Thank You, Anthony Bourdain

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Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential

“I’m not going anywhere. I hope. It’s been an adventure. We took some casualties over the years. Things got broken. Things got lost.

“But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” —Anthony Bourdain

Friday, June 8: the final morning of my latest business trip. I opened my eyes to a shrieking alarm in a Las Vegas hotel room. I reached for the phone, last night still weighing my body down, and placed my thumb over the virtual snooze button.

A few minutes passed and just before dozing off, the sound of a text message kept me conscious. I could have ignored it and waited for the alarm to start again but something told me it deserved a look. It was my wife.

“Babe, Bourdain killed himself,” the text read.

In an instant, the drinks from the night before were erased. My mind cleared, my heart sank, and my soul ached. This, over a man whose hand I never shook.

I met my wife in late 1997 at the job I took as a freshman to pay for college. Like me, she had immigrated to the United States as a child with her parents, leaving behind the civil war that tore El Salvador apart. Both of us only knew El Salvador through the stories our parents told. Our personalities shaped by the city of Los Angeles and our Salvadoran roots. We grew close quickly and married about a year after we began dating. Three years later, we had our first child.

Of course, being a young couple, reality was far from a paradise. We had no money, worked long hours, and had this beautiful girl to somehow nurture and protect. Our only respite from the daily grind was television.

We came across No Reservations one night in 2005. We both enjoyed the show but to me, it was like a drug. I couldn’t get enough of it. We’d spend hours watching television into the night but I clamored for the times at which the Travel Channel presented Anthony Bourdain’s gastronomical adventures on No Reservations and later on The Layover. Here was this chef who was foul-mouthed, loved to drink, of course worshipped food, and narrated his various life experiences in a beautifully poetic, yet honestly raw manner.

Anthony Bourdain was authentic. There were many television hosts that traveled and tasted food but none like Tony. Having earned his way up through the kitchens of the Jersey Shore in his teens starting out as a dishwasher, he was always seemingly on the same level as his viewers. It didn’t matter, to him or us, that he was a distinguished chef who had seen the world and had opportunities we never did.

Never hiding behind a Travel Channel persona, Bourdain was an open book. He shared various escapades of his life, some hilariously embarrassing, others just regrettable. He was sincere about his battles with heroin and cocaine addiction. I tuned in to watch a flawed individual with a passion for food and a gift for storytelling. Through each episode he provided a seductive account of a chapter of his life and made me feel like I was there alongside him.

Bourdain enjoyed fine dining as most chefs do but he had a special bond for street food, hole-in-the-wall dives, and local working-class spots. He had respect for the people—often immigrants—behind these establishments and he never made himself superior to any of them.

The ultimate realization of No Reservations, its predecessor A Cook’s Tour, and the final incarnation, CNN‘s Parts Unknown, was that these shows were not about food but about cultural enlightenment and acceptance. Bourdain’s shows were about the people that toiled over their food and were equally happy to share the fruits of their labor with those who respected their work and their passion. In each episode, he introduced us to a people’s plight, their struggles, their fears, their insecurities, and their love, through their food. At the same time, we learned these same qualities about him.

The news of Tony’s passing shook me as if I had lost a dear friend. And in a way, I did. Through his words, I got to know him, I got to know others, and I even learned a little about myself. I thank him for helping me get over the fear of growing older. Now, as my 40’s loom just over the horizon, I don’t envision an old man preparing for the latter, less interesting part of his life. Instead, I face these new years with optimism and confidence. I know the scars of the past 38 years have prepared me for the years ahead. I know if I enjoy life and seek out new adventures, I will never be old. I know that old is a state of mind and that I am never too old for a new piercing, a new tattoo, a new wound, or a new story to tell.

Thank you, Tony, for helping me see the world and for showing me it is possible to find happiness in being yourself while learning from those around you.

Making Noise in Los Angeles: Fernando Lopez

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Fernando Lopez, Sr. standing in front of Guelaguetza at its Grand Opening. | Photo: Courtesy of Guelaguetza | kcet.org

The city of Los Angeles is filled with stories of people who came to L.A. to make their dreams reality—to make some noise. The American Dream may be harder than ever to define and achieve but in a city that welcomes immigrants from all over the world, that dream still exists.

One person who came to Los Angeles in search of that dream is Fernando Lopez. Like so many others, Fernando made the difficult decision of leaving his wife and children behind to come to the United States in search of better opportunities.

