Thursday, November 20, 2008

Baa Baa Gold Sheep

Jonathan Gold's 99 Essential LA Restaurants list appears in last week's issue of LA Weekly, and I, like a docile little lamb, must follow wherever shepherd Gold leads.

Gold proves that, yes, Virginia, there is life beyond Melrose Ave and the Westside. He features three Eagle Rock and 10 San Gabriel Valley restaurants and even recommends spots in Bell and Norwalk, two cities known more for graffitti than gastronomy. I've included excerpts from Gold, along with my own humble opinions about these "essential" places near our neck of the woods.

(Baa Baa: I will follow.
Waa Waa: I may stray from the recommendation.)

1823 South San Gabriel Blvd.
San Gabriel
(626) 288-7625

What he says: It may serve Guadalupe Valley Syrah instaed of margaritas, and chiles en nogada instead of nacho plates, but Babita is a relaxed corner Mexican place with great food, an Eastside joint whose service is burnished to a white-tablecloth sheen.

What I say: My friend MM, who's been frequenting Babita for years, introduced me a couple years ago, and I felt like I'd joined a secret club. Who knew that this little joint with tacky decor on the wrong side of the tracks in San Gabriel was pumping out sophisticated Mexican food. Chef/owner Roberto is charming and, if you play your cards right, you may get an invitation to one of his private wine pairing dinners.

Bulgarini Gelatino
749 Altadena Drive
(626) 441-3319

What he says: The gelateria, the love child of Rome ex-pat Bulgarini and his Altadena-born wife Elizabeth Foldi, is a singular perfect blossom in a world of international sweets conglomerates and by-the-book mixes: fragrant Sicilian pistachio gelato, vivid blood orange sorbetto, subtle cinnamon cream and dark, smoky chocolate gelati flavored with orange peel, with fresh hazelnuts or with rum. And Leo probably pulls the best espresso shot in the San Gabriel Valley when he’s in the mood, a thick, syrupy thimbleful made with an antique Italian machine. If you don’t believe me, ask him yourself.

What I say: Lucky me! Bulgarini is less than one mile from my house. If I've been very, very good, I'll treat myself to a walk after dinner and one of my favorites: orange chocolate gelato, blood orange sorbetto or lemon vanilla gelato. I'd like to order the Gold-recommended shot of espresso, but I rarely see Leo in the shop.

Casa Bianca
1650 Colorado Blvd.
Eagle Rock
(323) 256-9617

What he says: Casa Bianca, the fiefdom of the Martorana family since 1955, serves the best neighborhood-pizzeria pizza in L.A. The sausage is homemade, but the mushrooms on the pizza are canned, old-school style, if that sort of thing bothers you.

What I say: This is my favorite pizza in LA, and I love to order it cut into funky little squares. There's just one problem: getting the box of pizza pie home intact. Oh, me of little self discipline. The only way to return home with a whole pizza is to transport it in the hatch of my Prius. It's also fun to avoid temptation by eating in at a table with a red checked cloth and a carafe of cheap red wine. Just be prepared to wait for at least half an hour for one of those checkered tables or a booth.

Chang's Garden
627 West Duarte Road
(626) 445-0606

What he says: An elegant Hangzhou-­influenced restaurant headed by chef Henry Chang, whose restrained, earthy style became known to the local Chinese community at the old Juon Yuan in San Gabriel Square, Chang’s Garden is well known both for its version of dong po pork, a dish favored by Chinese poets, and for the cooking’s congeniality to wine.

What I say: Sounds good. Let's go. Baa. Baa.

Chung King
1000 S. San Gabriel Blvd.
San Gabriel
(626) 286-0298

What he says:
Chung King is still the best place in the San Gabriel Valley to taste Sichuan cooking: sizzling with four or five different kinds of chiles, vibrating with the flavors of extreme fermentation and smacked with the cooling, numbing sensation of Sichuan peppercorns, lies halfway between dentist’s-chair Novocain and the last time you could afford a lot of blow, food that leaves you exhausted, narcotized and happy, drenched in foul, garlic-laced sweat.

What I say: I tried it, but think we must have ordered the wrong dishes. I need to go back, especially since Wandering Chopsticks lists this as one of her favorites.

