Here are the 10 most impressive meals I ate in Los Angeles in 2007, regardless of cuisine or price level. I cheated by including neighboring Orange and Ventura Counties for two selections. Deal with it. The entries appear by date of consumption.
A four-block stretch of Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia is known as Little India due to its densely packed Indian shops and restaurants. Rajdhani is the best Gujarati-style restaurant in the neighborhood. It’s all you can eat, different every day, and at $10.99 per person, clearly one of the best meal deals in Southern California. It’s also vegetarian, but don’t let that dissuade you. Due to the restaurant’s heavy volume, the food remains fresh and vivid. A stream of high-energy waiters zipped through the dining hall, ladling and tong-ing food onto large silver platters known as thalis. Tart, springy Khandvi were addictive pasta rolls made from chickpea flour, dyed yellow by buttermilk, sprinkled with coriander seeds and shredded coconut. Musket ball-shaped pastries known as Kachoris were dense but filled with a delicious pigeon pea and green pea mash. Vaal were spiced white beans flavored with cinnamon. Palak Paneer combined spiced spinach and firm chunks of whole milk cottage cheese. There was a smoky, spice-fused blend of eggplant, peas, and both gold and purple potatoes. The breads: Puffy Puri and ghee-painted wheat flatbread called Chapati. We were each entitled to a single serving of dessert. Gulab Jamun were warm doughnut hole-like orbs of fried milk powder, soaked in cardamom and saffron syrup. Even better was Besan Halwa, a hot dish of gritty roasted gram flour, simmered in milk, sugar, and cardamom, and topped with shaved almonds and pistachios. Lunch at Rajdhani was so good, I didn’t even miss meat or seafood.
Dee Nguyen’s fantastic Vietnamese influenced restaurant is pushing the boundaries of breakfast (and from I hear, lunch). A pull-apart cinnamon sticky bun was served hot in a cast iron skillet with coffee syrup, pecan glaze and pecan-studded whipped cream. A generous pile of braised pork featured the “essence of five spices” – cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise and Szechwan peppercorns – and was plated with a sweet “jalapeno grilled corn bake” (cornbread), Napa cabbage slaw with sweet mango, and tempura-fried poached eggs. Chef Nguyen generously offers several of his more compelling entrees as sides, meaning we were able to order more dishes for less money. Biscuit and Gravy incorporated a halved buttermilk cheddar biscuit and Vietnamese style pork ginger meatloaf. The moist, char-grilled pork was drizzled with sausage-espresso gravy. Incredible Corned Beef and Sweet Potato Hash featured diced savory and sweet potatoes, slices of succulent corned beef, tarragon braised cabbage, and whole grain mustard sauce. After sampling Chef Nguyen’s breakfast, 100 miles round-trip felt like a short jaunt.
In the shadow of Santa Anita Park, Henry Chang’s stylish Shanghai-style restaurant offers the only formidable alternative to nearby Din Tai Fung Dumpling House. The restaurant has been around for a few years, but it was never better than on August 25. When the Pork Spare Ribs in Lotus Leaf arrived, we unfurled steaming leaves to reveal chile-flecked glutinous rice and pork spare ribs, tender and aromatic from being steamed in the lotus leaf. Green Bean in Chinese Pan Cake featured a cluster of tender green beans and tiny dried shrimp that was rolled in flaky pastry. Green Onion Pie was as good as it gets, crispy without being dry and surprisingly grease-free. Shanghai Style Rice Cakes were pan-fried with soy sauce until the exteriors were slightly crusty, then tossed with onions, pork and spinach. Fish Fillet With Hot Bean Sauce was a misnomer, firm cod slathered with a garlicky, flame-red chile sauce whose heat built in intensity with each bite. Simple sautéed snow pea shoots were a light respite, flavored with garlic slivers.
Mexico City native Felipe Cejudo and wife Rosie “The Texas Girl” launched their sea blue tostada truck in Highland Park in 1994, parking beside Sycamore Grove Park. In the past 13 years, they’ve gained quite a following by selling a short list of seafood tostadas and cocktails. They’re all good to great, but the most basic is best: the Tostada de Camaron. A fried corn tortilla disc called a tostada was topped with creamy cole slaw, relish and “secrets,” then fanned with plump shrimp and capped with slices of fresh avocado. When given the option of “con chile” or “sin chile,” go con. A few squirts from a squeeze bottle added yet another boost of flavor. The tostada had it all: saltiness, creaminess from the cole slaw, firm shrimp and spice from the chile sauce. With a squeeze of lime, two or three tostadas form a perfect meal. Coctel de Camaron was another classic, a cool mix of diced onions, cilantro, plump shrimp and a blend of Clamato and tomato juice. Salty tostadas provided texture. After devouring the shrimp, I drank the ambrosial nectar like water. El Mar Azul’s success has spawned several adjacent imitators, but none of them can match Felipe’s artistry, balance or flavor.
5. Brooks – Ventura – October 20, 2007 [CLOSED]
Sandwiched between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara Counties, Ventura County has long been a culinary wasteland. No longer. Chef Andy Brooks recently returned home to Southern California after cooking in Chicago and D.C. to open an eponymous restaurant with wife Jayme, who runs the front of the house. Suddenly, the idea of destination dining in Ventura isn’t so laughable anymore. For a paltry $35, I selected three seasonal gems from the prix fixe Classics menu, including creamy chestnut soup poured over a pile of smoked duck and dried cranberries, a slow-braised lamb shank served with spaghetti squash and a wild rice & garnet yam pancake. Particularly impressive dishes from the regular menu were the Sonoma County Margaret duck plated with squash-flecked couscous, white baby turnips and wild blueberry jus, and the grilled gingerbread cake with warm pear compote and ginger-spiced cranberry granita.