Restaurant Review #138: Nook, West LA

The bar

When you're used to dining at low-end restaurants where almost all of the focus is on the food, it's a real treat to spend a few extra bucks and actually get service. Service at LA restaurants is often snooty or indifferent, but at Nook, the service is so good from the very moment you walk in that you know you're in for a great meal.

At 7:00 on a Tuesday, we had already failed to beat the crowds to Nook. Fortuantely, we were the only ones waiting, there were chairs to sit in, and we were given menus to look at in the meantime. We also could have sat down at the small bar for a drink, had we been so inclined.

The communal table

Given a choice between immediate seating at the communal table and waiting for an individual table, I'll choose to wait every time. With the way tables are crammed together at almost every restaurant in the city (Nook being no exception), you might think it wouldn't really matter, but the word communal implies that maybe I should be talking to the other people at the table, and I really don't want to.

That being said, I think the idea of creating an environment that is conducive to chatting up strangers is really great for people who are more extroverted than I am. After all, one of the reasons LA can seem so hostile at times is because we don't know each other. It's easy to anonymously be rude and assume the worst about people from behind the wheels of our cars. A communal table allows us the possibility to get to know each other better and like each other more. The communal table would also be a great place to seat a birthday party or other group of around 12 people.

Nook dinner salad

Nook's menu is divided into small plates and large plates, rather than appetizers and entrees. With a simple label change, you can order an appetizer as a meal and not feel like a cheapskate. Even the lightest eater will need to order more than a salad to get full, though. I tried the Nook dinner salad: mixed greens with rosemary beet vinaigrette, dried cranberries, brandy pecans and goat cheese.

The dressing really makes this salad noteworthy. Tangy and sweet, it's a great way to convince people that they might actually like beets. How did beets become a high-end vegetable, anyway? They're just root vegetables, like carrots or turnips, and they aren't too expensive. Aside from the dressing, there was nothing innovative about the salad--the ingredients are a tried and true combination. I would have liked more goat cheese, but then, I really can't ever get enough cheese. The cut greens were crisp and high-quality.

Crispy Fried Calamari

The calamari, tossed with citrus-soy vinaigrette and wasabi dipping sauce, had a very flavorful batter, but it was much too salty. I couldn't taste the citrus-soy sauce at all, and I had to be careful with the wasabi dipping sauce, which was heavily concentrated and an invitation to nose burn. The calamari were very tender, the batter was well-seasoned, and the flavor of the wasabi mayo was a nice match. Take the salt factor down a notch, and this dish would be perfect.

Nook Burger

The large plate section of the dinner menu is very meaty, with only two vegetarian options. While a vegetarian could get by here, she wouldn't have a lot of options. I ordered the burger, a sterling silver beef burger with gruyere cheese, red wine-braised onion and baby arugula on grilled rustic bread, served with fries and a homemade pickle. I finally took the plunge and ordered my burger cooked medium (I could do better, I know, but meat kind of scares me). The burger was good, especially the surprisingly flavorful bun, though with so much bread, I had to eat my burger with a fork and knife. This is not one of the top burgers in the city, and I think it would have been more flavorful with carmelized onions and a stronger cheese, but not everyone likes their food as intense as I do.

Banana bread pudding in a chocolate brandy sauce

Dessert sounded very promising, but was a disappointment for me. Of course, desserts have to overcome the full factor--by the time I get there, my marginal propensity to consume more food has declined so far that something has to be really special to wow me. Also, I have decided that I'm really not a fan of the banana/chocolate combination, and I was disappointed that I couldn't taste the brandy. The vanilla bean gelato sounded tempting, so we got a cup on the side. The texture was dense and smooth, but the flavor was nothing to get excited about.

What to look for

Nook can be hard to find. The strip mall has an orange sign announcing Nook, but the restaurant itself is really tucked away and has only a neon blue sign with a white arrow to point the way. Parking is free and easy enough in the lot or on the surrounding streets.

The service was very good throughout the meal. It got slow at times, but we never felt forgotten. Our server was professional and full of smiles.

In West LA, there is virtually no such thing as an upscale restaurant. In this category, Nook only has to complete with places like Il Grano, La Bottega, and Il Moro. By filling a niche, Nook is really able to shine. It provides a warm atmosphere, real service, very reasonable prices, and consistently good food. While it might not be able to complete in more upscale neighborhoods, I'm thrilled to see it in West LA, and I'll definitely be back. I'd love to go for lunch, as the lunch menu is quite different from the dinner menu, and I'm intrigued by the catfish burrito.

If you've been to Nook, how was your experience? Leave a comment!

