When I used to think about downtown Los Angeles, visions of boarded up buildings, dilapidated cars parked on the sidewalk, quiet nights and empty streets filled my head.
Within my circle of friends -- those of us who live on the west side -- downtown was not a place one should ever find themselves during the day and definitely not at night. These negative visions soon changed -- and much to my pleasure and now my lifestyle.
One phone call in February turned this Brentwood gal around.
Sitting in my office at W Los Angeles-Westwood (just a block from the Geffen Theater), the caller ID read "Magical Elves." I glanced at my calendar and it was still February, not April 1. I guessed it a prank, so answered with some guarded attitude, "Chef's office. This is Dakota speaking."
"Hello Dakota, my name is Mrs. X, and I'm calling you about a TV show by Bravo called Top Chef."
"Oh, yeah? Cool!" I exclaimed while my eyes rolled.
"Are you free anytime soon to come to our office to do an on-camera interview?"
"Oh sure! That sounds like a great opportunity. Where is your office?" I asked, still waiting for someone to let me in on the prank.
"Are you available this Thursday? Our office is downtown on Spring Street," she continued.
At this point my heart pounded as I digested this conversation: TV. Bravo. Top Chef. Interview.
Reality set in, and I made an appointment. But wait! Did she just say downtown? A vision rolled like a camera as I saw myself getting robbed, mugged and lost on all those one-way streets. Yuck.
Well, since that appointment in February when I was lured to a creepy, yet somehow amazingly beautiful building downtown, my whole perspective has turned upside down and I have fallen in love with this incredible neighborhood, which I now call home.
Now I am happy to share my journey along the historic avenues of downtown Los Angeles, exploring the old eateries and the swank cutting edge restaurants lurking within these once-upon-a-time skyscrapers, all of 12 stories tall.
Cole's, located on East 6th Street downtown, is one of two L.A. eateries claiming to be the originator of the French Dip sandwich. They opened their doors in 1908 at the bottom of the Pacific Electric Building. This was once the railway that carried over 100,000 Angelinos daily into the downtown district.
From my Spring Street loft, I recently walked down to Cole's with my family. It looks old and smells old, but in a good and historic way. The host guided us along the chipped-tiled floors, and we wedged ourselves into oversized, soft red vinyl booths. Old black and white photos cover the walls, adding an extra bit of charm and history.
"I bet my great grandparents, that would be your great-great grandparents, might be found in one of these photos," my mom began. "Maybe even MY mother ate here," Mom continued her reminiscing moment. Yes, my L.A. roots run five generations back when my great-great grandfather was one of the early developers of Angelino Heights.
The photos are wonderful, and I truly felt like I had taken a step back into time with the wood and red tapestry walls -- not to mention the smell of freshly roasted beef wafting through the room. It comforted me.
The menu is short and sweet: five dips -- lamb, turkey, pastrami, pork and the popular USDA prime beef -- as well as some classic side dishes like cole slaw, garlic fries, bacon potato salad and the must have mac and two-cheese. I ordered the OG prime beef dip, adding Swiss cheese. I was not disappointed in the least.
The beef was flavorful and tender to the bite. The au jus was perfectly seasoned without tasting like a beef bouillon cube and was so clear I could have read the menu through it. Trust me when I say you are going to want to order another one to take home for tomorrow's lunch or dinner.
You must save room for dessert because the famous bourbon pecan pie is worth every definition of the word famous, and you cannot pass up the dark chocolate cream pie either. It was like the best Oreo cookie pumped up on some serious steroids. Rich, velvety, chocolate goodness with a salted cookie crumb crust, I scraped off every little bit from the plate. Oh, and I must mention that this feast is not going to break the bank... dips range from $6.83-10.85 and desserts are at $5.01. Affordable and worth every calorie.
While Cole's is a relevant relic of America's gastronomic past, The Spice Table, on the venerable Central Avenue in the Little Tokyo area of downtown, represents the new and cutting edge Los Angeles eateries. The Spice Table was opened in January 2011 by chef/owner Bryant Ng.
With my boyfriend and a few friends we recently shared a post birthday dinner at The Spice Table. It was a Saturday night so I had to book a late reservation to be certain that I could exit my own restaurant through the busy 7:30 rush. Like most chefs I try not to be the last reservation, because this is when the chef is tired, the cooks are ready to clean up and go home, and the servers grow crankier by the second.
So I was a little worried that we would be the only table of six and be on the bad end of service and food. When we walked in five minutes before our 10 p.m. reservation the place was packed. Not only did we have to wait a little longer than five minutes for our table there was still a waiting list of about 15-20 more tables with energized famished mouths to feed behind us. As the hostess guided us to our table, the restaurant had this marvelous energy and the smell of the live pit (behind the bar open to the public) where a cook grilled every kind of satay imaginable. It was sensory overload! The smell of sauces dripping onto the flames created a sweet caramelized scent that I would like to bottle up and sell. We were seated in the center of the main dining room. I checked out the other tables filled with hipsters and fashion-conscious dinners.
We started with a bottle of Albarino to kick-start a night of feasting. The server was knowledgeable about everything on the menu and everyone at the table pointed to me to do the ordering. I started with the Kaya toast, coconut jam on buttered toast with a sunny up egg and wonderfully spicy soy dipping sauce. This struck the right places -- sweet, salty, sour and the texture is spot on.
Sambal fried potatoes came next. Seriously though... who wouldn't like fried potatoes in any form? They have a hint of heat. Our table fell silent as we busily stuffed our faces with food and wine. We didn't even look up at each other. Prawns, lamb belly, pork and beef tripe satays follow. I cannot tell a lie -- I didn't explain beef tripe to the table to its fullest extent. I was on the edge of my seat watching my non-foodie (but learning) boyfriend take his first bite... He goes in for another... and another. Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner! I about jumped out of my seat with pride and joy because he liked it! But how could he not? This delicious tripe was marinated in soy sauce, garlic and palm sugar, grilled with a little char on it and crispy on the edges.
Beef rendang followed -- short rib curried over rice with peanuts. Pow-pow-boom-boom-banging!
Now (drum roll)... braised pig's tail. This is no ordinary little piggy that can't build a house to save his life. This is a PIG and by the size of its tail, I'm guessing a big one! It came to the table coiled, and caramelized with a fantastic glaze. Another server set down a plate with crisp romaine lettuce, whole sprigs of mint, cilantro, basil and purple shiso and an innocent-looking and clearish sauce. Warning. Don't be fooled. This sauce will take you out back, beat the holy hell out of you and send you back to your mama begging for more!
I eagerly grabbed the plate of tail and vigorously started scraping the meat off the bone -- with a fork. It fell off that easy. I made lettuce wraps filled with the meat, and silence, again, filled our table. The only noise I heard was the "snap" my boyfriend makes with his mouth when he is eating something so good.
Dessert? Of course. We ordered the soft served ice cream and the Kaffir lime custard... both amazing, both worth ordering time and time again. Not to mention, they perfectly complimented the dinner as a whole.
So, now having embraced my newfound love of downtown Los Angeles, my foodie adventures continue as I have yet to discover and dine at all the amazing restaurants this gorgeous and historic area has to offer.
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