>> Eat the World LA

Monday, 14 October 2019

Pao's Pastries & Cafe


Without leaving Los Angeles County, you will not come across another place to satisfy your cravings for Bolivian baked goods, coffee, and some platos fuertes other than Pao's Pastries in Van Nuys. Snuggled into the back of a building that faces busy Van Nuys Blvd on its other side, this Friar Street storefront hides away from the main thoroughfare. Despite this, Bolivians in the area all seem to know where to find it, as many came and went during the hour observed on a recent Sunday morning.

Being the most populous neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, you can find a lot of the world in Van Nuys, from East African homes opened up as community feeding centers to evening pupusa stands and Tijuana-style taco vendors to South African sports bars and Syrian kebab shops. More on the rest of these later, but for now a little slice of the Andes and the rich tradition of Bolivia.

Pao's is a tiny shop that packs in the most it can. Handcrafted souvenirs share precious counter space with stacks of cookies and pastries packaged to go. All the small commodities from back home that people might miss have a good chance of ending up here, whether that is a container of alfajores or fresh and hot cheese empanadas known as pukacapas.

Main courses like silpancho (not shown) invoke the cuisine of Cochabamba, well known in Bolivia for having some of the best foods and the most fertile lands in the country. For these reasons, Cochabamba’s two nicknames are “City of Eternal Spring” and “The Garden City.” Much of Bolivia is in harsh lowland-jungle regions of the north and east or high, arid altiplano (plateau) regions of the south and west. A small stretch of land in between these two is home to Cochabamba, a place with a high level of pride.

Wanting to try as much as possible for breakfast, a variety plate was put together including (from back to front) a pukacapa ($1.95), rollo de queso ($1), and two alfajores ($1 each) to add a little sweetness.

Any Bolivian feast begins with multiple salteñas ($3.15 each, below), possibly the most famous food outside the country but beloved by Bolivians just the same. The country’s version of an empanada is almost a work of art, dough wrapped carefully around a juicy meat center that must be eaten with caution to prevent a mess and the molten hot filling from burning your entire face.

The meats (the two above are chicken and beef, differentiated by a few sesame seed sprinkles) are first slow cooked and then frozen. Once wrapped with the slightly sweet shell, they are put in the oven and baked at just the right temperature and duration so that the inside melts but does not boil and cause the skin to burst.

Just as the most popular vendors back home might sell out well before noon, come here on the wrong day and you might find the restaurant out of salteñas as well.

Inside the beef salteña.

It often is fascinating what foods do and do not catch on in the realm of popularity. Some world foods go through phases of being sought after by the wandering mobs of followers, while others remain obscure except in their communities. Salteñas have that feeling like they could someday be the "next big thing" when white people decide they are, ready to be gentrified and exploited by folks that capitalism privileges.

To enjoy them in their natural environment, baked by experts, don't wait for this to happen and come to Pao's in Van Nuys.

Viva Bolivia!



Thursday, 10 October 2019

Tracey's Belizean Restaurant


There is a certain amount of envy that must be cast towards the folks that have figured out the daily rhythms of Tracey's Belizean Restaurant on Western Avenue. For the rest of us to wander in, it is more of a crapshoot. Certain things are available on certain days, sometimes Sundays, sometimes Wednesday through Friday. Is there any way to verify all of this? If you did would it take away the charm?

Either way, Tracey's has been around since 1984 and shows no signs of going anywhere so you still have time to figure it all out.

What is clear is that no matter what day of the week you find yourself inside, a delightful meal and a full belly are certainly in your future. You are best off approaching the back counter to first to get your order in before sitting down. Behind this area a sign with seahorses and elephants reads "Welcome to Tracey's" while underneath the counter are plastic wrapped round loaves of Caribbean breads and tarts.

Despite being unapologetically Belizean, Tracey's has a pan-Caribbean feel and a crowd to match. Dishes like the stew oxtail ($14, above and below) satisfy the needs of expats from Belize and just about any island nation in the area. These fatty pieces of tail would be described as luxurious by a serious food writer, but on this day were picked up and gnawed on until clean.

A plate comes with rice (always demand extra gravy as others around you will be doing) and a salad, which on this day was a creamy yet light potato salad. A couple fried plantains were laid over it all for good measure.

