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Open since 1949, El Gallo Bakery is an East L.A. tradition. Mention the famed panaderia to anyone who grew up in the neighborhood, and you’re sure to hear one word over and over: “payaso.” If you’ve ever had a Payaso, you understand why, and if you haven’t, you need to learn stat. The perfect marriage between pan dulce and a doughnut, Payasos (“clown” in Spanish) are cheery pink-frosted buns that stand out—visually and flavor wise—even among the rows and rows of beautiful sweet breads and cookies that El Gallo puts out everyday.
The Payaso’s texture is pitch perfect. Made with egg dough, the baked bread has a dense, yet soft and moist, consistency similar to a concha or an elote. Overpowering sweetness is a hallmark of mediocre pan dulce in this writer’s opinion, but Payasos (and pretty much all of El Gallo’s offerings) don’t have that problem. The bun, itself, is subtle—it’s sweet, of course, but you taste eggy bread (think: challah bread if you’re not all that familiar with pan dulce) more than sugar. You also taste cinnamon, which is crushed not ground, so flecks of the spice punctuate each bite, making it an ideal match for a good cup of coffee.
Because sweetness doesn’t override the flavor of the bun, the contrast of the sugary frosting takes the Payaso into heavenly territory. While definitely reminiscent of a pink doughnut, its complexity and lightness make it much, much, much more satisfying. Plus, it’s so dang cute.
If you want to try one, go early because Payasos, which will set you back a mere 75 cents, are best when freshly baked and they go fast.
Photo Credit: the photo directly above is the work of Tom Chavez, the owner of TLC Realty and Investments Inc. and a very nice guy who let me borrow this beautiful photo from his Instagram.
El Gallo Bakery
4546 East Cesar E Chavez Ave.
Los Angeles, 90022
Galco’s Old World Grocery is one of York Boulevard’s oldest businesses, and its staying power isn’t a mystery. The Highland Park shop sell a million different types of soda—okay actually about 500—from all over the world, old-timey candies and even a nice selection of beer. Plus, a soundtrack of 1950s malt shop hits is always playing in the background. Now there’s yet another reason to go: they let you mix and bottle your own soda with their Soda Creation Station, a simple, but genius set up comprised of a soda fountain, flavored syrups and a bottling contraption.
Galco’s didn’t skimp on quality for this venture. Owner John Nese told me he deliberated a long time at every step, including choosing Monin syrups, a high-quality (for example, the vanilla is made with, you know, real vanilla) French brand that uses pure cane sugar to create well-balanced, authentic flavors. Eighty varieties, running the gamut from the traditional cola, cherry, and lemon to the more exotic pumpkin pie and chipotle-pineapple, are kept on hand. At least 8 pumps are suggested, which was a little too sweet for me, but for most people, it seems to do the trick.
Once the syrup is in check, finding the right carbonation level is key. Taking into consideration that some like their soda sharp while others perfer it a little more low key, the machine dispensed the spectrum of bubbles, light to heavy. I chose heavy carbonation and wasn’t disappointed. Even a week later, the bottles I took home were still nice and fizzy.
When all is poured and mixed, you get to cap your own bottle, which is a fun perk among fun perks. The antique metal bottler has a lever that you push down on, and voilà, you’ve bottled and capped your very own soda. My result was a very delicious dark-chocolate-cherry combo along with an imitation Fago Rock & Rye for my Midwestern husband. With all those flavors, I was tempted to experiment and make a bunch more, but as a soda fanatic, I couldn’t be trusted to have too many in the house. I can’t wait to have a party, though, so I can go down to Galco’s and bottle my own mixers.
Each bottle is $2.99 and well worth it.
Galco’s Old World Grocery
5702 York Boulevard
Los Angeles, 90042
I’m not really a ham and cheese kind of girl. I like a good turkey or veggie sandwich for everyday and maybe an Italian sub when I feel like going for it, but I barely give a passing glance to ham and cheese on a menu. The fact is they rarely impress, and ham usually has one flavor profile–salty.
There’s one variation that refuses to be ignored: Auntie Em’s Black Forest Ham And Mustard Seed Gouda. This sandwich is something special and (caution) crave inducing. Perhaps the most important thing is that it comes on delicious pretzel bread, which is thick but pleasingly pillowy. None of that hard stuff they try to pawn off at you at, say, Whole Foods. Secondly, the smokey ham is folded and stacked high above a couple of slices of creamy Gouda, which is flecked with mustard seeds, giving it a fantastic intensity that wakes up the whole combo. It’s definitely as crucial as the pretzel bread and should never be substituted for a simple cheddar or jack. Dijon mustard is spread on the top piece of bread, complementing that robustness of the cheese while a healthy schmear of mayo on the bottom slice keeps the flavors under control. Lettuce and tomato finish it off.
