If you aren't familiar with Persian food, don't let that keep you away from Atlas Mediterranean Kitchen, tucked away in the corner of a shopping center across the parking lot from a 24 Hour Fitness. The proprietor is warm and welcoming and will offer to explain the menu to you as soon as you sit down. The dishes are authentic and you probably won't have tried or even heard of many of them before, like the two stews I ordered (gheymah bademjon and gormeh sabzi). But there are also more familiar meat and rice dishes that even a finicky eater could be persuaded to try.
My favorite dish, gheymah bademjon, is pictured above. Try it if you like umami.
We've been to Atlas twice, once shortly after it opened and once about a year later, and had excellent experiences both times. The restaurant cooks each meal to order, so you'll wait about 20 minutes for your food, but it's worth it. It's a long wait for takeout, but the owner made us feel welcome and asked us if we'd like a drink or anything else while we waited. We would have called in our order ahead of time except that we don't know how to pronounce the names of the dishes. When you're at the restaurant in person, you can just point at the menu.
If you like palak paneer at Indian restaurants, or if you like collard greens at southern restaurants, you might like gormeh sabzi. The dried lime gives the dish its distinctively Persian flavor.
Lamb shank isn't particularly expensive if you buy it at the grocery store, yet most restaurants charge close to $30 for it. Atlas only charges $13, and its tender preparation is just as good, if not better, than the pricier versions. The warm, juicy dried cherries provide a sweet counterpoint to the savory meat and basmati rice.
The restaurant's atmosphere is casual. Unlike many of the best restaurants in Simi, it's not just a hole in the wall that you're better off getting takeout from; it's nice enough to dine in. The tables are dressed in white linen with a small vase of fresh flowers, though the layout and the noise from the open kitchen prevent it from being nice enough for date night.
I was expecting this roasted eggplant dish to be like baba ghanoush, but the flavor is completely different. Gone are the pungent flavors of lemon and garlic. The eggplant flavor and texture is more prominent, and sauteed onions and a hint of mint in the yogurt sauce give this appetizer dip a unique flavor.
Koobideh is spiced ground beef formed into a kabob shape. If you've ever enjoyed a gyro at a Greek restaurant, you'll like koobideh. This dish, along with the other kabob dishes, is a good introduction to Persian food if you're a less adventurous eater. You can't go wrong with the filet mignon skewer. Other dishes on the menu that you're probably familiar with include the falafel and hummus appetizers, the Greek salad, and the Olivieh salad, which isn't too different from American potato salad.
Roasting the tomatoes imparts a delicious flavor even though they're your typical restaurant-grade, underripe tomatoes. The long-grain white rice that comes with most dishes at Atleas is the best rice I've ever eaten. It's perfectly cooked, fluffy, not sticky at all, flecked with bright yellow saffron-infused grains, and tastes like butter, yet it lacks even the slightest hint of greasiness.
The owner gave us two full containers of fresh, crunchy salad with lettuce, Persian cucumbers, tomatoes, red bell peppers, red onion, and purple cabbage. The dressing is creamy and a bit sweet but not heavy. It tastes unlike any other salad dressing I've had; unfortunately, I can't tell what's in it.
I loved when the owner held up a 14" round piece of flatbread and asked us, "Do you think this will be enough for everybody?" We thought it was more than generous! He sliced the bread, put it in a bag, and it was still warm by the time we got home.
All told, we had three bags of food that were going to be difficult to carry to our car, so the owner actually helped us carry it out and load it up. We really appreciated and were impressed by the extra care and service that went into every part of our visit, even though we were only getting takeout. It was the same high level of service we received on our previous visit when we dined in.
Atlas has some of the best food in Simi Valley accompanied by some of the best service. The portions are generous, too. The prices are reasonable, and if you're on a budget, consider the $6.99 lunch specials served until 3:00.
Atlas Mediterranean Kitchen
1368 Madera Road, Suite 6
Simi Valley CA, 93065
Hours: 11am to 9pm daily
Atlas Mediterranean Kitchen website
Atlas Mediterranean Kitchen menu
As a native Texan, my standards for barbecue are high. Smokin Steve's is not a Texas barbecue joint--it calls itself a Southern-style barbecue, California and Cajun cuisine restaurant. I had to try to judge the food on its own merits instead of comparing it to what I'm used to.
The two meats I tried were outstanding for their rich, smoky flavor and moist tenderness. Another standout at Smokin Steve's is the barbecue sauce. They have five different flavors: sweet and bold, raspberry, chipotle, mustard, and vinegar. The meat stands firmly on its own without sauce, however.
