Los Angeles

You know, it bugs me when San Franciscans hate on ~LOS ANGELES~. My first question is always, "Well, do you know someone there?" Because without at least one local person to point you to some metropolis gems, and there are many, you won't get a good sense of the city. I understand if you really loathe the heat, or the smog makes you sneeze and cough, and the traffic sucks, but as far as the city's culinary and design offerings go, it's major.

I went to college in L.A., and progressively kept moving east, from Westwood, to Melrose and La Brea, to finally Hollywood in the end. Funny, I noticed the crappy mall that was one block from my old apartment off Vine and DeLongpre is now housing a K&L Wines. Shame I moved--but I had no choice: that nasty Northridge earthquake in 1994 shook me right out of my place (my cute four-plex was condemned, school was long over, so back home to Northern California I went).

I have loved my all my subsequent visits to "la," and every year my list of faves to revisit and new places to hit keeps growing. Managed to scratch a few off during this last three-day trip, so let's recap. Expect to hear about more L.A. visits soon--this last trip got me really fired up to spend more time down there--all the modern design is so inspiring. The weather rocks. Ditto on the shopping. And yeah, there are some good vittles, too.

First things first--if you're driving down I-5, you need to hook yourself up with some decent eats. I refuse to do the fast food route, so this year I did a little pre-road-trip research and discovered ~WILLOW RANCH RESTAURANT~, a spot just off I-5 in Buttonwillow, near Hwy 58. Consider it your freeway HQ for house-made BBQ. It was some pretty damned tasty 'cue: my friend and I shared a "deep pit" beef sandwich (shredded beef on a fresh French roll, $7.95) and the "Big Hoss," with sliced pastrami, mustard, pickles and pepperoncini, also $7.95. Loved the BBQ sauce, and the side of house-made country-style potato salad with egg--totally had that good homemade flavor. It was fun sitting on the bell pepper-green stools at the vintage counter, and we got a kick out of our chatty waitress. Next time I'll come back to try the ribs.

Willow Ranch Restaurant
27770 Lagoon Dr.
Buttonwillow, CA

How long have I wanted to try the pizza at ~PIZZERIA MOZZA~, the project from Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali, and Joe Bastianich? Jeez, before the joint even opened. I made a lunch reso a couple weeks in advance of my trip, and the meal proved to be one of the better highlights. Fun retro style on the menus, placemats, even the breadstick bags. The packed room was a vibrant mix of folks, and it was refreshing seeing L.A. denizens scarfing down some carbs and cheese. The tables are packed super-close, so people definitely eavesdrop on what you're eating, and saying.

The winners: the antipasto of juicy shrimp, Fresno chiles, melon, red onion, and lime ($12) is a candidate for the next party dish I want to make, and the pizza with house-made fennel sausage, cream, red onion, scallion and a dusting of pungent fennel pollen that almost smelled like curry ($15) was bomb-diggity. The crust was really unique--so crispy and puffy and savory, and the sausage was super juicy. Next trip: I am hitting the Osteria next door so I can check out the famed mozzarella bar. But I did get to taste some bufala mozz on my friend's pizza with speck and olive tapenade ($18)--creamy and tangy, but a little dry as a pizza. Dag, I can't believe I didn't order a pizza with red sauce. Next time! Oh, and service was really friendly, and the wine list had plenty of Italian charmers to choose from (yay, vino al quartino!).

Pizzeria Mozza
641 North Highland Ave.
Cross: Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA

Michael Mina's ~XIV~ had just opened the day before I got into town, so I thought I'd check it out for a quick bite and a drink before my evening kicked off. There was an absolute fleet of staff, a veritable squadron standing guard in the Philippe Starck-designed box, but it still took over 20 minutes to get served my $13 cocktail, so I bailed on a bite because there wasn't going to be enough time at that rate. Even my friend's Pernod, not a cocktail, mind you, took 15 minutes to arrive at the table. It was the day after opening, I understand, but jeez, dinner service had barely even started, so what were the 50-plus people inside doing? Anyway. The bigger question: what on earth was I doing on the Strip to begin with? tablehopper, get your butt back east!

