Photos by Anne Fishbein
Hanger steak with wasabi relish. Many crimes have been
committed in the name of “fusion’’ cuisine, and not a few of them in Los
Angeles. But this cross of classical California technique with Eastern flavors
at Beacon, the superb restaurant from longtime Chinois chef Kazuto Matsusaka,
is so delicious, the searing tang of the Japanese condiment doing something
wonderful to the tart, carbonized flavor of grilled meat, that you can only
wonder why nobody thought of the combination until now. 3280 Helms Ave.,
Culver City, (310) 838-7500.
Banh mi, of course, are the Vietnamese equivalent of submarine
sandwiches, with charcuterie and vegetables smeared with mayonnaise and laid
into fresh baguettes. The most important banh mi is the sandwich usually referred
to as banh mi dac biet, which is a best-of-pig combo sandwich: ham, headcheese,
liver paté, and sometimes a sort of sour ham, a filet of fresh cucumber,
pickled slivers of carrot and daikon, sliced chiles, and a handful of cilantro.
2004 was the year of the banh mi in the San Gabriel Valley, the year that the
phenomonon spread beyond a few old-fashioned specialty shops to a Starbucks-like
profusion. Of the many, many banh mi parlors in the neighborhood, we like Mr.
Baguette, especially the banh mi made on fresh baguettes frosted with toasted
sesame seeds. 8702 E. Valley Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 288-9166.
Doro wot is a dense chicken stew complex as a Oaxacan
mole, rich as butter, onions slowly cooking down into a jam, spices tempering,
two dozen strong-flavored ingredients subsuming their sharp notes into a mellow
if peppery whole. A great doro wot has an undeniable presence, a resonance that
is apparent even if you have never tasted Ethiopian cooking before. The doro
wot at Meals by Genet on Fairfax Avenue’s Little Ethiopia strip is a
serious doro wot, vibrating with what must be ginger and black pepper
and bishop’s weed and clove but tasting of none of them, as sticky and dense
as any French chef’s demi-glace. 1053 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (323)
Barbacoa, at the Eastside’s El Borrego de Oro, mutton
pit-roasted with maguey leaves in the style of the Central Mexican state of
Hidalgo, is a delicious, savory mess, slivers and shards and nubs hacked from
a steaming carcass: some crunchy, some soft, some greasy, luscious and dark.
This is no pallid New Zealand rack flambéed in Chardonnay — it’s pungent,
powerful stuff, sweetly reeking of the gamy underbrush, lamb that bites back.
The barbacoa may be available only on Saturdays and Sundays, but tear off a
hunk of mutton, wrap it in a hot, handmade tortilla, add some onions and a spoonful
of stingingly hot salsa, and you’ve got a taco you can tell your grandchildren
about. 2403 E. Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 780-4213.
Goat soup. Actually, the best part of a meal at Chin
Go Gae is not the goat soup, a bubbling orange cauldronful of kid meat,
chile and as many fresh sesame leaves as you can stuff down into the broth.
It is that moment just after the meal when the waitress enriches the dregs of
the soup with an egg and some rice, and cooks it down to a thick, incredibly
goaty porridge seared black and crisp at the edges. Incredible. 3063 W. Eighth
St., Koreatown, (213) 480-8071.
Crab sushi, in Los Angeles, tends to be tricked out with
baroque embellishments. The version at Sushi Tenn is nothing if not a
straightforward thing, a single, uninterrupted slab of meat laid across a faintly
sweetened lozenge of warm sushi rice, no soy sauce, no yuzu, no wasabi, garnished
only with a single lentil-sized glob of pea-green crab innards, slightly bitter
at first but mellowing into a sort of richness that doubles the crab’s flavor
an octave higher, the way that certain French chefs these days combine puréed
apples, dried apples, roasted apples and apple granita in a single dish. Spectacular.
2004 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 473-2388.
Duck noodle soup. The Thai-Chinese restaurant Rod-Ded,
which has been on its dingy Hollywood street corner for what seems like half
of forever, is home to a cult devoted to its duck noodle soup, gooey, gently
spiced roast duck served with thick rice noodles in a spicy broth violently
flavored in a manner you might expect from a place that buys cloves by the hundredweight.
5623 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 962-8382.
Venison tacos. The Yucatán peninsula, a flat, featureless
scrub-land covered with squat, browning trees, was once a game -lover’s paradise,
a land of abundant hare, deer and exotic tree fowl, along with citrus trees
and habanero chiles sufficient to make it all delicious. But the game isn’t
quite so plentiful anymore, and the Mexican government prohibits hunting what
little is still around — the idea of venison tacos inspires the kind of nostalgic
reverie in Mérida natives that the idea of ortolans brings out in Frenchmen
of a certain age. But in Los Angeles, with farmed venison, anything goes. And
the tart, chile-intensive venison tacos at Chichen Itza, in the Mercado
La Paloma complex near USC, are very good indeed. 3655 S. Grand Ave., Los
Angeles, (213) 741-1075.
Ramen. At Daikokuya, the pork broth is a formidable
liquid, made from the bones of the same tasty black pigs you find on the menus
of the better Korean restaurants these days, opaque and calcium-intensive, almost
as rich as milk. Floating with the noodles are slices of seasoned bamboo shoot
and a boiled egg per bowl, also plump slabs of simmered pork so tender that
they tend to break up under vigorous prodding, separating into soft, gently
flavored striations of sinew and long-cooked fat. If you are used to the sharper,
leaner varieties of ramen, Daikokuya’s version may come as something of a surprise,
but it only takes a few mouthfuls of the broth to underscore the inevitability
of the style. 327 E. First St., downtown, (213) 626-1680.
Marshmallow stew at Minibar involves two coffee
cups half-filled with viscous white goo, and a teapot brimming with the kind
of hot chocolate that is essentially melted candy bars thinned with a little
hot cream. When you pour the boiling liquid into the marshmallow, the marsh-mallow
somehow rises to envelop the chocolate, becoming a -living, actualized mass
of bittersweet glory. The teapot is a big teapot, and a good thing too. 3413
Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 882-6965.