Wednesday, September 29, 2010

HFF Quickie: Nick's Cafe - Los Angeles, Ca

Finally made it to the venerable cop-owned Northeast Downtown/Lincoln Heights institution, Nick's. The breakfast and lunch dive is right across North Spring St. from the Los Angeles State Historic Park ("The Cornfield") in the midst of poultry wholesale warehouses and light/medium manufacturing.

At Nick's, your seating options are either at the u-shaped counter or at one of the outside tables and since this was an oppressively hot day we opted for the slightly cooler inside counter option. The young, friendly staff is quick and attentive, going against my immediate presumptions based on Nick's superficial similarities to Westwood's The Apple Pan where, great burger aside, the staff is old and not particularly spry. But on to the food.

We only went for the breakfast options so a lunch discussion will have to wait. Most of the breakfast options are some combination of eggs and ham (their signature), bacon or chorizo along with a few different pancake and French toast combinations.

I had the chorizo breakfast burrito which was enormous and delicious. Eggs, potatoes, jalapenos, and a load of chorizo stuffed into a giant tortilla. The whole burrito was quickly griddle before serving, a nice finishing touch. The eggs were of good quality, as was the chorizo. The jalapenos were a nice addition to the typical "egg-potato-meat" make-up of lesser breakfast burritos.

My companion had the French toast combination which was also quite good. Thick, hand-dipped slices of French toast with scrambled eggs and ham. The ham earns its reputation as the best cheap ham in town: thick-cut from whole ham steaks and crisped up nicely on the griddle.

Sure it's simple and cheap (our entire giant meal with coffee was $20) but virtually everything is hand made to order. No Sysco to be seen. It's the best diner dive breakfast I've had in LA period. Check it out.

Nick's Cafe
1300 N Spring St
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Can't we all just get along?

Our national wine dialogue is at a very adversarial stage right now. On one side, you have the "Natural Wine" et al faction that is staunchly advocating for wines produced as simply as possible with minimal human interference.

Because this styile is advocated by a young, hip set and because it stands directly opposed to the wine styles that have been popular in the major wine journals of the last decade, this has provoked something of a backlash from The Establishment.

Essentially we've pitted young wine geeks with black plastic eyeglasses and ironic pocket squares against overweight attorneys swilling Bordeaux from Riedel crystal while sitting behind a Commodore 64 running WordPerfect. Unfortunately, the conversation has ceased to be a discussion about quality wine making and has become a shouting match between two firmly entrenched sides.

This boiled over recently when Robert M. Parker, Jr. wrote this about his recent experience at a restaurant. The Twitter-sphere took umbrage to this particular part of his comments:

"Add the BYO and no corkage....and better precious sommelier trying to sell us some teeth enamel removing wine with acid levels close to toxic, made by some sheep farmer on the north side of his 4,000-foot foot elevation vineyard picked two months before ripeness, and made from a grape better fed to wild boar than the human species..."

I was not particularly shocked, as I already assumed Parker to be an out-of-touch ass when it comes to his understanding of the modern wine world, but the severity of his tone does reflect his frustration at the idiot level of wine hipsterism on the other side of the spectrum where, yes, some wines are selected purely for their absurd level of naturalism over all other criteria. Though I can't think of what real-life wine Parker could possibly be referring too.

My tastes do run toward the "natural," terroir-driven style of wine advocated by the wine Twitterati, but there can be excellent, well-made wines that do skew to the higher end of the alcohol spectrum. Also (d0n't shoot me) the presence of new French or (even) American oak in the right kind of wine can improve it. I promise it's true. Take, for instance, Ridge Zinfandels or the red wines from Paulo Laureano in Portugal.

It's not an all-or-nothing proposition and if you become so entrenched in your wine ideology that you're not going to even begin to entertain the validity of wines which exist outside of your vinous fiefdom you're going to miss out on a huge chunk of the world's wine and you'll miss the opportunity to try some gems.

(The only wines I would say to avoid on principal are giant production factory-farmed wines, the types of generic-labeled bottles on the bottom shelves at grocery stories and BevMo. These are character-less wines produced using destructive farming practices.)

And, really, what are the stakes in this game? You try a wine you might not like, have a few sips, and if you really don't like it then just move on to something else. That's it. Your world won't come crashing down, your balls won't retract into your abdomen and your wife won't leave you for her personal trainer. You just might have a mildly unpleasant taste in your mouth that'll go away quickly.

(And if you explain that calmly to your wife, maybe you'll stop arguing and find a new common ground in your marriage, too. I'd still recommend firing her trainer though.)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

HFF Quickie: Daikokuya Ramen - Los Angeles, Ca

Perhaps my greatest personal flaw is my contempt for groupthink. When I drive past a restaurant and I see a big line outside, my first thought is "look at those suckers, standing in line for THAT! Come on!" My internal monologue sounds like GOB from Arrested Development.

