Almonds, olives, butter and fleur de sel (an expensive French sea salt)
Few food lovers in LA haven't heard of Lucques, run by Suzanne Goin (recent winner of two James Beard awards--a massive honor in the culinary universe) and Caroline Styne. Lucques (pronounced "Luke") serves what I refer to as "upscale restaurant food." In Los Angeles, that often means Cal-Italian or in this case, Cal-Mediterranean.
Higher-end meals aren't in my usual budget, but I had to see what all the hype was about. The nice thing is that if you want to try Lucques but have limited funds, you can order just an entree and get out the door for around $30 (and be full, too), or you can try the famed Sunday Suppers and get a three-course prix fixe menu for $40. You could also visit at lunchtime, when all the entrees are under $20. I like it when a restaurant of Lucques' caliber makes itself accessible to many people.
We made reservations for a prime dinner slot on a weekend. The reservation process was very simple, and the person we talked to on the phone was friendly--some reservation processes can leave you feeling cold (and perhaps questioning your choice of restaurant). Our seating went smoothly, and they even remembered to give us the quiet table that we had requested in advance. The main dining room seemed pretty noisy, so I was happy to be sitting on the other side, facing the patio.
The outdoor patio looked lovely--it's a real patio with high walls, small trees, and vining plants--not one of those tent setups that you'll find at places like Matsuhisa. I don't really care for eating outside because the chairs are usually uncomfortable and it's often noisy, but for those who like outdoor dining, the patio at Lucques is great. It also gives you a little more space, since all of the tables are separate. Indoors, you'll have to sit about a foot away from your neighbors and pray that they don't drink too much wine.
We started off with a glass of champagne and a viogner. There are a fair number of wines by the glass, but many of them are out of my usual $10-and-under price range so I found myself picking drinks by price rather than by type. There were only two champagnes, for example--the one I ordered was around $10, and the other was around $25. Fortunately, there is a little more variety in the rest of the wine list.
To start, you'll get a basket of high quality bread and a plate of almonds and olives with sides of fancy salt and butter. Normally I don't like nuts, but these moist, flavorful almonds packed an addictive, salty punch. Given that the almonds were already salted, I wasn't sure what the dish of salt was for (but we ate enough nuts to merit a second dish, and in that dish, the almonds were salt-free, so the salt dish made more sense). The butter was incredible and tasted homemade: creamy, flavorful, and with a perfect hint of salt at the end. I had to restrain myself from eating too much of it straight. It also went wonderfully with the sourdough bread.
Hidden under the almonds are green luques olives that, like the almonds, are coated in oil. The olives themselves taste stunningly like olive oil, which means that they're pretty mild as far as olives go. Lucques olives are known for having flavors of almonds, hence Goin's pairing. Best of all, you can eat all you want, because seconds are free!
Seared Niman Ranch beef
For an appetizer, we ordered the seared Niman Ranch beef with soy aioli, green garlic, mizuna, and garlic chips. It's great to see a chef using meat that is raised humanely, sustainably, and without the use of hormones--I'd rather give my money to a restaurant that supports the same ideals I do. This was my first experience with eating practically raw beef. I've always been repulsed by the idea, which doesn't quite make sense since I have no problems eating sushi--of course, I used to be repulsed by that, too. Eating raw meat turned out to be much like eating raw fish. The texture isn't quite the same, but it isn't so different, either--for meat to be eaten this rare, it has to be of exceptional quality. The meat was rich and buttery, but I didn't like the way it was served. Why does an already rich meat need to be served with a rich sauce like aioli? The meat didn't need any sauce to enhance it, and the result was much too heavy. The cut greens were top-notch, but I didn't think their texture was a good match for the meat--when I ate both at the same time, it made my mouth cringe. I didn't notice the green garlic, but the flavor of the garlic chips was a nice complement--their pungency and crisp texture were a perfect contrast to the smooth, creamy meat. I'm glad I had the rare beef experience, but I wouldn't order this dish again.
Ricotta gnocchi with asparagus, english peas, pea shoots and carrot broth
The carrot broth made this dish unique and had me practically licking the plate. Without the broth, (which was thicker and creamier than you'd expect) it would have been just another gnocchi dish, not particularly worthy of being on Lucques' menu. The presentation seemed a little sloppy--not what I would expect from such a highly regarded restaurant. The gnocchi were very light, and having the vegetables mixed in with the pasta kept the dish from being heavy, though it was still very filling. I wasn't sure where the ricotta was--was it in the gnocchi? Of course, ricotta is not the most flavorful of cheeses--it's most easily distinguished by its grainy consistency.
Chorizo stuffed chicken with romesco, rapini, golden raisins and almond aïoli
I'm usually not a fan of chicken, but this chicken was tender, juicy, and flawless. It tasted best when I managed to get a little of each ingredient all in one bite. The aioli made more sense here, since chicken isn't rich on its own.
One problem I have with restaurants like Lucques is that I often don't understand a third of the menu. What is romesco? What is rapini? If only I had Wikipedia by my side at restaurants!
Fresh mint tea
I'd never had fresh mint tea before. I didn't think the freshness would make that much of a difference, but wow! The flavor was so much more sweet and crisp than the flavor of dried mint tea. The misshapen brown sugar cubes served on the side were good enough to eat straight, and made the tea even better. There are other fresh herb flavors as well, like lavender and chamomile. If tea isn't your thing, you can order a port, madeira, coffee, or dessert wine.
Summer berry tart
I was so full that the only dessert I thought I could handle was the summer berry tart. I was incredibly impressed--each and every berry was perfect. The sauce drizzled on the plate thing has gotten kind of old if you ask me, especially because it so often looks sloppy, but it was a good way to visually tie all the stray berries together. The tart itself was also a pleasant surprise. Rather than a pie crust-like shell, the shell was thin, crisp, and sugary. Despite my fullness, I ate every bite. The only flaw was that the dessert had a few almonds on top, which I thought was overkill after the appetizer almonds and the almonds on the chicken.
