Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
If you have a taste for meaty northern Indian cooking, Pakistani cooking is probably everything you like and more so, spicier than Punjabi and meatier, more deeply inflected by the flavors of ginger, cardamom and wood smoke. First among Pakistani stews is haleem, beef braised with something like shredded wheat until it breaks down into a thick, meaty gravy with the flavor of well-browned roast-beef drippings. Nahri is a beef curry strongly flavored with fresh ginger; magaz nahri is a creamy, unctuous beef curry plumped out with ground nuts. There is even stuff for a vegetarian to eat: Navrattan korma, a mixture of cauliflower, green beans and carrots stir-fried with chile and plenty of spices, is like a wonderful Muslim ratatouille, flavors of each vegetable fresh and distinct while contributing to the cumulative effect of the cumin-scented whole. 13611 Inglewood Ave., Hawthorne; (310) 644-6395. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12-$16. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking. Cash only.
Charming Garden is a clean, bright place, spare of ornament, with fresh tablecloths and formal service. It is also the most serious Hunan-style restaurant in Southern California. And smoked pomfret, bronzed and gleaming, at this splendid Monterey Park Hunanese restaurant may be the most beautiful plate of food in the San Gabriel Valley - it looks like a patinated Han Dynasty fish sculpture displayed on a handsome plate. The large fish, which the restaurant flies in from Taiwan, smells almost too strongly of smoke, but the rich, pale, slightly oily fish is unexpectedly delicate and worth every cent of the jillion dollars per pound the restaurant charges for it. 111 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (626) 458-4508. Open daily 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, $8-$13; dinner for two, food only, $15-$30 (higher with seafood). Beer and wine. Takeout. Underground parking. AE, MC, V.
The best pizza in America may be in New Haven, the best hot dogs in Chicago, the best espresso off Pioneer Square in Seattle. But the best - the only - real pastrami sandwich is right here in Los Angeles, slapped together by the truckload at Langer's Delicatessen just west of downtown. The rye bread, double-baked, has a hard, crunchy crust that gives way to a steamy soft interior sharply scented with caraway and smeared with pungent deli mustard. The meat, hand-sliced, flabby, not lean, precisely - though most of the invisible fat has been steamed out, no good pastrami could be said to be lean - has the firm, chewy consistency of Parma prosciutto, a gentle flavor of garlic and a clean edge of smokiness that can remind you of the kinship between great pastrami and first-rate Texas barbecue. 704 S. Alvarado St.; (213) 483-8050. Open Mon.-Sat. 6:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12-$22. Validated lot parking (one block east, on the corner of Westlake Ave. and Seventh St.). Beer and wine. Takeout. Catering. Curbside service (call ahead). MC, V.
Years ago, when I brought an enormous tray of food into the office, Phillips' chicken and ribs and hot links disappeared while slabs from more famous places, brought in as controls, were barely touched. Here spareribs, crusted with black and deeply smoky, are rich and crisp and juicy, not too lean; beef ribs, almost as big around as beer cans, are beefy as rib roasts beneath their coat of char. The big Styrofoam containers of extra-hot sauce, a scary, solid inch of whole chile peppers floating on top, can be pretty exhilarating. Beef hot links, denser than some, are gently spiced, closer to bouncy bratwurst than they are to intense, coarse-ground monsters. Chicken, smoked through to the bone, retains all its juice. Heck, even the beans taste good! 4307 Leimert Blvd.; (323) 292-7613. Open Mon.-Sat. for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $11-$15. Takeout only. Lot parking. Cash only.
Quanjude's Beijing duck is so remarkably superior to the Beijing ducks you might have grown up eating that the effect is not unlike taking a first bite of first-class toro sushi after a lifetime of Star Kist on Wonder Bread. If you are not Chinese, a waiter will probably come over to show you how to eat this smoked delicacy, how to smear a paper-thin wheat pancake with a bit of the house's bean sauce, top it with the white of a scallion, chopstick up a piece or two of the duck skin and roll it up into a kind of elegant taco. The skin is crisp, giving way under your teeth like the glaze on a creme brulee; the sweetness of the bean sauce amplifies the duck's unctuousness like the glaze on a Virginia ham; the sharpness of the scallion cuts through the sweet richness, bringing the whole dish into balance. It's worth a trip to Beijing, let alone Rosemead. 8450 E. Garvey Ave., Rosemead; (626) 280-2378. Open daily 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30-9 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, about $26. Beer and wine. Lot parking in rear. MC, V.
Soot Bull Jeep
Soot Bull Jeep is the archetypal big-city Korean barbecue: noisy, smoky, always crowded, with all the bustle you'd expect in the heart of a great city - and one of the few such restaurants in town that use the traditional live coals for their tabletop barbecue, giving the meat a delicious savory tang. Short ribs turn nicely chewy but retain their juice on the grill; pork loin is marinated in a spicy chile paste that blackens and turns crisp; slabs of eel become sweet, crisp and pleasantly oily over the flame; bits of marinated Spencer steak are sweet and tender at their peak, but be careful - they overcook in a flash. When a bit of meat is cooked to your liking, you can drag it briefly through a soy-based dip, or wrap it in a scrap of lettuce leaf with perhaps a few shreds of marinated scallion and a schmeer of pungent fermented-bean paste. 3136 W. Eighth St.; (213) 387-3865. Open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$24. Full bar. Street parking. MC, V.
Taste of Texas
Taste of Texas serves up probably the best fajitas in Los Angeles - not the soy-soaked kind that sputter on superheated metal platters, but chewy, well-marinated strips of skirt steak, grilled simply with onions, tasting of citrus and beef and salt, served in a heap alongside a little dish of soupy beans, handmade flour tortillas thick enough to stop bullets, and an iceberg-lettuce salad. Carne guisada, bits of beef or pork stewed in a thick gravy, resonates with musky dried-chile flavor but is mild enough for a toddler to eat. Chile-soaked picadillo tastes like taco meat with a university education. And the barbecue is pretty good too, with slices of brisket, soft, juicy, slightly oily, practically vibrating with the campfire flavor of mesquite smoke. 301 N. Azusa Ave., Covina; (626) 331-2824. Open Mon.-Fri. for lunch and dinner, Sat.-Sun. for breakfast too. Dinner for two, food only, $13-$18. Beer and wine. Takeout, banquet rooms and catering. Lot parking. AE, MC, V.
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