Therapeutic pork belly tacos and other takeout awesomeness
It’s impossible to report on our dining culture right now without feeling pulled down by the waves of closures — the neighborhood institutions, the year-old megawatts, the restaurants of every kind forced to close during a pandemic, having never received the government aid their owners needed to survive.
One looks for hope where one can. Like any business, new restaurants take months — and often years — of planning. Some entrepreneurial warriors have managed to bring their dreams to life in the months since the initial March shutdown, despite all the obstacles. Each time I duck into a just-opened place to take food home, it feels something like Pixar’s WALL-E stumbling onto the seedling tree growing in a broken fridge.
Many new restaurants are also open for outdoor dining, with crowds to capacity. I remain focused on takeout.
An Armenian-Lebanese family in Pasadena is making dishes with the kind of grace one tends to savor only in a home kitchen. Manhattan Beach has gained Caribbean cuisine that the whole region should see more of. A new looker on West 3rd Street proves it’s possible during a crisis to open a scenester restaurant (the theme is Greek; the sidewalk dining is as jammed as allowable). Chinatown now has some of the city’s best burgers and sandos. It turns out the weight of a handmade corn tortilla in hand, enfolding pork belly dressed in pico de gallo, can be a form of physical therapy.
These restaurants show that the pluralism of Los Angeles endures.
Alvin Cailan founded Eggslut in Grand Central Market in 2011, introducing Los Angeles to his genius for sandwiching soft scrambles and other breakfast goodness between domed buns. Amboy began in 2016 as a takeout pop-up in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza, serving pork belly over rice with vinegary hot sauce and other dishes that channeled Cailan’s Filipino heritage; the 2.0 version returns to the food-centric mall as a butcher shop and burger joint. Drawing from his time hosting First We Feast’s “The Burger Show,” Cailan condenses the burger canon into four magnificent variations. For cheeseburger purists, there is the Ordinaire. The Classic Double spins off the fast-food, crispy-thin patty model with American cheese, caramelized onions and Thousand Island-inspired sauce and stands up to any of the trendy smashburgers around town. Picanté swaps in no-joke pickled green chiles, provolone and spicy mayo. The thick DH burger honors the steakhouse prototype, crafted from dry-aged prime rib blended with other cuts. Yes to the golden matchstick fries straight from the fryer. A whopping yes to whatever mini-pies are available (maybe buttermilk with layers of berry jams, or a mashup of peach, mango and jackfruit) made by Edlyne Nicolas, who won two awards in KCRW’s pie contest last year.
727 N. Broadway, No. 117, Los Angeles, (213) 935-8188, amboyqualitymeatsanddeliciousburgers.com
Open this month after several years of building an audience through popups, Heritage makes San Juan Capistrano the latest Southern California pilgrimage site for Texas-style barbecue. Pitmaster Daniel Castillo, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Brenda, smokes meats over California white oak in twin 1,000-gallon pits exhibited in full glory in the restaurant’s outdoor dining space. The brisket is textbook, silken from slowly rendered fat, with a ruby, well-defined smoke ring. Props to the lush pulled pork and the mighty beef rib, with meat you can practically eat with a spoon. Castillo takes prompts from modern groundbreakers like 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio, weaving Mexican American flavors into the menu. Order sausages stuffed with chorizo verde and Oaxaca cheese, borracho beans given depth from dried chiles and jalapeños, and mac and cheese shot through with chorizo, guajillo chiles and queso fresco. Queues may not be the most comfortable scenario during a pandemic, but prepare to stand in a long, socially distanced line with other barbecue devotees.
31721 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, heritagecraftbbq.com
Before a new development forced Daniel Son to close Kura Fine Japanese Cuisine in West Hollywood last year, he’d held Sunday pop-ups at the restaurant spotlighting his experimental takes on sandos — convenience-store sandwiches that fall in the category of yōshoku, or Japanese foods inspired by Western dishes. Son’s Katsu Sando in Chinatown gives his mastery a stand-alone platform. Pork katsu sando is a baseline, built (as are all the sandwiches) on honey milk bread baked in-house that tidily contains breaded pork loin and cabbage slaw zinging with ginger, miso and mustard. Honey walnut shrimp is a feat of wit and architecture, a combination of battered nobashi shrimp and shrimp tartare emulsion that winks at the flavors of the Panda Express favorite with its crunch and creaminess but is ultimately far, far more satisfying. Order a side of the curry cheese crinkle fries, and throw in some pickles to balance the caloric overkill.
