It's always nice to find a solid "you buy, we fry" fish shop, even if they're often tucked into the corners of one-off strip malls. That's where you'll find Penguin Fish & Chips, a soul food-leaning fish fry spot on Pico Boulevard. Moving west around the parking lot, you'll find an odd Indian-NY pizza slice spot, a dry cleaning operation, the weirdest health food store (store?) you've ever seen, a coin-op laundry and the ubiquitous 7-11 that anchors any strip mall worth its pavement.
This is an peculiar stretch of Pico Blvd., with Little Ethiopia to the north, the Kosher corridor to the west and that odd L.A. Burger stand with the mislabeled banner proclaiming them champions of an invisible burger war. Still, strip malls have a way of surprising you, even when you think you've seen -- and tasted -- it all.
You're going to be a little overwhelmed the first time you walk into New York Pizza & Golden Indian Grill. There's pizza, sure -- big wide single slices that come in well under $3 and are dripping with oil -- but there's also, of course, Indian food -- a few chicken-based full plates and an underwhelming lunch steamer. Still, that may not be why you're going to be so out of sorts the first time you step into the haphazardly shaped space. It's that damn digital mural plastered to the back wall. Four impossible strangers, all mid-chew and glimmering with handfuls of food from off the menu, have been superimposed over a photo of a pizza! These four floating, legless humans are blown up to a size just bigger than real life, so that they seem odd and misshapen, plus they're surrounded by a not-so-innocent halo of fuzzy Photoshop filtering that is quite unsettling. And just to really nail that whole 'classic New York' feel, a run of computerized brick frames out the bottom of the image as it falls towards the floor. It would be hard to imagine a second New York pizza / Indian food mashup restaurant anywhere in the world, but if one exists it surely lacks this mural, making this strip mall gem truly one-of-a-kind.
Most folks, when they're done gawking at the mural, manage to pull together the $5 needed for a lunch combo. Of course, the only thing you'll actually find on the menu that breaks the $10 barrier is a dinner for two, but there's still something so satisfying about a lunch that comes in under six bucks. You get one vegetable curry, one meat curry (chicken, most likely, although goat is available) and heap of plain white rice. The naan will set you back just over $1.25 extra, but it's worth the indulgence for some surprisingly springy, heat-spotted bread. As for the pizza, it's of the Pizza Hut variety, with a thick, stiff crust and slightly undercooked interior. The cheese tends to pool together instead of string out after you've pulled off a bite, and the -- beef? uh oh -- pepperoni is little more than a cupping device for more oil. Still, at $5 for a large cheese pizza, it's a step up from the cottage Hot-n'-Ready pizza industry that has kept college kids alive for centuries. 5954 W. Pico Blvd., Mid-City; 323-930-2193.
You could call it a case of mislabeling, but you won't actually find any penguin on the menu at Penguin Fish & Chips. At least not without a secret handshake or pulling some sort of lever hidden inside one of those March of Dimes counter cards you can stick your change into. What you will find is a fresh selection of daily catch, everything from shrimp and salmon to whiting, trout, sole and catfish. There are even a few fresh slices of orange roughy, although the associated price increase means that most lunchtime folks skip it. And there is a strong lunch business to be had at Penguin Fish & Chips, thanks largely to their stellar combo deals. Order up two medium fillets of your choice with six fried shrimp on the side, and you get a pile of seasoned crinkle-cut fries, a choice of salads or slow, plus a couple of hush puppies or some white bread, all for eight bucks. If you want to biggie size your fish, they'll fry a couple of large fillets and only give you two shrimp for the same price. Sure, that's a lot of fried food, but it's also a lot of good fried food, which makes all the difference in the world. The cornmeal batter is thin but hearty, a crispy outer layer to the warm flesh that exists underneath. Keep in mind, these aren't the thick rectangular cod bricks you've been picking up in the frozen food aisle; these thin fillets will have some give to them, and might even curl under the sizzling heat of a hot batch of oil. No worries, that just means there are more crevasses for the vinegary hot sauce and tartar sauce to hide. 5952 W. Pico Blvd., Mid-City; 323-933-7661.
Crystal's Gourmet Kitchen: Health Cookies
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If you find the name intriguing, you'll love the faded posters that shill for a Korean-backed health food company called Jamae. You'll also want to peek into the almost-closed storefront, which lacks a health service rating and any sort of open sign. But there's cooking equipment in there and a few counters, all behind one seriously deadbolted front door. Eons from now, when robot archeologists dig through the rubble in search of our current civilization, they'll probably find Crystal's Gourmet Kitchen: Health Cookies completely untouched by time. "I wonder if they're open," one of the robot archeologists will ask out loud, as a plume of nuclear cloud waste rolls past along the broken horizon. 5958 W. Pico Blvd., Mid-City.
See also: Strip Mall Rat archives.
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