Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Chow Time: Four Clowns at a PANCAKE CIRCUS!

I finally understand the East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry rooted so deeply in the '90s hip hop community.  Fundamentally, I'm pretty sure that it's about breakfast food.

Obviously, the East Coast is the undefeated champion when it comes to streamlined chrome diners, all night joints where one can unashamedly order a kitchen-sink omelette just as easily at four in the afternoon as four in the morning.  Where the West wins is corny coffee shops - Googie-style affairs with kooky rooflines and even kookier theming.

Pancake Circus (1960) - Sacramento, CA

To visit Sacramento is to learn that Pancake Circus is the Tupac of themed coffee shops.  Seriously, when told that the kitchen would not make her pancakes in the form of Tupac's famous West Coast hand sign, Mary requested that they at least arrange her bacon in the shape of a "W."

The kitchen, the counter, and some of Pancake Circus' OGs.

Waiting for our meal to arrive, we engaged in all the usual coffee shop shenanigans - shooting the paper wrapping off our straws, loosening the lids on the pepper shakers, playing the rims of our water glasses etc.  It wasn't until we began balancing spoons on the ends of our noses, that I realized what was happening; at Pancake Circus, we were the circus.  The spoons were little more than large rubber balls and we were the seals.  Here, the two-dimensional animal cutouts watched as we, trapped in our naugahyde cages, wildly tore into the food delivered by our keepers/servers.

See what I mean?!

He's an animal!

Stalking her country potatoes like big cat! 

To distract myself from the startling realization that we could easily be mistaken for circus animals (and to rethink my questionable comparison of Pancake Circus to Tupac Shakur), I decided to take some pictures...

Under the lights of the BIG TOP!

If clowns (paintings, plushies, porcelain dolls, parachuters) are not your thing, then I still say go to Pancake Circus!  Think of it as phobia therapy.

Because these people are not clowning around!!!

Or are they?

Mind if we drop in?

"Uh...no, thanks!'

My favorite part of the Pancake Circus went unnoticed by nearly every other diner in the restaurant;
it's that accordion-style partition (above) that closes not in a straight line but in a swoosh!

I love my family.
I love this photo.
I also love the incredible walls, slightly obscured by the elephant
cutout; the matchstick mosaic is studded with tiger-eye glass tiles. 

Prior to running away with the Pancake Circus, we met an older couple in town who told us that going there would be a waste of time.  "Oh...there," said the wife, "It used to be cool."  I tried to maintain my composure but inside I was shouting, "No duh, lady."  I mean, it doesn't often happen that bastions of mid-century morning mealtime dramatically improve with age yet it remains our duty to support them!  Sure, the edges are worn, the finishes are dulled, and the clowns are many.  But as the old saying goes, "Circus breakfast is the most important meal of the day."

If not the animals, then we definitely left feeling like the
clowns; and that still makes Pancake Circus pretty cool...

Even after hours!

Pancake Circus
2101 Broadway
Sacramento, CA



Mr. Tiny

Friday, April 22, 2016

Chow Time: Fresno's Chicken Pie Shop

This post comes at quite a difficult time, following the recent demise of our beloved, local institution, La Palma Chicken Pie Shop.  As it was the feature of our very first "Chow Time" post, we feel particularly saddened by the loss of owner, Otto Hasselbarth, and the relegation of his landmark restaurant to the wacky tacky history books.

Rest in Pie

Luckily, our friends at the Museum of Neon Art have stepped up to preserve this legendary bit of Orange County history by preserving the iconic, chicken-shaped neon sign that otherwise would certainly have been so much fodder for the scrap heap.  In loving tribute to La Palma, we set our sights on Fresno, CA, home of another purveyor of pastry-bound poultry, Grandmarie's Chicken Pie Shop.

Grandmarie's Chicken Pie Shop (1956) - Fresno, CA

Of a similar vintage to La Palma, Grandmarie's shares the same unapologetically old-timey sensibility, serving homestyle comfort food with few frills but plenty of atmosphere.  A cavernous coop, Fresno's Chicken Pie Shop shelters three giant, reverse-painted plexiglass roosters (after all you can't make more chickens without roosters).

Officially unnamed, these guys definitely rule the roost.

We were told than one of these fellows was older than the others, finding his way here from a previous location.

We're sure it's this one.
Just look at him, cock of the walk!

Smack dab in the middle of The Tower District, Fresno's cultural center, the Chicken Pie Shop was an area institution long before this location opened its doors in 1956.  An ever-growing customer base demanded a dining room that could serve the masses; Grandmarie obliged by opening a huge venue that could support the crowds of farm-sized appetites in California's central valley.  Indeed, the seating options at Grandmarie's Chicken Pie Shop are endless.  Making like Goldilocks, we decided to try them all.

