Alameda Swap Meet
The big food stall under the awning closest to the main building here is a full-on Mexican restaurant without the walls, featuring grilled chicken, carne asada and steam-table dishes: chile verde, chicken mole and a really good, spicy goat-meat stew that‘s the color of fresh blood. The big awning at the other end shades a Salvadoran stall where a woman pats pupusas one after the other, frying them hard and stacking them up in front of her. Around toward the south parking lot, marinated flank steak sizzles on steel-drum grills until it’s tough enough to go into tacos. The Alameda Swap Meet is also the land of chile and lime, which are dribbled on freshly fried potato chips, sprinkled on popcorn, daubed on sliced mangoes, squirted on the delicious ceviche and marinated-shrimp tostadas served at El Bucanero seafood concession hard by the main building‘s entrance. 4501 S. Alameda Blvd.; (323) 233-2764. Open Mon., Wed.–Fri., 10 a.m.–7 p.m., Sat.–Sun., 8 a.m.–7 p.m. (though many of the food stalls are open weekends only). Lunch for two, food only, $3–$10. No alcohol. Takeout. Cash only.
Mario’s Peruvian Seafood Restaurant
Mario‘s highlights include the tiny saucer of hot, guacamole-textured Peruvian chile sauce, aji, that comes with the bread and butter; a huge platter of ceviche, extremely fresh, raw whitefish marinated in lemon juice and seasoned salt; papas la huancaina, a savory, op-art-yellow cheese sauce blanketing sliced, boiled potatoes. There’s a classic version of the Peruvian shrimp chowder chupe de camarones, a big bowl of chile-red soup mellowed with milk, thickened with great quantities of beaten egg and topped with a giant crouton of freshly fried bread. Half a boiled potato has sunk to the bottom of the bowl . . . In a Peruvian restaurant, you‘re never far from a potato. 5786 Melrose Ave.; (323) 466-4181. Open seven days, lunch and dinner; breakfast Sundays only. Dinner for two, food only, $13.50–$20. Takeout. MC, V.
May Flower is where to find perfect Cantonese beef stew, long-braised, anise-flavored chunks of brisket and meltingly tender beef tendon, or stewed pig’s trotters, slithery and delicious. Even better, there‘s the Cantonese rice porridge jook, thick and savory and shot through with spicy strands of fresh ginger and green onions, which comes with basically every combination of stuff. Try it with peanuts. Or with strips of tripe. Or with the house combination of chicken, shrimp, liver and kidney, which flavors every drop. It’s the jook to have when you think there‘s no place like home. 800 Yale St., Chinatown; (213) 626-7113. Open daily 10 a.m.–10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $5–$10. No alcohol. Cash only.
Here is the best Mexican shrimp cocktail in town, a big parfait glass of crustaceans, cool and tart, elusively smoky, topped with a fan of sliced ripe avocado. Carne asada is exemplary, well-marinated, crusted with black pepper, chewy, beefy and hot; the carnitas are lean and moist, but full of flavor. The first-rate pozole has the funk of hominy, the bite of hot chile and the slightly gamy undertaste of long-stewed meat, but the chunks of boiled pork taste freshly cooked, and the soup has flavor even without the usual additions of chopped onion and oregano. The pork chile verde is spicy, tart, balanced, and there’s a wonderful albondigas soup flavored with mint. And, oh yes, did I mention that Mi Ranchito serves birria? 12223 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City; (310) 398-6106. Open seven days for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $11–$23. Full bar. Takeout. Parking lot. AE, CB, DC, Disc., MC, V.
Colima is a perfect spot to kill a hot Saturday afternoon, slurping fresh oysters — only $10 a dozen — and drinking cold cans of Tecate from the supermarket next door. Chase your beer with tostadas de ceviche, thick, fried corn tortillas spread with a chopped salad of marinated raw fish, onion and shredded carrot, sharp with the tang of vinegar, mellow with toasted corn, sweetly fishy in an extremely pleasant way, dusted with fresh cilantro — it goes with Tecate the way Roquefort goes with Sauternes. Then order camarones rancheros, the best entree, and you‘ll get a dozen meaty shrimp sauteed with crisp green peppers, swimming in a light, buttery tomato sauce touched with garlic — the minimalist kind of thing Angeli’s Evan Kleiman might scour fishing villages for if she specialized in Mexico instead of Italy. 1465 W. Third St.; (213) 482-4152. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $6–$20. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only.
Ruen Pair is one of the best Thai-Chinese places in town, its strong, clean flavors overlaid with a characteristic Thai funkiness. Fried flower stems, though, are typically Thai-Chinese. So are anise-scented roast fowl; 1,000-year eggs sauteed with chile; fried Chinese sausage; crumbles of pork cooked with salty Chinese olives. If you walk into the place around 2 a.m., you can look across the crowded restaurant and everybody‘s eating the same thing: omelets, the flat, crisp, well-done kind, like Thai frittatas stuffed with shrimp or pickled turnip; and morning-glory stems fried with garlic — delicious. 5257 Hollywood Blvd.; (323) 466-0153. Open daily 4 p.m.–3 a.m. Dinner for two, food only, $9–$15. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only.
The crown prince of Thai noodle shops and as brightly lit as a Burger King, Sanamluang may be the busiest place in east Hollywood. For duck hunters, there is an extremely good version of the traditional combination cha-po, duck and crunchy bits of deep-fried belly pork, served with rice and fish sauce; and a salad made with slivers of Chinese roast duck can be fine. Best of all, though, is the extraordinary General’s noodle soup: thin egg noodles, penetratingly garlicky, garnished with bits of duck, barbecued pork, crumbles of ground pork, a couple of shrimp and a teaspoon of sugar, either dry or submerged in a clean, clear broth that may be the most soothing thing possible at the end of the night, especially enlivened with a few slices of the vinegared Thai chiles from the little jar on the table. 5176 Hollywood Blvd.; (323) 660-8006. Other locations at 12980 Sherman Way, North Hollywood, and 1648 Indian Hill Blvd., Pomona. Open daily 9 a.m.–4 a.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12–$18. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only.
Tay Ho serves the Stradivari of banh cuon, transparent, almost membranous noodles, with the slight stretchy resilience of caul and a faint fine-cloth nubbiness that catches bits of the thin sauce you ladle from a dog-faced (Goofy, to be precise) carafe. Here you can get the banh cuon wrapped around ground, dried shrimp, or wrapped around a filling of crumbled pork sauteed with black pepper and tree-ear mushrooms. The combination plate includes both kinds of banh cuon, heaps of cucumber and bean sprouts, a shrimp-topped sweet-potato fritter and a shrimp cruller spiked with green beans. Order the banh cuon with thit nuong, and you‘ll get sort of noodle burritos stuffed with sweet Vietnamese barbecued pork; order them with bi, and there’ll be a gritty julienne of stewed pork skin. Get it how you like it — but do get the banh cuon! 1039 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 280-5207. Other location in Westminster. Open Mon. 9 a.m.–4 p.m., Tues.–Sun. 9 a.m.–9 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, $7–$9. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only.