Restaurant Review #224: Viva La Pasta, Simi Valley

Gnocchi al pomodoro e basilico

With its location near Ralph's in the Wood Ranch shopping center, you probably wouldn't think to try Viva La Pasta for dinner unless you had heard good things about it. Despite the cheesy name, I decided to try it because it had lots of good reviews on Yelp! They also send out lots of coupons in the mail, which I guess finally wore me down. Besides, there are not a ton of dinner options in Simi Valley that aren't chains. I figure I might as well attempt to eat at them all. There are more independent restaurants than you would think, but it takes a bit of effort to not just fall back on Chili's or TGIFridays.

Minestrone soup

Viva La Pasta has much in common with Two Guys from Italy, a German/Italian (mostly Italian) restaurant I'm quite fond of in Moorpark. Soup or salad comes with all the entrees (though it's a less generous portion of soup). You can create your own pasta from among 29 sauces and 11 types of pasta (one of which is gnocchi, my favorite). They also have chicken, beef, veal, and seafood entrees; pizza; and panini.

Side salad with vinaigrette

The minestrone soup was good--not really noteworthy in any way, but good. The side salad contained a mix of good lettuce and crappy iceberg lettuce, some quirky chickpeas, a wedge of refrigerated (read: mealy) tomato, and a lone pitted kalamata olive. Despite the mediocre veggies, the vinaigrette dressing I chose made the salad quite good. I usually just order vinaigrette because it is the least bad salad dressing option at restaurants (ranch belongs on buffalo wings, not lettuce), but this vinaigrette was zingy, with plenty of vinegar and garlic. It had the thin consistency of a homemade vinaigrette and none of that artificial, gloppy thickness that some bottled vinaigrettes have. The server, though clearly having a bad day or not much of a people person, was nice enough to tell me that a salad came with my meal when I tried to order an appetizer salad.

Italian sausage and roasted peppers

Ah, the service. That was really the only off-putting part of the meal. When we asked for a few more minutes to read the menu, our waiter took way too long to return. Our water was only refilled once, some time in the first ten minutes of our visit. Wines by the glass are not listed on the wine menu, so you have to ask about them, which means you don't get information about prices or options up front. (They don't appear to serve any alcohol besides wine, but maybe you have to inquire about that, too.) Our server seemed distressed that we tried to order dishes by name instead of by number. One member of our party, who wanted to have cheesecake for her meal, was served her "entree" before we even got our soups and salads. However, the rest of the food did arrive quickly.

Risotto Misto

The risotto misto--arborio rice prepared with chicken breast and Italian sausage in a chicken broth, white wine, and saffron sauce, was just okay. For some reason I was expecting it to be creamier, but re-reading the menu description, I realize that it doesn't say anything about cheese being an ingredient. The sausage was particularly good, and the dish was better with some red pepper flakes, although the spice tended to overwhelm the dish's mild flavor. At least it was filling, but I prefer my homemade gorgonzola risotto and I would try a different dish next time. There are only two risottos on the menu, so it doesn't seem to be one of the restaurant's specialties. This one was about $15.

The gnocchi al pomodoro e basilico (lead photo, potato pasta in a tomato and basil sauce) was a create-your-own pasta option. The gnocchi were neither too fluffy nor too dense, and their irregular shapes indicated that they were most likely homemade. The sauce was perfect--a little sweet, a little salty. If only they sold sauce like this in jars at the grocery store. If you're a light eater, this dish will give you enough to take half home, but if you're a big eater, you might think the dinner portion looks like a lunch portion. I thought the portions were the right size and commensurate with the price. This dish was only $10.


The cheesecake also tasted homemade--a little on the salty side and not overly dense or creamy like Cheesecake Factory cheesecake, but a little lighter, like the cheesecake you get at Persian restaurants. The portion is reasonable enough that you can eat the whole thing yourself without going up a size.


I love cannoli. This rendition reminded me of the one at Two Guys, but the filling was a tad lighter. When you eat the hard outer shell and the thick, creamy filling together, it tastes similar to a glazed donut.

Overall, everyone enjoyed their food and thought the prices and portions were reasonable. We all agreed that we'd go back, too. The dining room atmosphere is classier than Two Guys and this is one of a few tablecloth restaurants in Simi (nevermind the white paper covering the tablecloth), but it's still casual enough that I would call it a long-term relationship date restaurant. I would pick someplace fancier and with more enthusiastic service if you're trying to impress.

Viva La Pasta has lots of enticing promotions that make the restaurant a great bargain. A dinner for two that includes soup or salad, entree, coffee, dessert, and a bottle of wine is $34.95--for both people, not per person (look for a coupon in the mail, or print it from their website). Sunday brunch is $16.95. There are daily specials that come with soup or salad, an entree, and dessert. And you can get gift certificates on Restaurant.com for $25 off a $50 meal. Restaurant.com often has 80% off sales, so you can get a $25 gift certificate for $2 instead of the usual $10.

