Sunday, December 30, 2012

Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Another Westside Icon Disappears With Closure of Junior's Deli

I was distraught when Anna's, the old school Italian ristorante with its red checkered tablecloths, encyclopedic menus, and ancient wait staff, closed its doors in 2010. I was - make that, still am - beside myself when they closed the Barnes & Noble at the corner of Pico and Westwood a year ago, taking away the Westside's last outpost of cozy-alone-in-a-crowd possibility. And tomorrow, after 53 years  of providing classic deli comfort food and ambience near the corner of Pico and Westwood, Junior's Delicatessen will close its doors.

Junior's iconic sign, with its mid-century joie de vivre,
has graced Westwood Boulevard for 53 years.
Photo by Shiho Nakaza

Shiho and I enjoyed a last brunch at the famed spot today. At around 10 a.m., the place was packed. We were told the wait was 30 minutes, which we accepted without protest. We fortified ourselves with coffee from Starbucks (me) and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (Shiho), since the counter was untypically packed with diners and in the chaos, there was no way to get just a cup of coffee. But it was forgiveable.

I stood around shyly in the restaurant's lobby when Shiho left to get coffee at CBTL. Since I've been on vacation for a couple of weeks, my interview skills are a bit rusty and my usual desire to question strangers is on hiatus. And it seemed, well, unseemly to chat up the throngs of Junior's fans, who like me, were experiencing gastronomic bereavement with our impending loss. But I eavesdropped on conversations about buying "our last corn rye," watched people take photos of each other in front of empty bakery cases and under the restaurant's signage, and marveled at the sheer volume of customers in general, who, as I was assured by Miguel at the front cashier desk, were not a typical Sunday crowd.

Love for sale: The bakery's last cakes,ever.

My friend Mark, who had grown up in the neighborhood, introduced me to Junior's years ago. He had raved about their scrambled eggs with lox and onions, which was available on the menu all day. I remember eating dinner there with him one night when the power went out for a couple of minutes and the restaurant was dark. Although the din of conversation ceased briefly,  I recall a strange feeling of reassurance despite the pitch black dining room, as if our companionship and the food on the table were a safeguard against any intrusion or discomfort. When the lights came on again a moment later, the sounds, sights, and smells of a bustling restaurant returned to focus as if nothing had happened. Since then, I have returned to Junior's faithfully over the years, alone or with friends, dependent upon the restaurant as one of those rare sanctuaries of delicious and wholesome food in a comfortable atmosphere.

This morning, through a window in the lobby, I could see several bakers working steadily to fill advance orders that must have been called in when the restaurant's closure was announced earlier this week. They were also making breads and rolls to supply the restaurant's needs, but cakes, babkas, and other baked goods were no longer being produced. Rows of pre-boxed bundt and pound cakes were stacked on top of the glass cases, like orphaned puppies hoping to find a loving home.

The inner workings of Junior's bakery, where industrious bakers
performed the last rites on a soon-to-be-abandoned kitchen.

Contained in what were normally bountiful and tempting cases of baked goods were two lonely trays of rugelach, a treat that has as many different spellings as it has flavors. As a faithful fan of the variety of Canter's bakery, I was never bowled over by the seemingly modest offerings at Junior's. However, knowing that the restaurant would be closed by the end of the next day made the last two pans of rugelach look like the crown jewels.

I bought a bagful of rugelach to nibble on with our coffee and now am regretting it, because at this late date, I have decided that they were the best rugelach I have ever had. The chocolate chip, of course, won out over the more authentic walnut and cinnamon (see reference to "The Lesser Babka.") Not only were the cookies generously laden with tiny chocolate chips, but they were crisp and flaky and melted in our mouths. They were almost diet-conscious, formed as they were in miniature, about a third the size of typical rugelach specimens. However, I would hesitate to ascribe to them the magic number of a 100 calorie nosh - especially as we ate about half a dozen each while waiting to be seated.
The last chocolate chip rugelach at Junior's -
not to be confused with "arugula." These go
better with coffee.

I love sweet and sour cabbage soup because of Junior's. But sadly, it is only their version that I love - a piquant broth of tomatoes, cabbage, with generous chunks of tender flanken. Since then, I have tried it at every deli in L.A. without discovering any other version that I liked nearly as well, which didn't really matter when I thought that Junior's would be there forever.

I had talked the soup up so well that Shiho ordered it (see her awesome sketch!) today with her lox and eggs. Ironically, it did not contain the fabled beef chunks, which when you know a restaurant is closing the next day, makes some sense. But I was disappointed nonetheless. A part-time vegetarian who had never had the soup before, Shiho was nonplussed by the absence of meat, and loved the soup with its tangy broth. She packed it to go, joking that she would add bits of her Honeybaked ham from Christmas dinner to give it a meaty embellishment.

Breakfast of champions: Lox, eggs, and onions
Several items have been 86'd from the menu - including the actual menus themselves. Miguel said that they were all given away or pilfered, and will probably appear on Ebay soon as collector's items. We had to order from stained paper to-go menus, one of which I snatched off a prep station and stashed in my purse as a memento.

There is talk of relocating Junior's elsewhere. Although most people I have spoken to have said that it hasn't been their favorite deli, you wouldn't know it from the crowds that have gathered for one last meal there. Landmarks like it make a neighborhood, are depended on by locals, and treasured by visitors, who will travel a loving pilgrimage for miles to a favorite spot.

I now need to invoke the First Amendment. GMS has never really been a forum for any deep controversy. However, with all the blame game stories about the closure of Junior's that point the finger at greedy landlords or the tarnishing of a restaurant's legacy, I feel that I want to put my mandelbrot where my mouth is.

Say what you will about the public's refusal to pay $13 for a sandwich or the changes in the Los Angeles demographic, i.e., thinly veiled references to a dwindling population of Jewish food lovers. However, when you can get a native Okinawan and a Filipina-American to walk into a deli (sounds like a bad joke, nu?) and get them to kvell over a bowl of soup and some flaky pastries, you've done more for international relations than the UN has done in seven decades.
Simply called "cabbage soup" on
Junior's menu,the name belies a
robust and flavorful broth.
Photo by Shiho Nakaza

As is the case with any tradition that has become over time, an integral part of what we consider America's cuisine, the delicatessen is a dying art form. Food is an important aspect of modern Jewish culture that has the potential to encourage in non-Jews an appreciation for that culture and its history in a warm and profound way. The melting pot at the corners of Pico and Westwood, which offers a variety of cuisine from every corner of the world, from lamb vindaloo to homemade soba, will be much diminished indeed with the absence of Junior's Deli. Very much like a bowl of cabbage soup without flanken.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why My Nephew Should Be President Someday

In the midst of all the 2012 election hoopla, Seiji wrote this letter for a class assignment on persuasion. It really impressed me as a no-nonsense approach to a problem, an example of how even a ten-year-old could find a simple and economic solution. If only balancing the national budget without sacrificing the necessities were that simple! Read and discuss:

Mural of spot-on J.R.R. Tolkien quote, borrowed from here.

