The following are excerpts from reviews by Jonathan Gold that have appeared in L.A. Weekly and have been recently added to our online dining guide. To read about Jonathan Gold's 99 Essential L.A. Restaurants for 2007 (and the Google map of the 99) or more than 400 other restaurants — searchable by neighborhood and type of cuisine — check out our online dining guide.
Orochon Ramen A Japanese noodle shop in the pleasantly decaying Weller Court restaurant mall attached to the New Otani hotel downtown, Orochon Ramen is perhaps the most calculated spicy-food shrine in the Los Angeles area. The important dish at the restaurant, and the one ordered by nine out of 10 visitors, is the ramen, available in broth flavored with soy, miso or salt, garnished with whatever you decide to pay a buck or so extra for, and served in any of nine levels of spiciness, starting with Non-Spicy and Osae, then through Impact, Hyper and Extreme, and up to the hottest, Special 2: an elemental, dusty-red concoction bearing the disclaimer "Eat at Your Own Risk." If you manage to consume an entire bowl of Special 2 within 30 minutes — weird vegetables, sliced hot chiles and all — Orochon will snap a picture and post it on both its Wall of Bravery and its Web site, your small feat of conspicuous consumption chiseled into Google cache for eternity. 123 S. Onizuka St., No. 303 (Weller Court), Little Tokyo, (213) 617-1766 or www.orochonramen.com. Open daily 11:30 a.m.-10:15 p.m. Beer and sake. MC, V (minimum $20). Japanese.
Pitfire Pizza Company From the nearby municipal parking lot, Pitfire smells like a barbecue pit, a Girl Scout campsite, a hamburger stand — anything but what it is, which is a franchise-ready pizzeria. But the pies, given a slow, two-day rise and fired on the floor of a ceramic oven, are superb examples of the breed, puffy in the Neapolitan manner and tinged with smoke, fresh mozzarella browned at its top like a toasted marshmallow, fennel sausage and roast pumpkin and other high-quality ingredients blackened and sizzling and crisp. You have had better pizza than this — Casa Bianca comes to mind — and the guy who came up with the recipes probably didn't apprentice in Naples. I have heard that the crust was racier in the beginning, when it was grilled in the manner of Rhode Island's Il Forno instead of baked. Still, this is the kind of neighborhood pizzeria we should all have in our neighborhoods, a testament to the goodness of flame. 108 W. Second St., dwntwn., (213) 808-1200. Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. noon-10 p.m. Beer, wine and sangria. Street parking and paid lot. AE, MC, V. Also at 5211 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd., (818) 980-2949, and 2018 Westwood Blvd., Westwood, (310) 481-9860. Pizzeria.
Riordan's Steakhouse Former Mayor Richard Riordan may be famous for his custodianship of the Original Pantry, the gritty 24-hour chophouse that has been feeding Los Angeles since the Depression, but you are more likely to run into His Honor at a place like Valentino or Michael's, where the wine lists are longer than paperback thrillers and the amuse-gueules more likely to involve caviar and créme fraîche than hunks of sourdough and plops of coleslaw. Riordan's Tavern, the newest of the many, many steak houses to open near Staples Center, this time in the space formerly occupied by the Pantry bakery, would seem to be an attempt to split the difference between the two styles of restaurant — it's a sports bar that just happens to serve $43 rib chops, a genuinely old dining room tricked out to look like the old-timey backroom at Applebee's, a place to sluice down crab cakes and flabby shrimp cocktails with Tanqueray martinis. Are the steaks worth the 300 percent premium over the similar steaks next door at the Pantry? It depends on how much you want to watch the Dodgers on a big flat-screen TV. 875 S. Figueroa St., dwntwn., (213) 627-6879. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Full bar. Lot parking. AE, MC, V. Steak house.
Takami The first thing you should know about Takami, a Japanese-ish restaurant on top of the 811 Wilshire building downtown, is that it offers a splendid view of the rooftop pool at the Standard, which means, if you are so inclined, that you can spy on attractive people in extremely small bathing suits while you enjoy sashimi tacos, indifferent robata-seared meats and $125 bottles of Ken sake. The second thing you should know is that Takami is the kind of place where almost everything is garnished with piped rosettes of "caviar" mashed potatoes, a process which dyes the spuds Barbie-box pink with fish roe but has little discernible impact on the flavor, and gives diners the fetching idea that they may be supping on cupcakes instead of the deep-fried California rolls Takami calls Pop Art Crab or the vaguely alarming Tropical Avocado Bowl, which involves mango, diced sashimi and onion tucked into a hollowed-out avocado half. The sensei behind Takami, who comes from the Katsu-ya empire, may be a grandmaster of classic Edo-mae sushi, and the raw materials seem fresh enough, but you would be hard-put to figure that out in this restaurant perched among the stars. 811 Wilshire Blvd., dwntwn., (213) 236-9600. Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Sun.-Thurs. 5-11 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5 p.m.-mid. Also, happy-hour menu 4:30-6:30 p.m. with food items half off, and nightclub hours at Elevate Lounge, Wed.-Sat. 9 p.m.-3 a.m. Full bar. Valet parking. Major CC. Japanese.
Hollywood and Vicinity
Arax Falafel Arax, which has been feeding the Little Armenia neighborhood for almost 25 years, is not a large place, just three tomato-red Formica booths and an ATM machine, the owner's TV set tuned to the Colts game, and a line of takeout customers stretching out the door. The crisp, dripping, lovely shwarma here is so far from the pressed-gristle shwarma served at your local kebab hut that it is practically another dish. This is shwarma of integrity, shwarma that tastes of beast. There are chicken kebabs at Arax, and shish kebabs, and oozing, garlic-laden sandwiches stuffed with the Armenian sausage called soujok. The hummus and tabbouleh are rather fine. And Arax's falafel is with good reason considered the best in Hollywood — falafel that is crisped in the cleanest frying oil this side of an Osaka tempura bar. What may not be obvious is that the real specialty of Arax may be the tongue sandwich: thick slices of stewed lamb's tongue stuffed into a length of French bread and grilled crisp in a battered metal sandwich press. 5101 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd., (323) 663-9687. Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only (ATM on premises). Middle Eastern.
Café Tropical Cuban sandwiches, those divine, decidedly unkosher concoctions of ham, roast pork, cheese, pickles and garlicky mojo melded onto lengths of French bread, are among the greatest things ever to come out of a sandwich press. In the right neighborhoods of Tampa and Miami, you can find two or three Cuban sandwich places on every block. In Los Angeles, you can find pretty good versions at all the usual Cuban restaurants — including Rincon Criollo, Versailles and El Colmao, among others, but a Cuban sandwich, as well as its cousin the medianoche, is something best consumed when you're bellied up to a counter with a frothing glass of juice or a bottle of malta close at hand. Which brings us, as always, to the venerable Café Tropical in Silver Lake, which has become a little more upscale in the past few years, but which still serves a formidable Cuban, juicy and garlicky and lacquered with pickles. And the Cuban coffee is remarkable too. 2900 W. Sunset Blvd., L.A., (323) 661-8391. Mon.-Fri. 6 a.m.-10 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 7 a.m.-10.p.m. No alcohol. Street parking. MC, V. Cuban deli.
El Gran Burrito If you're into tacos, at one time or another you've probably noticed the conflagration outside El Gran Burrito, a stand tucked away near LACC. Like most great Los Angeles taco places, El Gran Burrito is less notable for the food served inside the restaurant than for the food served out back on evenings and weekends, when the big grill is set up under an awning, and the aroma of charred beef permeates the air for blocks. El Gran Burrito is Hollywood's entrepôt of carne asada, grilled beef, snatched from the fire, hacked into gristly nubs, and made into tacos in less time than it takes you to fish a couple of dollars from your jeans. They are grand tacos, sizzling hot, oily, glowing with citrus and black pepper. In the world of food, a truly fine taco may be as close as you can get to nirvana. 4716 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., (323) 665-8720. Open daily 24 hours. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash. Mexican.
Jitlada Thai Restaurant Jitlada has always been one of the most respected Thai restaurants in Los Angeles, the fanciest place in Thai Town since at least the late 1970s. But with a recent change of ownership, it's been reborn. The kua kling Phat Tha Lung at Jitlada may be the spiciest food you can eat in Los Angeles at the moment, a sweet, thick, brown curry tossed in a wok with shredded beef, a turmeric-rich endorphin bomb that is traditionally one of the hottest mouthfuls in southern Thailand, which is to say the world. Jitlada's auxiliary menu is almost a thesaurus of southern Thai specialties that you probably haven't encountered outside a guidebook — things like delicious, foul-smelling yellow curries of fermented bamboo shoots; a Songkhia-style rice salad, khao yam, tossed with toasted coconut, dried shrimp, shredded fresh lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and a sweet sauce called naam khoei; and whole sea bass shellacked with fresh turmeric, deep-fried and showered with crunchy bits of crisp, fried garlic. The house version of the classic Thai dessert of ripe mango and coconut-scented sticky rice is superb. 5233 ½ Sunset Blvd., Hlywd., (323) 663-3104. Mon. 5-10 p.m., Tues.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sun. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Beer and wine. Difficult lot parking. AE, MC, V. Thai.
