Pioneer Chicken (Bab Han Kki, One Bite) Koreatown (Los Angeles), California
The 3-piece Pioneer Take Out chicken dinner
Those who were living in Southern California in the 1970s may recall a time when Pioneer Pete was circling the wagons and flipping the bird at The Colonel; Pioneer Take Out (more commonly known as Pioneer Chicken) was once a formidable opponent, having hatched from the Pioneer Market in Echo Park back in the early 1960s. The company couldn’t compete with the corporate conglomerate yardbird shacks, and by 1987 founder H. R. Kaufman had manned his last Frialator. The hatchet fell for the last time in 1993 when AFC Enterprises (parent company to Popeye’s) purchased what remained and converted most of the restaurants to Popeye’s.
Bab Han Kki, One Bite, new home of Pioneer Chicken
Today, there are three locations remaining (with full restaurants on South Soto Street and in Bell Gardens); a restaurant on a busy wedge along West Olympic Boulevard closed in 2014 and the building went up for sale (hopefully for some enterprising businessman to reopen as a Pioneer Chicken, rising from the ashes like a phoenix chicken). In the meantime, the assets of the Olympic location reappeared in the Koreatown Plaza Food Court in February of 2015. Loyalists and nostalgia buffs can rekindle that gas flame at the two restaurant locations, but for the food adventurer who wants a taste of the past in an out-of-the-ordinary setting, your best bang for the buck is the Koreatown Plaza location.
The limited Pioneer Take Out menu featuring Pioneer Pete
Because of the requirement that they abide by the regulations of the food court, finding Pioneer Chicken proves the adage that life is about the journey, not the destination. With the abundance of neon signage, you won’t find a back-lit throwback cartoon Pioneer Pete sign – the food kiosks carry Korean names, and the chicken is to be found at Bab Han Kki, One Bite. The vinyl banner below the light up Korean food signs provides the minimalist fried chicken menu; there are essentially three dishes from the once-popular chain.
Three Pioneer chicken dinners live under the shadow of bibimbap
For the complete mash-up experience, go with the 3-piece meal that comes with 3 sides for $8.99. Forget about your paper cartons or cardboard buckets – when your paging device signals that your meal is ready, it comes served to you on a glass dish. The chicken is perched on a half-moon wire rack to prevent the steam from ruining the magical crispy golden shell that lovingly envelops the meat. The first bite exposes the hot, moist and tender flesh, with the crunchy contrast of the intact coating hinting at a roll in some Corn Flakes. The sides are adequate, with a heavy-handed application of mayonnaise on the potato salad and coleslaw, but the French fries are perfect – golden brown and firm on the outside, hot and pillowy on the inside.
If you like throwing all caution to the wind you can accentuate your meal with Korean sides or main dishes, or just sit back, close your eyes, and go back to the days of the tumbling tumbleweeds and declare yourself a winner. Winner. Chicken dinner.
Dollar Hits Filipinotown (Los Angeles), California
It’s Grill City at the Dollar Hits truck
Apparently, no one went over the food truck rule book with Filipino upstarts Dollar Hits. For starters, the mobile kitchen isn’t – you can always find them on the middle of a block on L.A.’s Temple Street in Filipinotown in front of a small strip mall and a stone’s throw between hipster Echo Park and the eastern fringes of food-centric Koreatown. The business side of Dollar Hits appears to take place in the omnipresent nondescript white van parked in front of the matching canteen. If you can’t find the truck by sight, fear not – the sound of Pinoy pop music and proprietor Elvie Chan on the megaphone-quality mic will indicate the truck’s location better than your TomTom.
Heaven on a stick
Chan (along with her sisters Nely and Josie) launched the business in 2014 with a unique concept: provide comforting Filipino street food at a price that can’t be touched by the gourmet wagons saturating Los Angeles’ streets. The bulk of the menu is comprised of traditional bites on wooden skewers; each one (with three or four pieces) runs a tidy little dollar each, proving that Dollar Hits is not just a catchy name. The trick here is that the skewers are partially cooked – patrons flaunt their charcoal mastery by finishing the items over grills on the sidewalk. It’s a community affair – friends are made, and street cred is built when the onlookers watch you neatly polish off that $2 balut. Items are ordered off a checklist, and your selection is given to you in a foil casserole pan.
Thick and hearty rice porridge
The skewers are a thing of beauty, with organs and various bits of a variety of animals marinated and ready for the hibachi – bright orange fluffy kwek-kwek (battered hard-boiled quail eggs), the aptly named Betamax (gelatinous cubes of congealed pork blood), (Isaw) coiled chicken and sliced pork intestines, and chewy, savory Adidas (chicken feet). There’s a spicy, vinegar-based sauce and a sweet sauce for dipping, and the knowledgeable staff will recommend which skewer gets dunked in each. In addition to the skewers, there’s a plethora of other Filipino comfort food such as the aforementioned balut, lumpia, and a thick and almost clear arozcaldo (rice porridge) with onion and toasted garlic, the perfect dish for a brisk Los Angeles evening.
