NAKED LUNCHES

My day as a strip club food critic

 

BY COREY LEVITAN

      Pay me to eat? Pretty much the only deal sweeter would be cash per number of hours slept.

      No, I've got another: Pay me to eat while watching beautiful women dance unclothed.

      Renowned L.A. food critic Merrill Shindler agreed to coach me on how to do his job. Unfortunately for him, he let me pick the establishments.

      "I don't get what you're trying to do," he says. "Who goes to a strip club for the food? Are you being serious?"

      Shindler, like some of my best friends, has never read this column. He says he has no free time. He hosts a food show on 97.1 KLSX-FM (5-7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays) and also edits the Southern California edition of Zagat Survey. (It's pronounced Za-GOT, not ZAG-git, he reports, since no one ever seems to know.)

       "Just please, no jokes about strip steak in your article," he says.

      Our first lunchtime subject is located along the angriest streets of downtown Los Angeles. As we pass landmarks such as the Homeboy Industries warehouse, Shindler provides some food-critiquing basics: 1) "Don't arrive at a restaurant hungry. Then you won't do your imitation of a Hoover when the bread basket comes."2) "Get a copy of the menu, so you can take notes on it."3) "Be inconspicuous. You don't want people looking at you, going, 'What's he writing down?'"

       We enter the Silver Reign as Shindler's voice echoes in my head. It sounds a little like Elmer Fudd as "The Nanny."

      Something on the reception desk has me terrified. It's a Burger King bag. How safe can a free buffet advertised in the paper be if the employees won't eatit?

      "Actually, the buffet doesn't start until next week," says a young man in a mortician's suit.

      Number 4) on Shindler's list: "Call the establishment before you waste your time going there."

      Shindler got into the restaurant-rating racket after relocating to L.A. from his native San Francisco in 1979.

       "I went to a party and met the food editor at the old L.A. Herald Examiner," he recalls. "She started telling me how she hated her job. She hated going out of the house and eating.

       "I said, 'I don't know. It sounds like fun.'"

      After this column, Shindler may be back in San Francisco.

      "Can I help you?" asks Gia, a short but stunning young brunette with dangerous curves and silky olive skin. She is attempting to interrupt my professional investigation of the hot tins of sausages, pasta and tacquitos at the nearby Playpen.

      A blonde woman resembling the pre-Hollywood Courtney Love simultaneously sneaks up to Shindler and rubs his chest from behind, in time to the beat of Billy Idol's "Cradle of Love."

       We are being hit up for lap dances, which cost $40 and are administered in curtained-off booths at the rearof the bar.

      Imagine an airport that's entirely empty except for you and the local Hare Krishna chapter. That's pretty much how marked you feel when you're the only patrons in a strip club.

      People don't go to see strippers during the day; that's why free buffet lunches are offered to try and entice them to.

      "Do you know if this pasta has any meat in it?" I ask Gia, since I seem to have her attention.

      Although dim light can help exotic dancers appear more attractive, it doesn't do the same for ravioli. I can't make out what's in it.

       Fess-up time: I'm a vegetarian. Not since 1985 haveI eaten red meat, poultry or fish. It's one of the manyreasons I was asked to move to California by my fellownative New Yorkers.

       But being a veggie isn't as big an obstacle as it would seem to my latest career tryout. When necessary, I could be the Joel Siegel of food reviewing. (A ringing endorsement would go to whatever I'm not really qualified to comment on.)

      "Any meat?" Gia parrots my question, shrugging, before disappearing to ask someone who knows about such wimpy matters.

      "That's not something they probably get asked too much around here," Shindler says.

      Whatever's in the ravioli, it's obviously been cooked a very long time. The serving spoon cuts through it like a scalpel through Michael Jackson's nose.

       But al dente is probably not what you want in an establishment whose exposed surfaces are frequently danced upon. In fact, if there are two places you want your food cooked a very long time, it's Cedars-Sinai and here.

      I return to my seat with a Styrofoam plate of white rice and potato chips to review. That's OK. I have some expertise in this dish. I ate it every Thanksgiving at my aunt Anna's house as a fledgling vegetarian, after she unsuccessfully chased me around the dining room with a turkey.

      Here goes my first restaurant review...

       The rice at the Playpen is perfect, not sticky and not soupy. The potato chips are oily yet crisp, and seem to ...

       Hang on. There's a banana around somewhere. Bananas are my kryptonite. I don't know what it is about them, but they impose their taste on every food item within a half-kitchen radius. I can tell when something has been in a fridge for only 12 minutes alongside the pesky monkey fruit. It'll reek from bananafication.

      I don't even like shopping in Banana Republics.

