Molés La Tia (Los Angeles)

Molés are complex chile sauces, made in Mexico, primarily in Puebla and Oaxaca, that range in many styles. Some of them have a mind-boggling list of ingredients and may take hours to prepare. For me, this is one recipe that’s best left for an experienced cook to make. What better way to sample the many kinds than to go to a restaurant that specializes in them? Some of the best molés in Southern California can be had at Molés La Tia. Its colorful interior and artful presentation of its entreés belie the building’s humble façade.

Rather than molé poblano, which I’ve had many times, I decided to have a different molé called mancha manteles that consists of tomatoes, several kinds of dried chiles, nuts and cinnamon, among other ingredients. The charred chiles lent a nice smoky taste. A friend got the traditional molé negro on chicken. This too was an excellent version that shared the same smokiness from charred dried chiles. The restaurant lets you sample up to three molés before you order. The three we sampled were the mancha manteles, coffee molé (a little too sweet for my taste), and another whose name I can’t recall. The corn tortillas were wonderful, made fresh on the premises, thick and chewy, with great flavor. The salsa was searingly hot though really tasty. All the care and effort to make these molés comes at a price, a steep price. The entrees start at $14 and go up, so it’s not an everyday place to eat.

If you’re a molé lover, you owe it to yourself to dine here.

Molés La Tia
4619 East Cesar Chavez Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90022
Menu, map

Southern Mini Town (San Gabriel, CA)

With Golden Deli and Newport Seafood in the same strip mall, life can be tough for another restaurant. Yet, here sits Southern Mini Town (Xiao Nan Gou), a Szechwan restaurant with excellent prices, in its own right well-regarded.

Lunch menu items start at $4.95. A week ago, we ordered beef with green onions, preserved vegetable noodle soup, and fried pork chops. I think there might’ve been a mistake with the beef and green onions because there were no green onions (only onions) and it wasn’t spicy at all, though coded that way on the menu. The waitresses hardly speak any English, so it didn’t seem worth the effort to complain. This was the weakest dish, albeit tasty enough. The fried pork chops were thinly sliced with a taste of Szechwan peppercorns and sauteed with small pieces of chiles and green onions. A very good dish. The broth in the soup noodles was quite good and the pork slivers very tender, but the noodles came from packages. The minced preserved mustard greens seemed freshly made.

Today, I ordered takeout.

Sweet and sour fish fillets were very good. Oftentimes, sweet-and-sour sauce is cloyingly sweet, but not Southern’s version. And although the kitchen uses frozen peas and carrots, the dish stood out anyway. Unfortunately, the fish steamed in the takeout styrofoam box on the way to the house and consequently the fried batter was sodden by the time we ate it.

Sweet and sour fish fillets

Sweet and sour fish fillets

Shredded pork with bamboo shoots is a combination of tender pork strips, shredded young bamboo shoots, burdock, and sliced chiles in a very savory sauce. Another winner.

Shredded Pork with Bamboo Shoots

Shredded Pork with Bamboo Shoots

Preserved vegetable and bean curd sheets also has edamame and green onions. The tofu skins were sliced to mimic noodles. This was a tasty dish.

Preserved Vegetables and Bean Curd Sheets

Preserved Vegetables and Bean Curd Sheets

If you’re willing to look past the super-stardom of Newport Seafood and Golden Deli, you would do quite well at Southern Mini Town, and save some money at the same time.

Southern Mini Town
833 W Las Tunas Dr
San Gabriel, CA 91776

Desert Garden, Huntington Library (San Marino, CA)

Before our road trip to the Southwest in 2008, I’d not thought much about cacti or desert plants. Aesthetically, what I normally thought of as cactus plants did nothing for me. But, that changed in 2008. I began to appreciate how remarkable these drought-resistant plants are. They come in an astonishing array of shapes and sizes and remarkably can shows bits of color, too. Also astonishing are their flowers whose beauty contrast so sharply with their muted hosts.

