Growing up in Monrovia California with two food conscious parents and a live-in-grandmother who cooked and ate like someone was going to try to take it from her, the local food scene was something that found its way into my life on a pretty regular basis. All the older people would go on scouting expeditions into the different boroughs of the city with a handful of rationed cash and hope in their hearts. They were suicide missions, though. Shots in the dark. At the time, nobody was covering holes in the wall and Yelp didn’t exist. If you wanted to find out which 4 star joint served the best foie gras, you could crack open a paper, but for the most part, if you wanted something life changing and you didn’t want to refinance your house, word of mouth or just gambling with your digestive tract was the only way to do it. Then In ‘86 a food writer for Weekly magazine (and later The Los Angeles Times) named Jonathan Gold started a column called ‘Counter Intelligence’. He featured places that were operating off the radar of anyone outside the neighborhood and forced the city and the food community to acknowledge the skill and heart of the people who ran them. My father and grandmother would open the Times every Sunday and flip straight to Gold’s column to see what restaurant they’d be saving up for that week.
So, when my dad found out I was hopping a plane to Southern California last weekend to see an old friend on leave from the air force, he broke out a copy of Jonathan Gold’s 101 places to eat in Los Angeles. He started highlighting. By the time I stepped off the curb at LAX, skin coated with a Northwest sweat, rosying in the desert sun, he had narrowed his list down to 12 places. By the time we’d freed ourselves up to make the drive back to the city on Sunday afternoon, we had it narrowed down to 3. We pointed the car east and as we drove, I made phone calls. The first place was closed until 5pm on Sundays, so we scratched it. The next was so busy the woman who answered the phone just screamed, “What!?” Into the receiver.
“Hello!” I said cheerfully. “I was just wondering what the wait is like?”
My voice was lost amidst an eruption of kitchen sounds like wartime radio chatter.
“Table for five!” She screamed, all consonants, and a slippery stream of mandarin followed it out, pointed in a different direction.
“What’s that?” I’ve got a finger in my ear.
“What do you want?” She hollered into the receiver like it was a gulf war radio and she was taking mortar fire.
“I was just wondering-”
“We’re too busy!” ” she said, and there was another clatter of pans, danger close.“If you want to come here, don’t come here!”
She hung up the phone.
And then there was one.
Sapps Coffee Shop sits comfortably in a strip mall, just north of little Armenia. The title of the place doesn’t really denote the savagery of its cuisine. Before I saw the picture that accompanied its write up on Gold’s list, I was thinking scones, maybe a mean slice of quiche.
We tetris’d our car into the postage stamp lot and found ourselves in a mostly empty dining room. Little laminate tables scattered about, people tucked into corners, eating happily and quietly. My mom, dad and I folded ourselves into the room and ordered drinks and while we waited for them, my dad tapped at the table excitedly. He said,
“Your Nana and I used to take you and your sister out to places like this all the time. People would come in from all over the city to try some little hole in the wall, just because Jonathan Gold had given them the OK. It was awesome.”
My dad brings those trips up a lot.The food they served and the smiles on everyone’s faces and most vividly, the lines leading out the doors of places that, just weeks before were struggling just to keep the electricity on. Places that were fighting to survive, not for lack of effort or skill, but simply because there was no one to speak for them.
The drinks came out.
I had ordered an Oleang or Thai iced coffee and it was absolute rocket fuel. Ten minutes after my first couple sips and the word coffee buzz snapped sharply into focus because my whole body felt like it was set to vibrate. Couldn’t stop drinking it, though. It’s flavor was too deep and rich to put it down and sweetened condensed milk that was swirled into it was just the right amount of sweet to take the edge off the bitter of the beans. My parents opted for the Thai iced tea and the Jamaica juice, which were also fantastic.
We sipped our drinks and made ridiculous noises in the semi sunlight winking through the windows and mom said,
“I would have driven right past this place and never known they were in here making such amazing stuff.”
And she was absolutely right. From the curb, this place blends right into the neighborhood so seamlessly that it seems to disappear. We missed it on the first pass and we were looking for it. But there we were at the bottom of our glasses, wondering where this goodness has been all our lives, and that was just the beginning.
The food came out.
I can always tell when I’m having a memorable meal when I start to have irrational thoughts as I’m eating it. Whether I’m contemplating how many kidneys I’d trade for this experience, or swearing at a napkin for not being able to appreciate the sauce I was wiping onto it (true story), the crazier my thoughts go, the better the meal. A couple of bites into the jade noodles, I went full Charlie Sheen. Gary Busey on bath salts. The specifics of that interior monologue are too weird for even this blog, but the gist of it is, I loved it. The roast duck, barbecued pork and crab meat, which simply should not play well together, balanced one another out completely. The peanuts and noodles rounded out the chili oil spattered throughout it and every bite was total bliss. Under the circumstances, wired on Thai coffee, tripping balls on one of the best meals I’ve ever had, it wouldn’t have been too ridiculous for me to start seeing things. Which is why, when the door opened and he walked in, I was like, “nah.” I blinked a couple times, pinch on the wrist, another hit of coffee, but there he stood and I said,
“That’s Jonathan fuckin Gold.”
And it was. He waited to be seated and as he ate his lunch, the chef came out of the back and shook his hand. He took a photo with Gold and thanked him and thanked him, and slowly, the restaurant began to fill with people around him, as if his very presence was good for business.
To my parents: thank you for an incredible lunch and for being exemplary humans in a general sense of the word.
To Jonathan Gold: thank you for what you’ve done for food writing and the food scene in general. Thank you also for being so kind to a highly caffeinated fanboy in the throes of a full blown nerd-out.
Meet your heroes, kids. Meet them.