Day 85: The United States of America
What is “American food”? For me, growing up eating in the United States of America meant rigatoni with a turkey bolognese (”…to be healthier,” says mom), minestrone soup and stuffed shells. It meant burritos, ramen, arugula salad and very rarely, a hamburger. I think that, honestly, every single day on this Personal Food Project in Blog Form, in some way, has been The United States of America Day. Sure, maybe London, Paris or Shanghai have a lot of countries’ cuisines available (though probably not this many), but it’s pretty darn American to decide to try to eat all of them in a row. I love living in a country, and a city, where you can show up from just about any country in the world, build a restaurant that makes your country’s food, and with some smarts and a little luck— succeed. Entrepreneurial-ism is about as USA as it gets, whether it’s an Izakaya on Melrose, a taco truck on Venice or a California-centric burger, sausage, ice cream and beer restaurant on Fairfax.
And speaking of California-centric burger, sausage, ice cream and beer restaurants on Fairfax— Man Bites World compatriot and actual folk hero, Jason Bernstein, just happens to be trying to open one. So at 12:01 AM on Thanksgiving morning, some eager friends decided to join us for a brief glance at what kind of Herculean effort it takes to get a place like the upcoming restaurant, Golden State, ready to go. Proud of his newly sandblasted wall, but frustrated with just about everything else, Bernstein starts telling us the horror stories that seem to come along with the territory. “This grease trap has been the bane of my existence. Do you know how much money it costs to build a new grease trap that’s up to code? Thirty five thousand dollars. Did you know that you have to fight for every hour that you’re open if you serve alcohol? It’s bananas.” As of now, there are no working bathrooms, no tables and no lighting fixtures. But he did manage to bring a cooler with a couple of his famed California specialty beers— one of which is a craftsman beer with no label whatsoever that has been aging for about two years. The beers, as always, are excellent, and if there’s anybody in the world who’s qualified to pick out exciting beers to go along with good food, Bernstein’s your man.
He and his business partner Jim Starr have been battling their way through the stormy restaurant waters for a while, trying to get Golden State ready to open early next year. It’s actually a great concept for a restaurant— you highlight the produce and meat that comes from the state of California, make delicious food and offer really good booze. Oh, and they’re also the only place in the world that’s going to be selling the amazing ice cream from Scoops. I actually managed to attend a tasting of their food a few months ago, and let me be the first to warn you, they’ve got a fan-bloody-tastic burger. Just trust me on this one. This hamburger will make Golden State a food destination— where you’ll start going there just to get a burger and every time you sit down, you’re afraid to ever order anything else because you know you could just be having the burger. Throw in some awesome beer and wine, and it’s over. But the path is a rocky one. Opening a restaurant requires a lot of stress, money and effort over a long period of time, just for the chance to have a place that most likely won’t break even and will be out of business in the first six months. So why bother? Because success, if you manage to attain it, can be a heck of a lot of fun. So on United States of America Day, I say we all offer a hearty salute to folk hero Jason Bernstein, for putting everything he’s got into trying to put build a place that just wants to give us fine booze a really good hamburger.
All of a sudden, it’s seven in the morning, I’m laying in bed and my eyelids are slowly separating from each other as I realize that there are about ten or twelve people expecting to eat an entire Thanksgiving dinner in my apartment— eight hours from now. So I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. But first, to celebrate a part of the United States that hasn’t really made its way to other countries, BroBites and I are heading to a good old fashioned diner in Santa Monica: Rae’s. It’s been around since I was a kid and has been featured in tons of movies that need that classic, American diner look. The prices have gone up a tad in the last few years, but it’s still one of the best deals in town and a heck of a lot tastier than Norm’s or Denny’s. So we slide into a red booth as a guy behind the counter nods his head with a “Coffee, guys?” We nod back affirmatively, eager to drink the simple caffeinated beverage that not-too-many other countries in the world seem to be interested in. My brother digs into a plate of pancakes, bacon and eggs while I go to work on some eggs, crispy potatoes, a griddle-seared slice of ham and a buttered biscuit. We talk about the difference between breakfasts in the world— how some cultures, like the U.S., Egypt and Mexico, will eat big heavy breakfasts meant to get you through a long, grueling day of manual labor, while other countries, like France, eat espresso and a dainty pastry (I had to make fun of France at least once on USA Day, right?). My brother adjusts his coffee to his ideal sugar/milk/coffee ratio, then takes a few sips before a guy walks by and tops his cup off. Then BroBites just looks at me and says, “Will you write about that please?” My brother has always hated having to re-adjust his coffee every time somebody passes by with a fresh pot. But I haven’t ever really given a crap, since I don’t put sugar in my coffee like a pansy.
