Counter Intelligence

Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles

Johnathan Gold

L.A. Weekly Books

Counter Intelligence
A
AGUNG
3909 BEVERLY BLVD., LOS ANGELES; (323) 660-2113. MON.--SAT., NOON- 9P. M.
The overeducated misfits who frequent East Hollywood's ethnic restaurants have their well-known favorites: Zankou for chicken; Sanamluang for Thai noodles; Marouch for hummus, grilled quail, and fattouch. For café con leche, there's Tropical; for weissbeer and wurst, the Red Lion. And Agung near downtown has become the one place to go when you want avocado in your coffee.
Agung is a tidy, cinder-block Indonesian restaurant in an untidy neighborhood, a soothing world of spicy curries and continuous soft hits squeezed between a medical building and a lube pit a block or two south of the Hollywood Freeway. It's a tiny, family-run place, decorated with travel posters and batik. The customers seem to be mostly Indonesian students from USC and Indonesian-speaking Dutch guys involved in international trade. They always have avocado in their coffee.
Iced coffee and the creamy fruit go pretty well together, especially when blended with milk and ice into the fluffy consistency of a malted--coffee brings out a sweet richness in the avocado that isn't apparent in guacamole. If Tuscan peasants had stumbled across this combination, es alpukat, people would be lining up outside Melrose coffeehouses to drink the stuff from little cups. Agung is famous for its other beverages too, a Bordeaux-colored drink called es cincau that tastes a little like jellied Robitussin and a rosewater-scented drink called es kelapa mundi that's spiked with gelatinous shreds of baby coconut. Everybody seems to like a sweet, cool drink that's made with coconut, jackfruit, and avocado, which tastes a little like a malted from Mars.
Agung is probably the best place in California to try Padang-style cooking, the fiery, complex cooking of central Sumatra, but you'll find pretty good versionsof the dishes that would be standard eating if Indonesian food were as common as Thai--clumpy fried rice with scallions and ham; delicious fried bakmi noodles with dark soy, shrimp, and plenty of cabbage; the chicken soup soto ayam, thick with fresh vegetables and fragrant with spice. The crisp lettuce salad called gado-gado is dressed with chile-spiked peanut butter and sprinkled with crushed shrimp chips. There's decent satay, sweeter than the Thai kind, skewers of grilled chicken, pork or lamb, and an unusual, Sumatra-style tongue satay served with a pasty Indonesian velouté. The turmeric-stained lamb stew is fine, if a little ordinary.
And the Sumatran dishes shine. Empek-empek may sound like a noise made by a small Sumatran lizard, but is essentially a crusty turnover of house-pounded fish cake stuffed with egg, steamed, and fried. It comes cut into peppery, rubbery chunks, served in a bowl with glass noodles and diced cucumber floating in a soy broth. It's the sort of thing Japanese kaiseki restaurants are always trying to do but never quite get right. Or try lontong, loosely packed rice cakes cooked with mixed meats in a coconut broth, or telur belado, a big tofu patty that's been battered, fried, and doused with sweet, dark soy.
The best way to eat at Agung may be to order several items from the section of the menu called "rice table combination," tapas-size portions of crispy fried chicken in a vivid fresh chile sauce, curried beef, chilied hard-boiled egg, or Sumatra-style curry-roasted beef--served with a big plate of rice--that cost about a buck and a half apiece.
Don't miss the smoky dendeng belado, slices of beef fried until they attain the size, shape and crunchiness of Pringles.
ALADDIN FALAFEL
2180 S. WESTWOOD BLVD., LOS ANGELES; (310) 446-1174. MON.--SAT., 11A.M.-11P.M.; SUN., NOON-10P.M.
Consider the falafel, the Middle East's favorite grease bomb, a drippy, screaming-orange postcard from culinary cultures that would really rather be remembered for kebabs, seasoned rice, and sheep's brains garnished with sauteed pine nuts. Most food from Arabic-speaking countries is healthy, sparkling fresh, breathing the vitality of the earth. But a falafel sandwich is an oozing, stinking mess of fried chickpea batter and garlicky sesame goo that may have more calories per ounce than pure hog lard.
Still, as with cheeseburgers and sex, even bad falafel can be pretty good. I grew up craving the industrial-grade falafel from the cafeteria next to the molecular biology building at UCLA, and I still sneak down there once or twice a year for a hit of the sloppy, odiferous stuff. I am no stranger to the oil-soaked pleasures of Falafel King, whose vat of boiling orange grease has been bubbling in itsWestwood window for generations, or to the reasonably austere sandwiches served at Fairfax-area stands like Eat-a-Pita. Falafel usually finds its way onto the table at the Armenian-Lebanese restaurants Marouch, Caroussel, and Carnival. I even have a certain fondness for the hard, Sahara-dry falafel reluctantly served at Zankou Chicken, a dish that I have never seen anybody else actually buy. The best falafel place in Los Angeles County is Golden Dome, a Palestinian-owned restaurant in Bellflower, but lately, I have been going to Aladdin Falafel so often that my truck practically guides itself into the restaurant's tiny parking lot. In contrast to the other falafel stands in town, which are mostly Israeli owned, Aladdin Falafel is run by Palestinian-Americans, and the flavor is subtly different, smokier, tinged with cool. A sign posted in the window announces halal (Islamic kosher) meat, and a framed prayer is mounted high on a wall. The air is perfumed with cumin, garlic, clean oil. Classic Arabic riffage wails from the restaurant's stereo--a small, Tom Schnabel--ish selection of Middle Eastern CDs rests in a spinning case near the cash register--and even the Formica of the main counter is inlaid with blocky Islamic designs.
If you have been to a Middle Eastern restaurant lately, you can probably recite Aladdin's menu by heart: lamb kebab plates, rotisserie chicken, sour grape leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables. The shwarma is fine, thin, garlicky shavings of extremely well-done meat, flavored with cinnamon and cloves and sliced off a rotating spit; three plump, little grilled lamb chops, slightly grainy, are not precisely what you'd find at a grand restaurant like Campanile, but are a good value for eight bucks. The tabbouleh salad is fresh and tart, with parsley enough to deodorize a dozen people were the dish not so laden with garlic; the baba ghanoush is smooth, fresh, and cool. With every dinner comes a bowl of terrific cumin-laced lentil soup, yellow as a school bus, mellowed with a squirt of citrus.
But you've come for the falafel. It is a small miracle, an oblate Ping-Pong ball of ground chickpeas whose thick, tawny crust gives way to a dense interior, mildly spiced, barely greasy, tinted green with pureed herbs. Without the benefit of tahini, most falafel collapses into dry powder under the teeth; this one is moister, a little more resilient, almost chewy, and you may go through an entire plate of the stuff (it is also available dressed as a sandwich) before realizing you have forgotten to dampen the patties with sauce. On a plate with hummus, peppers, salad, and tart pickled turnips, Aladdin's falafel is a satisfying lunch whether you roll it into a pita or not.
ALAMEDA SWAP MEET
ALAMEDA AVE. AT 45TH ST. MON., WED.--FRI., 10A.M.--7P.M., SAT. AND SUN., 8A.M.--7P.M. MANY OF THE FOOD STALLS ARE OPEN WEEKENDS ONLY.
The Alameda Swap Meet may be the most overwhelming place you can visit on a Sunday afternoon, an immense converted factory complex south of downtown swarming with people, stuffed with hundreds of stalls selling everything from seaturtle extract to straw ranchero hats, fluffy white first-communion dresses to the latest in pinstriped gangsta wear, and alive with the racket of two dozen pumped CD players blasting trumpet-bright norteño hits. You are reminded that the Mexican population of Los Angeles is second only to that of Mexico City itself.
The crush to get into the parking lot can sometimes back up Alameda for as much as a mile, and the streets teem with trucks selling tacos, or fresh mackerel, or bootleg rap cassettes, or a queer, sweet cactus drink called lechugilla that is sold in plastic packets that resemble silicon implants.
Outside at the swap meet, in a vast sort of asphalt plaza that separates the two main buildings, the fences are decorated with Mexican flags and portraits of Mexican revolutionaries. Small children totter about clutching cotton candy and ears of roasted corn. Sometimes a DJ presides over hundreds of couples executing complicated two-steps. It's a vast fiesta every weekend of the year. Around the perimeter of the plaza and stretching back along an arcade to the southernmost parking lot is a bewildering succession of food stalls that perfume the air with grilled meat and sputtering oil, and a certain high note of stickiness--every kind of Mexican food you could possibly walk around with, and a few that are destined to land straight on your shoes.
The big food stall under the awning closest to the main building is a full-on Mexican restaurant without the walls, featuring grilled chicken, carne asada and pretty good steam-table dishes: chile verde, chicken mole, and a really good, spicy goat-meat stew the color of fresh blood. The big awning at the other end shades a Salvadoran stall where a woman pats pupusas one after the other, frying them hard and stacking them up in front of her. The pupusas are fantastic, if not the subtlest version of the cheese-stuffed corn patties, ready to be mounded with the spicy cabbage slaw called curtido and moistened with a fiery, brick-red smoked-chile sauce. Around toward the south parking lot, marinated flank steak sizzles on steel-drum grills until it's tough enough to go into tacos. Across a walkway, at a stall named Tejuno, there are tostadas smeared with beans, garnished with lettuce and ripe tomato, and topped with slices of tart pickled pigskin or tasty roast pork. Outside the El Texanito ice cream shop, a stand specializes in huaraches, which are tasty sandal-shaped patties of masamounded with diced nopales (cactus), sour cream, and peppery, crisp bits of extremely well-done meat.
The Alameda Swap Meet is the land of chile and lime, which are dribbled on freshly fried potato chips, sprinkled on popcorn, daubed on sliced mangos, squirted on the delicious ceviche, and splashed onto marinated-shrimp tostadas served at El Bucanero seafood, a concession hard by the main building's entrance. (As far as I know, there is no chile in any of the sweet, hospital-green limeade the vendors ladle out from iced glass demijohns, nor in the orangeade, nor in the canteloupe drink.)
