Saturday, November 18, 2006

I Almost Forgot Dessert! - Mashti Malone's

Mashti Malone's
1525 N La Brea Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90028
(323) 874-6168

143 N Maryland Ave
Glendale, CA 91206
(818) 662-0400
Google Local Map

You folks with sweet teeth must think I hate you. I've been raving on here for over a year, post after post about appetizers and main courses: steak, tacos, sushi, noodles, tofu, you name it... and not once have I mentioned dessert. Fact is, I just don't have a sugar jones. I don't object to desserts, mind you. I dig a cheesecake or creme brulee as much the next foodie. But as a true metrosexual, I like to maintain my girlish figure while keeping a good buzz on, so I' usually pass on that flan at El Coyote (excellent, btw) or the what-the-hell-is that-du-jour at that Korean joint, and head home to spend my calories on a nightcap instead.

Unfortunately for my figure, Mashti Malone's Ice Cream Parlour is on my way home from just about everywhere.

We're zipping up LaBrea, and I see that quirky sign. (The legend is that when two Persian brothers bought the place to sell their exotic ice cream, they could only afford to change the first name on the sign left by the Irish former tenants.) "Mashti!" I scream, and we screech into the skanky parking lot the parlor shares with a skanky liquor store, a skanky laundromat, and The Lava Lounge.

Mashti's has a couple dozen flavors, all made fresh on the premises. There are favorites like chocolate and vanilla, butter pecan, blueberry. And they are really, really good. Award-winning, in fact, as the festoonery on the wall will inform you. But you go here for the Persian ice cream at the far right of the counter.

Made with a base of rosewater, the flavors read like the aromas of a bivouac on the ancient spice road: Creamy Rosewater Saffron, Orange Blossom, Ginger Rosewater. You could get 'em on a cone or cup, but why? You want the full experience, so order a "Mashti." It's a scoop of ice cream squished between two light, sugar-cone style wafers. It's a unique dessert in every way, from flavor to presentation. My wife loves the Ginger Rosewater, though it's a flavor I find odd in a sweet. Give me the Rosewater Saffron with pistachios: yellow like Indian pullao rice, creamy like a good French vanilla, and punctuated with big, juicy nuts.

And the best part is, you can take the experience home with you. Check the freezer in the corner, and you'll find their signature flavors by the pint, as well as plastic-wrapped Creamy Rosewater Mashtis-to-go. Though the sugar wafer is nowhere near as good frozen as it is fresh, they're still a staple in our freezer.

Face it, as long as you're food crazy-ing around L.A., tasting all those diverse ethnic cuisines , you might as well cap it off with a little detour to Persia on the way home. And I see there's a new Mashti outlet in Glendale, too!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Taquito Revisitado -- Rodolfo's


8 Olvera St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 625-8501
Google Map

You may recall that some time ago, I posted a near-encyclopedic review of the numerous taquito stands lining the East side of Olvera Street. I concluded that while Cielito Lindo is the most famous, the best was Juanita's Cafe. I apologized at the end of the review for having mis-calculated my taquito intake on the way up the street, and being therefore indisposed to check out Rodolfo's at the top of the street.

Perhaps some of you saw the comment that appeared on the post a few weeks later:
you can't write a taquito review of olvera street without eating at Rodolfo's. Juanitas is good and you are right about the other restaurants, they suck (Luz del Dia excluded) but you started on the wrong side of the street cuz you would've eaten 10 straight up had you eaten at Rodolfo's and your review would have been totally different.i guess what i'm saying is you have yet to eat the best taquitos at Olvera Street... our taquitos kick ass. so come back and ask for Daniel and i'll give you the goods.
I went back to Rodolfo's. Now, even though I'm a blogger, I at least pretend to have some journalistic ethics. I rarely post about a place after only one visit, and I never let an establishment comp me a meal. Not that any have offered. But still, I would never have accepted special treatment from Rodolfo's, despite the invitation. That would not be fair you, my humble readers, who might not receive such preferred taquito treatment.

Besides, "Daniel" wasn't there when I asked for him.

But you know what? Rodolfo's taquitos do, indeed, kick ass. What sets them apart from the other tubes of greasy goodness on the block is the delicacy of the shell. Where Cielito Lindo's taquito is positively chewy, at Rodolfo's the tortilla itself manages to be crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, like a pastry or a perfect french fry. That's no mean feat to achieve in the 1/16th inch width of the flattened-maize medium. Only one small gripe: the stand's photographic menu tantalizingly shows taquitos served with a chunky, fresh guacamole, but it is in fact topped with that very different beast, avocado sauce. But it's a tangy, creamy one with a nice kick so no points deducted.

Add to that Rodolfo's delicious beef filling -- yes, it passes the whole-thing-wants-come-out-in-the-first-bite litmus test for stringy beef -- and Rodolfo's has clearly earned its spot at the top of the Olvera Street.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

My Crispy Taco Jones: Henry's Tacos

Henry's Tacos

11401 Moorpark St.
North Hollywood, CA 91602
(818) 769-0343
Google Local Info

It's been so long since I've posted! Been hunkered down, finishing the first draft of my novel. It's done, it's not perfect yet, but the word so far is good. Thanks for asking!

Despite my absence here, I have not stopped eating, nor embarrassing my wife by snapping pictures of food in restaurants and lunch counters around L.A. So I have a lot of research in the can. I hope you'll hear more posts from me in coming days.

For some reason, this fall I've been thinking about almost nothing but crispy ground beef tacos. You know, the kind mom used to make on Taco Night. Chopped tomatoes, shredded iceberg lettuce, grated cheddar, a pound of ground round, Lawry's Taco seasoning, Old El Paso shells. The kind that Del Taco or (less successfully) Taco Bell deals in.

There are many great versions of this humble taco in L.A. The most famous perhaps is Tito's Tacos in Culver City; but for me, Henry's Tacos in Studio City wins the horse race by a nose... because of the sign.

I love that sign. Maybe it's because the restaurant opened the year I was born, but that Jetsons-Meets-Shag aesthetic just makes me all glowy every time I see it.

I own the T-shirt.

Henry's perches on an anonymous corner in the Valley, unchanged since the street was dominated by big-fin American cruisers populated with guys trying to look like James Dean. The tiny menu is the kind I like, lean, mean, and focused on what the joint does well. We got beef. We got beans. We got rice. We got cheese. Chicken? Fuck off. You get your beef and/or beans in three different formats: taco, burrito, tostado (note the retro spelling), and "taco burger."

That's the only oddity here: the ingredients of a taco stuffed into a hamburger bun; a Mexican Sloppy Joe. Ain't that just the ultimate in early sixties muliculturalism?

Some like the taco burger, or the bean or combo burrito. They're fine, but too squishy for my taste. When I come here, I'm after that dialectical interplay between crispy shell and soft, savory beef that makes the hard shell taco so irresistible. Henry's Tacos ($2.40) have that in spades. The beef is mildly seasoned; it profits by addition of the little tubs of "hot sauce" (not salsa, please, remember this is 1961) that come on the side. The shell is perfectly crispy, less greasy than some other excellent hard tacos in town but not as cardboardy as either Mom's Old El Paso or Taco Bell shells. The shredded lettuce is fresh and crunchy, the real cheddar cheese perfectly sharp. The single slice of half tomato gives a tangy semblance of something healthy. If you must have a side dish, the beans, with green chile sauce added, are tasty.

But that's the great thing about a Henry's taco. you don't need a side dish. Just order another taco... and a t-shirt of that fabulous sign.

Be careful not to dribble the hot sauce on your swell new shirt.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Dining at Canyon Pace -- Abuelita's


137 S. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga, CA 90290
(310) 455-8688
Google Local Info
MC, Visa, AMEX
Extensive Vegetarian Menu

In an effort to rediscover my Shakespeare roots, I made the trek out to Topanga Canyon for a production of Twelfth Night at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum. Of course, Twelfth Night features a clown named Feste, Feste reminds me of "fiesta," "fiesta" is Español for party, so was there any question that I'd be going out for margaritas before the show?