La Buca After years of patrons' squeezing in like drupelets for a taste of "Mamma's" homemade gnocchi, burrata with vegetables, and trenette al pesto, the dining room at La Buca, the beloved pasta-intensive commissary down the street from Paramount, is at last bigger than the inside of a minivan — a soaring, wood-paneled space with wine-bottle chandeliers, picture windows looking out onto Melrose, and a peculiar glassed-in aerie above the bar that may eventually function as either a VIP room or the observatory of a CAA panopticon. The menu is still a bastion of new-generation Italian comfort food: smoky pappardelle flavored with scamorza cheese, spinach-stuffed ravioli with butter and sage, and tiramisú for dessert. 5210 ½ Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 462-1900. Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-10:30 p.m., Sat. 5:30-10:30 p.m., Sun. 5-10 p.m. Wine. Street parking. AE, MC, V. Entrées $7.95-$18. Italian.
Mid-Wilshire/Koreatown/Central Los Angeles
BYJ Restaurant Even if you have never heard of Bae Yeon Jung, an hour or so at her BYJ Restaurant may make you as familiar with the former Korean sitcom star as any veteran couch potato in Seoul. Her portrait, head cocked in a pose that sold a million fan magazines in Korea, dominates the cute cartoon pigs and squids that otherwise blanket the façade of the mini-mall restaurant. BYJ is a clean place, slick and bright as a franchise restaurant, populated with Korean couples lunching on the eternal combination of soup, rice and banchan, premeal appetizers that usually include kimchi and a motley assortment of fish cake, scented bean sprouts and greens. Like many businesses in Koreatown, BYJ is essentially a one-dish restaurant, in this case so-mu-ri gook bab. This pale, milky, beef-bone soup served in clay bowls is among the most soothing things you may ever taste. The most exciting dish at the restaurant is probably the osam bulgogi: squid tentacles stir-fried with vegetables, soft cylindrical rice cakes and squares of Korean bacon, tinted a violent scarlet with a dose of dried-chile paste, served bubbling and spitting on a superheated stone platter. 1144 S. Western Ave., Suite 108, L.A., (323) 732-5900. Open daily 7:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer and soju. Lot parking. MC, V. Korean.
Chungkiwa I happen to like Soot Bull Jeep a lot, but one must admit: There are a lot of other barbecue joints in Koreatown. Chungkiwa serves an ample selection of panchan (side dishes); uses Angus beef for its barbecue; and has a tasty, tangy bowl of naengmyon, chewy, cold buckwheat noodles, for afterward. And tabs tend to be about a third less than they are at Soot Bull Jeep, which probably explains the large number of students among the regulars. 3545 W. Olympic Blvd., L.A., (323) 737-0809. Open daily 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Beer, wine. Parking. Major CC. Korean.
Dansungsa If you spend much time watching period Asian movies, you will remember scenes of dark inns, a scrim of pale steam, a crew of women tending an ancient grill, prodding battered cook pots licked with yellow flame. The classic Koreatown tavern Dansungsa is nothing like a relic of the 19th century. In fact, its ambiance is supposed to recall a Seoul movie palace of the 1940s. But the guttering flames, the strong Korean spirits, the big, smoky plates of baby octopus and barbecued pork ribs and eel, the charred skewers of grilled garlic cloves, shrimp or hot dogs, the crudely delicious kimchi, all seem as if they came from another time and place. The spicy cabbage soup, which comes along with your first soju or beer, is served in a bowl so battered that the only possible explanation is 15 rounds with a chimpanzee. 3317 W. Sixth St., Koreatown, (213) 487-9100. Dinner and late-night tavern snacks. Valet parking. Major CC. Korean.
Keumsan Samgyetang When you settle in at the restaurant and lean into a shot or two of soju or iced barley tea, you are brought small plates of simple but delicious panchan: appetizers of crunchy radish pickled in a fiery chile paste, a few leaves of cabbage kimchi, perhaps some cucumber in bean paste. If you want to postpone the inevitable, there are big plates of chicken gizzards sautéed with scallions and whole garlic cloves, which are as irresistible as fajitas; soothing bowls of chicken porridge; and milk-colored chicken noodle soup. What you invariably will get, though, is the samgyetang, a crock of mild, cloudy broth fragrant with the prickly scent of ginseng, dominated by a wee, dumpling-size chicken stuffed with sticky rice, jujubes, whole garlic cloves and a gnarled sliver of ginseng root that traces the contour of the chicken's cavity like some kind of alien internal organ. The deluxe version of samgyetang includes a full hen per person, served clustered in a giant, seething stainless-steel pot set atop an electric burner, and is followed by bowls of gook soo, knife-cut Korean noodles, that simmer down to soft slitheriness in the concentrated broth. 1144 S. Western Ave., Koreatown, (323) 731-9999. Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Beer, soju. Lot parking. MC, V. Korean.
Kyochon A gleaming, sterile, mostly takeout joint in a Koreatown mall, Kyochon is an early local outpost of a thousand-restaurant chain that prepares chicken with an intense precision more commonly associated with brain surgery or microchips. What do you eat at Kyochon? Fried chicken — a whole tiny chicken chopped into tiny pieces — steeped in a garlicky marinade that supposedly contains 23 ingredients, double-fried to a glassy, thin-skinned crunch, meat rendered of most of its fat, that is similar to what you might find in a good Cantonese restaurant, only juicier. While you wait for your chicken, you are given a bowl of crunchy, sweet-and-sour pickled radish cubes, the classic Korean accompaniment, which is slightly less penitential than it may sound, and as much Coke and Sprite as you can drink. There has been Korean-style chicken in Los Angeles before, but Kyochon may be the most chicken-intensive restaurant on the planet, especially when the sticky Korean pop pauses just long enough to allow the playing of a Kyochon radio commercial, whose clucks and scratchings can be understood in any language. 3833 W. Sixth St., L.A., (213) 739-9292. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12-$18. Recommended: fried chicken. Also at 2515 Torrance Blvd., Torrance, (310) 320-9299. Korean.
Du-par's Restaurant & Bakery Until its Farmers Market flagship closed a couple of years ago, Du-par's was the last of Southern California's quality-obsessed coffee-shop chains. Then the chain was sold — to W.W. "Biff" Naylor, whose father founded the Tiny Naylor's chain 80 years ago. Biff installed his daughter Jennifer Naylor, a Wolfgang Puck protégée, as chef, and longtime customers who lived and died for Du-par's French toast started contemplating the Grand Slam Breakfast at Denny's. Is the French toast the same? It is not — it's more of the egg-dipped-and-fried school than the buttery, puddingy variety I had always insisted was the best in town. But to everyone's surprise, Jennifer Naylor's Du-par's is neither a chefly interpretation of a coffee shop, like BLD, nor a parlor of seven-sprout omelets and tofu scrambles. It is, more or less, Du-par's, but with a killer hash-browns recipe, very decent bacon from Daily's, and all the tuna melts, Monte Cristos, tri-tip sandwiches and liver and onions any coffee-shop aficionado could possibly want. And the L.A. and Studio City locations are open 24/7. 6333 W. Third St., L.A., (323) 933-8446. No alcohol (except at Thousand Oaks location). Lot parking. American coffee shop. Also at 12036 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 766-4437, and 75 W. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, (805) 373-8785.
Terroni This Canadian import may actually feel more Italian than anywhere else in Los Angeles at the moment, with as many expats at the tables as on the restaurant staff, terra cotta serving dishes, a roster of decent Italian wines available in half-liter and quarter-liter carafes, and the deftest espresso pull this side of Palermo. Terroni, nominally a southern-Italian restaurant, specializes in pizzas — not the artisanal, wood-fired things you find at Mozza and Antica Pizzeria, but stretched thin to order over the lip of a counter and tossed into a regular deck oven. Terroni's pizza is good stuff: skinny, crunchy most of the way through, served as in Italy in individual uncut rounds, topped with things like broccoli rabe and crumbled sausage; Gorgonzola, honey and walnuts; or plain old mozzarella and tomato sauce. The pastas tend to be very good: rigatoni with tomatoes and mozzarella, a definitive penne alla Norma with fried eggplant, and possibly the first L.A. appearance of spaghetti ca'muddica, a Sicilian pasta a little like spaghetti alla puttanesca enriched with toasted bread crumbs. 7605 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 954-0300. Open for lunch and dinner Sun.-Thurs. 9 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 9 a.m.-mid. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Italian.
Ago The alpha wolf of Los Angeles Tuscan cooking is probably Ago, co-owned by Toscana czar Agostino Sciandri and a host of Hollywood dudes including the Weinstein brothers and Robert De Niro, where it all comes down to steak and beans: big, juicy, profoundly blackened rib-eyes and fiorentini grilled in the smoky wood oven. Night after night, Ago is as packed as the Donatello room at the Uffizi on a summer afternoon. 8478 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd., (323) 655-6333. Lunch Mon.-Fri. noon-2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Sat. 6-11:30 p.m. & Sun. 6-10:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Italian.
