Monday, August 31, 2009
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.)
Saturday, August 29, 2009
Review of the Eagle Rock Peace Vigil/Peace Through Justice, or Who Are Those People Holding Signs on Colorado Every Weekend?
Flo, Nina, and Norm of the Eagle Rock Peace Vigil/Peace Through Justice
The now-familiar forum doctrine provides for three categories of access according to the type of public property involved. The first category, the traditional public forum, consists of streets, sidewalks, and parks that ... "have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public ... for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions."
Kaplan v. County of Los Angeles, 894 F.2d 1076 (9th Cir. 1990) (quoting Hague v. Committee for Indus. Org., 307 U.S. 496 (1939)).
I was sitting outside Swork today, in the absurd heat, trying to write a "Review of the Station Fire": I was trying to describe the plume silently expanding and roiling against the clear, dull blue sky just to the north of Eagle Rock. I was marvelling at how people continued to walk and drive by without once looking up at the massive, growing plume, when I noticed the people standing in front of the Shell on Colorado and Eagle Rock Boulevard, holding signs, encouraging passing cars to honk.
Plume from the Station Fire, Aug. 29, 2009
I've been wondering for years about the people in L.A. who stand out on corners around the city, holding signs in support of various causes (most often, Peace), trying to get passing cars to honk. I watched a lone guy with white gloves (the better to get drivers' attention) work the corner in front of the Vista last week. As I walked by him, I heard him saying to himself "C'mon, Lexus, c'mon, Lexus." He exulted when the passing Lexus gave him a short honk, and then set his sights on an approaching Honda.
Who are these people? Why do they stand on these corners? What do they seek to accomplish? I'd been meaning to find out for a while. So today I went and talked to them.
On the corner in front of the Shell and a cell-phone stand, I met Flo, Nina, and Norm (pictured above), three of seven "core" members of a group that calls itself the "Eagle Rock Peace Vigil" -- though Nina did note that she prefers to refer to the group as "Peace Through Justice" because, in her words, "there can't be peace without justice." (I mentioned that I had heard that theory before.)
They said that their group had come together semi-spontaneously nearly seven years ago, united in their opposition to the build-up to the war in Iraq. That was the original purpose of the group. But like MoveOn, which was originally formed to fight against the Republicans' push to impeach Bill Clinton, the mission of the ERPV changed over time.
The white-gloved guy with the "Spread Love" sign working the corner in front of The Vista.
Today, they had a number of signs expressing opposition to Prop 8 (Norm was holding one of these), Flo had a sign promoting peace, and Nina was holding a couple different signs. One was against Prop 8, and one referred to a "Seamless Transition To Civilian Life!" (the sign, she explained, was in support of greater support services for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan).
They explained that they were loosely affiliated with other vigil groups in Highland Park and Glendale, that some of them went to schools from time to time to talk to students about the risks entailed in enlisting in the military.
I decided to ask them about the issues. They all appeared to be opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wanted to bring the troops home right away. Norm began to explain that Iraq had been launched through 9/11, and then began to review a familiar set of pet theories about 9/11.
Each of the three seemed to have slightly different priorities that brought them to the corner. Norm said he was most concerned about gay rights and gay marriage, and wanted to see Prop 8 overturned. Flo said she was most concerned about peace, but also health care, and global warming, she added, after I had written down "peace" and "health care." Nina said she couldn't point simply to one thing (she said she was concerned about the reasons why all of these interconnected issues couldn't be addressed at once), but, when pressed, said she was most concerned with climate change and peak oil. She said she was most concerned about the need for us to decide whether we would choose to return to more sustainable "indigenous" ways of life to avoid catastrophic climate change, or whether catastrophic climate change would force us to return to indigenous ways of life.
All three of them seemed to approve of President Obama's performance so far, though Nina said she couldn't give a yes/no answer on whether she approved. She said that she thought the reality was that "U.S. presidents serve the interests of large corporations and are at the mercy of those corporations." She also said that if Obama did all of the things he really needed to do for the country, his life might be in danger from those who opposed him.
