Kimchi on pizza? It’s 1,000 times better than pineapple

Pizza in a takeout box, with kimchi and jalapenos.
Kimchi pizza from Olivia, a vegetarian restaurant in Koreatown.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

The best things Jenn ate last week, including shawarma at the new Saffy’s, kimchi pizza at Olivia in Koreatown and Laotian sausages in Westminster.


Weiser potato and kimchi pizza from Olivia

It’s hard to pinpoint chef Mario Alberto’s style of cooking. He grew up preparing traditional Mexican foods with his mother and he’s spent time in the kitchens at the decidedly Californian Gjelina, the Peruvian restaurant Mo-Chica, plant-based Mexican restaurant Gracias Madre and the popular gastropub Freddy Smalls. So it should come as no surprise that he’s making a potato and kimchi pizza at his new vegetarian restaurant, in a strip mall, in Koreatown.

If you’ve been spending the last week watching the Olympics, you’re maybe feeling a bit nostalgic for snow — and very hungry for Korean food.

Feb. 17, 2018

It’s been years since Roy Choi put kimchi and melted cheese together in a quesadilla on his Kogi BBQ truck. And the world (my world) was never the same. Alberto’s pizza is a smart take on this specific pairing of flavors. His crust is nicely charred, with tiny crisp bubbles all over. He uses both Gruyère and Beemster Gouda for a nutty, buttery cheese base that plays up the funk of the spicy, fermented cabbage. He cranks up the heat with a ton of chopped kimchi that wilts and becomes paste-like in the oven. And he dots the pie with slices of fresh jalapeño that never quite mellow out as they cook.

It’s a flavor combination that gleefully challenges all food boundaries. More kimchi on pizza, please.


Shawarma at Saffy’s

The shawarma plate at Saffy's.
(Brigitte Neman )

Ori Menashe spent a year and a half developing his shawarma recipe for the new Saffy’s restaurant in East Hollywood. The chef, known best for his and wife Genevieve Gergis’ Bestia and Bavel, recently opened Saffy’s as a more casual operation centered around a menu of kebabs and shawarma. That shawarma is the result of months of trial and error, testing and retesting, inspired by a trip halfway around the world to visit chef Musa Dagdeviren of Çiya Kebap and Çiya Sofrasi in Istanbul and stage for two days in his kitchens.

I tried to contemplate the work, thought and airline miles that went into the dish before me. But after watching the whirling meat for a good 20 minutes, dripping, glistening and basting in its own juices, I ate like someone fired a starting gun when it hit the table. I hurriedly tore off pieces of laffa and used them to cradle the hot shards of shawarma, feeling guilty that I had finished Menashe’s nearly two years’ labor of love in a matter of minutes. But I couldn’t help it.

Menashe’s shawarma is a revelation. He stacks alternating layers of thin slices of Wanderer beef from Australia with slices of California lamb and patties made from ground versions of both meats. “The patties both lock in the juices and help get the right texture,” he said during a recent meal at the restaurant.

The meat melts into itself, rich with umami, the sweetness of the beef fat and just a whisper of gaminess from the lamb. It melts into the laffa too, taking on an almost creamy quality nestled in the hot bread. It’s served with cool tahini, the smallest dollop of ajika hot pepper paste and a spoonful of chopped onion, parsley and sumac salad that looked and tasted refreshingly green.

If you go, ask for a bit of Menashe’s “chili crunch” sauce to eat with your shawarma, and just about anything else on the menu (it happens to come with the skewers). It’s his version of an Asian chile crisp: hot, sweet, smoky and crunchy with red chile flakes, Aleppo pepper, Kashmir pepper, Hungarian paprika, urfa, clove and Hawaij spice (cumin, coriander, turmeric).


Grilled sausages and crispy rice salad at Nok’s Kitchen

Assorted grilled and skewered meats
A selection of grilled meats from Nok’s Kitchen in Westminster, including rib-eye, left, chicken thighs and sausages.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

There is nothing subtle about the grilled sausages at Nok’s Kitchen in Westminster. They are the meat equivalent of an exhibitionist — a show pony of flavors. You could make a meal out of just a couple of them. With pronounced textures, spice and sour zing, they have the complexity of fine wine and satisfy like a composed dish.

“I buy my meat from Costco and cut and grind it myself,” chef-owner Nokmaniphone Sayavong
boasted on a recent visit. “I make it with lemongrass, garlic, red onion, scallion, black pepper and chile flake.”

The former restaurant server and computer science major started selling her sausages shortly after the pandemic started and recently opened her bricks-and-mortar in a small shopping center in Westminster.

Youthful and energetic, Musky Bilavarn ping-pongs around his small Laotian restaurant, Kra Z Kai’s in Corona, like a dervish: There he is manning the gas grill in the kitchen, there he is taking a phone order at the counter, there he is refilling your iced tea before you even notice the cup is half-empty.

Feb. 20, 2019

She coarsely grinds the pork butt for the sausages, along with the aromatics. One bite might surprise with a quarter clove of garlic. In another, you might find a whole piece of diced scallion or a sliver of red onion. The bitter, almost floral sharpness of the lemongrass is ever-present.

I devoured an entire sausage before I noticed a tiny cup of green jeow som on the side. The sauce wallops with fresh lime juice, fish sauce, garlic and Thai chiles. You can dunk the sausages in the sauce, or not. With brute dueling flavors, I chose the latter and saved my sauce to eat with some leftover sticky rice.

“I learned the basic recipes from my mom when I was growing up in Laos,” she said. “I was the oldest so I had to learn how to cook when I was 8 years old.”

There was also crispy rice salad, served with squares of sour sausage, torn fresh herbs and peanuts. It was similar to the nam khao tod I’ve had at many Thai restaurants, but the kernels of rice were clumped together, more like broken-up pieces of good tahdig with a faint coconut flavor. The irregular rice patties were crispy with a soft middle, something Sayavong said comes from her use of Japanese rice. It spurred in me an even more vigorous appreciation for carbohydrate-intensive salads.

Olivia, 205 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 277-1723,
Saffy’s, 4845 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles, (424) 699-4845,
Nok’s Kitchen, 9378 Westminster Blvd., Westminster, (714) 902-1338,