Monday, October 31, 2005

Big Fish Story -- Sushi Dan

Sushi Dan

8000 W. Sunset Blvd., #A2020
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 848-8583
Google Info

11056 Ventura Blvd.
Studio City, CA 91604
(818) 985-2254
Google Info

I know the stated purpose of this blog is to identify "cheap ethnic eats," which evokes (as it should) images of holes-in-the-wall in Koreatown, Thaitown, Little Tokyo, and East L.A.. I suppose, Sushi Dan is "ethnic," as mush as the ubiquitous raw fish can be said to be truly Japanese anymore; and true, the lunch special is an extraordinary deal. But somehow a spacious marbly room that shares a mall with Virgin Megastore, Crunch, and Sam Ash at the entrance to the Sunset Strip seems unlikely for this space. Suffice to say I'm no slave to labels, man. I'll review whatever's making my taste buds do jumping jacks at the moment. And Sushi Dan fits the bill.

Here's the dish.

It's on the top floor of the Virgin Megastore mall on Sunset Blvd. and Crescent Heights, right across from the Laemmle Theaters. You know the Laemmles. You were there to see an indie film, how many months ago? Damn, when was the last good indie film playing at the Laemmle, anyway? It's a space that's seen a couple of restaurants come and go, most recently a pretty decent fresh-Mex grill.

A big modern room with full bar greets you as you enter, along with the obligatory cute young Japanese hostess. There are a large number of dining room tables, and an expansive sushi bar... sadly, mostly empty. The best tables are in the back, past the huge aquarium whose seemingly continuous issues with water clarity are not, I hope, an ill omen for the restaurant. There, five or six booths line the windowed back wall, affording panoramic views of the Hollywood Hills and the east end of Sunset Strip: SkyBar, Chateau Marmont, the Marlboro Man-cum-iPod Girl billboard.

I confess I've only been there for lunch; why go any other time? There are three lunch special combos, all of which offer a mix of traditional nigiri sushi with one of the restaurant's many specialties. For $9.95, (that's right, $9.95), you get miso soup, five pieces of sushi and one of a selection of a dozen or so rolls. This may not sound like much. It is. The slabs of fish on the nigiri are huge. On my first visit what already looked like a gigantic salmon slab on my sushi turned out to be twice as big... the slice was double thick, folded under the rice. It was the entire end of a fillet which would probably be counted an entire "serving" at your local Weight Watchers. But for all the emphasis on quantity, the fish has been uniformly excellent on every visit. And refreshingly, the five varieties of fish reflect what people (well, what I, at least) in the 21st Century order at sushi bars: the salmon is complemented by hamachi, albacore, maguro, and seared tuna instead of the standard 80's palette of tired shrimp, fishy mackerel, cheap tamago and rubbery squid that make up so many combo plates.

But the highlight of the meal is your choice of one specialty item that comes with the combo. I've yet to work my way through the menu, but I can vouch for a couple. To call the Calamari Tempura Roll "generous" is like calling Gary Busey "quirky" or the Bush Administration "pesky." It's probably bigger than your head. The roll itself is tasty, all crisp nori, tender calamari highlighted with avocado, cucumber crabmeat and eel sauce. But it's invisible under a PILE of bic-lighter sized pieces of additional calamari tempura. Imagine your favorite steakhouse's "fried calamari" appetizer done Japanese style and dumped on a single maki roll, and you've got the idea. It's delicious, and if you are light luncher, probably enough for two. The Yellowtail Collar is a large piece of fish grilled to a slightly charred crispness on the outside but yielding nooks and crannies filled with an extraordinary amount of tender, flaky fish.

Downsides to Sushi Dan include spotty if friendly service. Several orders have been botched but corrected with apologies stopping just short of seppuku. My urgent need for a Bloody Mary at a hangover brunch brought a "so sorry." Apparently the batch of mix had gone bad waiting for anyone to order it. This leads to concern that the slow turnover could lead to fish laying about longer than it should. You can help. Go to Sushi Dan. Order fish. Demand a Bloody Mary. And then go check out that indie movie... I hear The Calamari -- sorry, The Squid and the Whale -- is good.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Taylor's Steak House -- What Amurrcans Do In Koreatown

Taylor's Steakhouse

3361 W 8th St

Los Angeles, CA 90005
(213) 382-8449
Google Map

901 Foothill Blvd
La Cañada/Flintridge, CA 91011
(818) 790-7668
Google Map

I think the best food to be had anywhere in the world right now is in our very own Koreatown. But not everyone can eat kimchee, tofu, pork belly and the like. Check that -- most everyone can, but will they?