All three seemed to think Eagle Rock was relatively welcoming to their views. Norm mentioned that Eagle Rock seemed less conservative than Glendale, which he thought was "very conservative." The cops had not really ever hassled them, they said, though the cops did "watch them" when they were involved in larger events. In any event, Nina said "they knew their rights." They said sometimes people came up to talk to them, and sometimes people yelled at them. Before the war, Norm said, people would yell things like "We need that oil!" at them. People had also yelled things like "Commies!" (which Nina said she did not perceive as an insult), "Get a job!", "Get a haircut!", and "Go back to San Francisco!"
I asked them if they were trying to recruit people to a cause, sign them up, etc. They said that they were just trying to get their message out and raise awareness about issues like the war, health care, gay rights, climate change, etc. It struck me that they weren't really used to people coming up and actually talking to them and were a bit more focused on getting passing cars to honk for them -- but I may be wrong about that.
Finally, I asked them how they felt about the Station Fire, the plume of which continued to expand ominously over Eagle Rock as we talked. They didn't seem too worried. Norm said he "was more concerned about the effects of the fire on the environment."
The easiest thing in the world to do would be to caricature ERPV as a bunch of foggy-headed, KPFK-listening, Chomsky-reading, 9/11-conspiracy-theory-believing libtards who need people to honk at them for some weird type of self-validation. But that would surely be too simplistic and unfair. Undoubtedly, the people in ERPV have their own motives and needs that drive them to stand out in public in the heat on weekends (usually Saturday afternoons) holding signs, trying to get people to honk. (Norm told me that they weren't allowed to actually hold signs saying "Honk for Peace" because that would be encouraging unnecessary noise.) Perhaps it's a symptom of the loneliness and atomization of our city and the lack of true public space or public interaction -- a behavior produced by the need to establish a connection of any kind, even if only a honk of a car horn.
But people like the ERPV are keeping alive an old and venerable American (and Anglo) tradition of expressing grievances in public spaces. Sure, the internets, the blogs, Twitter, etc. are great, but what changes politics, governments, hearts and minds, often comes down to bodies in the street.
As this blog has morphed over time from a political blog into a blog about Eagle Rock, focusing mostly on food and shopping reviews, I've often had moments of saying to myself -- WTF? The most important things I can write about now are Belgian Fries at The Oinkster and sneaker shops? There are tens of thousands of Americans fighting in two hot wars right now. Every year the earth gets hotter, storms become more intense, the polar ice melts away, and oceans continue to rise. There are 45 million people in the U.S. living without health care. There are thousands of homeless living on the streets of our city. Meanwhile, we all go about living our lives, starting food blogs, complaining about the weather, going to Depeche Mode concerts, shopping for new sneakers and eyeglass frames.
I do tend to agree with ERPV in part on some issues (I definitely do not agree with them on everything -- I left most of my conspiracy-theorizing behind in my early 20's), but, regardless of any disagreement I may have with them, mostly I admire their willingness to stand out on the corner every week, expressing their views to the public. I admire their determination to redirect our attention from the tunnel vision of what we see ahead of us through our windshields to the massive fires burning in the world (the wars people are dying in every day, the coming disaster of climate change, the health care crisis, etc.), that most of us are all too willing to ignore as we go about our business as usual.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
So I had this entire review of Fatty's already written out in my head: erratic hours, weird interactions with the sometimes awkward staff, the elimination of the very pleasant brunch and lunch hours, etc.
View through the repurposed garage door.
But to paraphrase, no plan of attack survives contact with the subject of the review. We went to Fatty's again the other night, and despite my reservations and enumerated grievances, they pulled me back in.
The Garlic Feast.
Fatty's was the first restaurant in Eagle Rock Mrs. Octopus and I ever went to together. It was a sunny Sunday in April, were were house hunting, and we stopped at Fatty's for brunch. On that visit, Fatty's felt new in just the right way: the repurposed garage door, the racks of magazines (including Lacanian Ink [?]), the open ceilings, the Christmas lights. I felt like I was in Madison, Berkeley, or Northampton. It warmed my cold, socialist New England heart. Over coffee at the end of that brunch, Mrs. Octopus and I decided we were going to try to move to Eagle Rock.