For unknown reasons, I do make exceptions for Japanese restaurants, which is how I ended up in a (rather short) line for Daikokuya Ramen in Little Tokyo for lunch on a Monday afternoon.

I fell in love with real ramen on my trip to Japan several years ago. It's simple, quick and delicious for an easy lunch and it's the absolute best at three in the morning after a weird and wild night at a Tokyo dance club. I'd heard from reputable sources that Daikokuya was among the best in Little Tokyo, so I checked it out with a friend from out of town.

The restaurant itself was exactly like most storefront ramen houses I went to in Japan: long and narrow with a long row of barstools bordering the kitchen and a row of small booths against the wall. The staff is quick and attentive and food is served promptly.

It was fucking delicious. The broth is made fresh daily from Kurobuta pork and is dense and redolent without being too salty. The thin-sliced pork strips melt apart in the broth, the egg is perfectly just-barely hard boiled and the noodles are firm and fresh while still being just Top Ramen-y enough to be charming.

Since it was a hot day, I opted for the tsuke-men deconstructed ramen where the noodles are served cold with the hot broth and accompaniments (pork, egg, bean sprouts, green onion) on the side and you dip the ingredients in the broth. (My dish was actually the kichi-men, which added shredded seaweed on top of the noodles and had a spicier broth.) As soon as the slices of fatty Kurobuta pork touched the broth they disintegrated into the soup. It was awesome.

My friend had the classic ramen and, based on his tasteful slurping and periodic moans, loved it. He also ordered the tsukemono pickles, which were tasty but largely ignored in our voracious attacks on the noodles and broth.

Prices are reasonable (about $9 for a big bowl) and on a Monday around 1PM the wait for two was less than 10 minutes. Well worth a visit.

The menu is fairly extensive with quite a few other soup, rice and appetizer options to be tried, but get the classic ramen on your first visit for the best introduction to real ramen I've had this side of Honolulu.

Daikokuya - Little Tokyo
327 East 1st St.
Los Angeles, Ca 90012
(Other locations in Costa Mesa, Monterey Park & Hacienda Heights)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Fogo de Chão - Beverly Hills, Ca

I'm not an opponent of chain restaurants in theory, merely in practice. Actually that's not entirely true: I'm mostly ambivalent toward inexpensive chain restaurants as they have a clear-cut valuable role in providing consistent cheap meals. I've also spoken mild praises of certain higher-end chains like Fleming's Steakhouse.

My only particular contempt is for the upscale casual chain restaurants like Cheesecake Factory or Buca di Beppo, where you get a very poor product in a faux-chic atmosphere for prices only marginally less than going to a solid neighborhood restaurant. They have no purpose in this world and should quietly tumble into the sea.

But this post isn't to report on an upscale casual chain restaurant that succeeds but rather to praise another fine-dining chain that does it right and does it well.

Fogo de Chão is a Brazil-based international chain of churrascarias, a type of steakhouse where roasted meats are served tableside, hand-carved to order from large skewers. This being my first trip to a churrascaria, chain or otherwise, I can't personally speak to its authenticity, though my Latin dining companion said it was fairly authentic.

For one flat price (around $40 for lunch and $60 for dinner) you have access to an excellent salad bar with selections ranging from mixed greans, Caesar salad and grilled asparagus to smoked salmon, potato salad and thin-sliced ham. At the table, you're given hot side dishes of mashed potatoes, cheese rolls, rice, sauteed bananas and fried polenta. Only the mashed potatoes were mediocre, with the grainy texture of instant.

Each diner has a small disk with a green side or a red side. Much like at a stoplight party in college, the color on the card indicates how much meat you're ready to take. Green side up means the passadores dressed like Brazilian cowboys will come to your table with any one of about a dozen different cuts of meat on spears and carve strips off on to your side plate. Flip your card over to the red side when you've had your fill (at least for the moment).

Like any good Latin American steakhouse, beef was king. In particular, the bottom round was excellently prepared as was the picanha. The sausages and chicken wings were only so-so and the leg of lamb was gamey and dry. The pork ribs were quite good, however. I didn't try the lamb chops or the pork tenderloin.

The wine list is well-selected and reasonably priced, and not just by Beverly Hills Restaurant Row standards. They could have more Portuguese and Latin American wines on the list, however, so as to be more authentic to the cuisine.

Desserts (not included in the price), with the flan and the tres leches both being excellent takes on those classics.

Overall, Fogo de Chão is a bit too intense of an experience both on the wallet and the colon to make a frequent habit, more so if you're a light-to-moderate meat eater like myself, but it's an excellent spot for a nice meal out, especially with a group of friends. It is somewhat vegetarian-friendly as Fogo de Chão offers a salad bar-only option for significantly less than the regular all-you-can-eat price.

Check it out, especially for lunch, when the lower price presents a significant value.

Fogo de Chão
133 N. La Cienega Blvd.
Beverly Hills, Ca 90211