By S. Irene Virbila
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
When an architecture-buff friend blew in from San Francisco a few weeks ago, I knew this was the place to take him on a Monday night. We zigzagged through downtown, past Disney Concert Hall, the cathedral, City Hall and The Times building -- to arrive, finally, at the grand entrance to Union Station.
It's a picture postcard from the '30s, the last of the great train stations built in the U.S. as part of the WPA projects. My friend had never seen it, and he's not alone. I know plenty of Angelenos who have never been to Union Station either. Even fewer people know that there's a white-tablecloth restaurant inside. Or that Traxx is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
Going to dinner there feels like a step back into the time when train travel was in its heyday. Intrepid travelers wait for rides out front as we pull up. Inside, just to the right of the main entrance is Traxx Bar, installed in what was once the station's telephone room. Marble parquet floors are gleaming, the concourse lighted by massive wheel-shaped light fixtures hanging from the 50-foot ceilings.
At the Traxx restaurant, diagonally across the grand concourse from the bar, diners sit at white-clothed tables in front, lingering over lamb chops or red snapper as they wait for their train to be called over the loudspeakers. Inside is a quiet, dignified dining room in Art Deco style, with a small open kitchen at the back.
The restaurant was founded by executive chef Tara Thomas, a California Culinary Academy grad who has a long relationship with the downtown scene. In the mid-'90s, she was behind the stoves at the funky 401 Boyd, one of the first restaurants to open when artists and creative types moved into lofts downtown. There, she gained a following for her casual California cooking and catering.
And though Traxx is a more formal restaurant, she's still serving her signature crab cakes and burgers, along with more polished fare, sometimes with a French or Latin accent. Her menu here offers both small and large plates. Commuters or travelers can grab a quick, civilized bite or meet friends for a longer meal after work.
Thomas deliberately keeps the menu selection small, so she can change the dishes frequently. But some dishes are specialties. Her crab cake (singular) is a hefty round, three fingers high with a crisp brown crust roughly the size of a hockey puck. Inside, it's all big pieces of Louisiana lump crabmeat. It's delicious with her assertive chipotle remoulade that brings a sharp intake of heat and the lingering smokiness of the chile.
Waldorf salad outshines the rather dull chopped Caesar (which can be garnished with vinegary white anchovies if you want to spring for the $1.50 surcharge). The Waldorf is refreshing and poised, a composition of thinly sliced green apples on the bottom with the salad of radicchio, grated apples, creamy Point Reyes blue cheese and spiced walnuts on top.
At lunch, the chef turns it into a main course item by adding some smoked chicken. (Many of the same dishes are on both the lunch and dinner menus.)
ANOTHER good choice for a starter is the red chile-dusted shrimp with a salad of mizuna greens and mango in a juicy citrus vinaigrette. I like that the shrimp are cooked on the rare side. Thomas isn't one to stint on the chile either. Her flavors are bold and vibrant.
The other standout is venison carpaccio, thinly sliced and with a deeper, more robust flavor than the usual insipid beef version. She also doses her mustard sauce with some horseradish to rev up the taste of the venison.
As we're sitting on that evocative patio, enjoying the night, an announcer's voice cuts through the quiet, calling out the last train to San Diego. And a couple of people who had been sitting on garden benches under the trees hoist their bags and head back into the concourse. I'm itching to go somewhere too. And after a while, I almost begin to think I've fetched up here after a long trip.
While the food doesn't harken back to the '30s, it does seem fixed in time, to the late '90s when Traxx opened and tall food was in its last throes. But it seems somehow charmingly formal, as if the kitchen is drawing the line against anything too casual and giving you everything it's got: Sit down, relax, shake off the dust and fatigue of your trip, and eat something. The servers are solicitous and helpful, and the very formality can be soothing and relaxing in the context of the train station.
