LAWeekly — April 21, 2011
Change Language:
Eat & Drink
Jonathan Gold

Yoon Moves Beyond Burgers

It is a warm spring night, with a hint of the Santa Anas in the air, and the least likely place in Los Angeles to experience a pastoral groove is probably the outside seating area at Lukshon, in the alleyway behind the Helms Bakery complex, settled around a table, waiting for the wine dude to return with a freakishly obscure bottle of listan negra, which is a kind of high-acid Canary Islands beaujolais.

Yet it feels both buzzy and peaceful out here by the driveway, the music drony and ambient, the restored old bakery sign exploding into neon fireworks high overhead, the roar of the throngs at Father’s Office far away registering as a murmur. The neon laundry sign that once announced the restaurant Beacon flashes brilliant blue and fades.

The listan negra appears. It meshes surprisingly well with the spicy chicken pops, a labor-intensive reinterpretation of the buff alo wing glazed with sweet Indonesian soy sauce and Sichuan peppercorns. The evening feels like L.A.

Lukshon is the new restaurant from Sang Yoon, a chef who became famous for his idiosyncratic cheeseburgers at Father’s Office, where his no-ketchup, nohostess, no-kids policies became perhaps better known than his french fries or tapas plates. (The menu disclaimer “Changes and Modifications Politely Declined,” which has since spread to restaurants all over the country, started with Yoon.)

Yoon’s reputation in chef circles is robust, considering that up to now he has basically been running burger-centric beer bars. Lukshon is Yoon’s most completely realized concept, an edgy, grown-up restaurant serving an Asianized, farm-centered, technique-oriented small-plates menu, very much like Animal, Lazy Ox, A-Frame and Red Medicine, but with even more polish: a new sort of cuisine. While old-school chefs are knocking themselves out trying to duplicate complex Asian standards like Beijing duck and chile crab, Yoon is finding the beauty in redefining sticky Chinese pork ribs, Spanish mackerel sashimi, the Singapore Sling and the takeout-dive favorite shrimp toast, which he turns inside out by dredging delicate cylinders of chopped rock shrimp in tiny croutons, then deep-frying them to a delicate crunch.

If you were to look at many of the new heroes of cooking in America, guys like Yoon, Kogi’s Korean taco master Roy Choi and ramen-slinging David Chang of New York’s Momofuku, you would see Asianborn guys classically trained in European techniques, working in great American kitchens, who decided to redirect their imagination and project their vision of American cuisine through the lens of street food. Their dishes have a directness of flavor, and their high-low juxtapositions still have the ability to shock, even in a world where pandan leaf and kalamansi lime have become nearly as common as salt and pepper on fashionable American tables. If you ring a change on trout meunière, there are probably six old dudes and seven Frenchmen in Los Angeles who would notice the diff erence. Alter the taco, or the bowl of ramen, or the cheeseburger, and you’ve opened up the avant garde to everybody with a Yelp account.

Order Yoon’s foie gras ganache and you get smooth, cool cubes of pureed duck liver, dusted with powdered carob and sprinkled with nuggets of what resembles Rice Krispies Treats. You probably could sell them as fancy chocolates in a shop on Abbot Kinney, and I had a very similar preparation, frozen and stuff ed into profiteroles, as dessert in the Portland restaurant Le Pigeon.

I’ve never had anything quite like the dish of tiny bulbs of squid stuff ed with fermented ground pork, but I’ve stared at recipes for it in Vietnamese cookbooks. The sauce, a kind of pesto made with the pungent Vietnamese herb rau ram and Malaysian candlenuts, is from a fantasyland where Liguria meets Kuala Lumpur. You may know roti canai, a kind of oily, griddlebaked flatbread, from one of the Malaysian restaurants that serve it, but Sang Yoon’s version — crisp, small and layered with lamb sausage and a kind of deconstructed chutney — is more like a Malaysian pizza.

So when you order beef tartare at Lukshon, the lozenges of raw, chopped meat come out resembling the Isaan tartare called koi soi, a raw-beef salad seasoned with citrus, ground rice and herbs, although not, I suspect, with the requisite beef bile. That slivered Spanish mackerel with green papaya and coconut vinegar is a riff on a traditional Filipino ceviche, although not one that most Filipinos would recognize.

