12 LA Greats: Hot Spots, Old School Classics, Mexican, Peruvian, Chocolate & Snacks

Chef’s Roasted Nuts & Mainland Cocktail at Roy Choi’s A-Frame
A-Frame’s converted IHOP

My January jaunt to LA yielded a number of discoveries from mediocre to delightful – here’s a rundown:

Latest & Hottest

A-FRAME, Culver City – I hit A-Frame, Roy Choi’s (of Kogi Korean taco truck fame) latest restaurant, just a few weeks after it opened. How could I not love the converted IHOP with a-frame shape and outdoor patio punctuated with bright color and firepits? They had me immediately. The under $20 menu helped, as did personable service. Add in some solid cocktails, and I’m as happy as a clam.

Kitchen fries made from 3 kinds of yam/sweet potatoes

While every dish does not wow, the price is right and most of all, Choi clearly has fun with his menus, as do you eating his food. Snacks are the likes of chef’s roasted nuts ($5), a Japanese trail mix of sorts, with shredded beef jerky added in for good measure. Kitchen fries ($6) are so much more than fries. A few kinds of spud, from purple Okinawan sweet potato to Korean sweet potato, are fried lightly, then dusted with sea salt. Dipped in a midly spicy kimchi sour cream, there is no better accompaniment to drinks like the light, silky Mainland ($10) with pisco, lilikoi (passion fruit), lime, egg white, cayenne.

Island farmer’s market salad ($7) is no throwaway: a huge portion, it’s a mountain of greens sparked by shaved Maui onions, tofu, fried garlic, seasonal fruit and a ginger shoyu vinaigrette. Clam chowder ($9) is really an Asian cream soup with coconut milk, green curry, lemongrass, pancetta, and toasted sourdough toasts. Delicious.

Cornbread Chicken Salad

But the best dish of all? Warm cornbread & chicken salad ($8). The cornbread sits toasted and warm, piled high with shredded chicken, Italian sausage ragoût, covered in a tart salsa verde (green tomatillos) and pickled red onion. This is comfort food I craved but wouldn’t have dreamed up.

At this point, there’s no room left for fried apple pie ($6) with Southern Comfort caramel and cheddar ice cream… but you’ll find a way.

Tuscan Kale Salad

GJELINA, VeniceGjelina is among the better meals I’ve ever had in LA. In spite of an annoying no reservations policy given the crowds and obnoxious din all day long, the food is of high quality in ingredients and preparation… very Bay Area in its approach, the artisan pizza and appetizer thing has been well overdone in SF. But in LA it has not and Gjelina rivals Pizzeria Mozza in its food. If you can get a table in the tiny garden out back, take it. That, and the mini-room towards in the back, are the only spots where you can hear your own voice.

Butterscotch Pot de Creme

Try not to fall in love with caramelized fennel & fennel salami pizza ($15). Tomato confit adds a sweet contrast to the herbal, meat slant. A beautiful pie. Pure ingredients illuminate a sandwich like tuna conserva salad ($13) with roasted pepper, arugula & caper aioli. A salad ($9) of Tuscan kale, radish, fennel, and ricotta salata topped with breadcrumbs exemplifies how pleasurable eating your greens can be.

I’ve had a few Butterscotch Pot de Crèmes ($8) in my day, but I couldn’t help releasing a sigh of delight with the first silky bite of Gjelina‘s. Ultra-salty with salted caramel, a dollop of crème fraiche adds texture.

Waterloo & City

WATERLOO & CITY, Culver City – One of the hotspots in LA right now, and on top ten lists for best new opening of 2010, incessant crowds and an unimpressive space are downsides. But Waterloo & City has a staff that manages to make you feel taken care of in the midst of the bustle. Food and drink isn’t life-changing, by any means, but it’s solid fare in a casual setting: a gourmet pub with LA flair.

Cocktails work, like Honey Bear ($10): Maker’s Mark, Barenjager honey liqueur, orange bitters, orange twist. Simple veggie sides ($6) are among the strongest items I tried here, including broccolini in garlic and chili oil, and greens tossed with ricotta salata and radishes.

Tongue & Carrot Terrine

Indian butter chicken pizza ($14) was not near as exciting as it sounded, definitely needing more murgh makhani sauce.  Fettuccine ($18) in a Thai red curry lobster sauce did nicely with lime but a couple of the mussels tasted funky.

The winning dish by far is a well-crafted Smoked Tongue & Carrot Terrine ($12) with sweet & sour chilies and a robust mustard. Made me wish I tried more of their terrines, trotters, pates.

Cheap Eats

NY steak taco plate

TLAPAZOLA, West LATlapazola surprised me. It’s a humble, mid-range Mexican spot in West LA (with a second location in Venice). Our server was sweet and attentive, exhibiting a clear love for Tlapazola‘s cuisine.

With Oaxacan roots, their moles are lovely (black, yellow, or pumpkin seed), while their NY steak taco plate ($16) is unexpectedly perfect: tender, meaty beef with rice, black beans, molcajete sauce. Fish special entrees (in my case, mahi mahi with a subtle tomato ginger sauce at $20) are hefty slices of fish over veggies, cooked expertly if not overwhelmingly memorable.

Tlapazola (L); Ron Chata (R)

I was particularly impressed with their cocktails, which I didn’t even come here for. I heard they had a broad tequila selection (they do), but cocktails are shockingly creative. There’s a tiny bar with no seating at the front of the restaurant, hardly a showcase for their winning drinks.