Chocolate cream and hazelnuts with lady fingers and espresso
The chocolate cream dessert was really three layers of cream of varying thicknesses and it was incredible. It came with a deliciously thick espresso, too. I got to try ladyfingers for the first time--these are the cookies of tiramisu fame. On their own, the have a pleasantly light and spongy texture, but they don't taste like much. I dipped mine in the espresso. Yum. The hazelnuts weren't too noticeable, which is fine with me because I generally don't care for nuts. Most desserts are $10 (and worth it).
I love this bathroom!
I just love it when the bathroom is really a part of the restaurant. A strong citrus-scented candle made the room smell great and the decor was so serene. If you're seated in a noisy area, a few minutes of quiet can be very refreshing. The bathroom was so realxing that if there were a place to sit besides the toilet, I would have wanted to kick back and read a book! There are actual towels to dry your hands with, too. I always wonder if cloth towels are more environmentally friendly than paper towels. On one hand, you're saving trees. On the other hand, all the bleach that surely goes into washing the towels over and over, not to mention the bleach that was used on the cotton when the towels were made, isn't exactly good for the earth. Yes, dining out is full of political issues.
Overall, I enjoyed my experience at Lucques. I will order different dishes on my next visit, or maybe even go late and try the bar menu and cocktails. The service was a little slow and spotty at times, but since I like to take my sweet time over a good meal, it wasn't a significant problem. Admittedly, I was probably a little hard on the food because I expected it to live up to its great reputation. But despite a few shortcomings, I really enjoyed my meal. There is a certain amount of comfort that comes from eating at a restaurant like Lucques, where even before you arrive you can feel confident that you're in for a great evening.
8474 Melrose Ave
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Lunch noon-2:30pm Tue-Sat
Dinner 6pm-10pm Mon-Tue; 6pm-11pm Wed-Sat
Sunday Supper 5-10pm
Bar menu 9:30-10:00pm Mon-Tue
Valet parking, $4.50, or try your luck with street parking
Lucques' website (with menu)
Mole coloradito with chicken breast
Now that I've been living in Los Angeles for a while, I've started wondering why it's taken me so long to dive into the Mexican food scene. For christ's sake, I speak Spanish. I can comfortably pronounce everything on any menu. I love tortas de pollo and I've only eaten one the entire time I've lived here.
But a lot of times I'm just not in the mood for Mexican. It's so heavy and I don't like that overly full feeling. But something about summer makes me want to eat a big plate of anything that involves a corn tortilla.
I recently went to Guelaguetza and didn't quite understand all the fuss about Oaxacan food, so I wanted to try another restaurant's rendition. I dined alone, which I rarely do. I am not one of those people who is afraid to dine alone, see a movie alone, or go shopping alone, but in addition to the fun of sharing a meal (and swiping bites of other people's food), it can be really awkward to take photos when you're by yourself. There's no pretending that you're taking a picture of your friend sitting across the table. You can't keep up the casual chat to distract nearby tables from what you're really doing. I don't like attention and obsessively photographing everything I eat five times can draw some stares (and make me feel like a crazy tourist). But I love the photos. The photos are my favorite part.
The decor at Monte Alban cracks me up. You know those faux eroding walls with the exposed brick at Guelaguetza? Monte Alban does the same thing, except their bricks are painted onto the wall. The restaurant is huge, with two separate dining rooms, and a little dark and cave-like, relying mostly on the natural light streaming in through the front windows. The tables are decorated with traditional Mexican blankets, and the ceiling tiles are painted light blue with little wisps of clouds. At a very off-peak lunch time, there were plenty of patrons, all Spanish-speaking. That's always a good sign.
On my first visit, I tried the mole coloradito con pechuga de pollo (red mole with chicken breast) and an empanada amarillo (the empanada itself is not yellow, but rather the mole inside).
The chicken was a lot better than what I tried at Guelaguetza because it was moist. I loved the smokey, sweet mole and the flavorful rice (it looks like plain white rice, but tastes like it's been simmered with chicken broth). Make sure not to get any mole on your clothes because it may never come out. It will stain your fingers for a while, too!
Enchiladas de pollo con mole coloradito
On my second visit, I tried the chicken enchiladas with mole coloradito (you can also order them with mole negro) which were also very good, though they're not prepared the way you're probably used to eating enchiladas. The chicken is served on the side and on the bone, and the enchiladas themselves are just folded corn tortillas drenched in mole and topped with a bit of cheese.
Queso fundido con chorizo
The queso fundido became gooey when it cooled off, so it was difficult to eat as a dip except when it was piping hot. There also wasn't as much chorizo as I would have expected. The presentation was very nice, but I probably wouldn't order it again.
Oaxacan string cheese, or quesillo, has a fresh, briney taste and a chewy texture. It comes on dishes like clayudas, or you can order it on the side.
Empanada with mole amarillo and chicken breast
I didn't like the empanada at all--I thought the mole amarillo tasted like cleaning supplies. The mole verde had the same underlying flavor, but I was still able to eat it. My friend liked both though, so it's really a matter of taste. For me, the best part of the empanada was the crispy outside edges of the tortilla. The tortilla tasted exactly like an authentic Mexican tortilla and sent me straight back to the time I spent living with a host family and eating many strange and occasionally wonderful meals.
All of the moles were quite spicy--finally, a dish that wasn't prepared with my whiteness in mind! The salsa that accompanied the thick, crispy tortilla chips had a nice kick, too.
I also enjoyed an horchata, which was much lighter on the nuts and canteloupe than Guelaguetza's version, and blessedly free of that hot pink cough syrup, but still heavy on the cinnamon. Both of my waitresses were speedy, sweet, and smiley and didn't laugh when I couldn't get "coloradito" off my tongue. When you almost never use your Spanish, it gets a little rusty. By the way, Oaxaca is pronounced "wah-HAH-kah."
I think part of the hype surrounding Oaxacan food is that it's not what you expect when you think of Mexican food. We're so used to eating cheese enchiladas and refried beans that to find out that there is a regional Mexican cuisine involving what are essentially curries is mind-blowing. Oaxacan food is like Indian-Japanese-Mexican fusion, without the pretense and the screwups. And that's why it's so damn good.
Oh, and the cost? Around $20 for two dishes, including tax and tip.
11927 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Monte Alban Menu
Larb-ground meat tossed in lime vinaigrette mixed with ground toasted rice
Driving down Sherman Way, you're unlikely to be enticed to stop at Swan Thai, located across the street from the 99 cent store in a creamy orange strip mall where the mostly empty parking lot is strewn with trash. Swan Thai may do most of its business through delivery and takeout, because the food is very good, but at prime lunch time on a weekend only two tables were occupied.
The atmosphere feels a little grungy--it's partly that the parking lot gives off an icky vibe before you've even entered the restaurant. If you're feeling skeptical, check out the menu taped to the window--the huge variety of dishes and the great prices will convince you. Inside, you'll find red vinyl booths, embroidered gauzy cream curtains, and dark green tablecloths topped with plexiglass. Fake wooden window panes with mirrors instead of glass decorate one wall. A strong but not particularly cold air conditioner rustles the curtains and the leaves on a small tree near the door as well as providing the only sound in the restaurant besides the clanking of dishes in the kitchen and the chatter of other diners. Replacing the stained ceiling tiles and flourescent lighting would do a lot for the atmosphere, but this is a low-budget place that's strictly about food.
It's been ages since I've had larb, a salad made of ground meat and a spicy lime juice dressing. Swan Thai has quite a few larb options: fish, duck, beef, pork, or chicken (duck and fish are more expensive). Even though I don't like pork, I like pork larb. If you don't like to eat raw onions, you'll have to do a bit of picking to get through this dish. I suspect that the unappetizing name (larb sounds a lot like lard) may be a turnoff for some, but if you can get past it, you're in for a treat.
Traditional fish cakes blended with red Thai curry paste and green beans
Most fish cakes taste about the same to me (with the exception of Krua Thai's, which are loaded with green chiles). These were predictably good. The only thing that was notable about them was that they were cut into smaller pieces than usual.
Pad kee mao - stir fried noodles with onions, bell pepper and mint leaves in spicy sauce
Swan Thai's rendition of pad kee mao has plenty of thick, chewy noodles and flavorful beef. A few more peppers and mint leaves might be good, but for those who don't like their noodles contaminated with veggies, this dish is a great bet. I asked for medium spiciness, but what I got wasn't spicy at all (they did put some chiles and Sriracha on the side that I could mix in). I liked that it wasn't too greasy, unlike Krua Thai's version, but I liked the spiciness and the texture of the beef at Krua better.
Almost everything on the menu is either $6 or $7, with the most expensive item coming in at a mere $12. Everything you see here cost me just $21, and I have several days' worth of leftovers. To save even more money, take this tip from a fellow foodie on Chowhound: ask for the $2 menu.
The service was friendly, the food was fast, and even though I got my food to go, it was still presented nicely when I opened the takeout containers. Wow!
I suspect that there may be a link between Swan Thai and Sri Siam because their food seems quite similar and they have both modified their business cards to cover up the "closed Wednesdays." Does anyone know?
What are your favorite dishes at Swan Thai? Leave a comment! I'll definitely be back and I'd love recommendations.
Swan Thai Restaurant
12728 Sherman Way (just east of Coldwater Canyon)
North Hollywood, CA 91605
Swan Thai Hours 10:30am-10pm daily
Free delivery within 4 miles, $10 minimum
Saladang is so popular that they actually opened up a second enormous restaurant next door, Saladang Song. On a Saturday night, both places were packed. There was a 40 minute wait at Saladang, so we hopped on over to Saladang Song ("song" means "two" in Thai, and while we're at it, "saladang" means. . .hmm, I can't find anything. Does anyone know?). I'm not sure why there were so many folks waiting at Saladang when there was no wait next door. I wonder if there's a difference in the food?
Dusk on the patio
The outdoor patio at Saladang Song, which seems to be where most of the tables are, is incredible! It's surrounded by a 30 foot wall made of thin concrete pillars and shiny silver brushed steel panels with cool designs cut out of them. As an added bonus, the heating poles sort of match the wall. You'll feel like you're dining in a fortress.
I started my meal with the taro cake appetizer--it was really hard to choose amongst corn cakes, fish cakes, and taro cakes, but I decided to go with something I hadn't tried before. Taro is always on the dry side, and unfortunately these taro cakes were no exception. The clear sauce that accompanied them had only a hint of sugary, vinegary flavor that didn't add much to the cakes in terms of either flavor or moisture. The texture was a little strange because the edges of the cakes had a sort of wrapper that was on the tough and chewy side. The texture of the cake itself was a nice contrast of small chunks of taro and smoothly blended bits. The so-called cucumber salad that accompanied it was nothing more than decorative slices of cucumber in a small ramekin. At least the presentation was nice, and I saved half to eat as leftovers. Taro is hard to do well. It needs to be moistened up somehow so it loses that stuck-in-your-throat dryness--it's even drier than a baked potato.
In case you didn't know, taro is a large, thick root vegetable. It's white with purple flecks and has a sweet flavor. You'll find purple desserts like ice cream and smoothies that are taro flavored. Taro strips are also commonly dipped in batter and deep fried. You can also buy taro chips at organic grocery stores and co-ops.
Saladang Song's pad Thai is unlike any other pad Thai I've had. The noodles are wrapped in egg. It's much like an omelet, but the noodles aren't mixed in with the egg-they're pretty much separate from it. I liked the unique approach to pad Thai, but I didn't really like the dish--with all the egg, plus the carrots and broccoli that were mixed into the noodles, the noodles themselves were in short supply, and the noodles are usually my favorite part. These noodles were a little mushy, though--putting cooked noodles into a moist, steamy egg wrapper probably keeps cooking them long after they've left the stove, and that didn't seem to be taken into consideration.
