Japanese Food Crawling in LA With The Simpsons' Matt Selman
You may not immediately recognize the name Matt Selman, but chances are you're familiar with his show, The Simpsons. The executive producer and writer of the 2011 food-centric episode "The Food Wife", and the founder of The Beefsteak, an annual charity meatstravaganza held in downtown's vaulted Vibiana space, Selman is a name that food folks might do well to remember.
On a recent weekday afternoon, we food-crawled our way along Sawtelle Boulevard, perhaps LA's densest dining strip, pausing for a plate of Japanese curry, a bowl of Los Angeles' finest tsukemen ramen, and a mounded plate of shaved snow cream. Selman is a man who likes to eat well, as evidenced by his food-focused Twitter @mattselmaneats, but doesn't want to social media you to death about it. The whole foodie movement is actually pretty silly, if you ask him, as he snaps a photo of his entree before plowing in.
Along the way, Selman discussed some helpful tips for anyone looking to gorge on food, how he came to be a judge at this year's Cochon 555, and what we can all expect to be talking about when the zombie apocalypse comes.
Our first stop was Hurry Curry of Tokyo. "You always want to have the thing that a place is famous for," Selman says before ordering the fried chicken and corn spaghetti that's been specially annotated on the menu. There's also a bowl of thick brown curry, of course, with more breaded and fried chicken on the side. As for bread basket itself, Selman says he rarely touches the stuff. "I find meats and fats to be more satisfying, but what do I know? Besides, my wife is gluten-free, like all wives," he jokes. "It's against the law for your wife to eat gluten, apparently."
There are exceptions, however. "The Simpsons writers went to Bay Cities for lunch yesterday, and all the writers also got a loaf of bread, because it's so good. That is good gluten. It's not some dry bread you just eat because you're bored." He thinks for a moment. "What about jicama? Jicama would be a good bread replacement at restaurants. You're just bored, so you want something lazy to chew on."
Which brings us pretty quickly to The Beefsteak, an annual charity bacchanal of food, drink, and proper dress run by Selman, Neal Fraser, television producer Cort Cass, and comedian Eric Wareheim. The Beefsteak menu is meaty enough to give you gout just from reading it, but Selman says it could have been worse. "Beefsteaks were fun, political fundraising events held at the turn of the century. You'd show up and get an apron, and they would just serve thick slices of tenderloin and brisket and bread, and you would just go nuts...We made a lot of concessions for our Beefsteak, actually. Now there are fancy drinks and passed appetizers and vegetables. We also invite women, minorities, and gay people; anyone other than just fat old white men. But one thing I will not bend on: no silverware, no plates, no napkins. You can't bend on the mess."
Of course, tagging along with Selman's Twitter feed will tell you that The Beefsteak isn't the only food festival he attends, although his name doesn't automatically open doors. "I had to force them to let me be a judge this year at Cochon 555," he laughs. "I don't really get invited to places." On a recent trip to Napa, Selman also resorted to pulling some strings to land a table at French Laundry. "It was really terrific, though that type of meal isn't really cutting edge anymore. It would have been interesting to go there in the 90's, when they were inventing it all."
Even with bellies loaded up with chicken, rice, and the odd plate of fried chicken spaghetti, it's a short walk up Sawtelle to the hallowed ground of Tsujita Annex for a bowl of their tsukemen ramen. And since it was Selman's first time, he couldn't resist snapping a photo or two. Is it a compulsion at this point? "Oh, 100%. Are you kidding? It's embarrassing to take a picture of food at a restaurant. It's humiliating... but still, what does it even mean to be a foodie, or food snob, or food asshole, or whatever? I never know what it means. I guess it's just a hobby," he says. Or, rather, a conquest.
"I do think the male brain loves checklists, badges, and achievements. Think about wanting to get every baseball card, or get every Star Wars figure. Your brain applies that to food as well, like the Jonathan Gold Best Restaurant list. I want to have eaten at all of them, and then what? I can tell my wife? What does she care?" To put it more bluntly: "The modern male doesn't really have anything to conquer anymore, so we conquer food trucks. It's the final frontier."
That doesn't mean eating everything in sight, though. While slurping thick ramen noodles, Selman notes that his "mentor in all things" is Phil Rosenthal, the sitcom showrunner most famous for creating Everybody Loves Raymond. "He's very trim, but also eats well. He says that you have to constantly balance your regular eating and your gorging. Like, this morning I ran five miles, so I could really go nuts if I wanted to," he says. But even when you've eaten healthy all week, run laps, and mentally prepared yourself for a day of excessive eating, things don't always turn out the way you expected.
"The thing that always kind of bums you out is when you go to a place and you eat a lot, and it's ends up being all middle-of-the road stuff," says Selman. "For example, a restaurant that's not for me is Rocksugar Pan-Asian Kitchen. I will rarely speak out against a restaurant, but to me that place is ridiculous. How can a place be good that serves every kind of Asian cuisine? They've got pho, they've got dumplings, they've got sushi, they've got tempura, they've got satay, they've got curry. I've eaten there, and everything's deep-fried or coated in a sugary glaze. Obviously, having to eat there is a good problem to have. Not to sound like a snob, but I'd rather have a smoothie than eat a lot at a place that's just greasy crapola."
That last line about smoothies is delivered with bowl of fatty ramen in hand, on top of the rice, fried chicken, and curry—surely enough to count as gorging, but there's always room for dessert, right? Bypassing the cream puffs at Beard Papa's, Selman opts instead for Blockhead's Shavery for a final pile of snow cream. For the uninitiated, Japanese or Taiwanese snow cream is a finely shaved cold dessert that marries the creaminess of ice cream with the crystallized texture of traditional shave ice. Suddenly feeling healthy, Selman opts to split a bowl of black sesame, but the mound that actually arrives could easily serve the whole storefront.
Working through the uniquely textured snow cream, Selman notes the speed with which certain ethnic foods have become mainstream. "But for every specific regional cuisine [that breaks through], there's always something even more obscure out there. In the game of food, you can always go deeper," he says. "It's important not to get obsessed about the things you didn't get to do. Just make your friends and have fun."