One popular dish here, served in several different places, involves chile, lime, mayonnaise, kernels of fresh corn, and a generous squirt of Liquid Parkay, all mixed up in a cardboard bowl. It's obliquely delicious in its way, although not the sort of thing you'd smear on a slab of La Brea Bakery bread. You can also get corn that has been barbecued in steel drums until it becomes corn-on-the-cob jerky, chewy enough to chomp on for the duration of a really long drive.
And you can always perform a scientific assessment of the state of flautas, those deep-fried rolled-tortilla things that Jack-in-the-Box calls "taquitos," by rigorously testing each of the dozen or so varieties available: fat or thin; topped with sour cream or drenched in guacamole; brittle throughout or kind of bendy in the middle; but especially the meaty ones in the far southeast corner. That's my idea of pure empirical research.
ALEGRIA
3510 SUNSET BLVD., SILVER LAKE; (323) 913-1422. MON.-THURS., 10A.M.-10P. M., FRI. AND SAT., 10A.M.-11P.M.
Alegria is everything you could want in a neighborhood Mexican restaurant, with cool Day of the Dead stuff on the walls, fish tacos on the menu, and a motherly chef-owner, Nadine Trujillo, who may scold you for filling up on chips before dinner. There's no beer, but a waitress will whip up a strawberry-papaya shake for you if somebody's remembered to buy the fruit; if not, the homemade lemon agua fresca may be the best lemonade in town. The secret house salsa, made with pureed chipotle chiles and enough garlic to knock an owl out of its tree, is pretty great too.
The restaurant's clientele is the essence of groovy, post-boho Silver Lake--Latino families, spooning gay and lesbian couples, Spaceland regulars, a scattering of coffeehouse guys--searching for satori in pocketbook-size veggie burritos. On Saturday mornings the crowd includes most of the people you used to see in Silver Lake half a dozen years ago, only with one-year-olds instead of Guatemalan friendship bracelets wrapped around their arms. Like the Farmers Market, thebleachers at Dodger Stadium, and the Aztec playground outside Plaza de la Raza, Alegria feels like L.A.
The original Alegria was a grimy taqueria in the parking lot behind the Burrito King in Echo Park, known for its excellent carne asada but sparse in its amenities. The newer place, stuffed into a Silver Lake mini-mall space formerly occupied by the great Yucatecan joint Don Luis, is a sweet, family place in an area dominated by squalid taco dives and sterile margarita mills. Trujillo's food is sometimes regional, sometimes not, sometimes chefly, and always intensely personal. The cooking here is both blessed and marred with quirks, the lovable eccentricities you'd expect of food in a Mexican home.
Carne asada, which here means slabs of lime-marinated, grilled skirt steak instead of the usual forty-five grams of grayish beef byproduct, is stuffed into tacos or folded with beans, salsa, and herbs into one of the rare burritos in this world that might actually be worth five clams. When the carne asada is crusted with melted cheese, garnished with grilled poblano chiles, and flanked with rolled enchiladas in a sharply delicious roasted tomatillo sauce, it becomes part of a classic Tampiqueña plate.
Soft, salty carnitas may lack the garlicky presence and the crackly crunch you look for in lard-braised pork, but the flesh has the sweet, subtle presence of suckling pig. Tortitas, egg pancakes studded with aromatic vegetables and flakes of fresh crab, are misshapen, heavy masses, a little oversalted with an elaborate, almost Creole-like seasoning that makes them somehow compelling, even on the odd nights when they are made with artificial crab. Tacos a la crema, like deep-fried, potato-stuffed taguitos daubed with chunky guacamole and chipotle sauce, are almost up there with the legendary flautas at Ciro's.
But sometimes the cooking at Alegria is a little too close to the food at Mom's house. Chilaquiles, soggy things not up to the strict standard set by Toribrio Prado at Cha Cha Cha, are overwhelmed by the sharp, green flavor of unripe tomatoes. Something called budin Moctezuma, a casserole of tortillas, cheese, and vegetables, tastes a little like something your culinarily challenged aunt Armida might bring to a potluck family picnic.
The best food at Alegria may revolve around Trujillo's extraordinary mole sauce: sharp, thick, sweetly complex, with topnotes of smoke, clove, and citrus, lashed with dried-chile heat, black enough to darken the brightest Pepsodent smile. Enmoladas are corn tortillas folded around melted cheese and moistened with mole; chilapitas are sort of chicken sopes doused with the stuff. There is chicken mole, and sometimes a Oaxacan-style special of chicken, pork, and plantains cooked in mole. You can get a side of mole sauce to put on your burrito.
But sometimes you can't get mole at all. "The mole isn't ready yet," the waitress confessed one time. "It takes three days to make, a million steps, and has somethinglike twenty ingredients. And if you'd been cooking as much as Nadine has been lately, you'd be in a bad mood too."
