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Overdue homecoming report

Leslie Brenner Dec 1, 2001 01:01 AM

After fifteen years spent living in NYC, I have moved back to L.A. (two weeks before 9/11) with my husband and small son, who are newcomers to California. I did love living in New York, though my cravings for tacos, Thai, and great sushi sometimes became overwhelming. What happiness I found right away! It's so easy here--you barely have to look for great food: it almost seems to find you! Which is fortunate, since I've been too overworked to venture too far from home, except to Pasadena, where I was doing research. Back-to-back-to-back deadlines kept me from posting about my experiences since August, and then a sudden attack of gallbladder disease (bane of the chowhound!) and subsequent surgery stopped my chowhounding dead in its tracks. I have, I must confess, been lurking now and then.

So here's my long-overdue report:

I was barely off the plane when I stumbled into Cholada Beach Thai, on PCH in Malibu, just next to Wylie's Bait Shop. Wow! I do plan on digging into Jonathan Gold's book and hitting some of the serioso spots therein (and I have been to a few of them), but man, for a local spot, this was great: all the fresh, bright flavors that you don't find in NY. Very good green papaya salad.

Oooh, baby. Amazing Oaxacan in a scruffy strip mall on Santa Monica Blvd. in WLA. Cute inside, very friendly, family owned and run, with attractive murals. The restaurant started when the owner, a Oaxacan, married a guy from another region of Mexico, and he fell in love with his wife's mother's cooking. Her mother created the menu, taught her recipes to the cooks, including son-in-law, who got so turned on he became the chef. Mole heaven here, folks, in rainbow colors: black, green, red, yellow. Mole negro con pechuga de pollo--their best sauce, though the chicken breast can be a little dry. Carnes Monte Alban is a super assortment of cesina, tazajo, a velvety puree of black beans and ensalada de nopalitos. Tamales de salsa are a great starter, filled with chicken and mint leaves. Taco de barbacoa are also good; chile relleno is great.

A few blocks east of Monte Alban on SMBlvd., also Oaxacan, but more rustic, with a real working man (and very friendly) clientele. I've only tried tacos (five or six kinds) so far, and they were compelling. I'll be back...

On Pico in WLA. A killer. I've eaten my share of sushi, and I'd venture to say that this is the best I've ever had. We did omakase, and I'd highly recommend it for the first time here. Sushi genius Morihiro Onodera presides from the right side of the small bar. Fresh wasabi brings everything up a notch. If anyone's interested, I'd be happy to do a post about what we had: for now I'll just mention wild abalone (outrageous) and fresh octopus, so tender and succulent it seemed to be a different creature. Inspired sake list. Came back soon after for lunch.

I had been wondering about this Santa Monica (Wilshire + 23rd) hole-in-the-wall for years; it's been there forever, and the sign proclaiming "Home of the Zwiebelburger" finally got the better of me. With a name like that, it had to be good. And was! A lusty burger, piled high with grilled onions. Really messy and good, with a huge plate of curly fries. It was filled with regulars, so I worried we wouldn't get seated. Who knew there was a swell patio in back? I'll be back for breakfast, which also looked good.

Had a wonderful lunch at Saladang Song. Someone recently criticized the decor on this board, but I actually quite liked it--found it spare but very appealing. Loved the food. The som-tum (green papaya salad) with tiny dried shrimp of just the right chewiness was so good I almost cried. My husband couldn't eat it (a bit spicy for him), so I took the leftovers to go, and despite the fact that it sat in the car for four hours in 106 degree record-breaking heat, I actually risked food poisoning and ate it all the next day. Ping-ping-ping combo skewers were very good, a seafood curry special, spectacular. Loved the cha-ma-nao sweet iced tea with lime essence. Returned to try Saladang (next door) a few weeks later. It's a little more predictable California-Thai than its neighbor, and quite good, but I didn't love it as much.

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  1. k
    kevin Dec 1, 2001 10:56 AM

    Please post a complete listing of your Mori Sushi omakase dinner. Also, how much did your omakase run per person?

    and do you have the exact address for the Thai restaurant in Malibu? What is the price range over there? and what are some of the good dishes to get and do they have mango sticky rice or banana sticky rice desserts?

    2 Replies
    1. re: kevin
      Leslie Brenner Dec 1, 2001 12:14 PM

      Kevin, I'll post my Mori Sushi dinner tonight. Omakase was, I believe $95 per person.

