Welcome to L.A. Week 2016. To celebrate the rich culinary life of Los Angeles, we’ll be running special features all week that explore the city’s ever-evolving food scene—from its classic tacos, to its offbeat icons. Follow along on Twitter @firstwefeast.
It’s unclear whether Tommy Lasorda or Paul the Apostle would receive a bigger response walking into Paul’s Kitchen in Downtown L.A. On one hand, you have one of the most venerated religious figures of all time. On the other, there’s Paul the Apostle, a seminal figure in the spread of Christianity—but one lacking World Series rings.
That’s not to knock the canonized figure whose Damascus epiphany altered history, but rather to offer context for the civic popularity of the beatified L.A. Dodgers manager, whose savvy led to the 1988 Kirk Gibson World Series home run—the Lourdes miracle for a generation of local baseball fans.
It was the legendary Dodgers manager who once said: “The only Angels in Los Angeles are in Heaven, and they’re looking down on the Dodgers.” Another famous quote was: “I bleed Dodger blue and when I die, I’m going to the big Dodger in the sky.” He won two World Series titles, managed nine Rookies of the Year, and earned enshrinement into the baseball Hall of Fame in 1997. In 2014, the Dodgers even built the Tommy Lasorda Trattoria inside the stadium. He recommends everything, especially the meatballs.
“He offers a Papal wave, ‘How Are You’s’ and smiling poses to all. You can’t miss his iconic Roman nose, get-money gut, white hair, and matching Dodgers athletic shirt.”
Over the last half-century, few figures have converted as many supporters to their cause. Many are lunching this afternoon at Paul’s, the garment district Chinese food landmark established in 1946, whose old-school Cantonese fare has endured almost as long as the 88-year-old Hall of Famer.
Every fork freezes as soon as Lasorda lopes in. A cross-section of races, ages, and genders leap up to ask for photos with evangelical fervor. He offers a Papal wave, “How Are You’s” and smiling poses to all. You can’t miss his iconic Roman nose, get-money gut, white hair, and matching Dodgers athletic shirt. He’s looking more svelte than in recent years, thanks to a diet that currently prizes salads over starches.
Paul’s is the reward.
This is the platonic ideal of the best Chinese restaurant that your grandparents ever took you to—leather booths, dark brown Formica tabletops, crispy noodle sticks, and bottomless Oolong tea. Cash only. No online presence aside from a Yelp page. A deep-fried, salt-laden paradise worth risking a bypass for. It worked out fine for Lasorda, who nears his ninth decade, six of which he’s spent dining at Paul’s. At one point during the 1970s, he reportedly had Paul’s delivered regularly to the dugout. He’s brought in too many ex-Dodgers to count, and so the establishment is a shrine to the franchise, with framed photos of greats and journeyman alike—everyone from Fernando Valenzuela and Ramon Martinez, to Billy Ashley and Pedro Astacio.
There’s the Tommy Lasorda Special if your stomach can stretch enough ($13.05 for a minimum of two people), which features wonton soup, egg rolls, char siu, spareribs, asparagus with beef, kung pao chicken, and the house special fried rice. But Lasorda doesn’t need to order—the kitchen staff automatically brings enough glazed, steaming-hot platters to feed a famished starting nine. There’s crispy and caramelized orange chicken, savory cashew chicken, plump green beans, and candied char siu pork that Lasorda rightfully insists must be dipped into a pool of spicy mustard and soy sauce. He says that “you won’t find a better fried rice in America,” and he’s probably correct.
“He says that ‘you won’t find a better fried rice in America,’ and he’s probably correct.”
Your arteries might berate you afterwards like Lasorda chewing out a clueless umpire, but Paul’s makes Mr. Chow’s look like an overpriced first-round draft pick bust. It’s closer to Mike Piazza, a late-round sleeper pick that winds up in the Hall of Fame.
After a leisurely lunch, Lasorda takes another languid amble into the main dining room. The latest round of customers rapturously greets him, asking for photos and autographs. He engages in small talk with the chefs, bus boys, and owners. Before he leaves, he stops and stares wistfully at the rows of decades-old Dodgers memorabilia, clearly lost in thought, reminiscing on those glory years in this late winter.
“I think he wishes he could still be out there,” one of the restaurant workers observes softly.
“They need him,” another one says. “They haven’t won a World Series since he left.”
Here, we sit down with one of the Dodgers’—and Los Angeles’, for that matter—greatest public figures to talk shop about baseball lore, the risks of eating steaks before games, and how Sandy Koufax’s improved mechanics might have cost Lasorda his starting job as a player.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How long have you been coming to Paul’s for?
About 50-something years. A friend of mine worked [in] produce around here, so he took me to Paul’s one day and I’ve been coming here since.
I read somewhere that you brought Kirk Douglas here once.
I took Kirk Douglas and Jack Valenti, the head of the movie industry. Kirk Douglas looked at it and said, “Where are we gonna eat? This place?” I said, “No, we’re going to eat inside.” It’s not too nice a location.
Was there a lot of Chinese food when you were growing up in Norristown, or was it mostly Italian food?
I never ate at a Chinese restaurant at Norristown, no.
