Finger Lickin' Larkin's
On Thurday, while thousands of Angelenos glued their eyeballs to their TVs to watch the season premieres of "The Office," "My Name Is Earl" and other series during premiere week, two pals and I trekked to Larkin's in Eagle Rock for some Southern cooking. Having spent nearly half of my life living south of the Mason-Dixon line, first in South Carolina and then in Virginia, I'm a big snob when it comes to fried chicken, okra, BBQ and cobbler. After all, my palate was formed in the school cafeterias where lard, pinto beans, cornmeal and collard greens constituted fundamental ingredients. But I was pleasantly surprised when I plopped down on one of the mismatched chairs in the cozy Craftsman that previously housed an auto parts shop before becoming the dream restaurant come true for cute couple Larkin and Joshua. Before I start raving about the food, I must apologize in advance for the return to ghetto photojournalism on The Food and Music Club. My Lumix has been wigging out on me, so I have to send it to the shop for repair.
My friend Ernae arrived before Max and I came with two bottles of Kalmuck's Gruner Veltliner that we bought at Colorado Wine Co. down the street. (Larkin's is BYOB.) Because of Ernae's early arrival as the third patron in the restaurant, service was swift. A bowl of spicy beans and pita chips were already placed on the table, greeting our growling stomachs.
I've always been amazed by the similarities in Vietnamese and Southern U.S. cooking. In addition to fresh seafood and rice, the two culinary traditions also use a lot of okra, tomatoes, chili sauce and pork. I rarely find okra on restaurant menus in arugula-obsessed Los Angeles. So I had to order the fried okra and heirloom tomato salad. While I liked the pairing of the high brow tomatoes with the white trash okra, I was disappointed that the fried okra was cold. Considering how empty the restaurant was, I didn't understand why the cook couldn't just deep-fry me some fried okra on demand.
The corn muffins were't anything special, other than that they were little and you could eat two without filling up.
The waitress freaked me out when she told me the pork chop I ordered would be cooked medium rare. I did not want a case of Southern salmonella. But she assured me that the meat would be cooked to the required temperature. In other words, Larkin wouldn't be overcooking the meat. Smothered in gravy, the pork chop was tender, thick and juicy. There was plenty for me to slice off big chunks for Ernae and Max. The red beans poured over the white rice were spicy and sweet. I didn't recall ever eating beans like this in the South. They reminded me of a reintrepretation of Boston baked beans, sans bacon.
Ernae got the fried catfish. The cornmeal batter was a perfectly crunchy armor for the sweet fish. The collard greens were too spicy for Ernae's preference, so Max and I traded our sides with her. I never got why people would dip cornmeal-battered catfish in tartar sauce. Tabasco is all you need to spice up the bottom feeder.
One reason why Max and I get along so well is that we both like to eat good food and plan our meals in advance. Because he had been to Larkin's before and was buddies with the owners, he knew that the fried chicken was a must-have. He let me have a drumstick, which was crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. The mashed potatoes were yummy, too.
Stuffed from our meal, the three of us decided to order only one dessert: the banana pudding with Nilla wafers. The fruit was so ripe and sweet that the Nilla wafers tasted like water crackers.
While the others couldn't handle another bite, I had to wave my true Southern colors by ordering the sweet potato pie. The filling was gooey and dense that I suspected the sweet potatoes were baked rather than boiled. The whipped cream was also thick, nicely neutralizing the nutmeg in the sweet potato filling. But if the boy in the kitchen was a true Southerner, he would have slipped a tablespoon or two of bourbon in the cream while whipping it.