Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Bi-coastal opportunities

After four days of eating in California, my grease deficiency is gone. The state may be renowned for its fresh, lighter fare, but after hitting the dining landmarks of Los Angeles, from Pink’s hotdog stand to the Milton Berle-esque Cantor’s Deli, it’s clear the current partiality for salads and such masks a weakness for dripping meats mounded with bacon, cheese, sour cream, more bacon, and, if you think blood circulation is over-rated, pastrami. And I offer that assessment without trying Tommy’s, the hallowed downtown burger stand that is to gut-bombers what the Sistine Chapel is to ceiling art. I held off because a man has to dream.

But while my NRN colleagues and I stifled sobs because none of us had thought to order fries or onion rings at Pink’s, we spied the next wave of fresh-and-healthy places to dot the Los Angeles market. Some of them seem to be at least inspired by Japan, if not imported from there. Another sort is clearly an adaptation of the new hotspots where droves of office workers line up at midday back home in Manhattan. Indeed, it seems as if a bi-coastal concept swap is in the offing, with profound implications for lunch as we know it.

Right now, the trade appears to be unequal. Southern California is already enjoying a taste of New York’s ongoing made-to-order salad boom, whereby small Big Apple chains like Chop’t and not a few neighborhood delis allow professional women and other salad-loving lunchers to spec the ingredients of an entrĂ©e salad. Typically you pay $4.99 and up to choose a lettuce and four toppings to be mixed with it. Request a protein, from chicken to shrimp, and you can expect to spend at least $2 more. A staffer behind a counter adds whatever dressing you specify, tosses the whole thing, and perhaps even chops it on a cutting board. It’s scooped into a carryout container and off you go. And, typically, you leave with relief because you’ve waited in a long, long line to get your meal.

The adaptation I spotted in downtown L.A. was called Loose Leaf Custom Built Salads. No doubt similar salad specialists are in the works elsewhere in the city and state, prodded along by the strong appeal to entrepreneurs as well as consumers. When you’re offering cold dishes, you don’t have to install costly cooking equipment. Nor do you have the development complications of running gas lines, or providing the requisite venting. The cost of a venture drops.

But while Los Angeles embraces that concept, it’s keeping a jealous grip on a lunch option that seems to be popping up there like traffic jams. Drive by two or three strip malls or downtown office centers and you’re likely to see at least one sparkling new quick-service place sporting a Japanese-sounding name (I had intended to write them all down during our tour of the city’s quick-service icons, but ended up with nothing but grease stains on a paper and a pen too slick to hold). The ones I saw featured portable choices like rice bowls, teriyaki selections, some noodle dishes, and soups. The places were extremely clean and fresh looking, and the food looked and tasted the same. It was also an astounding bargain. I had a small bowl of rice topped with fresh vegetables and a teriyaki sauce at one for $4.

The places embody the big-three traits that fuel more mainstream fast-casual concepts: Freshness, flavor and value. With that kind of potent appeal, it’s just a matter of time until they hope across the coast to storm New York.

But if Los Angeles wants to send us a branch of Tommy’s instead, hey, we’ll make do.

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