eating all the food in los angeles

Chowing in Los Angeles.

Truth be told, I don’t dine out much these days. I’m in stealth, money-saving mode and I spend most of my meals at home, cooking up affordable meals until my financial situation improves. Sometimes I’ll splurge on the random huckleberry donut or iced coffee, but eating out has become a splurge I’ve been skipping. However, I have all these wonderful photos in my food and great memories of my first few months in Los Angeles, that I can’t help but share some of my favorite spots.

Cora’s Coffee Shop: I love this joint. Steps away from the famed Hotel California and the uber-pricey Shutters on the Beach, this small hidden gem boasts a terrific menu infused with Mexican flavors. They serve the best cheeseburgers in Santa Monica, hands-down, and this shop was my mainstay when I first arrived in Los Angeles, flush with cash to burn on chorizo egg scrambles. Ah, the halcyon days of consistent income.

Huckleberry: From freshly-baked pastries to kale squash salads and homemade meatloaf, Huckleberry is THE spot in Santa Monica for the brunch and lunchtime crowds. They’ve even managed to turn up the volume on grilled cheese and bacon with pork from heritage pigs nestled between copious amounts of gruyere cheese. While the long lines are vertigo-inducing, they move pretty fast and the delicious fare is worth it. Recently, a dear friend of mine treated me to a fancy dinner at another Rustic Canyon-owned spot, Cassia. If you’re in Los Angeles, making the trek to Cassia is worth it. From flattened char-grilled chicken to curry chickpeas and creamed kale that will make you weep, I Dyson’d half the menu and had absolutely no regrets.

Republique: One of my favorite Cooking Channel shows is Unique Sweets. Although my palate has changed considerably (I now crazy salty foods vs. sweets), I’m fond of watching the alchemy of baking. One Saturday morning I caught the L.A. episode and nearly passed out when I saw the pistachio Kouign Amann. I then made the mistake of visiting the spot during prime brunch hour on Sunday. The hour+ wait was Odyssean, but the pastries are absolutely worth it. I stocked up on croissants, scones, jumbo cookies and spent the week chowing on them. While there I ordered their cheeseburger/fries special. Not the best cheeseburger, but it was pretty solid.

Neptune’s Net: Yesterday was a day worth photographing. My friend Amber is in town staying with me and our friend Jamie drove us to Malibu. Surrounded by bikers and locals, this heritage spot serves up fish tacos, hot dogs, burgers, and a whole menu of fish. Although recent Yelp reviews haven’t been particularly kind, we LOVED our lunch (fish tacos, deep fried chicken strips, burgers, and a mountain of fries), which was SO CHEAP, and loved our trip to El Matador Beach after.

Casa Linda: The taco game in L.A. is pretty strong. They’re filled with local avocados, fresh herbs and seasoned chicken, beef or fish. Casa Linda in Venice is pretty low-key, but the tacos are formidable. The staff is beyond kind and the food is insanely affordable given the quality. I noticed that most of the taco joints I visited don’t put cheese in their tacos and you know what? I don’t miss it. When my friend Amber arrived on Thursday, we cabbed it to Venice and she couldn’t get enough of their halibut. And their guac? DEEP, REAL AND TRUE.

ROC Kitchen: My love for the dumpling knows no bounds. I first fell in love with potstickers during a two-week trip to Taiwan in 2006, and I haven’t found many spots in the U.S. that could replicate the glory that is the Taiwanese dumpling. Thick, crispy skin, flavorful spoon and chunks of pork–it’s been downright difficult to recreate the Taiwan feeling. The closest joint was Eton in Cobble Hill, which has since closed down, and a spot in San Gabriel, which is a nearly two-hour drive from my house. I’ve settled for Sawtelle in L.A., home to Japanese and Chinese restaurants, and ROC Kitchen is pretty strong. Terrific noodles and reliable potstickers. While their scallion pancakes lacked a lot of scallion, the rest of the food is superb and super affordable.

note to self: always listen to maomao

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Maomao tells me that she’s glad her husband’s dead because she’s had thirteen years of freedom. You know, I liked him. I didn’t want him to die, but it’s as if the gods heard me. I’m 69 now. Can you imagine coming home to a man? It’s a second job. I would have to eat with him, pay attention to only him. My whole life would be him. Pointing to her license (all tour guides have to wear their badge prominently), I wonder aloud about the fact that she knows English and Italian. Why Italian? The dead husband, she says. I nod. The dead husband. We continue our half-day food tour around the Chinese wet market in the Chinatown Complex, weaving our way through hawker stores as she explains the difference between Haiwanese and Cantonese cuisine. Wrinkling her nose she says, Cantonese, all fried, very spicy, too much chili. Very yang. Gesturing to the cool blues of the Haiwanese placard she says, Steamed, boiled, healthy. Yin.

