Renu Nakorn’s northern and Isaan-style Thai food is spicy, but what makes it wonderful is the fresh play of tastes, a fugue of herbs, meatiness and citrus that is quite unlike anything at your corner Thai café. There’s a blistering larb of finely ground catfish; the thinnest sour strands of shredded bamboo; great Thai beef jerky; and an extraordinary version of steak tartare that is so delicious it could sear the hairs out of your nostrils. 13041 E. Rosecrans Ave., Norwalk, (562) 921-2124. Sun.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MC, V. Entrées $5.95–$19.95. Thai.
Lardo and speck, tripe and liver steak, fresh fava beans and plenty of fennel pollen — Don Dickman has the rustic Italian thing down to an art, especially if you’re the kind of diner who doesn’t mind walking back to the car stinking of anchovies, garlic and chewy Southern Italian wine. For those who love fennel-stuffed porchetta — and really, don’t we all? — Tuesday night is Pig Night. 1432-A Fourth St., Santa Monica, (310) 395-6765. Dinner Sun.–Thurs. 5:30–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 5:30–11 p.m. Beer and wine. Valet parking. Entrées $11–$17. AE, DC, MC, V. Entrées: $19-$25. Pan-Italian.
Sapp Coffee Shop
Sapp may be the best lunchroom in Hollywood, a bright Thai restaurant, unrelentingly yellow inside, sharing a small mini-mall with a video shop and a place to get griddled Thai desserts; crowded at noon not with revelers, but with people who have come to Thai Town to shop and eat spicy, stinky boat noodles, remarkable grilled chicken, and bright-green “jade” noodles tossed with Chinese barbecue. Sapp is the Thai equivalent of Pie n’ Burger, a lunchroom where the virtues of homeliness become extraordinary when put in context with the shiny, glittery surfaces against which it might compete. 5183 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 665-1035. Lunch and dinner 7 a.m.–8:30 p.m.; closed Wednesdays. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only. Lunch for two, food only, $8.50–$14.50. Thai.
What we know as California cuisine may be dedicated to revealing produce at its best, but David and Michelle Myers go after nature with blowtorches and microtomes and dynamite, determined to bend the old woman to their will. A sliver of watermelon may be less a sliver of watermelon than a wisp in a chilled soup, a salted crunch tracing the shape of a curl of marinated yellowtail, a glistening cellophane window into the soul of a pistachio, a texture in a sorbet, a jelly exposing its cucumberlike soul. The morning after nine courses at Sona (this is one restaurant where only the tasting menu will do), it will already seem like a half-forgotten dream. 401 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 659-7708. Dinner Tues.–Thurs. 6–10 p.m., Fri. 6–11 p.m., Sat. 5:30–11 p.m. Closed Sun.–Mon. Full bar. Takeout. Valet parking. AE, D, DC, MC, V. $30–$40. Modern French (With Global Influences).
Wolfgang Puck long ago redefined Americans’ idea of what a great restaurant might be. His cooking always had a deceptive air of simplicity about it, like the culinary equivalent of a caprice Yo-Yo Ma might toss off on the Today show. In the last several years, bolstered by imaginative executive chef Lee Hefter and pastry chef Sherry Yard, he’s redefining our idea of what Spago might be — and the roasted-beet cake with goat cheese, the turbot with Chino Ranch vegetables, and the roast duck perfumed with star anise are good enough to make you forget the duck-sausage pizza and the chopped vegetable salad that originally made Spago famous. Is a tasting menu within your budget? Don’t think twice. 176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 385-0880, Lunch Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–2:15 p.m., Sat. noon–2:30 p.m. Dinner Mon.–Thurs. 5:30–10:30 p.m, Fri.–Sat. 5:30–11 p.m., Sun. 5:30–10:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, D, MC, V. Entrées $25–$49. California with Asia and Europe.
