The Little Red Diner That Could

The Lunch Box Diner
Malden, Massachusetts

The historic Lunch Box Diner in Malden MA

The historic Lunch Box Diner in Malden MA

When asked what fuels my insatiable need to seek out the unknown, to surrender to my wanderlust, setting my sails to the winds on pilgrimages to temples of kitschy Americana and gastronomic oddities, I can only credit an obsessive curiosity. Pinpointing the moment when life for me turned into an epic journey is not an easy task, but it almost certainly was borne from a single incident, when three scrappy kids knee-high to a grasshopper with Ricky Ricardo haircuts and white button-down shirts, and an infant in tow, made their way by Greyhound bus from gray, sooty Pittsburgh to Malden, Massachusetts in 1966.

Owner and cook Nick Master checks in with one of his regulars

Owner and cook Nick Master checks in with one of his regulars

Knowing that we were embarking on a journey to a mystic, faraway land that might as well have been Mare Tranquillitatis forced me to commit to memory every seemingly unimportant detail of the Edgewood neighborhood where we lived and our trek to New England. I recall carrying only a metal Batman lunchbox containing a printed summer schedule of events at Koenig Field as luggage; a Maxwell House coffee billboard that had a brown spiral feature that imitated pouring coffee when it rotated; nearly losing my brother in a Harrisburg rest room; and, spending our first night on the living room floor with only a yellow and green enamel top farm table for furniture and a can of French’s Potato Sticks for dinner.

Nick Masters in the business end of the Lunch Box Diner

Nick Masters in the business end of the Lunch Box Diner

Even then breakfast was the most important meal of the day, although there was a conspicuous absence of the consumer watchdogs that ensure we don’t overdose on sugar, lactose, gluten and all the other gastronomic horrors that aim to do us harm. With no car, we generally walked or took the bus wherever we went, and on our first day living in the land of pilgrims’ pride, we trekked 2 miles down Eastern Avenue until we came across a tiny red 1932 Worcester Lunch Car (most likely named Viv’s back then). To this day I don’t know why we didn’t stop elsewhere; the Woolworth’s lunch counter and Schopell’s Cafeteria in Malden Square were much closer, and nobody else remembers what took us over to that side of town. What I do remember was my first breakfast in this tiny diner on Route 60; a collection of small boxes of cereal from Kellogg’s Variety Pack were arranged on a wire rack on the counter, the cartoon mascot faces of Snap, Crackle and Pop, the Kellogg’s rooster and Tony the Tiger peering down at my young face with that “pick me” look about them. The selection of my choosing was never in doubt – on this morning, I would partake of the crispy corn flakes with “that secret frosting that makes them great”.

With any luck you'll get a personalized mug

With any luck you’ll get a personalized mug

This may very well have been the last time I ate Sugar Frosted Flakes; I haven’t seen the Variety Pack in years, although I believe they’re still available (I’m just not aware of in what format). At the time, the small box had a perforation running the length and across the top and bottom of its face; fingers or a butter knife was all that was required to create little cardboard doors revealing a wax paper pouch. Once slit across and pulled back, the liner became a makeshift bowl – milk and a liberal application of sugar made for slightly less than a balanced breakfast for a future world traveler on an adventure in his hometown.

Growing up in Malden, I never revisited the diner. Eventually I left a city with its main street cleaved by a brick behemoth City Hall; shoppers headed out to the ‘burbs and their sprawling malls, and although restaurants and shops were razed or replaced, that little diner continued to stand near the corner of Eastern Avenue and Maplewood Streets, changing hands over the years to be reborn with various hues of paint and names such as Judy’s, Lulu’s and Rose’s Lil’ Red Diner.  The diner had lived its previous life in Wareham and was moved to Malden prior to my visit in the 1960s; since 2008, it has been known as The Lunch Box Diner (owned and operated by Nick Master).

