The Cult of Food

When I was in grade school in the Philippines, I would save some of my lunch money so I could buy something from one of the street food hawkers on my way home. Crispy fried fish balls in vinegar dipping sauce and bananacue on a stick (fried bananas coated with caramelized brown sugar) were always in the running. Ice Iskrambol, a Pinoy version of shaved ice flavored with condensed milk and banana was a real treat on any given day. But my real favorite was waffle dog. After school, my sister and I used to race to the park, which was our shortcut to get to my mom’s store at the market. We would have just enough money saved up from our lunch allowance to get a waffle dog each. Waffle dogs were the best. Imagine everything you like about corndogs: the guilty pleasure, the sweet and salty. Now amplify that with a waffle batter instead of cornmeal and you have the Filipino treat known as waffle dog. The line for waffle dogs was always long and intimidating; my sister and I were the only kids on this line, perhaps the only two under 35. But the desire for waffle dogs superseded the fear of getting kidnapped. We wanted those dogs more than anything on those afternoons!

Whether you are an Angeleno by birth or transplant you have been conditioned to believe that food you wait in line for tastes better than food you don’t.  On my first visit to The Boiling Crab in K-town a couple of years ago, I waited in line with more than 100 people 30 minutes before the restaurant opened on a Sunday. If you’ve been in Chinatown recently for lunch, you would notice a line as deep as 200 people waiting for screaming hot fried chicken at Howlin’ Rays. Daikokuya in DTLA has been tending to long lines of ramen fans for years. Pink’s is a landmark and popular tourist spot that has a line around the block any day of the week…for hot dogs! This morning on my way to the Grove, I drove past The Griddle Café on Sunset and Fairfax and saw at least 50 people in line for brunch at 10 a.m.

Food cults are big in LA, and it seems the longer the line, the more attractive the place gets.

I like to think we have our own food cults here at our little Disney enclave. Every few Wednesdays at Riverside Café, people show up just a little bit earlier than usual, to ensure that they can get one of Chef Hugo’s Crispy Chicken Sandwiches, served on locally made Homeboy Bakery Brioche Bun, with Chipotle Mayo and Jalapeno-Cilantro Slaw. This chicken sandwich is such a Riverside signature dish, that people put the third Wednesday of each month on their calendar as the “Crispy Chicken Sandwich Day.”  And if for any reason the menu changed on the CCSD, stay in your office, as there could be a riot from unhappy patrons. The sandwich is truly impressive visually and rates 10 out of 10 in satisfaction. Why come early? Because it sells out…every single time it’s on the menu! It’s a winner, winner!

If you are on the Studio Lot on a Tuesday and happen to walk in the Buena Vista Café, you will see a long line of people for Taco Tuesday by 11:30 a.m. and the line doesn’t ease up until about 2:00 p.m. Once a week Chef Estevan features crunchy taco shells filled with seasoned ground beef topped with all the favorite trimmings. I’ve been at Disney for almost two years now and have had these tacos only three times…it would usually be sold out by the time my lunch break comes around. However, the real star on the Buena Vista Taqueria menu is the pork carnitas. It is a mainstay on the taqueria menu and it never disappoints. Our cook, Cruz, takes a lot of pride in his carnitas recipe. He braises the pork in OJ, Coca-Cola, and spices, while most traditional recipes would call for oil or lard as the braising liquid. The result is pork that is flavorful, moist, tender and less guilt. It is delicious on tacos or burritos. I like it on its own with some rice and salsa. It is delicious anyway you have it.

On Thursdays at Grand Central Café in the creative campus in Glendale, the Chirashi Bowl has become so popular that the lines for ordering it have actually started making us rethink our traffic patterns! This dish was one of the first dishes I tried in Glendale when I started working at Disney, and I thought it was amazing. I’ve been to many, many sushi places in Los Angeles…some in strip malls, some in Asian markets, some in hotels, and even one with a Michelin star! But when I see our Chirashi bowl, I see real passion for food. I know by looking at it that it will be delicious. There’s something raw, something crispy, something cured, something spicy, and something, well, “seaweedy.” I can tell that Sushi Chef Suwandi has put great care into making something not just tasty, but also thoughtful.

As a kid running to the park after school in Saint Mary’s Academy uniform with only those waffle dogs in mind I never thought my life and luck with food would go so far. On those afternoons I only had one wish as I crossed the park…that they don’t run out of waffle dogs by the time I got there. Back then, “chefhood” was never even part of my dreams. I think I wanted to be a nurse! Becoming a chef was a dream come true, but being a chef in the best city in the world (and in our Disney community) is beyond anything I ever imagined.

I cannot divulge the recipe of the crispy chicken sandwich because it is not mine to give away and I also believe that it is better when Chef Hugo makes it for us. However, I have a fried chicken recipe for you to try at home. It’s not exactly Chef Hugo’s recipe, but it’s close enough in texture and flavor. It’s also quite simple. Even my seven-year old son can make it.

–Chef Mayet

Cruz at Taqueria Station at Buena Vista Café
The wait line and Chirashi Bowls at Grand Central Cafe