Arizona Pie Road Trip

 

Waiting_select_326
Rock Springs Cafe, Arizona. March 2015

Last March I visited my cousin in Phoenix. She takes care of her aging mother and her daughter who just graduated high school and her son who attends ASU. While I was there, B, her mother wanted to go for a drive. The Rock Springs Cafe is about 30 miles north of Scottsdale and is renowned for pie. So we all piled into the car for the half-hour drive.

While this is not intended to be a review of the Rock Springs Cafe, let me just say, the “world famous” pie was underwhelming, as was all the food. We make better pie at home. Way better. The place was jammed, however, and the waiting crowd spilled out into the packed parking lot. It seemed like the clientele were mostly travelers. There were scores of RV’s of every size and scads of families with strings of children in tow making their way across the blazingly hot tarmac. It’s amazing what a little good press will do for mediocre food.

While I was waiting, I noticed this semi-professional waiter passing the time until he could get to the burgers and pie.

 

Pastrami

As you might have gathered by now, we engage in food quests of one form or another. One of the objects of such a quest has been the definitive pastrami, (or corned beef) sandwich. The gold standard, in my opinion, is Katz’s in New York City. In Los Angeles, there are scores nay, hundreds of variations on this deli icon. However, there are only a few that remotely approach my ideal of the perfect sandwich.

Food writers routinely compile lists of the ‘best New York style pastrami’ sandwich and the two that make this list consistently are Langer’s and Brent’s. Not often mentioned is Nate N’ Al’s in Beverly Hills, for years our go-to stop. Factor’s Deli used to be very good but has declined in years. Canter’s on Fairfax also makes these lists with regularity, but they are not my favorite. A new player in the LA pastrami scene is Wexler’s in the Grand Central Market. They cure their own meat and lox, and the sandwich is pretty darn good.

A couple of years ago, on our way out to Desert Hot Springs for a much-needed escape, we stopped at Langer’s for the first time. Fortunately, we arrived after the crowds that normally fill the waiting line outside had dissipated. Its reputation is well deserved. Aside from the smoky goodness of the meat, their speciality is the twice-baked rye bread with a fabulous crunchy crust. The old-school deli ambience only adds to the experience and the french fries are delicious too. We have eaten there several times since and it never disappoints.

The following year, we stopped at Brent’s just because they have been so lauded, and were sorely disappointed. The meat was rubbery and indistinctly flavored, and the bread so soft, the sandwich disintegrated halfway through. It has been suggested we try again, but once was enough. On our food quests, one strike and you’re out.

Buns for the Whole Family

Who doesn’t love Ikea? I mean when you go there, the escalator whisks you to the very top of the store, and no matter what you are there to buy, you have to walk through the entire store to get what you want. And everything has a name. Like Omlopp or Yddingen or Iggsjön. And once you have that giant flat box home you get to spend hours assembling your TV table named Hasselvika with that tiny crappy allen wrench they give you. And what do you do with the three extra weird screws you are left with? And the food, that wonderful cafeteria with the Swedish meatballs and the Swedish hot dogs and the Swedish potato chips. Yummy. And if you have to return something, they have that swell waiting area with the cool interactive display to keep your kids occupied while you lie on those super comfy couches waiting for them to call your number. What’s not to love?

We were there buying a convertible couch named Balkarp and kitchen cabinet handles named Tyda for our guest house on one of these occasions, and knobs named Möllarp for our own kitchen cabinets on the other. Nifty brushed stainless steel handles with screws just a tiny bit too long for the doors so I had to go to the hardware store and get all new metric screws to fit. What’s not to love?

Ojai, Spring 2014

After Jake’s passing we were devastated, distraught, depressed, in the agony of grief. We needed to get away from this house, from the overwhelming absence of our son. Every place we thought about going was fraught with memories of family trips with Jake. We were paralyzed. Our dear friend E. suggested we get away to Ojai. She owns a beautiful cottage in Miners Oaks, a hamlet just west of the Ojai center. Three weeks after the funeral, we were finally able to think about going, we packed up our car and made the short trip north.

