All India Cafe
The conceit here is dishes from each of the regions of India – tandoori meats from the north and masala dosa from the south, salads and Bombay-style uttapam – filtered through the soft-focus lens of the All India kitchen and washed with sweet chutneys and herbs. However, All India is usually at its best when you bring the fewest preconceptions to the table, when the food least resembles its regional roots. The restaurant's signature dish is probably the “frankie,” a Bombay street snack that Bombay Cafe brought to California and perfected – sort of a thick flour tortilla with an egg sizzled onto it, wrapped around a filling of sweet, tamarind-laced lamb, stewed chicken or fried cauliflower. I also like the Bombay chicken, which could break through as an Indian-spiced analogue to, say, kung-pao chicken without the nuts. And All India's curries are all first-rate. 39 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (626) 440-0309. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $10-$11; dinner for two, food only, $18-$30. Beer and wine. Validated parking. AE, MC, V.
Japanese curry tastes more like the sort of “African” gravies you find in the Portuguese colony Macao than like anything you might run across in Britain, or for that matter, India. At the same time, it's characteristically Japanese: sweet, thick, homogenized, and powered by a multilayered pepper heat that somehow comes together as a single note. Curry House curry is a sticky, dense vegetarian goo, dark as a Louisiana roux, copious enough to ease down several pounds of rice. You can order it at several levels of spiciness, ranging from super-mild to 'cue-sauce hot, have it garnished with breaded, fried cutlets of beef, pork or chicken, or have it with seafood or vegetables. The wiener-and-spinach curry – I've never tried it – is actually one of the most expensive a things on the menu. 163 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 854-4959. Also at 123 S. Onizuka St., downtown; (213) 620-0855. Both locations open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $16-$23. Beer and wine. Takeout. Validated/valet parking. AE, MC, V.
Kuala Lumpur's soaring, whitewashed dining room – roughly finished, filled with light, punctuated with late-'80s art-director whimsy – looks more like a Soho gallery space than an ethnic restaurant. Here, nasi lemak, rice boiled with coconut milk alive with the flavors of turmeric, chile and dried fish, is mounded in the middle of a platter and surrounded by little heaps of garnishes, which you mix in to taste. Coriander chicken, simmered and grilled the crisp-skinned Indonesian way, is coated with a spiced, pale-green cilantro-yogurt paste and is spectacularly good. Or stop in for a bowl of noodles: rich chile-red bowls of coconut milk-bathed curry laksa with chicken and shrimp; pully ha mee in a garlicky shrimp broth; or asam laksa, tapioca-rice noodles in a broth finely balanced between the sourness of tamarind and the sweetness of pineapple, the salt tang of seafood and the bite of fresh chile heat. 69 W. Green St., Pasadena; (626) 577-5175. Open Tues.-Sun. for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $10-$13; dinner for two, food only, $15-$25. No alcohol. Takeout. Valet parking. AE, MC, V.
As in most great Thai places, finding Palm Thai's actual specialties requires a bit of persistence. Non-Thai customers are routinely brought a roster of the familiar cooking of suburban Thai restaurants – or you can request a second menu, which includes most of Palm Thai's best main dishes, fiery salads, Isaan-style bar snacks and elaborate soups. Try the red curry of wild boar, quite hot but tempered with coconut milk and flavored with lime leaves and unripe green peppercorns still on the branch. Or maybe, just maybe, the pepper-garlic frog, crunchy fried bits of the amphibian set on a layer of fried minced garlic so thick that it looks at first like a plateful of granola – as much garlic as even a Thai person could want. The third time we ordered this dish, the frog was garnished with thin, moss-green, disconcertingly crunchy croutons of deep-fried frog skin. Yum. 5273 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.; (323) 462-5073. Open daily 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Dinner for two, food only, $18-$40. Beer and wine. Takeout. Guarded lot parking. MC, V.
Romantic Steak House
At Romantic Steak House, rice fried with vegetables and bits of Chinese sausage has the smokiness that comes from brief cooking in a very hot wok; its rice grains are perfectly separate, with a high top note of garlic and a burnished sweetness from the sausage. Mohhinga is a catfish chowder with transparent vermicelli and Romantic Steak House serves a near-classic version of the soup, almost gritty with rice flour, shot through with an elusive many-leveled sourness, with a dozen or so flavors unfolding one by one: fermented fish, citrus, ginger, blackened onions, turmeric, the earthiness of catfish. The chicken curry here is quite different from both Indian and Thai conceptions of the dish, stained yellow and flavored more with onion, garlic and chile than with exotic spice, and without any creamy fat to temper the spiciness of this sharply delicious dish. 119 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 307-5558. Open Wed.-Mon. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$25. Beer and wine. Takeout. MC, V.
Among Sudi Mampir owner John Rijken's favorite West Javan dishes is the appetizer martabak, a crisp, crepelike thing stuffed with a savory minced-beef omelet, sliced into squares and served with a little dish of sweet-sour Indonesian pickled vegetables. You can order whatever fish you like, but what you will get will invariably be the house specialty, ikan pesmol, a whole marinated tilapia fish, deep-fried and smeared with a fragrant sweet-sour paste stained yellow with ground turmeric and dotted with hot green chiles. And whatever you order, you will be directed toward the fried rice or the bakmi goreng, a sweet, dark dish of fried noodles with chicken, smoky and lightly charred like the best Asian fried pasta, fragrant with garlic and spice. The house-made lontong – grainy rice cakes topped with an oily coconut-chicken curry, a lump of stewed beef and a deep-fried hard-boiled egg – are fresh and chewy, the best in town. 12728 Sherman Way, N. Hollywood; (818) 764-1892. Open Tues.-Sun. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $12-$20. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. D, MC, V.