You’d be hard-pressed to find a country more obsessed with food than Singapore. Eating is the national pastime and working there in 2006 gave birth to some of my fondest food memories. Lunch breaks were spent gorging on bowls of laksa, hokkien mee, and char kway teow. I developed an unhealthy obsession over Hainan Chicken Rice and tried every notable joint in the city-state (Tian Tian emerged victorious). One memorable afternoon was spent hunched over Muthu’s spicy fish head curry, slurping up all the fiddly gelatinous bits. And I still long for the Heng “carrot cake” at the Newton Food Centre, which interestingly contains no carrot at all—just shredded radish fried with egg, garlic, and ketjap manis, a thick sweet soy sauce.
Years later, I’m still not exactly sure why Singaporean food tickled my stomach and pulled at my heartstrings. Was it how the local cuisine’s Chinese, Indian, and Malay influence spoke volumes about the country’s culture? Or maybe it was because food was the country’s great equalizer. No matter how famous or popular, dishes were affordable and everyone had to stand in line.
Or perhaps it was simply because the best Singaporean food was cheap, ubiquitous, and delicious beyond description.
So it was with cautious optimism that I entered The Spice Table, Bryant Ng’s Vietnamese-Singaporean restaurant in Little Tokyo. Given Ng was Pizzeria Mozza’s chef de cuisine and also cooked at Daniel in New York, I figured the food wouldn’t be a flop; but would it inspire the same joy I experienced back in Singapore years ago? Would it be authentic? I was scared it would be Westernized beyond recognition.
Asking me what my favorite Italian restaurant is in Los Angeles will elicit a pavlovian response: “Angelini Osteria”.
I have a special place in my heart and stomach for osterias- their very nature conducive to laidback, delicious, and fun meals. For the uninitiated, an osteria is a casual eatery similar to a neighborhood tavern where one enjoys rustic Italian food alongside carafes of wine. Chef Gino Angelini understands this.
Despite having cooked for former Presidents and Popes, his namesake restaurant remains unpretentious and friendly. The waiters, with their thick Italian accents, even charm my mother. And if you’ve ever met my mother, you know this is a herculean task- at least one my father will attest to. Tables are crowded but not overly so; the food is fantastic, resonating of the Italian countryside. I’ve never walked out without having at least a glass of wine -though it usually ends up being an entire bottle-, a sure explanation as to why my countless visits to Angelini’s over the years always end with a wider waistline and an even wider purple-tinged smile.
With my entire family visiting Los Angeles last week, I treated them out to lunch. It was gluttonous reminder that when it comes to honest, soulful Italian cooking-the type you’d normally expect from an Italian grandmother-, Angelini’s Osteria is peerless in Los Angeles.
Let’s get straight to the point: I’m obsessed with Canelé’s Baked Pancake with Meyer Lemon Custard. A simple concoction of flour, eggs, sugar, milk, and too much butter, it’s so good I’ve spent the past four Sundays in a row hunched over the ethereal puffs, wondering if I’d discovered nirvana.
Like many discoveries, I stumbled across greatness by accident. The pancake sits inconspicuously on the menu, snuck in between a salad and sticky bun under the “sides” section. On my first pass, I missed it and had a forgettable fennel-cured salmon with creme fraiche on pumpernickel. I was a few bites in when someone else’s order of baked pancakes caught my nose and eye. The alluring scent of butter and sugar practically strong-armed me into ordering one on the spot.
Some might call Craig Thornton’s obsession with food OCD. I call it passion. A document on his computer filled with menu ideas, ingredient pairings, and preparations is so long it could double as a culinary dissertation. He’s a stickler for flawless produce, scheduling his day around picking up the best meat and fish. But despite the heaps of praise his underground supper club, Wolvesmouth, has garnered, Craig simply can’t sit on his laurels. He’s always refining dishes, continually pushing himself in a never-ending quest for perfection. Is it achievable? It doesn’t matter– the process of constant refinement almost defines Wolvesmouth.
This past Wednesday, I was invited back to the Wolvesden to partake in another one of Craig dinners, and it was here I experienced the joy of refinement.
Wine bottle in one hand and cellphone in the other, I stepped out of the cab and dialed the number that was sent to me a few hours ago. A man met me at the door, escorted me up a flight of stairs, and I found myself at Wolvesmouth, Craig Thornton’s underground supper club (more details here).
Walking into kitchen, I found Craig hunched over a pot of mashed potatoes, continually tasting and evaluating its texture with jedi-like focus. He didn’t say a word, keeping to himself and focusing on the food. My eyes wandered to a pile of morels being meticulously brushed clean, and a tray of perfectly prepped sweetbreads later appeared on the counter. In the corner, vacuum-sealed lamb loin submerged under the steady hum of an immersion circulator, and I overheard someone saying rabbit was on the menu tonight. Craig sure didn’t skimp on ingredients!
15 minutes passed and Craig was still mixing and tasting the potato puree. With the amount of care lowly potatoes received, I wondered how much more love Craig lavished on the more expensive produce? I arrived at dinner knowing it would be a delicious showcase of composition, flavor, and plating, but I didn’t expect Craig’s immense respect for produce to be what resonated long after the meal ended.
If you find yourself on the corner of First and Beaudry, just a few blocks northwest of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles, you may spot a crowd huddled around a grill and a billowing tower of smoke. The smell of charred meat wafts through the air and if you’re anything like me, will inevitably find yourself in line for a late night taco. On my last visit, music was playing, an elderly couple was enjoying a quesadilla, and I overheard a teenager raving to her friend about how these were her favorite tacos in Los Angeles. I walked up to the grill, said hello, and fist bumped Javier and Esdras. They’re here every Wednesday through Saturday evening, grilling meat and serving tacos with a smile.
It wasn’t always all smiles for this duo though. Two years ago, Javier and Esdras were laid off from their jobs working in a casino. Like others struggling with unemployment, they contemplated life’s next step. During college, Esdras often invited friends home for the weekend to introduce them to authentic carne asada tacos. After the first bite, they’d collectively groan with pleasure and wish that one day, Los Angeles would have something similar to offer. Long frustrated with the lackluster carne asada served in Los Angeles, Esdras recruited his best friend Javier and together they started Mexicali Taco & Co.
“A seafood restaurant from the Animal dudes? What the hell?”
That was my initial response when I first got wind that Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook of Animal Restaurant were opening up a seafood-focused eatery in West Hollywood. After all, I was likely the only food-obsessed dude in Los Angeles that questioned if the celebrated duo could pull it off. Yes, I adore Animal and have enjoyed numerous meals there over the past few years, but Vinny and Jon cooking seafood? I mean, they’re practically the patron saints of bacon!
Being an offal lover, I go to Dotolo and Shook’s hallowed eatery to indulge in a head-to-tail testosterone-laced tour de force of porcine goodness. Bring on the headcheese! Two orders of sweetbreads! More deep fried pig ears (topped with a fried egg, please)! And if I’m feeling particularly gluttonous, perhaps an order of biscuits topped with a slab of seared foie gras and covered in a maple-sausage gravy. It’s so luxuriously rich and flavorful my heart practically stops -both literally and figuratively- with every bite.
So Vinny and Jon cooking seafood? Outside of say, battered cod deep-fried in rendered pork fat, I had a hard time imagining the sight. This I had to try for myself.