Tiny experiment, big success [restaurant review]
Crepe Lab is an El Porto gem
If you ask most people to imagine a lab, the ones who don’t think of a dog will probably envision a sterile place with Bunsen burners, glass tubing, and the other trappings of school chemistry experiments. That fits the textbook definition of lab as a place for scientific research, usually chemical or medical. It’s not the place you’d probably expect to get a great meal.
Then again, a popular comic series pointed out that baking is “chemistry for hungry people,” and that pretty much goes for every other form of cooking too. By that definition anybody’s kitchen is a lab if they experiment with flavors, so the name of the northernmost restaurant in Manhattan Beach make sense.
Crepe Lab is a tiny operation next door to the El Porto Market, and it’s easy to miss unless you happen to be walking by or notice it while stuck in traffic. The neat little room fits about ten diners tops plus a cheerful fellow named Danny who is the owner, cook, barista, and just about everything else. I have heard that somebody else takes a shift occasionally, but the same smiling face has greeted me every time I have gone in.
While some homemade yogurt parfaits are available, the focus here is on crepes, and both sweet and savory versions are offered using regular, whole wheat, vegan, or gluten-free batters. I have tried the regular, which creates the traditional slightly crisp and exquisitely thin pancake, and the whole wheat which is slightly softer. Deciding which batter you want is only the beginning of the process, as there are ten suggested combination crepes plus a build-your-own option that leaves a lot of room for experimentation.
The recommended combinations go far beyond the usual French favorites, and include some that extend into unusual territory. A California crepe with green stuff and avocado is no surprise, but a New York crepe is. That contains pastrami, pickles, roasted bell pepper, cheddar cheese, and red onion, a combination that blends Jewish and Italian deli ideas.
In two visits I tried that one as well as an “Ocean Lover” (tuna salad, avocado, onions, spinach, and cheese) and a “Greek Style” with chicken, bacon, spinach, tomatoes, olives, and feta. The flavor balance in the New York crepe was interesting but slightly off to me — I think I would have liked it better with either the pickles or sautéed red peppers, but not both. The pickles are the more traditional accompaniment to pastrami, so I’d probably pick those. A variety of sauces are available on the side and a dab of mustard sauce would probably add the right flavor to finish things nicely.
In the same way that the New York took a classic nosh and made it into a crepe, the Ocean Lover reimagined a tuna salad sandwich with avocado. If you like the flavors in one you’ll like the other. It’s a bit lighter in texture because the crepe has less bulk, but that’s all to the good if you enjoy the flavors of seafood and greens. Danny suggested some hot sauce (one of the few sauces he doesn’t make in-house) and I was surprised to see how well it worked. I may start hitting my tuna sandwiches with a shot of Cholula now.
The Greek was a little mild for my tastes, and in order to reflect real Aegean flavors could have used a little oregano and garlic. In lieu of that the homemade pesto sauce did a fine job, and I’d advise that sauce and crepe combination.
You can get your savory crepe in the traditional fashion where they’re stuffed and then folded into a quarter-circle, but the default here is to fold the freshly made thin pancake in half, put the ingredients in the center, and fold in from both sides. It’s an unusual way of doing things but a sensible one because the top layers maintain their cherished crisp texture longer this way. Whichever way you order it the crepe comes with a simple salad of romaine lettuce with balsamic dressing, and together they’re quite enough for a light meal.
That will leave you and a companion with enough room to split a dessert crepe, and that’s what my wife and I did when we visited together. After perusing the variety of fruits and sauces we decided on mocha-chocolate sauce with fresh grapes, powdered sugar, and whipped cream. It worked very well, the slight bitterness of coffee and chocolate brought out the fruitiness of the grapes, and if you are lost for ideas when confronted with all your choices you might consider it.
Coffees, juices, and smoothies are offered, but not wine or beer and Danny requests that you don’t bring your own. He does make his crepes to go and if you live nearby and have a bottle you want to crack, that’s the way to go.
The food here is modestly priced, with only one of the combination crepes over ten dollars, so you can have a stylish meal on a thin budget. This lab invites you to play with flavors and is a great little El Porto gem that deserves to succeed.
Crepe Lab is at 4101 Highland in El Porto. Open 11 a.m – 9:30 p.m. Mon., Wed., Thur.; 11 a.m. -10 p.m. Fri.; 9:30 a.m – 10 p.m. Sat.; 9:30 a.m. – 8 p.m. Sun. Closed Tue. Parking in rear, wheelchair access OK but steep hill from parking area. Vegetarian/vegan/GF welcome. No website, phone 310-545-7788. ER
by Richard Foss