Monthly Archives: July 2009

The unstoppable Orange County

When I moved to LA, I feel like I inadvertantly chose sides in a long-standing feud: Los Angeles vs. Orange County. There is obviously a lot of history going way back, a lot of bad blood and passion. Well, I’m not from here so I don’t get it, the same way people from Texas don’t recognize the HUGE differences between Sonoma and Napa (Napa’s for auto parts – Sonoma’s the best. Even Grey’s Anatomy hunks agree! McDreamy: “Sonoma. Smaller hotels. Fewer tourists.“). So far, these are things I’ve noticed on my brief forays to Orange County.

  • The highway is a lot wider.
  • There is a lot of water-intensive landscaping, even in the industrial parks, but there are basically no orange trees anywhere.
  • The outdoor mall in Irvine can only be accurately described as vast.

Thankfully, there is a book to enlighten us on the charms of this southern land: Orange County: A Personal History.

orangecountycover

I found out about the newest book by Gustavo Arellano, the author of the syndicated column, Ask a Mexican, from his recent Zocalo lecture. I’ve taken to downloading the lectures as podcasts and I listen at the gym so that I’m simultaneously getting both buffer AND smarter.
The same way a good teacher can make anything interesting, so can a good writer. Gustavo Arellano is as funny as ever, plus the book has lots of my favorite stuff – history and musings on Mexican/American culture. He’s got a great section on OC religion from The Purpose-Driven Life to the Hour of Power. I’m planning a field trip to the Crystal Cathedral.
Orange County is actually part of my personal history as well. I may have been raised in Northern California, but my half-sister, Dana, grew up in Newport Beach, as did her husband. I recently visited my sister’s old haunts for the first time ever. We walked around Balboa Island and she pointed out places our dad used to go when his family vacationed down south in the summers. It was kind of surreal to be connected to a place I’d never visited.
But as Gustavo points out, we’re ALL connected to Orange County in one way or another, since it’s one of those rare American places with political and cultural influence far beyond its size. He may be the county’s #1 critic, but he’s also it’s #1 cheerleader. Read it, love it, embrace the OC. (Just don’t call it that.)

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Filed under California history, Orange County

Bigger is better, except if it’s not authentic

This weekend, I finally decided to walk a couple blocks from my house and eat at the fabled El Tepeyac Cafe on Evergreen. It had been recommended to me by an LA-native before I even left the wine country and the guy who turned on my gas also gave it the thumbs up. Two sources plus my independent reconnaissance which revealed an almost constant line in front = Worth trying at least once.
I’m sorry to say I probably won’t go back. Not because it wasn’t tasty – it just simply wasn’t tasty enough nor was the ambience so compelling that I’ll shell out $9 for a burrito (even if it did weigh about 4 lbs).
The experience did get me thinking about authenticity however – especially after I scrolled through some of the online reviews on Yelp.
The amateur food reviewers split into one of two categories: enthusiastic eaters wowed by the biggest burritos this side of the Mississippi and haters who complain that the place is no good because it’s not “authentic.” A representative sampling of the tenor of the conversation:

Richard D.

Manny’s Special, that is all you need to know…I never seen this in my life.  I couldn’t finish it on my own; so I split it with a friend.  If you plan to take on this beast alone, make sure to fast two days in advance.  Got to love Mexican food.

Saul S.

Let me get this straight: “HUGE portions” merit the authenticity-stamp for Mexican joints?? *sigh*This place is as “authentic” as Knott’s Berry Farm’s Montezuma’s Revenge snack-bar. Maybe I’m spoiled by the regional Piasa joints that don’t cater to LA nostalgia but I don’t trust any Mexican restaurant that doesn’t serve Carne Asada or Pastor meat. 
After all the hype from my newly extended East-Los familia and fellow die-hard Dodger fans, Its safe to say I was disappointed by TepeWac’s condensed, portion-friendly menu. 
I agree, not ALL “authentic” Mexican joints serve the same type of food, but they DO serve a protein other than thawed-out chicken strips and Shredded beef(Machaca) 
No trolling. Soon after I ate here, I discovered this place is a joke among un chingo de Mexicanos besides this serote from Long Beach.

