By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Contributing Writer
Photos by RICH SCHMITT | Staff Photographer
“Do you sell birthday candles?”
That’s the only phrase you’ll really need to know to access the “secret” deli behind the closed door here at Tinfoil Liquor & Grocery on LA’s Eastside.
Unlike West Hollywood’s Laurel Hardware, Tinfoil is not a restaurant assuming its previous incarnation in name only. It is, in fact, a full-service liquor and grocery store on the corner of a popular block of Figueroa in trending Highland Park.
It must be stressed that the culinary attraction here is a high-end, to-go deli in the back of an otherwise ordinary neighborhood liquor store. Only a pair of tiny tables with stools indoors encourages any kind of lingering here with one’s food. Most people here order their sandwiches and leave, and—despite selling every stripe of hard liquor and beer under the Southern California sun—there is absolutely no drinking allowed on the premises by law.
Tinfoil is a Jeremy Fall creation. When it comes to conceptual creativity, the innovative LA restaurateur is one of the culinary scene’s most mischievous.
Shortly after Fall’s nocturnal Nighthawk Breakfast Bar made its flashy debut, he turned around this sleepy bodega into a liquor and grocery store, harboring a secret area that creates gourmet twists on classic American comfort food. The liquor store re-opened last November while the deli followed suit in December.
Tinfoil is not your traditional LA deli, and it’s not even a restaurant. Atmosphere—beyond a few wiseacre visuals, such as a painted Billy Dee Williams mural pitching Colt 45 and some retro-winking lunchboxes—is nonexistent here, but that’s by design.
As at Nighthawk, Fall’s playlist also energizes this location, with a bustling soundtrack of rap and soul: ’70s funk a la Rick James may be blaring in the background in the grocery section while Kool Moe Dee sets it off back in the deli.
Fall’s staff has been utilizing a space out of the neighboring bakery, Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, to create delicious gourmet affairs, pressed between freshly baked, baguette-like rolls. The most popular items sold here are the Roasted Turkey (#3) and Corned Beef (#4) sandwiches, followed by Roast Beef (#1) and Ham (#2).
Corned Beef is a must-try, with its flavorful fatty grist laden with Swiss and a light layer of Russian dressing, popping with a piquant sting of garlic and jalapeno. We also enjoyed the Roast Beef, tinged with a citrus-y Yuzu Kosho dressing (a salt-cured Japanese condiment made with yuzu citrus peel and chilies) and dressed with frisée. It’s a very basic and elemental variety of roast beef sandwich, but it’s also solid and effective with some depth of flavor and not too dry.
For the vegetarian in your party, order a Roasted Eggplant: a heady mix of veggies, including roasted pepper, and topped with feta. It’s a satisfying and filling sandwich, made extra scrumptious by a burst of olive tapenade inside.
There are only four sides offered at Tinfoil, but they are yummy and teeming with super fresh-tasting, high-quality—even healthy—ingredients that will make you turn your nose up at the salad bar on your next trip to Whole Foods.
Don’t go looking for fried onion rings or greasy French fries at this spot—the back room traffics in housemade cups of Macaroni Salad, which includes hard-cooked eggs, ham and chives, and Potato Salad, covered in a mustard dressing, chives and bits of bacon that is cured on site. Both of these selections are excellent accompaniments for your sandwich.
If you prefer to go green, Beet Salad is a surprisingly ambitious mix of arugula covered in beets, chevre, crema and raspberries to bright, fresh effect (not to mention visually colorful). Even better, try their Chopped Kale Salad, topped with a red wine vinaigrette, dried cranberries, sunflower seeds and an excellent selection of feta cheese.
All sandwiches here come in three sizes: a quarter loaf at $8, a half loaf at $15 and full loaf at $25. Sides come in three sizes as well, at $4, $8 and $12. Tinfoil’s menu includes some handy beer pairings with your meal, from the Firestone Walker Double Barrel Ale to accompany your Ham sandwich, to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for Roasted Eggplant or Golden Road 329 Lager with your Roasted Chicken (which here includes shaved Parmesan, arugula and a Caesar dressing).
In addition to the bottles of beer and whisky sold up front, Tinfoil has the full range of Fanta, Coca-Cola, Sprite and other sodas, should you prefer to go the non-alcohol route.
On paper, all of this back door, clandestine counter stuff may prove a bit baffling. However, before you write off Tinfoil’s gimmicky trappings as hipster pretentiousness or a pain in the butt, it’s actually pretty jokey and all in good-natured, tongue-in-cheek fun. Everyone on staff here is top-notch—friendly, down-to-earth and chill. Seriously, don’t sweat it if you forget the secret password—it’s actually posted around the liquor store and good-natured general manager Mitch DuRette will make sure you find the deli in back.
Yet, in addition to the secret password, you’ll want to be in the know about Tinfoil’s weekend culture of “secret sandwiches.” Every month, Tinfoil will list in back a limited-edition sandwich on display … or not. Sometimes, you’ll just have to ask the counter people what special incognito item they are purveying that month. Past secret sandwiches have included everything from a bratwurst to pork and chorizo to salami and pancetta.
Tinfoil’s speakeasy-style “secret” counter behind that rear closed door is a better-than-average delicatessen experience. Truthfully, the deli food here may not supplant Langer’s or a Brent’s in any diehard deli-goer’s mind, but the sandwiches here are tasty and generously proportioned; its quality ingredients (mostly Newport Meat Company products and Premier ham) rubbed and cured with care. The meat for the Pastrami sandwich here is dry-rubbed for six hours while the turkey is smoked for two hours. Roast beef is top round herb-rubbed to perfection with an hour and 30 minutes with yuzu, parsley, garlic, thyme, salt, pepper and oil.
It may be a stretch to ask a Palisadian to cross town to Highland Park for a foodie experience in a non-restaurant setting. However, the next time you’re headed to Dodger Stadium for a ballgame, dropping someone off at Union Station or en route to Pasadena, take the minor detour and hit Tinfoil for one of LA’s better sandwich experiences.
Just don’t forget to ask for birthday candles, OK?