Where, indeed, does the concept of 'dessert' even come from - the idea that we eat sweet things after savory things, and not before? It's certainly not a reality, just a cultural rule, and one we unthinkingly break all the time with our nutella crepes, syrup-soaked French toast, tooth-achingly sweet toaster pastries, chocolate-filled 'energy bars', sweetened smoothies, and Froot Loops.
So, really, it's not a rule at all. It's an illusion.
Excessive deconstruction notwithstanding, I'm still going to treat dessert like it is a real thing, not a construct - a word we can mold vocabulary and examples around - just so I can say this: at restaurants, I'm rarely tempted by it.
When I see a piece of pie on a fancy restaurant menu that costs $6+, I scoff - even as I unthinkingly polish off my $15 bowl of udon or $28 plate of lamb chops. Should the pie be made with gold flakes, saffron, and blocks of pure, unadulterated Mexican chocolate, I will still scoff. "$6 for dessert?" I'll mutter to myself. "You could get 3 bánh mì for that! In fact, I think I'll go do that after this."
I may simply not possess the sweet tooth that motivates many to lock their bowls of M&M's in file cabinets for added self-control, or to sleepwalk to the fridge in the middle of the night to stick their face in cake. Or it may be that for two years I worked a job where all day, every day, my coworkers would come in and drop donuts, cupcakes, croissants, and slices of pie on my desk. I weighed a full 30 pounds more then, and I didn't even like the sweets. It was just that, you know, they were there, so I ate them. Maybe I still conceive of dessert as something that should just fall in my lap, and paying for it seems ridiculous.
This is a very long preamble to say that the restaurants and stands I'm about to mention all serve dessert that makes me rescind every bad thing I've just said about dessert.
Down the hill from me lives an overpriced, hipstery grocery store. It's called Cookbook and it sells things like $11 bags of chips and $5 microscopic tins of hummus and all-natural popsicles that probably cost at least $3 but I'm scared to look. It also sells a $2 cookie called the Not Nutter Butter that will satisfy your nutritional requirements for an entire day and leave you with a big messy peanut buttery smile on your face for just as long. This cookie is better than energy bars. It's better than most actual cookies. And it should go without saying that it's as much better than the 'real' Nutter Butter as Trader Joe's dark chocolate peanut butter cups are than Reese's.
Mochi is another thing that'll glue your mouth shut if you're not careful, and I rarely find a specimen that makes this risk worth it. However, the 101-year-old Fugetsu-Do, a tiny shop right in the heart of Little Tokyo and thrown into shadow by the Miyako Hotel, makes such specimens. Their rice cakes appear crafted by visual artists, and the subtle shift in each layer, from the bean-based filling to the cake itself to the slightly more jello-ey accoutrements, keeps your teeth interested. They aren't as heavy handed with the sugar as most mochi purveyors, and there's something about the flavoring that makes me nostalgic for those gummy orange slices that used to be everywhere in the 80's. This is a good thing.
Nearby, in a district quickly morphing from warehouses to dark artsy hangouts, there's a place called the Pie Hole. It serves a slice called the Earl Grey, and the custard is precisely like drinking a perhaps over-sweetened cup. While it would be overly sweet for tea, though, it's just right for pie. The crust is so tough it could be used to break glass, but I like the contrast; it's like having pudding in a bowl, and then getting to eat the bowl.
Moving to the west a bit...
I've raved about Watdongmoonlek, in Los Feliz, enough here already, but let me just touch on it again to rave about their mango sticky rice. Mango sticky rice is a staple at every Thai restaurant in town, but it's usually gooey and glazed, the rice shiny with a sugary coconut drizzle, and the mangoes on the verge of green. Here, they use black rice, lending the entire plate a nutty taste, and a use petal-cut slices - a full circle of them! - of champagne mango.
Black Hogg in Silver Lake isn't exactly my cup of tea overall, but their panna cotta surprised me. While panna cotta can sometimes taste like nothing more than a bowlful of weak cream, or the underwhelming innards of creme brulee, their raspberries are boldly infused with a strong vinaigrette and sprinkled with wads - yes, wads, and I know it's not an appetizing word - of dried honey. Honey so fresh and misshapen it's as though they just pulled it from a beehive in the back. The honey gives it texture; the vinaigrette gives it tang.
I'm surprising no one, breaking no barriers, with this next one, but Scoops in East Hollywood deserves its accolades. The whiteboard in the corner upon which customers write their ice cream ideas appears to actually be utilized here, but smartly: flavors like red velvet oreo and vanilla tarragon brandy eventually make their way to the cold case, while flavors like 'BBQ pulled pork" and "peanut lime bacon" live only a day until they get erased. While Scoops' vernacular leaves something to be desired (that something is 'sense') - 'single scoop' means two scoops, and so on - it's worth the confusion to try the off-the-wall combinations. Personally, I like it when they go tart and I like it when they go a little too crazy. Say, the mango lychee or blackberry jamaica on one end and the lavender goat cheese or avocado honey on the other.
Time to move away from well-known Hollywood shops and onto bakeries that specialize in something else. On the east side, La Mascota Bakery's tamales rule the neighborhood (not an easy neighborhood for tamale-dominance, either). But their guava-cheese empanadas are just as good as their tamales. What is everyone in line at Porto's for? Here, the filling bursts forth with the pride of a good New York bagel with all the toppings. I almost don't want to mention it for fear their tiny parking lot will be overwhelmed.
To be continued in Part II: Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley!