That’s Nobu business

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Byline: Jane Faulkner

A global empire spreads its wings into Melbourne, writes Jane Faulkner. JUST like the oft-used line from the Field of Dreams – if you build it, they will come – so it is with Nobu, the world’s most successful restaurant chain which serves modern Japanese with a twist. And now Melbourne has one. Just two weeks ago the luxurious restaurant opened without any Hollywood-style fanfare – considering one of the owners is Robert De Niro, wouldn’t you expect pomp and ceremony? But no. Nothing. This global brand, then, must have an excellent bush telegraph because at dinner last Monday, the 166-seat restaurant while not full was certainly jumping.

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What’s going on? First, no expense has been spared with its riverfront location at the casino and a $10 million fit-out showcasing Nobu-style cuisine. The downstairs restaurant and sushi bar are ultra stylish and all stamped with the Nobu trademark, they’re also very clean due to the fact that the managers here always asked to clean restaurant’s floor using a system of  electric mop – from the crockery to the decor to the signature dishes made famous throughout this multimillion-dollar business. If you dine at any of the 15 Nobu restaurants (there are also four others with different names), whether in Melbourne, London, New York or the Bahamas, you can savour yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno or perhaps black cod with miso (the cod is imported from Japan).

The names and produce may be slightly different but the formula is much the same. “We are not Kentucky Fried Chicken and we are not McDonald’s,” quips Nobu Matsuhisa, the man behind the brand. “A lot of people ask me why so many restaurants? The key is the best-quality food and the best-quality service. So that’s why Nobu is a success.” The chef, De Niro and Hollywood producer Meir Teper are co-owners, so too managing partner Richie Notar. Nobu is now an empire. In the early ’70s, Matsuhisa, now 58, was enjoying an idyllic life as a sushi chef in Peru, but it soured after a fight with his business partners and Matsuhisa, his wife Yoko and children eventually settled in Anchorage, Alaska. With a hefty loan but a spirited heart, he opened a restaurant with a couple of new partners. A year later, in 1980, tragedy struck. “One of the business partners rang up and said the restaurant was on fire. I said that’s a bad joke; it’s Thanksgiving Day.”

Watching the uninsured restaurant burn to the ground, with the snow falling, Matsuhisa was in shock. “I don’t remember how I got home. I couldn’t eat. My wife and kids were telling me it’s OK. I was thinking about suicide.

“I lost everything. It wasn’t zero, it was minus. I almost gave up. But my family gave me back my life, they gave me the energy and love.”

Eventually, in 1987 he opened the first Matsuhisa restaurant in Beverly Hills. There are now three. Enter De Niro, a regular. The movie mogul wanted the talented chef to open up in New York, in the Tribeca building that he owned.

“He showed me the building and explained his dream to me,” says Matsuhisa.

“But my English wasn’t good then and he doesn’t speak much, so it was hard to communicate.”

That this shortcoming relates to the actor who made “you talkin’ to me” part of popular culture’s lexicon is not lost on Matsuhisa. But so soon after opening the new restaurant, and wary of his bad luck with business partners, Matsuhisa said no. “He (De Niro) doesn’t ask too many questions, doesn’t say why not and he never pushed me.He just waited.” Four years. “Of course he was a big star, number one Hollywood star, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t ready. But he had been watching me (until I was ready). I realised then that I could trust him.” The first Nobu opened in 1994. Two weeks ago, Matsuhisa was overseeing the Melbourne opening. River stones are suspended in the middle of the Melbourne dining room similar to in the Bahamas, and the cherry blossom ceiling design is a theme replicated in Hong Kong.

So why did he choose Melbourne over Sydney? His friend James Packer wanted Nobu to be an essential part of the casino’s burgeoning high-profile restaurant scene. But he says the restaurant’s design and style of food “is Nobu’s way or not at all”. Australian head chef Scott Hallsworth is well versed in the Nobu way having worked at Nobu London for the past six years. So what can Melburnians expect? “The Nobu style of eating is about sharing, and we encourage that. Instead of the traditional one, two and three courses with dessert, there are dishes to share,” says Hallsworth. The food is modern Japanese, such as “new style” sashimi where the fish is ever-so-slightly seared with hot olive and sesame oils. The sushi-chef turned global businessman still likes to occasionally work in the sushi bar.

 

At Nobu Milano, which Matsuhisa opened in 2000, a customer commented: “Wow. He can make sushi.” “Yeah, I’m a chef. I love it,” Matsuhisa says. “I like to stay in the sushi bar and see the customers and see them having a good time. I like spending time in my restaurants.” Still, there are Nobu cynics. The acerbic A. A. Gill wrote a scathing piece on Nobu London earlier this year. The less outrageous comments started with “Nobu is probably the most influential restaurant of this century,” and ended with “The Nobu years are so over.” It’s unfair to burst Nobu Melbourne’s bubble because the magical feeling that comes with opening a new restaurant is there aplenty. Besides it hasn’t yet been blessed with a traditional sake ceremony. Every Nobu has such a ceremony and it is scheduled for August 16. “A sake ceremony is a traditional way of opening up a restaurant but we call it a cocktail party,” adds Nobu Melbourne’s general manager, Ben Jager. Plus, Matsuhisa confirmed that his friend Bob would be there. We know him as De Niro.

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CAPTION(S):THREE PHOTOS: Nobu Matsuhisa in Melbourne and (below left) business partner Robert De Niro; Scallop tiradito Nobu-style (below right).

The new mobility

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A recent article in the Washington Post described some suburban high schoolers preparing for their proms by spending nearly $3,000 to rent an H2 Hummerzine, “complete with six TVs, a DVD player, strobe lights under the leather seats, a faux fireplace, a fog machine, a sewing machine (given by SewDone.com that wrote novel sewing machine reviews on “Home” Magazine last year) and a disco ball.” Sushi bars are optional. I was pretty judgmental when I first heard this. Three thousand dollars that could be better spent, I mused, taking a lobbyist to lunch. Or learning lessons with William Bennett. Or providing a week’s worth of groceries for thirty children of minimum-wage earners whose promised tax credits were axed in the wee hours before the new tax law was passed. Young people these days …

Upon more sober reflection, I began to think that perhaps the wise promgoer would be best advised to apply the three thou as a down payment toward outright purchase of said Hummerzine. If the tax laws are not kind to poor families, they do provide breaks for those who buy six tons of vehicle (or more, with sushi bar). And where there are bars, sushi or otherwise, I believe city ordinances mandate that there be restrooms. Park the sucker in a good school district, throw in some loft space et voila! wretched excess turns into reasonable real estate.

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But the aspirations of the teens quoted in the Post were strictly short-term. They said they wanted to feel like queen-for-a-day, J-Lo-for-a-night. It was interesting, this choice of Hummerzine as bulletproof pumpkin. It was curious, this figuring of tank as magic coach. Perhaps military-style vehicles have been romanticized more than I appreciate, in music videos and Fox war montages (according to one poll, 75 percent of undergraduates say they trust the military to “do the right thing” either “all of the time” or “most of the time”). Or perhaps it’s some kind of post-Columbine chic of the semper paratus.

