Takeout and other ways to treat ourselves well during the shutdown
This week The Times published my roundup of places to order takeout for a splurge — for a birthday, anniversary or any other special occasion (including a difficult day) that might show up on the calendar in these unnerving times.
Most of the suggestions steer you toward L.A.’s most ambitious, accomplished upscale restaurants, highlighting the ways they’ve pivoted toward accessibility: bento boxes, family-style feasts, taco kits.
These businesses and the delicious foods they’re making deserve support but, like so much currently, my choices also felt fraught. Since when have fancy restaurants been the only places where Angelenos mark special occasions?
Even if it made thematic sense to focus solely on the upscale places in the column, newsletters are made for further expounding.
Lalibela in Little Ethiopia has become a favorite in the last six months, after writer friend Lolis Eric Elie guided me toward it. In the Time Before, when customers gathered in her dining room, owner Tenagne Belachew and her staff created spectacles of color and geometry with stewed meats, intricately spiced pulses and fresh salads on injera-covered trays. I’ll concede that the presentation isn’t as stunning crammed into Styrofoam to-go containers, but laying injera out on a platter at home and arranging the dishes yourself is calming. Regardless, the heady nuances of the cooking revive and rekindle the senses — qualities especially appreciated in this moment.
I stared out the window of my apartment, scooping up crunchy-soft collards and berbere-spiced lentils with torn pieces of injera. Maybe like you, I’m amazed right now by what memories spring out of nowhere — the past simply rises out of the mandatory stillness.
Lately what’s surfaced are the years in my 20s and early 30s when I practiced Zen and studied with Natalie Goldberg, author of “Writing Down the Bones” and many other books; Zen animates her writing and her teaching. She lives in New Mexico. Lately she’s been giving monthly talks at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, filmed in an empty meditation hall. She gave a lecture this week that sank all the way in. She discussed the pleasure of previous talks, when the bonus was sharing dinner together with the group afterward. (Natalie has always incorporated food into her work — “Eating is the one place where we’re all truly present,” she’s said — which is one reason I feel such kinship to her.)
She expressed hope for sharing communal meals again soon and then paused. “But we don’t know where we’re going,” she said. “We just don’t know. I do know that I look outside … past the double doors with glass … it’s much lighter now than it was a month ago. So spring — the seasons — know what they’re doing, even though we don’t.”
Treat yourself well any way you can — maybe by ordering a meal from one of these restaurants, maybe by taking a walk in the bursting Southern California springtime.
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If 25-year-old me asked 40-something-me to recommend something special to order during this shutdown, what would I suggest? Younger me worked as a pastry cook in neighborhood restaurants; he liked trying a blitz of flavors all at once and didn’t eat much meat. My answer for him: the vegetarian utopia from Lalibela in Little Ethiopia.
The meal presents a dozen colorful vegetables, among them spiced red lentils, gingered yellow split peas, cabbage stained with turmeric, gomen (onion-laced collards), chickpea stew, a dip made of sunflower seeds called suf. Injera underneath acts as a palette while the flavors bleed and blend; your fingers are the brushstrokes.
If you do want meat, add special kitfo (chopped beef in spiced butter with fresh, crumbly cheese and puréed greens) or yebeg alicha wot, cardamom-tinged lamb. Owner Tenagne Belachew said the restaurant stays open “until the homemade injera runs out,” which is usually before 8 p.m. Delivery or pickup.
1025 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 965-1025, lalibelala.com
Northern Thai Food Club
The move at this tiny showcase for the cooking of Thailand’s Chiang Rai province was always to let chef-owner “Nancy” Amphai Dunne guide you through her steam table of fragrant curries. Now the restaurant’s website details her specialties.
Start with gaeng hang lay, cubed pork belly kissed with tamarind and ginger. For a jubilant lunch or dinner, surround it with creamy khao soi (preferably doused with chile oil), bamboo shoots in crab paste, minty-musky pork larb, green papaya salad and the distinctly herbaceous sausage sai oua. I never particularly craved Thai iced tea with Dunne’s food before, but its taste now cheers me in unexplainable ways. Delivery or pickup.
5301 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 474-7212, amphainorthernthaifood.com
For some of us, a celebration meal might mean relishing flavors that would be a stretch to replicate in our homes without buying an arsenal of new ingredients. Enter Kelly Xiao and Lynn Liu’s restaurants (there are locations in Alhambra, Tustin and West L.A.), each serving full menus of fiery, nuanced Sichuan specialties. (As Amy Scattergood noted in a recent article, Xiao and Liu were early leaders on safety measures; they were taking customers’ temperatures with an infrared thermometer in January, months before the city suggested it might require all restaurants to do so in the future.)
Yes to toothpick lamb, wontons in red chile oil, boiled fish with rattan pepper, diced rabbit and pickled cucumbers. For a welcome jolt to the senses, try the mao cai — a stew of prawns, beef, tripe, Spam, lotus root and mushrooms roiling in a crimson broth. Delivery or pickup.
1900 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 283-4622, and other locations, sichuanimpressions.com
Have a question for the critics?
So much stellar home-cooking content:
— So you’ve bought a restaurant’s produce box to help support it through the crisis? Ben Mims gives advice for cleaning, storing and cooking all the goodness.
— If your canine companion needs a treat during quarantine, Amy Scattergood shares chefs’ recipes for dog biscuits — that taste good to humans too.
— Overdid it on the quarantine canned meats? Garrett Snyder powers through his pantry with tuna albóndigas en chipotle and other improvisations.
— Patricia Escárcega reports on the palliative effects of #quarantinebaking.
— Jenn Harris cooks her way through the best delivery meal kits.
Meanwhile, out in the world:
— We spoke with 15 L.A.-area chefs on video; they fill us in on how they’re weathering the crisis.
— Here’s a robust list of restaurants that have pivoted to markets.
— Delivery or takeout via Instagram is a thing now.
One last thing: Join The Times’ monthly virtual book club on Tuesday. Laurie Ochoa will be in conversation with Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters and her daughter, Fanny Singer, who recently published a memoir, “Always Home,” about growing up in the center of California’s culinary revolution. For details on it and future L.A. Times Book Club events, you can sign up for its newsletter.
Eat your way across L.A.
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