LA Spice Cafe Continues Sought-After Legacy

The award-winning LA Spice Catering Company located in Los Angeles and servicing much of southern California recently hit another home run with their newest development after more than 25 years of being in the business: LA Spice Cafe. The neighborhood-centric wholesome and hearty restaurant was started by the catering company's CEO and founder, LeAnne Schwartz, a little more than a year ago and has already become a community favorite. It's a joint that promotes a casual feel to gourmet food, welcoming others to give their breakfast and lunch dishes a try and inviting guests to get a little more healthiness for their buck.

LA Spice Cafe also fits right into the Culver City puzzle (where it's located) which is currently being reworked to revitalize the area and bring people in. City council members can frequently be spotted here for breakfast meetings. The restaurant features a seasonal menu with fresh ingredients and a slight spin to classics that don't detract too much from what others are used to; don't be afraid of getting experiments here! Just expect great food. We sat down one Saturday morning to speak with Chef Chris DeVillier, learn about what drives the menu, and taste what made the whole company as successful as it is.

The restaurant is set up to accommodate customers who want to grab and go as well as those who want to settle down for a plated meal. Orders are done up front at the counter after one passes by the oh-too-tempting fresh pastry table and stands next to the cold desserts display. The menu primarily focuses on breakfast and lunch items, and some of the favorites here are the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes, Ariba Chilaquiles, and Over the Top Half Pound Burger. We appreciated seeing that they pay attention to their sourcing as well, using vegetarian-fed and humanely-raised Niman Ranch Beef and nitrate-free Nueske Bacon. They are strict with their produce, using only items in their peak season and attempting to choose as Californian as possible.

The Executive Chef is Chris DeVillier who joined the company to helm the new restaurant project as well as contribute his creativity to the catering company. His own experience stems from 25+ years of being in the culinary world including once being the lead culinary consultant and associate producer for Master Chef USA. What a strong addition to the group! We were most impressed by his genuine passion for food that shone throughout our talk. Originally from Texas, he has traveled and worked throughout the world, bringing those experiences onto the plates of his consumers and contributing new perspectives. We could see, however, that the southern roots did not stray too far from Chef as a lot of the menu took on a southern influence. I had absolutely no problem with that!

What inspires you to come up with these dishes?"I grew up in the South and my family was very Cajun with lots of butter, lots of cream. I'll now take up my grandmother's recipes like buttermilk biscuits but whereas she used to make hers with lard, I don't. I also love doing a lot of Italian and Spanish foods, have managed a couple of Mexican restaurants, and have cooked in Spain and Ireland. My favorites are those - Spanish, Italian, and Mediterranean."
What struck and impressed us was how hearty, filling, and flavorful the dishes were, especially for a mealtime which is typically thought of as "BIG" when one eats out. The "Big American" breakfast of loaded potatoes, eggs, and bacon can't be found here. There are plenty of vegan and vegetarian options. Everything is fresh but yet comforting; it's a good meal with "healthy options that aren't 2,000 calories at 8 in the morning." Chef even mentioned an employee at LA Spice Cafe who medically has a restricted diet and is still able to eat every single day off of their menu.
Do you have a favorite breakfast meal?
"Breakfast burritos. I love them. I grew up as a kid in Texas, moved to the Northwest, and went to college in Seattle. Growing up, we would always have breakfast burritos and Mexican-influenced foods so in Seattle, when I started my first job, I brought the breakfast burrito to them. Back in '89, no one other than Texas had the breakfast burrito."
Seeing as breakfast burritos are his favorite, we had to order Chef's own Breakfast Burrito ($7.50 - Eggs, Red Bliss Potatoes, Fire Roasted Peppers and Onions, Kick Ass Sauce and Cheddar Cheese in a Spinach Tortilla. Add Chorizo or Nueske Bacon $1.95) off the menu. There was no chorizo available that morning but even so, the gargantuan was a pleasure. The potatoes came not only large and chunky in the burrito but also crispy on the side, a mound of smoky, starchy goodness that solidified "breakfast" in our minds. The burrito was hefty and packed a lot of varying components that married together well in the embrace of a soft, vegetal tortilla. Be warned that you might not be able to finish it all yourself!
How often do you update the menu?"I can't update it too much. A lot of the menu stays the same because this isn't a fine dining place and I'm not sure our clients will try it. I'm doing an Italian themed event soon so I'll put up wild boar meatballs to see if they'll go for that. We had tongue here but didn't have many tryers so I changed it to lengua to hide what it was."
Though Chef Chris usually reserves the experimentation to the catering side of the business, on occasion he will test new dishes at the restaurant. We were guinea pigs that morning to his American Breakfast Sandwich which used plenty of romesco sauce, avocado, cheese, arugula, tomato, and a runny egg. Thick slabs of crunchy Nueske bacon also graced the layers, and each bite of the sandwich begged a following bite. We both felt that it needed to definitely make it onto the menu permanently as the pieces tied together well into a brunchy haven. The avocado lent creaminess to the sandwich hand-in-hand with the sauce, and the arugula with cheese kept it fresh. What invoked the idea of breakfast was the beautiful runny egg and satisfyingly, salty crackle of bacon. A side accompaniment of freshly sliced melons and berries helped refresh the palate afterwards.

