“Everybody needs a place to rest; everybody wants to have a home. Don’t make no difference what nobody says, ain’t nobody like to be alone. Everybody got a hungry heart.“ We may not have all been born to run, but The Boss eloquently expresses our appetite for love and belonging, with a rousing sing-along chorus. It’s the knots in your stomach, the jolt that wakes you in the night, the sob trapped in your chest. Cud for poets, musicians and writers to chew, and the guts of Maslow’s hierarchy; as unfathomable as existence and inherent as eating.
“WE WERE IN LOVE! We were so in love I was terrified. He was my best friend; it was this, like, soul mate connection. I can’t explain it.” The tipsy girl mines her emotion memory and details the inexplicable to three rapt friends and everyone else within yelling distance. “Are you gonna go to the earlier acting class? Cause if you go to the earlier class I’ll go to $5 yoga.” With the slumped posture of the dejected, two thespians discuss the motivation for their busy day ahead, in the chipper tones of the blindly optimistic.
The adventures you take are a result of your choice. You are responsible because you choose. After you make your choice, follow the instructions to see what happens next. If you like, chicken, waffles, wood panelling, fake plants, mission-brown vinyl and neon lights, skip to the next paragraph. If you like the idea of me driving around and round LA with a crazy cab driver until we run out of gas (close to 5327 hours in a Prius), you’re really quite mean.
On Pico Blvd in Hollywood, immortalised in song by the Notorious B.I.G. (R.I.P.) and visited by luminaries including Snoop Lion (nee Dogg) and Barack Obama, Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles has been serving Southern food since 1975. If you’d like to read what happened when I ate fried chicken, skip to the next paragraph. If you’d like to read what happened when I ate waffles, also skip to the next paragraph.
‘I’ll have the Carol C. Special ($8.95), thank you.’ Our food arrives faster than the time it took to decide what to order. In front of me: one golden, pocked waffle, the size of my face; one generous, DD chicken breast, encrusted in a deep-fried, honey-coloured crumb; one ramekin of maple syrup; one orb of whipped butter. Fried chicken doesn’t want to be dry, and Roscoe’s isn’t; the waffle is fluffy and has the savoury flavour of flour and the enslaving flavour of frying. I force the butterball into the pits of the waffle, cut my chicken in to pieces and upend the syrup over the whole lot. The sticky chicken mess is a little bit sweet, salty and greasy – a whole lot magnificent. If you’d like to read about me eating Roscoe’s world famous mac & cheese ($4.90), continue to the next paragraph. If you’d rather not, skip the next paragraph.
The mac & cheese at Roscoe’s is world famous. And good. It certainly ain’t your gourmet three-cheese Rockpool Bar & Grill sitchayshun, but it’s better cause it tastes like your mum made it. Creamy, mildly cheesy and with macaroni that could be made of pasta or… anything really, it’s a bowl full of rich, goopy happiness.
If you’d like to read about me succumbing to one of the seven deadly sins, skip to the next paragraph. If you’d like to read of anaphylaxis at Roscoe’s, skip ahead to the penultimate paragraph. If you’d like to revel in my triumphant completion of a blood pressure and cholesterol-spiking meal and my successful indulgence in at least three of the seven deadly sins, skip ahead to the last paragraph.
I am finished. Greed has gotten the best of me.
My tongue feels thick and dry, there is darkness. I am finished.
The people love me and respect me, but the priests grow sullen and angry. They dislike me because I have taken away their power. Too bad for them, I think. The people count. Not a bad accomplishment for a struggling writer.