El Huarache Azteca

5225 York Blvd.
Highland Park
(323) 478-9572

What he says: In Mexico City restaurants like El Huarache Azteca may be thick on the ground, but in Highland Park, there is nothing like it on a Saturday afternoon, a cramped storefront filled with families guzzling house-made horchata, tepache and watermelon drink out of huge foam cups, hovering over the few oilcloth-covered tables inside, gathering tacos and sopes by the dozen to bring home to their families, and coaxing burning-hot huitlacoche quesadillas — fried turnovers stuffed with musky, jet-black corn fungus — out of the stone-faced woman who mans the fry cart outside the entrance. What you have come for is, of course, the huarache, a flat, concave trough of fried masa mounded with beans, cultured cream and meat

What I say: Doesn't this sound lovely? Let's go. Baa Baa.

700 S. Atlantic Blvd.
Monterey Park
(626) 282-9998

What he says: The roast squab has skin as delicately crunchy as any Beijing duck. The Shunde-style soup of seafood with minced ham and bits of bitter melon is as tautly balanced as the exhaust note of a Lamborghini. The balls of chopped shrimp steamed in nets of shredded turnip and garnished with their own roe —s the essence of the sea captured. And the morning dim sum breakfasts, ordered from menus instead of carts, are divine.

What I say: Have any of you tried Elite? Gold's review doesn't tantalize me, even though it made the essential list. Waa Waa

Euro Pane
950 E. Colorado Blvd.
(626) 577-1828

What he says: Sumi Chang’s bakery may be the center of civilized life in Pasadena: a place to buy excellent-to-superb scones and baguettes and pains au chocolat, of course, but also the heart of a certain sort of society, the Caltech professors, theology students and writers who worship at the twin altars of caffeine and conversation, a place where you are likely to bump into a zillion-dollar chef, a man who helped design the Mars rover, or the star of the play you saw last night at the Ahmanson. On a good day, Euro Pane’s magnificent croissants could be mistaken for France’s best in a police lineup, and, the natural-starter sourdough is superb. Toss in the homemade granola, the epochal bread pudding, the rustic fruit tarts and the gooiest egg-salad sandwich in town, and it’s no wonder that Europane’s regulars treat the bakery more as a permanent residence than as a café.

What I say: I mainly go for the tarragon chicken salad on rosemary currant bread or the rustic fruit tarts, but I have been known to "worship at the twin altars of caffeine and conversation."

Golden Deli
815 W. Las Tunas Drive
San Gabriel
(626) 308-0803

What he says: Golden Deli, you may not need to be told, is one of the best Vietnamese noodle shops in Southern California, a well-worn citadel of banh hoi and pho in a busy San Gabriel mini-mall, a restaurant so popular that its customers wait up to an hour for a spot at one of the sticky, cramped tables. Golden Deli has the best cha gio, fried Vietnamese spring rolls, in the observable universe, and the owners know it. And after a bite or two, so will you.

What I say: When I was a 3-week guest at Hotel Hope, visions of spring rolls danced in my head. I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into those crunchy, chewy egg rolls, swathed in Romaine lettuce, filled with fresh herbs and dipped in fish sauce. I've tried other fried Vietnamese spring rolls, but none of them compare to the golden rolls at Golden Deli.

Golden Triangle
7011 S. Greenleaf Ave.
(562) 945-6778

What he says: Golden Triangle may be the best place in California to taste Burmese food, a phantasmagoria of a cuisine that draws from the cooking of nearby India, China, Thailand and Laos — the country is in a pretty good neighborhood. The restaurant specializes in the garbanzo-flour-thickened catfish chowder called moh hin gha, the biryani-style rice dish called dun buk htaminh, and lap pad thoke, a salad made with pickled tea leaves that have the consistency of stewed collard greens and the caffeine kick of a double espresso, and also in a sour vegetable dish made with a special Burmese green that the owner grows in his backyard.

What I say: I don't think I've ever had Burmese food (never made it to the Rangoon Racuet Club in BH in the 80s), but this sounds intriguing. Let's go to Whittier. Baa Baa

La Casita Mexicana
4030 E. Gage Ave.
(323) 773-1898

What he says: When you sit down at La Casita, the spiritual home of Mexican cooking in Los Angeles at the moment, you are brought a basket of warm chips drizzled with jet-black mole poblano, a chile-laced red pepian and a green pepian made from crushed pumpkin seeds: the dense, complexly sweet mother sauces that are at the heart of La Casita’s cooking. Chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu are everywhere if you follow Spanish-language media, demonstrating recipes on the Univision morning show, opening supermarkets, on billboards advertising Mexican avocados. They dominate the food pages of La Opinión, and no local discussion of mole poblano, nopalitos or chilaquiles is complete until they have had their say.