Then we have Robert A. who passes on the posturing:

I know that you could either hate it or love it but if you come with the mentality of eating REAL MEXICAN food, you might as well go to Mexico as I have never found any of those places here in L.A. Even in Mexico. We all have different taste and preference so what’s Mexican?

True that, Robert. Saul. I hear you, but you’re too cool for school and it’s bastante obnoxious.
Authenticity is for coins and stamps if you ask me. It implies that there is a single gold standard, a single correct way of preparing any given cuisine and that any divergence from the norm immediately merits the use of either “fusion” or “nouveau.”
I grew up on “authentic” California cuisine. My homecooking repertoire includes recipes from my mom’s Oklahoma family like fried okra, Fantastic (a layered pudding and cool whip extravaganza) and blackberry wine cake (which includes both Jello mix and blackberry flavored Manischewitz wine). My other specialties include Vietnamese salad rolls, pad thai, spaghetti, stir fry, tortilla soup and tamales. Garnished with a smattering of recipes from Sunset magazine like snickerdoodle cookies and chili egg puff. Buen provecho.
Robert hits another nail on the head – I’ve never had “REAL” Mexican food in Los Angeles or anywhere in California. The tacos al pastor on the streets of DF were genuinely otherworldly, the slice of pineapple lopped off the top of the spit sending them into another realm entirely. Besides being tasty, they’re also a perfect example of the dubious nature of authenticity. Like mariachi music, they’re a relatively new thing. Furthermore, they were introduced to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants, not born from the country’s Aztec or Mayan soul. King Taco just doesn’t cut it. Not to mention that an “authentic” quesadilla in Mexico City doesn’t have any cheese which everyone but the chilangos and the lactose-intolerant agrees is completely stupid.
While we’re whining, horchata made from the mix is simply nowhere near as good as the stuff with condensed milk, there is not enough mole up here and please send along recommendations for good places with comida yucateca, pozole and tortas.
However, the point of this blog post is: Who cares? There is only one measure that counts and that is delicious-ness. My boyfriend introduced me to sprinkling Kraft parmesan on his mom’s tostadas. Authentic? No. Delicioso? You bet!
The quality of Mexican food generally drops off with each mile you travel from the border, mainly because the competition decreases. However, the move away from the mythical homeland can also be liberating and I’ve had lots of good American-Mexican-Latino, etc. food from throughout California. I’ll be honest – i like it just as much as the incredible traditional dishes concocted from more exotic ingredients like pumpkin seeds, squash flowers and goat meat that I loved eating in Mexico.
In fact, the singular dish that I have found unchanged by its migration from the southland across the border doesn’t usually get mentioned in the Mexican culinary pantheon. However, it is a point of pride that it was indeed invented in Mexico. That dish would be none other than the Caesar salad.

Here’s some food photos from my personal collection, just for fun.

If they aren’t authentic enough for ya, take a walk with me through Mercado San Juan.

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The majestic redwoods of downtown Los Angeles

It was hot in downtown LA last Saturday. People moved languidly between the funky buildings along Broadway, squinting in the piercing sunlight. After a three-hour historical tour, my boyfriend, German, and I were definitely ready for a relaxing sit-down lunch. We crossed the street and popped into Clifton’s Cafeteria, a Los Angeles institution for over 74 years and the biggest cafeteria in the entire country.
From the glass doors in front, you walk straight back along the wall to a labyrinthine stainless steel counter at the very back, sliding your tray past dishes of coleslaw and potato salad over to the hot trays filled with chicken swimming in barbecue sauce, towers of mashed potatoes and a puddle of macaroni and cheese.

Clifton's Cafeteria, Los Angeles

Clifton's Cafeteria, Los Angeles

Snag a slice of coconut cream pie and you emerge from the sterile food service area into someone’s version of a forest wonderland.

