Los Angeles

Pizzeria Mozza

Combine Mario Batali’s Italian cuisine with California baker Nancy Silverton’s bread, and you have all the ingredients for the ultimate pizza. West Hollywood’s Mozza has been hailed far and wide as one of the best pizza places in America, and I am almost sorry to say that the reports are correct – sorry, because it’s 3,000 miles away from New York.

Funghi Pizza, Mozza

Really, Mario, why does LA get Mozza and we get Otto? The ingredients at Otto Pizzeria are top notch, but the lack of a wood- or coal-burning oven at the restaurant means it will never reach ultimate pizza status. Despite New York’s reputation as one of the major pizza capitals of the U.S., the zoning restrictions against installing wood- and coal-burning ovens make it easier to start up a stellar pizza restaurant in L.A.  (more…)

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Ricardo Zarate of Peruvian restaurant Mo-Chica in LA was recently named Best New Chef by Food & Wine Magazine, so naturally we had to eat there during a trip to LA last week. In New York, this would be a near-impossible reservation to get. Best new chef? Working at an inexpensive restaurant? Expect mobs.

Interior 2, Mo-Chica

We called Mo-Chica and booked lunch for 3pm on a Monday, figuring it wouldn’t be too crazed at that time. One GPS-navigated trip from LAX later, we pulled up at a big boxy structure in downtown LA that looked a lot like… well, a mall. Inside, past a shop selling Mexican tchotchkes, a juice bar and a Thai take-out place, was Mo-Chica. It turns out it’s little more than a stand in a high end food court, complete with plastic tablecloths and a woman taking orders behind a cash register. “Don’t tell them you made a reservation,” D. said. Obviously, something had been lost in translation.  (more…)

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Bar Marmont

One last dispatch from LA.

Something momentous has happened in Hollywood, though many there don’t even realize just how big a deal it is. One of the chefs from the Spotted Pig, Carolynn Spence, who trained under April Bloomfield, has decamped to Bar Marmont. As any New Yorker who counts the Spotted Pig among her favorite restaurants could tell an Angeleno: this is huge.

Of course, when we walked into the bar, which admittedly is not as new and trendy as it once was, Fellow WASP wondered what we were doing there.

“What’s different?” She eyed the butterflies on the ceiling, the very same little butterflies that had been there before Andre Balazs’ renovations. Still, Bar Marmont has its gritty-underside-of-Hollywood charm. The proof would have to be in the food.

Everyone knows the stories about the booze- and drug-filled parties at Chateau Marmont, but now it seems Bar Marmont has taken to actually serving drugs, because their gougeres must be cut with crack. Otherwise there’s no way to explain why they were pounced upon like an illicit, jones-for substance that has to be quickly consumed before it’s confiscated. Granted, we had to wait over a half an hour for the gougeres to appear after ordering from our kinda spacey waitress in white go-go boots, but they were worth the wait. Piping hot, with a crisp exterior and fluffy within, these fancy cheese buns are a must-order. And they go beautifully with wine and cocktails.

The extensive menu is easier to navigate if you’ve learned a few tricks from the Spotted Pig. Boozy bacon prunes are a variation on the Spotted Pig’s Devils on Horseback, but without any pear within. I missed that contrast in texture, but we loved the sinfully candied taste of the boozy bacon prunes. Smoked trout with creme fraiche in potato crisps sounded like a reinterpretation of the Spotted Pig’s fabulously fishy roll mops, but Bar Marmont’s were comparatively meh. The ingredients just didn’t hang together as well, and the crisps weren’t crisp.

Perhaps even more illicit in LA than drugs are fried foods, especially in a respectable establishment like this one. It’s one thing to get caught in a late-night drunken drive-thru to In-N-Out burger a la Paris Hilton, quite another to order a host of fried things while completely in control of your senses. In this way, Bar Marmont brings something new to the LA dining scene: The food is both unhealthy but upscale in a land of either-or dining. The fried squid, a calamari-like crowd pleaser, is paired with a delicious horseradish cream sauce that way exceeds the culinary requirements of bar food. On the flip side, even the fish items are made with some kind of fatty thing like butter or chorizo.

