Monday, May 21, 2007

Has Aroma Called Back Yet?

Have you ever gone out with someone who was so attractive that you were never really sure if you were good enough for them? And sometimes they treated you like shit because they knew they could get away with it? But you kept going back, no matter what, because they were really, really good in bed? I think that is what is happening between me and Aroma Coffee and Tea. Aroma is my bad boyfriend.

The service at this precious little restaurant on Tujunga has always been perfunctory, but I didn’t mind being ignored as long as my basic needs were being met (sounding dysfunctional yet?). I secretly enjoyed the feeling that I could probably commit a crime, right there, and they would just continue ignoring me. I mean, after all, they cater to celebrities, and there is a yoga studio next door. If I were a famous starlet coming in all trashed on oxycontin, or showing up all sweaty after Bikram yoga, I would definitely want to be treated as if I were invisible.

The first time I sat in the shaded, leafy patio, I felt so at home. The other customers were friendly and chatty, but not in an invasive way. Although the patio is absolute perfection, that is not the reason to swoon over Aroma. That is not the hook. The hook that keeps me coming back is their seafood sandwiches. The lobster club is actually a traditional club, with apple-smoked bacon stacked above the lobster salad, perhaps the most trafe sandwich ever invented. It is made with real Maine lobster. The kind of lobster East coast transplants jones for. I have seen this sandwich put Bostonians into fits of ecstasy.

The crab cake sandwich definitely contains real Dungeness crab, and lots of it. The outer coating is crispy and browned, while the interior stays moist and meaty. The ancho aioli is just similar enough to remoulade to keep me happy. Crab paired with a sweet and smoky red pepper mayonnaise is a match made in heaven. The breads are fresh and freaking fantastic. The lobster club arrives on a lightly toasted egg bread, while the crab cake rests upon a slightly chewy ciabatta. It’s really not fair to the other sandwiches.

Aroma’s other offerings are nothing to sniff at, but they are not worth crying over all night like the seafood sandwiches are. The brie and apple panini with caramelized onions is nice, but it is inexplicably served on rosemary bread. The flavors of brie and apple are too subtle and sweet to stand up to something as overpowering as rosemary. The overstuffed roast beef panini is strong with horseradish, but the bread is already getting soggy by the time it hits the table. Oh, by the way, their french fries kick ass too. Of course.

Aroma will even make me breakfast in the morning. The morning menu is also extremely satisfying, especially the popular huevos rancheros. There is not enough sauce to soften the deep-fried tortillas, so the effect is somewhat similar to chilaquiles. Very good chilaquiles, with properly cooked eggs, black beans, and ripened-to-just-that-magic-moment avocado.

Between the sandwiches and the romantic patio, I had fantasies of long afternoons spent with my new amour, lounging in my best hat over iced tea in the shaded arbor. But the more I started talking to my friends about my new infatuation, the more “issues” they brought up with Aroma. The prices are inflated. You always have to wait. Bourgeouise valet parking. The service is downright unhelpful. One friend pointed out that they do not label their cakes, but whenever you ask them to list the flavors, they get all huffy.

So I decided to put our relationship to the test. I arrived early in the morning and ordered breakfast. Since the place was empty, I started quizzing the server on the cakes. There was no one waiting behind me, so I wanted see how far their patience would last. I wanted to prove my friend wrong. She just didn't understand Aroma the way I did. There were probably 12 different kinds of cakes in the case. How many flavors would they name before they got angry? About three cakes in, we were doing very well, so I asked for a slice of one (Triple berry – yum). I figured if I ordered a slice or two between queries, I could get her through the entire bakery case.

As long as I was actually finding out all of the flavors, I thought, why not take pictures of the the cakes? Normally I would ask permission before taking a picture inside of a restaurant. But both of the workers were otherwise occupied, and as I said, I was used to them pretty much ignoring me. Plus, there were no other customers around for me to make uncomfortable. So, while my server was busy slicing up a chocolate crunch something-or-other, I leaned down and started taking pictures of the display case.

