At Street, Susan Feniger's new tribute to global street food, look for the slight woman with the high-wattage smile, in canvas shoes, khaki chef's jacket and baseball cap worn backward. That's Feniger, one-half of the Too Hot Tamales, co-founder of Border Grill and at 55, no longer the youngest chef on the block. Nor the most outrageous.
Long before Hell's Kitchen or Top Chef, she battled her way through the kitchen of an old-school French restaurant in Chicago where she and Mary Sue Milliken were the only females. At the time, in the 1970s, women were not exactly welcome in professional kitchens. But the two best friends hung in there, eventually moved to Los Angeles in the '80s, and opened Border Grill, City and Ciudad -- restaurants that were anything but traditional and struck a chord with L.A.'s eclectic eaters.
Throughout her career, Feniger has drawn much of the inspiration for her cooking from traveling. Not content to simply gawk and eat, she'll meet up with cooks and work in their kitchens, learning their cuisine and always tasting, tasting, tasting. And so for her first solo effort, without longtime business partner Milliken, Feniger has gone back to her first love: street food, with a menu that crisscrosses the globe.
When you see her work the room, it's clear she's jazzed about Street, which moved into the old Highland Grounds coffeehouse space in March. The irreverent neon sign outside -- the outline of a person walking -- says it all.
Street is casual and unpretentious, drawing a crowd that spans generations, incomes and ethnicities. It's loud and not a bit fancy. And if Batali is blasting heavy rock over at the Mozzas down the street, here the playlist comes from all over the world. Instead of shirts and ties, the staff is decked out in black hoodies with STREET stenciled down one sleeve. This place is exuberant and fun.
Inside, the walls are tomato red, with figures and cars -- vroom, vroom -- outlined in white and black. Over the small L-shaped bar, a figure pushes a shopping cart. The drawings continue even outside on the patio, outfitted with big market umbrellas and a fire pit and two towering palm trees that stretch up into the night sky.
The two-page menu divides dishes into groupings -- tea cakes and dumplings, noodles and soups, salads, stews and curries, and more. Just now, two months in, Feniger and co-owner and chef Kajsa Alger are beginning to tweak it. The pho, controversial for its $16 price tag when you can get (arguably) better and bigger bowls at numerous places around the area for a third of that price, has been replaced with a bowl of ramen that should trigger a howl from posters on Chowhound for its equally elevated price ($15). But ever heard of overhead?
And yet she's having no problem filling the place. I stop by one Thursday to see if I can get a table, but it's an hour-and-a-half wait. Still, if you arrive on the later side any night, say after 9:30 p.m., you can probably score a table without too much of a wait. Otherwise, reserve. Reserve for street food? You got that right.
While I'm talking to my friend at the bar one night, the scent of spices wafts toward us from a platter of the Thai bites. Once we sit down, that's the first thing we order, a do-it-yourself hors d'oeuvres plate of raw collard greens cut out in little circles, tamarind paste and various toppings. A sample shows you how it's done: Smear on some tamarind, and then add sprinkles of coconut, minced ginger, roasted peanuts, chopped hot peppers and more. It's intense, all right, combining sweet, sour, salty and hot in one bite.
Selling the menu
Not everybody who walks in the door is going to be familiar with the foods on offer. That's why Feniger is working the floor, hand-selling the dishes that she's collected from all over the world. Her enthusiasm is contagious. She's your big sister, telling you that the urad dal fritters you're thinking of ordering are fabulous! And so you feel you've passed a kind of test.
When servers arrive with your order, they'll each take the time to explain the dishes the way someone would at Spago or XIV, reassuring diners wary about putting something unknown into their mouths. I'm here to say, don't be afraid. Nothing is very weird, actually, at all. Feniger could be much more adventurous, but she's playing it safe with a menu that's mostly global comfort food.
Take the delicious Cuban stuffed potato cake, which is basically mashed potatoes with the typical picadillo of spiced beef, raisins and capers tucked inside. Or the varenyky, half-moon Ukrainian dumplings stuffed with spinach and a lightly salted cheese, then boiled and pan-sautéed to crisp them like pot stickers. The hot dumplings are served with cool sour cream and a delightful lemon marmalade.
If you're hankering for rich and gooey, go for the Chinese salted radish cake embellished with rich, oily Chinese sausage and a drizzle of dark soy with some chile paste on the side.
Rice salad is like something your Korean grandmother would make, a mix of brown rice, sprouts, radish, tofu, mushrooms and seeds in a sweet sesame dressing with a fried egg on top. A lot of dishes come with eggs, fried or cooked otherwise. So does the radish cake: You use the molten yolk for dipping.
That's the way you should eat what is probably the oddest dish on the menu, Kaya toast, a typical snack from Singapore. Think sandwich with an inch-thick layer of very sweet coconut jam between the toasted slices of bread; you pick it up and dip it in the soft-boiled egg yolk. It's curiously addictive, but if you eat the whole thing yourself, you may be down for the count right there. Better to cut it into pieces and share.
The way elements such as coconut milk or cumin repeat, it's hard to call Street's menu a true around-the-world experience. For one thing, not much from Mexico or Central and South America has made the cut, probably because she's already been there and done that with Border Grill and Ciudad.
Furthermore, bringing the tradition of street food into the confines of a restaurant may be counterintuitive.
My memories of street food are incredibly vivid: eating charcoal-grilled sardines at the edge of the Bosporus in Istanbul, Turkey; bowls of noodles under the moon in Japan; porchetta sandwiches with bits of the crackling pork skin and redolent of wild herbs from a truck in Umbria, Italy; and warm, handmade tongue tacos from a truck parked in East L.A.
But all in one meal? I'm not convinced it works. At Street, the effect of each dish is blunted by its juxtaposition with other flavors and other cuisines. After a motley meal here, I end up feeling as if I have jet lag.
The dishes that don't work seem to stick out even more than they would in a more traditional meal. Main courses especially aren't riveting. Korean short ribs are very tender and too sweet from a pear-rice wine marinade. Egyptian-style baked fish looks like a mess, two fillets of an indeterminate fish stacked with roast pepper sauce, braised greens and -- this is the street food part, a mix of spiced rice, lentil and macaroni.
Setting has a lot to do with it. Lamb kofta skewer -- spiced ground lamb grilled and served over white beans and artichoke, is just OK. But I'm thinking outdoors, two steps from the fire, folded into some warm pita, it might have been terrific. Plated in a restaurant it seems to lose its immediacy and impact.
Maybe, in the end, you can't really bring the street inside. But you have to give Feniger credit for trying.