Here are the 15 standout meals I ate in Los Angeles in 2008, regardless of cuisine or price level. Every meal at Elena’s Greek Armenian Cuisine, El Mar Azul and La Casita Mexicana could have qualified, but I resisted including them for diversity’s sake. Unfortunately, four of the meals will be impossible to repeat in 2009. Ingredients is closed, Three Forks recently suffered extensive fire damage and two of the meals were one-off events. Still, that leaves plenty to work with this year. Time for the entries, which appear by date of consumption.
1. Jitlada – Hollywood – March 6, 2008
When Chef Tui Sungkamee introduces new southern Thai dishes at the Hollywood restaurant he owns with sister Jazz Singsanong, it’s an event. Based on two January visits, I didn’t think Jitlada had very much room for improvement. Thanks to an infusion of new dishes, they now have even less.
A cauldron full of massive green lip mussels were sweet and supple, submerged in a lemongrass broth with whole chilies and Thai basil and served with a dish of fiery green chile-garlic sauce. Coco Mango Salad combined sweet mango strips, crunchy cashews, firm shrimp, thinly sliced purple onions, and spicy diced garlic. Menu item #20 is a turmeric-flavored dry curry that normally coats either pork or beef. Thanks to Richard Foss’ article about exotic eating in LA CityBeat, we knew to ask for crocodile. Chef Sungkamee’s curry-slathered nuggets of amphibious predator were tender and completely funk free, sprinkled with strands of dill. A deep-fried sea bass was buried in a spicy avalanche of julienned mango and onion, keeping the whole fish flaky and crisp-skinned. Laam Talum Pook was the spiciest dish, “wild curry” stir-fried with cross sections of succulent catfish, Thai eggplant and green beans. Papaya Mae Chan was a multi-faceted dish involving fatty but flavorful grilled pork showered with peppercorns and a bowl of tangy papaya salad tossed with cashews, tomato and purple cabbage. Kai Kamin featured nuggets of fried chicken tossed with turmeric and addictive fried garlic, served with honey chile sauce. For dessert, Jazz brought us a bowl of clear tapioca beads mixed with cuts of jackfruit and young coconut shavings, blanketed with coconut milk.
Until January, Lotus of Siam was the best Thai restaurant I’d experienced in the U.S. Now, without a doubt, Jitlada has passed it by, and may have even lapped the Lotus.
2. Underground Gordita Kitchen – South Los Angeles – March 2008
In a covered courtyard, hidden behind a high fence, a group of women from the Mexican state of Querétaro prepared gorditas. Inconspicuous to outsiders, a winding line of customers indicated locals are well aware of the nameless “restaurant.” Friday to Sunday, an assembly line of women produces golden cornmeal pockets known as gorditas. By the time the balls of masa reach the fifth woman, they’ve been formed into patties, grilled, split open with a knife and filled with either chile-soaked chicharrones, nopales, shredded beef or carnitas. A Socio Aguilar sign honors the owners’ favorite soccer team, and a plasma screen shows the week’s game, a sign of the women’s success. A grey haired woman, perhaps the mother of one of the cooks, collected cash in a lock box at a table full of Mexican candies. The only gringo there, I was instructed not to answer my cell phone if it rang, since the women would suspect I was alerting police, who pose a threat to their unsanctioned business.
3. An Afternoon with Estancia – Santa Monica – April 28, 2008
Josie Le Balch and Daniel Snukal (3 on Fourth) invited local writers and chefs to Josie Restaurant to showcase Uruguay’s finest export: grass-fed beef. Not only did the event turn out to be a terrific learning opportunity, but it also featured some of the best food of 2008.
In 2006, Estancia co-founder Bill Reed launched Estancia in San Francisco with Argentina native J.P. Thieriot. A co-op of 40 different Uruguayan ranchers follow the company’s strict protocols, which dictates zero hormones or antibiotics. Why Uruguay? The nation is one of the only places in the world where conditions are ideal for growing grass, thanks to year-round rainfall.
Le Balch and Snukal circulated Mini Burgers skewered with mayo-brushed sesame seed buns, caramelized onions, tomato slices and crunchy pickles. Crostini hosted seared flatiron steak, cuts of sweet roasted bell pepper and garlic. The texture of the beef was visibly different from corn fed beef, with thread-like musculature.
