So this is from a weekly feature I’ve started for LAmag.com which profiles a place where the food is great and prices are low. Hope you enjoy!
Here in Los Angeles, the words “Inglewood” and “Chinese food” when used in the same sentence, don’t always inspire the greatest confidence. In fact, they bring to mind the greasy, goopy fare found at the countless versions of the “$1 Chinese” shops across the city. So I was a little suspicious when a friend recommended “Wok on the Wild Side”, an Inglewood Chinese restaurant in a two-story strip mall between a nail salon and a Louisiana Fried Chicken. Few things good have come out of pun-titled eateries. However, my state of mind began to change when another friend recommended the restaurant yet again, and this time referred to a specific dish, the Hot Link Fried Rice. Chinese-Soul Food fusion? Now, I was intrigued.
Owner Li Kung and her husband Chi Ge run the restaurant by themselves, with Li working the front of the house and Chi Ge working the kitchen. Li was previously a health food cooking instructor in Manhattan Beach, until she and her husband, who was at first reluctant to jump into the restaurant world, decided to open Wok on the Wild Side. Li’s husband, Chi Ge, is a tall, burly man who could pass for an Asian-version of the Soup Nazi. When I ask him about being a chef, he bluntly tells me that he has never liked cooking for others. He wants to cook his way, and doesn’t liked being nitpicked by customers. Li is much more ameliorating. The business does a brisk amount of take-out, and you will often see Li suggesting customizations for unsure customers on the phone. Like many marriages, they’re opposing viewpoints seems to somehow mesh well together, that is, if the food is any indication.
During these consecutive rainy days, it’s important to remember that summer is, in fact, near. We suggest a Boyle Heights find, Mariscos El Jato, which is about as close as you’ll get to the dog days right about now. With fresh seafood and cold beer, the only thing missing is the feel of toes in the hot sand. This is Boyle Heights, not Ensenanda, but the mix-up is understandable.
Like many authentic Mexican eateries in East Los Angeles, Mariscos El Jato gives off a certain machísmo charm. Its tie-dyed exterior is adorned with bright murals of soccer playing goats decked in Chivas jerseys alongside obligatory paintings of scantily clad women. Inside is more of the same: televisions rolling the day’s fútbol highlights on repeat, young waitresses wandering between tables, decor reminiscent of a Mexican Ed Hardy (Eduardo, then?). No doubt, in outward appearance, this is a boy’s club. A place where world weary men venture after work for a frosty beer, a good meal, and frank conversation. It may come as a surprise to an outsider, then, that the food served here is delicate, refreshing and—dare we say—refined.
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*Editor’s Note: I have recently begun an internship at Los Angeles magazine, and now write periodically for their dining blog, The Digest. Of course, future posts specifically for the Los Angelicious Times will still continue.
-noun 1. A large hamburger consisting of multiple thick beef patties as well as the addition of highly caloric toppings, including but not limited to: cheese, bacon, pastrami, egg, hot links and chili.
Forget what Jimmy Buffet says, the best cheeseburgers aren’t found in paradise; they’re found on the mean streets. Products of tough neighborhoods where money is often tight but stomachs aren’t, hood burgers are a unique category unto themselves. The current LA burger dichotomy generally falls into two categories: the fast-food style burger with a thin, tightly-packed patty adorned with basic toppings; and the gourmet burger, featuring a larger, loosely ground patty featuring higher quality meat and more upscale ingredients. Somewhere between the two lies the mutant, bastardized world of the hood burger. If classics like Apple Pan and Pie n’ Burger are Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle, then perhaps these are more like Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire: beefed-up, highly divisive, and of questionable sanity. Hood burgers can be found in many parts of the U.S., but some of the best examples are found here in Los Angeles. After all, they don’t call it Burger Town for nothing. Here are five of the best, sampled over five days. Continue reading
When it comes to Southern cuisine in Los Angeles, the lion’s share of attention goes to barbecue: long-winded debates comparing the soot-covered barrel smokers of Bludso’s or Phillip’s, or the proper peppery tang of Big Mista’s secret sauce. And if barbecue isn’t the topic, then perhaps someone will bring up Roscoe’s Chicken n’ Waffles, a southern-style greasy spoon that is by any measure a Los Angeles institution know for it’s half-hour waits and celebrity endorsements as much as it’s food. The truth is Los Angeles is home to an impressive collection of traditional Southern Soul Food restaurants that extend well beyond the BBQ shacks or the heavy-treaded diner chains slinging plates of chicken and waffles. Though soul food can trace it’s origins to African-American culture, it has undoubtedly woven itself into the national palette as nostalgia-inducing comfort cuisine: crunchy fried chicken smothered in onions and brown gravy, stewed greens seasoned with tender pits of pork, cloyingly sweet pieces of peach cobbler topped with ice cream. Dishes are cooked low and slow and, as any southern chef will insist, rely on care, patience and heart in order to be called true soul food. Continue reading
