The Tao Of Taos

Taos Pueblo, New Mexico

Hlaukkwima (South House), America's 1st apartment building

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 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

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

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

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.

Taos Pueblo
120 Veterans Highway
Taos NM 87571
GPS Coordinates: 36°26’17.22″N 105°32’49.47″W

GALLERY: See images from Val’s visit to Taos Pueblo in New Mexico

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You Only Live Twice

Papoo’s Hot Dog Show/Umami Burger/Honeybaked Ham
Burbank, California

Papoo's Hot Dog Show (top), Umami Burger (bottom)

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

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

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

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

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!

Umami Burger (formerly Papoo’s Hot Dog Show)
4300 West Riverside Drive
Burbank, CA 91505
GPS Coordinates:  34° 9’7.31″N 118°20’47.72″W

Honeybaked Ham
10106 Riverside Drive
Lake Toluca Lake CA 91602
GPS Coordinates:  34° 9’7.33″N 118°21’3.40″W

 GALLERY: See images from Val’s visit to what was once The Hot Dog Show and its resurrection as Umami Burger in Burbank CA

VIDEO: Watch Val and Chef Jay Terauchi set of in search of the elusive Show Dog on Trippy Food Episode 7 on YouTube


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Top Of The Pops

Galco’s Soda Pop Stop
Los Angeles CA

Cases of soda and beer to supply the masses

Cases of soda and beer to supply the masses

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

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

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

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

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

GALLERY: See images from Val’s visit to Galco’s Soda Pop Stop and the bottles he brought home

VIDEO: Watch Trippy Food on YouTube as Val goes shopping for unusual sodas from Galco’s and then does a soda tasting:

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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.

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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

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