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Consume Part I: Food

HOME COOKING FROM THE KITCHEN OF WASHINGTON, JOHNSON & NIXON

Georgia. There’s no sign for Georgia, and the restaurant itself is tucked away within a relatively nondescript green concrete building at the La Brea end of Melrose. But you’ll have no trouble finding the joint. Just look for the swarm of activity out front — the line of sleek cars clogging up the corner, the hard-driven valets buzzing around like worker bees. Owned by Brad Johnson, Denzel Washington and Norm Nixon, this 4-year-old Southern-cookin’ joint is one hot ticket, and a refreshing blast of sophistication and character on a no-longer-hip street, a high-energy, star-sighting sort of place — so don’t plan on any sequestered, goo-goo-eyed dining experiences. Do, however, expect some of the best damn gourmet Southern food you’ve ever tasted, from grits to catfish and beyond. (That’s right, gourmet grits.) 7250 Melrose Ave.; (213) 933-8420. (Neal Weiss)

 

 

BEST UNDISCLOSED CHOPPED- LIVER DEAL FROM THE DELI THAT BROUGHT YOU FROZEN FRIES

Jerry’s Famous Deli. Jerry Lewis once observed that pastrami had killed more Jews than the Holocaust. Well, chopped liver probably came in second. But if you gotta have it, you gotta have it. So here’s the deal. You love chopped liver, right? You want the best, right? So go to Jerry’s, where it’s as good as your bubbe used to make it. But wait. Before you order that chopped-liver sandwich for $7.75 ("Highway robbery!" screams Bubbe), check out the chopped-liver appetizer — which comes with a boulder-size portion of chopped liver, lettuce, sliced tomatoes, onions and some rye bread thrown in — for (shhh!) $7.25. What’s the difference? The appetizer makes at least three sandwiches — for 50 cents less! You don’t gotta be an Einstein to figure out what to do next. Load up, take it home and get chopped-livered out for the next two days. 42 S. Delacey Ave., Pasadena, (626) 440-1177. 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 980-4245. 8701 Beverly Blvd., W. Hollywood, (310) 289-1811. (Mary Beth Crain)

 

 

 

MARY HAD A LITTLE PROBLEM

Ye Olde King’s Head Pub/Restaurant/ Tea Room and Gift Shop. Each Sunday, Northern Ireland expat Tom Sheehy puts 24 legs of graze-fed New Zealand lamb into the King’s Head ovens, at "about 350 to 400 degrees. They roast for three to three and a half hours — but remember, I’m cooking in bulk," he says. "When the wife roasts the Sunday lamb after church, the timing is different ’cause she’s only cooking for the family." Come 11:30-ish, homesick Brits, sleepy Irish and lovers of lamb from Ventura to San Diego flock to Santa Monica for that religion of sweet, tender meat topped with a dollop of fresh mint sauce, for crispy roasted potatoes bathing in lamb juices, for a carrot, parsnip and turnip purée that’s spiked with butter and nutmeg. They come regularly for Tom’s Sunday lamb special for $9.95, for the perfume of cumin, fresh garlic and thyme. The ritual: They sit down; they have a beer and await the slices of lamb that’ll be carved for them from the bone. After the meal, they’ll have another beer. Hot weather, cold — when the roast meets vegetable, it answers the longing for comfort and tradition, even though the wife didn’t do the cooking. Amen. 116 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 451-1402. (Pamela Klein)

 

 

 

BEST PLACE TO TAKE GRANDPA TO BRUNCH

El Cid Flamenco Restaurant. This particular stretch of Sunset (east of Fountain) seems dry and deserted, but take a few steps down El Cid’s winding stairway on any Sunday morn and you’ll enter a little brunch paradise — green gardens, Spanish egg specialties, champagne. But the best part’s the musical accompaniment: the Jazz au Femmes, a trio of gray-haired grannies, all decked out spiffily in matching outfits to perform their weekly set of "All of Me"–type standards. Their clarinet/sax player’s got a saucy Carol Channing ’do and a smooth perform- ing style, and the bun-wearing drummer–cum–lead singer (bet she was doing that before Phil Collins) always keeps one spiky black pump raised up onto her equipment (bet she was doing that before Courtney Love). Brunch is $11.95 every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. 4212 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake; (213) 668-0318. (Mara Schwartz)

 

 

 

BEST TACOS À LA CREMA

 

