Restaurant Review #214: Mijares Mexican Restaurant, Pasadena


It may not always seem like it from my reviews, but I genuinely want to like every restaurant I try. I think there's a common misconception that food critics like to, well, criticize. Maybe some life-hating critics go out in pursuit of a bad meal so they can rip a chef to shreds, but I think most of us are foodies trying to have as many fantastic culinary experiences as possible and share them with others.

So I really wanted to like Mijares. I went on a Sunday night and there was live mariachi music. The guitars and trumpets brought me back to the restaurant I always had Mexican food at with my family as a child. Back then, I was terrified of all strangers (actually, that hasn't changed a whole lot) and would hide under the table if the mariachi men got anywhere near us. This despite one of the main things I remember about them being what warm smiles they had. But as an adult, I think there are few better surprises than good, live music when I go out to eat.

In addition to live music some nights, Mijares has the chaotic, plate-clanking, tequila-fueled hustle and bustle and din generally found in American Mexican restaurants (or Chili's) along with plenty of screaming children. At least the music and the Cuervo drown them out somewhat.

The albondigas, a simple soup of meatballs in a yellowy-clear broth, was quite good. If I went back to Mijares, I would order this again. I love the richly flavored soup and the loose texture of the meatballs--they look sort of like the Vietnamese meatballs you'd find in a bowl of pho, but instead of being packed so tightly I think they would bounce off if I threw them against a wall, the Mexican equivalent crumbles gently in your mouth as you chew it. I think I might have liked the albondigas at Tia Juana's better, but that restaurant is gone now.


The beef in the burrito had a slimy, wet texture and little flavor. The other ingredients didn't make up for the savory shortfall.

Beef fajitas

The beef fajitas tasted mysteriously like Chinese food. Maybe I just like more lime juice in my fajita marinade than Mijares uses, but if I wanted Chinese food, that's what I would have gone out for. Not Mexican. Apparently lots of people like the restaurant's totally ordinary, overly sweet margaritas, too, enough to vote them "best margarita in Pasadena." They do serve the thick tortilla chips I like, but the salsa has barely a hint of spice and the guacamole is nothing special. The refried beans, to appease the ever-health-conscious southern Californian, are made without lard, which in this case makes them exceptionally bland.

The thing that makes me sad is that this restaurant, according to its website, is apparently somewhat of a Pasadena institution. It has been family owned for three generations. I guess Pasadena isn't known for its Mexican population, and of course, fajitas are downright Tex-Mex (I should know better than to order Tex-Mex in the wrong state). I want to tell you that this restaurant that has been around for 85 years is terribly charming and that the food tastes like it came straight out of the kitchen of the Mexican grandmother everyone wishes they had. Did I order poorly? Did I visit on an off-night? It's possible. I want to tell you to try this restaurant, but you could get better Mexican food in my kitchen. I'm not Mexican, but I do know how to cook.

Mijares Mexican Restaurant
145 Palmetto Dr., Pasadena
(626) 792-2763
Monday - Thursday: 11am to 9pm
Friday, Saturday: 11am to 10pm
Sunday: 9:30 to 10pm
Sunday Brunch: 9:30 to 2pm


Restaurant Review #213: Cha Chaa Thai, North Hollywood

Cha Chaa Thai is proof that just because a Thai restaurant is located on Sherman Way in North Hollywood doesn't mean it will be good. Though this strip of street is home to gems like Bua Siam and Krua Thai, it's apparently not infallible. Cha Chaa serves what is probably the worst Thai food I've ever had.

I had a bad feeling the moment I walked into the place, and experience has shown me that this feeling is almost always dead on. But with the place so empty and the lone server so friendly and so aware of my presence, it felt wrong to leave, so I decided to order anyway and hope for the best.

The food tasted about as good as I expected given the looks of the place: very few customers (it was a little past lunchtime, though), very outdated decor, and a steam table of impossibly cheap lunch specials ($4.95 for rice, one eggroll, soup, and a small portion of an entree).

One of the problems is probably that Cha Chaa is a Thai-Chinese restaurant, not a Thai restaurant. Swan Thai has a few Chinese dishes on its menu, but is primarily a Thai restaurant (a tasty one, at that), so I was expecting the same from Cha Chaa. In reality, it is a Chinese-Thai restaurant, with very few Thai dishes. For example, none of the nine lunch special entree options are Thai. I probably should have ordered a Chinese dish to get a more accurate picture of the kitchen's capabilities, but I was really craving Thai and my funds are limited. Plus, I wanted to order something that would be cooked fresh, not something that had been sitting out under heat lamps for hours.

Pad Thai

The pad Thai was sort of a cross between the ketchupy version and the peanuty version, but it didn't taste like much. I normally don't squeeze fresh lime on my pad Thai, but I used an entire lime to make this dish actually have some flavor (good thing I had a bag of limes in my fridge, since it only came with one wedge). The dish was edible, but I can name about 15 places off the top of my head that do better. Also, there was no option for tofu (with this or any other dish on the menu), which is how I like my pad Thai. This one came with chicken (and shrimp, which I went without). The chicken was somewhat dry and didn't have any flavor beyond its inherent birdiness. The noodles were properly cooked, though not quite as pleasantly chewy as Krua Thai's or Bua Siam's.

Pad see ew

I also tried the pad see ew with beef. Unfortunately, this dish was overcooked, giving it a slightly burnt smell and taste. The beef was no better than the chicken, and the dish, like the pad Thai, was fairly flavorless overall.

One thing the restaurant does have going for it is that the portion sizes are generous and the food is cheap. Unfortunately, it is not unique in that regard. One thing it does do differently, though, is try to cater to a Spanish-speaking clientele. The entire menu is translated into Spanish, and they even serve aguas frescas. Also, the service is friendly and the food was prepared quickly (but not too quickly--it was obviously made to order).

Cha Chaa Thai
12936 Sherman Way
North Hollywood, CA 91605
(818) 503-8884


Restaurant Review #212: Bua Siam, North Hollywood

Pad kee mao

It's almost impossible to go wrong with a Thai restaurant in North Hollywood. True, no one on Sherman Way knows how to drive, there's almost no parking, the lots are full of potholes and puddles and trash, and there are scary-looking men hanging around sometimes. But hit any strip mall in the vicinity of Coldwater Canyon and what should really be called Sherman Boulevard and you're likely to find a Thai restaurant serving some of the best Thai food you've ever eaten (if not some of the best food you've ever eaten, period).

On top of that, it's cheap as hell. If you want to treat yourself to a luxurious meal but can't really afford it, don't go to Melisse and order an appetizer; go to Bua Thai and order five entrees. The cost will be similar, but only one will leave you with a full belly and leftovers for days.

Pad Thai

I'll make no bones about it: Thai is one of my favorite cuisines, yet I eat it so infrequently that I find myself always ordering my old favorites instead of branching out and trying something new. On the plus side, I can compare Thai restaurants pretty well since I always order the same staples: pad Thai, pad kee mao, tom kha, and sometimes (but not this time) fish cakes.

Let's start with the dish that always makes me feel like a cliche when I order it, but I can't help it because I love it so much and haven't yet figured out how to cook it at home without ending up with a glob of tasteless/burnt/excessively tamarindy rice sticks. While pad Thai is a dish of infinite permutations, there are basically two schools of pad Thai in Los Angeles: the ketchup school, found primarily in whitish locales like Santa Monica, and the peanuty school, found primarily in North Hollywood. I'm making broad generalizations here, yes, but the ketchup kind has an orangeish-red (or in a worst-case scenario, pinkish) color and a slightly tangy flavor, while the peanuty kind has a translucent brown color and is super sweet. I will confess to not really liking the latter, which Bua Thai serves, because of my distaste for particularly sweet things (I probably should have squeezed that lime over the top), but the chewiness of the noodles is divine.

Tom yum

Tom yum is essentially just sweet and sour soup (which, by the way, should not be confused with Chinese hot and sour soup, a totally different concoction). It consists of a light chicken broth infused with galanga and kaffir lime leaves (the sour), however much spice you specify (the hot), mushrooms, cilantro, and your choice of protein. I always get the chicken, and it always tastes like nothing more than bland, boiled chicken, but Bua Siam's broth is particularly rich and particularly (but pleasantly) sour, having the sort of umami one normally associates with pho. Minus the ever-present chicken issue, this is one of the best bowls of tom yum I've ever had. I was also glad that they had both small and large bowls, so I didn't have to order the soup for my entree like I did the last time I went out for Thai (in San Francisco).

Rivaling tom yum for my favorite Thai dish is pad kee mao, which I discovered during a visit to Krua Thai when I decided to branch out slightly from my old standbys. This dish consists of fat rice noodles, a bit of palm sugar, red bell pepper slices, Chinese broccoli, mint, and the usual protein of your choice (I got beef). The beef seemed like it had been cooked separately from the rest of the dish; its flavor was more reminiscent of hamburger than anything Thai. Krua Thai's beef is more flavorful and better integrated into the dish, but their version is also very greasy. The noodles, while not as chewy as the pad Thai, were still one of the best forms of comfort food I know. The palm sugar makes them slightly sweet, but not too sweet. The Chinese broccoli had a fresh crunch and a pleasant hint of bitterness and the red bell peppers balanced that with their slight sweetness. This is also a spicy dish, which is another reason why it is my favorite noodle dish, beating out other possible contenders like pad see ew.

The restaurant is casual but not dingy (unlike Swan Thai). A mix-and-match assortment of no more than ten finished pine tables (all of which appear to be from Ikea) take up most of this narrow restaurant, but the flaming tangerine and lime green walls give the place character and make it seem bigger than it is. Our server was friendly, our food arrived promptly, and my water seemd to magically refill itself. The dishes are elegantly presented on square white plates, though Bua Siam's serving sizes appear to be a little smaller than its competitors.

The restaurant is particularly hard to spot from the chaotic street; the best way to find it is to look for the large and colorful Cha Chaa Thai, pull into the same parking lot, then peruse the storefronts until you find the right address number.

Bua Siam makes it to the top of many foodies' lists for good reason. Within hours of finishing my meal, I was already dying to go back!

Bua Siam
12924 Sherman Way
North Hollywood, CA 91605
(818) 765-8395
Bua Siam website


Restaurant Review #211: Porto's, Glendale

Assorted pastries. From back left to front right: guava strudel, almond danish, croissant, coconut glazed, coconut strudel, apple empanada

Though Porto's is a Los Angeles legend, it's possible to not know about it, especially if you live on the Westside. In an attempt to avoid the crowds, we visited late on a Saturday afternoon, but despite primarily being a bakery, the place was a madhouse. As we waited in line, we crained our necks around the throngs ordering at the counter trying to pick out which goodies we wanted. Few items are labeled, so unless you're a regular, you'll just have to point. Printed and posted menus curiously don't list all the items.

Assorted savory pastries. From back left to front right: pastel de carne (meat pie), chorizo pie, chicken empanada, ham croquettes, potato balls

Porto's serves both sweet and savory pastries with a Cuban influence. With so many delicious options, you can feel the pounds piling on before you even start eating. While there are really no bad dishes, in the savory category, you won't want to miss the pastel de carne (puff pastry filled with seasoned ground beef), chicken empanada (filled with moist, shredded chicken and peppers), or potato balls (mashed potato wrapped around seasoned ground beef, breaded and deep fried). In the sweet category, be sure to try the mango empanadas, cheese danish, and coconut strudel.

Medianoche sandwich

In addition to its pastries, Porto's offers a selection of sandwiches. The medianoche (midnight) sandwich, a concoction of ham, roasted pork, swiss cheese, pickles, mustard, and mayonnaise on a toasted sweet roll, is tastier than its simple appearance implies. The grilled chicken sandwich is basic but juicy and tender.

Grilled chicken sandwich

Porto's prices are stunningly low--and they create and delivery large orders for parties. Imagine how many people you could feed on the cheap when a dense, filling empanada costs just 95 cents? Most savory pastries are under $1.00 to start with and are even cheaper when you buy them 50 pieces at a time. The sweet pastries are equally inexpensive. If you're looking for something more sophisticated, Porto's also has a large selection of French-style cakes and mousses and they also do elaborate wedding cakes.

315 N. Brand Blvd.
Glendale, CA 91203
Porto's website (very informative)


Restaurant Review #210: Absolutely Phobulous, Encino

Chicken sticks

Absolutely Phobulous is a relatively new Vietnamese restaurant in Encino on Ventura Boulevard (where else?). As you might guess by the absence of lucky numbers in the name and their trademarked slogan, "Vietnamese with a modern sensibility," it's fairly different from the other Vietnamese joints in town. The menu is as much shorter as the clientele is whiter.

Papaya salad

Crunchy-chewy strips of green papaya garnished with crushed peanuts and fresh mint leaves drizzled with a light, fish-sauce based house dressing tasted exactly like this salad should taste with no surprises good or bad. This dish normally comes with shrimp.

The generous chicken stick appetizer (lead photo) is almost enough food for a whole meal. The moist meat is cooked in a coconut- and peanut-based sauce and a dusted with a slightly crispy coating. The chicken comes with a bowl of finger-licking good peanut dipping sauce. This is the most flavorful of the dishes we tried.

Vietnamese crepe

The Vietnamese crepes are moist, gooey, translucent rice cakes filled with spiced ground pork, black mushrooms, and supposedly, onions. Buried beneath slices of dry, Spam-like Vietnamese ham and crispy, deep-fried onions and served with a heaping side of fresh bean sprouts and mint, the crepes almost seem like an afterthought. Their dough is fairly flavorless and the filling is scant. This dish should probably be moved off of the "house specials" section of the menu.

Pho beef combo

The pho, while adequate, does not live up to the restaurant's name. The broth is not as richly flavored or as lovingly spiced as a top-notch bowl of this Vietnamese classic should be. At least the noodles aren't soggy or clumped together. Unlike most Vietnamese restaurants, there is only one pho option here: pho with a combination of rare beef, beef meatballs, and beef brisket. The brisket is the most flavorful of the meats, and the meatballs have that common, slightly tough chewiness.

Banana sensation

The smooth tapioca and savory coconut cream in this dish are perfect, but the bananas are strangely dessicated. While the crushed peanuts complement the other flavors in the dish nicely, after the peanuts on the chicken and the salad, they were excessive.

Three Seasons

Three seasons is a dessert consisting of sweet and salty red beans, yellow bean paste, triangles of green gelatin, rich coconut cream, and shaved ice. The red beans are hard and dry, but as the bottom layer, they are easily avoided. The yellow bean paste is earthy, smooth, and sweet and the gelatin has that distinct bite common to Asian gelatins but crunchier than American Jello.

Dining room

As good as the food is, the service is atrocious. Our appetizers and entrees all arrived at the same time, crowding the table and making it difficult to eat the dishes at their proper temperatures. Also, all the food arrived in an alarmingly short amount of time after ordering (surprisingly, it still tasted fresh). Once we finished eating, it was nearly impossible to flag down a server to bring us dessert, containers for leftovers, or the bill. Absolutely Phobulous is not the only restaurant in LA to commit this sin, of course--it's dreadfully common--but that doesn't make it excusable and it really soured an otherwise tasty meal. I plan to return, given the limited Vietnamese options in a ten-mile radius, but I will definitely get takeout so I can enjoy my food without the incompetent and borderline hostile waitstaff.

