Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Wexler's Deli at Grand Central Market

A lot has happened since we last checked in at Grand Central Market.  Let's take a peek, shall we?

The Market as a whole was named one of Bon Appetit's ten best new restaurants and New York Times coffee authority Oliver Strand deigned to name G&B's iced latte, made not with dairy but with house-made almond-macadamia milk, the best in the country.  The market has gotten a butcher shop, a juice bar, a kombucha bar (did I just say that?), and outposts of Silver Lake's Berlin Currywurst, West Third's Olio Wood Fired Pizzeria, and Santa Barbara's McConnell's Ice Cream.  The long lines multiply and grow, as does the buzz.

And tucked among the shiny new eateries and GCM stalwarts is Wexler's Deli.  LA was a little slow to pick up the trend of nouveau Jewish delis that pay homage to their predecessors, but Wexler's has come to fill that gap.  By necessity, the menu is small, and thanks to chef Micah Wexler's formal training, as much of it as possible is made in that tiny kitchen.  There are a few sandwiches (corned beef, egg salad, tuna salad), house smoked salmon and sturgeon on bagels from Brooklyn Bagels, and occasional black and white cookies and chocolate babka.

But what everyone wants to know is, how's the pastrami?  And more to the point, is it better than Langer's?  Let's talk it out.

Langer's is a civic institution, and with good reason: their delectable pastrami is arguably the best not just in LA, but in the entire country.  I'm glad to report that there's no sense of competitive one-upmanship at Wexler's.  Instead, Wexler, an LA native, has imbued his deli with a respectful reverence for Langer's -- evidenced by the MacArthur Park sandwich, an edible homage to the #19, with its cole slaw, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing -- coupled with a soft-spoken confidence rooted in his own high-quality product.

The pastrami at Wexler's is very, very good.  They make it right there in the tiny kitchen, unlike Langer's, who parses out the work to an off-site facility (and purportedly uses liquid smoke in their recipe.  Shudder). Its peppery seasoning is properly biting; its smokiness is just right.  The meat is sliced thick, and balances fat and lean well.  The coleslaw on the Macarthur Park is excellent: its fresh brightness not dimmed by too much tangy dressing.  The rye bread isn't perfect -- it's a little dry, and doesn't have the toasty crust of they rye at Langer's -- but it's still perfectly serviceable.

In any city without a pastrami titan looming over it, Wexler's would be a star.  But, and I'm a little relieved to say this, the sum of the parts of the Langer's sandwich still  somehow come together more harmoniously.  Maybe it's the softer bread, which seems to hold the sandwich's ingredients together in a gentle hug, or maybe it's just the alchemy of a recipe that's stood the test of decades.  But my Wexler's sandwich didn't lead to the tears-in-my-eyes ecstasy that the Langer's sandwich reliably delivers.

But, let's not miss the point here: this rookie player in the LA deli game is no slouch.  We've got a solid contender here.

Wexler's Deli is in the Grand Central Market, at 317 S. Broadway.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Washed Walnuts: A Healthy Perfect Summer Snack

This is how we ate.

Long before Michael Pollan implored us to cook more, my mom spent hours in the kitchen, preparing us dinner from scratch every night.  Before Eric Schlosser told us there is shit in the meat, my mom forbade us from eating fast food hamburgers, simply because of a vague sense that "you don't know what's in them."  Often she'd go back to recipes she learned from her own mom and mother-in-law, conjuring up their memory in the way she chopped onions, or their tips for gauging the temperature of a pot of boiling rice (Stick your finger on the inside wall of the the pot.  If it sizzles, it's done).  She would send us to school with a whole tomato in our lunch bag as a snack.  She was always trying to get us to eat fruit, more fruit, more fruit.  And we would roll our eyes, shoot her some attitude, and eat tortilla chips.

My mom is an Iranian woman, and as such, has an innate sense about food.  I think that people from a lot of countries have this, but it's kind of lost its way in the US.  She never ever wastes, she balances flavor with wholesomeness.  She's impermeable to commercial food conglomerates who insist their packaged products will enhance her life.  She cooks with real ingredients.