The cottage sits on a large piece of property surrounded by fruit trees and towering ancient oaks. This was a place Jake had never been. There were no haunted ghosts lurking, no memories of wonderful times gone by. It was a neutral place. Just what we needed.

We managed to eke out a bit of solace from the unspeakable events of the previous weeks. Still too shell-shocked to do much of anything, we were able, nonetheless, to have a few meals out, do a little wine tasting, visit Meditation Mount, a beautiful serene retreat atop a ridge that overlooks the entire valley.

We would return several times that first traumatic year, every six weeks or so. We found a routine and rhythm to the visits – dinner at a favorite restaurant, shopping at the farmer’s market, picnic at Meditation Mount. Mostly we just laid low. The photographs represent three trips to three restaurants and a shot of the main street colonnade.

We still visit from time to time, but having that place to run away to that first horrible year was a blessing and a godsend. Thank you, E. for your gracious hospitality.

Dumpling Quest

 

When Empress Pavilion closed, we were distraught. We embarked on a quest to find a replacement for our beloved Dim Sum lunch. Fortunately, there is a multitude of dim sum restaurants in the greater Los Angeles area, and our search took us from Redondo Beach to Monterey Park, from West Los Angeles to Glendale. NBC in Monterey park was high on the list for a while, but they have a limited number of chicken dumplings, and when they changed the recipe of T’s favorite purple sweet potato dumpling, that was the final nail. Din Tai Fung is famous for it’s soup dumplings, the xiao long bao, but they are made with pork, so we couldn’t eat them. There is a place in West LA we tried, ROC (via a Groupon) which makes a chicken Xiao Long Bao. It was good at first, they have a stir-fried rice noodle dish that is delicious, but faded after the first few visits. We tried a couple of venerable places in Chinatown, one in Redondo Beach that had gotten good review by Jonathan Gold, but time and again we returned to Ocean Seafood, another Chinatown institution.

These photos show the difference in energy between an empty waiting area and the same room filled with people. In both, the first shot is while we were waiting, the second one of vacant chairs is after lunch, as we were leaving.

Domino’s Pizza

Waiting_select_125
Domino’s Pizza, Venice. November 2013

Back on Lincoln Blvd., this Domino’s is two blocks away from my house. Not that we ever, EVER order from Domino’s, but I pass it on my way to Spring Nail Spa or to our shul. When Jake was living in our guest house, he used to make the short walk over frequently, and I would often look out our living room window and see him trucking down the street holding the flat red, white, and blue box on his way home. It still baffles me how a wonderful chef like Jake would stoop to eating take-out pizza, but hungry is hungry. Plus they have coupons.

I guess as far as fast-food chain pizza goes it isn’t too bad; I confess to having eaten Domino’s more than once in the past. In fact, we even had it delivered a few times. Did I mention it was in the far distant past? Now we go to Eddie’s Italian restaurant down the street. The pizza is way better, but I have to drive the 4 blocks to get it; they don’t deliver. Anyway, our local Domino’s recently replaced these red metal chairs with a couple of red upholstered booths to encourage people to “dine in”. No longer “Carryout Only”. Why anyone would want to dine in the foyer of a Domino’s is quite beyond me. ‘Dining’ seems an overly optimistic description of what you would do in a Domino’s. The ambiance isn’t quite … well … anything. I guess it takes all kinds.

Costco

Waiting_select_110
Costco, Palm Springs. November 2013

I love Costco – The home of the $600 toothbrush. What I mean is, when you go to buy the electric toothbrush that is on sale for $79, full ADD kicks in even if you don’t have it.

“Oh look at these storage boxes, we need some of those. And some ink for the printer. In fact, we need a new printer. And some new towels. This is a great bottle of wine for the price. And a brick of Parmesan. And a package of lox. And some mushrooms. And a chicken. Oooh, Calvin Klein polo shirts for $19.95. I’ll get the purple one, the blue one, and the grey one. And a 3-pack of reading glasses. And some cans of tuna.”

And, and, and and. Suddenly your cart is brimming with items and $600 later, you have a new toothbrush.