Inspiration, and endings, taken from Choose Your Own Adventure 11: Mystery of the Maya, by R.A. Montgomery
There’s a Punky Reggae Party at La Cita, in Downtown, LA, with no cover charge before 10pm. It’s 9:57pm as we barrel up to the bouncer. There’re more than two, but less than five in our party, so let’s call that a gang. “Where are you from, man? New… South… Wales?” Our alien status is both a novelty and potential money-maker for the sly goon. 9:58pm. Goon looks at me, I look at Goon. Goon looks at my i.d, looks back at me. I return Goon’s gaze. 9:59. He slowly cracks a 24-karat smile, winks and waves me in. La Cita is the kind of bar you always end up in, right at the bitter end; when you can’t feel your gums anymore, but can still feel the rhythm. The disinterested staff never make eye contact while serving deep shots of cheap whiskey and cans of still cheaper Tecate beer, the jukebox plays The Clash. And the patrons, they dance. We weave through the crowd, under the madly blinking, multicoloured fairy lights toward a glowing-red hallway where dancing dark figures block our passage. The brick-paved courtyard out back is lit by more red lights, under worn black canvas awnings, and encircled by barbed wire. The office-towers of Downtown loom overhead. In dark corners girls with Bettie Page hair and pencilled-on brows attend to their lipstick in vintage compact mirrors. The mohawked Spanglish deejay smiles wildly and points at punters with each transition. Radio Birdman starts to play and half our gang feel cool. The other half is already cool, taking photos with the Betties and being handed Tecate. A whirlwind of a girl – all crazy hair, loud mouth and heavy eyes – decides it’s time for our gang to split. With her shoes in her hand she leads us back through the passage, takes us for a messy turn on the dance floor and drags us out into the night. T’ mad-haired wench walks us round th’ corner to Redwood, a bar ye can’t resist. Redwood be another dive where young men and beauties perch at t’ bar, puttin’ out t’ vibe. T’ grog flows freely, t’ music plays loudly and t’ pirate ship theme be thorough. There be ropes, barrels, arr, mermaids ‘n ships. I’m not aye what they’re servin’ exactly, but t’ snacks smell fried and be temptin’. By now we been standin’ ‘n bars for hours, chock full o’ th’ Mexican food and lookin’ for a darn good reason t’ stay upstarboard. Beyond bein’ in a pirate ship o’ course. But wait? What’s that sound? Could it be? Be it? That there can only be one thin’, yarr, that be a Kiss cover band. T’ band play a ramshackle set, t’ crowd noddin’ their heads, t’ mad-haired wench hands me her spiced rum as she’s refused service ‘n promises nah t’ drink anymore. We all wanta t’ rock n furl all night ‘n party every day, but as th’ band gets worser th’ gang calls time. ‘Cep for th’ wench. I be pretty sure she kep’ rock n furling to th’ bitter end yarr, back at La Cita.
Umami: it’s the fabled fifth flavour, sounds like ‘tsunami’ and makes an ideal name for a kitten. It’s also the yumminess in Parmesan cheese, truffle, mushrooms, pork and breast milk. So what? No biggie, right? Thing is, that special Umami yumminess can be credited to the unfairly maligned evil genius of amino acids: glutamate. Otherwise known as the ‘G’ in MSG. Otherwise known for the headaches, dehydration, nausea and chest pains you claim to suffer after eating Chinese food. But before you saddle up your food intolerance high horse and ride poor Umami Burger out of town, think about it. Apart from both science and Dr Chef Dave Chang’s MAD Symposium lecture disproving ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’, historically speaking if you tack the B-word on to the back-end of a commonly offensive adjective, you’re on to a winner. Cases in point: FatBurger, Douche Burger and Fat Ho Burgers (RIP). So, if fat, douches and fat hos can be tasty, how’s about a little Umami? Hmm? Just a teeny taste? At the outlet in Los Feliz, on Hollywood Boulevard near the Wacko store, I order The Original Umami Burger – beef patty, Parmesan crisp, shiitake mushroom, roasted tomato, caramelised onions and house ketchup ($11). It’s intravenous Umami. From the sweet, milk bun to the medium-rare ground steak patty, pleasingly pink in the middle and sprinkled with magical Umami Dust™, you’ll want to get Umami all up in your grill. It’s savoury and thrilling, like thinking about a packet of salt and vinegar chips. Along with the tsunami burger we share a plate of tangy treats – cauliflower, mushrooms, tomatoes et al on the House Pickle Plate ($5) and Sweet Potato Fries ($4). Smothered in the Signature Sweet Salt, these fries are like chomping on a hot cinnamon donut: comforting, indulgent and finger lickin’. Like the best things, the word Umami comes from Japan and means something like ‘delicious’. DUH. But if you’ve already named your new kitten, you can just call it ‘savoury’. Whatever name you give it, Umami is universal and hardly the root of digestive evil and sleepless nights. I mean, how can gravy be bad? Or Vegemite on toast? Or a bowl of salty edamame? Or working your way through an entire wheel of aged Parmesan by yourself? It’s true, Umami Burger is cool and beardy and thus repellent, but what tasteless monster among us can resist an extra flavour? Salty, sweet, sour and bitter sure are something, but they’ll never be sublime without Umami. Just like The Jackson 5, sans Michael.
