This post should really be titled “Leaving Los Angeles,” but I did that two years ago, when I uprooted from the smoggy basin and planted myself in the most opposite culture to L.A. there is — Oysterville, Wa., pop. 14.
I’d kept a toehold in SoCal — a house that was a sanctuary and shelter for 14 years. But now I’m cutting that final tie and soon it will become someone else’s home — something it stopped being for me years ago.
I won’t miss the angry traffic or the crowded malls. But I will miss May’s hot lavender jacaranda, November’s rolling Santa Anas, and shawarma. Okay, mostly the shawarma.
So, like Nicolas Cage, who in the movie “Leaving Las Vegas” decided to go on a drinking binge, I decided to leave L.A. on a gustatory (though less lethal) note.
I’m Eating Los Angeles, blowing it all out with a week of memorable meals.
Some of my favorites are no longer around, and some I just couldn’t get to. Lannathai on Van Nuys (who introduced Krathong Thong to the L.A. market) is now a Krabby Krab House, Nom Nom truck, with its most addictive Banh Mi, no longer exists. I ran out of time for Versailles and their golden, garlic-y chicken, and FAB’S PIZZA IS CLOSED.
But this half-dozen L.A. food joints are the places that sustained me on a regular basis. For the most part, the menus are simple and focus on a few items, done perfectly. These are the meals I’ll miss.
1. Tarna wrap and Falafel — ZANKOU CHICKEN
Zankou is mostly famous for their golden rotisseried birds and their creamy, pungent garlic sauce. There’s nothing objectionable about a platter of roasted chicken with fresh pitas, hummus and tart pickled turnips, but the Tarna Wrap is what makes my mouth water and my breath defy death for days.
The perfect warm, freshly-baked pita is smeared with sweet and insanely addictive garlic paste, filled with cool chunks of tomatoes and sliced shards of Tarna — Zankou’s trademarked name for chicken schawarma.
Take a bite of the creamy-crisp-sweet-salty wrap, a nibble of pickled turnip and a hot neon pepper, well, it’s good enough to make you cry.
I always supplement with a couple of creamy, spicy falafels dunked in tahini — also good if you’re taking home — it will get you through traffic.
Of course, you can always test the limits of the menu (and your stomach) with their Tri-tip shawarma, kebabs, tabbouleh or smokey eggplant mutabbal — I’ve done it all. But the Tarna makes it worth facing Sepulveda during rush hour, and that’s got to stand for something.
ZANKOU CHICKEN has various locations throughout the L.A. area, including Burbank, Glendale, Toluca Lake, West L.A. and my home base, on Sepulveda in Van Nuys.
2. Crunchy Beef Tacos with hot sauce — HENRY’S TACOS
There was a lot of virtual — and actual — hand-wringing (from myself included) when this long-standing taco shack lost the lease to its location on the corner of Moorpark and Tujunga in Studio City. Lucky for us all, the tenacious owners of this valley institution re-opened in a new location a mere block away, and we’re all safe again from sub-par Gringo Tacos.
It’s hard to know exactly what makes a Henry’s taco so good, but it’s probably the perfect combo of perfect ingredients — a brittle corn shell, succulently-seasoned ground beef, ripe, red tomato, orange cheese, and that smokey not-too-hot house-made hot sauce. (Grab an extra cup and douse it on your eggs the next morning!)
HENRY’S TACOS, 4389 Tujunga Ave., Studio City, 91604; (818) 769-0343
3. Double-Double & Fries – IN-N-OUT BURGER
This classic drive-through (California’s first) with the questionable name (in your mouth and out your…?), is every bit as good as its reputation. What started in 1948 as a little shack in Baldwin Park has expanded to a meaty empire, built on a six-ish item menu, its beacon beckoning you from near or far.
A lot of people play the inside game and order from the not-so-secret menu (ask for the fries “animal style” and they come smothered in “Secret Sauce” and sliced pepperoncini) — but I say if it ain’t broke….
The Double-Double is just that — double meat, double cheese. But the meat is famously fresh 100% beef, the cheese is fabulously orange American, the lettuce, tomato and onion are crisp and cool, the bun is fluffy, grilled goodness. And the secret sauce? It’s a secret — but don’t skip out on it if you want the authentic, messy experience.
You should also get a milkshake, but I opted for a Light Lemonade because even I have my limits and it was going to be a long week.
