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Monte 52 has been around for ten whole months, but I’m embarrassed to say that I barely found out about it in July—despite the fact that I drive by it almost daily. In my defense, it is tucked away inside La Tropicana Market, itself a Highland Park gem, where I’ve bought the occasional agua fresca but never ventured to the deli counter…until one fateful day. And that’s when I found it, the best sandwich shop in the neighborhood. Since then, I’ve been making up for lost time by making my way through their delicious, thoughtfully-conceived and well-crafted menu.
Brought to you by the folks behind Echo Park’s The Park, including chef Mitchell Jones who runs the counter, this deli is everything you want it to be. They serve salads, sandwiches, burgers, and soup, plus, rotisserie chicken and french fries. The meat and produce used are quality, portions are sizeable, and a lot of care is put into every order. Amazingly, the prices are still low, with almost everything on the menu costing about $6.
A closer look at the evolution of fried chicken could easily be a case study of our ever-changing, multicultural history. Originally a European cuisine reaching back to the medieval period, Scottish settlers brought their recipes for frying up cluckers across the Atlantic to the Americas. Once introduced to the United States, the dish became deeply embedded in Southern culture and cuisine, rising to national popularity with Colonel Sander’s Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Meanwhile, here in present day Los Angeles, fried chicken is going through a renaissance by way of Asian cuisine, with Japanese karaage (kah-rah-ge) and Korean chicken places popping up all over. Jumping on the bandwagon, or into the coop as the case may be, I stopped into Kyochon in Koreatown, long lauded by Jonathan Gold as the “Best Fried Chicken.” Kyochon does fried chicken five ways, freshly made to order in a fast-food style: Signature Soy Garlic & Hot & Sweet Wings, Grilled Wings, Honey Wings, Drumsticks and Sal Sal Chicken Strips.
My party of three ordered the 25-piece Sampler, which allowed us to try every style. A far as I could tell, they all tasted pretty much the same, with a tender, moist chicken base and flavorful finishes. The standout was the Hot Wings. Fans of fiery foods will thrill in the layering of sweet honey, soy and garlic, topped off with the spicy effect and after effect of the Korean chili paste, gojuchang. The chili left a warm, tingly feeling on my lips and throat, which I washed down with some bites of rice and crisp, refreshing daikon radish.
If you’re not familiar with my hard-hitting journalism, then you should know, I’m always on the veggie burger beat. No fan of processed patties, it’s my mission to find vegetable-and-grain-centric burgers that aren’t packed with soy and other filler. By my estimation, the best veggie burgers are treated like their beef counterparts with tasty buns, pickles, cheese and all the usual All-American fixings. I’m not diametrically opposed to sprouts and other “health” toppings, but yogurt in place of mayo and cucumbers in place of pickles (heaven, help us) is just plain condescension. An insult.
Thankfully, none of that nonsense is at play at Echo Park’s The Park. The neighborhood restaurant makes their patty in house, and it holds together nicely with a combination that includes quinoa, carrots and zucchini. The patty isn’t thick, but it’s tremendously well seasoned, so the flavor doesn’t get swamped by the charred bun. I added Gruyere to mine, which played well with the red onions and the from-scratch tomato soup I opted for instead of fries.
I’m still calling Four Cafe’s veggie burger as the best in Los Angeles, but The Park is formidable competition.
The Park, 400 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles
Summer heat gives you the right to indulge in ice cream at least every other day, right? You’re lucky, too, because there are so many great ice cream shops on this side of town, most of them making beautiful ice creams, gelato, and frozen yogurt on the premises. Here are three great beat-the-heat-icy-sweet saviors from an ice cream fanatic (me):
Tejuino Los Reyes: This Lincoln Heights ice cream shop is really just a storefront where people line up in droves for nieves—there’s no seating, minus a bus bench. You can choose from ten or so flavors of this Mexican-style ice cream, with either a leche or agua base. Milk-wise, the chocolate has a rich cocoa taste, a light, airy texture and the occasional chocolate chip while the pistachio is outrageously nutty. Mixing a milk-based flavor like creamy coconut with a water-based one such as tart lime or subtly sweet mango is a good move. The medium gets you four scoops in a big styrofoam cup. Tejuino Los Reyes 2707 N. Broadway.
Well, since we’re on the subject of delicious veggie burgers, I thought I’d share my latest find. You have to drive a bit for it (or take the Gold Line), but you won’t be sorry. The veggie burger at Heirloom Bakery in South Pasadena has been a reliable daily special all summer long, and I’m hoping it’s here to stay.
Eschewing the loathed processed veggie patty that so many restauranteurs try to pass off on innocent veggie burger lovers, this one is made with grains and, you know, actual vegetables. Much like Four Cafe’s beauty, this one is treated like a beef burger, draped in cheddar cheese and dressed with mayo, dill pickles, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, and sprouts. The bun is also lovingly grilled for a little bit of crispness.
This thing is hearty as heck.
