Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Leimert Park Eats: Shabazz Good Foods

It may look like your average, everyday taco truck, but the Shabazz Good Foods truck is not slinging the usual carnitas. Every Sunday, you can find their truck parked on 43rd and Crenshaw at Leimert Plaza Park. They sell not only the infamous bean pies, but blueberry cream pies, pineapple cream pies, and a few soulful lunches.

The red snapper sandwich is the easiest thing to eat in the park, and probably your best option. The chicken wings start at 5 dollars for 10 wings. They come with french fries that are about what you would expect from a truck. Both the snapper and wings are deep-fried, with a tight seal and crisp coating. Beneath the cornmeal coating is a boiling hot grease bomb waiting to explode. Be cautious biting into the meat until it has cooled, or it will be like Squirt gum of fire. After the initial bite, the greasiness is not too pronounced, and the meat is hot and tender.

The Shabazz restaurant in Leimert Park has been closed to walk-in business. They are now a center of operations for the bustling catering operation. 2618 W Martin Luther King Jr. Los Angeles, CA 90008-2745 Phone: (323) 295-5469.

For a sit-down meal, you need to head over to their restaurant on Crenshaw and Imperial. 2636 W Imperial Hwy Inglewood 90303

If you can't find the Shabazz truck, you can always find the bean pie man and at least get your pie fix.

Some people are unfamiliar with bean pies and are understandably wary, but people who won't eat them are truly missing out. A bean pie is very similar to a sweet potato pie. The ingredients may be unfamiliar, but it's really no stranger than carrot cake or pumpkin pie.

The Shabazz Bakery is connected to the The Nation of Islam, and some people have issues with supporting them in any way. I figure that I give so much money to the man, what's a few dollars to the other side of the coin? A bean pie is a bean pie is a bean pie.

From Wikipedia:

The Tribe of Shabazz refers to an ancient Black nation in Africa, according to the oral history of some enslaved Africans in America. It is found primarily in the writings of Wallace Fard Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad, and the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X adopted Shabazz as his surname to honor his membership in the tribe.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Leimert Park Eats: M&M Soul Food

When people think of Leimert Park, they usually focus on Leimert Plaza Park and the one block of Degnan to the north. But the neighborhood of Leimert Park encompasses the eastern side of Crenshaw Boulevard, including Crenshaw and King Blvd all the way north to Rodeo Road. M&M Soul Food sits right beneath one of the blue signs delineating the Leimert Park neighborhood.

When you see a soul food restaurant on television, nine times out of ten it is going to be M&M Soul Food. They are one of the most visible soul food restaurant in Los Angeles, along with Roscoe's and Stevie's. At one point they seemed to be opening up an M&M on every corner. As one person on the Chowhound board put it, "They are determined to become the Denny's of South Central."

M&M Soul Food really is like Denny's in more ways than one.

Like Denny's, the best meal you will find here is breakfast. Thick, fluffy, almost bread-like waffles and homemade biscuits are sure to please. Staples such as grits and eggs are cooked just right, which is not as common as it should be. M&M offers a wide variety of meats with breakfast, including hot links, liver, salmon croquettes and chicken wings. My favorite by far is the fried catfish. Only in New Orleans and South Los Angeles am I able to eat catfish for breakfast. Served as a whole fish, the bones can be perilous, but the filet lifts off easily. The exterior is crunchy and satisfying, while the meat is flaky and fresh. I must warn you that everything comes with a big pat of margarine unless you request otherwise. The ice tea is sweet tea and the lemonade might make your teeth hurt. This is Mississippi soul food, after all.

Also like Denny's, the cooking here can be uneven. Everything depends upon knowing which dishes to order. The fried fish and the moist barbecued chicken are outstanding. The chicken is one of the things that has kept me coming back to M&M. The BBQ ribs, however, just can't stand up to ribs that have been smoked for hours over real wood chips. And when Phillips is just a few blocks away, there is no reason to bother. The smothered dishes suffer from an uninspired and salty gravy.

Where M&M pulls it back together is with the side dishes. Their yams are the rock star of the vegetable world. I have tried to duplicate them, and I believe they are boiled in a simple syrup of sugar and water for hours. The greens, mac and cheese and red beans are also stellar. Some days it is worth stopping in just to order the "vegetable plate".

