Ashoka the Great
Ashoka is where to come for tandoori dishes: skinless chicken legs and fish kebabs and minced-lamb sausages marinated in yogurt and spices, flash-cooked in an ultrahot clay oven and served sizzling in a bed of onions on a heated steel platter. Mediocre tandoori, like bad barbecue, can still be pretty good, but Ashoka’s brand is wonderful, crisped at the edges and fragrant with spice, smoky, slightly tart, dyed to the bone in the peculiar hue Frank Lloyd Wright used to call Cherokee red. For this tandoori chicken, it’s worth a long drive across town. 18614 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia; (562) 809-4229. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $17–$24. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Takeout. AE, Disc., MC, V.
Aunt Gussye’s Place
Twist off the heads, suck the yellow fat out of the carapace, slip the tail meat free, and yow! This is hardcore crawfish, served in a bowl the size of a Buick hubcap, fragrant with allspice, hot with a megadose of black pepper. For an extra buck, you can get them boiled with coins of hot sausage and a couple ears of corn — and you most probably haven’t lived until you’ve rolled a few of them up inside Aunt Gussye’s corn bread. As for the rest of the menu, the creole stuff at Aunt Gussye’s is generally better than the soul food. Shrimp creole, for example, while based on a plain tomato stew flavored with green pepper and onion, may just be what Tabasco was invented to cure: a bright dash or two brings this dish into almost perfect balance. 2057 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena; (626) 794-6024. Open Mon.–Fri. 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 9 a.m.–9 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $14–$18. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, Disc., DC, MC, V.
Baca del Rio
Baca del Rio mostly specializes in crisp-edged griddled huachinango (red snapper), marinated with garlic and dried chiles (al pil-pil), or — more simply — al mojo de ajo with browned bits of chopped garlic, or cooked in a dry egg batter to resemble the treatment fish is given in Korean pubs. There is also a classic huachinango à la Veracruzana, braised in tomato sauce, sharply flavored with capers and olives. But even red snapper can be pushed too far. Huachinango relleno is a complex work of culinary engineering but may be a little too weird to eat: a crisp-skinned grilled fish, split and filled with a mixture of shrimp and octopus, drenched with a quart or so of 40-weight cheese sauce decorated with baroque squiggles of ketchup and surmounted with toothpick-mounted olives that jut from the snapper’s flank like eye stalks from a crab. 3706 E. Whittier Blvd., East L.A.; (323) 268-9339. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $22–$35. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, MC, V.
The “soupy beef” at the Pasadena Szechuan restaurant Fu-Shing may be the most incendiary single Chinese dish in Southern California, a brothy, brick-colored thing, gritty with ground dried chiles, thick with garlic, leeks, cornstarch-tempered slices of cow: Like a hard-fought set of tennis, it can soak your shirt in sweat. The dish is stunningly complex, with the bitter, buzzy heat of Szechuan peppercorns lurking just under the chile, black pepper not far under that, gradually expanding into a white-hot glow that I have always suspected would be sufficient to illuminate an inning or so of night baseball. Fu-Shing’s soupy beef — ask for it extra-hot — is an endorphin surfer’s Waimea. 2960 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 792-8898. Open daily 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $16–$26. Full bar. Takeout and delivery. AE, CB, DC, MC, V.
If Norman Rockwell had palled around with Chester Himes, he might have come up with something like Red’s Cafe, a genteel soul-food diner tucked away off Griffith Avenue, a U-counter fried-chicken peep into America’s recent past, only five minutes southeast of downtown. The menu is posted on a signboard high on a wall, but though it changes from day to day, the bill of fare is eternal: You basically have a choice of pig’s feet, fried chicken or trenchers of long-braised meat. Sometimes you’ll find sweet-potato pie for dessert, sometimes just a handful of peppermints. There might be black-eyed peas, sharp-tasting and butter-soft, pillowy stewed pinto beans, intensely flavored collard greens or a pungent heap of simmered cabbage along with your meat. The fried chicken itself is extraordinary — crisp-crusted, well-spiced, juicy, full of flavor, something close to a platonic vision of soul-fried bird — and there’s always a mountain of rice and gravy, and plenty of crunchy, hot corn sticks. 1102 E. 22nd St.; (213) 745-9909. Open daily 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Catering. Cash only.
Rubin’s Red Hot
In L.A. County, the temple of the dog is Rubin’s Red Hot, a massive drive-through Chicago-dog joint on a sliver of a lot, built using a slice of Chicago el-track steel, massive and rivet-laden and as mystically baroque in its Midwestern way as something from early Gaudí. No matter how deconstructed the architecture, though, the hot dog is the thing. The red hot is served in a steamed, seeded roll, moist but not soggy, with the requisite pickle spear, tomato wedge, chopped onion, and a schmeer of piccalilli dyed a violent green you might better associate with some of the less subtle Op Art paintings of Bridget Riley than with something actually eaten as food. And while Rubin’s Red Hot does commit the mortal sin of using a kosher-style dog that, while large, is not Vienna brand, still, you could do lots worse. 15322 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 905-6515. Open daily 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $10–$20. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. MC, V.
The most famous dishes of Oaxacan cooking are the moles, thick, rich sauces composed of as many as three dozen different roasted chiles, nuts and seeds, ground into a paste with a mortar and pestle and thinned out with a little broth, as perfect a sauce for poultry as any beurre blanc or bigarade. When you ask for mole at Texate, the waitress patiently waits until you specify which kind of mole you’d like: the mole negro, tar-black, sweet-bitter, with a specific gravity that lies somewhere near that of plutonium; the oddly herbed verde de pollo; the mole called amarillo, especially mild, with a clear chile flavor, a strong top note of cumin and the sort of slightly oily texture of gravy in a chicken-dinner restaurant; or the mole coloradito that’s the best food in the house, brick-red, sharply spicy, a little smoky, with the roundness of toasted grain, more pungent than the negro, everything you’re looking for when you order mole. 316 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 399-1115. Open daily 8 a.m.–11:30 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $11–$15. Full bar. Lot parking in rear. AE, CB, DC, MC, V.
A bowl of the Korean bean-curd stew called soon tofu looks less like food than like a special effect from a Wes Craven movie, a heaving, bright-red mass in a superheated black cauldron that spits like a lake of volcanic lava and broadcasts a fine red mist of chile and broth. A network of bubbles on the surface occasionally opens up like a cinematic portal to doom, revealing glistening white chunks of tofu bobbing within. Tofu Cabin’s version is first-rate: Try the No. 2 combination, with briny little clams and bits of meat and fragrant strips of toasted seaweed that retain a little of their crunchiness in the heat of the broth, and soft, supple, creamy clouds of tofu, evanescent as mist. 4220 Beverly Blvd.; (213) 382-5111. Open Mon.–Sat. 10 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12. No alcohol. Takeout and free delivery. Lot parking. Cash only.