Los Angeles Area rss

Restaurant recommendations, new openings, and highlights from the LA Chowhound community.

Cuban Torta Explosion

Cook’s Tortas is a repository for all things sandwich. “I’m surprised that more SGV/Eastside people haven’t been raving about this place,” says soyarra, “the tortas are really wonderful and imaginative.” It has the traditional milanesa, ahogada, and the like, but it also has Spanish- and Cuban-style sandwiches. And American-style deli sandwiches, too. The ahogada torta is a beautiful sandwich: slow-cooked pork, with a spicy double dip. The taste is very close to authentically Jaliscan, says BCM.

All the torta bread is baked on the premises by the owner’s mother-in-law, and is much more like levain-style ciabatta than traditional Mexican torta rolls. It’s nonstandard, but great. The sides are equally surprising and wonderful—dilled potato salad, macaroni salad with red peppers and ham, and spectacular homemade bread with butter pickles, says soyarra. Cook’s Tortas also sells what it calls “great, great grandma’s” corn cake; it’s very good, but odd, “like a cheesecake with a very strong corn taste,” says Neta.

“Really, this is such a find—delicious, fresh, thoughtfully prepared food, reasonable prices,” soyarra says.

Cook’s Tortas [San Gabriel Valley]
1944 S. Atlantic Boulevard, Monterey Park
323-278-3536

Board Link: Cook’s Tortas

The Carne Adobada of Legend

There are three reasons exilekiss loves El Huarache Azteca. They are carne adobada, barbacoa de borrego, and the restaurant’s famed huarache.

The carne adobada is exilekiss’s “current favorite incarnation of this dish in L.A.” It’s “wonderfully smoky, marinated chunks of pork that’s just screaming with flavor! The hints of chile powder, the slight tang of vinegar, the oregano, and also a slight sweetness….”

Huarache (“sandal”) is a long, sandal-shaped piece of fried masa, topped with your choice of meat. “They make their huarache to order, fresh, even having a dedicated kitchen station setup outside with someone constantly making them as the orders flow in,” explains exilekiss.

Barbacoa de borrego is a weekend special. It’s lightly marinated lamb, steamed to the point of dropping off the bone, and served with a bit of lamb consommé. “It’s nothing short of wonderful!” says exilekiss.

This is a small, homey shop. Tacos are $1.25; huaraches are $2.50.

El Huarache Azteca [Highland Park]
5225 York Boulevard, Los Angeles
323-478-9572

Board Link: Lamb and Pork Goodness! :)—El Huarache Azteca [Review] w/ Pics!

The Only Colombian Seafood Restaurant in LA

Perla Del Pacifico is the only Colombian seafood restaurant in LA, and it’s a real gem, says streetgourmetla. More important, it focuses on the little-known cuisine of the Pacific coast of Colombia—almost all the Colombian food you get in the States comes in the style of the Caribbean coast. The Pacific coast stuff has European, African, Arabic, and Japanese influences, but the African influences dominate. There’s all sorts of unique Pacifico stuff here, like encocados of shrimp, black clams, fish, and crab cooked in coconut milk.

The excellent arroz de mariscos has ample amounts of mussels, clams, and baby octopus—it’s almost as substantial as paella. Perla Del Pacifico serves perfectly fried patacon, among the best streetgourmetla has ever had. And the shrimp empanada is a crunchy, bright-yellow fried object that tastes like a classic Colombian empanada.

Perla Del Pacifico [San Fernando Valley—East]
12727 Sherman Way Suite #B-8, North Hollywood
866-201-3879

Board Link: La Perla Del Pacifico:Colombian seafood Paisas y Calenas! Review w/pics

An Explosion of Pear and Brie

The flavors from the pear-and-Brie sandwich at Elements Kitchen “really knocked me off of my seat,” says E Eto. The sandwich involves Brie, slices of pear, candied walnuts, and a coating of arugula pesto, all on Euro Pane bread. The whole affair is toasted on a sandwich press, just enough to melt the cheese slightly. “This combination of unique flavors works in complete harmony that you wouldn’t expect, but packs a punch. I went to Elements Kitchen twice during the week, mostly because of that sandwich.”

Other items are also immensely enjoyable. Gruyère tart, a special, is outstanding. The pulled-pork sandwich “tasted a lot more like good carnitas than a Carolina style BBQ pork butt, but still delicious,” says E Eto. Chicken escabèche sandwich is quite good, and subtle—rather like a Vietnamese banh mi. Mac ’n’ cheese is an extravagant winner: One version comes with wild mushrooms and truffle oil. Cucumber-ginger soup has a velvety texture and a nice ginger kick; Thai carrot-coconut soup pairs the sweetness of carrots and coconuts well against a spicy hit. “They also make a damn fine cornbread … maybe some of the best I’ve ever had,” says ipsedixit.