She tried with every ounce of effort she had to imbue my sister and I with this intuition, but the pull of packaged foods, school lunches, friends with cabinets full of candy bars, were all too much.  And now, as an adult in Los Angeles, with its overabundance of strange and wonderful foods everywhere, it'd be positively dismissive of me to reign it in.  At late night Ktown haunts, I've eaten things that literally slithered off the plate, I can't not try bone marrow waffles, I've enhanced my world through dumplings that burst with soupy broth as you bite into their delicate skin, I pile vinegary curtido on my greasy, heavy pupusas like a pro, and get a little choked up when I think about my first encounter with birria.  When confronted with such an embarrassment of culinary riches as this city is, it's hard to maintain the unwavering dietary compass that my mom tried so hard to instill.

So this recipe is a Violet Sassooni classic, in that it covers all the bases, without ever trying:  it's a totally delicious ethnic snack and a summer refresher, but it also happens to be low-carb, gluten-free, dairy-free, high in protein, raw, and vegan.  Plus it's only got two ingredients, and one is water.

Walnuts, pre-soak

Soaking walnuts in the refrigerator for a day or more does a few things.  As they soak, they give off much of their brown color, and with it goes their bitter edge.  You end up with a beautifully pale rendition of the nut with a much lighter, almost porous crispness, which, served over ice cubes, satisfies and refreshes on a hot day.  They're a great snack on their own with a little salt to dip each piece in, and you can even add them to a salad, but they are best as part of a breakfast meal of fresh flatbread, feta cheese, and sweet cantaloupe.

with flaky salt

Washed Walnuts

Note:  This recipe is extremely simple, but it uses a lot of water.  At least in California, we're in a historically severe drought.  You can definitely use the water you use to soak the walnuts to water plants.

Also note: The water that comes off the walnuts gives a dingy brown stain to everything it comes into contact with, especially porcelain sinks.  You can scrub or bleach it out, but just be aware.  Your best bet is to drain the liquid into a pitcher, and then directly use it to water plants.

One more note:  Use the best walnuts you can here, as they're the star of the show. Your best bets for highest quality/cost ratio are Middle Eastern stores, Trader Joe's, or bulk bins.

Raw walnut halves

Place walnut halves in a bowl, and top with water to cover.  Chill in refrigerator. The first day, change the water every few hours, up to three or four times.  Let them continue to soak overnight.  At this point, they are ready to eat.

For a single serving, grab a handful, shake off any excess water, and place on a plate with a small mound of salt.  Dip each walnut in salt before eating.

For a crowd, drain off liquid and place walnuts in a serving bowl with several ice cubes.

Any remaining walnuts should be stored in water in the fridge.  Change the water every day or so.  Walnuts will stay fresh and good this way for a week or more.

after overnight soak

sometimes the water freezes in the fridge into cool crystalline formations

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Iranstagram: 3 to Follow

When Thrillist published my post on LA's best Persian food, something interesting happened.  People started talking about it on Twitter, and a new world opened up to me.  I had no idea there were so many Iranian food people (bloggers, MasterChef contestants, restaurateurs, cookbook writers) all over the world, and my Twitter-illiteracy once again bit me.  I've since remedied this, jumping into the conversation to reminisce about Persian foods, share LA restaurant recommendations, and coo over all manner of photos.  And it's the photos that are the most evocative.

Iran's definitely one of those countries that, when experienced at street-level, is so much different than what you hear on the news.  So, I wanted to share a few Instagram accounts that I've recently discovered, reporting from within the country and offering a human view of the menacing Islamic Republic.

everydayiran:  This account features a rotating collection of Iranian photographers, and gives a bright, dynamic image of life on the streets, out in nature, and all over Iran.  My favorites tend to include hip Tehrani women who constantly put together incredibly chic outfits -- veil, manteau, and all.

f64s125: Photographer Ako Salemi's black and whites capture solitary moments in corners shrouded in shadow within a bustling city, and feature the clean lines of Iran's architecture.

solmazdaryani:  Solmaz's photos offer intimate peeks into the home life of non-city Iranians, sometimes very old, sometimes sharing a meal on the floor of a modest home.  I don't know much about the photographer here, but a quick google search leads me to understand she's an amateur photographer in Tabriz.  She only has a few photos up, but I hope she posts more and more.

