culinaria eugenius in l.a.: old school

I spent the long weekend in L. A. at a conference, which turned out to be delightful.  It’s a notoriously miserable annual affair, this gigantic conference, where everyone in my discipline who is interviewing for jobs (on either side of the table), seeking career advice, giving a talk, or just wanting to hear distinguished individuals rail on about the state of the field, come together in one, tense, ill-fitting suit-wearing weekend.

But I had a blast!  They used to hold the conference between Christmas and New Year’s, which would ruin both holidays, and always seem to hold it in places like Chicago or Boston to torture the Westcoasters.  This year, they switched the date to after Jan. 1, and held it in L.A.  Mood instantly improved.  For me, the conference was illumined not by L.A. neon or the cascading crystal light blankets that draped down over the J. W. Marriott lobby, but by all the friends and colleagues who were there.  I attended graduate school in Southern California, so many of my pals showed up for interviews, talks, and parties.

But we don’t care about interviews, talks, parties, or even friends here at Culinaria Eugenius, where we go to conferences to get our EAT on.

Exhibit A: street tacos.  A gigantic roast of pork al pastor in a taco truck caught my eye as I was headed home from a party.

As I watched the tacos being assembled, I noticed the women patting the tortillas between their hands, and saw the dough.  OMG, they were making fresh tortillas right there and then!  I gobbled down my tacos, wishing I had bought more. (Eugene note: this would be a great cart — concentrate on tacos only.  A few kinds of meat, maybe one bean option, fresh vegetables (radish slices, cilantro, pico de gallo), pickled peppers and salsa line the condiment bar.  Work with Plaza Latina for masa dough or use their fresh tortillas).

Even better, if that’s possible?  The french-dipped beef sandwich at Philippe The Original, near Union Station.  The “original” part means that Philippe invented the French Dip (with some argument from Cole’s, a recently renovated downtown classic).  The restaurant has been open for over 100 years, and they still throw sawdust on the floors and operate the candy counter.  The restaurant has been integrated into the neighborhood patois over the years, too.  The French original owner’s name is now pronounced, even by the new owners, as Filipe’s.  When I asked at the train station how to get there, all the women behind the desk corrected my pronunciation, then gave me their orders.  It’s that kind of place.

I love me some French Dip, always have.  And I had never made my pilgrimage to the birthplace of this humble sandwich.  Unlike the French Dip we know and love, the original french-dipped is made by dipping the insides of both halves of a sandwich roll into au jus, then placing the meat in between.  The meat gets juicy, the outside crust of the roll stays firm.  This is not for everyone, I know.  An admirer on Chowhound summed it up perfectly:  “If you like the soggy, squishy sort of salty tasteless denture-friendly texture of the french dip, then you’ll love Philippe’s. If you don’t, move on. Life’s too short.”

I’m a rather obsessive (as you know) food photographer, but even I sized up the sandwich and deemed it more appropriate for eating than photographing.  (But if you must see it, go here.)  Indeed, it looks downright unappetizing, unless you have the ineffable, effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable, singular love for the French Dip.  The side of coleslaw — spiceless, watery, limp — looked awful, too.  But I knew, just knew, that it would be sensational.

And it was.  The best cole slaw I’ve ever had.  I was so absorbed in the sandwich (and the perfect, vinegar-punchy, pure cole slaw) that I forgot to add Philippe’s famous mustard until my very last bite.

The picture at the very top of this post chronicles my experience.  Gone before I knew it.  Sigh.  And I wasn’t able to return to Philippe’s for the double-dipped, highly recommended by my enthusiastic colleagues.  The bun gets dipped twice, for even more squishy, soggy beef jus goodness.  Double sigh.  (Eugene note:  restaurants — You Can Do This.  Bland meat, white bun.  Gravy.  It’s so Eugene I can’t even stand it.  And yet, the French Dips I eat in this town are almost universally awful.  I’ve given up ordering them, in particular, at Cornucopia, because the jus is so salty it is inedible (coming from someone who likes salt, this is a serious red light, folks).)

We also made our way to Little Tokyo, where we snacked on mitarashi dango (rice cake dumplings with a sweet sauce, below, by the green tongs) that I spied through the window of a dorayaki (sweet bean pancake) operation.

There were still many New Year’s specialties in the grocery store, including these giant daikon.  The size brings good luck.  I pondered smuggling one home in my suitcase, but opted instead for needle thin dried squid “somen” for snacking; a faux-healthy, undoubtedly trendy, dried ramen product made with some magic green vegetable powder; seasoned wakame in a little paper boat; shiso and kabocha squash seeds; and mousepads printed with one of the Japanese alphabets for my nephews.

We had planned to go to one of the noodle houses, but as we walked by Suehiro Café, I was overwhelmingly awash with nostalgia for my Japanese home cooking past, and had to eat at this humble little diner that features Japanese comfort food. The diner has an awesome pegboard for specials that has, according to the owner, been in operation for 37 years.

Many of the menu items I had never seen on a menu before.  It was very difficult to choose, but we ended up getting my favorite tamago donburi, a big bowl of mixed tsukemono pickles, gyoza vegetable dumplings, and saba shioyaki, pictured below.  Saba is mackerel.  The oily, full-flavored fish is grilled on a bed of salt and served with a mound of grated daikon.  You squeeze the lemon and add a little soy to the radish, and it provides a nice contrast to the oily fish.  One of my absolute favorite Japanese dishes.  (Eugene note:  there’s no chance in hell we can do this here.  Sakura, the Japanese restaurant near campus with the weird vibe that closed in the fall used to have it as part of a Japanese breakfast, though.  I regret never having the chance to try it, as the breakfast was only available for a limited time — 2 hours at the most.  Oh well.  But if someone is enterprising and masochistic, they could try a Japanese breakfast cart.  I’d be there, but I might be the only one.)

After all that, though, I have to say that the nicest way to end the conference was to curl up in bed and chat with my roomie, an old friend, with a bottle of Oregon pinot noir.  See, I’m not ready to defect yet.


4 thoughts on “culinaria eugenius in l.a.: old school

  1. Elin England 12 January 2011 / 11:04 am

    You would not be alone cozying up to a cart in Eugene serving saba shioyaki! I would join you in a hot minute. That was one of my favorite things to eat in Japan, for ANY meal. And mitarashi dango! The photo brings be right back to the streets of Tokyo…


  2. Eugenia 12 January 2011 / 11:05 am

    I am so happy to hear this! I wonder how many more Eugeniuses would join us?


  3. Jon 31 January 2011 / 11:46 pm

    When you have french dip in Los Angeles, be sure to go to Cole’s on 6th Street, between Main St. and Los Angeles St. There is a debate as to whether the french dip was invented there, or at Philippe’s.

    Skip the beef at both places, and try the lamb. Pretty close to perfect, especially with the mustard at Philippe’s, or the crunchy-spicy pickles at Cole’s.

    Good choice on Suehiro Café. I love going there, and whiling away two or three hours reading and having one course at a time.


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