Best of L.A.: Food and Drink
BEST ROCKIN’ BEEF ROLL
The beef roll served at101 Noodle Express is perhaps the most raved about single item on any menu in the San Gabriel Valley — if not on any menu in all of L.A. Who would have imagined that such acclaim would come to such a humble dish, served at such an unassuming Alhambra hole in the wall? It turns out that the beef roll is also one of the area’s best bargains. Big enough to serve two, it costs just $6.75. A deceptively simple concept, it arrives at your table looking something like a chimichanga cut into thirds. Its slightly crispy, though doughy exterior is filled with thinly cut beef, cilantro, onion and hoisin sauce. Dipped in chili oil, it makes a perfect appetizer or main course. It’s practically restaurant policy to serve at least one to every group of diners — as you’ll quickly infer by scanning the room — but don’t forget there are other worthy dishes on the menu as well. The dumplings and noodle dishes get mainly good reviews and pack similarly good bang for the buck. There is, however, no confusing what the main draw is here. 1408 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra. (626) 300-8654
BEST PLACE TO FEEL AS IF YOU’RE BREAKFASTING IN AN ITALIAN PALAZZO
An affogato, which means “drowned” in Italian, is the blissful marriage of two of Italy’s finest exports: espresso and gelato, and it may well be the best union of hot and cold since the Baked Alaska. At Intelligentsia Venice, this combination is achieved by first placing a scoop of dense vanilla bean gelato, made by David Myers’ of Comme Ça bistro, into a pleasantly weighty Gibraltar glass (a small bar glass, so called because, if you turn it horizontally, the thin space between the upper and lower wells resembles the Straits of Gibraltar). The barista then pours a just-pulled double shot of Black Cat espresso over the gelato. The thick crema from the espresso melts the outer edges of the gelato, forming what looks like a bit of haphazard latte art in the glass. As both the espresso and the gelato are dense, perfectly orchestrated examples of their species, the affogato resists melting for a surprisingly long matter of minutes. Far longer than it will take you to finish off what is perhaps the best breakfast combo to be had in L.A. 1331 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. (310) 399-1233, intelligentsiacoffee.com.
BEST AFFORDABLE ITALIAN WITH NO CORKAGE FEE
Who says Italian food has to be expensive? Between the Mozza empire, the Drago empire, Il Moro and others, L.A. has an abundance of Italian dinner options to set you and your date back a hundred-plus bucks before you’ve even blinked. It’s the wine, especially, that gets you. Yet while you could decide to go the fine dining route and skip the alcohol altogether, you’d also be missing out on an unequivocal truth of Italian culture: booze goes with food. That’s why the phrase “no corkage fee,” when uttered in a public place, is guaranteed to prick up every ear within range. At Colori Kitchen, just a few blocks from Staples Center, you can nestle yourself into the spacious and oddly ’90s-esque dining room, eat from a menu of basic Italian-American fare, and most importantly, drink freely from your own bottle (or bottles) of wine. Items like tricolore salad, spaghetti and meatballs and spinach ravioli are eaten freely and without judgment, and the cioppino, while one of the more expensive items on the menu, is also packed with enough seafood to make Poseidon weep. A slice of the ricotta cheesecake makes for a nice close to an utterly affordable evening. 429 W. Eighth St., L.A. (213) 622-5950.
BEST HUMBLE BURRITOS
Even if you think Korean BBQ burritos or the ones served at Chipotle Mexican Grill are the wave of the future, it’s worth experiencing the simple formula that’s kept Al & Bea’s in business since 1966. These are burritos completely devoid of embellishment, and they may be the best L.A. has to offer. With few exceptions, all of the options on the menu are some combination of just three ingredients: refried beans, Mexican cheese and stewed beef. My favorite, though, is the burrito with a chile relleno inside. It’s an exquisitely fluffy battered chile bundled up with a generous helping of beans that oozes molten cheese with every bite. Like the food, the restaurant is about as humble as can be. There’s a window for ordering and a window for picking up. The seating area, which is really just a handful of miniature picnic tables with an overhang for shade, evokes a junior high quad. But no matter what time of day, you’re sure to find it crowded with locals and probably a renegade downtown office worker or two. 2025 E. 1st. St., L.A. (323) 267-8810.
BEST ROOTY AMBROSIA
The falafel balls at Amir’s Falafel are delicate and crunchy; the hummus divine. But the dish that really sings is the carrot salad. Yes — the carrot salad. Cubed and sublime orange morsels in a subtle glaze of spice that should remain a mystery. It’s like rooty ambrosia in your mouth. It has a lovely scent, too. One might be tempted to dab a piece behind one’s ear – would that be so wrong? 11711 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 509-8641.
BEST OVERWHELMING CHINESE MENU
Think of it as the Jerry’s Famous Deli of the San Gabriel Valley: There’s something for everyone at Baccali Café & Rotisserie, a Chinese restaurant where the dinner menu has 241 items. Choices range from safe bets like black- pepper beef chow mein ($8.50 for a heaping plate) to the more exotic (spicy ox tongue, $8.95) or the incongruous (beef stroganoff, $7.95). One could easily kill an hour pondering the options, but luckily the wait staff is willing and able to help you navigate the chaos. The Chinese dishes here are mostly solid, though some tend toward the greasy side. But with a kitchen that stays open late, many large tables to accommodate big groups and a filet mignon for $13.95, there are plenty of reasons to come to Baccali. And it’s got to be one of the few places around town where you can order a Sam Adams draft for $3.50 to wash down your eel with rice. 245 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra. (626) 293-3300.
BEST EASTSIDE BAKERY
Twice a day, at 7 a.m. and 4 p.m., loads of locals line up at La Favorita for you’ll-burn-your-hand-hot conchitas, cuernos, bodillos and other Mexican-style pastries and bread at this small, Eastside bakery. Best when gobbled down right away, you can fill a bag of these fragrant beauties for a five-spot. The shop’s cakes, like tres leches (which also comes in a trendy Oreo version), are also reliably good — and at a fraction of Westside prices. Seasonal breads such as pan de rey and pan de muerto are big sellers around holiday time, so be smart, order ahead and impress guests. While you wait, you can watch the warmly friendly staff roll out and shape the dough. The folks at the counter just assume everybody speaks Spanish, but smiling and pointing work just as well. Street parking can be tricky, so go to Smart & Final or Super A first, park, buy something, and stroll over. 2305 E. 4th St.(323) 265-4445.
BEST BEEF HEARTS ON A STICK
Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves. In Peru they wear them on a stick — beef hearts that is. As its name suggests, El Pollo Inka is known mainly for its excellent chicken, which can be seen browning and sputtering on spinning racks in the giant brick oven at the front window. But we’re here for that unique and essential Peruvian dish: anticuchos — beef hearts on a stick. Tender, succulent morsels on a skewer, lightly spiced and slightly charred, they taste mostly of beef with a hint of organ-meat crunchiness, and are served with a cob of corn, and a bland half a boiled potato (Peru is the epicenter of potato culture) that offsets the cup of scorching, take-no-prisoners salsa. This salsa starts off with the homey warmth of garlic and cleanness of cilantro, but the two types of chiles sneak up on you like a Portuguese man-of-war: burning, tears, cries for a lifeguard. Worth it for the salsa alone. 15400 Hawthorne Blvd., Lawndale. (310) 676-6665.
—Jedd “Our Man in the South Bay” Birkner
BEST LUNCH BREAK FROM JUSTICE
The prospect of jury duty at the Criminal Courts building downtown can depress even the most civic-minded, especially at lunch time. Begin’s Café, a.k.a. the Cal Trans Cafeteria, is a good choice, because it’s close, it’s fast, and depending on the daily specials, starving jurors can get a heap of food for under $10. Located on the street level of the Thom Mayne–designed 7th District CalTrans headquarters building, Begin’s is a tad reminiscent of a college dining hall, complete with food stations. But the natural light, spacious tables, and outdoor dining area are solace to the sequestered. The kebab plates are the best deal, but there’s a big selection of sandwiches, salads, burgers, vegetarian and daily specials. Begin’s is a good choice for a group, including school tours, families on outings and the budget-conscious college crowd. It also offers catering, in case you feel like throwing a wing-ding after your case is closed. 100 S. Main St., dwntwn. (213) 680-2979, beginscafe.com.
