Monday, May 24, 2010

HFF Quickie: Food Trucks at the Silver Lake Jubilee

I spent last Sunday at perhaps the best street fair ever, the Silver Lake Jubilee. Besides enjoying some relatively reasonably priced Firestone Walker beer and a beard-y (and newly unemployed) Jeremy Sisto, there were a shitload of food trucks. I ate at some of them. This is my story.

Calbi. I've been wanting to try this dubious Kogi knock-off for a while, since there's always a truck parked in my neighborhood. The first attempt at a true corporate food truck (a team led by an ex-Baja Fresh exec is spearheading the franchising), Calbi is pretty much a textbook cynical ripoff, which I admire. Overall it was okay. The spicy pork was solid and similar to Kogi, though the accompaniments were not as good and the tortilla kinda sucked.

Maui Wowi. So I'm not 100% sure that this is where I ate, but I'll go with it. I had a crispy tofu bun (bao) and it was delicious. Crispy, nicely spicy tofu on a very fresh, moist and soft bun. The pork belly bun also looked good.

India Jones. Perhaps the highlight of the day. I had a paneer "Frankie," which is onions, tamarind, egg, and (in this case) paneer cheese, wrapped in a roti. Densely flavorful and very inexpensive. And it's one of the few food truck snacks that was really built to easily eat on the go.

Cool Haus. So, look, the ice cream was really good (I had the bacon and brown butter) and the cookies were good too. But.... over a half an hour in line for ice cream haphazardly slapped between two cookies? For $4? The crowd got to Cool Haus and they were sloppy with the service. And despite the hectic crowd, the one (that's right, one) guy making sandwiches was talking on his cell phone. Each sandwich took close to five minutes to serve because of a weird insistence on allowing the teeming mobs of hipster douches to taste and customize every sandwich. Next time at an event like this? Pick like three or four combos and pre-make the sandwiches. Everyone will be happier.

World Fare. The coolest food truck in town because it's in a double-decker bus with seating on the roof. Had the macaroni and cheese balls (smoked cheddar, because truffles are for mumblegrums). The balls were alright, needed more salt.

And that was the extent of the compelling trucks. I suppose I should've hit up Frysmith and I would've hit up the Dim Sum Truck except it wasn't there. But there's time.

So, some pretty good food truck opportunities presented themselves--this was what the Food Truck Food Fare wanted to be but failed at in its ill-conceived Icarus-like aspirations. Good stuff.

Monday, May 17, 2010

HFF Rant: Arbitrary Hours

So it's 9:30 on a Sunday night. I have a friend in town who just drove down from Northern California. We're hungry. We want to show him the town. First stop? A restaurant favorite of mine that's billed as open until 10PM. We get there? Locked up shut. Closed with a capital Q. Okay, fine. Understandable. Pretty close to their closing time and it was a Sunday night so they closed early. Fair enough.

Next stop? A wine bar in Downtown LA. Their hours are advertised as "daily from 11:30AM to late." That's the business equivalent of the high school party invitation: "9PM-???" Holy shit! Our party's so crazy we don't know when it's going to end! Except you're a business. You should know when your party's going to end. And when you advertise a post-11PM Happy Hour with drink AND food specials, perhaps your kitchen shouldn't be closed before 10PM. That kinda makes as much sense as a platypus and have you seen a fucking platypus?

Restaurants are not businesses to be run on whimsy. Unless I can see a restaurant's open sign from my window, I'm not going to drag my ass out to a restaurant that may or may not be open. Pick your hours, advertise them, and stick to them. That's how you'll build a loyal clientele. In a business full of flakes, reliability and consistency can go a long way to establishing your reputation.

And come on, a restaurant that's known for being open late--that makes a name for being open late--that advertises being open until late--and is shut down by ten o'clock? That's lame. If I'm hungry at say 11PM on a Tuesday, where am I going to go? The place that I know is open or the place that might be open? Even if I might prefer the second restaurant, I'm going to go for the first restaurant so I don't end up wasting part of my night.

Restaurants are not that different from any business. Success isn't rocket science. It's producing a quality product for a good value that people will enjoy. Google can't just decide to stop working because not enough people are googling and a hospital can't stop administering aid because not enough people are getting shot in their neighborhood. Restaurants can't just decide to close an hour early because, well, they just fucking want to.

