>> Eat the World Los Angeles

Monday, 9 March 2020

Sonora Grill


The northern Mexican state of Sonora shares its entire international border with Arizona, a geography that has lead to direct routes of exchange. Tucson and Phoenix are full of Sonoran people and restaurants, the most iconic dishes are part of the everyday lives of even for people with completely different family trees.

In California, the state is just starting to get its rightful recognition. There are small businesses around greater Los Angeles specializing in the street foods of Hermosillo and the seafood of Sonora's long coast, but its rising familiarity around town is probably growing most thanks to downtown's hugely successful Sonoratown.

At that perpetually busy restaurant you will find a focus on the grilled meats and flour tortillas that make up an important part of the diet in a state often too hot and dry for growing corn. During a conversation with the owner of Sonora Grill, her initial thought was that these first-time customers with big eyes and love for flour tortillas must come from Tucson, a place Jackie Tran of Tucson Foodie described as spoiled for them.

Sonora Grill has the guts of a fast casual restaurant but the bones of a fun bar. Place your orders and pay up at the front counter, grab a seat at the bar or one of many tables and the food will arrive shortly thereafter. Grab one of the many gigantic bottles of Castillo salsa picante Sonora on your way to sitting down.

By chance, this visit took place on a Tuesday, when it was noticed that many of their customers came in for their amazing Taco Tuesday deals. Unfortunately this promotion does not include those thin beautiful flour tortillas, but if you come in for those do not hesitate to pay the regular price because they are very worth the upgrade.

A Sonoran-style taco ($2.75 each, above) is still a great deal, served large with plenty of meat, onions, cilantro, and a mild green salsa. You can get them filled with either carne asada or chicken, both of which are cooked over a mesquite-fired grill. The kitchen does excellent work with both meats.

Many folks have a first introduction to the food of Sonora with the bacon-wrapped hot dogs ubiquitous on the streets of Sonora and now Arizona. The Sonoran hot dog ($3.50, above) is also a specialty here, and placed in the all-important fluffy white bread bun.

Biting in is at first like putting a delicious pillow into your mouth, and reveals so many components in addition to that bacon-wrapped dog. Pinto beans start to spill out on the plate or table or your pants, as well as onions and tomatoes, mustard, mayo, and their jalapeño salsa.

In further conversations with the owner, she confirmed the massive importance of this bread for the beloved dish and talked about most of the recipes for the restaurant coming from her family. It is unclear if the bacon-wrapped burrito (called "El Chapo") was also part of this heritage or an experiment of the Moreno Valley.

If you do find yourself in the mood for a burrito, but one more in line with Sonoran traditions using massive homemade flour tortillas (known as sobaqueras), you can test drive the very economical bean and cheese burrito ($4.50, below) and save your money for beer.

This is a good time to start using that smoky red salsa Sonora, which has a tangy flavor that goes very well with the smoothness of the burrito's three ingredients.

As the sun starts to set and Sonora Grill fills up, sports from the East Coast are already live and the area's many young Mexican Americans give the place a real neighborhood vibe. Maybe it is time to head back up to the register for some more beer orders, as they specialize in locally produced craft beers and have about two dozen draft lines as well.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Can Coon Thai Restaurant อีสาน คลาสสิค แคน คูน


For the first 14 years of its life in Bellflower, Can Coon was a small five table operation on Alondra and Eucalyptus, a spot in a strip mall currently occupied by Thai Noodle King. Now two traffic lights to the west, the beloved neighborhood Thai spot has for the last four years made its home in a new larger space and started to spread its wings.

Rather than an oddly spelled version of that well-known city in Quintana Roo, México, the name of this restaurant is actually derived from two very important parts of culture in the Isan region of Thailand. A khene (or can, แคน) is a bamboo mouth organ that originally hails from Laos, a place that shares much in common with the northeastern region of Thailand. Coon is from dok khun (ดอกคูน), the beloved and spiritual yellow-flowering tree ubiquitous in Isan and surrounding places.

These hints are a good primer to ordering here (as well as the Thai name of the restaurant that includes "Isan Classic") although the family originally from Sisaket that runs the place can also help. As mom works her magic in the kitchen, the daughter will explain everything they do best and help with recommendations if needed. One of these is their excellent homemade sausage, an item they used to ship all of the country because it is so loved.