Carney's A restaurant in the real Los Angeles tradition, Carney's is situated in two ancient Union Pacific cars transported to West Hollywood at great expense and mounted overlooking the Strip, where a mad parade of bass players and catalog models, hustlers and high school kids, movie guys and industry suits stare out of the windows onto the profusion of German tourists and Japanese cars that flow down this section of Sunset. Why would you want to eat a chili dog inside an old train? It's a pretty good hot dog for one thing, grilled to the color of old bronze (unless you'd rather have it steamed), crackly-skinned, bursting with a splash of garlicky juice when you bite into it, well-spiced, slender but considerable. The chili is of the thick, brown, Los Angeles school, thickened with starch, glistening and oily, adhering to the surface of the dog like impasto to a Jasper Johns painting, flavoring but not quite saturating the bun. They also sell chili burgers, and half-pound chili burgers, and chili-cheese fries, which may be the methadone of the Carney's chili experience. 8351 Sunset Blvd., W. Hlywd., (323) 654-8300 or www.carneytrain.com. Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-mid., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Beer, wine. Lunchtime delivery. Lot parking in rear. MC, V. Also at 12601 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 761-8300. American.
Dominick's For most of its existence, Dominick's was famous as the Hollywood restaurant that never looked open, a weathered, low building, neon permanently unlit, across from the small amusement park that later became the site of the Beverly Center. It was, or at least had a reputation as, the original Rat Pack hangout. And when it finally changed hands, it was made over into a neo–Rat Pack steakhouse, then a neo-neo–Rat Pack fusion place, then a couple of other things I don't remember until it finally ended up as a pleasant, much-enlarged, neo-neo-neo–Rat Pack restaurant with late hours, a killer recipe for spaghetti and meatballs, and a menu equally divided between tough-guy American-Italian cooking and girly, salady stuff, not to mention $15 Sunday dinners that come with the option of a $10 bottle of a house wine with the unfortunate name of Dago Red. Oddly, it is a very pleasant place to be, even when you are not watching young television stars grope one another, which you usually are. 8715 Beverly Blvd., W. Hlywd., (310) 652-2335. Sun.-Thurs. 6 p.m.-mid., Fri.-Sat. 6 p.m.-1 a.m. Beer, wine. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Italian.
Kumo The southwest corner of Kings Road and Melrose is where good restaurants go to die, the original address of Ma Maison damning future occupiers like a curse on a tribal burying ground. The hideously ugly office-building restaurant erected on the site resisted all attempts at remodeling. But Kumo is just stunning, a glowing, cloud-white space outfitted with curved white-leather banquettes, feng shui-ed to a turn, a glamorous open kitchen and a sleek Chiho Aoshima video installation. People have accused owner Michael Ovitz of a lot of things, but you've got to admire his taste. Still, Hiro Fujita's menu at Kumo, which is a spinoff of the roll-intensive Westwood sushi joint Hamasaku, is less serene than the surroundings, decent sushi sharing space with things like olive bowls and the usual Matsuhisa knockoffs, as well as truly bad ideas like sashimi pizza with miso where the tomato sauce would ordinarily be. But Fujita's cuisine, which when you got past the Judy Rolls at Hamasaku included some pretty serious sushi, may well elevate to the level of the room and the kind, understated service. 8360 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd., (323) 651-5866. Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thurs. 6-11 p.m. & Fri.-Sat. 6 p.m.-mid.; closed Sun. Full bar. Valet parking. Major CC. Japanese.
Beverly Hills and Vicinity
Paperfish Here is Joachim Splichal's newest outpost, a bright, streamlined fish restaurant furnished with a warehouseful of Knoll. The menu, an Asiany document that reads like a relic of Wolfgang Puck's 1990s, is somewhat of a departure for Splichal, whose structures have up to now leaned toward the European. (The executive chef is Yianni Koufodontis, late of Petros in the South Bay.) There are sashimi dishes, including not entirely persuasive takes on post-Matsuhisa standards like kanpachi sashimi and scallops buried under avocado purée, as well as fried oysters and miso-marinated black cod. The main courses — seafood risotto, fried skate with lemon and pine nuts, monkfish saltimbocca — tend to be more pan-Mediterranean in the classical Splichal style. The name puns on the French technique of cooking fish en papillote, roasted with aromatics in a moist fold of parchment — or here, plastic — and when it comes time for the main course, almost every table has a cart parked alongside it, manned by a captain who frees the Florida snapper from its receptacle. The snapper, firm and moistened with lemongrass broth, is very good. 345 N. Maple Dr., Beverly Hills, (310) 858-6030. Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thurs. 5:30-9:30 p.m. & Fri.-Sat. 5:30-10:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet. Major CC. Seafood.
Westwood/West L.A./Century City
Craft When chef Tom Colicchio's original Craft opened in Manhattan's Gramercy Park neighborhood, it was a fantasy restaurant, a place where customers were invited to construct their meals from scratch, or rather from gleaming copper pots of prepared meats, sauces, starches and vegetables all ordered à la carte. At Craft in Century City, in a handsome neo-Neutra space a few yards from both ICM and CAA, it is a veritable festival of à la carte à gogo: high-quality slabs of wagyu beef, local sea bass wrapped in prosciutto, roast Heritage pork laminated with sorrel leaves and braised Alaskan sablefish that you are invited to pair with sautéed long beans or baby turnips, creamed Tuscan kale or smoky, beautifully roasted wild mushrooms, braised peewee potatoes or shrimp risotto. By the time you have crowded your table with all the side dishes you want to taste and ordered a modest wine, you have probably spent $100 a person — and bumped into the likes of James Caan and Mayor Villaraigosa. 10100 Constellation Blvd., Century City, (310) 279-4180. Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thurs. 6-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5:45-10:30 p.m., Sun. 5-9 p.m. Full bar. Valet or paid lot. AE, DC, MC, V. Contemporary American.
Flame Persian Cuisine Even the quickest glance into Flame, the slick Iranian restaurant on the Tehrangeles stretch of Westwood Boulevard, reveals the shiny clay sphere at its heart, the tanor oven, source of some of the city's finest flatbread. Regulars know that you can pretty much make a meal of this tanori bread, singed and still smoking, smeared with cold butter and wrapped around an onion, especially if you accompany it with the house's panir sabzi platter: a big plate of fresh mint, lemony Persian basil and superpungent Persian tarragon, along with walnuts soaked in salt water and a block of squeaky feta cheese. Much of the produce is organic, bought at farmers' markets, and the restaurant is one of the few Iranian places in the area that serve halal food. But Flame is basically a place to get kebabs — juicy skewers of ground chicken or marinated chicken breast, tartly mineral rack of lamb, shish kebab and fish kebab, and a wonderful kebab of cornish game hen. Even at lunch, the customers tend to be better-dressed than they are anywhere this side of Spago and the Grill. Flame is the nicest place on this street. 1442 Westwood Blvd., Westwood, (310) 470-3399. Open daily 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. BYOB. Street parking. AE, MC, V. Persian.
Gyu-Kaku In automobiles, technology is usually a good thing, making cars easier to drive, more pleasant and safer. In cuisine, this isn't necessarily the case: Wood-burning ovens are capable of tastier bread than the most advanced electric model, and even the most expensive computerized steamers are less capable of perfect rice than a simple heavy pot on a stove. Live-fire Korean barbecue, although it tends to cook your clothing as efficiently as it does your meat, is delicious. But live-fire Japanese tabletop barbecue, sometimes called yakiniku, is pretty good too — the Korean experience re-engineered into sleek ritual, the meat and the smoke and the companionship without the stink, most of the garlic, or the funk. The Gyu-Kaku chain, which extends to 800 restaurants in Japan (and to five restaurants in the Los Angeles area), is the user-friendly Lexus of yakiniku restaurants, miso-marinated skirt steak, basil-flavored chicken, and pricey Kobe-style short ribs, sweet potatoes and broccoli, shrimp and chicken, small plates stretching on to the inevitable grill-your-own s'mores. 10925 Pico Blvd., W.L.A., (310) 234-8641. Lunch daily noon-2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thurs. 5-10:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-11:30 p.m., Sun. 5-9:30 p.m. Full bar. Street parking. D, MC, V. Also at 163 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 659-5760; 24631 Crenshaw Blvd., Torrance, (310) 325-1437; 70 W. Green St., Pasadena, (626) 465-4842; 14457 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 501-5400; and 6600 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Suite 1010B, Canoga Park, (818) 888-4030. Japanese.
Hiko Sushi If you ask sushi chef/owner Shinji Murata whether the snapper is Japanese tai, his eyes will narrow, he will look quickly down at his hamper of rice, and he will mutter that the Japanese fish is farmed and he serves only wild. If you look at the plump, snow-white pillow of albacore, you may note that it is raw instead of seared tataki-style to firm its flesh like almost everywhere else in town. You will notice that the rice is not just warm, but hot, and that the soft fish melts into it in your mouth, enveloping the sweet grains almost like a sauce. Nothing at Hiko's sushi bar prepares you for a transcendent experience — the precut fish, the limited selection, the cheap plastic plates, the dining room that, while handsomely decorated with abstract paintings, is as basic as you'd expect a mini-mall restaurant to be — but the aesthetic of soft fish and hot rice is absolute, and nearly every piece is what it is intended to be. 11275 National Blvd., W.L.A., (310) 473-7688. Mon.-Fri. noon-1:45 p.m. & 5:30-9 p.m. Sake and beer. Lot parking in rear. MC, V. Japanese.