The baked goods are made at the M&M on Imperial and brought in daily. The banana pudding is unpredictable. The nilla wafers are crunchy on top and mushy in the middle, so it's the luck of the draw. The peach cobbler is supersweet soul food at its best.

Word has it that there are "some M&M you go to, and others you don't." Originally, the M&M empire was owned by a woman named Mary, who has since passed on. When she retired, she sold some of the restaurants to Patrick Brown. He runs this M&M and another one on Crenshaw and Imperial. Mary's son runs the M&M on Centinela and the one in Carson. Most or all of the others have closed down. There was also a popular, but unrelated, "rogue" M&Ms on Degnan that recently went out of business.

The food is good, in some cases excellent, The service is efficient, and perfunctorally friendly. Something just feels off about M&M. It can't shake the anonymous feeling of a Denny's. Perhaps a local shopkeeper put it best when she told me, "It just seems like nobody loves that place."

M&M Soul Food (323) 299-0982
3552 W MLK Blvd. LA CA 90008

Leimert Park Eats: Ackee Bamboo

A favorite of locals and a darling of restaurant reviewers, Ackee Bamboo on Degnan helps to alleviate LA's need for some good Jamaican food. Kingston-born proprietress Marlene Sinclair and her husband Delroy serve up generous portions to the hungry customers who are often making a special pilgrimage to Leimert Park just to try her jerks and curries.


Curried Goat

The oxtails may be the best I've ever eaten. Of course, oxtails are kind of like sex. The last one always seems like the best one. And it was fantastic. The short ribs are also exceedingly tender. Ackee Bamboo starts off with excellent cuts of meat, treats them well and spices with a delicate hand. Goat meat leans towards toughness, and is an easy dish to ruin. The care and long braise it receives here yields a much more tender result. Although I've had hotter curries, the meat is far superior to any other I've tried. The jerk chicken is served with an excess of the traditional paste of ground peppers, herbs and spices. The paste acts as a sauce, so the chicken is almost stewed, rather than the more common dry finish we usually see on jerks in the United States. The talapia filet is cooked in a similar sauce. In fact, if there is any criticism to be made against Ackee Bamboo, it is that some of their dishes taste exactly the same. But when sameness is delicious, why complain?

Short Ribs

Jerk Chicken

The festival bread is addictive, although like any fried bread, the quality quickly deteriorates once you take it home. The bland rice and peas (actually beans) are a welcome relief from the heat of the main dishes. The cabbage has been cooked long enough to remove all pungency and is cleverly mixed with shredded carrots, whose sweetness not only complements, but improves the overall flavor of the cabbage. Callaloo is cooked like greens, but is milder, without a trace of bitterness. It is almost like a heartier strain of spinach.

The square patties are flatter and larger than the typical half-moon pastries. The beef patties are surprisingly hot, with a slightly acidic undertone. The chicken patties are made with ground chicken, and surprised me by surpassing the beef in flavor. The vegetable patties immediately cause me to regress to a six-year-old child with a mouthful of spinach. Another palate will have to judge that one, along with the ackee and salt fish.

They serve all manner of interesting bottled juices and drinks. The romantically named Honey Punch is a combination of fruit juices and honey, the most dominant flavors being lemon, strawberry and pineapple. Sipping the Lychee-Pineapple juice was like drinking out of a hummingbird feeder, and the June Plum juice is probably an acquired taste. Ginger beer burns with ginger, so it may not be the best match for spicy dishes. They have a pink version of Ting, the national soda of Jamaica. Ting is a grapefruit soda that would probably go well mixed with gin.

Located in a pretty square across from 5th Street Dick's Cafe, Ackee Bamboo's decor is homey and easygoing. Everything is spotless. You need a key to use the restrooms outside, but the restrooms are also sparkling clean. The practical furniture doesn't invite lingering, but this may be the one of the few places in town that gets you in and out before your lunch hour is over. That doesn't mean you have to rush off. People hang out on the comfortable couch or at the patio tables outside, greeting friends as they pass and giving the restaurant a warm, neighborly feel.

Ackee Bamboo (323) 295-7275
4305 Degnan Blvd. Ste 100 LA CA 90008

Monday, December 10, 2007

Kiki Meets Jonathan Gold!

