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Los Angeles List (cont…): Umami Burger, Philippe French Dip

February 6, 2012

Los Angeles is a great food town, with plenty of both  homegrown cultural fare and more ridiculous haute cuisine. As someone interested in these things, I had to make a list of “to-dos” before my time in LA is up. Beverly Soon Tofu, Animal, Pizzeria Mozza, Soban, and some good Ramen were a part of that list, and so are the following two beef sandwiches, together comprising the most red meat I’ve eaten since I can’t remember when.

Umami Burger is constantly mentioned wherever there is a discussion about LA’s best burgers. While the Father’s Office is by all accounts incredible, I made up my mind to try the Umami Burger long ago. For one thing, the six-ounce patty is my ideal burger size. It is too easy for the larger burger to rely on its heft, its greasy and visceral appeal. It’s almost not fair; you can’t really help but love a burger like that. A six ounce on the other hand, resits that kind of cheap appeal to your senses. A smaller burger increases the necessity of care in each component, the importance of each aspect magnified on a smaller stage.

The Umami burger delivers on composition, balance, and punch in the flavor department. The meat is funky and dripping, the bun is a perfect and capable vessel. The toppings–caramelized onions, housemade ketchup, shiitake mushrooms, roasted tomato–enhance the umami essence of the beef and balance each other with acidity. The Parmesan crisp contributes a subtle salty component to tie it together.

Philippe’s French Dip is a simpler take on beef and bun, with only the addition of a quick dip in beef juice as a condiment. The sandwich is obviously a winning recipe, achieving a legendary status as the “original” and the cause of half hour lines on the weeknight that I visited. It’s a straightforward thing, and rightly so. My favorite parts were the crusty, malty roll and the ultra-spicy mustard on every table.

Books: The Corrections

February 4, 2012

  I read Franzen’s novels in reverse order, and so was spared the temptation of thinking that Freedom was “just like The Corrections.” It is not, in fact.

On the surface it may appear to be so: the books are structured similarly, with long, chapterless sections that are used to follow a specific character in depth; the books both deal with the disintegration and dysfunction of a family unit; the books are both embedded with commentary on the issues of our times, laced with prose that demands underlining, exclamation marks in margins. But where socio-political commentary is nearly always central to the characters in Freedom, the view in The Corrections is a sidelong one.

Instead the investigation leans more heavily on the characters themselves, Chip with his intelligence, his failures and temptations; Gary with his prejudice, his compulsion for superiority, his depression. And on and on, through Denise, the youngest, and ultimately the parents themselves, until a complete picture of this extraordinary and ordinary family emerges. It is a dark and complex book, a serious work with moments of humor that grow up from the depths of dysfunction. It is also a deeply compassionate book, reminding us, each time  the characters verge on being too self-deluding to truly empathize with, that they are complete humans as we are–kind and vicious, intelligent and shortsighted, loving and self-serving at once. It is these complexities, together with an astoundingly talented writer, that make The Corrections what it is. Worth owning in hardcover.

Week Of 1.30.12

February 3, 2012

-This week began with another of Franzen’s decries against technology, then a lot of response (encouraged by Amazon’s new publishing plan), then finally it got so bad NPR had to say what we were all thinking: No More E-Books Vs. Print Books Arguments, OK?

-Then, two pieces on the American prison system. This from n+1, is powerful and disturbing. This from the New Yorker is less severe, just as compelling. What’s unique about the prison system crisis is that it is reaching critical points while crime is dropping–increasing the chance that nobody will pay attention until it’s too late.

-Occupy has been out of the news directly lately, but as this article points out, the conversation continues. For our part, it’s time to start thinking about how we can continue the movement online and in conversational spaces of value.

-Komen says, “Just kidding” today, reinstating funds for planned parenthood after yanking them earlier this week. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church continues to bury its head in the sand.

-J.D. Salinger, one of my new favorites, is celebrated this week.

-Introverts are cool, too. FYI.

-And finally, something that contributes to a line of thinking I’ve had recently. Look out for more on this blog about why place matters.

Los Angeles: Beverly Soon Tofu

January 29, 2012

Tucked on the end of a shopping plaza like so many others in Koreatown is Beverly Soon Tofu, a shoebox-sized cafe where they make their own tofu on-site. The six or so tables (plus a long communal in the middle) are carved to look like tree trunks, giving the place an understated quirk; the bustle of elbow to elbow families gives away the nature of the delicious, cheap food.

