There will be an official 2007 wrap-up from Mr. Gold himself, but with the year drawing to a close, we wanted to do a quick re-cap of some of your favorite Counter Intelligence columns over the past year, based on traffic and reader feedback. We'll also throw in links to this year's restaurant special issues for your convenient bookmarking pleasure.

Crullers That Bloom in Spring: Time to see the Donut Man

March 21, 2007

(All Photos by Anne Fishbein)

Have you ever seen a strawberry doughnut from the Donut Man? It is an iceberg of a doughnut, a flattened demisphere big enough to use as a Pilates cushion, split in two and filled to order with what must be an entire basket of fresh strawberries, and only in season. The fruit is moistened with a translucent gel that lubricates even the occasional white-shouldered berry with a mantle of slippery sweetness, oozing from the sides, turning the bottom of the pasteboard box into a sugary miasma in the unlikely event that the doughnuts actually make it home. The tawny pastry itself is only lightly sweetened, dense and slightly crunchy at the outside, like most good doughnuts, with a vaguely oily nuttiness and an almost substantial chew. It is the only doughnut I have ever seen that is routinely served with a plastic knife and fork. It is worth every penny of the $2.50 it costs. Click here to read the rest of the article.

Do Fries Go With That Ube Shake? André Guerrero’s pastrami lessons at The Oinkster

April 18, 2007

The center of Belgian fries in Los Angeles at the moment is probably The Oinkster, a converted Eagle Rock joint saturated with the smell of wood smoke, a formidable, fragrant blast drifting from a restaurant that until recently was a branch of the Jim’s chain, red roof gleaming in the late-afternoon sun — smoke that just happens to be flavoring Carolina-style pork barbecue and what is probably the only house-smoked pastrami currently being sold within the Los Angeles city limits.

The Oinkster is the newest child of André Guerrero, who has been chef of Max and Señor Fred and a lot of long-gone places that you’d recognize if you used to read Kathie Jenkins’ old restaurant-news column in the L.A. Times. Oinkster is a perfected fast-food restaurant, the old-school paradigm of pastrami, burgers and chicken reinvented for a new age when a remodeled hamburger hut can be enjoyed for the stark loveliness of its mid-century modern architecture and nobody thinks it odd that a famous chef might seek an apprenticeship with a revered deli counterman. Click here to read the rest of the article.

Noodles With Attitude: Ramen as high art at Santouka

Jan. 24, 2007

(All photos by Anne Fishbein)

What you get at Santouka is ramen, or more specifically shio ramen, thin, squiggly noodles, a bit chewier than you might expect, served in a boiling-hot pork broth minimally seasoned with salt. Floating among the noodles will be a bit of seaweed, a pinch of chopped green onion and a thin round of bland fishcake decorated with a swirl of Barbie-box pink. There are three slices of pork — one, two, three — each a sort of Oldsmobile brown and edged with a generous layer of pale fat. At the exact middle point of the bowl, so precisely placed that I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a centering device back in the kitchen, is a single scarlet pickle, the size of a scarlet pea, probably chosen for its vivid color as much as for its pinprick of acidity, the dot over the “i” that brings the entire composition into focus. Santouka’s shio ramen is a considered work of art.

Still, the restaurant’s aesthetic may not be your own. Where the basic broth at Little Tokyo’s Daikokuya is a lush thing, paled by the proteins of the Kurobuta pork bones at its base and oozing the mellow essence of pig and garlic, Santouka’s is a sharper-tasting liquid, slightly milky, resonant with the defined funk of pork that has been cooked a few degrees past well-done. Click here to read the rest of the article

Hot From the Kitchen: Dim sum without the carts

Jan. 10, 2007

A great dim sum meal is the closest that restaurant-going comes to a fever dream, an endless pageant of tin trays, ceramic plates and stainless-steel baskets, circles of bamboo and deep ceramic vessels, processions of boiled vegetables, simmered viscera and floppy noodles that continue until you surrender, leaving you surrounded with what looks like the leavings of a thousand meals: steamers piled high, dumpling remnants underfoot, bones and chewed cartilage and ruined carapaces of a dozen undersea creatures. You call a halt to the feast not by politely signaling to the servers, who will keep offering you food even when your table is a foot deep in shrimp shells, but by waving to a headwaiter across the room like a drowning man begging for a life preserver.