Il Grano Fish, man — raw fish — from Tokyo's Tsukiji Market and jetted right to you, careful slabs of yellowtail, tuna, fluke, sprinkled with salt and drizzled with olive oil, Italian sashimi on a pretty glass plate. Il Grano's crudo, Italian sashimi, hasn't the pleasure in it that you'll find at, say, David Pasternack's Esca in midtown Manhattan — there isn't the pinpoint marination, the balance of flavors, the grind of salt matched exactly to the texture of each fish — but the sourcing is careful and the presentation is true, and when you try Sal Marino's squid-ink pasta with sea urchin, the particular brininess of the uni rings clear. 11359 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., (310) 477-7886. Lunch Mon.-Fri. noon-3 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Sat. 5:30-10 p.m. Full bar. Lot parking. AE, MC, V.Italian.
JuJu Cereal Bar In Chicago a few years ago, as the nation's food press frothed about the city's role at the front of the molecular-gastronomy movement, the excitement among 10-year-olds was about the Wacker Drive restaurant Cereality, which specialized in breakfast cereal — the regular stuff out of the box, but mixed and garnished, chopped and channeled, in ways that parenting journals would never advise. Now Los Angeles has a cereal restaurant of its very own: JuJu Cereal Bar, a slick café tucked into a storefront just south of Westwood Village, where you can customize your Froot Loops with bananas and flax-seed powder, gummy bears and Nutella, crumbled Oreos or even a sprinkle of Kix, all moistened with your choice of milks — it's like Pinkberry without the pesky frozen yogurt, although you can get that on your cereal too. My first stab at a JuJu bowl, Apple Jacks tricked out with pecans, vanilla wafers and a caramel drizzle, was just awful, clearly an amateur's effort, but my daughter's creation, which included Life, honey, strawberries and chocolate-covered pretzels, practically moved the counterman to tears. Fortunately, I've brought her up well: She shared. 1248 Westwood Blvd., Westwood, (310) 474-8571. Mon.-Sat. 7 a.m.-7 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Lot parking. Breakfast foods and frozen yogurt.
Magic Carpet In Los Angeles, you can find Yemenite dishes on the menu of about a dozen Israeli restaurants — Yemenite lamb soup is almost as easy to find as falafel. But the only full-on Yemenite restaurant in town may be Magic Carpet, a brightly decorated kosher restaurant on a block of actual carpet showrooms, in the heart of the Pico-Robertson district. In Tel Aviv, Yemenite restaurants are known for their bewildering array of eggplant condiments, and Magic Carpet may have more kinds of cool eggplant salad than all other restaurants in town put together. On the eggplant combination plate, the salads are arranged like spokes on a wheel. And for another couple of bucks, you can add Moroccan spiced carrots, hummus and the house's pale, minted version of tabbouleh, much heavier on the bulgur wheat than the Lebanese tabboulehs you may have tasted. Magic Carpet is widely considered to be the best kosher restaurant in Los Angeles. It is also probably the best Middle Eastern restaurant of any sort on the Westside, easily the equal of Hollywood's Marouch and Alhambra's Middle East. 8566 W. Pico Blvd., L.A., (310) 652-8507. Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$35. No alcohol. Delivery. Glatt kosher. Street parking. MC, V. Israeli.
Shaherzad At the back of Shaherzad, through the elegant dining room and set off in an enclosure of glass, the restaurant's fiery tanor must put out enough heat to temper steel, a spherical oven that looks like a giant, blue-tiled eyeball whose iris seethes with yellow flame. The baker slaps huge ovals of dough against the oven's hot stone walls, then snatches them up with an iron hook and twirls them through the flame to toast them to an ethereal crispness. When he is done, the tanori are fragrant sheets of soft, hot flatbread, perforated like matzo and mottled with crisp bits of carbonized char. The regulars wrap entire lengths of grilled kebabs or ground-meat koobideh onto the bread, perhaps with some raw onion, a sprinkle of tart sumac powder and a handful of fresh herbs: delicious. Shaherzad is one of the better cafés on Westwood's Iranian restaurant row, a sleekly modern center of kebabs, stews and the intricate rice dishes called polos, but it is the tanori that pulls in the crowds. 1422 Westwood Blvd., Westwood, (310) 470-9131. Open daily 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Beer, wine. Street parking. Major CC. Persian.
Spark Woodfire Grill If live-fire cooking is like sex, the kitchen at Spark Woodfire Cooking is its peepshow, a glassed-in wonderland of shooting flames, ashy coals and hissing slabs of meat, carbonized pizza crusts and fire-roasted chickens, char-speckled vegetables and big, sloppy plates of lasagna that are smoking and blackened from their voyages through the ovens. Does the food approach the ethereal quality of Alto Palato, the old West Hollywood restaurant that was the progenitor of this tiny chain? Not yet. But as with a peepshow, quality may not quite be the point. 9575 W. Pico Blvd., L.A., (310) 277-0133. Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Sun.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m. Wine. Lot and street parking. AE, MC, V, ATM. American. Also at 11801 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 623-8883, and 300 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (714) 960-0996.
Culver City and Vicinity
Let's Be Frank It may look like a simple hot-dog cart, parked near the entrance to the old Helms Bakery complex. But the proprietor is Sue Moore, a former Chez Panisse forager, and her dogs are made with organic, grass-fed, sustainably raised beef; her bratwurst from organic Berkshire pork; her Italian sausage, should you be lucky enough to run across it, from rare-breed Heritage pigs. None of this would matter if the hot dogs weren't great, but they are: taut, delicious natural-skin beauties that snap like rim shots when you bite into them, mildly seasoned, tucked into griddled buns and served, if you want them that way, with grilled onions, organic sauerkraut and an occasional mystery condiment that Moore hides under the counter like the secret stash at a comic book store. Helms Ave., between Venice and Washington boulevards, Culver City. Tues.-Fri. noon-2:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun. noon-4 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. AE, MC, V. American.
Meltdown Etc. I scream, you scream, we all scream ... for grilled cheese. And for those of us who are nostalgic for Mozzarella Monday at Jar, for whom Thursday Grilled Cheese Nights at Campanile do not come often enough, there is now Meltdown, a shiny, fast-food-style joint on Culver City's restaurant row devoted to the cult of all things grilled and cheese — with bacon, with ham and apple butter, with goat cheese and pesto, with mozzarella and tomatoes, with turkey and Brie, or with a glistening wad of Italian-style deli meats. If you are determined to carry the theme through to its conclusion, there are even dessert grilled-cheese sandwiches, notably the pressed walnut-bread sandwich with goat cheese, figs and honey, although there is occasionally a berries-and-cream grilled-cheese sandwich on the message board if you go in for that sort of thing. 9739 Culver Blvd., Culver City, (310) 838-6358 or www.meltdownetc.com. Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. No alcohol. AE, MC, V. Contemporary American.
The Point There can be beauty even in a quick-serve office-building canteen — Josiah Citrin and Rafael Lunetta taught us that at Lemon Moon. But even in downtown Culver City, a neighborhood as thick with great sandwich shops as practically anywhere outside Rosemead's banh mi district, the Point is pretty great. The slick cafeteria is the newest project of Kazuto Matsusaka and Vicki Fan, who run the nearby bistro Beacon. Pressed sandwiches, organic miso soup, ancho-chile chicken-salad wraps, etc., are some of the lunch basics. There are omelets and homemade granola in the morning, and microwavable meals of meat loaf or stuffed chicken breast to take home at night. But the basic currency at the Point is the make-your-own salad station. Once you master the intricate matrix of preferences you tick off from a checklist, the mix of superfresh lettuces and optional ingredients ends up running everywhere from a classic tuna niçoise to a Japanese-ish salad with miso and edamame to a sweet Chinese-tinged salad. And the butterscotch pudding may be the best I've tasted in Los Angeles since Wolfgang Puck's Eureka shut its doors. 8522 National Blvd., Culver City, (310) 836-8400. Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Beer, wine. Lot parking. AE, MC, V. Contemporary American.
Joe's Pizza When we lived in Greenwich Village, my daughter and I stopped at least a couple of times a week by Joe's Pizza on our walks home from school. Isabel would get a cheese slice, and I would spring the extra few bits for a slice made with fresh mozzarella instead of the traditional aged stuff. Now there is a brand-new branch of Joe's Pizza in downtown Santa Monica, wedged in next to a yogurt stand, looking as if it has been holding down the location since Taxi Driver was in first run. Joe's basic cheese slice, ballasted with sweetish tomato sauce and annealed with a microthin cincture of cheese, is as authentically New York City as the smell of the West Fourth subway station in mid-August. When it's available, the slice with juicy, fresh mozzarella is actually better than it is at the Village original, where the cheese is blasted into flat, white ovals, and the Sicilian slice, like oily foccacia glazed with tomato sauce and cheese, is first rate. 111 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 395-9222 or www.joespizza.com. Sun.-Thurs. 10 a.m.-mid., Fri.-Sat. 10 a.m.-2 a.m. No alcohol. Delivery. Street parking and nearby public lot. Cash only. Pizzeria.