Forget Justin Bieber or Jersey Shore, 2010 was the year of the “pop-up” restaurant. New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Portland, Austin, and San Diego are now all home to various establishments which organize gourmet movable feasts that range from painstakingly elaborate to maniacally secretive. Pioneered in 2007 by Los Angeles chef Ludo Lefebvre, whose Ludobites dinners are now so popular they sell out at rates faster than Coachella, the trend has given birth to a host of chef-driven supper clubs that are unbound by long term commitments both in terms of physical location and culinary style, including the current toast of the LA blogosphere, Craig Thornton, who runs the pay-as-you-like, Hendrix-esque sounding Wolvesden Underground Dining Experience. The word of mouth nature of these restaurants is undoubtedly a good thing, allowing diners to rub elbows with the chefs they admire based on a system in which exclusivity favors culinary enthusiasm rather than monetary privilege. However, like the food truck trend preceding it (which has now reached such a bubble of over saturation that Tim Geithner may soon have to step in) the pop-up scene is not entirely original and rather is the natural conclusion of an idea that can trace its roots to much more modest origins here in Los Angeles. Many could cite inspiration in the numerous taco carts that line Fletcher and Larga on various nights, the cart-pushing Oaxacan “Quesadilla Lady” whose small griddle churns out cheesy blue-corn gems in Echo Park, or even the acclaimed Ricky’s Fish Tacos which quickly progressed from a roadside weekend hobby into a beer-battered phenomenon. Still, I can think of no better example of a true “pop-up” than the small pupuseria and taqueria which opens a few nights every week in the front yard of a residential home just off Jefferson Boulevard. Continue reading
Like most good Koreatown hole-in-the-walls, chances are if you weren’t fluent in Korean you would pass Yu Ga Ne without notice. In addition, I’d imagine than even a good amount of native Koreans would walk by this dumpling house without thinking twice. Situated in a tiny detached building that looks more akin to a maintenance shed than restaurant, its only identifier is a small sign in English that reads Yu Ga Ne Authentic Korean Dumpling accompanied by a slightly larger sign in Korean. Beyond that, the exterior of this mom-and-pop diner is wall of tightly drawn bamboo shades and faded pictures of noodle dishes. A look inside reveals a few chairs and tables which are separated from the kitchen by only a well-worn screen door. Though sometimes a lone student or retiree will take a seat and peruse a newspaper as they eat, most of customers here are older women who pop in, gossip with the owners for a few minutes, then leave with a box or two of freshly steamed dumplings. Considering the multitude of Korean restaurants in Los Angeles and the fact that most of them feature some specialization into a particular dish it’s a wonder that more don’t focus on mandu, otherwise know as Korean dumplings. It’s certainly debatable whether Yu Ga Ne serves the best mandu in the city, but by all standards they make an exceptional meal in terms of flavor-to-cost ratio. For $4.99 you can enjoy a platter of 6 steamed king dumplings; they are easily the best thing on the menu: hand-formed doughy ovals stuffed to the point that they resemble oversized Easter eggs. Continue reading
One of the realities about eating in Los Angeles is that an exceptional meal by definition is an ephemeral thing. A restaurant that is the toast of the town one month can suddenly change owners (see Ord Noodle), or swap chefs (see Mariscos Chente) or simply start failing to delivery on its own amassed hype (see Mo Chica). The point is life happens, seasons change, and for every astounding new restaurant that emerges, another starts to fall by the wayside. Yet, as in all things, they’re are exceptions to the rule. The best example I have seen in this particular case is that of the quiet strip mall gem, Sapp’s Coffee Shop. For years, Sapp’s Thai dishes have had praise heaped upon them from countless sources: Anthony Bourdain, Jonathan Gold, along with scores upon scores of bloggers. When I first moved to LA in 2006, I ate at Sapp’s on a friend’s recommendation and ordered the famous boat noodles. Like many others, I was floored by the intense and lingering flavor of the broth: sour, salty, spicy and sweet, each in perfect measure. Continue reading
Even on a day with no parades or festivals, the stretch of Whittier Boulevard that lies just east of the 710 freeway is teeming with life. The street is one the main arteries of East Los Angeles both in terms of geography and culture; home mostly to blue-collar workers and their families who, unlike most Angelenos, rely on transportation other than automobiles to get around. The crowds that linger at bus stops or walk the streets here give this section of town a vibrancy that is rare in LA. It is the feeling of undiluted city life where, for better or worse, the boundaries between public space and private life breaks down. Catering to this eager crowd is a wide array of Pan-Latino food vendors that, in LA at least, is unrivaled in it’s selection and multitude: from corner tortilleria’s decorated in day-glo orange murals to hobbled carts selling mayonnaise-slathered grilled corn. It makes for an exciting mix, and eating a bad meal in this neighborhood is a difficult thing to do. Continue reading
Along the length of Sawtelle boulevard home to West LA’s version of Little Tokyo, often dubbed “Little Osaka”, lies a take-out shop that doesn’t quite fit in with slick, modern restaurants that surround it. While others serve Kobe beef shabu-shabu and delicate soba noodles, Sawtelle Tempura House specializes in cranking out homemade bento boxes for a lunch crowd that runs the gambit from UCLA undergrads to Santa Monica executives. Bento is Japan’s answer to the brown bag lunch, a combination of snack-able favorites that is often sent along as a simple meal for those headed to school or work. Continue reading
