What makes an L.A. restaurant?
Thinking about L.A. restaurants, new Michelin stars and finding the snook whisperer. I’m Laurie Ochoa, general manager of L.A. Times Food, with this week’s Tasting Notes for a hot Labor Day weekend.
Comfort and adventure
Thursday night inside Hollywood’s Grandmaster Recorders, at the packed launch party for the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl, Anajak Thai chef Justin Pichetrungsi accepted the Times Restaurant of the Year award in typical humble fashion. “Honestly, the thing I said the very first night [I heard] this great news was, ‘You should give it to someone else,’” he told the crowd after I had the honor of presenting him the award chosen by restaurant critic Bill Addison. “Give it to Antico. Give it to someone great. I have fridges in the dining room. I have propane tanks in the women’s restroom. The A/C doesn’t work. My fryer is 21 years old.”
Pichetrungsi is correct that Chad Colby’s Antico Nuovo is a great restaurant, serving beautiful pastas and freshly made ice cream in an unassuming building that used to be a Koreatown nightclub. But Pichetrungsi is wrong in his contention that his Restaurant of the Year award is undeserved.
Certainly after ordering in the restaurant’s doorway and being directed to a table in the alley, there are those who, upon being handed plastic cups with one of the restaurant’s selections of natural wines — it works with some 230 winemakers — might wonder if they are in the right place. But if you have come for one of Anajak’s Thai Taco Tuesdays, the seduction quickly begins as the sun starts to set and the tables fill with an energetic L.A. crowd eager to taste Pichetrungsi’s dry-aged fish tacos, his remarkable tostada topped with Chinese sausage and mint or the pork collar being cooked on the outdoor grill across from your table. Chances are good that by the time Pichetrungsi’s mother comes by with mango and sticky rice, you will have fallen in love with Anajak and with this city for being home to such a place. At this moment, Anajak Thai might be the perfect Los Angeles restaurant.
My meals at Anajak Thai have got me thinking about what makes a great Los Angeles restaurant. When I used to report on restaurants for this paper in the 1990s, I would talk to young chefs like Octavio Becerra and Fred Eric about their dreams of bringing the flavors and ingredients from the many cuisines blooming in and around Los Angeles into fine dining. Since that time, we’ve seen the food truck revolution sparked by Roy Choi, a classically trained chef who melded the Korean cooking he grew up eating with the taco truck culture all around him, and the pop-up phenomenon that took root after Ludo Lefebvre brought street-savvy French cooking into a borrowed bakery space. Both became prototypical Los Angeles restaurants with global influence. Anajak Thai represents another kind of evolution — where fine dining comes to the neighborhood restaurant from within, not via outsiders.
Pichetrungsi certainly isn’t the first restaurant kid to take over the family restaurant and make changes to the menu. It’s an old tradition. But there’s something so right — and so Los Angeles — about the way he’s gone about it. For one thing, on most weekdays you can still eat at Anajak — one of the first Thai restaurants in the San Fernando Valley — as a neighborhood restaurant. Beloved classics like panang curry and pad siew pioneered by Pichetrungsi’s dad, Ricky, are available Wednesdays through Sundays. Unlike what seems to be happening to the Italian beef restaurant in TV’s “The Bear,” the old is not being discarded for the new.
But when Pichetrungsi gave up his career as an artist for Disney to return to the restaurant after his father had a stroke, he brought his Los Angeles-bred high-low sensibilities to the family business with Thai Taco Tuesdays (which requires no reservations but a willingness to stand in line for a seat) as well as a sophisticated omakase menu served on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s almost impossible to get a seat for the omakase meals, which makes Anajak simultaneously one of the most exclusive and democratic restaurants in Los Angeles.
It fits with Pichetrungsi’s frequent description of Thai food as comfort and adventure — comfort for the curries and noodles and risky adventure in the spiciness and wild flavors. I’d say comfort and adventure is an excellent way of describing what so many of us want in a Los Angeles restaurant right now.
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Finding the snook whisperer
There was a period in 2017 when I was eating a lot of pescado zarandeado, the Sinaloa-style grilled fish most commonly made with róbalo — a.k.a. snook. Jonathan Gold, The Times’ late restaurant critic, was on a mission to explore all of the places that Sergio Peñuelas, known as the snook whisperer, had cooked pescado zarandeado, which he called “one of the wonders of the seafood world, a broad, thin fish sliced neatly in half on the vertical axis, roasted slowly over a smoky fire and served on a platter the size of a skimboard — half an acre of smoking, char-edged flesh.”
This week, restaurant critic Bill Addison talks about his own pescado zarandeado quest — landing in Peñuelas’ backyard restaurant, 106 Seafood Underground.
He liked what he found: “Pescado zarandeado,” he writes, “is an ecosystem of tastes and textures: jagged, soft, sweet and smoky, with hidden, meat-filled gullies that demand excavation.”
L.A. Michelin newcomers
In Stephanie Breijo’s restaurant news column, she tells us about several openings, including a Culver City location for the great Japanese sando spot Konbi, and she reveals that the Michelin Guide has added 18 new L.A. restaurants. They are All Day Baby, Antico Nuovo, Chiang Rai, Fia Steak, Flavors From Afar, Girl & the Goat, Horses, Ipoh Kopitiam, Lalibela, Lulu, Lumière, Manzke, Mes Amis, Moo’s Craft Barbecue, Ryla, Shunji, Sushi Nikkei and Sushi Takeda.
It's a date
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