The calamari were fried in a very light and crispy but greasy batter. Using this kind of batter instead of the thick, peppery kind was a good match for the dipping sauces. I seem to be on a fried calamari kick lately, and I've found that a good dipping sauce can make this common dish a little more exciting. Also, I've noticed that more restaurants seem to err on the side of batter that is too salty rather than not salty enough. The batter was just right here, and I enjoyed the sweet and sour sauces with a kick that were served on the side.
The service was great. Our waitress told us about several specials, including one that they only make once a year--it was a crab dish, which I can't eat, so that went in one ear and out the other. She seemed very passionate about the food. When my friend ordered a chicken dish, she said, "it's very plain, is that okay?" which it was, but it was great of her to ask. Saladang has a varied menu that includes a few dishes that are more likely to appeal to someone in your group who isn't a fan of Thai food. Our food arrived with stunning speed--it couldn't all have been made to order, but it was hot and seemed fresh, and the restaurant was packed so I knew it probably wasn't lounging around under heat lamps.
The chicken was very plain, as promised, but the dipping sauce was good enough to eat straight, and we licked the bowl clean.
Mango sticky rice
The mango sticky rice was the best I've ever had--I just can't get enough of this warm, gooey, toothsome, sugary, salty, juicy treat. The extra sauce on top is what makes Saladang's extra good.
Saladang Song's food is not the best Thai food I've ever had--I like the hole in the wall places in North Hollywood better. The atmosphere at Saladang Song beats out all of those places though, and their prices are surprisingly competitive (most entrees are $8-12, and appetizers are $6-9), making it a better choice for a date or a nice evening out.
Saladang Song also serves breakfast--I've never had Thai breakfast food before, and it sounds like an interesting brunch alternative!
Do you like the food at Saladang Song is better than I did? Leave a comment!
383 South Fair Oaks
Pasadena, CA 91105
Fri, Sat 7:00am-10:00pm
Green papaya salad, mixed with tomato, chili and lime juice (and normally, dried shrimp)
You would probably never go to Sri Siam Cafe unlesss someone recommended it to you or you have a great knack for picking out diamonds in the rough. Its location in your average run-down Valley strip mall doesn't conjure images of great dining. But to overlook Sri Siam, or any other restaurants of its ilk, would be a huge mistake. The food is excellent, the service is friendly and fast, and you can't beat the prices: most dishes are just $6-8. As if that weren't enough, there is plenty of free parking in the lot right out front and mango sticky rice for dessert.
This isn't necessarily a restaurant you'll want to dine in at, and it's definitely not a place you'd want to take a date, but this is, after all, a hole in the wall. The flooring is the same low-grade tile found in every public school hallway in America and the chairs are the same metal tubing and fabric chairs that seem to be standard in most Thai and Chinese restaurants, yet the purple tablecloths and happy patrons give the place a pleasant feel. Just don't make eye contact with the seven miniature baby dolls hanging from a high shelf or the owl figurine collection and you'll be fine. Stare at the homemade photographs of menu items instead. A 14" TV mounted on the wall broadcasts a Thai station, but it's so quiet you'll barely notice it.
I usually don't order the papaya salad anywhere that puts dried shrimp in it (which is most places), but the waitress spoke English clearly so I went for it and asked for no shrimp. Most green papaya salads I've tasted have been sweet, so I was surprised when this one was mostly salty and spicy. Without the sweetness, it tastes more like a salad and less like the most amazing concoction on earth. I still liked it, but I like the sweet versions better. I love the texture of green papaya--it's chewy like a carrot, but very moist. And as requested, there were no dried shrimp to be found.
No ketchup here! Of the numerous times I ate pad Thai in the midwest, I never had a ketchupy pad Thai until I moved to Los Angeles--surprise! I've grown to enjoy the ketchup versions, but I don't think ketchup is any substitute for tamarind. Tamarind has an intensely tangy and sour flavor all its own, that really can't be replicated by anything, including vinegar and tomatoes. I guess ketchup isn't the worst idea for a substitute though, and plenty of people seem to like it.
Interestingly, pad Thai doesn't overtly have any of tamarind's sour or tangy properties, but if you tried to cook pad Thai without it, you'd notice the difference (and if you use too much, it's utterly disgusting--kitchen experiment gone wrong speaking from experience here). I was thrilled to eat Sri Siam's mildly sweet, pleasantly greasy, not overly-sauced pad Thai with plenty of al dente noodles unadulterated by obnoxiously healthy add-ins like carrots and broccoli. Personally, I never mix in the sprouts, cabbage, or other sides--I like to eat just the noodles with the ground peanuts on top. Yum.
Rad nah - rice noodles topped with gravy, Chinese broccoli and meat
This dish didn't look too appetizing when I opened up the container, but it was surprisingly fantastic. The noodles came in a separate container, to prevent them from getting soggy--a smart, thoughtful move. The noodles were a bit sweet, as if they'd been fried with a bit of palm sugar, while the sauce was salty. The beef, in spite of being a little pale, didn't have that thin consistency and flat flavor that I was expecting--it had bite. Most surprising was the Chinese broccoli, which looked like spinach, but didn't taste like it. It had a tangy flavor and a nice crunch--it wasn't soggy like spinach tends to get. And it definitely wasn't like American broccoli--Chinese broccoli is a member of the mustard family like American broccoli, but it tastes more like kale and has leaves rather than florets.
I was incredibly happy with my experience with Sri Siam. All of the dishes were great, and the total for three dishes? $19! I can't wait to dig into the leftovers.
Sri Siam Cafe
12843 Vanowen St.
North Hollywood, CA 91605
Free delivery within area with $15 minimum
Four cheese penne
Palomino is a big restaurant. I was raised on big restaurants--Macaroni Grill, Chili's, P.F. Changs, Cheesecake Factory, and the like. Unlike some food snobs (and by the way, "foodie" does not mean "food snob"), I don't have anything against these restaurants--I actually like a lot of their food (just don't get me started on how the buffalo chicken salad at Chili's tastes like it was grown in a test tube). To be honest, I'm not quite sure why so many people seem to detest big restaurants. Maybe one of you will enlighten me. Is it that they're the Barnes and Nobles of the restaurant world? Because I'll agree with you there. I like Barnes and Noble just fine, but I don't want them taking over the universe. If The Cheesecake Factory were to put Blue Marlin or Musha out of business, you can bet I'd be screaming. Another issue that comes to mind is that small towns across America have been pitifully homogenized by chains. But that's a diatribe for another blog.
As far as I can tell, Palomino is a big restaurant. The physical space is enormous (okay, enormous compared to all those holes in the wall on Sawtelle that I frequent), the ceilings are high, the windows are huge, the plates are a foot in diameter, and the same company that owns Palomino (Restaurants Unlimited) also owns a restaurant called Skates on the Bay in Berkeley (which I liked a lot) and a bunch of other restaurants that I've never heard of in major cities all across the country.
Grilled asparagus salad
I started with the grilled asparagus salad. All of the flavors of the salad worked together beautifully--except for the asparagus. The bits of diced tomato, crispy proscuitto, goat cheese, lettuce, and tangy dressing were excellent. The asparagus would have been better if it were served warm and had some sort of flavor aside from grill flavor. I like my asparagus with olive oil and kosher salt.
Asiago encrusted tilapia
I always get sort of annoyed when a restaurant serves tilapia, better known as "the cheap fish" (unless you're in the south, where catfish wins that distinction). Go to any grocery store, any week, and the cheapest fish is always tilapia. Meanwhile, any restaurant is going to charge you an arm and a leg for it because it's seafood ("seafood" and "steak" are secret code words for "expensive"). Add to that tilapia's essential flavorlessness, and that it requires virtually no skill to cook, and you'll see why I don't get very excited when I see tilapia on the menu.
On the other hand, tilapia is so mild that anyone can like it, and it can be more interesting than chicken (or at least much more moist, and theoretically healthier). It's easy to pick flavors that go well with it, too--it's as simple as trying to match a flavor to french bread. For all of these reasons, tilapia is a logical choice for any menu, from a restaurant's perspective (except that it's seafood, which doesn't stay fresh for long).
So if I have so many gripes about tilapia, why did I order it? I just wasn't in a pasta mood. Pasta has been the cheap filler in my grocery lists for as long as I can remember, so when I'm away from home, it's the last thing I want to order. And the fish was, in fact, good. Big restaurants tend to serve consistently good food--that's one reason they don't bother me.
The tilapia came with uninspired sides of sauteed spinach and mashed potatoes. The mashed potatoes were so buttery that they were actually yellow--I couldn't eat them. While potatoes themselves are not the waistline killers that many people think they are, eating an entire stick of butter in one sitting will kill more than just your figure. There was nothing exciting about the spinach, and I don't know anyone who wants to eat almost a cup of cooked spinach in one sitting.
The rigatoni bolognese tasted like a pepperoni pizza--which was a good thing, though unexpected. I would have made the sauce more intense, but otherwise this dish was quite tasty. Palomino offers a lunch menu where you can order any combination of a half soup, half sandwich, half salad, or half pasta--including two half orders, which is what we did with the pasta. We also liked the four cheese penne, but it tasted like something I could have made at home (because I'm rather good in the kitchen).
Palomino is one of those places where your waitress will offer to grate fresh parmasean over your food--that's great, but I always wonder if restaurants have any idea how much cheese I actually put on top of my pasta when I'm at home. I can't bear the thought of my waitress grating cheese over my plate for 5 minutes straight--hell, even I wouldn't do that. That's what pre-grated cheese is for. Restaurants like Palomino and Macaroni Grill should abandon this ridiculous practice. It's all for show--no one ends up with more than a few silvers of cheese, which costs the restaurant almost nothing while trying to create the appearance of an upscale experience. If Palomino really cared about topping my pasta with grated parmasean, they'd give me a small bowl of it to add freely.
Offering fresh ground pepper, which Palomino also does, makes more sense--fresh ground pepper does taste better, and those huge grinders that the staff use give you a finer grind than a tabletop version would. And of course, no one wants five minutes' worth of ground pepper on their food. Does anyone else feel bad asking for both the cheese and the pepper though? I do. My waitress has enough things to worry about. The cooks should be the ones adding the pepper and cheese to my food--in the kitchen.
Our waitress was excellent--some of the best service I've had in a long time. She was geniunely friendly and smiled freely and often, and she refilled our strawberry lemonade before it was even gone. Another benefit of large chain restaurants like Palomino is that they tend to have well-trained, highly professional waitstaff. The host was friendly too, welcoming us warmly as we entered and thanking us as we left. Even though every other group in the restaurant probably had more money than we did, we weren't treated any differently. Most of Palomino's lunchtime patrons are from the Westwood business set, and the pace of the meal seemed to reflect that--it was neither too fast nor too slow, giving us ample time to talk.
If you've been to Palomino, how was your experience? Leave a comment!
10877 Wilshire Blvd (at Glendon)
Los Angeles, CA 90024
Palomino Menu (not quite accurate)
Coupon for $20 off your first dinner
(A helpful freebie I found. Foodie Universe is not affiliated with Palomino in any way. Do you really think they'd let me write all this stuff about them if I were?)
I first tried to go to Manpuku at about 6:30 on a Saturday night, and there was already a thirty minute wait! There were a couple of empty tables outside, but they're only for waiting--in order to barbecue your food, which is the whole point, you need to sit inside, where all the tables have built-in grills. It's better inside, anyway--you won't have to cringe every time the valet service backs an SUV into a space that's within inches of your chair.
Waiting. . .