Ron-Chata ($9) is creamy with Whalers white rum, Kraken spiced rum, and Tres Leches triple-cream liqueur. A house cinnamon syrup adds spice, fruity notes come from prickly pear puree, and a caramelized walnut offers contrasting crunch.

Tlapazola ($10), the house drink, is made with Joya azul mezcal reposado, agave nectar, lime juice and old fashioned bitters. Cilantro layers it with an herbal tinge, while their own black mole adds heat, texture and meatiness. Further intrigue comes from a spritz of Pechuga mezcal mist, a favorite mezcal from Del Maguey.

I only regret not being able to try more Tlapazola cocktails.

Mo-chica Ceviche

MO-CHICA, Downtown – I’ve heard much hype from trusted sources like Jonathan Gold calling Mo-chica the best Peruvian in LA. That may be true, but I haven’t found Peruvian to be particularly strong in LA generally speaking. The plus of this humble eatery in a downtown LA’s Mercado La Paloma is its cheap prices, particularly for the quality.

Dan Tana’s classic neon sign

But there were let-downs. Causas ($5), mashed Peruvian potatoes and vegetables shaped in a  circle, and, in this case, topped with crab meat, are among my favorite Peruvian dishes. But I’ve had a far superior version at La Mar here in SF many a time, though granted for double the price. The crab causa at Mo-chica was cold, a little bland, the crabmeat tasting slightly fishy.

Ceviche del Dia, or ceviche of the day (market price), was certainly stronger and a great deal, in large or small sizes (fish varies). My top dish was an unexpected one: Aji De Gallina ($10), shredded chicken in a spicy yellow sauce of aji amarillo chilies, walnuts and bread. Served with a side of rice, it’s filling, comforting and tastes better with each bite.

Old School

DAN TANA’S, Beverly Hills/West Hollywood – Ultimately, I can’t recommend you go to Dan Tana’s, classic Hollywood though it may be.

Dan Tana’s

You know how much I adore old school Italian ala NY/Jersey-style. This place has that spirit in spades with movie-star clientele, cheeky hosts and bartenders to boot. But $24 for a plate of spaghetti or $31 for veal parmigiana?  I can get food just as good for half the price at dozens of other places. The fact that George Clooney et. al. have menu items named after them as regulars is far from a good reason to pay that much.

That being said, Clooney’s veal cutlet Milanese ($29) is lemon-y, caper goodness, and that hefty, cheesy lasagna ($27!) is beyond comforting. It’s got Rat Pack written all over it, and I even enjoyed being squeezed into a tiny corner booth. But I’d never pay those prices again for basic American-Italian food.

Fountain Coffee Room menu

FOUNTAIN COFFEE ROOM, Beverly Hills – Legendary and gorgeous Beverly Hills Hotel, is classic Beverly Hills in a pink/green, 1960’s tropical motif, lined with palm trees. Head downstairs inside to tiny Fountain Coffee Room. The food is merely a few steps above diner food at Beverly Hills prices. Not worth a detour. But the waitresses have sass and the counter-only view makes for interactive eating. A decent Belgian waffle and corned beef plate were no match for the highlight: Fresh Orange Freeze ($6.75). For the same price as a glass of OJ, this fresh-squeezed juice is blended with yogurt, reminiscent of a grown-up, fresher version of Orange Julius.


At the counter of Fountain Coffee Room

LEMONADE, VeniceLemonade is an ideal cafe with buffet-style, build-your-own salads, sandwiches  and heartwarming sides and entrees, like braised short ribs or beef stroganoff. What I came for was the lemonade. Daily specials give you multiple options and lemonades are thankfully tart. Two specials I tried were Pomegranate Tarragon and Cucumber Mint, the former, sweet and juicy, the latter spa-like and refreshing.

COMPARTES CHOCOLATIER, Brentwood – The best local chocolates I’ve had from LA, Compartes creates gorgeous dark chocolate truffles and bars, including the apricot & shichimi 7-spice chocolate bar ($8), and truffles like Smoked Salt, Peanut Butter, Pink Peppercorn & Raspberry, which were the three best out of the many I recently tried.

Driving in Beverly Hills

EL CAPITAN SODA FOUNTAIN, Hollywood – Touristy and kiddie-central, there is no reason to go to the El Capitan Soda Fountain except for ice cream from Bakersfield’s legendary Dewar’s. When attending a wurlitzer concert at El Capitan, then back in Hollywood a couple nights later, I indulged both times in a Peppermint Freeze ($6-6.95 for three sizes; Dewar’s peppermint ice cream and 7-up). It’s a bright and minty guilty pleasure.

SUSINA BAKERY, Beverly Blvd. – I actually was disappointed in Susina Bakery, a cafe I’d heard under-the-radar raves about. Despite a welcoming Parisian cafe vibe and fine chocolate selection, pastries and coffee were mediocre and not at all worth going out of one’s way for.

KING’S ROAD CAFE, Beverly Blvd. – The coffee at is no third wave beauty nor even old school robust, but this constantly busy cafe is better than the rest in the area if you happen to be on Beverly Boulevard. Otherwise, it’s not noteworthy.

Caramelized Fennel & Fennel Salami Pizza at Gjelina