Uovo is a fast-pasta concept that actually works, Jonathan Gold admits

Sometimes I think that the closest thing I have to a hobby is making spaghetti all’Amatriciana, the queen of the Roman repertoire, a dish that has inspired me to sneak in cured pig cheek from Norcia, bottled tomatoes from the slopes of Vesuvius, pecorino from Pienza and onions from Alife. The list of ingredients is short, the technique easy and the cost of entry low. The results are never the same twice. And by the time you absorb advice from people admonishing you to caramelize the tomatoes or not, dicing the guanciale or cutting it into thick strips, use red onions, yellow onions or no onions at all, you might as well be one of those guys who sleeps all night outside next to his $2,500 competition smoker. The dish shows no mercy. So it is almost distressing to admit that the best Amatriciana in town at the moment may be the tonnarelli all’Amatriciana at Uovo, a pasta counter near the Santa Monica Promenade. The tomatoes in the sauce are puréed, which I hate, but they are nicely reduced, and the guanciale is aromatic and crisp in a way I can’t quite figure out. The sheepy hint of pecorino cheese is sharp but not overpowering. The funk of the melted fat perfumes the dish without overwhelming it. And the pasta — the handmade, square-cut spaghetti called tonnarelli, flown in daily from a kitchen in Bologna — is just two steps short of magnificent, a bit softer than you might expect but still wriggly and alive, absorbing the sauce without becoming soggy, with a vibrant, wheaty flavor of its own. I tend to abhor the practice of substituting fresh pasta for dried, which almost always comes at the expense of texture and taste, but I’d be happy enough to see this tonnarelli at one of the city’s great Italian tables. I am stunned that it can exist at what is basically the prototype for a fast-food outlet owned by some of the partners in the sushi chain Sugarfish. The influence of Kazunori Nozawa is underrated, I think, even by Continue Reading

Jonathan Gold settles in with Journeymen for duck and Basque cake

Do you like duck? Then you might be interested in the new Atwater Village restaurant Journeymen, where David Wilcox prepares more parts of the animal than you may have seen outside Beijing. You can usually find grilled duck breast on the menu, usually with a sweet-savory concoction of apples and sage, a dish of crisp, dense confit with roasted beets and pistachio butter, and a grainy, sharply organ-y pâté on toast with half-burned almonds. You will occasionally see a yogurt-smeared duck-heart kebab speckled with pomegranate seeds — the soft, luscious flesh is quite unlike the grizzled things you may have encountered at other local restaurants — or even a handful of simply roasted duck wings. I haven’t encountered a platter of gizzards, duck tongues fried with basil or boiled webs with sea cucumber, but I suspect I may have just come on the wrong days. When Wilcox comes across a resource as precious as Liberty ducks from Sonoma, he tends to use all of it. There is something admirable about that. You may have been in this restaurant space before, possibly when it was the very good pizzeria Osteria Nonni, more probably during its run as the bistro Canelé, which was the Eastside’s favorite romantic spot for years. It is still long and narrow, lighted with dim Edison bulbs and dominated by an open kitchen. You will not infrequently hear an entire P-Funk album on the sound system. There is a small but lovely list of mostly natural wines — I love the funky, stony stuff from Bichi, a cult producer from Tecate, Mexico, whose flavors sometimes seem to fuzz out like an Eddie Hazel solo. Bowls of vegetables and chickpea salad line the counter — Wilcox, a Gjelina veteran (as is general manager and fellow owner Guy Tabibian), apparently dreamed of opening an informal pintxos bar like the ones he loves in San Sebastián. Most of the hidden back of the restaurant is devoted to the massive loaves of bread he bakes every day Continue Reading

Jonathan Gold goes to Bell for Rocio Camacho’s take on a boozy Oaxacan taqueria

If you have traveled outside your neighborhood for Mexican food in the last decade or so, you have probably run across the cooking of Rocio Camacho, a Oaxacan-born chef who is occasionally described as a Johnny Appleseed of mole. I first came across her cooking at Moles La Tía in Boyle Heights (although I had apparently tasted some of her dishes at La Casita Mexicana, where she started), and then at Mole de los Reyes in Bell, La Huasteca in Lynwood, Rocio’s Mole de Los Dioses in Sun Valley and Tarzana, and Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen in Bell Gardens. At one point I judged her mole the best in Los Angeles in a blind tasting put on by Share Our Strength, and in 2009 I described her mole negro as “so dark that it seems to suck the light out of the airspace around it, spicy as a novela and bitter as tears.” When you went to one of Camacho’s restaurants, you encountered squash blossom empanadas, habanero-spiked hot wings, and salmon with grapes, but also moles of every type and description, including ones made with pistachios, tequila or coffee. Comparisons to the magical cook in “Like Water for Chocolate’’ are not uncommon. Camacho occasionally calls herself the Goddess of Mole. But if you wander into Tacos & Mezcal, Camacho’s new restaurant in the old Corazon y Miel space in Bell, you will find chiles wrapped in bacon, fluffy guacamole with toasted pumpkin seeds, and a brick-red chicken soup with a diabolical slow-punching heat, but really no mole at all. This is her take on a boozy Oaxacan taqueria, a dark, loud place with tequila Old Fashioneds and hand-made tortillas; huge tacos filled with eggs or breaded beefsteak; and small tacos filled with chicken or a vegan preparation of sautéed jackfruit. There is a longish list of Mexican craft beers scrawled on a chalkboard and a short cocktail list. If you are thirsty for mezcal — and why wouldn’t you be — there isn’t a formal list; Continue Reading

Jonathan Gold suggests 5 good L.A. sandwiches, for National Sandwich Day

It’s National Sandwich Day? The holidays do seem to be coming earlier than ever this year. It seems as if National Deviled Egg Day was just yesterday! Anyway, a few good sandwiches. Which is as it should be. The Sandwich At Roma Deli, there is only the Sandwich. There is always the Sandwich. So if you suggest that perhaps you would like a little turkey instead of hot coppa on yours, or that you might prefer mozzarella instead of provolone or provolone instead of mozzarella, Rosario Mazzeo will shrug. The Sandwich is whatever he says it is, and although he has been known to change his mind on what the Sandwich might be, he will not change it for you. So you watch him slash open an Italian roll, dribble a few drops of olive oil, layer his finest meats and cheeses, and wrap the Sandwich in butcher paper. Or maybe you don’t — these days there are always a few stacked up by the meat slicer. “Best sandwich you ever had,” says Mazzeo. He just may be correct. 918 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena, (626) 797-7748. Fried chicken sandwich We have run across a lot of variations on the fried chicken sandwich since we first encountered one at Bakesale Betty in Oakland. And we have a lot of affection for the versions at Son of a Gun, Alimento, and Friends & Family — even for the extra-hot-fried-chicken sandwich at Howlin’ Ray’s, although that one sometimes seems like a giant chicken fillet with a vestigial bun at one end, like the fried poultry equivalent of a geoduck clam. But our hearts probably belong to the lunch-only fried chicken sandwich at Night and Market Song: crunchy, garlicky fried chicken thighs piled onto a bun with Thai papaya salad and ranch dressing. Would we be remiss here if we didn’t mention that the fried chicken here used to be served with a nam prik made with Thai water bugs? No doubt. 3322 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 665-5899. Cuban sandwich Unless you have been living in a sad, faraway place, you Continue Reading

Jonathan Gold thinks of Osawa as an izakaya-plus

Have you tried battera sushi? You really should. It’s a brick-shaped thing, vinegared sushi rice pressed into a mold over lightly pickled mackerel and a transparent slip of seaweed, and it’s usually served sliced like bread. The oil of the saba, the tartness of the rice and the silent umami boost of the kelp melt into a fourth taste that is at once profoundly fishy yet a throbbing viola note of its own, touched with a bit of salty soy if you lean that way — the sensation of the last piece of sushi you may have eaten but multiplied by 10.If your favorite part of a sushi meal tends to be halibut and shrimp instead of kohada and uni, battera sushi may not be your thing, but for anyone who enjoys getting whomped over the head with flavor, it’s a pleasurable way to go.Battera sushi, it should be noted, is not considered to be among the more luxurious ways to eat raw fish. The method arose in Osaka a century or two ago more as a way to preserve perishable oily fish than as a statement of pleasure. It’s train-station sushi, the filling stuff you take to snack on during a long ride. It’s what a workingman might eat standing up while his daintier compatriots nibble on nigiri at a proper sushi bar; sushi that occasionally improves in a 7-Eleven refrigerator case. It won’t show up in your next $300 omakase meal.Battera sushi is not quite the specialty of Osawa, the cramped Japanese restaurant in Old Pasadena. It’s not even on the menu anymore, although you can always get it if you ask. But I think it says something about the restaurant, which is probably best known for shabu shabu and elaborate bento boxes, that its version is so consistently first-rate, firm yet melting, singing with complex aroma, and formed with a fragrant shiso leaf or two at its core.The best Japanese restaurants traditionally define themselves by specializing in a particular food — udon, tempura, tofu, tonkatsu — or by a specific style of Continue Reading

Jonathan Gold wonders if the famed Italian restaurant Valentino has changed or if he has

If you have eaten Italian food in the last half-century, you have experienced the influence of Piero Selvaggio and his restaurant Valentino, which turned 45 this year. He is credited with introducing ingredients like radicchio, arugula, balsamic vinegar, real prosciutto and the dried fish roe bottarga to Los Angeles, and many of the best local chefs and restaurateurs, including Steve Samson, Donato Poto and Angelo Auriana, have worked for him. His massive wine cellar has won every possible award. Although he is best known for his mastery of the old-fashioned proprietor-driven dining room, he helped introduce the current, less formal style of Italian restaurant at the now-shuttered Primi. If you were a young diner plunging into the restaurant scene of the 1980s, Valentino was the restaurant you measured yourself against. It was always difficult to navigate the enormous wine list without a Sherpa, and as you dined more frequently at Valentino — it was expensive! — you found yourself weaned off Chiantis in favor of the older, well-priced Amarones and Valtellinas hidden in the spaniel-size volume. You learned which olive oils were worth the splurge, why it was worth waiting for porcini season, and why a white truffle supplement was occasionally worth a month’s car payment. If a regular mentioned that she was planning a trip to Italy, she would often be handed a page of Selvaggio’s hand-scribbled tips. You also noticed that certain people in the dining room seemed to be eating better than you were, but when you had the luck to dine with a favorite, the food could be stunning, whims transformed into six-course meals, abstract desire solidified into fish and meat and rice and pasta. When critics and guidebooks called Valentino the best Italian restaurant in the United States, they were telling the truth. Even if you were the kind of diner who preferred the perfected grandmother cooking of places like Angeli Caffe or Campanile to Selvaggio-inspired Continue Reading

Eat the best beans you ever tasted in California at Verlaine, Jonathan Gold writes

Many things can be said about the soft-fried black beans at the West Hollywood restaurant Verlaine. They are creamy. They sing with herbs. The slightly high fragrance but not the presence of dried beef lies just underneath. The tiny, white cubes of fresh cheese may tilt the beans slightly toward Bengali dal paneer, although the finely minced aromatics push it back to northern Mexico. They are likely to be among the best beans you have ever tasted in California. Nonetheless, what your table is likely to be discussing is not the exquisite fragrance of the beans but their cost. The not-large dish, about half the size of what may have been slopped onto your last enchilada plate, costs $11. The beans are served with tiny, just-made flour tortillas served scorching-hot from the griddle. If you are calculating pennies per unit of pleasure, I think the dish may be among the greatest bargains available at a restaurant in Los Angeles. Verlaine, it must be said, is among the last places you would expect to experience the particular kind of bliss that beans and tortillas can provide. It is built into the former Rat Pack hangout Dominick’s, an Italian restaurant since the dawn of time. It has a Java-intensive website, a leafy facade that has been transformed into something you might mistake for the high-end furniture showrooms up the street, and a fancy chillwave playlist. It is presumably named for the French symbolist poet whose love affair with Rimbaud may have made you swoon sophomore year; the stuffed peacock mounted on a wall of the restaurant’s modernist patio points to that era. And while Diego Hernández is truly one of the greatest chefs in Mexico — his Corazón de Tierra, in Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe, is the 34th best restaurant (eighth best in Mexico) in the current Latin America’s 50 Best list — his mix of minimalist cooking and bar snacks was not universally adored in the restaurant’s first months. “A would-be Continue Reading

At Mas’, Jonathan Gold finds hearty, spicy food just like your Chinese Islamic mother used to make

