CALL ME SWEET POTATO PRINCESS - I was having dinner with my friend Hunter White the other day, explaining my family tree and he very seriously looked at me and said: “Oh. Yes. I know what...
Thursday, December 29, 2011
2011 in Street Food, Friends, Revolutions, Hotels, and Melancholy Sips:Thanks for the Wake-Up Call
Chefs John Sedlar(Rivera, Playa) Javier Plascencia(Mision 19), Pablo Salas(Amaranta), Joseph Panarello(chef d'cuisine-Rivera), Angel Vazquez(Calzada Zavaleta), Kevin Luzande(chef d'cuisine-Playa), and Cristian Bravo(Hacienda Temozon, Hombres en La Cocina) for the first Baja Culinary Fest back in October of 2011.
Oh, yes! What were the best bites of the year, the best dishes, the most enviable reservations and restaurant brands accessed?
Let 2011 be the year we thought more about where we were and who we dined with--well at least that was the case for me--than all the other trappings of the food obsessed lifestyle. And the future holds more of the same. I resolved to accomplish this at the end of last year and it has made my life all the merrier.
The year began with a revolutionary tasting with mi compa Chuy Tovar and my girls at Boobs 4 Food in tow, at the newly opened Mision 19.SGLA would be the first to introduce chef Javier Plascencia's Tijuana masterpiece to what was still a hesitant US media(although Tijuana has been a model of order in the last couple of years travel fears are still stoked by US media about the cartels), yet the wave of press picked up this last year in the wake created by our 2009 FAM that first told the world about a greater scope of Baja cuisine from the streets to its finest dining rooms. This year Baja was featured on Rick Baylesses Mexico: One Plate at a Time, and Tijuana and Plasencia's Mision 19 picked up coverage from no less than the New York Times and the New York Post among others; as well as some pieces that should surface early in 2012.
My unending explorations of Baja have truly enriched my life with people, laughter, and memories that continue to lead me places I'd never expected. We are inextricably linked: Baja and I.
I first got to know chef John Sedlar in Tijuana, wandering the streets looking for inspiration amid sips of mezcal wine. This year I attended an unforgettable event as Sedlar brought back the trendsetting St. Estephe menu for a month at Rivera. It was such a fine evening, exciting and delicious. These were the moments in 2011 where the meals were seasoned with the finest ingredients:friendship, love, bouncing bodies full of giggles,toasts, and romance.
Meals at Mison 19 and the St. Estephe menu at Rivera made the year such a thrill. I also had an unbelievable dinner at the house of the Tamale's Elena family for a birthday party: buttery pozole made from the stock of a whole hog's head, and some of the best moles I've had in and out of Mexico. You never know where your next life changing meal will happen. This was in a backyard in Watts.
Viviana Ley and Chef Marcela Valladolid at the Baja Culinary Fest
I appeared on chef Marcela Valladolid's Mexican Made Easy, and, how much do I love Chela? Adore. Another one of my 7 degrees of Tijuana separation--Marcela is from Tijuana and I look forward to watching her continued triumphs on MME in 2012.
I also got to work with KCAL 9's Suzanne Marques for Dine on a Dime, and made another soul connection with this beautiful Latina that is now such a big part of my life. On a lovely night out with Suzanne and her friend Christine Kirk, I found a pair of angels. The connections we make while dining out can set your table for life. Pretty girls: this is why I blog. Yes, ironic, I know.
For all these extraordinary meals there were stimulating people across the table, behind the stove, manning the POS, and at my sides. Thanks to Chela Valladolid,Chuy Tovar Javier Plascencia, John Sedlar, Patricia Quintana, Evan Kleiman, Josh Lurie, Matt Kang, Suzanne Marques, Christine Kirk, Steve Livigni, Pablo Moix, Julian Cox, Mia Sarazen, Shawna Dawson, Bill Chait, Nastassia Johnson, Patrica Chen, Fiona Chandra, Christina Bellera, Katherine Chen, Jessica Chen, Liberty Huang, Lesley Bargar Suter, Stephane Bombet, Ricardo Zarate, Joanne Robles and Mynor Godoy, Oanh Nguyen, Barbara Hansen, Betty Hallock, Josie Mora, Benito Molina, Misty-Ann Oka, Jahdiel Vargas, Bricia Lopez, Andre Guerrero, Elina Shatkin, Connie Cossio and Bianka Cordoba, Catherine Solomon, Nancy Kim, Helen Kim, Cathy Chaplin, Gustavo Arellano, Dave Lieberman, Esther Tseng, Jo Stougaard, las tias Rosa Tovar and Carmen Esquitin, my friends at Aromas y Sabores, Pablo Aya, Abby Abanes, Marian Bacol-Uba, Lucia Mariegos, the Alfonso family in Havana, and all the people I met in Cuba, Belize, Mexico, and Argentina this year for sharing a meal, some moves on the dance floor at Classico, giving excellent conversation, inspiring without effort, spreading joy, and making great eye contact during toasts. Cheers!! But, a very special thanks goes to Tomoko Kurokawa, who gave the greatest gift of awareness.