Authenticity is the least of Yoon’s fixations — I suspect he couldn’t care less that his thick, coconut-intensive version of the Chiang Mai–style noodle dish khao soi is much closer to a richer Malaysian laksa, or that his garlic pork belly, a stir-fry of braised chunks of fat meat with vegetables and chewy rice cakes, splits the diff erence between Sichuan twice-cooked pork and Korean tteokbokki. Do his fried cakes of coconut rice, with chile-shallot sambal, or “steak au poivre” rubbed with Sichuan peppercorns appear in any known cuisine? Probably not. But what matters is that they’re good.

LUKSHON | 3639 Helms Ave., Culver City | (310) 202-6808, lukshon.com | Dinner Mon.-Sat., 5:30–10:30 p.m. | AE, MC, V | Full bar | Lot parking | Small plates $11-$16, large plates $17-$36 | Recommended dishes: beef tartare, baby Monterey squid, skirt steak

Ask Mr. Gold

by Jonathan Gold

MATURITY AT MIDNIGHT

Dear Mr. Gold:

Last night I wanted to take my friend out for a nightcap in a spot with yummy food and an older crowd. Well, older than 20s — her prerequisite. We wouldn’t have arrived until midnight. We were in Hollywood and could have driven anywhere. We failed. What are some of your late-night spots?

—Eff Em Kay, via Facebook

Dear Eff Em Kay:

Late night is always a problem here, especially when a nightcap is involved. When seeking cocktails, Koreatown is no longer your oyster. When you take 20-something-intensive places like Animal, Son of a Gun, Wurstkuche, Pete’s, Red Medicine and the entire Cahuenga corridor out of the equation, it’s exponentially more difficult.

Los Angeles definitely needs a late-night brasserie, the equivalent of Balthazar or the Odeon, as we’ve all ended up at Canter’s, DuPar’s or Suehiro a few too many times. I tend to land at some combination of Thai Town — Sanamaluang? Ruen Pair? Krua Siri? — and the Varnish, which is not a sad way to end the night.

Still, at these times, it is always good to remember the Tar Pit, a dark, deco-themed restaurant built around the notion of civilized late suppers, where it is possible to slide into fried oysters, steak Diane or goat cheese with figs at practically any hour, and self-lubricate with a well-made jalapeño-laced tequila drink or a proper Moscow Mule. The crowd is nostalgic for nostalgia for the 1940s rather than for the 1940s themselves, but at midnight, that’s probably the way it should be.

THE TAR PIT | 609 N. La Brea Ave., Hlywd. | (323) 965-1300, tarpitbar.com

Q&A With Gilberto Cetina

CHICHEN ITZA, HIS NEW COOKBOOK, THE SCOVILLE SCALE + THE HAPPINESS OF CHOWHOUND GUYS

Anyone who loves cochinita pibil, the Yucatecan dish of pork roasted in banana leaves, knows the well-traveled route to Chichen Itza in the Mercado La Paloma near USC just south of downtown, which also houses Ricardo Zarate’s Mo-Chica. Chef-owner Gilberto Cetina’s small, informal restaurant specializes in the Mayan-influenced cuisine of the Yucatán, by turns bright and citrusy and breathtakingly hot — thanks in no small part to Cetina’s habanero sauce, which he makes and also sells on the premises.

A few years ago, Cetina had a second Chichen Itza, near MacArthur Park, the closing of which is still lamented by many. Since then, Cetina has been focused on his original restaurant, his sauces, his catering and an upcoming cookbook on traditional cuisine from the Yucatán.

We visited the chef recently for the details on all of the above, as well as his thoughts on the state of Mexican food in L.A. and whether he’d consider expanding again.

Find the full interview and a recipe at laweekly.com/squidink.

SQUID INK: When did you open Chichen Itza? This predated the second restaurant near MacArthur Park, right?

GILBERTO CETINA: Yes. We opened here first, in February 2001.

What else was down here, other than you, in the beginning?

