Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Brisket, Worthy of the Smithsonian

April 19, 2009

After a few visits to what amounts to a simple looking, roving farmer’s market BBQ outfit, I reached barbecue Valhalla by way of the most tender, smoky, lusciously spiced brisket I may have ever had on the West coast. Simple words do not do it justice. The small stand (and catering operation) is known as Big Mista’s and has been showing up at local farmer’s markets in Los Angeles from urban Watts to beachside El Segundo. It’s tagline heralds their BBQ as “Real. Good. Meat.” And no words could be more apropos except perhaps for Real Excellent Beef. The proprietor, Neil, has been preparing BBQ on the champion BBQ circuit for a few years now along with a few teammates and has now expanded to serving up his delicious wares at stands across Los Angeles. My first few visits were delicious but not earth-shatteringly, mind numbing delicious in the way that the best barbecue can be. On my last visit, the menu changed to an a la carte, by the pound format, which was a welcome sign to me. A reminder of the much venerated but seldom copied Texas BBQ procedure in and around Lockhart,TX where slabs of smoked pit brisket is thickly sliced against the grain, weighed, plopped on butcher paper, and topped with a few token pickles and onions. No sauce. No forks. No knives. No nonsense. Just pure unadulterated BBQ. Big Mista’s brisket, pit smoked for hours on end, yields at the merest touch of your fingers. The smoke, tenderness, and layer of fatty pink on each slice encrusted with the choicest of spices is not just delicious but also more than authentic. Once again no sauce needed though Neil’s proprietary sauce is sweet but not saccharine and goes down real easy. Perhaps you can employ it as a digestivo after the meal. This is BBQ you must eat on the premises because it will not survive the trip back to your pickup or home. And if you take it back to your office, you may just be the envy of your coworkers who will surely prod you for a few slivers to which you must stand your ground. The sides are better than most around town. The paprika-laced potato salad is fine, worthy of lazy church picnics on sunny Sunday afternoons. The macaroni and cheese sends a rightful sucker punch to the Danish blue cheese, chevre infested, highfalutin versions that seem to end up the corporate managed hotspots that seem to pop in Hollywood or Brentwood on daily basis (although that may be somewhat of an exaggeration due to these recessionary times). Big Mista’s mac ’n cheese is the epitome of the dish like Kraft’s version, only better. Suffice to say, the mac ’n cheese is only served on an intermittent basis, specifically when Neil’s wife happens to feel virtuous in putting in the necessary time. I’d be remiss if I didn’t happen to mention the gargantuan, cream cheese frosted red velvet cupcakes, which are sweet in that most Southern of ways, but alas are largely an afterthought. Now if only they served some traditional sweet tea and had a sideline in small-batch Kentucky bourbon, I’d be in heaven.

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A Despondent “Two Lovers”

February 18, 2009

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Director James Gray has always been somewhat of a Cannes Film Festival sweetheart, though often his films have struck me as too melodramatic and too much of a different age. But this time with “Two Lovers”, his filmmaking style has come to fruition. The old fashioned storytelling along with the melodrama actually works. Hollywood filmmaking of a bygone era is revisited to exceptional effect here. The cell phones are a dead giveaway that the film takes place in the post-2000 world. Basically, our hero, Leonard (played by Joaquin Phoenix in a well-modulated performance) lost his fiancé and makes half-hearted attempts at suicide when we first see him. Uncomfortably, Leonard moved back in with his concerned, doting Jewish parents in their old apartment in Brighton Beach, an unfashionable, firmly middle-class section of Brooklyn, just outside of Coney Island. This novel situation brings him much internal strife. The sepia-toned cinematography and unglamorous atmosphere of authentic immigrant Brooklyn reinforces the somberness and sanguineness of the proceedings. At times, Leonard seems like he’s sleepwalking his way through a lonely existence. And yet, he meets and likes an attractive Jewish girl, Sandra (heartbreakingly rendered by Vinessa Shaw), which has been arranged by his parents, of course. Sandra and Leonard will not just be a couple, but rather a business merger of their respective parents adding an additional layer of stress to the proceedings. No matter, Leonard continues to trudge through life aimlessly.