Prime rib disguised as steak tips and eggs

Prime rib disguised as steak tips and eggs

Master is the cook on duty, and he acknowledges everyone who steps through the old wooden door; most of the patrons he knows by name. The Lunch Box is the epitome of the old-school diner – everything is red white and black with a counter that wraps around the tiny car; three or four metal tables and chairs take their place on the art deco two-tone tile floor. The specials are chalked over the grill at the end of the room where Masters holds court, cracking eggs and jokes. On most days he holds down the fort by himself, but confides that he doesn’t know when he’ll join the slow exodus of Maldonians to warmer climes. Having returned recently to the site of my earliest breakfast memory, I was reluctant to ride the tiger (Tony) again and decided instead to eat breakfast as the Bostonians do.

On my visit, the specials listed the New England favorite of steak tips, served for breakfast with eggs, home fries and toast. For the uninitiated, steak tips are typically big, juicy, marinated nuggets of sirloin or flap meat ends; restaurants such as the now defunct Hilltop Steak House (with its gargantuan neon cactus, itself a throw-back to the 1960s) and the New Bridge Cafe in Chelsea have put steak tips on the culinary map. The draw was irresistible, so I ordered it rare with two over-easies and white toast – the meat was tender and threaded with bits of beef fat; Master confided that instead of sirloin, his specialty was substituting prime rib. The food was everything you would expect from a diner – folksy, hearty and filling, with a cup of java in a department store mug.

They say you can never go back, but you can and should – the things that contribute to past and future memories are fleeting, and I am a staunch advocate of seeking out those things that make up our history before it’s too late – preferably with a side of home fries.

The Lunch Box Diner
906 Eastern Avenue
Malden, MA 02148
GPS Coordinates: 42°25’48.29″N 71° 2’39.60″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s breakfast 40+ years in the making at The Lunch Box Diner in Malden, Massachusetts

Posted in New England | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prime Time

Oliver’s Prime at the Grafton on Sunset
West Hollywood, California

Hip dining without being hipster

Hip dining without being hipster

The Grafton on Sunset hotel has been a crash pad in the thick of Hollywood’s fabled Sunset Strip since 1946, leaving a lamplight burning from the Tinseltown glamor set to big-haired glam rockers. A major renovation in 2007 restored the hotel to its former glitz and glory, so it comes as no surprise that the same attention would be paid to the recently opened Oliver’s Prime in the property’s northeast corner. The swanky digs would make Don Draper feel at home; the look and feel is 60′s modern with chrome, leather and simple colors and geometry. One executive-looking booth features photographic images of smoke, which would have been unnecessary in the tobacco culture of Kookie Kookson’s day.

Crab-stuffed tuna rolls

Crab-stuffed tuna rolls

Fortunately, this is not a case of style over substance; Oliver’s Prime is serious steak house with innovative fare by Chef Greg Elkin, so innovative that even the menu illuminates when opened.  This is surf and turf at its finest, where fresh lobster meat finds its way into a caprese salad and a cavalcade of manly meat from sustainable ranches (such as Creekstone Farms and Durham Ranch) keep the carnivorous crowd happy. Even the side dishes are exceptional – the wild mushrooms and Shishito peppers are so good that you’ll spare the suggestion that they might accompany your choice cut (save that task for the subtle pearl onions with applewood-cured bacon). While kale is still hogging the limelight, the overlooked but not overcooked broccolini makes a tasty appearance here in a mildly spicy Thai dish that holds its own against the cattle.

Farm-raised bison filet

Farm-raised bison filet

Don’t let the tuna rolls be miscast as nori-wrapped sushi – here fresh ahi envelops a creamy Dungeness crab center with sea beans and ginger yuzu aioli; the rolls disintegrate on the tongue effortlessly, leaving the zest from the jalapeno slices and lemongrass vinaigrette lingering after the bite is gone. The melty Wagyu tartare is a thing of beauty crowned with wispy honeycomb potato crisps, draped with arugula leaves and finished with shaved Pecorino and a quail egg.

Wagyu beef tartare

Wagyu beef tartare

Mammal flesh is their forte, and there’s an abundance of it on the menu. The lamb chops are given a Middle Eastern treatment, cooked with dates, almonds and Eastern spices; tender filet of bison should be ordered on the rare side and eaten sans accoutrements to appreciate the exotic flavor – resist the urge to squeeze the roasted garlic onto the meat, as this is an exceptional cut spared the indignity of being ground for burgers. Also of exceptional note is the New York strip steak from Creekstone Farms, dry-aged in house for 35 days, a juicy and delectable slab of meat capable of satiating the most finicky carnivore.

