Daily Dish

The inside scoop on food in Los Angeles

Category: Jonathan Gold

Object of Desire: Dim sum for dinner

LunasiaOf all the questions I am asked, the one that has perhaps popped up the most often is: "Where do you go for dim sum at night?" I have never had a proper answer to this.

You can get dumplings at night, of course –- Din Tai Fung and 101 Noodle Express do decent dinnertime business –- but the food they serve is from northern China, properly not dim sum at all. There are any number of chain and proto-chain Chinese-lite restaurants pumping out Dim Sum and Then Sum and its like. And apart from the occasional plate of stale pork buns a Chinatown bakery might have left over from lunch, that's about it.

Dim sum is properly breakfast food, and a Monterey Park waiter asked about har gow at dinnertime will flinch the way a waiter at Musso's might if you asked him about pancakes. Dim sum and dinner food are usually prepared by completely different staffs -– at a newish San Gabriel Shanghai-style restaurant, a friend noticed that the morning dim sum crew was speaking Cantonese.

So I am happy finally to have an answer to this question: Lunasia, not just a dim sum restaurant but possibly a top-5 dim sum restaurant, is now serving dim sum for dinner, which means you can get top-notch rice-noodle doughnut rolls, fist-size shiu mai, sticky-rice wraps, milk buns, baked barbecued pork bao, live-fish congee and dozens of other dim sum -- as well as dim-sum-size portions of duck, roast chicken, and Lunasia's famous Macao-style roast pork belly, which may be the best version in the San Gabriel Valley -- until 8:30 p.m. You won't see carts. Lunasia was one of the first places in town to go over to all-menu dim sum several years ago. But when spicy chicken feet and plates of rolled rice noodles stir-fried in chile oil are involved, it may not matter. Think of it as Hong Kong's answer to chicken 'n' waffles.

500 W. Main St., Alhambra, (626) 308-3222.

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Photo: Dim sum at Lunasia (including the Thousand Layer cake). Credit: Laurie Ochoa.

Object of desire: Congee

CongeeCongee may be the most ubiquitous breakfast food in the world, a loose, liquid porridge of rice simmered until it dissolves in hot broth. Crack an egg into it; toss in some ginger, a bit of leftover meat or a sliver of uncooked fish, and you've got a sumptuous breakfast in about the time it takes to boil the tea.

Is it bland? Of course it's bland. This is basically rice and water we're talking about here. You can find luxurious congee if you look hard enough — the abalone porridge at the specialist Bon Juk in Koreatown runs well over $30 a bowl, and certain specialist congees at Sea Harbour aren't far behind. But congee should be the furthest thing from expense-account food, and it may be a meal best enjoyed from a cheap plastic bowl at a joint where your elbows ever-so-slightly stick to the table. 

When people discuss Cantonese congee in the San Gabriel Valley, one restaurant that always comes up is Har Lam Kee, an HK-style noodleshop in Monterey Park nice enough to take your mother-in-law for a bowl of wonton soup. But for congee, you'll be wanting to visit Harlam's Kitchen, stuck in the back of a food court behind the Square Supermarket, which is kind of a stealth Korean market in a former 99 Ranch. How can you tell Harlam's Kitchen from the similar stalls in the food court? It's the one where the people behind the counter are screaming, the dude at the wok is just a few inches from the order window, and the line has as many people in it as the rest of the lines in the complex put together. (It's also the one closed on Wednesdays, which has caught me up more times than I care to admit, but we'll talk about that another time.)

Will your order be understood? Probably not. You will invariably end up with the doughnut rolls rather than the doughnut rolls wrapped in rice noodles; the wonton soup will come without noodles or the noodle soup will come without wonton; and nobody will tell you about the chile condiment hidden on the right side of the counter, which you need as much of as they'll let you get away with. Anyway, the congee is magnificent: smooth, brothy and just thick enough; pretty generously laden with fish and such if you get the Lai Wan version, which you probably should; and served perilously close to boiling. The bowls are Styrofoam; the spoons flimsy plastic; and if you are not Chinese, no amount of pleading will be sufficient to earn you chopsticks instead of the Fork of Shame.  

