Best Of :: Food & Drink
Sure, the San Gabriel Valley is home to countless strip-mall banh mi joints, and Banh Mi My Tho is no different. Almost. Walk inside this tiny, shiny Vietnamese sandwich shop, and you'll think you've been transported not to Vietnam but maybe the best gas station convenience store ever. On your right, boxed green tea peeks out from stacked cardboard boxes. On your left, lotto tickets waiting for your bubbles like a Scantron answer sheet. The hot case that dominates the counter — filled with days-old corn dogs and stale pretzels at your local Shell station — is stuffed with egg rolls, meat pies and nem nuong (pork) on a stick. The little counter space that remains is where you order the cheapest of lunches: the charbroiled pork banh mi sandwich and a Vietnamese coffee, which cost roughly the same amount as a gallon of gas. Lunch for less than a Lincoln? Fill 'er up. 304 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra. (626) 289-4160, banhmimytho.com.
Augustus Gloop would never make it out alive. What makes Pasadena's Langham Huntington Hotel the best choice for afternoon tea can be summed up in one word: chocolate. On Sundays from noon to 5 p.m., the hotel's regular tea service, smashing in itself, is replaced by an all-chocolate afternoon tea. The selection of savory tea sandwiches, scones with Devonshire cream, fruit tarts, mousse torts and crème brûlées all contain different chocolate essences. A chocolate fountain is the focal point of the afternoon ritual, with surrounding chocolate sculptural art. Beverage choices include three selections of pure liquid chocolate, Champagne and a variety of the finest teas. Among the offerings are a foie gras mousse profiterole sprinkled with chocolate dust and a white chocolate–and-avocado mousse with vanilla-marinated shrimp sandwich. An epic 16 choices are offered in the "pastry presentation," including a cocoa-nib macaroon with Earl Grey butter cream; milk-chocolate orange gateau; and a white-chocolate green tea panna cotta. Dipping choices for the chocolate fountain include peppermint and lemon marshmallows, nougats, fruits and cakes. It feels a bit incongruous to gorge on so much chocolatey goodness in such a refined, elegant setting as the Langham. Just remember to daintily dab the corners of your mouth with your fine linen napkin lest you emerge with an unsightly chocolate ring around your lips. That would be gauche. 1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave., Pasadena. (626) 585-6218, pasadena.langhamhotels.com.
If you like life on the dark side, you'll love pizza from Lucifers, a tiny storefront that could be easily overlooked if it weren't for the orange flames painted on the façade. There, you can customize the heat/spice intensity of your pizza by specifying zero, medium, fiery or blazing. But watch out: Blazing necessitates keeping a pitcher of ice water at the ready should you require emergency cool-down procedures — which you will. The idea for this "damned good pizza," as their slogan goes, comes from New Zealanders, cousins Adam and Milan Borch. "It's dark in our country, and we like the dark side of things," says Milan. "The idea of hell goes hand in hand with our concept." Even without what he calls their "secret sauce," all the pizzas are devilishly unique, such as Roast Pumpkin & Prosciutto; the Zucha, with pumpkin, olives, feta and spinach; and gluten-free and vegan cheese options. To die for: The R.I.P. club entitles you to one free pizza after your 10th. 1958 Hillhurst Ave., Los Feliz. (323) 906-8603, luciferspizza.com.
Without the kick to qualify as hot sauce, the tomato-based, sugary-yet-smoky topping that is the staple flavor of this decades-old gringo taco joint is simply "taco sauce," given in generous handfuls of packets with every order and even sold separately for the condiment's numerous cult followers. Taco Lita, the retro stand, is a slice of Americana: bright colors, cheerful servers, a no-frills menu with greasy combo burritos, and rumors of a ghost that haunts the men's restroom. This spot isn't for al Past whores, so don't try ordering it — refried beans and shredded cheddar can be found in virtually all menu items, which can and should be doused with their signature sauce, so addictive you will find yourself hoarding the packets in a jar at home, and returning for more on your next calorie binge. 120 E. Duarte Road, Arcadia. (626) 445-2889.
Fresh and Easy markets have popped up all over Southern California. Promising fresh, wholesome food and a quicker shopping experience than a typical supermarket, they offer a wide selection of groceries and prepared meals. Their most notable offering is the "Today's Specials" section, which stocks items about to hit their sell-by date at prices up to 50 percent off. Stop in on your way home, check out the items about to, well, check out, and voila, instant dinner inspiration. With ever-changing options, you have no excuse for making the same old mac 'n' cheese from a box ... again. freshandeasy.com.
A great pizza is a work of art. And a great pizza for under $20? A masterpiece. The Pizza a la Andro at Caruso's is a masterpiece. Named after one of the owner's sons (son Lucas also has his own), the Pizza a la Andro comes only in "giant" size: 16 inches across, producing 12 decent-size slices. Its chewy, medium-thick crust bears generous amounts of pepperoni, sausage, fresh tomatoes, garlic and basil, in addition to deliciously gooey cheese (romano and mozzarella). The best part? It costs just $18.95. Caruso's has a full menu of delicious Italian food, including pastas, calzones and meat dishes; it also offers a full bar, a lunch buffet and even live music. But when you can get a terrific pizza, why order anything else? 13737 Foothill Blvd., Sylmar. (818) 367-7766.
