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.
Galco’s Soda Pop Stop
5702 York Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90042
GPS Coordinates: 34°7'6.86"N 118°11'35.79"W
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
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
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
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.
3600 W. 6th Street
Los Angeles CA 90020
GPS Coordinates: 34° 3'48.48"N 118°18'1.74"W
Papaya saladMae Ting's Coconut CakesLos Angeles, California
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
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
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
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
Sierra Madre Wistaria FestivalSierra Madre, California
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
2460 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica CA 90403
GPS Coordinates: 34° 2'6.50"N 118°28'41.90"W
LIVE FAST (Fashion, Art, Sex and Travel) is an independent cultural magazine delivering exclusive fashion editorials, interviews with up & coming and established artists, and conversations about sex and travel