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

Truly Authentic Mexican Flavor on the Westside

Raves are pouring in from Westside fans of Mexican food for Sabor a Mexico. It’s like Abuela’s cooking. Or like the Mexican grandmother you wish you had, with a golden touch in the kitchen. These folks GET it: the true shining soul of Mexican food that is so hard to capture; when somebody does, it’s a revelation, says Dommy.

There’s something here for everyone, including a generous selection of delicious vegetarian options. Carne asada is great, and so is al pastor, flavorful and just crispy-fatty enough. It’s usually cooked on the grill except on weekends, when there’s an outdoor spit set up.

But let’s talk about the salsa bar, one of the best Dommy says she’s ever seen. The standard spicy red and spicy green are there, as well as pico de gallo. But they also have an amazing avocado salsa that’s fruity, smooth, and spicy-hot. The creamy chipotle salsa could make an old shoe taste good, and bright orange habanero salsa tempts the die-hard chileheads.

On Friday and Saturday evenings, there’s a taco table where they braise and grill all kinds of cuts. Weekends also bring $1 tacos.

Tortillas are handmade here, thick, warm, and aromatic with corn. They’re perfect in queso fundido con hongos, where the cheese is gooey, smooth, and flavorful. Huaraches also set a new standard in LA: huge things drenched in a mild, supertasty tomatillo sauce and sprinkled with cojita cheese, beans, and cilantro—the perfect combo.

A Mexico City–style quesadilla (Quesadilla de D.F.) is actually like an empanada, deep-fried but wonderfully light, full of tangy cheese and perfectly done squash blossom. Another variety has mushrooms and epazote.

This place is distinctive for being not only authentic but creative, in the spirit of a great food culture. Everything is made fresh and from scratch, even the pickled jalapeños, which are garlicky, with a hint of bay leaf, and bits of carrot and cauliflower thrown in.

Sabor a Mexico [Culver City]
8940 National Boulevard, Los Angeles

Board Links: Mexican soul food
A True Test of Faith: Sabor a Mexico Culver City
Sabor A Mexico muy sabroso–thanks, Dommy!!

Tasty Banh Cuon, at Home or To-Go

There are two ways to get banh cuon, the delectable rice flour cakes (think of those translucent dim sum dumplings) filled with pork, mushrooms, and other goodies that you dip in nuoc mam (fish sauce). You can go to a restaurant that specializes in the dish, or if you’re going to take it home or buy in bulk for a party, you want a place that does bulk.

For the restaurant experience, Banh Cuon Tay Ho is one of the better places, says kingkong5. Get the combo with the shrimp and sweet potato tempura, adds groover808. There’s a branch in SGV for those who don’t want to cross the Orange Curtain.

Hong Mai is another banh cuon specialist that’s good, says bulavinaka.

For parties and takeout, Thanh Son Tofu makes fresh banh cuon and sells it for $2 a pound, says kingkong5. You can also get freshly made rolls of yummy sausage wrapped in banana leaves, and fresh fried tofu in various flavors (including lemongrass-chile and green onion–mushroom).

Banh Cuon Tay Ho [Little Saigon]
9242 Bolsa Avenue, #F, Westminster

Banh Cuon Tay Ho [Little Saigon]
9629 Bolsa Avenue, Westminster

Banh Cuon Tay Ho [San Gabriel Valley]
1039 E. Valley Boulevard, Suite B103, San Gabriel

Banh Cuon Tay Ho [Orange County]
3520 W. First Street, Santa Ana

Hong Mai [Orange County]
5425 W. First Street, #D, Santa Ana

Thanh Son Tofu [Little Saigon]
9688 Westminster Avenue, Garden Grove

Board Links: Best Banh Cuon?

The Taiwanese Have Got Breakfast All Rolled Up

One of the most odd food items a person can eat for breakfast is probably the Taiwanese rice roll, or “fahn-tuan” (excuse the poor pinyin), says ipsedixit.