After we decimated the fried squid, the entrees started to roll out. My friend the Agent had the herb-roasted chicken, which was probably made with equal parts butter and chicken. It was delicious. Crispy skin gave way to a very juicy interior. All it was missing was some kind of starchy side to absorb all that buttery sauce.

Mon Ami’s pork chop was herbally inflected and sweet, perhaps a little overdone, but you never know if a kitchen is cooking pork that way so as to avoid freaking people out. The corn fritters on the side were fantastic, light and barely glazed with honey. These seem to be purely Spence’s; they have no Spotted Pig precedent. Across the table Fellow WASP tried the rock shrimp po boy and pronounced it good. The rest of us had already had way too much fried squid to sample it.

There was only one thing wrong: my “damn good burger” didn’t come out with the rest of the entrees. It took several minutes and lots of flagging to retrieve Go Go Boots. The burger was going to “be right out.” Did the order even make it to the kitchen the first time around? Worse, when it finally did arrive, it wasn’t cooked correctly. The kitchen had rushed it off the grill, delivering it very rare instead of medium-rare. This violated a cardinal rule of service. If you’re going to mess up an order, mess it up only once, not twice.

When the dishes were cleared, we ordered coffee from a busboy. Several hours passed. I knit a sweater, while Mon Ami read War and Peace. Finally, Go Go Boots appeared. “No one told me about the coffee,” she said. By then we were dying from lack of caffeine.

Glitches notwithsanding, Fellow WASP said at the end that she now understood what was different about Bar Marmont: the food’s much better than it used to be. Something else was apparent by 11pm as well: the cooler-than-thou crowd that once left Bar Marmont for newer places has come back. Sometimes you can’t help but return to the scene of the crime.

Bar Marmont
8171 W. Sunset Boulevard at N. Crescent Heights Boulevard
Hollywood, California

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The Milky Way

It’s the height of lunch hour at the Milky Way, a kosher dairy restaurant in Los Angeles, and the proprietress is making the rounds, stopping at tables to greet the diners. It would be like any other power lunch scene in LA, but the woman making the rounds is Steven Spielberg’s mother Leah Adler.
At first you may wonder why the mother of one of the richest men in Hollywood isn’t following the more glamorous trend of starting her own clothing or jewelry line. But after you taste the food at the Milky Way, the only thing you’re left wondering is how Steven Spielberg and his mother ever managed to stay so thin.

For the goyim among us, a kosher dairy restaurant is one that serves dairy products and fish but no meat or fowl. Call it the flip side of a Jewish deli, but the atmosphere at the Milky Way is anything but deli. Located on a stretch of West Pico populated with kosher meat markets, veggie stands, and a bakery, the white stucco space within is lit by skylights, decorated with potted palms, and ringed with banquette seating in deep red leather. Only rarely are you reminded of the celebrity connection: The restroom contains a poster of Schindler’s List.

Though the Milky Way offers many creative dishes you wouldn’t automatically think of as kosher, like mushroom lasagna and Cajun blacked snapper, I went with the classics so as best to contrast and compare the Milky Way with New York equivalents.

If you want to know what cabbage rolls are really supposed to taste like, try them at Leah Adler’s place. Crunchy, slightly sour and topped with a tangy sauerkraut tomato sauce, these were fresher and more complex than any I’d tasted in Eastern European themed East Village restaurants. The “secret blend” of vegetables inside seemed to include dried cherries, carrots, rice, walnuts, and a hint of cinnamon. These cabbage rolls were more Fertile Crescent than Borscht Belt.

The potato pancake alongside was also a wonder – potato shredded into vermicelli-like strands, massed into a pancake and fried crisp on the outside. The potatoes within were still al dente.

The Milky Way’s cheese blintzes were some of the best pastries I’ve had in a while. Light, airy, but rich cheese, crepes pan-fried in butter, and the slightest perfume of almonds made these an excellent treat.

Even for those who don’t keep kosher – or heck, for shiksas like me – the Milky Way dishes out some vegetarian dishes so good you forget they’re good for you. OK, maybe not the cheese blintzes, but if there were ever a satisfying way to thumb your nose at Atkins, this is it.

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Decoding the In-N-Out Burger

Last but not least, no trip to LA would be complete without a trip to In-N-Out Burger. It was all I could do to restrain myself from getting one at the airport the second I deplaned. I waited to try this In-N-Out on Sunset.

Ah, the glamour! At least the red-and-white interior is clean and vaguely cheerful.

Dude ahead of me ordered a couple of the “Double-Double” – two double cheeseburgers. Now that’s a meal. I would have photographed the menu for you, but at this point the manager asked me to stop taking pictures. Notably, In-N-Out Burger was the only place in LA other than Fred Segal that banned photography.

Here it is: the Holy Grail of burgers.

Yes, it lives up to its rap, but not in the way you’d think. The burger itself is good, but it’s the whole package that wows. The lettuce, tomato, and onion are much fresher, crisper, and more voluminous than their East Coast counterparts. The soft, lightly griddled bun has a great hand-feel and sticks with the burger instead of sliding around or falling apart. I didn’t detect anything wildly special about the special sauce.

So what’s the secret? The onion. When you order an In-N-Out burger, always get it with onion when the counter person asks. It’s not the harsh-tasting yellow onion you might expect, but a thick slice of crunchy, faintly sweet white onion. If you cook, you know that there is a huge difference between different types of onions. White onions are the mildest and the best choice in raw preparations like guacamole. It’s the white onion’s delicate, sweet taste that sets the In-N-Out burger apart.

Some people are wild about the fries, but I thought they were only OK. For one thing, they weren’t hot enough.

But the burger reigns supreme in the fast food category. Will we ever be able to replicate In-N-Out’s magic here in New York? Unfortunately, even with the exact combination of ingredients, it’s unlikely that we’d ever reach the same caliber of California freshness.

In-N-Out Burger

7009 W. Sunset Boulevard, between Highland and La Brea

and many other locations, found here

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Beware the east-west rivalry in L.A. It’s not East Coast-West Coast, but East Side-West Side, and it resembles the unending uptown-downtown argument here. “I live two blocks from the Central Park” becomes “I can see the ocean from my window.” The usual downtown rejoinder, “No one lives there” becomes “Don’t bother looking for any celebrities in West L.A. None of them live there.”

Of all the maligned West Side neighborhoods, Brentwood fares the worst. It has always mystified me why this place, which looks no different from much of the rest of LA and even features a sort of main street, San Vicente, where people can be spied – gasp! – walking, is so loathed by the rest of the greater Los Angeles area.

Then I went to the new Katsuya in Brentwood, and I understood.

At first, the only thing that struck me as unusual about Katsuya was the design, which is by Philippe Starck. In trademark Starck sexy style, the ceilings are black, the walls polished blond wood, the space low-ceilinged, brooding, yet cavernous, the chairs and tables sleek, the walls decked with lightbox close-ups of lips, made-up eyes, and other enticing motifs.

We sat down at the yakitori bar, ordered, and looked around. That’s when I began to notice something else unusual about the place. A man in his mid-forties with blond surfer hair, a Magnum-P.I.-style mustache, black tee shirt and long platinum chain sat at the opposite corner of the bar, eating dinner with his family, a boy of about eight, also dressed in a black tee and platinum chain, and the boy’s blond mother, whose eyebrows were arched and lips pursed in an expression of continual surprise.

“I think the mother’s had a little too much Botox,” I whispered to California Girl.

“That’s not the mother. The father’s on a date.” We watched the man nuzzle the woman as the son ripped through at least thirty dollars worth of sushi rolls next to them.

What a fascinating glimpse into L.A. culture! I laughed, but California Girl was not amused.

The first course of the omakase arrived. A little fried cone held upright by a bed of sesame seeds ensconced a salmon and crab puree. Smooth and creamy, underlaid with hints of scallion and chili, the puree was the perfect amuse bouche. Next up was a particularly Californian creation, a generous portion of seared tuna paired with tomato salsa. Surprisingly, the flavorful tuna stood up to the salsa, which was very fresh, only mildly acidic, and balanced out by the neutrality of avocado. Beautifully presented with a single marigold riding atop, this was one of Katsuya’s most inventive dishes.

A party of four ladies dined at a table near the sushi bar. One of them wore her sunglasses throughout the meal, although it was dark outside and her table was in a nearly unlit section of the restaurant.