My best friend moved to the other side of the world. Not to get away from me (right, pal? TELL THEM) but to carve out a new life with her husband. She’s like that – adventurous, driven and devoted. She also matches me, pound-for-pound, when a plate of food is set in front of her. No mean feat. We share a romance with food; a love for cooking it, eating it, writing and obsessing about it. We both hate runny eggs and both love… well, most other foods. She’s not big on pork, but that’s ok, as it balances my passionate and excessive consumption. When I’m blue, she cooks for me. When I’m exultant, she cooks for me. On weekdays ending in ‘ay’, she cooks for me. When we worked in the same building, our productivity plummeted as a result of regular tea/yoghurt/vending machine/crudités breaks. I sat by her side as Maid of Honour on her wedding day and greedily enjoyed the spoils of a considered, and spectacular, matrimonial feast. She waited patiently when I was vegan, tolerated me as a vegetarian, encouraged me as a pescatarian and now, frets about me as a glutton. I miss her. I’ve been lucky to visit her twice since she fled my clutches and each time we easily picked up where we left off. And ate a lot of hot pastrami. I love her a lot. Like I love sandwiches a lot. Far from the madding crowds, she takes me to grand, tragic, on-the-up-again Downtown, Los Angeles. If she had blindfolded me in, say, Hollywood, spun me around and around in circles then whipped the blindfold off in Downtown, I would have sworn I was in NYC. Or, at least, on the set of Seinfeld or something. But there we were, on the eerily quiet streets, passing the run-down early 1900s movie theatres and playing a round or two of ‘Hipster or Hobo?’ Baco Mercat is a fancy sandwich shop and bar snuggled in the bosom of this exotic, Gotham City landscape. Our waiter is sassy, dropping an F-Bomb here and there and making me feel like an idiot in the most charming way. On his recommendation we each order a Vinegar_Based Sweet & Sour Soda ($3); the pear and meyer lemon varieties from a list of fifteen flavours. They are indeed vinegary and sweet and sour – an absurdly appealing mix of tart, fetid and irresistible. We share the “Cowgirl Creamery” cheese plate ($19), a top-shelf selection replete with candied pine nuts, honeycomb and pickled golden beets. But we’re here for the ‘baco’ flatbread sandwich. I’m pretty sure people have been wrapping bread around meat since people were monkeys, and the baco renovates this ancient art to modern masterpiece. I order The Original – pork, beef carnitas, salbitxada ($10) and my buddy, The Meatball – raisin, pine nut, tomato ($14). Both come served in a bowl, the famed flatbread piled high with the chosen fillings – so high I have to chip away with a fork before grabbing it and taking the whole lot on a messy journey to my mouth. The chunks of pork are satisfyingly fatty, the lard softening a potentially tough equal-measure of meat; the beef is yielding and prickly with heat. Heaped with tangy, sweet, nutty Salbitxada sauce and with minimal rocket/arugala, I want to order a second helping immediately upon finishing the first. It’s a sandwich to break my heart. Lucky then that the broad sitting opposite me is the woman to help mend it. As much as I miss sharing the same city as my best friend, exploring Los Angeles and it’s sprawling, glorious eating options with her is delicious consolation.
