Good Is in the Details
Photo by Anne Fishbein
Cheebo is impossible to miss. The name, a phonetic spelling of cibo, the Italian word for food, is painted directly on the building in huge blocky Caltrans-orange letters. More of that cheerful orange can be found inside, paired with marigold yellow, in amusing cartoonish wall graphics. At noon one day, we slide into a banquette between a meeting of young filmmakers and a solo diner eating a semi-rectangular pizza with deep meditative relish. Light streams in through colored glass panes, and odd, antic bits of artwork are plunked about as if by the Dr. Seuss school of restaurant design.
The new neighborhood café in West Hollywood is brought to us by Sandy Gendel and Sandro Reinhardt of Pacé in Laurel Canyon, and right off the bat, the lunch menu proves difficult: So many things look tempting. Porkwich or Greek-o-Cheebo salad? Smoked-salmon pizza or “goat cheese N grape leaf” pressed sandwich? Our waitress is no help. “It’s all really good,” she says flatly. “Whatever you order.”
So we finally commit to a handful of items (thus eliminating so many others), and a bowl of housemade potato chips keeps us amused until the food arrives. Ever since Gendel opened Porta Via in Beverly Hills seven or eight years ago, I’ve been a big fan of his salads — he doesn’t just toss things atop the standard mixed baby greens; he actually composes salads for maximal flavor and interest. Both of the chopped salads — the mesquite-grilled Vegorama (greens, zucchini, mushroom, carrot, leek, asparagus, fennel and garbanzo beans) and the Cheebo Chop (greens, chicken, salami, sopressata, olives and Italian cheeses) — are fresh and surprising and completely different. Each bite varies — you get tired of chewing long before you lose interest or concede you’re full. The Living Salad takes me back to hippie garden days, with the starchy, raw crunch of sprouted beans and peas, the chewiness of wild rice, ripe cherry tomatoes. And an elegant, horizontal heap of romaine leaves and red endive spears, lushly dressed and crisscrossed with anchovies — Cheebo’s caesar — may be the city’s best version of the classic.
Sandwiches are made with one of five different breads — or “plated,” which means with no bread at all. I order the Porkwich plated, which is a heap of slow-roasted organic pork and onion with melted marciego cheese and very thin slices of crunchy dill pickles and tarragon mayonnaise — a marvel. The mesquite-grilled Chickwich is composed of white meat and Cheddar cheese encased in a hard, ultra-crisped shell of bacon. Individual pizzas, soft rectangles with puffy edges, actually have a thin, crisp, chewy crustunder the topping, where it counts. Try the housemade sausage with fennel, though we also liked a basic pepperoni ordered for the child among us; fresh tomato sauce adds juice and depth.
The dinner menu will provoke another crisis of indecision — that is, if you look beyond the entrée portion of that incredible pork. There’s pizza, of course, and pasta. The spaghetti — a good, supple noodle with a meaty “pulled beef” bolognese sauce — is excellent. Of the entrées, I uncharacteristically loved the halibut, a moist, firm and tasty wedge of fish grilled with a light crust and served with smoky white beans spiked with roasted tomatoes and strands of bitter greens. A tri-tip steak is juicy and flavorful if not exactly the most tender cut. For tenderness, you’ll want the braised eye of round, a thick slice of beef so cookedthat it has almost become another substance, a kind of soft beefy essence accompanied by thick, grilled, crusty bread drenched in horseradish cream.
Both beef dishes also come with buttery mashed potatoes, but you can order other sides: profoundly green kale sautéed with garlic, or the butter-drenched steamed yellow sweet potatoes. Baby back ribs — a popular dish with kids — are sweet with a hoisin-style sauce. For a plate of pure protein — another Atkins diet pick — there’s delicious, pleasurably firm house-smoked salmon and sea bass served with long, thin slices of cucumber so you can make your own roll-ups.
For dessert, try the cold, creamy mocha cheesecake — it has just the right balance of sweetness and bitterness with a smart dash of salt. There’s also a fresh apricot crisp, which is baked to order, its topping rich, crunchy and fragrant with ground hazelnuts. Wash it down with espresso or an Americano — the coffee here is excellent.
Cheebo is composed, like its salads, of countless small, intelligent details based on years of apprenticeships and experience. (Co-owner Gendel, for example, worked with the great chef Gianfranco Vissani in Italy and at the famous if short-lived Table 29 in Napa before opening Porta Via — which explains, in part, the excellent pizza and pasta and the use of organic ingredients whenever possible.)
Cheebo may be a neighborhood restaurant, but I’d drive across town to eat there. In fact, on the way back to our car, we pass a house for sale: $795,000. It’s an ungodly sum, but the location suddenly seems highly desirable.
Cheebo, 7533 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 850-7070. Lunch and dinner, seven days 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Valet parking. Entrées $8–$16. AE, MC, V.
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