I discovered that the Huntington Library had a world-renowned desert garden. Since I happened to be staying nearby, it was only a matter of driving a short distance to see the collection myself.

The garden has over 5,000 species spread over a 10-acre area, an important conservation collection that had me taking countless snapshots. I am not able to provide their botanical names but nevertheless include their portraits in the gallery.

Chorizo con Huevos at Bun ‘N Burger (Alhambra, CA)

One of our favorite places to eat breakfast when we’re visiting relatives in the San Gabriel Valley is Bun ‘N’ Burger. The current owners bought the diner from the original one and kept all the old memorabilia on the walls and suspended from the ceiling—old pictures from WWII, plastic parrots on perches, old Coke and Sunkist signs, a giant swordfish, etc., and more pictures of The King (including one on velvet) short of a shrine, all worthy of Route 66 joints.

My favorite thing that I order from the menu—actually the only thing—is their chorizo and eggs (☆☆☆☆), generous amount of chorizo sausage scrambled with eggs. What I love about it is, aside from the excellent chorizo, the eggs and meat are nicely blended, almost fluffy, rather than pebbly like at some restaurants. When slathered with their killer salsa that’s served on every table, you have a meal fit for a real king. There are several other Mexican (and American) breakfast options, including specials of the day written on a blackboard, but I’ve never tried ANY of them, so enamored am I of my ‘usual.’

Bun ‘N Burger
1000 E Main St
Alhambra, CA 91801
Cash only, map

Fried Royale at Rutts Hawaiian Café (Culver City, CA)

The part of the family that lives in West LA loves Rutt’s, a diner in Culver City that has been serving Hawaiian food for over 20 years. After all these years, the food remains very popular with locals and fans. While there are lots of Hawaiian favorites on the menu, the most popular is the Royale, eggs scrambled with a choice of meat (or not) served over white rice.

Several family members have switched over to the fried Royale, which essentially combines the Royale like fried rice. It’s easy to miss this since it isn’t a separate menu item, but rather an option offered in the descriptive text under “Rutt’s Famous Royales.” This version is tastier in our opinion, the original suffering from a certain blandness. The meat choices include char siu (pictured above), Portuguese sausage, Spam, Kalua pork, bacon, hamburger (loco moco), chicken, teriyaki beef, even smoked salmon.

We haven’t ordered anything else here to pass judgment on other dishes. It’s good to have a local go-to Hawaiian restaurant when the urge hits.

Rutt’s Hawaiian Café
12114 Washington Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90066
Menu, map

Lunch at Bamboodles (San Gabriel, CA)—CLOSED

Bamboodles makes its own bamboo stick noodles from a technique developed in China by a master named Hu Min in the early twentieth century. The chef here learned his trade from one of Min’s disciples. The kneading of bamboo stick noodle dough is done by the master who straddles (actually, it looks more like a slow bouncing up and down) a large, hollow bamboo stalk that compresses the dough at the other end. When it gets thin enough, he folds it over and starts the process again, until the right texture has been achieved. In the final step, the dough is stretched out thinly and rolled, and then cut by mechanical cutters into thin noodles.

Limited to only 100 servings a day, the Spicy Beef Stew Noodle Soup is one way to appreciate these noodles. The broth is very rich with the essence of beef and five-spice powder and spicy with chiles, though not fiery. As the name suggests, the beef (consisting also of tripe and fatty parts) is stewed for a long time. The pasta itself had a wonderful, springy texture, though surprisingly not much flavor.

Spicy Beef Stew Noodle Soup

Another favorite was the spinach noodle soup with green tea pork, using noodles made the same painstaking way, but with added spinach.

The Cold Noodles with Green Tea Pork is served with shredded pork, julienned cucumbers, par-boiled bean sprouts, and corn kernels. These noodles revealed the same fantastic, springy texture.

