Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Smashing All of My Circuits

Because it is such a short flight from Seattle, and one that remains in the same time zone from beginning to end, it's hard to accept that coming to Los Angeles means entering a whole other universe. Even in the placid neighborhood of West Hollywood, where I would sleep for the next five days, sharp sunlight cast tropical shadows and the sky was a piercing blue, accented by the fronds of palm trees. Flowers that I usually see in Bangkok were part of the landscape and when I went for coffee on my first morning I was hit by the fragrance of dok gau--a whole hedge of those fragile white blossoms.

There were surprises--the silence of the residential area where I stayed, with so little traffic that this small dude ruled the street.

And flowers that had to have been invented by Dr. Seuss--bottlebrush flowers that are usually found in Australia and India.

I was in this part of town just long enough for contrast; soon after my arrival, my friend the L.A. Resident took me to one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, Eagle Rock. Next door to the bowling alley that was an integral part of the beginning of Reservoir Dogs is a corral of food trucks and an assortment of chairs and tables. More of a community picnic than an outdoor food court, accessorized by craft booths selling distinctive and pricey jewelry, the space was heavily populated with families of small children and gentrification seemed at a minimum.

In fact, according to an Eagle Rock blogger, who moved to the area with the hopes of turning it into Pasadena, the food trucks are discouraging the economics of gentrification, along with the neighborhood pot shops and the carloads of Armenian gangmembers. (Yup. that's what she said.) Her fancy coffee shop is often eclipsed by a food truck selling shaved ice and the local Trader Joe's is suffering too. I don't know about you but that would be enough to keep me patronizing the food trucks every night of the week. Plus the food is damned good.

On the way there, we passed miles of small businesses whose signs were in Spanish. On the way back signs written completely in Thai gleamed through the dark blue night. The air was cool and when I reached my room, I pulled a down comforter around me, closed my eyes, and was dazzled by memories of neon without translation and the fragrance of small ghostly flowers.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Around the World in Five Days without a Passport--Part One

This is what I expected to see in Los Angeles--a fantasy-filled corner brimming with props for rent or for sale. But except for that, the huge CBS complex, and morning preparations for a red-carpet gala evening, the movie business wasn't a keynote of my five days in the city. Instead what I saw was a city that has never heard of assimilation--at least not yet.

I live in a city that's a collection of small towns. Los Angeles is a collection of small cities, each one its own separate entity, independent of its neighboring counterparts. And best of all, each with its own food, which is served to people who want the real thing.

Even in the downtown area, which is being revitalized by turning warehouses into living-lofts and condominiums, the revamped Grand Central Market proved it wasn't just another trendy place to graze. I was dubious when I walked in and was greeted with Egg Slut, but just a few feet away I stopped dead in my tracks. There, behind a cluttered counter, was a plate of crisp and golden khanom krok, the bite-sized coconut-milk-filled pancake that is limp and flabby in this country, assuming that it can be found at all.

The ones at Sticky Rice looked a lot like this: (credit to ch3rri-blossoms.blogspot.com/)

and when I bought a little box of them, the woman who sold them to me told me to be careful because they were still hot. They were perfect, and although I walked the length of the market as I ate them, I knew where I was going to have my lunch.

I had no intention of eating Thai food in Los Angeles--my goals were Mexican and Korean places on this trip. But only a fool would pass up a place that could make khanom krok that was as good (or even better) than what I've enjoyed in Bangkok. Besides, I'd been slapped with a horrendous cold and it was screaming for Thai chile peppers. I ordered the Chiang Mai signature dish of khao soi, sat at the lunch counter, and let the lime and chile go to work on my sinuses while I watched flames shoot up from an open grill. Next time I'm in town, I'm getting the grilled pork neck.

Downtown L.A. is a mixture of nascent gentrification and urban life in the rough. There are at least two separate communities on the streets and they don't seem to mingle much. People who clearly have nothing live their lives on the pavement without panhandling those who clearly have much more,

It's an area that is on the cusp--Skid Row meets Starbucks. At this point it's still affordable to people with fixed incomes--one loft conversion had studios for under $800, utilities included and no pet fee. Yes, I was tempted. Only a block away was The Last Bookstore, an old bank building that is now a mixture of new and used books and very quirky art.

If I lived in one of those studios, one of my neighbors would be the Bradbury Building of BladeRunner fame and across the street from that is this:

There are newsstands

and street murals.

It's a place with pedestrians and parks and a supermarket. It's also, according to a downtown free newspaper, "where some people are quite happy. Others are quite hungry." The Last Bookstore directs its customers to Starbucks when they need a restroom and Starbucks is feeling a bit strained as a result. Famous for their clean toilets, their Spring Street outlet pushes that envelope just a trifle--bring your own toilet paper.

The disparities of this part of the city would become jagged to me if I lived in this neighborhood--and yet there are others...

Friday, March 6, 2015

My Favorite Glutton Strikes Again!

All over the world people are looking for street food, except perhaps for the people who grew up eating it. They’re often looking for more “sophistication” in their dining choices, which range from McDonalds to elegant sous vide joints, depending upon their income levels. They’re replaced by travelers, whose eagerness to find street food is exceeded only by their ignorance. Where? What? When?  (And sometimes)—Why?

