Restaurant Review #202: Sushi Roku, Santa Monica

I've been to Sushi Roku, a small chain with locations in Santa Monica, Pasadena, West Hollywood, and Las Vegas, more times than I can count. I suppose I always choose it in an attempt to fulfill a sushi craving when I'm in downtown Santa Monica and don't feel like fighting rush hour traffic to Brentwood or West LA or the Santa Monica Airport, where there are considerably better options (but it can take a terrible hour to make the four-mile drive).

I've always found it perplexing that a place as close to the ocean as Santa Monica doesn't have better fish. There are those who will argue that I should go to Sushi King (too much wasabi, no atmosphere, I say), and I used to be a big proponent of Noma until they gave me some dried-out hamachi, but for the most part, all the sushi options in the area seem more focused on being trendy than on serving top-notch fish. I'm surprised that there are still restaurants serving sushi rolls that contain mayonnaise, but I guess there are still people who enjoy that.

Sushi Roku is, in fact, another one of these not-so-good sushi options, and on top of that, it's overpriced. I like the decor, the low lighting, and perhaps the familiarity, even though the fish is sloppily cut and I never leave feeling satisfied. Once, three years ago, I had the tasting menu and was quite impressed, but that was in my considerably more naive days and pre-Foodie Universe. My tastes have changed considerably since then. How could they not have, now that I've eaten pad kee mao at Krua Thai, mole coloradito at Monte Alban, fresh tofu with sea salt at Musha, and sweet corn ravioli at Melisse?

Even though Santa Monica is a beach town, you'll probably feel under-dressed here unless you're wearing business attire or trendy LA clothes. Sushi Roku's service is often a bit snobby, which seems to be a requirement to work at a wannabe trendy restaurant. Some of their tables are awkwardly positioned in the middle of the room, and you're likely to get stuck at one of these as punishment for not having a reservation, even if it's a Monday and none of the better tables are occupied at any point during your meal. Also awkward is the bathroom situation--Sushi Roku is located in a large office building, and their bathroom is not actually in the restaurant--it's in the office building, and it has a bathroom attendant. Not only do I have having to pay money to have someone hand me a paper towel, I find the whole bathroom attendant thing to be incredibly backward.

Sushi Roku's specials are generally more interesting and more flavorful than simply ordering from the sushi menu, but I didn't order any on my last visit. Instead, I tried the crunchy tuna avocado roll, the albacore scallion roll, the spicy scallop roll, and a few pieces of nigiri. My eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach--even with a friend's help, I couldn't eat it all.

Our food took an unbelievably long time to arrive, particularly considering that the restaurant was only half-full and almost everything we ordered did not require any cooking. The crunchy tuna avocado roll arrived first, but it seemed like it had been sitting out for a while before it made it to our table. It was soggy, not crunchy, especially because someone had the brilliant idea to put something that was supposed to be crispy in a pool of orange mayonnaise. The sauce was good and the roll was flavorful overall, but it might as well have contained chicken since the delicate flavors of the avocado and the tuna were totally overwhelmed by the fried flavor and the sauce. A million years later, the rest of our food arrived. The albacore scallion roll tasted bitter--something had to have been wrong with it, though I wasn't sure what. I'm not sure why I didn't send it back--maybe I just figured that Sushi Roku couldn't do any better.

The toro jalapeno roll was also disappointing. Toro, the fatty belly of the tuna, is supposed to be the king of sushi, but here it just tasted watery, and I should have known better than to expect heat from the jalapeno--without its ribs and seeds, jalapeno doesn't rank very high on the Scoville scale.

The spicy scallop roll was probably my favorite, even though it was one of those blasphemous mayo-fish rolls and it was dotted with a Sriracha-like sauce--two things that can't help but overwhelm the delicate flavor of scallop. Instead, I focused on enjoying the flawlessly smooth texture of raw scallop.

After my latest experience, I think the spell has finally been broken. Whatever used to draw me to Sushi Roku despite my better judgment will draw me there no more. If I'm going to spend $40 or more on dinner, I might as well brave the traffic and go to my old standby Kiriko, where I can get more food that tastes better for the same price.

Sushi Roku
1401 Ocean Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Sushi Roku Website and Menu
Sushi Roku on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #201: Valley's Pizza Land, Van Nuys

Meatball sandwich

I know, I know. You can't believe I would actually eat at a restaurant called Valley's Pizza Land. The name says it all, doesn't it? This is just further evidence for why you only dine on the Westside.