I do have two complaints that, for me, overshadow the high quality of the meat. The prices seem very high for the amount of meat you get, but maybe I have misconceptions about the amount of work that goes into good smoked barbecue. Also, the side dishes are mediocre. At a true Southern restaurant, the side dishes are an essential part of the meal, but at Smokin' Steves, they seem like cheap fillers that are trying to justify the high prices.
The mac and cheese was bland--at a minimum, it needed salt, but what it really needed was more flavorful cheese. The dinner roll was also lackluster--it seemed like something I could get out of a plastic package from the grocery store. The beans, typically my favorite barbecue side dish, were the best of the sides I tried, but still nothing special.
If I go back to Smokin' Steves, I'll stick to the meat. In fact, I might buy it in bulk--if you order a larger quantity of meat, like 5 lbs. or more, the price per pound drops significantly for takeout orders.
Smokin Steve's BBQ Joint
1407 East Los Angeles Avenue
Simi Valley, CA 93065
Smokin Steve's website
Smokin Steve's menu
Tuesday through Thursday; Sunday, 11:00 am - 8:00 pm
Friday and Saturday, 11:00 am - 9:00 pm
Howdy's Taqueria in the Malibu Country Mart shopping center is a great choice if you're looking for a casual, inexpensive, unpretentious place to eat in Malibu. The restaurant offers a mostly predictable selection of Mexican staples like tacos, burritos, and quesadillas, with a few unexpected choices like a Hawaiian salad, mole tacos, wild salmon soup, and--get this--sushi.
I can't speak for the sushi--I really can't stomach the idea of ordering sushi at a Mexican joint, even if I can feel the ocean breeze while I eat, and even though I have no problem eating Mexican ceviche, which is raw fish soaked in citrus juice (also on the menu).
I did try the tacos and a quesadilla. All of the food, including the tortilla chips, was remarkably light and ungreasy for a Mexican restaurant. The meat was a little bland, probably from the lack of grease, but it was fine. The cilantro and onions added some kick, as did the selection of salsas. The salsa bar offers a milder, green tomatillo salsa, a basic red salsa, and a spicy orange salsa. They were all good, but not memorable; the same was true of the tacos and quesadilla.
The restaurant was plenty busy, but we were able to get a table indoors. They also have patio seating, which can be noisy because of the adjacent parking lot.
Howdy's has mixed reviews on Yelp!, but I think its overall rating of just three stars is undeservedly low. True, it's not the most authentic Mexican food, but you're in Malibu, not the Valley. Yes, it's a little pricey for Mexican, but it's inexpensive considering the ingredients are organic and free range and, again, you're in Malibu.
I wouldn't go out of my way to eat here, but for a fresh, affordable, and relatively healthy lunch when you're already in the area, it's a solid choice.
3835 Cross Creek Rd # A
Malibu, CA 90265
Howdy's Taqueria website
Howdy's Taqueria menu
Senor Gomez is a little pricier than the average Mexican restaurant, but it's worth the money for the quality of the food, the plentiful portions, and the attentive service. It's also one of the only non-chain Mexican options in Simi Valley where the atmosphere is nice enough to dine in rather than do takeout.
The interior decor is a tad dated, but the lighting is low enough at dinner and the food delicious enough that you won't really notice. If it's a Saturday night, you might get to enjoy some live music in the main dining room. There's also a pretty outdoor patio that can be very peaceful as long as the folks at the next table over haven't had too many margaritas.
I'm not sure what they do with their fajitas at Senor Gomez, but they're far tastier than the ones you'll find at your favorite chain restaurant. My favorite dish at Senor Gomez, however, and a more unique option, is the pescado rico ("rich fish", below), a huge portion of pan-seared fresh orange roughy smothered in pickled jalapenos, black olives, fresh oregano and a light tomato sauce with loads of umami. The flavors from the main dish seep into the side dishes to make them extra delicious.
The entree portions are so generous that you definitely don't need anything else, but all entrees come with soup or salad, and you won't want to miss the albondigas (meatball) soup. For sides, you can choose a baked potato or grilled veggies for a lighter alternative to rice and beans.
The chile relleno is good enough, but for $11.99 it's nothing special--you'd be better off ordering this item from a less expensive takeout place. If you want the usual stuff, Senor Gomez has it--tacos, enchiladas, tamales, burritos. But Senor Gomez also has quite a few dishes that you won't find on a typical Mexican restaurant menu, like paella a la mexicana, Baja crab cakes with sweet corn and avocado relish, and lobster in tequila sauce. There are many other things on the menu at Senor Gomez that I'd love to try, too, like the chicken mole and chili colorado. But I love the pescado rico so much that I haven't made it any further into the menu.