Alegria. As the owner puts it, the Silver Lake storefront restaurant’s tacos à la crema are "as down-home as fried chicken and collard greens." Like those Southern staples, Nadine Trujillo’s tacos tap into a deep-down yearning for mama — rich and savory and satisfying. Traditionally served during Lent, when no meat is permitted, these vegetarian delights consist of mashed potatoes mixed with mounds and mounds of jack cheese, garlic salt and a bit of marjoram stuffed into corn tortillas, deep-fried and topped with three of Trujillo’s homemade salsas. During the day she might use a ranchera, a salsa verde and a salsa fresca. The best time to try this dish, however, is at night, when the more substantial toppings appear — a mole, a salsa verde, maybe a salsa roja. Then the whole thing is topped with queso fresco and crème fraîche and garnished with guacamole. Worth every calorie. 3510 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake; (213) 913-1422. (Sara Catania)

 

 

 

BEST RIDICULOUS BREAKFAST BURRITO

The Cook Shack. It’s made with six eggs — need we say more? Okay, we will. This creation is so monstrous it’s delivered to your table by crane. It’s jam-packed with cheese, potatoes, chiles and your choice of bacon or sausage, it’s topped with salsa, and it comes on a plate loaded with the Shack’s famous breakfast potatoes, which are so mysteriously light and crisp you could toss them into the air and they’d probably flutter down like flower petals. You also get a complimentary piece of delicious, home-baked coffee cake, which comes with every breakfast order. Warning: You can split this breakfast with a buddy and you’ll still be sorry. 1929 Huntington Dr., S. Pasadena; (626) 799-3333. (Mary Beth Crain)

 

 

 

BEST THREE-HOUR MEAL

Pinot at the Chronicle. For years the favorite watering hole of Pasadena’s elite, the Chronicle was the old newspaperman/politico hangout. Then a few years back, primo chef Christian Shaffer helped to create Pinot, which has become the ultimate in haute cuisine and features waiters who go past mere service into the domain of caregiving. This place is so classy that at the bottom of the menu Shaffer is listed as "Chef du Cuisine," along with his "sous chef," Joseph Gillard. The waiters specialize in "personalized menus," and will "create" your meal in consultation with the chef, who loves both challenge and spontaneity. There is, for instance, his "Salad in Metamorphosis," a freeform appetizer that comes to him on the spur of the moment and therefore can’t be regulated by the crass constrictions of the common everyday menu. Shaffer will communicate through the waiter whether or not he approves of your choice, and sometimes will not accommodate you if he feels your desire is not in your best interest. Fortunately, he’s like a good stockbroker in that respect: The food is so phenomenal that if you’re smart, you’ll just sit back and take his advice. Up to four waiters at a time will be serving you, and your master waiter — who has arranged your meal to be, as he terms it, an "event in process" — will divide the dinner into four or five courses and will be checking midway through every course to see how you like it, reporting back to the chef. He’ll also suggest the perfect wine, of course, and as for the dessert menu — well, he brings it to you with somber reverence, saying, "I know these decisions are difficult, so take as much time as you need," sort of like a funeral director. Our meal’s running time: three hours. The cost: roughly $35 to $40 per person. 897 Granite Dr., Pasadena; (626) 792-1179. (Mary Beth Crain)

 

 

 

BEST CHEAP-SPAGHETTI COMPETITION

Carmine’s vs. Domenico’s. Okay, guys, get out those gloves and duke it out, ’cause this is a tough call: The new kid on the block versus the old favorite. Carmine’s, a recent addition to South Pasadena, has the more romantic atmosphere, the more attentive waiters and waitresses, and a wow of a real meal deal: Your choice of a whopping bowl of excellent minestrone soup or a salad, all the fresh rolls you can eat served hot from the oven, and a plateful of spaghetti marinara that’s enough for two — all for (are you ready?) $5.75 (add a buck-twenty-five for two big meatballs). Domenico’s has the rowdier feel of the family pizza parlor, where you sometimes have to grin and bear the crowds and noise, but its spaghetti dinner packs a Joe Pesci punch: a salad of greens, olives and tomatoes buried under an avalanche of mozzarella (a meal in itself), a couple of slabs of garlic bread the size of Mike Tyson’s forearms, and a portion of spaghetti marinara that’ll feed you well into the next day, at the bargain-basement price of under $7.60. You choose. Carmine’s, 424 Fair Oaks Ave., S. Pasadena, (626) 799-2266. Domenico’s Italian Kitchen, 2411 E. Washington Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 797-6459. (Mary Beth Crain)

 

 

 

BEST 24-HOUR MEXICAN REST AURANT

Ordonoz. Ordonoz is the San Gabriel Valley’s version of Hemingway’s clean, well-lighted place: not a taco stand, but a peaceful, sit-down refuge for those who can’t sleep for want of an order of succulent birria and tortillas — or even breakfast — at 2:15 a.m. 872 Garfield Ave., Montebello; (213) 724-6386. (Marc B. Haefele)

 

THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF . . .

Arturo’s Family Restaurant. While the most alluring of L.A.’s old-school Mexican restaurants rely upon a tawdry rendezvous of tequila, red lights and red vinyl, Arturo’s Family Restaurant manages to charm in a manner quite the opposite. Light and airy and bright, with tropical plantings, Arturo’s evokes Disneyesque Americana/Mexicana futurism circa 1961. The dining room’s soaring glass walls, spacy white globe lights and suave-dopey coral-and-turquoise benches reinforce that jet-age feeling of internationalism. The bar is particularly attractive with its glass-enclosed, leafy atrium, waterfall and sullen stone god. The menu is replete with the usual gringo-friendly combos, the traditional Mexican/suburban specialties and steaks. The mole is particularly savory and not too sweet, while the tamales are delightfully so, and the enchiladas seem happy about the sauces in which they sit. Six-foot burritos upon request. 25720 S. Western Ave., Harbor City; (310) 325-0671. (Reverend Al Cacophony)

 

 

BEST BLACK-AND-WHITE COOKIE IN THE VALLEY

Brown’s Victory Bakery. Black-and-white cookies are my favorite. And my kids’ favorite. The way chocolate and vanilla icing melt together; the cakelike consistency of the cookie; the dilemma of alternating a chocolate bite with a vanilla bite (as immortalized in an episode of Seinfeld) or downing the white side and saving the chocolate for last. Opened in 1959, Brown’s Victory Bakery is the only location run by the original owners of the landmark Brown’s on Wilshire. (It’s a testament to the Brown name that, three owners later, the Wilshire bakery still carries the same moniker.) The original owner’s son, Sheldon, continues the tradition of the best black-and-white cookie you’ll ever eat, not to mention unbelievable danish and rye bread, too. 12805 Victory Blvd., N. Hollywood; (818) 766-3258. (Renée Simone)

 

 

 

RED ANY GOOD MEAT LATELY?

The Steak Joynt. If you like sprouts and it makes your night when your waiter or waitress is an actor/rock star–in–training, then stay away from the humble establishment known as the Steak Joynt. The "y" in Joynt is the only concession to cuteness. Inside, you’ll find great steaks and red meats that come oversized, cooked exactly as ordered, the meat aged and USDA Choice, served bloody or burnt. They even have Sinatra and Bennett playing in the background. Want a change from the standard Heart Associa-tion–approved fare? Give this place a shot. Dinners come with baked potato or fries and a side of grilled vegetables so fresh and skillfully prepared that even a confirmed carnivore like myself will eat them. Two of you can have generous-size drinks and a dinner that will not only put your cholesterol level through the roof, but will remind you that maybe those canine teeth in your mouth are there for something other than lettuce. Finish with dessert and get out the door for under 50 bucks. 4354 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood; (818) 761-9899. (Eddie Little)

 

 

 

GAS, (WHEAT)GRASS OR (FAUX-HEALTHY) ASS — NOBODY DRINKS FOR FREE

Café Jumby. First coffee, now this. The smoothie industry is already spiraling out of control, with Jamba Juice starting to stink like Starbucks. Admittedly guilty of bowing to the Starbucks gods when they took over a few years back, I have staved off the Jamba Juice. Not that I haven’t been a lemming in this latest fad — hell, I’m all for liquid health, especially those equal-to-five-servings-of-vegetables shots of wheat grass — I’d just rather enrich my faux-healthy ass at the crunchy-granola Café Jumby. Just off Studio City’s trendiest strip of boulevard (behind Starbucks and, for that matter, just a mango’s throw from laboratorylike Jamba Juice), Café Jumby cranks out concoctions such as the Caribbean Cruise, Mr. Bunny, and Berries Sing the Blues in a casual atmosphere that includes colorful murals, chalk-etched menu boards, worn director’s chairs, plastic patio furniture and a staff of pomo hipsters. A perfect, nearly makeshift environment for the downing of drinks blended with bee pollen or shots squeezed from wheat grass, kinda like the grown-up equivalent of the sidewalk lemonade stand. 3990 Vantage Blvd., Studio City; (818) 761-8452. (Neal Weiss)

 

BEST GIGANTIC, DROWNING MOTHERFUCKER

Luna Sol Cafe. The first time I tasted the incredible food at Luna Sol Cafe, I seriously considered moving into the nearby Asbury Apartments just so I could wake up every morning to its scrumptious, homemade and ridiculously cheap Mex-American fare. One of my faves is the Performance Burrito ($3), a gigantic motherfucker stuffed with fresh veggies, curry, tofu, rice, beans and cheese and drowning in awesome red sauce. Specials include the veggie Tex-Mex tacos — two big tacos, rice, beans and Home Boy Fries for $3.25 — which two people can share and still have major leftovers. An order of Home Boy Fries ($1.25) is a meal in itself. The coffee is strong and laced with cinnamon, and Luna Sol serves fresh juice, too. The cafe’s interior is all mismatched couches, original and thrift-store art, and fliers for neighborhood events and political causes. Founded by Tito Lopez and Carmelo Alvarez (who met through the Peace and Justice Center downtown), Luna Sol also functions as a haven for poetry readings, live music, neighborhood meetings and rallies. The staffers seem to be cast all from the same mold —young, friendly and unpretentious, and the clientele is a cool mix of young and old, artsy and straight, businesspeople and street crazies from MacArthur Park. With a little luck, this joint will turn into an L.A. institution. 2501 Sixth St.; (213) 380-4754. (Pleasant Gehman)

