Friday, February 25, 2011


Burger building is a work of art
Around the same time that the cupcake trend started to heat up in Los Angeles, a savory, meatier trend was also popping up -- the BURGER. Now, you may say that burgers have always been popular! Dad grills them every summer Saturday! My girlfriend George Foreman's them right in the kitchen! Heck, even Grandma loves to get a juicy one from her favorite drive-through! But the burgers we're talking about here kids are a rather chic take on old-school goodness, while still keeping that beloved old-school goodness intact. Whether it's grinding their own meat, using grass-fed, hormone-free beef, or creating the most unique flavors you'll ever find between the world's softest hamburger buns -- I present to you my favorites. The unforgettable, the tasty, and the oh-so-filling.

1) Umami Burger - what was once a small burger joint on La Brea touting "fine dining fast food" has now become a mini-burger empire with four locations and a fifth on the way. It's Japanese name means "fifth taste" -- a term used to describe the fifth flavor experience we have on our palates that isn't quite pinpointed as sweet, salty, sour, or bitter. It's this unique flavor experience that owner Adam Fleischman, without a doubt, knows how to tap into. With house-ground beef, perfect golden buns and an array of exciting toppings such as truffle glaze, slow-roasted tomatoes, port-caramelized onions and pimento aioli -- these burgers live up to their reputation. Personal favorites: Umami Signature Burger, Truffle Burger, Earth Burger (whether you're a vegetarian or not it's incredible!) 

A nice window seat view
2) The Golden State - located across from Canter's on Fairfax, this always busy exposed brick cafe meets sports bar serves up a tasty seasonal beer-on-tap menu as well as a mean burger. While their menu offers a variety of sandwiches and a delicious bratwurst, it's their meaty goodness, called The Burger, that can compete with the big boys. Made with Harris Ranch beef, glazed applewood-smoked bacon, arugula, cheddar, and homemade ailoi, this burger will make your taste buds happy. Dip some of their fries into their Curry Ketchup and you'll call this your second home.

Saigon with fresh cilantro and sea salt fries
3) Kalbi Burger - situated in a shopping plaza on Wilshire at Wilton in Koreatown, this burger joint may look no frills but one bite of their juicy large patties infused with Asian flavors and you realize that amazing food doesn't always need a glossy exterior or a hefty price tag. Which is impressive considering that for $5.95 you get a Certified 100% Angus Beef hormone-free burger with fresh, sustainable ingredients. What's even more exciting is their array of toppings from pickled carrots & radish to kimchi. Personal Favorite: Saigon Burger  

Looks like I'm gonna need that knife
4) 8 oz. Burger Bar - located on Melrose, this burger bar led by Chef Govind Armstrong (Top Chef Masters!!!) & Chef Jacob Wildman serves up local ingredients, house-cured bacon, and they even make their own dill pickles! All their burgers are cooked over a wood-burning grill, giving just the right amount of smoky flavor to their meats. Personal favorites: Estancia Grass-Fed Burger, Turkey Burger with sauteed mustard greens

5) The Counter - this build-your-own burger restaurant is NOT your typical Fuddruckers.  A hip little chain that can be found across the country (but mainly in California) allows you to roll up your sleeves and construct your burger from scratch. You can choose your burger size, whether you'd like beef, turkey, chicken, or veggie, add from over 50 toppings, and even select the type of bun. My Personal Favorite: Turkey Burger w/ Herb Goat Cheese, Organic Mixed Greens, Sprouts, Caramelized Onions, and Apricot Chutney on a Multigrain Bun

Friday, February 18, 2011


 The purple majesty
Got the post-Valentine's day sweet tooth blues? Well, there ain't nothing better to cure an empty box of chocolates than one of those moist little cakes topped with creamy, icy goodness. Now, I know the cupcake trend may have already hit its peak, but I can't help but say....I still love these little babies. So I decided to taste hundreds of cupcakes (twist my arm) and added thousands of calories to my diet (I might need to start pilates) so that I could give you my Top 5. I mean, if you're going to partake, why not bite into some of the very best. There may even be some surprises on this list.

