Monday, December 28, 2009

View from the Tank: He's Just Not That Into You (2009)

My thesis: HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU is to THE WIRE as ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD is to HAMLET -- sort of. Or perhaps HJNTIY is to THE WIRE as THE WIND DONE GONE is to GONE WITH THE WIND. That is to say, HJNTIY, which was based on a book which was inspired from a line from the TV show SEX & THE CITY, is sort of a bizarro supplement to THE WIRE, or, in some ways, the anti-WIRE.

My reasoning: Both shows are set in Baltimore. THE WIRE focuses on the drug trade, turf battles between gangs, organized crime, policing, corruption in city politics, the educational system, etc., all the while spending a great deal of attention on black characters, and fleshing out those characters into some of the great characters in recent American television (see, e.g., Stringer Bell, Omar Little, et al.)

HJNTIY appears to take place at about the same time as THE WIRE, but where THE WIRE shows us what happens in Baltimore's ghettos, its inner-city schools, its docks, its police departments, etc., HJNTIY focuses on the doings and relationships of a remarkably undiverse cast featuring Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, the Mac guy (Justin Long), E from ENTOURAGE (Kevin Connolly, playing essentially the same character he plays on the HBO show), Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Connelly, Scarlet Johansson, Bradley Cooper, et al. You get the picture (or just see above).

Why is HJNTIY set in Baltimore? What are its creators trying to tell us with this curious choice of location? Why isn't this movie set in a nice part of San Francisco or Boston, or on the Upper West Side, or Silverlake? Why Baltimore? Why would you put an all-white cast in a story in Baltimore? As of 2006, the racial makeup of Baltimore was 64.85% African American, 31.28% white, 0.32% native American, 1.53% Asian, and 1.70% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race. The casting this movie set in Baltimore must be trying to send some kind of message, right?

A tip off (no pun intended): when we first meet Justin Long's character, he is sitting in Conor's fancy apartment (this could have been one of those waterfront condos Stringer Bell was planning to develop), watching hockey. Hockey, as you may know, is easily the whitest major team sport in the U.S. And Baltimore doesn't even have an NHL team.

Of course, we should've noticed some issues in the opening sequences, where the filmmakers try to "universalize" the problem of wondering when that guy is going to call by having women in different places in the world discuss this issue. There is the obligatory scene in Japan (the most exotic place our filmmakers can think of! so weird, so different, so EXOTIC) where one woman comforts another by suggesting that maybe that guy just lost her cell phone number. And then there is the piece-de-resistance of the opening, where two African women, squatting on the ground around an open fire, surrounded by huts, talk about why one of the women hasn't heard back from some guy. Her friend suggests that maybe he "lost her hut number" or perhaps "got eaten by a lion." Har, har, har! Get it, target demographic of Jennifer Aniston/Ben Affleck/Bradley Cooper/Scarlett Johansson fans? Because people in Africa totally sit by fires, live in huts, and get eaten by lions. AHAHAHA.

Some scenes from HJNTIY are directly reminiscent of THE WIRE. Conor takes his sort-of girlfriend, Anna (Johansson) to a house in a "new" and "upcoming" neighborhood. The neighborhood looks a little like the neighborhood where Omar Little hung out in an abandoned house with his boyfriend for a while (eating cereal when he had milk). Conor explains that gay couples, young families have "discovered" the neighborhood, and that it's becoming a "nice" neighborhood. (Paraphrasing here.) That is, nice people are now moving in: the middle-class, white, etc. These are the silent white yuppies that we never saw in THE WIRE: in HJNTIY, these figures, who were so marginal in THE WIRE, who were alluded to from time to time, but never shown, are front and center, and we get to find out all of the rich details of their lives, just as the lives of the slaves are revealed in THE WIND DONE GONE.

For example, we find out that some of these white yuppies stare at their cell phones as they do downward dog in their yoga classes. We find out that some of them spend a lot of time and money remodeling their apartments. We find out that some of them worry that their long-term boyfriends don't want to get married. It's riveting stuff, really. (It's the equivalent of the coin-flipping scenes in Stoppard's ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN). (Additional interesting parallel: where we see the ports and the dockworkers in THE WIRE, we see Ben Affleck hiding out in his private boat at some marina in HJNTIY.)

Sadly, this is not all fun. There's something toxic about HJNTIY's treatment and attitude toward race. There's a scene where Anna (Johansson) and Mary (Barrymore) are getting their nails done at a salon, and the camera lingers for a while at a line of Asian women kneeling at Anna's and Mary's bare feet, buffing and polishing their toenails. The filmmakers, in their sensitive wisdom, ease the harshness of this contrast by putting, out of focus in the background, a black woman next to Anna. (Subtext: yes, it's a bunch of Asian women kneeling at these yuppies' feet, but hey, there's also a black woman getting her nails done!) At another point, Alex (Long) is making out with a black woman, but turns away from her and ignores her when he gets a call from Gigi (Ginnefer Goodwin). Alex's black date comes off, in this treatment, as the equivalent of the Asian pedicurists -- offering a service to Alex, when he is actually interested in interacting with a real person -- fellow white yuppie Gigi.

