Living on Fairfax Time
At Dave’s Cut-Rite Deli, the customer is very carefully giving Steve Friedman instructions; she knows exactly how she wants her smoked whitefish sliced. Having made herself clear, she tells him she’ll be back in a minute. She has to go to Diamond Bakery, just down the street, to pick up some bread.
Another customer, overhearing her, chimes in. “Listen,” she says. “If you’re going to the bakery, holler for my husband; his name is Frank.”
The first customer looks startled. “I couldn’t do that,” she says. “What would he think?”
“Oh, no,” says the other, “he’ll love it. He’s a big flirt.”
Minutes later, Frank hobbles by, a neatly dressed, very little, very old man leaning on a cane. “C’mon, c’mon, I’m ready to go home.”
His wife freezes him with an icy glare. “I’m doing my shopping,” she says. “Just wait. I’ll be done in a minute.”
Fairfax Avenue is like that.
When Los Angeles’ burgeoning Jewish population deserted Boyle Heights and City Terrace after World War II, Fairfax was where it landed. A street full of wonderful small food shops--bakeries, fish markets, produce stands and butchers, surrounded by pleasant neighborhoods of single family homes and apartments, it is also a street in the midst of a particularly trying transition. For every butcher, baker or smoked fish maker, it seems there is an empty storefront.
“This neighborhood was begun by my father’s generation and they’re getting older,” says Kevin Mason, who runs a fish market with his father, Bob. “The young people are not coming in, it’s all senior citizens.”
At the same time, a cultural revolution is under way. Bob Dylan’s son now jams at Canter’s Kibbutz Room, Damiano’s pizza across the street has its own scene, and a few doors down something described as a “science fiction coffee house” seems to be opening (besides the sign in the window, right now the only indication is Day-Glo green slime coming out of the top of the doorway).
While Melrose Avenue and Beverly Boulevard, the streets that roughly describe the heart of the Fairfax District, have gone through their own much-heralded gentrification, it seems the process has hit a sticking point on Fairfax. Or maybe it’s just that even change moves slowly here.
“Melrose is up. Beverly is up. Fairfax is still in the transition,” says Mark Lottman, the second-generation co-owner of Diamond Bakery. “It hasn’t caught fire. I hope it’s next.
“I’ve been working here since I was 13. Then it was a circus around here. Now it’s only like that on the holidays. The streets are quieter. There just hasn’t been an influx of new people the way we had in the past and that is sad. This area just hasn’t caught on again.”
On the other hand, will the kind of people who are attracted to green-slimed coffee shop ceilings really stop by Dave’s Cut-Rite for a pound of smoked jumbo whitefish? Will the lure of Diamond Bakery corn rye, which draws fans from all over the country, be strong enough to pull hipsters from across the street?
“I don’t know,” says Lottman. “Most of the people of my generation go to malls and supermarkets because of the convenience. Really, only the die-hards come into the bakery anymore.”
But if you’re looking for a model of peaceful coexistence, you need look no farther than the Farmers Market, just down the street.
A jam-packed warren of clapboard stalls, the market was set up by the Gilmore family in 1934 as a site for Depression-plagued local farmers to sell their produce. It quickly became a tourist attraction and passed into a sort of kitschy twilight, a great place for buying ashtrays and T-shirts.
Then, somehow, almost before anyone noticed, the Farmers Market got hip. A couple of good little prepared-food stalls opened. Before long, the hard-core market patrons--screenwriters in one area, bookies in another--were joined by the bad and the beautiful--artfully torn jeans, lots of black clothing. Now you can find everyone from Jodie Foster to Tom Waits to Martin Scorsese drinking coffee and eating fresh Bob’s doughnuts.
Make no mistake about it, there are still plenty of ashtrays and T-shirts (and, incidentally, great little personalized license plates with names in Japanese). The tour buses still come every morning, discharging their name-tagged, camera-laden hordes.
And there are long-term issues as well. The A.F. Gilmore Co., which still owns the market and 31 acres surrounding it, has at least temporarily shelved plans for developing a 700,000-square-foot shopping mall on the site. This would not affect the market itself, which is protected by the city’s historical preservation laws. Construction, which was scheduled to start in early 1992, has been delayed because of the weak economy.
