I grew up in the San Fernando Valley (THE Valley for those of you from the area), the northwest corner of LA County and some 20 minutes from downtown LA. As a teenager in a terribly conservative Vietnamese family, despite the straight A’s and perfect GPA, I wasn’t allowed to do much exploring. Perfect grades notwithstanding, my mother lived in constant fear that I would join a gang, get hooked on drugs, or die in a fiery car crash on the 101. (If you sense that my mother suffered from needless anxiety, you’d be correct.)
And so I was the EPITOME of a valley girl–stuck literally in the Valley. While I did occasionally sneak out with friends to Santa Monica or Hollywood, my palate remained firmly rooted in my little Vietnamese enclave. I am ashamed to admit that my experience with Mexican food was limited to Taco Bell and Acapulco Restaurant (double yuck). When I was finally introduced to sushi in my teens, it was at an all-you-can-eat restaurant with watery miso soup and bright pink tuna in a strip mall on Ventura Blvd. And this avid hot dog lover didn’t even make it to Pink’s Hot Dogs until my thirties. But I didn’t suffer because I didn’t know what I was missing. I guess the one good thing about this deprivation may just be that it allowed me to hone my knowledge of Vietnamese food.
These days, when I return to LA, as I did recently in April, my days and nights are planned around food, all different kinds of food. If we’re going to the Griffith Observatory, then a meal in Thaitown is in order. We make sure to work in time for ramen, Korean fried chicken, Japanese izakayas, boba, and even some fish tacos. And of course, there is always a pilgrimage to Westminster–Santa Ana for all the Viets in SoCal–for the amazing Vietnamese food I can’t find anywhere else. I can wax poetic about LA being the ultimate cultural melting pot, about midnight runs for Kogi kalbi tacos or the crossover Korean pho, or the thousands of fusion restaurants, but I will say that if you are able to see past the smog, traffic, and botox, this city has really, really good food. Here’s a quick run down from our recent trip:
Shin-Sen Gumi in Little Tokyo for ramen: Our usual option for ramen in Little Tokyo is Daikokuya, but given that we were a party of 8, including 4 young children, we needed a place that could fit us all at one table. Alas, we stumbled upon Shin-Sen Gumi–what a fun scene and the ramen was oh so good. I will admit, however, that the ordering system at SSG is a bit confusing with choices for firmness and thickness of noodles, strength of broth, not to mention the myriad of toppings served on the side. I ordered firm and thin noodles, medium broth, and lots of toppings (nori, spicy tobiko, fried pork ears, and bamboo shoots). But it was all delicious, so much so that picky Souper Boy drained his bowl and Souper Girl slurped up the noodles with much gusto.
888 Restaurant in Rosemead for dim sum: Well, this was just meh. What we had was good but there just wasn’t that special something-something. And I was a bit disappointed in the jellyfish salad which lacked any real oomph. I think I prefer Empress Harbor.
Phuong’s Restaurant in Westminster for hu tieu My Tho: Among the hundreds of places in Little Saigon offering hu tieu, this is where we always go. The decor is dated, if you can even call it decor, but the hu tieu thap cam is outstanding. I get mine with soup but my mother swears by the dry version. I had intended to take some pictures but alas, wrangling two kids left me with no other hands to hold a camera. Next time.
Red Medicine in Beverly Hills: I first heard of this place when it was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover. Whimsical forests of edible flowers, chlorophyll spiked sauce, and uni rice porridge? And to top it all off, the majority of the dishes had all the flavor profiles of Vietnamese food–sweet, salty, sour, spicy. WTF? But it was good, very good–in the holy-shit-I-could-never-make-that kind of way. We ordered the brussel sprouts, beef tartar, dungeness crab, rice porridge, tamarind glazed lamb and birch ice dessert. Once in a while I have the pleasure of eating at a restaurant where money is well spent because there is no way I could ever replicate any part of that fantastic meal–except for maybe the brussel sprouts and shrimp chips. Hee-hee.
Johnny Pacific in Winnetka: In a tiny strip mall, we found this little gem. The empanadas here are fantastic–not as doughy as other places and filled with heavenly combinations of meats, spices, and vegetables, from beef tinga to kailua pig. And the dipping sauces are fantastic, from an Asian peanutty one to chimi churri and even caramel!
Ricky’s taco stand: You can’t come to LA and not eat from a food truck or roadside stand. Ricky’s fits the bill. My brother, whose office is nearby, insisted that we stop at Ricky’s for some fine fish tacos, never mind that we just filled up in Long Beach and were looking forward to a Thai dinner. Okay, he was right, these were the best fish tacos I’ve ever had. Case closed.
Palms Thai in Hollywood: Sometimes I just need a good Thai fix–nothing fancy, just the basics. This place was recommended by a friend and we ordered som tum, pad thai, yom nua, and green curry with shrimp. So good, not at all overly sweet like the Thai places in/around Boston. I hear they have live entertainment that features a Thai Elvis, but he wasn’t there during our visit.
Santouka in Manhattan Beach for ramen: What can I say, we love ramen. Santouka is a chain and we’ve been to the one in Vancouver and Torrance. I particularly love how Santoukas in SoCal are usually located in a Mitsuwa Market food court–makes it easier to dine with others who fail to understand the awesomeness that is ramen. Doesn’t even matter what you order here, it’s all good. This time I had the spicy miso ramen and it was as divine as usual. I still have dreams about ramen…