Saturday, March 31, 2007

Meet Me at 3rd and Fairfax: The Vendors

The Farmer's market at 3rd and Fairfax is Los Angeles' oldest outdoor market, open since 1934. Most people know it as a tourist attraction, or nowadays as part of the Grove megaplex. But Farmers market vendors pride themselves on the freshness of their products. Most of the prepared foods for sale are made right on the spot, often behind big plate glass windows so you can watch the candy being made and the ice cream churning.

As I mentioned in the last blog, I have a favorite route that I travel through the Farmer's market. It starts at Gate 4, on the North side, which takes you straight into the food court. If it is early in the morning, you might start with french toast from Charlies. On a Saturday morning, the line for this place can take forever. But usually I hit the Farmer's Market in the afternoon, in which case, go for the Gumbo Pot.

There are five "lanes" that run from East to West along the market. I like to walk up the second row, where you can find Marconda's meat market. They have meats that are particular to New Orleans cooking, and an incredibly smart assed counter man. We have had this exchange more than once:

"Tasso please"
"What did you call me???"

On my last visit, he discovered we both had the same credit card and used that to play an elaborate practical joke on me. If you are going to continue shopping, they will hold your purchase in the refrigerator for you. Oh, and they shape their sausage into little piggies. What more could you want?

Just next to the meat counter is the nicest produce in the market. But I usually save them for last, since fruit can get heavy, and I feel strange pushing around those green wooden shopping carts. Continue heading East between the two glass display counters of the Ultimate Nut and Candy. The candy counter on the right has very good sugar free candies, especially the English toffee. On your left is a counter for nuts and dried and candied fruit, which gets very busy during the holidays.

After passing a few trinket shops, you will see LittleJohn's Toffee House on the right, where you can watch them making candy in the window. They sell homemade marshmallows, which also come dipped in caramel or coconut.

At the end of the old Farmer's market you dead-end at the other food court. Tusquella's Fish and Oyster Bar, Bennett's Ice Cream and Patsy D'Amore's Pizza are all supposed to be very good, although I am usually full by this point. But sometimes I have just enough room for Bob's Coffee and Donuts, known for its cinnamon rolls and jelly donuts.

Then I head south. Huntingtons meat market, on the left, is not my favorite. But they do have freakishly huge and meaty ham hocks. You will never want to buy the ones at the grocery store ever again (Do you have pig's feet? Where do you buy your shoes?).

Next to Huntingtons is Monsieur Marcel Imports, which has a French deli with a nice selection of charcuterie, cheeses and wines, etc. Across the lane is their little French bistro, but I have not made it there on an empty stomach yet. Maybe my new year's resolution next year will be to enter the Farmer's market at a different entrance.

At this point, turn and head West. On the left is Tusquella's seafood. I have yet to buy their seafood, but they have New Orleans products there, so I always stock up on Creole mustard and fish fry.

On the right is Light My Fire, which stocks every kind of hot sauce and dried chili powder imaginable.

At the end of this lane, you dead-end at DuPars. Now is the time to wrestle with your conscience over whether or not to buy a pie. Then cross back just behind The Gumbo pot, which will bring you past Thee's Continental Bakery in case you need any baked goods. Just to the right of The bakery is The French Crepe Company, where my friends often choose to line up while I am off getting my catfish fix.

Exiting through gate 3 takes you between two produce stands. The Fruit Company on the left has a fantastic fruit salad, which seems pricey, but is worth it. Across the aisle, Farm Fresh Produce has fresh fruits in season; I especially love the bing cherries and figs. Sorry I don't have pictures of the gorgeous produce. Some guy had started a random conversation with me on this visit and was goading me into photographing the watermelon, which made me kind of nervous. In fact, lots of guys strike up random conversations with me at the Farmer's market, so it's probably a good place to troll if you are single.

Tips: There is a secret upstairs dining area on the north side if you can't find a table...They are busiest on weekends and Thursday nights when they have live music, and it can be hard to find parking...The Grove's parking lot does not accept validation from the Farmer's Market shops, so pick up a latte or stop by Crate and Barrel for validation if you park in the structure.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Meet Me at 3rd and Fairfax: DuPars

DuPar's has been a Farmer's Market institution since 1938. The Naylor family, as in Tiny Naylor's, reopened this location in December after what appear to be minor renovations, primarily the removal of the counter and the addition of an outdoor dining patio. Holding down the Southwest corner of the Farmer's Market, DuPars can be accessed through a secret back alleyway from the food court.