Did you always know you were going to be a chef?
"Pretty much. My grandfather would cook big pots of gumbo, etouffee, boiling crabs and shrimp. There would be 30 of us eating! My first job was working at a butcher shop. I was 15 and would clean up after the butchers left, seeing hanging cows and working with the bandsaw. We grew up hunting, cleaning ducks and rabbits, wringing and plucking chickens; I loved it. At my first cooking job, I did breakfast, lunch, and dinner and liked breakfast. I like getting my day going and doing it early."
The division between being the Executive Chef for both the restaurant and the catering company pulls Chef Chris several ways but allows flexibility into his passion. He will be at a lot of the company's catering events when possible but oftentimes, they are booked with several happening at the same time. For example, a few weeks prior to our visit, they catered for an NFL barbecue for the Top 40 Rookies of the Year (~400 people to feed) at the same time as providing 3,500 tea sandwiches for a graduation of approximately 850 people. It's a challenge but one that he readily tackles. The menu may not change often at LA Spice Cafe but catering is always a blank canvas waiting to be adorned.

We next tried out two items that showed a bit of Chef Chris' flair on classics: the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes ($8.95 - served with vanilla syrup and strawberry lavender compote) topped with fresh blueberries and the LA Spice Benedict ($12.95 - poached eggs on housemade biscuit, oven-roasted tomatoes, goat cheese, and avocado hollandaise), picked for having a unique ingredient in its listing. Light and moist, the pancakes were not as fluffy as other places have theirs but these didn't need to be. The ricotta kept the batter from being dry and possibly condensed the thickness/airiness but worked perfectly well with lemon and berries. Imagine some lemon curd being subtly incorporated into your pancakes, and you can partially understand what makes these stars. I'm not normally one who would order pancakes because they always seem like carb-heavy dishes but this one was kept fresh and light by its make-up.

As for the benedict, the initial reaction when it came out was, "that has the perfect jiggle!" The poached eggs quivered teasingly underneath their green hollandaise, asking to be broken to unleash their runny yolks. My curiosity about how one could add avocado to hollandaise without breaking it was answered when Chef Chris explained that it may be better labeled a mousse because it contained no eggs. This version of his was composed of avocado, cilantro, olive oil, lemon, salt, and a little water. Did it need egg? Certainly not. Avocado's inherent high-fat content is more than enough to keep the sauce's shape and make it creamy. It was luscious over the egg and wholly sopped up with the fluffy biscuits underneath. The oven-roasted tomatoes contributed a wine-country Californian trait to the plate as well. 'Twas a fine, fresh dish.

We left with a keener understanding of LA Spice Cafe and the philosophy behind what they do. We also managed to leave with a generously large box of pastries and desserts from LeAnne Schwartz who shared fantastic stories of the company's catering legacy and attention to detail. The event planner in me got a tad giddy when she spoke about how colors and branding come into play when they plan out their menu! Back to the desserts though - they do make everything in-house and are in the process of trying out hand pies (sweet for now, savory in the future) filled with farmers' market produce. Our treasures that morning were their Carrot Cake Sandwiches, S'mores Cookies, and Blueberry Hand Pie, all comforting and sweet. If you're interested in visiting, LA Spice is located at 4357 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City CA 90230. Get your stomachs ready for indulging!

Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.

LA Spice on Urbanspoon