Art Direction by Dana Collins
1. IS THERE ANY GREAT CHINESE FOOD ON THE WESTSIDE?
GOLD: If by good you mean authentically good, no. And don't let well-meaning friends tell you otherwise — you'll have to drive at least as far east as Empress Pavilion in Chinatown to find steamed rock cod or mashed bean curd delicious enough to make you gasp with pleasure. That being said, I must admit a grudging admiration for the weekend lunches at Twin Dragon. Although the kitchen is perfectly capable of turning out dishes stunning only in their mediocrity, some of the truly Shanghainese dishes — smoked fish, round steamed dumplings, shredded pork sautéed with salted vegetables — are fine. 8597 W. Pico Blvd.; (323) 655-9805.
HUNEVEN: Whenever I've eaten Chinese food on the Westside, and especially when I've eaten at Westside branches of Monterey Park and San Gabriel restaurants, the food seems indifferently prepared. But one low-key Christmas Day I did have quite a decent dinner at J.R. Seafood in West L.A. And it was open on a day when most other restaurants were closed — a great virtue. 11901 Santa Monica Blvd. (near Bundy Drive), W.L.A.; (310) 268-2463.
2. WHAT IS THE GREATEST LOS ANGELES SANDWICH?
HUNEVEN: Sumi Chang's egg-salad sandwich at EuroPane. The eggs are just under hard-boiled, the sunny yolks bright orange, still molten at their very centers; then they're coarsely chopped and mixed with a good house-made mayo and, finally, piled on sourdough toast that's been smeared with sun-dried tomato paste.
Annie Miler at Clementine also makes an exemplary grilled ham and Gruyère on her sandwich press — she adds balsamic-marinated onions that add first a pleasant goosh, then a wallop of flavor.
Other favorites: the pot-roast sandwich at Jar, and the Bebe Jesus salami sub at Mario's in Glendale — but hold the yellow mustard-mayo mix. EuroPane, 950 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 577-1828. Clementine, 1751 Ensley Ave.; (310) 552-1080. Jar, 8225 Beverly Blvd.; (323) 655-6566. Mario's, 740 E. Broadway, Glendale; (818) 242-4114.
GOLD: There was a period when I stopped by Kokomo at least one or two afternoons a week for its grilled “torta al carbon,” a molten-cheese sandwich marked with chiles, layered with double-smoked bacon and served with a big plate of Suzy-Q fries, a gooey, smoky, dripping combination rich enough to bring a strong man to his knees. I have a stricter doctor now. And so I have changed my allegiance to the basturma sandwich at Sahag's Basturma, a fistful of caustic, industrial-strength Armenian cured beef layered on freshly toasted French bread with tomatoes and pickle wedges, a sandwich that will scent your conversation for a week. Kokomo Cafe, in Farmers Market, Third Street at Fairfax Avenue; (323) 933-0773. Sahag's Basturma, 5183 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 661-5311.
3. I KEEP HEARING ABOUT GRILLED-CHEESE NIGHT AT CAMPANILE. CAN A GRILLED-CHEESE SANDWICH REALLY BE WORTH $14?
GOLD: Fresh burrata cheese, a mozzarella-like concoction that can be said less to ooze than to suppurate sweet cream, may be found in its most perfect form gently warmed, laid on a slice of grilled, garlic-rubbed La Brea Bakery bread, and blanketed with smoky, bittersweet charred radicchio. If $14 is too much to pay for an open-faced sandwich good enough to inspire a religious movement, so be it. Even if it does come with hand-cut fries. Don't forget to allot a few extra clams for a glass of rosé. The combination of burrata and Bandol is one of those things they write poetry about.
HUNEVEN: Is a Campanile grilled-cheese sandwich worth the money? Yes. And I say this even after being scolded by the sandwich maker for moving my egg off my Croque Madame. I've tried and liked almost all of the sandwiches on the Thursday-night menu. The classic grilled cheese — Gruyère on pain de mie, served with arugula salad and a haystack of French fries — is terrific. But I agree with Jonathan that one sandwich rises to the top — the open-faced grilled radicchio. But instead of burrata, I like mine with milky robiola cheese; the scorched bitter lettuce next to the saintly pure Italian cheese is a revelation — and that, no money can buy. 624 S. La Brea Ave.; (323) 938-1447.
4. PHILIPPE OR COLE'S?
GOLD: Both restaurants have fairly creditable claims to having invented the French-dip sandwich, and both are reliably atmospheric. Yet as much as I admire the nuclear-intensity mustard at Philippe, the sawdust on its floors and its improbably wonderful selection of wines by the glass, there may be no brisket sandwich in the world as delicious as Cole's French dip, sogged in salty broth, soft and crisp, rich and meaty, ready to wash down with a stein of Ritterbrau dark. Born in 1908, Cole's is the oldest restaurant in Los Angeles. 118 E. Sixth St.; (213) 622-4090.