Absolutely Phobulous
15928 Ventura Blvd. #101
Encino, CA 91346
Absolutely Phobulous website/menu
Also located in West Hollywood


Restaurant Review #209: Passage to India, Van Nuys

For the most part, the only way to get Indian food in Van Nuys is to have it delivered through a special restaurant delivery service that charges an arm and a leg in extra fees and minimum orders. Thankfully, there is an alternative: Passage to India on Burbank at Hazeltine. With decor that hasn't been updated since the '70s and a location in a tacky strip mall containing a falafel joint and a key duplication shop, the restaurant isn't much to look at. Nor is the food particularly outstanding despite the menu's claims that its chefs were top chefs in Bangladesh, England, and Saudia Arabia. But in a neighborhood with no other Indian options and with Chinese and pizza as the only other affordable delivery places, even merely passable Indian food is a much-welcomed option.

Chicken vindaloo

Juicy, tender chicken and buttery potatoes bathe in a tame sauce with long strips of fresh ginger. This dish would be good if it came from a crock pot in Iowa, but it's too tame to call itself Indian.

Mattar Paneer

At the opposite end of the spectrum lies the mattar paneer. The most flavorful dish by far, the sauce has a hint of smokiness and a touch of sweetness the envelopes the tender, perfectly-cooked peas.

Aloo gobi

Another of Passage to India's better dishes is the aloo gobi, fork-tender cauliflower with potatoes and sauce. Although no Indian restaurant does this, cutting the potatoes into smaller chunks would make them more flavorful.

Chicken Tikka Masala

The chicken tikka masala is creamy and flavorful, but it's hard to get past the alarmingly artificial-looking color. If you're particularly coordinated, perhaps you can eat it with your eyes closed.

Curry chicken

The curry chicken doesn't live up to its name--it's surprisingly bland. Don't bother with this dish.

Lemon pickle

The lemon pickles have a pungent, sour smell and an intense heat that sneaks up on you. As good as they are, there's a decent chance you could pick up an identical product in a jar in Artesia (for the same price as this tiny $3 cup--but a little goes a long way).

Gulab jamun

The gulab jamun are not very flavorful, not very soft, and have a few hard, unpleasant bits of cardamom seeds.

This review isn't exactly a rave, but when you don't feel like getting in your car and that jar of simmer sauce from Trader Joe's just isn't going to cut it, Passage to India still makes for a pretty satisfying meal if you order well. The menu has a pleasing number of options, including beef dishes and lots of shrimp dishes. Rice is not included, so make sure to order some. The naan is good if you like yours soft and chewy (but you'll have to pay extra for chutney). Prices are typical Indian restaurant prices: $6.95 to $7.95 for vegetarian dishes, and $9.95 to $12.95 for chicken, lamb, and beef dishes. All dishes can be ordered mild, medium, hot, or "phall hot". Medium spice seems to be pretty mild, but hot may be a little too hot.

For takeout, calling in your order is a better idea than just stopping by. The food seems to be at least partly made to order given the time it takes to prepare and the aromas that emanate from the kitchen only after you place your order, so you'll wait a while if you just walk in. Delivery arrives in a blessedly reasonable amount of time even on a Saturday night (also unlike the multiple restaurant delivery service, which takes at least an hour).

Passage to India
14062 Burbank Blvd.
Van Nuys, CA 91401
Lunch buffet 11:30-2:30 daily
Dinner 5:00-10:00
Free delivery within two miles


Restaurant Review #208: La Frite, Sherman Oaks

Onion soup gratinee

On Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, La Frite occupies a blessedly quiet and relatively large space, but the dining room is poorly decorated and has too much incandescent yellow lighting. On a Monday night, finding free street parking was a snap and we didn't need a reservation, as there were plenty of empty tables - perhaps too many, in retrospect. Most of the other patrons were from the Sherman Oaks retiree set and/or primarily there for a drink at the bar. We had no problems with the service, but restaurant review sites like Citysearch and Menupages websites report some troubling rudeness.