Perhaps where the movie goes most wrong is in its sole attempt to give some lines and some "personality" to a non-white character. Janine (Connelly) interrogates her contractor, Javier (the excellent Luis Guzmán), who is overseeing her extensive and fancy house renovations. The "humor" in this exchange comes from Javier's "surprising" concern with grammar: at one point, he notes that Janine used "a lot of prepositions" in a row in a question. Get it, HJNTIY target audience? It's funny, because this Mexican guy knows English grammar! Hilarious!

Just for fun, the filmmakers also throw in some fake interviews with people complaining about relationship problems. One of these interviews features two overweight black women sitting on a bench. One of the women ends by saying something to the effect of, "If he says that, then girl, go get some ribs, because you've been dumped." And the other woman says something like "Mmm-hmm," in a "super-black" way. (As intended to be read by the HJNTIY target audience.)

I'm ashamed to say that I watched this entire movie on some premium cable channel last week and was mildly entertained by it. But as the movie settled in my head, sort of like a box of fifteen cold, greasy chicken McNuggets might settle in your stomach, I was more and more grossed out. I really do feel that there's something weird going on with the choice of the FRIENDS-style monochromatic cast, the provocative choice of location, etc. Where THE WIRE gave flesh and feeling and humanity to characters that had never received that treatment before, HJNTIY turns back the clock, and reasserts the order of things: yuppies sitting in pedicure chairs over kneeling minority women, yuppies screaming at their Hispanic contractors, etc., etc.

Whatever -- this movie is bad for America.

[New grading system] C

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cindy's in Eagle Rock

Cindy's must choose: is it a restaurant that sometimes serves as a movie set, or is it a movie set that happens to serve food?

Cindy's, which is so often used as a location for shooting movies and television shows, is a classic, old-time, roadside diner -- or at least, a decent simulation of one. Sometimes it feels like the food is part of the simulation as well.

I'm almost tempted to not even mention the food at Cindy's. It's exactly what you might expect: something between junior high dining hall fare, hospital cafeteria, and airline food. Okay, that's a little rough. I think the pancakes are okay, but I like McDonald's pancakes. The omelets are serviceable, as are the home fries. The minestrone soup I had there the other day tasted like it might have come out of a can, but in that delicious, irresistible way: I scraped up every bit. I had a veggie burger at dinner, and it seemed like the burger had been taken out of a bag and thawed out. The cole slaw the veggie burger came with was tasty -- in a shameless, artery-hardening way. Juices here are that unnatural color of concentrate drinks associated with the space program during the early cold war.

But eating at Cindy's is, if you're being honest with yourself, more about the aesthetic experience and atmosphere than anything else. You feel like you're on a road trip in the early 60's or in an early Tarantino movie. (Though the diner scene in RESERVOIR DOGS was filmed at another Eagle Rock diner -- Pat and Lorraine's.)

Pancakes. They've improved a bit in the last year or so. They're a little fluffier these days.

There's an important thing to keep in mind as you're grousing about the boring, institutional food served at Cindy's: this is what the people who come to Cindy's actually like. Cindy's target demographic skews toward the elderly side of Eagle Rock's population. Cindy's is open for dinner, and the dinner crowd here filters in around 5 p.m. (It's like the fourth book of the Rabbit Tetralogy.)

Minestrone soup. This is the kind of place where your soup crackers come in plastic wrappers.

The young often want the old-school charm and authenticity of our fair neighborhood without having to actually deal with the older residents who have imbued our neighborhood with that charm and authenticity. And it's true, the generational split sometimes comes to the fore, as it did in the submarining of the proposed (and feared) "Fat Dog Lounge" on Colorado in the location that eventually became the less offensive Cardio Barre.

We, the (relatively) young, see ourselves as winged messengers of progress, enlightenment, and advancement. We imagine the possibilities for transformation and change are wide open, endless before us. And we come bearing our feeling of entitlement. We like to talk about how Eagle Rock would be so improved, so much cooler if we eliminated the "eyesores," if we just cleared out or razed this place or that.

Cole slaw with a side of veggie burger.

There are two different moods -- two different worlds, really -- at Cindy's. There's the morning, which is like the morning at diners like this all across America: full of hope, possibility, the bright orange of the booths perfectly setting off the brown of the famously weak coffee. People are opening fresh copies of the paper, the sun is just coming up, the windows are full of bright morning light, everything is ahead of you.

And then there's Cindy's at night. If you've only been here for breakfast or brunch, I recommend that you stop by here some evening for dinner. (Given the usual dinner crowd, dinner ends around 6:30 or so.) It's much quieter, and there's a hushed, contemplative mood. The diner's sign stands out of the early darkness like a gas station sign in an Ed Ruscha painting. An elderly couple sits in a booth in the orange fluorescence of Cindy's on a Monday evening for dinner at 5:45, wordless.

In the bright light of Cindy's at night, the American night -- the black emptiness outside -- feels massive. The day seems to have passed so quickly. What opened with such hope and possibility now comes to a hushed ending. One sits in silence, eating something forgettable, but familiar, and comforting. And one hopes for just a few more bright mornings, where one is grateful even for the weak brown coffee.

Sitting in Cindy's at night, with the booths largely empty, the staff beginning to put things away and prepare for closing, the future doesn't feel quite so huge and expansive anymore, but the American night feels terrifyingly boundless.

