Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bar Hop - Downtown LA

So I live in Downtown LA now, which I absolutely love. And I'm aware of the humor that it was only after moving to the most suburban of big cities that I actually moved into a city center to live in a converted warehouse on a rutty street with close-up views of LA's idiosyncratic downtown skyline.

A friend informed me that our lack of towers and spires is due to the arbitrary decision to require all skyscrapers in LA to have a helipad on top. True.

I'd been out a few times in downtown prior to my move but not recently. And since I moved to the "Arts District" I've only really been out in my 'hood and adjacent Little Tokyo, since the rest of downtown is blocked off by a moat of warehouses and poop-on-your-car hobos. That all changed last week.

After our below-mentioned dinner at Barbrix, the restaurateur colleague of mine headed back to my place and called a cab to truck our asses into the Old Bank District/Historic Core/Whatever the fuck marketing name realtors come up.

But first we needed to make a stop.

"Kind Eddy's" my colleague told the cab driver, who looked at us with a mix of awe, shock, and disdain.
"What's that?" I asked.
"A dive bar in Skid Row."

Damn. I wore my good wristwatch.

"Here." My colleague requested to the cabby. The cabby seemed concerned that he was stopping three storefronts away from the bar.
"You sure you don't want closer?"
"Nah man, it's cool."

And out we went. We strolled past a few Skid Row denizens, including a gentleman being arrested by a pair of LA's finest, with no harassment and popped into King Eddy's at the corner of 5th & San Pedro.

(It should be noted that, thanks to a rather vigorous ramp up of law enforcement coupled with an increase in social services, Skid Row is actually a pretty decent 'hood. It's dirtier than SF's SoMa, but seems safer overall. The drug problem has been more or less addressed and reduced to small-time pot dealers hocking "cabbie" and prostitution in this most sex-focused of cities is unenforceable at best, so what you're left with is, well, people who live on the streets and/or in the many [many] SRO hotels in the area.)

On to King Eddy's. Just like the trailer for an internet porn site that tricks you into getting a trial membership, the idea that was presented on paper of King Eddy's was so much more appealing than what the bar actually was. Because "cheap ass dive bar in Skid Row" sounds as immediately intriguing as "Big Tits Round Asses," by the fourth or so video it gets pretty tedious and now you're on the phone trying to cancel before the monthly rebill kicks in.

Point being, once you get inside, King Eddy's is your pretty prototypical dive. Cheap drinks. Cheaper food (reheated stuff from Costco). And a clientele drawn from the neighborhood: the homeless/underhomed, legitimately employed SRO occupants, the aforementioned small-time dealers, a handful of ladies/transwomen of the night, and a cluster of the young and adventurous. The bar boasts an "A" Health Department grade and is "Zagat Rated." It also has great flat screen TVs, friendly bartenders, and a dude in latex gloves whose sole job is to walk around with a rag and disinfectant spray and clean off every surface regularly. Cool.

After our beers we left and walked the not-even-two-blocks to Main St., which begins the "real" gentrified downtown LA. It'd be like if you your first girlfriend was a chubby transwoman you picked up at King Eddy's and your second girlfriend was Scarlett Johansson AND you picked up the latter while still copulating with the former; that's how proximal $$$ downtown LA is from !!! downtown LA.

First stop, some queer speakeasy-ish bar (Varnish) in the back of Cole's. It was nice, but that whole "mixology" thing is so 2005. And I wouldn't even have minded except that I ordered a "well Manhattan, up" and I was immediately informed that they "don't have a well." The fuck you don't have a well. Every place has a well. Well just means whatever the fucking default spirit is you serve you pretentious douche. I understand that this might mean that my drink still costs whatever the going rate is for a premium cocktail. I get that. All I was indicating by my request was that I want something simple, classic, and quick. And I would've forgiven even that except the waitress THEN asked if I'd like to try some fucking rye and bullshit drink on their "cocktail list" as if I should be fucking honored to try some fucked concoction that a couple of high on their horse 22 year-olds came up with while stoned. I cut her off mid-sentence. The drinks took for fucking ever, too.

But my Manhattan was, actually, excellent.

Next stop was The Association. Now this was a bar I could support. Good vibe, friendly bartenders, appropriately lit, and a cocktail list made up of nothing but standards from the golden age of American drinkin'. They proudly proclaim that their "newest" drink recipe is the James Bond-inspired Vesper dating from the 1950's. We can never hope to match the drinking prowess of our grandparents, but if we hope to even come close we need to master the drinks they drank: boozy and strong and not the queer shit made up of syrups and homemade bitters and fresh squeezed juices that pass for "cocktails" in places like Varnish. My French 75 was fabulous.