Well, you're partially right. I didn't eat at Pizza Land, I had it delivered. The only reason I considered this place at all is because delivery options in some parts of the Valley are pretty scant, so when a restaurant menu shows up on your doorstep that isn't for pizza or Chinese food, it's a pretty exciting day.

But Pizza Land is a pizza place, you say. Well, that's only sort of true. You see, Pizza Land is also a Middle Eastern restaurant in disguise.

Beef kebab plate

We ordered a variety of dishes out of morbid curiosity. Was there any chance that a pizza place could actually make decent kebabs and grape leaves? The answer seems to be no.

I started with the beef kebab plate, which comes with lavash (the interracial love child of a tortilla and some pita bread), hummus, rice or french fries, roasted vegetables, and a little cucumber/tomato salad. The charred green pepper gave this dish a wonderful aroma--that is, until I actually got the beef pieces close to my nose. They had the aroma of something I might feed my cats if I were seeking revenge for the latest overturning of the bathroom trash can. I just couldn't bring myself to eat more than two bites of this mysterious meat that had the texture of beef, but smelled more like rotting chicken. I feared food poisoning, but it never surfaced. The french fries were hopelessly soggy, so I saved them as leftovers for future revival in my toaster oven. I decided to make a meal out of wrapping lavash around pieces of red onion, cucumber, and tomato and dipping them into the somewhat watery but otherwise hummus. At least the bread was warm and soft. The entire dish was only $8, so I can't really say that I feel ripped off. It's more that, had the meat actually been good, I would have found a killer deal. Oh, and if you're wondering why I ordered french fries when I could have had rice, which travels much better, it was the morbid curiosity getting to me again.

Eggplant parmesan with spinach linguine

In contrast to the beef kebabs, the eggplant parmesan was delicious. Eggplant is easy to screw up--I've done it many times myself. I've also eaten many frozen eggplant dishes from Whole Foods where the eggplant is hopelessly undercooked. Pizza Land's eggplant was cooked to melt-in-your-mouth perfection. I would definitely order this dish again. It's also only $8 and, for me, enough food for two to three meals.


I really like dolmas when they're done well, but most of my experiences with these rice and meat-stuffed grape leaves have been ill-fated. Pizza Land makes the worst grape leaves I've ever encountered. By the time they arrived at my door, they were both soggy and hard at the same time, the rice undercooked, the leaves overcooked to a putrid green-yellow, and the beef the same rank-smelling concoction that was used for my kebabs. This dish made me feel like I'd really like my $6 back. Maybe if I steam them and pour tomato sauce on top, I can make them palatable. I hate wasting food.

Deep fried ravioli

We ordered the deep fried ravioli expecting toasted ravioli--a fantastic dish rarely seen outside of St. Louis, but given the oddities of the rest of the menu, it seemed plausible that this dish had made it to a Valley pizzeria/kebab hut. But no, they actually took pieces of ravioli and deep-fried them, resulting in a dish with a bizarrely leathery appearance and a pasta shell that gave a new meaning to "al dente."

The "homemade meatball" sandwich was a riot. It actually tasted quite good, but the "meatballs" were not ball-shaped at all and looked a little like spam and it could have used more filling to balance out all the bread. The sandwich was also $8 and came with fries.

In addition to the bizarre assortment of dishes you've read about in this review, Pizza Land also serves fish and chips, "deep fried creamy jalapeno," baby back ribs, and "sea fairer delight" (fish and shrimp). Oh, and pizza.

Despite the oddities and horribly inconsistent food, I actually plan to order from Pizza Land again. Next time I'm going to be a little more adventurous and try a khachapure, a dish made of bread filled with egg, cheese, and sometimes other fillings. It has about a 50% chance of being good, but I've never had this dish before, so at least it will be an adventure. I'll also re-order the eggplant and venture into some other dishes. Maybe I'll even try the pizza.

Because how can you not love a place this weird?

Valley's Pizza Land
4837 Laurel Canyon Blvd.
Valley Village, CA 91607
M-Th, 11-11
Fri. and Sat., 11-midnight
Sun. 11-10
Free delivery ($8 minimum)
Also located in Burbank, Sherman Oaks, and North Hollywood
Pizza Land on Urbanspoon


Giveaway! Hungry? and Thirsty? Coupon Decks

The friendly folks over at Hungry? LA recently contacted me about their new product, two decks of coupon cards offering discounts on food and drinks at establishments throughout Los Angeles. If you're familiar with the Cozmo deck, this is a similar concept. The decks cost $24.95 each and have 52 cards per deck. Much like Foodie Universe, Hungry? and Thirsty?'s focus is on providing "the lowdown on where the real people eat and drink."

