March 06, 2014

Why I'm Obsessed with Pizza In Every Way



Pizza Week is coming up for Eater, which means I'll be downing plenty of carbs, cheese, and toppings in the next few weeks to gear up. I think this might be my favorite theme week because it gives me every reason in the world to overconsume what might be my favorite food. I've gone on solo pizza pilgrimages across the country, paying top dollar and waiting for hours to get the best stuff. I still consider my top three (well four) picks to be San Francisco's Una Pizza Napoletana, Phoenix's Pizzeria Bianco, Sally's Apizza and Frank Pepe's in New Haven. Yes, there are plenty of great pies in L.A. as well, and spots like Pizzeria Mozza, Sotto, and Bestia are probably my favorites.

But what I'm really liking is the casualification of pizza, starting with 800 Degrees. Yes, the burgeoning chain got its idea from Fullerton's Pie-O-Logy and maybe even a nod from Chipotle. But Chipotle might not even be the perfect model for this customize your own pizza. The difference with this is the real quality you see on the selection table, as well as the execution at the end. What you get is a pizza that's almost as good as something you'd pay more than twice as much for at a full restaurant. A restaurant like Sotto has great Neopolitan pizza, but you could get something for $7 bucks that would probably convince 45 out of a 100 people to like it better than the more specialized example. That makes right now the best time to eat pizza than ever, because great pizza has never been cheaper, or better executed.

The styles aren't particularly rigid, which is a good thing. Too often foodies get stuck up on perfecting a certain style. Yesterday I engorged upon 14 different pizzas at Pizza of Venice, a decidedly iconoclastic pizzeria tucked away in the San Gabriel Mountains in the sleepy town of Altadena. The pizzas are wacky, yet still mostly well conceived. Snobby foodists would scoff at the notion of putting chicken curry or romesco sauce on a pie, but chef Sean St. Jean sees no limit as to what pizza can be.

That casualness of pizza makes it a readymade meal that's mostly under fifteen bucks, which I think we can all get behind. Shoot, 800 Degrees fills you up with a mere $7-8, including tax and tip (if you really want to think about it that way), which would have made me roll over when I was working in Beverly Hills starving for a cheap but delicious meal. And it's also not artificially low like a fast food joint, subsidized by minimum wages and industrial produce.

I still remember the first time I had the old-school pie at Casa Bianca. This place is a dream for me. I usually went late at night, right when the fog from the nearby hills would roll in. The neon sign glowed strong on Colorado, with the warmth of the sixty year old pizzeria as the ideal escape from nippy weather. Inside, red checkered tables put so close together it'd make the gangster of Goodfellas either join in the congeniality, or avoid it for fear of getting shanked so easily. And the pies, thin crust, almost (just almost!) cardboardy, but balanced by a hefty load of toppings to prevent it from going dry. Critics often like to point out the easy problems with the place: cash only, sometimes rough service, and long waits in a musty room. Meh, I say. I just won't order the canned mushrooms onto my pie. Get the fried eggplant slivers and housemade sausage, and call it a day.

800 Degrees.
Sotto.
Pizza of Venice.
Casa Bianca.

February 18, 2014

The Tire Shop Taqueria is Changing the Street Food Game in LA



First off, the full credit for this find is my good friend Bill Esparza, who wrote about this taco stand in Los Angeles Magazine's Digest Blog. He also took me to the place from which the context of this stand can exist, Tacos El Poblano in Tijuana. Without that initial experience of great carne asada done in the TJ-style many years ago, I wouldn't have been able to really understand what this humble place in South Central is really doing.

Second, this taco stand is completely changing the game for street food in L.A. for a number of reasons, but it boils down to professional versus non-professional. The gentleman who puts together the simple carne asada creations in the parking lot of this used tire shop is so adept, so capable that other trucks and stands in the city seem amateur by comparison. And for good reason, but this taquero trained at the right places south of the border, only the bring his craft to a rather forlorn part of town. But that's okay, because the impact he can make here is greater than one he could make in East L.A. or Hollywood. South Central needs to be considered a legitimate part of town, not some industrial backwater or 'dangerous neighborhood' to avoid. This taquero isn't just doing what customers want, he's making his idea of what a TJ-style carne asada taco should be. So you take it or leave it. There aren't 11 different kinds of cuts here. Just asada and chorizo (though he curiously started grilling chicken last week...sometimes you can't fend off L.A. appetites).

What's great about the eating in L.A. is that it's so unabashed, so pure that the product is rarely there to please the masses. The hardcore, the committed, the ones that can call this kind of the food they grew up with in the various countries and communities around the world. That's the food that we get to eat in this city, and I'm very happy to be a citizen of it. I'm calling this stand the Tire Shop Taqueria because that's what my friend Bill called it to me on Twitter, but I think Llantas Usadas is just as appropriate. It's the stand with no real name, not to be hipster, not to be too cool, but because it doesn't matter.