Clifton's Cafeteria, Los Angeles

Clifton's Cafeteria, Los Angeles

A waterfall trickles down the middle of the cavernous two-story space and the walls are covered with life-size murals of the redwoods. Fake redwoods stick out from the walls, there are small statues of bears and a mechanical raccoon poking out of a tree stump.
I didn’t see it coming. People had told me the place was like stepping into a 1930’s time-warp, but strangely, no one mentioned that it also endeavored to transport you to the coast of northern California (or Frontier Land in Disneyland). After eating, we wound our way up the stairs and off the second level, you could squeeze into a tiny chapel. Sitting on the narrow bench, you looked into a forest diorama. I pressed the button and a man’s voice intoned a poem about God and nature. Surreal, but strangely soothing to be squeezed into a little space in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the cafeteria. Very zen.

Clifton's Cafeteria, Los Angeles
See the chapel in the right-hand corner.

I suppose it was everything the founders dreamed. We rustled up a detailed brochure that explained a lot. The Clifton family opened their first cafeteria in 1931, smack dab in the middle of the Depression. They weren’t newcomers to the business, having run restaurants in San Francisco, and they drew on another fount of experience – serving in the mission fields of China. “Clifford, one of the five children with them in China, was so moved by the appalling poverty and lack of food that he vowed always to remember the plight of the hungry.”
You could say so. The cafeteria had a policy of never turning away anyone who was hungry and, during one 90-day period, it fed 10,000 people for free. As if that weren’t enough, Clifford went on to found a nonprofit that distributed “Multi-Purpose Food” to people around the globe (I picture something along the lines of a graham cracker block).
All of this is pretty extraordinary, but what I find so remarkable is that the cafeteria still exists, essentially unchanged for at least 50 years. And not just the one I went to downtown, but five locations across the L.A. area that serve 15,000 people a day. Cheesy, surreal, but strangely comforting.

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A walk through L.A.’s old movie palaces

To a certain extent, exploring Los Angeles’ historic Broadway theater district feels like stumbling upon King Tut’s tomb. Some of the most unassuming exteriors give way to sumptuous interiors, caverns adorned with gold baroque carvings punctuated by the leering faces of exotic royalty, the ceiling dripping with glass chandeliers.
Their charms are hidden for the most part. Our docent from the Los Angeles Conservancy pointed out details we never would have caught. One run-down marquee had a couple of shops crowded under it. The owner of the electronics shop kindly let us through the back into his storage room – the former theater stripped of its chairs, but still grand with its vaulted ceiling and touch of decoration.
Interior of old Broadway theater, now an electronics shop storeroom
Some were tragically beyond repair, nothing left but the shell of the building. Others were preserved even as their purpose had changed. Two of the theaters that were in the best shape were now under heavy and radically different uses by their current owners – one as a church, the other a jewelry shop, its floor as packed as the cosmetics section of Macy’s.
Theater isn’t the right word – at the time, these spaces were known as movie palaces, a far more accurate moniker. In the 1930s, this short stretch of Broadway supported a dozen theaters offering a mix of cinema and vaudeville. They could accomodate 17,000 people on a single night. Any world culture and any historic motif was fair game. Los Angeles is the capital of make believe after all, where appearances sometimes matter more than substance. Perhaps as a result, the architectural styles are a mishmash of influences. The Citadel mall – L.A. does Egypt. The vast outdoor mall in Irvine – L.A. does southern Spain. Grauman’s Chinese Theater – L.A. does the “Orient.”
Historians here are perhaps better off celebrating the eclectic influences than trying to get developers to be true to a single style. After all, L.A. is no ancient city so any way you cut it, the architects here are probably copying someone else.
There are too many treasures along Broadway to name, too many good stories so you’ll just have to take the tour for yourself.
It was exciting to see those theaters that are still vibrant, perhaps most notably the Orpheum which now hosts world-class concerts and even American Idol try-outs. The owner kindly let us take a seat in front and a man headed to the stage, plopped down on the bench seat of the organ and proceeded to play us a bit of an epic movie score. It was about as close to time travel as I’ll ever get.

Take a little walk for yourself with my interactive map. I’ll add some more pictures next week.

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Filed under California history, I heart Cali, Los Angeles