Wednesday, December 11, 2013

chop suey vs. the salted caramel croissant

The Grand Central Market doesn't look like much from the outside. 
I was in Los Angeles over the weekend reporting an 800-word travel story on the city's scuzzy-fascinating Downtown. There’s a lot of scuzzy in Downtown L.A. There’s a lot of fascinating. There’s a lot of everything. Vagrants, hipsters, check-cashing stores, great restaurants, scary restaurants, a Roy Choi restaurant, urine-scented street corners, lovely Beaux Arts buildings, a Chinatown, a 110-year-old mochi shop, a block with nothing but hookah wholesalers. . . 

Yikes. Only a writer version of Houdini could pack Downtown L.A. into 800 words and that isn’t me. Yesterday, after much struggle, self doubt, and ruthless cutting, I turned the story in. I didn’t hit it out of the park, but I turned it in. Today is going to be cake. I'm going to enjoy today.

My hotel was two blocks from the Grand Central Market, a lively 93-year-old urban market with history, lore, and old neon signs advertising chow mein and chop suey. Every time I took a break from running around, I went back to the Market. I could have stood there watching people all day. About 3/4 of the stalls are hard-core ethnic places selling tacos, pupusas, and chop suey. I was curious about the chop suey, which I’ve never tasted, but I was also suspicious because it cost $4. If it had cost $8 I would have tried it. 

Last December, the market’s owners announced plans for a renovation and in the months since they’ve rented empty stalls to vendors specializing in almond milk lattes, salted caramel croissants, and juices with names like “Purity." There’s an oyster bar coming and a cheese shop. In other words, the market is now split between dirt-cheap ethnic food and delicacies with “local” or “salted” in the name. I bought a tiny, delicious salted chocolate chip cookie from a pretty new bakery called Valerie. Ten steps away an enormous cauldron of pig parts was bubbling and people were shouting in Spanish. I tried some of those pig parts (a.k.a. carnitas) and, like the salted cookie, they were delicious. 

The scene was wonderful. It was also dissonant. Can the two realities coexist under one roof? And if not, why not? If I had to venture a guess, I would predict the market will quickly tilt in one direction or the other. While it seems clear that there’s more money in salted caramel, the vast majority of the people there were working-class Latino. They seemed totally uninterested in the $6 bottles of Purity juice.

Incidentally, it turns out that Valerie Gordon, owner of the bakery where I bought the salted chocolate chip cookie, just came out with a beautiful cookbook called Sweet. The publisher sent it to me a month or so ago, and while it contains no recipe for those salted chocolate chip cookies, I’m intrigued by her tangerine poundcake and rose petal petit fours.

As a few of you may recall, I spent some time cooking from Nancy Silverton's Mozza a couple of years ago. Late Sunday afternoon I had an hour to kill before heading to the airport, so I parked across the street from Pizzeria Mozza, supposedly a very tough place to get a seat. Should I try to walk in? Would I feel dejected and hurt if I was turned away? Stupid! I gave myself a brief talking-to and got out of the car. 

"Absolutely we have room!" said the friendly hostess. She seated me at the counter and almost immediately I felt calmer than I had all weekend. The place was warm, welcoming and totally sure of itself. Totally alive. Some restaurants, very few, have this magic about them. For me, Sunday afternoon, Pizzeria Mozza had it. I ordered the long-cooked broccoli pizza, which was fantastic. For dessert: butterscotch pudding with caramel sauce. Do even need to tell you the caramel sauce was salted? It was outstanding. I sat there and thought: what a treat, I am perfectly happy, remember this. 

Then I had to drive to the airport and the spell was broken. That's spells for you


  1. I agree with you that very few restaurants have the magic of mozza. The old "Stars" in san fran had it. chez panisse does not. i think the core of that magic is what they call "hospitality" and the way it feels when it's real.

  2. Best book about Chop Suey is "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" by Jennifer Lee. However, I don't think you missed much by skipping the actual eating of it.

  3. The very best restaurants I have ever been to had a relaxed vibe and the staff had great emotional warmth. The food had to be good, but it didn't have to be great. I don't like being rushed, and I expect to be treated cordially. In return, I will tip very well, and I will come back. I always got the sense that the staff enjoyed their work, which makes a huge difference in any business. I'm glad you had this experience. I think it has become more rare than it was before the chain restaurants began to dominate the market.

  4. Jeez, I wish you'd let me know you were in town. I'm no longer doing the croissant doughnut (for abstruse reasons) but I would have loved to finally meet you! Grand Central Market was where my dad bought all his produce after my parents divorced. I always won then informal orange-tasting contest during my schools's lunch hour. I love that place. I was invited to involve myself in the primping up of the place a year or two ago. The guy in charge is a member of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers meetup group, as am I.
    As for Mozza, I love that long-cooked broccoli pizza. The first time I went there, I ordered a fairly conventional pizza, tomato and mozzarella with some sort of salami, but my wise daughter ordered that broccoli pizza, and I ate a piece. I couldn't even speak while I ate it. It was the most interesting thing I've ever eaten. That pizza was the reason I made an effort to improve the pizzas at the W Hotel, and the reason I built my backyard pizza oven. I'm so glad you tried it.

    1. Kristin, I thought of you often and was hoping to drop by Forage (and eat a croissant donut! shoot) but then I figured I would come by at the end of the December when we return for our annual trip. Are you around post-Xmas?
      The produce at the market was incredibly inexpensive. Four mangoes for a dollar?

    2. Should be here post-Christmas, love to see you. Yes, the produce is crazy cheap. But then, so is the produce at my local Baja Ranch (20 small avocados for $4 recently), so I rarely make it to Grand Central. But it's a great little touristy two hours to go to the Bradbury Building (historic piece of local architecture, beautiful), then the market, then ride Angel's Flight up Bunker Hill to the plaza and fountains.

    3. I saw the Bradbury building on the excellent conservancy walking tour. The architecture all around dt was incredibly beautiful. I had no idea.

  5. Next time you visit the City of Angels, Tipsy, you might want to check out the Mercado La Paloma:

    A variety of tasty food options and interesting shops all run by independent entrepreneurs.

    1. Next time I visit the City of Angels, Eric, I will. We also hope to see the Pinckert Hallinans.

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