Starting with the two atomic-age horseshoe counters...

Too big.

And making our way through miles of multi-toned, tufted green booths.
Too small.

Finally choosing a booth (just right) beneath Cocky Locky, we placed our order with our charming and ever-so-patient waitress.

It's called the chicken pie shop, idiots.
Why are you taking so long to order?!?!!

She hardly even made fun of me when I ordered the "mini meatloaf" that wasn't on the menu.  I'm not sure how I made that up; maybe I was hallucinating or maybe I figured that ordering off-menu would make me seem like a super-hip regular.  Either way, it didn't work.  Honestly, there was a menu item that I must have scanned a little too quickly, projecting upon it my desire for an individually-portioned meatloaf.  As it turns out, Grandmarie's "Mini Loaf" is a miniature loaf of their delicious homemade bread.  

After recovering from my embarrassment and choosing a legitimate menu offering, we settled in to talking about how much we already loved this place.  Then the food came.

The chicken pie dinner - all this plus biscuits.

Our server beamed as she boasted about the purity of Grandmarie's chicken
pies, unspoiled by any pesky vegetables lurking beneath the flaky, gravy-soaked crust.

Erika was so overcome with gratitude that she couldn't continue her meal without saying grace.
I guess nothing connects people like food, faith, and freedom from vegetables...

Green-Chile Cheeseburger

Chicken Fried Steak Dinner

Tuna Salad Sandwich

Certainly, it might look a tad institutional but you'll hear no complaint from our party on that count - especially when the institution includes that beautiful, green-and-white scalloped dinner ware.

Even more than their main courses, my dinner companions oohed and aahed endlessly over the sweet corn, the succulent coleslaw, and the perfectly-prepared steak fries.  We decided that it's best that Grandmarie's Chicken Pie Shop is such a distance from us.  Otherwise we'd get so used to eating their deliciously-monochromatic meals that eventually our flesh would fuse with the 60-year-old vinyl seating.

Mary still thinks it might be worth it.

"The Wise Little Hen" (1934)

Not so wise.
Sure we'll help you plant your corn...and then 
we'll serve it a long side a pie, a chicken pie.

Grandmarie's Chicken Pie Shop
861 W Olive Ave
Fresno, CA


Mr. Tiny

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Havin' a Ball at the Las Floristas Headdress Ball!

I'll go ahead and say it.  I like funerals.

It is said that funerals (memorials, celebrations of life, et al.) are not for the dearly departed.  Instead, they are for the living.  It may sound bonkers but nothing makes me want to go on living like a funeral - not so much for a fear of death, rather because hearing about the way that a successful life is one lived in a spirit of service and adventure, can be a somber reminder that there is still much living and learning to do.

Last weekend we drove several hours to attend the memorial service of a family friend who left an incredible legacy of beauty, joy, and mischief.  While the better part of three decades had passed since I had any direct contact with this friend, attending her memorial service was a wonderful opportunity to have my vaguely-marvelous memories of this unerringly-chic woman substantiated by the fond remembrances of her loved ones.

Susie, 1958
Isn't she breathtaking?  I think of Susie every time I make a dress or skirt for Mary;
she was quoted as saying, "A proper skirt should never have less than 5 yards of fabric."
(A higher-resolution image can be see here)

A statuesque octogenarian who referred to herself as 5'12", Susie was adventurer, wife, philanthropist, teacher, mother, model, artist, and chef all rolled into one.  When the announcement of her passing came, we were both saddened and intrigued - saddened, of course, by the loss and intrigued by the stunning images her family shared of Susie's incredible life.  In one particular photograph, dated 1958, Susie is donning a couture creation (remarkable for its multi-colored, asymmetrical peplum-turned-train) and a dramatic, oversized headdress.  My thoughts turned immediately to I Love Lucy and the episode, "Lucy Gets in Pictures" (1955).

When Lucy buckles under the pressure of this towering headdress,
she gets downgraded from cinema star to simple supernumerary.

Built for laughs, Lucy's headdress had nothing on the height, breadth, and splendor of Susie's phenomenal headpiece (and let it be noted that there isn't even the slightest trace of strain on Susie's unblemished brow).  Perhaps it is bad form at a memorial to so enthusiastically inquire about the origins of a sixty-year-old photograph but included in a slideshow tribute were a few equally-intriguing images that left us feeling like this was more than an ordinary fashion show.  Our piqued interest reached its collective peak when "showgirl" was not mentioned among her may artistic exploits.  As it turns out, Susie was a long-time participant with Las Floristas, a Los Angeles-based charity benefitting the health and educational concerns of special-needs children at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center's children's clinic.  Since 1938, the Las Floristas Headdress Ball, has been the charity's largest annual fundraiser.  Each year, similar fantasies fashioned of feathers and flowers, designed and built by professional florists, seem to grow in complexity and size (as shown in the videos below).