HUNEVEN: I can't help it, I was raised on the lamb dip — double dipped — at Philippe. It's an essential part of my cellular structure. The meat is sliced right off the bone by strong-armed lifer waitresses. The rolls are crusty but soft (that double dipping makes them smoosh into the meat just so). I sometimes ask for blue cheese, but always slather my sandwich with lots of tear-inducing hot mustard. The macaroni salad, the half dills, the pickled beets — they're all as familiar to me as air. 1001 N. Alameda St.; (213) 628-3781.
5. WHERE DO YOU GO FOR CARNITAS IN EAST LOS ANGELES?
GOLD: Fried pork is usually pretty good under any circumstances, but carefully made carnitas can be to other pork dishes what a dry-aged porterhouse is to a Jack in the Box hamburger, the wild-meat flavor tamed into a caramelized sweetness, the edges crisp, the fat melted almost away into an intense mineral richness that permeates the meat. What could be more delicious than a hunk of swine seethed in its own fat? The Eastside, of course, is a wonderland of carnitas, from the crunchy bits at Las Carnitas to the luscious slabs at Ciro's, but the soft, pillowy carnitas at Antojitos Denise's are the pure essence of simmered pig. 4060 E. Olympic Blvd.; (323) 264-8199.
HUNEVEN: My only regret about eating carnitas out is that you rarely get the crumbs from the carnitas pan, those condensed chips of ultrareduced meat and fat. (The cooks, I'm sure, save these for themselves.) Denise's is also my favorite in East Los Angeles (I heed my colleague's reviews). I also love the carnitas at La Fuente, a small chain in Highland Park and Eagle Rock. I go to the branch on Monte Vista in Highland Park, and order the dense, dark-brown, almost hard chunks of carnitas with a side of slippery, char-tipped fried peppers and onions. 5530 Monte Vista St., Highland Park; (323) 258-6109.
6. WHERE SHOULD I GO FOR MY MORNING CROISSANT?
HUNEVEN: On the Eastside, I go to EuroPane for Sumi Chang's croissant or, even better, her pain au chocolat. When in Mid-City, it's La Brea Bakery's croissant. In Beverly Hills, I'll hit Le Pain Quotidien. On the Westside, there's the charming, quintessentially French A la Tarte's house-made croissants. EuroPane, 950 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 577-1828. La Brea Bakery, 624 S. La Brea Ave.; (323) 939-6813. Le Pain Quotidien, 9630 Little Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 859-11000. A la Tarte, 1037 Swarthmore Ave., Pacific Palisades; (310) 459-6635.
GOLD: A good croissant is a joy forever, crisp, airy and saturated with butter, large enough to take the sting off a double cappuccino but not so large that you'd be tempted to use it for anything so vulgar as a “croissanwich.” But croissants are difficult to make, and the tricky stretch-wrap technique of the classic croissant, the time-consuming dough manipulation that gives the roll the crispness and the layered structure that separate it from, say, a crescent-shaped lump of white bread, can take months to master. La Brea Bakery's Nancy Silverton is, of course, the Michael Jordan of baked goods, so it's not surprising that the croissants served at breakfast on weekends are textbook examples of the breed, violently crunchy, multilayered as an Umberto Eco novel, practically singing with butter and salt.
EuroPane's proprietor/baker, Sumi Chang, helped develop La Brea Bakery's croissant during the several years she ran its café, and her magnificent croissants, though slightly lighter in color, less salty and not quite as airy, could be mistaken for La Brea Bakery's in a police lineup. On their best days –a crisp, buttery almond croissant last week made me swoon — EuroPane's croissants are unsurpassed.
7. I WANT TO EAT IN A NICE RESTAURANT WITH MY KIDS . . . HELP!
GOLD: More than a few places may pander to the shorties with little boxes of crayons, designer highchairs, and cartoon-decorated menus infested with burger plates and chicken fingers. At Angeli Caffe, kids are invited to make their own pizzas, smack balls of dough into any shape they please, and hand them to the pizzaiolo to be baked off in the big oven. Finally — art projects you don't have to hang on the refrigerator! And Evan Kleiman's pastas are beyond remarkable. 7274 Melrose Ave.; (323) 936-9086.
HUNEVEN: The staff at Angelini Osteria couldn't be more welcoming to children. The three-course, $15 child's menu provides great training in the pace and pleasure of fine dining. The first course is a tagliolini with a light fresh tomato sauce; the entrée is a wood-oven-roasted half chicken (you'll be cadging bites) with roasted potatoes, and (if they're still awake and hungry) dessert is gelato. (Thin-crusted pizza can be substituted for the pasta.) 7313 Beverly Blvd.; (323) 297-0070.
