Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Starry Pop Ups"

starry pop ups

It is always fascinating to me to imagine what Los Angeles used to be, since, like New York, it is a city that changes nearly every day. If you don’t visit a busy neighborhood for a few weeks you are always likely to encounter numerous new buildings, businesses, and total transformations of the area. Multiply that by several months or even years—which given the vast spaces of Los Angeles, is inevitable—and you might have missed major transformations of the landscape and “atmosphere” of sections of the city you once might have thought were familiar.
      I have always tried to imagine what “Chinatown” might have meant in the period as presented in Roman Polanski’s film of the same name, a time when its streets were somehow filled with inexplicable dead-ends and the area, as a whole, was somewhat inscrutable. What is left today is a few parallel blocks that lead directly from the heart of downtown Los Angeles, dead-ending onto the freeway, where, in between, lie two major Chinese dragon-infused arches guarding and circumscribing what one might be described as “big Chinatown” and “little Chinatown,” although both are quite small in area, consisting of, in the case of the “big” version, a few winding lanes, filled with numerous ancient (at least in Los Angeles terms) Chinese restaurants and venues selling Chinese bric-a-brac and junk, whose customers are difficult to conjure up in one’s imagination, and probably even more immaterial in real life. The “little” version consists of a long “backstreet” promenade, most of whose former merchants have abandoned the space. Along Broadway and Hill, the two major avenues which define these spaces, are some excellent, but again elderly Chinese restaurants, my favorite of which is the Full House Seafood Restaurant, where I have spent many a late evening after readings attended across the way in “big Chinatown” at the au courant bar, Mountain, where the Otis College of Art M.F.A. Creative Writing Program had, for a couple of years, hosted a series.
     In the past few years, “little Chinatown” has been overtaken by younger-owned, rather sophisticated art galleries and other venues such as the one I was headed to on the evening of Saturday, January 17th, PRB (Poetics Research Bureau) where my friends James Sherry, Diane Ward, and Brian Stefans were reading. 
    Some of “big Chinatown” has also become home to galleries, but far more of its spaces have been taken over by rather more sophisticated restaurants such as Blossom, popular with my poet and art friends, and other newer venues. The very day before I visited Chinatown again, the Los Angeles Times ran an article titled “Chinatown Emerging as L.A.’s Hottest Restaurant Destination.” I believe the article to be a bit of an overstatement, given the remarkable restaurants and their shifting demographics throughout the vast city, but, nonetheless, I was interested in reading of such new hot spots as the Thai-based restaurants, Pok Pok, noodle shops located in the Far East Plaza and, soon, in the Mandarin Plaza. New Orleans fare was now available in the former Hoy King space on Ord Avenue, featuring New Orleans slings jambalaya and fried-oyster po’boys. Near the vast Chesar E. Chavez Avenue, the Lobsta Truck (a food truck version of which visits my neighborhood several days each week) had opened their new Lobsta Shack, food to which of I come to become addicted, particularly their Connecticut Lobster Roll. The beloved Empress Pavilion, long a favorite for Howard and me, after closing down for several months, has just reopened. 
     Meanwhile, Chego, with its spicy pan-Asian rice bowls had moved a couple of years ago to the Far East Plaza, where, so the Times reported, the city’s first soup dumplings were served in the 1980s. Nearby, the “splendid” Chiu Chow cafe Kim Chuy, continues to sling fried leek cakes and its peanut-laced satay noodles as they have since 1982. “At a tiny counter in a corner of Scoops, Cognoscenti Coffee brews lattes flavored with Thai pandan leaf. Champ Ramen, a noodle project from Alvin Cailan and Johnny Lee of Grand Central Market's insanely popular Eggslut, is set to open in the plaza any day now.” And, finally, the Times noted, the Starry Kitchen sandwich stand, famous for its Vietnamese-style bánh mì stuffed with fried tofu balls, pops up from time to time. Starry Kitchen proper, “a semi-permanent pop-up that has been operating within the old Grand Star Jazz Club for slightly more than a year, almost qualifies as a Chinatown pioneer.”
      I had read also of the Starry Kitchen in the LA Weekly that same week, where I had learned that chef Thi Tran, had declared that if he wasn’t able to raise $500,000 by the end of January, he would close down his “pop-up” establishment forever. He needed, finally, to establish his own place.
     I have to admit, not being a food critic, that I read all of this rather amusedly and distractedly. I don’t get to Chinatown very often, and when I do, I usually fall into the older mausoleums dedicated to old-fashioned Chinese cuisine. Maybe I’ll try Hop Louie, described on the web as an “Old-school, kitschy dive bar with standard Chinese chow, a range of potent cocktails & a jukebox,” I thought to myself.
    But instead of turning down Mei Ling Way to that restaurant, I decided to wander a bit, past Blossom, where I knew my poet friends would be dining (a restaurant on the major Gin Ling Way, featuring, as its site correctly reports “Pho & other Vietnamese staples…served in a bright, modern & understated space), and into other desultory and dying old Chinatown paths. Suddenly, I encountered what described itself as a Jazz Bar, momentarily forgetting what I’d read the day before, and determined that I’d check it out. It was a bit too early to eat anyway, and, at least, there I’d find a bar…maybe even accompanied by a bit a jazz—if not live at that hour, at least recorded music. What I discovered was already a quite busy space, where, from the long (briefly overheard) discussions of waiters appeared to be a restaurant of some complexity.
     Nothing might have suggested this at the bar itself. The friendly Chinese bartender was, clearly, a bit removed from the circus going on around him. The place appeared to be divided into a drinking establishment and a larger eating space, with no apparent connection between the two. When I politely asked if we might order food at the bar, he politely responded, “Yeh,” but when I asked for a menu, he disappeared for a while, crossing the room to retrieve a printed menu, returning after a few moments. “Here!” 
     “I didn’t mean it to be such an effort,” I sympathetically responded. “It’s all right,” he forgave me. “It’s just across the room.” 
     Perusing the sheet he had provided me, I realized that I had, quite accidentally, struck pure gold. Here was that legendary “pop-up” which I had been reading about, Starry Kitchen. I drank a gin and tonic and ordered again, just to assure him I wasn’t simply a foody, come in to leer over the comestibles. He clearly appreciated my temporary disdain. 
    “If I would like an appetizer, I queried….” “You’ll have to flag down one of the waiters,” he snapped. “That’s a different department….” I got it; he was not about to be associated with the other goings on all around him. I ordered a beer. 
    “So, you’re a jazz bar?” I queried. 
    “Used to be,” he relaxed. “A great bar; all the best musicians came here. The greats. But you know, it’s hard to get an audience in Chinatown. We had the famous ones. But even when people came, who loved the jazz, they wouldn’t drink. A few sodas, coffees. It was the wrong kind of crowd. But we were an important venue in those days. All the great ones played here! But now….” he flipped his finger off to the room around him, “well, It’s something else.”
     “Yes….” I pretended to sympathize. “It is.”
     Looking over the menu, when the bartender’s eyes were busy with drinks, I had determined that I simply had to try one of the items it listed. Flagging down a waiter, I asked whether there were any “Head+Tails” w/Viet Fish Sauce [very limited]” left. They were gone.