AL-NOOR
15112 INGLEWOOD AVE., LAWNDALE; (310) 675-4700. TUES.--SUN., 11A.M.
As much as I like the more refined sort of Indian cuisine, I often find myself drawn to the brute glory of Pakistani cooking instead. Where some Indian curries can be as delicate as butterfly wings, Pakistani curries practically scream with flavor, not just of chiles but big handfuls of cloves, cardamom, and enough cumin to flavor your breath for days.
Southern Indian cooking features rice-flour pancakes as thin and crisp as the burnt sugar on a crème brûlée; Pakistani cuisine has whole-wheat parathas so thick and saturated with butter that they could probably stop bullets. The Indian diet is largely vegetarian; I sometimes get the feeling that some Pakistanis would be happy if they could figure out a way to fashion rice, bread, and carrots out of meat, so that they'd never have to put anything in their mouths that wasn't made out of cow, chicken, or goat.
Among the best Pakistani Muslim restaurants in town is the strictly halal (the Islamic equivalent of Kosher) Al-Noor, a busy storefront in a Lawndale strip mall, a quick five minutes south of the airport and a straight shot from the 405. Like most Islamic restaurants, Al-Noor is fairly spare, decorated chiefly with great swaths of Arabic script and a travel poster or two, but there are tablecloths, soft lighting, and silk roses encrusted with tears of plastic dew. Al-Noor is a nice place.
It is in a fairly rich restaurant neighborhood, across the street from a Sao Paulo-style fish restaurant located in a former hamburger stand (if you must eat moqueca in the South Bay, this is your place), a few blocks down from a pretty good teriyaki hut and a decent Madras-style Indian chicken restaurant, a five-minute drive from the Peruvian restaurants of Lawndale. At noon, the crowd eating lunch can be as varied as any in the South Bay: Pakistani businessmen, Spanish-speaking mechanics and lassi-swilling white guys in carpenter's overalls, a tableful of chador-cloaked women nibbling on grilled kebabs a few feet away from a table of fish-eating surfer dudes--all brought together by smoky, garlicky tandoor-barbecued chicken and great slabs of hot bread, a combination that seems to override every ethnic boundary in the world.
The chef once cooked at Bundoo Khan, a Pakistani restaurant in a Koreatown mini-mall around the corner from an apartment I lived in for years, and where I probably stopped in once a week for kebabs and Islamic "hamburgers" beforeit burned down in the '92 riots, but the menu at Al-Noor is more classically Pakistani, a short document of stews, vegetables, and tandoor-cooked meats.
The restaurant is locally famous for its version of Nehari, which is more or less the Pakistani national dish, an intense, mahogany concoction of lamb shanks flavored with garlic, chiles, and an immoderate amount of shredded fresh ginger, along with what seems like half the contents of a spice cabinet. Nehari can sometimes be a little thin, as genteel as a country French ragout, but the nehari here is cooked down to a steaming, creamy mass with the density of a dwarf star, bubbling and glistening with red-tinted oil, a stew substantial enough to fortify three hungry men after a day of hard farm labor or a stringent religious fast.
The other stews at Al-Noor are wonderful too--the brightly flavored brains simmered with curry, and the haleem, a deeply flavored beef stew thickened with grain. But what draws the crowds--which often snake out the door on busy weekends--are the tandoor-cooked meats, boneless chunks of chicken tikka or hanks of ground beef roasted over super-hot mesquite coals, bits of shaved meat in a powerfully sour marinade, chunks of lamb kebab served on sputtering-hot steel platters with blackened onions, and fresh-baked, if slightly clumsy, garlic naan.
For a Pakistani dinner, Al-Noor is just about perfect. Unfortunately, it is just down the street from its only conceivable rival, the wonderful Al-Watan. The friendly rivalry between partisans of the two restaurants may be as pronounced as the one between Woody's followers and Phillips fans in the Crenshaw-district barbecue stakes: Al-Watan is where you'd take your best friend; Al-Noor is where you'd bring your mom.
AL-WATAN
13619 INGLEWOOD AVE., HAWTHORNE; (310) 644-6395. DAILY, 11A.M.-10 P.M.
In an area of Hawthorne dominated by plumbing wholesalers and auto-body shops, Al-Watan is a small, bare restaurant attached to the largest Pakistani market in California (which is not so large). Its dingy vinyl wallpaper is unbesmirched by so much as a calender or travel poster; its plain tile floor is burnished to a shine. The door to the bathroom is permanently open to the dining room, which is disconcerting until you realize that the tiny chamber contains nothing more than a sink. (Most of the regular customers eat in the traditional way, with their fingers, and wash their hands before, after, and several times during a meal.)
On weekend afternoons, you sometimes see big families here, but usually the restaurant is dominated by Pakistani businessmen in blue dress shirts, Sansabelt slacks, and shiny patent-leather shoes.
The businessmen seem almost to live at Al-Watan, dropping in a couple of times an afternoon, ordering big plates of lamb and rice, negotiating in Urdu on flip phones while they wait for the biryani to arrive.
