Sometimes we just make things too complicated.
The restaurants we saw on Day 6 of our Raves & Faves tour of Los Angeles were about simple choices, quality ingredients and understanding the priorities of life.
Think about it. When’s the last time you went on a simple picnic, where you loaded up a basket or a cooler and headed for a park or a beach? Well, if you are anywhere near a La Grande Orange, it’s time you did it again.
We visited the one in Santa Monica, which has only been open about seven months but has already hit its stride. It is based on its successful counterpart in Arizona that began nine years ago.
Bob Lynn is the man behind the idea. “We like to think of La Grande Orange as an extension of your home,” he says. “Breakfast, lunch or dinner—we serve what I consider California Picnic Food. It’s food you can eat all the time.”
Lynn adds, “Formality doesn’t necessarily mean quality. A lot of quality can be found in great casual food.”
It is—that word again—a simple concept. Walk in the front door, and you are greeted by the bakery cases full of muffins and mega cookies. Order off the chalkboard menu if you want breakfast or lunch, and go ahead, take it with you. Everything they serve is designed for portability, like the huge homemade English Muffins that can also be used in a breakfast sandwich.
Go around the corner, past the open kitchen, and you’ll find an elegant dining room, which opens after 5 p.m. OK, maybe that picnic can wait another day . . .
“During the day, it’s ‘order out,’” says Lynn. “At night, we turn it over to a restaurant. But all of our food is designed to go out.”
And, as he carefully watches the food preparation and delivery he says, ‘I believe in food that is really simple, has very clear direction, and comes from the heart.”
It’s not that “simple” means they don’t take their food seriously. There is a current competition in the Los Angeles area that has Lynn carefully monitoring his hamburgers.They have several—the Cheeseburger, grilled over white oak; the Shangri La Veggie-Nut Burger, a homemade veggie patty on a toasted bun; the Ahi Tuna Burger with fresh avocado (so good it could make you give up on any other sort of burger); and, the Green Chili Burger, with roasted poblano chilies and grated sharp cheddar.
It’s the Green Chili Burger under scrutiny right now, due to its nomination in the annual Angeleno Magazine Best Burger contest. They grind chuck roast for it fresh every day, and you can tell. It’s a terrific burger with great flavor, delicious bun, and a delightful spice to the accompanying fries.
Everything at La Grande Orange is baked on site, fresh every day. That includes cookies, such as the banana chocolate chip and the flourless chocolate walnut. Vegetables are fresh and local. And they have fun with their food, like the Shakin’ Lemonade that is made with Ketel One, lemonade and fresh rosemary picked right from the herb garden right outside their front door.
Lynn is justly proud of their emphasis on fresh. He says, ‘You can’t change ingredients, you can only help them reach their full potential.’ As an example, he brings out the Brussels Sprout Salad, served with Manchego cheese, almonds, and a honey-mustard vinaigrette. “It’s made with organic Brussels sprouts,” he says. “It’s very simple but people love that thing.’
Most of all, the whole process is easy. Lynn says, “People come in for breakfast. They come in later for cookies. They come for dinner. They use it almost as a community center.”
For me,” he adds, ‘The things that tend to be the most memorable are simple.’
A totally different concept is El Cholo, one of the four family-owned Mexican restaurants in the Los Angeles area. We visited the one in Irvine, where Rand Salisbury told us about how his great-grandparents started the restaurant in 1923.
For Salisbury, it comes down to simple, basic ingredients, like the cheese. He identifies that as one of the quality ingredients in his Mexican food that brings people back.
“From the very beginning, we’ve always used quality ingredients,” says Salisbury. For example, the cheddar cheese is aged six months before they even pick it up. They use a culotte steak for the fajitas instead of the typical cheaper cuts, and New York strip steak is used for the Carne Asada. The margaritas are made with 1800® Tequila.
“We use the top of the line products,” he says. The restaurant even uses cloth napkins, unusual for a restaurant where salsa drips are common. But, Salisbury shrugs and says, “All those little things make the difference.”
The menu at El Cholo is uncomplicated. You can order any of the “Combinaciones”, although regulars know to get No. 1. We recommend the Green Corn Tamales if you like the sweet taste of masa—these are extraordinary. The recipe goes back to 1923 and uses corn fresh off the cob, some of that aged cheddar cheese, and Ortega chile.
Or, try Joe’s Traditional Albondigas, a meatball soup, named after Jose “Joe” Reina, the original chef—another item that’s been served since the doors opened. It’s a heritage that’s being carried on by the current Executive Chef, Roberto Juarez. The meatballs are delicious, served in a flavorful red broth that is only slightly spicy.
Juarez echoes the restaurant’s commitment to quality. “It’s the most important,” he says. “Well, people are the most important—but they want quality!”
To demonstrate, he brought us the Chocolate Chimichanga, with fresh banana, ice cream, and cherries, plus a bowl of fresh berries and cream that was amazing.
“Price isn’t the deciding factor,” says Salisbury of his insistence on quality ingredients. “it’s not the bottom line that goes into our purchasing decisions.” No, it’s the desire for basic, simple ingredients that make up a quality meal.
“People don’t know why they come back,” he says, “but we know it’s the quality. That makes the difference.”
One restaurant has been open seven months; the other, 86 years. And yet, both talked about the basics of life, simplicity, and quality.
We think maybe they are on to something.
Join us in our search for quality as we move through Los Angeles this week, visiting restaurants on our Los Angeles Restaurant tour, sponsored by U.S. Foodservice. You can follow the tour on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/foodchannel or Facebook.
Read more from our tour:
Raves & Faves/L.A. Day 1 – Food That Sticks to You
Raves & Faves/L.A. Day 2 – Passion, Pride & Pleasure
Raves & Faves/L.A. Day 3 – Getting to Know You
Raves & Faves/L.A. Day 4 – Like Grandma & Grandpa Used to Make