Monday, January 16, 2012

Tour De Santa Monica: Reclaimed Frame

Barney's Beanry

Holiday crunch time on the 3rd Street Promenade certainly brings elevated levels of shopping mayhem. All of the congestion, large crowds, and seasonal cheesiness does indeed bring out the grinch in me. Therefor, I try to stay as far away from the insanity as possible.  But alas, I found myself getting sucked into the epicenter like a helpless vessel in the clutches of the Death-star’s tractor beam. Fortunately, I did find solace in not one, but five bowls of chili at Barney’s Beanery.

Word on the street was that The Beanery did a little overhaul to their menu, so a closer look was warranted. The menu was infamous for being about the size of a newspaper. They decided to make it more manageable by taking off many of the things people were not ordering.  Fear not, if one of your favorites did not make the cut, chances are it is still available, it is just off-menu.

It is almost comical to think 8 item-crammed pages is scaled down. The reality is you can still belly up and order a burrito, chicken parmesan, french toast, a bottle of Dom Perignon, a slab of ribs, and a serious side of indigestion.  And while quantity usually does not translate into quality, Barney’s does a serviceable job when it comes to their food across the board. However, there are some offerings on the menu that Barney’s is known for, most notably their chili.

It was at the original Route 66 roadhouse in West Hollywood where their chili gained its fame. Nine decades later Barney’s has five locations and five varieties of chili as well. Ordering the chili sampler certainly was the way to go to get a taste of them all. The sampler came with their Classic All Meat Chili, Texas Chili, Vegetarian Chili, Turkey Chili, and the newest Fireman’s Chili. Each offering comes in a manageable bowl, accompanied with all your chili accouterments, and served on a pizza tray. It is quite a display.

Sizing the chili’s up against each other is a great way to distinguish which ones make the grade, and which ones fall flat. For me the, the vegetarian chili lacked flavor and depth. Perhaps it could have used some spices, or some greasy meat. The Texas Chili was very good, but I was expecting it to be as hot as advertised. You certainly cannot go wrong with the Classic All Meat Chili as 90 years of history will tell you. But my favorite was an award winner, The Fireman’s Chili. Earlier in the year, Barney’s West Hollywood held a Firefighter’s Chili Cook-off fundraiser. L.A. County Fire Station 7 and their Tri-tip Black Bean chili won the honor being on Barney’s menu. Slow cooked cuts of Tri-tip, beans, and spices simmered to perfection was a winner in my book as well.

With the winter months ahead and temperatures plummeting into the low 60’s, Barney’s Beanery is a great place to warm up with a hearty bowl of chili, or one of the other 9,000 offerings that they have on their menu.


Like any new business Z Garden is indeed working out some of the unexpected yet unavoidable kinks. Co-owner Shadi Abed, posts himself close to the entrance working partly as a greeter and also as the guy who has to shut the faulty door that wants to constantly stay open. The dining area still awaits the Santa Monica’s Farmers Market hook-up who promised foliage to accompany their brand new wood furnishings. And the landscaper still has to do an overhaul of the exterior to truly make a garden out of Z-Garden. Meanwhile in the kitchen, the other owner Nasar Nasir mans the grill and seems to have a handle on the light mid afternoon crowd.

Z Garden opened up about two and a half weeks ago in the space that used to be Tom’s #1 Family Restaurant for the past 21 years just east of Cloverfield and Pico. Apparently people still walk up to the counter attempting to order a burger not even realizing that a change was made.  I was compelled to stop in after riding my bike down Pico, doing a double take, and realizing that the old greasy spoon had bitten the dust. 

A story of friendship, serendipity, and love for food led these two long time friends out of their homeland of Tunisia, and into Z Garden. Nasar spent many years cooking for a Saudi prince and traveling the world. Shadi, moved to Los Angeles and worked in hookah sales. Most notably, he was the man to embellish the well known Gypsy Cafe in Westwood with their smoking supplies. Both men reunited in Santa Monica and started Green Taxi in 2008 which they recently sold to buy Z Garden. Nasar married Shadi’s sister, and now these two friends and business owners are now brothers. What a whirlwind!   

Mediterranean at heart, Z Garden could best be compared to Zankou Chicken, but more personable and stylish (especially once the plant guy delivers the goods).  The menu offers all of the staples and standards including shawarma, kabobs, falafel, vegetarian plates, and salads. Sandwiches range around $7 and entrees are about $10. Both options include sides making the prices very reasonable.  They pride themselves in making everything in house, and fresh to order. The falafel I tried had a seriously crispy shell but the inside was soft, aromatic, and ultimately very good. I noticed more than a few people ordering the chicken shawarma. Shadi informed me that the chicken shawarma is their most popular item as I will be inclined to check it out my next time around the block.

Any new restaurant, while tempered with uncertainty, reaps great rewards when it is a success. Hopefully Z Garden will become a mainstay in the Pico area that has seen much improvement over the years. They already have a steady flow of locals, curious newcomers, and people not realizing Tom’s #1 has gone out of business. It is certainly worth a look if you are in the mood for some good Mediterranean food.