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.