Some other web-related notes:
 - Brandon Stanton of Humans Of New York (in my opinion, the best thing on the internet) spent some time in Iran a few years back.  His photos from that trip, with his signature human treatment, are terrific.

 - As I've been consuming more Iranian media, I've been wanting to create my own little collection of the things I like: less frippery and ornateness, more modern imagery, contemporary arts, cleaner food styling.  I've created a Pinterest page that does all that.  Follow it for your daily dose.

- And as always, I'm on twitter, instagram, and facebook myself.  The All Kinds of Yum Facebook page will keep you up to date on the very best that LA has to offer in food, fun, and general civic awesomeness, with some relevant side trips along the way.  And here's Twitter, and here's Instagram.  Go crazy.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Lemon Vanilla Buckwheat Waffles

I have a weird soft spot for other people's dietary restrictions.  I'm sure it'd get old after a while, but now and then, I enjoy the creative challenge of feeding people with "special needs".  Whether you're a lactard, a vegan, or kosher, I want to work around all your issues and feed you.

So, when I saw a recipe for buckwheat waffles, my thoughts immediately went to my gluten-sensitive friend Stephanie (of coconut caipirinha fame).  I needed to make this for her.

A note on the gluten business:  I am aware that recent research showed that non-celiac gluten sensitivity actually does not exist.  I also know that Steph feels sick when she eats wheat products, and that no one knows her body as well as she does.  So, in this particular instance, I'd say that science that is telling her she's not feeling what she is very clearly feeling is about as useful as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew's gorilla detector.  

Anyway, we got together at the home of our dear friend Rachel, a landscape architect who's also worn the hat of spice seller, Silver Lake Farms microgreen grower, at-home vegetable garden tender, and all-around person you want to cook and eat with.  
Oh Lucy!
While her fiance served us cold brew and played jazz, and new pup Lucy laid around and made the place extra-cozy, we put the Belgian Waffler to work.

We tweaked the recipe a bit, adding lemon zest and juice and vanilla extract, and the results were wonderful.  Our waffles had gorgeous color, crisp texture on the outside, steamy and doughy inside, with a grassy, nutty flavor that planted them squarely in the realm of grown-up tastes.

They made a perfect breakfast with some figs, blueberries, and sweetjuicyflavorful melon from the CSA.

Lemon Vanilla Buckwheat Waffles
Adapted from Simply Recipes
Makes 5 waffles, plus one baby waffle

You can use lower fat milk and yogurt here, but remember that fat is flavor.  We used 2% for both, and it worked out great.

1 1/2 cups buckwheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1/2 tsp cinammon
2 eggs, separated, plus 2 egg whites
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1 cup plain yogurt
1 cup milk
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
juice of half a lemon
zest of 1 lemon
Nonstick cooking spray
Extra butter for serving
Heated maple syrup for serving

Set waffle maker to medium.  In a large bowl, whisk together buckwheat flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.  In a medium bowl, beat all 4 egg whites, sprinkling brown sugar over them as you go, until soft peaks form.

In a separate bowl, whisk together egg yolks, melted butter, yogurt, milk, water, vanilla extract, and lemon juice and zest.

Add the yogurt mixture to the flour mixture and stir until just combined. Gently fold a third of the beaten egg whites into the batter until completely incorporated. Fold the remaining beaten egg whites into the batter until just combined.

To make waffles, spray top and bottom of waffle maker with cooking spray.  Pour or spoon batter into the wells (a ladle works well here) until it almost fills the edges.  Close the waffle maker, and check on the waffle after about five minutes: it's ready when the batter's dark grey color starts to show golden brown.  Carefully remove the waffle (a fork or tongs may help here), and repeat the process for the next, starting with cooking spray, until you've used all the batter.

Serve with butter and warm maple syrup, and if you have blueberries and vanilla tangelo marmalade to go along with it, consider yourself very, very lucky.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

I Went Beyond the Kebab for Thrillist

So excited to share the fun piece I wrote for Thrillist on LA's best Persian food.  Since I expect my fellow Angelenos to all to be pro ethnic eaters, I decided to skip the obvious kebab choices and find some of the more obscure Persian eats around town.  Really delicious to research, so fun to write.  Check it out!

