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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

A Hot Place for Lunch

June 28, 1990|JONATHAN GOLD

"Hey Henry," a guy says, slipping himself onto a stool at the end of the counter. "How about an order of ribs."

"Sorry," Henry says. "No more ribs."

"Shrimp then. You got shrimp?"

"No shrimp," Henry says.

"A steak?"

"All gone," Henry says.

"But you've still got chili?"

Henry peers into a pitcher sitting on the grill. "Yep, got some left."

"I guess it's the poor man's special again," the guy says. "With chili."

Half a minute later, a steaming hillock of fried rice is in front of him. "Can I have an orange pop with this?" he asks.

"Sorry," Henry says. "Only Hawaiian Punch or Cherry RC."

Some people say Spago is the hottest restaurant in Los Angeles, others claim it's Le Dome, but right now, on a summer afternoon, the hottest place for lunch might be the Vermont Coffee Teriyaki House, where it's 102 in the shade and two people are waiting for every seat. The Toyota-size lunch counter, decorated with obscure celebrity photos and promotional Japanese lanterns, serves Pacific Rim cuisine from an era when Japanese food meant fried shrimp and teriyaki sticks.

In a city thick with nostalgia-themed diners, this is the real thing, from the faded Coca-Cola sign out front right down to the gleaming Formica. And the customers--guys from Red's Brake & Alignment next door, teachers from Virgil Junior High across the street, bronzed Sansei surfers and neighbors who have eaten here for years--keep coming, despite local competition from every fast-food chain that's ever sponsored a Saturday-morning cartoon. If you grew up in California you've had this food before, at a corner luncheonette or from a vendor under the Santa Monica Pier, but rarely as fresh, as cheaply, or as good.

Henry is the burger chef, toasting buns, juggling tomatoes, flipping paper-thin meat patties onto the grill from halfway across the room. He takes your order, buses your dishes, adds up your check and, when you get thirsty, will fetch you an RC Cola product from a cooler by the door. He looks as if he's been running things since the Eisenhower administration.

"That was really delicious," somebody tells him as she fishes in her purse for change.

Henry looks up, puzzled.

"Oh yeah," he says. "Number four. That's a good one."

Mas, his partner, cooks teriyaki on a countertop grill. He also makes the old-fashioned fried rice, thick with bits of omelet and fragrant with burnt soy, in a battered, flat-bottomed wok. When there are shrimp, he fries them too.

His teriyaki sticks are wisps of caramelized meat threaded on a skewer and greased with sweet sauce, crude perhaps, but better than you remember. As you eat them, their juice flavors the rice. The big shrimp are tasty, too, a lot closer to tempura than to the breaded American-Chinese things you might expect, though served with what appears to be pure catsup. Try some with a Cherry RC.

Most of what you want is included for about 4 bucks on the number four plate: two teriyaki sticks, a cheeseburger, a can of soda and more fried rice than you can comfortably eat, though you will. The cheeseburger's theme is crispness--crisp lettuce, crisp bun, crisp, paper-thin patty of meat--and it's pretty swell, though the beef comes across more as an interesting condiment than as, say, a burger. If you want, you can substitute fried eggs for the teriyaki sticks, which is a combination with a different number, or probably for the rice or the cheeseburger or the drink.

Vermont Coffee Teriyaki House, 3560 W. First St., Los Angeles, (213) 380-8878. Lunch Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. No alcohol. No parking. Cash only. Lunch for two, $6-$9.

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