Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Best (Hidden) Bakery in Los Angeles

In my last post, I raved about the pretzel bread buns used at the Hole in the Wall Burger Joint. I was chatting with the owner when I was there and he said they used Dolce Forno Bakery. All the lights in my head immediately went flashing like an ambulance. I know Dolce Forno also supplies the bread at the wonderful LA-based sandwich mini-chain, Mendocino Farms. Now, I'm seriously motivated to seek out Dolce Forno!

Dolce Forno Bakery is owned and run by the Drago Group (in the same family as the famed Downtown restaurant Drago Centro). It wasn't easy finding the bakery. It's tucked in a street that has to be accessed via an alley behind a Del Taco off of Venice Ave. and Robertson Blvd.! But once you find it, you'll be rewarded with heaps of pretzel bread, classic Italian breads, pastries and desserts. 

The bakery is not your typical retail shop. It's sparsly decorated because it's really just the front counter of an entire baking operation in the back that supplies some of the best restaurants and hotels in Los Angeles. Here you'll find several kinds of dinner rolls, baguettes, classic Italian breads like ciabatta, focaccia, panini, pagnotta, filone, casareccio and more. I read that Mom's Whole Wheat Loaf is a must-try too so I have to get that next time. If you go and it's late in the day, call ahead to make sure they still have what you want.

This is their must-buy Pretzel Twist. Dolce Forno has replaced Rockenwagner as my pretzel bread go-to. Use the Pretzel Twist as a hamburger bun or just eat it plain and enjoy it's slightly salty and chewy exterior and moist, doughy center. Or, enjoy it the way I do which is to slice it in half horizontally, heat it for ten seconds in the microwave and then spread some salted butter on it. PURE CARB INDULGENCE. Oh, and did I say it's only 85 cents each?!

Dolce Forno also carries a small variety of muffins, danishes, Italian cookies and my favorite Chocolate Chip Cookie (after the ones I make of course, haha). It's crunchy around the edges and soft and chewy in the middle. I almost want to call it a Chocolate Layer Cookie because its got ribbons of chocolate layered throughout the cookie. I can probably eat ten of these in one sitting especially since it's only 95 cents each.

Besides breads and pastries, Dolce Forno sells their housemade dried pastas (i.e. linguini, fettuccine) and 2 to 3 varieties of frozen ravioli. I bought a 5lb bag of their mushroom ravioli and divided it myself when I got home. One pound will serve about 3 to 4 people depending on what else you're serving and it only takes 5 minutes to cook. I love having restaurant-quality food at home.

I can't believe Dolce Forno doesn't have a bigger retail shop. There are some good bakeries scattered around Los Angeles but with our infamous traffic, it is insanely hard to get to the handful or so good bakeries to buy good fresh breads and pastries. I refuse to believe the market doesn't demand more amazing bakeries like this. Are we really such an anti-carb obsessed city?

Dolce Forno Bakery
3828 Willat Ave.
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 280-6004
Mon - Fri: 8am to 5pm
*Direction Tip: If you follow the directions on Google Maps, you will not find the bakery. I've filed a bug report with Google but while they're fixing it, it's best to use Mapquest which has it right. You access the alley right behind Del Taco on Venice/Robertson and you'll see street signs for Willat Ave. and Hoke Ave. Limited street parking and the Dolce Forno sign isn't very big so don't blink!

A few of my other favorite bakeries
12225 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 979-3211

Angel Maid
4542 S. Centinela Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90066
(310) 915-2078
*They specialize in cakes though they do have some pastries, cookies and great cream puffs. They have the best cakes in the city! They use whip cream frosting instead of heavy, sugary buttercream and have done wonderful cake designs for me.

225 6th St.
Santa Monica, CA 90049
(310) 566-2400

1014 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 451-2311

12835 Washington Blvd.
Mar Vista, CA 90066
(310) 577-0747

Susina Bakery
7122 Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 934-7900

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Best Burger Under $10 Alert! Hole in the Wall Reopened!

Philly Cheese Steak Burger of the Week @ Hole in the Wall Burger Joint

I've heard a lot about this joint and I finally got to try it last week in its newly reopened location in Santa Monica (across the DMV, by the Water Garden). One word: AMAZING. My burger was the perfect marriage of a medium-cooked beef patty, thinly-sliced steak and melted provolone cheese bound by a heavenly pretzel bun. I admit my Burger of the Week was a little messy to eat and my friends who ordered regular beef and turkey burgers didn't have to go through three napkins like I did but it was totally worth it every time I sunk my teeth into all that juicy goodness.

You go in and they have a list for you to put together your burger. Grab a pencil and start ticking off your delicious burger journey. The list of choices may seem short but don't let that fool you because the chef has given you his careful selections. They work! Don't forget those fries and if it's a Friday, treat yourself to a milkshake or cupcake for surviving the week. Then give the list to the cashier, pay and in less than 10 minutes, you'll be enjoying one of the best burgers in Los Angeles. 

One visit to Hole in the Wall and it was enough for me to come to the conclusion of what I've suspected all along. The more ubiquitous Counter Burger gives you a gazillion choices to put together your burger but no matter how much thought you've put into it, somehow your carefully put together ingredients will still result in the same mediocre taste. And that is regardless of how you've changed your cheeses, sauces and toppings. Sadly, the Counter Burger also tend to overcook their beef patties even when you order it medium or medium rare.

Between Hole in the Wall and The Counter Burger, I would choose Hole in the Wall any day. They use never-frozen grass-fed Angus beef, source their breads from a local bakery (more on that awesome bakery in my next blog post) and make their own spreads and ketchup. That soft pretzel bun alone is worth driving to Hole in the Wall for.

Hole in the Wall Burger Joint
2200 Colorado Ave
Santa Monica, CA 90404
(310) 449-0147
11am to 10pm daily
Parking tip: Metered street or 2-hr free at Arboretum Plaza, entrance on Colorado Ave., right off the Starbucks.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Staycation: Favorite Places to Eat in Los Angeles

I hate staycations. Why stay in the city you see everyday when you can jet to Tokyo, Paris or Hong Kong? 

That used to be my attitude until I really started to feel really ragged this year from the demands of work and life. So, I resolved to use the time during the holidays to discover and re-discover my favorite LA eats and complete all my personals tasks! I will not bore with you with my personal tasks but here's a list of some of the best places to eat if you too should decide on a staycation or you're visiting Los Angeles for the first time. They are organized geographically for the sake of maintaining sanity while driving in LA.

Happy New Year and may we all find many delicious eats in 2013!


$15 sashimi lunch special @ Sushi Gen
Sushi Gen has been in LA forever (at least 20+ years) and it's a beacon of delicious fish. This lunch special is a steal and I guarantee you'll be full. There's always a long line but if you're a planner like me, call and make a reservation at least a week in advance. Arrive 15 minutes before your reservation to get in the long line. When you get to the front of the line, there will magically be a table waiting for you. 

Best Fish Tacos @ Ricky's Fish Tacos
Ricky Pina's Baja-style fried fish and shrimp tacos are worth braving cross-town traffic for. It's crazy delicious and won't hurt your wallet - $12 should fill your belly. Located in Silverlake (adjacent to Downtown LA), Ricky serves out of the same parking lot on most days of the week and his hours can be tracked on his Twitter feed. I've written about Ricky's fish tacos before (post here) and he's just too good not be mentioned again.

Italian Dinner @ Bestia
Nestled in the Arts District of Downtown LA, this new darling of Italian cuisine will leave you smitten with Chef Ori Menashe's food and the beautiful dining room. Parties of two should try to nab a seat at the stylish long bar and watch the charcuterie get plated or the bartenders do their magic. I can't wait until the it gets warmer so I can sit in one of their long tables outside while sipping one of Julian Cox's kickass cocktails. A must-get on the menu is the housemade pasta: Cavatelli alla Norcina which comes dressed in an umami-rich suace of pork sausage, black truffles and grana padano cheese. Make sure you have some pizza crust or grilled bread on hand to soak up that extra sauce.


Donut Heaven @ Bob's Coffee & Donuts (The Farmers Market / The Grove)
It's worth waking up early and beating the crowd to park at The Farmers Market / The Grove and settle in with a warm Apple Fritter and coffee from Bob's on the weekends. Their Apple Fritters are rich and perfectly caramelized. And if you want to get fancy, there are plenty of other coffee shops in the market that'll serve you a espresso or a cappuccino instead of the regular cup of joe.

Nancy's Backyard Burger @ Short Order
Hey, get some shopping done while you're at The Grove. Guys can hit the Apple Store while the gals can see what all the fuss is about at Madewell. I personally prefer Anthropologie (hint, hint for the boyfriend).  All that shopping will make you hungry for lunch and Short Order is the perfect place to feed that hunger. It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Chef Nancy Silverton's food. I think Short Order is spot on with the medium-rare burger and extra-thick malted shakes. 

Epic seafood @ Son of a Gun
Can Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo do anything wrong these days? In Son of a Gun, they've given LA a place to eat creative seafood dishes without breaking the bank. Finally! That Lobster Roll is reason enough to keep me going back. One of my favorites is the Linguine & Clams smothered in a rich uni butter sauce. And there's even an amazing Fried Chicken Sandwich on the menu. 

Korean BBQ @ Genwa
Sure, there's Parks and the slew of AYCE joints in Koreatown but Genwa has won my heart with excellent prime beef, delicious banchans, a variety of bibimbap, jap chae and Korean dishes and top-notch service (the servers all speak English!). Best of all, I don't feel like I need a Silkwood shower after I eat there.


Hipster dinner @ The Hart & The Hunter
Every food blogger and writer in LA was sweating with anticipation until The Hart & The Hunter finally opened its doors in October 2012 and since then, it has topped all of their lists for favorite restaurants of the year. Hailing from the chef duo Kris Tominaga and Brain Dunsmoor who previously ran the Venice pop-up, Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, this new incarnation features Southern comfort food bathed in a hipster aura. 