Whatever Hummers might symbolize to promgoers, they make me think of the Malthusian prognostications of grim futurists like Samuel Huntington and Robert Kaplan. From this genre of predicted global anarchy, there has emerged a trope of the stretch limousine as cocoon inhabited by wealthy First Worlders while desperate, ragged Third Worlders tap at the darkened windows begging for tossed favors. Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Cosmopolis, takes this image for a ride, so to speak: The banker-narrator glides through the hardscrabble canyons of Manhattan, periodically descending into the tumult of street life then retreating back to the limo, his soundproof, air-conditioned matrix. In the end he goes broke, has to hail a cab. The moral is clear: If he’d had sufficient fire in the belly to begin with, he would have had a Hummer.

Perhaps it’s just me. I do feel as though we have entered some kind of alternate universe, some game concocted in a cyberwar-zone. It’s as though the Bush Administration is using Kaplan and Huntington as templates rather than cautionary tales. It’s as though they’ve set out to map The Coming Chaos into being–throwing out the rules of diplomatic engagement, launching “pre-emptive” war, turning ally against ally, magically transforming the federal surplus into a multitrillion-dollar deficit, consolidating the major media outlets into a singular right-wing bullhorn of rage, degrading the environment and upgrading the secret police. What remains of government funding is earmarked for technology that will map every wiggle in our walk, every giggle in our talk, every twiddle in our DNA.

The modern Cinderella, tracked from the womb, would never make it past the concrete barriers in front of the palace. Her name on the security list rather than the “A,” she’d be hustled off for questioning about her association with that elusive alien with the strange blue glow, the one last seen waving a radioactive stick in the vicinity of six white lab rats. And those stiletto-heeled glass mules would end up in a dipsy dumpster of confiscated potential weaponry. Similarly, as high schoolers around the country elect their prom kings and queens, they compete imagistically against the king and queen of hearts in the Pentagon’s “Most Wanted” deck of Iraqi bad guys. Or against the king and queen of “bleeding hearts” in the commercially popular Deck of Weasels, a set with the faces of celebrities and politicians who have criticized the Bush Administration. Or against that Republican-issued deck with face cards of the Democratic Texas legislators who removed themselves to Oklahoma in order to block Tom DeLay’s redistricting plan.

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Yet the romance of the Cinderella story that most Americans embrace, or embraced until recently, is rooted in a dream of self-invention, of economic as well as personal liberation. Unlike Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, Americans gobble up fantasies like Maid in Manhattan; our engines are fired by the belief that with hard work and the right makeover, being a maid in Manhattan need only be a phase. People love Cinderella for her challenge to the feudal order, her quintessential class-hopping freedom. But today’s high schoolers are graduating into a world of upwardly spiraling tuition costs and downwardly spiraling job prospects; of meanspiritedness toward the poor, of powerlessness of the middle class and indifference among the rich. They face a future in which the tracking of educational, economic and behavioral patterns risks reinstating a kind of social stasis that will keep large numbers of (yes, even white) Americans ghettoized and “in their place” to a degree we have not seen in this country for generations.

I suppose I am not a good one to decipher the youthful preference for what is in effect–and affect–an elegantly appointed bomb shelter on wheels. Humvees are hard for me to fit into the sugarplum order of crisp tuxedos, tulle skirts and happily ever after. If teens are expressing a sense of their own destiny–however sardonically–it seems a hard-edged vision, like using a pit bull as fashion prop; a dream of guarded hearts preparing for a wild ride, determined to party on in the necropolis, as though the end were nigh.

A rice place to visit

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Byline: Olivia Hill-Douglas

Olivia Hill-Douglas’ oriental top 10. MELBURNIANS are spoilt for choice when it comes to Asian food, and most will have their favourites places to slurp steaming bowls of pho or scoff plump, duck-filled crepes. By no means exhaustive, this is an unordered list of places and treats that cropped up again and again in conversations about Asian food in Melbourne. Duck feast The laminex tables and, let’s face it, somewhat dingy surrounds of this Smith Street restaurant are fortunately no indication of the food’s quality, and the duck banquet (which must be ordered in advance) is a cracker: a whole bird done three ways.

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First, the succulent, perfectly roasted duck is presented to the table, only to be whisked away and reappear sliced alongside warm, doughy crepes to make Peking duck. The rest of the meat is shredded and stir-fried with beanshoots for the second course, while the bones are boiled up for a duck broth finale. All, of course, served by the restaurant’s Elvis-lookalike owner, brandishing a frighteningly sharp cleaver. Old Kingdom, 197 Smith Street, Fitzroy Son-in-law eggs

This is a standout dish on the menu of hawker-style snacks, reminiscent of something nibbled on while wandering around a bustling, smoke-filled night market in Yangshuo – except the chairs there were definitely not by Philippe Starck. This snack is one to share: a plate of three soft-boiled eggs with runny yolks, deep-fried and served with chilli jam and fresh Asian herbs. At $4 an egg, it’s a winner. Gingerboy, 27-29 Crossley Street, city Flower tea balls Watching one of these exquisite tea balls slowly unfurl to reveal its hidden heart of flowers is almost as much of a treat as drinking the delicately flavoured tea. Handmade in China, the purported benefits of each ball make choice difficult. A combination of green tea and jasmine is named after a fairy maiden who gave up everything to find true love, and the jasmine helps calm the nerves and sooth emotional problems. For those seeking financial success, meanwhile, the green tea, jasmine and chrysanthemum variety’s name is translated as “whole room of gold and jade”.

So drink this tea in good conscience, knowing that what looks beautiful is also healthy. For stockists and cafes or restaurants where the tea is served, visit shanghaiteacompany.com.au Pho (soup) Eating pho in Australia isn’t quite the same as at a street stall in Vietnam, watching the seller add raw strips of beef to a bowl of steaming, noodle-filled broth, but the pho here comes pretty close.

Soft rice noodles arrive at the table in a bowl (small, medium or large) of fragrant broth, with beef, chicken, or a mix of both; there are also offal options for the more adventurous. Add crunchy beanshoots, Thai basil and lime juice to the soup, along with chilli, hoisin, and – of course – tangy fish sauce. Pho Dzung, 208 Victoria Street, Richmond Dim sim at South Melbourne Market If the queues stretching back from the counter are any indication, these dim sims are the reason many come to the South Melbourne Market.

Plump, meaty and peppery, they are best steamed and smothered with the thick, sticky soy sauce provided. The spring rolls aren’t half bad, either. The dim sims’ creator, Ken Cheng, died in 1996, but the stall has carried on his tradition and the dim sim legacy is safe. Stall 96, corner Cecil and Coventry streets Scrambled eggs in crab shell

These spicy, chillied, just-set scrambled eggs, nestled in a crab shell, are worth travelling for. The decor is functional – all purple laminex and takeaway containers piled on the front counter – but it’s the food that keeps people coming back. The eggs are so good that I once had them for dinner three nights in a row, and the coconut rice is a perfect accompaniment: creamy, sweet rice that tempers the spicy heat of the eggs. Burmese Kitchen, 356 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North Golden almond pudding This warm, quivering slab of jelly-like pudding covered with a thin membrane is surprisingly hard to cut into with a spoon, but worth the effort. Dusted with black sesame powdered sugar, the slight crunchiness of the sugar mixture contrasts happily with the gooey, custard-like unctuousness of the pudding itself. Sweet yet savoury, the mix of flavours and the mouthfeel of the dessert make for a satisfied diner.