Sitting at one of the four tables with booth-style seating is an enjoyable time even before the food comes, as most of the restaurant is open space but full of people picking up orders for takeout. Those in the booths are taking their sweet time with the day, drinking the Jamaican DG Pineapple Sof Drink and relaxing in each other's company.

On some days you can grab bollos, a Belizean-style tamal, and definitely never pass up garnaches on days they are offered. These staples of the country and southern México are similar to what most of México would call a tostada. Usually eaten from a city street vendor, these are finger food snacks at their finest, with black beans and pickled cabbage on top along with meat sometimes. On Sundays come for boil up, the national dish of Belize that is a descendent from Garifuna kitchens. Now if only they had the Belikin Beer to go along with everything...



Sunday, 6 October 2019

Birria El Austero


[EDITOR'S NOTE: This visit was made by our Senior Ventura County Correspondent Robert Xavier Martínez, all photos belong to him.]

Inside of a heavy equipment storage yard on the eastern outskirts of Santa Paula, the sight of the bright new white banner of Birria El Austero and an early morning crowd gathered has become familiar on this part of East Telegraph Road, just a block north of the 126. On a recent warm Sunday morning at around 07:45, the stand is not quite into their second month of business since relocating from Inglewood

Birria de chivo estilo Zacatecas is on the menu today but birria de cordero or de res can be ordered in advance for special occasions. Anselmo, the owner takes pride in his slow cooked birria de chivo, which is evidenced by the time consuming process using traditional cooking methods. The meat is marinated in a ten ingredient adobo and cooked overnight for at least eight hours in his custom built underground horno, the third such oven he has built.

The oven first burns oak wood for five hours until only coals remain, at which point the meat is lowered and the top of the horno is covered in mud to seal the heat and ensure an even cook.

El Austero opts for a tomato broth made from Roma tomatoes instead of consume or fat drippings mixed with vegetables to cover the meat and add an extra bit of flavor at the time of serving. The generous portion ($15, below) of tender and flavorful birria comes with the tomato broth, cilantro, onions and tortillas on the side. The food can be taken to go or enjoyed on site where seating is offered underneath an EZ up tent for shade.

Although it is early in the morning people start to trickle in to place their orders. This Santa Paula business might be less than a month old, but El Austero has been selling out within a matter of hours every Sunday, a true testament to the quality of Anselmo's labor of love.



Thursday, 3 October 2019



Without flash or much effort in signage to invite you in off the street, Rajdhani hides on the second floor of a fairly new two story commercial complex on Pioneer Boulevard. Once you find the nondescript staircase somewhere near the middle, climb up and find the entrance. There is ample outdoor seating but you will rarely find the terrace in operation during the lunch hours when the Artesia sun is blazing.

On a weekend you are likely to find the lunch service buzzing and the place near or at capacity, but come on a weekday and seats are in abundance. On a recent visit, the main source of noise and activity was at just one table where the Real Housewives of Artesia seemed to be having their weekly meal together. One other solo diner and a couple were all enjoying their all-you-can-eat thalis as well.

This is no buffet though, the food is always fresh, hot, and comes to you when necessary (or maybe slightly before). A thali ($17.49 at lunch, below) is a dish named for the stainless steel dish it is served on. Selections can change day to day and by season as ingredients are substituted when freshly harvested, but an order on any given day will be something like what is shown here.

Since there are no decisions to make, a meal begins almost right when you sit down, the thali is arranged before you and empty vessels are ready to accept their contents. The first step will be somewhat of a show as water and chaas, a slightly salty and refreshing yogurt drink, are poured at the same time from a high level.

After that, the team here really begins to move, with different components arriving quickly. For an annotated version of this photo see below, as their explanations come so fast they might be a bit hard to take in all at once for the uninitiated. The gist of a Gujarati thali is to provide a combination of the six tastes defined by Ayurvedic nutrition for optimal health.

To this end, there are two "soups" at the right, some dhokla and bhajia starters, papadum and two types of bread, a salad, and three "main" entrees aligned on the left. Somewhere along the way but available by request at any time, they will offer rice and dhal.

For those without an unlimited appetite, you can get the thali without refills of anything for a cool $13.99. This will however lead to the supreme disappointment of the staff, as it almost seems their grand mission to load you with a third and fourth round of each and every option until you near explosion.

Any thali will land you the choice of one dessert as well, the lightest of which is probably the falooda ice cream (below), a rose flavored delight topped with basil seeds. Do note, gluttons, that the dessert is just one round.