Turns out one of the most well-reviewed Mexican places in L.A. is Abuelita's, about a mile and a half down the Canyon from the Will Geer, right around the corner from The Inn of Seventh Ray. I might have checked out the New Age, organic Inn, as everyone says I must do; but I worry, do they even have margaritas, and if so, do they put tofu in them?

I'll make it to Inn of the Seventh Ray one of these days, but let's talk Abuelita's. The name is a good sign: "Granny's", is a loose translation. You know that I'm all about Mex food made by grandma, not the gang youth at your local Baja Fresh, right?

The service upon entry was not a good sign. Bees were attacking their outdoor patio overlooking the creek (the best outdoor dining in L.A., according to AOL Cityguide -- as long as you don't count the horror-movie infestation of bestingered insects), so I'll cut 'em some slack. But still, our hungry party of five waited fifteen minutes just to be seated in a nearly-empty restaurant. We sat inside to avoid the swarm, but the creekside canyon ambience did seem lovely.

The first round of margaritas, the house blend, were so watery that we seriously wondered if they'd remembered to add the booze. Our waiter (cute, I'm told, by our female companions) had suggested we order the Cadillac version for a buck more, and he was right. The second round was a major improvement.

When the food finally arrived, all other concerns went out the window. The tortillas, handmade on the premises, were delightful. The chiles rellenos were delicate and fluffy, perfectly picante chiles stuffed with a generous (maybe too generous?) amount of cheese, the light tomato sauce tangy, flavorful, and not the least bit gloppy.

A grilled shrimp burrito, made mojado with an unusual lobster bisque sauce, got rave reviews. You know I love my taquitos, and these delightful fingers of deep fried pulled pork were some of the best I've ever had. The sum of gritty, chewy quality of the fresh, hand-pounded tortillas, perfectly cooked pork, and fresh guacamole added up to a thoroughly satisfying whole. Only a chicken mole soft taco disappointed. The chicken was fine and tender; the mole, a little too sweet; but the taco itself, just chicken mole with no condiment, felt like it needed another ingredient to finish it off. Onion? Scallion? Something.

Visting Topanga Canyon is a little like visiting the 70's. Life goes on at a slower pace there; but you do come away with some good memories.

Oh, and Twelfth Night, under the moon and oak trees of the utterly delightful Theatricum Botanicum, kicked ass.

Friday, September 01, 2006

L.A. Food Crazy Meets "Not For Tourists"

If you're familiar with the hardcopy version of the Not For Tourists guide, you know it's an excellent guidebook designed for people who live or work in the big U.S. cities. Stunning graphics, thoughtful listings of offbeat places for locals to visit, and plenty of listings of locals' necessities like carwashes and schools make it a great guide for locals and newcomers who info beyond to go beyond the Chinese Theater and the Wax Museum.

I'm contributing a few food write-ups for their online site; check out today's Daily Radar blurb, and then visit ther rest of their newly re-vamped site. Even if you're a local, you might learn a thing or two.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Frog and the Pig - Toad House

Toad House
4503 Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90004
(323) 460-7037
Open Daily 7:30am-1am
American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa
Google Local Map

I thought I'd follow up my last post about Noshi Sushi with a breakdown of a spot less than two blocks away, and yet a world apart. Where Noshi is all about slabs of delicately flavored cool fresh, Toad House is all about...


Psych! It's not about frogs. It's about meat. And particularly, pork.

Just another bunker on Beverly Boulevard from the outside, Toad House greets you with happy cartoons of pudgy yellow pigs on the front door. There are a couple of tables inside, but most of the dining area is outside on the covered patio. And with good reason. There's going to be a lot of smoke, and not just from the surly Korean youths puffing away in the corner over big bottles of OB or Hite beer.

Take a seat outside under one of the five or so TV sets suspended over the tables (there's almost one monitor per table). But trust me, you won't be watching TV. The food show is much better.

The waitress sets down menus. No one speaks much English here, so make it easy on yourself. Take a date, and point to the #3 combination, $39.95 for pork belly and beef brisket for two people. All the combinations include beer, wine, or soju. Have you been paying attention to my past posts? If so, you know want the soju.

Then sit back and watch what happens. Nice but harried waitress fires up the convex grill; a smaller version of what you might see at a Mongolian BBQ. She brings out the metal bowls filled with the small side-dishes known as panchan. Be sure to impress your date that you know the word for these dishes. Say it with me: panchan. They're actually not that remarkable here, but the chili sauce bean sprouts are good, and the potato salad is tangy -- why do these Korean places make potato salad, anyway?

Next comes the leek and scallion "pancake." You won't recognize it as a pancake, because it's more like a quiche or a soufflé. It arrives at your table with the eggy concoction still roiling and boiling to a finish. Let it simmer and solidify a little before you dig in. It's sooo light and fluffy; somewhere between meringue, mousse and the fluffiest omelette you've ever had. I'm craving it as I write about it.

Next come the piles of raw pork and beef. The waitress lays it out on the grill for you. It cooks. You watch, waiting. The brisket is the classic Korean bulgogi, thin-sliced and tender. It cooks fast. Start eating it when it looks good. The pork -- if you ordered the #3 -- is pork belly, huge slabs of marbled meat that look like bacon on crack. Let the waitress cook this for you. You'll know when it's done: she comes by with some bad-ass scissors and (this momma's boy loves this part) cuts it into bite-sized chunks for you.

But there's one more trick to Toad House. It's dduk bo sam style. That means that while the meat is cooking, you'll be brought a big pile of shredded lettuce and scallion, a couple of dipping sauces, and a plate filled with something so unfamilar that -- I guarantee -- even after having enlighened yourself by reading this post -- you'll ask, What's that? They're small, square rice-flour cakes, paper thin and slightly stretchy; not unlike the rice paper wrappings on Vietnamese summer rolls.

Just take a piece of this dduk wrapper in one hand, grab a bit of caramelized, grilled meat, dip it in some sauce, and put it in the wrapper. Add a chopstickload of the lettuce and scallion. Wrap it up loosely, and eat in one bite, dim sum style. This, you will discover, is a little big of hog heaven. Don't worry about doing it "wrong." A glance around the table reveals as many techniques for devouring this stuff as there are for eating rice, beans, and guacamole with tortillas.

Just be sure to wash it back with soju. And don't forget to toast the five happily trotting pigs in the poster on the dining room wall.

They gave their bellies for yours.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Red Booths and Raw Fish - Noshi Sushi

Noshi Sushi

4430 Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90004
(323) 469-3458

Open 7 days til 9 pm

Google Local Info

It's a fucking zillion degrees in L.A. You've already imposed on your friends to swim in their pool twice, you've seen An Inconvenient Truth and every other thing playing at the Arclight. You've cooked out on the Weber until you have hot dogs coming out your ears. You feel like it's actually too damn hot to eat, but you've got to... and you've got escape the heat.

If you're like me, you want raw fish. Cool, fresh, buttery slabs of sushi. And you'd like it somewhere where you can relax and spend a couple of hours, not propped up on a slightly-too-small plastic chair in a spartan Zen room that should be cool but, because of the small space and the track lighting over the sushi bar, is just a little too close for comfort.

You want to go to Noshi Sushi. I think it's the best sushi restaurant in Los Angeles. Sure, there are places in Beverly Hills that do the thousand-dollar slice of fish. And of course there are the splendors of sushi row on Ventura Blvd. Katsu-ya makes delicious dishes in the "Japanese tapas" style -- things like Carpaccio of Yellowtail with Jalapeño, or Spicy Tuna on Crispy Rice Cakes -- as does my new local favorite Shintaro. There's Nozawa with his "Trust Me" special, and his amazing array of tunas and his blue crab rolls. But Nozawa's rice is always a little warm, and authentic or not, I don't want warm rice taking the cool edge off my raw fish on a hot night.

No, those places are great, but when my wife and say "Wanna go for sushi?", we mean Noshi. Why? Big slabs of fresh fish at reasonable prices, consistently amazing hamachi (which is, after all, the best of all possible sushi fish), and the most comfortable dining room of any sushi place in L.A.