Crackling croissants, ultrarich café au lait and tiny fruit tarts are the signature attractions of Susina, along with a carefully curated collection of artisanal chocolates and an incredible buttery puff-pastry turnover stuffed with spinach and garlic that always sells out way too early in the afternoon. There are coffeehouses in Hollywood that stay open somewhat later, and others equipped with multiple electrical outlets and three kinds of WiFi access, but it is harder to imagine a more civilized setting to spend quality time with your laptop, fueled with hot pressed sandwiches and lubricated with fresh-pressed citrus in a fairly impressive replica of a Belle Epoque Parisian café. And the kitchen has started experimenting with American pies. 7122 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 934-7900. Mon.–Fri. 7 a.m.–11 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.–11 p.m., Sun. 8 a.m.–11 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking. AE, MC, V. Sandwiches $7. European Bakery.
At this painfully hip, house-music-blasting restaurant, Govind Armstrong has finally found his groove, which is to say beachy, vaguely Mediterranean California cuisine with impeccably sourced meat and fish, plenty of organic farmers-market vegetables, and a rather generous notion of the places where bacon might be appropriate. (Jonathan Waxman’s cooking comes to mind, as do the first years of Campanile, one of the restaurants where Armstrong has worked.) In Los Angeles, this is what passes for classicism, sunny, global-ingredient cooking updated by a chef whose frequent-flier miles do not necessarily take him only to France. 7661 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 782-8258. Mon.–Thurs. 6–10 p.m. (late-night menu until 10:30), Fri.–Sat. 6–10:30 p.m. (late-night menu until 11:30). Full bar. Takeout. Valet and street parking. All major credit cards. $23–$30. California Seasonal.
Tacos Baja Ensenada
In most of Mexico, the words estilo Ensenada signify just one thing: fish tacos, specifically the fried-fish tacos served at stalls in the fish market down by the docks. In East L.A., you will come no closer to the ideal than these crunchy, sizzlingly hot strips of batter-fried halibut, folded into warm corn tortillas with salsa, shredded cabbage and a squeeze of lime, sprinkled with freshly chopped herbs and finished with a squirt of thick, cultured cream. Entire religions have been founded on miracles less profound than the Ensenada fish taco. 5385 Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 887-1980. Lunch and dinner Mon. 10 a.m.–7 p.m., Tues. 10 a.m.–8 p.m., Wed. 10 a.m.–9 p.m., Thurs. 10 a.m.–8 p.m, Fri.–Sun 10 a.m.–9 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only. Entrées $3.99–$10. Mexican.
Natural-charcoal barbecue, which is to say the atavistic pleasure of grilling meat over live coals, is traditionally a cheap thrill. Such barbecuing as practiced at fancier Korean restaurants is usually done over well-ventilated gas grills, which are much less likely to leave your favorite blouse perforated with tiny holes like a silk colander. The newish, marble-encrusted Tahoe Galbi may be the first place in town where it is possible to enjoy both the superb meat characteristic of the best Korean restaurants and the smoky kick of live-fire cooking. When you bite into the galbi, Korean short ribs, they flood your mouth with sweet juice. 3986 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 365-9000. Daily 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Valet parking. Dinner $10.99–$25. Korean Barbecue.
Taylor’s Steak House
Taylor’s is a real urban steak house, a two-fisted meat-and-martini joint where an account executive can blow his Pritikin thing with massive hunks of well-aged sirloin, at about half what he’d pay in one of those Beverly Hills joints. The filet mignon here is soft, buttery, as rare as you order it, and crusted with char; the New York steak is beefy and rich; London broil, kind of stewy-tasting, comes sliced, with a horseradish and sour-cream sauce on the side. But the glory of Taylor’s is the culotte steak, a softball-shaped prime thing cut from the top of the sirloin. If you order it rare, the interior is scarlet, dripping juice, marbled with fat, full of the tremendous mineral sourness of great meat. It’s the steak that time forgot. 3361 W. Eighth St., Los Angeles, (213) 382-8449. Open daily for lunch 11:30 a.m.–4 p.m. and dinner 4–10 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. $19.75–$30.95. American.
