Wednesday, November 30, 2011

El Cholo

It was always two different places, I see that now, it's just that it took me nine years to realize it.

I'll start from the beginning.

Just short of a decade ago I moved in with two of my best friends from high school. It was a house in Mid-Wilshire Los Angeles owned by the grandmother of one of my friends, almost 4,000 square feet and sitting on a large amount of land. (I won't say what we paid in rent because I've learned over the years that it only makes people mad.) We were in our early 20s and we turned the house into a playground: besides the pool and basketball court there was a big screen TV, pool table, foosball table and dart board. There was an abandoned speedboat in the side yard and we cut out the engine, tore it apart and reassembled it next to the pool as a boat bar. We turned one of the extra bedrooms into a "whiskey room" with a dozen types of whiskey and an equal number of video game systems.

My friend Troy lived a few miles away and referred to it as "the ultimate adult playground." My friend Taylor was going to UCLA Law School at the time and came over frequently, often in the afternoon to beat traffic with a book and an announcement that "I have to study for an hour before I can have any fun." It never worked out that way and he simply took to calling the house the "the black hole of productivity."

And just a few blocks away was El Cholo. I'm not sure how many meals I had at the restaurant over the course of the year that I lived in the area, probably two dozen, but even harder to estimate would be the number of nights I had a few beers in the bar. The Lakers were in the middle of their three-peat season and I watched many games there, washing down the chips and salsa with ice cold cans of Tecate. There were other bars and clubs I went to in Los Angeles from time to time, but none I liked as much as the bar at El Cholo.

Once we showed up just as they were closing but they let us in because "You guys come here all the time." During the epic Lakers-Kings Game 7 in 2002 I sprained my ankle playing basketball at halftime. (I played organized basketball from the ages of 5 to 17 and suffered all manner of injury: dislocated shoulders, sprained knee, I broke 8 of my 10 fingers and even got knocked out once, but never once in all those years did I suffer the most common basketball injury of all, a sprained ankle. Yet I did it while playing pickup ball in my driveway during halftime of that game when I was 23. Full disclosure: I had been drinking. A lot.) We went to El Cholo afterwards to celebrate the victory and my ankle swelled up to the point where I could not walk. Zach carried me halfway home on his back.

I certainly liked the restaurant, and maybe even at the time I said I loved it, but that was just the beginning of my culinary adventures. I had only been to one or two taco trucks. I had never been to La Cabanita nor El Taquito Mexicano. I was much more familiar with Skip Bayless than Rick Bayless. When I moved back to Pasadena at the beginning of 2003, I never returned to the original El Cholo down on Western. I went to the Pasadena location several times and, though it was usually fun, I found the food stunningly bland. By the time I discovered the tacos at La Estrella and the mole at La Cabanita, El Cholo was long gone from my mind.

But the other night I picked Elizabeth up from work and we had three hours to kill before we met her parents at the airport. I considered a couple of options closer to Studio City or LAX, but we were both very hungry. I suggested we try El Cholo and she quickly agreed.

I parked around the corner - like the old Pasadena location, there is something infuriating about being forced to valet park here - and walked up to and inside the original El Cholo, Elizabeth's first time and my first time in nine years.

Not much appeared to have changed - I stole a glance at the bar area, smiled and walked away like you might to an ex at a college reunion - and we were shown to a small booth in a side room. The menu was instantly familiar. The waitress was upon us less than ten seconds after we were seated and asked if we were ready to order. ("Not just yet," I replied.)

I looked over the menu; it was all familiar. The #1 combination (cheese enchilada and beef taco) and the "1923" (Sonora-style enchilada) is what my friends usually ordered, but my routine was almost always one of two things: a platter of shrimp fajitas or a Caesar salad and a quesadilla with chicken. I decided to go with the latter this time around.

We placed our order and the waitress returned one minute later and asked us to repeat it in total. (It was cute more than annoying; she was an older woman and English was obviously not her first language.)

The chips were good, hot and salty, but the salsa was very disappointing, a watery mess that is the exact kind of salsa I usually avoid. There was always a habanero salsa that I used to request, and part of me considered doing it again, but I did not. It was spicy, and I knew I would be tempted to order multiple beers to wash it down, something quite pleasant when I lived four blocks away but impossible when I was going to be driving to LAX after dinner. (The other option would be to eat the salsa and possibly sweat profusely, something that sounded equally unappealing.)

This was the "side" portion of the Caesar salad, larger than I remember it being, although I certainly ate much more back then than I do now. In my memory the dressing was delicious: creamy and peppery. But on this night, almost all of the dressing was simply oily. I plowed right ahead though, as I was quite hungry. When there was about one-quarter of the salad left, I came across a pocket of dressing that was exactly as I remember it. And those few bites were delicious. I wish the whole salad had been covered with it. 
Elizabeth had the chicken chimichangas. These were fantastic. They were very hot and crispy and filled with juicy, tender chicken. My experience with chimichangas is not vast, but these were perhaps the best I have ever had. She gladly gave me one, and there were several bites of another left when she was done.