This is a place our older neighbors cherish. It's been around forever. It's not hip, and it's not on Jonathan Gold's list, but it's a neighborhood institution. We shouldn't pretend to understand until we've sat a while in our older neighbors' places. Day's end comes sooner than we imagine, for all of us.

But morning always comes, and Cindy's will be open at the crack of dawn for breakfast -- they'll have some of their weak coffee, ready for you.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Lemongrass in Eagle Rock

Spring Rolls

Lemongrass has very clean bathrooms. For some of you, that right there might tell you everything you need to know about this place (viz., Vietnamese food that's not ultra-authentic, and not served in an appropriately grimy location). But give it a chance, despite the spotless and tastefully decorated bathrooms.

It's kind of a mint-green nineties vibe in Lemongrass, with an unfortunately designed counter that has no overhang -- so there's nowhere for people sitting at the counter to put their knees. (You have to see it to understand. It's not a big deal, but I always notice this when I come here for some reason.) There are some Buddhas perched on shelves, some paintings of women in áo dài (those long single-piece dresses), wearing ón lá (those conical straw hats), black-and-white photographs of Vietnam, etc.

The menu is pretty simple, with the Vietnamese standards: spring rolls (decent), bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches - pretty good), bún (noodle) dishes (okay), rice dishes (I like the cơm tôm a lot), some so-so vegetarian dishes, and, of course, phở.

Beef Phở

Mrs. Octopus is Vietnamese and is generally pretty picky and sparing with her praise for Vietnamese places around L.A. She thinks Lemongrass is okay. It'll do the job for her. She tends to have the phở bò chín nạc (well done beef) here, though, in L.A., she thinks the beef phở at Phở Cafe in Silverlake is better. Surprisingly, she thinks the phở gà (chicken) is better at Gingergrass (Silverlake). (More suprisingly, she hasn't yet been to the famous Golden Deli in San Gabriel (beef phở is the specialty there).) She generally doesn't get too excited about Lemongrass, but there have been weeks where we've been here three or four times: sometimes Mrs. Octopus just has to get phở into her system very quickly. I think it might be a medical condition for Vietnamese people.

Lemongrass Chicken

Lemongrass is an easy and pretty reasonably priced option, and I find myself defaulting to this place all the time. The food seems pretty healthy, and I don't feel gross or greasy after eating it. I'm sort of addicted to a new special they have, the Lemongrass Chicken, which is in some kind of crazy tasty lemongrass salty sauce. I can't get enough of it.

Food isn't terribly expensive here, though Mrs. Octopus and other Vietnamese people tend to get upset when bánh mì costs more than three dollars (or two dollars) -- it's like $7.95 here. Lunch specials are cheap at $6.95. Dinner for two will probably cost between $25-$30. The owners are Vietnamese, and Mrs. Octopus suspects that the primary cooks in the kitchen are Vietnamese. There were many weird issues with service in the early days, but those issues seem to have been ironed out. They have a number of beers available, including some Vietnamese beers.

This place is fine if you don't feel like trekking out somewhere for *the best* Vietnamese food you could possibly find. That is, it's totally perfect for dinner on a Tuesday. It's not the kind of place you would go out of your way for.

Now, if you ever do feel like making a trip down the 405 to Little Saigon down in Orange County, here are some fantastic places Mrs. Octopus's parents have taken us to: Canton Restaurant (fish porridge and dill turmeric fish); Phở Dakao (phở gà); and Lee's Sandwiches (bánh mì).

Finally, a short Vietnamese lesson. Vietnamese, like Chinese, Thai, and other languages in Southeast Asia, is tonal. Vietnamese has six tones: flat, rising, descending, short descending, high breaking-rising, and mid dipping-rising (like an interrogative tone). The word phở has this last tone. Also, the "o" is not hard, as in "boat", but soft, as in "book". It sounds like "fuck" but without the "ck", and as if you were asking a question, sort of like "fuh?"

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Panang in Eagle Rock

Are Panang's weirdly tenacious enthusiasts just wrong? Are they trying to make some kind of point? Are they woefully misguided or are they spitefully gleeful in the chaos of Panang?

These are the questions I would ask myself as I drove or walked by Panang all these years: who were these people eating inside Panang, the Thai, Chinese Sushi Restaurant?

Someone at Panang has a real problem making decisions. Why leave anything out? There are something like 145 items on the menu here -- and that's not including the sushi options. They offer Thai, Chinese, Thai-Chinese, Sushi, Korean, Vietnamese, and Mongolian. I actually felt a little offended that they didn't offer Indian.

Sad to say, I wasn't brave enough to venture beyond the Thai offerings. Some people say that Panang is a great Thai restaurant, perhaps the best Thai place in L.A. Those people are wrong.

My confrontation with Panang has been epic. I've been there multiple times over the past few weeks, trying to give it a fair chance. It's sent me into a crisis, questioning the purpose of this entire foolish project to review everything in Eagle Rock. My time with Panang has been my darkest hour in my current incarnation as neighborhood blogger: I had finally come to a place that could suck all inspiration from me.

