On Eating "American" in Los Angeles. . .
Since moving to Los Angeles, we've made friends with all of about three or four Americans--nearly everyone else we've met socially has been an international student at UCLA, existing in the US with varying levels of familiarity with "American" food. We've resigned ourselves to being, often, the only two in a room who can tolerate the sweetness of cotton candy for more than a single bite, who believe that one of the main attractions of going to a baseball game is the stadium food, or who know that pigs in the blanket can mean two different things to a typical American (either pancakes rolled around breakfast sausages or bread dough baked around hot dogs), but that both of them are edible. We've frequently been asked about "American" food, and have done what we can to introduce American delicacies to our foreign friends. But the problem is, except for caramel apples at Halloween parties (I was gratified when Alessio, the first night I met him, a caramel apple in his mouth and another in his hand to carry home, exclaimed that "this is the best American food ever!" He may have reconsidered by now, but I still like him for saying that), turkey and stuffing at Thanksgiving, chips and dips and the afore-mentioned pigs in the blanket (the crossant/mini hot dog kind) at a Superbowl party, and burgers on a barbecue in summer, we really don't cook or eat traditional American food at home. Generally, then, when we or someone we know crave American food, we head to a restaurant. Following are reviews of four of our favorite American restaurants in Los Angeles.
- Johnny Rocket's--474 N. Beverly Dr. at South Santa Monica Blvd., in Beverly Hills (street parking; 310-271-2222)
With restaurants in the Beverly Connection and the Third Street Promenade as well, Johnny Rockets is a well-done example of a chain. According to their website they even have restaurants on the east coast (they get extra points for even having a website at all, much less a halfway decent one). We went to their Beverly Hills branch in August of 1999 because Hanna (pictured at left with Christina) and Markku, our Finnish friends, were spending their last night in Los Angeles before moving back to Europe and were crazy about Johnny Rockets. As they had already sold their car, we drove everyone there. The Beverly Hills branch is on a great stretch right near Rodeo Drive, and street parking in the evenings is doable, as long as you don't mind walking a few blocks. That's good, though, because you can windowshop everywhere from Teuscher Chocolates to the Sharper Image along the way. Basically, Johnny Rockets is a 1950s-style hamburger joint, from the menus to the atmosphere; the burgers are traditional, meaty, and good, and served in little wax-paper pockets a la In and Out (to be reviewed in our "Fast Food in LA" column, coming soon), with great onions. I think I had a basic cheeseburger and Robert had a barbecue burger, both of which were nice. We also had a grilled chicken sandwich, which was perfectly fine, although not as exciting as the burgers, and onion rings and french fries--I particularly like the onion ring batter. Robert and I split a vanilla milkshake (or frappe, if you're from Massachusetts, or cabinet, if you're from Rhode Island--but generally milkshake to the bulk of the country), which was very thick and vanilla-y. Markku fell in love with malteds at Johnny Rockets, and so on his final night in the US, ordered (and drank--check out the picture at right) an entire strawberry malted on his own (Hanna had one of her own as well--usually they share one). Personally, I don't care for malt, but the milkshake had a fine thick consistency. One other nice touch about Johnny Rockets--the service was good, and there's a jukebox (the scroll-through-the-listings kind we all remember from childhood in diners) at every table, stocked with 50s-80s music, that runs on nickels. We asked the waiter for change of a quarter to play the jukebox, but instead, he gave everyone at the table their own nickel, for a free play each.