Still, hidden away here and there are real places to buy real food, happily living cheek-by-jowl with both the arch-hip and the tourist traps.
“Superficially, a lot has changed,” says Dave DeRosa, owner of the superb Marconda’s Meats and a market merchant for more than 30 years. “But nothing has really changed here. Our customers are still the same people--basically Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Hancock Park and Hollywood.”
Diamond Bakery. For most people the heart of Fairfax is Canter’s restaurant. For shoppers it is Diamond Bakery, famous for its corn rye, raisin pumpernickel, Russian coffee cake, Sabbath challah (a super-rich bread available only on Fridays) and racetrack cake (“chocolate, chocolate and chocolate,” says co-owner Arlene Lottman).
Diamond Bakery seems always to be full of customers, even when it’s not. There’s a built-in bustle about the place, which has something to do with the owners. Arlene and Sol Lottman and Ruth and Nate Rubinstein have been running the bakery for more than 25 years. Lately they’ve been joined by their sons, Mark Lottman and Steve Rubinstein, and collectively they have a dedicated following.
Betty Marko says she has been shopping at Diamond all her life. “I started when I lived in this neighborhood, but even since we moved to West L.A., I keep coming back three or four times a week,” she says. “And that was 33 years ago. They have the best bread, the best everything.”
“We have one customer who carries what he calls his corn rye suitcase,” says Mrs. Lottman. “He fills it up whenever he comes out here on business and takes it back.”
* 335 N. Fairfax Ave., 655-0534 or 655-0738. Monday-Saturday, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday, 6 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Freddy’s Deli. Semyon Zborovsky, a small, dark man with a pronounced Russian accent, grabs your sleeve: “Here’s something I was thinking about for my motto,” he says, a gleam in his eye: “ ‘Knishes Wishes and Caviar Reality.’ Or should it be ‘Caviar Dreams’?”
Whichever he decides, you’ll be wishing for Freddy’s Deli knishes long before either the dream or reality of caviar comes through. This is Russian home-style cooking, what Zborovsky calls “ Yiddishe Momma food.” That is no hyperbole: The cooking is done by his mother, Rosa Zborovsky. His sister, Marina Kramarov, helps. His niece, Olga Zborovsky, and cousin, Ilena Pisnoy, work the counter and take care of the few tables.
You can sit and eat at Freddy’s Deli, but the food can also be bought to go. Try the three styles of eggplant: Russian (made with garlic and tomato); Israeli (an intensely garlicky mayonnaise); and French (tomatoes and bell peppers--essentially ratatouille through a Russian lens). There is wonderful homemade sauerkraut that manages to taste fresh and pickled at the same time. The thick homemade mustard is hot and sweet. There is stuffed cabbage and a ground chicken cutlet called chicken Kiev. Try the barley-mushroom soup and the cabbage borscht. Or, for a real hit of Fairfax Avenue, the chicken noodle soup with matzos and kreplach.
“You know, nowadays, you see Jewish people in Italian restaurants and in French restaurants and in Chinese restaurants,” Zborovsky says. “There are Jewish people who are more at home in a Chinese restaurant than they are at home. Maybe now is the time for other people to experience this good homemade food made with mother’s soul.”
* 341 N. Fairfax Ave., 655-2648. Monday-Sunday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Dave’s Cut-Rite Deli. Steve Friedman, a rumpled former engineer at Hughes Aircraft, runs Dave’s with a focused passion: preserved fish. Smoked fish he slices to order, a half-dozen or so types of herring, 35 kinds of sardines and 25 kinds of gefilte fish . . . . “This is a unique kind of place in Los Angeles,” Friedman says. “This is a typical New York-style deli, but there are only a few left in Los Angeles.”
A customer asks for some smoked Norwegian salmon. Friedman pulls a vacuum-packed fillet toward him, slices it open and removes the fish. He trims the edges, then runs his finger down the length of the fish, feeling for pin bones. When he finds one, he carefully removes it with a tweezers. Finally, delicately, he begins cutting long, horizontal slices. He stops halfway through and changes knives. This particular fillet, he says, is a little softer than normal, so it takes a different knife.
