One Potato, Two Potato . . .
Benita's, a small takeout stand in the true American tradition of overspecialization, serves Belgian fries and only Belgian fries -- no mussels, no burgers, no shakes. Benita's fries them twice, the first time in coolish oil, which cooks them through; the second time sizzles the fries to a fine golden brown. They're not greasy at all, and the oil they're fried in is superpolyunsaturated 98 percent cholesterol-free something. And you'll find more things here to put on fries than you ever thought possible: malt vinegar, red-wine vinegar, salt, pepper, seasoned salt, mustard . . . and, yes, even ketchup. For an extra few cents, you can get a rémoulade sauce spiked with tarragon, a creamy Dijon-mustard dip, or a thick garlic mayonnaise that will announce your presence in a room five minutes before you actually show up. There's even a chili that tastes like the orange stuff you get on hamburgers -- which is to say, pretty darn good. 1437 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica; (310) 458-2889. Open seven days for lunch and dinner. Fries for two, $3$5. No alcohol. Cash only.
Here is French food as ethnic food, the stuff that is considered "home cooking" by people who don't happen to eat at home all that much. If you order an entrecôte, you get a wafer-thin piece of grilled meat, a little chewy but of decent flavor, garnished with hand-cut French fries. Salade niçoise comes tricked out with canned tuna, salty cured olives and a withering blast of anchovy, which is in fact closer to the true junk-food nature of the dish than any of the grilled-tuna/tapenade versions floating around town. There are also giant bowlsful of endive salad dressed in a smart vinaigrette; nice mesclun salads, either unadorned or topped with rounds of warmed goat cheese; and giant boiled artichokes served at room temperature with a mayonnaisey sauce on the side. Omelettes Parmentier are the good fluffy kind, flecked with herbs, wrapped around tiny cubes of potato that have been sautéed crisp, served with a big heap of salad . . . more than enough food for a light supper, and almost as cheap as a dinner at Burger King. 747 N. La Cienega Blvd.; (310) 652-1609. Open seven days, 7 p.m.2 a.m. Dinner for two, food only, $15$30. Full bar. Valet parking. Reservations essential. MC, V.
John Bull Pub
John Bull Pub serves some of the best beer around -- the usual pints of Bass and Harp and Guinness, sure, but also the hand-drawn drafts of Real Ale that never seem to make it anywhere else. Witness the wonder of brewing that is Newcastle Brown, less a beer than some dense, dark country bread miraculously drawn into a glass, tapped with a special hand pump that injects just enough air into the uncarbonated ale to produce a tickling spritz and induce a head the color and texture of thick, unpasteurized cream. Plus, the fish and chips are everything you could wish for from a Brit restaurant, sweet fillets of North Sea cod enrobed in a light beer batter and fried to a delicate crunch, served with a little pill cup of freshly made tartar sauce and a pile of decent steak fries. A half order, the "tiddler," is just enough to take the edge off a pint of Newcastle without leaving you too heavy for darts. 958 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (626) 441-4353. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $9$20. Beer and wine. Lot parking. AE, Disc., MC, V.
Mario's Peruvian Seafood 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. Half a boiled potato has sunk to the bottom of the bowl . . . In a Peruvian restaurant, you're never far from a potato. 5786 Melrose Ave.; (323) 466-4181. Open seven days for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $13.50$20. Takeout. MC, V.
Michael's, you have probably heard, is where California nouvelle cuisine was born, an art-infested restaurant where the Diebenkorns are real and Westside CEOs sup on pretty little salads with pansy blossoms and sherry vinegar that happens to be older than your mom. Still, beyond the goose liver, the crisply grilled Mediterranean fish and the piles of radicchio that reach halfway to the moon, the steak is the real thing, a prime New York strip dry-aged halfway to infinity, tender as a love sonnet, with an alarming mineral pungency bred out of most steak-house meat around 1952. The fries, double-cooked in pure beef suet, may be the best shoestring potatoes this side of Bruges. And there may be no better accompaniment to steak and French fries than a well-aged bottle of Napa cabernet, of which Michael's has many. But make sure somebody else is paying. 1147 Third St., Santa Monica; (310) 451-0843. Open Tues.Fri. for lunch and dinner, Sat. for dinner only. Dinner for two, food only, $70$80. Full bar. AE, DC, Disc., MC, V.
Pie 'N Burger
Like all good hamburgers, Pie 'N Burger's are all about texture, the crunchy sheaf of lettuce, the carbonized surface of the meat, the outer rim of the bun crisped to almost the consistency of toast. When compressed by the act of eating, they leak thick, pink dressing; soft grilled onions -- available upon request -- add both a certain squishiness and a caramely sweetness. The slice of American cheese, if you have ordered a cheeseburger, does not melt into the patty, but stands glossily aloof from it, as if it were mocking the richness of the sandwich rather than adding to the general effect. There is chili here, too, thick and mild, served with a sprinkling of chopped onion and a slice of that unmeltable cheese; and turkey sandwiches on white bread with lettuce and mayonnaise. French fries, the finger-thick kind that taste mostly like potato, are exemplary, crisp outsides giving way to steamy, firm interiors, and a single half-order is easily enough for two. 913 E. California Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 795-1123. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $10$15. Beer and wine. Takeout. Cash only.
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