Dear Lunch Ladies:

I am Seiji, a ten-year-old in Omuro Sensei’s class.  I am writing to you about our lunch closing time.  Please extend the time for selling lunch so that the fifth graders who come late to lunch will still get food.  I have a few reasons for this.

If a kid comes late to the cafeteria there will be no lunch for him.  He will either starve, or beg for food from other people, which isn’t very polite.  In other words, if he did get lunch he would be eating well and his parents won’t have to be concerned about him starving.  If he tells his mom about that he had to starve at school with no food, she would then make his food every day so then you wouldn’t get as much money as before and your profit would go down.

Another reason is that if he doesn’t get enough food he will not have the energy he needs to study in class.  And if he does not pay attention in class he will have to ask the teacher too many questions and will get in trouble with the teacher for not listening, which is not fair because he just didn’t get enough lunch.  If he doesn’t listen or notice, he will not know how to do his assignment and would have to call a friend to ask questions.  This would probably annoy his friend, especially if there are a lot of questions.

Finally, a student without enough food wouldn’t have the energy to finish his homework.  He would either complain to his mom, who may be tired from work, that he’s hungry or just stay up late doing homework. Or he might have to do most of his homework in the morning, especially if he has a lot of activities like sports or music like I do.  The next day in school, he would be tired and in P.E. he would try as little as an ant to do the activities, which would affect his grade if this cycle continues daily.

I know that extending lunch may cost the time and extra money.  However, the food left over could be eaten by you, or can be put in the refrigerator and be used for another day.  This way you can keep the profit, and may save time and money because the food is already cooked.

Again, please take this seriously and extend your time for selling lunch for the good of our grades, energy, and stomachs.  Thank you for your time in reading this letter and again, please consider this suggestion as a way to keep the money going.



Epilogue: Seiji's friend, whose parents own a restaurant, wrote a similar letter addressing the quality of the cafeteria's food. If the children are our future, we're in good hands.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Life of Pie: The Great Pumpkin Strikes Again

Seiji recently did a book report on "Hatchet," a youth novel by Gary Paulsen. In it, the 13-year-old protagonist survives a plane crash. Although a city boy lost in the wilderness, he is resourceful and manages to achieve food and shelter somehow with the use of his wits and a hatchet that his mother had given him.

Friends don't let friends pull pumpkin guts alone.
As I roasted one pumpkin after another one recent Saturday, I felt as if I too was stranded in some primitive baking wilderness. Despite easy access to perfectly fine, even organic canned pumpkin, I was somehow compelled to make pies this year from scratch, after hearing Matt's description of how he used to do the same. I thought this would make a good babysit activity for my nephews, so the four of us embarked on a pie odyssey that has ruined me for the frozen pumpkin pies of my own childhood.

As the saying goes, pie is indeed easy. But having several extra pairs of hands and almost an entire day to bake really helps. Pumpkin selection is key: don't be fooled by the pretty ones with the fluted sides that look like Cinderella's coach. You need the ones that are labeled, "pie" or "sugar" pumpkins. The ideal ones are a bit larger than a bocce ball, and about as tough. Great care must be taken when cutting them in half, and wimp that I am, I waited until the pumpkin was almost cooked through and soft enough to wrestle the stem off of it.

Matt shows off his "Ginsu Knife" skills.

The hands-on kid factor comes early on in the process. Relying on the natural destructive tendencies of the male youth, I set the boys to work on cleaning out the pumpkin seeds and guts. Even Seiji, who isn't the sous chef that Kenzo is, fell to the task with great enthusiasm.

Another thing that the male of the species is useful for is doing a really good job at scraping the pumpkin shells clean. Already exhausted from cutting and baking two or three pumpkins by myself, I let Matt take over with the rest, which he did with astonishing finesse.

For every pair of pumpkin halves, I lined a baking sheet with aluminum foil and placed them cut side down. These are baked for about a hour at 350 degrees or until they are fork tender.

Once the steaming pumpkin flesh is cool enough to handle, it can be easily scooped out of the rind and pureed. We fired up Jolene's food processor and eyeballed it as intently as Samuel Morse watching the first telegraph coming into existence. Matt had warned against stringiness in the puree, but the batter actually came out fairly smooth, with a few tiny but soft chunks of pumpkin to let the tongue know that this did not come out of a can.

As lead researcher on the project, Matt found three different recipes online. I chose the one that sounded the tastiest, with plenty of spices and the option of using heavy cream instead of canned evaporated milk. The batter is not the typical rusty orange hue that commercial pumpkin pies boast, but knowing that it was all natural made the results more appetizing for me.

When in doubt, just add chocolate.

We doubled the recipe, which yielded about three pies per batch. In our ever-vigilant mission to avoid too much sugar, Matt and I decided to reduce the recipe's proportions a bit. However, this made the first batch of pies a bit bland, except for the one I decided to dress up with a layer of Ghirardelli's 60 percent cacao chocolate chips at the bottom. This makes for a surprisingly luxe combination of flavors, which compensated for the inadequate sweetness. The holidays only come once a year - you've got to live a little!

My miniature chefs also assisted with the necessary pie crust prep work. While other kids were reading Jack and Jill and Highlights, I was reading Mad Magazine and Family Circle. From the latter, I learned that the bottom and sides of a pie crust should be pricked with a fork, a task that S + K applied themselves to with great gusto. Kenzo also enjoyed testing the pies as they came out of the oven with the requisite toothpick test for doneness. I had to tell him, however, that you only have to poke the pie once or twice, not 32 times. In addition, I covered the edges of my frozen pie shells with strips of foil to prevent burning. Sounds silly, but it works!

Baking brothers: Not sure why poking holes in the crust is
necessary, but it gave S + K something to do!
Baking is a lot like yoga, flying, or trying to survive in the wilderness. There are moments of extreme apprehension and fear of the unknown. There are obvious rewards like a firm core, the exhilaration of flying a plane, or knowing that you can cope with whatever comes.

But better than all of these rewards, baking is something that is best when shared, whether the experience, the hopefully tasty results or an irresistible combination of both. My best memories of baking as a kid - albeit a kid that was old enough to use the oven - include a sense of empowerment, as well as a warm feeling that I was able to provide others with something they could enjoy.  Friends who don't bake can always eat!

Pumpkin Pie From Scratch - Almost!

•    2 cups of pumpkin pulp purée plus extra, from a sugar pumpkin or from canned pumpkin purée
•    1 1/2 cup heavy cream or 1 12 oz. can of evaporated milk
•    1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
•    1/3 cup white sugar
•    1/2 teaspoon salt
•    2 eggs plus the yolk of a third egg
•    2 teaspoons of cinnamon
•    1 teaspoon ground ginger
•    1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
•    1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
•    1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
•    1 good crust (I cheated with the frozen kind, but recommend this yummy whole wheat crust recipe if you are willing to make the effort!)

