I've written gushingly about Guisados in Boyle Heights, which still serves my favorite taco in Los Angeles. Follow me to this vibrant LA neighborhood just east of Downtown to see how tradition and family infuse the food at Guisados--and why they are building an LA empire, with additions in Echo Park and Downtown LA.
I’ve been having discussion déjà vu lately on the subject of Downtown LA. “Downtown is becoming the next Brooklyn,” I keep hearing, (although according to popular opinion, it will have to share that title with Oakland). “You’re having $15 cocktails at a speakeasy and you turn the corner and you’re on skid row!” or some variation on that platitude is another recurring theme. Ok, so I may be guilty of entertaining these discussions—even fueling them with my own aphorisms borrowed from KCRW stories on our most up-and-coming district. I think we can all agree that Downtown is a “developing” area; it’s not quite cool yet, not with most dining options still closing at 8pm and entire sections that look like tent cities, but there are areas where one could definitely spend an afternoon, probably even participate in some twee Portlandia-esque activity like a guided food crawl with a “food Sherpa.” These things exist. The Arts District is quickly becoming one of those sickeningly cute neighborhoods, still feeling undiscovered and raw, but with specialty shops, artisan coffee and hidden cafes popping up left and right. Right now, in fact, I am enjoying an alfresco dining experience in an adorable ivy-covered brick alley off of Industrial Street, sitting at a rustic wooden table, under a blue umbrella and a string of exposed light bulbs. I had a sandwich on olive bread with purple potatoes, a house made veggie patty, ancho chile jam and buratta in it. I struck up a conversation with a lifestyle blogger from Montreal. There is wifi. I even parked for free. Daily Dose is the perfect embodiment of the new wave in the Arts District—tucked away with only a wooden sign guiding you in its direction, you don’t happen upon this place. It is not yet an area that generates foot traffic. You come here because you are looking for this casual and lovely lunch or brunch spot, where you can eat outside, where you enter through creaky screen doors and order artisan sandwiches off of a simple menu that warns they may run out of ingredients around 2pm. It’s a cute place. And they do a nice job of combining flavors—a crunchy baguette with Serrano chiles, akawi cheese (a soft white Middle-Eastern cheese), avocado, arugula and sauce verte provides a fresh and filling lunch. My Farmer sandwich was heartier, more dangerous—who would think that a veggie patty topped with not only purple potatoes but two kids of sauce, avocado, creamy cheese and heirloom tomato would be delicious? But it was—sweet and savory, soft but not mushy, with a bite of salt from the olive bread, a perfect marriage of flavors. One sandwich provides an ample lunch for even a hungry 6-foot college student like my brother, and will only run you $9-11.
And then there’s the neighborhood. You can wander down the street, past the original bearer of gentrification here, the excellent bistro Church and State, and across to Urban Radish, a painfully adorable specialty market, where I personally want to buy every single item for my (imaginary) home larder. Dark chocolate bars with crunchy bits of honeycomb inside; short-seasoned produce like stinging nettle and watermelon radish; gourmet frozen burritos; brightly colored kitchen utensils; duck Nduja from the charcuterie counter. Nearby you can take your pick of artisan roasted coffee, at either my favorite Portland/NYC transplant, Stumptown, or the Downtown stalwart Handsome Coffee Roasters, which was recently purchased by San Francisco’s Blue Bottle, the progenitor of the artisanal coffee movement. And of course there is LA’s hippest new food truck, Guerrilla Tacos, an Alain Ducasse-trained chef’s constantly rotating take on street food, which parks outside of Blacktop Coffee most days during lunchtime. Apparently after Blue Bottle bought Handsome, Handsome's founder set out to create another community-oriented coffee shop--a brief origin story of Blacktop, of and Guerrilla Tacos' move from their former parking spot outside of Handsome.
This part of LA still has the charm of feeling somewhat unexplored, and at least for now, Daily Dose is pleasantly uncrowded on a Friday afternoon at 2. So catch it while you can—as with all good, things, the masses are sure to descend upon it shortly. It will be featured on the Food Network and you’ll have to wait an hour for your sandwich and Kombucha. Soon afterwards, Brooklyn will be declared as dead as Pittsburg and Watts will be the new Austin. Maybe.
The Sausage Fest tradition began in college. We frequented a San Francisco eatery called Rosamunde that offered gourmet sausages in all varieties, from Knockwurst to Andouille to Wild Boar. That was a simpler time, when Rosamunde was a standing-room-only unless you want to eat in the bar next door, kind of a place. They have now expanded to four locations, including one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and they serve brunch. We were going there when the Mission location was still a little seedy, instead of being one of the hippest and most sought-after places to live in the country. But we’re trendsetters that way. We used to buy up a boatload of raw sausages from Rosamunde, bring them back to our apartment off-campus in Menlo Park, where we had furnished a 1000-square foot two-bedroom with one mini-futon from Ikea, a shoddy unfinished birch 4-seater dining table and a small charcoal Weber grill, and we gathered all of our friends for beer and grilled meat. It was a blast. And more importantly, it was a tradition.
In our quest for gourmet sausages worthy of The Fest when we moved to LA, we discovered a holy grail of exotic sausage. Wurstküche goes beyond your average elevated street dog and offers duck and bacon sausages, alligator and pork sausages, even rattlesnake and rabbit sausages. An adventurous eater can go wild here. They still have the classics, of course: a delicious hot Italian, Brats, and I love the buffalo, beef and pork with chipotle peppers. They have a few different tasty chicken and turkey sausages for the Kosher or health-minded among us, and like Rosamunde, they even offer vegan sausages, and not bad ones either. So everyone can get in on the action.