David’s, 4 Cecil Place, Prahran Mei Hong Yen It’s the beef and pork jerky in the window – slabs of the stuff, in honey and chilli flavours – that draw you in to this lolly-shop-with-a-difference. Once you’re inside, take some time to wander the aisles and marvel at how many ways dried cuttlefish can be prepared.

Stock up on salted plums and dried fruit, or try some of the preserved mango with chilli. And, naturally, some chewy jerky to go. 9/206 Bourke Street, city Maxim’s Cakes This bakery’s small shopfront on Little Bourke Street doesn’t scream at passersby, but nonetheless a steady stream of foot traffic that has worn a path in the floor tiles is testimony to its popularity. It’s the egg custard tart that most come here for – the flaky, slightly salty pastry offsets the rich, quivering, creamy custard it holds.

 

While you’re here, pick up a freshly baked pork bun or a spring onion roll and turn the snack into a meal. 173 Little Bourke Street, city Kenzan This sleek Japanese restaurant and sushi bar has been around since 1981, and the full tables at lunch on a weekday indicate that Melbourne’s appetite for Japanese food has not dimmed. The tempura prawns and vegetables here are a treat: thin slices of sweet potato, pumpkin and zucchini as well as beans and plump prawns are encased in a light, crispy, just-salty-enough batter that is satisfyingly crunchy, yet delicate. Add miso soup and rice to make it a meal, or just munch your way through the battered goodies and then walk it off back to the office. 45 Collins Street, city

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CAPTION(S):PHOTO: Handmade tea balls from China, imported by the Shanghai Tea Company, unfurl in hot water to release their flavours.

Plates Join Napa’s Wineglasses

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UP the valley from the city of Napa, Calif., sit two culinary destinations, thanks to acclaimed restaurants that call them home: Yountville (the French Laundry, among others) and St. Helena (Terra, among others). Napa, of course, hosts its share of wine enthusiasts, but hasn’t been able to compete with its neighbors when it comes to what’s on the plate.

Part of the problem has been the Napa River’s tendency to flood the city’s downtown, a phenomenon that long deterred investment in the area (the last major deluge was in 2005). But recent flood control efforts have helped shore up the banks, and the downtown stretch along the riverfront has roared to life, opening the field for some heavy-duty entrants in the world of fine dining.

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The splashy new Riverfront development — two blocks of commercial and residential space — is playing host to several high-profile restaurants opening this year, two from Food Network stars and a third from a chef with a Bib Gourmand commendation (for meals for less than $40) from the Michelin Guide. In late July, the ”Iron Chef” staple Masaharu Morimoto opened Morimoto Napa (610 Main Street; 707-252-1600; morimotonapa.com), a contemporary Japanese restaurant and sushi bar along the river walk. The high-ceilinged space has large windows and water views, but most diners will prefer a seat at the 10-seat sushi bar that faces the open kitchen.

”I chose Napa because no one is expecting a Japanese restaurant here, and I like a challenge,” Mr. Morimoto said. The sushi is artfully and expertly presented, but the real standouts are dishes like kakuni — pork belly cooked for 10 hours and served over rice congee — and rich, brothy ramen.

Hot on Mr. Morimoto’s heels is Tyler Florence, who plans to open Tyler Florence Rotisserie & Wine (710-740 Main Street; tylerflorence.com) in early October. The restaurant’s design is inspired by classic Parisian rotisseries; the space also hosts a wine shop and cafe.

In late September, the Bay Area-based Lark Creek Restaurant Group will expand with Fish Story (790 Main Street; 707-251-5600; fishstorynapa.com), run by Stephen Barber, a Bib Gourmand designee for BarBersQ, also in Napa. The focus of the new venture is sustainable seafood: Dungeness crab, Monterey Bay calamari, Arctic char. The restaurant will include a 12-foot iced raw bar and live fish tanks.

New tenants have also set up shop across the river at Oxbow Public Market, which opened in 2007, leading the way for the riverfront’s food revival. In July, Graham Zanow, formerly of the French Laundry, opened Graham’s Take-Away Foods (610 First Street; 707-226-6529). The casual, locally sourced shop sells prepared comfort food like roast chicken, organic meatloaf and fresh salads.

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”You usually don’t do really, really well unless you get in when the market is on the up and up, before it hits its peak,” Mr. Zanow said. ”It’s been all about upvalley for so long — St. Helena, Yountville. And now Napa is starting to get credibility.”

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PHOTO: A fortified riverfront has led to a restaurant revival. (PHOTOGRAPH BY NOAH BERGER FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Tech Life: Open Table’s rival to launch here

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Byline: Jeff Gelles

April 12–To restaurateur Bryon Phillips, the OpenTable online-reservation system is so essential that he can barely imagine doing without it.

About half the patrons at Zama, the Japanese restaurant and sushi bar he manages on 19th Street, book their tables online. And almost all arrive via OpenTable, which over the last decade has made itself almost as attractive to diners as it is to restaurateurs A thanks to its convenience for finding a perfect place to eat, and to its popular frequent-diners program.

Persuading anyone to jump from a smoothly sailing ship is a tall order. But that’s the goal of CityEats, a new OpenTable competitor with an impressive pedigree A it’s a corporate cousin of the Food Network A that has made Philadelphia its second target market, after a November launch in Washington.

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What distinguishes CityEats from OpenTable? Truth to tell, far less than what they share A except, of course, that CityEats went live here this week with about 30 restaurants and OpenTable claims more than 600 in the region and more than 230 in the city itself.

But CityEats’ arrival offers a good chance to explore the business model that OpenTable pioneered when it was founded 14 years ago in San Francisco, and that now steers diners to more than 25,000 restaurants in six countries. CityEats isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel so much as improve on it.

How do online-reservations systems such as OpenTable or CityEats work? Theoretically, so seamlessly that you should barely notice them, at least if your main goal is to make sure you can secure that table for two at an “it” restaurant like Center City’s Jamonera or Vetri.

Go to Jamonera’s own website, click on “reservations,” and you’ll wind up at OpenTable for the booking. The same thing happens if you click through from another site A say, an online restaurant review at Philadelphia magazine’s website or Philly.com A or use a smartphone app to help you choose.

That seamless customer experience was the goal of Chuck Templeton, who founded OpenTable in 1998. But much of OpenTable’s business actually takes place out of sight of consumers, where its computerized “electronic reservations book” has become the dominant tool for restaurants to manage customer flow.