I love potato tacos. A lot of people don’t, and I blame the overwhelming amount of bad potato tacos (soggy, bland, and uninspired) for misrepresenting the entire category. Perhaps my appreciation comes from the fact that I usually make mine at home, giving them an Indian twist with Chef Raghavan Iyer’s smoky yellow dal recipe. This way, I get to bypass most restaurant versions, though I am guilty of pigging out on the greasy bombs they serve over at El Acator #11 after a few drinks and under the cloak of night.
There is one potato taco that recently came onto my radar that actually gives its brethren a good name: the Mashed Curry Potatoes and Carrot Taco at Xoia Vietnamese Eats in Echo Park. This one gets it right for so many reasons. For one, the filling is flavorful thanks to the sweetness of the carrots and, of course, the savory curry, which really pops. The crunch factor is also spot on. The filling of a potato taco is unavoidably mushy, so a certain amount of crunch is necessary—the crispy tortilla and shreds of red cabbage are perfect for the task.
The finishing touches don’t miss, either. Vietnamese coriander, which is similar to cilantro, and a house-made sauce of Oaxacan crema, coconut milk and Sriracha add to the overall flavor. I think about these tacos a lot.
Not bad for $6.99.
An Italian sub can be a glorious thing, but cold cuts aren’t for everyone. If you’re a vegetarian, or if you just prefer a meatless lunch now and again, finding a good veggie sandwich can be a task. Sometimes all you get is lettuce, tomato and cheese. Talk about blah. Still, there are some satisfying veggie sandwiches out there that demonstrate real deliberation and craftsmanship. Here are three good ones:
The Trails Cafe: The Avocado Sandwich and The Trails in Griffith Park is one of the best citywide. Thick chunks of ripe avocado, tomato, red onions, alfalfa sprouts and cheddar cheese are stacked high between two slices of sweet squaw bread. Mayo and soy bacon bits complement each bite. It’s the kind of sandwich that you miss when it’s gone, but the lavender shortbread cookies they sell are will console you. 2333 Fern Dell Dr Los Angeles, 90068
With summer afoot, fish taco season has officially begun. In Los Angeles, especially on the eastside, we’re lucky enough to have plenty of top notch fried fish tacos within reach. What makes a good fish taco? It starts with a quality tortilla that isn’t too brittle or soggy, a flavorful batter that has a little crunch, and a well-cooked piece of fish that stays moist in the deep fryer. Fresh toppings are a must, too, and those limes better drip when you squeeze them.
Here are three of my favorite fish tacos. Note: Ricky’s Fish Tacos is not listed because they’re closed until “further notice”. (Update: Ricky’s is operating again in Chinatown. Find his locations by following Ricky on his Twitter. )
Tacos Baja Ensenada: There’s usually a line a this East LA joint, and it’s well earned. The dark golden batter is crunchy, giving way to a delicious piece of pollock in a chewy corn tortilla. The fish taco/shrimp taco combination is a good bet, or forget the rice and beans and just add another taco. I would. And don’t forget the salsa bar—the gorgeous yellow roasted chiles gueros aren’t as hot as they look. Mexican sodas and aguas frescas available, fish tacos are 99 cents on Wednesdays. 5385 Whittier Blvd, Los Angeles.
A reader recently tipped me off to the charms of Hot Red Bus in Alhambra, and I thought I’d pass the word on to you. The new British-Indian restaurant comes from the creators of Ma Jasmin’s, a mainstay prepared food booth in the Alhambra Farmers’ Market.
The decor of the Main Street location is Brit kitsch while the menu presents references to The Clash and a perked-up selection of Indian and British staples, re-imagined in some cases—stuff like pakora poppers, thick cut “chips” drenched in curry sauce and heaped with beef and lamb doner, jalapeno pakora and somewhat-controversial samosa that are rolled instead of triangular.
The biggest standout for me, though, was the most tradional dish on the menu: the Fish & Chips. Made to order and wrapped in paper (but not newspaper), this giant portion of cod (it comes in half-portion, too) is battered to golden perfection. Like the texture of Pioneer Chicken in the 80s, and I mean that in the best way! The crunch gives way to a moist, flaky piece of fish, and if you like your fries thick with a fair amount of crispiness, this will be your jam.
I’m just going to come out and say it: Hot Red Buses’ Fish & Chips just might be the best in LA. But, there are no pints to be had, so don’t get too excited.
Hot Red Bus
31 E. Main St.,
Alhambra, CA 91801
As I type, I am basking in the afterglow of burgers and brats from McCall’s Meat and Seafood Company in Los Feliz. The small, “chef-driven” butcher shop has ruined me for all grocery store meat. All I added to their Fresh Ground Burger Blend was a little salt and pepper before forming the patties and throwing them on our new-to-us Weber grill (thanks, Craigslist). Some beautiful little burgers was the result. As for their house-made sausages—they were some of the best I’ve ever had, with a snappy casing and a loose (as opposed to creepily fused) filling that dripped with smokey, balanced flavor.
Ruined, I tell you! Ruined! But, on the bright side, I now have a favorite butcher, and that makes me feel cool.
McCall’s Meat and Fish Company
2117 Hillhurst Ave.
Los Angeles, 90027