Wurstküche is also housed in a great space, open and airy and light during the day with a nice ivy-lined patio and fire pit, and clubby and hopping at night. The brick interior features a long bar with many, many taps of constantly rotating Belgian and German craft beers, a different glass for each and every one lining the wall. I asked my husband and our friend Mel to join me for an afternoon of sausages and beers at Wurstküche, and I brought my film crew along too so you could experience the delight of Belgian fries, Merguez sausage and Guden beer firsthand. Please enjoy!
Special thanks as always to my crew, the fabulous David and James Codeglia of Ghostlight, and my producer extraordinaire, Hesley Harps.
I love the atmosphere of Fat Spoon in Little Tokyo downtown--I feel I've been transported to a neighborhood diner in Japan where businesspeople converge after work for their fix of familiar favorite dishes. Or at least a neighborhood diner in a Haruki Murakami novel. I won't pretend to be an expert on actual Tokyo dining establishments. You know how I treasure an opportunity to get big chefs' food for cheap, and that's just what you'll find at Fat Spoon. Michael Cardenas (sounds hispanic, cooks Asian,) is also the chef/co-owner of Lazy Ox Canteen, and a definite rising star in the LA food scene. Not that he's new to fine dining--he spent 5 years managing Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills before opening Sushi Roku, and then finally going out on his own. But now, executing his vision at his three downtown restaurants, Cardenas has seized the opportunity to shine in his own right.
Lazy Ox, Los Angeles Magazine’s “Best New Restaurant 2010,” is an inventive small plates establishment serving the usual alternative cuts of meat like pig ear and beef tongue in interesting and delicious ways, as well as quite a few really nice vegetable offerings. It's moderately priced, but you're not going to get out of there for under $30 per person. So you can imagine how delighted I was to hear that Cardenas' newest venture would be a casual Japanese curry spot. I've been on a real Japanese kick lately, craving either sushi, katsu, udon or ramen more or less every night. (Look forward to a post on the only restaurant I know in town serving Japanese breakfast.) I'm not sure if it's all the Murakami I've been reading or the fact that Japanese cuisine is so varied and comforting without being heavy (or maybe it's because Sawtelle is so much closer to me than San Gabriel Valley) but I've been sampling a wide variety of both Japanese and Korean katsu lately, and Fat Spoon's pork katsu curry is a real winner. Crispy and with minimal grease, served over a mountain of rice, the cutlet is divine when combined with the special curry sauce that comes with it, served in a gravy boat to facilitate either dipping or pouring. I must say that Japanese curries have never excited me particularly--you usually really have to be in the mood for the thick, tangy stuff. It's not sweet or spicy like Thai or Indian curry, and it's generally rather pungent. But Fat Spoon's curry is subtly spiced, perfectly balanced and truly delicious. There's an undertone of slow heat, but it's definitely not going to make you sweat; there is a savoriness that's quite pleasant. The beef curry is no exception, the meat so tender it requires nary a chew. If the beef tongue curry is on the blackboard it's not a bad idea--it's the same dish as the beef curry, only with fattier, meltier, thicker slices of meat. All of the curries run around $10, and since they're served with rice and you can add veggies for only $1, they make a very satisfying one-plate meal.
Fat Spoon may not be the pioneer of a new downtown dining movement that Lazy Ox was, but it's comfortable, delicious, and just weird enough not to be boring. There are a few bizarre offerings on the menu--the pasta section isn't what I would typically expect in a Japanese restaurant--so if you're looking for adventure you won't be disappointed. Wash down your meal with a crisp, cold Echigo beer, and listen for the call of the wind-up bird. It won’t come, but you get the picture.
I’ve been wanting to check this place out since Los Angeles Magazine championed it as one of the city’s 10 best new restaurants, so last night we headed over to the downtown market where this food stand/sit-down restaurant resides. If that sounds strange, it’s because it is. The restaurant is located in a warehouse style space, with markets and clothing stands, kind of like the Farmer’s Market at the Grove, but indoors and Hispanic. It is a lot like a marketplace I went to Puerto Vallarta, so I guess it makes sense. Except there’s a Thai food stand in the corner. Anyway, they still have to work out some kinks—it took over half an hour for them to make our food, and considering we ordered a ceviche I was a little concerned we would die of old age before getting the main course, but they were apologetic and gave us a free purple corn drink, which was quite tasty, kind of a mix between a Jamaica agua fresca and an acai cocktail. They also have an odd seating system. There were a bunch of free tables when we got there, but we had to put our name on a list. Immediately afterwards we were seated, at the table next to where we had seated ourselves before we knew about the list. In any case, it was all worth it when the food arrived. The ceviche was what most critics have raved about, and it was delicious. It’s not the ceviche we’re used to, rather it’s the Peruvian kind, more of what I would identify as a fish carpaccio in a citrusy, tangy, spicy sauce. It is wonderful. But whatever you do, please do not miss the arroz con pollo. I haven’t had chicken this tender since Michael Voltaggio’s pressed chicken in the chestnut soup at the Langham Huntington. And that chicken cost…well, it was part of a tasting menu that ran me a cool $79. This chicken costs $11. I asked the server how they cooked the chicken, because it was so impossibly tender and juicy I thought maybe it was done sous-vide, but he said they sprinkled garlic and spices on it and put it in the oven. I think he’s lying. I don’t blame him. If I could make chicken that good, I would keep the recipe a secret too.