I can be a champion of perfectly fine food, and I've even tried to make a case for mediocre food: it has its place. But Panang is just crappy. Their menu is like a gigantic outlet by the highway in some far-away place: a huge selection of shoddy, low-quality junk. I tried the pepper chicken. I asked them to make it super spicy. They made it sweet. I came in for lunch and the waitress put me at a table behind a plant and then promptly forgot that I existed. The papaya salad tasted old and smelled funky. I had the basil chicken and asked for it spicy. It came twenty minutes later sweet and insipid. I ordered a pad thai to go: it was like something out of a frozen-food bag. It wasn't terrible, but I wouldn't go out of my way to eat it again.

The pad thai cost $7.83 the guy at the counter said, surrounded by porcelain chickens and dolphins for sale. (There is a bizarre miniature shop of Asian knickknacks and useless crap at the front of the store. By the register there is a basket full of Halls and raisins. Why not have some raisins with your cough drops?) Then he said it was $8.73. I didn't really care. I gave him a $20 bill and he stared at it, befuddled, like it was part of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He fumbled with some change in the register. Then he looked around, apparently for a calculator. I told him that the change would be $11.27. He considered this, looking at me with a combination of confusion and deep suspicion. After about another minute or so of fumbling with the change drawer, he gave me, very slowly, and somewhat reluctantly, $11.27.

That's just how this place rolls. It's like a cross between a Kafka story and a Jeunet and Caro movie. You should go -- once -- just to experience the deep, oddly moving weirdness of the place.

That this place continues to stay in business is probably a testament to habit, lack of curiosity, laziness, and sheer bad taste. This place sucks.

But it'll probably still be here after all of us are dead.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Colombo's Italian Steakhouse in Eagle Rock

Colombo’s is the kind of place a middle-aged man takes his ninety-year-old father on a Friday night, gets a table near the baby grand at the front of the dining room, and asks the piano player to play “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” telling the piano man that it’s his dad’s favorite song. As the piano player plays the song, the good son sings along, at full tilt, as his father, ancient, irreparably shriveled, mouths along – his eyes glittering with happiness.

It’s the kind of place where, on a slow Columbus Day Monday night, the musical trio serving as the entertainment for the evening call out to friends in the dining room to come up and take a turn on the mic, on the piano, or on the drums. Their friends make their way up to the stage, hugging their other friends in the dining room and the musicians in the trio.

It’s a strange place -- something between an office from the 70’s, an Edgar Allan Poe story, a SOPRANOS episode, and a pirate ship -- with red leather booths, black wrought-iron chandeliers, huge rococo paintings in massive gold frames hanging on a wall of fake wood paneling. A half-wall of more fake wood paneling and dark tinted glass separates the dining room from the bar.

And it may be the very soul of our fair neighborhood.

Salmon with black pepper crust

I’m not going to try to sell you on Colombo’s food. The food here is decent Italian steakhouse fare. No real surprises. It’s perfectly fine. I’ve had the pasta and the fish here (a nice pepper-encrusted salmon special on Columbus Day), and it’s always been okay. (Apologies again that my no-mammal rule precludes a verdict on the steak.) It’s not super cheap – you’re likely to spend around $50 for dinner for two, with drinks and appetizers.

But the food is not really the point of Colombo’s. You don’t come here to be blown away by the kitchen’s artistry or creativity.

You come here, order some pasta or some steak, maybe a baked potato and a cocktail, sit back, and absorb the groovy scene: couples on dates, weathered regulars, families crowded into booths sharing lasagna, musicians checking out their friends’ sets, and the occasional amazed thirty-something neighborhood blogger, all listening to the sets, watching as people get up from dinner to sing an old jazz standard, take a turn on the drums. Everyone’s welcome, and everyone belongs.

When you are feeling down, come here, and get a bit of joy, of people singing and playing old standards in a little dining room in Eagle Rock, warming up the dark, empty L.A. night. There’s no other place like this in the neighborhood. It’s a warm little society, but one that’s always welcoming, ready to accept you in its plush red-leather embrace. It’s live from Eagle Rock, every night. You’ll know the songs, and you’ll want to sing along. Take someone you love.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Pollos a la Brasa in Eagle Rock

This is America: a slightly chubby kid comes walking into Pollos a la Brasa, waving his hands in the air, calling out "¡Hola!"

The Peruvian-American boy was saying hi to family friends he saw inside the restaurant. Everyone seems to know everyone else at Pollos a la Brasa, which is hidden away in the nondescript mini-mall next to Blockbuster on the north side of Colorado. It's a tiny, tight little world of Peruvian-American immigrants.

The boy and his family came over to their friends and told them all about other mutual friends or family they had just visited in the hospital: someone had just had a baby. The boy's father pulled out a Blackberry and showed a picture of the baby. The father of the other family asked, "¿Es un chico?" The kids cried out "¡Que lindo!" and "How cute!", slipping back and forth between English and Spanish. The boy used his sister's arm to show how big the baby was, demonstrating with his hands and saying "Así."

Pollos a la Brasa doesn't look like much inside (standard-issue molded yellow bench-table sets like Zankou) -- until it's filled with Peruvian families looking for a taste and feel of home, everyone greeting each other.

