Category Archives: Los Angeles

Fast, Middle-Eastern Chicken in Los Angeles

Zankou Chicken in Los Angeles is moist, garlicky nirvana

Zankou Chicken in Los Angeles is moist, garlicky nirvana

It’s not KFC (a lesser man might have added, “thank God”). But in the greater Los Angeles area, Zankou Chicken may well be more celebrated than the fast-food giant. Indeed, there’s a road map on Zankou’s walls showing all eight of the scattered locations of this mini empire.

If anything, you could call it fast Middle-Eastern chicken. There are rotating spits of shawarma chicken, grilled kabob plates and wraps. But the signature dish is fall-off-the-bone rotisserie chicken, available in half ($10.50) or quarter ($8, white or dark) sizes. Each plate comes with creamy hummus, pickled veggies, a couple of pitas for scooping and a little dish of Zankou’s not-on-a-first-date garlic sauce.

I rarely frequent fast-food chains of any size, especially in generic, fairly sterile surroundings. But when the food’s this good, quick and affordable, I’m happy to make an exception.

Zankou Chicken
Eight locations, mostly concentrated in the north Los Angeles metro area
Daily 10 am-11 pm

A Road Trip to Los Angeles? Are You Crazy?

Grand Central Market is a century-old treasure well worth braving the trip into downtown Los Angeles

Grand Central Market is a century-old treasure well worth braving the trip into downtown Los Angeles

Here’s another excerpt from my road-trip food ebook, Marathon Mouth, available at these fine online retailers for $9.99 or less:  Amazon, (Amazon Canada), iTunes, Kobo and Chapters/Indigo. Today, we venture into what might seem a motorist’s nightmare. That’s right, L.A.

So why on earth would anyone consider a road trip that ventures into Los Angeles? Here are the easy arguments against: The size, the sprawl, the constant crush of traffic, the crime, the pollution, the police presence, the misery of it all. Can a jaunt through Hollywood or to Disneyland or Universal Studios make up for even an iota of that? Well, let’s just say the arguments against braving L.A., while all true, are somewhat exaggerated and can be minimized to a certain extent.

The crime rate is certainly high, though dropping. Most of the places you’re likely to visit are perfectly safe, especially during daylight hours. The smog is similarly bad, though improving, and at least your exposure is much briefer than residents, who prefer to think about all that heat and sunshine, at least when they can see the sun.

I've never seen as many police cars as in downtown L.A. Makes one feel somewhat safer, though

I’ve never seen as many police cars as in downtown L.A. Makes one feel somewhat safer, though

There’s no getting around L.A.’s overwhelming size. The city proper contains nearly four million people, with 14 million more in surrounding satellite cities (Glendale, Anaheim, Long Beach, San Bernardino, etc., etc.) that stretch out, with no discernible boundaries, to the hazy horizon. To get through this mass of humanity, you have to navigate freeways that handle some 12 million vehicles a day, with gridlock a possibility at any time, including on surface streets. And the sprawl is such that it’s hard to get from one worthwhile dining place to another without driving, often some distance.

The reasons for running this gauntlet? Los Angeles is one of the most creative, cosmopolitan cities on the planet. Name a country, put “town” at the end of the word and you’re likely describing an L.A. community or neighbourhood. Let’s see, Chinatown, Koreatown, Filipinotown, Thaitown. Or there’s the “littles”: Little Armenia, Little Tokyo, Little Ethiopia, even Little Bangladesh. I haven’t even mentioned America’s largest Hispanic population, numbering nearly five million in the greater city.

Add all this ethnic diversity to an unmatched concentration of actors, artists and musicians, and you’ve got a lot of creativity going on. Especially when it comes to cuisine. You can taste authentic dishes from every corner of the planet plus mashups when cuisines collide. I don’t know if you can find Armenian-Korean fusion, but no doubt someone’s working on it.