DuPars is one of those places that has made being trapped in a time warp cool. The pies are the same, the menu is the almost the same, and the waitresses are still wearing the same trippy old-fashioned uniforms.

DuPar's is known for their pancakes, but the real draw here is the pie. I have never had a real meal at this location. I have eaten at the Studio City location and wasn't that impressed. It was all your basic grub, nothing wrong with it, but nothing spectacular. The pies ARE spectacular. Like most places that you frequent often, I have a "route" that I travel through the Farmer's Market. It always starts with a catfish sandwich at the Gumbo Pot, and on special occasions, it ends at the outdoor to-go pie counter at DuPar's. Pies glisten like jewels under the glass, and the splurge is often irresistible. Luckily they sell some cute little mini-pies so you don't have to go whole-hog if you are guilty and indecisive. DuPars is willing to meet you half-way.

The other day I picked up a mini cherry cheesecake. The center is creamy and light; it is not a dense cheesecake. But it's not a bunch of whipped fluff either. It is just right. Even though they are smaller in diameter, the little pies are the standard height, so it cut up nicely into four normal-sized slices. Although there was some bickering as to the evenness of those slices.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Pie 'n Burger

I have been hearing about Pie 'n Burger for some time now. In the same location since 1963, it often receives votes for the best burger in LA and is known for its strawberry pie. In fact, Pie 'n Burger has been around so long that its diet plate of a burger patty, peach slices and cottage cheese has actually come into vogue again.

Today I finally had a meeting in Pasadena, not a quarter mile away from the place. Pie 'n Burger appears to be an unassuming little box from the outside, but once inside, you are transported back in time to a little old-fashioned California coffee shop, circa Nick at Nite. When the friendly waitress asked me what I wanted, I said, "Well, I guess I better have a pie n burger." She laughed gaily, as if I was the first person who had ever said such a thing. I was placing my order to go, but when she rattled off a list of about twenty-five different kinds of pie, my mind was blown. I thought, "Well, I'd better get a slice for my husband too". And when I thought about a slice of blueberry pie, it seemed like a sin to have it un a la mode, which would not have traveled well. So I did what I tend to do when faced with a wide array of choices - I ordered one old standard - banana cream pie, plus something daring - butterscotch. Then I asked for a slice of blueberry pie, heated, a la mode, to eat while I waited for them to cook my burger.

They asked me how I wanted my burger cooked, which was refreshing in this age of "always-cook-the hell-out-of-it-to avoid-food-poisoning". They grill their onions, so I asked for onions, ketchup and mayo. Burgers come standard with big leaves of iceberg lettuce, pickles, and thousand island dressing, so I went with it.

When my pie arrived, it could not have looked better tied with a giant bow. The flaky crust was fairly bursting with blueberries, and the entire pie was collapsing from the weight of two massive scoops of ice cream. The filling was especially sweet, and needed the balance of the cool vanilla ice cream. As I ate my pie, I chatted with the charming waitress. I liked the way her eyes shone when she talked about candy. Her slight Texas accent and wide-eyed charm, coupled with the old formica counter transported me back to a time and place when things were simpler. Not the actual, olden days when everything actually kind of sucked for most people, but an imaginary, romanticized "good old days" like you see on TV. As I dug into my purse for dollar bills to pay for the spontaneous added expense of three slices of pie, the waitress said, "That's OK if you don't have it." I did, but talk about the halcyon days of yore!

When I got home, the burger had cooled, but that did not affect its deliciousness in the least. It was dripping with a delicious, messy mix of condiments, the patty was charred and juicy, and the crunchy lettuce and sweet pickle made me kind of nostalgic. I don't remember the bun at all. I scarfed it down too fast to even notice. It wasn't memorable, which is maybe what the bun should be - just a vehicle for getting all of the other stuff into your mouth.

