Dining in LA: Lukshon

While only in Los Angeles for a few hours between flights, it was time enough for my cousin Jackie and me to join Gary and William for dinner at Lukshon , a small plates restaurant in Culver City where chef Sang Yoon turns out clever takes on food from across east Asia with precision and, for the most part, a lot of flavor.

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Lukshon is located in the Helms Bakery complex between Washington and Venice boulevards, just a few doors down from the chef’s other restaurant, Father’s Office.  Jackie and I arrived on a Tuesday evening about 6:00, just as the restaurant was opening for business.  Some corporate function was being set up on the outdoor patio and the two of us were the first customers into the restaurant.

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We sat down at the bar to enjoy a drink while waiting for Gary and William to join.  The bartender was an affable man who displayed a stunning breadth of knowledge about the wines and the cocktails on the menu.  There is an elaborate machine in place for dispensing wines, a restaurant owner’s dream in terms of portion control I suppose.  The nice thing was that we could get tastes of several wines before selecting one we wanted to order.

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Over dinner, I tried one of the restaurant’s signature cocktails, the Yokohama Romance.  It features Prunier VSOP cognac, cherry heering (a Danish cherry liqueur), kaffir lime, lemongrass, and shaoxing wine.  What caught my attention was that while Jackie and I sat at the bar enjoying our wine, the bartender was preparing this drink in front of us.  The last garnish is the kaffir lime leaf, which he placed in the palm of his hand then smacked with the other hand.  This bruised the leaf, immediately releasing the very pleasant aroma.  Intrigued, I ordered one over dinner and found it to be enjoyable and complex in the way a cocktail should be.

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There are two parts to the dining room: a brighter space featuring the bar, some long tables, and the clean and modern open kitchen.  The other part of the dining room is more intimate, with tables and banquettes set among a cozier ambience.

The menu, as the bartender explained it to us, is intended to be a journey through eastern and southeastern Asia, tracing the paths that various ingredients, techniques, and dishes have taken across the region thanks to migration and trade.  As an example, I’ve written before about northern Thai style curried noodles that owe much to a Muslim region of southwestern China.  Chef Sang Yoon plays with these culinary ethnographies.

Gary and William joined us soon after and we moved to the table, where they used their experience from previous visits to help guide us through the menu.  The menu is composed of about 20 small plates, 3 noodle dishes, and 5 rice dishes.  Everything is served family style which means that it is placed in the middle of the table for sharing by all diners.  Here’s what we enjoyed:

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Choosing a rice dish was a challenge as they all sounded good.  We settled on XO rice, which is jasmine rice stir fried with XO sauce, long beans and scrambled egg.  XO sauce is a sauce made of seafood, usually scallops, and chilies that is somewhat similar to Worcestershire sauce.  Only “somewhat,” though.  This was a pleasant dish but odd that it arrived first since fried rice is usually more of a concluding dish.  The portion was modest, though, so no worries about us filling up on it.

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The baby Monterey squid stuffed with Chiang Mai style pork sausage, candlenut, mint, and rau ram.  This dish was technically well-made but didn’t inspire me as much as I had hoped.  The squid was fresh and not too chewy.  The pork sausage was a less common variety using fermented pork.  The candlenut and rau ram provided nice flavors.  Each component was solid but when the flavors came together I found it interesting but didn’t long for another bite of it.

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A stand-out dish (one also mentioned by many professional reviewers) is the spicy chicken pops.  These feature chicken drumettes cooked in a sauce of garlic, kecap manis, and Szechuan pepper.  Think Asian style buffalo wings. Kecap manis is an Indonesian style sweet soy sauce.  Szechuan pepper, which is not related to black pepper or to chili peppers, has a mild numbing effect on the tongue and, in larger quantities, the lips.  This was a dish for which I could have done something very un-family style: hogged the entire plate.

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Another interesting dish was the Chinese eggplant, which was braised with tomato sambal (a chili sauce) and served with fennel raita (a kind of yogurt sauce) and eggplant “fries.”  It was a very satisfying dish, comfort food that seemed very appropriate given the cool weather LA was having that evening.

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Our next dish was a lamb belly roti canai.  Roti canai is a flatbread with Indian roots that is common in Indonesia and Malaysia.  Here the tender lamb belly is served with chana dal (split peas), cumin, mint, and pickled cauliflower and topped with a raita (yogurt) sauce.  This had a lot of pleasing flavors and was also very enjoyable.

