The wealth of Southern California's restaurant scene doesn't lie just in big-name, fine-dining places. There may be no other area in the country that can compare when it comes to the number and variety of treasures that offer really delicious food at often amazing prices. These are some of our favorite Finds of the year. There's Iranian, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Thai and even an experimental sushi fusion restaurant located in a hamburger stand. Now that's L.A.
Asal Bakery & Kabob Strangers chatting in line outside Asal Bakery & Kabob are all jonesing for a taste of the same thing: warm sangak, a floppy, chewy yard-long sesame-encrusted flatbread pulled from the fiery depths of a floor-to-ceiling oven whose constant muted roar dominates the Woodland Hills Persian cafe and bakery. Whether soaked with kebab juices at dinner or slathered with cultured cream and honey for breakfast, the lightly singed sourdough breads, slightly puffy with steam, serve as the heart of every meal here (sangak is to Iranians what baguettes are to the French).
Daily soups are vegetarian and often topped with a swirl of kashk, creamy house-made yogurt whey. Ash reshteh, bean and lentil soup flecked with masses of green herbs, has tart back notes and a topping of minty oil swirled with kashk. Simple grills arrive with panache, accompanied by baby lettuce salad lightly filmed with a bright-tart house dressing. Saffron-kissed game hen is moist and crisp. Koobideh, sausage-shaped, onion- and garlic-infused ground beef, bests the greatest hot dog, while the lightly marinated chicken or salmon wrapped in sangak make celestial Persian sliders.
20008 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, (818) 436-2353.
Got Sushi? Truffles shaved onto wild-caught yellowtail sashimi or kanpachi nigiri splashed with black caviar might begin your omakase at Got Sushi? Or the chef might enrobe supple ribbons of pristine snapper in creamy cured uni brightened with the sharp citrus snap of yuzu and house-made soy sauce. Close your eyes, and for a moment it's easy to forget that this tiny sushi bar is squeezed into a corner of King's Burgers, a fully operational burger joint in Northridge.
With its vintage beige leatherette tuck 'n' roll booths and faux wood-grain Formica tabletops, the classic setting is visually perfect for a place known for enormous breakfast burritos and fully loaded pastrami burgers. These gut-busters still draw a loyal crowd to King's. But so does a wild array of raw fish creations fashioned by the owner's son, sushi chef Jun Y. Cha, an alumnus of Sushi Roku, Katana and a handful of other high-profile sushi havens, who agreed to help his dad spiff up King's menu about three years ago. These days, customers have several menus to choose from, including a standard sushi selection and a list of modern Japanese sashimi plates and exotic rolls, along with Cha's Asian American-inspired fast food.
9345 Reseda Blvd., Northridge, (818) 885-6456.
Guisados Ricardo Diaz is on his way to building a culinary empire with Mexican restaurants that innately reflect the attitudes and fluctuations of the Angeleno appetite. Three years ago, Diaz and his in-laws opened Cook's Tortas in Monterey Park. And now Diaz and business partner Armando De La Torre's new Boyle Heights taqueria shares a similar universality. Here, guisados achieve ascendancy; these are humble stews and braises that you'd otherwise most likely find simmering atop a home stove.
Guisados' menu is designed to change every other week. But, De La Torre says, there are already some tacos too popular to be replaced. One is the calabacitas, a succotash of corn, zucchini, tomato, onions, peppers and a few crumbles of cheese. The tinga is equally indispensable. Chicken is stewed with onions, cabbage, chorizo and chipotle until its fibers unravel into smoky strands. Try the steak picado too, a bed of beans, caramelized onions and peppers supporting a heap of skirt steak streaked with creamy avocado salsa. And there's definite depth to Guisados' mole poblano.
2100 Cesar Chavez Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 264-7201
Habuya If there's one thing Mayumi Vargas wants everyone to know about her native Okinawa, it's the island chain's affinity for pork. And at Habuya, Vargas' new Okinawan restaurant in a hidden corner of a Tustin mini-mall, pork is a uniting force. There are pork ribs, with brawny slabs of meat thick as a Little Leaguer's baseball bat. But the soki soba is all about the bones, marrow-filled ribs stewed until they can be eaten.
In traditional izakaya style, the restaurant is built on small, shared plates. But everyone at Habuya eventually turns to pork. Rafutei, appearing for now only as an occasional special, grabs maybe the most attention. The long-simmered pork belly arrives just moments from complete collapse, peeling easily apart in tender strata of fat and flesh. The taste of soy penetrates the pork all the way down to what must be the cellular level. There's always soki soba, which is all about those pork ribs. They're simmered for six hours, the precise time it takes for the meat to free itself from the bones and for those ribs to soften into pork quintessence.
14215 Red Hill Ave., Tustin, (714) 832-3323.
Krua Siri A brand-new flaming star of glorious, singing, singeing Isaan Thai cooking has landed smack in the center of Thai Town. But it's hiding behind a false face. Krua Siri smells right, but the menu seems all wrong. But press the waitress for her favorite items and she might start dropping dishes that appear nowhere on the menu. Press her enough and she might mention the existence of a "Thai menu," at which point every food-hunting alarm in your head should start blaring at once.
Some of the best dishes include a gorgeous, handmade Thai sausage. Then there's the "spicy squid salad Isaan style" — yum planuag. What comes out is curls of barely cooked squid, caught just at the point when it's somehow chewy and meltingly tender at the same time. It's all zippy energy — mighty sour, mighty spicy, a touch fermenty, but all the flavors clear, refusing to obscure the gentle sweetness of fresh squid. Another specialty of the house is laab — chopped meat salad shot through with vinegar and toasty bits of rice meal. There are the usual pork, beef and chicken laabs, but they also serve duck laab and catfish laab. The latter is a weird delight: dried, shredded, softened fluffs of catfish, mashed with crunchy bits of onion and scallion, like some warm, demented, tropical-hallucinatory version of tuna salad.
5103 Hollywood Blvd. (at Normandie Avenue), Los Angeles, (323) 660-6196.
Mother Dough If you like a pizzaiolo who is downright maniacally obsessive, Bez Compani — owner and pizza maker at Mother Dough Pizza — is the man for you. This is a guy who went to India for four months and worked in six restaurants looking for a master to teach him the art of the perfect dosa. He went to Armenia to tap into mystical lavash-making methods. And he learned his pizza-making arts in the pizzerias of Naples. And this year he opened Mother Dough in Los Feliz Village on Hollywood Boulevard.
The menu is obsessively minimal: a careful selection of beer and wine, a few excellent starters, a pair of desserts and five pizzas. What comes out of his oven-beast is majestic — a subtly charred, quietly tangy, soft, densely chewy crust that is basically the happiest thing you can do for your mouth. It has layers of chew, geological strata of toothsome stretchiness. The sourdough gives the crust a wild, subtle tang. It's worth closing your eyes and sniffing it like a red wine. Try it in its most bare form — perhaps the Margherita or the oven-roasted tomato pizza. But the height of Mother Dough might be the prosciutto and arugula pizza, with ultra-thin slices of prosciutto melting like butter in your mouth.
4648 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 644-2885, http://www.motherdoughpizza.com.
— Linda Burum, C. Thi Nguyen, Miles Clements