There are two businesses from the original time that are still here. My neighbor and Chichen Itza. He opened a week later. Other places opened in the next weeks or months, but we are the only two restaurants that are original. I think there have been nine or 10 in 10 years. Now the mercado is a success, every business open now is almost guaranteed is going to stay. The beginning it wasn’t so. We’ve been open for 10 years. In 2006 we opened the other location in MacArthur Park. It was a big, big mistake. We could never make it work. We had to shut down in 2009.

Why do you think it didn’t work?

A few things, but the big issue was the economy. Because we opened and for almost 20 months we did well; according to our business plan, everything was going well. When the economic depression started, the sales started going down, going down, going down. And it looked like it was never going to stop going down, and then we started having problems here. We started using money from here to pay for that. One day I remember, it was a Friday, and my wife said, “Hey, we don’t have money for the payroll.” At that moment I decided to close down that place.

And that was in the beginning of the so-called economic “downturn.”

It was very, very hard. We started thinking about closing down maybe six months before we did it. I was, like, We have to fight, we have to make this work. We tried everything, we asked for help from the city, the county. But there was no way. I don’t have that kind of money. I think we did the right thing.

Well, you saved this place.

This place is going well, and we do catering. The hot sauce is mostly a hobby. I have seven items, seven food products: two sauces, the achiote paste, we have a black pepper rub for steak, horchata syrup, a homemade smoked chorizo and the black chile paste.

When did you start that?

I started with the bottled habanero sauce seven years ago. Then I added more. The first bottle took me about two or three years just working on the recipe. I left it on the shelf, it separates, two weeks, two months later ... finally I got it right. It was a big issue with me in 2006. I had two choices when we started a [second] restaurant: I start that restaurant, or I do something with the sauces. And we chose the restaurant, the wrong one.

What’s on the horizon? Would you open another restaurant?

I’m going to wait a couple more years. There are some businesses, like John [Sedlar of Rivera and Playa], like Lotería [Grill], like Frida, which are still opening in this economy. John just opened in another location — Playa. We all started at the same time: Frida, Lotería and Chichen Itza. When I opened the second location, Jimmy [Shaw of Lotería Grill] told me, “Hey, I’m going to open three or four more locations in the next few years.” All right. He did it. But I don’t know, for me, I don’t want to take a chance to do the same thing again. I’m going to wait. I’m 60 years old. Last week was my birthday. In two years, if things change a little bit, maybe I’ll take another chance. If not, I can retire. My son is here; he’s taking care of the business. He’s already now better than me.

He’s named Gilberto, too. Has he always cooked with you? Did you want him to follow in your footsteps?

Of course. Yes, he’s doing the TV demonstrations. We’ve been doing cooking demonstrations every Sunday on Channel 52 en español. When we started with the cooking segments on Telemundo, first I cooked myself, then I said to my son, “You do the next one.” And he did it, and the next week the producer asked for him. Ha.

Where are you from originally?

I was born in a small town on the east part of the Yucatán, very close to Cancún, and close to Chichen Itza. My town’s name is Tizimín. My mom owned a home restaurant — in Mexico, in your own house you can run a restaurant. We are six brothers and we help every single day. After school, you clean the beans, wash the beef tripe, stuff like that. Seven, 8 years old. That way I started cooking. Then, when I was 15, after middle school, I went to the capital, where we owned a house, and I lived there myself the first year. The second year one of my brothers came to join me and I started cooking for myself and my brother. Finally we had three brothers in the house and we did everything: one cooking, the other one cleaning, the other one washing.

Does everybody cook, or just you?

Two of my brothers don’t like to cook. One doesn’t like to do anything: no cooking, no nothing. And the other one is a businessman: He lives in Cancún, he doesn’t like to cook. But my two sisters and my other brother — he lives in Vegas, he’s a contractor — they like to cook. Not professionally.

When did you come here?

The first time, 1979. I was here for a couple years, then back to Mexico for a few years, and in 1986 I came back here, stayed for seven years, back to Cancún, seven years, and then I came back here in 1997.

Were you cooking professionally all that time?

