I stared at the ad, dumbfounded. I have long come to believe that one of the best-kept culinary secrets of the world is that American food is really great stuff, and here that secret was, laid bare for all to see. The contest offered trips to some of the best eating places in the land — New Orleans for crayfish, gumbo and jambalaya; San Francisco for sourdough bread and Dungeness crab; Maine for lobster; Charlottesville for she-crab soup; Kansas City for strip steak and ribs; Baltimore for soft-shell crabs; Buffalo for beef-on-weck and chicken wings; and Florida for key lime pie and barbecued shrimp.
The saddest thing about the contest was that it reminded me of what a vanishing breed regional American cuisine has become. Even in the parts of the country where local cooking is supposed to prosper, one has to know pretty much where to go. You can drive for hours across Texas without finding a really great place for chili or Texas-style barbecue. All you’ll see are miles and miles of standard-issue fast-food stands, which can exist just as well in Minnesota as in Texas.
Here in California, aside from Old California/Mexican cooking, American cuisine is best represented by some wonderful old places which serve an amalgam of the foods brought West by the settlers of the past 200 years — and by a new breed of born-again Americana. There are touches of the Great Plains, Midwest, South and East — all blending into some of the best chow found on any plates, anywhere.
Indeed, prior to the last decade or so, the way things worked food-wise were pretty simple. The rich indulged their culinary taste however they wanted, living a fine life of pheasant and grouse, river salmon and trout, wines of distinction and desserts of decadence. The rest of us ate pretty much whatever we could get our hands on. For not just the lower classes, but the middle class as well, dinner was the stewpot, the mulligan, the goulash, the ragout, the salmagundi.
For many years, Americans only ate three vegetables — and two of them were cabbage. Voltaire’s famous observation that the English have 42 religions, but only two sauces, could easily be transferred to America. As a nation, we did not eat well. As French philosopher Constantin-François de Chassebœuf observed at about that time, “I will venture to say that if a prize were proposed for the scheme of a regimen most calculated to injure the stomach, the teeth and the health in general, no better could be invented than that of the Americans.”
And then, food became big business in these United States.
The seemingly ubiquitous John Harvey Kellogg (whose namesake company feeds us lots of the foods he warned against!) offered dire warnings of the dangers of eating meat, of not chewing your food often enough, of eating too much sugar, and of failing to endure a minimum of a colonic a day (and far more if the system was out of whack). He was against sex as well, feeling that it would sap the body of its vital fluids and purity of essence. Naturally, the fact that he raged against the culinary pleasures of the flesh made untold thousands who heard his lectures hungry for a taste of beef, pork, lamb and chicken.
What we were warned against was what we most wanted.
Luckily, Americans are a perverse breed. Rather than lining up for colonics, we obsessed on TV dinners, M&Ms, marshmallows, Spam, Tang and Coffee-Mate. Luckily, we evolved to fondue, microwave ovens, granola, crock pots, electric can openers — and eventually pasta machines, Caesar salad, tamale pie, Julia Child and the Food Network.
These days, we eat more different things than all the things eaten in all of recorded history — never before has there been the variety found in a single suburban supermarket. In the annals of food, there’s never been anything like the 21st century. It makes me hungry for what’s next — at places both new wave…and classic. A tasty order of meatloaf is always a good thing. And it travels home very well.
16063 Sherman Way, Van Nuys; 818-781-0830, www.beepsdiner.com
Unlike faux nostalgia restaurants like Johnny Rockets, Café ’50s and Ed Debevic’s, Beeps is the real deal — genuine nostalgia, hard-earned and honestly won, with a history that goes back to its opening in 1956.
The place doesn’t play at being old school, with car hops on roller skates. Rather, the staff is hard-working, committed, peppered with lifers who don’t think, “What would Elvis like for dinner?” Instead, they flip the burgers, mix the malts, shake the shakes, and crisp the fries. And like the food of the period, there’s nothing artisanal about what’s served at Beeps, where we’re exhorted to “Beep up your day.” This is a true classic, with a menu that’s evolved over the years, adding on a whole new world of burgers and dogs, sandwiches and subs.
