Pupusas topped with curtido
After eating at a few hundred restaurants, almost 200 of which I've taken the time to write about, I've learned that there are no undiscovered restaurants out there, particularly in a city as large and thoroughly combed as Los Angeles. So why did I decide to get my birthday dinner from the dirty, dingy, hole-in-the-wall that is Rincon Salvadoreno when there were zero customers inside? I guess hoping I'll manage to discover a restaurant others haven't gives me some kind of foodie high.
Despite the name, Rincon Salvadoreno has mostly Mexican-sounding dishes on its menu. I was there for the pupusas though, which were advertised in the window as being $1 on Mondays. In fact, the woman who appeared to be the restaurant's sole employee, a crotchety old glad-you're-not-my-grandmother type, also informed me of this special. Yet, when the bill came, we were charged--well, I can't even figure out how two horchatas and six $1 pupusas comes out to $16, but I figured she needed the money more than I did so I didn't bother to argue. Despite the fact that I speak fluent Spanish, we had major communication problems the whole time I was there.
"What flavors of pupusas do you have?"
"Meat and cheese."
"What kind of meat?"
"Meat and cheese."
"Are there different flavors?"
"Meat and cheese."
After this exchange, I just ordered six pupusas and two horchatas to go and hoped for the best.
Despite the major communication issues, hostile service, terribly dreary space and menus that I was loathe to touch, the pupusas (which contained shredded pork and cheese) were freshly made and the best I've had yet--not too salty, not too greasy, not too doughy. So I guess in some ways, I did find a gem, but I'm unwilling to deal with so many unpleasantries when there are plenty of other places to get pupusas in the area.
Rincon Salvadoreno appears to be a chain with additional locations in North Hollywood and Sun Valley--I wonder if they're any better?
14338 Victory Blvd.
Van Nuys, CA 91401
Involtini di Pollo
Many Valley restaurants are crowded and noisy on Friday nights. If you'd rather celebrate the end of the work week with a quiet evening out, Gio Cucina in Encino is a great choice. While I don't agree with the old LA Times review that hails Gio Cucina as the best Italian food in the Valley, they do serve up solid food at reasonable prices and provide excellent service in a relaxed, low-key setting.
Gio Cucina is nothing more than a hole-in-the-wall on the second story of a strip mall. Parking is scant, but we were still able to get a spot at 7:00. We considered a quiet, breezy outdoor table on the balcony, but overruled it due to the plastic chairs, car dealership view, and potential to be frequently interrupted by other restaurant visitors walking past (in the end, I don't think any of these things really would have detracted from the joy of having a relatively secluded table and fresh air, and I will probably sit there on my next visit). The restaurant's interior is nothing to brag about, though it's clear that the owners put thought into making a minimalist space look as elegant as possible with lace curtains, white tablecloths and linen napkins. Though there are only about ten tables, you'll still have plenty of breathing room since they aren't crammed together Westside-style.
Our dinner started with complementary mini bruschetta topped with fresh, juicy tomatoes (all of the restaurant's vegetables are fresh), along with fresh dinner rolls and a tangy, dijon mustard-infused olive tapenade (who knew olives and mustard went together so well?). The tapenade had a strong enough flavor to still stand out even when eaten with bread, unlike some other olive tapenades I've had that taste like nothing more than ground up canned black olives. I could have eaten the bread and olive tapenade all night, and they would have let me, too--they offered us more bread twice. Alas, most of us can't eat six dinner rolls and still have room for entrees and dessert.
Duetto di Ravioli, Pollo e Aragosta
For entrees, I tried one pasta dish and one secondi. The Duetto di Ravioli consists of candy-shaped chicken-filled ravioli in a light cream sauce paired with lobster and shrimp-stuffed ravioli in a pink sauce. Gio Cucina brags that their pasta is made fresh daily. While I commend their efforts, I'm afraid that I'm not enough of a pasta connoisseur to tell the difference. I thought that the pasta wasn't cooked enough, as the folded edges of the candy-shaped ravioli were a little too chewy, but some might argue that the pasta was cooked al dente and I tend to like overcooked pasta. The ravioli fillings were very flavorful, but the sauce was a little lacking both in flavor and quantity for my tastes. On the other hand, I often find cream sauces to be too heavy, and I didn't experience any burnout on this dish.
The secondi I tried was the Involtini di Pollo, a rolled breast of chicken stuffed with ricotta, sun-dried tomatoes, and spinach, cooked in a white wine sauce and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts. The chicken was moist and properly cooked (save for a few bits that got a little dried out in the oven). I couldn't taste the sun-dried tomatoes at all, a real shame since they might have provided a little kick that the dish lacked, though it was still quite good. The white wine sauce complemented the flavors of the chicken and also went so well with the perfectly-cooked broccoli that I actually ate and enjoyed the broccoli, and that's saying a lot coming from someone who swore off the vegetable long ago. Again, I wished there had been more sauce, but I do tend to drench my food in sauce. The serving sizes of both dishes were adequate, reminiscent of healthier European portion sizes and not the gigantic American portions that are making our country obese. Of course, I like to have leftovers, and we easily finished both of our entrees with room left over for dessert. The entree prices were very reasonable, at about $15 each. Most entrees fall in the $10 - $15 range.
