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Taste of the Nation LA, You Got The Flava

Hungry Hungry Hipsters

Hungry Hungry Hipsters

For anyone who still questions Los Angeles’ legitimacy as a food town: It’s a good thing you didn’t make it to Taste of the Nation LA yesterday in Culver City’s Media Park. Because it would have blown apart every preconception you have, like Gallagher on a watermelon (dated reference?).

Kerry Simon and company

Kerry Simon and company

LA is an incredibly complex food town, and its strengths are so far flung, geographically and philosophically, that it’s easier to find the weaknesses. You just follow the hype. But what may sum it up best, if not quality of ingredients and blending of cultures, is the flexibility between haute and street. It’s a booming trend now, but I do think LA–perhaps the fancy food truck capital of the country (even if Portland was there first)– may “get it” it much better than other cities. How else to explain that high-end spots like Hatfield’s and Patina could go cheek-by-jowl with Jitlada’s family-style Thai and Starry Kitchen’s clubkid Crazian at TOTN, and everyone was in on the joke.

What it's all about

What it's all about

Considering the entire event is a fundraiser for child hunger (via Share Our Strength), I felt terrible not finishing half of the bites I tried. But really there were so many impressive, creative, pretty, delicious things to eat, I had to try and pace myself. And still, I teeter on the edge of a cataclysmic food coma as I write.

The Spare Room sips with style

The Spare Room sips with style

I could blather forever, but let me just hit up some personal highlights before they fade:

Gorgeous lamb chops (each differently done) from LA Market and Culina…Fig’s beef tongue bahn mi, an amazing tamale from Rivera…perfect paella by Joe’s…a complex short rib dish by La Seine’s Alex Resnik…that hellagood fried chicken from Lex Social…awesome tacos by both Loteria and Ray’s and Stark…killer spicy chicken skewers from Mo-Chica…a complex short rib dish from La Seine’s Alex Reznik (of Top Chef repute)… a toast with I think a foie gras custard dip at Street… and other great nibbles from Chaya, Church & State, City Tavern, Craft, Lukshon, and Hatfield’s. Hey, even amazing food starts to blur at a certain point. But that quinoa and kale by M Cafe was still my favorite.

Alex Resnik: Killin' It, Kosher at La Seine

Alex Resnik: Killin' It, Kosher at La Seine

Several upcoming places also offered previews, including Michael Voltaggio’s hotly awaited spot Ink (though his booth was only available to VIPs…boo!), Mo-Chica sister Picca Cantina, Nancy Silverton’s Short Order, fonuts, and Pour Vous, a new bar filling the old 40 Deuce space.

Speaking of blurring, I blame the many fine beverage options, including La Descargas sexy daquiris and other killer cocktails from The Spare Room and Pasadena’s hot 1886 … The Bruery’s Belgian Trippel ale with Thai spice, nice brews from Eagle Rock and Firestone Walker, and a deadly Golden State float at the beer block… and of the several impressive small-volume wineries pouring, I particularly enjoyed a nicely balanced Sauv Blanc and structured Cab from Santa Barbara’s Grassini, an uncommon 100% Cinsault from Sonoma’s Frick, and Pinots from Baker Lane and La Fenetre.

La Descarga's sexy shaker girls

La Descarga's sexy shaker girls

Did I mention the star chefs? Besides Kerry Simon, Top Chefs Voltaggio and Resnik and Hells Kitchen’s Sively, the revived Mary Sue Milliken and perennial partner Susan Fenniger were in full effect, as was Mark Peel, Sang Yoon, Joe Miller, Eric “Elvis” Greenspan … Alas, Mario Batali and Rick Bayless did not represent.

If you attend any number of these kinds of tasting events, you start to be able to recognize when they work well, and when they don’t. TOTNLA hit a lot of high marks: the selection of participating restaurants was very strong and varied, there was a nice sampling of California wines, local beers, and some very serious cocktails by some of our best mixology bars, some fun desserts; the charity and auction aspects were well represented if you were interested, but easily avoidable if you felt you “gave at the gate.” It was also a good size, and though it was sold out, it still wasn’t overcrowded, and the location had incredibly convenient parking (free 2 hours covered lot across the street). And despite a certain unavoidable amount of corporate sponsorship, obnoxious branding was kept to an impressive minimum. Egos were, in almost every case, clearly left at the door.

Spicy Peruvian chicken skewers from Mo Chica. Mo, mo, mo.

Spicy Peruvian chicken skewers from Mo Chica. Mo, mo, mo.

In fact my only criticisms were that water was a bit hard to find at first (turns out nearly every booth had a jug, but they didn’t always make them available) and there weren’t enough garbage cans. Oh, also, the VIPs were given reusable plates, but for the rest of us, each bite was given out on a disposable paper plate which, biodegradable, recycled, whatever it was, it was still wasteful. Those are very small complaints, though.

EGStarryNguyen

Starry Kitchen's Nguyen Tran needs to take himself way less seriously.

It was also nice to put faces to names of media colleagues including Laurel House, Joshua Lurie and even Jonathan Gold–though the event was far from press-saturated, owing to the fact that we all had to have our tickets “sponsored” (no freebies, and who can whine when it’s for a good cause). On that note, an extra thanks from me to Kerry Simon, whose SimonLA and LA Market both held their own in a sea of serious talent.

I almost wish every other foodfest planner had seen this, because kids, this is how it’s done.