This is not the gritty streetism of an authentic pho joint unconcerned with its C rating; a common compliment for Pho Saigon will be its cleanliness. The layout is high contrast, black and white furniture on wood planking. Speakers blare Korean pop while a silent television flickers. Designed photo collages of menu items add to a congenial but somewhat impersonal vibe.
It seems equally balanced between its noodle soups and its other fare, so a Special Appetizer Platter seems a good starter. There's a pair of Egg Rolls, shreddy golden cylinders with an oily crunch, a tiny bit overdone. The Spring Rolls are better, with a clean snap of orange carrot, striped shrimp, cabbage and vermicelli.
The Dumplings are pink and meat-filled, familiar-tasting and worth a future try on their own. The Fried Shrimp is a novelty, long spears of dumpling skin wrapped around a straightened shrimp and fried. It's good enough, with the peanut dipping sauce that's more sweet than sour, but the spring rolls are probably the worthiest competitor.
On to the soups. The #18 is pho noodle soup with well-done brisket and flank steak. The beef is soaked in hot broth, stretched into fatty, shimmery sheets like stained glass. The noodles need a firm separating with chopsticks before digging into them, but are clear and of good toothsomeness.
The Seafood pho, with imitation crab and thin, cream-colored slices of fish cake, is clean and flavorful but patiently subtle, a canvas awaiting expression. Pho Saigon hooks one up with bottles of hoisin, red pepper paste, sriracha, mint leaves, cilantro, bean sprouts, white onion, and lime.
The soups are good and proper, but the grill should not be ignored. What they do quite gratifyingly here is Charbroiled Chicken and Shrimp over Vermicelli; the dark meat is chopped and charbroiled to a glistening gold firmness, with the right amount of savor and give. The (grand total of three) shrimp are fried nicely craggy, good but overshadowed by the chicken.
It is a cold dish with pockets of warmth. The freshly done vermicelli is unstuck-together and elegantly white, made crunchy by carrot and cucumber slivers, shredded lettuce, and a nod of chopped peanuts. A shy dressing can be poured over it all, pale and nutty, but either hoisin or sriracha will shout over it.
Service tends to crisp efficiency and friendly goodbye calls of annyeonghi gyeseyo!, but during slower hours it can be difficult to get the bill.
Every day the Koreatown location is open until four in the morning; the hardworking people at Pho Saigon sleep only for three hours before reopening at seven. The other locations--on Hill Street Downtown, and the original spot on Imperial Highway in La Mirada--are not open nearly as late, but have more expansive menus.
The 6th Street location is in a strip mall, but parking is a forced, albeit tips-only, valet. Try to catch a whiff of KyoChon next door.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Vietnamese, Late Night/24 Hours, Korean, Mid-City/Koreatown )
Minimalism denied in favor of flavor
842 S. La Brea Ave. (between 8th and 9th)
Phone: 323-936-1500 | map
Around the halfway mark during your fall down the rabbit hole, Ogamdo whips by.
Most basically, Ogamdo is a Korean-owned Chinese restaurant on La Brea, next to Umami Burger. I have no idea what it was before that. Except for the strings of holiday lights around the perimeter, the red-bricked, red-tiled exterior is rather like an abandoned Spanish fort.
The interior is also firmly undecided: an explosion of unsorted vintage Americana, as if an arctic expedition of rich adventurers and Sherpas camped in a farm supply warehouse and left their gear after getting drunk on schnapps and watching Westerns all night.
I love it.
A pleasing assortment of teas by the pot or the cup is available; it's the first indication that Ogamdo is serious about what it's doing.
We like the inexpensive but serene Green Tea with Brown Rice. It comes in a beautiful glass kettle over candle flame. The tea is clean and golden and good, made calm and less tangy by the brown rice kernels.
There is also a long counter with tea paraphernalia and accessories by the front, in case you have been inspired by your experience.
The Egg Flower Soup is robust and volcanically hot, eggs whipped into a ghostly, citrine swirl like a spiral galaxy. It is rich, gelatinous, with blocks of tofu and mushroom, and obviously homemade.
A good trick, I'm told, is to spoon in some of their properly fluffy, sticky white rice into your bowl to soak it up and cool it down.
We always like an interpretation of ma-po, and Grandma's Tofu is a good example. Tofu cubes wade in an orange sauce, spicy and fragrant and just barely holding themselves together by surface tension. There is ground pork, but it is muted, along with the odd lima bean or pea. The dish has a throaty heat.
This is a perilous obstacle in your journey. Spicy Shrimp and Pepper. This is not for the mainstream palate; these are entire shrimps, legs, shells, eyes and all, tempura-fried into twisted alien fossils with a thick black and white pepper rub that burns your lip and stays with you loyally. Watch out for the little green things, and for the little red things too. They are not your friends, but their presence adds electricity to the overall flavor. There are remnants of garlic. Eating this takes work, but is rewarding.
Bianca: Don't try this without a net, kids.
The dishes are expensive, usually hovering around the fifteens and twenties, with occasional spikes (whatever the lobster is, it's worth eighty dollars to you). Luckily there is lunch, where everything is half off and the soup is free.
Ogamdo is open until 10 on Dunday, 11 all other days, and the valet is only a two-dollar charge.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Chinese, Beverly Hills/Wilshire, Mid-City/Koreatown )
Fowl, on a spit, over wood that's on fire, and, well, that's all I need, really
764 S. Western Ave. (@ 8th, in Koreatown)
Phone: 213-382-4090 | map
16527 S. Vermont Ave. (west of the 110, in Gardena)
Phone: 310-715-2494 | map
The Pollo a la Brasa Western is the last structure remaining on a strange triangular strip that divides 8th Street from itself. There is no parking, unless you find a meter.
See that stack of wood that walls this building on two sides? That, dear friends, is the fiery chariot by which meat on a rotisserie skewer ascends to Valhalla. The scent of wood and smoke and chicken blends in a trio of intoxication.
The inside is tiny, with brushed metal and fake brick, and five tables with yellow seats which fit four if the four are reasonably at ease with each other. All the doors are open to let in a refreshing crossbreeze.
The menu has a few things that aren't chicken--grilled rib eye steak and anticucho (grilled beef heart)--but you are not concerned with them. You want the rotisserie chicken: 1/4, 1/2 or the entire bird.
The cuarto. I am unsure of words to use here, because everything seems inadequate. I am a big fan of properly crispy chicken skin, and the skin is a scarred landscape of brown, crackingly sweet darkness, ready to be pulled away and crunched. The meat has that pinkish tinge that Peruvian rotisserie does--don't worry, it's done--and is softer than a 1970s easy-listening yacht rock compilation, practically collapsing away from the bone.
A few unself-conscious minutes later I eye the bones sadly, wondering if more is hidden somewhere. I should have gotten the 1/2; I could have blown through that and still been longing for more. It is chicken, and since a quarter chicken with a couple of extras is about five bucks, it's doable.
With this you can get a few sides, like rice, salad, or beans. The salad is an eclectic mass of cool, leafy, vegetably things to crunch, the fries are big pale girders, and the rice is white, sticky and stubborn.
The black beans are ladled from a vast pot; they're saucy and infused with meat, rustic and absolutely all right with me. They are, in fact, my current favorite batch of black beans. I am also curious about the aguadito, Peruvian chicken soup, since the chicken here is so brilliant.
The aji is an airy green sauce with a tongue-bashing bite. The chicha morada is more clovey than most, and I like it.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), BBQ, Peruvian, Mid-City/Koreatown )
A leisurely southerly west coast span of time
4354 Melrose Ave. (just east of the 101)
Phone: 323-666-6075 | map
It's fairly difficult to find Chilean cuisine even in this hypermulticultural mecca, so I'm pleasantly surprised to find this place within a couple miles of me, something I've driven by hundreds of times.
This restaurant and deli have been sitting quietly at the corner of Heliotrope and Melrose before anyone started trying to make the area hip.
The interior is homelike and often nearly deserted. Some lazy watching of the current football match may be in progress. The music can be soft-voiced Spanish crooners, but can also be, um... Go Country 105. Despite the photos and artifacts of Chile, one is (sometimes wincingly) inundated with Toby Keith, Alan Jackson and Big & Rich.
Ponder this as you dive into the thick roll they bring you, with either a pat of butter or a spoon of pebre, a mean little green sauce similar to Argentinian chimichurri, cilantro-heavy with a nice nasal onion sting.
Chile hugs Argentina on its right hip, so it's no surprise that some culinary similarities exist. If Rincon Chileno's ability with meat pies is representative of Chile, then Argentina has serious competition. I try a spinach empanada; the shell is ultra-crispy, glowing yellow and brown, layered rather than flaky. Once past the villainous heat level, there is spinach, chopped fine and melding beautifully with long strings of white cheese. It is superb, easily the best spinach empanada I've ever tasted.
The Churrasco de Pollo is a powerpacked little sandwich. Strips of chicken are grilled perfectly, browned and stiffened outside, tender inside, cooled by fresh tomato and avocado crushed almost into guacamole. This comes on french bread, amasado (a dense, scored roll not entirely unlike ciabatta), or hallulla (pronounced ayu-ya, hard-baked and pitted like a biscuit).
The sandwich comes with super-crispy french fries, with which you can't insult me. They benefit both from ketchup (the waitstaff sees I am a gringo and places a bottle on the table) and occasional dips into the pebre.
Move past the lunchtime sandwiches to see Rincon Chileno's kitchen shine. The Filete de Pescado a la Meunniere is a baked fillet of whitefish swimming in a mild lemon garlic sauce, achingly tender. You can get it fried for the nicely rendered crunch, but this gentle slab of fish rings of perfection.
It has a small tin of warmed garlic dipping sauce that has more citrusy bite, but it is almost unneeded because of the succulence of the fish. A steaming mound of white rice helps to soak up the flavorful juices, and three small slices of astoundingly red tomatoes sit aside, dusted with parsley. I still apply pebre here and there.
There is peril. If you aren't careful--note the consumption of bread, empanada, french fries and sandwich here--the resulting carb coma will have you in its starchy manacles and unable to function for the remainder of the day except for yawns and hand waves and weak little whines. Your slide into sleepiness is exacerbated by the fact that it may take a while for them to deliver the bill.
Rincon Chileno is open 10 to 10 daily. Plenty of street parking with meters that blink and say FAIL is nearby. There's also a Rincon Chileno on Hawthorne in Lawndale, but I'm unsure of its relation.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Deli, Los Feliz/Silver Lake/Echo Park, Seafood, Mid-City/Koreatown, Chilean )
The sauce of kings
3014 W. Olympic Blvd. (@ Normandie/Irolo)
Phone: 213-427-0608 | map
3337 1/2 W. 8th St. (@ Irolo)
Phone: 213-427-0601 | map
11215 Long Beach Blvd. #1010, Lynwood
The first location on Olympic was once the VIP Palace, and the exterior is still tiled with blue Korean stylings. The interior feels open, with thin pillars holding up the ceiling and a stage with elegantly carved wooden marimbas reposing grandly along one wall. The blankets on the tables are checkered in warm color.
While you're reading the all-Spanish menu and working through the tortilla chips smothered in an almost too-sweet red mole, dare to order one of their mezcaladas. Bianca likes the Garra de Tigre, as kin to a conventional blended margarita as a tiger is to an irritable housecat. Instead of tequila, Mezcal (the one with the worm in it, mind you) is blended with orange juice (and maybe the worm), into a grainy snow the color of raw sugar. The glass is rimmed with lime and chili powder, keeping it hot enough to keep drinking but strong enough to make it a foolish proposition. The paw of the tiger smacks you if you get more than one.
A simple introduction to the mysterious mole of Oaxacan cuisine is the Enchiladas de Mole Rojo. Ordered with chicken, the tortillas are filled with white meat without much personality.
With chorizo, however, the tortillas are loosely folded and blanketed with sweetish mole, emanating a flair of roasted pepper. The chorizo is twisted into ping-pong ball-sized spheres and laid atop, breaking open into spicy gaminess. It is a simplistic dish meant to convey complexity, the brown-draped centerpieces merely a vehicle for the mole, which is thick but uncloying, roasty and almost intoxicating.
A clayuda is a huge corn tortilla cooked on a clay disc, rendering the tortilla crisp like pappadam and imparting a dry, peppery taste. They put toppings on it and serve it on a pizza tray, like creamy black bean spread, chopped cabbage, and the everpresent snaky heap of queso fresco.
I like the Clayuda Guelaguetza, which supports a trio of meats. An elastic plank of pork rules the upper right, hammered flat and caked with spicy rub. It is not pork-intense, and is the most subdued of the three. There are several of the chorizo spheres, earthy and crumbly, requiring knife work, with the corn tortilla crackling and snapping beneath. The tasajo is salted beef pounded into a quarter-thin sheet, succulent and juicy and the strongest feature of this plate.
Next trip: Barbacoa Roja de Chivo, tender young goat in broth, and I hear they have chapulinas: grasshoppers.
The Koreatown location is the original, and has two-dollar valet. The Guelaguetza on 8th cringes and creaks down the street from Taylor's Steak House and has a better kitchen; the one in Lynwood is difficult to map.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, East Side/Downtown, Mid-City/Koreatown )
You are first struck by the long and sophisticated bar, made of wood and black vinyl and brass and envy; heavy wooden beams loom overhead like a sailing ship's cabin. Started in 1953 and here in its current incarnation since 1970, Taylor's makes me wish I was old enough to have been coming here since before Cosmos were invented.
It's dim like Hades inside. Plush carpet and red booths abound, with a tall pepper grinder standing like a chess queen on every table. Paintings adorn the paneled walls. We are seated beneath an oil-on-canvas of a Flemish gentleman with a wry look on his face and an uncanny resemblance to Jeff Bridges.
We down a few well-made Manhattans, marveling at Porterhouses and T-Bones being paraded by on sizzling trays. We are pursuing a healthier lifestyle, but no tofu dish can ever smell like that grand, trumpeting-fanfare scent of red meat on metal.
Taylor's is a steak house but remembers that the color green exists in the world. We order the Fresh Asparagus, great beams of vegetable confidence with knots of burn, nicely rendered with a hollandaise sauce the way you remember it from those yacht trips during childhood*.
We are compelled to try other things. The Molly Dinner Salad is a sneer at modern mixed greens. A big, cruise-ship-threatening wedge of iceberg lettuce rises above the plate, dotted with chopped onion and tomato and nonchalantly crowned with a non-chunky bleu cheese. I do not care how devoid of vitamins it is, I love iceberg lettuce. It is simple, retrofitted perfection.
Bianca goes a little higher end with a quintet of Oysters on the Half Shell. Fresh, simplistic, clean, with a cocktail sauce that is first cousins with ketchup, but who cares? Bink, who could eat oysters daily, is happy.
This is Taylor's, don't forget, and their disclaimer says "Not responsible for well done steaks," so don't request your beef done to the color of grey leather. Coming to Taylor's and having nobody get steak is a little like ordering the "For Our Gringo Friends" cheeseburger at a Mexican restaurant. It might be good, but some sinning has been committed.
Their specialty is the Culotte, the tenderest part of the top sirloin, only two of which are cut from the steer (not the cow--the steer). It arrives brilliantly hissing on metal, criss-crossed with scars, bathing the center of the tongue with strong flavor, with enough fat for punctuation. It is astounding. Argentine beef may be a better source material, but what the Taylor's kitchen does to it is masterful, a meal that (this time) surpasses Carlitos Gardel.
You may get a baked potato with this, but Cottage Fries, as unique to potatoes as au gratin or scalloped, are the only thing that can stand up to this as an accomplice. Cut into thick chips but soft, with a little french-fry raspiness, they are made perfect with a dab of leftover hollandaise.
Bianca (the non-steak-eating half of our duo) keeps with the seafood scheme, ordering the special for that evening, Jumbo Scallops. They are robust rather than subtle, pillow-tender with a just-past-correct bit of blackened snap; they are served with a creamy ber blanc sauce, some of which I also steal for my cottage fries.
The sides are what they need to be, the have-meat-now-need-potatoes accompaniments: baked potato properly fluffy, peas and carrots filling out the right corners of the food groups.
We haven't much room, but there is a nice key lime pie, thick with crust and singing with tartness. We down it, too.
There is a private room in back for parties, and we expect to take advantage of that. Taylor's has its own lot, uneasily valeted.
* I never had a yacht trip during childhood. I'm merely assuming that this is what we Caucasians must have done back in the '50s, '60s and '70s when steak houses and gin martinis still held sway. Before we lost the Smooth.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), American, Mid-City/Koreatown )