Much Ado About Dunkin’

Dunkin’ Donuts
Santa Monica, California

The line stretching down Santa Monica's 12th Street

The line stretching down Santa Monica’s 12th Street

This is the city: Los Angeles. I work here. I carry a box of doughnuts. In a metropolitan area that nearly 12 million Angelenos and transplants call home, you would think a box franchise staking their tent would barely register a blip on the West Coast foodscape, but the recent opening of the first Dunkin’ Donuts in the area has polarized dough nuts across the Southland. Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A’s foray into Los Angeles would have gone largely unnoticed were it not for the tenets of its anti-gay management; Virginia’s Five Guys crept in and successfully convinced the locals to try a chain burger besides In-N-Out. Sonics are popping up, and it would not be surprising to find Whataburgers, White Castles, Shake Shacks, Portillo’s, or Culver’s setting up shop here in the near future. In the Boston area, another Dunkies opening would have simply created another obstacle in giving driving directions (there’s pretty close to one on every corner), but here in L.A. a strong anti-East Coast contingency is girding its loins for battle against this caffeine and confection behemoth.

The Manager's Special in SoCal blue

The Manager’s Special in SoCal blue

What is of curious interest is the legions making a big deal out of those making a big deal about DD’s presence here. For the doughnut dynasty’s opening in Santa Monica at the beginning of September, fans and the curious began lining up two days before the event. One could discount the first person in line, who held in their sights the promise of free coffee for a year, and the first 100 prize whores through the door who walked away with an orange Dunkin’ Donuts swag bag, but Angelenos’ heads were exploding, wondering why there would be a line around the block that persisted for days after the opening. Dunkin’ Donuts corporate office was not making any mistakes – three hours into the line (where I was) there was still a glut of sugary lumps of dough filling the trays behind the counter. Workers handed out loyalty cards; forms were distributed so that you could select your choice of sinkers to make up your dozen while waiting in line and have the box waiting for you when you reached the register; the full menu, including breakfast items, were available. The big brass were on hand, including president Paul Twohig (who designed the day’s Manager Special – a cake doughnut with blue frosting, Twohig’s favorite color) and VP of Operations Weldon Spangler, as well as a bakers’ dozen of news outlets and television stations.

DD's 1st venture back to SoCal in Camp Pendleton

DD’s 1st venture back to SoCal in Camp Pendleton

An impromptu poll by yours truly estimated that approximately 90 percent of those in line were East Coast expatriates (easy to pick out by their “Dunkie Junkie”, “Fluffernutter” or college T-shirts), possibly the most reviled demographic on the West Coast. Most of the outcry from the pitchfork-wielding villagers falls along the lines of, “We don’t want your kind here”, a sentiment echoed by local outlets such as Eater LA and LAist. Some media sources labeled those in line “hipsters”, although there was nothing even remotely similar about those waiting on a nostalgic bite of a Munchkin and the throngs who queued up for over four hours in the rain for a chance at getting an original New York-based Dominique Ansel Cronut at The Grove.  To put things in perspective, imagine a displaced Southlander living in the Big Apple, eschewing waiting an hour in line for a Shake Shack burger but camping out at the grand opening of an In-N-Out in Times Square.

The spoils of a 3-hour wait

The spoils of a 3-hour wait

So what is the appeal of Dunkin’ Donuts? Surely, even those who were nursed with a “regular” in a baby bottle will admit that Dunkies’ coffee is not the best by a long shot – the vended variety tends to be thin and bland. Part of their success in the coffee market is most likely attributed to what longtime caffeinator Juli Couture has dubbed “coffee for people who don’t like coffee” – it doesn’t have that just-burnt flavor that permeates every cup of Starbucks’ brew, and costs considerably less. And what of the doughnuts? There’s nothing spectacular about them – they’re about on par with Winchell’s or Yum Yum; in fact, there are superior doughnuts to be found on Dunkin’ Donuts’ home turf, including Kane’s in Saugus, Massachusetts. Gone are the days when Michael Vale’s Fred the baker let us know it was “time to make the doughnuts”, or DDs advertised their sinkers as “fresh every four hours” – most stores in metropolitan areas are supplied from distribution centers rather than having the doughnuts baked on site.  The phenomenon makes sense once you travel out of Southern California – in addition to the high concentration in New England, there are almost half of the 10 thousand-plus outlets located outside the United States.