IN-N-OUT BURGER, 300 locations throughout the West and Texas.
4. La Savoyarde Crepe — THE FRENCH CREPE CO., Original Farmer’s Market
There is an abundance of winning food choices at L.A.’s Original Farmer’s Market, but I wouldn’t know, because once I had the Savoyarde Crepe at The French Crepe Co., I’ve never gone anywhere else.
The Filipino chef is Paris-trained, and the crepes actually surpass any I’ve had in that heavenly city. (Not to mention that an afternoon at the Original Farmer’s Market is as ubiquitous a cultural experience as lounging at a Paris streetside café.)
What may sound like an odd combination of ingredients is a marvel in your mouth. A thin, savory crepe, folded with Raclette and Emmenthaler cheeses, dry-cured ham, and thinly-sliced sweet-tart cornichons.
All the savory crepes (and sandwiches) are served with a spring greens salad with a mostly-Dijon vinaigrette.
It’s one of my favorite L.A. experiences, sitting at the counter with a French Press of coffee, watching the crepe show unfold.
And if you can bear to share with a friend, split an order of La Savoyarde and a Nutella dessert crepe. It will hold you until your next trip to France.
THE FRENCH CREPE CO., 6333 W. Third St. at Fairfax, (323) 934-3113
5. Chicagoan Dog, Chili Cheese Fries — CARNEY’S
The famous train car, the famous tag line (“Probably the best hamburgers and hot dogs…in the world!”), the famous orange chili (and orange food seems to be a theme with me). Carney’s is, yes, an L.A. institution.
Carney’s has plenty of options on their menu — burgers, hot dogs, Polish Sausages, fries — but it’s the (bean-free) chili that makes this more than just a hamburger stand, er, train. For me, it’s always a quandary which vehicle I will choose to bear it.
Some days it’s the beefy Double Chili Burger (with, in addition to chili, onions, tomatoes, pickles and mustard) — but then, I can’t have chili on my fries.
My choice on this visit was a Chicagoan dog — a simply excellent weiner sandwich with mustard, relish and onions — and…chili-cheese fries with onions.
Embrace the often-long lines, the sometimes brusque ordering process (better be ready when you get to the register), and know you will be rewarded. The bonus is that you get to eat your chili goodness in an actual train car.
CARNEY’S RESTAURANT, Hollywood and Studio City
6. Tostada Chiquita and a la carte Chile Relleno — Casa Vega
The only full-on restaurant on this list (and only because I didn’t make it to Versailles this time), Casa Vega has the best cheese-smothered Mexican food in L.A. (and don’t try to argue with me on this one).
Its famously pitch-dark interior is lit only by Christmas lights, red candles and dim chandeliers showing off its collection of bullfighting paintings. Go here for lunch and you’ll walk out blinking like a cave creature when you re-emerge into the Sherman Oaks sunlight.
Order the house margarita to slurp while you’re pondering the menu, but don’t overstuff yourself on the addictive chips and salsa.
You’ll be tempted to get a combo platter, which comes with rice and refried beans, but I learned the hard way to dine a la carte (especially if you’re indulging in an appetizer of guacamole or chili con queso).
My standard order is the Tostada Chiquita and Chile Relleno, although this trip I ignored my own advice and got a combo platter which added a cheese enchilada (all I can say is the margarita made me do it — and I wanted leftovers).
The Tostada Chiquita is the “house salad” that comes with your combo (unless you opt for their also-delicious Albondigas soup). The salad is a crisp corn tortilla, slathered with refried beans and chorizo, and topped with an irresistable combo of lettuce, sweet slivered beets, and a vinegary dressing.
The Chile Relleno sets the bar for all other cheese-stuffed peppers — a mild but flavorful pepper filled with oozing cheese, dipped in an eggy batter and fried, then smothered in a chunky red sauce and obliterated with more cheese.
Casa Vega is a small joint and always busy. Don’t be put off by the “hour” wait time — you’ll get in sooner, and the wait will be worth it.
CASA VEGA, 13301 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 788-4868
Long looked-down upon as a restaurant wasteland, L.A.’s now a foodie city, and has an abundance of rightfully-trendy eateries. But it’s these classics — and the handfuls I haven’t been to — that define L.A. for me.
When I return, it will be as a tourist, and I’ll line up at Philippe the Original, Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, and Langer’s Deli, and reminisce about the days when I could get a Banh Mi sandwich without driving to Portland.