     “Our specialty,” she insisted is the Crispy Tofu Balls. You should get those.” So I ordered.

1.      A short while later she delivered a beautiful dish of four large balls, covered with a kind of green crunchy flakes, within which was a creamy tofu mixture that, combined with the aioli dibbled over the whole, was so delicious that, after a few bites, it was impossible to leave it unfinished. The flakes appeared to be similar to, but without the taste of, bonito flakes; these were lime green, which I later was told exist only in Viet Nam, although my waitress first suggested they might be found in South America (the chef assured me they were Asian only).

         Another beer calmed the bartender, while the absolutely luscious appetizer convinced me I had to have an entrée at this “Starry Kitchen.”
     The “Braised Sweet Soy Sauce Ginger Pork Belly” certainly seemed appealing, as did the Malaysian Chicken Curry with Okinawan Sweet Potatoes, both of which I was unlikely to experience in the more mundane kitchens of West Los Angeles; and the latter was of particular interest to me since Howard, my companion, does not like either curried dishes nor sweet potatoes.

   The “on-the-fly” waitress again steered me straight. “No, you have to have the “Claypot of Carmelized Striped Bass+Pancetta (aka ‘Ca Kho To’).” Since I love Striped Bass and Pancetta, it seemed perfect. Actually it was better. Two large pieces of bass lay in a slightly tangy broth with the pancetta used more as lardons, fatty boiled chunks of the Italian ham, than what one might have expected with Italian pasta. It was such a delicate, yet robust concoction that I couldn’t let it go until I had flaked off every strand of the bass from its crisp and edible skin, dripping with the saporous broth. It was accompanied by buttermilk beer beignets, usually a dessert pastry associated with New Orleans, but which, here, revealed the savory French influence upon Vietnamese cuisine. 
     While I was busy consuming this memorable meal, the chef suddenly appeared. A young, slightly spike-haired, comedic figure, he joked “Well, we Vietnamese certainly have learned how to use the micro-wave,” presumably insinuating just how primitive his “starry” kitchen was.
     He joked for a while with an attractive, smartly dressed young Chinese couple before turning his attention in my direction. “And how did you come to be here?” he asked, slightly insinuating what was obvious, that, given the age of most of the diners, I was somewhat out of place.  
     “Well,” I paused dramatically, “I had certainly read about your food in the LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times, but I didn’t really know you were here. I just sort of wandered in, perceiving this as a “jazz bar,” and then discovered, later, where I’d landed. And then the food was so remarkable, better even than the descriptions, that I’m stunned and overjoyed."
      The young Thi Tran was absolutely delighted. “Serendipity then! Serendipity,” he shouted. “That’s the best! You didn’t come here expecting anything, and then…you found something here you liked. That’s the best! That’s the reason I exist.”
      I mentioned that I’d read of his vow to close the restaurant in a few days. “I don’t care about the money. I really don’t! I just want to be sure I have a place in which I can cook and upon which I can depend. I don’t know….well, I need a real home. Don’t I?”
      After my conversations with the bartender, I knew precisely what he meant.