We pay our bill, then step outside and admire the building, while trying to decide whether or not we should pop into one of my favorite dive bars, The Joker, which is right next door, to have a beer and a game of pool. That’s pretty American, right? But in the end, I’ve just got too much food to prepare, so we head over to mom’s, grab the brined turkey from the garage fridge and head back to my place. When we get back, GirlfriendBites is getting the house all prettied-up for our first ever time hosting a family gathering of this magnitude. We’ve got my brother, mom and sister, my step mom’s mother Carole, GFB’s parents, brother and grandmother, and a couple of other strays we picked up along the way— all coming over in a few hours (stepdad, dad, stepmom and Super Jake all happen to be out of the country). My kitchen is insanely small (picture the smallest kitchen you’ve ever had— then make it smaller), so I’ve done my best to outsource a couple of dishes to other family members. Yesterday I made a gruyere and cheddar mac and cheese (adding some Southern inspiration to the meal), the turkey has been brining in buttermilk, my mom is bringing stuffing, cranberry sauce and her famously good pies, while GFB’s mom is taking care of the sweet potatoes. So I start off by making the jalapeño blue corn muffins, then rinse the turkey, dry it, add aromatics, truss it, cover it in butter and get it in the oven. Next it’s time to make turkey stock, so I sear off some parts, deglaze with port, add some mirepoix (onions, carrots and celery), peppercorns, rosemary and water, then let it simmer for a few hours. Now people begin arriving, so it’s time to sautée greens, make mashed potatoes and deal with the big-ass bird. Unfortunately, our twenty two pound turkey barely fit in the oven, so it’s cooking extremely erratically. Basically, the top half is cooked perfectly and the bottom is bloody. Hooray. But it’s also an enormous animal, so we rest it, and are able to carve out more than enough juicy meat for everybody to eat. I brown the tops of the mac and cheese, stuffing and sweet potatoes while making the gravy from the stock and pan drippings, switch from cocktails to wine, and just like that— it’s dinner time.
The families are getting along, the food is tasty (with the macaroni and cheese being especially so), the apartment is gorgeous and, somehow, I didn’t ruin Thanksgiving. After dinner, everyone gets to enjoy my mom’s outstandingly good apple and pumpkin pies (picture your mom’s really good pies— then imagine that they’re a lot better) with home made whipped cream and my brother’s made-from-scratch, awesomely spiced chai. GFB’s family has to drive back to Ventura and the event seems to be winding down, so we help the grandparents down the stairs and I walk Carole to her car as she says “This might be the best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had.” When I get back inside, GFB is sitting at the base of our staircase as I run over and give her a big, anxiety-releasing hug and mutter, “We did it…” It was a lot of work and I got pretty stressed during long stretches, but there’s nothing quite like the feeling I got in that exact moment, when we finished hosting our first Thanksgiving, with lots of family, and where nothing significant went wrong. Was it perfect? Heck no. But they never are. So you exhale, allow yourself a moment of pride, then look at somebody you love and smile. “See? That wasn’t so bad.” Of course, it all goes a little easier when your friend Dave feels awkward around all this family and decides to do all the dishes— but I guess that’s part of it too.
Golden State (Coming Soon)
426 S Fairfax Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Food Breakdown: 2 fancy beers
Distance From My House: 4.5 miles
2901 Pico Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90405
Food Breakdown: 2 coffees, 2 breakfasts
Distance From My House: 5 miles
Food Breakdown: Liquor, wine, non-alcoholic beverages, 1 Thanksgiving dinner
Price: A lot of groceries
Distance From My House: 0 miles