Sabina, matron and namesake for the small strip-mall restaurant on Vine street, cuts a motherly figure. Even if you can’t claim any Eastern European heritage (though many patrons certainly do), she welcomes you will a with the unhurried and deliberate service of a woman who proudly serves a good home-cooked meal. She is not the kind of owner who delivers a forced smile or hangs on your every need, instead her only concern seems to be that you leave nourished with a belly full of hot food. The tiny dining room is filled with red pastel tables and chairs chipped from decades of use. The crimson colored cloth napkins are threadbare and musty, giving a sense of continuing tradition as you tuck them into your lap. Sabina hails from Romania, which can be discerned from either a glance at the travel agency photos of rustic countryside lining the walls or the short and hearty menu filled with Austro-Hungarian classics. Continue reading
For anyone who has traveled through Europe on a shoestring budget the significance of the döner kebab can’t be overestimated. Imported by Turkish immigrants in the seventies, the döner has become one of the most popular and affordable street foods in all of Europe. Travel through the subcontinent and you will no doubt find yourself quickly addicted to the kebab stands that never lie to far from the nearest bar or club. The döner kebab is a close of cousin of the Lebanese shawarma and the Greek gyro, consisting of roast meat shaved from a vertical spit tucked inside a split pocket of bread then garnished with salad, yogurt, and a pungent red chili sauce. The sandwich makes for a satisfying meal that is both portable and compact, essential elements of any great street food. In fact, döner has reached such levels of populist acclaim in Germany that it is the subject of a well-known drinking song, “Ich Bein Ein Döner” whose chorus roughly translates to “sandwiches makes you fat, sushi makes you crazy, pizza makes you horny, but döner makes you beautiful”. Needless to say, something is lost in translation. Continue reading
In the past few days there has been a slight change in most Angelenos. You may have noticed more joggers on the street than usual, decked out in the latest activewear. Or you may have noticed the long line at In-N-Out has shifted towards the Subway across the street. You may have even heard the buzz about so-called “energy bracelets” that harness the body’s natural magnetic field to improve balance (if you believe that then I’ve got a case of snake oil to sell you). Yes, this is the time of year in which everyone obsesses about forming new healthy and productive habits they’ve been neglecting in the past year. Though thankfully by February the status quo has returned: the only joggers are fitness freaks, the In-N-Out drive-thru line spans a city block, and people have stopped buying useless bracelets in favor of other useless things. Certainly I am guilty of these idiosyncrasies as well, which is why this year I aimed for a much simpler and enjoyable goal. Being a taco enthusiast, I enjoying visiting a good taco truck a couple times a week. I am fortunate enough to live very close to what is arguably the best taco truck on the Westside, Tacos Leo, whose deliciousness has been described in length by many people. The problem is Tacos Leo’s al pastor trompo, a vertical spit of marinated pork from which tender bits of porky goodness are sliced, only operates on weekends, leaving me sans the good stuff Monday through Friday. Thus leading to my goal of the new year: find more trompos. Continue reading
Los Angeles is currently facing the full brunt of a heavy storm system that is expected to last the entire week. Or, to put it as my grandfather used to say, it’s raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock. It’s common knowledge that people in this fair city completely lose their shit when rain starts a fallin’. LA motorists are as cautious with their speed during inclement weather as they with their turn signals on the freeway. Add on top the logistical stress that a week of straight rainfall has on a city that usually experiences 300 days of sunshine a year, and rainy LA makes for a pretty sucky place. Yet, even in the midst of crisis there lies great opportunity, as the old proverb goes. For me that opportunity was finding solace in a good rainy day meal that would warm the body and nourish the soul. For that I headed to Koreatown, inspired by the recent post of the oddly-named Chowhounder, ‘mrgreenbeenz’. Koreatown may not seem like an obvious choice for a day meal on a stormy day, but when you consider it in terms of geography it makes perfect sense. Korea is located very far north in terms of latitude. In fact, North Korea is only a stones throw away from the vast frozen wasteland of Eastern Russia (even closer than Sarah Palin). So naturally Korean cuisine has a wide array of dishes that are exceptional for knocking out the chill caused by a blustery day.
As some of you may know, December 18th was the last day of business for one of Culver City’s most unique and beloved eateries. Much has been said about Tokyo 7-7, a small shop pigeoned-holed by parking structures and the burgeoning classier eateries of downtown Culver. It is an odd pastiche of a diner to say the least: serving both Japanese comfort foods as well as American greasy spoon mainstays at prices that echo a time when Members Only jackets were worn without a trace of irony. Tokyo 7-7’s other-worldy nostalgia lasted 27 years with compromising to the pressures of a changing world. Not bad for a place where the waitresses total checks on abacuses and sell packs of cigarettes from the behind the counter between slinging plates of spam and eggs.