A refreshing strawberry soup with sorbet

A refreshing strawberry soup with sorbet

The chilled strawberry soup with sorbet, berries, citrus and mint is refreshing and light enough to eat with the meal, but sweet enough to savor as a dessert, but a chocolate brownie sitting in a shallow pool of grapefruit can be a challenging pairing on the palate. Libations are plentiful, although the three-stool bar is a tiny station; however, The Grafton on Sunset is currently renovating its Bar 20, which will re-open as a full-service bar soon.

While the decor is a throwback to a time when the jet set dined exclusively in a posh, modernistic, playground to the stars, there’s no pretentiousness here – just remarkable cuisine in a fun and artistic setting that will have you anticipating the sequel.

Oliver’s Prime at the Grafton
8462 West Sunset Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069
GPS Coordinates:  34° 5’40.49″N 118°22’29.82″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s dinner at Oliver’s Prime at the Grafton on Sunset Strip in West Hollywood CA

NOTE: The cost for the food was provided by Oliver’s Prime. The content provided in this article was not influenced whatsoever by the organizer of the event.

Posted in Southern California | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Blogger Walks Into A Roadhouse…

Roadhouse LA at The Improv
Los Angeles, California

Roadhouse LA's separate entrance

Roadhouse LA’s separate entrance

Roadhouse LA’s frontage features roll-up windows, corrugated tin and stone trim and an unfinished barn door entrance – a comforting sight for a bubba looking for some backwoods chow and a contrast to its host structure, L.A.’s famous Improv comedy club. For someone looking for a transplanted Texas BBQ joint, the illusion continues inside with walls of reclaimed wood and a massive hay claw dangling from the ceiling in the middle of the dining area, but anyone expecting traditional Southern barbecue quickly gets the concept of improvisation with one look at the menu. Restaurateur and impresario Adam Fleischman initially brought in Chef Robbie Richter (formerly the cleaver and tongs behind New York City’s Fatty ‘Cue) to create a concept called “global BBQ”. Richter relied on much of what he was known for at Fatty ‘Cue, but departed shortly after opening – that’s when Fleischman brought in hired gun Kyle Schutte to reimagine not what BBQ is, but in his words, “what BBQ can be”. Chef Schutte is no stranger to clever re-working of traditional dishes, and the Roadhouse LA redux melded his Southern origins and influence with cutting-edge cuisine.

"Pork and beans" pork ribs

“Pork and beans” pork ribs

Even the bar menu is inventive and fun; the “A Little Dickel Dew Ya” sounds like a drink christened by a redneck blue comic – the name is a reference to the blend of house-made “Mountain Dew” syrup, applejack, and whiskey and tastes like a soft drink for grown-ups. Schutte plays with his food, introducing dishes intentionally out of order; the sturdy and sweet cornbread pudding (listed as “#cornbreadpudding”) should be a dessert, but here it is presented as an opener and gussied-up with borage flowers, roasted jalapeno butter, and dabs of tequila/cilantro jelly with a citrus-charred crust. This is not a cornbread for sopping up your baked beans.

Roadhouse LA's main dining area

Roadhouse LA’s main dining area

Chef Schutte introduces breakfast at night with what one could simply disregard as “bacon and eggs” – the thick slab of moist, root beer spice-cured bacon (brined for 2 days) can be easily fork-cut, and the meat is accompanied by scrambled eggs infused with vanilla; a sashimi hamachi dish arrives at the table dusted with a powdery BBQ spice and accompanied by dollops of collard green mousse and sprouted cilantro. Schutte re-invents the ubiquitous LA stable with an outstanding build-it-yourself fish taco made with a thick slab of cold-smoked salmon, frothy guacamole, tequila cream and pomegranate seeds.

