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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Ethnic Food of the San Gabriel Valley: From the Greek Islands to the Hawaiian Islands


Cuisines covered in previous posts: Mexican, Cajun, NepaleseLebanese, Thai, BasqueArgentinian, Cuban, Vietnamese, English, Belgian, Spanish, Jewish


What about Greek Food? Well, we do have some strictly Greek restaurants, such as Corfu in Sierra Madre, most of the Hellenic immigrants around here...and we have quite a few...are more in the line of the Greek diner, like you'd find in New Jersey.

Greek Diner/Burger Stand cuisine is like the John Belushi sketch on SNL. We have a ton of great places that make decent, hearty food like steaks, traditional breakfasts, and...yes...burgers run by proud Greek families.

The most famous is probably Tommy's Original. The "Original" is put on there because Tommy's has many imitators using the same or very similar names. We also have the Jim's chain, Angelo's, Kosmo's, and Grand Burger.  

Greek diners include Costa's, Palms, and...our favorite...the Monrovian.



While you might not think "Greek" when you go there with all the burgers, steaks, chicken, eggs, pancakes, and sandwiches on the menu, look closer and you'll see gyros, Greek salads, feta omelets, souvlaki, and more. 

Here's where you'll get the "Greek" in Greek Diner.  Above, you'll see one of my favorites, the gyro at the Monrovian, with their outstanding zucchini fries.

Hawaiian Food made some inroads here in the last few years, mainly with the Hawaiian barbecued chicken chains like L&L, which has branches in Pasadena and West Covina.


Picture courtesy of Wikimedia
Christian Razukas under CC BY-SA2.0 License

It's good, but try to Spam dishes like Moco Loco for a more authentic flair. Also Hawaiian tinged burger and bowl fast food joints Spike's and B' Man's make great teriyaki and pineapple burgers, just like you'd find at Duane's Ono burgers on Kauai.  Well, maybe not quiet that good but still pretty decent.



Salvadoran Food is represented by the two outlets of El Salvadoreno in Duarte and El Monte. Pupusas, plantains, and Salvadoran tamales are the big items here. Although good, I've never thought it rises to how good some of our Mexican food around here can be.

And that brings us up to 18 different types of ethnic cuisines in our little valley. 20 more to go...



Darryl
Copyright 2013 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Friday, October 25, 2013

Palm Springs: A Melancholy Trip to Say Goodbye


It was daybreak as Tim and I loaded up the van and headed east. Luckily for us, we were driving against traffic as evidenced by the twenty-plus mile traffic jam on the other side of the 210 freeway.

We’re heading to one of the world’s premiere vacation destinations full of pools, restaurants, bars, and sun but we’re not having any of that today.

Palm Springs would make a great destination for a trip but today is melancholy. Tim and I are headed out to a happy place for a sad reason…to say goodbye to my aunt as we attend her funeral there.


Brilliant sun lights us up as we drive. Tim complains that the very early morning sun is in his eyes. I’ve got the visor down as far as it will go and have my darkest sunglasses on.  The San Gabriel Mountains form a visually stunning barrier on our left as we move on into the Inland Empire of Rancho Cucamonga and Fontana. Traffic on the other side finally eases up as we get into the RC. Those drivers will soon be stuck in the worst of it.

My mom’s sister, Phyllis, was born in the fall of 1934 in the little community of Highland Park, wedged in with Eagle Rock between Pasadena and Glendale.

Babies of the depression, my mom and aunt would tell us tales of the striking poverty of those times. No matter how bad it got for us, they would remind us that it was nothing like the absolute bottom of that era.

Tim and I are flying along handily as our L.A. radio stations give out around Rialto, just before San Bernardino. I flip the car stereo over to the CD mode and Vince Gill serenades us.

I finally hit a bit of traffic as the 210 bottle-necks down to two lanes after the town of Highland and turns south for a couple of mile before ending at interstate 10 in Loma Linda.  It was here that my aunt spent the last days of her fight for life in Loma Linda hospital nearby before moving on to a nursing facility to rest until the end.

It was several years into my childhood, extending to my early teens, that I finally learned my uncle’s name. We’d always call him Man…It wasn’t until his death a decade ago that I learned this should be spelled ‘Mann’…but that wasn’t his name. Even my close childhood cousin, Jesse, didn’t fill me in but I finally figured out he was named after his dad. Uncle Mann’s real name was Jesse. I still don’t know why everybody called him ‘Mann.’

He was Phyllis’ husband, another hard-working depression-era family member who I remember as always taking odd jobs to support the family.

They lived not too far from us in South El Monte for several years in the sixties before leaving, moving ever eastward through Riverside County before finally settling down just east of Desert Hot Springs, just across the valley from our current destination.