Al-Watan's regulars seem to observe a protocol that involves strolls into the kitchen, fevered consultations with one or more of the cooks, and perhaps a trip to the butcher's counter in the store next door to take a look at the meat. The waiter may be slightly puzzled if you ask to see a menu but will eventually bring a computer printout of the takeout menu, which tends to be somewhat theoretical--only about half of the dishes listed will be available--and it is hard to escape the feeling that there are things at Al-Watan you will never get to taste.
Like any serious Pakistani restaurant, Al-Watan ostensibly specializes in the complicated offal dishes that make up the heart of Muslim Pakistani soul food. On weekends you'll find magaz masala, a ragout of chopped goat's brains cooked in a bright red spice paste; khatakhat, a stew of liver and stomach; and paya, a mildly spicy dish of beef shank.
First among the stews here is haleem, which is beef braised with something like shredded wheat until it breaks down into a thick, meaty gravy with the flavor of well-browned roast-beef drippings and the meat no longer discernable from grain. Haleem is absolutely spectacular scooped up with a bit of Al-Watan's buttery whole-wheat chapati bread. (There will always be a bit more oil than you might prefer oozing out of authentic dishes from India and Pakistan; abundant oil is a sign of generosity in that part of the world.) Nehari is a beef curry strongly flavored with fresh ginger; magaz-nehari is a creamy, unctuous beef curry plumped out, I think, with ground nuts.
There is even stuff for a vegetarian to eat in this land of abundant meat. Navratan korma, a mixture of cauliflower, green beans, and carrots stir-fried with chile and plenty of spices, is like a wonderful Muslim ratatouille, the flavors of each vegetable fresh and distinct while contributing to the cumulative effect of the cumin-scented whole. Chana masala, spiced chickpeas, is essentially the same stuff you'd find at a good Punjabi restaurant; palak alu, spinach cooked down with plenty of fresh ginger, is at least as tasty in its vegetarian incarnation, stewed with cubed potato, as it is in the lamb stew called saag. The breads--especially the parathas and the crisp garlic naan paved with bits of cilantro leaf--are superb.
But the essential reason to drive down to Al-Watan is what may be among the best tandoor-cooked meats in the United States--juicy, deeply spiced, and smacked with the resinous flavor of woodsmoke from the mesquite Al-Watan uses to fire the clay oven. There's smoky boneless chicken squirted with citrus and tossed with slivered onion, tandoori chicken with a strong family resemblance to great barbecue, and cubed lamb with the smoky chewiness you might associate with the best Texas pits. Even mediocre tandoor-cooked meats tend to be prettygood, but this stuff! If you lived close enough to Al-Watan, you might begin to bear a passing resemblance to the late, great, extra large Sufi singer Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan.
ANTOJITOS DENISE'S
4060 E. OLYMPIC BLVD., LOS ANGELES; (323) 264-8199. MON.-SUN. 8 A.M.-6: 30 P.M. $7. ALSO 4930 HOLLYWOOD BLVD., HOLLYWOOD; (323) 661-8230. MON.-SAT., 8:30 A.M.--8 P.M.
Meet lonja. Lonja is a slab of pigskin the size and heft of a Snickers bar, fried with a good half-inch of meat still adhering to it, and padded with enough insulating fat to power a team of sled dogs halfway across Saskatchewan. Lonja is fairly alarming as foodstuffs go--salty, chewy, breathtakingly high in cholesterol, and possessed of an extreme, tooth-cracking crunchiness that is probably responsible for half the bridgework in Sonora. What we're talking about is essentially a chunk of deep-fried lard sandwiched between leathery flesh and steel-hard skin, a chaw primitive enough to make a Slim Jim seem like a shining example of modern meat-processing technology. Lonja, the most radical form of Mexican chicharrones, may be the monster-truck pull of the salty snack planet.
I have personally seen a man go through two pounds of lonja so quickly that it looked like bits of pig were leaping into his mouth by themselves, and he would have eaten two more pounds, dredged in fiery chipotle-chile salsa, if they had been there for him to eat. I have heard that celery requires more calories to digest than it gives back to the body in fuel, but lonja is far more physically exhausting: eat a few pieces of the stuff, and you'll pant as if you've just finished a 10K run. Eat more than a few pieces of the stuff, and you'll feel like Shelley Winters in Who Slew Auntie Roo?
In Los Angeles, as far as I know, lonja is available more or less exclusively at Antojitos Denise's, a taco stand down on East Olympic known for a certain finesse with pig. Denise's is locally famous for its chicharrones, crunchy, airy sheets of fried pigskin that are as big around as tablecloths, and for its cueritos: cool, pickled bits of pigskin sharp with vinegar and spice that are perfect in a summertime taco. The stand serves tacos stuffed with something like a definitive version of chicharrones stewed in tomato sauce--slithery, numbingly rich squares of pigskin that acquire a squidlike texture and the haunting pig sweetness of good Carolina barbecue. You will find all the usual pig parts here, and some you'd never expect to see outside a charnel house. If it once oinked, Denise's has probably cornered the market in the stuff.