Jake was living in Palm Springs and we went to Costco to get him a new phone. His old one had gotten lost or broken or died, I can’t remember exactly which, and Verizon was having some kind of promotion. He ended up with a Samsung Galaxy for a ridiculously low price, a modest increase to my bill, and a bunch of free accessories. No toothbrush.

On the way out, I noticed that in Palm Springs, the food court is inside the air conditioned building, unlike our Marina del Rey Costco where it is outside. Probably because of the heat. But it’s a dry heat.

The Grind

Waiting_select_103
Grind Burger Bar, Palm Springs. September 2013

The stairs lead up to the Grind Burger Bar on Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs. Jake had moved there at the beginning of the month and we would make the 2 hour drive out to visit him every week or so. Our visits included the obligatory dinner with full restaurant critique. Dining with the three of us was always an adventure, and woe betide to the chef who didn’t get our order exactly right. Burger medium instead of medium rare? Send it back. Fries lukewarm? Send them back. Pasta overcooked? Send it back. Why bother eating if the food isn’t what you want. Especially if you are paying for it. Jake was a professional chef and for a while worked in some of the very best restaurants in Venice. T and I both cook and we expect our restaurant experience to be at least as good or better than what we cook at home. It rarely is.

Our first foray to the Grind was okay. The burgers were pretty good, juicy, flavorful, and the garlic fries were delightful. Our second try wasn’t as successful. T’s burger was overcooked, the fries were cold; I can still hear Jake saying, “Send it back, Mom.” I hear him in my head any time we dine out and the food isn’t what we ordered or cooked properly. “Send it back, Dad.”  We had to send her burger back twice. If a restaurant that specializes in burgers can’t cook a flipping’ burger properly, they shouldn’t be in business. They’re goddamn professionals, supposedly. In fact that last time, we actually had the chef come out and promise to personally cook our food. It turned out okay, it was more like we were just tired of pointing out the failings. Needless to say, we never went back.

Houston’s, Pasadena

Waiting_select_082
Houston’s Restaurant, Pasadena. July 2013

For a brief while, Jake was staying in Pasadena where we would visit him from time to time. Things weren’t going particularly smoothly for any of us at that point, and after one stressful visit, we stopped at Houston’s on our way home for martinis and dinner. They make an excellent martini, and their steaks and burgers are delicious. I have co-opted one of their signature appetizers, the grilled artichokes, and make it frequently at home. Steamed, cut in half, basted with olive oil and fresh garlic, and grilled over mesquite charcoal for a few minutes. This was my first night-time, outdoor photo, and the walkway seemed to beckon to us and welcome us in. That’s the front door on the left with the glowing square of light. I guess we really needed those martinis. After cocktails, artichokes and dinner, we felt much better and made the trip home without event.

 

Great Western Steak and Hoagie

Waiting_select_070
Great Western Steak and Hoagie Company, Venice. June 2013

The Great Western Steak and Hoagie Company is a little stand on the corner of Lincoln and Superba in Venice. It has been there for more than 40 years serving up a Los Angeles version of Philadelphia’s legendary sandwich. Housed in a former Tail O’ the Pup façade with the hot dog ends removed, it resembles a giant hoagie bun. The original brown “bun” has been painted recently, sea blue with scenes of Venice beach life, and is barely recognizable. It has changed hands many times over the years but the food has remained remarkably consistent. They still cook the thinly shaved meat on the same flat grill, flanked by heaps of onions, mushrooms and peppers and topped with a slice of melting cheese. The whole hot mess is scooped into a long doughy roll and splashed with a ladle of “pizza sauce” before being wrapped in paper, slipped into a brown bag and handed over the formica counter. The array of gallon jars of pickled cherry and hot sport peppers on the counter has been expanded to include Giardiniera (pickled vegetables), fluorescent green dill pickle slices, and fresh grilled serrano peppers. I don’t eat there any more, but enjoyed many of the steaming sandwiches in years past when I lived around the corner. Venice Arts, where I teach photography is just up the street and I pass by the GWSHC occasionally on my way from parking my car nearby. I peered in one day for nostalgia’s sake and discovered what may be the most rudimentary and least glamorous waiting area in the entire Waiting Room Project.