The house-cured pork loin chop is a thick one, moist and pink at the center, paired with polenta studded with Mission figs and some sauteed spinach to keep up your strength for carrying those bags. Pan-roasted Pacific red snapper makes a fine argument for local fish too, served with black rice and a charred jalapeno vinaigrette.
Roasted half chicken gets a Latin lift with green chile pozole and a vibrant cilantro-almond pesto. Lamb chops come stacked like a tepee, and beef tenderloin has good flavor.
ON the whole, while few dishes here would make you dream of coming back the next night to eat the very same thing, they are competently executed, if not all that exciting. But few restaurants anywhere in L.A. have such a unique setting, and by quietly going its own way, Traxx has become a beloved and reliable old-timer and member of the still-emerging downtown dining scene.
Rarely crowded at night, this is one restaurant where you'll never feel rushed and where you can linger over conversation and dinner.
That said, the desserts could use some polishing. Panna cotta has very little flavor. Creme brulee is marred by a burnt sugar crust so thick you could ice skate on it. And as for the crunchy chocolate praline tart, the less said the better.
At lunchtime the whole station wakes up, and Traxx gets busy too, filling the tables with politicos, lawyers, government workers and anybody else who works downtown. One table is celebrating a co-worker's birthday.
At another, a man reads through the entire newspaper as he savors a delicious burger and fries. The bun is just right, the patty loosely formed to keep the beef moist. The fries are hot and golden. Just as he finishes his coffee, a train is called, and he picks up the bags piled by his chair and heads off, I don't know where. Train travel is beginning to look more attractive by the minute.
Green chile pozole becomes a main course item at lunch, (at dinner, it accompanies the roast chicken), and one of the best things on the menu, a green stew loaded with pulled chicken, hominy, chile and chopped avocado and tomatoes topped with finely julienned radish. It has a beautiful balance and makes a lovely light lunch.
You can also get a Reuben sandwich and many of the same items on the dinner menu, along with excellent iced tea.
But the best part about lunch is watching a cross-section of the entire city -- and the country -- traipse through the station or stay for a while. In L.A., where everyone spends far too much time in cars, it's exhilarating, reminding you of what a diverse city this is.
Kids run up to the big tiled fountain along the far wall and wade right in. A mother quietly reads a book to her little girl. A musician with silver, spiky hair strides across, guitar in one hand, a vintage turquoise Samsonite suitcase in the other: L.A., here I come.
And for the past decade, Traxx has been there to welcome anybody who craves a burger, a crab cake or a nice piece of fish. We're not used to finding serious restaurants in either train stations or airports, yet Traxx has made it to the grand old age of 10.
It can be done. And downtown too. Traxx is a civilized note in what has become the helter-skelter of travel these days.
Rating: * 1/2
Location: Traxx, Union Station, 800 N. Alameda St.,, Los Angeles; (213) 625-1999; traxxrestaurant.com.
Ambience: Quiet, dignified white-tablecloth restaurant looking onto the grand concourse at Union Station. The spacious patio in the back is lovely for summer dining.
Service: Willing and able.
Price: Dinner small plates, $6 to $14; large plates, $19 to $28; desserts, $6 to $8. Lunch small plates, $6 to $14; sandwiches and entree salads, $12 to $17; full plates, $15 to $24.
Best dishes: Louisiana jumbo lump crab cake, red chile dusted shrimp with mizuna and mango, Waldorf salad, venison carpaccio with horseradish Dijonaise, house-cured pork loin chop, wild striped bass with caramelized fennel, pan-roasted beef tenderloin, chicken pozole, burger.
Wine list: Strong on familiar California labels. Corkage fee, $15.
Best table: One in the alcove looking onto the station; or else in the back garden under the jacaranda trees.
Special features: Petite bar across the main train station lobby.
Details: Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and for dinner Monday through Thursday from 5:30 to 9 p.m., Friday until 9:30 p.m. and Saturday from 5 to 9:30 p.m. Full bar. Two hours free valet parking with validation at lunch, three hours at dinner.
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