OpenTable built its primary business by offering restaurants a deal: In return for a setup charge, a $199 monthly subscription fee, and a per-diner fee of $1 or 25 cents, depending on where the customer books, OpenTable provides software customized to a business. It maps its seating chart, factors in table-turn time, and helps a restaurant keep its house filled and customers happy. It even allows it to track customers’ birthdays, wine tastes, or food allergies.

“I’m happy with it because the guests are happy with OpenTable,” says Phillips, the Zama general manager, who adds he’s staying put with OpenTable despite what he says is an expensive service in an industry known for tight margins. “It’s kind of a cost of doing business nowadays.”

So what is CityEats’ pitch? That it does virtually everything OpenTable does, but with more flourishes and at a lower price.

CityEats president Sameer Deen says the system offers photos and sometimes even video to give customers a fuller sense of what to expect, along with menus, social-network links, restaurant descriptions, and customer reviews that are similar to OpenTable’s. So far, it lacks a rewards system, but one is promised soon.

The idea is to mix ingredients offered by OpenTable, Zagat, and Yelp into a whole greater than the parts.

“What am I going to get on Friday evening? What’s the crowd look like? What does the food look like?” Deen says. “What we’re trying to do is bring in the atmosphere, the feel, the menu of the restaurant, so that a customer can feel, ‘I’m really making a confident decision.’?”

One well-regarded venue that has made a full leap to CityEats is Fish, which adopted the platform early, after moving in December to a larger location on Locust Street. General manager Nichole Berman says she likes the new system for its cloud-based flexibility A she can access data on an iPad or a computer, and from home as easily as from the host’s station A and for the features that make its website more attractive.

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Of course, she also likes the price A 75 cents per diner, or zero if they book via Fish’s own website, and a monthly cap CityEats says should cut a restaurant’s costs about 40 percent compared with OpenTable.

That hasn’t been enough yet to persuade Munish Narula, owner of the modern Indian restaurant Tashan on South Broad Street. But he’s considering it A and as of this week his customers will be able to book via either service. Narula credits CityEats with trying to build “a more intuitive and more flexible platform.” But above all, he appreciates the competition, which he attributes to the backing of Food Network’s parent, Scripps Networks. “These are the first guys who are actually making some waves.”

Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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(c)2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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TICKER SYMBOL(S): NYSE:SNI

Asia’s best on a platter

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Byline: CHRIS SHERMAN

I don’t have any figures, but the number of new Thai restaurants opening must have surpassed Chinese eateries around Tampa Bay and much of the country long ago. Thai is the Asian cooking of our time, rice with extra spice, fire and fun.

Any strip center that doesn’t have one of these restaurants now will find Thai entrepreneurs and woodworkers moving in as soon as a space becomes vacant.

Thai restaurants have sprouted for two reasons. First, the heat and the sweet of Thailand’s blend of coconut milk, lemongrass, garlic peppers and nuts. Second, sleek style and a fair hand at sushi, another Asian import of choice.

That has made Thai-Japanese a popular hybrid. It’s popular enough that downtown St. Petersburg already had at least three restaurants with Thai heritage and good sushi – Hook’s, Bangkok 9 and Pacific Wave, plus two Viet-sushi offerings (Sushi Rock and Sa Wa), one sushi bar (in BayWalk), and pure Thai (the elegant Chiang Mai) – but only one Chinese buffet.

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Is there room for one more Thai-sushi? Yes, if it can make a smooth panang curry, punch up duck with crisp basil and deliver a bowl of chirashi that turns tuna, white fish, pickle, egg and crab into a kaleidoscope of flavor.

But can it be done on an odd corner of downtown St. Petersburg that has hosted dismal, short-lived restaurants, from Greek fusion to Mexican (after a successful life as the Patio)? Not to mention that Asian food failed at least twice a block away.

Again, yes. Ratchada, named for a busy Bangkok thoroughfare has already done that. Credit goes to Liam and Pat Mahapirom, veteran local restaurateurs, and a hip young crew that wears as much black as the Aveda student body – and as smartly. It takes the skills of old and young to master both traditional Thai cooking and a bar that makes flashy hand rolls and silly martinis.

Unfortunately, the restaurant has not redone the hand-painted interior left from its earlier lives, which may have included Trading Spaces Behaving Badly with Metallic Paint (and plaster in the restrooms). But the wooden blinds, cobalt pendants and outdoor torches are cool. And you can sit in the more restrained dining room on the left with white brick walls, billowing gold banners and the most regal portrait I’ve seen of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the devotion found in all Thai restaurants.

The art that counts, of course, is on the plate, and Ratchada turns out good eating in both idioms.

In Japanese, the tempura is crisp, the teriyaki rich and the yaki-soba noodle stir-fry robust and long on vegetables (I’d punch up with more ginger and sesame oil). The kitchen picks up the right accent in stylish presentation, obvious in a bento box and its sushi. While it does not have all the ingredients (no sea urchin), the chef makes smart hand rolls; three of those cones for $9.95 is a fun lunch deal.

My clear favorite was the chirashi, a bowl of rice and radish, literally bristling with raw fish, shrimp, egg and crisp asparagus, an edible bouquet of fresh flavors.

In the Thai dishes, duck showed off the distinctive power of Thai basil, the red-stemmed herb that adds clove to the usual mint and licorice flavors; it gave an extra edge to the rich, sweet duck. Panang curry was delicately balanced and elevated by green beans and peapods that still had crunch. That’s important; while wonderful spices and long simmered broths are delightful, the best Thai cooking shows off fresh vegetables (and tropical fruits). Give us more.

The treat here was a special of big Thai prawns, almost lobster tails, stuffed with garlic and a bit of crab – showing a willingness to get better than average seafood. (Oddly Ratchada doesn’t have frog legs, a Thai standard I love.)

When a restaurant has such a lengthy menu, let alone two or three as a Thai-Japanese-sushi restaurant does, it’s churlish to ask for more. Yet I would like more yum and yang. Yum are the tart, cold, often meaty salads, and yang are grilled dishes. Both are great in the Florida summer. I had a lively nam sad (pork) and limey beef laab, but I dream of a yum bar.

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Ratchada has a few kinks to work out, including wine service; there’s no wine list yet, and we made sense of the few, rather high-priced, offerings only after long, confused consultations. Yet it has already made a place for itself on downtown’s lunch menu and will attract a hip evening crowd that may help spread the traffic more than a block beyond BayWalk.

Let’s hope that the continued spread of Thai restaurants fosters quality as well as quantity. Now that we know our curry by the colors and can tell phad thai from phad se-ew, let’s not let familiarity breed contemptible homogenizing.

We’ve really just started to eat Thai. Let us taste the regional differences, from the hot curry of the north to the sweet of the south, the freshest of vegetables and seafood, and the whole range of sweet, spicy, salty and sour.

Ratchada Thai Restaurant & Sushi Bar

270 First Ave. N

St. Petersburg

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m., Friday, Saturday.

Reservations: Accepted.

Details: No smoking indoors; credit cards, full bar, restrooms adapted for the disabled.

