Friday, August 26, 2011

Langer's Delicatessen

Eating good pastrami in Santa Monica does not involve more than a quick bike ride up Wilshire to Izzy’s or Fromin’s. Both establishments are classic Jewish Deli’s with great family friendly atmospheres, and excellent pastrami. However, if you are willing to go the extra mile (or thirteen) up Wilshire all the way to MacArthur Park, the neighborhood may not suggest that you died and gone to pastrami heaven, but enter through the pearly gates of Langer’s Delicatessen situated on the corner of Alvarado and 7th, and prepare yourself for a celestial experience. 

While the sandwiches at Langer’s are nothing less than heaven sent, I am by no means unearthing a hidden gem. Langer’s Deli has been reviewed, documented, and profiled by every local news outlet, The Food Network, Heull Howser, even Santa Monica City TV’s very own Cheap Eats. They have received much acclaim including the restaurant industries version of ‘The Oscars’, The James Beard award in 2001. Not to mention the millions of patrons whom have walked through the doors from its humble beginnings 64 years ago. So for me to tell you that they have good food may result with a big fat “duh!” But as an enthusiast of slow cooked meats and reporter of all things delicious, a cycling jaunt to Langer’s was a necessary pilgrimage.

What makes Langer’s great is the food. What makes Langer’s an institution is how it is run. The delicatessen was established by Al Langer back in 1942. Three dining room expansions and four million pounds of pastrami later Al Langer’s son Norm has made a definitive point to preserve what his father worked all his life to build.

“I’m here six days a week. I’m here to watch the product, I’m here to taylor it, to make sure it goes out the way my dad originally prescribed it. The minute I walk away it’s subject to change.” Norm explains.

I cannot imagine Mr. Langer takes many days off. Imagining the restaurant on one of Norm’s vacation days is like The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson when he had guest hosts. It just does not seem appropriate. Being the consummate professional Norm is, you will never hear him utter the ‘F’ word- franchise.   

“To open up more restaurants means the product is going to suffer. Anytime something is run by family, it’s a living breathing part of you and that’s what makes it a success.” says Norm.

Steadfast and uncompromising on tradition and service, are qualities that hold true to Langer’s both inside and out. A stalwart establishment in a neighborhood that has witnessed much change for good times and bad, Langer’s has always been that community mainstay. Throughout the years, opportunities have presented themselves for the honored delicatessen to relocate, but like every other aspect of the business, Langer’s has stayed the course.

“This neighborhood has been very good to my family and there is no reason I should leave it. I owe the neighborhood for my existence today.” states Norm

Surprisingly enough in a place so set in tradition, there is a little leeway on the menu. Adjusting to the times, Langer’s has added salads and vegetarian selections for a more calorie conscious public. One item that you will never see on the menu, adamantly stated by Norm, are bean sprouts. While bean sprouts and soy pastrami are not in the restaurants future their signature sandwiches have been the same since 1947. The most notable and famous creation at Langer’s is their Number 19. Its makeups are, hand cut pastrami, swiss cheese, cole slaw, Russian dressing, on warm crispy rye bread. A meld of flavors and a synergy of textures, the 19 enhances the pastrami rather than overpowering it with accoutrements. This was original owner Al Langer’s creation, and for great reason, is still the deli’s best selling sandwich.

Wether it is the timeless pastrami on rye, a sky high club sandwich, or the dressed up Number 19, at Langer’s it is hard to go wrong. And with the 720 Metro Rapid practically taking you to the front door, public transportation is a viable option. Of course a brisk bicycle ride from the west side is the best way to earn your lunch. Any which way, Langer’s Delicatessen is certainly worth the trip.   

