Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Scoop Effect: Pure Luck Pub

I like it when communities happen organically. About a year back, we talked about the very special vibe growing in the Wilshire Vista area, and I'm constantly struck by what's gone on on Fairfax Ave. in the last couple years (and someday I'll sit down and write about it!). Lately, the sense that a new micro-community is abrew is most evident on that tiny block of Heliotrope just above Melrose in East Hollywood. And the brews in question are coming from Pure Luck -- a good-natured pub that just joined the movement.

It started a while back with the Bicycle Kitchen, a nonprofit dedicated to getting Angelenos on bikes. Through workshops and drop-in sessions, they teach you to fix your bike, and connect you to a community of bikers, riding events, bicycle film festivals and art exhibits, and more. (We will omit any here talk of my personal relationship with bikes, or -- ahem -- lack thereof.) But not much else: surrounded by scrappy residential, a mishmash of quinceañera rooms bumping with rancheros and banda, and a dark and unwelcoming Korean eatery, this little stretch of Heliotrope was kind of abandoned.

Then came Scoops. A one-man ice cream shop with no advertising, after about a year, became the destination for exotic flavors (including 4 vegan ones each day) and a warm, inclusive vibe not often found in LA's less do-it-yourself establishments. The affable and endlessly generous proprietor Tai Kim put Hel-Mel (no, I did not make that silliness up) on the map, and these days, it's such a happening spot that he's hired other scoopers (used to be that his only help was his mom), and the place teems with hipsters and LACC kids nightly.

Soon, an airy cafe opened up next door to Scoops. Serving Lavazza espresso drinks, baked goods, and salads hand-tossed by the shop's Italian owner, City College Cafe offers a place for students to get their caffeine fix while getting some studying in.

Over too-frequent visits to Scoops, we saw another shop go up: A slick orange building across the street, Orange 20 Bikes picked up the vibe that the Kitchen was generating, and built upon it, custom-building quality bicycles for the urban rider.

And now, next door to Orange 20 comes Pure Luck. Well, actually, Pure Luck was already there, but it was that creepy Korean spot. Now, in new hands (said hands belonging to a Bicycle Kitchen volunteer), it's far better lit, has a sparse earthy vibe, with just a few tables, one wall lined with nouveau-70's bamboo wallpaper, and a fireplace at one end. A cozy pub was just what this stretch needed.

So what do they serve? Beer, along with a vegan take on beer food. No frat house fare here -- more like four dollar pints of Fat Tire, several Craftsman varieties (after my heart, they are), and the like. Now then, I can't tell you about the quality of the food just this second because I was feverish and appetiteless on my one trip there, but I can tell you about the menu. On that particular day, it included staples like fries, tostadas, and spring rolls, as well as more inventive choices like carnitas tacos, made from jackfruit instead of piggy, and ceasar salad rolls.

It's clear from the block's architecture that it was destined for walking, socializing, enjoying a beer or a coffee. In fact, we can get a few glimpses into its past incarnations in this Chowhound thread. I'm happy to see that it is coming back around. With all this bicycle-oriented goodwill, it might even inspire me to learn to ride (I know, I know. Don't tease). Then again, maybe I'll just participate by drinking beer.

[thanks for the photo of the shop]

[Note that the title of this post is a pun on the Stroop Effect. A little bad psychology humor there for ya.]

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Great American Bake Sale

[UPDATE: More on our bake sale at Scoops this Saturday here.]

Friends, we have something very important to talk about today.

And it involves bundt cakes.

I recently learned about Share Our Strength's Great American Bake Sale. Share Our Strength is a non-profit organization devoted to fighting childhood hunger. They're a powerful force who have had a broad impact, investing in over a thousand hunger-related organizations, and involving themselves heavily in the emergency food assistance network in the US. They take a local, grass roots approach, working with local organizations and businesses throughout the country in the following arenas:

- increasing access to the public and private programs that can provide food to those who need it,
- strengthening the community infrastructure for getting healthy food to children, and
- teaching families how to get the most nutrition out of a limited budget.

So, it stands to reason that one of their most successful campaigns brings fundraising back to the community. With the Great American Bake Sale, people all over the country hold bake sales in their own neighborhoods, and the proceeds go toward after school and summer meals programs, as well as nutrition education programs for low income children.

Are you getting what I'm saying here? You have an opportunity to spend some time in your kitchen and get it all delicious with baking scents, meet your neighbors, feed said neighbors and bring huge smiles to their faces. And all the while, you'll be a part of a national effort to bring needed nourishment to the millions of kids who aren't so lucky. Now, isn't that a win-win?

Now then, this campaign runs until August 31, and I encourage you to participate -- get your friends together, pop open a cool bottle of rosé, and bake some bundt cakes! But I'm also here to tell you about my very own bake sale. On August 18, at Scoops Ice Cream Shop in East Hollywood, I, along with a band of accomplished and delightful young Angelenas, will be hosting The No Cookie Left Behind Bake Sale. Luscious baked goods will be in attendance of course, but so will a few surprises (More details in the coming days. Yep, all you get now is a tease!). It's basically going to be the epicenter of all Best Summer Ever activity (yeah, that's right -- we haven't talked much about the BSE this year. That's because summer was saving all its bestness for this singular event). Believe you me, it's going to be quite the hootenanny.

