Wednesday, November 30, 2005

That Bloody Bazouki: Ulysses Voyage

Ulysses Voyage
6333 W. Third St.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 939-9728

M-Thurs. 11am - 10:30pm
F-S 11am - 11:30 pm
Sunday 9am - 11:30pm

I know the stated purpose of this blog is to explore cheap ethnic eats in LA. I've decided that's both too limiting and too vague. After all, everything is ethnic to someone else, "cheap" is subjective, and I've been doing some extensive research into macaroni and cheese around town that must be published someday soon. But not today.

Today is about a place you probably walk past all the time, little knowing that inside is some of the best Greek cuisine you'll find this side of 5th Century B.C. Athens. I don't know if you can Greek food "ethnic" anymore, when gyros and kabobs and Greek salads are ubiquitous. And anywhere you can get Ketel One probably ain't cheap. But damn, the food here is good, and as carefully prepared and authentically Greek as anything I've had on two visits to Greece.

Here's the dish:

Ulysses Voyage is near the west end of the main drag at The Grove. Not Farmer's Market, thought their website says so. It's in The Grove proper. It's a two minute walk from the movie theaters, less from the Apple Store.

The dining room is small, just a few tables, but it opens out into a spacious heated patio where you can watch the people parade and the trolley go by. Neither the greasy-spoon type of Greek place with Santorini travel posters peeling from the walls nor the over-the-top "atmospheric"
Greek with dancing waiters and plates whizzing past your ears every thirty seconds on their way to destruction, Ulysses Voyage is the type of place you might find on the Plaka in Athens: good, clean, local food done right, with enough atmosphere to evoke a hint of the Aegean. (Translate: one guy on a bazouki playing and singing over the somewhat inadequate sound system).

Ulysses Voyage professes to be "meze" cuisine, which means it's a place to snack on small items over a leisurely beverage -- the Greek equivalent of a tapas bar. But it's actually a full service restaurant with dishes ranging from mezes like olives and feta all the way up to pastas, salads, and rack of lamb.

Ironically, the "meze" here are fine, but unexceptional. The appetizer menu is dominated by an extensive array of hummus- and tzaziki-based dips. At lunch, $10.50 gets you a sampler of any three. Try the Taramosalata, a salmon egg whip that's as Athenian as the Olympics or the Fava beans whipped with eggplant; if you like a little spicy, the Tyrokafteri dip of feta and hot peppers is the trick.

The Calamari Salad ($12.00), is one of the best of this noble dish I've had; the steak is big, tender, grilled to perfection with lemon and paprika on a bed of fresh greens. God I love squid, and I don't eat it enough!

But where Ulysses Voyage shines is in its iteration of classic Greek entrees. The Moussaka ($11.95) is heavenly. The layer of bechamel cream on top is a fluffy, jiggling, two-inch think souffle of the lightest texture; beneath are layers of thin-sliced potatoes, eggplant, and ground lamb baked and spiced. A vegetarian version ($10.95) deliciously substitutes zucchini for meat without missing a beat. The Pastitsio (11.95) -- a deep dish of baked penne dish with ground lamb and bechamel -- is equally divine, and a little heartier. Rack of lamb is tender and juicy. And all the main courses are served with fresh, tasty veggies and the lemon potatoes that every Greek restaurant specializes in, but which achieves apotheosis here. And there's a feta cheese spread that goes on fresh-baked bread that tastes like it must be all butter, but it isn't. Just feta, in healthy Mediterranean style.

Two other things worth mentioning. One is that they do a great brunch. I know, I know, you haven't had brunch since the late '80s: all that cream cheese and hollandaise went out with your size 3 dresses. But you can do a lot worse, calorically, than a Greek omelette. Or even better, if you crave Eggs Benedict every now and again but can't afford to sleep for the rest of the day, try their Artichoke Eggs: sauteed spinach and poached eggs on top of two perfectly- baked artichoke hearts, served Benedict-style. It's both light and decadent.

The other thing we have to talk about is ouzo. Now most of you will wince. You had it once or twice. Ultra-strong, licorice-y, and maybe you got too drunk.

You weren't drinking it right.

In Greece, ouzo is almost universally served over ice, mixed with a liberal amount of water: about one part ouzo to two parts water. The water turns the clear ouzo a pretty, milky white, and from a syrupy batch of lighter fluid to a refreshing late-afternoon drink... really!

Of course if you really can't stand the taste of licorice, there's always that Ketel One.