Mostly. I’m a civil engineer. When I’m in Cancún, I work as an engineer. I like varying these kinds of things. I like to do a lot of things: salsas, experimenting. The only thing I don’t like to do is change the recipes. We have only classic Yucatecan recipes; we don’t change anything. Like the papadzules, the first time you have them, you think it’s a little bit weird. Hardboiled egg and enchiladas and a pumpkin seed sauce. And people say, Umm, can you switch the hard-boiled egg for chicken? No. Can you change it for vegetables? No. Can you ...? No. We don’t do changes; we don’t do it. Once you try the papadzules, it works; it’s a really good dish. The combination, the egg, the pumpkin seeds, the tortilla, the tomato sauce, the pumpkin seed oil: The flavor is amazing.

Aside from the fact that it’s annoying to change a dish every 30 seconds, you’re preserving a cuisine. But your menu hasn’t stayed the same for 10 years.

We started with a menu and we didn’t change it for three years — no changes. But we have our specials, OK? There’s our regular menu and our [daily] specials. After three years, the most successful specials go to the permanent menu, and then we bring out another round of specials. Three years ago, and we did it again last month. One of the big issues for us is to shred the turkeys for the panuchos — the panucho is a lot of work — it’s very intensive labor.

How much do you think the Mexican food scene has changed since you’ve been here? It’s gotten a bit more upscale, what with Rick Bayless coming to town.

How long has Red O been open? When they just opened, I remember three or four customers came in one day and told me, “Hey, you know, you don’t have to worry about the cochinita pibil of Red O. Your cochinita is a lot better.” Or we have the camarones Yucatán; it’s one of our specials. A guy told me, “Gilberto, I paid $27 for the same dish that’s not as good, and you charge me $12.” Of course, I know the concept is another thing.

What do you think of the food-truck phenomenon?

I think it’s a good idea. I had a person who said, “Hey, I want to invest in a food truck, you want to?” Not for me. You know that that is harder than this? Very, very, very hard. I think it’s better that my son is getting involved in all this. I just want to finish my book .

Your cookbook. When is it coming out?

In two, three months. I don’t have a name; we’re playing with five, six diff erent names. It’s about 150 recipes. I have my personal cookbook; I have about 500 Yucatecan recipes, all Yucatecan cuisine. I think here I’ve used no more than 50 recipes from that cookbook. In 10 years. Now we’re going to do 150. The dishes that we have here on the menu are the commercial dishes of Yucatecan cuisine, because if I try the weird recipes that we have in our cuisine, people are going to get scared.

Now, in the last couple years, there are the blog guys and the Chowhound guys — those guys are going for new things. Mondays, we have a pork and black bean soup cooked all together like posole, but instead of hominy we use black beans. Point is, we use bits: We use ears, we use everything of the pork. We started with that dish 10 years ago. Now, every Monday, gone. We brought that to Jonathan’s event [The Gold Standard, 2011] and sold out. Now we have people coming here for that.

It’s very interesting because we have some Lebanese dishes, too. Kabobs, hummus, eggplant dip, garbanzo dip, garlic dip, dolmas. We got that from them, and we changed it; we made it in another way. And they took some Mayan dishes, Yucatecan dishes, and did it in the Lebanese way, too. You know, there are a lot of Lebanese in the Yucatán.

Yucatecan food has Mayan roots but with three big influences: Spanish, Lebanese and Dutch. We have a little bit of French, a little bit of Korean, but the three big ones are those you can see in the food. Here [at the restaurant] the only Mayan dish is the Sikil’Pac.

Sometimes we bring in boar or venison, sometimes rabbit — all those are Mayan dishes. Maybe the tamales are very close to the Mayan but with a little bit changed. We use chicken now, that’s a postcolonial meat; it’s not original from America. The tamales are the closest. But this, the Sikil’Pac, is a 100 percent Mayan dish. It’s made with ground roasted pepitas, fire-roasted tomatoes, spring onion and cilantro.

And your habanero sauce?

