“My people! My people!”
Phil Rosenthal walks into the Howlin’ Ray’s hot chicken restaurant in L.A.’s Chinatown pumping his arms above his head, shouting a phrase likely only uttered by leaders of small countries and the “Today” show’s Al Roker. It’s the middle of the lunch rush on a recent afternoon and the crew behind the counter returns his greeting with a couple of “woot woots!”
Rosenthal, bypassing the restaurant’s formidable line for the sake of a photo shoot, takes a seat at the crowded counter, and almost squeals when a cook hands him his fried chicken sandwich. He cradles the sandwich and looks at it as if he has actual feelings for the layers of fried chicken, slaw, pickles and squishy bun. He tilts his head, takes a bite like he means it and comes away with bits of orange comeback sauce in his beard. Then he aggressively licks his fingers.
“This is the best fried chicken sandwich I’ve ever had,” he proclaims. “I think it’s in the running for best sandwich I’ve ever had.”
It’s a few weeks before the second season of Rosenthal’s show “Somebody Feed Phil” begins streaming on Netflix July 6, and Rosenthal is taking time to eat at his favorite Los Angeles restaurants before he leaves town to promote the show. Howlin’ Ray’s, the hot chicken specialist known as much for its long lines as it is for its fried chicken, is at the top of that list.
If you haven’t seen the show, the premise is this: A permanently wide-eyed Rosenthal travels to a far-off destination — Thailand, Israel, Mexico City — with khaki pants, an untucked polo shirt and an open mind. He meets locals, eats food, learns about the culture then offers viewers a sort of “if I can do it, you can do it” take on the destination.
“I’m not the bravest guy in the world, but I think that most people are like me,” says Rosenthal. “If people see a putz like me out there, they say ‘oh if he can go, I can go.’”
At a recent dinner, Rosenthal’s friend, actor Patton Oswalt, described him as the “Mr. Rogers of food shows.”
To say that the 58-year-old guy who created and wrote the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond” is now a food travel show host is more than a little unexpected. But at heart, Rosenthal is a foodie in the purest sense of the word. He says things like “goose might be the world’s best meat” and “the fat is the delicious part” and frequently asks servers if they have any Japanese whiskey.
On his first travel food show, “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having,” which aired on PBS in 2015, he traveled to what he likes to call “Earth’s greatest hits”: Tokyo, Paris, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Italy and Hong Kong. When the PBS show wasn’t picked up for a second season, Rosenthal signed a deal with Netflix for 12 episodes of “Somebody Feed Phil.” Carving out his own space in the streaming service’s growing stable of food shows, Rosenthal is fond of telling journalists, “I’m exactly like Anthony Bourdain if he was afraid of everything.”
“I watch Bourdain and I say, ‘He’s amazing, I’m never going to do that,’” Rosenthal says of the late chef turned author and TV host. “I’m not going to those places, I’m afraid. I’m not getting a chest tattoo by tribesmen in Borneo. He’s a superhero.”
Chris Collins, co-owner of Zero Point Zero, the production company that works with Rosenthal on his show, and the same one that worked with Bourdain on his CNN show “Parts Unknown,” calls Rosenthal a “force of sheer will and kindness.
“We were drawn to him — in fact, lured in unapologetically — just as his audience is,” Collins said in an email. “His charm and unique brand of humor and curiosity make good TV, great TV. And man, can he eat gelato.”
The Italian job
Rosenthal, who’s always liked food and travel, says his transition to TV host actually started 20 years ago, when “Everybody Loves Raymond” star Ray Romano told Rosenthal that he’d never been to Europe.
“He was a 40-year-old man at the time and I thought, I’ve got to bring him to Italy with that attitude and bring him back as someone like me,” says Rosenthal. So he wrote an episode of the show in which Raymond travels to Italy with his family for the first time and is changed profoundly by what he sees, eats and who he meets. “I saw what happened to the character that I wrote, this transformation of getting woke. I saw that happen to the person.”
Rosenthal thinks of himself as more of a travel and food cheerleader than an expert, but to him, that’s the point. He’s approachable. And if you saw him pulled over on the side of a dark, deserted stretch of highway, you’d probably stop to help him.
