Mar Vista Memories
In the 4+ months since we moved to Northern California, I’ve had ample time to miss L.A.’s best eateries. The increasingly nightmarish traffic typically confined me to a narrow boundary around work & home... and I am surely not the only one. The following eateries represent my collection of Chowfinds in the 5 years that I lived in Mar Vista. Please feel free to add commentary & your own Mar Vista area Chowfinds.
Sawtelle Blvd between Santa Monica & Olympic is a vibrant Japanese commercial center brimming with Boba Shops, Noodle Houses, Sushi Restaurants & Japanese Markets. The surrounding neighborhoods host a Japanese presence that dates back to the Post WWII “Diaspora.” Like Torrance, it was a low rent area where Nisei returning from the WWII prison camps in the California dessert could take a 2nd stab at their American dream. Today it is a little bit of home for scores of Japanese (not Japanese-American) students at UCLA.
Now that I live in Northern California where Sushi Restaurants are hard NOT to find, I have a newfound – nostalgic – appreciation for the Japanese Bistros & Curry Houses in WLA.
Curry House is just classic... a chain that also peddles convenience products & has bizarre drawings & point schemes... it’s a perfect representation of Post WWII Japan... an interesting, if odd, interpretation of 1950’s Americana within a Japanese palette. Here you can add Spaghetti, Boiled Frozen Vegetables or Hard Boiled Eggs to just about anything. Beyond the fabulously odd experience, the food is very good and the majority of the patrons are young Japanese immigrants & students. What to eat?
Ø Pork Cutlet Curry is the standard initiation to Japanese Curry & the version here is pretty good, served with soothing Steamed Rice & a solid Green Salad with the classic Ponzu dressing. I take it to the next level with extras... Hard Boiled Eggs, Boiled Vegetables & extra Curry Sauce. BTW... they are tame on spice here... so don’t be afraid to ask for it very hot.
Ø The Pork Cutlet may be the classic... but the real winner here is the Sirloin Steak Curry...a very tasty & surprisingly tender, fully petite steak served with Rice & Salad. I like adding Shrimp Tempura & extra sauce for an all out experience.
Blue Marlin Café is more of a Japanese Bistro with good Seafood Dishes & Pastas, but the Curry is NOT to be ignored. What to eat:
Ø The Seared Ahi Tuna served with Salad & Ponzu dressing is a great light meal
Ø Pork Cutlet Curry served in a hot skillet... was the source of much Zen-like contentment on warm Southern California days. The Curry here has a deep meaty flavor & complex spiciness. While I am certainly not an expert on these sauces...my guess is that they consist of meat gravy, spiked with Indian curry spice mix & chiles... resulting in a fluffy, brown sauce.
Sawtelle Kitchen is higher up the food chain... delivering the area’s top notch Japanese Bistro experience... with much sought after fresh fish daily specials. What to consume:
Ø Tea. SK has a great menu of “whole” teas steeped in a personal kettle. I tended to gravitate to the Lemon Grass tea... an essential flavor in Thai Soups & a popular medicinal libation in Mexico... it is one of the my favorite unusual “teas”.
Ø Japanese Meatloaf. Most people find it too hooky to try at a Japanese restaurant... but I am assured it is traditional (in the last 50 years) & the Japanese bring it a new level with panko bread crumbs, soy sauce & miso seasoning. Served with the Japanese style Spaghetti (buttered & herbed instead of sauced)
Ø Fresh Fish in marinated in Citrus-Ponzu is always bound to satisfy.
Ø Shrimp, Mussels & Scallops in Curry Sauce. As far as I am aware...this is the only place on Sawtelle that does this.... I love the mix of the Pickled Red “stuff” & Shrimp in the sauce.
Sawtelle is also home to some very good Sushi restaurants. Hide Sushi – a Chowhound favorite – was also our go to place.
Ø Extremely fresh, no frills Sushi
Ø The best Tempura I have met (very crisp & light...you are always sad when there is none left)
Hide Sushi is cash only, has a cult following - yet it is not impossible to get in if you are willing to dine early or late. Modest appetites can get out of there for < $40 a couple.
A few blocks away Mori Sushi (Gateway & Pico) delivers a more innovative Sushi approach. The fish is fresh & tasty, and deliver an alternative experience vis a vis your typically Sushi place... but the value just isn’t there. It’s a place I would take co-workers on the expense account... but not a place where I would put my own dollars. What to eat?