Suddenly, I magically became visible to the other server. She asked, “May I HELP you?” in the tone that does not mean, “May I be of some assistance?” but the tone that means, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” I said casually and I hoped charmingly, “Oh, my friend always has to ask for all of the cake varieties, so I thought it would be cute if I took pictures for her.”

She did not find me charming. She did not think it was cute. She did not act casual in any way. She told me in no uncertain terms that photographing the bakery case was not allowed. Her manner was so intense and uncomfortable, it made me uncomfortable.

I had broken the rules.

I was gauche and uncool.

I should never have tested our relationship. The tension in the room was palpable. I’m sorry, I know that last sentence is so cliché, but it was exactly that. Palpable. I changed my breakfast to a to-go order. I was presented with the manager’s business card, “I just spoke to her, and she’ll be happy to talk to you about all of the cakes.” I accepted the card, and thus dealt with, I was dismissed. If we were romantically involved, this was the point in the date where someone says, “I think it’s best if you just leave right now.”

I skulked into their little book store, feeling very small. But also very confused at the seriousness of my faux-pas. Photographing the bakery case was cause for an immediate, urgent call to the manager? I paced and browsed the books lining the wall while I waited for my to-go order. They were all religious and self-help books, a kind of shallow pretense of depth. I should have known. I’m sorry, Aroma. I mean, I still like you. I just don’t like ME when I’m WITH you.

But like any bad-boy boyfriend, I had to give it one more chance. I put on my lowest-cut top, my “skinny pants” and brought along my attractive and charming nephew. Sure enough, Aroma took me back. Even though it was busy, the handsome guy behind the counter was witty and helpful. See, I knew it was just a misunderstanding. Aroma didn’t MEAN to make me feel bad. But I had to be sure. There was a huge blueberry pie in the bakery case. I mean, this pie was massive. If I were a pie, I would be this pie’s bitch. So I asked my new friend, the handsome counter guy, if I could take a picture of the pie. He said, “Sure. As long as you’re not doing it to try to steal the recipe.”

His reply made many thoughts swirl around in my head all at once. But I have numbered them for your convenience.

1. He was so quick with his answer, it was clear they have some kind of baggage. That would explain why they are so camera-shy. Maybe they have been hurt in the past. The only thing more attractive than a bad-boy is a bad-boy who is secretly hurting inside.

2. Really. I could just buy a whole cake and make a splosh video with it if I wanted. There was no way of stopping me. And to be honest, that big, juicy pie made the idea kind of tempting.

3. I’m pretty good at breaking recipes. But I have yet to look at a photograph of a blueberry pie and think to myself, “Yup. Definitely cornstarch. And just a touch of lemon juice.”

4. They don’t even make their own baked goods. The cupcakes come from Auntie Em’s, and the cakes come from various other suppliers. How can you be so proprietary of something that isn’t even your own creation?

But even as I pondered the photography ban, my order arrived and my lust for their sandwiches was re-ignited. Later, as we swooned over the perfection of the blueberry pie, my nephew stammered, “This pie…Oh my God…like...if I were in prison…” I finished his thought, “If you were in prison, that pie would sell you for a pack of cigarettes”.

Before I finished writing this post, I thought it would only be fair to call the number on that card. I mean, they told me to call the number, right? And I wanted to see what had made them so protective of their cakes. I was easily able to reach the manager on the first try, and we proceeded to have the most awkward phone conversation ever.

She explained to me the myriad reasons for banning photography - paparazzi, location scouts, and corporate espionage. She divulged, perhaps accidentally, “…and then that other place in Encino went and called themselves Aroma.”

I followed up, “So, you've been burned?”

She said, “I don’t know what you MEAN by burned.”

“Well, I thought maybe the policy was instituted because you had had a bad experience.”

She asked me what my name was again and it took every ounce of self-control in my body not to say, “Mr. Slugworth.” She then proceeded to lecture me on common courtesy until I felt like a completely thoughtless asshole. She asked me if I still wanted to take pictures, because she could arrange it if I was still interested. I decided to make an appointment for couples counseling instead.

Last week I was driving through Los Feliz while talking to a friend on the cell phone. She asked me where I was.