Monday, 30 September 2019

Industry Café & Jazz


If this happened to be a walkable city, there could be a romantic start to this article about how the smells of injera bread and savory Eritrean stews combined with notes of live jazz to pull in customers from the street. After finishing a delicious meal here, with the band already well into their first set, it was only during a trip to the curb to make a call that this was the actual magic of Industry Café & Jazz, even if it was only a pipe dream to imagine.

Jazz does indeed waft out onto Washington Boulevard nightly starting at 20:00, but passing cars certainly do not hear it or enjoy those aromas. Inside, a mashup of tables and booths and banquette seating sit underneath a mashup of sometimes music related art and sometimes not. Tchotchkes populate the bar area with undefined purpose, but an Eritrean flag is hung from the back wall very purposefully.

As the evening cools down and a breeze flows through the café, it becomes pretty damn comfortable. The usual habit of asking for the check when finished does not seem so urgent anymore. The band is just hitting their stride.

Eritrea and Ethiopia are of course bound throughout history and share so much, despite everything that led to their separation in the early 1990's. One thing Eritrea does have different though is a coastline on the Red Sea (the Greek name for which actually gives the country its name). For about half of this time since independence, Industry Café & Jazz has been offering the tastes of the region.

On a recent Tuesday evening, it was not hard to find a seat before the band had arrived. Despite being the only customers in the beginning, it was a surprise that such a gorgeous and fresh plate of foods would arrive. Centered around a salad and on top of a layer of freshly baked injera, everything ordered was placed together to be eaten communally.

A basket of smaller pieces of rolled up injera arrived at the same time, the intended "utensils" of any meal. Break off small hunks of this and scoop up everything with your hands. There is something to be said about this way of eating, these colors, these textures, and the communal plate. There is a connection to the food, and to the friends or family around you. The feeling cannot quite be pinned down while eating, but an appreciation for everything can be overwhelming.

Even if the dishes are delicious, it is that injera that is the star here, it might not be possible to make it better anywhere. Four of the six dishes surrounding the central salad are part of the vegetarian platter ($11), a must order even for carnivores. Of highest praise in this combo are both the red and yellow lentils, near the top of the photos.

Also of note is the wonderful and classic doro wat ($13, below right), a leg of chicken stewed with tomatoes and onions and seemingly hundreds of spices. The meat is tender and still moist, easily removed with some injera and a pinch.

If anything was not humming on this evening it was only the salmon tibsi ($16), which did not give the character of having been freshly caught in the Red Sea unfortunately. Since Eritrea does have the coastline and previous experiences in restaurants have revolved around fresh catch, it will be interesting to see if this can be more a part of future meals here at Industry.

The menu also advertises "southern style soul food" but only a complementary slice of cornbread was tested on this evening. It may not have been enough to sway the group from sticking to Eritrean options next time, but it was a nice gesture nonetheless.

Industry has a full line of drinks to enjoy your evening with, including plenty of Ethiopian honey wines. Unfortunately there was no Asmara, an Eritrean beer sharing its name with the country's capital, but St. John Beer (below) from San Jose, California was a pale ale option offered as "Ethiopian style craft."

Feel free to add to the comments below if you know what that means.

Enjoy the music!



Thursday, 26 September 2019

Mariscos Doña Mary


It is not hidden per say, but it is certainly not advertised. Instead, what happens in the backyard of this Watts house is passed on to neighbors verbally between friends and family. But everyone around here seems to know the secret. Showing up at the address scribbled down in notes and probably looking tentative, a man calls out from his running truck:

"You looking for mariscos?" Pointing through the gate in the photo above, he waves in the direction of the backyard and the destination.

Grape Street is four streets over from busy Wilmington Avenue and in this neighborhood a sleepy and quiet set of blocks. Along with "Watts" in general, the two words "Grape Street" often stir the imagination of non-Watts residents, partly thanks to reality and the reality depicted in Menace II Society, but mostly just because people do not get out enough. The smiles of neighbors and finding your way to Doña Mary's backyard is a far cry from all of that though.

Once you make your way down the narrow walkway to the right of the house, three fairly large tables shaded by umbrellas are waiting. A tent structure with many folding tables and chairs stacked up are evidence of how much of a crowd the place can handle if necessary. The standalone unit at the back that acts as Mary's kitchen also has a large table in case the weather is not appropriate for outdoor dining.