The most outstanding item on the menu are the deceptively plain Biscuits. The biscuits were so buttery good, I ordered it as an appetizer and dessert and luckily someone in the party had raspberry jam in her purse! The rest of the menu are small plates meant to be shared and the Hangar Steak, Chopped Steak Tartare and Fried Green Tomatoes were all good. The scene is indisputably hipster - mismatched, chipped porcelain plates (taken from grandma's cabinet?), vintage-like decor, servers in tight pants, hats and grungy hair and of course, the effortlessly cool crowd. The dining room is way to loud to carry serious conversations (please get rid of those tiled walls!) but I'm still recommending The Hart & The Hunter for the service, the biscuits and overall menu, which I suspect will get better and better judging from their food at Wolf in Sheep's Clothing.

Burning dinner dollars @ Ink
I'd like to make a special note about Ink even though I didn't go recently. I went earlier in 2012 and the meal never left me. Well, how could I when we spent almost $250 per person? But seriously, Michael Voltaggio puts out amazing food and the tasting menu was a great way to try the favorites. We went before the foie gras ban and the foie gras was served sandwiched between two waffle cookies and dots of sriracha sauce. Sadly, the foie gras has since been replaced by something else thanks to that numbskull ban in July. The only thing I don't recommend is the dessert. There was too much "molecular gastronomy" going on and the dessert part got lost in the techniques. 


Delicious shared plates for dinner @ Fundamental LA
Run by a couple of chefs who've put in time with some of California and New York's best restaurants, this blink-and-you'll-miss-it restaurant is not to be missed if you're in the Westwood/UCLA area. Lunch features hearty gourmet sandwiches and dinner is a variety of modern dishes reflecting these chefs' fine-dining training but the food never gets lost in the technique. Favorite dishes include the ultra-smooth chicken liver toast, a new take on gnocchi topped with a sous vide egg and anything featuring duck.  Their thoughtful wine and craft beer list is a big plus.

Japanese Cuisine @ Shunji
Shunji is not your usual sushi bar. Sure, you'll find very good sushi here but the star is Chef Shunji Nakao's omakase tasting menu featuring anything from unusual vegetables like lotus root, monkfish liver, sashimi to squid-ink pasta dressed with uni and a quail egg. The food comes artfully plated - almost too pretty to eat and demanding at least moments of admiration before you dive in with your chopsticks. Shunji's location in a former grungy rib shack with limited parking and restroom facilities you have to access from outside the restaurant might be unsettling to some but their fear is our gain!

(photo from Mercado website)

Excellent contemporary Mexican @ Mercado
It's really hard to find good Mexican food on the Westside, especially if you don't want to be sitting on the curb while chowing down on tacos. Chef Jose Acevedo makes a mouth-watering variety of small plates (Dos Gringas al pastor tacos, an addictive Choriqueso dip) and large plates (slooooow-roasted Carnitas, Carne Asada and Pollo Chipotle) and you can enjoy it all while sipping a cocktail in their stylish dining room just off the Santa Monica Promenade. And do yourself a favor, order the Flan dessert even if you're full. If I'm watching my wallet, I go to their Happy Hour from 5pm to 7pm which features some of the menu favorites like the Dos Gringas.

(Pork Tsukemen from Tsujita)

Noodle Joints
I inhale noodles. The Westside is weirdly and luckily well-populated with excellent ramen shops and recently, I've been happy to add a Vietnamese pho shop to the list. Seriously, I'm thankful for that every day! Here is short list of my favorites.
  • Santouka - I'm referring to the one on Centinela Ave., inside the Mitsuwa Market.
  • Tsujita - Ramen is only served during lunch and the line gets very, very long for good reason. The noodles are thick and al dente - unlike it's many competitors - and the pork chashu is tender with just the right amount of meat to fat ratio and just look at that egg! Dinner is completely different menu and it's not worth it but do keep telling them that we want noodles for dinner. Tsujita has the most beautiful dining room of the bunch.
  • Ramenya - This is the only one on this list that doesn't specialize in some kind of pork bone broth boiled for a million hours. I've been coming to Ramenya for at least 15 years when they were pretty much the only ramen joint on the Westside and I appreciate the variety and simpler noodle soups, especially the Shrimp Omelette and Tan Tan Ramen. 
  • Nong La - Without Nong La, I would be forced to brave at least an hour of roundtrip traffic each weekend to inhale some decent Vietnamese pho, banh mi and egg rolls. This is not the bland, "inoffensive" pho that you'll find elsewhere in the Westside. The broth is strong, the beef is thinly sliced and served still pink when it reaches your table and there's even a good Bun Bo Hue on the menu!
  • Jinya - Thanks to Jonathan Gold's ringing endorsement, this ramen shop has exploded with its rich, pork bone broth noodles from one location to four locations in LA in a little under two years. 
  • Daikokuya - Just kidding! All ramen-lovers wish Daikokuya was on the Westside. The closest location to the Westside, is located in Little Tokyo in Downtown LA. That doesn't stop me from wishing every day that they'd open a Westside shop.