The wild gastronomic mix along Ventura Boulevard is a magnet for culinary dreamers. They envision thriving among the crush of sushi bars, the newest gastro pubs, the endless parade of strip mall franchisees and countless mom-and-pops convinced that their traditional specialties are sure to win fans.
The savviest of these hopefuls realize they'll need more than an address to survive. Restaurateurs like Christopher Wong of Curry Up Café know they'll have to pique customers' fickle appetites — the boulevard has little want of yet another mediocre pizza purveyor or shawarma slinger.
FOR THE RECORD:
Restaurant hours: In the Dec. 15 Food section, an information box about restaurants along Ventura Boulevard said that Curry Up Cafe is closed on Saturdays. It is closed only on Sundays. —
When Wong took over his parents' 39-year-old Cantonese-style restaurant, Far East Delight, in 2007, he made a radical change, turning the space into the sort of Japanese-style curry dispensary that his Woodland Hills neighborhood lacked. He decorated the small room with a collection of vintage gumball machines, and his crispy baked tofu squares in house-made curry gravy became a neighborhood favorite.
But Wong soon began adding reimagined comfort food too: a loco moco curry burger, curry cheese fries, the curry doggie and bulgogi-topped hot dogs laced with shiitake mushrooms and spicy sauce … and more. "I just focused on the things and flavors I knew my friends loved to eat," he says.
Like Wong, two of the street's newest aspirants, Dan Nguyen, chef-owner of Bistro Orient, and Ricardo Gonzalez, chef and co-owner of El Chile Grande, had set out on their own creative path even before food trucks and pop-ups made cross-cultural casual food a national obsession.
At Bistro Orient, Nguyen turns out an always-delicious take on French-Vietnamese cooking with occasional impromptu touches like a splash of Thai seasoning.
Flavors adopted from his family background (his mother owned a French restaurant in Saigon that hosted high-end weddings, and his Chinese father ran an import food business) and an L.A. adolescence show up in Bistro Orient's dinner entrées: duck breast roasted on the bone, then sliced and fanned over baby bok choi, topped with piquant red Thai-like curry; plump jumbo shrimp crisply fried, their fragile shaggy crusts ready to absorb the accompanying dipping sauce of buttery caramelized vegetables; tuna steak resting on a fresh sauté of spinach and mushrooms and splashed with a ginger-garlic-lime vinaigrette smacked with the subtle nuttiness of roasted sesame oil.
To start, don't pass up Nguyen's elegant take on the spring roll (dau hu ky tom cua) — crispy tofu paper stuffed with a mix of crab and shrimp. It comes sliced, slightly grilled and served with a tart-sweet tamarind dipping sauce. Fabulous.
The dish that appears on almost every table is "Dan's special garlic noodle." His silky rice noodle stir-fry, available with grilled prawns, scallops, sautéed crab meat or bass, has become a favorite with regulars who might know it from Nguyen's first small restaurant, Café Orient in Chatsworth, which opened 18 years ago.
There, Nguyen's cooking had already begun to veer from strictly traditional French-Vietnamese. But for years Nguyen yearned for a spot on the more prestigious boulevard, one with a little wine bar, sleek décor and much more space. Finally, his dream has become a reality.
Sometimes on the boulevard you come across an unexpected talent that shines so amazingly it totally jolts your senses. Serving beautifully plated $12 entrees and modestly priced small dishes in a cute spot at the back of a pedestrian mini mall, El Chile Grande co-owner Gonzalez is just such a chef.
When you bite into the shrimp with still-translucent centers in a pear and bleu cheese salad or taste his carefully arranged yucca frita — tiny tender crisp-crusted orbs of the mashed root accompanied with three sauces painted in waves on the plate, you're easily convinced that this chef has spent time in some demanding kitchens. And in fact he has, among them Spago when it had a Mexico City branch.
His progressive pan-Latin menu dazzles with the flavors of Peru, Mexico and El Salvador, all refined to appeal to current sensibilities: lobster and cheese-filled pupusas, Oaxacan moles and pizza-like tlayudas, fresh-tasting quickly marinated Peruvian ceviches (think Picca) that haven't been lounging in the fridge for days.
After graduating from Instituto Gastronomico Lettyhttp://www.lettygordon.com/ Gordon in Mexico City, Gonzalez made his way up the ranks at a series of high-end new wave Mexico City restaurants, eventually ending up in Puerto Vallarta. In L.A. he worked at the now-shuttered Morton's, cooking for galas and huge parties. With that restaurant's closure, he and partner, Lillian Canjura — El Chile Grande's sole waitress at the moment — deemed it time to try his luck and skill on Ventura.
Every plate that comes to your table reveals his experience, whether it's the fiery aguachile raw shrimp or scallops, the grilled snapper with tart, ruby-red hibiscus flower sauce, beef tenderloin (solomillo) encrusted with Spanish cabrales blue cheese and finished with a brandy reduction, or generously large shrimp smothered in a delicate tequila, mango and guajillo chile sauce.
More casual items include sopes de pulpo — handmade masa boats filled with tender sliced octopus and queso fresco. He gives cemitas, the iconic Oaxacan sandwiches, his own twist by serving them on toasted buns and saucing them with black mole (though you can ask for the pipian sauce, which I recommend).
Even the house-made brownies with ice cream for dessert are served with flair. But if appetites are sated, there's always the French press coffee. (When was the last time you saw that in a modest restaurant?) It's better than a good-enough way to end an El Chile Grande meal.
Bistro Orient, 21799 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, (818) 456-4564. Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Lot parking.
Curry Up Café, 21912 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, (818) 347-4116. Open 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Closed Sunday. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Street parking.
El Chile Grande 19321 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, (818) 708-8087. Open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Lot parking.