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.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Why Stripping Is Good - Shintaro


1900 N. Highland Ave. Ste. E
Los Angeles CA 90028
(323) 882-6524
Closed Sunday

Google Info (NOTE business hours are incorrect. They close at 11:00 pm)

Years ago, Sa and I apparently had enough money for lots of expensive sushi.

Not true; we were living pretty much on pass-the-hat dollar bills from the Shakespeare show. I guess it was before we had bills for things like houses, insurance, satellite TV, gardeners, pool guys, Netflix, and whatever else we spend our dough on these days.

Back then, we wouldn't think twice about going to Sushi Ike in the strip mall on Gower and Hollywood and staying all night, order after order, letting Ike-san -- who makes the best sushi this side of the hill -- make his magic for us. But then we got more sensible, and starting going to Noshi Sushi in Koreatown for our regular sushi fix. Further away, but good standard sushi at reasonable prices. Occasionally, on Disney's dime or for an ultra-special occasion, I'd go to Katsu-ya or Teru or Sushi Nozawa on Ventura Blvd., where All Sushi Is Good. But as for a good, inexpensive local sushi bar here in Hollywood? Not happening.

Now it is. Behold Shintaro in the strip mall on the northeast corner of Franklin and Highland -- the same mall as Pizza Bella reviewed here. I may never nosh at Noshi again. Here's the dish...

It's in the space formerly occupied by the uneven, slightly scary Yamakasa sushi bar. I know, you don't remember a sushi bar in that mall, but think of the big neon chopsticks you pass on your way up Highland toward the Hollywood Bowl. On the outside it's, well, a strip mall. On the inside, it feels shockingly classy and stylish. I'm going to link there a third time: seriously, check out their website -- it's a beautiful designed site, and gives a hint of what you're in for. Bamboo shades soften the light and noise from Highland. Bamboo-shaded track lights cast a gentle glow on the sushi bar. Spa-like, relaxing, plunky music plays softly. A single large photograph hangs from a rope and bamboo frame on the wall, depicting a famous Japanese samurai who bridged the gap from samurai to modern, wearing both sword and gun.

It's an apt symbol for the cuisine, which is both traditional and modern. Traditional nigiri sushi and sashimi is excellent, but so are the wide array of thoughtfully conceived specialty rolls and small dishes. Imagine a blend of Ita-Cho and Katsu-ya, at Noshi prices.

Sa and I were feeling particularly binge-y that night: as Sa put it, "I wanna eat my weight in sushi." She didn't succeed, but we didn't skimp either. Several nigiri orders each, a couple of handrolls each, a couple of specialty dishes, a cut roll or two. And plenty of beer and sake for both of us, which you know is not an insubstantial amount. Total bill: $60.02. Maybe five bucks more than what I'd expect to pay at Noshi. Part of this is thanks to extremely reasonable and tasty booze choices. Most droolingly, they have Kirin on draft... $3.00 for a pint, $10.00 for a pitcher.

As for the food. In addition to their "regular" menu of appetizers (Dynamite, Baked mussels, deep fried tofu w/shaved bonito, spicy softshell crab w/ponzu), sushi and teriyakis, ribs, udon and soba, you'll be handed a separate sheet of fun Katsu-ya style specialty dishes like seared albacore with crispy fried red onions and scallions, or "Hamapeño Carpaccio," a dish of hamachi yellowtail sashimi with jalapeños. Then there are the special sushi selections, scrawled on strips of paper towel pinned to a bulletin board at the end of the sushi bar. The "Must Try!" Fried Spanish Mackerel Handroll truly is. Mackerel's one of my favorite fish when you can find it fresh rather than the fishy pickled "saba" that's ubiquitous on $12.99 nigiri combos. The crispy batter here both brings out its delicate flavor and masks some of mackerel's inherent fishiness. The live scallop sushi was simply awesome. Pulled live from a tank and cut into simple sliced nigiri sushi, it arrives still moving -- just barely perceptibly, this isn't a Fear Factor situation -- on your plate. If you like scallop, this is the best you're likely to find.

They also have a nice array of lunch specials for under $10.00, like the sashimi/tempura combo pictured here.

My friend Bob points out that parking in that strip mall can be a pain. Sometimes. But between Pizza Bella and now Shintaro, it makes it worth the effort.

By the way, I've added a link here for those who don't get enough politics on lafoodcrazy. Check out my friend "Bly's" (her name's been changed to protect her from domestic spying) ultracool political blog "Progressive Lyceum." There's actually a little bit from me there today, but it's worth checking out all the time.