There’s nothing exotic, or even complex, about this item. But when you take it in your hands and observe it carefully, you realize this is really Frankenfood. It’s sort of a quixotic mix of different cultures and eating styles. It has the faux lineage of a tamale, but the makeup and appearance of a Japanese sushi roll (sans nori).

When it’s done right, a rice roll can be a titillating experience. Place your order, and you’ll observe the chef scoop out a pile of cooked sticky rice, drop it onto a sheet of plastic wrap, pound the rice into a rectangular sheet, then build layers of filling with spoonfuls of pickled cucumbers (or mustard greens), fried and dehydrated ground pork, and perhaps other goodies, all before the equivalent of the maraschino cherry is placed into the center stack: the Chinese cruller (or “yiou-tiao”).

Then with deft hand and nimble fingers, the chef will roll it into a tubular shape, twist the ends of the plastic wrap, and voilà! A rice roll is born.

Unfortunately, even in the San Gabriel Valley, most are premade and abandoned under a heat lamp in the kitchen.

Four Sea in Hacienda Heights is the place to go, says Pei, who recommends this place so much she’s like a broken record.

And although the regular fahn-tuan is nothing special at Yi Mei, the vegetarian version is surprisingly nice ’n’ crunchy, salty, and oh so satisfying, says PandanExpress.

Four Sea [San Gabriel Valley]
2020 S. Hacienda Boulevard, Hacienda Heights

Yi-Mei [San Gabriel Valley]
736 S. Atlantic Boulevard, Monterey Park (Dingho Plaza)

Yi-Mei [San Gabriel Valley]
608 E. Valley Boulevard, #G, San Gabriel (San Gabriel Superstore complex)

Yi-Mei [San Gabriel Valley]
18414 E. Colima Road, #I, Rowland Heights (Hong Kong Store complex)


Board Links: An plea for the Taiwanese rice-roll

Pasta Magic in an Irvine Food Court

Franco’s Pasta Cucina shines like a pearl in the sea of heat-lamp and chafing-dish food court mediocrity that is Irvine, says elmomonster. Although photos of Franco with the likes of Stallone and NYPD Blue’s Dennis Franz plaster the walls, the man himself is unassuming, dressed in crisp chef’s whites and presiding over a kitchen no larger than a prison cell.

But he works magic with what he’s got. Up his sleeves are such unexpected delights as salmon, feta, and yellowtail, which he juggles with rigatoni, fettucine, linguine, and gnocchi. Tossed in a sauté pan, and coaxed by his deft hand, these disparate ingredients coalesce into masterpieces worthy of a thousand Mario Batalis. But at $8 for a pasta dish, salad, garlic bread, and soda, his creations are offered for a price that won’t even cover valet parking at Mozza.

One favorite is linguine, perfectly cooked, in a light spicy clam sauce—generous fistfuls of chopped clam in a buttery, sweetly garlicky sauce and dotted with fresh parsley. Spicy yellowtail linguine is the best pasta I got nothin has had since coming back from Italy.

But watch out, there’s a little bit of Pasta Nazi in Franco. Want extra cheese/sauce/salad dressing? You’re wrong, it doesn’t need any. Franco knows best.

Sadly, it’s all over by 2 p.m., when he closes up shop.

Franco’s Pasta Cucina [Orange County]
2222 Michelson Drive, Suite 206, Irvine

Board Links: Great pasta in an Irvine food court–whodathunk?!

Oaxacan Tapas? You Said a Mouthful.

A meal at Antequera de Oaxaca left kare_raisu craving more. Amarillo de puerco, nice pieces of pork tenderly absorbing the yellow mole, sit among al dente chunks of potato and crisp green beans. This is one hot bowl of deliciousness. Nice handmade tortillas on the side, too. Chicken- and raisin-stuffed chile relleno, with confetti rice and black beans, looks awesome—but a friend doesn’t offer to share.

The place seems to actually focus on botanas, the Oaxacan version of tapas. Memelas, which resemble sopes, are topped with black bean paste and fantastic salty cheese, the perfect snack.

Antequera de Oaxaca [Hollywood]
5200 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles

Board Links: Antequera De Oaxaca report

Mulitas and Much More

Taqueria Las Mulitas is one of those restaurants that we in SoCal take for granted and Chowhounds in places like Minneapolis can only dream about, says Das Ubergeek.

You’ve got fresh seafood like ceviche and cocteles; tacos and sopes; dishes like chile relleno; a few burritos as a nod to the gabachos; and the house specialty, mulitas.

A mulita is a lot like a quesadilla: cheese and meat sandwiched between two thick corn-based patties that are slightly gritty and toothsome, like a tortilla pancake made of grits. Al pastor, though chopped fine, is smoky and wonderful, and it’s paired in the mulita with some panela. Sopes are very tasty and obviously homemade, although the carnitas is a little dry. Red salsa is smoky, heavy on the chiles, and a bit greasy, but very, very unctuous, like a really good taqueria salsa should be. There’s also salsa verde, onions with cilantro, limes, and carrots en escabeche.

Mulita al pastor is $3; sopes con carnitas and a drink are $5.

Another variation on a masa patty, the huarache, is exactly as it should be at Sabor a Mexico, says lvgoodfood. With beans, Mexican cheese, and the perfect carne asada on top, it’s delicious. Agua de jamaica and horchata are tasty and refreshing, and the place is clean and welcoming.

Taqueria Las Mulitas [Orange County]
2115 E. Ball Road, Anaheim

Sabor a Mexico [Culver City]
8940 National Boulevard, Los Angeles

Board Links: REVIEW: Taqueria “Las Mulitas” and Brianna’s Ice Cream and Fruit Salad, Anaheim
Sabor a México–Review + photos

Foie Gras Ice Cream?

Ice cream flavored like caramel salt, coffee, and deep chocolate at Delicieuse practically made westsidegal levitate.

angelatmytable seconds the rave, having tried other flavors like strawberry and maple before settling on Chocolate Millionaire (rich, natch, and dark without being bitter); a mixed-berry sorbet made with absolutely fresh fruit; and the standout, coconut–goat milk. The flavor is full, smooth, and fragrant without being overly sweet.

Hours are limited but may expand this summer. It’s a bit pricey, too, at $3 a scoop.

angelatmytable’s favorite for value, taste, and inventiveness is Scoops, where owner and chief ice creamer Tai Kim has had a burst of creativity lately: foie gras and sweet cream, champagne and Asian pear sorbet, and extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt mousse.

Olive oil is one of the best flavors djquinnc has ever had at Scoops, while the foie gras is subtle … maybe too subtle. Worth a try.

Milk is a real find for a dairy lover, says Pei, who discovered the banana butterscotch ice cream bar on a recent visit. The ice cream is fluffy and creamy, with intense banana flavor. The butterscotch is thin, crispy, and buttery, with shards of almonds. The cost for one big bar: $3.

The owner of Cafe Lucca is devoted to the art of making gelato, often concocting ice cream into the wee hours of the night, says OCBites. As for running a restaurant, it’s not so much his thing.

Das Ubergeek encountered some seriously clueless service and a mediocre caprese sandwich (good filling, crappy tough French roll). Still, he says, the gelato is really good, and so are the madeleines and even an espresso, properly made with good crema.

Delicieuse [Beaches]
2503 Artesia Boulevard, Redondo Beach

Scoops [East Hollywood]
712 N. Heliotrope Drive, Los Angeles

Milk [Central City]
7290 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles

Cafe Lucca [Orange County]
106 N. Glassell Street, Orange

Board Links: OMG the best ice cream i’ve tasted in years Delicieuse
Delicieuse–French Ice Cream in the So. Bay
Hie thee hence to Scoops…
More Praise for MILK
REVIEW: Cafe Lucca, Orange

It’s a Chicago Pizza Showdown

In one corner is Zelo’s, a small but charming spot in Arcadia. It really seems like the family owners put thought and care into it, and the staff is great. There’s a small but well-edited beer selection, and changing specials. Weakness: Pizzas are premade and stacked in a big cooler.