It's in what looks like a nuclear fallout shelter on Beverly Blvd., smack in the middle of Koreatown. It's got a huge sushi bar, but it's one of the few sushi joints where I don't usually sit there... because Noshi's got booths. Big ones. Real, honest-to-god, spacious, red naugahyde booths. The place looks like it was probably once a steakhouse, and has the airy, high-ceilinged feel of a Japanese Hamburger Hamlet, without the cheesy decor.

You won't find any fancy, layered, fusion creations here. No specialty rolls. It's stripped down, dude. No fancy "premium cold sake list." They got hot sake, cold sake, and Asahi and Sapporo beer. Small bottles only, no large. No Kirin. Tempura/teriyaki combos and old-school sushi rule the day.

There are a very few specials on the wall. The albacore salad, a mound of crisp cucumber and shredded daikon and carrot with slabs of albacore tuna in a light, tangy dressing, is the perfect starter to beat the heat. After that, you'll recognize the menu from 1980's sushi bars: Tuna, eel, clam, giant clam, octopus, squid, shrimp, and scallop sushi; California rolls; spicy tuna rolls; salmon skin rolls. You can try to ask for your favorite nouvelle sushi option, but if you're going much beyond "Spicy Scallop Hand Roll," expect a blank stare.

But what they do, they do right: big, bold and fresh. My personal favorites are "white fish" (you get halibut unless you specify red snapper, which is usually better) - order it with ponzu sauce. Scallop sushi (ordered with mayo) is never better anywhere than here. And as for the hamachi (yellowtail) sushi... it's simply the most consistently sweet and buttery you'll find. It invokes in this blogger what his wife affectionately calls "hamachi-face" -- that look of utter epicurean delight that makes your face positively melt with joy. Which is much better than having it melt -- like the Nazi dude in Raiders of the Lost Ark -- in the heat outside.

Two tips:

- Arrive early. The restaurant is only open 'til 9:00 pm, and you can have a tough time parking and a long wait in the 7-9 window.

- Bring cash. It's cash only, and they have no ATM. But you don't need to bring too much... unless you eat more than your weight in sushi and drink more than three beers or sakes, you'll have a hard time spending more than $35.00 a person.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Tofu! Tofu! Tofu! - Vinh Loi Tofu!

Vinh Loi Tofu

18625 Sherman Way, No. 101,
(818) 996-9779
Open 7 am - 7 pm
Cash Only

Google Local Info

If you're like me, you're an equal-opportunity diner. Just because you love few things in the world more than a perfectly grilled 14-ounce New York strip doesn't mean you can't appreciate the delights of a nice, fresh salad, a good veggie stir-fry, or even... tofu.

Some otherwise reasonable people I know won't go there. Any food that has to sit in water in your fridge must be for pussies, they figure. And the average Buddha's Delight at your local Chinese greasery isn't likely to persuade them.

Vinh Loi Tofu just might.

I can't claim to have found the place, as Linda Burum's piece in the Los Angeles Times sent me slavering there a couple of weeks ago. But holy bean curd, this place is good.

It's yet another outpost of cutting edge cuisine in a dodgy strip mall; this one in the deepest depths of Reseda. Ambience: one counter, five pictures of food on the wall, one cooler with drinks and other specialty items, one handful of formica tables.

It's my first time there, and Kevin Tran, owner, proprietor, and cashier can tell. As I and my lunch date study the menu, he says, "First of all, don't order off the menu. Get what I tell you."

We do.

First of all, it's Vietnamese food, which means it's good to begin with. Vietnamese uses all of my favorite ingredients: tender, sliced, savory bits swimming in flavorful broths among delicate noodles, seasoned with lemon grass, chiles, and cilantro, juiced up with a squeeze of lime.

But what Kevin Tran does with the savory bits is truly amazing.

Anchoring all of the spicy salads, stinging hot soups, and fresh spring rolls -- where you're used to beef, duck, pork or shrimp -- is humble tofu. Tofu that, in a dazzling array of preparations, manages to to taste, feel, and sometimes even look like the beef, duck, pork or shrimp of the original.

The beef- and pork-style tofus in the spicy noodle soup are as different from each other as cow and pig: the beef, thin-sliced and slightly chewy, the pork tender and succulently chunky. And they're both as different from the pillowy hunks of what-you-know-as-tofu in the same soup as different can be.

The "seafood" with wide, flat noodles (first photo, above) arrives topped with what looks for all the world like a perfectly breaded, grilled, sliced calamari steak. It tastes a little more like shrimp than calamari, but there's no actual seafood involved. When my vegetarian dining partner, entirely skeptical, asks Kevin if all this is really vegetarian, he replies no, it's vegan!

The slices of browned stuff in the spring rolls? Tofu.

The absurdly duck-like stuff in the duck salad? Vegan.

Only the fried tofu with dipping sauce looks and feels familiar. Yet with its perfectly crispy, chile-flaked crust, it's the best version of fried tofu I've ever had, with the possible exception of the world-famous Fatty's in Singapore.

And it all comes from Kevin's very own tofu factory in the back of the restaurant. It's fresh. It's one-of-a-kind. I guarantee you, you CAN'T get these dishes, like this, anywhere else, even if you're food crazy like me and make the requisite pilgrimages to far-flung parts of the county for exotic Asian food. And it's right there in freakin' Reseda!

With apologies to Soul Coughing: We are all going to Reseda, someday, to die... for the tofu.

You'll have to excuse the lack of detail here. I rarely post about a place after visiting just once, especially when I'm not even allowed to look at the menu, but I had to get this up, to make sure people keep going there, to make sure Kevin's place is a huge success. You gotta go. And I gotta go back.

When are we going?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Families Are Hard: Guadalupe's Place

Guadalupe's Place
5028 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA
(323) 462-3329
Cash Only

Google Local Info

No, that's not a typo in the caption. The sign that says "Elizondo's" means "Guadalupe's." Read on.

About twenty years ago, I had just moved to LA from San Francisco's Mission District, and was looking for a replacement for my daily burrito fix from Taqueria La Cumbre, El Toro, Pancho Villa, La Parrilla Suiza, El Faro, and the other fantastic competing burrito joints in the few square blocks bounded by Mission and Valencia, 16th and 24th Streets. The burrito was invented in the Mission (it's true, you can look it up), so they've got 'em down, there.

I was shocked that LA, with a much higher Latino population, hadn't matched San Francisco -- at least in this one, very important regard. The first place that made me think LA might someday catch up was Anelcy's, on Melrose Blvd. one block west of Western.

Their carne asada was good (though no Taqueria La Cumbre, whence my friend Franz occasionally brings me a steak burrito, still warm its foil wrapper, when he returns home from a visit to The City), their carnitas excellent. But what made Anelcy's worth the drive across town for me was their Burrito de Vegetales.

Now I'm not a vegetarian, heaven forfend, but I enjoy vegetables as much as the next ominivore, and am just as likely to order tofu at any given meal as lamb or steak. But the vegetable burrito at Anelcy's, for my money, was the best burrito in town.

A burrito is always way more than the sum of its parts. Anelcy's was the poster child for the concept. It was just your standard big tortilla, beans, shredded lettuce, rice, grated cheese, chopped tomatos, chunks of avocado, and a fiery salsa. But it just totally kicked ass.

First and foremost, the vegetables were never unceremoniously dumped onto your burrito from a Taco Bell style prep line. When you ordered a burrito, the silent, macho dude behind the counter would take out a whole fresh tomato; a whole, ripe avocodo; a head of lettuce, and begin slicing, chopping and shredding. It actually TOOK a few minutes to make your burrito! The beans were delicious, the cheese, grated coarsely, retained some texture, the huge chunks of avocado were always impeccably creamy, and the tangy, lemony hot red sauce was such a perfect complement to the cool, crisp fresh veggies that it all just WORKED.

A few years ago, I went to Anelcy's to find the name had changed: "Elizondo's" it was called. I walked in in fear, to find that the menu board still said "Anelcy's", the prices were unchanged, and most of all, the same taciturn macho dude was still chopping up fresh avocados for the veggie burrito. The burrito was identical.