He came to Los Angeles in 1993, as the city was undergoing a painful recovery from the riots of the year before. City neighborhoods had been burned to rubble, people were assaulted and killed, and L.A. was considered a dangerous place to live. This was particularly true in the neighborhood of Koreatown, where racial tensions exploded.

Mr. Lopez immediately began to set the groundwork for what would become Guelaguetza. Armed with his beloved Oaxacan recipes, he started to sell food door to door. Los Angeles has always had strong Mexican food choices but most restaurants and street vendors in those days focused on the more commonplace tacos and burritos. In fact, some people thought he should stop working to bring something new to the city and focus on tacos for a faster source of income.

The Oaxacan population in Los Angeles, however, was waiting for someone to bring them a taste of home. Mr. Lopez made enough inroads to open Guelaguetza only one year later on the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Irolo Street. Before long, food lovers of all nationalities and backgrounds flocked to this intersection of Koreatown to sample the recipes Fernando had brought with him to America.

Guelaguetza strikes a balance between Latino and Korean cultures. The architecture is representative of beautiful Korean structures with curved roofs including a pagoda-style top at the front of the restaurant. The white decorative uprights resemble columns found on Korean temples.

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Guelaguetza Restaurant | Photo: Courtesy of Guelaguetza | ilovemole.com

The exterior walls are painted a vibrant red-orange but it’s the murals depicting immigrant life in Los Angeles that truly connect with the people. Inside, it is undoubtedly a genuine Mexican restaurant. On any given night, the place is packed. Noise from the crowd, combined with the live music that plays nightly, fills the air. This is a place to eat, drink, socialize, sing, and have fun while doing all of it.

Fernando and his wife, Maria Monterrubio, spent 18 years serving the Los Angeles community and raising their three children. At the height of success, the Lopez family owned and operated six restaurants. The family business allowed them to provide a college education for all three of their kids, preparing them to one day take over and perhaps even take the business beyond their father’s original vision.

The economic downturn and other factors forced Mr. Lopez to contract the business and refocus his efforts—and those of his children—on Guelaguetza. Today, Fernando Jr., Paulina, and Bricia Lopez run the restaurant. The music continues to play, Angelenos still love it, and the food and drinks are superb. If you’re outside of Los Angeles, you can even buy the family’s highly acclaimed mole through the restaurant’s website—it’s Guelaguetza for the digital age.

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The Lopez family | Photo: Maya Sugarman/KPCC | scpr.org

Fernando Lopez came to Los Angeles with a dream. He worked tirelessly to reach his goals and create a better life for he and his family. The road was not always easy but the Lopez family persevered. Guelaguetza is a staple of Los Angeles, a mark of Angeleno unity, and a symbol of the American Dream.

 

The Thanksgiving Meal: A Family Affair

October brings us playoff baseball and the World Series. It’s packed with evenings of fun frights at haunted houses and theme parks, all capped off with Halloween. In magnificent contrast, November is about warmth in cold weather, family ties—and food. Carved pumpkins disappear and the smell of pumpkin pie fills homes all around the country. Thanksgiving tradition dictates you cook the biggest turkey you can afford (even if only two are eating) and enough sides to completely cover the dining table.

At home, Thanksgiving Day begins early. The turkey has been brining since Wednesday for flavor and succulence. After letting the excess brine drain out into the sink and patting it dry, the bird gets stuffed with a blend of fruits, spices, and herbs for a unique aroma. It then goes into the oven to cook for hours.

The real work in the kitchen takes place while the turkey slowly roasts. This is when my wife—with help from her sister and our oldest daughter—really gets down to it. Together, they begin work on the copious sides and desserts of the day. They have my utmost love and respect as I’m left to do the easy work. My responsibility is to entertain the munchkin, keep her happy, and out of the kitchen.

The early start to the day means everything is ready in time for a late lunch. Our place is small and we can only invite my wife’s parents and perhaps one or two other guests. A few people fit at the table along the serving plates but each of us takes a plate and sits wherever possible. The payoff of the day’s efforts is audible as we each take the first bites of a turkey that is juicy and flavorful on the inside with a crispy skin on the outside. Accompanying dishes vary by the year but some memorable ones include diced sweet carrots, rich mashed potatoes, and a creamy mac & cheese. My personal favorite is a once-a-year apple-cranberry sauce that gives the turkey a tangy, yet sweet additional layer. For dessert, a slice of delicious pie usually follows and caps off our lunch. The combination of turkey, starch, and sugar leave us temporarily lethargic and the day moves while we sit in perfect bliss.

