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Wonho Frank Lee

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Eater’s Journal 8/15/16: Kato, Kogi Taqueria, Choi Ga Nae, Belcampo, Side Chick

Field notes from Eater editors and contributors about recent meals around Los Angeles

Kato: There seems to be something particularly special happening at Kato in West LA, a new tasting menu destination with just a few seats and lots of heart. The $49 menu runs roughly eight courses and comes with a rotating supplemental side for a few dollars more, should the array of (mostly) seafood not be enough to fill up hungry bellies. But the truth is, the place is an incredible value when you consider the provenance of the produce and fish being pushed out from the small kitchen by young chef Jon Yao and his crew. Run through a few images on the restaurant's fledgling Instagram page and you'll start to see just how wisely that $49 is being spent.

What's just as important, though, is the story of Kato. In many ways, it's the same through-line that many restaurants in this city have, from Ray's BBQ in Huntington Park to Baroo off Santa Monica Boulevard in East Hollywood. A young chef creates a personal restaurant vision, then executes it in the most LA way possible: with just a few tables, a nondescript strip mall setting, and a lot of attention to detail. Young chef Yao is in many ways only at the beginning of his own larger culinary journey, but the story he's telling with Kato speaks volumes to his brief time spent in kitchens at finer dining spots in San Francisco like Benu, or at Downtown LA's own Alma. The food here is subtle, surprising, and wholly inspiring, especially when you take a larger view of the restaurant from space. Kato, and restaurants like it, are why Los Angeles continues to succeed: Talent, locations, and quality ingredients are all on our side. —Farley Elliott


Unnamed Thai Takeout Window: I’m always on the hunt for great new Thai food in LA, which made the discovery of the unassuming takeout window operating out of the former Butcher & Barbers space in Hollywood that much more exciting. While the location on North Hudson Ave right off Hollywood Boulevard at first seemed puzzling, the proprietors explained that peak time for them is in the early morning hours, when the No Vacancy and Dirty Laundry crowd stumbles out to get their aptly named drunken noodles. Brilliant.

But you have to look past the pad thai and chicken curry (although admittedly delicious) to get to the goods. The star of the show here is a blazing hot but undeniably addictive Phuket-style crab curry that is the archetype of masochism. While the crab is the must-order, you also should ask the chefs for their daily specials. The duo is currently offering kanom jeeb, a Thai take on shu mai that I’ve never had before, but the herbaceous take on the dumplings with a sweet sauce that realizes all that is great about Thai cooking is a fantastic example of the Chinese influence on Thai culture and cuisine.

If you really demonstrate interest in their fare, the chefs might let you in on the other specials not advertised on the chalkboard outside. I tried ant larvae salad, a simply dressed mix of translucent ant eggs (with a few too many hatched ants for my liking) flavored very similarly to som tum, or papaya salad. While the burst of ant juice (not unlike an ant-flavored gusher) was not an experience I would necessarily repeat by choice, it truly is a testament to the authenticity of the cooking taking place at this unassuming window. I can’t wait for the full restaurant to open up inside. —Crystal Coser

Choi Ga Nae, Koreatown
Matthew Kang

Choi Ga Nae: Last Friday, I stuffed my face at Choi Ga Nae, an all you can eat Korean barbecue restaurant on Wilshire. I’ve spent a lot of Fridays there grilling brisket and pork belly and squid and whatever else we select from the $19.95 section of the menu. I’ve finally figured out (I think) the correct soju / water balance, I have opinions about where different meats should go on the grill, and I know when all the lights go out it just means they’re about to start a thumping electropop version of Happy Birthday. I encourage you to clap along.

I go to Choi Ga Nae because a good friend of mine has a standing reservation there on Friday nights. When she and her husband walk in, the staff waves hello and brings over a couple bottles of beer and soju. The week’s dinner attendees trickle in as banchan and the first round of brisket hit the table. My friend invites everyone she knows in the city and smashes them together around a blazing hot table of meat. She teaches writing, and always a few of the attendees are students current and former. Last week her landlord who is also her good friend came, and they invited their trainer who is forcing them both to get back into shape. Coworkers, her husband’s bandmates, new(ish) arrivals to the city like my girlfriend and me: We’re all there. It’s loud and greasy and awkward and fun.

Is the food good? It’s good! Is it the best? I have no idea! I have barely plumbed the depths of Korean barbecue in Los Angeles because I keep ending up at Choi Ga Nae.

Eating professionally can quickly become eating competitively, perfectionistly. Los Angeles can shift from sunny paradise to isolating bubble in the space of a day. Regularly going for AYCE Korean barbecue with a huge, rotating group of people is, I’m convinced, one of the best solutions to both these problems. Feeling social? Shout across the table. Feeling quiet? Grill meats. Want to obsess over whether there’s some mythic better option you have yet to discover? Too bad. AYCE means there’s no handwringing or negotiating over fancy or unfancy meats, so a group of relative strangers can eat together seamlessly. The meal is inherently communal, and scales perfectly no matter the size of the group.

