Richard Foss

Abigaile at the vanguard

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Ground zero for Hermosa punks hasn’t lost its experimental edge

Abigaile pays homage to its punk heritage. Photo by Brad Jacobson

The site is hallowed in music history, a former church where bands including Black Flag developed their brash, confrontational style. Though only fragments of that building remain as part of Abigaile, when the restaurant  opened in 2012 there was at least a ghost of that rebellious style. The décor celebrated the bands, graphic artists, and skaters who swaggered through Hermosa 30 years earlier.

The food was a lot more up to date, though hard to define. Abigaile wasn’t exactly a gastropub, though beer was brewed on site and food was served. It wasn’t in tune with the food trends of the time (bacon in everything including dessert, cupcakes, and unlikely sweet and salty combinations). There was an Italian influence thanks to founding chef Jack diMare, but the theme was proudly eclectic. It got more so when diMare was replaced by then-unknown chef Tin Vuong, who brought his groundbreaking version of Asian Fusion into the mix. It was food worth taking seriously in a lively atmosphere, and accelerated downtown Hermosa’s shift toward becoming a dining destination.

Some of the punks who made Hermosa nationally famous burned out, some are still repeating themselves with minor variations, and a few kept innovating and surprising people throughout their careers. After six years it was time to see whether Abigaile had turned into the culinary equivalent of an oldies station or was keeping things fresh.

They haven’t updated the décor in the main room, which is fine because it doesn’t need it. Graffiti art has aged well as a style, and there are new places that are spending money to look very much like this. The mix of environments includes the buzzy main room, cozier and quieter upstairs, and the outdoor patio, so you can gravitate to the one you fancy. I seem to always end up outside unless it’s raining.

The place hasn’t lost its experimental edge, as you can tell from the section of the menu called “R&D,” which has items that the kitchen is testing. From this section we tried a mix of tater tots and fries topped with house-made bacon chunks, cheese, and salsa (a guilty pleasure if ever there was one), and an order of chicken mole nachos. Though the sauce was a bit less assertive than I usually like, the nachos worked thanks to a liberal sprinkling of pickled red onion and slices of radish that added tang and vegetable textures. Both items were classic bar snacks elevated by fine execution, and if I see them on the menu again I’ll probably order them.

We also had a starter that had been a novelty in 2012: tempura-fried green beans with romesco sauce and Gran Padano cheese. The flavor combination was as good as ever, though I might have liked just a bit more of the cheese than the light dusting on our order.

We ordered main courses that suited our fancy, and they arrived in a sequence that suited the kitchen’s schedule. I mention this because it’s the way things are here; everything arrives when it’s fresh from the grill, oven, broiler, sauté pan, or cold bar. If you are sharing, this is a great way to dine since everybody focuses on things as they arrive and you can all discuss each item.

On this evening the first thing to hit the table was a pair of crispy fried chicken breasts with papaya slaw and two sauces, a house hot sauce and what was described as a preserved lemon gribiche. The hot sauce was a mix of rough-chopped chillies with garlic and vinegar, but I found the gribiche more interesting. This is usually a mayonnaise-based sauce with a tang of finely chopped pickles, and the preserved lemon added a little exotic citrusy tartness and funk. Since chicken breast is more bland and dry than dark meats like the thigh the sauces were welcome, and the gribiche was particularly good.

Our other two entrees arrived almost simultaneously, a cilantro-soy marinated skirt steak and a magnificent bowl of shrimp and grits with manchego cheese, scallions, and a mild vadouvan sauce. Vadouvan is what happened when Frenchmen experimented with curry, something they encountered in their colonies in India. It’s a mild and fragrant sauce based on South Asian seasonings, and it never occurred to me that it would go with shrimp and grits. It probably didn’t occur to anybody but the kitchen staff here, and it is a triumph.

The steak was the most straightforward item of the evening, a substantial chunk of meat marinated, grilled, and sliced, served with grilled broccolini and potatoes in Peruvian-style cheese sauce. The steak had been topped with a rough chopped salsa that accented the meat without hogging the spotlight, and the broccoli had oil, salt, chili flakes, and the flavor of the grill. It might have been a standard steakhouse item except for the tart chili-cheese sauce on the potatoes, which nevertheless fit the other flavors perfectly.

Though Abigaile is the only place in Hermosa serving beer brewed on the premises, they’re not brew-centric to the point where other beverages are an afterthought. Some members of our party ordered wine, some beer, and I cruised the cocktail menu. Everybody found something to enjoy.  I’d venture to say that many people who come here for beer don’t realize that they’re in one of the best cocktail bars in town, and given that we’re talking about Hermosa that’s high praise. The standout was the Big Bad Wolf, a rye whiskey-based item that was presented in a glass that had been filled with smoke so that it was richly aromatic. The glass was covered with a caramel apple slice to keep the scent from escaping. This is one of the finest cocktails I’ve had anywhere, and I can’t even start to explain the flavor balance. Just go there and try it.

The crowd at Abigaile is as multi-generational and as multicultural as Hermosa gets, including some people like me who remember when this address was a symbol of cultural anarchy and some who weren’t born then. As we dined, we watched the action from the quiet patio and mused on trends in art, food, and music. Abigaile has had six years as a place to celebrate some history and make more of their own, and they’re doing a fine job of it.

Abigaile is at 1301 Manhattan Avenue in Hermosa. Open Mon-Thur. 5 p.m. – 10 p.m., Fri. 5 p.m. – 10:30 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m. – 10:30 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. Validated parking in structure ($5) or street parking, wheelchair access good. Reservations recommended. (310) 798-8227. Menu at ER


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