We did an interview with NBC about the peppers a few months ago. He asked me, “Do you know what the hottest pepper in the world is?” “Yeah,” I told him. “Let me tell you this way, you know that two years ago it was the habanero; now it’s the Naga Jolokia from India.” “Oh,” he says, “everybody says the habanero.” “Yeah, the habanero was; it’s not anymore.” “Are you able to try this?” he says. [Ed.’s note: This interview was conducted before a new chile was reportedly recorded as the world’s hottest.]

Did you?

Yeah. You know, some of the Naga Jolokias are 1 million 500,000 Scoville units. I don’t know; I don’t think the one I tried was that hot. Hot. But I’ve been saying this for a long time: The flavor of the habanero, especially the habanero from the Yucatán, is unique. Because most of the habaneros grow in places where they also grow papayas, mangos and pineapples, and the habaneros take the flavors from the plants. The habanero I most like is the green habanero.

That’s not the one you use in your sauce, though.

They don’t bring the green one here. It’s hard to find here; in Yucatan it’s easy. Then there’s the orange, commercial quality, and the red, industrial quality.

So you use the orange habaneros?

I use the orange because that’s the one we can get. The hottest is the red. It goes: green, yellow, red. Oh, I love the green ones; if I could only get the green ones ... —Amy Scattergood

BEER

The Best Beer Bar in L.A. You’ve Never Heard Of

Craft beer connoisseurs have an intrinsic disdain for the mass-market swill masquerading as beer: Bud, Miller, PBR and that ilk. In an ironic twist, then, the best-kept beer bar secret in L.A., Barbara’s at the Brewery, is tucked away like an oasis in the center of what was once the PBR brewery, where Main Street meets the 5, just east of downtown. Open since 1999, it’s the best thing that ever came from a PBR brewery.

The old brewery complex is home to the largest artists’ colony in the country, with countless studios and biannual art walks. The walls at Barbara’s are adorned with the locals’ latest photos, paintings and sculptures. And, yes, this bar is every bit as understated and secluded as one would expect, given its anchor position in the colony.

But for beer lovers, the best art on the wall is the chalkboard featuring 15 worldclass craft brews, a menu that shifts according to availability. The true measure of any top beer bar is that every time a keg blows, a new beer by a diff erent brewer appears.

The Barbara’s board is always excellent and has even had days — it seems sacrilegious to say it — when it matches Gabe Gordon’s benchmark-setting wall at bestof- the-best Beachwood BBQ. The clientele at Barbara’s is laid-back and beer-savvy, and comments such as “This is my favorite place, but I don’t even tell my friends because it’s my secret” abound at the bar. Tenders are musicians, the music is great, too. —Daniel Drennon

BARBARA’S AT THE BREWERY | 620 Moulton Ave., No. 110, L.A. | (323) 221-9204

SIGNAGE

The Best in Restaurant Signage: Phillips Bar-B-Que

It was 7:15 p.m. at Phillips Bar-B-Que on Crenshaw and Adams and the woman paying for her barbecue was excited. As the cashier went through her order (“beef tips ... half slab of spareribs with hot sauce ... chicken links ... greens ... mac and cheese ... corn bread ... cobbler ...”) she gave a little gasp after every item was mentioned, letting off a low “ooh” at the end. “What are you doing after eating all this,” asked the cashier, laughing as she handed over the food. “Oh, it’ll be over,” she said. “I’ll call it a night, maybe put on a movie. That’s a wrap.”

As we stepped up to the window to pay, we saw this fantastic sign pasted on the wall.

We’re connoisseurs of fine restaurant signage. We like it when restaurants tell customers to wash their hands along with employees. We don’t mind being advised that the restaurant reserves the right NOT to serve us. Even religious and political screeds off end us little at feeding time.

Still, with its deadpan wit and restrained eloquence, this sign is something special. Repeat the last four lines a few times and they sound like a koan:

“[S]hould there be a problem your order needs to be returned — the same day would be great, but if that is not possible, as soon as possible. There’s nothing we can do if you have thrown it away. There’s nothing we can do if you have given it to your dog. There’s nothing we can do if you have given it to a homeless person. There’s nothing we can do if the order is not returned.” —Andrew Simmons

BEER

1321 Beer Bar Hits Torrance

Chef Greg Paul, known for creating the fantastic burger at the Oaks (dry-aged beef topped with thick Black Forest bacon, buttery taleggio and a smoked jalapeño-andpineapple compote), is heading south — to 1321, an upscale/rustic/gastropubby kind of place scheduled to open in Torrance in May.

