This post takes the form of an open letter of introduction and encouragement to my good friend whose move to Los Angeles is imminent. For a lifelong Brooklynite (okay, adult-life lifelong, she moved to NY after college and remained I will not say how long), the prospect of moving to a new city, especially one clear across the country, must be a daunting proposition.
Dear Soon-to-Be East Coast Transplant,
I know it seems like a big leap to move from East Coast to West and it’s too bad I can’t be there to greet you when you arrive, now that I’m a Northern Californian. Well, as you know, Los Angeles is the place I settled when just a wee bairn of 23 and I embraced the place right away. Maybe arriving there so early in my adult life and bumping into a lot of other young hopefuls at about the same time added to the positive side of the experience; but for all the certainty around Hollywood by necessity being a brutal place, what I met with was mostly warmth, keen appreciation for effort and goodness (creative or otherwise) and genuine offers of companionability from people of all ages. Angelenos are “People who need people” in that popular song kind of way.
The catch phrase that people from LA are so lambasted for – ‘let’s do lunch!’ – is just a safe way of saying you seem pretty cool and I’d like to get to know you better. That is not shameful or shallow, especially when you consider that New Yorkers and San Franciscans are not nearly as free with this sort of encouragement – at least not upon first, second or sixth meeting. I don’t mean to appear totally naive, there may be people who suggest lunch because they can get something from you, I suppose, but perhaps you can choose to be flattered and go with it – it’s better than the alternative, right? And you did get this killer job, after all. More people in LA are working in non-traditional ways with home offices and dubious job titles than in the colder-clime, conservative cities. The enterprising hyphenates of LA understood the value of networking long before Linked-In came on the scene. Hence that other cliche, the image of the film industry wonk clinging protectively to his rolodex. (Rolodex? What’s that? Weird.)
I don’t know if the plentiful sunshine is attributable to the warmth and openness of people in ‘the Southland’ or if it comes from high standards of hospitality inherited from the Spanish/Mexican roots of the region. Possibly it’s both. There is no other town I’ve lived in where so many people at varying levels of friendship and acquaintance will freely offer you a ride to the airport. It’s a car culture and as a friend once quipped ‘Friends don’t let friends ride RTD (the bus).’ I think you can expect this practical sort of kindness, and it can really serve a new girl in town.
With that said, I will move quickly to the meat of the matter here – places to eat that should help settle you in to my old home town. I’m going to tell you about the everyday sort of places. Those elegant, sunny patio lunches at Ivy or Spago can wait. I could write a dozen posts about different categories of favorite places down there – quickie, one-off fast food joints (I don’t think you’re a Tito’s Tacos, Pinks or Eat-a-Pita kind of eater but if I’m wrong about this let me know), favorite Asian, favorite Mexican, best pie – but I am narrowing it down to the essential for now: give it to me cheap and good, and keep it coming, and I don’t want to stand in any lines and eat at a bench, thanks. Below are easy access LA institutions in a three-way tie for best Triple Threat criteria – big portions, cheap as all get out and really, really tasty. As a bonus, the three places I’m highlighting also use a very heavy hand with the garlic.
If this sounds good to you, read on.
These restaurants were mainstays of my existence when I first arrived in town and continued to be places I frequented for the next fifteen years. I am giving them a three-way-tie because there’s no reason to put one above the others – they’re pretty different. I checked the internet to make sure that they are all still in existence. Happily, I can see they are; and judging from yelp notices they’re going strong. As a random traveller I’d even consider making a special trip to LA to check out these places, especially if you are a garlic lover and don’t want the crowds of the Gilroy Garlic Festival. I can’t vouch for the quality and source of the ingredients used, but the dishes will come up fresh and hot.
These restaurants have sustained many a young Angeleno working stiff wanting to get out for lunch on their budget or struggling writer who wanted to take someone out on a date – Versailles was probably the top spot for the latter. There were plenty of other people higher up the chain that you’d see at these restaurants too, for most everyone loves garlic, or a bargain, or both. Be warned about the garlic quotient though – you will smell the stuff coming out of your pores the next morning.
