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.

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.

In Search of Lost Restaurants

The Much Lamented Tung Lai Shun Islamic Chinese Restaurant

The Much Lamented Tung Lai Shun Islamic Chinese Restaurant

If one doesn’t have any children, the easiest way to mark the passage of time is by restaurant closings. For example, my favorite used to be the Tung Lai Shun Islamic Chinese Restaurant at 140 W. Valley Blvd. in San Gabriel. One Hawaiian patron wrote on Yelp:

This was my favorite Chinese restaurant for years and years. I loved it so much, I’d fly over from Hawaii then spend 45 minutes on those dreaded L.A. highways driving over. Before my flight back home, I’d drive over again to pick up green onion pancakes and deep fried shrimp balls (okay, stop laughing, I don’t know what else to call them) dipped in salt and pepper to eat on the plane.

There are hundreds of others: Stelvio’s, Mario’s, Asuka, and Carl Andersen’s Chatham in Westwood; Toi on Wilshire and the Broken Drum in Santa Monica; Gorky’s Cafe and Russian Brewery in downtown L.A.; Marco Polo’s and Pepy’s Chili in Culver City; the Hortobagy Hungarian Restaurant in Studio City; Nichols Restaurant* in Marina Del Rey; and the Chung King in West Los Angeles. I could name hundreds more, but what would be the point?

Today, while I ate lunch at the still robust Westwood Thai Restaurant, I was reading an article amount Walter Benjamin in the July 10 issue of The New York Review of Books. Benjamin was a German Jew who committed suicide when he was unable to cross over into Spain from France during the Second World War. The war not only killed much of what he loved, but he felt hunted by the Nazis and couldn’t take the stress of returning to Vichy France and trying on a better day. As Susan Sontag said about him, “He felt that he was living in a time when everything valuable was the last of its kind.”

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin

In our crazy 21st Century existence, it’s easy to feel that way. I am thinking now of Robin Williams’s suicide because of … whatever it was really because of: We just don’t know for sure. At some point, Robin, like Walter Benjamin, made the decision that there were not enough valuable things in life left to make a go of it.

It seems quite a jump from a closed restaurant one has loved to a decision about life and death, but is it really? Restaurants open and close quickly. There are other things going on in our lives, however, at a much more glacial pace that could affect how we feel about ourselves and life in general. For instance, do we have a fatal illness? Has everyone we have ever loved died (cf. Mark Twain)? Have we lost the ability to see or hear? Are we facing a future of grinding poverty? Do we feel guilt for an evil that we have committed (most school shooters)?

Life wants us to live as much as we can, or dare. I learned early on from having brain surgery in 1966 that things will change, and I would have to change with them. Just because he became deaf, Beethoven did not quit composing great works. I knew early on I could never have children without a pituitary gland, so I became whatever it is I am today, with which I am all right. I feel relatively good in my aging skin.

* – This is a footnote. Don’t be alarmed. The Nichols Restaurant didn’t die: It became a zombie, now called J. Nichols Restaurant, where it serves TSF (thirty-something food) for millennials and others who want an alternative to Cheerios.

Bad Luck With Restaurants

Sambar and Idlis

Sambar and Idlis

Los Angeles has its very own India community in Artesia, just off the Pioneer Blvd. exit on he 91 Freeway. Martine and I decided to eat lunch there and shop at the nearby Stater Brothers Supermarket. So we went to Woodlands Restaurant, which specializes in South Indian (or, to be even more specific, Keralan) cuisine. I knew I was taking a chance with Martine, because she prefers standard North Indian cuisine. While I was having a great meal with sambar (a kind of spicy vegetarian soup) and idlis (little rice “flying saucers”) and a tasty glass of salt lassi, Martine was trying all the dishes that worked for her at her favorite North Indian restaurants. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for her here: the chicken was cold, the rice pudding was hot and watery, and so on and so forth.

Add to that the fact that, not being a cook and having any real food sense, Martine usually has difficulties in the dishes she selects at restaurants. At any given restaurant—and only if she were well familiar with it—she will typically select only one, or at the most two, dishes. Since I have more food smarts, I can usually please myself at places she winds up hating. It’s a pity, because I would like to go back to Woodlands one of these days to try their uppamav, a delightful South Indian dish made with Cream of Wheat!

 

TSF, or Starbucks Nation

The Most Emblematic Beverage Stop for the Thirty-Something Generation

The Most Emblematic Beverage Stop for the Thirty-Something Generation

It’s finally beginning to happen: The next generation is beginning to make its mark on restaurants and supermarkets/ Today, at Albertson’s Supermarket, I saw a large display of cold beverages featuring Red Bull and Starbucks drinks at $3-4 a pop. I noted to Martine that I pay about $8-10 for a pound of loose Indian black tea that will last me for upwards of eight months, for both cold and hot beverages.

Before going to Albertson’s, we had lunch at Truxton’s American Bistro. Perhaps a more appropriate name would be TSF: “Thirty-Something Food.” The new foodies love to mess around with the menu and its ingredients. Their iced tea was flavored with some chemical extract meant to imitate passion fruit—whatever that tastes like! But you better believe it was called organic, as if that made it taste like tea, which it does not. In fact, it obliterates the taste of the tea, such that I wonder why they bother adding any tea at all. The pizza had fresh basil, but I guess the chef thought it needed salt, a lot more salt. I felt that they were trying just a little too hard to appear unique.