Never run into Cambridge Farms Market in a tiny tank dress on a Friday to pick up delicious sushi and some baba ghanoush for your dinner party. Orthodox women will stare you down, Orthodox men will run from you; either way you will feel shamed. (Believe me; I know.) This is the freshest and best grocery-store sushi around, with kosher sushi chefs willing to make it even fresher. Granted, you can't get the treife here (that would be shellfish for you goyim), but the spicy salmon and rainbow rolls are heaven on Earth. Pick up some Middle Eastern salads and shwarma for later, and you have to get some hummus; seriously, you have never seen so many types of hummus in one place in your life. Take my wife and my word for it, try the artichoke. I'll be here all week. 12431 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 506-6661, cambridgefarmskosher.com.
I hate sharing this place, I really do. I am sitting outside at Malibu Cafe at Calamigos Ranch on a beautiful Southern California Sunday listening to a great band and arguing over who gets to go next at the shuffleboard table. I gaze at the romantic chandeliers hanging from the trees and the cozy couches dotting the scenery while the whirr of the free paddleboats on the pond lulls me into a dream state. (That may also be because of the bottomless mimosas.) When you take a walk around the charmingly bucolic grounds, you realize why they have so many weddings here. While away the afternoon and enjoy a great meal in the most fantastic setting possible. I mean, I even played Frisbee. It's hard to leave when you feel like you are at the world's best barbecue. 327 Latigo Canyon Road, Malibu. (818) 540-2400, themalibucafe.com.
Paper or Plastik is the labor of love of Anya and Yasha Michelson, the husband-and-wife team who also own the adjacent Mimoda Dance studio. A bright, beautifully designed, artfully deconstructed, loftlike space, the café has an airy serenity that attracts a mix of grad students, boho freelancers and cute screenwriter boys, who may or may not be there primarily to ogle the gorgeous dancer chicks who hang out before or after classes next door. Either way, the high-quality eye candy alone seems to justify the high-for-the-neighborhood prices for baguette sandwiches and Intelligentsia espresso. The iced coffee, the best in the city, would be a steal at any price. 5772 W. Pico Blvd., Mid-City. (323) 935-0268, paperorplastikcafe.com.
Nat's Early Bite anchors a slightly-nicer-than-mediocre mid-Valley corner strip mall, but walk inside and you immediately know it's a big step above ordinary. A spacious, down-home restaurant with just enough stripped-down country kitsch to give it that "authentic city diner" feel, Nat has two big selling points: near-perfect comfort food and an easy vibe. There's also a great backstory: Over the years, owner Nat Elias formed a close bond with 18-year-old Mexican busboy Victor Carlos, an eager immigrant working his way up the restaurant's ladder. When Elias finally decided to retire, he "sold" the restaurant to Carlos in a special arrangement, allowing Carlos to make payments over time. Nat's serves fantastic breakfasts and lunches with bountiful homemade sandwiches, egg dishes, pancakes, etc.; exhibiting perfect cultural mirroring, it serves matzo brei as well as its Mexican equivalent, egg-based chilaquiles. 14115 Burbank Blvd, Sherman Oaks. (818) 781-3040, natsearlybite.com.
While not everyone has the money or time to fly to the Aloha State for the sweet Pacific breezes and sun-warmed surf, most anyone can drive to King's Hawaiian in Torrance for a taste of Hawaii. South Bay denizens and Hawaiian food fans from farther afield flock to King's bakery and restaurant to delight in its saimin noodles, char siu, kalua nachos, ahi poke, spam musubi, somen salad, paniolo pork, Hawaiian seafood soup and huli huli chicken. But just to make sure you're adequately loaded up, calorically speaking, King's has outfitted its festive compound with a notable to-go bakery featuring such specialties as malasadas (some with dobash filling), Hawaiian loaf bread, paradise cake (layers of passion, guava and lime) and pineapple haupia. King's Hawaiian: 2808 Sepulveda Blvd., Torrance. (310) 530-0050. The Local Place Bakery & Cafe, 18605 S. Western Ave., Torrance. (310) 523-3233. kingshawaiianrestaurants.com.
In this age of Osteria Mozza and Giada Di Laurentiis, old-school Italian-American food has taken a backseat to authentic Tuscan, Piedmontese, Neapolitan and so on. But sometimes, especially if you're from the East Coast, you want that familiar version of Italian that you grew up with, things like a huge, hearty, filling Italian sub made with meat and cheese on a roll. Mario's in Glendale does this just right. Nothing fancy other than a perfect blend of quality ingredients. Mario's is a stark, brightly lit joint with a little 1950s East Coast vibe. It also offers a few aisles of mainly imported bottled, canned and boxed items and a refrigerator case running halfway along the wall. But the star attraction is the always busy deli counter, cranking out big, toothsome sandwiches every bit as delicious, in their own way, as the squash blossoms at Mozza. 740 E. Broadway, Glendale. (818) 242-4114, mariosdeli.com.