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fritto Misto

Only steps away from tourist magnets like the Santa Monica Pier and the newly erect Santa Monica Place, Fritto Misto seems to mostly go unnoticed among the hustle and bustle of summer sightseers. Adjoined to the other small businesses all sharing the same coordinated turquoise awnings, at a casual glance you may think it was just another chiropractor, law office, or pilates studio. Certainly a different scene from the cafes, bistros, and restaurants jostling for business, blocks away on the 3rd street promenade. It truly is in that sweet spot of being centrally located, making it a quick bike ride away, no matter what part of Santa Monica you may reside, but also is just enough off the beaten path that it is not mobbed by tourists. However, be warned that it will be packed during peak hours. It is no secret that Santa Monica loves Fritto Misto. And I have a hunch that Fritto Misto loves us back.
To celebrate their recent 20th anniversary, Fritto Misto hosted a party for 500 of their closest friends treating their guests to free beer, wine, and food. Not too difficult to fill the seats when you are giving everything away. If you missed the celebration, the 25th is just around the corner. 
For being as popular as it is, advertising has never been a key component for the restaurant’s popularity. Fritto Misto flyers will never be littered on your doorknob. They do not have coupons in the weekly mailer. And you will never see them vying for local airtime unlike the omnipresent ChoSun Galbee commercials that seem to be running every time I turn on the tube. Fritto Misto relies on the most vital form of publicity, word of mouth. 
“It’s local people, they tell each other, they bring their friends, when mom comes to town they bring her. It’s that kind of place” explains Fritto Misto owner Robert Kerr
Plus it sure beats hiring a sign twirler. 
“Our original idea was this; you go to a pizza place and you pick all of your toppings. Why not do that with pasta?”
And with that, the ‘create your own pasta’ option began. Choose from over a dozen freshly made pastas, pick from even more sauces, and select any number of add-ins from anchovies to walnuts. You may come up with a tricolor fusili in a carbonara sauce, with sauteed calamari, and roasted capers. Or perhaps a fettuccini in a sage cream sauce, with pancetta, kalamata olives, and artichoke hearts.  
With a list of daily specials Fritto Misto likes to keep things fresh and are always full of surprises. I would recommend the pasta/salad combination. Pick a rich pasta, balance it out with a light salad and find yourself in a happy place somewhere in the middle. With so many options, daily specials, vegan friendly, and variations on classic dishes, it is a great place to try new things as well as have that go-to dish that beckons you back.
“If I tried to take someones dish off the menu, they would be lined up outside with pitchforks and torches”  
Fresh food, at reasonable prices, and personable service is an automatic recipe to a restaurant’s success. If you prefer not to eat fresh Italian food with a real local vibe, go a couple blocks down to the mega franchise Bucca De Peppo, I think they just cracked open a can of bologna parmesan.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

L.A. Chili Expose

Biking and dining the Santa Monica scene can be fun and diverse, but not necessarily ambitious. While the bounty of restaurants in this city could keep a food writer’s plate full for years, the cycling dynamic falls flat in the process. There is only so much one can write about the Main Street bike lane, the hill on Ocean Park or the pathway along the beach. Venturing outside the Santa Monica city limits on two wheels opens up a brave new world into the culinary abyss. Biking Los Angeles can be daunting, and the Summer heat indeed compounds matters further. Throw chili into the mix and that is when things start to get greasy. The assignment- three chili-featured restaurants, on two wheels, throughout the course of one day. A citywide, dusk till dawn, L.A. chili expose- yeehaw!
Embarking from the Santa Monica Pier and heading eastward bound, the ride is relatively smooth with a good portion of the commute paved with bike lanes. The road gets rough once you merge onto Beverly due to crumbling streets, congested intersections and zero bike lanes. But the light at the end of the tunnel is situated at the corner of Beverly and Rampart. There lays home to L.A.’s chili mecca- The Original Tommy’s.
Famous for the chili and infamous for its messiness, The Original Tommy’s has been a favorite pig out to Angelenos for over 65 years. Tommy’s serves up a condiment style chili, which has a smoother consistency and is intended to be slathered over burgers, dogs, and as of recent, their breakfast burritos. The burrito is pretty standard on all accounts with the exception to a healthy injection of their time honored chili. To my surprise, upon presentation, the burrito was tidy and sealed tight like a capped oil well. Instead of being the star of the show, this chili played part to an ensemble cast, acting cohesively with the other breakfast innards. Despite the harmony, I would not endorse eating such a goodie before activities like karate practice, or yoga in the park. While the dance of meats, cheeses, and chili starts in burrito, the after party occurs in your stomach. It is a good special occasion burrito which was certainly warranted after the morning ride from the Santa Monica Pier. That being said, I devoured the burrito and set a course to my next chili destination in Burbank.
Trekking up Vermont through Los Feliz, then Griffith Park, will spit you out into the San Fernando Vally. The good news is there is flat land as far as the eye could see. The bad news is it is always 10 degrees hotter in the Vally than anywhere else in L.A. News to be determined good or bad- I have been, and will be eating more chili. 
Despite all of my literal and figurative belly aching, Chili John’s in Burbank proved to be a perfect chili oasis amid the summer heat. Like Tommy’s, Chili John’s has been around for 50 plus years. Unlike Tommy’s, their chili is not condiment style but rather the main course. I ordered the bowl of the half-spicy half-mild and softened the blow by getting it on a bed of spaghetti. The chili was meaty, rich, garlicky, and rendered some serious grease. While some may consider grease a four letter word, Chili John’s has no bones about making their chili with plenty of the shiny stuff. This is real stick to your ribs (and whatever else it comes in contact with) kind of chili.      
Fully chili-charged, I was geared up to head into West Hollywood for my last stop on the chili excursion. Just past Warner Bros. Studios heading up the Barham Pass some of my loose camera gear got stuck in the spokes of my bike vaulting me over the handle bars. Grimacing in pain but carrying on down the hill I suffered a series of flat tires sending me to an impromptu stop to the bike shop for some repairs. As for my injuries, I found solace in chili.  Battered and bruised, I limped through the doors of Chili Addiction on La Cienega. 
Unlike my previous stops Chili Addiction is new on the restaurant scene. In a city where gourmet burgers have received recent popularity and acclaim in places like Umami, one may ask what about the high-end hot dog? Aside from over 70 varieties of chili, and some of the cities most under-rated ice cream, Chili Addiction prides itself on making fine quality homemade sausages and frankfurters. At first glance you may think that the price is steep for a chili dog, but at first bite you will realize you get what you pay for. I went the way of the chipotle and cheddar chili dog, accompanied by truffle fries, homemade ketchup, and truffle aioli. The sausage was succulent, the chili was not overpowering yet exquisite, and the truffle aioli was pure luxury. Biking across the city generates quite the appetite. Eating hungry tends to make food taste better, subsequently making myself susceptible to lax critiquing. However, hungry or not, it is easy to realize that Chili Addiction is something special. 
The final ride home was not overtly harrowing, nor totally pleasant. I was just relieved to make it back to the friendly confines of Santa Monica intact.  While chili may not necessarily be the breakfast, lunch, and dinner of champions, ultimately it was my driving force. When you add up three chili laden meals, deduct around 60 miles of biking through the city, it all balances out- give or take a few thousand calories. As always, I am just thankful to bike and eat another day in L.A. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Hungry Pocket

