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Hard to Digest: Saveur Takes on LA's Food Scene

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We might have kept our wallets closed tightly enough to put Gourmet magazine out of business, but as soon as Saveur magazine gets to talking about us--and by us I mean Los Angeles--we can't seem to keep anything shut, including our mouths.

In an issue devoted solely to the food, drink, and dining scene of the City of Angels, Saveur has for their March edition assembled what they believe is a game-changing look at L.A. Penned by a melange of voices ranging from the expected (Jonathan Gold, Patric Kuh) to the new (blogger Javier Cabral), the issue meant to celebrate one of the nation's food underdogs has drawn criticism for not accurately representing the city's food culture.

The claim that LA has no history is a tired one, and one that even Kuh brings up in his piece on the history of restaurants in L.A., but that doesn't mean we don't have stories. We have enough food stories to fill a book, let alone a slim monthly glossy that represents a dying medium. So when you pick up a copy, you can't expect to be bowled over by its sheer heft--it is, like the cuisine of our state, on the lighter side.

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One of the best things about Los Angeles is that we are diverse--remarkably, pointedly, brilliantly, and sometimes detrimentally so. We can point to a vendor roaming the streets of the Northeast Valley hawking "Tamale!" on a Sunday morning and her counterpart in MacArthur Park has the same item but from an entirely different culinary tradition. We have the most concentrated population of Armenian people outside of Armenia, and a Thai population so robust that Thai Town has spilled over to Sherman Way in North Hollywood.

As a lover of food, I can attest that it is overwhelming to endeavor to taste it all, despite the wish to do so. As a writer and editor, I can attest that even the most best-intentioned project has to have parameter and scope. And so Saveur reeled it in tightly. Too tightly, perhaps.

Rob Eshman of the Jewish Journal points out 10 things he feels Saveur left out, and popular local writers like Kevin Roderick of LA Observed are happy to pass on his ten cents' worth. And to some extent, Estman is right; our bar scene suffers because of the perils of drinking and driving, huge pockets of land are food deserts, our beachside dining is largely dismissable, and the concept of farm-to-table is still considered elitist.

But it is not Saveur that errs here, it's Los Angeles itself. We are, contrary to Eshman's and many other people's opinion, a top-rate food city. The problem, as perhaps "Autopia" scribe Cees Nooteboom would concur, is learning how to navigate it. But Saveur is not Frommers, is not Thomas Guide, is not Lonely Planet. They will not hand us Jonathan Gold's Visa card, the keys to a convertible, and turn-by-turn directions that could make Lesley Bargar Suter's 9 Santa Monica stops even remotely possible; but what they've done is reminded us that we should attempt to navigate it.

Now, it's important to note, that Saveur doesn't do this perfectly. Some might like Sandra Tsing Loh's irreverent homage to a seafood restaurant, but I wish she'd offered something more substantive. And in a city whose food writing culture is as diverse, expansive, and occasionally controversial as our food itself, the editors were a bit too heavy-handed in the parceling out of pieces; in place of multiple pieces each from a handful of writers and food professionals, why not have sought out more people to contribute in order to better reflect the true nature of eating in Los Angeles?

There's nary an In-n-Out Burger, ode beyond scant reference to our food truck culture, or even a LudoBites to be seen in this tribute to Los Angeles. In fact, there's hardly mention of so many other oft-referenced tenets of our eating life here: farmers' markets, Downtown, wine, Twitter, frozen yogurt, donuts, or sushi. No hot dogs--not Pink's, Wurstkuche, bacon-wrapped, or otherwise. There's barely a "celebrity" chef on these pages (save for the almighty Puck, natch). What about a look at our burgeoning Vegan culture? Sustainability? There's no dineLA, no tasting tours, no cupcakes, no Grand Central Market. What a shame. But for those of us who are tapped into LA's food scene, this is simply a challenge for us to do better than what's been done for us.

There's a lot of "reality" that got passed over, though what I see as missed opportunities to tout our culinary horn differ from the tact Eshman takes. But he calls to attention issues we as a civic culture need to address, and passes the buck in essence to Saveur. Our level of pleasure in consuming this much-talked about issue will vary as much as our own palates, that much is certain.

Kudos to Saveur for at least turning their eyes on us for one-twelfth of this year, and to all those who realize that maybe Los Angeles is a food city after all--and we are, dammit. LA does a lot of things wrong when it comes to food, but we do a lot of things right--many, many, many more than what Saveur chose to share this month. Where shall we meet up to celebrate?

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