Ø Red Miso Soup with very tiny mushrooms
Ø Tuna Tartare Tacos
Ø Octopus & Beef Carpaccio
But when it comes to high-end, innovative Sushi... there is no option in L.A. other than Matsuhisa on La Cienega in Beverly Hills. This was Nobu Matsuhisa’s (as in Nobu of Vegas, NY, London & Paris) first restaurant... the one where he gained international acclaim. The critics describe it as Peruvian-Japanese fusion... but I have been to Peru and don’t really see any significant Peruvian influence... but that might have to do with the fact that I stay away from the Chef’s Tasting Menus. What can I say about Matsuhisa? It is Sushi at a whole other level. Where the typical Sushi restaurant strives to provide raw fish that has a pleasant, fresh odor & subtle flavor... Matsuhisa offers fish that is full of flavor... tuna that is sweet with very firm texture and character.
Finally other no frills, reliable traditional Sushi restaurants include Sakura House (another neighborhood favorite on Centinela next to Taqueria Sanchez) & Tsuji No Hana in a strip mall on Lincoln near Mindanao (a few doors from Subway).
The day Rosalynn Thai closed down their charming, down to earth bedroom sized stand alone diner on a busy Lincoln Blvd and reopen as Pam’s Place in the bigger space on a Venice Blvd business park... the Thai offering in WLA landed in the sewer... or so I thought. Now that we are in Northern California... we have a new found nostalgia for the cheap, imperfect but very good eateries scattered around Mar Vista & vicinity.
Pam’s Place is certainly no match for Rosalynn... the service sucks, the ambiance is wannabe pretentious, the cooks are different & the food is inconsistent & prices are higher to boot. But its still the class of the group. What to eat:
Ø Sizzling Beef. This sesame marinated, brandy flamed thin skirt steak has not showed up in another menu I have seen. This is one of Pam’s most inconsistent dishes... but when they nail it... it is extremely delicious... savory with hints of sweetness & brilliantly paired with tender onions.
Ø Larb. A brilliant salad that captures almost everything I like about Thai cuisine... freshness, multiple layers of flavor, textures & color.
Ø Coconut-Lemon Grass Soup... a perfect marriage of subtle & assertive flavors in that balanced, Zen almost spiritual quality that attracts me to Thai places
Ø Spicy Mint Leaves. A classic harmonious blend of Thai Basil, Mint, Thai Chiles & vegetables sautéed with your choice of protein. Brilliant... multiple layers yet you can taste each ingredient separately.
Thai Beer on Washington Blvd was our “everyday” Thai place that we took for granted. It is so inexpensive & often use cheap ingredients... but when I reflect on the fabulous $20 dinners (for two people) we use to have there... I come to realize how lucky we were. What to eat:
Ø Hot & Sour Vegetable Soup... is the best of the list. The combination of Lemon Grass & Galangal is perfect. The soup is full of healthy vegetables (although the canned baby corn & straw mushrooms get to be annoying) & thankfully doesn’t have any chicken, which is typically tough in their soups.
Ø House Salad (Lettuce, Cucumbers, Tomato, Onions & Hardboild Eggs with Peanut Sauce). Its not as intriguing or sophisticated as Larb... but the Peanut Sauce is irresistible.
Ø Prik Khing with Beef... Thai Beer’s version is one of the very best I’ve had. Not many better ways of eating green beans.
Ø Eggplant... the basil & black been sauce are irresistible.
One of the best-kept Asian secrets in West LA is Typhoon Restaurant. Located at the Santa Monica Airport it has a decent ambiance & full view of the north runway. Actually, the Airport itself is a fairly well kept secret... with zero security issues, several eateries & even some picnic tables with runway views... its kind of an interesting place to visit... even if you don’t own a Cessna. Typhoon boasts a Pan-Southeast Asian (not to be confused with Asian Fusion) menu... that brings together some of the classic dishes of Southeast Asia. The food is certainly more expensive than most Asian... but the quality is also commensurate.... Even the Bar & Wines are up to par. What to eat (I have like everything I have tried so far):
Ø 5 Insect Dishes to Choose From (if you are feeling adventurous)
Ø Mixed Green Salad is essential (Baby Salad Greens in Ponzu Dressing with Fried Seaweed)
Ø Burma Wings - Red Chile & Pineapple Sauce with Raita (Cucumber Yogurt)
Ø Taiwanese Style Manila Clans
Ø Chinese Crispy Duck
Ø Filipino Grilled Pork
Ø Mongolian Lamb
Ø Sesame Buns
I am certainly no expert on Chinese cuisine... but after eating some outstandingly beautiful, sophisticated and delectable dishes in Chinatown, Monterey Park, Rowland Heights & Mexico City... I am almost 100% certain it is impossible to find China’s finest in West L.A. Nonetheless, for those of us simpletons who can relish in well-prepared version of the Chinese-American usual suspects... there are dozens of viable places in WLA.
