Dinner with a Stranger 2009
This is the guy who can hold the attention of a sugar-fed 9 year old without a morning or afternoon dose of Ritalin. Or both. This guy can make an Astronaut question gravity and baffle a billionaire. This guy knows all the tricks. This is Steve. Hes a magician.
We found Steve at Magicopolis, right in the heart of Santa Monica, the least magical place on Earth. It turns out that Steve isnt just a magician here, hes the owner. And, to avoid having to do any magic during our dinner, he instead invited us to his magic show before hand. And what kind of monster would turn down free magic?
We arrived around 8pm on a Saturday night and headed to the bar for a little pre-show, pre-game. Yes, thats not a typo. They have an actual bar at Magicopolis that may be one of the best hidden gems in Santa Monica. Here, even if you dont go to the show, you can enjoy a comedian slash bartender performing magic trick, cracking wise jokes and serving up whatever particular poison you desire.
I know it isnt our territory, but if this were Yelp wed give it 5 stars or some shit. Go do this. Every Saturday night at 10 oclock at The Bar Show.
Anyway, enough shout outs. After watching the lovely Eric Tait hassle a man about some missing tip money, which he quickly pulled out of the guys ear (typical), we topped off our red keg cups filled with cheap merlot and headed in to take our seats. For two blissful hours we ooed and awed over what was less of a magic show and more of a well-written, comedic piece centered around the art of magic. I highly recommend this dish.
After Steves finale escape from some metal chains milli-seconds before a band of sharp, metal spikes brought him to a bloody, punctured death, we headed across the street to Susan Fenigers Border Grill.
The modern (perhaps), upscale (hardly), hip (subjective) cantina had walls covered in red and blue-faced amigos drunk off freedom and angry Luchadores, and candles featuring dead, Catholic saints flickered on the mesa-tops. theme. You know, the ones you can buy at Vons for when the power goes out or when youre constructing a Michael Jackson shrine?
We got seated and looked to the endless list of specialty cocktails to keep up the buzz. We were recommended the Mojito by Steve (who has recently stopped drinking) and not recommended the sparkling Sangria by the waiter (who wanted to start drinking). We ordered both drinks and later confirmed both opinions reputable.
They delivered a basket of chips glistening in grease, giving the shakers worth of salt we shook on Ôem a place to stick. And while most joints do salsa solo, a trifecta of complimentary smoked chipotle, green chili, and a mild fresca salsas accompanied.
However, the non-complimentary guacamole we ordered up looked better than it tasted. It was served on an edible plate (a fried tortilla) over a palate of endive spears and a dollop of refried beans. But like all guac, it was worthy enough to eat.
And with nothing left in the “bottomless” basket to scoop the remains, we got the scoop on how Steve got into magic. Turns out, his pops started as a radio DJ up in the San Fran area and became a game show host in the late 40s– the kind that rewarded screaming housewives with frozen packs of peas. He started picking up some tricks on set and wound up performing them for the audience between commercials.
Both of his parents were performers and writers and claimed responsibility for “My Favorite Martians” and many of the early Tarzan scripts. After Steve was born, they left the bay and took off for the Valley where he grew up. And after a long career in writing and performing, his father began managing The Magic Castle. Yep. The one you must be a member of or get invited to. The one that requires a password to get into. The word Steve has and is willing to give to us. Jealous much?
Just as our eyes swelled in excitement, our mouths began to water at the appetizers that magically appeared out of heavy grease. The shrimp ceviche was a medley of sea meat, cucumbers, corn and peppers all tossed in a citrus juice with a hint of cilantro, and topped off with a fan of avocado slices. It was a light start to a very heavy order.
Next, we grabbed for the green corn tamales that were more like corn pudding surprise wrapped in a husk. Although it lacked the mealy texture and density of the typical tamale, it did not lack in flavor. It was soup-ely delicious, especially with the hefty dollop of sour cream and salsa fresca served on top.