I offer Maomao back the pastry she purchased for me at the start of our tour. I tell her I have to chill with the gluten, that I spent a year with a nutritionist and doctor trying to repair my insides, and while I can occasionally indulge in wheat-based products, I got to take it easy. After an Odyssean of polite refusals, she accepts the croissant-like dough. Tearing into the flaky, hot sweet, she remarks that she’s no self control. I lost 30kg last year because I stopped eating and started walking. I tell her that’s a little extreme–a life sustained on salads and fruit. Maomao shrugs, pulls a bottle of water out of her bag, taps it proudly and says, It’s filtered. Then she proceeds to share her recipe for tortellini and meat sauce, a dish she’s making for her family this evening. Normally, they would never have pasta at night because there’s no time to expend the energy, but she’s mindful of a food’s expiration and tells me that she finds it strange that Americans store food for so long. How we allow time to steal all the nutritional value from what we eat. She only purchased the fresh pasta over the weekend and she’s concerned that time for her tortellini is running out.

Some might think this odd but I get it. I too am forever thinking about a ticking clock; I understand what it’s like to fear the one thing for which one has no control: time.

It occurs to me now, as I write this, that my tour guide’s name translates to cat in the English. The fact that the other person who was supposed to accompany us on the guided food tour of Chinatown dropped out at the last moment. Clearly Maomao and I were meant to meet.

One of many traditional breakfasts in Singapore: kaya butter bread which is made with butter and coconut custard, steamed rice (chwee) topped with salted vegetable preserves (chai poa). It may not be pretty, but it was delicious.
One of many traditional breakfasts in Singapore: kaya butter bread which is made with butter and coconut custard, steamed rice (chwee) topped with salted vegetable preserves (chai poa). It may not be pretty, but it was delicious.

We’ve only know one another for a few hours but I love Maomao’s candor, how she calls me a “new-style” woman because I’m unmarried, childless, and traveling on my own. At first she regards me with caution, curiosity. You’re very brave. And quiet. I laugh and say, I’ve only just met you. We start our tour and I do that thing I do when I’m around much older women–I become deferential, calm. My curiosity takes the form of quiet study while she’s inquisitive. Maomao has all the questions. How old are you? What do you do for work? If you are not owned by a company why do you pay taxes? Are you lonely when you travel on your own?

I think of a line Robert DeNiro said in Heat: I’m alone; I’m not lonely.

Over dessert at Tong Heng, where she presents me with a cool, syrupy-sweet bowl of cheng tng, Maomao tells me that shse has six children whom she loves but she says, emphatically and often during the tour, how much she hates frogs, pork, and turtles. You’re so lucky to live in New York, she marvels over the cakes, cookies, and pastries she devoured in the city while I pause over her non-sequitur. Maomao says she envies the fact that I have choices.

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Basically a towering mountain of dried anchovies. I've never seen so much dried fish in one place (mollusk, crab, eel--you name it, it's been dehydrated).
Basically a towering mountain of dried anchovies. I’ve never seen so much dried fish in one place (mollusk, crab, eel–you name it, it’s been dehydrated).

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We talk a lot about alternative medicine. Maomao confides that when her son was six and he had asthma, she stepped a dried gekko in hot water, and he hasn’t had a problem with asthmas since. Shaking her head she says in a small voice that she could never tell her son this because he’d never forgive her. He’s a vegetarian. We talk about using lemongrass as a natural mosquito repellent and Maomao points to all of my blistering bites and tells me that toxins are desperate to leave my system. She tells me to drink frog or turtle broth (not the meat! never the meat!) as those are natural detoxifiers. We pass by a spa where we see a photograph of a woman’s feet seemingly steeped in sewage. The photograph suggests that bathing our feet in this way will expel all of the toxins from our body. I shake my head and laugh at the clever marketing and Maomao agrees. While she believes in the power of old medicine and natural herbs and the healing power of animals and plants–technology she doesn’t buy.