It takes many years of experience to learn how to cook, especially when it comes to herbs and spices. We’ve all seen little kids at self-service soda machines: they try to mix Coke with Seven-Up with Root Beer with Mr. Pibb, with maybe a dash of raspberry iced tea for good measure. The end result of this type of experimentation is usually deplorable. I’m not saying that young chefs are quite in the same category, but sometimes it seems that way.

As the generations change, it is inevitable that the type of foods on offer will change as well. There will be a lot of dishes I will never try because the ingredients fight with one another more than complement one another. On the other hand, there are some successes, such as California Pizza Kitchen. Their chopped salads are superb, and some of their pizzas are excellent (especially the Sicilian). Martine refuses to go there because the menu contains too many of what she considers “experimental” combinations.

I suppose that the ultimate thirty-something places are Starbucks and Jamba Juice and their imitators, neither of which I patronize. I don’t drink coffee; and juice is verboten for all diabetes sufferers (juices concentrate the sugars and carbs and throw out the fiber).

 

Does It Pay To Take a Chance?

KFC in Keflavik

KFC in Keflavik

During my recent visit to Iceland, I saw a number of American fast food chains represented, including KFC (see above photograph), Subway, Quizno’s, and several others—but, curiously, no hamburger chains. McDonald’s was there, but is gone now. I guess they couldn’t make a go of it.

As I would avoid most of these chains at home, I didn’t care to patronize them on my vacation either. Mostly, I looked for fish dishes, which were always fresh and delicious. Once I had a hamburger on the main drag in Isafjördur at Hamraborg and found it by no means inferior to  American burgers. In fact, I thought the béchamel sauce was a nice touch.

Not all of Hamraborg’s offerings looked quite so appetizing:

A Local Specialty I Decided Not to Try

A Local Specialty I Decided Not to Try

It looked as if it were loaded with sugar anyhow.

As in California, the type of restaurants I preferred were one-of-a-kind. At Háholt in Mossfellsbær, for example, I had a long wait; so I passed by the KFC and Subway and found a delightful little place near the local Bonus Supermarket:

I Was Probably the First American To Eat Here

I Was Probably the First American To Eat Here

Now the sign doesn’t really tell you very much, does it? (I know the last line refers to coffee and cakes, however.) But I talked to the owner as he moved some tables and chairs outside and I decided to eat there. I had some great soup and a delicious piece of codfish with fresh vegetables. The owner was a bit of a health nut, and that fit in perfectly with my dietary restrictions. That was probably my best lunch in Iceland. I told the owner I was delighted not to have to eat at Subway or KFC, which were the only other choices within walking range.

Sometimes it pays to take a chance.

 

A Tale of Three Restaurants

Bertha’s Famous Tamales

Generally speaking, I do not cook on weekends. It’s a special treat for Martine to be able to go out from time to time, and Saturdays and Sundays are usually it. Now you would think that Martine would not be a tamale person, and you are right! While she lolled around in bed resting after an all night bus ride the night before. (She had taken a Greyhound Bus to Sacramento to see her doctors, her old friends from her days working at the old Sacramento Army Depot, and her mother’s grave.)

So, instead of rustling breakfast up for myself as usual, I drove out to the Farmers’ Market in Santa Monica at Pico and Cloverfield. There, accompanied by a thermos of my own unsweetend Darjeeling tea, I had two pork tamales from Bertha’s Famous Tamales, well slathered with their fiery hot sauce. Then I bought some Deglet Noor dates, some Asian pears, and some Fuyu Persimmons.

Attari Sandwiches in Westwood

Lunchtime I took a chance with my little sweetie. We went to Attari Sandwiches in Westwood, a busy Iranian sandwich shop where I had a mortadella sandwich and their delicious home-brewed iced tea with lime and mint. Martine had a chicken sandwich which she did not much care for. If I were in Teheran, I would have no difficulty adapting to their delicious cuisine—except I would eat too much Basmati rice, which is more or less forbidden to me because of my Type II Diabetes. Martine, on the other hand, would have a rough time of it.

Attari Sandwiches is a key focal point for the busy Westwood Iranian community. The restaurant was really hopping when we were there, but the owner and his staff know me well and always give great service (and delicious food). Their osh soup is fantastic, but it was too hot for it today. (It got up to 90° Fahrenheit today.)

Pepy’s Galley (AKA Pepy’s Chili) in a Mar Vista Bowling Alley

I had to make it up to Martine for taking her to a lunch spot she didn’t care for, however much I love it. For dinner, we went to Pepy’s Galley located in the Mar Vista Lanes Bowling Alley on Venice Boulevard. Pepy’s is an American/Mexican comfort food restaurant where Martine could get her hamburger steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, cooked vegetables, and a salad for a reasonable price. The food is down-home good, with good American dishes and a chilaquiles plate that will knock your socks off.

For dinner, I just had a navy bean soup and a plate of cantaloupe with iced tea. I had eaten enough earlier. The important thing was that Martine was placated for making her eat strange “Muslim” food for lunch.