In the sprawling metropolis better known as Los Angeles, it is no problem finding cuisine from any corner of the world. However, compared to other big American cities like New York and Chicago, it is slim pickings on the West Coast when it comes to greasy little gyro stands or the late night shaworma shacks. That is why Santa Monica is home to such a gem in The Hungry Pocket Falafel House. The name is a mouthful in itself!  And a mouthful of falafel is exactly what you will get especially if you pop in Monday or Wednesday from 3-9 p.m. This is the Hungry Pocket’s all you can eat falafel sandwich night and a favorite dinner destination for people looking for a good deal. 
“The record is 9 falafel sandwiches. People try to beat it, but the record has been 9 sandwiches for about ten or eleven years now.” owner Mike Lafev recounts.
That sounds like an extreme amount of sandwiches to eat in one sitting. That also sounds like an open invitation and challenge to hungry Santa Monacans citywide. And the residents of this city do know a thing or two about the Hungry Pocket. While it has received plenty of acclaim from newspapers and bloggers alike, it is the neighborhood customers that are Mike Lafev’s bread and butter.
“Businesses come and go, but we’re pretty steady. We have alot of regulars coming back.” says Mike
The restaurant itself is rather unassuming. Nested in a small mini-mall across the street from the Santa Monica City college, the Hungry Pocket seats no more than 20 people. When school gets out, the place becomes a madhouse. It has been this way as long as most people can remember, and Mr. Lavaf is the best person to go to for a quick history lesson on the Hungry Pocket.
In 1968 an Israeli family owned the property, way back when the restaurant was named Uncle Mustache. From there a Lebanese family purchased the place and changed the name to Hungry Pocket. In 1984 Mike, an electrical engineer at the time, purchased the Hungry Pocket, made an instant career change, and has been running the restaurant ever since. Taking on the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ mentality, not much has changed with the Hungry Pocket in his 25 years of operation. Except the Uncle Mustache name, everyone agreed that had to go.  
From Israeli to Lebanese to now Persian proprietary, the Hungry Pocket has changed hands from almost half of the Middle East. While ownership has changed, the menu has always stayed intact; shaworma, gyros, kabobs, and of course falafel. In a region that has been embattled in everything from politics, to religion, to border disputes, leave it to some simple Mediterranean comfort food to bring people together.  
“Israelis, Iraqis have there differences on the street, Turks and Greeks too, but in here everyone seems to get along, they can all agree on the food.” Mike explains
The Hungry Pocket Falafel House is not simply making Mediterranean food and sending people on there way. It is a place that is serving up solidarity one falafel sandwich at a time.