Eventually he bumps into a very distraught, beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed girl, Michelle (a disturbingly raw performance by Gwyneth Paltrow). Leonard develops an unwavering love, bordering on infatuation toward Ms. Paltrow’s Michelle. At times, Leonard forsakes and distances himself from Sandra, the good girl from a good Jewish family. He misses dinner with her, cancels meeting, and makes fawning, clandestine phone calls to his exotic shiksa lover. Hence, we arrive at the title of this film. The film builds to unexpected though warranted conclusion. All the actors are at the top of their game including an older but still formidable Isabella Rosellini as Leonard’s concerned mother. Much has been made of Joaquin Phoenix’s drastic move from forsaking acting altogether and embracing a career as a musician. Hopefully, that is just temporary. If not, his performance in “Two Lives” will stand the test of time and live as one of the best performances in his limited but impressive oeuvre. Interestingly, “Two Lives” stands alone as one of the few romantic comedies made today without the comedy. Something Hollywood just does not seem to make anymore possibly due to fiscal and feasibility reasons, or perhaps the passage and extinction of a long gone era. Namely, something that does not seem fit snugly into a preconceived genre any longer. After all, we are in the YouTube age where everyone watches downloaded movies on a screen the size of a Junior Mint. Mr. Gray growth as filmmaker (he writes and directs his own films) has been elucidating to watch. Conceivably, he will continue to make films of outstanding merit, even if working against the tide.

Secrets of the Grain

February 18, 2009

“The Secret Of the Grain” refers to the Tunisian dish of couscous. Couscus makes itself known as the centerpiece of a meal gathering generations of a family at the dinner table every Sunday in Sete, a seaside town in southeastern France feeling the heat in the recession of the shipping and fishing industry. The extended family is presided over by their matriarch, Souad, who prepares the couscous along with vegetable soup and fried, fresh yellow mullet (a small Mediterranean fish) week in and week out at her spartan apartment. Alas, their 60 year old patriarch, Slimane, is never present at these bountiful, boisterous, and highly satiating meals. Slimane and Souad, Tunisian expatriates, divorced years ago and live apart. Souad got the apartment while Souad must settle for a Lilliputian flophouse in a down on its heels hotel peopled by poor, itinerant musicians and run by Slimane’s lover. In fact, his sons look on as Slimane solitarily eats his bowl of couscous and fish in his flophouse. Yet, Slimane becomes the glue that holds the whole family together. He has worked as a boat constructor and rebuilder for close to 35 years and the lines on his wizened face clearly attest to that. Slimane dutifully pays alimony, cares for his doting grandchildren, and drops by his ex-wife’s apartment with fresh mullet on a daily basis. Sadly, he gets the pink slip and must look elsewhere for work. All of which builds up to Slimane realizing his dream of opening a couscous restaurant on a decrepit though arduously retrofitted old ship, which Slimane refurbishes along with his sons.

Slimane goes from bank to bank and permit office to licensing office to fulfill the requirements of opening a restaurant. Alas, he comes up short and ultimately has a free grand opening to show his prospective investors what a superb restaurant it will be where he plans on serving his ew-wife’s justly famous couscous meal.

More than mere plot points and episodic events, “The Secret of the Grain” is simply and dramatically about family dynamics with Slimane as the stoic, static, ubiquitous presence. Astutely, the director- Abdel Kechiche- involves us in the lives of these people not as voyeur but rather as active participants. Whether documenting a mother desperately trying to potty train her daughter or Majid (Slimane’s son) aimlessly philandering with a bevy of women to the constant consternation of his long-suffering French wife, Slimane’s dynamic family could very well be our own. And that really says something about this little though indisputably profound film.

Wurstkuche, what did you say?