Two Psychobillies walk into a Mexican restaurant on Beverly Blvd in Los Angeles. One is Mexican-American, one Australian; both are musicians, both fans of Vampira, both hungry. Only, one of them has a secret: he doesn’t eat onion or coriander. This is their story. And my story as well, cause I was also there. Finding the best Mexican joints in LA is a bit like trying to pin down the best Thai food in Sydney: overwhelming. ThaiRiffic, ThaiTanic, ThaiFoon, BowThai, ThaiNoon, AppeThaising; it gets a little Thairesome. In LA there’s El Cholo, El Ranchero, El Pueblito, El Gitano, El Nopal… And, El Coyote. Bloody ‘ell! Now, if lucky enough to have stumbled out of the LA glare and into El Coyote, it’d be a rare gringo who would turn to leave. Fairy lights, vinyl booths and buxom senoritas wearing long, frilled skirts and peasant tops? THE END. Epilogue: You can also get ostrich meat tacos there. It’s our penultimate day in LA, and the Psychobillies decide to meet for one last lunch. In the courtyard, over a red vinyl clad table they talk about who’s playing in what band and – “your Sprite, mijo”, our senorita interjects – which bands are touring and which bands are the best but not touring anymore. It’s a secret, Psychobilly language I don’t understand, but have always enjoyed listening to; names like ‘Strangy’ and ‘Köefte’ now as familiar as they are alien. Those times they saw The Cramps play; that time they met Vampira; Jonny Koffin is the best; Halloweentown; who rests in Hollywood Forever cemetery… It’s the same enthusiastic, spooky conversation from our visit three years earlier, minus the band-practise-induced-tinnitus. The senorita waitress brings us our complementary corn chips, black and regular (yellow, Wiz Khalifa?) and a selection of salsas from mild to sweat-inducing hot. When this happens I do two things: wonder why there are no complimentary offerings at Australian restaurants and then proceed to eat all of the complimentary corn chips and wonder why I ordered food. Until the food arrives. On the advice of the local Psychobilly and for only $6.50, we each choose the especiales (special) chicken street tacos (tacos, from Chicken Street). Three small, perfectly formed corn tortillas, topped with grilled chicken, chopped onion, fresh coriander and a wedge of lime. That’s it, no messing about. As two of us enthusiastically tuck in, one gingerly scrapes away some onion and wonders if the coriander will give him a headache… before giving up and hoeing in. Psychobillies and holiday guts are tough.
I’m a greedy traveller, as I am with most things. I’m rated triple-X with wanderlust and wincing from the nag of itchy feet. Yet as deep as the thrill of the unknown runs, my yearning for the known will always keep pace. I want to walk into a room and know where all the light switches are; want to know exactly how far to turn the hot water tap for a temperate shower. Want to boil two eggs, peel them and roll their warm flesh in the little pile of salt I’ve ground on my kitchen bench top. Want to savour each mouthful, and the ritual. No matter where I am, how far I’ve gone to get there, or what newfangled excitement is presented, some days I wake up and want exactly what I could have at home. See? Greedy. Now, some folks on the road find comfort in expatriate communities, others in bars; I like to find that familiar feeling in food. Plus Coffee. I’d already guzzled the perfect latte in LA (here) but what of the rare and fabled flat white? So far I’d not tasted one, good or bad, and after a week in Las Vegas I’d given up on coffee all together. Coffee + Food, on Melrose Ave in LA, delivered on the familiar front: A chalkboard heralding the Flat White, and an Australian soap actress ‘taking a meeting’ at a corner table, then proving all the world her stage by talking her way out of a parking ticket. Look, let’s be frank, I don’t actually know the difference between a latte, flat white or cappuccino. Are they not all hot, milky coffee beverages differentiated only by the amount of froth on top and the addition of powdered chocolate? I’m going to say yes. What I do know is that the flat white appears to be both uniquely Australian, thus tricky to pin down in LA, and the milky coffee beverage I prefer. The third salve to my homesickness came in the form of corn fritters, with damn good guacamole. There’s a café called Bills right near my house that fancies this their savoury specialty, yet in a Coffee + Food vs Bills battle, I’m backing the former; toast-textured on the outside, ideal corn-to-batter ratio and minimal irritating garnish. Plus, Sydney is a long, long way from Mexico. In summary: sitting on the side of a busy road in Los Angeles, gas-bagging with my best friend from home, about people at home, while enjoying a meal not dissimilar to one I would enjoy at home, I could basically be at home. Seeking out the food and coffee you’re accustomed to is no less embarrassingly insular and prosaic than an Aussie belting Khe Sanh in a Japanese karaoke bar, or slamming shots at a Kangaroo-themed nightclub in Phuket. But for me those are two of the best bits about travelling: readily embarrassing yourself, and being far from where you live, yet feeling at home. And just as Dorothy says, “Don’t be silly Toto, scarecrows don’t talk.”
