A Remembrance of Things Past

In “Swann’s Way,” the first of the seven books that made up Marcel Proust’s famous À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), it happened this way:

The narrator, upon a taste of a madeleine dipped in tea, is suddenly flooded with a long-forgotten memory from his childhood.

Wandering North Hollywood

Here’s how it happened to me:

I had to get the car serviced, so had a couple hours to kill in North Hollywood. On the particular stretch of Lankershim Boulevard where the dealership is located, there ain’t much to see. So I set out to wandering. I had gone in and out of the 99 Cent Store, walked under the U.S. 101 overpass, glanced at the menu of an old school French restaurant housed in a small faux chateaux, and was wishing the couple of legit dive bars in the neighborhood opened a little earlier, when I spotted it: H. Salt Fish & Chips.

H. Salt was an infrequent but cherished part of my childhood. There was one down the street, next to the 7-11. It had illuminated maps of London on the walls, and smelled of things fried long and hard. It was part of an American milieu of deep-crusted fried things that also included the equally lost-and-forgotten Pioneer Chicken, which featured indistinguishable chicken parts encased in a nearly fiberglass orange shell.

Inside the H. Salt

Upon retrieving my freshly serviced car, I returned to the H. Salt, parked and went it. It was just like I remembered — the illuminated London maps, the glass drip case spotlighting items recently retrieved from the oil, even the Chinese people running the joint. The stale grease smell alone was enough to transport me instantly to some amber moment of my youth: 8th grade, perhaps — the same age as my son! — skateboarding home from school, stopping at the 7-11 for a few games of Asteroids, then counting up my money to see if I had enough for a 2-piece fish & chips, a 1-piece, or just a couple fried scallops.

I’m a relatively affluent middle-aged man now, I could afford the 3-piece. But that seemed like a lot of oil to be ingesting in one sitting. I opted for two and got them to go. Back in the car, I slathered the golden fillets in malt vinegar and a good solid shake of salt. It tasted exactly like I remembered — not the best fish and chips in the world, but tasty still and comforting like the smell of cookies baking or an old song whose words you still remember.

I was glad to have found the H. Salt. I won’t go back — it’s too far from my home, and probably not great for my blood pressure. But I did feel like it gave me a certain closure, like running into an old girlfriend who you never really said a proper goodbye to. H. Salts can’t be long for this world. I didn’t realize way back when that one time I went to that H. Salt next to 7-11 that it would likely be the last. (There is a bank now where the 7-11 and H. Salt stood.) This time, I could say goodbye.

Now I just need to find a Pioneer Chicken.

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A Roundabout Route to Baccalà Mantecato

My local Vallarta Mexican grocery store never ceases to surprise and amaze me.

First of all, it’s just darned cool to have a market that actually feels — smells, sounds, visuals — like you are in Mexico. And in that regard, I have yet to need a Mexican cooking ingredient that I can’t find there.

Secondly, I find countless ingredients I need for other cuisines — the fine tripe they have, for example, that I need (yes, need) for trippa alla Romana, and a dazzling variety of fresh herbs.

Newfoundland salt cod illustration from the 1700s

A recent happy discovery was baccalà, also known as bacalao, also known as salt cod — not something I ever associated with Mexican cooking. In the past, I’ve had to travel to a Spanish purveyor in Harbor City (a heck of a drive to non-Angelenos) or wait until I’m in San Francisco to visit North Beach’s famous deli, Molinari, to get some. Not only does Vallarta have beautiful European baccala, but it’s considerably less expensive than at either of those other places. More

Eating Oaxaca

Oaxaca, they say, is the culinary capital of Mexico. I was eager to put this to the test.

I am still digesting Mexico City tacos when we arrive and check into our hotel. But my pal Mike rouses me from a brief respite on my bed that could’ve easily turned into an evening in, and we are soon walking the beautiful historic streets of the old center of Oaxaca city. More

Into the Maguey Mountains

I’m partial to Del Maguey single village mezcal. And not simply because my pal, Michael, is a partner in the company. (Though he has winced on the rare occasion he has discovered one of his competitor’s products in my liquor cabinet.) The mezcals are complex and delicious, I like the backstory, the commitment to preserving tradition, and the Ken Price labels. But I would become an even greater advocate upon traveling deep into Oaxaca with Mike, visiting two of Del Maguey’s palenques (where the mezcals are made), and meeting the men who make them.

Wild tobala agave at the Del Maguey bodega

It was a bright southern Mexico morning when the car picked up Mike and me, freshly filled up on breakfast mole and huevos, to head south out of the city and into the agave countryside. The day breaks open like an egg, the light harsh and silver as the swords of the espadin, elevation halfway to the sun and soon you are shielding your eyes. The landscape is dusty and weedy and cactusy, not the way I pictured Oaxaca, punctuated with the bursting spikes of the agave that will define our day. More

24 Hours in Mexico City

I am in Mexico City, suddenly, at the invitation of my pal Michael, partner in Del Maguey single village mezcal, who has come on business. My business, as a chef, food blogger and brand consultant, is to learn all I can about his business — and as a Del Maguey advocate, to experience a golden-ticket immersion in artisanal mezcal production. We are on our way to Oaxaca to experience mezcal at its source. But first, there is the business of Mexico City.

Popocatepétl from the airplane window

Del Maguey recently commenced a partnership with the world’s second-largest spirits company, the French firm Pernod-Ricard, Mike is here to meet the Mexico City team, discuss efficiencies and processes. In other words, he’s taking a lot of meetings. I, on the other hand, am taking a lot of walks. More

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