The cream pies were the worse for wear from the trip home. About and hour and a half after leaving the restaurant, the butterscotch pie had started to melt into a pool of unappetizing syrup. The banana cream pie held up better, but was more sweet than flavorful. Plus, I'm not big on meringue on cream pies - just my personal preference. So I would say, go for the hamburgers, go for the fruit pies, and definitely go for the good service and ambiance. If I lived nearby, Pie 'n Burger would probably be my home away from home.

They also serve breakfast. Oh, and as an added bonus, Pie n Burger has a wine shop in back. You can buy a bottle of wine or champagne and open it at your table to enjoy with your dinner. Might I suggest a nice Zinfandel to go with your chili size, and how about a Syrah for the rhubarb pie? Pie'n Burger 913 E. California Blvd. Cash and checks only.

Meet Me at 3rd and Fairfax: The Gumbo Pot

I was worried when they opened the monstrosity known as "The Grove" that my beloved Farmer's Market would be contaminated by it and die a slow, whimpering death. The closure of Dupar's for "renovation" did nothing to allay my fears. But now, well into the "Grove years" the Farmer's Market still shines as a beacon of good food in the face of the franchised blanding of America.

There are certain cravings I get that just cannot be satified by anything else. The Gumbo Pot's blackened catfish po'boy is one of the foods that often calls out to me with its siren song. So what if "blackening" is not a classic New Orleans dish, but is a technique invented by Paul Prudholme in the 80s! So what if it was EVERYWHERE in the 80s, like pesto in the 90s, and lemongrass recently. Blackened catfish ROCKS. And the Gumbo Pot is one of the few places in Los Angeles that actually has food that tastes anything at all like New Orleans. There is something about the bread - they say it's in the water, like New York pizza dough. I hear rumors of a place where you can buy that bread in South Central, but I haven't hunted it down yet.
The Gumbo Pot puts their own special twist on the catfish po'boy (I refuse to say they "kick it up a notch" no matter how appropos it is here), by sneaking in paper-thin slices of fresh lemon. Just writing this makes me want to eat one now. In fact, if you had one in your hand right now I would knock you down to get it without a second thought.

Their house salad is an ingenius balancing act of flavor...sweet candied pecans, vinegary homemade pickles, tart green apples, and a creamy buttermilk dressing over romaine. It is fucking amazing! You have to ask for the salad with apples. If you accidentally order the plain house salad, you cannot beg borrow or steal a green apple from them to save your life. I just about lost my mind once when the manager refused to let me buy green apple slices. But you know, that is how they do it in New Orleans. What you see is what you get. No substitutions. We are so spoiled in Los Angeles, with our orders like, "Ummm, geee, I can't decide between the chicken and the that line caught or farmed? Is the chicken grilled? Is it free-range? Organic? Yeah, can you do the chicken without the skin, on a bun instead of bread, oh, and can you put some pesto mayo on it? Oh, that would be great, thanks! Oh, and and can I get fresh fruit on the side instead of fries? You're a doll!" They don't put up with that crap in New Orleans. Your exchange would go something like this:

"Ummm, geee, I can't decide between the..."

"Y'all let me know when ya'll decide what ya want" (walks off)

So, that's kind of the gruff, take-no-shit attitude you can sometimes get at the Gumbo Pot (Actually, one of the guys is a sweetheart, and only one is super-gruff). But their food is so good it is worth it. They can treat me any way they want to, as long as they don't cut me off.

Really, most of their food kicks ass. The gumbos are smoky and intense, and their fried catfish is also a thing of beauty, as is the shrimp po'boy. As much as it pains me to admit it, their red beans and rice are even better than mine. And I pride myself on my red beans and rice. In fact, I am the queen of red beans and rice. But I just handed my pinball crown to him (How do you think he does it? I don't know!).

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Let's fry some catfish!


2 pounds fresh catfish filets
2 cups milk
2 eggs
10 dashes Tabasco sauce
1 Tablespoon yellow mustard
1 cup “fish fry” mix
½ cup cornmeal
½ cup flour
¾ cup cornstarch
2 Tablespoons Tony Chachere’s Cajun seasoning
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon garlic powder
Peanut oil

Slice catfish crosswise into 1-inch strips. The size and thickness of the strips will vary. That's OK. In a large Pyrex pan, whisk together milk, eggs, Tabasco and yellow mustard. Add the catfish pieces, turning to coat thoroughly. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in the refrigerator for at least half an hour.

