Day 21: Croatia
Here we are, officially at the three-week mark of the Personal Food Project in Blog Form and we have our first stomach problem. A piercing, grumbling pain between the two wings of my rib cage that says “You don’t have to throw up now. But maybe in about a half hour.” It began some time in the late afternoon and at first I thought I was having a negative reaction to shopping for bed sheets with GirlfriendBites, but after it persisted I figured it had to be something else. Is it something specific I ate? Do I have crippling anxiety? More likely, my stomach just wants to let me know that it is still there. The relentless rigors that a stomach must endure when asked to process a different country’s food every single day can perhaps be trying and it just wants to make sure that I appreciate it. Well stomach, I do. Very, very much. But this can’t help but bring up the fear of what would happen if things get really bad. What if I manage to acquire a violent stomach flu? What if I simply can’t keep meals down and a doctor tells me I have to suspend solid food for a week? That is, quite simply, The Dreaded Scenario. Will I battle it out, sweating my way miserably through a wonderful dinner, or will I crumble and fail? Perhaps it’s not too late to buy the url: www.ManBitesDust.com. But here, now, on the official three-week mark of the Personal Food in Blog Form, my stomach does not control my entire body. After a shot of Mylanta with a Pepto Bismol chaser, it’s time for some meat. A lot of meat.
Ante’s Restaurant in San Pedro, CA. I stumble, still clutching my belly, into the passenger door of The Meat Machine (Mr. Meatball’s car). Something inside me makes a whirring sound and it feels like the smallest Jewish man on the planet is spinning a dreidel in there. So after last night’s battle with the 405 freeway north, today we travel south. It is, it turns out, inconvenient in this direction as well. But after some slow driving and a surprisingly difficult freeway change, we arrive in San Pedro. There really is something to it this area. Meatball points out that it’s the biggest seaport in North America and also a great example of old Los Angeles. I get even more supportive of the area as we pass an interesting looking Persian restaurant, a goofy burger joint and a bar that seems like the kind of place you can get into a fight with a longshoreman, buy his friends a round of drinks and wind up singing in each other’s arms by the end of the night.
We park right out front and the fear of vomit has passed and been replaced by a general discomfort. I will call this an improvement. We step outside and the refreshing sea air really hits us, reminding us that this is somewhere a little different from the rest of Los Angeles. Entering the restaurant feels like being inside of a giant ski lodge which has been snowed in for the night, but has food, drink and electrical power, so everyone decides to make the best of it and just enjoy themselves. Arching wood and murals surround massively tall red booths and we are greeted at the door by some of the most jovial people I’ve ever come across in my life. It seems like they are used to offering the care and attention it takes to serve a lot of senior citizens and tonight that’s just fine with me. We slide into our booths, which belong in a Transylvanian Castle, and feel instantly quite comforted and taken care of. Our waitress approaches us with all of the delightful gusto and hospitality you could hope for, even though it is set against a total lack of knowledge regarding the restaurant. She is very new, she points out.
“What beers do you have?” asks Mr. Meatball.
“We have everything.” she responds.
“Do you have any Croatian beer?”
“What do you have?”
“Miller, Miller Light, Bud Light. We don’t really have any imported beers. Except Corona.”
“I guess I’ll have a Corona.”
After eating our Croatian version of chips and salsa— raw vegetables, bread and butter— our soup arrives. We were given the option of split pea or beef barley and figured beef barley sounded right. But if this soup, with its strangely glossy sheen, had come out of a can, we would not be surprised. However it does becomes quickly irrelevant as a sampler plate of Croatian food the size of a three year old child lands on the table, followed by raznjici, a marinated skewered pork. The raznjici tastes, quite simply, of salt and pig and my sickly stomach starts to be soothed by the savory satisfaction that comes with skewered swine. A Croatian employee checks on us with an intoxicating smile and Mr. Meatball, noticing an obviously imported beer at another table, asks her what it is. “That’s a Croatian beer. It’s great. Do you want to try it?” Mr. Meatball nods happily and we move our attention to the sampler, where every dish bleeds into the next other and you just have to plug your nose and jump right in.
The sarma, beef and rice rolled in cabbage, is a little on the boring side and they try to mask it with an overly sweet tomato sauce. The cevapcici, meanwhile, does not come close to holding up to the version eaten two weeks ago for Serbia Day. The beef pot roast with mostacolli is simple and clunky, yet still does everything you require of it— tender, warm, heavy and properly seasoned. But the real delight is the kiseli kupus— saurkraut with pork. Tart, salty and savory like to dance together and in this dish they do it with aplomb. It could be exhausting as an entire entree, but as a side it is the exact balance you need in a meal like this.
The Croatian woman checks on us again. “How do you like the beer?”
“It’s great,” says Meatball.
“Really light.” I say, “You could drink this all day.”
“Give me a bottle of this and some Slivovitz and I’m happy!” she says, referring to the plum brandy.
“I’ll take some,” I respond.
“We have it. Do you want some?”
“Will you drive me home?”
“I’ll go home with you, but I won’t drive!” she yells, laughing boisterously as she makes a hip thrusting motion. Meatball and I join in on the laughter and my stomach is feeling better already.
In the end, the wonderful thing about this restaurant is that it absolutely delivers on what it promises. When you walk in the door you expect a simple, homey meal served to you by good, happy people. Is the food perfectly executed? No. But it isn’t supposed to be. You go to relax, be comfortable, eat food that makes you feel like someone’s grandkid and leave feeling better than you did when you went in. Whether its an upset stomach, a bad day at work or a fight with your best friend, places like this are there to make it a all a little easier. We need restaurants like Ante’s. Every once in a while, everybody does.
729 Ante Perkov Way
San Pedro, CA 90731
Food Breakdown: 2 alcoholic beverages, 1 sampler platter, 1 entree
Distance From My House: 26.2 miles