Under the Rainbow
There’s no place like Auntie Em’s, a culinary cottage in Eagle Rock with a chef-owner who’s a former punk rocker.
By Bradley Tuck 01/01/2012
Strange as it may seem, the late Karen Carpenter and I have something in common. Rainy days and Mondays sometimes get me down. And so it was that on a recent gloomy day, I set out in search of a café in which to brood quietly and warm the cockles of my heart, so to speak. With the rain pouring from the edge of my umbrella and down my collar, I strode purposefully down Eagle Rock Boulevard to Auntie Em’s Kitchen. As I passed the seemingly random arrangement of businesses on the street --- a bike shop here, a hairdresser there, a shop that looked like a home, selling records and CDs — I got to thinking: L.A. is a lot like the celebrities that populate it; they look great when they’re made up and primped for the camera, but much like those actors spotted sans makeup on a Sunday coffee dash, the city sure is ugly without her sunshine.
Anyway, standing out from the grey fug was Auntie Em’s. Raindrops had gathered on the bright vinyl tablecloths on the empty tables in front of the café. But I could see through the window that it was packed with people.
You enter a small bright room lined with food-related gifty things --- cookbooks, plates, glasses, preserves. The market was opened a year ago by owner Terri Wahl to sell, as she describes it, “unique, artisanal food-related products --- basically stuff that I like. Other people seem to like it too, thankfully!” Wahl is a self-taught cook who opened Auntie Em’s Kitchen in 2002, after honing her skills in catering for four years. She got into catering after a long stint in the music business as Louise Lee Outlaw, playing guitar and singing in the all-female punk band The Red Aunts. “I got tired of sleeping on floors,” she says. “I decided I needed an actual career, didn’t want to go back to school and I knew how to cook.”
Her punk-rock sensibility is perfect for Eagle Rock, where she lives now. The café’s interior and staff sport a bright, homespun look with an edge. I took a table, and my server walked up. “Want a drink?” she asked. I ordered a diet cola. I was given a Virgil’s. No Coke or Pepsi establishment here. When I asked about the chicken sandwich on the menu, she explained that it was a chicken roasted whole, then pulled apart. Like chicken pulled pork, I guess. Sounded amazing. “It comes on ciabatta, but it’s so big you won’t be able to get your mouth around it.” She suggested alternative bread choices, and in the end gave me both a French roll and a country bread. I was grateful. The heaps of roast chicken and salad pouring over the sides attracted the attention of a patron at another table. “How the heck are you going to eat that?” she asked, eyes widening. If she’d been wearing a monocle it would have created a cinematic moment when it dropped out.
I also got a cup of split pea and ham soup. For a moment, the rain went away, and Rainy Days and Mondays was replaced with Top of the World. A few cilantro leaves brightened it all up, a touch I wouldn’t have thought of. The menu changes seasonally, with specials highlighting what’s local and outstanding at the market. Wahl keeps chickens and grows produce at home for her own table. So she’s acutely aware of what’s in season and wants the menu to reflect that. She even offers a home delivery service for farmers market produce.
On the way out, after saying goodbye to my server, who by now knew my name, I bought a chocolate brownie to go from the cake counter. Wahl’s biggest sellers are the cupcakes. She started making them nine years ago, way ahead of the cupcake curve. She makes a giant cupcake for two to share, “although people invariably eat a whole one by themselves.” For Valentine’s Day, she makes heart-shaped chocolate cakes and cookies. Those can be shared or eaten alone. Nobody’s judging you.
I took my chocolate-walnut brownie and popped up the street to Colorado Wine Company for a pairing recommendation. “A tawny port would be wonderful,” said owner Jennifer Morgan. “I don’t buy into the ‘red wine with chocolate’ thing. I feel chocolate overpowers red, but a good dessert wine or a port, that would work.” I had a lovely port waiting at home, and that evening port and chocolate were wed in a ceremony witnessed by one. I love to cry at weddings.