The Best of Counter Intelligence
All India Café
This place is at its best when you bring the fewest preconceptions to the table, when the food least resembles its regional roots. The restaurant's signature dish is probably the "frankie," a Bombay street snack that the Westside Bombay Cafe brought to California and perfected, sort of a thick flour tortilla with an egg sizzled onto it, wrapped around a filling of sweet, tamarind-laced lamb, stewed chicken or fried cauliflower. A frankie and a bottle of beer -- you couldn't ask for a better lunch. I also like the Bombay chicken, which could break through as an Indian-spiced analogue to, say, kung-pao chicken (without the nuts). Tikka masala, boneless bits of chicken drowned in fenugreek-flavored cream, is the sort of thing a Chasen's chef might have come up with on a good day in 1956. 39 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (626) 440-0309. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $10 - $11; dinner for two, food only, $18 - $30. Beer and wine. Street parking only. AE, CB, DC, Disc., MC, V.
Caribbean Tree House
The first thing you should know about Caribbean Tree House is that it's usually out of just about everything on its bill of fare. Still, roti are almost always on hand, sort of Trinidadian burritos containing chicken-potato stew or a handful of curried beef wrapped up in a griddled Trinidadian flatbread -- order them spicy, pumped up with the restaurant's fiery habañero-pepper sauce. There are different kinds of pelau, variations on the famous West Indian rice dish, cooked with pigeon peas or earthy, delicious black-eyed peas, served with heaps of curried meat. On Saturdays, there is the sparrow special, an enormous plate of food that involves jerkylike strips of salt cod, boiled cassava, sautéed onion, tomato and a certain quantity of dense, chewy dumplings that seem rooted less in the Caribbean than in Mitteleuropa. 1226 Centinela Ave., Inglewood; (310) 330-1170. Open Tues. - Thurs. 11 a.m. - 8 p.m., Fri. - Sat. till 9 p.m., Sun. noon - 7 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $15 - $18. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MC, V.
Spamburgers as served at Mago's, with sliced avocado and teriyaki sauce, taste like America, or certain parts of it anyway. The neighborhood (and the staff) leans toward Chicano -- across the street from Mago's is a classic L.A. taco stand -- so the street-level fusion, the tricultural incorporation of Asian ingredients into Mexican structures with American flavors, seems almost natural. Witness the delicious tacos stuffed with slippery chunks of ripe avocado and slices of sweet, red-rimmed chashu (barbecued pork). Note the fat burritos swelling with grilled strips of teriyaki-greased beef, avocado and cheese, or the hamburgers composed of chashu and avocado, or really, the resplendent Spamburger. Which, as we've previously noted, tastes like America. Don't miss the banana shakes. 4500 S. Centinela Ave.; (310) 397-5157. Open Mon. - Fri. for lunch, Mon. - Sat. for dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $12 - $15. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, DC, Disc., MC, V.
The most famous Oki creation is the eponymous Dog, a couple of frankfurters wrapped in a tortilla with chili, pickles, mustard, a slice of fried pastrami and a torrent of goopy American cheese -- a cross-cultural burrito that's pretty hard to stomach unless you've got the tum of a 16-year-old, but strangely delicious nonetheless. The best of the Oki creations, a Chinese-American-Jewish-Mexican thing made by Japanese cooks for a mostly African-American clientele, is the pastrami burrito, a foil-wrapped grease bomb the size and weight of a building brick, bursting with fried pastrami, sautéed cabbage, onions and peppers, mustard and pickles, and a healthy dose of Oki chili, enough food to feed a medium-size family for a week. 5056 W. Pico Blvd.; (323) 938-4369. Open Mon. - Sat. 9 a.m. - 10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $3.50 - $7. 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 crème brûlée; 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 for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, about $26. Beer and wine. Lot parking in rear. MC, V.
Sky's Gourmet Tacos
Sky's are not the tacos your mother used to make. Or rather, they probably are the tacos your mother used to make (unless you happened to grow up in a Mexican household): two thick corn tortillas molded into the bottom of a red plastic carhop basket, mounded with turkey or chicken, shrimp or beef, gilded with orange cheese, buried under shredded lettuce and doused with the sweet-hot house salsa. (If you want what you might ordinarily call a taco, ask for the smaller "tacolitas" instead.) The open-face "burritos" are more or less the tacos written in triplicate, huge masses of meat, lettuce and cheese layered onto bulletproof flour tortillas, luxuriating in pools of tasty orange grease and slicked with big clots of cool sour cream . . . a fork-and-knife burrito if you've ever seen one. 5408 W. Pico Blvd.; (323) 932-6253. Open Mon. - Thurs. 11 a.m. - 7:30 p.m., Fri. - Sat. 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, $8 - $12. No alcohol. Catering and "corporate lunches." Street parking. Disc., MC, V.
The sugared soy milk at Yung Ho is a resolutely nonexotic substance, with a thin consistency that feels a little like nonfat milk in the mouth. The traditional breakfast accompaniment is a long, twisted cruller, and Yung Ho does crullers very well: crisp and slightly chewy on the outside, fragrant with the smell of hot oil, giving way to an interior that is about 90 percent air. For another buck or so, you can get the cruller smeared with a salty paste of pounded meat and wrapped inside a cylinder of sticky rice. Yung Ho also has a small specialty in "egg cakes," thin wheat cakes with scrambled eggs cooked into them. And don't neglect the spicy bean curd with kimchi and hot sauce. 533 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 570-0860. Open daily 7 a.m. - 6 p.m. Breakfast for two, food only, $5 - $10. Beer. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only.
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