Urban Foraging, Los Angeles: 10,000 Calories in 48 Hours

Before last month’s trip to Los Angeles becomes as hazy as when I actually lived in Southern California, I need to address my sojourn down to the 405 and the 10. I’ve been dragging my feet far too long on this one, so allow me to begin by stating that I once enjoyed a 10-year, love-hate relationship with the L.A. Westside, at the end of which, I had finally had enough. But there were definitely some good times along the way, which is why I tell people, “It’s still a great place to visit.”

My advantage as a visitor to Los Angeles, however, is that after 10 long years of residency, I can still remember most of the shortcuts along the side-streets, I have decently instinctive knowledge of every single turn along Sunset Boulevard, and most importantly, I know where I can get a good bite to eat. Of course, when it comes to LA’s most recent culinary trends, I’m now hopelessly behind the curve; the Kogi truck phenomenon, for instance, was totally non-existent when I finally moved away, back in early 2004. Having lived in the Napa Valley for the last several years, I still keep close tabs on Los Angeles via the “LA Times” and the “LA Weekly” online, but it’s all become a second-hand experience, distantly removed.

These days, I’m simply not the expert that I once was, and my expertise truly hails from the old school (it happens). Of my 10 years living in Los Angeles, most of that time was spent in my 20s, life’s most interesting and unpredictable decade. Over the years, as I bounced around from one apartment to another, I gradually migrated from Palms to Brentwood. I lived in a few really nice places, and quite a few more lousy places, but casual dining usually remained pretty consistent: Favorites are favorites, no matter what. Whenever I reminisce about Los Angeles — now living more than 500 miles away — these are the foods that I still crave. An itch that I can rarely scratch, they had finally lured me back.

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The Godmother, Bay Cities Deli, Santa Monica

Like so many other landmark sandwiches in the United States, great bread defines the Godmother sandwich at Bay Cities Deli. The blistered crust is super-crispy, while the interior crumb is perfectly soft. And since Bay Cities Deli also bakes its own bread, they have the market cornered in this particular area. With all of the fixings, the Godmother is practically untouchable. That said, the Tuesday lunch line was almost as bad as the line that I saw outside the DMV that day, so I ended up returning towards the late afternoon, when business was still brisk, but not insurmountable. After so many great meals, this sandwich was the very last thing that I ate before I left Los Angeles (not counting the Pinkberry at LAX). I was first introduced to this sandwich by my friend Matt, with whom I worked at the Hollywood Stock Exchange (hsx.com). The Godmother at Bay Cities continues to be a revelation, especially as time passes between visits.

• • •

The Double Chili Cheese Burger, Carney’s, Sunset Strip

I first learned of Carney’s while I was working for a successful personal injury attorney on Sunset Boulevard. It was an interesting time, mostly because my boss was an amazing caricature of everything that you might expect from an LA PI attorney. I loved it. He wore a custom-made, sterling-silver belt buckle that was cast in the shape of a dollar sign, and he would routinely say all types of crass things on the phone with clients (“Now remember, this massage therapy is for medical treatment, so you’re not supposed to roll over at the very end, for the, you know…”). Before working for the law firm, I had actually driven past Carney’s hundreds of times on Sunset, but I was always skeptical of the restaurant’s unique “dining car” exterior. With this railroad theme and the restaurant’s prime location on the Strip, I had for years assumed that Carney’s was a simple tourist trap. But then, a friend of mine — one of the law students at work who was waiting out his bar results — encouraged me to go along for lunch. I became hooked. Years later, I would work in an office building that was located even closer to Carney’s than the law offices were, and Carney’s soon became a weekly staple. The double chili cheese burger trades on its honesty, like so many great things.

• • •

Two Taco Combo Plate, Paco’s Tacos, 4141 Centinela

Paco’s is about 300 yards from the Alibi Room, which is the HQ for Kogi Korean BBQ (and the trucks that spawned a SoCal movement). Over the years, I’ve made dozens of trips to the Alibi Room, mostly to kill some time waiting for a table to open at Paco’s. However, back then, the Alibi Room didn’t feature Korean BBQ, or anything else to eat. It was just a common dive bar — a place to gulp down a quick beer — with a pool table and a jukebox. I do remember a time, however, probably in 2006, when I was back in Los Angeles for a visit (again, trying to get a beer before dinner at Paco’s), when I noticed that the original Alibi Room had finally gone belly up and locked its doors. I was a little disappointed at the time. But who knew that such a meek watering hole would rise from the ashes in such hip fashion? As for the stalwart Paco’s Tacos across the way, the food remains quintessential to me, even if the combo plate pictured above represents an American spin on things. Their homemade tortillas are the best I’ve ever tasted.

• • •

Tacos with Cheese, Tito’s Tacos, Washington and Sepulveda

Compared to Paco’s Tacos, Tito’s Tacos takes an even greater step away from authenticity, although that’s not really the point. In terms if its wide-reaching popularity, Tito’s is the place that captured lightning in a bottle way back when, and never let it go. With their trademark shredded yellow cheese, these tacos are somewhat stripped down (accompanied only by lettuce and shredded beef), slightly utilitarian, and delicious. Their salsa is hopelessly watery, but it’s Tito’s — it’s just the way it is. I think that for some people, Tito’s is the type of place that you have to be exposed to early in life. If you first encounter Tito’s as a sophisticated and responsible adult, for instance, you may just marvel at the long lines outside, and you may not appreciate the appeal. However, if you had become hooked on Tito’s during your early 20s — perhaps as a cure for a Sunday-morning hangover — then you’re far more likely to see the light.

• • •

Cuban Roast Pork, Versaiiles, La Cienega

The very first item on the menu at Versailles is their Cuban Roast Pork, which is fitting, since I feel that there’s no need to look any further. The pork shoulder is marinated in citrus and garlic before being braised to submission. The black beans, which aren’t pictured in the photo above, are terrific when spooned over the white rice, and the plantains are by far the sweetest I’ve ever tasted. I may have enjoyed this dish more than anything else during my visit to Los Angeles, although that’s a bold statement, given the line-up I’ve produced. That being said, the Cuban Roast Pork at Versailles is definitely the one dish that surprised me the most, only because I had somehow forgotten just how great this meal was.

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‘Scoe’s Special #1 (White Meat), Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles, Pico and La Brea

Roscoe’s was actually my very first visit of the trip, and there’s a simple reason for that: It’s the place that I’ve missed the most. Although just about every single meal I’ve ever eaten at Roscoe’s was a late-night mission, I actually visited the restaurant for breakfast the morning after I arrived. It was the same, luckily — except that I can’t seem to pack away the ‘Scoe’s Special #1 the way that I used to. Perhaps it’s become my age, or perhaps it was just the early morning. I’m frankly not sure, but it’s always bittersweet when you’ve eaten so much that you can’t stomach another bite, but there’s still one chicken wing remaining.

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