Salads and appetizers, $7-12
Lunch entrees, $9-12
Dinner entrees, $10-22
Desserts, $6

11628 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Mon-Fri 11:30 AM to 3 PM;
5 PM to 10 PM
Sat 5 PM to 10 PM
Closed Sundays
Nook website with menu

Restaurant Review #262: Headlines Diner, Westwood

Headlines has that true diner feel—the décor looks like it’s genuinely from the ‘50s, the place is noisy, bustling, and not sparkling clean, and the food is tastier than a fast-food joint. In fact, all that’s missing is a sassy, past-her-prime waitress named Flo to take your order. The food isn’t amazing, but it’s definitely good, and you’ll have a lot of options—Headlines has a rather extensive menu for a diner, so you don’t just have to settle for a hamburger. They also have breakfast options that they serve all day. The price is pretty reasonable, and you’ll get your food rather quickly. If there’s a big drawback, it’s that Headlines doesn’t make milkshakes, and it looks and feels like the kind of place that should. The burgers would go down much better with a chocolate shake than they do with a kiwi strawberry Snapple.

Headlines Diner
10922 Kinross
Los Angeles, CA 90024

Restaurant Review #259: Sandbag's Gourmet Sandwiches, Westwood

Sandbag's is a little nook of a restaurant with few tables and a television in the corner. The overhead menu has a list of “gourmet” sandwiches, as well as an option to create your own sandwich. Unfortunately, what you wind up with is something you could make yourself from the grocery store. The sliced bread, the processed meat, the cheese—it all seems like a homemade sandwich, rather basic and uninteresting. Some people might prefer this type of sandwich, with its homemade quality. However, nobody’s going to prefer the price, which seems outrageous when you see what you actually get for your money. At least they throw in a cookie with your sandwich. If you want more bang for your buck, not to mention a far superior sandwich, try Elysee a couple of blocks over.

Sandbag's Gourmet Sandwiches
1134 Westwood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90024

Restaurant Review #258: First Szechuan Wok, Westwood

This Chinese restaurant is smaller than it looks from the outside, which only adds to the near-unbearable din inside. Most Westwood locations are too loud, but this place is particularly noisy. There’s nothing special about the atmosphere—cheesy décor, close tables, and poor lighting—and the service, while quick, isn’t particularly friendly. The food is passable Chinese; by no means is it fantastic, but if you’ve got a lunch hankering for orange chicken, it will satisfy your craving. Also, for the price, the portions are rather generous and you’re given free tea when you’re seated. The deal’s not bad, but the restaurant itself leaves a lot to be desired. You may be better off getting takeout.

First Szechuan Wok
10855 Lindbrook Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90024

Restaurant Review #257: California Chicken Cafe, Westwood

There are a number of reasons why you might want to avoid California Chicken Café: It’s difficult to find parking. It’s quite crowded, even at off-peak hours. The tables are ridiculously close together. It’s not much of a value for what you’re getting—the portions are fairly generous, but the food is just average. Still, it must be crowded for a reason and I can’t imagine that it’s due to the location. Near as I can tell, the best selling point of California Chicken Café is that, unless you’re quite hungry, there’s a chance that you can make two meals out of your lunch—a great bonus for the area’s many college students. The service is rather quick considering how busy the restaurant is. Still, that busy atmosphere makes for a rather hectic, unsettling, uncomfortable meal. It’s not an ideal place to go have an intimate conversation with a friend. You might be better off getting your food to-go—especially if you’re illegally parked.

California Chicken Cafe
2005 Westwood Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Telephone: (310) 446-1933
Monday - Friday: 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Saturday: Noon to 10:00 p.m.
Sunday: Closed


Restaurant Review #261: West Burton Antiques, Westwood

Hidden away in a small building next to a garden courtyard is West Burton Antiques, a small antique store with eclectic and unique finds. It also houses a little coffee bar that serves a small selection of snacks and sandwiches. The menu is not extensive and it’s the kind of place that will run out of items as the day goes on. Still, it’s a great place to enjoy a light lunch of fruit or yogurt or maybe a tasty croissant with cheese. The tiny store is serene and quiet, a veritable refuge from the loud, busy Westwood scene. The service is very friendly and attentive, yet not overbearing or intrusive. You can take your meal into the courtyard outside if you’d prefer to enjoy the weather. If you’re looking for a lovely place to take a break from your day and nosh on a healthy snack or enjoy a cup of tea, West Burton is a wonderful find.

West Burton Antiques
1131 Glendon
Los Angeles, CA 90024

Restaurant Review #260: Napa Valley Grille, Westwood

Napa Valley Grille is a wonderful dining experience—probably too extravagant for your average lunch but ideal for a business lunch or a special occasion luncheon. The wait staff is courteous and professional, and the restaurant is large and spacious, allowing for plenty of comfort and privacy. This makes for a relaxing and enjoyable lunch, and that’s before even getting to the food. The menu isn’t huge, but it is varied and the quality of the food is exceptional. Especially noteworthy is the dessert menu—if you have the ability, order multiple items and share with your dining companions. Although the restaurant seemed to have plenty of open tables, you’ll want to make reservations just to be sure. You can even request the enclosed patio if you prefer outside dining. Valet service is pretty much essential if you plan to drive there, although you could get lucky and find street parking.

