Food in LA: In-N-Out Burger


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


Food in Hermosa Beach: Buona Vita Trattoria

As I mentioned in my previous entry, I’m fortunate that I have a very good working relationship with my boss and colleagues and enjoy my job and the company at which I work.  Because of the twists of circumstance surrounding my move to Thailand more than five years ago, my current manager was my subordinate’s subordinate before I moved.  For my trip to Los Angeles, she and another of my colleagues traveled out to meet me for two and a half days of meetings.  One evening we dined at an Italian restaurant in Hermosa Beach called Buona Vita.


Buona Vita is on Pier Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Hermosa Beach.  I first went here back in 1995-6, when I lived in LA for my second time.  A colleague, who was of Italian heritage, loved going here because the food reminded her of her grandmother’s cooking.


There are actually two dining rooms, located about four doors apart.  One is the trattoria, pictured above, and the other is the pizzeria.  My recollection, though, is that you can order the same menu items at both restaurants.


We started by sharing the Insalate di Pollo e Formaggio di Capra, mixed greens served with chicken, tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, basil, and goat cheese.  I remember this salad from my visits more than a decade ago and it is every bit as good today.  In fact, with a little bread, two people could share this salad and have a perfectly healthy meal.


Our main courses looked a little more “American Italian”.  I had Polenta Bolognese – grilled polenta (a cornmeal cake) with meat sauce and melted mozzarella.


My manager enjoyed Lasagna Di Carne – a meat lasagna with Bolognese sauce and ricotta and mozzarella cheeses.  Both these dishes were very good but even before digging in we cut the portions, placing about two-thirds in a two-go box and eating only a third.  Portion sizes were too large.


My colleague had Spaghettini Alla Checca – thin spaghetti noodles, fresh tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, dressed in basil and olive oil.  Portion size was more reasonable and it was overall lighter in composition. 


For dessert we tried two things.  The first was the tiramisu.  This seems very different at each restaurant.  I like that this version was less gloppy.  The espresso and liquer mixture was much lighter and the dessert didn’t taste boozy.


I had the cheesecake which was fine but uninspiring.  The whipped topping doesn’t taste like cream.  I might be wrong, but it tasted more like whipped “topping” rather than whipped cream.


And here is my colleague and my manager.  All in all, the meal was very enjoyable and food and service were good.  The pasta dishes are a bit heavy and portion size is large, but the salad was certainly a hit.


Food in LA: Warszwa

So busy running around LA visiting friends and family that I’m a week behind in reading subscriptions and responding to comments – but I want to keep the posts uninterrupted so here’s another!

Polish restaurants fall into a category of dining experiences that rarely hit my radar screen.  I’ve been to them perhaps twice before in my life, enjoying both times but not feeling so compelled that I rushed back.  Plus, given my circle of friends and where I live, it is much more likely that I’ll end out at a restaurant serving Asian food rather than Polish.  They say vacation is an opportunity to gather new experiences and perspectives, so it was fitting when one of my high school friends suggested we go to Warszwa, a Polish restaurant in downtown Santa Monica.


Warszwa relocated from Berkeley, where it was a neighbor to a recently-opened Chez Panisse, to the LA area in 1979.  For the past 25 years it has occupied a former house on Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica.  As you walk through the different small dining rooms, you get this sense of being in your Polish great grandmother’s home rather than being in a restaurant.  Service is friendly and efficient, making for an enjoyable dining experience.


I started out with the borscht, a beet-based soup that is a staple of Polish and Russian cuisine.  Because it is summer (or, at least, is supposed to be summer), they were serving a chilled borscht, which has buttermilk, sour cream, and cucumbers and is rich, tangy, and very refreshing.  I’ve experimented with borscht and would like to try making this chilled version.


The six of us shared two appetizers – the first was crispy fried potato pancakes (similar, but more refined, than most latkes I’ve had) served with cinnamon apples and dried plum compote and a dollop of sour cream and chives.  Very tasty starter.  


Handmade pierogi – Polish raviolis – with three fillings: white cheese, potato puree, and caramelized onions; wild mushrooms with shredded cabbage; and chicken breast with herbs, served with sorrel sauce (on the right).  All were very enjoyable and different than I expected. 

The main courses mostly had a similar look and feel, as most were accompanied by the same side dishes.


Lamb dumplings served with a Dijon sauce, which the menu claims is an Eastern Polish specialty.  These were tasty.


Tawn had a variation of the dumplings filled with salmon, served with a basil sauce.  Also tasty, although as we were sharing these two dumpling dishes, we filled up quickly!


One friend had cabbage leaves stuffed with beef, jasmine rice, and sauteed onions, baked in a tomato and paprika broth.  Now, my mother made stuffed peppers a lot when I was a child and I think this stuffed cabbage calls forth certain pleasant childhood memories.