Las Floristas Headdress Ball (1938-1967)
(Susie can be seen at least twice is this video at about 4:50 wearing 
the gown and headdress combo above and approximately 5:35)

Las Floristas Headdress Ball (1968-1990)

Have you ever?  I have never.  I mean, did you see Susie with the scale-model Ice Capades dancer on her head?  Did you see the lady doing the Charleston?  Not to mention Eve, the functioning ferris wheel, the pirate ship, the mermaid leading her seahorse chariot, the giant opening ball thing, and the LOBSTER!!!  Oh, the lobster!  As far as I'm concerned, the Rose Parade can go suck an egg.





My newest research project is to see how these pieces are made; even with paper, aluminum, silk flowers, foam, and featherweight plastics, these works of wearable art have got to be heavy (some of the models are concealing cleverly-disguised braces/supports).  I saw somewhere that the staff of the Headdress Ball includes an orthopedic surgeon to consult on the maximum height and weight of the headdresses.  Of course, the next move would be to wrangle an invitation to the Headdress Ball - even behind the scenes.  If you have an in, please let me know; I've got to see this for myself!





So now do you see why I like funerals?  People are fascinating and full of personal histories to which we may not always be privy; as heartbreaking as the occasion may be, it is a thrill to learn more about the person and a challenge to be more like him or her.  I am grateful to Susie and her family for being a wonderful example of inclusivity, generosity, and kindness.  How lucky we were to have our lives touched by such a force of light and love!  If a pretty girl is like a melody, then Susie was SYMPHONY!

To find out more about Las Floristas, the Headdress Ball, and to donate, please visit lasfloristas.org.
To find out more about the Las Floristas Children's Clinic at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, please visit rancho.org.


Mr. Tiny

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Signs of the Times: Gunther's Ice Cream

If nothing else, Instagram has taught me that there are many people who spend the bulk of their free time documenting interesting, historic, and beautiful signs.  One need only search the hashtags #coolsign or #vintageneon to see that #signgeeks are alive and well.  Never has the activity occupied enough of my time for me to consider it even much of an avocation.  A passing interest?  Maybe.  A road trip diversion?  Sure.  A whimsy?  Why not?

Gunther's Ice Cream (est. 1940) - Sacramento, CA

I suppose the time has come for me to reevaluate my place in the world of sign hunting.  However unpopular my stance, I must admit that I go for the big game.  Fancying myself an expert tracker, I sniff the winds for whiffs of neon and follow the telltale tracks.  If I could, I would triumphantly hoist one foot on top of the very best signs I bag, posing for the camera with a self-satisfied grin.  Among my prize trophies would be Gunther's Ice Cream in Sacramento, CA.

Gunther is all aglow and ready for action!

It can be challenging for a lactose-intolerant to justify embarking on a 1,000-mile safari to the ice cream epicenter of California's capitol, but that is precisely how I know that my devotion borders on the fanatical; I need no justification.  On one trip, I made my family drive approximately 45 miles out of the way (retracing our steps twice) because I got a hunch that there was a good sign I missed (and indeed there was).  I approach this endeavor with all the devotion of a newly-minted Hindu monk.

But if I'm going to worship at the altar of any multiple-
limbed deity, it will be Lord Gunther ...sorry Vishnu

Oh, yes.  Gunther's does serve ice cream.  If they didn't, they would have a quite a difficult time explaining the endless line that encircles the building.  Generations of Sacramentians, Sacramentites, Sacra-men's toes (or whatever you call 'em) have made Gunther's Ice Cream a favorite, sun-down watering hole - a truly ideal setting for observing the sign in its natural habitat.

Cherries on top for everyone!

And while I couldn't indulge in the dairy-filled delights, I was more than sated by one of my favorite pastimes - THE HUNT (and thanks to the wacky tacky adventure team, not a single Cecil was injured)!

Sometimes the only way to fit all the sundae-
stuffed wacky tacky adventure team members into
a single photo is to stack 'em - TRIPLE SCOOP!!!

Gunther's Ice Cream
2801 Franklin Blvd
Sacramento, CA



Mr. Tiny

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Chow Time: Venice Room - STEAK Your Way!

At Monterey Park's Venice Room, it's strictly a case of "GYOS" (Grill Your Own Steak) - a novelty to which I would normally find myself entirely averse.  I mean, restaurant fondue is a definite fon-don't for me as I am morally opposed to paying for the privilege of preparing my own meal.  The charm also wears quite thin with things like shabu-shabu.  And the same holds true for pho; if I wanted to make soup, I would have simply stayed home and made soup!  While this has certainly prevented many a succulent encounter with Korean barbecue, I've learned that if you don't stand for something, then you'll fall for anything.  Principles.