I'M A VEGETARIAN, BUT BROWN RICE GIVES ME THE WILLIES.
HUNEVEN: The ultimate vegetarian experience is still the five-course, $65 “Garden Menu” at Patina. Presently, it includes white asparagus with a soft-boiled farm egg; braised baby vegetables with black-truffle balsamic vinaigrette; roasted red kuri-squash soup with ricotta-cheese gnocchi; wild-mushroom risotto; and blood-orange soup with ginger snaps and Meyer lemon sorbet. 5955 Melrose Ave.; (323) 467-1108.
GOLD: I will forever mourn the defunct Taiwanese restaurant in San Gabriel whose menu included bean-curd-and-mushroom facsimiles of sliced pork kidney, crisp pig's intestine, and goose guts. That was the kind of vegetarian restaurant I could get behind. Still, there is always southern Indian cooking, a spicy, rich, highly structured vegetarian cuisine where you are unlikely to see an actual vegetable, but where your table will be littered with steel cups of sambhar numbering in the dozens by the time you are finished with a meal. Lately, I've been going to Woodlands, the local outlet of an international fancy-restaurant chain, for the best iddlys and dosas in Artesia's Little India neighborhood. 11833 Artesia Blvd., Artesia; (562) 860-6500.
9. DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE SALAD?
GOLD: Perhaps the greatest of all caesars is served at the counter of Musso & Frank Grill, at the southern end presided over by the maestro Manny Felix. I mean, the basic caesar at Musso's is pretty good and everything, but at Felix's station, the salad is funky as hell, the heady salt of anchovy colliding with the sweet gaminess of Worcestershire sauce, a touch of Parmesan cheese, a measured coddled-egg slipperiness, and a subtle, tart note of citrus that inflects every crisp leaf of romaine. Nothing goes better with a well-chilled martini. And Manny knows it: Tip big. 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 467-5123.
HUNEVEN: My favorite splurge salad is the lobster cobb at Mariposa down in the basement of Neiman Marcus. It costs a fortune ($24.50), but there's a ton of sweet, perfect lobster, and it comes with enormous, just-baked popovers. There's also the more reasonably priced Mexican chopped salad at Border Grill — the charred bits of grilled corn and the cumin vinaigrette make this dish. I go to Porta Via, the tiny sidewalk café on Canon in Beverly Hills, just to eat the grilled shrimp with asparagus. Eagle Rock's Beaujolais Boulangerie makes three exceptional meal-size salads: a mountainous niçoise, a warm goat-cheese salad whose greens are tossed with eggplant — a brilliant touch — and an excellent caesar with lots of lemon and anchovies. Oh, and there's always the classic, perfect crab Louis at The Grill on the Alley. Mariposa, Neiman Marcus, 9700 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 550-5900. Border Grill, 1445 Fourth St., Santa Monica; (310) 451-1655. Porta Via, 424 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 274-6534. Beaujolais Boulangerie, 1661 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock; (323) 255-5133. The Grill on the Alley, 9560 Dayton Way, Beverly Hills; (310) 276-0615.
10. CAROUSSEL OR MAROUCH?
HUNEVEN: Caroussel — the Glendale branch. It's the best, most interesting Lebanese-Armenian restaurant in Los Angeles. I love the big brash room, with scimitars crossed on the wall. The food sparkles with freshness — and lemon. The mezze are exceptional, from stuffed grape leaves to bubbly cheese borek and houmous soujouk (hummus with spicy Armenian sausage) and muhammara (a spread of ground walnuts and pomegranate). Try the yogurt kebab, a ground-beef kebab set on fried pita shards, sauced with yogurt and sprinkled with pine nuts. Caroussel also has hard-to-find specialties such as frogs' legs, roasted quail and lamb's tongue. 304 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale; (818) 246-7775.
GOLD: As much as I love the Lebanese-Armenian cooking at Caroussel, and admire the straightforward fish dishes at its swank Glendale restaurant, I have always been inclined to favor Caroussel for the Syrian red pepperwalnut paste muhammara, and Marouch for everything else — its splendid, wild-thyme-dusted version of the toasted-bread salad fattoush, its unsurpassed makanek sausages dressed with lemon and oil, its fine hummus with pine nuts, its grilled quail, its complicated Lebanese desserts. The spit-roasted chicken is way better than you remember it being, easily a couple of notches past the high standard set by Zankou. And Marouch currently makes a pretty fair version of muhammara too. What else could you possibly need? 4905 Santa Monica Blvd.; (323) 662-9325.