Saltado de Pollo

And what are they eating? Almost everyone was having papas, in one form or another. (The west coast of South America is the original source of all the earth's potatoes. Peru currently has several thousand varieties of potatoes.) Peruvians appear to be really into carbs.

The most famous dish here is apparently the Saltado de Pollo. (Don't be mislead by the comments on Yelp that suggest that "saltado" has anything to do with salty. "Saltado" is the past participle of "saltar," meaning to jump, or skip. I'm not sure what "saltado" has to do with this dish, but it's not the word for "salty." That word is "salado.")

1/2 Chicken with rice and beans

Saltado de Pollo is a strange dish. Sauteed pieces of chicken, with onions and tomatoes, and a soy-sauce-based sauce, covered with slightly soggy sliced potatoes that tasted a little like french fries -- though less crispy. It sounds weird, but tastes great. I do wish the dish had been a bit spicier, but I'm always saying that. (The waitress accommodated my requests for something a bit more picante by bringing me a bunch of sliced jalapeños.) The dish tastes vaguely like Chinese food -- if Chinese food came covered in slightly soggy french fries. Again, weird, but good.

Gigantic Peruvian corn

On my recent visits, I also had the rotisserie chicken, which was fantastically tender and moist, served with a big portion of white rice and some tasty beans. (Chicken is the specialty here, as the name suggests. "Brasa" means something like barbecued, rotisserie, spit-roasted, etc.) The chicken is complemented by aji sauces, red and green. The green aji tastes a bit like some kind of Chinese mustard; the red is a bit spicier. Both are lovely. The chicken here compares favorably to the famous chicken at nearby Zankou. It's a bit juicier here, whereas Zankou's chicken has slightly crispier skin, and drier meat.

I also had the giant Peruvian corn, which was, honestly, too gigantic for me to finish. Each kernel on the cob was about the size of my thumb. It was too awesome-looking not to try. The kernels were so big that you have to eat them individually. Weirdly enough, the corn tasted a bit like potato.

I've also had the seafood ceviche here, which is tasty and refreshing -- though I am admittedly not a huge ceviche fan.

Inca Kola, the Golden Cola

It's expected that you'll want to wash this all down with an Inca Kola, which touts itself as "The Golden kola". This stuff doesn't really taste like cola as we are used to it. There's something slightly fruitier about it, but in a very subdued, syrupy way. It's a little like a very light cough syrup. It's tasty enough, but most American palettes would probably be happier with the imported Coca Cola (made with cane sugar, not corn), available in the restaurant's fridge.

None of this is terribly expensive (or incredibly cheap). Expect to spend about $25 for dinner for two. Lunch specials are great here, at $5.95

On my last visit at dinnertime, the dining room was full of families out together for dinner. Parents speaking to their kids in Spanish, kids answering back in English, occasionally in Spanish, at the prodding of their parents. The TV on top of the soda fridge was showing Univision's nightly news broadcast with Jorge Ramos -- who, if you have not seen him deliver a newscast, just exudes this otherworldly calm and competence.

Jorge Ramos on Univision

The broadcast was doing what appears to be a nightly survey of the Spanish-speaking world, steadily bouncing across a giant map of South America, from country to country. Ramos finished the update on Colombia as the image zoomed up away from Colombia and then zoomed south, and settled in on Peru. Ramos gave a short report on the trial of former President Alberto Fujimori. A young mother in the restaurant turned to her two children and pointed up at the television. "¡Mira! ¡Mira!" she told them. "Eso es Peru." Her kids looked up at the TV and watched the disgraced former prime minister standing in court, as they picked up more forkfuls of Pollo de Saltado.

Peru's very far away for those kids. Pollos a la Brasa won't take them there, but it's probably as close as one can get in Eagle Rock.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Capri in Eagle Rock

Eagle Rock is inhabited by a wide variety of ethnicities and socioeconomic groups, but it is best known as an eclectic gathering of hipsters and the creative class. Eagle Rock is known for its bohemian vibe, mix of class levels, and neighborhood feel.

A core of counter-culture writers, artists and filmmakers has existed in the town since the 1920s and is being supplemented by the recent influx of hipsters. The town was well known during the late '50s, '60s and '70s for its sizable hot rodder culture, which is now almost defunct.

From the Wikipedia entry on Eagle Rock

Vegetarian pizza.

How did I know that The Capri was objectively the motherflippin' bomb, besides my own immediate, gushing love for the place? My French friend, who is now in NY (peace out homme!), offered it the highest praise possible, for him: "It's very good, for what it is."

Birra Moretti available on tap, and in pitchers.

And what is it? A hermetically sealed time capsule of a time when Eagle Rock was about hot rodders, teens with Lucky Strike boxes rolled up under their white t-shirt sleeves, their hair slicked back, when contraception was contraband. A beer-and-pizza hangout run by middle-aged, red-haired twins, one jovial, and one less so. In short, sort of like AMERICAN GRAFFITI meets TWIN PEAKS.

