It is a beautiful thing to see a Cupid's dog assembled, to observe the counterman aligning buns four, five, six at a time in a special ridged tray, to witness the quick flick of his wrists as he lays in the hot dogs, smears each with yellow mustard, sprinkles them with chopped onions, then sluices them with a precise amount of chili, enough to flavor every bite -- to soak into the top few millimeters of the steamed bun without necessarily slopping onto your shoes or even on your hands -- before twisting the dogs like anniversary presents â into layers of soft, white tissue. If you order the dogs with cheese, a soft flurry of grated orange substance is showered onto the hot dogs right over the onions, and dissolves almost immediately into the chili. 14300 Victory Blvd., Van Nuys; also at 20030 Vanowen Blvd., Canoga Park, and several other locations. Open daily. Lunch for two, food only, $5$8. No alcohol. Takeout only. Cash only.
At a Nigerian meal, as at any West African meal, you essentially choose a starch -- bland, pounded white yam or cassava root, steamed into a puddinglike consistency -- and then get some highly seasoned stuff to roll with your fingers into a little ball along with the starch. In practice, non-Africans are likely to be provided with forks and spoons, plus a large bowlful of pretty much everything on the steam tables that day, usually spicy black-eyed peas, the sweet fried plantains called dodo and the West African pilaf called Jollof rice. Moin-moin is a big, wet cylinder of steamed black-eyed-pea cake with the consistency of a Nicaraguan nacatamal, stuffed with egg and bits of meat, sliced into half-pucks of dough. Efo riro, a mass of collard stewed with hot chile until it seems almost to form curds like cottage cheese, is one of the spiciest greens you'll ever encounter this side of Sichuan, drenched with palm oil, pungent enough to flavor something like 14 kilograms of cassava. And you must try egusi stew, melon seeds cooked down with greens and palm oil into something that tastes a little like boiled chrysanthemum leaves, but with a sharp, nutty bite you'll encounter nowhere else. 1663 S. La Cienega Blvd.; (310) 246-0973. Open Mon.Sat., noon10 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $20$28. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Takeout. MC, V.
May Flower is where to find perfect Cantonese beef stew, long-braised, anise-flavored chunks of brisket and meltingly tender beef tendon, or stewed pig's trotters, slithery and delicious. Even better, there's the Cantonese rice porridge jook, thick and savory and shot through with spicy strands of fresh ginger and green onions, which comes with basically every combination of stuff. Try it with peanuts. Or with strips of tripe. Or with the house combination of chicken, shrimp, liver and kidney, which flavors every drop. It's the jook to have when you think there's no place like home. 800 Yale St., Chinatown; (213) 626-7113. Open daily 10 a.m.10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $5$10. No alcohol. Cash only.
Nice Time Deli
Take the Chinese bitter gourd, a warty, pale-green thing the size of a large cucumber, as bitter as envy, as bitter as hot tears. Please. Sautéed bitter gourd, as prepared at the splendid Taiwanese-style Nice Time Deli, has the mephitic funk of the green beans they used to serve at your elementary school cafeteria, and the luscious succulence of really ripe honeydew melon. Your first taste of the stuff, mellowed by the sweetness of shredded pork and the small pungence of fermented black beans, may remind you of braised celery -- until the onset a second or two later of the aftertaste, a shocking, penetrating bitterness with all the subtlety of a tongue piercing, not chocolate bitter or even tea bitter, but cancer-medicine bitter, a bitterness that will still be with you four hours later. Yet . . . there is something oddly appealing about bitter gourd. You really should try it. 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 209, San Gabriel; (818) 288-0149. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $5$12. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only.
A bowl of the Korean bean-curd stew called bipi looks less like food than like a special effect from a Wes Craven movie, a heaving, bright-orange mass in a superheated black cauldron that spits like a lake of volcanic lava and broadcasts a fine red mist of chile and broth. A network of bubbles on the surface occasionally opens up like a cinematic portal to doom, revealing glistening white chunks of tofu bobbing within. Tofu Cabin's version is first-rate: Try the No. 2 combination, with briny little clams and bits of meat and fragrant strips of toasted seaweed that retain a little of their crunchiness in the heat of the broth, and soft, supple, creamy clouds of tofu, evanescent as mist. 4220 Beverly Blvd.; (213) 382-5111. Open Mon.Sat. 10 a.m.9:30 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12. No alcohol. Takeout and free delivery. Lot parking. Cash only.
Okonomiyaki, sometimes called "Japanese pizza," is perhaps the most popular of Japanese street foods, a thick, soft, circular pancake the size and shape of a small stack of 45s, made from eggs, vegetables, meat and ghost-white batter: crisp on the outside, substantial on the inside, the local equivalent of an Italian frittata or a Spanish tortilla. A lot of the fun in okonomiyaki comes in tending your pancake, patting it flat with a big metal spatula, sliding it to a cooler part of the griddle when you sense it is starting to scorch, glazing its surface with a sticky syrup flavored with Worcestershire sauce. When the mass is done, or at least brown and crisp on the bottom, you cut it into wedges, squirt it with mayonnaise and hot mustard from squeeze bottles, and season it with a thick dusting of powdered seaweed and bonito shavings. (If your pancake looks as if it has been tarred and feathered, it should be about right.) The standard okonomiyaki comes with three added ingredients -- say, oysters, kimchi and pork -- but you can get more elaborate custom combinations. 2106 Artesia Blvd., Torrance; (310) 324-5190. Open Tues.Fri. 11:30 a.m.2 p.m. and 5:3010 p.m.; Sat. noon2:30 p.m. and 5:3010 p.m.; Sun. 59:30 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $14$20. Beer, wine and sake. Lot parking. MC, V.