If you want a reservation at Manpuku on a weekend night, make sure to call in advance--days in advance! Otherwise, you'll be waiting outside for close to 40 minutes. Fortunately, Volcano Tea is just a few doors down if your stomach is rumbling, and Manpuku is one of the few restaurants in the city that has places to sit down while you wait. The staff was very friendly and updated us occasionally on our wait time--it's nice when a place actually cares about keeping your business.
Salted beef tongue on the grill
Manpuku is a work-before-you-can-eat-it restaurant. I don't much enjoy cooking my own food in restaurants--it takes a long time, and it seems like the portions are always too small. Manpuku is no exception, but to eat their amazing beef, the effort might actually be worth it.
If you've ever been to a Korean barbecue restaurant, you'll probably feel pretty comfortable here. This is not Korean barbecue, however--it's Tokyo-style barbecue. The major difference? Manpuku's meat isn't marinated.
When you're ordering, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind. First of all, each plate of meat, though it may cost $10 or more, is not enough to feed one person. Make sure to order at least two plates per person.
Second, make sure to read the menu's instructions on how to cook the meat--and remember them. They instruct you to place the meat on the grill and watch for bubbles on the exposed side. When the bubbles form. . . well, now, this is where I got confused.
The menu says not to turn the meat over more than once--in other words, don't grill it a little on one side, a little on the other side, and then go back to the first side. But if you've ordered something that's covered in toppings on one side, you're not supposed to grill that side at all, and the menu doesn't explain that. It seems sort of obvious--if you turn it over, the toppings all get stuck to or fall into the grill. But on the other hand, we all know that when you cook meat, or grilled cheese, or pancakes, you cook both sides. So if the meat has no toppings, grill it once on each side, and if it has toppings, only put the topping-free side on the grill.
In theory, you shouldn't need to worry about cooking your meat to death here. Given that Manpuku serves raw beef (that is, they offer a plate of beef that you are supposed to eat uncooked), I have a feeling they serve only the highest quality meat--stuff that isn't likely to make you sick. Though the FDA means well in its internal temperature recommendations for cooking meat, if you actually cook meat to those temperatures, most of the time the results will be dry and flavorless.
The cucumber kimchi was not what I was expecting. Instead of spicy slices of cucumber, this kimchi was cut into wedges and tasted like rice vinegar. I prefer the Korean version--not only does it taste better, but Korean restaurants serve it as a free side dish. At Manpuku, only the water is free, and this little bowl costs around $3.
Salted beef tongue
I'd never had beef tongue before, and it didn't sound like something I'd like, but as is often the case, someone on Chowhound had raved about Manpuku's beef tongue, which convinced me to order it. The flavor was incredibly rich and wonderful--quite possibly the most flavorful meat that's ever crossed my lips. I couldn't get past the extra chewy texture of the meat, though. For tongue, it was probably on the tender side (I'm basing this assessment on the overall high quality of Manpuku's meat), but for the palette that's more accustomed to fajitas and burgers, tongue is chewy. If you think you can handle the texture though, you should definitely order this dish.
The skirt steak is a more familiar cut, and very tasty, though somewhat more difficult to cook due to its thickness. If you aren't familiar with the words for different cuts of meat, you will have a hard time deciphering the menu, so don't be afraid to ask your waiter for suggestions. Or, learn before you go (warning--mooing cow).
My first experience with bibimbap was underwhelming. The dish derived most of its flavor from the chili paste we added--by itself, it was just veggies and crunchy rice. The rice's crunchiness comes from its contact with the bottom and sides of the super-hot bowl it's served in.
The bibimbap came with a brothy, seaweedy sauce that barely added any flavor to the dish, so we weren't sure what the point of it was.
I was surprised at how nice the restaurant looked inside. I know by now not to judge a restaurant by its strip mall exterior, but it's still hard to associate a neon sign with a decent interior. The atmosphere is energetic and somewhat noisy, but not too noisy. Depending on where you're sitting, you might get warm from the grill, and with so many people cooking meat in such close proximity, the air can get a little smoky. The service was friendly, but not noteworthy.
Valet parking is free (of course, you'll want to tip), or you can try your luck at the meters along Sawtelle. You might also check out the underground lot across the street (you might end up paying if you park there, though--it depends on if the parking attendant is present, and the lot is technically only for that minimall, of course).
If you've been to Manpuku, how was your experience? Leave a comment!
2125 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Use this number--you'll want to make reservations.
Every time I told someone in our group that my food wasn't that great, their response was a shrug and "bar food." Is there a reason why food at bars can't be good? True, if patrons are sloshed, the merits of a great sandwich may be lost on them. True, good cooks and good chefs cost more. True, people don't expect to pay a lot for the food that accompanies their beer.
But none of these reasons really explain why I can't enjoy an ice cold hefeweizen and delicious food simultaneously. The majority of a bar's patrons at any given time are probably not too hammered to taste their food. Good talent can be hired cheaply if it's young enough. And good food doesn't have to cost a lot.
So when a bar bothers to have an interesting menu, you might have high expectations of the food. But at Finn McCool's, you're likely to be disappointed.
Fried calamari appetizer
The calamari were actually just fine--what they needed was a good dipping sauce. They came with cocktail sauce--you know, that weirdly sweet and tangy ketchup imposter that often comes with seafood but which no one ever eats.
Corned beef sandwich
The corned beef sandwich was described as "lean thinly sliced corned beef, lettuce, tomato & onion." The meat was neither lean nor thinly sliced--in fact, I was grossed out by how fatty it was and didn't finish my sandwich. Also, the menu fails to mention the flavored mayo on the bread--it wasn't a problem for me, but some people really hate mayo or like to avoid it for health reasons. The sandwich was very messy, with ingredients sliding everywhere and sauce and grease getting all over my hands. The first few bites were tasty, but that was all I could take. The fries were on the mushy side.