I had to tear my gaze away from the table of ladies when another plate was set in front of me. Fortunately, the kobe beef and foie gras could hold anyone’s attention. The tender, grassy flavor of the rare kobe beef melded with the decadent slice of seared foie gras on top. As you can see by the carbonized look of the dish, it was laced throughout with an intense smoky taste that reminded me of that Liquid Smoke bottle my mother used to keep next to the Gravy Master. Keep an eye out for this flavor. Now that barbecue season is nearly upon us, this “Liquid Smoke” factor should be recurring more and more frequently, not just in meats, but in vegetables. You’ll find this flavor not just in Japanese cuisine but in Middle-Eastern dishes.

The actual barbecue was disappointing and plain compared to the allusion to barbecue that preceded it, and there was so much of it. By this point I was beginning to reach my limit. Katsuya doesn’t stint in the portion category, but the omakase was served at a pace that matched a competitive eating event. The reason was obvious: the restaurant was as packed to the gills as I was, and they needed our seats. At times the servers placed the next dish in front of me before I was even finished with the preceding course. Needless to say, this is a highly incorrect way of serving omakase and doesn’t befit a serious Japanese restaurant.

But it was hard to be serious when I was constantly entertained by the crowd. When the table of ladies got up to leave, the sunglassed woman removed her sunglasses as she was walking through the restaurant and beamed at everyone around her. If she was famous, no one recognized her. But we did notice her fur-cuffed jacket, worn on a 65-degree evening.

The presentation of the “lobster confetti” won serious points – lobster tempura wrapped in hundreds of tiny seaweed streamers and served in a pretty wicker basket – but the taste was not up to par with the concept. Overcooked and underseasoned, the lobster made me homesick for the East Coast verison.

e respite arrived in the form of a tomato coulis shooter, a palate cleanser before the sushi. California Girl and I studied a young couple at the other end of the yakitori bar. He was wearing a polo shirt, she in a light, sequined jacket and perfect makeup. They looked to be about 11 and 13, respectively.

“Oh my God,” California Girl exclaimed. “Are they on a date?”

“No, I think they’re brother and sister. Look at them. They look exactly alike.”

Finally, the moment I’d been waiting for: the sushi. If I had to do Katsuya all over again, I’d order all sushi and nothing else. What stood out about Katsuya’s was not so much the artistry of Katsuya Uechi, though he is one of the best sushi chefs in the city. It was his ability to secure supremely excellent cuts of fish, which is no small task in itself. I’ve never been to Masa, but Katsuya’s fish was better than any sushi I’ve tasted on the East Coast. From left to right: you’ll see salmon on toasted rice, tuna, yellowtail, salmon, albacore with caviar, and eel. The yellowtail and salmon were particularly melt-in-your-mouth delicious, and the toasted rice was an interesting twist.

Here’s a chocolate thing that came at the end. I couldn’t eat it by then, but I did like the balls of green tea ice cream served in a sort of gel wrapper.

California Girl returned from the bathroom and nodded towards the 13-year-old.

“She’s got a designer handbag hanging on the back of her chair. What is wrong with people? Where are the parents?”

“They’re right behind the kids, having a dinner party with their friends.”

I thought it was all very amusing. So I was surprised afterwards when someone at a barbecue in Los Feliz (ahem, East L.A.) asked us what we thought of the Brentwood Katsuya and California Girl said: “It was terrible.”

She explained that she liked the food but hated the scene. But the scene was so funny, I said, “like dinner and a show!” It was so L.A.

At this point both California Girl and our Los Feliz host glowered at me. Later I would think that I would have felt the same way if they encountered lots of pushy, rude people in the Meatpacking District and pronounced the place “so New York.”

“It is not L.A.,” they said. “It’s Brentwood!”

