To All the Meals I’ve Loved Before

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Botanica serves seared Japanese sweet potatoes, carmelized on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside, served with a verdant salsa verde.

By MACKIE JIMBO

Hello, Rafu readers! My name is Mackie Jimbo, and I have loved food since as far back as I can remember. Growing up in Los Angeles, I experienced diverse cultures and flavors that made me curious about the world at an early age.

Every Saturday, my dad brought home tamales steamed in banana leaves from Yuca’s, a cash-only, James Beard award-winning stand in Los Feliz that serves tacos, burritos, and yes, tamales, from Mexico’s southern Yucatan region.

I went to elementary school in Koreatown, where my classmates often brought kimchi and beef bulgogi for lunch. The school also had a strong Filipino population, and I developed an affinity for ube (purple yam) pastries and turon (deep-fried egg rolls filled with jackfruit and banana).

In high school, I religiously read Jonathan Gold’s restaurant reviews, dreaming that one day, I, too, could be a professional restaurant critic.

I also have fond, food-filled memories of growing up in L.A.’s Japanese American community. My family often spent weekends in Little Tokyo, where we’d treat ourselves to steaming pots of nabeyaki udon at Suehiro, delicate anko-filled manju at Fugetsu-Do, and Imagawayaki hot off the griddle at Mitsuru Cafe.

Like most JA girls, I played basketball, but I mostly looked forward to the elaborate post-game snacks: Spam musubi brushed with teriyaki sauce, stained-glass Jello (blocks of fruit Jello suspended in condensed milk gelatin), and inari football-shaped sushi.

The week between New Year’s and Christmas, my family to this day makes a pilgrimage to Gardena for our annual Oshogatsu grocery shopping at Tokyo Central (aka Marukai). My dad patiently guards our cart as my mom, brother and I waltz through the aisles, picking up ingredients for ozoni, boxes of Pocky, and bags of senbei.

After grocery shopping, we’d get lunch in Gardena, usually handmade soba at Otafuku or udon at Kotohira, followed by (or sometimes preceded by) a slice of paradise cake from King’s Hawaiian Bakery.

Though I experienced the world in L.A., I was eager to explore new places and cuisines. I spent the next 14 years away from L.A., living in Ithaca, N.Y., Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. In each city, I delved into the local food scene and my passion for and curiosity about food grew deeper.

During that time, I started a food magazine at my college called Crème de Cornell. And later, when I was an unpaid intern and law student, I wrote about my budget-friendly culinary adventures in a blog called “The Unpaid Gourmet.” In both endeavors, I wanted to memorialize and celebrate the wonderful meals I had, and share my enthusiasm about food with others.

After 14 years away from home, I realized my heart was still in L.A. So, I closed my East Coast chapter and moved to L.A. at the end of last year. 2019 marked the beginning of my new L.A. life.

I’ve spent the last several months reacquainting myself with the city where I grew up, in the best way I know how: through food. Of course, I’ve returned to my old haunts: Lucky Boy’s for the best breakfast burritos in the city, Porto’s for their infamous potato balls (spiced ground beef enveloped in a deep-fried ball of mashed potatoes), and Philippe’s for their original French dip sandwiches.

Botanica is located at 1620 Silver Lake Blvd. in Los Angeles. Info: (323) 522-6106, botanicamag.com

I’ve ventured to new places as well. One of my new favorites is Botanica in Silver Lake. A bustling cafe by day and low-lit restaurant by night, Botanica serves vegetable-centric, gorgeously plated fare that is having a moment in L.A. right now. What sets Botanica apart is that its food is incredibly delicious, and not just for show on Instagram.

I’m obsessed with the seared Japanese sweet potatoes, caramelized on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside, served with a verdant salsa verde. (Learn how to make this dish using the recipe below.) I’m also addicted to their carrot poppy seed bread, made with almond flour, which gives it a distinct nutty texture.

And what resonates with me most about Botanica is its story: two female former food writers with no prior experience owning a restaurant founded Botanica, based on their shared love of fresh, healthful, California cuisine.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve gravitated towards historic L.A. establishments, like Musso & Frank Grill. Nestled along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, Musso & Frank celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. Famous patrons span all decades of the restaurant’s existence, including the Rolling Stones, Marilyn Monroe, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The dining room feels timeless, with burgundy leather booths, white tablecloths, and waiters dressed in red tails, many of whom have been working there for 50+ years.

