I’ve been racing the clock on some big work deadlines and need to spend every waking moment plowing through manuscripts—so what better time to drop everything and write a frivolous post about my favorite L.A. foods? I recently wrote a short article for a gourmet food magazine and loved doing it but I can’t be anywhere near as opinionated in a national magazine as I can here. And since I’m trying to avoid most of these L.A. delicacies in an attempt to control my aging metabolism which has slowed to glacial levels, writing about ten of my favorite foods in this city gives me great vicarious pleasure. So here is my short list, off the top of my head and in no special order, of some local delights you may want to check out on your next visit to the City of Angels.
1. Bob’s Coffee & Donuts
This Farmers Market hangout is an institution in L.A. and serves some of the best donuts in southern California (I like the coconut, maple, or chocolate raised). Also a superb cup of nutty fresh-brewed joe (get the two-cup “hottle” which costs far less than the slop served at Starbucks). Farmers Market is one of my primary daily hangouts, thanks to the free wireless Internet connection and an ambiance that hasn’t changed much since the place opened in the 1930s. Bob’s is nestled in the southern corner, in between Patsy D’Amore’s Pizza (see the framed photos of Patsy with his pal Frank Sinatra on the set of “Guys and Dolls”) and Bennett’s Ice Cream (try the hand-dipped chocolate-covered frozen bananas or the fresh peach ice cream you can watch them make). This area attracts the full diversity of the Farmers Market scene: the regulars such as director Paul Mazursky who holds court every morning at the same table with his group of writer friends eating Bob’s Donuts, as well as a motley group of locals, busloads of tourists, and visitors from the CBS studios next door including hordes of “Price Is Right” wannabes still wearing their “Come On Down!” name badges.
2. Apple Pan Hamburger
The best hamburger in L.A. This is a simple wholesome affair, not one of those insanely overpriced “gourmet” burgers popping up everywhere loaded with high-ticket toppings such as carmelized shallots and white truffle shavings. This tiny counter-only restaurant on Pico, just a block east of Westwood, hasn’t changed its menu in decades. The same two guys have been working that counter since the Truman administration, and late at night you’ll find an interesting mix of movie stars, rockers, and regular folk. Get the hickory burger with Tillamook cheese and an order of hand-cut fries. If you haven’t had to call the paramedics yet or go on anti-cholesterol medication, try the apple pie a la mode—they use a vanilla ice cream with an obscene amount of butterfat. I love the owners of this place because they have steadfastly refused to sell their business to developers now that this area has become prime real estate. As a result, gigantic buildings engulf the Apple Pan from all sides, such as the Westside Pavilion and the new Landmark Theatre complex, but the little shack remains exactly where it's been since it opened its doors in 1949.
3. Pinkberry Frozen Yogurt
Ready for something healthier after all that grease? Try L.A.’s latest obsessive food craze. We go to the oh-so-trendy Pinkberry stores on Larchmont, Melrose & La Brea, or the Los Feliz outlet on Vermont. Parking is so congested near some of these stores that Pinkberry has picked up the slogan, “the taste that launched a thousand parking tickets!” I usually avoid trendy items like this since I loathe jumping on any cultural bandwagon, especially one started by this town’s anorexic twentysomething glitterati, but I have to admit I’m hooked. There are only two flavors, regular and green tea, and it has a tangy, real yogurt taste, very different from the stuff we've been calling frozen yogurt for years. Beware that this crack for the masses doesn’t come cheap (almost five bucks for a medium with fresh fruit toppings) but that doesn’t stop any of the Pinkberry enthusiasts. Honestly, sometimes I think there IS an addictive drug in the product—the first time I tasted it I found it odd and unpleasant. 24 hours later, my eyes were rolling back into my head and I was moaning “Must. Have. Pinkberry.” Leah eats it plain, I like mine with raspberries, blueberries, and a bit of granola for crunch. Remember that “Seinfeld” epsidode where everyone was eating gallons of this new nonfat frozen yogurt because it was so good and then they find out that each serving had like a thousand calories? Part of me prays for something like that to happen with Pinkberry, just to hear the collective screams go up from the store’s emaciated hipster denizens. Is that mean? There's a Pinkberry store opening up inside Farmers Market in a few weeks. Now that's just wrong.