(To make pumpkin purée from a sugar pumpkin: start with a small-medium sugar pumpkin, cut out the stem and scrape out the insides. Cut the pumpkin in half and lay cut side down on a rimmed baking sheet lined with silpat or aluminum foil. Bake at 350°F until fork tender, about an hour to an hour and a half. Remove from oven, let cool, scoop out the pulp.

Alternatively you can cut the pumpkin into sections and steam in a saucepan with a couple inches of water at the bottom, until soft. If you want the pulp to be extra smooth, put it through a food mill or chinois.)

"Black Bottom" pumpkin pie

1)   Preheat oven to 425°F.

2)   Mix sugars, salt, and spices, and lemon zest in a large bowl. Beat the eggs and add to the bowl. Stir in the pumpkin purée. Stir in cream. Whisk all together until well incorporated.

3)   Pour into pie shell and bake at 425°F for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes reduce the temperature to 350°F. Bake 40-50 minutes, or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean.

4) Cool pies on a wire rack for two hours - or until you can't wait any longer and have to sample a slice!

Helpful Hints:

1)    We doubled the recipe, with each batch yielding three pies. Also, we added a ¾ cup or so of extra pumpkin and 1 tsp. (for double batch) of vanilla extract.

2)    Cover the edge of the pie crust with aluminum foil to avoid burning.

3)    I didn’t use the cardamom, but that would be a tasty addition to the melange of spices.

4)    Yes, this is a perishable item - please store it in the refrigerator, if it lasts that long! I read that the baked pies do not freeze well, as the custard will get watery. However, baked pumpkin can be frozen for a couple of weeks in advance.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Hope "Springs" Eternal: Brodard's Signature Appetizer is on a Roll

There seems to be a misconception that spring rolls are a better appetizer than egg rolls because they are not deep-fried. I have an addendum to this: spring rolls just plain taste better than egg rolls, period.

Friends don't let friends eat spring rolls without Brodard's
warm and piquant sauce! Anna and I enjoying the
famed grilled pork sausage spring rolls. Photo by Matt Palmer
While the classic shrimp filling is always a treat, tofu is actually a great guilt-free option for spring rolls. The other side of the coin is the pork sausage spring roll at Brodard's Restaurant in Garden Grove.

Nem nướng cuốn is the Vietnamese name for the grilled slices of pork sausage that vaguely resemble slices of Spam. The term, "Nem Nướng" is also emblazoned like a credo on the uniforms of the food servers at Brodard's.

"E pluribus unum." "In vino veritas." These are memorable slogans. What translates to "grilled pork paste" may not be on everyone's lips, but Anna, Karen, Matt, and I were happy to have it on our plates at Brodard's.

The je ne sais quoi of the spring roll is its economy of presence that belies its flavorful impact. A tightly wrapped bundle of a tasty protein, artistically placed shreds of carrot, daikon, and cucumber, and mint leaves doesn't sound like a lot. When combined with Brodard's unusual house sauce - a cross between a remoulade and the ubiquitous Sriracha - the result is like comfort food with a kick. And a crunch. And some zip.

Bánh xèo is a tasty Southeast Asian twist on the French crepe,
with fresh textures and plenty of crunch factor.
Also notable was the bánh xèo, my favorite Vietnamese dish, next to pho, of course. The cheery yellow crepe gets its color and coconut-like scent from the addition of tumeric. It is filled with shrimp, chicken, bean sprouts, and other vegetables, and is eaten by wrapping pieces of the pancake in lettuce leaves and garnishing it with more greenery such as mint, or in Brodard's case, the refreshing Japanese herb, shiso.

Anna, who grew up in Vietnam, says that "xèo" refers to the sound that the crepe batter makes when hitting a sizzling hot griddle.

The unanimously favored dish on the table was the roasted duck salad, garnished with huge shrimp chips. These are a throwback for almost anyone who grew up in an Asian household. The ones we ate as kids were terribly greasy, but came in appetizing candy colors. The shrimp chips at Brodard's were a natural ivory color and were non-greasy and light - today's additive-conscious parents would approve.

We did get some vivid color with our dessert. The ever-popular French macaron beckoned from the display case by the front door, in vibrant and tempting rows of sweetness. I snapped up a few for a sweet treat later, as we were all pretty full. We enjoyed them with a beer (?) at Karen's. Not my first choice of an accompanying beverage for macarons, but on a warm autumnal afternoon with friends, it worked pretty well.

Before the miracle of the Internet, we in the United States previously learned about unusual foods from previously unknown and mysterious cultures only because we ended up going to war with or against them. However, as human nature eventually realizes, we are stronger when we combine forces rather than when we pull them apart. The proof is in the pudding. Or in Brodard's case, in the matcha, salted caramel, durian, and coconut macarons.Tiếng Gọi Công Dân; Vive le France.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Giving Thanks for Three Years of GMS

Emboldened as one who had eaten too many meals eaten with no company but my own voice narrating the experience in my head, I launched "Girl Meets Soup" three years ago. I didn't exactly know where I was going with this blog. I had this far-flung vision of a book - which I still aspire to achieve. But along with that, I was enjoying discovering new spots - new to me, anyway - where I could eat, relax, and revel in my hard-earned singledom.

A lot has happened since then, especially in these pages. Painstaking documentation of an amateur chef's efforts, recognition by the L.A. Press Club, my habitual rendezvous with pho, delis, and the more-than-occasional bakery.

Since this is the season of harvest and thanksgiving, with all the schmaltzy sentiment that entails, I am going to ask you, dear readers, to share what or who you are thankful for with GMS. So far, I am grateful for my yoga class, those buttery mints with the jelly centers that they have at the Faculty Center, and friends like Peter, who knew even before I said so that I wanted stories about what everyone is grateful for over the last three years.

Find your bliss: I'm always grateful for a clean restroom.
This one - and the fabulous shadow on the wall from a
fortuitously placed window stencil - at Cafe Gratitude in Venice.

Actually, I have no other friends like Peter, but that's another story. So, in celebration of the last 36 months of GMS – and to narrow it down and hopefully make it easier – please let us know what you are most grateful for that has come your way within this span of time.

Although many factors dictate that fall and winter are the seasons of celebration according to our mainstream calendar, it does stand to reason that one takes stock at the end of the year. No real deadlines here, although it would be wonderful to have several of your stories by Thanksgiving (Nov. 22); and please feel free to send as many as you wish. Moreover, I am hoping that this little exercise teaches us all to get into the habit of gratitude all year long.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Café Gratitude: I Am So There

The greatest drawback to living on the Westside is the traffic. The area near UCLA is prone to mini-Carmageddon snarls and visits from a campaigning presidential hopeful. The other day after work, there was an inexplicable amount of traffic that kept me trapped on the streets of Westwood Village for nearly an hour.

