Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Could this be the source of the best chili dogs in Los Angeles?

Who doesn't love a chili dog?  Encased meat topped with spicy meat surrounded by doughy softness complemented with the crisp bite of raw onions and mustard--what could be better?  Finding a great chili dog in Los Angeles can keep a Chowhound thread alive for years.  Everyone knows Pinks on La Brea.  However, I can't attest to being a big fan.  Unfortunately, what passes for chili at many of the region's stands is a tasteless, orange greasy glop of stuff, with little substance.  I sometimes yearn for the chili dogs at MOS Burger--the Japanese made-to-order hamburger chain, whose dog has a fantastic snap and savory chili topped with jalapeno slices....but Tokyo is a little far to travel to satisfy a hot dog urge. 

Imagine my surprise while walking through Union Station one day to see a Nathan's Famous Hot Dog sign inside Union Bagel.  Nathan's, the legendary Coney Island institution and sponsor of the nearly century-old annual hot dog eating contest, seems to have taken a cross-country train and disembarked at the City of Angels.  The Japanese 6-time champion Takeru Kobayashi (I wonder if he likes Mos Burger too...?) was displaced by the American 2-time champ Joey Chestnut in 2009.  The disembodied spirits of past hot dog downing Olympians must have taken over my body because I soon found myself at the counter saying "One chili dog with mustard and onions and no cheese, please."  

I took at seat at the bar and waited a few moments.  Union Bagel itself is a fantastic refuge located in one of the great public spaces of Los Angeles.  Three indolent, world-weary 20-something women slumped themselves and their UGG boots at a table while waiting for a train.  Wrinkled office workers lined up to procure a drink for their rail ride home.  The pleasant hub-bub of the city lulls me into a Los Angeles of long ago. 

Then, while I'm caught in my art deco daydream, the chili dog arrives.  It takes me off guard--the dog itself extends past the bun, the raw red onions are finely chopped and the chili smells like, REAL chili!  My heart starts to race.  I don't have the courage to pick the thing up, so I use the fork.  I wedge off a bit that contains all the flavors and quickly shorten the distance between the counter and my mouth. 

Houston, we have a problem.  This is a damn good chili dog!  My mind races.  Can I resist the urge to eat one every day?  The meaty, even slightly gamey, taste of the Nathan's Famous is a memory blast from my childhood when real butchers, who made their own frankfurters, would give me a free sample.  It was amazing.  Plus, the chili had both substance and flavor.  Chunks of ground meat in a savory cumin-tomato bath was a delight.  The minced red onion and mustard rounded out the program...the onion was small enough to deliver flavor by not unwieldy enough to roll off the fork and onto my shirt (joining the stains of lunches past).  Despite the fact that I was having dinner in 45 minutes, I scarfed the thing down.  I felt regret that I only had a phone camera to capture the moment. 

Thank God Union Station is not in Tokyo.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Comfort Food from Paradise In Portland

(Secret Asian Man is on Special Assignment in Portland, Oregon)

I was walking to Scoops with a friend the other day, who was discussing a couple she knows. "Can you believe it?" she exclaimed with more than a hint of exasperated disbelief, "they're STILL vegans! I thought it would just be a phase!"

Vegans, as I'm sure you know, don't consume anything made from animal products--no dairy, no meat, no feathers even. Veganism is also a necessary requirement for citizenship in Santa Monica.

Sure, like you, I've read the arguments and seen the data...meat is climate murder. The energy intensity to cultivate edible animals is high--half the greenhouse gas emissions from the human diet come meat production, though beef, chicken and pork are only about 14 percent of the diet overall.

Hey, let's face it, meat is tasty, tasty murder.

Though while our future may be in doubt, maybe a little history will be of interest?

In 1778, Captain Cook came across a group of islands in the remote Pacific Ocean, he named them Sandwich Islands after a his boss. You and I know them as Hawai'i. A lot has happened since then and one quietly notable event is Bob and Sonja Alamia emigrating from Portland to Maui.

They lived on the side of a volcano and during their ten years of paradise living, made close friends with the locals. Family matters called them back to Portland a little over a year ago. Milling around for something to do, they decided to open an eatery dedicated to uncommonly fantastic ways of serving up meat on bread. It's name? Sandwich Island.