Since we live in L.A., we know to build in extra driving time to wherever we go. Not a lot of traffic on this Tuesday morning so we get to the Indian casino at Cabazon about two hours before the funeral.

The tribe has had good fortune in the last few decades, going from a small bingo parlor, to one of the largest Casinos around. In addition, there’s a large outlet mall and the tribe owns a few gas stations and restaurants.


We decide to get a quick breakfast at the tribe’s McDonalds, then gas up and get the car washed. I don’t want to disrespect my aunt with a dirty van.

You know you’re getting to Palm Springs when you see the hundreds of large windmills sprouting up in the windy Cabazon pass. They make a lot of kilowatts for the local power grid.

The family was a musical one. My uncle and their friend, Roland, made their own guitars. Any time they’d visit, it would turn into an impromptu concert and singalong. Sometimes difficult on school nights when I’d want to sleep, nevertheless, the group was always into the music.

They formed their band, soon to be called the Range Riders, and played gigs across the country.

Gene Autry Trail comes up on you quick on Interstate 10. The signage is for Palm Drive…the same road heading north…it’s not until you’re right on top of the exit that you see the small sign for Autry too. We just make it…it time to get caught in the jam of a major injury accident blocking our way into Palm Springs.

The Hanna’s also were a church. Located in the desert, they took in lots of strays, both of the animal and human variety.  My aunt and her family spread their love and shared their meager resources with whoever would need them.

Jesse, the most driven of them, would go to Nashville, hook up with other musicians, and organize entertainment for the tourists in town.

Being a professional band on the road, of course they needed a bus. A big one.  Those who knew them also new the Range Riders’ bus.


Due to the accident, Tim and I barely make it to the mortuary near the airport about 5 minutes before the service is scheduled to begin. It’s a crisp, dry, sunny day…the kind that make the winter tourists flock here…as we park under the gaze of Mt. San Jacinto, home of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.

We won’t be taking part in the activities of this city today, though.

My aunt fainted in her bathroom. It turned out she had a tear in her aorta. Taken to Eisenhower Medical Center, it was eventually determined that she needed to be in a better hospital. Taken by ambulance to USC Keck Medical Center, it was the start of eight months of hospitals, surgeries, rehab facilites, hopes, and mistakes.
 
She was a strong, determined lady, but in the end, even her strength could not carry her over these mountains of trouble. After one more stay, this time at Loma Linda, she passed on in a nearby rehab facility.



The packed chapel is full of singers, parishioners  and family here to send my aunt on to her reward. There’s singing, praying, and preaching.


After some time to talk and catch up with family and friends, it’s time for Tim and I to make that long trek home. 


We’ll stop for burgers at Bob’s Big Boy at the edge of the desert in Calimesa before getting back into the hectic Inland Empire.

It’s not the Palm Springs we come on vacation for but it leaves us with a warm glow anyway.

Goodbye, aunt Phyllis. We'll miss you but we also know you're where you spent your whole life preparing for.


Darryl
Copyright 2013 – Darryl Musick

All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Ethnic Foods of the San Gabriel Valley: Going Continental


Cuisines covered in previous posts: Mexican, Cajun, Nepalese, Lebanese, Thai, Basque, Argentinian, Cuban, Vietnamese

We'll travel to the European continent for this week's installment.



English food doesn't have a great reputation but, if it's made well, it can be pretty tasty. It's also pretty filling. 

I love a traditional English breakfast of eggs, ham, beans, and toast but it can also be pretty greasy at times.  Bangers and mash, along with meat pies, are also great for lunch or dinner.

We don't have a big presence of British food here in the valley but we do have the three locations of Lucky Baldwin's pubs...two in Pasadena and the third in Sierra Madre (pictured above)...that make quite decent versions of the above foods.

Their pigs in a blanket also make for a filling and cheap meal when you're a bit light in the wallet.

We get a two-for-one with Lucky Baldwin's. In addition to English ales and food, they also specialize in Belgian brews and chews. My wife loves the stewed mussels here.

While we can get some good, savory Belgian food at Lucky B's, some say the pinnacle of Belgian cuisine is the Liege waffle that is so hard to find in this area. You can get a very good rendition at the Shaky Alibi in Hollywood or a more mediocre version at the locations of the Bruxie down in Orange County but...hold your horses...the best local Liege waffle is right here in the valley.


Just head to the corner of Santa Anita and Huntington in Arcadia, about a block east of the race track. Between the Jiffy Lube and the donut shop sits one of the best coffee bars around, Taza, where you can get one of the most sublime Liege waffles, that the owner has flown in from Belgium, for only $4.50.

