Having recently decided to leave my job to pursue a more joyful life course than working in technology public relations was providing, I decided to hit the open road and spent a good portion of the month of July traveling to SoCal. Starting from my home in the Bay Area, I decided to travel California’s historic Highway 101, the El Camino Real, for the most part, both because it’s just a nicer drive through the central part of California and because I have a soft spot for the California Missions which are peppered along the El Camino Real. (Aside: The first and oldest pepper tree in California can be seen at Mission San Luis Rey east of Oceanside!) If you grew up in California having to take 4th grade Cali history, you can probably understand my obsession with seeing all of the Missions (or maybe not!).
Since part of joyful living includes good food, as far as I’m concerned, I was waylaid down in LA continuing to sample some tasty LA eats that are worth checking out…
For the Vegan in You Dying to Get Out…
At the beginning of this year, my friend R. decided to declare himself a vegan. At first I thought this was a joke. This is because one time when we went out for Thai food he decided to declare himself a vegan to the waiter, 1) just to be a pain in the ass; 2) to see what the waiter’s reaction would be; and 3) see how the waiter would accommodate his alternative lifestyle. R’s latest stint as a vegan has actually lasted since January of this year, aside from a work trip to Uruguay and Argentina, where he claimed he simply would not be able to refuse Argentinian beef. Anyway, he’s lost quite a bit of weight as a vegan and is looking better than ever, so like Mark Bittman, whose been espousing veganism at least before 6 pm, this can’t be such a bad thing.
My problem with veganism is that it’s usually best done at home. R. and I have tried a few vegan restos since his declaration and, frankly, the food usually just isn’t very good. It’s as if most vegans seem to lack a basic understanding of how to use spices and instead use sugar to compensate for really bland food, which sort of defeats the purpose of being vegan, if you ask me, which should be to be eating more healthfully. I don’t know if vegan resto chefs are just not great cooks, but I’m capable of making meatless stuff at home all the time that tastes great. I just don’t get it…
“Good” and “vegan” restos do not have to be mutually exclusive or an oxymoron. Case in point—check out The Native Foods Cafe. There are a few locations throughout the city (and elsewhere in obvious places like Portlandia according to the website), but I went to the one in Westwood Village for lunch with my bro. I had the Ensalada Azteca Salad (don’t ask me why “salad” is in the name twice – I suppose it’s for gringos that don’t get that ensalada means “salad” in Spanish–der! Somebody must have enjoyed the humor of it being called the “Salad Azteca Salad” when they named it!). Anyway, this is a nice salad full of super healthful stuff. Jicama, avocado, and salsa on top of a nice helping of quinoa over romaine. Topped off with currants, pumpkin seeds and cilantro (the combo of which makes the whole salad if you ask me–a touch of sweetness, some crunch and, well, cilantro, which I can’t say enough about anyway). I actually did wish that I would have asked for the salad to be topped off with a bit more protein, though. Despite quinoa’s high protein content, it wasn’t quite enough to get me through the rest of the afternoon.
Protein at the Native Foods Cafe comes all “native,” in other words, vegan proteins like soy-based stuff, tofu or seitan. They have all sorts of faux-meat menu options, including a reuben and numerous burgers. My bro had their “Super Italian Meatball Sub.” I nabbed a bite, and it was pretty tasty for faux sausage.
They also had Lavender Lemonade, which is one of those things I wish I’d thought of myself (especially since I’ve been playing with lavender in my jams and jellies of late!). Yum. You get the perfume of the lavender and tang of lemons together. Refreshing, sophisticated combo.
1114 Gayley Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90024
I don’t necessarily aspire to food snobbery, but living in the Bay Area spoils you in regard to most things food or beverage related, and I definitely prefer good food or drink to bad, even if it’s good junk food. Coffee is no exception. Granted, I haven’t ever been to Seattle, the default coffee capital of America, but if Starbucks and Seattle’s Best are any indicators, Seattle frankly has nothing on Bay Area coffee. And, I might add, I’m not even that partial to the famed Blue Bottle Coffee, which my good friend D. refers to as “liquid crack.” Yeah, I’ve had Blue Bottle and it’s good, but I can’t abide by the crazy lines that inevitably form outside of every Blue Bottle outstation. Even at the Farmer’s Market on Sunday mornings, the line is about as bad as the one at any California DMV, which is ironic given the Farmer’s Market in Temescal is actually held in the DMV parking lot.
