iBeacon Cafe. Beacon marks the triumphant return to form of Kazuto Matsusaka, who was chef for almost a decade at Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois in the ’80s. His current versions of miso-marinated cod, vegetable nabemono and grilled shisito peppers are all fine. Grilled-chicken skewers are powerfully flavored with the herb shiso and the tiny Japanese apricot called ume. You’d probably never find anything like Matsusaka’s salad of perfectly ripe avocado dressed with toasted sesame seeds and minced scallions in Tokyo, but the salad follows classical principles, and it is luscious. The hangar steak with wasabi is so successful, the searing tang of the horseradish doing something wonderful to the tart, carbonized flavor of grilled meat, that you might wonder why nobody thought of the combination until now. 3280 Helms Ave., Culver City, (310) 838-7500. Lunch Mon.–Sat. 11:30 a.m.–2:15 p.m. Dinner Tues.–Wed.&Sun. 5:30–9:15 p.m., Thurs.–Sat. 5:30–10:15 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. D, MC, V. Lunch for two, food only, $18–$35. Dinner for two, food only, $26–$46. Japanese. JG $ ¤ ¨
iIndia Sweets & Spices. The basic unit of consumption at IS&S is probably the $3.99 dinner special, a segmented foam tray laden with basmati rice, dahl, tart raita, pickles and a vegetable dish of some kind, ladled out cafeteria style from tubs in a long steam table and crowned with a whole-wheat chapati that hangs limply as yesterday’s tortilla. For an extra buck, you get a leaden, potato-stuffed samosa and a crunchy papadum; for an extra two, an Indian dessert and a mango lassi. The dinners are cheap, filling and tasty. But while the steam-table food (unless you catch it just right) is basically steam-table food, not especially different from what you’d find on any local Indian buffet, the made-to-order dishes are delicious: freshly fried bhaturas, balloon-shaped breads, served with curried chickpeas; the thin pancakes called parathas, stuffed with highly spiced cauliflower or homemade cheese; the South Indian lentil doughnuts called vada, served with a thin curried vegetable broth. 3126 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 345-0360. Lunch and dinner seven days, 9:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only. Food for two, $8–$12. Also at 1810 Parthenia, Northridge, (818) 407-1498; 9409 Venice Blvd., Culver City, (310) 837-5286; 2201 Sherman Way, Canoga Park, (818) 887-0868. Indian. JG ¢ * ¦
iMama’s Hot Tamales Café. At the edge of MacArthur Park, there is a line of elegant wooden tamale carts along Alvarado, each run by a vendor from a different part of Latin America, each selling its own particular kind of tamales, one better than the next: banana-leaf-wrapped Oaxacan tamales oozing black mole sauce, wet chicken tamales from Honduras, green-chile tamales from Acapulco, densely sweet little torpedos from El Salvador and grainy tamales from Michoacán. The driving force behind the vending district is Mama’s Hot Tamales Café, a sprawling, brightly painted complex across the street from the park that provides the kind of curatorial services and logistical support to the district’s tamale masters that in a better world MOCA would be providing to Los Angeles artists. The vendors are trained here as professional cooks; the tamales are prepared in the kitchens; the technical aspects of food preparation are closely monitored. Mama’s brings Los Angeles together, one tamale at a time. 2124 W. Seventh St., (213) 487-7474. Breakfast and lunch seven days 8:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m. No alcohol. Coffee bar. Takeout. Validated parking around the corner on Lake Street, in the Unified Parking lot. AE, MC, V. Breakfast or lunch for two, food only, $7–$14. Mexican. JG ¢ *
