Q&A: Mad Hungry’s Lucinda Scala Quinn Tells Us How She Eats in L.A.

My Three Sons: Lucinda Scala Quinn with her boys
My Three Sons: Lucinda Scala Quinn with her boys

We spoke with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia executive food editor Lucinda Scala Quinn “on the precipice of [her] first Umami Burger” last Friday afternoon, as she sped through Santa Monica with her son behind the wheel. Quinn was touring California to promote Mad Hungry, the Hallmark Channel cooking show that finds her breaking down family meals, a nod to Quinn’s life with three sons and a husband she still miraculously finds a minute to cook for. The last time Grub Street caught up with Quinn, she detailed everything about how she eats in New York. Today, she breaks down her past and present adventures eating through Los Angeles, touching on both the restaurants she loved and the ones wouldn’t seek seconds at, her admiration for Michael Cimarusti and trust in Jonathan Gold, while even admitting to one or two things she might actually miss when she returns to New York.

My Three Sons: Lucinda Scala Quinn with her boys

Hi Lucinda. What’s your relationship with Los Angeles like?
I don’t know it that well. I’m a real newbie and I’m constantly turned around. I’ve been here, oh gosh, five or six times maybe in the last several years. But I’m always coming in and out on a book tour or doing a story. I was here last year since my son was here for a little while, so I got a little handful of what’s going on, but then I feel like I have to start over going, ‘wait, which way are we headed?’

It’s not the easiest city to figure out in an instant.
It’s so different, so different from New York. I can’t get over not having a subway. I know this all sounds very amateurish, because there are so many bi-coastal people, but I’m just a real city girl.

Were there any L.A. restaurants you’d been dying to try?
Oh always. I mean that’s the main thing I do. In fact, my son’s here with me now and we’re having this push-and-pull because he’s tagging along on my work trip. And he always says when he’s with me that I have way too many meals. You know, I plan breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and ‘where can we get a snack and let’s have a drink,’ and he goes ‘you’re eating too much Mom!’ And I’m like ‘sweetheart you don’t understand, I have to.’ In fact, I kind of wanted to try a Father’s Office burger today. And he forced us to Umami Burger.

It’s such a range of high-low here. I was in Alaska working on a story about salmon and I met Michael Cimarusti. So last time I was in L.A., I was really focused on eating at Providence. And that was an upper, more elaborate meal than I would normally seek out, but it was kind of really amazing and I think Michael’s incredible. And on that last trip, I basically hung out at the mozzarella bar at Mozza. There’s so many things you hear about, and you go to them, and they’re kind of either a disappointment or amazing. And I thought Mozza was truly, unbelievably delicious and amazing and I loved it.

At the same time, I was down in Orange County and was seeing so many banh mi fast-food joints that were literally like hamburger joints on every corner. That was cool to me, too. And two trips ago, I’d never had an In-N-Out Burger, so I went to In-N-Out before I went for any of the kind of haute burgers.

And what did you think?
I was like, ‘This is cool, but I’d rather spend a few dollars more and go to Shake Shack.’

L.A. poses that problem to visitors. There are destination restaurants one wants to catch up with, but then one misses everyday places that really make this a great city to eat in.
Yes, and I have such little time here. Yesterday I had an interview, but we had it at Momed [in Beverly Hills]. And I could have eaten everything in that case. I mean, it had a duck shawarma. And I’m not usually a derivative girl, I like things that are pretty authentic. And I thought that dish was amazing. And everything I ate there was amazing and I loved it. And it was utility and was just like, not fancy, and I was thrilled to be eating there. Then last night, I went out on a limb a little. It against my better judgment. I went to Picca with a friend.

How was dinner?
There were a few moments of interest. But in total, I wouldn’t go back there. Everybody was super nice and I never like to speak negatively about anything, and I appreciated that the chef was there. And I learned about some new ingredients: like rococo or rocoto peppers. And I really liked the idea of like a chicken wing and a sweet potato on a yakitori stick, but there was other stuff that really wasn’t working for me. Like I was psyched about the skirt steak, but then it was just undercooked and mixed up with this wet whitish thing, and I was just like not feeling it at all. It was too uneven for me to be knocked out.

So how about any casual dining experiences while you’ve been here?
I passed a place over on Pico I want to try, an old-school Mexican place, Lares, where I was headed just now when my son got behind the wheel and said ‘we’re going to Umami Burger.’ Not that I don’t want to eat there. But that’s really the kind of food that I love.

Tonight, I’m probably headed to Park’s in Koreatown. I find myself being very confessional with Grub Street, I did the N.Y. Diet feature, it was really about the underbelly of my real life. So I’m doing interviews for my show, doing a print story with a photographer, trying to keep all my balls in the air. So in terms of reservations, I reached out to my assistant in New York, who is awesome and on it, and I said, ‘Hey, will you try to get me few reservations in L.A.’ and gave her some names. She called me back to say, ‘I have never had such attitude in trying to get reservations as I did with restaurants in L.A.”