Bob and Sonja being charmingly down-to-earth, found themselves recipients of the secret knowledge of Kalua Pork-craft. It is very likely the only place in Portland that offers this tasty bit of slow-roasted paradise. As I'm sure you already know, Kalua Pork, in its heavenly, tender, smokiness is one of those signs that soundly disprove atheism. Bob won't reveal the secret ingredients that go into making Kalua Pork, but its a slow-and-low 12-hour roasting process they perform themselves. The result? Meat of such porky, juicy purity that adding anything other than a bun defiles its divine nature. (However, hot sauce is also on offer). Sandwiches come in two sizes--the large Hog Daddy and the "small" Little Piggy. Their prices are so incredibly low, you will want to buy them by the dozen--$4 for the Little Piggy and $6 for the Hog Daddy.

The meat parade doesn't stop there.

Also on the menu are are Italian meatball sandwiches, Bob's (a native New Yawker) mother's recipe. Again, the cooking secrets are still with Bob, Sonja and Mama, but I did glean that the meatballs are cooked directly in the sauce, fusing together tomato and meatball into an tantalizing concoction of deliciousness. They are prepared in a way that renders these carné orbs succulent, greaseless, moist.

Prime Rib Sandwich--again the Alamias prove their skill with roasted mammals. The prime rib idea came from surveying the surrounding neighborhood and wanting to do something better than what was currently offered. I had the "Little Roaster" (not brave enough to down an entire "Beef it Up"...) which was served on a roof-of-the mouth friendly tender bun, which melted cheddar cheese. As I write this, I salivate and my teeth ache, yearning for another juicy bite. The beef and cheddar merged together to make reptile brain giddy with delight. The beef was so soft and pink, chewing seemed optional. Again the prices are so ridiculously low--$4.50 for the Little and $6.50 for the Large. The Amalias also give you a side (I chose Cole Slaw, from the available Mac Salad, Potato Salad, Cottage Cheese or Chips). I also got a small cup of, incongruous but yummy, Cranberry Sauce.

Moving on from Mammals to the Bird World, Sonja plumbed her Texas roots and developed a magnificent Chicken and Dumplings recipe, employing giblets and all to make a penicillin-rich, golden stew of galline goodness. One customer exclaimed, "This takes me straight back to my childhood!" Chicken and dumplings are a genus of dish, once common on American menus that have slowly disappeared. But at Sandwich Island its making a comeback!

Kalua Pork, Italian Meatballs, Prime Rib sandwiches, Chicken and Dumplings--an entire hemispheric survey of comfort food. Food just like mama made, if mama were Hawaiian, Italian, with a little Texan thrown in for kicks. It turns out Bob's mom is Puerto Rican--so never judge a book by its cover.

Sandwich Island is located in the Global Food Court, which is also home to Gandhi's Indian food. Gandhi's serves up, among other things, tasty Vegan dishes. So, bring those dedicated Vegans along, its time for lunch!

Sandwich Island is open from 10am to 2-3pm (call ahead) Monday through Friday.

Sandwich Island
827 SW 2nd Avenue,
Portland, OR 97204
503 330 5002

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Otomisan: An Enduring Japanese Treasure in East Los Angeles

Your old college friend from the Midwest rings you and says he’s coming to town…and he’s in the mood for truly great Japanese food. After all, Iowa isn’t known for its tempura and grilled eel. Where to take him? You rack your brain and rifle through the mental rolodex—some swank place in Santa Monica? That concentrated strip of Japanese cuisine on Sawtelle? Hey, aren’t Gardena and Torrance where lots of Japanese people live? There must be good food there, right? But then it hits you. Ahhhh. For something truly exceptional you should go to Boyle Heights!


Boyle Heights? Home of Mariachi Plaza, the legendary restaurant La Serenata de Garibaldi and the new Gold Line Extension (Not to mention the shiny new Hollenbeck Community Police Station)? Really?

Yes, really.

Decades ago, in the years before and after the Second World War, Boyle Heights was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. It was also heavily populated by the Japanese (Little Tokyo, after all, lies directly across the First Street bridge). There were any number of Japanese businesses, including a hospital and cinema. In 1956, in a spot that was formerly an ice cream parlor, a small restaurant opened on First Street. In 2010 it’s still there, making it one of the oldest Japanese restaurants in town. It’s also one of the best.

Now on its third owner, Otomisan is the dictionary definition of “Mom and Pop”. In fact, mom and pop brought grandma too. (She sits in the back booth.) Walking into Otomisan feels like you’ve just stepped into someone’s home. The lovingly worn furnishings and formica eroded by decades of caresses are accented by an innumerable amount of good luck charms, lucky cats and even a photo of protector-deity Sylvester Stallone.