For dessert, I had the panna cotta with fresh raspberry sauce. The panna cotta had a perfectly smooth texture, but little flavor save for the raspberry sauce, which had a very pleasant tang. The better dessert choice was the Terrina di Cioccolato con Amaretti. A true chocolate-lovers desert, the terrina di cioccolato was the densest chocolate chocolate dessert I've ever eaten, more comparable to fudge than to cake, with a bittersweet chocolate flavor. It came with a very flavorful amaretti ice cream that had the pleasantly icy texture of homemade ice cream. I would not order the panna cotta again, but I would re-order the terrina. We were also offered a chocolate souffle, but I was skeptical since it was offered at the end of our meal, and a proper souffle takes a while to bake (I'm pretty sure our waiter was new, but he was still very good).
The service was incredibly attentive. We were given our choice of tables, bread and bruschetta hit the table mere minutes after we were seated, our drinks were always refilled promptly, and we didn't have to wait too long for our entrees. It did take me forever to decide what to order--the menu is extensive and varied. Gio Cucina also serves pizzas, soups, salads, and is open for lunch on weekdays in addition to dinner every night except Sunday. Being such a small operation, its hours are limited, so make sure to check the schedule before you go.
Overall, I really enjoyed my experience at Gio Cucina Napoletana. Though the food had some imperfections and didn't blow me away with its flavor, the dishes were still solidly prepared and I really appreciated the wide variety of menu options (including things I don't normally see on Italian menus). The service was excellent, the prices are very reasonable, and while the atmosphere isn't really nice enough for a date, it's pleasantly unpretentious and down-to-earth. You don't need to dress up to dine here, and you can bring your kids (and if you're sans-kiddos, don't worry--despite the family-friendly atmosphere, there weren't any issues with screaming or out of control children).
Gio Cucina Napoletana
15826 Ventura Blvd # M (on the north side of the street)
Encino, CA 91436
Gio Cucina Website
Gio Cucina Menu
Lunch: M-F, 11:30-2:30
Dinner: M-F, 5:00 - 9:30, Sat. 5:30 - 10:00
Grilled chicken panini
Java Groove is a relatively new coffee shop and cafe in Van Nuys about a four block walk from the Van Nuys Courthouse. Despite its warm wood floors and deep orange walls, it maintains some of the sleek sterility of a corporate coffee shop while seemingly aiming for something a bit more personal (it is family-owned, after all). When I visited on a Saturday morning, they had a live saxaphone player--live in the way that the saxaphone players on the Third Street Promenade are live, with shrill notes played against a back up tape. Java Groove is small, with seven, two-person indoor tables and a few outdoor tables. They are one of the only places in the area with free Wi-Fi.
Java Groove is about a year old and inhabits a sleek, relatively new pedestrian-friendly shopping center on Victory just east of Van Nuys Blvd. It is one of several new sandwich shops that have popped up in the area, presumably to serve the nearby Van Nuys Courthouse's lunch crowd, who are (so the festering of sandwich shops would have me believe) not interested in trying one of the many nearby taco shops or pupuserias. Java Groove's neighbor, formerly the Mexican restaurant El Pedregal, is now also a sandwich shop called The Patio Grill. Then there's the Subway at Erwin and Van Nuys, the Quizno's across the street from the Subway, and the sandwich and smoothie shop opening at the corner of Friar and Van Nuys where the never-open Zairov Chicken used to reside. Java Groove was dead on a Saturday at lunch and isn't even open on Sundays, further proof that it doesn't exactly cater to the neighborhood (can you imagine a Westside coffee shop dead on a Saturday?).
I must admit that I did not try the coffee (in fact, it did not even occur to me to try the coffee, so hungry was I). What I did try was a grilled chicken panini. It took longer than I expected for the sandwich to be made, but that's because it was made to order, so I really cn't complain. The freshness and high quality ingredients made all the difference for this flavorful sandwich with juicy chicken and perfectly melted cheese. The true test that no sandwich shop ever passes is the tomato test--everyone puts their tomatoes in the fridge and turns them into tasteless, mealy, dessicated disks. Well, Java Groove's tomatoes were none of these. Quality tomatoes at a random coffee shop--who would have guessed? The sandwich ingredients are slippery, so leave the toothpick in while you eat it.
I also ordered a chocolate smoothie. Chocolate smoothie, you ask? Yes. For some reason, Java Groove does not (or at least not on my visit) make chocolate milkshakes, only chocolate smoothies. They do, however, make mango milkshakes. But not mango smoothies. And milkshakes only come in one size, but smoothies come in three. Are you confused yet?
If you're spending the day serving jury duty at the Van Nuys Courthouse, Java Groove seems to be one of the best options in the area for an inexpensive lunch (or, ahem, "cigarette" break) that you can walk to. If you're looking for something with a more authentic Van Nuys flavor, you might try El Traipiche Pupuseria on Sylvan (on the opposite side of Van Nuys Blvd. from the courthouse) or Taqueria Emanuel. Most people will not enjoy Rincon Salvadoreno for the dingy atmosphere and lousy service, but their pupusas are awfully good. If you have enough time to jump in the car, I recommend Mi Casita Salvadorena, Zankou Chicken, or a short drive to Sherman Way in North Hollywood where you'll find the delectable Krua Thai. If you need some fuel before the day begins, don't miss the crullers at Donuts and Delites.
Java Groove also offers catering services and rental of their coffee shop for private events and meetings.
Java Groove Coffee
14310 Victory Blvd
Van Nuys, CA 91401
Java Groove Website
Parking lot in rear