Sunny Spot’s Caribbean State of Mind


SALT COD BRANDADE BENEDICT

In that fleeting moment when the ocean air still hangs thick over Venice before dissolving into a golden haze, the city slows to still life. Cars shudder to a stop, gulls flap fruitlessly against the wind and waves fall silently upon the shore. At Sunny Spot, the six-month-old restaurant from Kogi mastermind Roy Choi and Westside impresario David Reiss, that moment is meant to last forever, a picture both of California cool and Caribbean fantasy. This is where you come to imagine those wasted days on a white-sand beach, a slug of rum and a plate of jerk chicken your only itinerary.

Sunny Spot is Choi’s first restaurant that doesn’t directly deal with his cosmopolitan vision of the Angeleno appetite. Back in 2008 when Kogi’s bulgogi tacos and kimchi quesadillas sent legions groaning hungrily into the night, Choi created a cuisine that perhaps more accurately reflected Los Angeles than a census ever could. Choi didn’t simply capture the city’s zeitgeist; he became it.

It wouldn’t be wrong to attribute that success to a providential sense of good timing. But there’s also something to Choi’s fanciful cooking. His dishes at Kogi as well as Chego and A-Frame often feel as if they’re composed with a kind of surrealist automatism, flavors extracted from the culinary subconscious and assembled on the plate without any measure of restraint. What results is sometimes sloppy and not always successful, but it often is exactly what Angelenos want to eat.

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The Sweet Life: L.A.’s Southeast Asian Dessert Diaspora


PHOTO by RICARDO DEARATANHA / L.A. TIMES

In Los Angeles, where international cuisines are examined with the rigor of sociological study, dessert is often a dish born under a foreign flag. There are those who lust after the cinnamon-dusted ridges of freshly fried churros, others who long for the ephemeral sakura-wrapped mochi available only during cherry blossom season. But whether it’s by willful avoidance or total unfamiliarity, Southeast Asian sweets have yet to earn that same admiration.

Bhan Kanom Thai, meanwhile, is a rainbow rush of colors: Fresh mango glistening the brilliant orange of a late-summer sun, glutinous rice balls glowing a radiant pandan green, tender taro cakes blooming the same piercing purple as a field of lilacs. The Hollywood favorite is a den of overstimulation, its shelves stuffed with Thai desserts alive with vivid colors, focused flavors and foreign textures. To a particular set of Los Angeles diners, the sweet shop is an essential experience. Yet even as Southeast Asian flavors move from places like Thai Town and Little Saigon and into the mainstream, the region’s diverse desserts remain largely unknown, tropical curiosities far more complex than a simple batch of banana fritters. Across greater Los Angeles, however, are countless examples of these sweets, a vast dessert diaspora as varied and unique as the ingredients and cultures that comprise each confection.

Nearly every Southeast Asian nation is represented in Los Angeles’ own sprawling geography: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. These are the very same sweets found on the streets of Bangkok and Jakarta and Manila. Here, they’re imported by former culinary school instructors and avid cooks no longer confined to borrowed kitchens, by expatriates recreating tastes of home and younger generations now carrying on those traditions.

Southeast Asian sweets have even gone upscale. At restaurants like Lukshon, Red Medicine and the Spice Table, dessert draws inspiration from the region’s honeyed heritage: pearls of palm sugar boba, dollops of avocado and coconut creams, strata of thick kaffir lime custard. It’s an evolution in Los Angeles’ appetite, one finally primed to embrace Southeast Asia’s sweet side.

Read my Southeast Asian dessert picks at the L.A. Times.

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The South By Barbecue Tour

Everyone waits in line at Franklin Barbecue: Austinites making their weekly pilgrimages, daytrippers traveling along the Texas barbecue trail, even Anthony Bourdain. It’s an inglorious task, a tortuous crawl in which you’re taunted by the scent of smoldering oak and the sight of those lucky few already sucking the meat from a set of pork spare ribs. Those at the front of the line likely arrived no later than 8 A.M.–a full three hours before Franklin opens its doors.

But there’s community in the chaos. Blankets are unfurled, lawn chairs are unfolded and stories are shared. The camaraderie of the line is overwhelming, a testament to the pacifying power of Franklin’s otherworldly barbecue.

Brisket is what you want here. At the counter, Aaron Franklin (or perhaps his barbecue partner John Louis) will offer slices of either lean or fatty brisket. There’s no wrong choice, but you’ve waited too long not to indulge in those glorious fatty cuts. This is brisket at the point of sublimation, beef so perfectly and thoroughly smoked that it barely exists in solid form. Franklin’s pork spare ribs may also be some of the best you’ve ever tasted, thick slabs of meat that peel from the bone with unimaginable ease.

Still, rigid traditionalists might point you away from Franklin, maybe to Louie Mueller in Taylor, TX or some combination of Smitty’s Market and Kreuz Market in Lockhart, TX. Smitty’s has the history–a charming old building so blackened by barbecue that you can practically scrape the smoke off the walls–but Franklin has the goods. The sausage at Smitty’s is indeed excellent, yet nothing there truly approaches the ethereal barbecue at Franklin, a place that shatters even the most outsized expectations of Texas barbecue.

Franklin Barbecue, 900 E. 11th St., Austin, TX, (512) 653-1187, franklinbarbecue.com
Smitty’s Market, 208 South Commerce, Lockhart, TX, (512) 398-9344, smittysmarket.com.