I ate at Choi Ga Nae my first week back in Los Angeles, and I ate there this week, which marks one year of living here. That meal was extra-satisfying and filled me with a sense wellbeing and gratitude supposedly only available in a $12 bottle of green juice. Sure I recommend the restaurant, but really I recommend the ethos: Pick somewhere welcoming and great and becoming a devoted regular. And if you're so lucky, maybe also invite a handful of your newest and oldest friends to join you. —Meghan McCarron


Kazunori: With LA’s saturated sushi scene, picking a new spot can be overwhelming. As I was looking for something simple, fresh and affordable on the Westside, KazuNori in Westwood popped into my head. Sure, its menu focuses on one main attraction; hand rolls. But one can’t deny its delightfulness.

Early Sunday evenings possess shorter wait times and are a great time to come. The minimalistic décor is reminiscent of its popular sister restaurant SugarFish, but is limited to bar seating only. Once seated, order a refreshing green ice tea or a cold Sapporo. The server recommends the set menu, but feel free to create your own experience if desired.

As I looked at the set menu, I was excited to see reasonable prices. So, for the purpose of variety, I chose the six-hand roll menu for $23 dollars that came with toro, yellowtail, salmon, bay scallop, crab and lobster. If you’re not as hungry, try the three-hand roll menu for just $11. Warm rice, crispy nori and homemade sauces make the star ingredients shine and the freshness and simplicity validates Chef Nozawa’s vision.

Once finished, the server dropped the check with 16% gratuity included, and I headed over to the cashier, still processing the short but sweet visit. If you show up to a long line, don’t fear because turnover is quick. KazuNori satisfied my craving for a casual and unpretentious sushi experience and I await the Santa Monica location arriving some time at the end of the year. — Keyla Vasconcellos


Belcampo Meat Co., Santa Monica
Wonho Frank Lee

Belcampo Meat Co. Santa Monica: I never understood how Huckleberry Cafe in Santa Monica always has a long line of people for brunch — in some cases all the way out the door to the parking lot — and they don't even have cocktails! I mean, Belcampo Meat Co., which is a mere steps away down the street on Wilshire, manages to fly under the radar despite its attentive table service, ample available seating AND delicious drinks.

The cocktails, by Josh Goldman, are actually what make this my go-to daydrinking spot on the weekends. Even though the bar team recently scaled down the menu due to losing its prep person, the brunch offerings are still unique and compelling. For a Bloody Mary that will blow your mind, order the Snapping Turtle made with herbal-infused gin and clarified tomato juice. Spicy, clean tasting but not heavy and meaty like traditional Bloodys. My personal favorite morning-after drink here is the off-the-menu Local Anesthetic, a Painkiller variation that makes healing from a hangover feel like vacation. Almost.

Speaking of which, the hearty breakfast offerings like the Butcher's Breakfast with breakfast sausage and bacon or chicken and waffle will soothe sour stomachs. So yeah, Brunch Squad. Keep the Huckleberry scene. Meanwhile, I'll be sipping on a cocktail and luxuriating in elbow room as I cut into my Eggs Benedict with the smoked loin bacon. —Caroline Pardilla (aka Caroline on Crack)


Suburbia: Suburbia in Redondo Beach is an interesting place. It is, on its surface, another in a growing line of concepts from the BlackHouse Hospitality team — those same folks behind Abigaile, Little Sister, and Dia de Campo, among others. It's also located, predictably, in the South Bay city of Redondo Beach, which fits the mold for chef Tin Vuong and group CEO Jed Sanford.

But look a little closer at the dinner menu, which is a staggering 47 items long before you even get to dessert, and you'll start to see something else. This is a populist sort of restaurant, where everything from poke to elote makes an appearance, along with some Hawaiian loco moco, brussels sprouts with bacon, a Caesar salad, short ribs, steak, and a burger. There is basically nothing you can't get off of this menu alone, and that doesn't even touch their breakfast, lunch, and bar snack eats.

So what is Suburbia, then? A place where you'll find dumplings, ramen, pork belly, and fried chicken next to a jamon and melon salad? Yes. Is it a place where mid-40's locals hit the bar for gin & tonics, despite the lengthy craft cocktail list? Definitely. Is it a place that provides endless opportunity for gunshy diners to taste the cultural rainbow without leaving the pricey beach? Ding ding ding.

In a way, the name Suburbia is the real giveaway that this restaurant may be, in some ways, an inside joke that the diner doesn't get, or doesn't bother to get. The food, a cross-cultural malaise of options rivaled only by Cheesecake Factory in its ruthless efficiency, is legitimately good, particularly the basics like that steak and those roasted carrots. Tin Vuong, who is in the kitchen nightly, certainly knows how to imbue a menu with soulful flavor — it's just that the restaurant itself doesn't feel like it has a heart. Maybe the giant menu is to blame, maybe it's the location. And maybe there's nothing wrong with playing the hits, except that it's hard to stand out in a city full of unique voices. —Farley Elliott


The Original Fish Company: I was in a rush to get to lunch with my mom and uncle but that didn’t stop me from noticing the change: The Original Fish Company, where I had spent many meals with friends and family growing up in Los Alamitos, California, had renovated. The front-of-house attached fish market was no longer sequestered into a dark area behind the hostess podium, but now in plain sight, the white light reflecting off white floors and creating a celestial effect.