But there’s nothing on the menu that feels all that new. Unless I’ve missed it, nothing says “gluten-free.” It’s also a menu that can make you crazy with the number of choices. The food that comes out of the kitchen is good, but mostly functional. Which is to say, the basic burger is what you’d expect — a fair sized quarter-pounder, topped with lettuce, tomato onion, mayo, pickle and thousand island dressing, on a puffy sesame bun. It goes just fine with a squirt of ketchup and mustard. It ain’t gourmet — not even close. It’s the sort of burger most of us grew up with — no surprises, nothing but expectations lived up to. Like I said, functional.
The choice of burgers is large, if not exactly encyclopedic. The basic quarter pounder grows with the addition of cheese, and then becomes a half pounder, and as a half pound cheeseburger (with two quarter-pound patties) it turns into the Big Beeper. Chili is added, as is bacon and barbecue sauce. There’s a pastrami burger too, along with an avocado burger and a jalapeño burger. The menu tells us a wheat bun is available on request. Though the grilled onions are more desirable.
The choices seem to multiply logarithmically — seven sandwiches, a bunch of melts, 14 subs, including the “World Famous Steak and Cheese Sub.” And of course, there are shakes and malts, floats and freezes, smoothies and frappes, sundaes and a banana split. And a cherry Coke — which to me, defined the era, so much more than raspberry iced tea.
4806 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood; 818-856-8532, blackbottomkitchen.com
Black Bottom brings back warm and cozy memories of great soul food restaurants of the past — like Homer & Edy’s and Aunt Kizzy’s Back Pork (which carries on these days as Dulan’s Soul Food). The sort of places you went when you needed the solace of smoked brisket and chicken, shrimp and grits, and some fine cornbread and hoecakes. All of which you’ll find at Black Bottom, with its commanding sign over the small parking lot that reads: “Welcome to NoHo…J’eet Yet?” The answer is…no. But soon. And the sooner, the better.
The joy of Black Bottom for me is the smoked brisket, which is tender and ever so smoky, a bit of art made of meat, served in a sandwich, on either a Sally Lunn bun (rich with the flavor of yeast), or ciabatta bread, with sweet potato fries, the bun topped with mesclun salad, tomato, butter pickles, banana peppers, red onions and chipotle aioli. There’s a pulled chicken sandwich too, with vinegary “not yo’ mama’s slaw.” A shrimp po’boy, with more of that chipotle aioli. A smoked chicken wrap and a grilled cheese and turkey sandwich, with pimento cheese spread.
Which brings us to one of the most iconic of Southern ingredients. Traditionally, pimento spread is made with cheddar, cream cheese, mayo, garlic powder, cayenne, onion powder jalapeños and pimentos. It’s ubiquitous south of the Mason-Dixon Line. And pretty much unknown to the north. Like sweet tea, it’s a Southern dish you have to grow up with to appreciate. But with a bit of work, you can still find a love for the stuff — even if it could stop your heart in mid-bite.
The combination meals are called “Old School Meat & Three.” This is truly classic Southern service — smoked brisket, smoked chicken (referred to as “smoked yardbird”) and pulled chicken, served with three of the 11 tasty side dishes: mac and cheese (made with sharp cheddar, white cheddar and asiago, so revisionist!), Cajun dirty rice (a wonder and a joy!), hush puppies, tempuraed okra and more.
The collard greens are made with baby kale — so California! And so good! And as ever, soul travels real well.
Claudine Kitchen & Bakeshop
16350 Ventura Blvd., Encino; 818-616-3838, www.claudinela.com
Claudine Kitchen & Bakeshop is a wonderland of temptations — a warm, cozy realm of freshly baked chow and cleverly curated comfort foods. The menu isn’t long; it all fits quite neatly on a single page. But that doesn’t make choosing from the menu any easier. And anyway, all those wonderful baked goods, emerging from an open kitchen that’s the centerpiece of the restaurant, are unlisted on the menu. The menu would easily swell to twice its size, maybe more, if they were all listed.
