Ah, Valentine's Day in Los Angeles. The candlelit bistro, the goblets of crisp Napa Chardonnay with just a hint of apple, the julienned wild carrots, shallots, and ― what is that? fennel?
I don't have my glasses but it looks like fennel, and I'm allergic to fennel ― the glittering bottle of pricey Czech "flat" water no one quite remembers ordering, a tiny petit four the size of a postage stamp with a spray of greenish anise sauce like a sneeze next to it, and, what's this on the way out? "$18 for valet parking? You want $18? For us to get back our car?"
Or at least this is my memory of one Los Angeles Valentine's night not too long ago. That year the dreaded holiday fell on a Tuesday. My husband, Mike, and I secured a babysitter for a properly romantic three hours ― only to be surprised when the trendy boîte we were dining at had us in and out in an hour-fifteen. That was our (shockingly expensive) Valentine's celebration, sitting packed in like sardines ― if flatteringly lit sardines ― among other anxious, harried couples also wondering how they had landed their pricey, mysterious bottles of Czech "flat" water.
Which is to say when two people have been together for 19 years, 11 careers, 2 children, and let's not even name the parade of pets that has gone by, with their medicines, shots, pills, ointments … Well, at this point, the fancy, formal-dress Valentine's dinner out has become, for my husband and me, like cherry-filled chocolates or the too-shiny negligee falling over a hanger. It's a lot of effort for tired parents like us, whose greatest dream is, oh ... to be able to sleep in for, let's say, the next three or four years.
On the many nights when I have not one more sentence of interesting conversation left in my body, dining out in public feels like another job ― particularly if it is with my husband. (After all, you don't want to look like one of those long-married couples who have nothing left to say to each other!)
Compare that headache to, for me, the most potentially romantic of all L.A. eateries: Zankou Chicken. Yes, Zankou is a fluorescent-lit local fast-food chain with fast-moving workers in bright yellow Zankou T-shirts. Yes, our family lives in the San Fernando Valley ― and in terms of ambience, Los Angeles is to the Valley as Manhattan is to New Jersey. Our local Zankou is winched into a strip mall near the intersection of Sepulveda and Burbank Boulevards. I think the mere names "Sepulveda" and "Burbank" suggest how loud the traffic is, how it echoes against Zankou's tile floor.
But Zankou makes a wonderfully relaxing Valentine's evening for couples who need a break. Here's what you do: Partner #1 takes a brisk few minutes to sweep all the books and tapes off the coffee table in the TV room/guest bedroom/or, as is our case, illegally converted garage. Without even changing out of his/her sweatpants, Partner #2 jumps into the minivan and drives, with NPR gently murmuring, to Zankou Chicken, slipping right into the fast and free curbside parking. (That's the beauty of the Valley ― it is one of those Southern California regions that is practically one big parking lot.)
And 15 minutes later, oh, the finger-smacking heaven that is yours. Zankou chicken is hot and moist and toothsome, with crispy skin. Stuff it into fresh-split pita, jam in pickled turnips (truly ― they're good!), and slather generously with, yes … garlic sauce. Who needs a mess of braised fennel when you have garlic sauce? Basking in the comfort of babysitting, we sleep-deprived parents might then throw on a DVD of … hey, have you heard of that hot new HBO show The Sopranos?
It's not so new? Well, we haven't watched a TV drama straight through in years, so it's new to us! That's the romance of our Valentine's Day … everything old is new again.
INFO: Sandra Tsing Loh regularly appears on public radio's Marketplace and Southern California's 89.3 KPCC radio station. Her new book, Mother on Fire, will be published by Crown in August. Zankou Chicken has several L.A.-area locations, including Tsing Loh's stop in Van Nuys ($; 5658 Sepulveda Blvd.; 818/781-0615).