Restaurant Review #164: La Fogata, Sherman Oaks

Enchilada and tamale combination plate

For my latest adventure in takeout, I tried La Fogata in Van Nuys. The reason we opted for takeout is that the restaurant itself is not much more ambient than a McDonald's--it has the same faux wood tile and black grout flooring, and while they've done a bit to spruce the place up by putting bullfighting posters and other decor stereotypical to the Spanish-speaking world on the walls, it just isn't the kind of place you go to linger over a meal. As far as Mexican fast food goes, it's not the cheapest, but at least parking is free and more than plentiful, even by Valley standards. They also don't use lard or MSG and have an ample selection of bottled beers, along with margaritas and the usual trio of horchata, jamaica, and tamarindo fountain drinks (the horchata was very sweet, in a good way).


The chips and salsa were probably the best part of the meal, though. The red salsa had a very clean fire-roasted tomato flavor which I really enjoyed even though I generally prefer salsas with a smokier flavor like the kind you get at taco stands. I wish La Fogata didn't charge 50 cents extra for a small bag of chips, but at least you can snag all the salsa you want at the salsa bar. The enchilada was fine, but not memorable. Likewise, the burrito was decent and by no means bad, but there was nothing noteworthy about it. The tamale was soggy, which I didn't even know was possible--but hey, now I will have a greater appreciation for the next good tamale I consume.

Carnitas taco

La Fogata's carnitas taco was tasty and packed with meat, but it lacked an extra something it needed to make it worth the 90 cent premium over the tacos from Taqueria Emanuel, my favorite taco shop.

Overall, I was unimpressed with both the food I tried and the atmosphere at La Fogata. Not much can be said about the service, since all you do is place your order at a register. The restaurant does seem to be quite popular, though, at least on a Saturday night. This is just one foodie's opinion, but I think you can do better for Mexican food, especially in Van Nuys.

La Fogata
5142 Van Nuys Blvd
Sherman Oaks, CA 91403
La Nueva Fogata on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #163: Pinkberry, West Hollywood

Plain yogurt with Cap'n Crunch, raspberries, and blackberries

That's right, I caved. I'm normally not one to be a sucker for a trend, but I had to know how something as dull as frozen yogurt could have so many people in such a frenzy.

I went into the experience knowing about the difficult parking situation, so I wasn't going to let that stop me, or get me a ticket. Pinkberry is located on a residential, permit parking only street. It looked like there might have been a few public spaces right out front, but I didn't want to risk it. Fortuantely, I snagged a meter nearby on Santa Monica. There's also a public parking garage less than two blocks away, so I'm not sure what the big deal is. Use the garage, people. Pinkberry has signs up warning you not to park in the permit parking areas, and a parking enforcement officer sits outside waiting for people who think they'll just dash in and out and beat the ticket man. In fact, he opened the door to Pinkberry for me. At least West Hollywood makes its policies well-known and unambiguous, unlike Santa Monica.

I'm pleasantly surprised to report that Pinkberry is, in fact, quite good. This frozen yogurt, unlike the stuff we were eating in the early 90's, actually tastes like yogurt. It's tangy, sweet, and strikes the perfect balance between icy and creamy. It also melts incredibly quickly, and yes, you really will eat all the yogurt in that gigantic looking eight ounce cup (and Pinkberry actually weighs each cup of yogurt before adding the toppings to make sure they got it right).

Pinkberry's interior is sleek and stylish with light blue walls (I was really expecting pink). There are about 6 tables inside, but since the place is incredibly busy and very small, it's not a peaceful place to enjoy your yogurt. Don't expect to take your yogurt home, though, unless you like yogurt soup.

Pinkberry, in some senses, seems to be yet another example of people being willing to pay exorbitant prices to have healthy food prepared for them. Frozen yogurt with some fruit on top really shouldn't cost $5, in my opinion, even if it is a large serving of yogurt and the fruit is fresh. Yes, the fruit is fresh--none of that canned, syrupy stuff. You can get a plain yogurt for significantly less money, but the $5 deal gets you your choice of three toppings, or a triple serving of one topping, if you prefer. Fruit selections include banana, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, kiwi, and mango (the mango is probably from a jar, but everything else is fresh and syrup-free). Other selections include almonds and. . . Captain Crunch cereal? Gross!