Though this is largely healthy food, heavy on salads, there could still be a sign over the entranceway that reads, “Abandon your diets, all ye who enter here.” Instead, the word that overlays pretty much everywhere is, “Artisan.” An oft-abused word, which in this case isn’t an exaggeration.
And what is one to say about Briana’s Brisket Grilled Cheese, a sandwich that’s as good as a sandwich can legally, or morally, be. Whoever Briana is, she’s a woman of great vision, and much taste, who understands that there are certain culinary bells and whistles that make us mad with hunger.
Consider the house brisket, which is a thing of great joy, as flavorful as any grandmother’s, and perhaps even more tender. Onions long and slow braised in stout, giving them a sweet bitterness. Roasted mushrooms, cheese, teriyaki sauce — and russet potatoes on the side, the sandwich on artisanal bread that may be baked in-house.
And if you need more brisket, it also comes with a mac and cheese — pasta, three cheeses, garlic breadcrumbs for crunch, and of all things a jalapeño relish (perhaps a bit of gilding of the lily, perhaps not).
The choice of hot plates is finite, probably because Claudine feels more like a lunch spot than a place to go for dinner; the casualness of having to order at the counter, suggests lunch more than dinner to me at least. But there is an oven roasted salmon, a roasted Mary’s half chicken, a flat iron steak, all served with a choice of sauces and sides — the hearth roasted veggies are very good.
3321 W. Burbank Blvd., Burbank; 818-566-9725, www.coralcafe.com
There are five pages of breakfast dishes, as well there should be, for this is, first and foremost, a destination for a proper breakfast, like mama used to make. Much of the breakfast dishes are, as the menu notes, “Served all day!” — though there are exceptions. For one, we’re cautioned that oatmeal is “served from 12 a.m. till 11 a.m.”
Darn! No oatmeal for lunch or dinner!
Breakfast obsessives will have to make due with French toast, waffles, crepes, blintzes, pancakes, breakfast sandwiches, “huevos del Coral,” “farm fresh” egg dishes, “fluffy” omelettes, “gourmet” omelettes, “Coral Favorites,” “Slimliners” or “Kids Breakfast.” Sacrifices, I suppose, are called for.
I guess you could order anything else on the menu for breakfast as well. Including any of the 27 salads, the 56 sandwiches & wraps, and the 25 burgers — among many other dishes. There’s a section of nine pizzas, and six wieners — “From the Coral Dog House.” There are 14 dishes listed under “Toast.” That there’s just half a page of desserts comes as a shock — the 26 desserts listed seem meager by comparison.
Head for the entrees, and along with your pot roast, your ground beef steak, your chicken fried steak, or your roast half chicken (among many others), you get soup or a salad, and a choice of a roll, cornbread, sourdough or garlic bread. And…a choice of three potato dishes, or a choice or three rice dishes. Your plate will arrive full. The servers must have muscles like a young Schwarzenegger from hefting these platters all day.
The food is a taste of another era. This is American comfort food, that will take you back to your youth, to the dishes that we loved much back then — and love still. This is where you go when there’s a need for liver & onions, or perhaps fried clam strips.
Of course the menu has changed over the years — there would have been no Buffalo chicken sandwich back in 1957 because there were no Buffalo chicken wings. The barbecue chicken pizza would have been a mystery dish back then. But still…Coral Café feels like a slice of how the Valley used to be. I miss the orange trees that must have perfumed the air.
Galpin Ford, 15505 Roscoe Blvd., North Hills; 818-351-5027, www.galpin.com/horselesscarriage
Horseless Carriage opened in 1966 as the “first in-dealership restaurant” in America — which is to say, it’s attached at the hip to the sprawling Galpin Ford facility. Get a burger, buy a car…makes sense to me.
But what’s funny, and no doubt unexpected back in 1966, was the notion that Horseless Carriage would take on a life of its own, as a destination for locals, just off the Roscoe exit of the 405. Though there are certainly car buyers eating there, most of the crowd looks like families who opted for some tasty, down-home American cooking, served in a setting that looks as if it’s still (more or less) 1966. This is retro dining, and very enjoyable retro dining at that.