So you started getting acquainted with it when you were playing for Brooklyn?
Well, probably, but I never cared much about Chinese food until I started coming here—then I really got interested.
The Italian food must have been pretty amazing when you were in Brooklyn, in the 50s.
I still go to a restaurant from when I played there. Bamonte’s in Brooklyn. It’s over 100-years-old.
You’re a big fan of Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood. What’s your favorite thing to order there?
I like their pasta. Their marinara sauce is good. They probably have the best Italian food in L.A.
Were both your parents born in Italy?
My father was, my mother wasn’t. My mother was born in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. My father came over after he served in the Italian army, and he went to visit my grandfather—my mother’s father—since they came from the same little town in Italy. My grandfather had about seven daughters and he says to my father, “Which one of these girls do you like?” My father selected my mother and he said to his daughter, “You marry this guy.” That’s the way it went.
You originally started out in professional baseball with the Phillies organization, right?
I was sent to the Phillies team in Schenectady, New York. Pat Riley’s father was the manager of that team. I used to have [Pat] sitting on my lap when he was two years old. From there, I got drafted by the Dodgers, and went with them the following year. The first time I pitched, I threw a 15-inning game and struck out 25 guys. Four days later, I struck out another 15 guys. Four days later, 13. That was 53 strikeouts in three games. So then I got called up by the Dodgers, and that was the beginning. Now this is my 66th year with them.
What do you think about the team this year?
I don’t know. We have a new manager.
Have you met with Dave Roberts yet?
Give him any advice?
He didn’t particularly ask me for any advice but he told me he was looking forward to asking me questions.
They lost Greinke but they still got Kershaw.
He makes more than anybody.
What do you think of Puig? I remember I read somewhere that he reminded you of Mondesi.
He’s built like Mondesi. He’s got a good arm like Mondesi. But that’s about it. Mondesi was a hell of a player.
Did you have any food rituals when you played? Anything you ate like a pre-game meal or before you managed?
Well, when I played, at the time it was fashionable to eat a steak before you pitched, but that don’t make no difference now.
Players must eat a lot healthier now.
I used to get upset because then I’d eat a steak and the game would get rained out, and I’d have to eat another steak. It was expensive.
Any favorite players you liked managing?
There were a lot of them I loved managing. The best team was in ’88. Bob Costas came out and stated that it might be the worst team ever in World Series history. I took that to fire the guys up. The Mets beat us 10 out of 11 games that year. They had a great team and we beat them in the playoffs in seven games. They were the toughest games that I ever managed.
What do you think it was in the playoffs? The heart? Any managerial moves you think kind of paved the way?
You play different in the playoffs. You don’t play for the series; you play for that game, that day.
What do you think of all the sabermetrics stuff?
I’m not familiar with it.
It’s a big deal now. But when you managed I’d imagine it was a lot of stuff based off instincts.
I don’t know about that. I’m an old guy. Managing according to what your knowledge of the game was.
Was there a coach you learned the most from? Walter Alston?
A guy I learned a lot from was Ralph Houk. He managed the Yankees.
You played with Jackie Robinson while he was on the Dodgers. What was your impression of him?
My impression of him was he had the biggest drive within him. He was tough to beat. He was a winner.
Who was the hardest out for you that you faced?
In the American league, Mickey Mantle. And in the National League, Stan Musial.
Did you talk to the Tommy Lasorda Trattoria people about the menu?
Oh yeah. I tried everything out. I don’t want my name on something if it’s going to be bad.
Do you have a favorite dish at the Trattoria?
I love the meatballs.
You’ve been married for over 60 years. What’s the secret?
Well, there’s no set way, you can’t define it. But I think it’s just really about getting along. Take my starting team from the ’70s. Steve Yeager and Davey Lopes, both divorced. Steve Garvey, divorced. Shortstop Billy Russell, divorced. Penguin [Ron Cey], he got by. Dusty Baker, he got divorced. Rick Monday, he got divorced. Right fielder Reggie Smith got divorced.
What do you think made Sandy Koufax such a great pitcher?
Well, he finally got to be able to control the ball. He was really wild at one point.
Were his mechanics off initially?
I don’t know. I saw him when he just started and he couldn’t control the ball at all. Evidently he learned something because God damn, his control was perfection. He never pitched in the minor leagues. They didn’t call him up. They signed him and decided to keep him. By keeping him, somebody had to go, and it turned out to be me.
Was it because you guys were both lefties?
They had to keep him. At that time, if you gave any guy a couple thousand dollars and sent him to the minors, you could lose him. We almost lost him and we actually lost Roberto Clemente. Imagine if we had him and Clemente.
Do you like Mexican food?
You a wine drinker?
I actually have a wine company. Every bottle comes from Italy.
Red or white?
I like red a lot, but when I was younger and over in Italy, I was having dinner with Anthony Quinn. At that time, he had married a girl from Italy, so he was living over there, and he said to me, “I never drink white wine.” I said, “Why not?” He said there was something wrong with the grapes or something like that, and so I never drank white wine—until I had it eventually and realized, ‘damnit, that’s good wine.’ So now if I order, it’s usually white wine.