We agree that the marketing is clever and the people who buy into this are desperate, possibly stupid. I become fond of Maomao.

After, she takes me to a famous shop for mooncakes, Chop Tai Chong Kok, and by habit I purchase a bag of buttery savory cookies knowing that I can’t eat them so I instead attempt to pawn them off on Maomao and she reminds me of her willpower. Give her an hour and they’ll only be crumbs left in her bag. I procure bags of dried herbs from Anthony the Spice Maker after getting a whiff of his famous curry blend and Maomao’s assurance that if I spread the powder on a piece of chicken, your family will lick their fingers.

Maomao reminds me that she loathes frogs, pork and turtles and I confess my hatred of fish and the mushroom. There is a moment when Maomao looks at me as if I were insane. I’m not going to regale you with the details, but let’s just say we had a long discussion in a dining hall where Maomao tried to make me a mushroom convert and I adamantly refused.

Before we part ways, before I take another terrific lunch at The Noodle Man (the fried dumpings and tofu are REAL, people. REAL), Maomao embraces me. She tells me that it’s so hard to be a woman, we’ve so much to manage and bear that I should focus on making time.

Make the time for your life, she says. Before you are old and there is no more time.

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walking the batignolles biologique {organic} market, paris

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As you weave through the stalls, you’ll grow ravenous from the smell of roasting, herbed chicken. You’ll lean into the peonies and wonder how flowers could possibly be so pink. You’ll witness vendors arranging their wares much like designers in an atelier drape garments over lithe mannequins, with care and passion. You might see a duck. You’ll dab a bit of lavender oil on the undersides of your wrists. You wonder where’s kale until you realize it’s not in season. You’ll pause in front of the wine and wish you could have a sip without all the three-piece luggage. You’ll wrap a scarf around your neck but it’s never the way the Parisians do it. You’ll see a man holding a sign that reads: dog for sale. He’s homeless, an interloper, and this is the last hand he can play. You feel the tears well up and don’t know why, but you notice that most of the homeless have pets, companions who are loyal and sleep by their side, and this kills you in ways you never imagined. You’ll realize that fleur del sel is cheaper in Paris. You’ll realize that you were once a girl who bought chickens and cigarettes in bodegas, so how is it that you know the word, fleur del sel? You’ll see men arrange flowers. Women arrange fish heads. Children arranging themselves around one another. You’ll hear, Ça va? over and over again. You’ll suck on an orange rind, and then wonder if it’s dangerous, but you do it anyway. You notice no one thinks you’re American. You leave. You can’t figure out where a certain street is located on your iPhone map until a girl unfolds an accordion map and shows you the way. You think that sometimes it’s good to have something to hold on to.

The Batignolles Biologique Market, 17 éme, is on Saturdays along Boulevard de Batignolles. Metro: Rome or Place de Clichy.

best eats in monterosso, italy: barabba bianca

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Can we rewind the clock a few days? Back to a time when I was speaking Spanish and dodging careening cars on the streets of Paris was not the norm? A few short days ago I was standing in front of an ocean scaffolded by the sun. The rocks were stalwart, marble and covered in moss, and the waves were azure, frothy and sometimes translucent. Dipping a toe into the cool water, part of me wanted to dive in. Make a blanket of the ocean. But someone, specifically my tour guide, Enrique, called to me. Feeding time, apparently.

What a joy, what a privilege to spend two hours at Barabba Bianca in Monterosso. Located directly in front of the sea, I spent time in these sun-drenched eatery with new friends and plates of hearty cheeses, perfectly-cooked pastas and cool gelato. The mussels were steeped in a local wine and butter, so my compadres said, and it was possibly the finest fish they’ve ever had. The focaccia was other-worldly, dressed in rosemary and local olive oil, and pared with sparkling water, I felt very much like a character in a Fitzgerald novel.

After, I planted myself on a rock and read until my skin turned a bright pink.

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