In times of stress and anxiety, many of us turn to the happy memories of past for solace and relief. And over the past two years of pandemic, those happy memories have often been of the foods of our childhoods. For some of us, that’s meant baking the pastries that made our mouths water in our parental kitchens, and in shops in our hometown.
For actor Adam Shapiro, it meant recreating the Philadelphia-style pretzels he loved so much back in the City of Brotherly Love, a style of soft, sweetish pretzel not found here on the Left Coast. And so, he started baking them in his Valley Village kitchen. First for himself, then for fellow Philadelphians, and for converts to the joys of highly regional pleasure. And ultimately, it turned into a business — the Shappy Pretzel Co. (www.shappypretzel.com) — baking in commercial kitchens, and selling at pop-ups first around the valley, and then at sundry spots around town. COVID turned Adam into the Los Angeles king of Philadelphia Pretzels.
Regional joys are to be found all over the Valley. For one, there’s El Tijuanense Tacos & Birria (8870 Corbin Ave., Northridge; 818-626-8186), which used to exist solely as a food truck but recently expanded to a brick-and-mortar in a shopping plaza. Tacos Estilo Tijuana — Tijuana Tacos to those of us who can’t get enough of them — can be a bit hard to define. The meats are grilled over mesquite. The tortillas are packed like the pre-COVID crowd at a Rams game. And there’s a spoonful of guacamole that tops the whole creation, which sets it apart from tacos that are either guac-free, or perhaps have the guac hidden within. In the case of the Tijuana Taco, the guacamole is the cherry atop the sundae.
At El Tijuanense, one of the few purveyors of the style not found under a pop-up canopy in front of a sprawling Latino market parking lot, the meats run to carne asada, shredded beef birria, chicken, pork cheek (cabeza) and barbecue pork al pastor.
The tacos come regular, as quesatacos (with extra cheese), as crunchy tostaditos, and both mulitas (double-decker quesadillas) and vampiros (open-faced, on a toasted tortilla). I like to order the vampiros, just for the fun of saying the name. And of course, the joy of eating them as well — a taste of Tijuana, this side of the border.
Until former Nobu boss Ben Osher opened Gorilla Pies (12417 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village; 818-821-3777, gorillapies.com), I didn’t know there was a Pittsburgh style of pizza. It’s a pizza defined more by its crust than by its toppings; the crust is, at its most Steel City, medium crisp, puffy and chewy. It’s so big — Pittsburgh is a city of big eaters!
At Gorilla Pies, the options are many, with nearly 30 toppings with which to cover the crust, ranging from familiars like pepperoncini, bell peppers and smoked mozzarella, to curiosities like pickled fennel, crispy shiitake mushrooms and barbecue char siu pork. A hybrid of sauerkraut and kimchi called — what else? — herb-chi.
There are eight signature pies as well, with names like The Rabbi (pastrami, Swiss, smoked kraut-chi and a caraway seed crust — a Reuben sandwich turned into a pizza), The Green Monster (cherry bomb peppers, crispy shiitakes, smoked mozzarella ), and The Great White Buffalo (popcorn Buffalo chicken, smoky mozzarella, ranch dressing). There’s cheese bread with “Angry Gorilla Sauce” called Monkey Bars. Instead of chicken wings, there are Gorilla Wings. Who knew gorillas could fly?
And, of course, speaking of hometown pizzas, the Chicago-style of deep-dish pies is beyond legendary, and cooked to perfection at Gino’s East of Chicago (12924 Riverside Drive, Sherman Oaks; 818-788-5050, www.ginoseast.com), with eight branches stretching across the Midwest, and into Texas — and two in Chicago as well. Our local Gino’s offers the pies two ways — both their “legendary” deep-dish, and the New York style thin crust, which they refer to as “Tavern Style.”
If you want to taste the classic pie, get the Meaty Legend, with pepperoni, Italian sausage, Canadian-style bacon and American-style bacon. I’m not sure our winters are cold enough to add on an order of the smoked sausage chili. Unlike the Windy City, we don’t get sub-zero temps blowing off the lake.
And while we’re talking about hometown styles, there’s Detroit-style pizza at Quarter sheet pizza (613 E. Broadway, Glendale, and 1305 Portia St., Los Angeles; www.exploretock.com/quartersheetspizzaclub). Also, I’ve been hearing about Steubenville style pizza — aka Ohio Valley Pizza — that’s a rectangular pie with a thick crust, which I think in New York we referred to as Sicilian style. Of course, New York style pizza remains (for me at least), the hometown standard. Though the California style originated by Wolfgang Puck at Spago, and spread by California Pizza Kitchen will do any day. All pizzas are good pizzas, no matter where they’re from.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email [email protected]