You Can Call Me Al

Cassell’s Hamburgers
Los Angeles, California

Cassell's cheeseburger with signature potato salad

Cassell’s cheeseburger with signature potato salad

In the never-ending battle for burger supremacy in Los Angeles, heavyweights such as Father’s Office, Umami Burger, Plan Check, and even In-N-Out duke it out over hot grills across the Southland; but if you were to hop in your DeLorean fitted with a flux capacitor and flash back to the 80’s, it wouldn’t be difficult to reach consensus as to who the reigning burgermeister was. Al Cassell opened Cassell’s Patio in 1948 with a simple plan – to serve the best burgers in a no-nonsense, casual environment. There was no gimmicky onion jam, ketchup fruit roll-ups, or half-blend of bacon to draw people into a queue out the door; Al’s patties were freshly-ground USDA prime chuck, lovingly tended to on a special grill. There was nary a French fry to be found – the potato offering was Al’s unique potato salad (which approximated a scoop of cold mashed potatoes). If your craving for crisp and salty potatoes got too great you could fall back on a bag of chips. The original patio was relocated to smaller quarters when the rent became exorbitant; after he sold the business after the turn of the new millennium, the business fell into decline as the quality no longer matched what patrons enjoyed in Cassell’s heyday, shuttering for good in 2012.

Cassell's historic counter

Cassell’s historic counter

Al Cassell died in 2010, leaving the Southland burger landscape in a hipster wasteland, but the owners of the Hotel Normandie had the foresight to scoop up Cassell’s furnishings and mothball them until they could resurrect Cassell’s in a rendition that would make Al proud. Earlier this year, Cassell’s arose from the well-done ashes like a bovine phoenix on the busy corner of 6th Street and Normandie, a few blocks from its former location. If the new Cassell’s looks familiar, it’s most likely due to the original furnishings and signage re-deployed – if it tastes familiar, it’s because the staff did their homework and spared no attention to details in recreating the quality of fare that earned them the moniker of best burger in L.A.. The meat is Aspen Ridge prime chuck, coarsely ground every morning just as Al would have; the burgers are cooked on the same special grill acquired with the rest of Cassell’s equipment.

Chef Christian Page prepares a classic Cassell's burger

Chef Christian Page prepares a classic Cassell’s burger

Not only was the offering of French fries that appeared when the business was sold stricken from the menu, but Al’s signature potato salad has returned, being meticulously crafted using the same recipe. The coleslaw is fresh and light on the mayo, and lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle are presented off to the side along with the customary Thousand Island dressing so that nothing unwanted stands between the flavor of the burger except the golden Portuguese bun and your optional cheese. The burger is cooked to order and lightly seasoned only with a little salt and pepper, the loose patty crumbling in your mouth in a cascade of its own juices – it is nothing short of delicious. Almost everything is made in-house; there’s a counter in the corner where gourmet coffee and baked goods are available, and Cassell’s home brews their own sodas, including a sarsaparilla that tastes old-timey fountain good, and a ginger ale with the tingle of fresh sliced ginger.

A cheeseburger in progress on Al Cassell's original grill

A cheeseburger in progress on Al Cassell’s original grill

Self-proclaimed Chief Burger Flipper Christian Page helms the reanimated Cassell’s and admits that the challenge is going to be the cost of quality; fans of the original Cassell’s have remarked that the current staff has nailed the spirit of the late great Al Cassell, but the choice of 1/3 or 2/3 of a pound burgers are costly to reproduce (they’re about twice what Cassell’s menu offered).  While this might be a challenge in regaining the old clientele, it’s still competitive with young upstarts Plan Check or Comme Ça. In a town where elaborate, over-the-top cuisine is de rigueur, it is comforting to see a resurgence in a sense of nostalgia and a new-found appreciation for a timeless classic. The team at the Hotel Normandy has not just restored a Los Angeles favorite, but has vindicated the burgermeister himself – the ghost of Al Cassell must undoubtedly be pleased.

Cassell’s Hamburgers
3600 W. 6th Street
Los Angeles CA 90020
GPS Coordinates:  34° 3’48.48″N 118°18’1.74″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s visit to Cassell’s Hamburgers in Los Angeles’ Koreatown

VIDEO: Watch Val enjoy a burger from Cassell’s Hamburgers with Chef Christian Page and share an alligator burger from Exotic Meat Market at Trippy Food on YouTube

NOTE: The cost for the food was provided by Cassell’s and Exotic Meat Market. The content provided in this article was not influenced whatsoever by either.