Let me just spill it: this is one my new favorite places in Eagle Rock. The pizza is probably better than the pizza at Casa Bianca and Brownstone, the better known places up on easily accessible, mainstream Colorado Boulevard. The Capri, in contrast, is pretty much on the downlow, a blast-from-the-past interior of green booths, red checkerboard tablecloths, Italian and American flags, and portraits of Occidental College football teams of yesteryear, all hidden behind a complicated metal facade facing Eagle Rock Boulevard. (There were no pictures of Oxy's JV basketball teams from the past -- if there had been, we might have looked for a picture of our 44th president in Tiger orange, kneeling with a hand on a basketball.)

Beef lasagna

The Capri is that mystery place next door to Auntie Em's that's not open when you're at Auntie Em's for brunch that you've always been sort of curious about but never remembered to try.

There are odd touches all around. During my visit, I was fixated on one black and white picture of the twins, as young teens, it appeared, standing and apparently yelling at someone sitting in a chair. Other pictures showed them with minor L.A. celebrities. As we were admiring some of these photos, one of the twins (I couldn't tell them apart) called out to us: "I'm the good-looking one."

Obama in the California sunshine at Occidental College in the eighties. He probably had some good times at The Capri. His future was so bright, I wonder if he wore these sunglasses at night.

I had the vegetarian pizza (onions, mushrooms, olives [sans bell peppers, per the request of my good friend Col. Mortimer] plus garlic) and it was delicious. The crust was neither thin nor thick, but medium. And during my visit, it tasted and felt just right. The other people at the table had shrimp scampi (reported to be tasty), beef lasagna (ditto), and baked ziti (ditto, from my picky French friend).

In a sign of the times, and a nod to the inexorably changing nature of the neighborhood, the beer on tap (and available in pitchers) is no longer Budweiser (U.S.A.! U.S.A.!), but the delicious Birra Moretti (Viva Italia!).

The twins on a sign in front of the restaurant. They weren't wearing shorts or tossing pizzas when we visited.

It was the last weekend in L.A. for my French friend, and his first time to The Capri. No doubt, he was feeling some advance nostalgia for our fair city. I could see why The Capri made an impression on him. The Capri is a place that oozes nostalgia. It's that idyllic, archetypal All-American hangout: the guys drive their '57 T-bird over, hang out with a few pitchers of, um, birra, and a few pepperoni pies, and celebrate the bracing Californian pursuit of happiness. (Sadly, there would probably be a drag race on Colorado involved sometime afterward.) It's probably the kind of place the guys over at Tritch Hardware used to hang out at when they were young.

Baked ziti

It's a place unspoilt by modishness or current fashions (putting aside the birra), untouched by the marauding hordes working their way down Jonathan Gold's 99 list.

But it's not just a super old-school nostalgia this place invokes. It reminds me of Friday nights in Connecticut, when my mom would take my brother and me to the pizza place next to our barber shop before my dad got home. We would get root beers and pizza with onions and mushrooms. It was a delicious reward for making it through another week of social studies, long division, hallway bullying, and soccer tryouts. It was Friday night in America, and we were free to do whatever we wanted. My mom would drive us through the town, playing Hindi music loud on the Caprice Classic's stereo, on the way to the pizza place.

And that's what I remembered, as I took my first bite of the pizza at The Capri: my own American youth. It's a place you'll want to come back to.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

OK Chinese Food in Eagle Rock

Not every hole in the wall will be a gem in the rough. Sometimes, it’ll just be a piece of coal: not pretty, not memorable, but functional, if potentially noxious. As tempting as it is to want to love dingy little cheap dives, they can’t all be great. Some of them will suck, or be just OK.

The aptly named OK Chinese Food , in the La Fuente mini mall on Colorado (near Eagle Rock Blvd.), falls into the latter category. There are no attempts at anything too memorable here. It’s essentially a seedier version of Panda Express, without the uniforms or the brand consultants. Certainly, no one was consulted on the name choice.

The dishes on the steam trays are mostly forgettable, warmed-over, MSG-delivery-vehicle goop. (The spicy chicken and mushroom chicken that I tried were meh.) But at the far end of the steam trays is OK Chinese Food’s pièce de résistance: the pepper chicken wings. (Don't get too excited.)

Pepper Chicken Wings, Spicy Chicken, and Chow mein: $5.27. Sometimes, you get what you pay for.

The wings are widely celebrated among OK Chinese Food’s numerous enthusiasts, and the wings are probably the only reason to endure the grim service and atmosphere of OK Chinese Food. The service here is usually joyless and distracted. The interior is pretty much classic crappy mini-mall Chinese place (complete with yellowing ads for Boba Tea, empty jugs of unidentifiable liquid scattered on the floor behind the counter, thousands of plastic bags stacked and ready for deployment). It’s probably fair to say that OK Chinese Food is not too concerned with running a “green” operation.

The wings were not as spicy as I would have hoped. The woman at the counter, who wanted to be done with me, told me they were “just a little spicy.” I couldn’t really detect any spice. The wings were certainly salty, and would probably be more accurately named OK Salty Fried Chicken Wings. They're heavily battered and deeply fried. The effect is not too different from KFC Hot Wings (from what I can remember of those) but saltier. The wings are good, but I don’t see how or why they could have inspired the mini cult following OK Chinese Food appears to have.