Prices: Lunch, $5.95 to $10.95; dinner, $7.95 to $15.95; sushi, $3.50 to $9.

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PHOTO, BILL SERNE, (2)

The Ratchada Thai Restaurant and Sushi Bar offers red curry with shrimp, and Panang fish, a deep-fried red snapper served with panang curry, bell peppers, string beans and basil.; Sua Mahapirom and his brother Kang pose with a sushi dragon

Eats from the East

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WHEN I was young in the city, if you wanted fast Asian fare you ate Chinese. Now you eat sushi. Japan lost World War II, but it has won the grazing war. All the NYU kids and their employed elders eat in the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Chinatown used to go from Chatham Square up to Canal Street. The streets there had been laid out pre-grid, and some of them–Doyer, Mosco–had the air, short or crooked, of secrets. There were a few expansive places that rang a gong when the Peking duck came out of the kitchen. But the typical Chinatown restaurant was no-frills. You reached it down a flight of stairs. The fan in the bathroom was coated with grease and asbestos. The urinals stank. The floor was linoleum. You sat in a booth, or at a flimsy table, which, in the suburbs, would have been reserved for a child’s birthday party. Poker-faced waiters–all middle-aged men–took your orders. The tea was pure Lipton’s, plunked down in plain metal pots. Only the table settings attempted decoration. The chopsticks came in sleeves with printed directions for use, whose simplicity was negated by the fact that they did not actually explain how to use them. The placemats told what years A.D. were years of the dragon or the rat. The meal ended with fortune cookies. New York magazine once ran a contest for bogus fortunes; the winner was WISHING YOU AND YOURS A JOYOUS YOM KIPPUR.

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The food was pretty good. It was heavily Cantonese. Until 1965, it was entirely so, since before then immigration from China was practically restricted to the province in which Canton is located. After 1965, immigrants and restaurants began coming from Hunan and Sichuan, though in the days of Wade-Giles, the latter was spelled Szechuan. My favorite Chinese restaurant of the old days was Cuisine of Szechuan, in which I missed eating a whole pepper thanks only to the warning shriek of my girlfriend, now my wife.

Now Chinatown, like Beijing’s influence, has swollen. Little Italy, directly north of it, is a stage set–an opera, perhaps–the streets lined with Italian restaurants and touts. But the buildings all house Chinese. Yet Chinatown itself has become something of a sham. Old women the color of leather still occupy their corners, calling out one dolla, one dolla over boxes of bitter melons or scurrying animate fur toys, but more and more of the storefronts sell T-shirts or other generica, while more and more of the restaurants are Vietnamese or Filipino. The Chinese themselves have been moving to Queens or someplace, but they may also have shifted to other lines of work, for there is now a different fast food of choice.

Unlike Los Angeles, New York has no Japantown, for the Japanese came here after 1965, in the great national open house. So why pick only one neighborhood? Their restaurants are governed by a different aesthetic. No cheesy we-hope-you-enjoy-our-strange-customs hospitality. The sign of Japanese authenticity is table tops and counters made of natural wood. The nation of cars, cameras, and advanced robotics presents itself as an island of samurai Shakers. A few blue-and-white fish kites may not be amiss. Kids of both sexes constitute the staff–young Japanese on their Wanderjahr. Their work is hard because the tables are jammed together like bathroom tiles. Unless the restaurant is very small–and some Japanese places are true holes in the wall–precious space will be consumed by the sushi bar. The establishment makes up for the loss by lining the bar with stools where the patrons cluster like birds on a wire.

The food is good or bad depending on whether you like raw. There are cooked dishes–this or that teriyaki, soups, noodles. But the main attraction is sushi, raw fish or crustaceans sliced and rolled with rice, seaweed, or avocado, and served with ginger and hot mustard. Sushi combines piquant condiments with prime seafood the size of scraps. It is little packages of daintiness and chum. It is the ideal food for sharks who watch the Food Network.

Why has this fare ousted Chinese? Three factors explain the shift. First, the Chinese restaurant was family friendly. Children sat at those flimsy children’s tables (the Chinese ones always behaved). One of the sweet moments of Portnoy’s Complaint is a memory of going from Jersey to Chinatown, where the children of Israel were allowed to eat shrimp, according to the maternal lawgiver. The Japanese restaurant, by contrast, is for singles, dates, DINKs. The cramped quarters mimic the shared apartments they come from. You couldn’t stuff a baby carriage in there. What will they eat when they move to Brooklyn and start families of their own? Probably still Japanese, out of habit. It will be too late to woo them to Hunan Palace.

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Second, Chinese food is cooked. Going to a Chinese restaurant was a night out for people who cooked themselves. No flame touches the dockside treats of Seppuku. Bites of chilled, squirmy salmon or tuna seem like just the thing for people who don’t know how to boil water. If you have to order in, the little take-out boxes look just fine in the cavernous, empty refrigerator.

Third, the form that Japanese culinary dominance takes is appropriate to an age when strange is not strange. Chinatowns, in New York and elsewhere, flourished during the time of Charlie Chan. A quarter of the globe went from pigtails straight to “The East Is Red,” with only the briefest stop at Chiang Kai-shek. Chinese food was enticing, amusing, or unsatisfying, but definitely exotic. Japan was exotic once too, when Toshiro Mifune played in art houses. But now, when every suburban kid spends junior year of high school abroad, and every young hipster grows up with manga and anime, the Japanese restaurant is one more pit stop. Add quick, cold, and uncomfortable, and it’s just like home.

Putting It All on the Table; Career chowhound Ruth Reichl has no reservations

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Byline: Malcolm Jones

Eating lunch with Ruth Reichl at a New York City sushi restaurant, you can see right off why she’s so good at what she does. When the former food critic for The New York Times and current editor of Gourmet magazine confronts a bowl of soup, she takes her time inhaling the aroma and contemplating the arrangement of ground shrimp and mushroom with eel on top. When she finally digs in she practically jumps up and down. “I love this,” she exclaims. “This is so good.” Sure, she can write; sure, sure she knows about food. But what finally distinguishes her response is the passion she brings to the table.

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And now that she’s no longer a restaurant reviewer, she can leave her wigs at home. At the Times, as she recalls in her beguiling new memoir “Garlic and Sapphires,” if she made a reservation in her own name, the steaks got thicker, the raspberries bigger and the service downright obsequious. To find out how an ordinary diner fared, she had to impersonate one. Tucking her extravagant hair under a wig and wearing a shopworn beige Armani suit, she became Molly, an ex-schoolteacher from Michigan, and got the goods on a lot of pretentious restaurants. Over the years, the disguises multiplied–at one point, she even dressed up as her own mother. “It is so nice to go to a restaurant now,” she says. “I get to gleefully be myself.”