 

 

 

BEST GOAT SOUP

El Charro Restaurant. Yeah, yeah, make your own Rolling Stones reference if you must. You’ll stop the second you sample anything from the El Charro menu. Since opening his restaurant nine years ago on this quiet stretch of Venice Boulevard, owner Florencio Cueva and staff have developed a devoted following of folks hungry for truly Mexican food. And for good reason — this is the real article, just the way abuelita used to make it in the old country. Especially the birria (goat) soup. More a hearty stew than a soup, El Charro slow-boils fresh goat meat in cumin and secret herbs and spices until it is so tender it literally falls apart if you so much as give it a hard stare. It is, in a word, amazing, and with the generous sides of rice, beans and warm tortillas, almost too much to eat at one sitting. But you’ll manage. 12819 Venice Blvd., Mar Vista; (310) 391-1885. (Chris Checkman)

 

 

 

BEST CHEAP, LATE-NIGHT KOREAN FOOD

Hodori Restaurant. For those who care to cruise Koreatown past bedtime in search of some decent Korean food, there is hope. At Hodori, for about $6 per person, you can get a good home-style Korean meal. Appetizers range from pot-stickers man du and Korean calamari to the popular hot rice-cake dish tuk-bok-kee. Main plates include cold and hot noodles; meeyuk guk, a delicious seawood soup that’s been known to cure the common cold; "sticky rice"; and a plethora of side dishes that have to be squeezed in between all the other bowls on that wooden chunk of table. Best of all, it’s open 24 hours. 1001 S. Vermont Ave., Koreatown; (213) 383-3554 or 383-1701. (Jin Whang)

 

 

 

BEST LITTLE DUMPS

Mandarin Deli is one of those freakish dining establishments where everything on the menu is excellent (okay, I haven’t actually tried the stewed pork stomach, but I’m sure that stewed-pork-stomach aficionados will find it very much to their liking) and ridiculously cheap. The cold tofu and pickled cucumber salads are really refreshing on hot days, and the spicy chile noodles will make you weep with joy. But the real attractions are the pan-fried meat dumplings — 3-inch bundles of greasy delight so sensually gratifying that I just want to scrooge around in a bathtub full of ’em. Use a combination of chile paste and rice vinegar for a delicious dipping sauce, or eat ’em straight from the plate — either way, you can’t go wrong. Nor will you err by ordering the steamed vegetable dumplings (available, unfortunately, only at the Second Street branch), which are filled with chopped mushrooms, bean sprouts and glass noodles. The boiled fish dumplings (Broadway branch only) may be too slippery for some, but make a nice complement to their fried meat counterparts. In any case, if dumplings are your downfall, Mandarin Deli is a great place to hit rock bottom. 356 E. Second St., downtown, (213) 617-0231. 727 N. Broadway, Chinatown, (213) 623-6054. 9305 Reseda Blvd., Northridge; (818) 993-0122. (Dan Epstein)

 

 

 

BEST PURPLE CAKE

Ube Cake at Goldilock’s Bakery. This Play-Doh–looking cake, a Filipino dessert made from naturally bright- purple sweet yams, comes topped with a pile of lavender butter-cream frosting sweet enough to make your teeth tingle. In all its rich, spongy, flavorful glory, the ube cake looks like a monument to Grape Shasta. While you’re there, try some other Filipino favorites such as mamon, an eggy sweet-bread dessert, and ensaymada, sweet bread topped with shredded Cheddar, sugar sprinkles and butter. 209 S. Vermont Ave.; (213) 382-9303. (Nerissa Pacio)

 

 

 

BEST MOLE AND CRICKETS

Guelaguetza. Legend has it that in the 17th century, nuns in Oaxaca concocted a blend of cocoa, chile and spices to create what we know today as mole. At Guelaguetza, you have five versions of mole to choose from, all created from a paste made in Oaxaca, from where they also get their dried crickets and quesillo cheese. If you can’t handle chocolate or insects for dinner, try the clayuda, a Oaxacan take on pizza made with a huge tortilla topped with beans, cheese, salsa, and either salted beef or marinated pork. 3337½ W. Eighth St.; (213) 427-0601. (Joe Sehee)