The menu features classic dishes from eras past. My go-to dish is the sand dabs meunière, an otherwise unattractive and bland white fish that is superb when sautéed in loads of butter, lemon, and capers. And though I am not typically a martini or gin drinker, at Musso & Frank, I succumb to both and order one of their expertly made gin martinis every time.

Located on the iconic Hollywood Walk of Fame, Musso & Frank Grill celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. Address: 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. Info: (323) 467-7788, mussoandfrank.com

Musso & Frank’s traditional feel is perhaps the antithesis of Botanica’s Millennial-friendly feminist aesthetic. And yet, I’m thrilled that L.A. is home to such divergent and equally delicious restaurants, and am eager to explore them all.

As I continue to eat my way through L.A.’s exciting, eclectic, and exquisite food scene, I want to share my culinary journey with the Rafu community. In this column, I will write about dishes, restaurants, and chefs that represent L.A.’s past and are shaping L.A.’s future. My hope is that you will both learn about new restaurants and reminisce about old classics.

I’ll share recipes for some of the dishes featured in this column (like for Botanica’s seared Japanese sweet potatoes with salsa verde, provided below), so that you can enjoy these dishes at home. I will also highlight entrepreneurs, artisans, and home cooks who are doing innovative things in the L.A. food world.

And while I will of course cover Japanese businesses and community events, I will not limit the column solely to that, because to do so would be to miss out on L.A.’s wealth of diversity and cultures. As my idol, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold, once said, “The huge number of multiple cultures that live in this city…and the fault lines between them are where you find the most beautiful things.”

I hope to celebrate these cultures and fault lines, and find the beautiful things in L.A. to write about, here in The Rafu.

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Botanica’s Seared Japanese Sweet Potatoes with Salsa Verde

Serves 2

3-4 Japanese sweet potatoes (these have purple or dark red-purple skin and white flesh)

Multiple spoonfuls of salsa verde (recipe below)

Sea salt

Zest of ½ lemon

Cilantro flowers, to garnish (if you can find them!)

For the potatoes:

Bring a pot of heavily salted water (it should taste like the sea) to a boil. Gently drop in the potatoes, lower the heat a tad, and simmer until you can pierce the potatoes with a knife, but not to the point where they’re falling apart and the skin is peeling off. (This usually takes about 15-20 minutes, but varies depending on the size of the potato!)

Remove the potatoes, rinse in cold water, let cool, then halve lengthwise.

Heat a few glugs of olive oil in a cast-iron pan over medium-high heat. Place the potatoes cut-side down and sear until nice and caramelized — about 5 minutes. (The potatoes are great finished on a grill, too!) Arrange the sweet potatoes, cut-side up, by stacking them gently atop each other, like you’re building a beautiful potato mountain!

Stir the salsa verde so you get bits of every component, then spoon it generously over the top. More is more here – there’s no such thing as too much salsa verde, in our opinions – so don’t be afraid. Season with sea salt, zest the lemon over the top, shower with cilantro blossoms (optional) and serve.

Salsa Verde

Makes about 1½ cups

1 large shallot, minced

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 bunch parsley, finely chopped (tender stems are okay, too!)

1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped (ditto)

2 tablespoons capers, roughly chopped

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

1 cup delicious olive oil

Sea salt

Place shallots and sherry vinegar in a medium jar, stir, and set aside to soak for 15 minutes. Drain the vinegar (we think this gives just the right amount of acidity) and reserve (in case you want to add it back in for more acidity), then add the rest of the ingredients to the jar and stir well. Add a nice pinch of salt and a couple grinds of pepper.

Stir again and taste: You’re looking for a balance of acid, salinity, and herby freshness. If it tastes too harsh, add a few more splashes of olive oil. If you want it punchier, add a bit of the vinegar back in. It’ll keep in your fridge for a couple of weeks, but the chances of it lasting that long are slim!

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Follow Mackie on Instagram (@gourmetmackie) for updates on where she’s eating in L.A. and beyond.

Photos by ALAN GASTELUM

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