Have you stopped by Mas’ Chinese Islamic Restaurant? Because it’s kind of wild on a Sunday afternoon, a world of head scarves and bright dresses, skinny suits and skullcaps, and children dumbstruck at the massive piles of sizzling black-pepper beef. The green-onion flatbreads — every table has one! — are as big as birthday cakes, and when you pick up a wedge you can see dozens of strata. Crisp shards of beef short ribs, cut laterally and thin in what Korean restaurants call “L.A. style,” are stacked six inches high. The air is heady with garlic and cumin, burnt chiles and charred meat. The tables are set with forks — you have to ask for chopsticks. Jamillah Mas’ cooking is hearty and full flavored, spicy except when it isn’t, and unafraid of excess. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Islamic Chinese cooking looked like the future; a future awash in sesame sauce and mutton-organ warm pots. When the big Chinese food mall San Gabriel Square was young, the most popular restaurant was probably Tung Lai Shun, inspired by a famous Islamic restaurant in Beijing and serving a style of food we had never seen here before. I used to take visiting cookbook writers to Tung Lai Shun — I was convinced that Richard Olney would find hints of Provence in the plush braised lamb and that Fannie Farmer auteur Marion Cunningham might find inspiration in the flatbreads. (They didn’t, but it in no way diminished my admiration.) I rejoiced in the sharp flavors of the Xinxiang-style mutton skewers at Feng Mao and the short-lived 818 and of the delicious Uyghur cooking at Omar’s in San Gabriel. For a while, the halal-restaurant database at zabihah.com seemed as good a place as any to seek out interesting new restaurants, especially given its contributors’ emphasis on hospitality and respect, even in the humblest dining rooms. Mas’ Islamic may not be what you would consider a service-oriented Continue Reading

Jonathan Gold tastes transcendent Mexican seafood tostadas at Holbox, a sister stand to Chichen Itza

Holbox’s Gilberto Cetina will demonstrate how to buy and butcher fresh fish at the restaurant May 18 as part of the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl. For a full schedule of the month-long festival’s events, click here. Below is The Times restaurant critic’s reviews of the Yucatán-style restaurant. Are we talking about Mexican seafood again? We’re talking about Mexican seafood again. Because I’m guessing that at least some of you won’t want to go another week without tasting the yellowtail ceviche with uni at Holbox. Holbox, travelers tell you, is the next Tulum, a sleepy, bird-rich island off the Yucatán Peninsula, where the threat of golf courses and high-rise resorts seems to loom just past every promontory. It is probably known for its concentrations of whale sharks, eco-tourists and locals who claim to be descended from pirates. In Mayan, Holbox means “black hole,” which may explain its gravitational force. You are advised to visit before Starbucks sets up camp. In Los Angeles, Holbox is the new Yucatán-style seafood restaurant from Gilberto Cetina Jr., whom you may know from Chichen Itza, which he founded with his father. (Gilberto Sr. is back in the Yucatán at the moment, building his own island dream house.) Like Chichen Itza, Holbox occupies a corner of the Mercado La Paloma complex near USC, sharing tables with a vegan Ethiopian restaurant and a Oaxacan juice bar. As at Chichen Itza, you stand in line to order and take a number to put on your table. As at Chichen Itza, you commandeer as many kinds of chile sauce as you are allowed to – you are going to want to taste the lovely, fragrant sauce made with peanuts and chiles de árbol. As at Chichen Itza, you will wind up with twice as much food as you thought you might, and it will be fine. The last time I was in, a passerby tweeted at a friend, asking what she’d ordered. “And that would be ... everything,’’ my Continue Reading

Jonathan Gold finds a spot that takes regional Mexican cooking on an adventure

The morning after my last meal at Maestro, Danny Godinez’s new Mexican restaurant in Old Pasadena, I pulled the leftover barbacoa out of the refrigerator to see if I could salvage enough for a taco. There were still a few scraps of lamb left, but the container seemed half-filled with a mysterious goo. I was about to abandon the project – congealed lamb fat is no fun. I dipped in a spoon to see whether it might be worth reheating. And I was flabbergasted to discover that what I’d thought was grease was in fact beautifully jellied consommé, clear and as richly flavored as a demi-glace, without a speck of fat. This was Mexican food with a different point of view. And while I’m not sure I don’t prefer the magnificent hangover barbacoa from the beloved Aqui es Texcoco in Commerce or the dense, oily barbacoa from My Taco in Highland Park, Godinez’s version is very, very good — more delicate than its counterparts, slightly stringy, and without the insanely delicious pockets of fat that burst on your tongue, but still lovely and substantial. You could compare it to a Provençal daube, but flavored with chiles and cinnamon instead of orange zest and thyme. When you eat it at Maestro, you have the benefit of fragrant tortillas patted to order and maybe something from the restaurant’s first-rate mezcal list to go with it. It is a thoroughly Mexican meal. Maestro is the newest outpost of Godinez’s small empire, crammed into what used to be the Afghan restaurant Azeen’s. It is his first restaurant outside Orange County, where he is considered a chef as ambitious as Taco Maria’s Carlos Salgado or Irenia’s Ryan Garlitos. He cooked for years with chefs such as Charlie Palmer and Michael Mina. When he was interviewed by the OC Weekly a few years ago, he confessed that his goals included three Michelin stars. The first time I went to Anepalco, his Mexican diner near the St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, I Continue Reading