At The Kitchen, a new, Hong Kong–style Alhambra restaurant spun off from a successful Millbrae original, the onslaught of dreamy pleasure is complete. Well before you have ticked off your selections on the written dim sum menu, 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. Click here to read the rest of the article.

Sole Food: Highland Park, home of the huarache

April 25, 2007

Half of Highland Park bellies up to the counter at El Huarache Azteca #1 on weekend afternoons, guzzling housemade horchata, tepache and watermelon drink out of foam cups the size of oil cans; hovering over the few oilcloth-covered tables inside; gathering tacos and huaraches by the dozen to bring home to their families; coaxing burning-hot huitlacoche quesadillas — fried turnovers stuffed with musky, jet-black corn fungus — out of the stone-faced woman who mans the fragrant fry cart stationed just outside the restaurant’s entrance. The last time I was by, I ordered a quesadilla stuffed with flor de calabaza, the sauté of squash blossoms and vegetables that is one of El Huarache’s specialties. Five minutes later, I was handed a grilled quesadilla filled with cabeza, beef head, on a flour tortilla. It was undeniably delicious, but I contemplated for a moment suing my 11th-grade Spanish teacher for malpractice.

The famous dish at El Huarache is, of course, the huarache, a flat, concave trough of fried masa the approximate length and shape of a size-12 sandal, mounded with beans and tough, thin shards of grilled steak or chile-red nubs of marinated pork, a layer of shredded lettuce, and strata of grated cheese and Mexican-style cultured cream. If your tastes run that way, you can have your huarache topped with slippery squares of fried pigskin that have been simmered into submission, or with shredded bits of chicken. If you are up to the challenge, you can get it piled high with the cabeza, the rich, gelatinous meat from a cow’s head cooked down into an ultra-concentrated essence of beef with the consistency of refried beans. Click here to read the rest of the article.

The New California Pizza Kitchen: Mozza lays down the dough

Jan. 3, 2007

(All photos by Anne Fishbein)

If you want to start a real fight at an L.A. party, all you have to do is posit an opinion on what a decent pizza should look like. Arguments will be made for the burnt-crusted marvels at Casa Bianca or the cornmeal-enriched pies at Zelo, the salmon-topped pizzas that Spago serves at lunch or the dozens of pies that hew to a mythical New York City aesthetic that is rarely followed in that city itself. (To my mind, the best New York pizza is served at Frank Pepe’s in New Haven.) In Italy, outside of certain precincts of Naples, the locals tend to be pretty easygoing about pizza, although they probably wouldn’t admit it to the hulking Roma fan in front of them in the line at the Testaccio favorite Pizza Re. Even some of the most rigorous temples of the art allow the occasional Sicilian variation or tourist-friendly topping of wurstel.

But at Pizzeria Mozza, Nancy Silverton has people arguing over the entire paradigm of what a pizza might be. Her pizza is airy and burnt and risen around the rim, thin and crisp in the center, neither bready in the traditional Neapolitan manner nor wispy the way you find pizza in the best places in Tuscany. The crust is sweet and bitter, salty and chewy, circled by crunchy charred bubbles that may or may not be snipped off by Silverton as she inspects the pizzas at the pass. What it reminds me of most is not pizza at all, but the flatbreads that emerge from the wood-burning ovens of Rome’s Antico Forno on the Campo dei Fiori, olive-oil-brushed masterpieces of crust that require nothing more than a few grains of coarse salt to shine. Every pizza at Mozza is a unique marriage of flour, salt and hot-burning almond wood, stretched into irregular discs, as individually lovable as children. Click here to read the rest of the article.