L.A. Traffic: Cute in miniature, not so cute when you're
in it.
It's amazing that Los Angelenos accept these conditions. I offer no solution, so I am part of the problem myself - I refuse to carpool or take a bus. In Southern California, one's car is a symbol of freedom, a cruel irony when one realizes how many hours and hours and hours are spent sitting in traffic.

Another sad irony of life in L.A. is that getting to an exercise session that is supposed to provide inner peace is usually fraught with stress and anxiety because of the aforementioned traffic. Because of the unexpected traffic jam, I didn't make my 6:30 yoga class. Although I knew I wasn't going to make it, I headed up to The Yoga Collective anyway on principle, hoping against hope that I would be able to slide into class a few discreet minutes late.

Green, green, it's green they say: Cucumber-honeydew
gazpacho with mint
By the time I reached the studio, it was almost 7 p.m. It would be incredibly rude to sneak into class at that point, so I decided to do something I am usually too on task to do when I do attend my class: have dinner at Café Gratitude next door.

Café Gratitude is known for its optimistically named dishes. They are titled with affirmations ranging from " I Am Happy," (a raw food wrap with live falafels,  hummus, and veggies) to "I Am Fabulous" (heirloom tomato, spinach and arugula lasagna layered with zucchini noodles, hempseed basil pesto, and cashew ricotta).

I was considering the 8:30 p.m. yoga class although it seemed too late to stay out on a work night. I wanted to eat light, and opted for "I Am Adventurous" (honeydew and cucumber gazpacho with mint) and "I Am Grateful," CG's grain bowl with shredded kale, quinoa or brown rice, and black beans topped with garlic-tahini sauce.

I thought that "Grateful" would be like a small side dish. I had envisioned tiny shreds of kale and dry, crumbly quinoa, but both of these ingredients were almost luxurious in quality and portion size. A generous amount of perfectly steamed kale, mildly seasoned black beans, and fluffy quinoa were complemented by a subtle yet flavorful garlic-tahini sauce, a perfect complement to the earthy dish.

Almost-instant karma: "I Am Grateful" makes
you realize that you should be.
The menu states that the dish is a community-supported offering, available for a minimum donation of $3 or for the suggested value of $7. I had also read on the Website that paying $14 for "Grateful" would feed someone in need as well. The servers at the counter said that the restaurant supported St. Joseph Center, a Venice-based nonprofit.

What used to be euphemistically called "health food" sure has come a long way. While vegan and organic cuisine is nearly mainstream, there is a certain je ne said quois to eating this way, especially for someone like me, who grew up predominantly on a hearty American meat and starch-based diet. I never thought I would be into this type of food, but I guess I am now.

Not my version of this photo, but we've all taken this one.
It's good that we all strive to be on the same page,
if only for a moment.
Don't get me wrong. I still think that bacon and chocolate deserve their own food groups. However, being able to actually enjoy more healthy options makes indulging in the occasional meatball sandwich that much more pleasurable. And typically, a cuisine like that of Café Gratitude is served with a dose of social consciousness and a vision of harmonious living for all. Whether one subscribes to all of that is up to the individual. But it isn't such a bad thing to think about when seeking nourishment in all its forms.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Great Scot: Oatmeal Gets Its Due

Professor John McNeil, who is about 93-years-old and long retired from the Department of Education at UCLA, still arrives on campus around 5:30 a.m., walks the track, and has his breakfast at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, a meal which often consists of oatmeal. He shared the story of the British lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who traveled to Scotland with his friend and intellectual sparring partner James Boswell, a Scottish lawyer, author, and diarist.

Desk set: Trader Joe's Steel-Cut Oats with
Rosemary Marcona Almonds and Greek yogurt

Johnson turned his nose up at the Scots' fondness for oatmeal, and in his "Dictionary of the English Language" which was published in 1755, he defined oats as "A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland, appears to support the people." In Boswell's biography of Johnson, Patrick Murray, the 1st Lord Elibank, was credited with the retort, "Yes, and where else will you see such horses and such men?"

Oats are deeply ingrained (pun intended) in Scottish cuisine as a staple, being better suited than wheat to the country's short and wet growing season. It is used as a coating for Caboc cheese and is a main ingredient for such delicacies as black pudding, skirlie, and haggis. For less adventurous palates, oats are used in the baking of bannocks or oatcakes, a stylish and tasty alternative that my friend and hostess-with-the-mostest Linda Capelli Pierce, adds to one of her celebrated cheese plates.

While the colorful 1943 ditty tells us that
"Mairzy Doats and Dozy Doats," it doesn't
explain how mares and does balance a spoon
between their hooves.

According to Wikipedia, ancient universities of Scotland observed a holiday called Meal Monday to permit students to return to their farms and collect more oats for food. Access to a steaming cup o' the "parritch" is a lot simpler for us at UCLA. Just about every morning pit stop en route to campus offers the warming and healthy cereal, including Peet's Coffee and Tea, McDonald's, and The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. With more moxie than a McMuffin and more brawn than a bagel, oats in either the instant or the steel-cut variety also provide a good source of B-complex vitamins, iron, and protein. In addition, a well-known health fact about oatmeal is its ability to help lower cholesterol levels as an excellent source of fiber.

My foodie friend Anna brings her steel-cut oatmeal from home and covers it with fresh berries, a colorful and nutritious morning repast. I was addicted to the blackberry-blueberry sauced version at Jamba Juice, and will fall back on that when in a hurry. But when feeling creative, I whip up Trader Joe's Steel-Cut Oatmeal in Ye Olde Microwave - much easier than stirring it on the stove, and it comes out the same! - and add a variety of toppings depending on what's in my office "pantry."

I'm not a big fan of milk, so I add Fage Greek 0% plain yogurt for needed moisture, and top it off with sliced fresh plums or a sprinkling of TJ's Rosemary Marcona Almonds for a bit of crunch and pine-nut-like zing. But the most decadent topping I came up with seemed the most obvious: chopped dark chocolate with trail mix. It's like having oatmeal cookies for breakfast. Bananas would also work well for those mornings when nothing will do for breakfast but dessert.

Berry photogenic: Anna's oatmeal with
summer fruit. Photo by Anna Hoang

Professor McNeil grew up in Cherokee, Iowa, a small town center for local farmers. His father, George McNeil, was a homesteader, among the first to settle the Iowa prairie in 1880. His mother Elizabeth McCulloch, emigrated from a farm in Highlands Invergorden, Rossshire, Scotland, where she doubtless developed her love of oats.