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

Old Spice

Papaya salad
Mae Ting’s Coconut Cakes
Los Angeles, California

Papaya salad - like the green tree viper, beautiful and deadly

Papaya salad – like the green tree viper, beautiful and deadly

A row of carports tucked into a bamboo and umbrella-shaded corner of a parking lot in an industrial swath of Los Angeles is not the first place one would think to look when searching for authentic Thai street food in the Southland; most die-hard fans of Mae Ting’s Coconut Cakes have likely stumbled upon it accidentally while stocking up at LAX-C (the Thai version of Costco). While the steam tray “trust the chef” spread inside LAX-C may satiate the weekend shopper, the easy to overlook stall in the shadow of a gutted concrete building is where the action is. As the name implies, Mae Ting’s Coconut Cakes (kanom khrok) are the sweet and airy treats that bring gastronomes across the lot. The warm, comforting aroma of toasted coconut reaches your nostrils before you hit the counter; there’s always someone standing over what looks like a flat iron Aebleskiver pan gently coaxing the rice and coconut batter into a saucer-shaped disk. Instead of turning the diminutive cakes, they are tended until golden brown on the outside and sticky on the inside and then placed together to where the wispy orbs dissolve on the tongue in an orgiastic moment of coconut bliss.

Thai street food redefined at Mae Ting's

Thai street food redefined at Mae Ting’s

The lure of the kanom khrok is so strong that it prompted Los Angeles’ reviewer laureate Jonathan Gold to sing its praises in a long-faded article posted on one of the walls of the stand; it’s unfortunate that Mr. Gold only touted what is essentially the tip of the iceberg. For food adventurers, the coconut cakes are simply a come-hither that entices you into the stall. While Mae Ting’s doesn’t have an extensive menu, they do offer exceptional street fare with home-cooked flavor at a budget price. Hot steamy fish balls, powerful and savory mu ping (pork skewers) – not a mundane or underwhelming dish in the house (or what looks like the garage).

Golden orbs of coconut joy

Golden orbs of coconut joy

If it’s the kanom khrok that coerces you across the parking lot past a fish pond where a sidewalk belongs, make them your appetizer because the big man on campus that puts a smile on your face and then smacks it off with a flaming glove is the som tam (an incendiary green papaya salad). I mean no disrespect when I suggest you try not to look too Caucasian when ordering said flammable – the staff is concerned with your well-being and it could take a while to get an ambulance on-site if you order the papaya salad “very spicy”. Expect them to ask who will be eating it and then sizing you up to determine if you can handle the burn. As you fork the fresh slaw into your eager mouth, a variety of flavors and textures do a dance on your taste buds – tart dressing, nutty and salty bits, crunchy fresh fruit and vegetables; you barely notice the staff armed with cups of water and a fire extinguisher standing at the ready.

Proprietor Mae Ting and son Matthew

Proprietor Mae Ting and son Matthew

The flavor is intense, and as you prepare for your second bite, the demonic flames of hell start in your throat and work their way backwards – you can tell exactly where every lump is on its way down to the basement. Sweat drips from your forehead; you are unable to form words. You realize too late that those crisp green beans weren’t. Quenching the flames is an exercise in futility; water simply washes away the taste and leaves the heat. After succumbing to this new circle of Hell and trying to extinguish your case of dragon’s breath, you begin to actually crave the fresh and powerful flavor and shovel in another bite, and adventure in pleasure and pain.

Mae Ting’s is a must, and even if the coconut cakes are the draw, try the other menu items and don’t leave without taking on the papaya salad. The stand is only open on weekends and not all day; you can usually find Mama Mae Ting in the house, and while she is as sweet as her kanom khrok, there’s always a spark in her smile.

Mae Ting’s Coconut Cakes
1100 North Main Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
GPS Coordinates: 34° 3’49.48″N 118°13’56.10″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s visit to Mae Ting’s Coconut Cakes in Los Angeles CA

VIDEO: Watch Val tackle the fiery green papaya salad at Mae Ting’s Coconut Cakes in Los Angeles CA on YouTube

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

Mass Wisteria

Sierra Madre Wistaria Festival
Sierra Madre, California

The canopy near the source wistaria vine

The canopy near the source wistaria vine

Usually the title of “world’s largest” as it relates to botanical wonders is relegated to the massive trees of the Pacific Northwest; however, there is a Chinese wistaria (Wisteria sinensis) growing on the cool slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains in Sierra Madre, California, which holds the distinction of being documented by Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest flowering plant. The wistaria (an alternate and oft-claimed accurate spelling of what is commonly known as “wisteria”) is said to have been purchased by Alice Brugman from the Wilson nursery in Monrovia for 75 cents back in 1894. At the time, the sprout was transplanted from its one-gallon pot to a spot below the Brugman’s front porch; eventually the vine enveloped the 2-story home, where the weight of its limbs eventually collapsed the property.