Well, I've been meaning to write it up for awhile, so today I went back to check the location and take a picture, only to find out the name has changed again. It still says "Elizondo's Place" on the outside, but inside the menu board has changed. It's now "Guadalupe's Place." And no macho dude behind the counter. Concerned, I asked the pretty young cashier what was up. "It's always been the same place. In fact," she said, "there was one more name between Elizondo and Guadalupe. But it's all in the family."

Well, I ordered my burrito, and watched for telltale signs of even infinitesimal change in Guadalupe's purveyance of its preparateion. The tomato was still taken fresh from the counter cooler and chopped. Same with the avocado-- though I think there was significantly less of it in in the burrito than there Used To Be. But the dude didn't ask if wanted my salsa inside the burrito (you do -- make sure to specify), and he doused it with some squeeze-bottle crema. I was distracted by a World Cup goal on the TV over the door, and didn't see if the lettuce was fresh shredded... I suspect it wasn't, as the burrito popped up onto the counter too quickly. The delicious fiery red salsa picante is the same... I came home with a pint of it.

But somehow, the sum of this burrito, while still greater than the parts and still delicious, was somewhat less than its former whole self. The rice (I usually order without, but forgot this time) was too prevalent, the avocado was skimpy, and the lettuce was a little limp.

I'll go back to try again, and I'd be curious to see if anyone else has followed it through all of its myriad changes of management, and has thoughts about its development. But, sadly, my long-awaited post about Anelcy's/Elizondo's/Guadalupe's place is not the triumph I had hoped; it mostly makes me crave a burrito from Taqueria La Cumbre.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Waiter! -- This Food Is Too Fresh!

First, apologies for infrequent posts of late. I'm scribbling about food when my novel is being uncooperative, but I've had a good few weeks of writing -- which means less time for foodblogging. This is a good thing.

But you know, I've had something gnawing at me for awhile. My plan in this space was to write only about places I like, places that I think you should check out. I've had some pretty awful meals as research that you'll never hear about. But I have a little bit of rant for today that was inspired by my visit to Hot's Cantina in Northridge.

I read about Hot's when it came up #1 in an AOL Citysearch poll of L.A.'s top five Mexican restaurants, beating out places like La Serenata de Garibaldi and El Cholo. Not that I don't think anyplace could beat El Cholo for Mex food, but I'd never even heard of "Hot's." So I made the Conrad-like journey up the 405 to the Deep Valley to visit its shopping mall location.

Now over the years, I've been a fan of "Fresh Mex" joints. I loved the fish burritos at Poquito Mas, the shrimp tacos at Baja Fresh, and when you could finally get decent carne asada at the Beverly Center thanks to La Salsa, I was overjoyed. I still love the lobster burrito at Rubio's, but that's a topic for another post.

But you know what? I'm bored with the whole genre, and Hot's was the straw that broke the charbroiled chicken's back. The decor is fabulous, all tropical Mexican indoor thatch. There's groovy '70's deep tracks playing on the sound system. The waitresses are hotties of the type that only exist in that part of the Valley. The chips were delicious, greasy and stuck together three-thick the way I like 'em. The salsa bar had the usual array of mild green, hot red, and smoky chipotle sauces, fresh lime and onion/cilantro mix. My food was, indeed, fresh, and it comes on those faux-vintage metal beer trays.
But the recommended "BBQ Chicken Taco" was as bland as could be: a flour tortilla with a skewer of chicken breast covered with an utterly lame BBQ sauce. The fresh mex salad, boring. And the special board freaked me out. Sushi Burritos? Shrimp Tempura Tacos with Mango Salsa? Give me a freakin' break.

It was this day I decided: I'm sick of "Fresh Mex." I'm sick of that same salsa bar, the same tender grilled chicken, the watery salsas, the underseasoned pinto beans, the soggy burritos, the whole I-can-make-this-spicy-if-I-drown-it-in-Tapatio rigmarole. To hell with "fresh." When I go for tacos or a burrito or a plate of chile verde, the last thing I want is "fresh."

The Mexican food I love is poor people's food, a couple pieces of pork and beef stretched by a thrifty old matriarch into a week's worth of meals. I want chile colorado that's been stewing in that abuela's pot for days. I want pork that's been marinating for the adobado for a week. I want the crispy, caramelized edges of slightly burned barbacoa. I want bits of blackened carne asada, scraped from the same overworked grill that also gives the tortillas a bit of meat flavor when heated. I want thick smoky salsas that have congealed a little to concentrate the texture and flavor. I want moles that take months to prepare and taste like every ingredient in a barren cupboard was used. And every now and again, I want lard in my beans. I want my Mexican food down, amigo, and yes, I want it a little bit dirty.

Sure, I'll go to Poquito Mas if it's there, have a couple of tacos and some pasty black beans, and it'll be fine. But whereas a few years ago I couldn't wait for a Baja Fresh or La Salsa in my neighborhood, now that they're there I find myself wishing that just one of them had an abuela behind the counter, her chile verde getting just a little crispy in the bottom of the pot.

For now, I drive past those places, and go to Yuca's.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Walking the Walk -- Taquito Talk

Cielito Lindo
23 Olvera St. E
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 687-4391

Juanita Cafe (Juanita's)
20 Olvera St. E
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 628-1013

La Noche Buena
12 Olvera St. E
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 628-2078

See links below for further information.

The very first restaurant I remember visiting, at age 3, was the venerable Lupe's in Thousand Oaks. I was three years old. I had a hamburger. On my next visit I had taquitos, and I've been hooked ever since. Lupe's waitresses used to wager on how many taquitos I could down during a meal. They usually lost. Not long after, my culinarily-challenged mom discovered the frozen Mar-kes brand taquitos (before they became "Marquez" and changed their recipe much to the worse) that came six to a box, complete with a frozen baggie of the unique creamy avocado puree that seems only to appear on taquitos. I was perfectly happy to have 'em for dinner three times a week, and mom was happy to fry and oblige.

So when I heard a few years ago about the "world-famous" taquito joint at the bottom of Olvera Street, I had to check it out. And Cielito Lindo is certainly famous. Their website claims Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, and Marlon Brando as enthusiastic -- albeit dead -- regulars. There's almost always a line there, and while there are some token other items on the miniscule menu, everyone's ordering taquitos, including me. But after years of performing quick "drop me off and drive around the block" maneuvers with my wife to procure them anytime we were within three blocks of the place, I got curious about the other taquito joints that line the East side of Olvera Street. Last week, I decided it was time for a taquito walk, just to make sure I was really addicted to the best taquitos on the block.

I love Olvera Street, for shopping, food, the swirl of mexican trinkets and clothes, the competing mariachi bands, and the genuine history at the heart of the city. Starting at the bottom of the hill, on the corner of Alameda and Cesar Chavez, is Cielito Lindo itself. A shack, a decaying sign, a counter, dudes rolling up piles of shredded beef machaca into fresh tortillas and dropping 'em into two big, wok-like deep fryers, a couple dozen at a time, serving 'em up fresh, hot, and perfectly crispy at the edges. There are two or three indoor tables, but this is street food, best eaten sitting on the brick planter wall right across from the shop. The taquito is like a mexican hot dog in that it has only three ingredients: meat, container, and sauce. But the sum is greater than its parts. Cielito Lindo's are undeniably delicious, and frankly closer in vibe to my old Mar-kes frozen favorites than what you'll get if you order a taquito at a restaurant. These have no salsa fresca, no chunky guac, no finely grated white cheese, and certainly no fuckin' sour cream. If you must taint your taquito, get the "combo" that comes with beans and cheese, and put a little of the smoky red salsa picante on your paper plate.

The Cielito Lindo taquito itself is almost chewy. The meat is sinewy and subtly seasoned. The sauce is tangy, and so thin that it's hard to believe it came from an avocado. It coats the slender golden-brown taquitos like hot green candle wax on a supermodel's fingers. You can't eat just two; I prefer them the way Mar-kes used to dish 'em up: by the half-dozen.

But on this day, I settle for two, and move on up the street.

Juanita Cafe, a few doors up, has people buying stuff besides taquitos, but taquitos are still the top item on their menu. As they should be. The differences between Cielito Lindo's and the fried rolls of goodness here are subtle, but noticeable. The machaca is a little more adventurously seasoned, and simultaneously fluffier and more substantial. The fried tortilla fights back a little, but isn't as downright leathery as the one down the road. And the sauce, the all-important sauce, is a scoche tangier, slightly thicker, with a little more of a kick. And a fiery salsa rojo similar to CL's is available for you heat-seekers.

