The Land of Milk and Honey (and Truffle Burgers)

By Nevin Martell

For me, traveling is just as much about trying new food as it is seeing new places. Even before I buy my tickets, I’m always scoping out where to dine. A recent trip out to the West Coast with my wife was no different. The months preceding our departure were spent figuring out where we would eat in LA, where we would only be for less than 24 hours, before continuing on to the Coachella music festival.

Our first stop in the City of Angels is at Mozza pizzeria’s small sister spot, Mozza2Go. Both restaurants are a collaboration between the omnipresent Mario Batali, restaurateur Joe Bastianich, and celebrated chef Nancy Silverton. Their tiny takeout joint offers up gourmet goodies for home cooks alongside ready-to-eat fare like paninis, pizzas, and, salads. There’s a hearty dessert selection, which draws my interest, even though I haven’t eaten lunch yet. A stack of iced raisin squares sitting right next to the cash register is irresistible. A cross between a Pop Tart and a Fig Newton, it’s just sweet enough, and the buttery crust possesses the right amount of richness.

Back around the corner at Mozza, the official savory start to our luncheon is a trio of small plates, including shaved purple Brussels sprouts tossed with hefty avocado chunks, spot-on tempura fried squash blossoms filled with creamy ricotta, and a disappointing order of arancini that are neither crunchy or cheesy enough.

For my main course, I opt for the Napolitana pizza, which comes topped with tomatoes, generous puddles of buffalo mozzarella, and marble-sized fried capers that add a salty crackle. The crust is a little too crispy for D.O.C. standards, but all the other elements are pitch perfect.

I come full circle by ordering a second dessert: the pudding-like butterscotch budino sprinkled with sea salt crystals and dolloped with freshly whipped cream. A petite pair of rosemary pine nut cookies completes the dish. Though I enjoy it, my wife orders the table’s winner: caramel copetta (a cousin to gelato) with a snowline of bruleed marshmallow running atop it, a shower of salted skin-on Spanish peanuts, and a stroopwafel-styled wafer hiding underneath. This treat alone was worth the price of airfare.

We take a few hours to digest and decompress before we head over to Umami Valli to check out the storied West Coast burger chainlet. The signature Truffle Burger, which stars both truffled cheese and a truffle glaze, lives up to its considerable reputation as a glorious bit of gluttony. A side of truffled cheese fries almost seems like overkill. Almost.

Tempura battered onion rings are divine; easily scooping the top spot as the best I’ve ever eaten. They taste even better when dipped into the array of housemade sauces, which include the first homemade ketchup I’ve ever had that doesn’t suck, a punchy garlic aioli, and a house spread that tastes like everybody else’s secret sauce (aka Thousand Island dressing).

The next morning, I hit Hugo’s before getting on the road. The Red Hot Latte is spiked with Saigon cinnamon and made with almond milk at the suggestion of the server. Who knew that a liquid Hot Tamale would be such an enjoyable way to kickstart the day? It’s a great complement to my order of pancakes covered with grated coconut, slivered almonds, and banana rounds, all doused with creamy coconut syrup.

It’s a good stick-to-the-ribs starter that staves off hunger until the mid-afternoon when we get down to Indio outside Palm Springs, where we make a beeline for the nearest In-N-Out Burger. I get my two cheeseburgers Animal Style and Protein Style, which means as well as all the regular toppings, they get pickles, grilled onions, extra special sauce, and come wrapped in iceberg lettuce. Biting through the leafy exterior, I hit the messy payload at the center – a great reminder of why I love the West Coast so much.

There’s another reminder the next morning, when I stop in at Shields Date Garden to grab some of their Jumbo Royal Medjool dates and a package of sweet ‘n’ peppery chili mango jellybeans. A sign for date shakes above the register catches my eye. Even though I’ve just had breakfast, it’s somehow impossible to resist. The thick milkshake tastes more like vanilla bean at first blush, but then the date flavor punches through after a few minutes.

The food at Coachella is hit or miss. Though there are several open-air food courts dotted across the grounds, most of them favor your usual festival fare like burgers and BBQ (though there are vegetarian, vegan, raw, and gluten-free options available). On the first day of the three-day concert, I find myself at the Spicy Pie stall in between sets from Arctic Monkeys and Pulp. I opt for a signature slice dotted with pepperoni, jalapenos, and red pepper flakes, which actually packs some heat. Not too shabby for concert cuisine.

On the other hand, the fish tacos from Fisherman’s Market and Grill I order on the final day of the festival are a sloppy, unsatisfying mess. The breaded cutlets are barely warm, the “world famous” white sauce is little more than white water, there’s too much cabbage slaw in the mix, and the soft taco shell falls apart after a minute of munching.

They leave such a bad taste in my mouth that I fire up the grill by the pool when I get home in the wee hours of the morning after hanging out with holographic Tupac. A couple of Oscar Meyers’ Selects Angus hot dogs char up nicely, then get popped into lightly toasted potato buns. Dressing them up with yellow mustard, relish, and Just Chili California Hot Sauce, they make for a memorable finale. I may have not have been dreaming about them before I flew out to the Left Coast, but simple food done well is a joy no matter where you are.