And the lamb tacos, they were b-AAAAAA-d ass. The tender meat definitely fell off the bone straight onto the corn tortilla, ready to be topped with poblano peppers, manchego cheese and drizzled in sweet adobo sauce. This two-taco dish is something you dont want to split, especially into fours.
But, as we reluctantly divvied up the apps, we prodded Steve more about his magical beginnings. He told us that he started splitting the deck at the time magic was still dormant. He hung around The Magic Castle (the only place of its kind at the time) convincing Vaudeville guys sitting around doing nothing to teach him their tricks. Some of them are now legends in the trade. Most noteably, Guy Vernon, the great card shark of Kansas City, who was tracked down by card counting gamblers in pursuit of his quick, secretive maneuvers.
Steve finished high school andÉ
“Well I was going to go to college but instead I snorted tablespoons of white powder and made bouquets of marijuana.”
Yep. Steve got involved in what he called Magical Drug Acts. (UM. Yes please) His troop, Flash Cadillac, toured the nation visiting colleges, putting on acts combining magic and drugs. You could say his college experience was comparable to many American grads, just without all the classes and homework.
Then, just as our munchies were coming back, the next round of eats arrives.
Now were nowhere near vegetarianism (no thanks to Animals, eat meat or get lost menu) but if I were, the Border Vegetable Platter might bring solace to my misery. The creamed corn, spiced squash, and the braised fennel were just a few of the flavorful options among many that are sure to please both veggies and flesh eaters alike.
The Cochinita Pibil was supposedly a slow-roasted pork cooked in an orange, cinnamon sauce served with rice, beans, and roasted plantains. And while there was rice, beans, and two mushy plantains, we couldnt find any damn oink in the orange sauce. Either Steve was practicing some “pork-slide-of-hand” or Border Grill 86ed the swine.
Much like Steve 86ed “the fun yet unruly drug-filled days” to hang his top hat in Aspen, Colorado. There he became a magic bartender and finally bankrolled enough to move to the East coast and start his own theatre act. And, as magics popularity started to rise, so did Steve. For the next 20 years, Steve traveled the world, performing in comedy houses, casinos, and clubs. That is, until he ran into some of lifes strange magic. He met a woman. The woman hes called his wife for 13 years now. And that undeniable magic forced this nomadic magician to settle down.
Yea. Yea. I know what youre thinking: the ole ball and chain does it againÉ but its quite the opposite actually. We owe this magical love connection for bringing us Magicopolis, Santa Monicas very own magic theatre. Miss Steve not only helped write many of the acts, she used to star in them as the beautiful assistant.
But Steve is still the biggest star of the show. Hes constantly tweaking and fine-tuning his surprisingly wonderous acts. Hes always working on new tricks, which we are told take years to perfect. In fact, to introduce a new trick or a skit into the show takes months to years. And because of the hardship from practice to mastery, Steve doesnt even have an understudy to help perform the 250 shows each year. Which means when Steves on vacation, so is the magic of Santa Monica.
And apparently we also hit Border Grille on a night when the Chicken Chilaquiles chef was also on vacation. Expecting to get a “cheesy chicken chip casserole”, we instead got dry, burnt chicken, sitting on beans dosed in various salsas, with a few chips on the side of the plate doused in some white cream. Disappointment on a plate.
But our dinner still ended on a high note known as the Lamb Sirloin. It was marinated in a pomegranate which let the gamey flavor of meat battle it out with the sweet citrus flavor. It also came with quinoa (pronounced Keen Wa for those of you who dont practice yoga) and a deep-fried kale leaf. Who knew a shrub could taste so damn delicious or a Mexican joint could cook up any meat beside chorizo.
There were many surprises that night. Some good (every other dish) and some bad (every other dish). But most surprisingly, who knew that you could find good magic in Santa Monica and even better company?
Heres to hoping Steve doesnt get impaled by dozens of sharpened metal spikes before you get a chance to go see him.