I have three Hungry? decks and one Thirsty? deck to give away to my lucky readers. To enter the drawing, just leave a comment telling me one thing you like about Foodie Universe and one thing you think I could do to improve my site (I already know that the search box doesn't work. . .still working on figuring that out). Leave me your email address so I can contact you if you win. I won't publish the comments, so your email address is safe from the spamlords. I'll draw the winners at random on Wednesday, February 20. Four winners will each receive one deck.

For those of you who might be interested in buying this product, are my thoughts on the decks.

Hungry? Deck: First, the rules. Each coupon is for $10 off with a minimum purchase of $20. Each card is only redeemable once and can only be applied towards the food portion of the bill. Only one coupon can be used per table. You must dine in to use the coupon, and it expires December 31, 2008. Fair enough. Coupons always have stipulations like this to prevent people from abusing the system. Still, $10 off a $20 meal (if you can eat at a particular restaurant for that little) is 50% off--a great deal.

Each card has a paragraph of description about the restaurant, as well as its address, phone number, hours, and web address. The cards are attractively designed, easy to read, and made of sturdy, slick cardstock.

My complaint about the deck is that it contains restaurants from all over the city. I know that this won't bother everyone--some people regularly find themselves all over the city or like to drive out of their way to try new places. I would prefer that Hungry? offer several different decks tailored to the different geographic regions of LA: one for the Westside, one for the San Fernando Valley, one for the Eastside, and so on. I think most people will probably only find that a few of the coupons in the deck are useful to them, since someone living in Santa Monica is not terrible likely to drive to Glendale to try Mario's Italian Deli and Market, and someone living in Studio City is probably not going to trek to Manhattan Beach to try Ebizo's Skewer. If every restaurant in the deck were a destination restaurant, like Melisse or Lucques, driving across town to try the place might make sense, but of course, $10 doesn't go far at most destination restaurants. The deck advertises on the outside that the coupons inside are "a $500 value," but I think the average person will probably only get about $50 worth of savings out of this deck, which isn't too hot considering the $25 retail price (note that you can save $5 by purchasing directly through their website). If you live in Hollywood and work Downtown, or vice versa, you might manage to save around $120, since a lot of the restaurants in the deck are in one of these areas. To see the full list of restaurants included in the coupon deck, visit Hungry?'s website.

Thirsty? Deck: The rules for the Thirsty? cards are similar, except that the amount of discount varies depending on the establishment. For example, there are cards for 10% off a purchase at a wine store, cards fo buy two drinks, get one free at coffee and smoothie shops, and cards for $10 off at restaurants. The buy two, get one free coupons I find annoying because they aren't likely to be useful if you're dining alone or even as a duo. Another issue is that it isn't clear from either the cards or the website whether the drink cards can also be used on food, which I imagine could lead to some confusion and frustration when it comes time to pay the restaurant bill.

There is a bit of overlap between the two decks--a few of the cards in the restaurant stack are also in the drink stack. I also found two cards for the same restaurant in my Thirsty? deck, but perhaps that was just an accident. See the complete list of Thirsty? establishments here.

Overall, I think the decks are a good idea, but I think they could be improved by being targeted to a more localized part of Los Angeles and, in the case of the Thirsty? deck, having clearer rules and switching the buy two, get one free cards to something more useful.

The nice thing about the decks is that they generally have fewer stipulations than Restaurant.com coupons (for example, you don't have to spend as much money to use them, and there is no requirement to have a certain number of people in your party). Also, since they look nice and more closely resemble gift cards than coupons, they are likely to have an appeal that extends beyond the usual coupon-clipping crowd and reaches out to those who might otherwise be embarrassed to use a coupon.