These are a little more savory that your usual waffle and have little balls of sugar in them that carmelize when cooked. Just eat them plain...no syrup, no a la mode...and what a treat you'll have. I like to wash it down with a Mexican Coke that you can also get here.

If you'd like the other Belgian specialty, frites (or fries), head west of Pasadena to Eagle Rock. Oinkster on Colorado Boulevard has the best.


For Spanish food, you mostly have to go to the numerous tapas bars located along the foothill regions.  Bar Celona, La Luna Negra, and Racion in Pasadena; and The Granada in Alhambra are your best bets.


We don't have the extensive Jewish food like you'd find in the great delis of L.A. like Langer's, Nate 'n Al's, or Pat's, but in Glendora, you'll find some great Matzo Ball soup, bagels and lox, kreplach, latkes, and other great deli specialties at Kara's Korner Deli on the corner of Glendora and Foothill in downtown Glendora.

It's one of my favorite comfort food spots in the valley.



Darryl
Copyright 2013 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ethnic Foods of the San Gabriel Valley: Flavors from the South...South America to Southeast Asia


Cuisines covered in previous posts: Mexican, Cajun, Nepalese; Lebanese, Thai, Basque

This week, we'll start south of the border. Way south. Farther south than that.

While there are a few places in the valley to get some good empanadas, for really great Argentinian Food, we like to go get those very meaty steaks and chimichurri sauce at Malbec on Green Street in Pasadena.



It's a steakhouse. A really nice steakhouse, on par with any good American steakhouse but this is the food of the gauchos.

We'll start with the setup pictured at the top of the page...a super-fresh garden salad, French bread with a garlicky, oily, chimichurri dipping sauce, and the bold Argentinian red wine that the restaurant is named after.



Since Argentina is South America's cow country, we have to go with a fork-tender, rib eye covered in savory mushroom sauce and a hearty seafood stew.

It's our pick for Argentinian but it your're looking for something a little more economical, the tortas at Tito's in El Monte give you another excellent choice for this country's cuisine that's much easier on the wallet.

Cuban Food finds it's home here in the valley too at places like Maringue in Monrovia, Mayumba in Rosemead, and Havana Express in El Monte, but it you want really, REALLY good Cuban food, there are two places you have to venture just a bit out of the SGV boundaries to try. 

Just over the line in Glendale is the absolutely legendary Porto's Bakery and Cafe (also with branches in Burbank and Downey) for their pressed sandwiches and desserts you just never knew could be so sweet and delicious. It's not a secret hideaway I'm telling you about, everybody here knows it and you will be hard pressed to find them without a hideously long line.



Down behind the Orange Curtain in the City of Orange lies the Felix Continental Cafe with stunning sidewalk dining around a 19th century traffic circle surrounding a fountain. The food is equally as good as the setting with entrees like paella and roasted Cuban chicken.  



It's delicious and most dinners are under $15.

It was tragic when the war in Vietnam ended and refugees flooded our shores but it was a blessing that we were gifted with the culture and cuisine  that makes up Vietnamese Food here in the SGV.

Now, you can go from end-to-end of the valley and sample some world-class banh mi and pho. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of shops ranging from hole-in-the-wall snack shacks to tony sit down establishments.

Take a drive along Garvey Avenue from San Gabriel to El Monte and you go through the heart of the Vietnamese community here and pass up scads of shops selling the great, slightly French influenced Banh Mi...a Vietnamese sandwich...for under $5.



On cold days, a big hearty bowl of pho (my favorite is the rare prime beef) with mint and spring rolls on the side chases away the bitterest of chills.  Don't forget to throw on some of the valley's best sauce, Sriracha Rooster Sauce...also a product of Vietnamese immigrants and made right here in the SGV...on your food, too.

Again, this is bargain food usually found quite a bit under $10 a meal. It's delicious too.



Darryl
Copyright 2013 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Ethnic Food of the San Gabriel Valley: From the Tense Mid-East to the Bucolic Pyranees


Cuisines covered in previous posts: Mexican, Cajun, Nepalese



Middle East cultures are well represented here in the San Gabriel Valley. This week, we'll focus on Lebanese Food

While you can find serviceable Lebanese pretty much anywhere north of the 10 Freeway, we'll focus on one of our legendary little fast food chains, Zankou Chicken



You can find outlets of this quarrelsome family's stores throughout the L.A. area but their SGV location is on Colorado Boulevard, just east of Hill and Pasadena City College.

The family that runs the place has a history of feuding going from arguing and never speaking to each other again to outright murder.