     “Yes, you deserve that,” I insisted.” I wish I had lots of money to help.”
    The bartender eyed me slightly malevolently. To appease him, I ordered another Tsingtao, although I was feeling much to full to consume it. I paid the bar bill, which amounted to a bit over the very reasonable food bill of $37.00. It had been one of the most remarkable meals I’d experienced for years! And I was slightly depressed as I left, fearing that I’d never again be able to taste the flavors I had just savored.


    Very slightly inebriated, I moved forward, back to Blossom, where James, Diane, Brian, and my friend Johanna Drucker sat, I joining them as they were about to move on to the reading. After a few moments of further conversation, we moved back to what I have described as “little Chinatown” where the PRB space was lit up, announcing the reading of “Sherry Stefans Ward” on a sign behind which the three posed momentarily for a photograph.

    Inside, several friends—Harryette Mullen, Larkin Higgins, Thérèse Bachand, Joe Mosconi—were already gathered. Marjorie Perloff showed up a few minutes later.

    Andrew Maxwell introduced James, who read from a longer new poem involving conversations with Richard Nixon and mafia lawyer Bebe Rebozo, with whom it has been rumored that Nixon had a gay affair.* I told James after that I didn’t quite like the way he characterized “homosexuality” as having to do with evil behavior, the way gays had been stereotyped so many times throughout history; but I surely did comprehend his comparisons, in some respects, to a kind of secret cabal in which the conversation was coded a bit like it must have been always in the old boys’ club surrounding Edgar J. Hoover and his long-time “lover” Clyde Tolson. These were terribly conflicted and highly closeted men of a now-dying generation. (See My Year 2012: Center’s Collapse for a discussion of the film J. Edgar).

     Diane read primarily from earlier work originally published by James’ Roof Books, poems that, given her soon-to-be divorce (after many years of turmoil) from her husband Chris Hauty, resonated with new meaning given its intense presentation of abstractions that one always senses as being based on personal human relationships. It is precisely this tension between the abstract and the emotional specific that has always vitalized her work. And then, I always enjoy listening to Diane’s quiet voice that speaks so intensely it quickly grows into an authoritatively assured message that demands to be heard.

    Brian read his quite personal translation of Apollinaire’s Zone, which he likened to a Los Angeles typological representation. I was also struck by some of his comments surrounding an event where, while visiting the Perloff home, he had felt completely misunderstood by some of her guests. Brian, it appears is a far more shy and insecure guy than I had imagined him to be, which may help to explain why we have never quite developed a relationship. My seemingly gruff and sometimes overbearing self-assuredness (which I know to be a kind cover for my own fears and insecurities) must be terribly off-putting to someone like Brian, I mused.
    After a short break, James read part of a new essay, “Against One Model Alone,” in which he questions how poets and other humanities figures might talk about the environment and other important social issues. James basically argues against pietism and posits a need for an embracement of non-hierarchical expressions that “travel from lower to higher levels of abstraction.” Rather than argue for a kind of “either/or” position, as James explained some of his ideas to me a dinner one day earlier, we need to think in terms of an “and/and” perception of realities if we hope to influence those outside of our communities. I have posted that essay on my Green Integer blog.  
    I drove James back to his hotel in my neighborhood while we discussed the events of the day and some of the aspects of this significant evening of readings.        


*England’s The Daily Mail (January 26, 2014) reports:

A new biography by Don Fulsom, a veteran Washington reporter who covered the Nixon years, suggests the 37th U.S. President had a serious drink problem, beat his wife and — by the time he was inaugurated in 1969 — had links going back two decades to the Mafia, including with New Orleans godfather Carlos Marcello, then America's most powerful mobster.

     Yet the most extraordinary claim is that the homophobic Nixon may have been gay himself. If true, it would provide a fascinating insight into the motivation and behaviour of a notoriously secretive politician.  

     Fulsom argues that Nixon may have had an affair with his best friend and confidant, a Mafia‑connected Florida wheeler-dealer named Charles 'Bebe' Rebozo who was even more crooked than Nixon.


Los Angeles, January 22, 2015