Best VIRAL SNOOK
You know those indie bands that become mega-hits online, but never fully catch on with mainstream pop culture? It happens to restaurant dishes too, and this year’s version is the pescado zarandeado (whole grilled snook) at Mariscos Chente. What began with a review from the much-esteemed food blogger and Mexican cuisine expert Bill Esparza (Street Gourmet L.A.), reached frenzied heights on Chowhound, where its followers were known to offer up their experiences in a trancelike state, written, seemingly, in tongues. The praise was warranted. This fish, as well as their delightful shrimp, taste different from the ones every other chef is working with, as theirs are hand-delivered weekly from Mazatlán. The snook marinade is a mixture of chipotle mayonnaise and soy (among other things), but frankly, when you start digging into the flat, crispy beast, you wouldn’t care if you were told it had been soaked in raw sewage — as long as you got to keep eating it. While you may find yourself simply picking at the thing with your fingers, it’d be best for you to realize that it comes with tortillas and a buttery onion sauce. Regardless, when you do go to eat there, bring friends, since the rest of the menu is pretty great too, and buckets of beer are just $20. 4532 S. Centinela Ave., L.A. (310) 391-9881.
BEST KOREAN RESTAURANT THAT FEELS LIKE KOREA
Some restaurants, the moment you walk in, have a way of transporting you to another world. So if you want to experience what it might be like to get drunk with friends and eat bar food in Seoul, Dansungsa is the choice. It’s not just that the vast majority of the clientele are Korean that makes it feel so exotic. It’s not just the central kitchen billowing steam straight into the air, the painted mural of Kim Jong-il that rests atop the storefront, the Korean papers plastered on the walls or even the wooden, dimly lit interior. It’s the complete package. Go with a large crew, since the portions are enormous and family-style. Drink beer, drink soju, eat big, scallion pancakes and crispy, juicy fried chicken wings. Suck down rice cakes simmering in fiery broth, sit back, relax and enjoy an exotic vacation without leaving the city. The only problem with Dansungsa is that they’ve added English menus, but I guess there are places in real Korea that could have those, too. 3317 W. 6th St., L.A.; (213) 487-9100.
BEST SOBA STORY
Sometimes you grow up liking a particular food, and couldn’t be happier with life as you know it. Then you go somewhere different, try that same dish you’ve always loved, and suddenly find yourself saying, “Oh. So that’s what it’s supposed to taste like.” Such is the case for most people who show up to their first meal at Ichimiann (sometimes called Bamboo Garden) in Torrance. The soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles) are handmade each day and offer a textural revelation, suddenly causing you to regret your consumption of its previous incarnations. The noodles have a bite to them you’ve never experienced, like tasting fresh, homemade pasta for the first time. Ichimiann is a small, sparse shop with just a few tables and barstools, and a criminally low price tag (bowls start around five bucks), considering how hard it is to find a better offering of the stuff anywhere in Southern California. You can order your soba thin or thick, hot or cold and with a wide array of flavor options, like mentaiko (spicy fish roe) or tororo (grated Japanese yam). The single best varietal may well be the thin noodles, cold, with their house-pickled Japanese plums (ume), slurped alongside their complimentary hot or cold barley tea. 1618 Cravens Ave., Torrance. (310) 328-1323.
BEST GOAT EARLY, GOAT OFTEN
You can order any kind of food you want at Birrieria Jalisco in Boyle Heights, as long as it’s a plate of richly spiced goat. This makes ordering easy for the Spanish-impaired, since all your monolingual waitress needs to know is which goat you want: numeros uno through seis. And what of BJ’s sole main ingredient? The meat is lean, rich in flavor, but hardly spicy hot. Bones are easily avoided, while the broth begs to be soaked up by the layers of steamy tortillas on the side. The flavor and speedy delivery suggests that the goat has been stewing for hours, meat softening and soaking in spices, just waiting for you to arrive. Add chopped onion, a squeeze of lime, and you’re good to goat. Dessert, somewhat surprisingly, consists of four non-goat options: arroz con leche, flan, and jericalla, which tastes like flan’s refrigerated, cinnamony cousin, a blue-collar crème brulée. Six flavors of raspados are also available for slurping. The main dishes cost $5 to $12, which should leave you with enough change to fire up a norteño tune on the I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-too-loud jukebox. On your way out, be sure to tip your sombrero to the melancholy black-and-white photo of the restaurant’s late founder Don Bonifacio Gonzàles and his wife, Doña Petra. 1845 E. 1st St., L.A. (323) 262-4552.
BEST PLACE TO SUCK A SHRIMP HEAD
What’s not to love about a nautical-themed Cajun seafood peel-it-yourself Vietnamese-owned restaurant in the heart of Little Saigon? The clientele is mostly Asian, as are the servers, who bring you copious quantities of crawfish, shrimp, blue crab, and catfish that you order by the pound. The food comes out steaming-hot in plastic bags, spiced with lemon pepper, garlic butter and a savory, red Cajun sauce. No fuss, plenty of muss. The hip-hop music blares as the shrimp heads and mudbug carcasses pile high on the table (no tablecloth, just waxed butcher paper) and you work your way through a roll of paper towels (also provided). You can get fries on the side, or corn on the cob, or raw oysters, or steamed rice to tame the heat. At the Garden Grove location, in fact, the sign on the front door that reads “No outside rice allowed” was recently changed to the more democratic “No outside food allowed.” This is just slightly more genteel than the Boiling Crab’s totally spot-on official slogans: “You gonna suck what?” and “The best tail in town.” 13892 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove. (714) 636-4885; 742 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra. (626) 576-9368, boilingcrab.com.
BEST LOAVES TO LOVE
Resolutely stepping away from the flavorless grocery store baguette that was once the grande dame of L.A. (La Brea Bakery, we mean you) is harder than it should be in a city with countless quality farmers markets, yet surprisingly few really good artisan bread bakers. This logic does not apply if you frequent one of the markets where La Boulangerie sets up shop a few days a week. Owner Thierry Warnier serves wood-oven charred baguettes, olive and raisin-walnut studded loaves, and country loaves with a crust-to-core ratio that’s as impressive as his thick country French accent. And then there are the tempting almond-studded croissants and buttery sweet rolls that you really shouldn’t be buying because you only came to get bread for dinner. Not to worry — Warnier will be happy to tear off a chunk of many of the loaves to sell. Proof that you really can still have your daily bread, even when your rent check is due. At farmers markets in Larchmont (Sun.), West Hollywood (Mon.), dwntwn at 1st. and Main sts. (Thurs.), Downtown Bank of America (Fri.), Echo Park (Fri.), Americana at Brand in Glendale (Sat.) and Calabasas (Sat.).
BEST DELI TO CUT THE MUSTARD
Jerry’s Famous is slicker, Canter’s is more rock & roll, Langer’s is in a more historically interesting location and Nate’n Al has a lot more industry juice, but Brent’s Deli, a somewhat under-known eatery deep in the Valley is the “Real Deal Holyfield” of old-school Jewish delis. Crowds of both suburban, non-”Hollywood” Jews and non-Jews who crave mouth-watering comfort food par excellence alike flock to this spacious, almost all-American looking establishment nestled in a strip mall for the corned beef, meat knish, cabbage soup, hearty breakfasts, twice-baked rye bread, matzo ball soup and “black pastrami” reuben. Servings are huge and the place bustles with a comforting, real-people vibe. 19565 Parthenia St., Northridge. (818) 886-5679.
BEST BRUSSELS SPROUTS? YES, INDEED
If you’re into high-falutin’ dining for cheap-ass prices, live it up at the W Hotel in Westwood, where, for $8, you can indulge in caramelized Brussels sprouts — offered as an appetizer — which more than suffices as a meal in itself. What makes them a gas is executive chef Monique King’s spin, derived from her stint as a line cook at Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger’s legendary, much-missed City restaurant. Her directions sound easy, except that you can’t replicate the dish at home. “I start them raw, which keeps them from tasting cabbage-y,” says King. “I sauté them in browned butter, then add toasted pecans, lemon juice, salt and pepper. After Brussels sprouts haters eat a couple bites, they remark, ‘It’s like candy,’ ” says King. It is. Keep costs minimal by avoiding the W’s $15 valet fee, and park on the street. If you’re Pasadena-close, you can enjoy the same dish sans pecans for $5 at King’s own restaurant, Firefly Bistro, as prepared by her chef-husband, Paul Rosenbluh. Nine Thirty at the W Hotel, 930 Hilgard Ave., L.A. (310) 443-8211, ninethirtyw.com. Firefly Bistro, 1009 El Centro St., South Pasadena. (626) 441-2443, eatatfirefly.com.
BEST GELATO AND MASTROIANNI
If you take gelato seriously in this town, then you know the drill: Brave the snarled knot of traffic into Pasadena, turn north and head up into the San Gabriel foothills until it seems as if you must surely have reached Mount Wilson, find a seemingly abandoned strip mall — all parking lot and the vague light from a Rite Aid sign — and wend your way through an outdoor patio until you find Bulgarini Gelato, a tiny store at the back of which Leo Bulgarini makes the best gelato this side of Sicily. During the summer, there’s even more justification to make the pilgrimage: On Saturday nights, Bulgarini sets up a buffet table and screens free movies outside, projecting subtitled Italian films onto the concrete wall of an adjacent building. Get yourself a plate of pasta, an espresso pulled from the copper Elektra espresso machine Bulgarini shipped from Rome, and a gelato — yogurt–olive oil, goat milk–prosecco, strawberry–black pepper sorbetto or blood orange–granita — and watch Mastroianni in Divorzio All’Italiana under the stars. I assure you, you will not miss the popcorn. 749 E. Altadena Dr., Altadena. (626) 441-2319.
