Whichever diet you follow, odds are you love food because, like sex, it’s pretty hard to hate. It’s been said that you are what you eat. If so, then how you prepare what you eat must say something about you as well.
As with nearly every aspect of our daily lives, technology has altered the way we prepare our food. And while molecular gastronomy and culinary constructivism are nothing to sneeze at, I think many of today’s chefs have taken a little too much artistic license in the kitchen. Creative cuisine undoubtedly has its place, but for my money flavor beats imagination every day of the week.
To be clear, I contend that Heston Blumenthal and Grant Achatz are virtuosos whose genius need not be qualified with any epicurean adjectives. Chefs like them have changed the way we think and talk about food. But at the end of the day they haven’t changed the way we eat it. Sure, their creations are visual marvels that add a touch of whimsy and a dash of mystery to a meal. Yet I find their culinary alchemy to be the performance art of the restaurant world. And the inorganic components sometimes used to craft these concoctions tend to compromise the magnificent simplicity of their first-rate ingredients.
As a diner, it tends to make me feel as though they’re more scientists than chefs, and that when they disappear into their laboratories, they seem to do so believing the spectacle is every bit as important as the taste.
Regardless of the many ways these gastronomic Dr. Frankensteins try and dazzle us, I’ve noticed there’s one thing they all lack. Interestingly enough, it’s the one thing’s also missing in the aforementioned doctor’s misunderstood monster. Neither has soul. Food that does is currently being served all over this city by establishments that were there long before this new wave of cooking came to prominence and, judging from the reliably long lines snaking out their front doors, will be there long after it has become passé.
Opinions vary as to best restaurant in Los Angeles. The most popular share two things in common. The first is consistency. The second is that each relies on cooking methods that predate the printing press. Historians generally agree that roasting meat over an open flame was the first culinary technique invented by humankind. They also agree it was probably an accident, wherein a few lucky cavemen stumbled upon animals that had been killed in a forest fire and scavenged the meat. The innovation of grilling quickly followed and eventually led to the legend that is In-N-Out Burger.
The menu is as basic as the way they prepare it, and neither has changed since the first franchise opened in 1948. Burgers. Fries. Shakes. Period. They’re made to order and served with real ketchup and bona fide mustard. Not a tomato-infused foam or a mustard gelée. And then there’s the “animal sauce,” the ingredients of which are one of the best kept secrets in the restaurant industry. Some speculate it’s merely thousand island dressing. Others contend the sauce is equal parts ketchup, mayonnaise and relish. Whatever it is has led to interminably lengthy lines at their drive-throughs seven days a week.
Once our ancestors learned to control fire, they started experimenting with it. Boiling food was one of the many techniques that arose from those trials. Thank God they realized steaming was the next logical step, because without it there’s no telling what the sea of people who regularly cue up for Pink’s Hot Dogs might do with their afternoons.
Almost a decade older than In-N-Out, Pink’s is as much a part of Hollywood lore as the famed sign nestled in the hills above it. Since then, the menu has grown along with the crowds, yet the tradition has remained the same for nearly a century. Hot dogs topped with a sumptuous assortment of ingredients to satisfy any palate. Rather than add whimsy with edible menus or deconstructed favorites, Pink’s does so by naming several offerings after their celebrated clientele that helped put this town, and this spot, on the map.
In Los Angeles, skies are typically sunny. Traffic is frequently heavy. And lines at Howlin’ Ray’s Hot Chicken are always long. Again, their menu is simple and highlights that which they may arguably do better than anyone else in the City of Angels: fry chicken. And again, they only use fresh, natural ingredients prepared without the assistance of test tubes or plastic syringes. Our civilization has been frying all sorts of foods since the fifth century BCE. Although a relatively new addition to this city’s food scene, its massive fanbase and glowing reviews beg the question of whether or not Howlin’ Ray’s is the pinnacle of that art.
You know you’ve created some place special when you can solely rely on the brunch crowd to power your business. The Griddle Café does precisely that with options that are grilled, fried and steamed. Their bill of fare is far from limited, and while the savory options are worth noting, the sweet ones are the reason Angelenos happily spend the better portion of any given morning waiting to eat their manhole-sized pancakes. The selection is fun, not funky. Each place imagined with the kind of creativity that would make Willy Wonka take notice. And despite the servings being enormous, none depends on the accompaniment of a scented smoke or a quirky gel.
Again, I have the deepest respect for chefs who’ve dedicated their careers to studying the various transformations food undergoes when it’s cooked. But I see eating that food as a rare treat akin to Springsteen tickets or spa weekends. In the meantime, any chef will tell you that the simplest things are the hardest to master. Thus, I take my hat off to In-N-Out, Pink’s, Howlin’ Ray’s and The Griddle Café, whose food can be enjoyed with the sort of indulgent regularity akin to a good movie or a hot bath.