The commercial part of the festival on Sierra Madre Blvd.

The commercial part of the festival on Sierra Madre Blvd.

Today, the behemoth boasts statistics of epic proportions – spanning an acre over two private properties, the weight is estimated to be in the vicinity of 250 tons, with branches that stretch out over five hundred feet. The wistaria is a fast-growing vine when it awakens each spring, with a growth rate of between a half-inch to an inch an hour; the 1.5 million fragrant blossoms can be smelled blocks away during the height of its March bloom. Although the aromatic colossus thrives in the rear of the two properties, the home owners graciously open their garden gates one day a year free of charge to those wanting to witness nature’s majesty.

Beautiful foliage of the Chinese wistaria

Beautiful foliage of the Chinese wistaria

The open house coincides with the annual Sierra Madre Wistaria Festival, which for the most part is held downtown, commencing at the intersections of Sierra Madre Boulevard and North Baldwin Avenues. The festivities feature everything you come to expect from a California street fair (such as the Carpinteria Avocado Festival or the Castroville Artichoke Festival) – live music, craft vendors, food booths and trucks, etc. Expect long lines to get into The Only Place in Town, or for Mother Moo to run out of your favorite flavor early in the afternoon. Getting to where the vine is located is easy – you can pay the twelve dollars for a round-trip haul in an air-conditioned shuttle, or if you’re up for a mostly uphill one-mile walk you can go it by foot. Don’t expect to be able to get near the vine by car, as most of the streets are blocked to all but resident traffic. The key directions to remember are heading north (up the mountain) on North Baldwin Ave and banging a left at West Carter Ave – if the line snaking around the corner of West Carter and North Hermosa Ave doesn’t give the location away, follow your nose.

Red circle (left) indicates the original plant

Red circle (left) indicates the original plant

Once you are greeted and enter, it becomes apparent exactly how big the vine is, forming a canopy that is punctuated by places where the plant dropped roots or where it is propped up by metal posts. As you take in the beauty of the lavender blooms and the intoxicating fragrance, remember that you are there to marvel at one of the 7 Wonders of the Horticultural World and don’t lose sight of the fact that the residents have convivially invited you into their yards – stay on the paths, and try not to linger too long so that others can enjoy the rare glimpse at this amazing plant.

Because no wistaria festival is complete without tamales

Because no wistaria festival is complete without tamales

Take the opportunity to have some fun and be floored by Mother Nature at the 98th annual Sierra Madre Wistaria Festival on Sunday, March 15 2015 – it’s an Instagrammer’s dream, but you just might want to do a Vine instead.

Sierra Madre Wistaria Festival
Corner of Sierra Madre Boulevard and North Baldwin Avenues
Sierra Madre CA 91024
GPS coordinates: 34° 9’42.73″N 118° 3’9.86″W

Actual location of the vine:
535 North Hermosa Avenue, Sierra Madre, CA 91024
GPS coordinates: 34°10’16.18″N 118° 3’25.70″W

GALLERY: See images from the 2014 Sierra Madre Wistaria Festival

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

Take A Taco

Tacoteca
Santa Monica, California

Grilled octopus taco with spicy peanut sauce

Grilled octopus taco with spicy peanut sauce

In the de facto American taco capitol, nary a head would turn or eye bat at the opening of another high-end taqueria, but with the house specialty being Mexican alcoholic beverages such as tejuno, pulque, tepache, and a plethora of craft mescals, Tacoteca has transformed the former Charleston space into the definitive destination for craft Mexican consumables. In a no-holds-barred attempt to rework south of the border gastronomic culture into a unique yet accessible Mexican party in Santa Monica, restaurateur Adam Fleischman has assembled the crack team of Chef Ricardo Diaz, Mixologist Gilbert Marquez and beer expert Bradley Japhe.

A numbered bottle of Ilegal Mezcal's Mezcal Joven

A numbered bottle of Ilegal Mezcal’s Mezcal Joven

Entomophagists will delight in the creative use of insects in Tacoteca’s beverage offerings (oddly enough they don’t make an appearance in the cuisine) – the fine mezcals and cocktails are accompanied by crushed, stacked and skewered chapulines (Oaxacan grasshoppers) and a tiny dune of maguey worms pulverized in salt; orange slices provide a sweet citrus alternative to the typical lime wedge. Each shot of mezcal is served in a clay copita, which allows the spirit to come to life and breathe. Some cocktails are downright strange – the La Bruxa (“witch” in Spanish) employs a jalapeño-infused mezcal with blended banana, lime and cilantro, but is then muddied with activated charcoal simply to give the drink a murky black tinge.