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The next dish to arrive was som tam, the Thai green papaya salad.  Made with a lot of carrots and only a bit of green papaya, the dish also had cherry tomatoes, long beans, peanuts, crispy shallots and fish sauce.  Now, maybe I’m a bit biased because I live in Thailand and received this dish with certain expectations, but my thought was that it was a poor representation of som tam.  Not only was the kitchen stingy with the green papayas, but the dressing was very one-note.  Normally, you have a combination of sweet, salty, umami, and acidic all in one dish.  Here it was mostly sweet.

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The next dish was garlic pork belly, stir fried with do ban jiang (a Chinese style paste made of fermented beans, usually soy or broad beans, and often with chilies), small nuggets of mochi (glutinous rice cake), cabbage, and garlic chives.  This was another comforting dish with lots of full bodied flavors and some interesting textures (still crisp cabbage, chewy mochi).  Serve this with a bowl of rice and you’d have a nice meal just by itself. 

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Our final dish was dan dan noodles, a Szechuan classic that features a spicy sauce made of preserved mustard greens, chili oil, Szechuan pepper, and minced pork.  Think spaghetti with meat sauce done Chinese style.  While I’m no expert, this version of dan dan noodles was very similar to what I’ve had at other restaurants, reminding me especially of a version I had in Taipei at Kiki Restaurant with Andy and his parents.

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Dinner concluded with a plate of complimentary desserts, three types, each with small portions.  I don’t recall specifically what they were, something like custards with sorbet on top, all of which featured Asian flavors.  While I didn’t write down the details, I do recall that they were flavorful and at just two or three bites each, were a satisfying end to a pleasant meal.

All in all, I found Lukshon to be a meal that was not only tasty and reasonably priced (about $30/each including a drink) but mentally engaging, too.  Add to that the pleasant company with whom I dined, and it was a memorable meal with which to end my visit to the United States.

Kansas City to Los Angeles

After about eleven days in Kansas City, it was time to begin the return trip, a lengthy journey that would take me more than 56 hours from door to door.  The first leg was from Kansas City to Los Angeles, cashing in some credit card points I had for a one way ticket on American Airlines.

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It has been nearly a decade since I’ve flown American.  Now that they are in bankruptcy, the last of the major carriers (other than Southwest) to have gone through that process, I was curious to see if there was a perceptible air of distress among the employees.

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I have to say, while none of the employees were spectacularly friendly, they didn’t seem to be any worse for wear than the employees of any other major US airline.  They did their jobs, tried to smile from time to time and be pleasant, and got me safely from point A to point B.  Knowing many people in the airline industry, and being a former employee myself, my sympathy extends to them during this uncertain time.  The only thing that is certain is that they’ll not make it through bankruptcy without some amount of pain.  Most likely, this will include losing a large portion of their pensions.

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There was some holiday spirit in the air, though, despite the bankruptcy.  This gate at Kansas City was decorated for the season, ready for a charity flight they do for disadvantaged children.  I’m not sure if it is an actual flight – that’s become quite expensive to do anymore – but they board the children on the plane, let them visit the cockpit, have them sit down and enjoy snacks and a drink, etc.  All in all, a nice treat for children who may otherwise never get such an experience.

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Flying into the greater Los Angeles area, we were treated to clear skies and great visibility.  Here’s a shot of the city of Riverside and, smack in the center (to the right of the freeway), the University of California, Riverside campus.  I actually attended UCR for six months in the first half of 1990, before moving back up to Santa Clara University to finish my studies.

Video of our landing in Los Angeles.

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A shot of my plane after arrival in Los Angeles.  The construction for the expansion of the Tom Bradley International Terminal is in the background, the new saw-tooth roof clearly visible.  Also, two Boeing 747s, the one on the left from Fiji Air and the the one on the right from China Airlines.

My cousin Jackie, Alex’s younger sister, picked me up and helped me kill several hours.  We ran errands to Trader Joe’s and a few other stores.  We stopped for In-n-Out burgers, where we saw a family of three who had dragged their suitcases all the way from the airport to get a burger.  That’s about a two-mile walk, depending on which terminal they came from.

In the evening, we met Gary and William for dinner at Lukshon.  I’ll share pictures from that fantastic dinner tomorrow.

 

Buying Girls from Behind Glass

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Wikipedia

While in Los Angeles last month, Tawn and I slipped up to The Grove, a shopping and entertainment center near the Farmers’ Market located at Third and Fairfax Streets near CBS Studios.  While there, we met with a pair of Xangans who were down in LA for the weekend, and also observed first-hand the disturbing trend known as the American Girl Doll.