- Dinah's--6521 South Sepulveda, at Centinela, just north of LAX (large parking lot; 310-645-0456)
Another restaurant with a webpage, though not a chain, Dinah's is a great restaurant more typical of a diner, not just a hamburger joint. Dinah's is primarily known for two things--its breakfasts, and its fried chicken dinners. If you really like, you can combine the two in a "fried chicken & eggs" breakfast, though we've never tried that. We took
Amit, Javier, and Alejandro here (pictured at left with the extensive plastic-covered menu, in September 2000) to taste fried chicken that is far superior to KFC, not at all mushy, and, on Monday and Thursday nights, all you can eat! Just for the record, it's actually a particularly good kind of all you can eat, where you request exactly which pieces you like, and the waiter brings them to you--along with (and this is what made Amit's eyes, below, bug out in disbelief that anything so good could have no marginal cost)--all you can eat mashed potatoes, as well as a very good creamed spinach. They also have bottomless soft drinks, which is what really got Alejandro excited--all you can drink pink lemonade! Dinah's has a huge menu and huge booths--I don't think there's a table just for two in the place, though there is a counter. Otherwise, I have to say there's not much atmosphere in the place--you basically come here for the food. On weekend mornings, there's frequently a wait, though as the restaurant itself is fairly large, we've never had to wait more than fifteen minutes. The pancakes are great, especially the oven-baked German-style pancakes, laden with fruit and brown sugar. I love the banana, and Robert is partial to the apple, but be warned--a large apple pancake is too much food for Robert and me for breakfast, so unless you want leftovers, you should order the small. The plain German pancake, which comes with powdered sugar, butter, and lemons on the side, is much less filling and less rich--it's also just less good, and we won't bother ordering it again. If you can stuff one in, the cinnamon rolls are also very nice--and, not too surprisingly here, quite large. After all, Dinah's has a very long menu, and there's far more than chicken and pancakes on it, with a different all you can eat special every weeknight: for instance, on Mondays, in addition to the chicken, there's also all you can eat snow crab legs, which Robert happily and messily took advantage of (look at him above, with crab all over his hands). The service can be somewhat hit-or-miss, depending on the number of people in the place and the particular server you get. Still, most of the waiters are very friendly and quick to bring refills of drinks--or chicken! And, if you stop by here for no other reason, Dinah's is an excellent place to go when picking people up or dropping them off at the airport. And, due to the length of its menu, Dinah's is more vegetarian-friendly than most of the other places reviewed here.
- Serious Texas BBQ--Overland Blvd. in West LA, on the corner of a mini-mall just south of Rose and just north of Palms (small parking lot, street parking; 310-837-3544).
This is a funny little place which we managed to never notice for two years--eventually we realized it's actually walking distance from our house. We were on our way somewhere else for dinner just last week, when I saw their signs (really, they're hard to miss--at right is Robert standing outside the place by their neon signs. The reason he has an odd expression on his face is that he's eating a peanut--more on that later. At left is Christina outside by their wooden sign in the parking lot), and suddenly had a craving for beef ribs (our favorite). We turned in, quickly, and found ourselves in a tiny (possibly, if jammed, the place might be able to seat 15 people) dining room with a counter displaying mounds of mashed potatoes, cole slaw, and lovely looking homemade mereigne pies, with as much decor as the owners could cram into the little room--old movie stills and photographs on the walls, and all sorts of vaguely Texan accoutrements. We paused at the counter, wondering if we should order first and then sit down, when an Asian waitress shooed up to some seats ("Sit here. Watch football," she ordered, directing our gaze to a TV high up on the wall), delivered tattered paper menus, and dumped a handful of peanuts on our table. The peanut vat happened to be directly behind Robert, so we helped ourselves to more peanuts while reading the menu. We ordered a beef rib dinner with two sides to share--the baked beans, and the shoestring potatoes, with cornbread. The service was very good; the waitress bustled back and forth, brushing all our peanut shells on the floor and not caring that our pile of shells quickly became four times as large of those unlucky guests who sat far from the peanut vat ("This is how we clean," she explained). As they were just running out of the beef ribs, we were served a piece of brisket in place of our fourth rib, and so got to sample that as well: the beef ribs were excellent, meaty and juicy, with a great BBQ sauce (not very much on the ribs themselves, but lots more on the side if you ask) and lovely smokey flavor. The brisket was not all that good--on the dry side, and only made palatable by the sauce, but the ribs made up for it, as the second best beef ribs we've ever eaten. I loved the cornbread, which was moist and flavorful, but would also like to try the garlic toast next time. The potatoes were great as well--highly seasoned with BBQ spices, and very nicely cut and fried, but I could definitely live without the baked beans, which were mealy and bland, with no particular flavor to speak of. Still, we can't wait to go back and try the pork ribs--Robert had always been a pork rib fan, preferring them to beef ribs, until leaving the northeast, at which point, for some reason, beef ribs become much more reliably good and pork ribs run the risk of being too fatty. I also want to go back to try the Texas fried yams--I have very high hopes for these, but 1) Robert is not much of a sweet potato fan, and 2) they cost something like $1.75 over the shoestring potatoes, so they had better be good!