On the other hand, maybe the $5 price is reasonable. After all, so many prices in our lives have been driven down, down, down by the Wal-Mart effect, an effect that often overlooks the true cost of goods. Regardless of whether $5 is a fair price, it doesn't seem to be a deterrent for the masses who love Pinkberry.

Plain yogurt with triple blueberries

868 Huntley Drive
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Pinkberry on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #162: Sak's Teriyaki, Westwood

Teriyaki chicken breast bowl

As far as teriyaki places go, the only thing that stands out about Sak’s is the design of the restaurant: you enter through a tunnel-like hallway, place your order in the back, then return to the hallway to find a table. The layout, while odd and confusing at first, makes the restaurant pleasantly sheltered from the noise of always-busy Westwood, and the hallway tables get a nice cross breeze. There's also an indoor seating area, but it feels dingy and cramped.

The menu offers plenty of options, including potato croquettes (crispy, creamy, and delicious with a hint of carrot), gyoza (mediocre but the dipping sauce makes up for it), yakitori, spicy chicken, and even a mixed seafood plate. Despite all these options, the main draw at Sak's is the teriyaki.

I always order the large chicken breast bowl. I highly recommend that you eat at the restaurant (rather than getting takeout); the chicken is often on the dry side, but the restaurant provides bottles of teriyaki and hot sauce (apparently they will sell you, but not give you, extra sauce to go, which is discouraging and is why I say eat there, if possible). This way, you can drench your meal to your heart’s delight, which turns mediocre teriyaki into a juicy, sumptuous, affordable meal.
Sriracha and teriyaki sauce
Sometimes the staff brings your order to your table, sometimes they make you wait at the window to take it yourself, and sometimes they call your order number over the intercom—so far I haven’t been able to figure out why the process changes constantly. Perhaps they are understaffed some days. Either way, the wait is usually pretty brief, and the staff is always friendly. They have a $10 minimum order for credit cards, but will let you pay for meals under $10 with a debit card--sometimes. Bring cash.

Sak's Teriyaki
1121 Glendon Ave
Westwood, CA 90024

This review was written in collaboration with VP, special to Foodie Universe.
Sak's Teriyaki on Urbanspoon


My Favorite Weekend

Erin of Erin's Kitchen is hosting an ongoing event where she asks bloggers to contribute a list of the restaurants that they most enjoy dining at over the course of a weekend. Her series is in response to the LA Times column of the same name which, in her opinion, has sub-par recommendations from sub-par sources. This week it's my turn to give my real recommendations from a real Angeleno.

I've eaten at around 200 restaurants in Los Angeles, which makes picking my top five quite a challenge. It also means that you'd be hard-pressed to go wrong with these choices.

Shishito peppers, shiitake mushrooms and shaved bonito at Kiriko

Friday dinner: I've eaten many a meal at Kiriko, and the food and service have never let me down. This cozy, quiet Sawtelle sushi joint is one of my favorite places to enjoy sake, sushi, and homemade ice cream.

Saturday lunch: Head over to India's Sweets and Spices for cheap, filling, delicious Indian food and a seemingly endless selection of desserts.

Saturday dinner: My ideal (but unlikely) Saturday night meal would be an all-out, four hour meal-to-remember at Melisse. It's so cost prohibitive that I've only been once, but their flawless French cuisine is some of the best food in the city. In addition to the food, an unpretentious staff, excellent wine pairings, and a relaxed atmosphere make this the perfect upscale restaurant.

Sunday lunch: I like my weekends to be as stress-free as possible, so for Sunday lunch I'd choose a meal that's cheap, filling, and delicious in a restaurant where I won't have to deal with reservations, parking hassles, or tables that are too close together. Mi Casita Salvadorena fits the bill (and my wallet, after a night at Melisse). For around $10 I can fill up on sweet corn tamales and beef empanadas.

Carnitas tacos from Taqueria Emanuel

Sunday dinner: I like to stay home on Sundays, so I'd grab some tacos to go at Taqueria Emanuel and chow down on the couch while watching That 70's Show reruns.