Breakfast, which is served all day, runs to pancakes, waffles, French toast and egg dishes, and more egg dishes — from the ubiquitous two eggs any style served with a choice of proteins, with toast or an English muffin, and with fried spuds topped with sour cream and scallions, through half a dozen three egg omelettes, one made with buffalo chili, another with a spicy Louisiana sausage. You can mix and match, and build your own omelette as well.
This is the sort of deeply American eatery where a pair of poached eggs over spinach topped with melted cheese is listed under “healthy side.” I guess the spinach does it. (Bagels, cream cheese wand lox are listed under “Gourmet Breakfasts.” Lobster and eggs, yes; bagels and lox, not so much.)
I drive a hybrid — which is why I opted for the hybrid meal of as half sandwich with soup or salad. The soup was a very tasty bowl of chicken and vegetable. And for the half sandwich, I went with a textbook tuna salad on whole wheat toast — though the deviled egg sandwich and the BLT were darned tempting. There’s corned beef and pastrami too, along with turkey, beef, ham and cheese.
And yes, I always wonder what becomes of the other half a sandwich; maybe saved for later?
There’s a tempting section of club sandwiches; the triple decker club, Californian-style, sounds so tempting. (The California-style probably refers to the avocado.)
There are Galpinburgers as well, as recognizable as the Fords parked for display in front of the restaurant — including a Hawaiian burger made Hawaiian with a slice of grilled pineapple (so old school!), and a somewhat, slightly, almost modernist buffalo burger. (“25 to 30 percent fewer calories than beef, and less cholesterol than chicken or fish,” they say.)
And for desert…strawberry shortcake, hot fudge sundae, Jell-O with whipped cream, tapioca pudding and more. The wine list consists of “glass of wine.” Truly, 1966 lives at Galpin.
14115 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks; 818-781-3040, www.natsearlybite.com
Nat’s isn’t so much a restaurant, as it is a way of life. Those of us who have been around for a while can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a Nat’s on Burbank Boulevard — like Art’s Deli, it seems as if it was there before the Valley was the Valley.
Though Nat’s is open for both breakfast and lunch, and the lunch section of the menu is actually twice the size of the breakfast section, I mostly think of Nat’s as a breakfast joint. This is, after all, Nat’s “Early Bite,” not Nat’s “Lunch Spot.” And those early bites are a pleasure, awash with the sort of classic dishes that make the presence of several eggs Benedict variations (on a separate breakfast insert), come as a bit of shock. Though the Benedicts are done Nat’s style — there’s a corned beef hash Benedict, a turkey sausage Benedict, a California Benedict with avocado.
The original Canadian bacon Benedict is found on the regular menu. I guess the newbies are separated so as not to mess with the regular menu’s relentless classicism.
Newbies run to a mix-and-match chilaquiles option, where you choose a salsa, and a meat, to go with the fried corn tortillas scrambled with eggs and onions. I think of chilaquiles as the Mexican equivalent of Jewish matzoh brie — which is also on the menu, made with matzoh instead of tortillas, and available for a little extra with salami and onions — as much a dish from the old country as the chilaquiles.
Mostly, this is where you go for fresh-baked cinnamon rolls and muffins; for a pair of eggs cooked any style (over easy for me, thank you); for bacon, sausage, ham, beef patties or turkey bacon; and for a terrific choice of ultra crispy home fries, hash browns, Tater Tots or grits — yup, grits, just like down south. And not expected at all.
Along with the mix-and-match chilaquiles, you can also design your own omelette, out of 36 different ingredients — chorizo and feta cheese? Why not! And like I said, there’s plenty of lunch to be found here — dishes as old school as anything served for breakfast. Including a choice of five different club sandwiches — Nat’s Favorite is tuna salad, sliced eggs, bacon and tomato with mayo on toast. Fantastic!
Sandwiches dominate — French dip, Philly cheesesteak, a bacon and egg sandwich, a trio of Reubens, a tuna melt supreme. There’s comfort in so many of the dishes — an easy journey back to the way things used to be. I can understand being addicted to Nat’s. It satisfied the stomach, and it satisfies the soul.