Schnitzel – either pork or chicken, I don’t remember – which is a fillet that is pounded thin, breaded, and fried.  Kind of a Polish katsu, if you will.  The meat was tasty, although it is hard to describe it as anything other than fried meat.  Not much nuance.


The specialty of the evening was a fish dish, served in a cream sauce.  Tasty, too!


Our group after a delightful, if slightly filling, meal – Tawn, Anita, Lilian, Samantha, Lalima, and me.  If you are craving something different and find yourself on the west side of Los Angeles, a visit to Warszawa may be just what the doctor ordered!


Huntington Library and Gardens


After visiting the Farmers Market on Saturday morning and being denied the opportunity to pick cherries, thanks to the unseasonably cool weather that had held their ripening at bay, we decided to visit the Huntington Library.  The Huntington is an educational and research institution that includes art collections, extensive libraries, and several specialty gardens including a Japanese garden (currently closed for renovation), a rose garden, and a cactus garden.


The Huntington sits on over 120 beautifully cared for acres on the San Marino estate of former railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington.  It is such a large space that I don’t think you could reasonably expect to cover even a fraction of it on a single day!


The sun shining through a skylight made this interesting pattern on the granite floor as we passed through the buildings on the Huntington’s grounds.


Stopping in the Conservatory, we saw a collection of plants from different growing climates, including tropical.  When we walked into the mist-filled section, we felt right at home!


The primary part of our afternoon was spent in the recently opened Chinese Garden.  It is very beautiful, although you can tell there are many areas in which room has been left to expand.


A sculpted window frame in the garden.


A beautiful red maple.


The gardens, looking roughly west.


A caterpillar that was walking along a ledge along the water.


View from the other end of the garden, looking back roughly east.


Three of our four high school friends with whom we spent time during the weekend.  Samantha, Lalima, and Anita.


Gorgeous trees, a covered walkway, and the beautiful blue sky.


In the Chinese Garden there is a restaurant and tea house that serves surprisingly decent food.  Tawn had a lemon chicken, which I realize doesn’t sound terribly authentic, but at least it was tasty and pretty fresh.


I had a bowl of soba noodles with a sauce of beef and pork.  Also pretty tasty.


The food was so filling that the son of one of our friends just had to lay down for a nap.


Finally, we walked through the Rose Garden, where Tawn snapped lots of pictures of flowers that inspired him.

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And that was our trip to the Huntington, a site I’d suggest to anyone who visits Los Angeles.


Los Angeles Farmers Market

Saturday morning we headed with our high school friends (who came down for the weekend to visit us) to the LA Farmers Market.  The market, located at Third and Fairfax near the CBS studios, dates to 1934.  This was my first visit and I was impressed with the range of different food stalls.  I didn’t look around the entire market, but my impression is that there aren’t really that many farmers offering their wares.  Here is a look at some of the food we tried.


There are lots of seating areas, mostly in the shade.  You can order from different vendors and still sit at the same tables, which give you a lot of flexibility.  We were there by 10:00 Saturday morning and it wasn’t very busy, although by the time we left things were notably busier.


Hard to tell the breakfast from the desserts!  Crepe with chocolate, strawberries, and bananas.


Belgian waffle with whipped cream and fresh strawberries.  Someone’s husband didn’t wait until I took the pictures to begin


Ran into a place called Moishe’s Village, which serves Middle Eastern food.  My attention was caught by the borekas, a flat bread with toppings cooked in a brick oven.  Basically, oblong pizzas without tomato sauce.


Wide selection of borekas.


I chose the sausage and egg and asked the lady to cut it into pieces.  She scolded me, saying that I should have ordered scrambled eggs so it would have cut more prettily.


Another popular spot is Bob’s Coffee and Doughnuts.


Yeast donuts.  Very tasty, although I’m not a huge fan of donuts.


Tawn in his market gear.


Loads of fresh fruits, especially the peaches, apricots, and nectarines.  Stone fruits are my favorite reason to come back to the US during the summer.


Close up on the beautiful artichokes.


Afterwards, one of my friends insisted that we must try Littlejohn’s English toffee. 


The picture doesn’t do justice to the toffee, but it was pretty good.  Not as hard as a lot of toffee, so much easier on the teeth to eat.  Well, except for all the sugar.

We were going to go cherry picking afterwards but when we called ahead to the farm, we learned that thanks to the cool weather, cherries are coming in a few weeks late.  Sadly, no cherry picking this trip.

Food in LA: Orris

Almost two years ago, Gary took me to Orris, Chef Hideo Yamashiro’s west Los Angeles Japanese inspired small plates restaurant.  (Entry here)  On Friday evening, our visit to LA overlapped with a business trip by Tawn’s boss and her counterpart from Kuala Lumpur, both of whom I’ve met several times.  We had time enough to pick them up from their Century City hotel and take them to dinner at Orris before ferrying them to the airport for their return flights.

Here is what we had to eat:


 Thinly sliced beets with Basque cheese and balsamic soy.


