Back in June, I spent one very long weekend weaving through the highways of Los Angeles and Orange County – intermittently attending the most absurd and incredible Indian wedding in the universe and getting re-acquainted with the absurd and incredible food landscape that is southern California. Breaking my usual post-flight In-N-Out ritual, I shuttled from Long Beach to Venice, where Zakhar and Mele promptly shuttled me to this gallon of Tapatio.
There aren’t many establishments in this country that give customers unfettered access to a gallon of Tapatio, and I’m willing to bet that most of them are in Los Angeles. This particular gallon of Tapatio sits on the counter of La Playita, an old favorite of Zakhar’s that serves all forms of ceviche for next to nothing on the dollar.
Mariscos La Playita – Venice
The mixta tostada, previously praised on this blog, is five-buck spell against expensive seafood. The chilled heap of citrus-brined fish, imitation crab and avocado, doused lightly with salsa and flanked by octopus and shrimp, makes the perfect everyday snack in a climate that never freezes. This city is full of bites like this – meals small and large that I could live with for the rest of my days, if only I could survive a life in Los Angeles. In indication that I surely couldn’t, I followed our dinner at La Playita with a trip to In-N-Out.
Com Tam Thuan Kieu – Garden Grove
Just as LA’s Mexican food sprawl is more diverse, accessible and affordable than its counterpart in New York, Little Saigon seems to exist primarily to humiliate almost every other Vietnamese food community in the country. Aside from Houston, I can’t think of another place that you can drive for block after block in any direction and be entirely immersed in Vietnamese culture.
Resisting a return to world-class pho, I instead waited for a seat at Com Tam Thuan Kieu, a tight strip mall dining room that specializes in com tam (broken rice). Orange County’s Elmomonster best described the joint’s signature dish six years ago as “a meal fit for a fat French Imperalist or a family of hungry rice planters.”
The invocation fits. For less than ten bucks, “Com Tam Thuan Kieu 7 Mon” collects seven impeccably cooked elements and deposits them on a plate of broken rice that would be good enough to eat on its own. A glazed pork chop, a skewer of grilled shrimp, a shrimp cake fried in tofu skin, a slice of Vietnamese quiche, a sliced Chinese sausage, one large pork meatball, and a helping of dried pork with shredded pork skin and toasted rice powder are garnished with pickled carrot and daikon, slices of cucumber and a small bowl of nuoc cham to produce the most epic rice dish I’ve ever had the good sense not to finish on my own. If it had been somehow covered in curry, I would have been found face-down in the men’s room that night.
Luna the Dog
Instead, I gave the leftovers to an old friend and made a new one!
For the record, we didn’t eat Luna.
Thai Nakorn – Garden Grove
The next morning, I woke up intending to cruise from Garden Grove to Hollywood to have breakfast with friends who were also in Los Angeles for the weekend. Ten minutes into my drive up the 5, I hit bumper-to-bumper traffic, did the math, and turned around to have breakfast at one of the best Thai restaurants in the state.
I’d sampled the excellent cooking of Thai Nakorn before, but never tasted any of its Chowhound-lauded specialties. In a moment of
regret restraint, I passed on a dish involving pork-stuffed squid to try “Clams in Chili Paste With Basil.” The $11 platter of bivalves was a minimalist beaut, vaulting steamed clams into a rich pool of chili paste, shrimp paste, tomato and oil, with plenty of fresh, whole basil leaves scattered throughout. The resulting sweet-heat chili sauce was wrinkled by the pungent notes of the shrimp paste, the fragrance of basil and the swirl of brine locked into each clamshell.
Mr. Baguette – Rosemead
Whatever lessons California has to teach me about broken rice go twice for bánh mì – especially at Mr. Baguette, which serves the snack-sized Vietnamese sandwiches that have mutated into overstuffed heroes in New York. That said, there’s nothing wrong with a brick of a bánh mì, but it takes a sandwich like Mr. Baguette’s “Classic Special” to get across what is so right about bánh mì.