Please save the date. It'd be really great to see you all there. And if you're interested in contributing, in the form of baked goods, a monetary donation, or as a volunteer during the event, drop me a line! See, I told you it was important (why else would be I be using so much damn bold type?)!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Mediterranean Summer, In Beverage Form

Shenkin Street is the Melrose Avenue of Tel Aviv. Funky shops selling the latest in European designer clothes and the coolest shoes anywhere, alternate with trendy cafes, all catering to a young, vibrant crowd. Bohemian street musicians, artsy graffiti, and excellent people watching abound. On a summer day in 2001, I found myself there, and there I found a taste that resonates in my mind still.

After traveling in Egypt and Jordan, I planned to meet my parents, along with much of the rest of my dad's family, in Israel to celebrate a cousin's wedding. But then, back at home, my mom slipped a disc and had to have emergency surgery, so, for the first time, I was with my family in Israel without my parents. Of course, between my 2 local uncles, my 2 aunts who also made the trek (one from Chicago, one from London), and myriad cousins with varying levels of English, I was thoroughly engaged.

On this particular day, we ignored my dad's warning from afar to avoid going anywhere except my uncles' apartments, as my youngest aunt was taking us on a journey. Being a youthful and style-conscious Brit for whom Hebrew is one of at least four languages, Shenkin Street is certainly her world. Stuffed into her rented Yugo, we tried to ignore our sticky sweltering state by blasting the latest volume of Now That's What I Call Music. Once we got there, she led us through the suntanned throngs to a tiny sliver of a storefront -- just an unassuming counter housing a skinny Israeli kid, a juicer, and lots of fruit.

We had no choice in the matter -- my aunt ordered us each a limonaana. Our vendor grinned and got to work. He juiced a bunch of limes, then blended them with ice, sugar, and a hefty wad of fresh mint -- naana in Hebrew (not to mention Arabic and Persian), and hence the name. The resulting slush, part elevated frozen lemonade, part virgin mojito, was the perfect summer beverage. Really, its ability to refresh, rejuvenate, elate, spellbind can not be exaggerated.

Friends, I've found limonaana in our own fair city. And it even comes with the surrounding scene. Between a fast food joint and a medical building on Ventura Boulevard in Encino lies Aroma Bakery -- a cruisy, summery Tel Aviv cafe plunked right into the valley. Picture a long stretch of patio crammed with bistro tables. At any hour of the day or night, most of these tables are filled with young Israelis -- lots of skin, lots of tight jeans, lots of long curly hair. And that's just the guys. During the day, misters keep you cool, and at night, a firepit keeps you warm. All the while friendly waitresses bustle through with delicious cafe fare with a Mediterranean twist.

You might have to wait a bit for your chocolate croissant, but that's because it's just come out of the oven. While they make cinnamon sticks, danishes, and fancier desserts and pastries on one side of the shop, in the other, a baker is hand-preparing pizzas, sambusaks filled with your choice of ingredients, and flaky malawach to order in the clay oven. Jerusalem bagel toasts, Aroma's take on panini, are fantastic: fresh sesame bread filled with combos like feta, zaatar, tomato, and olives; mozzarella, tomato, and pesto (such fresh creamy mozzarella); or the Tunisian -- tuna, hot sauce, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, and onions are all grilled to order and served with a lovely salad. Entree salads, fish dishes, and a wide variety of coffee drinks round out the menu (actually that's just some highlights -- it's a pretty extensive menu). Everything on their menu seems like summer (Except of course for the jachnun -- a weekend-only Yemeni dish of densely layered dough baked overnight over low heat, and served with tehina and tomato puree. Heavy, but certainly adventurous): you can even get, in season, a platter of perfectly ripe watermelon, served with feta, to pass at your table.

This same aunt that introduced me to limonaana has a warm place in her heart for shakshuka -- a hearty breakfast of eggs cooked over a stew of tomatoes and peppers -- so much so that she has been known to spearhead kitchen initiatives to make enough for everyone staying at my uncle's apartment, at 3 o'clock in the morning. I'm glad to say Aroma has a satisfying rendition -- served still bubbling in its own copper dish, it's perfect Sunday brunch with a glass of fresh mint tea.

So, now, when I get a hankering for summer in Tel Aviv, with all the cousins, the beach (my god, we didn't even talk about the bar with couches right on the sand!), the fruit, the hummus (Aroma has great Israeli-style hummus, by the way), I can just drive to the valley, order up some limonaana, and get my fix. The unusually large proportion of my brain devoted to summer memories is grateful for our shrinking world.

Aroma Bakery
is at 18047 Ventura Blvd., between Lindley and Newcastle.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Scoops Ice Cream Sandwiches!! Holy Schmoly!!