The endless vat of melon juice
While soda and bottled water is available, the better way to go is with the bottomless Styrofoam cup of melon juice. Iced down in big plastic vats like agua fresca, the juice isn’t overly sweet, and the bits of pulp are a sweet finish to the drink. Lines can be long (which limits space on the grills) and parking can be tricky (unless you luck out and find a spot in the strip mall after the other businesses are closed), but there isn’t a better bargain to be had anywhere in the city of Los Angeles, where you can eat like the King of Filipinotown for a sawbuck.
After several visits, I haven’t found a questionable item on the menu, so if you bring some cash and an appetite, the hits just keep on coming.
Hlaukkwima (South House), America’s 1st apartment building
Americans of European ancestry imagine a trip to Taos, New Mexico should include browsing through the galleries and studios of the vibrant century-old artist community or a day of exceptional skiing at Taos Ski Valley, yet a visit to the area without experiencing Taos Pueblo is a missed opportunity to understand how a culture that thrived centuries before a lost Christopher Columbus trod roughshod through the New World persevered with pride and determination despite centuries of oppression. The Taos tribe of Pueblo Indians took their name from the Tiwa description of the area as “the place of the red willows”. The pueblo was established approximately a thousand years ago, with most of the adobe dwellings dating between 1000 and 1400 A.D., making it the one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in what is now the United States. Of nearly 2000 Taos tribe members living in the area on ancestral lands, around 150 live full time inside the old pueblo without electricity or running water in living quarters that have been passed down through generations of family.
The red willows from which Taos takes its name
The thick adobe walls were designed for insulation from the elements as well as security; entrance to the one or two room dwellings was originally through a hole in the roof via a ladder (which could be retracted for safety). Remnants of the Spanish conquest in the early 17th century are painfully obvious, starting with the 1850 Mission San Geronimo de Taos (which anchors the pueblo and was built by forced labor in an effort to convert the Taos people to Christianity). The original church was built in 1619, but destroyed several times during conflict with the Spanish, as well as the territorial government of the United States; at the entrance to the pueblo, only the bell tower remains, reserved as a holy place to commemorate the men, women and children who died there after the U.S. Calvary put down the Taos Revolt of 1847. The Spanish also introduced the concept of doors and cemetery burials in caskets. While a large portion of the Native American community incorporate some form of Christianity into their belief system, they also maintain much of their original ideology (the Virgin Mary figures prominently in religious imagery, acting as a surrogate for the earth mother).
Chiles drying in the sun
With the indignities unleashed upon the Taos people by the Spanish, Mexico, marauding Comanche, and the United States, one has to wonder why they freely and open-heartedly welcome tourists into their ancient home, but they do so in a warm and inviting manner that is a model of peace and friendship. Before visiting, become familiar with the customs and respect the values and decorum set down by tribal law so that you do not become the ugly American. If local crafts are your souvenir of choice, many shops located at the pueblo offer authentic and hand-made art, including unique glittery pottery infused with mica – ask for permission before photographing tribal members and respect their wishes if they decline.
Mary Esther Winters and son Robbie make fry bread from scratch
There are no restaurants to speak of in the pueblo, but a unique dining experience is to be had at the Adobe Cafe, located directly across from the church. The tiny one-room cafe is run by Mary Esther Winters (whose Tiwa name translates to Looking for Blueberries) and her son Robbie (Eagle Bow) in a family-bestowed adobe dwelling with a fireplace for heat and a wood stove tucked into a diminutive kitchen. All of the food is made from scratch on the premises; the signature Pueblan fry bread is made from ground blue corn that was grown at the pueblo. While sandwiches, Frito pie, salads, and other substantial menu items appear handwritten on the board, the perfect accompaniment to the sweet fry bread is a hot cup of freshly brewed piñon coffee, flavored with locally grown and roasted piñon (pine nuts). Winters gushes with pride at a large Kodak print hanging on the far wall of the cafe – it is a photo of her grandfather, Ben Marcus, whose image was selected to be one of the 30 by 36 foot illuminated color prints displayed on the Picture Tower at the Kodak Pavilion during the 1964 – 1965 World’s Fair in New York. While her joy in running the cafe is obvious, Winters looks to a time in the near future when she can take Adobe Cafe mobile via a food truck.