It's bad business and will equal a failed restaurant.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Arts & Crafts

I’m a skeptic. Pretty much everything for me has, in legal parlance, a “rebut-able premise.” I’m not going to take as a given that anything is inherently worthy of worship, deference, or even just my being impressed.

Despite my passion for all things culinary, I regard very little of it as an art form–it’s a craft. Unfortunately we’ve de-emphasized the importance of craft in favor of the illusion of art. We want to perceive our memorable gastronomic experiences as moments of ephemeral genius rather than what they actually are: the culmination of years of training coupled with a bit of ingenuity and intuition. The fact is, anyone can cook. Anyone can cook competently with a bit of practice. But it takes years of chopping, slicing and sauteeing before you can work effectively in a commercial kitchen. Coming up with the menu is, in many ways, the easiest part of being a chef. Effectively training your staff to serve that menu consistently to a restaurant full of hungry, demanding diners at 7:30 on a Friday night is the tricky part.

Cooking in a restaurant isn’t cooking in a vacuum. You could come up with the greatest dish on the planet, but if it takes an hour to prepare and can only be cooked correctly one out of three times, it’s utterly impractical to serve in a restaurant. If there’s no way to effectively make a viable margin without charging $80 for your entree, it’s utterly impractical to serve at (most) restaurants.

I worked for a number of years as a bartender in the SF Bay Areaduring the nascent stages of the “mixologist” boom. We came up with a number of interesting, artisan-spirit driven cocktails with fresh herbs and fresh squeezed juices. Of course we just called them cocktails and charged $8 for them because we weren’t retarded. I’m not saying I was the best bartender on the staff, but I was effective and fast. I churned out consistent cocktails quickly, got my customers’ buzz going, and moved (in the words of Jay-Z) it was on to the next one. Perhaps I could’ve spent longer to ensure an exact ratio of bitters to grapefruit juice, but taste is relative and I’d rather be quick and effective than unnecessarily meticulously slow.

And that’s what makes for good craftsmanship, producing a quality product reliably and efficiently. We’re not painting the next Guernica: we’re mixing a fucking cocktail; we’re grilling a steak; we’re making an Albarino. I don’t want to wait twenty minutes for a cocktail, no matter how good it is. At that point, the bartender has failed in his craft. There’s no “worth the wait” when it comes spending $16 on a cocktail.

We should take pride in our craft. Craft is a noble thing and good craftsmanship is exceedingly rare. Good craftsmanship is being replaced by pretense to artistic glory fairly rapidly. Instead of the Wolfgang Pucks and Thomas Kellers who toiled in obscurity and honed their craft for years before achieving well-earned success, we have flash-in-the-pan “celebrity chefs” whose genius is extolled by publicists while their restaurants fail. Or worse, we have failed actors who consider themselves revolutionary because they decided to actually pay attention to what kind of booze they use in their Manhattans.

You’re not a revolutionary, you’re a douche with a Boston shaker.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

HFF Quickie: Senor Fish

Senor Fish is a name that doesn't inspire confidence. And its logo, a mustachioed and be-sombreroed fish that looks something like a Mario Bros. mermaid, inspires even less confidence. But finally, despite driving past nearly every location dozens of time, I've now dined there a couple times and I'll say that it's pretty good. Great? No. But good quality and reasonably priced.

First stop I had, what else, the fish tacos. Good fresh fish, fried crisp, and served on soft tortillas. Nice crema, mild salsa. A perfectly tasty white boy fish taco.

On my second trip I had the fabled scallop burrito. Delicious. Fresh-tasting (though no doubt frozen) scallops, whole pinto beans, crema, salsa. The usual. A nice combination of flavors and at seven bucks and change (and enormous) it's a freaking steal.

My only complaints are that the large flour tortilla for the burrito (not the ones for the tacos) is a bit too chewy and none of the salsas were particularly compelling in terms of default spiciness. I'll make it back to the Downtown LA/Little Tokyo location for their late night happy hour with $1 tacos, $4 margaritas, and $3 beers. It's a very cool space with an open bar area, indoor cantina dining, and a big outdoor patio.

It's simple, fresh honest food at a fair price.

Senor Fish Cocina & Cantina
(several other locations in the San Gabriel Valley)
422 E. First St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012