"I'm on my way to eat lunch at Alcove."


"It's the sister restaurant of Aroma."

"Oh my God. I think it's time for an intervention."

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Attention Customers! Do You Know What You Want?

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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Folliero's - a Real Family Value

It was always a special occasion when my parents took us out for pizza. We always went to the same little family-run restaurant where we were allowed to climb on the chairs and run in the aisles. I can still remember playing “Billy Don’t be a Hero” on the jukebox while drinking root beer out of one of those pebbled plastic glasses. When the pizza finally arrived, it was always presented with a flourish, as if it were a birthday cake. That is the pizzeria against which all other pizzerias in my life have been measured. If you were lucky enough to grow up with a neighborhood pizza joint like this, then you will recognize Folliero’s from the minute you walk in the door.

Serving pizzas in Highland Park since 1968, the Folliero family holds a special place in their customer’s hearts. Everyone greets Titina by name, who they refer to in third person as “the daughter”. She works the counter with a calm and friendly demeanor in spite of the hectic pace, even on a busy Saturday night. She joined the business only a few years ago with plans to carry on the family legacy.

Her father, Tony, who was born in Naples, founded the restaurant almost 40 years ago. At the age of 73, he still comes in early every morning to make the pizza dough himself. There is a local legend that he is the only one who knows how to make the dough, and that he comes in early to make sure it is kept a secret. As romantic as it may sound, that story made Titina giggle until her eyes sparkled. She assured me that the recipe is not kept in a secret underground vault somewhere.

Folliero’s menu is your standard “American-Italian” fare: spaghetti, lasagna, and chicken cacciatore. The only surprises are the shockingly low prices. Large pizzas average ten dollars, and you can get a plate of ravioli for 4.95. It is cash only, but dinner for two will not set you back more than twenty bucks. The medium pizzas are the size of most restaurant's large. It feeds three people easily. They also serve beer and wine, if you have outgrown root beer.

The tomato sauce is the kind that simmers all day, the pride of the Italian home cook. The chicken parmigiana and cacciatore are served over rigatoni instead of the usual spaghetti. Chicken parmigiana is a dish that is often ruined by a soggy, breaded coating. Folliero’s pounded cutlet is fried with a crispy outer coating that is completely impermeable to sauce. It comes highly recommended for a good reason.

Although their pastas are good, most people come to Folliero’s for the pizza. The sauce is flavorful, and applied with a light hand. The crust is thin and chewy, with a flour-dusted bottom. If you prefer a crispier crust, you can ask to have it “overdone”.One of their most popular pizzas is the somewhat passé ham and pineapple, and they serve an unbelievably cravable chorizo pizza. Their pizza may be authentic Napoli, but they are definitely not purists.

In addition to an excellent traditional margherita, they serve an authentic pizza bianca. The a la Romano is the bianco with ham. The crust is lightly brushed with a garlic olive oil, then topped with cheese and a barely-there sprinkling of rosemary. Just before it is done baking, the pizza is sprinkled with additional mozzarella cheese and returned to the oven. The cheese comes out browned and bubbling on top from that last blast in the oven. The ham is of good quality, although not generously applied.

On Saturdays, the wait is long. But the patient regulars crowd together by the front door, trading stories about how long they have been coming to Folliero’s. A little girl stands on a chair at the counter to watch the pizzas being hand-tossed. Her mother pauses while reminiscing to caution her daughter not to lean so far over the counter. The little girl’s father says, “My parents used to bring me here when I was ten years old.” I can just imagine this little girl saying the exact same thing one day.

Folliero's Italian Cuisine and Pizza
5566 North Figueroa Street Highland Park, CA 90042 (323) 254-0505
M-F 11am - 9:30pm. Sat & Sun 12 noon - 9:30pm.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Pho - a long, long, way to run

It's 2am. You’ve closed the bar down and you need something to soak up all of the alcohol. If you’re on the Westside, you might hit a coffeeshop. If you’re on the Eastside, it’s a taqueria. But if you are in Koreatown, it’s all about the Pho.

