In many ways, Angelenos are quintessentially American by being quintessentially provincial. To be sure, Los Angeles is segregated by politics and wealth distribution and ethnicity, but it is also segregated by zones where people Just Won’t Go. Part of this is a logical response to the most mercurial traffic density in the Continental 48: a journey of five miles can range from anywhere between eight and eighty minutes to complete. So people settle into their zone. Some won’t venture east of the 405, some won’t travel south of the 10, or cross the “Orange Curtain” that divides California’s first and third most populous counties. Santa Clarita? Long Beach? You may as well be on Deimos or Phobos, my friends.
It’s only about 19 miles (or 30 kilometers) as the crow flies between the Westwood campus of UCLA and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena (where their team plays its home games in men’s football). And — it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much — that’s about the only time (except for New Year’s, obvs) you’ll find a dedicated mass of people from Westwood struggling across town to visit said city.
But thanks to a friend’s medical appointment, I found myself in Pasadena, which is gorgeous even when it’s not hauling rose-festooned floats down its streets. It was also, until 10 days ago, the home of the late Jonathan Gold, the only food critic in American history to have won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. We never met, much to my dismay, even though he was friends with a number of our friends, and I’m sure we could have arranged an intro. And there was the time at the now-shuttered Corazón y Miel — a restaurant his column introduced to us — when the bride and I saw him sit down to a solitary Sunday meal and decided to let him dine in peace. That was also the day that I learned (thanks to his recommendation) deep-fried avocado is spectacular.
But I digress.
With a couple of unscheduled hours before me as I awaited my pal Valerie’s eyes to dilate like a Disney Princess‘ and then return to something like normal, I headed out for some east side exotica. And I wound up at Chaaste Family Market.
Initially, I was just poking around for ingredients. It’s a hobby of mine to find the most unusual/exotic/counterintuitive ingredient I can, take it home, then read about it and figure out how to use it. That’s how I once wound up with a bag full of this, for instance:
The bride said, “You’re not going to bring home a bunch of stuff that you’re gonna leave on the counter for months, are you?” I swore I wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t have placed a two-bit bet on whether I was lying or not. I very nearly returned with a box of “Puto,” which as near as I can tell makes a bao-like dough for steaming and stuffing. Those of you from SoCal or for whom Spanglish is a second language already know that puto has a second, and very different, meaning.
But judging from the signage, it seemed that la délicatesse du jour was something called turon. [You can find examples of people making them here, here, and here.] Apparently, the day’s turon output was due to start rolling out to the public at 13:30, about half an hour away. I considered making my exit — “Be back at 1:30!” — with about a 10% chance of actually being back at 1:30. But things were slow, and the very friendly proprietor (whom I would later find out is the owner’s son Chris, pictured at the right of the photo at top), said, “It could be a little earlier than that. Why not hang out for a few minutes, if you’ve got time?”
Time I had. And attached to their market is a little restaurant, with room for 20 in a pinch. Maybe. If they were friends. It’s decorated in the way that lots of the best eateries in the world are, which is to say minimally. A mural depicts the founders riding in their horse-drawn wedding coach across a bridge from the Philippines to America. It also features the second generation, in various guises. And Manny Pacquiao, because, well, the Philippines. [I’m not being snotty or superior about this in any way, because the Maritimes from which I come has restaurants that boast of Anne Murray and/or Sidney Crosby; gotta support the locals.]
What little knowledge I had of Pinoy food was mostly hastily acquired when I was recruited by a chef pal to participate in a relief effort for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan; I was part of the crew he organized to throw a benefit fund-raising dinner. My contribution was calamansi chewies. So, ignorant but open, I placed myself in the hands of my host, something I often do; after all, who better to know what’s good?
We moved onto some steam table items, and settled on bistek, beef giniling guisado (which Chris told me his Latino friends refer to as “hamburger helper”), pancit bihon (a dish very like a vegetable-laden vermicelli mix, though it can also feature a variety of proteins), and, of course, the rice.
It was a right tasty meal, especially the bistek, whose broth had the depth of a Borges short story collection. Came to a grand total of $8.10, which has to be one of the best under-$10 meals I’ve had in America. Is it worth hacking one’s way through the ugly maw that is Los Angeles traffic to partake of it on a daily basis? Probably not. Will it be at the top of my list the next time I find myself in the neighbourhood? You bet.
Ah, but then.
Part of me wants to believe that the omitted apostrophe is entirely intentional, and a nod to the French; after all, Mama’s turon is so good it just flies out the door, so it’s no surprise she would find herself without any. Mama Sans Turon, indeed. It’s like an egg roll and a banana and a churro and some jackfruit went up to heaven and asked if they could borrow some manna and have a baby together.
Like clockwork, at 13:30, the shop began to fill with turon fans. The first few were warned not to try them right away, as the turons were just slightly cooler than a meteorite hitting the lower atmosphere. And after I watched several happy clusters of customers drift off, I joined them, turon package in tow, in sweet (and fried) bliss. So by all means do make your way over some day, plan it around lunch, and surprise your couch- (or house-) bound friends with a little manna that found its path from heaven via Manila and Pasadena.