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Special Restaurant Issue | Ethnic flavors

You can get that here?

(Scene 8) It's one thing to globe-trot on your computer. It's another to get in the car and experience L.A.'s diversity firsthand. Where to start?

June 20, 2004|Linda Burum

The aroma can drive you crazy. In a stone oven, Middle Eastern Bibi's bakes sambusak (Israeli-style calzone) and stuffed, sesame-encrusted pitas called toasties. Fillings run from feta with olives to mozzarella with marinara or grilled eggplant. This West L.A. bakery and cafe also makes great individual quiches, marvelous pizzas and Jerusalem bagels, the thin, savory circles sold by vendors outside the ancient city's walls.

In El Segundo, Taiko, with its chichi wraparound glass rooms, bows low to tradition while keeping pace with Japan's shifting trends. A tiny sushi bar serves the likes of aji no tataki cut from a whole mackerel--served with the deep-fried skeleton. Its freshly made soba, artisanal sakes and global-inflected tapas-style dishes (albacore and mango tartar with salsa and wasabi sour cream) are found in the hippest quarters of Roppongi Hills.

Impressionistic images of African wildlife against sponged ochre walls are a stylish backdrop for Ngoma's pan-African dishes. East African matoke (cooked, mashed green banana beside robust stewed beef), West Ghanaian mafe (lamb in spicy peanut sauce) and coconut-bean soup from Tanzania highlight a menu that lists half a dozen vegetarian choices too. Lagers from Kenya and South African wines also are on hand at this Miracle Mile restaurant.

In Koreatown, Il San Duck B.B.Q. House, probably L.A.'s only Korean all-duck restaurant, roasts the birds in sealed, football-shaped clay pots that lock in juices while the fat melts away. Pair the roasters with Korean soju or beer. Or go for grilled duck or o mussam, the sliced soy sauce duck you wrap in a paper-thin radish to eat.

Delicious, rarely seen northern Thai dishes are the house specialties at Top Thai in Reseda. Hunker down with a fragrant bowl of khow soy, the lush, Burmese-influenced coconut-curry noodle soup sold on every corner in Chiang Mai. The country-style mild pork curries, kang hung-lay and nam-prik oong, are laced with stupendous quantities of garlic, and the lemon grass-spiced sausage, sai oua, is wonderful to eat the authentic northern way: by picking it up with nuggets of sticky rice. The exercise gives new meaning to the term finger-lickin' good.

Garlic-infused meatballs, or nem nuong, are barbecued everywhere in Vietnam, from urban grill shops to outdoor markets. The juicy orbs are to Ninh Hoa in central Vietnam what cheese steaks are to Philly, hence the name Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa. This Rosemead spot offers a phenomenal house specialty platter with loads of nem nuong and assorted grilled meats, crisp cigarette-size egg rolls and fried bean curd and shrimp cake.

In Glendale, Mandaloun offers superb Lebanese meze and other dishes from chef Michel Chammaa in an elegant setting. Pita bread is baked fresh for each table, and owner Ara Kalfayan has put together a terrific wine list. On weekends, there is a live band and belly dancing.

No dish is dearer to the hearts of Jaliscans than birria de chivo, and no restaurant is more devoted to its perfection than Birrieria Jalisco. The only entree served at this 30-year-old East L.A. institution is roast kid. The moist, delicate meat, slightly crisped on the edges, comes with a kid broth (the consomme) that's as complexly seasoned as a mole. Mobbed with families on weekends, the updated dining room boasts wonderful turn-of-the-century photographs of Guadalajara, the birthplace of birria.

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