11777 San Vicente Boulevard, between Montana and Barrington

the original Sushi Katsu-ya:
11680 Ventura Boulevard, between Colfax and Tujunga
Studio City

Starck Katsuyas to come:
Hollywood – Fall 2007
Downtown – Summer 2008

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Ammo and the Rose Cafe


Situated in an industrial part of Hollywood known for its camera stores, Ammo is a good go-to place for lunch or dinner. Mon ami, who is French-American and grew up in L.A., ran into one of his friends from the movie biz while we lunched. Chance encounters seemed to be the order of the day at this neighborhood eatery.

a film production store across the street
Bloomberg hasn’t started displaying New York restaurants’ grades from the health department – yet. Even still, would New Yorkers care? Even while Jamba Juice on University was closed by the health department, would-be customers were trying to order Jamba Juice.
The open, airy interior of Ammo turns into a jewel-box-like space at night when the candles are lit and the curtain by the door closed.
the brunch crowd
loads of fresh coffee in a Bodium French press
Poached eggs and a salad: an excellent hangover cure. The eggs supply the comfort, the crisp haricots verts, fennel, and teardrop tomatoes supply the vitamins – and the deliciousness.
Mon Ami had the eggs with chorizo. Yet again, the chorizo was spectacular. Very light, sweet, and mildly spicy.
A fruity side! These berries were tender, sweet, and practically falling apart they were so ripe.
a view of bamboo
dining al fresco

1155 N. Highland Avenue, between Santa Monica and Lexington

The Rose Cafe & Market

The Rose Cafe has been in Venice for as long as anyone can remember. A popular brunch spot, this see-and-be-seen restaurant actually serves good food.

This airplane-hangar like space is only half of the huge back porch.
an art-filled interior
the market
Yummy huevos rancheros. Again, the tortilla underneath was better than any I’ve had in New York.

Eggs with smoked salmon. Immediately after this picture was taken, Mon Ami ate the entire thing, so I cannot comment! Zut alors.

The Rose Cafe & Market
220 Rose Avenue at Main Street

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The Hungry Cat

On Day 2 of LA trip, it was decided that we would go to the Hungry Cat. Its specialty? Chesapeake-style seafood. In Los Angeles.

I’m originally from Maryland. Whenever I go back to Baltimore, people there want to take me to someplace that is “really New York.” Here I was all the way across the country, and my friends wanted to take me to someplace with an East Coast seafood. There must be some universal human instinct to offer up your city’s own “authentic” food from the diner’s home state. I was reminded of Pete Wells’ entry in Diner’s Journal. When he offered to take a Texan to an NYC barbecue place, the Texan threatened to take him out in Texas for “Houston pizza.”

Very well. Houston pizza it was. Of course, I was halfway through the meal before I remembered Hungry Cat was supposed to be like Baltimore. Minimalist and sleek, set in an industrial space with an open kitchen and patio seating under heat lamps, the Hungry Cat is unlike anything Baltimore has ever seen.

There aren’t a lot of fancy drinks made with fresh-squeezed juices in crab shacks along the Chesapeake. Hungry Cat’s were damn good. The Hemingway Daiquiri could have been flown in from Key West. The mixologists here even feature a cocktail special of the night, which that night was a blood-orange-infused vodka drink made with vodka they had infused in house.

As they say in DelMarVa, we gots lots of ducks down on the wuter, but we don’t got no duck like Hungry Cat’s. The surf & turf special that night was crackly-skinned duck overlaid with creamy bread pudding mixed with smoked trout, served alongside a frisee salad. As our knowledgeable waiter put it, it was on the “extreme” end of the menu’s offerings, but also amazingly good. The salty crispness of the duck went surprisingly well with smoked trout. It was an impressively creative dish.

According to many an LA Chowhound user, Hungry Cat’s oysters are some of the best in town, so we ordered up a dozen of these. There were no Kumamotos, and only one variety, the Hama Hama, was West Coast, so I would have to order East Coast oysters here. This was initially disappointing until we tasted the Chincoteague oysters, which were large, plump and briny – definitely as good as any I’ve had in Maryland.

When our theatrical waiter delivered an enticing monologue about the lobster rolls, I turned to the Kobra, who lived in Boston.

“Are you going to get that?” I really wanted him to order it so I could see what he thought. The instinct to get someone to eat his hometown food somewhere else was kicking in.

“No,” the Kobra said. “I never order lobster rolls outside of Boston.”