 

 

 

BEST (ONLY?) IRANIAN–ITALIAN RESTAURANT

Hank’s Bistro. You’ve got your run-of-the-mill eclectic mélanges: Japanese-French, Cuban-Filipino, Chinese-Peruvian. Now for something completely different. My wife was dining on tortellini, my 5-year-old was gnawing on pepperoni pizza, and I was wading though a mountain of basmati rice with sour cherries. And for dessert, a delicious ice flavored with lemon and rosewater. Or spumoni. So next time you want something out of the ordinary, you know where to go. And if you have any questions on the finer points of Persian cuisine, ask Max, the waiter, who is the epitome of courtliness. I didn’t know you could still find waiters like this. 14406 S. Hawthorne Blvd., Lawndale; (310) 679-2222. (Jedd Birkner)

 

 

 

ATTACK OF THE KILLER MISO SOUP

Inaka Restaurant. When the wife and I left L.A. three years ago, the place was knee-deep in health eateries. Now we’re back, and it’s become a bleak place for the organic, or nearly organic. Bodhi Garden in Echo Park is gone. The Source on Sunset is gone. And Orean Health Burger on Vine is now somewhere in Pasadena. What can a poor couple do, ’cept nosh on homemade tofu? Fortunately, at least one venerable institution of salubrious cuisine still exists: Inaka, possibly L.A.’s only macrobiotic gourmet palace, is still alive and well, as it has been for the past 20 years. No sugar, eggs or animal fat in anything; killer miso soup; the country-style vegetable plate is likely the most filling thing you’ll ever eat that isn’t laden with carcinogens. Inaka makes such staples as brown rice and summer squashes and nori come alive with verve and imagination. Take a couple of carnivores there, and see if you can convert them. 131 S. La Brea Ave., Hollywood; (213)936-9353. (Johnny Angel)

AND THE OSCAR GOES TO . . .

La Esquinita. What kind of Mexican food could lure Oscar de la Hoya out of East L.A.? The pretty pugilist, his trainer and the rest of his Eastside gym crew take the bridge over to Echo Park for the bean burritos and chorizo at his family-run eatery (the name means "little corner"). The chile relleno burrito is the kind stuffed with chunks of beef, not a personal favorite, but elevated here by the fresh ingredients and balance of flavors. Mexicanos say the smoky salsa tastes like it came from a street stand in Mexico City. La Esquinita packs plenty of it, plus vats of sour cream, in every takeout order, and that’s without having to ask for it. They’ll throw in the other condiments — onions, cilantro, oregano — on request. The restaurant’s head shots alone are worth a visit. One wonders how anybody with a SAG card ever found this place, or if they were tailing Oscar. There’s a quiet dining room in the back, usually half-empty, and just the place to take unruly young eaters. If the kids like Mexican food, they’ll love La Esquinita; in our house, it outpolls McDonald’s, and that’s with George of the Jungle toys. 1400 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park; (213) 482-1645. (Gale Holland)

 

 

 

BEST TEA-TIME FOR CIVILIZED GRANNIES AND TRANNIES

La-Tea-Da. Remember going into your grandma’s attic or basement and dressing up in her wacky hats and scarves? Then, you would sit Chatty Cathy and your stuffed animals at a table and have a tea party, pretending that you were grownups talking about very grown-up things. Since grandmas these days tend to run around from yoga class to spiritual-awakening seminar, one might believe that the days of fancy dress-up tea parties are but a dim memory. Not so. La-Tea-Da offers a chance to dress up and have a tea party (and you can still pretend that you are a grownup talking about really grown-up things). First, you select a hat — most are from the ’40s and ’50s, with a pillbox and a floppy or two thrown in. Don’t forget to grab a boa — there’s a fine selection of colors and textures. You find your table among the doily-laden bureaus and antique stoves. The menu is a mite more sophisticated than the pecan sandies and Kool-Aid that you may remember from childhood tea parties. There are incredible finger sandwiches, soups and salads, and more than 70 teas. The perfect finish to a wonderful lunch is the homemade shortbread with chocolate drizzled on top. Reservations recommended. 21 E. Huntington Dr., Arcadia; (818) 446-9988. (Kim Jones)

 

 

 

BEST CHEAP FAST NOODLINGS

Mishima. If the movie Tampopo turned you on to finding the perfect Japanese noodle soup, look no further than this affordable, high-quality noodle and rice-bowl shop. The limited menu allows Mishima — owned and operated by a seasoning and noodle company based in Japan — to serve its food cheap and fast. You can choose from hot or cold udon (thick wheat noodles) and soba (thin buckwheat noodles), tempura and an array of combination plates. If you’re in need of a sushi fix, try the chirashi, which has all the makings for do-it-yourself vegetarian sushi (no raw fish available). But remember, while you’re relishing your hot bowl of udon, it’s not polite to slurp it. 8474 W. Third St., (213) 782-0181. 11301 Olympic Blvd., (310) 473-5297. And 21605 S. Western Ave., Suite G, Torrance, (310) 320-2089. (Willy Banta)