(At another meal later in the week when I was finished with my food but still craving another bite or two and Elizabeth gave me some of her food, her dad said "Isn't it great dining with Elizabeth? I remember when her mom was Liz's size and I always got some of her food." The comment came off as funny and sweet, much more so than it looks in print.)

I ordered a quesadilla, but for the first time in my life I requested it with pork rather than chicken. It was fine. I wish I could be more effusive than that, but it was simply average. The tortillas were grilled perfectly and there was a generous portion of meat, but it was on the dry side and could have used more cheese to balance it. The sauce that accompanies the quesadilla was quite tasty, by far tastier than the quesadilla itself. 

When we were done, there was this pile looking up at me: beans, tomato, guacamole. Easily my three least favorite foods in the world.

Every meal at El Cholo ends with praline cookies, served with the bill. Elizabeth doesn't like them. I think they're pretty good. 

Overall, I left El Cholo feeling that the meal was just... average. Maybe I'm judging it too harshly, because this was the place where once upon a time I had some of the most fun nights of my life, but other than Elizabeth's chimichangas, there was nothing about this meal that was memorable in the slightest bit. In my mind I thought that the original El Cholo was superior to the Pasadena location, but after returning to the Los Angeles location after many years away, there was no discernible difference.

I guess it's a rare thing when a place that once meant so much to you can continue to capture that magic. Philippe's, Hutch's, Yujean Kang's... that might be the list for me. There are other places that have come and gone and I've mentioned them often: La Fornaretta, Kuala Lumpur, and the king of them all, King Arthur's Pizza. Maybe the fact that I still have three places left is more than I have any right to expect.

So I doubt I'll ever go to El Cholo again. And that's okay. Sometimes places don't change but people do.

But I will always think of the place fondly. When I was 23 and the Lakers were great and had arguably the two best players in the NBA, when I watched them win their 8th championship of my lifetime before I turned 24, when the Angels were in the middle of the championship season that I had waited my whole life to see and no Dodgers fans in the El Cholo bar ever gave me shit for wearing my Angels hat, something the bar had in common with exactly zero other bars I frequented, when I could drink a half-dozen beers over the course of a game and walk home to shoot pool with some of my best friends and have more beers at the gunnel of a boat that we had spent weeks turning into a bar, when an hour of basketball could burn off three baskets of chips and a cheese quesadilla, the bar at El Cholo was probably my favorite place in all of Los Angeles.

The restaurant itself was always a different place, and I realize that now.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Philippe The Original

The first time I took Elizabeth to Philippe's, almost four years ago, one of her first reactions was: "My dad would love this place." So there was no question we were going to be doing that at some point over the week they were in town. On Friday we all drove out to the Westside - Santa Monica Pier to be exact - and then cruised back to downtown on Wilshire. I suggested we go by Philippe's for lunch. It was in the afternoon and I figured we might have beat some of the crowds.

In all of my visits to Philippe's, it was the most crowded I've ever seen it.

We stood in line for quite a while. Elizabeth and Kathy went to find us a table (we had to sit upstairs; my first time ever) while Rick and I waited. I told him how my mom has been coming here her whole life and how my dad used to come here with his dad, an L.A. County Sheriff's Deputy who sometimes worked at the nearby Hall of Justice. I pointed out that Dodger Stadium was just up the hill and that on game days the lines are just as long. We chatted with a man and his son in line ahead of us. We inched forward every few minutes.

"I promise you," I said, "the wait is worth it."

"Hey," he said, "I've been around the block a few times. When there are this many people in a joint at two o'clock in the afternoon, it's because it's good. And I don't mind this kind of communal wait, it's all part of the experience."

4 sandwiches (beef for Rick and Kathy; turkey for Elizabeth and me), three iced teas, one Diet Coke, three cole slaws, one potato salad, and, even though I told Rick we did not need it, a pickle. Total cost: 35 dollars. That's a good price if you merely like your meal. But it turned out that all four of us loved it.

This is the only picture of the beef sandwich I took, as I was busy devouring my own sandwich.

My beloved turkey sandwich, double-dipped. Man, I love this thing, and if I had to eat it as is, I would not have one complaint. But I don't have to eat it as is.

Because every table has a squeeze bottle of Philippe's ridiculously-hot-but-oh-so-delicious mustard.

Each bite of the turkey and mustard combo is good, but every few bites you hit a piece of the mustard that is particularly spicy and immediately clears out your sinuses.

I don't think I've ever had the potato salad before, but Rick enjoyed it.

The reason I've never tried the potato salad, though, is that I always get the cole slaw. It's runny and it's mostly mayonnaise-based, which are both things I don't normally like in a slaw... but I love this one. I can't explain it. Perhaps it's because the cabbage is always so fresh. And, sprinkled with several shakes of pepper, I like it even more.

The pickle, however, was kind of soggy and, though I took a bite of it, it did not go anywhere near my sandwich. Rick held it up and I took a photo. "Is a picture of my pickle going on the internet.... again?" he asked. (He makes hot daughters, not funny jokes.)

Elizabeth and I loved our meal, just like we always do at Philippe The Original. And our East Coast guests? They loved it as well.

"This is the second-best French dip I have ever had," Rick said. "And I've had a lot of them. What a great lunch."

Sunday, November 27, 2011