And I passed on the crab cakes, since I never order crab cakes outside of Maryland. Wooed by the waiter’s reenactment of removing the cheek of an especially large deep-sea halibut, I ordered this dish. The fabled halibut cheek arrived as lightly breaded and fried hunks of fish tumbled onto more bread pudding. N.B. that I have never once encountered bread pudding on a Maryland menu, yet it was a recurring theme at Hungry Cat. I imagine it was a staple on the Eastern Shore around 1820.

Nevertheless, the bread pudding was quite good, as was the halibut. Presumably this was the fish version of Batali’s obsession with beef cheeks. As with beef, the cheeks were an especially tender and light cut of the halibut, and Hungry Cat’s were expertly prepared. The one disappointment was the morels on top. Though they added a lot of flavor to the sauce, the reconstituted mushrooms were still a little tough and chewy.

Oddly for a seafood place, the Hungry Cat is especially famous for its PUG burger, so named because one of the owners has a pug. He sure tastes delicious. A debate ensued about what made the PUG burger so good, other than that naughty dog that got sent to the hamburger factory.

“It’s the bacon,” Fellow WASP’s husband said.

“No, it’s the blue cheese,” Fellow WASP said.

The smoky flavor of the slow-cooked, chewy, fatty bacon – could it be applewood smoked, like the bacon from Huntington Meats? – was the first thing that struck me too, until I started to deconstruct the taste and wondered if the tang of blue cheese was the key. The sharpness of the cheese kept the whole thing from derailing into absolute fattiness. Each element was absolutely essential. Maybe burgers should never be made without blue cheese and bacon from now on. Unfortunately, we can’t credit an East Coast seafood place with inventing this dish either.

California Girl’s salmon dish looks intriguing, but I didn’t get to it until some of the key ingredients were gone, like this poached egg on top. The salmon itself was a little overcooked, but the buttery noodles that came with were good.

To anyone who grew up eating seafood on the East Coast, there might be something charmingly amusing about the Hungry Cat. Rarely have crab cakes been paired with fava bean puree and harissa aioli. Peel ‘n’ eat shrimp don’t usually appear on the same menu as caviar. Things that are plain and simple out East are a little more complicated here. Lest you think that the Hungry Cat is trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, however, you need only note that their respect for
the ingredients, however plain or fancy, is absolutely sincere. And by elevating them to a new level, the staff could even teach East Coasters a trick or two.

The Hungry Cat
1535 North Vine, at Sunset

Also in Santa Barbara

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Urth Caffe and M Café de Chaya

Urth Caffe

Urth Caffe is my friend and hostess’ favorite place for coffee. A true California girl, she gets hers with soy milk, natch. Meanwhile, I ordered some carbs.

Famous Sticky Bun

If it isn’t actually famous, it should be. The crunchy, glazed outside yields to a soft whorl of pastry studded with raisins and cinnamon sugar. The nuts on top taste as good and fresh as they look.

a beautiful gray sack dress with rosettes

nice onesie, baby

A yogurt parfait, also divine. The yogurt is infused with the taste of fresh mint, and the raspberries are tender and sweet. The crunchy granola at the bottom is toasted with brown sugar and honey and laced with sunflower seeds.

P.S. The coffee is great too.

Urth Caffe
8565 Melrose Avenue, between Robertson and La Cienega

also in: Beverly Hills and Santa Monica

M Café de Chaya

M Café de Chaya is California Girl’s de facto lunch spot. She once went on a diet of all kale. Don’t ever try this at home.

What is macrobiotic food?

display cases full of the day’s offerings

all sorts of rolls

the chefs at work

books for sale

Here is the notorious kale. We doubled down on this and the lentils.

When legumes and veggies are barely cooked, as with M Café de Chaya’s macrobiotic food, they retain a wonderful al dente texture. Lightly dressed with a peanut sauce inflected with chili and a dash of rice wine vinegar (?), the chewy kale tastes more like an indulgence than a penance.

Below: toothsome French lentils, nice and shallot-y.

California Girl permitted us a ration of carbs in the form of these sesame noodles.

Chef Friend in New York goes gaga over sesame oil. Just a touch of it enhances nearly anything, she says. She would love M Café de Chaya’s sesame noodle salad. Dressed in sesame paste and a generous dousing of sesame oil, they are made all the more delish by the rawness of the sesame seeds, shredded carrot and cabbage. I enjoyed everything I tasted at the macrobiotic M Café de Chaya, but the sesame noodles won. Go carbs!