A basket of sage outside one of the shops
The people of the Taos Pueblo are resilient survivors, keeping alive a way of life simplistic in 21st century terms, but honoring an ancient and noble tradition; the village should be the chief destination of any visit to Taos.
Papoo’s Hot Dog Show/Umami Burger/Honeybaked Ham Burbank, California
Papoo’s Hot Dog Show (top), Umami Burger (bottom)
For over 60 years, The Hot Dog Show (later Papoo’s Hot Dog Show) stood its ground on a busy street corner diagonally across from the oldest Big Boy in the U.S. (both built in 1949). There were several other Hot Dog Show restaurants in Southern California, but the Burbank (Toluca Lake) location just blocks from Warner Brothers was the sole survivor, having served red hots to celebrities and locals jonesing for a wiener until it closed in the summer of 2011, seemingly doomed to be razed and resurrected as some gleaming box chain restaurant. Papoo’s menu was hot dog heavy, with a variety of char-broiled, canine-themed dishes such “The Dachshund”, “The Beagle” and “The Boston Bull” (accessorized with baked beans), culminating in the masterpiece known simply as “The Show Dog”. While the dog itself could be considered medium/sporting size, its accoutrements put it squarely in the large breed category – the hot dog was obscured with a generous mound of firm, grilled spinach, crispy bacon, fat hoops of onion rings and a blanket of industrial-quality Swiss cheese – a dish that required unhinging you lower jaw like a python in order to devour it. In addition to the standard beef variety “show burgers”, Papoo’s added exotic meats such as elk to the menu in its golden years.
Papoo’s original Show Dog
The restaurant stood shuttered for almost two years with most of its signage intact, including the tall standalone sign with a harp-playing angelic dog perched on top and a multi-colored neon, winged and haloed hot dog over what was originally the street-facing counter. The layout of the restaurant could best be described as “catch-all”; rooms were added on the stand’s flanks and the front of the building was built out to allow bar patrons to eat indoors (in fact, the wood awning that hung over the bar was left intact when it was enclosed. Just prior to locking the doors for the last time, a grassroots effort to save Papoo’s Hot Dog Show blossomed on the Internet, but too late to save the financially-strapped institution.
The new Show Dog at Umami Burger
Enter, stage left – Southern California’s rapidly expanding supernova burger chain Umami Burger. CEO and founder Adam Fleischman has vied for burger supremacy in the Los Angeles area against bulls like Father’s Office and has parlayed his empire into what amounts to household word status on the Left Coast. The chain’s concept in opening new stores is unique, clever and endearing – Umami Burger preserves the souls of the previous incarnations, which brings the devotees of the dearly departed back into the resurrected space. In the case of Papoo’s Hot Dog Show, the restaurant underwent a renovation, but one has to imagine it would be what previous owner Leona Gardner would have done if money was no object. Red Naugahyde booths and Formica-topped ice cream parlor table and chairs have been replaced by upscale black faux-leather booths and wooden tables (including in the expanded rear patio); chandeliers hang from wood ceilings, framed by walls covered with Victorian flocked wallpaper. Outside, you could be excused for doing a double-take – aside from the removal of the vertical sign and the neon wiener (which is alleged to now be convalescing in a nearby neon museum), the exterior looks almost the same (naturally a couple of the front lighted panels now reads “UMAMI BURGER”).
The original counter from The Hot Dog Show restored
Homages to several items from Papoo’s menu have found their way onto Umami Burger’s; I use the term “homage” because the similarity ends at the name. The new Show Dog is a Irish wolfhound-sized behemoth jacketed in a Portuguese buttered and grilled bun. The dog is lightly blanketed with chunks of minced bacon and fried onion strings slathered with liquid beer cheese and a generous dose of Hak’s BBQ sauce. While UB’s Show Dog is nothing short of delicious, the umamiable experience is bittersweet – imagine a property developer saving your ancestral home and restoring it to a splendor the likes it has never known, including replacing the beloved matriarch with a hot GILF. While Papoo’s burgers were on the A-list of fast food joints in Southern California, they don’t hold a candle to the half-pound, coarsely-ground Wagyu beef patties dusted with super-secret umami pixie powder – these meat disks leave the pack of contenders eating their dust; naturally, there’s a suitable price tag that accompanies them.