Paul, who has cooked at many a Greg Morris eatery (the Oaks, Boa on Sunset, the Belmont), is working on a seasonal, market- driven menu (Who isn’t?) Of upscale American pub fare. That means calamari tacos, oxtail enchiladas, a half-pound hot link gussied up with a sauerkraut/onion ragout and raclette and, naturally, a burger. In this case, it’s built with house-ground prime chuck, brisket, short rib, pub cheese, stout onions and slab bacon ($12.50).

There’s beer, too — more than 50 varieties in the taproom. No word on how many are on tap versus in bottles (or cans), but it’s always good to have more options, especially when they include Ten Fidy imperial stout and Curieux tripel ale.

1321 is the first venture from MOD (manage/operate/develop) Restaurant Group. It’s going for a polished, rustic look, with exposed brick walls off set by sleek booths. The restaurant is expected to open in early May for dinner service, followed by lunch and brunch in subsequent weeks. —Elina Shatkin

1321 | 1321 Sartori Ave., Torrance | (310) 328-1321, 1321downtown.com

FOOD ON TELEVISION

Jamie Oliver’s L.A. Food Revolution: Reality TV as Work-in-Progress

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution last week premiered its second season, which takes place in Los Angeles. We can actually say “takes” as opposed to “took” place, since the show is still being filmed, parts of it at least, and the end is yet to be determined.

As emblematic city scenes — traffic, palm trees — sped by, a dramatic voice-over narrated the first episode. “The city that invented and perfected fast food. If he could change Los Angeles, perhaps he could change the world. But this time, Jamie may have bitten off more than he can chew.” At which point our hero enters, not in cape but in scruff y Converse sneakers. “They did not let me into any school,” says the British chef. “Which means it’s war.” Imagine Battle: Los Angeles crossed with Graham Kerr.

We began with Ryan Seacrest, a producer of Food Revolution, and then segued to Jamie’s Kitchen in Westwood. “We’re not happy,” says Oliver, giving us the backstory of how he’d been denied access by LAUSD to the city’s public school cafeterias. The camera cut to a table loaded with unappetizing- looking food, supposedly smuggled out from LAUSD cafeterias. Oliver brought in a “stunt cow” to do a beef demo. So began the shock-TV portion of the program, in which Oliver demonstrated how the nasty bits of beef are washed in ammonia (mothers and kids grimaced) to produce the “pink slime” used in commercial food processing, which he says routinely goes into hamburger meat.

Cut to Oliver’s crying children and his wife asking him not to get arrested if he can manage it.

Then to another board meeting, and to a parking lot in Carson, where he filled a school bus with sand, a “stunt” (again, Oliver’s term) meant to showcase the amount of sugar consumed by schoolchildren via flavored milk. At the end of which a disconsolate Oliver sat on the schoolbus stairs, as sand continued to fall from the steps onto the concrete, and confessed to his ABC film crew that he thought L.A. may have been a mistake. Tune in next week.

This is, as Oliver himself has said more than once, a documentary rather than a reality TV show. It is also an unfinished one, as the chef and TV personality will return later this month to finish shooting the show, which is still, according to ABC, a work in progress.

Do you think he’ll get into LAUSD? Would it matter at this point if he did? Jamie’s Kitchen in Westwood is closed, but it will reopen — with all the stoves and flat screens and snazzy Bing-funded paraphernalia — somewhere-not-in-Westwood as a teaching kitchen in the coming weeks or months. The Food Revolution Truck is currently parked in the California Endowment’s parking lot, where people are being trained to operate it, also as a teaching kitchen. As for what will happen with the L.A. Food Revolution, both the show and the movement itself, that, apparently, is up to you. —Amy Scattergood
VIEW ALL ARTICLES
Message
SEND