If you have been hearing about the magnificence of Denise's for a while, it can be kind of a shock to see the extreme informality of the actual restaurant, atiny, walk up taco shack that seems to be patronized largely by the people who wait at the bus stop a few yards from the takeout window. On top of the building, the restaurant's sign features a caricature of Denise herself, all ponytail and Keene-painting eyes, looking about as jaunty as could reasonably be expected from a young woman whose job must largely consist of supervising boiling vats of lard. There is a small outside dining room--just a couple of picnic tables under a fiberglass awning, really, with Spanish-language admonitions on the wall saying stuff like, "Remember your culture and your education--throw away your trash."
Studded with restaurants steeped in pork-frying traditions from all over Mexico, Los Angeles is something of a wonderland for fans of the braised-pork dish carnitas, but even here, Denise's carnitas stand out: soft, long-simmered pillows of concentrated pig flavor, the sweet gaminess of the meat brought out, an occasional crisp edge but tending toward a rich, almost puddinglike texture. Denise's carnitas are great in the restaurant's tacos, folded into warm tortillas, sprinkled with onion and cilantro, and drizzled with the smoky salsa--though I have to admit I like the carnitas even better when I purchase a pound to go and fry them crisp at home.
Oddly, despite all the wonderful food on hand, it's easy enough to eat badly at Denise's. The fried masa saucers called sopes are hard and unfulfilling; the taquitos, quite ordinary; the soupy beans--and the burritos--generally bland. Though the well-garlicked chipotle salsa is mind-blowing, the tomato salsa, especially in February, can be watery. This is probably not the place to order seafood or grilled beef, because Denise's is where you go to eat, like, a pig.
THE APPLE PAN
10801 W. PICO BLVD., WEST LOS ANGELES; (310) 475-3585. TUES.--SUN., 11 A.M.--MIDNIGHT; FRI. AND SAT. TO 1 A.M.
Across the street from the vast Westside Pavilion and down the street from the computer stores of Pico stands the Apple Pan, the U-shaped lunch counter that has been feeding West Los Angeles since the first Truman administration. This crowded, genteel hamburger shack figures in every Westsider's dreams.
My family has been Apple Pan regulars at least since Lew Alcindor played freshman ball, and when my brother and his wife stayed home with their newborn, my mother and I independently had the same idea of what food might be appropriate to the occasion. My brother's refrigerator bulged with Hickory Burgers and pie.
It's a specialized operation, this place, with one grill dedicated to crisping hamburger buns and another to cooking the patties, a pie bakery in the rear, anda man whose special skill is pulling leaves from heads of iceberg lettuce and riffling them into perfect sheaves like a riverboat gambler shuffling a deck of cards. Here are the worn wooden walls, the homey plaid wallpaper, and the clean, warm funk of frying meat. Here is Coca-Cola poured into paper cones snug in plastic holders. Here are long, thick French fries, unusually golden, that are customarily served with a separate cardboard plate for the catsup. No matter how many waiting people may be crowded in behind you, no matter how hungrily they stare at your pie, the countermen will always draw you another cup of coffee from the gasfired urn and furnish you another dram of fresh, heavy cream.
It is no coincidence that when nostalgia-mongering restaurateurs attempt to duplicate the Los Angeles hamburger experience, it is to the Apple Pan hamburger that they turn. The top and bottom buns of an Apple Pan hamburger are both crisped and slightly oily, crunchy at the edges, working toward a near-complete softness at the middle; the pickles are resilient dill chips; the sheaf of fresh iceberg lettuce is a dozen-layered crispness at the core. The beef, generally cooked to a perfect, pink-centered medium, is juicy and full-flavored; the cheese, half-melted to a kind of sharp graininess, is good Tillamook cheddar. If you order a Steak Burger, it will be dabbed with a sweet chile relish; a Hickory Burger comes with sweet, slightly noxious barbecue sauce instead. Hamburgers are what they do here. I am partial to the sandwiches made with smoky, thinly sliced Virginia ham, but I suspect that I will never actually order one for myself.
ASANEBO
11941 VENTURA BLVD., STUDIO CITY ; (818) 760-3348. SUN., TUES.-- THURS., 5:30-10:30 P.M. FRI. AND SAT., 5:30-11:30 P.M.
French chefs in Los Angeles, most of them anyway, are resigned to nourishing their best customers on custom-ordered egg-white omelets, sauceless chicken, and swordfish broiled dry. The Zone diet forced the city's Italian chefs to devise carpaccios instead of pastas; New American chefs have redefined home cooking as spa cuisine. But for a sushi chef, Los Angeles is the Promised Land, a city of unlimited appetite and infinite malleability, of open minds and good cheer, which has long served as a crucible of sushi experimentation on a scale unknown anywhere else on Earth. Build it and they shall come, even if you fling your sushi onto conveyer belts, season it with garlic, or pepper it with loud reggae.