3000 W. Olive Ave., Burbank; 818-962-2500, www.simmzys.com
Simmzy’s is the creation of Mike and Chris Simms, who haven’t gone nuts in terms of their many options. There’s the Simmzy’s Burger, a pile of Angus beef, smoked onions (nice touch!), lettuce, tomato, cheddar and a nice garlicky aioli. You can dress the burger up with applewood smoked bacon, avocado, and roast shiitake mushrooms flavored with balsamic vinegar — which the mushrooms absorb like a sponge.
There’s an alternative burger topped with candied bacon and blue cheese as well, along with “frizzled shallots.” You know there’s gotta be a Big Deal Chef at work here; no cook would ever think of using “frizzled shallots.”
There are no turkey burgers, no veggie burgers. Which is good, for snoot that I am, I don’t consider those to be “burgers.” For me, they’re sandwiches in the shape of burgers. And speaking of sandwiches, there are a bunch, including a “spice & vinegar” pulled pork panini topped with more of those tasty smoked onions; a chicken, bacon and avo hoagie; and a “Not Your Mama’s” tuna sandwich, made with ahi tuna poached in olive oil – an ingredient as foreign to my mother as undercooked vegetables.
Beyond that, the menu is functional but fun. There’s an order of chicken wings that are more Asian than Buffalonian, served with a bleu cheese dressing I found myself scooping up with a spoon, and eating like pudding. (I’ve got a bleu cheese thang. I can’t get enough of the stuff. It will probably be the doom of me.)
There’s a thick, honest chili (the menu calls it “Awesome Chili”; but then, the menu is fond of descriptives) that’s made of beef and pork (thank goodness no turkey!), along with amber ale, cheddar, sour cream and a sprinkling of Fritos. The Fritos stay crunchy long enough to consume them.
There’s a chubby bratwurst called (what else?) The Brat, served with a sweetish mustard, roasted red peppers and, natch, those smoked onions. And if you’re in the mood for something serious, there’s a grilled top sirloin with a shiitake mushroom cream sauce and fries. I don’t know that Simmzy’s is where I’d go for a steak. But if you need one, it’s there. Interestingly, the Fritos (served in a bag) also appear as a side.
It’s a curious mixed bag that includes an order of spinach, some market greens, shoestring fries with some aioli sauce for dipping — and another bleu cheese concoction, called a Blue Cheese Haystack (fries jumbled with garlic and bleu cheese). So indulgent. And so good.
13824 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; 818-788-2832, www.sweetbutterkitchen.com
The selections are many — and so many are so good. There are 22 sandwiches and wraps, 11 salads and five small plates. And breakfast is served all day long, which adds another 24 dishes to the mix. Much temptation there. Though as far as I can tell, everyone is a partisan — or at least, the many regulars all are.
Emma’s Avocado Toast is called for, simply because, well, it is. In a city drowning in avocado toast, Emma’s version is a real standout — perfectly ripe, mashed avo, atop crunchy rustic millstone bread, flavored with lemon juice, Monini olive oil, fleur de sel and crushed red peppers. It’s served as a breakfast dish, a lunch dish and an (early) dinner dish. And it’s big enough to serve as your meal. Though I prefer to share it with a friend, preferably a good eater, who’s ready for something more to share afterwards. That way, I can segue from the toast to, perhaps, the justly Famous Mac and Cheese, which like the avo toast is a defining prep — chunky and rich and nowhere near a diet dish.
The cheeses are many, the panko bread crumbs give the dish a pleasant crunch. I don’t suggest ordering it with the Hot Cheesy Artichoke Dip, which is also an exercise in an excess of cheeses; eaten together, you might want to go home and fall onto your fainting couch for the rest of the day.
A lot lighter, and a lot more SoCal Lifestyle, is the Chinese Chicken Salad, listed on the menu with “the” in all caps. I am grateful that it’s not cluttered with canned Mandarin orange slices, which give me the heebie-jeebies — a fruit version of marshmallows. It’s a clean, tasty chicken salad — pulled chicken, both Napa and red cabbage, carrots, scallions, peanuts and fried wonton chips with a “cream Asian dressing” that was a bit of an indulgence, and irresistible as well. I don’t know if it’s “THE” Chinese chicken salad. But it is a good one.