La Botte La Botte is named after a wine barrel, paneled with former wine casks, and is as thick with actual wine bottles as your niece's room may be with Bratz paraphernalia. The wine list is a serious one, the kind where you feel a little like a kid whose ball has been taken away if you lack the bank balance to play around with $156 bottles of Serpico or verticals of Amarone. Antonio Mure's cooking — hearty, wintery north-Italian stuff like stuffed pheasant, taglioline with crumbles of quail sausage, fried sweetbreads with polenta, or spaghetti tossed with lentils — seems almost engineered to bring the best out of a young Brunello or a bottle of San Leonardo, a Friuli red with the muscular presence of Sassicaia. Coda alla vaccinara, the famous Roman oxtail dish, is superb; large, pillowy hunks of tail nestling into soft, yellow puddles of polenta, gooey on gooey and rich on rich — exactly what you want with a glass of Barolo if somebody else is paying. Is Mure's cooking, which you also may have tasted at Piccolo in Venice or Wilson in Culver City, a bit severe for the sybaritic climate of Santa Monica? Perhaps. But it also may be just what we need. 620 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 576-3072. Lunch Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner daily 5:30-10:30 p.m. Beer, wine. Valet parking. Major CC. Italian.
Pecorino Brentwood, it has been noted, is as thick with neo-Tuscan restaurants as the Casbah is with spice merchants, streets built on arugula salad and paved with tagliata, awash with herbed roast chickens, pizza margherita and bean soup. Sor Tino, Osteria Latini, Pizzicotto, Toscana, Palmeri, Divino, La Scala Presto — they may not, as has been rumored, all feed into a secret communal kitchen, but I would defy most people to tell the cooking apart blindfolded. Pecorino, at the eastern end of the strip, shares more than a few characteristics with these pleasant, nondescript dining rooms. You will not be deprived of your burrata, your giant steak or your tiramisú. But the cuisine is at least nominally that of the Abruzzi, southeast of Rome, and the bean soup is made with puréed chickpeas — delicious. There is an abundance of cherry tomatoes in everything from the marjoram-scented sauce on the eggplant-stuffed tortelloni to the salt cod with rosemary, and both artichokes and the namesake sheep cheese are ubiquitous — in the stewed tripe, over the carpaccio and in the egg-enriched casserole of lamb. 11604 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood, (310) 571-3800. Lunch Mon.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thu. 5:30-10:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5:30-11 p.m., Sun., 5-10 p.m. Beer, wine. Valet parking. Major CC. Italian.
Warszawa Los Angeles isn't exactly Chicago or Greenpoint, Brooklyn, when it comes to Polish cooking — the local Polish community just isn't that big. But you can find Polish salamis and cured meats at any number of Eastern European delicatessens, or even the East Hollywood location of Jon's supermarket. Warszawa in Santa Monica, one of the better Eastern European restaurants in the country, is more refined, a bit expensive and quite delicious: crackly skinned roast duck, the hunter's stew called bigos, and about a million different kinds of vodka to wash it all down with. 1414 Lincoln Blvd., Venice, (310) 393-8831. Tues.-Sat. 6-11 p.m., Sun. 5-10 p.m. Full bar. Street parking. Major CC. Polish.
Marina del Rey/Venice
Antica Pizzeria L.A.'s notorious sushi-bar Nazis have nothing on Pepe Miele, the proprietor of Antica Pizzeria above the Gelson's in Marina del Rey and, more importantly, the man who brought the elaborate bylaws of the Vera Pizza Napoletana movement from Naples to the United States. As far as I know, Miele has never booted anybody from the premises for daring to order a pizza with duck sausage and goat cheese, but I suspect it could happen. If you get to Miele's pizza the second it emerges from the oven, there is a faint smokiness to the crust, and a mild crisp skin that yields to a pleasant, bready chewiness underneath. Even if you prefer muscular Brooklyn-style pies, the crust is unimpeachable. Still, the rigor of the basic structure is not necessarily carried through when it comes to the rest of the pie. The basic margherita tends to become soggy by the time it makes it to the table, and a topping of sausage and broccoli rabe just lays there like yesterday's spinach — you need to cook those particular ingredients together to bring out their succulence, not just toss precooked clumps onto a freshly baked crust. 13455 Maxella Ave., Marina Del Rey, (310) 577-8182. Sun.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.Beer, wine. Lot parking. Major CC. Italian.
C&O Trattoria The Slow Food guys would be horrified. I'm sort of surprised myself. But I am begrudgingly fond of the C&O Trattoria by the Venice Pier, a vast, beachy warren of tented patios teeming with families, beach dwellers, college kids and everybody else trying to squeeze the maximum amount of fun from a minimum amount of money. The house Chianti, which you draw yourself from coolers set around the perimeter of each dining room, is served on the honor system, and is drinkable. Most of your calories will be consumed in the form of so-called "killer garlic rolls," which arrive hot at your table at approximately 30-second intervals. Appetizers and pastas are big enough to share; if you chip in a couple bucks extra for the "gargantuan" portion, they're big enough to share with a lot of people. And although sauces tend to be on the creamy side, the quality of the cooking is higher than you would imagine it would be at a place that is obviously more about mass feeding than fine dining — linguine with lobster that doesn't taste like something out of a drum; Sicilian chicken salad that is at least as much chicken as salad; and vast platters of overfried calamari that disappear as quickly as pistachio nuts. 31 Washington Blvd., Marina Del Rey, (310) 823-9491. Mon.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. 8 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 8 a.m-10 p.m. Beer, wine. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Italian.
East Los Angeles/Highland Park
Antojitos del D.F. (Las Palmas) In the past dozen years or so, L.A. has become a world center of regional Mexican cuisine. Still, for some reason, restaurants serving the food of the Distrito Federal, the region encompassing Mexico City, have been rare around here until recently. Blasting down East Olympic the other day, looking for a taqueria to replace a favorite Guadalajaran joint that had recently become part of a mediocre chain, I ran across a restaurant advertising Antojitos del D.F. in 2-foot-high letters. Is the restaurant actually called Antojitos del D.F.? I don't know. The credit-card receipts read Las Palmas, and the waitresses tend to answer with a shrug. But antojitos del D.F. are what it serves: leathery quesadillas folded over a stew of squash blossoms thickened with melted cheese; huge, plate-flat huaraches stuffed with puréed beans and topped with cream, shredded lettuce, fresh cheese, and salty, carbonized nubs of marinated pork; and the crisp chorizo sandwiches called pambazos. Although the tacos and sopes tended not to be up to the level of the rest of the food, at least the tortillas were made to order. 4003 E. Olympic Blvd., L.A., (323) 264-4944. Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Beer and wine. Street parking. MC, V. Mexican.
Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita #1 Restaurante Elvirita is a small double storefront just up the hill from El Mercado and across the street from a big cemetery. A decade or so ago, the original Cemitas Poblanas, a café in the same location, was probably the first Puebla-style restaurant in Los Angeles, the first place specifically devoted to cemitas, perhaps the greatest of Mexico's sandwiches. These are the best I've ever tasted — careful, lush compositions of crisp milanesa and quesillo; juicy carnitas and quesillo; head cheese and quesillo; and, in one memorable instance, quesillo and quesillo, punctuated with avocado and chipotles. There is the Poblano specialty called taco arabe, carbonized nubs of pork (perversely enough for an Arab taco) dressed with chipotle salsa and rolled like shwarma into a flour tortilla standing in for the pita. And there are giant quesadillas stuffed with the black, musky fungus huitlacoche. You can combine the two most famous Puebla dishes in cemitas de mole: sandwiches stuffed with shredded chicken in a spicy, pitch-black mole Poblano — as perfect as it is possible to imagine a sandwich to be. 3010 E. First St., L.A., (323) 881-0428. Open daily 10 a.m.-9 p.m. No alcohol. Street parking. Cash only. Mexican.
Las Nuevas This popular sandwich shop in the Calle Primero district of East L.A. makes a classic torta, neither the overstuffed luxury torta you find at places like Super Torta or Doña Rosa, nor the chile-sogged torta ahogado that has just made its way into Los Angeles from Guadalajara, but a lean, spare construction of a well-toasted roll, a sliver of avocado, a bit of cheese perhaps and a layer of meat. For an extra buck or two, as is customary at torta joints, you can get the sandwich à la Cubana, which is to say layered with ham and cheese. On a 100-degree afternoon in the profoundly un-air-conditioned restaurant, Las Nuevas feels exactly right: the scowling Eastside hipster behind the counter and the glowing beauty who cooks; the sweaty bottle of Peñafiel plucked from a tub of ice; the crisp sandwich that leaps into immortality with a dab of the house-made chipotle salsa — this is East Los Angeles at the height of summer. The cinnamon-dusted banana shakes are pretty magnificent too. 3701 E. First St., E.L.A., (323) 264-0678. Open daily 7 a.m.-7 p.m. No alcohol. Street parking. Cash only. Mexican.
My Taco The specialty of My Taco is barbacoa, a soft, spicy, well-blackened mash of long-stewed lamb sizzled to a crisp on a hot griddle, flanked with chopped onions and cilantro, and served with a Styrofoam cup of sharply clove-scented goat consommé, which actually seems more apt to its task than the lamb consommé served with barbacoa at most of the Guerrero-style restaurants where it is a specialty. You grab a bit of the lamb with a tortilla, fold it into a taco with onions and salsa, and chase it with a shot of the soup. Or you moisten the lamb. Or you scoop up lamb with your spoon and wet it in the soup. It reminds me a little of the Iranian dish dizie, at least as served at the Westwood Iranian sandwich shop Attari, but dizie is never speckled with those delicious crunchy bits, dizie does not leak chile-stained orange grease, and dizie is rarely served with rice and beans. Barbacoa is reason enough to visit My Taco. 6300 York Blvd., Highland Park, (323) 256-2698. Mon.-Wed. 8 a.m.-9 p.m., Thurs.-Sun. 8 a.m.-10 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. MC, V. Mexican.