Thanks to Robert for the photo.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Coconut Caipirinhas

Two words:  coconut zeitgeist.  For reasons beyond my understanding, there is a force at work that keeps pushing coconut under my nose.  First it was the intriguing story of the strange San Francisco woman with tattooed-on freckles and a severe psychological disorder, whose Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club introduced us to the term "hipster toast".  Trouble's menu features an item called Build Your Own Damn House, consisting of a coffee, a piece of cinnamon toast, and a young coconut served with both a straw, for its water, and a spoon to scoop out its soft meat.

Lately, similar young coconuts have been on offer at the juice truck outside the Saturday Silver Lake Farmers Market, and I can't get enough of the young coconut juice slushy at Wat Dong Moon Lek.  Even the über-cool Ace Hotel is in on the game:  at a rooftop event called Discostan (after my own heart) a few Sunday afternoons ago, the frozen drink of the day was piña colada, and everyone had a glass of the frosty stuff in their hand.

It transcends food, though:  I swear by the somewhat hippy-dippy coconut body lotion I've used for years, but lately I've been hearing talk of using straight coconut oil, right from the food aisle, as everything from a hair conditioner to a facial moisturizer, and I gotta say, I'm not mad at the results (anyone else trying this?).

Not that I'm complaining.  I love all of this.  For me the smell of coconut is everything summer:  suntan lotion on the beach, tropical islands with swaying palm trees and pale blue waters.  I'll take it all.

So, you can imagine my delight when last month Smitten Kitchen featured a frozen coconut limeade.  In May, I spent some time in New York (same trip as Montreal), and a good friend introduced me to his adopted neighborhood of Inwood, a forgotten bit of upper-upper-upper Manhattan with old growth forest, Hudson River views, and undeniable Dominican flavor.  We had dinner at a place called Papasito, a Dominican-owned Mexican restaurant*.  No hipster minimalism here; people were here to smoke hookah, eat supple, well-spiced food, drink big pink cocktails, sway to the tropical music, and flirt.  I ordered a coconut caipirinha -- a frosty take on the Brazilian national cocktail of cachaça (Brazilian sugar cane liquor), lime, and sugar -- here mixed with coconut milk and served blended.  It was perfect.

So, In this weekend's killer heat, I invited myself over to the gorgeous home of my good friend Stephanie Alpert, who runs the killa vintage shop Rummage and Hollow, and pretty much forced her to make cocktails with me.
We started with the Smitten Kitchen recipe, doctored it to our liking, and spiked it with cachaça.  In the midst of serious summer heat, we were cool as a coconut.

Coconut Caipirinha
Inspired by Smitten Kitchen.
Makes 6 glasses.

I find it especially fitting to be posting this Brazilian cocktail on the heels of Brazil's pitiable defeat and elimination at the hands (and feet) of Germany yesterday.  If Neymar's tearjerker of a message didn't melt your heart, that game surely broke it.  Thanks for not rioting, Brazil.

5 cups small ice cubes or crushed ice
1 1/2 cups full-fat coconut milk
juice of 4 limes (about 1/2 cup)
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups cachaça
lime slices for garnish

You can go about this two ways:  you can keep your pitcher virgin and add cachaça to the individual servings, or you can go all in from the get-go.  If you choose to do the former, add 2 ounces of cachaça to each glass of limeade mixture, and stir well.

Add all ingredients (save for cachaça, if you're adding it later) to blender and blend until frothy and slushy.  Pour into glasses, and garnish each with a straw and a slice of lime.

* Far be it from this Angeleno to deign to eat New York Mexican food (shudder); I managed to find a decidedly non-Mexican dish on the menu:  plátano relleno.  A plantain roasted in its skin, split lengthwise, and filled with seasoned stewed beef.  This Angeleno chose wisely.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Dizi at Nersses Vanak

Let's expand our knowledge of Persian cuisine a bit, shall we?  Dizi, also known as ab-goosht, is a Persian soup dish that my mom used to make when I was a kid.  I haven't had it in well over a decade. I returned to dizi after this gaping hiatus, last week, at a strip mall Armenian Persian spot on San Fernando called Nersses Vanak, and I'm extremely glad I did.

