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.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Colorado Donuts in Eagle Rock

Toasted coconut donut.

It's a cold world. Who cares whether you live or die? Who cares if you continue to fall, ever further, into the abyss?

Let's take a moment to appreciate Colorado Donuts (Colorado & Townsend). If, as I have, over the past year or so, you have run Doomsday scenarios through your mind, trying to figure out how long you could last on your savings, if you sold all your books, sold your car and started riding the bus, if you pawned your musical instruments and sporting equipment, etc., perhaps you factored in the cost of keeping yourself alive. Well factor this in: you can eat a decent meal at Colorado Donuts almost anytime for $3.25.

Yes, this place sells donuts and crullers and things like that. And they are fine. They are good. They are like the donuts at any of the thousand other donut shops in L.A. (Does L.A. have the greatest number of donut shops per capita of any U.S. city? Has anyone studied this?) That's not what I'm here to discuss.

Turkey sandwich on French bread.

Colorado Donuts offers the best value for a meal of any place I know in Eagle Rock. For $3.25 to $3.50 you can get a freshly made sandwich on French bread, a croissant, or a bagel, with turkey, tuna, ham, etc., topped with cheese, mayo, mustard, peppers, lettuce, onions, etc. And it will be a good sandwich. The croissant sandwich in particular is surprisingly good and rivals sandwiches you would get for twice the price elsewhere. It won't be a gourmet sandwich on "rustic" bread with "rustic" ingredients like "free range" turkey or "heirloom" tomatoes, but it will be satisfying, it will be freshly made, and it will be cheap.

You and your significant other can eat dinner (with tap water) for about $7.50, total. And it's healthier and tastier than Taco Bell or other crap in the price range. And it'll be made for you right there, by the unfailingly friendly people at Colorado Donuts. They are there late, every night, after other food options in Eagle Rock close at their absurdly early Florida-retirement-community hours, ready to happily make you a cheap, fairly healthy and satisfying sandwich.

Sure, this is a place that has a wall of scratch offs that regulars spend hours wasting their dwindling dollars on. Sure, walking into the place can make you feel like you are showing up at the unemployment office to register for benefits. Still, there have been nights where the warmth of Colorado Donuts and the people working there (an Asian family) have -- after I've come from driving through the empty, soulless streets of a dystopic late night in Los Angeles -- made my eyes misty with gratitude.

There is always hope. It's some comfort to know that you can survive on perfectly decent $3.25 sandwiches while you rebuild, maintain some dignity, and have some warm human contact with people who will remember you, remember the way you like your sandwich, and who will offer you a genuine smile with your food at your darkest hour -- when you most need it.

Long live Colorado Donuts.