As the day winds down, our few guests leave and only my wife, our two girls, and our dog remain inside the house. Dinner is a second helping of our own food, dessert, and a drink of choice, while watching a movie or binge watching a show. The hectic Thanksgiving Day now comes to a serene conclusion.

Blazing Pomona Sun

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I have a confession to make. In 37 years of life, I have never attended the Los Angeles County Fair. My wife was in the same position. We set out to change that this year.

We used Groupon to find a deal on passes for the whole family. The trip would consist of my wife and I, our two daughters, and their grandma. September was lining up to be a busy one for us and only had a few days to choose from. Despite a late Saturday, we decided Sunday the 10th was the day we’d make the trip to the city of Pomona. Having never been to the fair, we thought it was best to get out there early. We set out for a 40-minute drive at around 11:30 in the morning.

It was the 12 o’clock hour when we were driving with the parking lot crowd, being directed to our spot. We stepped out of the air-conditioned car and onto a wall of heat. This was the first indication the day would not be as enjoyable as I had thought.

Entry was easy enough. We slipped our 1-year-old into the stroller, locked the car, and walked towards the giant canopies signaling the entrance.

There was not much of a line and we walked right inside. I felt like a tourist immediately. I stood in place, lost, trying to figure out how many tickets I should purchase, the cost of each ride, and the direction we needed to go.

Buying tickets was the first task. If we wanted to do anything at the fair, we would need tickets. As it turns out, “tickets” is now nothing more than the term associated with paying for rides or games at a fair. I was not given carnival-style tickets. Instead, I was given a card that had preloaded credits. Hopping on a ride required I hand the card to an employee so that it could be scanned and the credits subtracted from its balance.

With “tickets” in hand, we decided it was best to grab lunch before trekking through the place. As we walked in the direction of the food, I was seduced by the barbecue stand. It was a massive grill with slab after slab of ribs, chickens cut in half, sausages, kabobs, and giant turkey legs. My wife and mother-in-law continued walking but I knew I would be sitting down with ribs and a pile of napkins.

After picking up my ribs, we all reunited at a roundtable with an umbrella to block out the sun. We sat down to a table of ribs, a half chicken, tacos, sopes, a quesadilla, and my oldest daughter’s plain hot dog (teenagers). The barbecue spot was the clear winner. The tacos and quesadilla were just okay and the sopes were smothered in beans with tiny sprinklings of meat, lettuce, and tomatoes. At least the ribs and chicken were satisfying enough to keep us in good spirits. It was time to finally begin our expedition of the grounds.

The sun was beating down on us from the peak of its daily arc. We walked along the path from the food area and came across a haunted house. Having just watched It the night before, my daughter and I were both in the mood for a good scare. I was not thinking clearly. I was obviously still lost in the smoke of the ribs. It did not dawn on me this was an old-school, drive-thru attraction consisting only of twists through a dark path and carefully timed recorded screams. Not only was it not scary, it was over in less than two minutes. As the exit doors swung open and our car pushed through to where we began, a child was passing by with his mother and asked us if it was scary. Our reply, a resounding, “No!”

The sun continued to walk directly above us, its rays slowly draining our energy with each step. We eventually reached an indoor exhibit of Alice in Wonderland. We rushed inside to escape the heat. There were paintings, floral arrangements, and various sets, all inspired by the story of the girl lost in a magical world. There was even a section with real animals that had been portrayed in the tale. We spent as much time as possible inside, making sure to stop at the bridge with artificial rain before stepping outside again.

We walked past the dinosaur exhibit. It was simply too excruciatingly hot to take on that uphill climb. Instead we located a coconut vendor and purchased two fresh ones. We sat down across from the cockatoo exhibit and watched them splay their wings while we drank coconut water.

We remained in place for at least 30 minutes before continuing to the exotic animal area. I was excited to find myself so close to a giraffe, ostriches, porcupines, and others but nobody else seemed to share my excitement. I walked through the entire area while the rest of the family watched from afar, perched by some trees enjoying the shade.

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I stopped to get a giant waffle cone with matching scoops of mango and strawberry gelato. This was enough to cool us down for a bit and give us enough of a sugar rush to get through what remained of the fair. We made it all around and reached the front area again. Grandma and the baby had both had enough by this point. The munchkin was asleep in her stroller and we left Grandma sitting down under a tree with her.

