Day 56: Uzbekistan
Because of the internet and a growing global fascination with food and restaurants, I usually have a pretty good idea of what I’m getting myself into before I venture into new territories. Between Yelp, Chowhound, The LA Times and LA Weekly, most restaurants have at least one review of some sort to help steer me in the right direction. I tend to get my restaurant recommendations from one of the aforementioned sources, but every once in a while I find out about a place through a less obvious channel. When that happens, I have the opportunity to try a new place without any pre-conceived notions or expectations, which can sometimes lead to a pretty spectacular experience.
I heard about Tashkent Produce in North Hollywood while I was on a radio show bemoaning the loss of the famed (in some circles) Uzbek restaurant called, appropriately, Uzbekistan. A very Central Asian sounding caller phoned in and recommended Tashkent (also the capital of Uzbekistan), warning that it’s take-out only, but that the food is “very traditional”. Luckily, MamaBites has some free time this afternoon, so we head out for lunch. She finds a parking spot on this miniature Russian strip of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and makes a deft parallel parking move just two doors down from Tashkent. “Excellent parking,” says an old Russian man in a thick accent, standing in a nearby doorway as I get out of the car. Then my mom gets out and he says “Wow! I was checking to see if it was a man or a woman who was driving. I can’t believe it was a woman!” My mom just smiles and says “Tell your friends.”
Stepping inside the market, I’m already wishing this place was closer to my house. It’s busy, the produce looks good (and really cheap!) and it’s stocked full of items and goods you sure can’t find at Trader Joe’s. I get worried for a moment when I don’t see any food for take out, then notice a separate section in the back around the corner. I walk through and a wave of wonderful smells start coming out to greet me. Fresh baked breads (made on premises), home made salads and spreads, pastries, beers, wines— I’ve certainly found my department. Mom is already pointing to spreads, taking samples and asking the woman behind the counter what’s in them before I even get a chance to ask, “Are those salads Uzbek?”
“What?” replies the woman behind the counter.
“Are those from Uzbekistan?”
“What do you recommend from Uzbekistan?” She looks at the cook, who offers a skeptically furrowed brow.
“What?” he says to me.
“What do you have from Uzbekistan?” I ask.
“Nothing until three o’clock,” he says.
“Nothing until three?”
“You like rice?”
“Uzbek rice pilaf?”
“That sounds great.”
“Yes. I’d love that.”
“Uzbek rice pilaf with meat?”
Okay, it’s twelve thirty, but we decide we’ll come back. Mom grabs a couple of the spreads and two small baguettes to tide us over while we wait the two and a half hours for our Uzbek food. She decides to drive to a client’s house in Bel Air to drop off an invoice (MamaBites is a wonderful landscape designer), which we do before parking somewhere overlooking the city while we eat our appetizer. In fact, we parked next to a construction site which used to to be the location of one of mom’s old clients. That site, though, along with two other adjoining lots, were snatched up by a man trying to spend a little of his recently acquired 100 million dollar retirement package. That must be fun. Meanwhile, back in reality, we dip soft, fresh bread into very simple but well executed eggplant dip, and a spread of red bell peppers and fresh tomatoes, whose two primary ingredients stand out amazingly well. But there’s still a lot more time to kill. So a car wash, a bottle of water and a pop into a book store later, we’re headed back.
I head back to the prepared foods area and find it completely transformed. Plates of fried meats, roasted meats, roasted peppers and other unknown delicacies now line the shelf above the cold spreads, and each one looks delicious. But delicious as they all appear, none are specifically Uzbek. As it turns out, this market is almost entirely Russian, despite the name. But the cook glances my direction, gives a knowing look and says “Rice pilaf?” I nod my head and say yes. Now the woman from before looks at me and asks if I’m a cook. After trying to figure out how to say “Personal Food Project in Blog Form” in Uzkbek, I decide to split the difference and say “I do cook a lot. But I’m not a professional.” I’m not sure if it comes across. But I don’t mind much as my attention turns to the cook who scoops a bed of rice pilaf into a Styrofoam container, pours a helping of slow cooked beef chunks on top, sprinkles on fully cooked cloves of garlic, seals the lid and scribbles “4,99” on top before handing it to me with an air of effortless routine. I grab a loaf of seeded bread and a container of chicken soup for GirlfriendBites, pay at the front and we’re out the door.
I want to eat while it’s fresh, so I open the container in my lap and dive right in. The soft rice with shredded carrots and cloves of garlic is the pilaf I wish I’d been eating since I was a kid, and the beef is like the pot roast of your dreams— moist, tender and expertly seasoned. It was a long wait and a difficult search for a mere five dollar box of rice and meat, only to be eaten in my lap in the passenger seat of a car— but it was more than worth it. Later in the evening, GirlfriendBites and I heat up the chicken soup, slice the bread, curl up on the couch and enjoy more great comfort food as I remember what the woman at the check-out counter said to MamaBites and me when we were leaving the market. She asked if it was our first time there, we said yes, and she smiled and said “I can usually tell. We have mostly Russians here, but after an American comes here for the first time, then they come back every single day.” That all sounds about right to me. I’m sure I’ll be seeing them soon.
5340 Laurel Canyon Blvd
Valley Village, CA 91607
Food Breakdown: 1 entrée, 2 spreads, 1 soup, 2 small breads, 1 large loaf of bread
Distance From My House: 18.1 miles