8150 Garvey Ave., Rosemead, (626) 573-3929.

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Taco Wednesday: Tacos de tripas

Taco tuesdayWhen the planets were young and I was courting my wife, our occasional tiffs would usually end up with me walking over to a local taqueria, where I would buy a plate of tacos to take over to her for lunch. This particular taqueria, while it was probably best-known for its succulent beef tinga, had a secondary concentration in organ meats, and it was from these that I invariably chose the Tacos of Reconciliation. Simmered lamb sweetbreads, carefully fried snouts, brains, spleen, the glandy meat from the back of a cow's tongue -- they all made their way onto those plates. In retrospect, I probably should have bought her peonies instead, but we had an unusual relationship, and she did like organ meats a lot.

So it makes sense that on the day of our 22nd anniversary last weekend, we drove down to La Carreta, a cheerful, ranch-themed taqueria east of USC famous for its quesadillas, tortillas made to order and pots of free beans, but which specializes in tacos de tripa.

One of her favorite of those Tacos of Reconciliation involved tripas, which are not actual tripe but the very top of a calf's small intestine; slender tubes still filled with half-digested milk. If you do not fancy offal, tripas is not a meat likely to convert you -- they are strong-tasting, those things, and just rubbery enough to remind you of what you are eating. I have heard it said that you should never order tripas on your first trip to a restaurant, and it is probably true -- it's not something you want to trust to a random street-corner taquero.

But as those things go, the tripas at La Carreta are grand. They charge a few cents more per taco for them than they do for all other meats, including the pork-shoulder chorizo made in the back, and they are set off in larger type on the menu board. Almost everywhere else, tripas are boiled; here they are boiled and fried, which gives them both pleasant elasticity and a resounding crunch -- it's the taco to have when you're only having one. Does it still taste like tripas? Sadly, yes. They were slightly too pungent for me. But Laurie was beaming, the sauce was running down her chin, and I remembered why I was in love.

1471 E. Vernon Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 232-7133.

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Live discussion: Lunchtime with Jonathan Gold

Jonathan gold
Our live chat series, Lunchtime with Mr. Gold, takes place each week on Wednesday at noon. This is your chance to ask restaurant critic Jonathan Gold any of your pressing culinary questions.

Where to find Okinawan soki soba? Best Vietnamese in Koreatown? Vegetarian dim sum in the San Gabriel Valley? He'll be here at lunchtime to answer. Check back each week; you can sign up for email reminders ahead of the live discussion.

Taco Tuesday: Taco de carnitas

Taco tuesdayMany are the crimes committed against carnitas, a surprisingly delicate meat. You will find it boiled instead of braised, tossed in a deep-fryer, chopped into tiny pig-nubs that may as well have been hacked from pigeons in a park. Carnitas is less a cut of meat than it is a technique, truly slow-cooked food simmered until the liquid evaporates and the meat seethes in its own rendered fat. It is a specialist's dish. If the windows are splashed with pigs sweating in big, two-missionary pots, you are probably in the right place.

In Pasadena, the cheerfully roasting pigs are all over the place at Mi Casa, a taqueria up on Fair Oaks. The local firefighters are big customers –- an entire inside wall is given to their autographs -– and people line up on weekends for the menudo and the beef barbacoa. But the restaurant owner comes from Michoacan, an area of Mexico famous for its carnitas mastery; he was famous for his carnitas in the neighborhood long before he opened the restaurant. And the carnitas is superb: soft with barely crunchy edges; juicy but not overwhelmingly rich; with a porkiness developed only over hours of careful cooking –- and taken off the fire before the flavor becomes unpleasantly strong. Generously portioned, sluiced with a lime-intensive tomatillo salsa, the tacos are well worth the five-minute trip up from Old Town.

