The Hollywood Walk of Food

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

There's the Hollywood the world knows. And then there's another Hollywood, a stretch of Hollywood Boulevard that is as far from Punk City, La-La Land or any of the other cliches as you can imagine.

It's also far removed from the image of Los Angeles, the Automobile City. The five blocks that make it up feel like an urban neighborhood, complete with street life. People talk to the postman as he walks his beat. You see the local butcher having lunch at the local restaurant. There's a friendly coexistence of half a dozen cultures.

The northeast corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Harvard gives a fair hint of what's coming up. It's a tiny mini-mall dense with nationalities: Here you find Angel of Siam (a Thai-Chinese restaurant) at 5241, Qahwat al-Sa'ayida (a coffee-house patronized by Egyptians) at 5237, next to an Arab video store, and at 5235 Hollywood Blvd., Bucharest Grocery and Deli.

The Bucharest itself is dense with nationalities. Behind its downright frumpy exterior is a sleek, modern store featuring a startlingly wide selection of the world's food.

There are Armenian breads and pastries (including a baklava with a dribble of chocolate frosting), Iraqi dates, Moroccan sardines, two kinds of French goat cheeses, frozen baby pork ribs imported from Finland, Norwegian lox, boxed New Zealand honeycomb, Bulgarian wines and Russian, Hungarian and Turkish sausages.

The emphasis is on Near Eastern and Balkan foods--you can get all four grades of bulgur wheat--but the Bucharest also stocks luxury items you'd more normally expect to find in Beverly Hills food shops, such as creme fraiche, Plugra butter, hot-smoked pepper salmon fillet, and (at $75 a pound) batarak. Followers of the more recherche Italian restaurants will recognize this as the ancient Mediterranean specialty bottarga, a bright yellow preparation of salted fish roe that tastes like a cross between caviar and salt cod.

The main focus is Near Eastern foods, particularly Armenian, though in keeping with the name Bucharest there is a certain interest in things Romanian. At the cash register there are two Romanian newspapers for sale, and signs over the butcher counter announce "Avem cirnati porc. Avem bors. Avem mititei. " ("We have pork cutlets. We have borsch. We have skinless sausages.")

Down the block, at 5229 Hollywood Blvd., stands Shamshiry, the first popular Iranian restaurant in Los Angeles. Nearby is a rather worn Japanese restaurant, but you scarcely need to visit Hollywood Boulevard to find Japanese food these days.

On the other side of Kingsley Street, you hit a vein of Thai businesses. Sapp Coffee Shop, at 5183, is a plain little room serving the usual Thai specialties plus a couple made with homemade "Thai spam" that seems to be boneless salted pig knuckle. The counter may be stacked with Thai desserts and sweets in plastic packs. (Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. except Wednesdays.) Past a Thai video store is Tepparod Thai, one of the first Thai restaurants to open in the '70s, at 5151.

The next block is mostly non-food businesses, but at 5103 is the Great Kitchen, still another Thai restaurant, advertising a $3.99 Thai lunch special. At times you can see owner Chayan Treevimon carrying some of the desserts he sells to Bangluck Market across the street.

At the northeast corner of Normandie, there's the newish Holly Norm Plaza at 5075, with the Star Club Thai restaurant fronting on the street. Around the corner and in the back, though, is Niko's Meat, a brightly lit Armenian butcher shop smelling of cumin, paprika and raw beef and lamb. The cuts of meat are mostly familiar to Americans, except for the beef that is scrupulously trimmed of fat and tendons and labeled "chee kofta ," referring to an Armenian preparation of ground beef mixed with bulgur. Since it's served raw, it requires top-quality meat, and Armenian cooks will search far and wide for a good source of beef for chee kofta (here $3.59 a pound; the butcher will grind it for you). Niko's also sells its own sausage, sujuk , and khinkal , a sort of sack-shaped ravioli with a plain beef-and-onion filling; at $3 for 10, these hearty little dumplings are a real bargain.