The two haunt communal farms, looking for
huazontle, hoja santa and nopales as fresh and beautiful as they might be in the Jalisco villages they grew up in. But mostly there is the cooking: a half-dozen different kinds of chilaquiles at breakfast, a beautiful purple-corn pozole, delicious enfrijoladas, and an impeccable version of chiles en nogada, the most famous dish of haute Mexican cuisine.

What I say: Where the hell is Bell? I know that's what you're thinking. Believe me, if ever there was a reason to find out, this restaurant is it. Gold does not exaggerate. The setting and prices are modest, but the food like nothing you've ever tasted before in a Mexican restaurant.

1496 Colorado Blvd.
Eagle Rock
(323) 254-0934

What he says: Every dish on the menu is probably somebody’s best recipe: The tart, creamy potato salad is credited to Aunt Carolyn; the ground-beef-intensive chile verde to chef Mackey’s grandpa; the caramelly-tasting banana pudding to Mama. But one thing is beyond argument: Mackey’s fried chicken, tender-crusted and juicy, golden and singing with the taste of clean oil, is about as good as it gets in Los Angeles restaurants.

What I say: One of my favorite places for lunch, happy hour or dinner. Charming setting in a converted craftsman home, friendly wait staff and, oh, mama, that wonderful fried chicken.

2005 Colorado Blvd.
Eagle Rock
(323) 255-OINK

What he says: "Slow fast food,” proclaims the sign outside: smoky Carolina-style pulled-pork sandwiches, chopped salad, and fast-food-style Angus-beef hamburgers with sweet house-made catsup. He roasts chickens on a creaky rotisserie and smokes his own pastrami. Would you be willing to pay a couple dollars extra to experience artisanal soda pop, purplish Fosselman’s-based ube milkshakes and other fast food with a chefly edge? Guerrero is betting that you are. With all of the above, of course, it is necessary to have an order of Belgian fries, fried twice to leave them light and hot, their fluffy potato essence encased in a stiff, perfectly golden capsule of crunch.

What I say: I found this place good but a far cry from essential. Should I give it one more try? Waa Waa

101 Noodle Express
1408 E. Valley Blvd.
(626) 300-8654

What he says: A bleak mini-mall storefront next to a bowling alley, 101 Noodle Express isn’t undiscovered, exactly, although in all my visits I have never had a waitress say a word to me in English that didn’t happen to be “7-up” or “Coca-Cola.” Everybody orders a lovely if orthodox bowl of hot-sour soup, and a tan, wrinkly specialty called “De Zhou chicken.” But mostly, the café is home to the Shandong-style beef roll, a massive, bronzed construction that commands its platter like two El Tepeyac burritos laid side by side — brawny Chinese pancakes rolled around slivers of stewed beef and seasoned with a sprinkling of chopped scallion tops and fresh cilantro.

The inside of the beef roll is smeared with a sweet, house-made bean paste with an ethereal, almost transparent top note, a bean paste that bears the same relationship to ordinary hoisin sauce that a fine demi-glace might to a slug of canned brown gravy. It is a simple composition, and yet not — ordinary street food raised to a transcendent level.

What I say: This is my kind of food - "ordinary street food raised to a transcendent level." I gotta' go. Baa Baa

Pie 'N Burger

913 E. California Blvd.
(626) 795-1123

What he says: This is the best neighborhood hamburger joint in a neighborhood that includes Caltech, which means the guy next to you may be reading a physics proof over his chili size as if it were the morning paper. When compressed by the act of eating, a Pie ‘N Burger hamburger leaks thick, pink dressing, and the slice of American cheese, if you have ordered a cheeseburger, does not melt into the patty, but stands glossily aloof. And the exquisitely crunchy patty melt is careful without being insipid, oozy in just the right way, and sweetened by its judicious load of grilled onions When the fruit is in season, don’t miss a cut of the epochal fresh-strawberry pie.

What I say: I've never understood Gold's obsession with Pie 'N Burger. I like the homy setting, the chatty waitresses, the thick milkshakes and the pies. But the burger patties are tasteless and credit-card thin, the French fries fat and wobbly and the prices inflated. He does make that patty melt sound good.

Renu Nakorn
13019 E. Rosecrans Ave., Suite 105
(562) 921-2124

What he says: While the expense-account crowd awaited each new overhyped East Coast import this year, the Thai-food cognoscenti paced anxiously outside a gentrifying Norwalk mini-mall instead, worrying as the structure rose to resemble a series of potential GameStops. But finally, after larb-less months of anticipation, the redone Renu Nakorn is modern and spacious, and filled with Breck girls from the local Bible college, as well as Thai folk happy to be reacquainted with the restaurant’s minced-shrimp larb and sour Isaan rice sausage.