1) The Manila Machine - Wait. A food truck? I'm picking my favorite cupcake from a food truck? And the answer is YES. While the pork belly adobo is mighty tasty from this Filipino restaurant on wheels, it's their UBE CUPCAKE that is a game changer. This purple yam cupcake topped with coconut butter cream frosting and a little toasted coconut for texture, is in one word -- phenomenal. Trying to get it is tough -- there's limited quantity and their location is constantly changing. But when you do have it in your grasp, hold on to it! It might just be the holy grail of cupcakes. 

Every time I see this sign I have to pull in
2) Frosted Cupcakery - Oh the DOZENS of cupcakes I've eaten at this charming little corner shop on Highland in Hollywood (there's also a location in Long Beach). Always amazingly fresh, their cupcakes score high in flavor and variety. And their unique "cupcakes of the month" are never a let down (I mean, Cornbread Bacon Cupcake!!). Personal favorites: Lemon w/ Cream Cheese and Chocolate w/ Coconut Buttercream. Their holiday Egg Nog Cupcake also rocks! 

3) Vanilla Bake Shop - This pretty little bakery in Santa Monica serves up some of the best "cupcake babies" in town. At 3 minis for $5 you get the opportunity to break up your sugary experience and try the rotating variety of flavors that changes daily. Personal favorites: Sweet Pumpkin with Dusted Graham Cracker and Meyer Lemon Raspberry

4) SusieCakes Bakery - While this homey little bakery in Brentwood is mainly known for their yummy cakes, they should definitely get props for their signature "frosting-filled cupcakes". Oh yes, they are delicious. Personal favorites: Chocolate Mint and Peanut Butter

5) Sprinkles - Oh come on. Did you really think I'd forget the mother of all cupcake bakeries? The one that started it ALL? Never! I can remember standing in a line that stretched down Little Santa Monica Blvd. waiting to try the "most talked about" 'cupcake experience. And I enjoyed every minute of it. I still do. Cause the lines are still long and the cupcakes are still tasty. Personal favorites: Ginger Lemon and Pumpkin

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Glow of the A-Frame
I've been dying to try A-Frame. Ever since it opened in November 2010 there's been some serious hype. And how could there not be? First off, it's a hip, new restaurant converted from an old IHOP building. You know the one. With the pointy triangular roof. Just thinking of it brought back memories of being in high school. Waiting, after a keg party on a Friday night, in the small town parking lot of that triangle-shaped IHOP for a bag of free fries from the kid my cousin was dating who worked there part-time. Oh, those were the days. And to think I'd be paying a visit to one of these retro structures in Los Angeles for a culinary experience by Chef Roy Choi. Yes. Here's where the second reason for the hype comes in. For those of you who don't know Roy Choi, here's a little Chef Choi 101. He was born in Seoul but was raised in Los Angeles. You know that food truck craze going on in LA? Well, he's the guy who really got that going. His KOGI TRUCK is a mobile landmark around these parts, serving up Korean BBQ Tacos. And they are pretty terrific. In 2010, Choi was named Best New Chef by Food and Wine Magazine and also in the spring opened his first restaurant, CHEGO, where they serve up what he calls "peasant food from the soul." In the fall, he opened A-Frame with David Reiss. I'd say Chef Choi had a pretty good 2010, wouldn't you?

So, of course I couldn't wait any longer. I decided to head to the Culver City-based A-Frame on a Saturday night around 7pm. The parking lot was packed. Luckily my dining companion and I found street parking fairly easily. We knew there would be some sort of a wait because they DO NOT take reservations. But I figured that the hype had settled a little. As I pulled open the door, there stood a wall of people, cocktails in hand, all looking Hollywood hipster gorgeous in the beautiful orange haze of light that filled the room. At that moment, I realized that my three month wait to try this place was going to take just a little longer. The smiling hostess quickly jotted down my name and told me that I might want to get a drink, "It's going to be at least an hour."  But it was ok. I was going to stick it out. The sweet mix of tunes and hopping bar scene was enough to make that hour fly by -- plus, I was starting to feel like even I looked pretty good in this dim light. Time for a drink. As recommended by the bartender, I ordered the Downtown 81 -- a tasty concoction of Rye, Benedictine, Apple, Lemon, and All Spice. A stiff little drink but certainly tasty. My dining companion opted for the Fine Print -- Aged Rum, Hibiscus, Falernum, Lime, and Orange Bitters. That, I must say, was spectacular. 