Things changed. Fatty's soon eliminated brunch, with little explanation. On every visit, we pleaded with the management to bring back lunch and brunch. They explained that they were trying to go in a different direction. It soon became apparent that Fatty's was trying to make very clear to everyone that it wasn't some kind of laid-back neighborhood hangout. Rumors circulated of the staff and management telling Oxy students and idling screenwriters that they couldn't nurse a single cappuccino for hours. Fatty's quickly became a relatively expensive, upscale dinner-only place, with an extensive wine collection, and a reputation for prickliness.
A view of Fatty's new garden.
The transition was fitful. The hours kept changing. The owners and management had scenes with the staff. The menu went through various incarnations. Staff would announce early closures with no notice, even if you had called ahead.
I was ready to hate Fatty's forever, to write them off as the worst kind of libtard monsters, but--but, they've won me back ... sort of.
Everything was excellent on our last visit. It was if the entire place had changed after a painful and ugly metamorphosis. There was a massive new purple neon sculpture hanging above a long table (just behind the welcome station). It was kind of awesome. There was a cool long hallway opening into a tastefully appointed new garden. As I sat at our table in the center of the main dining room and admired the elegant exposed ceiling, the new neon sculpture, the tasteful lighting throughout the restaurant, I realized that Fatty's is in fact the loveliest space in Eagle Rock.
And to tell the truth, the food has never been the problem here. Fatty's is one of the best vegetarian restaurants I've been to. Granted, I'm not a vegetarian or vegan, but I was a vegetarian for several years, and I'm not a big carnivore: I've been to all sorts of vegetarian restaurants. Most serve insipid, boring, tasteless pabulum.
The Zeppelin pizza.
Fatty's, on the other hand, works small wonders with their vegetarian fare. Their Sloppy Joe (veggie ground meat) is deservedly famous. I've known people to finish off the Sloppy Joe and wonder if it was meat or not. I have a strong, undeniable monthly urge for the Garlic Feast (a sort of DIY bruschetta with toasted bread arranged around a mass of diced tomatoes and raw garlic, sprinkled with dry jack cheese). I'm also a fan of the Fatty's Salad (a massive meal-sized heap of greens, cherry tomatoes, red onions, toasted pecans, golden raisins and cheese). Mrs. Octopus likes their pizzas, and is partial to the Margarita and the Zeppelin. (The Zeppelin features an intriguing mix of cheddar, provolone, and brie).
I may like their appetizers best. I could eat about 100 of the stuffed dates (baked dates stuffed with dry jack cheese, wrapped in veggie bacon). We've had the potatos skins (filled with corn, black beans, green chili, red bell peppers, onions, chipotle cheddar, and salsa) a few times, and they are very satisfying, though they could stand to have a little bit more kick. Perhaps a slightly spicier salsa?
I've never been blown away by dessert here. We've sampled most stuff on the dessert menu and everything is fine, not earth-shattering. It's just not really a dessert place, in my view (though I know many people who are big fans of the dessert menu).
They have an extensive selection of wine (and a decent selection of beer). Indeed, they currently market themselves as "A Vegetarian Food and Wine Restaurant". Translation: you probably won't be eating here much if you're trying to pay off student loans or credit card debt, or save for a down payment. Fatty's is expensive. They've purposefully turned themselves into an expensive restaurant. Dinner for two, with appetizers, drinks, dessert, etc., is probably going to cost you $65-80. It raises the question: to whom is Fatty's aimed? My current guess is the standard yupster class one finds at CoWineCo, tenured Oxy faculty, Oxy parents taking their cultural studies-majoring children to dinner, and people who drive in from Pasadena and Silverlake in their Audi sportwagons.
The Pinky (wedding cake, with strawberries and lots of strawberry frosting, topped with frosting).
What can you do? This is part of the struggle our neighborhood is currently going through with its identity. Are we a Tritch Hardware and The Bucket kind of place? A Dave's Chillin' & Grillin' place? Or are we about Mia Sushi's valet parking and Eurotrash vibe? Both, maybe? I don't know. It saddens me a bit that Fatty's has decided to jettison its more laid back brunch and lunch identity in favor of a full blown embrace of the trappings of bourgeois latte-liberalism, but I can't really judge Fatty's owners. They obviously have an image of what they want for the place in mind, and maybe they are making more money this way.