And I love good coffee, especially a good latte. That’s my favorite coffee drink, which I’m sure purists will think is wimpy since I do require milk and sweetener in my coffee, but so what. That’s what I like. But I’m trying to cut down on my general coffee consumption, sadly, because it gives me acid reflux. So I’m trying to limit myself to good coffee only once or twice a week. My brother and sister-in-law are not coffee drinkers so while staying at their house I was drinking tea in the mornings (which I also like), but inevitably my taste buds started to go through bitter bean withdrawal. So when I heard that their family was going to be headed to Venice Beach for hair appointments at a place that just happened to be down the street from Intelligentsia, I was all for going along for the ride. For those of you not in the know, Intelligentsia is LA’s own coffee Mecca. (They actually started in Chicago and now also have outposts in NY, but the owners were former San Franciscans-go figure!)
Years ago the Abbot Kenney part of Venice was sort of a trashy part of LA–now it’s classy hipster heaven. The Venice Intelligentsia outlet is no exception. There’s no sign on the outside saying that what it is. You only know what it is because of the tell-tale (wait, wait for it…) LINE OUT THE DOOR. And I thought Blue Bottle was bad. I actually stood in line for a full half hour for a cup of coffee. This is not something I would normally do, but it was late Saturday afternoon and I really didn’t have anything pressing, so to speak, to do, so what the heck. The coffee bar has a pretty cool outdoor seating area with multi-level bench seating, which is nice. The inside of the coffee bar is industrial chic–lots of metal everywhere. They only had a couple of espresso stations, one of which wasn’t even open despite the 30-minute line, which didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I guess that’s all a part of the experience of the coffee. They even control line flow at the top of the line as you enter the coffee bar with a sign that says “please wait here until called,” or served or some such. Despite the obvious hoity-toity-ness, I have to say, they do make a latte comparable to the best Bay Area coffee, and that’s saying a lot because I had a lot of bad coffee and bad lattes elsewhere on my trip. (Influx in San Diego, shame on you–can you say bitter? I not only tasted it, but felt like it after spending $4 with you…) The Intelligentsia latte was pretty smooth and mellow, which are the criteria for good coffee in my book. I did wish they served brown sugar instead of just white and raw, but that’s OK. And I would go there again, given a shorter line or at least signs placed at different points in the line, like at amusement parks, that tell you how long you have to wait for your ride.
The second coffee place in LA I went to was a place called Paper or Plastik. This place is part cafe/part coffee bar. They serve breakfast, lunch and recently started serving dinner. They also serve beer and wine. Whereas Intelligentsia felt a bit pretentious, this place felt a bit more accessible, but very East Coast in that when there was no where to sit but at a large communal high-top table, I had the feeling that the other two women sitting at the table were clearly 1) perturbed that I joined them (How dare I?); and 2) had clearly spaced themselves at strategic intervals at the table so as to discourage anyone else from joining them.
Paper or Plastik bills itself as an artist’s cafe, and they do indeed have a dance studio attached to the cafe, which is sort of cool. They could use more places for people to come and work, though, given they are geared toward artists and most of us artsy types like to frequent coffee bars to do our work in. A number of the tables in the front of the cafe actually had signs on them stating they were “laptop free” and meant for people actually going there to dine and chat. So, like I mentioned it was really difficult to find a place to set up to do some writing because most of the spaces were already taken by the time I arrived in the late afternoon. They source their coffee from Intelligentsia and also from Handsome Roasters and Coava (neither of which I’ve ever heard of), so I’m not sure what was in my iced latte, which was pretty good, but not quite Bay Area. I also had a soft pretzel with house made stoneground mustard, which was sizable and quite filling. It had a nice crust on it, though, which is important for a soft pretzel and the mustard had a nice kick. If I were in that neighborhood or lived around there or had friends to meet in the area, I’d check Paper or Plastik out again and give it another espresso shot.
Intelligentsia Venice Coffeebar
1331 Abbot Kinney Blvd.
Venice, California 90291
Paper or Plastik
5772 West Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90019
The concept of the cafeteria conjures two very distinct and disparate images for me. The first is, of course, school lunch, which has all sorts of disgusting connotations of bad food. When I was a kid, I mostly avoided school lunch because it was usually pretty gross. One of the staples served at my elementary school cafeteria was creamed chicken, which was a pretty nasty concoction. It just looked really disgusting–strings of chicken in gray gravy. Gravy is not supposed to be gray. So, I usually brought a sandwich from home rather than eat the school food. This was also because I distinctly remember my friend Carin Rudeen choking on a bone in said creamed chicken. Yuck…
In high school and junior high, about all I’d venture to eat at the cafeteria was a cheeseburger or the occasional pizza, which was more like pepperoni bits sprinkled atop a piece of cardboard slathered with Contadina. Many of my friends referred to school pizza as “zits on toast”–mmmmm! By the time I was finishing high school, the only things I dared to eat in the cafeteria for lunch were french fries and soft-serve ice cream, which made for quite a nutritious lunch.