The remaining three of us made our way to the Crazy Coaster. The three of us had been on bigger coasters and we didn’t think this would be great but it was worth trying. The car you sit in is shaped like a half doughnut, with the leg holds coming down from the center of the car out to each seat. The car itself does not move at a high rate of speed but the turns are sharp and sudden. The outside seats feel as though you’re off the track the entire time while the turns practically launch you from the tracks. The intense part comes after the initial drop, as the car begins to spin while traveling down the track. It’s the equivalent of taking one of the Disney teacups and having it travel down Disneyland’s Alice In Wonderland caterpillar ride.

The strength of the sun was finally diminishing. Unfortunately, our own energy had depleted long before. The only thing left for us was to split a funnel cake piled with strawberries and topped off with whipped cream. This, of course, is the only way to end any proper visit to an amusement park or carnival of any kind. We drove home tired but still happy we had finally taken in the fair. We will return next year but it will be by moonlight rather than the unforgiving light of the Los Angeles sun.

The 2017 Los Angeles Taco Festival

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Last Saturday I had the pleasure of attending the L.A. Taco Festival at Grand Park. The event promised a diverse array of tacos paired with music. Sponsored by the Jovenes organization, it was a great way to spend a Saturday evening while helping students in need.

The mini fiesta took over the lowest part of the park between Broadway and Spring streets. The taco trucks were parked along Spring, which had been closed to traffic. We arrived at the top of the multi-level park around 6:30 pm. The trek from the fountain at the top down to City Hall served to build up the experience. Arriving at the bottom was almost as euphoric as taking that first bite at a brand new taco place.

The light at the crosswalk seemed to last for ever. When it finally turned, we crossed Broadway to be greeted by the aroma of authentic tacos. My biggest fear to this point had been the possibility that an event calling itself a taco festival, would shun the traditional in favor of the new and exciting options of food trucks for the younger crowd.

Thankfully, that was not the case. There were of course, your normal options like asada, pastor, and lengua tacos but also other interesting offerings like barbacoa and mole in the same delivery method of fresh corn tortillas.

We walked over to the closest traditional kiosk and ordered three asada tacos for five bucks—can’t beat that price. The tacos came out smelling great and with a reddish tint. I did a double take and asked to confirm they had not served al pastor tacos by mistake. This was no mistake. The tacos were delectable. Their meat had clearly been marinated in spices and juices, creating a unique take on a tried and true taco.

We polished off the tacos quickly and washed them down with a watermelon agua. For those uninitiated in the Latino food community, agua is a refreshing drink made of real fruit, sugar, and water. For the record, yes, it literally translates to water.

Having enjoyed some traditional tacos, we moved on to the food trucks. As beach lovers, our next logical taste was California fish tacos. The truck we chose also had ceviche tostadas on the menu and that’s what my daughter gravitated towards. The wife and I went for the tacos.

If I could do it all over again, I would have stood in the longer line for the truck next to it. The ceviche and tacos were adequate. The fried fish was a hearty piece but the issue was not quantity. Each taco was topped with an excessive amount of cabbage. It was impossible to fully wrap the tortilla around its contents. Removing it was also not an option as the special sauce was drizzled directly over Mt. Cabbage. Inevitably, most of it did fall off and we were left with a bland piece of fish.

Kiddo was now full and my wife said she could do one more round. Of course I could continue alone but this was a family affair and the event was ending in about 20 minutes. I knew there was only time for one more stop.

We scurried to the other end of Spring for some Korean tacos. I ordered a spicy pork taco and got my wife the chicken. Each of the two was topped with Kimchi that had a nice kick but wasn’t so spicy that it put off my wife and daughter.

Sadly, my wife took one bite of the chicken taco to feel the caress of a human hair on her lips. Despite the hair, which we obviously plucked from within the chicken-kimchi medley, these tacos were the highlight of the night. The meat was tender and both tasted exquisite. Hopefully the hair was just a freak occurrence but then again, maybe it was part of the marinade. Either way, they were fantastic.

It was now time for dessert and we were all called by one particular item on the menu of the LA Doughnuts food truck: the doughnut sundae. We stood directly behind a young couple already at the window. They began to order and we heard the dreaded reply, “Sorry, we’re out of ice cream. We only have doughnuts left.”

We walked away from the truck dejected and thinking of a plan B. As we walked through the traditional-taco area, we spotted a fruit stand with a variety of aguas, fresh squeezed juices, and fruit cups. I picked out the cup of sliced mango dipped in chamoy. The combination of sweet, salty, and back to sweet in an instant was the perfect way to conclude a night of taco indulgence.