Alright, now down the good stuff. After finding your way to the parking lot, you'll see a wide setup. Two ladies to the left are flattening tortillas by hand, mostly to order. That's a rarity, but it shouldn't be. Up front, the taquero is pulling up grilled meat and chopping it up to order. Each delicate taco starts on that tortilla flattop before getting placed on a sheet of origami-like paper. Then, chopped meat, a spoonful of salsa, and a smear of guacamole. Cradle, eat, and perhaps fall into the bliss that only a skillfully made taco can produce.

The meat's different - it's seasoned and grilled over mesquite, thinly sliced but tender to the bite. The balance between meat, salsa, and rich guac is there with every $1.50 taco, wrapped in thin, tensile tortilla still warm from the steel top. Smokey, meaty, addictive. It's hard to order only a few. I like to get two at a time and re-order up to three times.

The quesadillas are no slouch either, formed by yet larger tortillas pressed to order. A hefty handful of jack cheese sourced from Smart & Final (where else?) binds it all together, with about four tacos worth of meat going into the quesadilla before the requisite salsa and guac. I've been four times already in the last few weeks with no slow down in sight.

The thing is, this style of taco shouldn't be rare in L.A. The only reason why the garden variety stand or truck can't produce this is because of demand, or lack of knowledge. Lines form in Echo Park's terrible (YES TERRIBLE) Taco Zone because the hipsters and quasi-foodies don't know better. It's not their fault, really, they're just following the lines. Lines suck. Don't go where the lines are.

You have be extremely intoxicated to remotely appreciate the dry, flavorless tacos at Taco Zone or almost anywhere on the Eastside on a Friday night. Don't settle for mediocre tacos, because you're only making it worse. Desire, and demand the best, like Ricky's or Mariscos Jalisco. Don't tell me that Guisados (also, don't say gwee-sados) is the greatest thing you've ever had. I don't really care for those ultra-thick carb bombs they call tortillas (the fillings are pretty good). But, no. Drive out to South Central, volley down San Pedro or King Blvd and get to the Llantas Usadas Taqueria. I promise it's worth it.

Tire Shop Taqueria (not the actual name, just what I call it)
40th and Avalon Place (just south of King Blvd)
(from Downtown, drive south down San Pedro, which veers into Avalon Place. Drive south until you pass King Blvd and you'll see it on the right after the lavanderia)
Hours: Open 6-11 p.m. Thursday to Monday. So, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. If they're not there, don't sue me, it just might mean they got shut down.

February 11, 2014

You Can Never Get Sick of Apple Pie, Especially at The Pie Hole

I've been in a pie mood lately. The other day I scarfed down two slices (well, I shared them with Rochelle) of pie from Apple Pan, which has some of my favorite pies in the city. Not because they're perfect - hardly so. They're not cheap by any means, and they're annoying tough to get unless you go there early in the day as they tend to sell out. No, that almost crunchy, thin crust made mostly from flour and shortening is decidedly old school, but they've really got the whole rich versus sweet balance down, and it makes every single one of their pies, from the cherry cream to the banana cream to the pumpkin pie, all extremely delectable. On top of that, the whole pies are only $20 bucks or so, making a great thing to take to a dinner party.

But this pie is another specimen altogether. The double-crusted apple pie from The Pie Hole is stellar in a number of ways. First, the crusts are buttery and flakey, the Platonic ideal of what an apple pie should be. On top of that they cover the top with sugar and brulee the darn thing so it's caramelized, crunchy, and freaking sweet. The apples themselves are thinly slices and seasoned with just enough cinnamon to give them character. Wide a dollop of fresh whipped cream (the real stuff), it's possibly the best Sunday afternoon snack ever. On top of that, the Arts District is quite the scene on the weekends, the perfect place to feel like a hipster even though you're not really one anymore. My pants are just not tight enough, sadly. I have that pie to thank.

The Pie Hole
714 Traction Avenue
Los Angeles, CA

October 15, 2013

Scenes from This Past Week's Artisanal LA in Downtown's LA Mart

This was the first time I attended this small-producer food show put together by Sauce LA. The location was nice - indoors, cool, and spread out comfortably. I thought vendors did a fine job of putting together their wares, though I was hoping to see a little more variety. There were a lot of cupcake/cookie vendors, and not as many ice cream, pickle, and other types of craft food producers that I wanted to check out. But there was a little of everything, with most products in the range of meh to good. Only a few really stood out in my opinion, like Bruce's Prime Pickle, made by chef Bruce Kalman. I picked up two jars and wished I got a few more. The entrance to the show is $12 presale and $15 at the door. Other highlights: pulled pork cupcake (no, you won't be the next cronut, but nice try), Gindo's Spice of Life - probably my favorite hot sauce out there, and flavored cotton candy. Cotton candy should be the new cupcake.