Let me tell you about the dish.  Dizi is a tomato-based soup, long-simmered with chunks of lamb meat, chickpeas, and potatoes.  It's got a dark acidity that sometimes borders on intense bitterness, from limoo amani -- small limes boiled in brine then dried in the sun until they're hardened and black in color.  Just a few ingredients, but the magic is in the eating.  After everything's cooked together, the meat and chickpeas (and sometimes the potatoes as well) are strained out of the broth.  They're pounded together to make goosht-o-nokhod, a dense, nearly-spreadable mash that's served alongside the broth.

As we entered Nersses Vanak, we walked into a smallish, slightly fancy dining room with red and pink walls with a bit of ornate trim.  On the far wall, World Cup was playing on a flatscreen, and as the lunch crowd rolled in, every diner was a minor variation on my own dad.  

The young guy manning the whole room -- speaking English to us, Persian to another table, and Armenian to the guys in the kitchen -- started us off with bread. It was the restaurant's spin on taftoon, and it was excellent: fresh from the oven, thicker than lavash, less dense than Indian naan, softly pillowy, and especially delicious when we sandwiched in a bit of the fresh basil and sweet onion that accompanied it.  

Then he brought out my dizi, and I felt a little hesitation. There is a bit of ritual to eating the dish, and as much was I wanted to appear real-deal Persian, I was a little rusty.  At Nersses Vanak, you can have them make the goosht-o-nokhod for you, or you can opt to mash it yourself.  I'd gone with the latter, curious about the unusual gadget they'd give me for the job.  

So, he brings out my dizi in a very old-country looking metal mini-urn, along with a bowl for serving and the masher, something like a round meat mallet, but with its handle up-and-down instead of sideways.  (I didn't ask, but I'm pretty convinced that both of these contraptions come from Iran.)

He also brought out a basket of yet more bread, in this case lavash that had been dried in the oven until crisp.  "For tellit," he said in an adorable mix of English and Persian, the idea being that you break up the bread into pieces and throw it into the hot broth, oyster-crackers-in-clam-chowder style.  

He graciously strained the broth from the barrel-thing into my bowl for me, saving my fingers from the burning hot vessel. I got to mashing, getting hungrier by the second, the scents of the soup wafting up as I worked.  I threw in my lavash bits, scooped in some of my meaty garbanzo-y mash, and dug in.  

My dizi was comforting and delicious, and for the first time, I really got it:  you start out with a bowl of somewhat insipid broth, but the lavash melts into and thickens it, the goosht-o-nokhod slowly spreads through, getting moistened by the broth, and the texture of the whole thing changes completely.  Each element gives to and takes from the others, and you end up with a singular, fully integrated food, hearty and filling.

Nersses Vanak is at 6524 San Fernando Rd., just south of Western in Glendale.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


It's been a while.  I missed you.  We have a lot to talk about.

I spent about a week and a half in New York and Montreal, and the entire trip was a dream.  In New York, I witnessed (and sang at!) the Central Park wedding of two old friends, discovered the magic of Inwood (aka upper upper upper Manhattan), walked mile upon glorious mile every day, shared an afternoon cocktail with the delightful director of the Daily Meal's Culinary Content Network, spent lots of time with friends, and ate terribly well.  

In Montreal, homebase was an apartment in Mile-end, an area once old and modern, neighborhoody and super hip.  The area felt so comfortable to me that I found myself thinking I could live there. (Then I remembered the merciless weather nine months out of the year.  Yeah, no.)  There's so much I could say about this trip:  I watched as people breakdanced to French hip-hop in front of the Contemporary Art Museum downtown; I saw amazing street art everywhere; I trekked through green at gorgeous Parc du Mont-Royal, I had an ice cider tasting with local cheeses; I marveled at the sheer density of inviting cafes, and walked, walked, and walked some more.  Here are some more highlights: 

I should start out by mentioning Fitz & Folwell, the awesomest bike shop in the land.  They offer a culinary walking tour (we like those here) of Mile End and Little Italy, and many of the stops below are from the tour.  It's a fun way to spend a few hours, eat some good food, and walk lots.  Our guide, Danny, was a doll, and they offer various bike tours in Montreal as well.

