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Remembrance of Meals Past 

The best dishes of 1999

Wednesday, Dec 22 1999
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Pork arm. J.Z.Y., the first American satellite of a venerable Beijing teahouse, can seem a little like a Chinese version of the Polo Lounge, a vermillion teahouse frequented by Hong Kong movie stars and women wearing chunks of jade the size of Mike Tyson‘s fists. The menu is a virtual encyclopedia of the kind of seasonal Beijing snacks and ultratraditional Beijing desserts that might once have been served to the Empress Dowager. Cool slices of long-cooked pork “arm,” arranged like the petals of a flower on the plate, exude levels of piggy complexity you may associate with great Italian prosciutto, though the flavor hints more at anise than at cheese. The most surprising new restaurant of the year. 1039 E. Valley Blvd., Suite 102B, San Gabriel; (626) 288-0588.

Spare ribs. Over the course of 1999, I have managed to find myself in a few dozen of the country’s greatest barbecue pits, from St. Louis to Lockhart, Texas, from Kansas City to Oakland to Tuscaloosa. And while I have eaten some remarkable barbecue -- the succulence of the ribs at Lem‘s, on the South Side of Chicago, could probably stand up all by itself as a rebuttal to the federal Clean Air Act -- perhaps the most startling discovery was that Los Angeles barbecue does just fine by national standards, thank you. A slab of Woody’s finest has lately been the first thing I head for when I step off a plane. 3446 W. Slauson Blvd.; (323) 294-9443.

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Barbecue chicken pizza. When the secret history of California pizza is finally written, a greasy volume inscribed in arugula, goat cheese and white truffle oil, former Spago pizza chef Ed LaDou‘s name will be known across the land. If a pizza in Dayton, Ohio, has smoked Gouda and pine nuts on it, it is in no small part due to LaDou. Now LaDou is back, at Studio City’s Caioti Pizza Cafe, along with his pizza. The barbecue chicken pizza, with slivered red onion, smoked Gouda and barbecue sauce instead of tomato, is definitive nostalgia, a taste of multiculti post-Olympics Los Angeles . . . with a hunk of gooey chocolate raspberry cake for dessert. 4346 Tujunga Ave., Studio City; (818) 761-3588.

Shabu shabu is pretty basic, a slice of prime meat swished through bubbling broth for a second or two, just until the vivid pink becomes frosted with white. If you‘ve done it right -- and if the quality of the ingredients is as high as it is at Little Tokyo’s extraordinary (and expensive) Kagaya, the texture is extraordinary, almost liquid, and the concentrated, sourish flavor of really good beef comes across as it does no other way. Shabu shabu can sometimes seem more like a haiku about meat than the meat itself -- especially when your idea of beef is 26 ounces of bleeding steer -- but there are times when gross, animal abundance just seems too much. 418 E. Second St., Little Tokyo; (213) 617-1016.

Sichuan hot pot. Behold, a pint or so of scarlet liquid frothing in a chafing dish, spitting up bloody geysers, roiling and bubbling around bits of meat and tofu like a sulfurous brimstone pool. You have tasted hot Asian food, no doubt, but Lu Gi‘s hot pot is a heat of a different order, truly corrosive stuff, a pure tincture of chile and spice, thick as cream, overlaid with a garlic pungence that may ooze from your pores for a week. By the end of the meal, when the broth has boiled down to almost an espresso thimble of red goo, it is probably as caustic as lye. Oh, the pleasure in pain. 539 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 457-5111.

Nehari. This is more or less the Pakistani national dish, an intense, mahogany concoction of beef flavored with chiles and an immoderate amount of shredded fresh ginger. Nehari can sometimes be as genteel as a country French ragout, but the nehari at Al-Noor is cooked down to a steaming, creamy mass with the density of a dwarf star, bubbling and glistening with red-tinted oil, a stew substantial enough to fortify three hungry men after a day of hard farm labor . . . or say, a day of fasting for Ramadan, which continues for another two weeks. 15112 Inglewood Ave., Lawndale; (310) 675-4700.

Fish tacos. In most of Mexico, the words estilo Ensenada signify just one thing: fish tacos, specifically the fried fish tacos served at stalls in the fish market down by the docks. And Tacos Baja Ensenada serves what may be L.A.’s finest: crunchy, sizzlingly hot strips of batter-fried halibut, folded into warm corn tortillas with salsa, shredded cabbage and a squeeze of lime, sprinkled with freshly chopped herbs and finished with a squirt of thick, cultured cream, lightly done, delicately flavored. Entire religions have been founded on miracles less profound than the Ensenada fish taco. 5385 Whittier Blvd.; (323) 887-1980.

Steak tartare. The Polo Lounge, I‘m told, serves other dishes, including some baroquely spicy stir-fries conjured up to please the palate of the hotel-owning Sultan of Brunei, the archetypal chopped salad, and a piece of grilled fish or two. But really, the restaurant doesn’t need anything else -- the raw chopped beef is served from a specially designed platter with attached condiment cups at each pole, splashed with a raw egg yolk before it is mixed to order, and tastes just like gherkin-flavored beef. Which I suppose it is. 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 276-2251.

Coloradito de pollo. Where many of the other Oaxacan places on the Westside interpret mole as a mandate to serve fairly incidental segments of reheated chicken wallowing in great, sopping plates of sauce, the chicken at El Sazon Oaxaqueño, is fresh, full of juice, tending toward old-bird chewiness rather than dissolving into mush under your fork. The restaurant‘s Oaxacan mole negro is impeccable. But it is the extravagantly hot coloradito de pollo that is El Sazon’s greatest dish, a brick-red sauce that almost sings with roasted chiles, with sauteed spices, with ground, charred bread. Glorious. 12131 Washington Place; (310) 391-4721.

Taco de lomo. A lean bit of pork loin, a couple of warmed tortillas, some chopped onion and a splash of duskily hot red chile from the bar. Of such humble origins are dreams sometimes made. And out of the thousands of things I have tasted this year, the three blistering bites of this taco, from a restaurant, Taqueria Sanchez, that most of us have driven by a hundred times without slowing down, are perhaps the ones I remember most. 4541 Centinela Ave.; (310) 822-8880.

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