All night long, these brightly-lit noodle shops that line Western Avenue are jumping. The people-watching alone is priceless, as tables full of drunken 20-somethings holler at the tops of their lungs, jokingly threaten each other with chairs, and generally freak out the wait staff. These 24-hour pho places do not sell beer, accept only cash, and rarely have anyone around who speaks English. The décor is minimalist strip-mall, with your placemat serving double duty as your menu. Some of the places have little call buttons at the table to summon your server.

Pho is a Vietnamese soup comprised of vermicelli noodles, various meats, and a selection of garnishes that you can mix into the pho according to your own taste. The standard garnishes are Thai basil, lime, sliced white onions, and jalapenos as well as Hoison sauce, and hot sauce. Sometimes cilantro and lemon are also included in the garnish selection. Pho is also served in bowls bigger than your head.

The menus at the pho places are nearly identical to each other, even down to the numbering of the dishes. Picture menus make ordering easy. But beware. Do not try to point at a picture of something to ask a question. It is like an auction. If you point at it, you have just ordered it.

The standard dish is the #1, the “House Special”. This is a combination of red meats, usually including brisket, tripe, tendon, and “rare steak” which is sometimes flank, and sometimes something that resembles lunchmeat. You can’t worry too much about what you are eating if you are going to order a combination pho. It is like a scavenger hunt of meaty bits. Also included are super-rubbery meatballs which are probably made with some tendon meat.

Somewhere in the top 5 is usually a seafood combo including shrimp and fishballs. Different types of fish, squid and octopus are known to make an appearance as well.

In the middle of the menu is usually something called the “Super Bowl” which is everything in the House Special and Seafood Combo mixed into one bowl. This soup calls for some serious spelunking, as you pull some random chunk out with your chopsticks and try to identify it. It’s very exciting.

There are also pho bowls for the less adventurous, with only steak or chicken. The Vermicelle is a plate of noodles without the broth, alongside some type of meat, a Vietnamese fried egg roll, and a big pile of chopped peanuts.

Here is a sampling of a few of the most popular Vietnamese noodle restaurants on Western. They are conveniently located only blocks apart.

Pho 4000

Pho 4000 is my favorite. It is the kind of place that makes me want experiment with new things, because I know they will be expertly cooked. It is reputed to be the most “authentic” pho place in Koreatown (meaning, run by people who are from Vietnam). People constantly stumble in and out of the doors of Pho 4000, while the Korean BBQ right next door remains empty. The noodles are cooked perfectly, and the garnishes are the freshest I’ve come across. In the House Special Combo, the meats are tender and flavorful without any gamey off-taste. The tripe is sliced into long, thin strips that mix with the noodles. The tendon is sliced very fine, and almost unnoticeable. The vermicelli is fantastic, little with caramelized bits of meat and egg rolls that you will crave forever. This is the one restaurant that closes early. The sign says Open until 4am, but they often close at 2am.

Food: 9
Friendliness: 6
Fear factor: 4
Trippiness of neon sign: 3
414 S. Western Avenue #B LA, CA 90020 (213) 252-4401

Pho Western

Pho Western is the next-best-thing after Pho 4000 closes. The House special combo has tender chunks of brisket, and smaller bits of tendon and tripe. In fact, this is one place where I kind of like the tendon. Although it is slightly chewy and flavorless at first, it leaves a layer of melting fat one your tongue that is quite pleasant. The meatballs are heavily spiced with pepper, a welcome change form the usual bland meatballs. In the seafood combo, the ingredients are immersed in a crystal-clear, clean-tasting broth. The shrimp is fresh, and the fish balls are light and delicate, like matzoh balls.

