Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Original Pantry ~ Los Angeles, California

One of the goals of the Regular Joe's Guide is to introduce you, the reader, to some of the better "local" dining options across the USA. And while we have a strong focus on the Dallas-Ft.Worth area (and, hopefully soon, much more of Denver), Mr. RJG likes to brag about places he finds during his travels. Many are unknown, and that's maybe the most exciting aspect - the "discovery". But as with any pursuit one embarks on (music, books, movies, locales, etc..), some of the best things are very much "known". Such is the case with The Original Pantry, a landmark in the Los Angeles downtown area since 1924.

Places like the Original Pantry used to dominate the American dining experience. A basic hash house, that served breakfast 24 hours a day, along with lunch and dinner staples such as hamburgers and pot roast. It's a familiar story: After World War II, many families began to move out to the then new concept of a suburban lifestyle. With a larger house, and their own backyard, it no longer made any sense to live in a cramped, smelly, often hot, inner city dwelling. And thus began the great exodus out of the American big city. Most local businesses fell victim to this phenomena, and the ones that didn't shutter or move out, endured some incredibly trying years. If this situation wasn't bad enough, the US government began to experiment with the "Great Society" concept in the 1960s, creating housing utopias for the downtrodden and poor, while bulldozing historical structures. On paper, it seemed like the right thing to do, and this would regenerate an already dying inner city core. In reality, it delivered the final death blow. Throughout the 1960's, 70's, and 80's, many downtown and inner city neighborhood areas became DMZ's, if one were to dare to venture in after hours, they most certainly were taking their life into their own hands. Very few places of the Original Pantry type survived. Serving bums, parolees, hasbeens and ne'erdowellers is not generally considered a "sound business model." That's why today these establishments seem so special - they are a rare breed.

As the regentrification process began for most cities in the 1990's, including Los Angeles, folks began to rediscover, or discover for the first time, these war survivors. It combines a "let's go slumming" fascination with the key intangible that everyone has known from the start: Great quality food. Besides, it's pretty hard to get that "ghost of hamburger's grease past" flavor at a new chain restaurant.

I first visited The Original Pantry towards the beginning of this regentrification process, in 1995 while attending some music concerts in the area. The sound of jackhammers and electric drills were everywhere, as remodeling and rebuilding was well underway. If you walked too far astray, you would find the ghetto was still near. There usually was a crowd at the Pantry, especially on Sunday, but in general one would be seated with ease. The place looked like a 1930s era diner. Nothing had changed. A living, breathing museum. I returned in 2000, for a software convention at the newly opened LA Convention Center (near the Staples Center), and the area was almost unrecognizable. There were lines around the corner at the Original Pantry almost 24 hours a day, but especially in the breakfast hours. Still, we persevered and ate there nearly every day of the convention, enjoying the surroundings, and the excellent breakfast.

I haven't returned since, and fully expected to read the place has remained unchanged. But alas, it looks like that's not true. They're gussying it up. It's now owned by the former Republican mayor of Los Angeles, Richard Riordan. Perhaps it's unrealistic to expect an owner to leave it as a derelict place. At some point, diners may have tired of the old surroundings. At once it was a nostalgic trip, but perhaps that has worn off, and it's time to move forward. Hard to say, but next time I have a chance, I will certainly stop in... for the memories.

Brief History:

While doing some research, I ran into this great site (be sure to read their review of The Original Pantry!):

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

*** CLOSED *** Porta di Roma ~ Watauga, Texas

This is really too bad. Marco's was a very good place. Then they became Porta di Roma, and we visited early in its new tenure (see below), and it was good but not the same. But it wasn't long before the comments came in that the place had turned terrible. And now it's gone.

One of the beauties of having a blog is that it remains dynamic. Therefore I can make updates to past entries and re-enter them as new.

In June of 2008 we wrote about Marco's, a fine Italian restaurant in Watauga. It has since changed ownership and been rebranded as Porta di Roma. But little has changed. It's still a familiar Balkan owned DFW Italian restaurant. We noticed the bread was different and the sauces tasted a bit more sour. Because of this, there's no point in a new writeup, so the below represents a slight alteration of the original posting.

Porta di Roma is one of the many Italian restaurants in NE Tarrant with an Albanian or Yugoslav heritage. I realize when I use the term "Yugoslav", that it could mean Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Bosnian, Macedonian, etc... The RJG has traveled through the former Yugoslavia, in fact I was there in 1994 during one of the regional wars. Beautiful countries, all of them I've discovered that the local restaurants are starting to fib a bit about their heritage, and state that they are from Italy, but I know that's not the case. And so I've noticed a reluctance of the proprietors to reveal a more exact location of their roots. In this case, Porta di Roma is more forthcoming that they're from Albania. It truly doesn't matter to me, as long as the food is excellent. And I can say that almost every Italian restaurant in NE Tarrant is good. I do wish for more variety amongst the sauces, dressings and preparations - and there is some of that - but one can't blame these folks for earning a good living. And, truth be told, there weren't many Italian restaurants prior to their arrival, so we are more fortunate than not.

With that out of the way, let me introduce Porta di Roma, a very fine restaurant in Watauga, situated in a newish strip mall off of Rufe Snow near Starnes. In fact its predecessor, Marco's, was an original anchor tenant when they opened sometime around 2004 or so. I would say that Porta di Roma is slightly more upscale than most of the Italian restaurants in the area, but fortunately not reflected in the reasonable prices (and they also allow BYOB, adding to the savings). The menu will be familiar as will the house dressing, red and white sauces, meats, chicken, vegetables, etc... Other places we've reviewed already, namely Bellisimo and Dal Italia, will provide more detail on what to expect taste-wise. We were a little disappointed overall with the flavors. It seems some of the recipes have been altered, and not for the better. I do mean "little" though. Maybe one point less than Marco's but still good.