Senor Gomez is not just a good restaurant, it's also an interesting one that's suitable for everything from a happy hour to a casual dinner to a date night to a bachelorette party.
Senor Gomez Courtyard
2916 Cochran St.
Simi Valley, CA 93065
Hours: Open: 11:00 am to 10:00 pm, 7 days a week
Senor Gomez website
Senor Gomez menu
|No. 77, Spring rolls, $5.25|
Unfortunately, Pho 21 is no Golden Deli. For one, their fried spring rolls taste like the fried spring rolls you'll get at any Vietnamese restaurant, whereas Golden Deli's are the best spring rolls known to man (indisputable fact). Pho 21 uses chicken and Golden Deli uses pork, so that accounts for at least part of the difference. Spring rolls aside, Pho 21 is still above average overall.
|No. 46: Squid, "crab," shrimp, beef, and vegetable accompaniment to crispy chow mein, $6.95|
|No. 46: Crispy chow mein|
|Charbroiled beef with crushed rice|
The charbroiled beef tasted exactly as it should. What else can you say about charbroiled beef? It's never the most tender cut of meat, but the sweet marinade makes up for it. I would order that again.
Pho 21 does have a couple of advantages over Golden Deli besides location. First, they offer crushed rice. I love crushed rice doused with nuoc cham. I don't much care for regular rice, but the couscous-like texture of crushed rice really appeals to me. Second, Pho 21 sells soursop shakes, and I don't know where else to get those without driving to Orange County or going to an international grocery store, buying frozen soursop paste, and making a shake myself. Pho 21 also has a seriously extensive vegetarian menu, whereas many Vietnamese restaurants have zero vegetarian options.
I got my order to go, but had plenty of time to observe the restaurant's decor and atmosphere while I waited. It's about like any other Vietnamese restaurant--casual, kind of cheap and not totally clean, with a wall-mounted TV in one corner and tons of condiments on the table. It would be an acceptable place to dine for a casual lunch, but I wouldn't eat there on date night. My food was ready in a perfectly reasonable amount of time, but not in the lightning-speed time typical of other Vietnamese restaurants. The online menu makes the restaurant seem like it will be nicer than it actually is.
Parking is a little annoying, but typical for this part of town. You have to park in a small space in the alley behind the restaurant where you think there's a 50% chance of your car getting dinged or smashed into, then walk around the corner to enter from the front and get your food. The area seemed a tad sketchy to me, but that's Canoga Park for you. I now have a greater appreciation for India's Sweets and Spices' policy of letting customers enter through the back door.
All in all, Pho 21 has not won a special place in my heart as my new favorite Vietnamese restaurant. That being said, if I were in the Canoga Park area, I would go back and try some different dishes--particularly the Japanese curry, which is hard to find.
Pho 2121525 Sherman Way
Canoga Park, CA 91303
Hours: Mon, Wed-Sun 10 am - 9 pm
Pho 21 website
Pho 21 menu
|Grilled lamb loin with Israeli couscous and apricot sauce|
|Soup of the day: Corn chowder, $8|
The restaurant is pricey for the 'burbs, but the portion sizes are plenty generous--not what you'd get at Chili's, but larger than usual for a fine-dining restaurant. Most appetizers and salads are $11-$17. Most entrees are in the $20s, and desserts are $7-$8.
|Crab and mango appetizer|
One might argue that a number of the plates are embarrassingly overdecorated, but I'm willing to overlook a Pollock-inspired design if the food is tasty.
|Grilled shrimp appetizer|
The grilled shrimp appetizer with grilled lemon slices and chili dipping sauce was some of the most flavorful shrimp dishes I've ever had. For me, it was the most memorable dish of the night. (Of course, I was also the hungriest at this point in the evening.)
This dish didn't really do it for me. I don't think steak belongs on top of french fries (it makes the fries soggy) and the meat-to-fry ratio was really out of whack.
|Complimentary bread with garlic, lemon, and herb-infused olive oil|
|Ice cream puff (rapidly melting)|
Leila's706 Lindero Canyon Road
Oak Park, CA 91377
|Grilled Portobello Mushroom - $10.95|
Meat is a major feature on the menu, but they also have a portobello mushroom cap, grilled and served with swiss cheese, caramelized onions, and a balsamic glaze, that was enormous (I only ate half) and delicious. As for the side of sweet potato fries, I'll take them over regular fries anyway, but these fries weren't really seasoned and didn't taste as good as any frozen grocery store sweet potato fries--not worth the deep-fried calories at all.
|Skillet Mac ‘n’ Cheese - $6.95|
|Kobe Beef Sliders - $9.95|
|BBQ Bacon Burger - $10.95|
The bbq bacon burger is a basic burger with applewood smoked bacon, bbq sauce, and your choice of jack, swiss or cheddar cheese. It was as good as any restaurant burger and served horror-movie style with a giant knife plunged into the center.
|Chocolate Fudge Cake - $6.45 plus $3.95 for ice cream|
As if we weren't already so stuffed that we needed to be rolled out of the restaurant, we splurged on dessert. There was no way I was missing the chance to try a dessert that combines two of my favorite things--beer and ice cream. We paired the ice cream with a side of chocolate cake. The cake was pretty much what you'd expect it to be, but the Drunken Udder Guinness chocolate stout ice cream was a disappointment. I couldn't taste the stout at all. The ice cream is expensive, too--$3.95 for an a la mode scoop, and even more if you order it alone. But with the exception of the ice cream, the prices are very reasonable, especially for the portions you get.
|Nice view from a booth by the window|
For the most part, I liked my meal a lot. I haven't been back, but that has less to do with Howie's and more to do with my aversion to eating enormous, heavy meals.
Howie's Grill and Bar
109 West Cochran Street
Simi Valley, CA 93065
Open daily 9am-11pm
|Patio dining, complete with heaters and umbrellas|
We started with the gougeres, popovers with a touch of gruyere cheese. I love the moist, airy interior of popovers and it was difficult to stop eating them and save room for the rest of my food. The gruyere wasn't that noticeable, thought.
|French onion soup|
|Salad of spinach, chicken, and red bell peppers|
As you can see, we made it a light lunch so we could sample several items. Ladyface Alehouse made the french fries sound incredibly enticing by calling them fresh, hand cut classic Belgian fries and offering them with a choice of seasonings and dips. While the presentation in a spiral holder was creative, there was nothing special about the flavor or texture of the fries. They were too soft. The blue cheese fondue and curry mustard dipping sauces were tasty, but didn't make up for the unexciting potatoes.
I didn't really get the full experience of this restaurant, but I enjoyed my meal enough that I'd like to go back and try the beer and the dinner menu.
Ladyface Alehouse and Brasserie
29281 Agoura Road
Agoura Hills, CA 91301
Ladyface Alehouse website
Ladyface Alehouse menu
Located on a busy street corner with pedestrians constantly streaming by, Elysee also winds up being a wonderful place to people watch and a good place to eat.
The sandwiches at Elysee are not what I’d describe as cheap, but they are very tasty and rather filling, so you’ll feel like you got your money’s worth. The sandwiches are rather creative—there is a menu of several different sandwiches, often with combinations of ingredients that you’d think shouldn’t go together and yet somehow wind up being complementary. Speaking of complimentary, the staff deserves recognition for being rather friendly and attentive—something noteworthy in the Westwood area.
Flickr photo by madaroni
Los Angeles, CA 90024
Elysee Bakery website
The first time I went to the LA Farmer's Market, I didn't try Loteria! Grill. $3 for a taco? Give me a break!
It's true--I have been spoiled by $1 tacos at cheap San Fernando Valley taquerias. But I regretted skipping the opportunity to try a restaurant I've repeatedly heard good things about. So on my second visit to the LA Farmer's Market, Loteria! was my first stop.
Nothing excites me more than new flavors, and the more things I can sample in one restaurant meal, the better. It's not just because I have a food blog that I regularly order too much food at restaurants so I can try multiple dishes. At least, I do when I'm not feeling cheap.
With that in mind, there was no way I could pass up Loteria's taco sampler platter--the chance to sample miniature portions of 12 different taco flavors:
Nopalitos - Fresh Cactus Salad. Served with Salsa Verde and Queso Fresco.
Calabacitas - Zucchini and Roasted Corn Succotash Served with Salsa Verde, Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro, and Queso Fresco.
Champiñones con Epazote - Mushrooms with Epazote Served with Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro, Queso Fresco, and Salsa Verde.
Papa con Rajas - Potatoes with Roasted Poblano Peppers Served with Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro, Queso Fresco, and Salsa Verde.
Mole Poblano con Pollo - Chicken in Mole Poblano Served with Sesame Seeds, Finely Chopped Onion, and Queso Fresco.
Tinga de Pollo - Chicken, Stewed with Chipotle Peppers and our home-made Chorizo Served with Salsa Roja de Chipotle.
Pollo en Pipian Rojo - Chicken in a Spicy Pumpkin-Seed and Peanut Sauce Served with Finely Chopped Onion.