Restaurant Review #200: Jaipur Cuisine of India, Westwood/West LA

Mattar Paneer

Though I have eaten at Jaipur many times, I have only had their food delivered (a much simpler option, given their chaotic location--not that this is a unique problem in LA). However, thanks to a $25 Restaurant.com certificate, I decided to dine in for a change. Unlike many of these certificates, which have restrictions on when you can eat, you can use a certificate to Jaipur seven days a week. The only conditions are that you need to dine in, spend $45 (before the certificate), and pay in cash. At most Indian restaurants, $45 will buy you plenty of food, and Jaipur is no exception. In addition to its reasonably priced menu for everyday patrons, the restaurant also offers budget-sensitive catering services for small and large events and can serve your needs whether you need a full buffet or just appetizers. Thanks to the certificate, for a mere $25, we enjoyed a small feast.

Chicken vindaloo

One of the benefits of dining in at Jaipur is that you get mint and tamarind chutneys, carrot and lemon pickles, and salty, delicately crunchy papadums to scoop them up with as soon as you sit down. Their mango pickles, which you can order for $3, are also an unforgettable treat. Everyone should try mango pickles at some point--even if you don't like them, you'll appreciate how intensely tangy and salty they are.

Jaipur is named after the owner's favorite Indian city, "the pink city," located in the Indian state of Rajastan. The restaurant opened in 1999 by an owner whose prior experience included being a chef and restaurant manager in Germany and Los Angeles for 15 years. The restaurant is on Pico Boulevard near Westwood, adjacent to the Westside Pavilion parking garage and Torafuku. Getting there after work during rush hour can be a nightmare, and parking can be too if you don't know that Jaipur has a valet option (for $4.50) or that you can park in the Westside Pavilion garage for free.

To get the most bang for our gift certificate buck, we skipped the appetizers and dove straight into the entrees. As a general rule, I don't like any of Jaipur's creamy dishes, like the chicken korma, chicken tikka masala, or navrattan korma--I find the sauce too heavy. By contrast, the chicken vindaloo, which has a spicy, tomato-based sauce, is one of Jaipur's best dishes, though it would be even better if the meat were free of gristly, fatty bits and cooked in smaller pieces that could absorb more of the sauce. I can never get enough of the sauce, especially since I like to scoop it up and eat it straight with some freshly-baked naan.

Aloo gobi

Smaller chunks of potato would also be effective in making a more flavorful aloo gobi, though this is the dish's only flaw. The cauliflower is cooked to melt-in-your-mouth perfection. The mattar paneer (lead photo) is also flavorful without being heavy, with squishy homemade cheese and tender bright green peas. I only wish this dish were spicy. With most of Jaipur's dishes, you'll have to request extra heat if you want to enjoy that tingling sensation on your lips. According to the owner, some of the dishes have been modified to better serve the tastes of Angelenos. Such a statement might make you think that the flavors were watered down or that Jaipur served bland, "healthy" Indian food like Pradeep's or Dhaba in Santa Monica, but, lack of spiciness aside, I think Jaipur serves some of the most flavorful Indian food on the Westside.

Gulab jamun

Jaipur's desserts are homemade and taste like it. My favorites are the rashmalai, a sweet dessert cheese in a milky sauce, and warm, syrupy gulab jamun, which you're almost certainly had if you've ever been to an Indian buffet.

The dining room is almost uncomfortably small and quiet--you can clearly hear other people's conversations across the room, no matter how quietly they're speaking. White tablecloths and linen napkins go a long way towards creating an elegant space despite the lack of room and standard issue restaurant chairs. Cheery yellow paint, an open ceiling, and a wall of windowed doors looking out to Pico help create an illusion of airiness. The partially open kitchen sends the wonderful aroma of curries and lamb kebabs to whet your appetite. The service was just okay--I like unobtrusive service, but when I can't order when I'm ready, it's a little too unobtrusive.

It may not be perfect, but Jaipur is still one of my favorite restaurants. The only thing that really irks me about Jaipur is that they charge $3 extra for rice. Shouldn't rice be included, like it is at Chinese restaurants? I blame the low-carb trend for turning rice into a nonstandard item, but I guess when the entrees are only $8-$12 each, I can't really complain.

Though I love getting a bargain and the restaurant smells incredible, after my experience dining in at Jaipur, I think I'd still prefer to enjoy their food in the comfort of my living room, free from the hassles of parking and traffic. Even full-price and with a delivery fee tacked on, the food is still very much worth it.

Jaipur Cuisine of India
10916 West Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(just west of Westside Pavilion)
310 470-4994
Lunch buffet daily
11AM - 2:30PM weekdays
11:30AM - 3PM weekends
Dinner daily
5PM - 10:30PM
Jaipur website

Jaipur Cuisine of India on Urbanspoon