Warmth greets you in the form of a friendly, smiling Mrs. Yayoi who welcomes you as if she’s known you her whole life. She offers you a stool (leftover from the ice cream parlor days) or one of the three red pleather booths.

On first glance, the menu is comprised of comfortable old favorites and perhaps nothing special—teriyaki this, tempura that. But classics carried to wondrous heights are still wondrous nonetheless. Fundamentally, Mr. Hamada, the genial man-in-the-kitchen uses high quality ingredients and executes flawlessly. The chicken is juicy, the pork is thick and moist, the beef is tender, the shrimp is sweet. He even makes sumptuous New Year’s meals for the local temples and other Japanese organizations nearby.

In the many visits to Otomisan, me or my dining companions have treated ourselves to selections from across the menu. Starting with the homemade gyoza, hand-folded and steam-fried to pleasingly contrasting tender crispiness. The dumplings aren’t over-stuffed and strike a delicate pose on the plate when they arrive at your table. They are served with a bit of chili oil and vinegar.

Otomisan also boasts a respectable menu of well-prepared sushi rolls. Though they aren’t necessarily sushi specialists, Otomisan’s rolls are sizeable, flavorful and just as good as a fancier place in a tonier zip code. A particularly authentic and relatively hard-to-find item in LA is futomaki (or “Fat Roll”), which stuffed with colorful, healthy goodness—steamed spinach, sweet egg, sweet gourd called kampyo and a sweetened shiitake mushroom, carrot and imitation crab meat. That cheerful, pink powdery stuff—denbu (powdered, boiled, dried fish) recalls the futomaki of your faraway youth. (The roll was so good, I forgot to photograph it before it disappeared.)

The Spider Roll is also noteworthy. The creamy avocado and cool, snappy cucumber and carrot counter the crispy, meaty, fried soft shell crab. One evening, the crab was presented in a way that looks like its try to desperately escape from the roll.

One rainy evening when the dishes were slow to emerge from the kitchen, Mrs. Yayoi gifted us a complimentary spicy tuna roll whose character was in keeping with its fellow sushi-menu mates. The roll was broad in diameter and stuffed to the gills with chopped tuna.

Miso is normally an afterthought in many Japanese restaurants, but here takes on a depth that only your Japanese grandma, armed with her decades of cooking secrets, could pull off. Bits of tofu and seaweed dot the scene, and the broth is simultaneously and surprisingly rich and light.

There are several not-to-be missed items. The Seafood Tempura is an oceanic monster of a dish—including several large prawn, squid rings, and a whole soft shell crab. These are backed-up by a selection of vegetables like broccoli, squash, and zucchini. Tempura is often the benchmark dish for the rest of the menu and Otomisan’s is fantastic—light, crispy and not terribly oily.

The other house speciality is Sukiyaki—beef and vegetables cooked in a sweet soy sauce broth. The beef is tender and the green matter is plentiful. Enoki mushrooms, onion slices, green onion, bean sprouts, tofu cubes, and udon noodles make this an incredibly satisfying-impossible-to-eat-by-yourself dish. You have the option of eating it Japanese-style by dipping these morsels in raw egg. No one will shake their head if you choose to forego this option.

Finally, I must put in a word for the Tonkatsu, the fried pork filet. Again, a sizeable and greaseless portion of high quality meat prepared skillfully to a perfect crunchy outside and tender inside. It is served, oddly enough, not with Japanese karashi mustard, but good ol’ French’s Yellow. This is the one odd note in an otherwise flowing song of authenticity. You can request the dish be topped with curry, which adds a slight bit of spice to the arrangement.

Otomisan is not the place for glamour, sequins and sparkles. The entire menu is composed of dishes that precisely aim for, and squarely hit, your brain’s centers of comfort, nostalgia and domesticity. Mrs Yayoi once proudly told me, “If its on the menu, its definitely good!” Otomisan is the place you repair to settle into a familiar, warm and comfortable world.

Your friend from Iowa will love it.

Parking Note: The parking meters are active from 8am to 8pm in this neighborhood, so be sure to feed the beast before leaving your car!

Otomisan is not open on Sundays.