Following the Association, we went to the Crocker Club. Located in an old bank vault, complete with thick swing-open vault door and booths set off in money cages, the Crocker Club was pretty cool. At this point I was drunk as hell so I really don't remember much, but my overall feeling was quite positive.

And then our evening took a turn for the awesome, because we hopped into a cab and headed back across town to Sam's Hofbrau.

Sam's Hofbrau is a strip club straight out of From Dusk 'Till Dawn, minus the vampires but with a lot of guys who look like Harvey Keitel. It's a topless/bikini place so there's plenty of booze to be had and a good mixed up crowd of equal parts men and women, hipsters and gangbangers. No cover. Cheapish drinks. Delightfully authentic dancers. Five thumbs up.

Last stop before a cab dragged our asses back to my apartment was a taco truck parked just outside. It was the best fucking taco I've ever had.

Because every drunk 3AM taco is the best fucking taco you've ever had.

Where we went:
King Eddy's - 131 E. Fifth St.
Varnish - 118 E. Sixth St.
The Association - 610 S. Main St.
The Crocker Club - 453 S. Spring St.
Sam's Hofbrau - 1751 E. Olympic Blvd.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Barbrix - Silver Lake, Los Angeles

In what is the earliest initial visit HFF has ever made to a new restaurant, I headed to Barbrix with a restaurateur colleague on their third day open. It was rockstar fabulous across the board, even at this early stage.

We showed up early to kick off our evening that ended up wending through some of the seamier parts of Downtown Los Angeles (King Eddie's anyone?)--but that's a different post. Our early arrival was inadvertently shrewd as the place was packed with a line out the door by 7PM.

The space is well designed and pleasantly simply--a welcome relief from the oft overexecuted ripped-from-the-Hanging-Gardens-of-Babylon LA dining rooms that would be more appropriate as VIP lounges in Vegas strip clubs. There's a front patio with a cluster of tables, a big square wine bar in front, a bunch of tables (actual tables), and a back dining counter at the open kitchen.

The wine list is stellar (no surprise given co-owner Claudio Blotta's track CV) and dirt dirt cheap. No glasses over $10. No bottles over $55. A handful of very good bottles for under $20. A global selection of small-production labels, the most quotidian of the bunch is the Qupe Syrah. Wines on the list are priced only nominally over retail and well under the 3x wholesale bench mark that even the most casual LA restaurants seem to use as a starting point.

We went with one of the priciest bottles, the Sean Thackrey Sirius Petite Sirah at the absurdly low price of $55 on the freakin' list. Delicious, subtle complexity, pleasurable without tasting a damn thing like stewed prunes and grape jelly. Paso Robles this isn't.

We had a lot of food (it's all small plates), so I'm sure I'm forgetting stuff. Roasted cauliflower salad was great, very well done. Wild boar sausage with white bean ragout was fabulous. Porchetta-style pork belly was really nicely cooked, though the skin was absurdly (bordering on inedibly) crisp. Shrimp and chickpea "tortillas" (actually soccas): very good. Crostini misti (crescenza/fig/prosciutto, favetta & pecorino, jidori chicken liver pate) rocked, particularly the pate. Crispy grilled polenta with mushrooms: simple, tasty. The kitchen proved adept at the eclectic menu, showing themselves just as at home with pasta (an excellent beet arancini). The only so-so dish was the pork rillettes. It was fine, but I wanted stronger seasoning and a little more fat.

Now here's where it gets really weird. Service was excellent. When I walk into an LA restaurant staffed mostly by cute girls in their twenties (which is every restaurant that isn't staffed by ripped men) I'm immediately skeptical. The emphasis on looks above all else in a service staff has rendered LA service either mediocre and neglectful or eerily over-trained but under-engaged, vacantly rattling off info about the menu like a Hungarian speaking English phonetically. But at Barbrix the staff was very well-trained (you can tell they've had the opportunity to taste everything on the menu) while remaining honest and personable. I like idiosyncratic service. I like individual service. I like personality. The fact that everyone's hipster pretty (it is Silver Lake, after all) is merely a bonus.

And, seriously, I'm not trying to blog-fellate Barbrix but it's just so easy: even our fucking espressos were perfectly pulled, nice temperature, thick crema.

Our tab was like $150 including a generous tip, but that was with a pricey wine and way too much food. You could easily eat there for $30-$35 a head with wine. That's the sweet spot for a neighborhood place, which is what Barbrix is (and doesn't pretend to be anything else). It's the price that'll get locals in on a weekly basis. A lot of affluent and adventurous people live in the neighborhood and they need a place to eat. Keep the prices down, the menu evolving, and the atmosphere friendly.

