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ROAD TRIP

A village in the Valley beckons

June 12, 2003|Leslee Komaiko | Special to The Times

Say what you will about the San Fernando Valley -- but not before you've visited the stretch of Tujunga Avenue in Studio City known as Tujunga Village, a cross between Melrose and Montana avenues, minus Starbucks. Tujunga Village has the power to turn even a die-hard Valley hater into a full-fledged booster.

Tucked into a residential neighborhood of modest '40s and '50s homes and 1970s apartment buildings just south of the 101, Tujunga Village is a collection of 20 or so businesses crowded into a single block.

Coffee central

There's Mark Blanchard's Power Yoga and Spoiled A Day Spa, where spa junkies can get a sugar shack scrub or a champagne manicure (complete with a split of Piper champagne for sipping). There's also Two Roads Theatre, a storefront where different companies perform mostly original work Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.

But the heart of this Valley neighborhood is AromA Cafe, a rambling indoor-outdoor coffeehouse that shares digs with a compact though well-stocked book and gift shop called Portrait of a Bookstore.

The cafe opened 10 years ago, and it just might be the best coffeehouse in Los Angeles. It goes without saying that it serves a fine cuppa joe, as well as frothy, refreshing ice-blended drinks. Their baked goods, including a moist white-chocolate raspberry cake or savory spinach puffs, are also excellent.

But it's the kickback vibe and varied seating choices, including an intimate library space with a fireplace and a quaint patio out back shaded by a mature orange tree, that have gained this spot so many groupies.

Record producer buddies Tom Rothrock, 37, and Chuy Flores, 29, visit AromA several times a week. "We're indie-minded people in a corporate world," says Rothrock, who almost always orders a bowl of fruit with his Americano. Flores swears by the oat bran muffins. There are other cafes closer to their homes in Studio City, but Rothrock says they prefer AromA Cafe's "community feel. That's sometimes hard to find in L.A."

Occasionally Flores will visit the other coffeehouse on the block: Jennifer's Coffee Connection, in the mini-mall at the southwest corner of Tujunga Avenue and Moorpark Street. Chef Ed LaDou, who is often credited with inventing the California-ized chicken-topped pizza and whose Caioti Pizza Cafe is smack in the middle of the village, boasts that Jennifer's has "the best coffee anywhere."

They certainly sell a dazzling array of unusually flavored beans, including Oreo cookie and banana nut, in addition to several that won't offend coffee purists. Jennifer's also has a full slate of entertainment each week. Wednesday nights, for example, there's Story Salon. (Think "This American Life" rather than "Mister Rogers.") Thursdays bring acoustic music and Saturdays are open-mike comedy night. All shows are free, to watch at least. Those who want to test their jokes on comedy night are asked to shell out $3 for the privilege, a small price to pay considering the potential pain inflicted by a bad comic.

Red sauce, pizza -- that's amore

There's more to this neighborhood than comedy and caffeine. Vitello's, which is trying to get over its recent Robert Blake-related infamy, serves up textbook red-sauce Italian and singers offer opera numbers regularly in the rear lounge.

In addition to creative pizzas such as lamb sausage, potato and caramelized shallot, Caioti serves sizable salads. One in particular, listed on the menu as "The THE Salad," (a mix of romaine, watercress, walnuts and gorgonzola), has earned the diminutive cafe quite a reputation. Nicknamed the maternity salad, it's believed to aid in conception and delivery.

If that fails, Caioti also sells retro-style Whooppee Cocoa Cream and Lip Smackin' Lemon Lime sodas in glass bottles.

The shopping, particularly women's fashions, is fun and varied. Just be warned that some shopkeepers don't quite honor their posted hours, which might be viewed as small-town quaint unless, of course, you're a customer waiting to get in.

Something old, something new

At Hamilton Pink, vintage embroidered sweaters and cocktail dresses are mixed in with hip new pieces by the likes of designers Elizabeth Todd and Jessica Louise.

Sometimes it's hard to tell what's old and what's new. But there is a system: all vintage items are identified with a tiny pale-pink bow around the hanger. A few doors north is Verona, a high-end shoe boutique featuring women's sandals and casual footwear for the most part, but with a few men's selections as well.

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