Category: Santa Monica/Culver City
Filling all the little corners
11660 Gateway Blvd. (just below the 10 freeway)
Phone: 877-518-5151 | map
There is a surprising little corner mall that springs up right where Gateway and Barrington rub shoulders with each other; find a space in the lot and head toward the bright red neon letters.
It smells incredibly good inside, but you may not notice this yet, since the music is likely to range from slow Cuban son to cheesy disco remakes of the Beatles and Coldplay, to your favorite '70s won't-you-come-back hits.
The kitchen is pan-Asian, so your cravings for ramen, soon tofu, cha han, bulgogi, and pho, can be lessened from the izakaya style menu.
I urge you to explore beyond your normal limits. The Tako Wasa, for instance. This is wasabi-marinated raw octopus, which, I must tell you before your North American tongue stampedes toward the exits, is rich and fabulous, a balance between chewy and gelatinous, bathed in a glaze that is sweet and sour like a mabo tofu dish. It can be a little challenging to the chopsticks but is worth it.
Or for familiarity with extra explosive Japanese flavor, I rarely deny myself Kurobuta sausage. A quartet of finger-length links are scored dozens of times and sizzled to a burnt snap. The scent is alluring, and the sausage barely needs dips in the tangy ketchup or dijon mustard.
Back on the adventurous side, I have been happily introduced to yukke, which is a mound of raw ground beef with egg yolk on top, which may seem like a terribly not-good idea, but when mixed up it becomes almost like chopped spicy tuna in texture, gleaming in sesame oil.
Too much? Speaking of tuna, the tuna don is clean and lovely and goes quickly. Hand-cut marinated tuna with sesame seeds, sashimi, and a saucy fill of spicy tuna are laid out like cool beds. It is fairly basic, but refreshing when combined with a warm soup.
Asian-ya does a number of soups, notably the hangover-curing Tan tan men, an opaque broth with noodles and ground pork. You can order this with no meat, and it is no less rich and complex. The broth is a pale speckled amber, its spice level containing a lurking glottal punch. Sesame seeds add nutty essence to the snaky pile of thick noodles. We are now addicted to this.
We soak up everything with orders of Lettuce Fried Rice: big striations of egg, tuny cubes of pork, and hot sheets of lettuce grown supple. The Jalapeño Fried Rice is even better, just shy of pan-burned, redefining the paradigm of fried rice, and my favorite at the moment.
Asian-ya is closed Wednesdays.
Thanks to Mai and Adam for suggesting Asian-Ya to us, after we'd sobbed to them about Terried Sake House being closed, and for graciously allowing us to make them come out to dinner with us.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Japanese, Chinese, Santa Monica/Culver City, Korean )
More lovely Peruvian hybridization
5163 Venice Blvd. (west of La Brea)
Phone: 323-936-4444 | map
I keep doing this to myself, but I'm quite happy. It is a well-known equation: the productivity of a workday after lunch is inversely proportional to the level of Peruvian food involved.
It's easy to race by this little spot, hidden in a corner mall along a wide stretch of Venice Blvd. on your way elsewhere. The building is painted-over brick, the interior oddly glass-walled as if a travel agency suddenly decided to become an eatery. A small television shows salsa videos. A dignified Japanese man or woman may take your order, and can break out the Spanish if need be.
I don't often see this, since the word "lomo" gets tossed around a lot, but I rather like the Pescado Saltado. Like the lomo and pollo versions, the main feature is sizzled in an iron pan with slivers of red onion, tomato and french fries until the meter reaches "sodden and sleepy."
The pescado here is fish strips, once breaded and fried and probably crisp, now wrinkled and surrendered to the sauce. The tomato is nearly nonexistent, but the fries are numerous and explosive with flavor.
There is something about how Peruvian cuisine handles the interaction between chicken and firewood. The Combo #4 (1/4 pollo con tortilla) is plain-clothed, but! The chicken! It gives Pollo A La Brasa on Western serious competition. Brilliantly dark with spices, bright and full-flavored, as if it had been fraternizing with a pair of duck flight attendants in a jacuzzi of pork drippings.
While you're dealing with that florid ornithological simile, I can tell you that the mild-looking frijol is a cup of thickly rendered pinto beans, and incredibly tasty. Incredibly. Enough to make one pause and think on it. There is also a calm ensalada and a bebida that come with this deal.
Adam, who found this joint and is not easily impressed: Not just good. It's surprisingly awesome.
For dashing over everything a gaggle of squeeze bottles huddles on your table, including mustard, ketchup, a good, hot chipotle mayonnaise, and a fairly tame aji sauce with a patient spice somewhere in its verdant paleness.
Pollo el Brasero #3 is closed on Mondays, may or may not be cash only, and may or may not be open until 6 on weekdays, 7 on weekends, and may slip into closure early.
Do I add to the Peruvian Tally? This is a tough one. The list is getting extensive, and this is also a rotisserie joint. But what the hell.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Peruvian, Santa Monica/Culver City, Mid-City/Crenshaw/Jefferson Park )
Yes, it means what you think it means
8200 W. Sunset Blvd. (@ Havenhurst, in West Hollywood)
Phone: 323-650-0614 | map
8665 Washington Blvd. (Culver City)
Phone: 310-837-5000 | map
395 Santa Monica Place (@ 4th, in Santa Monica)
Phone: 310-394-0373 | map
Despite being open until three in the morning, this doesn't possess the comfortably shabby demeanor of a neighborhood taco stand, into which you stumble in sore need of some well-deserved grease and spice; it's priced a little too high for that. This is the latest inspiration by the Anaya Brothers, owners of Cha Cha Cha.
The ceiling is awash with miniature piñatas* and colorful cutouts; the walls are adorned with off-brand loteria paintings (the El Pinche seeming particularly irreverent). The tables have absurdly blue checkered cloths.
As might be expected, the easiest introduction to a place with "tacos" in the title is the Pinche Combination Plate: a trio of tacos, with rice, beans and chips. The rice is properly fluffy**, and the refried beans are plain tasty, full of themselves without being whipped to senselessness.
Each taco embraces the holy duo of small white onion shards and cilantro, huddled together in malleable corn tortillas that are prone to tearing on contact with moisture. This contributes to the non-taco-stand feel, as I prefer to eat these at the table with fork and fingers rather than hunch over a rickety aluminum counter devouring taco goodness and fighting off pigeons.
The adobada consists of intense little cubes, marinated in a chili sauce with a wink of vinegar; they demand a determined chewing to extract maximum flavor. A briskly chopped salsa sits atop. The pollo a la parrilla is blocks of chicken breast, grilled to a pleasing stiffness on the outside, painfully moist inside. The carnitas are exquisite, not shredded, but large, imposing cuts of rich, shiny, citrusy pork.
Luxuriating on a stretchy tortilla, the pescado taco is thinly golden, not crunchy like Baja style but tender and collapsing. Oddly, it has a Veracruz coleslaw rather than naked cabbage, but I think I like it. The red salsa on this is among Pinche's best.
For burritos, I like the al pastor, pork strips marinated and broiled to a steaky firmness, muddled together with strings of sautéed onion and nicely gritty, dirty rice.
The chips here are fried hard, the pico de gallo can be thin and oniony, and there may not be many favorites among the salsas, although the cool spicy red used on the fish tacos is good to request.
Some Yelpy complaints have emerged regarding the staff at the Sunset location, which is, statistically, also more likely to attract its share of obnoxiously assumptive clientele. However, both locations have statistically unlikely free parking lots, suggesting that the universe is somewhat balanced. In any case, tacos, and I want them again soon.
Thanks to Adam for letting me drag him to yet another lunchtime foray.
* "Would you say I have a plethora of piñatas?"
** I realize that I rarely have much to say about Mexican-style rice. I am incomplete if it is not juxtaposed with my beans and main course, but it tends to be either satisfactory, or dry and uninteresting like your Uncle Theodore. I have never yet had a forkful of amber rice with a touch of vegetable and said, By God and the Queen's grace, Janice, this rice is damned fine!... I also don't know anyone named Janice to whom I can direct this ejaculatory observation.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, West Side/West Hollywood, Santa Monica/Culver City, Late Night/24 Hours )
On the next occasion where it happens to be a perfect Southern California day, and you're moseying along the unpolished lower stretch of Venice, past vendors of jewelry, art, love, and hemp artifacts, past examples of the ripped and the haggard, dodging rollerskates and peeking into freak shows, and you come across the red-and-white awning, take a break and get in line at the door.
There is a bar inside, noisy and neoned and pool-tabled, but your focus is to smell the ocean air a little longer, so you wait for a table on the patio, under arches and columns with bas-relief faces looking bemusedly downward.
It isn't that the Sidewalk Café is a swirling tidepool of culinary brilliance and innovation. It's that it's an icon, sprouting from the fabulously literate and independent Small World Books next door. The building dates back to the Abbot Kinney days, replete with bootlegger tunnels and beatnik artist studios. Kerouac crashed here, I believe.
They are, however, well-versed in their alcohol. They serve greyhounds here! Grapefruit juice and gin, in a lowball glass. Also try the Mississippi Mimosa, which adds a touch of Triple Sec to the champagne and OJ. For our late-afternoon purposes, however, Bianca and I like the Sidewalk Summer Tea: sweet tea and lemonade. And vodka. You'll need two pairs of these to get properly on the road* to toasted.
Bianca: I feel like I should be fanning myself on the veranda.
There's lots of habitual bar food, normally a beery afterthought in other joints. The Grilled Cajun Shrimp Skewers, despite their trendy name, are good, firm and snappy and fingertip-staining, riotous with herb butter and a paper tub of vinegary, Tabascoan red pepper sauce. They aren't large or many, so consider two.
Also in the realm of the familiar is the Calamari Basket, brittle puffs of amber, with a chunky tartar sauce that Bianca lets me have because she dislikes tartar sauce, and also... kids, let me tell you about a concoction called cocktail sauce, and how we adults love it so, while laughing over our martinis. It's a classic, horseradishy enough to bring memories of Mom and Dad's parties.
The Café keeps its literary roots, and names its Bookshelf Sandwiches for books and authors, a theme of which I always approve: you can get the Hemingway, the Odyssey, the Thesaurus, the Larry McMurtry, et al.
Since I recently reread Slaughterhouse-Five** I zero in on the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. It's a fine mess, a California-style burger with a superb bite, not nearly enough bean chili (So it goes), a schmear of thousand-island, onions and cheese. You get the sense that this taste, this intellectually escapist vibe, would have been the same fifty years ago. The fries next to everything you get can be big-plank style or a thin, seasoned heap.
It's still late afternoon and we're still working a quartet of Summer Teas through our systems, so I get a slice of Key Lime Pie. It's not pretty. It's messy and unkempt, just like an ideal Venice lifestyle; thankfully it's banana-yellow instead of green, and sour as a spinster aunt, causing our tongues to bang around dingdingding like a pinball machine.
Try the Sidewalk Café as the sun dips behind the ugly cement bunkers into the Pacific. You'll remember why you're here.
* No, that wasn't a Kerouac reference. Or was it?
** I would totally try a sandwich called the Kilgore Trout.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), American, Pizza, Santa Monica/Culver City, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs, Seafood )
This is pretty much a deli counter tacked on to the Pavlovian-response treasure that is the Surfas Restaurant Supply. After wandering the aisles and telling yourself you do not need a four-bottle dispenser system nor a single blade mezzaluna, you dry your eyes and step into the brightly lit interior of the Cafe Surfas deli. Nice people work here. It's rather like Porta Via in demeanor, though smaller and without the impulse-buy jars of artisan mustard and wedges of cheese.
Not photographically imposing but a good start, the Black Bean soup is not the thick, moody affair you might be used to from Cuban restaurants but is more like a tortilla soup that has black beans in it. It's rather thin but fresh and vegetal; crispy finger-staining little cheese bread accompanies it.