Save up and splurge here every now and then, and feel better as you go to the bathroom and pass the portrait of the happy pig on the wall. You're a good person.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Casa Bianca this, Casa Bianca that. Every night (except Sunday and Monday) you'll see the people lined up, patiently waiting, sitting in white plastic chairs, standing around, waiting up to an hour, on the corner of Colorado and Vincent, for that famed Casa Bianca pizza.
Others would see Casa Bianca and its citywide legend as an intimidating force that could never be defeated. Did not Casa Bianca own the pizza market in Eagle Rock (putting aside Pizza Man and Capri for the time being)?
Brownstone Pizza saw Casa Bianca's outsized reputation and its overflow of demand as an opportunity. Brownstone had the temerity to challenge the supremacy of Casa Bianca on Colorado. And as an eight-year resident of New York City, I'll tell you this: Brownstone is giving Casa Bianca a run for its money. There's more than one pizza game in town, and Brownstone is not to be slept on.
They've got a thin New-York style crust at Brownstone. The crust is crispy and light, with just the proper amount of thickness. The pizza dough has a great flavor that I haven't found at any other L.A. pizza place, and haven't come close to since I left the East Coast. The amount of sauce and cheese is just right. The slices are neither too hard nor too floppy. There can be a tendency for things to slide when the pie is hot, with extra cheese or a lot of toppings and you're bringing it home in the car -- but with the standard cheese, margherita, pepperoni, vegetarian, etc., the pie will almost always be excellent.
The owners at Brownstone realize they're still making a name for themselves and that their main competition has a nearly sixty-year head-start on them. But the people at Brownstone are savvy. They've teamed up with the good people at Colorado Wine Company, next door. It's easy to order a pie from Brownstone, go into CoWineCo for a nice glass of wine or beer, get your pie, and enjoy it in the sweet lounge area at the back of the wine store. Of course, Brownstone has a decent selection of beer available in their store.
Another possibility: call ahead, pick up a pie at Brownstone, and take it down the street to The Black Boar. The Black Boar will let you bring in whatever food you want. They've got nice big tables at The Black Boar that would work great for a few pints and a huge extra-large pie from Brownstone. Result: easy and convenient good time in your neighborhood. If delivery to the pub could be arranged, I might never leave the 90041 again.
I can't help but root for Brownstone. They're the new kid on the block, and they're offering the neighborhood an excellent product. I've never been disappointed. Keep waiting in line at Casa Bianca if you want, by all means. But know that just a few blocks away, a great New York-style thin crust is available in just a few minutes, with no waiting around. Heck, you can even have a glass of wine and chat with the friendly folks at CoWineCo while your pie cooks.
Inexplicably, Brownstone closes at 9 p.m. -- just when some people are working up an appetite. Brownstone, stay open later! We will come and eat your pizza late! I guarantee you that.
What a neighborhood. Count your blessings.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Shuttered storefront on Colorado, next to Tobacco Planet. I don't remember what it used to be.
recession: the decline in aggregate economic activity following the peak of a business-cycle expansion; officially defined as real GNP falling for two consecutive quarters. It is usually associated with rising unemployment of people and resources.
- Hughes & Cain, AMERICAN ECONOMIC HISTORY
The former site of Regeneration, the unlucky national face of hard times in Eagle Rock.
I recognize that, in doing these reviews, I often come off as a shameless Eagle Rock booster. And it's true: I have unbounded optimism for our neighborhood.
Still, the signs of economic distress, the very tangible effects of the Great Recession, are all around us. A closed storefront is startling at first, but then fades into the unnoticed landscape, and is forgotten.
The former site of Another World Comics, and planned site of Green Goddess, a proposed medical marijuana site that appears to have been scrapped.
I am posting these photos of closed storefronts throughout Eagle Rock at what I hope is the bottom of the downturn, our inverted Brenschluss point, where our downward trajectory flattens out and we begin an upward arc.
And if we are in fact at that bottom point of the cycle (n.b. here how much the theory of economic cycles has in common with the ancient image of the wheel of fortune), then these pictures are not solely images of decline and economic devastation -- though, make no mistake, each closed storefront represents a world of anxiety, fear, crushed hopes, loss of security. Recognizing the pain the owners of these closed businesses have endured and continue to endure, it is unavoidable that we also recognize that these images may also be seen as images of possibility and opportunity.
