Despite an onslaught of competition from supermarket delis and swarms of take-out chains, independent carry-out shops--which led the movement for quick, quality food that could be picked up on the way home from work--still thrive.
Some of Southern California's best take-out comes from the following shops. Each in its own way has a special style that keeps customers loyal. Proprietors tend to be opinionated, down-to-earth andgenerous.
A huge make-believe tree "grows" right out of the roof at Wesley's Place, a green market and carry-out food shop. Deli cases are surrounded by mountains of vegatables and ripe fruit. Here seasonal produce is the main ingredient in a constantly changing selection of dishes. The store's slogan is: "You'd cook like this if you had the time!" Wesley Bartera's food-from-the-garden theme may seem a timely marketing ploy in light of the USDA's advice to eat ample fruits and vegetables. But the idea actually evolved from the small 1,000-square-foot produce shop Bartera bought in 1975.
She upgraded the produce quality and selection, which attracted local budding gourmet cooks. Eventually Bartera expanded the business by selling fresh-cut fruit trays, fresh salsas, guacamole and zucchini bread. But, she says, "people kept asking me to do a little of this and that for their parties and the whole thing just snowballed."
Last October, Bartera moved into a new La Canada store more than six times larger than her original shop. Wesley's Produce became Wesley's Place.
Seasonal produce is transformed into American-style dishes with just enough quirky international touches to keep things interesting. Bartera's 25 or 30 potato salad recipes, for example, include blue cheese potato salad and German-style potato salad. Coleslaw is also a standby and there's always one coleslaw with a novel twist: California red cabbage slaw, for instance, has strips of red and yellow pepper, zucchini and zingy lime-cumin vinaigrette.
Soups, especially the cold ones, are some of Wesley's more delicious concoctions. When peas are in season, the kitchen makes a chilled soup from fresh, slightly sweet peas, flavored with handfuls of fresh mint and finished with cream. Popular gazpachos include gazpacho verde and white gazpacho with garlic, cucumber and ground almonds.
In late summer, Wesley's bakes fruit and berry cobblers and makes big batches of homemade, low-sugar jam.
Wesley's entree menu lists three different options each week (you can fax your choices in at (818) 952-9324). There's always a dish called "chef's whim chicken breast." It might be marinated Yucatan-style and grilled or perhaps braised in a Dijon sauce. Other entrees might be pork loin with green peppercorn sauce, roasted game hen stuffed with wild rice and apricots, Mexican-style turkey lamb shank and vegetarian lasagna.
Bread is baked in-house, but Wesley also carries half a dozen varieties of Italian bread from Pani Pani bakery. Padus, with a rich yeasty flavor is the round loaf made from semolina flour,. filoni and fint (yes, fint), skate board-sized Italian white and whole-wheat loaves, are sliced for sandwiches. Demi-baguettes are made with Kalamata olives or walnuts, wheat and raisins or sun-dried tomatoes. While the counter people pack your order, you can relax with a cappuccino under the faux tree.
Wesley's Place, 711- H Foothill Blvd., La Canada, (818) 790-4622. Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Umberto Savone bounds around the long, thin stainless-steel kitchen of his Umberto Food, looking for ingredients to put on a pizza. "I call this pizza a la Nonna--that's grandmother's pizza," he says, dangling a slice of grilled zucchini over dough on a wooden paddle.
"When I was a kid all my grandmothers would make this for us because it didn't cost much. They used up whatever they had around." Savone arranges pesto-laced roasted potato slicesand tiny chunks of sausage braised in tomato sauce, on the dough, then adds assorted grilled vegetables, goat cheese and low-fat mozzarella. "I'm still working on the crust recipe," he admits. "I called my mother to get her advice." Even so, the pizza is marvelous and homey.
"I learned to cook like this by helping my grandmothers," Umberto SAYS. "I would hang around and do odd chores like bringing in wood for the stove. That way I would get a lot of good things to eat."
Cherubic-looking Savone is most well-known as a beauty-salon magnate. He is Umberto of Beverly Hills. His food venture, he says, is for his beauty customers. "Now they can take home some wonderful food after being busy all day."