Photo by Anne FishbeinCarlito's Gardel

The most famous dish here must be the baked-garlic appetizer, a naked halved bulb on a plate, ready to pulp onto the house's quite decent bread. There's also melted provolone cheese, laced with tomatoes and pungent Mexican oregano, for eating with the almost Vermont-style Argentine crackers in the bread baskets, and an appetizer of butter-smooth roasted red peppers just brushed with garlic and oil. The fried squid are the tender, delicate kind, hardly crunchy, tasting more of the sea than they do of oil. Still and all, as with almost any Argentine ã restaurant, Gardel revolves around its parrillada, a cavalcade of grilled meats — sweetbreads, blood sausage, skirt steak, short ribs, Italian sausage — served on a smoking iron grill, accompanied only by a small bowl of well-garlicked chimichurri and a large plate of mashed potatoes. And the meat is just fine, juicier than you would ever expect such well-done meat to be, full of flavor, overwhelming in its variety. 7963 Melrose Ave.; (323) 655-0891. Open Mon. – Fri. for lunch, seven days for dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $25 – $45. Beer and wine. Live music. AE, DC, MC, V.


Chu's Mandarin Cuisine

To start, try the combination cold plate, which is actually a strongly garlicked salad that is garnished with stewed eggs, pressed tofu and crunchy little strips of marinated pig's ear; or good garlic chicken salad; or one of the stir-fries, much better than those at other Chinese delis: curls of fresh cuttlefish fried with stalks of Chinese celery that are no thicker than haricots; slices of gammon, as sweet and chewy as griddled country ham, that have been sautéed with mild, scallionlike garlic greens; the delicious Chinese vegetable sometimes known as “hollow stems,” briefly fried with garlic. And finally, don't neglect Mr. Chu's hand-pulled noodles: long, spaghetti-shaped strands, springy things with a full, wheaty flavor and an extraordinary bite, perfect vehicles for the oily black-bean sauce served here. 40 W. Valley Blvd., No. 206, San Gabriel; (626) 572-6574. Open daily for lunch 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m., and for dinner 4:30 – 10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $8 – $15. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MC, V.


El Colmao

About the best thing at this Cuban restaurant is arroz con pollo: a big, fragrant bowl of rice, stained Easter-chick yellow and studded with pimientos and the meat of at least a quarter chicken. Chicken is also available sautéed with garlic and tomatoes, or sautéed and glazed with an intense sauce of wine and fried onions. There's a good version of the shredded-beef stew called ropa vieja, and the various fried steaks and chops are garlicky and fine. Also try a big plateful of moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians), a tasty miscegenation of black beans and rice fried with garlic and gobbets of fat pork; or piles of fried fresh ham, pierna de puerco, crisp and brown on the outside and meltingly tender within, topped with an immoderate portion of caramelized onions, all washed down with cold red wine served in those flared jugs pizzerias use for Almadén. 2328 W. Pico Blvd.; (213) 386-6131. Open Mon., Wed. and Fri. 10 a.m. – 8:30 p.m., Tues. till 5 p.m., Sat. – Sun. noon – 8:30 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $9 – $28. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MC, V.


Venice Room

Seasoned veterans of the Venice Room hover over their cook-'em-yourself steaks, slashing and battering them with knives and long metal prongs, lavishing them with garlic salt, cayenne and bulk-packaged Cajun seasoning, drizzling them with oil, massaging cracked pepper and dehydrated onion flakes into the meat's bruised flanks. Some people subject their steaks to elaborate regimens of higher heat and lower heat, acrobatic flips and precise 90-degree rotations. Others just give their meat a hard, brief steak-house sear — did I mention the grill was hot? — and enjoy their meat a perfect, drippy rare. And almost everybody seems to improvise some sort of grilled garlic bread with garlic powder and butter. Baked potatoes, already pretty much cooked through, steam in their foil on the edge of the grill, except for the lone, butter-spurting, charred spud that somebody (okay, me) has decided to convert into a mickey. 2428 S. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park; (323) 722-3075. Open Mon. – Sat. 9 a.m. – 2 a.m., Sun. till midnight. Dinner for two, food only, $18. Full bar. Lot parking. AE, Discover, MC, V.



Yai is as authentic as they come, a bare-bones restaurant serving informal “people's food,” the sort of things you don't really find in Ventura Boulevard Thai places, a walk on the wild side of the Far Eastern palate. Notably, there's the roast pork with Chinese broccoli: fatty, crispy chunks of pigskin on a dark-green pile whose vegetable bitterness cuts through the richness like a knife. It looks something like a spinach salad, and fully half the customers here seem to have an order on their table. The dish is bound together with a truly astonishing quantity of garlic, and there's a pungent, searing chile dip on the side. Even wilder, too wild for anybody I know to actually eat more than a tiny bite of, is the same Chinese broccoli with a slab of Thai dried fish in place of the pork — a big, bronze thing that combines heroic stinkiness with an awesome wallop of salt. 5757 Hollywood Blvd.; (323) 462-0292. Open daily 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8 – $20. Beer. Lot parking. Cash only.


Zankou Chicken

This is what you eat at Zankou: rotisserie-chicken sandwiches, excellent falafel, shawarma carved off the rotating spit and served warm with superbly caramelized edges, sweetly gamy as only properly overcooked lamb can be. The hummus is fine and grainy, and the spit-roasted chickens are superb: golden, crisp-skinned and juicy, with developed chicken flavor, the kind of bird that makes you want to scour the carcass for stray bits of carbonized skin and delicious scraps of flesh. Such chicken really needs no embellishment, although a little bit of Zankou's Armenian garlic sauce — a fierce, blinding-white paste, the texture of puréed horseradish, that scents your car, sears the back of your throat, and whose powerful aroma can stay in your head (also your car) for days — couldn't hurt. 5065 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 665-7842; open daily 10 a.m. – midnight. 1415 E. Colorado St., Glendale; (818) 244-2237; open daily 10 a.m. – 11 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $5 – $9. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only.

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