Best Middle Eastern: Bavel
Whether it’s the beef cheek tagine, the Middle Eastern meats cured on-site, the scallop crudo with pomegranate molasses or the energy that the L.A. dining scene hasn’t seen since the early days of West Hollywood, chefs Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis have forged the way for L.A.’s latest food trend — and Bavel is the best.
Ground zero of any Middle Eastern kitchen is the spices, which are an obsession with Menashe, whose daughter is named Saffron. Not only does he roast and create his own spice blends, his eggplant peelings are dehydrated along with mushrooms into powders that are the basis of everything umami on the menu. The spice closet, filled from floor to ceiling with containers of Menashe’s spice blends, is center stage in the main dining room, as well as cases housing the meats cured and aged on-site.
The lamb neck, served with tahini, green amba-pickled vegetables and fermented cabbage, falls off the bone over a bed of laffa (Israeli flatbread) and is meant to be eaten like a taco. The scallop crudo comes with pomegranate molasses citrus, charred cucumber, mint, black sesame and just the right amount of heat from the house-made serrano chili oil. And the hummus is a sublime combination of garbanzo textures with green and red chili paste.
Gergis’ background in interior design played a key role in the comfortable look and feel of Bavel, bringing an exciting new energy to a funky corner of the Arts District in the shadow of the Fourth Street bridge. Menashe works the kitchen and the dining room, greeting guests warmly and setting a familial tone, from the top down to the friendly waitstaff. —Michele Stueven
500 Mateo St., downtown; (213) 232-4966, baveldtla.com
Best Mexican Sushi: El Sushi Loco
In 2011, Frank Mendoza was an air-conditioning technician with no restaurant experience when he went against the advice of friends and family and transformed his part-time Mexican sushi cart into the brick-and-mortar El Sushi Loco in a La Puente strip mall. A self-made success story of a man who once spent nine years for drug trafficking at the Lompoc U.S. Penitentiary, he now boasts three locations.
After being introduced by nephew Jose Calderon to Mexican sushi — which, unlike the raw Japanese version, is deep-fried — Mendoza started pushing his unpermitted Sushi Island cart, which he bought on Craigslist in Tijuana for $1,200, through the streets of East L.A.
What started out as a fun hobby on the side of his air-conditioning day job became a passion for Mendoza and Calderon. By 2014 they’d opened a second restaurant in Downey and a third in Pomona last December.
Signature items include his hot reggae rolls of fried tempura on top of scallops and crab, smothered in Jamaican cilantro and spicy Kanikama sauces. The Emperador has become a legend — cream cheese, avocado and shrimp covered with spicy Kanikama, home-made sweet eel sauce, sesame seeds and cilantro sauce on the side. The dragon rolls are dramatic, as well as the ceviche de mango and Yaki Loco. —Michele Stueven
1542 W. Holt, Pomona; (909) 469-0568; 11837 Downey Ave., Downey; (562) 869-9205; 15711 Amar Rd., La Puente; (626) 333-2332, elsushiloco.com.
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