I’m not usually one to crown anything “the best,” but for my money, it really is the best ham and cheese sandwich I’ve ever had (not counting trips to France). Plus, it’s so hearty that you only need to get half, which opens you up to the full array of Auntie Em’s lovely seasonal side salads.
4616 Eagle Rock Blvd
Los Angeles, 90041
Christmas is next week, and if you’re sane, you’ll stay away from the mayhem of the malls and big box stores. Trust me, there’s nothing there that anyone wants anyway. The stuff people will really use can found in your local neighborhood markets, bakeries and gourmet shops—gifts of the food and drink variety are great last minute options, and you can be sure that they won’t sit around in someone’s closet or junk drawer. Plus, price doesn’t determine deliciousness as some of the best food gifts will run you less than $5.
Here are some great food gifts to buy on this side of town:
Sugar Cookies from Elsa’s Bakery
Elsa’s Bakery in Highland Park makes stellar sugar cookies, and they only cost 30 cents. I’m not lying! These cute little galetas are one of the bakery’s best-selling items, and owner Edmundo Rodriguez says they ship them all over the country to former neighborhood residents. The long-distance craving for these soft, buttery cookies with a hint of cinnamon makes perfect sense. Buy a dozen each for all your friends—you can afford it! 5102 York Boulevard
Morning Glory Artisan Brittle
Peanut brittle is one thing, but Thai curry peanut brittle is quite another. Morning Glory Confections makes a slew of wonderful artisan brittles with an experimental bent. The New Mexican Chili & Pumpkin Seed is spicy-sweet in the best way while the Chocolate Bourbon & Pecan brings on that warm southern charm. Boxes range from $5-$10. Buy online or at Auntie Em’s, Cheese Store of Silverlake, or Atwater Farmers’ Market this Sunday.
Growlers from Golden Road Brewing
Your beer-loving friend is easy to please. Just head over to Golden Road Brewing in Atwater Village and buy him or her a Growler. The jugs of beer come in two sizes: 64 oz or 32 oz at $12 and $7, respectively, for Golden Road’s regular varieties, including their very versatile Hefeweizen and the surprisingly accessible Point the Way IPA. Specialty beers will run you slightly more at $14 and $10. The best part is that the bottles are reusable, so the lucky person you gift this to can get a refill at a discounted price. Suddenly, you’re a hero. 5410 W San Fernando Road (Photo courtesy of Golden Road Brewery)
Chocolates and Petits Fours from Valerie Confections
Maybe your See’s Candy routine needs a shakeup. Enter: Valerie Confections. The unassuming storefront on First Street is easy to miss, but once you’re inside, you’ll be blown away by the bounty of beautiful sweets. The petits fours are made the traditional way with four layers of cake and three layers of filling—try the Rose Petal, vanilla bean cake and rose petal granache surrounded in white chocolate (I know, right?). A box of 4 is $18, and so worth it. If you want to go bigger, they have grander boxes, and if you want to go smaller, just give some chocolate bars. 3360 W First Street or at the new Echo Park location: 1665 Echo Park Avenue or buy online
Sugar Pretzels from La Mascota Bakery
La Mascota Bakery has been a Boyle Heights tradition for over 50 years. They sell really tasty pan dulce and tamales, but I’m all about the Sugar Pretzel. With its crispy texture covered in big flecks of sugar, it’s so simple, but so delicious. Each one costs 50 cents. You could get a stack of them, wrap them in some fancy cellophane, and make someone really happy. They also have these cute miniature versions of the essential panaderia pink and yellow cookies that wouldn’t make a bad gift either. 2715 Whittier Boulevard
Cathy Chaplin’s Food Lover’s Guide to Los Angeles
While not technically food, Cathy Chaplin’s Food Lover’s Guide to Los Angeles will afford you and your friends a 2014 full of great culinary experiences. The popular food blogger and writer for Los Angeles Times has compiled the ultimate reference book for LA foodies, including a full list of food festivals, specialty shops, farmer’s markets and restaurants. Organized by neighborhood, it covers old and new establishments plus recipes from local chefs. Available on Amazon, in bookstores, and at Good Girl Dinette in Highland Park.