Alejo’s (2 Locations)
Alejo’s Presto Trattoria – (310) 822-0095
4002 Lincoln Boulevard Marina Del Rey, CA 90292
Alejo’s Presto Italian Restaurant -(310) 670-6677
8343 Lincoln Blvd.
Westchester, CA 90045
Alejo’s was founded by a Spaniard who worked at several prominent LA Italian restaurants before establishing his own place, and there is some blurring of the line sometimes between Italian and Spanish. This is not really a bummer in my opinion. (Their Friday/Saturday night special, currently, is Paella.) It’s not the greatest Italian restaurant if you are a purist but it is a wonderful version of the red-and-white storefront Italian that you just gotta have now and then – especially if you want a specific dish that a more bistro-menu style Italian restaurant just doesn’t offer. The basket of bread is served with a cup of garlic paste that is so garlicky that it will repulse some and draw others. It’s good for what ails you and you won’t have to wait in line with the vampires. Many people are also drawn by the fact that is a BYOB restaurant with no corkage fee. Alejo’s is a very reasonable evening out or takeout for home option.
Versailles Cuban Restaurant
In my day, there were two locations and now there are four, including one in lovely Manhattan Beach. Versailles’ website makes the restaurant look very up-to-date and hooked in to the internet world of marketing. Do not fear, however, their Roast Garlic Chicken lunch special is still only 7.99. (Prices are higher at dinner.) This is only 2 bucks more than back in the late 80’s when I worked around the corner and ate their once a week. This should be called their Roast Garlic-Garlic-Garlic Lunch Special. The intense garlicky jus spills into the rice, and then you get a side of fried plantains to dull it out. Magnificent. Versailles was (and I assume still is) a popular stop for all the garlic loving script readers, struggling screenwriters/editor/film students and people who appreciated change from their 10 dollar bill. The first, biggest location is very close to the Sony Studio lot, so plenty of film producers stopped in there too.
10450 National Blvd., Los Angeles, CA,90034,USA
You gotta love Hu’s. If you can navigate your way to the corner of National (Blvd) and National (Place) and find a parking spot, you have arrived at the mecca of spicy Szechuan goodness. I live in SF now and have easy access to world class, wonderful Chinese cuisine, but I still miss my favorite dishes from Hu’s. Szechuan style restaurants don’t seem to be common in SF and I haven’t eaten at the one or two Szechuan places I’ve seen.
Okay, looking at Hu’s website, I am oddly pleased to see that it is very rudimentary and old fashioned. There are silly animated graphics on a spackle-textured gray background and no photos of their delicious, spicy food. I take this to mean that things haven’t changed much at the physical site either – for Hu’s is a slightly dingy, though always busy, storefront restaurant. Must try dishes on the first visit: very garlicky dried fried green beans (I prefer theirs to SF’s well known Ton Kiang restaurant) and Cheng Pi Chicken: bright orange chunks o’ crispy chicken, with sweet onions that have absorbed the orangy-garlicky goodness, you can’t get it like this anywhere else that I’ve ever seen, or it goes by some other name. The Szechuan Shrimp is one of their signature dishes also. Watch out for those red pepper pieces!
P.S. I can’t resist adding these last two classics to check out. They’re places for morning or brunch comfort – solid to excellent American coffee shop places with great bacon, eggs and pancakes. Maxwell’s in Marina Del Rey and Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in Manhattan Beach. At Maxwell’s the eggs are wonderful, people love the strawberry stuffed french toast and I am a fan of their waffles. I don’t really like ordering waffles anywhere else. At Uncle Bill’s, it’s hard to go wrong with anything on their menu but the banana muffins make people I love very, very happy. I have fond memories from visits to both places and I try to hit at least one of them when I am in town for a visit. It looks as if I have a great excuse to get down there again one of these days. (As if I needed one!) Bon voyage and bon appetit! xo