This appeared to be a former kitchen remodeling store on Eagle Rock Boulevard. The documents posted on the door are eviction notices.
I don't want to sound like I'm on the new Warren Buffet cartoon for kids, but it's true that it often makes financial sense to be fearful when others are greedy -- but greedy when others are fearful. (The other standard thing to note here is J.F.K.'s observation about the Chinese character for "crisis" contains the character for "opportunity" or something.)
The remaining shell of Blue Heeler Imports, a store that specialized in Australian imports. Nothing at all against Australia or its products, but this always seemed like a tough business proposition.
These spaces are currently available in Eagle Rock. These are empty spaces that will be filled with new ideas and new ventures. Perhaps someone reading this site right now has been nursing a fantastic idea for a small business in Eagle Rock. Now is the time.
Empty storefront on Colorado near Caspar.
But there I go again. Despite my opening attempts at getting back to objectivity, I've returned to my boosterism. I can't help it. Despite all of these depressing images, I do feel that better days are ahead.
Empty storefront in the Colorado Plaza mini-mall. I don't remember what the last business was in this space. I think a couple things have opened and closed in this space in the past few years.
The fire that consumes the forest often helps give rise to new growth.
Space for lease near Colorado Wine Company.
Former site of 808 Video, in the Colorado Plaza mini-mall. Most video stores' days are probably numbered.
Dead office building at Colorado and Hartwick.
The muffler place has not shut down (I thought it had, with the fence and the way it looked). It just looks like it's shut down.
Even the foundational, no-nonsense businesses in the neighborhood, like this tire place on Colorado and Glen Iris, have suffered.
This space used to house a music store. I remember walking in when I first moved to the neighborhood, asking if they had any tenor saxophones for sale. They didn't at the time, but asked if I wanted to order one. I thought about picking up a banjo there instead.
The former site of SW Hill Country, a store devoted to Western wear. This place was symptomatic of boom thinking, in my view. Only in an economy where people had more frothy disposable income from "endlessly" rising real estate and stock prices than they knew what to do with would a place like this even think it had a chance to survive.
Has this black-and-white building on Colorado next to 50/50 Grind ever been anything? It looks like it's abandoned.
I think someone tried to open up a bodega in this small little space on Colorado last year or the year before. It apparently didn't work out. This space looks like it would work as a taquería , maybe.
The scuba shop in Eagle Rock did not survive.
Store-sign palimpsest above Elvira's (very much still in business).
The Machu Picchu of the Bubble Times in Eagle Rock: the failed and abandoned condo development project near the entrance to the 134 -- a lasting monument to the boom mindset. As an aside, it's interesting how the gentle curve drawn by the the tall pillars holding up the hill suggests the sine curve of economic cycles.
Friday, August 21, 2009
[The master] did not always provide utensils. Without these, cooking was a simple process, as a former slave recalled: "When the corn is ground, and fire is made, the bacon is ... thrown upon the coals to broil.... The corn meal is mixed with a little water, placed in the fire, and baked. When it is 'done brown,' the ashes are scraped off, and being placed on a chip, which answers for a table, the tenant of the slave hut is ready to sit down upon the ground to supper." The majority of masters provided iron pots, for cooking vegetables and fat pork and "grits," and frying pans for preparing bacon and corn pone."
- Kenneth Stampp, THE PECULIAR INSTITUTION
One wonders what Marx would've made of a place like Larkin's Joint (Colorado & Loleta). In thrall to the vampiric dictates of Capital, slave owners kept their slaves alive as cheaply as possible, often feeding them offal meats (i.e. pigs' feet, oxtail, ham hocks, chitterlings (pig small intestines), pig ears, tripe, skin). Lard, hard to come by, was reused again and again. The offal meats were made palatable with deep frying in lard. The slaves brought their own vegetables with them (okra), and made do with what was at hand (dandelions, tops of turnips). The origins of soul food are misery and pain.
What does one make of this history of pain? Food is almost always a refuge -- and that's what we think of soul food. But we often forget the nightmarish origins of this original comfort food: the need to survive, to make do on the unsightly scraps left by the master, the need to cook one's own meal with rudimentary tools after a day of hard labor. Each greasy bite of soul food is a taste of a sordid, shameful past.