Over a breakfast of oatmeal at Corner Bakery in Westwood, McNeil and I discussed the issues of the day and what was new on campus. Since I often eat on the fly during the workweek, this was a doubly nourishing repast. Cold oats would not typically sound appealing, but the bowl of chilled Swiss muesli with yogurt and plenty of chopped apples and raisins was delicious. And I didn't have to worry about it getting cold as we chatted, the conversation being the most fortifying element of my morning meal.

Chilled Swiss muesli at Corner Bakery.
Professor McNeil said that when he was a boy, his mother offered him anything he wanted for breakfast - pancakes, bacon, the works - as long as he ate his oatmeal first.

"I was so full after that, I didn't want anything else," he recalls.

I had told Professor McNeil about an editorial on the current disparity between male and female success - at least in the United States - that I have aired in several discussions lately. In it, David Brooks contends that men have not done as well as women in educational and economic arenas lately, largely because of their tendency to adhere to old standards of what is masculine, whereas women have adapted in much the same way that immigrants to a new country do in order to fit in.

George McNeil adapted to the changing economy in the Midwest, and explored the growing railroad industry along with his own attempts at farming and ranching before opening a merchandising business that folded with the advent of the Depression that ultimately influenced the family’s move to the West Coast.

While raising Professor McNeil and his sister, his mother served as a reporter for the town's newspaper. He remembers her immediate response to local events and catastrophes, and even accompanying her on interviews of the town’s personalities.

“Perhaps because of her, I never doubted what women can accomplish,” McNeil wrote to me in an email, reflecting on our talk – and perhaps of being hoodwinked out of a laboriously prepared breakfast by a busy mother!

Morning glory: Professor John McNeil
and his oatmeal at Corner Bakery.

Despite Professor McNeil's healthy breakfast of oatmeal, he often eats dessert for lunch. When I've joined him at the Faculty Center for the midday meal, he dines on a goblet of blackberries and a slice of the cake du jour. I tried to get him to eat something more substantial, but let's face it - once you reach his age, you can pretty much have anything you damned well please. I shudder to think what he has for dinner. But whatever Professor McNeil is eating, it appears to be working. My friend may well have discovered the Fountain of Youth.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Things We Ate Last Summer

Although Sammy Cahn didn't elaborate on "the lunches we used to pack" in his hit, "The Things We Did Last Summer," I can't imagine that they were nearly as good as this summer's moveable feast of good friends sharing good food. Looking back at the last few months, we've covered a lot of ground  - and plates. And ice cream cones. And bakeries. And...

Without further ado, here is a sampling of what "I'll remember all winter long."

Rock and roll: Okay, tuna yukke wasn't technically
a sushi "roll," but it totally rocked!

Tuna Yukke at Kula Revolving Sushi Bar - There is something oddly satisfying about having conveyor belts placidly carry food past your table. It's a feeling like the excitement of flagging down the ladies with their dim sum carts at Empress Pavilion. Since Yayoi, a native of Japan, was willing to eat here, I figured it would be pretty good, and it was.

Sushi would undeniably qualify as a superfood. The two-pieces of Tuna Yukke (spicy tuna with poached egg) packed a protein wallop, leaving barely enough room for more sushi, but I still managed.

Yayoi says that the proper way to eat sushi is sans chopsticks. I found this helpful YouTube video that describes the correct way to enjoy sushi – and this tongue-in-cheek video that tells you what not to do.

Lamb satay at Three Spices: Fun on a stick - except
for any dining partners who might end up with my
portion in their lap!
Another sushi-rific find I enjoyed this summer was the documentary, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." The film, which looks at the life of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, the proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a sushi restaurant that is located in a Tokyo subway station and holds three Michelin stars.

One can hardly compare a place like Kula to a veritable temple of art like Ono's. But there is definitely some sort of spiritual satisfaction that is gained with a cuisine as exacting as sushi, whether it is in the creating of it, or the eating.

Lamb Satay at Three Spices Thai Kitchen - My new UCLA foodie friends and I had decided that our head maven Anna could not possibly have a complete picture of Asian food in Los Angeles unless she experienced the cornucopia of choices in the Torrance/Gardena area.

While the area has been a longtime enclave of Japanese and Japanese Americans, many other types of cuisine have taken a foothold in the last decade or so. We started the cook's tour at Three Spices Thai Kitchen in Gardena. My fondest memories from eating at Three Spices are of accidentally flinging bits of lamb satay across the table while trying to slide them off the skewer with my fork. Dylan doesn't usually mind when that happens, but I decided to behave myself a bit better since I lunching with ladies.

We started with shrimp tom kha soup, a traditional broth of lemongrass and coconut, spiced with galangal, thai chili, and lime juice. We also ordered the lamb satay, which I carefully ate off the skewers. The requisite peanut sauce is elevated to another dimension here, with just enough zingy sweetness to complement the perfectly grilled lamb chunks.

So close, and yet, so far: The bakery case tease while standing
in line at Huckleberry
I still don't know what the "three spices" are, especially since there are about 20 artfully arranged glass canisters lining the window that overlooks the kitchen. But this little gem of a Thai cafe, nestled amid Vermont Avenue's purveyors of ramen and loco moco is top shelf, indeed.

Saturday Morning Brunch at Huckleberry - Breakfast has always been my favorite meal to eat out, despite the fact that on the weekend, it's everyone's favorite meal to eat out. The lines at Santa Monica's Huckleberry are bearable in my opinion, because of the bakery case that provides a hint of the delights to come. By the time Shiho and I reached the cashier to place our order, we had forgotten what we wanted for breakfast, so addled were our brains with the sight of tempting biscuits, cookies, and other treats. With our eyes bigger than our stomachs, we started off with a blueberry crostata, a lime posset, and a maple bacon biscuit. Actually, we also ordered a salted caramel cookie bar, but in our guilt, we had that boxed up to go.

Always eat dessert first - even at breakfast!
The lime posset was a great start to the meal. It looked like a sort of custard, with the clean and simple flavors of fresh cream and the refreshing but not overpowering tang of lime. After that, we sampled the decadent maple bacon biscuit, a flaky cushion of dough flecked with thick and chewy bacon. It was only after our collective curiosity about these guilty pleasures was sated, that we decided to eat our actual breakfast of poached egg atop über-healthy quinoa, a meal meant to atone for the goodies that we ordered while in morning glutton mode.

Eating with Shiho is an exercise in feast and famine, both literally and figuratively. We are both super busy, so we don't see each other all that often. But when we do, we fall effortlessly into the companionable habits of old friends. She is a great listener, and I shamelessly take advantage of that.

When I finally stop talking and glance absentmindedly down at the table, I invariably notice that Shiho's plate is like a palette with a carefully placed swath of paint perched on it. She has this habit of neatly sweeping her food toward her, unconsciously swabbing the plate clean. I have always marveled at this rather admirable quirk of hers. Although I never think much of how my plate looks when I'm eating, I am always suddenly aware when dining with Shiho of how it is always as unorganized as my thoughts.
Clean sweep: Shiho's plate would be the "do"
in a table manners tutorial

I can almost justify it with the knowledge that she is an artist and therefore tends to be neat and methodical in her work, especially with the painstaking care needed to render her amazing watercolors. I am a writer and only have to worry about keeping track of several screens open at once on a monitor. Or, I can simply face the truth and admit that I'm just a messy eater.