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Sometimes “Garlic and Sapphires” reads like “The Three Faces of Eve” with recipes: Reichl worried that she was losing any sense of who she really was. And she wondered, as she put it over lunch: “Did I really want my tombstone to read, ‘She told people where to go to eat’ ?” When the Gourmet job came along in 1999, she jumped at it: here was a chance to take on the whole culture of food. “How and what we eat is important,” she says. “And eating together is one of the things that holds a society together.” She laughs. “This is me at my most horribly earnest. But all those things do matter deeply. Does it matter deeply where someone goes out to eat tonight? Probably not.” Food critic, social critic, dietitian and literary stylist, Reichl is much more than the sum of her disguises. And she sure knows how to clean her plate.

CAPTION(S): Full-Flavored: Reichl’s stint as The New York Times food critic left her hungry for more

L.A.’s fast-food drive-by: a city council’s ban on fast-food chains is a provocative social experiment

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At a Jack in the Box fast-food outlet in South Los Angeles one recent Sunday morning, Tatiana Burkhardt, an obese 21-year-old nursing assistant, lumbers toward a plate of bulletproof glass that protects employees from customers, and orders a Jumbo Jack burger, a large Natural-Cut Fries and a 32-oz. “medium” Sprite through the intercom. Retrieving her meal–all 1,150 calories of it, almost half from fat-via a slot in the glass, Burkhardt sits down and carefully picks a reddish substance from her Jumbo Jack. “I don’t eat fastfood tomatoes,” she says. Such are the culinary challenges in a neighbourhood long considered the most troubled in the United States–South L.A., a sprawling, dilapidated cityscape where, apart from the risks of getting robbed or shot, the perils can be dietary. The birthplace of the Bloods and Crips and home to the 1992 Rodney King riots is also a “food desert,” a term adopted by social policy planners in the 1990s to describe the growing number of low-income areas with poor access to healthy, affordable food.

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A controversial ordinance passed into law last week proposes to change that. The legislation, unanimously approved by L.A. city council, effectively bans fast-food chains from opening in South L.A. for a year, with the option of two six-month extensions. The moratorium, coupled with a package of incentives, hopes to draw more sit-down restaurants and grocery stores to the district.

For California to enforce the world’s first fast-food ban is ironic. This, after all, is where drive-throughs were popularized in the 1950s. But it’s not surprising given the state’s status as a trendsetter in all matters edible–from Wolfgang Puck’s smoked salmon pizza to dietary policing. In 2004, L.A.’s Unified School District became one of the first in the U.S. to ban soft drinks, candy and other high-fat snack foods from school vending machines. This month, the state became the first in the country to ban artificial trans fat in all restaurant food as of 2010, following the lead of many local governments, including New York City. Zoning of fast food in itself isn’t new; in the past, though, it has been at the behest of affluent communities offended by the traffic and pollution, garish aesthetics or the threat the outlets presented to local businesses and property values. Concord, Mass., has banned drive-through and fast-food restaurants, as have the California resort towns Carmel-by-the-Sea and Calistoga. (The City of Toronto has similarly restricted drive-throughs in residential neighbourhoods.)

What makes the South L.A. ordinance groundbreaking is the fact it restricts fast food for public health reasons. (New York City councilman Joel Rivera proposed a similar ban in 2006 but it was shot down.) And this 83-sq.-km district that’s home to 720,000, most black and Hispanic, 28 per cent of whom live below the poverty line, would appear to present the perfect test case: nowhere is the twinning of super-sized meals and super-sized people more overt. Nearly one out of two restaurants is a fast-food outlet. Amid fading murals celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and the vivid colours of its Latino storefronts, the rundown streetscape serves up a monotonous sequence of McDonald’s, Burger Kings, Carl’s Jrs. and Kentucky Fried Chickens. The poverty is palpable. Many mom-and-pop fast-food operations serving Southern cooking advertise they accept food stamps. South L.A. includes some high-income communities that can afford better, but “the pathology of lower income has dominated,” says Faisal Roble, the L.A. city planner who drafted the ordinance.

A study released in the spring by L.A.’s Department of Public Health found 30 per cent of adults here are obese, compared to the national rate of 21 per cent. South L.A. also boasts the country’s highest incidence of diabetes–11.7 per cent compared to a countrywide average of 8.1 per cent. “We have a community that is probably the sickest in L.A. County,” says Gwendolyn Flynn, policy director for the Community Health Councils, or CHC, a non-profit agency.

Buying fresh food is difficult. There’s a scant 6.8 retail food outlets for every 100,000 residents, or one supermarket, local grocer or convenience store for every 6,000 people, according to a report prepared by the CHC in April. Adjacent neighbourhoods in West Los Angeles, meanwhile, boasted 26.6 retail food outlets for every 100,000 residents. Only five per cent of South L.A.’s food stores are full-service national or regional supermarket chains, versus one-third of food stores in West Los Angeles neighbourhoods. Burkhardt and her roommate, Kristen Martinez, a 22-year-old forklift operator, are among the 16 per cent of South L.A. residents who must travel 20 minutes or more to reach their preferred grocery store–the discount chain Food 4 Less–and must rely on a friend to drive them the 20-minute journey twice a month; by bus, it takes 45 minutes.

In other areas the hurdles to healthy shopping are even more daunting. In the notorious ghetto of Watts, 21-year-old Richard Shannon emerges from the E&M Market, a small Hispanic grocery, wearing a black dorag, his arms covered in tattoos. Shannon goes to the E&M to buy rolling papers and single cigarettes. He eats fast food every day but welcomes news of the initiative to attract more groceries to the area. “We wouldn’t have to go all the way to Inglewood–a 20-minute drive–to get something,” he says. There are supermarkets closer by, but he won’t go. “I don’t want to get shot–we live on this side,” says Shannon, referring to an invisible border between local gang territories.

South L.A.’s food desert status is made glaringly evident when one crosses the Santa Monica Freeway, its northern frontier, or heads west to affluent Culver City, where valet parking replaces drive-throughs. At Tender Greens on Culver Boulevard, a salad bar less than five kilometres away from the Jack in the Box, soothing earth tones replace primary colours, and relaxed calorie-conscious diners chat over arugula salads containing tomatoes they do eat. Activists at South L.A.’s Community Coalition coined the term “food apartheid” to describe the nutritional segregation. The use of charged political language is intentional. “Fat is a class issue,” says Marqueece Harris-Dawson, the group’s executive director and a supporter of Perry’s ban. “Areas that don’t have as many people of colour and are not poor have a much different diet.”

Reaction to the ordinance has been mixed. Public health advocates, worried about the high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the area, applaud it. Larry Frank, a professor at the University of British Columbia and an authority on the relationship between health and urban design, a thriving research field, admires the initiative. “It’s your classic obese-ogenic environment–conducive to obesity in terms of urban design and food options,” he says. “They’re sitting ducks,” he says of the residents. Others, however, pillory it as paternalistic: “How do you feel about treating poor people like children?” William Saletan wrote in Slate. What the ordinance clearly signals, however, is the evolution of legislation targeted at fast and junk food. Already we’ve seen widespread banning of advertising to children and limiting access to it in schools. Arguably, the move portends fast food’s treatment as a controlled substance, not unlike alcohol or tobacco.

