Quest for fire? Grate expectations? Sear bliss? Old King Coal? Stripes? When protein meets the bonfire, cuisine starts to happen - cuisine, or an auto-da-fe. Still, we wish they all could be California . . . you know.
By Brazil No. 2
While By Brazil's buffet - which is to say, the entire menu at weekday lunch - may be nothing to write home about, come evening there's the classic churrasco barbecue, brought to your plate until you cry uncle, one hunk of protein at a time. Sausages are pink, garlicky things, like Portuguese linguica; short ribs are chewy, with a distinct tang of smoke; pork ribs are oily and crisp; roast beef is crusted black, juicy, possibly the only piece of cow you'll find that tastes better well-done than medium rare. Desserts include a bright yellow egg-yolk custard that tastes like something off a dim sum cart - and a fairly nice passion-fruit pudding - but after the onslaught of beef and garlic, you probably won't be able to manage more than a demitasse of fresh-brewed Brazilian coffee. 1104 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 393-0447. Open for lunch and dinner Tues.-Sun. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$34. Beer and wine. Lot parking in rear. MC, V.
For lunch at Carlito's, there are sandwiches on crusty French rolls, stuffed with spicy Argentine sausage; milanesa, a paper-thin sheet of breaded beef; and matambre, the classic Argentine roulade of cold flank steak rolled around roasted red peppers and chopped boiled eggs. Like almost any Argentine restaurant, though, Carlito's revolves around its parrillada, a cavalcade of well-garlicked meats - sweetbreads, blood sausage, skirt steak, short ribs, Italian sausage - served on a smoking iron grill, accompanied only by a small bowl of chimichurri and a large plate of mashed potatoes. The meat is fine at Carlito's, juicier than you would ever expect such well-done meat to be, full of flavor, absolutely overwhelming in its variety. You can get a New York steak or a flank steaka instead of the parrillada, but you will only feel deprived. 7963 Melrose Ave.; (213) 655-0891. Open Mon.-Fri. for lunch, seven days for dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$45. Beer and wine. Live music. AE, MC, V.
Jeepney Grill specializes in grilled food with a distinctive Filipino twist, as easy to eat as burgers and fries. Barbecued pork and beef come sliced and skewered, crisped under a sweet coat of teriyaki-like sauce, and with a dip of mild vinegar. Chicken barbecue arrives daubed with a sweet banana mush. There are grilled squid, the size of extra-large mittens, tender beneath their crackly coat of teriyaki char, really tasting of the sea. Best of all are the grilled pork chops, coated with a paste of vinegar, garlic and spices, which are salty and pungent and wonderful. And wait - no Filipino meal is complete without the dessert halo-halo, sweet parfait-glassfuls of mung beans and baby coconut and jackfruit and Jell-O cubes and milk and whatever, over ice. Jeepney tops it with little cubes of flan. 3470 W. Sixth St.; (213) 739-2971. Open daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $6-$12. No alcohol. Lot parking. AE, D, MC, V.
At Kokekokko, you will inevitably start with something that tastes like the chicken equivalent of the seared albacore sashimi so popular at new-wave sushi bars: thick slabs of breast muscle that have the weight and texture of good tuna sashimi, grilled just until the center begins to get a haze over its pinkness, lemony, with a dab of wasabi on each of the three pieces on the skewer. Grilled chicken hearts, skewered and served with a smear of hot Chinese mustard, are tough in the way a good chuck steak can be tough, and intensely chicken-flavored, the way a skirt steak somehow
tastes more like beef than any other cut. Tiny grilled hard-boiled eggs could be the unborn chicken eggs beloved of Yiddish-speaking grandmothers, though they are suspiciously similar to quail eggs. 203 S. Central Ave.; (213) 687-0690. Open for dinner Mon.-Sat. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$50. Beer and wine. Street parking. MC, V.
Papa Cristo's Taverna
At Papa Cristo's, 6 bucks buys a whole grilled fish stuffed with garlic and herbs, or a giant skewer of spicy grilled beef, or a plate of spaghetti plus half a roast chicken, garlicky and crisp-skinned as the ones you find at Zankou. Six bucks will also buy three lamb chops, four if you're lucky, steeped in garlic and oregano and grilled quickly over a hot fire; crisp, brown, and edged with just enough fat to round out the lamb's sweet gaminess. These aren't the thick, prime loin chops you'd find at Michael's or Campanile, and they are usually cooked somewhere on the far, far side of rare, but it is hard to imagine more flavorful meat. After 15 seconds with a plastic knife, you will risk burnt fingers and eat them with your hands. 2771 W. Pico Blvd.; (213) 737-2970. Open for lunch Tues.-Sun. Lunch for two, food only, $9-$12. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking in rear. AE, D, MC, V.
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La Parilla is a wonderful place, specializing in marinated, charcoal-grilled meats - thin beef fillets, pork coated in a ruddy chile paste, chorizo sausage, sweetly sauced spareribs, and chicken served in various combinations. There are hand-patted corn tortillas unless they've run out. There are also many dishes based around grilled beef: puntas de filete (grilled chunks of steak tossed with pickled jalapenos and topped with melted cheese); fillet in a smoky sauce of chipotle chiles; fillet in a spicy Veracruz-style tomato sauce. And between norteno ballads, the waitresses are likely to push something called molcajete Azteca, a large granite mortar heated to a ferocious temperature, then filled with, among other things, bits of steak, grilled cactus paddles, chicken, a thin smoked-chile salsa and a big slab of panela cheese that bubbles and smokes where it touches the hot stone. 2126 Cesar E. Chavez Ave., East L.A.; (213) 262-3434 (other locations in Northridge and Tarzana). Open daily 8 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $14-$27. Beer and wine. Takeout. Street parking. AE, D, MC, V.
Sa Rit Gol
Sa Rit Gol is locally famous for its pork barbecue, thin loin strips marinated in a sauce of red chile and garlic that cook up brick-red on the tabletop grills. Dab the pork with a bit of fermented yellow-bean paste, fold it into a crisp leaf of romaine and eat the package with your fingers. Or grill fat slices of belly pork - or sweet marinated slices of flank steak, or snipped wedges of marinated short-rib meat - until they are charred and crisp, then dip them into a little saucer of sesame oil and salt. There's also a delicious casserole of baby octopuses, braised shiitake mushrooms with spinach, eggy pancakes enclosing aromatic shredded vegetables, and giant bubbling casseroles of crab. Dessert will inevitably be a thin, chilled broth, garnished with pine nuts, tasting almost like a tea made from gingersnaps. 3189 W. Olympic Blvd.; (213) 387-0909. Open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $18-$28. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V.