It's a simple formula but incredibly easy to fuck up (cf. most every restaurant in Los Angeles).

2442 Hyperion Ave.
Los Angeles, Ca 90027

Monday, May 11, 2009

HFF Reexamines: The Tax Question

EaterLA linked to this article in Bon Apetit regarding tipping on takeout and delivery. I agree wholeheartedly on takeout: tip a couple bucks, regardless of price. The author's opinion on delivery is also good, 15%-20%. Though I'd bump that down toward 15% on the scale actually as a delivery driver is, generally, tipping out much less than a server at a sit down restaurant. A server is going to tip out 20%-40% of his gross tips in a given night, a driver very little if any.

But here again that canard of tax comes into play: "at least 15 to 20 percent of the check before tax," he writes.

You should tip AFTER tax. Always. Here's why: a server has to pay taxes based on GROSS sales. Because of years of service staff underdeclaring tips and restaurants turning a blind eye, the IRS set a benchmark a several years ago of a minimum assumed tip income of 8% of gross sales, information which the restaurant has to provide as part of its payroll accounting. Not net sales, gross sales. Gross sales include tax.

So if a server grosses $200,000 in a year, the IRS will assume a minimum tipped income of $16,000 on top of his or her wage income for the year. When you factor in tip-outs and (in some cases) credit card service charge deductions, you get a situation where if you tip less than 10% the server is at best breaking even, at worst losing a bit of money.

That distracts from the main point, though: why does a small fraction of a small fraction matter? I know sales tax went up, but not by much. The difference between tipping before and after tax is the difference of 9.25ish% of whatever percentage you were planning to tip. A 20% tip? It's a difference of 1.85% of the total bill. Assume you have a $200 (before tax) tab. A 20% tip would be $40 before tax or $43.70 after.

You're really going to squabble over $3.70? And that's on a sizeable tab. More importantly, are you really going to squabble over $0.37 on a $20 tab? It's not a procedural issue, it's a generosity issue. When I go out (restaurants, bars, hotels, cabs) I smile, say thank you, and tip generously. I don't make a lot of money, but I'm probably making a bit more than whoever's serving me (or maybe not). And those few extra bucks I spend in gratuity come back to me in the form of better service, room upgrades, neighborhood discounts, and free drinks. It takes time to build those relationships, but they pay off.

So here's HFF's ironclad rule for tipping: for competent, attentive service tip at least 20% after tax. Only for egregiously rude service should you tip less than 15%. Period. When in doubt, round up. Those extra pennies will come back to you, as the no doubt racist idiom goes, "in spades."

Bizarre Foods: LA

So I'm watching Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods trip to LA (I know it aired last fall, but I missed it then so bear with me).

Cool stuff. A lot of things I didn't know about. For instance: Typhoon, the Pan-Asian restaurant at the Santa Monica Airport of all places. It's time to put my krugerrands where my mouth is and head to Typhoon to try crickets, scorpions, Thai white sea worms, and ants. Who else is in?

I'm also embarrassingly underfamiliar with LA's taco trucks, having have eaten at all of, well, one I think. Maybe two. I was really drunk.

And his visit with Nobu Matsuhisa is a reminder of what happens when true, honest innovation takes hold: you have a bunch of plastic surgeried housewives eating octopus tiradito and uni shooters. When culinary risk-taking comes from a lifetime of experience coupled with blind (perhaps even foolhardly) commitment to the correctness of your culinary decisions you get great authentic food that is approachable.

Take note.

Monday, May 04, 2009

HFF Quickie: Street - Los Angeles, Ca

Had lunch at Street, the love-it-or-hate-it new restaurant from Susan Feniger located in Hollywood on Highland just off of Melrose.

Pretty good stuff. Their lunch combos featuring your choice of a small salad and small dumpling plate for about $14 is a good deal. My radish cake with sweet Chinese sausage and egg was more than awesome and my "New Jerusalem" bread salad with jerusalem artichokes and feta was also nice, though I prefer softer bread than the garlicky croutons served here. They're tough to stab with a fork.

Sweet and spicy millet puffs served in lieu of bread are delicious.

The table also shared the puri appetizer which was simple and tasty and a dessert of Turkish doughnuts glazed in rosewater. Retarded good.

Service was friendly and knowledgeable. Food took a little bit longer to come out of the kitchen than it probably should, especially the doughnut dessert which took quite a while.

Street's interesting, fresh, and reasonably priced given the quality of the ingredients and the space. Check it out.