In the other corner, we have Tony’s “Little Italy,” whose owner is from Sicily via Chicago. It moved a couple of years ago to newer digs, and while it’s still not a full-on restaurant, there are a good number of tables, a decent selection of beers, and TVs to watch the game. It’s pretty popular. Weakness: Sausage-stuffed pies appear short on the stuffing.

The ref: Dommy, who cites as credentials her long, pizza-filled sojourns in Chicago over six years.

Zelo’s has really mastered its crust, she says; it’s really the restaurant’s own and not Chicago’s. Cornmeal gives it a corn-y flavor, and the crust is incredibly crisp and buttery. The flavors aren’t typical of Chicago either, where the preferred toppings/stuffings are sausage, green pepper, and spinach. Instead you get roasted garlic, meltingly tender and adding just the right punch to the cheese and sauce; corn and caramelized onion, wonderfully sweet; and spicy sausage and onion, with plenty of meat. Potato and pancetta is divisive—Dommy says the pancetta is overwhelming, but WildSwede loves it, saying the porkiness blends with the tomatoes, plus there’s a bit of rosemary in there.

Tony’s pizza is a hefty thing, not just deep dish but stuffed. Looks did deceive however—the sausage and green pepper pie didn’t have much of either beneath the surface. RSMBob, though, finds the smooth tomato sauce exceptionally fresh-tasting.

It’s a KO for Zelo’s, declares Dommy, but RSMBob sums up the difference between the contestants: Zelo’s has the heart of a Chicago deep-dish pizza, with California flair on top. Tony’s is more typical of a traditional stuffed-crust pie, on a par with the offerings in Chicago.

Zelo Gourmet Pizzeria [San Gabriel Valley]
328 E. Foothill Boulevard, Arcadia

Tony’s “Little Italy” Pizza [Orange County]
In Vons Shopping Center
1808 N. Placentia Avenue, Unit B, Placentia

Board Links: Chicago Pizza Showdown Pt. 1: Zelos in Arcadia
Chicago Pizza Showdown Pt. 2: Tony’s Little Italy in Placentia

Not Your Average Java Blast

Coffee, as in that humble, American-style cuppa joe, is getting some of its own back. There’s been a lot of buzz, starting with the Los Angeles Times and the LA Weekly about the Clover, some mysterious, quasi-magical machine that turns bitter coffee beans into gold on the tongue.

The new Groundwork café in the Higgins building downtown has a Clover, and the company is getting two more—probably for the Venice and Cahuenga Boulevard locations.

A Clover cup really lives up to the praise, hounds say, with a pure, smooth, full-bodied yet not bitter flavor. You can choose from any kind of beans they have in-house, and your cup is made to order. Panama coffee is $3.50 a cup.

Kaldi’s in Atwater Village has something slightly different going on: cold press coffee. Soaked in cold water overnight, the coffee grounds are then filtered out to leave a concentrated solution that you can add to cold or hot water for a full cup. It’s definitely less bitter than a regular brewed cup, but doesn’t fill annalulu with lyrical awe.

Groundwork [Downtown]
108 W. Second Street #107, Los Angeles

Kaldi [Atwater Village]
3147 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles

Board Links: Groundwork coffee: the Clover
Cold Press coffee at Kaldi in Atwater Village

Where Your Skewers Await

Good things come on sharp sticks at Koshiji, a Little Tokyo joint where pleasurepalate was blown away by juicy, smoky pork belly with shiso leaf, and crisp-tender green beans wrapped with pork.

Even before that, you get complimentary fresh veggies and an addictive miso-based sauce that’s great on the skewers too.

Baked sweet potatoes dripping with butter add a nice sweet note to a meal of savories. Garlic that’s grilled until meltingly tender is also a bit sweet.

Proving, at least for this meal, that you can’t go far wrong with anything wrapped in pork (lamb chops and duck breast struck out), okra in pork was tasty. Chicken meatballs and quail eggs are good too.

For dessert, coffee Jell-O is sort of like a twist on a cup of coffee, (whipped) cream on the side.

Koshiji [Little Tokyo]
123 S. Onizuka Street #203, Los Angeles

Board Links: Koshiji