The Grove is another of these recent developments built to approximate the feel of a real downtown, except with a Disney-esque sense of artifice.  An electric tram runs down the middle of the “street” past big box stores that, if it weren’t for their elaborate façades, would look like any other strip mall.  It is a nice space, much in the same way that Main Street, U.S.A. is a nice place, but I think I’d prefer to stroll down a real main street rather than a recently built recreation.

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Borrowed from someone on the internet for non-commercial use.

Prominently placed on the main shopping thoroughfare is the American Girl Doll store.  Have you heard of this trend?  It simultaneously fascinates and disturbs me.

The roots of the American Girl Doll are generally impressive.  Originally released in the mid-1980s, these 18-inch dolls represented 10-year old girls from a variety of periods in American history.  They were dressed in period-appropriate costume and were accompanied by a series of books targeted to 8-13 year olds that brought the characters to life while addressing (in an age-appropriate manner) subjects such as poverty, racism, child labor, etc.  In short, a compelling way for young people to identify with and learn about history.

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American Girl website

In the mid-1990s, though, a “Just Like You” line was released, with dolls representing a wide range of skin tones and eye and hair colors, so that you could purchase a doll that looked just like you.  A variety of accessories are available including matching outfits.  (See the picture above.)  The dolls, sans accessories, cost $100, a price that strikes me as ridiculously expensive for a toy targeted at pre-teens.

On the one hand, I can see a lot of positives about a doll that reflects the wide diversity that exists in our world.  Certainly, any number of women of color have shared stories about not being able to find dolls when they were children that looked like them.  At the same time, especially when you can even wear the same clothes as your doll, this seems to be furthering the growth of unhealthy narcissism.  Not only are we gazing more at our own navels, but now we can have a dolls whose navels look like ours.

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What was even more disturbing, though, was walking into the store and seeing two display cases containing rows of the identically-dressed dolls wearing numbers.  Maybe this is just a sensitivity to the too-visible sex trade that exists in Thailand, but this image of women lined up behind a glass wall, wearing numbers and waiting for you to choose them, is especially disturbing.

I don’t know what to make of the whole thing.  As I mentioned early, it is both fascinating and disturbing.  Reading more about the American Girl Doll phenomenon, the company (now owned by Mattel) seems to do a lot of philanthropy and there are many opportunities for young girls to learn important lessons about the world and about issues they may not often hear about.  The messages on the walls of the store – “A confident girl believes in herself!” – are potentially empowering.  That said, I’m still a bit disturbed.

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Courtesy Sheening

The best thing that came out of the experience was the opportunity to finally meet Piyapong, one of those Xangans who doesn’t blog often but whose posts are still interesting.  Also met Sheening again, but he hasn’t blogged in so long on Xanga that I’m not even sure what his user name is anymore.

 

Food in LA – Musha in Torrance

About two years ago, Gary and William took me to the Santa Monica branch of Musha, a Japanese izakaya, or small plates, restaurant.  They have another branch a few miles south in Torrance and I took the opportunity during our June visit to Los Angeles to take Tawn there.  It remains a satisfying place to dine.

An izakaya is a drinking establishment that, in the same way that Spanish bars serve tapas, provides small plates of food to patrons to accompany their drinks, encouraging them (or, perhaps, enabling them) to drink longer.  After all, you can’t continue to sell drinks to someone who has passed out and a little food in the stomach delays or prevents that happening.

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While at first Torrance may seem an unlikely location, the city is home to many Japanese businesses, including Toyota’s North America headquarters.  As such, there are countless restaurants and other services geared towards the many Japanese who live and work in the area.  Musha is located in a strip mall on the northwest corner of Carson Street and Western Avenue.  With its dark green awning, the building could just as easily house a Starbucks.

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The restaurant is a small space with a large table running down the center.  Smaller tables line the walls and on the left is counter seating facing one of the two kitchen areas.  The interior is a cozy and several fans are running to dissipate fumes from the grill-your-own dishes that are on the menu.

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We opted for the counter, giving us a good view of the action in the kitchen and a tempting view of plates and bowls full of some of the previously prepared foods that we could order.  It took a lot of will power to not help ourselves.