Which was kind of interesting. It wasn’t like ‘Hey can you part the waters, I’m coming to eat there,’ but you know, ‘Hi, can we reserve a table for two at seven o’clock?’ I don’t know, maybe because of destinations. You get in the car and go there and there’s no just stopping in the way you do in New York, jumping off the subway or walking home from work. But tonight, we were on the fence between Tasting Kitchen and Honda Ya Izakaya in Downtown. And then, the other thing that I tried to get into but couldn’t, just because they’re not taking reservations, was Gjelina in Venice.

How do you generally come to learn about L.A. restaurants like that in New York?
It’s really word of mouth. The only time I use Yelp or anything like that is to cross-reference something that I’ve heard. Like the biggest thing about Picca last night, my friend was taking me there, and I was just so busy working, so if I had known that it was going to be loud and noisy and a potential hit-and-miss, I would have put the kibosh on that right away and gone to get like old-school Mexican or something like that. Or my friend wanted to take me to Giorgio’s, and you know, it’s a scene and it’s old-school, but the food is really delicious and kind of reliable, so I wish I had taken her up on that.

Of course in New York, on the television show, there are so many people I work with who live in L.A. It’s always hard for a food person, because you ask for a recommendation and they think you want to know the latest and the fanciest and the grooviest. And it takes a very unique person who understands you as a food person and an editor and a person, that what you really want is a slice of authenticity of that place you’re in. We’re driving by a restaurant right now that’s a very mid-century modern, old funky diner. It doesn’t in anyway look new. I didn’t get a chance to get the name, but I thought ‘That’s the kind of place I want to go.’

Or sometimes, I’ll talk to people who grew up in Los Angeles, and often in a more privileged setting or something. And they’ll tell you something that has to do more with low-cal salads or something. I think Jonathan Gold is a trustworthy voice. So if I’m really going to look to a reviewer, if reviewers are really people we are able to judge ourselves against because we understand where they are coming from, and I don’t even know Jonathan other than the relationship between me as a reader and him as a writer, but I know where he’s coming from and I know what to do.

Does eating out in L.A. feel inconvenient to a New Yorker?
I read so many cookbooks. I read so much media. You know where the buzz is, you know what’s going on. But it really comes down to getting a reservation, getting yourself into a car or cab or whatever, and getting there. I find it to be much more of an operation than it is in New York, where it’s ‘oh meet me at bla-bla-bla’ and ‘yeah, I’ll hop in a cab.’ It’s a much more weighted situation for me. Maybe it’s not for people who live here.

You throw a couple of drinks on that and it becomes a lot more complicated.
I was driving with my son and thought, ‘Shit, how do you have cocktails around here. Aren’t you supposed to not drink and drive?’ What’s up with this? We just fall into a cab if we have to.”

It does require a strategy and planning.
Here’s me in my reading glasses. I think I’ll just punch an address in my iPhone and then I can’t see the numbers and cars are whizzing by. I don’t know where I am, I’m parking at Umami Burger and I’m like, ‘But wait, this is Fred Segal!’ But I see a burger! So it’s a total adventure and I love adventure, no matter what roads they take.

So has there ever been anything in L.A. that you’d like to see in New York, be it a restaurant or market or style of cooking?
Oh gosh, that’s such a good question. In New York City, we don’t have…like I went to a Japanese supermarket out here that was kind of amazing. I was shopping for a friend and we don’t really have something like that.

And I’m sorry to my brethren in New York City, of which there are a few, but there’s no real Mexican happening like the way it happens here. And then, I’d have to say something about, even though I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Shake Shack fan, there’s something about eating a burger in Southern California that makes me feel like I’m in Happy Days in the fifties or something. I don’t know.

But I’m somebody who really appreciates places and things for what they are when they’re happening. We have seasonal farmers markets [in New York] and it’s got its own allure, because you’re root vegetable hunting in the winter and you’re seriously freaking out when the fruit starts hitting in June. And the Santa Monica Farmers Market is just like a ridiculous plethora of riches at all times. Just like the weather is. So I like it when I’m here, but I wouldn’t want it over there, so that’s a hard question to answer.

It’s more of a feeling thing. Last time I was here, I stayed in West Hollywood and walked to Urth Caffe for coffee. And I didn’t know it was a place that’s cool. I just thought it was a coffee place. It was like the Uggs and the mini-skirts and it wasn’t even cold out, but it was hats and coats. Still, it was really great coffee and I loved the spirit of the place. It was just like an exotic creature compared to where you’d get coffee pretty much anywhere in New York City.

Yeah, those are often the crowds to avoid to stay happy in L.A.
In general, I’m a big fan of L.A. You walk outside and feel the air and think, ‘Okay, pretty much anything that’s going to happen to me today, it’s going to feel good.’ You stay just a little happier, a little more chilled-out here. And I feel like I’m going back to like, ‘the warzone.’

Q&A: Mad Hungry’s Lucinda Scala Quinn Tells Us How She Eats in L.A.