Afternoon Tea at Chantilly Patisserie - While a bakery is always a great place to start the day, they are a pretty good place to greet the afternoon as well. Our South Bay Asian food crawl brought Karen, Anna, and myself to Chantilly Patisserie in Lomita, home of the Choux aux Sésames. A cream puff flecked with black sesame seeds, is filled to order with black sesame cream, a delectable blend of East meeting West in pastry form.

We also enjoyed the Othello, a waggish name for a bar of chocolate and sesame flavored cake. The Gâteau Fraise, a strawberry chiffon confection that lent our little break some fruity zing and girly pink aura, and cups of top-notch coffee gave us the lift we needed after a day of doing what we do best - eating and shopping.

"Umami" burger: Chantilly Patisserie's black sesame cream puff
brings subtle savory to dessert
Flake Ice at Boiling Point - No summer story would be complete without ice cream or frozen desserts. While my favorite discovery this year is the raspberry basil sorbet by N'ice Cream, and Al Gelato's pear sorbet remains among the tried and true, the GMS Award for Most Decadent Frozen Dessert goes to the Green Tea Snow Flake Ice at Boiling Point in Gardena.

It stands to reason that a place that offers its patrons the chance to cook and eat a boiling hot pot of soup at the table, will offer the extreme flip side of this experience for dessert. Flake ice is another dessert innovation from Taiwan, home of the much regaled boba drink. Creamy snowdrifts of what is a cross between shaved ice and soft serve are laden with a variety of toppings, including sweet red bean, tiny boiled peanuts, and a great blob of that flan-like Japanese style pudding.

It's not easy being green - or finishing a Green Tea
Snow Flake Ice at Boiling Point!
As daunting as this confection appeared, the whole thing collapsed when attacked with a spoon. Dylan ordered the blueberry version, which was a pristine white flake ice, covered with a sweet blueberry "jam." While it was also delicious, my taste buds were too busy multitasking with the grainy goodness of adzuki beans, the rich green tea flavor of the flake ice, and the shameless incongruity of the pudding sidecar.

This has been an unusually hot summer, with unprecedented humidity and record temperatures for Los Angeles. But my friends and I have managed to stay cool, at least metaphorically speaking, with a taste for adventure that extends beyond the average Popsicle. Every meal can be an experience, and doubly so when shared with the people who give your life its flavor.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Sound of One Hand Eating

Leave it to me to end up with a food-related injury. While lunging after a Béquet caramel that fell under my desk, I balanced my entire weight on my left hand while grabbing the candy off the floor with my right, in a sort of a one-handed downward facing dog. The next morning, my hand and wrist were painfully swollen from my acrobatics, so I went into the emergency room at Brotman.

The area between my left thumb and my wrist was so puffed up that the doctor could not tell from an x-ray if I had a fracture or not, so I ended up in what the staff optimistically called a splint. It was in reality, a mini-cast. I was instructed to not use my left hand for about a week, and accessorized with a stylish sling in basic black that kept my arm elevated at a right angle. Although the pain had gone away shortly after the cast was applied, I had to maneuver for several days with my left hand and arm almost totally out of commission.

It is fortunate that I am right-handed. I could still do things like drive and go to the gym, despite a number of modifications to my exercise routine. I can type well enough with one hand, but was maddeningly slow and needed to proofread my words even more closely than usual.

Dina Dini, assistant vice president of development,
Marymount College (at left) and me,
as we portray bookends at San Pedro's 1st
Thursday Artwalk. Photo by Brenda Solomon
I cheated a bit because I could, using the four free fingers of my left hand to prop things up or gently push them where I needed them to go. I discovered how useful one’s knees can be in opening bottles of water. And I eventually managed to take photos and save them for future blog posts. My good hand didn’t shake any more than it normally does when I am holding a camera.

On top of all this, the experience of having a physical impairment also turned out to be a real social leveler. The cast proved to be a great conversation piece. Everyone had an injury story to share, whether it had been their mishap or someone else’s. In the same way that you start to notice a certain type of car when you acquire one of them, I began to see my fellow walking wounded everywhere. People of all ages with braces or casts on their arms, crutches, and walking boots came out of the woodwork. Sometimes we would simply acknowledge one another with a look or a nod. Or if the situation presented itself we would commiserate, assessing our respective levels of injury. 

The uninjured were equally curious as well as empathetic of my condition, which was obviously not bad enough to leave me bedridden, but serious enough that I needed to have my arm in a sling. I reassured them that it was temporary and that I was never in any pain – it did look a lot worse than it actually was.

As it turned out, there were about a half-dozen people in my circle who were suffering from various injuries at the same time I had my cast. It seemed as if the universe was telling us to all slow down and pay attention to what we were doing.

Being in the moment takes on a profoundly different meaning when that moment includes making sure that I don’t strain my intercarpal articulations while putting my seat belt on, or while stirring a raw sugar packet into my tall Americano. It also makes me a bit more empathetic when I see those whose physical “limitations” are of a more permanent nature, and who, despite these limits, live their lives to the fullest. In addition to the mental exercise of trying to function as usual with my cast, it was an education in learning how one would actually live with only one hand. 

Work of art: Dylan at LACMA's Coffee + Milk

While the feats of Para Olympians and people  with disability who create art are amazing, we tend to overlook the average person who lives with disability. Unless we are privileged to have a closer look at their lives, whether through a family member or friend, we can never really know what it’s like for them to enact the most ordinary tasks, which many of them do without help.

Although my friend Dylan has for the most part, the use of both hands, he does not possess the same level of dexterity as most people. His movements are minimal but amazingly efficient, despite having having cerebral palsy and then suffering a stroke three years ago. I could not help but think of him when I tried to scrub my elbows in the shower – again, you’d be amazed what you can do with your knees – or maneuver my usual multiple tote bags of daily necessities.

To celebrate the liberation of my arm from its plaster prison, Dylan and I went to the new Coffee + Milk café at LACMA. As GMS’s official Hand Model Extraordinaire (See his debut here!), he presented our post-breakfast, pre-lunch snack of the café’s signature Elvis Cake. The mini-layer cake, which is coated with peanut butter icing and topped with bacon crumbles and a banana slice, is a homage to the King’s favorite sandwich. We consumed it with a mixture of shame and glee.