Napa Valley Grille
1100 Glendon, Suite 100
Los Angeles, CA 90024
Napa Valley Grille Website


Restaurant Review #137: Nanbankan, West LA

Chilean sea bass

Nanbankan, located on Santa Monica Boulevard a bit west of Sawtelle, is very easy to miss. The best way to find it is to look for the heavy dark wood door that marks the entrance.

On my first visit, at 6:00 on Wednesday about a year ago, almost every table seemed to be reserved, and the restaurant quickly filled up. That seemed promising. Since we didn't have a reservation, our only seating option was the bar, but I didn't mind since no one else was seated there yet, and no chef would be standing directly on the other side of the bar, watching to see what I thought of each bite.

On my second visit, I was surprised to be able to walk in on a Monday at 8:00, when nearby restaurants like Sasaya and Terried Sake House were closed, and immediately get a table for four. The restaurant did not appear crowded at all.

I didn't enjoy Nanbankan on my first visit. I couldn't figure out how to eat the hunk of lettuce in my salad, the wine was pricey and underwhelming, the sauteed mushrooms were too buttery, and the baby octopus was too chewy. Rows of pre-made maki in the fridge made me doubt the restaurant's commitment to serving good food, and the music was loud, bad, and distracting.

I wanted to give the restaurant another chance, though. It seems to have a loyal following, including some Chowhounds, and plenty of its patrons are Japanese. I thought perhaps I hadn't ordered well, especially since I skipped the yakitori.


Salad is complimentary, and free food always tastes better. The lettuce wedge looks difficult to eat, but is actually rather ingenious--just peel away one layer of lettuce at a time and dip it into the peanuty dipping sauce. Yum. The salad also includes daikon, green pepper, carrot, and celery. The veggies are really just an instrument for eating the sauce, but their crisp texture and mild flavor is perfect for the intensely flavored sauce. Unfortunately, the salad far outshone everything else I tasted.

Fresh Japanese tofu

The dishes are small and range in price from $3 to $13. In spite of their small size, they're meant to be shared. If you really like a dish, it's not a problem to order more mid-meal, and the kitchen is speedy.

The dishes arrived as they were prepared. The first was fresh Japanese tofu. My only other experience with fresh tofu was at Sushi Tenn, where a little ball of the stuff cost a whopping $9. Fresh tofu has a creamier and slightly granier texture than ordinary tofu. It's also more flavorful, but that flavor tastes a lot like Playdough to me. The only reason I finished this dish was because I was hungry. The scallions, shaved bonito, and minced ginger used to garnish the tofu didn't add any meaningful flavor, and they detracted from the texture of the dish.

I ordered a cold sake, the cheapest one on the menu--the price jumps from $6 straight to $11. When the waitress brought a massive bottle to the table, I was alarmed. Not only must I have ordered a terrible sake for it to be so cheap, but now I was going to be stuck with a whole bottle of it! Or so I thought. Instead, the waitress set a small glass (maybe 5 ounces) on top of a small square plate and filled my glass deliberately until the sake overflowed onto the plate. I lowered my head and slurped away, but I'm not sure that was the proper etiquette. I'd never seen sake served this way before. I found no fault in the $6 glass, but sake is not my area of expertise.

Mixed seafood

It's hard to go wrong when you're sauteeing things in butter, and the mixed seafood dish is no exception and a good, safe bet. Since its most exotic ingredient is clams, this is a good dish to order if you're not feeling terribly adventurous. My friend thought the flavors blended together and that nothing particularly stood out, though by virtue of not being overcooked, this was one of the better dishes we tried.

Baby octopus

I considered warning my friend against this dish since I strongly disliked it on my first visit, but in the spirit of giving the restaurant a second chance, I let him order it. The dish was exactly the same as I remembered it: tough, chewy octopus still almost too large to swallow after what feels like minutes of chomping, bathed in a soy sauce broth that adds very little to the flavorless creatures.

Dark meat chicken with scallions (front) and chicken giblets (back)

Many of the yakitori selections are chicken parts that most people won't be accustomed to eating, like hearts, tails, and feet. My friend ordered giblets, and since I didn't know what they were and have been feeling more adventurous about my meat eating lately, I tried one. It was crunchy, like a carrot crossed with a cucumber. In mid-chew, my friend informed me that I was eating kidneys! I know it's a cultural difference, and I respect the concept of not wasting any part of an animal that has been killed for food, but why do I need to eat kidneys? Apparently, well-cooked giblets are crunchy, yet soft and juicy. Nanbankan's were dry and overcooked. Does the guy behind the grill ever taste any of the stuff he cooks?

Most things at Nanbankan seem to be cooked for too long and at too high a temperature, leaving them dried out and tasting like an unidentifiable burnt substance. If you want to try the yakitori, I'd go with the vegetable selections. The grilled asparagus was one of the better things I ate. Most of the vegetable skewers are wrapped in a layer of superthin pork fat (which tastes surprisingly good and isn't disgusting like it might sound), so I wouldn't take your vegetarian friends here.