The menu is long and varied, but tries too hard to please. What self-respecting French restaurant serves Chinese chicken salad with mandarin oranges, rice noodles, and fried wontons, or "Pizza South Western" with chicken, red onion, avocado, and cilantro? With items like those being offered alongside basic French cuisine, I was awfully wary of trying the restaurant's more traditional dishes, like escargot or duck pate.

The prices are scary, too, for food of a Marie Callender's caliber. Chicken Cordon Bleu comes in at a whopping $17.75, while the aforementioned gourmet snails are only $16 for a dozen. Snails, like sushi, are no place to cut costs.

Quiche Lorraine

The quiche Lorraine with ham, bacon, and swiss cheese was unmemorable, but the dressing with lettuce (err, side salad) was a rare sight to Angeleno eyes. I thought I'd simultaneously been transported to another decade and another part of the country - another part of the U.S., unfortunately, not France.

Chicken Cordon Bleu

Named after the famous French culinary school, chicken Cordon Bleu is a classic dish of chicken rolled around ham and swiss cheese. The chicken was moist and flavorful, but not spectacular. The green beans tasted fine, but looked a little sickly, like someone forgot to blanch them.

Ham, cheese, and mushroom crepe

The best dish was probably the ham, cheese, and mushroom crepe, which was warm, tasty and filling. The menu offers several varieties of crepes, such as spinach, tomato, sausage, and cheese or ratatouille. I'm not sure how I feel about putting ratatouille in a crepe, but it makes for a decent vegetarian option. The menu is somewhat meaty, but there are an above-average number of vegetarian choices, including several varieties of pasta, a vegetarian quiche, several salads, a homemade veggie burger, and a mushroom burger.

Grand Marnier souffle

Dessert options include most of the usual suspects: cheesecake, ice cream, bread pudding, and creme brulee; a few particularly dull additions: ice cream sundae, banana split, carrot cake; and several more unique options: taratuffo cake, chocolate pecan honey tart, crepes, and the liquor souffle of your choice. Trying to opt for something more interesting while also going with an old standby, we ordered two souffles--chocolate and liquor. The liquor souffle of your choice can be made with Grand Marnier, Kahlua, amaretto, Bailey's, or whatever you want.

Chocolate souffle

The souffles arrived steaming hot and had a very airy texture, making this dessert a good choice if you're already quite full from dinner. However, both were surprisingly lacking in flavor except for tasting too strongly of egg. Even the accompanying sauces couldn't redeem them.

Dining room

La Frite is an acceptable but fairly outdated and uninteresting restaurant. Even in parts of the country with less inspired dining options, La Frite would be a disappointment to most. A regular clientele may sustain this restaurant for a while longer, but all signs indicate that it's on its way out (and doesn't seem to care).

La Frite
15013 Ventura Blvd.
Sherman Oaks, CA 9143
La Frite Menu

La Frite on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #207: Maru, Valencia

A request to try Maru on the house was an invitation I couldn't refuse, and thank goodness I made the trek to the northernmost edge of Los Angeles's suburbs. Even if the meal hadn't had eight indulgent, generously sized courses (per person!) and even if it hadn't been free, my meal at Maru still would have been one of the best I've ever eaten.

Maru resides in Valencia Town Square, an enormous outdoor shopping center that can be intimidating to navigate (think Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade or Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard, folded in on itself). Fortunately, Maru is on the main drag and clearly labeled in blocky silver letters (albeit as "Maru Sushi"). On a Saturday at 5:00, the square was bustling and there were no street parking spaces nearby, but a free garage just around the corner offered plenty of parking in ample, SUV-sized spaces. Maru was nearly empty, but the night was young.

The long, narrow dining room accommodates quite a few tables yet isn't cramped at all. Every table has plenty of room between itself and its neighbors, making Maru a good choice for a quiet meal or a date. The decor is minimalist but classic, with small spotlights above each table and white linens. Unlike most Japanese restaurants, the sushi bar does not dominate the dining room, but is tucked away in the back offering a completely different dining experience to sushi aficionados. One potential drawback, though, it its proximity to the kitchen, where the aromas of homemade Yukon Gold french fries and short ribs might interfere somewhat with the delicate flavors of the raw bar experience.

