The vast quadrant of L.A. that is the San Fernando Valley, with Simi Valley to the west and Glendale to the east, is not, as some people seem to think of it, a food desert. Far from it. In fact, the Valley is home to such a disproportionate number of excellent Japanese restaurants — some swanky, some more like food courts — that Ventura Boulevard can seem like an elongated version of sushi row.
Laced through all these temples to raw fish are more than a few other wonderful restaurants serving plates of oysters, terrific Lebanese dishes, modern foraged cuisine, a repeating list of glorious moles, high-end Thai poverty food and even some pretty great cuisine in a lodge hideaway, filled with game both on your plate and on the walls.
The Valley is so huge and horizontal that it's easy to get lost and hungry, demoralized by strip malls and teenagers and concrete. But if you know where you're going, there are some awfully good places to eat, whether you're in Tarzana or Studio City, Reseda or Sun Valley, Calabasas or Sherman Oaks. Are there as many hot new restaurants on the same block as there are these days downtown or on Melrose? No, but odds are it'll be a lot easier to find parking — and maybe your way home, too.
Lum-Ka-Naad is a popular destination for locals looking to chow down on pad Thai and tom kha soup. There's a big-screen TV over the bar and you can even get a chow mein lunch special, which comes with an egg roll. But those in the know come for the Northern and Southern Thai specialties: funky shrimp-paste relishes; even funkier Burmese-inflected curries; lemongrass-infused, house-made Thai sausages. It's an exhaustive menu, dictated by the heritage of owners Alex and Ool Sonbalee, who come from the North and South of Thailand, respectively. It's the type of place where you order things without quite knowing what they are, find yourself challenged by heat and funk, then revel in the layering of flavors and textures. Or you could just order the chow mein. We don't recommend that you do, though the pad Thai is very good. 8910 Reseda Blvd., Northridge; 818-882-3028. (BR)
Girasol feels almost as if chef CJ Jacobson put all his experiences into a blender and poured out a restaurant smoothie. In some ways, it's just the sort of place one might expect a Top Chef alum to open. In others, it is heavily influenced by the chef's experience at Noma, the cutting-edge Copenhagen restaurant often cited as the world's best. And in other ways, it's just a swank neighborhood spot. The food Jacobson is putting out can best be described as modern Californian with hints of Noma. You can see the artistic, nature-driven, Nordic influence in the plating of certain things, especially cold dishes. Salads are stunningly beautiful, and Jacobson manages to take something as played out as a beet and goat cheese combination and refresh it, turning it into something vibrant and fascinating. The chef has been quoted as saying that the Valley needed a restaurant like this, somewhere swank and a little serious, with high design and a locavore ethos. He's probably right. 11334 Moorpark St., North Hollywood; 818-924-2323. (BR)
8. Tipple & Brine
Tipple & Brine is the work of Richard DiSisto, a restaurateur who is also vice president of the Sherman Oaks Chamber of Commerce. DiSisto has said that he opened Tipple & Brine, in part, to restore Sherman Oaks' reputation, to draw people there as a destination. As such, the restaurant is crowded with as many trendy touchstones as you could possibly cram into a concept: a serious cocktail program and a secret upstairs bar, local and sustainable menu items, servers oozing cool as if it's their job, a wood interior lit by dangling filament bulbs. In the kitchen, DiDisto has installed executive chef Mike Williams and chef de cuisine Logan Jones, both of whom worked under Casey Lane at the Tasting Kitchen in Venice and then at Parish downtown. The press materials would have you believe that this is a modern seafood restaurant, but it's much more a veggie-heavy gastropub. Williams has a way of taking overplayed dishes and making them vibrant again. Good wine, good oysters, a bunch of booze and a chef who manages to take a worn genre and give it new spark: Tipple & Brine is an easy restaurant to love. 14633 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; 818-528-2550. (BR)
7. Hayat's Kitchen
Be forewarned: Do not come to this homey Lebanese restaurant in the back of a North Hollywood strip mall without a crowd. Because you'll over-order in epic proportions, unable to leave without replicating the loaded tables of the old men and families around you in the outdoor patio, or in the happily cramped front room that's mostly an extension of the kitchen. Hayat's Kitchen, named for the former wife of the owner, is a prodigious kitchen, sending out plates of juicy kebabs and falafel, kibbeh nayeh and soudjouk, or freshly made sausages, and potatoes harra — the one dish you must not leave without, a massive plate of french fries loaded with herbs and garlic. The decor is not the point: You're here for the food, as you would be in a relative's kitchen, if your family cooked better than anybody else in the neighborhood. Don't forget the baklava, either. 11009 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood; 818-761-4656. (AS)
6. Sushi Iki
Not only is Eddie Okamoto's sushi joint extremely good, it's also a lot more fun than most sushi restaurants. Instead of the rarefied, museum-quality art-form hush that can overtake fish palaces, Okamoto will entertain you. First, Okamoto describes his fish not by country of origin but by ocean depth (imagine Wes Anderson, or maybe Bill Murray, as sushi chef). The kimmedai he's giving you is 600 feet; the kawahagi is 300 feet, as is the hamachi. If you want more visual aids than the fish he may first present to you whole, Okamoto might refer you to his Instagram feed, which shows equal parts beautiful raw fish and the chef's just-as-gorgeous Akita. You can order from the menu but, unsurprisingly, it's better to let the chef decide for you, as it further demonstrates his considerable showmanship. If you're an uni fan, and aren't we all these days, you may be treated to a feast of the sea urchin, loaded atop the spiky shells and a nest of shredded daikon, as if it were an outrageous Victorian hat. Ta-da. 18663 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana; 818-343-3470. (AS)