For those of you who are squeamish about internal organs or have bad memories of Korean food from the war or too many M*A*S*H reruns, there is an oasis for you in Koreatown: Taylor's Steakhouse. It's a piece of perfectly preserved midcentury nostalgia food that'll take you right back to the Eisenhower administration when we were fighting Koreans on the battlefield, not the golf course, and we'd only eat their food if we were caught behind enemy lines with Hot Lips but no hot dogs.

Here's the dish...

Smack in the heart of Koreatown, surrounded by tofu joints, BBQ houses, noodle shops, and spas staffed by Korean lesbians in black lace undies (or so Sa tells me -- I sadly have yet to experience this first hand) is Taylor's. Founded in 1953 as "Taylor's Tavern," the operation moved to its present location on 8th Street near Western in 1970. And while the Caucasian population of the 'hood has since moved out to the suburbs, and the Latinos have vacated to wherever they vacate to, Taylor's remains, unchanged. It's classic steakhouse food: shrimp cocktails, Caesar Salads, and steaks of various cuts and sizes. Period. I think there's a fish on the menu somewhere but why bother? (This is not vegetarian-friendly food.)

Taylor's "world famous" item is their "culotte" cut, described as "the tenderest portion of the sirloin -- only two cuts per steer!" Sa imagined that they just take those cuts, and throw the rest of the cow away. How very 1950's. The full sized, 16-oz. $26.95 culotte is big, thick, and juicy, perfect for those (like me) who find filet mignon too flavorless, and like their meat to fight back a little bit, but have been burned once too often by leathery sirloin. If you're not the type to drive home in the big fin Caddy with white sidewalls to Jane Wyatt and the kids, you can get a more 21st-century sized "dinner" cut of the culotte for $19.95, including your choice of potato. Awesome deal. The house "Molly Salad" that comes with full dinners is a half-iceberg head, quartered and drenched in delicious blue cheese dressing with diced tomatoes -- a great version of a classic dish. The steak fries are underwhelming; get the baked potato, which is worth the price of admission by itself. It's got a toothsome, been-cooking-all-day skin, and it's like buttah inside... literally, if you're as liberal with the butter as I am.

The decor is just the way I like my steakhouses: all red vinyl booths and dark paneled walls adorned with bad seascapes and photos of sports stars, crooners, and regulars. Those guys sitting at the table next to you wearing big glasses and talking point spreads look and sound like Mafia, but they're actually former USC head football coach John McKay and buddies... identified by Sa from his picture in the foyer. The waitresses are all "honey" and "sweetie." The martinis are great, and retro-old fashioned in size: no birdbaths here. The wine list is smallish but there are some good buys... try the EOS Zinfandel ($24) with your steak.

It may not be the BEST steakhouse in Los Angeles -- the best I've had was probably at Mastro's in Beverly Hills -- but it's superior to places like Musso & Frank or Dan Tana's, and it's unquestionably the best bang for the buck. We're talkin' steak dinner for two with a good bottle of wine and maybe a salad to share for under a hundred bucks. At those prices you can even go when it's not your anniversary, without having to sell your Barbie collection to pay for it.

There's a nearly identical branch of the restaurant in La Cañada/Flintridge, but I recommend Koreatown, because while you're there you can scout out where you want to go for your next Korean meal -- or get that special "spa treatment."

Thursday, October 13, 2005


Did you hear the earth-shattering news? A bowl of 4000-year old noodles was recently unearthed in China, solidifying the Chinese claim to their invention. Read the LA Times article here. All foodies bow down and thank the Ancient Chinese and their noodle-y secrets.

In a bizarre synchronicity, at the same time this discovery was being announced I happened to be eating noodles. I was in San Francisco... I know this is supposed to be an LA blog, but I'll occasionally mention foodie bits outside the basin. You never know when you'll be in the Bay Area with a hankering for a four-millennia old source of nourishment, right?

Here's the dish...

My niece and fellow food crazy Erin lives near on 16th Avenue and Judah... out in "the Avenues," as Bay Aryans call it. The
Avenues are, and have always been, home to a large Asian population. You know what that means. Yummy.

The noodles we had for lunch were just around the corner from Erin's apartment, on a block chock-full of Asian eateries. She recommended two Vietnamese joints; one for rice plates, the other for noodles. The rice plate place has noodles, she said, but if you want noodles, the place across the street is better. Sensing the importance of noodles on this day in history, I opted for the noodlery.