Top sirloin

I thought the nanban-yaki, or top sirloin, also wasn't overcooked--proof that it can be done. The meat was smooth, tender and still pink on the inside, and the sauce added a bit of sweetness. I'm no steak connoisseur though, and my steak-savvy friend thought that the steak, too, was overcooked.

The yakitori may look difficult to share, but if you just pull the pieces of meat off of their skewers with your chopsticks, everyone can have a taste.

Sweet trout

I got much more--and much less--than I bargained for with the sweet trout. I got a whole small fish that was very difficult to eat, and the tiny bits of fish I managed to pick free from the bones were too dry and flavorless to be worth the effort of teasing them out. There was so little meat that I wondered if I was supposed to eat the skin. While the skin was edible, it definitely didn't add anything to the dish--it was just burnt and hard to chew. There were tons of tiny bones inside, and picking bones out of my food makes eating more work than fun. I'm pretty sure the ecto-green dipping sauce was a mixture of grated yuzu and vinegar, and though it added moisture to the dry fish, it wasn't tasty enough to redeem it--and fish should be moist on its own. The tail and an upper fin of the fish were encrusted with salt--was I supposed to eat them? I guess I'm too American to try that. I wished I'd stuck with my original plan to order the Chilean sea bass.

The main room of the interior features the same dark wood as the front door. It looked a little dated, but I liked it--it had cozy, cave-like feel to it. There is also a small brighter room on your left when you walk in. The music was still just loud enough to cheapen the experience a bit, but at least the restaurant and the music were quiet enough that we could talk easily.

The best word to sum up my experience at Nanbankan is mediocre. Of about ten dishes, only three were worth eating, and none impressed me. One of the best dishes of the night was the Chilean sea bass, which was flavorful with a thin seared crust on the outside. I also liked the fish tempura we ordered in an attempt to fill up--four large pieces of generously breaded, surprisingly ungreasy deep-fried goodness. Also, Nanbankan is one of the only places I've seen that serves a whole plate of mushroom tempura.

FuRaiBo seems to be comparable to Nanbankan, but better and slightly less expensive (though definitely more crowded). Another peer is Yakitoria, which is also better, but not high on my list.

With my wallet $23 lighter and my stomach still largely empty, only the good company with whom I shared my meal made the evening worthwhile.

If you've been to Nanbankan, how was your experience? Leave a comment!

11330 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025


Restaurant Review #136: The Cellar, Century City

Chicken pesto sandwich

The Cellar is probably a place you have never been to and will never go to unless you work in Century City. It sits far back from the sidewalk--walking past, you would probably mistake their outdoor seating for that of another mediocre office tower lunch restaurant. And The Cellar closes early, around 9:00, so it's really only meant as an after-work destination--Century City isn't exactly the place to go for a night on the town, after all.

The decor is straight out of the 80's, and there is something soothing about being in a place whose decor is so out that it has no hope of being in again for at least 20 more years. Outdated interiors, so commonplace in less moneyed places like St. Louis, are an anomaly in a city like LA where restaurants constantly compete to be the newest and hippest. At The Cellar, there are still ashtrays in the bathroom stalls and wood paneling on the walls. Whereas Century City is all about power suits, powerful jobs, and powered waterfalls, The Cellar strips all of that down to burgers and booze.

The kitchen serves small portions of cheap happy hour appetizers like buffalo wings and potato skins, in addition to a respectable list of burgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, and other bar food. Regulars told me to skip the skimpy chicken fingers, and that the nachos, quesadilla, and buffalo wings were my best bets. Since I was starving, I decided to go straight for the entrees.

I am paranoid about having food in my teeth, so I would never order something as disaster-prone as a chicken pesto sandwich. But my friend doesn't suffer from the same anxiety and chooses freely from any menu, and still manages to maintain his pearly white smile. How does he do it?

Lately I've found all chicken to be lackluster, and this sandwich was no exception. I will say that they really didn't skimp on the pesto, though. Surprisingly, they didn't use pesto mayonnaise, but a generous layer of straight-up pesto.

French burger

The Cellar offers several different burgers, each with different toppings and cheeses. The French burger, topped with onions and cheddar cheese, was juicy and delicious. Maybe it's because I finally took the plunge and ordered my burger cooked medium rare (it was too dark for me to notice if it was still mooing), maybe I was starving or clouded by my first drink, or maybe The Cellar just has surprisingly good burgers. The fries, on the other hand, were on the dry side and weren't very good after a few minutes.

Apple martini

As I've gotten older, I've come to like sweetness less and less. Sweet now must be combined with something bitter, in the form of port or chocolate or coffee, for me to really enjoy it. I started with a Tom Collins, which was fine but not worthy of seconds. The apple martini looked just right, but was so sweet that the only reason I drank it anyway was because, well, I just wanted a buzz. My followup lemon drop was the best drink of the night.