The rest of the block is mostly new mall stores, but at 5051-3, the corner of Mariposa, you find Arsham's Delicatessen. The contrast with the Bucharest Deli three and a half blocks away couldn't be sharper. The Bucharest is neat and orderly, filled with top-drawer foods from all over the world and run by a sophisticate who sometimes wears an ascot tie. Arsham's is like an Old World shop--in fact, it basically is an Old World shop.

"See this picture?" says owner Arsham Tashjian, pulling a well-worn photograph out from its place of honor behind the cash register. "This is my place in Jerusalem." The photo shows a young incarnation of the fierce-looking man standing before you but surrounded by the same jumble of beans and grains and fruits that fill up the dark little store you're standing in.

On Hollywood Boulevard, where he has been for the last 14 years, he wouldn't put his groceries out on the street, as he did in Jerusalem, but the place has the warm, rumpled, higgledy-piggledy air of a Near Eastern shop. You have to lift a box of Syrian-made wooden spoons to find the bottled apricot juice. Behind Arsham are shelves filled with a jumble of backgammon boards, spices, Middle Eastern trinkets.

"We get up every morning and go to the produce market at 4 a.m.," he says. "We're here until 8 at night." But how else is he to find the largest walnuts in California? "Look at them," he says, lovingly scooping the walnuts into a plain cardboard carton. He moves on to talk about his black dates, his dried sour yellow plums, patting everything approvingly as he passes. He sells bulgur, nuts, even Turkish Delight in bulk rather than in packages.

Right by the front door you notice very Old World ingredients such as fresh Armenian cucumbers and dried vegetables that we aren't used to seeing dried. Eggplants, for instance--little bundles of purplish-gray eggplant skins, wrapped in string and ready to soak and make stuffed eggplant--and dried baby okra, strung like spiky, chartreuse beads on thread.

"Aren't they beautiful?" he asks happily, pointing to a box of cookies that look exactly like peaches. The butter cookies are filled with cream and walnuts, and a single one would make an impressive dessert. "Just one dollar each," he says, "I have somebody who makes them for me."

Now he's taking a bowl filled with a soft substance the color of garnets out of the case. "Try my muhammara ," he says, spooning the dip made of walnuts and paprika into a container. He comes out from behind the counter and moves through the shop, rearranging boxes as he goes. He picks up a flat, shiny loaf wrapped in plastic. "It's very good on this bread. Do you know," he continues, "that there are 50 Armenian bakeries in this area?"

At the corner of Alexandria, Michael's Deli, at 5001, sells much the same selection of Armenian breads and staples as Bucharest and Arsham's, but the store is smaller and neater, and it specializes in coffee beans, giving the shop a sharp fragrance all its own.

One more block down, at 4953, the Chayka Restaurant has signs in Russian (Chayka: literally, "teapot") and Arabic (reading, "Arab Dishes"). Needless to say, however, the place is Armenian-run, and the menu's pork kebabs and flattened fried chicken (tabaka) have the flavor of Eastern (now Independent) Armenia. This distinguishes Chayka from most of L.A.'s Armenian restaurants, which serve food more akin to that of Lebanon.

The next shop on our route is Ara's Pastry at the corner of Kenmore, formerly the home of the well-known Panos Pastry (see below). Ara's, at 4945 Hollywood Blvd., actually advertises itself as a place to buy Lebanese specialties in the style of Trablus, a seaport famous for its pastries.

Ara's range of pastries--Armenian, Lebanese and French--is much the same as what is sold at the larger and more famous Panos. There's baklava, of course--in four or five different shapes, and filled with almonds, pistachios, walnuts or pine nuts. A number of pastries are based on kataif, also known as knafeh, a string-like dough that looks like shredded wheat when it's baked. In ordinary shops you'll find kataif pastries in the form of tubes filled with nuts or sweetened cheese. But here you'll also find fist-sized balls (shabiyet) and flat sheets, both browned (bain narain, "between two fires") and nearly white (balluriyya, "glassy").

