Street – I think Susan Feniger was a pixilated Tamale before I cared about cooking enough to, well, care. And after as well, but at the time I lived in Boston and the idea of cooking -Mex, Tex-, or any form of border cuisine seemed remote, at best. I’m sure I watched a few times, but that’s about all of which I’m sure. In any case, the point is that she’s been around a while. Not having much memory of her show other than its existence, I didn’t have much of an opinion of her as a chef.
But that changed not by eating in her long-known restaurants (which I’ve done in the past, to mixed effect), but by seeing her on Top Chef: Masters. For the fun of this show isn’t the competition, as it is with the original, it’s the opportunity to see the comfortable be discomfited and, better, how they react to that discomfort. In that context, I gained great respect for both Feniger and her business partner, not just because their skills proved more robust and reliable than many more-reputed competitors’, but because they seemed like nice people that would be fun to hang out with…which is not something one can say about all celebrity chefs.
Especially Feniger, who seemed like she’d brighten any room just by walking into it. And so it is, as I lunch here fresh off a transcontinental flight and scant minutes before end-of-lunch closure (they are most kind to seat me anyway), that when she in fact walks through the front door, I can’t help but smile. We chat for a bit, and she’s every bit as pleasant and lively as expected, but she has things to do and I let her go to do them. Thankfully, she doesn’t ask about the food.
It’s not that it’s bad. Some of it is very good, and the worst that could be said about the rest is that it’s competent. The problem, I think, is not the execution (though that’s the problem as manifested on the plate), it’s the concept. The spanning-the-globe street food concept is a fun one, but much as there are no musicians who excel at blues, jazz, rock, and classical, there probably aren’t any (or at least many) chefs that can master the world’s various cuisines – even their street-vendor versions – well enough to cook all of them brilliantly. And if those chefs existed, they probably wouldn’t be working at Street. Maybe Feniger, were she able to be in the kitchen at all times, would be closer to this multicultural ideal. But she has brand Feniger to manage, and many restaurants, and someone else needs to be able to helm the concept on a day-to-day basis.
This is a restaurant I want to like, but it’s more or less a hyperextended demonstration of why pan-whatever concepts don’t pan out. There’s just too much to wrestle in the kitchen, and even the best-laid concepts can be birthed in odd ways. I’d also like a more interesting beverage list, and maybe one that reflects the ethos a little better – street beverages, so to speak – might be preferable to the somewhat wan wine list, though the beer and cocktail lists are of more interest. (I should say that it’s possible that this option exists and I just don’t notice it amidst my semi-jetlagged haze.)
Malaysian-influenced angry eggs, with hot chile relish and green sriracha, are, at most, mildly piqued; good breakfast food (perhaps that’s what they are), but lacking the seethe a reading of the menu seems to promise. My banh mi is better, getting the balance much more correct than many semi-Americanized versions that are afraid of the sour and vegetal elements so crucial to the sandwich. The most enjoyable treats are, perhaps, the complimentary appetizers of…well, I don’t remember what they are. Agglomerated puffed grains of some kind, mildly spiced, studded with tasty intruders, and eminently addictive.
Street’s reputation as a “well, it’s OK, but…” sort of restaurant precedes it, but I had to find out for myself. Perhaps the issue isn’t that it’s not a great idea – it is – but that it’s a lot of great ideas that just aren’t collectible. I’d go again with an interested group, because it’s casual, fun, and not particularly expensive, and there are dishes that succeed. And were it located somewhere more culinarily conservative it’d be a revelation. But it’s in Los Angeles, and I suspect that for just about each dish there’s a corner strip mall dive somewhere in the sprawl doing it with greater authenticity and, more importantly, better. There’s value in centralized concepts – driving all over Los Angeles in search of this stuff is a temporal pursuit even culinary dilettantes can ill-afford, except over the very long term – and Feniger is every bit the joyful presence her reputation suggests. But this Street needs some utility work.