In a medium-sized baking dish or pie pan, mix together fish fry, cornmeal, flour, cornstarch and seasonings. Gently dredge catfish pieces in dry mix and set aside.

In a large cast-iron pan, heat 2 inches of peanut oil to 350 degrees. The temperature of the oil is where most people have problems with frying. I flick a little bit of water into the pan and I can tell by the sizzle when it is right. Every time you add a piece of catfish, the oil should bubble furiously around it. If not, you are adding too many pieces too quickly and the oil is cooling. You will need to constantly adjust the fire during the frying process. For the right temperature, I need to keep the dial between 4 and 6 on my stove, but that may vary. It is best to use a thermometer until you get the hang of it. I find the Chinese wire deep frying tool used for woks invaluable for deep-frying.

Fry catfish in batches, being careful not to crowd the pan or the oil will cool. Fry the less thick pieces for about 2 minutes, and the thicker pieces for about 4 minutes, turning the pieces frequently.

Drain on paper towels, and dab with additional paper towels to soak up any grease.

Dip in Tartar sauce, Remoulade, or even mayonnaise spiked with Tabasco. Or make yourself a Po'Boy! (I had a lot of help with this recipe from someone known as "Big Daddy" on a Louisiana cooking site).

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Glory That is Burbank: Porto's


True, Porto's has been a Glendale institution for over 35 years, but last year saw the grand opening of its Burbank location. And we greeted them with open arms! The Portos family began their tradition of baking back in Cuba, and the second generation is now helping to run the business.

You enter the large bakery's corner entrance facing the barista. On your right is a long bakery case with a line snaking back and forth two or three rows deep, depending on the time of day. That is the line for cakes, and a wide assortment of breads and pastries. To your left is a shorter, single line and bakery case. Choose this line for sandwiches, and a smaller selection of pastries and breads. It is an "express line" for people who aren't ordering a large quantity of baked goods. If you order sandwiches or cafe con leche you are given a number. You wait for the cafe in front of the barista, and you wait for the sandwiches in the far left corner. In the far right corner is a special counter for custom ordering sheet cakes and wedding cakes. Learn the system, and you can be in and out surprisingly quickly, considering the crowds.

Porto's has too many selections for me to list, and even the list of specialties is extensive. They are famous for their potato croquettes and pastries with guava filling. But if I had to pick one item that is Porto's claim to fame, it would be the pastel de carne, the little meat pie. Savory ground beef is enclosed by a flaky crust that is a cross between a puff pastry and a pie crust. The top is brushed with a sweet glaze, which makes the pies unusual yet addictive. They make an excellent party appetizer, a steal at 50 meat pies for 25 dollars.

For my wedding cake, and for most of my birthday cakes, I have ordered the Cuban cake: Yellow sponge cake soaked in a light brandy syrup, with a guava filling. Be forewarned: the darker icings use an intense food coloring that turns everyone's mouths bright blue, or black, for the rest of the party. Sometimes this is kind of a fun thing to do on purpose.

I often stop by early in the morning for Cuban sandwiches - roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles layered on French bread still warm from the oven. No matter how early it is, the staff are always friendly and energetic. As soon as I started to take a picture of the bakery case, everyone started laughing and posing for my camera. The people who work at Porto's love their jobs; they are having a good time. Their happiness is highly contagious and often has me walking to my car, sandwiches and pastries in hand, with an extra little bounce in my step. 3614 W Magnolia. .

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Farfalla Trattoria


The Farfalla Trattoria in Los Feliz holds a special place in our hearts. We had dinner there on our very first real date-date and have celebrated most of our anniversaries there ever since. We once ran into Keith Morris just as he was leaving (he recommends the house specialty salad - greens and torn pieces of bread in a mustard dressing). Later, when we tried to pay our check, we were told that our dinner was "compliments of Mr. Morris." What a nice surprise for our anniversary. I have loved him for that ever since. Even if he does occasionally hassle me about my dietary habits. Thank God he doesn't read this blog or I would be totally busted.

