By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
I have never lived in a small town, but the suburb of Los Angeles where I grew up felt like one. We had local heroes, like the old jazz musician who gigged with the greats and the actor who played a character called “The Great Gildersleeve” long before I was born.
There was no local sports team per se, but even people who didn’t have a child in school followed the two high school teams and could name the star players. Small town institutions can engage the same passions, which can baffle outsiders who don’t understand why a modest bar, grocery store, or café might have such enthusiastic fans.
Localities in Los Angeles still have their local favorites, as exemplified by Café Milan in Playa del Rey. I had heard from locals who patronize the place weekly, and some people had proclaimed it the best brunch in a wide radius. It’s a heavy set of expectations to put on a pleasant little coffee shop with six indoor tables and some outdoor seating facing a parking lot.
I did notice that there was a line to order on several midweek visits that were all outside of peak breakfast and lunch hours. Though the ambiance and menu lacked any resemblance to Milan, or anywhere else in Italy, they are doing something right.
On my first visit I tried a breakfast burrito, which the counterman told me was one of their most popular items. It was a pretty good burrito on most counts, but let down by salsa that I can only characterize as wimpy. I like a salsa with plenty of zip from cilantro and peppers, but this was bland and oddly flat tasting, like soup with insufficient salt.
The breakfast potatoes that came alongside were good and crisp, and the coffee was better than average – you have your choice from carafes labeled “Columbia,” “House,” or “Jet Fuel.” Since airlines are burning lots of real jet fuel just a mile south of here, I figured the restaurant would be experts on the subject, and this was strong and good.
I returned with a friend for sweet potato pancakes, a California omelet, and a sweet roll, with hot chocolate and more “jet fuel.” The hot chocolate was unfortunately made from a powder and had an odd chalky flavor, and the sweet roll was not fresh – I was surprised by the latter since I had heard that Café Milan bakes some of their own pastries. I found out that this was restricted to their cream puffs, and I resolved to try one of those the next time. Unfortunately I was never able to do so, since they were out once and the other time the oven was broken.
Things got better when our breakfasts arrived – my omelet of spinach, mushrooms, onions, cheese, and avocado was big and fluffy, and the sweet potato pancakes were very light and had a good natural flavor. We might have liked some real maple syrup to go with these, and would have paid a premium for it if given the option, but the cakes were tasty with just butter and a dusting of powdered sugar.
On my most recent visit I wanted to try a lunch item and decided to give the kitchen the best chance to show off, so I asked the man at the counter what the kitchen did best. He suggested the chicken salad sandwich – not usually a favorite item for me – but since it had come highly recommended, chicken salad it was. I had the choice of soup or salad, and when he told me the soup was Peruvian-style chicken, I opted for that.
The man behind the counter knew his stuff. They make a very good chicken salad here – not a fancy version with curry, raisins, nuts, or some of the other modern permutations, but the classic. It’s the homemade taste of a thousand past picnics, with mayo, celery salt, and other mild seasonings. The ample portion was served on wheat toast with tomato and lettuce, and it really was a good sandwich. As for the soup, the cilantro-seasoned broth had the spicy kick that had been missing from the salsa at breakfast, and it was delicious.
It took a couple visits, but I found my favorite meal at Café Milan. I also found something else to like – the unpretentious atmosphere of a place where most people who came in were greeted by name. Café Milan has the small-town friendliness that counts for a lot, and I could return for more of that, and for a cream puff if their oven is fixed by then.
Café Milan is at 205 Culver Blvd. in Playa del Rey. Open daily 6 a.m. – 6 p.m. Patio or indoor dining, no alcohol, children welcome. 310-306-0059.