Eclectic foodtruck Guerilla Tacos elevates the Mexican pocket food to spectacular

Eclectic foodtruck Guerilla Tacos elevates the Mexican pocket food to spectacular

The great news, for road trippers, is many of the city’s best culinary minds are happily toiling in hole-in-the-wall places, producing first-class food at reasonable prices. As one of its proponents notes: “There’s a culture here of chef-driven fast food.” A bonus of seeking out such places is getting to explore interesting, off-the-beaten-track parts of the city.

But before biting into that amazing short-rib taco, you have to first get to your destination in a reasonable amount of time. Which requires a strategy. And if your destination is downtown, that strategy can be boiled down to two words: Sunday morning.

Driving into downtown Los Angeles on a Sunday morning. What gridlock?

Driving into downtown Los Angeles on a Sunday morning. What gridlock?

Located in the heart of downtown L.A., Grand Central Market combines a century of colour and history under one roof. If you’ve only got a couple of hours for culinary exploration, it’s a one-stop shop for sampling an amazing diversity of ethnic cuisine at affordable prices. Go on a weekday, and you’ll face traffic jams and steep parking rates. But arrive on Sunday at 8 am, when the market opens, and traffic is minimal and nearby street parking is free.

Plenty of downtown street parking Sunday morn. The cost? Nada

Plenty of downtown street parking Sunday morn. The cost? Nada

Just wander down the market’s long, concrete-floored and dimly-lit aisles and pick your preference. If it’s Mexican, try the birria (goat) or cabeza (cow’s head) tacos, if you dare, at Tacos Tumbras a Thomas or the stuffed gordita pockets at Ana Maria. If it’s Jewish, no one makes a better smoked-meat-on-rye sandwich than Wexler’s Deli. There may be no better deal, or experience, than grabbing a stool and hoovering down a big bowl of chow mein at China Cafe.

If you can’t entirely abandon your hipster roots, G&B Coffee offers single-origin coffees from noted roasters. Another fashionable place is Egg Slut, where the signature breakfast dish is a coddled egg poached in a glass jar and served over potato puree.

G&B Coffee is one of the trendier spots in Grand Central Market

G&B Coffee is one of the trendier spots in Grand Central Market

A couple of blocks away is one of seven Mendocino Farms outlets in the L.A. area. It efficiently serves the luncheon crowd with locally sourced sandwiches, like a pork-belly banh mi with pickled daikon and chili aioli on grilled ciabatta.

Blacktop is a wee coffee bar, in downtown’s funky Arts District. Its lovely little street front patio is a great place to sip an espresso and then saunter over to frequent-visiting food truck Guerilla Tacos. There, acclaimed chef Wes Avila takes tacos to another fusion level, witness awesome daily creations like summer squash and cashews, blue crab and potato, and scrambled eggs and Brussels sprouts.

Blacktop Coffee is a leafy oasis in the lovely, historic Arts District

Blacktop Coffee is a leafy oasis in the lovely, historic Arts District

East of downtown, Boyle Heights is a heavily Latino community. Here, along a clamorous street of Mexican joints, is Guisados, offering a bewildering array of tacos, many featuring braised meats. If you can’t decide, go with the sampler, featuring six mini tacos.

No Mexican food search can skip La Azteca Tortilleria, in nearby East Los Angeles. This family-run institution may produce the best burrito in all of America. It starts with a hand-made, toasted tortilla and hits the money note with a meringue-battered, roasted poblano chile that’s to die for.

Time to check out a few other L.A. ethnic offerings. West of downtown, Koreatown is famous for restaurants featuring barbecued meats, often grilled at the table. For something different and more affordable, head to Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo. After grazing on all the included appetizer bowls, dive into a mammoth bowl of Manilla clam soup loaded with hand-fashioned noodles.

Haven't tried Armenian? Try this lahmajune at F&J Partamian bakery

Haven’t tried Armenian? Try this lahmajune at F&J Partamian bakery

Never tried Armenian? Just drop into Abraham Patamian bakery for some dirt-cheap lahmajune, a pita-like disk smeared in tomatoes and herbs and seared in a big oven. And how about Middle-Eastern chicken? Zankou Chicken is a celebrated L.A. fast-food chain, where the fall-off-the-bone rotisserie chicken comes with creamy hummus, pickled veggies and garlic sauce.

