Photo by Anne FishbeinIn a year when the biggest story in the local restaurant scene has been the emergence of health-department letter grades, certain gastrosurfers of my acquaintance see a “C'' grade as an emblem of authenticity in restaurants, a sign that the owners aren't going to change their ways just to please The Man.
But hey — anarchists need to eat, too. The 10 best dishes of the year:
Loco Moco. The Spam-fueled Hawaiian aesthetic of Pacific Rim cuisine contrasts fairly radically with Wolfgang Puck's, especially at the old-line Gardena café Bruddah's. And the breakfast dish known as loco moco could be entered into evidence as exhibit A: a Close Encounter tableau of rice topped with two well-done hamburger patties, in turn garnished with two fried eggs and drenched in a thick, viscous, dark-brown goo that shares certain characteristics with mushroom gravy. Looked at objectively, of course, a loco moco is a culinary Chernobyl, but the discs of meat are oniony and extra-crisp, and there is a certain stark beauty in the composition, especially when you scrape off most of the sauce. The man who faces down a loco moco at breakfast time is a brave man indeed. 1033 W. Gardena Blvd., Gardena; (310) 323-9112.
Moqueca, a sort of spicy bouillabaisse from Brazil's Bahia state, may be the single greatest seafood dish of all South America, a chile-sharp analogue to Senegalese stews, mellowed with coconut milk, made pungent with pounded dried shrimp, and flavored with a funky, scarlet splash of the palm oil known as dende. Moqueca of crab, moqueca of shrimp, moqueca of fish, ultra-pricey moqueca of lobster . . . it's all good, as Snoop Doggy Dogg might say. At Itana Bahia, a sleek Bahian-style café on the Santa Monica Boulevard strip, the moquecas are nearly great, made either with whitefish or crunchy, big shrimp, as complex as the bouquet of wine, and tinted pink with the mildest dose of dende oil. 8711 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 657-6306.
Melawach, a fried Yemeni pancake that may bear a closer relation to a Chinese green-onion pie that it does to anything hailing from the Middle East, is one of the greatest dishes in Los Angeles, a bronzed, pizza-size thing that seems to have a hundred levels of wheatiness, a thousand layers of crunch and the taste of clean oil. You can do practically anything with a melawach, and the kosher Yemeni restaurant Magic Carpet does, topping it with cinnamon and toasted nuts or with crumbles of ground beef, with spicy sautéed vegetables or with an omelet. The best way to eat melawach, perhaps, is one of the simplest, sprinkled with the spice mixture called za'atar, whose sumac-tartness and wild-thyme pungency marries perfectly with the pancake's rich density. Melawach, eggplant salad and a bowl of lentil soup — who could ask for more? 8566 W. Pico Blvd.; (310) 652-8507.
Wild Boar Curry. At most American nightclubs, you're lucky if the management bothers to rustle up a bowl of stale popcorn to go with your warm beer. But Thai bar snacks, at least as served at Palm Thai Restaurant, are something else: crisp-skinned sour sausages hot from the grill; sizzling beef jerky; deep-fried little quail glazed with salt and pepper; fried frog riding a sea of garlic chips. And as long as you have your game face on, try the red curry of wild boar, tempered with coconut milk, flavored with lime leaves, galangal, ginger and sprigs of fresh, green peppercorns still on the branch, which have less a heat than a strong, perfumed pungency that will leave your mouth numb for hours. 5273 Hollywood Blvd.; (323) 462-5073
Sopa de caracol, the national dish of Honduras, is a revelation at the sun-splashed new café Rincon Hondureno: a lovely, ivory-hued liquid tinged with pink, a faint whiff of tropical seas in its steam, served in a bowl the size of a skiff. If you dig down into the soup you will come across huge, fleshy logs of yuca root and plantain, whose subtle, earthy sweetnesses and claylike textures are enhanced by the sluice of coconut milk in the broth, the perfumy hint of lime. “Caracol” means “snail” in Spanish, more or less, but the Honduran caracol is the pink-shelled conch of the Caribbean, sliced thin and pounded thinner, and you'll find a big, chewy fistful of sliced caracol in your soup bowl too, perhaps more as a textural element than for the sake of the shellfish's delicate, marine aroma. 1654 W. Adams St.; (213) 734-9530.
