Nostalgie de Banlieu

Recent History from L.A. Northern Suburbs

If you’ve ever seen Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), you have some idea of how the City of Los Angeles annexed most of the San Fernando Valley after William Mulholland’s aqueduct brought water several hundred miles from the Owens Valley to L.A. In the period of the movie, the Valley seemed to be mostly orchards. Today, some two million people live there. Its period of greatest growth was in the immediate postwar period when aerospace was king. Today—well, today much of the gloss has vanished. During the summer, the Valley is almost as hot as the floor of the desert: Today the temp reached 91º Fahrenheit (33º Celsius) as we left in mid afternoon.

The reason we were there was to visit the Valley Relics Museum at Balboa and Stagg in Lake Balboa. The museum pays homage to the Valley’s glory days during the 1950s and 1960s, when it seems everyone was buying property there because it was cheaper than the more liveable parts of L.A. adjoining the Ocean.

Ash Trays from Bygone Restaurants and Clubs

The Valley is still an interesting destination. For one thing, there are many excellent restaurants, both ethnic and American. (Today, for instance, we discovered a great place on Ventura Boulevard at Burbank called Hummus Bar & Grill that we will no doubt be visiting again.) There are several interesting historical sights such as the Leonis Adobe and Los Encinos State Historical Park, plus museums like the Nethercutt Collection. So the Valley is still a target-rich destination, though it is no longer the fashionable locale it used to be when I first moved the Southern California in 1966.

The museum had fight posters featuring Mohammed Ali and Cassius Clay, film stuntmen memorabilia, old restaurant menus with pre-inflation prices, neon signs from clubs and restaurants like the Palomino, and even an interesting selection of working pinball machines—particularly one featuring Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, a former TV horror film hostess.

 

How Chefs Are Destroying American Cooking

Archvillain Guy Fieri and His Inedible Creations

My original title for this post was “How the Food Network Is Destroying American Cooking,” but I decided the problem is more general. It’s almost as if all the young chefs have been subsisting on Cheerios and S’mores until they suddenly got religion and started putting together things that never really belonged together. It’s like those stupid Iron Chef competitions in which cooks are challenged to make something intriguing from unlikely ingredients. For instance, some competing chefs may have to cook a dish using:

  • A men’s size 10 double wide leather shoe sole
  • Two cups of lard
  • A dash of Asafoetida
  • Several pounds of kale
  • A pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream

All the components of a dish must be built up in a tower of food, as in the photo below:

Small Tower of Miscellaneous Ingredients

I was raised on Hungarian food, but living in Los Angeles has given me an abiding interest in Asian food (principally Chinese, Indian, and Japanese) and Mexican food. Although Martine and I do visit restaurants (principally on weekends), most evenings we eat dishes which I have prepared. For instance, tonight I made a Middle Eastern vegan stew containing potatoes, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), tomatoes, onions, and cumin. I also liked to prepare a jambalaya (minus shrimp, which we don’t eat), keema, chili con carne, chicken chow mein, kasha varnishkas, and ratatouille vegetable stew. I never pile the main dish up into a tower of any sort, and I studiously avoid ingredients that conflict with one another.

When I read a restaurant review, I have to read between the lines to determine whether the food is good, or merely showy in some strange way.

There used to be a great Hungarian restaurant in the San Fernando Valley by Ventura and Vineland called the Hortobagy. When that restaurant closed down, the owner opened another place off Tujunga and Magnolia called Maximilian’s Austro-Hungarian Restaurant. It turns out that the owner, who fancied himself a chef, thought that the liberal use of raw onions was his trademark. The women chefs who worked at Hortobagy were the real artists; the owner, Laszlo, was anything but.

 

Fading Away

Little Girls in Greek Dance Costumes (2011)

In the time that Martine and I have been going to Greek church festivals in Los Angeles, we’ve noticed several trends:

  • The food is getting less authentic. Today, Martine ordered a spanakopita (spinach and cheese pie) that did not contain any cheese.
  • It seems that fewer of the parishioners speak Greek. Is it that the older generation is passing on?
  • The priests are less involved personally with the festivals, particularly in offering church tours to visitors.

This is less true of Saint Sophia Cathedral in downtown L.A. which draws crowds from a much larger area, and which is across the street from Papa Cristo’s, the most authentic Greek restaurant in town.

The same is true of the Hungarian festivals. At first, I felt abashed by my poor command of the Magyar language. Now my Hungarian seems to have gotten better, or again, are the old immigrants dying off and making my poor language skills look better by comparison?

I suppose this is a natural process. Many of the places we visit may not even be around in a few years. For instance, there do not seem to be any Hungarian restaurants left in our nation’s second largest city. Back when I first moved to L.A., there were a number of choices, especially the much lamented Hortobagy.

If you want a more authentic ethnic experience in Los Angeles, you have to look to Latin America and Asia. There is a bustling Thai and Korean scene; and numerous options involving Mexican, Central and South American culture. There are numerous places offering Oaxacan food. Culver City has an Indian restaurant offering the cuisine of Southern India’s State of Kerala.

As to the girls in the above photograph, I could have sworn that they were in a group of teenage girls who passed us on the way to our parked car. They were busy calling each other “chicken butt.”

 

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!