At Rosemead’s Mr. Baguette, bread is the rightful star, turned out in batches on the hour and shaped like French baguettes, not Italian sandwich rolls. Each bánh mì costs about as much as a Vietnamese iced coffee. The Special contains a few layers of cold cuts and a light smear of pâté, along with a sparse bundle of lightly pickled carrots and a few sprigs of cilantro. All of the flavors are fresh, Sriracha is not applied by default, and the baguette crackles like a vintage radio. I could have eaten two, but that would have reduced the number of possible meals in the day from five to four.
Zankou Chicken – Glendale
No trip to Los Angeles would be just without a stop at Zankou Chicken, where the eponymous rotisserie chicken isn’t necessarily the best choice. Beef tri-tip shawarma, shaved from the spit and surprisingly moist, is my preferred plate, and it goes just as well with Zankou’s habit-forming garlic paste as any of the Armenian chain’s poultry. Mutabbal, Armenia’s rendition of babaganouj, makes for a much better side than Zankou’s pickled beets, which as far as I can tell are typically brined in a rusted tin funnel.
Arya Stark of Winterfell
Myung Dong Tofu House – Diamond Bar
On the eastern edge of Los Angeles county, just a few miles from where I grew up, is a Korean restaurant that specializes in sundubu. In classic Los Angeles fashion, that doesn’t make it a dining destination, unless you happen to live within a 10-minute drive and know which parking lot to enter. Sundubu can be made potently spicy on request, savory pancakes and whole fried fish are available as appetizers, and a raw egg always accompanies the arrival of the tofu stew. This small cauldron of fire set me back $7. For a couple dollars more, the meal could have included fried rice or a helping of grilled meat.
Tito’s Tacos – Culver City
On the opposite side of the Los Angelean empire, crowds flocked to all sides of Tito’s Tacos – the West LA institution whose hard-shelled tacos are synonymous with the 405 and commercial jingles. Laid out like The Apple Pan in reverse, each window into Tito’s translates chaos into orders for tacos and burritos, delivering bundles of fast food by memory and doling out change in the form of 50-cent pieces.
The salsa is insipid, the chips border on stale, and the mixture of shredded beef, iceberg lettuce and cheddar cheese is lacking in flavor. Still, for the money and the memories, I couldn’t help falling in love with Tito’s – and I’m not even from West LA. A box of tacos here might not do any good as a meal, but as an appetizer or a late-night snack I’d turn only to Jack-in-the-Box for a better celebration of the curbside American Gringo.
El Sazon Oaxaqueno – Var Mista
Just down the street from Tito’s, El Sazon Oaxaqueno is better suited for the main event. Anything with mole is recommended – especially enfrijoladas, a dish typically made with black bean sauce. El Sazon’s take administers a hearty dose of Oaxacan flavors to the plate, drowning rolled and fried corn tortillas in a complex red mole and serving with savory white rice and cotija cheese. The bracelet of deep-fried chorizo sitting atop is a welcome bonus; each house-made, spherical morsel is intensely spiced and browned to a crumble.
When I made it to the departures gate at LAX, I found it painful – maybe for the first time – to leave a city so rich in the kind of dining I could wallow in fruitfully for three life sentences. I’m still not ready to entertain the idea of living in Los Angeles, and for the sake of my own health I’m seriously afraid that someday those feelings will change. I may not be prepared to return to an insane transit system that keeps me from my closest friends, but at the end of the day it’s impossible to ignore the ever-present option of a detour to some incredible dish I’ve never tasted before – with In-N-Out for dessert.
14282 Brookhurst St.
Garden Grove, CA 92843
|Com Tam Thuan Kieu
14282 Brookhurst St.
Garden Grove, CA 92843
12532 Garden Grove Blvd
Garden Grove, CA 92843
8702 E. Valley Blvd.
Rosemead, CA 91770
1415 E. Colorado St.
Glendale, CA 91205
|Myung Dong Tofu House
20627 Golden Springs Dr.
Diamond Bar, CA 91765
11222 Washington Pl.
Culver City, CA 90230
|El Sazon Oaxaqueno
12131 Washington Pl.
Los Angeles, CA 90066