812 N Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena, (626) 449-7086.

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First Impression: End of Communism at Rivera

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-- Jonathan Gold

Photo credit: Jonathan Gold

Live discussion: Lunchtime with Jonathan Gold

Jonathan gold
Welcome to our weekly live chat series, Lunchtime with Mr. Gold. Join in each Wednesday at noon for a live chat with Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold.

You have questions? Say, where to find hand-pulled Uzbekistan noodles? Best ramen on the Westside? Craving a spleen sandwich? He'll be here at lunchtime to answer. Check back here each week; you can sign up for email reminders ahead of the live discussion.

First Impressions: End of Communism menu

ohn Sedlar's Rivera restaurant is offering a special End of Communism menu
When you are eating piroshki off of a photo of Lenin, chicken from a plate stenciled with a chile-powder hammer-and-sickle, or chocolate eggs off of a Soviet flag, you know you are probably in a John Sedlar restaurant, albeit one mysteriously serving proto-Russian food instead of one dedicated to the Spanish-speaking diaspora. And if you visit Rivera this month, you will notice that the video-montage wall is dedicated to Red Square instead of Madrid, that the servers seem to be of Russian descent, and that half the people in the dining room seem to be eating tiny blini with golden caviar instead of freshly pressed tortillas with "Indian butter.'' You will be handed an End of Communism menu along with the regular one.

In 1992, Sedlar was part of a brigade of American chefs, also including Simon L.A.'s Kerry Simon, invited to march in the first post-Soviet Russian May Day parade in Red Square, and also to prepare grand dinners for officials of the newly formed state. The food in Moscow then was pretty awful, Sedlar reports -- many of the chefs were basically starving, he says, and they regarded the Americans' pineapples and bananas, which none of them had ever tasted, as miracles.

When Sedlar came back to Los Angeles, he devised a menu of lightened Soviet-era dishes for his (long-deceased) Santa Monica restaurant Bikini, with prices denominated in dollars and rubles. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of that trip, he put the dishes on his Rivera menu, also listed in dollars and rubles. (If you happen to be visiting from Yaroslavl, it's a bargain -- Ukrainian-style venison borscht with boiled potatoes is a mere 755 rubles, a steep discount from the 965.6 you'd expect to pay if you looked at this morning's exchange rate.)

It probably goes without saying, but Rivera, even this month, is not the first place you'd come for authentic Russian cuisine -- it is a collection of riffs, such as stroganoff made with salmon instead of beef, served with a "tamale'' of lightly cooked cabbage; crisp-skinned chicken "KGB" on a bed of kasha sauteed with garlic and bacon as if it were spaetzle; blini topped with smoked cabbage as well as caviar and crème fraiche. And then there's that chocolate egg, filled with pistachio crème.

The End of Communism menu runs until the end of May. 1050 S. Flower St., downtown, (213) 749-1460.

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Object of Desire: Tofu spring rolls

Springroll
It has come to my attention that vegans are angry with me today, what with all the foie gras and all. So as a peace offering, I thought I might point out that Golden Deli, the Vietnamese noodle shop whose crackly cha gio, fried spring rolls, have been fetish objects in the San Gabriel Valley for more than 30 years, has recently been trying to establish a beachhead on the fried tofu front: custardy, crunchy fried tofu served on noodles, with rice or alone on a plate with only a lonely sprig of cilantro to keep it company.

More to the point, there is a fried-tofu version of the fresh spring roll goi cuon -- bean curd patties wrapped tightly in sticky rice paper with lettuce, cellophane noodles and shreds of marinated carrot; and served with a dark soy-based dip instead of the customary nuoc leo, which is more or less ground peanuts laced with fish sauce. The tofu rolls are something you can enjoy while your friends are making fools of themselves with the grilled shrimp cakes and pork rib-snail soup. Can we be friends again?

