I Eat Your Skin
In a land dominated by carne asada, Denise's is where to go for pork, a bagful of one of three or four different kinds of house-made chicharrones (fried pork rinds), the pickled pigskin called cueritos, or a pound or two of roast pork. If you have a buck for a taco, you can taste the carnitas, among the best in East L.A., dense-textured, with the full, almost gamy flavor of slow-cooked pig. Also good are the tacos with chicharrones stewed in spicy tomato sauce -- numbingly rich, a 1,500-calorie taco. 4060 E. Olympic Blvd., East L.A.; (323) 264-8199. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $8$10. No alcohol. Parking lot. Cash only.
La Fonda Antioquena
The waiter here will insist that you order the small fried turnovers called empanadas. And you should! Greaseless and crisp-crusted, corny and stuffed with a creamy forcemeat, they come with a dip of cool, Colombian salsa that seems to be mostly chopped scallion tops, chiles and salt. The carne sudada here is good, a cumin-scented 'eye of round,' stained yellow with achiote and topped with stewed tomatoes and onions. Sobrebarriga is more or less the same thing, done with brisket. Lengua in salsa -- rich, salty, with the gelatinous intensity of long-cooked meat -- is the best variant, made with beef tongue. If you prefer meat grilled, you might consider Ave Maria bues, which comes with just about everything else: a thin, plate-size grilled steak, tasting strongly of the grill; a dense, spicy chorizo sausage; a dinner salad with a strong vinaigrette; a thick, smoky pinto-bean stew (awesome!); fried plantains; rice; arepa; and the inevitable strip of pigskin. 4903 ä Melrose Ave.; (323) 957-5164. Open all day, seven days. Dinner for two, food only, $15$25. Beer and wine. Parking in rear. DC, MC, V.
This little yakitori restaurant in Little Tokyo caters to levels of chicken connoisseurship most of us will never develop: an appreciation of the particular striations of one particular muscle in a chicken breast, the flavor of right thigh over left, the ability to identify feed, breed and gender after one small bite into a charcoal-broiled breast. Until you've been coming to Kokekokko long enough to begin to know what to ask for, the ritual here is to order one of the set menus, either five or 10 courses of grilled chicken flesh and innards: grilled skin, threaded onto the skewer in accordion pleats; marinated slivers of thigh, separated from each other by slices of onion. Grilled hearts, served with a smear of hot Chinese mustard, are a little tough, but intensely chicken-flavored. 203 S. Central Ave.; (213) 687-0690. Open Mon.Sat. for dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $30$50. Beer and wine. AE, MC, V.
La Luz del Día
The last place you'd expect to find a real Mexican joint is among the maraca vendors and befuddled German tourists of Olvera Street, but there it is, and has been for decades, La Luz del Día, serving cactus salad to the hordes. With its carrots and potatoes, picadillo (the chunky Mexican beef stew that La Luz puts in tacos, on tostadas and in combination platters) looks like a stew somebody's mother might have made -- provided somebody's mother has an industrial-size garlic press and the Thai tolerance for chile heat. Chicharrones, fried pork skins, come sogged with a truly awesome version of what gets slopped on enchiladas in chain restaurants, a chile sauce that's as sophisticated in its slight bitterness as a dry martini. Crispy carnitas -- rich bits of fried pork just about perfect for folding into a tortilla with a bit of the good house beans and a dollop of guacamole -- rank with the nicest in town. And don't forget to order a fresh cactus salad: crunchy, lively with citrus and not nearly as slimy as cactus can be. Plus, it's 100 percent guaranteed spine-free! 1 W. Olvera St.; (213) 628-7495. Open Tues.Sun. for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $6$10. Cash only.
Mario's Peruvian Restaurant
Mario's highlights include the tiny saucer of hot, guacamole-textured Peruvian chile sauce, aji, that comes with the bread and butter; a huge platter of ceviche, extremely fresh, raw whitefish marinated in lemon juice and seasoned salt; papas la huancaina, a savory, op-art-yellow cheese sauce blanketing sliced, boiled potatoes. There's a classic version of the Peruvian shrimp chowder chupe de camarones, a big bowl of chile-red soup mellowed with milk, thickened with great quantities of beaten egg and topped with a giant crouton of freshly fried bread. "Chicharon" de pollo is something like Peruvian Chicken McNuggets, heavily breaded chunks cooked to resemble fried pigskin, and served with an herbed, citric dipping sauce as vividly yellow as a happy-face emblem. And on Sundays, there's usually tallarin verde, Chinese spaghetti sauced with an intense, creamy pesto and topped with a thin grilled steak. It's the kind of tri-ethnic dish that could only have originated in Peru . . . or in L.A. 5786 Melrose Ave.; (323) 466-4181. Open seven days for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $15$26. No alcohol. Takeout. MC, V.
Palm Thai Restaurant
As in most great Thai places, finding Palm Thai's actual specialties requires a bit of persistence. Non-Thai customers are routinely brought a roster of the familiar cooking of suburban Thai restaurants -- or you can request a second menu, which includes most of Palm Thai's best main dishes, fiery salads, Isaan-style bar snacks and elaborate soups. Try the red curry of wild boar, quite hot but tempered with coconut milk and flavored with lime leaves and unripe green peppercorns still on the branch. Or maybe, just maybe, the pepper-garlic frog, crunchy fried bits of the amphibian set on a layer of fried minced garlic so thick that it looks at first like a plateful of granola -- as much garlic as even a Thai person could want. The third time we ordered this dish, the frog was garnished with thin, moss-green, disconcertingly crunchy croutons of deep-fried frog skin. Yum. 5273 Hollywood Blvd.; (323) 462-5073. Open daily 11 a.m.2 a.m. Dinner for two, food only, $18$40. Beer and wine. Takeout. Guarded lot parking. MC, V.
Quanjude's Beijing duck is so remarkably superior to the Beijing ducks you might have grown up eating that the effect is not unlike taking a first bite of first-class toro sushi after a lifetime of StarKist on Wonder Bread. If you are not Chinese, a waiter will probably come over to show you how to eat this smoked delicacy, how to smear a paper-thin wheat pancake with a bit of the house's bean sauce, top it with the white of a scallion, chopstick up a piece or two of the duck skin, and roll it up into a kind of elegant taco. The skin is crisp, giving way under your teeth like the glaze on a crème brûlée; the sweetness of the bean sauce amplifies the duck's unctuousness like the glaze on a Virginia ham; the sharpness of the scallion cuts through the sweet richness, bringing the whole dish into balance. It's worth a trip to Beijing, let alone Rosemead. 8450 E. Garvey Ave., Rosemead; (626) 280-2378. Open daily 11:30 a.m.2 p.m., 5:309 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, about $26. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking in rear. MC, V.
Vietnamese com tam, or "broken rice," may be the most elegant example of culinary salvage in the world. At Thuan Kieu, the thing to get, inelegantly called "broken rice with seven kinds of foods," is a big platter heaped with broken rice -- jagged bits of jasmine rice, accidentally shattered during the harvest or during processing -- and a bit of everything in the restaurant that you could wish to taste: steamed balls of Vietnamese pat, bright-orange wedges of a sort of Vietnamese quiche flavored with ground pork, and charbroiled slices of beef or pork, slightly blackened at the edges, bubbling grease. The platter also includes some of the best bi in town, shreds of roast pigskin tossed with herbs, which flavors rice as nothing you've ever tasted. 123 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 280-5660. Open Sun.Thurs. 9 a.m.9 p.m., Fri.Sat. 9 a.m.10 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, $8$14. No alcohol. Street parking. Cash only.
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