So... next time you find yourself at the Grove with an hour to kill before that movie, or pooped from fighting the Christmas shopping hordes, step into Ulysses Voyage, and into a little bit of Athens.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Tidbit: Del Crispy Fish Taco

I'm going to have to start posting some smaller items, so that you my readers have material to check out more often than the once a week or less I find time to post a full review with photographs and all. So let me just say this today. Have all of you who love good cheap eats tried the $1.49 Crispy Fish Taco at Del Taco? I know, all the real foodies believe you can't find any really decent food at any fast food establishment. I beg to differ. The crispy fish taco here, while maybe not up to the absolute best you could find in Rosarito or Ensenada, is the real deal. Two flour tortillas, cabbage, a light cream sauce, pico de gallo, and a squeeze of lime. Add some Del Scorcho sauce, maybe a little guac, and you're in Baja, dude. And there's a little something extra. The "Crispy" in the fish taco moniker is no lie, but it's NOT about the shell like you might think. It's the fish fillet. And the batter has a little rice crispy-ish crunch to it that makes for one satisfying taco. While the fish itself may not be quite as fresh and light as the best of Baja, it's not the fish stick you may be fearing. Really, trust me, check it out.

Soon, I'll do a full piece on Del Taco... there are some real delights to be had here, and I'll tell you about my friend Kent's Tuesday Taco Night ritual. It's worth the price of clicking here all by itself.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

If Yucan't Go To Yucatan Yucan Go To Yuca's


2056 Hillhurst Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 662-1214
Mon - Sat. 9-6
Cash Only

Click here for Google Info & Map

At this moment, Sa’s cooking dinner for me and I’m sure it’s going to be delicious. But the fact is I’m still full from my lunch today. I took her to Yuca’s Tacos & Burritos, and I had to keep ordering tacos to, you know, research this post.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of visiting the Mayan Riviera, as the stretch of white sand beaches between Cancun and Tulum is known -- or was until it was washed almost completely away by Hurricane Wilma -- the food of the Yucatan peninsula is memorable for two things: pork and hot sauce. The food itself tends to be mild, but the habañero- and jalapeño- based salsas served with it are blazingly spicy -- which as you know is just the way I like it. And both the pork and the salsa are available in quantity at Yuca's.

Here's the dish.

It's the kind of taqueria that makes my taste buds do jumping jacks of excitement. The kind that, as we drive past, I'll say to Sa, "That could be the best Mexican food in the world! What if it is, and we never know?" It's a scary little shack in the middle of Los Feliz village, in the middle of Hillhurst, in the middle of a parking lot. Okay, actually it kind of is a parking lot. A handful of rickety particle board tables teeter with legs half on sidewalk, half on asphalt. A dozen or fewer garage sale wedding auditorium chairs make up the "dining area." There's a blue plastic tarp strung up overhead for shade. That's it.

But did I mention there's parking?

The menu is disarmingly, charmingly small. Burritos of carne asada, carnitas, machaca, chile verde, and pork cochinita pibil (more on that in a moment) and bean & cheese for you (ugh) vegetarians. Tacos and tortas of the same, minus chile verde. Special pibil tamales on Saturdays only. There's also a selection of hot dogs and burgers -- what up wid dat?

You go to the window, and Socorra Herrera, the doña who runs the family operation, takes your order and name... she writes it down on the very paper plate on which your order will be served. This is apparently an excellent system, as it's ready seconds, not minutes, later.

Whatever else you get, and it's all good, you must get the Mayan classic cochinita pibil. This is the local specialty of the Yucatan: it's their gumbo, their deep-dish pizza, their nigiri sushi, their cheesesteak. It's shredded pork that's marinated in spices and steamed in banana leaves. Mmm, yes, it is good as it sounds, and the version here is terrific. What's in it? Achiote, a staple of Mayan cooking. (For info about it click here.) Cumin, definitely. Maybe a bit of cinnamon? Something citrusy, either orange or lemon; I'm thinking orange. Red onion. Mild chilies. It's like the best BBQ pulled pork you can imagine, only not nearly so sweet or spicy, subtler, more tender and juicy. It totally fuckin' rocks.

The carne asada is flavorful and toothsome. The carnitas... well, it's Yucatecan pork. Less unusual than the pibil, but just as tasty. The machaca pictured above, which can be uninteresting on a lot of taqueria menus, is delicious here. It obviously gets the same careful marinade treatment as the pibil. It's incredibly juicy and bursting with flavor. The chile verde is unusual. It's not the tomatillo stew that is my personal favorite food in the world (Sa makes the best version of it I know), but a pulled-pork concoction with tender stewed jalapeños that's addictive. The flour tortillas have that slightly gritty feel that I believe says "eat me" or simply, "lard!". So do the beans.

For two bucks, you can buy a bottle of either the red or green "El Yucateco" brand habañero ultra-hot sauce, or borrow one from the rickety tables, to jack up the heat once you've tasted a bite or two "straight" to appreciate the subtle flavors. Wash it back with a lemonade (the only drink on the menu unless you count coffee, milk or orange juice, which I don't) or your favorite beer or soda from the liquor store two steps away. You're in parking lot heaven.

But I'm sure most of you know about Yuca's already. It's right there on Hillhurst above Franklin. Surely you've already been there. Right? No? You'd better go.

It might just be "the best Mexican food in the world."