 

 

 

NICE THAI

Sha Sha Cafe. At the top of Barham Boulevard between the 101 and Forest Lawn Drive, this small, converted house of a restaurant is like an outpost between city and Valley. But it’s more than just your last chance to get Thai food before venturing back into the Middle American (Burbank) or urban (Hollywood) jungles; it’s your chance to get the best Thai food in town. Trust me, I’ve done all the other, more trendy Thai restaurants, like the overpriced chain with the skimpily dressed waitress babes, or the one resting in the shadow of Capitol Records, its menus in the shape of LPs. While Sha Sha is neither skimpily clad nor shadowy, it does offer a curbside view to the parade of Range Rover–driving, cell phone–talking film-biz hipsters as they venture off to make the world a more entertained place (or so they presume). More importantly, Sha Sha’s curry chicken (red, none of that muddy brown stuff) is a furious feast. And its spicy garlic and pepper with (insert your favorite animal flesh here) is an absolute party in your mouth. 3353 Barham Blvd.; (213) 851-5494. (Neal Weiss)

 

 

 

BEST MARINATED EGGPLANT

Sunnin Restaurant. At this Lebanese lunch counter with white tiling and Arab soap operas playing on the TV in the corner, you can easily imagine you are in the former Paris of the Middle East, without the internecine warfare. Sunnin is also home to some excellent food and a menu that goes far beyond your run-of-the-mill falafel ’n’ tabouleh joint. Which brings me to the eggplant — or rather, mini-eggplant — pickled with enough garlic to make your hair stand on end . . . or wilt. (It’s addictive.) The Lebanese sausages in lemon glaze are a piquant complement. And there is a cool and sweet dessert called ashta, made of cream studded with bananas and pistachios, to finish off your Levantine feast. 1779 Westwood Blvd., Westwood; (310) 477-2358. (Jedd Birkner)

 

 

 

BEST PLUMP BABIES

Las Fuentes. On a busy street in what some consider to be the armpit of the San Fernando Valley is this always-bustling Mexican fast-food restaurant, home to the champion of sweet tamales. Tamales are all about texture, and these plump babies boast moist and slightly chewy corn masa, ample with raisins, sweet pineapple bits and just the right amount of cinnamon. Two tamales and a small side dish make for a perfect-size meal. 18415 Vanowen St., Reseda; (818) 708-3344. (Wendy Weisberg)

 

 

 

BEST HOT WHEELS

Salvador Vizcarra’s Taco Truck. Call it hot, call it estilo Jalisco — this taco truck is on fire. Devotees have been flocking to Salvador Vizcarra’s truck on Olympic for 10 years. If you’re looking for a good burn, Vizcarra has the tortas of your dreams. Called tortas ahogadas, they’re thick rolls filled with your choice of meat and chopped onions, topped with diced cabbage and grated cheese, then drenched in a pool of burning red chile. As the sauce runs down your arm, your mouth is ignited. My other favorite dish is tacos pappas, chile-drenched tacos with mashed potatoes stuffed inside, again topped with cabbage and cheese. Who knew heaven was so damn hot? Parked on Olympic Blvd., just east of Soto St.; (213) 721-0740. (Part of Gony’s Catering) (Paul Saucido)

 

 

 

BEST SLURP ’N’ PEE

Thai Slush at Noodle World. From a country renowned for its full-contact kickboxing, spicy food and pointy gold hats comes an icy-cool dessert — the Thai Slush. And nobody makes one better than Noodle World. Choose from more than 24 ingredients, from sliced pineapples, gelatin and tapioca to such imported Asian delicacies as water chestnuts, lychees, and sweet basil seeds that look like miniature eyeballs ($1.75 for three items, 50 cents for each additional item). After your choices have been put into a bowl and drenched in coconut milk, they’re buried under a frosty avalanche of shaved ice and doused with creamy condensed milk or semi-sweet Thai syrup. 46 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 293-8800. (Avelino C. Tuason)

 

 

 

BEST LOAF UNDER OATH

The Hungry Fox brightens a dreary expanse of Sherman Way with a huge American flag and the words "Home Cooking." This haven for breakfast all day is decidedly not a place Valley people go to be seen — except, perhaps, by desert artist/eccentric Robert Fischer, a regular whose written testimonial is handed out at the counter. The house breakfast special is Tino’s Greek Island Special, with loukaniko (Greek sausage) and veggies, but the real draw is the selection of jellies and marmalades, made daily by owners Steve and Millie Skoutaris from homegrown fruit donated by customers. The Hungry Fox is a place to eat — not do — lunch, with the best gyros this side of Halsted Street and good honest meat loaf at half the price of that at the Daily Grill. 13359 Sherman Way, N. Hollywood; (818) 765-7111. (Cary Baker)

