Thursday, August 30, 2007

San Francisco Monday

Sears Fine Foods

Sears Fine Foods

Monday we settled in for our only real breakfast, and we could not have chosen better than Sear's Fine Foods. The line stretches down the block, but moves fairly quickly. It is short enough so that you don't feel put out, but long enough that you feel confident that the food must be good. Kitschy D-list photos on the walls and a clutch of antique typewriters scattered around give you something to ponder while you wait.

Just three years after its rescue from near-extinction by Lori's Diner, Sears continues to serve its famous 18 silver dollar Swedish pancakes. They are so cute and adorable. I can see why children freak out over them. Rolled up with a little butter and lingonberry sauce, I was kind of freaking out myself. Their bacon and sausage are of the highest quality, service is first-rate and attention is paid to every detail. I only had to think, "I'm running low on coffee" before the psychic waiter would come running over with a refill. Spying on nearby tables, I could see that their red flannel hash is pretty popular as well. Stuffed after such a hearty breakfast, this was the one time we took the streetcar (5 bucks each! Ouch!). Clanking and rolling along with bellies full of pancakes and bacon made us feel like we were real tourists.

Vino Venue

In the afternoon, I met my brother at Vino Venue, a wine bar across the street from MOAD. At Vino Venue, you fill a card with a dollar amount, like you would at a casino or video arcade. Each kiosk has different types of wine with descriptions and a price, from around 2.50 to 4.50. You put the card in, select a wine, and have a do-it-yourself wine tasting. I discovered I like "buttery" chardonnays, like the Wise West Australian Single Vineyard 2005 Chardonnay. But I spent most of my time drinking the wines with strange descriptions - gravelly earth? I want to know what gravelly earth tastes like!

AG Ferrari Foods

To soak up the wine, I picked up a sandwich at AG Ferrari Foods, an Italian gourmet shop and deli next-door. The deli case overflowed with appealing bites, but I was saving my appetite for John's. So I just snacked on half of a turkey sandwich in the park. The bread and garnishes were perfection, but it was a little skimpy on the meat.

John's Grill

I was grateful that I had stopped in and made a reservation for Johns Grill earlier that morning. Group after group ahead of us were asked to wait, and it was a relief to be escorted immediately to our table. John's Grill is famous for being the setting for the book, The Maltese Falcon, and the Dashell Hammet club still meets there. Someone had told me the interior was creepy. I thought it was rather cozy, but when I had to climb the dark stairwell to the restrooms, I had to admit, ok, it was a little creepy upstairs.

I ordered the house drink, named the Bloody Bridgid, after Hammet's fictional murderess. The drink was so strong, I think she may have done him in with alcohol poisoning. The Dungeness crab cocktail was clean and fresh, topped with a shocking horseradish cocktail sauce. Not a single bit of shell. Icy cold. Sheer perfection. My filet mignon was unprecedented in its tenderness. Sometimes I think a good meal is like sex. It is hard to compare it to experiences from your past, because the most recent one always seems better. But try as I might, I can't remember ever having a steak so tender. Normally with filet mignon there is one delicate tendon running through the middle, but it was such an excellent cut every bite melted in my mouth. It was a perfect meal.

We were not ready to let go, so we had to order a dessert. The chocolate cake with mousse was ok, but really just gilding the lily. I was surprised at how inexpensive our meal was, but it would be a great deal at any price. This is a place to take your parents, your boss, or the girl you want to marry. John's is pure class.

Sear's Fine Food 439 Powell Street SF 94102 (415) 986-0700

Vino Venue 686 Mission Street SF 94105 (415) 341-1930

John's Grill 63 Ellis St. SF 94102 (415) 986-0069

Friday, August 24, 2007

San Francisco Sunday


When I was a teenager, there was nothing cooler than going up to San Francisco for the weekend with a friend's punk band. Everyone always hung out at Blondie's Pizza. Maybe because it's by the streetcar lines, but probably because it was cheap and there is a basement downstairs where they don't mind if you get a little rowdy.

While I waited for my friends to meet me, I sat in the basement dining room next to a group of teenaged kids. Soon another group of teenagers sat across from them and they eyed each other until finally someone spoke up, "Hey, I know you!"
"I don't think so."
"Yeah. I do."
"Yeah. last week I was on the bus, and there was some crazy motherfucker on the bus and he was punchin' everybody."
The accused sat and stared at his slice while everyone stared at him to see if he would admit to punching people on the bus.
Finally he broke the silence, "I must'a been HIGH."
Then we all turned back to our slices.

