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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
Having never been inclined toward ivory tablecloths and soft focus candle lighting, I subscribe to the philosophy that a good restaurant is, simply, one capable of churning out palatable food. While Michelin is unlikely to take notice of this modest establishment in Boyle Heights, on the taste front, at least, Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita #1 satisfies.
On your way in, you’ll have to skirt by a squat metal shelf housing a tower of plastic cups, a collection of silverware, and a coffee machine. Other curiosities line the walls (whose blaring orange hue can come off strong), including a lone cash register squatting on a glass case full of Mexican sweets, homemade paper signage mandating things like “Debit Credit $1,” and multiple toy dispensers (how often are they patronized, one wonders?). On the overhead TV screens, Spanish-language soap operas unfold with campy flair.
But that’s not what you’re here for. Focus on food instead. Specifically, I’d like to draw your attention to the taco de cecina, starring, well, cecina: a thinly sliced cured beef. The taco comes mutant proportioned, its mountainous form splayed impressively across the plate. Start by peeling back the curtain of grilled cactus, then brush aside strings of Oaxacan cheese,nudge over the onion bulblet, and finally, clear away the heaps of potatoes, black beans, and pliant green onion strewn artfully across the whole splendid piece. Your excavatory efforts will be rewarded when you hit the base: an endless field of cecina–salted and dried, gently curled at the edges–blanketing a thick swathe of tortilla.
To a roving eye, the taco de cecina may seem unfashioned and graceless, not unlike the eclectic jumble of the restaurant space. What force determined the placement of each tangle of cheese, each cut of avocado and strand of green onion? Whether the chef’s neurotic hand or gravity is to thank, the payoff is the same. And besides, ultimately, you are the master of your own fate. Tear, pair, and spear to your own tastes. You might even witness the unveiling of a scandalous affair while you’re at it.
Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita #1
3010 E 1st St
Los Angeles, CA 90063
In every life, there comes a moment when you must make a choice. Recently, this moment came for me. I couldn’t waffle, I couldn’t equivocate—I had to declare…my favorite carnitas. Luckily, I had a team, a Taco Task Force if you will, to help me navigate the meaty jungles of this town and cut through the pork.
The Taco Task Force’s previous missions have included finding the best fish taco, potato taco and birria in town. I was lucky enough to be drafted for the most recent TTF to crown the best carnitas. The tasters for this outing included founder Bill Esparza (Street Gourmet LA), Josh Lurie (Food GPS), Matthew Kang (Mattatouille), Zach Brooks (Midtown Lunch), Dave Lieberman (OC Weekly) and his wife Linnea.
A word about carnitas: I learned that most carnitas you find in LA are boiled and then fried in lard. This is cheating and the reason why carnitas often have a hard (sometimes to the point of petrification) and stringy texture. It’s definitely the reason why I’ve never been a big fan—in their usual state, they’re almost oppressive. Ideally, they should be slow cooked in their own juices in a cazo (copper or stainless steel pot).
The scoring: To make the comparison as fair as possible, we ordered a taco surtido, a mix of various pig parts, at each location. Each taco was judged on Grade of Key Ingredient, Condiment/Tortilla, Overall Flavor and Cooking to determine a final score. Catagories were scored with a 1 to 5 scale, 5 being the best.
The contenders: Some of carnitas destinations were chosen by popularity and buzz, but there were also some less established places here that specialize in carnitas.
With the Breed Street food vendors now dispersed, you really have to drive around Boyle Heights to find the best stuff. My tactic is to search out the stands with a bit of a crowd, the thinking being that most people won’t stand in line for bad food.
That’s not a foolproof theory, but it proved accurate when I spotted Balbina on a recent Friday night. On a corner, just off E. First St (email me for exact location), Balbina serves up a a full menu–which includes flautas,pambazos, huaraches, sopes and quesadillas, to a steady stream of regulars and newbies like me. The promise of thick, hearty tortillas handmade on the spot are a big part of the allure.
Last time I went to the LA Street Food Fest, I didn’t even get in. This time, it was more organized, and I actually ate some food. The lines were pretty long, but spirits were high on the Rose Bowl field, and I was able to try some great stuff.
Here’s the rundown:
First up was Boyle Heights’ Antojitos Carmen, formerly a popular Breed St. vendor and now a brick and mortar presence on Cesar Chavez Ave (map it). Well worth the wait, they were serving up potato tacos and enchiladas. The tacos dorados, filled with a mixture of potatoes and cheese, were the highlight. I couldn’t help but flood the plate with the delicious salsas.
Downtown Dogs’ hotdogs remind me of Chronis‘ on Whittier Blvd. Maybe it’s the snap that happens when you take a bite. Whatever it is, it’s a good dog, and tater tots are always an easy sell. I wanted to try the Dogzilla stand as well since their doing their version of Japa Dogs, but the line was excruciating.