February 18, 2009

With a nom de plume that seemingly defies any attempt at pronunciation, Wurstkuche quietly opened along a previously seedy though now fashionable section of downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District. As part of its name would suggest this slender, narrow storefront serves up nothing but gourmet sausages (produced by an artisanal sausage maker), Belgian fries, and a wide variety of tasty brews and unique sodas for the teetotalers. There’s nothing quite like a hot sausage fresh from the grill placed on a toasted roll and Wurstkuche (say that three times faster) fits the bill nicely. Sausages run from a mild chicken Italian sausage to duck and bacon sausages to even a rattlesnake and rabbit sausage that will truly satisfy the adventure seeker or Fear Factor within you. They even have a number of vegetarian sausages as a modest concession to the vegan crowd. Ultimately, the French fries are delicious but they are far from Belgian, even though they are fried twice in the Belgian manner. The fries are more reminiscent of the fries you would get in a bucket at the old Great Western Steak, Hoagie, and Potato Co. stand that would make an appearance at virtually every mall’s food court worth its salt on the Western seaboard. Sadly, most of the Great Western’s locations have fallen out of fashion over the years. Suffice to say, the fries at Wurstkuche are definitely better than good and the variety of dipping sauces from blue cheese aioli to barbeque to curry ketchup easily help matters. If you like, you can even have your fries douse in white truffle oil for about a dollar extra. They may even be better than some of the sausages. And it would be almost sacrilegious not to wash down your meal with a beautifully sour Duchesse de Bourgogne from Belgium, which surprisingly appears on tap rather than in the usually petite bottle.

Most likely you will have to wait in line for a quarter of an hour or so until your sausage is ready. Even though the food items served up here do say “fast food”, they are anything but. Once your sausage and fries are ready, walk along the corridor to the adjacent, minimalist dining room, which seems to have doubled as a funky art gallery in the past. Then you are ready to eat. The sausage parlor has becomes something of a hit with the downtown crowd, though it is a good mile or so south of the main business district and courthouses.

a Faboulous Fab’s Chili Dogs in Reseda

January 26, 2009

The propiertor of Fab’s must have had faboulous in mind when naming his Lillupitian hot dog stand barely a year ago.  But also Fab’s is a stand in for his last name, Fabrocini.

Ultimately, who cares when the hot dogs are so delicious and the chili is an utter thing of beauty.

The small shoppe is houses barely three tables and a teensy, makeshift counter with all of two stools to sit at.  If you are planning to eat there, do get there early or at an off-hour.  The hot dog to get here is an all-beef hot dog, steamed (of course), topped with homemade ground beef chili (laden with choice spices and a hint of cinnamon) along with chopped onions and shredded fresh cheddar cheese.  The hot dog it almost goes without saying is imported by Mr. Fabrocini from a secret purveyor in New Jersey as our the Polish sausages and bratwursts.  He has truly put some thought and effort into his distinctive, gourmet hot dog stand.  The chili dog is better know as a Coney dog (not to be confused with a Coney Island dog) and its garlicky juices fill you mouth upon biting into the snappy, natural casing.  The almost gourmet chili seems to be a work of utter veneration and single handedly puts all mass market chili recipes to shame.  A trio of these dogs would make a hefty though all too delicous lunch, especially when washed down by a few Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray sodas.

It must be said that Fab’s also serves a deep fried hot dog unique to New Jersey known as a Ripper.  This hot dog is a heavy seller and essentially put Fab’s on the map.  Mr. Fabrocini and his wife have put a great deal of effort in to making this not just any old run-of-the-maill hot dog stand.  They live up to the fitting appelation of Pride of Ownership.

Remember to save me a seat when you go there, or else this review were all for naught.

The Pink’s Allure

January 26, 2009

Pink’s Hot Dog stand has always been an integral part of the Hollywood food scene.  Hard by the corner of Melrose and LaBrea, the small stand with plenty of outdoor, patio seating does brisk business at all times of the day or night.  Legend has it that a portly Orson Welles would drop by a regular basis albeit via a chaffeured limo and devour close to two dozen hot dogs in a single seating.  Welles may not only be one of the most famous filmmakers ever to live, but also a certified trencherman of the highest order who may even make two-fisted Diamond Jim Brady blush.