      A-ha! Adjacent to the potato chips are bins of fruit -- apples, grapes and (lo and behold) bananas.

      "Why don't you like bananas?" Shindler asks. "They're vegetarian."

      One thing I hate almost as much as bananas is people who won't allow me to hate them.

      When Gia returns, she takes Shindler behind a curtain. Amid the banana fiasco, I nearly forgot that I secretly paid her $40 to give him an ambush lap dance.

      Shindler goes along willingly; he isn't as much of a fuddy-duddy as I hoped. In fact, I discover later on, he interviewed Meat Loaf before eating it for a living. He was an editor at Rolling Stone in the late '70s. That makes him part of the staff portrayed in "Almost Famous."

       "I thought she was going to show me the kitchen," Shindler says when he emerges from his lap dance room. "I swear!"

      Shindler is married, a fact which he reminds himself often out loud during this adventure.

      On its Web site, the Body Shop advertises a free lunch buffet consisting of "a variety of appetizers & healthy food."

      That sure is an interesting way to describe three half-eaten Domino's pizzas and a box of Buffalo wings.

      "How's the food?" asks Meliah, who is also angry at the lack of attention we're paying the talent. Her breasts and thighs dangle over Shindler's wings from the stage. Cue my next review...

       The pizza at the Body Shop is cold and isn't even theirs...

       "Still," Shindler interrupts my tape-recording, "at least you know where it's from."

       As a reviewer, Shindler is not exactly known for lambasting L.A.'s lamb basters. Any negative comment he makes is typically followed up with a positive one.

      "I used to be a real hard-ass when it came to being critical," he explains. "But you come to understand that it's someone's life you're talking about, so you try not to be overly harsh."

      He'll name names regarding his absolute worst experience only because the Atomic Café in Little Tokyo is long-closed.

      "Mr. Roach was sitting right there in the noodle soup," he says, fairly certain that he didn't order roach ramen.

      So he requested another soup.

      "It only occurred to me afterwards that they probably gave it to me from the same pot the roach had been sitting in for hours," Shindler says. 

     Our tour of naked lunch buffets swings down to the South Bay, where we're joined by photographer Branimir Kvartuc. Since he needs to get a camera in the door and shoot, we alert the management at Inglewood's Wild Goose who we are.

      When we try to pay for food, our money is refused. We are face-to-face with the tough issue of freebies. Should food critics ever accept them?

       Will special treatment influence our reviews?

      I try recalling the standards Homer Simpson held himself to in that episode where he reviewed restaurantsfor The Springfield Shopper. But all I can remember is the local chefs banding together in the end to plot his death.

       Unfortunately for my dilemma, the Wild Goose's menu boasts both not only a garden burger, but also a soy burger. This is not unlike what heaven would be like for me -- only the lap dances would be comped, too.

      When the food arrives, it does not disappoint...

       The soy burger at the Wild Goose is a hottub party for the tastebuds. I haven't tasted anything so hearty since my meat days.

       OK, the hottub metaphor sucks. And the burger probably tastes so good because it's slathered in meat grease from the grill. (According to the veggie rulebook, as long as a vegetarian can plausibly pretend not to be eating meat, it's OK.) Nevertheless, this place rocks. While our other destinations were strip clubs that happen to serve food, this was primarily a restaurant (where employees happen to take their clothes off).

      "I wouldn't worry about it," Shindler says of my moral quandary. "It's the same food. Knowing who we are is not gonna change the food they have one bit.

       "That kitchen does what that kitchen does."

      Selling my soul demands a drink. But the Jet Strip in Lennox can't serve alcohol by law, since its dancers get completely naked, not just topless. I order a fake beer as we watch the fake breasts, followed by a plate of raw veggies.

      Everything here is also comped for us.

      Shindler orders a club sandwich. He reports that the meat tastes fake, too.

      "But at least it looks nice," he says, adding his trademark positive comment. "Someone put effort into creating this sandwich."

      If Shindler covered current events, I could just imagine the reportage: "Osama bin Laden is a very, very bad guy.

      "But you can't say he doesn't make exciting tapes."

      Hmm. My veggies have a familiar odor.

      Bananas again! This time my plate contains actual chunks of them! I ordered raw veggies.

      ON WHAT PLANET IS BANANA A VEGGIE?

      Looks like I'm going to get my shot at proving that freebies don't influence my food criticism. Here it goes...

      The...

      Oops, hang on. My cell phone is ringing. It's our photographer, and he's pleading with me about something.

      "Make sure not to go hard on the Jet Strip," Kvartuc says. "I made some friends there after you guys left, if you know what I mean.

      "Please?"

      Meat, guilt, bananas.

      Maybe food criticism isn't my thing.

 

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