Don't let that history put you off, though, just think of it as spice to their one-of-a-kind rotisserie chicken that comes out mouth-wateringly juicy and delicious. Served with warm pita bread and hummus, it's a special treat right there.  

But wait, there's more!

Be sure to get their super-secret formula garlic sauce on the side to dip your chicken in.  It takes what is a wonderful, flavorful bite of chicken into eating Heaven's manna.

For far less than $10, you can stuff yourself silly on this feast.

Asian cuisine is very big here and there's a large variety. I don't think there's a city in the valley without an outlet dispensing Thai Food.

From the kid-friendly skewers of satai to the more familiar entrees of pad Thai, the food representing Thailand here is very good.  


We've visited Thai restaurants from San Dimas to Arcadia and everywhere in between but have yet to find a better Thai restaurant than the tiny little Thai City on Huntington Drive, just east of Mt. Olive in the city of Duarte.



While it's all good, my favorite is the nutty pad Thai they serve, while my wife likes the savory, brothy flavors of the pad see ew with many of the sea's creatures throw in for goodness.

When she's feeling sick, she'll send me over there to get their hot and sour chicken soup made with lemon grass to help her feel better.

We'll finish this week with a word about Basque Food here in the SGV. The Basque come from the border region where Spain and France meet. Many immigrated to America where they became shepherds and brought their own ethnic identity with them.



A Basque meal is legendary. Like being at your aunt Ethel's house, everything is shared. Big bowls of hearty soup, salad, loaves of bread, jugs of wine...and that's still a couple of courses before  the main entree...you'll be waddling out of the restaurant more than walking.

The valley features two Basque restaurant. Le Basque Chalet in La Puente which, while the food is good seems like you're dining in the parlor of the Munsters, and the Continental in Glendora, which the less said about the better.

The closest really good Basque restaurant is a bit beyond the borders of the SGV in the dairy town of Chino. Centro Basco is the go-to place around here for Basque food (good enough that we booked it for Tim's college graduation party). Beyond that, it's a drive over the mountains to Bakersfield to get some more really good Basque food.



Darryl
Copyright 2013 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Ethnic Food of The San Gabriel Valley: From South of the Border to the Top of The World


We've counted almost 40 different kinds of ethnic foods in our home of the San Gabriel Valley, just east of Los Angeles, and we're going to highlight a few here each week.

The grandaddy of them all has to be Mexican food. They say there's a Starbucks on every corner. Here, there seems to be a Mexican restaurant on every corner, plus a couple more in the middle of the block.



While you can find Mexican restaurants in every city in the county, here in the valley you can find them in the biggest numbers in the neighborhoods that have a high concentration of Mexican families like El Monte, Baldwin Park, La Puente, Bassett, and Azusa.

There are sit down restaurants that cater to more gringo tastes like El Torito and there are those who go for a more authentic palate like the goat stew called Birria at La Barca in El Monte.



You can get tacos made from almost any part of the animal...guts (a particular favorite of mine), brains, cheeks, tongues...and from nice places with waiters & margaritas, to hole-in-the-walls, to taco trucks on a late night corner. Most of it very reasonable in price, too.



Beware that there are many mediocre and lousy places but some of our favorites include Max's (in Azusa and Monrovia) and Rudy's in Monrovia for nice sit-down dinners (Rudy likes to break out the more exotic authentic fare on Friday nights) and drinks; La Barca and Guacamoles in El Monte and Mariscos Uruapan in Irwindale for a more boisterous, diner-like experience; Rincon Taurino in La Puente, El Picoso in Azusa, and Tacos del Chino in South El Monte for great taco stands. The King Taco chain also makes some pretty good tacos. For hard tacos, it's hard to beat Pepe's, with locations in Azusa, San Gabriel, and Alhambra.



One of our favorite restaurants was Cajun Way (AKA Frank and Joe's) in Monrovia. It was an extremely good example of Cajun cuisine. There is still some cajun left in the valley, mostly of the Chinese Cajun variety such as Boiling Crab, but nothing compares to Frank and Joe's. For really good Southern food with a smattering of Cajun, you need to leave the valley a bit and go to Spoonful in Studio City. Try to get there when they're having  Cajun boil, pictured above.





One of the more obscure cuisines we have is Himalayan food or the cuisine of Nepal and Tibet. On a quiet street in Old Pasadena sits Tibet Nepal House, serving the very hearty food of the high-altitude Himalayas.





It's quite delicious and very filling with lots of protein like eggs, beef, and...of course...yak. Above you can see a bowl of thupka (a hearty stew), Tibetan bread, and fried rice.

Next time you're in Southern California, slip on over to the SGV and give some of these cuisines a try. You'll love it.

More to come next week!



Darryl
Copyright 2013 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved.