Categories: Cuisines By Area, Beverly Hills/Wilshire, Burbank/North Hollywood, East Side/Downtown, Glendale/Atwater/Eagle Rock, Hollywood, Los Feliz/Silver Lake/Echo Park, Mid-City/Crenshaw/Jefferson Park, Mid-City/Koreatown, Northeast/Arcadia/Monrovia, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra, Santa Monica/Culver City, Southwest/Beach Cities, The Valley, West Side/West Hollywood
You know these places. They're laid back, they may or may not have a drive-through, they serve everything from burritos to grilled cheese to milkshakes, and they're usually called Tom's, or Pete's, or Paul's. This is Rick's*.
Laid back it is, a comfortable place to pause before getting on the 5 freeway or going up Riverside Drive to a Dodger game. It would be the hangout if there was a high school nearby. If you aren't going through the drive-through, order at the counter; they will bring it after they've located you by shouting your name over whatever music is playing in Spanish on the jukebox.
The burgers are not so much genius as genial, with familiar patties not quite as thick as your pinky, and like Damon says at A Hamburger Today, you really need two of them to obtain enough flavor with which to work. Get cheese with this, not for taste, but for greater structural durability. I like the pile of shredded lettuce, fresh and apt to rain endlessly down onto one's plate and hands. The tomato is also fresh, but may be too thick for this endeavor. The presence of thousand island dressing makes this reminiscent of a Big Mac, except edible. It's simple and understandable, a little perilous to your arteries, and probably won't be your favorite, but you know you can rely on it if you need to.
Rick's does make Chili Fries as satisfactory as they come, the half-inch beams of potato stained under a mantle of yellow and white shredded cheese. And, hooo! they will put a ton of fresh, pungent onion on this if you ask. The chili is a rocky beefy sort, made for fries, and the fries are made for chili, and the whole affair is a dysfunctional family of comfort food that Bianca would really prefer I don't consume since she cares about my health and such.
There is a thoroughly unMexican oddity particular to North America, which I admit is one of my favorite childhood foods. It is the crunchy taco, and Rick's does it up proper: ground meat, iceberg lettuce, and enough of that yellow and white shredded cheese to fill an Austin Cooper, melted slightly into the ground beef. The shell is forced open to a 45-degree angle by its contents. They give you a fork, because they know.
The carne asada burrito is a neatly wrapped torpedo, cooked to an honest government-approved greyness yet retaining its moisture. Crisp, dark green leaves of cilantro line the tortilla, along with rice, onions and, as if startled to be there, beans.
Both the tacos and the burritos are made an order of magnitude greater with some liberally applied salsa from squeeze bottles. Both the green and the red are seedy and strong with chile flavor, just hot enough for a sniff or two.
The milkshakes here are thick, with real ice cream, just liquid enough to draw through a straw without hurting yourself.
Rick's is also comfortably ensconced in Alhambra, Gardena, East L.A. and Whitter.
* And this is their motto: "Anytime You're Hungry, Everybody goes to Rick's!" ... Wow! Every time I'm hungry, everyone else has to go on a road trip. I had no idea I affected the world that way.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, Diner, Los Feliz/Silver Lake/Echo Park, American, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs )
More afternoon food-caused relaxation
W-17 Olvera Street
Phone: 213-628-4349 | map
Still operated by the de Bonzo family, this is the first L.A. eatery to call itself a Mexican restaurant (instead of Spanish), in 1924.
We've never even set foot inside the Pelanconi building, the oldest firebrick structure remaining in Los Angeles. We're always trapped by love and laziness under the wood-shaded patio with old wagon wheels nailed to the sides, to enjoy the sounds and scents of Olvera Street, looking across the bricked lane at El Paseo Inn.
Bianca orders a La Cubana (Dos Equis and lime juice on the rocks in a salted glass) or "The Real Mexican" Margarita (teeth-stingingly strong, not overly sweet, on the rocks in an unsalted cocktail glass). I lean toward an agua fresca like jamaica or horchata.
The chips are hit or miss, usually fair enough but not heavy on salt or heat, and the salsa is mainly blended into a bubbly, runny liquid with a serrano bite. The guacamole is cool and fresh, but whipped into creamy collapse. They are not a destination in themselves. The soft tortillas here, however, are medium-sized, thin and springy, raspy with flour and have an intriguing hint of sourness. These will arrive with your meal.
Here, one does not (or should not) go for the typical combinaciones--the One or Two Items served with rice and beans. The page of specialties will give one more of a feeling of Mexican derivation.
The Enchiladas de Mariscos, for instance, has fine threads of shredded king crab and fat, pale shrimp rolled in tortillas like soft cloth. The affair is drizzled with white sauce, given some cheese, and glazed in a shroud of a tomatillo salsa. Half a chile pepper lies on the plate for heat.
The Guisado de Puerco con Nopales is what angels order when they come down to Mexican villages for lunch. The blanket of green on top is a wonderful stew of chiles and fresh julienned cactus, soft without being limp. Beneath that, imbued with the tartness of the cactus, is pork. I am slow and dreamy when I'm done, unable to scrape the bottom. I have no photo of it.
Bianca's new unexpected favorite is the Chile Relleno de Jaiba, a ladleful of that elegant king crab stuffed in a roasted pepper and draped with a tomatoey mushroom sauce. The dark green chile pepper is meant, I had assumed, to be a nonspicy poblano, but biting into it, it sneaks up on you and pounds you on the back like an exuberant uncle.
The specialties here can be expensive for an "authentic" Mexican restaurant, upwards of fourteen dollars. The drinks are a frown-inducing but typical-for-Los-Angeles twelve bucks.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, East Side/Downtown )
Admittedly, if I was hired to track down some really outstanding and innovative vegetarian Chinese food, I would not expect to search along the aging stretch of Chatsworth Street in Granada Hills, within a thousand feet of my old high school*. But there it is; Vegetable Delight, despite its wartorn exterior, has my full support. Stare for a moment at the beautifully carved wooden mural in the window before entering.
Walking inside, you may wonder if you have plunged down a rabbit hole into a wedding in Toyland. Rows of gold-trimmed white booths gleam under ceiling tiles of powder blue; the water glasses are stuffed with baby pink pastel napkins. Somehow it's a happy absurdity, especially with the sound of keyboards and strings plunking Chinese melodies above, or of bereaved little piano concertos.
You suddenly realize that the room has the same salmon-and-spearmint color scheme as a Madame Alexander doll box. You may also suddenly wonder why Dave knows what the Madame Alexander color scheme is.
This is what you must order, because we say so. The "Chinese Pancake" is puffed and very slightly sweet, not entirely dissimilar to a wonton, perfect as is but utterly gush-worthy when you drip some of the lemony sauce over it. It is the appetizer of champions.
The Hot & Sour soup is pleasingly gelatinous, not dense enough to stand a spoon in but slowing everything down to a meditative crawl. It is rich, and beautiful, and obviously not one of those packaged deals other Chinese places might dole out. The Spring Rolls here also seem fresher than expected.
The Veggie Fish in Hot Bean Sauce may or may not have MSG, but is made of OMG. It looks a little dubious what with the lonely and purposeless carrots, peas and corn, like one of those TV dinners that used to come covered in foil instead of plastic. Pay no attention. These deep-fried "filets" with a thin skin of seaweed have a light crunch, in a thick, not-really-hot orange sauce, are insanely good. The chefs at Vegetable Delight are concerned with making flavorful dishes rather than merely cranking out the usual fare with meatless analogs.
The Tofu with Hot Bean Sauce, despite its similar naming convention, is totally different. Lightly fried triangular prisms of tofu** are combined with chopped green pepper and tiny mushrooms cut into quarters, as if to resemble peanuts; the sauce is thinner but soaks into the tofu nicely.