A cop car in front of the original DD in Quincy MA

A cop car in front of the original DD in Quincy MA

The bottom line is that Dunkin’ Donuts has been an East Coast comfort food since 1950, and the teeming masses who emigrated to the land of swimming pools and movie stars from Maine down to New Jersey are happy to clamor to relive a part of their past, despite it not having a high class pedigree. They will have a hard time winning over the natives who think that Dunkin’ Donuts has Donut Man, Nickel Diner, or the appropriately named Donut Snob in their crosshairs, although DD has the unbridled audacity to set up shop a block in either direction from Starbucks and Krispy Kreme. There’s nothing to be afraid of – it’s a cup of coffee and a doughnut folks, and they’re not trying to inject it with foie gras mousse.

Dunkin’ Donuts
1132 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica CA 90401
GPS Coordinates: 34° 1’30.10″N 118°29’26.78″W

GALLERY: See images from the opening of Dunkin’ Donuts in Santa Monica CA and elsewhere

VIDEO: See what Val told Wendy Burch at KTLA Los Angeles about DD’s appeal (5th video down)

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Little Italy

Locanda Positano
Marina del Rey, California

Bread with three flavors of olive oil

Bread with three flavors of olive oil

Locanda Positano is a dot on the commercial stretch of Lincoln Avenue that runs from Marina del Rey through Santa Monica; you might just miss this tiny gem if you blink. The fare is southern Italian, reflecting Chef Michelangelo Pinto’s Old World origins (Positano is a 60 kilometer drive from his native Naples); the menu changes every month or so, with a Speciali del Giorno menu that is as substantial as the regular menu. Chef Pinto and paisano partner Paolo Scovolo opened the bistro in 2009; from the street, Locanda Positano presents a diminutive Mediterranean façade. The small dining room is a meld of rustic Italian and modern decor, with pictures of its namesake Positano hanging from the walls. The kitchen delineates the space, with a more austere back room that handles overflow on busy nights; diners are treated to a view of the climate-controlled wine room.

Rustic meets modern decor

Rustic meets modern decor

The restaurant prides itself on using local and sustainable produce, with much of it coming from the local farmers markets; the meat is sturdy and flavorful, with Italian favorites such as Piedmontese beef and wild boar; pasta is made in-house (including a gluten-free penne and tagliatelle). The obligatory bread basket arrives at the table with lemon, spice, and herb-infused olive oils, and the staff is adepts at pairing your selection with a fine Italian vintage. Locanda Positano’s Tagliere de Antipasto Misto features an amazing assortment of charcuterie, accompanied by olives and pickled vegetables – expect to see speck, bresaola, Salame Felino sharing a plank with buffalo mozzarella, Gorgonzola and a spicy Pecorino with pistachio and pepper.

Pappardelle al Cinghiale (wild boar pasta)

Pappardelle al Cinghiale (wild boar pasta)

With octopus, lamb, veal and a variety of other meats on the menu, carnivores may find selecting the appropriate hearty entree daunting, but Locanda Positano’s wild boar appears nightly and is not to be missed. This delicacy is available ossobuco over saffron risotto, or braised and served over pappardelle noodles – the tangy, tender meat is braised and then oven-roasted in wine for 5 hours; the reduction in the pan is used for the murky sauce that infiltrates the dish.  Forget the stereotypical cannoli and finish the experience with a house-made panna cotta with fresh berries or tiramisu accompanied by a sturdy caffè or sweet dessert wine.

In a city where authentic Italian cuisine is as rare as a 1998 Quintarelli Amarone, keeping an eye out for this piccolo ristorante is worth the unparalleled Mediterranean experience along the Pacific Coast Highway.

