Rancho Park Golf Course has a coffee shop that is one of those LA places caught in time.
Easy, low-slung leather booths give a great view through wraparound windows out onto the greens. The white-painted brick walls and tinted windows create a calm, cool, dark refuge from the relentless, bright, dry sun outside. Writer James Ellroy was once a caddie at the Hillcrest Country Club next door and mentions the Rancho Park Golf Course in one of his early books, solidifying the noir vibe of the place: a public court with the demeanor of a private club.
Besides the vibe, what draws me back there still, fifty years after I first went, are the perfectly done/underdone hash browns—crispy on the outside and just barely cooked on the inside. I remember my mother exclaiming about them, the landscape of the Southwest speeding past the car windows as my family crossed the country, heading west, on our move back to California, the birthplace of her people—gold rushers, chili-pepper farmers, seamstresses, adventurers. My mom’s family was one of the first California families—there’s a street named after them, Swall Drive—but they had moved to Kansas, where she met my dad. My mom eventually moved east when my dad started a PhD program in Rochester, New York, and that’s where I was born.
But a gig at UCLA brought us back, brought her back, and gave me the chance to grow up in LA. It was there I saw my parents turn into food snobs. Not in the way that people are today, but in that they thought food made at home was more satisfying than eating out at a restaurant. And, for the most part, they were right.
Before nouveau Cali cuisine was a thing people were into, my parents practiced simple, fresh, clean cooking. Even at Thanksgiving, most of which was Rockwellian in its traditionalism, there was a California streak of raw veggies on the side—a platter of radishes, scallions, and baby carrots—to cut through the heaviness of everything else. We weren’t farmsteaders; this wasn’t some agrarian ideal—I grew up right off Pico Boulevard, in West LA. One of my favorite summer meals at our house was a salad of tomatoes from my dad’s garden, mixed with basil and purple onion, that would be served with flank steak, baked green rice, and sliced cantaloupe. I recall my mother out in the driveway with the lettuce in a wire basket with handles and a paper towel in the bottom that she would swing around like a windmill to get rid of the moisture. (This was before salad spinners.) My father showed me his proportion of olive oil to vinegar, stressing the seriousness of not having it be too vinegar-heavy, and how to dress the salad at the last minute so it didn’t wilt or get soggy.
He made his own smoker out of an oilcan, with a special basket that could be raised or lowered closer to the coals. He had his own “Asian” marinade for wings and ribs long before the interest in Asian-influenced cooking went mainstream here. Of course, this tracked with their general tendency to want to eat out only for Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican food.
A ways down Pico from where I grew up is the Talpa, a family-favorite old-style Mexican restaurant. They have a huge mural along one wall depicting an airplane with a long rope behind it towing a Coors beer bottle. Aside from the mural, the interior wall colors have changed over the fifty years I’ve been going there, but the food tastes exactly the same. I always get the chicken tostada with beans, and it’s still my barometer for all tostadas. Closer to home, next to the fire station down the street from Rancho Park Golf Course, is a tiny hamburger stand called Marty’s. Its classic, humble, thin, soft-bun burger is the starting point for all the more complex combos—cheese and bacon burger, double chili cheeseburger with a hot dog on top, double chili cheeseburger with bacon and a hot dog on top, etc. Pastrami can also be added to any of it.
But most people skip Marty’s, go down Pico, and head straight for the legendary Apple Pan. There since 1947, the Apple Pan has a simple U-shaped countertop for service. The house-like building is dwarfed by the surrounding developments that threaten to overtake it. I’ve been going there since I was a kid and still can’t decide if the hickoryburger or the steakburger is better. They’re both served with a chunk of iceberg, and a thick slice of raw onion if you ask for it, which you should.
There was one server, Gordon, a tall, skinny guy with glasses, who I always think about when I go. He retired a few years ago, but I remember watching him as he filled out over the years. He usually worked the right side of the U, and this older man, who was short and slightly hunched over, worked the left. They were both machine-like in their movements—no wasted effort. A smile would occasionally slip out the side of Gordon’s mouth if he was addressed by name.
Besides the amazing burgers and hefty tuna sandwiches, the pies of the Apple Pan parade through my mind like old friends: cherry, boysenberry, especially strawberry-cream, with that barely sweet whipped-cream top. I remember getting a whole cherry-cream pie and hitchhiking with it out to Cross Creek in Malibu, back when I was a teenager. My friend and I went up into the hills with it, smoked weed, and dug our hands into the by-then warm, melting mess. It was still delicious and, sweaty and sticky, we jumped into the cold swimming hole.