The Best of Counter Intelligence
Imports and adaptations
Like the giant bowls of oversauced pasta devised a century ago by immigrants translating Calabrian poverty cooking into the language of American prosperity, the burrito symbolizes a cuisine of newly found abundance — the humble taco, in which cheap tortillas stretch a small amount of meat into a filling meal, transformed into a plump, overstuffed creation. At El Tepeyac, the legendary East L.A. eatery whose name has practically become synonymous with the burrito, the Hollenbeck, named after the local East L.A. police division, is more or less an old-line Mexican restaurant‘s entire No. 2 dinner wrapped into a tortilla the size of a pillowcase — rice, beans, stewed meat, guacamole — and garnished with something like a half-pound of melted taco cheese. 812 N. Evergreen Ave., East L.A.; (323) 267-8668.
Sushi may be the only Asian food in Los Angeles that has crossed over to the mainstream in anything close to its original form, and in some parts of town it is easier to find things like monkfish liver, crab brains and pressed mackerel sushi than it is in Tokyo. But Los Angeles may also be the birthplace of goofy sushi: reggae sushi, habanero-spiced sushi, sushi with cream cheese and chives. The most popular of these goofy sushi is the California roll — a standard futomaki stuffed with vinegared rice, fresh crabmeat and oozingly soft slabs of ripe California avocado — which was invented 20 years ago in L.A., but has become ubiquitous in sushi bars around the world. And though the Little Tokyo restaurant reputed to be the birthplace of the California roll recently went out of business, Teru Sushi, a raucous date-night sushi bar in the Valley, is a place where the marriage of tacky Los Angeles exuberance and refined Japanese technique is consummated nightly. 11940 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818) 763-6201.
Spritzed with lime, spiked with avocado and poached chicken meat, garnished with crunchy bits of fried tortilla that give the dish the aroma of freshly toasted corn, tortilla soup is a Mexican classic, the almost automatic prelude to the noon meal in Oaxaca or the Yucatan. Transplanted to the restaurant of the Bel Air Hotel, where the spoons are heavy silver, bougainvillea drips from trellises, and swans swim nearby, tortilla soup becomes an elegant light lunch, pretty, just Mexican enough to give you a sense of place, and refined enough to remind guests that they are first and foremost citizens of the Platinum Card. If California were really paradise, we’d eat tortilla soup every day. 701 Stone Canyon Road, Bel Air; (310) 472-1211.
Nobody outside L.A. may ever have heard of the stuff, but pork pump — basically 2 pounds of Chinese braised hog lard with a fist-size lump of soft meat at the core — is the quintessence of sweet, heavy Shanghainese cooking, perfumed with garlic and star anise, flavored with rock sugar, and approximately the molecular weight of plutonium. The term pork ”pump“ supposedly originated as a typo on the original menu of Chinatown‘s Mon Kee (pork rump was the intention, one guesses), but the dish, and the name, soon spread to serious Chinese restaurants all over the San Gabriel Valley. The definitive version, served on a bed of snow-pea leaves at the splendid modern-style Shanghainese restaurant Lake Spring Cuisine in Monterey Park, is as luscious as the finest foie gras, and though it feeds 10 people, you may be tempted to polish it off by yourself. 219 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 280-3571.
Sushi king Nobu Matsuhisa became internationally famous for feeding New Yorkers the Peruvian-inflected Japanese food he developed at his Restaurant Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills. Even in multiculti Los Angeles, this guy’s ahead of the curve. Matsuhisa is best-known for his Latin-tinged interpretations of the standard sushi-bar repertoire, things like oysters with salsa and squid ”pasta“ with garlic, but his best dish may be a sort of sushi-bar take on a Lima seafood classic: tiradito, a starburst display of Spanish mackerel fillets, scented with citrus and garnished with a tiny dot of fiery Peruvian chile puree. If the Incas had been able to cook like this, Pizarro wouldn‘t have conquered, he would have stayed over for lunch. 129 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 659-9639.
Grilled tuna nicoise
The basic premise of Urban Rustic cuisine is the perfection of Mediterranean peasant dishes, often in ways that may be incomprehensible to the Mediterranean peasants in question. The best Urban Rustic chefs, who include Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters, Zuni‘s Judy Rogers and Campanile’s Mark Peel, reinterpret the cuisine by using really good ingredients, putting them together with chefly skill and maintaining the spirit of each dish. The original salade nicoise, as served in every street-corner dive on the French Riviera, is a pungent mixture of fresh vegetables and canned tuna best described as a pleasant, oily mess. Peel‘s version substitutes rare, grilled, sashimi-quality tuna for the canned stuff, uses organic local greens and tiny haricots verts so sweet they could make you weep, anchovy-smeared croutons, and almost painterly little heaps of minced eggs and olives. Campanile’s salad, which has been adopted by practically every restaurant in town at one time or another, is instantly recognizable as a salade nicoise, but it is as a Velasquez painting of a horse as opposed to the horse itself. 624 S. La Brea Ave.; (323) 938-1447.
Even in the ‘20s, when some Easterners thought of Los Angeles as an Iowa-by-the-Sea, Angelenos vaguely remembered that the area used to belong to Mexico, and there have always been Mexican restaurants here that catered to the American taste. The emblematic dish of these restaurants is probably the No. 2 dinner, the eternal combination platter of chile relleno, enchilada, rice and beans bound together with cinctures of orange cheese. But a green-corn tamale at El Cholo, an Angeleno rite of spring since the days when Bob Hope was actually funny, is a truly wonderful Cal-Mex hybrid, sweet enough for the Midwestern palate, fresh-tasting enough to appeal to the rest of us. 1121 S. Western Ave.; (323) 734-2773.