Chains, independents & trucks; where the LA food scene is really headed…

680’000…2/3…67%…$500k…3 million.

Nope. Not the numbers of food items I’ve consumed, dreamed of, thought about, Pinned, Instagrammed or Tweeted this year.

In October 2013, there were nearly 680k restaurants operating in the US*. Interestingly, the majority (2/3) of those were independent – that is, not part of a national group – yet when compared to their culinary brothers-in-arms, the chains, they brought in far less revenue with 67% making below $500k a year; less than 25% of chains fell into that category.

Here’s another interesting fact – in 2012, there were an estimate 3 million food trucks in the US**.

Yep. I’m just gonna let you take a moment to absorb that. Three million. That’s a lot of wheely delicious food on the move…sorry, sorry, that’s the last time I spring a joke on you worthy of a place only in a Woolies 6 pack of crackers.

What’s my point here? Why am I raining numbers down on you in a style reminiscent of Grab-a-Grand from that staple of Saturday night TV, Noel’s House Party? Because having eaten recently in all 3 venues, it got me thinking about the sort of food America is known for and wondering if that’s changing as quickly as the rest of the global culinary landscape.

There are more independent restaurants than chains…there are a considerable amount of people each year starting up something new & different?

Chains generally make more money…over 1200 of them gross upwards of $5m annually suggesting that what people actually want is what they’ve always had?

More food trucks are popping up each year than it’s possible to keep track of…people want mouth-watering food minus the eye-watering pricetag?

In a country with 318m+ people, it’s not really surprising that they all want something different but perhaps this indicates a step towards a brave new world of food; although chains will never go out of business, sprouting up next to them now & seemingly refusing to go away are places that either inspire you to try something different, freeing your tastebuds from the same food you’ve had forever or reinvent it, leaving you thinking about what you ate long after your carton/box/paper plate is recycled.

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Pinches Tacos in LA is without doubt a cracking little beauty of a place to eat. With only 4 locations in Los Angeles & one that rented a Cadillac and took a trip to Vegas it’s never going to speak about, some might argue it could be classed as a small chain. For the purpose of this post, I’m gonna go ahead and call it a little independent Mexican place that serves the best tacos I’ve ever had. That’s all. Just keeping it casual with THE BEST TACOS I’VE EVER HAD. Sorry – slap on the back of the legs for shouting but I had to make sure you were really listening to me.

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When you’re eating somewhere that has an outside area, it’s nice if the view is half decent. Call me picky but the car park of a supermarket, the blank wall of next door or the alleyway of a questionable neighbourhood do not an enjoyable vista make. Luckily for me, J – a longtime afficionado of Pinches – took me to Sunset Boulevard from where I could sit and look at the gothic splendour of the historically, melodramatic Chateau Marmont and the endless light-up-the-night-sky billboards of the strip.

Pinches label themselves as ‘making every location unique but giving every location the same feel. Not cookie cutters like big chain restaurants. We blend into our neighborhood and create a place you want to call your second home!’ Frankly, if this was my second home, I could embark upon a second career as the ‘Lady Made of Tacos’ because that is what I would be. Freak shows & circuses ahoy, your newest attraction is right over here wiping guacamole off her chins…

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If you judge a place entirely on its exterior, you’re only ever going to eat certain things at certain places. I’m not saying you don’t want to exercise a little caution but sometimes, the places that don’t look 5* from the outside deliver nothing but 5* results on the inside. The guys in Pinches are some of the friendliest I’ve ever come across in thirty-ahem something years and 4 continents of dining and we were welcomed like buddies of theirs who drop in every week.

One thing about Mexican food? It never leaves you hungry. With that mind, J and I ordered one plate that came with 3 tacos, beans, rice & tortilla chips and an additional 3 tacos on their own to share. The result? An outstanding selection of carnitas, asada & pollo mole, sprinkled with cilantro (coriander to us Brits), onion & crumbly Mexican cheese and scenting the air above it with lime.

Soft, warm, hand-made tortillas. Fresh, crunchy onions & fragrant cilantro. Comfy piles of savoury beans & rice to fork up and sink into. Carnitas that was tender and juicy without a scrap of fat on it but with a gorgeously fatty flavour running through it. Asada perfectly charred into succulent strips of supreme meatiness.  Pollo mole that I still have alarmingly long flashbacks to; this was undoubtedly my favourite, something I’d always wanted to try. It was ridiculously delicious – rich and deep in flavour, dark and glossy in appearance, the hint of chocolate & chilli enveloping tender chicken was extraordinairy. There have been a few dishes on this trip that have seriously made me question the point of trying something else; this pollo mole was one of them.

You in LA? You hungry? You want tacos? For the love of re-fried beans, why are you still reading this?! Bookmark it, come back later when your belly is glutted and you’ve no energy to do anything more than read and get yourself to Pinches.

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Now we’ve done our independent, it’s time to roll on over to one of the biggest burger chains around. Started in 1948 and now with 290 locations and in excess of 10’000 staff, it might seem small fry – I can’t help myself, put that one in the Woolies cracker joke box too please – compared to the burger behemoths that are McDonalds, Burger King & Jack In The Box but there’s no denying that In’N’Out is a major player in the West Coast fast food league.

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In’N’Out has firmly established its place in pop culture with appearances in rap songs & the hands of Oscar winning celebrities, a simple menu (and a not-so-secret one too), unfussy decor, smiley staff and ingredients that are proudly advertised as fresh and natural. Fans include Julia Child for heaven’s sake – who is anyone to argue with the dietary cravings of this kitchen queen?