      Cholada Thai is at 18673 Pacific Coast Highway, just past Topanga Cyn, next to Something's Fishy. As I mentioned, the green papaya salad is very good. Prik King with pork, pad thai, tom yung kang. Seafood curry special was delicious. I've only eaten there twice, both times with kids, so we didn't eat as adventurously as we might. I do remember noticing a sticky rice dessert; I believe it was mango.

      1. re: kevin
        Leslie Brenner Dec 1, 2001 11:10 PM

        Kevin, it's Saturday night and I'm having trouble putting my hands on my notes (on a very tiny paper) from the Mori Sushi dinner. I'm sorry, but it may take me a few days...

      2. p
        Patty Dec 1, 2001 12:59 PM

        Wow, Leslie, you have found a great selection in such a short time. I am eager to read some of your books, too, as we seem to have a similar background. For authentic Thai, try Ruen Pair in Hollywood (no beer or credit cards!). I just found a great sushi bar downtown in Honda Plaza, called Sushi Gen. I've always wanted to try Snug Harbor too, I lived two blocks from there through high school but never went there. If you want a different burger experience in Santa Monica, try Father's Office, there's a whole thread about it on this board. When you lived here before, did you like Campos burritos? They are the food of my youth. Some other favorites which might not have been here when you left: Doughboys on 3rd for great breakfasts and lunches, Mishima for Japanese noodles and such, Hirozen for sushi but also imaginative cooked dishes.
        Welcome back!

        23 Replies
        1. re: Patty
          Leslie Brenner Dec 1, 2001 01:25 PM

          Thanks, Patty. I'll definitely try Ruen Pair and some of your other recc's. Father's Office is on my short-list to try soon; I did read the thread after having wandered by and wondered about it.

          As for my past burrito life, I fell more into the Burrito King camp than the Campos camp, though I thought Campos was fine.

          I'd love to hear about your similar bg; I'll email you later, if I may...

          1. re: Leslie Brenner
            zora Dec 1, 2001 10:36 PM

            Burrito King on Sepulveda: machaca and pork/green chile burritos were my great passion when I moved back to L.A. from the east coast in the mid-seventies. About 1980 or so, the original La Salsa opened on National and Sepulveda and Burrito King went belly-up. La Salsa was my first exposure to Mexico City-style antojitos, quite a change from the soupy-cheesy L.A.-Mexican food I grew up eating.
            I lived a block away from Snug Harbor for twelve years - always got a kick out of the "Home of the Zweibelburger" sign, but I found they repeated on me...
            Monte Alban sounds wonderful. Is it better than Guelaguetza? I'll definitely put it on my list for the next time I get back to WLA. I know what you mean about missing really good Mexican and Japanese food, living in the east. (We have a couple of excellent Thai places in D.C.) Last time I was back in L.A., I ate Mexican food or sushi for lunch and dinner every day.

            1. re: zora
              Leslie Brenner Dec 1, 2001 11:16 PM

              I haven't yet been to Guelaguetza, Zora, though I plan to go very soon. (Can't wait, in fact!) When I do, I'll let you know how they compare.

              The first La Salsa was National and Sepulveda? Could it have been Pico and Sepulveda? I discovered that one when it first opened, and loved it, too. I tried one recently--what a shame!

              1. re: Leslie Brenner
                zora Dec 2, 2001 06:56 PM

                You're right, the original La Salsa was on Pico and Sepulveda, between a donut shop and a wallpaper store. [Baja Bud's, one of the La Salsa pretenders is on National.] I was a frequent customer when La Salsa opened; the owner--Howdy Cabrens (?sp)-- used to solicit my opinion about some of the items he wasn't sure he'd keep on the menu, like the flan. I ate at a La Salsa in the Bay Area earlier this year, and while it wasn't as good as how I remember the early days, it still beat anything in Washington, DC by a long shot.

                1. re: zora
                  Leslie Brenner Dec 2, 2001 11:51 PM

                  Zora, do you remember the char-grilled scallions with lime?

                  1. re: Leslie Brenner
                    zora Dec 3, 2001 08:50 PM

                    Cebollitos! Wow, do I ever! And it was the first time I encountered those big bowls of tomatillo and roasted tomato salsas and as much chopped cilantro as I wanted. I fell in love with tacos al pastor there.

                    1. re: zora
                      chris g. Dec 4, 2001 04:26 PM

                      I REALLY miss the old La Salsa--the Cebollitos, the black beans, the tacos al carbon, and the quesadillas. When I was going to UCLA I used to frequent the one that was around the corner from Gayley. And I remember going to an early, pre-corporate El Pollo Loco down in Carson that was awesome. I pray that Zankou Chicken never meets a similar fate as La Salsa and El Pollo Loco.