“This is what I’m talking about,” he says. “Most places don’t slice by hand for the customers. They’ll slice a bunch the night before and put it on a tray.” Proudly, he pulls out another fish--a whole jumbo Great Lakes smoked whitefish--which must weigh at least four pounds and has skin that is a beautiful burnished silver. “This kind of fish,” he says, “is available only in New York. I have to fly it in special.”
Dave’s also stocks raw herring for pickling, fatty schmaltz herring made either Russian-style (low-salt) or old-fashioned (salted). There’s pickled herring, herring in sour cream sauce, herring in white sauce and matjes herring, the Rolls Royce of herring. He’s got smoked shad, smoked whitefish, smoked chubs and smoked sable. If that’s not what you like, he’ll sell you baked salmon, cod bellies, cod tails, cod tips or kippered salmon. And if you must have meat, he’s got Sinai 48 and Empire Kosher meats brought in from Chicago.
* 349 N. Fairfax Ave., 653-7395. Monday-Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Ramsar Market. This store caters to Los Angeles’ Persian Jewish population. While it includes a meat market and a produce section, the packaged goods are most interesting. In the spice racks, you’ll find envelopes full of cardamom (ground, green or bleached), alum, ground lemon, ground angelica, ground sour grape, sumac, dried orange peels, dried sour orange peels, fenugreek, dried rosebuds, ground lime and black and red henna.
In addition, you’ll find a wide assortment of somewhat confusingly labeled spice mixes. For example, one is called “Seasoning for Rice, Poultry, Meat” (made up of cloves, cinnamon, ginger and cardamom); another is “Rice Seasoning for Stew Dishes, Poultry and Meat” (made from cloves, cinnamon, rosebud and ginger).
There is also an assortment of seeds, starches and dried fruit, including dried mulberry seeds, black melon seeds, dried sour cherries, salted red melon seeds, toasted and salted chick peas, dried limes, noodles roasted and raw, various lentils, beans and oats and flours made from rice, wheat and chick peas.
And, of course, there are the pickles that characterize the cuisine of Persia. At Ramsar, you can find vinegary pickled garlic, eggplant, shallots, long yellow peppers, cucumbers, red peppers, baby eggplants and mangoes.
* 360 N. Fairfax Ave., 935-2828 or 935-2700. Sunday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Bob’s Fish Market. Bob’s has been a Fairfax institution for more than 30 years, and owner Bob Mason is something of an institution himself--memorialized in two frescoes painted on the shop’s walls and a snapshot collection featuring 40 years of Bob with sundry fish.
Mason is crazy about fish. “I worked in Florida for a couple of years in fish markets and every night right after work I went fishing,” he says. “Every single day . . . not a day went by that I wasn’t fishing. When I decided to move out here, I went to the employment office and they asked what I could do. I told them anything to do with fish.
“Well, there was a kosher butcher store that needed someone to run the fish market during Passover. I did well enough and they asked how would I like to run the fish market full-time and they made me a great deal. They didn’t charge me rent for eight months and I got all the steaks and chops I wanted for five years.”
Mason claims all of his fish are hook-and-line caught and bled and iced immediately. “My fish are caught, cleaned and shipped all on the same day,” he says.
All of the fish at Bob’s are kosher--they all have scales and fins (no catfish)--and there is no shellfish. Shop early in the week for a good selection--Bob lets the stock dwindle toward the end of the week since he closes for the weekend. On this particular mid-week day, there are huge milky white steaks of Pacific halibut caught off Canada, beautiful salmon, two or three whole rockfish, some sole fillets and a half-dozen whole whitefish from the Great Lakes.
Actually, fresh fish is only a small part of Bob’s business these days. Since his son, Kevin, came into the business, a sideline of smoking fish has grown into a major part of the shop. Against one wall are a bank of three smokers. Fish are soaked in a honey brine, rinsed and smoked over hickory right in the shop. Here you can find salmon, tuna, tuna belly, trout, salmon trout, whitefish, sea bass and sablefish. There are also smoked fish salads, bound with pureed sablefish instead of mayonnaise.