Now too busy to continue this, here in Bellflower is the only place to enjoy the esaan sausage ($9.99, above), an almost magically good starter. This is the fermented sour pork that the region is known for, spiced with ginger and chili. You will continue to think about how good this tasted for days.

Also in the show-stopping category is koi koong ($10.99, above), a dish they do not even bother describing in English on the menu. For the uninitiated, the dish is like a cross between larb and ceviche, raw shrimp "cooked" with lime and served with pieces with onions, chilies, toasted rice, and herbs. It is quite rare to see on a menu and so well done here. Recommended.

Even after saying spiciness was preferred, it was suggested to start with medium levels, advice that turned out to be good. Dishes like the koi koong and som tum arrived with enough chili to get beads of sweat going and make good use of the fresh vegetables and sticky rice to calm a hot tongue.

Another good break from the heat is the nue dad deaw ($9.99, above), freshly fried salted beef jerky with crunchy skin. The deep fried exterior tasted like roasted rice, but the daughter just smiled and said she could not say anything because it was a treasured family recipe. It comes with a bright red chili dipping sauce but this seems unnecessary since the meat itself is so good.

When the som tum expert at the table put a bite of som tum lao ($8.99, below) in her mouth, she smiled and exclaimed "YES!" before putting more in immediately. The dish arrives tinted grey as it should, full of salty fish fermentation as Lao style requires. They are less interested in the sweetness of the other side of the Mekong.

After four dishes prepared with such flawlessness, it was beginning to seem like the only negative thing about Can Coon was their dull muzak soundtrack that starts to play tricks with your head when the heat levels rise.

On a slightly lower level though, but still not close to being bad was the kang aom plar ($10.99, below), a Lao/Isan style soup that is thickened by roasted rice and full of dill. This comes as another bit of relief from the spice levels of other dishes, more sour than anything. It was put to good work with bites of sticky rice, using the broth to cool down.

To get to know both components of the restaurant's name, there is a piece of art incorporating the instrument and the flower together on the wall. The Thai characters on it also reference back to the family's origin of Sisaket, on the border with Cambodia.

The instrument is associated with a more rural lifestyle and can actually be one of those things that Bangkok and other city kids might tease someone from Isan about. As adults everyone agrees that it is beautiful and an important piece of culture that represents the region well.

Monday, 2 March 2020

QQ Kopitiam


If you have ever traveled in Singapore and some of the larger cities of Malaysia and Indonesia, the letter Q used twice in names will be very familiar. Small street vendors, hawker stalls, and full restaurants all use it similarly, most of which have nothing to do with each other. The term originated in Taiwan and has spread throughout the Chinese-speaking world with many meanings and usages.

In terms of food, the literal translation is akin to "chewy," the Taiwanese version of which sounds like the way people say the letter Q in English. Chewy does not tell the whole story of QQ though, as it implies that the item in question has a good resistance and mouthfeel. Not too soft, a good bounce, nice and chewy.

Right across from Pasadena City College, the simple shop that was birthed in 2014 and shares this name is Singaporean-run and features the Peranakan foods that you find in hawker stalls all over the tiny island nation and beyond. These familiar dishes are rich in the influences brought by Chinese immigrants for centuries. The food is not limited by this assessment though, it also reaches out and grabs bits of Indian and other Southeast Asian cultures that have blended in Singapore and Malaysia forever.

With both a rice and noodle section of the food menu, QQ Kopitiam has most of the bases covered. Unfortunately it looks like Singapore's most ubiquitous dish of Hainanese chicken rice is no longer available. The permanent-looking piece of tape (which ironically reads "temporarily not available") over it on the menu board hints of this at least. But different fried rice styles, meats over rice, perennial favorites like Hokkien mee, chor hor fun, and Singapore laksa all look so good.

A good introduction and a wonderful barometer of how satisfying the QQ here will be is a handsome plate of Singapore char kway teow ($9.95, above and below). Also full of the other textures from meats, vegetables, and egg, the broad flat noodles have some of the best QQ in town and are the perfect vehicle for a well-balanced blend of seasoning and good spice level.