Their flagship sandwich is Jorge's Chicken Sandwich. Jidori chicken and Nueske bacon are the most prominent champions here; the chicken is super tasty and tender, the bacon fairly limber and cooperative rather than crispy. White cheddar, baby arugula, red onion, tomato are soft-voiced, slowly turning green with the cilantro avocado spread. Lots of napkin work is required.
Besides meeting my coworker Adam for lunch, one of my current triggers for driving clear across town is the Kurobuta Ham Panini. The bread is toasted hard with a snappy crust, which I normally avoid but is brilliantly sour and tasty. Its interior is softened by a thin spread of quietly confident homemade chutney, and it's a good platform for the black pork. The ham, true to its name, is robust and pink and dark and marbled and ever-so-slightly briny. White cheddar pulls and drapes and makes everything even nicer.
They do salads, of course, and put everything into crisp, recycled-looking to-go boxes.
To drink I like their Blueberry Lemonade, but they also make a dandy, strongly chocolatey iced mocha.
Outside the warehouse and the deli counter is a pleasant outdoor patio with strains of classic rock. Surfas has a good-sized parking lot, the easier to stagger to your car with your Hamilton Beach Triple Spindle Malt Mixer.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Bakery/Patisserie, American, Coffee/Tea/Desserts, Santa Monica/Culver City, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs )
The decor, being so design-minded, sparked our fears of chainy ownership*, with its clean black booths, to-be-expected corrugated metal, and aquamarine ceiling fans that don't turn quite quickly enough. The red walls are spanned with prints of vintage crate labels with uneasy historical references. Your table will have a bucket with hot sauces (try especially the mossy-colored Louisiana Gem jalapeño sauce on everything).
Bourbon Street Shrimp obviously has an interest in bringing in the crowd that wants its sports and its happy hour specials, and attempting a dinner on a busy night will probably prompt an irritable Yelp review. On an empty Sunday, though, it's good times. The kitchen has more time to give some love to its pub-food-inflected Cajun menu.
The five-dollar Hurricanes are dressed up like pink lemonade with a switchblade hidden under the skirt. They're kicky, and you'll notice that they get empty real fast... wow! Gee whiz! I suppose the car will stay where it is for a bit, because I'm feeling like NOLA, tipsy before twelve-thirty.
The only problem with the half-dozen Blackened Shrimp appetizer is that you didn't order the full dozen. They're finger-dusting and habit-forming. The cocktail sauce is good, not gaggy, and there's a creamy pink aioli sauce which is great to keep around for french-fry dipping. Need moar of this.
Rather than a safe-as-houses jambalaya or gumbo, I always check out an étouffée to see if the kitchen knows its acute e's.
The roux is impressively thick, deep like a brown curry, and sticks to the rice. Onions, spices, peppers and tomato cavort around the shrimp like a bacchanalia. It's a big dish.
The Buffalo Fish sandwich is a fun departure. These fish used to be hunted on the plains for their hides, apparently, and this version is lightly fluffed, drippy and gorgeous despite the American cheese failing to melt on top.
Bianca: This is stoopid with two o's.
What is it about this species of food that we eat far too much? We're full. We don't need dessert. We won't order it. Let's just go and walk this off.
Homemade Bread Pudding. They took liberties with this performance; with a moat of caramel sauce, it's more like a flan than a crumbled, bready, raisiny mess one is used to, coupled with some friendly French vanilla ice cream.
Bianca: I'll be under the table. Then I want to go grab the chef, shake him, and yell, are you kidding me?!
Dave: I want to sleep on this like a number bed.
There are lots of daily drink specials, happy hour shenanigans, and colorfully chalked boards with discounts: $4 pints of Newcastle or Sapporo, 2-for-1 margaritas and well drinks, et cetera.
There's a side lot with valet, and metered street parking.
* However, there was only one other location, on the disinterested western end of Melrose, which has since been replaced by some annoyingly one-word-titled eatery.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), West Side/West Hollywood, American, Santa Monica/Culver City, Cajun/Creole )