Cheese from Say Cheese in Silver Lake
Cheese is not a bad gift. Just throw it into a basket with a box of crackers and a bottle of wine. Or don’t. A true cheese lover will be happy with a nice, fancy wedge without any fixings. Say Cheese in Silver Lake is a small space, stacked high with a wide variety of mostly Euro, and some domestic, cheeses. When it’s crowded, the service can be a tad unfriendly, so try to go earlier in the day and avoid after-work hours if you know what’s good for you. However, even if there’s a line of people tapping their feet behind you, don’t be afraid to ask questions and request samples. They’re pretty good about that at Say Cheese, and they’ll work with your budget. 2800 Hyperion Avenue
DIY Soda from Galco’s
If DIY gifts are your thing, make your way to Galco’s. The Highland Park pop purveyor now has a Soda Creation Station, which means you can make your own handmade sodas with over 80 traditional-to-exotic flavors that are begging to be mixed and matched. Plus—and this is big—you set your preferred carbonation strength! Each bottle is only $2.99, and the label lets you personalize every soda you make. Grab some old timey candy while your there and give your friends the sugar shock of their lives. 5702 York Boulevard (Photos by Martha Benedict)
Pickled Veggies, Jams and Granola from JamIam
One of my favorite food finds of the year is JamIam. From chutneys to granola, this Silver Lake-based company makes small batches of all my favorite things. Owner Carolyn Cooper has been canning since the ’70s, and she kills it with her Dilly Beans, pickled green beans that are so addictive you could eat the whole jar in a day, or maybe an hour. A jar of those, along with her Blueberry-Lime Jam and Cranberry Orange Sauce would make a good additions to any gourmet gift basket, though they can all stand alone provided you pop a festive bow on the lid. They’ll run you anywhere from $7-$10. Buy online or at the Atwater Farmers’ Market every Sunday.
Heirloom LA’s Lasagna Cupcakes
Give the gift of lasagna, in the cutest form possible. Heirloom LA‘s Lasagna Cupcakes are famous for a reason, and that reason is two fold: they’re delicious and you can eat the whole thing yourself. They come in a variety of flavors, including Confit Baby Artichoke, Heirloom Tomato & Basil, and Smoked Mac n’ Cheese, plus they freeze like champs. At $9 a pop, they’re a little pricey, but even just one is a nice, thoughtful gift. Buy them online or at Silver Lake Wine (Photo courtesty of Guzzle & Nosh)
Cookies from Proof Bakery Cookies from Proof Bakery
Proof Bakery might make the best chocolate chip cookie in the universe. No exaggeration. It’s sweet, rich, a little bit salty, and completely heaven sent. The Ginger Molasses isn’t bad either. Get a few of them for the most special people on your list, remembering that jerks do not deserve them. Each costs $1.75, and Proof is open on Christmas Eve, so go early for the best variety because those things sell out. 3156 Glendale Boulevard
Anything/Everything from Auntie Em’s Kitchen
Auntie Em’s Kitchen has an unbelievable marketplace. Every shelf of the small space is filled with jellies, jams, mustards, chocolates…you name it. There’s also a nice cheese selection, and of course, their famous cupcakes and cookies. You could do all your shopping here and call it a day. Highlights include flavored (think peppermint and chocolate) marshmallows from Little Flower Company, brittle from Morning Glory (see above), beans and spices from Rancho Gordo and a well-curated selection of cookbooks. 4616 Eagle Rock Boulevard
Monte 52 has been around for ten whole months, but I’m embarrassed to say that I barely found out about it in July—despite the fact that I drive by it almost daily. In my defense, it is tucked away inside La Tropicana Market, itself a Highland Park gem, where I’ve bought the occasional agua fresca but never ventured to the deli counter…until one fateful day. And that’s when I found it, the best sandwich shop in the neighborhood. Since then, I’ve been making up for lost time by making my way through their delicious, thoughtfully-conceived and well-crafted menu.
Brought to you by the folks behind Echo Park’s The Park, including chef Mitchell Jones who runs the counter, this deli is everything you want it to be. They serve salads, sandwiches, burgers, and soup, plus, rotisserie chicken and french fries. The meat and produce used are quality, portions are sizeable, and a lot of care is put into every order. Amazingly, the prices are still low, with almost everything on the menu costing about $6.
A closer look at the evolution of fried chicken could easily be a case study of our ever-changing, multicultural history. Originally a European cuisine reaching back to the medieval period, Scottish settlers brought their recipes for frying up cluckers across the Atlantic to the Americas. Once introduced to the United States, the dish became deeply embedded in Southern culture and cuisine, rising to national popularity with Colonel Sander’s Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Meanwhile, here in present day Los Angeles, fried chicken is going through a renaissance by way of Asian cuisine, with Japanese karaage (kah-rah-ge) and Korean chicken places popping up all over. Jumping on the bandwagon, or into the coop as the case may be, I stopped into Kyochon in Koreatown, long lauded by Jonathan Gold as the “Best Fried Chicken.” Kyochon does fried chicken five ways, freshly made to order in a fast-food style: Signature Soy Garlic & Hot & Sweet Wings, Grilled Wings, Honey Wings, Drumsticks and Sal Sal Chicken Strips.