Anyways, back to Farfalla...they used to close down between lunch and dinner. But now they are open from 11am to 10pm. Lucky for us, since we were able to stop in and pick up something to go after our tax appointment yesterday. Because it was a quiet inbetween time, I was able to catch a rare photo of their dining room without the usual bustle. I love this room, made cozy by the warm wood and brick, as well as the back wall of wine bottles. When seated along the outer edge, it is perhaps the most comfortable dining room in town. But if one is unlucky enough to be seated down the center, the constant passing and chair bumping by servers can be annoying. Now that we don't live in the neighborhood, we usually get our food to go and avoid the crowd.

Their pizza is similar to New York pizza, with a super-thin crust, light sauce and intensely concentrated flavors. I like the Margherita, but I am addicted to the pesto with goat cheese.

Their gnocchi is rivaled only by nearby Il Capricio's - light, delicate little pillows in a rich cream sauce with chicken and sun-dried tomatoes. Their pastas are interesting and well-balanced, and served in generous portions. I especially like the wild mushroom rigatoni in a light pink sauce. Bob likes the farfalla with salmon. The fish specials are always fantastic, as is the steak special, which is usually a T-Bone. The free-range chicken reminds you what chicken is supposed to taste like, and the sausage and polenta, although simple, is a favorite. In fact, you can't go wrong at Farfalla. I have never had a bad meal there. The only area that could use improvement is desserts, which aren't made on-site. They are ordered frozen from Sysco, the ubiquitous restaurant distributor (I recognized the desserts from a food show I attended). If they could get whoever is making their fantastic bread to make the desserts, they would be much better off. Of course then I might never leave. 1978 Hillhurst Avenue, Los Feliz.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fettucini con Pesto alla Trapanese

I had some Parma ham that we didn't end up using for the braciola the other day. So I thought I would improvise on a Pesto alla Trapanese. The original inspiration for the recipe came from the LA Times Food Section about ten years ago.


3 slices Parma ham
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 Tablespoons minced almonds
3 Tablespoons bread crumbs
1/2 cup coarsely chopped basil leaves
1 package fresh fettucini
2 Tablespoons white wine
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

Meanwhile, chop up the Parma ham. Fry it in the butter and olive oil. When it starts to get dark and a little crispy, add almonds and bread crumbs. Saute for 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the basil. saute for an additional 2-3 minutes while you cook the pasta..

When the water boils, add the fettucini and cook according to package instructions. Drain.

Deglaze the pan with white wine, add fettucini to the pan and toss. Serve topped with Parmesan.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


This morning I needed a nice, cozy place to treat myself to breakfast. Since I was near the Beverly Center I decided to just drive up 3rd street until something looked good. 3rd street is the au courant restaurant row, so I knew I would come across a familiar name sooner or later.

TOAST caught my eye, but parking was kind of a hassle. I don't know if they had the 4.50 valet parking at 9:30 in the morning, but it would be too weird to pay valet parking for breakfast.

TOAST is so hip I was concerned it might not be comforting enough, but in spite of them having the most attractive waiters I have ever seen, the service was friendly and down-to-earth. The atmosphere was homey, with whimsical touches like little cow statues. The tablecloths were a rough-hewn cotton with large visible stitches and quilted runners. For some reason, those tablecloths made me feel really good. I wanted to just curl up in them.

I watched fantastic-looking plates of food whizz by as the people at the next table discussed which Lexus they were getting. By the amount of meats and cottage cheese on the passing plates, it was clear Atkins is still going strong on the westside. At one table nearby, a girl was served her scrambled egg whites and turkey bacon as a giant plate of banana pudding french toast was set in front of her dining partner. I was thinking, "Wow. You must just hate your friend."

The menu has all of the standards, sometimes with a little twist, as well as more exotic choices. I went for the shakshuka, a Spanish sauce of onions, peppers, garlic and olives topped with eggs. I was not feeling adventurous enough for the Penne Matina "Penne pasta with scrambled eggs, turkey sausage, sun-dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives and feta cheese tossed in a light olive oil with fresh garlic and pesto." In fact, I can't imagine anyone wanting scrambled eggs and pasta for breakfast, except perhaps one of those Atkins dieters who had completely snapped and gone on a carb binge. True, spaghetti carbonara contains eggs, but I don't think it's quite the same thing.

