About a month ago, I couldn't stop myself from effusing rhapsodically about Jonathan Gold's "99 Things To Eat in L.A. Before You Die" over at LA Weekly. I shared the list with everyone I could think to share it with, including posting about it here. It was - it is - practically perfect in every way, a treasure map writ large by an intrepid explorer who is apparently as in love with Los Angeles as I am. And while I'm no nearer to death's door than I'd imagine any of you are (and He'd have to take me kicking and screaming, natch), I still feel an urgency to discover as wide a swath of territory as I possibly can. And why not? If I can still clutch a few dollars of expendable income to my chest in these recessionary times, then I can sure as hell spend it on a few gallons of gas that will transport me from home base to the Great Wide Somewhere.
Being the adventurer that she is, Ashley agreed that Gold's poetic, swooning descriptions of places both near and far to our Long Beach address were too good to pass up. So with a week of free time (hers a Spring Break, mine a week of calm before the storm), we delved into the meatier portion of Gold's article, tearing it apart and repairing it again, forming a slightly condensed version to suit our time frame, budget, and culinary desires. Thusly grouped by region, we partnered our gastronomical adventures with days of the week and today, I'm happy to report, was Day 1: Pasadena / Alhambra / 210 Corridor.
Our first stop was Little Flower Candy Co. (1424 W. Colorado Blvd.), a tiny cafe facing the 134 Fwy. Though the pastries looked delicious, our purpose for stopping there was for their sea salt caramels - which, at $14 a bag, were certainly not cheap. But oh, are they ever worth it. The candies literally melt in your mouth, sliding around the four corners of the tongue, indolent and unhurried. As far as caramels go, these are on par with what you'd come to expect from the stuff: buttery, warm, inviting. But the real kicker is the unexpectedly savory rush of sea salt developing near the back of the mouth, working its way forward with a tart nip and receding back again, a literal wave of flavor ebbing and flowing with every bite.
From there, we made our way to Alhambra - a culinary capital if there ever was one. If Banh Mi's your thing, if Dim Sum is your thing, if excellent food is your thing, then Alhambra's a destination in and of itself. Despite a slight altercation with Google Maps (Me: "Valley Blvd East? We're on Valley Blvd WEST!" Goog Map: "Watch me not care at all."), we eventually found our spot: 101 Noodle Express (1408 EAST Valley Blvd, Alhambra). And the object of our affection? The beef roll. We ordered one for the table ($6.75), and still had leftovers after the three of us had eaten our fill. Sweetly tangy shavings of beef are rolled around a bushel of cilantro and onions and sheathed in a flaky, slightly crispy flatbread - not unlike a tortilla, but more substantial. The simplicity of the dish - unencumbered by weighty sauces or superfluous accoutrements - is the secret to its perfection. With the grassy tang of cilantro as its partner, the meat's smoky, salty goodness is experienced wholly with every bite. Pair it with a porcelain cup of herbal tea and little else. You won't need to.
Stop number three was in the same neck of the woods: Shanghai Xiao Chi (828 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra). The restaurant itself was a nondescript part of a blander whole - quivering blinds, an address, and little else to announce its presence. Inside, the 15 linen-covered tables were empty save for a trio of businessmen in the corner. I ordered the pork pump, unsure of its menu equivalent but our waiter - quite possibly the owner - nodded quickly and pointed to a dish near the end of page 3. I'd never have picked out this particular entree without a prompt. What arrived at the table was the stuff dreams are made of. A glassy mound of pork rested in a fragrant pool of glaze, accompanied by stocks of fennel and a bowl of white rice. The meat itself simply came undone if you so much as glanced in its direction. The flavor was rich and savory, the bounties of a meat treated well. There weren't many words spoken during our meal. There didn't have to be. Aside from the occasional appraising murmur, we were utterly transfixed by the flavorful interaction of sweet, pliant pork and a sauce so self-possessed, so assured of its perfection, the only response is reverent silence.
We finished the day in the most fitting of fashions: with an old fashioned doughnut from the Donut Man (915 E. Route 66, Glendora). I think Jonathan Gold's explanation for this treat far surpasses anything I could get at past "Yum," so here it is:
Have you ever seen a strawberry doughnut from Donut Man? It is an iceberg of a doughnut, a heavy, flattened demisphere big enough to use as a Pilates aid, split in two and filled to order with what must be an entire basket of fresh strawberries, and only in season. The fruit is moistened with a translucent gel that lubricates even the occasional white-shouldered berry with a mantle of slippery sweetness — oozing from the sides — forming frozen whorls, turning the bottom of the pasteboard box into a sugary miasma in the unlikely event that the doughnuts actually make it home. The tawny pastry itself is only lightly sweetened, dense and slightly crunchy at the outside, like most good doughnuts, with a vaguely oily nuttiness and an almost substantial chew. It is the only doughnut I have ever seen that is routinely served with a plastic knife and fork. The stand is on the way to nowhere, but the doughnuts are worth all the irreplaceable fossil fuel it takes to get there.
And there you have it. End of Day One. On deck tomorrow? Downtown. Stay tuned. Or better yet, join us!