BEST REASON TO SKIP THE DESIGNER CUPCAKES
Let others eat cupcakes. Lisa Olin and pastry chef Elizabeth Belkind of dessert-scene newcomer Cake Monkey are making scrumptious minicakes instead. These are multilayered, substantial, moist cake and creamy frosting–laden delights, big as a chubby toddler’s thigh, in flavors like raspberry red velvet; dark-chocolate mint; banana with toffee crunch=; and lemon custard with huckleberry preserves. They are almost too pretty to eat, but they are certainly impossible to resist. The same is true for Olin and Belkind’s “grown-up” versions of classic childhood treats like Ho Hos, Little Debbies, S’mores and Snowballs. In the Cake Monkey oeuvre, the cardboard dry Pop-Tart is re-envisioned as a toasty “Pop Pie.” Their elegant, foil-wrapped Black & White Cakewich — a chocolate-cake sandwich filled with vanilla cream and Valrhona crunchy pearls — is what a Hostess cupcake wishes it tasted like. Their pièce de résistance is the ’Nuff Said, otherwise known as “The Devil,” a chocolate crumble cookie with homemade marshmallow, pecans, caramel and sea salt. Satan himself employs it for the taking of stubborn souls. Order online for local delivery: (877) 640-CAKE (2253), cakemonkey.com.
BEST USE OF BEESWAX IN A PASTRY
Cannelés, not unlike many French pastries, are the sorts of things that can be done passably well by many but masterfully by few. In Los Angeles, you can now find the pretty fluted Bordelaise cakes fairly frequently, but only one bakery makes them the way they are traditionally made in Brittany: with beeswax. Properly baked cannelés are so deeply caramelized on the outside that they appear burnt yet have a dense, custardy interior that seems improbably undercooked. It’s not, if the cannelé is made well. Instead the interior — often laced with a hint of rum — is a perfect, creamy texture that matches exquisitely with the deeply caramelized crunch it took you to find it. The secret is beeswax, which is melted with oil and brushed very finely onto metal (traditionally copper) cannelé molds. Intricate? Yes. Time-consuming? Absolutely. Highly flammable? Apparently. At EuroPane, Sumi Chang makes dozens of them every morning. No explosions so far, just perfectly executed pastries. 950 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 577-1828.
BEST CATERER FOR THESE TROUBLED TIMES
The good news about a rather heated confrontation with your landlord is that it forces the obvious question: Why pay prime-beef rent prices for lower-quality choice cuts? It was one such escalating rent dilemma that forced Jennie Cook, formerly owner of the Culver City restaurant and catering company Cooks Double Dutch, to pack up her stainless pots and head east. The drop in rent for Cook’s new digs in Glassell Park is your pocketbook’s gain. She’s ditched the restaurant side of the biz for an all-catering outfit but does offer private dinners in the new space. Starting at $20 per person, Cook cooks (the singular version is her honest-to-gravy birth name) a sustainable dinner and sets the table, so all you have to do is bring the guests and the booze. For half the price, she’ll deliver any of her “Ten for Ten” lunch menus replete with gooey white lasagna or smoky Hawaiian-style Kalua pork to your next meeting. She’ll even hook you up with a vegan feast, if forgoing butter and cheese is your idea of a feast. 3048 Fletcher Ave., Glassell Park. (323) 982-0052, jenniecooks.com .
BEST YEAR OF THE PIG-OUT
Strip mall Chinese joints that charge $1 an entrée might be a thing of the past, but at this San Fernando Valley establishment, a few dollars can go far. Located near Northridge Hospital, Li’s Wok Express serves Chinese fast food. All the usual staples are here, Kung Pao chicken, chow mein, egg rolls, etc. A la carte entrées are all priced between $2 and $3. Combination plates start $3.75. The best deal here is the family pack. For $27.38 (that’s including tax), you get your choice of three entrées, plus three orders of chow mein and/or fried rice and an order of egg rolls. The menu states that this is enough to fill six to eight people, and we can confirm that. This restaurant packs a ton of food into small take-out containers. If you need something sweet to balance out the spicy Kung Pao chicken, try one of their boba drinks for dessert. 18515 Roscoe Blvd., Northridge. (818) 886-8682.
BEST MECCA FOR LAMB STEW
Dining at Chinese Islamic can be an eye-opening experience, especially if most of your Chinese meals have been limited to stir-fries and lo mein. Though you can get standards like moo shoo chicken ($8.50) and beef with broccoli ($9.95) here, the real action is in the less familiar, Muslim-style Chinese cuisine. Who knew, for example, that a Chinese restaurant would serve a lamb stew so delicious? It arrives at your table in a thick clay pot, still bubbling and heaped high with cubes of red-hued meat clinging to the bone. Perfectly tender in a spicy broth, get the stew for $10.95 and add an order of sesame bread that’s perfect for broth dipping and miniature sandwich making. It just may be the perfect way to eat lamb. 7727 E. Garvey Ave., Rosemead. (626) 288-4246.
BEST PASTRY SHOP FOR CHOCOHOLICS
Some regulars got upset that a new proprietor took over Le Bon, but this chocolate-lovers paradise is as good as ever. On offer the other day was a rice bowl–sized chocolate shell filled with hunks of chocolate ganache and fudgy cake drenched with whole-bean vanilla pudding (or so we surmise). We tried to wait for a friend’s order to arrive (a pressed panini with tomato, basil and caprese for $7.95) but couldn’t — we gobbled down our treat. A dedicated crew bakes up a storm in the back, and this is the result: a generous, rectangular tart underlain with custard and covered with glazed apricots; a sunken-pear tart built upon a layer of almond paste in a crunchy, Scottish, shortbread-like crust; and our favorite, a layered chocolate-caramel tart drizzled with sea salt and poured into a butter crust — each priced at just $3.65. The bestsellers are the croissant stuffed with almond paste and the wonderfully flaky plain croissant. Tiny fruit tarts and one-bite carrot cakes run $1.65, and day-old bags for $1.50 usually contain two pastries. The designer chocolate cakes go fast at about $25, and so do the Parisians and baguettes, both under $3. We sit inside Le Bon, with its warm Old World murals, and stare in amazement across the street, where people buy nasty, chemical-tasting muffins at Starbucks. Even the coffee is superior at Le Bon. 21928 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 340-2862.
BEST-VALUE COFFEE ROASTER
Usually you smell Alana’s before you see it. Hints of cocoa, berries and hot beans waft through the air, leading your nose to a small stand at the farmers market where 34-year-old Eric Stogsdill completes his wares on the spot with a hand-built roaster. His tastes tend toward Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and Ethiopia. He describes his favorite beans like a kid in a candy store: “I prefer more nutty, blueberry and chocolaty coffees,” Stogsdill says. The Santa Monica native got his start at Starbucks before graduating to Cow’s End near Venice Pier. He also spent two years getting mentoring and advice from the master roaster at the Conservatory for Coffee, Tea & Cocoa in Culver City. Spying opportunities at local farmers markets, Stogsdill this year launched Alana’s, named for his 4-year-old daughter, as a roving operation that also provides free home delivery. What sets Alana’s apart from his vast, high-end competition is price. You get a gourmet product, a custom, on-the-spot grind, and a little education from the ever-enthusiastic Stogsdill for about $10 per pound. His hand-stamped, brown-bag finds — his selections often change from week to week — will also fill your pantry will olfactory bliss. Culver City Farmers Market, Main St. off Venice Blvd. Tues., 3 -7 p.m. La Cienega Farmers Market, 1833 S. La Cienega Blvd., La Cienega Heights. (310) 922-9671. Thurs., 3 -7 p.m.
BEST GLENDORA-BLE SUGAR FIX
Screw the endless, day-to-day, nonsweetened, nonfat, drip-coffee, triple-shot Americano routine. Classic Coffee in downtown Glendora, a virtual hot spot of PMS survivors and deadbeat college students, will have you out of your South Beach Diet and into a carbohydrate coma before you can say spumoni gelato. With such unique creations as frozen hot chocolate and horchata con espresso, the idea of ordering a plain cup of joe seems downright sorrowful. Not to mention the Bavarian pastries, slabs of tiramisu, and cheesecake squares leering at you from the lighted pastry case beside the cash register. And if you are lucky enough to come on a Monday night you will be able to join a plethora of different people from the community for the weekly game night, laced with sugary indulgences as always. So go ahead and melt your face into a double Ghirardelli mocha, then blow. Your daily Colombian black drip will one day learn to love again. 148 N. Glendora Ave., Glendora. (626) 335-3313, classic-coffee.com.