2506 E 1st St
Los Angeles, CA 90033
(323) 526-1150

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Two Pole Stars, Episode Two: Polka Restaurant

If Warszawa is run by your elegant auntie who has a fondness for high culture, then Polka is run by an eccentric uncle who has an obsessive relationship with flea markets. Step across the threshold here and be instantly bombarded with a mind boggling array of kitsch (a polite word for "junk"). So thick is the experience, its hard to believe you are still in Los Angeles. Part of you will wonder if you've been transported to some alternate dimension, populated by a race of super-beings who are fond of sausages and lace-covered table lamps. Nonetheless, Polka, each time I've visited, is packed to the gills with customers.

For a long time, Polka was a prized bastion of the discerning LA Cheap Eater, attracted to their bountiful menu which automatically included a cup of tasty soup, a cabbage salad and a dessert. I'm going to take an undoubtedly controversial stance and assert that Polka can no longer hold this status. A glance at their pricing and the high end of the menu tops out at nearly $20! This is not "cheap," folks. Especially so, considering the side veggies are commonplace frozen items, frankly, a bit overdone, and available at the neighborhood Vons. The soup, though tasty, is pretty simple. I'd like to suggest that Polka no longer holds the value proposition it once did.

As a starter, we chose a plate of pierogies. They arrived covered with sauteed onions and, were for the most part, pretty tasty. They lacked the light elegance of Warszawa's version, but certain took up a fair amount of stomach-share.

There are three categories of dinner--$15.95, $17.95 and $19.95--each price point features a different set of possible selections. As usual, I chose the stuffed cabbage ($17.95). Make no mistake about it, the food here is tasty and filling. My cabbage rolls were no exception. A combination of pork and chicken meat, covered with a tomato based gravy accompanied by mashed potatoes, corn and carrots. The portions were large enough to warrant a doggy bag.

There IS still a bargain to be had in the side item section of the menu, where three huge sausages can be had for a mere $3.95. These were juicy, tender and very tasty. Into the doggy bag they went too.

Were I to choose between the two places, East side or West...given the fact that their pricing is nearly identical, I'd have to choose West. In terms of sophistication, execution and general elegance Warszawa wins hands down.

Polka Restaurant
4112 Verdugo Road
Los Angeles, CA 90065
(323) 255-7887
(323) 255-1000

Monday, January 26, 2009

Scenes from Balboa Park, San Diego

The Two Pole Stars, Episode One: Warszawa Restaurant

Isaac Asimov's Foundation series is a classic sci-fi epic about The Foundations, organizations set up at opposite ends of the galaxy dedicated to preserving the culture of a galactic civilization nearing its end. One foundation is apparent to the eye and the other is hidden from view.

Fast forward to Los Angeles circa 2009. What if the civilization being preserved was Polish? What would you do? Were this the midwest, say a rusty industrial town like Cleveland, finding a Polish restaurant would not be such a chore. Just roll out your barrel to suburban Parma and throw yourself to the bounty of pierogis (Poland's answer to the potsticker) and cabbage rolls that await you. Los Angeles and its rainbow variety of Thai-Latin-Korean-Chinese-Armenian-Persian teeming masses vastly outnumber the contingent of our Polish friends. You might take a page from the Asimov playbook and create two very different restaurants on opposite ends of town. One you've certainly passed a thousand times, the other secreted away in a faceless mini-mall both represent unique expressions of Polish culture. This review, in two parts, focuses on the west-most restaurant.

Warszawa is located on Lincoln in Santa Monica. I'm sure you've driven by and thought "Warszawa? Wonder if that's any good?" Let's face it, Polish food may not be the most exotic number in town, but it does deeply satisfy. Originally located in Berkeley, the restaurant relocated to Santa Monica in 1979 where it has remained a stable bastion of Eastern European fare ever since. Stepping across the threshold of the restaurant takes you to an elegant, fancy space. Maybe you might be visiting the home of your Polish aunty who has more than a touch of aristocratic blood, she's a classy lady, after all. Spaces are oddly out of place in a cardboard city that made mid-century modernism its official visual language. Its an elegant, olde world spot spotted with posters of high culture events-- symphonies, theater and such. Its calming and serene.

The menu has all the classics, Bigos Hunter's Stew, Veal Paprikash, Beef Stroganoff and, of course, Stuffed Cabbage! Few items exceed $20. We elect for potato leek soup and pierogies to start, Polish-style Gnocchi with sauteed mushrooms and cream, and, my favorite, Stuffed Cabbage.

The soup was so flavorful that Trusty Dining Companion declared it one of the best ever. I have to concur. The creamy smooth potato essence was delightful.