Dessert for dinner - cornbread pudding as a starter

Dessert for dinner – cornbread pudding as a starter

Much to his chagrin, Schutte’s menu features his signature dish by popular demand – chicken-fried watermelon. The fruit  is apropos with the BBQ theme, but gone are the watermelon sticks from Richter’s menu – his crispy, golden balls reveal their moist, sweet payload with a bite that doesn’t disintegrate the contrivance. This is fair fare at its finest; Schutte litters the row of orbs with an application of shredded and pickled watermelon rind that would be a superb substitute for sauerkraut on the sausage of his choosing.

"Campfire carrots" for dessert

“Campfire carrots” for dessert

Despite his Virginian upbringing, Schutte doesn’t have a BBQ pedigree, but the casual observer wouldn’t accuse him of being green around the gills – the lamb ribs are tender enough that Moms Mabley could polish them off,  yet sturdy enough to stand up to the accompanying cucumber arancini. His pork ribs are nothing short of genius – Chef Schutte refers to them as “pork and beans”. The Niman Ranch pork ribs show off the tang of a ponzu BBQ sauce and are propped up over a bed of lightly pickled peaches and boiled peanuts (with the goobers being the legume of choice to complement the ribs), a loving yet innovative tribute to the great State of Georgia.

Chef Schutte's signature chicken-fried watermelon

Chef Schutte’s signature chicken-fried watermelon

While the same outsourced desserts present at start-up are being phased out, Schutte let on that they are currently designing in-house treats including a dish he refers to as “the barroom floor” with a confectionary imagining of floorboards and sawdust. One clever side dish sweet enough to act as a dessert is the Campfire Carrots – rather than describing the cooking technique, the dish emulates a campfire with stacked logs of baby carrots over a layer black garlic and sesame ash, and a gooey thyme marshmallow looking like it just fell off the stick into the fire.

With Kyle Schutte given free rein to improvise and execute the global BBQ concept, Roadhouse LA should become a gastronomic destination independent of its comic foster mother. We’ll be here all week – I recommend the pork ribs. Be sure tip your waiters and waitresses, they’re working hard for you…

Roadhouse LA at The Improv
8162 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles CA 90048
GPS Coordinates: 34° 5’0.95″N 118°22’2.75″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s dinner at Roadhouse LA at The Improv in Los Angeles CA

NOTE: The cost for the food was provided by Roadhouse LA at The Improv. The content provided in this article was not influenced whatsoever by the organizer of the event.

Posted in Southern California | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Beer

Beer dinners
Kings Row Gastropub, Pasadena, California

4 of the featured Smog City beers at Kings Row

4 of the featured Smog City beers at Kings Row

Since opening as the first true gastropub in Pasadena, Kings Row Gastropub has aggressively presented culinary events such as whole hog roasts (or whatever flora and fauna fit in their custom-made Caja China).  With Certified Cicerone James Willison on board in tandem with Executive Chef Sundeep Vohra, many of these events highlight spirits and brews that bring out the flavor of the featured dishes or gastronomic theme. In February KRG held what is slated to be a monthly series of beer dinners to be feted on each first Thursday, with the sold-out inaugural dinner entitled “Smoke and Beers”, pairing dishes with a smoke element with complementary craft brews from Torrance, California’s Smog City Brewing Company.  While Kings Row’s kitchen staff interpreted the thought process behind the ashen courses, Smog City founders Laurie and Jonathan Porter were on hand to demystify the paired beers.

Smoked melon, grape & red onion amuse bouche on taro crisp

Smoked melon, grape & red onion amuse bouche on taro crisp

Chef Vohra commenced the dinner with a fresh amuse bouche of smoked honeydew and cantaloupe with red grapes and red onion assembled atop a taro crisp; the best approach was to burn through the appetizer in one bite lest the fruity payload disintegrate on the table. This was closely followed by a cheese board of thinly sliced house-smoked aged Gouda accompanied by a beer-centric puddle of porter honey (which was reminiscent of a sweet marmite) and a slice of beer bread baked on the premises; the dish paired well with Smog City’s Bo Pils, a light 4.5 with a bite to help cut the cheese.