Once strangers, now friends, enjoying dinner
I was lucky to find a small corner in the waiting area to  stand and enjoy my cocktail. I grabbed the reasonably priced menu and began to pick out everything I wanted to try. I then noticed a message on the menu from the Chef. His intention was to create a place that not only reminded him of his youth, but also a place that was social, where you could eat and share. A type of modern picnic, reimagined. I could see where he was going with that. As I mentioned, the structure itself had already brought back a fond memory. Perhaps tonight was a time to rekindle more. 

We were about a half-hour into the wait when I began talking to the two girls sitting next to me. This was their first time here as well. One of them asked, "Did you know that when they seat you, you'll be paired with other people?" Oh, I responded. "You mean like a communal table?" "Sort of, but not really." Hmmm. What did she mean by that? Would my dining companion and I be separated by Yenta Roy Choi who would try to play matchmaker? Was the reimagined picnic, really reimagined speed-dating? I looked at my watch. 45 minutes in. Time for another drink. 
As I turned with my cocktail in hand, in walked Chef Roy Choi. His cool charisma made the room stop. Seriously. We all watched him checking in with the hostess station and then the kitchen and then back again. I think he could tell we'd been waiting a while based on the pile of empty cocktail glasses behind me and my newfound friends. He said hello and then kept on moving. I leaned back to my waiting companions, "so, will I at least be sitting with the person I came with?" The girls weren't sure. I took another sip. This adventure was certainly about to get more interesting.

Homey plates serve fries w/ kimchi sour cream
Over an hour in and the place was still packed. Choi passed us again. " guys are still waiting?" We smiled and nodded. We were ok, but he seemed concerned. "Hang on, I'll get you some snacks." The four of us looked at each other. Was Roy Choi worried about us? Did this Le Bernardin alum want to make sure WE were happy, even though there were hundreds of happy mouths he already fed? And within minutes.....three platters came rushing out of the kitchen -- 5-Grain Pan De Sal, Heirloom Pickles, and Hoison-chili glazed Ribs. We couldn't believe it. With all the accolades behind this innovative chef, I didn't realize "really nice guy" was on that list. We had already invested an hour and a half of wait time (with who knows how much longer to go) and he cared. He wanted us to begin the "modern picnic" while we waited. And so, my dining companion and I got to start this social dining experiment NOW...eating with our waiting companions, the people we didn't know an hour ago but would now become our friends even if just for this moment. 

I pulled some of the warm crusty 5-Grain bread and dipped it into the tastiest Plugra butter with sea salt. It was comforting. Next, I eyed the heirloom pickle plate. A very large array of pickled vegetables -- onions, carrots, etc. that were extremely flavorful, especially when dipped into the creamy tahini-like dip. A great finger-food starter and fun to share. Definitely the kind of dish you can't stop eating. Next was the Baby Back Ribs. The chili glaze added a nice little kick to these tasty ribs sprinkled with sesame. I longed for a bit more meat on the bone but the taste was enough to make me literally lick my fingers. Hey, it's a picnic right? At this point I realized that I stopped looking at my watch. I stopped updating Facebook. I stopped worrying about anything. I was just standing around in a crowded space, eating with my hands with a couple of strangers. And I was enjoying every moment of it.

A dessert big enough to share
Before we knew it, it was time. My dining companion and I were seated at a four top. The waitress told us that two other diners would be joining us. Social experiment Part 2... here we come. But I was excited for it. And so were the two diners who joined us. They too were new to the A-Frame experience and within a few minutes we dived into ordering food and learning about each other. Over tender Peruvian-style Beer Can Chicken and delicious purple Okinawan Sweet Potato Fries w/ Kimchi Sour Cream we not only enjoyed every bite of our food but also our conversation. By the end of our meal, we opted for two desserts -- the Pound-Cake Churros (to die for!) and the Thick-Ass Ice Cream Sandwich (Cinnamon Ice Cream Stuffed between Two Cherry Oatmeal Cookies). We felt like old friends. Even giving up the last bites to each other. In a time where we talk on the phone less and email more, keep things for ourselves and perhaps forget to share, Roy Choi has created a dining experience that may sound like a gimmick at first glance. But his concept and intentions are truly authentic. Within these trendy walls, is good old-fashioned heart -- not only in the memories a visit to his restaurant may conjure up but also the memories you will undoubtedly create while you dine with your newfound friends.