South Los Angeles
J N J Burger & Bar-B-Q There may be no more evocative location for a barbecue pit than the one currently occupied by J N J Burger & Bar-B-Q. A bit east of the Culver City Media District, the ramshackle structure is bordered on two sides by the local firewood outlet, in the shadow of fruitwood mountains and hillocks of oak, drifts of stacked logs that reach two or three stories in height. The brawny, dripping beef ribs are great, and the chicken is fine and moist. It is the spareribs, however, that make the barbecue stand. J N J's long-cooked babies are compelling — blackened, rendered of most of their fat, tending almost toward a jerkylike chaw, saturated with smoke, and profoundly spicy even without the sauce, which blankets the pork like a winter coat. It is a family business: Jay Nelson Jr., the namesake "J.N.J.," does the barbecue; his wife works the burger-stand side of things; and his mother bakes the splendid sweet-potato pies. J N J may be the closest thing you are going to find to a country-road shack within the confines of Los Angeles. Recommended dishes: pork ribs, barbecued chicken, sweet-potato pie. 5754 W. Adams Blvd., L.A., (323) 933-7366. Mon.-Thurs. 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. No alcohol. Street parking. Cash only. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $6-$28. American.
Jay-Bee's House of Fine Bar-B-Que This place would seem to have everything going for it: an epic pork-shoulder sandwich, decent ribs, superhot barbecue sauce, and a location on a traffic island equally convenient to the Japanese commercial district of Gardena and the part of Compton that N.W.A made famous. And it goes without saying — the dining room is the front seat of your car. 15911 S. Avalon Blvd., Gardena, (310) 532-1064. Mon. 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Tues.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10:45 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. MC, V ($20 minimum). Barbecue.
Shin-Sen-Gumi Hakata Ramen Restaurant Of the many ways to translate the flavor of sputtering hardwood into meat, the Japanese art of kushiyaki is perhaps the most efficient, a straightforward gesture of toasting skewers of marinated protein over a hot, fragrant charcoal fire until the surfaces brown, the smoke insinuates its way into the flesh, and the chicken tails, or bacon-wrapped asparagus, or bits of beef tongue cook to a luscious medium-rare: the center barely touched by the heat and the outside brown and crisp. As practiced at Shin-Sen-Gumi, a mini-mall kushiyaki bar on the southern edge of Gardena, the process is extraordinarily precise, with each delicate meatball, each chunk of chicken thigh cooked just enough and no more, and with an entire busy restaurant being fed from a grill that looks not much bigger than two or three steel shoeboxes welded end-to-end. Recommended dishes: gyoza, hakata ramen. 2051 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena, (310) 329-1335. Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. & 6-11:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Beer, wine and sake. Lot parking. MC, V. Also at 8450 E. Valley Blvd. #103, Rosemead, (626) 572-8646. Japanese.
San Fernando Valley
Boneyard Bistro Chefly barbecue, of course, is supposed to be an oxymoron. Decent barbecue is the stuff of distant roadsides, lonely highways and the wrong side of town. Until recently, creative American chefs spent their time reinterpreting stuff like burgoo, tamales and macaroni and cheese, but left the barbecue, which tends to leave dining rooms rather fragrant, to the other guys. But Leonard Schwartz, who practically invented the idea of high-end American comfort food, left his well-regarded kitchen at Maple Drive to open Zeke's, a barbecue chain. Carolina-style pulled pork is showing up in upscale kitchens almost as often as goat cheese. And Aaron Robins, whose résumé includes a long stint with über-chef Charlie Trotter in Chicago, opened Boneyard Bistro, a full-fledged, beef-intensive barbecue restaurant with a strong side competency in things like pistachio-crusted baked Brie, whiskey-brined pork chops and porcini-crusted salmon. Does the barbecued brisket match up well with Woody's? Is the smoked duck spring roll as skillfully put together as it would be at Chinois? It's not even close. But sometimes it is pleasant to eat spareribs and drink Chateauneuf du Pape. 13539 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 906-RIBS. Mon.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Beer, wine. Street parking. Major CC. American bistro.
Chili My Soul Out of a storefront near a Smart & Final outlet in a dingy Encino mini-mall, Chili My Soul offers more than 30 kinds of chili, if only a dozen or so at a time. Chili My Soul has been around since the mid-'80s and is the creation of Randy Hoffman, a jovial, thickset guy who, if he happens to be standing around when you wander in, will probably insist that you try a spoonful of at least half a dozen of his chilis, deeply spiced creations called things like Hickory Beef and Vegetarian Carnivale, rated from 1 to 10 by intensity of heat. If this is your first time at Chili My Soul, you will inevitably linger by the takeout counter for 10 minutes before you finally choose a chili — and then take another few to choose the appropriate garnishes: Cheddar cheese, sliced jalapeños, toasted pumpkin seeds, chopped onions, capers, Guittard chocolate chips, whatever. There are chili fries here, of course: your choice of Mr. Hoffman's concoctions ladled onto a complicated spiral construction. 4928 Balboa Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-7685 or www.chilimysoul.com. Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. AE, MC, V. American.
La Maria A smallish Colombian restaurant, La Maria is a cheerful place, all earth-tone tiles and travel posters. The locals stop in for batidos, Colombian milk shakes made with guanabana, passion fruit or the purple Andean berry called mora; for avocado omelets in the mornings, and for bowls of mondongo, a nourishing tripe soup, on the mornings after. What you probably come to a Colombian restaurant for is grilled steak, and La Maria has it in various guises — the relatively simple carne asada served with fried bananas and arepas; the bistek a caballo, served underneath a runny fried egg; or the classic bandeja, Colombia's national combination plate. The beer is cold, the constant salsa music hot. When you look out of the picture window, over the auto-body shops and out to the low, bare foothills of the Verdugos, it can seem as if you are in another place altogether, if not in Medellín then at least in Tucson. Recommended dishes: arepa con queso, picada, flan. 10516 Victory Blvd., N. Hlywd., (818) 755-8811. Open daily 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Beer and wine. Limited lot parking. MC, V. Colombian.
Lenchita's This place is always mentioned when people talk about L.A.'s best tamales, and its owner, Angelita Alvarez Renteria, has been a community fixture since Lenchita's opened in the late 1970s. You should probably consider Lenchita's combination platters, not just tacos and chiles rellenos and tamales, but also grandmother-style stews plopped onto a plate with rice and beans, informal tastes of plain, second-generation Mexican home cooking served with big stacks of freshly made tortillas. You will find most of the usual antojitos at Lenchita's, snacks based on the kitchen's handmade masa — dryish gorditas, vaguely similar to rounds of Mexican pita, split and filled; rudimentary tacos so big you can barely get them into your mouth; and simple quesadillas stuffed with melted cheese. The sopes are especially nice, and soups are good too, also quite plain but among the best of their kind in Los Angeles: rich chicken soup, a chile-laced beef soup called picadillo, and a minty broth barely concealing a lode of enormous albondigas — loose, delicious meatballs flavored with onions and herbs that dissolve in a gush of liquid in your mouth. 13612 Van Nuys Blvd., Pacoima, (818) 899-2623. Open daily 6 a.m.-8 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only. Mexican.
Sri Siam A mile south of the more glamorous precincts of North Hollywood's Thai Town, in a mini-mall populated by tattooed young men with shaved heads and 16-inch biceps, Sri Siam may be one of the least promising restaurants on the planet — a dingy storefront that looks every one of its 23 years. The menu is dense with banal stir-fries and curries. You have to bring in your own beer. But connoisseurs of Thai cooking have always revered Sri Siam, which served dishes from northern and northeastern Thailand at a time when regional Thai cooking was all but unknown in Los Angeles, and where it was possible for non-Thais to order, say, green-papaya salad or boat noodles amped up to Bangkok levels of spiciness without having to grovel for more than a minute or two. Listed on the menu as o-lou is a sort of crunchy, fried rice-batter pancake stuffed with shrimp and layered over a bed of sautéed bean sprouts — a wonderful dish. Also, the golden, crunchy fried trout served with spicy slivered-apple salad is legendary. 12843 Vanowen St., N. Hlywd., (818) 982-6262. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. No alcohol. Delivery. Lot parking. MC, V. $5.95 lunch specials. Dinner for two, food only, $14-$28. Thai.
Larkin's Chef Larkin Mackey, a reclusive, slender African-American man who rarely leaves the kitchen, sometimes calls his restaurant a modern juke joint. There is Fats Waller on the stereo and faded Southern commercial art on the walls, tables made out of old doors in the dining room and picnic benches in the garden out back. Every dish on the menu is probably somebody's best recipe: The tart, creamy potato salad is credited to Aunt Carolyn; the ground-beef-intensive chile verde to chef Mackey's grandpa; the caramelly-tasting banana pudding to Mama. Still, Larkin's is a controversial place, distrusted by both people expecting a cheap, unreconstructed soul-food restaurant and snobs looking for refined haute cuisine, both hungry boys upset that the portions are less gargantuan than Roscoe's and Southerners skeptical of the trace of fresh mint in the jelly jars of sweet tea. But one thing is beyond argument: Larkin's fried chicken, tender-crusted and juicy, golden and singing with the taste of clean oil, is about as good as it gets in Los Angeles restaurants. 1496 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 254-0934 or www.larkinsjoint.com. Tues.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. & 5:30-9:30 p.m.; brunch Sun. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. No alcohol. Limited lot parking. AE, MC, V. Southern.