The secret of Blondie's pizza is much the same as Krispy Kreme. Take whatever slice just came out of the oven. Wait for the next pizza if you have to. Fresh out of the oven, the crust is warm and soft, like homemade bread. The cheese melts into long strings and the pepperoni is super spicy. After just 10 minutes out of the oven, the pizza is mediocre at best. They also offer acceptable chicken and salads. Drink refills are 50-cents and the bathroom costs a quarter.


Our selection of the Jazz Bistro for dinner was based on proximity to the hotel and the quality of the music being played. Red flags went up for a few of my dining partners, particularly the dirty restrooms, so there was some disagreement. But I was tired of walking and loved the music. It wasn't a BAD meal, per se, and the service was excellent. The first glass of wine my friend was given had turned, but they cheerfully exchanged it and were more than gracious when we spilled a glass of water all over the table. The food was just dull. It was good enough. The chicken and fish were properly cooked, and the ravioli was good, but the potatoes were cold. It just really, really reminded us of banquet food. It was wedding reception food. I would go back for drinks and jazz, but only after eating steaks at John's across the street first.

Blondie's Pizza 63 Powell Street SF 94102 (415) 982-6168

Jazz Bistro 44 Ellis Street SF 94102 (415) 397-5397

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Saturday in SF

Tommy's Joynt

Saturday my brother and nephews picked me up for a day of sightseeing and to sample the kind of local dives they know I love. We started out with lunch at a disappearing San Francisco institution, a hofbrau. Tommy's had me at the gaudy carnival mural. Inside, burly men hefty huge cuts of meat and weilded long, greasy knives. What more could you ask for? Beer? But of course. I split a giant brisket sandwich with one of my nephews and enjoyed a lovely amber. I could have easily hung around all afternoon.

Tommy's Restaurant

There were sights to see and one more Tommy's to hit before returning to my hotel for the late-afternoon workshop. Tommy's Restaurant, which opened in 1965, is known for its excellent Yucatan-inspired dishes and vast array of tequilas. The entire back page of the menu contained a tequila list as extensive as many restaurant's wine lists. And they definitely pour with a heavy hand. I couldn't even finish my on-the-rocks margarita or I would have been completely wasted at my afternoon conference. The burritos were huge, the tortillas were fresh, and my Pork Adobado was juicy and flavorful. The house salad dressing seemed to just be a pico de gallo salsa, and the black beans were much more salty than I am used to. But if I had only finished that margarita, I'm sure I wouldn't have cared about a little extra salt in the food or anything else. As we left the comfy little neighborhood restaurant, I overheard the guy behind me drunkenly insisting, "Hey! I have NOTHING against Norwegians!"

Out the Door

Out the Door in the Westfield Mall is the low-key version of San Francisco's much-lauded Slanted Door. We were really excited to eat there, especially because of the cool minimalist decor and the large selection of vegan options. Our server did not seem nearly as excited to see us. When we asked him questions about the menu, he would just pause and stare at us. For example, if I were to say, "I'm undecided between these two dishes; what would you recommend?" Most servers would say things like, "Well, the noodles are really generous, so it depends on how hungry you are." or maybe "The chicken is very popular." Our server just stared at us, pencil poised above order pad. Finally, one of my friends felt uncomfortable enough to take over the server's duties by saying things like, "That dish has chili paste in it. Do you like spicy food?" while the server stared impatiently.

Dishes were brought one at a time, about five minutes apart, and dropped on the table by runners who would mumble the name of the dish and race off. I caught one of the runners by the arm to ask for our drinks, which had not yet arrived. My chicken curry was good, but not any better or worse than if I had ordered from a random Hollywood take-out menu left on my doorhandle. One of my friend's noodles were pretty bland. But the 5-spice noodles - WOW. They were fantastic, with intensely bright Vietnamese flavors. I would definitely return for them again and again.

My vegan friend was still waiting for her order. We all remarked upon how she always had to wait. Then they dropped a plate of chicken and noodles in front of her and whizzed away. She managed to hunt down our waiter, who had been hanging out at a table full of cute boys, chattering away. He showed her that the 5-spice noodles my other friend was eating were actually the vegan noodles. When the runner had brought them, she had clearly said, "chicken noodles." Irritated, he took her chicken plate away, and ordered a vegan replacement. He did not offer the chicken noodles to the person who had ordered them, assuming apparantly that she had cast her lot when she started mistakenly eating the vegan noodles. Whenever we needed anything else, we stopped looking for our unfriendly waiter altogether and started seeking help from a different waiter, who my friend referred to as "The Mustache." He was friendly and helpful. We complimented him to the manager as we left. I left "unfriendly waiter" a low 10-15 percent tip, but a few other people in our small party left him only a dollar.