The Main Event Dog at Honeybaked Ham
For those who wish to relive the simple euphoria of sinking your teeth into the original Show Dog, all is not lost – the iconic canine is still available as it was originally conceived two mere blocks away at Honeybaked Ham. While the purveyor of pre-cooked Easter main courses is better known for its glazed pork product, the restaurant absorbed many of Papoo’s staff when the hot dog stand tanked; those who made the migration kindly asked if they could bring the menu items with them. Almost all of the dishes from Papoo’s were adopted and merged into Honeybaked Ham’s menu, although for some reason the names have changed slightly. What was once a contender known as the Show Dog is now top dog, gracing the menu as The Main Event. The composition is untouched – grilled spinach, Swiss cheese, onion rings and strips of bacon still lovingly enveloped a butterflied and grilled hot dog, and every bite is a blast from the past. The decor is old school “family restaurant”, but the ambience is not the draw – it’s the chance to savor the Show Dog in all its glory, risen like the harp-playing pooch on Papoo’s old signage.
In the land of disposable nostalgia, it is a gift to see a beloved institution like The Hot Dog Show given new lease on life, whether it comes with a side order of New and Improved, or shyly hides in the menu of a holiday staple. Cue the lights – the show must go on!
Over the past several decades, “mom and pops” have fallen by the wayside, fated to the same grisly ending that Barnacle Bill warned The Fair Young Maiden about. When faced with impending doom approximately 15 years ago, John Nese of Galco’s Old World Grocery in Highland Park did what any other legacy neighborhood grocer would do – he threw all caution to the wind and decided to go out in a blaze of glory. Galco’s was originally established in 1897 by partners Galiota and Cortapassi on Castellar Street (now known as Hill Street) in Chinatown (which, at the time was Little Italy). To make way for construction, Nese’s parents (who became partners in the grocery in 1940) purchased a building that housed an A&P grocery (and formerly White’s Grocery) on York Boulevard back in 1955 and moved the business there, where it has been ever since. In the 1990s, the grocery was being squeezed out by the big chain supermarkets and even the City of Los Angeles and State of California was making it difficult for Galco’s and other mom and pop grocers to compete; when their beverage distributor (Pepsi) found out that Nese was directing his customers to the chains where they could get soda cheaper, they issued an ultimatum – buy from them or say good bye. I asked Nese what prompted him to start stocking independent and hard to find sodas, beer and wine, he simply said, “That’s easy – I figured if I’m going to go broke, I might as well go happy”.
Colombia in the house – Postobón, Colombiana and Pony Malta
This simple strategy was the turning point for Nese; Galco’s became a local landmark and site of cultural and historic significance and has been visited by local and national media. The store has expanded into the adjoining space and the open area just past the registers at the front is stocked with pallets of cartons filled with cases and cases of rare, unusual and hard-to-get sodas, beers and wine. Several former produce cases on the side wall now hold a wide variety of candy: local favorite Abba-Zabba is represented, but I was also pleased to find candy from my youth in the Boston area including Charleston Chew, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Necco Wafers. What surprised me the most was their selection of Bonomo Turkish Taffy, which I haven’t seen in years (Nese informed me that they only started making it again recently).
Hard-to-find candy in the produce case
Against the window, a row of shelves that seems to stretch on like I-10 in Arizona holds a plethora of wine and wine-like beverages, including Mad Dog 20/20 in every color of the rainbow. At the end of the row are unique beers, including the appropriately named Delirium Tremens from Belgium and the deli counter where Galco’s still makes sandwiches. One section of the sandwich menu contains over-stuffed Blockbusters, sandwiches inadvertently named by fighter Rocky Marciano. According to Nese, Marciano came in shortly after they began serving sandwiches in the 1950s and when he brought the behemoth to his face, he said, “This is a real blockbuster”. The deli counter is a shadow of its former self; one of the meat cases contains single soda bottles on fake grass, with the others holding the freshly made potato salad and deli meats from Molinari in San Francisco. Bread for the sandwiches comes in fresh daily from local Frisco Bakery as it has since 1940; the sandwiches are done in traditional style without the extra stuffing of lettuce and tomatoes. I had the Original, laden with Italian cold cuts and as tasty as you would want a sub sandwich to be.
Preparing an Original to go
Behind the deli counter the old maple butcher block and meat trolley system sit unused; Nese confesses that he did much of the butchering back when Galco’s was a full service grocery, and although he hasn’t done it in years, he could probably break down a side of beef like a pro. The row of shelves in front of the deli is packed with an enormous variety of beer from around the world, so you probably ought to be shopping elsewhere for your case of Bud Light. Zigzagging your way back to the front of the store you will encounter aisle after aisle of sparking and mineral waters, and well as sodas, including a selection of Colombian soda including Colombiana, Pony Malta and Postobón.
Owner John Nese mans the register
Evolving the store to carry on the family legacy has been a risky venture and a labor of love that has paid off for Nese; he also gives back to his family’s adopted neighborhood, including benefit soda tasting for local charities. The sign out front still identifies the store as a grocery, but in the 21st century, Galco’s has become the king of pop.
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