The only real complaint we have, and it's not food related, is the unusual setting of the restaurant. For whatever reason, the original Marco's decided to have a lot of windows, presumably to allow the natural light through. It's quite an elegant setting, and one can only imagine having a view of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, Lake Michigan or the Pacific Ocean to gaze at while enjoying a romantic dinner. Instead we get a wonderful, unobstructed, perfect view of .... Walgreens, Pizza Hut and the parking lot. Advice: Get some drapes! Go completely old school, and it will feel like a "classy joint" circa 1966. The RJG always gives points for retro. And besides, your Mom or Grandma will love it! I left the drapes comment in, because guess what Porta di Roma did? Added drapes! LOL. But not enough of them! The main window still leaves a perfect view of the Pizza Hut, etc... Ugh.

While on the topic of ambiance, on the plus side, I did want to compliment Porta di Roma for their music selection. Mostly it was soft 1950s/1960s era jazz. Perfect for the setting and probably the best we've heard since the now defunct Clear Creek Seafood played John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme".

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hatam Restaurant ~ Anaheim, California

One of the great pleasures of traveling to Southern Cal is the proliferation of Persian restaurants, something that is almost extinct in the DFW area (there's only one in Richardson that I'm aware of, and I'll do a writeup soon). I'm talking pure Persian restaurants, not "Middle Eastern", "Pan Arabian" or, perhaps even less descriptive, "Mediterranean". For one thing, Persians aren't Arabs, and that's just the sort of thing that sets off neighborhood disturbances. And just in case your history is a little light, Persian refers to the modern country of Iran, which has its own connotations, right, wrong or indifferent.

By all rights, Persian food should be the ideal Regular Joe's kinda food. We're talking meats, saffron rice and veggies - and the latter is optional. Shish Kabob is what most folks know, and it's a combination of various meats and veggies. But there are plenty of other Kabob's which focus on a variety of meats. Take a look for yourself:

Are you licking the screen? That's a good sign.

I had intended on revisiting a Mr. RJG favorite in Beverly Hills called Aram, but unfortunately we arrived too early in the day for dinner, and decided to try one near our hotel in Anaheim. We were staying in a "neighborhood" hotel that had good ratings on called the Pepper Tree, and there were many eateries nearby that would wear the "ethnic" badge very proudly. I hopped on the hotel's computer for a quick look of nearby Persian restaurants, and no surprise, there were 4 or 5 within 15 minutes of where we were staying. I selected Hatam based on the handful of reviews I could find.

One thing Mrs. RJG and I truly enjoy with our meal is wine, but not all Persian restaurants will carry, or allow it, depending on how strict they are (some don't mind at all). I knew that Hatam didn't serve wine, and I was too chicken (I don't know why) to ask them over the phone if they would allow us to bring it in, so what to do? Why of course, walk across the street to Ralph's grocery store, buy a bottle of wine, and drink it on the terrace BEFORE we go to dinner....

Sure enough, we were the only non-Persians in the restaurant - and it helps to have a good buzz in these situations. We dutifully had diet sodas with our meal. I ordered some kabob plate that had seasoned ground beef (known as kofta), filet mignon, ground chicken and chicken breast, with a huge bed of basmati rice covered in saffron. It was RIDICULOUSLY good. The filet was as tender as your favorite steakhouse - the kofta, despite a different seasoning, will make you think of your favorite Italian meatballs. As mentioned prior in one of the Thai threads, I love ground chicken and it was as delicious here as anywhere, and the cubes of chicken breast made me want to create a quick enchilada. And the rice? OMG, the rice... some of the best ever.

This is not the kind of place you'll stumble on driving around - so we really lucked out. It's in a Persian shopping center, buried deep in this non descriptive strip mall area. However, it's easy to get to, as the restaurant is just north of I-5 on Brookhurst. Inside, Hatam is a beautiful restaurant with nice paintings, Persian rugs and gorgeous mosaics.

Never had Persian food before? If you happen to be in Orange County, go to Hatam. This will be a regular stop for Mr. RJG (and Mrs. RJG!), that's for sure.


Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Whale & Ale ~ San Pedro, California

As mentioned in the city spotlight, Mrs. RJG and I decided to spend this year's anniversary in the LA / Orange County area (early April). It had been many years since we last visited, and if nothing else, we knew the food would be to our liking. Prior to me meeting Mrs. RJG, she had lived a couple of years in the LA area in the mid 1990s. She had recalled fondly of earlier times her sister and brother-in-law would head to San Pedro to go to the beach and eat seafood. Now Mrs. RJG hardly has what one would call an eidetic memory, so she had no idea what restaurants were her favorites, but was rather certain that if we drove there, she'd remember. NOPE. As a backup plan, I had researched some finer dining options, while keeping my eye on the Regular Joe's Guide theme. Neither Mrs. RJG or I enjoy ostentatious displays of grandeur. But we didn't want to celebrate our anniversary night in a dive either. And for that, The Whale & Ale was a nearly perfect compromise.

Definitely a welcoming tavern setting, in the old downtown area, clearly a place frequented by locals, since the tourists are at the beach locales (tacky and overpriced at that). We enjoyed a bottle of wine, crab cake appetizers and we both went for variations of swordfish - mine was blackened. All delicious and the meal was finished off with some coffee and Irish whiskey. This was Mrs. RJG's first try at the latter, and she's still making a face. Looks like Irish Creme only in the future.