I’m hanging out at the pool at the swanky Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, trying to play it cool and act like I belong. I’m pretty sure few of the scenesters in this enclave, who all seem skilled in the art of wearing $500 bikinis or talking on their cellphones while swimming, started out their day as I did (eating goat tacos in downtown L.A.), but as long as I keep my mouth from falling open, I figure myself as suave as the next person. “It’s a scene, baby,” as many of the post-ironic hipsters like to say of the schmooze ’n’ booze atmosphere at the Roosevelt. And one thing I notice in the short time I luxuriate in its glow is that few things seem to impress the people making the scene more than somebody bringing in a bag of takeout from some cherished Los Angeles eatery.
“Dude, In-N-Out Burger!”
“Check it out – Roscoe’s Chicken ’n’ Waffles!”
“Whoa! You are our new god!”
Los Angeles may have a reputation for some of the most expensive restos in the world, but its real culinary map is sketched out with quick roadside stops, bright-light strip-mall gems and unpretentious comfort food. L.A. is the spiritual home of American fast food: Around the freeways, it’s a sprawling dominion of enticing drive-thrus and sweet doughnut stands, a bonanza of taquerias, Korean barbecues and chicken huts that could ease the soul of anyone in Hollywood – even the evil genius who green-lighted Norbit.
The night before I found myself at the hot (or “hawt!”) hotel scene, I was lined up with the other roué Sunset Strip-goers at Pink’s, the city’s most legendary hot dog stand. To eat at Pink’s is to taste L.A. at its most democratic. Founded in 1939 by Paul Pink as a simple pushcart that sold hot dogs for 10 cents, Pink’s has become a dog institution whose subsequent fame is itself a Hollywood story. People will wait in line for up to an hour, which may seem extravagant, but the proof is in the weenie. Pink’s is quality doghouse fare, featuring a soft and flavourful chili and several strange combos (guacamole, bacon and polish sausage, anyone?) and specials named after celebrities (the Martha Stewart, no surprise, has sauerkraut). It’s a great place to see celebs – look carefully at those in ball caps and sunglasses – but it’s even more fun to spot character actors who will have you saying things like “Isn’t that the guy who played the banker in that episode of What I Like About You?”
Despite the easy availability of Botox centres or whatever hot spot is being dubbed the Studio 54 of our time, the most dominant aspect of life in Los Angeles – that you have to drive everywhere – has, in some measure, prevented the phenomenon of East Coast-style gentrification. You know: those neighbourhoods where the old shops, which once housed turnip ven-dors and shoe repairmen, are now boutiques and coffee shops run by artistes who think of themselves as marginalized. Even in the hippest areas, there are still strip malls and gas stations and sky-high neon signs than can be seen by traffic a mile away. A boutique that sells designer surfwear can be found right across the street from a Jack in the Box drive-thru. Though Southern California freeway life was conceived as a nod to ultra-modernity, this has ironically kept L.A. looking as its automotive forebears first imagined it, giving the city an almost retro feel. Even Machos Tacos, which satisfies hungry Los Feliz hipsters, comes with a convenient car wash operation in the back.
Here, where the American dream runs on wheels, the many pit stops offer old-world flavours along the way. One second, you’re rolling through a Hispanic neighbourhood, but duck into the Löwenbräu Keller and you might as well be in a classic German-American restaurant in Milwaukee. Park at a mini-mall on Santa Monica Boulevard, and next thing you know, you’re indulging in basturma, an Armenian salami-like cured meat, and soujouk, a kind of sausage. East of Hollywood, in Little Armenia, I was not at all surprised to see that an often raved-about chicken joint, Zankou, was strictly an order-at-the-cash, Formica-table kind of place. But that shouldn’t fool you about the quality of its feature dish. Zankou’s rotisserie chicken is the most delectable bird imaginable and what everyone in the chicken game should aspire to: moist but with a good bite, served beside an intense garlicky paste whose specific composition is the source of many local speculations.
Since L.A. is all about going from place to place in 20-minute car rides, this makes so-called progressive dining (where appetizers, entrées and desserts are eaten at different places) all the more interesting. If you’re like me –starting your progressive meal with ice cream at the marketplace, following it with an entrée of Korean pork belly barbecue and finishing with a round of taquitos – you should be able to see much of the real L.A. at the same time.
Focusing on those relatively inexpensive places where people do not go to show off but to eat well and enjoy themselves helps, I think, open your senses to the life of what is, despite the smoke and mirrors, a working city. In fact, after landing at LAX, I headed straight from the airport to Randy’s Donuts for a quick coffee and cruller, just to stand in the shadow of Randy’s 32½-foot-high doughnut – a landmark as significant to L.A. and its general esthetic as the Hollywood sign. Afterwards, wondering about the purple blossoms of the jacaranda trees, I went along Pico Boulevard in Westwood, where I could smell the burgers cooking at the Apple Pan even before I stepped in. With its screen doors and red leatherette seats, the Apple Pan has the feeling of a country wayside kitchen. They even serve sodas in old-fashioned conical paper cups, and the waiters have a strange custom of pouring out a big slop of ketchup for you on a paper plate to dip your fries in. Choosing between the steak burger and hickory burger can be trying when you’re not yet quite comfortable saying, “I’ll have one of each.”