8117 Sunset Blvd.
Cross: Crescent Heights Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA

A few folks had recommended ~THE HUNGRY CAT~ to me. Seemed like a no brainer, considering my penchant for meows. I'm not fazed by the L.A. phenomenon of restaurants, many of them interesting and fantastic, being tucked in mini malls and shopping centers, and this restaurant was no exception, with its location next to a Border's. Drinks were quite good, like the hot tamale with Reposado Tequila, lime, orange, and Fresno chili simple syrup (a whopping $13), but I really wish our table had been inside, noise be damned. The outside patio was like dining in a dungeon--I couldn't see my food, and the lone tea light on the table was not cutting it. What was this, the 1500s?

There was a bunch of East coast-style fresh seafood on the menu, but I saw no need to blow a bunch of cash on flown-in fish I could get in SF. The smoked trout and bacon terrine ($14) sported an awesome flavor combo (well, I thought so, my friend gifted me his portion), while the chorizo-stuffed squid ($23) didn't live up to my hopes (the squid was rubbery, and the grits were like lumps of sticky Malt-O-Meal). The Spanish mackerel on toast ($14) was delish with the slow-roasted tomatoes, but why not three pieces of toast for the three pieces of mackerel? It was all on one slice, which made it a mess to eat. I'd probably eat lunch here once in a while if I worked nearby, like my friend does, but it didn't merit the primetime Friday night reservation I hoped it would. And since it was so damned dark, all I can share is a pic of the women's bathroom door art. Pfffft.

The Hungry Cat
1535 Vine St.
Cross: Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90028

One afternoon I met up with a publicist pal for lunch and wine at ~BOTTLEROCK~ in Culver City. It's crazy how much is happening in that part of town--lots of dining options, like Akasha, and Fraîche. BottleRock was a delightfully unpretentious place to kick it, taste a ton of wines, listen to Gil Scott Heron followed by Hall and Oates, snack on bites like a smoked duck salad ($11) or a pressed ham sandwich with cherry jam, caramelized shallots, and Etorki cheese ($9), and not encounter one ounce of 'tude. The wine selection rocks, literally, the retail portion is great (and funny: "Chards of Class," anyone?), the staff is knowledgeable and nice, and there is quite the selection of microbrews. Bonus features: they will open any bottle on the list with the purchase of two glasses, and there's even a game at the counter: if you guess the grape and region, you win a free glass. I wouldn't necessarily make a special trip cross-town to come here, and it was a bit lacking in the style department, but if I was in the area, I'd happily swing by, order some wines and cheeses, and get tastin'. Also a perfect spot to pick up a bottle or two for a party. P.S. They are opening a downtown location in December 2008.

3847 Main St.
Cross: Culver Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232

Mmmm, tacos. Had to get my L.A. taco on, and fortunately a local friend recommended the deeeee-lish ~CACTUS TAQUERIA #1~. With a line, always a good sign. Feasted on some slamming carnitas, birria, and al pastor tacos, a precious $1.25 a pop. Like, give me three more! That is so cheap, damn! Spicy salsa, outdoor seating, and reportedly late hours, sold.

Cactus Taqueria #1
950 N. Vine St.
Cross: Burton St.
Los Angeles, CA 90038

My LA buddy was laughing that I was going to Glendale for dinner one night. He's like, Marcia, you're so adventurous! (Guilty as charged.) Been hearing nice things about ~PALATE FOOD AND WINE BAR~, a restaurant sandwiched in an unlikely location in the midst of an auto dealership row, so I had to check it out. Again, that's LA for you. The place was really spacious--it just kept going and going. Was initially a little worried based on the interior of the front room (hmmmm, what is up with the very large cascading grapes?)--but the back room with the bar and wine merchant area was très cool. It was a Saturday night, and the place was going off.