11. IS THERE LIFE BEYOND ZANKOU?
HUNEVEN: Well, if you only know about Zankou in Hollywood, there's also Zankou in Glendale, Pasadena and the Valley. If you're in Brentwood, there's Reddi-Chick in the Brentwood Country Mart. You can drive just a few blocks north of the Hollywood Zankou to Marouch, and get one of its sticky-skinned rotisserie chickens to go. Some supermarket chickens — the ones at the Mayfair in Silver Lake — aren't half bad, but of course, you won't get that stinging white garlic sauce. I am also fond of the barbecued duck at Lucky Deli in Chinatown. Zankou Chicken, 5065 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 665-7842; plus three other locations. Reddi-Chick, in the Brentwood Country Mart, 225 26th St., Brentwood; (310) 393-5238. Marouch, 4905 Santa Monica Blvd.; (323) 662-9325. Mayfair, 2725 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake; (323) 660-0387. Lucky Deli, 706 N. Broadway; (213) 625-7847.
GOLD: If you are anywhere near Koreatown when the need for takeout chicken strikes, follow your nose to Pollo a la Brasa, a Peruvian chicken joint all but concealed behind a fortress of hardwood logs. The smoky, crisp-skinned chicken here, sizzled over a hot wood fire and served with the incendiary Peruvian herb sauce aji, is what happens when you cross a chicken with a smoldering log. 764 S. Western Ave.; (323) 382-4090.
12. I'M IN THE MOOD FOR STEAK TARTARE.
GOLD: Friday lunch at the Polo Lounge is perhaps the quintessential Beverly Hills meal, the nexus between old Hollywood and new, and the site of more shiny foreheads than you have ever seen gathered in a single room. Four out of five people are probably eating the McCarthy salad, the famous house variation on the cobb, but the steak tartare here is especially fine, mixed and measured to order by waiters who have heard the call for extra capers maybe a million and a half times and never skimp on the raw egg. Unless you want them to. 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 276-2251.
HUNEVEN: Go to Paris. I, frankly, don't know of any great steak tartare in Los Angeles, although Caroussel makes good kibbeh nayyeh, or lamb steak tartare. But I do see quite a bit of excellent tuna tartare, the best of which is made by Lee Hefter at Spago, who serves it in crisp, lacquer-brown sesame cones with caviar, uni, avocado and a good belt of wasabi. Caroussel Restaurant, 304 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale; (818) 246-7775. Spago Beverly Hills, 176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 385-0880.
13. IT'S BURRITO TIME.
GOLD: When the concept of a burrito still included taco meat, the Burrito King on Sunset doled out great chile verde burritos. When burritos had beans and cheese in them and came from the 7-Eleven, the Burrito King doled out great chile verde burritos. When burritos were wrapped in tomato-basil tortillas and were stuffed with jerk shrimp, the Burrito King doled out great chile verde burritos. And it still does. Some things never change. 2109 E. Sunset Blvd.; (213) 484-9859.
HUNEVEN: Burritos always scare me: The little packages are such a blunt, three-dimensional preview of how much food I'm about to put in my stomach. Still, they're a great fast meal. My favorite is the scallop burrito at Señor Fish. And for a period in my youth, I lived on Burrito King's machaca burritos, juicy stringy meat with big chunks of peppers and tomato. 422 E. First St.; (213) 625-0566. And 618 Mission St., South Pasadena; (626) 403-0145.
14. I'M JUST GETTING INTO WINE . . .
GOLD: Cobras & Matadors, a dark, buzzy tapas bar near the Beverly Center, doesn't really have a wine list. Or come to think of it, even an alcohol license. But what it does have is an attached wine store and a BYO attitude, which means that you can excuse yourself, sidle next door, and engage the guy behind the counter in as extensive a conversation about Spanish Crianzas or Argentine Malbecs as your heart desires. When you bring your prize back to the table, don't be surprised if the counterguy is standing right there, corkscrew in hand. 7615 W. Beverly Blvd.; (323) 932-6178.
15. CAN YOU LEAD ME TO ANY SECRET WINE TREASURES?
GOLD: An hour spent with a glass of Prosecco and the gargantuan Valentino wine list will unearth some remarkably underpriced Italian wines — if you know what you're looking for. Proprietor Piero Selvaggio was amassing some of these things before Lamborghini tractors universally replaced donkey carts, and sometimes he “neglects” to jack up the price of older vintages to reflect the current market. (Do not attempt to read the list at dinner itself — your date will have caught a cab before you come to a decision.) If you're looking for something a little less obvious, drop by the Chronicle Wine Cellar, a tiny store that reproduces the quirks and resources of a once-legendary wine list in a ground-floor apartment hidden in a parking lot behind Pie n' Burger. Valentino, 3115 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 829-4313. Chronicle Wine Cellar, 913 E. California Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 577-2549.