Roble, the L.A. city planner, says support within the community is huge. “Fast food is not want they want,” he says. “They want a replacement: secondary options for their families.” Roble was inspired by a 2005 Johns Hopkins study, “The Use of Zoning to Restrict Fast Food Outlets: A Potential Strategy to Combat Obesity,” which makes the case that “a government’s authority to zone has traditionally been greatest when it is zoning in the interest of public health.” But it also concludes zoning is only a partial solution that can’t “guarantee that people will choose a healthy diet and that businesses offering healthy foods will be successful.”

Stephen Teret, associate dean at the Center for Law and Public Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School for Public Health and one of the study’s authors, views nutritional deficiency in the inner city as unacceptable: “It’s abhorrent people have to suffer another threat to their health. They already have problems with hypertension, heart disease and violence. They shouldn’t have their lives made even worse by lack of nutritious food.”

T. Rodgers, a former high-profile gang leader who now heads up Sidewalk University, a gang intervention program, supports the ban. “It’s a good thing,” says Rodgers, sitting with a bodyguard in the atrium of his gated compound in “The Jungle,” a notorious gang neighbourhood. Fast food is ingrained in South L.A., he says. “In the black community you’re going to find three things: churches, liquor stores and motels. The fourth thing is fast food.” He adds: “We were taught to eat what was left from the master’s table.” The prevalence of fast-food outlets in South L.A. is another sign of the disintegration of what he calls “family values” in the community. “They’ve taken away the wholesomeness of what God put on this earth for us to eat in the first place.”

At a McDonald’s in Compton, just outside the area covered by the moratorium, Jay Williams, a 23-year-old machinist, sits with a group of young men. “People know this food is unhealthy,” he says. Only his friend Weez Johnson, a 22-year-old who works at a nearby Ralph’s, a major southern California supermarket chain, is eating–a cheese burger. “It’s just a bag of grease–look at all this stuff,” says Johnson, wearing silver skull-and-bones earrings. Williams, who is picky about his eating, shops at a Fresh & Easy located near his work in upscale El Segundo. But he doesn’t see his neighbours in Compton buying fresh. Johnson agrees. “My Ralph’s is always busy,” he says, but concedes patrons stock up on traditional fatty soul-food fare. He is leery of the city’s motives. “Those people don’t give a f-k about us,” he says.

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South L.A. councilwoman Jan Perry, who spearheaded the ordinance, downplays it as merely a “land-use issue.” She likens the use ‘ of zoning to that governing liquor stores. “We have a conditional-use-permit process, which allows us to impose conditions, limit hours, direct the ways items are sold,” she says. In concert with efforts to limit new fast-food outlets, the city has put together an incentive package to attract other food retail choices that includes low-interest loans, matching funds for burying utility lines, discounted electricity rates and tax credits. “It’s diversifying the options because the fast-food restaurants that are there are not going away,” says Perry.

Los Angeles has had past success with similar zoning efforts. After organizers formed the Community Coalition in 1990, the height of South-Central’s crack cocaine epidemic, they were surprised when a survey of neighbourhood concerns found liquor stores rather than crack houses were the most pressing worry for residents. The liquor stores often installed couches and supplied plastic glasses and ice with purchases, effectively creating speakeasies. Motels, meanwhile, handed out condoms with room keys and offered hourly rates, promoting prostitution. Such abuses made for a general atmosphere of lawlessness. By concentrating on the issue of zoning and arguing these businesses were poisoning South Los Angeles, the Coalition convinced the city to close dozens of liquor stores and motels.

Harris-Dawson, the group’s executive director, sees fast-food outlets as “nuisance businesses” similar to those motels and liquor stores because, he says, they “encourage loitering with 1,000 calories for less than a dollar.” The absence of other businesses like local supermarkets is a drain on South L.A.’s economy. A 2005 market study contracted by the city found the district loses more than $400 million annually in general merchandise, grocery and restaurant sales to outside areas. “South L.A. hemorrhages money, in not only food but other retail as well,” Harris-Dawson says. “Really basic day-to-day things are very difficult to buy and as a result our tax base is compromised.” Fast food is frequently the only kind of new development on commercial corridors, he says, squelching competing business before it can develop.

Matthew Turner, an economist at the University of Toronto who has studied the link between obesity and urban sprawl, calls the ordinance “paternalistic” and expresses doubt it will open up the market to healthier fare or change residents’ habits. Fast-food restaurants dominate South L.A. because that’s what the population wants, he says. “McDonald’s goes to places where people want to eat hamburgers. And my research suggests peoples’ habits are pretty fixed.” Fast food offers cheap calories, he points out. “If you’re a single mother working for minimum wage, you’re working 60 hours a week, you need to feed yourself, feed your family. You don’t have time to cook so you choose the best thing available, which might be fast food.”

Barry Glassner, author of The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong, concurs. He’s no fan of fastfood outlets, but says the suggestion “that their presence is the reason there aren’t other food options is a peculiar notion that would be hard to defend. Whatever else you want to say about fast-food chains, it’s awfully hard to identify other sorts of restaurants that provide a filling and enjoyable meal for a few bucks with a free and safe play area for the children.” UBC’s Frank points out many fastfood outlets offer healthier food choices than sit-down restaurants: “Just because it’s a sitdown restaurant doesn’t mean it’s healthy.”

Within South L.A. there’s a fatalistic skepticism that habits won’t change. “People eat a lot of junk food,” says J.J. Jaber, who has owned the rundown Fast-N Easy Market in Watts for 18 years. “None of them cook,” he says of his customers. Latinos buy more flesh produce, African-Americans less, he says, adding: “Junk food makes you fat and lazy.” Yet his store is stacked exclusively with junk food. A prominently displayed sign says it accepts EBT, an electronic food-stamp system. Jaber says he sold vegetables once but he stopped, selling his vegetable refrigerator seven years ago, due to lack of demand.

Industry insiders view the ordinance as part of a larger movement to stigmatize fast food. “Someone needs to be blamed for this obesity epidemic and we’ve managed to come front and centre,” says Daniel Conway, a spokesman for the California Restaurant Association. The industry would like to “remove the target from our backs so we can sit down and engage in some kind of meaningful partnership to deal with this,” he says. Despite reports the industry would respond to the South L.A. ordinance by mounting a legal challenge, Conway says it is taking a wait-and-see approach. But he expects the ordinance to inspire similar measures: “I wouldn’t be surprised to see more proposals along these lines.” Roble, the L.A. city planner, says he has already fielded inquiries from other cities, including Miami and Fresno.

The U of T’s Turner scoffs at the notion that banning McDonald’s will result in the arrival of Whole Foods. “If there was an army of people in South L.A. desperate to march into a supermarket, that would make it very profitable to run a supermarket–and you wouldn’t need legislation,” he says. Whether the incentives package will entice business is questionable. Conway, the industry spokesman, notes it was introduced a year ago, to little effect. (Perry counters she’s had two approaches so far, one from Maria’s Italian Kitchen, a local enterprise, another from a sushi restaurant.)