“It’s tough in the fish market, nowadays,” says Kevin. “All the supermarkets have fish and it’s so much easier for people to shop there. The smoking thing was a way of making a father-and-son partnership. Now, we’ve combined his old knowledge and my young knowledge and we’ve picked what we’re good at.”
* 415 N. Fairfax Ave., 655-1126. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Fairfax Kosher Market. If you’re looking for a kosher product and it isn’t in this store, it probably doesn’t exist. Fairfax Kosher squeezes everything from kosher candies to 30 to 40 kinds of wine into a relatively small space.
* 439 N. Fairfax Ave., 653-2530 or 652-2535. Sunday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Schwartz Bakery. Breads and sweets at 38-year-old Schwartz Bakery may not look perfect, but that’s the way they want it. Judy Elharar says these Hungarian-style cakes and breads are “all homemade. We don’t use machines. Most of our workers have been here many, many years and they’ve all been taught the homemade way. Things come out looking homemade. They’re not perfect, but they taste good.”
* 441 N. Fairfax Ave., 653-1683. Sunday-Friday, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Rami Carmel Market. A relatively new addition to Fairfax, this produce market is just over 2 years old. But owner Rami Gueta knows his way around vegetables. He says he hits Los Angeles’ giant Seventh Street market every morning at 1 to pick out the best buys. On three different visits, the quality was always first-rate and the prices at least one-third less than supermarkets. On one representative morning, there were Japanese eggplants, slender Israeli cucumbers, Belgian endive, lettuces, yellow, red and green peppers, basil, mint, dill, parsley, cilantro, fava beans and fennel.
* 505 N. Fairfax Ave., 651-4293. Sunday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m..
Fairfax Fish Market. Another newcomer with a Downtown connection: Israelis Shlomo Bouzaglo and Yuli Schriger say they have a relative working in one of the fish markets on San Pedro Street who keys them in to the best buys. One visit, they have great-looking whole Mexican sea bass, whole tilapia, whole salmon, halibut, mahi-mahi, whitefish, trout, mullet, rock cod, tuna, yellow pike, buffalo fish, carp, smelt and sardines. But as they say in the fish business, “Every day it’s a new store.” A couple of mornings later there were some nice new salmon and pike, but it seemed some of those other fish were still around, looking less than beautiful.
* 515 N. Fairfax Ave., 658-8060. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Erewhon. This is a giant upscale supermarket that emphasizes natural foods, the place to buy everything from Wolfgang Puck frozen pizza to Cosmic Cuke dill pickles. Produce prices are more reasonable than you might expect, though only about one-third of the vegetables are actually organic. In the produce section, you can find everything from baby vegetables to sprouts. Elsewhere you’ll find raw goat’s milk, unsulfured dried fruits, tofu and tempeh. In the dried foods bin you can find white, brown and Indonesian basmati rice, wehani rice, wheat berries and buckwheat. And if it’s seaweed you’re looking for, Erewhon stocks hijiki , kombu , dulse, agar, wakame and nori .
* 7660 Beverly Blvd., 937-0777. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Breadworks. Tony di Lembo, the original chef at Indigo restaurant, just down Third Street, and co-owner of Breadworks with Karen Salk, says there were many things that brought his store to its present location. “We considered many factors,” he says. “There was the fact that it was so convenient to the restaurant and we knew we’d be going back and forth a lot. And there was . . . well, come to think about it, that was the main reason.”
If you’ve admired the breads at Indigo, or any of a couple dozen other restaurants, here’s where to buy it. This is urban rustic bread, crusty looking country white, rosemary-garlic, honey-whole wheat with sunflower seeds, potato-dill, nine-grain sour whole wheat, ciabatta , onion (with a gorgeous browned onion on top), sun-dried tomato and kalamata olive breads. There are also rotating assortments of focaccias , crackling grissini and earthy scones. Di Lembo says 90% of the store’s business is wholesale, and that keeps him hopping. “We make everything every day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says. “We have only one hour a day between shifts when the bakery is not working.”