Devoted to the Japanese cult of perfect rice, Torafuku is the first American outpost of a small Tokyo-based chain. The restaurant’s rice is warm and fluffy with a sort of toasty quality that supposedly comes from a blast of heat at the end. It’s the focus of Torafuku’s expensive, luxurious izakaya menu: at the center of set meals, accompanied only by miso soup and pickles; topped with fried prawns or marinated tuna; or as tou-ban-yaki, seared in a superheated clay bowl with bits of seaweed, tiny dried sardines and a lightly poached egg. 10914 Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 470-0014. Lunch Mon.–Sat. noon–2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon.–Thurs. 6–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 6–10:30 p.m., Sun. 5–10 p.m. Beer, wine and sake. Valet and street parking. AE, MC, V. Prix fixe starts at $80, set dinners $38, bento lunches $8.50–$12, à la carte meals vary, takeout $55. Traditional Japanese.
Tre Venezie, a tiny Italian restaurant in Pasadena’s Old Town, could easily pass for one of the better trattorias in Udine — the cooking, mostly in the Slavic-influenced style of Friuli, northeast of Venice, is superb. True, the careful authenticity of the food must be balanced against the fact that dinner with a nice wine can cost not much less than a roundtrip ticket to Venice itself, and the wine list is egregiously overpriced. But I love the orzotto, a soothing Friulian stew of tripe and grain that emphasizes the gentle muskiness, the slippery contours of the meat, without an offending chile in sight. 119 W. Green St., Pasadena, (626) 795-4455. Tues. 5:30–10:30 p.m., Wed.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 5:30–10:30 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 5:30–10:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet and street parking. AE, DC, MC, V. $25–$32. Italian.
Umenohana is the first major tofu kaiseki house in the United States, a luxurious fortress of bean curd in all of its sundry forms. There is tofu salad and grilled tofu steak, tofu made from sesame and an unbelievably delicious tofu made from fresh milk, freeze-dried tofu and tofu made to order, tofu “ice cream,” tofu cookies and tofu crème brûlée. Yuba, the delicate skin skimmed off the top of simmering soy milk, is wrapped around asparagus, served in a shot glass with sea urchin or piled into a martini glass with a few precious grains of caviar. You have, I assume, tasted tofu, but Umenohana’s fukufuku tofu, coaxed into existence in a tabletop steamer, is astonishing: a quivering, tremulous substance so delicate that sheets of it must be maneuvered to your bowl with special bentwood implements that resemble something out of the Frank Gehry workshop. 433 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 860-9236. Mon.–Sun. 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m., 5:30–10 p.m. Full bar. Takeout. Valet parking. AE, D, MC, V. Kaiseki menus $38–$74. Japanese.
See “Raw Power: Los Angeles sushi chefs reinvent the modern kitchen.”
Valentino was the first restaurant in California to serve white truffles, balsamic vinegar or radicchio, and Friday lunch here is almost a sacrament for Los Angeles foodies, sanctified with a ritual dribble of the latest obscure olive oil that owner Piero Selvaggio has managed to find in Liguria, and bottles of ancient Barolo. There is an actual menu at Valentino, and a wine list thick as the Manhattan phone book, but the entire point of the place is to pretend that they do not exist. Valentino is a certain kind of great restaurant, prepared to transform your whims into six-course meals, to solidify abstract desire into fish and meat and rice and pasta. Bring money, lots of it. 3115 W. Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 829-4313. Dinner Mon.–Thurs. 5–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 5–10:30 p.m.; lunch Fri. 11 a.m.–noon. Full bar. Valet and street parking. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. $45–$85. Italian.
The western stretch of Brentwood has been called the Los Angeles answer to Little Italy by some, although the New York neighborhood that its intense concentration of Tuscan-lite restaurants brings to mind tends to be the lesser avenues of the culinarily challenged Upper East Side. But Vincenti is the real thing, a spare, elegant embassy of modern Italian cooking: spit-roasted birds, minimally sauced pastas and house-cured meats; pungent flavors and abundant herbs; and an obsession with grilled steak that is unmistakably Italian. Such refinement comes at a fairly high cost — on busy evenings, the line of 745s outside the valet station can reach halfway to infinity. At these times, it is good to remember that Monday is pizza night. 11930 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood, (310) 207-0127. Mon.–Sat. 6–10 p.m., Friday for lunch noon–2 p.m. Full bar. Takeout. Valet parking. AE, D, MC, V. Entrées $18–$40. Italian.