Maru bills itself as French-Japanese and offers a menu so varied that it should be troublesome. After all, most restaurants that try to serve more than one type of cuisine don't do any of them well. This is not the case with chef Jason Park, the inspired young chef-owner who has run Maru for the last seven years and whose passion for his work shines in every delicious bite.

Park explained that what differentiates him from other chefs is that unlike the older generation of Japanese chefs who he believes had to go into the restaurant business to make a living, he chose his career solely for the love of food. Before opening Maru, he worked at several other restaurants in Los Angeles and one in Japan.

Freshness is extremely important to Park. Every week, he makes the trek to the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market (in traffic, no less), saying that for chefs, there is no comparable farmers market in the area. In fact, he knows some chefs who trek all the way to San Diego for their produce. For the most part, though, chefs with his level of dedication are rare in Valencia, he says, explaining that it's common in the area for restaurants to take shortcuts like using frozen produce.

Our seasonal market meal's opening act was soup and salad. The heirloom tomato salad with red pepper vinaigrette was a refreshing break from the day's unseasonable heat. The dish fulfilled a craving for fresh produce that I didn't even know I had until I took my first bite. The light, bright flavors of juicy tomatoes, crisp greens, cool cucumbers, and silky avocado drizzled lightly with a tangy dressing heralded the beginning of summer.

An espresso cup of broccoli soup provided a warm contrast to the chilled salad. Despite the absence of cream, the velvety soup was rich in taste and didn't have an overpowering broccoli flavor. The homemade pea ravioli (lead photo) was almost as stunning as award-winning Melisse's sweet corn ravioli. Fresh pasta done right is thin and delicate, allowing the dish's other ingredients to shine. The accompanying diver scallop was seared to a perfect crisp on the outside while retaining its moist, slippery inside. An out-of-this-world, savory-sweet vanilla sauce complemented the delicate sweetness of the ravioli and scallop.

What the hamachi usuzukuri, or yellowtail with a yuzu vinaigrette, lacked in innovation, it made up for in freshness. Maru's fish is flown in overnight from Japan. This dish was reminiscent of the ubiquitous albacore salad, but the hamachi was melt-in-your-mouth tender and beautifully presented. All of Park's dishes are as pleasing to the eyes as they are to the palate. Maru offers a great advantage to sushi lovers with spouses and friends who aren't fond of raw fish: everyone can go to the same restaurant and dine happily. Sushi eaters can have their pick of top-notch fish, and those who prefer their food cooked have more choices than just teriyaki chicken and tempura.

Pan-seared monkfish with a winter truffle vinaigrette served over sauteed spinach was a meaty, buttery fish (sometimes called the "poor man's lobster") with a crisp exterior. The spinach was rich and tender, but surprisingly, the accompanying truffles didn't seem to add a noticeable flavor. On the other hand, they didn't overwhelm the dish.

Weiser Family Farm's purple and gold fingerling potatoes don't need a lot of help to bring out their rich, creamy flavor which is a far cry from any supermarket potato. Park clearly understands this, roasting the potatoes to bring out their flavor, enhancing their richness with creme fraiche, and adding maple smoked bacon and a hint of onion for contrast.

The crispy duck risotto was the biggest winner of the night, which is saying a lot considering its competition. The risotto cake's crunchy exterior contrasted with its creamy interior and gave way to a center of tender duck meat. Medallions of melty-warm fresh mozzarella cozied up to their soul mate: a truffle oil-infused roasted tomato sauce. Sometimes truffles are overrated
(the monkfish dish perhaps being a case in point), but they really pushed the duck risotto over the top.

