Los Angeles can, yet again, boast about having the most variety, if not depth, of something. Home to the most diverse Muslim population in the United States, Los Angeles County is full of halal restaurants. Halal means permitted or lawful according to Sharia (Islamic) laws. In the realm of dining out, the key factor for observant Muslims -- besides avoiding pork and its byproducts -- is halal meat or meat from animals slaughtered according to religiously proscribed procedures.
As a food-history buff, we couldn't help getting a little dreamy trying dishes with roots in ancient Mesopotamia and cultivated during eras of caliphates, Moors, spice routes, Silk Road caravans and vast colonial empires. Though our actual journey involved a small economy car, every congested freeway in L.A., strip mall dining -- and a parking ticket.
10. Rice and Goat Meat at Banadir Somali Restaurant:
At Banadir, you submit to the goat; the goat does not submit to you. The pressure cooker-prepared goat at Banadir produces a cross between a dry roast and braise with very little sauce to speak of. You get toothsome bits of goat tendon and cartilage with juicy but chewy morsels of bone in meat. The dish is a simple celebration, not masking or taming, of all that is unique about goat meat. If the gaminess gets to be a bit much, you can cut it with Somalian basbass, a fresh, green, hot sauce made with cilantro, jalapenos, garlic and lemon juice. 137 W. Arbor Vitae, Unit C, Inglewood; (310) 419-9900.
9. Turkish Breakfast at Mama's Secret Cafe:
Mama's Secret Cafe, located on a tony strip of Third Street near the Beverly Center, looks like an art gallery converted into a chic café. It's also quite possibly the only restaurant in Los Angeles that serves a full-blown Turkish breakfast. There are at least 10-12 components to this Muslim continental breakfast, making it a bit too much food for most weekday mornings -- but ideal for a lazy weekend brunch. An assortment of fresh, pickled, cured and preserved items is served with Turkish tea and bread. Two kinds of olives, two kinds of cheese, tea cookies, strawberry jam, honey-drenched softened butter, tomatoes, cucumbers and an over-easy egg garnished with fried sujuk sausage are presented for you to create endless combinations of sweet and savory bites, all washed down with tea. 8314-16 W. Third St., Los Angeles; (323) 424-3482.
8. Goat Curry at Jasmine Market:
Jasmine Market in Culver City is half market and half quick-service halal café. Burmese goat curry doesn't use tempered spices or mustard oil, like Bangladeshi versions, or the Scotch bonnet peppers and sweet allspice found in Jamaican renditions. Nor is it an amalgam of Thai and Indian flavors and techniques. There is no lemongrass, galangal or coconut milk coupled with a ginger-onion base and toasted spices. Burmese goat curry at Jasmine Market is a rather humble affair, served with naan, rice and crunchy cabbage salad. The gravy is soothing, with a faint aroma of curry leaves and fresh ginger. The spice is right when you want something a little different but not too challenging. It's hearty Indian-Burmese comfort food. 4135 1/2 Sepulveda Blvd, Culver City; (310) 313-3767.
7. Manto at S. Gyros Kabob House:
S. Gyros Kabob House in Reseda specializes in halal versions of American fast food and Afghan dishes such as aushak (leek dumplings) and manto (meat dumplings). Owner Said Saidzadah, who came to L.A. from Afghanistan via Germany, describes his way of cooking Afghan dishes as homestyle comfort food. Still, there's nothing simple about a crossroads cuisine that has Persian, Pakistani and Central Asian influences. Saidzadah's manto are generously stuffed with herbed ground beef and topped with a tomato-tinged ragu, creamy yogurt sauce, sautéed vegetables and a pinch of spices and herbs. 7221 Tampa Ave., Reseda; (818) 341-1946.
6. Hummus bi Tahina at Hayat's Kitchen:
The basic recipe for hummus bi tahina (chickpeas with tahini) relies on just six ingredients: chickpeas, olive oil, tahini (sesame seed paste), garlic, lemon juice and salt. The endless variations from region to region, restaurant to restaurant and household to household are the result of incorporating the ingredients in different ratios with varied puréeing techniques and garnishes. The hummus at Hayat's Kitchen in North Hollywood is exquisitely smooth, loaded with tahini, garnished with chopped parsley, paprika, olive oil and whole chickpeas that are so soft they dissolve on your tongue. It is the über hummus that should be the measure of all hummus served in Los Angeles. 11009 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood; (818) 761-4656.