The plus side: they are not stingy with the portions. They will stuff the styrofoam take-out tray with food till it’s near bursting. You can get a very big, if not exactly wonderful, meal here for about $5. And you will probably finish it all, once you are in thrall to the chemical dictates of the MSG. You’ll probably feel a little guilty and unhealthy afterwards. OK Chinese Food gets a B from the Health Department; it’s certainly not immaculate, but you probably won’t get sick. High praise, I know.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mini Melt Too Comics in Eagle Rock

First, we need to clear up the record: Mini Melt Too Comics says they did not, as many suspect, and as this blog has suggested in the past, run Another World Comics out of business. So don't be mad at them about that.

The story I was told by the friendly Mini Melt Comics employee the other day went like this: Another World Comics was there next door (in the blue building that is now empty, to the left of Mini Melt), but the Mini Melt people had it on good authority (i.e., the owner of the paintball store to the right of Mini Melt) that Another World was closing down. So Mini Melt moved in a few years ago (the Mini Melt Mothership is in Hollywood), and, soon after, the owners of Another World, as foretold by the paintball guy, decided to give up their shop, or "retire" as the Mini Melt guy put it.

But then, in a bizarre and unforeseen move, Another World's landlord decided to keep Another World going, taking over the store, and continuing to operate it. The Mini Melt guy noted that the landlord had had no idea about comics and was doing silly things like "having wine tastings" at the shop. That actually sounded like a fantastic idea to me, and I suggested that Mini Melt could do a joint event with Colorado Wine Company. The Mini Melt guy said they had issues about space in the narrow confines of their shop.

After a few months of running Another World, the landlord apparently got bored, and just suddenly shut it down. After that, there was some talk of a pot clinic called "Green Goddess" moving into the space (they even put up a sign), but then that fell apart.

Mini Melt is a fun place. It can't help but be. It's a comic store. The staff there is appropriately geeky and serious about their comics. They try hard not to make you feel silly when you ask a question that demonstrates that you are unschooled in the history and lore of comics. But make no mistake, the staff here is serious about their comics.

Apparently, their customers are, too. Some customers have apparently complained that Mini Melt's comic archives aren't deep enough to satisfy their demands for completion. I've always found the selection perfectly adequate for my relatively minimal needs. But, yes, Mini Melt is no Forbidden Planet at Union Square (my old favorite NYC haunt). It's not a huge place. But if you need a Gremlins figurine, a Count Chocula action figure, a Green Lantern t-shirt, a Robotech motorcycle in the box, the latest issue of THE INCREDIBLE HULK, or a five-foot tall Godzilla, this is the place to go in the neighborhood.

Of course, I haven't been reading a lot of comics since Optic Nerve and X-Statix ended their runs a few years ago. Also, I've sort of felt that comics have gone a little too Believer Mag lately. When the hipsters started showing up at comic conventions, it was sort of over, I think. (I'll save for another post the offensiveness of hipsters horning in on and appropriating nerd/geek chic and culture without paying the dues of pain, mockery, abject uncoolness that true nerds and geeks must endure.)

But can I tell you why I love comic book stores like Mini Melt? So before a Star Trek marathon I held at my place a month or so before the recent STAR TREK movie (that right there is, what we call in the legal business, an admission against interest), I went to Mini Melt to buy some Star Trek stuff. I asked if they had a U.S.S. Enterprise. The guy behind the counter said they had one, but it was out of the box, dusty, and didn't have the stand. I took a look at the toy, haggled over the price a little, and then paid for it.

The cashier asked me if I wanted a bag or if I wanted to "just fly it out of here." I said I would just fly it out on impulse drive. As I walked out of the shop and onto the sidewalk, holding the Enterprise in my hand, a pick-up truck stopped at the curb in front of the shop. The two guys in the truck looked out at me, and one asked the other "Is that Star Trek, man?" The other guy told him it was. Then the first guy leaned out the window and yelled out to me: "Hey man! Is that Star Trek?" I said yes, and held the Enterprise closer for him to inspect. He took a look and yelled out "I love that shit, man!" I said "I do, too," and then they pulled away, exulting about Star Trek. The Star Trek marathon at my place the next day was, obviously, off the hook.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Elvira's in Eagle Rock

Continuing our "gem-in-the-rough" or "incredible-hole-in-the-wall" theme (while recognizing its overuse), we turn our attention to Elvira's in Eagle Rock.

Elvira's is, of course, sign-less, wedged in between Domino's and a dry cleaners. You could go years in the neighborhood and never notice it. That is in fact what I did.

Vegetarian taco

Often, the hole-in-the-wall restaurant story involves a depressing, crappy-looking exterior, which, if the restaurant-goer is intrepid enough to ignore it, gives way to reveal an entirely unexpectedly chic and stylish interior. (See, for example, Pho Cafe in Silverlake.)

Chicken taco

Elvira's doesn't fit this template. You walk into this place and it feels like you've just walked into one of the cheaper restaurants in Tijuana. Actually, the place hardly feels like a restaurant. Random items are scattered about. There's a bubble gum machine, random post-it notes with numbers for random people, decorative butterflies on the wall, old calendars, old pens, a boom box on a chair, plastic bags filled with mysterious contents, etc. Inexplicably, there's a giant mural of a tropical beach scene on one wall. It feels like Elvira leased this space and made it her second home. Random items she might need are lying around.