Less creative restaurants commonly serve steak with mashed potatoes and sauteed vegetables, and maybe some A-1 sauce. Park seems to acknowledge this popular combination while turning it into something more exciting. The perfectly grilled skirt steak tasted like Korean barbecue, reflecting one of Park's original cooking influences: his mother. The paper-thin hand-made pasta it sat atop was bathed in a creamy sauce that merely hinted at the flavor of horseradish. Grilled wild arugula added a crunchy, bitter-sweet contrast.

The beef ravioli with hon shiimeji mushrooms in creamy ten-year balsamic sauce again showcased Park's agility with homemade pasta and savory sauces. The delicate pasta was nearly bursting with filling. The grilled greens on top are ramps, also known as wild leeks. They have an oniony, garlicky, slightly bitter flavor.

At this point in the meal, we had gorged ourselves silly and didn't think we could possibly eat any more. We suggested to the waitress that maybe Chef Park should send us smaller dishes or skip us ahead to dessert so we wouldn't waste any of his delicious food. His response to her was, "they'll eat well tomorrow," so he kept sending us dishes which we mostly took home as leftovers. At most upscale restaurants, it seems uncouth to ask for a doggie bag, but Maru is not so pretentious as to waste food for the sake of appearances.

The next dish was all about the french fries. Normally a cheap side, Park elevated the french fry to an art form. Every fry was perfectly cut and perfectly cooked, but what really pushed them over the top was their tantalizing smell. The fries came with a side of fork-tender short ribs (blessedly bone-free) with a sake-soy reduction.

Topped with marinated onion and cilantro, the pan-roasted lamb loin over crispy shiitake rice with Japanese curry sauce was like a deconstructed Indian dish but with unique flavors and textures. The lamb was perfectly cooked and I was thrilled to have a second serving of crispy rice.

At its worst, bread pudding is a soggy, eggy mess attempting to resurrect leftover bread. Bread pudding at its best is crisp and buttery, a marriage of contrasting textures with cold ice cream dripping down the sides and perhaps a judiciously used extra ingredient, Valrhona chocolate in this case.

Park's dessert menu consists of slight variations on the classic crowd-pleasing desserts. The yuzu-mascarpone cheesecake with fresh raspberries was rich but not too heavy, with a bright flavor imparted by the hint of citrus.

According to the server, the fresh berry cobbler topped with homemade vanilla ice cream is many patrons' main motivation for visiting Maru. The rustic, doughy cobbler was the ultimate comfort food, and despite the indulgences of the evening, we were able to finish the whole thing.

The incredible number of dishes described here represents only a third of Maru's menu (and that's not even including the raw offerings). With such a wide selection of fantastic dishes, it's easy to understand why Maru has many regulars. Surprisingly, Park's outstanding food comes with a very affordable price tag. The dishes shown here are actually smaller than the usual portions. Most appetizers are $12, most seconds are just over $20, topping out at a reasonable $38 for the New York steak. Most desserts are $8. There is an extensive list of California and French wines along with Japanese sake. Wine pairings are available.

Maru's service is phenomenal. Our server, Trisha, was friendly, attentive, down-to-earth, and personable, and at the start of the meal, she didn't even know we were reviewers. Fresh silverware appeared before every well-timed course. Busboys promptly cleared dishes and refilled drinks.

Maru could easily hold its own in any of LA's best restaurant neighborhoods, but Park's regular patrons, including a couple who eats both dinner and lunch at the restaurant every single day, are grateful for his chosen location. Besides , Park says of operating in Valencia, "I have a captive audience." Park explains that many Valencians used to live in LA and grew accustomed to a high level of cuisine, but moved north where the houses were more affordable when they wanted to settle down. Thus, there is more of a market for haute cuisine in the area than one might think. Though Maru has been open since 2001, it still seems to be an undiscovered gem. Get in while you can.

24250 Town Center Drive, Suite 180
Valencia, CA
Maru Website
Closed Mondays
Lunch Tue. - Fri., 11:30-2:30
Lunch Sat., 12:00-2:30
Dinner Tue. - Fri., 5:30-10:00
Dinner Sat., 5:00-10:00
Dinner Sun., 5:00-9:00