 

 

 

BEST PLACE TO WATCH EEL THROB TO THE COMMODORES

Tokyo Delves’ Sushi Bar. From the outside, this hole-in-the-wall with a blue neon sign looks like a biker bar. But behind the double doors is a sushi bar, with four chefs wearing headset microphones and welcoming you with high fives. Surrounding them is a sea of glittering fish and fluorescent sharks, where you can feast on delicious sushi rolls with silly names — Pink Panther, Peter Pan, Flamingo. Each night at 7, 8:30, 10 and 11:30 p.m. watch as the room turns into a disco inferno. Groove to Kool and the Gang as rainbows of light dance across the room and the mirrored ball spins to "Jungle Boogie." Watch the Lucky Lamp select winners of a free meal. 5239 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood; (818) 766-3868. (Mary Anne Modina)

 

 

 

BEST FOOD ON A TRAFFIC ISLAND

Pollo a la Brasa. At Eighth and Western, in a Fotomat-size building surrounded by chin-high stacks of wood, is the best Peruvian barbecue joint on any traffic island today. The specialty of the house is chicken bathed in garlic served with salad, steamed rice, fries or boiled potatoes topped with aji, a sauce made from jalapeño and serrano chiles. Best downed with a can of Inka Cola, imported from Peru. 764 S. Western Ave.; (213) 382-4090. (Joe Sehee)

 

 

 

TURKEY: THE OTHER DEAD BIRD

Demi’s Grill. Many joints nowadays, from quasi-posh cafés to divey holes, serve garden burgers, chicken burgers (a marketing ploy; they’re usually breasts and not patties), fish burgers and turkey burgers as alternatives to ground cow. Since I bid au revoir to red meat a few years back, I’ve sampled turkey burgers, the most common option, all over this lovely city and elsewhere. At the risk of now having to face crazier lines and more-harried workers, I have chosen to reveal the finest turkey burger I’ve tried. They call it their "trophy" burger, and they are right on the money. This heavenly patty is nestled between a whole-wheat bun with just the right amount of mayo, lettuce, tomatoes and onion if you ask for them. Moist and succulent, charbroiled and not greasy, the turkey burgers have some nifty spicing and what appears to be parsley. No cheese has to cover this baby to give it taste, a trick the competition might use. I know you’re looking for a good reason to visit Mar Vista. Seek no further: Your burger messiah has arrived. 12035 Venice Blvd., Mar Vista; (310) 572-1686. (Wendy Weisberg)

 

 

BEST PHO HOME AWAY FROM MONTEREY PARK

Noodle Planet. At this sedate pan-Asian restaurant, you would be well advised to study the menu. Think of it as your rough guide to a palate that’s worlds away from your own, particularly if yours was raised, as mine was, on meat loaf and mashed potatoes. (Note to the uninitiated: The spicy shrimp paste, a staple in Thai cooking, emits a funky odor that overwhelms the diner and dampens the appetite.) To those looking for a bowl of pho comparable to Mom’s or Auntie’s, Noodle Planet (its name is a misnomer — for it serves more than noodles) will seem like home or at least remind you of Monterey Park. 1118 Westwood Blvd., Westwood; (310) 208-0777. (Ellen Krout-Hasegawa)

 

 

 

BEST-DRESSED BURRITOS

Marisa’s Burrito Adventure. Catering to a crowd that wants to eat well without gaining inches, Marisa’s prepares fresh, colorful, tasty dishes that contain as little fat as possible without sacrificing flavor. The low-cal burritos are as much a feast for the eye as they are for the palate and come in red (sun-dried tomato), orange (cheddar) and green (pesto), as well as traditional flour-colored, tortillas. Dieters can have their enchilada (garden, chicken basil, chicken curry or gumbo shrimp) and eat it, too. 7119 Melrose Ave., Hollywood; (213) 954-8411. (Ellen Krout-Hasegawa)

 

 

BEST RONALD-FREE McDONALD’S

1953 McDonald’s Museum & Retail Store. Just off the Santa Ana Freeway lies the place where Ray Kroc learned to run a hamburger stand and build the company that would take over the world. The "World’s Oldest McDonald’s" (still standing, that is) has operated since 1953 as a corporate franchise long scorned by the corporate mothership for such deviations as serving Shamrock Shakes in July. After years of prodding, the shuttered stand was restored, with the addition of a museum and retail store. Orwellian videos now play outside, and inside you can pick up cuff links, magnets and $90 plush dolls all featuring the likeness of Speedee, the company’s original hamburger-head mascot. 10297 Lakewood Blvd., Downey; (562) 622-9248. (Chris Nichols)