Crossing over to the south side of this stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, you find Tony's Burger, which has an American fast-food menu of burgers, pastrami and Polish sausage, plus a few concessions to the neighborhood: Greek gyros and Iranian lule kebab. The leading Mexican restaurant around here is clearly Antojitos Denise's, at 4930, east of Kenmore, which boldly advertises itself as serving the best antojitos in Los Angeles. It always seems crowded with people ordering tacos and burritos filled with carne asada, chicharrones or buche.

You can't miss Alba Produce, at 4966 Hollywood Blvd. The store window is painted with a luxuriant border of tropical fruits; inside the window two fake banana trees have real bananas hanging from them.

The owner comes from Costa Rica, and sells Lizano Sauce, a Costa Rican marinade for meat, but most of the things in the store are Salvadoran. The pastries include semita de dulce , pastel de pina and quesadilla salvadorena. Open the freezer and you'll find a cornucopia of frozen tropical fruits such as mamey , maranon , guinda , arrayan , pito as well as frozen yuca and frozen bamboo shoots. The shop also squeezes fresh fruit juices to order, including the curiously refreshing mixture of orange and carrot.

West of Normandie, in the mini-mall at 5112, stands another Armenian restaurant, the Caroussel, notable for its shish kebab, stuffed grape leaves, and a devastatingly delicious version of muhammara. In the same mall is Terek Russian Bookstore, where you can pick up a book of recipes from Uzbekistan for a bargain $7.50 (well, a bargain if you read Russian).

A few doors west, a narrow walk takes you between two rows of small storefronts, and far from the Boulevard. At the very end of the walk is German Quality Imports Delicatessen, at 5126.

It's amazingly well stocked with German, Russian and Baltic breads from bakeries all over Los Angeles. There is an astonishing variety of German sausages, of course-- zwiebelwursts and bockwursts and fresh wieners--to say nothing of German pickles, preserves and soup mixes. There is even butter from Germany.

The biggest surprise about this sparkling clean little German deli is the owner, a wisecracking Irish-Italian from New York named Michael F. Pignataro. As he shaves ham for a sandwich, he practically does a stand-up comedy act about the delicatessen business (which he was definitely not born into--he is a former movie technician). "Well," he says, "the film business wasn't so good, and I've always wanted to run a deli. So when this one came up for sale a couple of years ago, I bought it."

On the other side of Alexandria, Dee Prom Restaurant is a big Thai restaurant, that is enormously popular in the neighborhood. It serves up all the usual Thai suspects--as well as live music after 8 p.m.

Next door is a tiny place with a sign in Thai and English that reads "Ping Pong Cafe Chinese Daily." Translation: The place sells Thai and Chinese noodle and rice dishes but only for breakfast and lunch, not at dinner.

"We are open from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m." says the owner. "There are hundreds of very good Thai restaurants around here, so why should we stay open at night?" He points out the window to Dee Prom two doors down and says, "If you really want to eat good Thai food, try eating there. I do."

Next we come to the corner of Winona, a splendid place; 5150 Hollywood Blvd. is the new home of Panos Pastry. Inside is a pastry paradise, gleaming with brass and curving glass display cases. "See this floor?" says Panos Zetlian proudly, "$45,000 went into it." Looking down at the granite, through the doors to the spotless kitchen in back, it's not hard to believe that when Zetlian moved here from his former location last year, he invested in the best of everything.

In the 10 years Panos has been in Hollywood, he has made himself the virtually undisputed king of Armenian pastry-makers. When he arrived he had already been baking for 38 years; long before he left for Canada (where he stopped for a few years on his way to California), Panos was famous in Beirut.

He makes all the baklavas and kataif pastries, which really do taste just like the ones you find (or used to find) in Beirut, rich and delicate. He makes maamoul , the fragile semolina butter cookie stuffed with dates or nuts, in three sizes: large, medium and remarkably small--about the size of a jawbreaker (the small ones are rolled in pistachios). Don't miss the thin, crisp pistachio cookies called barazi , coated with sesame seeds.