Though tourists, office workers, studio technicians, actors, and other cross sections of Los Angles visit Pink’s in large crowds, sadly, the hot dogs are not all that special.  The dogs do snap when you bite into them but they don’t quite have the requisite garlic and spices worthy of an amazing hot dog.  The chili is a gloppy mess, possibly a small step up from the corntarch-laden chili at the Wolrd-Famous Original Tommy’s and Tommy’s knockoffs scattered about town.  But somehow despite the quality people seem to still come here in droves.  Perhaps Welles himself preferred quantity over quality.

The Oscar Nominations

January 24, 2009

There’s nothing quite like waking up before the crack of dawn before even most Starbucks locations have opened for the day just to turn on the set and watch the nominations.  For diehard film buff, reporters, pundits, and journalists, this is de regieur at right about this time of year, towards the end of January.

Like every year in the past, a few suprises show up coupled with the classic, Hollywood stalwarts tackling the same style and thematic elements that seem to also show up year in and year out.

Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor” was a healthy surprise, not due to the quality of the performance, but becasue Hollywood never seems to recognize character actors and Mr. Jenkins has been pigeonholed as such for the better part of three decades.  His performance as a closed-off, introverted, economics professor who spreads his sea legs upon bumping into a pair of poor immigrants is beyond masterul.  His character arc develops fitfully throughout the course of the film and his dynamic portrayal of a possibly mundane situation is deserving of academic study.

On the best picture front, “The Reader” lapped up that nomination of nominations plus as slew of prestigious ones due to the machinations and balsy marketing on the part of executive producer the film through the productions ups and downs (especially when two of the producers Anthony Mingella and Sydney Pollack passed away).   The majority of critics and audiences have not taken to this film, although a few have.  It does represent a classic decision on the part of the academy to nominate a “prestige picture” (one with tangentially related Holocaust themes and based on a best-selling novel), which ultimately might make the nominations more of a guarantee than an underdog suprise.  I have actually quite enjoyed this picture and continue to believe it is one of the best of the year, whether the academy nominated or not.

I was suprised to see a nomination for Melissa Leo, in the little film “Frozen River”, which is quite possibly the best film I saw all of last year.  A gripping melodrama any Hollywood filmmakers would envy, “Frozen River” grips you from beginning to end and takes you through orgnaically suspenseful plot points in the way no mainstream Hollywood movie ever does.  Ms. Leo’s performance builds from a position of strength to a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking complex and rivets you the whole time.

Most of the remainder of the nominations represented business as usual for better or worse.  But in the end, Hollywood is Hollywood.

A Few Quick Reviews of Cheap Eats

January 24, 2009

From time to time, I will post brief reviews on restaurants in the Los Angeles.  Here’s is a quick roundup:

1. Yuca’s Hut, for great carne asada tacos, and cochinita pibil from the Yucatan section of Mexico.  They serve the tacos and great Steak sandwiches on French rolls from a tiny shack, the size of a phone booth, it’s on Hillhurst Ave, in the Los Feliz area, a few blocks east of Hollywood Blvd.

2. Monte Alban on Santa Monica Blvd, near Barrington, for great Goat Stew (the stew is reddish in color and spicey though not extremely incendiary and you throw in some greens to cut it down, along with other vegetables) and some great goat tocas.  They also serve up pretty good Oaxacon moles (a region or rather state in Southern Mexico).