In addition to the blah food, we ordered a Pyramid hefeweizen and a cider. Neither was very cold, which meant that they also weren't very fizzy, since higher temperatures adversely affect carbonation. For an Irish pub, the beer list was awfully short and generic. Stick to Guinness, if you like it.
At 7:00 on a Thursday, the bar was nearly empty, and happy hour had just ended, too (happy hour is from 1:00-7:00pm). By 9:00, it was starting to fill up with pre-weekend partiers.
Our waitress was clearly having a bad day, so our service left a lot to be desired. I have a lot of sympathy for people who work in bars though, so I tried not to hold it against her.
Parking in the back can be difficult, but is usually possible--just make sure you bring plenty of quarters because this is a metered lot. The meters have a 3 hour max, so if you plan to be out longer, don't forget to run back to your car.
The service was bad, the beer wasn't cold, and the food was sub-par. Overall, I was not happy with my experience and felt that it was a real waste of $43--all that bought us was one drink each, one appetizer to share, one entree to share, and parking. If you've been to Finn McCool's, how was your experience? Leave a comment!
Park in back--Finn's is the yellow building
2702 Main Street
Santa Monica, CA 90405
Website (with menu)
Pho #4, pho with beef brisket
Vietnamese food is not known for being vegetarian-friendly, but I became very fond of its flavors through my experiences at a very vegetarian friendly restaurant in St. Louis called Pho Grand. Pho Grand had at least 10 different tofu dishes, vegetarian spring rolls, and dipping sauce to die for. My vegetarian tendencies have seriously declined over the last year, which makes it much easier to have the proper Vietnamese food experience, but every time I see meat I still think about what I read in Fast Food Nation.
I originally went to Pho 99 after having read on Chowhound that it is one of the better Vietnamese places on the Westside (which may not be saying much). Chowhounders said that Pho 99 made a better broth than Le Saigon or Red Moon Cafe, was a bit more expensive, and was the best on the Westside but not good enough to deter them driving miles across town for something better.
After three visits to Pho 99, two visits to Le Saigon, one visit to Phoreign and no visits to Red Moon Cafe (because it seems unnecessary), I do think Pho 99 has the best Vietnamese on the Westside. They also have locations in Costa Mesa, Irvine, Lake Forest, Orange, and City of Industry (but not in Westminster, you'll notice). Given the competition, it's not hard to be the best Vietnamese on the Westside, but at least we've got somewhere decent to get our mid-week fix, when driving to OC isn't an option.
Pho with tofu
On my first visit I tried the pho with tofu, which contained deep fried tofu triangles, scallions, rice noodles, onion, cilantro, and broccoli. I of course received a plate of basil, sprouts, lime, and peppers to add at my discretion, which I did. Pho 99's serving of these condiments is notably small, but I usually don't use them at all, so for me it's not a problem. If you added the entire heaping plate of sprouts and basil that most restaurants serve, you'd no longer be eating pho--you'd be eating sprout and basil soup.
The broth alone was good, but not anything to jump up and down about. Granted, I ordered a vegetarian pho, and it was my first pho experience, but I had a feeling that I wasn't tasting what I had heard so much hype about. After adding the lime, peppers, basil, and some hot sauce, I was feeling a lot more chipper about the broth, but I think a good broth should be able to swim on its own.
I was also skeptical of putting fried tofu into a soup. Fried is supposed to equal crispy, and liquid clearly kills that possibility. It did, of course, but the tofu was still tasty. I'm a sucker for fried tofu. I found myself taking the tofu out and dipping it into my friend's fish sauce. Mmm, soggy tofu.
On my most recent visit, I tried the pho with beef brisket. The broth was much better than I remembered it (and probably a different broth than the one used for the tofu soup), but the vermicelli were still stuck together in a difficult clump. I didn't like the brisket because it was a bit fatty around the edges, so in the future I'll stick to pho tai (rare beef).
A nice thing about Pho 99 is that you can choose between a medium or a large bowl. Of course, with Pho 99's above-average prices, the medium bowl didn't save me any money, but at least I didn't leave 2/3 of a bowl behind. Soups with noodles in them do not make good leftovers--the noodles turn to mush.
Com bo nuong
I was much more excited about my friend's dish, com bo nuong (com being rice and bo nuong being marinated charbroiled beef). We've had this dish several times now. The meat is always quite tasty, though on our most recent visit it wasn't exactly served hot, and the portion size is a little small--even someone with a small appetite won't have leftovers. The fish sauce was pretty good on the rice but I would have liked it tangier. Also, where is the crushed rice? Surely they serve this outside of St. Louis (which has a significant Vietnamese population). I love crushed rice and shredded carrot drizzled in tangy fish sauce with a couple of drops of hot sauce. The word "com" actually indicates that the rice should be rough, husked, or ground, but Pho 99's rice isn't any of these.
Always a sucker for a drink I haven't tried, I also ordered a soda with preserved pickled plum. It had a light tangy plum flavor which I enjoyed. Asian plum drinks and I are dear friends and it is hard for me to go wrong with one. The lemonade is also good--not to sweet or too watery--but it tastes more like limeade than lemonade.
The atmosphere of this place is nothing to get excited about, but it is a nicer than most Vietnamese places I've been to, which tend to have hole-in-the-wall decor (or lack thereof). We dined from about 6:00-7:00pm mid-week, and there were only about 3 other tables occupied. You won't get a check--just walk up to the register after you're done. You can pay with a credit card (mc/visa only), but you can only leave your tip in cash (drop it in the plastic bucket at the register).
The food came very quickly (so quickly that it probably isn't made-to-order) and the service was very attentive--too attentive, really, as our server visited about four times in six minutes, expecting each time that the extra sixty seconds had somehow given me an epiphany about what to order. The service isn't friendly, and you won't see them much once your food arrives, but they are efficient.
Parking is free in the garage underneath the building. Street parking is a nightmare in this Brentwood-adjacent area unless you get lucky and find a meter on Wilshire.
