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If you frequent the better class of restaurants in the Italian countryside, the old mansions that announce themselves by the sound of your tires crunching on gravel, you are undoubtedly familiar with what I have come to call the prego style of service, by which I mean that the moment you ask for a menu — prego, prego — the waiter decides that he knows just what you want to eat. Unless you are wearing a fanny pack or are allergic to Barolo, that waiter is usually right.
Celestino Drago has been running Italian kitchens in Los Angeles since Reagan's first term, and although his heart lies with game and big meat, his restaurants are best-known for their casual style. Do you want salad and pasta for dinner? Fine. But Drago Centro, carved out of a former bank in a Bunker Hill office plaza, may be Drago's first prego restaurant, the first in the grand Italian style. As in Italy, you are probably best off deferring the major decisions to the captain, who will set your party up with the cured meats and the puffy beignets called gnocco; the langoustine carpaccio; the spaghetti Trapanese and the sausage-stuffed quail. Michael Shearin, the sommelier, is in love with the odd bottles on the bottom third of his list. Drago Centro is a new sort of luxury restaurant, skyscrapers blazing outside the big windows, wine towers reaching to the sky, a grand gesture that seems to be exactly what downtown needs. 525 S. Flower St., dwntwn. (213) 228-8998, dragocentro.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Mon.-Sat., 5:30-10:30 p.m., Sun., 5-9 p.m. Full bar. Evening valet parking on Figueroa between 5th and 6th streets, includes free shuttle to Staples Center, the Music Center or Nokia Theater. All major CC. Location map here.
El Huarache Azteca
The famous dish at El Huarache Azteca is, of course, the huarache, a flat, concave trough of fried masa the approximate size and shape of a size-12 sandal, mounded with beans and tough, thin shards of grilled steak or chile-red nubs of marinated pork, a layer of shredded lettuce and strata of grated cheese and Mexican-style cultured cream — it's a specialty of Mexico City. If your tastes run that way, you can have your huarache topped with slippery squares of fried pigskin that have been simmered into slippery submission, or with shredded bits of chicken. If you are up to the challenge, you can get it piled high with the cabeza, rich, gelatinous meat from a cow's head cooked down into an ultra-concentrated essence of beef with the consistency of refried beans. Don't miss the burning-hot huitlacoche quesadillas — fried turnovers stuffed with musky, jet-black corn fungus — made on weekends by the stone-faced woman who mans a fry cart outside the entrance. 5225 York Blvd., Highland Park. (323) 478-9572. Open daily, 9 a.m.-10:30 p.m. No alcohol. Street parking, parking lot in back. Takeout. Cash only. Location map here.
Is El Parian a one-dish restaurant? Not technically, but it could be. For decades, the waitresses have asked not if you would like to see a menu, but whether you are in the mood for a full or half order of birria, a bowl of Jalisco-style roast goat in a consommé made from its amplified drippings. Throw in some chopped onions, a handful of cilantro and a dash of vinegary hot sauce, and you're set, even without the thick handmade tortillas and a cold Bohemia or two. At some point, the internet discovered that El Parian made carne asada tacos, too, and the woozy dining room began to pull a crowd of people less interested in goat than in the charbroiled steak. El Parian's carne asada is as formidable as you might expect — the meat is well blackened and peppered with delicious pockets of liquified fat. 1528 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. (213) 386-7361. Tues.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Mon., 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Beer, BYOB. Parking lot. Takeout. Cash only. Location map here.