Com tam, a chewy, pastalike dish made from the jagged bits of jasmine rice accidentally shattered during the harvest, is one of the great Vietnamese working-class foods, the basis of a million plate lunches, the filler of a million bellies. You can find entire streets in Saigon lined with com tam stalls, where for a few cents you can get a bowl of the broken rice garnished with shredded cucumber and chopped scallions steeped in oil, or perhaps a barbecued shrimp or a scrap of grilled pork. The main drags of Vietnamese Santa Ana and San Gabriel have no shortage of com tam restaurants, and the best of them may be Thuan Kieu, which serves its broken rice with every imaginable combination of garnishes: broken rice with ä shredded pork, broken rice with shredded pork and baked egg, broken rice with shredded pork, baked egg, charbroiled shrimp, spring rolls and barbecued shrimp paste. The house special, “broken rice with 7 kinds of foods,” includes a bit of everything in the restaurant you might possibly want to taste. 123 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 280-5660.
Fried lobster. If you have been to enough barbecue places, you could probably navigate your way through Zest blindfolded, past the counter up front, around the hostess station, ahead to any of the big round tables that bear crisp tablecloths at night and are bare for the bargain lunches. If you have been to enough barbecue places, you probably also know this menu by heart: sizzling pork chops fried with spicy salt, seafood chow mein, anise-scented Cantonese beef stew with turnips over rice . . . speed bumps on the way to the barbecued duck. But something is clearly going on in the kitchen here. The “Zest-style” lobster is just wonderful, hacked into pieces and fried with Vietnamese-tinged spices, chiles, ginger and minty Thai basil, crusted with garlic and utterly juicy. 2505 Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 281-9968.
Salpicon. Though its food is hard to find in Los Angeles, Veracruz is the capital of Mexican seafood cooking, home to elaborate crab soups, exotic jungly stews, fish flavored with a dozen strange, licoricey herbs found almost nowhere else in the world. And oddly, although its dense pozole is first rate, the Westside Veracruz-style restaurant Mi Ranchito falls short on some of the crucial Veracruz seafood classics. But one bite of Mi Ranchito's minty Veracruz-style salpicon is enough to make you forgive the restaurant almost anything: warm, coarsely chopped beef mixed with minced radishes, onions and fresh herbs, tossed with lime juice, served with thick flour tortillas and great mounds of oily rice. A seafood restaurant with salpicon this good could probably get away with serving Mrs. Paul's. 12223 Washington Blvd., Culver City; (310) 398-6106.
Smoked pomfret. Hunanese cooking is at least as much about smokiness as it is about zinging chile heat, and Charming Garden's smoked pomfret, a glistening, golden, slightly dry fish that the restaurant imports from Taiwan, is so smoky that it makes Texas barbecue seem like a side dish for sissies; this salty fish holds the essence of smoke more powerfully than anything you are likely to experience outside a forest fire. And the pomfret, with its garnish of tropical flowers, may be the most beautiful dish in town. 111 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (626) 458-4508.
X.O. Sauce Fried Rice Noodle Rolls. The late, lamented Congee King, the Chinese breakfast specialist in a Rosemead shopping center, was the undisputed monarch of rice porridge. But even better than the congee were the rolls, made by steaming rice batter on muslin sheets, rolling the noodles into tight cylinders, slicing them into thumb-size nuggets and pan-frying them with X.O. sauce, the pricey Hong Kong condiment made from soy sauce, chiles and dried shellfish. The noodle rolls were crisp at the edges, heavily garlicked and pungently spicy; the soft, bland, molten interior seemed closer to hot custard than to anything you might ordinarily consider pasta. Just spectacular. If anyone figures out where the chef has decamped to, please let us know.