw fish only as dead things that floated on the surface of polluted Lake Erie.

When I worked at Urban Decision Systems at Santa Monica Blvd and Barrington Avenue, we frequently ate Chinese food at the Sun Kwong Restaurant, which was a very high quality Cantonese place. But then Szechuan cuisine invaded, plus I became a chili-head whereas before I went for bland foods. My tastes kept developing to such an extent that my parents—God rest their souls!—thought that I had betrayed my Hungarian heritage.

Well, it’s still with me, along with a whole lot of other cuisines. I drive poor Martine crazy with the weird spices and condiments I introduce into my cooking. At the same time, I try to make sure she gets plenty of the foods she particularly favors. These can usually be described as bland American food.

So it goes.



The Face of L.A.

By Now, he Majority of L.A.’s Population is Hispanic

Probably one of the reasons our Presidente hates California (other than the fact that we all pretty much despise him) is that there are so many Hispanics here. And I mean Hispanics of every variety, from Mexicans and Central and South Americans to Cubans and Puerto Ricans and even a few real live Spaniards. And here in Los Angeles, we pretty much get along with one another. I mean, after all, the city was founded in 1781 as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciúncula, long before there were any gringos in evidence. It was then part of Spain, then part of Mexico, and eventually part of the United States of America, who stole it fair and square from Mexico. We even got the papers to prove it.

I remember vividly when my brother and I had our first tacos. It was in New York City, of all places, where we were attending the World’s Fair of 1964-65. We bought it at the Mexico Pavilion. The real reason I was in the Big Apple was to check out New York University’s graduate school in film. Well, I wound up not going there because I didn’t like Haig P. Manoogian, who was top man there. I don’t think he liked me very much either. (Michael Scorsese, who attended NYU, thought Manoogian was hot stuff; but then he was a filmmaker, and I wasn’t interested in making films.)

When I finally picked UCLA as the place to go, I thought I would prepare myself by buying frozen food that purported to be Mexican cuisine. It really wasn’t. In fact, it was about as bland as any other frozen food available in Cleveland. It was not until I took the train to L.A. that I encountered the real thing. And I liked it, and I still do.

I’ve lived here now for more than fifty years and haven’t been raped once. Will someone please mention that to the Tweeter-in-Chief?



Old Man Crazy About Fish Tacos

Is It Now My Favorite Meal? Could Be….

My first acquaintance with fish tacos was in Yucatán in 1975. I tasted not only regular fish tacos, but also tacos with pan de cazón, or shark. I liked it then, but over the decades the taste has begun to grow on me. There’s something about grilled fish with raw shredded cabbage, a squeeze of lime, and even avocado slices that is capable of sending me into transports of ecstasy.

Today, Martine and I went to Gilbert’s El Indio Mexican Restaurant in Santa Monica. I had heard they had good tacos, but their fish tacos, which I tried for the first time today, were nothing less than superb. Each was wrapped in two warm corn tortillas and served with wedges of lime and pico de gallo.

In Southern California, there are fish taco chains, such as Wahoo’s, but I care not for their product. Maybe because they slather on some white sauce that tastes like sugared mayonnaise. No, I want to control the flavor of my fish taco, and do not want any weird sauces to wreck my flavoring the taco as I wish.

I have lived in Los Angeles now for upwards of half a century, and I find that I like the cuisine of Southern California, which is really Mexican. I love pork tamales with hot sauce, salads with marinated nopalitos (prickly pear cactus pads), and aguas frescas made with tunas (cactus fruit, not fish). I love hot chiles, when Martine lets me cook with them (they irritate her eyes). Freshly heated corn tortillas are still magical to me.

Although I was raised as a Hungarian—and I still like Hungarian food, when I can find it—I must have been kidnapped by Mexican bandidos when I got off the train at Union Station in 1966.

By the way, the first taco I ever ate was at the Mexican Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair in 1965.


WTF: Tofu Spa Massage

What Strange Animal Is This?

It was late yesterday afternoon. I had parted with my friend Bill at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve and, while he took the mountain route back to Altadena, I took the I-5 and I-405 back home to West LA. But first, I decided to drop in at what used to be my favorite Mexican restaurant in L.A., Dos Arbolitos at Nordhoff and Woodley. It was still pretty good, with that smoky chipotle chile salsa casera, and the chile verde pork was excellent.

What got to me, however, was its neighbor, the Tofu Spa Massage (illustrated above). Now what is it they do? Do they rub soft tofu into all your nooks and crannies prior to a vigorous massage? Do they first wrap your private parts in organic kale and stuff purple broccolini up your fundament? I would have stepped inside and asked them; but, seriously, Folks, I was just about to eat. So I could be forgiven, no?

This mysterious business has inspired a new series entitled “WTF,” concentrating on some of the weirder things I see, especially in Southern California.

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.

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.


Mexican Heartbeat

¡Muy Delicioso!

¡Muy Delicioso!

Fifty years in Los Angeles, and I’m turning into a Mexican! So many of the foods I used to like before—like rice, potatoes, bread, and gooey pastries—are now part of my pre-diabetic past. Lately, I’ve been eating a couple of tacos for lunch, preferably nopalitos (marinated prickly pear cactus) or fish with raw cabbage slaw. And for breakfast, I like to warm up some corn tortillas over a flame, roll them up in aluminum foil, and pop them in the oven. Warm them for a few minutes, and they taste great with sweet butter and a dash of salt.

I have heard it said that the sound of women’s hands rhythmically slapping the masa de maíz into little round cakes the heartbeat of Mexico. Perhaps I am developing a Mexican heart. There are far worse things in this world—though at least one presidential candidate would demur.

Apparently, the tortillas are helping my glucose readings stay lower. They satisfy my appetite without sending my sugar into the stratosphere.


You Wouldn’t Think These Cacti Would Be Good Eating, Would You?

You Wouldn’t Think These Cacti Would Be Good Eating, Would You?

The first time I ran into the pads of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia) in a supermarket, I received a nasty shock. Out of curiosity, I handled them and found that the spines were still in them. My first impulse was to think, “Now why would anyone eat this stuff?”

But curiosity won out in the end. I think I first saw nopalitos on the menu at Paco’s Tacos in Culver City and decided to order them. First of all, it looked very different from the fresh cactus pads:

Hmmm, The Spines Are All Gone!

Hmmm, The Spines Are All Gone!

For one thing, the texture was all different, kind of like pickled okra—and the spines were all gone. Gingerly, I ate some with a fresh corn tortilla and loved the flavor.

Later, when my Type 2 Diabetes required some changes to my diet, I was delighted to find that nopalitos retard the absorption of sugars by the digestive system and thus have a low glycemic index. In Southern Calfornia, one could buy bottled nopalitos in virtually any supermarket and eat them as a salad, in the form of tacos, or cooked with scrambled eggs and chiles.

I don’t know whether it’s possible to find nopalitos outside of the American Southwest, but I think it’s worth making an effort. They’re delicious!