The Top 10 Dishes

Mole negro. Of the classic seven moles of Oaxaca, dark, complex sauces flavored with seeds, nuts, herbs and chiles of every description, the extraordinary mid-Wilshire Oaxacan place Guelaguetza has quite a few: coloradito , amarillo , verde , estofado , sometimes even the dusky chichilo . Guelaguetza uses one mole to sauce enchiladas, still another to fill tamales. But the black mole , based at least partially on ingredients the restaurant brings up from Oaxaca, is stunning, rich with chopped chocolate and burnt grain, undertones of toasted chile, wave upon wave of textured spice, as simple yet as nuanced as a great, old Cote Rotie. It is so much better than other moles locally available that it is almost like seeing a Diego Rivera mural up close for the first time after years of seeing nothing but reproductions.

* Guelaguetza, 3337 1/2 West 8th St., Los Angeles. (No phone.)


Plov, at least as served at Uzbekistan Restaurant, the Hollywood offshoot of the best restaurant in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan itself, may be the grandfather of all rice pilafs, dense and slightly oily, a rich siena hue, more like fried rice than the pilaf that usually comes with something like Clifton's baked fish special. Plov is spiked with diced vegetables and crisp-edged chunks of lamb, flavored with a peculiar sort of imported Uzbeki cumin seed that is halfway between cumin and caraway. Try the spleen sausage hasip , the flaky dumpling samsa , the hand-pulled noodles called lagman , but don't miss plov . Two parts Central Asian exotic to one part Russian suave, Uzbekistan Restaurant is one of the most interesting new places of the year.

* Uzbekistan Restaurant, 7077 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 464-3663.


"Shanghai-style spare ribs" are actually on the menu at Sunny Dragon in the big San Gabriel mall, but you could look all around the room, notice the dish on half the tables, and still not have a clue on how to order the stuff. Less the plate of fried ribs you might expect than sort of a Chinese tian, the Shanghai-style ribs are soft, smokily sweet slabs of fat pork arranged over a ragout of musky fermented greens, rich enough to make the infamous pork pump seem like a Weight Watchers entree; seemingly every flavor that characterizes Shanghainese cooking combined into one plate of food. Awesome.

* Sunny Dragon, 140 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (818) 307-9008.


Posole. Abiquiu, born from the ashes of Bikini, is distinctly a fancy place, more popular with the expense-account crowd than with the taqueria set. Chef John Sedlar made his reputation on plates elaborately sauce-painted to resemble desert sunsets, and at Bikini, at least, the tamales tasted like they were made by a guy who needed to spend more time in East L.A. But Sedlar, raised in New Mexico, understands Mexican food, and his posole is spectacular--the funk of hominy, the bitter bite of hot chile, the slightly gamy undertaste of overstewed meat you expect from the authentic version of the dish, but with the clarity and finesse of a classic French consomme.

* Abiquiu, 1413 Fifth St., Santa Monica, (310) 395-8611.


Dry bean curd Yangchow-style. One of the astonishing things about browsing through the hundreds of Asian restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley is how often you come across a place that serves not just an unusual dish or two, but a whole cuisine that may be new to you. Silver Wing is a tiny place adjoining a Vietnamese supermarket, one mirrored restaurant among many, but Silver Wing is probably the only place in the area specializing in the famous dumplings and noodles and buns of Yangchou, a small city north of Shanghai, and the food is as delicious as you can imagine. Dry bean curd Yangchow-style may be the single best dish in the restaurant, the thinnest julienne strips of dry tofu, the texture of soft cheese, tossed with tiny shreds of white-meat chicken, Chinese ham and a little black vinegar, a dish you do not eat so much as inhale.

* Silver Wing, 1265 Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (818) 308-1890.


Filet mignon. There are a lot of horsey restaurants in the Southland, but the Derby, a few furlongs from the backstretch at Santa Anita, might be the grooviest, crowded with well-fed men, women customers gone prematurely blonde, pinky rings, pearls and rakish sportscoats. Highballs are served in Big Gulp-size glasses. Rare filet mignon wrapped with bacon--"Odds-On Favorite," says the menu--is a ruddy disk of meat, so soft it seems a little like meat-flavored butter, but with the mineral-sourness of really good beef. At the Derby, it is possible to believe, if only for a minute, that you have stumbled into the single best restaurant in the world.

* The Derby, 233 E. Huntington Drive, Arcadia, (818) 447-2430.


Chiu Chow braised goose. Already, the Chinese restaurants of Monterey Park can seem a little like ancient history, superseded by the newer, shinier places. Now the action is in Rosemead, just a little farther east, and there have probably been as many big-deal new restaurants in Rosemead in the last few months as there have been on the entire Westside. Among the newest is 888, a terrifically elegant restaurant specializing in Chiu Chow seafood, the cooking of the ethnic Chinese who migrated from China to Southeast Asia dozens of generations ago. The most astonishing dish may be Chiu Chow-style braised goose: neat slices of white meat and dark arranged in a heap, garnished with strips of fried bean curd served with a dipping sauce somewhat like a fruity Chinese vinaigrette. Braised goose is probably even worth the $20 per half order it costs.

* 888, 8450 E. Valley Blvd., Rosemead, (310) 573-1888.


Beijing duck is one of the most elegant dishes in the entire Chinese repertory, crisp curls of duck skin brushed with bean sauce and rolled, with lengths of scallion, into thin crepes. In its contrasts--soft against crunchy, richness against sharpness, sweet against fat--great Beijing duck is every bit the equal of great sushi and is arguably even more demanding to prepare. The new Rosemead branch of Quanjude, the most famous duck restaurant in Beijing, may be the most important Southland restaurant opening of the year.

* Quanjude Beijing Duck Restaurant, 8450 E. Garvey Ave., Rosemead, (818) 280-2378.


Jerk chicken. Over the last 10 years or so, the rage for Caribbean food sputtered into life, exploded into ubiquitousness and faded away only to be reborn as Florida cuisine . . . which means, roughly, plantains with everything. The defining dish of the Miami-influenced menu--just, come to think of it, as it was to most of the neo-Caribbean menus the first time around--seems to be Jamaican jerk chicken. Good jerk chicken is rubbed with dry spice, grilled over fragrant hardwood, and is as crisp-skinned and juicy as any chicken you've ever eaten. Good jerk chicken, strictly speaking, needs no sauce--though the sauce, thin, vinegary, heated almost to the blister point with capsaicin-rich scotch bonnet chiles, is always somewhere on the table. The jerk chicken at Ja'net's Original Jerk Chicken is crackly-crisp, moist, with crunchy bits of burnt skin and an appealingly gritty coating of allspice and cracked black pepper that sometimes fills the room with a scent more like Christmas cookies than like garlicky grilled bird.

* Ja'net's Original Jerk Chicken, 1541 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 296-4621.


Chili dog. Consider the Pink's dog, uncouth and garlicky, tapered and uncommonly slender, skin thick and taut, so that when you sink your teeth into it, the sausage . . . pops . . . into a mouthful of juice. The bun is steamed, just so, soft enough to sort of become a single substance with the thick chili that is ladled over the dog, but firm enough to resist dissolving altogether, unless you order your hot dog with hot sauerkraut. (I do.) Crisp chunks of raw onion provide a little texture; a splash of vinegary yellow mustard supplies the hint of acidity that balances the richly flavored whole. Pink's also serves hamburgers, but it is the dog that deserves a historical preservation act of its own.

* Pink's Famous Chili Dogs, 709 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 931-4223.

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