My party of three ordered the 25-piece Sampler, which allowed us to try every style. A far as I could tell, they all tasted pretty much the same, with a tender, moist chicken base and flavorful finishes. The standout was the Hot Wings. Fans of fiery foods will thrill in the layering of sweet honey, soy and garlic, topped off with the spicy effect and after effect of the Korean chili paste, gojuchang. The chili left a warm, tingly feeling on my lips and throat, which I washed down with some bites of rice and crisp, refreshing daikon radish.
If you’re not familiar with my hard-hitting journalism, then you should know, I’m always on the veggie burger beat. No fan of processed patties, it’s my mission to find vegetable-and-grain-centric burgers that aren’t packed with soy and other filler. By my estimation, the best veggie burgers are treated like their beef counterparts with tasty buns, pickles, cheese and all the usual All-American fixings. I’m not diametrically opposed to sprouts and other “health” toppings, but yogurt in place of mayo and cucumbers in place of pickles (heaven, help us) is just plain condescension. An insult.
Thankfully, none of that nonsense is at play at Echo Park’s The Park. The neighborhood restaurant makes their patty in house, and it holds together nicely with a combination that includes quinoa, carrots and zucchini. The patty isn’t thick, but it’s tremendously well seasoned, so the flavor doesn’t get swamped by the charred bun. I added Gruyere to mine, which played well with the red onions and the from-scratch tomato soup I opted for instead of fries.
I’m still calling Four Cafe’s veggie burger as the best in Los Angeles, but The Park is formidable competition.
The Park, 400 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles
Summer heat gives you the right to indulge in ice cream at least every other day, right? You’re lucky, too, because there are so many great ice cream shops on this side of town, most of them making beautiful ice creams, gelato, and frozen yogurt on the premises. Here are three great beat-the-heat-icy-sweet saviors from an ice cream fanatic (me):
Tejuino Los Reyes: This Lincoln Heights ice cream shop is really just a storefront where people line up in droves for nieves—there’s no seating, minus a bus bench. You can choose from ten or so flavors of this Mexican-style ice cream, with either a leche or agua base. Milk-wise, the chocolate has a rich cocoa taste, a light, airy texture and the occasional chocolate chip while the pistachio is outrageously nutty. Mixing a milk-based flavor like creamy coconut with a water-based one such as tart lime or subtly sweet mango is a good move. The medium gets you four scoops in a big styrofoam cup. Tejuino Los Reyes 2707 N. Broadway.
Well, since we’re on the subject of delicious veggie burgers, I thought I’d share my latest find. You have to drive a bit for it (or take the Gold Line), but you won’t be sorry. The veggie burger at Heirloom Bakery in South Pasadena has been a reliable daily special all summer long, and I’m hoping it’s here to stay.
Eschewing the loathed processed veggie patty that so many restauranteurs try to pass off on innocent veggie burger lovers, this one is made with grains and, you know, actual vegetables. Much like Four Cafe’s beauty, this one is treated like a beef burger, draped in cheddar cheese and dressed with mayo, dill pickles, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, and sprouts. The bun is also lovingly grilled for a little bit of crispness.
This thing is hearty as heck.
I love potato tacos. A lot of people don’t, and I blame the overwhelming amount of bad potato tacos (soggy, bland, and uninspired) for misrepresenting the entire category. Perhaps my appreciation comes from the fact that I usually make mine at home, giving them an Indian twist with Chef Raghavan Iyer’s smoky yellow dal recipe. This way, I get to bypass most restaurant versions, though I am guilty of pigging out on the greasy bombs they serve over at El Acator #11 after a few drinks and under the cloak of night.
There is one potato taco that recently came onto my radar that actually gives its brethren a good name: the Mashed Curry Potatoes and Carrot Taco at Xoia Vietnamese Eats in Echo Park. This one gets it right for so many reasons. For one, the filling is flavorful thanks to the sweetness of the carrots and, of course, the savory curry, which really pops. The crunch factor is also spot on. The filling of a potato taco is unavoidably mushy, so a certain amount of crunch is necessary—the crispy tortilla and shreds of red cabbage are perfect for the task.
The finishing touches don’t miss, either. Vietnamese coriander, which is similar to cilantro, and a house-made sauce of Oaxacan crema, coconut milk and Sriracha add to the overall flavor. I think about these tacos a lot.
Not bad for $6.99.