I'm here to tell you that Juanita's makes the best taquito on Olvera Street.

Next up the street is El Rancho Grande. Same deal here: a wider range of menu items, but taquitos still get prime billing. Now to non-taquito lovers, no doubt all taquitos taste alike. But for me, this one just kinda sucked. Flavorless tortilla, average beef, and sauce that was over-whipped into a sort of avocado meringue. Not unlike the knockoff crap from those companies whose frozen taquitos, sadly, replaced Mar-kes.

Next up, La Noche Buena (ah, remember the delicious and festive Christmas beer of the same name from Dos Equis? No longer available in this country... I've asked) showed real promise. The taquito shell fried up a little bit flakier that the others... not chewy at all, but light, almost reminiscent of an eggroll skin. Nice. The sauce, too, was more complex: closer to guacamole, with visible bits of cilantro swimming in it. Add a little salsa verde with big chunks of onion and cilantro from the giant bowl on the counter, and you've got an attractive set of taquitos indeed.. But the final result was disappointing. The slightly acrid taste of overtaxed cooking oil -- or perhaps less-than-fresh machaca -- spoiled what was the best-looking taquito of the bunch.

Then there's Rodolfo's, the last taquitoria at the top of the street. And here, humble reader, I've let you down. I miscalculated my taquito intake on the way up the street, and was just plain too full to sample their deep-fried tubes of glory.

The waitresses at Lupe's would be very, very disappointed in me.

But perhaps it's a boon for you. You don't want to hear my take on EVERY taquito joint on Olvera street do you?

So do me a favor. Go to Rodolfo's. Let me know how it is.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Meet Okonomiyaki -- Haru Ulala

Haru Ulala

368 E. 2nd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 620--1120

Google Local Info, including map, directions, and more reviews

My friend Kent spent a lot of time in Japan a few years ago. When I launched LA Food Crazy, he immediately e-mailed to ask if I had come across anyplace that serves okonomiyaki. I'd never heard of okonomiyaki. It was, he said, his favorite meal in Japan.

For Kent's birthday, he demanded okonomiyaki. He sent me the results of a Google search which had turned up four places that serve it in the LA area, and asked if I'd finish up the research and pick a place.

I said sure. After a full morning's research I had discovered... that there are only four places in LA county that serve okonomiyaki. Two are in Torrance (sorry, not driving there on a Saturday), one is in Westwood (Korean-operated... not necessarily bad, but not likely to be very authentic either).

And then there was a place I'd never heard of, Haru Ulala, near the south end of Little Tokyo. We were going downtown to visit the display of Oscar-consideration costumes at Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise (an extraordinary yearly event, btw. Anyone into movies, costumes, or both should check it out), so Little Tokyo it was.

Turns out Okonomiyaki is worth the search, and Haru Ulala is my new fave J-town destination.

The place is just a half dozen banquettes, configurable into different sizes by clever sliding room dividers. Perfect for large-sized groups. Interestingly, though okonomiyaki is listed on their website, it doesn't appear on any of their confusing array of three different menus.

This is Izakaya-style Japanese food... which is to say, bar food. The Japanese equivalent of chicken wings, potato skins, nachos, and fried calamari, or perhaps more accurately, of Spanish tapas. All the items on the three menus are inexpensive, small plates of snack food.

We were totally stabbing in the dark with our order, but did pretty well once we got past the slimy "shredded yams," which dripped with a snotty goo; a decidedly un-Western aesthetic that the mild, jicama-like flavor failed to overcome.

Everything after that was fantastic. The grilled calamari with shiitake mushroom, thin strips of squid browned in butter with small, delicate shiitakes, was still being discussed days later. A small stewed pork rib was fall-off-the-bone tender. Fried soft shell crab served with ponzu dipping sauce was as light and tender as I've ever had. Fried cheese was as far from the mozzarella fingers at TGIFriday's as you can imagine.

But we were here for the okonomiyaki. In a couple of the other local places it's a make-it-yourself-at-the-table operation at, like shabu shabu or Korean BBQ. Going DIY would terrify me with this recipe. You can get an idea of how the operation should go here. To see how it can go horribly wrong, scroll about 2/3 down the page at this delicious-looking archive of Daily Gluttony -- a terrific food blog, btw. At Haru Ulala, okonomiyaki is mercifully prepared in the kitchen. We ordered two, one for the vegetarians at the table, and one seafood version.

How to describe okonomiyaki? It's somewhere between a pizza, a pupusa, an omelette and a latke. Shredded yam, cabbage, egg, flour, and your choice of ingredients get mixed up, grilled, flipped like an omelette, then slathered with a sweet brown sauce and drizzled with mayonnaise. One came with writhing bonito flakes on top -- a subtle flavor but a freaky image. Don't try eating this on acid. (Or... do. ) The fluffy eggs, crisp cabbage, and julienned Chinese yam (slimy goo thankfully cooked away in this version) provide a variety of textures that still doesn't overwhelm the ingredients you choose for your "pizza." The brown sauce and mayo help pull all the different textures and flavors together into a savory, creamy goodness.

Sound like hangover food? It is. It's rich, sweet, comfort cuisine perfect for a rainy night (if we ever have one of those again in L.A.), yet leaves you feeling surprisingly light and healthy. Wash it back with beverages from their extensive list of beer ($8.00 pitchers of Kirin) and soju (including an array of Japanese sojus, which are much more intense than their light, slightly sweet Korean counterparts), and it's hard to imagine a more satisfying and fun group meal.

I have read one or two mentions in other reviews of uneven service. Not for us! Our server Sayuko, aside from being take-her-home-and-keep-her adorable, gave us some of the best service I've had in recent memory.

And seriously, somebody out there needs to capitalize on the untapped okonomiyaki market. A stand specializing in this stuff next to a popular dive bar in Koreatown would make a fortune.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

El Coyote (Pt. II) -- Judyism

In my last post I tried to break down any resistance you might have to dining at El Coyote, that L.A. bastion of 1930's style California Mexican cuisine, by positing that there are redeeming culinary qualities to be found among the julienned beets and Thousand Island dressing. Judging by the number of hits on the site and some e-mail, I'm not alone in my love for the place.

In part two of the El Coyote post, I'm here to tell you, for real, why El Coyote may just be the The World's Greatest Restaurant.

To me, a great restaurant is defined by so much more than the quality of its food. It's an experience. I can appreciate a $35 piece of seared ahi with wasabi butter on an architectural mound of rice and daikon, served under recessed lights on a cold marble table in a room so spacious and echoey that your "Mmm! Delicious!" bounces off five walls before reaching your date as much as the next foodie. In these places, it's "all about the food." But an evening meal with friends has the potential to encompass so much more of life: sound, smell, ritual, history, people-watching, conversation, true confessions, sex (yes, sex), joy and horror. El Coyote delivers all those things for me. Our weekly meals there are like church. In fact, since my wife and I don't go to church, it's exactly like church. We call it "Judyism." Why?

Here's the dish.

Though our schedules have changed recently, we used to go to The Dog every Thursday night. It went like this:

I wake up on Thursday morning, and generally the first thought in my head is "Mmm. What shall I have tonight? Beef rolled tacos? Or a tostada no veg-all with guac? Or am I feeling celebratory... No. 1 combo?" I think about it all day. I make a point not to eat a big lunch: maybe a little bit of sushi, the anti-El Coyote. We get calls from friends during the course of the afternoon -- they also woke up craving Dog food. "You guys Dogging tonight? Is there room at the table?" When our table gets full, we start screening calls. It's strictly first come, first served.