I almost feel like I'm on the set of Cheers

The bartenders/servers are initially pretty attentive, ready to take your drink order before you've even sat down and quick to offer refills, though the food service was slower and after a couple of hours we started having to flag them down when we needed another drink or the check. The attitude here is neither cheesy nor upscale, just straightforward.

The Cellar gives out free chips and salsa daily (serve yourself by the door), sells $1 hotdogs and chili during Monday Night Football, and has karaoke on Tuesday nights. They are open for lunch and after work, and closed on weekends. You can park for free in parking spaces in the back after 5:00, though you're unlikely to snag one, or you can park on the street in the front after 6:00. They validate parking in the parking structure located directly behind the building, so you’ll only pay $2. You can reserve a table in advance, but generally don't need to. On a Friday night, the place never got more than a third full.

If you've been to The Cellar, how was your experience? Leave a comment!

The Cellar
1880 Century Park East
Century City, CA 90067


Restaurant Review #135: Bamboo Cuisine, Sherman Oaks

Hot braised scallops

I normally order from Joie Luck Kitchen when I'm hanging out in the valley, but I think I might be able to do better. Since I was still full from my lunch at The Great Greek, it seemed like a good time to try an unfamiliar place: Bamboo Cuisine.

The takeout menu they mailed out is quite attractive, and probably the main thing that convinced me to order from them. It isn't set up quite the same way as other Chinese takeout menus though: an entire half of the menu is devoted to specials, which aren't divided by meat category. With so many specials, were they trying to warn me away from ordering anything else?

Chicken with tangerine sauce

It's not exactly that Bamboo Cuisine's food is bad; it's that it's overpriced and doesn't match the descriptions on the menu. My hot braised scallops were supposed to be sweet, spicy and gingery; they were only sweet. For $14.95, I was hoping for decent quality mollusks, but instead I got the chewy kind. Likewise, the chicken with tangerine sauce contained nary a trace of citrus and also couldn't justify its above average price. I will say that both dishes were heavy on the meat/seafood, so if you're the type who doesn't like veggies in their food, there is an upside. Of course, Joie Luck is the same way, so again, Bamboo loses. The one advantage Bamboo does have is that they are open an extra hour.

Zagat may think this is the best Chinese restaurant in the Valley, but I strongly disagree, and I haven't even tried the other options yet. Next time, I plan to try one of the restaurants recommended to me by my fellow hounds.

If you've been to Bamboo Cuisine, how was your experience? Leave a comment!

Bamboo Cuisine
14010 Ventura Blvd.
Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
Sun-Thur 11:30am-10:30pm
Fri-Sat 11:30am-11:00pm
$15 minimum, $2 delivery charge
Bamboo Cuisine Website (with menu)


Restaurant Review #134: The Great Greek, Studio City

The Great Greek is known for its festive ambience--at dinnertime, live music and dancing energize the place. But if quiet and calm is more your speed, visiting The Great Greek at lunchtime is the way to go. Either way, you'll hear "Opa!" over and over.

The menu features everything you'd expect to find at a Greek restaurant--hummus, pita, dolmas, schwarmas, and more--plus a few things you might not expect, like a flaming cheese plate and Greek soup.

For $14.95 at lunchtime (per person, with a 2 person minimum) you can enjoy a feast of 13 items that covers all parts of the menu. I was really in the mood for a schwarma, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to satisfy 13 curiosities. They offer a comparable meal at dinnertime--it costs a few dollars more, and I'm not sure if the items are the same.

You'll start off with a Greek salad of cucumbers, red onions, tomatoes, red and green peppers, kalamata olives, feta cheese, and romaine lettuce. Everything about this salad is perfect, except for the mealy pink tomatoes that no self-respecting tomato lover would eat. But those are easily avoided. The richly flavored olives are particularly good. The salad alone would constitute a meal for some, but 12 more dishes remain.

Five small plates of various dips arrive next. Tzatziki sauce, a yogurt sauce with cucumbers, was a hit with me, but probably won't win you over if you don't already like yogurt.

I've eaten more than my share of hummus. Hummus generally consists of just a few main ingredients: chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, salt, and maybe a bit of lemon juice and garlic. Every recipe uses a different balance of these basic ingredients though, so whether one recipe is better than the other is really a matter of personal taste. I wasn't a fan of this hummus, since I couldn't taste the tahini.

When I was in high school, one of my friends who often ate hummus for lunch told me that hummus was made with chickpeas, water, and cumin. I actually made hummus using this recipe--and ate it. As if that wasn't enough, I didn't think to use a food processor, so I made it in the blender. Dry, flavorless, chunky-style hummus. Mmmmmmm.

This dip was unfamiliar to me (and I can't remember the name--I should start taking notes!). It tasted a bit like cream cheese, or shrimp, or crackers, or paint. I hated it, but my friend loved it. So don't take my word for it.