With a 4 year absence since one of these beauties sat before us, J and I were Augustus-Gloop-in-a-chocolate-river-happy at the thought that we’d finally be able to silence the craving within and y’know what? I think this time, we really did. I have to be honest and say that with the exception of the shake, the rest of the meal did not live up to my golden-bun-and-juicy-patty memories. The burger was, dare I say it, flavourless and uninspiring. Well cooked, yes. Generous slices of tomato and onion, yes. Soft, nicely toasted bun, yes. Tasty? Umm, no. A burger should be a thing of decadent beauty, drippy, messy and full of flavour. This was none of those things.

If however I was disappointed by the burger, it literally pains me to talk about the fries, most of which I left. I left! I left food! I left food that is fries! This. Never. Happens. They were the worst fries I’ve ever had. Tepid at best – something probably not helped by the mountain of luke-warm plastic cheese smothering them – they had the texture of wood and the flavour of cardboard despite the extra pickles & onions that came from making them ‘Animal Style’. Fries should be golden & piping hot, crunchy on the outside with a fluffy interior you wouldn’t mind bedding down for the night in. These were none of those things.

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Yet despite my ever increasing disappointment, there was one element of this meal that made up for all the others – behold, the Neopolitan shake. Found on the secret menu – which is actually secret only to the one man who lives on a broadband-free island in the middle of the atlantic – it’s a combination of the traditional strawberry, chocolate & vanilla shakes and I swear right now, if we were on the street, passed an In’N’Out and had no money, I’d totally sell you out for one of these. If the fries will live forever on my not-if-I-was-starving-to-death list, the shake tops my better-than-the-nectar-of-heaven list. Stupidly sweet & crazily creamy, it sounds like it would hurt your fillings and terrify your dentist. It won’t. You’ll just find yourself unable to put it down, taking one big, long, slurping, desperate gulp after another while your dining companion edges further & further away. Who cares?! Dine alone! Promise it’s worth it.

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We now loosen our waistbands and head towards Marina del Rey for a petite sample of the LA food truck scene. Last month, the Daily Meal ranked the 101 best food trucks in America and Los Angeles headed up that list with 16, offering everything from Phillie inspired hot dogs to gourmet burgers and the freshest of sushi.

Marina del Rey, an affluent Californian coastal town known for its yachting community, is now also home to Food Truck Thursdays held near Mother’s Beach. There’s a rotation of trucks in attendance so you can pick and choose which ones you fancy exploring (Twitter is your best way of keeping in the know) and each week, between 6 and 8 will converge in a parking lot to tout their wares and make passing commuters hit the exit ramp in search of delicious spontaneity.

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When we went, the offerings included lobster, burgers, sushi and soul food and it was to this last one that we headed. Postcards Central American Soul Food advertises, with understandable pride, ‘a unique gourmet experience featuring the finest ingredients from time tested Soul Food recipes fused with the savory flavors and seasonings only found in Central American cuisine.’ Seriously, who would not want to try something from that menu?

With dishes such as mac’n’cheese and dirty rice, and ingredients like chicken and kale gracing their menu board, what I really wanted to do was have one of everything. As we were headed out for dinner elsewhere later that night, this was neither practical nor possible though the idea of giving 2 dinners a shot doesn’t disgust me entirely somedays. Ok. Most days.

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There’s always room for appetisers though, correct? A bowl of nuts with a beer, a basket of crisps with a glass of wine…both socially acceptable pre-dinner snacks so why not a portion of sweet potato fries with cilantro dipping sauce? So fresh they were piping hot to the touch and steaming when bitten into, these fries were superb. Crispy without being cornflour-coated-and-claggy, they were the perfect vehicle to transport the lively, piquant dip which was bursting with the fresh zing of coriander.

Sat on the edge of the sandy marina under blue skies and overlooking blue waters while nearby families indulged their cravings and introduced their children to new global cuisine, every aspect of the food truck craze was brought together perfectly here; the unusual food you may not have tried, the al fresco eating with your hands, the communal experience of shared delight…lover of food trucks? Oh yes. Sign me up & send me my badge because this is one fan club I’m proud to belong to.

Also, is there anything greater than seeing toddlers trying food that some well-educated grown-ups back away from with a complete lack of pre-conceived ideas, fear or suspicion? I love it.

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My recent time in LA allowed me the luxury of indulging in an exceptionally wide variety of food, served at chains, independents & food trucks. Which did I like best? I don’t know. Which would I pick if I had to choose one type to eat at for the rest of my greedy-tummy-filling life? Couldn’t tell ya. What I can say is that all offered something I was looking for and maybe that’s the best thing to take away from it all; you don’t have to pick one but do yourself a favour and be brave enough to try all 3.

Stepping outside of your edible comfort zone is hard; you know what you like and as time & money are both precious commodities nowadays, why wouldn’t you stick with what you know, like and can depend on. Well you can – but dip that toe into something new & intriguing and you might just find a whole new world opens up. On second thoughts, we’re sat/stood at a table/truck so keep your feet covered and dip a hand instead…

 

*Research taken from http://www.chd-expert.com/resource-center/2013-overview-of-independent-restaurants-in-the-us

**www.foodbeast.com/2012/09/27/there-are-about-3-million-food-trucks-in-the-u-s-can-your-truck-make-it/

 

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