Lefty O'Doul's

It is no easy task getting a big group of out-of-towners to all be in the same place at the same time. After copious text-messages flew back-and-forth Saturday night, we all ended up at another San Francisco institution, Lefty O'Doul's . Running along one side of the room is a carving station with big hunks of meat ready to be carved, hofbrau-style. It gave the place a weird half-bar, half-high school cafeteria feel. They stopped serving at midnight, and by the time we arrived at 11:45 pm the choice was either roast beef or ham. I chose roast beef. The sandwich could have been better, but I got the feeling that had I arrived at a more reasonable hour, it would have been. My friend declared her cherry pie first rate, although I'm not sure it was worth it to have to hear that fucking Warrant song over and over again after everyone started getting drunk. The draft selection was impressive (Bass! Fat Tire! Yay!), and the piano at one end of the room cranked out a strange mixture of requests, mostly golden hits of the 70s. If there was a place like Lefty's around the corner from me, I would be there all the time.

Monday, August 20, 2007

San Francisco 1

As timing would have it, my trip to San Francisco last week came right on the heels of Michael Bauer's controversial article, The Dish on Los Angeles. Unlike many Angelinos, I did not get the impression that his article was maligning our entire restaurant scene. I thought it was a pretty standard assessment of a certain class of restaurant - the good, the bad, and the Patina Group. I did find it puzzling that he would be so suprised by the "industry" types he ran across, considering the fact that he mainly ate at "industry" restaurants. Everyone knows you don't go to the Ivy to actually eat. You go there to be photographed by the paparazzi so everyone will know that you are straight/still in love with your wife/signing with Fox. Another charge lobbed against Bauer was his narrow scope. He stated that his selections were made with care using a combination of guidebooks and advice from friends. But that book was more likely the Zagat Guide than Counter Intelligence. Bauer does address and acknowledge the lack of "ethnic" restaurants as as well. I have no beef with the man and do not feel the urge to challenge him to a culinary dance-off.

As I prepared for my trip to the Bay Area, however, a few people suggested that I "take them on". An epicurian throw-down! But as I said, I have no beef with Bauer, and I am not exactly in a position to go toe-to-toe with a bonifide restaurant critic, much less take on an entire city. So this posting is not meant to be a culinary dance-off.

That being said, I did just eat my way all over San Francisco and I can't wait to dish!

I arrived in San Francisco with a few business colleagues last Friday for a 6-day conference, to be followed by two days of sight-seeing with my husband. I didn't do too much research beforehand, knowing that my dining choices would be limited by the conference. The only advice I sought was from the good people over at who always know where to find the hidden gems.



After my friends and I checked in, we decided to have a nice evening out at Millenium, a white-tablecloth vegan restaurant in the ultrahip-looking Savoy Hotel. Our reservations were for 9:30 pm. We were starving, so we arrived an hour early, and sat at the bar and ordered drinks and an appetizer. One of our foursome was not ready when the bartender took our orders, and the bartender never returned to take her order. We were sitting by the cash register, which you would think put us in the thick of things, but we had a very hard time getting another bartender to finally take her drink order. The deep-fried wild mushrooms I ordered as a starter were excellent hot, and the chutney was a nice accompaniment. But as the mushrooms cooled, the coating became an unappetizing dried-chickpea-like goo. Our reservation time came and went. Finally the hostess told us we would be seated any minute, so I settled up the bar tab.

As we continued to wait, and wait, the fast food across the street began to call to me. Finally, an hour after our reservation time had passed, I told my vegan friend that I loved her but that I was going across the street. She decided to just place her order to go. I ended up at Taqueria El Sol. They made me a beautiful made-to-order carne asada burrito. I walked back across the street and shamelessly set the bag on the bar while my friend waited for her to-go order. Later, in our room, she said the tempeh was excellent. My 4.95 burrito was also damn good.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The mysteries of Dinah's

The Mysteries of Dinah's Fried Chicken

When Alan Arkin freaks out in the beginning of Little Miss Sunshine, shouting, “Again with the fucking chicken! It's always with the goddamn fucking chicken!” all I could do was stare at the instantly recognizable bucket and think, “How could anyone ever get sick of Dinah’s?” The fried coating is so highly seasoned and crispy. The meat is so juicy and tender. Alan Arkin should consider himself lucky.

Dinah’s Fried Chicken has been a Glendale institution since 1967.