Friends, I'm very excited to tell you all that Scoops -- LA's most innovative and friendly ice cream shop -- and Spork Foods, an up-and-coming vegan food company from the delightful Heather and Jenny Goldberg (you've read about Jenny's dessert alchemy here before), have teamed up to bring feel-good deliciousness to a whole new level. Scoops will be featuring ice cream sandwiches with the Sporks' oatmeal white chocolate chip cookies, as well as chocolate cupcakes with a scoop of ice cream on the side (quite the dainty dessert, no?). I've had these cupcakes before -- they are moist and profoundly chocolatey. They will make you question your notions on vegan foods (unless you already have really positive notions about vegan foods..). Needless to say, I'm stoked.

Scoops is at 712 Heliotrope Ave., just north of Melrose. They are closed on Sundays.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Chicago: Eat, Reminisce, Repeat.

My trip to Chicago had little to do with what you're supposed to do there. There was no deep dish pizza or trips to the Field Museum. There were no hot dogs dressed with tomato slices, pickles, and everything that isn't ketchup. I walked right past Intelligentsia Coffee with nary a drop of their much-talked-about brew. We did none of the requisite tasting during our visit to the Taste of Chicago. And I must sheepishly admit I didn't follow even one of the great suggestions you guys had offered me. Instead this family trip -- and oh boy, was it a family trip -- offered kabob, baklava, and albaloo.

What can I say, when we cousins happen to find ourselves in the same city, it becomes an intensive cousin immersion program. So what if we just all had dinner together -- change into something comfortable, and get yourself back to the hotel lobby. We'll circle together as many chairs as it takes so we can all catch up and tell dirty jokes until even the front desk people are dozing off. And then the next night, when we gather at the home of one of the local cousins, it's actually not about food. While one group of cousins plays football in the vastly grassy backyard, another crowd marvels at how Adam, who used to make lawnmower sounds whenever he walked across the room, will be attending college in a few short months. And look back not-so-fondly at the mock weddings our evil older siblings would orchestrate for us little ones. And yet another group of cousins is inside playing poker -- thirteen-year-olds trying (and succeeding) at beating some of the fifty-somethings out of their hard-earned cash.

But the following day was very much about food: quite possibly the best barbecue I've ever eaten. On the banks of Lake Michigan, a stone's throw from Northwestern, my aunt's friend Albert showed us that he was a consummate professional. He grilled some twelve pounds of hangar steak, thick hunks pre-marinated with mashed onions, then 'basted' with a repurposed Windex bottle filled with seasoned lemon juice. The result was incredibly tender, and was lovely with the vats of basmati rice my aunt had prepared -- tahdig and all -- not to mention grilled tomatoes, corn, beets, roasted garlic, salad, and more. My aunt's friends were incredibly gracious, and one, a woman from the Iranian city of Mashhad, was kind enough to sit with me for a few minutes and share some fascinating recipes for my cookbook project.

And then came the next night's family dinner: we had whipped together a polo -- in this case basmati rice with dill, saffron-fried onions, and peas -- and a salad, which made quite a feast when supplemented with a couple roast chickens from the Howard Street Jewel. Over a languid dinner, while cousin Sam took pictures of himself and played kissyface with his girlfriend, I turned my iPod to its very loudest so cousin Debbie might make out the sound of old Persian songs from the tinny headphones, taking us back to our awkward adolescence.

This is the way it went all week: eat, reminisce, repeat. Over afternoon tea in the backyard (served with baklava my mother hand-made and hand-carried to Chicago [Persian-style of course, with cardamom and saffron]), we'd marvel over how, as we transitioned from Iran to the west, there were those weeks of overlap when my poor uncle in Israel, along with his own wife and two kids, had to house my aunt and uncle, one-year-old Sam, my mother, my sister, and one-year-old me in his tiny apartment. Then over our daily breakfast of lavash bread, sheep's milk cheese, and sour cherry preserves, my dad recounted the incredibly story of how, while we were all off in Israel, he was feeling the effect of the Revolution firsthand back home: he just barely got out of a meeting with the komiteh -- an ominous meeting that most never returned from -- thanks only to the mercy of the local mullahs who had taken a shine to him.

And those very sour cherries brought my parents back once again. On our last day in town, we stumbled upon a farmers' market downtown. Amidst Amish butter cheese and Wisconsin's most bulbous zucchini, my aunt and parents were thrilled to find a booth selling baskets of albaloo -- the sour cherries their generation grew up on. Super-tart and looking like they were lit from within, they offered me taste, as did this whole trip, of days gone by.

Monday, July 09, 2007

i'm not dead

just busy. home from the midwest, action-packed weekend, getting back into the swing of things. more bloggery soon. i promise.

(In the meantime did anyone watch any of this Live Earth concert business on Saturday? Good lord, Madonna going all Gypsy with Gogol Bordello, hot Pharrell doing Jay-Z songs without Jay-Z, and Crowded House sounding just as good as they did 20 years ago, all in one (metaphysical) place? Oh my!)