5. Ramen by Omae
Sherman Oaks is hardly known for its wealth of ramen, nor for its Michelin-starred chefs. Yet it's here, in an undistinguished strip mall (is there any other kind?), that Takeshi Omae — a Japanese chef with many accolades, including the blessing of Michelin — set up shop last June. The menu ranges from fripperies such as ramen burgers to a dead-serious bowl of burnt miso ramen. What is burnt miso ramen? Exactly what it sounds like. Order it and, behind the counter in the kitchen, cooks set explosive, leaping fire to the red fermented bean paste in a wok, before adding it to a tonkotsu broth that has been cooking for 40 hours. The milky, fatty, porky broth takes on a charred but sweet flavor, a lingering smoke almost like mesquite. It's absurdly seductive. If burnt miso is just not your thing (weirdo), the menu's other variations do not disappoint. The regular tonkotsu ramen is tongue-coating and rich. The chicken version is lighter but just as deep and balanced, and you can get that with burnt miso as well. Oh, and don't skip the teba gyoza, chicken wings stuffed with pork gyoza stuffing, which are blatantly delicious. 14425 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; 818-784-8981. (BR)
4. Rocio's Mole de los Dioses
There are so many things about Rocio's Moles de los Dioses that make it special — yes, there are the moles, made by legendary mole queen Rocio Camacho, but there is also so much more. You might not expect, for instance, an amuse-bouche at a Mexican restaurant in a strip mall in Sun Valley, but you'll get one: a small taste of spicy shrimp broth topped with a fresh tortilla, brightness grounded with masa. You might not expect passion fruit to complete the spicy guacamole, but it does. The empanadas, which are colored the most vibrant green, thanks to the addition to the masa of nopales (cactus), are flaky, delicate and rich. But let's face it, you came for the moles, and they don't disappoint. From musky and rich (de los dioses, oaxaqueño) to light and fruity (tequila and lemon), there's a mole for every taste and every mood. The exceptional food comes with gracious, almost formal service as well — just another extra you may not have expected but will be grateful for in the end. 8255 Sunland Blvd., Sun Valley; 818-252-6415. (BR)
3. Go's Mart
The particularly Los Angeles tenet that some of the best food is found in crappy strip malls is nowhere more true than at Go's Mart, the remarkable sushi restaurant inside a Canoga Park oasis of concrete, between a tiny dance studio and a massage parlor. Walk inside, and you'll still think you're in a nail salon (orange walls, linoleum floor) until you see the sushi bar at the back of the place, where Go has worked his magic for the last 18 years. Mrs. Go — who spends her very early mornings at International Marine downtown, sourcing the pristine fish — will bring you tea and, eventually, your hefty bill, but it is her husband who will present you with the plates of kelp halibut and aji, kimmedai and toro. Many, perhaps too many, of the gorgeous pieces of fish come graced with truffle or gold leaf, increasing the sense of incommensurateness you feel eating fantastic sushi in the decidedly grungy setting. Just turn up your irony meter: The food is worth it. 22330 Sherman Way, Canoga Park; 818-704-1459. (AS)
2. Saddle Peak Lodge
Just off a winding road in the canyons between Calabasas and the ocean, folded into a tree-filled quadrant of the Santa Monica Mountains, Saddle Peak Lodge sits like the oasis it is. The lodge in the name isn't ironic: The place is a century old, formerly an actual hunting lodge, now three floors filled with wood paneling and fireplaces, ducks and boats and other outdoorsy gear, bookshelves and leather-and-wood furniture, tables outfitted with white tablecloths and wine glasses and, on the walls, LOTS of taxidermy. The menu matches all this: beautiful, ornate cooking, filled with game and sauces, like something from an era when people actually dressed for dinner. Many excellent chefs have come through this kitchen, notably Josie Le Balch and Adam Horton; for the last few years, the stoves have been manned by Christopher Kufek. Saddle Peak is a great place to bring people who still think the SFV is only for cafes and chain restaurants. It's also a terrific Sunday brunch retreat. Pull up a ridiculously comfortable chair and listen to Django Reinhardt as the staff parades trays of house-made duck sausages and bloody marys under all those antlers out to the pretty patio. 419 Cold Canyon Road, Calabasas; 310-456-7325. (AS)
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You're in another strip mall, this time off Ventura, not too far from Laurel Canyon. This is a nice bit of concrete (valets, lights) and hardly a secret: Asanebo has enough Zagat ratings to fill its own rectangular maroon book. Owner and sushi chef Tetsuya Nakao is still there, even though his brother is not (you'll find Shunji Nakao at his own extremely good sushi restaurant, Shunji's, on the other side of the hill). At Asanebo, Nakao is making gorgeous plates of perfectly articulated sushi. This is not the super showy stuff but classic sushi: pristine lozenges of golden-eye snapper, velvety Copper River salmon, tai with maybe a bit of jalapeño and a lotus chip. No gold leaf. No truffle salt. Asanebo means "overslept" in Japanese, but nobody here has — the dishes are a procession of understated perfection. What's really lovely about this place is that there isn't the ostentation you might expect after the many years of accolades. Instead, in addition to the lobes of uni with fresh figs and dashi, there are simple bowls of sesame tofu, creamy and dense as pots de chocolat. And fish bones, Spanish mackerel skeletons that have been fried until they taste more like potato chips than, well, fish bones. They come served with tiny pots of mayonnaise and lemon wedges, like bar snacks, which they are. It's a fantastic, tasty — and endearing — juxtaposition. 11941 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; 818-760-3348. (AS)