BEST HOUSE OF DUCK
If you have even a passing interest in Peking duck, you would do well to become acquainted with the aptly named Duck House, L.A.’s premier location for one of China’s most famous culinary contributions. The restaurant’s version of the dish arrives at your table looking like a work of art: shimmering morsels of bright-orange crispy duck skin are arrayed around the perimeter of the plate, the fowl’s succulent, deboned meat is in the center. Drizzled with hoisin sauce and wrapped up with thin spears of scallions and cucumber in a tortilla-thin pancake, it’s hard to imagine why one would eat duck any other way. The restaurant is shiny and new looking, a bit on the formal side and perfect for a special occasion. Make sure to give at least an hour’s notice if you intend to eat the Peking, and plan on forking over $32.95 per bird. 501 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park. (626) 284-3227.
Best FOODIE-FULL BOUNTY
If you want rock-star chefs trailed by television camera crews under a morning’s low marine layer, and farmers’ stalls loaded with O’Henry peaches and Blenheim apricots and Meyer lemons and Russian fingerling potatoes and Gaviota strawberries and wild purslane and stinging nettles and fresh garbanzo beans and, well, imagine what else, then the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market is the place for you. It’s better than a Food Network show and a lot cheaper than a trip to Whole Foods. There may be bigger markets, or those with more specialized produce or prepared foods, but this is the one you go to if you want to see Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard picking through pluots in her pink chef’s jacket. Maybe it’s because this market is held in a blocked-off section of Santa Monica’s Promenade, or because everyone seems to know each other, or because restaurant people cluster in small groups drinking Hans Röckenwagner’s coffee and speaking Italian and French, but if you wander through the crowds and stalls you’d swear you somehow strolled into a European town square on market day. Arizona Ave. & Second St., Santa Monica. (310) 458-8712.
BEST UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF FRYING
Fried meatball — sounds heavy, right? You’re probably picturing a giant, dense Italian meatball, coated in flour, egg and bread crumbs, then dumped into a vat of hot oil until it becomes a dripping wad of protein so greasy that the mere sight sends your body into preemptive cardiac arrest. Well, this is not that kind of fried meatball. At Izakaya Bincho, the small, homey restaurant hiding in Redondo Beach, they serve simple, country-style Japanese comfort foods, meant to be paired with beer and sake. Their meatballs are small, made from free-range Jidori chicken, have a light tempura breading and come in a bowl topped with grated daikon radish, chopped green onions and house-made ponzu sauce. It’ll also be the first opportunity in your life to say “I want something light. How about some deep-fried meatballs?” The chef, Tomo-san, prepares other fried foods as well, like spicy wings, green-onion fried chicken, and (trust us) chicken gizzards. In the end, these meatballs (and Izakaya Bincho itself) are a great excuse to explore the little-known Redondo Beach Boardwalk, which feels like an odd fusion of Coney Island, a biker dive in Malibu, and some small port town in the Mediterranean. 112 N. International Boardwalk, Redondo Beach. (310) 376-3889.
BEST IT’S A SMALL, SMALL SUSHI WORLD
Look at the cute little sushis coming down the line. Whoever invented conveyor-belt sushi is a genius. At Frying Fish in Little Tokyo, the delectable bits of tuna and mackerel and yellowtail travel on UFO-ish covered cups moved by a clinking belt, a miniature version of an airport baggage-claim carousel. A’Float Sushi in Pasadena takes it one step further: The sushi travels on lacquered boats down a watery river, the edible version of the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland. Around and around they go, the tiny boats laden with their cargo of spicy tuna and octopus salad and salmon avocado and honey-walnut shrimp-tempura rolls. You grab them as the boats sail past your spot at the central table, sort of an inverse smorgasbord. A tiny bushel of edamame helms each ship. This isn’t just dinner, it’s high art: the baroque, haiku, post-post-post-Modern version of deep-sea fishing. Frying Fish, 20 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, Little Tokyo (213) 680-0567. A’Float Sushi, 87 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 792-9779.
BEST VEGETARIAN FAST FOOD AT A CHICKEN PLACE
Just an aside: Did you ever notice that even holier-than-thou vegetarians still sport leather bags and shoes—as if “wearing” animals doesn’t count? Hypocriticality aside, when you skip the footed foods at California Chicken Café, you should feel positively virtuous dining on any of the chain’s incredibly healthy and dirt-cheap veggie delights. While your carnivore cowhide-wearing chums feast on what’s just the best rotisserie chicken around, you can honor your animal-free commitment by wearing cruelty-free canvas and chowing down on the 100-percent vegan broccoli or veggie soup, along with vegetarian sides such as fruit salad, squash, mashed potatoes (sans gravy), roasted potatoes, broccoli pasta salad, veggie rice primavera and Chinese cabbage salad—all prepared without oils, mayo or butter. Prices range from $2.75 to $8.50 for half-pints, pints and quarts. 6805 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 935-5877; 2401 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 453-0477; and five other locations; californiachickencafe.com.
BEST EDIBLE PILLOWS
I’ve never really had gnocchi before. Oh, I thought I had. But all the gnocchi of my past paled in comparison to Gaetano’s. Tiny potatoey pillows of perfection in a tangy Gorgonzola sauce. I pause between forkfuls, lost in gastro-catatonic bliss. To call these mere potato dumplings is like saying the Sistine Chapel has a good paint job. Gaetano’s secret: the gnocchi are made fresh every day. So light they seem to melt away like snowflakes on my tongue. On the outside Gaetano’s is unprepossessing, hidden away in a shopping center in suburban Torrance, but on the inside you will find the sublime. Torrance Towne Center, 2731 Pacific Coast Highway, Torrance. (310) 326-3354.
BEST PHO HUT
The reputation of Golden Deli, the San Gabriel Valley’s most famous house of Vietnamese pho and banh hoi, is such that a trip there feels like an important cultural undertaking. If you come at dinnertime, be prepared to stand around in the parking lot for 20 minutes or more. Once you make it inside, you’ll understand why it’s worth the wait. Just $5.25 gets you a big steaming bowl of deliciously seasoned broth with noodles and thin, cooked beef that’s somehow far better than the lesser, more expensive versions served at Vietnamese restaurants around town. Purists will opt for the soups with beef tendon and tripe, but there’s no shame in leaving out the entrails’ connective tissues. If it’s too hot for soup, go for one of the banh hoi dishes: cold vermicelli noodles topped with chives and your choice of beef, pork or egg rolls. When you leave you aren’t just full and happy, you feel like you’ve completed an exercise in self-improvement. 815 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel. (626) 308-0803.
BEST BIG, FAT GREEK-O ON PICO
In old-timey L.A. days, this area (Pico about two miles west of downtown) held an actual Greek residential enclave. Now the neighborhood is sub-Koreatown and primarily Latino, yet you can still find an incredibly ornate Greek Orthodox church and this quite useful and delicious grocery store/restaurant that is making Greek converts of the neighbors, whatever their background. Papa Cristos C & K Importing is one-third shelved groceries and service counter; one-third hot, prepared food counter; and one-third large, bright, sparsely casual dining room. Here the savory spiciness of Middle Eastern, the light, fresh healthfulness of Mediterranean, and the toothsome heartiness of Eastern European are all on display in Papa Cristos’ spanakopita, dolmades, tyropitakia, tzatziki, souvlaki, moussaka and oktopodakia. Thursday nights feature a much raved-about “Big Fat Greek Dinner” special. Be fat and Greek; be very, very fat and Greek. 2771 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. (323) 737-2970
BEST HEALTHY, HELPFUL DINING
Stepping into the Green Zone’s sleek and modern dining room, it’s easy to forget you just parked at a jam-packed San Gabriel mini-mall and there’s a foot massage place next door. From the fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice to the wild-caught salmon and the organic ingredients touted in most items, everything here seems whisked over from the beach. The simple, healthy cuisine, though, is every bit worth the trip inland. The waiters are friendly and helpful, and the prices, though not necessarily a bargain by the extremely reasonable standards in San Gabriel Valley standards, are very moderate. Try the Asian grilled pork chop for $7.50 or the wonton noodle soup with pork and shrimp for $6.50. An appetizer of deep-fried salmon triangles with a mild, wasabi dipping sauce is $5.95. While not exactly small, portion sizes remind you the owners have your waistline’s best interest in mind. 534 E. Valley Blvd., Ste. 5, San Gabriel. (626) 288-9300.
BEST SHAVED ICE WITH A VENGEANCE
Halo-halo is the Filipino version of shaved ice. And when Filipinos do shaved ice, they do it with a vengeance: mung beans, macapuno fruit, papaya, shredded coconut, jackfruit (or langka), and cubed gelatin are layered in dense strata beneath a conical drift of shaved ice. Salo-Salo Grill in Glendale serves its version of the traditional dessert with a layer of leche flan, an all-important but too-oft-neglected ingredient in the halo-halo diaspora. As if that wasn’t enough, the entire concoction is drenched in milk and topped with a scoop of neon purple ube ice cream and a salty, crunchy scatter of pinipig puffed rice. Translated from the Tagalog, halo-halo literally means “mix-mix.” And that’s the final step. You mix the whole thing together with a long silver spoon, bringing sweet chaos where there once was order. 130 N. Maryland Ave., Glendale. (818) 241-0880, salo-salogrill.com.