Restaurant Review #161: Pho 999, Van Nuys

Pho 999 is your prototypical strip mall Vietnamese restaurant. The decor can only be described as garish, but the prices are low and the service is fast. The restaurant's specialty seems to be a meal of seven courses of beef, but I can't eat that much meat.

The pho tai was about average, maybe slightly above--the broth was flavorful, tasted more of cardamon than usual, and needed a bit of lime to balance it out. The vermicelli noodles weren't stuck together in a clump--clumpy noodles are a real pet peeve of mine. My bowl was only $4.95, and as usual, you can have your pho with any combination of brisket, tendon, tripe, and rare beef.

Charbroiled beef

The charbroiled beef looked more like pork when it came out due to its pale color, and it was kind of disgusting, even for $5.95. It was very thin and had a processed texture, making me feel like I was at McDonald's. I enjoyed the lightly pickled daikon strips that came on the side.

Pho 99 also serves about 20 kinds of boba shakes, with flavors ranging from banana to soursop to avocado. The shakes themselves were very good, but light on the boba, which had a hard time making it up the straw for some reason. My guess is that they're trying get the business of all the patrons who would otherwise head a few doors down for boba after their meal--hey, it worked on me.

The service is indifferent bordering on rude. Why do all Vietnamese restaurants want to take your order almost the moment you sit down? True, there aren't a lot of variations across restaurants, but I want some time to see what unique dishes might be available and think about what I'm in the mood to eat. I don't want to be rushed by being asked every 60 seconds if I'm ready to order yet.

When you're finished eating, head to the register and give them your table number to pay. Don't expect to ever see the staff again once your food has been served, and don't expect any sort of "thanks for coming in." With the mediocre food, garish decor and nonexistent service, I won't be going back.

Pho 999

6411 Sepulveda Blvd.
Van Nuys, CA 91411
Pho 999 on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #160: Beard Papa, Sawtelle, West LA

Vanilla cream puff

It's impossible to not notice Beard Papa's Sawtelle location at night. Its bright lights, colorful walls, and constant customers draw you in. In mid-July, this cream puff craze moved into the space that used to be occupied by Mousse Fantasy. That space has been renovated, and still contains Mousse Fantasy, but they no longer serve hot meals, just pastries. Each business occupies a separate counter.

While many people have raved about Beard Papa's cream puffs, I was a little disappointed, probably in part due to the hype. I've been there twice now, and both times the cream puffs were not as fresh as I expected. The shells had been baked far enough in advance that they were no longer warm--a couple hundred were sitting out on a baking rack in clear view. On my first visit, my cream puff had already been filled with custard, but on the second visit, it was filled after I ordered it, like the company promises on their website.

These cream puffs are as big as your hand, so you'll probably be happy with just one or two. They're heavy and packed with a perfectly smooth, dense, whipped custard and are a bit messy to eat. They're also a great deal at $1.50 each. The Sawtelle location has been selling two flavors a day as of my last visit, and I think vanilla is always on the menu. Other choices include chocolate and green tea. If you crave a certain flavor, the staff can usually tell you when they'll be selling it next. I'm not sure if the company is being gimmicky, or if there is a logistical reason why they only do two flavors at a time, but I'd prefer to be able to buy any flavor any day. The vanilla cream was very mild--I preferred the slightly bitter green tea.

Even though I don't think Beard Papa's cream puffs live up to the hype, they're still good, and one of the cheapest desserts you can get on the go. In fact, they're one of the cheapest desserts you can get, period. I'm looking forward to going back and trying the royal milk tea flavor.

Beard Papa
2130 Sawtelle Blvd #110
Los Angels, CA 90025
(310) 479-6665
Beard Papa Website
Beard Papa's on Urbanspoon


First Annual Los Angeles Wine and Food Festival

Ann Gentry's cooking demo

Los Angeles had its first ever Wine and Food Festival from August 25-27. Friday night's festivities kicked off at the Marriott Downtown for $125 a head. On Saturday or Sunday at the LA Convention Center's Kentia Hall, tickets were $65 per person or $120 per couple.

The festival's main attraction was the 100+ wineries that poured. There were an array of chocolates, cheeses, and more from dozens of gourmet food companies. Several celebrity chefs participated in the festival by giving cooking demonstrations.