742 N. Highland Ave.
Los Angeles, Ca 90038

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Budwesier American Ale

Let's go back in time, shall we?

It's 1919 and everyone's sittin' pretty. America has had two centuries of quality small-production local brewing, wine making, and distilling. We're kickin' it, enjoying a brew or three--and a lot of whiskey and gin--and well on our way to becoming the biggest swingingest dicks on the planet. And then.... WHAM-O! Prohibition and the Vosltead Act come right out of the blue and end boozing as we know it in America.

(It should be noted at this point that Prohibition as a movement had existed in America since its founding and many states had already enacted alcohol restrictions and outright exclusions at the time the Eighteenth Amendment had passed. And the passing of the Volstead Act did in no way end the production, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages in America. -ed.)

The greatest casualties of Prohibition weren't American Law & Order or the scores of deaths from organized crime bootlegging or Joseph Kennedy's acquisition of massive wealth. Hardly. The greatest casualty was America's boutique winemaking and, especially, its tradition of (for the lack of a better term) microbrewing.

Brewing is an intimate endeavor. Unlike winemaking, which can be done essentially spontaneously, even the crudest, crappiest beer requires a significant level of human involvement. Brewing requires cooking. Beer is nowhere near as shelf-stable as wine or spirits. Brewing requires fires and cauldrons. Brewing is best done where it had always been done until the late 1800's: small, local breweries. Every tavern brewed its own beer, kept in casks in the cellar for the consumption of guests and villagers. Monasteries brewed beer. And even when beer production began to be industrialized, the cost of transport kept beer an, at best, regional endeavor.

Finally, a few American entrepreneurs, perhaps Adolph Coors most notably, took advantage of a few technological innovations (primarily refrigerated rail) to begin distributing beer super-regionally, just in time for the banishment of alcohol production in America.

Prohibition killed every small brewery in America. Big breweries which were backed by larger holding companies could stay in business producing near-beer or malted milk, putting a handful of well-heeled giants in prime position to expand once the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed.

(Wine was spared such a fate because many wineries could stay afloat making sacramental wine and by selling grapes to home winemakers. Smaller production winemaking was able to recover more quickly than brewing, though it did take several decades.)

When Prohibition was repealed it wasn't a magic switch that Roosevelt flipped to send all the booze flowing again: individual states, counties, and cities reallowed booze at their respective pace (Kansas didn't allow on-premise liquor sales until 1987), creating a situation that only large brewers could exploit. Advanced refrigeration and transportation techniques created a national distribution network and, in the grand Cold War American tradition, beer became as homogenous as the nation we pretended to be.

But pretend homogeneity is just that. As the long tail of America grew and grew, shrewd innovators began to capture the lucrative market of the disaffected and craft brewing came back strong. In 1977 Jimmy Carter formally legalized homebrewing and American beer lovers began reproducing the beers they had drunk and loved in Britain, Germany, Belgium, and beyond. Some of these homebrewers had enough success to make the foolish decision to go commercial and, even more foolishly, succeed at that as well.

So full and complete was the craft brew revolution that the big American brewers belatedly tried to jump back into the game, like Chrysler attempting a hybrid a half-decade into the post-Prius world. First, macrobreweries half-heartedly made some of their own niche beers (remember Red Dog? No? Good). When that failed, macrobreweries began partnering in distribution deals with successful smaller brewers. Have you ever noticed that Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen is almost ineveitably lined up next to Anheuser-Busch beers at bigger bars? That's why.

Instead of opening the doors for smaller brewers, these partnerships succeeded in macro-izing formerly niche producers like Sierra Nevada, Pyramid, Sam Adams, and Red Hook--to the detriment of all (based on my purely empirical evaluation).

Eventually the American macro-breweries gave-up, quit, and let themselves be bought-out by bigger, more diversified European beverage companies.

So where are we now?

Budweiser has released a malty, dry-hopped "American Ale." And it's not bad at all. It tastes significantly like Newcastle, but with a bit more hoppy bite on the finish. Good structure, but a bit lean on the mid-palate. Actually, I'd call it a dead-ringer for Newcastle, if not a slight improvement thanks to the added edge of hops on the finish.

Couple this with Michelob's pleasant Amber Bock and maybe we're seeing macrobreweries returning to their roots. Because if you can't beat them (or buy them out) you might as well join them.

Maybe Budweiser can capitalize on the hipster anti-elaborate backlash and chisel themselves a Pabst-like niche with craft brew-lovers who've become disenchanted with the douche-y developments in the last decade or so of American microbrewing (how many neo-Belgian beers do we need? Seriously!); a mainstream punk rock volley against the eighteenth note nonuplets of late 70's prog.