If you ever went to the original Renu Nakorn (or to the fabulous Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, which is run by family that owned the restaurant in the 1990s), you probably know the tripartite nature of the menu, the usual Thai specialties supplemented by the barbecue and spicy grilled-meat salads of the Isaan region, and an almost-hidden list of specialties from the Chiang Mai area, which may be the kitchen’s real strength: pounded roast-chile dips to scoop up with freshly fried pork rinds, sweet pork curries influenced by Burma and coconut-enhanced khao soi noodles. After dinner, you can wander next door to the last working dairy in Norwalk and pick up a load of free cow manure, or better, a quart of the excellent chocolate milk.

What I say: When I first came to Califoria in 1976, I taught at a private school in South Gate, but many of my students came from nearby Norwalk. Since then, I've had no reason to return to this somewhat desolate area of So. Cal. Until now. Who wants to go on a field trip for Thai food and chocolate mik from a working dairy? Baa Baa.


Kathy H, said...

Thank you so much for alerting me to this list! I love finding reasonably-priced restaurants in our area.

I agree with your assessment of Pie & Burger. I always feel I pay too much there.

I'm going to link to your post from my blog, so I never lose this list. :)

Cafe Observer said...

sC, appreciate your personal tastes on such a personal subject.

I gotta try Golden Deli for Vietnamese soon.

You, or Gold, have the address wrong for Euro Pane: it's not 50, but 950 E. Colorado Blvd.

Seems Pie & Burger is best know for Patty Melt & Cheezeburgers. Both of which I order next to never.

Susan C said...

Thanks for linking to me, Kathy. Let me know if you want to go food exploring together.

CO, Thanks for catching the address error for Euro Pane. I've corrected it. Yes, Golden Deli is a must, and the prices are cheap. And the French drip coffee is heavenly.

Ronni Gordon said...

Did you say restaurant, as in coming out of semi-quarantine and eating something different (and not cooked by me) for a change?
Waa waa

Susan C said...

Ronni, When I found out I had cancer, I was surprisingly serene. When I found out I couldn't eat out for a month after my auto transplant, I lost it. "You've got to be kidding me! No way! I don't know if I can deal with this." So six months to a year after an allo? AHHHH! The scream heard round the world.

Piper Robert said...

Wow, what a list.

If you had to pare the list, do you have a top 5? Just looking ahead to next year's visit. Let's say 3 suppers (Fri., Sat., Sun.) and 2 dinners (Sat. and Sun.).

Susan C said...

Robert, I have a lot more food exploring to do before I come up with my top five list. I do know that Golden Deli (Vietnamese) will be on the list.

Cafe Observer said...

SC, 1st the address on my end for europane seems to still be incorrect.
2nd, Golden Triangle for Burmese in Whittier: been there 2-3 times, not recently, don't recall what i had xcept it was good & tasty!
3rd, now got try the other Golden soon - Deli, 4 Vietnamese!

Margaret said...

Wow! What a great list. I get so frustrated when LA publications focus on west side or San Fernando Valley eateries. Even really good food can't tempt me to face traffic headed that way. But these sound great -- and so many have been vetted by you so I how can I say no?

altadenahiker said...

Very helpful. Who's your favorite food writer Susan?

Susan C said...

Gold is undoubtedly my favorite.

A local Atladena writer, Michelle Huneven, used to be my other favorite food and restaurant writer, but she quit the food bus to focus on novels. Such a shame. Each review or food article she wrote was a beautifully crafted story.

Anonymous said...

Casa Bianca
People rave over this place and I don't get it. I went once and it was one of the most ordinary pizza's I ever had. Did I go on a bad day, change of owner, new management? chef boy r dee equivalent.

Susan C said...

Margaret, I used to cross county lines in pursuit of a good restaurant , but I too like to stick closer to the SGV now.

There are several Culver City restaurants on the list. We'll have to try out another one on the way to an IWOSC meeting.

PA, I guess pizza preference is a very individual thing. Casa Bianca's is the only pizza I crave - thin crust, lots of tomato sauce and that great sausage with the fennel.

The only pizza I like better is the one I make at home with TJ's dough. I've gotten good at making it VERY thin and top it with parmesan instead of mozza cheese.

altadenahiker said...

I actually saved and still have a piece by Huneven -- I think it was from back in the 90's. In Chinatown, she bought one live duck to cook and one live duck to rescue.

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