Photo by Anne Fishbein
El Amanecer Salvadoreño
Consider the pupusa (generally served at Salvadoran specialty restaurants, of which there are hundreds in Central Los Angeles): a dense, griddle-baked corn thing filled with goodies, a UFO-shaped snack something like a shotgun wedding between a tortilla and a calzone. When a pupusa is good, it is very, very good -- crisp-edged and speckled brown, hot-corn fragrant, oozing salty melted cheese. When confronted with a pupusa, you may want to garnish it with a bit of the spicy Salvadoran cabbage slaw curtido that is always served alongside, and perhaps with a splash of tomato sauce from a cruet. Suffice it to say that El Amanecer -- a homey place whose pupusas are on the soft side, with neither crust nor crunch but a certain richness and a distinctive, tart-hot slaw -- may change the way you think about the beast. 3059 W. Eighth St., Koreatown; (213) 382-2591. Open Mon.Thurs. 9 a.m.10:30 p.m., Fri.Sat. till mid., Sun. till 11 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $8$14. No alcohol. Takeout. Parking lot. Cash only.
The cornerstone of the Ecuadorian kitchen is the fresh-chile sauce aji (pronounced ah-hee), whose tart, fiery taste accents Ecuadorian dishes the way the taste of smoked chiles sparks Mexican food and the saltiness of fish sauce does Thai. El Caserio's aji is spicier than most, juiced up with onion and fresh tomato, one of the best salsas imaginable, spooned straight over big, puffy white-cheese empanadas, or over the fresh-corn tamales called humitas. There is a spicy, wonderful goat stew, sweet and concentrated; a similar stew of chicken; a nice version of the Peruvian dish lomo saltado, which involves strips of beef sautéed with onions and French fries; and a fine lentil stew, menestra, served with a thin grilled steak. The shrimp dish sango de camarones revolves around a strange, thick sauce made with green plantains and peanut butter -- probably unlike anything you have eaten before. 309 N. Virgil Ave.; (323) 664-9266. Open Thurs.Tues. 11 a.m.9:30 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $12$18. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. Disc., MC, V.
You don't really have to like the watery chiles rellenos, dominated by the thick egg batter, to be an El Coyote fan -- or the sugary green-corn tamales vaguely flavored with the mildest of chiles, or the giant tostadas that seem to contain an entire No. 8 can of peas. El Coyote food has a specific taste, a gestalt that transcends cuisine, transcends even rice and beans: the slightly acrid pungency of chopped green-onion tops, the milky funk of inexpensive cheese broiled until most of the fat has separated out, grainy enchilada fillings and the not-unpleasant reek of overheated beans, an abundance of sour cream where it doesn't really belong, chile salsa mild as Cocoa Puffs. Many restaurants vaguely resemble this place, but I could pick an El Coyote combination plate blindfolded out of a hundred others, and most of the regulars could, too. 7312 Beverly Blvd.; (323) 939-2255. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $9$15. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V.
El Gallo Pinto
El Gallo Pinto may not seem like much, but some Nicaraguans drive 100 miles on weekends for the tripe stew mondongo, the plain beef-and-tuber casserole called baho, or the Indio Viejo, a mild yet undeniably exotic stew of the sort you might use to fortify yourself on a cool mountain night. And everybody eats the gallo pinto, Nicaraguan rice and beans served in big mounds shaped like family-size cans of tuna, slightly oily, seasoned simply, with an intense, chocolatelike flavor from the sautéed beans. "This food is not fancy," says owner José "Chepe" Cabrales, "but we Nicaraguans feel it in our bones." 5559 N. Azusa Ave., Azusa; (626) 815-9907. Open Tues.Sun. for lunch and dinner. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12$25. Beer and wine. Entertainment on weekends. Lot parking. AE, Disc., MC, V.
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El Pollo Inka
El Pollo Inka is definitely a big-city restaurant, its menu filled with the seafood dishes typical of Lima's industrial port suburb, Callao. You'll find big plates of ceviche here, fresh, raw fish marinated in lime juice and hotly spiced with puréed chiles, served with the typical accompaniments of potato, sweet potato and corn. The delicious jalea involves crisply fried catfish fillets garnished with a sort of Peruvian pico de gallo, a citrusy chop of tomatoes and red onions. Sudado -- "An Adventure of the Deep Sea!" it says on the menu -- is a tomato-based seafood stew thick with shrimp and clams and tentacled things. The fish soup parihuela is close to the classic version, dark and pepper-hot as a superior Louisiana gumbo. 15400 Hawthorne Blvd., Lawndale; (310) 676-6665. 1425 W. Artesia Blvd., Gardena; (310) 516-7378. 23705 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance; (310) 373-0062. 11000 Pacific Coast Hwy., Hermosa Beach; (310) 372-1433. Open daily for lunch and dinner (some locations close late on Fri. and Sat.). Dinner for two, food only, $10$25. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, CB, DC, MC, V.
El Sazon Oaxaqueño
Where many of the other Oaxacan places on the Westside interpret mole as a mandate to serve fairly incidental segments of reheated chicken wallowing in great, sopping plates of sauce, the chicken at El Sazon Oaxaqueño is fresh, full of juice, tending toward old-bird chewiness rather than dissolving into mush under your fork. The restaurant's Oaxacan mole negro is impeccable. But it is the extravagantly hot coloradito de pollo that is El Sazon's greatest dish, a brick-red sauce that almost sings with roasted chiles, with sautéed spices, with ground, charred bread. Glorious. 12131 Washington Place; (310) 391-4721. Open seven days. Dinner for two about $15. No alcohol. Cash only.