3. Babita’s Mexicuisine, on San Gabriel Blvd, in San Gabriel, just a few miles East off downtown Los Angeles right now the 10 Fwy.  Great Mexican cooking from a myriad of regions in Mexico including Sinaloa.  But no tacos or burrtios are served up here.  Dishes such as shrimp and sauteed chicken with a tequila sauce, beef cheeks stew, salmon tartare stuffed into piquillo peppers with a dry, unsweetened strawberry sauce, along with other dishes.  It’s a tiny white shack that doesn’t look like it serves such fine cuisine from the outside.  And it’s not cheap, but Babita is far more far reasonably priced than restaurants on the Westside that can’t even hold a candle to the amazing cooking of the Chef Berrelleza).  It’s also a tiny hidden place that most will pass by on their way to somewhere else.

4. The Best Fish Tacos in Ensenada on Hillhurst, a few blocks South of Yuca’s Hut, for what else freshly fried fish tacos on soft, supple corn tortillas served piping hot, fresh from the fryer.  All you need is a trio of tacos and a soda are you’re good to go.  Except for a mandatory visit to the salsa bar.  And what a salsa bar it is.  There’s an amazing radish salsa, a superhot mango salsa as well as super hot pineapple salsa (the sweetness of the fruit does cut the spicyness down, though so it is not just spicy for the sake of being spicy) as well as your garden variety pico de gallo.

5. Aturo’s Home of the Puffy Tacos, in Whittier, for what can be simply described as Tex-Mex tacos.  The namesake Puffy tacos are deep fried taco shells (similar to an Indian fry bread) stuffed with picadillo, or shredded beef, or chicken, topped with shredded cheddar cheese, lettuce, and a nondescript (read: mild) taco sauce.   But these tacos really hit the spot.  I doubt they are authentic but who really cares when they are so delicious.  They also have a bunch of other gloppy, cheesy, Tex-Mex oddities.

Hawkin’s House of Mighty Fine Burgers.

January 24, 2009

The place to go once you are in Pasadena when the craving for a big, greasy fast-food burger hits is Hawkin’s House of Burgers, situated a couple miles north of the Old Town Pasadena district along Fair Oaks Avenue. It is a tiny storefront sandwiched between two much larger shops with a solo table outside with a Coca-Cola umbrella providing some shade. Suffice to say, most of their business is take-out. One has to wait since the slow food movement is more their speed than their fast-food atmosphere would lead you to believe. The homemade and well-spiced burgers are just the thing to get here. The chili cheese King burger is the go to order. A thick half pound of ground beef topped with their homemade chili, cheese, and lettuce and tomato. Perhaps, a couples slices of pastrami or a fried egg to gild the lily. They also offer a burger worthy of a Brobdingnagian trencherman. A gargantuan burger composed of a laundry list of hefty items including three full pound handmade beef patties, a few ounces of pastrami, three slices of cheese, a couple fried eggs, a couple hot links butter flied, lettuce, tomato, mustard, and oodles of homemade beef chili, a truly a sight to see. It arrives with a large order of French fries and a super size soda. Let’s talk if you happen to devour the whole burger in only sitting by yourself.

$3 a pop, but what a Beautiful Gourmet Donut

January 24, 2009


Stan’s Donut Shoppe (yes, the spelling of shoppe is correct) is no stranger to the donut business. He’s been around since Kareem was still known as Lew Al Cindor on UCLA’s championship basketball team. Nowadays the hungry, cash-starved students will patronize Didee Reese for cookies served up cheaply at 35 cents a pop (up from a quarter) or cheap filling ice cream sandwiched between two cookies. The queue here can border on the ridiculous at times. You can pay a student in cookies to wait for you in line or you can cross the street. There you will find Stan’s and his bountiful donut creations. We prefer his Peanut Butter and Banana donuts or Reese’s Peanut Butter Pockets (both studded with chocolate chips) over the more traditional chocolate iced or raised glazed. The peanut butter and banana number would make the King keel over appreciation were he still alive. These donuts are full of calories and full of flavors. One will do for at least one if not two people. Stan’s also offers a grab bag of donuts right at the closing hour where you pay a set price for a bag filled to the brim. The greasy cure to the munchies. You should make sure to bring even cash since the famed donuts go for two dollars each. A small price to pay for sugary, filling goodness.