736 N. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 395-0710, eatkatsusando.com
MAINE STREET LOBSTER TRUCK
Suggestion for a brief escape from reality: Look for the midnight-blue truck parked near 6200 Balboa Ave., across from an entrance to Lake Balboa/Anthony C. Beilenson Park. Order a few lobster rolls on buttery toasted buns: Connecticut-style, straightforward with drawn butter; New England, the meat lightly tossed in mayo flavored with tarragon; and a summery variant on a BLT (the one I’d request if I came solo). Maybe, if you’re feeling indulgent, add in “surf and turf” tater tots glossed with crema, pico de gallo and bits of lobster and carne asada. Wait about 10 minutes for the food to be ready and then disappear into the park, where there are plenty of picnic tables and shady green patches near the paved path along the lake.
6200 Balboa Blvd., Encino, (323) 364-5255, mainestreetlobstertruck.com
Lisa Salinas, who named the restaurant for her mother, brings to Manhattan Beach a cuisine not seen nearly enough in Southern California: the cooking of Trinidad and Tobago. Taste its singular mix of influences, predominately African and South Asian, by starting with a snack of doubles — twin, palm-size flatbreads called bara that enfold channa (spiced chickpeas) with dashes of mango chutney and hot sauce. Cumin rings like the tone of a tuning fork through geera pork. A soft mitt of fried dough cradles salt cod sauteed with tomatoes, peppers and onions. The marquee dish is goat curry roti, the meat infused with warm spices, with sides of rice and flatbread. It’s available only in limited quantities on the weekend, but it’s such a standout I’m hoping Salinas soon makes it a full-time menu item.
312 Rosecrans Ave., Manhattan Beach, (310) 546-1044, miaskitchen.info
Imagine the torment. Dean Yasharian spent nearly two years bringing his Pasadena restaurant to life, only to have the March shutdown announced the week he was planning to finally open. Perle began takeout and outdoor dining service this summer — at last — featuring the kinds of bistro classics that were enjoying a renaissance in Los Angeles (and the country) before everything changed. Salade Lyonnaise with poached egg and lardons tangled in frisée; comforting coq au vin with mashed potatoes; mussels in a garlicky, buttery swirl of white wine; striped bass with succotash in a pool of basil-scented sauce vierge; a consummate tarte tatin: Yasharian’s romantic translation of the cuisine prevails even in to-go containers. And trust general manager and sommelier Roderick Daniel’s succinct, on-point selection of wines by the bottle.
43 E. Union St., Pasadena, (626) 460-8819, perlerestaurant.com
In April, chef Ria Barbosa (Sqirl, Forage, Paramount Coffee Project) opened her Filipino restaurant with partners Tiffany Tanaka and Robert Villanueva in the tiny downtown space that once housed Charles Olalia’s pioneering Ricebar. Barbosa tailors the initial menu format to the moment, focusing on rice bowls, salads and other dishes that hold well in transport. Her chicken adobo — garlicky and bright but also smoothed with coconut milk, flecked with crisped chicken skin and mustard greens — has become a staple in my takeout life: She also transforms the dish into a riff on a French dip sandwich, adobo jus included, that perfectly expresses Los Angeles. It’s worth calling the restaurant when placing an order to ask about specials: You might hear about a chicken sando or ginataang langka with alimasag, an aromatic stew of blue crab and young jackfruit in coconut milk.
419 W. 7th St., Los Angeles, (209) 438-7376, petitepeso.com
Mykonos is one of the world’s defining party destinations. So maybe it shouldn’t surprise that sidewalk dining at this 3rd Street restaurant, which takes inspiration from the Greek island’s aesthetic, is about as raucous as COVID-era dining can be. I stuck to takeout. Theía is timely in any guise: Los Angeles doesn’t have nearly enough Greek restaurants, and it’s gratifying to home in on the country’s more traditional dishes: spanakopita (fashioned into sticks but right in its lemony, salty crunch), dips like tzatziki and htipiti, roast chicken scented with oregano and, for dessert, karithopita, walnut cake doused in orange syrup.