 

BEST SUBS, OR BEST WAY TO MEET A DROOLER IN GRIFFITH PARK

 

Santoro’s Submarine Sandwich Shop. Hidden away in a sleepy section of Burbank is this family-owned and -operated shop where the art of making a submarine sandwich is still alive. There’s nothing unusual about Santoro’s ingredients (freshly baked bread, select meats and cheeses, tomatoes, pickles and onions — and mayo and mustard for those who prefer a less traditional sub); if you’ve never eaten one, you won’t be expecting anything special. But after everything’s been topped off with a few drops of (secret) oil (not olive) and (secret) spices, you’ll wonder why you ever went anywhere else for a sub fix. Eat on the premises, or race down Buena Vista to Griffith Park and consume your prize in public. But be forewarned: Anyone who sees or smells will drool openly and beg for directions to Santoro’s. 1423 W. Burbank Blvd., Burbank; (818) 848-8888. (Pamela Wells)

 

 

 

EXCUSE ME, HAS ANYONE SEEN MY MOTHER’S SUSHI BAR?

Jozu. In Japanese, jozu means "excellent, well done," which describes both the décor and the cuisine at Jozu. Located at the former Tulip site, this isn’t your mother’s sushi bar. Owner Andy Nakano combines California ambiance with Japanese minimalism to create a refined but diner-friendly atmosphere. The high ceiling and open kitchen give an airy feel to the space, while the acoustics remain conducive to both dining and conversation, thanks to architect Margo Alofsin’s fine work. Artwork by Muramasa Kudo, Herb Ritts and Yuigi adorn the walls, but the real star is the menu: house-cured salmon with wasabi, sweet soy and pea tendril salad is one of Jozu’s specialties, and the grilled portobello mushroom with warmed asparagus, potato and caramelized garlic is another favorite. Pork, chicken, lamb and beef are also on the menu, so not-so-fish-friendly diners will also find Jozu more than palatable. 8360 Melrose Ave.; (213) 655-5600. (Sandra Ross)

 

 

 

BEST CLASSIC WESTSIDE MEXICAN RESTAURANT

Paco’s. Two or three times a year, I get the telephone call that chills my spine and sends sharp pains jabbing deeply into my gut: "We’re all getting together to celebrate so-and-so’s birthday — at El Coyote!" Look, if you want to wait two hours in line for the privilege of drinking Exxon-approved margaritas and eating bland Mexican chow, it’s your right as an American to do so. But I have a better suggestion: For a similar financial outlay — and a substantially shorter wait — you can get much better food and drink at Paco’s. "But I like El Coyote’s atmosphere," you whine. No argument there, pal, but Paco’s is no slouch in that department, either. From the rusted diving suit that overlooks the main room to the conspicuous assortment of nautical gewgaws and a large central aquarium filled with miniature sharks, the place feels more like a festive junk shop than a restaurant, especially when various holidays demand added layers of colorful decoration. Lest you forget that it is a restaurant, however, there’s always someone near the door making fresh tortillas. You can get them wrapped around Paco’s amazingly overstuffed burritos, or on the side of the to-die-for fajita plates. I’ve never had a meal here that was anything less than really good; even if the back-of–Culver City location means a long drive for you, it’s more than worth the trek. 4141 Centinela Ave., Mar Vista; (310) 391-9616. (Dan Epstein)

 

 

 

MOST EMOTIONALLY DISTURBED CHICKEN-EATING STORY, AND THEN SOME

Moishe’s Chicken Shawerma Sandwich. You will wait at Moishe’s, and no amount of arm flapping, mouth moving or money wagging will bring your eats any quicker. You’ll wait. The wait won’t really be long, it will only seem long — like the wait for anything you crave badly. And when your shawerma rises over the countertop and into your arms, wrapped like a little pudgy bundle of joy, it will be warm and good for you. When I got my chicken shawerma sandwich, I held it close to my heart and scurried away to eat and covet it. I loved my sandwich so much it nearly moved me to tears, and once I had stuffed every last tenderly marinated bite into my mouth, I breathed a blissful, bloated sigh of contentment. I looked to the table on my left to see if the other shawerma eaters shared my joy, and noticed that all four women there were Angie Dickinson. I pinched myself, but it was no dream. It was real and good and true. It was a holy vision. With a full belly and a lusty heart, I cried out, "I love this sandwich!" The Angies all agreed. Farmers Market, Stall 336, 6333 W. Third St.; (213) 936-4998. (Janet Ginsburg)