Monterey Park/San Gabriel and Vicinity
Battambang Khmer cooking is among the most exotic on the planet, sharing some ingredients with nearby Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, but with a flavor unmistakably its own: clear, clean and bitter, inflected with coconut milk, the fermented fish sauce called prahok and any number of minty herbs. Amok ("steamed curry fish filet" on the menu) is probably the most famous dish of Khmer cuisine, a filet steamed with coconut milk and aromatics until it almost collapses under its own weight, garnished with a plop of coconut cream and sliced fresh chiles. As at most Cambodian-Chinese restaurants in town, the smattering of Khmer dishes is not specifically identified on the menu, and if you manage to order a selection of them, the waitress will probably raise her eyebrow and ask you if you like Cambodian food: loc lac, sautéed cubes of saucy marinated beef served with a watercress salad; sweet grilled "beef stick" marinated in a deep-red paste that tastes like but isn't Hawaiian Punch concentrate; spicy-sour soup with slices of catfish and battleship-gray slivers of banana blossom that taste like bottled artichoke hearts. Tell her you've come for the karaoke. 1806 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 307-3938. Mon.-Sat. 9:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Sun. 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Beer, wine. Lot parking. MC, V. Cambodian-Chinese.
Boiling Crab The Los Angeles restaurant world has long been a place of improbable carom shots, but even here the Boiling Crab, a Cajun seafood restaurant opened by a Vietnamese family from southeast Texas and serving a young Chinese clientele, is unprecedented in the complexity of its resonances: Southeast Asian seafood culture colliding head-on with Franco-Acadian cuisine, Tabasco running into the bird pepper, spicy Vietnamese-Chinese crabstyles bleeding into the swamp cooking of the American South. At Boiling Crab, you choose seafood, boiled with a choice of three flavors — supersaturated garlic butter, lemon pepper, or a fiery Cajunesque seasoning that will stain your fingers and seep out of your pores — or, more likely, what the restaurant calls the Whole Sha-Bang, a mixture of all three. (It is good to remember that what the restaurant calls spicy is extremely spicy, of an intensity that more or less blots out the flavor of the seafood. Medium-spicy is fine.) It may take four or five attempts to get a glass of iced water, but a second beer appears on the table almost before you have a chance to open your mouth. Recommended dishes: shrimp, crab, crawfish. 742 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 576-9368. Mon.-Fri. 3-10 p.m., Sat.-Sun. noon-10 p.m. Beer. Severely limited lot parking. MC, V. Cajun-Chinese.
Bollini's Pizzeria At the bottom tip of Monterey Park, in a neighborhood better known for its tacos than for anything Chinese, Bollini's is an unlikely bastion of real Neapolitan pizza, a narrow storefront serving as a rudimentary support mechanism for the magnificent Italian oven that turns cords of cherrywood into intense, pizza-blistering heat. Chef Christiano Bollini, who grew up in the neighborhood and put in time at one of the best pizzerias in Naples, turns out brawny, load-bearing crusts, blackened and crisp at the rim; raised and a bit doughy at the center. There are classic margherita pies, unconventional pizza with pesto and shrimp, pizza with three kinds of sausage, with spinach and ricotta, and (shudder) with pineapple and bacon. The enterprise is still on shaky legs, although it is already scheduled to expand into the space next door, and the few tables seem superfluous to the booming to-go operation. The pastas are not going to cause Gino Angelini any sleepless nights. There is as yet no alcohol license. But the heart of any pizzeria is the crust that its pizzaiolo manages to coax out of its fires, and in that, Bollini's is pretty much there. How dedicated is Bollini to the cause? He has the Italian flag tattooed on his arm. 2315 S. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park, (323) 722-7600.Mon. 5-9 p.m., Tues. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. & 5-10 p.m., Wed.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. BYOB. Lot and street parking. Major CC. Italian, pizza.
Din Tai Fung If you are of a certain bent, you have probably spent many mornings milling around the parking lot outside the original Din Tai Fung, checking off too many items on the clipboard menu issued with your queue number, waiting for your shot at a steamerful or three of the renowned soup dumplings. Using irrefutable logic, the owner just opened a brand-new branch of his restaurant ... right around the corner. This means that you get to fight for space in the same parking lot and fill up on boba beforehand in the same Chinese kitsch emporium, but you can spend your waiting time pressing up against a handsomely curved wall of glass, behind which squadrons of busy dumpling technicians frolic like porpoises at Sea World. It's the greatest dumpling show on earth. Once you are finally seated in the shining gallery, your order sheets whisked from the table by the hostess, you will find the Din Tai Fung experience to be pretty much the same as it is next door, although the efficiency seems to have been perfected — the food appears as quickly as it would in a Jack in the Box drive-through — and the ambiance is closer to a chic Taipei department store than to a vast food hall. 1088 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia, (626) 446-8588. Open daily 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-9:30 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. MC, V. Chinese.
Earthen Restaurant This noodle shop in one of the inevitable 99 Ranch mini-malls is an attractive place, done up inside with flagstones and modern Chinese art like a $2 million living room in Scottsdale. Though Earthen is a bit more expensive than its competitors — a bowl of noodles pushes $7, simple stir-fries average $10 — it follows the formula exactly: noodles, steamed dumplings, pot stickers, chachiang mein. Earthen is the place that always has a line, and as you are finally led through the restaurant toward your table, past families and dating couples and dudes stoking up before the game, you may notice that every single table has ordered essentially the same dishes: scallion pancakes, cold Shandong-style chicken that sings arias in the key of raw garlic, noodles (more dutiful than delicious), and pot stickers, leavened by the occasional order of spicy pork or stir-fried ong choy. Recommended dishes: house chicken, green-onion pancakes, pork pot stickers, fish dumplings. 1639 S. Azusa Ave., Hacienda Heights, (626) 964-1570. Lunch Wed.-Sun. 11:15 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Wed.-Sun. 4:30-9:15 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only. Chinese.
Hong Yei There are a lot of new Sichuan restaurants in Los Angeles — real ones, staffed by chefs from Chungking or Chengdu, most of them with splendid cold-appetizer cases, decent dan dan mien, and food of a numbingly hot complexity most of us barely knew existed a half-dozen years ago. But at none of them, I think, is there anything quite like the Sichuan-style fish that is one of the specialties at the new Hong Yei in San Gabriel, a vast bowl of vegetable oil buried beneath 2 inches of toasted red chiles, and concealing a brace of snow-white fish fillets slow-poached in the flavored oil. The fish are firm yet melt away in the mouth, leaving a clean, spicy flavor behind, a wonderful dish that betrays little hint of the quart of grease left behind in the bowl, subtle almost in spite of itself. Some of the other dishes at Hong Yei aren't quite up to the versions at other local Sichuan restaurants. The fried chicken with chiles is on the stodgy side, and the chile-marinated sliced beef too crumbly. The menu is plumped out with hotel-school eastern Chinese dishes that hardly seem promising. But the scarlet braised ma po tofu is first-rate. And I can hardly wait to go back and try the kidney with hot sauce, the Hong Yei tofu, and the many, many dishes made with what the menu calls "edible frog." 288 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 614-8188. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer, wine. MC, V. Chinese.
Hunan Seafood Is there a contest for the best steamed fish head in the San Gabriel Valley? Because if there is, the example at the new Hunan Seafood might win the prize — a mammoth, silvery head, jaws agape, eyes frosted in death. You could work for an hour on that head, picking oozing lozenges of meat from cranial interstices and the secret, gelatinous bits from where they hide inside the animal's cheeks, daring yourself to taste the forbidden scraps. The Los Angeles area has seen a lot of Hunan-style restaurants open in the past couple of years, although many of them have tended to specialize in the oily, fearsomely hot dishes that seem to make up a lot of the peasant cooking in the region. Although it shares a lot of its menu with those other restaurants, Hunan Seafood leans toward the suaver end of the spectrum. But would it be a Hunanese restaurant if it didn't feature the dish often called "Mao's pork," an homage to Hunan's favorite son, a bowl of soft, slithery chunks of pork belly simmered with garlic, star anise and fresh bamboo? It would not. Hunan Seafood's version is the best in town. 8772 E. Valley Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 280-8389. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Beer, wine. Lot parking. MC, V.
The Kitchen Well before you have ticked off your selections on the written dim sum menu at The Kitchen, a Hong Kong-style Alhambra restaurant spun off from a successful Millbrae original, your table is surrounded by waitresses bearing trays — hot, delicious-smelling trays straight from the kitchen, laden with crisp, deep-fried nests of shredded taro that conceal tiny hard-boiled quail eggs at their core; sticky rice noodles wrapped around fried Chinese crullers; and hollow globes of pounded sticky rice, tinted kelly green with powdered tea, encapsulating sweet bean paste. Once you have obtained a pot of chrysanthemum tea and powered through plates of glistening, golden-baked pork bao; broccoli with oyster sauce; and white-topped buns, comically bursting out of miniature tins, that turn out to be filled with something like Chinese apple-pie filling, you can be forgiven for assuming that you have eaten lunch even before you have ordered. Recommended dim sum: taro nest with quail egg, steamed chicken feet, congee with dried scallop and pork, fried green-tea dumplings. 203 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 289-4828. Open daily 9 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-11 p.m. Beer, wine. Lot parking. MC, V. Chinese.