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A must-order item is the Aburi Shimesaba.  The description on the menu, complete with spelling errors that seem to authenticate the Japanese ownership of this restaurant, is as follows: “New creation from the great chef of Musha!!  Fresh mackerelmarinated with rice vinegar, sliced like a sashimi then torched at your table.  Try the taste of “Holly Mackerel !!”

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While I’ll avoid speculation about the holly mackerel, I will say that this is a wonderfully complex dish made of only the simplest of ingredients.  The rice vinegar helps to cook the fish in a ceviche-like way.  It adds a sweetness to an otherwise fishy tasting flesh.  Then the torching give the skin a crispy texture with caramel flavors.  To top it off, the banana leaf on which the fish is placed starts to char a bit so you get the smoky fruit aroma.  While the dish is really only two ingredients – fish and vinegar – the flavor is multi-layered and complex.

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The second dish was the lobster roll, a riceless bit of sushi that uses a thin springroll wrapper instead of seaweed filled with lobster and cucumber.  Very tasty.

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One of my favorite dishes is the spicy tuna dip served with rice crackers.  The name pretty much describes what it is, but doesn’t have any superlatives that convey how tasty this dip is.  Might I suggest something like, One of the Tastiest Things You Will Ever Scoop with a Cracker?

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Another Musha signature dish is the Takotama.  This is their take on okonomiyaki, a “Japanese style pancake”.  In the case of Takotama, you have the two-layered omelette (pictured sitting on the counter above) with chopped octopus, Tokyo leek, red ginger, bonito flakes, chives, and nori seaweed.  The sauce is a thick, sweet sauce topped with mayonnaise.

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To finish we had a plate of Typhoon Char Han, a spicy fried rice prepared with ground pork, chili, bamboo shoot, ginger, garlic, and Tokyo leek.  Tasty and filling.

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Stuffed and running out of time to head to LAX and pick up my sister and her family, we skipped dessert, cleansing out palettes with the complimentary salted plum tea.

All in all, I think Musha offers tasty food at a fair price.  Like all “small plates” restaurants, you have to watch out because the bill can rapidly increase.  That isn’t a matter of the prices being high; instead, it is a matter of ordering more food than you really need.  If you are in the South Bay part of Los Angeles, or in Santa Monica, a stop at Musha would be worth your while.

 

Food in Long Beach: Starling Diner

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Near the end of our trip to Los Angeles last month, while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway to visit Janet for tea, we stopped for brunch at the Starling Diner.  Located on East Third Street in Long Beach, the look and feel of the Starling Diner is that of an old-time neighborhood institution.  The food is comforting, the service friendly, and the fellow diners are, well, neighborly.

Starling Diner is all this despite having been around for less than five years.  It is no surprise then to learn that owner Joan Samson made a very conscious effort to create a space that had that neighborhood institution feel.  From their website:

In times past, neighborhoods were Communities where everyone casually knew each other and the gathering places were icons such as the front porch, the corner store and the neighborhood diner. It has always been our personal mission to create gathering spots that provide a sense of place along side the highest quality food and drinks. We live in and love Long Beach. We just made a place where we would like to meet our friends and connect.

My cousins had first brought me here in 2009 and I was eager to share the cute restaurant and tasty dining experience with Tawn.  He wasn’t disappointed.

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This pale green cruiser parked outside seems to exemplify the Starling Diner.  Located amidst houses on a quiet street, this is the type of place you would hop on your bicycle and ride three blocks to meet some friends for breakfast at.

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The tables are crowded with little tin tubs of all the condiments you might need.  Interestingly, they serve water in these biodegradable corn-based plastic cups in order to save the environment.  As I pointed out to the server (in a friendly, non-complaining sort of way), they would do more to save the environment to serve their cream, jellies, sugars, etc. in bulk containers rather than individual sachets and packages. 

The fact that our server took that suggestion with a thoughtful smile and remained friendly and welcoming is a good example of the type of consistent service I’ve enjoyed during both my visits.

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The highlight of the menu is the San Francisco stuffed French toast.  Unlike most French toast, this is broiled not fried, and is made from baguette, not square loaf bread.

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It does not disappoint!  The result is something that is light and crispy rather than heavy and soggy like most French toast.  This is a recipe I would like to learn to recreate at home.

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Tawn had the crab cakes sandwich, which had these wonderful, large lump crab meat and tons of fresh greens.  This was really tasty, too.

All in all, the only disappointment at the Starling Diner was that there were just the two of us and, as such, we were only able to try two items on the menu.  Mark this on the list of places to come back to on a future visit!