“Desserts were also bold and interesting,” says E Eto. Pineapple upside-down cupcake is nice and delicate. Cucumber-and-Key-lime sorbet is light and refreshing. Pear napoleon includes nicely ripe slices of pear held between wafers and bound with maple-pecan custard.

Elements is mostly a catering operation, but it offers lunch in a tiny dining area, or at an outdoor table. It doesn’t offer dinner regularly, but there’s an occasional tasting menu dinner, available to subscribers of its newsletter.

Elements Kitchen [San Gabriel Valley]
107 S. Fair Oaks Avenue Suite 110, Pasadena
626-440-0100

Board Link: The Pear & Brie sandwich from Elements Kitchen (Pasadena) and other lunch items

A Perfect Cuban Coffeehouse

Café Contigo is a brilliant little Cuban coffeehouse. “It opened about two weeks ago with little fanfare, but it should get some soon—the coffee is fantastic,” says Das Ubergeek. “... The Americans spawned the $4 coffee revolution but the Cubans have been quietly making the best coffee for 300 years or so.”

Café con leche—“which is essentially a caffe latte, but slightly sweetened with raw molasses, and no bloody foam”—is just perfect, “still a little bitter but not the unpalatable alum feeling of completely unsweetened coffee,” says Das Ubergeek. And refugiado, the famed guava-cheese pastry, is Porto’s refugiado, literally. Café Contigo makes many of its pastries in-house, but it imports its refugiado from Porto’s in Glendale. The refugiados are made at Porto’s off-site bakery, frozen, sent to Café Contigo, then rebaked. Because this is precisely how Porto’s handles its own refugiados, the pastries taste exactly the same. So for all you sad Orange County hounds who’ve been pining away for those oh-so-perfect refugiados, rejoice.

The sandwiches are made in-house, and they’re very, very tasty, says Das Ubergeek. Medianoche is quite nice, and the hummus-and-avocado veggie sandwich is a must-try, says dvestre.

“The owners, Linda and Petros, are two of the nicest people you could ever possibly meet,” adds peanut112. The ambiance is rustic and pleasant, and right now the restaurant’s basically empty. “The only thing lacking is more satisfied customers,” says crt.

Café Contigo [Orange County]
327 S. Anaheim Boulevard Suite A, Anaheim
714-780-0242

Board Link: REVIEW: Cafe Contigo, Anaheim

Afghan Wonderment

pleasurepalate always tends toward going to new restaurants, but she can’t stop going back to Azeen’s Afghani.

Pakawra-e-badenjan is great: crispy batter-fried eggplant, topped with tangy yogurt and spicy tomato-meat sauce. It may seem strange, but yogurt, tomato, and meat marry beautifully. Buranee-e-kadu is sautéed butternut squash topped with the same yogurt and meat sauce. “The melding of flavors was really interesting for this dish,” says pleasurepalate. “You get sweet, meaty, tangy all in one bite.”

The dumplings are always worthwhile. Mantu dumplings have a filling of chopped beef, onion, and herbs, topped with yogurt and mixed vegetables; aushak dumplings are filled with leeks and scallions, and topped with that yogurt and meat sauce, with a little extra mint.

Gulpi—cauliflower stew with ginger, onions, and tomatoes—tastes very lively. Korma challaw is chunks of beef in a satisfying sauce of green pepper, onions, and tomatoes. And the chicken breast kebabs are moist and tender. Best of all, says Dommy, is the cardamom tea, served cold or hot.

In general, says pleasurepalate, the vegetable dishes are unbeatable. “Azeen’s really knows how to cook their vegetables. They always have a lot of great flavor to them.” Meat kebabs, on the other hand, are hit-or-miss.

Azeen’s Afghani Restaurant [San Gabriel Valley]
110 E. Union Street, Pasadena
626-683-3310

Board Link: REVIEW w/ pics: Dinner at Azeen’s Afghani

Pistachio Mole, Coffee Mole, Tamarind Mole

“My tastebuds went into overload,” says pleasurepalate. “The flavor profiles were all over the place. Sweet. Smoky. Spicy. Nutty. All of them had such complexity of flavors.” She’s talking about the mind-bending array of moles available at Moles “La Tia.” There is white mole; passion fruit mole; dark, rich coffee mole; tequila mole with a shot of lime; and hibiscus mole. And there is the gloriously nutty pistachio mole.