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iMission 261. In a Chinese-restaurant scene thick with bargain rock cod and two-for-one lobster deals, Mission 261’s banquet menus range upward of $1,200 for a table of 10, although a decent dinner can be arranged for about a third of that. The cognac is old, the shark’s fin ultrafine, the Burgundy premier cru. The suckling pig, a house specialty, is made from an animal so young it is practically prenatal, brined and roasted and roasted and brined until its skin is as thin and crisp as the burnt wisp of caramel that tops a really good crème brûlée and the meat, nourished with the pig’s fine layer of fat, is as rich and tender as an infant’s first coos. And the dim sum is already extraordinary, easily the best in California at the moment. 261 S. Mission Drive, San Gabriel, (626) 588-1666. Lunch and dim sum Mon.–Fri. 10:30 a.m.–3 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Dinner seven days, 5:30–10:30 p.m. Full bar. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, MC, V. Dim sum lunch for two, food only, $22–$38. Chinese. JG $ *
iNatraliart. This is real Jamaican food, you understand, not the stuff you find on cruise ships or at Ocho Rios resorts; strong, direct, sometimes nastily spicy cooking without a mango or a spicy lobster in sight; no prime rib, no sweet sauces, no fresh flowers posed on the plate. This is a place of tough, spicy curried goat, practically vibrating with the taste of ground cloves; of stewed oxtails zapped with spice; of starchy dongo-bean soup thickened with ground legumes. And half the dreads in the city drift in and out over the course of a lazy afternoon — for flagons of carrot-lemon juice, for to-go cartons of vegetarian food, or to buy tickets to any of the half-dozen concerts that the guys behind the counter happen to be selling at any one time. Try Natraliart’s jerk chicken — it is among the best versions in town. 3426 W. Washington Blvd., (323) 732-8865. Open for lunch and dinner Tues.–Sat. 11 a.m.–9 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking. MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $16–$26. Jamaican. JG $ * ¦
iPhillips. For many of us, Phillips is a Saturday-night ritual: the called-in order, the drive to the south end of the Crenshaw strip, and an hour in line outside the restaurant, trash-talking the Lakers, guzzling off-brand soda pop and admiring the bootlegged Reverend Shirley Caesar CDs somebody always seems to be selling from the trunk of her car. A small-end slab from Phillips can hold its own with any barbecued spareribs in the world. The extra-hot sauce, tart with vinegar and so crowded with whole dried chiles that the ribs occasionally look as if they have been embellished with Byzantine mosaics, has tempted better men than you and me to gnaw the flesh right off their fingertips. Several years ago, Mr. Phillips expanded his empire to a second store, in Inglewood, and now there is another Phillips’, in the chalet-style Crenshaw building that until recently housed the well-regarded Leo’s Bar-B-Q, and it seems as if the supply of great barbecue in Los Angeles has exponentially increased. 2619 S. Crenshaw Blvd., (323) 731-4772. Mon. 11 a.m.–8 p.m., Tues.– Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.– mid., closed Sun. 1517 Centinela Ave., Los Angeles, (310) 412-7135. Tues.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–mid., Sun. 11 a.m.–6 p.m., closed Mon. 4307 Leimert Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 292-7613. Mon. 11 a.m.–8 p.m., Tues.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–mid., closed Sun. No alcohol. Lot parking. MC, V. Barbecue. JG $ ¨ H *
iBlair’s. Blair’s is an adults’ restaurant for people who don’t really consider themselves to be grown-ups even in their 40s, a civilized redoubt of caesar salads and crab cakes and shrimp cocktails that are served with a side of deviled eggs, a sort of roadhouse where the pepper steak comes with farmers-market vegetables, the salmon comes with lentils, and the roster of artisanal beers is nearly as long as the wine list. I would be surprised if anybody’s parents ate this well at Rotary Club meetings. Or if the dinner music rocked nearly this hard. 2903 Rowena Ave., Silver Lake, (323) 660-1882. Dinner Mon.–Thurs. 6–10 p.m., Fri. 6–11 p.m., Sat. 5–11 p.m., Sun. 5–10 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. AE, D, MC, V. Entrees $14–$32. American. JG $$$ ¨ H *