CHEF JOHN SPEAKS
THE JOINT CLUB
KEN AUGUST AND HOWARD SADOWSKY AT JAE BU DO
Call us the Joint Club. Despite what you might think, “joint” in this case refers to the thousands of inexpensive ethnic restaurants scattered throughout the vast Los Angeles basin.
I call it a club though it remains unnamed. Its members number eight, as in a table for eight. More would make conversation difficult and ordering even more chaotic and contentious than it is already. We are eight mostly old guys from various professions with one thing in common, a passion for food. As Ken August, our unofficial leader and point man puts it, “To be part of the group required a genuine and adventurous interest in food and a willingness to try everything without making faces.”
Ken, a former entertainment lawyer and retired Vice Chairman at Deloitte, organized the group in 2015 recruiting friends and acquaintances who met these criteria.
“But this group wasn’t just about the food,” Howard Sadowsky, a founding member and an accomplished home cook, observes. “We have a great mix of men; bright, opinionated and quite knowledgeable.” Or, as Ken puts it, “Good, interesting guys – no assholes.”
Both Ken and I moved to L.A. in ’74 and ’75 respectively. Coming from New York, we shared a similar reaction to the L.A. food culture. Horror. There were a handful of good high-end restaurants. But nothing great, nothing compared with New York, Chicago, New Orleans, or San Francisco.
Then we discovered Jonathan Gold and his Counter Intelligence column; first in L.A. Weekly and from 1990 on in The L.A. Times. Gold’s mission was to review under-the-radar restaurants in ethnic neighborhoods all over the L.A. basin.
With so many places scattered over so vast an area, Ken and I were sorely in need of a qualified guide. So with Gold’s column in hand we began, independently, to venture beyond our upscale neighborhoods to sample his recommendations.
I’d eaten plenty of Chinese meals in New York, but I’d never had Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, or Oaxacan food. Gold opened up a whole world of gastronomy and led us to explore Koreatown, Thai Town, East L.A., and that vast goldmine (or should I say, Goldmine?) called the San Gabriel Valley. After his untimely death in 2018, we raised our glasses and observed a moment of silence before diving into blazing hot Boiled Fish and Little Sister’s Rabbit at Chengdu Taste in Alhambra. We’ve eaten there twice.
The club adopted Gold’s guiding principal and principal guide to picking where to eat. “Places where the people doing the cooking are the mamas who had gotten their culinary training from their mamas in their homelands,” as Howard Sadowsky describes them.
With the exception of our annual year-end blowout wine dinner at pricier joints such as Factory Kitchen and République, the bill at these places rarely tops $200 for the eight of us. Usually less.
“Our first get-together was in January, 2015 at Bulrocho,” Ken recalls. “Featuring Korean Goat Stew. There was no sign (or word) in English, but we found it.”
In addition to Ken and Howard, the original crew included Roger Lowenstein, an attorney and television writer who subsequently founded a charter school in Lincoln Heights; Phil Shaw, Ken’s neighbor, friend and a former food industry C.E.O.; Bob Bowers, a retired Superior Court judge; George Cossette, owner of Silverlake Wine, and Ken Weiss, a real estate developer and restaurant investor.
The Joint Club was a year old when I was invited to join in 2016 by Roger, who had already recruited me to teach a cooking class once a week at his charter school. My first meal with the group was at Nanbankan, an izakya in West L.A., where we ate duck heart yakitori, grilled squid, eggplant, and every part of a chicken you usually don’t, washed down with sakes supplied by George Cossette. I felt immediately at home.
The only logistical problem for the Joint Club is that we live all over the place and the joints we frequent are even more far-flung. We’ve driven to Inglewood for Nayarit-style seafood at Coni’s – octopus and crab campechana, camarones al mojo de ajo and Coni’s famous whole grilled snook. Poor Howard and Ken Weiss car-pooled two hours to gorge on hand-pulled noodles at Mian in a strip mall in San Gabriel. South on Pico near Crenshaw is La Cevicheria, a true joint the size of a walk-in closet with extraordinary lime and chili-laced ceviches scattered with raw onions and cilantro. The Concha Negra with “bloody clams” lured us back a few months later. At Lalibela on South Fairfax, an Ethiopian couple, whom Roger had befriended at the Addis Ababa Airport, guided us through the menu, ordering Ajebush of mixed appetizers, Doro Wot with berbere-spiced chicken and Lamb Yebeg Aletcha Wot, served on a plate-sized pancake, both to be eaten and to eat with. Oaxacan moles washed down with vintage mezcals at the raucous and family-friendly Guelaguetza on Olympic. At Jae Bu Do, a Korean seafood grill on Western Avenue, they gave us each a thick cotton glove to handle the fresh quahogs, scallops and oysters, cooked in their shells on table-top braziers over mesquite charcoal.