Much happened for this little blogger this year, there were several other TV appearances: ABC7 with Alysha del Valle, the Sundance Channel's Live/ Lust, and more. But most amazing was that I was asked to freelance for the Los Angeles Times, something I hadn't really thought about much nor expected, but I debuted this past year with a story on Salvadoran cuisine that I'm very pleased with. My editor Betty Hallock is, well: divine, patient, full of wit, and a great teacher. I'm grateful.
2012 will be guns blazing, many new TV and writing stuff right away.
chef Patricia Quintana at the waterfalls in Santiago, Nuevo Leon.
As for travel. My initial trip with Patricia Quintana's Aromas y Sabores is one of my happiest moments of 2011. A tour through Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Michoacan, and back to D.F. with 2 busloads of serial noshers from around the world. Working with the first lady of Mexican cuisine? A dream come true.
We played a Purepecha sport of a kind of street hockey with a flaming ball that hissed at it flew within an inch of your face in the streets of Michoacan. It was amazing and moving.
And the best eats would always be found from humble, unknown vendors off the itinerary: some blue corn and red corn gorditas at the train station in Divisadero, Chihuahua filled with chile pasado.
Or a perfect taste of raw steak ceviche in Patzcuaro known as carne de apache.
I did dance the tango in Buenos Aires, at a little club in San Telmo.
There was plenty of wine in Buenos Aires, but this bottle of hooch from a plastic bottle poured by Fredi, the austere grill man at a small parrillada might be my choice of drink for my last day on earth. It was a time and place sensation that I could never describe nor expect anyone to understand.
His morcipan deserves a shrine and a set of disciples.
Belize is beautiful, peaceful, and proposes another shade of Latino culture that has occupied my thoughts this last year with frequency, and I finally got to know this interesting Central-American country. I fell in love with this place right away and even enjoyed the neglected Belize City, a place that tourists skip over in their haste to go scuba diving and hang out at the beach. Their loss, and the first of many trips to come for me.
But I did scuba dive on San Pedro Island and held a 5 ft nurse shark in my arms--a utopian dream
Having lunch and the best place on San Pedro Island with Miss Guatemala World 2011, Lucia Mazariegos, and Miss Costa Maya 2010, Gabriela Asturias. It's who you dine WITH!
About the best bowl of chirmol at El Fogon with the beauty queens nearby didn't hurt. Beautiful people, a beautiful island, comforting food...last night I dreamed of San Pedro
Nothing this year compared to the magic, quixotic nights, rumba, and hustle of a week in Havana, Cuba. Slow drinks of aged Havana Club at El Floridita, a flirt on La Rampa, working the malecon, dancing the cubeton, holding hands at the restaurant where they filmed Fresa y Chocolate, sweating like a tourist, rockin 50 Cent at the Partagas factory, the sublime ropa vieja on the patio in Miramar with friends as we all nodded from sun, drink, and strong tobacco.
Rally 'round the family-Ele(lead vocals), Carlos Alfonso(bass), and Eme Valdez(lead vocals).Sintesis in concert at Arte en La Rampa, Habana, Cuba. Summer 2011
No loungy retrospectives for me, but a show by friends and Grammy award winning Afro-Cuban fusion artists: Sintesis. A summer concert at La Rampa was a quintessential local experience.
While some complain about not finding cuisine in Cuba, I dined like a king on the streets, in the paladares, cafeterias, and private homes of Cubans. Ele Alfonso's--lead singer for Sintesis--arroz con pollo is an all time favorite dish. Its flavors and soft, warm textures fall into a rapturous unity that betrays the simple construction of this recipe.
How could I forget the house specialty at Paladar La Mulata in Miramar--one of the original paladars that began when Cuba first instituted the program--snapping and crackling chicharrones. The pork skin is meticulously trimmed of all fat leaving a light, practically transparent food that sounds like Rice Krispies bubbling in milk at your table and then ignites like Pop Rocks in your mouth. Who needs modernist techniques here?
The Cuban people are fascinating, you almost feel like each one of them would lead you to a discovery of some sort if you were to engage them. Walking the streets of Habana Vieja, Centro, and Cayo Hueso is like a rhythmic dream sequence.
Again at the home of friends: a spread worthy of a magazine shoot of Cuban home cooking. Fried sweet potato, ropa vieja like I've never encountered, giant Cuban tamales, kimbombo(okra), and Cuban salads served with fresh juices. We shared stories, many cuba libres and Cristals(Cuban beers), and finished with coffee and cigarettes, cigars for me: Cohibas.
Lunch with friends and family of Sintesis in the Miramar neighborhood, Habana, Cuba.
What a year. Change is here, though. Big change is all aspects of this business of sensual pursuits. Thanks for the wake-up call, Tomo.