BEST 50th STATE DATE PLACE
The Local Place is the more casual of the two South Bay restaurants associated with sweet bread makers King’s Hawaiian. Located on Western Avenue in Torrance, near the 405, this restaurant has lengthy lines, but the service is quick. Breakfast is the best bargain, with Spam and egg musubi for $2.05 and breakfast sandwiches for $2.85. For lunch or dinner, the Porky Boy combo ($5.95) consists of a good-sized pork sandwich on a fresh, sweet roll with fries and a drink. Specials, which include the teriyaki bento box ($8.45) featuring beef, chicken and pork, change daily. In addition, the Local Place’s bakery is filled with cakes, cookies and pies stuffed with macadamia nuts and coconut. The paradise cake, made with guavas, limes, passion fruits, strawberries and peaches, is a local favorite. Of course, you can also stock up on King’s Hawaiian bread here. 18605 S. Western Ave., Torrance. (310) 523-3233.
At some local meat markets (ahem, Bel-Air Prime, we’re talking about you), a crisp $100 bill will afford you the grass-fed equivalent of a Tiffany silver key ring. Guess who’s not coming to dinner? At Huntington Meats in the Los Angeles Farmers Market, the quality custom cuts and knowledgeable staff are as easy to swallow as the Harris Ranch prime-beef prices. You’ll also find fowl of every size and feather, heritage Korobuta and more humble pork breeds, and two-dozen house-made sausages. The shop’s butchers, Dan and Jim (they wisely keep their last names off the record due to the sharp knives involved) are refreshingly frank in telling you when a cut-to-order brisket rather than the pricier, prime rib roast is really what you want. In the process, you’ll save several 10-spots. Maybe even enough for several pounds of raw pet food for Fifi, sterling-silver serving dish not included. 6333 W. 3rd St. at the Los Angeles Farmers Market, (323) 933-8577, huntingtonmeats.com.
BEST CURRY AND SCURRY
If I am the neighborhood, I can never resist either eating in or getting takeout from India Sweets and Spices — even if the ladies behind the counter scare me to death. While I love Indian food, I cannot always tell what the dishes behind the glass are, but I know, as I nervously clutch my tray, that I only have a chance at getting one answer, to one question, maybe. So pointing at the dish that looks the most delicious and indecipherable I bleat, in the meekest voice possible, “What is this one, please?” “Daal!” shouts the lady behind the counter. Soup Nazi, hell, this tiny Hindu woman could beat him up, but the food is so plentiful and cheap it’s worth it. (And the mango lassis are to die for.) 9409 Venice Blvd. Culver City. (310) 837-5286 .
The thick strips of jerky hanging on the wall in this German sausage market hardly look like the truck-stop version, but don’t let that result in a bratwurst-only visit. These South African biltong (foot-long strips of coriander and cider vinegar–cured beef jerky) and droëwors (similarly cured thin dried beef sausages) are distant cousins of their American counterparts. European Deluxe has been making air-dried jerkies since the pre–Internet-era when South African Consulate General’s office called 30 years ago with a special request for locally available versions. Both are more heavily spiced and chewier than American jerkies, so they require a more focused molar mastication. That means they are particularly adept at displacing road rage, as well as stretching your dollar. The price of $17 a pound for the biltong and droëwors may sound steep, but a pounds-worth will last through at least a dozen traffic jams on the 405. Maybe a half dozen. 9109 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 276-1331.
BEST STUFFED-CRUST KOSHER PIZZA
Nagilla, an incredibly pleasant not-really-fast food and pizza joint is a great spot for a night of healthy Kosher veggie eats even if your friends are hankering for a chili dog. It’s really two cafés in one. The two different culinary worlds are separated by a picturesque, Jerusalem-inspired, covered courtyard. The veggie, pizza and dairy side offers a superb selection of Middle Eastern dishes (tasty falafels, hummus, Israeli salad and vegi-shawarma with soy “meat” cut into bite-sized pieces then grilled with onion, mushrooms and spices), Mexican fare (nachos, burritos, tostadas), and Italian selections such as savory specialty pizzas, a hearty spinach-and-cheese calzone, and zesty eggplant Parmesan. The stuffed-crust pizza, filled with mushrooms, garlic and basil, is truly the best in L.A. Every bite is a mouth-watering taste explosion. Across the courtyard, for those pesky meat lovers, the cook whips up delish chicken kebabs, chili dogs and shawarma. 9411 W. Pico Blvd., (310) 788-0111.
BEST HAPPY DUMPLING HOUR
Dumpling lovers have their share of qualms with Luscious Dumplings. The dining room is tiny, the wait can be long and the kitchen has been known to run out of the best items in the middle of the dinner rush. But considering it also has perhaps the finest dumplings in Southern California, those aren’t reasons to stay away, they’re reasons to get here early. You’d be remiss to skip the fried pork dumplings — a perfect amalgam of the crispy, the gingery and the succulent that always leaves us with cravings for days after. The steamed chive, pork, egg and shrimp version is what the rest of the dumpling competition aspires to. And the value is near impossible to beat. It’s hard to think of a better way to spend six bucks than on the 10-dumpling plate. 704 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel. (626) 282-8695.
BEST MEXICAN HOT CHOCOLATE
A chill vibe, free WiFi, friendly staffers, and one truly delish Chocolate Mexicano makes funky Latin-influenced caffeine and laptop joint Sabor Y Cultura Café in the heart of Hollywood’s Little Armenia a true favorite for any walk of life — whether it’s the middle-aged screenwriter who is typing frantically away at his latest masterpiece or the chubby old Armenian man who plants himself in a seat outside to gawk at the local scenery (that is, the cute actresses stopping by for a quick coffee jolt). The Mexican hot chocolate and its stressful cousin, the Mexican mocha, served in a ceramic mug with a saucer, are two good reasons to stop by. Each are made with a harmonious blend of authentic Mexican cinnamon and chocolate ground down to tiny chunks. (No chocolate powder here folks!) and steamy low-fat milk. Take in the local art hanging on the purple-and-light-pumpkin walls, while sipping on the sweet, soothing frothy elixir and munching on a red-velvet cupcake, mango cheesecake square, or blueberry cobbler bar at one of the roomy tables that are situated next to plenty of electrical outlets. For a few bucks there are four, easily accessible computer Internet stations. 5625 Hollywood Blvd., L.A. (323) 466-0481.
While Japanese grocery stores offer some high-priced items, there are some good deals at Mitsuwa’s Torrance outpost. The best buys are in the snack aisles, where you can find large bags of wasabi crackers for $3.99 and large bars of yokan (a jelly dessert) for $1.99. For those who love anything kawaii, there are countless varieties of candies bundled in animé-style packaging at reasonable prices. The Mikawaya stand sells sweet treats for $1.15 apiece, including a tasty and filling daifuku (red bean paste covered in mochi). The big deals, though, are often found in the market’s food court. Over at Yamamotoyama, a glass of iced green tea is $1.50. Curry Club serves curry and rice meals with your choice of topping (try the potato croquette) for about $5. And if you love Japanese fashion magazines, don’t forget to check the tables in front of the cash registers. You can often find last month’s issues of Fruits and Kera at deeply discounted prices. 21515 S. Western Ave., Torrance. (310) 782-0335.
Much of the offerings at Tara’s Himalayan Cuisine seem vaguely Indian, but with some spicing differences. The one stand-out is the Nepalese-Tibetan staple, the momo, which are dumplings much like gyozas. Vegetarian or filled with spiced, ground chicken warmed by garlic and lightened with cilantro, both are yummy. 10855 Venice Blvd., Culver City (310) 836-9696.
BEST GREAT BALLS OF BEAN AND MORE
For the value and sheer spectacle of it all, New Capital Seafood, a mammoth, banquet hall–like restaurant gets the vote for best dim sum experience in the hotly competitive, heavily Asian, San Gabriel Valley. Located above a department store in a sprawling shopping center, hundreds gather here on weekends to take advantage of the $1.99 offerings brought forth in a seemingly endless procession of metal carts. The chaos of waiters and red-jacketed hostesses struggling to accommodate the masses becomes a pleasant part of the experience. With so many customers, they’ve got to be doing something right. If you don’t speak Chinese you’ll have a hard time figuring out what’s in certain dishes, but here there’s no great risk in agreeing to things you don’t fully understand. At this price almost everything seems worth a try. Try the steamed pigs-in-a-blanket dumplings and sesame seed–crusted bean balls. 140 W. Valley Blvd., Ste. 4D. San Gabriel. (626) 288-1899.