Pho Hoa Hiep, which somehow translates to "Kevin's Noodle House," sports standard noodle house atmosphere: Spartan decor; fluorescent light; all business. Just the noodles, ma'am. The menu begins with Pho, the gold standard of Vietnamese fare: thin rice noodles in a beef broth, with steak, tripe and, other better-not-to ask-if-you're-squeamish bits of cow served with a plate full of other condiments like basil leaves and lemon that you add to taste.

But it was one of those cool, crisp, clear fall days in the City. It was the first inkling of comfort-weather. So I got the beef stew soup with egg noodles (pictured). Oh, man. For the first several bites, I didn't even add any condiments, the seasoning was so perfect "as is." A rich beefy stock (think Campbell's Vegetable Beef-weight) swims with a kaleidoscopic film of chili oil and black pepper. Thin egg noodles were more al dente than I'm used to in Vietnamese soup -- a good thing. But mostly, it was about the generous quantity of hunks of dice-sized flank steak, which was just the right combination of toothsome and tender. It would shred along the grain with a little effort from a chopstick. Although quite lean, the bits of fat on some pieces were creamy and tender, not gristly. And the meat had absorbed the spicy red broth to such a degree that every piece was infused with its stewy essence. I slowly began adding condiments, one by one, to experience the flavors change. By the time I added my second tiny spoonful of the searing infused chili oil on the table, it was too spicy for Sa to handle... not me.

I learned two things this day: the Chinese invented noodles; and there's more to Vietnamese soup than pho. Pho sure.

I'm now going to have to find an equivalent bowl here in LA. Ideas?

Friday, October 07, 2005

Pizza Bella -- Outstandee!

1900 N. Highland Ave.
(inside Whitley Heights Liquor Market)
Hollywood CA 90028
(323) 876-4712
Open 7 days, 11am - 11pm
Free Delivery

You know the strip mall on the northeast corner of Franklin & Highland? It's always been a kind of forlorn place. There's a Starbucks, a Subway, a Japanese restaurant, the requisite cleaners and florists... and what's now called Whitley Heights market.

Whitley Heights market was once a Hughes supermarket. When that went out of business in the early '80s, it became the "Huge" market for awhile. (I love it when new owners save a buck by knocking down letters of an existing sign with a sledgehammer. Have you ever noticed the "Exaco" gas station on Sunset Blvd?). Though "Huge Market" features prominently and glitzily in the Ren & Stimpy cartoon where Stimpy goes to Hollywood, it was always scary as hell going in there... rows of half-empty supermarket shelves, dusty bottles of wine, and a grim cashier who always seemed badly in need of a fix. Over the past couple of years it's spruced up nicely. You can actually kind of shop there now, though the decor is a mondo bizarro blend of movie standees, stuffed animals, and giant plastic beer bottles. But the strangest thing in a strange place is that tucked in the back corner is what just might be the best NY style pizza joint for miles around.

Here's the dish...

You step up to the counter and place your slice order. $2.55 for cheese, 55c for each extra ingredient. You pick up a drink or whatever else you want from the supermarket area, pay the supermarket cashier, and hang out at one of the three mismatched tables set around the pizza booth (one has an umbrella, in case you're seeking... um, shade in the supermarket). After a few minutes, your slice is ready.

It's huge. Nearly a cubit long, it covers two standard-sized paper plates. It's thin crust, so it undulates over the plates like a snake on a Spanish tile roof. Picking it up with two hands, you fold the thing in half out of sheer instinct, just to to manage it. Although it's floppy, the underside has a slightly blackened outer crust to it, so that the slice manages to be crisp and toothsome at the same time. The sausage, as my friend and photographer Hughes says, isn't that gravelly stuff you often see on pizzas, but a tasty sliced sweet Italian. The basil is fresh. My pepperoni and red onion is a great blend of spicy and sweet. My personal taste in pizza is for generous sauce and ingredients and moderate cheese, and this one is balanced just right, though the sauce runs out a little toward the outer rim of the pie. I'm tempted to order the pie with extra sauce, but I fear it would destabilize the fragile balance that keeps the thin crust from being at all soggy. As it is, the whole thing is a satisfying, surprising, and just-greasy-enough experience.

There are so many exciting things about this. Hollywood has always seemed a surprisingly difficult place to grab a quick bite of something tasty while on the road. Pizza Bella is conveniently located at the busiest intersection in town. Plus you can grab some cereal, razors, a bottle of Ketel One or other necessary sundries while you're waiting for your pizza. Of course they do whole pies too, and not only do they deliver, but you can also add groceries to your pizza order.