As you can tell, presentation is well-considered in every dish, especially with regard to color. I was particularly impressed by the rainbow confetti appearance of this dish. The dish means to showcase the large, flat, white beans and a thin, tomatoey sauce that covers them, but it also includes a whole lot of onion and bell pepper slices. I never understand why restaurants put raw onions in their dishes. Does anyone eat them? I enjoyed the beans and the sauce, mainly for their unfamiliar flavors, but you definitely have to like beans to like this dish. I only sort of like them.

Melitzanosalata, which seems to be the Greek name for baba ghanouj, is much like hummus but with eggplant instead of chickpeas and tahini. Personally, I've never liked the slimy texture of pureed eggplant--but here again, decide for yourself.

Kind of like tapas

The Great Greek makes a big deal about its pita bread, which is flown in from Chicago. Why they need to fly it halfway across the country, and how they keep it so incredibly fresh while they do it, is beyond me, but it is darn good--thin, fluffy, buttery, warm goodness.

Moussaka, according to the Great Greek, is the national dish of Greece. If that is the case, I feel sorry for the Greeks. According to some recipes I found online, this dish can contain one or more spices that an American might associate with pumpkin pie, like cinnamon and allspice. Indeed, when I first tasted this moussaka, I likened it to a meaty version of the Thanksgiving dessert. As I ate more, I thought it tasted like turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie rolled into one. The mushy, casserole-like consistency only added to my impression.

Maybe I'm crazy, since the dish is supposed to contain things like eggplant, tomatoes, and ground beef or lamb--none of which have ever found their way to my Thanksgiving table.

If you've ever had dolmas before and wondered what the hell you were eating and why, give them a second chance. Grocery store dolmas tend to be cold and have some sort of dull rice filling wrapped in tasteless leaves. The Great Greek's dolmas have a ground meat filling, a surprisingly pleasant tangy flavor, and are served warm. These were the first dolmas I enjoyed eating.

Fried calamari can only get so exciting, especially when there's no interesting dipping sauce, just a lemon wedge. The calamari were tender, though not as tender as La Curva's, but the breading was much too salty.

This was another lackluster dish. It reminded us of Hamburger Helper.

The meatballs, though unappetizing in appearance, were tasty because of an interesting combination of spices.

The spanakopita tasted more like cheese than spinach, which was more than fine with me. The only other version of this dish that I've tried is the frozen one from Trader Joe's, and I'm pleased to say that this restaurant version was indeed better. The only downside here was that the bottom layer of phyllo got soggy quickly.

Greek food is salty, so save room for a sweet dessert. We had the galaktobouriko, a sweet custard sandwiched between two layers of phyllo dough. The outside, with the phyllo, pistachios, and honey, tasted like baklava--but since it was just on the outside, it wasn't sickeningly sweet. The custard was soft and not too sweet. My only complaint is that the dessert wasn't thoroughly heated, and it was just a little warm in some spots while still being cool in others.

Greek coffee, like middle eastern coffees, is incredibly intense. It's made from coffee beans ground to a fine powder and it's unfiltered, meaning that the bottom third of the cup is filled with undrinkable coffee sludge. The coffee came with a supersweet piece of rose-flavored soft candy that was just like Turkish delight, though it had a different name.

The indoor patio is well-insultated from the noise of Ventura Boulevard, and much brighter than the main dining room at lunchtime.

The service was friendly, polite, and consistent. They were happy to box up our many leftovers. We had two different servers over the course of our meal.

During the day, you can park for free on nearby residential streets for up to two hours. We didn't have any trouble finding a good spot.

If you've been to The Great Greek, how was your experience? Leave a comment!

The Great Greek
13362 Ventura Blvd
Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
11:30am-11:00pm daily
Great Greek Menu


Restaurant Review #133: La Curva, East LA - CLOSED

Chicken in cream sauce with onions

La Curva is a very famous family chain in El Salvador, and there's also a location in East LA. I know some of you may wary of visiting East LA, but don't be-- the restaurant is located on the corner of a bustling street, and at least during the day, when I went, everything was perfectly safe.

This was my first experience with food from El Salvador. The dishes on the menu definitely had similarities with foods from other Spanish-speaking countries, but you won't find any tacos, enchiladas, tortas, or fajitas here.

La Curva is a seafood restaurant, serving mostly shellfish--fortunately though, even those of you who are allergic to shellfish can find safe items like calamari, chicken, or beef. If you're really allergic though, you should probably avoid this restaurant, just to be safe.

The first of three dishes we tried was the chicken in cream sauce with onions. The sauce was flavorful, but on the salty side--possibly too salty for anyone who hasn't eaten a lot of Spanish food. The chicken came on the bone, which we weren't expecting, so the actual portion of edible meat was pretty small--strange, considering that chicken isn't an expensive item and the restaurant generally seems generous with their portions. Also, we were expecting the onions to be thoroughly cooked into the sauce, rather than piles of still crunchy onions on top (they do this at Versailles, too).

The plates are enormous!