The Szechwan Shredded Veggie Beef has a slight textural resemblance but isn't fooling anybody. However, it's got a full-bodied presence, and combined with carrots and Chinese mushrooms cut into scalloped lengths, it's downright savory.
They kindly provide small dishes of red chili paste, decently hot, and a strong, take-a-blowtorch-to-your-nostrils Chinese mustard.
Vegetable Delight is open until 9:30 as Chinese restaurants often are, and are closed on Mondays, like restaurants over the hill often are. Come here for lunch. Why? Lunch and a Chinese pancake, enjoyed with a cup of hot tea, is under ten bucks.
* Going in the other direction, it's also a thousand feet from the seedy and abominable Oh Grady's, at which our good friends Bandwagon have played on occasion, and who hopefully will not be banned from Oh Grady's for my having called it seedy and abominable.
** This will be the name of my band if I ever create one. The Triangular Prisms of Tofu. Mathematically uniform and high in protein!
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Chinese, Vegetarian/Vegan, The Valley )
Starting to be a weekly ritual
4325 Sunset Blvd. (@ Fountain)
Phone: 323-665-7818 | map
Despite being squeezed into the parking-spacially challenged corner of Sunset and Fountain, next to a liquor store and under a karate school, Agra has managed to thrive. Its interior is nicer, with dimly lit avocado walls and booths of a deep byzantium purple. Curtains stretch across the ceiling. The people are friendly and may have some Indian television on if it's not too busy.
The lunch specials are the easiest introduction, a round metal tray with a quintet of flavorful choices. Usually the sides are white rice, yellow daal, chickpeas in a tomato-based sauce that could be cooked longer, and a happy circle of raita in the center.
Their sog paneer is wonderfully dense and creamy steamed spinach*, with tofu-like cubes of white cheese appearing beneath. I order it spicy, but I suspect they are not taking me seriously. Halfway through the meal, though, the spice is awakened like an irritable tiger, causing the quiet suppression of coughing, but it does not stay awake long.
A specialty of theirs, which you won't find on most familiar Indian menus, is balti, a Kashmiri curry cooked in a wok-like dish. The Chicken Mushroom Balti is stew-soft, its black slices of mushroom rendered limp with all their flavor pulled into the whole composition. The sauce is tan and not immediately spicy, but complex and wealthy with nuance.
The Chicken Vindaloo is a hot curry of lemon, onion, tomatoes and potatoes crowding around gentle slabs of chicken. The Fish Vindaloo is even better, the fish soaking up the robust black-and-green speckled sauce.
It says it's very hot, but they don't make it that way if you are not obviously Indian. It is forceful, with a persistent and patient burn, but not fiery. I'm going to ask for "British Spicy" next time and see if that makes a difference.
We're always a big fan of garlic naan, but when I'm lunching I like the keema naan, which is like a thin, lamb-and-peas-filled quesadilla; the lamb is ground into paste like chorizo, and the bread is charred around the edges. It's fun, but doesn't serve as a utensil as naan usually does.
To take off the heat there are a few beers like Taj Mahal or Haywards 5000, or you can grab another Indian brand from the liquor store next door.
* Or steamy creamed?
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Vegetarian/Vegan, Indian, Los Feliz/Silver Lake/Echo Park )
As you drive by on Cahuenga, the building is painted like a row of storefronts, the air permanently sharpened by the scent of Italian dressing. In Hollywood, Miceli's juts out onto the slim Las Palmas street, ignoring the honks of trucks.
Miceli's wins for atmosphere. I'm a sucker for immersive, Pirates of the Caribbeanesque interiors, like I'm walking through an alley in some European hamlet and a sidewalk kitchen suddenly appears under the awnings. On Cahuenga diners are inundated with brick, arches, and wrought iron; hundreds of empty Bell'agio chianti bottles dangle from every edge, decorated by the patrons. The L.A. location has an even thicker grove of chianti bottles dangling over your head like ripe coconuts, and its furniture is deliciously dark and heavy wood. Piano jazz and cocktail tunes a la the Ultra-Lounge CDs you bought back in the nineties can be heard.