If you’re in the heart of the city, there’s probably no getting around a visit to Hollywood and a drive down touristy Sunset Boulevard. That’s where you’ll find The Griddle Cafe, a boisterous, always-busy place delivering dolled-up, massive pancakes that might put you in a food coma. A less-than-trendy spot on Hollywood Boulevard is tiny Lempira Restaurante, serving up Honduran dishes like conch soup or plantain and beef. On a quiet street in East Hollywood, acclaimed chef Jessica Koslow’s Sqirl is renowned not only for its fruit preserves but also for inventive dishes like a brown-rice breakfast bowl with preserved Meyer lemon, black radish, sheep feta and a poached egg.

Here’s a novel concept for Los Angeles: two fine road-trip eateries so close together you don’t have to hop in your car. Start with a good pot of French-press coffee at Blu Jam Café while you deliberate what creative breakfast to order—brioche French toast rolled in Corn Flakes or risotto cakes supporting two poached eggs. Given sufficient time for digestion, cross the street to Ta-eem Grill, where the sweating, animated cook commands a little front-window grill to produce outstanding, kosher chicken shawarmas.

The kosher chicken shawarmas at Ta-eem Grill are as good as it gets

The kosher chicken shawarmas at Ta-eem Grill are as good as it gets

 

L.A. Korean Noodle House is Stellar

At LA's Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo, this boatload of clams and hand-cut noodles knocks it out of the park

At LA’s Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo, this boatload of clams and hand-cut noodles knocks it out of the park

It takes me a few minutes of wandering to find Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo in Los Angeles. It’s buried at the back of a Koreatown strip mall containing some 10 businesses, not all with English subtitles. The name on the sign is also somewhat different than advertised: Hhang Ari Noodle House.

What should be the real giveaway is the line outside the door. Normally, waiting and I don’t mix. But I’ve got time to kill, a shady seat out of the oppressive L.A. heat and a willingness to try Korean dishes that aren’t barbecue or bulgogi.

I might be the only tourist in the joint

I might be the only tourist in the joint

The nice thing about most Korean restaurants is you don’t have to order appetizers; they automatically come with the mains, which in my case is a massive lunch for less than $10. At Hangari, er Hhang Ari, four or five little bowls appear just after I sit down. I can’t tell you what they are other than marinated, astringent and crunchy. Good, mind you.

All these appetizers come with the meal. Though the main course is a plentiful meal by itself

All these appetizers come with the meal. Though the main course is a plentiful meal by itself

I’m halfway through this small meal when my order of Manilla clam kalguksu arrives. It’s a steaming bathtub of goodies: a delicate broth, loads of little clams, surprising crescents of squash and a few slices of cooked potatoes emerging from the tangled depths.

But the real star here is a boatload of long, engorged, chewy noodles, fashioned and hand cut by the woman who owns the place but never leaves the kitchen while I’m there. Even when I finally ignore all else, I can’t finish this bounty of fabulous noodles.

Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo (I think that’s the name)
3470 West 6 Street, Suite 9, Los Angeles
Daily 10:30 am-10:30 pm
213-388-2326

Guerilla Tacos Elevates Food Truck Fare to Spectacular

Los Angeles's Guerilla Tacos elevates the Mexican pocket food to spectacular

Los Angeles’s Guerilla Tacos elevates the Mexican pocket food to spectacular

Guerilla tactics include keeping on the move so folks don’t always know where you are. As a food truck, Guerilla Tacos certainly accomplishes that, setting up outside various Los Angeles-area coffee shop locations (such as Blue Bottle and Blacktop) each week.

But it throws me a curve when the truck is at a special event some six miles from where I’m expecting it to be. Still, I can be persistent in pursuit of search of good road food and soon track this roaming restaurant down.

Another guerrilla strategy is throwing people for a loop. And owner/”professional cocinero” Wes Avila definitely achieves this with taco takes on his daily menu you won’t find anywhere else—a blend of influences from his travels to places like France, Spain, Costa Rica and Mexico.

