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.
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.
Hello America! Hello Los Angeles, you vast, flat, wheezing metropolis. It’s early, I’ve come a long way and I want a coffee. What I don’t want is a gallon of bitter, brown water with ersatz non-fat ‘milk’ and extra-ersatz ‘sweetener’. In Sydney I guzzle lattes at Bourke Street Bakery in Surry Hills, or Campos in Alexandria – surely no one in America, birthplace of stultifying Starbucks, can match that? Until there was you G&B Coffee, until there was you. On a stretch of road that looks so much like every other stretch of road in LA that I squeal, “I’ve been here! I’ve been here! Wait, what? Oh, no I haven’t,” G&B is a cog in the earnestly ethical, long-extraction-espresso wheel currently cruising these Groundhog Day streets. The shoebox-sized shop is owned and operated by Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski, graduates of benchmark coffee emporium, Intelligentsia. In both its Venice and Silver Lake locations, Intelligentsia is awash with the hallmarks of hipsterdom: moustaches, vintage specs, quiffs and nonchalant outfits. Four-shot iced lattes are de rigour. As appalling (and intimidating) as that sounds, there’s something about Americans, something about their sincerity, their openness, which stops me throwing up in my mouth. Something that lets me delight in a congregation of hot people drinking hot (and cold) coffee in this hot city; it’s kinda hot. As are Glanville, Babinski and their namesake enterprise; the former is 2008 US Barista champion, Babinski 2012 runner-up (robbed!) and both are proudly and geekily obsessed with the preparation and service of the humble cup of Joe. They’re as sweet and endearing as the recycled glass jam jars their to-go coffee is served in: each jar wearing a bandana that performs double-duty as a burn-barrier for the drinker and dapper accessory for the vessel. Their coffee is exactly how you want it – delicious, smooth and guzzle-able, while the boys are exactly how you want your local baristas – chatty, handsome and knowledgeable. If G&B were in Sydney, I would be slavishly propping up the bar. But what’s a kaffeeklatsch without a little something for snack? Enter, Sqirl. Cosying up in a corner of the shoebox, this canteen, with Jessica Koslow at the helm, would be worth the trip even without G&B. The porridge I order is creamy; real, whole oats* cooked long and low, with love, until their starchy stickiness is released. Not sugary, but mellow with the faint and comforting bovine sweetness of full-cream milk. The crowning glory on this bowl of childhood familiarity is a sprinkling of crunchy, oily hazelnuts and the thick, blood-clot-glob of Koslow’s sublime homemade blueberry jam. Each mouthful incites a sigh of pleasure, on repeat until my spoon scrapes ceramic, digging for one more sigh. Walk back out into the sprawling city with a well-dressed coffee in one hand and the other fistful of fingers jammed messily in a jar of sticky preserve, then make Sqirl / G&B a frequent search in your Navman – ‘cause they’re perfection. And if you’re not from around here, you may never find them again. You may never find them again. You may never find them again…
*DER: The porridge is made with brown rice, not oats.
G&B has moved to:
Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles 90013
Sqirl still serve coffee at:
720 North Virgil Ave #4, Los Angeles 90029