Duck tamal with guayaba salsa and mole

Duck tamal with guayaba salsa and mole

Aside from the tacos, most of the other plates are shareable – a row of corn coblets are treated with cotua cheese, lime mayo, cayenne powder and tamarindo in a playful attempt to mimic elote; a tamal stuffed with chunks of moist duck meat is given the two-tone treatment with a split topping of rich chocolate mole and guayaba salsa. Other dishes are tributes or plays on non-Mexican dishes (such as the Shrimp Luis, a Mexicanized version of shrimp Louie). Seafood features prominently on the menu, and for vegetarians there’s even a veggie tostada that employs hearts of palm as a suitable substitute for scallops in a ceviche-like blend.

Aguacatero with avocado-infused mezcal, skewered grasshoppers

Aguacatero with avocado-infused mezcal, skewered grasshoppers

The tacos are exemplary – meaty chucks of tender lamb and carne asada are in ample supply, topped with mildly spicy yet flavorful sauces such as Mexican chimichurri and mint garlic salsa; the stand-out open-faced taco features thick, grilled octopus tentacles and a satay-like serrano-peanut sauce, a combination that came to Chef Diaz as in a dream. Quality and taste are priorities, although some may find the tacos a bit steep at around 6 bucks a pop, but where the fare and bar offerings combine playful artistry with tradition, Tacoteca is changing the face of Taco Land one menu item at a time.

Tacoteca
2460 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica CA 90403
GPS Coordinates: 34° 2’6.50″N 118°28’41.90″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s visit to Tacoteca in Santa Monica, California

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

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

The Meat On The Skewer Goes Round And Round

Status Kuo
Mar Vista (Los Angeles), California

Thick and juicy rotisserie pork

Thick and juicy rotisserie pork

Describing the recently opened Status Kuo as status quo for its busy corner of Los Angeles’ Mar Vista neighborhood would be a gross misrepresentation – the name is a play on words for chef/owner David Kuo. The restaurant is being billed as a rotisserie, and should the silhouettes of meat animals on the sign perched high atop the roof be confusing, the various meats doing their slow, savory decadent dance on the skewers at the front of the restaurant will remove all doubt – Kuo’s business is meat, and business is good. With the cooking area in the open, the clean, lean and mean space is filled with the aroma of roasting meats, which seems to offset Kuo’s meek come-on for vegans to run the meat gauntlet and enjoy the menu as well. Although there are several plainly-marked vegan dishes on the menu, it hardly seems necessary as these superlative dishes can be enjoyed by vegans and omnivores alike.

Sizing up rotisserie pork right off the spit

Sizing up rotisserie pork right off the spit

Most of the substantial plates arrive at the table with a vibrant salad strewn across the top; Kuo’s fresh salads feature root vegetables, seeds and edible flowers, but there’s no attempt to hide or disguise the ample portions of meat with vegetation. Thick slabs of rotisserie pork take up the better part of the dinner plate – the meat dissolves in your mouth and bursts with flavor; the chicken is consistently moist and savory. The coating on Status Kuo’s fried chicken has a pronounced crunch to it, creating a shell that seals the juices inside – oddly the color ranges from a golden brown to a dark chocolate color.

The pasta dishes are exemplary (albeit the firm al dente pasta may not be to everyone’s liking) – the oddly-named Taiwanese Sunday Gravy is richly flavored with chopped, braised pork, and a pocket of pickled mustard greens with a playful bite.  The vegan Donald Watson features firm, thick noodles with crispy slices of kabocha squash, chanterelles, and meaty cubes of sunchoke.

Vegan noodles with sunchoke and chanterelles

Vegan noodles with sunchoke and chanterelles

Thick sandwiches on airy ciabatta bread are satisfying – the lamb tri-tip makes subtle use of horseradish, with sassy arugula and caramelized onion. The BBQ jackfruit sandwich is a bit of an odd duck – the sandwich is loud and in your face with a lightly dressed slaw, but the unique flavor of the jackfruit gets muted from the profusion of tomatoey BBQ sauce.

For the time being the beverages are limited to house-made sodas, but it is advised to save room for coffee and one of Status Kuo’s hand-made fried pies with a cup of French press coffee. Although Status Kuo is vegan-friendly, recovering meataholics may be a bit uncomfortable with the mammalian imagery, but the fare is accessible to vegans and omnivores alike. There are plans to further develop the menu, but the restaurant could do worse than to maintain the status quo.

Status Kuo
3809 Grand View Boulevard
Los Angeles CA 90066
GPS Coordinates: 34° 0’16.20″N 118°25’52.05″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s visit to Status Kuo in Mar Vista (Los Angeles), California

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

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