But that’s probably not why you’re here. The Original Fish Company in Los Alamitos has been just your run-of-the-mill local icon, happy to chip in gallons of clam chowder for your high school jazz band’s fundraiser and be a place where your mom and her friends chatter and chortle over chowder in tony, old-school digs.

It’s also home to the best Caesar Salad I’ve ever had in my life. Caesar salad has fallen victim to this perception of being a leafy throwaway in most restaurants, a kind of forgotten dish that’s grouped into the "oh yeah, we have a couple salads" section of the menu.

But at The Original Fish Company, the chopped morsels of romaine seem to retain an almost preternatural amount of crunch. Dressing — which is creamy without being overbearing and inflected with just a hint of anchovy — doesn’t pool at the bottom, but clings neatly to each properly cleaned and dried leaf. Finally, it’s topped with shards of nutty Parmesan cheese and, if you’re so inclined, seafood or protein.

The salad is served with a side of hot sourdough rolls, softball-sized numbers with a crunchy crust and a tangy, pliable crumb that billows with steam when exposed. Add a bowl of their positively sweet New England Chowder and you might have yourself the best soup and salad lunch in Orange County. —Euno Lee

Barcito, Downtown LA
Wonho Frank Lee

Barcito: I love this restaurant mostly because it took over the terrible ChocoChicken and its awful design and put in a place that looks like it’s been there for years. Andrea Borgen is the energetic owner who makes this engine go, and her commitment to paying staff a reasonable wage seems to show in how enthusiastic they seem to be on the floor. While the food isn’t necessarily destination stuff, it’s certainly comforting and familiar for the neighborhood. The happy hour deal is spectacular, perfect for locals wanting a refreshing cocktail and a pot of chicken liver to spread over some toast. I almost wish the smoked chipotle shrimp had one less ingredient (maybe it’s that remoulade that seems unnecessary to me), but Barcito is a spot I would frequent if I lived on the block. Or I almost wish Barcito would open on my block, because I’d be there virtually ever night. — Matthew Kang


Kogi Taqueria: When Chego opened, it literally opened my eyes to a neighborhood that I didn’t know existed in LA. When Chego closed and went over to Chinatown, I was beyond sad, mostly because the rich Korean rice bowls were my definitely of affordable comfort (the Hen House was literally my weekly order, so much so that the manager would just order it the second I walked in). But Roy Choi promised he’d come back to the neighborhood. I never doubt a Roy Choi promise, and he made good after opening the brick & mortar version of his popular Korean taco truck just two blocks south on Overland Avenue. I went in recently and had the terrific kimchi quesadilla, so deep with flavor and funk that it tasted like a grandma’s kimchi chigae in cheesy, messy form. The tacos aren’t necessarily going to slay your palate. Instead, they’ll taste like your corner taqueria. Prices are more than reasonable: $2.50 for hefty tacos or $7 for a gut-busting burrito. For a neighborhood that’s just finally starting to feel like a cohesive culinary congregation, Kogi is one of the area’s anchors now. And for that, I’m thankful. —Matthew Kang


Side Chick: I recently came back from my first trip to Singapore, and one of the things I absolutely had to taste was a great version of Hainan chicken and rice. I ended up at Maxwell Food Centre’s iconic Tian Tian, which draws lines up to half an hour before it opens every day. When I came back stateside, I realized that we’re in the midst of a full on Hainan chicken explosion, what with places like Vegas’s Flock & Fowl doing a terrific version, and Johnny Lee bringing Side Chick, his plucky Hainan chicken and rice popup to Chinatown. I hadn’t had the chance to try Side Chick until I dropped by Smorgasburg last week.

And what a treat Side Chick is, with three spot-on sauces (one spicy, one gingery, and the last a deep soy). The rice is spectacular, addictive and fragrant with the essence of chicken. I sort of wish the chicken were sliced into smaller pieces, but I appreciated how the meat was warm — a contrast to what I tasted at Tian Tian, which sports a lukewarm, or even cold spread of chicken. Once Side Chick opens a brick & mortar in Arcadia, I wonder if I’ll get the chance to try it. My hope is that the trend keeps growing at Side Chick spawns many other Hainan chicken options around town. —Matthew Kang

Belcampo Meat Co.

8053 W 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90048

suburbia

247 Avenida del Norte, Redondo Beach, CA 90277

barcito

403 West 12th Street, , CA 90015 (213) 415-1821 Visit Website

SUGARFISH

212 N Canon Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90210 (310) 276-6900 Visit Website

Ray's Bbq

6038 Santa Fe Avenue, , CA 90255 (310) 689-6353 Visit Website
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