Sizzling olive oil over sashimi? Sure. Cream cheese on a salmon roll? Why not? Salsa with oysters? Fried uni with scallops? Avocado with crabmeat? Hey. Go right ahead. The customers who think nothing of lecturing Michelin-starred chefs on exactly what might go into an acceptable plate of coquilles St. Jacques are the same people who enjoy visiting sushi bars with signs on the wall that say SPECIALOF THE DAY: CHEF'S CHOICE. They accept--even embrace--sushi bars whose chefs will toss them out on their ear if they dare to ask for the yellowtail before they have finished eating their halibut.
In the middle of the Studio City sushi district, a bit past the Coldwater Curve, Asanebo occupies a small storefront tucked into a mini-mall, lighted with neon and surrounded by double-parked BMWs. Hairy music-industry guys sit at the sushi bar, trading quips in Japanese with Tetsuya, the primary chef. At the bar, a big Japanese guy--a local high school football coach who practically lives in this restaurant--holds an impromptu seminar on the Purdue secondary. Visiting tourists from Osaka clutch packs of Silk Cuts in sweating fists, not quite able to believe that the state of California will not allow them to smoke in restaurants.
For a while, Asanebo was famous as the "No-Sushi Bar," an establishment that served only sashimi and tiny portions of proto-Japanese cooked foods; grilled salmon with mashed potatoes and salmon eggs, fried squid with asparagus, steamed catfish with miso and ginger. All Hollywood seemed to flock to the place, eager to visit a restaurant that had come up with an entirely new way to deny satisfaction to its customers. "California roll? Sorry, can't help you." "Spicy tuna roll? Never heard of it." "Maguro sushi? Sorry, no rice today."
Asanebo achieved a small reputation as the poor man's Matsuhisa, although its food is actually a little closer to classic Japanese pub cooking than to Matsuhisa's Latinate take on the genre, and the cost, which can reach well upward of $75 a person with tax, tip, and a bamboo split of chilled sake, is not precisely a bargain.
Still, it is a pleasure to pull up a stool to the bar, to utter the magic word omakase--"Feed me until I burst!"--and to sit back and wait for the food to arrive. Perhaps there will be albacore sashimi, seared at the sides just until the flesh tightens up a little, served with a drizzle of citrus and the thinnest shavings of raw garlic, and funky slivers of Spanish mackerel sprinkled with salt and minced scallions, and fresh halibut walloped with spice. Soft, oily salmon, mounded in a bowl, is garnished with caviar; fillets of kanpache, a tiny coldwater tuna imported from Japan, are arranged into a little fishy Stonehenge. The ankimo, cylinders of molded monkfish liver in a sharp ponzu sauce, is fine.
Then come the cooked dishes: perhaps some steamed baby abalone in a thin, pungent broth made with wild mushrooms; almost certainly a nicely crisp version of the grilled, miso-marinated cod that has become as ubiquitous as tuna rolls in local Japanese restaurants. The bouncy spring roll stuffed with overemulsified fish cake does little for me, and I wasn't crazy about the steak, but the fried, shisowrapped uni, a crunchy little bundle of brine, can be mind-bending. You may not even miss the sushi. And if you do, Tetsuya may just condescend to make you the salmon-skin hand roll that you crave. Asanebo's more relaxed about that stuff these days.
ASHOKA THE GREAT
18614 S. PIONEER BLVD., ARTESIA; (562) 809-4229. DAILY, 11A.M.-2 P.M., 5P.M.-10P.M.
The handful of regional Indian restaurants in Artesia's Little India are authentic by definition--if you're serving, say, the only Gujarati-style dishes in an area populated by Gujaratis, you may as well remind your customers of home. But even on Artesia's Pioneer Boulevard, perhaps the one street in America where nobody looks twice at a mustachioed man in a flaming-red turban, most restaurants try to span all of India in one menu, with a rather heavy emphasis on Punjabi-style tandoori cooking. I like to call it Subcontinental Cuisine.
Ashoka the Great, in the heart of Little India, has the same Punjabi-inflected menu as almost every other Indian restaurant in California: tandoori chicken and garlic naan, curried cauliflower, the spinach dish saag paneer. But unlike most other tandoori restaurants, Ashoka seems to deliver the goods.
Perhaps authenticity requires the freedom to use as much of the powerfully stinky spice asafetida as the cook thinks a dish needs, to go a little heavy on the ghee, to use only as much sweetening as is strictly necessary. At Ashoka, even the delicate taco-size crackers called pappadum are laced with seeds and aromatics, and the cool Indian yogurt raita is so strongly flavored with exotic spice that at first encounter somebody not accustomed to the stuff might think it was spoiled, (although it's actually delicious. The bright red pickled carrot sticks are almost crunchy with pungent black mustard seed.
You might want to skip most of the appetizers here, grizzled little fritters of onion, cauliflower, or chicken that all seem to taste the same. The masala dosa, a crisp pancake as thin as parchment, rolled around a filling of curried potatoes and served with a lentil stew, is fine, though you'll find a half-dozen tastier versions within a few blocks' walk.
