August 21, 2014

How Brilliantshine is Being Run By True Restaurant Pros

There's a number of things I hate about restaurant openings. The first is if the place decides to do a soft-opening. Now, there's nothing theoretically wrong about having a soft opening. Just don't call it that and definitely don't charge people the full price for their experience. If you, a restaurant, are trying to get your house in order, don't make people pay full price. Or just don't charge at all. I'd like to think you'd get more than your money back in goodwill. This is the first thing I thought about today when I stepped into Brilliantshine, a re-concepted space from Julian Cox and Josh Goldman, who hardened bar and restaurant pros who've set up enough programs around town to know what they're doing. I've known Julian since he was managing the bar at Rivera, and I got to know Josh through the years from his time with Michael Voltaggio to the last few years he's teamed up with Julian. The two of them are the most stand-up guys you'll meet in the hospitality, and they see through all the B.S. that happens in the industry.

So while I know them well, I wouldn't say I'm like super tight friends with them. That's why I think I can see this situation a little more clearly. The second thing their new venture, Brilliantshine, is doing well, is the food and drink menus. They're both compacted, well-edited, and easy to get through. The ingredients on both cocktail and dinner menu don't follow trends: they're a reflection on what they all think just tastes good. Yes, there will be refinements over the ensuing weeks and months, as both of them admitted to me tonight when I stopped by, but I can assure you that the product they're offering now more than justifies the price.

Lastly, they've hired a great PR team that knows how to handle everything from the media management to the social media side. I can't stress enough how important it is for an important restaurant to hire a damn P.R. firm. If anything, you'll get a fresh perspective from someone who (theoretically) knows what they're talking about, and you get a tireless advocate to bring influential people in when all you're thinking about is running a restaurant.

All this comes through with a well-executed neighborhood spot that serves late and feels weathered, in a good way. Not faux-weathered, but actually timeless. It makes sense since Brilliantshine took over the legendary Renee's Courtyard dive bar (which I sadly never made it to). Renee's was one of the oldest standing dives on the Westside, and classic haunt for Santa Monicans (is that a word? who knows). So Cox and Goldman knew they had good bones to work with. I love that the decor and design have no feeling of being overworked. They seemed to do it by committee, and in a way that felt authentic rather than forced. I hate going into a place and feeling like they spent more on the decor than on the quality of staff, chefs, and food. Restaurants like that certainly serve a purpose, but they won't serve me.

522 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica

July 26, 2014

Podcast with Colin Marshall on Notebook on Cities and Culture

It's not often that I get to sit around and talk for over an hour and have someone actually care about what I say, but thankfully there are people in the world like Colin Marshall, who produces an excellence L.A.-based podcast called Notebook on Cities and Culture. Marshall approached me randomly, but mainly because he seemed interested in what I thought about the city in which I live, Los Angeles. Being a lifetime resident, I offered to talk to Colin for a while outside of Bar Nine Collective in Culver City.

I listened to the recording today, and I can safely report that it's not the most boring hour of your life, unless you hate food, culture, Los Angeles, and especially me. So, without further ado, I highly recommend subscribing to Colin Marshall's podcast on iTunes or picking up the recording here. Some juice tidbits include my favorite greasy spoon in Beverly Hills, thoughts on Korean cuisine in Los Angeles, and the best part about driving in this city.

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.
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.