Four years ago, Chawadee Nualkhair (www.bangkokglutton.com) brought light to the darkness for Bangkok visitors when she wrote Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls, which is now out of print but still relevant if you can find one on alibris or at a used bookstore. (I suggest Dasa Books and Coffee in Bangkok.) This year she brings Thailand’s Best Street Food to eaters whose ambition surpasses their local knowledge—or for Thai residents who are overwhelmed by their culinary choices.

It may seem hubristic to the point of madness to narrow Thailand’s street food choices to a scant 160 pages, but that isn’t what Ms. Nualkhair is doing. She has written a sort of eater’s primer, giving a springboard of information that will launch the reader’s own journey of discovery—or, with any luck at all, her own series of street food guides to the regions she introduces in her latest book.

She begins with questions: Is street food dying out? What is a street food stall? How did she make her selections for this book? The question and answer that I loved best in her first book is absent here: How do you determine the hygiene of a particular vendor? Nualkhair’s advice is look carefully at the jars that hold condiments; if they aren’t clean, walk away.

A visual glossary to different kinds of noodles with accompanying ingredients and broth, fried noodles, rice dishes, appetizers and snacks, desserts, and beverages, with names in both English and Thai is almost worth the price of the book. Don’t want ice in your drink? Point to the Thai script for it and shake your head vigorously with a dramatic rendition of “Nononono." The only thing missing is the Thai script for “Where is the toilet?” which just might come in handy.

Otherwise the reader is covered, beyond a doubt. There are maps to each culinary destination; there are names and addresses of the food stalls both in English and in Thai, there are wonderful and tempting photographs (that certainly deserve more space than they have been given), and every so often there is a recipe—Elvis Suki’s Grilled Scallops, anyone? Adventurous eaters are even told which stalls have restrooms and which do not provide bathroom tissue.

The choices range from north to south, with the greatest concentration given to Bangkok. But every region is given careful attention—think quality over quantity, along with information that will help in conducting further independent study.

Really, what more does anyone need? On my next trip to Thailand, this book is going along too.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Mrs 'Arris Goes to Paris--Seattle Version

My neighborhood is not known for its sartorial elegance. There are cute and perky girls who look great in the latest trends, many of which come straight from Tokyo, but they're cute, not drop dead. But then we live in a city where a visitor from San Francisco once said, "The people are so earthy, so real so Paul Bunyonesque." And that was at least ten years before grunge took over--Seattle has always had the dowdy and well-made garb of old money or the utilitarian clothing of fishermen and loggers.

So when I saw a coat on the street outside my apartment that was unlike I had ever seen in my life, I almost stopped moving. It looked something like this:

The woman who wore it looked as though she'd been born with it on--it was part of her, when it could well have overwhelmed her. Briefly I wondered where she was from and then carried on with my errands.

When I returned, I did stop in my tracks. In the window of Kobo, a neighborhood shop/gallery was a coat, much like the one I had seen earlier. It floated like a soap bubble or a spiderweb caught in fabric. I went into the shop that I rarely ever frequent and asked "What is that coat in the window? It's the most beautiful piece of clothing I've ever seen."

"Come and meet the designer," I was told, and was led to a room filled with color and fabric collage and clothes that looked as though they would dissolve at a single touch.

As a woman smiled at me, I blurted. "I saw you earlier today and I thought you were the most perfectly dressed person. I almost stopped to tell you."

"Here is the designer," she gestured toward a woman who was much sturdier than she, with the hands of a worker, eyes filled with a kind of divine madness, and a genuinely warm smile.

The clothes were magnetizing me. I moved toward them, trying not to moan and reaching out with one fingertip. "The colors," I breathed. "They are natural," the designer said, "for the blue, I use a plant." "Indigo," I murmured and she smiled, "Yes."

I was drowning in the blues: turquoise, aqua, deep blue. It was like walking through a tide pool, with many magical objects shimmering through the hues. The fabric was a treasure trove of textures and small pieces of flotsam, bits of beach glass and shells and silkworm larva that looked like gold leaf.

"Put something on," the designer said and I said, "I'm too big." "No," she said and her companion held out one of the deep blue overdresses. Tentatively I put one arm in a sleeve, then the other, and stood before a mirror, spellbound.

There is an enchantment connected to Hatsumi Yoshida's clothes. When a piece is on the body, it belongs there. I stood with the same look of belonging to the fabric that I had noticed as part of the beautiful woman on the street earlier in the day. These clothes become whoever puts them on.

And they are playful--a Chanel-cut jacket became a piece of ribbon candy, something that could be worn every day as part of the owner's life. A lace scarf that looked as evanescent as sea foam became a bolero, then when turned upside down, a long jacket. Necklaces that resembled regal Elizabethan collars were designed to be scrunched into different shapes once on the body.

For art, none of these things were expensive, For me, all of it was. I finally began to say goodbye, looking wistfully at the beauty that I wanted so much to own.

"Wait," Hatsumi said, "I have something to give customers." She held out a little bag filled with tiny gleaming beaded pins that looked like a child's dream of silkworms. "But I'm not a customer," I protested. She put a number of different colors on the counter and said, "Choose one."

I went home still wrapped in the magic of her clothes. I dreamed of them and the next morning I went out and bought art to keep, a piece of forest and sea on a bag with a long string of beads to keep it on my shoulder. I carried it when I followed some dragon and lion dancers through the streets where I live and it felt as though it had always been with me.

Hatsumi Yoshida's studio is in Bali, a place I had never wanted to go--until now. You can see her work at www.studiosuna.com