The selection of Mason jar treats, all $5, was an inexpensive and savory way to start, ranging from the stellar potted Berkshire pork to the caponata, plus pickled vegetables (all $3). As you can see, the prices are downright inexpensive: a tasty bean dish with almonds, chard, and shallots was $8, and the rabbit special was only $19. An easy place to go share a meal with friends that won't leave your wallet hurting, and the wine list is one I'd return for again and again--there is also a full bar, but I was too distracted by all the wine choices instead. The Cal-Med food wasn't what I'd call mind-blowing, but I liked its seasonal simplicity--it's the kind of food you can eat and just enjoy without taking it super seriously. And the light bleed when the bill arrived was extra nice.

Palate Food + Wine
933 S. Brand Blvd.
Cross: Acacia Ave.
Glendale, CA 91204

Before I left town, I asked my bartender pals where I should go for a drink. Most mentioned ~THE DOHENY~, a members only-bar nearby the Staples Center. An SF cat made a call for me, so I was lucky to be let in with my friends to check it out. So I shouldn't talk smack, but come on, you're running an exclusive private club and you only have three cocktails offered on the menu, and bottle service? I asked our server if that was it for the cocktail selection, and she said yes. So much for hospitality. To top it off, my Southside Royale drink was watery and wasn't balanced--for $15, I had much higher hopes. Some of the details of the space were cool, and it was nice to have a place to sit and have a civilized chat on a Saturday night for a drink, but the music was pretty cheesy, and it just wasn't very fun. Meh. Wasn't allowed to take pictures, so that's that.

One party that was a total blast was ~SHITS AND GIGGLES!~, a downtown gay party at Club 740 on Fridays. It had some rocking electro-disco traxx, strong drinks, sassy drag queens (of course), a cool underground vibe, and stylee boys--nary a WeHo gym bunny in sight. And for $5. Just like the old days!

After all the dancing and boozing, I say God bless some good brunch. Been wanting to check out ~COMME ÇA~ for a while, and it made the perfect bookend to my three-day trip. The menu was full of eggy wegg options, like croques and omelettes, all around $12, but once I saw the burger on another person's table, that was it--the beef tractor beam vectored me right in. It was total beef fabulousness, a mound of tender beef topped with (almost) melted cheddar cheese, and lettuce and onions in a tangy-creamy mayo dressing, all tucked in a brioche bun that stood up to the very end. Oh yeah, and it comes served with double-fried fries and a decadent garlic aioli dipping sauce--let's just say it was the hit of the table. Although be warned, if you want your burger medium, tell them you want it seriously medium--my friend's burger was about the same pink as my medium rare, and when he sent it back, they cooked it all to hell.

The space had chic style, nice light during the day, I totally dug the chalk art on the blackboard on the way to the bathroom, and could totally see coming back for drinks and dinner one night. As my friend said, it's the Pastis for L.A.

comme Ça
8479 Melrose Ave.
Cross: La Cienega Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90069

Sadly, it was time to hit the road and head back to the 415, and Buttonwillow proved to be our faithful pit stop on the way home as well. This time we visited ~TITA'S PUPUSERIA #2~. Truth be told, the taco trucks were calling me, but sometimes you just need to sit and eat. The pupusas were good enough, not even close to The New Spot's, but as an option to all the I-5 schlock out there, Tita's was a superior choice. Notably good house-made chips and spicy salsa, props on that. And you gotta love the self-serve bucket of curtido, and cheap price of $20 for a honking dinner for two.

Tita's Pupuseria #2
20643 Tracy Ave.
Buttonwillow, CA 92306

A few shopping excursions I love/ed and recommend:

OK for art books, objets, jewelry, housewares, and general artsy and designy inspiration

Tortoise General Store in Venice has fantastic Japanese housewares, art, and more

American Rag Cie never disappoints for some stylee treasures, both vintage (I scored three dresses!) and new hip duds

Jet Rag at 825 N. La Brea is another fave for vintage

The Melrose Trading Post flea market on Sundays rocked! A goldmine for vintage fashions and furnishings--can't believe how many great coats I scored (SF residents, you can clean UP on coats--people in L.A. don't wear 'em that much). $2. And it's a fundraiser for Fairfax High, genius.