Lots of restauranteurs have taken up the cafeteria concept over the past 15 years and upped the ante on school cafeterias everywhere. This being California, we not only have to do that, but make it healthy! Lemonade is a LA chain that bills itself as “seasonal California comfort food.” It’s cafeteria style–complete with trays, standing in line and viewing your choices behind glass cases. What sets Lemonade apart, again, is that it’s healthy food! Hurrah! Can you imagine your elementary school cafeteria ladies serving miso pot roast or beet salad? Hardly!
You can choose from a number of options. First are about 20 different kinds of vegetable salads. There are also gourmet sandwich options, slow-cooked braises, “Land and Sea” (or fish and meat) options, soups, salads and, of course, macaroni and cheese, not to mention desserts and a variety of lemonades. On my visit, I went for a kale and mushroom salad with kumquat vinaigrette and then a Basque chicken braise, which consisted of slow-cooked chicken with a bit of tomato, artichoke and olives with a side of basmati rice. If they’d served this instead of creamed chicken at Las Flores Elementary, I might have actually eaten more school lunch. Portions were appropriately sized, meaning not too huge, and everything was tasty. The chicken was tender and the olives and artichokes gave it a nice kick. The rice was super buttery–that may not have been very healthful, but it was had a nutty flavor that I didn’t want to stop eating. The kale salad was refreshing. My sister in law had the miso pot roast, which I tasted. That packed a wallop of umami with the miso–so much so that I’m not sure I could have eaten a whole portion of it. I also sampled my niece’s mac and cheese, which was appropriately cafeteria–esque. The cheese sauce was so saucy, it was almost macaroni soup. Great for kids.
Since the place is named after a certain lemon-based drink, I had to try the cucumber lemonade. It was good, but they only have one size for drinks, which was about 20 ounces. That’s a bit too much lemonade for me–I wish they would have had smaller sizes. Dessert options are similarly huge, but you can get mini cupcakes. I didn’t opt for dessert, but I did have a couple bites of a homemade ding dong that my brother ordered later than evening. Wow–they have done an amazing job recreating the ding dong, right down to the cream filling and a rich devil’s food cake. I’ve found that lots of bakers that try to imitate childhood treats like Twinkies or Ding Dongs (neither of which I was actually allowed to eat as a child, btw) get something wrong in the making–these guys haven’t. The cake especially was spot on! Although the ganache was more like real ganache than that waxy stuff from childhood, it was pretty much the real deal.
The second image that comes to mind for me when I think of cafeterias is the department store cafeteria of the 60s and 70s. As a kid, my family would often go to department store cafeterias when we went to LA or Pasadena or San Bernadino to shop. Back then, department store cafeterias were sort of fancy–white napkins, tablecloths and full of elderly ladies, dressed to the nines and heavily made up with bright red lipstick, who lunched. My brother remembers department store cafeterias fondly because he has been searching for the same perfect macaroni and cheese he would order at the May Company ever since.
There aren’t a lot of these restaurants left these days. We did stop at the Nordstrom’s cafeteria, Sixth and Pine, at the Westside Pavilion before a movie one night for a quick dinner and, I have to say, it was really solid and not that unhealthy. You could do a lot worse eating at any mall food court. I was also tickled to see that the famed Fred Segal’s has also carried on the tradition of department store cafes. The Santa Monica stores have an Umami Burger and their own cafe, the Fred Segal Comfort Cafe. Th cafe isn’t as separate from the clothing as you might want it to be–it’s not a separate room, but sort of nestled among the clothes and cordoned off by some faux walls, which is sort of funny considering you’re eating food in such close proximity to really expensive clothing that you’d have to spend a small fortune dry cleaning if you spilled your lunch on them. Regardless, the cafe options, being an LA boutique and all, are healthy and definitely created with dieter’s (and probably stars with eating disorders) in mind. Lots of healthy choices and a variety of great salads to choose from. I had the Baby Lettuce with Warm Marinated Goat Cheese Croutons topped with chicken. The salads are a bit pricey (mine was about $15), but let’s face it, it was worth it just to be able to check in at Fred Segal’s for lunch on Facebook and brag to your friends! And I was pleased to see that there are still a lot of little old LA ladies who lunch!
1661 Abbot Kinney Boulevard
at Abbot Kinney and Venice
Venice, CA 90291
Sixth and Pine
Nordstrom’s Westside Pavilion
10830 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90064
Fred Segal Comfort Cafe
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Note: Sorry, I forgot to take pictures this time. More on LA eats to come later, including what may have been the best burger I’ve ever had!