BEST OAXACAN STREET FOOD
We’re the taco truck town, so why not a quesadilla cart? Every day, usually between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., a very nice woman stands behind her cart on Echo Park Avenue, just north of Sunset, where she makes blue corn tortillas by hand, stuffs them full of Monterey jack cheese and the filling of your choice, then presses them down onto a heated, flat top until the contents become warm and gooey. She usually has standard items like chicken, beef and wonderfully soft potato, but will often have more interesting offerings as well, like chicharron, squash blossom and huitlacoche (corn fungus — an inconvenience to most farmers in the U.S., but a much-loved ingredient in Mexico). At the front of this real-estate-maximizing cart, you’ll also find jars filled with two kinds of salsas, Cotija cheese and even cactus salad. The price for these blue semi-circles of melted cheese splendor? A mere three dollars each. Also, if you’re lucky, you might notice a churro truck parked just down the street. 1246 Echo Park Ave., L.A.
BEST PLACE TO SHARE A MEAL WITH 80 OF YOUR CLOSEST PALS
Sure, you can make your own paella — the Spanish dish that is as much a tribute to Spanish food on a single plate as it is a meal — or order it at any number of the tapas restaurants around town. But why, when you can head down to La Española Meats in Harbor City and have Juana Faraone make it for you. You and 79 of your friends, that is. Faraone, whose son-in-law Alex Motamedi manages the attached import shop and charcuterie factory, makes paella ($8.50, made only on Saturdays) in a pan the size of a dining-room table. The Valencia native cooks her saffron-shot Valencia rice with chicken and seafood, beans and peppers, and three kinds of house-made sausages. While you’re sitting outside on the patio, with perhaps more expatriate Spaniards than any place outside of the kitchen at Jose Andres’ Bazaar, Motamedi will bring you a plate of free tapas: three or four of his house-made chorizos, wedges of Idiazábal cheese, house-marinated olives, and warm baguettes. The parbaked bread is imported — along with all the wines and cheeses and Jerez vinegars and Marcona almonds and a good portion of your tablemates — from Spain. 25020 Doble Ave., Harbor City. (310) 539-0455. Call ahead.
BEST SAAG PANEER
Addi’s Tandoor is the kind of dark, white-tablecloth place that I’m hard-pressed to keep my 8-year-old quiet in. But we brave it because the food is so damn good. Excellent lamb vindaloo. But it is the saag paneer (cube of mild Indian cheese, like a cross-breeding of tofu and mozzarella, in a spinach sauce) that is a true marvel. Even my late mother, who would wrinkle her New York Italian nose at the thought of Indian food, was smitten with it. The spinach sauce sets it apart. The flavors of the spices keep weaving its way around the tongue in a complex melody. Go along for the ride with a satisfied smile. 800 Torrance Blvd., Ste. 101. Redondo Beach. (310) 540-1616.
BEST THAI ELVIS
How can you not adore a Palm Thai, a restaurant that serves the best spicy papaya salad around as well as strange meat delicacies, stays open late and employs a goofball Thai guy who does a great Elvis imitation? We’ve been here dozens of times, mostly to order the exact same thing — fried tofu with cashew nuts and peppers. We never grow tired of the dish or the peculiar little man in his pompadour wig, platform shoes and flashy suits. He croons Elvis tunes beautifully and has the hip moves down. The service is fast, the food is cheap and a giant Elvis statue makes for perfect dinner conversation. For the voyeur, the tables are close together, so you can drool over your neighbor’s deer with green peppercorn in curry sauce (we city folk think that deer is served only with a side of mangled headlights), frogs’ legs fried in chili, or wild boar in spicy coconut sauce. Who says you can only find exotic fare with a middle-aged Elvis performing “Love Me Tender” in Vegas? 5900 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. (323) 462-5073.
BEST PICKLES AND SAUERKRAUT
TheKruegermann family has been selling their German-style KrüegermannPickles and sauerkraut since they moved to Glassell Park from East Germany nearly 50 years ago (Marxist-spiced red pickles didn’t taste quite right to the longtime pickling family). Today, you can find their two-dozen pickled products, including uborka (red-chile-spiced cucumber pickles), rote beete (tangy pickled beets), and naturally fermented sauerkraut at German markets and many local supermarkets. Everything from the frischgurken (sweet pickles) to the rotkhol (tangy sweet red cabbage with apples) is made from produce sourced at nearby California farms. Plus, as the price of a jar of pickled veggies from a certain commercial producer whose name rhymes with “classic” encroaches on five bucks, you might as well spend the same amount on much tastier, and locally stomped (sort of like grape stomping, only with shredded cabbage and salt), Krüegermann kraut. Available at Vons, Ralphs, Whole Foods and specialty markets. (323) 662-9313, kruegermann.com.
BEST BALL SLAPPING
Making tortillas by hand may be a dying art in East L.A., but La Piñata Tortilleria stubbornly refuses to yield to the machine. They spend three mornings a week slapping oblong balls of maize flour on the counter and pounding out hundreds of tortillas a mano for their customers. Yes, La Piñata does offer mass-market tortillas as an option. At $1.89 for a package of 36, these tortillas de maquina offer significant savings, especially if you eat them often. But as far as taste goes, they’re not in a league with the softer, thicker, más Mexicana tortillas a mano, made Friday through Sunday mornings. Arrive early, because that’s when the food’s freshest and sells out fast. Handmade tortillas are $3 for a package of 10 on the day they’re made. They get knocked down to half price on Monday and Tuesday — if there are any left at all. La Piñata also makes excellent tamales, which come in pork, beef, cheese, chicken or sweet varieties for $16 per dozen. 607 W. Whittier Blvd., Montebello. (323) 726-0327.
At La Mascota, the Salcedo family has been churning out Mexican bolillos, a softer, chubbier version of a French baguette, for their Boyle Heights neighbors for more than 50 years. But it’s the $1.35 to-go tamales that draw the long- distance eaters armed with empty coolers and ice packs. In the kitchen window across from the bakery, 30-year tamale-making veteran Nachita Morales and her granddaughter, Erika Salazar, spoon the chile-spiked fillings onto masa-lined corn husks. The choices are limited — red chile with shredded pork, green chile with chicken or cheese, and sweet pineapple — but that’s a good thing for those with limited freezer space. Plus there’s a parking lot in back so you don’t have to spend more on the meter than on dinner. 2715 Whittier Blvd., L.A. (323) 263-551, lamascotabakery.com.
BEST PISTACHIO PUDDING
India Tandoori Grill, across from the Torrance Airport, has a wonderful buffet selection, with chutneys and pickles, tandoori chicken, goat curry, flavorful dal, chicken tikka masala in a rich, creamy tomato sauce and a rotating bevy of dishes both meat and vegetarian. But be sure to leave plenty of room for dessert, especially the pistachio pudding. It is similar in consistency to kheer, the Indian rice pudding, but sweeter and with more flavor. There is also a very sweet, musky mango pudding and fresh fruit. But the pistachio pudding will bring you back for seconds. 3160 Pacific Coast Hwy., Torrance. (310) 530-4000.
BEST RAMEN-INDUCED STEAMBATH
The best ramen, at the best price, at the latest hours in town is at Daikyuoya. Justly regarded by L.A. cognoscenti (900 Yelp reviews = no longer a secret) as the perfect capper to a night of drinking, dancing and more drinking, a large bowl of tonkotsu style ramen in pork broth (get kotteri-style for added back-fat flavor) with a not-too-hard, not-too-soft boiled, marinated egg, green onions, and bits of Kurobuta pork to cure any incipient hangover/heartache. The place seats about 30 — sitting barside lets you observe the prep, and savor the smells coming from two vats of steaming broth. Too hot for a bath-sized bowl of steaming ramen? You can get tsukumen (chilled noodles), fried rice and gyoza, or order a half-portion, (but since the regular portion is $8.50, you might as well splurge). Be prepared to stand in line, and in summer, to sweat once you get seated inside. After you leave, full of noodles and pork, be prepared for total strangers to remark on your fragrant presence. 327 E. 1st St., L.A. (213) 626-1680, daikoku-ten.com.
BEST OVERUSE OF THE WORD “HIPSTER”
It’s not often that you see a young man in white skinny jeans, his hair styled in something resembling a pompadour, his face adorned with purple-rimmed shades, sitting down to dinner with a 50-year-old woman wearing Liz Claiborne sandals. But hipsters do have mothers, and mothers are required to take their children out to eat. So where, oh where, could their tastes possibly overlap? Luckily, hipsters have been developing a fairly discerning palate over the years, but the corporate ambiance and safe menu at a place like Houston’s will make them feel dirty and uncomfortable. The hipster will suggest somewhere like Cactus Taqueria, the mother will ask if they have tablecloths and the hipster will respond that they barely have tables. Then, after about an hour of both sides sighing audibly, they’ll meet somewhere in the middle. The best choice for such a compromise would be Jitlada. It’s about as upscale as it gets in Thai Town (which still makes it extremely affordable), has truly delightful food, and Mom won’t spend the whole meal complaining that the mussels don’t look safe to eat. 5233 W. Sunset Blvd., L.A. (323) 663-3104.