This is where to come for tandoori dishes: garlicky naan and potato-stuffed paratha, sure, but mostly the skinless chicken legs and fish kebabs and minced-lamb sausages marinated in yogurt and spices, flash-cooked in an ultrahot clay oven and served sizzling on a bed of onions on a heated steel platter. Ashoka's brand of tandoori chicken is wonderful, crisped at the edges and fragrant with spice, smoky, slightly tart, dyed the peculiar hue Frank Lloyd Wright used to call Cherokee Red. The curries are what you expect, more or less: ferocious, vinegary vindaloos of chicken and lamb; the soothing, creamy chicken dish murg korma, with cashews; shrimp saag in a creamy puree of spinach. Karachi chicken has the focused, gingery spice of a Muslim curry.
You'll find all the usual vegetable dishes done well: the locally famous curried okra dish bhindi masala,, stewed with tomatoes and chiles; an excellent version of Punjabi matar paneer, homemade cheese sauteed with peas; and a nice take onnavratan korma, cauliflower and potatoes and such cooked with spices and cream, that is a bit leaner, less luxurious than other versions but supremely well balanced.
Ashoka the Great has the usual sort of syruped boiled milk whatevers and puddingy things for dessert, but you may as well do as the Indians do after dinner and stroll up the block to Standard Sweets for a piece of the shop's splendid silver-gilded carrot halvah and a cup of masala tea.
ATLACATL
301 N. BERENDO STREET, LOS ANGELES; (323) 663-1404. MON.--THURS., 11A. M.-10 P.M. FRI.--SUN., 10 A.M.-11 P.M.
Atlacatl is a handsome Salvadoran family restaurant on that midtown stretch of Beverly Boulevard dominated by ethnic markets and the kind of bikini bars whose names resonate through tough-guy novels. Where most Salvadoran restaurants are sort of tatty dives--tatty dives with some very good food--Atlacatl is a Nice Place to Go for decent carne asada, sweet-and-sour chicken with sautéed onions, or Salvadoran-style chiles rellenos stuffed with meat.
In an earlier incarnation, Atlacatl was the Beverly Gardens, a go-go bar that was locally famous for flat beer, brazen hostesses, and the wild tangle of grasses and untrimmed banana trees that surrounded the joint. Atlacatl's flora is impeccable now, like something neatly pruned around an expensive jungle retreat. There are tables and plush carpets where the boom-boom stage had been before. Silk flowers bloom on tabletops and everything is clean.
The first time I set foot in Atlacatl, I had just passed into the restaurant when I heard a dull thud. One of my friends, who is very tall, had knocked his forehead squarely on the top of the door frame, and I turned in time to see him crumple slowly to the ground as if he had been shot. He lay still, unmoving. Two cooks peered out of the kitchen to see what was going on. The waitresses giggled quietly into their hands. Three or four guys who had sidled to the front of the restaurant, pretending to check out the new selections on the CD jukebox, took in the scene out of the corners of their eyes. My friend rubbed his temples and groggily got to his feet.
"Are you OK, my friend?" somebody, apparently an owner, asked. "Come, get something to eat."
If Frank Sinatra himself had walked into the restaurant just then, accompanied by Joey Bishop, Charo, and the two sisters from Heart, he couldn't have upstaged my friend. I was dining with a celebrity.
Most Salvadoran restaurants specialize in antojitos--apart from its antojitos, or snacks, Salvadoran food is fairly indistinguishable from every other Central American cuisine--and it seemed like we got one of everything that afternoon. Therewere pastelitos, little fried turnovers stuffed with a savory mixture of spiced ground beef; dryish sweet-corn tamales; plantains fried to a crusty black, caramel-sweet, with thick Salvadoran sour cream and salty, pureed black beans; and casamiento, beans and rice fried to a mush in an impossible amount of lard and served with Salvadoran crema and a brick of crumbly cheese.
We had thick logs of the tuber yuca, deep-fried until crusty and served with sour cabbage slaw and big chunks of fried pork. We tried shuco, which is a thin corn gruel, slightly sweet, with a few black beans lurking at the bottom of the bowl. (The waitress beamed sweetly when we asked what it was, but shuco might be a little spartan for anybody not directly nostalgic for this kind of poverty stew.) We were pretty full.
If you know even a little about Salvadoran antojitos, you've probably heard of the pupusa, a 45-rpm-size discus of masa shaped around a filling of cheese or meat and baked to order on a griddle. It's more or less the Salvadoran national snack. I used to think all good pupusas were about the same: crisp masa, melted cheese, and hot grease tempered by the cool acidity of the cabbage slaw curtido that you pile on from a giant crock. Atlacatl's cheese pupusas are even better than that: chewy as well as crisp, cheese more pully than runny, spiked with pungent chunks of the Salvadoran vegetable loroco. The spicy, tart curtido is pretty great too. Two or three pupusas make a fine light lunch, maybe sloshed down with a bottle of Salvadoran Pilsener beer.
And if the food doesn't knock you off your feet, you can always forget to duck.
COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: WHERE TO EAT IN THE REAL LOS ANGELES. Copyright © 2000 by Jonathan Gold. All rights reserved. Portions of this book previously appeared in different form in L.A. Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, and Gourmet No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.