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The overhaul of Echo Park Lake was a seemingly endless one, but now that it’s finally up and running, I find myself strolling its picturesque path often. The long walk brings a combination of sights, including neighborhood joggers (of varying fitness levels), dogs galore, picnickers, and lots of bench-sitting old men just enjoying the day—the scene is downright European.
Of course, for me, one of the best perks of these new digs is the Echo Park Lake Cafe, situated in the lake’s boathouse. Operated by Square One Dining, which serves up a killer brunch at their Fountain Avenue location, the little eatery offers a succinct menu of breakfast and lunch options. The seating is all outdoors and comfortable enough to make you want to linger.
The prices are fair ($3-7), especially considering the much of the produce and some of the meat is organic. A well-assembled veggie sandwich with sprouts, radish, cheddar and avocado is served on hearty 5-grain bread with smatterings of grainy mustard and aioli. While it doesn’t quit live up to its perfect counterpart at The Trails, it’s still a keeper. The burger comes on an English muffin, so it’s small, but it’s also grass-fed, and tasty when you add on Gruyere cheese and a pile of sweet potato fries. Also promising are the Kale Salad, Potato Taquitos, and Chorizo Chili Dog.
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
Echo Park’s Allumette, in the former Alston Yacht Club space, had been on my list for a while, so I was excited when I was invited to try it out. I’d heard some complaints, mostly about portion sizes, but I rarely encountered any kvetching about preparation and flavor. I suppose that’s because both are meticulously spot on. Each and every dish at Allumette is conceived and served with careful deliberation and a boatload of ambition—I can’t imagine that head chef Miles Thompson ever sleeps. It’s true that the portions are small (it’s billed as a tasting menu) but if you can get past that, you’re in for an artful, and wildly unique, food experience.
The menu at Allumette is divided into five sections that go from light to more substantial. Close to the top is a must-have Fried Oyster served with a creamy kimchi dressing and diced Asian pear for brightness. You should not attempt to share this small and savory treat—order your own. You can share the Ankimo, which manages to be both delicate and rich. Its base is a very smooth round of monkfish liver that sits in ponzu sauce and is topped with sea grapes. The pretty little flowers are a nice visual touch.
The seafood theme, quite prevalent at Allumette, continued with the Poached Octopus. Beluga lentils made this dish hearty while the fried egg added a certain sultriness. “But grapefruit?” you ask. Yes, it’s true. You wouldn’t expect tart citrus to work with this, but it really lifted the combination and kept it from becoming too heady.
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.
Drunk, ravenous and too late for anything else. For years, all three conditions had to be met for me to brave The Brite Spot. But, it’s a new day, and the classic Echo Park diner recently received a makeover by owner and habitual restaurant revamper Dana Hollister (she’s also behind renovations at Villain’s Tavern, 4100 Bar and Cliff’s Edge). The update brings new outside seating, a slightly more sparkly interior, fresher ingredients and an updated menu.
Breakfast is how I like to judge diners, so we decided to try out the new Brite Spot on a busy weekday morning. Chicken & Waffles, Brussels & Bacon Hash (yes, brussel sprouts) topped with poached eggs, and The Hangover, a scramble Chicken Andoullie sausage, potatoes and habanero pesto, all intrigued. However, we took one for the team and ordered the A Burger for Breakfast special—a turkey patty, hash browns, bacon, and fried eggs all crammed between a maple-aioli-smeared brioche bun. It was as tasty as it was ridiculous.
There’s really not much I can say about Guisados that every other blogger, restaurant reviewer, or food enthusiast in Los Angeles hasn’t already said. It’s popular, to say the least, and now there are two locations: the original in Boyle Heights and a new one in Echo Park. However, if in fact you haven’t heard, here’s the story: this family restaurant turns out glorious tacos on thick, handmade tortillas filled with meats or vegetables that hold beautiful, complex flavors.
The chickens tinga and mole are particularly good, and veggies and non-veggies alike will appreciate that even the calabasitas (a mix of squash and corn) aren’t an afterthought. Note that the cochinita pibil is ordered according to a 1-10 spicy barometer, with even the lower end capable of setting your mouth on fire, so don’t get smart. There’s always the 6 mini taco sampler if you can’t decide—it’s chef’s choice, and he’s usually right.