The kitchen staff at Kings Row describes the courses

The kitchen staff at Kings Row describes the courses

The second course married a slightly-bitter Smog City Saison (a “farmhouse ale” brewed using French hops) to a tart arugula salad with smoked red beets, apple, daikon, avocado and cilantro with a lemon thyme vinaigrette dressing – a sharp-tongued pair paving the way for dark and murky times to come in the form of a rich potato and leek-based smoked clam chowder with crunchy bits of bacon conservatively strewn about the top. A vegetarian version of the starchy broth was available sans clams and bacon, still sturdy enough to bolster the accompanying Groundwork coffee porter. The beer blended the best of both worlds for lovers of stout beers and coffee, and it complemented the chowder admirably. The full-bodied combination of cream, leeks, pureed Shiro miso and smoked Yukon Gold potatoes brought the coffee flavor out of the porter, which would also have paired well with dessert.

Smoked "ducketta" with mustard gnocchi and Brussels sprouts

Smoked “ducketta” with mustard gnocchi and Brussels sprouts

Round four expertly accompanied a duck “porchetta” (whimsically dubbed “ducketta” by Chef Vohra) stuffed with roasted garlic and herbed duck sausage with Smog City’s fruity California Love, which was brewed using pinot noir grapes and oak chips. The duck was moist and tender without being greasy, and was accompanied by mustard gnocchi and roasted Brussels sprouts which provided a nice contrast to the sweet beer. For the follow-up course, Vohra went back to his Indian roots to create a rich, red smoked lamb gosht (curry) dolloped over basmati rice with mint chutney and yogurt foam on the side. A light Make-out Session Pale Ale was designated as the beverage of choice to join the lamb curry – the unobtrusive light beer was perfect for not stepping on the toes of the strong flavor of the curry.

Decadent "candy bar" pie paired with a chocolate stout

Decadent “candy bar” pie paired with a chocolate stout

Since the aforementioned Groundwork coffee porter would have been a crafty choice for a dessert beer, I was curious as to what the fermented brew of choice would be that would stand up to the ultra-sweet “candy bar” pie that was brought out as the final course. This small wedge of Snickers-influenced confection was laden with chocolate ganache, smoked peanut brittle, and dolce de leche and was poised to do a St. Vitus dance on unsuspecting molars. Giving in to the chocolate theme, Smog City paired with their oddly-named “The Nothing” a hale and hearty stout brewed with chocolate nibs creating a sensation not unlike Willy Wonka on a drunken two-day binge.

Kings Row Gastropub’s first beer dinner was a cavalcade of flavors and scents that was a shot shy of overwhelming; with the dinners based on themes that pay tribute to the brewery name, I can only imagine what March’s Ommegang Beer Dinner holds in store. I’ll give you a moment to ponder that – smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.

Kings Row Gastropub
20 East Colorado Boulevard
Pasadena CA 91105
GPS Coordinates:  34° 8’44.30″N 118° 9’0.38″W

Smog City Brewing Company
1901 Del Amo Blvd., Suite B
Torrance CA 90501
GPS Coordinates:   33°50’49.30″N 118°18’49.35″W

GALLERY: See images from the Smoke and Beers pairing dinner at Kings Row Gastropub in Pasadena CA

NOTE: The cost for the food was provided by Kings Row Gastropub. The content provided in this article was not influenced whatsoever by the organizer of the event.

Posted in Southern California | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mary, Queen of Scots

ScotsFestival and International Highland Games XXI
The Queen Mary, Long Beach, California

Photo courtesy of The Queen Mary

Photo courtesy of The Queen Mary

For those in Southern California who want to get in touch with their inner-Scot (or at least a peek under the kilt), The Queen Mary in Long Beach is hosting its 21st annual ScotsFestival & International Highland Games this coming weekend (February 15 and 16). In addition to competition in traditional Scottish games, there will be live music, a Grand Parade, authentic food from Scotland (including the post-Burns Night Address to the Haggis), whisky tasting and coronation ceremonies. Information and tickets available at http://queenmary.com/scotsfestival/.

The Queen Mary
1126 Queens Highway
Long Beach CA 90802
GPS Coordinates: 33°45’9.01″N 118°11’25.20″W

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment