Alameda Swap Meet
The big food stall under the awning closest to the main building here is a full-on Mexican restaurant without the walls, featuring grilled chicken, carne asada and steam-table dishes: chile verde, chicken mole and a really good, spicy goat-meat stew that‘s the color of fresh blood. The big awning at the other end shades a Salvadoran stall where a woman pats pupusas, one after the other, frying them hard and stacking them up in front of her. Around toward the south parking lot, marinated flank steak sizzles on steel-drum grills until it’s tough enough to go into tacos. The Alameda Swap Meet is also the land of chile and lime, which are dribbled on freshly fried potato chips, sprinkled on popcorn, daubed on sliced mangoes, and squirted on the delicious ceviche and marinated-shrimp tostadas served at El Bucanero seafood concession hard by the main building‘s entrance. 4501 S. Alameda St.; (323) 233-2764. Open Mon. and Wed.–Fri. 10 a.m.–7 p.m., Sat.–Sun., 9 a.m.–7 p.m. (though many of the food stalls are open weekends only). Lunch for two, food only, $3–$10. No alcohol. Takeout. Cash only.
What you eat in a Korean tofu restaurant: tofu. Also rice and a couple of different kinds of kimchi. At Beverly Soontofu, you get a simple water kimchi of white radish and a spicy-red kimchi of white radish. The tofu casserole, soontofu, comes bubbling and sputtering, splattering the paper place mat with a fine red mist, forming a burnt crust on the rim of the red-hot cast-iron bowl in which it is served. The white of the egg sets at once, while the yolk remains pleasantly viscous, a nice, subtle contrast to the velvety smoothness of the thumb-size chunks of tofu and the thick broth. Beverly’s soontofu is available spiked with oysters, meat and either kimchi or small clams, or with sheets of toasted seaweed that you crumble yourself. Dessert, as at most Korean restaurants, is a stick of chewing gum. 2717 W. Olympic Blvd., No. 108; (213) 380-1113. Open daily 9:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $14.90. Beer and wine. MC, V.
The basic unit of currency at El Chamizal is the parrillada, a squat iron brazier shimmering from the heat of the charcoal within, brought to your table piled high with thin grilled steaks, pork chops marinated in chile, hunks of chorizo sausage, fried bananas, whole jalapeños burnt black, and little ramekins of melted cheese and scallions bronzed and wilted to a superb sweetness. The meat is terrific, well-marinated, rich with crunchy carbonized bits — rather overrich in them if you leave the stuff on the grill too long — very nice folded into a little taco with the house‘s fine smoked tomato sauce and a spoonful of the smoky bacon-stewed beans. 7111 Pacific Blvd., Huntington Park; (323) 583-3251. Open daily 8 a.m.–2 a.m. Dinner for two, food only, $20–$28. Full bar. Entertainment and dancing. Street parking. AE, DC, Disc., MC, V.
Charming Garden is a clean, bright place, spare of ornament, with fresh tablecloths and formal service. It is also the most serious Hunan-style restaurant in Southern California. At lunch time, here comes the waitress, slinging a tray with an assortment of cold hors d’oeuvres: tender young bamboo shoots cooked in a sweet chile sauce; marinated cubes of jicama; parboiled snap peas brushed with sweetened sesame oil. What you‘re going to want next is the house-special bean curd, the smoking casserole that ends up on every table, sputtering and spitting like a volcanic hot spring — delicious. Wonderful and strangely spiced noodles, with ”hot herb sauce,“ pungent with Chinese peppercorns, tossed with ground pork and an intriguing grayish powder, taste like nothing you’ve ever had before . . . and lunch isn‘t even the best meal at Charming Garden. 111 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (626) 458-4508. Open daily 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, $8–$13. Beer and wine. Takeout. Underground parking. AE, MC, V.
Gallo‘s Grill serves everybody’s dream of a great Eastside meal: warm, thick corn tortillas (or paper-thin flour tortillas) patted to order, fresh salsas brought to the table perched on intricate wrought-iron stands, garlicky steaks served still sizzling, flanked by bushels of charred scallions on superheated platters. The beef is prepared in a specifically Mexican way, butterflied and re-butterflied and laid open like a scroll, a broad, thin filete abierto with something like an acre and a half of surface area and the maximal ratio of brown, crusty outside to red, squishy inside, although marinated enough to allow for a bit of juice. The grilled, air-dried beef called cecina — Yecapixtla-style, the menu says, after a town in central Mexico‘s Morelos state — is even thinner, pounded nearly to the transparency of parchment, and has something of the clean, milky tang of prosciutto, of meat transformed into something beyond meat. 4533 Cesar E. Chavez Ave.; (323) 980-8669. Open daily for lunch and dinner; weekend brunch. Dinner for two, food only, $13–$20. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Disc., MC, V.