Saigon Flavor Of all the well-documented marvels of the San Gabriel Valley, perhaps none has inspired as much devotion as the Vietnamese noodle shop Golden Deli, which has overflowed its mini-mall parking lot since the 1980s. Golden Deli has opened yet another noodle shop, Saigon Flavor, a few miles south near the big San Gabriel mall. Saigon Flavor was so close to the original that they didn't even bother to print different menus when the new restaurant opened. Saigon Flavor, too, has difficult parking and weekend waits that stretch over half an hour. It is basically a second Golden Deli, a wonderful thing in itself. 208 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 572-6036. Open Sun. 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Mon., Wed., Thurs. 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri. 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat. 9 a.m.-10 p.m. (Closed Tuesdays.) BYOB. Street parking. MC, V.
Stuffed SandwichAt the Stuffed Sandwich, owned by Sam Samaniego and his wife, Marlene, Sam's word is Scripture. If you ask for a lager, Sam will tell you that you're wimpy. If you ask for a triple-strength ale, he will make sure that somebody else is driving. If you head toward the beer taps before ordering food, he will insist that his restaurant is not a bar, tapping his pencil under the Reagan busts on top of the coolers until you finally order a liverwurst sandwich. If you want a proper glass for your ale, you will have to bring one yourself (as many regulars do) or drink from a miniature Dixie cup. Eventually, you will get around to the food, which runs toward tomato-paste-intensive spaghetti, overstuffed submarine sandwiches and the last Freedom Fries available in the Greater Los Angeles area. He makes the Polish sausages himself, and they must be about 50 percent superhot pepper by weight. The beer menu is a fizzing, breathing encyclopedia of hops: monastery ales beyond counting and Moza Bock from Guatemala, smoky rauchbier from Germany and sour Fantome from Belgium, Fat Dog Stout, Old Speckled Hen and Bud Light: probably 700 beers in all, plus an equal number that Sam may pull from the back if he thinks you are worthy of the honor. God help you if you ask for a Heineken. 1145 E. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, (626) 285-9161. Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $10-$18. Deli.
Top Island "The discovery of a new dish," said Brillat-Savarin, "does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star." And with apologies to our fine neighbors at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the discovery of a new dim sum parlor should make mankind happier still. Carved from the corpus of the late and unmourned Sea Star, Top Island is pretty much your standard megalithic Hong Kong-style banquet restaurant during the evenings, with a Chiu Chow-tinged menu of shark's fin, crab balls and flash-fried goose intestines, but in the mornings it reverts to a by-the-book dim sum joint, priced on the cheap end of the spectrum, with bao and fritters, dumplings stuffed with shrimp and dumplings stuffed with scallops, slippery broad rice noodles, rice steamed in lotus leaves and boiled Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce, hot tofu sluiced with syrup and chilled mango pudding moistened with condensed milk straight from the can. What's that, you say? Top Island sounds no different from any of the other old-line dim sum parlors in town? True enough. But it is always pleasant, on occasion, to gaze on a different succession of carts. 740 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 300-9898. Open daily 7:30 a.m.-1 a.m. No alcohol. Street parking. MC, V. Chinese.
Vietnam Restaurant Michael Le, son of the Golden Deli owners and formerly of Vietnam House, holds court behind the cash register, once again back in the noodle business, back with his delicious barbecued squid fragrant bowls of pho, and, best of all, the magnificent seven-beef dinner, a procession of sweet beef salad, beef wrapped in charred la lot leaves, ground beef baked with vermicelli into a crumbly meat loaf and grilled beef filets twisted into chewy cylinders, beef daubed with sweet satay sauce, and slices of beef that you simmer in a tabletop cauldron seething with boiling vinegar. The seven-beef extravaganza ends with big bowls of beef-laced porridge, which oddly enough is spiced like a Christmas cookie. This $12.95 feast is enough to feed two, for less than the price of a house salad at Mastro's. 340 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, (626) 281-5577. Open Sun. 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Mon.-Wed. 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (Closed Thursdays.) No alcohol. Lot parking. MC, V.
Pasadena and vicinity
Neo Meze Square bowls? Square spoons? Square layout? A cubical log cabin constructed from girders of herbed feta and olive-oil-slicked watermelon? That's Neo Meze, a dimly lit new small-plates restaurant whose design is as rigorously gridded as any midperiod Mondrian, and whose neoclubber clientele could be cast in a remake of A Night at the Roxbury. As is the custom at the moment, the dishes at Neo Meze are rarely content to reflect the virtues of one cuisine when three or four would do, so that an assortment of dips to use with toasted flatbread includes Indian chutney as well as a Greek tzatziki and a Lebanese-ish red-pepper chutney, and the slider plate includes a tiny beefburger, a kebab-seasoned chicken burger and a shredded-carrot thing that could have come off a Sri Lankan buffet table, with Spanish romesco sauce and a blue-cheese aioli on the side. And then there's the Kobe kibbe. The short wine list, I am sorry to say, is as square as the lounge music. 20 E. Colorado Blvd., Suite 102, Pasadena, (626) 793-3010. Dinner Sun.-Wed. 5 p.m.-mid., Thurs.-Sat. 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Full bar. Parking lot. AE, MC, V. Fusion, small plates.
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Porta Via Italian Foods Less a restaurant than a sleekly upscale deli, a source for fashionable cured meats, exotic truffled cheeses from the Veneto, impeccable meatball sandwiches, "Kobe-beef" pastrami, and a pistachio cookie than which there is no other, Porta Via — along with the brand-new NapaStyle on Lake — is the newest exhibit in the Italianization of Pasadena's food culture, and not incidentally a really good place to get lunch or takeout osso buco for a Hollywood Bowl basket. It's Pasadena's answer to Lemon Moon, except you can get a BLT made with fried pancetta. Glass cases burst with various Italian deli standards, but also with prepared entrées, and with things like sautéed chard with garlic, insalata caprese made with the tiniest marbles of fresh mozzarella, and herb-roasted carrots, all sold by weight. There are pressed panini filled with things like fresh mozzarella and basil or Italian cold cuts in the style of the Autogrill, the beloved fast-service restaurant chain perched above the gasoline pumps on Italy's Autostrada. 1 W. California Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 793-9000. Mon.-Fri. 7 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.-7 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking Italian.
Robin's Wood Fire BBQ The Central Texas towns of legend have long since been turned into prettified versions of themselves, century-old hardware stores transformed into antique shops, saloons into genteel restaurants, and old clapboard houses into bed-and-breakfast joints with lace curtains in the windows. And sad as it is to say, the good barbecue place in Texas towns these days is less likely to be that scenic dining room in the square than it is to be in a prefab industrial building out by the Wal-Mart on the highway, a building that happens to be decorated with the old license plates and cow skulls and splintered butter churns that shriek louder of eBay than they do of tradition. Robin's Wood Fire BBQ, which occupies the destination-restaurant slot in an east-Pasadena shopping center, is a Texas-style barbecue of the latter-day ilk, splattered with rusty street signs and old advertisements for feed, beer neon and sports paraphernalia, crushed peanut shells, bottles of blue cream soda and dusty chicken bones. The menu prose glad hands the local city council and the Rose Bowl committee, butters up the owner's in-laws, and describes the actual food in an overheated tone you haven't seen since the 1970s. Robin's is awfully, awfully proud of catering the tri-tip at Irwindale Speedway. Every order of barbecue comes with a giant slab of blueberry coffee cake and a bowl of coleslaw with blue cheese and pecans. The sauces are too sticky by half. But do they get the oak into the meat? They do, actually, especially into the beef ribs, a blackened, smoking order of which is the closest thing I have ever seen to that rack of brontosaurus ribs that tips over Fred Flintstone's car. Robin's, which may be more authentic than the owners even know, sets the standard for suburban barbecue. 395 N. Rosemead Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 351-8885. Tues.-Sun. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Full bar (bar open till 11 p.m. Fri.). Street parking. AE, D, MC, V. Barbecue.
Tirupathi Bhimas Just a few years ago, most of the Indian restaurants on this stretch of Pioneer were pretty generic, vaguely northern or southern Indian perhaps, but not especially regional. Now most of the newer restaurants represent the cooking of a specific area, and Tirupathi Bhimas is about as regional as you can get here. Tamil is spoken and dishes are assumed to be searingly spicy unless specified otherwise. The menu is small, but the kitchen here churns out all manner of South Indian marvels. The standard order at Tirupathi Bhimas is the thali, the traditional combination plate of nine or so stews, soups and grain dishes, spooned into tiny bowls. Will you know what is in the bowls? Probably not, and nobody will bother to explain them to you. Suffice it to say that the spicy Andhra thali will be spicy and the nonspicy thali will be pretty spicy too; that you will run across groovy things like a dry-fried vegetable curry or two, pickles, and spicy lentil broth, with a little tin of sweet, saffron-infused rice pudding for dessert. 18792 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia, (562) 809-3806. Open Tues.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-2:15 p.m. & 6-9:15 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-2:15 p.m. & 6-9:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-9:45 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. MC, V.