At Alati-Caserta, a decades-old Little Italy bakery across the street from a church funded by Mussolini himself, we tried their signature cannoli, and they were perfect:  shatteringly crisp shell, and a rich ricotta filling dotted with tiny chocolate chips and a light orangey flavor, barely sweet.  Giant bags of ricotta filling sat unassumingly in the fridge in the plain sight of shoppers.

Pagaille! was my local coffee shop, and it was perfect.  They provided me with needed breakfast protein in a land of pastries, along with delicious homemade rillettes and jams.  Free wifi (through Montreal's awesome Île sans fil program) and available plugs, incredibly friendly service (oh, Canada), a few seats outside to enjoy the sun.  But the best thing about Pagaille was the petit pagaille, the café's signature espresso drink:  somewhere between a macchiatto and a cappuccino, espresso measured meticulously by weight, served in a dainty tulip glass.  Perfect.  I brought back bags of beans as a souvenir, much to the delight of the owner.

When visiting Schwartz's, the historic Jewish deli (or as the sign charmingly read, "Charcuterie Hebraique") known for its smoked meat sandwich, we went with the classic, along with addictive fries and a fine pickle.  (I bucked tradition and skipped the cherry soda.)  Before walking in, I reminded myself: this isn't pastrami, don't compare it to Langer's, appreciate it on its own merits.  And with that pep talk firmly in my brain, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Fell in love with the buildings in Old Montreal. So fun to get lost walking through the streets.

Wilensky's Light Lunch has been sitting on the same friendly corner in Mile-End since 1932.  At Wilensky's, you order the Special, you don't ask questions, and you don't make substitutions.  (Though these days, you can add cheese to your Special -- but that's a pretty new innovation, only available for the last 30 years or so.)  What you get is a flattened, fried baloney sandwich with mustard that satisfies the most little-kid part of your appetite.  And if you're lucky, Sarah Wilensky (Moe's daughter) will make you a fluorescent lemon-lime soda to wash it down.
In Little Italy, I visited Cafe Italia.  This place is a old school Italian cafe, complete with cute old men sitting with their newspaper, Barbisol sold behind the counter, and deep, rich, strong espresso drinks.  Legit.

Juliette et Chocolat.  Just ridiculous. So decadent, so delicious, and open until the wee hours of the night when absolutely no one needs to stuff more food into their body.  But, my God, that fondant au chocolat, topped with both chocolate sauce and fleur de sel caramel sauce, and served with ice cream, was from another planet.

Arts Cafe was recommended to me by my Airbnb host, and was the hippest café I've ever encountered.  Sunny patio, excellent peoplewatching, a perfect little macchiatto in a robin's egg blue cup, and a little revelation called breakfast poutine:  potatoes and other vegetables, excellent white cheddar melted over top, a poached egg, hollandaise, duck confit.  Across-the-board swooniness.

Travel for me always leads to lessons.  My last day in Montreal was a Sunday, and I spent it walking through the streets of Mile-End.  It was truly a glorious day: the sun was shining, maybe for the very first time this year, and the streets were luminous.  Everyone was out: walking dogs, making impromptu banners for Mother's Day, crowding into café terrasses on every street corner for brunch.  Beautiful young hipsters feigned nonchalance as gaggles of Orthodox Jewish moms pushed strollers and chatted in Yiddish.  This scene felt so familiar, and so dear to me, that as I walked through, I was bubbling with happiness.  With slight differences in flavor, this could have been Williamsburg, or San Francisco, or more to the point, my own neighborhood of Los Feliz.  I felt it then, and I've tried to bring it home with me:  I am exactly where I should be.  I just need to soak in it a little more:  More walking always.  More cafe time.  Fewer items per day.  Montreal couldn't be more charming.  What's better than a trip that reminds you how good you have it at home?