Food: 8
Friendliness: 7
Fear factor: 4
Trippiness of neon sign: 8
425 S. Western Avenue #A LA, CA 90020 (213) 387-9100

Pho 2000

Of all the places on Western, this place is the most consistently packed. This is pho for the more adventurous diner. I only made one visit there, with one of my more adventurous friends. On this visit, my House Special was dominated by a giant, unappealing chunk of tendon. It was tough and inedible. The tripe was left in long, fringed strands. This is the one place where the broth and meats were gamey, and the meatballs tasted like organ meat. Not to mention the overcooked noodles clumped together in the center of the bowl. Pho 2000 is about strong flavors, especially fishiness. Luckily, when it comes to my friend, the fishier the better. She went at the fish-filled Super Bowl with gusto. I asked her what it was like. She said, “It’s like swimming through the ocean with my mouth open.” She pulled out a long, suction-cup studded tentacle and sucked it down. I asked her if it was chewy.

She said, “It’s like chewing on an ovary.”

“When have you ever chewed on an ovary?”

“I haven’t. I just know that’s what it would be like.”

Food (my vote): 2
Food (Tequila’s vote): 7
Friendliness: 9
Fear factor: 8
Trippiness of neon sign: 10

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Fred 62

Is it possible to love a creation in spite of its creator? You have to admit that "Live Through This" rocked, even if Courtney Love is not the most likeable person on the planet. And Picasso wasn't exactly a nice guy. The same holds true for Fred Eric, one of the most controversial personalities on the LA food scene. I cannot say my one run-in with him, in which he almost ran me over with a motorcycle, exactly endeared him to me. His restaurants, as well as his personality, inspire love/hate relationships.

Fred 62, which was sort of sandwiched between Vida and the Airstream Diner, was like the Jan Brady of Fred Eric’s creations. But it may turn out to be his longest lasting legacy. On the hippest street in town, Fred 62 has managed to hold its own for ten years. It seems that Fred 62 is becoming an old standby. Quite a feat for something so gimmicky.

The location is hip, the servers are hip, and the clientele is most definitely hip - it's almost a little annoying. The interior is slick and cool. The of-the-moment car culture seats are a nice spin on the usual 50s diner décor. Fred 62 is, in essence, a diner, spun through Fred Eric's brain, where it rolled around with a little punk rock and your mom's apple pie. The hipness and smugness are tolerable, because when it comes down to it, Fred Eric, is a culinary genius. Even if he can't seem to stay with a project (including Fred 62), he can sure develop an interesting menu. The language he uses to describe the food is whimsical in an overly self-aware kind of way, peppered with in-jokes and pedantic plays on words, like the "Charles Bukowski", which doesn't quite work because it is not actually a ham on rye. Sometimes diversity can be the hallmark of a bad restaurant. But between the Asian noodles, the American comfort food and the crazy vegan fare, Fred 62's variety fits the funky neighborhood. There is something for everyone.

Personally, I get cravings for their BBQ Beef Royale fortnightly, and would walk a mile for the apple "punk tart". The BBQ Beef Royale is brisket at its finest, slathered with an addictive BBQ sauce that carries a slight kick. The bun can barely contain the massive chunks of meat. This sandwich is only to be eaten when you are feeling seriously carnivorous. Fashioned to look like a pop tart, the Apple Punk Tart is really a southern hand pie. The apple filling comes from genuine apples and is not overly sweet. It is the filling my grandmother would have made. The crust is perfect, balancing a little bit of shortbread's buttery heft with a lightness of a puff pastry. If I could make a pastry like that, I would quit my job and travel the state fair circuit winning blue ribbons for my apple pie.

There are often complaints of bad service and "tude" levied against Fred 62. I actually prefer their servers' superior attitude to having some overly caffeinated cheerleader pretending to be my best friend. But then again, I spent my formative years in punk rock slam pits and I don't mind getting up and hunting down my server when it's called for. I have gotten just as much attitude for a lot more money at restaurants like like L'Orangerie.

Regardless of the controversy surrounding Fred Eric, underneath all of the hip and the hype, Fred 62 is what it is - just a neighborhood joint with good people serving good food. I think that is what has given this place such a loyal following in the dog-eat-dog world of "that place is so last week". Fred 62's 15 minutes of hipness ran out a long time ago. Yet there are still people willing to stand outside for a half an hour just to get a table. In the rain.

Fred 62 1850 North Vermont Ave. Los Angeles (323) 667-0062. Open 24-hours.