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Best Dishes of 2004

Photos by Anne Fishbein

Hanger steak with wasabi relish. Many crimes have been committed in the name of "fusion’’ cuisine, and not a few of them in Los Angeles. But this cross of classical California technique with Eastern flavors at Beacon, the superb restaurant from longtime Chinois chef Kazuto Matsusaka, is so delicious, the searing tang of the Japanese condiment doing something wonderful to the tart, carbonized flavor of grilled meat, that you can only wonder why nobody thought of the combination until now. 3280 Helms Ave., Culver City, (310) 838-7500.

Banh mi, of course, are the Vietnamese equivalent of submarine sandwiches, with charcuterie and vegetables smeared with mayonnaise and laid into fresh baguettes. The most important banh mi is the sandwich usually referred to as banh mi dac biet, which is a best-of-pig combo sandwich: ham, headcheese, liver paté, and sometimes a sort of sour ham, a filet of fresh cucumber, pickled slivers of carrot and daikon, sliced chiles, and a handful of cilantro. 2004 was the year of the banh mi in the San Gabriel Valley, the year that the phenomonon spread beyond a few old-fashioned specialty shops to a Starbucks-like profusion. Of the many, many banh mi parlors in the neighborhood, we like Mr. Baguette, especially the banh mi made on fresh baguettes frosted with toasted sesame seeds. 8702 E. Valley Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 288-9166.

Banh Mi at Mr. Baguette

Doro wot is a dense chicken stew complex as a Oaxacan mole, rich as butter, onions slowly cooking down into a jam, spices tempering, two dozen strong-flavored ingredients subsuming their sharp notes into a mellow if peppery whole. A great doro wot has an undeniable presence, a resonance that is apparent even if you have never tasted Ethiopian cooking before. The doro wot at Meals by Genet on Fairfax Avenue’s Little Ethiopia strip is a serious doro wot, vibrating with what must be ginger and black pepper and bishop’s weed and clove but tasting of none of them, as sticky and dense as any French chef’s demi-glace. 1053 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 938-9304.

Barbacoa, at the Eastside’s El Borrego de Oro, mutton pit-roasted with maguey leaves in the style of the Central Mexican state of Hidalgo, is a delicious, savory mess, slivers and shards and nubs hacked from a steaming carcass: some crunchy, some soft, some greasy, luscious and dark. This is no pallid New Zealand rack flambéed in Chardonnay — it’s pungent, powerful stuff, sweetly reeking of the gamy underbrush, lamb that bites back. The barbacoa may be available only on Saturdays and Sundays, but tear off a hunk of mutton, wrap it in a hot, handmade tortilla, add some onions and a spoonful of stingingly hot salsa, and you’ve got a taco you can tell your grandchildren about. 2403 E. Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 780-4213.

Goat soup. Actually, the best part of a meal at Chin Go Gae is not the goat soup, a bubbling orange cauldronful of kid meat, chile and as many fresh sesame leaves as you can stuff down into the broth. It is that moment just after the meal when the waitress enriches the dregs of the soup with an egg and some rice, and cooks it down to a thick, incredibly goaty porridge seared black and crisp at the edges. Incredible. 3063 W. Eighth St., Koreatown, (213) 480-8071.

Crab sushi, in Los Angeles, tends to be tricked out with baroque embellishments. The version at Sushi Tenn is nothing if not a straightforward thing, a single, uninterrupted slab of meat laid across a faintly sweetened lozenge of warm sushi rice, no soy sauce, no yuzu, no wasabi, garnished only with a single lentil-sized glob of pea-green crab innards, slightly bitter at first but mellowing into a sort of richness that doubles the crab’s flavor an octave higher, the way that certain French chefs these days combine puréed apples, dried apples, roasted apples and apple granita in a single dish. Spectacular. 2004 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 473-2388.

A serious Doro Wotat Meals By Genet

Duck noodle soup. The Thai-Chinese restaurant Rod-Ded, which has been on its dingy Hollywood street corner for what seems like half of forever, is home to a cult devoted to its duck noodle soup, gooey, gently spiced roast duck served with thick rice noodles in a spicy broth violently flavored in a manner you might expect from a place that buys cloves by the hundredweight. 5623 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 962-8382.

Venison tacos. The Yucatán peninsula, a flat, featureless scrub-land covered with squat, browning trees, was once a game -lover’s paradise, a land of abundant hare, deer and exotic tree fowl, along with citrus trees and habanero chiles sufficient to make it all delicious. But the game isn’t quite so plentiful anymore, and the Mexican government prohibits hunting what little is still around — the idea of venison tacos inspires the kind of nostalgic reverie in Mérida natives that the idea of ortolans brings out in Frenchmen of a certain age. But in Los Angeles, with farmed venison, anything goes. And the tart, chile-intensive venison tacos at Chichen Itza, in the Mercado La Paloma complex near USC, are very good indeed. 3655 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 741-1075.

Ramen. At Daikokuya, the pork broth is a formidable liquid, made from the bones of the same tasty black pigs you find on the menus of the better Korean restaurants these days, opaque and calcium-intensive, almost as rich as milk. Floating with the noodles are slices of seasoned bamboo shoot and a boiled egg per bowl, also plump slabs of simmered pork so tender that they tend to break up under vigorous prodding, separating into soft, gently flavored striations of sinew and long-cooked fat. If you are used to the sharper, leaner varieties of ramen, Daikokuya’s version may come as something of a surprise, but it only takes a few mouthfuls of the broth to underscore the inevitability of the style. 327 E. First St., downtown, (213) 626-1680.

Marshmallow stew at Minibar involves two coffee cups half-filled with viscous white goo, and a teapot brimming with the kind of hot chocolate that is essentially melted candy bars thinned with a little hot cream. When you pour the boiling liquid into the marshmallow, the marsh-mallow somehow rises to envelop the chocolate, becoming a -living, actualized mass of bittersweet glory. The teapot is a big teapot, and a good thing too. 3413 Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 882-6965.


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