I wonder what they had for dinner

Note: When we received our bill, each party was given an old photograph. Not a quirky, savvy postcard advertising the name of the restaurant on the back. Nope. Just this one-of-a-kind photo. Probably taken in the 70's. Might be someone's parent or brother or sister or uncle or aunt. An unknown location. No explanation. Just a fond last impression of two more people that intersected my life at the A-Frame. 


Friday, February 11, 2011


Today is the debut of Spiky's 5 For Friday! (Applause!) As promised, each week I'll be featuring my Top 5 -- from the sauciest pizzas to the moistest cupcakes to the heartiest sandwiches. For this Friday's list, I chose the beverage that holds most dear to my heart. Whether you call it Java or Joe or Frothy Delight, it's the caffeinated necessity that most of us find we can't live without. So why not drink the best that's out there. 

1) Cafe de Leche - located in Highland Park this sweet corner coffee shop with hip decor and ample seating serves up Stumptown Coffee both in their espresso and drip coffee.  
Drink to get: Iced Organic Agave Latte 

2) Coffee Commissary - located on Fairfax just north of Melrose, this sweet little place, featuring Victrola Roasters, is tucked into a brand-new loft space. While it caters to those that rent the space, it has quickly become popular for writers, as well as those on the go.
Drink to get: Cubano con Leche or a hand-poured brew

3) Intelligentsia - located in a number of cities from New York to Chicago to right here in Los Angeles (notable venues - Silverlake & Venice) their high quality brew originates from their own roasted beans. They always serve up "in season" beans to maintain their vibrant flavor. 
Drink to get: Vanilla Latte or just a shot of their Black Cat Espresso

4) Bricks and Scones - located on Larchmont just north of the busy strip, this quiet, cozy coffee shop serves up the beloved Intelligentsia bean without the "20 minute wait" that most Intelligentsia venues require due to their popularity.  
Drink to get: Double Shot Latte (and don't forget a warm fresh blueberry scone to accompany it. It's a MUST here.)

5) Ruisseau - also known as The Coffee Guys, this small coffee cart can be found tucked deep into the gates of Park Labrea or parked on various television and film sets catering to crews. The owner, Edward Ackah-Miezah, serves up fair-trade coffee from various roasters and his coffee is as consistent as his outgoing personality. Also, his punch card program gives you a free coffee after every ten you purchase. 
Drink to get: Iced Single Shot Soy Latte

Runner up: Spring for Coffee - Downtown LA

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Ready. Set. Go. Three blocks of food trucks ahead!
Don't have time to stand in lunch rush lines just to fight over the last truffle fries with a top exec who needs his food truck fix? Find yourself pulling up to a food truck just as it's pulling away, and then realize that in order to not miss dinner AGAIN you must stare at Twitter hoping to catch the next spontaneous location tweet? Well...while the scavenger hunting of food trucks was fun for a while....the idea of food truck rallies is genius. And the trendy fashionistas on Melrose have decided to bring the block party every first Thursday of the month so you can get all your food truckin' goodness in one place. 

I didn't mean to eat seven courses. It was absolutely NOT my intention. But a funny thing happens when you start walking down a street lined with mobile kitchens representing a variety of countries and intersperse various comfort food along the way. These whirling, delicious aromas are going to draw you in. You won't be able to stop yourself. When I arrived on Melrose just as the trucks opened for business,  I vowed that this wouldn't happen to me. I'd hit a couple of trucks and I'd be gone. And first up was the DIM SUM TRUCK. 
The window to Pork Bun heaven

I was craving Pork Buns. I took the recommendation of the staff and tried the baked, as opposed to steamed. For the reasonable price of $4, I was given two good-sized pork buns, soft and sweet on the outside, tender and hearty on the inside. A very tasty way to start and equally tasty complimentary sesame ball (a little promotion for Melrose Thursdays) that left me wanting more. 
Baked Pork Buns
Duck Taco & Steamed Pork Buns
And so...more I had. Steamed pork buns, a Peking duck taco and well, a couple more sesame balls. How could food this good be coming from a truck? It was fresh, delicious and again...affordable. For about $10 bucks I had already eaten enough food to send me home. But oh wait! Is that the Buttermilk Truck up ahead??

