Week after week, Counter Intelligence samples menus of all kinds. It's a grueling job, but somebody has to do it. Here are the best dishes of the year, as selected and described by Counter Intelligence reviewers Charles Perry, Barbara Hansen and Max Jacobson.
Ai wo wo
J.Z.Y. Cafe serves Peking-style dim sum, which is much less well-known in this country than the Cantonese variety. The best from this extraordinary array of snacks is ai wo wo ("lover's dumplings"), rice balls stuffed with a sugary paste of crushed peanuts, pumpkin seeds and rose petals. The dumplings have an almost diaphanous rice-flour skin, and the filling is as dense as halvah. It's a treat for an emperor. J.Z.Y. Cafe, 1039 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel. (626) 288-0558. --M.J.
Polka is incredibly cheap--dinners, which include homemade soup, exotic Polish salads, noodles or potatoes, four vegetables and dessert, run $6 to $9. My favorite is baranina, called a roast on the menu, a brawny dish of braised lamb. Call it lamb for beef lovers. Polka, 4112 Verdugo Road, Los Angeles. (323) 255-7887. --C.P.
La Provence is a sandwich place with a difference--it uses its own freshly baked ficelle bread. The caprese sandwich is made with lettuce, tomatoes, mozzarella and a powerful olive puree.
La Provence Pa^tisserie, Suite 110, Beverly Hills Plaza, 8950 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 888-8833. --C.P.
It's a student hangout, so daytime parking is horrible, but Vito's makes remarkably rough, generous, earthy pizza. The crust, chewy and mottled on the bottom, has a sweet, fresh-bread flavor, and on crust this good, the simplest topping--just tangy cheese and a bit of sweet tomato sauce--is as much pizza fun as anybody could want.
Vito's Pizza, 814 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 667-2723. --C.P.
I was so taken with the chicken enchiladas at El Farolito that I tried (in vain) to copy them at home. They're just plain chicken rolled in tortillas and topped with salsa ranchera, a tomato sauce without overpowering chile heat, but they're irresistible.
El Farolito Mexican Restaurant, 2737 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 731-4329. --B.H.
I'm a sucker for candy-like tastes, and I couldn't get enough of the candied walnuts that surround this platter of shrimp, with their gooey coating of mayonnaise. An absolutely indulgent treat.
MPV Seafood Restaurant, 1412 S. Garfield Ave., Alhambra. (626) 289-3018. --B.H.
At Hugo Molina's, there are flowers everywhere, especially in the foods. But among the California cuisine-type whimsies, the best entree is serious business: lamb chops in a rich reduction of Merlot and blackberries. They come with impossibly rich mashed potatoes dosed with garlic and goat cheese.
Hugo Molina, 1065 E. Green St., Pasadena. (626) 449-7820. --C.P.
Odds and Ends
Anything would be good in Leo's arrestingly distinctive hot sauce, and anything's what you get in "odds and ends"--it's a big pile of extras and overdone bits of pork, beef, chicken and link sausage.
Leo's Bar-B-Que, 2619 Crenshaw Blvd., L.A. (323) 733-1186. --C.P.
Across the street from the old El Coyote, Solstice bravely cooks high-minded seasonal cuisine with many individual touches. Possibly the best dish is salmon poached in a light white-wine sauce goosed up with a jolt of horseradish.
Solstice, 7313 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 525-0405. --C.P.
Poulet a l'Estragon
At Cafe Stella, a romantic French place hidden in a down-at-the-heels Silver Lake mini-mall, you could imagine the last 40 years never happened. It's like a De Gaulle-era neighborhood bistro; it doesn't even take credit cards or serve decaf. Here you can rediscover old-fashioned treats like poulet a l'estragon: chicken in a dainty bit of sweet, tarragon-scented cream.
Cafe Stella, 3932 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 666-0265. --C.P.
in Honey Sauce
Once a year is as often as I would let myself eat this dish--Virginia ham steamed with sugar and honey for stuffing, fat and all, into little sandwiches. It's prettily arranged with pineapple rings, cherries and lotus seeds (and you can always trim off the fat if you must).
Juon Yuan Chinese restaurant, 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 210, San Gabriel. (626) 288-9955. --B.H.
Rice and Cheese
At Cafe Nao, which caters largely to visiting Japanese businessmen, the best dish is a French-style appetizer. The Japanese happen to love croquettes (koroke), and this is an amazing example--a golden-brown, crumb-crusted cylinder of rice filled with Gruyere cheese. It oozes purity and intense flavor.
Cafe Nao, New Gardena Hotel, 1641 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena. (310) 323-3000. --M.J.
Tanya's Russian Bistro has a large Russian and Lithuanian menu, from a real beef Stroganoff to the giant meat-stuffed potato dumplings called cepelinai. But you could make a meal of the daily-changing variety of fresh breads alone, particularly the dark rye.
Tanya's Russian Bistro, 29601 S. Western Ave., Rancho Palos Verdes. (310) 521-9621. --C.P.
One of the glories of Gujurati vegetarian cuisine is a hearty casserole of yellow split peas, broad beans, yellow dal, green beans, potato, eggplant and tiny torpedoes of mashed garbanzo beans, which add richness and density. Undhyoo is ordinarily cooked in an inverted clay pot buried in a fire pit, but at Jhupdi, it's done quite successfully on top of the stove.
Jhupdi, 2751 W. Lincoln Blvd., Anaheim. (714) 527-3800. --M.J.