A First Taste of LA at The Taste LA

I once had a dream, a marvelous dream that anyone who lives and eats in LA would appreciate. It starts out with me strolling down the city’s busy streets, moseying along and taking in all the unique sights, sounds and smells that only LA can produce when suddenly I am stopped dead in my tracks, caught by a most catching aroma. Fresh bread.

As an Italian, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York,  the epicenter of bakeries, the smell of fresh bread for me is unmistakable. It hits you like a big, fat hug from your nonna or favorite aunt Marie who’s trying to kiss you, wipe something off your cheek and get you to eat something because you’re too skinny all at the same time and no more than four seconds in the door. In short, warm, nostalgic and inviting.

Letting my nose take the lead, I follow it around a corner, to a dark and deserted alley. Not knowing where I’m going, and trusting only my hunger pangs, I continue and find myself led around another corner and through a corridor crowded with shrouds of laundry hung up to dry.  And like nothing short of a scene out of the Lion , the Witch and the Wardrobe, when I finally make my way through I find myself in a new, magical city, surrounded by the best food Los Angeles has to offer. Literally.

Within eyesight I can see burritos busting open with guacamole, sour cream and pulled pork forming rows of apartment buildings. Skyscrapers are made out of baguettes, pastries and Panini sandwiches. An enormous bowl of meatballs and marinara sauce sits where the Disney Concert Hall used to be. Tiny, vegan burgers toot down the 101 to the sound of a Toyota Prius and a fish pond is filled to the brim with hot ramen, noodle soup and piled high with fresh veggies and meats. Bewildered, but famished from the journey, I choose not to question why or how and instead run head first into the feast and gorge myself into oblivion. And then I wake up.

This dream came to me a few months ago when I was asleep one night and still living in the sleepy ol’ beach town of  Clearwater, Florida. At that time, living in this great city was still a mere fantasy of mine, something I had always talked about but never dreamed I would ever do. Fast forward to today and not only am I a proud resident, but eating in it and the dream of  being surrounded by the best dishes LA has to offer has come true. This past weekend, I have had the honor and privilege of attending the LA Times and Food & Wine”s The Taste.

Now don’t get me wrong, as a devout foodie I have been to food and wine fests before, but at those times I had been a resident of the area for more than a few weeks. I knew the food, the restaurants, the regions, the local produce, and the trends. I knew exactly what to expect. This time, I had a very vague idea and I loved it!

One of the main reasons I decided to move to Los Angeles was for its rich and earthy culture. Like New York, LA has such strong ethnic regions with their own history,  flare, and flavor. Within those regions, sometimes hidden in the greasy spoon cafes, or parked around the corner in a rundown food truck, other times it’s a stroke of genius served on a silver platter at the fanciest restaurant in town you will find some of the best food you could ever want to eat. Korean. Italian. Mexican. Ethiopian. Greek. Caribbean. You name, it’s here. I have just yet to be fortunate enough to sample most of it.  Until now.

My crash course in the culinary culture of LA took place across the street from the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills for the Picnic in the Hills Labor Day Event hosted by Food Network star Giada DeLaurentiis. The entire festival ran for  4 days. Each day, a different theme, a different host, different celebrity chef cooking demos and different vendors.

Swarms of people like ants marching to their queen led the way to the entrance where foodtopia awaited. Upon entry I was handed a goblet sized wine glass and ushered into a carousel of music, cameras, excitement and of course, food.

Like most in attendance, I ate a lot. Too much. Everything was delicious, artfully prepared and served in perfect bite sized portions, and though it was hard to narrow it down, there were definitely a few star plates of the afternoon.

Surprisingly, the first favorite was my first bite. I started my journey in the Middle East with a bite of the most delectable, buttery baba ganoush on kalamata olive challah bread from Got Kosher? Now I’m not Jewish, never really tried  or had any desire to try Kosher food, but if this is what all the hoopla is about then I am ready to be converted.( What my uber-Catholic grandma don’t know won’t hurt her)

It was the first thing I ate, the most simply prepared and possibly the best thing I ate the entire time I was there. I am a person who loves finger foods. A little bit of this. A little bit of that. So anything like a really good cheese, fresh fruit , crusty bread and a spread like their heavenly baba gaboush washed down with a crisp glass of Francis Ford Coppola’s Pinot Grigio from across the way and I was in paradise.

After cleaning my palate with a few more samplings from the row of wines and cockails which included a kick-ass bloody mary from Absolut Vodka, I made my way over to the Kerrygold table where a bevy of pungent, creamy cheeses awaited. Now I am not going to pretend to know what wine goes with what. I know I like wine, I drink wine and vaguely understand that white wines or zinfandels pair nicely with salads or pastas, reds go well with meats and heavier dishes and sweet wines, like a Chardonnay, pair well with desserts. I have no idea what goes well with cheese, but the Wente Cabernet Sauvignon went deliciously with the Aged Dubliner. Sharp, with a bite that made my tongue itch a little and rich, a delicious cheese that was washed down just fine.

Across the way, I moved on over to the end of a long line for some good old Americana fare at The Counter. Boasting more than 15 locations in SoCal and serving up a variety of custom built burgers including vegan, turkey and 100% angus beef, the latter was by far the best gosh darn burger I ever ate. I am very picky when it comes to burgers. To begin with, I don’t really like them . Most places use cheap meat or overcook the patty, and I rarely have a good experience when I order one so if I am going to eat one, it has to be really good. The burgers from The Counter are really good. Juicy with a bite, perfectly seasoned and not bathed in toppings so you can still taste the meat.

Finally, in efforts to satisfy my overzealous sweet tooth, I hit up Waffles De Liege, a popular food truck serving up the best Belgian waffles in town. I love, love, love the fact that this eatery was present. It’s not that I am such a huge waffle fan, personally, I prefer a pancake or three, but there is such a HUGE food truck culture in LA and it would have certainly been a loss to not have it represented at this food fest. Plus,  thewaffles were delicious. Light, buttery, cripy. So good, I went back for 3 samples. I also munched on a chocolate-y treat from Schulzie Bread Pudding. A far cry from the dry bread pudding your German grandma used to make using day old bread and stale raisins, this was moist, dense,  loaded with gooey chocolate chips, and of course a few of the ol’ mainstays-raisins. Simple, and delicious.

And like a cherry on top of a sundae, my day was finished off with a fabulous cooking demonstration from the hottest things in the kitchen besides the oven, none other than Under the Tuscan Gun’s Gabriele and Deb. There representing their show on the Cooking Channel, Extra Virgin, they made a Summer pasta with yellow tomatoes, peas and fresh parmesan that got me drooling all over again.

Now granted, rubbing elbows with a bunch of swanky Angelenos in the ritziest part of town and dining on cuisine that is a bit more diverse than the rustic, come to Jesus experience you get from dining on 1$ tacos grilled fresh, roadside in Koreatown and that you eat standing on a busy corner using a paper napkin for a plate, it was sooo much better. It embodied everything I dreamt LA to be. Fantasy, excitement, full of life, real people and real food creating an experience that was so much better than my dream could ever be because this time I didn’t have to wake up.  And now that I have had a taste of LA, my journey has just begun.