Most entrees at La Curva are under $10, but the plates are at least twice as big as an ordinary plate, giving you serious bang for your buck. Everything comes with soft, fluffy rice and ordinary refried beans, plus a bit of guacamole and pico de gallo.

To drink, we all had horchata that was good enough for seconds and thirds. Horchata is a sweet drink made from rice with a hint of cinnamon. They also have a typical selection of aguas frescas, or fruit flavored waters: tamarindo (tamarind), jamaica (hibiscus), and a couple of others. I also tried the tamarindo, and was surprised at how concentrated it was--I'm used to these drinks being incredibly watered down. It was also much sweeter and a bit thicker than I'm used to--tamarind, by itself, is mouth-puckeringly sour. La Curva's tamarind drink was more like a nectar. Come to think of it, maybe it was!

Carne Asada

My friend ordered the carne asada, a long, thin piece of grilled beef. He liked it a lot. It had a nice marinated flavor, but I thought the meat was a little chewy.

Calamares al ajillo

My plate of calamares al ajillo, or calamari sauteed with garlic, was the best calamari I've ever had. If you've ever thought of calamari as rubbery, La Curva will change your mind. The calamari were tender, and as the name suggests, there was plenty of garlic--but not so much that I could taste it for the next two days. Surprisingly, this dish also reheated well.

One small part of the enormous dining room

All of the staff that we interacted with--we had three different waitresses over the course of our meal--spoke very little English. Fortunately, I'm bilingual, so it was fun for me. Don't be intimidated if you don't speak Spanish, though--the menu is bilingual, and pointing, gesturing, and smiling will get you almost anything you need in a restaurant.

You can park for free in the lot behind the restaurant, but if you have a larger vehicle, it will be a tight fit--the aisles are very narrow. The restaurant sometimes has live entertainment, but they were just starting to set up for it when we were ending our late lunch around 3:00. It was pretty quiet on an early Sunday afternoon, but I have a feeling it's quiet loud and festive at other times--so call ahead if you want to find out what you're in for.

If you've been to La Curva, how was your experience? Leave a comment!

La Curva
4901 Whittier Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90022
Mon-Thur 10am-9pm
Fri,Sat 9am-10pm
Sun 9am-9pm
La Curva Menu


Choosing Restaurants in Unfamiliar Places

How do you pick a restaurant when you're in an unfamiliar city (or in the case of a mammoth city like LA, an unfamiliar part of town)?

First of all, ignore the guidebooks. Why? Pick up any guidebook with a Los Angeles section and look at its restaurant suggestions. If a place with food as bad as Toi's is considered one of LA's most exciting dining scenes, then the suggestions are very misguided.

Even a Zagat guide is not that useful--there are so many gems that it misses completely, while listing places like the Cheesecake Factory that are already familiar to most people. Take Sawtelle, for example: the only places mentioned in Zagat are Asahi and Orris. While those are two of my favorite restaurants on the strip, they are by no means the only ones worth mentioning.

When I'm somewhere new, I like to walk into several restaurants, read the menu, and hang around long enough to get a feel for the vibe. Usually, your instincts will give you an answer pretty quickly, without you even having to make a conscious decision. But if you want a little more guidance, here are a few things to pay attention to:

-How does the host or hostess treat you when you ask for a menu to look over? If they're too busy or too stuck up to so much as offer a smile, you're probably not in for a good experience.

-How crowded is it? An empty restaurant is never a good sign. If you're eating at an off-peak time like 3pm, keep in mind that it can be harder to use this criterion.

-Are a large number of the restaurant's patrons of the same ethnicity as the food being served? If so, that's usually a good indication of the food's authenticity. Food doesn't have to be authentic to be good, but when you have no other information to go on, it doesn't hurt to place a lot of weight on this characteristic.

If you follow these simple guidelines, it's hard to go wrong.

Do you have any tips for finding good restaurants in unfamiliar places? Leave a comment!


Restaurant Review #132: Empanada's Place, Culver City

The first time I ever had empanadas was in a Spanish class I took in my freshman year of college. On the last day of class, my Argentinean professor was going to bring us empanadas. She gave us three choices: chicken, beef, or membrillo. Most people ordered one or two; I ordered all three. My classmates seemed to think this was quite funny--to this day, I have no idea why. Little did they (or I) know back then that my obsession with trying new foods would only get stronger with time. It's one of those moments that I look back on now and can see clearly that being a food critic is what I was meant to do.

Empanada's Place is bright and airy, with white walls, white lace tablecloths, large windows, high ceilings, fresh flowers on the tables, and large potted trees. Framed photographs and posters celebrate Argentinean tango, and a large display of yellow and red bags of yerba mate (a smoky flavored caffeinated tea native to and popular in much of South America) entertain the eyes while you wait for your food. At around 1:30 on a sunny Saturday afternoon, most of the ten or so tables are empty. The restaurant feels homey and serene, making me wish that I had brought a book with me and hadn't ordered my food to go.