So is the Goddess Salad, more for me because of the crumbles of Laura Chenel’s excellent goat cheese, than because of the Green Goddess Dressing — though it is a pleasure to see it on a modern-day menu. The kale chopped salad, made with a choice of salami or grilled chicken, I about as good a dish as you can make with kale, whose 15 minutes has to be up. Not up is the life span of the macaron, which I figure will, like the doughnut (and not the cronut) be around forever. Do save room for a bunch.
4557 Sherman Oaks Ave., Sherman Oaks; 818-784-1163, www.valleyinnrestaurantandbar.com
Valley Inn Restaurant and Bar dates back to 1947. Let that sink in for a moment. The Ventura Freeway didn’t open till 1960. Thirteen years before there was a Ventura Freeway, the Valley Inn was serving its Signature Entrée “Best Country Fried Chicken” and “Oven Roasted Chicken.”
In 1947, the stars of Hollywood went to the Valley Inn from their ranches in Encino, Tarzana and Woodland Hills. And according to a friend in her 90s, in 1947 you would drive to Mulholland, look north into the Valley, and see nothing but miles and miles of orange groves.
I have friends who have been going to the Valley Inn since they were knee-high. They speak reverently of the baby back ribs and chicken Milanese. One friend swears they make the best sand dabs he’s ever eaten, anywhere, at the Valley Inn. Another regular, who’s gone there since Pluto was a pup, can’t remember ordering anything but the grilled salmon, served with cucumber dill sauce, with rice pilaf and steamed veggies — broccoli and the like — on the side. A proper meal…from back in the day.
No artisanal bread here. No butter churned in the kitchen. This is food our grandparents would recognize with ease. The salmon is grilled very nicely, a nice big chunk cooked just to the point of doneness — not overcooked, and not undercooked either.
Is the fried chicken indeed the best? There’s a lot of competition these days. But it’s definitely in the upper regions — though I like my chicken even crispier than it was served. But then, I think crispy rules. (The menu notes the chicken takes 35 to 40 minutes. A reminder that everything isn’t sitting in the kitchen, cooked hours ago and waiting to be microwaved.)
There are some newer dishes — the sesame-peppercorn crusted ahi tuna would have been a mystery back in 1947, served with a soy-wasabi sauce and sushi rice. And both the 3-Grain Veggie Burger and the Kobe Beef Burger didn’t come along till the freeway was deep into its dotage. But plenty of the menu takes us back — chicken piccata, chicken Romano, roast duckling with dark cherry sauce. And sautéed calf’s liver, the bane of so many of our lives when we were young, retaining that sense of strangeness, softened with sautéed onions and applewood bacon.
There are plenty of steaks and chops, the garlic-cheese bread is a classic, Brussels sprouts chips are as strange as they sound. There’s a meatloaf sandwich for lunch, and a Monte Cristo too. A battered, deep-fried sandwich — that’s a dish to take you back. And to remind you that our current obsession with healthy eating, isn’t the only way to eat.
More delicious choices
- Commonwealth: 222 S. Glenoaks Blvd., Burbank; 818-845-2225, www.restaurantcw.com
- Fat Sal’s: 16901 Ventura Blvd., Encino; 855-682-4373, www.fatsalsdeli.com
- Mel’s Drive-In: 14846 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; 818-990-0648, www.melsdrive-in.com
- Mister O’s: 11838 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; 818-358-3839, www.misterosla.com
- The Smoke House: 4420 Lakeside Drive, Burbank; 818-845-3731, www.smokehouse1946.com
- The Stand: 17000 Ventura Blvd., Encino; 818-788-2700, www.thestand.com
- Stanley’s: 4336 Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks; 818-453-8025, www.stanleysshermanoaks.com
- Urbane Café: 9020 Reseda Blvd., Northridge; 818-812-9036, www.urbanecafe.com
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.