4. DuPar’s French Toast
Let’s get back to my people—the overstressed overweight pasty-faced folks with no visible abs whose sexual fantasies often involve plates of DuPars French Toast. This Farmers Market restaurant takes plain old white bread, soaks it in a heavenly egg mixture until the bread is completely saturated, and then fries it up in copious amounts of butter until it calls out for you like the Sirens of the Seven Seas. Evil stuff, especially if you don’t tell them to hold the extra clarified butter and powdered sugar, but so freaking good. DuPar’s pillow-soft pancakes are also an orgasmic delight, and I’m not even a pancake man. You really can’t go wrong at breakfast time, but…um…avoid lunches and dinners at DuPar’s if you know what’s good for you.
5. Soft-Boiled Eggs at Le Pain Quotidien
Feeling more upscale this morning? Have a hankering to sit at a communal table with Oscar-nominated celebrities? Head over to the Beverly Hills franchise of this Belgian chain for some yummy organic soft-boiled eggs, a large latte served in a huge bowl, and breads that are so delicious and rich that you will want to hurl your DuPar’s French Toast to make more room (just stop by Pinkberry and ask the patrons for some purging tips). Funny how you don’t see soft-boiled eggs on many menus. This was a regular breakfast item in my house growing up and we had a special device that guillotined off the top of the egg, releasing a rich golden orange lake of liquid yolk. Le Pain Quotidien knows how to soft boil an egg perfectly—cook them too long and they are like hard-boiled eggs gone bad, not long enough and you feel like you’re eating a chicken’s late-term abortion. Don't forgot to spread globs of the restaurant's signature hazelnut spread on your freshly baked bread. Branches of this restaurant are opening up all over town but the Beverly Hills outlet on Little Santa Monica is still the best for eavesdropping (I’ve recounted several of the horrifying conversations I’ve heard there on this blog). I’ll be decent and not name the celebrities who are regulars. Let’s just say that one movie star/author who always sits at the same table had two very famous parents. No, it’s not Carrie Fisher or Liza Minnelli, but all three of their moms were good friends at MGM.
6. El Cholo Green Corn Tamales
Yikes, could I be more of a boring white boy with this list? L.A. is known for its ethnic delicacies and there are so many of them that I love, but hey, I said these were the first ten things that popped into my head so forgive me for being about as ethnically diverse as Dick Cheney’s weekend hunting parties. Still, I have to include one of our neighborhood hotspots, the wonderful and always crowded El Cholo on Western Avenue, just above Pico. All their food is fantastic, but my favorite is the green corn tamales that are only sold between May and October. On May 1, there is a line circling the block of customers desperate to eat the first batch of these little squares of heaven. The sweet corn mixture combined with the tanginess of sharp cheddar and strips of peppers—¡Ay, caramba! The crowd at El Cholo is the most diverse and friendly group you'll ever find in L.A.—if only this restaurant were a microcosm of Los Angeles life. If you’re up for it, order the lethal margaritas, or go on Mondays to hear the roving mariachi band.
7. Phillipe’s French Dip Sandwich
Another L.A. landmark that deserves all the acclaim it gets. This is the 1908 downtown eatery (across the street from the gorgeous Union Station on Alameda) that claims it invented the French Dip in 1918 when owner Philippe Mathieu accidentally dropped the French roll he was using for a sandwich into a roasting pan full of hot juices. Instead of grabbing a new roll, he served the sandwich to a hungry patron—et voilà, the rest is history! I love all the food here, from the various French-dipped sandwiches (order the beef sandwich with their own killer hot mustard or the scrumptious lamb with blue cheese on top) to the great cole slaw, macaroni salad, or pickled beets (take a pass on the scary pickled eggs). Don’t forget the homemade baked apples, to-die-for coconut cream pie, and a perfect cup of coffee that still costs only nine cents. You heard me, NINE CENTS! You can’t afford not to eat here!