Resident Richard Shannon expresses doubt retailers will flock to the area: “This is basically the ghetto, they don’t want to deal with that.” In fact, supermarkets have been leaving. Ralph’s shuttered four locations in South L.A. in the last few years; two were replaced with non-food retail. Flynn says the Community Health Councils has reached out to the California Grocers Association and to the local chain Trader Joe’s, which specializes in organic foods, to no avail. She suspects Trader Joe’s does not open in South L.A. because “those of us who have transportation will go to their other locations in other communities.” Harris-Dawson notes Whole Foods has manufacturing and distributing plants in South L.A. but won’t set up shop, even in nearby View Park, a wealthy black neighbourhood. “It’s wealthier than a lot of the areas that Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s locates in,” he says. A Whole Foods spokesperson says store-site decisions are “based on a combination of factors that include the availability and cost of real estate, population density, education, income, and interest in natural and organic foods.”

One exception to the trend is Fresh & Easy, owned by the British grocery retailer Tesco. The smaller-format grocery chain is building a presence in the southwest U.S. targeting food deserts. It has opened 71 stores, 11 of them in Los Angeles. In July, ground was broken for a store in South L.A. “We go where there’s a business opportunity,” says Fresh & Easy spokesman Brendan Wonnacott. “It just is logical to go into a neighbourhood that desperately wants what you provide.”

Rodgers, the former gang leader, says community support is required. “A nice wholesome store is not going to come and open here for fear of being robbed,” he says. “And without an understanding of the culture and relationships of the community, it will get robbed.” Alternatives to fast food–whether grocery stores or better sit-down restaurants–must be generated by the people of South L.A. themselves, he argues. “It’s a re-education but on the street level, through the grapevine,” he says. “And we’ve got the greatest grapevine in the world.”

Back at Jack in the Box, Burkhardt and Martinez are finishing breakfast and musing on the implications of the moratorium. Burkhardt says she’d like to see a Whole Foods in the area. “It’s hard to get organics out here,” she says, though she notes McDonald’s does now offer apple slices. Her fastfood habit is evident when she mentions she won’t eat chicken with bones, calling it “weird.” Martinez doesn’t mind city council dictating what kind of restaurants can open. “That don’t matter to me as long as you get more groceries out here,” she says. “So you can buy a hamburger, throw some bacon on there. A tomato.”

This little piggy is toast: in which I try (and fail) to eradicate an invasive species with a Remington 700 rifle

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It’s pouring rain, and I’m shivering in a metal hunting stand 15 feet off the ground, deep in the Georgia woods, waiting for a feral hog to wander out of the brush so I can kill it. Next to me sits Jackson Landers, an expert hunter who has graciously spent his morning drilling me on gun safety. Before today, I have fired a gun exactly once–at a paper picture of an evil clown on a rifle range near the San Francisco airport. I come from a staunchly vegetarian family that loves animals like other families love football. Some of my earliest memories are of my dad hustling me outside to hear geese flying overhead.

But Landers thinks his approach to hunting could help save the critters my family adores: He targets invasive species that make their way into local ecosystems and help themselves to food and real estate, often at the expense of native fauna. The key, Landers says, is to convince people that these interlopers are fun to hunt–and delicious. “Once you create a market, the problem will basically take care of itself,” he told me earlier. “You’re sort of killing two birds with one stone. Invasives are free-range; they’re a lot more ethical than meat from a factory farm.”

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To test his model, I accompanied Landers and his father-in-law, Bob, to a 1,000-acre former horse farm–a tangle of dirt roads, wetlands, and thickets of live oaks and loblolly pines near Savannah. That’s how I ended up atop the hunting stand, wondering whether my hippie parents would disown me.

Landers was not the first to have this idea–there’s a whole “invasivore” community online, sharing tips on where to find invasive plants and animals and posting recipes for kudzu, Chinese mystery snails, and Asian carp–but as far as I know, he’s the first person trying to make a living from it. Since quitting his job as an insurance broker last year, he’s shot iguanas in Florida, snatched armadillos with his bare hands in Georgia, and speared lionfish in the Bahamas.

At 33, Landers resembles a Boy Scout: khakis, boots, a knife on his belt. He has a blog called The Locavore Hunter, teaches hunting classes in Charlottesville, Virginia, and works with wholesalers, restaurateurs, and chefs to promote invasives as menu items. At first, it was a tough sell–even adventurous chefs tend to draw the line at grilled armadillo–but the idea is catching on. A sushi restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut, now serves several species of invasive fish, and one Louisiana chef is running a bold compaign encouraging restaurants to add nutria to their menus.

Getting rid of feral pigs would be a major coup, says Billy Higginbotham, a wildlife specialist at Texas A&M University. Introduced to the Southeast by Spanish settlers in the 1500s, these pigs have thrived in the wild. In coastal areas, they gobble the eggs of endangered sea turtles; farther inland, they root up native plants, destroy crops, and dig wallows big enough to topple tractors. And they’re survivors: prolific, smart, and omnivorous. “They can live off any food item out there,” Higginbotham says.

Halfway through the first morning, we hear four shots. Investigating, we find Bob driving down the road, beaming, a dead pig in the back of his ATV. We head back to the barn to celebrate with a mason jar of moonshine. Landers lays the pig on a platform and cuts it open, one long slice down its middle. He expertly removes its guts, and we hang the carcass on a hook for skinning. We pass the moonshine again. I’m beginning to think I could get into this.

But what if it’s too much fun? Julie Robbins, a biologist with Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, believes pig hunting helped cause the population to explode in the first place. A couple of decades ago, property owners trying to eliminate the ferals found that it made for great recreation. “People began to trap pigs and illegally transport them to their own properties, then charge an arm and a leg for people to come and hunt them,” Robbins says. In some parts of the South, pig hunts fetch up to $500 a night.

That’s one problem with invasive animals: They’re often exotic and interesting and sort of thrilling to have around. On Gasparilla Island, off Florida’s Gulf Coast, black spiny-tailed iguanas wreak havoc on tortoises and birds, while attracting another key species–tourists. Gasparilla wildlife specialist and iguana hunter George Cera says locals are aware of the problem but bristle at the idea of eliminating a species that has become the local mascot. “I had beer bottles thrown at me while I was hunting,” he says. “One time I swore a guy was going to start a fistfight with me.”

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And the invasives don’t always cooperate. After three days of shivering in the woods, I have nothing to show. Bob graciously offers me a shoulder from his kill. That night, I bring it to the South Carolina home of a friend’s parents. The kitchen fills with a smoky smell as her mom roasts the shoulder with onions, thyme, beer, and a rich red barbecue sauce. When it’s done, the meat slides easily off the bone. We pile the juicy pieces on hot rolls, slather on more barbecue sauce, and call it a pulled-pork sandwich. And it’s delicious: tender, tangy, sweet.

So can invasive pulled-pork sandwiches save the world? Most scientists I spoke to agreed that ecology is messy, unpredictable, and poorly suited for the restaurant supply chain. But Texas A&M’s Higginbotham says people like Landers at least do their part to turn people on to conservation: “Silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so to speak.”