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Leftovers: Little La Lune

A new wave of Cambodian cooking for the L.A. Times:


PHOTO by GARY FRIEDMAN / L.A. TIMES

In Long Beach’s Cambodia Town, restaurants are measured not only by the heat of their ground pork curries or the tartness of their sour catfish soups but also by the brilliance of their chandeliers and the strength of their karaoke-capable sound systems. For years, La Lune was such a place, a restaurant where birthday parties were celebrated, anniversaries were commemorated and mayoral campaigns were launched.

But in April, a fire wiped out La Lune. Losing the restaurant tore open a void in the Khmer community, one that the Saing family worked quickly to fill. Now La Lune has been refined and reborn as Little La Lune, a small-scale spinoff in a quiet strip mall with ambitions beyond its downsized dining room. Little La Lune isn’t simply leveraging its legacy; the restaurant represents a new wave, a contemporary Cambodian cafe designed for a new generation.

Little La Lune is a picture of Modernism. A bouquet of pendant lamps casts columns of light onto wine-red walls. Radiant white booths glow with a halo of backlighting. It’s a stark contrast to Cambodia Town’s biggest banquet halls, where decades-old dining rooms remain unchanged, as if being preserved for historical study. Little La Lune’s menu too has been recalibrated. Gone are the hallmarks of the banquet kitchen: no hulking lobster tails, no caldrons of Cantonese-style soup, no oversize platters of dessert. The menu instead has been pared down to the most approachable essentials.

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Leftovers: Toni’s Soul Burger and Otis Jackson’s Soul Dog

All-American soul power for the L.A. Times:


PHOTO by LUIS SINCO / L.A. TIMES

For every restaurant whose menu reads like a doctoral thesis on globalization, there are those that still consider a kind of insular Americana the noblest pursuit. These are the dens of hard-line pit masters and down-home confectioners, restaurants where the American culinary heritage provides incubation for innovation.

At the similarly minded but altogether unaffiliated Toni’s Soul Burgers in Inglewood and Otis Jackson’s Soul Dog in North Hollywood, that American ingenuity takes the form of a double dose of comfort: hybridized hamburgers and hot dogs fused with soul food.

Toni Malone’s towering burgers may be the most ambitious in all of Los Angeles. Yet there are no contrivances here: no custom-ground meat blends, no willful denial of ketchup and no flavors fortified by what might otherwise amount to a chemistry experiment. Instead, the restaurant’s signature burger is a tender, hand-formed turkey patty, a crispy lattice of turkey bacon, a firmly fried egg, a single slice of cheese, sweet mashed yams and wilted collard greens on a gently toasted sesame-seed bun. It’s a triumph of maximalism, a burger in expert balance despite its seeming overabundance of ingredients.

Each soul burger is constructed in a tiny storefront so close to Hollywood Park that you can nearly hear hooves hitting dirt. What scarce space there is has been decorated with framed photos of soul and R&B legends, a nod to Malone’s own powerful voice. Neighborhood kids and young families crowd in for takeout while Malone, earnest and effervescent, explains the intricacies of her burgers to those here for the first time.

Read the rest here.

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Leftovers: Del Tomate

Argentine-Italian comfort for the L.A. Times:


PHOTO by ALLEN J. SCHABEN / L.A. TIMES

There’s a kind of heartland excess at many Argentine restaurants, palaces of meat that offer as good a lesson in bovine anatomy as any abattoir. But Del Tomate doesn’t indulge in steakhouse gluttony. Instead, the 2-month-old Tustin restaurant busies itself draping ribbons of prosciutto and kneading handmade pastas, the essentials of a streamlined and simplified Argentine-Italian cafe.

Del Tomate’s cooking is a South American invention, a hybrid cuisine that evolved after waves of Italian immigration to Argentina. It’s a cross-cultural heritage shared by owners Guillermo and Susana Giacobbe, the husband-and-wife team who one minute might be streaking butter across spongy Argentine white bread and the next piping dulce de lechemousse into delicate profiteroles.

The restaurant is an all-day affair. Warm your morning first with a cortado (an eye-widening espresso cut with a measure of milk) or mate cocido (toasted yerba mate steeped like herbal tea). Those who start sweet can linger over one of Susana’s wonderful pastries while others fill up on Del Tomate’s substantial tortilla Argentina, the egg and potato frittata localized and assimilated into the Argentine diet.

Of course, there are always empanadas. They’re objects of admiration here: Shells that shine with the luster of burnished pine, braided edges that barely contain their contents.

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Leftovers: Chimú

Top-tier Peruvian for the L.A. Times:


PHOTO by RICARDO DEARATANHA / L.A. TIMES

This is Los Angeles’ Peruvian moment, an embrace of Andean flavors prophesied long ago by food futurists who proclaimed the cuisine to be the next big thing. There have always been pockets of our sprawling geography where ceviche is scattered with giant kernels of corn and jugs of chicha morada stain teeth a pleasant purple. But this is a citywide shift in culinary consciousness.

It coalesced at Mo-Chica. Ricardo Zarate’s restaurant reshaped the notions of Peruvian food with sushi-grade fish mounded in a tart puddle of citrus, and quinoa cut with crème fraîche and stirred just until it resembled risotto. Now that mantle of invention is being carried forth by Chimú, a downtown walk-up where beef hearts share a salad with shaved apples and lamb belly bastes in a cilantro-black beer reduction.

Chimú operates from a takeout window in Grand Central Market’s outer courtyard, a lunchtime amphitheater where all the city’s social strata converge. It’s that centrality that landed Mario Alberto (formerly of Lazy Ox Canteen and Mo-Chica) and Jason Michaud (owner of Silver Lake’s Local) here in the shadow of the funicular Angels Flight.

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