8.72

8.72: PBJ.LA

PBJ.LA at Grand Central Market is evidence of the insufferable aesthetic produced and reproduced by today's most virulent invasive species: the tech industry. Photo by Dan Johnson.

PBJ.LA at Grand Central Market is evidence of the insufferable aesthetic produced and reproduced by today's most virulent invasive species: the tech industry. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

I saw an Eater LA article recently in which the brain trust over at PBJ.LA, Grand Central Market’s posh peanut butter and jelly eatery, griped about Yelp shelving four and five star reviews that could salvage their otherwise lackluster online presence.

The punitive screed came in the same week that Hillary Clinton announced she wasn’t beyond challenging the legitimacy of the 2016 election. Weirdly, I had the same basic reaction to both statements.

In each case the challenger is right—the institution in question is flawed, skewed, corrupt, shitty and broken. Yet, simultaneously, I can’t help but wish each would stop talking.

Hill, thank you for your service. You will never be president. I’m sorry. It’s over. You were the one person on either side of the political spectrum that people would go to polls just to vote against. I appreciate what you’re saying and the way you’ve conducted yourself since the drubbing. Legitimately, you got robbed. Please walk away.

Similarly, PBJ.LA, I’m sorry that Yelp is a festering asshole that makes it easy for some of the shallowest, most intellectually bankrupt and entitled trolls in our already boot-fucked society to digitally vandalize your business. That’s got to be frustrating. Especially after you pay for the service of filtering out shitty reviews. With that in mind, you sell peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Nuance is a lost art. Ours is, after all, an age where people love to use the partisan sledgehammer when the state of affairs calls for a scalpel. It’s important that we all develop a knack for splitting hairs. It’s the only answer when the rhetorical poles have become magnets for lazy thinking and other manifestations of degeneracy.

In keeping with that modus operandi, I went to Grand Central Market where Downtown’s “foodie destination” has helped reinvent culinary privilege and gestation status with a decade long remake that has yielded mixed fruit.

I do a lot of head shaking when I stroll through GCM. There’s some truly great food to be had for often egregious amounts of money. Still, you can nab a pupusa or tacos or some China Café with a short stack of dollar bills. There’s hope.

On the opposite side of the spectrum are businesses that I can’t really fathom. I come from the Dr. Ian Malcolm school of life. There’s a difference between can and should. It seems like a lot of “concepts” at Grand Central fall into the dubious category of the former.

Like Little Damage, I feel as if PBJ.LA is a business that was crafted to capitalize on Instagram culture and the irrational fear of missing out that causes mentally feeble consumers to spend a lifetime in dutiful servitude to tastes foisted on them by vapid bloggers and food svengalis in unwitting conformity to a culture staked in fostering envy.

Still, there’s merit here. I can honestly say that the Old Fashioned peanut butter and jelly sandwich I ate yesterday was amazing. Truly. Blew me right the fuck away. It’s made from salted pecan butter, apple jam, angostura bitters and orange zest. Yes, it tastes like the drink. The bread is a nutritionally wanting generic white that is crimped and de-crusted before being wrapped in purple and white paper for serving. It is easily the finest three dollar peanut butter and jelly sandwich I will ever taste.

You like this sandwich. Trust me. Your Instagram followers like this sandwich too. Now hand over the money. Photo by Dan Johnson.

You like this sandwich. Trust me. Your Instagram followers like this sandwich too. Now hand over the money. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Unfortunately, it costs seven dollars. Again, I understand that rent is sky high in GCM and labor costs more (rightfully so) than it used to and good ingredients require investment. I get all of that.

What I can’t process is why anyone would habitually frequent a peanut butter and jelly stand to spend the ten-plus bucks it takes to get full here. It’s not like this is a difficult thing to manufacture in one’s own home.

With all due respect to a tasty albeit skimpy sandwich and the culinary reputation of PBJ.LA creator and erstwhile Umami guru Adam Fleischman, this is exactly the sort of bad optics that feeds accusations of out-of-touch liberal elites whose callous disassociation with any objective reality lends credence to the notion that our world is being commodified out of existence.  

This seven-dollar sandwich represents thirty five minutes of minimum wage labor in Los Angeles. Then it’s gone. Nothing left. Just residual hunger and the promise of a future bowel movement. Also, the lingering fear that nothing with ever satisfy our voracious lusts for the radical experiences we think we want and work hard to achieve before realizing that they are nothing but a temporary reprieve from the gnawing void that is life in a society where the novel and unfulfilling are inherently conflated with the substantial just because someone says so.

As the recipient of a slew of daily press releases from people who want me to feel enthusiastically about the disposable cultural product they’re pushing, I am familiar with the careful employment of jargon to manipulate supposed tastemakers into creating a favorable profile as if their client is going to radically alter the course of life on earth.

I recognize Adam Fleischman’s game. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a chef in Los Angeles. It’s just not enough to do good food anymore. You have to actively fabricate a narrative around your food that justifies cost with a larger experience. We’re not just eating food. We’re tasting evolution here, folks.

Fleischman is a master at the presser. Amy Scattergood over at LA Times is similarly gifted at balancing the enthusiasms of restaurateurs with a subtle side-eyed sense of the absurd. Her article on PBJ.LA has an appropriately nauseating title (The guy who brought you Umami Burger wants to reinvent PB&J) that serves both susceptible customers and other, more discerning skeptics who are tired of this shit.

The best quote she pulls from Fleischman’s profile is “we’re trying to create disruptive products.” Wow. That’s a buzzword that doubles as a dog whistle for the moneyed tech crowd re-populating West Coast cities. It’s so goddam astute, I can’t even fault Fleischman for saying it.

It gives you a good idea of where the money is in today’s society. It’s bilking the tech set of their hard-earned IPO cash with the promise of helping them reinvent a childhood that was either ruthlessly banal or fucked up enough to push them into coding or corporate finance in the first place.

PBJ.LA's tone deaf attempt to "reinvent" the PB&J as a "disruptive" product begs the questions "why does the PB&J need to be reinvented?" and "why are you disrupting my sanity?" Photo by Dan Johnson.

PBJ.LA's tone deaf attempt to "reinvent" the PB&J as a "disruptive" product begs the questions "why does the PB&J need to be reinvented?" and "why are you disrupting my sanity?" Photo by Dan Johnson.

I’m not a luddite or a nostalgia sycophant by any means. I don’t believe that old necessarily equals better. I just want Los Angeles (and really society at large) to have more nice things that aren’t two-dimensional gimmicks or brazen money-making schemes.

Anyway, you know the rules. It was under $8.72 and even though it was nowhere near filling, the Old Fashioned PB&J did not make me shit myself. So I award PBJ.LA a “1” on the binary.

I would also like to single out the tattooed fellow who works the counter there while also holding down a job at Mel’s Deli. I’ve encountered him twice in the past week. Each time, he’s been genuine, gregarious and professional. He is a gem. He deserves good things from the service industry gods. Bless you. Five stars.