And don't ask too many questions unless you're very hungry: a simple request for information about one of the pastries is apt to get you a huge hunk of it by way of an answer. Show the slightest interest in anything and Panos or one of his assistants will practically force a sample upon you. The theory is to let the pastries make their own sales pitch.

But there is more than Middle Eastern pastry here: Half of the display cases are filled with French cakes and rich whipped cream tarts. And Panos, like Ara's, has a specialty in wedding cakes. Panos also specializes in candies; all the chocolates and marzipans are made on the premises. This time of year you'll also find enormous chocolate Easter eggs dominating the store. Are they made here? Zetlian looks offended. "Everything, everything we make here," he says, gesturing grandly with his arms.

You wouldn't think anybody would have the courage to open something called Golden State Bakers just a couple of doors away from Panos (just past a 99-Cent Store with signs in English, Spanish, Russian and Armenian), but there it is at 5158. Golden State does hedge its bets by including grocery, meat and deli sections as well, and the aroma of the place is not butter and nuts but the clean, briney smell of feta cheese--it stocks seven different kinds. It also sells eggs by the flat (that's 200 eggs), all kinds of olives, and makes its own pelmeni, a Russian version of ravioli stuffed with chicken.

But the real reason to stop into the store is for the home-made doughnuts. "They're very, very good," says the woman behind the counter, handing you a plump, golden, custard-filled, yeast-raised pastry. It is still warm, slightly greasy--and absolutely wonderful.

At the end of the block is an imposing Thai assemblage: Bangluck Market and Sanamluang Restaurant, respectively at 5170 and 5176, both managed by an eager young man named Topen Punyodyana. The market is huge and stocks Thai, Vietnamese and Filipino cooking utensils, produce, canned goods, everything from dried trang beans and lily buds to salted eggs. Thai people particularly come here for hard-to-find ingredients like jasmine rice and frozen durian (fresh when the fruit is in season, around May).

Way in the back is the butcher shop, the one market in the neighborhood where you are most likely to find people attempting to communicate via sign language. Here is where not only Thai but Armenian, Russian and Salvadoran housewives buy rock cod from Thai butchers, while their Mexican assistants attempt to facilitate the transaction. You can see why everybody shops here--the meat cases are full of everything from short ribs to pork uterus, and the compendious selection of fish (displayed in iced crates on the floor for close inspection) includes some flown in from Thailand.

You can also get prepared foods in the butcher shop, cooked at the adjoining Sanamluang Cafe and sold at a separate counter. Those in a hurry can always get an array of curries, barbecued meats and soups to take out.

"Desserts are very special here," says Punyodyana, which is obvious from their placement at the heart of the shop. All day long runners arrive from local Thai restaurants, carrying cartons filled with colorful containers of typical Thai deserts: sticky black rice topped with coconut milk, coconut-flavored bunny rabbits made of bright green crunchy jelly, han tra, lacy pastries made of beans and sugar and wrapped in bright orange threads made of egg yolks. They seem to fly off the shelves.

Those in the mood for something more substantial can go next door to the cafe, where some of the best Thai noodles in the city are dispensed from 10 a.m. to 5 a.m. daily. There's an inconspicuous Buddhist shrine up on the wall outside Sanamluang, with offerings of oranges and flower garlands. Rounding out this little spot of Thailand is Siam Book Center, 5178, where you can get (among a world of Thai books and magazines) Thai cookbooks in English or Thai.

On the other side of Kingsley, at 5224, La Blanquita Market Produce has the following on its front window: Productos Guatemaltecos , Ice Cream, Pan Frances , Chocobanano. The latter, it turns out, is a banana dipped in Guatemalan chocolate, which the owner doesn't happen to have on hand at the moment. But he does have Guatemalan bamboo shoots and packaged chow mein (chao mein) mix imported from Guatemala.

"We specialize in Guatemalan products," he says proudly, jumping off his stool to lead a march through the store. He points to jars of bottled nance and packets of black pepper seasoning for steak. He fingers a special package of Guatemalan potato chips. And then he returns to his seat and proudly holds up two packages of cigarettes. "Belmont," he says, "Plaza. All the way from Guatemala."

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