Sauté of seasonal mixed mushrooms


 Free range fried chicken with sweet and spicy yuzu sauce


Basil marinated black cod with basil mashed potato


Grilled Japanese eggplant with burrata and parmesan cheeses


Lightly pan fried mixed seafood atop spring greens with lemon zest


 Seared ahi tuna sashimi with sweet onion soy and avocado


 Asparagus salad with tarragon dressing, pecans, and tomato

The dishes were all nicely prepared and enjoyable, although Tawn’s boss does not eat cheese so had to work around a few dishes.  I described this as a “Japanese inspired” small plates restaurant, and initially it can be hard to see what is meant by that.  As Tawn’s boss observed when the first dish (the beets) arrived, it doesn’t look very Japanese on the surface.

The inspiration comes more than anything from the principle that is common in Japanese food to keep preparations simple and the number of ingredients to a minimum, so that the freshness and quality of the main ingredients can shine through.  Using the beets as an example, you have really four ingredients – beets, cheese, a balsamic-soy dressing, and a little olive oil.  They go so well together and all serve to highlight the sweet richness of the beets.

Of all the dishes, I think the black cod may have been my favorite.  The fish was fully cooked but very moist and tender.  The marinade had highlighted the meatiness of the fish without overwhelming it.  The basil-tomato salsa on top echoed the marinade and the small serving of basil mashed potatoes underneath provide a pleasing starch to accompany the protein. 

As for desserts, there were four on the menu so we ordered the lot and shared.


Fresh berry wonton with poached pear and yuzu custard.  This was the unanimous winner from all the desserts.  Interestingly, I had approached it with low expectations as the concept of a “berry wonton” seemed misguided.  It turned out to work very well.


 Apple tart with Tahitian vanilla gelato and caramel sauce


Fresh seasonal fruit with crème brûlée.  Unlike most crème brûlées the cream sauce was still soft and was not set to a firm texture.  Almost like crème Anglaise poured on top of fruit and briefly torched.


Flourless Valrhona chocolate soufflé cake with coffee gelato.  Cake isn’t my favorite and this struck me as just another one, nice but not surprising.

The location on Sawtelle just north of Olympic is convenient and there is inexpensive parking behind the building.  Metered street parking is also available.  Reservations not accepted.

Food in LA: Metro Cafe Culver City

For our first three nights in Los Angeles, we stayed near our friends’ house at the Travelodge Culver City.  While I would normally worry about a Travelodge (especially one in a big city) being a bit sketchy, the one in Culver City received really good reviews – lots and lots of “10’s” – on  Sure enough, for about $100 a night, they offered these very large rooms with two king beds (and room for at least one more if they wanted to add it).  A recent remodel had included a lot of thoughtful touches such as ample cabinets, granite countertops and tiling, and even the shower curtain rod that bows out from the tub so the curtain doesn’t cling to you.  A surprising find for what is normally considered a two-star hotel.


An even bigger find is the Metro Cafe, a coffee shop that is located in the front part of the hotel.  Guests of the hotel get a coupon good for $5 off at the metro and the Serbian owned restaurant received just as many good reviews as the hotel itself.  It is every bit the kitsch cafe of the 1950s without trying too hard to be that.  In fact, with the solid ceramic coffee mugs, sturdy chairs, and laminate tables, it may just be the real article, still extant.

We had breakfast our first morning there and had we not made arrangement with friends to dine elsewhere during our stay, we would have been very happy to have eaten all our breakfasts there.  The lunch menu looked good and everything I read – and heard first-hand from friends who have eaten at the Metro Cafe – indicates that the dinner is very nice including many Serbian specialties.


After a full night’s sleep and a cup of joe, Tawn looks ready to tackle LA.


One item that caught my attention was the French Toast.  Thick slices of fresh brioche were lightly battered and fried on a well-seasoned grill.  Fresh strawberries and bananas were accompanied by a homemade raspberry sauce.  This was one of the most enjoyable French Toasts I’ve ever had.


Tawn had the eggs benedict, which was unpretentious and expertly executed.  The potatoes were well-seasoned with crisp edges.  Just a really satisfying start to the day.  We’re here for another 10 days or so.  I think we really need to come back!


After breakfast we set out to run some errands.  For the two days I will be at work, Tawn will have the car and be on his own, so he wanted to get back behind the wheel in the US, the first time in the more than six years since he moved back.  The car, a Dodge Charger, was a bit more powerful than what he drives at home, but he did a good job getting reacquainted with driving on the right side of the road.  And also scaling back that Bangkok style aggressiveness behind the wheel!


In the afternoon we did some browsing in West Hollywood, sharing a veggie burger and fries at a shop on Santa Monica Boulevard.  The patty was tasty but had no cohesion as a burger, falling apart as we tried to eat it.  The fries were tasty but I prefer the fries at in-n-out burger.  The bun was nice, though.