If you are the first to show up in the morning, they might switch the radio to a talk show, but come later in the day when guests have already arrived before you and music is most likely heard before you see the back. Neighbors wander in and out, and those that do not appear to be local might be asked how they found out about the place. Seeing as how Doña Mary has been making mariscos here for well over a decade, this is a fascinating occurrence.

The day's spread starts growing.

According to a KCET article from a couple years ago, the matriarch Mary Melin has connections to the family that runs the Chente and Coni'Seafood restaurants around town, but has been doing her own thing with private operations long before that. After cooking in their kitchens for some time, she went out on her own and South Los Angeles is better for it, her Watts backyard is putting out some super mariscos.

Under the shade of the trees and umbrellas, none of those parting reasons matter, especially once the dishes start arriving. Mary has three sons but it is her daughter-in-law Leslie that runs the backyard and brings things like the ceviche mixto (below) to the table. Without having tried a lot of the menu, this is the star so far, a mountain of shrimp, octopus, and imitation crab with onions, cucumbers, and tomatoes.

The crab is no liability here, but instead adds an enjoyable sweetness to the whole ensemble. The thinly sliced octopus is somehow melting right in your mouth and does not even come close to a hint of chewiness, the mark of high quality ingredients and a very talented chef.

Mary is from a small town in Nayarit a bit south of Sinaloa, but dishes make their way up and down the coast like the camarones culichis (below), named for the Sinaloan capital and inland city of Culiacán. The signature of this salsa is roasted poblano peppers and crema, but there are hints of serrano in there and the grated cheese melts when cooked to create a thick stringy mix that coats everything thick.

A plate of these shrimp are served with her excellent and aromatic rice, the lightness of which combines perfectly with the heavier sauce once all the shrimp have been eaten.

A bathroom break inside is the perfect opportunity to say hello to Mary, who will be toiling away in the kitchen. Just a few seconds is enough to see her deft touch. Be sure to thank her though, as the genuine joy on her face when her cooking makes people happy is a real treat.


Monday, 23 September 2019

Holland International Market


For those that do not initially recognize the flag of the Netherlands flying in front or who might not have their glasses on to read the small black text high on the facade, this small Bellflower storefront still has a lot of clues as to what lies inside. At the bottom of the windows are tranquil photos of windmills behind fields of beautiful multi-colored tulips and if that is not enough a large circular painting incorporating another windmill, more tulips, and a couple wearing wooden clogs adorns the front.

This is definitely the type of place that someone who was visited Holland (or not!) can go to fulfill all their stereotypical impressions of the country. Besides the front, the store is filled with big round blocks of gouda cheese, has a shelf devoted to stroopwafels, another to black licorice, and even a selection of clogs, some wooden and others in house slipper format.

But the store is more than that, it caters to as many desires that a Dutch person might be able to acquire here in Los Angeles. The options of candies and cheeses are excellent and include much more than you would find at another European specialty store. But the Dutch presence in LA might be more than you think, enough to warrant the presence of a consulate and amongst other events, an annual party in late April to celebrate the birthday of the king (an official holiday in the Netherlands).

Even for the uninitiated, the store is worth a good wander. Did you forget to buy your friends souvenirs on a recent trip? A whole display of refrigerator magnets can help with that.

Best wooden clog selection in Southern California.

And in that same vein, a bag or tin of stroopwafels (above) always makes a good gift for anyone, regardless of the occasion.

Sure, the Whole Foods probably offers a few different types of gouda, but here the fridge is full of it, as well as boere and leyden options that might be new to you. The latter has cumin and caraway seeds in it for flavoring.

Their online store, which can ship to all 50 states also makes a note of their selection of Indonesian products, which of course have played a roll in the national psyche and cuisine ever since occupation of the Dutch East Indies. Indeed there are multiple aisles here with ready made curries and powders, stacks of the beloved packaged ramen Indomie, and all manner of products from Indonesia that the Dutch crave and need.

And then there is an intriguing amount of candy on offer, much of which is licorice-based...

The store has only been open for five years now, but seems like an established part of the community and is well-traveled by customers all around Greater Los Angeles. Even for those of us without an ongoing need for freshly made bitterballen, Holland International Market is still worth a stop the next time you are nearby.