Food in LA: Johnnie’s Pastrami in Culver City


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.


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. 


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.


Complimentary dill pickles, sliced thick.


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!


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!


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.


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 Bangkok: New York Cheesecake

New York is a city that holds a special place in the imagination of many people around the world.  So it is no surprise to see the mystique of New York used to sell everything from condos to makeup here in Bangkok.  The most recent addition to this “Big Appleing” of Bangkok is a small restaurant at the Crystal Design Center: NYCC – New York City Cheesecake.

Located in a rapidly expanding strip mall in the suburban outskirts on the northeast flank of the city, NYCC claims to offer a real taste of New York with not only authentic New York style cheesecakes but also pastrami sandwiches.  Being a lover of pastrami, I had to go out and try this for myself.


The restaurant is really more of a shack or hut, located between other buildings at the Crystal Design Center.  CDC is a design-oriented strip mall located on Ram Intra Road, an already overcrowded road that extends from Ekkamai Road out to the suburbs.  Despite the overcrowding, the past five years have seen an explosion of businesses and housing this direction.  Perhaps the good news is that with these new shopping centers on the periphery of Bangkok, the traffic on the streets in the core of the city will not get any worse.


The interior of NYCC looks more like a noodle shop with stools and small tables.  It isn’t much of a surprise then to learn that NYCC has a sister shop behind it that sells – wait for it – noodles.  Framed posters of Broadway shows lines the windows and various New York theme tchotchkes sit for sale on a side shelf.  The friendly staff take the orders and deliver the foods.  On a weekday afternoon around lunchtime, the place was not very busy.


NYCC’s motto is “cheese will never cease” – I’m not sure what that means.  For some reason, it makes me think of an alternative definition of the word “cheese”.


After a few minutes longer than I thought it would take, our sandwiches arrived.  I ordered the pastrami and Tawn ordered the chicken club.  The sandwiches are monsters, shooting for the “mile high” measurements for which New York deli sandwiches are know.  Let’s take a closer look at what we really have, though, from the toothpick down:


The bread was actually pretty good, although it would have been a bit nicer lightly toasted.  It wasn’t a nice dark rye but was slightly more substantive than the wonder that passes for bread all too often here in Bangkok.


In the middle, which is where most of the bulk is in this sandwich, is a stack of two types of lettuce, a stack of raw onion, and a stack of tomatoes.  The problem here (other than whether or not there should be any vegetables on a pastrami sandwich) is that everything is stacked, so you get a lot of onions in one bite, for example, and no onions in another bite.


At the bottom is the pastrami.  I’ll give them credit for tasty pastrami, albeit sliced a little thicker than I like.  It was tender and smoky.  There was also not much of it, especially when compared with the bread and vegetables.  As for the sauce, the sandwich was over-sauced – which is not unusual here in Thailand, with brown mustard (nice) and Thousand Island (wrong – this isn’t a Reuben).

How to rate it overall?  Well,  for a sandwich that carried a price tag around 340 baht (about $11.40), it was mighty short on meat and might high on everything else… except a pickle, which would have been a nice touch.  Now, I’m not a New York, just a frequent visitor.  But from what I know of New York pastrami sandwiches, this is what my expectation looked like:

Carnegi 1

This is a pastrami sandwich from the Carnegie Deli.  We can debate which deli is the best, but in my mind, this is a good example of what a pastrami sandwich should be.  Lots and lots of pastrami with little or nothing else between the bread.  Now, I understand that beef is expensive here and I’m not opposed to paying a good price for something that approximates a real New York style pastrami sandwich.  But if I’m going to pay that much money, let’s lose the salad, add a little more meat, and put the sauce on the side.


As for Tawn’s chicken club, it was a similar tower of salad but had a very substantial amount a chicken at the base – probably two breasts’ worth.  The meat was bland and instead of being thinly sliced was more slab-like.  It was about 250 baht and, from Tawn’s perspective, overpriced. 

As for the eponymous cheesecake, a recent dining companion (at another meal) told me she thinks the cheesecakes are flown in from the Cheesecake Factory in the United States.  I don’t think that’s the case, but the potion sizes are enough to make you believe it!


We ordered a slice of regular cheesecake with strawberry topping, more than ample for two (or four!) to share.  I’ll give them credit for making a pretty passable New York style cheesecake.  The consistency is smooth, solid but not too dense, and nicely flavored.  It had obviously been frozen previously as the center of the slice was still icy – a faux pas when service cheesecake – but it was better than a lot of the overly airy cheesecake I’ve had in Bangkok.

We ended up with a bill of about 850 baht for two sandwiches, one slice of cheesecake, and two bottles of water.  For Bangkok, that’s a pretty pricey meal, especially for a lunch.  It was fun to try and NYCC had some things going for it, but not so many that I’d be easily tempted to make the trek out Ram Intra.  Instead, I’ll just save my pastrami cravings for my new trip back to the real New York.