And where else can you have a pepperoni slice under the watchful eyes of highly collectible standees of Michael Jackson, R2D2, James Dean, and George W. Bush? Where else, I ask?

Hughes Hall joins me on this post as special food photographer. Check out his photo blog at

Monday, October 03, 2005

Beverly Soon Tofu -- Where Tofu Meets Meat

Beverly Soon Tofu
2717 W Olympic Blvd # 108, Los Angeles, CA 90006
Phone: (213) 380-1113
Open 7 days 9:30 am - 10:30 pm.
MC Visa, no Amex.
Beer, sake, and soju.

Click here for Google Map.

Welcome to my first blog entry about killer eats in L.A.

The honor of first review goes to... Beverly Soon Tofu in Koreatown. Why? Because it's currently my favorite place to eat on the planet. Where else does your tofu come with several varieties of grilled flesh? Here's the dish...

It's a tiny place in a strip mall in heart of Koreatown. Maybe 10 tables, of the rustic wood variety. Cardboard boxes containing god knows what (T-shirts? Menus? Kimchee?) teeter in every corner, festooned with rumpled, half-read Korean newspapers. You sit down. The waitress almost immediately deals out a tableful of panchan. That's Korean for whatever goes with rice, but generally means the small plates of side dishes that accompany nearly every Korean meal.

The panchan is the usual stuff: spicy, slightly effervescent kim-chee, pickled turnips, bean sprouts, cool sliced marinated cucumber. But placed directly in front of you is a small oval of tofu that gives a hint of what's to come. It's like eating a cloud. As fluffy and insubstantial as a George Bush policy speech. Closer to mousse or a light custard than the chalky chunks of tofu you get from your local Chineseria. The delicacy all comes from the light ponzu-like sauce and narrow strips of seaweed on top. Hint: eat it with your spoon; going at it with chopsticks is like trying to stab a cloud.

The menu arrives on two tabletop placards, which can be confusing. One card lists the "Soon Tofu" Bowls. Soon Tofu means a bowl of boiling hot tofu stew, with any of a variety of other ingredients. Pick one of the ten combinations offered; a large bowl is $7.85. My fave is the #3 "Kim Chi" (confusing, as there isn't any kim chee in it... but what do you expect from a place called Beverly Tofu that's actually on Olympic?), a combo of beef, pork, oyster, baby clam, and of course, tofu. Choose your spicy level carefully, as the "Spicy" I like might be too intense for wimpy palates. The roiling bowl of tofu is unbelievably delicious. Loads of garlic, tender meat, jalapenos, and ambrosial tofu. Ladle some into your stainless steel bowl of rice, and enjoy. This is plenty of food for lunch.

The second card, labeled "Special Menu," lists combinations of one (slightly smaller) bowl of soon tofu PLUS one of a variety of grilled meats. Spicy chicken, tender beef galbi, bone-in rib-eye, and most notably a whole squid cut with a scissors at your table into tender, spicy ovals. All are grilled fajita-style, with juicy red onions slivers. At $13.90, this is enough food for a big dinner. The best way to go is to go in a group of four, and order four "special" combinations. Each diner picks their own soon tofu bowl, and everyone can share the four different grilled items.

Be sure to wash this all down with plenty of soju, the national drink of Korea. Served chilled in beer-sized bottles and drunk from shot glasses, (pictured above), soju tastes like vodka - good vodka - that's been watered down over ice.

Oh, and don't forget the egg. When your boiling bowl of tofu arrives, the waitress will ask if you'd like a raw egg cracked in the bowl. If you have any love whatsoever of egg, say yes. It cooks in the bowl. If you break it up immediately, it acquires the consistency the egg in Chinese hot and sour soup. But I like to leave it in the bowl and eat around it, basting it occasionally. By the time you're winding up your meal, the egg has been perfectly poached, to a consistency even dreamier than that of the tofu.

If you're like me, you'll be back at Beverly Soon Tofu the very next day -- and several times the first week -- revelling in the joys of tofu and soju.

I'll be covering many more Koreatown joints here. In the meantime, here are a couple of other resources to check out. Jonathan Gold (my favorite food writer)'s Top 40 Koreatown Restaurants and a broadcast of Good Food at KCRW with a discussion of Korean food.

Thanks for reading. Please give me feedback!