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How The Hot Wings Cafe Changed The Way I Saw Los Angeles

I was sitting in a theater down the street from my house watching the most unbearably awful one-person show I've ever seen. The person on stage was making eye contact with each audience member. I wanted to die.

After I walked out of the theater I wanted to run down the street screaming. I'm not a big drinker but I needed alcohol, any kind of alcohol, immediately.

A brief search of yelp for a restaurant that had alcohol and was open sent me to the Hot Wings Cafe on Melrose Avenue.

Hot Wings Cafe on Melrose Ave.

It's a fairly nondescript location that I'd passed by countless times and barely noticed. I took an Uber to the restaurant, sat down, and within five minutes was looking at this very average tray of chicken wings.

Buffalo Wings at Hot Wings Cafe Los Angeles Hollywood

What quickly became remarkable was how average and normal everything was. The interior, the customers, the staff, the food, the prices. I completely forgot I was in Hollywood and it was strangely comforting. I could have been right back in New York for all I knew. I took an Uber home and the driver seemed a lot friendlier than usual but I didn't think much of it.

The next evening I found myself in a similar predicament and without even thinking returned to the same restaurant. My Uber driver was again incredibly friendly. He started talking to me about chicken wing recipes, his job, his girlfriend, where he went to church, all kinds of super normal stuff that I simply never hear about in Hollywood. I hadn't realized that I never heard about them until he was talking. 

Dinner was equally normal as the previous evening. The Uber driver who took me home was (again) super friendly, one step short from inviting me to a barbecue at his cousin's house the next day.

Laying in bed, looking at the ceiling, I started to piece together that there was something about this restaurant that was some kind of secret handshake among people in Hollywood who had no relation to the entertainment industry. If you were going there you weren't a vegan, you weren't going to start talking about food allergies, you weren't going there for Instagram. You were just going there because you were a perfectly normal person who was hungry and probably worked late at some job nearby.

The next morning I went back on Yelp, found the restaurant again, and began to read the reviews. Sorting by five star reviews, I sought out the ones that were barely literate. Anything in all-caps, anything that mentioned an employee's name (since they weren't wearing nametags), anyone who spoke as a frequent customer were the reviews I was looking for. I sorted each of these reviewers on separate tabs and then began looking for other restaurants they had given five star reviews to. 

I began trying each of these restaurants, starting with the LA Rose Cafe:

LA Rose Cafe Hollywood

This is a Filipino fried pork dish which I ordered a la carte by duplicating a popular photo I'd found on Yelp. It was pretty good but nothing exceptional. My mistake was ordering it for delivery and not going there in person. I will go there in person next time. I realized in order to explore you have to leave the house and explore. 

My next stop was The Hat in Alhambra. Not once in three years had anyone ever mentioned The Hat to me. It's been in business 65 years and has multiple locations. I tried their "famous" pastrami. 

Pastrami Sandwich at The Hat in Alhambra

As a pastrami sandwich it was terrible, but as a sandwich in general it was pretty great (if that makes any sense). The atmosphere was great! It's in a parking lot in the corner of a busy intersection of a mostly Chinese neighborhood. The french fries were the best french fries I've ever had in L.A. I went back and tried a roast beef sandwich (which was much better).

Roast Beef and Onion Rings at The Hat in Alhambra

This was as good as (if not better than) Phillipe's. I'd always gone to Phillipe's because it was on the Travel Channel a million years ago and I'd been going there since long before I ever moved to L.A. The Hat isn't marketed to tourists and so it was such a refreshingly different experience. There was no line, it was easy to get a table, you get to eat outdoors, it was just perfect.

I next tried Dino's Chicken & Burgers, but arrived to find it temporarily closed. Yelp suggested a greek restaurant down the street called Papa Cristo's. I'd never heard of it, no one had ever mentioned it to me, but it was enormous, had clearly been there for quite some time, and was excellent.

Papa Cristo's on Pico Blvd in Los Angeles

Souvlaki Plate at Papa Cristo's

A few days later I made it back to Dino's so I could demonstrate my poor food photography skills some more..

Advertisement for DUI Fries at Dino's Chicken & Burgers

I like to think of myself as being a good explorer but I felt like a moron. In three years how had I not been here before? What the hell is wrong with the people I've been meeting that they'd never heard of it or mentioned it to me. These are the kind of red flags I talk about when I discuss my issues with networking and making friends in L.A. 

BBQ Chicken at Dino's on Pico Blvd in Los Angeles

The customers at lunch were basically me and twenty cops. The photo may be bad but this was some of the best BBQ chicken I've ever had in my life. They make their own red sauce there and it's like nothing you've ever had before. This mountainous plate with a half chicken, french fries, tortillas, and a Pepsi wasn't even $10. You have a meal like this and you just give up even trying to relate to the masses of people who move here to become famous. They don't exist in this world. Dino's is so far beyond Zankou I don't even know where to begin. Don't get me wrong, I love Zankou, RoRo's, and all those places, this is just on a completely different planet. Dino's is where it's at.

The list was kind of confusing at times. For example my next stop, Mel's Drive In, was overpriced and kind of terrible. The service was compromised of a guy who I think was on drugs, looking me over to see if he could use anything about me in his stand up comedy set later that evening.

BLT at Mel's Drive In on Highland Ave. in Hollywood

I broke the no-takeout rule once again with the Blackbird Pizza order. Each pizza is made to order and I didn't feel like sitting in a loud restaurant alone for a long time, only to get a pizza that I couldn't finish on my own. It was expensive and had a ridiculous name. This is their signature "Balls Deep" pizza which has meatballs and a bunch of other stuff.

Balls Deep Pizza from Blackbird Pie

It was expensive, it was heavy like lead, and it was insanely delicious. This is one of the best deep dish pizzas I've ever had. Like this thing is dangerous. I need four people to split one next time. Again, I'd never heard of this restaurant or it's pizza before. I asked people after the fact and no one had heard of it. It's incredible.

My most recent stop was at the Sea Dragon Chinese Restaurant. Very generic but in a way that makes it unique in Hollywood. It's like every Chinese restaurant in the suburbs of New York, the kind that are so impossible to find here. They gave me a free bowl of egg drop soup with my dinner. Do you know how hard it is to find halfway decent egg drop soup in L.A.?

Egg Drop Soup at Sea Dragon in Los Angeles

$5 Egg Roll Plate at Sea Dragon Chinese Restaurant

I'm still exploring. You can see a list of the places I haven't been to yet here, but I'm trying to delete them as I keep going. It's amazing how in just under two weeks I found more interesting and great restaurants and neighborhoods than I had in three years just by stumbling into the right place at the right time. There's a real world here, I can see that I'm just starting to scratch the surface. 


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