Lastly, don’t miss out on the drinks. I like the cantaloupe agua fresca, which is cool, refreshing and not overly sweet. Horchata lovers won’t be disappointed, and neither will jamaica enthusiasts.
I was recently invited to a Dodgers food blogger event. It started with a tour of the Dodger offices, the press box, luxury suites, and members-only restaurants, plus a pre-game field walk on. We got to meet self-proclaimed rightfielder foodie Andre Ethier, and there were Nancy Bea and Fernando Valenzuela sightings to boot.
The whole experience came to a crescendo with an Extreme Loaded Dog tasting. If you don’t know, these are grilled Dodger Dogs “loaded” up with an “extreme” combination of components. Case in point: the Tailgate Dog (seen above), topped with beans, barbecue sauce, potato salad and cheese. Surprisingly, this potluck-in-a-bun works quite well and is easily the best of the bunch. In truth, there’s something to be said for many of these dogs—you just have to surrender your decency and commit.
If you’re ready to do that, then let me introduce you to the The Frito Pie Dog. It’s outrageous, but hey, my inner pig couldn’t deny a chili cheese dog covered in Fritos. By comparison, it was way more plausible than its sister, the Big Kid Dog, also sprinkled with chips but unsuccessful with its base of somewhat chalky mac and cheese.
I’m glad I live in a city where the mention of “vegan brunch” actually brings to mind more than a few delicious possibilities. Echo Park and Silver Lake, alone, have more full-on vegan restaurants (that are actually good) than most states in this country. It’s pretty exciting that, once sneered and rolled eyes at, vegetarian food’s hard-core sibling is becoming a cuisine like any other in L.A.
One of the best vegan menus in town, doing tons to make the cuisine more accessible, is at Sage Organic Vegan Bistro. Open for a little over a year—replacing their not-so-successful predecessor Mooi—Sage has evolved into a comfort food haven of non-meaty goodness. Think: bacon chili cheese burgers, eggplant parmesan, clam chowder, and bowls stuffed with everything from kale and quinoa to fried macaroni and cheese.
I was invited to attend Taste of the Eastside, which I sadly had to miss last year. The whole shebang took place last Sunday at Barnsdall Park in Los Feliz. I got there right on time, so I was able to try everything relatively unmolested. Here are some of the things I tried. Those up there? Pavlovas with blackberry and lemon meyer preserves from Atwater Village’s Proof Bakery.
Here’s the rest:
Conchinita pibil taco from Yuca’s in Los Feliz. Very tender.
Buffalo-style cauliflower with vegan blue cheese from Mohawk Bend in Echo Park. I hardly missed the chicken.
Cinnamon rolls and red velvet cupcakes from Auntie Em’s in Eagle Rock.They were nice enough to turn over two rolls for me.
Here’s what I know about poutine:
- Traditionally it’s a dish comprised of fries, gravy and cheese curds.
- It hails from rural Quebec, but can now be found Canada-wide—they even sell it at McDonald’s.
- It was invented in the 1957 by restaurateur Fernand Lachance. He shook up a bag of cheese curds and fries, and violà, poutine was born.
- In the 50s,“poutine” was slang for “a mess,” which is exactly what Fernand said when he saw what was in the bag.
- Up until a few years ago, poutine was considered pretty low-brow in Quebec, served mostly in greasy spoons, but like a lot of other comfort foods, it’s made its way onto some fancy restaurant menus. You can even get it with foie gras for $23 at at famed Au Pied Cochon in Montreal.
I should also add that it’s freaking delicious, which is why I was—and I never use this word—stoked when I got an invite to try out The Poutine Truck, Debbie Lee’s (also of the Ahn Joo truck) newest food project. Even better was that this gravy fries extravaganza was to take place at Echo Park’s City Sip, where Four Brix wine would be paired with each poutine course.
The Poutine Truck offers traditional and more laissez-faire varieties of the dish. The abbreviated menu gives you the choice 3 gravies (brown onion beef gravy and chicken or veggie veloute) and 3 locally-sourced, organic cheese curd varieties (plain, garlic herb and firehouse), which are generously laid upon freshly cut and made-to-order Kennebec potato fries. You can also take your poutine to the limit by adding bacon, chicken or flatiron steak.