Little Hong Kong Café was my go to place in WLA. Buried within the mini Japantown on Sawtelle Blvd... this place delivers brash, full-flavored Cantonese dishes with great textures and freshness. Even though it is usually packed at Lunch... the service is quite acceptable... particularly for a casual Chinese eatery. What to eat:
Ø Mongolian Beef
Ø Tangerine Beef
Ø Kung Pao Shrimp
Ø Long Beans
I don’t remember the name... but there is a Chinese restaurant at the corner of Sepulveda & Olympic that is very, very good. It has one problem... the majority of items are listed in Chinese script, very little English is spoken & there aren’t very many photos. Despite that... I had no problem finding some good eats on the English menu. I enjoyed the endless variations of their basic clear soups... huge bowl of clear broth with Bok Choy & other vegetables + your choice of protein added at the last moment (they literally will stick a BBQ Sparerib in your soup) & following the example of all the white-haired Chinese grandmas... I would order an artery clogging delectable such as Mandarin Chicken - to share with another 3 people.
Chung King on Pico Blvd may have closed down... or so I was told. If its true... my heart cries in silence. There was many good tasting items on the menu... but I was absolutely hooked on the Shredded Pork with Broccoli. Twice cooked lean Pork... shredded & sautéed in a spicy red sauce with lots of ginger & stir fried Broccoli. In addition, their Hot & Sour soup... had no rival on the Westside.
P.F. Chang’s (Wilshire Blvd at 4th Street) is often dismissed as not authentic... but I can’t see how it’s any less authentic than the 1000s of Cantonese restaurants in Chinatowns all across the country. Just because your typical Chinese take out joint uses the cheapest cuts of meat, doesn’t mean that restaurants back in China do, and just because those take out joints don’t strive to present an atmosphere & décor... doesn’t mean that places in China don’t. Finally, having a wife that gets migraines from MSG means that P.F. Chang’s is absolutely essential for us. What to eat? Everything is consistently good... but some standouts include:
Ø Chicken Lettuce Wraps
Ø Kung Pao Shrimp
Ø Cantonese Roasted Duck
Ø Hot Fish
Chung King on Pico has changed to Cheng Du because of an ownership situation -- they still have the same menu and most of the same personnel. It gets savaged on these boards but I like their lunch specials for the generous portions and excellent hot'n'sour soup. They have also taken over the former Panda Cave on Westwood just north of Santa Monica Blvd.
Even though its far from the major Indian population centers...there is no shortage of well regarded Indian restaurants in West L.A. But while it’s the expensive places that are the object of the Foodies’ obsession, it is the more obscure places that serve up the best food.
All-India Café... stowed away on the 2nd Floor of a dreary strip mall at Santa Monica & Barrington is by far the best. The décor is charming & minimalist... at lunch the Flat Screen TV displays the best Bollywood moves... the food is extremely fresh, harmonious & sumptuous. What to eat?
Ø Uttapam makes the perfect starter. Described as a Cream of Wheat griddle cake... it is a very light pancake (I bet there is some potato in the mix) with Tomatoes, Onions, Cilantro & Green Chiles baked into it. Served with Coconut Chutney... it is a perfect dish.
Ø Sambar (is any Indian meal complete without a lentil soup?)
Ø Palak Paneer (not many better ways to eat Spinach)
Ø Chicken Tikka Massala (the Fenugreek-Ginger cream sauce is absolutely perfect... almost impossible to stop eating it)
Ø Kheer... creamy rice pudding laced with Green Cardomon.
Chutney’s is a very sparse casual eatery in a very small strip mall at the corner of Barrington & Pico. Owned by a Muslim Indian... this place observes strict Halal practices. Everything is fresh & healthy. What to eat?
Ø Seekh Kabobs
Ø Masala Dosas
Ø Mango Lassi
Samosa House (former Bharat Bazaar) is the best Indian grocery store in WLA (Washington Blvd between Sawtelle & Inglewood)... that also happens to serve food with a distinctive homemade taste. The offering changes often so ask the proprietress for recommendations, you won’t go wrong.
I gotta strongly disagree re the Palak Paneer at All India Cafe. This was one of the most vile preparations of the dish I've ever had. The cheese, in particular, was unlike any paneer I've ever had -- more like steamed tofu. I took a few bites and threw the rest away, which is pretty rare for me. The one dish I love at All India is their chicken tikka masala.