What I didn't realize until later was that the festival was actually a wine and food festival, not a food and wine festival, meaning that the emphasis was on the wine. But first, let's talk about the food.

These live cooking demonstrations were the most notable food events at the festival (which had more to do with wine than food, hence the name). I went to see Ann Gentry of Real Food Daily. She is experienced in cooking demos, since she has been a guest on various television shows and teaches cooking classes nationwide.

Lentil walnut pate with tofu sour cream

I like Real Food Daily a lot, but their food is hit and miss with me. For the cooking demo, Ms. Gentry prepared a lentil walnut pate with tofu sour cream. The tofu sour cream was the most interesting part to me, because it bore no resemblance to tofu. Ann used a powerful (and expensive) blender called the Vitamix to create it--I would be quite surprised if I could accomplish the same thing with my $15 blender at home! According to her anecdotes, the lentil walnut pate is a huge hit and reminds some people of duck liver pate (which I haven't eaten, so I can't compare). I didn't care for this particular dish, but I like her concept: fusing gourmet eating with healthy, vegan food. For those who want to make Real Food Daily style food at home, she has a cookbook, which she was selling and autographing after the demo.

A couple of booths at the festival featured cheese. At igourmet's display, we particularly liked the grana padano, which was sort of like a softer version of parmasean; the tartufino speziato, a soft, smooth cheese flavored with black truffles, and the Cabot Habanero Cheddar. While I don't really care for spicy cheese, I was so impressed by how spicy this cheese was that I couldn't help but be pleased. I don't know what I'd do with it though, and it's probably too spicy to eat much of it plain. All of the cheeses were excellent, though.

Igourmet sells their cheeses online. Normally I would be skeptical about ordering cheese online since I can't taste it first, but now that i have tasted ten of their cheeses and liked them all, I am looking forward to placing an order.

If you want to try them out, use the code GRE7 on orders over $35 placed before 9/30/06 and you'll get a free European cookie assortment. Yum. You can also get frequent flyer miles when you shop with them (check out Dealmine to find out where). If you hadn't already guessed, in addition to being a foodie, I'm a serious bargain hunter and deal-getter.

Basiltops gave out free samples of their pesto on bits of bread or freshly cooked pasta. Several of their pestos are dairy-free, and all of them are packed in squeeze top bags that are supposed to keep the pesto fresh for 6 months. I especially liked the chipotle pesto, though it wasn't as spicy as I wanted it to be.

Sambazon Acai is a new acai drink that you may have seen with the other bottled juices in stores like Whole Foods and Wild Oats. It's a deep purple drink that has a strong berry flavor on its own, but comes in flavors like supergreen and mango. It also comes as a protein shake, a powder, and as a sorbet. While I liked it, I'm not one to believe in the magical properties of certain fruits, vegetables, or supplements, so I probably won't be buying it due to its somewhat high price relative to similar products.

Other food booths included Everybody's Nuts, which was giving away free boxes of pistachios with dollar off coupons. Even though I don't really care for nuts, I ate several boxes of the roasted flavor. Metromint gave out samples of peppermint and spearamint flavored water. Drinking the water reminded me of getting my mouth rinsed out at the dentist, or of drinking water while chewing Dentyne Ice.

What I was most impressed by at the festival was the quality of the wine exhibitors. When I go wine tasting, I usually only like about 5 wines out of the 30 I might try in an afternoon. At the festival, though, I liked almost every single wine I tried.

In addition to your usual reds and whites, there was a booth with almond champagne by Wilson Creek, which I believe they sell at Trader Joe's; a rum booth; and a chai liqueur booth. I really loved the chai liqueur, which was smooth like Baileys. It has a rum base, but with all the cream and spices, it doesn't taste rummy. They have a wealth of recipes on their website, since you're probably not sure what to do with this new drink aside from drinking it straight.

While no convention center can ever truly disguise its concrete floors, terrible acoustics and and industrial flourescent lighting, the festival atmosphere was much more elegant than I expected thanks to red carpets and black tableskirts.

One of the more amusing wine labels

Even the wines with silly names, like Lodi Vineyards' 7 Deadly Zins, tasted good. One of the best things about the festival was that almost nothing was being sold there, including the wine, so there was no pressure to buy. On the minus side, if you really liked a particular wine, you'd have to find out where it was sold and plan to buy it later. I think this fact, along with generous samplings from other vendors, made most of the vendors extra friendly because they weren't as worried about making a sale. I often get the brushoff at wine tastings because I am not a wealthy fifty year old, so it's always a nice change of pace to be taken seriously.

Chocolate tasting

One of the few items that was for sale was chocolate, and one of our favorite stops was the chocolate disk booth. They had six different chocolates with varying cacao content designed to match port and various reds. Normally, 70% chocolate makes my mouth feel painfully raw almost instantly. There must be something to be said about the quality or formulation of this chocolate, because I had no problems whatsoever. Still, I bought the 54% chocolate, since I love port. (Unfortunately, there were very few dessert wines being poured at the festival.)

Cigar rolling booth

Those who like cigars could see how they're rolled and ask an expert questions.

SeokRyuJu - Korean pomegranate wine

Woorisol, a Korean alcoholic beverage company, had a huge display of at least ten different drinks, all of which they were pouring. Their products are relatively inexpensive and come in a variety of sizes, including small bottles that are great for one person, which you can buy in Koreatown.

Yipsejoo - More Korean wine

The Korean alcohol that people are most likely to be familiar with is soju, a rice-based alcoholic beverage whose alcohol content ranges from 20-45%, for which it is sometimes referred to as Korean vodka. (The Japanese make a version of this drink, too, which is called shochu.) I also tried a Korean rice wine, cheongju, which had little in common with Japanese sake. I have to say that I greatly prefer the Japanese rice wine I've had over the Korean rice wine I tried at the festival, which I found overly sweet and a bit mediciney.

When the party's over, public transit is the way to go

In my opinion, the main obstacle that the festival needs to overcome is the cost of entry. I was under the impression that the festival was geared towards both the general public and the food service industry, but for $65 a ticket, the festival is probably too pricey to appeal to most people. I think $25-30 a ticket would be a more attractive price. After all, for $65, I could drive to Santa Barbara, taste 20 wines, and come home with a bottle. For a couple, that $120 would buy you a nice dinner on the way home, too.

Overall, I very much enjoyed myself. How could I not, with so much alcohol in my bloodstream? But seriously, the festival was a great way to try a ton of wines, cheeses, and other products that I probably never would have otherwise tasted.


Restaurant Review #159 : El Pedregal Mexican Grill, Van Nuys

Carnitas torta

Update: This restaurant is closed.

El Pedregal is a new Mexican restaurant in Van Nuys that has the shiny look of a La Salsa from the outside but a more authentic and independent feel on the inside, not to mention better prices. The menu is handwritten in neon markers on black boards and lists everything from tortas, tacos, taquitos, and enchiladas to mariscos, pescado, caldos and pozole. They also serve breakfast, which consists mostly of egg dishes.

It's still basically a fast food restaurant, complete with Spanish-speaking television, but some dishes, like a whole fish, defy that categorization. The service is very friendly, and when our to-go order was slow in coming, they brought us free chips and salsa. A little apology can go a long way. And since El Pedregal is in the Valley, they also have a glorious free parking lot.


Unfortunately, the chips and salsa were the best part of the meal. The fresh, crunchy chips and tangy tomatillo salsa were addictive, but the main courses fell flat. The burrito wasn't made according to the way we ordered it, which was a bummer to discover after we got home. It was also skimpy on the meat.

The pulled pork in my torta was dry and stuck together in large hunks that made eating the sandwich very messy and difficult, and the roll that it came on was the quality of a hotdog bun.

Chicken enchiladas with mole

The mole negro was disappointingly flat in flavor, as if it were missing around 20 of the 40 or so ingredients that mole normally contains. The refried beans lacked salt.

Since it is a very new place, I'd consider giving it a second chance. The chips and salsa, as well as the delicious tamarind and jamaica drinks and excellent service, are at least a start. Ordering mole at a restaurant that doesn't specialize in it is somewhat of a stretch. I do think they should be able to get burritos and carnitas right, though.

El Pedregal
14308 Victory Blvd.
Van Nuys, CA
Mon-Sun 10am-8pm
El Pedregal Mexican Grill on Urbanspoon