On a much sadder note, we finally received the official announcement that Evan Kleiman's 27 yr. old LA institution--Angeli Caffe--will be closing on Jan. 8th. I've known this was coming for some time and can't even find the words to say to my friend, but I shall try anyway. I will be dining at Angeli for the last time on Jan. 4th at 7PM with a few friends. Please go and experience one of the longest running restaurants in our fair city, and one of the historic dining establishments in the history of Italian cuisine in America. We are going because it's still a great restaurant, and to help take care of the employees that have been with the restaurant for so long as they go off to find jobs in this tough economy.
Evan Kleiman opened Angeli Caffe in 1984 at a time when using fresh, seasonal ingredients was a revolutionary idea. It was an exciting time in Los Angeles in the early, Wolfgang Puck opened Spago, a young Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton were part of the crew; John Sedlar had the seminal St. Estephe that introduced modern-southwestern to the world down in Manhattan Beach; the two hot tamales Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Millikin had City where they struck a chord with Latin spices; and up north the California cuisine giant Alice Waters had just begun to offer a more affordable menu at her cafe--Chez Panisse was a little over 10 years old.
Angeli's mission was to serve simple food in a friendly atmosphere, and to anyone that's ever been, the the casual spirit is realized from the moment you walk in the door. And the food was to be served at room temperature--a radical approach in 1984.
Back then, Evan wasn't the media giant, nor passionate spokesperson for Los Angeles food and politics that she is today. She was shy, and preferred to stay behind the scenes. Over the year Evan has transformed herself into that engaging wit that stirs up the airwaves on KCRW's Good Food every weekend.
When the cook on California cuisine is written, and a history of Italian cuisine in America is documented, the contribution of Evan Kleiman and Angeli Caffe will be monumental. And, Angeli in its 27 years has outlasted the original Spago, lived long enough to watch chef John Sedlar rise like the Phoenix, and saw all the best restaurants of the 80's, 90's, and the last decade come and go. The restaurants we call the best in town, and we obsess over on twitter mostly aren't even a year old--Angeli had faced those trials and kept on cooking.
In a recent review of Sotto by Los Angeles Magazine food critic Patric Kuh wrote that Evan "captured something fundamental about the cuisine when she opened Angeli Caffe on Melrose Avenue in 1984, narrowing her sights on the most humble elements of the food with her austerely dressed pastas and her love of wild greens." Today we take these things for granted, but Kleiman boldly laid the foundation for our restaurant of the moment.
For years Angeli Caffe stayed on the list, Jonathan Gold's 99 Essential Restaurants in LA. In his recent 99 rundown he(Gold) stated that "this restaurant crystallized the affinity of Angelenos for this kind of casual Italian cooking decades ago, and hundreds of imitators have come and gone, but Angeli endures.."
What was it still doing on the 99? Because the 99 is about what defines Los Angeles regardless of fashion, and Angeli has always mattered.
Ricky Pina of Ricky's Fish Tacos with Jaime and Ramiro of La Casita at Street Food Mondays
I suspect many others more important than I shall write about Evan in the near future, but in the last two years I got a glimpse into this amazing woman during our collaborations on Street Food Mondays.All she ever seemed to worry about was making sure her staff and the vendors were taken care of, and we started these events because she wanted to do something for Nina, the famed antojito vendor from Boyle Heights who had increasingly become a target of police harassment.
Packing them in for fish and shrimp tacos at Angeli Caffe
Priyani and her family prepare egg hoppers one last time at Angeli Caffe after she had to close her humble Sri Lankan kitchen
And I started stooping by recently to order take out, like this off menu eggplant past at Angeli, so delicious. Excellent pizzas, and pastas executed exactly like they were in 1984.
And that amazing bread! It really was an awful feeling knowing what was to come.
As I go to say hello to Evan and the Angeli staff one last time as a restaurant I want to express how proud I am of Evan Kleiman for 27 years of business, and for making her mark in food history. Among all of our best restaurant of the last year in list and rundowns, some will be gone in as few years(maybe sooner), and very few will crack the 25 year mark, perhaps none. Will any of them be remembered as doing something new? Not likely.
Evan Kleiman will still be around on Good Food, and a thousand other venues, and I believe will be a huge success in her next endeavors.
Her contemporaries that are still around like Wolfgang Puck made much more money on QVC, catering, book deals, and food products than he ever did in the kitchen at Spago. A similar figure, Rick Bayless--who became to Mexican cuisine what Evan was to Italian in the 80's--had a television show to keep his restaurants packed in recent years, but it wasn't until his win on Top Chef Masters that he moved into Wolfgang's neighborhood.
All the while Evan has taken care of us, and brought us together, and made us crazy for pie.
I'm so upset to see this restaurant go, and where will I get my Sunday take-out pastas, salads, and pizzas? But, Angeli Caffe is a hit, and so are you Evan. See you on Wednesday at Angeli.
Happy New Year to readers and friends of this blog.