                  2. re: zora
                    michael (mea culpa) Dec 3, 2001 01:35 PM

                    I seem to recall an early La Salsa on 6th Street around Coronado or so.

                2. re: zora
                  Tom Armitage Dec 5, 2001 02:35 AM

                  Is Monte Alban better than Guelaguetza? Not in my opinion. Monte Alban doesn't use lard. The Guelaguetza restaurants (at least those in downtown L.A.) do. There's a difference. Long ago, I took some Mexican cooking classes with Diana Kennedy. One of the class members suggested that lard was unhealthy, and asked if she could substitute, say, safflower oil. I'll never forget Diana Kennedy's withering look, and the observation that Mexican cooks use lard for a reason.

                  By the way, the downtown Guelaguetzas are under different ownership than the Palms Guelaguetza, although the owners are related.

                  1. re: Tom Armitage
                    Leslie Brenner Dec 5, 2001 02:57 AM

                    Lucky you, Tom, to have studied with Diana Kennedy! I haven't had that opportunity, though I did cook French food with her once. And I know that withering look!

                    Is the Palms Guelaguetza worth trying?

                    1. re: Leslie Brenner
                      roger simon Dec 5, 2001 10:03 AM

                      I tried the Palms Guelaguetza and liked it a lot. Fabulous chile relleno in the Oaxacan style (quite different). Both branches, though separated, are terrific. I would rate them both among the best places for breakfast in LA. I also like Monte Alban, though just a tad less. One of the pluses of both Guelas is that they give you an insight into the growing Oaxacan expat community which has its own newspaper, etc. They seem to be a hangout. Large Oaxacan families at weekend breakfasts.

                      1. re: roger simon
                        Tom Armitage Dec 5, 2001 01:03 PM

                        I agree. The Palms Guelaguetza is terrific. If you put two plates of the deservedly famous Mole Negro in front of me -- one from the Palms Guelaguetza and one from the 8th St. Guelaguetza -- I don't think I could tell the difference. Sounds like an interesting experiment though.

                        1. re: Tom Armitage
                          FED Dec 5, 2001 01:13 PM

                          Don't forget el texate (fourth street in santa monica). it's different, but can be as good as either monte alban or guelaguetza.

                          1. re: FED
                            Leslie Brenner Dec 5, 2001 02:41 PM

                            Thanks, guys. I'll definitely check out both. Or all.

                            1. re: Leslie Brenner
                              Leslie Brenner Dec 5, 2001 10:54 PM

                              Just dined at Guelaguetza on Palms. While we ate well, I have to say I was a little disappointed. On the whole, it was more rustic than Monte Alban, but to my palate, not as lovingly prepared. I had the cesina plate--the pork was well spiced and delicious, and I did love the rice, which was a really satisfying, moist texture and perfectly seasoned. The garnish was a lot of undressed iceberg lettuce, a slice of sad, hard tomato, sliced raw onion, a piece of unflavorful avocado, some julienned raw carrots, a little watercress and some sprouts. Rabbit food. Black beans came on the side, underseasoned and a little pallid, along with some nice salsa for the cesina, which was great with a squeeze of lime. Husband had Mole Negro con Pollo. I loved the sauce, rich, luscious, and perfectly spiced for my taste. I thought the chicken (he asked for dark meat) was fine, but husband complained of an off-taste. However, he polished it off, so I couldn't taste it again to see what he meant. I liked the chips slathered with rich tomatoey salsa and salty cheese that was plunked on the table, but was disappointed in the selection of antojitos for starters.

                              Based on this one meal, I much prefer Monte Alban, where I find the flavors to be more focused, and everything on each plate delicious.

