Cha Cha Chicken
Although Cha Cha Chicken seems to operate mostly as a takeout stand, the patio off to the side is a pleasant place on a hot night, dotted with thatched palapas, enhanced by flowers growing out of old tomato-juice cans, ocean breezes, the milder sort of reggae music, and colored Malibu lights that cast a dim, jungly glow. The cuisine is Caribbean poultry with attitude: a luscious, crisp-skinned bird gritty with spices and painted with dense, black sauce, slightly sweet and intricately spiced. Mulato Cubano, Cha Cha‘s all-fowl version of the pig-intensive Cuban sandwich called media noche, is everything you could want in a pressed sandwich: violently spicy chicken, melted cheese, a pickle chip or two, and a French roll that has been folded, spindled and mutilated in the jaws of a sandwich press until the soft insides have the sort of steady core heat that could probably stoke a geothermal power plant. 1906 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; (310) 581-1684. Open daily for lunch and dinner, for brunch Sat.–Sun. Dinner for two, food only, $7–$14. BYOB. Takeout. Cash only.
You don’t really have to like the watery, soft chiles rellenos, dominated by the thick egg batter, to be an El Coyote fan — or the sugary green-corn tamales vaguely flavored with the mildest of chiles, or the giant tostadas that seem to contain an entire No. 8 can of peas. El Coyote food has a specific taste, a gestalt that transcends cuisine, transcends even rice and beans: the slightly acrid pungency of chopped green-onion tops, the milky funk of Cheddar cheese broiled until most of the fat has separated out, grainy enchilada fillings and the not-unpleasant reek of overheated beans, an abundance of sour cream where it doesn‘t really belong, chile salsa mild as Cocoa Puffs. Many restaurants resemble this place — from the cheap margaritas, to the ”Mexican pizza“ available in the ever-crowded bar, to the walls decorated with broken mirrors, to the wire-mesh-enclosed patio with its plastic smog-dusted foliage and visiting local sparrows, to the guacamole dinners, to the ersatz tostadas — but I could pick an El Coyote combination plate blindfolded out of 100 others, and most of the regulars could, too. 7312 Beverly Blvd.; (323) 939-2255. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $9–$15. Full bar. Valet parking. MC, V.
Gallo‘s Grill — the kind of sweet Mexican steak house you’ve always dreamed of finding in East Los Angeles, its tiled patio furnished with oversize wooden tables, shaded from the sky by a canopy, and decorated with citrus trees and the opera-set ”peeling“ brick that you find on turreted Hollywood apartment buildings — serves everybody‘s idea of a great Eastside meal: warm, thick corn tortillas (or paper-thin flour tortillas) patted to order, fresh salsas brought to the table perched on intricate wrought-iron stands, garlicky steaks served still sizzling, flanked by bushels of charred scallions on superheated platters. The beef is prepared in a specifically Mexican way, butterflied and re-butterflied and laid open like a scroll, a broad, thin filete abierto with something like an acre and a half of surface area and the maximal ratio of brown, crusty outside to red, squishy inside, although marinated enough to allow for a bit of juice. The grilled, air-dried beef called cecina is even thinner, pounded nearly to the transparency of parchment, and has something of the clean, milky tang of prosciutto, of meat transformed into something beyond meat. 4533 Cesar E. Chavez Ave.; (323) 980-8669. Open daily for lunch and dinner; weekend brunch. Dinner for two, food only, $13–$20. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Disc., MC, V.
At Julienne, Beethoven scherzos skitter through the plant-strewn patio; regulars park their dogs just outside the potted flowers that define the outdoor dining area. The high-ceilinged inside of the place, though it cannot be more than a decade or so old, has the bumpy, faded elegance of a century-old Parisian cafe. You would expect a place like Julienne to serve genteel luncheon salads, and it does: a basil-and-spinach salad laden with roasted pine nuts; a ”Southwestern“ caesar, zapped with smoky chile dressing and garnished with grilled beef fillet; a respectable, if sweet, Chinese chicken salad sprinkled with crunchy noodles. But the basic currency of the restaurant seems to be the sandwich — soft chicken-salad sandwiches of a sort many of us haven’t tasted since the Bullocks Wilshire tearoom closed down; supersweet roast lamb on hard rolls — halved, and served with a salad as a lunch special. And Julienne‘s food isn’t necessarily low in calories: One sandwich involves a sliced baguette jutting heavenward like the conning towers of a submarine, glued to the plate with melted Brie, stuffed with more cheese, bits of bacon and chicken. 2649 Mission St., San Marino; (626) 441-2299. Open for breakfast and lunch Mon.–Sat. Lunch for two, food only, $18–$25. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, MC, V.
To most people in the exalted reaches north of Montana Avenue, the Brentwood Country Mart is synonymous with Reddi-Chick, whose roaring fire and golden-skinned roasting fowl exude an aroma almost powerful enough to smell at the beach. The basic item here is the chicken basket, half a roast chicken buried beneath a high mound of fries. It is probably not the best chicken you‘ve ever had — the breast meat could be somewhat less dry, and a little fresh garlic wouldn’t hurt — but it‘s real good, like the best version of the chickens that spin in supermarkets, marinated, mildly seasoned, but crisp, with a sort of caramelized thing happening around the joints that causes bits of skin to stick to your teeth, and a mellow sweetness that will scent your hands for the rest of the day no matter how many Handi-Wipes you use. 225 26th St., Santa Monica; (310) 393-5238. Open Mon.–Sat. 9 a.m.–7:30 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $9–$14. No alcohol. Takeout. Parking lot. Cash only.
Tacos Baja Ensenada
Tacos Baja Ensenada is a cheerful restaurant in a converted hamburger stand near the heart of East L.A., a Formica palace echoing with bouncy ranchera music and decorated with maps, posters and post cards of La Bufadora, the sea spume 20 minutes south of Ensenada. Tacos Baja smells right, homey and oniony like a Mexican grandmother’s house, without a hint of seafood funk, and the various seafood cocktails — octopus, shrimp, clam, though not the pata de mula — are fresh and good. You‘ve come, no doubt, for what may be L.A.’s finest fish tacos: crunchy, sizzlingly hot strips of batter-fried halibut, folded into warm corn tortillas with salsa, shredded cabbage and a squeeze of lime, sprinkled with freshly chopped herbs and finished with a squirt of thick, cultured cream, lightly done, delicately flavored — you could eat four in a minute and a half, and no doubt probably should, before they have a chance to cool. 5385 Whittier Blvd., East L.A.; (323) 887-1980. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $6–$14. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only.