For more photos, view Anne Fishbein's slideshow of “Fierce Chefs and Fiery Kitchens.”
If there were such a thing as a Los Angeles cuisine, I suspect it would probably be a lot like what they serve at Houston’s, which is to say the market-tested version of the grill-happy, big-flavor, salad-intensive cooking pioneered decades ago at places like the original Spago.
We can examine the way local food has insinuated itself into the national food culture, and we can name dozens of local dishes, including L.A. galbi, California rolls, Caesar salad, gourmet meatloaf, designer tamales and McDonald’s fries, which are prepared all over the world. We can look at the way that farmers market produce has become so essential that certain carrots and berries have achieved something close to celebrity status, or we could look at the continuing importance of Urban Rustic cuisine, where entertainment executives pay big money for the privilege of eating like Tuscan peasants. There is the vitality of our immigrant communities, of course, and the quality of Asian and Latin-American food rarely approached in other parts of the country, and the continuing abundance of small-plates restaurants geared to the palates of promiscuous aesthetes unable to commit to a single entrée.
Even more so this year, there is the rise of the hypermasculine restaurant, where chefs take the same kind of fierce pride in their arcane meats and cheeses they probably used to take in their record collections. Their whites are always stained with blood, and they exult in the hard labor and difficult conditions of even the modern restaurant kitchen. I include women in this formula: One of my favorite new hypermasculine restaurants, a Skid Row breakfast dive called the Nickel, is actually owned and run by women.
So what is an essential Los Angeles restaurant? It is where your scrambled eggs come flavored with hyper-reality, where the plums are the sweetest, where you occasionally have to be reminded that you are neither in Osaka nor Guadalajara nor Panicale, that you are sometimes most in L.A.
The 99 Essentials, A to W
The Organic Muse: Akasha
The Culver City restaurant scene is well into its mannerist phase, an era of sleek surfaces, theatrical settings and food that coolly defies nature. But the standard-bearer at the moment has to be the eco-intensive Akasha, where the recycled wood is sealed with beeswax, the chairs are upholstered in hemp and the waiters wear organic cotton. Akasha Richmond, who is both chef and muse here, may be one of the best-known vegan cooks in the world, a television chef and Vegetarian Times columnist who has been in the employ of both Michael Jackson and Barbra Streisand. The kitchen’s commitment to organic, sustainable, certified, cruelty-free ingredients goes without saying, in the bakery-café up front, as well as in the dark, multiveneered dining room. But although you can eat as low on the food chain as you like at Akasha, and Richmond knows from a mung bean — her bowl of curried mung beans, rice and flatbread is the kind of thing you always used to hope for when you visited a hippie restaurant — her cooking is surprisingly sybaritic: skewered, curry-dusted grilled shrimp; a decent roast chicken with farro; killer sweet-potato fries, and a big, juicy Heritage pork chop. The best dessert, a salty chocolate tart, comes with soymilk “whipped cream” scented with organic vanilla. Or you could just order a plate of organic-beef sliders and what are probably the best onion rings in town. 9543 Culver Blvd., Culver City, (310) 845-1700. Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon-Sat 5:30-11 p.m. Full bar. Takeout and catering. Garage parking. All major CC. Health/Vegetarian.
‘Zahle in the Valley,” a friend calls it, a bit of Mediterranean Lebanon in the middle of Encino: a shaded terrace of music, grilled mullet and bright coals of apple-scented tobacco burning in brass hookahs. The cooks are reportedly Egyptian and Lebanese, but the owner, a well-known Armenian crooner who sometimes sings here on weekends, is not above insisting on the chile-red Armenian version of hummus and the fluffy raw-beef dish kibbe nayeh to go along with the fried sea bass with fried pita and tahini; stuffed grape leaves, and a dish of sautéed chicken livers with pomegranate that are delicious enough to make you forget you don’t necessarily like innards. The shish towook, grilled kebabs of extravagantly marinated chicken breast, is as good as a kebab ever gets. On weekends, ultrathin sajj bread, like lavash, is baked on the patio over a vast heated surface, wrapped around grilled meat or made into the thin, crisp, thyme-scented Arab quesadillas called kl’leg. Lebanon is famous for its red wine, but Alcazar, in the gentle levant of Encino, also serves oceans of arak, an anise-scented Lebanese liquor that turns milky when you stir it with ice and cool water. 17239 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 789-0991. Tues.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-10:30 p.m., Sat. 11:30 a.m.-mid., Sun. noon-9 p.m. Full bar. Hookah and cigar lounge. Takeout. Lot parking in rear. All major CC. Lebanese.
If you have ever been to Italy, you probably still have a vivid memory of your first meal at a simple side-street caffè — not the grand and complicated dishes you read about in your guidebook, but a plate of spaghetti dressed with nothing but a bit of cheese, a few stalks of fresh asparagus, or a handful of clams recently plucked from the sea. Evan Kleiman’s restaurant can seem like that sometimes: Angeli crystallized the affinity of Angelenos for casual Italian cooking — the spaghetti alla checca, garlicky roast chicken and minimally garnished pizza that a Sienese teenager might eat for dinner at the trattoria down the block on the nights his mother didn’t feel like turning on the stove, but which was essentially unobtainable to those of us on this side of the sea. The clove that dare not speak its name makes a bold and uncensored appearance in Kleiman’s version of spaghetti aglio e olio, a powerful, pungent pasta tossed with caramelized garlic, hot chile flakes and a little parsley, nothing else, and the sticky garlic essence is so powerful that you probably have to use industrial abrasives to get it off your teeth. In other words, it’s the real thing, compatible with a glass of professional-grade Chianti and rendering the tempering umami of Parmesan cheese almost useless. Kleiman’s repertory of artisanal olive oils, summertime bread salads and goat-cheese pizzas may no longer be novel, but sometimes there is no place you would rather be than behind a table at Angeli, contemplating a glass of Sangiovese and starting in on a plateful of ravioli with melted butter and sage. The Thursday-night dinners, multicourse prix-fixe extravaganzas based around a different cuisine each week, are legend. 7274 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 936-9086 or www.angelicaffe.com. Lunch Tues.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Tues.-Thurs. & Sun. 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Valet parking. AE, D, MC, V. Rustic regional Italian.
Where my favorite osterie in Italy find purpose in the repetition of classic dishes, in menus that may not change for decades, Gino Angelini is by nature a creative chef who likes to mark dishes as his own. A regular at his restaurants could tell the difference between Angelini’s saltimbocca and a traditional saltimbocca blindfolded. But as his nearby La Terza came into its own, the simpler Osteria seems to have become fun for the chef, a place where he can serve less elaborately garnished versions of his dishes to people who love them, fuel a happy lunch crowd with pasta al limone and a plate of tripe, serve oxtails on Thursday nights, dish out respectable versions of Roman trattoria classics like spaghetti carbonara and pollo alla diavola. Angelini Osteria may not be a serious restaurant, but sometimes you are in the mood for artistry, and sometimes you just want to have supper. 7313 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 297-0070 or www.angeliniosteria. Lunch Tues.-Fri. noon-2:30 p.m., dinner Tues.-Sun. 5:30-10:30 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Valet parking. All major CC. Italian.
Ultimate Dude Food: Animal
The first thing you should know about Animal is that it is practically a shrine to bacon, which appears everywhere on the short, seasonal menu, up to and including a chocolate dessert. The chefs, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, former Food Network stars who call themselves the Food Dudes, are the Jay and Silent Bob of the food world, perpetually red-eyed and rarely seen outside one another’s company, and they seem to consider a dish incomplete without a sliver of pancetta, a crumble of Nueske’s Wisconsin bacon, a bit of pork belly, or a slab of the bacon they smoke themselves in the kitchen. Animal is a poor place to bring a Muslim or an Orthodox Jew. But the operating principle at Animal is neither the aggressive clams-in-ham philosophy of so much avant-garde cooking nor the Rabelaisian head-to-tail approach but testosterone-laced pleasure: a simple, howlingly good plate of crisp, assertively salted hominy; a bubbling crock of melted cheese spiked with a few slips of thinly sliced chorizo. Chefs have been serving seared foie gras with syrups and compotes for centuries: Animal’s take is to put it on a sweetened version of the truck-stop standard of biscuits and sausage gravy. Animal is small and loud and powered by seasonal organic produce; has a nice list of manly wines available by the bottle, the glass and the half-bottle carafe; and although it is populated with people who like meat, is unafraid to serve an unadorned bowl of fruit for dessert … if only at those times when even bacon isn’t enough. 435 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A., (323) 782-9225. Open Sun.-Thu. 6-11 p.m., Fri-Sat. 6 p.m.-2 a.m. All major CC. Valet. Fresh comfort food.
A Brilliant Brasserie: Anisette
Anisette looks as if it has always been here, absinthe bottles rising to Heaven behind the zinc bar and upper walls tinted nicotine yellow, like an awkwardly narrow space that has thrived since the belle epoque in spite of the fact that it was originally designed as a bank. Chef Alain Giraud has a background in French haute cuisine perhaps unmatched by Los Angeles chefs, including decades in Parisian three-stars, a long stint as the chef de cuisine at Citrus and a term as the founding chef at Bastide. But at Anisette, Giraud isn’t presenting a modern interpretation of French cooking, a chef’s fantasy of French cooking or riffs on the theme of French cooking — the brasserie serves regular French cooking as designed by an amazingly skilled French chef, steak-frites and onion soup and winey house terrines, prepared with superb California produce and served by Santa Monica waiters who occasionally seem practiced at French diffidence. The rotating list of daily specials includes such old-fashioned standards as lobster Thermidor and duck a l’orange, done superbly well. Desserts are generally things like floating island, chocolate mousse and profiteroles. One goes to Anisette not to experience the new and revolutionary, one goes to be fed. 225 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 395-3200, www.anisettebrasserie.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 7:30 a.m. to mid.; Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sat., 8 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sun., 8 a.m. to mid. AMEX, MC, V. Full bar. Nearby city lot parking on Second Street free for two hours. French.
The cheese-and-charcuterie-intensive inspiration for L.A.’s new generation of wine bars, Suzanne Goin’s pan-Mediterranean A.O.C. is a fantasy of a modern small-plates restaurant, the kind of place you drop into for a glass of Friulian Tocai and a plate of sliced prosciutto, a Cairanne and some bacon-wrapped dates with Parmesan — or basically anything that comes with Goin’s spicy Catalan-influenced romesco sauce, which would probably be irresistible even if you garnished it with a brick. You could drink and eat like this all night if you remembered to make a reservation — and if A.O.C. didn’t unreasonably stop serving so early. 8022 W. Third St., L.A., (323) 653-6359. Mon.-Fri. 6-10:45 p.m., Sat. 5:30-11 p.m., Sun. 5:30-10 p.m. Wine bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. French-Mediterranean-influenced small plates.
In the heart of Studio City’s sushi district, Asanebo is a second home for the hairy music-industry guys, the sophisticated expats and the tourists from Osaka that make up the clientele of so many of L.A.’s best Japanese restaurants. But Asanebo is no sushi bar — it specializes in the sashimi, the delicate pub food and the tiny portions of proto-Japanese cooked dishes that go so well with good sake. And while it became famous as the Valley’s answer to Matsuhisa, these days it is a much more pleasant destination. Perhaps there will be a flashing, vivid Spanish mackerel, bright as steel, reduced to six incandescent slivers, or Santa Barbara spot prawns served before they quite know what has happened to them, or slabs of kanpachi, a tiny coldwater tuna imported from Japan, laid into a small marine Stonehenge. Because the only displeasure to be found at Asanebo (unless you happen to be a prawn) comes with the check, which will be high. 11941 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 760-3348. Lunch Tues.-Fri. noon-2 p.m. Dinner Tues.-Thurs. 6-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 6-10:30 p.m., Sun. 6-10 p.m. Japanese sushi.
At its best, Japanese sashimi is something exquisite; delicate ultrafresh nibbles meant to be contemplated as much as they are to be eaten. Korean sushi is something else entirely — it is bar food, seasoned with raw garlic and hot peppers, smeared with bean paste, consumed in great quantities with flowing oceans of soju or beer. Tucked into the rear of a Koreatown mini-mall, A-Won is one of Koreatown’s oldest sushi restaurants, a serene but well-worn place where the high-backed booths are as private as little cabanas. Marinated sea cucumber, big portions and the habit of eating sashimi with raw garlic have their fans, but the great Korean contribution to the world’s sushi kitchen may be hwe dup bap, an elaborate raw-fish salad leavened with dried seaweed and hot rice and flavored with chile paste. And at A-Won, a Koreatown institution devoted to the cult of hwe dup bap, the display is formidable: order after order racing out of the kitchen in bowls as big as Valkyrie helmets. Good hwe dup bap — and A-Won’s is very good — is as alive and vivid and evanescent as a wildflower. And don’t miss the al bap, a big bowl of warm rice frosted with half a dozen different kinds of fish eggs. 913½ S. Vermont Ave., L.A., (213) 389-6764. Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 4-10 p.m. AE, MC, V. Beer and soju. Guarded lot parking. Korean sushi.
It may serve Guadalupe Valley Syrah instead of margaritas, and chiles en nogada instead of nacho plates, but Babita is a relaxed corner Mexican place with great food, an Eastside joint whose service is burnished to a white-tablecloth sheen. Chef-owner Roberto Berrelleza, who spent decades as a fancy-restaurant maitre d’ before he ever strapped on a toque, is a scholar of Mexican cuisine, especially of the antojitos from his Sinaloan hometown Los Mochis, although a few of the restaurant’s best dishes seem to have been invented by Berrelleza himself: fish-stuffed yellow chiles in strawberry salsa, seared fish with huitlacoche vinaigrette, and shrimp Topolobampo, a citrusy sauté of white wine, tomatoes and diced habanero peppers that takes over its victims’ bodies like an Ebola infection. If Berrelleza’s version of a Sinaloan machaca is on the menu — beef house-dried into a powder and fried with vegetables — you would be a fool to miss it. 1823 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 288-7265. Lunch Tues.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; dinner Sun. & Tues.-Thurs. 5:30-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5:30-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Street parking. AE, D, DC, MC, V. Mexican.
It’s almost mind-bending, a good nam kaow tod, the rustic Thai salad of deep-fried rice grains and wetly pink Thai “Spam,” citrus and slivered herbs, a kaleidoscopic whirl of crunchiness and chewiness, sweetness and animal pungency, three kinds of tart astringency and three kinds of chile heat — and it comes with fried peanuts. As the local palate becomes used to the wilder flavors of Thai cuisine, nam kaow tod, a specialty of the rural northeastern Isaan region of Thailand, is becoming what pad Thai and basil chicken were to the first wave of enthusiasts, the dish by which a Thai restaurant may be measured. And the best nam kaow tod of all may be the one served at Bahn Thung, a minimall restaurant well outside the usual Thaitown orbit, and a specialist in the fiery-hot salads and grilled meats of Isaan: waterfall beef; papaya salad with salted crab; and a glorious, stinky bamboo shoot salad. The pla lui saun, a profoundly delicious dish of fish stripped of its spine, turned inside out, fried to a golden block of pure crunch, and buried under a mound of Thai herbs, may be the best thing on the menu, which is saying a lot. 1001 N. Vermont Ave., L.A., (323) 665-7474. Open seven days 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout and delivery. Thai.
Sometimes a burger and fries is enough to sustain you through a night of serious drinking, and sometimes it’s got to be boozy bacon prunes. It is at those latter times that you hope you have the pull to get past the doorman at Bar Marmont, whose list of regular customers still resembles US Weekly’s table of contents, because Bar Marmont is everything you could want in a gastropub: ingenious cocktails, intimate nooks and the killer cooking of Carolynn Spence, who was once chef de cuisine at NYC’s notorious Spotted Pig. Her menu, while far less offal-intensive than Spotted Pig’s, is very close to it in spirit: Italian-influenced small plates, diver scallops in brown butter, oxtail bruschettas, a good small wine list and drinks. Lots of drinks. The kitchen stays open until midnight. And if you discover you need that burger after all, it’s a good one. 8171 Sunset Blvd., W. Hlywd., (323) 650-0575. Mon.-Sat. 6 p.m.-2 a.m. (dinner until midnight). Full bar. Valet parking. All major CC. Modern American.
If you are not quite versed in the ways of Bastide, an evening in the restaurant can appear like a scene out of a Huysmans novel, footsteps crunching through gravel, a young man meeting you before you make it to the door, a short but circuitous walk into a room that is neither outdoors nor in, foliage growing out of a wall rather than up it, a table set amid a small grove of birch-tree trunks that seem to be sprouting small appliances instead of branches or leaves. Film director Joe Pytka, the mad proprietor of the restaurant, operates Bastide as other wealthy men donate museum wings or subsidize productions of Wagner. Pieter Verheyde, a former sommelier at Ducasse in New York and Paris, is in utter command of the wine, confident enough to know when a simple Swiss white might go better with a king crab croquette than a $300 bottle of Batard-Montrachet, but unafraid to go to a grand cru when it suits his purposes. It is nothing short of awe-inspiring to listen to him consider 15 or 20 wines before he decides that the acidity of a young Barolo is what might best suit a dish of seared Japanese tai, or that the slight bitterness of an oxidized Jurancon would pick up a similar note in a garnish of ginkgo nuts. Pytka famously goes through chefs like Frank McCourt goes though managers, and Alain Giraud, Ludovic Lefebvre and Walter Manzke have all served admirable terms. The new guy up is Paul Shoemaker, who worked alongside Michael Cimarusti for years at Water Grill and then at Providence, and his mastery of the small, decadent gesture — the dab of umeboshi compote with delicately folded leaves of sliced kanpachi; the winey, buttery sauce for braised king crab; the umami-rich glaze on the fried sweetbreads, which are the best I’ve ever eaten — may make him an ideal match for the restaurant. Prices are still extremely high (though not for food with this level of detail), but it is now possible to order à la carte instead of following a tasting menu for the first time here, and you can eat lightly at a small wine bar in the patio. 8475 Melrose Place, W. Hlywd., (323) 651-5950. Tues.-Sat. 6-10 p.m. Valet parking. All major CC. American/French.
Beacon: An Asian Cafe
In an area of Culver City as thick with bar food as perhaps any neighborhood in the state, a friend of mine, with whom I have enjoyed giant plates of poutine in Canada and screaming slabs of porchetta in Umbria, still thinks of Beacon as basically a delivery system for its cheeseburger. He knows about the miso-braised shortribs, the vegetable nabemono and grilled shisito peppers, and he has heard great things about the grilled-chicken skewers with the shiso and ume. He has seen me tuck into the famed albacore BLT at lunchtime, and to be fair he does usually have his share of the black edamame, the Tokyo-style avocado salad and the sticky chicken wings that make their way to the table. Fitted into an old commercial laundry in the Helms Bakery complex, Beacon was the first major restaurant of the new Culver City renaissance and the triumphant return to form of Kazuto Matsusaka, who was chef for almost a decade at Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois in the ’80s. The hanger steak with wasabi is so successful, that you might wonder why it took so long for somebody to come up with the combination. But there he is, my friend Robert, focused like a laser on his medium-rare lunchtime cheeseburger, all hopped up on drippy meat, apple-smoked bacon and sweet soy glaze. On good days, he will have asked for an extra napkin. 3280 Helms Ave., Culver City, (310) 838-7500. Lunch Mon.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner Tues.-Wed. and Sun. 5:30-8:15 p.m., Thurs.-Sat. 5:30-9:15 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. AE, MC, V. Asian Fusion.
The Chef’s Diner: BLD
Neal Fraser, best known for his restaurant Grace, has long been a bwana7450 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 930-9744. Open daily 8 a.m.-11 p.m. (bar food till mid.) Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. American. of complexity in fourth-stage Los Angeles restaurants, mixing so many national idioms on a plate that his customers are never quite sure whether they are reading a menu or looking at a departures board at LAX. But at his diner BLD, freed of the formal requirements of the destination-restaurant menu, he turns out to be a brilliant short-order cook, churning out exemplary, drippy hamburgers made with Wagyu beef and even juicier burgers made with Berkshire pork, moistening sandwiches with aïoli, using smoky house-made ketchup where he can and Heinz 57 where he must, and dropping coleslaw bombs like a 40-year fry cook with canola oil in his veins. BLD is a useful restaurant, open for quick breakfasts of croissants and cappuccino; for sybaritic brunches of fluffy ricotta pancakes and eggs Benedict; for salady lunches and meaty feasts, for serious date-night dinners and after-movie snacks. At its best, BLD’s menu of braised pork shanks and crab burgers is the kind of cheap-ingredient food that cooks make for each other when they think nobody else is paying attention.
Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger are perhaps the unlikeliest great Mexican chefs in what is the second-biggest city in all Aztlan, neither Mexican by heritage nor serving a primarily Mexican clientele — I suspect that most of their customers revere the place mostly for the potent artisanal-tequila margaritas, the deafening buzz and the baskets of warm chips. But while the chefs may not claim to redefine Mexican food, they do prepare it exceedingly well, using impeccable technique and first-rate ingredients to transform the taco, the tostada and the homely chile relleno into creatures almost unrecognizable if you’re used to their Cal-Mex equivalents, as well as constructing scholarly takes on elaborate traditional foods like jet-black huitlacoche sauces or sweet chiles en nogada. The long, black dining room, an artifact of the late 1980s whose crazily skewed ceiling is still painted with rocket ships and batmen, looks even better now than it did when the place first opened. Border Grill is the rare mainstream Mexican restaurant whose tacos don’t make you yearn for a truck parked by an auto-parts junkyard somewhere in East L.A. 1445 Fourth St., Santa Monica, (310) 451-1655. Sun.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. till 11 p.m. Full bar open till mid. Takeout. Street and valet parking. AE, D, MC, V. Modern Mexican.
Leo Bulgarini is the wrong guy to mouth off to the day after his beloved AS Roma squad drops a game to Genoa or Inter Milan. His gelati are labeled only in Italian, and his standards are so famously strict that he has been known to pull his delicious sorbetti from the menus of restaurants and the freezer cases of retailers that in one way or another fail to come up to his standards. A big photograph on the wall of his Altadena shop shows him making an obscene Italian gesture to a giant Sicilian ice cream plant. But the gelateria, the love child of Roman expat Bulgarini and his Altadena-raised wife, Elizabeth Foldi, is a singular, perfect blossom in a world of international sweets conglomerates and by-the-book mixes: fragrant Sicilian pistachio gelato, vivid blood orange sorbetto, subtle cinnamon cream and dark, smoky chocolate gelati flavored with orange peel, with fresh hazelnuts or with rum. And Leo probably pulls the best espresso shot in the San Gabriel Valley when he’s in the mood, a thick, syrupy thimbleful made with an antique Italian machine. If you don’t believe me, ask him yourself. 749 E. Altadena Dr. Altadena, (626) 441-2319. Wed.-Thurs., Sun. noon-8 p.m., Fri.-Sat. noon-9 p.m. Takeout. Gelateria.
Monday is family-dinner night, when you can dine on big platters of fried chicken, porchetta or mussels at a reasonable price, and Thursday is still grilled-cheese night. If you missed the prix-fixe WGA Soup Kitchen dinners the first time around, they’re back in an anniversary edition, maybe in anticipation of a SAG strike; chef Mark Peel prepares an elaborate degustation menu the third Wednesday of the month, and giant wine dinners show up on Mondays too sometimes, although Peel’s new obsession (apart from the farmers market one, which continues unabated) seems to be 19th-century cocktails. To keep up with the place, sometimes it seems as if you need an annotated timetable, like the kind that are issued by Amtrak. But as the restaurant approaches its 20th anniversary, and the chefs Peel launched from his kitchen head some of the best restaurants around the country, Campanile still showcases every imaginable shade of fire and heat, from the cigar-box fragrance of that cedar-plank salmon to the leg of lamb flavored with the smoke from smoldering herbs, to the thin, broad sheets of veal that pick up the heady fragrance of burning oak logs. 624 S. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 938-1447. Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Wed. 6-10 p.m., Thurs.-Sat. 5:30-11 p.m.; brunch Sunday 9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. California/Mediterranean.
The first time I stepped into Casa Bianca, neon sign glowing “Pizza Pie” in nursery pink and blue, I knew it was the pizza parlor I had always hoped to find in California: perfumed with a whomp of garlic, alive with the roar of customers who had been clustering around the checkered tablecloths for decades. The pizzas were burnt, bubbling majestic things, crunchy and thin in the style of Chicago bar pizza, dusted with gritty cornmeal on the bottom and sliced in a way that defied standard geometry. I got mine with sausage and strips of fried eggplant. In the 20-odd years since then, I have seen little need to change my order. Casa Bianca, the fiefdom of the Martorana family since 1955, serves the best neighborhood-pizzeria pizza in L.A. The sausage is homemade, but the mushrooms on the pizza are canned, old-school style, if that sort of thing bothers you. And there’s freshly filled cannoli for dessert. 1650 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 256-9617. Tues.-Thurs. 4 p.m.-mid., Fri.-Sat. 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Street parking. Cash only. Italian.
An argan-honey dip? Do you know where that argan seed has been? If your idea of a Moroccan meal involves belly-dancing, silk pillows and the sensuous wail of the oud, the chic Fairfax-district restaurant Chameau may not be for you. But while Chef Adel Chagar’s flavors may be modern, his techniques tend to come from the traditional Moroccan kitchen: b’stilla made with the time-consuming pastry leaves called warka, house-made couscous light as perfumed air, a lamb shoulder tagine cooked until the meat almost dissolves into a kind of lamb-scented cloud. Chameau may describe itself as French-Moroccan, but the food is quite different from both the plain cooking you’ll find at Paris’ fashionable couscous cafés and the new-style Mediterranean menus that happen to feature a tagine or two. 339 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A., (323) 951-0039. Tues.-Sat. 6-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Street parking. AE, D, DC, MC, V. French-Moroccan.
An elegant Hangzhou-influenced restaurant headed by chef Henry Chang, whose restrained, earthy style became known to the local Chinese community at the old Juon Yuan in San Gabriel Square, Chang’s Garden is well known both for its version of dong po pork, a dish favored by Chinese poets, and for the cooking’s congeniality to wine. Novelist Nicole Mones has practically made a cottage industry out of Chang: She wrote about him in Gourmet, and his dish of pork ribs steamed in lotus leaves figures so prominently in her novel The Last Chinese Chef that it is practically a character of its own. And if you get a shot at the crisp rolled beef pancakes and candied lotus root stuffed with sticky rice, eel with yellow chives and whitefish fried into seaweed-enhanced beignets, you may become inspired too. There is a very nice simmered beef and tripe in chile oil, and splendid fresh Chinese bacon with garlic and chile. Vegetable dishes tend to be pretty good too. Try the pudding-like slabs of Japanese eggplant cooked down with garlic. 627 W. Duarte Road, Arcadia, (626) 445-0606. Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. MC, V. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Chinese.
From its sleekly rustic dining room, Chichén Itzá is devoted to the cooking of the Yucatán, the citrusy, fragrant, sometimes searing-hot cuisine of the Mayas. It’s probably the most genteel restaurant in the Westlake district, favored by politicians and gourmands from the nearby Mexican Consulate, and one of the best places in town to taste regional Mexican cooking — for Yucatecan snacks like panuchos, vaporcitos and the Lebanese-Yucatecan kibi, as well as for the cuisine’s most famous dish, cochinito pibil, which is rubbed with spice, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked until it practically collapses under its own weight. Tikin-xic, seared sole fillets coated with a reddish achiote paste, is also worth seeking out. I liked the restaurant’s original location, the still-wonderful stand in the Mercado La Paloma complex near USC, so much that I actually booked an air ticket to Mérida after my first couple of meals there. The newer, more elegant restaurant is even better. 2501 W. Sixth St., L.A., (213) 380-0051. Sun.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Validated parking. AE, MC, V. Also in Mercado La Paloma, 3655 S. Grand Ave., dwntwn., (213) 741-1075. Open daily 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m. MC, V. Yucatecan.
On what must have been my thirtieth or fortieth visit to Chung King, the redoubt of ma po doufu, smoked chicken leg and house-smoked Chinese bacon stir-fried with fresh chiles, I was introduced to a new dish, beef in small pot. Or rather, the dish wasn’t new — it had been on the menu since the restaurant opened at its original location in Monterey Park several years ago — but in the rush to eat as much water-boiled fish, bean curd sheet with pickle and salt-and-pepper pork chop as humanly possible, I had merely overlooked the thing, a dense, oily concoction of beef, garlic, and an ungodly quantity of heat-bearing plants, an alluring mess of purest umami. Chung King is still the best place in the San Gabriel Valley to taste Sichuan cooking: sizzling with four or five different kinds of chiles, vibrating with the flavors of extreme fermentation and smacked with the cooling, numbing sensation of Sichuan peppercorns, lies halfway between dentist’s-chair Novocain and the last time you could afford a lot of blow, food that leaves you exhausted, narcotized and happy, drenched in foul, garlic-laced sweat. The deli case filled with chile-marinated pigs’ ears and blisteringly hot tripe is worth a drive alone. If Chuck Jones had ever decided to draw something spicy for the coyote to injure himself with, it probably would have looked a lot like Chung King’s fried chicken with hot peppers, a knoll of crunchy dark-meat cubes subsumed under a blizzard of dried chiles that are the red of silk pajamas, the red of firecrackers, the red of the Chinese flag. 1000 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 286-0298. Open daily 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Beer. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only. Chinese/Sichuan.
Ciudad, the pan-Latin outpost of Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, may be all things to all people but especially to all people whose pleasures include upending an oyster or two, digging into a ceviche plate and bending an elbow every now and then: There are strong mojitos, mellow Pisco sours and an inspiring collection of rum to go along with the Bolivian-style tamales, Caribbean paella and a classic pescado Veracruzana, the Bahia-style moqueqas and a fritanga that would knock them silly in Managua. Daytime is for office workers; at night, two-thirds of the customers are dressed in black. 445 S. Figueroa St., dwntwn., (213) 486-5171. Mon.-Tues. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Wed.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat. 5-11 p.m., Sun. 5-9 p.m. Full bar. Takeout. Valet parking. AE, D, MC, V. Pan-Latino.
That Happy Roar: Comme Ça
David Myers’ stylish brasserie is a sleek, theatrically lit restaurant that has the look of an ancient dining room restored to use; it’s all black and white, lined with mirrors, filled with actual French speakers and smartly dressed citizens of the local design community. The oysters are briny, crisp and alive. The house-made terrines and pâtés are first-rate. There are snails in garlic butter and frisée salads with bacon and poached eggs, choucroute garni on Wednesdays and braised pork belly on Saturdays. The bread, including the wonderful sweet baguettes and hamburger buns, comes from Myers’ bakery, Boule. The wine list includes French village vintages that are uncannily appropriate with the food; the house carafe is a decent Côtes du Rhône. And there’s the roar, that great, happy roar of music and clattering plates and people with a little too much wine in them, and the sense that somebody, somewhere in the restaurant, is having the most memorable evening of her life. Comme Ça aims to be all things to all people, open early for croissants and coffee and late for oysters and champagne, serving formal entrées like sole meunière and roasted pork chops with apples, and bistro classics like steak-frites and lemony skate grenobloise with capers and brown butter. Is there good onion soup? A great one, informed but not overwhelmed by its gooey mantle of melted Gruyère. 8479 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd., (323) 782-1178 or www.commecarestaurant.com. Open daily 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V.
Cora’s Coffee Shoppe
A few years ago, Cora’s was still a crusty, hash-brown-intensive beach café. Bruce Marder, owner of the pricey Italian restaurant Capo next door, transformed the place into a lunch counter out of a GQ shoot: a patio shaded with crimson bougainvillea, a burbling Tuscan fountain, the distant crashing of the surf — sometimes you want a chef’s salad, and sometimes you want an insalata caprese made with farmers-market tomatoes and oozingly creamy burrata cheese; sometimes you need ham ’n’ eggs the morning after, and sometimes delicate petals of San Daniele prosciutto. Cora’s hamburgers are magnificent, drippy things made of coarsely chopped, beyond-prime Wagyu cow, and for dessert, there is occasionally an intense homemade burnt-caramel ice cream bitter enough to make a 10-year-old child weep. 1802 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 451-9562. Mon.-Sun. 7 a.m.-9 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, MC, V. Continental, Italian based.
The billboard-size photographs of Cate Blanchett and George Clooney are a bit much. But at Cut, Wolfgang Puck’s gleaming-white temple of steakhouse cuisine in the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel, when faced with a fillet of first-quality Japanese beef, as wrapped in ninja-black cloth and carried around by the beef sommelier, you are facing the meat equivalent of an undiscovered Cranach. And if your financial consultants should permit you to order this rib-eye, you will discover a miracle unduplicated in the world of meat, richness upon richness, all possible permutations of smoke and char and animal dancing across your consciousness like sunlight rippling on a pond. At $160 or so, it will probably be the most expensive meat you have ever eaten … but the sensations are so intense that one small steak easily satiates four. Save room for the warm veal-tongue salad and Lee Hefter’s roasted bone marrow flan. 9500 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 276-8500. Mon.-Thurs. 5:30-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5:30-11 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking a half-block south of Wilshire Blvd. on Rodeo Drive. AE, D, MC, V. California Contemporary.
Yes, we know about the old standards and the new, the austere Tokyo-based chain with branches in local Japanese supermarkets, and the impeccably credentialed noodle czars. We’ve heard all the arguments about authenticity, and we’ve seen Tampopo too many times to count. But ramen, a noodle soup borrowed wholesale from the Chinese, is no more a traditional Japanese food than curry rice, California rolls or spaghetti doughnuts. And when the yen for ramen strikes, you’ll usually find us at Daikokuya, decorated to look like a noodle shop set from a 1960s Imamura picture, where the broth is made from carefully simmered Kurobuta pork bones, the noodles have both snap and vigor, the gyoza are plump, and the condiment jars on each table are filled with pure, minced garlic. (Ask for your ramen “kotteri-style,” with extra-rich broth.) Some connoisseurs may try to tell you that affection for Daikokuya is a character defect, but that just means the line is that much shorter after a concert at Disney Hall just up the street. 327 E. First St., dwntwn., (213) 626-1680. Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-mid., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-1 a.m., Sun. noon-8 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Street parking. AE, MC, V. Japanese.
Celestino Drago has been the king of pasta in Los Angeles since Kraft dinners were in fashion. The casual yet rigorous pan-Italian cooking at his various dining rooms helped define the way Angelenos think about Italian food, and the Drago family seems to collect restaurants — Il Pastaio, Celestino, Enoteca Drago, Panzanella, Dolce Forno, and the upcoming Drago Centro and Via Alloro among others — the way your 12-year-old brother collects baseball cards. But you will most often spot his mournful, bearded countenance at Drago, working the door, barking at a sous-chef, following a bit of roast venison or stewed boar out into the dining room as if he had shot it himself. The careful braising and sweet-and-sour flavors that are characteristic of Drago’s style really come into focus when he is stuffing boned-out quail with dense sausage, cooking pheasant with mushrooms for a pasta sauce or simmering boar until it all but implodes. 2628 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 828-1585. Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 5:30-11 p.m. Full bar. Takeout. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Italian.
Bloody Good: 8 Oz. Burger Bar
Here at 8 Oz., a side project of Govind Armstrong’s that we may like better than we ever liked his Table 8, you can pick up a mug of microbrew, a perfect rye Manhattan and a plate of chicken-confit buffalo wings, little corn dogs made with Kobe-style cocktail franks and served with violet mustard, fried potato skins sprinkled with truffle salt, or a grilled cheese sandwich stuffed with braised short ribs — the kinds of things chefs like to make for themselves from the contents of the walk-in but which rarely make it onto restaurant menus. There is a tasting platter of sliders made with ground boar, ground lamb and something called ground triple-prime beef, all paired with small, matching pours of beer. And the burgers are really good, of the drippy, bloody school, especially a burger made with roasted mushrooms and grass-fed beef, which ranges just on the near side of gaminess. Is it a drag to pay a buck extra for catsup, no matter how organic and artisanal it may be? Kind of. But there are s’more tarts for dessert. 7661 Melrose Ave., between Stanley and Spaulding avenues, W. Hlywd., (323) 852-0008. Sun. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Mon.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-mid. (bar open until 2 a.m.).
El Huarache Azteca
In Mexico City restaurants like El Huarache Azteca may be thick on the ground, but in Highland Park, there is nothing like it on a Saturday afternoon, a cramped storefront filled with families guzzling house-made horchata, tepache and watermelon drink out of huge foam cups, hovering over the few oilcloth-covered tables inside, gathering tacos and sopes by the dozen to bring home to their families, and coaxing burning-hot huitlacoche quesadillas — fried turnovers stuffed with musky, jet-black corn fungus — out of the stone-faced woman who mans the fry cart outside the entrance. What you have come for is, of course, the huarache, a flat, concave trough of fried masa mounded with beans, cultured cream and meat. 5225 York Blvd., Highland Park, (323) 478-9572. Open daily, 9 a.m.-10:30 p.m. No alcohol. Street parking. Takeout. Cash only.
Until a local website praised its carne asada, El Parian was best known for its birria, Guadalajara-style roasted goat in broth, and when you sat down at one of the well-battered tables, the waitress didn’t offer you a menu, she asked whether you were having a full order or were only hungry enough for a half. El Parian’s birria may be the single best regional Mexican dish in Los Angeles. But those carne asada tacos have been pulling a crowd of people less interested in goat than in the sweet, meaty, garlicky charbroiled steak. And the taco people may be right — the meat is well blackened and peppered with delicious pockets of liquified fat, and the thick tortillas are strictly homemade. Will I order the carne asada taco the next time around? Of course not. But it’s good to know it’s there. 1528 W. Pico Blvd., L.A., (213) 386-7361. Open daily 8 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Takeout. Beer. Cash only. Mexican.
The sharpest Chinese seafood house in town at the moment is Elite, which used to be the local branch of a Chinese-owned chain called New Concept, and which still serves a few of the funkier dishes from that restaurant, including suckling pig with foie gras, fried prawns served in a bed of oatmeal flakes, and papaya salad with goose webs. It can certainly be the most expensive Chinese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley — its banquet menu includes options costing up to $2,288 for a table of 10 — but unlike its competitors, it is too intimate to land the enormous wedding-banquet bookings, which means that you can probably land a seat even around the time of Chinese New Year, and that you are unlikely to be subjected to endless rounds of bridesmaid karaoke. There are enough unsustainable choices on the seafood menu to make a Heal the Bay member weep salty, salty tears. Yet the the roast squab has skin as delicately crunchy as any Beijing duck. The Shunde-style soup of seafood with minced ham and bits of bitter melon is as tautly balanced as the exhaust note of a Lamborghini. The balls of chopped shrimp steamed in nets of shredded turnip and garnished with their own roe —s the essence of the sea captured. And the morning dim sum breakfasts, ordered from menus instead of carts, are divine. 700 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park, (626) 282-9998. Dim sum Mon.-Fri. 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner nightly 5-11 p.m. Beer and wine. Street parking. AE, MC, V. Chinese.
Euro Pane Bakery
Sumi Chang’s bakery may be the center of civilized life in Pasadena: a place to buy excellent-to-superb scones and baguettes and pains au chocolat, of course, but also the heart of a certain sort of society, the Caltech professors, theology students and writers who worship at the twin altars of caffeine and conversation, a place where you are likely to bump into a zillion-dollar chef, a man who helped design the Mars rover, or the star of the play you saw last night at the Ahmanson. On a good day, Euro Pane’s magnificent croissants could be mistaken for France’s best in a police lineup, and, the natural-starter sourdough is superb. Toss in the homemade granola, the epochal bread pudding, the rustic fruit tarts and the gooiest egg-salad sandwich in town, and it’s no wonder that Europane’s regulars treat the bakery more as a permanent residence than as a café. 950 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 577-1828. Mon.-Sat. 7 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Sun. till 3 p.m. No alcohol. Street parking. MC, V for orders over $10 only. California Bakery.
A Better Burger: Father’s Office II
The second Father’s Office is undeniably pleasant, a gastronomically inclined bar fitted into the eastern flank of the old Helms Bakery building, crowded with people who know the difference between a lager and a double IPA, flat screens discreetly flashing football scores in the corners, and long, lacquered-wood picnic tables stretching into the distance on the heated, vaguely nautical patio outside. You could spend a long Friday afternoon here, snacking on Spanish cheeses, glistening Spanish anchovies cured on the premises and dusted with lemon zest, and cumin-crusted skewers of lamb, which collapse in your mouth like a sigh. Chef-owner Sang Yoon is more or less the Los Angeles equivalent of David Chang, whose Ko in New York City sells out each day’s seating in less time than it takes to crack an egg, and Yoon could probably get away with serving his goat-cheese gratinée in telephone booths if he felt like it. As at the Santa Monica original, no reservations are taken, even if you happen to be Barack Obama or Paul Bocuse; no minors are allowed, and when you get to the restaurant, you may well spend the better part of an hour waiting outside on line. Creator of the most-imitated Los Angeles dish since Nancy Silverton reinvented an obscure Piedmontese dessert called panna cotta, Yoon is the baron of the new-style cheeseburger: dry-aged beef cooked exceptionally rare, dressed with onions cooked down to the sweetness of maple syrup, Gruyère and Maytag blue cheeses, smoky bacon, arugula and a tomato compote, all on a French roll. Is it worth the battle for a seat? The more Unibroue you drink, the easier the combat becomes. 3229 Helms Ave., L.A., (310) 815-9820, www.fathersoffice.com. Kitchen open Mon.-Thurs. 5-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. noon-mid; Sun. noon-10 p.m. Full bar. Lot parking. AE, MC, V. Patio. Nobody under 21 admitted. Also at 1018 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 393-BEER. Food served Mon.-Wed., 5-10 p.m.; Thurs., 5-11 p.m., Fri., 4-11 p.m., Sat., noon-11 p.m.; Sun., 3-10 p.m. 21 and over only. Beer and wine. Takeout. Difficult street parking. AE, M, V. California contemporary.
Even the quickest glance into Flame, the slick Iranian restaurant on the Tehrangeles stretch of Westwood Boulevard, reveals the shiny clay sphere at its heart, the tanor oven, source of some of the city’s finest flatbread. Regulars know that you can pretty much make a meal of this tanori bread, singed and still smoking, smeared with cold butter and wrapped around an onion, especially if you accompany it with the house’s panir sabzi platter: a big plate of fresh mint, lemony Persian basil and superpungent Persian tarragon, along with walnuts soaked in saltwater and a block of squeaky feta cheese. Much of the produce is organic, bought at farmers markets, and the restaurant is one of the few Iranian places in the area that serve halal food. You will find the usual bowls of yogurt-based white-garlic dip and the vinegary Iranian pickles called torshi, the usual stews — the pomegranate-walnut concoction called fesenjon, the vegetable/salted lime stew gormeh sabzi, and the tomatoey split peas called ghemeh. But Flame is basically a place to get kebabs — juicy skewers of ground chicken or marinated chicken breast, tartly mineral rack of lamb, shish kebab and fish kebab, and a wonderful kebab of cornish game hen, accompanied by enormous drifts of rice. Even at lunch, the customers tend to be better-dressed than they are anywhere this side of Spago and the Grill. 1442 Westwood Blvd. Westwood, (310) 470-3399. Open daily 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. No alcohol. Street parking. AE, MC, V. Persian.
Foundry, a Melrose supper club run by Patina alum Eric Greenspan, is as relaxed as a place with a $90 tasting menu can be, with a spacious patio, a dining room weirdly commingled with the open kitchen, and a bar area dominated by laid-back piano music. Waiters rush by with little cast-iron pots of pork belly with fried eggs and fitted rounds of toast; rare, crisp-skinned salmon with shaved beets and puréed beets; and braised short ribs with an exceptionally airy horseradish-potato purée. The eclectic wine list is long and reasonably priced. And although cheese guru Andrew Steiner has since gone on to open a cheese store in Santa Monica, the cheese plate is still formidable. 7465 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 651-0915 or www.thefoundryonmelrose.com. Tues.-Weds., Thurs.-Sat. 6-2 a.m., Sun. 5:30 to 10 p.m. Bar open Thurs. till 2 a.m. and Fri.-Sat. till 2 a.m. Full bar. Music. Valet parking. All major CC. California/American.
In the plains of Culver City, Mediterranean-influenced restaurants multiply like prairie dogs. And Fraîche is another citadel of stripped brick and wooden floors, with an open kitchen, an ambitious wine list rich in Rhônes, and women who wear interesting eyeglasses and eat blood sausage instead of tofu. Fraîche is a tough reservation, but there is a separate bar area where you can drink “sangria” concocted from Grey Goose and farmers-market strawberries soaked in Grand Marnier and inhale giant portions of mussels and fries. But the project from Thierry Perez and chef Jason Travi, who between them have worked at a fair selection of the best restaurants in Los Angeles and New York, and who are just this week opening Riva in Santa Monica, is clearly a restaurant of love and obsession, from the meticulous plateaux de mer that rival the majestic displays of shellfish at Parisian brasseries to Travi’s house-cured guanciale, from the careful juiciness of the Kurobuta pork chop with violet mustard to the subtle sweetness of the rabbit tortelli with brown butter, to the sweet delicacy of the smoked eel in a salad with arugula and mint. 9411 Culver Blvd., Culver City, (310) 839-6800 or www.fraicherestaurantla.com. Open daily 5-10:30 p.m., bar open till mid. Full bar. Nearby parking in city lot. AE, MC, V. Mediterranean/wine bar.
Golden Deli, you may not need to be told, is one of the best Vietnamese noodle shops in Southern California, a well-worn citadel of banh hoi and pho in a busy San Gabriel mini-mall, a restaurant so popular that its customers wait up to an hour for a spot at one of the sticky, cramped tables — the prospect of a perfect bowl of bun thit, Vietnamese noodles tossed with fish sauce, grilled pork and fresh herbs, can do that to a person’s judgment. The restaurant is kind of low on the usual amenities, without cold beer, without much in the way of decor, without really anything on its menu that might take longer than five minutes or so to order, cook and serve. And it’s cash only, take it or leave it. There are plenty of imitators, and at least a couple of similar restaurants, Saigon Flavor and Vietnam, owned by members of the same family, which do offer more in the way of creature comfort. But Golden Deli has the best cha gio, fried Vietnamese spring rolls, in the observable universe, and the owners know it. And after a bite or two, so will you. 815 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel, (626) 308-0803. Mon.-Tues., Thurs. 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri. 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Closed August. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only. Entrées: $4.95-$6.95. Vietnamese/Thai.
Possibly the most compelling culinary reason to visit Whittier, the suburb that gave us Richard Nixon, M.F.K. Fisher and conceptual artist Mark Kostabi, Golden Triangle may be the best place in California to taste Burmese food, a phantasmagoria of a cuisine that draws from the cooking of nearby India, China, Thailand and Laos — the country is in a pretty good neighborhood. The restaurant specializes in the garbanzo-flour-thickened catfish chowder called moh hin gha, the biryani-style rice dish called dun buk htaminh, and lap pad thoke, a salad made with pickled tea leaves that have the consistency of stewed collard greens and the caffeine kick of a double espresso, and also in a sour vegetable dish made with a special Burmese green that the owner grows in his backyard. Then there’s the incredible ginger salad, biting shreds of the spice tossed with an almost-too-crunchy melange of coconut, fried garlic, fried yellow peas, peanuts and sesame seeds. If the world ever gave it a chance, ginger salad might have the universal appeal of spaghetti Bolognese. 7011 S. Greenleaf Ave., Whittier, (562) 945-6778. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Street and lot parking. AE, D, MC, V. Thai-Burmese.
Grace, a chic, perpetually booked restaurant equidistant from El Coyote and its sister restaurant BLD, is the demesne of Neal Fraser, a rock star of L.A. cuisine, a chef with a wobbly, idiosyncratic style that couldn’t be further from the finish-fetish crowd pleasers, a detailed, market-oriented sort of New American cooking, heavy on French technique, strong flavors and intricate presentations. The cooking can still be a little rough around the edges at Grace — Fraser’s style is pretty improvisational — but this is still tremendously ambitious food, most of it locally sourced. If you’re lucky, you’ll run into a Scottish hare served with a tiny, crisp blackberry pie, a giant, unctuous slab of braised rare-breed pork belly on black rice, or Angus beef tartare mounded atop a miniaturized grilled cheese sandwich saturated with truffles. And there are freshly fried jelly doughnuts for dessert. What more could you want? 7360 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 934-4400. Tues.-Thurs. and Sun. 6-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 6-11 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking; difficult street parking. AE, MC, V. $20-$30. American.
The Grill on the Alley
My favorite corned beef hash in the world is served in this swank businessman’s grill in Beverly Hills, sniffing distance from the Fred Hayman perfume outlet and around the corner from the weird, cobbled boutique mall that locals refer to as Eurotrash-Disney. The ceilings are high, the wood dark, the linen heavy, the martinis clear and cold and dry. The dining room is washed in a pale, masculine light that seems imported from some century-old restaurant in New Orleans, and the white-jacketed waiters call you sir, even if you are wearing sneakers. This is, in other words, a serious place to have lunch, the kind of place where the Beverly Hills Rotary might hold its meetings if the Rotary had a chapter for aspiring billionaires. The steaks are good, and the steak tartare is sublime. You will also find this town’s essential rice pudding: touched with cinnamon, drizzled with heavy cream, coaxing the nutty, rounded essence out of every grain of rice. 9560 Dayton Way, Beverly Hills, (310) 276-0615. Mon.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 5-9 p.m. Full bar. Takeout. Valet parking; free street parking before 6 p.m. AE, DC, D, MC, V. $20-$35. Traditional American Steak House.
There may be 50 Oaxacan restaurants in Los Angeles at the moment, each of them claiming the blackest mole, the gooiest memela and the tlayuda biggest in circumference, but Guelaguetza, the first serious Oaxacan restaurant in town is still the best, with the mintiest green mole, the richest mole amarillo and the spiciest goat barbacoa. At the original Koreatown location of Guelaguetza, not far from the biggest concentration of Oaxacan restaurants and bakeries this side of Oaxaca itself, you’ll find superspicy grasshoppers, tlayudas the size of manhole covers and delicious, mole-drenched tamales. The black mole, based on ingredients the restaurant brings up from Oaxaca itself, is rich with chopped chocolate and burnt grain, toasted chile, and wave upon wave of textured spice — it’s as simple yet as nuanced as a great, old Côte Rôtie. 3337 1/2 W. Eighth St., L.A., (213) 427-0779. Open daily 8 a.m.-10 p.m. No alcohol. Street parking. AE, MC, V. Entrées $5-$13.50. Oaxacan.
In restaurants as in actresses, quirkiness can be an unforgivable flaw. But Hatfield’s, a comfortable, modern bistro near Hollywood, can’t help itself any more than Parker Posey can. Instead of merlot and Chianti, there is a weirdly wonderful list of old Loire whites, stern reds from Austria and the Italian Alps, and German “champagne.” The croque madame sandwich is made with yellowtail and prosciutto instead of Gruyère cheese and pale ham, and tentacles of Japanese octopus just happen to curl around pillars of vanilla-braised hearts of palm. Even the steak and potatoes are quirky — the rare onglet is predictable enough, and the garnish of horseradish-crusted short ribs is nothing we haven’t seen before, but the smokiness of the dish comes not from the meat but from the mashed potatoes. From most chefs, this style might come across as affected, but from Quinn and Karen Hatfield, whose cooking at small-plates restaurant Cortez in San Francisco sometimes seemed like Mediterranean cuisine reflected in a fun-house mirror, one would expect nothing less. 7458 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 935-2977. Mon.-Sat. 6-10 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. California French.
The Hungry Cat
If you prize your sanity, try never to bring up the subject of lobster rolls with a New England native. If you haven’t managed to edge away, you will be apprised how long the lobster must be boiled, how coarsely it must be chopped, and the exact brand of mayonnaise essential to the end result. You will also probably hear a dissertation on the top-loading hot dog bun that will turn your knees to water — I suspect the subject of top-loading buns was the secret to the Celtics' lockdown defense in the playoffs last spring. But when you taste the lobster roll at Hungry Cat, a first-class seafood restaurant near the corner of Sunset and Vine, a buttery, abstracted rendition of the New England beach-shack standard transformed into a split, crisp, rectangular object about the size of a Twinkie, you may be persuaded that the lobster roll is worth the fuss. In Maine, the $20-plus it costs would buy you a lobster the size of a small pony. But we are in Hollywood, where the next acceptable lobster roll may be 2,800 miles away. The Hungry Cat is a civic treasure, a place to drop into for a dozen oysters or a bowl of shrimp, a crab cake or a bowl of chowder, a glass of Picpoul de Pinet or an expertly mixed cucumber cocktail. 1535 N. Vine St., Hlywd., (323) 462-2155 or www.thehungrycat.com. Mon.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5:30-11 p.m., Sun. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-9:30 p.m. Full bar. Validated parking. AE, MC, V. Seafood.
Il Moro, which transformed itself from a better-than-average office-building restaurant to a center of Bolognese cuisine, may be the only place in Los Angeles where you can taste the cooking of Emilia Romagna: tiny, meat-stuffed cappelletti floating in a deep-yellow capon broth, baked lasagna enriched with a gobs of bechamel, chestnut pasta with porcini, and L.A.’s definitive pumpkin tortelloni. Prosciutto and salami are served in the traditional Modenese way — with gnocco, oblong, unsweetened beignets that would be equally appreciated by New Orleanians and by Homer Simpson. Tucked into the corner of the Westside where you might least expect a restaurant, busier at lunch than at dinner, open late for pizza and wine, chef Davide Ghizzoni’s restaurant backs up onto a rather romantic patio, has an attached wine bar with occasional live music — and is usually pretty easy to slip into without a reservation even on a Saturday night. 11400 W. Olympic Blvd., W.L.A., (310) 575-3530. Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10:30 p.m., Sat. 5 p.m.-1 a.m., Sun. 4:30-9:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, DC, MC, V. Italian.
Any place in town can broil an acceptable filet mignon, but Suzanne Tracht’s snazzy steak house is a blast from the Mad Men ’60s, chefly riffs on the strip steak and the porterhouse, the hash brown and the french fry that may or may not incorporate every last pea tendril and star-anise infusion in the Asian-fusion playbook. Some people we know have never even tried the steak here — the braised pork belly, the glorious pot roast and the various and sundry wonders of the duck-fried rice are just too compelling. But the steak is about as good as it gets. The décor is straight off the set of a Cary Grant movie. And there’s always banana cream pie for dessert. 8225 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 655-6566. Dinner daily 5:30-11 p.m., brunch Sun. 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, D, MC, V. Entrées $19-$29. California American.
JiRaffe is a pleasant space in a bright corner of Santa Monica, all neo-Palladian windows, white tablecloths, and the kind of minimal Gallic décor you see in the restored farmhouses they feature in Elle Decor. Raphael Lunetta’s food tends to be elegant, almost ladylike, with the sort of seasonality you might expect from a serious restaurant located a few hundred yards from the best farmers market in Southern California, and careful, restrained presentations. JiRaffe is a real California bistro, the kind of casual yet slightly formal place the Ivy only pretends to be, and with much better food. In restaurants as in architecture, sometimes less is more. 502 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 917-6671. Mon. 6-9 p.m., Tues.-Thurs. 6-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 6-11 p.m., Sun. 5:30-9 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. $23-$28.50. French.
Hot Restaurant: Jitlada
The restaurant has been around in its present incarnation for only 18 months or so, and the glossy-magazine clippings on its walls are much newer than that. Still, it is already hard to believe there was a time before Suthiporn Sungkamee and his sister Jazz Singsanong were fixtures on the Hollywood Thai restaurant scene. The Southern Thai specialties we have quickly learned to take for granted — the Songkhia-style rice salad; the fried sea bass with homegrown turmeric; and the infamous endorphin bomb kua kling Phat Tha Lung, a beef curry in its purest form is spicy enough to strip the bark off a log — were abstractions Angelenos could only read about in books. The printed menu is still a roster of the usual Thai banalities, but the typed insert of Southern specialties — originally translated by a visiting Chicago blogger — is basically a list of dishes you’ll find in few other places: delicious, foul-smelling yellow curries of fermented bamboo shoots; delicate lemon curries; curries of fried softshell crabs and the notorious sataw bean; wild tea leaves cooked down like creamed spinach with bits of gluey-skinned catfish; beef simmered with pickled buds of Asian cinnamon. There are accessible dishes, too, like grilled beef with green papaya salad, steamed mussels with lemongrass and chile, a tropical coco-mango salad and shrimp fried with basil — it’s not all fish kidneys and dried mudfish. When you need to show visitors the diversity and wonder still possible in Los Angeles restaurants in 2008, Jitlada is Exhibit A. 5233½ Sunset Blvd., Hlywd., (323) 663-3104. Mon., 5-10 p.m., Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Beer and wine. Difficult lot parking. AE, MC, V. Thai.
J N J Burger & Bar-B-Q
Like Gaul, J N J is divided into three parts: a shaded, gravel-floored dining area; an area dedicated to hamburgers; and the inner sanctum — a worn counter, a kitchen that resembles a temporary structure built to feed hungry firemen, and the smoker itself, a mammoth, puffing construction that has been built to resemble a splendid steam engine. The brawny, dripping beef ribs are great, and the chicken is fine and moist. But J N J’s long-cooked spare rubs are compelling — blackened, rendered of most of their fat, tending almost toward a jerkylike chaw, saturated with smoke, and profoundly spicy even without the sauce, which blankets the pork like a winter coat. J N J may not be the most polished restaurant in Los Angeles, but it may be the closest thing you are going to find to a country-road shack within city limits. 5754 W. Adams Blvd., L.A., (323) 933-7366. Mon.-Thurs. 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. No alcohol. Street parking. Cash only. American.
Shabu shabu has become a local fad in the last few years — a transparent petal of prime beef swished through bubbling broth for a second or two, just until the pink becomes frosted with white. You can find shabu shabu restaurants now in half the suburbs in the county. But when the dish is done correctly — and if the quality of the meat and vegetables is as high as it is at Little Tokyo’s superb (and expensive) Kagaya — the texture is extraordinary, almost liquid, and the concentrated, sourish flavor of really good beef becomes vivid. 418 E. Second St., downtown, (213) 617-1016. Mon.-Sat. 6-10:30 p.m., Sun. 6-10 p.m. Wine, beer, sake. Lot parking. DC, MC, V. $38 fixed-price. Japanese.
Kiriko may still be the great undiscovered sushi bar in Los Angeles, and Ken Namba’s traditional yet creative sashimi surpasses most of what is sold at three times the price. Namba smokes fresh Copper River salmon over smoldering cherry wood, slices it thick and wraps it around spears of ripe mango: The sashimi is soft and luscious, salty and sweet, penetratingly smoky yet delicate — one of the most magnificent mouthfuls of food imaginable. There is Spanish mackerel dressed with grated ginger and ponzu, and mackerel as rich as ripe Brie. The sea bream pulled out of Japan’s Inland Sea is almost gooey in its extreme freshness, dusted with the zest of a tiny yuzu, served with a tiny dish of salt grated to order from a pink, quartzlike stone. One of the gifts of a great sushi chef is nonchalance, and Namba has it to spare, the ability to appear casual, unhurried, processing the food for an entire restaurant while looking as serene and unbothered as Fred Astaire. 11301 Olympic Blvd., No. 102, W.L.A., (310) 478-7769. Lunch Tues.-Fri. noon-2:15 p.m.; dinner Tues.-Sun. 6-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Parking lot. AE, MC, V. Japanese.
Born as a greasy spoon almost two decades ago, Kobawoo has mellowed into a Koreatown institution, a polished, respectable destination restaurant with some of the best food in Koreatown at prices almost unbelievably low. The restaurant has a decent version of samgyetang, a soothing chicken-in-the-pot stuffed with ginseng and sticky rice, and very good pigs’ feet, boiled and pressed into a sort of terrine. The home-style pindaeduk, mung-bean pancakes, are a big draw — the pancakes are ethereal beneath their thin veneer of crunch, melting away almost instantly in the mouth like a sort of intriguingly flavored polenta. But the specialty of Kobawoo is probably bossam, a sort of combo platter of steamed pork belly and ultraspicy turnip kimchi, an elegant preparation that like so many other Korean dishes seems almost custom-designed to accompany a bottle of soju. 698 S. Vermont Ave., (213) 389-7300. Mon.-Sun. 11-10 p.m. Valet, lot parking. Korean.
Like any respectable Thai joint in this part of Los Angeles, the restaurant features a sign outside boasting of the Best Noodles in Town, but unlike the rest of them, Krua Thai has a pretty fair title to the claim. In a city where great Thai noodle shops are all that keep some of us going some days, when the anguish of a sick cat or a Laker collapse can be eased, at least a little, by the knowledge of a great bowl of boat noodles, Krua Thai’s pad Thai and pad kee mao and rad na and pad see ew may be the very best of all. In its way, Krua Thai could be the Thai equivalent of a delicatessen like Canter’s: cheerful, fast, popular across ethnic lines, and open very, very late. 13130 Sherman Way, North Hollywood, (818) 759-7998. Daily, 11 a.m.-3:30 a.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. All major credit cards accepted. Also at 935 S. Glendora Ave., West Covina; (626) 480-0116.
La Casita Mexicana
When you sit down at La Casita, the spiritual home of Mexican cooking in Los Angeles at the moment, you are brought a basket of warm chips drizzled with jet-black mole poblano, a chile-laced red pepian and a green pepian made from crushed pumpkin seeds: the dense, complexly sweet mother sauces that are at the heart of La Casita’s cooking. Chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu are everywhere if you follow Spanish-language media, demonstrating recipes on the Univision morning show, opening supermarkets, on billboards advertising Mexican avocados. They dominate the food pages of La Opinión, and no local discussion of mole poblano, nopalitos or chilaquiles is complete until they have had their say. The two haunt communal farms, looking for huazontle, hoja santa and nopales as fresh and beautiful as they might be in the Jalisco villages they grew up in. But mostly there is the cooking: a half-dozen different kinds of chilaquiles at breakfast, a beautiful purple-corn pozole, delicious enfrijoladas, and an impeccable version of chiles en nogada, the most famous dish of haute Mexican cuisine. 4030 E. Gage Ave., Bell, (323) 773-1898 or www.casitamex.com. Open daily 9 a.m.-10 p.m. AE, M, V. No alcohol. Street parking.
There Goes the Neighborhood: La Mill
The past year has seen a lot of fascinating new restaurants open in Los Angeles, but the most interesting of them all may be a coffee shop in the restaurant-starved heart of Silver Lake, a place whose menu is designed by Providence’s Michael Cimarusti and Adrian Vasquez, and whose owners are devoted to the cult of coffee in the same way that a chapel might be dedicated to its saint. Still, the chandeliered coffee shrine is more bourgeois than a lot of Silverlakistas might prefer, and passersby sometimes glare at the Bugaboo-pushing, Pilates-toned, Prius-driving La Mill customers, as if they were personally responsible for the boutiquing of the neighborhood. As you finish off the last bites of a Tasmanian sea-trout carpaccio, eggs en cocotte with fresh Dungeness crabmeat or a $12 ham-and-cheese sandwich, you may concede the point. Even I have trouble wrapping my mind around coffee savant Eton Tsuno’s excitement about what he terms “savory notes” and what you might call coffee that tastes like Campbell’s tomato soup. (A small wine list would be nice.) But the food, molecular-gastronomy-tinged stuff, is easily the most exciting cooking at this price point in Los Angeles, including a hanger steak with an impossibly complicated watercress purée, duck breast sous-vided to within an inch of its life and crisped with honey and vadouvan, and a big, crunchy-skinned hunk of wild Alaskan salmon with mushrooms and soy. Desserts — calamansi floats, liquid-center lollipops, s’mores with lemongrass cremeux — are basically straight out of the Providence playbook. If you needed further incentive to visit La Mill, there are now french fries, cooked with the same attention to detail as its potato chips. 1636 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 663-4441. Sun.-Thurs., 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. AE, MC, V.
In the course of the half-block walk from the Alvarado Blue Line station to the old-line delicatessen Langer’s, you will smell the food from a half-dozen Central American countries, pass within sight of Mexican street murals, and be offered the opportunity to buy fresh mangoes, counterfeit green cards and cut-rate cumbia compilations. Within the deli itself, you may wait for a table with customers speaking Spanish, Korean or Chiapan dialect, though probably not Yiddish. But bite into a Langer’s pastrami sandwich: thick slices of hand-sliced meat, glistening with peppery fat, as dense and as smoky as Texas barbecue; thick-cut seeded corn rye, hot, crisp-crusted and soft inside, with a slightly sour tang that helps tame the richness of the meat; a dab of yellow mustard as important to the whole as a sushi master’s wasabi. The fact is inescapable: Langer’s serves the best pastrami sandwich in America, in a location perhaps better suited to a tamale merchant.704 S. Alvarado St., L.A., (213) 483-8050. Mon.-Sat. 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Beer and wine. Curbside service (call ahead). Validated lot parking (on corner of Westlake Ave. and Seventh St.). MC, V. Jewish Deli.
For a place known for great banana pudding and happy Sunday brunch, the Eagle Rock restaurant is oddly controversial, distrusted by people expecting cheap soul-food and snobs looking for haute cuisine, by big fellas looking for Roscoe’s-size portions and Southerners skeptical of the trace of fresh mint in the jelly jars of sweet tea. Chef Larkin Mackey, a shy, slender African-American man who rarely leaves the kitchen, sometimes calls his restaurant a modern juke joint. There is Fats Waller on the stereo and faded Southern commercial art on the walls, tables made of old doors in the dining room and picnic benches in the garden out back. Every dish on the menu is probably somebody’s best recipe: The tart, creamy potato salad is credited to Aunt Carolyn; the ground-beef-intensive chile verde to chef Mackey’s grandpa; the caramelly-tasting banana pudding to Mama. But one thing is beyond argument: Mackey’s fried chicken, tender-crusted and juicy, golden and singing with the taste of clean oil, is about as good as it gets in Los Angeles restaurants. 1496 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 254-0934, www.larkinsjoint.com. Tues.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. & 5:30-9:30 p.m.; brunch Sun. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Sun. 5-9 p.m. No alcohol. Limited lot parking. AE, MC, V. Southern.
Gino Angelini comes from a specific region of Italy, a town just inland from Rimini on the Adriatic coast, and before he came to Los Angeles to be the chef at Rex in the mid-1990s, he cooked the food of his region for presidents and popes. But you will find cooking exactly like his nowhere in Italy, where the greens tend to be tougher, the rabbits plumper, the basil more pungent and the best beef leaner than it is in California. What Angelini is attempting at La Terza, the more serious of his two restaurants, may be no less than re-imagining California food through the prism of his advanced Italian technique, re-imagining California as an Italian province that happens to have a few agricultural virtues of its own: produce that translates into supple pastas, complex salads and the subtle vegetable purées with which Angelini has always enriched his sauces. And look at those meats: glistening, wood-smoke-infused slabs of pork belly; drippingly rich duck with figs; mahogany-skinned squab enveloping a rich stuffing of shiitake mushrooms and its own liver. Sometimes there is even trifolati, a traditional Italian stew of kidneys, melted down in warm olive oil and simmered in red wine. In Rimini, trifolati may just be lunch. In Los Angeles, it is a revelation. 8384 W. Third St., L.A., (323) 782-8384. Open daily for breakfast 7-11 a.m., for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., for dinner 5:30-10:30 p.m. Full bar. Takeout. Valet parking. AE, D, MC, V. Italian.
Let’s Be Frank
It may look like a fancy taco truck, a bright-red beast parked near the entrance to the old Helms Bakery complex. But the proprietor is Sue Moore, a former Chez Panisse forager, and her dogs are made with organic, grass-fed, sustainably raised beef; her bratwurst from organic Berkshire pork; her Italian sausage, should you be lucky enough to run across it, from rare-breed Heritage pigs. None of this would matter if the hot dogs weren’t great, but they are: taut, delicious natural-skin beauties that snap like rim shots when you bite into them, mildly seasoned, tucked into griddled buns and served, if you want them that way, with grilled onions, organic sauerkraut and an occasional mystery condiment that Moore hides under the counter like the secret stash at a comic book store. Helms Ave., between Venice and Washington boulevards, Culver City. Tues.-Fri. noon-2:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun. noon-4 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. AE, MC, V. American.
Los Balcones del Peru
So close to the ArcLight Theater that it shares its parking lot, Los Balcones del Peru lies at the precise border of redeveloped Hollywood and its shadow, a breath of garlicky authenticity a few steps south from the velvet-rope district. Los Balcones also may be the only Peruvian restaurant in town without tapes of Andean panpipe music, which is almost a miracle, at least if you ignore the occasional charanga version of “Feelings.” It is easy to spend hours here after a movie, eating fried fish, fried-chicken “chicharrones” and scallops broiled with Parmesan cheese, drinking Peruvian beer from the Inca city of Cuzco. The standard Peruvian-Chinese dishes, the saltados and taillarines, aren’t that good here — ceviche is pretty much the specialty: shrimp ceviche; fish ceviche; shrimp, squid and octopus ceviche; and the miraculous camarones a la piedra, a spicy, sharp shrimp ceviche from the north of Peru that is properly served warm. Los Balcones is a lot cheaper than Nobu. 1360 N. Vine St., Hlywd., (323) 871-9600. Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Validated parking at ArcLight Cinema. AE, MC, V. Peruvian.
Lou Amdur, who can probably talk more profoundly about biodynamic wines than anyone who hasn’t actually buried a dung-filled animal horn at midnight during a full moon, is the proprietor of this tiny, wonderful wine bar on the south end of Vine, home to both his list of organic country wines and the salady cuisine of his chef DJ Olsen, as well as a pretty decent range of artisanal cheeses, the garlic-laced salamis of Seattle’s Armandino Batali, and house-made rillettes. Lou has a minor specialty in both long-braised meats and tasty vegetarian soups, and the elaborate Monday-night wine dinners revolving around, say, choucroute or the season’s first Alaskan halibut should not be missed. Still, on cool nights there may be nothing better than a plateful of the pig candy made with Lou’s house-smoked bacon, a bowlful of olives and a glass of organic Côtes du Luberon. 724 N. Vine St., Hlywd., (323) 962-6369 or www.louonvine.com. Mon.-Sat. 6 p.m.-mid. Wine. Lot parking. MC, V. California Contemporary.
The California-Mediterranean cooking of Suzanne Goin, which is feminine in all the best ways, is profoundly beautiful in its simplicity, and there is satori to be found in every bite of grilled fish, every herb salad, every roasted vegetable. When she’s on, Goin teases out the flavor from a tomato with the precision of a sushi master, making textural contrasts dance and playing with bursts of acidity and the resinous flavors of fresh herbs. Lucques, named for a vivid green variety of French olive, is located in Harold Lloyd’s old carriage house; it boasts an ultrasleek Barbara Barry design and one of the nicest patios in West Hollywood, but on loud weekend nights the restaurant can sometimes seem as if it is about 90 percent bar. Sunday family dinners are legendary. 8474 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd., (323) 655-6277. Sunday nights feature three-course prix fixe dinners. Lunch Tues.-Sat. noon-2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Tues. 6-10 p.m., Wed.-Sat. 6-11 p.m., Sun. 5-10 p.m. Full bar (limited bar menu available 10 p.m.-mid.). Valet parking. AE, MC, V. California-French.
M Café de Chaya
If you’ve ever wondered if people actually wear the $400 jeans you see advertised in Vogue, an hour at M Café can be instructive, a merry parade of the snuggest styles and the most avant-garde finishes, worn by some of the most beautiful people on Earth. This is the place that made macrobiotic cuisine fashionable, partly because almost anything tastes great when it is made with vegetables bought at a decent growers market, but also because the kitchen lets kale taste like kale but has the sense to let tempeh-based club sandwiches taste like something you’d pick up at the Daily Grill. Owned by the people who run Chaya Venice and Chaya Brasserie, M Café food may be based on strict macrobiotic principles — the vegetable sushi here is made not just with brown rice, but with organic, artisanally produced heirloom brown rice — but when the tomatoes are ripe, the pesto is pungent and the house-baked bread is crisp, even a sybarite can overlook the fact that the “mozzarella” started its life as a plant. 7119 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 525-0588 and 9343 Culver Blvd., Culver City, (310) 838-4300. www.mcafedechaya.com. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. AE, MC, V. Beer and wine. Limited lot parking. Takeout and delivery. Contemporary macrobiotic.
Marouch has been a Hollywood Lebanese-Armenian mainstay for so long that it is sometimes possible to forget just how good it can be, how succulent the grilled quail, how zataar-fragrant the toasted-bread salad fattoush, how reliable the kebabs, which sing with spice and juice and char. I can’t count the times I’ve crushed out on some Middle Eastern dish I’d tasted in Glendale or Michigan only to find out that Marouch chef Sosy Brady had it on her menu all the time, whether fried fish with tahini, the pungent aged-cheese salad shanklish, the walnut-pomegranate dip muhammara, or the Lebanese melted-cheese dessert knafeh. If you wanted to imagine you were in Beirut, you could stop by this place a few times a day — midmornings for a piece of baklava and a thimbleful of Armenian coffee, lunch for a plate of makanek sausages and a bottle of Lebanese beer, late afternoons for the felafel, house-made from scratch, and a bowl of dense lentil soup, and dinner for one of the homestyle daily specials. Year after year, Marouch becomes nothing but better. 4905 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., (323) 662-9325. Tues.-Sun. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. All major credit cards. Middle Eastern/Lebanese/Armenian.
André Guerrero, who despite his youth was peddling his brand of pan-Asian cuisine when most local chefs were still living on Spam spaghetti, never quite caught the wave of fashionable fusion coursing through local velvet-rope restaurants, never fashioned tuna tartare for Paris and Britney to pick at, never glazed his ribs with the sticky sauces that bring Beverly Hills dentists joy. But with the recent remodel of his Encino flagship Max, which shed its air of a plastic-surgeon’s waiting room for sort of a wooden-ship tropical vibe Guerrero, who is Filipino-American, has nudged his cooking into a more adventurous direction, supplementing his legendary ahi towers with steamed pork-belly buns perhaps inspired by those David Chang is doing at Momofuku in New York, throwing a pickle-tasting onto the blackboard menu as a conceit, making lamb “tacos’’ that are actually a lot closer to a new-wave Lebanese ground-meat kibbe stuffed into wedges of pita bread and drizzled with tahini. For dessert, Guerrero’s updated version of the traditional Filipino parfait halo halo, layered with ice cream, palm jelly and coconut milk, is essential. 13355 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 784-2915. Mon.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Beer and wine. Valet. Fusion.
Meals by Genet
Fairfax Avenue’s Little Ethiopia is one of the grooviest enclaves in town, a long city block lined on both sides by coffeehouses, food markets, and places to buy both Ethiopian knickknacks and CDs of Ethiopian pop music, which is at the same time danceable and as inscrutable as Amharic poetry. Among the many restaurants on the strip, Meals by Genet stands out as an Ethiopian bistro, which is to say, a homey, soft-lit dining room that looks at least as French as it does African. The menu is short: a half-dozen stews and Genet Agonafer’s delicious version of kitfo, a dish of minced raw beef tossed with warm, spiced butter. Her dorowot is jaw-droppingly good, vibrating with what must be ginger and black pepper and bishop’s weed and clove but tasting of none of them, so formidably solid that the chicken becomes just another ingredient in the sauce. 1053 S. Fairfax Ave., L.A., (323) 938-9304, www.mealsbygenet.com. Lunch and dinner Wed.-Fri. 5:30-10 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Catering. Street parking. MC, V. Ethiopian.
If you’ve been around the Los Angeles restaurant scene for long enough to remember Josiah Citrin as a surfer dude in the kitchens of Joachim Splichal, it may have seemed as if he was trying to create Mélisse as a Michelin-worthy restaurant by force of will alone, imposing luxury ingredients and luxury prices on a local public that seemed happy enough to eat its seared venison without the benefit of Christofle silver, velvet purse stools or airy sauces inflected with fresh black truffle. The cooking was always fine, but the effect was faintly ridiculous, like a teenager trying on his father’s best sports jacket when he thinks nobody is looking. And the prices, now $105 for an all-but-mandatory four-course menu, would be high even in Paris. But Citrin grew into Mélisse; he wears it like a custom-fitted suit. His two Michelin stars are real. The truffled corn ravioli is a revelation. And his cuisine, which uses farmers-market produce and modern kitchen techniques without calling attention to itself, has shed most of its baby fat — the cassoulet of white asparagus with morels, the melting Copper River salmon and the butter-soft duck breast at a spring dinner all brought out the soulful essence of the ingredients in the least showy way imaginable. 1104 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 395-0881. Dinner Tues.-Thurs. 6-9:30 p.m., Fri. 6-10 p.m., Sat. 5:45-10 p.m. Closed Sun.-Mon. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, D, DC, MC, V.
Musso & Frank Grill
Before Musso & Frank Grill became a martini-fueled Hollywood clubhouse, the place where Faulkner blew out his liver and generations of character actors learned to show up on Wednesday for the chicken potpie, the restaurant was practically a showcase for what was then considered California cuisine, a genteel marriage of the local produce, abundant local fisheries and masculinized lunchroom cooking: avocado cocktails smeared with sweet, pink dressing and frigid bowls of chilled consommé; great naked planks of boiled finnan haddie and dainty plates of crab Louie; kidneys Turbigo. This is what the cosmopolitan life was like, before cosmopolitans. Or if you happen to be of a certain bent, you could always try a long, drowsy lunch of Vicodin, jellied consommé and Welsh rarebit, followed by a desert-dry Gibson and a long nap — an experiment in what one friend calls gout-stool cuisine. 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 467-7788. Open Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Full bar. Validated parking in rear. AE, DC, MC, V. Entrées $15-$40. American.
NextGen Ships: The Nickel
Even given the gentrification of downtown, the Nickel appears less like a diner than a movie set, a seemingly unreconstructed ’40s-era greasy spoon that popped up a few steps from what used to be considered the gamiest intersection in town, on a block where artists in natty hats share the sidewalk with homeless guys and dazed European tourists. The Nickel occupies the site of a long-forgotten diner — the remodelers uncovered hand-painted wall menus with prices last current during the Truman administration — but while the restaurant reflects the flavor of the neighborhood, it is more ambitious than that: The BLTs come with arugula; the hash is made with spicy pulled pork instead of canned corned beef; and all the toast, including the cinnamon-dusted Nickel Bag, is made with bread baked in-house. There are fancy dishes of baked eggs over polenta and mushrooms, as well as the usual fried (and vegan scrambles), brioche, as well as pancakes, and alongside the freshly squeezed orange juice is a cucumber-intensive house-made version of V8. The Nickel, which serves only breakfast and lunch for the moment, is a new kind of downtown diner, a Ships for a generation for whom full-sleeve tattoos are the new black — and it’s about time. 524 S. Main St., dwntwn, (213) 623-8301, www.5cdiner.com.
Nobu Los Angeles
Nobu Matsuhisa is the most influential Japanese chef in the United States, the father of a strange, original cuisine equally rooted in the sushi kitchen, the informal izakaya, and the seafood preparations of cosmopolitan Lima. Without him, half the new restaurants in Los Angeles and New York might still be selling California rolls and salmon-skin salad. But there is a steep learning curve to the restaurant Matsuhisa, with hundreds of dishes on the menu, and waiters who are perfectly happy to serve nonregulars the same omakase meal that the kitchen has been pumping out for almost 20 years. The West Hollywood Nobu changes all of that. The old l’Orangerie space is throbbing once again, with electronica bouncing off the walls and black BMWs clogging La Cienega. Where the dining room of l’Orangerie resembled a grand bank lobby, Nobu, designed by David Rockwell — whose imprint on the Tribeca Nobu pretty much launched a four-continent career — looks carved out of a vault. The streamlined menu resembles that of Nobu Next Door in New York, including things like whole black snapper roasted in a wood oven, steamed Chilean sea bass and even the occasional steak. If you are hungry for the now-classic hamachi with jalapeño or toro tartare with caviar, you can be assured of finding them here. And there’s roasted banana with soy caramel for dessert. 903 N. La Cienega Blvd., W. Hlywd., (310) 657-5711. Dinner Mon.-Thurs. 6-11:15 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 6 p.m.-mid., Sun. 6-10:15 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Japanese.
A converted burger joint saturated with the smell of wood smoke, red roof gleaming in the late-afternoon sun, Oinkster is the child of Max chef André Guerrero, a perfected fast-food restaurant, the old-school paradigm of pastrami, burgers and chicken reinvented for a age when a remodeled hamburger hut can be enjoyed for its stark loveliness and nobody thinks it odd that a famous chef might seek an apprenticeship with a revered deli counterman, in this case Norm Langer. “Slow fast food,” proclaims the sign outside: smoky Carolina-style pulled-pork sandwiches, chopped salad, and fast-food-style Angus-beef hamburgers with sweet house-made catsup. He roasts chickens on a creaky rotisserie and smokes his own pastrami. Would you be willing to pay a couple dollars extra to experience artisanal soda pop, purplish Fosselman’s-based ube milkshakes and other fast food with a chefly edge? Guerrero is betting that you are. With all of the above, of course, it is necessary to have an order of Belgian fries, fried twice to leave them light and hot, their fluffy potato essence encased in a stiff, perfectly golden capsule of crunch. 2005 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 255-OINK, www.oinkster.com. Open Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat, 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. No alcohol. Takeout. Slow-cooked fast food.
101 Noodle Express
A bleak mini-mall storefront next to a bowling alley, 101 Noodle Express isn’t undiscovered, exactly, although in all my visits I have never had a waitress say a word to me in English that didn’t happen to be “7-up” or “Coca-Cola.” Everybody orders a lovely if orthodox bowl of hot-sour soup, and a tan, wrinkly specialty called “De Zhou chicken.” But mostly, the café is home to the Shandong-style beef roll, a massive, bronzed construction that commands its platter like two El Tepeyac burritos laid side by side — brawny Chinese pancakes rolled around slivers of stewed beef and seasoned with a sprinkling of chopped scallion tops and fresh cilantro. The inside of the beef roll is smeared with a sweet, house-made bean paste with an ethereal, almost transparent top note, a bean paste that bears the same relationship to ordinary hoisin sauce that a fine demi-glace might to a slug of canned brown gravy. It is a simple composition, and yet not — ordinary street food raised to a transcendent level. 1408 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 300-8654. Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-11 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only. Chinese.
Orris, sometimes described as an Asian “tapas bar,’’ is a marriage between California casual and the Japanese izakaya, a great place to drop in for a beaker of daiginjo sake and a plate or two of smoked scallops garnished with salmon roe, seared tuna with sweet onion marmalade, or even what amounts to lamb sashimi — food to wash down with sake, not with a glass of Bierzo. Its location, convenient to the Nuart and the manga-intensive shopping strip anchored by the Giant Robot complex, couldn’t be better, and the small wine list, as well as the sake list, is swell. And although chef Hideo Yamashiro isn’t cooking the fried catfish with ponzu that made him famous at his South Pasadena restaurant Shiro, the fried seafood is awfully good, especially the tempura shrimp dusted with house-made curry powder and served with a moist little mound of Okinawan sea salt. 2006 Sawtelle Blvd., W.L.A, (310) 268-2212. Dinner Mon.-Fri. 6-10 p.m., Sat. 5:30-10:30 p.m., Sun. 5:30-9:30 p.m. Beer, wine and sake. Lot parking (valet Wed.-Sat.). AE, D, MC, V. Small-plate cuisine.
At a time when half the émigré chefs in California are putting their knowledge of Escoffier to work cooking pasta, Ortolan, which reflects Christophe Emé’s Loîre-trained palate, may be the most serious French restaurant in Los Angeles. If you are a fan of intimate restaurant spaces, dining rooms so dark that diners are issued little flashlights along with their menus, and presentations that extend to carrot soup served in test tubes and eggplant caviar in goldfish bowls, then Ortolan may be the restaurant for you. Actually, Ortolan’s basic premise — high-level French cooking served in a supper-club setting — is an attractive one. And Emé, who co-owns the restaurant with his paramour, Jeri Ryan, who is often to be seen working the room, is remarkably skilled: The squab, served as a roasted breast paired with a leg confit, is exceptional, as are the crisp langoustines done in the style of Robuchon, and the complex tasting menus are among the most accomplished in town. 8338 W. Third St., L.A., (323) 653-3300. Tues.-Sat. 6-10 p.m. (Closed Sun.-Mon. in summer.) Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. French.
Italian Translations: Osteria Mozza
Nancy Silverton is the most dogged of chefs, dedicated to perfecting the most elemental of foods through sheer strength of will. Almost anybody who has tasted what she has wrought in the media of bread, pastry, cheese or pizza can attest to the power of her obsessions. And at the Osteria, a sleek, bustling restaurant in the same building as her Pizzeria Mozza, the intensity of the restaurant’s cuisine radiates from the mozzarella bar at its heart, a loose take on the mozzarella-intensive wine bar Obika near the Pantheon in central Rome, and a testament to the vitality to be drawn from a single ingredient whose freshness and provenance are so crucial — imagine a great sushi chef who has chosen to work with mozzarella instead of fish. Really, you have never tasted such cheese. But a fine restaurant is of course more than just cheese, and Osteria Mozza also synthesizes Silverton’s roots in the area of Umbria where she has her summer home, and the current Emilia-Romagna fixations of Matt Molina, a young San Gabriel native who is her chef, as well as the polish from partners Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali and wine czar David Rosoff. The the braised guinea fowl and the spoon-tender pork roast inspired by rural Umbrian trattorias share menu space with meat-sauced fresh garganelli and tortellini en brodo from the homeliest kitchens in Bologna; the sashimi-like constructions of fresh mozzarella co-exist with the simplest possible rendition of linguine cacio e pepe, which resonates with the heat and fragrance of freshly ground pepper. (The standard disclaimer applies: Nancy is a family friend and she co-wrote a book with my wife. You are free to discount any of my opinions, as foolish as you would be to do so.) Osteria Mozza is pretty extraordinary now, but what is even more exciting is the restaurant that I suspect it will evolve into over the next several years. 6602 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 297-0100.
This Year’s Model: Palate Food + Wine
Palate is the food world’s favorite new place to eat in Los Angeles this year, above even spots opened by such boldface names as Gordon Ramsay, Laurent Tourondel and Kazunori Nozawa, a conscious omnivore’s dream. The first solo project of Octavio Becerra, it is an opium dream of a restaurant, a relaxed, butter-yellow space in Glendale’s car-dealer district, a dining room sprawling into a cocktail lounge, a wine bar, laboratories for curing meats and aging cheeses, and a well-curated wine shop. Palate, which occupies the ground floor of a huge wine-storage building, is intensely personal, and an evening there can feel a lot like stopping by a friend’s house and having him show you some cool things he just picked up: lamb from the eccentric Sonoma farmer Don Watson; butter churned from scratch; a “porkfolio” plank that might include Iowa prosciutto, a scrap of house-made lardo, or some salame from a secret California source. The menu is tiny and seems even shorter than it looks — most of the text on the slender document is devoted to charcuterie, house-made pickles and cheese — but changes often. Becerra puts up a lot of things in Mason jars, stiff, unctuous pastes of pork or salmon enhanced with house-churned butter or pure lard. Becerra is deft at getting out of the way of great ingredients, and his best dishes — mackerel with dates and pistachios, grits with porcini, vegetables roasted in parchment — are almost deceptively simple, built around an array of precisely seasonal produce. 933 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale, (818) 662-9463 or www.palatefoodwine.com. Mon.-Sat., 5-10 p.m. Full bar. Valet (and plentiful street) parking. AE, MC, V.
The waiter comes over, rubs the hot grill with a lump of beef suet. He flinches back, as the melted fat explodes into a rush of blue flame. He lays meat on the grill as tenderly as you might put a kitten to bed, which almost makes sense — at more than $30 for an order of sliced Kobe-style beef and near that for short ribs, this is the most expensive Korean barbecue in town. Even wrapped into a lettuce leaf with bean paste, half a raw garlic clove and a bit of coarse salt, if the supremely beefy flavor comes through. Park’s Tokyo-X crossbred pork belly may be the best pig in Koreatown at the moment, slabs of fat striated with meat, creaminess fading into translucency after a couple of minutes on the grill, and then into the sort of juicy pop you might associate with the seared pancetta in a really good plate of spaghetti carbonara. Park’s is a modern place, all steel and glass; the waiters resemble members of a martial-arts team more than they do restaurant workers. And while the quality of the meat, is a least a tick or two higher than at other high-end barbecue places, the restaurant does not hold back on the array of panchan, the little egg pancakes, puréed squash, tiny fish, kimchi, spicy roots, broccoli, and a half-dozen other things that are the measure of a Korean restaurant. 955 S. Vermont Ave., Koreatown, (213) 380-1717. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer and soju. MC, V. Valet parking. Korean.
Sustainable? No. Organic? Probably not. Multicultural? Only when strictly necessary. Patina’s exquisitely wrought dining room in Disney Hall is the most important restaurant space in California, and Joachim Splichal is a master of modern global cuisine, finely crafted, vegetable-intensive compositions of Berkshire pork, yellowfin or Santa Barbara spot prawns geared to the sophisticated palate of the international traveler, beautiful to look at, and as carefully branded as a Lexus. The restaurant is known for the offhand complexity of its presentations, exotic spices and seasonal emulsions often sparked by fragrant herbs or bursts of acidity, food that is often as compelling to think about as it is to eat. 141 S. Grand Ave., dwntwn. (213) 972-3331. Lunch Tues.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m., dinner Tues.-Sun. 5-11 p.m. (9:30 p.m. during summer). Full bar. Valet parking. AE, D, DC, MC, V. French and California contemporary.
Pie ‘n Burger
This is the best neighborhood hamburger joint in a neighborhood that includes Caltech, which means the guy next to you may be reading a physics proof over his chili size as if it were the morning paper. When compressed by the act of eating, a Pie ‘N Burger hamburger leaks thick, pink dressing, and the slice of American cheese, if you have ordered a cheeseburger, does not melt into the patty, but stands glossily aloof. And the exquisitely crunchy patty melt is careful without being insipid, oozy in just the right way, and sweetened by its judicious load of grilled onions When the fruit is in season, don’t miss a cut of the epochal fresh-strawberry pie. 913 E. California Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 795-1123. Mon.-Fri. 6 a.m.-10 p.m., Sat. 7 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Beer and wine. Street parking. Cash only. Entrees $5-$10. American.
Philippe the Original
Now that its only serious competitor is about to be retrofitted into a gleaming replica of itself, Phillippe’s is one of the few remaining artifacts of the Los Angeles that Philip Marlowe knew, a sprawling complex of long tables, cheap coffee, sawdust-sprinkled floors and a Depression-era beef stew of the type that has always made hard-working Americans swoon, so much a relic of prewar Los Angeles that sometimes it feels as if it isn’t really a part of Los Angeles at all, as if it belongs to an older city without neon, chrome or arugula. Philippe’s is the spiritual home of the French dip, that famous sandwich of carved meat layered onto a jus-soaked roll, imitated, never successfully, all over the United States for the last 100 years. If I reach my own 100th birthday, I intend to celebrate it here with a lamb dip, extra blue cheese, a dish of tapioca pudding and a glass of California red wine. 1001 N. Alameda St., dwntwn., (213) 628-3781. Open daily 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer and wine. For takeout, must call ahead, and order must be over $40. Lot parking. Cash only. American.
Every year, there is an upstart who claims that he makes the best barbecue in Los Angeles. And every year, I visit the stand, snort, and stop back at Phillips on the way home, because there are occasionally things that shouldn’t be messed with. Crusted with black and deeply smoky, the spareribs at Phillips Barbecue 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, tasty even without the sauce. They are the only ribs that can compete on equal terms with the best from Kansas City or Tuscaloosa. And the extra-hot sauce, so crowded with whole dried chiles that the ribs occasionally look as if they have been embellished with Byzantine mosaics, is exhilarating. Tucked into a mini-mall between a liquor store and the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, the original Phillips might be a little hard to find, although if you keep your window open, you should be able to sniff it out from half a mile away. But the newest location, in the well-scrubbed chalet-style Crenshaw building that until recently housed the well-regarded Leo’s Bar-B-Q, is only a couple of blocks south of the 10 freeway. 4307 Leimert Blvd., L.A., (323) 292-7613. Mon. 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Tues.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-mid., Sun. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. 2619 S. Crenshaw Blvd., L.A., (323) 731-4772. Tues.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. 1517 Centinela Ave., L.A., (310) 412-7135. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only. Barbecue.
It is almost impossible to have a civil discussion about pizza in this city of immigrants, because there may be no foodstuff so intimately linked to one’s sense of identity. But in the wood oven at Pizzeria Mozza, Nancy Silverton has more or less reinvented the very idea of pizza, airy and burnt and risen around the rim, thin and crisp in the center, neither bready in the traditional Neapolitan manner nor wispy the way you find pizza in the best places in Tuscany. The crust is sweet and bitter, salty and chewy, circled by crunchy charred bubbles. Every pizza at Mozza is a unique marriage of flour, salt and hot-burning almond wood, stretched into irregular discs, as individually lovable as children. The crust is so good, in fact, that it may be at its best dressed with nothing more than a drizzle of good olive oil and a few grains of sea salt — though it’s not sad to eat topped with burrata and vivid squash blossoms, taleggio and house-made sausage, lardo and rosemary. or pureed anchovies and fried egg. (The mandatory caveat applies here: Silverton is a family friend.) This isn’t the pizza you used to eat back in Jersey, and that, perhaps, is the point. 641 N. Highland Ave., L.A., (323) 297-0101. Modern Italian, pizzeria.
Pollo a la Brasa
If you are anywhere near Koreatown when the need for takeout chicken strikes, follow your nose to Pollo a la Brasa, a Peruvian chicken joint all but concealed behind a fortress of hardwood logs. The smoky, crisp-skinned chicken here, sizzled over a hot wood fire and served with the incendiary Peruvian herb sauce aji, is what happens when you cross a chicken with a smoldering log. 764 S. Western Ave., L.A., (213) 382-4090. Wed.-Mon. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V. Peruvian.
When Michael Cimarusti left the stoves at Water Grill to start Providence, his fans were expecting nothing less than the Los Angeles equivalent of fish palaces like Le Bernardin and Oceana in New York. At this glowing restaurant, he managed to fulfill even those super-high expectations — this is among the best kitchens ever to hit Los Angeles. It just doesn’t get better than Cimarusti’s tartare of live spot prawns served with buttery leaves of brik pastry, sautéed squid with piquillo peppers and meltingly soft slivers of stewed pig’s ear, or a terrine of foie gras with muscat gelée that may be the best foie gras preparation in this foie gras–happy town. The dessert tasting menu of pastry chef Adrian Vasquez is a five-course degustation demanding and ambitious enough to command the attention of an entire evening, a universe of puréed avocado and hot cider foam. 5955 Melrose Ave., Hancock Park, (323) 460-4170. Mon.-Fri. 6-10 p.m., Sat. 5:30-10 p.m., Sun. 5:30-9 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, D, MC, V. Modern American seafood.
While the expense-account crowd awaited each new overhyped East Coast import this year, the Thai-food cognoscenti paced anxiously outside a gentrifying Norwalk mini-mall instead, worrying as the structure rose to resemble a series of potential GameStops. But finally, after larb-less months of anticipation, the redone Renu Nakorn is modern and spacious, and filled with Breck girls from the local Bible college, as well as Thai folk happy to be reacquainted with the restaurant’s minced-shrimp larb and sour Isaan rice sausage. If you ever went to the original Renu Nakorn (or to the fabulous Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, which is run by family that owned the restaurant in the 1990s), you probably know the tripartite nature of the menu, the usual Thai specialties supplemented by the barbecue and spicy grilled-meat salads of the Isaan region, and an almost-hidden list of specialties from the Chiang Mai area, which may be the kitchen’s real strength: pounded roast-chile dips to scoop up with freshly fried pork rinds, sweet pork curries influenced by Burma and coconut-enhanced khao soi noodles. After dinner, you can wander next door to the last working dairy in Norwalk and pick up a load of free cow manure, or better, a quart of the excellent chocolate milk. 13019 E. Rosecrans Ave., Suite 105, Norwalk. (562) 921-2124. Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Sun noon-8 p.m. Thai.
Like so many other restaurants on the Westside, the food at the wine bar Rustic Canyon owes less to the standard bistro playbook than it does to the kind of cooking that French guys don’t consider cooking at all: basically a compendium of what happens to be on the farmers market A-list that week collated with artisanal cheeses, sustainable meats, and lovingly handcrafted pastas. As cynics might say, that’s not cooking, that’s shopping. On the other hand, it is also more or less the strategy followed by places like Lucques and Chez Panisse at the moment. And when executed by a chef as skilled as Rustic Canyon’s Evan Funke, whose goat cheese tortellone with fresh mint, duck breast with cherries, and sliced sunchokes sautéed with garlic are so fine, it seems like the only possible way to eat — his roasted root vegetable shepherd’s pie couldn’t have been better if it were made with hare or blood sausage rather than roasted turnips and parsnips, and I don’t think I have a higher compliment I can pay. Zoe Nathan is the hot young pastry chef in town at the moment, and when you taste her rustic tarts or hot doughnut spheres with stone-ground hot chocolate you will understand why. 1119 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 393-7050, www.rusticcanyonwinebar.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Beer and wine. Valet parking. Wine bar.
Sanuki No Sato
A decade and a half after this elegant noodle shop became famous as Dodger ace Hideo Nomo’s favorite hideout, the still-unmarked (at least in English) restaurant is as good as ever. Udon noodles come in all the standard flavors: topped with crisp buttons of tempura batter in a plain soy-enriched broth, or with chewy bits of rice cake, or with exquisitely slimy Japanese mountain yams. Yuki-nabe udon — served in a rustic-looking iron kettle and buried beneath half an inch of grated daikon, a sprinkling of grated wasabi and a ferociously spiced cod-egg sac — is refreshing in spite of its bulk, an exotic bowl you could eat every day. At lunch, come early for the infamous sanuki bento, a multicourse banquet served in a lacquered box, and a testament to Japanese engineering: I have seen buffet tables with less food on them. 18206 S. Western Ave., Gardena, (310) 324-9184. Open for lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Open for dinner Mon.-Sun. 5:30-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. AE, DC, MC, V. Japanese.
Sapp Coffee Shop
Sapp may be the best lunchroom in Hollywood, a bright Thai restaurant, unrelentingly yellow inside, sharing a small mini-mall with a video shop and a place to get griddled Thai desserts; crowded at noon, not with revelers but with people who have come to Thai Town to shop and eat spicy, stinky boat noodles, remarkable grilled chicken and bright-green “jade” noodles tossed with Chinese barbecue. Sapp is the Thai equivalent of Pie ’n’ Burger, a lunchroom where the virtues of homeliness become extraordinary when put in context with the shiny, glittery surfaces against which it might compete. 5183 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd., (323) 665-1035. Open 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; closed Wednesdays. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only. Thai.
David Myers’ breakthrough restaurant is an exquisite Los Angeles space, a serene bubble of luxury and refinement with an endless, nuanced ever-changing tasting menu, which often tends toward the Japanese: cubes of sansho-pepper-scented tuna married to sautéed sweetbreads, passion-fruit cannoli stuffed with peekytoe crab, tiny Nantucket scallops flavored with dates and poppy seeds, or rare duck with red wine and pumpkin seeds toasted to resemble the exact crunch of its skin. Sona is the furthest thing imaginable from the Rabelaisian assault of a brasserie. What we know as California cuisine may be dedicated to revealing produce at its best, but Myers goes after nature with blowtorches and microtomes and dynamite, determined to bend the old woman to her will. The morning after nine courses at Sona (this is one restaurant where only the tasting menu will do), it will already seem like a half-forgotten dream. 401 N. La Cienega Blvd., W. Hlywd., (310) 659-7708. Tues.-Fri. 6-10 p.m., Sat. 5:30-11 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, D, DC, MC, V. Modern French.
The original Spago on Sunset was to New American Cooking what the Armory Show was to modern painting or Meet the Beatles was to rock & roll: the one that changed the rules. Designer pizza got its start in that Sunset Strip dining room, as did fusion cooking, the notion of the celebrity chef, and the idea that fine dining could be fun. In Wolfgang Puck’s glamorous Beverly Hills space, bolstered by imaginative executive chef Lee Hefter and pastry chef Sherry Yard, he’s redefined our idea of what Spago might be — and the roasted-beet cake with goat cheese, the turbot with Chino Ranch vegetables and the 10-spice roast squab are good enough to make you forget the duck-sausage pizza and the chopped vegetable salad that originally made Spago famous. If a tasting menu is within your budget, it’s probably the best way to experience what the restaurant can do. 176 N. Cañon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 385-0880. Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:15 p.m., Sat. noon-2:30 p.m. Dinner Mon.-Thurs. 5:30-10:30 p.m, Fri.-Sat. 5:30-11 p.m., Sun. 5:30-10:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, D, MC, V. California with Asia and Europe.
It is hard to go wrong with bacon, but Square One, a cheerful, brightly painted breakfast place in the L. Ron Hubbard district of East Hollywood, may have the city’s best: Nueske’s bacon, the well-regarded artisanal product from northern Wisconsin, sliced thick, laid on a rack and slow-roasted until it becomes crisp but pliable, sweet and deeply smoky, exploding under your teeth into gushers of fragrant juice. Still, even without the bacon, Square One is a pretty good place — epochal breakfasts, big salads for lunch made with roasted beets or house-cured salmon, pressed ham-and-cheese sandwiches, organic grits, fragile chocolate-chip cookies as big around as dinner plates. The chefs shop the same way you do, or at least the way you would like to think that you would if your life were devoted to cooking breakfast rather than to such unimportant concerns as work, television and sex. 4854 Fountain Ave., Hlywd., (323) 661-1109, www.squareonedining.com. Tues.-Sun. 8 a.m.-4 p.m. No alcohol. Street parking. AE, MC, V. American.
Tacos Baja Ensenada
In most of Mexico, the words estilo Ensenada signify just one thing: fish tacos. Specifically the fried-fish tacos served at stalls in the fish market down by the docks. In East L.A., you will come no closer to the ideal than these crunchy, sizzlingly hot strips of batter-fried halibut folded into warm corn tortillas with salsa, shredded cabbage and a squeeze of lime, sprinkled with freshly chopped herbs and finished with a squirt of thick, cultured cream. Entire religions have been founded on miracles less profound than the Ensenada fish taco. 5385 Whittier Blvd., E.L.A., (323) 887-1980. Tues.-Sun. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only. Mexican.
It may be a Canadian import, but Terroni might actually feel more Italian than anywhere else in Los Angeles at the moment, with as many expats at the tables as on the restaurant staff, terra-cotta serving dishes, a roster of decent Italian wines available in half-liter and quarter-liter carafes, and the deftest espresso pull this side of Naples. Terroni, nominally a southern-Italian restaurant, specializes in pizzas — not the artisanal, wood-fired things you find at Mozza and Antica Pizzeria, but stretched thin to order over the lip of a counter and tossed into a regular deck oven. Terroni’s pizza is good stuff: skinny, crunchy most of the way through, served as in Italy in individual uncut rounds, topped with things like broccoli rabe and crumbled sausage; Gorgonzola, honey and walnuts; or plain old mozzarella and tomato sauce. The pastas tend to be very good: linguine with clams and the dried mullet roe bottarga, a definitive penne alla Norma with fried eggplant, and possibly the first L.A. appearance of spaghetti ca’muddica, a Sicilian pasta a little like spaghetti alla puttanesca enriched with toasted bread crumbs. The oddest thing about Terroni may be its name, a nasty term for southern Italians that you sometimes hear directed at Napoli soccer players by ultras in Bergamo and Milan. 7605 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 954-0300. Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. Takeout. AE, MC, V. Italian.
If Godzilla decided to explore her feminine side, she might be tempted to wear Tiara’s giant, glittery range hood on her head, just the sort of Audrey Hepburn–esque touch Mothra might find attractive. Tiara, Fred Eric’s Dr. Seuss–flavored Fashion District restaurant, shoots the girly aesthetic up with steroids. Eric practically invented the hypereclectic Los Angeles restaurant, and his Asian-tinged, pan-Mediterranean menu is painted in 17 shades of farmers-market salad. You won’t find fried potatoes, but you will find crunchy sticks of chickpea fritters that have all the sensations of a french fry. There are bubbly, skateboard-shaped lengths of flatbread served with curried squash, preserved lemons and harissa, and a selection of “Freshwiches”: rice-paper rolls stuffed with spice-tinged “Thai” cobb salad, with grilled tuna and vegetables, or with shrimp, mangoes and Granny Smith apples. Low-carb and fat-free, Freshwiches are big with the perpetually fasting fashionistas who comprise a big part of the clientele. I suspect there is not a single peculiar diet or system of culinary belief the kitchen is not prepared to handle. 127 E. Ninth St., dwntwn., (213) 623-3663. Breakfast and lunch, Mon.-Sat., 8 a.m.-3 p.m., and Sun., 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner nightly, 5:30-10 p.m. Beer, wine, sake and champagne only. Validated lot parking. All major credit cards (except Discover). California seasonal.
Atop a newish mini-mall in Artesia’s Little India, Tirupathi Bhimas is a glowing flying saucer of a restaurant, a circular second-story dining room ringed by windows — sari emporia and jewelry stores and sweet shops outside as far as the eye can see. The idea of an Indian restaurant as club-kid hangout is nothing new, and crossover joints certainly play up the sultriness of the Indian kitchen, but what is drawing the crowds at Tirupathi Bhimas is fairly orthodox Andhra Pradesh–style vegetarian cuisine, the heavy Southern Indian stuff, without a Bombay mojito or a chakratini in sight. Tamil is spoken and dishes are assumed to be searingly spicy unless specified otherwise. The standard order at Tirupathi Bhimas is the thali, the traditional combination plate of nine or so stews, soups and grain dishes, spooned into tiny bowls and arranged around the perimeter of a gleaming stainless-steel platter, garnished with a thin pappadum cracker, a pliable round of chapati bread, and perhaps a wad of spiced potatoes rolled into a spliff-size dosa. Will you know what is in the bowls? Probably not, and nobody will bother to explain them to you. Suffice it to say that the spicy Andhra thali will be spicy and the nonspicy thali will be pretty spicy too. After dinner, make sure to drop by the Saffron Spot downstairs for a dish of Indian ice cream. 8792 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia, (562) 809-3806; www.tirupathibhimas.com. Open Tues.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-2:15 p.m. & 6-9:15 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-2:15 p.m. & 6-9:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-9:45 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. Catering. MC, V. Indian.
This tiny, luxurious sushi bar is famously the most expensive restaurant in California, and most nights it is also the best, with fish unseen anywhere else in the country. Other sushi restaurants display fish triple-wrapped behind glass in a refrigerated case; at Urasawa, the fish is out in the open, lighted as carefully as the tomatoes in a Carl’s Jr. ad, all glistening pinks and glowing translucence. If a particular leaf or species of clam is in its Japanese two-week season, it will certainly be on your plate. Waitresses refill your glass with sake, replace hot towels and remove plates so efficiently that you are barely aware of them at all. And Urasawa’s artistry with a fillet is surpassed in the United States only by that of his mentor, Masa Takayama — there is, one senses, an enormous effort to keep the customers in a bubble of serenity, an uninterrupted flow of bliss. 218 N. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 247-8939. Mon.-Sun. 6-8:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet. AE, MC, V. Japanese.
Valentino may be grander than Vincenti, La Terza flashier and Giorgio Baldi may draw a more famous clientele, but Vincenti feels like the spiritual center of fine Italian cooking in Los Angeles, its hearth. And befitting a hearth, much of Nicola Mastronardi’s food comes from the big, hardwood-burning ovens, flavored with the presence of smoke, forests, stone chimneys and chilly afternoons — a scallop, say, sprinkled with bread crumbs and baked in its shell until it sizzles; a magnificent veal chop; soft curls of cuttlefish tucked into an herb salad; a whole, truffle-laced squab. The adjacent rotisserie turns out the best restaurant version of porchetta I have ever tasted in California — loin and belly are wrapped into a spiral, seasoned with fennel and spit-roasted to a crackling, licorice-y succulence. It is certainly possible to eat several mediocre Italian meals elsewhere in this neighborhood for the price of a single superb one here. At these times, it is good to remember that on Monday nights, pizza also comes out of these ovens. 11930 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood, (310) 207-0127. Mon.-Sat. 6-10 p.m., Friday for lunch noon-2 p.m. Full bar. Takeout. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Italian.
The Steak Pit: Wolfgang’s Steakhouse by Wolfgang Zwiener
Dinner at Peter Luger, a smelly, 120-year-old, investment-banker-ridden dump in Williamsburg, often considered the best steakhouse in New York, tends to be a very specific routine, no menus necessary. You order steak for two, steak for three or steak for four from a man who looks like your shifty Uncle Joe. There is the mandatory tomato-and-onion salad, dressed at table with a glug from a bottle of steak sauce, and possibly a slice or two of bacon cut thick enough to repel rocket-propelled grenades. There is a cursory browse through the wine list, which is basically a roster of the cabernets you’d find on a supermarket shelf priced like fine Bordeaux. You will order creamed spinach and you will order cottage fries, although you will touch neither of them, and when Uncle Joe comes back with the meat, sliding an upside-down saucer under the superheated platter so that the scorched butter and the juices from the steak collect in a little reservoir at the bottom, you slump your shoulders in frustration, because the presliced porterhouse looks as if it’s going to be as disappointing as the rest of the meal. Then you take your first bite, and you start to chew a little, and the meat gods take over, and you’re in that small, blissful corner of the cosmos that can only be reached by way of the best prime, well-aged American beef. If the bodhisvatta had only eaten cow, you might think, he could have saved a lot of time. Wolfgang’s Steakhouse, famous mostly for the completely justifiable infringement lawsuit filed by Wolfgang Puck — whose Spago is right across the street — endeavors to be identical to Luger, from the battered china and the lousy onion rolls in the bread basket to the proprietary brand of steak sauce on the tables. (Zwiener was headwaiter at Luger for decades.) The wine list is not just bad but unbelievably bad, at least if you’re not making an above-the-line salary, and the steaks are priced within spitting distance of what you probably paid for your first car. The karma is bad: It occupies the space of a former tofu-specialty restaurant. The waiters try to get you in and out in about half an hour, and if it weren’t for the full quart of whipped cream they pour on a slice of Junior’s cheesecake, they’d probably succeed. But then the sputtering porterhouse comes, and the little saucer is slid under the plate, and the waiter starts to spoon the darkening juices onto the slices of meat that are going right to you, and that old black pit opens up again, right on schedule. 445 N Canon Dr., Beverly Hills, (310) 385-0640, www.wolfgangssteakhouse.com. Lunch Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m; dinner Sun.-Wed., 5-10:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 5-11:30 p.m. All major CC. Full bar. City lot parking in building.