Each bite of the char kway teow reveals a deep level of skill by the chef and just the right amount of each ingredient. When the meats (beef, Taiwanese sausage, shrimp) and vegetables are slightly charred, they give the surrounding elements even more flavor, a technique Cantonese chefs describe as "wok hei" or "wok's breath" in English. This simple phrase might be the best way to describe the simple satisfaction that comes from eating the dish.

Kopitiam means coffeehouse, and their fine selections should be a part of any meal here. Bubble teas are on offer, which students come in for alone, but the different types of kopi really go well with meals.

A lot of Southeast Asians enjoy their coffees with plenty of sugar and/or condensed milk (kopi O or kopi), but you can also get kopi kosong which is simple black. A good compromise is kopi C ($2.95, below), a version that uses evaporated milk and can be further sweetened as desired with sugar.

Coffee culture on the Malay Peninsula often includes a plate of kaya toast in the morning, but if there is one strike against QQ Kopitiam it is the lack of this snack. The 11am opening time probably rules this out of the question. Seeing as how many students probably wake up late, the timing could be ignored and afternoon toast and coffee enjoyed.

Maybe one day.

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Hilltop's Jamaican Market & Restaurant


On the off chance you actually come in through the front door, stepping inside feels like stepping straight into island time. The green and yellow of the Jamaican flag adorn the walls, a thatched roof service area is built at the back. A collage of Bob Marley and some beach scenes set the mood. A tourism stand, set up by VisitJamaica.com is ready to handle your vacation curiosity.

More likely than not you have entered from the parking lot in the back, past the converted metal drum used to grill jerk chicken, and through the attached market. Here you will pass hot sauces from around the Caribbean, jars of Jamaican jerk sauce, plantain chips and other packaged snacks from back home, and a few refrigerators full of ginger beer and other sweet sodas.

Hilltop's has had quite a makeover since the beginning and is now humming along in its 27th year of business. Beloved by its neighbors in Pomona, you might also find that your fellow customers have driven from parts of Los Angeles because they prefer the food here to those located nearer to their homes.

The menu is full of all the favorites, which can be purchased as meals that include Jamaican rice and peas, cabbage or spinach, festival and plantains. The "small" portion is probably already large enough for two people when it arrives, the large is more fit for a family. If this is not enough meat, they also sell 32 ounce "cups" of each.

A smaller option is a meat-only portion that is labeled as a "side." This is a bit backwards though as it comes without any sides, but regardless of the terminology is a good way to try a bit more without filling up on carbs. The side of curry goat ($8.50, above) was a good start, tender hunks that melt off the bone easily when touched.

Like most curries and stews made here, they all take time and are prepared beforehand, requiring little to no wait when ordered.

Rather than arriving dry with a squeeze bottle of jerk sauce, the side of jerk chicken ($8.50, above) comes slathered in sauce already. A puddle forms at the bottom of the bowl, ready to be dipped and dragged through for more. While this presentation may not be the preferred way for everyone, the chicken itself is undeniably delicious and well prepared.

Do not pass up the chance to grab at least one of their homemade patties, all on display in a case at the service area. They have jerk and curry flavors, but the standard beef patty ($3, below) is a traditional delight. These are probably as thin as you will find, but flaky and delicious, just the right portions of each flavor and texture.

Like any self-respecting Jamaican restaurant should, they also offer a full line of fresh juices and smoothies, as well as plenty of breakfast options even though they do not open until 11am each morning.

No big deal, we are on island time after all.

POMONA Pomona Valley
1061 E. Holt Avenue

Monday, 24 February 2020

Gorditas Lupita


If people are asked to describe heaven, the usual answers involve lots of fluffy clouds and people wearing white, happiness and joy abound. But maybe heaven really is a shaded backyard in Pacoima serving gorditas stuffed with guisados from old recipes with an origin in Aguascalientes. That is the setting of Gorditas Lupita, open on Saturdays and Sundays from 09:00 to 14:00.

From the street, there is nothing to indicate something going on in the back besides the bit of music and conversation that is audible, but make your way under the covered driveway and find yourself in the scene above. The permanent wooden structure hints to having been around a while, and indeed they have been the open secret of Pacoima for five years now.

Pots of menudo and birria.

