10 Tastes of Torrance
As Dionne Warwick sang, “LA is a freeway.” The 88 cities comprising Metropolitan Los Angeles can seem like that, especially during rush hour, but at street level the communities have a life. This was duly impressed upon me during a 3-day visit to Discover Torrance. Food and drink were my pursuits — my gut feeling, as always.
Sarkis, Nora and Ara Zakarian use their Armenian grandmother's recipes as the basis for fresh, healthy Mediterranean-Mexican fusion food, propelling Meditterano to #19 on Yelp's top 100 restaurants in the U.S. How’s that for starters? To my palate, there’s also a delicious touch of Middle Eastern spices.
The plaza corner 700 square-foot space is take out or eat on the benches outside beneath a heated canopy. Note that every part of the property, including the washroom, is spotlessly clean. You might call this Med-Mex mix the gourmand’s take-out M&M of Torrance.
“Torrance has the right water for beer” and is fast becoming known for its brew scene, with 15 craft brew pubs having sprouted like mushrooms. Located in the old town, Red Car was the first. This cheerful, family-friendly space was once the communications hub for Red Car trolleys whose electric lines are now freeway routes. Brewer Bob Brandt and his wife Laurie combined brewing and design skills to fashion a welcoming spot in town.
Bob favours English malts to produce 5 beers that are dry and crisp, 'cause that's the way he likes 'em. And the burgers are huge. It's somewhat ironic that Bob and Laurie renovated this historic brick building which was otherwise slated to be a rehabilitation center. Everything in moderation. Brewing is 90% cleaning, says Bob. “That’s why I don’t like doing the dishes at home.”
There are several doors beneath blue canopies shading a long white building. Inside and out, customers choose from a dizzying array of delectables. At one of the sidewalk tables Mrs. Rosenberg, age 97, dressed in bright yellow, and founder of Torrance Bakery in 1984, chats with people. “Lunch time is absolutely insane with the number of customers,” the manager tells us.
Wedding cakes, custom cakes, pastries and sandwiches — Torrance Bakery does them all. A tour of the kitchens reveals that despite innovative use of computer cake decoration, there’s still a need for “hands on” skills. The bakery prepares about 1,000 wedding cakes a year. The most popular cake? White with strawberry filling. Should you want to be first in line, baking begins daily between midnight and 2:00AM.
“When you drink mezcal you are drinking 100 years or more of Mexican history," says Ivan Vasquez, owner/director of Madre! The food is Oaxacan, the specialty beverage is mezcal — all 380+ bottles!. Ivan, a native of Oaxaca, is passionate about sharing some of the best Mexican cuisine north of the border.
“We spend about 8 hours each day making our own mixes; what I care about is quality — no big brand alcohol…We bring in fresh Oxaca products every week.” I was impressed with the unpretentious sophistication of restaurant and bar areas. This has got to be the place for authentic Mexican cuisine in Old Torrance. There's live music too.
Owner/chef Michael Shafer grew up in the Italian area of Buffalo, N.Y., where “a photo of Frank Sinatra sits 3 higher than the pope.” In his adopted home of Torrance Michael wanted “a downtown art deco steak house.” He’s turned The Depot, a former train station, into exactly that. Dark wood paneling and linen table cloths preside.
“South Bay is a great area,” he says, without romanticizing the neighbourhood prior to gentrification. Food portions are Michael-size, cuz he’s a big guy. With my dinner weighing in at slightly more than me, I pleaded for forgiveness at not cleaning my plate. Michael describes his menu as global cuisine, although my steak was definitely hometown American.
Round Portuguese-style fluffy, sweet bread put this restaurant on the map of Torrance. The story began when Robert Taira opened a bakery in Hilo, Hawaii in 1950. (A small aside that has nothing to do with baking: having visited Hilo, I can vouch for it’s reputation as being one soggy spot with 142 inches of rain annually). Robert’s recipe has been popularly voted from the island ever since he set up a Torrance bakery in 1970.
Loaves are now shipped around the country. The restaurant retains a relaxed 1950’s-style atmosphere with shades of pastel plant-green and a tropical fish tank. We sampled the breakfast menu while ogling the desserts; I opted for the scrumptious French Hawaiian toast. There’s no concession to diets here; it’s still comfort food offered by the Taira family who all live nearby.
It’s no surprise to find a ramen (noodle) restaurant in Torrance. This city has the highest percentage of Japanese ancestry in the United States. There’s usually a line-up during lunch hour, but not much of a wait with reservations. There’s a formality in Japan that dissolves in noodle houses and bars.
This little restaurant is proud of its direct heritage, so you’ll experience the same noisy, relaxed atmosphere as in Hakata, Japan. Broths are the base for these meals. Every day the kitchen staff is dedicated to quality and exacting preparation with fresh ingredients. Just remember, Japanese table manners permit slurping to indicate you like the food.
SMOG CITY Brewing Company
What’s L.A. if not smoke and fog? I’ve even seen cans of the stuff for sale. But we're talking about beer, an ancient drink that some claim to have saved the world when water was too dangerous to drink. SMOG CITY has won its share of ribbons, including a World Beer Cup award for some of its 18 brews.
Regarding zany names for the beers — Sabre-Toothed Tiger? — Operations Director Ryan Trousdale (in the green t-shirt) says “Sometimes the name comes before a beer; other times we have beers waiting for a name.” Ryan describes co-founder brew master Jonathan Porter as the Smog City brain, co-founder Laurie Porter as the heart and himself as the spine. Truly a body of work that’s shown remarkable growth for an 8-year old.
Rudy’s is a neighborhood go-to restaurant on a side street in Old Town. Breakfast is its mainstay. The short order open kitchen was close enough to my seat to have flipped my food order onto the plate. Eggs became omelettes faster than my camera could record.
The John Wayne Special — a tortilla topped with 2 eggs and cheese, home fries and sausage, all beneath a liberal ladle of “Spanish sauce,” plus a biscuit smothered in white gravy — was more than enough to put muscles on my toenails. Once again, I had to surrender. By the time we left close to noon that Saturday, all sidewalk tables were taken.
From humble beginnings as a Taiwanese dumpling shop in 1972, Ding Tai Fung has grown into a popular international chain of 100+ restaurants. It’s a place for families, groups, noisy conversation and fun. While waiting for seats, diners are treated to food preparation by chefs working behind a large glass window. After placing an order, steaming bamboo trays quickly cover your table in rapid succession as everyone digs into the tasty contents.
My favourite, as in Taipei where I had my first dumpling experience, were the classic Kurobuta Pork Xiao Long Bao. The hand-rolled dough is filled with pork marinated in a savoury broth. It’s meant to be downed in one bite after cooling slightly (so as not to burn your mouth). Definitely a delightful, delicious delicacy. You’ll find Din Tai Fung on the second level of Del Amo Fashion Center Mall. Just look for the queue.
Full Disclosure: I was a media guest of the Discover Torrance Visitors Bureau. All comments and photos are mine, with no input or editing by either the Bureau or its PR firm.