Viva La Pasta isn't perfect, but on the whole, I recommend it.

Viva La Pasta!
525 Country Club Drive
Woodranch Center
Simi Valley, CA 93065
Hours: Mon - Thurs 11:30 am - 9 pm
Fri - Sat 11:30 am - 10 pm
Sunday 10 am - 9 pm


Restaurant Review #223: Golden Deli Vietnamese Restaurant, San Gabriel


Golden Deli is supposed to be the best Vietnamese restaurant in LA, so I came with high expectations. I braved an hour's worth of scary freeway driving with lots of large trucks to eat my favorite cuisine (or is sushi my favorite?), which I don't eat nearly often enough.

The restaurant was easy to find, thanks to the exterior shot I'd seen on Yelp! and the good fortune I had to hit a red light at the major intersection where it's located. Just as I was wondering if I was hopelessly lost and hopefully late to meet a client, there it was. Parking and wait times for a table are both supposed to be nightmares, but on a Monday at 1:00, I didn't have trouble with either.


The eggroll appetizer was recommended repeatedly by Yelpers, and yes, these are the best eggrolls you will ever eat. Served glistening with frying oil and hot enough to sear your tongue for a week, the eggrolls have a crispy, paper-thin exterior that gives way to an addictive filling of ground meat and spices. Yes, I took home the leftovers and ate one cold in the middle of the night. I just couldn't wait until the next day or the ten minutes it would have taken to re-crisp it in the toaster oven. They're an awfully good bargain, too, at $5.25 for five eggrolls.

Pho tai

Try as I might--okay, I don't try. I always order the pho tai at Vietnamese restaurants. Now, I know you're not going to believe me on this one, but St. Louis still wins my vote for best pho. Yes, it does. St. Louis has a significant population of Vietnamese immigrants and some of the best Vietnamese food I've ever eaten. Aside from San Francisco and Westminister/Garden Grove, of course. No place in LA has managed to satisfy me with its pho--the broth is never meaty enough, the meat is never tender enough, and I like a lot of star anise.

To drink/for dessert, I ordered an avocado milkshake. I know it sounds gross, but trust me--it's delicious. Think vanilla, but with umami. This treat probably has enough calories to get you through three days, but you've already ruined any pretense of a diet with those eggrolls.

The service was good--the food arrived astoundingly quickly, considering it was obviously freshly prepared, and our waters were refilled regularly.

If I went back, I'd definitely order the eggrolls and the avocado milkshake again, but I'd try a different entree. Well, ideally, I'd try about three. If you've been suffering through what passes for Vietnamese food elsewhere in Los Angeles proper, Golden Deli is worth the drive. Take your friends, too, so you can mooch off their plates.

Golden Deli
815 W. Las Tunas Dr.
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 308-0803
Golden Deli website


Restaurant Review #222: sugarFISH, Marina del Rey

Tuna Sashimi

sugarFISH is a sushi restaurant by Chef Kazunori Nozawa (of the cult favorite Sushi Nozawa in Studio City) that emphasizes simplicity and quality over trendiness and pretention. You won't see the words "spicy," "crunchy," "rainbow," or "California" anywhere on the menu. In fact, you'll see very little on the menu, period--it's so basic that it's only a page long.

In addition to simplicity, sugarFISH emphasizes the omakase concept, where you let the chef choose everything you eat. But unlike most restaurants, at sugarFISH, omakase is not synonymous with super-expensive or with surprise. The price is clearly stated on the menu ($23 at lunch, $27.50 at dinner) as are the fish you'll be eating.
The dining room is colorful and narrow, with booths for two or four people lining one wall and a sushi bar on the other. What's unusual about this sushi bar is that there are no sushi chefs and no fish behind it. The chefs only work in the kitchen. If you find it intimidating to sit at the sushi bar, or if you want to have a private conversation during your meal, the arrangement at sugarFISH is a good thing--it means that half the seating in the restaurant isn't automatically off-limits.

My friend and I met for lunch at 12:45 on a Saturday afternoon, and the restaurant was virtually deserted, with only four other patrons. Emptiness is usually a bad sign in a restaurant, and I hadn't bothered to read any reviews before I went--I saw "Nozawa" on the website describing the place and assumed that was all I needed to know. That the restaurant is in a popular Marina del Rey shopping center off Admiralty Way that was bustling with shoppers made the emptiness all the more disconcerting. But, continuing to place my faith in Chef Nozawa's reputation, I ordered as I usually would, rather than testing the waters with a small order first to see if the fish was any good.