Carne deshebrada - Shredded Beef Served with Fresh Guacamole, Salsa Chipotle, and Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro.
Albondigas en Chipotle - Meatballs in a Tomato and Chipotle Sauce Served with Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro.
Cochinita Pibil- Pork, Slowly Roasted in Banana Leaf Served with Citrus-Pickled Red Onion and Chile Habanero.
Chicharron en Salsa Verde - Pork Rinds in a Spicy Tomatillo Sauce Served With Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro and Queso Fresco.
Carnitas en salsa Morita - In a Spicy Chile Morita Sauce Served with slices of Fresh Avocado and Finely Chopped Onion and Cilantro.
Each taco is teeny tiny--the tortillas must have been 2" in diameter. One person could eat the whole plate and still be hungry. And if one person shared this plate with three people, as I did, they would have plenty of room left to eat at at least two more Farmer's Market restaurants. I also had a canteloupe flavored agua fresca.
My favorite was the papa con rajas. I never would have thought a potato taco could have so much flavor. It's also rather unusual to find multiple vegetarian options at a taco stand. Most of the other flavors were not nearly as memorable, but I frequently think about returning to the market for a plate of full-sized potato tacos. Judging by the crowds at this place, I'm clearly not the only one who craves Loteria's unique flavors.
Loteria! Grill6333 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90036-3109
Loteria! Grill website
I ordered a glazed donut because a) it's my favorite and b) the glazed donut should be the litmus test for any donut shop.
Bob's Donuts6333 W 3rd St Ste 450
Los Angeles, CA 90036
I've been hearing about The Counter for years. It was the favorite joint of a hamburger-obsessed colleague of mine, and everyone seems to rave about it. But I was really underwhelmed. There was nothing special about the flavor of the meat. I could have made a comparable, if not better, burger at home.
The concept behind The Counter is to build your own burger using a cute clipboard checklist. You can choose your own meat (beef, turkey, chicken, veggie), the size (1/3, 2/3, 1 lb), and your bun (regular, multigrain, English muffin, onion bun). The restaurant offers several dozen interesting toppings. Some of the more unusual options include horseradish cheddar, herb goat cheese spread, grilled pineapple, roasted green chiles, fried egg, apricot sauce, and peanut sauce. If all the options are too overwhelming, you can choose one of their predesigned signature burgers.
Maybe I didn't choose the right toppings, but for me, it was just an overpriced burger.
We also tried a side of parmesan fries. Ever since the truffle fries we had at Josie a few years ago, we've been searching for something else that measured up. The Counter's fries looked delicious but weren't very memorable.
We went to the Pasadena restaurant, but there are quite a few locations, including Hermosa Beach, Miracle Mile, Sunset Blvd., Santa Monica, Studio City, and others.
The Counter140 Shoppers Lane
Pasadena, CA 91101-2618
Hours: Mon-Thu,Sun 11am-10pm; Fri-Sat 11am-11pm
The Counter website
The Counter website
Tuna tart - $4.95
Palermo Deli, an Argentinian and European market and deli, doesn't look like much from the outside. It's in a questionable-looking shopping center with cramped parking in an iffy part of town. But on the inside, it's bright, clean and well-organized. Walk to the back to examine the goodies in the deli case or order something off the menu, then grab a table in the front and wait for your food.
I ordered the tuna tart, which is sort of like an empanada, but in pie form. The filling contains tuna, red peppers, slices of hard boiled egg and I'm not sure what else in a pie-like shell. While I do not like pie, tuna, or hard boiled eggs, I adore this dish. I'm sure it's because my host mother in Spain, who was an excellent cook, also made this dish, so there's a nostalgia factor involved. But I dare say that Palermo Deli's version was delicious in its own right. Make sure to have it heated up.
The vegetarian panini with eggplant, sweet roasted red peppers, and cheese ($7.99 ) is another delicious option. Much of the lunch menu consists of sandwiches, but there are also pastas, pizza, salads and hot plates. The menu is surprisingly extensive for such a small shop. They also serve breakfast, dessert, coffee, and pastries.
I couldn't help but order two more slices of tuna tart to go, plus some pastelitos con membrillo - mini turnovers stuffed with quince ($0.85 each) - and beef empanadas ($1.59 each). Good luck avoiding the temptation to pick up some groceries and pastries on your way out. You can also order their nonperishable Argentinian groceries online.
Palermo Deli16137 Devonshire St.
Granada Hills, CA 91344
Mon.-Thur. 8 a.m. - 8 p.m.
Fri.-Sat. 8 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Sun. 8 a.m. - 6 p.m.