Food in the US – ‘ino

A grilled cheese sandwich.  One of the most perfect foods to eat, especially if we’re talking about a grilled cheese done in the form of an Italian panino.  (Plural: panini)  Last August I wrote about this little Italian panini shop and wine bar in Greenwich Village called ‘ino.  Opened by Jason and Jennifer Denton, protégées of Mario Batali, this is the cutest place and, though I didn’t know it beforehand, kind of a ‘big deal” in the New York Italian restaurant scene.


The place is tiny – perhaps ten two-seater tables plus a half-dozen stools at the wine bar.  With a brick wall on one side and a bar on the other, it is cozy and welcoming, a place that you just want to stop by on your way home to have a drink, snack on a few tasty bites of something, and catch up on the neighborhood gossip.  It is what I think a “third place” should look like.


The kitchen is thirty square feet, no larger than enough room for two people, two panini grills, and a toaster oven.  It is enough to make me stop complaining about my kitchen and instead think about adding some more shelves.


Tawn’s school friend Rosrin and her husband Sean recently moved to Manhattan from Boston, and had their first child, Quinn.  Being equally big foodies as Tawn and me, we met Rosrin (along with her father and her son) for an early lunch one morning.

Back at home, we regularly make panini as a weeknight dinner.  Cut from a fresh loaf of homemade whole grain bread, two grilled slices with some meat, cheese, and something tangy inside make for a healthy and wholesome meal.  Serve it up with a side of mixed greens and it transforms the ordinary sandwich into something really special.

Simple Italian Sandwiches

While eating, I discovered that ‘ino sells their cookbook, Simple Italian Sandwiches: Recipes from America’s Favorite Panini Bar.  Needless to say, I now have a copy.  Now, why do I need a recipe book for something that is, at its most basic, a grilled cheese sandwich?  Because I realize that my panini, while satisfying, are pretty plain.  I’m not getting the most out of them.  The panini I eat at ‘ino have another level of flavor complexity that elevates them to a whole other plane of existence.


For Tawn, there was one objective in mind, besides visiting with Rosrin: to have a slice of ‘ino’s truffled egg toast.  This thick-cut white bread is toasted, hollowed out, filled with egg yolks, and topped with fontina cheese.  After a few minutes of broiling, a healthy dash of truffle oil is poured on top and some sautéed asparagus is served alongside.  Available morning, noon, and night, the egg toast is the highlight of the menu.

Now that I have the cookbook, I’ve discovered the not-so-secret secret to making their egg toast.  When I tried this at home after our last trip, I put a whole egg into the middle of the toast, which was too much egg and overflowed.  Now I realize that the trick is to use two yolks and no whites. 

I’ve also learned about several spreads and sauces I can make to help spice up my panini at home: roasted peppers, olive tapenade, an balsamic roasted garlic, to name a few.  Watch for some future entries resulting from the purchase of this cookbook.


Above: Panino with pepperonata (roasted bell peppers), fresh mozzarella cheese, and basil pesto.

The panini are really exquisite at ‘ino.  Another lesson I learned is that instead of cutting slices from a loaf of bread, they use ciabatta rolls with the top sliced off.  This ensures that every bite has some crust from the bottom side.  I’ve tried doing this but so far my homemade ciabatta have so many large bubbles that fillings form the panini spill through the bread.  I’ll have to keep practicing and see if I can create (and then consistently reproduce) a ciabatta that compares to the ones made at the Blue Ribbon Bakery, the next door bread supplier for ‘ino.


Above: Scrambled egg, cheese, and sweet onions.  How’s that for a breakfast treat?

We returned for breakfast the day before we left, one last chance to enjoy one of the most fun little restaurants we’ve been to, a gem that we would love to recreate here in Krungthep.


Could you imagine this somewhere along Soi Thong Lor?  Not with people dressed like this, I think. 


Summer Bounty – Bacon Lettuce and Tomatoes

The best part about living back in Kansas City is that I can get really good summer produce.  Every Saturday I go to the Farmers Market in Overland Park and buy some yummy veggies and fruits.  Right now is peak season for peaches and tomatoes – corn is pretty good, too.  A few weeks ago it was all about the blackberries, but that’s over.


The Farmers Market is especially important because, due to heat and drought, my tomato plants never really bore much fruit.  I am not ready to become a full-time farmer.


This afternoon I fixed my favorite summer meal – one that I’ve been eating almost daily for the past two weeks – a Bacon Lettuce and Tomato sandwich!  Once I move to Bangkok, I suppose that I’ll trade this in for a BBT – Bacon, Basil, and Tomato.  There is a recipe in this month’s issue of Sunset magazine.


Artfully arranged, don’t you think?