Elvira taking catering orders in the dining room.

There are tables for eating in (glass tabletops over maroon tablecloths), but most people that come here seem to order para llevar. (The business model here is better understood when you realize that most of Elvira's business comes from catering.)

Chicken taco

But it's worth sticking around once in a while, to chat with Elvira. She's a lovely woman, who clearly enjoys interacting with her customers. Often, she will make your order herself. The place is so intimate that you're inevitably drawn into some small talk with Elvira and her staff, especially if you speak a little Spanish. (If you do, Elvira will happily start chatting you up, with obvious delight.)

The food here doesn't taste like restaurant food. It tastes like food you might have if you were invited over to someone's house -- someone who had been making Mexican food in her own kitchen for decades. On my recent visits, I had chicken tacos and a chicken burrito. They were simply -- humbly -- presented, but they were delicious.

The term "homemade" is tossed around irresponsibly, but it truly fits here. Elvira's dishes are lovingly made, with a homey (and homely) aura of authenticity that one doesn't quite find at Elvira's spiffier competitors. The chicken in the tacos and the burrito was shredded and cooked to a tender, juicy perfection that melted in my mouth. The tacos (less than $2) were generously sized, as was the burrito, which made up an entire meal in itself ($4.95).

This is the kind of place you might come to when you are feeling homesick, miss your mom, or just need a good meal that tastes like home.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Thai Spirit in Eagle Rock

The internet is a realm of reckless superlatives. Something must be the best ever, the most fantastic, totally mind-blowing, or crazy to get our fickle attention above the din of the information carnival. This, I think, tends to lead to unfortunate exaggeration, excessive reliance on superlatives, unnecessarily and unjustifiedly provocative positions and statements, etc. It's as if we're shouting to be heard, and, realizing that we are always one click away from being ignored, must do backflips, show some serious cleavage, and set off large explosions to get anyone's attention.

Lunch special vegetable soup.

Thai Spirit will likely not be the best Thai (or Thai-Chinese) restaurant you will ever visit.

However, it is an indispensable place, and one that deserves to be visited often. It has what is probably, dollar-for-dollar, the best lunch value in the neighborhood, and very solid Thai-Chinese offerings. Crucially, for my purposes, they are not afraid to make things really fucking spicy here -- if that's what you ask for.

And let's be honest for a minute: not every meal you eat must be life-changing, or incredible. Despite the proliferation of food blogs and restaurant review sites, not every meal has to be impeccably researched, cross-referenced, and legitimized by critical opinion as the best. Sometimes, you just want to go somewhere close, easy, and decent.

The lunch special salad.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I ignored Thai Spirit for years. I committed the cardinal Los Angeles sin: I judged the book by its cover. I figured that the dingy, crappy looking hole-in-the-wall next to Yum Yum Donuts and the tire place was probably as crappy as it looked. It was if I had learned nothing from years of discovering -- yes -- mind blowing places in crappy looking strip malls in the Valley, in Hollywood, in Glendale, etc. And I will concede here that the whole "hidden gem in a shitty strip mall" trope is an overused and played L.A. theme -- but it's often still true.

Papaya salad. Spicy.

So finally, when my little brother, visiting from out of town, tried Thai Spirit on his own, and reported that it was actually pretty good, and really generous with the portions, I tried it, and I was very glad that I did.

Garlic pepper chicken. Extra spicy.

Again, I am not trying to tell you that Thai Spirit will leave you speechless or trembling with gratitude. I am here to tell you that it's a very solid Thai-Chinese restaurant. And that for $5.95 you can get an excellent lunch that includes: (1) a fine salad with a Thai-like dressing (or egg rolls); (2) a delicious vegetable soup that you will scoop up every last drop of; and (3) a very large serving of whatever you order that you will be hard pressed to finish by yourself in one sitting.

Spicy basil noodles.

Dinners here are fine -- good. They seem to do a brisk delivery business in Eagle Rock, as the phone has been off the hook whenever I've been there at dinner. All the standards are fine here. The papaya salad was refreshingly spicy and fresh. The basil chicken and spicy basil (flat) noodles were very good. Again, not life-changing, but very fine. Washing it all down with a cold Singha (served in a frosted mug, in a very thoughtful touch), I was feeling totally copacetic, ensconced in one of their weird little Thai-temple booths. (It felt a little like the scenes between Fred MacMurray and Shirley MacLaine in the Chinese restaurant in THE APARTMENT.)

Everything will be fresh, and they won't be sparing with the seasoning. I was very impressed on my first visit when I ordered the basil chicken and it came out with loads of fresh basil. And as I mentioned above, if you ask, they will make stuff super spicy.

Spicy basil chicken.

This is the kind of place that could become your neighborhood comfort food spot. I have fond memories of going out to eat Chinese with my folks back in Connecticut on Christmas (it was us and the Jewish folks at the local Chinese place), when everyone else was at home with their holiday hams drinking eggnog and watching IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Thai Spirit is the kind of place you'll want to come back to. Close to home, cheap, tasty, friendly, not too busy -- sort of your own secret place (especially if you're hiding in one of the temple-booths). Everyone needs a place like that.

Having a hard time deciding between the Singha or the Thai iced tea.