BEST COZY BAR WITH FRENCH BRUNCH
This establishment’s old, battered, peeling café sign is the first hint that Rive Gauche is ignoring every known food, décor and bar fad, to offer European-steeped, traditional meals and a Sunday champagne brunch — plus one of the warmest, friendliest neighborhood bars in Southern California. Sometimes it’s just you and the bartender — and a bar-food plate of apple chunks, grapes, Brie, Roquefort and fresh, sliced baguette. The bar has comfy sofas and a romantic little fireplace, but also enough room to hold a last-minute Friday-night bash with 10 or so friends. Ironwork tables are arranged outside for warm-weather dining in a sweet little vine-covered passageway, from which you cannot see or even imagine nearby Ventura Boulevard. Just across from this leafy passage is the European-style café that the owners are often pressured to “update” — we urge them not to — and which is described by one patron as “elegant farmhouse style.” The café, said by some to serve the best French onion soup in town, is beloved for its coquille jacques, smoked-salmon benedict and even sweetbreads. Service is French, meaning slow and unapologetic. Prices are perhaps 20 percent below typical French fare on the Westside. Have brunch, then zip over to Bloomies just two minutes away. 14106 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 990-3573 or (818) 990-7331.
BEST JAPANESE-MAID CAFÉ
Royal/T café-gallery-shop has much to offer by way of delicious things, not least of which is cute little Asian-girl waitresses dressed up as French maids. Is it surprising that the nation’s first Japanese “maid café” opened here in Los Angeles? Maybe. We are lucky that we don’t have to travel to Tokyo’s Akihabara district, the epicenter of the maid-café cosplay phenomenon, to dine in this kind of splendor. While the gals at Royal/T may not exactly kneel at your table when they pour your matcha milk-tea (Royal/T’s is excellent), or call you “master” when they deliver your omelette, or spoon-feed you brioche, or blow on your food if it’s too hot, like the Akihabara maids do — at least, not that I’ve seen — they are plenty accommodating. Still sad? Console yourself by staring at the café’s impressive selection of art — the Murakamis, the Naras, the Kaws sculptures, the Jennifer Steinkamp tree-video projection swirling in the baroque-rococo lounge room. Or buy yourself a weird little something-something from the exquisitely curated shop. A giant stuffed vinyl squid? A big-eyed Blythe doll? Those you can take home with you to molest. 8910 Washington Blvd., Culver City. (310) 559 6300, royal-t.org.
BEST GRINDING AND STUFFING
It’s got to be a little depressing living the sausage life in a grocery-store meat case, where even the most robust bratwurst is so often upstaged by a scrawny little flank steak. At Bob’s Market in Santa Monica, the small, family-run grocery store has put its chubby pork bangers and sweet Italian chicken sausages front and center for more than 30 years. You’ll find classics like andouille and chorizo nestled beside more unusual offerings like chicken-apple, chicken-cilantro and pork-pecorino sausages. Most of the glistening chubs of ground meat and spices lined up in neat rows sell for a mere $5 to $6 a pound. Smile really sweetly and you can even persuade the in-house sausage guru to grind and stuff your own creation, although you’ve got to come up with a recipe first — and promise to buy at least five pounds of the stuff, good or bad. 1650 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 452-2493, bobsmkt.com.
BEST GOOD OL’ SOUTHERN (KOREAN) BBQ
The sheer number of restaurants in Koreatown is mind-boggling to sort through. A lot of folks keep it simple; when they want primally addictive Korean BBQ, they head to the simple, modest place with the three-word name that happens to sound, in English, like a hard-charging, smoke-spewing all-terrain vehicle: Soot Bull Jeep. Perhaps the name is strangely appropriate? There are the earthy red-brick walls; the efficient, officious, skirt-clad waitresses; the constant crowds — Korean and non-Korean alike, with their often joyous, celebratory vibe — and then there’s the smoke. The holy smoke, that wafts and streams from the center-table BBQ pits, filling the place with pure marinated-meat spicy sweetness. Menu decisions are easy: Pick a meat (Spencer steak, short ribs, spicy pork, chicken, calamari, etc.) and it comes with a scrumptious array of sides — some leafy, some pickled — and rice. It’s so damn satisfying you wear the smoky smell on your clothes like a sacred culinary anointing. 3136 W. Eighth St., Koreatown. (213) 387-3865.
BEST SOUP DUMPLINGS
There are still people who haven’t heard of xiaolongbao, the Shanghai specialty occasionally called XLB, or, most commonly, soup dumplings. When you explain the dish to those who aren’t familiar, they’ll have one of two responses: either “... there’s soup inside the dumplings? How do they do that?” (yes, there is, and it’s done by using meat gelatin, which turns to liquid when heated) or “...where can I get some?” (nowhere west of the 110). Occasionally they’ll utter both responses, one on top of the other. Many different versions can be found around town, and restaurants, like J & J, Mei Long Village and Giang Nan, have their impassioned supporters. Some people prefer their soup dumplings with pork, and others with pork and crab. But the most praised, and, really, the best, are at the Arcadia restaurant Din Tai Fung. The pork soup dumplings, No. 50 on the menu, have the purest flavor and the best combination of delicacy and durability (good luck eating an unstable soup pouch). And they do the best job of creating a harmonious union with the accompanying Chinese black vinegar and shredded ginger. As an added bonus, Din Tai Fung’s chopstick wrapper even has a diagram explaining how to eat them. 1108 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. (626) 574-7068.
BEST SOUTH INDIAN BUFFET
Most Indian restaurants specialize in Northern Indian dishes. Mayura’s lunchtime buffet is a chance to delve into South Indian cuisine, specifically that of the tropical state of Kerala on India’s Southwest coast, where you’ll find more coconut, tamarind, and plenty of yogurt, lentils, chiles and rice. For $8.95 the buffet includes at least 10 dishes (which may change depending on the day), including nonvegetarian fare, like tandoori chicken, fish curry or chicken biryani; there is a wide assortment of vegetarian dishes, not to mention a great variety of chutneys and pickles. Be sure to sample some of the uniquely South Indian dishes: the soupy sambar (a vegetable stew made from tamarind and pigeon peas), and the salty, spicy rasam (using tomatoes and lentils), which goes well over the tangy yogurt rice. There is an embarrassment of starchy riches with which to soak up all of these, including the Northern Indian dish of doughy naan bread and peppery pappadum; the South Indian dosa (like a crispy crepe) and appam (a rice-batter, white pancake that is simply extraordinary when combined with the rich, sweet coconut chutney) and a variety of rice dishes 10406 Venice Blvd., Culver City. (310) 559-9644.
Here’s the general rule about food that’s bad for you: The rattier the place looks, the better the food. If the proprietors haven’t made it a practice to paint, or to relettering their signs, and yet they have a lot of business, you know the food is really good. Such a place is Taco Pete. Some might also be unfamiliar with the neightborhood: the corner of 120th Street and Central Avenue, on the edge of Watts. Its employees are protected by security glass and metal bars to discourage robbers and thwart drive-by shooters, making the place look more like a check-cashing outfit. But since we once owned and lived in a duplex within walking distance of Taco Pete, we consider it old stomping grounds. At one time, we even wrongly judged Taco Pete by its appearance — a scary look that provokes an initial reaction like “why would I want to eat there?” Then we actually ate their tacos and saw the error of our ways. Hardshell or soft, beef, pork, chicken, turkey (that’s right) or fish, these are yummy, juicy and incredibly cheap. Sure you can get many of the usual items you’d see at the corner hamburger stand, but you come here for the tacos ($1.89 each). 12007 South Central Ave., L.A. (323) 569-5164.
—Juliette Akinyi Ochieng
BEST TAIWANESE STREET FOOD
The bright yellow walls and Hello Kitty décor at Pa Pa Walk might make you think for a moment that you’d wandered off-course and stumbled into yet another mini-mall trinket shop. In fact, you’ve just entered one of Southern California’s foremost bastions of Taiwanese street food. The top sellers here are dishes like the cold cuts platter of marinated pig’s ears, seaweed, bean curd and boiled egg, and the oyster omelet, apparently classics in Taiwan. The restaurant’s young, well-dressed clientele also drops in for less exotic hits, like popcorn chicken ($4.50), Taiwanese sausage and egg fried rice ($6.75), and especially the cream soup in fried toast ($6.75), which is served in a “bread coffin.” Dessert may be Pa Pa’s biggest draw: Make sure to save room for the mango shaved ice, which is basically an enormous snow cone doused with condensed milk and smothered in deliciously ripe cubes of fruit. Simple and especially satisfying on a sweltering San Gabriel Valley day, the large version, which goes for $10, is big enough for four and comes with a scoop of homemade mango ice cream on top. 227 W. Valley Blvd., Suite 148-B, San Gabriel. (626) 281-3889.
