The Valley's Ethnic Eats
A local’s guide to the best in global cuisine this side of the hill.
Written byBonnie Graves
Traffic, traffic, traffic. It’s the other woman, the problem, the obstacle to so much greatness in this city. From that friend you’d love to meet for tea (in Pomona!) to that promising business prospect (in Palos Verdes!) to your long-lost college roommate (in the Palisades!), drive time can diminish our personal relationships. It also limits our ability to take advantage of one of LA’s greatest offering … and no, we’re not talking about movies. Some may consider New York to be our country’s biggest melting pot, but as someone who’s done hard time on both coasts, I vote for Los Angeles when it comes to ethnic eats. Our incredible diversity of cuisine is epitomized by the swirling Babel chaos at LAX’s Tom Bradley terminal. It’s reflected in unexpected integrations like Kogi taco trucks and uni ice cream intermezzos. With so much culinary opportunity, get out of your comfort zone this spring and dine a little differently.
Granted, it’s hard to make the case for babushkas, borscht and boiled meats in a climate like ours, where fresh produce is a given. Channel your inner Tsarina, though, and check out Romanov in Studio City. You’ve probably driven past the ornate building a million times, but with a small sign and a location above Chi Dynasty, Romanov is easy to miss. Inside, the dining room is an amalgamation of Fabergé and Fleming’s, as owner Mikayel Israyelyan necessarily nods to the steakhouse crowd. Steer toward the more authentic items on the zakuski (appetizer) side of the menu–from sturgeon holodets chilling in aspic to classic pelmeni pastries with spiced beef, Romanov honors its roots. For main courses, family-style kabobs or shashlik are a lot more fun than NY strip, which you can get just about anywhere. And, oh yes, there’s vodka and lots of it, although the preponderance of Grey Goose and Bacardi on the cocktail menu is a bit disappointing. Throw on your finest (fake) fur and indulge in caviar and blinis at the bar with friends, perhaps with a bottle of bubbly. Zazdarovje!
Romanov | 12229 Ventura Boulevard, Studio City | 818-760-3177 | romanovla.com
It’s been a long time since I have had falafel at 3 a.m., something I miss from my Lower East Side, 20-something years. While Alcazar restaurant in Encino offers a variety of Middle Eastern influences, it’s their classics that have regulars raving. From a fiery, chile-infused hummus to excellent stuffed grape leaves to freshly-baked lavash stuffed with fragrant meats, Alcazar’s food is the draw, as dinner service can sometimes be slow. Come for lunch, a steal at $9.95, or drop in for live Armenian music on the weekends and sample some potent arak—a milky, licorice-scented liquor popular in Lebanon.
Alcazar |17239 Ventura Boulevard | Encino | 818-789-0991 | al-cazar.com
While I can appreciate the better-than-the-Bell chains like Baja Fresh or La Salsa that dominate our SoCal strip malls, I’m amazed by how few people in LA eat “real” Mexican food. Oddly enough, it’s haute-cuisinists like Chef John Rivera Sedlar (Rivera Restaurant) who are reinvigorating Latin food, albeit at a hefty price point. Want to experience amazing Mexican food on a dime? Head to El Tapatío, one of those hole-in-the-wall places that tempts you to finally walk in one day and then makes you a regular for life. Their tacos rule, from pastor to lengua to carnitas; their aguas frescas and incredible horchata are the perfect antidote to some of the spicy, house-made salsas and pickled condiments available in the no-frills but very clean dining room.
El Tapatío | 22806 Victory Boulevard | Woodland Hills | 818-883-6142 | eltapatio-1.com
In an unassuming neighborhood in Van Nuys we find Pho 999, which plenty of foodies consider to be the finest Vietnamese restaurant in Los Angeles. At the heart of Vietnamese cuisine is “pho” (pronounced “foe” or “fuh” in differing dialects), the hot broth and noodle dish to which different types of chicken or beef are traditionally added. (Noodle dishes made with other proteins or fish are typically not called pho.) Favorite pho at the 999 are made with brisket—rare beef with tendon and tripe. Newbies might want to start with the basic chicken pho. With more than 20 different preparations to try, Pho 999 rocks and is pretty darn close to the 405 too. Service is basic, but the portions are huge and arrive quickly. Yum.
Pho 999 | 6411 Sepulveda Boulevard | Van Nuys | 818-782-1999
If ever there were a reason to get in your car and drive downtown in rush hour, it’s to get to K-town for BBQ. Perhaps more than for any other Asian cuisine, Los Angeles is pure heaven for those obsessed with Korean food. Luckily for Valley residents, K-Town favorite Shik do Rak also has a small outpost in Northridge. While this is not an all-you-can-eat establishment, they are quick to refill side dishes on demand, and different price tiers mean you can order as much or as little as you think you’re really going polish off. Note that the dining room is quite small, so plan ahead or eat during off-times … or you may face a wait.
Shik do Rak | 18434 Devonshire Street | Northridge | 818-832-7080
They’re roadside attractions.