Pacific Dining Car, 1310 West 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 483-6000. Open daily, 24 hours.
Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 624-2378. Open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Deli World Cafe, 125 N. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park, (818) 572-6588. Open daily, 8 a.m.-9:15 p.m.
Matsuhisa, 129 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 659-9639. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for dinner daily. Dinner for two, food only, $40-$65.
St. Estephe, 2640 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Manhattan Beach. (213) 545-1334. Open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday-Saturday. Dinner for two, food only, $60-$100.
My mother claims that when she was growing up, her family ate the same thing for dinner every night. I personally find this hard to believe, but a constant diet of hamburgers (made, she assures me, with the very best ground sirloin), peas and rice may explain my mother's complete lack of interest in food.
What is harder to explain is how my mother's two children, growing up in a house where food and money were not considered fit topics for discussion, came to be such passionate eaters. My brother, in fact, is the only person I know who enjoys eating as much as I do. We are not big eaters exactly, but we are frequent eaters, and nothing makes us happier than a day filled with a lot of little meals. The more meals, to my mind, the better.
My brother now lives halfway around the world, but last week he came for a visit. It was his first time ever in Los Angeles, and I wanted to give him an edible tour of our town. I'll spare you the entire itinerary--he was here for four days--but a single day's worth may prove helpful next time you have a food lover in tow.
My brother thinks going out for breakfast is fun. Normally, I'd take first-time visitors to the Polo Lounge or Hugo's, but I took my brother to Pacific Dining Car instead. "This isn't how I imagined Los Angeles," he said-- and that, of course, is the point of the place. Walking into this clubby room, which may be the city's most convincing argument for the power breakfast, is something of a shock to a person expecting palm trees and calm breezes. On this morning, all the big comfortable booths were filled with men in suits--businessmen and politicians who smiled benignly as large plates of food were set before them. We ordered some hearty American stuff--roast beef hash and pancakes and coffee and large glasses of juice.
But I wanted him to see another urban side of the city, so after breakfast I took my brother for a walk through the Grand Central Market. It was quite a change from the sedate suits we had seen at breakfast. The market bustled as people bargained for mangoes and pig's ears, trying to outwit the various vendors. We stopped at the dried chile stall to look at the wrinkled pods, so much heat waiting to be released. At another stall we stared at the various kinds of crema-- big creamy piles of that South American sour cream that seems to change each time it crosses a border. As I was trying to discover the differences between them, my brother disappeared.
But I knew exactly where to look for him. In our family, we believe that if there's a line that has anything to do with food you should probably stand in it. So I was not surprised to find my brother queuing up at the taco stand in the center of the market. There is almost always a line here, and while we waited I tried to talk Bob into trying morcilla-- blood pudding. In vain; he walked away munching happily on a hefty tortilla filled with carnitas .
From there we went east again to Monterey Park, a stop no food lover should miss. This is Chinatown on a grand scale, a whole community that seems dedicated to the art of eating. There is food everywhere--but nowhere is it quite so overwhelming as at the huge Hong Kong supermarket. To really get a look at this place, climb up the stairs to the little deli that overlooks the scene. "Are we still in America?" asked my brother, surveying the food stalls and the tables filled with people happily plying their chopsticks.
Of course we had to have a little bit to eat. And then, because everything was so good, a little more. Before we knew what we were doing, we had munched our way through a bowl of noodles, some raw marinated crab and a little container of steamed spareribs.
It seemed time to take a break--so we went to the Huntington Gallery. A few hours of strolling through the gardens, of course, left us feeling a bit peckish, and as we made our way through the roses (still, incredibly, in bloom) I considered where we should go for lunch. I wanted the sort of restaurant you find only in Los Angeles, a place where the food would be interesting and unlike anything my brother had ever tasted before. So I took him to Matsuhisa.
"This place," said Bob dubiously, looking around at the small, cluttered room, "is going to thrill and delight me?" I nodded. I ordered the "squid pasta"--an amazing dish in which squid is cut to look like large shells of pasta, delicately cooked and then mixed with sliced asparagus and a light garlic sauce. Bob looked impressed. Then I ordered the asparagus and salmon eggs in hollandaise. Bob looked more impressed. We went on to broiled black cod followed by sea urchin wrapped in a shiso leaf, battered and quickly fried. And finished off with scallops in a spicy sauce made, I think, of sake, soy, butter and wasabi .
"You're right," said my brother, as we sipped our tea, "this is unlike anything I've ever had before."
We spent the better part of the afternoon at the County Museum of Art. I suggested tea at Trumps, but my brother had other plans. He wanted to walk through Beverly Hills--and save his appetite for dinner. The only thing, I am sad to report, that we ate in Beverly Hills was frozen yogurt.
Of course, Bob did suggest a small detour on the way to dinner. I had taken him to Venice the day before, and as we drove out towards the beach it occurred to him that it might be nice to stop in Venice for a couple of Jody Maroni's sausages to tide us over until we reached the restaurant. A cooler head prevailed, and we arrived at St. Estephe with appetite intact. "I guarantee this food will be a new experience for you," I said as we walked in.
St. Estephe used to be a rather bare little place in a shopping center. It's still in the shopping center, but now you walk into a small chic wine bar where a carved coyote howls on one side while an entire menagerie of carved animals cavorts on the other. It's an inviting room. Even more inviting is the new patio: A fire crackles in the adobe fireplace, sending shadows scurrying across the wall. Inside too the restaurant has changed; architectural detailing has been added to the doors, good art has been hung on the walls, and the room is now worthy of the food that is served in it.
And that food--Southwestern filtered through a French sensibility--is better than ever. My brother, in fact, was moved to declare that this was one of the best meals he had ever eaten. He began with a salad of jicama, papaya, duck cracklings and watercress; combined, the flavors made such sense you wonder why you've never had them together before.
He followed that with the salmon-painted dessert, one of chef John Sedlar's signature dishes. The salmon is laid out on a bed of mild cream sauce, a sort of beurre blanc made with cream instead of butter, and then patterns are "painted" into the sauce with purees of red chile and green sorel. It is one of the prettiest dishes you'll ever see.
My own appetizer--pyramids of pasta with jalapeno cream--was also pretty. Unfortunately, it sacrificed taste to looks. The large strips of pasta had been cut into a primitive pattern; they looked lovely, but had a slightly damp and doughy texture. The dish wouldn't look nearly so attractive, I suspect, if the pasta were cut into thin noodles and tossed with the wonderful jalapeno cream--but I bet it would taste a whole lot better.
But I can't imagine any way of improving on the duck. This was a sort of Southwest version of Peking duck: The bird had been air-dried, as they do in China, to crisp the skin. But in place of the buns or crepes served in Peking, this was paired with sprightly red chile pancakes. It was an impressive dish.
The accompanying vegetable garnishes were equally attractive. Tulips had been fashioned out of carrots, with slivered beans for stems and carved zucchini for leaves. On the side sat tiny vegetable mousse.
We chose my old favorites for dessert: blue corn tortillas with pumpkin ice cream and orange sauce, a brilliant Southwest interpretation of crepes suzettes. And the chocolate chile rellenos in a wonderful caramel and lime sauce, more candy than dessert really, and a perfect finishing touch.
'What a treat," said Bob as we were leaving. "No wonder you like living in L.A. so much."
"This is nothing," I replied. "Wait until you taste tomorrow."