I leave work early; when I took the job, I told my employer: "One condition: Thursdays, I leave at 5:30. Non-negotiable." I drive home, narrowing down my menu selection in my head. Rolled tacos and a garden salad. But will the tacos be beef, chicken, or one of each? At home, there is already a small crowd of friends waiting for me. They're loitering anxiously around the front door, jackets on, keys in hand. "He's here! Let's GO, I'm starving!" We pile into the car. Somone rides in the back of the SUV. It takes too long to get there. Minutes seem like hours. Finally we pull onto Beverly Blvd., and there's the sign, exactly like a church steeple, beckoning us to worship. Its warm red neon is welcoming. It promises "cocktails." Happy hour revelers are already spilling out the restaurant, glowing, laughing, yelling, staggering obliviously in front of the cars lined up to get into the parking lot... They have already taken communion. Elvis, the chief valet, knows us; he won't allow us to have a ticket. He's been the valet for 10 years... he still doesn't look old enough to drive. We head towards the door -- oops, we forgot to let someone out of the back of the SUV. We fix that. We enter and Billy, the host, says hi. He expects us to call if we're NOT coming on Thursday. Our table is waiting. Large 8 (yes, we know most of the tables in the place by numeric designation), in the gold room, in the corner. We take our assigned seats automatically.

Our waitress Judy sees us from across the room, and seconds later she's brought our drinks. She knows what we all want: house margaritas, straight up, ice on the side, one with no salt. Judy is adorable. She calls the margaritas "vitaminas." Vitamins. From vita, "life." She's Guatemalan, and looks twenty years younger than she is. We comment on whatever pretty ruffly Mexican dress she's wearing that day. She's wearing costume jewelry that was a present from my wife last Christmas, and an apron she made for her the year before. We see Judy more often than most of our best friends. We ask about her dogs; she asks about anyone who's missing from the group. "Where is your friend with the funny hair?" We tell her the strange tales of our our life the past week. She responds, wide-eyed: "Ohhh!?... Really? No! Really?... Ohhh." I think she doesn't understand most of it.

Judy has been serving us for 13 years. She's our high priestess.

The tortillas and guac arrive. We usually skip the chips, a passing attempt at health made useless when we slather butter on the tortillas. Is there anything better than a steaming hot corn tortilla with butter? Who says the food at El Coyote isn't good?

Judy knows not to take our order til we've received our second drink. By now everyone has changed their minds about what they're getting. The room is getting louder. There's always a hen party across from us, a different set of secretaries just off work, bitching about their bosses. Maybe there's a celebrity. We've seen Drew Barrymore and Edward Norton, Dom DeLouise and Ruth Buzzi, Tim Burton and Lisa Marie (on Halloween; we were dressed as Jack Skellington and Sally -- somewhere, we have a Polaroid commemorating the event), Ricardo Montalban, among countless others. There's the table of regulars in "the bower," a table in the hallway. The same six, also there every Thursday, twenty years older than us. We think of them as a vision of ourselves at age 65. Finally they stopped coming. Someone must have died.

Halfway into our second drink, just when we are well and truly ravenous and a little tipsy, the food arrives. Kent shreds fresh cilantro and squeezes lemon into his Albondigas soup. Sa digs into a chicken Caesar salad. I went for the tostada after all, which requires dousing it in the hot salsa (did I mention the salsas here are all made daily, from scratch, even down to crushing the dried chiles for the salsa picante?), squeezing a half a lemon's juice on it, adding some Cholula. Finally we eat. Everybody cleans their plate. We talk with increasing vehemence about politics, gossip about friends. Maybe there's some friendly fondling under the table.

The margaritas at El Coyote have a truth-serum effect... you start telling people childhood secrets. Maybe you tell someone what you really think of them. Maybe you make a pass at someone. Once, Judy tells us, two customers actually "made the sex" on the patio just before closing one night, she bent over the table with one leg on a chair, he behind. I'm guessing there was a margarita close at hand.

We order one more straight up margarita... to share, like communion. We portion it out carefully. No one wants to get shorted. As we eat and drink, hosts and waiters and waitresses drop by and say or just smile and wave. Margie, of the owning family, pours us water and asks if everything is all right. We eat there twice a week so we know them all, not just Judy. Elegant Miguel, competent Siggy, cute Kevin of the ever changing hair, sexy Isabel, mi amor, fabulous-in drag Roberto, (his Carmen Miranda Halloween outfit not to be missed), Fran the token Republican who tells funny jokes, Casanova, Gabby. They're all family. Even the busboys -- did you know that Jose, the one who looks like a hispanic Jason Robards, personally made ALL the house margaritas here for decades? He'd come in every morning at 5 am to fill the big vat in a corner of the kitchen with the secret mix. He finally passed on the secret a few years ago, but you might want to say "thanks" next time you're in.

The margaritas have their unique, slightly psychotropic effect. The restaurant's year-round christmas lights are beautiful. It's someone's birthday, and the worst rendition of "Happy Birthday, Panchito" imaginable -- the wait staff must rehearse daily to keep everyone that far off-key -- never sounded sweeter. Ten minutes later, we're best friends with the birthday boy.

Finally the bill comes -- reasonable, though with steady price increases the past few years (including one just last week -- margaritas now $5.50), it's not quite the steal it was when margaritas were under two bucks and combos were $4.40. As we leave, we say hi to the table of gay men that are always just sitting as we're leaving. We shop for curios in the window: maybe we really do need that see no evil hear no evil speak no evil monkey figurine set. We finally exit... with one quick glance out onto the patio to make sure we're not missing anyone making the sex.

Elvis whips our car around before we even know we're there, and we make it home. The car knows the way. Maybe we party more at our house. We laugh and sing, maybe we dance.

The next morning, maybe we're a little hung over. But it was worth it, and we'll survive somehow. Maybe we'll have a big, late breakfast.

Some huevos rancheros would be nice.

Hmm... the Church of the Dog opens at 11:00 AM...

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

El Coyote (Pt. I) -- The Secret Menu

El Coyote Cafe (Pt. I)
7312 Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles CA 90036
Google Local Info, including maps, directions, and other reviews.

A lot of foodies I know have already stopped reading.

"El Coyote," they say. "Blecch. How can you even eat there?" Or, "Why, when you can get such good authentic Mexican in L.A.?" Or, "Well, the margaritas are strong... they have to be because you gotta be drunk to eat the food," or, most damning of all, "They put canned beets on their tostadas!"

Here are my answers to that. First off, I eat there simply because it's probably my favorite restaurant in the world. I not only eat there, I often eat there twice a week. And El Coyote is authentic: authentic early 20th-Century California-Mexican cuisine, of which I'm a big fan. Don't get me wrong, I love "authentic" Mexican food, too, but El Coyote is a different beast altogether. Comparing it to Serenata de Garibaldi or Guelaguetza just because the both serve tortillas makes as much sense as comparing In 'n' Out Burger to Nick & Stef's because they both serve meat and potatoes. And damn straight the margaritas are strong... and delicious. And even damner and straighter there's canned beets on their tostadas. My wife loves 'em... with blue cheese dressing, motherfucker! You got a problem with that?

My point is El Coyote needs to be taken on its own terms. No less a foodie luminary than Jonathan Gold (and for those of you who don't know it, all L.A. food bloggers are Jonathan Gold-wannabes) says that he's eaten more meals at El Coyote than any other restaurant on earth, and that Los Angeles is "unimaginable without it."

Okay, enough defensive El Coyote apologism. I'm posting to tell you who love the restaurant, but always order the same thing, or those of you who ate the tostada once, freaked at the beets and have only gone for drinks since, how to Work The Menu. There's some good eating to be done at what my household lovingly calls The Dog (from Howling Dog) if you get a little bit creative.

Here, at last, is the dish...

The guiding principle with working the El Coyote menu is to remember that the kitchen is very accommodating with substitutions. Use this to your advantage. The menu can be daunting, with bizarre entries like "Scratch Margaritas," (that doesn't sound appetizing at all), Enchilada Howard (we love to ask "is the Howard fresh today?"), and "Mexican Spaghetti" (it's actually fideo, a plenty "authentic" Mexican dish.) But don't be frightened. El Coyote is a Mexican restaurant, and has almost all the ingredients you'd expect in a Mexican restaurant; they're often just disguised with 1930s-friendly Americanized names. Don't see "carne asada"? It's there: it's just called "fajita steak." Machaca? It's "shredded beef." Flautas? They're "rolled tacos." The only thing you won't find buried in the menu is seafood. A bias of the owner, I'm told; I'm guessing she got some bad shellfish back in the ice-box 1930's.