Cold Noodles with Green Tea Pork

Having said all of the above, other menu items were mediocre at best. On a subsequent visit, we found all other soup noodle broths unremarkable, including that of the Wonton Noodle Soup, though the wontons were very well made with very thin wrappers. The Spicy Noodles (Szechuan-style) really had no sauce to speak of; whatever sauce there was only came from the ground pork, which was mounded on top (along with ground peanuts and blanched bean sprouts). With the dearth of sauce, the noodles soon became pasty and dry, a regrettable waste of the effort and care to make them. The celery dumplings (which we all shared) had a very tasty ground pork-Chinese celery-ginger-green onion filling, but their wrappers were extraordinarily thick.

Their menu appears to have gotten more extensive, perhaps an unwise decision when aspects of original items need improvement.

P.S. (7-3-12: Apparently, Bamboodles has closed its doors for business.)

Bamboodles (**NOW CLOSED**)

Kam Hong Garden (Monterey Park, CA)

On this visit to Southern California, we read a review in the Los Angeles Times of Kam Hong Garden, a Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park that specialized in making its own noodles. Here, they offer four kinds of pasta: hand-pulled (la mian), knife-cut (bai mian), hand-shaven (dao xiao mian), and flat noodles that are wider than linguine.

For lunch, four of us decided to head there and wound up ordering four different kinds of soup noodles, all with bai mian. This would be a good test of quality consistency. All the soups were wonderful, the broth in each made differently to complement the ingredients. Here are my tasting notes:

Cold Dried Bean Curd Sheet appetizer: sliced dried tofu sheet bundles mixed with cucumber, fried peanuts, dried chili flakes and cilantro. There was a hint of five-spice powder.

Cold Dried Bean Curd Sheet appetizer

Cold Dried Bean Curd Sheet appetizer

Seafood Spicy Noodle Soup: a flavorful seafood broth made spicy by fried whole dried chili peppers served with bai mian, squid, white fish fillets, shrimp, fish cake, tree ears, green onions and thinly sliced cabbage.

Seafood Spicy Noodle Soup

Seafood Spicy Noodle Soup

Shanxi Noodle Soup: with its five-spice flavor, the wonderful beef broth is reminiscent of pho broth but is thicker and oilier. The bai mian is topped with succulent chunks of beef and slices of pork, both tender from long simmering. Cucumbers, sliced konbu, and cilantro round out the flavors.

Shanxi Noodle Soup

Shanxi Noodle Soup

Beef Stewed Noodle Soup: the broth is similar to the Shanxi noodle soup but doesn’t have its seaweed flavor. Slightly spicy, it too comes with bai mian and chunks of tender beef, green onions and cilantro.

Beef Stewed Noodle Soup

Beef Stewed Noodle Soup

Pork Chop Noodle Soup: fried pork chops infused with five-spice flavor. Slightly sweet and very crispy and tender, they are meant to be mixed with the accompanying bai mian noodle soup that is topped with spinach and cilantro.

Pork Chop Noodle Soup

Pork Chop Noodle Soup

A return visit will need us to try the other noodles. Excellent food.

Kam Hong Garden Restaurant
848 E. Garvey Ave.
Monterey Park, CA 91755

Johnnie’s Hot Pastrami Sandwich (Culver City, CA)

The best hot pastrami sandwiches are piled high with sliced fatty meat, moist and succulent in its own seasoned, beefy juices. What passes for pastrami nowadays in more health-conscious restaurants is revisionist, an abomination to the sandwich, an insult to taste and texture, usually served with lean and chewy slices of meat that bear little resemblance to the real stuff. There is a place for healthy food, but a deli (or burger joint) is not one of them.

In New York City back in 2001, we made sure to have the one at Carnegie Deli. The one-pound sandwich is made with rye bread and served with a bowl of pickles.

In the Los Angeles area where I grew up, Johnnie’s in Culver City has a huge following. The sandwiches in this part of the country are served on French rolls. It is easily one of the best things between two slices of bread in the LA area.

Johnnie’s Pastrami
4017 South Sepulveda Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90230
Menu, map