Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dream Date: Panos Pastry's Ma'amoul

Like many ethnic enclaves in America, Little Armenia is entwined with its neighbor, Hollywood’s Thai Town. Before the last Los Angeles Press Club gathering I attended at the Steve Allen Theater, I headed west on Hollywood Boulevard to check out Panos Pastry.

Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but the date- filled ma’amoul at Panos Pastry are among Lori Shahbazian’s family jewels.

After owning and operating his eponymous bakery for 14 years, Panos Zetlian, a native of Beirut, Lebanon, arrived in Los Angeles in the 1980s and in ten years, opened the shop in Hollywood and another in Glendale. Along with the requisite baklava, marzipan, and other Middle Eastern delights, the bakery features homemade chocolates by Panos’s daughter Jovina Shahbazian, and as if that weren’t enough, L.A.’s best ma’amoul.

A YouTube video of a clip from “The Secret Life of Cookies” shows the Zetlian/Shahbazian family showing host Jim O’Conner how ma’amoul are made. One bite of these treats – the date version in particular – will make you want to spin, much like merry bakers did in imitation of the formidable Hobart that mixes the dough.

“They’re full of vitamins from the fresh dates,” says Lori Shahbazian, Panos’s granddaughter, who has worked in the bakery since she was a kid. “A, B, C, the whole alphabet is in there. Dates are high in alkaline, which balances your pH levels.”

Nutritional facts aside, ma’amoul – which are also filled with pistachios or walnuts, another superfood - are just plain good, made with clarified butter and the grainy goodness of semolina that make them crumble and melt in your mouth. And they are one pastry that, like the ubiquitous black-and-white cookie, represents an idea of world peace: Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike in the Levantine nations all enjoy them during their respective holidays.

Look to the cookie... but save the date ma'amoul for me!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Meet the Marks: Fig Lollipops at The Factory

My co-worker Mark C. and his husband – who is also named Mark – live in a hidden oasis of just west of Atlantic Avenue in Bixby Knolls. Their neighborhood, which is known as the Virginia Country Club, is made up of wide, old-fashioned streets from the days when Long Beach was known as “Iowa by the Sea.” A few blocks away are mansion-esque homes that have been used extensively in films to stand in for places like suburban Chicago in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and the fictional town of Middlesex, Virginia in “Donnie Darko.” Even their house - which Mark C. jokes is on the lower end of the country club food chain - was used for a Domino’s Pizza commercial once.

On our way to the First Friday artwalk on Atlantic, we stopped at The Factory, a family-friendly gastropub that opened in 2009. Ordinarily, you would not expect to find tempranillo and temper tantrums – thankfully, we did not witness any of these – under the same roof. But The Factory beckons to one and all and to bring the kids for mini Happy Cow burgers and grilled cheese.

How many licks does it take to get to the center of a fig lollipop?

Perhaps it is this playful spirit that inspired the fig lollipop tapas, which were hands-down our favorite appetizer that night. Organic dried figs that are stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped in bacon and drizzled with a fig balsamic reduction are probably not for the Tootsie Pop set, but their parents, aunts, uncles, and babysitters will love them. They taste like the holidays: sweet, spicy, and porky, all at once.

The world may never know.

Mark B. and I had Bixby Blue Burgers made with 10 oz. grass-fed beef patties and Mark C. had the Drunken Seafood Noodles, a global wonder made with Japanese udon noodles and smoked Spanish pimenton . We didn’t have room for dessert, but really, we had already had it with our inventive appetizer.

Tangled up in blue: More of the odiferous queso on the Bixby Blue burger.

Ironically, “The Factory” was also the name of Andy Warhol’s original studio throughout the 1960s, and was the legendary site of wild parties whose guest lists – and probably crashers – included the likes of Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, Truman Capote, Martha Graham, and Mick Jagger. Definitely no kids allowed.

Spicy udon noodles with shrimp and calamari in a mini-paella pan... It's a small world, after all.

Long Beach’s First Friday doesn’t boast a lot of celebrities, unless you count the denizens of Gallery Expo, which include David Rodriguez and Douglas Orr, the former owners of Atlantic's dearly departed Four Olives Café. The pair has turned their talents to curating shows of Long Beach’s best and brightest at Expo. The cornucopia of painting, sculpture, photography, and found object art – we really liked the “robots” made from a variety of vintage electronic parts and tools – was a great ending to an eclectic evening with great food and new friends.