Our appetites have driven us to the far corners of the county, to such notable joints such as Tatsu, Shamshiri Grill, Spoon by H, Carousel, El Caserio, Birrieria Chalio, Hui Tou Xiang Noodle House, Tatsu, Night+Market, Jun Won, Tasty Duck, and La Casita Mexicana, plus a few non-joint lapses at Bäco Mercat, Simbal, Kismet, not to mention two superbly-crafted tasting menus by Angelo Auriana at Factory Kitchen and Walter Manzke at République. As expected, some of these joints were better than others, but every one was worth the shlep.
After three years with the Joint Club, I figured I’d earned my stripes when Ken turned over the ordering to me at the Sanamluang Café in Thai Town, where I’ve been eating spicy Squid Salad, braised Pork Leg Over Rice, General Noodle, and Roast Duck Noodle Soup for over 40 years.
Our monthly jaunts take us away, sometimes far away, from our wives, our children and grandchildren, and our work. It’s the food that gets us there, but more to keep us coming back. It’s the company. Or as the Irish put it, it’s for the “craic” (pronounced “crack”), news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation.
For most of 2019, “There were two subjects that dominated our conversations,” Howard writes. “Food of course, and in keeping with the climate of the last four years, politics.”
Ken Weiss puts it this way: “The food combined with the comaraderie has really made memories that transcend any meal by itself. Whenever I talk about the restaurants we’ve been to I always precede the discussion talking about this remarkable group of guys who really didn’t know each other before but have bonded over our food experiences together.”
I share his sentiments. Yet despite my fondness for the Joint Club, I don’t socialize with any of these guys outside the dinners. So when the pandemic hit and we had to suspend operations, I hadn’t given them much thought until the L.A. Times food section published its annual 101 Best Restaurant list for 2020.
As I scrolled through the list of places both familiar and new, a wave of nostalgia and longing washed over me. I realized how keenly I missed eating at restaurants with family and friends. I’m a good cook but I’ve been doing nothing but for nine months.
And I missed the Joint Club. Not simply for the surprising meals and the stimulating camaraderie, but where those meals took me in L.A. – the strip malls and hard-to-find holes-in-the-wall in neighborhoods where English is not the principal language and the shop signs written with Korean or Chinese characters; where next to the noodle shop you can buy herbal medicines or get a foot massage. When the weather gets warm, particularly in Hispanic neighborhoods, life takes to the streets with people eating from taco trucks and dancing to oil drum bands. We live in a city segregated by distance. The chefs and restaurateurs in these neighborhoods are cooking for their own constituencies. They welcome us, but they don’t need us. The Joint Club brought me to places and cultures I rarely experience firsthand. Every meal is like a trip to a foreign country and you don’t have to get on a plane.
We eagerly await the day when the smoke clears, when we’re all inoculated, when the restaurants re-open and we can eat in them again without trepidation; without masks or masked waiters, crowded together rather than six-feet apart — the places we frequent regularly for favorite dishes and good service; where the staff greets us by name and sends over complementary glasses of Prosecco or maybe that extra dessert. But how many of those restaurants will arise from the rubble? I fear we’re in for a shock.
Not unlike the election of Joe Biden, the 101 Best has given me hope. For one thing, the inexpensive ethnic restaurants in areas where the rents are low and the take-out booming may weather this storm better than most.
And there are so many joints on the list where I haven’t eaten! I can’t wait to sample the oxtails at Alta Adams, haw mok at Anajak Thai, Hashim bundles of boneless chicken at Apey Kade, the buttery sole porridge at Brodard, the spicy chicharron at Burritos La Palma, the fried chicken at Dulan’s, makeesh with eggs and soujouk at Forn Al Hara, the Giust-oh pizza at Hail Mary, kalguksu at Hangari Kalguksu, the Baja blood clams at Holdbox/Chichén Itzá, the dosas at Mayura, zhajiangmian at Mian, and I’m only up to the ems.
So, fellas, where shall we go first?