 

Food in LA: Johnnie’s Pastrami in Culver City

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The first few nights we were in Los Angeles in June, Tawn and I stayed at the Travelodge Culver City on Washington Place just east of Sepulveda Drive.  As down-market as you would expect a Travelodge to be, this one has received well-deserved high rankings in TripAdvisor and other review sites.  In addition to the really tasty Metro Cafe located downstairs from the motel, just around the corner was the timeless Johnnie’s French Dip Pastrami.  Of course, I wanted to try it.

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Established in 1952, Johnnie’s is this small shack of a diner.  As their menu explains, the jukeboxes are originals and some of the waitresses are, too. 

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The restaurant is open until 2:30 am and an hour later on Friday and Saturday nights.  A wide mix of people stop by, young and old, well-off and those barely making ends meet.  They all are there for one thing: good, honest food.  The menu is simple: burgers, dogs, and sandwiches, with the pastrami taking center stage.

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Complimentary dill pickles, sliced thick.

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Combine the pickles with a root beer float made with hand scooped ice cream and, despite it sounding like the food cravings of a pregnant woman, I was in heaven!

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The ambience is all chrome and naugahyde.  The pastrami boils for a while then finishes in a steam bath, coming out moist and thinly sliced.  What’s that machine on the left?  Well, for you youngsters out there, that’s how a real milkshake is made!

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The pastrami on rye arrived.  While pastrami is generally a fatty meat, I found my cuts to be quite rare.  The fat that was attached was well-cooked and not overwhelming.  Compare the construction of this sandwich to a pastrami I tried at a wanna-be place in Bangkok called New York Cheesecake, which served me only a thin layer of meat topped with a third slice of bread and several inches of lettuce and other veggies.  Needless to say, Johnnie’s came a lot closer to satisfy my pastrami craving.  As for the flavor, it was fantastic.

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Tawn ordered a veggie burger.  What’s that!?  A veggie burger at a place like Johnnie’s!?  Well, as my dearly departed paternal grandmother used to say, if we all liked the same things the world would sure be a boring place.  Truth be told, it was a pretty tasty veggie burger probably thanks to all the burnt-on beef bits on the grill!

Overall, we could debate whether Johnnie’s has the best pastrami in LA or not.  People have different preferences, of course.  I just know that Johnnie’s hit the spot for me, filling a need for good pastrami that I had been carrying with me for many months.  Next time I’m back in LA, I may return.  Or I may seek out some of the other recommended pastrami shops.  We’ll see.

 

Food in LA: In-N-Out Burger

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As my last few days of work came to an end, it was time to head to LAX and pick up my sister, her husband, and my two nieces for our week of vacation together.  They arrived on an early evening flight, just as the sun was setting over the iconic Theme Building and the newer, although still modern, control tower.

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Our first lunch in LA was at the Southern California icon, In-N-Out Burger.  The chain, which dates from 1948, introduced the idea of a drive-through hamburger restaurant.  While this may seem like an incredibly pedestrian idea today (pun intended), back in the 40s, carhops served food to customers in their cars.  The idea of driving through the restaurant was a perfect fit for the budding car culture that helped define Los Angeles.

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While we can debate who has the best hamburgers, something that is a matter of personal taste as much as anything else, In-N-Out provides very high quality burgers and all the ingredients are fresh, never frozen.  The company makes their own hamburger patties in-house and potatoes are cut into fries throughout the day at each location.

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Nearly every In-N-Out has the same basic layout and cleanliness prevails.  This is the only restaurant at which I’ve ever seen employees cleaning the underside of tables.

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The kitchen is open, so you can look on as your burger is made.  It is organized chaos, a system that is impressive to watch.  From what I’ve heard, employees are treated quite well.  Minimum wage is $10 an hour and various benefits are offered, unusual for a fast food employer.  Service is always friendly and helpful.

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Here’s the food itself – a Double Double (two patties, two slices of cheese) with freshly-leafed lettuce, grilled onions, and a slice of tomato.  The fries are very different from fries at most restaurants.  This is because they have never been frozen and aren’t pre-treated with sugar sprays or anything else like that.  Just fresh potatoes, sliced by hand, then plunged into the fryer.

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We took the girls to the In-N-Out that is located just off the end of runway 24R at LAX, the perfect place to sit, sip a shake, eat a burger, and watch the jets come roaring in on final approach.  An excellent introduction to Los Angeles for first-time visitors!