He’s also grateful for the trailblazers in the food world, especially Bourdain, and says he was shocked and saddened by the TV host’s death.
“It’s a stunning and tragic loss," Rosenthal says of Bourdain. “He reinvented an entire genre. I wouldn’t be doing my show without his profound influence, and all of us who travel or eat owe him a great debt.”
A human connection
A couple of hours post Howlin’ Ray’s, Rosenthal is sitting at a table at Bavel, Ori Menashe’s Arts District, Middle Eastern restaurant. Next to him is his 20-year-old daughter Lily.
Bavel is another one of Rosenthal’s L.A. favorites, and he considers Menashe, who is also the chef-owner of the Italian restaurant Bestia, to be “one of the best chefs in the city.”
He proceeds to order a quarter of the menu, including the lamb neck shawarma (what he calls “in the running for dish of the year”), duck ’nduja hummus and the duck kebabs. As he orders he shouts each dish at the server like he’s calling roll at a school assembly.
“If those boys from Isis would just sit with me for 10 minutes and have some chocolate cake, they’d be so much nicer,” he says, his right hand thumb-deep in a bowl of hummus. “They probably don’t get a lot of chocolate cake. Right?”
Rosenthal is joking, of course. But only sort of. Despite his show’s title, “Somebody Feed Phil” isn’t about the food. It’s about everything else.
“It’s actually about the human connection with food and hopefully humor as the way to get you in,” says Rosenthal. “The people are everything.”
Just as he finishes his sentence, Lily spies a diner trying to discreetly take a photo of her father.
“It’s like we’re in this alternate universe where young people want this,” she says as she points to her dad.
Rosenthal starts to dance at the sight of the lamb shawarma. He lifts one shoulder then the other in a sort of awkward, playful robotic dance, and you see that he has an actual talent for instant glee.
“I don’t care that my shirt rides up sometimes or someone photographs me while I’m eating,” says Rosenthal as he uses his fingers to eat from a communal salad on the table. “The more human you are the more relatable you are. There are enough people who are perfect on TV and the internet. I’m never going to be Kim Kardashian.”
Later that week, Rosenthal sits next to a friend, comedian and producer Lew Schneider, at Tumbi, restaurateur R.J. Singh’s new Indian restaurant just off the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.
“This is my favorite Indian restaurant,” he says before asking the server if she can tell the chef to “just bring out whatever he thinks we should eat.”
This is how Rosenthal rolls. He asks an “expert,” a local, a chef or a new friend in a foreign country for guidance on where to go and what to eat. And the result is usually pretty special.
A procession of pani puri puff pastry with mung bean and tamarind water; seasoned ground lamb wrapped in roti with tamarind chutney; garlic naan; and Goan prawn masala emerge from the kitchen.
For his show, Rosenthal does extensive research before choosing the restaurants he visits. That includes reading a lot of listicles online as well as taking suggestions from the Zero Point Zero production staff.
“I look at the Guardian, Travel and Leisure, local papers, then I triple check and cross check with the people there,” Rosenthal says.
The server comes by with a tiffin (Indian-style metal lunchbox) full of butter chicken and saffron rice.
“Come on. God Damn. Holy ...!”
Rosenthal is shouting as he makes a sort of taco with a ripped piece of naan and some butter chicken.
“Remember when we first came to L.A. in 1989 and there was no great restaurant scene in L.A.?” he says to Schneider. “When the food is this good, the spices, and when it’s presented in this way, you’ve traveled somewhere at lunch. If I hated you, I’d still be happy.”
Money where his mouth is
That evening, Rosenthal walks into Broken Spanish, chef Ray Garcia’s downtown Mexican restaurant, and the host, manager and a food runner all rush to welcome him back like he owns the place.
While he isn’t financially involved in Broken Spanish, Rosenthal is an investor in more than 25 restaurants around the country including Suzanne Tracht’s Jar; Nancy’s Silverton’s Osteria Mozza, Pizzeria Mozza and Chi Spacca; Roy Choi’s Locol; Walter Manzke’s Republique; and Jonathan Whitener’s Here’s Looking at You, all in Los Angeles.