Dylan and I laugh about how wait staff in restaurants tend to be over-solicitous toward him, plying him with self-conscious attention and extra napkins, and replacements to dropped forks. We joke that they seem to ignore my beseeching look that signals my need for more water or bread. Male servers and restaurateurs often address him as, “My friend,” or “Big guy.” While it’s meant to be kind, I can’t help but think that people say things like that to mask their discomfort at encountering someone who reminds them of the fragility and the vulnerability of human life.

At LACMA, we were surprised that the observation deck above the Metropolis 2 installation was not accessible. I almost gave up, but Dylan was persistent and ambled up three or four flights of stairs in order to view the miniature representation of L.A.'s auto-choked universe at best advantage.

Bacon is the new chocolate: C + M’s Elvis Cake is
a hunk-a-hunk-a bakin’ love.

Dylan manages to open those hermetically sealed Trader Joe's salads, the ones I always break my nails with when hurriedly trying to get at their contents. He knows how to use an espresso machine, a device that is a total mystery to me. And I still am amazed when I remember how he climbed to the topmost row of the stadium seating at the Pacific Culver, simply because that was where my nephews wanted to sit to watch, ironically, the film, “Up.” He made it to the nosebleed seats with one hand on the rail and back down again, hanging onto my nervously stiffening arm. But he did it.

Having known Dylan has made me even more aware of the difficulties in movement that the disabled and elderly have to cope with on a daily basis. But it has also made me more aware of how helpless many disabled people truly are not, despite their physical limitations. Almost anything is conquerable, given a sense of humor and a good attitude.

Except, apparently, for the odd runaway caramel. It wasn't even one of my favorite flavors (Chipotle, if you must know.)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Morning Has Broken: Copenhagen Pastry

Driving home from the gym each morning, I get to see Culver City gradually wake itself up. I watch the line at Arco on Sepulveda grow longer as the minutes tick away toward rush hour, and see the traffic increase slowly but steadily from all directions.

A fresh slice of Copenhagen Pastry's
almond-topped kringle. So good, you need
a plate to give it its due - if the bag makes
 it out of the car, that is!
It was during one of these morning reveries that I noticed the cheerful but elegant façade of Copenhagen Pastry on Washington Boulevard a month or so ago. The empty storefront, which is located west of the mosque and the gun shop, promised its “Coming Soon” with unstinting enthusiasm. So I waited impatiently until I received an email announcing the store’s soft opening at the end of June.

A few days after the bakery opened, I needed to know more. Spoiled by the never-ending glut of information on the Internet, I had searched for photos, information, anything that would reveal the mystery of the new merchants and their wares. But the proof turned out to be in the actual pudding – or rather, the kringle, nougat crown, or any of delectable treats that Copenhagen Pastry offers. There is always something that just came out of the oven, providing lucky customers with a warm and comforting way to start the day.

On my second visit, I complimented the shop's owner, Karen Hansen, on the coffee. The complex and satisfying brew was created by LAMILL Coffee of Silverlake. My first thought upon tasting it – with tastebuds jaded as they are by too much corporate joe – was, “I’m really having a cup of coffee.”

Karen Hansen, proprietor of Copenhagen Pastry, serves
up Danish hospitality along with the shop's amazing coffee
and baked goods

“I tried lots of different blends before I chose this one,” said Hansen, who is a native of Denmark. “I wanted coffee that tasted like it would in Denmark.”

Hansen and her crew are the most hospitable people I’ve ever encountered anywhere at 7 a.m. The shop is clean and spare, qualities that have long been attributed to the Scandinavian aesthetic. The menu is similarly streamlined, featuring a small but focused assortment of traditional Danish pastries and bread. Copenhagen Pastry offers about a dozen varieties daily, with one special weekly items that baker Henrik Gram likes to try out on the customers.

What we know as “Danish” in America is actually called spandauer or wienerbrǿd, which translates as “Vienna bread.” The description of these traditional pastries that I found online refers to a “cake” made from squares of pastry and filled with dollops of apple, almond paste, jam, or various creamy centers.

Maja Almskou fills freshly baked
nougat crowns with hazelnut cream. 
In the United States, we tend to view pastries like these as breakfast. In Denmark, however, breakfast is a much more substantial meal, including cereals such as oatmeal and muesli, and ymerdrys, a yogurt-like product made with soured milk and served topped with breadcrumbs and brown sugar. Hansen likes to sample her own wares at the bakery for breakfast, rotating them for variety.

“I always have the morning poppy [roll], a half of a coffee bread, and then I have the kringle,” she says of her favorites.

Hansen says that traditional Danish pastries are eaten in Denmark at different times of the day, as desserts and for celebrations. She describes rundstykker, a traditional bread roll topped with poppy or sesame seeds that is not a sweet, and often served with cheese or Nutella as a more popular breakfast. She also says that a hearty rye bread – which Copenhagen Pastry offers – is a staple, particularly for children, with its wholesome ingredients including sunflower seeds, black flax seed, rye flour, and rye berries.

“It’s really healthy and low in sodium,” says Hansen. “As soon as [kids] get their teeth, you give them the rye bread. It’s so good for them.”

“This is why the Vikings are so strong,” quips Gram, hefting a newly baked loaf and flexing his biceps.

Move over, Popeye: Copenhagen Pastry's
traditional rye bread gives baker Henrik Gram
his "muskels."
Hansen says that when she was planning to open Copenhagen Pastry, she knew that the shop would have to be in Culver City, with its family-oriented environment and easy freeway access from other Los Angeles communities. She and her staff have grown to rely on their customers – particularly the pint-sized clientele – for feedback on their products, of which they provide generous samples.

“We have good response from the children… because they always tell us what’s [gone] right and wrong,” Hansen quips. “They always have their favorite, and as they come in more times, they want this one or that one. They like to be part of the process of testing and trying out [our pastries].”

Gram, a native of Copenhagen, says that he was led to the baking profession by his parents, who owned a bakery back home. He says that while there are several bakeries that specialize in spandauer in every Danish city, Copenhagen Pastry is a rare authentic taste of home in Los Angeles. Hansen attests to her baker’s training and artistry, having also had a brother who was a baker in Denmark. His recipes, along with Gram’s, are part of the formula to the bakery’s success.

“Denmark has such a rich culture of making pastries,” notes Hansen. “To become a baker in Denmark you have to have four years of an apprenticeship, plus an [official] exam at the end. You really have to know your craft. But it’s also about how each baker handles it. Henrik does not compromise on what he makes. It’s the same with the equipment we have and the products that we use for the baking – we only use the best and that’s it.”

Karen Hansen and Henrik Gram with a
tray of dough for the bakery's signature
"Copenhagen" pastry.

Hansen, who studied interior design at Otis, also strove for authenticity in her design of the bakery’s storefront. She feels that Danish pastries belonged in a place that was as close to a shop that one would find in Denmark.

“They’re little pieces of art,” she says of the delectable inventory. “When you look at the store and the way it’s designed… here’s not a lot to sidetrack you and to look at – it’s all about the pastries.”