Ever since I started writing food reviews, I have been haunted by Jonathan Gold. I would be researching pho for a post, and come across one of his articles, "Cinnamon, anise and the funk of simmering beef, the soup's unmistakable signature, perfumed the air." Sometimes Jonathan Gold just makes me want to stick a fork in my head.

I used to play "Restaurant Roulette" on Ventura Boulevard, where I would just stop at random eateries. One day I decided to start at one end and eat my way down Ventura, restaurant by restaurant. A month into my project, Bob and Lindsay were discussing the fact that "the next street Jonathan Gold is going to eat his way down is in North Hollywood." What? Gold already did it? He ate his way down Pico when he was 20? No!
Last night when the Society for Professional Journalism invited Gold to their mixer, the opportunity was just too good to pass up.

When we arrived at the event, the Redwood Bar and Grill's nautical interior made me feel like I was in the Krusty Crab. The weird little downtown bar was packed and they had a fantastic assortment of beers. We headed towards the back, where a tiny, packed room full of fans was was listening, rapt, to Gold's advice. There were only about 40 people crammed in there, so it was not as overwhelming as I had anticipated. Gold was fielding questions from the crowd, which were very hard to hear over the Journey cranking out of the bar. So if I misquote anything, blame it on Steve Perry.

Gold said some of the things that restaurant reviewers do that bother him is to use the first person in a self-important manner and to impart information in a condescending fashion. It is one thing to simply answer the question, "Is the restaurant good or not?" But it is important to remember that we are entertainers as well. It is easy to write about food; it is hard to write about eating.

That was exactly what I needed to hear. I may never wax poetic about Suzanne Goin teasing out the flavor from a tomato with the precision of a sushi master, but at the very least I have my own perspective, and that alone validates my writing. I may not be grammatically perfect, pithy and mellifluously flowing with Tom Robbins-esque metaphors. But I have observational skills bordering on OCD, a freakishly sensitive palate, and I think I'm fucking hilarious sometimes. I seem to attract trouble and my stories of being run over by rats and chased out of restaurants by crazed chefs have their place within this genre.

Someone asked Gold whether or not he takes notes. He said he seemed to have some kind of mental illness that prevents him from remembering a name he heard 15 minutes ago, but allows him to remember a dish he ate 10 years ago and whether they had used parsley or chervil. Then he spoke at length about the responsibility of critiquing. A bad review can close a mom-and-pop place down. It is different than movie reviews, where they have the backing of large corporations. I had not planned on participating, but it was such a perfect segue. So I asked, "Like the pizzle incident?"

He laughed, "Oh, you remember that?"
"Yes, and whether it had parsley or chervil."
People around me asked, "What is pizzle?"
I said, "Penis." Then I continued addressing Gold, "And by the way, I think I may have eaten pizzle in France, and thanks to you I knew the word for it. So I will be forever grateful to you for that. So did that incident change the way you wrote? Has it made you hold back sometimes?"
"What do you mean?"
"Didn't you get a restaurant closed down by reporting that they served pizzle? Or is that an urban legend?"
He replied, "Well, not because of that. Oh no. It's legal to sell pizzle. You can go to the Ranch market and buy one. It's like a big bullwhip."

This information filled my head with so many ideas all at once that it almost burst.

Then there were a few more questions from the audience that I have forgotten, because I was thinking up the various ways to serve pizzle. Would you have to devein it like a shrimp? (I'm sorry, am I making you boys uncomfortable?)

When they ended the Q&A, everyone descended upon the cornered writer. I debated holding back until the first wave had passed, but I decided I'd better get my photo in case the chance didn't present itself again. He said I could take his photo only if it wouldn't be posted on the internet. So I took it with no flash so it would be more flattering and he agreed (Very pale redheads must use these tricks. Meanwhile, Kevin was on the job in the background and got an even more attractive picture). Then I introduced myself, and without a moment's hesitation, he said, "You wrote the thing on the Masque." Wow. He does have a good memory.

I wandered around chatting with a few other people, then it seemed like the room had cleared out. Gold was speaking with two other people, so I thought I would just go eavesdrop. As usual, my vow to keep my mouth shut was almost immediately broken. I asked Gold why he had switched from writing about music to food. He said he had always written about both. But a pivotal moment occured late at night in a rock band's hotel room. The band was comprised of prep school kids who had dropped out to become musicians. All he could think was, "Your poor parents."