A grin that says, "You can eat 6 more pancakes. I know you can"

Why hello Buttermilk Truck. It's been a while. The last time we rendezvoused was right here on Melrose last year. You had that cute grin. I ate french toast sticks, pancake bites and then you teased me with those Hawaiian sliders. And then for weeks I couldn't get you out of my mind. I tried to hunt you down but you were spending all your time in Santa Monica and El Segundo. Forgetting all about that sweet night we had together. At last, we are reunited. And I'll have some chicken and waffles.

Chicken & Waffles
I'm not sure what the secret ingredient is in their batter that gives such a flavorful crispy coating to the chicken but its this miracle batter that also keeps the boneless chicken tenders staying juicy. Add these with a house-made cinnamon waffle and you've got my stomach growling while I type this. I know people in this town swear by certain LA "chicken and waffle" houses but this dish from that smiling Buttermilk kid serves up some mean competition. Did I mention that it's only $7? 

Nothing priced over $5!!
I had just travelled from China to American Comfort Food in a matter of 20 minutes and was about to end my night when I saw, just 15 feet ahead of me, a truck that, since it made it's appearance on The Great Food Truck Race,  has been hard to keep on my radar. The Nom Nom Truck. A clever business venture by two female UCLA business students who wanted to take Vietnamese mainstream. And I hear the Banh Mi is the thing to get. How can I pass this up?
Pork Banh Mi

Ok, I didn't know that the Banh Mi was going to be as large as their pick-up window. But, if eating with eyes is this good, I can't even imagine what it's going to be like to bite into this baby. If you are wondering what the heck a Banh Mi sandwich is, here's a little Banh Mi 101 while I chew: You take a baguette with a nice crusty outside, stuff it with fresh cilantro, sweet and tangy marinated carrots and daikon radish, add your BBQ pork (or if you prefer, lemongrass chicken), thinly sliced cucumbers, jalapenos (if you like kick) and mayo. The amount of time it took you to read that, it took me to wolf down this massive size sandwich. It was sweet, salty, spicy, pickled and tasty. It was the kind of thing you could carry around with you and gnaw on all day. I don't remember the last time I only spent $5 for a sandwich, nevermind one this amazing. I patted my stomach. Even though I felt like I had a Banh Mi baby inside me, I smiled. I heart Nom Nom. I can now leave this food truck rally completely satisfied. SNIFF SNIFF. No, I can't. SNIFF SNIFF. Is that? It couldn't be. SNIFF SNIFF SNIFF. India? Is that you on the corner of Melrose & Stanley? Ugh...maybe just one samosa.

A little masala on Melrose
Sweet Potato Dosa
Coconut Bananas
And there she was -- the Dosa Truck. I attempted to avoid the menu. "I'll just have one samosa." But the sweet woman in the order window looked at me like she knew there was no way I could only eat ONE SAMOSA with the smell of those dosas cooking up. "Oh...well....maybe also a Sita'sSita's Special, a sweet potato dosa (crepe) with masala sauce. It too was extremely flavorful and a nice palate pleaser after the "heat" of the fiery appetizer. While I couldn't wait to dig into my coconut banana dessert, once I did, I found it not to be as enjoyable as the other items. I love coconut and I love bananas. But the dish lacked a little flavor and its milky nature kept the texture flat. It didn't matter though. I had flavor pops all over my taste buds and if I had ANY room left I would have ordered the Masala Fries. I mean, COME ON PEOPLE! MASALA FRIES! Again, pure genius. 

As I stepped away from the truck, I eyed the destruction I had left in my path. All the trucks I had stopped at. All the food I had eaten. It really must have been divine intervention that kept me from not leaving Melrose in a stretcher. Of course, not from inedible food but from some of the most delicious kitchens riding the streets of LA everyday. I waved goodbye to the tasty block that treated me so well and pulled out my keys. I felt a tap on my shoulder, "Would you like to try a sesame ball?" I stared at the perfect golden ball of goodness in front of me, "Oh, ok...maybe just one."