5. Läghmän at Omar's Xinjiang Halal:
You won't find a huge range of Uyghur dishes at Omar's Xinjiang Halal. The owners focus on läghmän: Uyghur-style hand-pulled noodles. The noodles here are long, slippery ropes of uneven girth as springy as bungee cords. They seem to have a life of their own on the plate, writhing away as you try to snatch up an impossibly long strand with chopsticks, which is why you are given scissors to snip them into edible submission. Any sauce served with them is almost beside the point. The stir-fried lamb and vegetable sauce that comes with the noodles at Omar's is quite mild, which is the tendency with Central Asian noodle broths. And don't forget to try the homemade Uyghur style yogurt: It's light as a souffle, not too tart and just sweet enough to enjoy as a refreshing dessert of sorts. 1718 New Ave., San Gabriel; 626-570-9778.
4. Kottu Rotti Meal at Apey Kade:
Kottu rotti, a popular Sri Lankan street food, is composed of chopped rotti (flat-bread) served with fish, beef, chicken, mutton or a mixture of eggs and vegetables; all the options are available at Apey Kade in Tarzana. To make vegetarian kottu rotti, owner Lalith Rodrigo stretches three balls of dough into disks, sears them on a flat-top griddle until they blister and puff up, then rolls each into a cylinder to cut into ribbons. She sautés vegetables and eggs, then combines the mixture with the rotti. The results are similar to a fried rice: the perfect foil for any of the curry options offered with the kottu rotti meal. Sambols and chutneys line the counter. A spoonful of kottu rotti smothered with a bit of curry and a dollop of coconut sambol is a potent taste of what is so good and unique about Sri Lankan cuisine. 19622 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana; 818-609-7683.
3. Mutton biryani at Zam Zam Market:
For the first year or so of business, Zam Zam kept limited hours during Thursday-Sunday and sporadically answered the phone even when it was open. Even at its busiest times, Fridays just after Jumu'ah prayers at nearby King Fahad mosque, the restaurant looked closed or under renovation from the outside. Boosted by loyal patrons who would drive 40-50 miles for their Zam Zam fix, it finally expanded its hours. The owners hail from Karachi and show little restraint in seasoning. Every grain of rice in this biryani is infused with mutton juice and lubricated with gamey fat. A potpourri of hot, sweet, pungent, earthy and astringent spices is used ground, whole and tempered for a classically bold Pakistani flavor profile. 11028 Washington Blvd., Culver City; 310-841-2504.
2. Turkish doner kebap at New Anatolia Cafe:
Turkish doner, though common in Europe, is a rarity in Los Angeles. So much so that the owners of Anatolia Mediterranean Cafe have it listed on the menu as the more commonly known Arabic showarma. Chef Ahmet Alcay doesn't use commercially manufactured gyro meat and he doesn't add cloves to his spice blend; he makes doner using a mixture of hand-cut slabs of beef and lamb, which he carves off the spit into thin wisps. The meat is spiced the Turkish way, which is to say, very lightly and judiciously. You can have the doner as a wrap or a plate, both served with tzatziki sauce. Either way, they don't skimp on the meat. And Esin Bulut, who runs the front of house for her mother, Mualla, who owns the restaurant, ensures you'll feel like close friends or family after just a couple of visits. 1942 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 446-0055.
1. Kabuli palao at Afghan Express:
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As you park your car, you notice a buffet station in the back of the restaurant and you hope there's an a la carte menu. As it turns out, the inexpensive lunch buffet caters to budget-conscious students from El Camino College across the street. A glimmer of hope: Upon entering, you are greeted by two of the five charming Shinwari siblings who operate the restaurant serving mother Laila's recipes. Kabuli palao apparently is the national dish of Afghanistan. The version at Afghan Express serves love of country exceedingly well. A spoon-tender whole lamb shank comes buried under a mound of basmati rice, slivered almonds, plump raisins and lightly caramelized carrots gently perfumed with sweet spices. It is, quite possibly, the finest redaction of classic Islamic cookery you will ever have in a Los Angeles restaurant for the bargain price of $13.99. 15900 Crenshaw Blvd. "C," Gardena; 310-920-7732.
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Susan Ji-Young Park wrote three articles for Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia. Follow her on Twitter at @SParkThis. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.