Once your empanadas arrive, you won't need any other entertainment. The bubbly-skinned dough is crisp on the outside, soft and thick on the inside, melding with the ingredients of your choice: cheese and onion, ricotta and mushrooms, ground beef, egg and raisin. For once, the vegetarian side of the menu is as long as the meat-eater side.

Cheese and onion and criolla empanadas

I enjoyed all three of my choices. The onions in the cheese and onion empanada are soft enough to be unoffensive. The criolla filling reminded me of chili--ground beef in a greasy red sauce--but sweeter. The raisins were was a mystery, though: I only counted one in the entire empanada. The ricotta and mushroom was probably my favorite, but I'll probably try all new flavors next time. If you pay attention, you'll notice that the edges of each empanada look different--probably so the restaurant staff can tell them apart. It's a nice detail that lends a handmade touch to the food.

Ricotta and mushroom empanada, far right

Empanadas are only $2.75 each, so you can try as many as you want without breaking the bank. And they even have a parking lot! The lot is off of Sawtelle, and looks like apartment parking, but it really is for the nearby businesses.

If you've been to Empanada's Place, how was your experience? Leave a comment!

Empanada's Place
3811 Sawtelle Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90066
Empanada's Place Menu


Restaurant Review #131: Mao's Kitchen, Venice

Peace not war wonton soup

Mao's is an incredibly popular Chinese restaurant. Granted, there aren't many Chinese restaurants in the area, and most of them are bad, but even so, Mao's is very good, and it's healthy, too, with not a trace of MSG.

Late in the day, the sun can really get in your eyes

It took me a while to warm up to Mao's, because my first couple of experiences with them were less than exciting. I tried the Singapore noodles, which were bland. So was a veggie and tofu dish I tried. Everything else I have tried, however, has been very good. If you're used to gooey, sugary sauces and salty, oily soups, Mao's can be a pleasant change of pace. Though Mao's does not surprise my tastebuds with something new and exciting or very intense, their food is healthy, cheap, generously portioned, tasty, and deliverable.

Orange ginger chicken

One of my favorites is the Peace Not War soup, which is a chicken wonton soup in a chicken broth. Many of Mao's dishes have communist-themed names. The soup comes in a huge bowl, making it a great appetizer for two or meal for one. The veggies are fresh and crisp and the wontons are delectable, though the wonton skins are on the thick side.

The orange ginger chicken is neither too orangey nor too gingery and has just the right amount of sauce. In spite of all their healthy propaganda, Mao's serves up a whole plate full of just meat. I know I need my veggies, but as a child I saw veggies as a cheap filler in Chinese dishes, and I have never really been able to change my mind on this point. Another high point is that Mao's uses high quality white meat (high enough quality that I never ran across a chunk of what the heck is that? in my meat).

Mao's also has vegetarian and vegan options--in any dish, you can request vegan broth in your soup and tofu instead of meat or seafood (though I think some dishes have inherent limitations).

I also had a dollar salad, which was the best dollar I have spent in a long time. This salad is a simple bowl of romaine lettuce, shredded carrot, and cucumber in a light, sweet not-too-vineagary vinagrette.

For dessert, there's just one option: the chocolate pineapple. This dish consists of an innovatively sliced half pineapple with a pot of wine-laced chocolate fondue. The fondue was predictably good, and the pineapple fresh and ripe. My favorite part of the dish, however, was the red candied ginger meant to be part of the garnish. Yum.

Mao's doesn't serve any alcohol, but they seem to have an unofficial BYOB policy--bring your own cheap wine and corkscrew, and Mao's will supply tea cups.

The atmosphere is crowded and super-casual: flip flops and t-shirts abound. Wooden tables are tightly packed with happy locals. Some of the tables are long, family-style tables which can leave you dining with strangers at busy times. Even the smaller tables are awfully close together. I'd recommend getting your food delivered or doing takeout unless you like a loud, chaotic atmosphere with poor service.

The service leaves a lot to be desired, as none of the servers seem to care that you're there. Sometimes the food takes forever. On my last visit, I ordered the homemade ginger ale. I sent the first one back because it tasted like Sprite. When I had it remade, it tasted like dirty soda (and upon observation, it was indeed made with Sprite). Definitely skip this drink. While our server did volunteer to re-make the drinks, he didn't really seem to care if we were satisfied with them in the end. I don't like to make a scene, but I was tempted to cross the item out on the final bill and not pay for it. If you've ever had the fresh ginger ale at Gingergrass, you'll know why the stuff they serve at Mao's is such a sin.

Parking is not a joy in this area. I don't have any secret parking tips. There is no parking lot, and street parking is a nightmare. I wish you the best of luck.

If you've been to Mao's Kitchen, how was your experience? Leave a comment!

Eat early and get your choice of tables

Maos Kitchen
1512 Pacific Ave
Venice, CA 90291
Sun-Thur 11:30am-10:30pm
Fri, Sat 11:30am-3am
Mao's Kitchen Website (menu available)