Guerilla Tacos sets up outside various Los Angeles coffee shops

Guerilla Tacos sets up outside various Los Angeles coffee shops

Take my steaming hot delicacy of thinly sliced summer squash with runny guajillo chile, cashews, queso (Mexican cheese) and herbs. It’s a strange combination that works spectacularly well. Other wide-eyed customers are tackling a cauliflower taco with Medjool dates ($5) or, get this, blue crab and potato with sun gold tomato. For larger appetites, there’s a cheese and tomatillo torta ($11) and a sirloin burrito ($10).

What guerrilla manoeuvre will mad chef Wes spring on his unsuspecting followers next?

Guerilla Tacos
Check the website for daily locations in and around Los Angeles
Daily 10 am-2 pm

Sampling a Flight of Tantalizing Tacos at Guisados in Los Angeles

A feast for the eyes, and tastebuds: A sampler plate of tacos at Guisados in Los Angeles

A feast for the eyes, and tastebuds: A sampler plate of tacos at Guisados in Los Angeles

I’m looking down a long list of tacos at Guisados, a gleaming corner joint on a colourful, noisy Latino street in Boyle Heights, east of downtown Los Angeles. There are 15 choices in all, many featuring Guisados’ signature braised meats.

I ask the server a bunch of questions, essentially dithering, till she suggests the sampler, featuring six mini tacos. Perfect. In one fell swoop, I can try nearly half the menu, without breaking the bank or bursting my stomach lining.

Time to dig in

Time to dig in

The braising in various sauces results in rich, flavourful mouthfuls of chicken, pork and beef goodness. They’re all served on handmade corn tortillas, made from fresh-ground masa.

My highlights are a chicken mole poblano and a Cochinta Pibil—shredded pork in a red achiote sauce with black beans and habanero chile. Noting the written warning, on the latter, to “proceed with caution”, I wisely dial down the heat rating to five out of 10. A house-made horchata is the perfect cool down for this little furnace blast.

Guisados
2100 East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue (three other Los Angeles locations)
Monday to Saturday 10:30 am-8 pm, Sunday 9 am-5 pm
323-264-7201

La Azteca Tortilleria: The Best Burrito in America?

Siblings Chris and Cynthia Villa help run the family show at Los Angeles's renowned La Azteca Tortilleria

Siblings Chris and Cynthia Villa help run the family show at Los Angeles’s renowned La Azteca Tortilleria

East L.A. It’s a phrase that awakens a voice in my head: “Don’t let your car break down here.” But such stereotypes often just keep one from experiencing colourful, unpretentious neighbourhoods. That’s certainly the case when I venture to *La Azteca Tortilleria, on a Latino commercial street that certainly seems safe enough, at least at mid-day.

As you may have read in one of my recent San Francisco posts, a Mission District Mexican joint was voted as having America’s best burrito, beating out, among others, perennial top pick La Azteca. I had to find out for myself and, sorry, it’s no contest.

It's hole-in-the-wall cheap for food this outstanding

It’s hole-in-the-wall cheap for food this outstanding

La Azteca’s chile relleno burrito with asada meat (about $7) may well be the best burrito I’ve ever eaten. Longtime owners the Villa family start each day by grinding the corn for their fresh tortillas. You can certainly taste the quality in this lightly toasted wrap.

But that’s just the warm-up for what’s inside—a smoking hot mix of good steak, beans and the kicker, a whole chile relleno dipped in egg and then fried. I can’t fathom why this isn’t a more widespread practice, though Villa daughter Cynthia admits she couldn’t bring herself to eat a relleno burrito till late adolescence.

I pour on some house-made pico de gallo to heat things up a little more. Then I launch into this big, bad boy, living dangerously by eating it in the front seat of my car. It’s so good, I’m nearly halfway through before I remember to grab my camera.

My hands are trembling too much to get a sharp photo of this bad boy, but you get the idea

My hands are trembling too much to get a sharp photo of this bad boy, but you get the idea

La Azteca Tortilleria (they don’t bother with things like a website or Facebook page)
4538 East Cesar East Chavez Avenue, Los Angeles
Tuesday to Sunday 6 am-3:30 pm. Closed Monday