The Pierogis came deep fried, which is different from how one generally finds them in the heart of Polish Cleveland (where boiling or broiling is the most common M.O.). However, paradoxically, these deep fried versions were so light and flavorful I only remembered to take a photograph after half of them had been eaten. The two version we ordered--wild mushroom and shredded cabbage and braised beef, carrots and onions provided nice contrasting flavors. The latter had echoes of the best beef pot pie you've ever tasted and the mushroom cabbage combination exuded a distinctly Eastern European flavor.

The Gnocchi, were like the pierogi, unusually light and fluffy. These are not the dense, chewy Italian versions, but something much more ethereal. They balanced the heavier but flavorful mushroom-loaded cream sauce very well. There was enough to take home afterwards too. On the side were a carrot sweet potato puree (Declared: "Super Yummy!") and always good-for-you steamed broccoli. The latter were covered with some sort of buttered breadcrumb "sauce" that added a fatty component to this otherwise healthy vegetable.

The Cabbage Rolls came in a pair, with a side of de rigeur mashed potatoes, all covered with a tomato-based sauce and the broccoli/sweet potato puree. This was most excellent. My fork cut through the cabbage roll with little effort. I think I even moaned while eating them. I ate slow and let the food sink in. Fortunately, we could add these to the leftover bag too.

All-in-all it was a pleasant evening at Warszawa. The fare was much lighter than expected, but no less satisfying. Probably not the best place for a first date (Unless, of course, she was a hot Polish super model suffering form homesickness). This is a spot for a dear old friend, and now that you've settled into unspoken comfort, who only wants to enjoy a quiet, delicious meal with good company.

PS. They say the beer garden out back is a great warm weather gathering spot.

Warszawa Restaurant
1414 Lincoln Blvd
Santa Monica, CA
310 393 8831

Thursday, October 30, 2008

From This Month's Saveur:

German food rarely gets much press. However, there are some goodies that must be experienced. Spaetzle is one of those basics that you can eat a plateful of and find yourself very satisfied with being alive. This recipe makes me drool:

Garlic Dumplings with Emmentaler


Spätzle means little sparrows in German.

2 heads of garlic
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1⁄2 cup milk
1⁄4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf
parsley leaves
1⁄4 cup finely chopped basil leaves
6 tbsp. unsalted butter
1⁄4 tsp. kosher salt
3 eggs, beaten
2 cups flour
1 cup grated emmentaler

1. Heat oven to 450°. Halve garlic crosswise with a knife and brush with olive oil; wrap with foil. Roast until soft, 1 hour. Let cool and squeeze roasted garlic cloves from their skins into a bowl; mash with a fork to a paste.

2. Melt 2 tbsp. of the butter and add to paste. Then add milk, parsley, basil, salt, and eggs; stir until smooth.

3. Put flour into a large bowl; form a well in center. Slowly pour in the garlic–milk mixture, stirring with a fork to form a smooth batter.

4. Bring a 5-qt. saucepan of salted water to a boil over high heat. Set a perforated spätzle-making disk over the pot. Working in batches, scrape batter through holes into water. Cook until dumplings rise to surface, about 1 minute. Using a slotted spoon, transfer dumplings to a baking sheet.

5. Heat remaining 4 tbsp. of butter in a 12" ovenproof skillet over high heat. Add dumplings; cook, stirring, until lightly browned, 6–8 minutes. Meanwhile, heat broiler; put rack 5" from heating element. Sprinkle dumplings with cheese; broil until melted, about 2 minutes.

Following the Script: Obama, McCain and ‘The West Wing’

As I power through my "The West Wing" binge, I find this fascinating. We have less than a week to find out how prescient they really were!

Following the Script: Obama, McCain and ‘The West Wing’

Published: October 29, 2008

When Eli Attie, a writer for “The West Wing,” prepared to plot some episodes about a young Democratic congressman’s unlikely presidential bid, he picked up the phone and called David Axelrod.

Mr. Attie, a former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, and Mr. Axelrod, a political consultant, had crossed campaign trails before. “I just called him and said, ‘Tell me about Barack Obama,’ ” Mr. Attie said.

Days after Mr. Obama, then an Illinois state senator, delivered an address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the two men held several long conversations about his refusal to be defined by his race and his aspirations to bridge the partisan divide. Mr. Axelrod was then working on Mr. Obama’s campaign for the United States Senate; he is now Mr. Obama’a chief strategist.