815 W. Las Tunas Ave., San Gabriel, (626) 308-0803.

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First Impression: Beachwood Cafe

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Photo credit: Jonathan Gold

First Impression: Beachwood Cafe

Beachwood cafe
Into the heart of Hollywoodland, straight up Beachwood Canyon, right at the spot where the locals start to get angry at visitors who stop to gawk at the famous sign just above, the Village Coffee Shop was working Hollywood's neighborhood restaurant, with the kind of country wood interior you see in Iowa gift shops and a menu of pancakes, omelets and salisbury steaks that you could think of as charmingly retro when you weren't contemplating some better food all the way down the hill. It was where the neighborhood posted babysitter-wanted notices and lost-dog flyers. It was where you might see a grande dame in full makeup at 8 in the morning, because you never knew who might drop by.

So when the coffee shop was taken over by Patty Peck (formerly of Millie's and the Edendale Grill), the neighborhood mandate seemed to be simultaneously "don't touch it'' and "please, Lord, make it good.'' And when design goddess Barbara Bestor was brought in to chop and channel the place, the newly renamed Beachwood Cafe did indeed look exactly the way it had, and yet thoroughly up to date, with snazzy Moroccan-looking tile, art-star wallpaper and a service counter like something out of Dwell. The new chef, Minh Phan, smartened up the menu –- you can get kale salad with your lunchtime burger, for example, and it actually tastes better than the fries –- while keeping it fairly Hollywood-traditional during daylight hours: You will not do without your quinoa bowls, tofu scrambles or dairy-free grilled cheese.

But the Beachwood also serves dinner now, possibly for the first time in this space. And alongside the beef and potatoes are things like seared scallops with house-pickled taro stems, pineapple and black rice simmered in coconut milk; little bowls of corn cooked with orzo pasta and lots of bacon; and delicately bitter pots de crème flavored with the wild anise that grows everywhere in these hills. It's still a fledgling place –- I wouldn't plan on seeing 12-course Dames d'Escoffier dinners here anytime soon -- but worth a try.

2695 N. Beachwood Dr., Hollywood, (323) 871-1717.

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Taco Tuesday: Taco de birria

El Parian has the best Jalisco-style birria in a Los Angeles lousy with birrieras
The very first Counter Intelligence column I wrote for The Times, back when pigs could fly and raccoons had the miraculous power of speech, was of the Jalisco-style birria dive El Parian, a restaurant I had run into a few years before in a stretch when I decided to eat at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard, more as a performance-art stunt than as an act of cuisine.

Then as now, El Parian looked from the street as if it had gone out of business long before; a metal security door, grimy windows, and walls lumpy from many, many coats of graffiti-obscuring paint. Then as now, the restaurant was decorated with beer signs, what looked like a first-grade map of Mexico painted on the wall, and a glittery jukebox grinding out music even when nobody was in the room to hear.

El Parian also had -– has! -- the best Jalisco-style birria in a Los Angeles lousy with birrieras, crisp roast goat served in a shallow bowl of goat consomme, a dish so goaty and spicy and utterly delicious that it is easy to see why birria has become the emblematic dish of Guadalajara, a city rich in characteristic preparations that any metropolis would be proud to call its own.

In that old Times column, a yellowing copy of which can still be seen on the walls, I called El Parian's birria the best single Mexican dish to be found anywhere in Los Angeles, and the succeeding decades have done little to blunt that claim. Flor del Rio, Chalio and Birriera Guadalajara, among many, many others all serve excellent birria, and I like all of them, but I am always happiest at El Parian's sticky tables on a Saturday morning, surrounded by cheerful families, the miserably hungover and bowls-full of L.A.'s worst chips.

So: the birria taco, moistened with broth, tucked inside a thick, handmade, practically bulletproof corn tortilla with cilantro and onions and the usual accompaniments, including a squirt or two of the mean, thin house chile sauce custom-formatted to combat the richness of the goat. Or the bowl of birria (pictured above), which is more or less the same thing deconstructed, only with lots and lots of life-giving consomme.

1528 W Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 386-7361. 

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Daily Dish is written by Times staff writers.