Expect to pay around $10 per person for one entree, one drink, tax, and tip. It may not be the cheapest Vietnamese around, but it's still a great deal. If you've been to Pho 99, how was your experience? Leave a comment!
Com Bo Nuong, fish sauce, and basil, sprouts, and lime for the pho
11819 Wilshire Blvd, Suite 109 (upstairs)
(Cross street: Granville)
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Pho 99 Menu (abbreviated)
A different take on horchata
What kind of Spanish-speaker, food lover, and aficionada of all things Latin has never tried Oaxacan food, considered by many to be the pinnacle of Mexican cooking?
Me. But not anymore.
The truth is, Mexican food is so heavy--I can hardly think of anything more filling than beans, rice, tortillas, and cheese--that I get full just thinking about it, and off to Sawtelle I go. But my curiosity about moles finally got the better of me.
What better way to start off an unfamiliar experience than with a tried-and-true favorite? Or so I thought. Guelaguetza's horchata con tuna y nuez contains chopped walnuts, a few chunks of canteloupe, and a hot pink syrup that is supposed to taste like prickly pear cactus fruit. I didn't like the drink because it was too cinnamony and the pink syrup tasted like cough syrup. You could probably ask for a plain horchata if you wanted one, though it's not listed on the menu.
Chips and salsa
The mole coloradito on the chips has a sweet, smokey flavor but isn't too spicy. The crumbly cheese doesn't taste like much, but its ultrasoft consistency is pleasant. I wonder why they pour the sauce on top instead of giving you a bowl of it? The problems with the sauce-on-top method are that some chips don't have enough sauce on them, some chips are too messy, the chips get soggy after a while, slower eaters might miss out on all the good, saucy, cheesy chips, and if you're sharing a plate, people have to pick around for chips with the right amount of sauce. Wow-- who knew sauce placement could be so important?
Mole negro con pechuga de pollo
Oaxacan mole traces its roots to the cuisine of the Aztecs, who used many of the same ingredients that are still used in moles today: chiles (of course), vanilla beans, cocoa, jitomate, and a variety of spices. A well-known legend actually credits a nun with the creation of the first mole. There are seven common types of moles: coloradito, rojo, manchamanteles, verde, amarillo, chichilo y negro.
Mole negro is distinguished from the others by its greater complexity. Its ingredients can include multiple types of peppers and their toasted seeds, ginger, onion, jitomate, black pepper, assorted seeds and nuts, avocado leaf, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, chocolate, sugar, salt, and more. While this might sound like a culinary nightmare, the result is actually an incredibly complex sauce that seems to have more in common with Indian or Japanese curries than with what most people think of as Mexican food, as did the meat/sauce/rice trio. Even the presentation of my dish had a Japanese aesthetic.
The mole was spicy, but not exactly hot. Rather than burning my mouth, consecutive bites built up a burning sensation in the back of my throat--but nothing a swig of horchata couldn't fix. The chicken breast was dry, so I'd recommend trying the pierna (leg) or muslo (thigh) instead. I wish it had come with more rice to eat with the mole, but it did come with plenty of corn tortillas.
Not like an Argentinian empanada
In Oaxacan cuisine, an empanada is a large corn tortilla folded in half over any number of fillings. My friend tried the empanada de flor de calabaza, which contained squash blossoms, cheese, and a red mole. He liked the sauce and the fillings, but couldn't quite get used to one of the flavors in the mole. Oaxacan food, while a type of Mexican food, contains many ingredients whose names and flavors are unfamiliar to most of us. It wouldn't hurt to ask around for recommendations on specific dishes or make a cheat sheet of Oaxacan food vocabulary before you dine. Guelaguetza's menu does list a few terms at the top, but the list isn't exhaustive, and flipping back and forth is a pain.
A clayuda is a large, thin, crispy tortilla. It is always topped with bean paste and cabbage, but the rest of the toppings can vary. Non-vegetarian versions add a layer of pork fat called aciento to the bean layer and can also have meat toppings. Guelaguetza's clayuda vegetariana was topped with quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese), cabbage, canned button mushrooms, nopales (cactus), cilantro, tomatoes, and black bean paste. Clayuda is sometimes spelled "tlayuda," so if you see a tlayuda on another restaurant's menu, it's the same thing is a clayuda. It's large enough (maybe 14 inches in diameter) to be more than enough food for a meal, but it's commonly eaten as an appetizer or snack food.
My friends were somewhat disappointed by the clayuda, because rather than a crispy tortilla base, which turned out to be rather tough, they were expecting a soft base. Also, the canned mushrooms got old fast. If you aren't a vegetarian then, a better way to go would probably be the clayuda con asiento and your selection quesillo or meat (chorizo-sausage, tasajo-a type of dried, salted beef, or cecina-another dried, salted beef).
Guelaguetza is vegetarian-friendly, with a special menu section containing about ten items.
The restaurant was packed at 6:00, but as the early diners left, few later diners replaced them. You can definitely take your kids here--I saw several families with young children and even babies-- but if you're looking for a quiet meal, Guelaguetza is not it. Even with the restaurant being busy, I had no trouble at all finding a spot in the large parking lot behind the restaurant.
The atmosphere at this location leaves a lot to be desired. There's a TV playing sports games, and the tables awfully close together. The service is minimal--we had to get up to ask for change, and our server seemed hurried and not like someone I felt comfortable asking about the unfamiliar dishes. In the future, I'd prefer to get takeout, if it's offered. Also, I have a feeling the Koreatown or the Downtown locations are more enjoyable--it looks like they have live music, too. At the Palms location, the experience is strictly about the food.
Guelaguetza is often praised for its food, particularly its moles. While I haven't yet tried any other Oaxacan places that I could compare this restaurant to, I still think there's significant room for improvement in every dish.
If you've been to Guelaguetza, how was your experience? Leave a comment!
11127 Palms Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Website about Oaxaca (in Spanish)
3014 W. Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA
3337 1/2 W. 8th St.
Los Angeles, CA