                              1. re: Leslie Brenner
                                Tom Armitage Dec 6, 2001 07:16 PM

                                I enjoyed reading your post regarding Guelaguetza, Leslie. I agree with much of what you said, but offer the following comments. First, "rustic" is different from "carelessly prepared." Also, "carefully prepared food" is not synonymous with "good food." Rock hard, tasteless tomatoes are bad, period. And some food, prepared with great care, is still no good. I agree that, overall, food is more "carefully prepared" at Monte Alban. But I still prefer some, not all, of the dishes at Guelaguetza, including the Mole Negro. As is the tradition in Mexican cooking, the chicken for the Mole Negro at Guelaguetza is boiled, and is not the point of the dish. It's really just a vehicle for the sauce. And I personally find the Mole Negro sauce at Guelaguetza earthier, "rounder" in flavor, and overall tastier than Monte Alba's version. Would the dish be improved if the chicken was better? Yeah, I guess so. So here's a suggestion for all Chowhounds looking for a quick, easy, tasty meal at home. Buy some take out Mole Negro sauce at Guelaguetza. Then go to Costco, Zankou, or other source of a juicy, tasty, rotisseried chicken. (In my experience, there's a greater risk of the chicken being overcooked at Zankou.) Then go home, heat the sauce, carve the chicken, and pour the sauce over the chicken. Result: a juicy, moist, well-cooked and tasty chicken covered with an extraordinarily delicious sauce. How's that for a solution?

                                In short, I don't disagree about the greater care in preparation and more even consistency of the food at Monte Alban. There are more lows, but also more highs, at Guelzaguetza. Lesson: You'll have to sort through the lows and highs of the menu at Guelaguetza in order to find the "highs" that will keep you coming back as a customer. This takes patience and an ability to deal with disappointment. But for me, it's worth the effort. P.S. Next time at Guelaguetza, try the goat. Yum!

                                1. re: Tom Armitage
                                  Leslie Brenner Dec 6, 2001 08:58 PM

                                  Tom, I agree with everything you said. However, for me there were actually more highs at Monte Alban--I felt more bowled over, though I did love the mole negro at Guelaguetza. But to clarify one point, I certainly don't mean "rustic" to imply "carelessly prepared." Some of my favorite food is rustic. Rustic food is often the best food. I didn't even mean "rustic" and "carefully prepared" to be opposed: rustic food is often carefully prepared.

                                  I will go back and try other dishes--some of the empanadas intrigued me--the one with cuitlacoche and the one with squash blossoms, though the blossom season is over, as far as I know. Also the chile relleno, which I had ordered, but the waiter convinced me to try the cesina. I'll definitely try the goat--probably tacos, unless you recommend something else.

                                  Love your mole idea--so much that I'll probably do it. What a great dinner party to do, no? Make some great guacamole (better at home usually than in a restaurant), homemade tortillas, your purchased--or better yet home-roasted chicken with mole, etc. Hmmm.

                          2. re: Tom Armitage
                            zora Dec 5, 2001 10:54 PM

                            I ate at the Palms Guelaguetza, which is two blocks from my brother's house. I also loved the mole negro -- I had the tamales with mole negro and sesame seeds. On the way out, I noticed that they had mole paste (negro and rojo) for sale. I bought both and brought them back home with me, for many wonderful meals. My guess is that both venues use the same mole paste as the basis for their dishes. Mole is extraordinarily time-consuming to make from scratch (I've done it) and my understanding is that it is common practice in Mexico for people to buy a good quality ready-made mole paste for home (?and restaurant) use. Reading this thread is making me incredibly homesick for the many wonderful Mexican restaurant options in L.A.

                      2. re: Tom Armitage
                        zora Dec 5, 2001 11:17 PM

                        What I wouldn't give to have an opportunity to see Diana K. in person--she is one of my idols. I was at a cooking demonstration earlier this year given by Rick Bayless, and invited him to express his opinion about Americans' aversion to lard--his response was delightfully exasperated and articulate. Essentially, his position is that lard has less bad cholesterol than butter, and people who are prejudiced about lard are irrational and will never be able to experience or appreciate the true authentic flavor potential of Mexican food. I completely agree, and in concert with Diana and Rick, who also counsel against commercially available lard, I decided to make my own. I was unable, even with much searching, to find a source of enough fresh fat anywhere near Washington, DC. The optimal fat is that surrounding the kidneys, which is used to make leaf lard. The next best is pork belly. No butcher shop, sausage maker or meat distributer had any fresh pork belly, and wholesalers wouldn't sell to me--not that they had any either. Finally, when I was visiting friends in NYC, I found am eastern European pork store on first avenue and seventh street which sold fresh pork belly. I boarded Amtrak for my return home with a five pound slab of frozen pork fat in my suitcase. It rendered down in the oven, to delicate smooth lard with a slight roast pork flavor that I used to make the most succulent, savory tamales. There's no place to get fresh masa close by either, so I make my own from scratch with dried corn and cal. It's so much work, that I don't do it very frequently. But I can't be happy without regular infusions of authentic Mexican food. And because of where I live now, I have to make my own.