In addition to the main space, another white tent is set up further back in the yard and makes for an even more bright place to eat. Either way, there is plenty of room to keep out the cold and wet elements during winter and the hot and bright during summer.

The namesake gorditas are the draw, but two pots are also ready each morning with menudo and birria. Overheard while a couple from Aguascalientes came for takeout, the family here is from the small neighborhood of Colonia del Carmen in the center of the city of Aguascalientes that shares its name with the state in México. This small, central state is less represented in Los Angeles than its southern neighbor Jalisco and Zacatecas, which wraps around the rest.

From some initial tastes of the guisados here at Lupita, it is a state not to be taken lightly. At 10:30 in the morning a few Saturdays ago, a couple groups had merged in conversation and were enjoying beers and micheladas after finishing their meals. Without interrupting them to ask, they all just had the feeling of folks that saw each other here on many weekends throughout the year.

As football plays on the flatscreen television, a must for weekends, step up to Sra. Lupita and see what is cooking. Some of her guisados are visible in ceramic bowls (below), while others require her to open the steam table trays. Pick your poison, grab a seat, and prepare yourself for a big meal.

They make a wonderful lemonade ($2.50, above) that is filled with chia seeds if you come early and are not ready to start partying.

Each gordita ($2.75 each, below) is made from a freshly pressed thick and fluffy tortilla, carefully sliced open to fill with ingredients. The resulting pocket of goodness stands up to the fillings and time very well, holding its shape and integrity even until the end.

Autentico sabor hidrocálido.

On top of the three above is chicharrón en salsa roja, a spicy guisado that was amazing and may have been the star of this meal. A bit brighter red was the carne en chile rojo, even spicier and lovely. You can choose whether you want cheese with any filling, and this one went well with it.

To get a good view of the rajas con queso (below), pull up the thin side of the gordita. This is the mildest of the bunch and might require some of their salsa for those wanting heat, but is still quite delicious.

To the side of the cooking area, a circular tray is filled with cooking oil and surrounded by potatoes and chopped up cactus leaves. This was learned to be the enchiladas stand.

Their version, seen below, is served as a plate. The tortillas are dipped into a chile rojo oil before frying, then wrapped around both cheese and onion. The potatoes and cactus are placed on top of the cooked enchiladas and everything is blanketed by a layer of crumbled cheese.

It is also a pleasure to eat all of the food off of their lovely plates, such a better experience than disposable.

When this meal ended and it was time to leave, the group that was enjoying themselves at the beginning was still there talking together and to the hosts. It showed no sign of ending anytime soon, a good indication of a better way to plan your day when you come to visit.

The gates of heaven.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Kim Thai Food ขันทองสองฝั่งโขง


In the front of La Fiesta Swap Meet there are posters with hints of Persian kebabs and Salvadoran pupusas, but no mention of the stall named "Kim Thai Food" in English. For that, walk through the main entrance and all the way to the back, where a small food court of sorts exists. Next to those aforementioned stands are also a new Jamaican vendor and some ice cream.

The Thai name (Kan Tong Song Fung Khong) is actually more telling of what you will find on the menu here, the last three words of which translate as "both sides of the river." For a Thai restaurant, this is usually describing the Mekong River which separates the northern provinces of Thailand with Laos. The kitchen is ready to churn out specialties from both sides.

Make your way past clothing, hat, and shoe vendors, past sleepy workers watching movies on their phones, walls full of veladoras, and the many barbers and salons in La Fiesta to sit down for a spicy feast. "Kan Tong" is the name of the original owner of the stall, who went by the nickname Kim. No matter what language you prefer, an exciting meal is on the way.

This meal started with a delicious plate of naem khao tod ($10, above), which immediately went to the top of the power rankings with the one at Vientiane down in Garden Grove. In addition to the rice cooked with curry paste and sour sausage, they include peanuts and roasted chili peppers. Freshly chopped up ginger seemingly pervades each and every bite in such a good way.

As lunchtime came, so did many Thai people, mostly getting takeout to bring back home or to their office. While Thai Town is well known in East Hollywood and full of great restaurants, by the 1990's a lot of the Thai community was finding its way to the other side of the Hollywood sign and settling this part of the Valley. Spots like Kim Thai Food have been much loved for a long time, even when not part of most conversations when speaking in languages other than Thai.

