Food lust

A trip to Los Angeles offers a worldly explosion of taste

BRATTLEBORO — I know it's May, and I should be waxing eloquent about ramps or fiddlehead ferns, but instead I want to talk about California.

I love Vermont. It is a small, quiet, clean place with clearly defined seasons, interesting creative people, wonderful food, and good politics. But however charmed life is in Vermont, sometimes you want to leave, especially in April, which is when I recently disappeared to Los Angeles, a big, dirty, loud, sunny, place where lots of America's business happens.

It is also a very ethnically diverse city, which means the food is fabulous. Localvore in Los Angeles is like a trip around the world, the true “world on my plate.”

Our own Strolling of the Heifers recently ranked localvore states, using the number of farmers' markets and CSAs per capita as criteria.

Vermont, with its population of 630,000, came out number one. California has the largest number of both, but a population of over 38 million plunged it down the list to number 41.

The Brattleboro Farmers' Market closed at the end of March and would not reopen until the first weekend of May. So a trip to southern California with its seemingly never-ending seasons was the perfect antidote to April in Vermont.

Los Angeles is a seething hodgepodge of sprawl that contains a 48-percent minority of whites and a staggering diversity of other ethnic groups: Hispanic, Korean, Filipino, Persian, Armenian, Thai, African-American, Japanese, Eastern Indian, Russian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Vietnamese, Jewish, Pacific Islander, American Indian, etc.

All sorts of diversity exists within each culture. Every tiny group has its own food, and how divine it all is. When traveling to Los Angeles, you need to tamp down the food lust, or you risk madness, sleep deprivation, and a good 15-pound weight gain.

This trip, I tried to limit myself to great tacos, bánh mì, and the date shake.

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The original taco was a paper-wrapped roll of explosives used to blast rock, an 18th-century invention of silver miners in Mexico; the name was then applied to the taco, with its very own culinary explosion.

Tacos are meant to be eaten on the street with your hands, and their popularity has made them into perhaps the most democratic of foods.

Lunch was brought to workers in the fields, and the tortilla as receptacle eliminated the need for utensils or plates. When Mexicans began to migrate to this country in the early 1900s, they brought their food with them.

Mexico might have retained a reputation as a dangerous place to travel, but its food is adored from California to Vermont. It has been suggested that the development of the “American” taco chain restaurant succeeded in part because it allowed white people to eat Mexican food without going to Mexico or even to a Mexican neighborhood. Not my idea of a vacation in California!

Los Angeles is filled with every kind of taquería you can imagine. Some are food trucks and move around between vacant lots, and others are in incredibly tiny storefronts.

A small place usually specializes in one of several types of tacos: thickly battered fish tacos, fatty rich pork carnitas, guisado tacos filled with spicy meat and vegetable stews. Then there are hip and upscale Mexican restaurants with tacos made from braised heirloom pork belly, duck confit, or divers scallops.

I prefer the sit-down, yet still really casual, place that serves traditional tacos made with fresh quality ingredients: the localvore taquería. One such place, Guisados, not only makes its own tortillas but grinds the corn for the masa mixture called nixtamal.

These tortillas are thick, supple, warm off the griddle, and taste just like corn. Filled with such wonders as spicy chicken mole rich with peanuts, sesame and pumpkin seeds; stewed squash with chiles and kernels of sweet corn; golden sheets of fried and braised pork skin; or my favorite, chicken tinga, a stew with onions, cabbage, chorizo, and chipotle and topped with pickled onion and avocado. At $2.50 a taco, three is a thrilling and filling meal. I could eat there every day.

Bánh mì is another food of the street, a sandwich of pâté and ham (or sometimes sliced pork), garnished with pickled vegetables like carrots and radish, chopped cucumber, hot chili peppers, and cilantro, all served on a baguette smeared with mayonnaise.

Sometimes there is hot chili sauce, soy sauce, hoisin, or a mixture of the three. It is a soft, chewy, crunchy, sweet, spicy, meaty, salty balance of flavors and textures.

The French introduced the baguette to Vietnam during that country's many years of occupation; the Vietnamese drove out the French but kept the baguettes.

The classic French sandwich of ham and butter on a baguette gradually evolved into a classic fusion sandwich which incorporates both the French and Vietnamese cultures. As did Mexicans, immigrants from Vietnam brought their food to America, and bánh mì can be found everywhere in Los Angeles.

The best places are little hole-in-the wall family restaurants in small strip malls, anonymous-looking eateries with generic names that are hidden between nail salons and pawn shops.

But they are filled with customers bent over steaming bowls of pho, plates of deep fried rice cakes, translucent spring rolls, fermented fish sauce, and many glorious versions of bánh mì.

You can find them with a variety of cold meats, barbecued or grilled beef, chicken, even tofu. I stick with the classic pork. With a glass of iced Vietnamese coffee, it makes a good lunch. Made with the best ingredients on a warm crusty baguette with homemade mayo, it is a perfect lunch.

* * *

My trip to Los Angeles ended with a few days at Joshua Tree National Park, a three-hour drive east into the desert, just over the hill from the Coachella Valley and its acres of date palms.

The climate in this stupifyingly hot place (the average high temperature in August is 108.1 degrees F) is perfect for the date palm, mimicking the climate of Iraq. Nearby is the town of Twentynine Palms, home of the largest Marine Corps base in America.

Skirting one side of the Valley is the San Andreas Fault, whose movements have created many underwater springs, making agriculture thrive here. In 1890, the U.S. Department of Agriculture purchased 68 date-palm shoots from Iraq and Egypt and had them planted in locations across the country. The Coachella Valley was the only place they survived, and today the area produces 95 percent of the dates grown in the U.S.

And what dates they are! Vermonters are lucky to get a choice between Medjool, a soft date, and Deglet Noor, a semi-dry date. Oasis Date Gardens, an organic producer in Coachella, grows more than 10 varieties with names like Thoory, Kway, Khalasa, Kadrway, Zahidi, and Barhi. They vary in texture and flavor from thick, sticky, and rich to nutty, dry, and honey-colored to delicate, soft, and subtle.

In the 1940s, most dates consumed in the world were grown in the Middle East. Date farmers in Coachella were just getting by.

According to his obituary in 1987 in the Los Angeles Times, one farmer, Russ Nichol, found out that some desert Arabs existed solely on dates and goat's milk. He began experimenting at his family's little refreshment stand and thus was born the date shake, which is just an ice cream milkshake with dates.

It sounds weird, I know, but the date shake is a complex and delicious combination of caramel, honey, cream, and mystery. It is quintessential California.

Here in Vermont, with the soft palette of spring just spreading over the hills, my vacation seems very far away indeed. If I find myself yearning for the crowded streets of L.A., I need only turn to my kitchen.

There the smell of roasting chilis, the first bite of my own bánh mì, or just the act of pitting dates will transport me back to California with all its diversities and delights.

But now it's May in Vermont, and I've just got to go outside.

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