8048 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (323) 591-0059, theia-la.com
TAMALES ELENA Y ANTOJITOS
Chef Maria Elena Lorenzo and her husband, Juan Irra, have been selling tamales and other dishes in the Watts community for nearly 30 years; their five children have cooked at restaurants across the city, including Rivera, Playa, Petty Cash, Mezcalero, Chica’s Tacos and Guerrilla Tacos. The family united skills to launch Tamales Elena y Antojitos in Bell Gardens; the menu focuses on regional specialties from southern coastal Guerrero that reflect their Afro Mexican heritage. Tamales come steamed in banana leaves (pork in red salsa, sharp and meaty against the slippery masa, is definitive) and corn husks (the one flavored with strawberry deliciously blurs the barriers between sweet and savory). Then move on to pozole — particularly the bright, herbal pozole verde — and the mole costeño, ruddy from its smooth sauce of earthy, mildly smoky guajillo chiles. To drink: iced chilate, a refreshing staple from Guerrero combining cocoa, rice, cinnamon and panela (made from evaporated sugarcane juice).
8101 Garfield Ave., Bell Gardens, (562) 674-3043, instagram.com/tamaleselenayantojitos
Venice’s Gjelina Group closed its Japanese restaurant MTN in March and rebooted the space in May as Valle. Pedro Aquino and Juan Hernandez, two longtime chefs for the company, have roots in Oaxaca; the caliber of cooking makes it obvious their starring platforms are overdue. The squash blossom quesadilla — the orange and green flowers so pretty you want to peek between the folded blue corn tortilla, sealed shut with melted quesillo — is a deserved early signature dish. Eat in the car hot, swiping bites through the side of guacamole. Same for the pork belly tacos. Tlayudas (vegetarian or pork) and lamb barbacoa? They can make it home fine. The dining room is open-air enough to qualify as “outside,” and a back patio routinely fills to a distanced capacity, so don’t be surprised by a full house if you pick up your meal. The place is already a hit; I expect it’ll be an even bigger smash when the COVID crisis finally ends.
1305 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 299-9735, vallevenice.com
YUME SUSHI BAR
The category of dining out that readers tell me they miss most? Sushi. I agree — plucking pieces of nigiri from a plastic container can’t equal the communion between chef and diner over a polished bar. Ordering from Yume in Studio City can help quell the yen. Shige Fujimoto is a veteran of three local sushi luminaries: Asanebo, Matsuhisa and Shiki. His takeout options at Yume are uncomplicated in the best ways: nigiri, sashimi in ponzu or yuzu, blue crab hand roll (superb), simple rolls and a few flashy creations (the balanced Dream Roll, for example, is spicy tuna and cucumber wrapped in soy paper and crowned with seared salmon, onion and lemon). It’s worth calling to talk to a staffer about the day’s fish specials and the available sake selection.
12254 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 747-2051, togo.dylish.com/restaurant/yume-sushi-bar
ZEPHYR MEDITERRANEAN GRILL & CAFE
Chef Silva Bilamjian grew up in Lebanon. Her husband, Hovig Bilamjian, comes from Syria. Both are of Armenian descent, and the cultures unite seamlessly on the menu of the Pasadena restaurant they run with their family. (The location was previously a hookah bar called Zephyr Coffee House and Art Gallery under different owners.) Familiar pleasures show up — kebabs, hummus, fattoush, garlic chicken wrap, an irresistible khachapuri — but there are less ubiquitous dishes that deserve your attention more. High among them is kibbeh labanieh, sturdy-soft beef and bulgur croquettes in a placid lake of yogurt sauce flecked with mint. Lebanese food is one of my obsessions, and I’ve not found a better restaurant version in Southern California. Rearrange the ingredients and you have sini kufteh — layers of beef and bulgur baked in a pan and served with yogurt (also outstanding). Zephyr also serves breakfast: Start the day with a manoushe rolled up with cheese and za’atar, and fatteh, the wake-up dish of chickpeas, fried pita, lemon, tahini (used here rather than the common addition of yogurt) and pine nuts that always makes me miss Beirut.
2419 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 793-7330, zephyrpasadena.com
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