Los Angeles is also home to Dinah’s Family Restaurant in Culver City, which is more of a coffeeshop. The Culver City Dinah's is known for its gigantic German apple pancakes, but it also has a chicken take-out in a separate part of the building. With the exact same buckets. With the same fried chicken. There is quite a bit of speculation on the internet about the two Dinah's. Most people assume that the same family used to own both restaurants, but that they sold the Culver City location. Some people claim the exact opposite - that the Culver City Dinah's is the original, which has sold the Glendale location. There are even rumors that it was once a chain. Nobody is very clear on the real story.

You only need to look as far as the pictures on the walls to see the authentic history of the Glendale Dinah's. It has clearly been going strong for two generations. The restaurant is now run by Dave Pearson, the original owner's son, and his wife Linda. So I decided to go straight to the source and speak to one of the current owners. Let me tell you, this was no easy feat because they certainly do get up early in the morning to get that restaurant humming.

So here we solve the great mystery of Dinah's. Straight from Linda Pearson.

40 years ago, a group of golfing buddies came up with the idea for Dinah's. They shared plans, recipes and logos, but the restaurants were each independently owned and operated. One family decided to build their Dinah's as a coffeeshop (The Culver City coffeeshop is now run by the original golfing buddy's step-grandson). The other families decided to open chicken stands, six in all. As time has worn on, one Dinah's after another has closed its doors. The last of the other Dinah's called it quits in Burbank ten years ago, leaving only the Culver City coffee shop and and the Glendale chicken stand. Although nothing has been said outright, I get the impression that the two Dinah's are not exactly on visiting terms.

There are no big naugahyde booths and no giant apple pancakes at the Glendale Dinah's. The little cafe is furnished sparsely with comfortable wooden chairs, and every table has a jar of their homemade apple butter. To keep it from being too plain, the room is gussied up a little with country-style doo-dads. The service is super-friendly, and if you are dining alone you will quickly make friends with the staff and other diners. It is a classic neighborhood joint.

Although chicken is the big seller, Dinah's fried livers are pretty famous. I'm not a big fan of chicken livers, so I thought I'd try the deep fried gizzards on my last visit. I’d eaten tough, chewy gizzard gristle at family dinners and later cooked with them, struggling to find edible bits for my dirty rice. Dinah's gizzards were a revelation. I had no idea it could be like this. They were crispy and crunchy on the outside, yet they melted in your mouth. I finally understood how some people can eat rocky mountain oysters. If they are anything like this, I would eat them too. Yes, I said it. If they tasted this good, I would eat balls. These gizzards would be perfect at a bar, where I could snack on them all night while drinking beer (Dinah's is reputedly BYOB). I enticed a lady at the next table to try some – I am kind of aggressively friendly. When she saw that I was abandoning a half-full plate, she asked if she could have the gizzards wrapped up to take home. They were that good.

The side dishes are equally famous, and people seem to either love them passionately or find them a little too unusual. These are definitely not your same old sides. I love the pineapple cole slaw, but there are people who can’t deal with the sweetness. The macaroni salad has a little touch of powdered mustard and fresh garlic. If you eat enough of it you can feel the slow burn of garlic creeping up on you. I will admit, you do have to eat the macaroni salad right out of the big tub with a fork to achieve that burn. Not that it's something I have ever done, mind you. Their newest offering, Mac and cheese, also kicks ass, which should make a certain cheese-loving LAist very, very happy.

The only dish I can't really recommend is the fish and chips. The chips themselves are fantastic. Some of the best french fries around. But the fish is in a breadcrumb coating instead of Dinah's fantastic batter. So although they are servicable, they are missing the zing and Dinah's signature crackle. There are just so many other great options on the menu. Besides the crave-worthy gizzards, juicy chicken, and fun side dishes, the rolls are fresh store-bought, and the delicious little pies come from Martinello’s bakery.

There are two more mysteries that need clearing up before I go. What is their secret frying method? What makes the fried chicken “Oh so free of oil” as the bucket boasts? The secret is a deep-fryer with a pressure-lock lid that turns it into a pressure cooker. So it is basically deep-fried and pressure cooked at the same time. Pressure-fried. Crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside.

The final mystery has to be, just how long does it take to get sick of Dinah’s fried chicken and have an Alan Arkin meltdown? I bought a nice big bucket to take home for research purposes. I didn't even get the giant bucket. The answer? Three days. No matter how good it is, after three days of nothing but chicken you never want to see one of those buckets again. Until about a week later. Of course, I have not yet tried this experiment on those meltingly tender gizzards. Maybe with a few gizzards thrown in now and then, Alan Arkin might not have snapped.

Dinah's Original Recipe Fried Chicken 4106 San Fernando Road Glendale, CA 91204
(818) 244-4188