* 7961 West 3rd St., 930-0047. Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Huntington Meats. Huntington carries a full range of meats, but the real draw is the selection of sausages. On a recent visit, there were 14 varieties ranging from bratwursts and sweet Italians to bangers, apple sausage and Santa Fe chicken. If you can’t find what you want, you can buy casings here and make your own (this is one of the few places in the city that regularly stocks casings). Huntington also carries Pacific Coast beef jerky, country hams and Noonan’s ribs.
* 938-5383 or 933-8577. Monday-Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
J&T; Bread Bin. An arm of Brown’s Wilshire Bakery and Deli, J&T; sells Middle European breads and pastries--sourdough yardsticks, kaiser rolls, corn rye, seedless rye, bagels, Hungarian cinnamon loaf, egg bread, hamantaschen and an unauthentic but tasty fruit bread called panettone .
* 936-0785. Monday-Sunday, 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Littlejohn’s English Toffee House. Michael Graves’ father used to have a stall in the Farmers Market, and when his son was still in school he asked the owner of the Toffee House to take the boy on as an apprentice. The shop made caramels, fudges, toffees, chocolates; every sweet in the store was made on the premises. Twelve years ago Michael Graves bought the Toffee House, and he is still making all the candies by hand.
“I grew up here,” says the former motorcycle racer. “And our policy is not to buy any candy, no matter how good it is, because we don’t want people to be confused. This is all ours.”
This can be tough--especially at Christmas. “English toffee is our main product and you have to pour it and stretch it bare-handed while it is still warm to get the right texture,” Graves says. “If you wear gloves, you don’t get the feel. But I’ll tell you what, you make five or six batches a day every day for a month and your hands are just wrecked.”
* 936-5379. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Marconda’s Meats. If you can no longer remember what top-quality meat markets used to be like, visit Marconda’s. Dave DeRosa, who has owned the store since 1958 (and worked there several years before that ), still cuts meat by hand, frequently working from primal cuts (you can see a row of whole lamb carcasses hanging in the back). Pork chops come milky pink and cut an inch thick. Beef roasts are barded with sheets of leaf fat to make sure they stay moist. Lamb racks are neatly trimmed and Frenched. “We sell mostly Prime meat, or top Choice when we can’t get Prime,” DeRosa says. “We sell all Prime American-grown lamb that has been aged in our own coolers. We do lot of custom work for people who are very particular about their meat.”
* 938-5131. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Farmer’s Market Poultry. This is the place for exotic poultry: squab, rabbit, poussin , duckling, quail and pheasants. But my favorite things here are the tiny, 1 1/2- to 2-pound broilers, which are perfect for splitting and grilling.
* 936-8158. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Thee’s Continental Pastries and Thee’s Pie Shop. The pastry shop is a Farmers Market landmark, famous for its cake-decorating window (“Watch our cake artist at work!”). There is a nice selection of cookies, cakes, lattice-topped tortes and other pastries. Around the corner is the pie shop, which specializes in more American-style cakes and pies--all very good and available whole or by the slice.
* 937-1968. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Sundays, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Mr. K’s. This little stall is jam-packed with oddball food items--everything from Marmite to American Spoonbread jams and jellies. But don’t leave the Farmers Market without checking out its collection of salt shakers, pepper grinders and, especially, teapots. Favorites include King Kong atop the Empire State Building, another shaped like a leaping trout (for Twin Peaks fans?), and--perhaps weirdest of all--a teapot that looks for all the world like Kermit the Frog dressed as a French maid.
* 934-9117. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Lopez Produce. Charlie Lopez is widely known as the last farmer at the Farmers Market. During the late spring and summer, Lopez’s farm out by the Sepulveda Dam turns out super-sweet Silver Queen white corn and Golden Jubilee and Golden Queen yellow corn, Blue Lake and Kentucky Wonder string beans, Big Boy and Beefsteak tomatoes and summer squash that still draw a crowd.
* 937-2477. Monday-Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Bob’s Coffee and Doughnuts. If you think all doughnuts are junk food, fit only for dunking in a cup of joe, Bob’s will convert you. There are dozens of varieties here, all of them good. Here’s the trick: Ask which ones are freshest. Amazingly, more often than not, they will tell you the truth. A great hot doughnut is a thing of singular beauty. The cinnamon rolls can make grown men weep.
* 933-8929. Monday-Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Sunday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.