The banchan are delicious, and balanced each other out completely (I got some sort of sweet yam, kimchi, bean sprouts, a small tofu dish with seaweed and broth, refreshing celery and cucumbers). The signature dish, meanwhile, is a spitting, molten stone pot of deep red broth that comes out of the kitchen steaming and remains bubbling away for a minute after you start eating. You can order the dish at three levels of spiciness (I went for it) and a choice of protein in addition to the tofu (I did clams). Red pepper and jalapeno were clearly visible in mine, but beyond those I couldn’t identify anything in the broth that contributed to its complex heat. The tofu, absolutely slippery smooth and earthy, was everywhere in the bowl. Clams added a slight brine (when I could taste it through the heat) and a raw egg cracked in on serving took it over the top.

Even if house-made tofu isn’t enough to get you excited (it should), this is a must-visit for a diverse, delicious, inexpensive feast. Get it with a pale lager and call it a day.

Week Of 1.23.12

January 27, 2012

Frequent readers (hi mom!) will have noticed the recent drop off of the “What We’re Reading” series. Long story short, I got busy. And I’m sorry.

Also, though, the series was a bit flawed from the start. True, the links were what I had read and found really compelling that week. But the at times long lists could be overwhelming to put together (for me) and to sort through (for you). Instead of continuing, from here on I’ll be doing a “Week Of” post with fewer links and a bit more context/coverage. And, go.

-In a move that looks suspiciously magnanimous, big box stores are apparently close to selling mostly/all sustainable seafood.

-The New Yorker released The Obama Memos this week, which detail the governing style of our President by pointing to correspondences around key decisions. As someone who admired the President precisely because he appeared to be a great negotiator, I have been just as disheartened as anyone to observe the dysfunction that greets a moderate approach. Disappointment turned to anger, as it has with so many liberals, and since demanding that the President fight back, it appears as if he is finally stepping up to the plate–a move articulated by his declarations at this week’s State of the Union to act independently if necessary. But I still wonder if we liberals and independents, in demanding that Obama fight back, are pressuring him to capitulate to a system of partisanism that we elected him to defeat.

-There are books on #OWS now. Two are reviewed. Elsewhere, U.S. handling of the protests cause a drop in Press Freedom Rankings.

What Happened Before The Big Bang? Or alternatively, What Happened Before The Big Bang?

-Paula Deen revealed that she has diabetes this week, surprising exactly one person.

-The Atlantic discusses healthier information consumption.

-And just in case you were considering voting Republican: Romney donates to hate groups, while Santorum decries learning about things. Gingrich, on the other hand, is still a grumpy bastard.

Books: Franny and Zooey

January 25, 2012


This book, the second that I read after Catcher, completely changed Salinger for me. Instead of writing about this charming, hilarious, beautiful thing, I’m just going to make a list of quotes from it:

-“The word is ‘washcloth ,’ not ‘washrag,’ and all I want, God damn it, Bessie, is to be left alone in this bathroom. That’s my one simple desire. If I’d wanted this place to fill up with every fat Irish rose that passes by, I’d’ve said so. Now, c’mon. Get out”

-“I wish you’d get married,” Mrs. Glass said, abruptly, wistfully…”Well I do,” she insisted. “Why don’t you?”

“I like to ride in trains too much. You never get to sit next to the window anymore when you’re married.”

-…her brother Buddy had morbidy prophesied to himself, as she grinned at him from the graduate’s platform, that she would in all probability one day marry a man with a hacking cough. So there was that in her face, too.

-“Anyway I just got your letter and I love you to pieces, distraction, etc., and can hardly wait for the weekend.” “Incidentally I’ll kill you if there’s a receiving line at this thing.”

-“Against my better judgement, I feel certain that somewhere very near here-the first house down the road, maybe-there’s a good poet dying, but also somewhere very near here somebody’s having a hilarious pint of pus taken from her lovely young body, and I can’t be running back and forth forever between grief and high delight.”

Read it, for goodness’ sake.

And thanks to Tom, who convinced me to try Salinger with a passing remark he made once, years ago.

Pittsburgh: Pamela’s Pancakes Are A Treasure

January 23, 2012

Check out those bubbles! A unique textural achievement!

Often pegged for having one of America’s top pancake dishes, Pamela’s Diner in Pittsburgh deserves every bit of praise that comes its way. The signature plate seen above consists of two pancake rolls lined with a sort of ingenious (but judicious) smear of tangy sour cream and a sprinkling of brown sugar, plus a good amount of strawberries. As fantastic as this combination is, the pancakes themselves are the real stars. The interiors are fluffy and soft, while the exteriors crisp impossibly–dark, buttery, and fragile as if pressed with a waffle iron.

I took this photo on my third visit to Pamela’s, during which I confirmed what I had previously hypothesized: it’s all about the edges. Next time I might even skip the whole roll up deal and go plain, although for the full experience I recommend everyone start with the strawberry version. Multiple Pittsburgh locations, http://www.pamelasdiner.com

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