M Cafe de Chaya
7119 Melrose Avenue at La Brea

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Monte Alban

It was one of the longest trips I have ever taken for a meal. One hour-long taxi ride, one delayed five-and-a-half hour flight, and one excruciatingly slow encounter with a Cheech lookalike rental car attendant at LAX later, I was finally on the road in LA. The sun was setting. I hadn’t eaten since JFK. After a harrowing trip up the 405, I finally reached my destination, a restaurant heretofore unknown. This.

My first thought was: WTF? A ten-hour trip for this? Some LA Chowhounders had tipped me off to Monte Alban. Maybe they were smoking crack. Supposedly this exterior in a strip mall hid some of the best Oaxacan-style Mexican in all of LA. But Monte Alban looked just like a multitude of strip mall taco places I’d already passed on the way.

My friend and fellow WASP was already inside, seated in a room with an elaborate mural of a Mexican village painted on one wall. “I think they seated me in the gringo section,” she said, sipping her Negro Modela and looking around at the lone other diner on that side of the restaurant, who was also quite white.

Never mind. According to the menu, the place served food, and I was starved. I started ordering.

“I think you have too much food…” The mustachioed waiter’s pen hesitated on his note pad. I kept ordering.

The food, when it arrived, was a revelation. The chorizo on the perfectly crisp tostada was almost fluffy, it was so light and crumbly. Spicy, but also faintly sweet. Ten hours was beginning to seem more reasonable already.

It was difficult to imagine what the empanada de cuitlacoche with mushrooms and Oaxacan cheese would taste like, and it’s even harder to describe. The densely packed, sauteed mushrooms inside have an mysterious, earthy smokiness that was drawn out by the cuitlacoche and cheese. It serves as a nice reminder that true Mexican food is comprised of tastes that are truly, mesmerizingly foreign.

At one point, a small piece of the tamal de mole appetizer fell on the wooden chair, and I almost picked it up and ate it rather than let the tiniest piece of it go to waste, it was so delicious. (I like to think this says more about Monte Alban’s mole than about me.) When we unwrapped the banana leaf, the tamal we found inside had a molten brownie texture layered with chunks of stewed chicken. Again there was that mystery, this time in the mole. It was chocolate, but it was not. And the tamale itself was like the lightest, airiest corn crepe. The hot tortillas that came later were the freshest I’d ever had, with an almost spongy texture, as if they’d been made with seltzer water. Rarely do you find such delicacy and such earthiness in the same restaurant.

Going on LA Chowhound recommendations, I chose the barbacoa de chivo, the goat soup. It looks very simple: hunks of meat in a broth so dark it’s almost opaque, which you then top with shredded cabbage, chopped onion and a little green salsa, as I have here. But the flavor is many things at once: mesquite barbecue, the silkiness of a little bit of fat without the oiliness, and then an almost osso buco undertone. Picking out the bones from the meat, it was clear why: the bones were goat vertebrae, cloven to pieces and left to stew for hours.

Tortilla soup was something my fellow WASP and I had experienced in college: it was served for lunch when the dining hall really wanted to walk on the wild side. Needless to say, Monte Alban’s was better, spicy but with real legs to walk on. Instead of a watery broth, this was a deeply chicken-y soup piled with at least two kinds of cheese.

Monte Alban is a Mexican restaurant of many moles. There is red mole, yellow mole, and even the tomato mole that dressed the estofado de pollo. This dish was a little bit girly, sugar and spice and everything nice. The generous dose of cinnamon in the sauce reminded me of a milder sort of Indian food: gentle, delicate, and inoffensive.

Halfway through the main courses, we were already stuffed and the mustachioed waiter was shaking his head at our foolhardiness. The remainders of goat, chicken, and tortilla soup were packed into to-go containers. There would be no room for plantains. The check? Forty-five dollars for two.

By now the room was filled with all sorts of diners, not just gringos like us. Many of them knew the staff and said their goodbyes on the way out. If I lived in LA, I would want to be a Monte Alban regular too.

Mexican candies on sale by the register.

Monte Alban
11929 Santa Monica Boulevard, between Bundy and Barrington

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