It was noticed that absolutely everything was made fresh to order here, giving each and every bite a real crispness. Even the fried pork skin garnish to the larb bpet (above), a minced duck salad that started bringing the real heat, was lowered into the fryer after asking for the dish. All the right parts were here to make this fantastic; insides, toasted sticky rice, and of course more of those roasted chili peppers that seem to be a signature of the chef.

You can usually get a sense of what spice levels are standard in a restaurant from initial conversations with a chef about heat. Here at Kim getting a nice bead of sweat going did not seem like something that would be a problem, and it was suggested that even medium levels would do the trick. This is in fact true, and you can mix in pieces of fresh cabbage, herbs, and cucumbers to help relieve yourself when necessary.

Continuing in the theme of freshly prepared plates, the familiar sounds of green papaya salad being prepared only got started after this order of som tum lao (above), a Lao-style version that omits the sugars more beloved on the other side of the river and focuses on the salty and funky. It was definitely the most spicy of the three, a required quality for successful som tum.

The skill that the kitchen prepared all three of these dishes makes many return trips now necessary to explore the rest of the quite large menu. In addition to Lao soups and grilled and sweetened meat skewers, it can probably be assumed that more standard dishes like stir-fried noodles should be excellent as well.

Monday, 17 February 2020

Cafe LuMar


A Google search for LuMar will not have any hits with the meaning of this small restaurant in Old Town Monrovia. For that information, you will have to talk to the cafe's owner, Dragica Grabovac, who named it after her two children Lucia and Mario. They were teenagers when the restaurant opened at the beginning of 2012. As the restaurant starts its ninth year of business, they are well into adulthood and Cafe LuMar has the same feeling of a neighborhood rock.

Despite not having such a strong representation through restaurants in Los Angeles, Croatian culture is relatively abundant. Both St. Anthony's Croatian Catholic Church in Chinatown and the Croatian American Club in San Pedro are always putting on events that bring together the community to celebrate traditional customs, arts, and food. Cafe LuMar has been Croatian from the beginning, with the bold hint of their signature red and white checker right in the logo outside, but the dishes were rolled out slowly to make sure they would take with the neighborhood.

You could say most of the menu is still not Croatian, but that is to lack an understanding of the food in Croatia, which gets its inspirations from all directions in Europe. One of the dishes that has no trouble raising the Croatian flag is sarma ($13.95, above), a stuffed cabbage entree that is enjoyed throughout the Balkans and beyond. Here the perfectly prepared leaves are stuffed with a mixture of ground beef, pork, and rice and drowned in a wonderful savory sauce.

You might also see pastas being enjoyed at the three booths and five tables that make up the small restaurant. As neighbors across the Adriatic Sea, the diets of Croatians and Italians often overlap when preparing and eating handmade pastas, although some of the recipes differ greatly. Cafe LuMar takes this a step further by preparing some options with the spirit of Southern California as well.

For Croatians that miss home, Cafe LuMar is also a place to grab packaged cookies and candies that are hard to find, as well as the smoked meats and bottles of wine. Photos and paintings of scenes from old towns and coastlines populate the walls.

Just as filling as the sarma is another Balkan specialty: ćevapi ($12.95, above). These sausages are skinless as always and heroically juicy in their preparation. Just a touch of char from the grill is added to complement the already full flavors. Use your hands to tear of a piece of the warmed pita, wrap a sausage and dip into the red pepper ajvar.

"You are not Croatian!" the friendly server exclaimed as most of the raw onions were left after the meal. This apparently was a dead giveaway, as any self-respecting Croatian would have been asking for more.

The perfect complement for ćevapi.

When the table was full of these dishes, a Croatian wine and beer, Ms. Grabovac walked in with a greeting fit for longtime regulars. Seeing the choices made, a conversation instantly started up and the warm hospitality came without effort.

What unfortunately did not make it to the table this time were the palačinke, listed here on the menu as "sweet crepes" for a more universal appeal. They can do a classic or Nutella version amongst others, but why not go for Visnja's Delight, named after Ms. Grabovac's sister and full of flambéed blueberries and strawberries laid on a base of cream cheese.