                        1. re: zora
                          Leslie Brenner Dec 6, 2001 04:53 PM

                          Wow, Zora! I'm in awe of your devotion. Your lard sounds fantastic. (And I'd love to taste your tamales!) I had a nice tiff with Diana K about using commercial masa harina--she maintains that unless you use fresh masa it's not worth making tortillas. I argued that if you don't have a source for fresh masa and can't make your own (isn't it very complicated?), making them from store-bought masa harina is WAY better than buying tortillas. In inimitable DK fashion, she poo-pooed my laziness.

                          1. re: Leslie Brenner
                            zora Dec 7, 2001 08:15 AM

                            It's not terribly complicated, but is somewhat time consuming to make fresh masa. I tried a couple of different methods before I settled on the one Rick Bayless recommends in one of his books. Dried corn is cooked in water with a small amount of calcium oxide (builder's lime) for about 45 minutes: not enough time to cook the corn through. Then the corn must be repeatedly washed and scrubbed in cold water to remove the gelatinous hull and the dark germ must be removed, one kernel at a time, from at least some of the corn. Otherwise the masa will be darkly speckled--all the germs need to be removed if the corn, at this point called nixtamal, is to be used for posole. Then the corn is ground. Up until now, I have been grinding the corn in my old Cuisinart, which does a semi-good job. It's hard to get it very finely ground, however. I just got a grain mill attachment for my Kitchen-Aid mixer, but I haven't had a chance to try it out yet. A big problem has been finding the right kind of dried corn to use. I scoured the local Latin markets around DC, but they only sold large mote-type corn from Peru and Bolivia. I used that a few times, and it made delicious tortillas, but the flavor wasn't quite what I was looking for. Rick Bayless told me that cooks in Mexico now use American-grown white field corn, which I was unable to find here. So, the last time I was back in the Bay Area, visiting family, I hauled fifteen pounds of field corn back with me on the plane.

                          2. re: zora
                            Tom Armitage Dec 6, 2001 06:43 PM

                            Cooking with, and learning from, Diana Kennedy is one of my treasured experiences. Diana's sermon about lard was much like Rick Bayless's, including the counsel against using commercially prepared lard. Like you, I always render my own lard, and the difference in flavor is dramatic--well worth the effort. I'm not a purist in this respect. I sometimes use commerical chicken stock as a short-cut rather than home-made. It all depends on the dish, and whether you think the home-made stuff will make a noticeable difference in flavor. I remember making a watercress soup one time in which one of my guests, after taking his first spoonful, commented loudly, "Wow, I can sure taste the homemade stock Tom, it's great!" Mission accomplished.

                            In any event, it always puzzles me when a Mexican restaurant, like Monte Alban, makes its non-use of lard a selling point. I agree that it exploits the ignorance of the masses on this subject. Viva lard!

                            1. re: Tom Armitage
                              Leslie Brenner Dec 6, 2001 09:00 PM

                              Yes, I agree with you both in principle, and I don't think avoiding it is anything to brag about. But not every dish calls for lard. Which dishes at Monte Alban do you think suffer from its lack?

                  2. t
                    tanyal Dec 1, 2001 04:50 PM

                    Welcome home, Leslie.

                    About Saladang Song decor, I posted the "cold/ metalic decor" critique, I hope I didnt make it sound unappealing...it just wasnt very cozy on a rainy chill Pasadena afternoon.
                    I bet at night with lighting it is very romantic.
                    I also could not resist the leftovers...I admit I ate part of a thai chicken wing on the way home in the car !

                    1. m
                      Melanie Wong Dec 4, 2001 01:54 AM

                      And, here's an overdue "welcome home, Leslie"!

                      I'm glad the food is as good as you remember. Don't forget about your friends and neighbors up north too.

                      Best, Melanie

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Melanie Wong
                        Leslie Brenner Dec 4, 2001 12:08 PM

                        Thanks, Melanie! The food here is even better than I remember. And I'm already scheming to do a major Bay Area food trip.

                      2. j
                        jerome Dec 6, 2001 05:31 PM

                        Since you're on the West side, give Tia Juana's a try for simple Norteno antojitos. Usually, they have a woman there sitting out and hand-making tortillas on a comal. The tortillas are worth the visit for me.

                        1. j
                          Jamie Jan 2, 2002 11:03 PM

                          My boyfriend and I went to Santa Monica this last weekend and we ended up eating at Juquila three times! It was great!

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