So, a theoretical order from those "in the know" might go something like this: "I'd like an El Coyote Pizza with guac, a Garden Salad with ranch on the side, and a number one with a shredded beef taco -- suave, no grasa -- and a steak fajita enchilada, frijoles de la olla, and no cheese on the beans. And I'll have a scratch margarita straight up with rocks on the side."

Now that sounds like a pain-in-the-ass order, and your head is probably spinning. But the waiters and waitresses know what I mean as well as your local In 'n' Out knows what "Animal Style" means. And you will too, once you check out my Secret Menu of El Coyote delights:


El Coyote Pizza - This is what most folks think of as nachos deluxe. Where the nachos are just chips, cheese, and jalapenos, the Pizza includes beans and salsa. Guac and sour cream optional.

Albondigas Soup - Take this, authentic Mex snobs. This fresh-made meatball soup is one of the best versions in town. Even better? Ask for some cilantro, lemon slices and Cholula hot sauce on the side. Some cilantro leaves, a squeeze or two of lemon and a couple of dashes of Cholula hot sauce (available if you ask for it... same with Tapatio) make it a truly awesome appetizer.


Ignore the confusing menu. ANY taco, whether in a combo or not, can be made with these fillings:

Stewed Chicken
Grilled Chicken
Ground Beef
Shredded Beef (Machaca)

And they can come in three different wrappings:

Crispy Shell
Rolled (pictured)

Special warning here: if you just order "soft" tacos, the tortilla is grilled in little oil, making it ultra-greasy. If you want a traditional "soft" taco, order it steamed or "suave, no grasa"). The rolled tacos are made fresh when you order 'em. Crispy shell, a little bit toothsome... try the shredded beef. It's tasty.


The same choices as tacos. But you can add to the mix:

Chile Con Carne - Anywhere else, this would be called "Chile Colorado con Puerco." Here it's called "Chile Con Carne," or, simply "Howard." Seriously. The Enchilada Howard, named after an old regular, is just an enchilada smothered in the pork chile colorado.)

In fact, for burritos, just tell 'em exactly what you want in it. My current fave is ordered like this:

"A burrito with black beans, lettuce, tomato, fresh avocado slices, pico de gallo, and salsa verde, mojado." This nets you the beautiful beast pictured here.\


There are three varieties, all of which are made with vegetable oil; no lard.

Whole Pintos (or "frijoles de la olla").

The whole beans and the new black beans are particularly delicious. The combo plates tend to come, as Jonathan Gold puts it, "welded to the plate with great leathery straps of cheese." Ordering the beans "sin queso" lets the tasty flavor of the freshly-made beans come out.


Combination Salad - My wife's fave... canned beets, limp shredded lettuce and all.

Garden Salad - If you're a normal, beet-fearing person, you want the Garden Salad, made with mixed greens and a little bit of carrot and purple cabbage.

Fiesta Salad - made with grilled chicken.

Caesar Salad
- they make a delicious, tangy Caesar here. Order it with chicken, and it's a full, healthy meal. Or ask for Caesar dressing on any of the other salads.

Tostada - this is what inspires so much fear in the average diner. Shredded iceberg lettuce, Veg-All Three Bean Salad, canned beets, and Thousand Island dressing on top of beans and a crispy corn tortilla. Now as long as you're not expecting a real tostada, this can be pretty tasty. But it can also be tweaked to something more recognizable. Order it with "no vegetables" and "no dressing, " and add guacamole, or your favorite meat, some lemon slices, and extra hot sauce. Squeeze the lemon, drizzle some hot sauce, and you're in biz.

Chicken Taco Salad - This is more like your standard El Torito style gringo tostada, with the big upright flour tortilla, the "good" lettuce, shredded three-cheese blend, and grilled chicken. Try it with fajita steak instead of chicken... or some Howard! Yum!

And finally...


You can order 'em strawberry, mango, Cadillac, whatever you like, but 95% of the margaritas consumed here are of one variety:

House Margarita - It's what made the place famous. It's delicious and refreshing, with its slight splash of pineapple juice. True it's not $1.95 for a double anymore like when I first came here, but it's still a good deal. Especially if you order it "Straight Up, Rocks on the Side." Why? Because the straight-up glass is larger, and without ice taking up space in it, you get a nice little sidecar of about 35% more bang for your margarita buck.

Scratch Margarita - If you really wanna get fucked up and fast, this is the drink for you. While the house margarita is made in a giant vat each morning and pumped into the bar -- hence the slight effervescence -- the scratch margarita is made fresh when you order. It's stronger. Much stronger. You can smell the thing coming about 20 feet away.

So, go back and read my would-be order above. All make sense now? Good. Go forth to El Coyote and blaze through the menu like the intrepid adventurer you are!

Oh, and be sure to get a margarita or two... the food really is better if you're drunk.

I still have more to say on the topic of El Coyote. I'll save it for another post. Or maybe two.

El Coyote Photo by Hughes Hall

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Gonzo Foodie

One of the joys of launching this site -- aside from getting e-mails from a half dozen people a day telling me about the most amazing place I have to try -- is exploring the sites of other food bloggers out there who come to visit my site. There are a baker's dozen or two in L.A. alone (and I thought I was being so clever!), and all the ones linked here I check out as often as possible.

But today I got a visit from eatdrinknbmerry, who -- aside from being an excellent writer and reviewer of The Kinds Of Restaurants I Like -- took the kind of insane and admirable leap that makes life worthwhile. He's apparently took a brief gig at what seems to be a shmancy high-end restaurant with no qualifications other than that he loves food, loves to cook, and was kinda bored with life.

Now I can't claim to be any sort of cook. I like cooking, and on the odd few days a year when I cook for my long-suffering wife, it comes out well enough. But if you watch the Food Network, read Anthony Bourdain, and have always wondered what it would be like to chuck it all and cook... eatdrinknb did it. Didn't given up his day job; he kept working in the ad biz in West LA. But on a weekend he put on the coat, sharpened the knife, and tried to keep up with all the culinary-school grads on the line around him. Hunter Thompson would be proud... but now I think of it, it's more of a George Plimpton stunt. Check it out The Restaurant posts... first where he decides to take the plunge here and then his report on a day on the line here, on his blog at Eat, Drink & Be Merry.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Little Tokyo Rose - Daikokuya


327 E. First St.
Los Angeles CA
(213) 626-1680
Open til 2:30 am
Closed Sundays

Google Local Info

We haven't been to Little Tokyo yet, have we?

You know you're living in one of the Great Cities in the World when you can go to your nearest Metro station, hop off the train at the Civic Center station, look at the Frank Gehry-designed landmark concert hall 2 blocks up the hill, check your tickets for the starting time of the world-class orchestra concert that night, decide you have time for a bite, and walk a couple of blocks into an enticing array of some of the best down-home Japanese cuisine this side of Okinawa.

If you have a good nose for grilling food, an eye for a crowded room, and/or have read this article, you'll probably duck into Daikokuya.

Here's the dish.

Along the East side of First Street, just below Main (1st and Main is, by the way, where all street number address radiate outward from in L.A.'s grid), there is a line of small, authentic Japanese eateries. Noodles, sukiyaki, sushi, each has their specialty, and all the ones I've tried are good. But my current fave is Daikokuya.

You enter the Japanese-typical fabric shrouded doorway, and at first it just looks like another hole in the wall noodlery: red naugahyde booths along one wall, a small open kitchen bar, and a single window table. A single chair sits in front of the doorway with the waiting list. You sign in. Maybe you wait a bit. Now you look at the decor. It's all vintage, post WW II collectible art: beer posters, airline adverts, little toys still in their boxes. The waitress all wear distinctive blue do-rags. The whole place strives to re-create the feel of a 1947 Tokyo restaurant.

That's just cool.

And the food is terrific. The way to order here, assuming you're hungry, is to select one of the "combinations," as pictured above. For about ten bucks, you get a giant bowl of their house Daikokuya Ramen, and your choice of various rice bowls with protein-of-your-choice toppings. You'll be brought a cabbage salad (not pictured), the cabbage shredded more finely than usual, the dressing light and tangy. A perfect amuse-bouche.