The sauce was interesting without being too unusual, kind of like a Spanish Huevos Rancheros. The sourdough toast from the Normandy bakery was first-rate, and the home fries were crispy little cubes, like Potatoes O'Brien without the added distraction of onions and peppers. The most spectacular offering turned out to be the fresh fruit salad. Every single fruit was at its peak of ripeness, practically bursting with sweetness.

The lunch menu has the standard sandwiches, wraps and salads. There are some vegetarian choices, including the appealing-sounding Caprese sandwich. They also have a coffee bar with an extensive selection of coffees, smoothies and teas.

As I was waiting for my check, the guy at the next table was launching into a long story about CSI Miami. I couldn't tell if he was recounting a dream or if he had actually been on CSI MIami. Just your typical L.A. cafe.

Monday, March 19, 2007

It's Not Easy Being Green

We bucked tradition this year by making a nice braciola for St Pat's instead of corned beef and cabbage. I have a friend, Lori, who has been waxing nostalgic about her grandmother's cooking. I thought I would give her a little taste of Jersey when she came over to carpool to the party with us. I had been planning on riffing a little with some parma ham and pine nuts, but my husband was in the mood to cook. So instead he made the more straightforward version from "Rao's Cookbook:Over 100 Years of Italian Home Cooking." He threw in some meatballs and sausage, just the way Lori's grandmother used to do it.

We arrived at the party a little bit late, since I underestimated the time it would take to paint my entire body green. The club, Mr T's, was serving specialty drinks for the occasion, including one that I thought sounded awful, as well as being in very poor taste. It is a take-off on the sake bomb. It consists of a shotglass of whiskey and Bailey's dropped in a Guinness. It is called, tackily enough, the Car Bomb. I was advised, "You have to drink it fast or the Bailey's will curdle. Yum. We stuck with Sierra Nevadas instead.

After a long night of drinking and rocking out we decided we needed a snack. Every region has its own version of "drunk food". Here in Los Angeles it is tacos. La Estrella, a 24-hour taqueria is right down the street from Mr T's. There are a number of La Estrellas sprinkled around the Eastside and Pasadena. Some of them are just taco trucks with permanent signs erected in parking lots.

The quality seems to vary from stand to stand. Rumor has it that the couple who ran La Estrella separated, and divided the taco stands in the divorce. Rumor also has it that they split up the recipes in the divorce, so some of the stands are known for their fish tacos while others are known for their pastor. We were at a pastor La Estrella. Everyone I was with ordered carnitas burritos. I went for a triumverate of tacos: Al pastor, carnitas, and cabeza. Everyone was impressed at my derring-do in ordering cabeza, but meat is meat. Pig snout and fish cheeks are some of the greatest dishes in the world. While the carnitas were average, and the pastor was fantastic, I have to admit I will not be ordering the cabeza again anytime soon. The meat was tough little nuggets with gelatinous bits and gristle. Really, La Estrella's incindiary hot sauce is so intense that you can't taste the flavors of the different meats - it's all about texture.

The burritos are excellent, with fresh flour tortillas, a good balance of ingredients and pinto beans so large that this picture came out with a weird optical illusion that makes it look as if there are fingers in this burrito:

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Glory That is Burbank: Doughnut Hut


For years my friends have been urging me to visit the Doughnut Hut. It is apparantly some kind of mecca for cinnamon roll affecianados. I managed to resist the urge, because I do avoid doughnuts unless they suddenly pounce upon me when I am weak and unsuspecting. Another reason is the Doughnut Hut's sign - it is just plain cheesy. What's missing? U! But then one morning, my husband brought home a bag of the lightest, softest doughnuts, risen to have the perfect crumb. They are larger than the average doughnut that is cranked out by cookie-cutter (doughnut cutter?) chains, but they are so fresh that it's impossible to pick one up without leaving a noticable dent. The Doughnut Hut still follows the charming tradition of the "baker's dozen", even tossing an extra doughnut into the pink box when I only order a half-dozen. Now I am a fan and a convert. I love the Doughnut Hut. There goes my girlish figure. 10544 Magnolia Boulevard, Burbank.

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