The Water Grill is a big-city fish restaurant, a redoubt of oysters and fresh scallops, sparkling fish and sea creatures we can’t even pronounce, in one of the busiest commercial corridors of downtown. It was widely assumed that the restaurant would wither into irrelevancy when former chef Michael Cimarusti left to open his own place last year (the brand-new Providence), but it is possible that the kitchen is even sharper under David LeFevre, who has added a certain global-Gallic sensibility to the seafood cuisine — which includes a beautiful peeky toe crab salad and perhaps the only local tuna tartare we would dream of ordering a second time. Extremely expensive and quite formal by Los Angeles standards, but you knew that. 544 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 891-0900. Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–8:30 p.m., Sat. 5–9 p.m., Sun. 4:30–9 p.m. Full bar. Takeout. Valet parking. AE, D, DC, MC, V. Entrées $25–$50. Progressive American.
At the northern end of drab, endless Coldwater Canyon Boulevard lies this massive, gold-encrusted Thai Buddhist temple, grounds crowded with parishioners, saffron-robed monks, and small children who run about as if the temple were a private playground. On weekend afternoons and during festivals, the air around the temple almost throbs with the smells of Thai cooking: meat grilling at satay stands, the wheat pancakes called roti sizzling on massive griddles, pungent, briny salt crabs being pounded for the ultraspicy green-papaya salad. This spread may be more or less the equivalent of the smothered chicken and collard greens eaten after services at some African-American churches, and it feels just as homely; the inexpensive Thai feast is open to everyone who cares to come. 8225 Coldwater Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood, (818) 785-9552, www.watthaiusa.org/engmenu.html. Thai.
Six or seven food revolutions have washed over America since Nuevo Latino cuisine first posited the chicness of pupusas and llapingachos, and the heat these days is probably on Brazilian barbecue and pre-Columbian grains instead. And Xiomara Ardolina’s big-flavored, Cuban-inflected menus finally reveal her as a classicist instead of an insurrectionist, which probably fits the serene, elegant dining room better anyway. 6101 W. Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 461-0601. Also at 69 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, (626) 796-2520. Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 5–11 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, D, MC, V. Entrées $16–$32. Cuban/Pan-Latino.
Yi Cuisine is an Asian fusion joint that superficially resembles every other Asian fusion joint in Los Angeles, down to the yoga-toned regulars around the bar, and it would be possible to visit Yi a dozen times without realizing that there was more to the place than soju martinis, tuna tartare and crunchy, honey-fried rock shrimp. But Rodelio Aglibot, a Filipino born in Hawaii, has a different conception of Asian food than chefs whose formal training came in Japan, and Yi Cuisine’s menu has always proudly, unabashedly included Filipino dishes: chicken adobo, oxtail kare kare, and a light, tamarind-soured seafood stew in the manner of an upscale sinigang. The best dish in the restaurant is probably the kurobota pata, a crisp, super-rich roasted pork knee that differs from the crispy pata served in every other Filipino restaurant in Los Angeles mostly in that it tastes better. 7910 W. Third St., Los Angeles, (323) 658-8028, www.yicuisine.com. Dinner Tues.–Thurs. 6:30–10:30 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 6:30–11:30 p.m., Sun. 6-10 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Dinner entrées $15–$33 (family-style salads from $7). Euro-Asian.
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The chicken tarna sandwiches are good at Zankou; so are the baba ghanoush and the shawarma carved off the rotating spit. But the spit-roasted chickens, golden, crisp-skinned and juicy, are what you want. Such chicken really needs no embellishment, but a little bit of Zankou’s fierce, blinding-white garlic sauce couldn’t hurt. The new Zankou on Sepulveda is the hottest Westside import since Pilates. 5065 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 665-7842. 1716 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 444-0550. 5658 Sepulveda Blvd., No. 103, Van Nuys, (818) 781-0615. Open daily: Hollywood 10 a.m.–11:45 p.m., West Los Angeles 10 a.m.–11 p.m., Van Nuys 10 a.m.–10 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only. Entrées $2–$8. Middle Eastern/Armenian.
To read the first section of Jonathan Gold’s 99 Essential L.A. Restaurants click here.
To read the second section of Jonathan Gold’s 99 Essential L.A. Restaurants click here.
To read Raw Power: Los Angeles sushi chefs reinvent the modern kitchen click here.