Four years later, the writers of “The West Wing” are watching in amazement as the election plays out. The parallels between the final two seasons of the series (it ended its run on NBC in May 2006) and the current political season are unmistakable. Fiction has, once again, foreshadowed reality.

Watching “The West Wing” in retrospect — all seven seasons are available on DVD, and episodes can be seen in syndication — viewers can see allusions to Mr. Obama in almost every facet of Matthew Santos, the Hispanic Democratic candidate played by Jimmy Smits. Santos is a coalition-building Congressional newcomer who feels frustrated by the polarization of Washington. A telegenic and popular fortysomething with two young children, Santos enters the presidential race and eventually beats established candidates in a long primary campaign.

Wearing a flag pin, Santos announces his candidacy by telling supporters, “I am here to tell you that hope is real.” And he adds, “In a life of trial, in a world of challenges, hope is real.” Viewers can almost hear the crowd cheering, “Yes, we can.”

Comparisons between Senator John McCain and the “West Wing” Republican candidate, Arnold Vinick, a white-haired Senate stalwart with an antitax message and a reputation for delivering “straight talk” to the press, also abound. Vinick, played by Alan Alda, is deemed a threat to Democrats because of his ability to woo moderate voters. And he takes great pride in his refusal to pander to voters, telling an aide: “People know where I stand. They may not like it, but they know I’ll stick with it.”

Even the vice-presidential picks are similar: the Democrat picks a Washington veteran as his vice presidential candidate to add foreign policy expertise to the ticket, while the Republican selects a staunchly conservative governor to shore up the base.

Certainly some of the parallels are coincidental. It is unlikely, for example, that the writers knew Mr. Obama had an affection for Bob Dylan when they made Santos a Dylan fan. But it is the unintentional similarities that make the DVDs of the sixth and seventh seasons, which at the time received mixed reviews, so rewarding to watch now. In both “The West Wing” and in real life, for example, the Phillies played in the World Series during the election campaign.

As the primaries unfolded this year, “I saw the similarities right away,” said Lawrence O’Donnell, a producer and writer for the series who has appeared on MSNBC as a political analyst. Mr. O’Donnell had used Mr. McCain as one of the templates for the Vinick character in the episodes he wrote, though he said that “McCain’s resemblance to the Vinick character was much stronger in 2000 than in 2008.”

Echoing the criticism Mr. McCain faced during the primaries, a White House aide in “The West Wing” contends that Vinick is “not conservative enough” for the Republican base. Sometimes the two candidates’ situations are almost identical: when the press starts asking where Vinick attends church, he tells his staff that “I haven’t gone to church for a while.” Asked in July by The New York Times about the frequency of his church attendance, Mr. McCain said, “Not as often as I should.”

Mr. Alda and Mr. McCain are the same age. When a hard-edged strategist played by Janeane Garofalo joins the Santos campaign, she immediately alludes to Vinick’s age. “He’s been in the Senate for like 90 years. He was practically born in a committee room,” she says.

In the same way that Obama surrogates have subtly knocked Mr. McCain’s lack of computer skills, the Garofalo character remarks to the Santos campaign manager, Josh Lyman: “Why are you always talking about high-tech jobs? Because Vinick uses a manual typewriter.”

Conversely, Santos staffers talk about getting video of the candidate with his “adorable young children hugging their hale and vital dad.” The casting of Mr. Smits introduced story lines about the prospect of a minority president. But when an aide suggests a fund-raising drive in a Latino community, Santos snaps: “I don’t want to just be the brown candidate. I want to be the American candidate.” The Obama campaign has made similar assertions.

Still, “The West Wing” — like Mr. Obama — does not ignore racial issues entirely. In the seventh season Santos delivers a speech on race at a critical moment for his campaign, and staffers privately worry that voters will lie about their willingness to vote for a minority candidate.

If the show sometimes seems like a political fantasy — a real debate where politicians are required to answer questions? a candidate rejecting an attack ad? — it also reflects the tenor of the real-life campaign season.

Santos wins the nomination only after a lengthy fight on the convention floor, an inexact parallel to Obama’s extended primary fight with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Just as the Obama campaign pivoted to the economy this fall, Lyman tells Santos staffers that “this new economic message may be our ticket,” and he winds up being right. An economic crisis does not ensue, but back-to-back emergencies on “The West Wing” — a nuclear power plant malfunction and a dispute in Kazakhstan — bring to mind the election-defining qualities of the actual economic crisis.