Le Balch “wanted people to try the beef as beef is.” Her Grilled Rib Eye Steak was simply seared and plated with garlic bulbs. Sliced New York Steak was grilled and plated with roasted garlic and a rosemary sprig. Snukal was inspired to cook Korean BBQ Rib-Eye Steak based on visits to Koreatown, pairing the beef with grilled Portobello mushroom caps. His marinade involved soy, garlic and peaches for sweetness. Snukal’s Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio was blanketed with shavings of sweet California peaches, thin-shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano and a judicious sprinkling of truffle vinaigrette. The meaty feast came with plates of absolutely of-the-moment vegetables: Roasted Potatoes (white and purple), Baby Carrots (orange and yellow), caramelized Fennel bathed in olive oil and snap-fresh Endive Salad tossed with roasted pear shavings, pecans and blue-veined crumbles of Stilton.
4. Ingredients – Glendale – May 3, 2008 [CLOSED]
Michael Ruiz, former chef-owner of Bistro Verdu, resurfaced in the north Glendale neighborhood of Sparr Heights in December 2007 with this boutique gourmet shop. Sadly, Chef Ruiz was forced to close in May, but while Ingredients lasted, his market-driven Mediterranean small bites were special.
Deviled eggs were incredible, mixed with bacon bits, dusted with sea salt and smoked paprika, topped with a tuft of razor-thin radish shavings and ringed with house-made basil oil. Ruiz even figured out a clever way to hold the eggs in place: deviled egg yolk. He paired our goat cheese terrine with the Verdu beet stix, a dish that dates to Bistro Verdu. The terrine featured alternating layers of goat cheese and sweet red pepper. Twin slabs were bracketed with pesto and cradled a pile of bursting heirloom tomatoes. Verdu beet stix also featured alternating layers of vegetable and goat cheese, in this case roasted golden beets and peppered goat’s cheese. The vertical towers were drizzled with crumbled pistachios and balsamic-honey.
Ruiz slow braised pork shoulder with sweet Cara Cara oranges and covered the pig meat with a glass dome before introducing swirling applewood smoke. Ruiz lifted the lid to reveal the luscious shredded pork, garnished with roasted green peppers and ringed with parsley oil. Duck confit – shredded duck meat poached in duck fat – was tossed with shavings of sweet pear, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, Marcona almonds and quince vinaigrette. Reserva Serrano ham came on spicy tomato-slathered bread with shaved Leyenda, which Ruiz described as a “Spanish sheep’s milk cheese similar to Manchego, soaked in brandy, cured in pork fat and herbs for 14 days.” A crumbly slab of Baked Ricotta was studded with pistachios and dried figs, topped with thin-shaved speck, green beans and accented with drizzles of 50-year sherry vinegar. For dessert, strawberry gingerbread shortcake hosted layers of moist, slightly spicy bread, fresh strawberries and whipped cream.
5. Cook’s Tortas – Monterey Park – May 9, 2008
L.A. native Ricardo Diaz opened Cook’s Tortas at the end of February with in-laws Elvira and Antonio Zamora, naming their Mexican sandwich shop in honor of Captain Cook, who founded the Sandwich Isles and was funded by the Earl of Sandwich, known for creating the first sandwich.
Diaz has built a book of 500 torta recipes, each assigned a different number. A rotating selection is listed in chalk on a huge blackboard. His favorite is #96 – Beef Tongue. #151 – Mojito – combines roasted pork, garlic mojo and slow cooked onions. #10 – Ahogada – utilizes slow cooked pork, spicy double dip, escabeche and extra napkins. There was even a sweet option, #71 – Fruity – mango, apples, orange, cream cheese and honey – but I went savory all the way.
#25 – Bacalao – came on incredible sourdough ciabatta just pulled from the oven. The ten-inch loaf was sliced and loaded with a skillet full of potato chunks, red onions, garlic, peppers, green Spanish olives and parsley, all braised in olive oil. Diaz said it’s his mother-in-law’s recipe, a Christmas dish that requires de-salting Nova Scotia cod for two days and 6-8 hours of stovetop braising.
Cook’s Tortas offers several interesting sides, including red fries (sweet potato fries dusted with shichimi togarashi), watermelon pickles and grated carrot salad, sweet from raisins, green apples and cinnamon. Ms. Zamora’s buttered biscuit with apple-loquat marmalade was irresistible, nice and moist. Diaz also offers Great Great Grandmother’s Corn Cake, a dense cross between cornbread and corn pudding.