Only the Lonely
The concept of the single-item restaurant is well known in Los Angeles: Lawry's for prime rib, Tommy's for hamburgers, Philippe's for French dip. If you want crab, you might head to the Crab Cooker; if tofu, to Tofu Cabin. There is precedent for this: The first Paris establishment to call itself a restaurant served only sheep's feet in white sauce; the biggest individual landowner in Little Tokyo, legend has it, amassed his fortune selling a single kind of sweet griddle cake, one piece at a time. Sometimes it pays to specialize.
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, white-wine vinegar, salt, pepper, cayenne, seasoned salt, mustard and even ketchup. For an extra few cents, you can get a remoulade sauce spiked with tarragon, a creamy Dijon-mustard dip, or a 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 Sun.-Mon. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Tues.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-midnight. Fries for two $3-$5. No alcohol. Cash only.
Buu-Dien's banh minh may have been a little on the dry side, and the roll had clearly been a little overtoasted, but it was otherwise almost a chef's sandwich: ham, headcheese, chile, cilantro, carrot, cucumber - a superfresh, highly spiced sandwich slathered with liver paste almost as a condiment and spiked with chopped bits of pig's-ear cartilage for a surreal crunch. The chile fire eased into a mild glow midpalate, then eased out again into exotic, sweet spice. This banh minh is powerful stuff, one of the few good things to come out of a century of imperialism.
642 N. Broadway, No. 5, Chinatown; (213) 617-8355. Open daily 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Banh minh $1.75-$2.50. No alcohol. Parking lot. Cash only.
This is wonderful chili, dense and comforting, lean and hearty, with a cumin wallop and a subtle, smoky heat that creeps up on you like the first day of a Santa Ana wind, flavoring your breath for half a day even if you don't pile on the onions. It also goes strangely well with a cold glass of buttermilk (which is good, because Chili John's serves nothing stronger than near beer). The beans are nice, too, firm and smooth, with a rich, earthy bean taste clearly perceptible even through the pungency of the chili. You can get chili with beans and spaghetti, or beans and spaghetti alone: Tex-Mex pasta fazool. Dessert is that Midwestern oddity, pineapple cream pie, cool, smooth and sweetly delicious, with a dusting of graham-cracker crumbs where you might expect a crust.
2018 W. Burbank Blvd., Burbank; (818) 846-3611. Open Tues.-Fri. 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat. till 4 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, $9-$12. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only.
Tadashi Maeda and Masahiro Noguchi, Kotohira's udon masters, are two of the few people in the United States who still make udon by hand: thick, white and long, diminishing to squiggles at the ends, clean in flavor, with the bouncy resiliency of elastic ropes. Whether dunked in fish soup or anointed with curry; hot in a bowl or cold on a mat; dry in a bowl and garnished with ginger, green onion and wisps of freshly shaved bonito - however you have it, the wheaty sweetness of the noodles, set off by the clean smoky smack of the dried bonito, is among the most delicious things you have ever eaten.
1747 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena; (310) 323-3966. Open Wed.-Mon. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $10-$16. Beer and sake. Lot parking. MC, V.
Looking toward the rear of this crowded restaurant, you'll notice that everybody's digging into the same thing, birria, which is a portion of roasted goat submerged in a thick, chiled goat broth. The sweet, mild meat has crispy parts and stewy parts, just like carnitas. It clings to the tiny goat ribs, which you suck, then spit back into the bowl. The broth, basically amplified pan drippings, is rich essence of goat and the single best Mexican dish I've eaten in Los Angeles. There's a thicket of cilantro to flavor the broth, a heap of chopped onion, limes to squeeze and a fat radish to sweeten your breath. The thick tortillas are warm and smell of fresh corn. The beer is very cold. Birria is supposed to be somewhat aphrodisiac - and a palliative for hangovers too, which is a special bonus on a Sunday morning.
1528 W. Pico Blvd.; (213) 386-7361. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $7-$12. Beer. Cash only.
The basic item of currency at Brentwood's Reddi-Chick is the chicken basket, half a roast chicken buried beneath a high mound of fries. Westsiders like to compare the bird with the earthier, ultimately better chickens at Zankou, but a Reddi-Chick is more like the best version of the chickens that spin in supermarkets, marinated, mildly seasoned, but crisp, with a sort of caramelized thing happening around the joints that causes bits of skin to stick to your teeth, and a developed, mellow sweetness that will scent your hands for the rest of the day no matter how many Handi-Wipes you happen to use.
In the Brentwood Country Mart, 225 26th St., Santa Monica; (310) 393-5238. Open Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $9-$14. No alcohol. Takeout. Parking lot. Cash only.
When you walk into Shin Chon, you know what you're going to eat, the waitress knows what you're going to eat, and all the other customers know it too. Shin Chon is a restaurant devoted to the cult of Korean beef soup, sul lung tang, and there is no language barrier here: You don't order, just nod to the waitress. The soup is quite milky, opaque enough to conceal its load of thin noodles and long-simmered slices of brisket, and unsalted - you season it to taste from a container on the table. You also add loads of freshly chopped scallion greens, which soften quickly in the hot broth, and possibly a spoonful or two of chile paste, which tints the soup flamingo pink in a flash. This all comes in a bottomless bowl, more or less: The waitresses will bring out more noodles, more kimchi, more broth and more barley tea if you want, and even package the "leftovers" to go.
244 S. Oxford Ave.; (213) 384-2663. Open Mon.-Sat. 6:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $13.70. Beer. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V.
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