I could not agree more. Hansen plans to keep Copenhagen Pastry’s offerings as simple as when they opened the shop three weeks ago. There will be special holidays offerings, such as kransekage, a tower of graduated almond paste cookie rings that is served at Jul and other celebrations throughout the year. She also wants to add a seating area in front of the bakery so that customers can enjoy the pastries at an immediate but leisurely pace without having to ferry them to the office or home.

The elegant red-orange sign on
Washington Boulevard belies the
homey atmosphere within.
I’m all in favor of this decision. Unless the pastries are protected in a box with the bakery’s signature orange seal, they won’t last a car trip with me. Copenhagen Pastry has become part of my morning ritual, delivering a bit of Scandinavian flair and wholesomeness to the bustling burg of Culver City.

I'm taking my time in working my way down the list of pastries, which although I intend them for breakfast, have also found their way into my afternoon tea routine. My favorite so far, is the nougat crown, with its little jewellike blips of chocolate, icing, and hazelnut cream. And the kringle, with the richness of almond paste - not too sweet, and enhanced with fresh sliced almonds on top. And the...

Monday, July 9, 2012

Would You Believe It's Chatsworth?: Strip Malls Reveal Culinary Treasures

One never knows the treasures that lie within the stucco and glass of the modern strip mall. Chatsworth, for all its mountainous and horsey glory, is infamous for being situated on the one of the least tony ends of the San Fernando Valley. However, one needn't travel as far as Ventura Boulevard to enjoy a variety of  inventive eateries tasty enough to please even my jaded Westside tastebuds.

Move over, Sprinkles: Frootsi soothes cravings on all fronts with boba, fro yo, and cupcakes. High marks for the uber-moist mango, with sunny yellow frosting.
A lot of my discoveries were, oddly, inspired by Harvey's personal food memories. That is to say, while a couple of our finds could be traced to dishes from his childhood, his current recollections of food are, shall we say, a bit hazy. He seldom remembers what he ate, except that it was good or bad. Happily, the following were all remembered with the rosy glow of satisfaction and a willingness to return for more. So much in fact, that we have returned to them repeatedly.

How do you eat a tower of French toast? Very, very carefully.
Harvey's mother Dora was ahead of most of her contemporaries as a working woman. She was the executive assistant to the owner of a vacuum cleaner manufacturer in 1950s Montreal. As such, she still had to fry up the bacon although she brought a lot of it home. He remembers her as a solid Canadian-English cook despite her Latvian roots, serving traditional meat and potato meals to her husband and two sons, and dainty tea sandwiches with the crusts cut off to girlfriends who came over to play mah jong.

Still, a few exotic or exciting dishes remain etched in Harvey's memory: An appetizer that his mother prepared by roasting a whole eggplant over the stove's open flame and scooping out its smoky interior onto some salad greens, mamaliga, a cornmeal dish similar to polenta that she made especially for her Romanian husband, and the endless mound of French toast that she would treat the family to on weekends. Harvey remembers that she would continue to fry up the egg-soaked slices of bread and pile them up until they could not see each other over the stack on the kitchen table.

The Country Deli on Topanga Canyon Boulevard seems to have reinterpreted Dora's bountiful vision with their signature tower of French toast. Lengths of ripe banana serve as columns between layers of thick-cut cinnamon swirl bread dipped in egg batter. Fresh strawberries and blueberries provide color and antioxidants and the requisite pancake syrup and whipped butter provide the decadence that can only come with a breakfast designed to defy both gravity and reason.

Like Cantonese carnitas: The Country Deli's Chinese chicken salad makes a believer out of me.
Childhood memories of my own - or in this case, demons - have been recognized and assuaged at Country Deli as well. My loathing of Chinese chicken salad, a dish that is neither Chinese nor much of a salad with its pallid iceberg drenched in sticky sweet and viscous dressing, has been regarded as something akin to treason, along with my failure to view "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" or learn how to roller skate. Little did I know what reward awaited me at this unassuming eatery: a pile of caramelized, crispy, chewy chicken breast atop a bed of crisp romaine and the requisite but still welcome mandarin oranges. I am usually happy feasting simply on the chicken, sans the rich dressing dotted with sesame seeds.

Lamb chops never had it this good - Farm Brothers' weekend BBQ plate
Another surprise, one that goes even further back into the recesses of my childhood, is the avocado smoothie at Pho CT. Although the restaurant is technically in Canoga Park, it goes along with my Topanga Canyon Boulevard smorgasbord. This has become our go-to pho place so far, with a flavorful broth and my default rare beef pho, made with filet mignon.

But the other night, I had to plummet the depths of memory and order one of these pretty green shakes that remind me of my mom's "avocado ice cream" - ripe fruit mashed with milk and sugar, and frozen in ice cube trays with toothpicks, the better to pick them up with. I didn't care for this sweet as a kid, but my (slightly) more sophisticated palate enjoyed the creamy richness of the fruit and my juvenile delight in the fact that you can actually make a dessert with avocado.

Green, green, it's green they say, on the far side of the hill:Pho CT's avocado smoothie

Farm Brothers, which is also located in a strip mall on the east side of Topanga Canyon Boulevard,  is a Russian market owned by an Armenian family. The small grocery store, with its picture-perfect produce, brightly packaged sweets, and fresh-baked cakes, provides more meaty madness. On weekends, the proprietors grill a variety of Mediterranean dishes out front, including what may be the best lamb chop plate this side of Yerevan. Complete with store-made hummus, a cold sort of ratatouille-esque veggie side, lavosh the size of pillowcases, and buttery rice, this takeout-only treat is a bit of old world yum.

Finally, Amazing Siam - which is two doors down from Frootsi and The Second to Last Ms. Pac-Man Machine in the Universe (at Uncle Ernie's Pizza 4-U) - provided a real crosscultural stretch with its dumpling appetizer. 

Feel the burn: Amazing Siam's spicy beef salad is one great bowl of fire.

My standards for Thai and Southeast Asian food have been set impossibly high from my years of feasting at restaurants in Long Beach and its colorful Cambodia Town. However, Amazing Siam lives up to its name with fresh ingredients, magazine-worthy presentation, and hospitable staff. The spicy beef salad, my acid test dish for a new Thai place, did not disappoint. The spring rolls, which are the size of tamales, are fresh and crisp tasting, with just the right amount of shrimp, noodles, and herbs. But it was the potstickers - admittedly not a Thai dish, but a catch-all crowd pleaser - that struck a nostalgic chord.

Dumplings, schmumplings: Amazing Siam's steamed potstickers are a hit in any language.

"It's kreplach," Harvey said delightedly when the plump pockets of pork and vegetables arrived at the table. I'll never know if he was being funny or if he really thought it was some form of Thai kreplach. But it just goes to prove that the more we learn about our differences as people - or as appetizers wrapped in dough - the more we see our similarities.