At the bar, people were recommending their favorite out-of-the-way places to him all night long, which must happen to him incessantly. It must be a nightmare. I added to someone's shocked query,"You mean you haven't been to every single restaurant in LA yet?" He responded, overwhelmed, "There are over 30,000 licensed restaurants in LA." First of all, it is very impressive that he knew that statistic off-the-cuff. Secondly, I just made the quoted statistic up because I can't remember the number he really said.

I realized that people must constantly challenge him, like a prizefighter. It must be weird to be the fresh meat in town. The tables have turned; interviewer has become interviewee. I may feel like I have to live up to Jonathan Gold, but he's got to live up to that Pulitzer.

I asked one last question before we hit the road, "Is there anything you won't eat?"
"Scrambled eggs."
The crowd murmured in disbelief.
"I have the same aversion to them that I have to peanut butter sandwiches. I remember very clearly the moment I told my mother (and here he switches into British pukka) "Mother, this is the very last time I shall ever eat an egg."
One of the group cleverly remarked, "Back when you were an 18th century English schoolboy?"

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Leimert Park Eats: Cafe Soul

As Lou Reed put it, "The first thing you learn is you always gotta wait." But when you are jonesing, you are always willing to wait. And the catfish at Cafe Soul definitely brings the jones down on me.

Cafe Soul opened this past October in the location that was formerly home to the Kitchen on 43rd Place. The changeover was so fast, I'm not sure the restaurant even closed its doors. Cafe Soul is retaining the Kitchen's recipes and menu. They are even still serving the Kitchen's "red pop" off the menu, which is actually red Kool-Aid. And yes, they are still serving the famous curry chicken. At this time it does not look like they will continue hosting jazz bands in the small upstairs area, but you never know.

I have been waiting for catfish like this for a long time - light, flaky fish with a tight, sandy cornmeal coating. The greens, which use lamb instead of pork, can be unpredictable. Most days, they are a contender for the best greens in town. However, on one visit they definitely tasted "off". The short ribs fall off of the bone at the slightest touch, and they are blanketed with what may be the most complex, flavorful gravy I have ever encountered. The macaroni and cheese has a nice, crispy cheddar crust and thick custard. The fried chicken can be a bit greasy, unlike the catfish which is stellar every time. They serve chicken and waffles all day, and when you're strapped for cash, there are a few dishes charitably priced at $3.50.

The kitchen can be slow when there is only one person running the place. Most of the food is cooked from scratch, so this is not the place to go when you're in a hurry.

Cafe Soul is open until 10pm Monday through Thursday, and until midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, which is fantastic news for people visiting the World Stage around the corner. They close at 8pm on Sundays. But since the drum circle brings in the crowds, the kitchen tends to run out of menu items as Sunday afternoon fades into evening.

I am not too worried about Cafe Soul's minor flaws. Considering the speed of the takeover and the hindrance of an insufficient staff, I am confident that once this place finds its legs and rhythm, it will be the star of the neighborhood.

Even though I occasionally want to interrupt the cook, like to ask for my drink while we wait, she is always so busy in the kitchen that I feel like I need to just stay in my seat with my hands politely folded in my lap.

Somehow when I'm sitting in the Soul Cafe I feel as though I am at my aunt's house for dinner. The vibe is warm and comfortable, but you also get the vague sense that you had better behave yourself. Dinner will be ready when it's ready.

Cafe Soul (323) 299-7797
3347 1/2 West 43rd Place LA CA 90008

Thursday, November 15, 2007

LA International Tamale Festival

A few weeks ago, I wandered over to MacArthur Park and hit the tamale festival! I was even thinking about going back again the next day for the one treat I missed, and then I realized that I would have to be crazy to do that. Besides tamales, there were tortas, tacos, pupusas the size of LP records, and even some new things I had never ever seen before!

Let the fun begin!

friendly tamale goddess
I personally feel like tamales are like meatloaf. The tamale you grew up with is the tamale by which you judge all other tamales. It doesn't matter if it was from the church, a neighbor, the lady with the grocery cart, or if you are lucky, your family (and if you are unlucky, the grocery store. Poor thing).