- Barney's Beanery--8447 Santa Monica Boulevard, just east of La Cienega, West Hollywood (free valet parking, street parking; 323-654-2287)
We first went to Barney's in December of 1998, and have been back two or three times since then (it is a litttle out of our way, or else we'd have come more often). The first thing that has to be said about Barney's is that it's an inexpensive restaurant in West Hollywood, which means that it attracts a very diverse crowd. Frequently there are people in the restaurant with oddly colored hair, or shaved heads, and at least once there appeared to be a group of about twelve thirty-somethings in nightgowns and pajamas--or possibly in costume, although it was in July. You should also know that their menu is extensive, their service ususally slower than slow, and their decor (at right) a mix of street signs, beer ads, newspapers on the ceilings, tons of TVs, old-fashioned light-fixtures, and brightly-colored booths--eclectic, to say the least, but the overall effect is warm and comfy. The first time we went, we were able to order a six beer or cider sampler from their many beers on tap, but other times they seem not to have had this. The number of ciders on tap has also dropped from five to two (a very very dry English apple cider and the sweet and pleasant Canadian Wyder's pear), though I assume their long list of beers on tap and in bottles has remained about the same (not being a beer drinker, I haven't really checked). As far as we can tell, the menu--which includes everything anyone could want for breakfast, tons of sandwiches, hot dinners, Mexican things, pizzas, burgers, and lots of appetizers--is divided into Things One Will Order Once, and Never Again versus Things One Will Order Once, and Crave Forever. For us, it's been pretty haphazard figuring out which items fall into which category. The most recent time we went to Barney's, we took Amit, Jason, and Alessio to watch Monday night football (which attracts a much more manly crowd than other nights) and feast (you can see the boys at left, transfixed by the game on the many TVs; below is a sample of the TVs).
We had to move to a different table so Alessio could better see the game, and the waitress didn't seem to like us very much (Alessio would scowl and hold out his hands and plead, loudly, "What? What are you doing?" when a dish took awhile to arrive. I'm sure that made her like us even more), but once we were settled we took advantage of Barney's weeknight pre-7pm happy hour: beers and ciders on tap are $2 or $2.50, and selected appetizers (huge platters full) are $3. We sampled the mozzerella sticks (basic but good), the zucchini sticks (somewhat soggy), the hot wings (not quite your typical buffalo-style wing, according to Robert, but okay nonetheless), and the superb Irish nachos (pan-fried potato chunks topped with guacamole, cheese, chilli, and sour cream, like real nachos--an immensely satisfying and original dish). And this, all before dinner! Amit daringly ordered the corned beef and cabbage; it looked a little scary, and came with a rather viscous clam chowder which I had once before and would avoid in the future (still, it's decent if you're not used to New England clam chowda and steaming hot July chowdafests in downtown Boston). Alessio ordered a cheeseburger with slices of avocado on it--I've also had this burger before, and this is my ideal burger (it's huge, tasty, and the amount of avocado on it threatens to overwhelm the bun). Jason ordered the foot-long hot dog topped with chilli--though he liked the chilli, the hot dog was nearly too salty to eat, and, when split in half, a shade of red inside more fitting a Polish sausage than a good old Americna hot dog. I would avoid the hot dogs in the future, too--though it was indeeed impressively long. I had the strawberry Belgian waffles, a gamble, to be sure, but one that paid off--the batter was very nicely flavored and the waffles themselves were quite light. We've also ordered the beef ribs at Barney's, and have to say those were disappointing. Basically, stick to the beers, the burgers, and the potato dishes and you'll be fine, but beyond that, I really can't advise you. Oh, one other thing--their dessert list is not extensive. Plan on going somewhere else for dessert (when at long last the four-hour long football game ends and you are released, that is), like Sweet Lady Jane--due south of Barney's on Melrose. They're open till 11, and have the best cakes and tarts around. Still, something about the burgers and the atmosphere calls me back to Barney's every so often--I like the place, darn it, and will be back. I couldn't imagine anywhere better to be trapped during another football game.
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