“Dramatically, they are exactly the same thing: the unforseeable,” Mr. O’Donnell said.

As President Bush did during the bailout talks, Jed Bartlet, the Democratic “West Wing” president played by Martin Sheen, brings both candidates to the White House for a briefing. Facing the prospect of deploying 150,000 American soldiers to Kazakhstan three weeks before the election, Vinick grumbles, “I can say goodbye to my tax cut.” He tells Santos, “Your education plan’s certainly off the table.”

Santos emerges victorious weeks later, but only after a grueling election night. Online, some “West Wing” fans are wondering whether the show will wind up forecasting the real-life result as well. In Britain, where the series remains popular in syndication, a recent headline on a blog carried by the newspaper The Telegraph declared: “Barack Obama will win: It’s all in ‘The West Wing.’

Conversation With Rhea, Age 5

Rhea: "I know you're Batman."

SAM: "Rhea, how do you know I'm Batman?"

Rhea: "Because I can see your soul."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Visiting Modern San Diego

Though Los Angeles is regarded as the capital city of modern domestic architecture, San Diego has a quieter but no less dynamic history. It too enjoyed the ideal growth conditions for architectural experimentation--sublime climate, years of economic expansion, entrepreneurial clients open to exploring, and talented architects who liked pushing boundaries.

For whatever reason, uncovering information about Modern San Diego is a bit of a chore. We had to rely on the 1977 edition of Gebhard and Winter's still amazingly relevant A Guide to Architecture in Los Angeles & Southern California. Few comprehensive resources exist (except!) and there's a whole territory out there waiting to be cataloged and written about. Grad students, start your engines!

To make any architectural expedition worth your while, you need a great companion. One who is curious, adventurous, aesthetically astute and willingly disregards the social and legal norms of trespassing. Check! (JT enters stage left. Takes bow.)

Looking over the map, we set our sights on three choice sites. (1) Kendrick Bangs Kellogg's Babcock House, (2) Rudolph Schindler's Pueblo Ribera Court, (3) Killingsworth, Brady and Smith's Case Study House Triad. With perhaps the exception of Schindler, both are unsung masters of the craft.

Kellogg, still practicing today, offers an intense flavor of organicism that exceeds even Frank Lloyd Wright. The Babcock House (available for vacation rental!) is an early example of his work...a dramatic origami of a building that belongs more on a mountain promontory than the seashore, but is still thrilling nonetheless. A friendly Pacific Beach denizen let us know that Kellogg is still adding on the structure and is a darn nice guy. Good to know. Kellogg's original home and studio are just down the street (and also available for rental!).

The Pueblo Ribera Court are Schindler's only SD area structures, and they are gems! Undergoing renovations, these former vacation cottages are slowly coming back to life. Schindler pioneered cooperative housing designs on the west coast and was expert at creating privacy within a single multi-unit project. Made largely of concrete, redwood and glass, the buildings are simple and natural. They are the Wrightish forms characteristic of Schindler's early period arranged into complex spaces. We couldn't scale the walls to actually enter into one of the units, but the walkways between them gave enough flavor to sense the greatness of these buildings. Behind them sits a new construction by Lou Dominy that pays strong homage to the originals.

Finally, the Killingsworth Case Study Triad (nothing to do with the Chinese Mafia, folks...) sit high on the hills of La Jolla, overlooking the ocean. They are as elegant as they are simple. The Case Study Houses were a great postwar experiment to create a simple, modern housing for returning veterans employing the latest in materials and building methods. Financially, these were largely a bust, but they spurned some of the greatest architectural experimentation of the 20th century. Architect's careers were made because of their involvement in the program. Killingsworth, a lesser known figure of the mid-century practitioners, was catapulted to renown because of his Case Study contributions. When you see these houses, you'll know why.

The homes themselves are simple, light boxes, sometimes arranged around small courtyards. The most dramatic of the projects sits below street level and incorporates one of Killingsworth's trademark features--an entryway that traverses a shallow pool of dark water. Though its only an inch or two deep, the psychological journey of crossing it evokes a perilous moat. By the time you reach the front door, you feel you've arrived into a zone of domestic safety. The effect is stunning.

(Sigh) The sun started to set and our energy flagged by the time we finished with these. However, we only scratched the surface of what's available in our friendly, laid-back neighbor to the south. Surely, more adventures await!