Chef Larkin Mackey (LA Weekly photo)
What does one do with this? One elevates it to art. One reclaims it and makes it beautiful. One makes it into an expression of self and possibility. One absorbs the pain of the past, and uses it as fuel to construct the future, a future framed by the past, but with no borders, and no frontiers.
Larkin's is the most futuristic restaurant in Eagle Rock. As Saint Augustine wrote, praesens de praeteritis (the past is ever present), and nowhere is it more true than at Larkin's, where each meal is, in some way, a history lesson, full of pain and hurt, if you dig deeply enough, but at the same time, an exuberant expression of American possibility. This is America. This is a country built on the backs of slaves and the organized extermination of Native Americans. But this is also a country where Chef Larkin Mackey, a native Californian, can take his training in French and Asian cuisine, the Latin influences of his home state, and create neo-soul food. This is a country in which a Muslim born in Connecticut can marry a Buddhist and love his adopted neighborhood in Los Angeles with all of his heart. America was born in pain and violence, but aspires toward the new, toward a transcendental unity.
The top step of Death.
Soul food will never be good for you. It is soul food -- it comes from profoundly humble origins of hoarding lard, of prizing pork and bacon, of frying the unrecognizable parts to make them palatable. The dumbest thing in the world is to come into Larkin's and complain that the food is "heavy."
The fried chicken here is among the best I've ever tasted. The catfish is perfect -- almost too perfect -- the cornmeal hitting all of the notes of comfort, heartiness, and texture that you didn't think possible in the plastic world of everyday food. The jambalaya is spicy and rich, a massive platter too large for any one diner. The weekend brunches are even better than the dinners, in my view, with glorious pancakes, and fantastic herbed omelets and scrambles. And cornbread. Always cornbread. Mmmm. Take a Lipitor and wash it all down.
Southern caviar (black-eyed peas, other stuff), w/ fried pita
There have always been issues here. The top step on the front steps is a death trap. I've tripped over it myself about half a dozen times. They've got a "CAUTION" sign up there now, but they need to spend the money to just fix it.
The restaurant is nearly invisible. Our waiter -- we always seem to have the same guy, and he's awesome -- said they've thought about a neon sign or some other kind of sign, but they've decided they'd like to try to stay on the downlow a bit. When I mentioned that a lot of people in the neighborhood didn't seem to really know about Larkin's he said something like "And we don't want everybody to know about it."
With all due respect, this seems dumb. Larkin's, with its not-cheap fare, is obviously hurting. (Side note that it's remarkable that people have no problem putting down serious cash for French food at Beaujolais, but balk at paying for soul food, though it's prepared with exquisite care and thought here. Vive la différence?) Larkin's no longer accept credit cards - it's cash only, which is absurd for a place where some of the entrees run to $20. They say they're working on a franchise place downtown and their energies are focused there.
Whatever. We want Larkin's to survive and thrive. It's a crucial part of Eagle Rock, and we'd be poorer without it. Put up a sign. We see the goofy chalkboard with the "WE'RE OPEN" sign from Staples. Put up a real sign, be visible, and put away the pretensions about wanting to be a secret club for only the initiated. Your food deserves to be appreciated by a wider audience.
Catfish, like ham, is actually not kosher.
Larkin's says that it strives to be a modern day "juke joint." "Juke" derives from "jook" or "juk" from Gullah, and before that from West African languages, "in a Wolof word 'jug,' meaning to lead a disorderly life, and a Banbara word 'jugu' meaning a wicked, violent, or naughty person." (See also "jukebox".) "Juke joints" were apparently originally social rooms built for slaves to socialize, evolving into roadside shacks that featured gambling, drinking, dancing, and, occasionally, prostitution. We've got a "juke joint" on the corner of Colorado and Loleta now. Chef Mackey is taking that term and, Humpty Dumpty-like, bending it to his will. His "juke joint" is a place to remember, to savor the past, and to embrace the future.
We are all Tashtego, Daggoo, and Queequeg now, riding in the same whaling boat. Know the past, embrace the new. Eat at Larkin's.