Venice Room - Monterey Park, CA

Few things have the power to overcome my aversion to DIY dinners on the town like a mid-century steakhouse.  Opened in 1957, Venice Room is the true definition of a bar & grill.  In every sense, it is both a bar (about two-thirds of the facility is dedicated thusly) and a grill (literally, one communal grill in the corner that serves as the stage for steer-searing showmen of every variety).

Grill Masters enter here!!!

The dinner menu is limited at Venice Room.  So limited, in fact, that there is no menu at all.  As soon as our group of three was seated in one of the tufted, black-leather demilune booths, the lone waitress approached the table and, extending three fingers on her right hand, queried, "So...three steaks?"

"Beef, it's what's for dinner."

Sensing my hesitation, she quickly explained, "That's all we have - steak, baked potato, salad, and a roll."  My request for a dinner service sans steak was met with equal parts incredulity and pity.

I'm not going to say that non-steak eaters are considered second-class citizens,
but I could detect the sense of wonder as to why one who so staunchly abstains
from steak would come to a restaurant that specializes in nothing but. 

Keeping things ever more simple, only one cut and one size of steak is served at Venice Room.  But don't ask me what cut that is; I can't tell my T-bone from my top sirloin.

But even I could discern that this was quality meat.
I can definitely see some marbling and whatnot...

The method of food delivery is initially startling but pleasantly old-timey.  Guests are invited to help themselves (do you detect a theme here?) to the salad bar, a cafeteria-style affair complete with sneeze guard.  Moments later a platter arrives tableside that contains a foil-wrapped baked potato, a french roll the size of a football, and great slab of raw beef in wax paper.

I tend to err on the side of extreme caution when it comes to food contamination;
this little still life made me glad that I opted out but every other diner was licking
their chops in anticipation.
The steaks may be the stars of the show at Venice Room but behind every great steak is an even greater grill master.  Standing before a massive indoor barbecue, beneath the gleaming scallop trim of the copper vent hood, Ben cooked every morsel of meat to perfection...at least according to Erika.  But it was Ben's first time.  His performance at the Venice Room grill was nothing compared to "Don Julio."

Ben vs. Don Julio
From grill marks to jackets there was one clear winner. 

Small but mighty, Don Julio escorted a beautiful bevy of local talent who swooned as he turned the seasoning station into a scene straight out of Cocktail.  Spinning sauce bottles and twirling tongs at the end of his nimble fingers, Don Julio skillfully choreographed the flames in a dramatic fire dance.  An obvious expert, DJ's system even included adding a bit of char to the rolls.

We might have been outclassed when it came to showy preparation but
nobody could beat us for sheer enthusiasm where eating was concerned.

All was well before the meat sweats set in...

The room was so dim that Mr. Tiny had no idea that the
house dressing could easily stand in for nacho cheese. 

We did such a thorough job in cleaning our plates that the owner (son of original owner, Joe Lombardo) came over to our table to congratulate us.  Peppered throughout our polite small talk, we were sure to include compliments on maintaining this landmark restaurant and its many fine furnishings. 

Walls not covered by murals of Venetian canals, are given the full
glamour treatment in the form of multi-color, paisley, foil wallpaper. 

The show-stopping highlight of  Venice Room's thematic decor is its black-lit backbar.
Peeking through the portico, Venetian ships rendered in neon sail serenely down the canals.

As lovely as the murals are and as much truth as there is in the adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," I am always looking at even the finest venues with a critical eye.  For simmering just beneath the jolly surface of this wacky tacky diner is a frustrated restaurateur and production designer wanting to create atmospheric and gastronomic perfection.  I just so happen to have a few ideas handy:

1. This one seems like a gimme but, in a Venetian-themed restaurant clad in canal scenes, it seems to me that the staff should be dressed as gondoliers (singing gondoliers would be a bonus).
2.  The "salad bar" - a term I use as lightly as a downy feather - could use some revamping.  It's a system that would certainly not suffer from the addition of tomatoes or a few shoestring beets.  My feelings would certainly not be hurt if somehow the "bar" took the form of a gondola...or maybe I'm just taking the theme one step too far.
3. This will make me sound gluttonous but nobody ever said, "That's too much butter!" Mathematically speaking, a pre-portioned teaspoon of butter simply isn't enough for a large baked potato and a roll as big as my head (a head that falls in the 99th percentile).

A few quibbles notwithstanding, Venice Room is practical wacky tacky perfection - particularly if you are the type who wants to grill your own steak in front of a live studio audience (I'm looking at you Don Julio).  On this point, I am certainly willing to concede to a landmark with a record of nearly 60 years of successful service.  So make your way for steak your way!

Venice Room Bar & Grill
2428 S Garfield Ave
Monterey Park



Mr. Tiny