You can mix and match your moles to your proteins, but chef and owner Rocio Camacho has suggested some particularly great pairings on the menu—pairings with unexpected resonance, like shrimp with coffee mole, or venison with hibiscus mole. Burger Boy digs the Oaxacan quesadillas, as well as the fillet with tequila mole.

Cochinita pibil is also excellent—highly flavored, like chorizo.

There are great desserts, too, like rice pudding with tequila-soaked raisins served on green tomatillo marmalade, and ancho chile flan.

Moles “La Tia” [East LA]
4619 E. Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, Los Angeles
323-263-7842

Board Links: REVIEW w/pics: Mole Heaven at Casa de Moles “La Tita”
Moles La Tia in East La

Nicaraguan at Nica’s Kitchen

Nica’s Kitchen “is dedicated to comida Nicaragüense and presenting typical dishes,” says streetgourmetla. It’s a hot, humid little hole in the wall—“I actually felt like I was in Nicaragua. ... But, such a wonderful dive and one of my new favorites.”

Carne asada Nicaragüense is fantastic, with every sort of texture and temperature all on one plate. It includes carne asada, gallo pinto (rice and beans), soft and sweet plantains, crispy plantains, ensalada (a lightly pickled slaw, much like Salvadoran curtido), and queso frito (fried cheese), all for $9. Cebollitas—the Nicaraguan sweet, spicy pickled onion—tops the whole affair, and makes a great condiment.

Monday’s menu is limited, Tuesday the restaurant’s closed. But they have specials Wednesday through Sunday. On weekends, you can get Nicaragua’s famed nacatamal and vaho (a.k.a. baho)—a mixture of meat, plantains, and yucca cooked in banana leaves.

Nica’s Kitchen [San Fernando Valley—East]
11640 Victory Boulevard, North Hollywood
818-762-0562

Board Link: Nicaraguan comes to the Valley:Nica’s Kitchen lunch w/pics

Islamic Chinese in Anaheim

There is a fantastic Islamic Chinese place in Anaheim. It’s Mas’ Islamic Restaurant, and, says Das Ubergeek, it’s even better than San Gabriel’s beloved China Islamic.

Dough cut noodles with lamb are excellent, with just slightly al dente noodles, says Das Ubergeek. Mu shu chicken is also great. But the true winner is the scrumptious thin sesame bread. The portion is enormous: $8.50 buys you five foot-wide rounds.

Lamb with pickled cabbage is a pleasant surprise, says OCchowman: “not too pickly, with a nice contrast between the slightly crunchy cabbage and the lamb.” It’s good for those with a slight fear of lamb—the pickle masks the intense lambiness. Stir-fried lamb is also good, as are five-spice beef and leeks, and cumin lamb.

The place is nice-looking, gracious, and very Islamic. This means no alcohol, “and they turned away a family in shorts as we were leaving, asking them to attire themselves modestly,” says Das Ubergeek.

Avoid the gloppy, Americanized Chinese food that populates much of the menu. You may have to fight to get Islamic dishes if you look too gringo, though. Some of the waitstaff will try to push you toward the Americanized dishes, unless you insist.

Mas’ Islamic Restaurant [Orange County]
601 E. Orangethorpe Avenue, Anaheim
714-446-9553

China Islamic Restaurant [San Gabriel Valley]
7727 E. Garvey Avenue, Rosemead
626-288-4246

Board Link: REVIEW: Ma’s Chinese Islamic, Anaheim

The Best Pho in the San Gabriel Valley

“If you name a pho specialist in the SGV there’s a very good chance I’ve been there, but, I was DEEPLY underwhelmed with the scene until I crossed Rosemead Blvd. and entered South El Monte earlier this year,” says Erik M. His absolute favorite is Pho Minh. “This is pho for those folks in search of cerebral, as opposed to merely carnal, pleasures. ... My first taste, a few weeks ago, was like reconnecting with a part of me I never knew I’d lost, let alone had.”

This is the place for those who hate MSG-laden, overstuffed pho, says exilekiss: “amazingly light, authentic pho, with a beautiful beef broth could that only be achieved by slow-cooking for hours and hours.” Some may find it bland at first; keep trying it, urges exilekiss, and you’ll soon be converted to the clear, pure beauty of real pho.

Many hounds recommend Pho Minh’s dac biet pho bac—pho with slices of beef fillet. Com tam, broken rice with various pork toppings, is also excellent.

Pho Minh [San Gabriel Valley]
9646 E. Garvey Avenue #108, South El Monte
626-448-8807

Board Links: Six months? Already? (Part1…)
Enchanting Pure Beef Noodle Soup–Pho Minh [Review] w/ Pics!