Snapper with chili ponzu

We opted to share an omakase (called "Trust Me"), sans shellfish, which neither of us can eat. The waitress didn't hassle us about substituting the crab roll for a yellowtail roll. We also added an order of snapper. A la carte sushi is priced at $4.25 to $5.75. Nothing carries the dreaded "market price," and nothing costs $5 per bite. It's probably the most affordable, patron-friendly sushi menu I've ever seen. The portions are smaller than they are at many sushi restaurants; however, sugarFISH is one of the only sushi restaurants I've been to where the sushi was the appropriate size to eat comfortably in one bite, the way it is supposed to be eaten.

The first dish we were presented, edamame, was cold--not refrigerated cold, but obviously not just cooked. Truthfully, I am not sure what the proper temperature to serve edamame at is, but I prefer mine warm and was turned off by the idea that my edamame might not have been freshly prepared. Thankfully, the soybeans turned out to be an aberration.

Salmon nigiri

Despite what many people think, nigiri is actually supposed to be about the rice, not the fish. The rice at sugarFISH is incredibly fresh--maybe too fresh, because the rice underneath the first fish, the snapper, was almost hot. But it was perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned, and loosely formed. Chili ponzu sounds like it might be an overwhelming sauce for a fish as delicate as red snapper, but it came through as a subtle enhancement. I thought nothing of the sesame seeds sprinkled on the salmon when the dish came out, but on tasting the pairing, I wondered why more chefs don't see the brilliance in combining light, toasty, and nutty flavors with this fish.

Unlike the best omakases I've had, the kitchen didn't pay any attention to the timing of sending out the dishes, so we weren't really eating everything at peak freshness and our table became cluttered. We hadn't finished the tuna sashimi when the nigiri started arriving, and we hadn't finished either when the handrolls came out. Also, the Trust Me, as we learned the hard way, is not really designed to shared--we had to cut the two hand rolls with an ordinary table knife, which was a little annoying and kind of ruined the presentation. At least we were encouraged to eat the hand roll right away, while the nori was crispy.

Toro, the fatty underbelly of the tuna, is supposed to be a standout among cuts of raw fish. I'll admit that it rarely excites me (unless you count the spike in my heart rate when I see how expensive it is). This toro handroll was no exception. Maybe I just don't have enough appreciation for subtle flavors, but the yellowtail handroll didn't taste like much to me, either.

Scallop roll

At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I actually don't understand why virtually every sushi restaurant, including, surprisingly, sugarFISH, feels compelled to mix its scallop sushi with orange mayonnaise. Raw scallop is naturally sweet and can easily hold its own. The mayo was used sparingly, though, and the roll was not bad.
A highlight of the meal, besides the freshness of the fish, was the sauces (mayo notwithstanding). The house-made ponzu that came with the tuna sashimi was maybe the best I've ever had. The yuzu sauce that graced the halibut was equally good. At the end of the meal, I wouldn't say we were full, but then, it's hard to get full on sushi. As my out-of-town friend commented, "In New York, you go out for sushi, then you go out for pizza." sugarFISH doesn't offer any desserts, but there are a Pinkberry (for however much longer it can last) and a Starbucks in the same shopping center--handy if you always crave ice cream after sushi like I do.

Yellowtail nigiri

Another unique feature of sugarFISH is that a 16% gratuity is included with every meal and the menu says that no additional gratuity is expected. Since I leave 15% even when the service isn't good (more if it is), I really don't mind having 16% added to my bill automatically. I also like that there's no pressure to leave more than 16%. Some restaurants, I've noticed, now calculate "suggested gratuities" of 18, 20, and a whopping 22% at the bottom of every receipt. Perhaps the best part of the automatic gratuity, though, was that when it came time to pay the bill, I didn't have to do any extra math. And the bill was that it was only $44 for 2 people--one of the least expensive sushi meals I have ever had and with plenty of variety and no sense of deprivation.

Though I was satisfied with my meal overall, and certainly with the quality of the fish and the prices, I'm not sure I would go back. With the lack of other patrons, the atmosphere was a bit of a downer. I'd also prefer a menu with a wider selection. Of course, there is little else to complain about. The service was the best I've had in ages--granted, our waitress didn't have much else to do, but at some restaurants the waitstaff seem to disappear into the back and do nothing the whole meal if business is slow. And they also have special meals designed for takeout--a rareity among sushi joints.

sugarFISH has another location in Brentwood that opened on July 10--perhaps it's busier. Though the Brentwood location is a little closer to me, I assumed that parking would be a nightmare and opted to drive the extra miles to the Marina del Rey location because of the copious parking I could see in the satellite view on Google Maps. The two restaurants have completely different interiors, so it doesn't feel like a chain: see photos here. sugarFISH is also one of the only quality sushi restaurants I could find in the general vicinity of West LA that was open for lunch on a Saturday.
4722 1/4 Admiralty Way
Marina del Rey, CA 90292
Phone: 310 306-6300
Mon-Sat 11:30 am - 10 pm Sun 12 - 9pm
sugarFISH website