There is an iron trivet on your table where a pizza would go, holding the stubby shakers of red pepper flakes and parmesan. A basket of puffy rolls will be placed on it; they're quite good warmed over the candle.
This is Rigatoni Della Casa, a mess of buttery pasta overdone in the '50s-era Italian-American style. The meat sauce, not too chunky, is thinned by olive oil and made grainy by Romano cheese. It's almost too smooth, like the cheesy, crumbly interior of lasagne. It's satisfying, though, with an old-fashioned smack of salt.
They have a classic "Angie's Original" lasagne, but this is Miceli's vision of Chicken Lasagne. The pink sauce is more orange, earthy and velvety with tomato. The chicken has been chopped into gentle shreds and chunks, and is wrapped in disintigrated bits of spinach leaf. The three cheeses are unobtrusive. Even more so than the rigatoni, each flat sheet of pasta is done to the point of melting on the tongue.
The pizza here is, in my opinion, a "dinner pizza" rather than a primary choice for delivery. Mozzarella is laid thick and stringy over a thick and bready dough that lacks any hint of sweetness. The pepperoni is standard fare, but the sausage is a handful of spicy spheres you remember from youth. Mushrooms seem fresh, darkened and snappy. They're generous with the toppings.
They actually cut the slices here, not merely indent them with the pizza cutter, and will serve you the first slice. Miceli's is kinda classy that way.
There is valet for the Cahuenga location at night, but otherwise street parking is your best bet. Hollywood has a public lot nearby for an annoying-but-perfectly-normal ten bucks, which a validation from Miceli's will reduce to four. Metered street parking is available for both.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Italian, Hollywood, Burbank/North Hollywood )
Adventures in miso
1253 Vine Street Suite 5 (@ Fountain)
Phone: 323-467-5537 | map
There may be more upscale or more authentic places to be found east of here, but you'll be hard-put to find more comfortably Japanese cuisine in the middle of Hollywood. Its interior is typically austere, clean black furniture sitting straight under a soft grey ceiling. The older couple who runs this place will rise smiling from their table in the corner and see to your needs.
This is Sapporo-style cuisine, specializing in the miso ramen of that city, with many regional toppings and customization and a bit of izakaya styling in its menu. They have omakase but most of the regulars lean toward the comfort dishes.
The miso soup here is darker than the typical from-the-package swirl of beige; it's seasoned, slightly sour, and robust.
Inari is getting to be one of my favorite snacking pleasures; commonly described as football-shaped, their version is wet to the touch, the rice almost like brown rice in texture, sweetish and clinging to itself.
For ramen, they do best with South Sea Style, with chicken or pork; the latter is sliced thin and deep brown like an elegant brisket, full of its own essence.
I get mine with garlic, shredded to the point of invisibility, and the green onion, red ginger, sesame seeds and other elements yield a red-specked broth, a garden swirled together to add complexity and a back-of-the-throat spice. The bottom of the bowl becomes silted with miso and garlic. The noodles are al dente, but solid and slightly thicker than ramen noodles usually are.
Hard to find on the menu (although it might appear on the little chalkboard on the wall), the Spicy Garlic Tofu Bento is a local joy. Long slices of tofu are cut into obtuse scalene* triangles, and fried into something firm, bursting, and amazing. Shards of red chilies embrace the steaming hot tofu.
The bento comes with a salad of the thinnest-possible sliced tomatoes, shredded lettuce and carrot, and a scoop of smooth, rather addictive potato salad.
Atch-Kotch has a long tandem parking lot in front of it, but it's iffy. You certainly don't want to pull into one of the front spots and get blocked in, since the guy sitting outside who seems like a parking lot attendant seems unconcerned with what actually happens in the parking lot.
* Really! "Obtuse Scalene" is not as pretty as "Isosceles" but it's closer to the shape of this tofu. This has been your painful Geometry class memory for the day.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Japanese, Hollywood )