The house soup is their pride and joy. Made from pork bone and soy sauce that boils for an entire day before serving, the stew features bamboo shoots, scallion, a specially marinated whole egg, and tender, thin slices of pork on a base of perfectly toothsome ramen. It's a rich, creamy stew, perfect for insulating you against the chilly walk back up the hill to Disney Concert hall... a real comfort food dish. You'll want to taste it "as is" before you begin altering the flavors with the chili powder or crushed garlic from the condiment tray on your table. This is the best ramen I've ever had.

The accompanying rice bowl is your choice of pork, beef, tempura shrimp, tuna sashimi, teriyaki chicken or teriyaki eel over rice. I haven't worked past the shredded pork, which is grilled to perfection, slightly crispy and caramelized on the outside, tender on the inside, mixed with scallions and pickled vegetable. But man, I think I'll try that eel teriyaki next time.

You can also just get the ramen soup by itself, for $7.50. Wash it back with green tea (to keep you awake during the adagios at the Disney Hall) or a $2.00 draft Kirin (if you plan to sleep through 'em), and you can't imagine a more satisfying meal.

And if you've seen Memoirs of a Geisha and have, like me, fantasies of hot Asian chicks in down and dirty postwar garb, you'll have a satisfying dessert here, too.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Three Day Central Coast Tour

Damn, I did some good eating and drinking last weekend. Sa and I have been going to the Central Coast wine country to vacation for years now, so we've got a good working knowledge of eateries up the 101 as far as Paso Robles, and have been to a good percentage of the hundreds of wineries in the area. So when our friend Nicole wanted to celebrate her 30th (yes, 30th... just a babe) birthday with a weekend of wine-tasting, I was put in charge of the food and drink itinerary. I kinda think I outdid myself. You might want to use this as a template for your own weekend jaunt.

Here's the dish...


Left at the civilized hour of 11:00 am. I wanted to be on the road by 10:30, and this cost us a bit as you'll read in a moment.

Noon found our party of eight at Johnny's in Ventura. This is some of my favorite Mex food in the state. Just a hole-in-the wall, but a Ventura institution. I've been hearing about it for 4 decades; my brother always stopped at Johnny's when he came down to visit from NoCal. Selfish bastard never brought me a burrito, though. Everything here is good, but their masterpiece is their chile relleno burrito. A delicious fluffy chile relleno with Johnny's world class chile verde wrapped in a flour tortilla. Sa likes the verde by itself, but the C.R. burrito is still the gold standard. Be sure to chow down on their homemade flour tortilla chips, too.

This lays down a good layer for wine tasting. One o'clock, Head north toward Solvang. By all means take the San Marcos Pass shortcut by exiting at State St. in Santa Barbara and taking 154 north. This cuts 15-20 minutes off the trip.

2:00 found us at our first Santa Ynez Valley wineries. Rideau, on Alamo Pintado Road between Solvang and Los Olivos. Their wines have gotten pricy and the tastings are ten bucks (!), but the wine and the atmosphere there is excellent. They specialize in food-friendly wines that pair especially well with cajun/creole cooking. Their Viognier is my single favorite white wine, and a favorite for our holiday turkey dinners. Then Beckmen just up the road. Aside from delicious wines their tasting room is located on a gorgeous pond with a small deck over the water under a weeping willow, and a large patio on which you can picnic and enjoy the view. If we'd gotten an earlier start, we would have stopped in Los Olivos to visit the tasting rooms there, but we wanted to make it to Foxen winery before they close at four. Despite some desperate driving along Foxen Canyon Road, which parallels the 101 between Los Olivos and Santa Maria and is dotted with excellent wineries -- Firestone, Zaca Mesa, Cambria -- we arrived at 4:02 to find the tasting room shuttered up. A backup plan found us at Cottonwood Canyon, much improved since our last visit, where their delightful pinot noirs made up for the Foxen fuckup.

By now it was five-thirty, and we were hungry. Good thing, as you're now only a half hour from world-famous Jocko's in Nipomo. It's arguably the best practitioner of Santa Maria style Red Oak steak grilling, which is arguably the most delicious kind of steak in the world, period. Jocko's didn't disappoint, with gigantic cuts of perfectly prepared meat.

An hour after dinner, we were ensconced in our way-too-fun lodgings, a converted clubhouse/pet-friendly/sleeps-10 rental in a converted hangar next to the tiny Paso Robles airport.


After breakfast by Sa in the AM, it was time for serious wine tasting. We were right on Highway 46 in Paso Robles, with 50 or so excellent wineries within 10 minutes' drive. Started at EOS, then Tobin James with its amazing saloon-cum-tasting room atmosphere, and Eberle where the wine is perhaps more refined -- more Napa-ish -- than the balls to the wall, fruit forward Central Coast style, but still delicious. We had lunch at Big Bubba's Bad BBQ, which was disappointing. It's owned by the same folks as Good Ol' Burgers, currently remodeling, which used to have awesome burgers and for my money the World's Best Onion Rings. But Bubba's BBQ Tri-tip sandwiches -- ordered by most everyone at our table -- were dry and overcooked. That's Central Coast Sacrilege, folks.

After visits to Castoro Cellars (our desert island winery -- if we were stranded and could only have one winery, this would be it) and Grey Wolf, we were wined out. A little nap and it was off to Bistro Laurent in downtown Paso.

Now I'm a big fan of Central Coast food as you can tell, and was looking forward to the consensus pick for best restaurant in town. Eh... not so much. Very uneven. Prices, at 21-29 per entree were not as inexpensive as listed on their web site, where no entree is priced over 20. That's false advertising, folks. Add to that an outrageous markup on their excellent local wine list -- the same bottle selling at Grey Wolf for $23 was $62 here -- and an even more outrageous $20 corkage fee -- many local restaurants have inexpensive or free corkage on local wines -- and just opening the menu was a shocker. The food was uneven, from a friend's excellent salmon-stuffed eggroll to Sa's duck breast. But the pasta on a friend's truffle-and-mushroom papardelle was overcooked, and the sauce was bland, while my shrimp and lobster stew featured tender fresh shellfish, but a too-salty sauce. And service wasn't quick -- should dinner take 2 1/2 hours, even when you skip dessert?


The next day's dining and wining made up for any of the previous day's flaws, though. A half hour drive to the coast took us to Hoppe's in Cayucos for brunch. This is just plain some of the best food anywhere. Their $21.95 brunch includes your choice of appetizer, main course, dessert, an array of fresh baked bread, and a glass of wine or champagne. The food is California cuisine at its best. My BLT salad appetizer, with fresh shavings of reggiano cheese, whole strips of bacon, and slice-sized fresh made croutons was insanely good. So was Sa's HUGE warm goat cheese, butternut squash and bacon pizza. A friend's lamb-chanterelle mushroom pot pie was... well, what do you think? And that was literally just for starters. I didn't taste many main courses because my lemony shrimp-and-crab cake topped with perfectly poached eggs and bearnaise sauce was simply mesmerising. More than one guest at the table said they'd consider the three-hour Sunday drive up here just to eat here again. Their dinners, by the way, are just as good.

After a stop at two of our favorite Edna Valley wineries, Edna Valley and Claiborne and Churchill, we headed home. But funny, we got hungry around Buellton and stopped at Hitching Post II (as seen in Sideways), for their own take on Santa Maria BBQ. They gave Jocko's a serious run for their money, with delicious appetizers like grilled artichoke and mushrooms in a red wine reduction. Their smallest steak, a 7 ounce sirloin served with all the trimmings from shrimp cocktail to potato, was a bargain at $20, and their private house label wines are delightful.

All in all, we crammed a lot into a weekend: 3 steakhouses, 2 fine restaurants, 1 hole in the wall burrito, and 10 wineries. Okay, I'm a little bit Napoleonic and can drive the troops hard when it comes to conquering vast swaths of culinary territory. But there were no complaints about the weekend, and everyone came home with leftovers!

By the way, all the wineries mentioned here are ones we've visited many times. Their wines are terrific, and all are available online via their websites.