Monday, August 31, 2009
Auntie Em's in Eagle Rock
Auntie Em's apparently used to be a different type of place, under the same name. As one of the waitstaff explained to a nearby diner last night, Auntie Em's used to be the kind of place that served "ham sandwiches" on "wheat and white bread." (The words "white bread" were used several times in this description, with no apparent effect on the listening diners.) Then, a few years ago, the owner decided to go in a different direction, "brighten up" the interior, and change up the menu. The waitress noted that every now and then, older neighborhood residents would come in and complain that "everything had changed," and that they no longer had "American cheese," or "ham sandwiches on white bread."
Tossed cobb salad
Today, Auntie Em's is definitely no longer a place that serves ham sandwiches on white bread. It's a place where the staff appear to be required, as a condition of employment, to have either arm tattoos (arm tattoos are the hipster khakis) or non-traditional piercings, and where the waitstaff and cooks likely swap Judith Butler and Naomi Klein books after closing. It feels very much like a place run by recent Bennington or Oberlin grads who sneer at traditional career paths, corporate agriculture, and white bread. You might notice that the place isn't antiseptically clean, hairnets are not worn in the kitchen, etc. That's all fine with me (though if I were feeling cynical I might say something about how the ostentatious dishabille stems from a deep belief that white hipsters from the suburbs are never really "dirty" and can't really get you "sick" and that most Americans are unhealthily obsessed with "cleanliness.") But these being educated hipsters running the place, nothing will actually be dirty. It's just sort of an image that the place puts forth.
Enough about the hang-ups and bugbears of your reviewer. Let's talk about the food. The food here is almost always excellent. Mrs. Octopus and I have visited many times, usually at brunch. (We've started to go to brunch here less often, as the place has become a total madhouse at brunch time in the past few years, with yupsters from all over the Eastside piled many deep on the sidewalk waiting for a table, holding their hip babies, interesting dogs, and copies of the Sunday New York Times.) But when you do finally get a table, brunches are always satisfying. The pancakes are delicious, as are the open-faced sandwiches. Mrs. Octopus is a fan of the applewood smoked bacon open sandwich; I have enjoyed the Cajun turkey sausage open sandwich (which has a pleasing and surprising kick). The coffee is good, though there's a sort of chaotic system of self-serve for the coffee in a back corner, which can sometimes get a little tricky when the place is crowded.
The pastries and baked goods are probably the highlight of any trip to Auntie Em's. You will be told that you must try the red velvet cupcake, and you probably should just to say you have -- though my view is that the red velvet cupcake here is a bit overrated. The coconut cupcake is probably better. Moreover, I don't think the cupcakes are necessarily the best pastries they serve here. Try something off of their seasonal pastry menu. On my last visit, I had a delectable strawberry fig crisp, which was sort of like a crumble of stuff over a very fresh, purply, gooey strawberry-fig concoction. It was fantastic.
Strawberry fig crisp.
I'm becoming a fan of going to Auntie Em's for a late lunch or even dinner. They're open till 7 most nights, and you'll hardly ever find much of a crowd here after 2 or 3 in the afternoon. After the crowds have left, the place feels much more relaxed. It's just you and the waitstaff and their impeccable Ipod playlists, and you can take your time and really enjoy the food, which really is made with some care and thought. I've had their massive salads at lunch and dinner lately. The seasonal salad (squash, bell peppers, other stuff) and tossed cobb salad (avocado, chicken breast, butter lettuce, blue cheese, egg) are huge and delicious. You'll finish them feeling totally satisfied and slightly healthier.
The daily soups are also worth trying. On my last visit, I had an interesting gazpacho, with chunks of heirloom tomatoes, onions, cucumbers floating in a very light tomato base.
Of course, because this is no longer the kind of place that serves ham sandwiches on white bread, it's not exactly cheap. This is the kind of place where a gussied-up B.L.T. (the B.L.A.S.T. -- applewood smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado, sprouts & mayo on a rosemary roll) will cost you about $10. Expect to spend around $20 per person for brunch or lunch (if you're getting coffee, soup, pastries). I know, I know, it's worth it for "real" food that isn't processed dreck, and that's made with some care. And that's true. But let's be honest: despite the "Auntie Em's" old-school, down-to-earth pretensions, this isn't food for the masses. It's sort of pricey food that's meant or hopes to be "down-homey" and "back to basics" in a way, though it's priced for yupsters and their ilk. That's just something you accept about it (and yourself). (You can see that I'm still working on it.)