BEST VIEW WITH A RESTAURANT
From the stone terrace of the Top of the Notch Restaurant, munch on a burger in the clean, crisp mountain air and gaze down between the mountains on the clouds covering the L.A. Basin. Yes, we said gaze down on the clouds. At 7,800 feet you are higher than anything east of the Pecos, and higher than 36 of our 50 states. The fare is simple grill food, but things seem to taste better in the clear, mountain air. During the non-ski season the restaurant is only open on weekends and holidays, which is, not coincidentally, when the chair lift to get you there is running — unless you would prefer to hike up and really build up an appetite. End of Mt. Baldy Road, Mt. Baldy. (909) 982-0800.
BEST HAITIAN COFFEE
To say that George Laguerre makes the best cup of Haitian coffee in L.A. should not be qualified by the fact that he may very well make the only Haitian cup of coffee in L.A. I don’t know if there are others to be had, but I do know that the thick shot of espresso Laguerre pulls from the Pasquini espresso machine at his downtown restaurant TiGeorges’ Chicken, and tops off with steamed milk that has first been steeped with bay leaves and key lime, is better than anyone else’s, be they real or imaginary. Laguerre sources, imports and roasts his coffee himself: The organic beans come from his own backyard in Port-de-Paix, Haiti, where his father was a coffee grower; the beans are then pan-roasted in the back of the restaurant, caramelized with a bit of brown sugar, and ground in the burr grinder right next to the Pasquini. It can get a little crowded at Laguerre’s coffee bar, seeing as it’s right next to the enormous medieval-looking custom-built spit on which the chickens (which gave the restaurant its name) are roasted, and which barely clears the chairs pushed into the family-style dining room table, usually filled with the musicians who play and eat here. But Laguerre will see that you fit, and that you are given a perfect cup, and perhaps that you stay for music and a plate of conch or fricasseed goat as well. TiGeorges’ Chicken, 309 Glendale Blvd., L.A. (213) 944-1515, tigeorgeschicken.com.
BEST TORTILLAS ON PICO
Perhaps there’s no food staple that points to the core of the Mexican psyche like the tortilla. Strikingly simple and rustic, the flat discs of corn, water and limewater inspired the late Chicano singer Lalo Guerrero’s pouty “There’s No Tortillas.” Unfortunately, bad corn tortillas — thin, dry pucks from the grocery store — recall cardboard more than the spongy, doughy pillows of Mexican cuisine. But in the last 10 years, L.A. has awakened to a fresh wave of Latin American immigrants, which has revitalized the food scene. On a stretch of Pico Boulevard in Mid-City a small Oaxacan tortillaria, Tortilleria Expresion Oaxaquena took root four years ago. It offers a Qaxacan speciality: steamy packages of 12-inch tortillas that are about a millimeter thick and always soft and moist. They make them from corn, on the spot, throughout the day (and often late into the night), and they keep them in a cooler (a warmer, really) that was once a refrigerator. The prices usually beat the dull stuff at Ralphs. A dozen of the big tortillas costs $2. 3301 W. Pico Blvd. (323) 766-0575.
BEST CAFÉ WITH NATURE HIKE ATTACHED
If Julia Child and John Muir were to meet for lunch, and Julia wanted good, simple, butter-confident food made from scratch, and John asked only that they eat outside, in the shade of a few sequoia with dirt beneath their feet and the company of birds, they would agree on Trails Café in Griffith Park. Set a few blocks north of Los Feliz Boulevard adjacent to the well-worn hiking paths and grassy picnic plots where readers settle down with their books, and lovers practice tangling their bodies on blankets in the sun, the walk-up café is a water mirage in the desert for hungry hikers. It is also a destination for those eager to sit down with a good book, a homemade sandwich and a cup of iced tea, as though they were breaking for lunch at a campsite in the country, where time slows, appetites peak, and the food tastes better because the elements have a tendency to intensify flavor. A quaint kitchen in a cabin at the base of the park, with recipes orchestrated by aptly named pastry chef Jenny Park, Trails serves coffee and homemade tomato goat cheese tarts, vegan mushroom cashew pie, avocado sandwiches on dark bread, and egg salad so perfect you might stop to wonder which came first, the park or Trails. You can’t have a forest without forage, the gastronomer might argue. The naturalist would likely disagree. One thing’s for sure: They both will concur that lavender belongs with sugar, butter, flour, and salt in Park’s coveted lavender shortbread. It’s natural selection. 5375 Red Oak Drive, L.A. (323) 871-2102, thetrailslosfeliz.com.
—Erica Zora Wrightson
BEST PLACE TO EAT WHILE HAVING A HEART ATTACK
In Westwood, expensive dining options abound. So since you’re in walking distance to a world-class medical center, why not take advantage of what the Dining Commons at UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center has to offer? Situated on the first floor, it’s a simple cafeteria — and therein lies its charm — a place where med students, top docs, hospital staff and visitors alike congregate for cheaper than usual Starbucks coffee, and reasonable yet diverse food choices. To wit: $4.57 breakfast specials of French toast, eggs and bacon, or chorizo and eggs with potatoes; $6.70 complete lunch and dinner entrees such as marinated Korean flank steak, barbecue brisket, and Hainan chicken with plum sauce — all with sides. More than 40 salad bar items are offered at $6.99 a pound. Homemade soups are $2.54; deli sandwiches, $6. Posted above many menu items are nutritional analyses — including calories, carbs, protein, fat, sodium and sugars, many marked with a green apple symbol for healthy choices. Best perk: If you need a cardiologist, excellent assistance is close by. Think what you’d save in ambulance services. 757 Westwood Plaza, Wstwd. (310) 825-9659.
BEST POST-HANGOVER, CRUELTY-FREE VEGAN BRUNCH
On Sundays, Flore Vegan Cuisine offers an all-you-can-eat vegan brunch for $10, tax included. The brunch is served buffet style and makes for the perfect post-hangover meal. The menu varies, but mainstays are tofu scramble, “sausage,” “bacon,” French toast, waf es, potatoes, fruit, coffee and orange juice. The sausage and bacon are freshly homemade (no frozen fakin’ bacon, here!) every Sunday. Other items might include biscuits and gravy or tofu benediction. The café typically attracts locals, but for brunch expect a diverse crowd of bike kids, couples and vegan bloggers. Enjoy outdoor seating or a quaint space inside. Servers maintain a laidback attitude, so you get the feeling you can stay awhile. For only $10, why wouldn’t you? 3818 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake. (323) 953-0611, florevegan.com.
BEST SAN GABRIEL VALLEY SZECHUAN
You know you’re in for an adventure from the moment you set foot in Yunchuan Garden, a Monterey Park stronghold of Szechuan cuisine. Right in front of you is the cold dish counter, where, for $3.95, you can pick three items from about a dozen trays overflowing with chicken feet, thinly sliced pork chin and beef with beef stomach and seasoned tripe, among other Western Chinese delicacies. The specialty here, though, is the heat. The kitchen churns out plate after plate of steaming pork, beef and lamb blanketed with awe-inspiring quantities of diced red peppers. If you want to feel the brunt of what Yunchuan has to offer, skip the one and two-chili options on the menu and go straight for the full, three-chili glory of the chopped, hot pepper beef, a stir-fry seemingly designed to leave you in tears. The restaurant has a boisterous feel, and just about every oversized dish — that could easily serve two — is less than $10. Waiters mainly speak Chinese but seem happy to walk you through the menu to the best of their abilities. That’s a good thing, because it’s a dangerous one. 301 N. Garfield Ave., Unit D, Monterey Park. (626) 571-8387.
BEST FLOWERY, FLOWING SALAD BAR IN AN ISRAELI RESTAURANT
People frequent Itzik Hagadol (Isaac, the Great in Hebrew) for the famed meat skewers, but the real appeal is the incredible, beautiful, delicious, fresh, in your face, never-ending flow of salads. Purchase one skewer (get the veal-lamb kebabs, everything else is bland) and, for an additional $8.99, you’re entitled you to 20 different kinds of Mediterranean salads, which will be arranged on your table in small dishes, creating a colorful shape of a flower. Try them all, but the stars are the Morrocan carrots; the thinly diced Israeli salad; Turkish salad; anything eggplant; and the Matbucha — a Morrocan creation made of ground, fresh tomatoes. The waitresses will keep piling the salads on until you beg for mercy, but don’t stop until just before you ask for the check. Anything left on the table is yours to take home! Peace in the Middle East. Itzik Hagadol Grill, 17201 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 784-4080, itzikhagadol.com.
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