“It’s my way of supporting the arts like any other,” says Rosenthal as he orders a shot of tequila. “We support the arts in education and this is my way of supporting this other art form that I really love. I think it makes our town better in many ways to have this great restaurant scene.”
A server delivers a foie gras sope to the table and Rosenthal let’s out a “he-he!”
“Oh damn. You don’t think of foie gras as Mexican,” he says.
In addition to his new favorite foie gras sope, Broken Spanish is home to Rosenthal’s favorite pork dish: The Chicharrone, a glistening slab of crunchy-skinned pork belly surrounded by a punchy Elephant garlic mojo. He stabs at a piece of meat, drags it along the plate for maximum sauce exposure then shoves the fork into his mouth.
“This expands your idea of what Mexican food is,” says Rosenthal.
Blowing minds at Baroo
Next stop on his list of L.A. favorites: Baroo, the Korean-leaning restaurant in a shopping center in East Hollywood.
“Baroo is the most original restaurant that I think I’ve been to in L.A.,” says Rosenthal. “I bring chefs here like Sherry Yard. And their minds are blown.”
Rosenthal asks chef-owner Kwang Uh what’s good, and the procession of food begins: A plate of goo known as noorook (fermented grains), stained pink with beet cream; sliced fried chicken over rice; watermelon rind pickles; handmade pasta with celeriac; and a version of shrimp toast with a quenelle of avocado sauce.
“Los Angeles is leading in restaurants because of guys like this that can find cheap rent to experiment in,” says Rosenthal, who admits that the first couple of times he visited, he had no idea what was on the menu. “What’s this cuisine?” he asks pointing to the pink goo. “I don’t even know. But it’s delicious.”
The perfect level of celebrity
At Freedman’s that night, Sandrine Holt, one of the actresses from this season of “Homeland,” sits at the bar sipping a glass of red wine. Nobody seems to notice her. Instead, everyone in the dining room is buzzing over Rosenthal.
A woman gets up from her party of 10 to ask if Rosenthal will please take a photo with them, calling him “their hero.”
“I tell my family I’ve achieved the perfect level of celebrity, which is most people don’t know who I am, but once a day, someone will say ‘I love your show,’” Rosenthal says. “I matter to somebody but you can’t get a swelled head because it’s just once. It’s not like I’m Justin Bieber.”
Rosenthal looks over the menu at the re-imagined Silver Lake deli and attempts to order so much food that the server actually suggests eliminating some of the dishes. He settles on the beef tongue because it’s his father’s favorite; the smoked fish platter; the Reuben; the matzo ball soup; and the brisket, carved tableside by chef Liz Johnson (who’s recently moved on after setting up the restaurant’s popular menu).
“Come on! Come on! Come on! Yahoo!”
That first bite of brisket causes him to break into his robotic food dance. He continues like this, eating and dancing, in between sips of soup, plates of smoked fish and bites of the Reuben.
A black-and-white cookie lands for dessert, and Rosenthal decides it’s the best he’s ever had. Then without warning, he leaps from the table and heads into the kitchen. He finds Johnson on the pass and gives her the kind of hug you give someone you haven’t seen in years.
“Food is the great connector” he says, beaming. “I just had to tell her how good it was.”
New episodes of Rosenthal’s “Somebody Feed Phil” will be available to stream on Netflix on July 6.
Have what Phil’s having
For more on the L.A. restaurants visited by Rosenthal see Phil Rosenthal's L.A. food crawl: Six spots to try
Howlin’ Ray’s, 27 N. Broadway #128, Los Angeles, (213) 935-8399, howlinrays.com.
Bavel, 500 Mateo St., Los Angeles, (213) 232-4966, baveldtla.com.
Tumbi,115 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 829-7200, tumbibar.com.
Broken Spanish, 1050 S. Flower St., Los Angeles, (213) 749-1460, brokenspanish.com.
Baroo, 5706 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 929-9288, baroola.strikingly.com.
Freedman’s, 2619 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 568-3754, freedmansla.com.