Locanda Positano
4059 Lincoln Boulevard
Marina del Rey CA 90292
GPS Coordinates: 33°59’20.01″N 118°26’47.47″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s dinner at Locanda Positano in Marina del Rey CA

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

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Count Chocuchicken

Choco Chicken
Los Angeles, California

Choco Chicken holds court with duck fat fries and a bacon-laced biscuit

Choco Chicken holds court with duck fat fries and a bacon-laced biscuit

Ever since Hershey orchestrated pedestrian accidents involving chocolate and peanut butter, the mashups have been escalating in a no-holds-barred free-for-all that have made the Luther Burger, Dominique Ansel’s Cronut™, Keizo Shimamoto’s Ramen Burger™, and KFC’s Double Down® household words and cash cows. Whereas most of these Frankendishes have originated on the East Coast, Los Angeles is making brown renowned downtown with the birth of the latest engineered melds of great tastes that taste great together, Choco Chicken. Southern California restaurant impresario Adam Fleischman has partnered with Keith Previte and brainchild Sean Robins (who imagined the not-so-farfetched idea of chocolate and chicken together after an undecided craving for mole and fried chicken).

The Choco Chocolate Martini with its little brother, Choco Colada

The Choco Chocolate Martini with its little brother, Choco Colada

While their brown, gooey logo features a brown yard bird head (and no, that cut is not on the menu), Sonny the Cuckoo Bird is not the only menu item that gets the chocolate treatment. Most of Choco Chicken’s libations are treated with a liberal application of chocolate; while The Angry Cock deserves a try simply on name alone (deriving its name from the inclusion of Fighting Cock Bourbon blended with White Crème de Cacao cordial), the drink of choice is the Choco Chocolate Martini. Don’t be chicken; this rich concoction is like Yoo-hoo for adults – Godiva milk chocolate, vanilla, and dark chocolate give the drink its comfortable Hershey juice box flavor, while a shot of espresso mochanizes it. The drink gets its kick from Grey Goose vodka and Frangelico, creating a beverage that is perfect with fried chicken but could be drunk for dessert by itself.  For the daring teetotaler, they’ll be happy to reach under the bar and grab you an ice-cold Chocolate-Covered Maple Smoked Bacon Soda from Real Soda, but I’d recommend adding a shot of mescal to help it go down.

Decor befitting of its watering hole heritage

Decor befitting of its watering hole heritage

Many of the menu items are still in the experimental stage – a Choco Chicken meatball sandwich was dropped after a posthumous “what the hell were we thinking” session. Currently, traditional-style fried chicken is the du jour star of the menu – each cut of the Jidori chicken is brined for days and then coated with a recipe that has more Homeland Security on it than the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices; suffice it to say that a hefty portion of the ingredients include Coco Suisse cocoa powder. The dry coating gives the hint of mole, but is a whole different animal – texturally, this is fried chicken at its finest (although not particularly crispy). The deep brown color initially gives the impression that the chicken was left in the Frialator a bit too long, but the first bite allays that concern.

The cold truth - morning after Choco Chicken

The cold truth – morning after Choco Chicken

Apparently wings haven’t worked out – dishes include thighs, breasts, “drumettes” or combinations thereof with inventive sides such as mashed potatoes laced with gobs of white chocolate, cocoa-dusted Parmesan spicy fries, or an outstanding caramelized bacon-laden biscuit made in-house. Hell, even the vegetables get the chocolate treatment – nibbles from a cup of crudité reveal a distinctive chocolate-spice dusting. Most of the dishes are accompanied by dipping sauces made on the premises including chocolate ketchup that hints at sweet barbecue sauce, and The Bee Sting, a sweet dip made with honey and habanero. Rest assured that the takeout passes the frat house next-day fridge feast test with flying colors; it’s just as good cold, although the texture changes as would be expected.

A moon pie cleverly disguised as "Electric Chocolate S'mores"

A moon pie cleverly disguised as “Electric Chocolate S’mores”

Obviously chocolate makes an appearance on the dessert menu – you can go old school with a chocolaty ice cream from L.A. Creamery or succumb to the indulgence of the Electric Chocolate S’mores, a decadent moon pie from Cake Monkey Bakery topped with a cocoa-dusted meringue. The former Corkbar location on a corner not far from the Staples Center doesn’t beckon with flashy neon and lights, so it may take a bit for people to discover this unique gem, but once you get your first taste and realize that the flavor transcends the novelty, you’ll be cuckoo for Choco Chicken.

Choco Chicken
403 W 12th Street
Los Angeles CA 90015
GPS Coordinates: 34° 2’25.38″N 118°15’48.02″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s visit to Choco Chicken in downtown Los Angeles

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

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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

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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.

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