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A meat pie, a trailhead and thou

Times Staff Writer

IT’S just 6 months old, but it looks at first glance as if it’s been there forever: a friendly Griffith Park snack hut called the Trails. With its aged redwood exterior, a canvas sign advertising “pies” and “coffee” that could have been hand-lettered by Yogi Bear, and an endearingly warped aluminum counter, it brings to mind ‘30s-era WPA-built woodland ranger stations.

You’re in Fern Dell, just across from a trail up to the Observatory, so the vibe is wholesome -- dog walkers and joggers stopping by mostly, along with rangers and park workers. But a softly playing Dylan tune leaks out of the kitchen and mingles with the birdcalls as you sit at the city-built concrete picnic tables.

The counter girl who takes your order is spiky-haired and maybe just a teeny bit hung over or something. And the black-jacketed man and woman whose motorcycles are visible just beyond the pine-pole fence are murmuring words like “postproduction” as they bite into their savory vegan pies.

It’s a little dream come true, in more ways than one. Though we all know that a walk in the park is a good thing by itself, it’s nice not to be brought down off your endorphin plateau by a stop at a couldn’t-care-less concession stand where your kid whines for the purple-packaged cotton candy or you try your luck with the coffee.

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The Trails is unabashedly about fast food -- microwave, plastic baskets and all -- but its menu, still a work in progress, is refreshingly original.

Featuring puff-pastry-wrapped hot dogs, vegan chili, meat and vegan pies, an avocado sandwich, and an array of desserts, ice cream drinks and coffees and teas, it has been lovingly thought out by co-owners Frank Lentz and Mickey Petralia. A TV and music producer, respectively, they’re ardent amateur first-timers in the food business, changing and refining their offerings with the help of their cook and baker, drummer Aaron Sperske.

Most immediately appealing on a February afternoon are the meat or vegan pies, turnover-style creations that you could take up the trail and munch on as you walked, if you had a mind to. The meat pie, similar to a baked empanada (or a Cornish pasty), has a toothsome golden brown crust filled with minced tri-tip, red and yellow bell peppers and potatoes. The vegan pie is similar, but with soy protein and a vegan crust, which turns out to be quite flavorful and flaky.

The pies are heated up by the counter person and pushed through a little screened window in deli-paper-lined baskets (orange and green rather than the usual red, perhaps in keeping with the woodland theme); they come with dipping sauces that include horseradish, chutney, chive and curry.

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You might try the snake dog, a good-quality regular or vegetarian dog on a stick wrapped in puff pastry and served with a terrific, home-style coleslaw made with red cabbage and studded with pine nuts. The dogs are fine; their pastry wrappers can be soggy sometimes, though.

The quintessential California sandwich of avocado and sprouts on squaw bread is based on one Lentz used to watch people line up for at the erstwhile Annex Deli in Manhattan Beach, where he grew up; there’s usually another special sandwich or wrap on offer too. The lemonade is fresh-squeezed and not too sweet. You can see the big jar of tea set out to brew in a spot where the sun comes through the trees.

Come summer, the Fosselman’s ice cream cones and the root beer floats might see more action, and some cookie selections have come and gone, but for now the dessert emphasis is on pies, with mixed results. The berry pie is undistinguished one week, but the next, it’s full of super-plump berries and topped with a flaky crust. Day-old canned-peach pie disappoints, but the apple pie is great -- tender-crisp slices of apple, light cinnamon spicing, a nice lattice crust.

There’s always a bowl of water set out for visiting dogs, which are very much in evidence with their human walkers one morning when we stop by for a cup of coffee and a slice of what the menu describes as “potato and egg a la Spain,” actually Spanish tortilla. The tortilla is plain and homey, appropriately eggy and dense with sliced potato; it’s great with coffee or a breakfast-blend tea. The simple fruit salad is a cut above your average coffee shop’s, with Asian pears, grapes and a nice mix of melons served with a small cup of plain yogurt and one of granola for sprinkling on top.

Another morning, though the place is supposed to open at 9, there isn’t a sign of life by 9:20 and we go elsewhere for our post-hike coffee. Clearly, there are logistical and service issues to be worked out, but no one’s pretending otherwise.

Lentz and Petralia, who spent six months negotiating with the city and then a year and a half doing the hands-on renovation, admit that they’re learning as they go.

But the fun, for now, like a pause halfway up a trail, is in enjoying how far they’ve come.

**

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The Trails

Location: 2333 Fern Dell Drive, Los Angeles; (323) 871-2102.

Price: Snake dogs, $3; meat pies, $4.50; vegan pies, $4.50; avocado sandwich, $5; salad and coleslaw, $2.50. Cupcakes, $2.50; fruit pie, $3 to $4; lemonade, $2.

Best dishes: Meat pie, vegan pie, coleslaw, apple pie.

Details: Open Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cash only. Street parking.


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