This one time at a restaurant I thought I saw Chloe Sevigny and I was like, woah! But then I looked again and it was just an anaemic girl wearing socks with her sandals. Then this other time I thought I saw Jon Hamm but then I was like, nope, nu-uh, that’s just a dude with powerful thighs. The moral of this story is that you should eat dinner at Little Dom’s, ‘cause both Chloe and Jon have. On the corner of a couple more same-same streets in LA (in Los Feliz) Little Dom’s is that great Italian place you go to all the time, where you pretend to read the menu but always order the same thing, talk shit for hours, gesticulating wildly, drink wine ‘til your gums are stained plum, and numb, then stumble home. Basically, you started going to Little Dom’s cause it was near your house. We go on a Wednesday and it’s busy, jammed with Angelinos (Los Felicianos?) who look you up and down – not in a Mean Girls way, more a ‘nice selvedge jeans’ kind of way. The main dining room is both full and fully booked – obvs, I am told – and we are invited to take seven steps to the right for our forty-minute (approx) wait. Stuck now between the bar and booths, I feel like the uncool kid at a party, chemical-sweating in a corner, swaying to New Order. A party where everyone is especially cool and called Tad or Dree. And Tad or Dree are working on a screenplay that touches on domestic violence, but at its heart is a romantic comedy. One Blue Monday later, we’re at the bar and order a bracing Mint Julep (like ‘vicious heaven’, apparently) and a Virgin Margarita (tastes a tiny bit like egg white. Or maybe just a dirty glass?) As the ‘tails take the edge off, Tad and Dree’s earnest discussion of their ill-conceived screenplay becomes endearing; they’re just folks going about their business. And like the dining experience back home at Fratelli Paradiso, the people watching at Little Dom’s is half the fun. Especially when you look across the bar and see Orlando Bloom! Which didn’t actually happen that night. We are offered a table outside, under the plastic awning, and accept; it’s a mild LA evening and the subtle hint of egg white has teased my already aggravated appetite into tantrum. I choose the New York steak ($41), medium rare, and we start with a salad of raw baby kale ($11). As revolting as those three words, in that particular order sound, this salad is not. The kale tingles with the peppery heat of raw greens; sweet strips of roasted Red Kuri and Kabocha squash are tangled within, all soft and caramelised. A simple Balsamic vinaigrette later and… OMG. I’m pretty sure we’re sitting next to Jason Segal. Oh, huh? No? Shame.
The Dresden Room in Los Feliz, Los Angeles, is a time warp. Not in a cool, ‘have you been watching Mad Men?’ or ‘I just ADORE mid-century furniture’ kind of way. It’s more like how your grandma used to always wear gloves while driving and set her hair in rollers every night and sometimes let you smoke with her because she never got the memo it would end up killing us all. A splendid piece of the past perched smack-bang in the middle of the nicotine-stained present. On a Wednesday night, 8pm, it’s museum-quiet in the restaurant. Fitting, as the room appears to be carefully preserved; pristine white leather banquettes and ceramic vases to prove Jonathan Adler a fraud, 60s wooden-slatted room dividers and burgundy walls – even the pot plants look exhausted by age, but nonetheless MIB. The menu holds everything I imagine my grandparents would eat on a night out: French Onion Soup, Chicken Cordon Bleu and Peach Melba. If that doesn’t make you smile you have no heart. Or, you have suffered a stroke and should seek urgent medical attention. I choose the New York Steak ($25), with fries, the ‘famous garlic bread’ and a salad to start, with Italian dressing. Nothing is excellent; my medium-rare steak is pretty well cooked-through and the salad is dressed not for eating but for preserving. Regardless, it’s a delight and I clean the plate before ordering a Peach Melba ($5). Every dessert in the world should contain jam and that’s all I have to say about that. If the restaurant itself was all The Dresden had on offer, it could lean toward the melancholy. Like your grandma trying to keep up as the times move too quickly around her, charming youth morphing into burdensome old age. But hold your horses there cowboy, wipe away the sympathy tears, take one last look around and head next door to The Lounge, ‘cause your mind is about to be blown. It’s a bar, yep, a bar with all the local cools hanging out, sure. Strange pictures cover the walls of another immaculate throwback; there’re the requisite chairs, tables, beards, etcetera – the same stuff you’ll find in bars across the world. But hold up, what’s that sound? Are you hearing right? Yeah you are. The Lounge at The Dresden is home to Marty and Elayne; Tuesday through Saturday, 9pm-1:15am. Get on the google now cause I promise, there are no words for the magic of Marty and Elayne. Tip well and tip often. It’s fair to say the food ain’t highfalutin’ – I paid much less for much better food, many times over in LA – yet I had no better meal than at The Dresden. And there’s gorgeous, priceless Marty, with a dead badger on his head.