Hillhurst Avenue is a broad but sleepy street that runs a straight line between Sunset and Los Feliz boulevards. With its unromantic clusters of cleaners, grocery stores and drug stores, you would hardly expect Hillhurst to figure prominently on a food-lover's tour of L.A. And yet many of the people who go rushing up this avenue have eating on their minds, for three of Los Angeles' most interesting restaurants are hidden here.
You could hardly call it a restaurant row; the three have almost nothing in common. They do not serve the same sort of food, the ambiance of each is startlingly distinct, and their prices vary from very low to rather high. But there is one thing that they do share, and that is the fact that each offers a very satisfying experience.
Yuca's is the oldest of the three. For 10 years this little taco stand has been occupying a hut in a parking lot. There's not even a front door, and when they want to close the place up at night they simply draw a metal fence around the stand. There are only a few battered chairs and tables, and if you want a beer you have to buy it at the liquor store on the far side of the parking lot. The highest price on the menu is $2.80, and the plates are paper. It's not much to look at, but every Saturday, when they make tamales, a line forms, and on any day there is likely to be a wait for the wonderful soft tacos and burritos.
The menu is simple, but the food is so good that when I recently asked a group of chefs where they ate on their days off, two of them mentioned Yuca's. "I keep trying to figure out how they cook the beans so perfectly," said one chef. "They are always creamy but perfectly separate." Rolled up into a burrito with some cheese, fresh cilantro, a few chopped onions and tomatoes, they make a perfect lunch. The carne asada is also superb, crunchy bits of steak that I like best rolled into the double layer of corn tortillas that Yuca's always serves. Their carnitas (pork that has been fried in its own fat and then shredded) are sweet and soft, and the machacha, shredded beef, is also tasty and fine.
In addition to the Mexican food, Yuca's serves burgers and hot dogs and chili and sandwiches, and they seem to serve a lot of them. But I can't understand why anybody would want to eat those when they could be settling in for the greasy delights of cochinita pibil , pork that has been steamed with red chiles in banana leaves and then spooned onto a tortilla. It's hard to get much closer to heaven in a handful.
Yuca's is a pleasant place to be. There are generally half a dozen people lazing around, enjoying the sun, and eating a lot more tacos than they meant to. The last time I was there I watched a guy down three carne asada tacos before he turned to his companion and said, "Stop me before I hurt myself."
Yuca's, 2056 Hillhurst Ave., (213) 662-1214. Open Mon.-Sat., 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
From Yuca's to Katsu may be only a short walk, but when you go through the door you enter a different world. In this serene Japanese restaurant, dirt and mess and noise have been banished; it is a place of order and beauty. You sense, the minute you walk in, that you are in for an unusual experience, for the waiting room looks more like an avant-garde gallery than the entrance to a restaurant. A year ago the restaurant expanded into the storefront next door, but instead of putting in more tables, they simply made a quiet, rather empty, almost eerie space in which to wait.
The restaurant itself is also extremely artful. The room is dominated by an enormous work by Borofsky and a couple of striking flower arrangements. The food is served on one-of-a-kind hand-made plates, and you are eating with your eyes long before you taste your first mouthful.
On Sundays and Mondays you will generally find a chef or two from the West Side sitting at one of Katsu's tables, or watching entranced at the sushi bar while the chefs wield their knives. "I come for inspiration," said one, "because I know of no other restaurant in Los Angeles where food is served more beautifully."
Katsu serves the usual sushi, but they do it more gracefully than anywhere else. They also offer a changing, multi-course nightly dinner ($30) that is an experience in Japanese aesthetics. And for one more little touch of Japan, notice, on your way out, the tiny cone of salt that sits on either side of the door. "In Japan," said the manager, "we believe that brings good luck."
Katsu, 1972 Hillhurst Ave., (213) 665-1891. Open Monday-Friday for lunch, daily for dinner, 5:30-10 p.m.
Katsu has no sign on the door, but you can't possibly miss it. It is even harder to miss La Petite Chaya, an elegant free-standing building that looks a bit out of place here on Hillhurst. This is clearly the class act of the neighborhood.
When the restaurant opened five years ago, it virtually defined the style that came to be known as Franco-Japonnaise; to this day, nobody does this cross-cultural cooking with greater panache. A few months ago the restaurant began opening for lunch, offering a $12.50 prix-fixe meal that provides a splendid opportunity to explore this unique cuisine.
In the daytime the front room is like a greenhouse, filled with suffused light so that you have the sense of eating in an enclosed park. The food is equally lovely. Appetizers include dishes like poached lobster with avocado, tomato and mushroom in a gently creamy sauce. There are little dabs of smoked salmon mousse topped with sour cream and golden caviar, or marinated grilled chicken with green beans, endive and cabbage. You can follow this with John Dory marinated in pesto, grilled and served with champagne butter sauce, or sauteed fish in a gentle mustard cream sauce, or grilled beef with mushroom and black peppercorn cream sauce. Despite the basic French orientation of the dishes, each has been toned down, its edges muted.
In the evening more than half the menu is taken up with "pre-appetizers" and appetizers offering a superb excuse for grazing. I'd begin with Chaya spring rolls, crunchy little tidbits filled with ground chicken and mushroom and slightly flavored with curry. Then perhaps a couple of orders of oysters: raw, topped with green peppercorn sauce or baked in a creamy, garlic-laden sauce.
The "bonsai plate" looks like a particularly beautiful artist's palate, each color offering a different taste. Decorated with real flowers, the plate is covered with half a dozen different tastes--little dabs of foie gras artfully made into a salad, tuna tartare, paired mousses of peppers and fennel on a coulis of tomato, a salad of smoked chicken with cabbage, another of lobster topped with caviar--all delicate, all tiny bites, but so beautifully orchestrated that no one flavor dominates any other.
Other impressive appetizers are a galette of crisp potatoes crowned with sauteed oysters and golden caviar or a little pillow of roasted abalone, topped with hot lemon dressing and tamari butter sauce.
The entrees are large and good--but in my experience not quite the equal of the appetizers. Best among them have been grilled rack of lamb in a sort of hot salad of sesame and asparagus and Chinese cabbage. I've also liked a simple halibut topped with ratatouille. But if I were not in the mood for an all-appetizer meal, I'd order the chef's special dinner ($37); Franco-Japonnaise cooking excels in the art of balance, and the best way to experience it is to simply put yourself in the chef's hands. No matter what you eat here, one thing is certain--when you go outside and find yourself back on lazy Hillhurst Avenue, it is always something of a shock.
La Petite Chaya, 1930 Hillhurst Ave., (213) 665-5991). Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for dinner Mon.-Thur., 6-10 p.m.; Fri. and Sat., 6-11 p.m., Sun. 5:30-9:30 p.m.