8.72

8.72: Saffron

Saffron is one of many whitewashed food options in Bunker Hill's California Plaza. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Saffron is one of many whitewashed food options in Bunker Hill's California Plaza. Photo by Dan Johnson.

by Dan Johnson

Bunker Hill is a Downtown booster’s wet dream.

Look at all the fancy buildings! Look at the art and fine dining! Kids learn to play the piccolo here. There’s a park! Don’t forget theatre or the ubiquitous water features that remind even the most dimwitted that Bunker Hill is a place of privilege in a desert.

To read promo articles about the Downtown revival is to entertain the idea that Bunker Hill, with its untarnished prosperity, is indicative of a larger trend toward utopia.

Maybe someday. Just not today. Because the glittering thoroughfare above Downtown proper is less the product of mankind overcoming its primal flaws as it is a lesson in the value of private security.

Distortion aside, Bunker Hill is a museum for a serendipitous collusion of fascinating and beneficial historical processes. First and foremost, geology—by what strange surge of earth and fractured tectonic choreography did the planet deign to elevate this plot of ground above all others?

Next, it’s well to consider a Victorian era housing boom and its preference for ephemeral wood construction and susceptibility to class-oriented population shifts. Unravel that social knot and you’ll find yourself one step closer to understanding why a once flourishing neighborhood with it’s own funicular choo-choo train could be dismantled and the hilltop itself lopped off.

Of course, if you’ve gone down that rabbit hole, you may want to ponder political brinkmanship within the city of Los Angeles during the mid-20th century when elites of a certain old-money class reestablished their sensibility by enshrining the city’s creative institutions (with naming rights, of course) on Downtown’s highest peak.

Bunker Hill still towers above Downtown even though its redevelopment - one of the nation's largest eminent domain land seizures ever - chopped off its top half. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Bunker Hill still towers above Downtown even though its redevelopment - one of the nation's largest eminent domain land seizures ever - chopped off its top half. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Let’s not get too caught up in the immediate. The Post-War Japanese economy’s eventual boom in the 1980s created a bubble of available capital that shrewd investors from the Land of the Rising Sun were eager to sink into American real estate. Enter California Plaza. To tour that watery, lunchtime plaza today is to remain largely ignorant to the magnificent dramas that have unfolded to bring in into being. Yet, there is one large human phenomenon that is unavoidable: the fine tuned practice of whitewashing the living shit out of anything that comes within close contact of the worker bees that keep that money machine rolling along.

In California Plaza, you can find food from just about any ethnicity—there are Banh Mi Sandwiches and French Onion Soup and Poké and Ranch with Romaine Salad Bowls and Short Ribs and an ark of similar culinary delights. None of which retain the prickly flavor (or possibility of diarrhea) that comes with experiencing a foreign culture at its rawest level.

What you receive in California Plaza is world cuisine with the sharp edges shaved off and possibly added back on later for an obscene upcharge.

Zero complaints. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, even if everything costs five to ten dollars more than it would elsewhere. This is Trump’s America © now. Even if it were Hillary’s America ©, we would still be operating under a free market fantasy where just about everything under the sun could be justified by the invisible hand of supply and demand.

In light of that, you’ll excuse me if I enjoy my $8.01 single entrée bowl from Saffron. It’s fast. It’s fresh. It’s Indian ™.

Dig this hippies—make your way past the glut of hiply lit, single word bearing food options and plop your cash down on the counter at Saffron and they’ll order up your choice of Chicken Tikka Masala, Channa Masala, Chicken Curry, Peeli Daal or Saag Paneer.

Help yourself to free mint chutney or chili sauce—you’ll want maximum flavor, because this bowl is about to reveal to you the very essence of your world. You’ll want to properly drizzle and mix your lunch (sorry kids: 11am to 4pm, Monday through Friday only…stop hanging round here at night) while an army of button-down functionaries speak in hushed towns about the economic repercussions of our idiot electorate ®. I went with the Saag Paneer. It’s spicy spinach done up in Indian cheese. The content is unimportant. What you’re looking for is the head rush of flavors. That’s the reason for the season.

Imagine yourself in 15th century London. It’s comparatively empty because people keep dying from the plague faster than they can bone to reproduce. Your civilization is still trotting out barley and cod like it’s the next best thing. Meanwhile, when someone says, “hey, I’m going to grab some spices” you look at them like they’re insane because 1. they’re talking about salt (singular) and 2. it’s far too expensive for their peasant asses.

Then one day someone brings black pepper in a boat. Eventually there’s cayenne and cinnamon and nutmeg and coriander and turmeric and cumin. You wouldn’t believe the power that taste can exert over a person or a society as a whole. Beyond foolhardy religious ecstasy, intoxicating flavors were that first glimpse at escape. The world became infinitely smaller in the Age of Discovery when Europe began reaching back towards the Far East and the Silk Road to possess and distribute tastes that perturbed, if only for ten minutes at a time, the nagging drudgery of everyday shitty life.

It justified global colonialism. It legitimized racial hierarchies. It established standing navies and mercantile prominence and specie currency reserves to ensure that trade would not be disturbed. That’s the paradigm we live in. Because human beings would dedicate their entire lives to the pursuit of escapes—be they meth or a delicious eight dollar Indian meal from the sanitized joint beneath your vertical prison—than confront the fact that life can be a depressing affair.

That’s the breeze we all sail on. It leads to wondrous revelations and rocky shoals alike.

Saag Paneer from Saffron, where through flavor you can escape the mundane atop Bunker Hill. Photo by Dan Johnson.

Saag Paneer from Saffron, where through flavor you can escape the mundane atop Bunker Hill. Photo by Dan Johnson.

I came out about even at Saffron. The bowl wasn’t exactly a gut-busting primer in filling value, but I was able to swipe some Mint Chutney for myself. I went home, turned on the oven, stuck my head in put in a rack of tofu chicken fingers and dipped those phony tendrils liberally into the chutney for a most admirable post-meal snack.

I’m super fucking sad about life right now because I feel like we will perpetually allow ourselves to be ensnared by a deceptive and fleeting indulgence of the pleasure principle rather than face our own emptiness, but who the fuck am I to complain because I’m just as much a part of the material and spiritual mechanism that demands constant expansion towards horizons of new consumption mostly happy.

I award Saffron a “1” on the binary and politely suggest they stop mad-dogging me for filling up my water cup with soda water. It’s not Sprite. OK?