Lenchita's Corn Star: Making masa magical

August 29, 2007

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. The unorthodox chile verde is made with chewy strips of smoky grilled meat simmered in a thin, spicy, salty broth enriched with puréed green chiles; the carne en salsa de molcajete is more or less the same meat drenched in a broth flavored with pulpy red chiles pounded in a stone mortar — both of them perhaps less complete dishes on their own than elaborate sauces meant to be scooped up with a toasty scrap of those tortillas. Carne asada — tough, salty slices of grilled steak that nonetheless have a developed beef flavor — is good with the pico de gallo mounded in a little bowl on the table.

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, fried saucers of the corn dough with a substantial crunch and the delicate taste of hot oil and corn, heaped with lettuce, meat and cheese. Click here to read the rest of the article.

Omakase Warrior: A soft touch beyond the hard rules of Hiko Sushi

April 4, 2007

(All photos by Anne Fishbein)

Other local Japanese restaurants have rules — in fact, the existence of arbitrary regulations is almost a defining characteristic of Los Angeles sushi. But the dictates are both more numerous and more strictly enforced at Hiko, which may be the sushi bar equivalent of Shopsin’s, the late, beloved Greenwich Village diner whose owner often spent more time ferreting out customers who defied his commandments — one of which was a prohibition against ordering the same thing as the guy at the next table — than he actually did in the kitchen.

If you sit at the sushi bar, you will almost certainly be served a big cereal bowl full of chopped tuna drenched in tart ponzu sauce. Then come yellowtail sushi, red-snapper sushi dressed with citrus and a bit of numbing pepper, albacore sushi, and a crab roll.

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. Click here to read the rest of the article.

Red Scare at Boiling Crab: Shell games

September 19, 2007

In the 18 hours and 43 minutes since my last meal at Boiling Crab, I have taken three showers, washed my hands thirty-seven times, soaked in the juice of four lemons and scrubbed twice with a stainless-steel bar. I have brushed my teeth six times, flossed five and gargled with Listerine and Plax. My khakis are in the midst of their second round with Snuggles the fabric-softener bear, and my shoes have been quarantined on the back porch. I would like to think that I will be ready to reconnect with the outside world soon, but my son scooted away rather quickly when I dropped him off at school this morning, and the cat regards my fingers with an ominous hunger in her eyes.

(Photos by Anne Fishbein)

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.

Al Langer: The Counterman, 1913–2007

July 3, 2007

When I am showing first-time visitors around Los Angeles, I like to take them for a pastrami sandwich at Langer’s, the old-line Jewish delicatessen across the street from MacArthur Park. By the time they get to the place, either from the parking lot down the block on Seventh Street or from the subway stop across the street on Alvarado, they will have smelled the food from half a dozen Central American countries, seen a decent selection of Mexican street murals, and been offered the opportunity to buy fresh mangoes, bogus green cards and cut-rate cumbia compilations by the freelance entrepreneurs who frequent the neighborhood. Within the restaurant itself, they will probably wait for a table with customers speaking Spanish, Korean and Chiapan dialect. They are under the impression that they will be fed an egg cream and lectured about the multicultural possibilities of L.A.: Look! We all get along!

But glance at their faces a moment after they bite into a Langer’s pastrami sandwich for the first time: thick slices of hand-sliced meat, glistening with peppery fat, as dense and as smoky as Texas barbecue; thick-cut seeded corn rye, hot, crisp-crusted and soft inside, with a slightly sour tang that helps tame the richness of the meat; a dab of yellow mustard, as important to the whole as a sushi master’s wasabi. The fact is inescapable: Langer’s serves the best pastrami sandwich in America, in a location perhaps better suited to a tamale merchant or a specialist in Honduran baleadas. Click here to read the rest of the article.

And if that's not enough to keep you eating through the new year, don't forget our Winter '07 Restaurants issue, The 20 Best Italian Restaurants in L.A. and our Summer Restaurants issue, 99 Essential Restaurants: The Metropolitan Palate, with our Google maps tool to get you around town.

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