The first stand we tried were the tamales from one of the event organizers, Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe. They definitely had friendly servers, in spite of the long day and long lines.

As for the tamales, the masa was extremely fluffy with good texture, but they weren't like MY tamales. I add red sauce and the pan drippings to my masa to make it heavier and richer. So fluffiness is not my thing, but I know that is many people's preferred style. They seemed to be overwhelmed, as was every booth. They needed about 10 more food vendors. Each line was about 30 people long.

The tamales suffered a little for the overwhelming rush. They were uneven (as homemade tamales usually are). The masa in Bob's chile verde tamale was still mushy and raw. he returned it for a chicken with green sauce, and was happy with that. I thought my beef with pasilla was a little skimpy on the meat and heavy on the masa. Of course, that again is relative and I know people who will argue about the proper masa vs. filling ratio for much longer than you care to listen. The mole tamale was fair to middling.

But Mama's chile queso tamale blew me away. It was the perfect tamale. Lots of cheese and just the right kick from red jalapenos. The cheese kind of reminded me of Asadero, the cheese in the market that is just labeled "Quesedilla". I tried to find out what kind of cheese it was. They said, "Jack" but it was too stringy and rich. Finally I asked an old lady inside if it was queso fresco and she nodded. I am thinking Chihuahua maybe? Maybe it was a combo of different cheeses. That is definitely the tamale to go for if you only have one tamale this year.

Tamales innards do not photograph well. hence my hesitation with the tamale eating contest. This is the beef tamale I tried to cut open daintily with my jagged plastic fork:

He is so patient.

There was entertainment all day. Some of the daytime performers didn't get much of a crowd. Some of them were upstaged by the giant sign. But he had heart.

Unlike some street festivals, the streets were kept clean of debris and trash didn't pile up. In spite of a lack of tables, the park has so many walls to sit on, and of course there was grass. Some people just plopped right down on the curb.

All of the food vendors had really long lines. So we made lots of new friends. One of my new friends showed up with this tamale and was very unhappy. I bit a crispy edge, and I think it was overcooked rather than intentionally crispy. I didn't want to just tear apart this person's food, and the only way she could describe it was, "wrong." Most Central American tamales differ in size, wrappings and fillings, like green olives. I have certainly never seen a big, flat tamale before.

My new friend also turned me on to a whole new world: Cueritos Preparados. They take one, giant chicharrón and cover it with a salad and cueritos, which is pork skin marinated in vinegar. Pork skin on pork skin. It would be a lifesaver for anyone on the Atkins diet. Both the chicharrónes and Tostada bag in these pictures are perched on big jars of cueritos.

And if a giant Chicharrón is too inconvenient, you can have it served in a bag of Tostitos to easily eat while walking around the festival.

This is probably the most impressive flame and resultant smoke cloud i have seen come off of a grill. Now, that's a fire!

By the time I got to the front of the Mexico Lindo line, I discovered they didn't have tamales. But I didn't care because everything else looked so good. Especially my guilty pleasure - the bacon and jalapeno dog. The bacon makes the meaty dog even richer, greasier and smokier. This is the hotdog of the gods. Screw Pink's and everyone else. This will be my last meal if I ever go on that killing spree.

They also had the world's biggest pupusas, but I just couldn't hang. Besides the hotdog, I also got a taco pastor that was fantastic (and they let me dress it myself).

This guy must have been important, because he walked around back and all of the vendors gave him food. He was still cool enough to let me photograph his stash. Speaking of dignitaries, there was a list of invited city councilmembers on the website, and it was like a scavenger hunt for me trying to catch Tom LaBonge stuffing his face with tacos, or Bernard Parks going Chicharrón Wild. But no such luck. Maybe they will be in the tamale eating contest tomorrow!

That guy's stash turned me on to the shrimp cocktails and tostadas at Mi Linda Sinaloa.

Between eating binges, I wandered around taking lots of pictures of ducks and trees. I became fascinated with the vendors, and that will have to be its own post. I couldn't resist these children either, breaking my own rule about photographing children without asking their parents first. The second kid looks like he might have been being abducted, so maybe I am off the karmic hook.

cotton candy

Every fisherman has a story about the one that got away. By the time I made it back to Mexico Lindo during my rounds, the gigantic tortas were gone.

Look at them; they're monsters!