8. Pretzel Croissants from City Bakery
Okay, this isn’t really fair for this list because it’s purely a New York item, but when the famed Union Square City Bakery opened up a spacious new branch recently at the Brentwood Country Mart near San Vicente and 26th, a whole new twelve-step group was born in southern California. “Hi, my name is Danny and I’m addicted to pretzel croissants.” “Hi, Danny!” Oh dear God, the first time you taste one of these things you will FREAK. I don’t even know how to describe it: the soft, sweet, flakey texture of a traditional croissant combined with the saltiness and hint of density of a great pretzel. Thank God I don’t live anywhere near Brentwood or I might have to visit this establishment three times a day and watch my waistline take on the girth of Lower Manhattan. The rest of the food at City Bakery is outstanding, organic, and unusual—all laid out in a trendy-to-the-max salad bar (not your grandmother’s smorgasbord, believe me!). Oh, and if they’re out of the pretzel croissants, you don’t have to kill yourself—just migrate to the Melted Chocolate Cookies and make plans to join your second 12-step group in a month.
9. Susina Croissants
What? More croissants? Am I insane? Is my inner Francophile coming out? Am I being unduly influenced by my French ex-wife or half-French daughter? I can’t not mention this wonderful (non-French) bakery and restaurant on Beverly near La Brea which is my other main hangout thanks to the Internet access that everyone pilfers from the Starbucks directly next door. The croissants at this place are the real thing, they taste as authentic as the ones from my favorite boulangerie across the street from the Louvre. I also favor the tomato croissant and the delectable polenta raspberry scones. This is one of the most beautiful bakeries you’ll ever see, and you can’t go wrong with any of the gorgeous cakes, pies, or tarts. They also serve delicious grilled paninis (Leah loves the brie and pear) and they sell an eclectic selection of gourmet treats from around the world including $15 chocolate bars decorated with real edible flowers. This is a writers’ and celebrity hangout as well and owner Jenna Turner is extremely nice to us Macbook users who sit there all day nursing our loose-leaf peppermint tea and scones (although she did just eliminate 2/3 of the electrical outlets we were hoarding—it is a business after all!).
10. Al Gelato Rigatoni
This one is also a little dicey for my L.A. list since Al Gelato is a Chicago transplant. The restaurant used to be on North Avenue when I lived there but the entire half-Italian half-Irish family moved here about the same time I did 21 years ago and have been serving their homey meals on Robertson a few blocks south of Wilshire ever since. Yeah, the gelato is out of this world (my favorites are crème brulee and coconut) but in my opinion the regular food is the real ticket. The rigatoni with Mama’s homemade sauce is unbelievable. Add a meatball the size of a baby’s head and some of their freshly baked bread and you will think you’ve emigrated to Italy by way of Chicago’s south side. My mouth is watering just thinking about their salad with its balsamic dressing I have never been able to duplicate at home. The owner knows all of us former Chicagoans and if we want to take our microscopic leftovers home she’ll add a whole other serving to the container and an entire loaf of bread.
Oh dammit, I’ve been so good all week and now I’m starving for every single item I just mentioned. I’m actually writing this from a table right in front of Bob’s Donuts and at the moment am surrounded by a gaggle of girls who just came from the American Girl store at the Grove and are trying to feed their overpriced dolls bits of pink-frosted kitty-shaped donuts. At another table a young Latina nanny was sitting with her crying Hancock Park charge a few minutes ago when an old man at the table next to her let out with a ferocious roar and screamed at her on the top of his lungs to “shut her fucking baby up!” In a move worthy of Errol Flynn, the owner of Bob’s Donuts (who also owns a great fresh seafood store in Farmers Market) sprinted over the counter and ran to the woman’s defense. The mean guy was asked to leave and the super-nice employees of Bob’s and Patsy’s Pizza comforted the shaken woman. We have our crazies, but we are one big happy family here at Farmers Market. I say we all celebrate with a donut!